Heading to Hawaii on your first visit? It’s going to be a magical experience! Do you know about reef safe sunscreen? Shrimp trucks and malasadas? Where to find food trucks? Things to see on every island? Read on for my very best Hawaii travel tips!
As a seasoned Hawaii traveler, I’ve already made most of these mistakes…so you don’t have to.
There are so many things I wish I’d known to avoid sunburns, crowds, and missed sights I didn’t know I needed to reserve ahead of time.
- Hawaii Travel Tips for First Time Visitors
- 1. Plan at least three days on one island.
- 2. Know how to island hop.
- 3. Embrace the spirit of “Malama.”
- 4. There are some popular free tourist attractions you must reserve in advance.
- 5. Rent a car.
- 6. Splurge on a unique experience.
- 7. Bring reef-safe sunscreen.
- 8. Pack at least two bathing suits.
- 9. You’ll want a rash guard and snorkel gear.
- 10. Set google alerts for airfare deals.
- 11. Book hotels and condos early for best rates.
- 12. Save on food by enjoying the food truck scene.
- 13. Skip the upsell at the rental car agency.
- 14. Don’t over schedule yourself.
- 15. Try Hawaiian food specialties.
- 16. When in doubt, don’t go out!
- 17. Don’t trespass on private property.
- 18. Don’t panic about rain.
- Maui Travel Tips
- Oahu Travel TIps
- Kauai Travel Tips
- Big Island Travel Tips
Hawaii Travel Tips for First Time Visitors
1. Plan at least three days on one island.
But here’s the thing…You’ll likely eat up precious vacation time by flying to and from each island.
Unless you take a cruise to Hawaii, the only way to move between them (except for one lesser known island off the coast of Maui) is to fly.
I promise that you’ll have plenty to do and see on each island on a 7 day visit. With 14 days, choose two Hawaiian islands. With three full weeks, choose three islands.
But at a minimum, I recommend you plan to spend at least three days per island!
2. Know how to island hop.
Okay, you have a at least six days and are dying to see two islands. What’s the best way to do it?
As noted above, you’ll be flying between islands. In addition to several regional airlines, you’ll find plenty of daily flights on Hawaiian Air and Southwest Airlines.
Just book directly with the airlines on their websites.
(This is always my recommendation for booking flights. If there are delays or cancellations, you’ll get better service from an airline with a direct booking over a third party booking.)
Flights to Hawaii are frequent and generally affordable.
However, many include stopovers in Honolulu so if you’re looking to minimize stopovers and aren’t headed to Honolulu, book early to ensure you nab a short non-stop flight. You’ll conserve precious vacation time.
There is a daily ferry from Lahaina on Maui to Lanai, a remote island off Maui’s coast. You can even do it as a day trip.
But if this is your first visit to Hawaii, I recommend you save Lanai for a future trip.
There’s so many bucket list experiences in Hawaii that you should prioritize Maui, Oahu, Kauai, and Big Island on a first visit.
(Unless you’re truly an off-the-beaten-path type of traveler who mostly wants to relax on pristine beaches.)
3. Embrace the spirit of “Malama.”
What is “malama” exactly? It means “to take care of” in Hawaiian. And this concept is deeply embedded in Hawaiian culture.
It’s a way of life! It means to be reverent on these beautiful islands…to protect and safeguard all the treasures of Hawaii for future generations.
Walk around fragile plant life rather than tromping through it to save a few steps with a short cut.
Avoid touching or sitting on coral (which kills it). Respect Hawaii law that forbids taking coral home as a souvenir.
And most importantly, be respectful to your fellow humans—locals and tourists alike—when on island.
That means driving within Hawaii speed limits (which are frequently 35 mph…hey, you’re on vacation).
Choose kindness—instead of honking and yelling—when you find yourself in a busy parking lot or popular tourist attraction.
These all too common behaviors are what give tourists a bad name in Hawaii and lead to ever more restrictions.
4. There are some popular free tourist attractions you must reserve in advance.
There are a handful of adventures on each island that are completely free but must be reserved in advance.
That’s because the State of Hawaii, a year or two ago, decided to enforce daily limits on entrance to key sights and fragile ecosystem in response to rampant overtourism.
Regulating the flow of people was actually the best decision ever but it also means you’ve got to plan ahead!
If you’re hoping to walk even the first quarter mile of the famous Kalalau Trail on Kauai or Diamond Head on Oahu, you’ll need an advance reservation.
And there are different restrictions on how soon these can be reserved in advance of your visit.
5. Rent a car.
Hawaii is difficult to get around without a car. If you’re on a cruise, your best bet is to reserve day tours where someone else does the driving.
Viator has a nice selection of tours to see popular sites on every island. (Just type in the island you’re visiting at the top of the page and see what pops up.)
Some islands—like Oahu—have decent bus service, but honestly, you’re going to find a car to be the best option for accessing the remote beaches and bucket list sites you’ve likely come to Hawaii to see.
Like all things in Hawaii, rental cars are not cheap so reserve well ahead of your visit to secure the best prices.
How to Rent a Car in Hawaii
My top two recs are:
1. Discover Cars has no hidden fees, 24/7 customer service, and free cancellation. They search all the major rental car companies so you don’t have to.
Check price and availability on rental cars here.
2. Turo is like Airbnb for cars. It saved us $$$ during the pandemic on our Hawaii rentals when rental car prices were sky high.
6. Splurge on a unique experience.
If you’re going to visit Hawaii, this is the time to indulge in a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
Seeing the jaw-dropping green peaks of the Na Pali Coast on Kauai or the hundreds of hairpin turns on Maui’s Road to Hana from the air is a bucket list experience.
Honestly, a helicopter ride on any of the islands is something you’ll never forget.
But if that’s not in the budget, don’t despair. There are literally dozens of incredible day trips on every Hawaiian island to enjoy.
From snorkeling Molokini Crater and sunset dinner cruises to whale watching excursions and visiting Pearl Harbor, a guided trip can offer a deeper appreciation of the history, ecology, and cultural aspects of what you’re seeing from a knowledgeable local.
7. Bring reef-safe sunscreen.
Is the kind of sunscreen you buy and wear in Hawaii really that important? Yes! In fact, it’s critical for maintaining the health of Hawaii’s coral reefs and marine life.
The sad reality is that there are more than 14,000 tons of sunscreen floating in Hawaii’s oceans due to overtourism.
And a very common sunscreen ingredient—Oxybenzene—kills coral…which all those beautiful tropical fish depend on for nutrients.
That’s why using sunscreen that is not reef-safe is actually illegal in Hawaii.
You can pick up the good stuff at mostly any grocery store or snorkel shop on island.
But to save money, considering grabbing at least a TSA-compliant size of reef-safe sunscreen on Amazon before you go.
Also, the sun is HOT in Hawaii. Unless you want to be hiding from the sun due to sunburn on your tropical vacation, get SPF 45 or 50!
You can get some reef-safe sunscreen on Amazon here.
8. Pack at least two bathing suits.
I always travel carry on these days because the risk of my luggage getting lost is just too great.
So I need to be thoughtful about the things that are going to be on my Hawaii packing list.
And honestly, the biggest mistake I made the first time I visited was over packing clothes and make-up and under packing when it came to bathing suits.
It’s hot and humid in Hawaii. Plus, most of my time was spent hiking and on beaches. I didn’t reach for my make-up once!
But you’re also not going to want to put on a damp suit the next day either so be sure and bring a few options!
My favorite one piece is actually on Amazon. It’s comfortable, cute, and I like the ruching—pleated fabric—on the front that is slenderizing.
9. You’ll want a rash guard and snorkel gear.
Are you an avid snorkeler? Or will this be your first time snorkeling in Hawaii?
If you don’t own snorkel gear and aren’t likely to snorkel any time soon after your Hawaii vacation, I recommend renting your gear once you arrive in Hawaii.
You can just head to any snorkel shop—no advance reservation required—and have someone fit you for googles, a snorkel mask, and fins. It will likely cost you less than $100 for a 7 day rental per person.
However, if you are likely to snorkel in future, you may as well invest in a great fit. (There’s less risk of a leaky mask which can be frustrating when renting.)
Either head to your local snorkel shop—you can even order googles with a prescription—or pick up a snorkel mask and dive fins on Amazon.
I do recommend you invest in a rash guard, however…even if you may never snorkel again!
Rash guards are lightweight, stretchy vests that protect you from the sun. And as noted earlier, the sun is much stronger than you’re used to in Hawaii.
10. Set google alerts for airfare deals.
One of the best ways I know to save money on a trip to Hawaii is on airline tickets!
Fares are particularly competitive from the U.S. west coast. You can often fly round-trip for less than $200 per person if you hit a sale on Southwest, Alaska Airlines or Hawaiian Air.
So consider a repositioning flight to San Francisco, LA or San Diego if this sounds like a deal compared to fares from where you live.
You can either sign up (free) for Scott’s Cheap Flights which emails you with deals on flights—I get Hawaii airfare sale notifications all the time—or just set an alert in Google Flights for the same outcome.
Travel hack: Alaska Airlines offers a perk for holders of its credit card.
You’re entitled to one companion pass annually at a cost of $99 to anywhere Alaska flies. So you pay for one ticket and your companion comes with you for $99! Steal.
11. Book hotels and condos early for best rates.
I’m not going to lie…accommodations in Hawaii will be the most expensive part of your stay.
One reason is that the state of Hawaii is imposing new restrictions on long-term condo rentals.
Like in many other places around the globe, too many Airbnbs have driven up housing rentals for locals and this is an effort to get a handle on the problem.
If you do rent on Airbnb and VRBO, you can look for a license number (or ask your host) to ensure you’re renting a legal property. But book many months ahead for best selection!
Fabulous resorts abound on every Hawaiian island but the same principle applies: Book early!
If you collect airline miles for free flights and hotel stays—I recommend signing up for the free 10x Travel point hacking course to learn how—there are some great redemptions at resorts in Hawaii, particularly at Hyatt.
However, you’ll need to book a year out for best selection.
12. Save on food by enjoying the food truck scene.
One of the ways I offset my pricey accommodations in Hawaii—and my sunset cocktail budget—is by taking full advantage of the vibrant food truck scene in Hawaii.
You’ll find everything from specialty Asian dishes and pizza to smoothies and Hawaiian shrimp trucks (on the north shore of Oahu).
Just as restaurants are expensive in Hawaii so too are groceries and booze. Remember, you’re on an island. Everything has to be flown in!
We typically pack sandwiches and snacks for the beach to slim down our grocery bill.
The other thing we do is head directly to Costco to stack up on snacks and wine. (In Kauai, the Costco is located conveniently next to both the airport and a pod of a dozen delicious food trucks for a double win!)
13. Skip the upsell at the rental car agency.
When you arrive at the car rental agency on island, don’t be surprised if you get a stern lecture about taking your rental car off road and a recommendation to upgrade to a 4WD vehicle for $$$$.
It’s true that you should not be taking your car rental off road if the agency forbids it, but unless you have some extremely remote activities planned, a 4WD vehicle is not likely required.
This car rental agency tactic is particularly prevalent on Maui where renters are asked if they plan on driving the Road to Hana (which you should definitely do!).
However, if you’re like most tourists, you’ll be driving it as a day trip round-trip from Paia.
While it has many twists and turns, it’s a safe and easy road to drive in any standard vehicle.
If you decide to drive it counter clockwise though from South Maui, you might actually want that 4WD!
14. Don’t over schedule yourself.
Even traveling as often as I do, I still have to fight my tendency to over schedule on a vacation.
It happens so easily when you’re visiting a far-flung place and consuming lots of information about things to do there.
But honestly, the best way to slip into island life is to sip a Mai Tai at the pool or relax on one of the stunning soft sandy beaches.
Leave time to watch the rainbows flicker after a burst of warm tropical rain…swim with technicolor fish…check out the roosters wandering the beach!
Don’t get me wrong…There are amazing things to see in Hawaii and you should see some. Just don’t feel like you have to be driving or touring every single day.
Let the magic of Hawaii seep in slowly by being fully present in the beauty here. This is the way to feel rejuvenated after a getaway.
15. Try Hawaiian food specialties.
There are a few very specific things you should taste when you’re in the Hawaiian islands!
Shave ice—it’s like a colorful snow cone with tropical syrup—makes the perfect refresher after a warm day at the beach.
Poke is big here, too. It’s diced, marinated raw fish and is a native Hawaiian dish. It’s delicious and is frequently served in a bowl with rice, veggies, and special sauces.
If you attend a luau, you’re likely to taste some kalua pork! Traditionally, kalua pork is slow cooked in an underground pit.
You may also enjoy Haupia cream pie at a luau. This flaky pie crust is layered with dark chocolate custard cream and silky haupia (coconut milk).
If you’re headed to Oahu, try it at Ted’s Bakery. They’re famous for it!
16. When in doubt, don’t go out!
Unless you are an accomplished swimmer and surfer who is accustomed to riding big waves, you’ll want to follow the surfer’s motto “When in doubt, don’t go out!”
Much like first time visitors who get sunburned on their first day, plenty of tourists who arrive from land-locked destinations get in over their heads in Hawaii’s big surf.
In fact, Hawaii is the drowning capital of the world.
On Kauai’s north shore, for example, it’s just open ocean.
Plenty of visitors float in Queen’s Bath there—despite the dire warnings and signs forbidding it—and are washed away by a rogue wave.
Surf changes all the time. One day a bay could look like bath water and the next have huge waves pounding the beach or a strong undertow.
So know your skill level and limits and decide accordingly.
Look for a beach with a lifeguard if you’re traveling with small children or just want to double down on safety.
17. Don’t trespass on private property.
This is one of the biggest friction points between Hawaiian locals and tourists.
Tourists tend to ignore signs asking them to stay off private property as they look for a shortcut to a beach or that perfect shot for Instagram.
Some of the confusion arises from the fact that all of Hawaii’s beaches are considered public.
And while that may be true, it doesn’t mean you can infringe on private property rights to get there. All access to those public paces is not legal.
You wouldn’t be happy if you saw some in your back yard tromping through your garden, would you?
18. Don’t panic about rain.
The first time I visited Hawaii, I hopped on the plane, opened my weather app and about had a panic attack.
It showed 100% chance of rain every day of my entire trip!
Now I know that’s because it does rain every day in Hawaii…just not all day long. Gentle showers and mists start and stop for an hour here and there many days of the week. T
hat’s what gives Hawaii its lush botanical beauty.
So if you find yourself at the beach when a sudden shower hits, just move to the shore and take a breather under a tree—but not a palm tree; those coconuts will kill you when they fall—to admire the rainbow.
In no time, the sun will be back out.
Maui Travel Tips
19. See the sunrise on Mount Haleakala on your first day.
If you’re headed to Maui, don’t miss the view from the top of Mount Haleakala, which is actually a dormant volcano.
This is a popular place to see the sunrise. And if that’s your goal, a great day to do it is your first day on Maui.
Why? Because if you’re coming from the continental USA, you’re likely to be up early. Maui time is two hours behind the west coast.
And if you’re staying in South Maui as many do (see below), it’s going to be a 90 minute drive just to get there.
If you’d prefer to skip the early morning—and the substantial sunrise crowds—sunset here also makes a good alternative.
Other insider tips for visiting: Bring your puffy coat! It’s icy and windy up here at dawn. Also, be aware that it’s often very foggy here. Personally, I’ve been stuck in fog on both my visits!
You can check price and availability on a Haleakala sunrise tour here.
20. Stay in South Maui.
Don’t get me wrong Lahaina, Ka’anapali, and Kapalua are all excellent spots to stay in west Maui, too.
The only downside with those locations is that you’ll find drive times are a bit longer to get to South Maui beaches, Mount Haleakala, and Road to Hana.
Just be aware there is a only a small road—with one lane in each direction—that connects south Maui to west Maui…and it can often become clogged during commuting hours.
21. Leave early to drive the Road to Hana.
Nearly everyone who visits Maui spends a day driving the epic Road to Hana on the east side of the island.
And it’s easy to see why. It’s one of the most scenic drives in the USA, with 64 miles of waterfalls, dramatic ocean views, and a black sand beach.
So you won’t be the only one on the narrow two lane road here. And it’s a lot more enjoyable if it doesn’t feel like a parking lot where you’re inching along all day.
If you don’t want to fight for parking (or skip popular sights because there’s no where to park), start your day very early! Or leave the driving to someone else on a guided tour.
You’ll also find there are way more stops then you’ll have time for on a day trip so getting an early start also helps you see more.
Your other alternative is to book a night in Hana to enjoy a more leisurely pace. You’ll have the beauty all to yourself after the day trippers have gone!
22. Snorkel Molokini Crater.
Snorkeling Molokini Crater is one of the most popular day trips on Maui. It’s like snorkeling in an aquarium of tropical fish.
The best time to sign up for your tour is morning. The wind tends to kick up in the afternoon so snorkeling conditions are less ideal then with choppy waves.
Be sure to also choose a smaller boat for a more personal experience on your Molokini tour. I recommend this one.
23. See the island by helicopter.
Maui is the perfect place to tour by helicopter! (Although honestly, Kauai and Oahu are also excellent options for viewing dramatic scenery.)
You can’t go wrong here…Some tours head for the vivid green peaks of the West Maui mountains while others head to the east side to view the rain forest on the Road to Hana. Both are epic experiences!
Oahu Travel TIps
24. Spend part of your time on the north shore.
Many first time visitors to Hawaii choose Oahu, known as “The Gathering Place”as their first island.
And, while it’s tempting to spend all your time in Waikiki down south when you plan a trip to Oahu, you’ll be missing the wild untamed beauty up north if you do!
So consider spending at least a few days on the north shore.
It feels very much like Kauai there with stunning white sand beaches that are practically people free.
There are tons of excellent North Shore food trucks on Oahu, too…which is good because dining options are a little slimmer than in, say, Honolulu down south.
If you’re heading to Hawaii in winter, you must visit the north shore to see the big wave riders in the surfing competitions. It’s mesmerizing!
25. Book a private guided tour to Pearl Harbor
Visiting the Pearl Harbor National Memorial is a must on any visit to Oahu.
Your entrance ticket includes a short trip on a navy shuttle boat to the USS Arizona Memorial, resting place of more than 1,000 soldiers and marines killed on that disastrous morning of December 7, 1942 when the Japanese attacked.
It’s a moving experience.
But what I didn’t know when I booked my advance ticket through the museum was that it wouldn’t be easy or convenient to see the Battleship Missouri Memorial.
That’s on Ford Island, which is an eight minute drive away.
For this reason—and because the audio guide from the museum was underwhelming (even if it was narrated by Jamie Curtis) I highly recommend you book a half day guided tour.
This is what we did when seeing the D-Day beaches in Normandy and it was an experience I’ll never forget. There’s no substitute for a local guide with deep knowledge.
You can check out price and availability on a guided Pearl Harbor tour here.
26. Hike Diamond Head.
Summiting the Diamond Head State Monument makes for a popular hike on Oahu.
The viewpoint at the top to see the Honolulu skyline and turquoise ocean in the distance is unforgettable!
However, as of May 2022, the state of Hawaii introduced a new reservation system for entry and parking.
If you show up without an advance reservation, you can’t get in.
Thankfully, your reservation includes parking because there’s just 300 spots at top.
If you arrive more than 30 minutes late, you forfeit that parking spot and will have a long, sweaty uphill hike just to get to the starting point of the hike. Be on time!
27. Eat a malasada and hit up a shrimp truck.
What is a malasada exactly? It’s very much like a donut.
While it’s technically from Portugal, it’s a Hawaiian specialty.
And the place to try one is at Leonard’s Bakery Malasad Truck, near Koko Head on the south shore.
On the North Shore, you’ll find no end of shrimp trucks.
That’s because the North Shore used to be an important center for fresh water aquaculture. And the shrimp are delicious!
28. Visit the Polynesian Cultural Center.
For a deep dive into Polynesian culture, spend a day at the Polynesian Cultural Center. It makes a great stop between the south shore and north shore.
You’ll enjoy a lei greeting, tour through six authentic island villages, ride a canoe, and attend a luau buffet with entertainment and evening show…depending on the admission you choose.
You can check out price and availability of a tour that includes the Polynesian Cultural Tour and Pearl Harbor here.
Kauai Travel Tips
29. Hike at least a little of the Kalalau Trail.
Hiking the Kalalau Trail on Kauai’s wild north shore is one of my very favorite things to do in Kauai.
It’s a rigorous 11 mile trail that seems to mostly climb straight up at the beginning; however, the trail also hugs the incredibly scenic Na Pali coast here.
Serious backpackers and hikers reserve many months ahead to secure a permit that allows to camp overnight past Hanakapi’ai Beach.
But I recommend even casual hikers spend an hour walking the beginning of this beautiful trail. It’s an experience you won’t want to miss!
Because it can be rocky, muddy, and up hill. I highly recommend adding trekking poles to your Kauai packing list.
Be aware you must get an advance reservation, however…even if you just want to walk the first bit of the trail.
30. See the Na Pali Coast by boat.
This is another must-do in Kauai!
Whether you book a sunset dinner cruise or a day time snorkeling cruise that wanders in and out of scenic sea caves, a boat cruise on Kauai’s north shore is one of the very best ways to spend an unforgettable day.
The dramatic green cliffs frame the spectacular cerulean blue sea here as spinner dolphins jump and play in the boat’s wake.
You can check out price and availability for Na Pali boat cruises here.
31. Snorkel the tide pools at Poipu.
Beaches on Kauai’s north shore tend to be wild, rugged, and pristine.
It’s not uncommon to hang on to a rope and hike down through mud! And those beaches are absolutely gorgeous.
But if you’re with young children or older travelers and you’re looking for flat, easy beach access, head to Poipu at the south end of Kauai.
Or better yet, sample beaches on both shores. There are some really wonderful tide pools for seeing beautiful tropical fish though on south shore beaches.
32. Visit the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”
Waimea Canyon, nicknamed “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, does look a bit like the Grand Canyon…but with waterfalls and green, green cliffs!
While it’s definitely nowhere near as big as the Grand Canyon, it makes a phenomenal day out in kauai, even if you’re not a hiker.
The views at Kalepa Ridge across the cliffs to the sea are unworldly. So are the views at Waimea Canyon Lookout (mile marker 10) for views across the canyon.
Just be aware that even though Waimea Canyon is not geographically far from, say, the Kalalau Trail on the North Shore, the only way to access it is by driving clockwise all the way around the island until you’re back to 11:00…almost where you started from.
If you’re basing in Poipu, it’s a much shorter drive!
Big Island Travel Tips
33. See Volcanos National Park
Spend at least one day at incredible Volcanos National Park.
Can you see lava flowing here? The answer is: iIt depends.
Eruptions start and stop in the park. Lava flowed for more than 30 years until 2018. Then a new fissure started up again in fall 2021 and stopped in December 2022.
Who knows what this year will bring!
But regardless, hiking Volcanos is a rewarding and beautiful experience. You’ll walk past steam vents, across moonscape hardened lava and through rain forests. Don’t mss it.
34. Stay near Kona for beaches.
If it’s beaches you’re in search of on Big Island, you’ll want to base in a resort or condo in Kailua-Kona.
All the best beaches are on the west side of Big Island.
Volcanos National Park is in the middle and rain forested Hilo (with waterfalls galore) is on the west side of the island.
Plan to get your beach time in Kona though as there are very few sandy beaches on the other side of the island.
35. Swim with Manta Rays.
One of the most popular and unique experiences is swimming with manta rays at night (!) on the Big island.
How did this tradition come to be? In the 1970’s, the Sheraton Kona Resort used to illuminate the waves at night to create a beautiful ambiance for its guests.
And that light attracted plankton, a key food source for manta rays.
Today, you can float on a giant styrofoam noodle with them on a tour. Or, if you’re SCUBA certified, you can dive with them!
36. Chase Waterfalls
It’s hard to leave those epic beaches nestled in among hardened lava rock on the west side of the island, but you’ll definitely want to see Akaka Falls in Akaka Falls State Park.
It’s not far from Hilo. Rainbow Falls is close by, too!
If you arrive at just the right time of day, the light creates rainbows above the falls for the perfect photo opportunity.
Hilo feels like Old Hawaii. There are far fewer tourists here. It’s misty, rain forested, and has a gorgeous coast to explore.
37. Visit Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.
You’ll find Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden just past mile marker 7 on Big Island’s wild Hamakua Coast north of Hilo. This is a great day out!
This 40 acre natural green house is nestled right up against the coast for stunning ocean vistas.
It’s like a living classroom in a 20 acre valley.
You’ll find rain forest, gurgling streams, beautiful waterfalls, and more than 2,000 species of flowers and plants here. Don’t miss the outdoor orchid garden.
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is one of my very favorite places across all the Hawaiian islands. Enjoy!