An increasing number of countries are requiring UK arrivals to take either a PCR or antigen private COVID-19 test as a condition of entry to the country. In some instances you must use a provider approved by the country, while cost and availability of tests remain a problem for those who need to travel.
The government has made it clear that you can’t use the free NHS testing service for non-essential travel, which is only for those with symptoms, so you’ll have to pay for a private test. Essential workers, such a freight truck drivers can under certain circumstances access government testing.
There are now a number of clinics and pharmacies offering COVID-19 ‘fit to fly’ tests in all major cities, but Which? has found costs vary considerably.
When we looked in early December, we found London Gatwick Airport’s new drive-through test centre offers the cheapest PCR tests from £60 per passenger. These are taken by a clinician. The most expensive standard test we found, at a clinic in London, was £214 – that’s a difference of £616 for a family of four.
Everything you need to know about travel corridors and test to release
What type of test do I need, PCR or antigen?
Before paying for a test, it’s crucial to first check if you will be allowed into the country you are travelling. Many countries, like France and Spain, are only allowing entry to nationals or residents, with certain other exemptions. You cannot take a holiday.
For travel to most countries, including Spain and the Canary Islands, Greece and Cyprus you’ll need to take a PCR (polymerise chain reaction) swab test. These are more expensive than antigen or LAMP tests and it takes longer to get the results because they have to be sent to a lab for analysis.
While some destinations including Spain, the Canaries, Greece and Cyprus accept PCR tests performed at home and posted to a lab, others including Dubai stipulate that the test is taken at a registered test facility, some say it must be performed by a clinician. This usually costs a bit more, but you’re less likely to get an inconclusive result and you’ll probably get your results quicker so it’s the safer option for everyone.
You’ll need to check that the clinic is UKAS (national accreditation body for UK) accredited, that its test will be accepted by your destination and that you’ll get a ‘fit to fly’ certificate if your result is negative – some charge extra for this.
Some countries, including Hong Kong, will accept a LAMP (loop-mediated isothermal amplification) or antigen test, which cost from around £80 and can give results within 90 minutes.
There remain questions over the sensitivity of privates tests, and the differing reliability of results.
What type of test do I need for France, PCR or antigen?
You currently cannot travel to France because it has restricted travel from the UK. There are exceptions however. French nationals, nationals of the European Area and their spouses and children, British nationals who reside in France or the European Union and those who must travel for essential reasons (as specified by the French government) can travel.
If you are permitted to travel, France is currently accepting PCR tests and antigen tests, but you must use its list of accepted providers. There are also further requirements if you use an antigen test. Given the small list of approved providers, it may be difficult to gain access to a test.
Where can I get a reliable Covid-19 test from?
All private coronavirus testing services have to by law apply for UKAS accreditation now, it is no longer under the Care Quality Commission’s remit.
Once a company can show it’s applied for the relevant ISO standard and UKAS is confident they meet minimum requirements as set out by the government in the first stage of a three-stage process, it will recommend it’s added to the Department for Health and Social Care’s central list of providers. The best place therefore to find an accredited company to provide you with a private Covid-19 test is here.
Where are the cheapest PCR tests?
When we checked in early December, drive-through centres by Express Test at London Gatwick and Edinburgh airports were by far the cheapest places to get private PCR tests in England and Scotland. Express Test says it’s planning to open 30 more testing sites in the UK in the next couple of months.
Gatwick charges £60 if you’re flying from the airport, or £99 with up to 30% off for multiple tests. Edinburgh charges passengers £80 and the general public £99. Both tests are also suitable for children, but demand is high so you might struggle to get an appointment.
Test results should be available the next day but you’re advised to schedule an appointment at least 48 hours before you travel. However, it’s important you don’t take the test too soon – most countries including Spain and the Canary Islands, Greece and Cyprus will only accept tests taken no more than 72 hours before you arrive.
How much will I pay on the high street and Boots for a private PCR test?
Boots is the cheapest place on the high street for COVID-19 tests in England, Scotland and Wales, we found. It charges £120 and has test facilities at 40 stores including in London, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield.
Results arrive within 48 hours and if the test is inconclusive your fee will be refunded and you’ll be given the option of paying to repeat the test. All negative tests come with a ‘fit to fly’ certificate.
Boots now offers its testing service in over 100 stores and appointments can be made 28 days in advance.
One major drawback of the Boots’ test is that it isn’t available for children under 13 – and some countries including Spain, Greece and Cyprus require younger children to be tested.
It isn’t currently available in Boots branches in Northern Ireland either; here the cheapest place we found is Randox Health Travel Centre, which charges £120 if you book on its UK website – but there doesn’t seem to be any reason why you can’t book on its Republic of Ireland website – booking.randox.ie – which quotes just €99 for a test at its clinic in Holywood, Belfast, with a 24-hour turnaround.
How to get a discounted coronavirus test with Tui, Wizzair and Jet2holidays
Some countries including Dubai and Italy offer free testing on arrival, either at the airport or at city centre clinics, but you’ll have to quarantine until you get your result and if it’s positive you’ll have to remain in isolation for much or all of your holiday.
Sofitel hotel at London Heathrow is offering free self-test PCR kits to overnight guests with certified results the next day. It offers one free test per room, which cost from £179 a night. Additional tests cost £69 each.
The UK’s largest tour operator Tui and the airline Wizz are offering 30% off home-testing kits. Anyone can order the tests from the Tui and Wizz websites using the discount codes. Tui’s cost £84, from Randox, and the Wizz test costs £85, from Confirm Testing.
Jet2 Holidays says its customers will be offered a discount code for a PCR test with its chosen supplier four weeks before they travel, but it hasn’t told us how much the tests will cost.