budget tips
Travel,  Travel Guide

How to See Hawaii on a Tight Budget

          I recently went back to Hawaii with two of my sisters.  This was my third visit.  The first time was with a friend’s family, and second time was for my honeymoon (it was a bit of a splurge).  Hawaii is far from a cheap travel destination, especially if you don’t live in the U.S. It definitely has a reputation of being expensive.  It’s the most remote island chain in the world, so i’m not surprised. It can be done on a tight budget or on a really big budget, but I don’t think you can visit Hawaii and hardly spend any money unless you are staying with somebody.  For 6 days in Hawaii I spent about $850.  That includes flights, hotel, rental car, food, souvenirs, and entertainment.  Now is not the cheapest time to visit.  Gas is super expensive, as everybody knows.  Rental cars and hotels are also almost double what they used to be before the pandemic.  As gas prices are rising, so are the prices of flights.  Although, it helps that more budget airlines have added Hawaii to their list.  Anyway, I think I did pretty good for how expensive the trip could have been.  I’ll go into more detail about my expenses.

Choose an Island

volcanos lookout

          Firstly, you need to decide which island to visit.  At first we were thinking of going to Oahu because that is the only touristy island I haven’t been to.  I was trying to talk my sister into going to Oahu because that island has a pretty good public transportation system.  I was trying to avoid renting a car because of how insanely expensive they are right now.  I heard about how you can just take busses around the island.  It’s not the most convenient or fun but it is extremely cheap.  It’s something good to keep in mind if you can’t rent a car yet.  Although, I’ve also heard that Oahu is the most expensive island in general.  A lot of people go to Oahu because it has Honolulu and for whatever reason people just choose it.  I’ve heard that less expensive islands are the Big Island and Kauai.  Maui is pretty expensive as well.  We decided on the Big Island because my sister had only been to Oahu and didn’t want to go back to the only island she has been to.  My other sister hadn’t been to Hawaii yet.  The Big Island had the cheapest hotel prices.  It has a good variety of activities and is a good choice for a budget trip.  Kauai is my personal favorite island, so I highly recommend that one if you can find reasonable prices.  If you want to know what the Big Island has to do, check out my blog post about the trip. 

Find Flights


          Once you choose an island, it’s time to book flights.  We chose to fly into Hilo instead of Kona (the more popular option) because flights were cheaper and the rental car was less too.  You really just have to shop around different options to see what combo is best.  We flew Southwest there and United back.  It was originally supposed to be Southwest round trip but we had a bit of an issue.  So, honestly I came out ahead in terms of flights. I have a Southwest credit card.  I used points to book my entire flight, so it didn’t really cost me any money.  The Southwest credit card does have a small annual fee but we have gotten several free flights so it amounts to very little.  On the way home Southwest had to cancel our flight because there was a scratch on the outside of the plane and they didn’t know if it would be safe to fly.  We all got a $250 travel voucher and I got my points back that I used for the flight.  Basically, I made money off of that flight.  It was the most annoying travel experience I have ever had though.  We spend 12 hours in the Hilo airport.  There weren’t anymore available flights that night and they didn’t have a backup plane. Southwest had to pay to put us on United.  I’m not going to lie, after everything that happened with Southwest I still prefer them to United. The United flight was just so crammed and I was happy with how Southwest handled the situation.  

          I know my situation is unique and most people don’t make money off of their flights to Hawaii.  I would encourage you to look into a travel credit card though.  They can be so worth it.  I recommend the Southwest card. I know I already talked about it but right now I think they are running a deal where you get a free companion pass.  That means you use points and a companion flies free.  I think Hawaiian Air has some good offers as well as Capitol One Ventra.  I haven’t looked too much into the second two but It’s not that hard to get free flights if you are good with using credit cards and you don’t carry a balance.  If you don’t want to use a credit card you can use sites like Skyscanner, Google Flights, etc.  There are websites where you can get a notification whenever prices drop.  I haven’t used them but I know they exist.   Also, consider avoiding going in summer because it is more expensive and crowded then.  Flights to Hawaii don’t have to be expensive.  

Book Accommodations

          There are a lot of different options in Hawaii for accommodations.  Since we flew into and out of Hilo, we obviously stayed in Hilo.  There aren’t many hotels on that side of the island but they are all pretty affordable.  We stayed at the Grand Naniloa Hilo-a Doubletree by Hilton.  We booked it through Hotels.com and with their rewards program I was able to earn a free night from this trip.  This hotel was $175 per night.  Most hotels and resorts in Hawaii have a resort fee that you also have to pay.  Ours was $30 per night.  We chose to stay at this hotel because it is pretty nice and a very reasonable price for what you get.  We split the cost of the room 3 ways and made sure to book one with two beds.  This hotel also has free parking.  Definitely something to think about.  There are other options if you can’t find an affordable hotel room.  You can rent an Airbnb, or rent a rental through a different site.  I’m not a huge fan of Airbnb because it makes me feel uncomfortable and I feel like with all the added fees sometimes you end up spending more.  But, just do research and do what is right for you.  Another option is camping.  I know you can camp in Hawaii but I have never done it.  I think you need reservations far in advance but it’s worth looking into if you like camping.



          In most cases you will need to book a car in Hawaii.  We ended up with this pretty white jeep.  I am a Costco member so I booked our rental car through Costco Travel.  I was able to save about $200 compared to booking through other rental car sites.  We also split the price of the rental car and gas by 3.  We initially booked a midsize car but were were given a Jeep because they didn’t have that car when we arrived.  Somebody didn’t return it.  The only reason it bothers me a bit was because the midsize car would have gotten better gas mileage.  But, we were also able to use Costco gas stations so we saved money on gas as well.  A pretty big portion of the budget went toward gas.  I didn’t really account for that so much because we had to drive to Kona a few times.  That is on the opposite side of the island so it’s something to think about when you book everything.  Which city has the most to do and is it worth the price to stay in a different city? The price difference was worth it for us.  


shave ice

          Food is another really surpassingly expensive thing in Hawaii.  If you haven’t been or looked into it, you might not think about it.  When I went for my honeymoon I was pretty shocked by the prices.  We ate out a lot at restaurants and it was super expensive.  For this trip we actually packed an extra suitcase and brought a ton of dry goods from home.  We stocked up on microwaveable noodle bowls, rice packets, mac and cheese, and snacks.  It’s not the healthiest thing to do but it keeps the cost of food way down.  We still supported local business a few times and made sure to buy some poke and shave ice (the staples).  I definitely had things I wanted to get from restaurants but for the most part I ate dry goods.  We made sure to book a hotel that had a microwave and coffee maker in the room.  Honestly, it’s a good thing we did that or we would have had to go without meals a few times.  Restaurants in Hawaii close super early and don’t stick to the hours posted.  There were several occasion where we planned to buy food out but literally couldn’t find anything open.  In addition to bringing our own food, we got food from the grocery store a few times.  We bought alcohol from Walmart instead of buying it at the hotel bar.  Side note: our room did give up two free drinks per night.  


          If you are on a super tight budget it’s totally possible to stick to free or very cheap activities in Hawaii.  There is just so much to do on each island that you won’t be bored.  You could visit free beaches, waterfalls, go on hikes, snorkel, site see.  On this trip we didn’t spend much on entertainment.  We went to Akaka Falls State park which was about $8 per person, visited Volcanos National Park, and went on two excursions.  All of those things cost money.  For the National Park, I have a park pass so we didn’t have to pay anything to enter.  Some of the state parks in Hawaii have started charging a fee for out of state visitors.  They all used to be free.  If there is a free alternative you can choose that.  For excursions we went on two boat rides.  One was a night snorkel with manta rays and the other was a catamaran snorkel.  We spent a little over $200.  I was generously gifted that money and without it I would have only done the manta ray snorkel.  There are several places where you can snorkel for free right off the beach so you don’t have to book a tour. When planning your trip try to find free activities.  You really shouldn’t have to try that hard.  Hopefully I gave you a few ideas on how to save money on your next trip.  

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