Two states, four Walgreens and a sense of defeat: Travelers struggle to find timely COVID tests, putting trips in jeopardy

Nikki Schreader almost missed a trip to Hawaii last month for a family wedding.

She wasn't running late for her flight. She was scrambling to find a coronavirus test for her 8-year-old daughter, a requirement to enter Hawaii unless you're vaccinated.

Schreader studied the state's strict testing rules, which set out the type of test, approved providers and the timetable (no more than three days before the flight.) She stopped by the closest Walgreens, in Rochester, Minnesota, days before her daughter was required to test to ask about availability. Employees told her they were completely sold out of the diagnostic tests she needed and directed her to Austin, Minnesota, which is 40 minutes away.

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Schreader snagged an appointment in Austin but it was canceled the night before. She found a last-minute opening the next day in Northfield, Minnesota, and grabbed it, even though it was nearly an hour away. When she arrived, the location was out of the rapid test she needed. Another eligible test was available, but she was told results would take three to five days.

"I feel so defeated,'' she said when she struck out.

Schreader was ready to cancel the trip until she found an opening the next day for an approved rapid test at a Walgreens in River Falls, Wisconsin, 90 minutes away. Her daughter took a rapid test and the results were delivered before they were home. They flew to Hawaii the next day.

Laina Lessard, 8, took a surfing lesson at Ukumehame Beach on the Hawaiian island of Maui. She and her mother flew to Hawaii for a family wedding but almost didn't make it because she couldn't find a COVID test for Laina, who is unvaccinated.
Laina Lessard, 8, took a surfing lesson at Ukumehame Beach on the Hawaiian island of Maui. She and her mother flew to Hawaii for a family wedding but almost didn't make it because she couldn't find a COVID test for Laina, who is unvaccinated.

Schreader's shuffle across state lines may be an extreme case, but her hunt for a timely, affordable coronavirus test for travel is far from unique. Travel message boards are filled with questions on how to find tests or warnings about a lack of appointments, canceled appointments and slow turnaround times for results.

Some frustrated travelers are turning to elected officials. The office of Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y. – who raised questions about testing capacity in early August as Canada reopened to vaccinated Americans – fielded recent calls from travelers unable to find affordable local tests that return results within Canada's 72-hour time frame, spokesperson Theresa Kennedy said. Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, is a short drive from the district, which includes Buffalo.

Blame the delta variant, return to school and a host of other factors, which have combined to create a major testing crunch across the country.

The upshot for travelers headed to Hawaii, Canada, Europe, the Caribbean, on cruises and other destinations requiring tests for all or some: Planning is essential, backup options are a must. Note that those backup plans, including airport rapid testing, are often pricey, especially for those who are used to free tests at Walgreens or government facilities.

'I did not anticipate it being an issue': Five hours and $250 later, a coronavirus test to reenter Canada

Charlotte Mosher lives in Canada and flew to the United States in August to help a friend move from Denver to Florida.

She didn't have a problem getting a coronavirus test in Canada to board her flight to Denver. The problems arose when she tried to find a test for her return flight from Tampa.

Mosher, who is fully vaccinated, tried to book an appointment online with Walgreens, which is free, but came up empty in the three-day time period she needed.

"There were no tests anywhere within driving distance,'' she said. "They were all booked.''

She looked into at-home testing kits, but they would not guarantee the results in time for her flight.

Her sister found one testing place in Tampa, but it couldn't guarantee results in time either, and she needed to get back to work.

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"When I called them they said it wouldn't even go out to the lab until the next day,'' she said, with two days or more processing time after that.

She ended up getting a test through ARCpoint Labs on the recommendation of a friend.

The cost: 325 Canadian dollars, or about $257. That's half the price of her round-trip airline ticket.

Her advice to others: Don't book a trip until you search for general testing availability using hypothetical dates.

"I guess I should have done that,'' Mosher said. "I did not anticipate it being an issue.''

More trouble getting to Canada: Late test results, turned away at the border.

The testing troubles aren't limited to those traveling by air.

Paula McGibbon lives in West Seneca, New York, near Buffalo, and tries to visit her parents in Niagara Falls, Canada, every week. She is vaccinated and has dual citizenship.

Before the border reopened, test results from Walgreens were delivered in about a day and a half. In the past few weeks, that has ballooned to five days, she said.

McGibbon took a test at the pharmacy this week so she could take the five-minute drive across the border to see her parents in their retirement home. She became worried when she received an email warning of prolonged wait times for results. The warning was dead-on: McGibbon didn't receive her results for five days, past Canada's 72-hour timetable. Her results were technically expired.

She decided to take her chances at the border since her PCR test was taken at the right time to comply with the rules, but she was turned away. An official told her to try the Buffalo airport for a rapid test. The cost: $150 to $200, she said.

"Overall we are able to meet demand, with a capacity to perform up to 3 million test per month, across our more than 6,000 testing locations throughout the country," Phil Caruso of Walgreens told USA TODAY. "We may experience intermittent delays in supply in some locations and are working with all of our testing partners to meet patient demand."

McGibbon opted for urgent care, figuring she'd have to pay only a $25 co-pay, but the bill was $150. She said her insurance company told her coronavirus "screening'' tests weren't covered like those performed for people with symptoms or COVID-19 exposure.

She called the Erie County health department and Higgins' office seeking tips on free testing options. She's worried that the price of tests will put her weekly visits with her parents, who are in their 90s, out of reach.

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Kennedy, from Higgins' office, said the biggest issue for travelers trying to cross the border as testing sites are overwhelmed is the turnaround time.

"Providers that offer tests at low or no cost to the consumer are not able to guarantee that the results will return in time,'' the spokesperson said.

Those who must have rapid tests with quick results find themselves paying $125 to $200 per person for a test, Kennedy added.

The cost is leading some to cancel trips, she said. One constituent from western New York, who owns property in Canada and visits regularly with his wife and son, called Wednesday to say they have had to cancel trips because of the high cost of rapid testing.

"I don’t know when I’ll see them again,'' McGibbon said of her parents. "I just have to keep going and trying to get COVID tests.''

Finding a test for travel during delta variant surge: 7 tips

  1. Have a plan B ... and C and D. Check all testing options within a reasonable radius as well as testing options at the airport and other for-profit sites. Schedule appointments as far in advance as allowed and be sure to ask when results will be ready. Keep checking back for cancellations.

  2. Call your health insurance company to see what types of travel tests, if any, are covered and to what extent. This is invaluable information to have on hand should your favored, free testing site be unavailable or slow to provide results. CVS spokesperson Matt Blanchette said people seeking testing for travel purposes should check with their insurer to determine if it covers such screening. Otherwise, the cost at CVS is $139 per test given laboratory costs, he said. Walgreens offers free testing regardless of insurance. Blanchette said the chain continues "to be able to meet the demand for COVID-19 testing, even with increasing numbers of patients seeking out tests at one of our more than 4,800 CVS Pharmacy locations across the country offering testing with same-day and future day appointments in most geographies.''

  3. Make sure you don't get the wrong test in the rush to find any test. Hawaii in particular is strict and won't accept just any coronavirus test from any health care provider, even if it's from the vaunted Mayo Clinic. The state accepts just one CVS test, for example.

  4. At-home tests are also an option, but make sure it is the right at-home test. Many destinations won't accept those that aren't supervised by a health care professional.

  5. Boost your travel testing budget if the trip can't be missed or canceled. The airport sites are convenient but costly.

  6. Ask fellow travelers or scan Facebook message groups for testing strategies. One woman on the Maui COVID Travel Testing group on Facebook said she has been practicing logging into the Walgreen's site at the time new appointments are added each night so she's in practice when her trip to Hawaii comes.

  7. Know Hawaii COVID travel restrictions. Learn how to navigate the state's entry requirements.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Vacationers struggle to find timely, affordable COVID tests for travel