Tips for a Hawaii vacation on a budget
March 2, 2014 11:03 AM   Subscribe

Looking for tips on how to do Hawaii affordably. My GF and I would like to go for about 5-7 days and if we can keep air, lodging and car rental to $1000 each we'd be happy. We realize that may not be possible. Since many aspects of a trip to Hawaii seem to be more expensive than other sunny getaways we're researching any ways to keep costs lower.

I've wanted to go to Hawaii my whole life but have never been. I used to live on the east coast where it would have been even more expensive and time-consuming but now I'm in Seattle.

We are flexible on where we go. Our first choice of places would be Kauai but we would also be excited to go to Maui or Kona on the big island. Totally open to other lesser known gems as well. We prefer prefer natural, beautiful, peaceful places over touristy, developed places.

For hotel, we don't need anything fancy. A small cabin where we have some ability to prepare/store food would be nice. We don't want to go as far as a hostel though. I've been looking on Airbnb a bit and have seen some possibilities. If anyone has tips about a specific Airbnb place that would be awesome.

I'm assuming we'd be too limited without renting a car so any tips in this area are welcome as well. We want to hike and explore different parts of whatever island we wind up on.

We would like to go this month or next (April). We realize spring break weeks jack up costs so the timing is flexible as well.

So how have you done your Hawaii trip without breaking the bank?
posted by fx3000 to Travel & Transportation around Hawaii (19 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
In Captain Cook, the Manago Hotel is affordable, comfortable and away from Kona's tourist madness.
posted by Carol Anne at 11:08 AM on March 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Use to find an inexpensive place to stay, plan on cooking at your place so look for an apt or condo. That helps immensely. The place we rented had beach chairs, small ice chests, bikes and kayaks to borrow. Keep that in mind as you browse through the listings on vrbo. I loved the Big Island...lots to do and it doesn't have to be expensive. Rent or bring good goggles and fins and spend lots of time snorkeling. I managed to snag a Jeep Wagoneer for $500 for 10 days and we put on tons of miles exploring. Costco is the best place to grab necessities and fuel. We splurged on a helicopter ride out of Hilo, but other than that we managed to stay cheaply. Also, do you have air miles? Wherever you go have fun!
posted by OkTwigs at 11:29 AM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

In response to another recent question about vacationing on a budget, someone said they rented some kind of RV to travel around one of the Hawaiian islands--your lodging and rental car are taken care of right there. I thought that was an awesome idea and something I would have never thought of...
posted by lovableiago at 11:36 AM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

We stayed at an Airbnb location in Hilo for $79/night. I would definitely go that way, especially if you are self-catering.

We also rented a car from Hertz for $229.26, including tax, for a week. I find the best way to find rentals. Sometimes the cheapest rate will be an opaque non-refundable "hot rate," where you learn the vendor after you buy. Sometimes you're told in advance. If you are, go to the vendor's web site and you can usually get something cheaper if you use discount codes you can find elsewhere on the Internet (like RetailMeNot and Rental Car Momma).
posted by grouse at 11:54 AM on March 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

My recollection is that restaurants are 2x-3x the mainland. To cut back on that, it helps if you can hit a grocery store early in the week and make your own food for lunch. That will make a big difference.
posted by plinth at 12:04 PM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another vote here for the Big Island (Hawaii island). It's a lot cheaper than Maui and Kauai. Also it rains like crazy on Kauai in the winter and spring. I think your budget is totally doable, if you can find reasonable airfare.

Yes, you'll need to rent a car anywhere you go in Hawaii.

If you do go to the Big Island, make sure you check out the zoo south of Hilo. It's really amazing and free.
posted by entropyiswinning at 12:05 PM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Don't go in summer, or on any heavily-traveled holiday: prices for everything will be higher when demand is higher.
posted by easily confused at 12:13 PM on March 2, 2014

Nthing the Big Island. When on the island, you would be remiss to not drive down to the volcano for at least one night.
posted by Danf at 12:52 PM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've always found really good package deals to Hawaii through Travelocity. This is for flight, hotel and car. And I usually cross heck the hotel reviews on tripadvisor (I read the reviews and look at the hotel ratings)
posted by gt2 at 1:39 PM on March 2, 2014

The Hawaii trip I didn't get to do would have been with nearly free airfare via military Space Available. If you aren't military, you can't use this. But perhaps you can fly stand by? or perhaps you have air miles on a credit card and haven't thought about that? (One year I was able to affordably travel cross country in part because someone gave me a free ticket from their air miles.)
posted by Michele in California at 2:50 PM on March 2, 2014

Loved the Big Island. For entertainment - skip all touristy everything, get Blue Bible for the Big Island, pack your own snorkel gear, and you will have an amazing time. We didn't pay for practically anything on our Hawaii trip thanks to the Blue Bible.

They give you great snorkel areas, how you get there without paying for a tour, and the best times to go.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 2:56 PM on March 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

get Blue Bible for the Big Island

Be cautious with this book. Many locals hate it because it encourages tourists to allegedly trespass on private property among other reasons ("Tourist 'bibles' angering Hawai'i businesses, officials", Honolulu Advertiser). At the least, I wouldn't be seen reading it in public and would take some of the recommendations with a grain of salt.
posted by grouse at 3:34 PM on March 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you go to the big island, be sure to snorkel (amazingly clear water, great sea life) and go up the Volcanoes National Park. Both were awe inspiring for me and both can be very inexpensive.

If you're going to eat at restaurants, go to the locals places which can provide tons of food at reasonable prices. Touristy restaurants are painfully expensive. As others have said, Costco is very helpful for saving money on food, as is Wallmart.

All the islands are fantastic in their own way. Have a great time!
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 3:46 PM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been to Oahu, Maui and most recently (first week or so of December 2013) the Big Island. All three are beautiful but definitely recommend the Big Island. We stayed at the Castle Kona Bali Kai on Ali'i Drive (Kona side) from 12/1 through 12/9; one bedroom, one bathroom, full kitchen, room for four with the pull out couch. Nothing glamorous but definitely clean and comfortable. For lodging for three of us, we paid right around $800 for the entire stay.

Further north from the Castle Kona Bali Kai on Ali'i Drive is what Wikipedia describes as a scenic waterfront. IMHO it's a little touristy but there are a few ABC stores (convenience stores) and a great, inexpensive Thai place named Thai Rin Restaurant, if you're so inclined. Very affordable and plenty of food.

The Volcano area of the Big Island is great! We had our 22yo daughter with us on this trip and one day mid-trip she and I drove out to the southernmost point of the U.S. Once you're out there and see the signs, you go in one direction for the southernmost point and in another direction for a fairly remote beach commonly referred to as Green Sands Beach, officially known as Papakolea Beach. Bring cash and take the locals who wait in the parking area up on their offers to drive you out to the beach. Seems the going rate is about $15pp for the trip out and back. Definitely worth it. Daughter and I are both active and in shape but the hike out is a long ways with difficult terrain in many areas. We made it about 3 miles in before the very heavy rain started and a local on his way out with others let us ride in the back of his truck the rest of the way.

If you go out to Green Sands Beach, definitely do NOT drive your rental car past the parking lot area. In fact, there will likely be a provision in your rental car contract against doing so due to the terrain (jagged volcanic rock) and the high potential for damage to vehicles. At any rate, the views out over the ocean in this fairly rugged area are beautiful! This was definitely one of my favorite days on the trip.

While south, also check out Punalu'u Bakery in Na'alehu for great sweet bread, treats, and meal items. They have outside seating and a visitor center. If you like wine, check out Volcano Winery near the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Very friendly and informative staff.

We did a few things on the spendy side but there is plenty to do on the Big Island that is not. Eating at least one meal in a day cuts down expenses quite a bit.
posted by IcedTeaWithLemon at 4:25 PM on March 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Go to Kauai. It's absolutely spectacular. If you're into the outdoors, scenic beauty, hiking, etc., however great you think it is, it's better than that. September and October are two of the slower/less expensive months. Flights in those months can literally be half the cost of flights in the summer months. Stay away from summer and Christmas for cost reasons.

Go with a condo on VRBO or Airbnb for cost reasons. I'd recommend staying in or around Kapaa, as there are grocery stores, restaurants, etc. in town, and it's about half way between both sides of the island and you'll almost certainly do both on your trip.

A lot of the great snorkeling is on the North Shore, which gets big waves in the winter. I don't know timing of winter waves exactly, but I would try to aim for as early as possible to maximize your chances of good snorkeling in that area.

Alaska Airlines has a credit card that offers a once per year companion fare for $99 plus $18 taxes and fees, plus the $89 annual fee. So, one of you might be $400 to $700 round trip, butthe other will only be $210 or so. If you're trying to keep your car/airfare/lodging down to $1,000 each, this card would help tremendously.

Just for price comparison, I stayed in this cottage while in Kauai and the place was lovely. It's a great size, private and quiet. There is a outdoor deck with a distant view of the ocean. The woman who runs the place was very nice. It's a good 10 minute drive up from the main road, didn't have a real stove (which was the biggest problem for us) - but does appear to have one now. It also had no window covering in the bathroom (which was weird for us, but it is pretty far out from other houses). Anyway, I have no connection to the owner except having stayed there.

So, let's say flights are $450. With the Alaska discount, you could both get there for $660. Find a place for $1,000 for the week and a car for less than $350 and you're right on your $2,000 budget.

Go for seven days and not five. Good luck and have fun!

Edit - the restaurants are not incredibly more expensive than mainland restaurants. There are definitely little places where you can eat for less than $20 for two.
posted by cnc at 5:17 PM on March 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

What about a cruise? You have lodging taken care of, several (or most?) meals taken care of, you can go on their excursions or make your own.

This is for Norwegian, but I am sure the others have similar routes.

Sat leave Honolulu, Oahu
Sun-Mon at Kahului, Maui
Tue Hilo
Wed Kona, Hawaii
Thu-Fri Nawiliwili, Kauai
Sat Honolulu, Oahu

If you look around, an inside cabin will be less than $1,000 per person. Who needs a window in the cabin when you will be outside (or sleeping) anyway???

I know this does not include airfare, but I thought I would throw this into the ring.
posted by Leenie at 6:23 PM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First off, go to Kauai! Walking through Hanapepe on a Friday night during Art Night, going up Waimea Canyon, seeing Spouting Horn, driving to waterfalls, and hanging out on beaches on the North Shore are free. It's things like boat rides, luaus, fancy restaurants, and helicopter rides that can really eat up the budget.

Kauai is really just stunning. We stayed in Poipu over New Year's Eve this past year.

Here are some ways to make Hawaii more affordable:

* Go after Easter (April 20). Try the month of May but before Memorial Day. Demand is usually lower in the shoulder seasons on Hawaii (May, Sept, Oct, Nov before Thanksgiving, Dec before Xmas). Also attractions, etc. will tend to be less crowded.

* Use Google Flights to figure out the best dates to go using their calendar feature, and be flexible about traveling mid-week. Wednesday to Wednesday or something similar might end up being your best option. SEA-LIH, 5/7 to 5/14 is about $500 round trip, incl taxes & fees on United when I looked just now.

* Sign up for the Alaska Airlines Visa card and get a $99 companion fare (before taxes and fees) with any coach round-trip fare. Since you're based out of Seattle, this will be pretty convenient for you. BTW, left side of the plane has the best views coming into LIH, the plane goes along the coast by Mount Ha'upu and you can catch a glimpse of Kipu Kai beach (featured in the Descendants).

* If you or someone you know has an American Express card with some Membership Rewards points available, they can easily be turned into airline miles with major carriers.

* Pro-tip once you fall in love with Hawaii: you can sign up for the Hawaiian Airlines Barclays MasterCard and also get a 50% off companion fare from the Mainland to Hawaii. You'll also get a bunch of bonus miles after a minimum spend after 3 months. And any Hawaiian Airlines MasterCard holder can receive miles for free from friends and family up to 10x a year. Which means your GF can give you her extra miles, any family member who goes to Hawaii can give you their extra miles, etc. So you, as the Card holder, can be the one pooling miles. (In addition to that, Amex MR points can be turned into Hawaiian Airlines Miles and then transferred to you.)

* Book a rental car via (click "Reserve Yourself") or Costco Travel. Re-check rental car rates periodically as they sometimes randomly drop. Do not pre-pay for your rental car, or pre-pay for gas. If you check frequently, you can probably find a good deal, or at least see the price drop. You can always re-book and get the lower rate for free. Sign up for the rental agency's loyalty program, too, you may be able to skip the check-in line. Check the fine print if you want a 2nd driver (sometimes this is free only through the loyalty program). I just priced out a compact car in May for a week, on and it was $160 for a week with 1 driver in Kauai from Thrifty (Brand C) for a Yaris.

* Get the smallest rental car that can fit your party and your luggage. Compact/economy will be fine. Parking spaces can be very small on Kauai and elsewhere on the other islands. If you can swing the whole week, the weekly rate may make more sense vs the daily rate. Make sure you vacuum all the sand out of your rental car before you return it, too.

* Shop for groceries at Costco. Items are much cheaper at Costco than at the local shops on Hawaii because Costco caps its markups at 14 percent regardless of product or location, although freight is added to the prices in Hawaii.

* Bring your Safeway loyalty card, it'll work in Hawaii as well. Or sign up for Foodland's loyalty program as well while you're here.

* Fill up your car's gas tank at Costco when on the island. Gas can be up to 30-50 cents cheaper at Costco (NOTE: they only take payment via debit, Amex, or Costco gift card only) on Hawaii. You can check for recent gas prices on

* Rent a condo via Many, many condo owners go through VBRO and rent out their units for much of the year when they're not living in them. Renting directly via an owner is usually cheaper than a management company and you can be assured of the exact unit you're getting. Never wire money, though, and scrutinize the reviews. Mind the 13.42% accommodations tax and any cleaning fees. Make sure the owner has a tax ID listed. Some will also give a discount or waive the cleaning fee for longer stays so it is advantageous to stay longer.

* Here's a good TripAdvisor thread with some VBRO recommendations that look nice, especially on Kauai's gorgeous north shore.

* The Parrish Collection rents out condos and they are active on social media. They post Aloha Friday Specials on their Facebook page and quite often you'll see an offer like getting your 5th night free. Nice units, but probably over your budget, which I am guessing will end up being about $100-125/night.

* If you want to save money in Hawaii, overall, stay at a place that is not right on a beach or right near a beach. Beachfront and oceanfront, with a view, will always be more expensive. And many of Kauai's beautiful beaches are not very developed, which means beachfront or oceanfront accommodations have high demand/low supply.

* Renting a condo can be cheaper much than a hotel room because you can buy groceries, make your own breakfasts and picnic lunches, use the grill to make dinner, make drinks whenever you want, and do laundry. If you pack right, you can make do with only carry on luggage, saving on checked bag fees as well, since you'll plan to do laundry while you're there. Most condos have a fridge, blender, toaster, microwave, stove, oven, utensils, plates and flatware, pots and pans, etc. as well as a few communal grills.

* Rent a condo that is a studio and not a 1 BR, since you are only two people and don't really need that much room/door to the bedroom. The price difference can really add up if you're paying $40 more a night for a 1 BR unit.

* Go out and have cheap drinks and appetizers during various "aloha" or happy hours.

* Sign up for the Chase Hyatt Credit card and get 2 free nights after you spend $1000 in the first 3 months. The 2 free nights can be redeemed at various Hyatt hotels on Hawaii. If each of you signs up, you can earn 4 free nights (for a standard room). If you choose Kauai, you could go with the Grand Hyatt.

* Eat cheap and local. Take out and eat on your lanai. Simple breakfasts of local fruit, bagels with lilikoi cream cheese, coffee, or cooking your own eggs/bacon/toast at your condo. Lunch can be a Hawaiian plate lunch, shrimp plate from a food truck, Puka dog with chips, or a takeout poke bowl (we loved Koloa Fish Market when we were in Poipu). Visit places like Ishihara Market, Hamura Saimin, Mark's Place, Ara's Sakana-Ya, Ono Family Restaurant, Shrimp Station, Pono Market. Grill out for dinner.

* If you're sightseeing near Koloa or Poipu, our favorite lazy lunch pre- and post-beach in Poipu was Puka dog, at the Poipu Shopping Village. This is the same shopping center where Roy's and Keoki's Paradise is also located. Choose your type of sausage, how spicy you want your garlic sauce, add a tropical relish, add some lilikoi mustard. They dress your dog and insert it into a long, round roll, and give it to you in a paper sleeve so no slippery bun here! You can also get some simpler fare (I think I saw sandwiches, muffins, fruit salad, etc) from the little convenience store there, Whalers General Store.

* In Koloa town, there is Sueoka's Snack Shop (takeout window), on the side of Sueoka's grocery store. Loco moco, teri beef, fried chicken, burgers, etc. Closed Mondays and also cash only. Check out Koloa Fish Market, a very small place, further up the road (assuming you are coming from Poipu). They do excellent and reasonably priced takeout poke bento boxes, fresh fish plate lunches, Hawaiian plate lunches, and other options. Cash only and they close at 5 or 6pm most days, closed Sundays, no seating. This was one of our favorites. You can see photos on Yelp. We didn't get a chance to try Da Crack or Kauai Food Truck but those could be inexpensive takeout lunch options as well.

I hope you can make it to Hawaii. Have a great time. And don't forget that watching the sunrise and sunset is also free.
posted by kathryn at 8:12 PM on March 2, 2014 [16 favorites]

This is for Norwegian, but I am sure the others have similar routes.

Sat leave Honolulu, Oahu
Sun-Mon at Kahului, Maui
Tue Hilo
Wed Kona, Hawaii
Thu-Fri Nawiliwili, Kauai
Sat Honolulu, Oahu

Actually, there are only a very small handful of cruises (two that I know of) that visit multiple Hawaiian islands without a long trans-Pacific leg. This is due to American maritime law that foreign cruise ships cannot stop at two consecutive U.S. ports.

NCL is one of the few exceptions but the itinerary you posted does not seem relaxing at all. The NCL Hawaiian cruise basically has no competition, except for the "Un-Cruise." But that one skips Oahu and Kauai and is much more expensive.
posted by kathryn at 8:25 PM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

My personal record is -$12.50 for two people spending two weeks on the Big Island, all-in (well, not including souvenirs, public transit to SeaTac, and those yummy airport mochas). We used airline credit card signup bonuses to buy the airfare (with miles) and give us $450 in statement credits, which paid for everything else. We traded a few hours of easy work on a farm for a place to camp and occasional vehicle use. The rest of the time we hitched, walked, or used the $1 around-the-island bus for transportation. We bought snorkels in a grocery store and drank a lot of awesome coffee. Our big splurge was a $35 chocolate coconut macnut pie, 8% of our spending.

This is probably more adventure than you're interested in, but I slept better in a jungle tent than I ever have in a fancy hotel. Also, this sort of thing requires several months advance planning, like most cheap travel. If you're budget-minded, imagine someone paying you $3000 to postpone your trip until October. That's how I like to think about it.
posted by nemp at 12:25 PM on March 3, 2014

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