Hawaii Guide: Planning Your Trip

••• Ian Philip Miller / Getty Images

Everyone knows that Hawaii is great for outdoor adventures such as hiking and ziplining, as well as ocean activities like surfing, sunbathing, and snorkeling. But make no mistake, this stunningly beautiful island state has so much more to offer than cold, fruity drinks and world-class resorts.

One of the many things that sets Hawaii apart from other travel destinations is that it is a melting pot made up of many different cultures, each of which brings its own unique character to the table. Almost 10.5 million visitors came to Hawaii in 2019, and the number continues to rise each year. That means, on average, there were close to 250,000 visitors in the Hawaiian Islands on any given day in 2019 .

The profound relationship that residents have with the land is palpable in Hawaii, and its visitors are encouraged to enjoy it and respect it. As soon as you arrive, be sure to take a moment to breathe in the fresh air, appreciate the sunlight on your skin, and feel the salty sea breeze in your hair. Learn about nature and culture at the Bishop Museum on Oahu or the Maui Ocean Center on Maui. Experience traditional Hawaiian food and music at the Smith Family Garden Luau on Kauai or the Haleo Luau on the Big Island. If you’re willing to put some thoughtful time and effort into acknowledging and respecting the islands, Hawaii is more than happy to share its aloha lifestyle with you. Plus, we promise you will get so much more out of your vacation.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: The best time to visit Hawaii is from April to May when the weather is best and the crowds have yet to arrive in full force. September and October are also excellent times, thanks to the lower tourism prices.
  • Language: Hawaii has two official languages: English and Hawaiian (ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi), though you will also hear locals speaking Hawaiian Pidgin English, the state’s unofficial third language.
  • Currency: U.S. dollar
  • Getting Around: All of the major Hawaiian Islands have public bus systems, with Oahu being the most efficient and convenient by far. And while ride-sharing services have made it to Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island, you can’t always rely on getting a car right away. Renting a car is currently the most popular mode of transportation for visitors looking to get out of their hotels and explore the islands.
  • Travel Tip: You may have heard about something called “island time” or “Hawaiian time” in your trip research. People drive with aloha in Hawaii, meaning horns are rarely honked and cutting someone off is a big no-no. It may take a bit longer to get service at bars and restaurants than you’re used to back home. Your 8 o’clock concert may not start until well after 8:30. Our suggestion? Embrace it! You’ll be surprised how freeing it can be to sit back, relax, and go with the flow.
Drone photography over Oahu

Things to Do

Visitors should start out by researching the best hiking trails and best beaches on their chosen island, especially on the main islands of Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and Big Island. No matter which island you choose, each one has its own special culture and iconic natural landmarks. Hawaii is also full of historical sites and museums that are unlike any other in the country (it's the only US state with a royal palace, for example).

  • Get in the water: It doesn’t matter how you do it—surfing, snorkeling, floating on an inner tube—just don’t leave Hawaii without enjoying its most precious asset. You can find a surf instructor or board rentals on every island in Hawaii. If you’re heading to Maui, book a snorkel tour to Molokini Crater, a pristine spot that about 250 species of fish call home.
  • Take a hike: Tackle a breathtaking ridge trail or go for a leisurely stroll through one of the state’s botanical gardens or parks. Manoa Falls is one of the most popular hikes for Oahu travelers, and be sure to check out the Garden of Eden on Maui and Allerton Garden on Kauai.
  • Get up close and personal with a volcano: Hawaii is home to some of the most exciting volcanoes on earth. Kilauea and Mauna Loa, two of the world's most active volcanoes can be found inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Hawaii’s Big Island. If you’re not looking for lava, hike up a dormant volcanic crater at Diamond Head on Oahu or explore the summit area of Haleakala National Park on Maui. 

Learn about more attractions with our full-length articles on the 20 best things to do in Hawaii and the most adventurous things to do in Hawaii.

What to Eat and Drink

Native Hawaiians lived sustainably off the island chain for generations, partitioning off segments of land into ahupuaa to designate and manage natural resources. Crops like taro, sweet potato, banana, sugarcane, and breadfruit were brought over in canoes to become important food staples along with seafood and pork. Visitors can still experience these types of traditional foods at luaus, local Hawaiian restaurants, and incorporated into fine dining restaurants throughout the islands.

Fast forward to modern times, when until the early 1990s, a lot of Hawaii’s restaurants used ingredients that were shipped in from the U.S. mainland or nearby countries. In 1991, 12 local chefs fostered a culinary movement that simultaneously displayed the many cultures of Hawaii and favored quality local agriculture by utilizing the state’s farmers, ranchers, and fishermen . This style of cuisine, which became known as Hawaii Regional Cuisine, is reflected in many of Hawaii’s restaurants today.

Explore the best foods to try in Hawaii, as well as the best restaurants on Oahu, Hawaii Island, Kauai, and Maui.

waikiki beach
M Swiet Productions / Getty Images

Where to Stay

Once you’ve settled on which of the islands suits you best, don’t waste any time booking accommodations. Hotels and resorts book up fast during the busy tourist seasons, and last-minute reservations with Airbnb are hard to score as well (since many parts of Hawaii have enacted strict limitations to short term vacation rentals in the past few years). A place within walking distance to the beach is ideal for most visitors. If you’re looking for peace and quiet, steer clear from spots like Lahaina on Maui or Waikiki on Oahu, and instead look for accommodations inland closer to the state’s rainforests.

Find more of our recommendations on Hawaii’s best resorts and hotels and our favorite family-friendly accommodations.

Getting There

  • Daniel K. Inouye International Airport: Hawaii’s main airport. It is considered one of the 30 busiest airports in the U.S. and sees about 21 million passengers per year on average . Most of the travelers who visit Hawaii come through Honolulu at some point.
  • Kahului Airport: Maui’s main and most popular airport. It is centrally located in north Maui, about 40 minutes from busy Lahaina and about 20 minutes from Kihei.
  • Lihue Airport: The main airport for the island of Kauai. It is nice and small, partially open-air and includes two runways, one terminal, and 10 gates.
  • Kona Airport: The Big Island’s slightly busier airport located on the west side near Kailua-Kona. Most Big Island visitors come through here since a majority of the island’s resorts are located nearby. Others staying on the east side of the island have the option to fly into Hilo International Airport.
  • Lanai City Airport on Lanai or Kaunakakai Airport on Molokai will require a bit more planning. The airports there are much smaller and getting there typically requires a stop in Honolulu along the way.

Culture and Customs

  • Keep in mind that, although Hawaii is more than 2,000 miles away from the closest major state, it is still part of the United States. Restaurant etiquette and tipping customs should be observed here just as much as it would be in California or New York. In 2019, there were 216,000 jobs statewide that were supported by Hawaii’s tourism industry , so the locals will thank you.
  • Although English is the main language spoken in Hawaii, the Hawaiian language is still very much present throughout the islands. You will undoubtedly hear and see plenty of Hawaiian words throughout your travels. Words like "wahine" (woman) and "kane" (man) will come in useful when looking for the restroom, for example, and "makai" (towards the sea) and "mauka" (towards the mountains) are used when giving directions often. Take some time to learn a few before your trip.
  • Considering Hawaii’s deep connection to its own history and respect for past royalty, the state is full of sacred and culturally significant sites. The Hawaiian word "kapu" designates a place that shouldn’t be trespassed on, such as an ancient burial ground, ruins of a previous royal residence, a dangerous area, or a private property.
  • Hawaiian "heiaus," or ancient Hawaiian temples, are scattered throughout the islands. Many heiaus are open to visitors, but are also considered sacred and should always be respected.
  • While hiking, stay on the designated trail to help avoid erosion or destruction of important native plant species. Don’t pester or touch protected wildlife, either. Touching an endangered Hawaiian Monk Sea or a Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle isn’t just frowned upon, it's illegal as well .
  • Whether you’re exploring a botanical garden in the mountains or lounging on a sandy beach, remember to take out what you bring in (trash, water bottles, etc.). Wear eco-friendly bug repellant and reef-safe mineral sunscreen to help protect the environment.

Money Saving Tips

  • If you plan on snorkeling for more than one day during your trip, consider investing in your own snorkel, mask, and fins. This will save you money on pricey rentals, plus you can bring them home with you to use another time.
  • Head outside of the popular tourist areas to purchase your souvenirs. Places like Don Quixote in Honolulu will have much better deals on chocolate-covered macadamia nuts than in the heart of Waikiki.
  • Cheap eats such as poke bowls and musubi are amazing choices for picnics and beach days. These Hawaiian staples are iconic as they are delicious.
  • If you’re flying Hawaiian Airlines, grab a free copy of their Hana Hou Magazine. The pages are filled with interesting articles, valuable tourism information, and coupons.
  • Tourists tend to spend more money on food in Hawaii than they originally budgeted for. If you don’t mind cooking a couple of meals yourself on vacation, rent accommodations with a kitchen and stop at the local farmer’s market, Costco, or Foodland for a few night’s worth of groceries instead of going out.
  • Another big sticker shock to visitors comes in the form of car rental and parking prices. Renting a car at the airport is almost always cheaper, and be sure to inquire about parking prices at your hotel ahead of time so you’re not shocked with an extra $35 per night on your bill.
  • Be flexible with your travel dates and shoot for a time of year that doesn’t coincide with heavy tourist season (such as summer months or around the holidays). Airline and hotel prices are usually much cheaper during these times.
  • Hawaii, especially Oahu, has a huge military industry. If you or a family member are part of the military, ask about discounts for lodging, restaurants, and even car rentals.

Discover even more money saving travel tips with our guides to visiting Hawaii on a budget and the best cheap eats in Hawaii.

Article Sources
TripSavvy uses only high-quality, trusted sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Hawaii Tourism Authority. "Hawai‘i Visitor Statistics Released for 2019." January 29, 2020.

  2. Go Hawaii. "Hawaii Regional Cuisine." August 22, 2020.

  3. Flight Era. "Honolulu Airport." August 22, 2020.

  4. Go Hawaii. "Protected Species." August 22, 2020.

Was this page helpful?