Hawaii does not have a reputation for being a budget-friendly destination. I’m sure you’ve heard horror stories of $12 gallons of milk, and if you’ve ever looked for hotel rooms on the islands you know they aren’t cheap. Good news, though. It is possible to visit Hawaii’s big island without breaking the bank.
Unfortunately, there is one major expense for any Hawaiian vacation. You have to get to an island in the middle of the ocean, which means an expensive plane ticket. There are a few things you can do to save on your flight. Check flights on price comparison sights like Momondo or Kayak, and sign up for email specials from Hawaiian Airlines. That way you’ll get notifications of sales and discounts. Also, if you don’t mind getting a new credit card, you may want to sign up for a travel credit card that offers a sign-up bonus. Many cards will offer a bonus that will cover one round-trip flight. For example, we recently signed up for the Capital One Venture Card and got sign-up bonuses that covered our inter-island flights while we were in Hawaii. Hawaiian Airlines is also currently offering a sign-up bonus for new cardholders.
There are two main cities on the main island: Hilo and Kona. They are on opposite sides of the island, and each one has its own costs and benefits. If you are going for the cheapest available, then you will probably want to stay on the Hilo side of the island. The Hilo side is a rainforest. Hilo receives about 130 inches of rainfall annually. It is a green, abundant landscape. The downside is that you can count on rain for at least a little bit of every day you spend there. The Kona side is sunnier with more sandy beaches, but it is also the more touristy side of the island so prices will be higher.
Both sides of the island have some hostels, which are great if you are travelling solo. As a couple, though, we find that hostels aren’t that good of a deal. Consider that you may have to pay $20 per person to stay in a hostel dorm room in Hawaii. At $40 per night, you can often find an apartment or discounted hotel room. In Hawaii, you should definitely consider renting an apartment or room from someone through a site like AirBnB or HomeAway. We rented a lovely two bedroom apartment (sleeps 4 people) for $50 per night. If you split that between four people then the cost per night is very low, and you have much greater privacy than you would at a hostel.
I know it sounds expensive, but I’d recommend renting a car. On Oahu you can get around the island pretty well using public transportation. Such is not the case on the big island. Buses are few and far between. Many people do hitchhike on the island if you really want to save money, but in my opinion it’s worth it to spend a little money for guaranteed transportation.
To get the best deal on a rental car, shop early. Reservations made far in advance are typically more affordable than last minute bookings. You may also consider renting a car through a local company or even Craigslist. We booked our rental through our Capital One card because they had the cheapest price when we were shopping around. We ended up paying about $15 per day, and it was money well spent. It’s called the big island because it is a big, big island. We averaged 100 miles per day on our rental car. You will be driving a lot so try to get the most compact, fuel-efficient rental car possible.
There are a couple of places on the big island that require 4-wheel-drive, most notably the summit of Mauna Kea and Wai’pio Valley. As tempting as it is, I would say that the cost of a 4-wheel-drive rental is not worth it for the average visitor. While you can’t get to the summit of Mauna Kea, you can easily get to the visitor center in any rental car. You can do as much, if not more, stargazing at the visitor center than you can at the summit. If you really must make it up to the summit, you can hang out at the visitor center until you find someone with a capable vehicle who is willing to let you ride along or you can pay for a summit tour.
Free and Cheap Things To Do
Mauna Kea is one of the world’s top observatories, which means some primo stargazing. Even if you don’t have a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, which is needed you to get all the way to the summit, you can still get to the visitor center with any vehicle. From the visitor center you can learn about astronomy and do some stargazing. Every night at 6PM the center offers free stargazing. Volunteers set up telescopes for the general public to use, and a talk is given about constellations.
Volcanoes National Park
There is an entrance fee to get into Volcanoes National Park, but it is worth it. The cost is $15 per car, and that will allow you to enter the park as often as you want for 7 days. Inside the park you can drive the trail of craters road, walk through a lava tube, hike across a volcanic crater, and watch the volcano glow at night. The park stays open for 24 hours so visitors can see the volcano glowing.
There are several places to snorkel on the big island. On the Kona side, I’d recommend visiting the Captain Cook Memorial. It’s a shallow coral reef teeming with tropical fish, and there are often spinner dolphins in the bay. Getting there can be a bit tricky, but you can read our guide to the hike here. On the Hilo side, you can check out Kapoho Tide Pools. It’s a collection of natural ocean pools where fish like to gather. If you need snorkel gear, I’d recommend Boss Frogs in Kona. They rent out snorkel set ups for $1.50 per day or $9.00 per week.
Hawaii is a land of abundance, and nowhere is that more clear than at the many farmers markets around the island. One of the biggest is the Hilo Farmer’s Market which takes place every Wednesday and Sunday, but there are several markets all over the island. You can find a list here. Aside from just being fun to visit, the farmer’s markets actually have great prices on produce—much cheaper than the supermarkets. If you have access to a kitchen then cooking a few meals at home is a great way to cut costs.
Green Sand Beach
Yes, there is a beach with green sand. It costs nothing to visit, although if you want a ride from the parking lot (instead of hiking 3 miles) you’ll have to pay for that. You can read our experience with the hike here.
Black Sand Beach
There are actually several black sand beaches on Hawaii’s big island, particularly on the Hilo side of the island. The one we visited was Kehena Beach Park because it was close to where we were staying. There is a very short, steep walk to get down to the beach from the parking lot, but it’s not difficult. Fair warning: this beach is clothing option. Be prepared to see some nude people.
Macadamia Nut Factory
Just outside of Hilo you can visit the Mauna Loa macadamia nut factory. There is a very short self-guided tour and a nice gift shop. This is definitely not a top of the list attraction, but if you have some time to kill then why not?
Right across from the Mauna Loa factory is the Pana’Ewa Rainforest Zoo. It’s a small zoo, and it is free. Again, not a top tier attraction but worth visiting if you have a lot of time.
Volcanically Heated Pool
Ahalanui Park on the Hilo side of the island features a swimming pool that is naturally heated by volcanoes. The warm water can reach 90 degrees depending on how much rain and ocean water has been added recently.