Travel is on the rise. Advance bookings are looking strong well into the fall. Advisor friends of mine are reporting some resorts are booked solid for weeks. Car rental rates and airfares are reported to be soaring in markets where demand is far outstripping the slow return of supply.
And then there’s COVID, creating a complex web of travel requirements that change seemingly week to week, and month to month. One wrong move and a traveler could find themselves being denied boarding or entry into a country, or be stuck in their destination because they don’t have a negative COVID test to allow them to return to the United States.
These are all reasons why it has never been more important for consumers to consider using a professional travel advisor to plan their trip. And before you go saying “I’m an experienced traveler who always books my own vacations and never had a problem,” consider the March 18 Slate article by Anna Rao, You Might Think It Sounds Nice to Go to Hawaii. We Tried, and It Was a Disaster.
In February, Rao and her husband agreed to meet their daughters on the Big Island, where their daughters had planned a “Work from Hawaii” getaway. Rao, a self-described “former telecom professional, avid hiker, and a wannabe pastry chef equally adept at bytes and bites,” is far from an inexperienced traveler—and this was no rushed trip.
Initially, Rao had reservations. Convincing herself that traveling in the middle of a pandemic was safe “took me some time,” she wrote in the article, including “much back and forth with my husband.”
Eventually, they made plans to arrive on the Big Island a couple of days earlier than their daughters and stay for 10 days, then head to Oahu for five days. (Currently, Oahu is the only island not requiring a new COVID-19 test for inter-island travel.)
Rao described booking a flight from the Washington, D.C., area, reserving their AirBnb on the Big Island, and getting a fast-turnaround COVID-19 test as “not-too-difficult.”
A 36-Hour Hawaii Roundtrip, and a Lost Vacation
When they landed in Hawaii, the couple walked confidently to their gate to board their flight to Kona. Rao described “long lines” and a “Pre-Screening for Hawaii Travelers” sign, but they had already uploaded the results of their negative test and a Hawaii Health Form to the Safe Travels Hawaii website.
Just for extra comfort, they asked a flight attendant at the gate whether they needed anything more. The airline employee “shrugged,” and said their screening would be upon arrival in Kona. However, when they landed, Rao was informed that their COVID tests weren’t valid. The “reputable pharmacy” in Northern Virginia, where they had spent $400 for the two of them, was not a Hawaii trusted testing partner.
Hawaii requires testing at a maximum of 72 hours prior to boarding. While searching for approved testing centers in her area, Rao found that most of the Safe Travels Hawaii program approved partners either are located on the West Coast, or else did not meet the quick-turnaround requirement.
(Rao later learned that some mail-in testing vendors would have worked. And, today, there is also approved testing at major airports.)
Now their options were to quarantine for 10 days in a state-approved hotel or return home. Being forced to make their decision quickly, Rao feverishly tried a number of other sources for assistance, including the Safe Travels Hawaii toll-free number.
“Desperate, I started searching the internet for advice. But there was nothing on any site to guide us through the ins-and-outs of pandemic travel bureaucracy. Our vacation was simply going to slip away from us before it even began. After a round of back-to-back calls to family and United Airlines, we signed the requisite forms stating we were returning to D.C.”
Thirty-six hours later, Rao and her husband were back in Northern Virginia.
Travel Advisors are Immersed in Travel Requirements
I stay on top of travel requirements for the major travel destinations that are open because of my work. But right now, even I wouldn’t try flying to Hawaii without a travel advisor booking my trip for me. For this column, I reached out to Shannon Lamarche, a Luxury Travel Advisor who owns Premiere Luxury Travel.
Lamarche is a big Hawaii fan. She has traveled there five times, starting in 2003, and has planned more than 15 Hawaii vacations for her clients. She noted how, as a professional, she is deeply engaged, daily, in private travel advisor forums, discussing and sharing updates on issues like COVID testing requirements.
“There are so many more hoops to jump through right now for travel to many locations (even within the U.S.), and it seems like the requirements change from day-to-day. So it’s important for me to keep up with the current protocols and not assume that any exceptions will be made,” she said.
“Many travelers are used to booking their arrangements themselves, so it’s understandable that they would want to continue to do so,” Lamarche told me. “However, what a lot of people don’t realize, especially because most haven’t traveled much since the pandemic started a year ago, is that traveling to destinations we’ve been to in the past just isn’t that simple anymore.”
For example, there are about two dozen potential approved testing partners on the Hawaii State COVID-19 portal that a consumer would have to analyze individually. Then there are flight specific options—passengers flying to Honolulu on Delta flight 480 and United flight 1158 from Los Angeles International Airport “have access to additional lab opportunities through CLEAR Health Pass,” the state portal says. But to learn more, a consumer has to click through to those respective COVID testing pages.
One of Lamarche’s clients reads her agency’s weekly e-zine, and commented to her about her most recent blog about Hawaii. They were looking to book a 10-day vacation, but were confused by the 10-day quarantine language. “I told them, ‘you can test out of that beginning April 5, or you can stay on another island,’” Lamarche recounted.
Indeed, the County of Kauai will be loosening its rules beginning April 5. According to a COVID update, posted Thursday, March 25, for travel to Kauai Lihue Airport, Kauai will rejoin the state’s Safe Travels pre-travel testing program.
Until then, temporary rules for visitors and residents traveling to Kauai require people traveling from out of state to take a pre-travel test, stay in a “Resort Bubble” for 72 hours or more, then take a post-travel test to be released from quarantine. Otherwise, you must quarantine for 10 days.
Those who have been in the State of Hawaii for more than 72 hours are eligible to take an approved pre-travel test for inter-island travel to Kauai.
Ramping Up Travel Advisor Marketing
Lamarche and I agree that part of the problem is that too many consumers still don’t understand what professional advisors do. They’re stuck in that mode thinking that advisors are transactors, processing booking requests versus consulting on all of the aspects of a trip—especially things like COVID travel requirements.
“I think, because we live this every day, we assume everyone knows what we do and the value we create,” Lamarche said. “Still, I’m seeing all of the people who have posted about taking their spring break vacations, and they’re booking on their own.”
I think consumers and advisors alike would be helped dramatically by a concerted industry effort to talk more about travel’s complexity, and urge more consumers to book with advisors. When you’re trying to book a vacation to get away from your stress, who needs more?
Richard D’Ambrosio is a master storyteller who, for more than 30 years, has helped leading brands like American Express, Virgin Atlantic Airways, the Family Travel Association (FTA), and Thomas Cook Travel tell their stories to their customers, the media, and employees. A professional business coach and content marketing consultant with his own firm, Travel Business Mastermind, Richard most recently has worked with The Travel Institute, Flight Centre USA and a variety of host agencies and tour companies, helping entrepreneurs refine their brands and sharpen their sales and marketing skills. Richard writes regularly about retail travel agencies, social media & marketing, and business management.