Caught COVID-19 abroad? Good luck, you might get stuck

The idea of being stranded on a Caribbean island might not sound like the worst thing in the world after two years of a pandemic, but speaking from experience, it’s not as fun as it sounds.

I caught COVID-19 while on vacation overseas. Somehow, my partner did not. But for us to get back to the United States we both had to provide negative tests as required by federal rules on international arrivals, or we wouldn’t even be allowed to board the flight home. What followed was a logistical mess that left us largely without help and at the mercy of our own decision-making and a good reminder that we’re still a long way away from whatever the new normal is supposed to be.

For the past year we’ve been encouraged to go about our regular business as the world began to recover from the worst pandemic in a century. Governments around the world have dropped their mask mandates, reopened their borders, and international entry rules loosened. Many countries, including the U.K. and Canada, lifted their COVID-19 testing requirements to encourage travel for vaccinated visitors.

But the U.S. remains an outlier, with no public plans to change its testing requirements any time soon. Since the start of the omicron wave in December, federal rules have required all travelers, including Americans, to obtain a negative COVID-19 test or proof of recovery document no more than a day before boarding an international flight to the United States.

And so we went on vacation. We’re vaccinated, boosted and still took all of the precautions to keep ourselves and other people safe. We tested negative before the flight using the free at-home tests sent by the U.S. government and we wore masks on the plane — the majority of the flight did not. When we arrived at our Caribbean destination, the government had no entry requirements and we crossed the border in a matter of minutes and started our vacation.

I tested positive a couple of days later using another at-home COVID-19 test that we had brought in our luggage. Although my symptoms were mild, the stress was not. We were stuck here until we both tested negative — at least five days in isolation per the local government’s advice — which was longer than we were due to stay. Flights would have to change, our accommodations would need extending and this was already starting to get expensive.

Our first thought was how to get home to our two cats, who were blissfully unaware that over a thousand miles away their humans were suddenly trapped on vacation. Our second thought was figuring out how to get home safely. With no clear guidance, we called the U.S. consulate and asked what we should do next but were told to call the local government instead, which said we should isolate for five days and to hope that we test negative in time for our flights home. Fantastic.

An infuriating fact about requiring a negative test before boarding an inbound international flight to the United States is that the rules are easily skirted. Some are taking advantage of heading home through the “backdoor” — by flying to Canada or Mexico, which do not require negative tests on arriving flights — and then crossing into the U.S. by land, which also does not require a negative test. There is also no requirement for a negative test before flying domestically within the United States. Even if we wanted to, it wasn’t practical to fly to either Canada or Mexico without risking the health of other people.

My next call was to my U.S. health insurance provider to ask what to do if my symptoms get worse or if my partner gets sick. They recommended since I was abroad that I should use a telehealth service that they partner with. I downloaded the app they recommended but the doctor who connected refused to talk with me because I was outside of the state he was licensed to practice in.

We chose to ride it out and hoped we would both test negative sooner rather than later so we could get flights home. That meant accommodations became the next major hurdle.

We were staying in an Airbnb, but the guidance about what happens when you get COVID-19 during your stay is vague and unclear. There are horror stories of Airbnb guests who found themselves in similar circumstances. One couple staying in an Airbnb in Buenos Aires tried to extend their stay after one of them caught coronavirus, but they said that Airbnb blocked their account — and the account of their host — leaving them stranded.

Not wanting to get flagged by an algorithm and find ourselves equally stranded, my editor contacted Airbnb through press channels and asked if Airbnb could put me in touch with customer support to understand what the process was for extending our stay. We didn’t hear back, which suggests either Airbnb was unwilling to help or it does not have a cohesive policy on what happens if someone gets sick abroad. Instead we were left at the mercy of people being reasonable and not kicking us out on the spot.

After the five days of isolation, we both tested negative at a local testing site, and we hurried to reschedule our flights back to the U.S. the next day before the test results expired.

My partner and I got lucky, but we came prepared. If you travel overseas, you should bring enough COVID-19 at-home kits to periodically test during your trip. It would have been magnitudes worse had we found out on our last day that we had to scramble to extend our trip by at least another week. We also had travel insurance that specifically included COVID-19 coverage in case we got sick and stranded while we were away. That might help us recoup the costs of extending our trip down the line. But you should still be prepared to do much of the legwork and pay out of pocket to extend your stay and rebook your flights since much of the responsibility and decision-making will fall on you — even if you’re sick. As to how she didn’t get sick, we kept the windows open at all times and were fortunate to have an outside balcony where we spent most of our time. And inside the room, we both wore KN-95 masks — even at night when we slept — and cleaned regularly.

We are not the only ones who have been effectively trapped overseas, unable to get home because of the pandemic. One couple got stuck in the Maldives at the start of the pandemic on what became their “eternal honeymoon” but soon found themselves at the center of a logistical nightmare of trying to get home. A similar story with a British woman who was forced to stay in the remote island nation of Tonga because of travel restrictions.

The difference here is that we’re two years in, most of the restrictions are lifted, but COVID-19 remains a real and constant risk and yet the logistical difficulties remain the same.