What it’s like to travel to Hawaii during the COVID pandemic

Our experiences traveling to Hawaii in 2021

When my sister and I first planned to spend several months in Hawaii over the winter of 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic had yet to strike. We spent a good deal of the spring and summer hoping travel would be back to normal by now. As it turns out, we’re still waiting for that to happen. Fortunately, Hawaii has re-opened for tourism with the option for pre-travel testing to avoid the previously mandatory 14 day quarantine. Here’s what our experience was like traveling to Hawaii amidst these changes:

This post will be updated with more information on on-the-ground experiences as we continue our three-month trip in Hawaii. As specific travel rules and restrictions can change quickly, please be sure to confirm current travel rules on Hawaii’s official Covid travel website. I’ve also had success getting situation-specific questions answered by both emailing and calling Hawaii’s general travel info contacts shown here.

Hawaii Pre-travel Testing: Where to Get a FAST Hawaii Approved Covid Test

If you’ve done any research on Hawaii’s pre-travel testing program, you’ve no doubt seen some horror stories of people who took non-approved tests, or didn’t get their tests back in time. While Hawaii has done more to be clear on the approved testing partners and test types, you’ll now have to quarantine for 10 days if your test results aren’t available before your flight leaves.

You can take your Covid test up to 72 hours before your flight to Hawaii. I asked for clarification on this, and was told that this means your final flight from the mainland US, if you have multiple legs to your flight. We flew into Honolulu on Delta from Minneapolis airport, then transferred to Hawaiian Airlines for the final leg to Kona. The 72 hour window was counted from the departure time of our flight from MSP to HNL, not the final flight within Hawaii.

This 72 hour testing window is tight given the guidelines of most testing partners, and one of the major partners, CVS, has outright said that you shouldn’t count on getting your test results in time!

How We Got Covid Test Results Back in Less Than 24 Hours

When we started making plans for our pre-travel tests, it became obvious that the only Hawaii trusted testing partners in both my and my sister’s smaller urban areas was Walgreens and CVS (and CVS was excluded because they aren’t guaranteeing results in time). Looking at Walgreens Covid test options, I noticed the Rapid Diagnostic Test (ID NOW), which provides results in 24 hours or less.

Walgreens covid tests

Now, I’d read A LOT about testing beforehand, obsessing over my options, and for some reason nearly every blogger and travel writer was acting like Hawaii-approved tests all take 3 days or more. That’s not the case! Walgreen’s Rapid Diagnostic Test (ID NOW) is a NAAT test approved by Hawaii for their pre-travel testing program. I badgered both Walgreens and the Hawaii tourism line to double check. (There are a small number of other testing partners who offer approved quick tests, check Hawaii’s list of Travel Partners to see what’s available in your area).

The next issue we ran into was scheduling our tests. After answering some screening questions on Walgreens’ website, you’re taken to a list of locations and available times. They let you schedule up to 3 days ahead of time–and every time that I checked, there were absolutely no ID NOW testing slots available.

I called and spoke to a pharmacist, who clued me in to how the testing schedule works: the Walgreens Covid test scheduling system offers testing slots for the following 3 days, BUT every day at 7pm, slots for the 4th day are opened up. So in order to get a test for Tuesday, we logged on just after 7pm on Friday, and had our choice of testing times!

Walgreens covid test results email

Testing itself was fast and easy: I pulled up to the pharmacy drive-thru at Walgreens, retrieved the swab through the drawer and swabbed my nose under the supervision of the pharmacist.

As I said, Walgreen’s ID NOW test results come back within 24 hours. They’ll email you with a link to access your test results online.

In my and my sister’s case, we both got our results back in less than 2 hours! I wouldn’t bet on always having such a fast turnaround, but they are definitely getting results back well within the 24 hour time frame.

Walgreens negative covid test results

Once you get your results back, just download the document titled “Lab PDF.” You’ll need to upload it to Hawaii’s Safe Travels application, as well as keep a copy (digital and/or physical) with you when you travel.

Hawaii Safe Travels website

How to Use Hawaii’s Safe Travels Website

All travelers to Hawaii are required to register on the Safe Travels website. This is true whether you plan to complete pre-travel testing or to quarantine.

Once you create an account, the process is fairly straightforward, but some details can be a tad confusing. We flew into Honolulu on Delta, but continued on to the Big Island on a flight with a different carrier– Hawaiian Airlines.

Since Delta and Hawaiian don’t codeshare, we had to create 2 separate “trips” in the Safe Travels system. The first trip was our flight into Honolulu (mark the reason for travel as “connecting flight”), and the second trip was our connecting flight to the Big Island.

Hawaii Safe Travel document upload

A negative Covid test must be uploaded for each “trip.” In our case, with two trips with different carriers on the same day, we simply had to upload the same Covid test twice, assigning it to the first, then the second leg of the trip. The system was able to read our documents and immediately recognize it as a negative test.

Once you’ve uploaded your negative Covid test, you just need to complete a short health questionnaire within 24 hours of the flight. If everything is in order, you should then get an email with the QR code they’ll ask for on arrival. This is your proof that you’ve completed the requirements and can bypass quarantine on arrival. The QR code is also available in your safe travels account, or you can print it out if you’d like.

(They recommend that you bring hard copies of negative Covid test results, along with your trip information like boarding passes. These may be nice to have in case your phone is lost or the battery dies, but we found that no one insisted on seeing a paper copy of any of our documents.)

Delta One seat on flight to Hawaii

Flying to Hawaii During Covid

Delta is one of the few airlines still blocking middle seats, which does make for a more comfortable flight experience. However, for a 9 hour flight to Hawaii, I really wanted a little more physical separation from other passengers and space to myself. I snagged a good deal on a Delta One seat, which features partitioned walls and a lie flat seat.

My sister met me in Minneapolis and we flew in to Honolulu on the same flight, but she chose to stick with coach. She had assumed that Delta wouldn’t seat anyone next to her on her shorter flight into MSP, and wasn’t too happy to have someone crammed right beside her, taking off his mask to eat and drink. Delta is still blocking middle seats, and some seats on smaller aircraft, but you’ll need to look for blocked seats on the seat map to ensure some space.

For the longer flight into Honolulu, there were plenty of empty seats in main cabin, so she was able to maintain distance, and even stretch out over the empty seat next to her.

My experience in Delta First Class and Delta One and was a little more comfortable and distanced, though the food and drink options were more limited than usual, and meal pre-selection wasn’t available. On my longer flight in Delta One, they had pared back the wine selection to just a white and a red (no champagne!), and bizarrely had only water, wine and beer on my 8am flight to MSP–no soda, juice, or coffee.

Delta One Covid amenity kit

The Delta One amenity kits were fairly standard, with the addition of a small bottle of hand sanitizer. At boarding and before each meal, they also handed out Purell sanitizing wipes that could be used on hands or surfaces.

Mask are of course required at all times, and mask compliance seemed to be good overall. There was one belligerent guy who kept pulling his mask down under his nose on my flight into MSP, but after several increasingly stern reminders from the flight attendant (and minor tantrum on his part), he kept his mask over his nose. Delta’s flight attendants are clearly paying attention and enforcing the mask rule.

My boyfriend just flew back to the mainland from Hawaii, and reported that Delta is cracking down even more on mask-wearing. They insisted that passengers pull down, but not remove masks to eat or drink, and immediately pull them back up to chew. This seems extreme, and miserable for both passengers and the flight attendants that have to enforce the policy. A flight attendant implied that Delta made the change due to government pressure.

Kona airport covid screening line

Flying into the Big Island: Post-Arrival Testing

In addition to the pre-travel Covid test required by Hawaii’s Safe Travel’s program, Hawaii island is conducting post arrival testing. The process was fast and easy for us; after landing, all passengers were directed into a line with multiple “stations” to check our Safe Travels QR codes, take our info, and finally conduct the quick Covid test.

The line moved quickly, and at the final stop, they performed a nasal swab. We were told that they’d be in contact if one of our tests came back positive, and we wouldn’t hear from them if it they were negative. (They didn’t contact us, yay!).

Rental car in Hawaii

Renting a Car in Hawaii During Covid: What are the Rules?

We’d heard that car rental agencies were asking for proof of a negative Covid test, so we made sure to have paper copies available. As it turned out, they didn’t ask to see our tests. Still, it’s a good idea to have your test results accessible on your phone or on paper, as anyone arriving without a negative test, or who tests positive, is not allowed to rent a car.

We rented through the Avis/ Budget location at the Kona airport. There are distancing measures in place, and masks are required, but otherwise the rental process was normal. I didn’t think to ask about sanitizing, though the Avis website says they’re employing enhanced cleaning procedures for all their cars.

When renting through Enterprise in Honolulu, the agent asked when we’d arrived in Hawaii, and didn’t ask any further questions or require proof when I said it had been almost two months ago. They presumably sanitized our car, but also provided a cleaning wipe.

Palm trees by the ocean in Kona, Hawaii

Visiting Hawaii’s Big Island During Covid

Currently, you need a negative Covid test for inter-island travel to all Hawaiian islands BUT Oahu. Because we weren’t sure about availability of testing we chose to start our Hawaiian vacation on the Big Island, and will be finishing in Honolulu.

I read as much news and info as I could leading up to our trip, but still wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. It was great overall! With smaller than normal numbers of tourists, it was very easy to maintain social distancing, and mask compliance was very good.

We did notice increased numbers of tourists towards the end of February, a trend that may continue into the spring and summer so long as the US is able to stay on track with vaccinations.

Do Big Island Locals Want Tourists to Visit?

While there’s no doubt diversity of opinion on this subject, everyone we’ve interacted with has been wonderful. If you choose to travel to Hawaii during 2021, be respectful, follow the rules, support local businesses, and you’ll be a positive force in Hawaii’s recovery.

Are Big Island Businesses Open During Covid?

I created a big Google map with all the restaurants and sights I wanted to visit during our trip. While a handful turned out to be temporarily or permanently closed due to Covid, the vast majority of restaurants, parks and other outdoor tourist spots are open for business.

There are of course some closed attractions, including indoor activities like museums and aquariums. We’ve also found that many Kona coffee farms aren’t offering tours, and quite a few outdoor group tours and activities aren’t running right now. Normally bookable activities like snorkeling, ATV trips, etc, are pretty hit or miss right now. No big loss, as we’re happy with a very laid back vacation, and I understand the need for caution and the difficulty in scheduling that comes with lower tourist demand.

I feel for the businesses that are struggling right now, but I have to admit that it’s also nice to have less competition for restaurant reservations and less crowded beaches and parks. If you’re willing to follow the rules, and looking for a laid-back, socially distanced vacation, now is a great time to come to Hawaii.

Visiting Oahu and Honolulu During Covid

How Crowded is Honolulu Right Now?

We arrived in Honolulu at the beginning of March, and while it was far from deserted then, we’re seeing even more tourists now, likely thanks to spring break. Though I’m told this isn’t close to peak numbers, Waikiki beaches are full, restaurants are busy, and its a little more difficult to social distance at times.

We don’t regret adding Honolulu to our itinerary, but if you’d like to be strict about social distancing, or hoping for a less crowded, more laid back vacation, the other Hawaiian islands may be a better choice right now.

What Covid Precautions are Hawaiians taking?

Social distancing measures are in place, and are similar to what you’ll find on the mainland, with restaurants operating at 50% capacity. Masks are required indoors, and outdoors when you cannot maintain six feet of distance. You’re also required to sanitize your hands before entering a business, and many businesses are doing temperature checks as well. I’ve noticed that while hand sanitizing was enforced on the Big Island, it doesn’t seem to be required here. However, most Oahu restaurants are requiring patrons to fill out a contact tracing form–we even had to complete a contact tracing form to eat in a mall food court!

Everyone here seems to be onboard with wearing their masks in indoor spaces. People are a little less consistent about mask wearing in public outdoor spaces like parks and beaches, but few that we’ve visited have been crowded enough that it feels like a problem.

I'm a freelancer, digital nomad and passionate traveler. I love exploring through food, and staying in hotels with a sense of place. Country-counting isn't for me, and I think that beloved places are always worth returning to for further exploration. I believe that travel can be profoundly life-changing, and I'm dedicated to sharing my experiences and expertise to help you make the best possible choices in your travels.