Aloha, Paradise! Tips for Visiting Hawaii on a Budget

Dreaming of emerald valleys, majestic volcanoes and luscious luaus? Use these tips for planning a budget Hawaii vacation.

Mother and daughter playing together on a beach in Hawaii

by NEA Member Benefits

Sep 01, 2022

It’s downright cruel the way magazines and television shows are always showcasing Hawaii’s lush tropical forests, spectacular waterfalls, black-sand beaches and festive luaus. Of course you want to visit the Hawaiian Islands! Who wouldn’t? But you worry that the price tag for the trip is probably out of reach.

While the Aloha State is one of the priciest places to visit in the U.S., it’s possible to plan a trip there without completely breaking the bank. And every American really should try to visit the 50th state at least once.

Here are expert tips to help you maximize your dollar during the fall or spring seasons when the weather is still perfect and the island breezes are blowing.

Pick your trip’s entry point

Oahu—and its Daniel K. Inouye International Airport—in Honolulu—is typically the cheapest of Hawaii’s major airports to fly into on a long-haul flight from the mainland. Even if you intend to spend most or all of your time on Maui, Kauai or other islands, it may be more cost-effective to fly round-trip to Honolulu, and then book cheap, puddle-jumper flights to your other island destinations. 

Check out low-cost carrier Southwest, which offers flights to the Hawaiian Islands as well as inter-island routes. Also visit Hawaiian Airlines’ deals and promo page to see if they have any sales. Flying during shoulder seasons and on a weekday should help lower the fare. Be sure to search for low-cost airfare using NEA Travel.

Select your ideal island(s) to visit

Oahu is Hawaii’s third-biggest island, but it’s probably most famous for its starring role in TV shows and movies such as “Hawaii Five-0,” “Lost” and “50 First Dates.” The island offers a more urban resort experience in the bustling city of Honolulu and a more mellow scene in surf towns along its North Shore.

A popular spot for honeymooners, Maui balances its highly developed coastline with pristine nature spots, such as the sacred Iao Valley and Mount Haleakala, whose summit is 10,023 feet high. It can easily be a romantic getaway but also has plenty to offer families.

Kauai is known as the “Garden Island,” reflecting its tropical rainforests, many waterfalls and greater likelihood of rain—usually in the form of brief daily showers. The harbor in Hanalei provided the location for the classic movie musical “South Pacific” and retains its storybook quality.

The Island of Hawaii occupies almost twice as much land as the combination of the rest of the chain. Aside from beaches and coffee farms, the “Big Island” is home to a major tourist site: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park where you can see one of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea, as well as Mauna Loa. Currently, Kilauea has been heavily erupting since May 2021, and it is still possible to see lava flow, especially at night. Visit the park’s website and app to find the best eruption viewpoints.

The long, narrow Molokai boasts the world’s tallest sea cliffs and the longest continuous fringing reef. The second-smallest populated island also possesses a large percentage of residents who have Native Hawaiian backgrounds.

Lanai is the smallest inhabited island and is easily reachable from Maui, which is just 9 miles (a 45-minute ferry ride) away. This allows for a day trip to visit off-the-beaten path trails such as the rugged Garden of the Gods and Shipwreck Beach, because the only places to stay on Lanai are very expensive luxury resorts.

Once you pick an island (or islands) to visit, you can focus on strategies to save money on your dream vacation.

Book a condo or home

No matter which island you choose, there are great values to be found in condo or home rentals, compared with staying in a resort or hotel. In Maui, for example, you can rent an ocean-view two-bedroom, two-bath unit that sleeps six with a full kitchen, beach chairs, several communal swimming pools and grills. 

Many condos and homes are a short bike ride or walk from the beach and cost between $230 and $300 a night. To find the best deals, look for homes in neighborhoods that have fewer resorts and luxury amenities. Pretty much all of Hawaii is beautiful! For example, in Maui, look at Kihei and West Maui, and avoid Wailea. 

Many hotel chains also offer “vacation villas” that are just like condos but share a resort’s facilities, like its restaurants and bars. Check for a hotel or resort within your budget using NEA Travel.

Beach hop for free

Hawaii mandates that all beaches be accessible for free to the public, even if they front an exclusive resort. You might have to look for the entrance and parking area for a particular beach, but it’s worth it.

Enjoy “WOW” experiences 

Some of the most impressive sights in Hawaii cost little to nothing, such as driving up to the summit of Maui’s Mount Haleakala to savor the sunrise or sunset (note: you must register well in advance for sunrise access), checking out stunning panoramic views from Napali Coast State Wilderness Park in Kauai, taking in the Friday night fireworks over Waikiki Beach in Oahu or snorkeling from any beach for as little as a few bucks a day for snorkel gear.

Other experiences, however, are worth a strategic splurge, whether it’s a helicopter ride through the deep verticals of Kauai’s Waimea Canyon, a luau dinner and performance at an upscale hotel on Maui or a three-hour adventure boat tour along a stretch of spectacular coastline.

Eat like a local

If you’re staying at a condo that has a kitchen, do some grocery shopping at a local chain or Costco (there are stores on Oahu, Maui and Kauai). Or take advantage of the fresh local fish available at the market by having your own cookout. You’ll be able to save on some meals by eating in. You can then stretch the rest of your food budget by opting for a locals’ spot.

Try Sushi Girl, a takeout sushi joint on Kauai where the rolls cost about $15 each, or a poke truck, where you can enjoy a satisfying meal of a half-pound of raw, local ahi tuna with various toppings for about $12. You can also get poke by the pound at most local markets and even some convenience stores, which many locals swear by.

Or follow the locals to a Hawaiian chain, such as Bubba’s, a burger spot with two locations in Kauai, or L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, which has locations throughout Hawaii, and features a “plate lunch”—two sides of rice, macaroni salad and either fish, chicken or other alternate protein, for between $11 and $16. In Maui, on your way to or from the airport make time for a stop at Tin Roof, “Top Chef” competitor’s Sheldon Simeon’s awesome takeout-only spot serving Hawaiian and Filipino food (most items are $15 or less). 

And be sure to try favorite sweet snacks malasadas (fried doughnuts with a variety of fillings) and rainbow-colored shave ice, which are available all over the islands for around $5. 

And, don’t forget to look for gift certificates at reduced rates through NEA Discount Marketplace before you leave on vacation. Plenty of Hawaiian restaurants accept them. Furthermore, the NEA Discount Tickets Program offers reduced admission rates to some Hawaii attractions, such as a whale watching cruise.

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