After postponing a dream trip to Thailand they had been planning since late 2019, newlyweds Aria Velz and KJ Moran Velz finally made it in January. The trip was especially important because Velz’s family in the country couldn’t attend their November wedding because of travel restrictions.
The couple’s week exploring Bangkok, Hua Hin and Ayutthaya was wonderful, Moran Velz says, but the logistics were complicated. Even with the help of Velz’s mother, a native Thai speaker, sorting through the protocols for Thailand’s Test & Go program was a challenge. Other travelers have reported similar experiences with confusing travel-restriction websites, nerve-racking airport check-ins and thorough testing requirements.
Since closing its borders in April 2020, then going through various starts and stops in response to new variants of the coronavirus, Thailand has tested various programs to bring back international visitors. To prepare for your own trip planning, By The Way collected advice from recent visitors and travel experts about how to successfully move through the country.
What entry requirements you need to know
Over the course of the pandemic, Thailand developed three programs for foreign travelers to enter the country: Test & Go, Phuket Sandbox and Alternative Quarantine.
Santi Sawangcharoen, director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) New York office, says the easiest option for visitors is through Test & Go — a program that enables fully vaccinated travelers from the United States to visit without quarantining. Alternatively, the “sandbox” programs cater to people interested in visiting specific beach destinations in the country, and the Alternative Quarantine program mandates a 10-day isolation period for unvaccinated travelers.
Test & Go requires travelers to take an RT-PCR test within 72 hours of their departing flight to Thailand, again on arrival, and once more on their fifth day. On those first and fifth days of the trip, travelers must stay at a government-approved “SHA Extra Plus” hotel (although they do not need to be the same one), where they will take their PCR test and wait for their results in their room. On days they are not testing, travelers are free to roam as they please.
Test & Go applicants have to provide proof of payment for those nights in advance, as well as transportation from the airport through their SHA Extra Plus hotel, two PCR tests and a coronavirus-specific travel insurance policy covering at least $50,000.
And don’t forget: There’s also a testing requirement in place for travel back into the United States. Anyone returning from a trip abroad must provide proof of a negative coronavirus test result taken within a day of their flight.
Apply for Test & Go early to allow time for processing
Visitors must apply for their Thailand Pass online at least seven days before their trip but can do so up to 60 days in advance. Do yourself a favor and apply as early as possible.
Jude Vargas, founder and travel curator of Pyxis Guides, recommends travelers submit their application at least two weeks in advance. Vargas recently had three clients forget to apply until the last minute. Their applications were denied multiple times and finally approved the morning of their flight.
Moran Velz relied heavily on her mother-in-law, a native Thai speaker, for help applying for her Test & Go Thai Pass.
Even for Robert Sukrachand, a furniture designer who splits his time between New York and Bangkok and has traveled between them three times during the pandemic, it was difficult to keep up with he Test & Go requirements. In addition to Thai government websites, Sukrachand turned to the Twitter account of longtime Thailand expat and travel blogger Richard Barrow for information.
“He’s super dialed in,” Sukrachand says. “As soon as [a travel requirement change] is announced, he has all the details on his Twitter account. I read his page religiously for the first couple of weeks before I came here.”
Purchasing the wrong insurance can get you turned away
For any of Thailand’s tourism programs, travelers must purchase insurance with a minimum coverage of $50,000 that includes the cost of treatment and other medical expenses associated with a coronavirus infection. The policy must cover the full duration of the traveler’s stay plus a minimum of 10 extra days in case the fifth-day PCR test returns positive.
Purchasing the wrong insurance can get your application denied.
Meagan Drillinger, a travel writer from New York City, and her boyfriend were supposed to travel to Thailand with a friend in January. The friend’s application was denied multiple times for having the wrong insurance policy. After solving the problem with a new insurance plan, “he ended up getting approved, but then his PCR results didn’t come back in time for his flight,” Drillinger says.
The tourism authority recommends the policy options on the Thailand Pass website. (Drillinger used Allianz.) Sawangcharoen says travelers who have a health insurance policy can request their provider to issue a letter of coronavirus-related coverage for the duration of their Thailand trip.
Make sure you get an SHA-approved hotel, wherever you book
SHA Extra Plus, or SHA++, hotels are properties that have been certified by the Thailand Safety and Health Administration (SHA). These accommodations have partnerships with certified hospitals that provide coronavirus testing services for guests. For the Test & Go program, SHA Extra Plus bookings need to include a ride from the airport to their first hotel, as well as both PCR tests.
Sawangcharoen says these hotels should have a “SHA manager” who has a full understanding of Test & Go procedures and can help manage a guest’s quarantine should they test positive during their stay.
While travelers can find SHA Extra Plus hotels through a designated program website, Sukrachand found his through the hotel booking site Agoda.
“I find that to be the easiest [way],” he says. “You just need to make sure that the hotel is SHA Extra Plus.”
Don’t book without absolute certainty that your reservation meets Test & Go requirements. Vargas warns that a mistake could cost travelers a massive amount of strain at the beginning of their trip or, worse, get them sent back to their home country.
You’ll need physical documents for the airport
Do not head to the airport without physical copies of your essential documents, including hotel bookings, coronavirus tests, an insurance policy and Thai Pass.
“You want to have a paper copy of everything,” Sukrachand says. “They will not look at something on your phone and be like, ‘Yeah, that’s fine.’”
In case things go awry, get to the airport early. Even with all of the required documents in hand, the newlywed Velz couple ran into trouble on their travel day.
Three hours before their scheduled departure from Boston, an airline employee at check-in said the couple didn’t have the right paperwork for the trip. After making a few calls to family members and hotels, they convinced the agent that their documents were correct, and they were allowed to check in.
Waits for test results may stretch 12 hours
After their long-haul flight, travelers first undergo an entry screening. Visitors must provide their required documents before going through Thai immigration.
“There was like 30 people dressed head to toe in basically hazmat suits coming around to individually check each person’s documents,” Sukrachand says.
Depending on their hotel package, travelers will take their first required PCR test at the airport, at a partner hospital or at their hotel. A hotel representative should be waiting for guests in arrivals to take them to their appropriate testing location.
After their tests, travelers must wait in their hotel for their results to process. Sukrachand says his test results came back in about six hours. His mom’s took 11 hours. Some travelers have reported waiting 12 hours.
Curfews curb bars — the legal ones, anyway
For Amanda Davis, a travel designer with In the Know Experiences, planning clients’ trips to Thailand means preparing for last-minute changes to the itinerary. But for now, she says, her bookings in the country have all of the trappings of a pre-covid vacation: cooking classes, temples, elephant sanctuaries, and boating and ATV adventures.
“It seems like things are getting going again,” says Davis, who visited Thailand for work last October. “I am not apprehensive.”
Once the Velzes arrived in Thailand, the rest of their trip went smoothly. They said restaurants were open, street food was abundant, and spas were back. With fewer tourists around than normal, they felt like they had the attractions to themselves. Sukrachand has felt the same way.
“It’s kind of an amazing time to visit Thailand,” Sukrachand says. “Especially the south. The beaches are way cleaner and quieter than they’ve ever been, save for maybe 30 years ago.”
What the Velzes did miss was the country’s renowned nightlife; clubs and performances are shut down. Curfews are also in place for bars and restaurants and differ depending on the city, although some businesses remain open covertly for customers.
“We made friends with the restaurant owner who called us into the quote-unquote ‘speakeasy,’” Drillinger says. “We had to be really quiet, and all the shades were drawn.”
The most notable coronavirus protocol travelers mentioned is Thailand’s dedication to mask-wearing. In April 2021, the country implemented a mask mandate for public places nationwide, including outdoor spaces.
Still, Sukrachand regularly encounters tourists disregarding mask rules. He understands travelers may find mask-wearing frustrating, but he says it’s a sign of respect for local people to follow suit.
“Read the room around you,” he says. “You can make the claim that wearing a mask outside is kind of ridiculous at this point, but I do it because it’s culturally what others want to see.”