The Big Island (also called Hawaii island) just might be the most unique of the Hawaiian Islands, but it’s also the one that gives visitors the most headaches when trying to plan a vacation.
I mean…it’s BIG.
Some people stay in more than one place when they visit and others feel like they spend a lot of their trip in the car. But it’s incredible.
It requires a lot of research though. I’ve got a dozen plus posts on the Big Island on this site (not including the other islands or general Hawaii planning posts)…that’s a lot of stuff you need to know!
To save you the chaos of trying to track them all down, this page is going to serve as home base for all of my Big Island travel tips.
First things first…if there’s one post on my blog you’ve got to read it’s this one: Hawaii Travel Tips. It’s not island specific, but it covers things like which airports to fly into on each island, the scoop on illegal vacation rentals, rules about not touching wild animals that are federally protected in Hawaii, the unspoken rules for driving on the island, how to get along with locals, what to expect and MORE. It’s a whopper of a post (7000+ words) and it’s definitely one you don’t want to miss. Check it out here.
This is where it all starts when you’re planning your trip. You’ll likely stay on the Kona side of the island where all of the beaches and sunny weather are, but it’s still a HUGE area.
There are places in Kona town, north and south of Kona along the beaches, farther north up around Waikoloa, and all the way up the Kohala Coast. And then you’ve got the Hilo and Volcano side. It’s where so many of the Big Island’s best sites are located, but it’s way less touristy so it can be harder to find a place to stay.
If you’ve narrowed the search down to a beach resort on the Kona side, I’ve got the scoop on how they all stack up here: the Big Island’s Best Beach Resorts Ranked.
More where to stay posts:
Enjoy the finer things in life? You’re going to want to read about the best Luxury Resorts in Hawaii
Like things a little smaller and more personal? Check out my favorite Boutique Hotels in Hawaii
Big Island Condos: Are you really trying to watch the budget? Or just want more space to spread out with friends and family? You’re definitely going to want a condo or vacation rental. There are a ton of condos on the Big Island so it’s a little overwhelming.
This post breaks down 40 different condo complexes on the Big Island by location so you can find what’s important to you. Beachfront? Amazing pool? Resort like amenities? A price performer? Besides great info, I’ve rounded up a lot of options under $100/night.
7 Day Big Island Itineraries
The Best Big Island Itineraries: Having a solid itinerary (even if it’s just a lot of built in relaxation time peppered with some activities) can make your vacation sooooo much better. I’ve put together my ideal itinerary for the Big Island here.
Rentals Cars on the Big Island
You absolutely will need a rental car. Hawaii is not an all-inclusive destination where you’ll arrive by shuttle and never leave your resort (I mean you could do that…but it’s pretty expensive just to get to Hawaii so most people want to actually see Hawaii. If you want a cheaper resort only vacation, just go to Mexico).
Also, the Big Island is incredibly BIG. That seems kind of obvious given its name, but people still underestimate its size. If you’re staying on the Kona side of the island, it’s a solid two hour drive to get to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. So you aren’t going to Uber there and public transportation is pretty dismal. Even if you’re not crossing the island, just going from one resort to the next closest one can be a solid 10 minute drive.
So you’ll most definitely want a rental car for your stay even if you’re staying in a resort area. I always book through Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.
And you can read more about the rental car situation in Hawaii here.
If you’re anything like me, your vacation probably revolves a bit around where you’re going to eat. The Big Island has the full spectrum as far as places to eat (fine dining to food trucks). Here are some spots to get you started:
Big Island Activities
One of the top questions I get asked is when the best time to book activities/tours/excursions is. Honestly, if there’s something you know you want to do for sure…you should book it as soon as you can.
There’s no advantage to waiting until the last minute. You won’t find better deals and more than likely you’ll end up missing out because things sell out. In the post COVID landscape, so many activities and tours in Hawaii (luaus, snorkeling tours, ziplining, atv rides, even RESTAURANTS) are fully booked 2-4 months in advance.
Mauna Kea Stargazing: Going up to the summit of Mauna Kea for sunset and stargazing is one of the coolest (and most unexpected) things I’ve ever done in Hawaii. I don’t recommend doing this on your own (unless you’re just going to the visitor’s center). Read my full post on all the details of the tour I did.
Snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay: Kealakekua Bay is probably the most popular spot to snorkel on the Big Island, but it’s not the most accessible place. You’ll either need to do a pretty rigorous hike, or go by boat. Skip the big party boats and take a kayak tour that has permits to actually land on the shore. Read all about the tour I recommend (plus a rundown of other good snorkeling spots on the island) here.
Things to Do on the Big Island
Need even more things to do on the Big Island? I’ve got a few posts that will give you some more ideas.
28 Things to Do on the Big Island: Unique things that you can ONLY do on the Big Island.
16 Things to Do in Hilo: Plus ideas for Volcano and the Hamakua Coast.
One Day in Hilo: The perfect itinerary for a day trip from Kona to Hilo.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park One Day Itinerary: How to see the best of the National Park, whether there’s lava or not.
National Parks on the Big Island: All four National Parks and National Historical Parks on the Big Island.
Miscellaneous Hawaii Planning Posts
Want more Hawaii planning info? Here are some of my best posts:
Which Hawaiian Island to Visit: Maybe you’re settled on the Big Island, or maybe you’re still trying to decide. This post will breakdown each island and help you figure out which one is right for YOU.
How Much Does the Average Trip to Hawaii Cost? Another top question I get asked.
Hawaii Trip Planning Timeline: How far in advance should you start planning? Do you book for airfare or room first?
How to Find Cheap Flights to Hawaii: But also, which are the BEST flights to Hawaii regardless of price.
Luxury on a Budget: Some of my best tips for finding NICE places to stay at cheaper prices.
How to Survive the Long Flight to Hawaii: Just exactly how long is the flight to Hawaii? Plus tips on what to bring and how to fight jet lag.
The Ultimate Hawaii Packing List: 26 things you don’t want to forget at home!
What to Wear in Hawaii: Casual is the name of the game in Hawaii, but here are some specifics of the kinds of clothes you’ll probably want to pack.
Here’s one more really important thing you need to know before your Hawaii trip…
Reservations You Need to Make BEFORE Your Hawaii Trip
You’ve got your airfare, hotel, rental car and your big activities booked, so you should be good to go, right? Wrong!
Travel is BOOMING in Hawaii so a lot of state and national parks used the closure and reopening to institute reservation systems at some of the island’s most popular spots to make things a little more sustainable.
That means that there are now over half a dozen sites (beaches, trailheads, etc.) that require advance reservations. And some sell out well before you arrive on the island so you really need to have some sort of a plan.
I recently saw somebody in a Hawaii travel group post in a panic that they didn’t know they had to make reservations for things in advance…they thought they could just show up and “go with the flow.” I was tempted to say, well, “as long as the flow doesn’t take you somewhere that requires reservations, you can!” ; )
But I don’t want YOU to be that person, so I’ve pulled together a list of all the places you need to reserve entry in advance (plus all the details on booking windows, price, links, etc.) and a handful of popular tourist hotspots that book out really far in advance too.
Haleakala National Park (Maui)
To visit Haleakala National Park for sunrise at the summit, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to enter the park gates between 3AM and 7AM (sunrise hours).
Online reservations are $1 per reservation/vehicle PLUS you’ll pay the park entrance fee of $30/vehicle when you arrive (National Park annual passes are also accepted at the gate).
The reservation booking window opens 60 days in advance at 7AM HST. There are also a limited number of tickets released two days before.
You can make one reservation every three days with the same account. So if you want to make reservations for back to back days (in case of weather/conditions), you’ll need to do so with separate accounts (email addresses).
If you can’t get reservations for sunrise, you can enter the park anytime after 7AM without reservations. The summit is spectacular during the day and you don’t need reservations for sunset.
I strongly recommend creating an account before and making sure you’re logged in at 7AM HST because it’s not uncommon for reservations to sell out quickly.
Waianapanapa State Park (Maui)
To visit Maui’s famous black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to visit the beach and are distributed in windows from 7AM-10AM, 10AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-3PM, and 3PM-6PM. And they are pretty strict about exiting by the end of your window time (you can arrive anytime within your window).
It’s $5/person to enter plus $10/vehicle to park and those fees are paid when you book your time slot.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Iao Valley State Park (Maui)
To visit the lush, green mountains and hike at Iao Valley State Park, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered for 90 minute time slots beginning at 7AM and ending at 6PM. They ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your time slot.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Diamond Head (Oahu)
To hike to the top of Waikiki’s famous Diamond Head, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered in two hour increments beginning at 6AM (6AM-8AM, 8AM-10AM, etc.) and ending at 6PM. If you’re parking onsite, they ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your reservation window.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Tip: I recommend booking one of the first two time slots because there isn’t much shade on this hike and it gets pretty hot.
Hanauma Bay (Oahu)
To snorkel at Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay, you must make reservations in advance here.
Entry times are staggered in 10 minute increments from 7AM to 1:20PM with roughly 1000 slots being assigned in advance every day.
Reservations can be made two days in advance and they open at 7AM HST. They’re usually gone in minutes (if not seconds).
If you’re unable to get an advanced reservation, you can try for a day of, walk in ticket. They open at 6:45AM and they only have a limited number available. Everyone in your group needs to be present when you purchase your tickets in person.
There are no reservations for parking and it’s first come, first serve. $3/vehicle.
It’s $25/person to snorkel at Hanauma Bay (12 and under, active military, and locals with HI ID are free).
The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open Wednesday through Sunday (CLOSED MONDAY AND TUESDAY) from 6:45AM-4PM. Last entry is at 1:30PM, the beach is cleared at 3:15PM and you have to leave the facility by 4PM.
Jellyfish patterns can also affect whether or not the bay is open so double check the day before/day of.
USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor (Oahu)
If you want to take the boat tour at Pearl Harbor out to the USS Arizona, it’s recommended to make advance reservations here.
Online reservations are guaranteed a specific boarding time to go out to the USS Arizona. If you’re unable to get an advance reservation, you can wait standby when you arrive. The line could be short (15 minutes or so) or long (hours) and it just depends on the day (if they’re having problems with the loading dock sometimes they don’t take many from the standby line) and the time of day.
Reservations are supposed to open up 60 days in advance, but keep an eye on your exact dates, because lately they’ve actually been opening up about 57ish days in advance???
They also release a small batch of tickets the day before.
The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is free, but it’s $1 to make the reservations online.
They recently started charging $7/vehicle for parking at Pearl Harbor.
Haena State Park / Kalalau Trail (Kauai)
If you want to hike Kauai’s famous Kalalau Trail, you must make advance reservations here.
You’ve got three options here:
1) Parking & Entry: This is the most flexible option and also the most limited. THESE RESERVATIONS SELL OUT IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. There are three time slots available: 6:30AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-5:30PM and 4:30PM to sunset. You can purchase multiple time slots if you want to stay longer. It’s $10/timeslot (parking) plus $5/person and you have to reserve every person when you initially book. Everybody has to arrive in the same car and your ID needs to match the reservation.
2) Shuttle & Entry: If you can’t get parking at the trailhead, there’s also a shuttle option. Shuttle reservations are $35/person (16+), $25/person (ages 4-15), 3 and under can ride free. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes 6:20AM to 6:40PM.
3) Entry Only: If you’re a Hawaiian resident (with HI ID) or someone WITH a Hawaiian resident, you can purchase entry only for $5/person with no advance reservations. Also, if you’re walking or biking to the trailhead you can do this option. But there is NOWHERE to park in the area to walk in. So this really only works for those with bikes or who are staying close enough to walk. They will tow your car if you park outside the designated areas.
The reservation window opens 30 days in advance at 12AM HST. The parking & entry option usually sells out in a minute, but the shuttle availability will last longer.
There are a TON of FAQs here including the possibility of snagging a canceled reservation.
Other Things to Book in Advance
Hawaii is a busy place these days! Besides the state and national parks above, here’s a handful of miscellaneous things you should make reservations for in advance (if they’re on your radar):
Mama’s Fish House (Maui): The iconic spot is the most popular restaurant in Hawaii and they’ve been opening reservations (and selling out) 4-6 months in advance. You can call and get on the waitlist for one day or you can set notifications on OpenTable to alert you for cancellations every day of your trip. Most people have pretty good success on OpenTable.
Old Lahaina Luau (Maui): Honestly, any luau you’re planning to attend you should book early, but most people are usually shocked how far out the Old Lahaina Luau books out. Book it as soon as you know your dates (I think they open at the six month window). They also have a waitlist.
Kualoa Ranch UTV Tour (Oahu): Everybody loves Jurassic Park so getting to ride UTVs where they filmed the movies is very popular. The ranch offers a lot of different tours but the UTV tours usually book out a couple of months in advance.
Spa Reservations: If you’re staying at a resort with a spa (or planning on visiting one), don’t wait until you arrive to make your reservations. I’d make them at least a month in advance.
Tee Times: Same for golf, reserve your tee times well in advance.
Dining Reservations: Any “fancy” or resort restaurant is likely to be booked up these days so if you like having a nice dinner every night, make your plans in advance.
P.S. Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! If you have ANY questions about planning your trip to Hawaii, you can join my free Facebook group here. I’m there answering questions every day and there are 7500+ other friends who have a ton of Hawaii information to share!
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