As one of the world’s most isolated archipelagos, just getting to the Aloha State can seem prohibitively expensive, not to mention the high costs of food (as much as 90% of which has to be imported to the islands), as well as activities and accommodation.
But there are a variety of ways to help you say ‘aloha’ without breaking the bank.
Pass on hotel breakfasts
When was the last time you heard someone say, ‘Man, that hotel breakfast really hit the spot?’ Mass-produced ‘eggs’ and drippy waffles are rarely satisfying, so skip this often-disappointing travel blunder in favor of Hawaiian breakfast staples like Portuguese sausage (often pork smoke-cured with banana leaves) with eggs or Hawaiian French toast, both of which can be found aplenty (and at lower prices) at local diners all over the islands.
Make a grocery list
Sure, maybe you came to Hawaii to avoid the nuisances of home like scribbling a list of groceries, but planning a shopping trip can shave big bucks off a food budget. Mainland US travelers can bring their Safeway or Foodland loyalty card (others can sign up for one on the spot) for discounts, but don’t expect mainland US prices – most of the food here is from out of town, just like you. Score some cheap and easy breakfast items to avoid the cost of eating an early meal out. For lunch, fill a basket with some fresh lomi-lomi salmon (tomato and salmon salad) and poi (mashed taro) for a picnic on the beach.
Eat like a local
Locally grown guava, fresh seafood and coffee just a few steps from the source, the bounty of Hawaii is found in its local shops and farmers markets. Wallet-friendly ‘ono grinds (Hawaiian for ‘good eats’) can be found, if you know where to look. Peruse fresh produce at a farmers market like KCC Saturday Farmers’ Market, the largest in Honolulu and a great place to also pick up some souvenirs for the folks unlucky enough to stay home. Similarly, find a local fish market like Koloa Fish Market on Kaua‘i for some fresh poke (marinated raw fish) or a traditional Hawaiian plate lunch (typically a meat dish and two sides).
Limit the car rental period
While you might score a lower daily rate with a vacation-long car rental, limiting yourself to a one- or two-day car hire will keep costs under $100. You’d be tossing money away by keeping that rental car in a lot while you lounge with a pool-side cocktail at the hotel anyway. Instead, consider planning an excursion or two and return the rental car when you won’t be needing it. Many resorts will supplement car-less guests with complimentary shuttle services to local hotspots, and others offer discounted (and sometimes free) car rentals to guests. Travelers on O‘ahu can take advantage of Hawaii’s best public bus system, aptly named TheBus, which offers riders four days of unlimited travel for $35.
Travel during low or shoulder seasons
The beauty of Hawaii is that it’s a year-round destination, but budget travelers can find deals during the brief slow seasons. Prices are generally high from December to April, when mainland US travelers seek getaways from the winter doldrums. May and September are good months for mild weather and shoulder-season prices, but the best discounts are found during the low season in October and November.
Remain on one island...maybe
Inter-island flights can seem enticingly inexpensive (deals can be had at $140 round-trip), but resist the urge to puddle-jump and explore one island at a time. In spite of the perceived savings in the low airfares, the time spent driving to and from the airport, plus going through security (not to mention the time spent in the air), makes island-hopping a fairly vacation-wasting endeavor. Besides, each island has its own special charm – the Big Island for its active volcanoes, O‘ahu and its cosmopolitan center in Honolulu, and Maui and Kaua‘i for their adventurous landscapes – so settle down and get properly acquainted with the ‘aina (land).
Explore the outdoors
If the best things in life are free, then Hawaii truly is paradise. It doesn’t cost anything to lounge on one of the world’s finest beaches or to tackle the archipelago’s adventurous hikes (barring any permit requirements). Save those greenbacks by experiencing a different shade of green with a hike through Koke‘e State Park in Kaua‘i or a snorkel in O‘ahu’s Hanauma Bay. Forget your gear? Don’t worry, there are rental shops on all of the four largest islands, and snorkel equipment can be as cheap as $6 per day.
Grab a few visitor magazines
While waiting for your luggage in arrivals, meander over to the display for those visitor brochures and magazines that seem to populate every luggage carousel hall in the world. These are usually packed with coupons and money-saving ideas. The four large islands are served by This Week, which provides up-to-date information on where to score big discounts, and Aloha Visitor Guides have four island-specific issues that provide coupons and specials. Most issues are available digitally, as well.
Opt for free entertainment
Skip the pricey luau in favor of free events like the Kuhio Beach Torch Lighting & Hula Show, held in Waikiki every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday night. Or get hands-on with some free classes in ukulele, lei-making and hula at Whalers Village (whalersvillage.com/events.htm) on Maui. Grab a local paper or magazine for listings on other free events on the islands.
Consider your needs
Sure that ocean-view suite sounds nice, but how much time are you really going to be spending in your hotel room? Conversely, if you enjoy cooking at home, consider booking accommodation with a kitchenette. Budget hunters can often find good deals at bed and breakfasts, which can vary from spartan rooms-with-a-bed to luxuriously accented full houses. Rugged sleepers can opt for any one of Hawaii’s campsites, which are dispersed through the national, state and county parks.
Where to stay
These budget or mid-range options are perfect for low-cost accommodations.
The Big Island: Well located in Hilo’s historic downtown, Hilo Bay Hostel (dorms from $30) offers budget travelers inexpensive beds in a great location.
O‘ahu: With kitchens in every studio and suite, the value to be had at ‘Ilima Hotel (rooms from $125) is among the best in Honolulu. Ask for a room above the 10th floor for views of the Koʻolau Range and Ala Wai Canal.
Kaua‘i: Kaua‘i Beach Resort’s (kauaibeachresortandspa.com, rooms from $159) location in the middle of the East Shore makes it a prime base camp for mid-range travelers exploring both the North and South Shore’s activities. Guests here sacrifice a swimmable beach for location and resort amenities at mid-range rates.
Alexander Howard traveled to Hawaii with support from Kauai Visitors Bureau (gohawaii.com/en/kauai). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.