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 about Hawaii travel right now.
Which islands are affected?
Fires engulfed parts of the islands of Maui and Hawaii this week, creating life-threatening conditions in some parts of those two islands. The most harrowing conditions have been in West Maui in the town of Lahaina.
A blaze swept through the historic town and residents and visitors raced to evacuate. Communication networks have been crippled, and the aftermath is devastating. Most of the town, which is a popular tourist destination, was destroyed.
As wildfires broke out in west Maui on Tuesday, people staying in nearby hotels were told not to evacuate, the mayor of Maui County said Thursday. “All of the hotels were asked to shelter in place,” said Mayor Richard Bissen.
Most full-service hotels in the area are located in Ka’anapali, about four miles (6.2 kilometers) away from Lahaina, which Bissen said was not endangered by the fires.
Travel adviser Jim Bendt, owner of Pique Travel Design in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, noted the communications challenges faced by those in West Maui. Bendt had been in contact Wednesday with people in Hawaii.
“Our local contacts have told us the damage is contained around the Lahaina area. The major resort areas such as Ka’anapali, Kapalua, and Wailea were not part of the fire,” Bendt told CNN Travel via email.
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. Maui’s Kahului Airport (OGG) is open. The Hawaii Department of Transportation urged patience at the airport in a post on social media platform X (formerly Twitter) on Wednesday.
Thousands of visitors have been evacuated from Maui via the island’s Kahului Airport, which has remained open. Shuttle buses have been used to transport some visitors from the West Maui resort area Kaʻanapali to the airport.
Nearly 15,000 visitors left on flights departing Maui on Thursday, according to Maui officials.
Visitors trying to leave Maui are asked to book airline flights. They can book flights to Honolulu and then continue from there to the mainland on a different flight, officials said.
Hawaiian Airlines has been running a full schedule of flights in and out of the airport, including nine additional flights on Wednesday and Thursday, the airline said.
All main cabin seats were made available from Maui to Honolulu for $19 from Wednesday to Friday.
United and American told CNN Wednesday that their inbound flights to Maui were canceled. They were operating outbound flights from Maui.
The Hawai‘i Tourism Authority set up a temporary shelter at the Hawai‘i Convention Center in Honolulu on Wednesday, where up to 2,000 evacuees from Maui can stay until they are able to get flights home or find local accommodations. Free shuttles are running from the airport in Honolulu to the convention center.
Nonessential inbound travel to Maui is strongly discouraged, Ed Sniffen, director of the Hawaii State Department of Transportation, said Wednesday at a news conference.
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.
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.
Inke Kappeler, a producer with CNN Digital in Berlin, Germany, was among those caught up in sudden travel disarray. She and her family were scheduled to head to Maui on Thursday from Kauai. Hawaiian Airlines told them they would need to reschedule as it was not advisable to travel to Maui for the next two weeks. Kappeler said her hotel in Maui was not reachable by phone.
Three Marriott properties in West Maui are closing temporarily because of extended power outages, according to Sara Conneighton, a Marriott International spokesperson. Those properties are The Westin Maui Resort & Spa, Ka’anapali; Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa; and The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua.
Guests at those resorts “have departed the hotels, as requested by Maui County officials. Our teams have focused on facilitating this evacuation, communicating with guests, and supporting our associates during this difficult time,” Conneighton said via email, directing travelers to the area to follow news reports and MauiCounty.gov for situation updates.
To modify bookings, she directed guests to Marriott.com or the Marriott app. Cancellation fees at the three affected West Maui hotels are waived through August 31.
CNN Travel has reached out to Hyatt, which also has properties in affected areas. The lodging company has not yet responded.
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 17, according to a post viewed online Friday. Deposits and prepayments for those dates will be refunded.
Kaanapali Alii, a Destination by Hyatt Residence is not accepting bookings or “able to honor upcoming reservations for arrivals through 09/09/2023,” its website says. Dates have changed in the past few days at both Hyatt properties, so guests should check for extended closures.
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. The FAQ dated August 9 outlined options for near-term guests including cancellation, changing dates or rebooking to another island.
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 Wednesday.
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.”
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.”
CNN’s Forrest Brown, Andy Rose, Cheri Mossburg, Stephanie Becker, Jamiel Lynch, Ross Levitt, Pete Muntean and Tori B. Powell contributed to this report.