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Waikiki Beach, Hawaii
tomas del amo | Adobe Stock

What’s It Like to Travel to Hawaii Right Now?

SmarterTravel

Hawaii has been a popular tourist destination for decades and travelers are eager to return as we start to exit the pandemic. However, the state has the strictest testing requirements for travelers of any U.S. state and has not fully opened up yet.

In early May, I traveled to the islands for the first time, spending five days on Hawaii (the Big Island) and another five days on Kauai. Here’s what my experience as a tourist was like, as well as tips for anyone planning a similar trip to Hawaii in 2021.

People resting on the beach in Hawaii
Matt Moffitt

How Do I Get Tested for COVID for Travel to and Within Hawaii?

Currently, travelers from the mainland need to be tested for COVID-19 within 72 hours prior to travel to Hawaii. This is regardless of your vaccination status.

Furthermore, travelers who reside on the mainland (i.e. not Hawaii) need to get tested for most inter-island travel. (This requirement has been dropped for those who have been vaccinated—but only if you received your vaccine in Hawaii.)

COVID-19 test biohazard bag
Matt Moffitt

I took a test at the airport in Austin three days before my departure to Hawaii. It cost me $90, which is on the cheaper side (most tests cost $100+). There were lots of appointment slots available. Hawaiian Airlines has partnered with testing providers in a number of states to offer tests that will fulfill the Hawaii’s strict testing requirements. You can book a pre-flight test here.

The facility was an unassuming drive-thru trailer near the cell phone waiting lot. Surprisingly, the test was self-administered—they just gave me the swabs and bag to do it myself. The whole process took 15 minutes.

Drive through COVID-19 testing location at airport
Matt Moffitt

I had my results in my inbox within four hours. Then I was able to download the results in PDF form, upload it to the SafeTravels portal and get the QR code I needed to officially enter Hawaii.

That was the first test. I got my second test—the one for travel from the Big Island to Kauai— just a day after landing on the Big Island. That marked three days before my flight to Kauai.

It cost $150 and was in-person at a blood work lab in Kona, which was one of the only places in the area on the Trusted Testing and Travel Partner List. It’s important you get your COVID-19 test/s done only through labs and clinics on the list.

Once I was there, the whole process there took 25 minutes. Again, I got the results back within a few hours and got the QR code I needed upon arrival to Kauai.

Bloodwork lab in Kona, Hawaii
Matt Moffitt

COVID-19 testing requirements for mainland travelers are expected to be eased in June or July. You can find the most up-to-date information on the State of Hawaii’s COVID-19 Portal.

My advice is: wait to visit until Hawaii relaxed its rules around COVID testing. It’s both expensive and time-consuming. I am a relatively tech-savvy person and I still found the system hard to navigate. I traveled by myself and thought it was expensive, so if you’re traveling with a partner, family and/or friends, know that the costs can really add up.

Finally, when you do land at any airport in Hawaii, expect a wait of up to an hour to show your QR code and have your tests verified. (Maybe pack a protein bar to munch on and download a podcast to listen to while you wait in line.)

What’s the Current Car Rental Situation Like in Hawaii During COVID-19?

You’ve probably read the reports of travelers making bookings for rental cars, arriving in Hawaii and there being no cars left. Some have resorted to renting a U-Haul or scrambling to find a car on Turo, a car rental app.

The good news is that the worst is probably over. According to my conversations with local residents, shortages peaked in March and April when domestic travel was starting to pick up again. Now that there is more certainty around the timeline of vaccination efforts and exiting the pandemic, the car rental companies have been able to more accurately match supply and demand.

I booked a four-day rental for $398 through Avis for my stay in Kauai. I was nervous that I would arrive and wouldn’t have a car. 

Indeed, when I got off the shuttle bus from the airport terminal in Lihue to the car rental counter, there was a wait time of around 90 minutes. Luckily, I have elite status with Avis through my American Express Platinum card and was able to skip the line and go straight to the Avis Preferred counter.

Sports car in a rental car lot
Matt Moffitt

I was upgraded to a sports car (!) and was out of the parking lot within 15 minutes of arriving at the facility.

My advice to secure a car rental in Hawaii right now would be to:

  • Make multiple bookings (with free cancelations) 
  • Check if any of your credit cards offer elite status with car rental companies
  • Stay close to the airport in case you need rideshares or taxis as backup (but note that—at least on Kauai—rideshares can have wait times of over an hour).

What’s Tourism in Hawaii Like Right Now?

Hawaii has struggled to reduce its number of COVID-19 cases since mid-February 2021, when they reached their lowest point since last summer. Therefore, you may encounter some hostility and/or animosity towards visitors from the mainland (even though many travelers are vaccinated and all are required to get COVID-19 tests before arriving.)

Palm trees surrounding a parking lot with a photo insert of a turtle resting on the beach
Matt Moffitt

I found those working in the tourist industry to be very welcoming, which isn’t hard to imagine given Hawaii’s reliance on tourist dollars. Having said that, I found that those working on the Big Island were much friendlier than on Kauai, which has only been open to tourists since the start of April.

Tourists with suitcases waiting beneath a "Welcome to Kauai" sign
Matt Moffitt

It’s not difficult to get reservations for restaurants or book activities like helicopter rides right now, but I expect that tourism will increase significantly throughout the summer.

If you want to visit any state parks, know that permits are often needed and are snapped up early, so plan ahead. For example, permits for the popular Kalalau Trail on Kauai are already booked out for the next two months.

Man kneeling on a cliff in front of a large rock face
Matt Moffitt

Indoor mask use was universal when I visited in the first half of May; outdoors, it was much more relaxed.

How Do Flight Prices to Hawaii Compare Now to Before the Pandemic?

There are some excellent deals to get to Hawaii during the remainder of 2021. However, as with most domestic flights, prices are increasing as increasing numbers of Americans feel more comfortable getting on planes.

There is a lot of competition on routes to Hawaii, bolstered by Southwest commencing flying both to the islands and between the islands over the past two years. As a consequence, less than $500 can get not just West Coasters a roundtrip ticket, but even travelers from the middle of the country and the East Coast to the islands (perhaps with some lengthy layovers, though.)

The interior of a plane cabin
Matt Moffitt

Hawaiian Airlines has commenced new services to airports like Orlando and Ontario. They launched service to Austin in late April. When tickets were released back in December, I booked a roundtrip First Class flight to Honolulu using 80,000 HawaiianMiles (transferred from American Express Membership Rewards) plus $11.20 in taxes. The lie-flat seat was a treat, as were the strongest cocktails that I’ve had on any airline!

Bottom Line

The Hawaiian Islands are a stunning destination and tourists are coming back in droves. Expect that to ramp up in the second half of 2021 as vaccination rates both on the mainland and in Hawaii increase and COVID-19 testing requirements are relaxed.

If you’ve got a trip to Hawaii booked in the next couple of months, i.e. June and July, be prepared to put a good amount of money and effort into getting your COVID-19 tests in order. You may also find long lines at the airport when you land, as well as when you pick up your car rental.

On the other hand, if you are thinking of traveling to Hawaii and are yet to book your trip, I would recommend holding off until there is a more certain timeline around the relaxation of testing requirements. After all, Hawaii is renowned for being a relaxing vacation destination, so why not save the money that you would’ve spent on testing and put them towards a couple of poolside Mai Tais?

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