Traveling to Hawaii during the Pandemic: My First Flight in 400 days

It’s been over 400 days since I last boarded a flight to anywhere or left the state of Texas for that matter. I know many of you have kept on traveling throughout the pandemic, for work or other purposes. While your bravery certainly made me want to venture out more than once, my instincts told me it’s best to sit it out for the time being. I have to say I am fortunate enough to live with my grandparents and within driving distance of my parents so I completely understand that some of you are dying to finally meet a loved one.

A couple of months ago, I finally decided it was time for us to take our first vacation in over a year. My parents had a couple of expiring timeshare weeks (don’t buy a timeshare btw) and we had to use them up soon. And since my family is fortunate enough to fall under the 1A/1B vaccination category in Texas, we were all completely vaccinated by the beginning of February. 

One of the most annoying things about flying to Hawaii is that flights in business class are just as expensive if not more expensive than flights to Europe (yes I know first world problems) and most flights out to the islands are not on lie flat seats (esp out of PHX and LAX which are the more readily available departure cities). Well that pandemic changed all of that. American has been sending their long haul fleet on domestic routes and that meant that I could find business class seats from DFW to Maui for 45k (Web Special Award) miles each way on a internationally configured 777. The flexible cancellation policies and the going rate for these tickets, made it an absolute no brainer to jump onto.

Testing:

Hawaiian health authorities have been talking about for months about introducing testing exemptions for vaccinated travelers but that has not come to fruition just yet. So for our trip every one of us had to get tested before getting on the flight to Hawaii. Inter-island travel without testing is set to start in May according to the latest information from local authorities.

If you are unfamiliar with Hawaii’s Safe Travels Program, here is the gist of it: travelers who get a covid test (NAAT or PCR) within 72 hours prior to departure are exempt from a 10 day on arrival quarantine in Hawaii. You can enter all your details online and upload your PCR test to the website after it’s available upon which you will receive a QR code to present at the airport upon arrival.

About 72 hours before our flight to Hawaii, we went to a local Walgreens for our COVID tests (the ID Now Test). The tests were free for us through our insurance (apparently we qualify for free tests because of our workplace/age group) and appointments were available readily every 15 minutes or so during business days. Please do note that the only types of rapid tests accepted by the Safe Travels Program are the NAAT based tests. At Walgreens that will be your ID Now test. We could’ve gone to CVS, but the estimate turnaround time was 72-96 hours at the time. A risk we were not willing to take. 

Walgreens is pretty much doing testing at drive throughs. You basically pull up your car to the window and are handed swabs to stick up your nose and twirl several times. The pharmacist or professional watches you do so from across the window. I found the process straightforward  and not extraordinarily difficult. Self swabbing might just save you from some of the unpleasantness. 

After the swabbing is over, you get an email within 3-4 hours with your result. Do remember to login and upload the lab report PDF to the Safe Travels Program site to avoid any delays at the airport. The report you want to upload should look like this:

On the dashboard you want to select the following:

Checking In::

On the day of travel, it was business as usual other than the fact that everyone was wearing masks (wow travel has changed). Check in was swift with most staff wearing their masks appropriately.

Just as a note, covid tests are available on site at DFW and several other airports and I was asked if I needed one at check in. No other paperwork was required or checked. After all, if you don’t have the right stuff, you will just be forced into quarantine or sent home once you land in Hawaii.

Parking at the Airport:

After check in, I went back outside to park my car in the garage (my dad manned the car while I checked everyone in). And that’s when the fun began. Every single parking space was taken inside the Terminal D parking garage. I went around at least three times to no avail. That’s when it struck me, the decline in ride share volume and fall in parking prices had resulted in most people parking their cars at the airport. It being spring break in most of America, I certainly made a serious miscalculation. After several go arounds, I decided to check Terminal B where after 20 minutes of searching, I finally beat someone to a spot as another car was pulling out.

Note: get to the airport way ahead of time if you want to park your car. The airport parking lots as of late have been packed!

Security:

Security was pretty much a ghost town. Though I had to wait for the TSA shift change before being waived up to the podium, the process didn’t take too long. Normally removing my mask in front of strangers stresses me out, but the gate for my flight was about to close in 10 minutes. TSA Pre-Check certainly sped things up. I was glad I still had it.

Airside:

Surprisingly, the airport was absolutely packed with passengers on the airside of the terminal. It was a stark contrast to security and check in which were pretty much empty. I guess the local market’s share of air traffic had dipped even further.

I didn’t have time for any people watching on this occasion. I sprinted up the escalator steps and got on to a jam packed Skylink just as it was departing for Terminal D. As I was hopping off and taking the escalator, I could hear my name being called over the speakers. This has surprisingly never happened to me before over the years. If I missed a flight before, it was always because I was on another flight arriving too late for the connection. I thought I was a goner when I saw the agent close the door to the air bridge from 20 feet away, but she was nice enough to let me through. No clue how that happened.

My seat:

I selected seat 9L for this journey to Maui since it was the smaller of the two business class cabins on this 777-200 aircraft and because we were a group of 7 passengers (my parents, grandparents, sister, and uncle). I figured that we would have our own little space away from most of the other passengers. My uncle was actually meeting his parents after what had been a little over a year. Unfortunately, I couldn’t capture the moment they were reunited because of my parking space dilemma. It was a special surprise from my grandparents on their first trip to Hawaii.

What was available at the seat was actually no different from what was available before the pandemic started: a pillow, blanket, Bose headphones, and a menu. The only difference was a lone Purell wipe set atop the headphones for cleaning them out. That of course was not necessary as most people I saw, preferred to use their own.

Now American does offer a full domestic meal service on this flight, served on a single tray. They didn’t seem to carry very much pasta (the only vegetarian option) altogether. I had requested it ahead of time for all of us, but it turned out to be available for only 4 of us. There were other passengers as well experiencing similar issues. The menu read as follows for your reference:

It didn’t take long after I boarded for the door to be closed and for us to be on our way. It was a light traffic day at DFW and we were airborne before I could say “antidisestablishmentarianism.” We were quickly above a low bank of clouds when when it struck me that I was finally up in the air. After 16 months of no travel and having not even left the state of Texas, the entire experience was surreal. I would compare it to my first memory of flying. I just gazed out the window for a good 90 minutes.

 

It was somewhere over the Rockies that I finally decided it was time for me to close the window shades and move on. I was also probably introducing a lot of glare onto the tv screens.

The purser came around introducing herself to each of us and offered us a drink. She noticed that I was staring out the window in awe and asked if it was my first time in a while. I nodded, and she said “I get that a lot nowadays.” I personally had no interest in eating or drinking anything throughout this flight, but the purser insisted so I got myself a diet coke which came with a plastic cup and packaged nuts.

I waited until the entire meal service was over so that I wouldn’t have to drink while a majority of passengers were unmasked. A lady a few seats in front of me was coughing a bit and that kept me a bit unnerved. It was probably just allergies, but who knows these days?  It’s not like everyone was vaccinated on this flight. I wasn’t going take things for granted. I wore my N-95 for the entire flight over.

As I said the flight wasn’t very well stocked with the vegetarian entrée and there was apparently no dessert left, so I didn’t even bother getting a tray laid in front of me. From what I saw, it was pretty much your same old pasta American has always offered in premium cabins. Nothing new there. I started watching Ted Lasso (guys if you haven’t seen it already, you are truly missing out) and whiled away my time sleeping afterwards. 

I woke up from my nap just about 20 minutes before landing in Maui. I opened up my window shade and was greeted with some amazing light on our approach:

The island of Maui had been experiencing some of the rainiest weather in recorded history just a day before our arrival and the storms were expected to continue. The drive to Hana, which I had plans on making, was closed due to some landslides and flooding. I suspect the dramatic light was probably due to these passing storms. Not that light on Maui is ever not dramatic with its abundance of rainbows peeking through passing storms.

Upon arrival, we were made to wait behind the gate for a Hawaiian Airlines mainline jet bound for the mainland for a good 30 minutes (we had arrived a little too early).  Nothing to complain about from me. I just enjoyed some plane watching.

This was an unfamiliar sight for my eyes: 2 Southwest 737s parked at the gate in Kahalui. Last time I was here, Virgin America still existed and Southwest hadn’t announced plans for serving the islands yet.

On Arrival Safe Travels Program Document Check

Upon arriving we headed towards baggage claim, just before which there was a very large line of people looking to get their documents checked to skip quarantine. The line was at least an hour long, but the guy handling my grandparents’ wheelchairs ushered us to another line for the handicapped. I tried taking my phone out to take a picture, but this lady working there gave me the look. You never want to take a chance with people who can exercise their authority and not let you in/out of a place. We were asked to present the QR code we got from the Safe Travels Program (after uploading all the documentation) along with our ID. It didn’t take long for them to wave us through to baggage claim, but you can tell the frustration on the faces of the people working there. It wasn’t exactly a welcome we got there 🙂

Do note that Maui may soon start requiring all arriving passengers to undergo a second COVID test on arrival. I’m assuming that this part is done so at the time of presenting your documents. 

 Picking up the Rental Car:

After picking up our bags, I headed off to the rental car facility to get our car. The last time I was on Maui, there were shuttle buses to the various rental car companies so I wasn’t aware that the facility had just moved to a somewhat short walk down across from the terminal. I unnecessarily waited for over 30 minutes and finally got on a tram car where people and their bags were packed like sardines. I would say social distancing was more of a problem here and at the Safe Travels Program checkpoint than anywhere else on my journey.

My advice: send one family member to go pick up the car and have them circle back for the luggage along with additional passengers. If you can just walk to the rental car facility.

At the rental car facility, I hopped off and went directly to the car lot. As a National Emerald Club Executive Member, there was no wait and I just had to present the page on the Safe Travels Program stating that I was not subject to quarantine. This can be found under the “TRIPS” icon on the web application and will be the same thing you present when arriving at your hotel. 

And that pretty much is a wrap on almost an eventful travel day. I know it was wordy and lengthy, but I figured I would share my experience thoroughly rather than briefly.

Bottom Line:

Overall, the travel experience didn’t seem all that different to me other than the usage of masks. I know some don’t like the abbreviated meal service, but I thought it was better that people have fewer excuses to not mask up.  I don’t think I felt too unsafe at any point during the flight, but I realize that this was truly just perception and I was wearing a N-95 throughout.

On the other hand, I still don’t understand why airlines don’t offer vaccinated passenger only flights to Hawaii and other destinations to skip processing times upon arrival and make passengers feel safer. With the kind of data we have, people that have been vaccinated with both doses (after at least 2 weeks of finishing the second) are pretty much not a threat to fellow vaccinated passengers. But then again I suspect that this will be a tremendous loss to the companies offering COVID tests because it would mean vaccinated travelers wouldn’t have to be tested constantly. The entire process seemed rather inefficient given the data we have and you certainly don’t want congregations of people right after they get off the flight from wherever they came from.

Oh yeah and Maui should just get rid of that rental car tram and provide moving walkways for people. Stuffing people into those cars is a bit silly for the short ride that it is.

My thoughts on travel:

It’s never a good idea to be complacent. In my experience, there were plenty of times when fellow passengers had their masks off (during meals) and not on properly (below the nose or worse) while walking the aisles, so the spread of infection will never be zero. It’s important to remember that there were multiple instances of significant spread of infection on airplanes, contraindicating the studies airlines have been parading on the media. So even as the CDC has advised that travel is ok for vaccinated travelers, now is not the time to let your guard down while doing so. None of us want to give the virus a foothold to mutate and find a way around the vaccine.

Are you planning on going to Hawaii anytime soon? What are your thoughts on travel right now. 

9 Comments

  1. DaninMCI

    Thanks for the great review but my problem with all this is that I don’t need a test to drive to say Indiana but I do to go to Hawaii. I think it’s time to move on from all that.

    1. I think many people misunderstand why Hawaii does what it does with testing. The number of ICU beds in the state are heavily concentrated in Honolulu and Oahu and far fewer per capita than the mainland. Being so far from the mainland, getting resources to help with an outbreak would be infinitely more difficult than any state in the lower 48. So they must be more strict with their protocols. If beds fill up, transporting citizens to the mainland is a costly and life threatening ride. This is also why Kauai had the strictest restrictions of any island. They have a total of 9 ICU beds or something.

      With that being said, 30% of Americans are fully vaccinated. Why not just let only those that are vaccinated in? And avoid the whole testing fiasco.

  2. Suzi

    I understand how you felt about drinking any beverage during your flight. Get you some wrapped drinking straws to put in your carry on. That way you can skip the cup and drinking directly from the can. Another advantage of the straw is you don’t really have to remove your mask. You can slip it under the side of your mask , no problem. As a medical provider you know how important it is to stay hydrated, especially on a long flight. So always have a drink.

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.