Is this your first visit? You’ve come to the right place if you’re planning a trip to Hawaii! I’ve helped thousands of blog readers see these stunning tropical islands. From what to see and do to budget planning, the best approach to understanding all the details is to take it one question at a time. Read on for everything you need to know…
- Plan a Trip to Hawaii
- 1. What’s the best island to visit in Hawaii?
- 2. How many days do you need in Hawaii?
- 3. How many islands should I visit in Hawaii?
- 4. How much does a trip to Hawaii cost?
- 5. What should I pack for Hawaii?
- 6. What’s the best time of year to visit Hawaii?
- 7. Do popular tourist sites require advance reservations?
- 8. What day tours should I book in Hawaii?
- 9. Where is the best place to stay in Hawaii?
- 10. Do you need to rent a car in Hawaii?
- 11. Where is the best snorkeling in Hawaii?
- 12. Where are the best beaches in Hawaii?
- 13. What should I eat in Hawaii?
- Planning a Trip to Hawaii
Plan a Trip to Hawaii
1. What’s the best island to visit in Hawaii?
The good news is you absolutely won’t be disappointed…no matter which island you choose.
While each one is unique, every island in Hawaii offers gasp-worthy beaches, snorkeling with Hawaiian green sea turtles, epic hikes, and rainbows galore.
I wrote a whole post on how to choose the best island in Hawaii, but here are the highlights:
Maui has the best resorts.
You’ll find resorts on all of the islands but hotels in Wailea, Kaanapali, or Kapalua on Maui, “the Valley Isle”, may be what you’re dreaming of when you imagine sunset cocktails at a swank hotel that opens onto miles of sugary beaches.
Your Maui itinerary should definitely include driving the Road to Hana and a visit to Mount Haleakala. Snorkeling Molokini Crater, just off the coast is everyone’s favorite day trip.
Don’t forget to check out the fabulous Maui food truck scene while you’re here!
Oahu is popular with first-time visitors.
Why? It offers a little bit of everything! It’s also the best-known Hawaiian island with international visitors.
You’ll hike Diamond Head and snorkel at stunning Hanauma Bay.
With more time, drive the leeward side of the island and spend time on the wild North Shore. (Watching the Big Wave Riders here in winter is a bucket list experience!)
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.
Kauai is for nature lovers.
If your idea of a Hawaiian fantasy is rural two-lane roads, dramatic landscapes, and remote beaches, head to “the Garden Isle”, and in particular, to Kauai’s north shore.
But Poipu on the south shore offers resorts and accessible beaches, too.
The best Kauai itinerary includes a snorkel tour or sunset boat tour along the gorgeous green Na Pali coast.
Hike a little of the bucket list Kalalau Trail and then rinse off at nearby Tunnels Beach. You can either pack snorkel gear or rent on island.
Be sure to check out the view from Waimea Canyon, affectionately known as “The Grand Canyon of Hawaii.”
And that’s just the beginning. There are so many Kauai bucket list experiences!
Big Island has volcanos.
Big Island, also known as “Hawaii”, is best known for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
As of this writing, lava had just stopped flowing after a year of activity (But check the National Parks website. It’s on and off and you could get lucky.)
Take it from me, it’s an unforgettable sight.
Most visitors stay in Kona on the west side of the island as that’s where the beaches are.
But I recommend you split your Big Island visit between beaches there and the rainforested, waterfall-laden, Hilo side of the island.
Don’t miss the night swim with manta rays when you’re here!
Save Lanai or Molokai for your next trip.
These two lesser-known islands are best explored, in my opinion, after you’ve already visited Maui, Oahu, Big Island, and Kauai.
Trust me: You’ll have plenty of epic sights to see on each of those islands!
Lanai and Molokai are a little harder to access. Lanai—”The Pineapple Island” is owned by a private billionaire and hosts luxury seekers.
You can visit on a day trip from Maui on the ferry or fly here.
Molokai is just the opposite. “The Friendly Isle” feels like Old Hawaii. It’s resort-free and feels remote and untouristed. You’ll need to fly to Molokai from Maui.
2. How many days do you need in Hawaii?
I recommend a minimum of 5 days for a visit to Hawaii.
Remember that a flight from the west coast of the U.S. is around six hours, so that’s essentially one day flying to and from the islands that you’ll want to factor into your planning.
Typically, I spend a week in Hawaii on a single island.
Plan more time if you want to see some of the bucket list sites I noted above but still want to ensure plenty of beach, snorkel, and pool time.
3. How many islands should I visit in Hawaii?
When it comes to planning a visit to Hawaii, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices!
Each island has its own distinct charm, landscapes, and activities. (See above.)
My advice is: If you’ve got 7 days or less, visit just one island. With 10 days, split your time between two islands.
Just recognize that you’ll be eating up valuable vacation time with an extra flight to and from that second island.
However, you could fly “open jaw”, ie. to one island and home from the other, which is always a major time-saver. It may or may not be more expensive.
With 15 days or more, definitely do some island hopping…because inter-island flights can be cheap!
With 14 days, choose two islands. And with three weeks, it’s easy to get a deeper immersion into what the islands have to offer with some serious island-hopping.
The bottom line is: Don’t rush it. You’ll have plenty to see and experience with 7 days per island.
4. How much does a trip to Hawaii cost?
This is such a difficult question because it all depends on your travel style.
Do you prefer luxe resorts or budget-friendly camping or vacation rentals?
Do you tend to eat out? Or prefer to pack a beach picnic?
The cost of a trip to Hawaii can also vary significantly based on whether you’re traveling in shoulder season (fall or spring) or prime vacation time (Christmas break, summer).
Here are some guidelines though:
• Flights: There are great deals from the U.S. west coast to all of the Hawaiian islands due to heavy competition between Hawaiian Air, Alaska Air, and other airlines. You can find them routinely for $300 round-trip!
If flights are more expensive from your departure city, consider a repositioning flight to SFO, LAX, or SAN to save.
Accommodation: Accommodation is one of the most expensive line items in a Hawaii vacation.
You can find lodging for $150 per night if you don’t mind staying in less-touristed inland areas without an ocean view.
While all-inclusive resorts aren’t really a thing in Hawaii, there are plenty of high-end resorts where room rates easily top $500 per night.
Don’t forget to factor in resort fees (call to ask about these as they can be buried or omitted when booking. Resort fees can add up to $65 per night!)
Transportation: Renting a car is recommended for exploring the islands. Prices vary depending on the vehicle type, rental duration, insurance coverage, and demand.
Daily rates typically range from $40 to $150, with additional costs for gas and parking.
Meals: Food and alcohol are quite pricey in Hawaii since everything has to be flown in! If you’ll be eating several meals out and enjoying sunset cocktails daily, budget $100 per person per day.
To cut that down to $50 per day, stock up at Costco for breakfast items and booze and then pack a picnic lunch.
Activities: Don’t skimp here! If you’ve flown all the way to Hawaii, you’re going to want to budget for at least one bucket list experience.
Take a helicopter tour ($300 to $400 per person), a sunset dinner cruise ($150 per person), or a snorkel tour ($100 to $200 per person).
Miscellaneous Expenses: Remember to factor in things like travel insurance, souvenirs, tips, and shopping for bikinis on island!
As a rough estimate, a week-long trip to Hawaii for an individual can range from $1,500 to $6,000 or more, excluding international flights.
However, it’s important to note that these figures are approximate and can vary wildly based on the factors mentioned above.
Planning ahead, comparing prices, and being mindful of your budget can help you tailor your trip to fit your financial means.
Remember: It’s never worth it to take a vacation that’s going to leave you in debt. Save up for your dream vacation ahead of time instead.
5. What should I pack for Hawaii?
I highly recommend you read my ultimate Hawaii packing list post here. I’ve made all the Hawaii packing mistakes so you don’t have to!
Some of the things I would never have guessed I needed on my first trip were:
• a puffy coat for Mount Haleakala on Maui. It’s icy cold up there at sunrise and sunset. The same goes for stargazing on Maua Kea on Big Island.
• Keens—my favorite hiking/water shoes. These do double duty because they protect your feet from sharp coral while allowing you to wade through muddy streams (of which there are many in Hawaii!).
• Reef-safe sunscreen—The sun is much, much hotter than you’re likely used to…even if you live in Southern California as I do.
So you want a high SPF but it’s also illegal to use sunscreens that are not reef-safe.
Tourists are literally killing the coral in Hawaii —with 14,000 tons of sunscreen annually floating in the oceans there—so please be diligent.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. See my post for more of my favorite Hawaii packing hacks…things like a Turkish beach towel (repels sand better), a waterproof phone case, and a packable cooler!
6. What’s the best time of year to visit Hawaii?
The best time of year to visit Hawaii depends on your vacation criteria. For the best weather and warm water, visit in summer.
For fewer crowds, visit off-season in March or October.
Be aware that the north shore on all of the Hawaiian islands can be rainy in winter. For less rain, base on the sunnier side of the island.
Are you interested in whale watching? Do go in winter or early spring.
The opportunity to see the humpbacks during their annual migration from Alaska to Hawaii’s warm winter waters is absolutely worth it.
Be sure to book a whale-watching tour with a naturalist!
You’ll learn so much more about these majestic beasts than if you cram yourselves onto a huge boat with 50 other people. Here’s an example of a recommended tour on Maui.
7. Do popular tourist sites require advance reservations?
Yes! And most of these reservations are newly required by the State of Hawaii as of January 2022.
During the pandemic, Hawaii residents took a good long look at the strain of over-tourism and decided to make some changes. Honestly, tourists were loving Hawaii to death.
And threatening the future of the unique and beautiful places they’d come to see.
So today, you’ll need an advance reservation to see many of these places. Yes, it takes extra planning but it’s the least we can do, right?
This reservation system protects fragile ecosystems for marine life and Hawaii’s cultural heritage and historic sights, both for residents and future generations of travelers.
You’ll also enjoy a less crowded experience at the places you want to see.
As of this writing, there are five popular sites you’ll need to reserve ahead of time through the State of Hawaii’s online ticketing system.
These include Wai’anapanapa State Beach (a popular black sand beach) on the Road to Hana and Mount Haleakala on Maui as well as Diamond Head State Monument and Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve on Oahu.
Reservations for Pearl Harbor National Memorial are recommended but not required at this time.
On Kauai, you’ll also need an advance reservation to access Ha’ena State Park.
This is where you’ll access beautiful Ke’e Beach on Kauai’s north shore (fabulous for snorkeling) as well as the famous Kalalau Trail (my #1 favorite activity on Kauai).
8. What day tours should I book in Hawaii?
I find that Viator has best availability of Hawaii day tours. Remember to check reviews and what’s included before booking.
Here are some day tours I recommend on each of the four major islands in Hawaii:
Best Maui Day Tours
1. Road to Hana: A bucket list drive that can’t be missed! Think: Breathtaking waterfalls, lush rainforests, and stunning coastal views.
You can drive this yourself or take a small group guided tour so you can concentrate on the views instead of the dozens of hairpin turns! Check price on the Road to Hana tour here.
2. Haleakala National Park: Experience the sunrise or sunset at the summit of Haleakala volcano and marvel at the otherworldly landscape.
Again, you can drive it yourself (with an advance sunrise reservation). However, some tours also offer biking down the mountain or exploring the park’s unique flora and fauna. Get info on the Haleakala sunrise tour here.
3. Molokini Crater: A day tour grants you exclusive access to one of the world’s premier snorkeling destinations.
It’s a pristine marine ecosystem with vibrant coral reefs on Maui’s west coast. Book a small group catamaran with a morning departure for the best conditions. Check availability of the Molokini Crater tour here.
Best Oahu Day Tours
1. Pearl Harbor and USS Memorial: Take a tour of Pearl Harbor, including a visit to the USS Arizona Memorial, to learn about the history and impact of the World War II attack.
This tour often includes visits to other nearby historic sites like the USS Missouri and the Pacific Aviation Museum. Check availability on the Pearl Harbor tour here.
2. Circle Island Tour: Visit famous spots like the Dole Plantation, Waimea Bay, and the North Shore’s famous surfing beaches. Don’t miss the chance to see the iconic Diamond Head Crater from a distance.
3. Luau—If you’ve never experienced a traditional Hawaiian luau, be sure to book one on whichever island you’re visiting. You can check price and availability on the Paradise Cove luau on Oahu here.
Best Kauai Day Tours
1. Na Pali Coast Snorkel Tour: Discover the stunning Na Pali Coast with breathtaking views of towering cliffs, hidden beaches, sea caves, and cascading waterfalls.
You can book a daytime snorkel tour or evening sunset dinner cruise. Check price and availability here.
2. Helicopter Tour—Again, this is a great idea on every single Hawaii island. On Kauai, I recommend this ECO adventure helicopter tour to see the Na Pali Coast from the air!
2. Waimea Canyon: Explore the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”
Admire the vibrant red and green hues of the canyon, hike scenic trails, and visit lookout points for panoramic views of the island.
You can do this on your own with a rental car or you can book a full-day tour. Visitors also love the downhill bike ride here! Check price and availability on the downhill bike ride here.
Best Big Island Day Tours
1. Astronomy adventure at Mauna Kea. Mauna Kea is the highest point in the Hawaiian islands. Stargazing is epic here!
2. Night swim with manta rays: Can you imagine swimming in the moonlight with these gentle giants? This is everyone’s favorite Big Island adventure because manta rays sightings are practically guaranteed. Check price and availability on the manta ray swim tour here.
3. Big Island in a Day: This full-day tour of the island is a great way to see the highlights—Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the historical town of Hilo, the Kohala Coast—if you want to skip the driving or have limited time on island. Check price and availability here.
These are just a few of the many fantastic day tours available on each island!
9. Where is the best place to stay in Hawaii?
Hotel or vacation rental? Both have their pros and cons.
Pros for hotels: Hotels and resorts are a great option if you’re looking for convenient amenities like housekeeping and room service and you’ve got a robust vacation budget.
Plus, resort facilities are often included…like on-site facilities like pools, restaurants, spas, fitness centers, and organized activities that can really enhance your vacation if you’re looking to relax with minimal effort.
Also, hotels are often located in prime areas, such as beachfront or central locations, making it easier to access popular attractions, restaurants, and shopping areas.
They may also provide shuttle service or easy access to public transportation if you’d prefer not to rent a car.
Cons for hotels: Hotels have limited space and are typically smaller in size compared to vacation rentals, especially for more budget-friendly options.
If you prefer more space or are traveling with a large group or kids, a hotel room may feel cramped.
Privacy can be an issue with more crowds in lobbies and pools, too. And, of course, most do not have options for cooking. So if you have dietary restrictions or are looking to save on meals out, this isn’t ideal.
Lack of Privacy: Hotels can be busier and noisier due to the number of guests. Common areas like lobbies and pools may be crowded, and you may have less privacy compared to a vacation rental.
Pros of vacation rentals:
You’ll find more space and privacy, with separate bedrooms and private outdoor spaces. Most rentals come with full kitchens or kitchenettes.
Plus, renting a vacation home or condo can provide a more authentic and immersive experience, allowing you to live like a local.
You may meet neighbors, explore local markets, and discover hidden gems off the beaten path.
Cons of vacation rentals:
Vacation rentals don’t typically offer the same level of on-site services as hotels, like concierge assistance, or housekeeping.
You’ll need to do your own grocery shopping, laundry, and adhere to requested rules or regulations by the owner.
Vacation rentals can be located in areas that are farther from tourist attractions or require a car to reach so be sure to research the location and proximity to places you’ll go before booking.
And last, be aware that the State of Hawaii has cracked down on illegal vacation rentals in an effort to combat the statewide housing shortage due to local rentals being diverted to tourism.
Still, plenty of legal vacation rentals are available to travelers. If in doubt, request a rental permit number from your host.
10. Do you need to rent a car in Hawaii?
Although public transportation (ie., buses) is available on the islands, most visitors do rent a car in Hawaii to ensure they can easily reach destinations they’re interested in visiting without frequent stops or inconvenient schedules.
(Oahu is the best place to visit without a car, basing in Honolulu, for convenient transport options—like Lyft and Uber—to popular tourist spots.)
If you’re on a cruise and would prefer to skip a car rental, check out day tours on Viator where you can often book guided “island-in-a-day” tours and other popular sites. Drivers will typically pick you up at your hotel.
Renting a car makes it easy to visit places that are further afield, like remote beaches, snorkeling spots, and off-the-beaten-path locations.
They’re also the easiest transportation option for seeing many famous spots like Haleakala National Park on Maui or Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island that simply require a car to access.
However, guided driving day tours also make a convenient alternative to renting a car.
As noted above, I recommend checking Discover Cars, Turo, Costco, and Discount Hawaii car rentals for best prices.
You’ll need to weigh the trade-offs between rental cost and the freedom a car provides for your particular situation.
11. Where is the best snorkeling in Hawaii?
Hawaii offers numerous incredible snorkeling spots on every island, each with its own unique features and marine life.
While it’s challenging to narrow it down, some of the most popular include:
Snorkeling on Oahu: Hanauma Bay for its calm sheltered waters and diverse marine life (advance reservations required unless you book a private tour) and Shark’s Cove on the north shore, for its protected tide pools and lava rock beach.
(Don’t worry! The name refers to the shape of the cove. This isn’t a haven for sharks.)
Snorkeling on Maui: Molokini Crater, off Maui’s west coast, is a partially submerged volcanic crater that requires a guided boat trip to access. You’ll find abundant marine life here, including plenty of tropical fish.
Snorkeling on Kauai: While snorkeling along the Napali Coast can be challenging due to rough waters, there are several spots accessible during calm conditions.
Tunnels Beach (Makua Beach) and Ke’e Beach offer excellent snorkeling opportunities with coral reefs, tropical fish, and the chance to spot sea turtles.
Down south near Poipu, protected waters and easy accessibility for families with young kids make snorkeling popular hear.
Snorkeling on Big Island: Kealakekua Bay is known for its pristine waters and thriving marine ecosystem which offer a memorable snorkeling experience.
It is renowned for its coral gardens, schools of tropical fish, and the chance to encounter pods of spinner dolphins.
It’s only accessible, however, on a guided boat tour.
Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park is a historic park that offers not only offers cultural insights but also features Two Step Beach.
The calm, clear waters are teeming with marine life, including coral formations, tropical fish, and spinner dolphins.
12. Where are the best beaches in Hawaii?
There are fierce opinions on which are the best beaches in Hawaii but here are a few favorites by island!
Best Oahu beaches: Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, is one of the most iconic and famous beaches in Hawaii.
Plus, it’s got great views of Diamond Head and is within walking distance of beachfront hotels, restaurants, and shopping.
It’s a great swimming beach but plan on huge crowds here!
Lanikai Beach on the windward side of Oahu is renowned for its picturesque beauty.
With its powder-soft sand, tranquil turquoise waters, and the nearby Mokulua Islands as a backdrop, Lanikai is often ranked among the world’s most stunning beaches.
It is an ideal spot for sunbathing, kayaking, and enjoying breathtaking sunrise views. It can be windy here, however, on the “windward side.”
North Shore Beaches are legendary for their Big Wave riders at Pipeline, Sunset Beach, and Waimeay Bay in winter, surf breaks, and pristine beaches.
There’s a laid back surfer vibe here.
Best Maui beaches: Kaanapali Beach on Maui’s west coast is a mile-long stretch of golden sand fringed by palm trees.
It’s perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and mesmerizing sunset views.
Wailea Beach in the upscale resort area of Waile is known for its pristine beauty, soft white sand, and calm waters.
Look for sea turtles here while swimming and sunbathing.
Hamoa Beach is nested in the town of Hana on Maui’s eastern coast. It’s a hidden gem that offers a more secluded and intimate experience.
This crescent-shaped beach features lush green surroundings, dramatic cliffs, and turquoise waters. Go here for unspoiled beauty and boogie boarding.
Best Big Island Beaches: Try Hapuna Beach on Big Island’s Kohala Coast. You’ll find golden sands, crystal-clear waters, and stunning panoramic views. Also a great place for a picnic!
Makalawena Beach in Kekaha Kai State Park offers a secluded and untouched tropical paradise.
Accessible via a short hike, this pristine beach features lava rock formations and soft white sands. Go here for solitude and relaxation.
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach: Located on the southeastern coast of the Big Island, this beach is famous for its striking black sand, created by volcanic activity.
It’s a great stop on the way to or from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
13. What should I eat in Hawaii?
Did you even go to Hawaii if you didn’t try Hawaiian specialty foods? Here are a few that should definitely be on your menu for a unique dining experience:
• Poke is cubed raw fish, typically marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, and other seasonings.
It comes in various flavors. You can even find decent Poke in the grocery store!
Ahi (yellowfin tuna) poke is a classic choice, but you can also find other varieties like octopus (tako) poke or salmon (Lomi-Lomi) poke.
• Kalua Pork: Kalua pork is a traditional Hawaiian dish made by slow-cooking a whole pig in an underground oven called an imu.
The result is tender, smoky, and flavorful shredded pork that is often served with rice and accompanied by poi (a paste made from taro root). It’s served at luaus.
• Loco Moco: Loco Moco is a hearty Hawaiian dish consisting of a bed of rice topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and smothered in brown gravy.
It’s a popular comfort food often served with a side of macaroni salad.
• Plate Lunch: A plate lunch is a local favorite that typically includes a protein (such as teriyaki chicken, kalbi short ribs, or fried fish), two scoops of rice, and a scoop of macaroni salad.
(I don’t know why they serve two carbs and no veggies but it’s the Hawaiian way!)
• Spam Musubi: A beloved snack in Hawaii, Spam Musubi is a combination of grilled Spam (a canned meat product) and rice, wrapped in a strip of nori (seaweed).
It’s a tasty and convenient treat that showcases the influence of Japanese cuisine on Hawaiian food.
• Shave Ice: A refreshing treat on a hot day, shave ice is a popular Hawaiian dessert.
It consists of finely shaved ice topped with flavored syrups, often accompanied by condensed milk and various toppings like fresh fruit, azuki beans, or mochi. Order yours with a scoop of vanilla ice cream!
• Haupia: Haupia is a traditional Hawaiian coconut pudding that is smooth, creamy, and mildly sweet. It is typically served in squares, pie, or as a custard-like dessert.
• Lau Lau is a traditional Hawaiian dish made by wrapping pork, butterfish, or other meats in taro leaves and then steaming or baking them.
The result is tender and flavorful meat with a hint of earthy taro flavor.
• Malasadas: Introduced by Portuguese immigrants, malasadas are deep-fried pastries similar to doughnuts but without the hole.
They are coated in sugar and can be filled with various fillings like custard, chocolate, or fruit. Leonard’s Bakery in Honolulu is famous for its delicious malasadas.
• Poi: Poi is a staple of Hawaiian cuisine made from pounded taro root.
It has a smooth, pasty consistency and a slightly sour taste. It is often served as a side dish or accompaniment to other Hawaiian foods.
These are just a few examples of the best Hawaiian foods to try in Hawaii.
Don’t be afraid to explore the diverse array of dishes and flavors that make up the unique culinary landscape of the islands.
Planning a Trip to Hawaii
From the breathtaking landscapes to the rich cultural heritage, Hawaii offers a treasure trove of adventures and discoveries.
Figure out which island is calling you, set a budget, and plan a personalized itinerary that includes a bucket list experience or two.
Remember to immerse yourself in the local culture, savor the mouthwatering Hawaiian cuisine, and embrace the spirit of aloha.
Whether you’re exploring the volcanoes of the Big Island, snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters, or witnessing the dramatic Na Pali Coast, each island holds its own unique wonders waiting to be explored.
While planning, ensure you have the necessary accommodations, transportation, and required permits or reservations well in advance.
Keep in mind the importance of respecting the environment and following local guidelines to preserve fragile ecosystems and cultural sites for generations to come.
Embark on your Hawaiian adventure with an open heart and a spirit of adventure. Let the turquoise waters, golden beaches, and lush landscapes of Hawaii call you!