With the rise of the Delta variant, more cruise lines have begun requiring a COVID-19 test before you board your ship. This requirement is necessary to ensure safety onboard, yet its execution needs some advance planning.
Trust us. Between the two of us, we've taken more than a dozen COVID-19 tests before traveling -- and while we don't quite have it down to a science, we picked up a few tricks and tips along the way.
Here are our top tips for making sure you meet your testing requirements before you board.
Know who needs to get a test. This is the first thing you need to figure out. On some ships, only unvaccinated passengers -- mostly kids under 12 -- need to have a COVID-19 test. But as the Delta variant continues to spread, more lines are making a pre-cruise test a requirement for everybody, including fully vaccinated passengers. Make sure you know exactly who in your party needs to be tested, too. Don't be like the families on Disney Dream, who didn't know their kids needed a pre-board COVID test; as documented on social media, many were turned away at the dock.
(Cruise Critic is keeping a list of up-to-date requirements for testing and vaccination).
Know when you need to get your test. This is crucial. Many cruise lines require you to have taken a COVID-19 test within 72 hours before you board, something that is changing to no more than two days for U.S. departures. Cruise lines are scrapping the hour requirement to make things easier: a two-day testing requirement means a voyage departing Saturday can have tests done as early as Thursday. A Sunday voyage could be tested as early as Friday. (We'll be back to this timing issue later, as what kind of test you're getting can make a big difference with when you should go).
Know what kind of COVID-19 test you need. Learn the lingo. A PCR molecular test generally needs to be sent out to a lab and takes slightly longer to get results, particularly if your area has a spike in cases. Rapid antigen tests are much faster and can give results in as little as 15 minutes -- but not all cruise lines accept them (nor all countries as a condition of entry, for that matter). Read all that paperwork your cruise line sends you thoroughly so you know your options. Showing up with the wrong test will result in a denial of boarding for all members in your party.
Know if there are any country requirements. If you're traveling internationally, there could be more hoops to jump through, including a country-specific health form that must be completed pre-flight. You'll want to read these requirements very carefully; some countries require you to be fully vaccinated before you enter, while others will accept a negative COVID-19 test -- either a PCR or an antigen, depending on the country. Make sure that any test you take corresponds with when you board the ship -- if you're spending a few days in the country ahead of time, you might find that the PCR test that you took to get into the country will have expired by the time you board the ship. In that case, you might be on your own to find a COVID-19 testing site in another country.
Know where you can get a test. Many national drugstore chains, including CVS and Walgreeen's, have COVID-19 testing, and it's usually free. You can also get a COVID-19 test from many urgent care facilities, as well as labs such as Quest. Keep in mind that you might have to pay for a test, depending on your coverage; some insurers only pay for tests when you have symptoms and not for travel. You'll also want to find out what kind of test your provider offers, as well as what their typical turnaround time for results is. Many airports also have rapid testing.
Non-US citizens, like Canadians, will have to research their options for who provides antigen and PCR testing, but know that major international airports are always a safe bet for travelers and in most cases, tests can be booked online well in advance of travel for that critical 72-hour window.
Test on the early side of your window. If you need a PCR test, take it toward the beginning of the three-day window so you maximize your chances of getting your test back in time. As we said above, when there's a COVID-19 surge locally, it's harder for labs to get results back quickly -- and most national drugstores and urgent cares don't actually promise you a three-day turnaround. Airport testing locations will offer the quickest turnaround for antigen and PCR testing, as those are geared specifically to travelers -- but that convenience will cost you.
An example of how this works in practice: For our Malta trip that boarded on a Monday with a Sunday night international flight, we got our Friday test back on Saturday evening within 46 or so hours after taking it, giving us reasonable assurance that we wouldn't end up arriving sick in another country.
Nail down an appointment. Many testing centers don’t take appointments, so you’re at the whim of a walk-in possibility. Look for centers that offer appointments. No time slots available? Check back often, as people do cancel appointments, so you could luck into a spot. Also, log online early or late to make an appointment, as many major national drugstores refresh appointments or open new ones while you sleep. You know what they say about the early bird.
Have a backup. Remember what we said that most places don't actually guarantee a three-day turnaround? During surges, we have heard of people being unable to take their cruise because test results didn't come back in time. Many major airports are offering on-site COVID tests; consider that option if a rapid test will suffice.
Stock up on home kits – but buy carefully. Home COVID-19 testing kits are now available, although you need to be careful which ones you buy if you want your cruise line to accept them. There are two versions of the popular BinaxNOW test by Abbott – one you do at home with no guidance and the other requires you to take your test while supervised live by a telemedicine provider.
While the former, known as the BionaxNOW Antigen Self Test can give you some quick peace of mind that you're COVID-free, the cruise lines only accept the latter -- Abbott BinaxNow COVID-19 Ag Card Test -- as proof for boarding. The Ag Card test is available through eMed. Also note that during surges, there have been delays in getting telemedicine appointments, so you'll want to plan that timing in advance too.
Consider testing even if it's not a requirement. This is particularly important if you're traveling internationally. You don't want to end up in a situation where you arrive in a country and test positive, particularly if the country has strict quarantine rules (Malta, for example, did not require a test for vaccinated passengers, but Viking is advising all passengers to get one 72 hours before the trip, just so there are no unpleasant surprises).
Consider laying low after testing. It goes without saying that the window between when you test and when you board should not be a time to party hearty. While there is always some risk of getting sick when you get on a plane, the airlines and airports all have mask mandates. That bar or party or indoor family dinner you're going to probably does not. Don't think that a negative test on Wednesday means you're immune on Saturday.