Traveling to America? Beware the PCR testing shuffle

by Brian on July 18, 2021

in Cancer,Covid-19,The Old Country

If you absolutely must travel overseas from Israel these days, beware the PCR testing shuffle. 

PCR testing booth in Santa Rosa

In order to keep its citizens safe from Covid-19, Israel has one of the strictest virus testing requirements anywhere. You need to get the nasty nasal swab no more than 72 hours before your flight back to Israel. And there’s another one upon landing at Ben-Gurion Airport. On top of that, the U.S. requires a PCR test of its own before flying out of Israel.

All tests must be paid for by the traveler.

I’m not against testing for Covid. If it can keep us from importing more of the Delta variant, I say bring it on.

But the whole testing system strikes me as a bit of a scam. Less so on the Israeli side, where the instructions are clear, the price is reasonable, and the results come back fast: a 14-hour turnaround costs NIS 45 ($14); NIS 135 ($41) to get results in 4 hours, if you’re willing to go to the airport for the test.

In the U.S., it’s a whole different kettle of Covid fish.

While there are plenty of testing sites, many of them free, they’re not set up for the kind of 72-hour turnaround Israel needs. (Our experience was in California; other states may differ.)

For example, you can go to most pharmacies to get tested. But they only guarantee results in 3-5 days for Walgreens, 4-6 days for CVS. If you need results in 72 hours, how can you rely on a facility that only promises them in 96 or hours or more? 

This is not just a hypothetical point. We have two friends who were both denied boarding because, in one case, the test results hadn’t arrived by departure time (an email came an hour later) and, in the other, our friends’ flight was delayed, pushing them out of the 72-hour window.

We regretfully concluded we had no choice but to pay for our test. There was a testing center in Santa Rosa, which is where we were visiting my family, that had a special “travel” package. The cost: $179 per test. 


The “Test Before You Go” booth at the Santa Rosa Plaza shopping mall is a small portable trailer stationed in the parking lot. We arrived at 1 pm but there was no one inside. 

A half dozen people milled around, masked, in the baking hot Northern California sun. The two staff members had, apparently, taken an extended lunch break. I can’t begrudge them for eating, but couldn’t they at least have posted something online reading, “closed between such and such an hour?” 

The whole process took nearly 90 minutes. I was optimistic that we’d get our results in plenty of time before the flight. But 24 hours until boarding, nothing. 18 hours, 14 hours, still nothing.

The results eventually came the night before our flight, but there were complications. Another friend who’d been to the States a few weeks earlier said that it was critical that the form have our passport numbers written on it.

We checked: Ours didn’t.

Moreover, the form didn’t give any indication of the time the test was taken, only the date. How would the airline know if it had been 72 hours before and not 77 or 80 hours?

I panic posted to Facebook.

“Sometimes the airline staff are sticklers for the right information, sometimes they don’t even look,” was the consensus. 

So, would we get an airline representative who was naughty…or nice?

I called Test Before You Go. Could they amend the forms to include our passport numbers and the time? No, there was nothing they could do.  

“But we’ve never had a problem,” the customer service representative replied cheerfully. 

Ha, they don’t know Israeli bureaucracy, I thought.

My mind began to race. If we got turned away, did we have anywhere else to go for recourse? There was one final alternative: If we got to the San Francisco Airport early enough, we could race over to a separate terminal and do a test with results in 45 minutes

The cost: $275. Each.

If we wound up doing that final test, on top of the ones we’d already done in Santa Rosa, plus the testing in Israel, we would have spent $1,000 between the two of us – almost as much as our plane ticket!

Wanting to save the money (and not fall into the category of “freier” – Hebrew for sucker – in case the first test forms were deemed sufficient), we opted to hope for the best. 

Still, questions abounded. Why can’t all but the priciest of testing facilities guarantee faster turnaround? And why is it so danged expensive? If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was some elaborate conspiracy, a cartel dreaming up new ways to milk hapless travelers out of even more of their hard-earned cash. 

The check-in line at SFO was long, giving me even more time to worry. Finally, the Delta representative asked for our negative PCR tests, gave them a quick glance-over, and told us we were good to go. 

That was it. No questions asked. 

I guess we got one of the “nice” ones.

When we were in Santa Rosa, my mother asked me, “Why did you have to travel now, in the midst of a pandemic?” 

“Because I haven’t seen you for three and a half years!” I replied.

But unless something unexpected occurs, we will not be traveling again until Covid is truly under control, and we can hopefully avoid the PCR shuffle entirely.

I first shared my thoughts on PCR Covid testing at The Jerusalem Post.

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