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Do I need a COVID-19 test for my cruise? Your pre- and post-cruise testing questions answered

Oct. 03, 2023
7 min read
Doctor in protective workwear taking nose swab test from young woman
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The road to the cruise industry's restart was a long one with lots of twists and turns.

Now that ships are back in service, the number of COVID-19 deaths is down worldwide, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has scrapped its opt-in protocols for vessels, nearly all cruise lines have walked back their pre-cruise COVID-19 testing requirements.

Additionally, most countries have waived their test-for-entry requirements. That's good news for passengers because individual countries often had timelines different from those of cruise lines, making it difficult for travelers to accomplish pre-cruise testing when departing from ports abroad.

With all of the changes, The Points Guy is here to answer some of your most pressing questions about COVID-19 testing for cruises. For a line-by-line list of current testing and vaccination policies, read our pre-cruise vaccination guide.

Editor's note: This article is intended to highlight general rules for most cruise lines. Testing requirements can vary by cruise line and embarkation port. Check with your line and the rules for the country in which you'll be embarking for the most current information relevant to your itinerary.

For more cruise news, reviews and tips, sign up for TPG's new cruise newsletter.

Pre-cruise COVID-19 testing

Taking a pre-cruise antigen test. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

Do I need to take a COVID-19 test before my cruise?

All but a small handful of lines have waived their mandatory testing protocols, except where required by local regulations in the countries and ports their ships visit. It is unlikely you will have to test prior to embarkation unless it's required by your country or municipality of entry or you're exhibiting symptoms similar to those associated with COVID-19.

How close to my cruise do I need to be tested?

If your cruise line or destinations on your itinerary require negative test results, they will generally have to be from no more than two to five days prior to your embarkation date, depending on the specific regulations.

Where can I find an approved test that will give me my results in time?

Pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS offer antigen and PCR testing by appointment. However, with the tight window in which the results are needed, there's no guarantee you'll have them in time to cruise.

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Abbott's BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card Home Test ordered online. SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

The best option is to order at-home antigen testing kits that offer telehealth access. You can find them through the Optum or eMed websites.

The type of test you will need will vary based on the specific requirements of your situation. If you need a professionally proctored at-home antigen test, order one of Abbott's BinaxNOW tests. (Make sure it's the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card Home Test if the cruise line or destination requires results to be from supervised tests.)

If it's not required that your test be proctored in order for the results to count, another option is self-administered at-home antigen testing, which you can conduct yourself without dialing in for proctoring. These tests are available at many local drugstores like CVS and Walgreens and big-box chains like Target and Walmart, and they're far more affordable than the supervised version. But before you buy, check to see if you qualify for a shipment of free government-funded tests by visiting the United States' official COVID-19 website.

Will my cruise line provide testing at the embarkation port?

This area at PortMiami was for unvaccinated cruise passengers awaiting their pre-boarding test results. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

Although most major cruise lines offered day-of-boarding testing at embarkation ports, that's no longer the case. If a negative test result is required for you to board your cruise, make sure you arrive prepared.

How much does a COVID-19 test cost?

COVID-19 test costs depend largely on the type of test, how and where you have the test done, and whether you're specifically asked if the test is for travel purposes. Prices can vary from free to several hundred dollars.

At a big-box drive-thru pharmacy, there's a good chance your test will be covered by your health insurance. However, it depends on whether the reason for the test is indicated when you make your appointment.

For example, CVS asks if you need the test to meet travel requirements. In that case, insurance is unlikely to pick up the tab.

If you order a test online instead, you're looking at a vast swath of pricing, ranging from $4 for a single unproctored antigen test (or 25 tests for $25, which is only $1 per test) to about $70 for a pack of two proctored antigen tests, plus shipping. If you have a flexible spending account or a health savings account, the IRS says at-home tests are considered eligible expenses. The White House has also indicated that people with private health insurance could be reimbursed for the cost of these at-home tests. Check with your insurance provider for details.

If you're due for a shipment of free at-home, unsupervised tests, as mentioned above, you won't pay anything.

If you're someone who requires a PCR test and you want to do it yourself at home, the downside is that it can be pricey, with kits running between roughly $30 and $120 each.

Keep in mind that if you need COVID testing during your cruise — either from an onboard medical center or a shoreside hospital or doctor's office — you will be responsible for the cost, which can be expensive unless you have a travel insurance policy that covers it.

COVID-19 tests during a cruise

Passengers' antigen test swabs await processing. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

Will I be required to test during my cruise?

Currently, no cruise lines require routine onboard testing for passengers. Exceptions would be if you feel ill and ask to be tested or exhibit symptoms that require you to be tested. In these cases, you would be responsible for any associated costs.

Additionally, if a passenger feels ill and subsequently tests positive for COVID-19 on your cruise, you could be required to take a test if the vessel's contact tracing program determines you were in close contact with the ill passenger. Testing under these circumstances is covered by the line.

Most countries have waived their test-for-entry requirements, so it's highly unlikely that you'll have to take a test before disembarking in order to return home.

Post-cruise COVID-19 testing

A test tube specimen awaits COVID-19 testing. PAUL BIRIS/GETTY IMAGES

Do I need to take a COVID-19 test after my cruise?

The only reason you would have to test after your cruise is if it's required by a country you're visiting or by your home country in order for you to return. Since most countries have now scrapped those requirements, you almost certainly won't have to take a post-voyage test.

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Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.