While Hawaii is on pretty much everyone’s dream destinations bucket list, it can feel pretty overwhelming to actually plan a trip to Hawaii. First of all, it’s pretty far away from the mainland (almost 6 hours from Los Angeles, or 11 hours from New York). Besides, there’s a lot of decisions to make. Which island should you visit? Is it really as expensive as everyone says it is? Where should you stay? Which beaches are best to visit? Do you need to rent a car?
We’ll answer all of these questions and more in our guide to planning your trip to Hawaii, so you can easily plan your dream trip, find cheap flights to Hawaii and escape to paradise ASAP.
How to Find Cheap Flights to Hawaii
The first step of planning any vacation is finding cheap flights to get you there. Flying to Hawaii can take anywhere from 6-12 hours, depending on where you’re traveling from in the US, and more if you have a layover.
Luckily, there’s a lot of flight options available, and you can fly nonstop to Hawaii from cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington D.C., New York, Boston and more. Nonstop flights to Hawaii are faster (and often cheaper!), so they’re a great option.
Finding a cheap flight is easier than ever. We’ve been seeing great discounts on flights to Hawaii with StudentUniverse, with flights from the West Coast starting around $286 roundtrip. Be sure to check our promo codes or sign up for our newsletter to get access to our best sales and deals.
Which Hawaiian island should I travel to?
Of the eight Hawaiian islands, there’s six that are generally open to visitors. Each one has a distinct feel and personality—we’ll break it down for you so you know where to go.
Hawaii, aka the Big Island
The “Big Island,” as it’s commonly known, is perfect for nature-lovers and adventurers. It’s also great if you want a trip that’s just a bit more laid-back or want to experience something closer to the “true Hawaii,” as the Big Island has lots of opportunities to learn about native Hawaiian culture. The two main areas to visit and stay are Kona, which is sunnier and has more volcanoes and coffee farms, or Hilo, which has more rainforests and waterfalls.
Oahu is known as “the heart of Hawaii” for many. It’s home to Honolulu (and the Honolulu airport), so many travelers arrive here first coming from the mainland. It’s also known for having the best nightlife, the biggest cities, museums, restaurants, and so on. Oahu is perfect when you want to experience all the beaches and views of Hawaii alongside an exciting city backdrop.
Maui is known for its incredible scenery and sunsets. It’s known for being the luxurious island, so it’s often favored by honeymooners and others looking for a romantic or special occasion getaway.
Kauai is perfect for anyone looking for adventure and a chance to get outdoors and explore. It’s full of nature, incredible scenery and of course the famous Na Pali coast, which is a must-see if you’re in Kauai.
Lanai is just nine miles from Maui, so it makes for a great day trip or weekend getaway if you’re already visiting Maui. It’s quite secluded, with just a few hotels, tons of quiet beaches and not even a single stoplight!
Most people aren’t even familiar with this tiny island. It has a population of less than 8,000 people, but for those wanting to get off the grid and experience the local and native culture of Hawaii, it’s a great option. Get away from all things mainstream and find a quiet paradise here.
Traveling Between Islands
Can you island hop in Hawaii? The answer is definitely yes! If you’re there for a while and you want to see more than one island, traveling between islands in Hawaii is pretty easy. Locals suggest a general rule of no more than one island per week, which is a great way to make sure you’ll have time to enjoy each island and not be stressed by trying to catch flights every few days.
The easiest way to get from island to island is by simply flying—and you’ll find plenty of quick “hopper” flights. Hawaiian Airlines and Southwest Airlines operate many flights from Honolulu (HNL) to other islands. Some shorter journeys (like Maui to Lanai) offer passenger ferries if you want to get some ocean views while you travel.
What is the most affordable Hawaiian island to visit?
Oahu is considered the easiest Hawaiian island to visit on a budget. Due to the large number of travelers to Oahu, there are plenty of hotels, activities and things to do for a variety of budgets. Keep in mind that it can be difficult to have a really cheap vacation in Hawaii, as food costs and accommodations are a bit higher generally than elsewhere in the US, but you can save a bit more if you plan ahead and avoid more luxury resorts and high-end restaurants. In Oahu, you’ll find accommodations for almost all budgets (even camping options, if you want to really save) as well as plenty of cheap food options as well.
Where to Stay in Hawaii
Once you’ve chosen which island (or islands) you’ll visit, it’s time to decide where you’re going to stay. Luckily, on most islands you’ll have plenty of options! Go camping (or glamping) if you want to save some cash, rent an Airbnb or another vacation home with friends, stay in a hotel or even a hostel. Whatever you decide, you can find stays for every budget.
If you’re in Maui, know that luxury hotels and resorts are the norm. You might find vacation home rentals a bit more affordable. Oahu and the Big Island tend to have more home rentals, while Oahu (the hub for travelers) has the most variety of accommodations of every kind.
Where to Stay in Oahu
If you’re visiting Oahu, there’s no shortage of great areas to stay in. However, we find that most travelers like to stay either in Waikiki/Honolulu areas or in the North Shore. The North Shore is the region around Haleiwa to Turtle Bay and is known as the more “local” area of Oahu. On the other hand, Waikiki is known for its nightlife, attractions, shopping and a bit more glamorous city life.
Where to Stay in Maui
The most popular places to stay in Maui are in South Maui (Kihei and Wailea) or West Maui (places like Lahaina, Kaanapli, Kapalua). South Maui is easier to get to from the airport and is a bit sunnier and drier. Plus, it’s closer to things like the Road to Hana and some of Maui’s prettiest beaches. West Maui is known for its luxury resorts (but still has some great budget options) and is a bit more touristed.
Where to Stay on the Big Island
Kona and Hilo are the best places to stay on the Big Island. Both Kona and Hilo have an airport, making flying into the Big Island easy. Kona tends to have better weather, whereas Hilo is a lot rainer. Hilo is closer to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Kona has more of a city-life feel, with tons of beaches, restaurants, hotels, activities and so on. Hilo, on the other hand, is more geared towards outdoor adventures. If you have time, it’s not a bad idea to split your time between the two and get a taste of both!
Should you rent a car in Hawaii?
In general, yes. All of the Hawaiian islands have very limited public transportation, with the exception of Waikiki (on Oahu). If you’re planning to fly into Honolulu, stay in Waikiki and hit up the beaches, restaurants and major tourist attractions around there, you can get away with not having a car of your own. In fact, many Waikiki/Honolulu area hotels will have single-day or two-day car rentals available if you just want to do a day trip to somewhere further out of the main city.
However, if you’re traveling to another island, or want to explore the North Shore or other areas of Oahu outside of Waikiki, a rental car will serve you well. Keep in mind that traffic on the (small) islands can get busy, so plan accordingly when making driving plans.
What to Eat in Hawaii
Hawaii is famous for a variety of foods (and deserts), including lots of different kinds of seafood. Poke bowls—now famous across many coastal regions of the mainland US—got their start in Hawaii and no one does it better! This raw-fish salad is similar to ceviche and has a nearly infinite amount of variations. Find it basically anywhere around the islands.
Acai bowls are also very popular on the islands. The abundance of fresh tropical fruits and warm weather make acai bowls the perfect breakfast or afternoon treat. Of course, if you’re hot, a Hawaiian shave ice is essential. Get it with a scoop of ice cream at the bottom for a true Hawaiian treat.
If you need some picnic food or a bite to-go, the manapua is another great option. It’s a local Hawaiian take on the traditional Chinese bao, soft white bread buns filled with sweet pork or other fillings. Grab a few of these ultra-portable sandwiches and head to the beach for a picnic. Of course, many kinds of seafood—mahi-mahi, shrimp, ahi, ono (similar to mackerel) and more—are available. Visiting a luau or a restaurant with traditional “Hawaiian plates” will let you taste traditional foods like poke, pork, local fish and kulolo or haupia (coconut cream puddings) for dessert.
What to Do in Hawaii
Hawaii has SO many things to see and do besides just going to the beach (which in itself could occupy an entire vacation!). From volcanoes to rainforests, oceans to mountains, Hawaii has a climate and geography perfectly suited for all kinds of adventures. If adventure isn’t really your style, you can find plenty of ways to relax, scenic drives, museums, shopping and more. Here’s our favorite things to do on each Hawaiian island.
What are the best things to do on the Big Island?
- Visit Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
- Go hiking in Waipi’o Valley
- Watch the sea turtles sunbathing on Punalu’u Beach
- See some waterfalls in Akaka Falls State Park
What are the best things to do in Oahu?
- Hike Diamond Head (a dormant volcano!) for incredible views
- Tour the Iolani Palace to learn more about Hawaiian history
- Go zip-lining or horseback riding at Kualoa Ranch.
- Hit the beach: Lanikai Beach, Kalama Beach, Kualoa Park and Kahana Beach are some of the best.
What are the best things to do in Kauai?
- Explore the outdoors at the Na Pali Coast and Waimea Canyon State Parks.
- Go snorkeling along Tunnels Beach or Anini Beach
- Take a helicopter tour or scenic flight over Kauai to see the stunning scenery.
- Go sailing along the coast.
What are the best things to do in Maui?
- Drive the Road to Hana.
- Watch the sunset (or sunrise) from the otherworldly Haleakala National Park.
- Go snorkeling along one of Maui’s many beaches.
- Try surfing or windsurfing, or just watch the sea turtles, at Ho’okipa Beach Park.