Hawaii Travel Guide: What to See, Do, Costs, & Ways to Save

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man standing on a ledge overlooking a coastal scene in Hawaii
America’s tropical paradise, Hawaii is a group of islands, each with something special to offer a visitor. From the surfing on Oahu, to the wonders of Maui, to the beauty of Honolulu, to the hidden wonders on Lanai, Hawaii is the great tropical escape for those looking to stay within America. There are beautiful beaches, amazing jungles, monstrous waterfalls, excellent diving, and world-class waves. Hawaii is a great destination for honeymooners, surfers, and families. While not thought of as a budget destination, there are plenty of budget options for people to choose from once you leave those resorts on Waikiki beach!

Top 5 Things to See and Do in Hawaii

1. Visit Pearl Harbor

The attack on the American navy that occurred here in 1941 brought the United States into World War Two. The memorial on Oahu has a memorial to the USS Arizona. The exhibit straddles the wreckage of the ship. One of the biggest events in US history, you can’t miss this truly moving and heart-wrenching place.

2. Explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Big Island is home to two of the world’s largest volcanoes, including the very active Kilauea. It’s been erupting continuously since 1983, and you can see its glow at night from the Halema’umau crater. Sometimes, during an active eruption, yo’ll see the lava pouring over cliffs and flowing into the ocean. You can also check out the Thurston lava tube (cave) close to the Kilauea’iki parking lot. Admission is $25 per vehicle or $12 per pedestrian/cyclist and is good for up to one week.

3. Explore Honolulu

Honolulu is a fascinating place, where Asian, Hawaiian culture, and American cultures all blend together. There is an interesting blend of languages here and the food is absolutely delicious. There are a ton of cheap noodle joints, most of which offer fresh fish as well. You can hit the famous and crowded Waikiki, which is the center of tourism and resorts.

4. Stargaze at Mauna Kea

Also known as “White Mountain,” this is Hawaii’s highest peak at a whopping 13,796 ft. Along the summit, there are a number of observatory domes—the telescopes housed within them are considered to be the greatest collection of astronomical telescopes in the world. As you can imagine, this makes for excellent star gazing.

5. Snorkel at the Maui Molokini Crater

Ask anyone and they will tell you, a trip to Hawaii is not complete without some snorkeling or SCUBA diving. This particular snorkeling tour is complete with several hours of underwater action, a barbecue lunch, diving, and a water trampoline. You are sure to see tons of sea creatures, while you swim about. Trips start around $100.

Other Things to See and Do

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1. Visit the Island of Hawaii

Also referred to as “The Big Island,” Hawaii is nearly twice as large as all of the other islands combined. It is home to two of the Earth’s largest volcanoes, including the most active – Kilauea. Dive with the Pacific Manta Rays, scope out the black sand beaches of Waipi’o Valley or explore the historic downtown of Hilo.

2. Go on a helicopter tour

For those of you that were sleeping on the flight in, or just can’t get enough aerial views, helicopter tours are one of the most amazing ways to see the islands in their entirety. Rides are usually an hour long and focus on one island. The O’ahu tour is one to consider, as it surveys the world’s largest architectural maze, the sacred falls, and Turtle Bay. Helicopter Tours usually range from about $150-250.

3. Watch some Polynesian dance

The Polynesian Cultural Center is one of Oahu’s most popular attractions. Interestingly, the center is divided up into eight “villages,” each showcasing the indigenous Polynesian cultures of different parts of the world. Catching a canoe ride here is a blast and the fire walkers and dancers are pretty awesome. There is a ton of interactive stuff to take part in plus food. Packages start at $80.

4. Attend a Kaanapali Sunset Luau

This is one of the many luau hotspot attractions in Maui. The traditional dance is beautiful and the women are captivating and exotic. Throughout the ceremony, you get to feast on traditional Hawaiian buffet, most of which is cooked in an underground oven – the imu. Prices start at $90.

5. Whale-watch at Lahaina

This former whaling port is now a center for commercial activity and tourist attractions. There are a ton of interesting historical buildings and sites to explore. Many of the restaurants here are set up with balcony seating, ideal for sunset cocktails and the dinner hour. In a roadside area on the way to Ma’alea, there is a great winter whale-watching spot called Papawai Point.

6. Head to Ninini Point

Located on the island of Kaua’i, this is a great place to escape from the crowds and enjoy some solitude. You basically have a 360-degree view of the sky and all of the jets zipping through it, to the crashing waves below. The lighthouse here is 100ft high and marks the northern entrance to Nawiliwili Bay. Shore access from the lighthouse is very easy.

7. Hike the Waimea Canyon and Napali Coast

If you want to see why they call Kauai the Garden Isle, take a hike along one of the many trails offered along the west side of the island. The trails are well marked and many offer spectacular views of the canyon and coast, as well as interesting tropical plants.

8. Check out the Bishop Museum

The Bishop Museum is a large Polynesian anthropological institute that showcases cultural art and artifacts. It has a world-class reputation and will teach you a lot about the history of Hawaii. It is located on Oahu. The museum is open daily from 9am-5pm and it costs $23 to enter.

Typical Costs

Accommodation – You can find hostel dorms for $30 a night. You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. Hotel rooms fall into the $75-100 per night range. There are many high-end places, with rooms starting at $175+ a night, that offer plenty of amenities. The smaller, less touristy spots have rooms as cheap as $60 per night. Use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates.

Food – Since so much food has to be imported, the cost of food is much higher than on mainland USA. You can find lots of food option in the $7-12 range. This includes locally run restaurants that feature everything from local plate lunches, Mexican food, sandwiches, and the like. Oahu is starting to see food trucks that range from the $5-10 range. Fast food like McDonald’s will cost you $6 per meal (unless you go after the dollar menu); restaurants like Applebee’s will cost around $10-15 per meal. However, most formal, sit-down restaurants will cost you around $20 or more for an entree. There are a lot of buffets on the islands which around $25. If you cook your own food, expect to pay $80-90 per week for groceries that will include pasta, vegetables, chicken, and other basic foods. You can spend way less if you shop at discount stores such as Cost-U-Less (Big Island and Kauai), Don Quijote (Oahu) and Big Save (Kauai), which offer inexpensive for food and alcohol.

Transportation – There’s only one inter-island ferry, the Expeditions Maui-Lanai Passenger Ferry. It only runs between Maui and Lana’i. It leaves from each port every 2-4 hours and costs $30 ($20 for kids). Flying is the only realistic way to get between the islands. Flights are about $70-200 each way. The best way to get around the islands is to rent a car. For a compact vehicle, it’s about $70 per day. To rent a jeep or convertible will run about $100-130 per day. Taxis start around $3, with $4 for each mile traveled.

Activities – Scuba diving costs for a two tank dive about $100-$125 per person (equipment included). Surfboard and Stand Up Paddle board rentals start at about $25 for a half-day, and sailing and snorkeling excursions usually range from $70-150 for a half day or sunset cruise, gear rental included. Helicopter Tours usually range from about $150-250. Zip lining is also available on the bigger islands, with rates of about $100 and up.

Suggested daily budget

$70-90 (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, doing the free nature activities, and using local transportation.)

Money Saving Tips

  1. Travel off-season – Traveling during low seasons (mid-April to mid-June and mid-September to mid-December) will definitely save you money on lodging in Hawaii.
  2. Visit the discount groceries – Discount stores such as Cost-U-Less (Big Island and Kauai), Don Quijote (Oahu) and Big Save (Kauai) offer inexpensive for food and alcohol.
  3. Find discounts online – You can find some good discounts on social sites like Groupon or Living Social. The pamphlets at airports and local tourist offices also have some discounts for tours.
  4. Redeem hotel points – Be sure to sign up for hotel credit cards before you go and use those points when you travel. This is especially helpful here where many of the nice resorts are owned by big hotel chains.
  5. Couchsurf – Couchsurfing started in the United States, and free accommodation offered can make up for the lack of hostels. There aren’t as many hosts in Hawaii as compared to other places but if you look far in advance, you can usually find a few!
  6. Save money on rideshares – Uber and Lyft (my preferred company) are way cheaper than taxis and are the best way to get around a city if you don’t want to take a bus or pay for a taxi. The shared/pool option (where you share a ride with other people) offers even better savings. You can save money off your first rides with the following codes: Lyft (MATTHEW999 to save $10) and Uber (jlx6v to save $15).

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