What to Do If You Test Positive for COVID-19 While Traveling
After two years of pandemic living, Americans are collectively ready for a vacation. About 85% of people in the U.S. expect to travel this summer, according to data from the industry trade group U.S. Travel Association. Many others aren’t even waiting that long. Almost 2.3 million people passed through U.S. Transportation Security Administration checkpoints on April 10, only slightly fewer than on that date in 2019.
No matter how much we might like to, though, it’s not always possible to take a vacation from COVID-19. The virus is still circulating widely, including in popular tourist destinations like the U.K., Germany, France, and Italy. That means getting sick while traveling is a real possibility—and one that can turn into an expensive and stressful logistical headache.
What happens if you get COVID-19 while traveling internationally?
To enter the U.S., international travelers currently need either a negative COVID-19 test result obtained within one day of their flight or proof that they have recovered from COVID-19 in the last 90 days. (This policy applies to both U.S. citizens and non-citizens, but children younger than 2 are exempt.) Without one of those documents, you cannot board a U.S.-bound flight. If you test positive, you should isolate and delay travel for 10 days, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But where do you stay if you need to quarantine abroad? And who pays for extended accommodations and rescheduled flights?
Specifics vary from country to country, but the short answer is that travelers are often on the hook. Exceptions to the test-to-return policy may be granted on an “extremely limited” basis, such as in the event of an emergency medical evacuation or humanitarian crisis, the CDC says—but the average vacationer won’t have many options beyond paying to extend their stay.
“Have a plan in case you have to remain overseas longer than anticipated,” the U.S. Department of State writes on its website. “This includes being ready to cover additional lodging costs, flight ticket change fees, and any other additional expenses they may incur due to the unexpected extension.”
Some travel insurance covers extra expenses incurred because of a COVID-19 case, but policies may not cover all costs related to an extension, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Travel Insurance Association. “Travelers concerned about this potential disruption in their travels should first look for a policy that includes sickness or quarantine as a covered reason, and then determine which benefits quarantine falls under and the limits of those benefits,” they wrote in a statement.
A spokesperson for the State Department said travelers who must isolate should contact their hotels and airlines to arrange accommodations and re-book travel, and, if necessary, seek assistance from their nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. The spokesperson added that U.S. citizens traveling abroad are subject to local quarantine rules, which may differ from those of the U.S. CDC.
Certain countries maintain “quarantine hotels” where travelers can quarantine upon arrival (if required by that country) or ride out their isolation periods. USA Today reports that some resorts even offer discounted rates to guests who have to extend their stays to isolate. It’s smart to check ahead of time, however, as these hotels aren’t available in all areas and their costs vary widely.
Aliya Waldman, who is 29 and lives in Missouri, stayed in a quarantine hotel after catching COVID-19 during a March trip with the Birthright program, which organizes visits to Israel for Jewish young adults. Waldman was required to stay in the hotel for a full week, even though she tested negative after five days in isolation. She believes the costs of her stay and new return flight were covered by Birthright, but says the experience has made her think twice about traveling abroad independently during the pandemic. “I won’t be able to afford getting stuck in another country,” she says.
It’s not clear how long international travelers will have to abide by the CDC’s testing requirement. Four trade groups—the U.S. Travel Association, Airlines for America, American Hotel and Lodging Association, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce—recently urged the White House’s coronavirus czar to suspend that policy, since many Americans have some immunity to the virus from vaccination and prior exposure, and are thus at lower risk than they were earlier in the pandemic. “While providing little health benefit, this requirement discourages travel by imposing an additional cost and the fear of being stranded overseas,” they wrote in a joint letter.
What happens if you get COVID-19 while traveling within the U.S.?
There is no negative test requirement for most domestic transportation, only a mask mandate in place through at least April 18. But that doesn’t mean you should get on a plane, train, or bus if you’re sick. The CDC says not to travel if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or have tested positive and not yet completed an isolation period. Without a testing requirement in place, though, that guideline depends heavily on the honor system.
Nonetheless, travelers who test positive for COVID-19 within the U.S. should self-isolate where they are, if there’s no way to get home via private transportation. Finding a place to do so can be tricky, though. Some U.S. cities with hotel quarantine programs, including New York City and Philadelphia, are winding them down, and Airbnb says guests should not check into a listing if they have COVID-19. Competing rental platform Vrbo, however, told Condé Nast Traveler that its private properties can be “an ideal lodging option for guests who need to quarantine or self-isolate.”