UPDATE: Starting December 6, 2021, U.S. will require that all travelers entering the U.S. via air—regardless of vaccination status or citizenship—must show a negative Covid test taken within one day of their departure. You can read the CDC details for testing and vaccine requirements here.
As travelers make decisions about whether and where to travel in 2021, airports and airlines are announcing new Covid testing options to help passengers comply with the rules implemented by various countries and states.
Starting January 26, they will take their biggest role yet. On that date, the CDC is instituting a new policy that requires all travelers flying into the U.S. to show proof of a negative Covid test taken within three days of arrival. Airlines will be responsible for vetting the proof—and denying boarding to those who don’t comply. They seem to be okay with this, since Airlines for America, the trade organization that represents all major U.S. airlines, recently sent a letter to Vice President Pence urging this kind of blanket testing program.
While we applaud these developments and wait to see how they play out, there are important caveats that travelers need to understand in order to smartly and safely plan their trips.
What you need to know about AIRPORT tests:
It may take a few days to get your results.
Various companies are partnering with airports to open on-site testing facilities. Already XpresCheck (formerly XpresSpa) has centers at EWR, JFK, Hartford and Logan, and JFK has additional facilities run by Adams Health. But there is a wide variety in the kinds of tests they offer, the prices, and the turnaround times. While some do offer rapid testing, in many cases, you’ll still have to wait two to five days to get your results, so it may not be worth it to go all the way to the airport for the test rather than visiting a clinic near home. Call ahead to find out what tests are available, and whether tests are limited to travelers en route to destinations that require them.
It may not be the right kind of test you need.
Xpress Check is offering 15-minute turnaround in some locations, but these are not PCR nasal swab tests, the kind usually required by destinations that ask for pre-trip tests. The reason is that rapid tests have been shown to be less reliable and have a higher rate of false negatives. Still it’s better than nothing, so these rapid tests can be useful for domestic travelers who want to be tested before going to visit Grandma, but not for most people who are crossing a border.
You will likely have to pay for it out of pocket.
The trend right now is that these in-airport testing sites charge travelers directly. The cost can run up to $250 or more depending on how fast you want results (if a rapid test is even available). There are some exceptions though. At Oakland Airport, Hawaii-approved testing partner CityHealth is offering tests to travelers flying to the islands, and their website says they accept “most insurance”. At New York City’s LaGuardia airport, testing is available for free but your results won’t come back for about 48 hours and are given only by phone—making this testing option useless for travelers who need immediate results or documented proof of their results in order to enter another state or country, or to bypass quarantine (including New York State).
Testing options by airport:
Alaska: Anchorage International Airport (ANC): Alaska requires incoming travelers to arrive with proof of a negative test. If they do not have that, they will be required to test upon arrival and quarantine until the results come back. Nonresident testing is available at the airport for $250 (tests for residents are free).
Arizona: Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX): XpresCheck (formerly XpresSpa) is offering PCR tests with a turn-around time of two to three days (no rapid tests available at this location. If your insurance doesn’t cover the test, you must pay out of pocket.
California: Oakland International Airport (OAK): Travelers flying from OAK to Hawaii can make an appointment to be tested at one of two airport locations. Same-day appointments are not recommended.
California: San Francisco International Airport (SFO): United Airlines passengers flying from SFO to Hawaii (and that route only) are eligible for a test at the airport. They can choose between taking a rapid test on the day of their flight inside the international terminal ($250; results in about 15 minutes), or taking a PCR test via a drive-through location at an airport parking lot ($105; results within 48 hours).
Connecticut: Bradley International Airport (BDL): Incoming travelers can get a test on the day their flight arrives—and that day only. The test is a PCR nasal swab, costs $125 without insurance, and results take up to 72 hours.
Florida: Tampa International Airport (TPA): Both PCR (three-day turnaround) and antigen tests (1-hour turnaround) are offered at cost to the traveler. Note that your destination may require a specific kind of test.
Massachusetts: Boston Logan International Airport (BOS): XpresCheck is offering PCR tests with a turn-around time of two to three days (no rapid tests available at this location. If your insurance doesn’t cover the test, you must pay out of pocket.
Minnesota: Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP): Free saliva tests are available to any traveler and are administered Vault Medical Health. Results are available in a few days.
New York: JFK Airport (JFK): XpresCheck is offering PCR tests with a turn-around time of two to three days, and rapid tests with results available in 15 minutes. If your insurance doesn’t cover the test, you must pay out of pocket.
New York: LaGuardia Airport (LGA): Testing is free to all passengers. Results are turned around within 48 hours but they are delivered by phone only — which the site acknowledges will not be acceptable proof to bypass quarantine for some places, including New York State.
New York/New Jersey: Newark Liberty Airport (EWR): XpresCheck is offering PCR tests with a turn-around time of two to three days, and rapid tests with results available in 15 minutes. If your insurance doesn’t cover the test, you must pay out of pocket.
Texas: Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport (DFW): Testing is available for American Airlines passengers flying to Hawaii only. This is rapid test and it costs $249.
Vermont: Burlington International Airport (BTV): The airport offers PCR and rapid tests for Covid and rapid tests for the flu to anyone (including those not traveling), at the individual’s expense.
What you need to know about AIRLINE tests:
They may be offered for specific routes only.
But as of early November, domestic airlines are only offering testing options for flights to Hawaii (where a pre-trip Covid test is required), and the testing is available only from specific departure airports. As of now, airlines are not offering pre-flight tests to all of their travelers.
Airlines are partnering with labs to offer their passengers tests in different ways.
This does not mean you can get a test at check-in at the airport. Instead, it means you can maybe get a discount or preferred treatment at certain lab locations (or for mail-in kits) with stipulated proof of your flight.
In many cases, the tests may still take a few days to turn around results.
Just because a test is performed at an airport doesn’t mean you’ll get the results in time to take your flight—which makes these facilities less useful for travelers who are on their way to somewhere else. These offerings are more useful for those who are arriving and want post-flight reassurance. Where rapid testing is available, it may only be available from a specific airport. For example, United offers rapid testing for those flying from SFO to Hawaii; American has it at DFW.
The type of test offered may not be the one you need.
Many destinations require a PCR test (Hawaii doesn’t), so travelers need to check the type provided by the airline-lab partnership.
Testing options by airline:
As the holidays approach, here is a snapshot of what airlines are offering Covid test options right now, and what travelers need to know about them:
Passengers of Alaska Airlines can show their Hawaii itinerary and get discounted tests from Carbon Health. The testing site in Seattle gives priority to Alaska Airlines passengers, and the Portland location is only for the airline’s passengers.
American Airlines has a few programs:
The airline has partnered with LetsGetChecked to sell at-home, mail-in testing kits to passengers flying to U.S. destinations that require testing, as well as to Belize, Grenada and St. Lucia. Tests cost $129, can be ordered online, and promise results within 48 hours of the specimen arriving to the lab.
Travelers on flights from Dallas-Fort Worth to Hawaii have two options from American’s partnership with CareNow: They can book an in-person rapid test at a CareNow urgent care location, or at DFW on day of their flight.
American and British Airways
American is also partnering with British Airways and the oneworld airline alliance on a trial testing program. For select flights, eligible volunteers will take three different Covid tests for free: The alliance’s goal is to show that testing can prevent infection during air travel and to determine how many tests are recommended in order to ensure virus-free cabins. The trial will start with flights AA50 DFW-LHR, BA114 JFK-LHR, and BA268 LAX-LHR; at a time yet to be announced, the trial will also add the flight AA106 JFK-LRH.
Delta has launched a trial of what it calls “Covid-Tested flights” on two routes. One route is between Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) and Rome-Fiumicino International Airport (FCO), and for these trial flights, passengers departing from Atlanta must obtain a PCR test (at their own cost) within 72 hours of the scheduled departure time and show proof of negative results at check-in. Then passengers will be tested again before they board with a rapid antigen test provided by the airline at no additional cost; a negative result is required for boarding. Covid-Tested Italy flights are available on select flights through February 12, 2021.
Delta is also running this trial between Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS), but the rules are slightly different. For the Amsterdam flight, travelers must get a PRC test within 5 days of the scheduled arrival time in Amsterdam and self-isolate between when they take the test and when they board the plane. Then they will get a rapid test at the airport at no extra cost, and will need to test negative before they’re allowed to board. This trial runs on select flights through January 6, 2021.
The airline has partnered with Worksite Labs for drive-through testing exclusively for their passengers in San Francisco. Passengers can opt for a 36-hour version or a more expensive same-day service.
They also offer their passengers expedited processing of and a slight discount on VaultHealth’s saliva test, which is taken at home and then mailed in.
JetBlue offers all of its travelers a discount for VaultHealth’s at-home testing kit.
Hawaii passengers whose flights originate at San Francisco airport can book one of two different tests: a test that they take at the airport on the day of their flight, or a drive-through test at the airport several days before their trip.
On November 16, United started a four-week rapid-testing trial for passengers flying from Newark Airport to London Heathrow. On select dates, all passengers over the age of two will be required to take a free rapid test before boarding and will receive results within 30 minutes.
Starting December 7, United passengers flying certain routes from Houston to Latin America and the Caribbean can order an at-home, self-collected, mail-in Covid test, which (if negative) will allow them to bypass quarantine restrictions. Two weeks before their flights, travelers going from George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) to specific airports in Aruba, Belize, Guatemala, Peru, the Bahamas, Panama, Honduras, or El Salvador will receive information on how to order the at-home testing kit for $119 via Advanced Diagnostics Laboratory.