In the spring, Brian, a 34-year-old New York–based antiques dealer, took his first big international trip since COVID hit. (Brian isn’t his real name.) He visited the U.K. on business before heading to Croatia to meet up with his girlfriend. All was going according to plan until just before they were set to return home, with a planned stop in Amsterdam, and they got the news that every traveler dreads in 2022: Brian’s girlfriend had tested positive for COVID-19.
“We had this tricky situation,” Brian said. “It seemed like Croatia was probably not going to be a very good place for her to bottle up and stay just because of limited access to all the things that she would need.”
At the time, the United States still required a negative test for entry into the country, but there were no test requirements for intra-European travel. So they decided to board the first flight to Amsterdam together. With no proof of a negative test, she remained there. He feared he might be on the verge of getting sick, too—but decided to travel home to the United States anyway.
“I had a negative COVID test, but I also knew there was a significant likelihood that I had been infected and therefore might be contagious anyway,” he said. “I also thought, ‘Well, I had better get back into the country while I have this negative test, because otherwise I could be stuck in Amsterdam for God knows how long.’ ”
“It turns out, I flew back to the U.S., and the next day tested positive.”
Meanwhile, his girlfriend recovered in Amsterdam, but was still testing positive. She tried to obtain a certificate of recovery, a doctor-approved statement affirming she was safe to fly. But when she ran into problems with that, she decided to just use fake results to get back to the U.S.
“It was absolutely no problem,” Brian said. “In retrospect, I wish we had done that from the very start.”
International travel is back, and COVID entry restrictions are now a thing of the past in much of the world. But the coronavirus hasn’t gone anywhere—or rather, it continues to be everywhere. Every traveler who books a trip this year knows that getting sick is a significant possibility. Many isolate before trips, hoping to avoid expensive cancellations after more than two years of limited travel. But when they test positive on their trips, travelers are taking very different approaches—and the “right” and “wrong” thing to do is proving to be less well-defined than you might think.
For Brian’s part, he told me, “We weren’t terribly concerned about it from a public health, responsibility perspective for a variety of reasons largely having to do with the effectiveness of one-way masking, effective ventilation on aircraft, that sort of thing.” (The risks on planes are complicated.)
“I’m hearing a lot of folks who are traveling and get COVID-19 and then have to isolate on their trip, figure out how to isolate away from family,” said Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist in Arizona. “Lots of folks returning home to test positive within a few days.”
Take it from Sam and Giselle. (Those aren’t their real names.) The married couple, both 65, split their time between Maryland and Massachusetts, where he is a professor; she’s retired. At the end of June, they set out for Portugal.
“We had been dreaming about this trip since 2019,” Giselle said. “My concern was that no one get COVID before we left. That was my biggest source of anxiety. It never occurred to us that we would get sick in Portugal.”
But get sick they did, a few days into the trip. They were staying in an AirBnB in the Alentejo, a region of southern Portugal, with their two adult daughters and their partners, and instead of activities like boat rides, hiking, and visits to nearby cities, they decided to quarantine and minimize…