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Do I need to rent a car in Hawaii? I get asked this question a lot. Going to Hawaii can be such an expensive trip that many travelers look to cut costs wherever they can. And while there may be many destinations where you don’t need a rental car to get around, I don’t think Hawaii is one of them.
I cannot imagine going to any Hawaiian island without having a car so I can come and go as I please. Going to Hawaii is not like going to an all-inclusive resort in Cancun. Part of the Hawaii experience is getting out and actually exploring the island. While there are some tours or excursions that offer pick up, not having a car will severely limit what you’ll be able to see and do.
With the exception of Oahu, the public transportation options on each island are pretty much non-existent so don’t expect to be able to travel around by bus. And Uber/Lyft can get REALLY expensive (when it’s even available). The Hawaiian Islands are each pretty sizable, so you could end up exceeding the cost of a rental car with just one or two Uber rides.
What about Oahu?
Oahu has a pretty decent public bus system and it’s handy for getting around to the major tourist sites (Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor, Hanauma Bay, etc.), but it takes sooooo much longer than having your own car. Even with an itinerary that takes advantage of the bus routes, you’ll be able to do 2-3 times more each day with your own car. It also offers you the option of being more spontaneous.
For example, from Waikiki, you could take the bus out to Hanauma Bay and snorkel/beach bum for the day and then ride the bus back. But with a car, you can drive over to Hanauma Bay, stop at the Leonard’s truck for fresh malasadas on the way, pull over at an overlook for an amazing photo op, visit the Halona Blowhole after you’re done snorkeling, hike up to the Makapu’u Lighthouse (one of the best views on Oahu), and stop for happy hour at Kona Brewing Company on the way back to Waikiki. There’s no way you could do all of that one the bus.
A lot of the major excursions/tours on Oahu offer shuttle service from Waikiki (like the Paradise Cove Luau, Kualoa Ranch, and Polynesian Cultural Center), but not having a car still leaves you stuck in Waikiki for the majority of your trip (which although not bad, is certainly not the best of Oahu).
While Oahu does have a higher concentration of Ubers/Lyfts, they’re not very realistic for using outside of Waikiki/Honolulu. Going from one part of the island to another may be further than you realize and therefore quite costly. And so much of exploring Hawaii is more about the journey than the destination. For example, yes you could take an Uber from Waikiki to Haleiwa on the north shore, but Haleiwa is only one spot on the north shore. “Seeing the north shore” really involves spending the day checking out a dozen or so spots along a 15-20 mile stretch of coast. Not super easy in an Uber.
Most people staying in Waikiki don’t want to rent a car because of the crazy parking fees at most resorts and hotels in Waikiki (usually $20-$50/night!), but if that’s what’s holding you back, consider doing daily rentals from a pick up location in Waikiki. You can pick up the car in the morning, go exploring for the day, and just return it by the designated time. You get the perk of using the car without having to pay parking fees!
Who do I rent from?
I highly suggest booking with Discount Hawaii Car Rental. I book with them on every trip to Hawaii, and I’ve always been able to find the very best price available (even better than deals with Costco!). They’ll secure you the cheapest price across all the rental companies (and you can pick either best price or book a specific type of vehicle). And you can usually always add a second driver for free! You also don’t pay until you pick up the vehicle.
Tips for renting a car in Hawaii
A 4×4 or Jeep is not necessary. While fun to drive, don’t worry that you won’t be able to get around if you don’t have four-wheel drive. Actually going anywhere that requires 4WD will void your rental car agreement. One of the major concerns for most drivers is the backside of the Road to Hana (Maui). Rental car companies used to prohibit drivers from traveling this stretch of road, but it’s almost entirely paved now and completely drivable even in a compact car. The other major concern is driving to the summit of Mauna Kea (Big Island). It is not doable without 4WD and not allowed in rental cars, so you’ll have to book a star gazing tour if that’s a priority.
Know your insurance. The rental car companies will try to upsell you insurance when you pick up the car. Know what kind of coverage you have from your auto insurance back home (you’re often times covered in rental cars) or even the credit card that you use to pay.
Pick the best refueling policy. There are usually three options for refueling your rental car. 1) You’re responsible for bringing the car back with a full tank of gas, 2) you prepay for a full tank of gas at a discount, or 3) they charge you a premium to fill it up when you bring it back. Option 3 is always the most expensive option so try to avoid that. Option 2 can be a good deal IF you bring your rental car back with an empty tank (they won’t refund you for only needing half a tank of gas) and that can be hard to coordinate. So option 1 is usually best. Just make note of gas stations in the same town as the airport and leave plenty of time to stop for gas before dropping the car off.
Sign up for the loyalty program to skip line. If you use Discount Hawaii Car Rental, once you know which car rental company you’re booked through, consider joining their loyalty rewards program. These programs are free and a perk is usually being able to bypass the line when picking up your car. This could save well over an hour if you’re getting off a large flight and everyone is heading to the rental car counter at the same town.
21-25 year old extra rental fees. If you fall into the 21-25 age bracket, be prepared to pay through the nose for a rental car. The extra fees can be $25-$75/day.