Hawai’i on a budget
by Marcin Smok
One of the first things that comes to mind when thinking about Hawaiian Islands is the cost of getting/staying there. The archipelago has a reputation of being very expensive vacation destination that’s out of reach for most people. In our humble opinion, it is simply not true (to some degree of course). Sure, you probably spend more here than at any other touristy place in United States (excluding Alaska which is even pricier than Hawaii) but the island chain is really as expensive as you allow it to be. With careful planning and smart approach, your dream vacation may cost you less than you expect. We made a list of money-saving tips for Big Island vacation and would like to present it for your consideration:
Plane ticket price makes up significant portion of Hawaii vacation trip and it’s somehow understandable, considering chain’s remote location. We were flying from New York City, so for us saving on flight was especially important. Majority of flights from mainland land in Honolulu International airport on the island of Oahu, with connecting flights to other islands departing from its inter-island terminal. There are several ways to save some money on a plane ticket- some obvious like flying in the middle of the week (our Tuesday flight was almost $400 cheaper than weekend flights), choosing to go in low season (which in Hawaii is rather short and runs through end of April to mid-June and mid-September to early November) and buying ticket well-ahead of planned vacation (which could be as early as 4 months before your planned vacation- Hawaii is a desirable destination year-round and you won’t find empty seats on most flights from mainland). There are two additional tricks we used to fly without spending an arm and leg on a plane ticket. First, use multiple websites when shopping for a ticket- the difference between vendors can be significant and prices change daily, so spend some time researching. Obviously, you need to set a reasonable low limit- as I mentioned a lot of people want to go and if you see a really cheap ticket with dates that suit you, don’t hesitate to click "purchase", as it mostly likely won’t get any cheaper. Waiting for last minute deals don’t work either, because flights are fully booked most of the time and airline companies are well aware if and when they sell out seats. Another excellent way to grab a cheap airplane seat is to sign for a flight miles reward card- many banks offer their version so shop around for the best deal (use CreditKarma.com to compare credit card companies and read customer reviews). One particularly good offer and one we used is to sign up for Hawaiian Airlines MasterCard operated by Barclaycard. Not only they will probably give you a good credit line (the company wants you to use it for ticket purchase after all), but also the benefits are great- you get a one-time, 50% off ticket price coupon for companion flying with you and after spending $1000 within 3 months of card’s use, you’ll earn 35,000 bonus miles (which, at certain dates, translates to a round trip fare from east coast to Hawaii). You earn 1 mile for every dollar spend with the card and 2 miles/dollar when shopping directly on Hawaiian Airlines website. Miles are transferable with other domestic carriers and do not expire. Barclaycard run double/triple miles promotions periodically. The only downside is that there is an annual fee of $89 and it’s not voided for the first year. It’s worth to get the card if you’re planning to fly to Hawaii- in our humble opinion Hawaiian Airlines is the best domestic airline company- planes are nice and not outdated, there are two fairly good meals and a snack, staff is helpful and the overall experience exceed others we flew with. Please note that we have no affiliation with any vendors we recommend and do not receive any compensation for mentioning them, we simply try to pass a good deal to other travelers ).
Another important factor necessary to consider when visiting Big Island. Driving is the only way to get to most Hawai’i attractions and unfortunately, car rentals take up a large chunk of vacation budget. Expect to pay around $100/day for midsize vehicle (that is without additional coverage). Gas is notoriously expensive too (unless you live in New York or California, where prices are comparable) so plan ahead when booking places to stay, otherwise you might end up driving long distances unnecessarily. The one question everyone asks is “Should I rent a 4WD vehicle?” and there is no simple answer. If money isn’t a factor for you, you already know the answer:) For the rest of us, having a 4WD Jeep makes sense under one condition- that we actually use the benefit of four wheel drive. Majority of Big Island roads are paved and well maintained, therefore you can take a regular 2WD drive car almost everywhere (the only exception being Waipi’o Valley road ). On the opposite side, Hawai’i is also considered an off-road enthusiasts’ heaven- many of the unpaved trails scattered around the island offer remarkable off-road opportunities (a path leading to Green Sand Beach for example). However, dirt roads that exist on the island require the driver to have some previous experience in off-road driving as they’re not the easiest you can find. That being said, if you get all pumped up hearing “ four wheel drive only”, then go ahead and spend some extra cash to abuse that shiny new Jeep Wrangler.
There are whole books written on the topic of vacation rentals, therefore I cannot give you a straight answer on where to find the best deals. The option of vacation packages (where you buy any combination of the three: hotel-flight-car) comes to mind, but I have to admit it is not our way of traveling. Sure, you get to stay in (usually) nice motel, often with free breakfast and attached oceanfront, but you miss everything else- the charm of experiencing the true Hawai’i (let’s be honest, when you strip off all the extras like fancy landscaping, Egyptian cotton bed set and polished chrome faucets, all resorts/motels look alike), an opportunity to meet local folks and so much more. Therefore, unless you find resorts/motels cheaper (a rare occurrence), rent privately. There are countless possibilities to rent rooms, cottages, condominiums and whole houses with adjacted land. Big Islanders are friendly, helpful hosts and everyone should find something for her/himself and her/his family. Majority of vacation houses have full kitchen (some even an outdoor grill), therefore you can prepare your own food for a day of exploration. People all over the island have properties for rent- whenever you want to be in Kona, Hilo, near Volcanoes National Park or anywhere far from the touristy places, there’s always someone with a house/cottage/room available for rent.. Here are couple of websites to look for vacation rentals on Big Island:
We personally had an outstanding experience renting with private owners and highly recommend you do the same.
Another important thing when planning vacation on the island of Hawaii is where to stay. Big island, as name suggest, is quite large, even for mainland standards. It is the size of Connecticut and the two enormous mountains, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, stay in a way for shortcuts to get to most attractions. Therefore, for a two week vacation, a minimum of two destinations are preferred, if not more. We followed other people suggestions and stood a couple of days on the Southeast coast and rest of our vacation in Captain Cook,south of Kona. However, if we ever return to Big Island, we would split our stay between Kona, North Kohala region (the town of Hawi or Waimea comes to mind) and Volcano Village sited close to Volcanoes National Park. Whatever your choice would be, driving is unavoidable. Being closer to attractions saves time and money, so think ahead when looking for places to stay. Also, try to book early, because all the best places with good reviews are booked way ahead .
When you come to Hawai’i (or any other island in the archipelago for that matter) for the first time, price of food may be a little bit of a shock. Generally speaking, everything from veggies, fruit to meat and sweets are more expensive than anywhere else within the US. For example, a gallon of local milk costs around $8, a loaf of bread is a minimum $5 while a pound of tomatoes will leave you anywhere between $3-$6. Again, Hawai’i remote location and the fact that farming isn’t the most profitable business (land doesn’t come cheap in paradise) drives the prices up to the roof. There are, however, a couple of things you can do to save money. First of all, think about booking a place with kitchen, that way you save some cash (and time) by cooking your own meals (if you don’t mind doing that, obviously). There’s Costco, Walmart and Kmart on the island, as well as a couple of smaller supermarkets which offer some discounts on food. Most of them are located close to Kailua-Kona and few around Hilo. Another great option is to shop at local farmer’s markets scattered around the island- not only food there is unbelievably delicious (we mean it, Hawai’i has some of the best stuff we ever ate), but often cheaper than tasteless mass-produced food imported from mainland. . You can’t go wrong with locally grown veggies and fruit (maaaangooo) as well as famous Macadamia Nuts, coffee and local sweets.
Eating outside is equally fun, with prices comparable to other touristy places. Did I mention food is amazing? Same is true for restaurants on Big Island, under one circumstance- eat locally. Forget about chain restaurants and explore local food scene. There are a couple of dishes that are staple for Hawaiian Island’s , but almost anything you eat here just tastes better. If you are a seafood maniac like we are, Hawai’i is a heaven for anything that comes from the ocean- poke, fish&chips, grilled mahi-mahi, you name it. Top that with ice cream made of local dairy(or coconut milk ) and it will be hard not to come out of this deal few pounds heavier (don’t worry, you’ll burn that hiking).
Big Island economy relies heavily on tourism and while it doesn't feel as “touristy” as other Hawaiian Islands (partly because it’s much larger than other island and partly because it’s more “laid back” which is not for everyone), large percentage of residents work in the tourism industry. Every island in the chain offers something else and Big Island’s main tourist base are outdoors enthusiasts and people who enjoy solitude and/or try to escape their busy life and rest under a palm tree’s shade. The many attractions awaiting travelers are strictly regulated by state and county laws, therefore competition is rather low and prices may be higher than in other places (after all, Hawaiian Islands are one-of-a-kind destination). On the opposite side, there’s so much to do, everyone finds something for her/himself. Nobody comes to Hawai’i to sit in a motel room watching TV after all. When you start browsing for activities that interest you and compare prices, you often find they vary little from vendor to vendor. Always read other people reviews online and base your choice on reputation rather than cost (the “you get what you pay for” motto is true for all Hawaiian destinations). You can stop at visitor centers scattered around the island to get coupons and ask about local deals. If you really are on a tight budget, pick one thing you like the best and allocate your vacation money towards that particular adventure. For example, if you like sightseeing- book a helicopter ride, fishing- schedule a deep sea fishing trip, stargazing- go with one of the organized Mauna Kea Sunset tours etch. For us it was diving and kayaking- we do not regret a single dollar spent on either of these two activities. Manta night dive as well as paddling through Kealakekua Bay were unforgettable experiences we would like to do again when we return to Big Island.
We hope these few tips helped you save some money without affecting your vacation experience. Stay tuned for more articles about the island of Hawai'i.