Luxury companies are putting travel to the test

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Jeri Clausing
Jeri Clausing

With a global vaccine rollout expected to take much of the next year, easy, fast access to Covid-19 testing has become the newest luxury travel amenity.

From Miami Beach to the remote riverbanks of Botswana, travel companies are increasingly bringing testing services directly to their guests.

W South Beach, for instance, this month became one of the first high-end hotels in the U.S. to offer guests PCR tests with a 24-hour turnaround under a partnership with Sollis Health.

Onsite testing at the hotel offers an added level of assurance for travelers, particularly for small-group meetings and weddings. But it's also a key amenity in a city like Miami, which is a hub for flights to Caribbean and Latin American countries that have tight pre-travel testing requirements that can be difficult for people to meet if they're connecting from secondary airports.

Likewise, in Ecuador, Metropolitan Touring is offering in-room testing for its Galapagos-bound guests at Casa Gangotena, a restored 31-room mansion in the heart of Quito's old town.

The company said it can also arrange testing for guests staying at any Quito hotel, as visitors to the Galapagos must have a negative PCR test taken no more than 96 hours before arrival to the islands themselves.

Private testing has also become key for safari operators as they resume trips that cross borders in Africa.

Chris Liebenberg, the owner of Piper & Heath Travel in San Diego, who recently returned from a trip to Botswana and South Africa, said timing the testing requirements was one of the challenges of his trip.

He said he and his fellow travelers were able to easily secure testing in California to meet the 72-hour limit required by both countries, but they nonetheless created a time-monitoring spreadsheet of sorts and a backup plan for a new test at the Johannesburg airport in case of flight delays.

Still, after finishing their safari in Botswana, they had to re-enter South Africa, and those tests they had taken at home would be long expired. So safari operator Great Plains Conservation, in true luxury fashion, brought the test to them.

"In our case, so as not to cut our safari time short, the technician met us 'in the field,' literally, and we got tested along the river with a pod of hippos grunting and playing beside us; quite surreal," he wrote in an email. He added that they re-entered South Africa "without fuss, and our time at the hotels in Johannesburg echoed that of Botswana in that international health and safety standards were evident across the board."

While travel companies are increasingly offering the testing services, they are not cheap. Most private tests costs at least $80 and can go as high as $400 or $500 for immediate turnaround.

Those costs will likely go down as more testing options are developed and approved. Still, for the foreseeable future,  testing -- like travel in general -- will no doubt be both an amenity and a hassle.

"I don't think that travel right now appeals to the majority, and the nearer the term the more intrepid the traveler will have to be," said Liebenberg.

The good news, he said, is that "travel right now is possible, and reputable suppliers are doing an exceptional job of making it as safe as it can be, no less safe than a visit to the local grocery store or restaurant. For those willing to take the plunge, travel [to Africa] right now is very special, with camps that are gracious and grateful and massive empty wilderness areas to enjoy in relative solitude. And some great value to boot."

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