You probably think you’ve paid for the bulk of your trip before you even show up with your airfare and accommodations already paid for, but you’d be surprised how quickly the other stuff adds up. You’ll be bombarded with activities and excursion opportunities from the minute you arrive at the airport plus I’m sure you’ve heard rumors about how expensive food is in Hawaii. So once you’ve go the big stuff paid for, how do you save money once you get there? And how do you know where to save and where to splurge? Listen up, here’s what you need to know:
Things to Do in Hawaii for Free
There’s plenty to do for free. Don’t worry, I’m not just going to tell you that you can save money by only doing free stuff. Who couldn’t figure that gem of a tip out? We’ll get to how you can save money on paid activities and excursions later, but first…there really is a lot you can do for free in Hawaii and thankfully, the free stuff is some of the best stuff!
Beach bumming: Everybody comes to Hawaii for the beaches right? Well get out there and see them! If you’re staying at a beachfront hotel or condo, the temptation is to just hag out on “your” beach, but the awesome ting about Hawaii beaches is that each one looks a little different, especially on different parts of the island. One of my favorite things to do is go “beach hopping.” Plan to visit a different beach each day (or a couple each day) until you find your favorite. You’ll soon realize that different beaches are good for different things. Some are great for swimming and boogie boarding, some for snorkeling, and some for beach combing. Do some research before you get there and make a list of all the beaches you want to check out. Here’s a tip: You’ll have a much more comfortable day at the beach if you have the right gear. Many surf or gear shops will rent chairs, umbrellas, coolers, boogie boards, etc. to you for the week. Trust me, you’ll have so much more fun if you have the right gear instead of just sitting on a towel in the sand the whole time. But if you are going to rent, I would price check it first as it may be cheaper to buy your own gear at Costco and leave it behind at the end of your trip.
Snorkeling: Another great Hawaii pastime is snorkeling and many of the best snorkeling spots in Hawaii can be accessed right off the beach. If you have your own gear at home, bring it along. If not, there are plenty of places where you can rent by the day or the week (always rent from a gear/surf shop and not your resort as they’ll really gouge you!), but I would suggest picking up a set at Costco when you arrive. You’ll get a nice set for close to the weekly rental price at a gear shop plus you know you’re the first person who’s used it. FYI: Many gear rental places advertise snorkeling gear for $1.99/day but once you get to the shop you realize it’s for kind of a crappy snorkel set and they end up “upselling” you on a more expensive rental. You usually come out ahead just renting your own.
Hiking: If you really want to see the best of the Hawaiian Islands, you’ll usually have to get a little off the beaten path. Hiking is free and this is how you’ll see some of the best scenery in Hawaii. Do some research in advance to know which hikes you want to do (or ask a local!). I recommend getting a copy of the Hawaii Revealed guidebook series. You’ll be able to find them places once you get there but I would order it from Amazon in advance (you’ll save a lot of money!).
Sight seeing: Besides gorgeous beaches and hikes, each island has a number of sights (historic, cultural, and natural) that are must sees. On Oahu, you’ve got to see Pearl Harbor, the sights of Waikiki (including the Iolani Palace), Hanauma Bay, and the famous north shore. On Maui, don’t miss the Road to Hana and the summit of Haleakala. The Big Island has Hawaii Volcano National Park plus four other historic and cultural sites ran by the National Park Service. On Kauai, you’ve got to see the Waimea Canyon, fern grotto, and tree tunnel that leads to historic Koloa town.
How to Save Money on Excursions and Tours
There are plenty of things to do in Hawaii that are free, but there are also a few experiences that you can only get through an excursion or tour. How can you save money on them? The best way is to do your research ahead of time (before you arrive in Hawaii) and book directly through the tour operator. If you wait until you arrive on the island, many activities will be booked up and they’re less likely to offer discounts when the tour is almost full and people who waited until the last minute are competing over a few remaining spots. Many companies offer a discount if you book online directly through them. This is because most tours rely heavily on resort concierge desks to promote their tours to the guests. The concierge get a commission for referring guests to the tour company (sometimes up to 40%) so tour companies have to keep their prices high so they walk away with a decent profit on the tour after paying out commissions. So if you go directly to the tour company, they’re often willing to cut you a deal because they don’t have to pay a commission to a concierge for your spot. For example, if a company pays a 40% commission for concierge recommendations, they’ll still come out ahead if they offer you a 20% discount for booking directly. But this way, you also come out ahead.
Also, if you go this route, you can do your research on companies ahead of time (I recommend Trip Advisor) and read honest reviews about the tours and pick which one you feel is best for you. If you go with a concierge recommendation, not only are you usually paying more, but 99% of the time, you’re just being recommended the tour provider who pays out the biggest concierge commissions, not necessarily the best one. If the tour provider’s website doesn’t advertise a direct booking special, I would still call and ask for their best price. You never know until you ask!
Only Do the Very Best
Another way you can save money on tours and activities is by only doing the very best. Many tours and excursions are actually things you can do yourself or things that maybe aren’t worth doing. I’ll break down the activities on each island that I think are worth paying for, the ones you can do yourself, and the ones you should skip.
Must Dos: I think a snorkel trip that includes stops at Molokini Crater and Turtle Town is a don’t miss in Maui. While you can do a lot of snorkeling from shore, you’ll need to go by boat to reach these spots. Plus during whale season, this is a great way to get more bang for your buck. You’ll get a snorkel trip plus a whale-watching trip for the price of one.
The other excursion I would pay for is a bike ride down Haleakala (Maui’s dormant volcano). There are half a dozen companies that will take you in a van up the mountain and then let you bike back down (my favorite is Maui Sunriders though). While you can drive the route in a car, cruising down on a bike while feeling the wind in your hair is an experience you shouldn’t miss. You can read more about it here.
Do on Your Own: While the Road to Hana is not to be missed, I think you should skip a van tour and do it on your own. Do a little research before hand about the stops you want to make and just be sure to budget your time well. The road isn’t nearly as treacherous as some people say (it’s all paved and two lane with one lane bridges) so plan to spend a full day on your own journeying to Hana.
Sunrise at the summit of Haleakala is another DON’T miss Maui experience, but I think you should do it on your own instead of with a tour company, this way you can hang around to hike and explore afterwards. But be prepared…know how long it will take to get from your resort to the summit, pack plenty of warm clothes, and register beforehand to make sure you get a spot.
Skip: I’ve written an entire blog post here on 5 things I think you should skip on Maui, so read up on that here, but here I’ll restate that I think you should skip the Maui Ocean Center (overpriced and unimpressive) as well as the Maui Tropical Plantation (unless you’re looking to kill time at a good gift shop). I would also suggest skipping a helicopter tour on Maui, as it’s expensive and not the most impressive Hawaiian island from the air. The last thing I would seriously consider skipping is a luau in favor of having dinner at Mama’s Fish House. Its one of the best experiences you’ll have in Maui and if it isn’t in the budget for both, do Mama’s (unless you have small children).
Must Dos: Don’t miss a helicopter tour of Kauai! If you can only afford to do one thing on the island, make it this. You won’t regret it. Read more about it here.
The other must do experience is a boat ride down the Napali Coast. During the summer months (April to October) you HAVE to take a tour that leaves out of Hanalei on the north shore as you get to see the full coast this way (if you leave out of Port Allen in the south, you’ll spend much of your excursion time just journeying to get to the coast). Read more about it here.
Do on Your Own: Most boat tours in Kauai do the Napali Coast, but especially in the winter months they tend to cancel excursions a lot (high surf), but will still book “snorkel trips.” I would skip this. Their snorkeling spots are often subpar and you can find much better snorkeling from the shore (Tunnels an Po’ipu beach). Skip the boat tour and go snorkeling on your own.
Skip: An excursion that gets a lot of hype on Kauai is the tubing adventure with Kauai Backcountry. During the trip you’ll get to float in an innertube down old sugar cane irrigation ditches. While it’s a neat experience, I think it’s way over priced (it’s $100/person and you’re only in the ditches for 30-45 minutes. The rest of the tour feels a bit padded for time and includes a “nature hike” and a stop at a swimming hole for a mediocre lunch. If it were half the price I would say do it. I recommend skipping this attraction if you’re on a budget.
Must Dos: You’ve GOT to take surf lessons in Hawaii and I think Waikiki is the perfect place to do it. It’s so iconic! The other think I love on Oahu is the luau at Paradise Cove. They have so many cultural experiences you can take part in before the luau begins including hula lessons, lei making, and a hukilau ceremony and I felt like it was a good bang for your buck. Plus, it’s right on the beach!
Do on Your Own: Don’t miss Pearl Harbor, but I prefer to do it on my own instead of on a bus tour. You have to have a ticket to go out to the USS Arizona Memorial, but they’re free. They only give out so many a day though, so it’s best to reserve in advance or be there early in the morning. There are two museums you can access for free but you’ll have to pay for access to the museum of Naval Aviation in the Pacific. You ‘ll also have to pay to tour the Battleship Missouri and Bowfin Submarine. Don’t miss the USS Arizona Memorial, but plan the rest of your visit according to your level of interest.
I would also skip a circle island tour (on a bus). You can easily see all of Oahu’s high points yourself.
Skip: Like on Maui, I would skip the helicopter tour on Oahu. It just isn’t the most impressive Hawaiian island from the air. I would also skip the zoo and aquarium (you likely have much better near your hometown) as well as Sea Life Park Hawaii (Hawaii’s version of Sea World). I would also probably skip the Dole Plantation if you’re short on time (or at least the paid train tour). The gift shop is pretty impressive and they have pineapple ice cream (Dole Whips). They also have a pretty intense maze but you have to pay to get n. It’s a lot of fun, but depending on your level of interest, it’s something you could skip.
The last thing on my “skip list” is probably controversial, but I lean towards skipping the Polynesian Cultural Center. It’s pretty expensive and they had many similar elements at the Paradise Cove Luau. Unless you’re the type that enjoys “touring” or is very interested in Polynesian culture (not just Hawaii), I would skip it. It’s very well done though, but something I would cut if you’re short on time or money.
Must Dos: This is an island where you don’t want to miss a helicopter tour. It’s such a great way to see Hawaii Volcano National Park and depending on when you’re going, it could be the only way to see the lava flow. Also, a boat tour that takes you up to the edge of the flow (where the lava flows into the ocean) is a once in a lifetime experience. This is also the only island where you can do a night dive with manta rays, which is an incredible experience. And I personally loved touring the Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm in Kona.
Do on Your Own: There are many bus tours that will include a tour through Hawaii Volcano National Park. Skip the bus tour and do it on your own. There are also four other cultural sites run by the National Park Service. The one you don’t want to miss is the City of Refuge.
Skip: Surprisingly, there aren’t really any tours or excursions that I would recommend skipping on the Big Island. I think everything is worth doing and the only decision you have to make is whether it’s something you can do on your own or something you’ll need to experience as part of a tour. I would just recommend picking and choosing based on your interests.