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Whether free, affordable or pricey, testing requirements can include a headache


Depending on where they are going, travelers can find tests for free or must pay up to hundreds of dollars.

By Concepción de León


For those who have been traveling internationally during the pandemic, getting a coronavirus test has become an integral part of the process. Many countries, including the United States, require a negative test result for entry, which has forced travel agents, hoteliers and others to establish testing and authentication procedures, and, in many cases, to work together to ease the process for travelers.


As testing requirements have become more ubiquitous, so have testing centers and services catering to them, with little or no current regulation on what they charge. Depending on where they are going, travelers can find tests for free or must pay up to hundreds of dollars — an expense for which they haven’t necessarily budgeted.


For Princess François-Estévez, 32, an assistant principal at a high school in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, the cost of testing was a consideration when choosing the destination for her bachelorette party. François-Estévez said her group of friends weighed the cost of airfare, lodging and testing to narrow down their choices. They considered going to Antigua before learning that a test at the affordable hotel they had found would cost them $200 per person.


“You can have a cheaper flight and hotel, but then if the COVID test is so expensive, then you’re like, ‘Does it actually balance itself out?’” she said. “Especially when you’re traveling in a group, not everybody is willing to pay those costs.” They ended up going to Jamaica, staying at a resort that provided free testing.


It is unclear to what extent American travelers have been deterred by the cost of testing, but a recent survey of 1,200 British adults by YouGov, a research data and analytics group, found that 47% named coronavirus-testing prices as a main barrier to international travel.


Julia Simpson, CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council, an industry group that works with governments to raise awareness about the travel industry, said that testing requirements have “really affected people’s confidence and also their pockets in terms of traveling.”


Simpson said that in the United States, some clinics charge fees ranging from $100 to $400 for polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests, considered the gold standard for detecting the virus.


“One of the concerns we’ve had is these big price discrepancies,” Simpson said. “If you’re a family of four, or even a solo traveler, if you know what you’re going to pay, then at least you can budget for it. But for PCRs, it can be very, very variable.”


Gerald Kominski, a professor of health policy and management at UCLA, said the reason for the vast difference in pricing is a lack of government oversight, which “creates an opportunity for a company to, in some cases, exploit the fact that prices are not regulated.”


In New York City, residents can get a free PCR test at one of the city’s Express COVID testing centers, with results promised within 24 hours or less. But many clinics offer the tests at a cost in exchange for expedited results. ProHealth Pharmacy, in Manhattan, charges $100 for a 24- to 48-hour turnaround for a PCR test, or $200 to get results in 15 minutes. Adams Health Services offers express PCR testing in Terminal One of Kennedy International Airport for $220, with results delivered within a couple of hours.


Clear-19 Rapid Testing, which has a location in midtown Manhattan and is opening another in downtown Manhattan, charges $389 to deliver PCR results in two hours, or $175 for a 24-hour turnaround.


“You’re basically paying for guarantees with us,” said Sandy Walia, a spokesperson for the testing center. “We charge something that is predictable, affordable, with guaranteed results.”


Limor Decter, a luxury travel adviser at Embark Beyond, a New York City-based agency, said prices have dropped significantly since the beginning of the pandemic, in part because in May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved for travel the use of self-administered “at-home” tests that met its requirements, such as a video supervision by a lab technician and an emergency-use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.


Available tests include the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Home Test, an antigen test that costs $70 for two kits and $99 for three. Other tests are pricier, with some requiring that the sample be sent to a laboratory for a PCR test, and do not include a video conference with a lab technician, which is required for CDC approval.


Kominski said pricing is likely particularly a deterrent for families, who have to consider the cost of multiple people when planning a trip.


Jennifer Tejada, 32, a special-education teacher in Brooklyn, went to Cartagena, Colombia, with her husband and two daughters in August. The family budgeted around $20 per person to get tested before heading back to the United States. A friend who had gone recently recommended a clinic there.


But when Tejada arrived at the clinic, the cost was more than double that amount, an expense she “wasn’t expecting.” The price, she was told, had gone up in the two weeks since her friend had visited.


Tejada had hoped to visit the National Aviary of Colombia, but she decided to skip it. “I had in mind that we needed to use that money to get COVID-19 testing,” she said, “so it did keep us from doing an excursion that I really, really wanted to do.”


Allison Brown, 71, who is retired and lives in Portland, Maine, said testing is one of many things that makes traveling now “a pain in the neck.” Over the summer, she and her husband spent $475 on coronavirus tests to enter Scotland and visit their adult children living there. For the tests required to return to the United States, Brown would have paid an additional $225 had it not been for a relative who works at a local clinic and helped them get tested free of charge.


“If I was just going on a leisure vacation, I wouldn’t go,” said Brown, “but I want to see my children.”

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