Pre-Testing Program in Hawai’i: There Has to Be a Better Way

Safety/Security

For the first time since January, I found myself on an airplane. Since travel can help spread COVID — I don’t mean flying so much, but just taking your germs somewhere else — I hesitated to get on an airplane for a long time. But when Hawai’i opened up its pre-testing program and Hawaiian Airlines asked if I wanted to come try it out, I thought it was worth doing. After all, I’m hopeful that a testing regime will be the way out of this mess sooner rather than later, so I wanted to experience it for myself. Unfortunately, the state’s program needs a lot of work. It’s confusing, time-consuming, and not traveler-friendly… yet.

[Disclosure: Hawaiian provided free transportation and COVID testing for me and my wife]

I’d like to be able to tell you how the process starts, but there isn’t actually one place to begin. Airlines have put together their own guides. The state has its own reference. You can find details just about anywhere.

Since Hawaiian was flying me out, I started with their testing options, but I wouldn’t recommend beginning with that. The best plan is to start with the State of Hawaii’s Safe Travels portal.

Safe (and Vague) Travels

When you go to travel.hawaii.gov, you’re prompted to create an account if you haven’t previously. You must create a separate account for each adult in your family. Only kids can be tagged on to a parent account.

You start by filling out personal details about yourself, and then you’re ready. In the portal, there are four different options:

First, you have to create your trip. This means adding your dates, your flights, where you’re staying, etc. If you don’t create a trip, you can’t do anything else.

The Health Questionnaire, despite being second, cannot be accessed until you’re within 24 hours of your trip. And the Daily Check-ins, well, I assume that’s just for the people who don’t get tested and do the 14-day quarantine instead. Yes, that’s still an option if you don’t want to test.

Under Documents is where you need to upload some things. What? That’s hardly clear. As you can see, it says you can upload a current picture, but nowhere does it actually say that’s something you need to do. (I didn’t, and nobody ever asked.) You do have to upload a COVID test result, that I know. But first, you have to get tested.

Choosing Your COVID Test

The rule is that you have to get tested within 72 hours of your departure to Hawai’i. Alaska, American, Hawaiian, Southwest, and United all have partners they work with. Delta, oddly, does not. The state has a whole long list of approved partners, so really that’s where you should look. But be wary, because it is not as clear as it seems.

For example, American is listed as a partner, but the companies it uses are not listed as partners. So can you use them? Yes, because apparently the partner of my partner is also a partner, or something like that. That’s not in any way clear on the website, and it may have started a minor panic at American when I pointed that out.

Warning: Be careful which partner you choose. Some partners have restrictions on what ages they will test, so if you have kids, read the details first.

Since I was flying with Hawaiian and they offered to provide the test for free, I went with their partners. Hawaiian has two partner options:

  • Vault Health from home – $150
  • Worksite Labs in LA or SF – $90 for results in 36 hours or $150 for rapid test

Worksite wasn’t up and running yet when I flew, or I would have gladly driven up to LA to test out the process, so I used Vault. This was great, because it’s a saliva test, so no brain-stabbing required. Still, $150 is steep, but it seems to be the market rate. That’s a problem the feds need to fix if they want travel to grow. (It’s ESPECIALLY a problem on interisland travel where the test cost can be more than the flight.)

Getting My Vault Test

I was given links to sign up. First, I had to fill out a questionnaire about having symptoms, exposure, etc, add a current photo, and then create an account. I ordered the kit on a Thursday, it was sent on a Friday, and I had it on Saturday morning via UPS.

Since our flight departed Thursday at 10am, I waited until 72 hours before departure — 10am on Monday — and then logged into my Vault Health account. I had to answer more questions. Then I opened up the kit to find the ID numbers and enter those in. This has to be done separately for everyone in your group.

At the end of the process, I could click a button to join the waiting room for a nurse to administer the test virtually. Only one person needs to join the waiting room, and then that nurse can help everyone.

It said it would take 20 to 30 minutes to get someone, but about 10 minutes in, a friendly nurse came on and walked me and my wife through the test. Get ready to create a lot of spit. This took a few minutes for me, and it’s even harder since you can’t drink within 30 minutes before taking the test.

Once finished, the nurse walked us through mixing the spit with some serum, sealing up the package, and getting it set to send off. Oh, and tell the nurse you’re going to Hawai’i. She had us write something on the box to get it expedited, but she wouldn’t have known if we hadn’t said something while we were trying to generate a bunch of saliva.

After finishing, we took it over to UPS and it was on its way. The next afternoon, I had an email with the negative results in my inbox.

Uploading the Test Results

When you go into the Documents area of the Safe Travels website, it tells you how to format the results. Even though I just received an email from Vault, I had to print it into a PDF and make sure I only had one page in the document. Anything more than that — or if you use a screenshot — it’ll error out.

After uploading, it uses some sort of OCR software, I presume, to determine if you’re negative. Here’s how it showed for me:

Here’s the thing. This was just a PDF print-out of an email I got. I could easily forge that if I wanted to do so, not that I would. But Hawai’i says that “tests are verified by labs.” If that’s the case, why can’t the labs just send the details straight to the state with my approval?

The state specifically — but not clearly — says that even if you uploaded the results, you still must “have your test in hand when you arrive.” What does that mean? Have my phone pulled up? Have a print-out? I don’t know.

The Health Questionnaire

Once we were within 24 hours of our trip, then I could go on and fill out the health questionnaire. It asks if you’re sick now, when you had the flu vaccine, and if you know the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. After you submit it, the state then sends you an email with a QR code that you’re supposed to be able to scan on arrival. Here are the instructions of what you need to have:

  1. Your QR code readily available on your mobile device or printed out on paper. You may access the QR code on your device from your Trips Details at https://travel.hawaii.gov/#/trips/.
  2. Government-issued identification for each adult traveling in the group.
  3. Your mobile phone charged and working properly.
  4. If you have a pre-approved exemption, please bring evidence of the exemption.
  5. Be prepared to show a copy of your reservations for lodging and return flight, if applicable.

I assume this means that I could just pull up the email with the QR code even though it seems to suggest I have to either print out the paper or log in. Since you can print it out, I assume the code doesn’t change over time.

And a copy of my reservations? All this information has to be uploaded into the portal before travel, so you’d hope that would be sufficient. This seems like more extra work that just isn’t necessary.

How It Worked On Arrival

Once we landed in Honolulu, it was time to see if this actually worked. They led us all in a snake-like line through the gate area and then down the concourse.

They then split the group up. Those with the equivalent of a fast pass — essential workers, flight crew, military with orders, and those with pets — were sent to a separate desk that had no line at all. Everyone else was funneled through a different area where the line was a lot longer.

We looked to be the only arriving flight at that time, so everyone in the above photo was on our plane. They called for connections to stand on the left, because apparently there were missed connection issues in the beginning. Not only that, but you have to get some weird second QR code if you’re connecting.

Those staying on O’ahu stood on the right. You can tell that there was good distancing in place. (That’s my wife in front of me, so that’s why we weren’t distanced.)

At the front of the lines were about 10 tables, and they directed us to one of them. There, they scanned our QR codes one at a time. The guy working the desk asked which testing provider we used even though it said it right there in the Safe Travel information. Then he said he needed a print-out of our test results which makes no sense, but I’m glad we brought them. He took the print-outs over to a supervisor and had a conversation about it. I have no idea why or what was discussed. He finally came back with the supervisor, and they cleared us through.

It took about 35 minutes from the aircraft door opening to us getting through, which wasn’t bad. I thought that was the end of it, but it wasn’t.

On the Island

I figured that once we made it through the check, we’d be home free. That’s not the case. Since there are still people there who aren’t tested and need to do a 14-day quarantine, your info needs to be checked everywhere, in theory.

I first ran into this at Hertz. I was told that both my wife and I — since we were both driving — had to show proof of our negative test results. That meant logging into the Safe Travels website, going to the My Trips section, and then scrolling down to where it showed COVID status. She said we might want to just screenshot that page to show to people in the future, again something that could so easily be forged it’s ridiculous.

At the hotel, it was the same situation. Both of our IDs had to be checked along with our test status. She told us we should expect that to happen at restaurants as well. Not once did that happen, but at a couple places they did take our contact info down for tracing purposes, which I liked a great deal and wish more places did that.


Overall, this was a big pain in the neck with a lot of holes. I know the state is working to improve as they go, but that progress needs to happen quickly.

Get Posts via Email When They Go Live or in a Weekly Digest

35 comments on “Pre-Testing Program in Hawai’i: There Has to Be a Better Way

  1. Sounds like paradise on earth. The most contradictory thing with both the TSA checkpoints and now these “health” ones are they congregate people and keep them together when the better alternative is to make sure people are not concentrated. Go figure.

  2. None of this surprises me. This system isn’t set up to let people in. It’s set up to keep people away, even though the state wants to let people in. The sooner the state realizes its working against itself, the better.

    1. It’s isolationism without saying it. Oh sure we’ll let you in, but we’re going to make it as difficult as possible & if you manage to complete all the steps we’re still going to throw a few more roadblocks in while you’re here. Enjoy Hawaii.

  3. Cranky

    A couple of comments and a question.

    Your “adventure” really makes me want to go to Hawaii….. NOT!!

    So… if I travel with my pet I get “FastPass”… SWEET!!

    What happens to all of your sensitive medical data (test results , questionnaire, etc.) once your trip has concluded? Is it destroyed or can it be accessed by non medical, non authorized people?

    1. “What happens to all of your sensitive medical data (test results , questionnaire, etc.) once your trip has concluded? Is it destroyed or can it be accessed by non medical, non authorized people?”

      That was my first question as well. Also notice the cost of the test – someone is making $$$ off of them. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

      1. Of course, someone is making money on those tests. Welcome to Capitalism. Someone had to develop the test, go through the regulatory process, set up the lab, staff it, pay UPS etc. Have you done such a thing in the past and thus know that $150 is resulting in “excessive” profit for someone?

        Costco is selling COVID spit tests for $139.99. Seems pretty similar.

        1. Oliver – But Costco is not an approved provider by the state.

          The reality is that the government needs to subsidize these tests to encourage people. It’s particularly dire for interisland travel where the cost of the test is more than the flight.

    2. Keith – I’m not sure what happens with the data, frankly. But presumably someone is only going to upload the data if the test is negative, so I don’t see how it can really hurt anything.

  4. This sounds like a combination of the Alaska and New York state requirements made much more burdensome by too many choices and attempts to connect documentation even though you know it isn’t happening.
    The difference between NY and both Alaska and Hawaii is that you can enter NY via land borders (which aren’t controlled anyway) but you can’t do that for Alaska and Hawaii esp. since Canada has stricter border controls than the US right now. Alaska and Hawaii have well below average case and death rates for good reason.

    As cumbersome as the process is, I commend Hawaii for trying to get their economy reopened. Hopefully they will get the kinks worked out – and based on your experience, there are still some major hiccups.

    Sick and infected people need to stay home. If they won’t take the steps to verify their own status and protect others, then you get stuff like what is happening for the second time in Europe and in the NE US.

    Glad you got back in the skies and presumably enjoyed the rest of your time on vacation.

    1. Sick and infected people need to stay home. If they won’t take the steps” to verify their own status and protect others, then you get stuff like what is happening for the second time in Europe and in the NE US.”

      Tim,

      Correct me if I’m wrong, I recall you posting previously about risk tolerance in regards to travel I,e those who see themselves as a low risk of catching Covid will travel & others won’t by choice. As of now most in the northeast & Europe are using masks & not putting themselves at unnecessary risk, but despite this the virus is resurging as it was predicted back in the spring by the CDC & we haven’t hit winter yet.

      1. Sean,
        again, I am only going to address covid as it relates to the travel industry.
        Yes, I did say that people need to assess their own risk which must include the people with whom they regularly make contact. That is a personal choice and needs to be respected.
        Getting on a plane and going to Hawaii is not for everyone right now, even if they did it pre-covid. It is also why the cruise industry will take much longer to return to normal and that will affect airlines in certain cities. Land-based tourism might eventually see growth in travel if people believe it is more safe.
        Hawaii’s processes – while cumbersome – follow best practice for containing covid. Reopen with aggressive testing, follow social distancing and mask guidelines, and provide contacts so that those that might be infected by a traveler are known in advance. Testing is much more available in the US; you usually can just tell a public testing center that you believe you have been near someone that tested positive and they will test you at no charge. Speed in getting tests back is the real issue in many test results back in time to be valid for travel. Testing in other countries including some in Europe and Canada is not near as available.
        Hawaii’s process is cumbersome; as CF notes, they have not ironed out the logistics but it does get people moving and moves cautiously to limit disease while allowing the world to see Hawaii again.

        Even New York state is moving to a testing based approach to reopen tourism but most tourism is out of NY this time of year.

        I hope many others join CF in booking flights to Hawaii this winter.

  5. @CF

    So will there be an accompanying trip report soon? Very curious what it’s like to be in Hawaii right now as a tourist.

    1. Joe – Yep, I have a trip report about the flight and a photo walk through of Waikiki on a separate post. But I think what I experienced isn’t what it looks like today. Things have started to open up rapidly beginning Nov 1.

  6. An African or a European swallow?

    How was this not the first comment? I’m very disappointed in all the other commenters. :)

  7. “It asks if you’re sick now, when you had the flu vaccine, and if you know the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.”

    Someone has to ask, so I will– African or European?

  8. Good golly is about all I can say. I’ll patiently wait. That is just such an insane, unnecessary mess. Thank you for the “airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow” line. I’m assuming if you guess wrong you’re going in the opposite direction.

  9. @CF- is having gotten a flu vaccine also one of the entry requirements or purely a question on the health form?

    1. Kristen – I never had to show proof of having the flu vaccine, so I don’t think it’s a requirement. At least, nobody asked me for proof.

  10. Hi CF, Tourism is the engine that drives Hawaii’s economy so you would think that the pretesting program would have been much better planned.  Opening up the state at all was highly controversial locally with many fearing an influx of virus infected visitors into a community with relatively low infection rates.  So there were a lot of ideas and alternatives for the program being tossed around right up to the last minute.  That said, I am hopeful that things will be sorted out quickly because our economic recovery is literally at stake.

  11. This whole thing strikes me as providing a false sense of security. A negative test 72 hours ago (or even the moment you step on the plane) tells you (or the authorities) so little. Assuming people who are symptomatic aren’t getting on the plane (a big assumption, I realize), it really just says you weren’t in the ?2 day pre-symptomatic window at the time of the test, and that window is over by the time you get on the plane anyway! (This would also catch true asymptomatic — as opposed to presymptomatic — cases, but it looks like that’s at most 20% of cases; https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1003346)

    It doesn’t say you haven’t been infected with COVID in the last 72 hours. It doesn’t even say you weren’t exposed in the 3-10 or 14 days before the test and that the infection was still incubating but not yet detectable at the time of the test. A quarantine is the way to ensure someone isn’t bringing the virus in. A negative test followed by a shorter quarantine followed by another negative test about a week after the first seems like it could dramatically reduce both the probability of bringing an infection from a high-case-count region (eg most of the lower 48) to a low-case-count region (eg Hawaii or Canada), but this single test a few days before departure doesn’t seem like it will reduce cases brought to Hawaii much at all.

    Testing is absolutely crucial to large-scale management of the pandemic, positive test results very much guide how an individual should act, and negative test results from someone who *is* sick tell you it’s probably not COVID. But my understanding is that letting a single negative test result from non-symptomatic individuals guide individual actions is not supported by public health knowledge and is just a way to excuse opening and/or make people feel better.

    1. “But my understanding is that letting a single negative test result from non-symptomatic individuals guide individual actions is not supported by public health knowledge and is just a way to excuse opening and/or make people feel better.”

      PR has become more important than actual science & that’s tragic.

    2. You may be right but Hawaii and other places have recognized they cannot continue to shut down their economies based on attempts to lock the virus out. Science is based on repeated data points; a single test is not anywhere as accurate for sure.

      You do realize that Alaska put in a test requirement this summer? I’m honestly not seeing that Alaska blew it and allowed thousands of cases in. They are still well down the per capita case and death rate for US states.

      It is actually science and not bias that undoubtedly caused HA to look at AK’s example and figure out what they needed to do to begin to reopen.

  12. I just got back from Oahu- similar experience, we flew United – luckily were in the front of coach so only about 20 min to clear thru. My friend had printed the paperwork which helped, but the guy wouldn’t take her passport, only her drivers license. All restaurants we went to asked for contact info, some also took temps. Great week on the Island, not crowded at all!

    1. A few other points – we stayed in Kailua, but did a couple visits to Waikiki. Wear/carry your mask at all times, even on the beach, if you’re near others you need to put it on. Plan on making reservations to eat at restaurants, and enjoy the spacing of tables! (I’ve always liked Dukes, but usually the tables are almost on top of each other – now they are nicely spaced!) Plan on tipping well – remember these servers are working harder with masks on, and serving fewer tables. At the shopping centers – food courts are partially open & have minimal seating. Royal Hawaiian Center offers 3 hours parking validation for any purchase in a store or eatery. Some of the bigger tourist spots are closed – take the time to visit less popular ones!

      There are only a few shops open at the airport – apparently the vendor laid everyone off just before the reopening, so take food with you.

  13. Sounds like a good reason to not travel to Hawaii, it all sounds like a pain to deal with.

    And then the locals must look at you like you are a alien from outer space since they know you’re a tourist.

  14. Cranky,
    How long after you dropped off your Vault test at UPS did it take for them to get back to you with the results? It seems like a short window to spit, ship and receive results within 72 hours given Vault’s website says it takes them 48-72 hours after they receive the specimen to deliver the results.

    1. Hi Jeff – Good question. We did the test at 1030a PT in the morning on Monday. Took it to UPS mid-day and it arrived on the other side of the country at the lab Tuesday morning at I think 10a ET. We had the results by that afternoon. That’s why you need to tell the nurse that you’re going to Hawai’i and they will tell you to write something on the package so it gets expedited.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!