The combination of drought and strong winds has inflamed wildfires in Hawaii, producing a rapid blaze that has killed at least 55 people and displaced thousands more on Maui and the Big Island.
Lahaina, a Maui town of about 12,000 people where tourists flock to see remnants of a royal capital, has been dramatically scorched, turning a typically verdant locale black and gray and displacing residents.
In the immediate response, airlines and other hospitality businesses are using their resources to aid locals in need. Tourism officials are discouraging nonessential travel to the island.
Here’s what you need to know if you have an upcoming trip to Hawaii planned.
Should I cancel my trip to Hawaii?
If you have immediate plans to visit Maui - say, within one or two weeks - you should cancel or reschedule. If your trip is further out, you don’t need to make any hard decisions yet. There are too many unknowns at this point.
What we know so far is that Maui is in emergency and survival mode. On Wednesday, Hawaii’s acting Gov. Sylvia Luke issued an emergency proclamation extending the state of emergency to all counties. She asked visitors and residents to refrain from nonessential air travel to Maui.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority issued similar advice. “Visitors who have travel plans to West Maui in the coming weeks are encouraged to consider rescheduling their travel plans for a later time,” it said in a statement.
However, tourism officials said “the rest of the state is open.” James Tokioka, director of Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, suggested that vacationers change their reservations to other parts of the state.
Denise Ambrusko-Maida, owner of Travel Brilliant, a Buffalo-based travel agency, said she is not sending clients to any of the Hawaiian islands for the near-term. She does not want to siphon off resources needed for emergency operations or displaced residents.
“We don’t want to overstress their system, especially Oahu,” she said.
Josh Dozor, general manager of medical and security assistance at International SOS, a security risk firm, took a less conservative tact. He said travelers with upcoming trips to Maui should closely monitor the situation over the next few days. “I would reconsider it for a holiday for the next couple of weeks,” he said.
But he said visitors planning to vacation on the other islands can keep their plans. “Travel to the other islands is perfectly fine and advisable,” he said.
What should I do if I have hotel reservations in Lahaina?
Some historic hotels have already been lost during the fire, including 122-year-old Best Western Pioneer Inn and Plantation Inn in Lahaina, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.
Other hotels that are still operational are discouraging visitors. The Four Seasons Resort in Maui posted on Twitter that “non-essential travel to Maui is strongly discouraged at this time.”
Hyatt’s Lahaina Shores Beach Resort has been evacuated, while Kaanapali Alii and Hyatt Regency Maui are currently under shelter-in-place measures. Hyatt said it would not be accepting new guests or reservations at these hotels in the coming days and all its hotels in Maui are waiving cancellation fees during the same time period.
Marriott said Friday that its hotels in West Maui are closing temporarily due to power outages and are waiving cancellations fees through Aug. 31. “Guests at The Westin Maui Resort & Spa, Ka’anapali, Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa and The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua have departed the hotels, as requested by Maui County officials,” the company said in a statement.
A Hilton spokesperson said “properties in Maui are open and operational, with no reports of physical damage,” but the company will be waiving cancellation penalties for those traveling to, from or through Maui through Aug. 15. Travelers can contact 1-800-HILTONS for the most recent information on specific properties.
Short-term rental companies are adjusting policies, too. Airbnb’s extenuating circumstances policy is in effect for Maui, which means hosts and guests in the area can cancel penalty-free and guests will receive a full refund.
According to Vrbo, bookings in Maui and parts of the Big Island will have host penalties for cancellations waived for reservations between Aug. 9 and 16. This means hosts can cancel and refund their guests without affecting their future listing performance.
“If travelers have an upcoming booking in affected areas, we recommend they reach out to the host for more information regarding their reservation,” the company said in an email. “Additionally, if travelers bought travel insurance to protect their trip, we recommend they contact their insurance provider for more information and to file a claim.”
The American Hotel & Lodging Association and Hawaii Hotel Alliance are working with hotels in other part of Hawaii to house displaced residents.
How do I cancel my flights to Maui?
If you have a flight soon, within the next two weeks, you should cancel.
As airlines make changes to accommodate evacuees fleeing the wildfires in Maui, they are also eliminating fees and offering travel waivers for travelers who need to change their plans. The details of these policies vary by carrier.
Airlines are currently focused on using planes to transport people out of the island. United, for example, said in a statement that it was canceling Thursday’s inbound flights to Maui so that the empty planes can be used to take passengers to the mainland.
Kahului Airport in Maui is also dealing with added crowding from people trying to evacuate. For those already on the island, Hawaiian Airlines has discouraged showing up to the airport without flights booked due to crowds.
Ed Sniffen, director of the Hawaii Department of Transportation, strongly discouraged nonessential travel to Maui at a Wednesday news conference.
If your flight isn’t within the next few weeks, you can wait before deciding whether to cancel, as many factors are still unknown. Most carriers have dropped change fees since the pandemic. Though areas of West Maui like Lahaina Town have been severely impacted, other parts of the island and Hawaii at large have been less affected.
What will travel insurance cover?
Your travel insurance company could have your back, especially if your policy categorizes wildfires as a “natural disaster.”
Meghan Walch, director of product for InsureMyTrip.com, provided several instances in which a traveler might receive reimbursement. For example, if your hotel was damaged by fire and can no longer accommodate guests; the property canceled your booking because of damage and did not provide a full refund; the airline grounded your flight because of fire or smoke; or government officials issued a mandatory evacuation.
To determine whether you are covered, check the trip interruption, cancellation and delay sections of your comprehensive plan. InsureMyTrip created an online wildfire resource with additional information. Walch reminds travelers who cancel for personal reasons that they will not receive any money back unless they purchased the Cancel for Any Reason benefit.
With CFAR, policyholders can cancel at least 48 hours before their departure and receive 50 percent to 75 percent of their prepaid and nonrefundable expenses. Of course, timing is critical with travel insurance. You can’t buy it retroactively. “Travel insurance is meant to cover unforeseen events or issues,” she said. “So, if traveler were to purchase a travel insurance policy now and a trip is canceled because of the wildfires in Maui, you would not be covered.”
How common are wildfires in Hawaii?
Strong winds from storms can contribute to wildfire spread. High-speed wind flowing through mountainous passageways and canyons can create intensified fanning that grows wildfires. In 2018, Hurricane Lane in Hawaii led to multiple fires on Maui and Oahu, burning nearly 3,000 acres of land.
The Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization estimates that 0.5 percent of Hawaii’s total land area burns each year.
Other popular island destinations around the world have experienced devastating wildfires this summer. Fires on the Greek islands of Rhodes and Corfu displaced thousands of people last month, marking the country’s largest preventive fire evacuation in history, while wildfires in Sicily killed three.
Adela Suliman, Lyric Li and Tamia Fowlkes contributed to this report.