Finally some good news in 2020, we can go to Hawaii again! After months of a vacation prohibiting 14-day quarantine requirement, Hawaii is providing visitors with another much less claustrophobic route to a tropical vacation. Now people arriving in Hawaii have the option of taking a Covid-19 test before departing from the mainland. Assuming your test comes back negative you can leave the West Coast in the morning and have your toes in golden, tropical sand by sunset. Sounds pretty easy, right?
Now for the bad news, it’s not quite that simple. There are a lot of cumbersome steps involved in visiting Hawaii these days and getting a Covid test for travel was a shockingly challenging endeavor. Almost as impossible as trying to sleep on a red-eye flight with no pillow.
But don’t despair, while it’s difficult, it is very possible to get to Hawaii. Lucky for you, I did hours of research before our trip, successfully navigated all the requirements, and had a legendary vacation in Hawaii. Read below to learn about the Hawaii travel requirements, getting a Covid test, what it’s like to vacation in Hawaii during the pandemic, and tips for staying safe while traveling.
Hawaii Travel Requirements
In the Spring of 2020 when the pandemic undeniably started affecting Americans, Hawaii unofficially closed the islands to visitors. Anyone arriving in Hawaii was required to do a 14-day quarantine. Hence nobody travelled to Hawaii.
Now as of October 15th, Hawaii has modified their restrictions to allow visitors to take a pre-travel Covid test up to 72 hours before the time of your departing flight. If you have a negative Covid test you are exempt from the 14-day quarantine. Also, kids under the age of five don’t need a Covid test.
You will also need to go to the Safe Travels website and create a profile. You must answer some general questions about yourself, provide your flight itinerary, and give an address to where you will be staying in the islands. Then twenty-four hours before your flight departs you will answer five quick questions that are basically a mini health screening. It is one final safety measure to ensure you haven’t been in contact with anyone with Covid-19 or had any Covid symptoms in the hours leading up to the flight. When you finish the questionnaire a “QR code” will be emailed to you.
The QR code is extremely important because when you arrive in Hawaii airport officials will want to see it before you are allowed to leave the airport. You can also print it out from home before departing just in case your phone battery dies during the flight. I witnessed a traveler whose phone died right before they were going to have their QR code scanned. They were escorted to an electrical outlet and had to wait for their phone to charge before they could continue with the arrival process.
If you have a layover in Hawaii you will go through the QR process when you disembark from your first flight and again at your final destination. Hopefully, as Hawaii adjusts to having visitors again they will streamline the process, however for us it meant an hour waiting in line.
So in a coconut shell before leaving for Hawaii you need to:
- Set up a profile on SafeTravels
- Get a Covid test no more than 72 hours before your departing flight
- Fill out the health questionnaire on SafeTravels 24 hours before your flightSave or print out your QR Code
Getting a Covid Test for Travel
Just when I thought 2020 couldn’t get more challenging, I needed to find an affordable place where our family could get a Covid test for our trip to Hawaii. Many places, including our doctor’s office, don’t offer tests for travelers. You need to have been exposed or have symptoms to get a test. Even if you try to lie and say you have symptoms many places take 4-6 days to get you your results which doesn’t work with the 72 hour Hawaii vacation timeline. Ideally you need a place that can guarantee results in 2-3 days.. which does exist but it isn’t cheap.
Important Things to Know About Getting Tested
- When you do find a place to get tested, check the Hawaii website to make sure it’s on the list of approved places to get tested. If where you get tested isn’t on their approved list, your test will not be accepted.
- Be careful with your timing. I’ve heard horror stories of people getting the test exactly 72 hours before their departure but having their flight delayed. This situation can become a massive travel nightmare because technically you took your test more than 72 hours before departing therefore there’s the possibility that your test won’t be accepted.
- If you don’t have your results when you arrive in Hawaii you will be required to quarantine until you get your results. When you get your results you can load them to your Safe Travels profile and you are free to leave your prison cell. I mean hotel room…
Places to Get Tested For Travel to Hawaii
Some airports are beginning to have on-site Covid-19 testing options. At San Francisco International Airport you can get tested and get your results within 20 minutes. Unfortunately it costs $250 per person (no discounts for kids, I asked) and you will need to make an appointment. Getting an appointment isn’t easy. The time slots fill up fast. I was told the best time to get online to get an appointment is at 7am so I gave that a try. Even with getting online at 7am a few days before our flight I wasn’t able to get an appointment for the morning of our departure.
If you live in the Bay Area the company “Colors” does Covid testing for travelers. They have a few different locations, including one near San Francisco International Airport. They informed me that 50% of the people they test get their results within 24 hours and most get their results within 48 hours. The cost of the test is $105.
Many CVS locations are now doing free Covid testing. The biggest downsides of CVS is that they don’t test children under the age of 12 and the time it takes to get results is variable. They advertise that the average wait time is 2-3 days for results. But this isn’t a guarantee. In fact, as I was leaving from getting tested at CVS I was told that they were “a little behind on the tests” and that it could take “more like five days to get the results”. I immediately went into panic mode and started researching what happens when you arrive in Hawaii without negative Covid test results.. more on this later.
At Home Testing
If you’re able to plan ahead, some airlines are beginning to offer travelers at home Covid tests. Basically, you purchase the kit and the airline sends you the materials you need to self-test. Then you send your swab to the lab and they will process it before your trip.
At home tests are growing in popularity but not all are approved by Hawaii. For example, I found a test at Safeway but it was not on the approved list. If I had taken it and gotten a negative test result I would of still had to quarantine in Hawaii.
Getting Tested in Hawaii
The Go Hawaii website makes it very clear that you must be tested prior to arriving in Hawaii. When I was panicking that we wouldn’t get our results from CVS before departing I did some online research. I wanted to double check that there wasn’t anyplace in Kauai where we could get a rapid test. Not surprisingly, I didn’t find anyplace. Additionally the website emphasized that if you don’t have your results when you arrive, you must immediately go into quarantine mode. This means you can’t exactly go driving around the island looking for a testing site.
Getting a Covid Test for Hawaii in a Coconutshell:
- Check the Hawaii website to find out approved Covid test administrators
- Schedule test 72 hours before departing
- Your test will likely not be covered by your health insurance
What Happens When You Quarantine?
There is not a lot of aloha for travelers coming to Hawaii without a negative Covid test. In the days leading up to our trip when I was anxiously awaiting my Covid test results, I contacted a friend who lives in Kauai. I asked her what would happen it I hypothetically didn’t have my results when I arrived. How would officials know if I left my hotel room? Could I sneak out to the grocery store or for a quick surf? What were the consequences for being caught leaving your hotel room during your quarantine period?
It Starts With An Unmarked Car..
Like something out of a spy thriller, if you don’t have a negative Covid test someone will follow you from the airport to your hotel room. It might be a police car but it could also be an unmarked car that tails you to your hotel room. You must go directly to your hotel, enter your room and close the door. You are not allowed to leave your room except for a “medical emergency” until your 14 -day quarantine period is over or until your test results come back negative.
But I Just Needed Something to Eat…
If you are in quarantine you are going to need to have meals delivered. Or you can order room service. But you aren’t allowed to leave your room so don’t even think about trying to take a dip in the hotel pool.
How Do “They” Know If You Leave?
Officials will regularly and unexpectedly show up at your hotel room to ensure that you are still there and haven’t snuck away for a sunset mai tai. There’s also, according to my local source, an unofficial network of watchful individuals amongst the Hawaiian communities. If someone sees someone leaving a hotel room that should be quarantining they will report you. Suddenly 2020 Hawaii travel is feeling a little bit like George Orwell’s 1984…
And If You Do Get Caught Leaving…
If you do violate the quarantine mandate you could end up paying a $5000 fine or spending a year in prison. Yikes
Visiting Hawaii During The Pandemic
Like everywhere in the world right now, daily life in Hawaii is different than pre-pandemic. You’re required to wear a mask into stores and restaurants. Many people wear masks when out in public. Some businesses are closed and there are signs everywhere reminding people to social distance and wash hands.
How Do Locals Feel?
I was a little apprehensive about how we would be treated as some of the first tourists visiting Hawaii since the end of the mandatory 14 day quarantine. (We were literally the first plane to arrive on the day that travel to Hawaii resumed. Needless to say I was very eager for a Hawaiian vacation.) Overall, we were warmly received. Businesses that rely on tourist dollars are especially welcoming to visitors. Aside from some cold vibes from a few airport employees, all of our interactions were friendly and wonderful. Locals happily chatted with us at the beach, offered directions to trailheads, and our kids ran amok with local children every evening in the park.
The main worry according to one local is simply that the island has limited ICU beds and resources. Because of these healthcare shortcomings there is a lot of concern regarding Covid outbreaks on the islands, which is why many locals were reluctant to reopen. However, since so much of the state’s economy is tourism, there’s a monetary need for visitors to return to the islands. Knowing how complicated and conflicted Hawaiian’s are over reopening I tried to show my gratitude by being extra friendly and generous.
What Is Open In Hawaii?
Many hotels and restaurants have reopened. Tour operators such as kayak rentals, helicopter tours, horseback rides, snorkel trips, are slowly reopening. Trails, beaches and parks are all open. If you are going to Hawaii to hike and spend time at the beach you won’t be disappointed. If you’re hoping to take an ATV ride through the jungle or dance at a luau you should do a little research beforehand to see if it’s possible.
How To Fly Safely During the Pandemic
- Wear Your Face Mask. Airlines are requiring that passengers wear face masks. You are allowed to remove it while you’re eating or drinking and then it’s expected that you put it on again.
- Bring Your Hand Sanitizer. Airports and airlines are working extra hard to keep things clean but I always like to have a bottle of hand sanitizer easily accessible for those unexpected germ moments.
- Eat Wisely. Try to minimize eating in the airport and on the plane.
- If Possible Chose A Window Seat. If you can, select a window seat because you’ll have fewer people passing by you then if you’re seated along the aisle.
- Consider Skipping Checking Baggage. Not only is checked baggage painfully expensive, it also means more time in lines and more contact with people.
Finally, Before You Buy Your Ticket…
Nobody knows exactly how long Hawaii will stay open to tourism. Furthermore, policies and requirements are always changing. Even between the islands there can be variations in procedures. Before you purchase your airfare it would be wise to take a look at the Go Hawaii website for the most updated info. And of course, with the unpredictability of travel these days, consider buying from an airline with flexible change and cancellation policies!
The Bottom Line: While it’s possible to get to Hawaii these days, it’s not easy. It requires being patient with extra lines, budgeting for hidden costs (Covid test), and meticulously complying with all of Hawaii’s travel requirements. But it will all be worth it the minute you feel the warm, island sunshine hit your face!