What to Expect If You Get COVID While Traveling Abroad

Middle school science teacher Stefanie Guggenheim was set to fly home to Illinois from a weeklong family vacation through Spain — a last hurrah before the school year would start.

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As all passengers must do before entering the U.S. from abroad, she and her family took a rapid COVID-19 test in Barcelona the day before their flight in August. Her dad’s test came back negative. Her sister’s test came back negative. Hers was positive.

“The lady issuing our tests gave them their clearance forms,” says Guggenheim, who was vaccinated at the time. “She looked at me and simply said, ‘10 days.’ I was in shock.”

That evening wasn’t the last hurrah in Spain she expected. Instead, she rushed to reschedule her flight while her family purchased supplies to get her through the unanticipated quarantine. And the next day, her family returned to the U.S., leaving 27-year-old Guggenheim alone in a hotel room with no human interaction for 10 days, aside from the knock on the door from someone delivering food.

What followed was a crash course in what happens if you test positive for COVID-19 while traveling abroad.

What happens when you test positive

The cost of getting COVID-19 abroad — and the process of dealing with it — can vary by country, and often even by region.

Guggenheim lucked out (as much as one could when testing positive) because she was in Barcelona, which operates specific “health hotels” for people required to self-isolate. The Spanish government covered the cost of her hotel, which was a small room with a twin bed and mini balcony overlooking the street below. If she had needed to foot the bill, a 10-day stay could have easily cost her more than $800, according to a NerdWallet analysis of a dozen hotel stays at budget properties in Barcelona (and that doesn’t even account for the cost of food).

Similarly, traveler Rollie Peterkin, who tested positive back in January 2021, had a similar fortuitous moment. Peterkin, who was bound for Turkey with a stopover in the U.S., tested positive the day before he was set to depart Costa Rica.

Costa Rica requires unvaccinated tourists to purchase travel insurance. While he has since been vaccinated, he was not at the time. And so — while Peterkin typically never purchases travel insurance — he forked over roughly $30 for it.

But he wasn’t sure what would get reimbursed (if anything), so Peterkin said he still tried to keep costs down rather than order nice meals and stay at luxury hotels during his quarantine.  While he submitted about $2,000 worth of receipts, he said he was thankful to get a $1,000 check back from his insurance company, eventually.

Here are some of the challenges that Guggenheim and Peterkin encountered given their extended stays:

Lodging

Because the government covered room and board, Guggenheim’s stay in Spain had few expenses aside from the hotel’s laundry service.

Lodging was more challenging for Peterkin, who was staying at a hostel. The hostel owner asked him to leave after learning about the positive test, so Peterkin scrambled to find lodging that would accept him and ultimately found a vacation rental. With no laundry detergent, he defaulted to doing laundry in the sink with dish soap.

What to expect: Obviously costs will vary by location, but it isn’t unreasonable to expect to pay at least $100 a night at budget hotels if you have to extend your stay. This could be upwards of $1,000 over the course of 10 nights.

Food

Guggenheim, who is vegan, said she was impressed that her hotel even provided meat-free meals. Guggenheim said she doesn’t recall the food quality because by day three of quarantine, she lost her sense of smell.

Given that he was in a vacation rental, Peterkin relied on a food delivery service. He typically ordered just two meals a day to reduce delivery fees.

What to expect: It’s not unreasonable to expect to pay $15-$20 per delivered meal while you’re in quarantine. So you’ll need to factor in several hundred dollars for food.

Entertainment

Guggenheim anticipated a work-free vacation and didn’t bring a laptop. But given her impending lonely quarantine, her family purchased her a laptop