I had sworn off Hawaii during the pandemic — here’s why I went back (and plan to again)
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Believe it or not, one of the most-read stories at The Points Guy in 2021 was a story I wrote about why even though I love Hawaii, I wasn’t going back anytime soon. Well, I’ve changed my mind … or rather, things have changed.
While the reasons I decided to give up on Hawaii for a while haven’t all been resolved (although the monitor that tracked me in a geofence at one resort has thankfully been retired), enough of the hassles and concerns have improved to the point that my last trip was truly enjoyable.
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Here’s what has (and hasn’t) gotten better in our 50th state and whether now is the best time for you to cross the ocean and visit Hawaii once again.
COVID-19 is fading
With the coronavirus pandemic no longer raging out of control on the islands, it’s considerably less stressful to visit Hawaii. While we’ve learned that things can always change, Hawaiian hospitals are no longer overwhelmed and COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are way down from the peak of winter in 2021.
More than 78% of Hawaii residents are also fully vaccinated, which is helping to keep the virus in check.
In fact, the situation has improved to the point that Hawaii has scrapped its indoor mask mandate and lifted most other COVID-19 restrictions, so life in Hawaii is as close to normal as we’ve seen in the past couple of years.
All travel restrictions have ended
This next part is a really big deal.
While it was the trickiest state to visit for the majority of the pandemic due to its plethora of rules, testing stipulations and required documents, the Hawaiian Islands have officially ended all travel restrictions. This means you no longer need to undergo preflight testing, submit Safe Travels documents, wait in lines when you arrive to get tested or screened, go into quarantine after arrival and get a paper bracelet showing you are “pre-cleared.”
When I arrived back in Hawaii on March 26, the first day that the new eased entry rules were in place, I was shocked by how easy travel to Hawaii was again.
Unlike my previous trips during the past couple of years, I didn’t have to stress about testing before my flight or worry about being refused entry on arrival. Compare that to when I had to quarantine in a resort bubble on Kauai and wear that previously mentioned tracking bracelet or the time I took five COVID-19 tests to make sure I could make the trip, and you can see what a relief this was.
This time, I arrived in Honolulu and was out the door and waiting for my Uber within 15 minutes. No lines, no screenings and no stress. I didn’t even see any signage about COVID-19 as I made my way to the airport’s exit.
Crowding is still a problem, but it’s eased some
As I reported last year, Hawaii was a total zoo during spring break of 2021, with crowds returning before hotels and restaurants could get fully staffed. The pent-up demand from canceled 2020 trips caused a surge in prices and a shortage of everything from ride-hailing options to rental cars. Encountering 90-minute waits for restaurants was common.
It got so bad last summer that the mayor of Maui begged airlines to reduce the number of flights they were offering.
That didn’t end up happening, but Maui is implementing a new 3% increase in the tax tourists pay for hotels and other services.
In any case, I’m happy to report that when I returned in March of 2022, the situation had improved substantially.
Despite it being spring break for many in the U.S., I didn’t see the horrendous lines at hotels and restaurants that I saw during the same period in 2021. Anecdotal conversations with residents and visitors also suggested that lines and waits were shorter once again.
Overtourism remains a concern to Hawaii residents
Although things have calmed down a bit since Hawaii first reopened, overtourism is still a major issue that’s top of mind for locals.
Pre-pandemic, Hawaii was seeing record numbers of visitors, with more than 10 million people flocking to the islands in 2019, up 5.4% year over year.
Those numbers plunged during the pandemic, much to the relief of many people who call Hawaii home, who’ve been concerned about the stream of visitors coming to the islands for years. But as travel restrictions ebbed, visitor numbers crept back up.
Hawaii tourism officials have made a real effort to educate visitors about being respectful tourists while focusing on attracting fewer travelers who are willing to spend more money and stay longer. In fact, the state launched a whole advertising campaign with the tagline “Hawaii is our home” that includes important reminders for travelers, such as the need to keep a safe distance from marine life, stick to clearly marked trails when hiking and leave sacred sites as they were before visiting.
Unfortunately, not everyone has gotten the message. Cheap flights and Instagram selfies still drive more tourism than some local residents would like to see.
Shortages have become less prevalent
As TPG reported, there was a well-documented shortage of rental cars last year. This wasn’t only limited to Hawaii, but it certainly affected the islands. It became so challenging to find reasonably priced rental cars on Kauai and Maui in July of 2021 that people were resorting to reserving cheaper moving trucks. I ended up renting a privately owned vehicle via Turo for my summer 2021 Maui trip.
There was also a drastic shortage of drivers for ride-hailing services, which led to a constant state of surge pricing for Lyft and Uber.
Fortunately, both situations have gotten better. While still pricey, rental cars are more widely available, with rates closer to what you’d expect pre-pandemic. Uber and Lyft rides are also much quicker and easier to order. Their prices are much more reasonable, too.
This is not to say that all shortage problems are solved. Staffing at rental car counters, hotel front desks and restaurants is still hit or miss, though it’s noticeably better. Gone (hopefully) are the days of waiting 45 minutes to check in to a hotel and pricing out a U-Haul for a vacation.
Prices continue to be excessive
All across the country, inflation has become a major concern. Hawaii is no exception, but it seems magnified on the islands. Prices for everything from transportation to food are higher than before the pandemic. Where I really see the change, however, is with lodging.
Midrange hotels and resorts are now routinely costing $500 and up a night. That’s a fairly new phenomenon, from my experience. While luxury hotels in places like Kauai and Maui have always charged high rates, properties that are not as luxe are now routinely setting high nightly rates as well.
For example, the Courtyard Maui Kahului Airport is currently priced at $689 a night in April and $719 per night in May, and the Residence Inn Maui Wailea is charging $837 a night (taxes excluded) in April. Meanwhile, the Sheraton Waikiki on Oahu is asking $429 per night in May.
If you want a top-tier resort, brace yourself.
The Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort, which Hyatt attached a higher award category to, is commanding $1,349 a night in May. And at The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, you’ll find prices starting at $1,479 per night.
For me, it’s just a bit much for one night at a hotel, so I’ve begun turning to Airbnb for my Hawaii trips, but that’s not inexpensive either.
There is one bright spot when it comes to the cost of visiting Hawaii: You can find some great deals on flights. Just this week, we’ve seen Alaska Airlines launch a fare sale to Hawaii. Not to be outdone, Hawaiian Airlines and Southwest Airlines also offered some good deals this week. If you keep an eye out, you can find cheap flights, whether you pay cash or use those miles you’ve been hoarding during the pandemic.
I came out pretty strongly against traveling to Hawaii in the summer of 2021.
At the time, locals were telling me to let folks know that they should delay their trips to the islands. COVID-19 was out of control, with the delta variant spreading rapidly, causing hospitals to get overwhelmed. The crowds, lines, costs and travel requirements attached to a Hawaii visit all led me to tell readers to avoid the state. It simply wasn’t the right time.
While not everything is 100% improved from 2021, the pandemic is waning and the crowds have thinned a bit. Resorts, hotels and restaurants are again able to host visitors from the mainland without causing significant harm to the day-to-day lives of locals.
I am very happy to report that Hawaii is once again a great destination to visit.
If you go, just do right by Hawaii’s residents. Be respectful of others, follow the rules and embrace the concept of “malama” (or caring for) Hawaii.
Don’t forget to pack a lot of points or cash for hotels, too. You’re going to need it.
Featured photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy.
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