Entering Hawaiʻi Remains a Terrible and Disorganized Process (A Cranky Travelogue)

Hawaiian, Mokulele, Trip Reports, United

Welcome back to the second chapter of my Hawaiian travelogue. Here’s where we are:

In the last post, I left off in a good mood. My trip out in United’s Polaris seat was great, and I had pre-cleared entry into Maui before I even boarded the aircraft in LA. I even had this spiffy bracelet as proof. But then, things got ugly.

Once I got off the airplane, I was greeted by an incredibly long line stretching down the concourse for all those who hadn’t pre-cleared. Not every airline does pre-clearance, and I have a friend who flew on American a week later who said it took him about an hour and a half to get through the whole process… and he figured that wasn’t too bad. We have apparently been conditioned well to just suck it up.

Since I had been pre-cleared, I could follow the signs on the right that let you walk all the way through with your bracelet. There were breaks in the stanchions every so often, so people kept moving into the wrong lane, and the lineminders seemed frustrated.

At one point, a lineminder asked me if I was staying on Maui, and I said no. I was connecting on to Molokai. I didn’t think that would be a problem as I’ll get into in a moment, but I was wrong. She told me to stand there and wait for one of the two “connection tables” to open. I was surprised there were only two, but I guess there aren’t a ton of connections in Kahului.

There was only one table staffed, and it took a long time for the people at that table to finish up. I couldn’t understand why it would have taken so long, but I was about to find out… but not yet. First, the one person working had to go to the bathroom. A few minutes later, she was out and asked me for my QR code. I gave it to her, and then she asked for my other QR code. This is where I screwed up.

My fatal mistake was assuming I didn’t need a QR code to go to Molokai. See, Molokai is a part of Maui County, and any travel within a county isn’t subject to the testing requirements. I had figured that also meant I didn’t have to fill out any paperwork, but that was not the case. They still make you fill out the Safe Travels info so they can do contact tracing. My searches did not find anything on this when I was booking, but that doesn’t matter. It had to be done.

Here is where the state really makes things confusing. When you create a “trip” in Safe Travels, they don’t really mean it to be a trip. It’s a flight. Yes, they ask you for your return flight info, but that is irrelevant to being permitted to fly between the islands, as you’ll learn shortly.

So, she told me to go create a new “trip” for my Kahului – Molokai flights. This is where I learned another valuable lesson. I had used the “log in with google” system instead of creating a password. This is bad. I opened up my phone to login and it said that something was suspicious and I needed to pull a security code off my phone. I did this, but it said the code was wrong. I was stuck.

I told the agent I was going to pull out my computer to try that, and I would step aside. She said no, I should stay there despite the people waiting in line behind me. Why? I don’t know. She should have helped them while I sorted things out.

Once I got my computer connected to airport wifi, I was able to log in with additional security measures. At least it worked. I created the new trip with my flight to Molokai and the return. Then she scanned my QR code, and I was good to go. Since Mokulele operates from the commuter terminal where there’s no TSA security, she told me I had to take a photo of this with my phone to present to others:

Why? I have no idea. She said I would need it to get to my flight, but not a single other person I encountered knew what this was or why I had taken a photo of it.

I thought I was home free, walking out past all the checkpoints and down the stairs into the warm, humid air. But I was wrong. See, Maui had a now-ended requirement for a second test on arrival with those who are vaccinated being exempt. They don’t mention this to you while you’re making your way around the lines. They just force you to walk through stanchions until you get dumped out into a giant tented area in the old rental car shuttle parking lot. The only thing I heard anyone say was “have your vaccine card out.”

There was a lot of confusion, especially with the older crowd, since there wasn’t much explanation about what was happening. It took a few minutes to get through that maze. At the front, one person saw my vaccine card and waived me through. Others were directed to the old rental car counters where they’d have a rapid test taken.

I started to put my card away, but a second person then asked to see it. She handed me one of those ridiculous blue raffle tickets that come in a giant roll. I was supposed to show that to a third person who would let me out. The third person didn’t seem to care at all and I just walked right by him, finally through the gauntlet.

After this, I was good to go on Maui, but there were other problems later in the trip which I’ll mention here instead of in chronological order in a later chapter.

When I landed on Molokai, there were people sitting at a table there scanning QR codes. I showed mine to one of the ladies, she scanned it, and then she got a frustrated look on her face. I think she was talking to herself when she said, “Why are these people scanning the codes on Maui?” Apparently, as she explained, since they had scanned my code, she had extra work to do, because she was supposed to scan it, not them. All I could do is shrug my shoulders, because I had no idea what was going on.

The other point I’ll make is about my return flight. Again, I had figured that since I had entered my flight from Kahului to Molokai with the return in Safe Travels, that would suffice for my QR code in both directions. When I got back to Maui to connect home, the person sitting at that table in the commuter terminal told me I had to create a new “trip” for every flight, even though this was already showing as my return on an existing trip. Confused? Now imagine standing in the warm air off a delayed flight hoping I’d make my connection.

I tried to log back in but again my phone wouldn’t allow it again. I pulled out my computer, but there was no wifi in the commuter terminal, so I turned my phone into a hotspot, and it let me log in on my computer. I created a new trip, and then I got the new QR code which allowed me to pass through.

I had hoped that the process had improved since my October trip when I first arrived. With the exception of the pre-clearance, it was no better. I can’t believe the state has allowed this to continue this way, but it sounds like the end is coming soon. Interisland restrictions go away on June 15 and then once the state his 70 percent vaccinated, the whole system goes away. I’m pretty sure I won’t be returning again until that happens.

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43 comments on “Entering Hawaiʻi Remains a Terrible and Disorganized Process (A Cranky Travelogue)

  1. I’m visiting there on the 29th. Really hope they drop the testing requirement for vaccinated folks by then, but I doubt it will happen.

    1. With the inter-island requirement relaxed, all you need is to find a local Walgreens for the initial (ID NOW) test (just got back from HI on Friday). So, not horrible. Doubt transpacific stuff will be sorted by the end of the month, the way things are going :(

      1. Starting June 15, no more restrictions on interisland travel. Also, people who got their COVID vaccine in Hawaii will be able to bypass quarantine and pre-flight test requirements for flights from the mainland and US territories.

        When the state reaches 60% of the population vaccinated, visitors from the mainland and territories will also be able to bypass quarantine and pre-flight test with proof of vaccination.

        SafeTravels goes away when the state reaches 70% vaccinated.


    2. It’s really not that difficult. I’ve been to Kauai and Maui 5 times through the pandemic. Just pretest with a Hawaii Safe Travels partner and upload your results within 72 hrs of yout final leg there. On July 9th, fully vaccinated individuals will not need the pretest.
      Dumb-ass conspiracy theory Republicans will still need to be tested, and would best just stay the f*ck away!

  2. One question, do you get the bracelet at the check-in desk? Once you upload your negative test onto travel.hawaii.gov, how does united know that you are ready for pre-clear?

    1. After you upload your negative test and submit your travel health declaration (within 24 hours of departure) you are emailed a QR code. The airline agent scans the QR code and you are cleared.

      At LAX/SFO United has a separate customer service desk to handle Hawaii Pre-Clear (they also give them at the United Club).

      Alaska/Southwest/Hawaiian mostly do theirs at their gates though that can vary.

      American/Delta do not currently participate in pre-clear, so no wristbands. Their customers get to wait in line at arrival.

    2. FC – It’s exactly as C noted, though you can also get cleared at the gate by United at LAX, not just at a service center. If you can get to the airport early, it’s way easier to get scanned there than it is to get scanned after you arrive when you’re just antsy to get on with the vacation. I was wondering if United actually changes the colors of the bracelets every day or not. If not, I feel like there’s a good side business opportunity here!

    3. Had this exact experience back in January.
      Arriving on Molokai the admitting lady was excellent. Did the whole thing for me. Was not informed leaving Molokai that I would need another code so learned this arriving Maui. Hot and frustrated I said that my daughter had done all the safe travels for me and I had no clue. So once again it was all very pleasantly handled for me. Maybe helps to be a senior.?

  3. Shocked that you are in the industry. I’ve explained and walked through clients to this procedure and ALL that have gone to the islands have had NO problems. Your biggest problem was that you assumed.

    1. I understand your point, but just to step back – I would say it shouldn’t be so complicated as to require an industry expert to navigate.

    2. except Hawaii and the counties keep changing things. And Maui should NOT have cleared both of his SafeTravel QRs- just the entry to Maui.

      The SafeTravels website is not very user friendly. Its actually quite aweful.

      Even some of our own employees STILL have problems with it- not all flights loaded, wrong flights loaded, airports missing, and horrible wording.

      *and I work for a Hawaiian airline….

  4. Hopefully WN can find enough suckers to jump through all of those hoops to make their new flights work.

    It’s easier to go to Latin America or the Caribbean and now, a growing number of long-haul international destinations. And, of course it is totally unnecessary to go to most of the USA.

    1. Perhaps the additional 34 MAX7s WN announced today for 2022 will assuage your concerns. That brings 64 new MAX7s for them in 2022. And their 2022 delivery book might increase yet again. Yep, a real crisis for them.

  5. I went to Cabo to get married in March, before many had gotten vaccinated. The entire process there was a piece of cake.

    Hawaii is costing themselves a ton of money right now with the way they are handling things. I certainly won’t go there until this is over.

  6. Maui in particular seems to be going out of its way to make things difficult for visitors. Now they have implemented required reservations, parking fees, and admission fees to many parks, in the name of Covid, but for visitors only. Locals can come and go without reservations and fees. Because locals can’t get Covid? And the visitors are paying over 15% in hotel taxes and rental car taxes, so the argument that visitors don’t pay enough taxes is specious.

  7. That is amazing. I’m surprised fights haven’t broken out. Can you imagine how frustrating that would be for someone less tech savvy than you? Your ability to think through the tech options to get it done. I guess it has come done to the fact you must have a smart phone to travel, otherwise you stay home.

    1. Chip – Well, if you do everything right in advance, then you don’t need a smartphone. The key is getting the QR code which is sent via email. If you don’t have a phone, you can print it out and bring it to be scanned on paper. And you don’t need anything scanned for the return. It’s only an issue if you are traveling between the islands as part of your vacation, but that particular restriction seems to be going away on June 15.

      1. I stayed at two hotels. They both wanted Safetravels documentation (so did the rental car company.) It seems like overkill if they handle it at the airport. Neither of them would accept the QR code, said that they didn’t have the necessary system. They wanted a website or document. I hadn’t saved a screenshot. It was rather a PITA and not explained in advance.

        1. Carl – That is because of the genius plan to allow people to come in without a negative test and instead do a 10 day quarantine. So the hotels need to know that you aren’t one of the quarantine people when you arrive, because not all hotels are able to take those guests.

  8. The Maui secondary test has only resulted in capturing 5 new positives. That’s it. It was all for show. And yes, the folks in Maui did everything wrong – they shouldn’t care if you have a connection and 2nd QR code; just your next flight boarding pass or proof of connection. But that’s also depending on how you did your arrival into Maui and mark “transit”.

    But yes, super duper confusing. I have no idea why I needed 2 QR codes to fly Lanai -> Maui -> Molokai in April when no testing is required for intra-county flying (however, had I flown Lanai -> Honolulu -> Molokai I would need to get a covid test). That’s just government being too nosy, in my opinion. And one reason I really do hate parts of the Hawaiian state government.

  9. Our family flew into Kona at the end of April. I was pretty stressed out about all the things that could possibly go wrong with all the hoops we had to jump through, but in the end it all worked out great and we had an amazing time in Hawaii. Overall my conclusion is that Hawaii just isn’t quite ready for prime-time. My general observations:

    1.) We pre-cleared with Alaska Airlines at the gate. They had 1 person doing the pre-clearance for a long line of people, and the first 2 couples were elderly and completely mystified by the process. Not joking, it took 20 minutes for the gate agent to finally get the first 4 people through the process.

    2.) In Kona, we got off the plane and quickly went to the pre-cleared area. But they then required an additional test for those who haven’t reached 2-weeks since final Covid shot. This part scared me, but they were actually very efficient and friendly and we got through it in about 15 minutes with no hassles. The main downside is that if you happen to test positive at that point (even if it’s a false positive) … your trip is definitely over. That can be a pretty big gamble.

    3.) Hotels, restaurants, and tour operators are all very shorthanded. They’re having a hard time hiring people back, and as a result, we found many employees there were a little grouchy and impatient with visitors. We also met some super nice folks working there, but it definitely felt a lot different than years past.

    4.) Mask-wearing is strictly (even ridiculously) enforced by some and not enforced by others. We drove through a fast-food window and I was scolded for not wearing my mask in my car. We did a scuba-dive tour and the boat captain required everyone to wear a mask … on the ocean … on a windy day … the whole time we weren’t in the water … even though everyone on the boat had recently tested negative. Conversely, other boat captains didn’t care.

    5.) Very sadly, about 1/4 of the shops in Kona-town have closed up. The vibe/feeling there just isn’t as fun and free as it has been in past visits.

    We had a great trip and it was really nice to get away and enjoy the beauty and wildlife there. But honestly I would recommend waiting until Hawaii’s disorganized Covid travel-requirements are lifted and they have some time to catch up on rental cars and hiring. You’ll be less stressed and enjoy the trip more :-)

  10. Was there, and island-hopped Hawaii-Maui-Oahu-Kauai (then connecting through HNL on the way back), 5/26-6/4. No preclearance on the way there (flew AA), but the most inconvenient thing was getting a test on Maui (which, if we did the same trip two weeks from now, we wouldn’t need); beyond that, we just had some fumbling with Safe Travels and some waiting in line at KOA and LIH. No line coming out of HNL, and none out of the commuter terminal in OGG.

    More info here if it lets me post the link: https://hive.blog/fourislandseightdays/@iansltx/four-islands-eight-days-three-covid-tests-hawaii-s-covid-procedures-in-late-may-early-june-2021

    Safe Travels is still a mess, don’t get me wrong, but if someone gave me an all-expenses-paid trip back there in two weeks, those protocols wouldn’t stop me, even for a multi-island trip. Didn’t stop others either; our flight into KOA was 90+% full, and HNL-AUS was maybe 70-75% (plenty of space in the rear cabin, full elsewhere).

  11. After reading all this, I’d rather go to St Maarten. It seems like going to another country is not this difficult. At least the second test part is now discontinued. But at the same time, there are so many amazing and wonderful places to go in the lower 48 that are far easier to travel to than this. I’m fine waiting for everything to go back to “normal”. But I do hope you had an amazing trip overall.

  12. It was easier for me to obtain a visa to enter the Soviet Union, and then accomplish the actual entry, than what you describe going through to get to Molokai. And I travelled to the USSR at the height of the Cold War.

  13. I’m curious what the requirements are for the airline crews? Are they required to remain quarantined after a trip? Or covid swabbed every time they arrive on island? I assume for crews who aren’t staying they need no special documents/testing, but what about local Hawaiian airline crews who traveled to mainland and are now back home? Covid swab every time??

    1. crews are “strictly” limited if they are given an exemption letter and NOT test before arrival. So that means airport – hotel room – airport only. There was even talk of putting electric monitoring bracelets on people. Essentially quarantine in your room.

      So many crews just get tested and also get the preclear bracelets.

  14. We were there in April. We were on AA PHX/OGG and arrival went smoothly and quickly. Went on to Kona for another week and the only glitch was with Long’s/CVS. Had scheduled our test for going to the Big Island for 71 hours before departure. A couple of hours before the scheduled time for the test got a call from Long’s/CVS telling us they wouldn’t guarantee 72 hour turn around. Very frustrating conversation with the pharmacist in Lahaina trying to explain to her that the test would be useless if not returned before our scheduled departure for KOA. Shrugs in response followed by a scolding that we had booked a test time that we weren’t going to use! Contacted a Minute Clinic, got right in and results in less than 12 hrs. Sounds like it will soon be over but was really frustrated by one of HA’s “trusted partners”. But have to say that at the end of the trip we’re very glad we went and booked return trip to Maui and Kauai for October.

  15. If you understand some of the politics there you will see why some of this is going on.

    It’s been my experience that anyone out there not directly involved in the tourist industry absolutely HATES tourists. It’s especially the case on the out islands, and most folks on Molokai would just as soon tourists all just drop dead. For these people, Covid gave them a way to keep some (many) tourists out.

    Not to be too political but when you throw in the very blue nature of Hawaii as a whole on top of that, they just went nuts with the restrictions.

  16. Everyone’s mileage may vary, but I visited over Memorial Day weekend with no hassles whatsoever. I was paranoid about the Safe Travels program but made sure to read up on the various sites well in advance and learned that each leg is considered a trip. That requires uploading all documents (including proof of vaccination) to each trip, but aside from the few extra moments required to do so, it wasn’t that difficult. COVID results from Hawaiian’s testing partner arrived on the same day, and Safe Travels sent email reminders about filling out the health form; QR codes arrived within five minutes of submitting them.

    Hawaiian offered me a wristband on check-in; all I had to do was flash it at HNL and I was on my way to the commuter terminal.

    Interisland travel to HNL from the neighbor islands does not require a COVID test, which is why I chose to visit the Big Island first. Hilo had several tables set up for the flight that arrived during a Friday afternoon lull … it might have taken longer if two or three flights arrived at the same time. My wristband was not honored at ITO but the arrival process still only took a few moments. They checked my emailed QR code and a hard copy of my negative COVID test.

    Rental cars at ITO (Dollar, administered by Hertz) and HNL (Thrifty) accepted the hard copy of the negative test. I made several copies, which turned out to be unnecessary. Cars were rented in February, but that’s another story.

    The Hilo Hawaiian on the Big Island and Hilton Hawaiian Village on Oahu also required printouts of the negative test. The Hilton also required the QR code from my ITO-HNL flight. Check-ins at both were otherwise uneventful (be aware that the massive HHV is not offering valet parking for the time being, so you’ll need to self-park before checking in).

    Some, but not all, restaurants require temperature checks and/or a completed contact-tracing form.

    I don’t have a problem with Hawaii’s restrictions (or those of other Pacific islands such as New Zealand). Hawaii is in the middle of nowhere and is simply not equipped for a surge like what Los Angeles experienced in December. But I certainly look forward to eventually not having to jump through those hoops.

  17. I normally travel to Hawaii about every year, but I don’t want Viral Theater on my vacation. I booked a summer trip to Alaska the day their governor said “no more testing requirements.” I was thinking of also going to Hawaii, but I’ll pass on a summer trip if there are still testing requirements. I might be willing to engage in the rigmarole in WINTER, but for summer there are many other places to go to.

    BTW, how’s the rental car situation now? I figured that was another good reason to delay a Hawaii vacation.

    1. iahphx – The rental car situation remains bad with little availability and high prices. It’s fine on Molokai, but most people aren’t going there.

  18. You… know a lot people died of covid right? I’m sorry your trip was a hassle, but take a minute and think about what plane travel did to facilitate the spread of global disease. In no previous era would this many people have died this fast. A dose of perspective, please.

  19. I completely agree with your comments and observations. I understand Hawaii wanting to be strict, but they’ve made the process so confusing by (a) having different requirements for each Island and (b)only allowing PCR tests from a relatively small list of providers. There’s been countless sad stories of travelers who were confused, being turned back on arrival, because their only option was to quarantine inside a locked hotel room for the duration of their stay, which is obviously pointless.

    I covered more about this craziness in a recent episode of the Travel Pro Show here: https://www.travelproshow.com/blog/hawaii-travel-covid-restrictions – I hope the info helps travelers who are planning trips.

    I agree that the process could and should be greatly simplified. It’s perfectly reasonable for Hawaii to request a covid test, but they should streamline the requirements across all Islands, and accept PCR tests from any lab.

  20. @Alohagirl

    You are correct. Hawaii is amazingly beautiful but the government is full of bureaucracy of the highest level. Well intentioned employees that could only succeed in government work. As pretty at HNL airport is, it is far behind and way over budget for its upgrades. These employees communicate poorly with other departments and have no problem with complicating things that shouldn’t be complicated.
    They lack a customer friendly attitude and will work at the same speed regardless if there are 2 people in line or 100. I’m not talking about a Hawaii speed of relax, I’m talking about knowing how to be efficient. This is why many say that if you let government get too big things work poorly and cost way more.
    In most well run private businesses from pizza shops to to auto shops they know how to speed it up when it gets crowded. I remember my boss saying “take your lunch after we get the customer crowd under control”. That mentality simply doesn’t work in government bureaucracy because they don’t get the connection between their paycheck and the customer.

  21. We flew to Maui in Feb and it didn’t take more than 10 min to get checked in with the QR code. We had flown American so had not been precleared. We had also been there in Nov – same experience. We thought their system worked really well

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