With vaccinations, pre-travel testing and an endless array of hygienic measures, travelers around the world are doing their best to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19. But getting infected can still happen — as shown by the rapid spread of new variants around the world⁠ — and it’s important to be prepared.

While many countries are loosening their travel restrictions, new variants have caused global uncertainty and more breakthrough infections. If you are planning a trip, you should understand the regulations in your destination and be prepared for the possibility of testing positive. If you want to be prepared to contract COVID-19 while on the road, here is what you need to know about navigating a potential infection. 

What can I do to prepare for a potential COVID-19 infection? 

Expecting the unexpected is a necessary part of pandemic-era travel, but what's even more essential is thinking ahead so you’re prepared if things go awry. 

Start by booking flexible transport and lodging. Read the fine print or call ahead to see if companies refund last-minute cancellations, allow exchanges, or cover any unforeseen COVID-related costs. Next, ensure you have health insurance that will cover you away from home. Paying out-of-pocket for things like hospital visits and tests can get pricey without proper protection. Comprehensive travel insurance that includes expenses like hotel quarantines can prove equally important.  Factor having to pay for hotel quarantine or medical care into your budget, as you will likely have to claim them back through your insurance. 

How do you choose travel insurance that covers COVID-19?

What costs a little extra now may save you thousands of dollars down the road. For those concerned about treatment abroad, companies like MedJet and Covac Global provide medical evacuation services to your home country and hospital of choice ⁠— though costs, which can be thousands of dollars, can be daunting.

If you take medications, pack enough to get through an unexpectedly long stay. Make sure you know how to contact your GP at home in case of emergency. A stash of high-grade medical masks like KN95s could come in handy should one member of your party test positive. 

Finally, make room in your luggage for at-home COVID-19 tests from companies like Ellume or Abbott BinaxNOW so you can get answers quickly no matter where you are. To note: if you’re using one of these tests for admittance back into the US, it must be FDA-approved and proctored by a telehealth professional when taken. 

With the quick spread of the new variants, travelers may want to consider taking frequent antigen tests regardless of symptoms or testing requirements.  

What do I do if I develop COVID-19 symptoms while traveling? 

If you're experiencing the tell-tale signs of the coronavirus, prioritize getting tested, then remain isolated until you receive the results. Information is power: the sooner you're diagnosed, the sooner you can protect yourself and those around you.

Healthline: Signs and Symptoms of the New Coronavirus and COVID-19

In the event you test positive, notify local health authorities immediately. Informing officials allows them to guide you through local protocols and initiate contact tracing within the community you're visiting. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a helpful list of US healthcare directories and international resources so travelers can contact the appropriate parties.

Next, tell any close contacts who may have been exposed to the virus. Clear communication is the best way to protect everyone during the on-going health crisis. 

How do I isolate? 

Protect those around you by staying in a designated quarantine room, and if possible, using a separate lavatory. If you must share a space, wear a mask and practice physical distancing. In addition, ensure you have access to all the items necessary for an extended stay, including essentials like food, water, necessary medications, and WiFi. If someone is delivering you food, they should leave it outside your door. 

Need to self-isolate on arrival? Here’s what you need to know

The length of your isolation will depend on the country, so check with local authorities and obey their rules. Breaking quarantine laws can lead to hefty fines, and in some destinations, imprisonment

Do I stay in my hotel or Airbnb?

If you contract COVID-19, alert your host or hotel immediately so they can help make proper arrangements. In many cases, your hotel will allow you to extend your stay and quarantine on premises. Some hotels will move guests into government-mandated quarantine sites, which can vary from five-star accommodations to bare-bones barracks. Although a handful of these facilities are paid for by the government, you will often foot the bill. 

Breakfast on a tray in bed in hotel, white linen, wooden interior
Some hotels will let you quarantine there - but check before you travel © Alena Ozerova / Shutterstock

Airbnb states that guests who suspect they're sick should not use the home-sharing platform for self-isolation. If a guest is in the middle of a stay, they should contact the support team for help and communicate with their host to strategize next steps. 

To avoid unsavory last-minute surprises, find out your quarantine options prior to traveling. Isolation or quarantine can last anywhere from one to three weeks, depending on your location, which is a long time to be at the mercy of take-out meals and hotel kitchens. Consider access to things like refrigerators, kitchenettes, and nearby restaurants when booking your stay.  

What if I need to seek medical treatment? 

Follow guidance from your doctor or a local healthcare provider to determine whether you should stay home or seek treatment. If you exhibit COVID-19 warning signs, it's imperative to seek medical care immediately. Ambulances and private vehicles are the safest ways to access a nearby hospital. Avoid using public transit or shared vehicles like taxis or Ubers. 

But remember⁠—not all health care systems are created equal. Before traveling, check the current infection rate of your destination and whether there’s room for patients in intensive care units. If you're relying on an overburdened, underfunded hospital, you may not get the care you need. 

What happens if I test positive right before flying home from abroad? 

Do not board a plane if you test positive for COVID-19. 

All air passengers flying to the United States must show a negative COVID-19 test taken within one day of departure, regardless of vaccination status. If you don't meet this requirements, you can't board a plane and enter the country. 

Though many places are loosening their travel restrictions, some countries still impose testing requirements for vaccinated and unvaccinated air travelers. Find out your country's latest regulations before traveling and stay vigilant about the shifting landscape throughout your trip. As the health crisis continues to change, so will rules for travelers. 

If you need a negative COVID-19 test to fly home, avoid waiting until the last minute to get your results. Getting tested before you check out of your hotel allows you to weigh your options, change your flight, and contact the appropriate people from a comfortable, private space. 

Contracting COVID-19 is stressful, but if you prepare appropriately, working out last-minute logistics can be the least of your concerns.

For more information on COVID-19 and travel, check out Lonely Planet's Health Hub.

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., CNE, COI. 

This article was first published Oct 26, 2021 and updated Apr 26, 2022.

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