Planning a trip to Hawaii? Here are 25 of my best Big Island travel tips that you should know before you go:This post may contain some affiliate links, which means I’ll make a little money on anything you choose to purchase. But of course, I only recommend my absolute favorites to you. Thank you for supporting the brands that make Hulaland possible.
1.The Big Island is the youngest of the Hawaiian Islands. It’s home to three active volcanoes: two that erupted last in the 80s and 90s and Kilauea, which has been erupting continuously since 1983. These eruptions mean the island is actually still growing!
2.The Big Island (also called Hawaii island) is, as the name suggests, big! In fact, all of the other Hawaiian islands could fit inside it. So don’t expect to see the hole island without a LOT of driving or staying in two different locations.
3.The island breaks pretty evenly into two halves or “sides.” Kona side and Hilo side. Kona side is the west side and it’s where most visitors stay. It’s dry and sunny and where the majority of the island’s beaches are. Hilo side is the east side of the island and it’s a lush rainforest. It rains more on this side of the island and it’s also where Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is located.
4.If you’re only going to stay in one location, stay in Kona and plan daytrips to Hilo. I would plan two day trips: one along the south shore to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park with stops at the green and black sand beaches and another one along the north shore to see Hilo and the surrounding areas (a lot of waterfalls).
5.It’s called the “Orchid Isle” and it’s been mostly untouched. While you will find plenty of nice resorts in the Kona/Kohala area, largely the Big Island has been left pretty much undeveloped. It’s great for those wanting to really get away.
6.Don’t come to the Big Island for less than one full week. Unless you’re just jetting over to see the volcano, you need at least a week. Two is preferable.
7.Hawaii was the 50th state added to the United States of America. Despite it being a US state, more than one person has asked me if you need a passport to travel there. You don’t. Also, when referring to the contiguous United States, you don’t call it “the states” like you would when traveling internationally. You refer to it as “the mainland.”
8.It may feel like a different country, but remember, you’re still in the US. Hawaii has a very distinct culture and its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean often makes it feel like a foreign land, so many visitors question how things are done. Here’s the deal, everything works like it does back home, except when it doesn’t : ) Seriously though, your phone service and everything works exactly like it does at home. But you will find yourself subject to the quirks of “island life.” Things move slower so relax and just go with the flow.
RELATED: Not very familiar with the Big Island? Read up on the lay of the (is)land and my favorite beach resorts, budget hotels, condos, honeymoon resorts, family friendly resorts, luxury resorts, and boutique hotels.
9.Hawaii has its quirks. To protect the environment from invasive species, you aren’t allowed to bring in any plant or animal species (including veggies) or soil. You’ll fill out a form when you arrive and all bags will be screened by the Department of Agriculture before you go home. Hawaii also has a ban on plastic shopping bags so bring your own or plan to pay for $0.50 tote bags. Most grocery stores still have paper bags available.
10.The Hawaiian Islands run on the Hawaii-Aleutian Time Zone. Hawaii also doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time so they’re 3 hours behind West Coast time (6 hours behind East coast time) when we’re on Daylight savings time, and 2/5 hours when we’re not.
11.Hawaii is a melting pot of cultures. Here’s some terminology for you: “Hawaiian” refers to anyone born with Hawaiian blood. “Local” refers to anyone born in Hawaii (except white people). “Haole” refers to white people and tourists in general. The term “kama’aina” is also thrown around which refers to anyone from or living in Hawaii regardless of their ethnicity.
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12.It seems like a world away but Hawaii is actually only a 5 or 6-hour flight from California. It’s 6 hours going to Hawaii, and 5 hours coming back from Hawaii. Kona (KOA) is the airport that you’ll most likely fly into. You can get a direct flight to Kona from Los Angeles (CA), Oakland (CA), Phoenix (AZ), Portland (OR), San Diego (CA), San Jose (SJC), San Francisco (SFO), and Seattle (SEA). There’s also an airport in Hilo which mostly gets flights from Honolulu and Maui, but there’s also one direct flight from Los Angeles.
13.Don’t blink or you’ll miss the airport. The Kona airport is all open air and you’ll have to deplane the aircraft via steps or a ramp.
14.Hawaii sits north of the equator, so its seasons match the mainland US seasons. Our winter is their winter, and our summer is their summer. Now, winter is a relative term in Hawaii, but it generally does mean more rain and higher surf (especially on the north shore and Hana side).
15.Expect to pay more…for everything. This probably isn’t a huge surprise to anybody. The Hawaiian Islands are some of the most remote islands in the world and pretty much everything has to be shipped in. So expect to pay more for food, gas, and other supplies than you would on the mainland US. This doesn’t mean that it’s as outrageously expensive as you might think. As is the case anywhere, you can go luxury, or you can go budget. The choices are there for both and everything in between.
16.The resort areas are more expensive. As an extension of #16, generally speaking everything in a resort area will be WAY more expensive than on other parts of the island. On the Big Island, this is Kohala. Restaurants and bars will always be more expensive in resorts than in locally owned/independent places. The gas prices in these areas also tend to be higher.
17.Stock up on groceries for your condo or hotel room. If you’re looking to save a few bucks, or just need to pick up some essentials that you forgot to pack, you’ll have plenty of options on Maui. There’s a Costco, Walmart, and Target in the Kona area as well as plenty of grocery store chains. And if you need a pharmacy/drug store, that would be Longs (this is a CVS/Walgreens equivalent). While thousands of miles away from home, there’s really nothing that you can’t find on the Big Island if you forget to pack it.
18.Casual is the name of the game in Hawaii. There’s really nowhere to go in Hawaii where shorts and flip-flops won’t do. Even in the nicest restaurants on the Big Island, ladies will be fine in a casual sundress and sandals, and men will be okay with khakis and an aloha shirt. Tommy Bahama rules.
19.You will need a rental car. Hawaii is not an all-inclusive like destination where you’ll arrive by shuttle and never leave your resort. The Big Island also does not have a very good bus system, and things are surprisingly far apart so taxis could add up really quickly. You’ll most definitely want a rental car for your stay even if you’re staying in a resort area. You won’t necessarily need 4WD though.I always book through Discount Hawaii Car Rentals because they have the best prices.
20.The Big Island has some of the most luxurious beach resorts in Hawaii. You’ll find some amazing places to stay on the Big Island without all of the crowds of the Waikiki beach resorts on Oahu. The Four Seasons Hualalai one of the nicest Four Seasons properties in the world and the Fairmont Orchid is pretty swanky too. Read more about the best luxury resorts in Hawaii.
RELATED: 15 Things to Do on the Big Island
21.The best beach resorts are in north Kona and Kohala. While Kona has some nice beach resorts, the best places are all north of Kona in an area called Kohala. This includes Waikoloa. Check out my favorite beach resorts on the Big Island.
22.You CANNOT visit the Big Island without going to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. I mean, how many places can you see an active volcano? Plan to spend most of the da in the park hiking, exploring, and checking out the visitors center. You’ll also want to stay past dark to see the glow from the caldera. If you’re driving over from Kona, plan at least two hours to get to the park.
23.If you want to see lava flow, plan ahead. Surprisingly, the majority of visitors to the park won’t see the lava flow. Since the flow is always changing, it’s not usually visible from the parks most heavily trafficked areas. The easiest way to see the lava flow is by a helicopter tour out of Hilo. When the lava is flowing into the ocean, it’s possible to take a boat tour. It’s also possible to hike to the lava flow, but as it’s always changing, I would recommend going on a guided hike with a professional that knows the terrain and closest access points.
24.Be prepared for “vog.” Volcanic smog can pollute the air around the Big Island and can cause headaches, watery eyes, sore throats, and breathing problems. People with asthma usually suffer the worst. Pregnant women and children are advised to stay away from lava flow. In my experience, most people don’t notice the vog unless the wind is blowing just right (Kona winds) in which case the vog usually even reaches neighboring Maui.
25.Pack warm clothes for Mauna Kea. If you’re planning to go up to Mauna Kea for sunset or stargazing, you need to be prepared. It is COLD! Think 20-30 degrees with a strong wind. Bring winter clothes and take blankets. Also, drink plenty of water and have snacks as the elevation can give some people altitude sickness. Read more about visiting Mauna Kea here.
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