What kind of COVID-19 test will I need to travel and how much will it cost?

Apr 16, 2021

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The return of travel is just around the corner. While the government hasn’t said for certain whether international travel will be permitted from 17 May, it did say that we’re still on track for a return to travel by that date.

Additionally, the Global Travel Taskforce has laid out details about what travel will look like. When we’re permitted to go abroad again, the government will use a traffic light system to categorise countries based on their COVID-19 risk level: red for high-risk destinations, amber for medium-risk and green for the lowest-risk countries.

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But even for travel to the lowest-risk green countries, you’ll still need a number of COVID-19 tests in order to do so. Here, we’ll take a look at what kind of test you will need at each step of your journey and how much you should be prepared to pay.

Related: Britons can start thinking about summer holidays abroad as Global Travel Taskforce outlines UK return to travel

In This Post

Getting to your destination

This is the part of a holiday that will feature the most varying information. Each country has largely set up their own entry requirements for travellers who are looking to holiday abroad. The most important part for would-be travellers is to do your research.

For example, this week, Greece said that it is fast-tracking its reopening for Brits and arrivals from other countries to next week. From next week, Britons will be able to enter either with proof that they are fully vaccinated or with proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test result taken within 72 hours of departure. That’s expected to continue through the summer.

Related: Greece accelerates reopening, plans to welcome tourists back from next week

(Photo by Artur Debat/Getty Images)

Some other destinations, however, will require travellers to have a negative COVID-19 test, including lateral flow devices. These are easier to come by — and significantly cheaper. Whereas PCR tests cost about £120 apiece — though this figure is dropping, with increasing pressure on lab companies — you can find lateral flow devices for about £20-£30.

Be sure to research your destination and what the testing requirements are for travellers. Keep in mind, too, that an arrival country can change its entry testing requirements at any time. It’ll be best to keep up to date with the entry requirements leading up to your holiday.

Returning to the UK

Pre-departure testing

All passengers returning to England will need to have a pre-departure test in order to board their flight. The travel provider will check with passengers to ensure they have a negative COVID-19 test in order to board the flight.

These pre-departure tests must be taken within the three days prior to your scheduled departure and the results must be in English, French or Spanish. The results must be on a printed document or on an email or text that you can show on your phone.

According to the U.K. government, eligible pre-departure tests include:

  • A nucleic acid test, including a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test or derivative technologies, including loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) tests; or
  • An antigen test, such as a test from a lateral flow device.

The test “must meet performance standards of ≥97% specificity, ≥80% sensitivity at viral loads above 100,000 copies/ml,” according to the government. Test results must include your name, your date of birth or age, the result of the test, the date the sample was collected or received by the test provider, the name of the test provider and contact details and confirmation of the device used for the test, or that the test was a PCR test.

Failure to provide proof of a pre-departure test can result in a £500 fine. Keep in mind that in addition to a pre-departure test, all travellers must also have filled out a passenger locator form prior to their travel to the U.K.

Arrivals to England from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey, Ascension, Falkland Islands, St Helena and Myanmar do not need to provide proof of a pre-departure test. Additionally, children younger than 11 do not need to take a test, and some jobs are exempt. Check here for the full list of exemptions.

It’s worth noting that this pre-departure testing can be a negative result from a lateral flow device, which is generally much cheaper and easier to get than a laboratory-processed PCR test. A lateral flow test is also ideal for travellers. Some test providers, such as Qured, allow travellers to order a lateral flow test device and take it on their travels, book a digital video appointment with a health care provider and take the test whilst they are abroad.

(Photo by d3sign/Getty Images)

Travellers will be able to take their test virtually and get results in 20 minutes. It takes the hassle out of locating a testing centre whilst abroad. British Airways has teamed with Qured to offer these lateral flow tests to travellers for £33. You can find cheaper options, though you’ll want to make sure that you are sent an official test result to show proof upon travel.

Related: A great COVID-19 test solution for travel: British Airways partners with Qured for 20-minute test results

Arrivals from green countries

When the traffic light system takes effect, travellers arriving in England from green destinations will not be required to quarantine for 10 days. However, they will need to provide two negative test results. The first test is a pre-departure test, as outlined above, and can be a lateral flow device. The second test must be a PCR test and must be taken on or before day two of their arrival back into England.

Related: Which countries could be on the UK’s green list?

Notably, the second test result must be a PCR test, which adds a new cost element when planning holidays abroad. On the government’s list of approved providers, PCR test kits range in price from about £100 to more than £200 apiece.

In the wake of the news that the government will require travellers to have a PCR test on arrival, a few test providers have announced they will slash their costs. For example, Randox, the U.K.’s largest COVIID-19 PCR test provider, announced this week that it will slash the cost of PCR tests to £60 apiece for travellers. It previously charged £120 for each PCR test.

We expect more testing providers to follow in order to make travel open to more than just those who can afford expensive testing on return home. For now, travellers should look at spending between £60 and £100 per individual PCR test on return to England.

Related: Will Britons be able to holiday in America this summer?

Travel executives have pushed the government to change its stance on arrival testing. The industry says that in order for travel to pick up in scale, the government needs to allow passengers to use lateral flow device testing on both testing occasions.

Arrivals from amber countries

Those who are entering England from amber countries will be required to quarantine at home or in a secure location for 10 days. As detailed above, they will need to have a negative COVID-19 pre-departure test result in order to travel to England.

Prior to their travel, they will also need to have booked a testing package to take two additional COVID-19 tests during their quarantine — one on day two and one on day eight. The tests must be booked through a government-approved provider — you can find the full list here.

Prices for the two-test packages range from about £175 to £575.

Amber arrivals will also have the option to take advantage of England’s Test to Release scheme. The programme allows arrivals to leave their quarantine early if they can produce a negative test result. After five full days of quarantine, those looking to Test to Release will be able to take a private COVID-19 test. If the test produces a negative result, they can forgo the rest of their quarantine. They will, however, still need to take the day eight test, even though they’ve already left quarantine.

In total, an arrival from an amber country who uses Test to Release will need to take a total of four COVID-19 tests — three of which are required to be PCR tests. You can expect to pay for the pre-departure test (about £30), as well as a two-test PCR package (£175-£575) and a Test to Release PCR test (£60-£100).

(Photo by Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images)

Arrivals from red countries

Finally, arrivals from red countries will have the most strict — and most costly — entry restrictions. First, it’s worth noting that only U.K. nationals or residents travelling from red countries will be allowed to enter England. Additionally, even if you didn’t spend any time in a red country, but rather transited through the airport, for example, in the past 10 days, you will still be classified as a red country arrival.

Related: All 39 countries that are on the UK’s travel ban list

Those who are allowed to travel to England will be required to take a pre-departure test, as detailed above. They will also be required to undergo a 10-day quarantine in a government-approved hotel. Hotel quarantine stays start at £1,750 for a single traveller and include the mandatory additional COVID-19 tests on days two and eight of quarantine.

Related: Everything you need to know about the UK’s hotel quarantine policy

Prior to travelling to England, arrivals who have transited through a red list country in the past 10 days will need to book their hotel quarantine accommodation.

Related: How do I book my hotel quarantine stay? 

Arrivals from red countries will not be able to use the Test to Release programme in order to test out of hotel quarantine early. There are some exemptions to hotel quarantine — you can find the list here.

How can I get a cheaper test?

The biggest problem at this point for a large return to travel is that expensive tests will drive would-be travellers away from booking international holidays. Even for a family of four travelling from a green list country, they can look at paying about £500 for COVID-19 tests for their return to England — and that’s not accounting for the cost of a test that may be necessary to get into their destination.

At this time, a number of companies have signalled that they plan to offer reduced pricing for tests for travellers.

Apart from those, some airlines have agreements in place with testing providers to provide would-be travellers with discounts. For example, British Airways has the following discounts in place for arrivals testing:

  • CityDoc home test kits and tests at London clinics — use discount code BA35
  • ExpressTest tests at Heathrow and Gatwick — use discount code BRITISHAIRWAYS04
  • Medicspot home test kits — use discount code BA
  • Qured home test kits — use discount code BATRAVEL15
  • Randox home test kits — use discount code BritishAirwaysD2D8

If you have travel planned, check in with your travel provider to see if it offers any discount for testing. It’s entirely possible that we could see more travel provider-sponsored deals come into place as travel reopens as of 17 May at the earliest.

Bottom line

Travel will return before we know it. That said, the travel experience will be different from what we’re used to. If you’re planning to head abroad this summer, be prepared to take COVID-19 tests. Even arrivals from the lowest-risk green countries will still need to have a total of two COVID-19 tests, though one of them can be a cheaper lateral flow device.

The U.K. government hasn’t provided any information on exemptions for travellers who are fully vaccinated. At this time, fully vaccinated travellers will still need to follow the guidelines put forward by the Global Travel Taskforce — including all testing measures.

Finally, it’ll be worth watching this space. Over the course of the next few days and weeks, it’s entirely possible — and some may say likely — that the government will alter its advice and requirements, as well as interrupters who enter the market to drive down costs. Travel is on the horizon, but expect a different experience.

Featured photo by Jackyenjoyphotoggraphy/Getty Images.

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