Quick, efficient, uncomfortable – a blow-by-blow account of a pre-holiday Covid test

Greg Dickinson
·6-min read
Travellers need to get PCR tests to enter certain countries - Getty
Travellers need to get PCR tests to enter certain countries - Getty

Back in the day, the idea of a holiday “starting early” might have involved a cocktail the night before flying, once your bags were packed and your out of office was switched on. 

These days, the holiday starts even earlier, only it involves inserting a swab into the darkest crevasses of your nose and throat.

As it stands, our options for international holidays are as follows. There are the four destinations that let us in without any quarantine or testing restrictions – these are Gibraltar, Greece, the Canary Islands and Sweden. 

There are many that won’t let holidaymakers in at all (the USA, India, Thailand) and a number which you can feasibly get to, but which will require a quarantine either on arrival or on your return (mainland Spain, Italy, Turkey).

Then, there is a gaggle of green-listed destinations which will test you on arrival, like the Faroes, Jersey, and Cuba, and another handful that will let you in so long as you can present a negative Covid-19 PCR result on arrival, like the Maldives, Cyprus, Barbados and a number of Caribbean countries.

My destination is St Lucia, which has one of the most lenient testing requirements – the Caribbean country merely asks for a negative PCR test result taken seven days before travel.

As half term approaches, there are thousands of British holidaymakers who need to get their hands on a negative Covid-19 PCR result before their holiday. This is how the process works.

First up, what is a PCR test?

The universally accepted Covid test for entry to a country is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. These are diagnostic tests, to see if you currently have the virus, rather than antibody tests, which identify whether you have had the virus before. 

How do I get a PCR test?

You can only get a Covid-19 diagnostic test through the NHS if you have symptoms. So for an international holiday, you will need to take a PCR test through a private clinic – whether taken at home, or in a lab. There are many out there – we give information on some, here. The most cost- and time-effective way of getting a PCR test is by taking the test at home. 

Tui uses Randox, a laboratory based in Belfast. Their tests cost £120 but, when you book through Tui, there is a code to get 30 per cent off, meaning it will set you back £84. This is cheap compared to many other clinics, which typically range between £120 and £200.

Step 1. The package arrives at your door

After confirming my trip, and organising my test through Randox, I needed to wait a mere 24 hours before there was a knock on the door – the test kit had arrived.

Step 2. Unpack the kit

In the package you will find an instructions document and the following seven items.

  • A swab

  • A sample collection tube (containing pink liquid, to put the swab in)

  • A transportation tube (to put the sample collection tube in)

  • Unique Reference Number labels

  • A pathoseal bag

  • The box the kit arrives in

  • A large return envelope

Step 3. Take the sample

Different tests will have slightly different steps, but with Randox it was as follows: Wash your hands thoroughly for twenty seconds before doing anything, and do so again at the end of the process.

First thing’s first, you place the Unique Reference Number labels on the sample collection tube, the pathoseal bag and keep one for your own reference (this will come in handy later). 

Then, for the ugly part. You need to take the swab (without touching the end) and place it down your throat, onto your tonsils and gently across the very back of your mouth. It is worth doing this in the mirror, for accuracy.

Greg Dickinson prepares to take his swab
Greg Dickinson prepares to take his swab

Then, you take the same swab and put it around one inch up your nostril, and rotate five times. Then you do the same in the other nostril.

It is, in truth, not the most comfortable process in the world – particularly, for me, the throat. But remember it will all  be done in less than a minute.

You then place the swab with the sample end facing down into the pink liquid of the sample collection tube. Snap off the swab stick so it is encased in the tube, and then secure the lid. Then you place this in the transportation tube, place that in the pathoseal bag, seal it up, pop it in the box, pop that in the ready-addressed envelope, and you’re done.

Step 4. Register your sample online

With Randox, you need to go online and enter your Unique Reference Number along with your contact information and some personal details. This is so they can email you your results.

Step 5. Return the sample to the lab

Since there is time pressure to get your results in good time before your trip (even with St Lucia’s seven-day window), it is worth getting a tracked delivery via a courier service. Randox uses DX, and helpfully gives you the postal tracking stickers so you can just pop it on your sample envelope, you can head down to one of their drop-off points (they have 30 across the UK) and post it by hand.  If that is not convenient, going for a tracked special delivery with Royal Mail is a good bet.

Step 6. Wait, and hope for a negative result

For me, the wait was a supremely speedy 29 hours from swab sample to results. The email came through telling me that I had a negative result, meaning I am all clear to travel to St Lucia on Tuesday, where I will have a temperature check on arrival – and then all things going well, I will promptly make a beeline to the beach.

What if your test comes back inconclusive?

This is not impossible. It can happen if you take the swab sample incorrectly, if you do not collect enough sample, or if your sample is contaminated. After an inconclusive result, you will need to immediately contact your clinic and organise a second test, or else risk missing out on your holiday. It is not guaranteed that your insurance firm will cover you in this eventuality.

What if your test comes back positive?

Then you must quarantine for 14 days and cannot go on holiday. Contact your holiday provider or insurance firm to find out your options.

If you’d rather not do the test at home

Telegraph Travel’s Claire Irvin took a test at home, which was inconclusive, and then took another in a laboratory. She said: “Tests done by amateurs are in my now fairly extensive experience more intrusive and painful than those done by labs / clinics, as you simply don’t know what you’re doing. So if you are of a nervous disposition or you have kids who need to be tested, I would recommend this route.”

If you need a result, very quickly

Fast-track services are available. They range from £200 and go up to as much as £500. Plan in good time, and be thorough when following the instructions with your at-home test, and this should not be required unless you are unlucky and still get an inconclusive result. Or, indeed, if you book a holiday at the very last minute and need a result pronto.