Back when we lived on the Mainland, we used to go on weekend trips every month. We constantly had a list of places we wanted to visit, and whenever the opportunity struck we would simply pack up the car and go. We were able to go up to 4 days spending money only on the cost of gas — we could camp for free, hike and explore in the wilderness for free, and would bring food we already had from home. It was only a matter of finding the time.
These days, we don’t have much time off to travel — but it’s probably for the better, considering how expensive it is to get off this island. However, we decided to make traveling to all of the Hawaiian islands that we can visit a priority because it’s never going to be cheaper or easier than it is now.
In this post, I’ll outline the ways that we save money while island hopping, and share how much we spend to give an idea of how much you can expect to spend on a similar trip.
First, a few disclaimers: We are are currently living on Oahu and are in the military, so we take advantage of Hawaii resident and military discounts whenever we can. Also, when we travel, we spend basically our entire time hiking and exploring in nature, which is typically free or very cheap. We always opt to do things on our own rather than with a tour company. Our trips are usually only a few days long, so we pack them full of things we know are unique to each island and spend very little time relaxing, dining out or drinking.
The first big up-front cost for island hopping is plane tickets — this expense is pretty unavoidable! During our first year of living in Hawaii, Hawaiian Airlines was basically the only way to fly between the islands. There were smaller companies such as Mokulele, but they were typically just as expensive if not more and had limited flight options. Now, Southwest Airlines has come to the islands and provided a little extra competition, so the prices aren’t quite as bad.
It helps to be flexible with dates and travel at non-peak times. We usually take the earliest flight out at 5am and return on the latest flight, around 10-11pm depending on the island. The best deal we’ve gotten was $35 per person one way to Maui, with tickets purchased a month in advance during a Black Friday sale. Besides that trip, we don’t always know if we will be able to take our planned leave, so we usually wait until the last minute to buy tickets, which can account for why those trips were so expensive.
Here’s what we’ve spent on flights for two people, round trip:
Maui (January 2018) $290
Kauai (August 2018) $316
Big Island (December 2018) $318
Maui (January 2020) $220 ($70 for one-way from Oahu to Maui, $150 for one-way Lanai to Oahu)
Driving around the entire Eastern side of Maui
For our style of travel, having a rental car is usually the best way to get around, so this has been another necessary expense when island hopping. Each of the islands has a bus system, but the buses don’t always go to all the places we want to visit. For example, there is no bus route for Haleakala on Maui, or Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Park on Kauai, which are must-sees in our opinion. Not to mention we’d spend extra time waiting for the bus and stopping frequently, and all of our trips have had little flexibility on time.
Because we rarely ever rented cars on the mainland, I can’t say exactly how these compare, just that we think it’s way too expensive. Maybe if we tried Turo or something like that we could find something cheaper, but we’re all about convenience and reliability when taking these short trips.
It’s important to note that when planning vacations during peak seasons (summer, spring break, and around the holidays in December) you should always make sure rentals are available on the island you’re visiting when you book plane tickets. (This may work the same for hotels, but we wouldn’t know!)
Maui (January 2018, 3 days) $209
Kauai (August 2018, 3 days) $198
Big Island (December 2018, 6 days) $251
Maui (January 2020, 2 days) $170
Sleeping in the cabins on Mauna Loa in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
After paying for the flights and rental car, we can usually get away with a pretty budget friendly vacation all thanks to camping. We pack our small 2 person tent and compact sleeping bags into backpacking backpacks which make for large carry-ons, but since the earliest and latest flights of the day are usually pretty empty, we’ve never had a problem. However, I heard that Southwest gives you one free checked bag, which is another great way to bring your camping gear.
When camping, your main options are national parks, state parks, and county parks. We’ve never tried camping outside of those areas because we’d rather pay and receive permits up front than get caught or fined for camping somewhere we’re not supposed to.
Unfortunately, there really isn’t such thing as a budget hotel here. When we used to stay in hotels on the mainland, we’d just book a Red Roof Inn or Super 8 for $40-$70. Here, it’s nearly impossible to find a decent place for less than $100 a night. You’re more likely to spend >$200 a night at a resort. AirBnBs do exist on the islands, however they are currently illegal on Oahu and in certain areas of other islands so do some research to make sure your rental is legitimate!
If you’re military, there are additional lodging options on most of the islands where you can stay, such as cabins in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We’ve never done this, but check out the Facebook group Island Hopping for Military to see other people’s recommendations. (This is also a great source for finding out where you can get other military discounts!)
Here’s what we’ve spent while camping:
Maui (January 2018, 2 nights) $0 — camped for free in Haleakala National Park
Kauai (August 2018, 2 nights) $16 — one night in Waimea Canyon for $13, one night at Salt Pond county park for $3 (which could have been free had we both used military/HI IDs. Normally it’s $3 per person, per night.)
Big Island (December 2018, 5 nights) $30 — Three nights with a backpacking permit in Hawaii Volcanoes for $10, two nights in a walk-up campsite for $20.
Maui (January 2020, 3 nights) $10 — camped for free in Haleakala National Park for 2 nights, $10 to camp in Papalaua State Wayside Park ($5 per person, per night for HI residents; $10 for non-HI residents).
Additional information about camping can be found on these websites:
Camping in Haleakala National Park: https://www.nps.gov/hale/planyourvisit/drive-up-camping.htm
Backpacking in Haleakala National Park: https://www.nps.gov/hale/planyourvisit/wilderness-camping.htm
Camping in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: https://www.nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit/camp.htm
Backpacking in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: https://www.nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit/hike_bc.htm
Camping in State Parks (Hawaii, Kauai, Maui, Molokai, Oahu): https://camping.ehawaii.gov/camping/welcome.html;jsessionid=9553153D7D9425CFCBA83A10E5FD3FB8.lana (map of campgrounds on each island found here: https://camping.ehawaii.gov/camping/all,e-search.html)
Camping in County Parks:
Oahu (Honolulu County): https://camping.honolulu.gov
No, we did not eat this chicken — I just don’t have pictures of things we have eaten while island hopping!
When we first arrive on any island, we first stop at Walmart to grab food for the majority of our trip. We’ll usually go out for a meal or two while traveling, but like to save money by preparing most of it on our own. We keep it pretty simple: oatmeal for breakfast, peanut butter sandwiches or tortillas for snacks/lunch, and canned soup or instant rice or noodles for dinner. Yes, there are plenty of delicious foods you should try when visiting the islands such as garlic shrimp, poke, kalua pork, and malsadas, but since we live on Oahu we have enjoyed all of these over time.
I’ll break down costs between Walmart stops and restaurants here. In case you’re curious, our favorite restaurant while island hopping has been Killer Tacos in Kona (which actually happens to be a Hawaiian chain). Some day I’ll write a separate post about our favorite restaurants on Oahu.
Maui (January 2018, 3 days) $7 — We planned ahead for this trip and brought most of our food from home!
Kauai (August 2018, 3 days) $18
Big Island (December 2018, 6 days) $65 — This vacation required 2 Walmart trips, and the second happened right after we finished backpacking Mauna Loa when we were feeling calorie starved. After doing our shopping, we also picked up a pizza and ate the whole thing while driving to our campsite. Calorie starved indeed!
Maui (January 2020, 4 days) $33
Maui (January 2018) $50 (One nice dinner at Da Kitchen in Kahului. We recommend the fried tempura spam musubi appetizer!)
Kauai (August 2018) $65 (two lunches at Paina Pono Cafe and Tiki Tacos, an iced drink from a McDonalds on a hot day, and two pieces of Lilikoi chiffon pie from Hamura Saimin in Lihue)
Big Island (December 2018) $57 (The aforementioned pizza in Hilo and Killer Tacos in Kona)
Maui (January 2020) $45 (two lunches at Jawz in Kihei and Plantation Grindz in Kahului, and a half-dozen donuts at Krispy Kremes in Kahului, the only Krispy Kreme in all of Hawaii!)
The only attraction we’ve paid to see — Iao Needle
When you search ‘things to do on ___ island,’ you’ll likely find plenty of tours or paid excursions you can enjoy on said island. What you decide you want to see and do is completely up to you and your budget; for us, our favorite thing to do is hike, and we prefer to do so on our own. Maybe we’re missing out by not taking boat or helicopter tours, but we’ve never regretted skipping those in favor of taking the path less traveled. I knew we were frugal in this regard, however I was still shocked to realize the most we’ve ever paid to see or do anything is a $5 fee to visit Iao Valley on Maui. However, if we didn’t have a national parks pass, then fees to visit Haleakala and Hawaii Volcanoes National Parks would fall in this category. But even if we didn’t have the pass, we’d gladly pay the fees and support our national parks because both of these are absolutely worth seeing!
Taking the ferry from Maui to Lanai
Here’s just a random run-down of other expenses we had while traveling. All of these expenses were explained in our post about our third day of vacation on Maui in January 2020.
Ferry to Lanai: $50 (one way for 2 people, including HI resident discount) This was so worth doing, and less expensive than flying to and from Lanai from Oahu.
Bus: $8 (for two one-day passes on Maui)
Taxi: $20 ($10 per person for a ride on Lanai)
You’ll notice that Oahu isn’t on here — we never vacationed here before moving to the island, so we never experienced it as tourists. But I’d imagine that if we lived on another island and visited here, we would still just do lots of hiking for free, and take the USS Arizona Memorial tour for free. Camping on this island has never appealed to us (we pay enough to live here, why would we pay extra to sleep somewhere else?!) but there are options spread out around here, from beaches to mountains. If we did ever camp, I think Peacock Flats on the North shore would interest us the most.
I hope this post helped show you ways to save money and still have a great time traveling around the Hawaiian islands!