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 that won’t drain your savings.

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by NEA Member Benefits

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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 tips to maximize your dollar for a spring or summertime visit when the weather is perfect and the island breezes are blowing.

Pick the right gateway

Oahu—and its Daniel K. Inouye International Airport—is typically the cheapest of Hawaii’s major airports for 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. . Low-cost carrier Southwest just launched flights to the Hawaiian Islands as well as inter-island routes. This additional competition is helping to bring down the cost of airfare to the islands across all airlines. Search for low-cost airfare using NEA Vacations.

Which island?

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.

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. 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. (After Kilauea's eruptions in 2018, some of the national park's attractions—such as the Jaggar Museum and the Crater Rim Trail from Volcano House to Kilawua Iki—are closed. The Jaggar Museum, in fact, suffered so much structural damage that it will not reopen at that site but will hopefully open elsewhere in the future. Despite that, a vast majority of the other facilities are open to visitors in 2019.)

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.

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 to 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 less than $200 a night. Beware of hidden fees on sites such as Airbnb, where some owners charge a cleaning fee and service fee that can significantly drive up the total cost. Many hotel chains also offer “vacation villas” that are just like condos but share a resort’s facilities, like its restaurants and bars. Find a hotel or resort at your budget using NEA Vacations.

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, 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 $1.50 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). 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.

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 about $10. Or take advantage of the fresh local fish available at the market by having your own cookout. And, don’t forget that you can purchase $25 Restaurant.com gift certificates for reduced rates through NEA Click & Save before you leave on vacation. Plenty of Hawaiian restaurants accept them.

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