I just traveled to Hawaii: Here's what it's like for tourists right now
Located more than 2,000 miles off the coast of California, Hawaii is an idyllic beach destination that — in a normal year — attracts more than 10 million visitors.
But many people had their vacations to the Aloha State put on hold as the islands, and the world, battled the novel coronavirus pandemic.
With 2020 thankfully coming to an end and a promising vaccine on the horizon, Hawaii has begun the process of carefully reopening to vacationers.
To give you a better idea of what it's like to travel right now, I flew to Hawaii as a guest of Hawaiian Airlines and the Hawaii Visitors and Conventions Bureau. This was my first-ever trip to the island state, so I didn't know exactly what to expect — especially during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Would I feel safe during my flights there and back? Would the resorts have open amenities? Will tourists even feel welcome?
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At the end of my four-night stay in paradise, I was pleasantly surprised both by the new safety protocols, as well as the overall vibe in Hawaii. It was quickly easy to understand why Hawaii has so many repeat visitors. And, while the system isn't perfect, I was able to enjoy my trip with few concerns.
If you're considering a trip to Hawaii next year, here's what you can expect.
Hawaii COVID-19 testing procedures
After a few false starts and last-minute changes, Hawaii reopened to tourism on Oct. 15.
There are, however, barriers to traveling to the island destination. You'll have to quarantine for 14 days after arrival unless you are visiting an island that allows you to opt out of the quarantine with a negative COVID-19 test.
Right now, Kauai has opted out of the program that lets you avoid quarantine with a test so visitors will need to quarantine for 14 days in Kauai. Unfortunately, even for other islands, getting a valid test isn't as simple as heading to your local clinic of choice the week before you leave. You need to take your test within 72 hours of departure from one of Hawaii's approved testing facilities and have to have the correct test results in hand before your trip. That tight turn around can be extremely challenging.
We've covered the full run-down of what you need to know prior to visiting Hawaii, but here's my experience with Hawaii's pre-travel testing program.
I ordered an at-home testing kit through Vault, one of Hawaii's accepted testing facilities.
The at-home test is a "supervised, saliva-based test," which means you don't have anyone excavating your nose, but you do have to spit into a test tube while making awkward eye contact via video chat with a Vault employee.
Vault's site has a Hawaii-focused page that helps you plan out when you should order your test, schedule your test and mail it back in order for your results to arrive on time. If your flight to Hawaii is set for Tuesday or Wednesday, Vault is not a great choice for you because UPS doesn't ship on Sundays and increased holiday shipping traffic could delay your results regardless of travel date.
Getting test results in time is a hurdle not every traveler from every location will be able to overcome right now. You are better off doing an in-person test at an approved facility that guarantees results in time than relying on the mail.
Related: Hawaii’s reopening highlights problems facing tourist destinations, but there’s hope for 2021
After sending in my test, I registered my trip on Hawaii's Safe Travel website. The website is easy enough to use — you'll want to create a trip for each leg of your journey.
For example, I flew from San Francisco (SFO) to Honolulu (HNL) and onward to Maui (OGG), so I created two trips — one for each leg. You'll need the information for your flights, accommodations and your ID handy.
Closer to your departure, you'll fill out the health questionnaire on the site for each trip and upload your negative test results (once for each leg of your trip). Then, you'll receive QR codes via email you use to check in once you've landed in Hawaii.
I downloaded the QR codes to my camera roll for easy access, which helped me go through the check-in process much faster.
The process is cumbersome, but if you prepare properly, going through the actual check-in process on the ground is simple. They'll ask for your name, scan your QR code, verify your test results and then send you on your way.
Alaska Airlines flyers can now get pre-clearance at the departure gate from Anchorage to Maui and for flights to Honolulu and Kona beginning Dec. 14. If your Safe Travels profile is updated with your negative COVID-19 test and completed health results before departure, you'll be given a pre-clear wristband so you can skip the arrival screening.
My flight and airport experience
I'm based in Charlotte, North Carolina, so I took a positioning flight to San Francisco that was completely full (likely runoff from the holiday weekend). American Airlines did notify me of this ahead of time through the app in case I wanted to change to an emptier flight.
While I had a full row (American Airlines is not currently blocking middle seats), the couple occupying the seats next to me kept their distance as much as possible, wiped down their tray tables and seatbelts and were great about wearing their masks. It wasn't ideal, but I didn't feel unsafe.
San Francisco International was mostly empty. While there were other travelers, there were no lines (which made security a breeze) and most people were very mindful about distancing from others in line for food and at the gates. Some of the shops and restaurants were closed, but I had no problem finding a morning coffee and breakfast before my flight.
I did fly as a guest of Hawaiian Airlines to Hawaii, and since they are blocking middle seats, I ended up with a row to myself to spread out during my flight to Honolulu. Hawaiian Airlines has also implemented new boarding and deplaning procedures and modified inflight service to mitigate the risks. Wearing a mask for the duration of the flight to Hawaii sounds cumbersome, but in practice, it really wasn't that bad.
Related: Spotlight on safety: How airlines are keeping passengers safe
Things to know while in Hawaii
I was in Maui for four nights and stayed at two different resorts — Wailea Beach Resort and the Westin Maui. Despite both being Marriott resorts in Maui, they each had a distinct vibe. Here are a few things to know about visiting Hawaii right now.
There are fewer people
The first thing I noticed was the lack of crowds. At the almost residential-style Wailea Beach Resort, which is spread across 22 acres, it's easy to keep your personal space. But with occupancy down due to the pandemic, even the communal areas didn't have an abundance of people.
“The people who have made the choice to come [to Hawaii] during this time have been able to get this really boutique, personalized experience like never before," said Laurie Garzon, director of sales and marketing for Wailea Beach Resort.
I spent one morning lounging by the adults-only infinity pool here, which overlooks the ocean and is perfect for whale watching (I even got to see one breach!). Only three other people were in the pool, and perhaps six total occupied the lounge chairs. It was relaxing and quiet — perfect for a morning in the sun.
It was the same that evening when I came back to watch the sunset from the pool's edge.
One afternoon, I had a private surfing lesson with Maui Surfer Girls (a bucket-list experience that surpassed all expectations), and there were only a couple of other people out on the waves with me — perfect for a newbie trying to learn. The same was true the following morning when I went on a kayaking and snorkel excursion offered by the hotel. Only five other people were in our group, which made it easy to spread out for safety and enjoy a more personalized experience.
In the Lahaina area of the island, near where the Westin Maui is located, there were a few more people.
I did venture out to do some souvenir shopping for family and friends (mostly checking out a local farmers market and stopping by a local coffee shop for Maui-grown beans), and there were a significant number of people enjoying dinner and the local shopping scene. But everyone was wearing a mask and trying to keep a safe distance when possible.
The Westin Maui, while a little busier, was also far from crowded. I mostly stuck to the beach, but the resort has a number of pools (including some adult-only options) so you can pick a spot away from other guests.
While we're all excited about travel returning in full force once it's safe, I will admit the lack of crowds meant my first trip to Hawaii was even more enjoyable than I'd ever imagined.
You still need to wear your mask
Just because you've tested negative for COVID-19 prior to arrival doesn't mean you're exempt from wearing a mask. The state of Hawaii is still requiring everyone to wear a mask when in public, unless you're in the water or participating in an activity exempt from the mask mandate.
Unless I was at least 30 or 40 feet away from others out on the beach, kayaking or surfing, I was wearing a mask. I know mask-wearing isn't everyone's favorite hobby, but it's still an essential part of keeping yourself and others safe while you travel.
Related: Does my child need to wear a face mask while traveling
Tourist activities and local spots are still open
While tourism in Hawaii is far from fully recovered, it was great to see so many places open — both at the resorts and in the local communities. Restaurants and shops in both the Wailea and Lahaina areas were open (with mask policies in place, of course). Not everything is open and some places have reduced hours, but by and large, my trip was unaffected by any closures.
I took a surf lesson, went snorkeling, enjoyed the pool areas, did some shopping, hit up a farmers market and tried out food from restaurants both at the resorts and in nearby towns. Hiking trails are also open to the public, as well as parks along the beach.
One of my concerns was that tourist activities would be limited, but by and large, businesses were open. In fact, customers were a very welcome sight based on my conversations.
Contactless experiences are on the rise
Both resorts I stayed at during my trip had implemented multiple ways for guests to go contactless during their stay.
The Wailea Beach Resort, for example, has new mobile check-in and pre-arrival processes in place to ensure each guest feels welcomed and safe. The resort's navigator team calls every guest before arrival to walk through the arrival process and to introduce them to the digital hub.
The Wailea Beach Resort now has an online guest "hub" accessible with QR codes you can find around the resort. Through the hub, you can order food, schedule a spa appointment or excursion, reserve pool chairs or a private cabana and more.
The Westin Maui also used QR codes for menus at their restaurants.
While going contactless helps minimize the risk of being around others during your stay, it's also just an easier way to coordinate activities and food plans.
I hope these new contactless options are permanent because I preferred making lunch plans and arranging activities from my phone versus having to call or seek out a hotel staff member.
Hawaii is dedicated to offering ways tourists can learn about Hawaiian culture and give back
I'll admit, I'm normally someone who swears by Airbnb and similar vacation rental platforms in part because I enjoy meeting my hosts and getting to experience a bit more of a destination's culture when I travel.
But both resorts I stayed at in Maui did an excellent job of incorporating traditional Hawaiian with modern, luxury amenities.
At the Wailea Beach Resort, there are hula and lei-making classes for guests. The resort is also participating in a state-wide Malama program, where you can get a fifth night free (about 20% off your stay) when you volunteer some of your time to give back to the community while there.
Each participating hotel has its own experience for the Malama program, and Wailea Beach Resort offers a quilt-making experience where you can learn about the Hawaiian quilting technique and help stitch together a quilt that will be donated.
As part of the Westin Maui's resort transformation, it will offer a number of new cultural experiences for guests staying in the Hōkūpaʻa beachfront tower. Think: coconut leaf hat weaving, a star navigation class, Hawaiian language classes and more. The Westin Maui has also partnered with a local beach cleanup organization as part of the Malama program.
Learning about the culture of the places I visit is one of my favorite things about traveling, and it was great to see both resorts making efforts to include cultural learning opportunities as part of the overall resort experience. These offerings dramatically impacted the richness of my experience on Maui.
Bottom line: Is traveling to Hawaii worth it?
If you aren't a high-risk individual, and you're able to adhere to the state's testing mandates (which could be a serious roadblock), a trip to Hawaii isn't out of the question. I had a great time, felt safe and was able to visit a very popular destination without any crowds. While I didn't have Hawaii all to myself, at times, it felt like it.
After months spent mostly at home, the time I spent outdoors on Hawaii's postcard-perfect beach, engaging in a new-to-me culture and simply breathing in the ocean air made all the hurdles it takes to safely get there right now worth it.
Still, the CDC is recommending people stay home over the holidays to combat the surge in cases across the U.S., as well as other considerations (such as testing availability and any risks associated with nonessential travel).
While things certainly aren't business as usual with Hawaii tourism right now, the resorts and tourism-focused businesses have taken additional precautions to make sure guests and employees can stay safe while still experiencing the magic of Hawaii to the fullest.