What is it really like to travel outside of the mainland US in the time of COVID? Taking my first flight in nearly 2 years, I found out and want to share my experiences with you.

People either love or hate Southwest Airlines. I’m in the former camp. They are efficient, the planes are clean, and I have no problem with unassigned seats, especially when I’m in one of the early boarding groups and can plop down in the exit aisle.

Southwest was great about keeping me informed, not only of the normal pre-flight info but also of the changing COVID requirements. I was fully expecting the need to take a PCR test within 72 hours of departure. That was in addition to having registered my COVID vaccination status on the https://travel.hawaii.gov website.

Let’s talk about that website by saying first that I am extremely tech-savvy. I use all kinds of software and apps, and very little scares me. This did. It was clunky, didn’t want to accept the upload of a photo of my vaccination card, and did not send any confirmation I had completed the process. After spending way too long (probably an hour), I had to take it on faith that I completed all the requirements.

Then 10 days before departure, Hawaii retracted the testing requirement if you had documented you were vaccinated. Yay! I logged back into the website, had to re-set my password (of course. How many passwords can I remember?) and verify my vaccine card was uploaded. Yes, it was uploaded, so no need for pre-trip testing.

What I didn’t know, and only discovered by accident, was that the day prior to departure, you need to go back to the website and complete a health questionnaire. The reward is a QR code, which you need to show at the airport (more about this later.)

What made this process a challenge was the questions, which were not self-explanatory. Specifically, “have you had a FLU shot and when?” Wait, are they asking about the regular, old-school flu shot or the COVID vaccine. It’s a reasonable question because some people refer to COVID as a flu, and I’d never read or heard anything about needing a flu shot as well.

Since I had had a flu shot, I answered yes. Then they asked for the date. I didn’t remember—sometime last fall before the COVID vaccine came out. But what if I’d answered “no”? Would Hawaii have said, “Sorry, you’re not welcome here”? I didn’t want to be rejected and I had had the flu shot, so I guesstimated the date. As soon as I hit the submit button, an email arrived with the QR code. But without an easy means to save it, such as adding it to my Apple Wallet. The best I could figure was to take a screenshot and add it to my photos. Again, a little clunky, but it worked.

Now let’s talk about car rentals.

As soon as I purchased the airline tickets, I attempted to reserve a car. Having been to Kauai in the past, I know that you need your own car to get around because there are not many public transit options, and I was guessing even fewer now. I tried all the usual suspects to rent for the 5 days I would be there. No cars available!

I’d heard that cars were scarce because during the lockdown period, there was no tourism in Hawaii and most rental cars had been shipped out or sold. Still, it was shocking to find not one car…even going to crazy sites like the one where Uber drivers rent out their cars when they aren’t driving. So I asked my community of travel advisors for any hacks, and they suggested trying to reserve for a week or longer. Sure enough, I found a car…but at an extortionary price. A Hyundai Elantra, which is a fine car but nothing fancy, for nearly $1,200! I reserved and hoped the laws of supply and demand would bend in my favor when it was time to travel.

A few days prior to my travel date, I tried again to find a car, just for my precise dates. Miracle of miracles, I found one through Priceline. Didn’t even have to name my own price. I could get a convertible for half of what I’d expected to pay for the Hyundai.

If you fly Southwest, you know that you can check-in 24 hours before your flight to get your boarding pass. When I was a road warrior, I had this down—I set my alarm so that as soon as the 24 hour time came, I was checking in and trying for the A group. Guess I’m out of practice because I completely forgot until about 22 hours before the flight. Checked in…to the C boarding group.

Flight day arrived. The good thing about an 8:30 am flight is that the drive to the airport is easy. We got there in record time, parked in our usual off-site parking garage, and got to the terminal easily. Thanks to having Global Entry, which includes TSA Pre-Check, we got through security quickly…until. They flagged both of our roller boards. My husband realized that he’d packed some aerosol sunscreen, but I didn’t know why they’d flagged mine.

After a thorough bag search, there was nothing wrong with my bag. The culprit in my husband’s was the tiny corkscrew with its one-inch foil cutter! TSA offered to trash the offending items or let my husband check his bag, the option he chose. We wanted that corkscrew—I’m in the WINE business.

So while he’s checking his bag, I saunter upstairs planning to get us some coffee. But I encountered a huge line of probably 75-100 people, all of whom were going to Hawaii. This was the line to have that QR code checked and give you a much sought-after wristband. This would allow you to enter Hawaii more quickly.

The line was being run by Southwest employees, using a combination of laptops, printed lists of passengers, and yellow highlighter pens. Very high tech. By the time I was almost at the front of the line, my husband arrived, a little rattled from all the extra steps, but OK. Sure enough, when it was our turn, the agent had to take a bio break, so we waited even longer.

We showed our QR code, they found our names on the printed flight manifest and highlighted our names. Then we got the wristbands, which said “Southwest,” and not “Hawaii.”

Boarding was fairly simple, and people were polite. They did have 6 feet markers on the floor of the jetway, and people were good about staying masked and distanced.

Found seats together and soon we were off. The flight was about 90% full. They no longer serve alcohol, only Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, coffee, and water. After an hour or so, the flight attendants come around with a bag of carbs and fat, but it is nice to get a snack on a nearly six-hour flight. Southwest does offer free movies, streamed and live TV, as long as you have your own device and headphones. There are no outlets at the seats, so you need to have a lot of juice or a spare battery (which is what I used).

Easy landing. Now we found out the reason for the wristbands. If you had one, you could go right to the baggage claim. If not, you had to stand in a long line to confirm your vaccination or test status (for those who are unvaccinated). Got our bags, took the shuttle to the off-site rental car office, and was in line about 45 minutes after landing. Not bad.

Unfortunately, not only does Hawaii lack cars, but it also lacks workers. There was only 1 clerk at the counter, and each rental seemed to take a good 15 minutes even though you wouldn’t even be in line without a reservation. Although there were only four parties ahead of us, we stood for an hour, amusing ourselves with the chickens and roosters parading outside the office, and the birds who flew inside.

Once it was our turn, I understood why the line took so long. The clerk had to spend time trying to upsell us every possible insurance (we declined), type in an amazing amount of information that should have been on the reservation we’d made, and then print out reams of contract on a dot-matrix printer.

Finally, we’re done and she says to wait outside for the car. So we wait and wait and wait. A Camaro convertible finally appears, and then disappears! Seems they had to fill up the gas tank. My patience was running thin. And then we were on our way to our home base on the Kapaa (east side) of Kauai.

The hotel was great. Snorkeling (my favorite) was beautiful and meditative. I have a new fondness for Mai Tai’s. Restaurants were good, though not amazing. I never expect food to be the highlight of Hawaii, and although some may dispute that opinion, it is mine.

Lessons learned:

Get vaccinated
Bring and wear masks
Register on the https://travel.hawaii.gov website
Go back to the website the day before your trip and complete the health questionnaire to get your QR code
If you have the time, wait in line at your departing airport to get the wristband. If not, you’ll get it in Hawaii…just will require some extra waiting on that end
Make restaurant reservations in advance unless you want to eat at fast food or cook your own. Restaurants are only operating at partial capacity and fill up.
Eat lots of shave ice—it’s the best. Get it with ice cream on the bottom and condensed milk drizzled on the top!
You can purchase really great wine to consume during your trip, or bring it back home. To find out how you can bring wine back safely, click here
ENJOY! A little bit of extra hassle, but I felt safe and relaxed. It is SO good to be back out in the world!