It’s possible to visit Hawaii on a budget - here’s how

Nov 18, 22
It’s possible to visit Hawaii on a budget - here’s how

TinyMart is sharing this content, the original was posted on Lonely Planet by  Dec 1, 20219 min read, Lonely Planet Writer So please click here to go there
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There’s a saying in Hawaii: there’s a cost to paradise. Among the US states, Hawaii had the highest cost of living in 2019, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center. The median price of a single-family home on Oahu is over $1 million. And gas costs nearly $5 a gallon.

But there are still plenty of low-cost ways to enjoy the best of the islands — pristine beaches, local flavors, stunning natural beauty — without sacrificing your experience. Here's how.

Plan a fall or spring vacation

Hawaii is a year-round destination — and that’s good news for budget travelers. You can find deals on airfare and accommodations during the slower shoulder months — September and October, January and February, April and May — avoiding peak travel times like summer, winter and spring break.

Be smart about island-hopping

Why fly all the way to Hawaii and stay on one island? If you’re set on seeing more than one island on your vacation, you should take advantage of cheaper options on interisland airfares. Southwest Airlines, which entered the interisland market in April 2019, offers Wanna Get Away rates— sometimes as low as $39 one way — with no-frills service and no assigned seating. Mokulele Airlines, which operates Cessna 208EX Grand Caravans that seat up to nine passengers and flies into smaller airports, offers round-trip airfare for less than $200 per person.

If you’re on Maui and want to visit Lanaʻi, you can book a ride on the Expeditions Maui-Lanaʻi Passenger Ferry. Tickets start at $30 one way and take about an hour. Bonus: if you’re traveling between islands from January to April, you may see humpback whales along the way.

Read more: When to go to Hawaii

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A huge, black, humpback whale jumping out of water, with volcanic rocky islands in the distance
If you're island-hopping by ferry between January and April, you might see humpback whales on the way © George Karbus Photography / Getty Images

Or simply stay on one island

Island-hopping can be pricey — you’re paying for additional airfares and accommodations, and if you’re not on Oʻahu, you’ll likely have to rent a car, the price of which fluctuates with demand. 

Plus, staying on one island means you can really explore everything it has to offer. Oʻahu is bustling, with tons of restaurants, shopping, beaches, museums, and hiking trails. Maui is just as vibrant, with more country charm and quaint towns like Hana and Makawao. Kauaʻi is the most laid-back of all the islands, with verdant landscapes, breathtaking beaches and a quieter pace. Hawaii Island, aka the Big Island, boasts active volcanoes, rolling ranchlands and old-Hawaii charm.

Read more: How to choose the best Hawaiian island for your trip

Keep your car rental period short

While opting out of renting a car during your entire vacation may be the most cost-effective, it’s also very limiting, even on Oʻahu, which boasts a great public bus system. You’ll want to get out of resort areas and venture into different neighborhoods, find hole-in-the-wall eateries and experience the islands the way locals do. Instead of renting a car for the duration of your stay, consider a car hire for just a few days, keeping your costs under $100.

A red car follows a hilly cliff road with the sea to one side
Reduce your time with a rental car by using Hawaii's ridesharing services © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

Use local ridesharing services and rentals

All of the main islands have ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft (with O‘ahu featuring the best coverage), but there are new local services as well. In June 2021 Holoholo, a new rideshare company, launched on Oʻahu, Maui, Kauaʻi, Hawaii Island and Lanaʻi with a wider selection of rides — drivers pre-approved to enter US military bases, hybrid or electric vehicles, luxury rides and options requiring additional mobility assistance. Fares are based on distance and calculated up front, and rides can be scheduled in advance.

Turo also recently entered the Hawaiʻi market, offering the more affordable option of renting vehicles directly from local owners. And Hui Care Share is a round-trip station-based car share program on Oʻahu only, where you can book a vehicle by the hour or day, now or in the future. The service includes more than 50 vehicles parked at stations throughout urban Honolulu — Waikiki, Downtown, Kakaʻako, Ala Moana, Mānoa, Kaimukī — and Ko Olina. The best part? Gas, maintenance and insurance are all included.

Take public transportation

You can also ditch the cars entirely — no worries about parking! — by using public transportation. On Oʻahu, you can use TheBus, a public bus service with a fleet of 542 buses providing daily services on 110 routes all across the island. Adult fares are $2.75 (one way), with discounts for seniors, students, and kids. TheBus conveniently stops at some of the island’s most popular visitor destinations including Waikiki, Ala Moana Center, Bishop Museum, Kualoa Ranch, Polynesian Cultural Center, Pearl Harbor, Waimea Valley and Hanauma Bay. Maui also operates a public bus system with service in various parts of the islands, from Kaʻanapali to Upcountry.

Read more: How to get around in Hawaii

Get around by bike

Another option is to ride around Oʻahu on a bike using the island’s only bikeshare program, Biki, which has 1300 bikes at more than 130 self-service Biki Stops throughout Honolulu. It’s a great option for short jaunts to the beach or to grab lunch nearby. Rides are $4.50 per bike one way, $12 for unlimited rides within 24 hours, or $30 for 300 minutes to use in any increment for one year (the best option to use over an entire vacation stay).

Two hikers walk away from the camera on a hiking trail across a crater, a large dusty expanse
State-run hiking trails are usually free to access © Maridav / Shutterstock

See Hawaii's beaches, trails, and gardens

Enjoy the best parts of Hawaii — its beaches, gardens, parks, and hiking trails — without spending much.

Most beaches in Hawaii are free and accessible year-round. Some — like Hanauma Bay on Oʻahu and Hāʻena State Park on Kauaʻi — require reservations with a small fee for visitors. Hanauma Bay has an online reservation system, limiting the number of visitors to the pristine nature reserve to fewer than 800 a day. It costs $25 per person to enter (free for Hawaii residents and children aged 12 under) and another $3 for parking ($1 for residents). To visit Hāʻena State Park — which includes Kēʻē Beach and the start of the Kalalau Trail along the famed Nāpali Coast — you’ll need to secure a reservation and pay a $5 entry fee and $10 for parking (free for residents).

While state-run hiking trails are normally free to access, some have small fees. It costs $5 to hike to the top of Diamond Head (Lēʻahi in Hawaiian) on Oʻahu or visit the popular ʻIao Valley State Monument on Maui.

Most botanical gardens charge a nominal entrance fee, though some, including the popular city-run Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden on Oʻahu, are free to explore.

Eat affordable local dishes: bento boxes and poke bowls 

While each island boasts upscale, farm-to-table restaurants that will break your food budget, Hawaii is also known for its home-style local cuisine. Plate lunches, bento (Japanese box meals) and poke bowls (cubed ahi, raw and seasoned, and served atop rice) are plentiful — and affordable. Get loaded plates of teriyaki beef, shoyu chicken or hamburger steak and gravy at popular drive-ins such as Rainbow Drive-In on Oʻahu, Hawaiian Style Café on Hawaii Island, and Tin Roof Maui on Maui. Seek out okazu-ya (Japenese deli-type eateries), which serve à la carte portions of local favorites — shoyu pork, chow fun noodles, shrimp tempura, and musubi (rice balls). Some popular ones are Kawamoto Store on Hawaii Island, Fukuya Delicatessen on Oʻahu, Honokowai Okazuya & Deli on Maui, and Po’s Kitchen on Kauaʻi. And poke bowls are everywhere — affordable and filling meals you can grab even from convience stores.

If your short-term rental has a kitchen, you may want to save money by cooking in. Hit up one of the many farmers markets run by the Hawaiʻi Farm Bureau Federation or FarmLovers Markets. You’ll meet local farmers, buy fresh and local produce, and even pick up artisan-made gifts such as jams, hot sauces, cookies, vinegars, and honey. Many serve prepared foods, too.

Things you can't miss in Hawaii

Find free and low-cost activities and tours

You can still immerse yourself in Hawaii and its rich culture without a pricey lūʻau or helicopter tour through free (or cheap) classes around town. Many hotels and malls offer free entertainment and classes in cultural practices such as lei-making, ukulele-playing, and hula. The Royal Hawaiian Center in Waikiki offers all that plus lauhala-weaving and free Hawaiian entertainment. Coconut Marketplace on Kauaʻi has free classes in lei-making, hula, and ukulele. Kāʻanapali Beach Hotel on Maui provide complimentary cultural classes to its guests at its Hale Hoʻokipa; learn hula, kukui restoring, ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language), tapa cloth making, and even pānānā, or traditional navigational techniques.

On Oʻahu you can rent surfboards at stands along Waikiki Beach for about $20, more for a lesson from a beach attendant. Or rent what's called a Fun Island — a giant, anchored floating mat — for $20 an hour from Koa Beach Service in Waikiki.

Opt for self-guided tours to save some money. Hōlualoa Kona Coffee Co on Hawaii Island offers roasting tours and coffee samplings for a small fee. Stroll the grounds of the state’s largest coffee grower, Kauaʻi Coffee Co, at your leisure and learn about coffee and its history in the islands. For about $20 you can go on a walking tour of Oʻahu’s historic Chinatown district with the Hawaiʻi Heritage Center, where you learn about the rich history of the neighborhood, Chinese immigration to Hawaii, and architecture. You will even sample some of the food from neighborhood shops and restaurants.

You can download the Shaka Guide app for self-guided GPS audio tours of popular attractions across the islands. Featured tours include Road to Hana on Maui, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park on Hawaiʻi Island, and Waimea Canyon on Kauaʻi. Each tour cost $14.99 and works offline.

Average cost in Hawaii

Hostel room: $30 to $150 a night
Basic room for two: $150 to $300 a night
Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): $80 (for private room) to $6000 a night (where President Obama stayed in Kailua)
Public transport ticket: Adult fares on TheBus on Oʻahu are $2.75 (one way), with discounts for seniors, students, and kids.
Coffee: $2.25 (hot coffee at Starbucks) to $12 (Kona Estate coffee brewed fresh using the Chemex pour over brewer at Honolulu Coffee Co.)
Sandwich: $6.99 (Andy’s Sandwiches & Smoothie) to $10 (at Sprout)
Dinner for two: $50 to $500
Beer/pint at the bar: $7 to $12.

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