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Close up of person's hands holding a negative at-home antigen COVID test
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Should You Take a Pre-Trip COVID Test at Home or at the Airport?

SmarterTravel

In the age of ever-changing travel requirements, it’s increasingly likely that you’ll need to take a COVID-19 test before your next international trip.

The United States currently requires a negative COVID test taken within one day of your flight in order to return to the country from abroad. Most other countries have similar requirements for entry.

There are now numerous options to take a COVID test either at-home or at the airport, but which is better for travelers?

Sign post pointing to the line for the on-site airport COVID testing
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Cost

Airport testing sites usually charge a premium to departing passengers. These setups often cater to passengers who forgot (or got the wrong type of test) and don’t have any other options if they want to make their flight.

This lack of options is often reflected in the price of an at-airport COVID test. Some airports might only offer the more expensive PCR tests to travelers, instead of the cheaper Antigen test. XpresCheck, for example, owns testing sites at a number of airports across the country, and charges $250 for a rapid PCR test or $75 for PCR test with a standard turnaround time. 

However, it really depends on the location. Toronto Pearson Airport charges approximately US$53 for a rapid test, Mexico City Airport offers testing for around $27 and London Heathrow provides them for $33.

An at-home rapid COVID test may be cheaper if you’re able to shop around. A two-pack of the Abbott BinaxNOW™ COVID-19 Ag Card Home Test with eMed Telehealth costs $70, meaning each test comes out to $35. 

Time

Close up of person holding a negative rapid antigen COVID test in one hand and the handle of rolling luggage in the other
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Most airport testing sites allow you to make a reservation in advance, but you’ll still be at the mercy of how many people in the line are ahead of you. And you’ll still have to find the clinic in the first place (airports are big places!) and factor in the turnaround time for getting your results. If you’re traveling to the airport a day or two before your flight in order to get tested, you’ll also need to consider the time and cost it will take to make a separate trip to the airport. 

If you self-administer your test, it’ll probably take 30-40 mins in total, including the 15-minute wait time for the test kit to produce your result. And you can do it from the comfort of your own home or accommodation.

Test Early

No matter which option you choose, you might want to test as early as possible within the testing window. Under the current CDC rules, you must get tested either the day of, or the day before, departure for trips to the United States. So if your flight to the US departs at 6pm on Thursday, you could do your test as early as 12:01am on Wednesday the day before. Note that the U.S. rules go by calendar day, not 24-hour time period, but other countries may have test requirements based on an hours-long window.

In this scenario, let’s say you do your test after breakfast on Wednesday at 9am. If you test positive, you then have 33 hours to change your flight, and make plans to stay put and ride out the isolation period until you can return to the US.

Conversely, say you wait until you get to the airport, which you might do 3-4 hours before your departing flight to give enough time. If you test positive, you’ll have to cancel or change your flight (by which time it’s probably too late), and make alternative accommodation plans while at the airport, which can have spotty WiFi (and is just a stressful place in itself.)

Things To Keep In Mind

Close up of doctor placing a cotton swab into a test tube for a COVID PCR test
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Make Sure it’s an Approved Test

This is really important. Self-administered tests without supervision by an approved service provider are not eligible for departures to the US. According to the CDC,The testing procedure must include a telehealth service affiliated with the manufacturer of the test that provides real-time supervision remotely through an audio and video connection.”

Related: https://www.smartertravel.com/best-covid-tests-for-travel/

Do You Need a PCR Test?

There is a difference between a rapid antigen test and a PCR test. The US accepts both, but many countries require the more accurate (and more expensive) PCR test.

You’ll want to check if your destination requires a PCR test. If so, that needs to be conducted in person by a licensed medical professional. A PCR test with a fast turnaround time can be difficult to find outside of the airport, so this could be a case when it makes sense to test in a terminal. 

Does Your Destination Require In-Person Testing?

Some countries will allow you to use a rapid test, but not one that is taken via telehealth. For example, Australia accepts rapid tests but requires the test to be taken (or supervised) in-person by an authorized practitioner.  

Test Your Device Beforehand

If conducting an at-home rapid test through a telehealth provider, you’ll need to have a reliable internet connection, plus access to video and audio.

The first time I used the Abbott BinaxNOW at-home test mentioned above, the network connection on my personal laptop was not working, so I couldn’t log on to the service. Luckily, I had my work laptop with me, which allowed me to do so.

Take 5-10 minutes to create your account with the service provider before you even leave on your trip, and make sure that your device/s are working. Some at-home tests require you to download an app in advance, which may not be available in the international app store once you leave the country.

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