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Even when holidays are possible again it’s likely that many nations will require UK arrivals to take either a PCR or antigen COVID-19 test as a condition of entry to the country.
It’s not permitted to use NHS tests for travel, except for freight drivers in certain circumstances. Private tests can cost £120 on the high street or over £200 at some clinics.
However, some airlines and airports have agreed deals with private test labs to reduce costs. The exact same tests from the same provider can be cheaper, depending on with which airline you fly.
These are often much cheaper than tests you’ll find elsewhere. For example Jet2’s website links to tests available for £75. Tui’s recommended supplier charges £70 for a test that costs £105 if you click through from Virgin Atlantic’s website.
When we looked in early March, we found London Gatwick Airport’s drive-through test centre offers the cheapest PCR tests from £60 per passenger. These are taken by a clinician. The most expensive test we found in London, with a standard 48-hour turnaround, 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. Because of the national lockdown the majority of travel from the UK is currently prohibited. 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.
Are all PCR tests accepted?
Nearly all countries that require a Covid test will accept a PCR test. However, some stipulate that the tests should be carried out with a swab inserted in the nose and the throat.
This may mean that, for some destinations, it’s not a good idea to choose the new PCR saliva tests that require you to just spit in a tube and send the sample to a laboratory.
You can see more information about the rules regarding PCR saliva tests here.
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, or is going through the UKAS accreditation process.
You also need to make sure that the 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 private tests, and the differing reliability of results.
Where can I get a reliable Covid-19 test?
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 a company to provide you with a private Covid-19 test is here.
Where are the cheapest PCR tests?
When we checked in early March, drive-through centres by at various airports including Birmingham, Edinburgh, Gatwick and Heathrow were by far the cheapest places to get private PCR tests in England and Scotland.
Gatwick charges £60 if you’re flying from the airport, or £99 with up to 30% off for multiple tests. The other airports mentioned charge passengers £80 and the general public £99. Both tests are also suitable for children, but demand may be high when travel starts again 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.
Which airlines offer the cheapest PCR tests?
Some airlines include links to Covid test providers on their websites, with many offering discounts to their customers.
British Airways COVID tests
British Airways links to four PCR test providers that provide Fit to fly certificates for departure from UK. Passengers can access a discount code. Nomad (£166 after 15% discount), City Doc (£93 – after 38% discount), Medicspot (£127 after 15% discount) and Halo (£75 – after 16% discount). Tests are available at home or at clinics around the country.
Halo offers the PCR saliva test – meaning you spit into a pot rather than using uncomfortable swabs. This could be a good option but, as previously mentioned, it’s important to make sure that the test is accepted by your destination.
EasyJet COVID tests
easyJet offers discounts for tests from Randox Health, with home tests available for £72 instead of £120. It’s important to make sure that your destination accepts home tests.
Jet2 COVID tests
Jet2 COVID tests Jet2 has a deal with Living Care Group, which offers tests for passengers for £75.
Ryanair COVID tests
Ryanair doesn’t provide discounts but has links to private clinics around the country, with tests ranging from £149 to £214 for 48-hour turnaround.
Tui COVID tests
Tui offers tests for £70 from Screen 4 and £89 from Randox.
Virgin Atlantic COVID tests
Virgin Atlantic doesn’t offer discounts but links to providers including Screen 4, which costs £105. That’s £35 more than Tui – when accessed via the link from its website.
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.
Where else can I get a discounted coronavirus test?
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. Currently travel to both destinations is banned.
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.
What if my Covid-19 test doesn’t come back in time?