Have Cards, Will Travel

I traveled to Hawaii. Here’s how to navigate their safe traveler program

The Aloha State's screening process is especially streamlined if you fly a pre-clearance airline


Even if you’re not ready to travel yet, it’s still worth paying attention to Hawaii’s coronavirus screening process. It might foreshadow what other tourist destinations implement in the future.

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Aloha from Oahu. For the past weeks, I’ve been hearing a lot about Hawaii’s safe traveler program for visitors to the islands coming from the mainland, as well as the new pre-clearance process for travelers on specific airlines. Intrigued about any travel that seems COVID-safe (and easy) these days, I decided to test out the process myself, put some of my rewards points to work, and hop over to Hawaii for some research and warm weather.

I’m happy to report that flying from Portland to Honolulu was easy. While the COVID testing and safe travel preparation process was rigorous, it was also straightforward. Plus, I was rewarded for all of my effort with lots of sunshine on arrival. Hello, endless surf and summer.

Even if you’re not traveling right now, Hawaii’s process might foreshadow what we can expect as part of the pre-travel process once the world starts to open again.

See related: Prepping your post-pandemic travel strategy

The pre-travel process for visiting Hawaii

Before you travel to any of the Hawaiian islands you’ll need to get yourself a negative COVID test at one of Hawaii’s trusted testing partners within 72 hours of your flight, then complete all the steps of the mandatory state of Hawaii travel and health online form to be cleared before boarding. If you fail to complete any of the steps, you’ll be spending your first 10 days in a strict hotel quarantine watching the sunset through your window.

Since my preference was to spend my time in Hawaii working on my winter tan and watching the sunset from the beach in my hammock – not in quarantine – I definitely paid attention to all the rules, followed the detailed Safe Travel process, and even flew an airline that offered me pre-clearance so I could get my toes in the sand as quickly as possible on arrival.

See related: What to do if you get COVID-19 while traveling

Steps to take before you go

  1. Create a safe travels account for yourself (and each traveling adult) on the site.
  2. Create a trip for your visit to Hawaii, adding all flight and lodging information.
  3. Get a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of your travel from one Hawaii’s trusted testing partners. The approved partner should provide you with a PDF of your results in a special format with the state of Hawaii seal.
  4. Upload a copy of your negative test results in PDF format (it can’t be a picture or a screenshot) to the trip you’ve created in your travel Hawaii profile.
  5. Complete the online health questionnaire in your travel profile – you will not be able to access this until 24 hours before your flight.
  6. Print a copy of the QR code you receive and a copy of your PDF results. You will need to show these at the airport before you fly – and when you land if the airline you are flying with does not have a pre-clearance process.

Add a shortcut to the travel Hawaii website to your phone home screen and make sure you know your password so you have easy access to everything you’ll need. You will have to show your QR code anytime you check into a hotel, campground, or rent a car. And make sure your phone is charged upon arrival in Hawaii – especially if you aren’t flying on an airline with pre-clearance. You’ll need to use it often to show your QR code and prove you tested negative.

Pre-clearance airlines 

Within the last two months, Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines have become the first airlines to offer the Hawaii pre-clear program. If you’re flying to Hawaii on a flight operated by one of these two carriers, you can show your ID, Hawaii Safe Travels QR code, and printed copy of your COVID-negative results to a pre-clearance gate agent at your departure airport before you board. You’ll be given an armband to wear, and when you arrive in Hawaii, you’re ready to hit the beach. No additional waiting in long lines required.

Flying to Hawaii

Pretty much all of the U.S. airlines who normally operate flights to Hawaii are still flying to the islands – albeit with limited schedules since there aren’t as many travelers. If you’ve got reward miles saved up with any of the big carriers, you’ll likely be able to get a flight on points.

On my trip to Oahu, I redeemed 15,000 Alaska points for a one-way direct flight from PDX to HNL. Because I had flexibility in my schedule, I was able to pick the cheapest day to fly on reward points. Every other day in the same week was 17,500 miles.

Before you rush into using your points to book, make sure you check all the options and offers on paid fares. I was going to fly home using points but wound up getting a direct return flight via an Alaska Airlines sale for $170 – with a confirmed first-class upgrade!

See related: Strategies for planning 2021 travel

Accommodation and rental cars

I’ve found staying and getting around Hawaii right now to be much easier, much cheaper, and honestly much more pleasant than any of the four times I’ve been to the islands in the past.

On my past trips to Hawaii, I’ve found car rentals to be pretty cost-prohibitive for more than a day or two. On this trip, with a bit of shopping around using AutoSlash, Hotwire, and Rental8 the cost all-in for a one week SUV rental for exploring the island and camping on the North Shore was $140!

Hotels in Waikiki are operating at much lower capacities, so getting an ocean-facing room using my World of Hyatt credit card points was as easy as finding a delicious poke bowl for dinner. I spent one night at the Hyatt Regency for 20k points, then shifted to the Hyatt Place just a couple of blocks away for 12k points per night to maximize my points purchasing power. Like everywhere else, hotels are offering limited amenities, but the island still has everything you need.

Bottom line

Of the three trips I’ve been able to take since the pandemic started, flying to Hawaii has hands-down felt the safest. There’s lots of space to breathe here and the rigor of the pre-travel process was reassuring.

Will I come back to Hawaii? If COVID-19 travel restrictions linger into the spring months, absolutely. I’ve already found a return fare to visit Oahu again in April for $250 return – and there’s nothing like a little sunshine to treat the chronic quarantine blues.

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