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The COVID testing lab drive-thru at Walgreen's.

JD Lasica / Special to Cruiseable

The COVID testing lab drive-thru at Walgreen's.

Testing for COVID before a cruise

The process before boarding our sailing was simple — and nerve-racking

Before my wife and I could sail on Celebrity Equinox during our just-ended voyage to the Southern Caribbean, Celebrity required us not only to provide proof of vaccination but also to provide negative COVID test results before we could board.

During this transition period while cruising ramps back up to full sailings, Celebrity set a 48-hour turnaround time for test results — 48 hours! — though it has since relaxed that to a 72-hour period.

Given that we live on the West Coast, it was a bit challenging to go get a COVID test no earlier than 3 pm Pacific on a Monday afternoon before our departure out of Ft. Lauderdale at 6 pm Eastern on Wednesday.

It turned out we couldn't get a COVID test at Kaiser Permanente, even though we're both paying members.

And we couldn't find any place within 1,000 miles where we could get a rapid antigen test, which Celebrity would also accept.

So we were stuck looking around for a full PCR test from the drive-through pharmacies at Rite-Aid, Walgreens and CVS.

The pharmacies are overwhelmed with callers these days and refer you to their websites, where you fill out an application form online and at the end discover that you probably won't get results sent to you until 48 to 72 hours later.

So how the heck was this going to work?

We decided to make three separate appointments, hope for the best — and create a fall-back plan just in case.

Drive-through test centers for COVID

I got my first PCR test at a CVS pharmacy across town at 3:20 pm on a Monday. You'll get a text reminder beforehand with the location and time:

A mobile notification from the CVS drive-thru lab.
A mobile notification from the CVS drive-thru lab.

The drive-through centers are much as you'd imagine them. Cars queue up based on their appointment times, with each car moving to the head of the line every seven to 10 minutes. 

You drive up to the window — masked, of course — provide your name and confirmation number. and grab your test kit. In it you'll find an unappealing nasal swab, which you're instructed to stick up your nose and rub in each nostril for eight to 10 seconds. You then deposit it, swab down, inside a vial filled with liquid, seal it, place it in a pouch with your test ID, place it in a metal tray for the pharmacist staffer to retrieve, and drive off. 

"Expect results in about 48 hours," the staffer said.

Oh, joy. Just as our ship is leaving the port.

I then drove to the South Bay to a second testing site at Walgreen's, just in case they'd have swifter results. I made the 4:30 pm appointment with no hassle and again waited in line and repeated the steps above. See at top for a shot of the drive-thru testing lab window. 

My wife got tested at her school site.

Then we waited.

The results arrived earlier than expected

We took a 1 pm flight Tuesday so that we'd arrive in Ft. Lauderdale the night before, rather than chancing it on a same-day fly-and-cruise. When we touched down at 9:55 pm on Tuesday, I received a text from CVS.

To my surprise, the results were already in, about 22 hours after I took the test. (Negative, in case you were wondering.) 

Here's the text I received from CVS upon landing in Florida.
JD Lasica / Special to CruiseableHere's the text I received from CVS upon landing in Florida.

My wife received her results on Wednesday morning, about 36 hours after her test. And then I received my second mobile notification, from Walgreen's. Again, negative. 

So we were good to go. When we arrived at the cruise terminal on Wednesday afternoon, we flashed the PDF of the test results on our mobile devices and it took only a few seconds for the Celebrity Cruises staffer to check that off his checklist.

Now, we did have a back-up plan in case the results arrived too late, and we figured Celebrity would need to be accommodating for its 1,200-plus passengers. 

First, my colleague Diane Fish (who books Cruiseable guests on cruises through her agency) runs 1StopTest, a testing facility run by trained medical professionals that can provide same-day antigen or PCR tests at a modest cost (generally under $100). We didn't need to call on them.

And second, we were told we could get a same-day COVID test at Ft. Lauderdale Airport if we ran out of other options.

Fortunately, we had a happy ending. Everything fell into place, there was no need to get nervous about the timeline and we enjoyed an amazing 10-day voyage. 

JD Lasica
I'm Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of Cruiseable. Follow your cruise bliss to any land where it may lead. Let's connect! I'm @jdlasica on Twitter.