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Hawaii

Photo by paul bica

Hawaii destinations

Hawaii (the Big Island)

Honolulu and Waikiki

Kauai

Lanai

Maui

Molokai

Oahu

Hawaii

More than 2000 miles from the closest continent, Hawaii is the most isolated place on the planet. Part of the Polynesian triangle, this archipelago is a tempting tropical escape, where palm trees wave over white, golden, black, green, and even red sand beaches. But it’s also a place where snow-dusted volcanoes touch the sky and verdant cloud forests hide some of the wettest spots on Earth. With such a tempting variety of landscapes, Hawaii might be your new favorite playground, even if all you desire to do is laze in a cabana by the beach all day long.

If you scratch the surface of what’s marketed as a tourist paradise, you’ll find a fascinating mix of Polynesian, Asian, and Western cultural traditions in Hawaii. It begins with what you can taste in an island-style plate lunch, a sampler dating back to the islands’ plantation era that mixes Hawaiian, Asian, and European flavors. Or dig deeper into the island’s ancient ways by getting a Hawaiian lomilomi massage, sipping ‘awa (kava) at a farmers market, and learning to dance the sacred hula or to surf, once the sport of Hawaiian royalty who called it he‘e nalu (“wave sliding”).

The Islands of Hawaii:


O‘ahu

Many travelers land first on O‘ahu, nicknamed the Gathering Place. There you’ll get the cosmopolitan experience of Hawaii’s capital city, Honolulu, and the sybaritic pleasures of Waikiki Beach, with its sunset mai tai bars, ocean-view resorts, and spas. You can circle the whole island on day trips, driving over the green pali (cliffs) to the sugary beaches of the Windward Coast and the legendary surf spots along the North Shore.


Maui

The closest Neighbor Island to O‘ahu, Maui is a perfect all-in-one destination, especially for malihini (newcomers to Hawaii). Sun yourself at beach resorts on the island’s sunny leeward side in West Maui or South Maui, then drive the lush, winding road to sleepy Hana, where you can let all sense of time slip away. Don’t miss sunrise atop the volcano in spectacular Haleakala National Park or a photogenic sunset walk in the old whaling town of Lahaina.


Lana‘i and Moloka‘i

Maui is also a jumping-off point for visiting the old pineapple plantation island of Lana‘i, now a luxury resort destination owned almost entirely by billionaire Larry Ellison, and the wild, rural island of Moloka‘i, a stronghold of Hawaiian cultural traditions. Both islands can be reached by boat from Maui, which has Hawaii’s only remaining inter-island ferry services.


Hawai‘i

The Big Island, officially known as Hawai‘i, is almost like two islands in one: West Hawai‘i and East Hawai‘i. Most visitors land on the western Kona Coast, where postcard-perfect beaches and resorts are scattered on a canvas of jet-black lava that stretches into the Kohala Coast. Coffee grows on misty upland volcanic slopes in South Kona, or you can climb even higher by driving up Mauna Kea (13,796 feet), the state’s highest peak. To glimpse more of nature’s drama, visit Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, where active lava flows ooze and glow fiery red. It’s on the rainy, lush eastern side of the island, whose capital is the charming bayside town of down-home Hilo. 


Kaua‘i

Often called the Garden Island, Kaua‘i has scenery unlike any other place in Hawaii, which is why Hollywood loves filming there. Waimea Canyon, nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” is as impressive as the dizzying sea cliffs of the Na Pali Coast. Kaua‘i also has the Wailua River, the only river that you can paddle in the state, as well as Hawaii’s most popular overnight trek, the rugged Kalalau Trail. When you’re done playing in the island’s (in)famous red dirt, kick back by the beach in sunny southern Po‘ipu, or on the North Shore at the posh Princeville resort or in the funky surf town of Hanalei.


When To Go

You can visit Hawaii year round, but you won’t be able to do absolutely everything or go everywhere in every season. The best time to go depends on which activities you want to do, what kind of weather you prefer, and how much money you have to spend. Most visitors come for a week or two, though you could spend as little as a long weekend exploring Honolulu and O‘ahu or as long as a month hopping between all of the main islands.

The busiest time to travel to Hawaii is during winter and early spring, approximately between mid-December and mid-April. Visitors from the U.S. mainland arrive by the planeload then, seeking sunshine and a tropical escape from cold weather back home. Hotel rates are generally higher during peak season, and the Christmas to New Year’s holiday period and spring break weeks are even more expensive. Even in high season there are deals to be had during slower times, such as in early January after New Year’s.

Winter is the rainiest time in Hawaii, though this varies depending on where on each island you are. You can expect frequent showers on the rainy windward sides of the islands, while the sunny leeward sides stay drier. High surf in winter means prime time for surfing, while summer brings calmer ocean waters for snorkeling, swimming, and sea kayaking. Hiking can be a muddy proposition during the winter rainy season, as can other land-based outdoor activities.

Summer is the other high season for travel to Hawaii, when U.S. mainland families take their vacations during the school holidays. The summer travel season extends from the Memorial Day holiday weekend in late May through the Labor Day holiday weekend in early September. Travel dips slightly during early June, then picks up again for the rest of the summer until mid-August, when kids head back to school.

That leaves very few months for off-season travel to Hawaii, a destination that stays reasonably busy year-round. You may find the best travel deals during the hot, dry, and windless months of September and October. The other, briefer shoulder seasons for travel to Hawaii are between November and mid-December and from mid-April until late May, when the weather is milder and cooler, though slightly wetter.

How Much Time To Spend

How much time have you got? No, seriously. Once you arrive in Hawaii, you may find it harder than you ever expected to leave. At most, plan to see two islands in a week, or three islands in two weeks. Take a whole month if you want to explore all of the main islands and really get to know the Aloha State. When planning your trip, a good rule of thumb is to take at least five days for visiting the Big Island (Hawai‘i), Maui, Kaua‘i, or Moloka‘i, three days for O‘ahu, or two days for Lana‘i.

Let’s dispense with the biggest misconception that first-time visitors to Hawaii have. Island hopping is not easy, quick, or cheap. Inter-island travel is almost always by plane and airfares can be expensive. Although flights are fast and frequent to the biggest four islands, the time it takes to transfer end-to-end means losing at least a half day of your vacation simply in transit. Flying between the Neighbor Islands (i.e., any main island except O‘ahu) usually involves changing planes in Honolulu as well.

If you just want to make a quick escape to Hawaii, say over a long holiday weekend, head to urban Honolulu and stay at Waikiki Beach. Day trips around the island of O‘ahu will give you a sweet taste of what Hawaii offers travelers, from beautiful beaches to foodie flavors. With a week to spend in Hawaii, you could combine a stopover in Honolulu with another five days on one of the popular Neighbor Islands, such as Maui, Kaua‘i, or the Big Island.

First-time visitors to Hawaii should give themselves a full week to explore one of the bigger Neighbor Islands. Maui is an all-around favorite because it has such a variety of landscapes. It’s big enough so as not to feel too crowded, but small enough to explore everywhere on day trips. Kaua‘i is a romantic choice because of its lush, jungle-like scenery straight out of a Hollywood movie. However, its small size makes driving around the island a sometimes frustrating, time-consuming endeavor. The Big Island is exactly that – big, wild, and diverse. You’ll drive many more miles on the Big Island, and you might have to find lodgings in more than one place during your trip. But it’s easier to escape the crowds and feel like you’re on a real adventure there.

Lana‘i, the smallest of the main islands, is visited almost exclusively by luxury travelers staying at the Four Seasons resorts. It’s possible to see the entire island in a day or two by renting an expensive 4WD Jeep. Moloka‘i, the most rural of the main islands, is a DIY destination for experienced Hawaii travelers, who happily spend a week hanging out with locals and getting far off the beaten track at nearly deserted beaches and indigenous cultural sights.

High and Low Season

The busiest time to travel to Hawaii is during winter and early spring, approximately between mid-December and mid-April. Visitors from the U.S. mainland arrive by the planeload then, seeking sunshine and a tropical escape from cold weather back home. Hotel rates are generally higher during peak season, and the Christmas to New Year’s holiday period and spring break weeks are even more expensive. But even in high season there are deals to be had during slower times, such as early January after New Year’s.

Summer is the other high season for travel to Hawaii, when U.S. mainland families take vacations during the school holidays. The summer travel season extends from the Memorial Day holiday weekend in late May through the Labor Day holiday weekend in early September. Travel dips slightly during early June, then picks up again for the rest of the summer until mid-August, when kids head back to school.

That leaves very few months for off-season travel to Hawaii, a destination that stays reasonably busy year-round. You may find the best travel deals during the hot, dry, and windless months of September and October. The other, briefer shoulder seasons for Hawaii travel are between November and mid-December and from mid-April through May, when the weather is milder and cooler, though slightly wetter. For more information and advice about Hawaii’s weather and climate, click here.

Of course, there are exceptions to the general trends described above. Some hotels and resorts, as well as many vacation rentals, condominium complexes, bed-and-breakfasts, and campgrounds, are now charging the same rates year-round. Airfares go up and down throughout the year, and at almost any time you may find good deals, depending on airline fare sales, new routes and carriers, etc. The only time when airfares and accommodation and car-rental rates all rise simultaneously is during holiday periods like Christmas to New Year’s and around Easter in March or April. Things get so busy then that many hotels charge triple and book up a year in advance, flights are expensive and overbooked, and rental cars sell out completely.

Weather and Climate

Hawaii has a tropical climate year-round. It experiences only two seasons: the cooler, wetter winter months and the drier, hotter summer months. Even so, daytime high temperatures by the coast rarely exceed 89°F (32°C), while overnight lows at the beach rarely dip below 65°F (18°C). One other thing to keep in mind is that hurricanes are more likely to happen in fall, though officially Hawaii’s hurricane season lasts from June through November. Hurricanes or severe tropical storms could possibly interrupt, delay, or even cancel your trip, but the chances of this are happening are relatively small.

As you travel around each of Hawaii’s main islands, you’ll notice regional micro-climates that range from arid desert to snow-covered volcanic summits. As a general rule, expect more frequent showers on the rainy windward sides of the islands, while the sunny leeward sides usually stay drier. Temperatures drop as you go up in elevation, with the most extreme lows experienced atop Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island (Hawai‘i) and Haleakala on Maui.

Hawaii gets most of its precipitation during the winter months between November and March. Coastal ocean waters are only slightly cooler in winter (77°F) than they are in summer (82°F). High surf in winter means prime time for surfing, while summer brings calmer ocean waters for snorkeling, swimming, and sea kayaking. Hiking can be a muddy proposition during winter, and a very hot one indeed during summer and fall.

Tip: On the Big Island, vog (volcanic smog and fog) is a type of air pollution that can make it more difficult for anyone with a respiratory condition to breathe. Changeable weather, winds, and volcanic activity make it impossible to predict how bad the vog will be on the Big Island on any given day, but it’s something to be aware of. Vog tends to drift over from Kilauea Volcano in East Hawai‘i to West Hawai‘i’s Kona coast in the early afternoon, when you may want to limit your exposure by staying indoors or at least not exerting yourself outside. To check the current air quality on the Big Island, click here.

Events and Holidays

10 of Hawaii’s Top Annual Events

February: Maui Whale Festival, Kihei, Maui
March: Honolulu Festival, Honolulu & Waikiki, O‘ahu
March/April: Merrie Monarch Festival, Hilo, Big Island
May: Mele Mei, with concerts and events held statewide
July: Koloa Plantation Days, Koloa & Po‘ipu, Kaua‘i
September: Mokihana Festival, Kaua‘i
October: Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, with events on O‘ahu, Maui & the Big Island
November: Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, Kailua-Kona & Around, Big Island
November: Hawaii International Film Festival, with screenings on O‘ahu, Maui, Kaua‘i & the Big Island
November/December: Triple Crown of Surfing, North Shore, O‘ahu

National & State Holidays

January 1: New Year’s Day
January (third Monday): Martin Luther King Jr. Day
February (third Monday): Presidents Day
March 26: Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole Day
March/April: Good Friday (two days before Easter Sunday)
May (last Monday): Memorial Day
June 11: King Kamehameha I Day
July 4: Independence Day
August 21: Statehood Day
September (first Monday): Labor Day
November (first Tuesday, in even-numbered years): Election Day
November 11: Veterans Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December 25: Christmas

Time Zone

Hawaii is located in the Pacific time zone (GMT-9). To check the local time in Hawaii, click here.

Note that Hawaii does not observe Daylight Savings Time (DST), unlike most of the rest of the U.S.A.

What To Pack and Wear

What to Pack

Practically anything that you forget to pack, you can buy in Hawaii. In fact, you may want to intentionally forget a few items, just so you can buy them in the islands. Flip-flops (called “rubbah slippah” in Hawaiian pidgin), surfing board shorts, a colorfully printed aloha shirt, or a soft, warm hoodie sweatshirt emblazoned with a surf company’s logo are all perfect souvenirs of a Hawaii vacation.

Chances are you’re going to experience different kinds of weather while you’re here, sometimes all in the same day. Be prepared for sunshine and rain, as well as cooler evenings and mornings, especially along the coast and at higher elevations in the mountains. If you’re going to be visiting Hawaii’s volcanic peaks – namely, Haleakala on Maui and Mauna Kea or Mauna Loa on the Big Island (Hawai‘i) – pack a down jacket, warm hat, and gloves. That way, when every other tourist is shivering in the dark, waiting for sunrise or while stargazing at the top of the mountain, you’ll stay toasty warm. A lightweight waterproof jacket can come in handy on the islands’ rainier windward sides. A swimsuit is essential not just for ocean and waterfall swims, but also hotel pools and spas.

Surfboards, boogie boards, and snorkel sets can be readily rented in the islands. It’s also reasonably cheap to buy your own snorkel set or boogie board after you arrive, if your vacation rental or condo doesn’t come stocked with free beach gear to borrow. If you’re going to be do any serious hiking, bring a good pair of hiking shoes or boots. Hawaii’s trails are often muddy, slippery, and full of loose soil, tree roots, and roly-poly rocks, so you’ll want shoes with good traction and ankle support. That said, you’ll see locals hiking in sneakers or even rubbah slippah. A hiking pole is helpful for long backcountry hikes, such as along Kaua‘i’s Na Pali Coast, around the summit area of Haleakala on Maui, or inside Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island.

Remember to bring chargers for all of your electronics, including car chargers for road trips. A GPS receiver is probably not necessary if you’ve got a navigation app on your smartphone, although more remote and rural areas of the islands won’t have cell (mobile) phone coverage, either data or voice. If you’re traveling with children, bringing your own car seat will save you money; otherwise, book ahead to rent one from your car rental agency.

Don’t forget to pack all of the prescription medications you might need in clearly labeled containers, along with copies of all of your prescriptions (using the generic names of drugs). Tip: Take back-up photographs of your prescriptions, including for medications, eyeglasses, and contact lenses, as well as any letters from your doctor(s), then store the images on your smartphone or in the cloud, in case you accidentally lose the originals.

A passport and often a valid U.S. tourism visa is required for foreign citizens who arrive in Hawaii from abroad, including Canada. U.S. citizens are also required to carry and show a valid U.S. passport, state driver’s license or state-issued photo ID to board a flight at any airport in the U.S., including in Hawaii.

What to Wear

In Hawaii, locals keep it casual as much of the time as possible. You’ll only need to dress up for dinner at some four-star restaurants, evenings out at high-end resorts, or nightlife and performing arts events in Honolulu. Otherwise, island style usually means wearing board shorts, a T-shirt, and rubbah slippah by day, then throwing on a hoodie sweatshirt when it cools off at night.

Hawaii’s most fashionable city is Honolulu, yet even there most businessmen wear slacks and a short-sleeved aloha shirt to work. If you don’t have an aloha shirt, you can pick one up on any island, either from a vintage clothing store, such as Bailey’s Antiques and Aloha Shirts near Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, or at a name-brand boutique shop like Tori Richards, which has branches on all the main islands.

What it Costs

Generally speaking, Hawaii is an expensive place to visit, but how expensive depends on your travel style and where you go. In general, fashionable resort areas on the Neighbor Islands (meaning any of the main Hawaiian Islands other than O‘ahu) cost more. Among the popular beach resort areas, Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach often has the best deals. You may also save money by skipping hotels and instead staying at bed-and-breakfast inns, privately owned condominiums and vacation rentals, hostels, or campgrounds.

When you travel may also make a big difference in how much you’ll spend. For example, accommodation rates during September and October may be half the high season rates charged during winter and summer. Year-round, it’s often cheaper to book accommodations for a minimum of five to seven nights. Doing so not only nets you better rates, but makes the mandatory cleaning fee, which is charged at check-out by many condominiums and private vacation rentals, less of a huge hit to your vacation budget.

Budget

If you’re staying in hostels or camping, eating cheap take-out meals, getting around on public transportation (which is really feasible only on O‘ahu), and limiting how many attractions you visit and how much you go out at night, you can get by on about $75 a day. Budget a little over $100 a day if you’re going to rent a car, which is usually necessary on the Neighbor Islands.

Moderate

If you’re traveling with someone else and sharing cheaper condominium, hotel, or bed-and-breakfast accommodations, renting your own car to get around, seeing a couple of major attractions and splurging on a few guided tours and outdoor activities, and going out for drinks and at least some meals, plan on spending at least $200 per person per day.

Luxury

If you’re a luxury traveler, $500 a day per person will just begin to cover staying in four-star beach resorts; eating out for breakfast, lunch and dinner; enjoying daily guided tours, outdoor activities and after-dark entertainment; and renting a more expensive car, such as a convertible or an SUV (most popularly, a Jeep Wrangler with a removable soft top).

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in US dollars ($).

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
Free
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $10 to $25 per person
$$$ => Tickets over $25 per person

Sleep
$ => Rooms less than $150 for a double room
$$ => Rooms $150 to $300 for a double room
$$$ => Rooms over $300 for a double room

Eat
$ => Up to $15 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$ => $15 to $30 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$$ => Over $30 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)

Shop
N/A => Not applicable

Tours
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $10 to $50 per person
$$$ => Tickets over $50 per person

Airfare and Car Rental Prices

Airfares

Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need them to be low, they’re high. And when prices dip, what happens? You have no free time to travel. Sigh.

But you can get notifications from online booking websites like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type in your destination and the dates you are watching, and boom! When there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your email inbox.

Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.

That said, it’s advantageous to also visit an airline’s own website before booking. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator sites. Most airlines share time-limited, super-discounted specials via their social media pages or in email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mail lists.

Tip: Even during peak season, you can often find last-minute deals on airfares, especially if you’re traveling to Honolulu (HNL) on O‘ahu, Kahului (OGG) on Maui, or Kona (KOA) on the Big Island. However, do not book your flights before you check on rates and availability of island accommodations and car rentals. Cheap seats on flights may be available even when almost every hotel is booked and car rentals are sold out.

Car, Motorcycle, Scooter & Moped Rentals 

Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Online booking websites like Hotwire and Kayak offer comparison price shopping. So does the Costco Travel website (for members only). There are also name-your-own-price sites, such as Priceline, where you tell them what you want to pay and maybe they hook you up with a car rental company who fits the bill. These sites may have some great deals, as long as you are not picky about the make and model of your rental or which agency you rent from. More often than not, the cheaper car rentals are for agencies that are located further away from the airport.

Tip: If all the major international car-rental chains are sold out or prohibitively expensive, search online for local car-rental agencies, which may charge less for older vehicles with more miles on the odometer. Many of these agencies offer free airport pick-ups and drop-offs, but you’ll almost always have to arrange this in advance.

For experienced motorcycle drivers with a valid U.S. or international driver’s license that is specially endorsed, motorcycle rentals are available on the bigger main islands. They’re quite expensive however, and usually located only in the biggest cities. You must be 21 years old to rent a motorcycle. Expect a hefty security deposit to be required.

Moped and scooter rentals are more widely available, usually at more popular beach resorts. Mopeds and scooters are much cheaper to rent than motorcycles, but are still more expensive than an economy car. The minimum age for renting a moped is usually 21, but it’s only 18 to rent a scooter. The former requires a special motorcycle license, while the latter requires only a valid U.S. or international driver’s license.

Insurance

Hopefully, your trip to Hawaii goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?

Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.

Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:

Trip Cancellation: About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.

Medical: Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000. U.S. travelers should check if their medical insurance at home will cover them while in Hawaii.

Trip Interruption: For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.

Travel Delay: Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.

Baggage: Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.

Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.

Do I need travel insurance?

If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case.”

Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.

How do I choose an insurance provider?

Do your homework; check around.

The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz, and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International, and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregator sites like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.

Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).

If you have pre-existing health conditions:
Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.

Credit card insurance: If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.

The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb, and HomeAway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.

For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.

Exchange Rates and Currency

Exchange Rates

The U.S. dollar fluctuates against other world currencies, but its value has steadily risen since early 2015. For current exchange rates, click here.

Currency

U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans may have a tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.

Coins in wide circulation include the penny (one cent), nickel (five cents), dime (10 cents), and quarter (25 cents). The 50-cent and one-dollar coins are seen occasionally.

Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so have twenties or smaller bills in hand. ATMs usually dispense $20 bills.

Money, ATMs, Credit Cards

Most locals in Hawaii do not carry a large amount of cash with them on an everyday basis, and neither should you. That said, ATMs can be scarce in rural areas, so it’s smart to cash up in the nearest big town before heading too far off the beaten path.

ATMs

If you withdraw cash from an ATM machine, most banks apply a surcharge of around $3 per transaction. Check with your bank before you leave home to find out which, if any, banks in Hawaii will allow you to get cash without an extra charge. Many grocery stores, gas stations and major retail outlets such as chain pharmacies will allow you to get a limited amount of “cash back” when paying for your goods with your debit card – this is an easy way to get some cash while on the go without paying a surcharge.

Credit & Debit Cards

Credit and debit cards are accepted widely throughout the U.S.

Don’t forget to call your debit and/or credit card issuer before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. This goes for U.S. residents traveling out of state. If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card declined when you try to use it at your destination in Hawaii. You should also call your bank or credit card issuer immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card – which doesn’t help if the card is lost or stolen. Make a note of the numbers and store them where you’ll have easy access, for example, by taking a photo of the back of the card with your smartphone.

Recently cards with embedded chips to deter counterfeit fraud have been issued. Banks and merchants that don’t offer chip readers may be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details about your specific cards.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

Tipping

Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any trip to Hawaii. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but a few other special situations also apply.

Restaurants
For excellent service, plan to tip 18% to 20% of the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10% to 15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In most places, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions, especially in a place like Hawaii, where the local economy relies heavily on tourism businesses.

Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included, usually for groups of six or more people. But at least it will be itemized on the bill – if you look closely for it, that is.

Hotels
•  Bellhops normally receive $1 to $2 per bag that they assist with, but if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, tip them $5 to $10.
•  Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2 to $3 per day, left under the card on in the envelope provided. Tip $5 per day at higher-end properties.
•  At hotels with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff (around $10 to $20 per day) who help you plan activities, make restaurant reservations, or acquire tickets. Concierges do not expect tips for giving out simple information, such as directions.
•  Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) deserve a 20% tip for their services when performed well, whether at the spa or in your hotel room.

Other Services
•  At bars, tip bartenders and cocktail servers at least $1 or $2 per drink, up to 15% to 20% per round.
•  Airport porters are normally tipped $2 or $3 per bag.
•  Taxi drivers are tipped 15% to 20% of the total fare, rounded up to the next whole dollar amount. Limo drivers expect a minimum $20 tip.
•  Tip parking valet staff a minimum of $2 when they hand back the keys to your car.

Sales Tax, Lodging Taxes, and Resort, Cleaning & Parking Fees

In Hawaii, there is no state sales tax, but a general excise tax (GET) of between 4% and 5% is charged for all retail goods and services. Taxes are not usually included in display prices, unless otherwise stated.

An additional transient accommodations tax of 9.25% applies whether you are staying at a private vacation rental, a bed-and-breakfast, or a full-fledged resort hotel. Taxes are not usually stated up front in the advertised room rate. Neither are the mandatory nightly “resort fees” of $20 to $35 per night being charged by many hotels or the mandatory one-time “cleaning fee” charged (usually $100 or more) at many condos and vacation rentals. Beware that third-party booking agents, especially online, often don’t include these fees in their reservation charges, so you may be unhappily surprised by the final bill when you check out.

Parking is another fee that is not included in accommodation rates at most hotels and hostels and at some condominium complexes. Overnight hotel parking costs an average of $25, rising to $40 or more in Waikiki and at luxury beach resorts state-wide. Condo complexes generally charge a bit less for guest parking, and sometimes it’s even free. Most hostels don’t have private off-street parking available, but those that do either charge around $15 or less (in urban areas) or else offer free parking (in less busy places).

Transportation

The most popular way to get to Hawaii is to fly, though some people do take ocean cruises to get here. Although first-time visitors may be surprised to learn this, there are no inter-island ferry services between the Hawaiian Islands, except to Moloka‘i and Lana‘i from Maui. Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) runs 7-day cruises within Hawaii that leave from Honolulu and visit the four biggest main islands, as well as 11-day cruises to and around Hawaii that depart from San Francisco, California.

Hawaiian Airlines is the biggest inter-island air carrier. With genuine aloha spirit, this airline also serves many U.S. mainland, South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, and Asia routes. Other international carriers also fly to Hawaii from destinations around the world, with the majority of flights landing at Honolulu International Airport (HNL) on the island of O‘ahu. Reaching one of the Neighbor Islands (i.e., any of the main islands other than O‘ahu) may require changing planes first in Honolulu. Direct U.S. mainland and international flights to Maui, Kaua‘i, and the Big Island (Hawai‘i) are more limited and often more expensive as well.

Smaller inter-island commuter airlines include ‘Ohana by Hawaiian, Island Air, and Mokulele Airlines. All three of these airlines use turboprop planes for their short island-hopping flights. Mokulele Airlines’ small Cessnas carry the fewest passengers, so flights feel almost like a personal tour and most seats enjoy a fantastic view out the windows. Any of these airlines may be currently offering the cheapest fares and most direct flights, so shop around and compare with what Hawaiian Airlines is charging. Book as far ahead as possible for the cheapest inter-island airfares. Last-minute tickets can cost double or even triple the lowest advance-purchase prices, which start over $100 for a one-way inter-island flight.

From the biggest island airports, which include Honolulu, Kahului (Maui), Lihue (Kaua‘i), and Kailua-Kona (Big Island), public buses, private taxis, and shared-ride shuttle vans are all options for getting into the nearest city and to some beach resort areas. That said, most visitors rent a car, since public transportation is not really feasible for touring any island except for O‘ahu. Make sure that you book your rental car in advance for the best rates and because all cars on a given island may sell out, especially around holidays and special events. On O‘ahu, you won’t need a car if you’re staying at Waikiki Beach and just visiting Honolulu and some of the island’s star attractions. On Lana‘i, most visitors get around by the resorts’ shuttles or rent a 4WD Jeep for day excursions.

Hawaii Department of Agriculture: Import & Export Regulations

During your flight to Hawaii, flight attendants will hand out a Hawaii Department of Agriculture form that you must hand in before arrival. Each family traveling together only needs to fill out one such form. Note that you may not bring any fruits or vegetables into Hawaii, so you’ll need to eat those on the plane. Animal quarantine regulations prohibit bringing pets with you, with limited exceptions made for service animals (not therapy or emotional support animals) that assist people with certified physical disabilities. For important details about bringing service animals to Hawaii, click here.

When you return to the airport and are ready to leave Hawaii, your checked baggage must be screened by the Department of Agriculture in the terminal lobby near the airline desks. You must do this before you check in your baggage. After going through the TSA security checkpoint and proceeding toward your flight’s departure gate, your carry-on baggage will also be subject to screening by the Department of Agriculture. This is to prevent the export of fresh fruits and flowers as well as live plants from Hawaii, except for those agricultural products that have been specially packaged and pre-approved for export to the U.S. mainland.

Background

You may think you already know what Hawaii is like from Hollywood movies and TV shows, but think again. The most multiculturally diverse U.S. state can’t be summed up in any trite clichés about a tropical paradise. True, this is a state of bronzed surfers and beautiful hula dancers, but it’s also home to Native Hawaiian activists, organic farmers, alternative artists, celebrated chefs, progressive environmentalists, and so much more.

If you’re wondering why Hawaii sometimes feels like another country, that’s because it was until the Hawaiian monarchy fell in 1893 and the U.S. later annexed the territory. Until the arrival of the first European explorers, followed by Christian missionaries and the Pacific whaling fleet in the 19th century, Hawaiians had lived in utter isolation for perhaps half a millennium or longer. Those ancient Hawaiians evolved a culture that was unique, yet grafted onto the Polynesian roots of the first ocean-going canoe voyagers who arrived here from Tahiti and elsewhere as early as the 6th century CE.

For local etiquette tips on everything from wearing lei to keeping marine wildlife safe, click here. For websites and maps to help you get ready for your trip to the Aloha State, click here. For a list of recommended books that you could bring with you on the plane or to the beach, click here.

Etiquette

Hawaii defines casual. The uptight rules of etiquette that you might find back on the U.S. mainland rarely apply here. You can wear an aloha shirt and leather flip-flops (called “rubbah slippah”) to dinner at a celebrity chef’s restaurant and still fit right in.

Still, elements of the social contract are essential to life in a place as diverse as Hawaii, the most multicultural U.S. state. Being laid-back and living aloha are arguably the most important virtues among locals, followed by tolerance for everyone else’s lifestyle.

Aloha
Aloha is not just a word, it’s a way of life. Confusingly for first-time visitors to Hawaii, aloha can mean hello or good-bye, as well as love, peace, compassion, and more. In general, showing aloha spirit is a shared value among those who call Hawaii home, whether they actually live in the islands or have moved to the U.S. mainland or abroad. In practice, visitors can show aloha by being polite, respectful, friendly, graciously accommodating of others, and by not loudly insisting on getting their own way.

Driving
“Slow down, dis ain’t da mainland” is a popular bumper sticker among island drivers. Don’t be in a hurry, don’t honk, and always let other drivers merge or turn when it’s safe to do so. If you’re driving very slowly on a scenic road, pull over to let local drivers pass by.

Hawaiian Historical & Cultural Sites
At ancient Hawaiian temple sites, even if they’re in ruins, do not move any rocks, not even to try and rebuild walls that are tumbling down. To do so is disrespectful. So is climbing on or over any heiau walls to get inside the structure. The only way to enter a heiau is if there is already an intentional break built into the walls. Also do not leave any offerings behind at these sites, such as whiskey, food or rocks wrapped in ti leaves, etc.

Lei
Never refuse a lei when it is offered to you (seriously, why would you?). Use your own hands to lift it over your head, then evenly hang it over your shoulders so that half of the lei hangs down over your chest and the other half over your back. Do not give a closed, circular lei to a pregnant woman, as it’s bad luck; instead give her an open lei or a haku (head) lei. When you’re ready to stop wearing the lei, do not throw it out. It’s better to untie the string, then return the flowers, seeds, or nuts to the earth.

Marine Wildlife
No matter what other ignorant or insensitive people are doing, always give marine mammals such as sea turtles, monk seals, whales, or dolphins plenty of distance, whether on land or in the water. Doing so prevents them from being distressed by human contact and promotes healthy, natural behaviors that will help them survive in the wild. Do not ever pay for a captive dolphin encounter, which is so harmful to those marine mammals that the practice already has been banned in other countries. Tour boats that offer swims with wild spinner dolphins also potentially harm the animals – don’t go.

Tip: To learn more about Hawaii’s protected marine species, including those that are critically endangered, check out this NOAA website. Federal guidelines mandate staying back at least 100 yards from any whale and 50 yards from other whales and all Hawaiian monk seals and dolphins. To you see wildlife being harassed or an animal who looks stranded or in distress, never approach them; instead call the NOAA 24-hour hotline at (808) 853-1964.

Shoes
When visiting someone’s home in Hawaii, or when staying in a bed-and-breakfast or private vacation rental, expect to take your shoes off at the door. Wearing shoes indoors isn’t commonplace and it may offend your host.

Smoking
As in many areas of the U.S., smoking is banned state-wide inside all public buildings, including hotels, restaurants, bars, and shopping malls. Many hotels in Hawaii are entirely non-smoking, not just in guest rooms, but also on balconies, in pool areas, or anywhere else on the grounds. Smoking is also not permitted in the outdoor areas of restaurants, bars, and shopping malls. On O‘ahu, Maui, Moloka‘i, Lana‘i, and the Big Island (Hawai‘i), smoking is strictly prohibited at all beaches.

Tipping
As elsewhere in the U.S. – perhaps even more so, since Hawaii’s economy relies heavily on tourism and the service industry – tipping is not optional.

Recommended Reading

History & Culture

Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands (1968) by Gavan Daws
The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai (2006) by John Tayman
Kaua‘i: The Separate Kingdom (1986) by Edward Joesting
Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen (1898) by Lili‘uokalani
To Steal a Kingdom: Probing Hawaiian History (1996) by Michael Dougherty

Memoirs & Travel Writing

Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai‘i (1995) by Garrett Hongo
Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before (2002) by Tony Horowitz
The Last Atoll: Exploring the Far End of the Hawaiian Archipelago (2012) by Pamela Frierson
Mark Twain in Hawaii: Roughing It in the Sandwich Islands 
(1994)
Six Months in the Sandwich Islands by Isabella Bird (1875)

Literature

Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre (1993) by Lois-Ann Yamanaka
Wild Meat and Bully Burgers 
(1996) by Lois-Ann Yamanaka
All I Asking for Is My Body (1988) by Milton Murayama
The Shark Dialogues
(1994) by Kiana Davenport
The Descendants (2007) by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Hawaii (1959) by James Michener
Hotel Honolulu (2001) by Paul Theroux

Websites and Maps

Go Hawaii
A helpful trip-planning website from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, with individual guides for each of the main islands.

Surf News Network
Heading out to go surfing in the islands? Check here first for the latest reports and live webcams.

Hawaii’s State Parks
Find out about camping, lodging, and recreation in state parks on all of the main islands except Lana‘i.

Na Ala Hele: Hawaii Trail & AccessSystem
Public trailhead information, driving directions, brief hike descriptions, and topo maps for hikers on all of the main islands.

Hana Hou
Colorful, in-depth feature stories on contemporary life in the islands appear in Hawaiian Airlines’ in-flight magazine, viewable for free online.

Honolulu Magazine
Stylish, glossy monthly lifestyle mag is headquartered on Oahu, but touches all of the main islands.

Hawai‘i Creole English
Learn the basics of Hawaiian pidgin and understand why it’s so important to Native Hawaiians. Even the U.S. Census Bureau now recognizes it as an official language of the islands.

Hints, Tips and FAQs

Tips

Start in Waikiki and perhaps return here for your final two days. Waikiki remains Americas most famous beach and offers more options for entertainment and nightlife than all the neighbor islands combined. The second stop is West Maui, at or near either the Kaanapali or Wailea resorts. Kaanapali is more active, while Wailea is more sensitively planned. The final destination is Kauai, which shows start-and-stop signs of displacing Maui as the choice of the chic. Split your days almost equally among the three islands, with some possible fluctuation between Oahu and Kauai depending on whether you are a traditionalist or riding a new wave.

Trip Ideas

Fashionable Fun Lovers

Start on O‘ahu and perhaps return to Honolulu for your final two days. Waikiki Beach remains Hawaii’s most famous beach and offers more options for entertainment and nightlife than all of the Neighbor Islands combined. The second stop is Maui, at or near either the Kapalua or Wailea resorts for beautiful beaches, shopping, and spas. Your final destination is Kaua‘i, where Princeville and Po‘ipu are the choices of the chic. Split your days equally among the three islands, with some possible fluctuation between Kaua‘i and O‘ahu depending on whether you are a traditionalist or riding a new wave.

Polynesian Purists

Spend most of your two weeks on the Hawai‘i (the Big Island). The best time to come is early April, during Hilo’s Merrie Monarch Festival. Historical Hilo can be a base camp for exploring East Hawai‘i, including Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Otherwise, Kailua-Kona or the Kohala Coast may be a better base camp. Don’t miss Waipi‘o Valley, the petroglyph fields and ancient fishponds of the Waikoloa and Mauna Lani resorts, and Pu‘uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park. Finish with a few days on Moloka‘i, immersing yourself in local culture and the island rhythms of old Hawaii.

Jaded Romantics

If you’re difficult to impress but can be stirred to passion by the authentically poetic, you should seek out some of Hawaii’s most idyllic hidden hideaways. On Maui, the remote little town of Hana is a must-see, and driving there (and back) is more than half the fun. Hop over to the North Shore of Kaua‘i to the little surf town of Hanalei, a gateway to the Na Pali Coast. A third destination might be Hawai‘i (the Big Island) for the coffee plantations of South Kona or artistic Volcano Village, hidden in the rain forest and not far from windswept Ka La‘e (South Point), which thrillingly feels like the edge of the earth.

Wild Naturalists

Your focus is Haleakala National Park on Maui, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park on Hawai‘i (the Big Island), and both the North Coast and the western side of Kaua‘i. On Maui, stay on the eastern half of the island, probably around Pa‘ia on the North Shore or Upcountry, and make the drive to Hana and beyond in one or two days. Over on the Big Island, stay in Volcano Village. For Kaua‘i, pick somewhere on the North Shore, possibly around Kilauea, though Kapa‘a is midway between the dramatic scenery of the North Shore and West Kaua‘i’s splendid Waimea Canyon, Koke‘e State Park, and Polihale Beach.

Curious Culturalists

Start with a few days in Hawaii’s most cosmopolitan city, Honolulu, on O‘ahu. Explore Chinatown, tour the beautiful royal ‘Iolani Palace, and uncover Hawaiian history and art at the Bishop Museum before visiting the somber WWII memorials at Pearl Harbor. Catch a flight over to Hawai‘i (the Big Island) for the rest of your trip. Start in Hilo, with its intriguing history and science museums. Drive up the Hamakua Coast to the former plantation town of Honoka‘a, check out the paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) outpost of Waimea, and peek into Waipi‘o Valley, where traditionalists still live off the land. If you want to add a third island, move over to Maui for the Old Lahaina Luau and a tour of Kahanu Garden, which preserves Hawaii’s biggest surviving ancient heiau (stone temple).