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Visiting Hawaii for the first time is akin to stumbling upon the Garden of Eden or Jurassic Park. It feels like another time period entirely, like you’re the first human to see the waterfalls, lush rainforests and crystal beaches.
Hawaii Travel Expenses Tips
Visiting Hawaii doesn’t have to break the bank if you know how to save in certain ways. Flights will eat up the largest part of your budget, but food trucks and cooking meals will save a bit. It’s easy to splurge on five star resorts, but it’s not necessary by any means. Traveling in the low season is one easy way to eliminate some costs. Here are just a few ways to save.
Getting Around the Islands
Most international flights will arrive in Honolulu, so it’s easy to make the city a base for further adventures to the other islands. The entire state of Hawaii is made up of over 100 islands, but only seven of them are inhabited, each with their own unique qualities to offer.
The majority of your budget will be eaten up by getting around, even if you’re only sticking to one island. There are buses on many islands, but they are sporadic, so it is common for people to rent vehicles. Rentals start at around $30 USD per day and are mostly found at airports. You must have a valid driver’s license to rent a car.
Flying is by far the most popular option for getting between islands. Hawaiian Airlines and Mokulele Airlines are your choices, but there are also a few ferries. One runs between Maui and Lanai and the other between Molokai and Maui.
- 10 Tips for Exploring Hawaii on a Shoestring Budget, Cheap Flights
Save on Meals
Eating out at restaurants every meal certainly adds up, especially on the islands. Thankfully, you can save money by staying in a place with a kitchen, which will allow you to make your own breakfasts and some other budget meals- but be sure to incorporate some local fresh produce in order to get the true Hawaiian feel. Look for groceries at local farmers markets instead of big box grocery stores. Food trucks are a cheap lunch option and the pastries, like malasadas, are a quick, affordable breakfast.
Skip the Resorts
Hawaii is home to some of the world’s most luxurious resorts, but they’re very expensive, especially in the high season. You can still access many of the amenities, namely the restaurants and beach access, even if you’re not staying onsite. Condos and rentals from websites like VRBO and AirBnb allow you to have self catering options. Hostels are another option, with private rooms for those who don’t want to bunk up.
Word to the wise: Book early, especially in the high season. You don’t want to get stuck paying for an expensive hotel in Honolulu when all the budget hostels have booked out!
Don’t Check a Bag
Island hopping is part of the Hawaii experience, so go carry on only. You don’t want to have to pay for bag charges every single time. You don’t need much, especially if you’ll be hanging at the beach. You also want to make sure that your bag is small enough to go into one of the small planes that flies between smaller islands, so do some research before you head off.
If you need help packing smaller and lighter, check out our ebook for help!
- Tips for an Affordable Trip to Hawaii, Tales of a Ranting Ginger
Essential Gear to Bring
Packing for Hawaii is a low-key affair, so keep it simple, as it’s the beach. You won’t need too many dressy outfits, so leave them, the high heels and the expensive jewelry pieces, at home. Shorts and sundresses (or a good maxi dress) are all you need. Sunscreen should also be a necessity, but to avoid liquid issues, it’s best to buy once you arrive. Just be prepared for a little price increase.
Swimsuits– Two suits should do well, as you can wash one and wear one. It’s also good to have one sturdy swimsuit that will stay on during activities like snorkeling or surfing. Also pack a sarong or cover up of some sort.
Rain jacket– The rain comes out of nowhere and disappears as quickly as it arrived. Throw a light, fold-up rain jacket into your purse for those situations.
Sandals– Instead of bringing heels and boots, bring a pair of dressy sandals and a pair of outdoorsy sandals like Teva Tirras or Chacos. You can wear them on hikes to waterfalls or walking around town.
Books to Read Before Visiting
Most books about Hawaii are novels, but the islands have long influenced writers. Here are a few of our favorite books written about the state.
The Descendants, Kaui Hart Hemmings– One of Hawaii’s most well-known writers crafted this story, later made into a film starring George Clooney, about a man who is a descendant of Hawaiian royalty. He returns to the land of his ancestors with his children as they take his wife off life support. Grab on Amazon.
Molokai, O.A. Bushnell– The smaller of the islands was once a leper colony and this story is a work of fiction based on the real life of Father Damien, who preached to the victims there. Grab on Amazon.
Hawaii, James A. Michener– The saga originally published in 1959 tells of the arrival of the Polynesians to the beautiful land, followed by the Americans. It’s an extensive history of the island chain. Grab on Amazon.
From Here to Eternity, James Jones– A soldier is hesitant to join the Army boxing team after threats from his colleagues. He risks his life and career by having an affair with his commanding officer’s wife. It’s set in Pearl Harbor in World War II. Grab on Amazon.
Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, Tony Horwitz– Over two centuries after the Captain made his mark on the Pacific, the writer visits Hawaii, among other places, to learn more about Cook’s legacy. Grab on Amazon.
Movies to Watch Before Visiting
Hawaii has been used as a backdrop for the Amazon and for futuristic worlds, like Jurassic Park, but it’s the films that use the islands as an additional character that are the most memorable.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall– The comedy starring Jason Segel, Mila Kunis, Russell Brand and Kristen Bell is about a man brutally dumped by his famous girlfriend. He goes on vacation to get over her and promptly runs into her and her new boyfriend. Grab on Amazon.
Fifty First Dates– Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore star in a movie about a man who falls for a woman who forgets everything that happened the minute she falls asleep. He must get her to fall in love with him again and again. Grab on Amazon.
Blue Hawaii– In Elvis Presley’s most memorable movie role, he plays a soldier just out of the service who goes to work for his girlfriend’s agency as a tour guide rather than working with his father at a fruit company. Grab on Amazon.
Blue Crush– Surfer girls compete to be the best, despite a traumatic injury and falling for a football player. Kate Bosworth and Michelle Rodriguez star. Grab on Amazon.
Lilo and Stitch– This Disney cartoon isn’t just for kids! Lilo is a young Hawaiian girl who befriends Stich, an alien, and must protect him from the men in black chasing him. Grab on Amazon.
Top Things to Do in Hawaii
There is no shortage of things to do in Hawaii, especially tours and outdoors activities. Each island has something unique to offer, so we’ve listed just a few options below.
If you’re looking to book a tour, Viator is a site where you can search through thousands of tour options, and book, all in one place. Yes, we are an affiliate, and at no additional cost to you, we will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase. And yes, we’ve also used Viator on numerous occasions while traveling and have found it a very useful resource.
Oahu is home to Honolulu and the majority of Hawaii’s major attractions. If you’re flying in through HNL, give yourself a few days to see the city and Oahu’s North Shore.
Pearl Harbor– Give yourself a few hours to visit this hallowed ground where the Japanese attacked the harbor. The site includes a documentary on the tragedy, museum exhibits and a boat ride out to the USS Arizona wreckage.
Diamond Head Crater– Even if you’re not a hiker, it’s well worth the climb to the top of the volcanic crater, which has the best views in Honolulu. There’s even an old military bunker up there.
Waikiki Beach– The island’s most famous beach has sweeping views of the bay and of the Diamond Head crater.
Iolani Palace– The only royal palace in America is where the Hawaiian Royal Family lived until the islands joined the United States.
Kualoa Ranch– Tour the massive property where Lost, Jurassic Park, 50 First Dates and many others were filmed. It has animals, a zip line and tours by horse, bus and ATV.
Valley of the Temples– The memorial park on the North Shore includes the Byodo-In Temple, which looks straight out of Japan. It was featured on Lost.
Polynesian Cultural Center– Known for its luaus, the center focuses on the history and culture of the Polynesian tribes in Hawaii, Fiji, Tonga and others.
Dole Plantation– Perhaps no fruit is as synonymous with Hawaii as the pineapple. Tour the plantation, where you can see where they’re grown and try the fruit in dozens of ways.
- 10 Things You Must Do on Oahu, Hawaii, Laura Radniecki
Known as “The Big Island,” Hawaii is known for its national parks and vast size. You’ll probably want to rent a car to drive between towns like Kona and Hilo.
Kona Brewing Company– Tour the brewery, which offers tastings, and dine at the seaside restaurant, which makes delicious sandwiches and pizzas from the yeast excess.
Akaka Falls– Go on an easy nature walk through the forest to one of the island’s most beautiful waterfalls.
Mauna Kea– Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano where large telescopes have been placed. It’s one of the highest points on the island.
Volcanoes National Park– While it’s difficult to see active lava flow unless you’re on a pricey helicopter tour, driving around the volcanic rocks is just as fascinating. The national park resembles the surface of another planet.
Black and Green Sand Beaches– The island boasts two unique beaches, one green, which is really a shade of brownish yellow, and a black sand beach.
The Garden Isle is made up almost entirely of untouched forest, making it beautiful and not as overrun with tourists. Don’t expect as many big name hotels, but much more opportunities for adventure.
Waimea Canyon– Even if you’re not a hiker, you’ll appreciate the gorgeous scenery of this colorful canyon that rivals the Grand Canyon in central Kauai.
Na Pali Coast– Some of the most pinnable images on Pinterest are of the lush Na Pali Coast, which is best seen by boat or helicopter.
- Places to Eat and Drink in Kauai, Forget Someday
Hana Highway– The Road to Hana is one of the most harrowing, and breathtaking, drives you’ll take in the United States.
- 14 Worthy Stops on the Road to Hana in Maui, A Passion and a Passport
Kalaupapa National Historic Park– When leprosy was brought by Europeans in the 1800s, those afflicted were banished by the king to live here. The residents of the original colonists still live here, although they’ve been treated for the disease.
Molokai Lighthouse– This lighthouse was built on the leprosy colony island to guide trading ships from other islands into the harbor. You must visit with a tour and can’t wander in on your own.
- Molokai Travel Guide: The Most Hawaiian Island, Wanderlusters
There are no main roads or major stores in Lanai and your accommodations are mostly limited to the two Four Seasons properties. But if you happen to go, here are a few of the places worth seeing.
Kaunolo Village– This important site is where people lived since the 1400s, specifically fisherman families. It features rock art and petroglyphs from its original inhabitants.
Garden of the Gods– Described as an “otherworldly rock garden,” this section of Lanai is covered in red boulders. It is believed to have been the result of a duel between two ancient kahunas.
Lanai Culture and Heritage Center– Learn more about the island and its history at the local cultural center.
- 12 Ways to Relax in Lanai, Hawaii, Plum Deluxe
Food and Drink in Hawaii
I wasn’t sure what to expect of Hawaiian cuisine, but I was delightfully surprised. There’s an obvious Asian influence due to its proximity to the region, but it also has dishes all its own.
Spicy shrimp– Head to Oahu’s North Shore to wait in line for a plate of spicy shrimp and rice at Giovanni’s. Peel it with your hands and don’t worry about the mess.
Shave ice– It’s not like what you’ve had on the mainland and don’t dare call it a “slushie.” The desert can come with ice cream and in some unusual flavors. but is guaranteed to keep you cool.
Malasadas– The Portuguese doughnuts are little balls of heaven, lightly coated in sugar. Leonard’s in Honolulu is the best place to find them.
Poke– This fresh salad is made with raw fish, typically yellowfin tuna, and other ingredients, including seaweed, soy sauce and sea salt.
Spam– The World War II era canned meat has a special place in the heart of Hawaiian cooking, where you can find it in sushi and other dishes.
Asian food– This may be vague, but don’t hesitate to try Asian cuisine in Hawaii. The sushi is guaranteed to be fresh and the noodles crafted in the traditional style.
- Foodie Primer for Hawaii: 13 Local Foods to Try, Matador Network
- Honolulu Cheap Eats, Honolulu Magazine
Do you have any Hawaii travel and packing tips to share? Please share them below!