Maui, we have a problem: COVID-19 rapid test availability hampers Hawaii’s interisland travel

May 19, 2021

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Vacationers hoping to take advantage of cheap Hawaii travel this summer will likely have to shell out some extra dough for COVID-19 tests and should schedule them well in advance if they plan to visit multiple islands in compliance with the state’s ever-changing requirements.

For movement between most islands, if visitors wish to avoid a mandatory 10-day quarantine under Hawaii’s Safe Travels initiative, they must show proof of a negative PCR test result returned no more than 72 hours prior to arrival.

We receive a lot of tips here at TPG, but an email from a particular reader caught our eye yesterday, telling us a harrowing tale of test shortages, lack of appointment availability and delayed results that prompted expensive flight changes during his trip from Maui to Kauai.

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Travel to Kauai requires visitors to show proof of negative PCR test results returned no more than 72 hours prior to arrival. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“Appointments to be PCR tested on Maui are very hard to come by and should be made weeks in advance if possible,” said Jared Levy, who ran into trouble finding an appointment. “Nearly all such options … cost in excess of $100 per person out of pocket, and insurance cannot be used. Some options cost in excess of $200. Walgreens might have a free option, but we couldn’t get an appointment, so we can’t be sure.”

Levy said he and his wife were finally able to schedule PCR tests at a local CVS (at the cost of $129 each), but despite the pharmacy’s assurances that the results would take one to two days, they weren’t available in time.

“Upon calling them [48 hours later], we were informed that they ship the tests to Oahu and that it could be four days before we got our results,” Levy said.

The snag forced him to change his and his wife’s direct flights between Maui and Kauai in order to route through Oahu’s Honolulu, where PCR tests are available at the airport, some offering a guaranteed six-hour turnaround. (Levy said he got his in about three hours.) In addition to wasted travel time, it cost him nearly $600 in airline change fees and $280 for two airport-administered tests.

Honolulu International Airport on Oahu offers PCR testing options that return results within six hours. (Photo by 400tmax/Getty Images)

“[I] really just want to help other travelers and hopefully encourage Hawaii to make things a bit easier and more transparent,” Levy said. “Obviously, I wish I would’ve researched how hard it is to get a … test on Maui, but I wrongly assumed that Hawaii had set up some decent testing infrastructure for the Safe Travels program. Not a single person, starting from our Safe Travels pre-clearance in [Newark] to our Safe Travels checkout in Maui, ever warned us or gave us any information on this matter.”

Fortunately, it sounds like these incidents are less of a problem on Hawaii‘s other islands.

“[We had] no problems at all,” says traveler Dori Saltzman, who is currently on Kauai. To get there, like Levy, she took a test at the Honolulu airport. “We had to take a test on Oahu to go to Kauai. We did it at the airport two days before switching islands and got our results in maybe 12 hours.”

PCR testing costs can add up, creating unexpected expenses for travelers. (Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images)

Saltzman said friends in her travel party also were tested on the Big Island and Kauai with no issues. “In Kauai, our friends got their results on the spot,” she said, echoing Levy’s sentiment that testing can cost a pretty penny. “We were … surprised by the price — $140 per person at [the airport]. And that was the cheapest. One place wanted $250 per person!”

That can be a tough pill to swallow for people coming from other states where testing is often free.

“… tests at home [in New Jersey] are free now,” Saltzman said. “We had to test before leaving for Hawaii, and it cost nothing.”

Hawaii travelers concerned about the availability of tests while on the islands should note that at-home testing kits are not a viable option. Locals tell us that overnight shipping isn’t available from the islands, and by the time the specimens arrive at their designated labs, the results are too old to be used for interisland travel. Plus, of the DIY options, Vault Health is currently the only one approved for use in Hawaii.

At-home PCR test kits provide a backup option, but shipping times can vary, and the Vault Health kit is the only one whose results are accepted in Hawaii. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

Last week, Hawaii rolled out its new statewide vaccine passport program. Under that program, anyone who received all doses of a COVID-19 vaccine in Hawaii can use the passport to bypass the interisland testing requirements. Because the system doesn’t integrate data for anyone inoculated outside of the state, the passport can’t be used by most travelers.

The demand for “revenge travel” — making up for lost travel time — has skyrocketed as the CDC relaxes mask mandates and many countries reopen their borders to international visitors. Interest in Hawaii travel is surging right now, thanks to new airline routes, lower prices and the stir-craziness that follows more than a year of pandemic-related isolation.

Need help finding a test before your next trip? Check out our list of places where you can get reliable PCR test results.

Featured photo by Shane Myers Photography/Shutterstock.

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