Getting to the islands
The Hawaiian Islands have about 1.5 million people (2010) but they are not evenly distributed. Almost 1 million (953,000 in 2010) live on Oahu, in large part due to the historical importance of Pearl Harbor. The topography and soils are also more suitable for development. The next most populous island is Hawaii (185,000) followed by Maui (144,000) and then Kauai (67,000). The remaining islands have small populations and are not frequently visited.
Most flights from the US mainland and elsewhere arrive to Honolulu on the island of Oahu. Honolulu is the largest city in the Hawaiian Islands and receives by far the most tourists. Other direct flights from the US mainland arrive to Maui, then Hawaii (hereafter termed “the Big Island” and then Kauai.
Travel between the islands is mostly by plane. There are regional airlines that have frequent flights between all of the major islands. It is more practical to fly between the islands and then rent vehicles on each island you visit. Aside from the Honolulu airport, other airports in Hawaii are relatively small and not congested. See this link for more information. Monthly tourist statistics for the main islands are in Fig 2 and here.
The main points from Fig 2 are that 1) tourism is fairly constant throughout the year and 2) Oahu get much more tourism than the other islands. Given that the Big Island is larger than all of the other islands combined, the “tourist density” is very low on the Big Island – at least compared with the other islands.
Basic travel suggestions
The following are some suggestions and recommendations based on our experience visiting the islands.
Our trip: We booked all rental cars online and picked up our cars at the airports. We booked our flight to the Big Island and inter-island flights online prior to the trip. We researched accommodations online prior to the trip and opted for Air B&B’s (house and condo) and a hotel on the west side of Kauai. All three of these required prepaying prior to our trip.
Multiple island trips. Many people go to Hawaii and visit only one island, spending all their time in one condo or hotel. This is common if you are booking packages or have a timeshare. That works if you just want to relax and do minimal sightseeing. However, each island has its own unique natural attractions so depending on your interest and time you can benefit from visiting more than one island. Each island has an airport but we discovered that for the flight from the mainland to Hawaii and back, the prices and itineraries vary. It is feasible to fly to one island and to return to the mainland from another. Inter-island flights have to be booked separately. Depending on which islands you visit you may want to think carefully about the order in which you visit each island. Keep in mind that you will have to drop off and pick up a new car at each airport. You will also have to check out and check in at each location.
When to go? This is a question everyone asks but one that doesn’t have a clear answer.
Travel light. We recommend you travel as light as possible to simplify your luggage fees and getting in and out of the various island airports. Fortunately, most airports are small compared with mainland airports and are easy to navigate.
Do your homework. Search online for the best itineraries, connections and prices. Booking online is easy.
A car will be essential for naturalists. Public transportation simply won’t get you where you want to go. Many tourists feel they do not need a car and opt for taking local day trips as part of an organized tour. That may work if you are not very specific in what you want to see and how much time you want to spend on trails. It does not work if you are an independent traveler that wants to spend time on different trails. There are some tours that may be worthwhile such as snorkeling, but you still need a car for the other natural attractions.
Booking online in advance and picking your car up at the airport is the best way to do this. On the Big Island we recommend renting a 4×4 – they are very widely used because some side roads require them. They are not really essential on the other islands. Detail: plan your airline arrival time so that you have at least 2-3 hours of daylight. It is much easier to find your accommodations, then groceries, with some daylight.
Gasoline is available in the towns, but there are parts of the islands where there are no towns and finding gas can be a challenge. It is best to start your day with a full tank.
Although most of the Hawaiian islands don’t look large, once you arrive they all seem large for getting around. This is due to the limited road network – mostly running around the periphery of each of the islands, and the rough topography that results in many winding roads. The first-time visitor may easily underestimate the time required to explore the islands. First-timers might want to see three or four islands in a couple of weeks. They certainly will want to hit the main islands of Hawaii, Maui and Kauai – and of course most people fly into and out of Oahu. You can do this in two weeks, but it will be very rushed. We spent seven nights on the Big Island and didn’t see key parts of the island that were far from our accommodations. We didn’t even have time to snorkel!
The maps above show Google Maps -estimated travel times for circumnavigating the major islands. Click on each to read the distances and times for the routes on the various islands.
Traffic can be surprisingly heavy for the population of the islands. There isn’t a grid-like network of roads like at most mainland destinations. Each island has a coastal road that circumnavigates the island and this can become very congested near rush hours, if there is construction, or if an accident occurs. In our relatively short recent trip to the islands we experienced heavy rush hour traffic on the Big Island in Hilo and along the Kona coast. And on Kauai – “the Garden isle” – it took us 30 minutes to go 2 miles at rush hour.
Accommodations in Hawaii are very expensive compared with the US mainland. Expect to pay $150-200 or more for low-end accommodations (B&B’s, etc) – away from the beach. Resorts can be two to three times this per night. The sky is the limit for some resorts.
There are many more condos and Air B&B’s in Hawaii than regular hotels. Regardless of what you end up doing, accommodation is not inexpensive. To have complete freedom and better use our time we wanted to have kitchen facilities – especially a refrigerator. This allowed us to have food available when we needed it and we were also able to prepare our lunches that we could then take with us anywhere we went. Condos or Air B&B’s come with cooking facilities, pots, pans etc. that makes it easier to plan on cooking many of your own meals.
The internet is full of sites where you can look for accommodations. If renting a place right on the beach is your first choice be sure to read the fine print, check the location on Google Earth, and make sure that the place is really on the beach and not across the street from the beach. Any place right on the beach will be more expensive. Read the reviews and make sure you are well aware of the location and surroundings of your chosen accommodation. Cancellation policies were not very generous in Hawaii, especially in Maui so you have to really do your homework and commit prior to going.
Most people on vacation want to eat out and going to Hawaii is no exception. That works if you are just hanging around the beach and doing only a little sightseeing. If you really want to take your time on the trails of the various national parks and reserves, it is very difficult to have 3 meals a day at a restaurant while visiting the islands. There are not that many restaurants in or near the national parks. It is not practical to go back to the towns to eat lunch and you would miss nice sunsets and valuable time on the trails if you have to be at your accommodation before dark. Our recommendation is to do what we did. We ate breakfast at our place, took a generous picnic and snack prepared by us in our kitchen before leaving (ideally the night before), and we had time for a good dinner in the evening after returning.
A kitchen with a refrigerator is essential. We brought a foldable ice chest that we used for our lunches. The ice chest can be loosely covered with towels for better insulation in your car. We froze plastic water bottles to keep our lunch food (sandwiches, fruits, yogurt, cheese etc.) cold. We were able to enjoy amazing sunsets by bringing enough food with us every day and avoiding having to return to town due to a lack of food. Of course you should have water with you as well.
Grocery shopping is important if you rely mainly on your own food. There are Targets, Wal-Marts and other supermarkets in the big towns, but once you leave those areas it may be hard to find places to buy food. Farmer’s markets can be worthwhile if you can find the time. Volcano on the Big Island has a small yet excellent farmer’s market with produce, baked goods and locally made souvenirs. Hilo also has a farmer’s market that is mainly good for produce. Our recommendation is to find the grocery stores when you arrive and buy most of your food then. That way you avoid having to look for food on a daily basis. Of course, if you are traveling to various islands you may have to leave some liquids or messy foods behind, so anticipate this.
Restaurants and fast food places are available in the towns but if you spend most of your time hiking or exploring you may get back to your place too late to go to a restaurant for dinner.
Internet connectivity. We brought our cell phones (have a T-Mobile unlimited plan) and were able to use our cell phones in most places. All Air B&Bs had their own internet / Wi-Fi.
Natural areas (e.g. Parks, reserves, wildlife refuges). A US National Park pass is useful if you have one since admission is charge when entering Haleakala and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. If you are a birder, get the birds of Hawaii app prior to visiting. Many North American guides do not include Hawaiian birds.
When visiting a park try to stop first at the park office or visitor center. There you can get information, maps, souvenirs, local nature guides and you can often speak to a ranger who can give you valuable recommendations about trails and any recent changes.
Clothing. Knowing what to bring in the way of clothing is important. Coastal areas where the resorts are located do not require warm clothing. High elevation areas have some of the more spectacular scenery and vegetation but can be misty, rainy, cool and downright cold if you go high enough (on Maui or the Big Island). If you plan on spending time at higher elevations you need to think about dressing in layers. If you visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for example, and you arrive early it will be cool and could be drizzling or raining and windy. A light jacket and raincoat or windbreaker can be very useful. During the day it can be sunny and dry and you would get warm if you are hiking. Then if you stay until sunset it can be cold again. You can have sunny days or you can have days with rain on and off all day. If you go to places like the top of Haleakala National Park you are at 10,000 feet and it can be windy. At this elevation it can be rather cold if you do not have a windbreaker, light jacket, hat and gloves. Have the proper layers with you in the car at all times – just in case.
Hiking will require sturdy shoes – really you need hiking boots since the lava and rocky terrain make for a very tough and sharp substrate to walk on.
Sunburn is an issue at high elevations so come prepared with suntan lotion or face covering and certainly a hat. Some people get sick due to the lack of oxygen so keep that in mind and take it easy when you go to the higher elevations on Maui and Hawaii.
Insects We spent most of our time at higher elevations (Volcano is at 4000 ft elevation) where it was cooler. We did not notice many bothersome insects.
Research. Do as much reading about the places you plan to visit before your trip. Get familiar with the parks and their trail layout. Be aware of elevational changes especially if you are staying on the coast where it is always warmer. Pay attention to the weather as it can be different depending on what side of the island you are on and depending on the elevation. Parks like Maui’s Haleakala can be cold due to the high elevation (between about 7,000 and 10,000 ft). We saw many people coming out of tour vans unprepared for the cold at the top of Haleakala. Light winter jackets, hats, gloves etc. are really needed there especially for the sunrise or sunset hours. Become familiar with any restrictions associated with the parks you want to visit. For example because sunrise viewing is so popular on the top of Haleakala (Maui), you are not able to enter the park before sunset unless you have a permit. You have to get those online and they tend to sell out weeks in advance.
Learn about time-dependent attractions such as whale watching. Whales are most numerous in January-February when the babies are born. If you want to see whales you have to plan your trip with that in mind. The waters west of Maui are a good place to see them.
Local attractions. Besides the national parks and some reserves there are attractions, such as botanical gardens, beaches and luaus that may be of interest to you. We did our research and went to one Luau (there are many on each island) and we found it interesting and worth doing at least once. Keep in mind that Luaus are not inexpensive. We did not have time to visit botanical gardens or to take snorkeling tours.
Tours: Snorkeling tours are popular, but keep in mind that the weather and wind conditions are critical for a safe and enjoyable snorkeling day. There are many tours and they go to different locations so you have to do your research. Remember that extensive coral reefs like those found in the Florida Keys or Caribbean locations don’t really exist in Hawaii because the water temperatures are not as warm. Corals encrusting volcanic rocks yes, but the real reef-forming corals are not evident for the most part. Of course there are plenty of fish. But if diving and or snorkeling are a major objective of your travels there are many better places.
Recommended reading. Here is a list of useful books to read prior to your trip and possibly after your trip. Some are valuable to take with you. For general information about each island: The Ultimate Guidebook series (one for each island) by Andrew Doughty. We found these excellent and the best overall guides. They all have a distinctive blue cover with a satellite image of the island. You need one for each island you plan to visit.
The best guide to plants and vegetation of the islands is Hawaiian Plant Life; Vegetation and Flora (3 authors) by the University of Hawaii Press. It is excellent in describing the different floristic environments of the islands and then showing most of the species, with photos, found in the islands. If you want to identify the plants you are seeing in Hawaii you really need this book. Naturally, the more botanically-inclined you are the more you will get out of it, but the book was written to reach the public as well as botanists.
A general guide to wildlife, part of the Watchable Wildlife Series, is Hawaii, Wildlife Viewing Guide. These guides are quite portable and worthwhile in that they describe key places in the islands to see wildlife. Naturally, birds and marine organisms are the main focus, since there are no native mammals or reptiles and amphibians. The naturalist will want to have looked through it several times before traveling to the Hawaiian islands. A minor drawback is that it was published in 2006 – but most of the places haven’t changed that much.
For geologist-types there is the Roadside Geology of Hawaii (includes all the islands). We bought it during our visit and didn’t have much time to use it, but it could have been useful in interpreting some of the landscapes one sees in the islands. No color photos, but it has many excellent drawings and maps. It was published in 1996, so details about the Kilauea area on the Big Island will be out-of-date.
Recommended items to bring: Portable ice chest, hiking boots, raincoats, light jackets, hats and gloves, cell phone, suntan lotion, small backpacks, water bottles. Of course your list will be much longer if you want to snorkel (though you can rent everything there if you don’t have it), or do much photography.