If you’ve never been to Hawaii before, planning a trip there can be completely overwhelming. And the first big decision you’ll have to make is which Hawaiian Island to visit.
In this post I’m going to give you the lay of the land (or the islands : ) so you’ll be able to make that decision and choose the best Hawaiian Island to visit.
Before I start, I feel like I should clarify: there is no “best” Hawaiian Island to visit. All of the islands are very unique and appeal to travelers for different reasons. In my opinion, all of the Hawaiian Islands are pretty fabulous. But depending on how you like to vacation, and what you expect to see in Hawaii, there may very well be a “best” island for YOU.
Which Hawaiian Island to Visit
There are six main inhabited Hawaiian Islands, but I like to think of it as four main islands plus two small bonus islands:
Oahu: This is the most visited of the Hawaiian Islands. This is where the capital, Honolulu, is located as well as world famous Waikiki Beach. Pearl Harbor is also on Oahu as well as the north shore surf scene with big breaks like the Banzai Pipeline and Waimea Bay.
Maui: Maui is known as the “honeymooner’s isle” and draws many celebrities looking for peaceful seclusion. Maui is famous for its beautiful beaches, winding Road to Hana, and gorgeous sunrises from the summit of Haleakala. It’s also the best island for whale spotting.
Kauai: Kauai is the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands and also the smallest. Its most famous sites are the Napali Coast and Waimea Canyon. Kauai is very “country” and feels less developed and spoiled than some of the other islands.
Big Island: The Big Island (also just called “Hawaii”) is…you guessed it…the biggest of the islands. It’s also the newest. Many people mistakenly think that Oahu is the Big Island but we’re talking about two separate islands. This is where you’ll find Hawaii Volcano National Park, the only active volcano in Hawaii.
Lanai: Lanai is a small island off the coast of Maui and is easily accessible as a day trip. You’ll find two Four Seasons on the island but little else. It’s known for its rugged beauty.
Molokai: Molokai is also right off the coast of Maui. Molokai is probably the most “Hawaiian” of all the islands. It’s also the least visited. Its major attraction is Kalaupapa National Historical Park, which was originally established as a leprosy settlement in 1866.
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The four main islands are all easily accessible from the US mainland. While the majority of direct flights are to Oahu and Maui, there are plenty of direct flights to Kauai and the Big Island. There are also hundreds of interisland flights between the four main islands daily (plus Lanai and Molokai). Most flights only take 30-40 minutes. You can reach Lanai via ferry from Maui. Here are the cities you’ll fly into on each island:
Oahu: Honolulu (HNL)
Maui: Kahului (OGG)
Kauai: Lihue (LIH)
Big Island: Kona (KOA) or Hilo (ITO)
Now that you have the lay of the land and a brief description of each island, I’ll break down the four main islands in more depth to help you decide which one is best for you. If you’re traveling on a budget, a major factor in lowering the price of your trip will be which island you choose to visit. Some Hawaiian islands are much more accessible (many more flights daily from the mainland), which makes them cheaper to fly into.
Generally speaking, Oahu and Maui are usually the cheapest islands to fly to because they have so many more direct flights than Kauai and the Big Island. But depending on the type of accommodation options you’re looking for, some islands may be better suited to it than others. But here’s a breakdown of each island:
Oahu is called the “gathering place” because of its diversity and big city feel. More than any of the other islands, Oahu really feels like two islands in one. You have city (or “town” as the locals call it) and country. Most people expect the city part of Oahu so I’ll start there. Honolulu has a very international feel. World famous Waikiki Beach is where most of the visitors to Oahu settle. It’s the hub of tourism on Oahu and where about 90% of the hotel rooms on the island are located. This is where you’ll find the famous “pink palace by the sea”-the Royal Hawaiian-as well as Diamond Head crater. Waikiki is also one of the most popular places in Hawaii to take surf lessons.
Waikiki is great if you want to be in the center of the action and you like hustle and bustle. So much shopping, dining, and nightlife!
Once you get away from Waikiki, Oahu feels a lot more “country” and similar to the other islands. The north shore and the windward side of the island (around Kailua) will give you great-more local-experiences. In these areas you’ll find some of the prettiest beaches in Hawaii and gorgeous jagged green mountain backdrops. In these parts you’ll find long beautiful drives with views of epic beaches, plenty of fruit stands, and of course, chickens.
The big downside of Oahu is the traffic. Even when you’re away from Waikiki, expect traffic when traveling from one part of the island to another.
Oahu is perfect if you like to be “busy” on vacation. While you can stay on the north shore or in Kailua (not many hotels, you’ll need to stay in a vacation rental), most first time visitors to Hawaii want to see the sites so plan on plenty of time getting around the island, and dealing with crowds. All of Oahu’s notable sites are usually packed with tourists-think big tour buses (more so than the other islands).
Oahu by far has the most “things to do and see” if you’re the type that likes to keep your days full.
Popular things to do on Oahu include: Waikiki Beach (shopping, dining, beach activities), hiking (or driving) Diamond Head, snorkeling Hanauma Bay, Lanikai Beach, Pearl Harbor, Iolani Palace, Polynesian Cultural Center, Dole Plantation, and north shore surf spots.
Read more about Oahu here.
Maui is called the “valley isle” or the “honeymooner’s isle” because of its laid back feel and unparalleled natural beauty. Maui is quite developed for tourism (nice resort areas and plenty of shopping and dining), but it never feels nearly as crowded as Oahu. It also has plenty of undeveloped areas perfect for exploring and quite a few picturesque local towns where you’ll get a taste of “real Hawaii.”
Overall, I would say if you’ve never been to Hawaii before and you’ll only be visiting one island, Maui will give you the best all around experience. It’s such a great island because there is something for everyone. With beautiful golden beaches and fabulous beach resorts, you can easily wile away an entire vacation just soaking up the sun. But Maui has plenty of activities to keep you busy.
The famous Road to Hana is not to be missed (plan an entire day for it) and seeing the sunrise from the summit of Haleakala is a life changing experience for many people. A trip out to snorkel in Molokini Crater is also a Maui must do. Maui has so many beaches, snorkel spots, hikes (and golf courses!) that you’ll easily stay busy.
What makes Maui different from the other Hawaiian Islands (besides the Big Island) is its “upcountry.” While famous for its beaches, the majority of Maui is actually farm and ranch land. Upcountry you’ll find the cowboy town of Makawao, a winery in Ulupalakua, and gorgeous views of the entire island in Kula. Many tourists don’t venture up here, but I think it’s one of Maui’s best gems.
Maui is perfect if you like a laid back vacation (plenty of beach towns), but still like to be active (snorkeling, hiking, biking, etc.). It also caters to all vacation styles, whether you prefer a nice beach resort in a resort area or a quaint Airbnb in the country. You’ll also find both ends of the spectrum covered when it comes to shopping and dining.
Popular things to do on Maui include: The Road to Hana (black and red sand beaches, rainbow eucalyptus trees, bamboo forests, waterfalls), Haleakala National park, snorkeling Molokini and Turtle Town, biking down Haleakala, Ali’i Lavender Farm, Maui Winery, Iao Valley, Ka’anapali Beach, and dinner at Mama’s Fish House.
Read more about Maui here.
Also known as the “garden isle,” Kauai may be the prettiest island of them all. Famous for being the backdrop for movies like Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones, Kauai is stunningly beautiful. Its jagged green mountains and lush valleys are the stuff Hawaii dreams are made of. Despite its popularity with nature lovers, Kauai feels more undeveloped and unspoiled than Maui and Oahu (but check your expectations because it is NOT undiscovered). It has a resort area in the north (Princeville) and south (Poipu), but other than that it’s mostly “country.” So country, in fact, that you’ll see chickens everywhere!
Kauai’s north shore is its most gorgeous part and where most of its highlights are. The two major sites on Kauai are the Napali Coast and the Waimea Canyon. The Napali Coast (the western edge of the island) is so remote and rugged that it can only be seen by boat or air (a helicopter tour of Kauai is a must!) or a trail along it. The Waimea Canyon (called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific) can be reached by car and has several outlooks, but also plenty of hiking trails for a closer look.
Kauai is a much slower and more “country” island than the others and appeals most to those who like to get lost in nature and don’t need all the trimmings of a fancy resort vacation (although there are plenty of fancy beach resorts!). Just don’t expect fancy shopping centers and much nightlife.
Kauai is perfect if you like to hike, snorkel, and do other “adventurous” activities (helicopter tour, boat ride down the coast, tubing through old sugar cane irrigation ditches, etc.) and don’t mind the fact that everything closes up by 8PM.
The only drawback of Kauai is how much it rains (especially on the north shore during the winter-roughly October through April). The rain is what makes it so beautiful (lush and green with a bazillion waterfalls), but it’s a bummer when it washes out your vacation. I recommend Kauai during the summer. Also, even though it’s a small island, there’s pretty much only one road so it can take a WHILE to get around, but you’ll only ever run into traffic around Kapa’a.
Popular things to do on Kauai include: Napali Coast boat tour, Kalalau trail, Waimea Canyon, helicopter tour, Koloa tree tunnel, surfing in Hanalei Bay, north shore beaches, fern grotto, kayak the Wailua River, spot monk seals on Poipu beach.
Read more about Kauai here.
The Big Island (also just called Hawaii) is probably the most unique of the Hawaiian Islands. It’s also, as you might have guessed, the biggest. In fact, all of the other Hawaiian Islands could fit inside the Big Island with plenty of room left over. It’s also the newest island and it’s still growing. That’s because it’s the only island with an active volcano!
The Big Island is split into two parts-Kona side (west side) and Hilo side (east side). Driving from one side to the other will take almost four hours so if you want to see the entire island, you’ll need to plan on staying in two places. Kona side is where most of the island’s beaches are, and there are some beautiful ones! It’s also very dry and arid and made up mostly of lava fields. Hilo side is where you’ll find Hawaii Volcano National Park, the jungle, and all of the waterfalls.
The Big Island is perfect if you want an adventurous vacation and you’re willing to get out and explore. You’ll see sights on the Big Island that you likely won’t see anywhere else in the world, and you’ll find plenty of hiking that will lead you to gorgeous views. You can spend a couple days just exploring Hawaii Volcano National Park, not to mention Hilo’s amazing jungles and waterfalls and the valleys on the north shore. You’ll be able to see a black sand beach and one of the few green sand beaches in the world. On the Kona side of the island you’ll find a more traditional Hawaii vacation experience with beautiful beaches, great snorkeling, and more developed resort areas.
Like Maui, the Big Island has an “upcountry” which includes cattle country and has a more western feel. The summit of Mauna Kea also shouldn’t be missed. Did you know you’ll find 10 of the world’s 14 climate zones on the Big Island? If you spend each day on a different part of the island, you’ll feel like you’ve been around the world!
The only drawback to the Big Island is its size. To see it all you’ll either need to split the trip and stay in both Hilo and Kona or plan to spend a LOT of time in the car.
While it is possible to see it in a week (3 days in Hilo/4 days in Kona), I recommend two weeks on the Big Island to be able to see the highlights AND still feel like you’ve had a vacation.
Popular things to do on the Big Island include: Hawaii Volcano National Park, Waipio Valley, green sand beach, black sand beach, Kona beaches, stargazing from Mauna Kea, touring coffee plantations, touring macadamia nut plantations, and scuba diving.
Read more about the Big Island here.
If you’re still not sure which island is for you, here are some recommendations:
First Trip: Maui. Maui pretty much has it all…gorgeous beaches, big adventures, beautiful resort areas, local hideaways, etc. and the vibe is what most people expect of Hawaii.
For culture/history: Oahu. If you want to see history, iconic Hawaii, and Polynesian culture, you’ll get the best bang for your buck on Oahu. Pearl Harbor, Iolani Palace, the Bishop Museum, Waikiki, and the Polynesian Cultural Center will keep you plenty busy.
For honeymooners: Maui. If gorgeous beaches, posh resorts, plenty of nice restaurants, spas, adventurous activities (plus everything else that makes a Hawaiian vacation great) are your idea of a great honeymoon, then Maui is perfect.
For hiking: Kauai. Kauai is all about nature, being outdoors, adventures, etc. While all of the islands offer this, Kauai by far has the best and most varied hiking while feeling like you’re truly off the grid.
For kids: Maui. All of the Hawaiian islands are extremely kid friendly, but I think Maui makes it easy to get out and have adventures while still finding plenty of calm beaches and great places to stay.
For the ultimate Hawaiian adventure: Big Island. If you’re up for plenty of exploring (including time spent in the car driving), the Big Island is where you’ll find some of Hawaii’s best adventures. Obviously Hawaii Volcano National Park is tremendous. You could spend several days exploring it. The majestic green and black sand beaches are must sees as well as the stunning north shore. Unfortunately, they’re not all the easiest sites to see as you’ll often find yourself driving, hiking (or even paying for an excursion) often. The Kona side of the island has the beaches and some spectacular beach resorts, and you’ll also find four National Historic Sites on the island.
Instead of narrowing it down to one island, many people choose to island hop and see as much as possible. Is that a good strategy? How much can you reasonably see on your vacation?
First things first, it is pretty easy to travel between the Hawaiian Islands once you get there, but easy doesn’t always mean cheap! The major mode of transportation for island hopping is flying (the only ferries are between Maui and Lanai). There are HUNDREDS of flights between the islands each day and you don’t usually have to connect through Honolulu because it’s easy to find flights between all of the islands. Most flights are operated by Hawaiian Airlines or Southwest and I generally budget about $100-200 (round trip) for interisland travel.
But how many islands can you realistically visit on one trip? My general rule of thumb is no less than one week per island. Trying to do an island in less time than 5 days is doable, but you’ll likely be spending all of your time driving/exploring/adventuring and not much time relaxing. And if you’re planning to just beach bum on the second island, you might as well just extend your time on the first island and use the savings on flights on a nice dinner out or another excursion.
So if you’re doing an extended trip (2+ weeks), or you’re hell bent on island hopping, which islands pair well together? Well, I wouldn’t try to squeeze the Big Island into a shorter trip UNLESS you’re just going to see the volcano. Otherwise, the other three islands (Maui, Oahu, and Kauai) are much more doable. If it’s your first trip and you’re looking for the complete Hawaiian experience, I would do a week on Oahu (to see everything Hawaii is famous for…Pearl Harbor, Waikiki, Diamond Head, the north shore, etc.) and then a week on Maui to unwind and actually have a beach vacation. If you want to see the prettiest parts of Hawaii, I would do a week on Kauai and a week on Maui. And if you’re CRAZY ; ) and trying to do 3 islands in 2 weeks, I would do 3 or 4 days on Oahu, 4 or 5 days on Kauai, and the rest on Maui.
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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