Devastating wildfires in the Hawaiian Islands – coupled with vast communication gaps created by the interruption of services – have many travelers in limbo as they struggle to leave the especially hard-hit island of Maui or reschedule imminent travel plans.
Here’s what we know right now about Hawaii travel.
Which islands are affected?
Fires on parts of the islands of Maui and Hawaii were burning Wednesday, creating dangerous conditions in some parts of those two islands. The most harrowing conditions on Wednesday appeared to be in West Maui in the town of Lahaina.
A blaze engulfed the historic town, which is a popular tourist destination, and the town was evacuated. Communication networks have been crippled, and it’s still unclear how much the fires have impacted the surrounding coast, where numerous resorts are located.
Travel adviser Jim Bendt, owner of Pique Travel Design in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, also noted the communications challenges. Bendt had been in contact Wednesday with people in Hawaii.
Some areas of the Kohala Coast on the island of Hawaii were evacuated because of fires, according to the county’s website. Mandatory evacuations there were lifted Wednesday evening. Fire hazards are noted here. By late Wednesday, state officials had not discouraged travel to that island.
How are travelers getting out of Maui?
Maui’s Kahului Airport (OGG) is open, the Hawaii Department of Transportation posted on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
The HDOT urged patience at the airport.
“All airlines are sending additional support to aid in getting people off island,” the DOT said in another post. “@TSA_Pacific Hawaii leadership will be adding resources to support OGG.”
Hawaiian Airlines added three additional late-night flights on Wednesday to Honolulu from Maui’s Kahului Airport (OGG) to help evacuate travelers affected by the fires. The airline said it also added six additional flights earlier in the day and planned to add four extra flights from Maui to Honolulu on Thursday.
“Hawaiian is continuing to offer reduced $19 main cabin fares out of Maui to facilitate urgent travel needs,” the airline said in a statement.
Nonessential inbound travel to Maui is strongly discouraged, Ed Sniffen, director of the Hawaii State Department of Transportation, said Wednesday at a news conference.
About 2,000 people stayed overnight Tuesday at the airport in Maui, Sniffen said.
Over 11,000 people were flown out of Maui on Wednesday, Sniffen said in a press conference Wednesday evening.
Sniffen said roads to the airport in Maui have reopened and they are expecting more travelers to fly out on Thursday. The county is also running buses to help get travelers to the airport.
The Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority also said on Wednesday afternoon that visitors who are in Maui on nonessential travel are being asked to leave the island.
What about travelers who have upcoming plans to visit Maui?
As noted above, government officials are discouraging nonessential travel to Maui.
Travel adviser Jim Bendt is following that guidance. Bendt said Pique Travel Design is advising clients traveling to Maui in the next week to reschedule their trips to “help ease the burden on local infrastructure.”
Pique Travel will be working with its partners on the island to waive or minimize cancellation and change fees, he said.
Hawaiian Airlines, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines all are offering travel waivers for travel to Maui allowing passengers to change plans without penalty.
“Guests with non-urgent travel inquiries are encouraged to call back later so that we can assist those with immediate needs,” Hawaiian Airlines posted on social platform X. The airline urged travelers to check their flight status before going to the airport.
For clients who had plans to visit Maui for part of their Hawaii trips, Bendt’s company is looking at finding alternatives for them on other islands such as Kauai or Oahu.
“For future travel, we are waiting on damage assessments to determine the best path forward but don’t anticipate canceling trips once it’s safe to return,” Bendt said.
In its travel guidance, the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority specifically called out West Maui as the area that near-term travelers need to avoid.
“Visitors with travel plans to stay in other parts of Maui and the Kohala Coast of Hawaiʻi Island in the coming weeks are encouraged to contact their hotels for updated information and how their travel plans may be affected,” the tourism management authority said in an update Wednesday.
She’s been unable to communicate with the hotel they had booked in the resort area of Ka’anapali, which is near one of the fire outbreaks. “I’ve tried to phone them several times, but the line is absolutely dead. I sent them a text message but no reply so far.”
Their return flight to Germany is scheduled out of Maui. Kappelar anticipates trying to fly out of Daniel Inouye International Airport on Oahu instead.
Can I get a refund for upcoming lodging bookings on Maui?
Some information has been posted to specific property websites. Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa, located north of Lahaina, is closed to arrivals and will not be accepting guests through August 13, according to a post online. Kaanapali Alii, a Destination by Hyatt Residence is not accepting bookings or “able to honor upcoming reservations for arrivals through 11 August 2023,” its website says, directing guests with upcoming bookings to a global call center with questions.
The Lahaina Shores Beach Resort is advising guests to contact its reservations team at 888-524-5098 to reschedule.
Outrigger Resorts has posted an FAQ about Maui that includes instructions for guests who can’t get back to their resort to check out. Guests with upcoming stays on Maui are encouraged to rebook at one of the brand’s other properties on Oahu, Hawaii Island or Kauai. The FAQ dated August 9 did not address refunds. Hawaii Island guests are directed to the county website for information.
Many large hotel companies have more flexible cancellation policies brought in with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Airbnb’s extenuating circumstances policy is currently in effect for parts of the state of Hawaii, including all of Maui. It allows guests and hosts to cancel penalty-free, and guests with eligible stays will receive full refunds.
VRBO has not yet responded to a request for information about bookings in affected areas.
What about visiting other islands?
Bendt said travelers with plans to visit other Hawaiian islands won’t need to change their plans.
“Hotels and tours are operating as normal,” he said.
Another travel adviser, Norman Aynbinder, who is president and CEO of Excursionist in Miami, also noted the limited range of the current fires.
“It is important to note that Oahu, Lanai, and Kauai have no active fires and that the fires on the Big Island are limited to the Kohala Coast and do not impact most of the touring on the rest of the island,” Aynbinder said via email.
The tourism authority noted that tourism to “Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, and other parts of Hawaiʻi Island are not affected at this time.”
More broadly, what’s next for travel to Maui?
For now, it’s a wait-and-see situation.
“Natural disasters are, by nature, quick-moving. If you have a trip to Maui a few weeks from now, your best bet for now is to wait and see if the fires get contained,” said Scott Keyes, founder of travel site Going.com.
Keyes said that “there’s no added benefit to canceling a trip a few weeks in advance versus a few days in advance.”
And canceling could have a big impact on the island.
“The potential loss of tourism revenue could be another devasting blow to the local community that relies on it,” Bendt said.
“As of today, the tourism infrastructure outside of Lahaina has not been damaged and will be open for business,” Bendt said. “Once officials have said it’s safe to travel back to Maui the best thing people can do is not cancel their trips.”