What to Do If You Test Positive for COVID-19 While Traveling, According to Experts

These tips will help prevent a positive test from turning into a negative situation.

Ever since the pandemic set in, I’ve been on the COVID-conscious side. But after more than two years of sidelining my global travels, I was ready to dive back in, even if it meant seeing the world from behind a KN95 mask while eating my meals outdoors with obsessively sanitized hands. As a longtime germaphobe, I carefully planned my travels (filled with socially distanced and outdoor activities) and packing list (so many wipes, hand sanitizer bottles, and masks), and set off to make up for lost adventures with a quick succession of trips to Italy, the West Coast, and the U.K.

As it turns out, my extreme pandemic paranoia was justified when I caught the virus not once, but twice, within a five-week period, which included three five-day quarantines since I was believed to be a Paxlovid rebound case the first go-round.  

As global cases continue to trend downward, it’s tempting to let our guards down. But the simple fact is the coronavirus is still a part of our reality, and something we need to keep in mind, especially on our travels. After all, getting sick in any form while away from home can be distressing, but when it’s such a communicable virus, the stakes become higher and can wreak havoc on both the logistics and budget of your trip, as I learned the hard way.

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“We are in a bit of a transitional period in the pandemic,” Emory University School of Medicine infectious disease professor Henry Wu, MD, who is also the director of Emory TravelWell Center, told Travel + Leisure. “On one hand, COVID is not a major health concern for travelers who are healthy and vaccinated. However, others on the trip might have higher risk, and even a ‘mild’ illness can make anyone miserable and be a major disruption.”

Through my own experiential learnings, and the advice of experts who know the ins and outs, here are 10 mistakes to avoid if you get COVID-19 while traveling. 

Hiding Your Concerns 

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Before I headed off on my West Coast trip from Portland to San Francisco, I showered the tour operator with questions about COVID-19 precautions and talked through them before I committed. But when I showed up to the welcome meeting as the only one masked, I went into stealth mode, noting every time anyone in the group sniffled or sneezed and strategically picking distanced spots for every meal and in the van.

Since no one else was taking precautions, I felt like I shouldn’t question anything and kept my thoughts to myself. If anything, my mask-wearing showed that I was worried. But after a daylong van ride, hotboxed in with an unmasked traveler coughing the whole way, others started wearing their mask, too, sending my nerves into overdrive, so much so that I made an excuse to break off from the group for dinner.  As it turned out, others were worried, too, and a few of them asked one of the guides to test the symptomatic traveler.  

Sure enough, the next day, he tested positive — and the following day, two more of us did, myself included. With seven people starting the trip, only three made it to the end. But it shouldn’t have taken the positive test to make me feel like I could voice my concerns. If you feel like something is off, say something — you’re likely not the only one. Trust your instincts and articulate your worries to anyone who may be able to help.

Believing You're Invincible 

Just two weeks after I got COVID the first time, I felt like I could relax a little as I set off to London. While I still masked on public transportation and in most indoor and crowded settings, I relaxed precautions more than I had in two years — and ultimately extended my 17-night trip by another day to see Harry Styles play at Wembley Stadium. While the venue was technically outdoors, and I was one of the few covering my face, it was filled with 90,000 people, singing their hearts out — and possibly projecting the virus. The last morning there, I also visited a spa, where I was the only person most of the time. And on the flight home, I took off my N95 for meals. One of those three settings ended up being a poor decision. 

Two days after arriving home, the line on my at-home test turned the deepest shade of pink, which was a possible sign that I had a high viral load — five weeks after the first time I tested positive. Just because you’re freshly filled with antibodies doesn’t mean you can’t catch a different strain, especially those pesky ones that resist previous mutations. (Later, numerous tweets by fellow Styles concertgoers said they had tested positive after the show, giving their seat numbers to make sure others in the vicinity got tested, too.)

Continuing to Travel 

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While the instinct to get home as soon as possible is understandable, the opposite is actually true, especially if you’re traveling with others. “The goal is to isolate,” said Wu. “If you're in a hotel, getting your own room is ideal, especially if the person you're sharing the room with has risk factors for severe illness, or is someone who hasn’t already been in close contact with you before illness.”

If you’re in a more specialized situation, like a cruise, he said to follow the protocols in place. “If you're unable to isolate, masking yourself and others is the best way to prevent the spread of COVID and other infections like the flu or common cold,” he added. “Hand, cough, and sneeze hygiene should always be followed.”

Waiting to Seek Medical Attention

“If you have risk factors for more severe illness (like older age groups, immunocompromised conditions, etc.), you should seek medical attention immediately to see if Paxlovid or other treatments are indicated,” said Wu. “These treatments need to be started as early as possible.”

Since I had recently had surgery, I called my doctor in New Jersey from California the moment I got my first positive test. Within minutes, I had a virtual appointment, and he was able to prescribe medication to a pharmacy across the country. 

Getting to the pharmacy while positive was more of a challenge, as the pharmacist scolded me for walking into the store, even with an N95 mask on. But I understood, as I would have been scared of me, too.

Not Getting Properly Tested

hand holding a negative at home coronavirus test

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The fellow traveler on my West Coast tour who was the first to test positive was sure he had allergies. So many of us were handing him different forms of medication, hoping he’d take the responsibility to test himself, but it didn’t happen.

For Wu, the biggest mistake travelers make is “ignoring symptoms and not testing or isolating when appropriate.” He added, “Even if you are at low risk for severe illness, others around you might be at higher risk.”

According to Dr. Jasmin Valentin of Sameday Health, a PCR test is still considered  the “gold standard,” but it does take longer to get results. “If you can get a PCR test, it’s by far the most reliable and can detect COVID with even the smallest amounts of the virus present,” she said. “An antigen test, whether administered by a provider or done at home, is still a good option if choices are limited, especially if you’re already showing symptoms.”

And one is never enough. “If testing at home, I would advise testing twice over three days with at least 24 hours in between for the most accurate results,” she added.

Going Somewhere You Don’t Want to Get Stuck

That said, if you're traveling outside the country, Wu suggests going to an urgent care facility since your physician may not be able to issue prescriptions or there might be different medication options abroad. “Given these uncertainties, I advise travelers with risk factors for severe illness to consider the availability of appropriate urgent care when deciding whether or not to travel to a specific destination,” he said. 

Whether you need a place to quarantine or recover, or need medical attention, you want to be where you’re comfortable with the infrastructure and access to health care if something does go wrong.

“The most confusing part of COVID and traveling is the varying guidance and rules, especially internationally,” said Valentin. “Across the world, there are various expectations for how long people should isolate themselves, what kind of exposure requires quarantine, and how one can end their isolation. Travelers should do their best to research the standards and guidelines wherever they travel so any COVID rules do not catch them off guard.”

Skipping the Quarantine Travel Insurance 

Digital International Certificate of Covid-19 Vaccination and travel insurance application forms

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Since my West Coast trip was ending near my hometown of San Jose, it hadn’t even crossed my mind to get travel insurance. I had traveled with the tour operator before, which does require insurance, and on previous trips, they asked for everyone’s insurance information on a clipboard passed around during the welcome meeting. But they didn’t happen to do that on this particular trip, so I didn’t have that extra layer to make sure I was covered.

The morning I tested positive, I was kicked off the tour and only given accommodations for the remaining days I would have been on the trip — I was on my own for the rest, meaning I not only had to shell out my own money, but I also had to find a comfortable hotel with available rooms I’d want to stay in 24/7. It was also already too late to cancel another hotel I had booked for the night after the trip, which meant I ended up paying for an extra room on top of it all.

 Instead, I should have looked for travel delay insurance, which covers “meals, local transportation, and lodging (if not paid by a common carrier like an airline) if you are delayed at least six consecutive hours because you are quarantined,” Angela Borden, product strategist at Seven Corners insurance said, explaining that the amount covered will vary by plan.

Again, your destination matters. “Quarantine is only covered if a strict medical isolation is imposed by a recognized government authority or physician,” she said. “Many travel insurance plans can be extended for the entire duration of a COVID-related quarantine, and even for an additional number of days following the end of your quarantine period if you have not arrived at your return destination.”

Not Getting Medical Coverage Abroad

While most health insurance plans in the U.S. will cover care to some degree within the borders, things could change once you leave the country. “For international travelers, travel medical benefits, often referred to as Emergency Accident and Sickness Medical Expense, can cover the cost of medical treatment if you get sick while on your trip and must seek care,” said Borden. 

“Additionally, a travel insurance plan comes with 24/7 non-insurance travel assistance services to help you find a reputable doctor and arrange an emergency medical evacuation, if medically necessary...to a facility that can provide appropriate treatment if it’s not available at your location,” she added. “Most domestic health insurance plans do not cover emergency medical evacuations.”

Forgetting COVID-19 Essentials

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The day before I tested positive, our tour van drove all the way from Ashland, Oregon, to Santa Rosa, California, and I was so miserable that I was keeled over in the back corner of the vehicle. The last thing I would have wanted was to figure out where to buy a reputable at-home COVID-19 test. 

“Since recent COVID variants can test negative initially, I would pack multiple tests for each traveler,” said Wu. “At minimum, you'll want to be able to test whenever you have any COVID-like symptoms.” That said, if the trip includes someone in a high-risk category, test upon arrival, even if you’re asymptomatic, according to Wu.

Those aren’t the only things to pack. “I always encourage travelers to carry typical over-the-counter meds they might need (like acetaminophen or ibuprofen) and a thermometer,” said Wu, adding those at high risk may also want to bring a pulse oximeter. “Carry a supply of masks, even if they are no longer required and you are not routinely wearing them…I still recommend travelers wear them in high-risk situations, [like when it's] indoors, crowded, etc.”

Not Preparing for Pandemic-age Travel

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While it feels good to be traveling again, we simply can’t set off the way we used to. “An important reminder when traveling is to continue implementing the COVID precautions you take at home,” said Valentin. “Wear a tight-fitting mask, in particular at the airport and on the plane, wash your hands frequently, and avoid crowds as best you can. Obtain travel insurance prior to your trip and familiarize yourself with their COVID policy.”

Additionally, a little homework on your exact itinerary can go a long way: “Do your best to research local isolation and quarantine guidelines, and know whether your destination requires mandatory isolation in a facility of their choice. Contact your tour operator or hotel to determine what protocols they have in place should you test positive. Can you extend your stay? Obtain a two-week supply of any prescription medications you take and, if possible, have access to your medical records online or in a short paper summary.”

She acknowledges the checklist is long, but said: “The old adage couldn’t stand truer: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

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