It seems that the entire world is tired of staying home for over 2 years, and travel has returned with vengeance. In fact, airline ticket sales are at their all time high and hotel prices have skyrocketed this year. People are traveling abroad despite the confusing and constantly changing policies. For example, Europe now allows vaccinated travelers as long as their last shot was taken within 270 days. And USA still requires a negative COVID test result within a day of departure to the country.
With the rise in travel, no more masks or social distancing mandates, it is inevitable that you will encounter someone who has COVID-19 during your trip. On my recent flight from Atlanta to Aruba, there were people coughing (without covering their mouths) and there was no way for me to protect myself (yes, I had a mask on). Even though I was vaccinated and boosted, I probably caught the virus on the flight, or somewhere at the airport, because I tested positive during my stay in Curacao. Therefore, my 7-day long business trip turned into a 10-day long wellness and recovery stay.
Testing positive when traveling abroad means, you cannot leave the destination, and if you are an American citizen, you cannot travel back home. So what should you do if you test COVID positive when traveling abroad? Here are some tips based on my recent personal experience.
The first and most important thing when you do test COVID positive is to not panic! It is hard when you are stuck abroad, not knowing where you will stay, when you will get home, and how you will deal with work and family responsibilities. Moreover, if you have symptoms, you may not be feeling so good. So, don’t cause yourself more anxiety, and don’t stress. Take a deep breath. Remember, this too shall pass. Make a plan of action. Talk to your close friends and family members. Discuss with your local contacts or hotel manager. And read this blog!
Seek Medical Attention
If you are having any COVID symptoms, such as high fever, cough, cold, chills, body aches, ask your hotel to call for a doctor immediately. When I started feeling a scratchy throat while traveling in Curacao, I first tried to self medicate, thinking it was probably just the air conditioning or change in weather. Two days later, I was lying in bed with 101 F fever, chills and sweats. The resort called the doctor on my request, who came to my room for only $200. He prescribed antibiotics that were included in the cost. This helped me recover quickly.
At this point, I did not test positive for COVID, but had all the symptoms. My doctor advised me to drink lots of fluids, eat light food (soups and fruit), and rest. I always carry Vitamin C packets, my favorite Masala Chai powder, and a few over-the-counter medications (such as Ibuprofen) with me when I travel. Also, I purchased a few self testing COVID kits that came in handy. They were only $5 each at the pharmacy in Curacao.
It is very important to self isolate, rest, and wear a mask when you go outside. Since I was staying at a hotel by myself, I had no choice but to out to get food and medicine, so I wore a mask and kept distance from people.
Still, try to breathe fresh air by sitting at the balcony or taking a walk on the beach. Keep your mental health in check by talking to people on the phone, watching funny movies, and getting lots of sleep.
I had a great support system while in Curacao. The owner and manager of Terra Boutique Hotel were available 24 hours a day via WhatsApp. Every morning, they delivered breakfast to my room, comprising of fresh orange juice, tea, omelette, toast, fruits, and granola. My room was cleaned and sanitized daily. The kitchen at the hotel was well stocked with bottle water, tea and fresh tangerines, so I could stay hydrated. And they arranged for doctors, medicines, airport drop offs, as well as any request I had. Since I was traveling alone in a foreign country, it was calming to know that there were friendly and caring people I could count on whenever needed.
Often, you can get this kind of personal service only at smaller boutique hotels. The 300-room resort I stayed at previously offered no such help, and their reception desk rarely answered the phone.
Most travelers take their COVID test only 24 hours before flying out. If your test is positive, you cannot board your flight. The USA and few other countries still have this restriction. Most countries only check your COVID vaccination card. And the general protocol is that you have to isolate for 5-10 days before you are cleared to fly. Now, the problem with this rule is that your waiting time starts from the first time you tested positive, not the first day you had symptoms. Which means, in the best case scenarios, you can fly 4 days after your scheduled flight.
If you test regularly at a clinic, you will be able to detect the virus early on and your countdown will start earlier. For example, if you first tested positive 3 days before your flight, that will be your day 0, and you may only need to stay 2 extra days. Note that home test kits don’t apply. You have to test at a lab and obtain a written document showing the date of your test.
Call the Health Department
According to the CDC, you should self isolate for only 5 days, after which you can move about freely as you are no longer infectious. However, you also need to obtain a negative COVID test for air travel, or get a note from the doctor that you have fully recovered. The main problem with this rule is that you can test positive for COVID for weeks and months after you may have had it. Therefore, you may not be able to return home if you simply rely on test results.
So the only way to get around is to obtain a recovery letter from a local health authority. This can be a little complicated, as most doctors are not even authorized to give the letter. In Curacao, the doctor who saw me at the resort said that he was not allowed to write the recovery letters, and there were only 2 doctors on the island who could do it. I had to look them up, contact them individually, and because it was a long weekend, they were unavailable.
There are also many online healthcare companies who will give you the letter. You will need to fill out a form, pay a fee, and perhaps do a virtual consultation. The catch is they will only do it 10 days after your first positive test. You should have had no fever and recovered from all symptoms.
Because every destination has its only policy on who and when is authorized to give recovery letters, your best resource is the local health department or ministry of health and epidemiology. I had a phone consultation with the public health official, texted them my records, and they emailed me the letter within a few hours. This allowed me to travel internationally back to the US even though I was testing COVID positive.
Some travelers revert to the US Embassay for this information, but they are often not able to help.
Carry Good Travel Insurance
During this time of uncertainty, it is more important than ever to carry comprehensive travel insurance that covers sickness resulting from pandemics. I have Allianz Travel insurance which covers cost of hotel, meals, flights, doctors, etc. for me and my caretaker (if I was traveling with someone who had to stay back). Make sure to save every receipt, test results, and doctor’s records. Having this protection will cause less stress as you don’t need to worry about the extra bills you encounter abroad, and can focus on just getting better.