Planning an exciting trip internationally trip during Covid-19? Worried about testing positive abroad? You’re not alone.
As an airline pilot and international traveler who’s been to over 35 countries since Covid-19 started, I have met plenty of people in the same boat – myself included.
Getting stuck quarantining in a foreign country doesn’t necessarily top my list of fun things to do. But is testing positive on a trip really something we rationally should worry about?
I may be biased, but I truly believe that if you’re reasonably careful and take a few logical precautions (that are listed below), the risk of testing positive abroad is minimal.
1) Your chances of catching covid-19 while traveling are probably lower than during your normal routine
Traveling these days is much more regulated and safety-oriented than ever before. Think about it;
• In most cases, everyone on your international flight is recently tested for Covid-19 and probably vaccinated
• The air ventilation on airplanes is better than any other indoor area, even hospitals
• Face masks are required with fines up to $1M+ if not obeyed
Most countries outside the US have better pandemic plans in effect, more frequent testing, and many have higher vaccination rates and lower cases. This is particularly true in Europe, but we also noticed it in on our trips to Peru and Chile.
Now, think about your daily routine. Between taking a coffee break with your colleagues and interacting with people at work, your local coffee joint, meeting up with friends, going to the movies, you’re likely exposing yourself more than traveling to countries with stricter health protocols.
On an international trip, between everyone being tested prior to the flight and spending more time in the safety of the outdoors than you would at home, you’re effectively reducing your total risk of catching COVID-19.
2) False positive Covid-19 tests are rare – especially PCR
When I ask my friends and colleagues about their travel plans, the most common excuse I hear about avoiding international travel is a fear of a false positive test.
After traveling to over 35 countries since the beginning of 2020, and taking over 70 Covid tests (each) throughout almost all of those countries, my subjective experience tells me that’s wrong. Both my girlfriend and I have yet to test positive in all our travels – and I plan to keep it that way however I can.
Research articles point towards antigen/rapid tests having about a 1/100 chance of a false negative. However, PCR tests have virtually no chance of a false positive.
If you are worried about testing positive on a rapid/antigen test, this next part should help alleviate your worries.
3) In the tiny chance you get a false positive, you will take another test to confirm the results anyways
In the event of any positive result, especially in regards to a rapid/antigen test, the standard protocol is to take a PCR test to confirm the results.
This resolves cases of false positives.
It also presents another reason to get tested as far out as the time limit applies. Under the new Biden / CDC Health protocols, this will be one day prior to travel for unvaccinated legal US residents/citizens and three days prior for anyone vaccinated (including foreign nationals).
Assuming a false positive rapid result taken three days out, you will likely still have 48+ hours to take a more accurate PCR test and collect the results.
All this to say: don’t worry about false positives.
4) Getting tested before leaving, especially a PCR, means there’s almost zero chance you have Covid-19
A reasonable worry you may have is leaving home sick with Covid-19.
However, Covid-19 tests have gotten more “sensitive” and “accurate” overtime.
Sensitivity refers to a tests ability to correctly identify a result and specificity refers to correctly identifying a negative result.
And as for Covid tests, both have gotten significantly better over time. In fact, many PCR tests have specificities and sensitivities of close to 100%.
So though it is possible to have a false negative, the chance, being so close to zero, isn’t high enough that it should impact your decision to leave.
If this does worry you, the best mitigation would be to take a rapid-result PCR or antigen test just prior to leaving.
5) You’re likely not giving yourself enough time to get sick on vacation
When determining the risk factor for anything, not just getting sick, the amount of time you are exposed to the risk is the most relevant factor.
Most people reading this article are probably planning a trip lasting a week or two.
Good news: Chances are in your favor.
We already know there’s a near-zero chance you’d catch Covid-19 on your flight abroad.
Now, the chance you’d catch it on the one week you’re on vacation is super low. Consider how many weeks it’s been since Covid-19 started until now, all the possible exposure points you’ve had since then, and the fact that you’re not inherently increasing your risk.
With a such low time of exposure, it doesn’t make sense to exaggerate the risk.
6) Most countries have less COVID-19 cases per capita than the USA
Although cases are finally starting to subside in the US, you’ll be comforted to know that much of the world is ahead of us in containing the virus.
Many countries have less hesitancy getting vaccinated and are less opposed to restrictions, and as a result have fared better. These countries, such as Australia and Japan, are beginning to make moves towards opening up to foreigners.
And that’s great.
7) Mandatory quarantine times vary per country, sometimes as short as 7 days
In the extremely low chance that you do get sick, it’s not the end of the world.
Most countries are up-to-date with the science; they know not everyone is sick for 14 days and Covid-19 testing proves that.
In many countries, falling sick with Covid-19 may result in short quarantines that can be ended by a negative test.
In France, Portugal, Greece, and Spain, “self-isolation” lasts 10 days from testing positive.
8) Your workplace is likely to excuse your sick time for testing positive
Many state and local governments require workplaces to provide Covid-19 emergency leave that doesn’t count towards your sick time.
In other cases, workplaces provide this benefit on their own. Check with yours.
FMLA, or the Family Medical Leave Act (USA) can also apply in testing positive – especially if a family member gets sick. FMLA provides an unpaid, job-protected sick policy of up to 12 weeks backed by the Department of Labor.
9) Many travel insurances will now cover expenses related to self-isolation and quarantine
Travel insurance has finally caught up. Many travel insurances include medical coverage that has Covid-19 coverage.
It’s nice to have insurance that covers your medical and stay/isolation costs in the event of catching Covid-19.
I personally have used Trawick International simply for the low fees they charge.
10) Most airlines now allow you to rebook your flights with no change fee
Covid-19 wasn’t all bad. One positive result was airlines shedding their flight change fees for good. Finally.
It’s easier than ever to change flights – and this improves customer confidence. Plus, it provides peace of mind for those wary to travel. You can always delay your trip until you’re more comfortable.
Coming to a rational conclusion about the possibility of testing positive on an international trip
Ok, so the risk of a false positive is really low. And so is the risk of actually getting sick on your next trip.
But it’s not zero.
And you have to be ok with that.
But if we live life always looking at the risks – or worse, exaggerating small risks – are we really enjoying life?
It’s up to you to make that determination.
Should I get travel insurance prior to traveling internationally during Covid-19?
For the small chance you do get sick abroad, travel insurance might be a good idea.
Sometimes airlines and hotels include it in your reservation in an attempt to make traveling internationally more appealing.
Personally, I’ve never bought any unless it was required by my destination country. Ultimately, it may be a good idea if getting sick abroad worries you.