Hawaii is beautiful, fragile, and unique in terms of cost: for many things you pay an awful lot or nothing at all. This post is about different ways of doing “Hawaii on a budget”, updated since our last trip in April-May 2021. Due to Covid-19, certain options to save on accommodation are currently not available, but that may change at any time.
Harsh But True
“Necessities are expensive and luxury is free” is a popular expression in Hawaii. The ideal temperature year-round, breathtaking and diverse nature, marine wildlife, surf, no snakes/poisonous frogs/etc – all of these you enjoy for free.
At the same time, food, accommodation, and other vital things cost an arm and a leg.
Hawaii on a budget 2021. How to save on a trip during Covid
1. Best budget time to visit: shoulder-season
Under the regular circumstances (before Covid-19), the shoulder season (April-May and September-November) was the most budget-friendly time to travel to Hawaii. Summer break and Christmas time were the most expensive time of the year for visiting the islands.
2. Best months to enjoy the tropical nature and blooming flowers
The wettest months in Hawaii last from November/December till March/April depending on the island.
April and May are our most favorite months for traveling to Hawaii: it is cheaper, the rain season is wrapping up, and the islands are in all shades of green you can ever imagine:
During our last visit in December 2020, we were surprised to discover “Dry Hawaii” – large areas of Maui looked just like deserts of Eastern Washington (dusty and parched). No surprise, after half a year of the dry season:
If you love flowers, you’ll be delighted
I know the guy who moved to the islands just because he fell in love… with plumeria. Now he is a successful gardener, growing 400 trees and selling plumeria plant cuttings around the world.
3. Hawaii on a budget 2021: Which island to choose
Next in terms of affordability comes Big Island. Keep in mind though, that the island is indeed BIG – and driving around to see places can take hours one way.
Kauai (the Garden Island) gets the most annual rainfall of all Hawaii islands. With muddy waters from overflowing streams and rip currents at many beaches, it may be a risky option for your first-time visit to Hawaii.
Maui is considered “nō ka ʻoi” – the best among all islands. It’s home to some of the best beaches in Hawaii, waterfalls, snorkeling, and diving locations:
4. Why visiting more than one island is great
Hawaii islands are very distinct from each other. If time permits (10-14 days), then definitely consider visiting at least two. Flights are short and inexpensive between islands. Just remember: getting out from one island and “settle” at the next will likely cost you at least 1/2-day of that valuable time.
Only in Big Island: the road flooded by lava and volcano glow at night:
5. How long to stay in Hawaii
Considering the time difference, long flight, and acclimatization, 7 days is the optimal/minimum trip duration we’d recommend, for one island.
Our last stay on Maui was 2-week-long and it was excellent. We had plenty of time to adjust to the sun and heat, snorkeled as much as we wanted, had lots of beach time, and had a few day-long trips around the island.
6. Where to stay on the island matters
The location of your stay on the island is also important in terms of costs. Maui Kihei area is cheaper and the top in terms of location, on Big Island – Pahoa/Puna are less expensive, Oahu and Kauai – North parts of the islands. We stayed in all listed places.
Thankfully, it takes minutes to track the costs on the map from Airbnb or VRBO.
7. Hotel vs Airbnb/VRBO
Since our second child was born, we rarely stayed in hotels. We need more space – at least one separate bedroom, to put the little one(-s now) to sleep. We discovered Airbnb 6 years ago and have been happily using it for almost every trip ever since.
Thanks to Airbnb and VRBO, we can stay in residential districts and be surrounded by locals and local culture. That is priceless! On the pic below: cliff jumping, Hawaiian passion since ancient times. We saw local kids as small as 5 y.o. jumping off a cliff in Maui.
Additionally, residential neighborhoods, unlike typical hotel hubs, provide less crowded beaches, fewer contacts during Covid-19, a washer/drier, and a kitchen too, which saves plenty of money.
In the picture below: popular Poipu Beach on Kauai Island. Busy regardless of day and time because of hotel hub nearby:
8. Bring your friends to Hawaii!
One of the reasons we were able to travel to Hawaii was renting out a big property and splitting the cost with friends and family. (Having a lot of fun as well).
Listings for large homes for 2-4 families, in a jungle or overlooking the ocean, still exist even with the new law (more on this issue below), but you’ll have to book them far in advance.
9. Important: Hawaii 2019 law about TVU renting
The new law is the biggest change in tourism rules Hawaii ever knew. You can now only rent bed-and-breakfast or transient vacation units (TVUs): a condo, apartment, or guest house (with owners living on the property).
A whole lot of houses in the residential districts are gone now 😕. Like the house, we stayed on Oahu in the pictures above. Still, some are available even under the new rules, like the one we stayed on Maui pictured below:
We booked the house more than 5 months in advance, which was kind of late, as most affordable housing was already gone by then. Hosts are very nice, live in a separate house at the far end of the property. The area is very quiet.
10. Camping: Secret of the cheapest stay
Check before you book:
- Weather. Some areas get a lot of rainfall, which could make your stay in a tent miserable.
- Price. Is it per tent or per person?
- Covid-19 restrictions.
There are 3 types of camping: tent, cabin, or car/van. You can bring your own gear (we have friends who did that with 3 kids), rent locally, or buy it at the closest (only 😄) Walmart.
11. Hawaii on a Budget 2021: Hostels
A private room at a hostel costs about as much as a mid-range condo. Most hostels do not allow kids younger than 10 or 12 y.o.
For comparison, you can find a studio for a family of 4 or even 5 at Waikiki condo towers in Oahu for $90/night:
The cheapest large private room (fits max. 3 persons) with a shared kitchen and bathroom in The Northshore Hostel Maui (6+ y.o. only) costs almost $90/night.
Keep in mind, many hostels don’t provide parking. It is a big con, as staying in Hawaii without a car is like not seeing Hawaii at all!
12. Another reason why Hawaii on a budget is possible is… car
To fully explore and enjoy Hawaii, you don’t need expensive tours, just a car, comfortable footwear, swimsuit, snorkel mask, and a cellphone pouch. That’s all. The cost of a single tour ($100 and up) for a family of four can easily cover the cost of renting a car for that same family for up to TWO weeks.
Most parks, beaches, best hikes, top snorkeling places, swim-in-a-waterfall gems are either free or cost $5-10 per car.
Without a car, Hawaii is going to be no different than Mexico. Some of our friends wondered: “What’s so special about Hawaii? The beach is certainly nice, but hotels are not all-inclusive and are so much pricier!” That is true. If you are looking for unlimited food, drinks, and kids club, then Mexico is your best bet.
13. Polynesian Cultural Center
Among half-a-dozen tours we tried in Hawaii there is one of its kind and is unavailable anywhere else. If you are a history buff or interested in culture as much as we are, book a tour at Polynesian Cultural Center:
It was one of the tours in Oahu that we enjoyed very much and can recommend. Pricey but worth it.
14. Shaka Guide: Audio guide with local charm
Speaking about tours, during our last trip to Hawaii we discovered a unique self-driving audio guide. Funny, produced locally, and connected to GPS on your smartphone, the Shaka Guide gives a touching and thoughtful look at Hawaiian culture. Kids loved it too. We paid $27 for a bundle of all Maui tours and $32 for a bundle of all Big Island tours. Love it a lot.
15. Hawaii on a Budget 2021: Car rental
Finding the best car rental deals can be tricky. If you play with the dates and duration, you may find a longer rental that costs less.
We saw the most extreme version of this pricing scheme in Alaska. A 3-week car rental there was cheaper than a 2-week one. We even decided to extend our stay, as savings on the car would almost cover the Airbnb for another week. (Cars are crazy expensive in Alaska during peak season…)
Booking late (a week or even a day before picking up) vs in advance can also score you a better deal.
With lower tourist volumes during the pandemic, car rental companies are cranking up the prices for long-term planners and then dropping them back at the last minute trying to move their largely idle inventory.
Reserve with free cancelation then keep checking prices for your dates, rebook if there is a better deal.
During our Maui trip in December 2020, we paid $399 (taxes and fees included, using personal car insurance) at Hertz for a medium sedan for 2 weeks.
16. Hawaii On a Budget. Car seats
Bring your own car seat. Adding a car seat to your car rental is expensive! Airlines will check-in a car seat as a special luggage item free of charge.
Dragging a heavy car seat through an airport can be a challenge on its own. We used a car seat travel belt a couple of times, but it may take time to strap/unstrap the seat to your carry-on:
If you plan to bring a car seat aboard, double-check that your car seat is FAA-approved. It should have a sticker saying “This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft” printed on it. Most do, but it can be difficult to find it. Flight attendants do ask about this label (happened to us a few times).
If your child is 4 y/o and up, then look at a foldable booster seat. Erika (6.5 y/o) traveled with this one last time and loved it. It is light and small enough to fit in a kid’s backpack.
17. Hawaii on a Budget 2021: Flights
Air travel pricing scheme is another big mystery. It’s impossible to predict when an airline may throw a ticket sale, so your best bet is to be on the lookout and have some flexibility with the dates.
We use Google Flights (free) to look up and monitor flight prices along with Dollar Flight Club (free/premium) to get email notifications whenever there is a price drop to various destinations from nearby airports.
Thanks to Dollar Flight Club, we booked flights for our next trip when prices dropped lower than ever from Seattle to Hawaii at the end of December 2020.
One more thing you should know. While airlines have adjusted their policies and are offering free changes/cancelations to incentivize bookings, they refund tickets in a form of airline credit only. You have 12 months to use the credit and cannot transfer or combine it (the credit can only be used by the original traveler).
18. Hawaii on a Budget 2021. Baggage and other fees
Nowadays, not only low-costers but large airlines will charge extra for basic amenities like carry-on and seat selection. Pay attention to those details when searching for flights. The cheapest tickets come with the most restrictions.
If the airline charges for carry-on, you may want to opt for a checked bag instead. Paying extra for a single large checked bag ($35 one way) will be cheaper than paying for 2 or more carry-ons ($25 each one way).
We opt to travel with one large suite case + backpacks (“personal item”) for all of us (2 adults and 3 kids). It’s way easier to pass airport security and move around the terminal without those carry-on bags.
19. Last-minute flights
Sometimes super cheap, comfortable flights just pop up in a week before the desired departure. While it is very tempting, the same story rarely happens with accommodation: last-minute deals almost non-existent, unless somebody makes a late cancelation.
20. Bring your snorkeler masks with you
Hawaii is a premium location for snorkeling. The best experience we had was on Maui (in the picture below, shot with a GoPro): coral reefs, fishes, and sea turtles were abundant. All you need to enjoy is the right spot, time, and a snorkel mask.
A good mask is one of the things worth packing from home. We used and highly recommend full face masks, for both adults and children.
Please respect Honu (the sea turtle) and reefs.
Only use mineral sunscreen (zinc or titanium oxide). All spray sunscreens are loaded with chemicals that kill reefs faster than anyone could imagine!
21. Hawaii on a Budget 2021: Food. Farmers markets
Fruit markets are fun to visit in Hawaii but don’t expect them to sell cheap fruit just because it “grows in the backyard”. A local Maui Gold pineapple costs $3/each at Costco vs $5-$6 at the markets.
We definitely loved the fruit stands, but they may run out of supply quickly.
Markets are usually open one day a week for a few hours. The one we loved most of all is the Upcountry Market in Maui:
22. Staying at a farm is lots of fun
Our friends stayed on a farm in Hana, a beautiful place with tropical fruit trees used mostly for attracting visitors to stay. Nobody picked the fruit besides curious tourists. There were so many fruits on the ground that you could fill up boxes and enjoy them for days (or they’ll be rotten in a wet Hana climate).
In the picture below, some of the local Hawaiian fruits: baby mango, lychee, passion fruit, apple banana, and mandarines:
23. Hawaii On a Budget 2021. Dining out
We spent a total of 8 weeks in Hawaii (over the course of 4 trips). During that time we dined out only two times. I heard many people referred to dining out in Hawaii as “overpriced and nothing special”.
Well, it’s true! You are served meals you would usually find on the mainland at a markup since most of the supplies have to cross the ocean over to islands more than 2000 miles away.
If you just want a great meal and almost no wait, Hawaiian food trucks is a great option:
24. Hawaiian food trucks
Food trucks are diverse and really good in Hawaii. Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican, seafood, vegetarian, Hawaiian – you can try something new every night.
and beer for dinner
Poke can be addictive. You’ve been warned :D.
We discovered poke in a small neighborhood store in Maui, where bags of cement were sold next to diapers and school supplies. A tiny container of sliced octopus was irresistible to try.
Later, we found out that Foodland (any local grocery store for that matter) offers a variety of poke, as it is a staple for locals.
26. Get a local grocery store card
Get a local grocery store card. It’s free and really worth it, as food is on average twice as expensive compared to the mainland.
27. Grocery/gas shopping with the biggest savings: Costco
After fainting over prices at Hawaiian grocery stores you’ll be ready to sign up for a Costco membership 😁. Both locals and tourists love it. They are conveniently located near main airports with usually one store per island (except Oahu, which boasts 4).
Gas is also the cheapest at Costco (same as on the mainland).
28. Hawaii On a Budget 2021. Bring necessities from home
Located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii has many familiar US mainland stores. The only con: distance and price. Costco, Walmart, etc., are usually located near the main airports. If staying on the opposite side of an island, it can take 2 hours one way to drive to a store.
It is worth bringing your favorite stuff like baby gear, contact lens solution, etc., with you. When we discovered how much a pack and play costs to rent in Hawaii, we brought ours from home (along with a portable high chair and diapers).
29. Bring your National Parks pass
There are 2 National Parks in Hawaii: Haleakalā on Maui and Hawai’i Volcanoes on Big Island. Both are exceptional, huge in size, and require plenty of time to explore. You can get an Annual National Parks Pass here.
30. Don’t stay at the airport hotels unless you really need to
We had a late-night flight and needed a place to sleep right after arrival. We had to pay $320 for 1 night at the airport hotel. That was twice as much per night as our 1-bedroom waterfront condo (which did not have availability for that first night).
31. Hawaii On a Budget 2021. Leave that balance bike at home
Our old beaten-up Strider survived three kids, crossed two oceans, and almost made it to a cruise ship. It was a great saver for the little legs (and adult arms), but once in dozen trips, we were charged for it as luggage.
Airline agents told us “it’s a common practice”, apparently. It cost $70 to fly a tiny bike 45 minutes from one island to another. That’s almost double the price of a ticket!
December 2020 trip to Maui. Our budget for 2 weeks for a family of 5.
Besides “What island do you like the most?” the most popular question is “How much is to bring a family to Hawaii?”. Here’s our summary of expenses for a family of 5 (us) for 15 nights on Maui, with a total budget of $6857.
Kids were 11, 6, and 3 y.o., (the youngest one wasn’t tested before the flight because he is under 5 y.o.). In the pic below, Erika taking the Covid-19 nasal swab test:
In this post, we gathered all our experience and knowledge of the islands. I hope, it’ll help you to plan your Hawaiian adventure 🙂.
I wish every person has a chance to visit Hawaii at least once in a lifetime. It is a true paradise on Earth! We’ve been to Costa Rica, Mexico, Belize, Nicaragua, and Florida, but Hawaii forever will be our favorite and the “only one of its kind”.
You may also like: Movies and Book About Hawaii
If you love movies as much as we do, there are 4 we liked a lot about Hawaii:
“The Descendants” (2011). The movie is based on a great novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings and featuring George Clooney and Shailene Woodley. While many people picture Hawaii as paradise (us too), the real life on the islands goes on, and sometimes far from being perfect. IMDb 7.3
“Soul Surfer” (2011) is a heartwarming movie based on the story of Bethany Meilani Hamilton. Born and raised in Kauai, Hawaii, Bethany was a professional 13 y/o surfer when a shark bit off her left hand.
Being a professional surfer, tough and resilient, she returned to professional sport 26 days after the attack. IMDb 7.0
Thanks for reading friends!