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:
- 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/.
- Government-issued identification for each adult traveling in the group.
- Your mobile phone charged and working properly.
- If you have a pre-approved exemption, please bring evidence of the exemption.
- 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.