Coronavirus travel rules: when flying home means spending more on PCR tests than on plane fare

Many Spaniards living abroad are complaining about the hassle and expense of observing the new requirements introduced by their government ahead of the holiday season

A medical worker takes a Covid-19 throat swab sample from a passenger at Berlin-Brandenburg Airport on November 26.
A medical worker takes a Covid-19 throat swab sample from a passenger at Berlin-Brandenburg Airport on November 26.Maja Hitij (Getty Images)

For Spaniards living abroad, going home for Christmas has become more complicated and expensive than they thought it would be when they bought their plane tickets. Since Monday of this week, all travelers coming into Spain by sea or air must present a negative PCR test result, carried out no more than 72 hours before arrival.

Some countries, such as France, reimburse the cost of the private test, but most of them do not. In Sweden, the price of a PCR test can be more than €200. Spanish embassies and consulates are receiving a growing number of queries from residents abroad seeking answers to their questions regarding where, when and how to take the test.

But Carla Lane, a 24-year-old Spaniard who is in a Master’s degree program at Oxford University, says that diplomatic staff did little to clarify the situation for her. In the end, the only clear takeaway was that the free test offered by the British public health system is not accepted.

I have a daughter, so that would mean an additional £400 on top of the cost of travel
Sally Davies, British national living in Barcelona

“It’s been an uphill battle finding a test,” she says. She and her friend Rubén started looking around for private options. One Oxford laboratory was asking for £275 (€307), so they turned to the popular pharmacy chain Boots, which charges £120 (€144). But there were no available appointments during the 72-hour time frame prior to their flight on December 7.

In the end, Carla paid £175 (€195) to a lab that will send her a home kit so she can collect a sample herself and get the results within 24 hours. It is not a perfect solution and it is still expensive, but at least it will end the stress of the past few days: “I don’t want to risk being turned away at the boarding gate.”

Others have instead chosen to stay put this holiday season. Sally Davies, a 50-year-old Londoner who lives in Barcelona, was already wondering whether it would be worth the risk to go visit her parents in the United Kingdom during the coronavirus pandemic. But the new rules have made her decide against it: first she would have to self-isolate for 14 days in the UK, then get a negative PCR test shortly before her return to Spain. “If you go for a week, you have to be confined yet break the confinement to get a PCR test in order to return to Spain. It’s absurd,” she says. “In London, a PCR test costs £200 [€223]. I have a daughter, so that would mean an additional £400 [€447] on top of the cost of travel.”

Davies feels that the Spanish government should accept antigen tests, which are cheaper and faster, as valid proof. So do Spain’s tourism sector and the airline industry.

“Hotels are already noticing a drop in demand, which began when the PCR requirement went into effect,” says Javier Gándara, president of the Airlines Association. This group supports diagnostic tests for people entering the country, but wants these tests to be fast and affordable. “Plane tickets are cheaper than the PCR tests!”

Overstretched labs are also starting to add small print to the effect that they cannot guarantee results will be available within a specific time frame, adding to travelers’ difficulties.

Why PCR?

“The most reliable test is the PCR test, and that’s why it’s required at the point of origin,” says a spokesperson for the Spanish Health Ministry. Experts note that antigen tests, which provide results in 15 minutes and do not require a lab or specialized personnel, are very useful in some situations but not in others.

“It’s still unproven whether they work so well on asymptomatic people. For now, they are not validated [by drug regulatory authorities], and we fear that they may have low sensitivity,” says Julio García, spokesman for the Spanish Society of Infectious Diseases and Clinical Microbiology.

The antigen tests are recommended for people who have had symptoms for two to five days, or who have had close contact with a positive case. But health authorities are also using them on people who land at Spanish airports without a PCR test result.

“The [antigen] result is available in a short space of time, and the visitors walk out of the airport with their results. If it is positive, a PCR confirmation is considered,” says the ministry source.

In these cases, travelers get tested for free, but it is likely that they will also be the target of a formal complaint by health officials. The ministry did not confirm how many complaints, if any, it has filed against travelers without PCR tests.

No airline checks

A passenger arriving in Palma de Mallorca on a flight from Germany shows her negative PCR test.
A passenger arriving in Palma de Mallorca on a flight from Germany shows her negative PCR test. CATI CLADERA (EFE)

Airlines do not check passengers’ PCR test results because of privacy laws; they only make sure that they have filled out the health form and obtained a QR code to access the terminal. It is Spanish health officials who ask to see these results upon arrival, then order antigen tests for people without the PCR result and file a complaint.

“There are many elements preventing ease of mobility, and they’re there on purpose. We cannot think that everything’s going to go our way in the middle of a pandemic: there need to be restrictions in place,” says Daniel López-Acuña, a former official at the World Health Organization (WHO).

This expert feels that the tests introduced to prevent imported coronavirus cases are “reasonable,” but he laments the lack of a unified policy across the European Union. He also thinks that the pressure exerted by airlines to get the government to accept antigen tests is “dangerous.”

“They won’t be reliable enough for asymptomatic cases and infected people will get through,” he notes.

Fernando Simón, the director of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts (CCAES), said on November 12 that the number of imported cases is “very low” and not worth the effort of detecting the few positive cases that make it through. Since May 11, imported cases have represented 0.3% of the total, according to the ministry.

In the meantime, some regional governments have sprung into action. On Thursday, authorities in the Balearic Islands announced that they will pay for PCR tests for island residents currently living elsewhere who want to come see their families during the coming long weekend. And regional premier Francina Armengol said she is working with the central government toward a deal that will let the region request a negative PCR test result from Spanish nationals traveling to the islands.

With reporting by Lluís Pellicer, Ana Carbajosa, Silvia Ayuso, Rafa de Miguel and Lucía Bohórquez.

English version by Susana Urra.

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