Need a COVID test for an upcoming trip? Here are some tips so things go smoothly

Jerome Powell

If you need to take a COVID-19 test for your upcoming travels, you’ll find plenty of options — from spitting to swabbing, at-home to drive-through testing locations.

We needed COVID tests for our recent family trip to Hawaii, which requires proof of a negative test taken within 72 hours of travel — by an approved testing partner — to avoid a mandatory 10-day quarantine upon arrival. As of May, all non-vaccinated transpacific travelers to Maui must also take a rapid coronavirus test upon landing, offered for free at Kahului Airport.

Since we needed our initial test results so quickly, we decided to try out two methods to determine (for us) which proved the most reliant and the easiest to use, and to make sure we wouldn’t miss our flights because of late test results or, worse, end up quarantined — not a fun way to spend vacation.

Hawaii and Puerto Rico require a negative COVID-19 test result to enter, and many other states still recommend visitors and returning residents get tested. Hawaii requires visitors to take a Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT) from a certified Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment (CLIA) lab, and although the list is long, not many were accessible to us.

You can get a nasal swab PCR test at a participating CVS pharmacy ( for $139. About 10 Walgreens pharmacies in Greater Boston also offer free drive-through swab tests — make sure you choose the PCR test out of the three options (

Some airports offer approved COVID-19 tests for travelers heading to Hawaii, including San Francisco International Airport.
Some airports offer approved COVID-19 tests for travelers heading to Hawaii, including San Francisco International Airport.Handout

We live in Washington state and chose the free nasal swab test at our local Walgreens (available to anyone 3 and older) and a mail-in Vault Health saliva test ($119 per person), which works nationwide (

We scheduled our Walgreens test for 72 hours before flight time, filling out all our information online in advance so the paperwork was ready when we arrived. The entire test for four of us took less than five minutes. We drove up to the pharmacy window, verified our information, swabbed our own noses, and packaged up the samples on the spot. We had our negative results back 20 hours later — a total relief.

The same day as our Walgreens test, we performed Vault’s home test. We had ordered the Vault mail-in test kits a month in advance and bought a jar of pickles and a bottle of vinegar for the test — not necessary, but we had heard that sniffing pickles, vinegar, lemon, and other tart liquids can help people generate saliva (it works). We just had to make sure no one had eaten, had anything to drink, or chewed gum within 30 minutes of taking the test.

To complete the test, we initiated a video call through Zoom with a Vault test supervisor who guided us through the process, verifying our identities and test serial numbers, and then instructing us to spit into a tube up to a black marker. The spitting part proved to be a long process (even sniffing pickle juice): It took us each about 10 to 15 minutes to generate enough saliva to fill the tube.

Then we slipped each sample into a biohazard bag that went into a UPS pre-paid package — and missed the UPS air freight drop-off time by 20 minutes, pushing back our test results by 24 hours. We took the test on a Thursday afternoon, but we didn’t receive our results until Saturday night — just 14 hours before we left for the airport. Had we planned better and known about the drop-off times, we would have had our results back within 27 hours of taking the test (times vary, of course, but Vault says it will have results to you within 24 hours of receiving them).

The biggest benefits to the Vault test: It can be completed at home, at any time of day, and at a time that works for you. It’s a great option for those living in rural areas who may not have access to drive-through test sites and for those who need results for prescheduled events, such as a wedding. But make sure you allow enough time to complete the test (you can’t rush spit) and that you know the drop-off deadlines for UPS airmail so you can avoid added stress.

Finally, if you are headed to Hawaii, you’ll need to take part in the mandatory online Safe Travels Hawaii program, which aims to mitigate the spread of COVID on the islands. Make sure you create a Safe Travels account (kids can be added under an adult’s account) so you can upload your negative test results when you receive them and complete the mandatory health questionnaire 24 hours before flying.

Here’s the catch: You must receive the negative test results and upload those to the Safe Travels website before boarding the final leg of your flight to Hawaii. Otherwise, you’ll have to quarantine for 10 days or the duration of your trip, if shorter. That means you can’t get out of quarantine even if your negative results come in after landing.

Once you upload your results and complete the health questionnaire, the program generates a QR code that you’ll need to show at the airport and at hotels during check-in.

After landing in Maui, all nonvaccinated travelers 5 and older must also take a rapid COVID test. You are exempt from this second test if you have still not received your pre-trip test results or have opted to quarantine.

Even with testing requirements or recommendations, it’s still worth it for a chance to travel again.

Kari Bodnarchuk can be reached at [email protected].

Kari Bodnarchuk can be reached at [email protected]

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