How to travel Hawaii on a budget

Hawaii is often referred to as “paradise on Earth” and with white sandy beaches as far as you can see, hours of sunshine every single day and some of the most delicious and unique food you’ll ever try, it’s easy to see why.

But this ‘rock in the middle of the ocean’ is also seen as an expensive destination to travel to; not to mention it’s at least 5 hours’ flight away from the nearest land mass.

But what if I could tell you that Hawaii doesn’t always have to be a costly vacation? After moving to Hawaii from New Zealand in 2014 (and a small stint in 2012), here are my tips for traveling the islands on a budget.

  • Stay away from the main tourist cities

I think this is an important point for budget travel to any country but it is especially true for the islands of Hawaii. Waikiki in Oahu, Kailua-Kona on the Big Island and Lahaina in Maui are the tourist hot spots, and while being beautiful and offering lots to see, you can easily overspend while checking out these areas. I’m not saying avoid them completely, but limit the amount of time you spend here! I would suggest 1-2 days in each place so you can see what the fuss is about, and then move on to other places around the island.

  • Research AirBnBs and hostels/backpackers

The rise of AirBnB over the last few years means that hotels and resorts in Hawaii are not the only accommodation options anymore. While some AirBnB’s in the tourist areas may be the same price as hotels, it’s definitely worth researching them for less populated areas as they can be up to one quarter of the price of nearby accommodation. Be sure to include the cleaning fee and any other extra costs in your budget so you don’t get a surprise when checking out.

On the other hand, I’ve recently discovered that private rooms at hostels and backpackers can be a fraction of the price of a hotel room in the same area! My best friend and I travelled to Kauai in August and were struggling to find affordable accommodation in the areas we wanted to stay in. We also wanted a little bit of luxury and to have our own room (I used to be comfortable staying in the 16 bed dorm rooms when I was a little younger but am slightly over it now!) so I looked at private rooms at backpackers and found a great deal for exactly half the price of the hotels in the same area.

If you’re looking at staying in Waikiki, I absolutely LOVE the Waikiki Beachside Hostel; I actually spent 32 days there when I first moved to Hawaii, while looking for a permanent place to live. The hostel is only a block away from world famous Waikiki Beach – what more could you want?! Click here to check them out.

  • Rent a car using Discount Hawaii Car Rental

I found this website when I was living in Oahu briefly in 2012 and is my favorite tip for visitors to Hawaii. Discount Hawaii Car Rental is a lot cheaper than other companies such as Avis, Budget etc. and almost every single time I’ve used them, I’ve paid for the smallest car and been given an upgrade to the largest vehicle for free! The website runs by hiring out cars from rental companies but you don’t know what company you are going through until you have reserved it; meaning you’re often hiring cars from Avis, Budget and Enterprise but for a fraction of the price they usually offer. Tip: keep in mind that car insurance is added on at pick up (that’s how they make their money) so allow for that in your budget. Make sure you study your travel insurance as you may already be covered for car rental and therefore only need insurance for loss of keys, theft etc.

  • Find the locals favorite places to eat or use Yelp to find cheap eats

It’s well known that the locals’ favorite eateries in Hawaii are often the cheap but delicious places that you might not discover if you aren’t looking hard enough. But unless you know a local, how do you find these spots? One way I found was looking on Yelp. Yelp, rather than Trip Advisor, is the most popular review website used by Americans and you can search for nearby diners by price range. Select the lowest $ option and away you go. Tip: if you’re feeling like a specific type of food (e.g. Italian, Mexican, Indian), type that into your search also.

I’ve written island specific blog posts on a couple of Hawaiian islands and they mention my favorites places to eat! Check them out here.

  • Prioritize your costly must-do tourist attractions

Majority of visitors to Hawaii come for the picturesque and serene beaches, along with the blue skies, sunny days and palm trees. And guess what? All of these are completely free! There are thousands of beaches to find around the Hawaiian islands so you’re never short on options, and on the off chance it is raining where you are, head to the other side of the island and you may find it’s the most beautiful weather you’ve ever seen.

If you do want to check out some tourist attractions, I would suggest using Yelp again to see what the highest rated attractions are and then you can prioritize them (and also see if you want to spend the money on visiting them). For example, the Polynesian Cultural Centre has been rated the number one tourist attraction on the island of Oahu for the last few years and although it does cost quite a bit to go to ($65 for a day of activities), I can personally tell you that it is completely worth the money and the time to experience this cultural attraction. Similar idea with seeing the lava flowing on the Big Island by boat; a costly expense ($200 USD per person) but the most amazing and incredible thing I’ve ever seen and my number one activity I tell friends to do when visiting Hawaii.

Tip: Not every tourist attraction or activity will appeal to you or fit in with your budget so I suggest doing a bit of research to see what suits your needs.

I hope this post was helpful to you and make you see that traveling to Hawaii doesn’t always have to be a super expensive vacation! Hawaii is my favorite place in the world and I hope everyone gets to visit at least once in their life. If you want to read more about Hawaii, I’ve written a bunch of blog posts – click here to check them out.

If you liked this post, feel free to share it!

Courtney xo


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29 thoughts on “How to travel Hawaii on a budget

  1. Hawaii is definitely on the top of my bucket list of must-see places to visit. My parents have actually gone every year for a month for the past 4 or 5 years, they just love it! These are great ideas about keeping this notoriously expensive destination in line with my frugal mindset. I would also add to check out possible connections with people who own apartments or timeshares to see if you can also get a better rate.

  2. So funny my good friend visited Hawaii and she wrote a similar post on her blog. Ironically enough, she has a lot of the same tips. Hawaii just moved up on my list!

  3. Thanks so much for these tips! I’ve been to Hawaii in the past and loved it – but it was always very expensive. I don’t think I even knew airbnb existed last time I was there, so I’d definitely try out that suggestion. Plus I haven’t spent much time away from the touristy cities, so that sounds fun!

  4. It’s no surpirse that it’s an expensive place considering it’s like one of the most desired holiday spots in the world. I would have to splash the cash on a trip like this but good to see tips to be smarter about where and how you can save money.

  5. Hawaii I guess it’s always on every traveler’s wishlist, so does mine, and checking out your budget guide surely does tempted me to visit this beautiful island. Airbnb is always the best alternative to hotel and sometimes can be cheaper too 🙂

  6. My first step is to find good deals to Hawaii! It it really paradise and the food and attractions are too good to pass up! So I figure if I can save on lodging and airfare, I can splurge on other areas… otherwise, McDonald’s breakfast for me all day! I love their spam, eggs, and rice plate!

  7. Hawaii IS expensive, especially because there’s so much to see and so much to eat! Will definitely consider looking into Discount Hawaii car rental next time, thanks for the tip!

  8. Loved this! I’ve been meaning to go back to Hawaii since the past couple times I went I didn’t have a car. I was going solo and it was just way too expensive for my one-person budget. Knowing what I know now, I will definitely rent a car next time!

  9. I visited the Big Island 15 years ago and remembering it being quite pricey. I would love to explore the other islands. I’ve not used Yelp before to find cheap eats – will definitely use this when visiting Hawaii. Thank you for these fantastic tips!

  10. My favourite advice is to eat where the locals eat. Nowhere else you can get authentic local food. Besides that it´s the best way of mingling with the locals and to get to know their country from a different prospective than just the tourists spots.

  11. I love a good tropical vacation and Hawaii is one of those must-visit tropical islands. I have had it on my bucket list for a while and it is relieving to know that it shouldn’t be as expensive as it should be! I guess it is all about proper planning and knowing when to go and where to stay that matters. It also pays to determine exactly what your budget is!

  12. Thanks for these cost-saving tips for visiting Hawaii. I came here on a holiday 10 years ago and did find it extremely pricey. I would like to return at some stage so these tips will certainly come in handy.

  13. This post is just what I needed! My friend recently moved to Hawaii for a job and I’ve been wanting to get out and visit her. I think the eating like a local is key in any type of island situation. Visiting farmers markets is a great way to indulge in the culture and food!

  14. As I’ve been starting to plan our trips lately, researching the must-see attractions of an area is an absolute must if you are on limited time and money. Glad to see that this practice will be useful when I get to visit Hawaii soon 🙂 Your suggestions are definitely useful especially for budget traveller like me! 🙂

  15. Love the car rental tip! Sounds like a great deal too getting upgraded for free. I was actually hoping to plan a revisit back to Hawaii so these awesome tips will definitely come in handy, thank you!!

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