Over the last few months as we’ve gotten vaccinated and travel restrictions have been eased, many of us are eager to retake to the skies and travel abroad.
One thing that hasn’t been lifted yet, though, is the requirement for everyone—even if you’re vaccinated—to get a negative Covid test abroad before you can enter the US.
Here’s my experience getting a Covid test in Portugal back in July.
When I arrived in Lisbon for my two-week stay, I couldn’t fathom planning for my return so quickly after arriving. Plus, I never had any trouble getting a test at home when I needed one, so I waited a few days (read: a week) to start my research.
Thankfully, the testing requirement has a good amount of flexibility built-in. Cheaper and quicker antigen tests are allowed, so you don’t have to spring for the more expensive PCR test. The CDC order also says the test must be done within 3 days—which can be longer than 72 hours. If you depart at 1pm on a Friday, for instance, any test taken Tuesday onwards will be accepted.
Finding a local test
A week before departure, my Airbnb host messaged me and asked if I needed help finding a test location. He sent me the location he had used for himself, but it turns out this particular option was drive-through testing only. Since I didn’t rent a car for my city stay in Lisbon, that option was out.
Unfortunately, just Googling “Covid test in Lisbon” wasn’t as easy as I had figured it might be. In Lisbon, the going rate for testing was €20-€25 for a rapid antigen test and €75-€100 for a PCR test. And my frugal nature (I do make a living evangelizing cheap flights, after all) wanted to stick with the much cheaper antigen test.
I found a local medical school offering tests for €20, but of course it was fully booked until after I left. The Portuguese Red Cross offered an antigen test also near my AirBnb—but the soonest available appointment was Saturday, my last full day in Lisbon, and I didn’t want to spend my last day planning around a testing appointment smack dab in the middle of the day. There were even tests available to take at home through Uber Eats—with a hefty convenience surcharge, of course.
Airlines to the rescue
Ultimately, some of the best resources I found for locating testing centers were from the airlines themselves. Delta, KLM, TAP, and United (and their various alliance partners like SkyTeam and Star Alliance) were some of the results and all had some kind of search tool. Even though I wasn’t flying TAP, as Portugal’s flag carrier I found their information to be the clearest and easiest to follow. When I was researching options for a possible trip to England, I also found that UK flag carrier British Airways had the most comprehensive list of testing partners.
TAP has partnered with a testing provider right in the Lisbon airport, and while there’s a discount for passengers flying with TAP, the testing service is available to anyone. The undiscounted price was €25, for me well worth an extra €5 for the ease and convenience of having my rapid test done right at the airport before departure.
I sent an appointment request for the morning of my flight and received confirmation a day later. All was well.
The best-laid plans
My day of departure wasn’t exactly smooth sailing as I had envisioned. The test itself went fine, there were very minimal wait times and I was in and out in just a few minutes. But while I knew that I wouldn’t be allowed to board my flight to Newark without a test result, I didn’t realize that United wouldn’t even let me check in for the flight without the test result in hand.
I had booked the test figuring I would have the result of my rapid test by the time I was through security. Not being allowed to check-in meant I couldn’t even get in line for security until I got my result.
Of course the over-confident traveler that I am, I had booked my testing appointment at the Lisbon airport for 8:55am (I did at least arrive a few minutes early...at 8:49am) for my 10:25am flight. Mistakes were made. While I made the flight, next time I think I’ll plan for a liiiiitle more of a time cushion at the airport.
If none of the above options (asking your Airbnb/hotel, checking with the airline or airport, or googling “covid test in [city]”) work for you, there are two other main options. First, check the embassy’s covid page for your destination. For example, the French embassy’s covid page links to a list of clinics by area in France.
Finally, you can bring a self-test with you. These tests need to be supervised by a tele-health professional and only certain tests are approved. The most popular option is the Abbot BinaxNOW kit, which can be bought online (or at CVS locations in a few states).