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Hawaii Travel Guide: Essential Things to Know!

With its golden shores lapped by warm waters, it’s hard not to be enchanted by Hawaii – whether you’re visiting for the first time (or the hundredth!).

Planning your Hawaiian vacation is all part of the fun of visiting. From browsing beautiful resorts to figuring out the best Hawaiian island for you, there’s a lot to look forward to.

Then there’s also the nitty-gritty – the practical information (the maybe not-so-fun stuff).

That’s where this Hawaii travel guide comes in handy.

Accommodations, transportation, a guide to the major islands and more… We’ve packed in just about everything you need to know to plan your dream trip to Hawaii!

Quick look: Two popular Hawaiian islands

Complete Hawaii travel guide

Carry on reading for in-depth help with planning your vacation, tips for visiting and more…

Practical things to know before visiting Hawaii

First things first. It’s a good idea to get a grip on some basic information for traveling to Hawaii.

It may be a part of the United States, but Hawaii has a culture, language and way of life all of its own.

Hawaiian fire dancer
Attending a luau, with Hawaiian hula and fire dancers, is a memorable experience

Visa or ESTA

Americans don’t need a visa to visit Hawaii (as you’re just visiting another state), but you will need a valid form of government ID.

Canadians also don’t need a visa – only a passport.

Travelers from Australia, the UK, New Zealand, some European countries and other places can apply for a visa waiver through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). This allows you to stay in Hawaii for up to 90 days and costs $14.

Make sure to apply at least a few days before you travel. 

Currency

The official currency is the US Dollar.

Credit and debit cards are widely accepted across the islands and ATMs are available to use in many locations. 

Language

The language of the islands is an important part of the region’s culture. It’s something you’ll probably hear at times during your visit to Hawaii.

One interesting Hawaiian fact is that the state is the only one in the US with two official languages – English and Hawaiian.

Sadly, with English being dominant, few people speak the Polynesian language nowadays, so much so that it’s been listed as critically endangered by UNESCO. 

You might also come across Hawaiian Creole.

The Hawaiian islands have long been a melting pot of cultures, with people arriving from as far afield as Japan, Portugal and the Philippines. This mix of languages gave birth to a mix of Hawaiian and English in the 19th century and is now woven into the identity of the islands. Hawaiian Creole is more common than Hawaiian today.

Hawaiian phrases to know

Aloha written in the sand
You’ll fell the “Aloha” in Hawaii!

It helps to know a few words of the Hawaiian language:

  • Aloha – Used to say “hello” as well as to say “goodbye,” the world-famous greeting offers a feeling of compassion and respect
  • Mahalo – “Thank you”
  • E komo mai – “Welcome”
  • Ono – This is both a type of fish and used to describe something that is delicious 
  • A hui hou – “Until next time”
  • Kapu – “Keep out/forbidden”
  • Aina – The land, a core element of Hawaiian culture 

Tipping in Hawaii

Read any travel guide for Hawaii and most will tell you that it’s important to tip for service during your trip.

No matter where you visit in America, you’re usually expected to leave a tip for things like a meal, housekeeping and a drink at a bar.

How much to tip

  • At restaurants – Around 20% of the bill as a tip
  • Housekeeping – A few dollars a day for the housekeeping staff 
  • Tour guides – The amount will vary depending on the length of the tour, but think approximately $10 per person
  • Bar staff – A dollar or two per drink 
  • Porters and hotel concierge – $1 to $2 for each bag or service offered such as a restaurant reservation

Buying gifts in Hawaii

You’re on vacation, having the best time of your life (of course!), and you want to buy some souvenirs and gifts from Hawaii to take home for yourself and for friends and family back home.

Lucky for you – shopping in Hawaii is a lot of fun! Plus it will help to keep the memories of sandy beaches and good times alive way after you’ve left. 

You can find everything from Aloha shirts to Hawaiian coffee to locally-made items like Hawaiian quilts.

Which Hawaiian island to visit?

With blissful beaches, wild state parks and cool vibes, each of Hawaii’s islands has something different to offer.

Oahu

Couple with surf boards in Honolulu
Surfing is a big deal in Honolulu

We definitely recommend Oahu if this is your first trip to Hawaii.

It’s where Hawaii’s major international airport is located. Flights arrive at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) from all across the world, including Japan, New Zealand and the U.K.

From Oahu, you can catch flights to several Hawaiian Islands such as Maui, Kauai and Molokai.

Some highlights

  • Honolulu – Staying in the cosmopolitan state capital of Honolulu means a wide choice of accommodation options, delicious dining and sunny days kicking back at the beach.
  • World-famous Waikiki Beach – Honolulu’s long stretch of white sand is one of the most stunning beaches in the world. It’s the ideal place to stay on your first trip to Oahu. Expect surfing, palm trees and a whole lot of top hotels to choose from. 
  • Diamond Head – Hike to the top of this iconic extinct volcano on Oahu for panoramic ocean views.  
  • Pearl Harbor – Located on Oahu, Pearl Harbor is a must-visit for anyone interested in history. A visit here often includes an audio tour as you walk along the harbor and take a boat ride out to the war memorial.   

Maui

People enjoying the beach in Maui
People enjoying the beach in Maui

Maui offers a more laid-back alternative to Honolulu and the buzz of Oahu.

Stay on the island of Maui for modern living and world-class resorts, mixed with some quieter beaches and outdoor adventures. 

Some highlights

Kauai

Kauai's Na Pali Coast was a filming location in the movie "The Lost World: Jurassic Park".
Kauai’s Na Pali Coast was a filming location in the movie “The Lost World: Jurassic Park”

Often called the “Garden Isle,” this lush island land is almost completely covered by verdant tropical rainforest.

With crystal clear waters, breathtaking beaches and scenic hiking trails, Kauai is where to go to experience nature at its best.

Comparing Kauai with Maui? Kauai is less developed and more chill. But it still has some lovely hotels.

Kauai (particularly the North Shore) also gets more rain than Maui. Poipu (on the South Shore) is our preferred area to stay on Kauai in winter.

Some highlights

  • Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge – On the North Shore, it sits at the tip of the island’s northernmost point. The protected area is a haven for nesting seabirds and majestic marine mammals that pass through the waters just off the coast.
  • Botanical gardens – Blooming with exotic flowers in jungle-like settings, Kauai’s botanical gardens are paradise for nature lovers.
  • Beautiful beaches – Kauai has beaches that look as if they popped right out from the pages of a travel magazine. There’s a long list of great swimming beaches on Kauai, so finding a spot on the sand isn’t difficult.  
  • Lots of activities – The island is the ideal vacation destination for active travelers. Activities in Kauai range from exploring on a stand-up paddle board to hiking the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali Coast. There are plenty of free things to do on Kauai too.

Big Island (Hawaii Island)

The youngest of all the Hawaiian Islands, the Big Island (officially “Hawaii Island”) is somewhat of an under-the-radar destination.  

Seasoned travelers who’ve already experienced lots of Hawaii’s top activities, especially, should consider visiting the Big Island.

True to its name, it’s the biggest island in Hawaii. And it packs a punch with a whole lot of vast natural landscape to soak up.

Red Lava from Kilauea Volcano flows into the ocean on the Big Island of Hawaii
Lava from Kilauea Volcano flows into the ocean on the Big Island of Hawaii

Highlights

  • Fewer crowds – Put the Big Island on your Hawaii itinerary and you’ll escape the crowds. Nice!
  • Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – Believe the hype. Marvel at steaming vents around the active Kilauea volcano and hike through old lava tubes in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It’s is a must-do on Hawaii Island.
  • Kealakekua Bay – Enjoy some of the best snorkeling in the whole of Hawaii at this Marine Life Conservation District. But make sure to follow the rules and respect the natural environment if you explore this magical underwater part of the coast. 

Lanai

Privately owned, Lanai moves at a slower pace than the other main Hawaiian islands. Still, there are enough things you can do on Lanai to keep you happily entertained.

With two chic Four Seasons resorts to its name, the island is sought out by luxury lovers.

Highlights

  • Hulupoe Beach – Lanai’s prettiest beach is a long palm-fringed slice of sand – and the sunning and swimming is sweet here!
  • Lanai City – We’d call it more of a quaint town than a “city.” But it’s fun to poke around. Stop by the Lanai Culture & Heritage Center to learn more about the island’s culture and history through photographs and artifacts. 
  • Garden of the Gods – Located inside the boundaries of the 590-acre Kanepuu Preserve, this natural landscape was formed by lava exploding from volcanic eruptions. Strange rocky structures are strewn across the area, which holds spiritual significance for the islanders. 

Hawaii cruises

A convenient way to visit several islands in one trip is to take a Hawaiian cruise.

A Carnival cruise ship passes by Kauai's Kalapaki Beach
A Carnival cruise ship passes by Kauai’s Kalapaki Beach

Cruise lines like Celebrity Cruises, Carnival and Princess Cruises offer one-week and longer cruises departing from Honolulu, Seattle and other USA ports.

For a kid-friendly vacay, choose one of Hawaii’s cruises for families.

For an adult adventure, we loved cruising Hawaii with UnCruise Adventures.

How many days do you need in Hawaii?

If you only have a few days, pick an area on one of the main islands and stick to it. Spending 5 days to a week in Hawaii will be enough time to relax and enjoy some of what this amazing destination has to offer.

Staying on vacation in Hawaii for a week or more means you can do some island-hopping without burning yourself out.

Best time to visit Hawaii

The best time to travel to Hawaii depends on what you want out of your vacation.

Do you want to pay less and enjoy quieter beaches? Then go in the shoulder season – April to May and September to October.

If you want to see humpback whales on your Hawaiian island vacation, then you’ll need to visit in winter. Whales migrate through the Pacific Ocean from November through May. January is the peak migration period, hence the prime time to see whales.

Mid-December to March is Hawaii’s high season, so prices are higher and the place is busier than at other times.

July and August is summer in Hawaii and a popular time for families to visit. This is when Hawaii enjoys its best weather. It’s hot and sunny (with less rain than in winter) and the ocean is warm for swimming. 

A young couple snorkeling with tropical fish in Hawaii
Summer is when the ocean temperature is warmest for swimming and snorkeling

How to get around in Hawaii

Renting a car

Unless you’re based in Honolulu, our advice would be to rent a car – at least for some of the time. Having your own set of wheels means you’ll be able to see more of the island you’re staying on, beyond the main tourist spots.

Public transportation

Oahu is the easiest island to get around using public transportation. Oahu’s bus system (called The Bus) is the most extensive. 

Honolulu also has a shiny new system, the Skyline. This opened in June 2023 and features 18 miles of track. It’s just phase 1 in a plan to connect the whole city.

Elsewhere on other islands, public buses are mainly focused on getting locals around residential areas. But they can still be used to get to state parks and beaches.

Ferry to Lanai

There’s one ferry between the islands – the Maui-Lanai Ferry.

This can be a good option for visiting Lanai from Maui. It’s cheaper than flying and an experience in itself – you might even catch a glimpse of dolphins and whales during your voyage!

Inter-island flights

As there are no ferries between islands (other than the Maui-Lanai ferry), island-hopping in Hawaii is done by taking a plane.

There are frequent air connections between the islands, with Honolulu being the main hub. The main airline is Hawaiian Airlines. Airfares can sometimes be as cheap as $50 one way.

Where to stay in Hawaii

Grand Wailea Resort on Maui
Fancy staying at the Grand Wailea Resort on Maui?

Hotels vs. vacation condos in Hawaii? There’s no right or wrong. We’ve done both.

With a host of luxury resorts and more affordable hotels to suit different travel styles, you’ll be spoiled for choice. There’s a wealth of accommodation to choose from on Booking.com, for one example.

Staying in your own condo-style vacation apartment is also popular, especially for families.

Hit up sites like Vrbo (Vacation Rentals by Owner, owned by Expedia) to find a good choice of accommodations with all sorts of amenities – from kitchens to private pools and sprawling gardens.

Cultural experiences on the Hawaiian islands

Hawaii’s culture is unique. Shaped by well over a century of immigration as much as native Hawaiian traditions, these islands are awash with experiences that offer up a deeper understanding of its culture.

To get a good crash course into Hawaiian culture, head to somewhere like the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu. This is the place to go to learn about everything from Hawaiian luaus to outrigger canoes and food traditions across wider Polynesia. (There are 6 island nations to learn about here).

The Polynesian Cultural Center encourages visitors to sit down and chat with locals, which makes all the difference.

What to eat in Hawaii

This wouldn’t be a Hawaii vacation travel guide without mentioning the local food!

Poke is popular to eat in Hawaii - and healthy too!
Poke is popular to eat in Hawaii – and healthy too!

There are a whole lot of things to try, some you may know, others you probably don’t. Here are just a few of them:

  • Poke –This is raw fish that’s been diced up and tossed in a sauce. It’s mainly made with tuna, onion, sesame seeds and sea salt. The dish is native to Hawaii.
  • Fresh fish –Fresh fish consistently appears on menus. Expect to sample fresh mahi-mahi, tuna and swordfish (among others).
  • Shave ice –Brought to Hawaii by Japanese immigrants in the late 19th century, shave ice (or kakigori as it’s called in Japanese) is a deliciously simple and effective way to cool off. It’s just shaved ice flavored with syrup.
  • Kalua pork –This amazingly succulent and tender pulled pork is a smoky dish served at family events and luaus.
  • Haupia Pie –Sweet-toothed visitors to Hawaii will love the chance to sample haupia pie. It’s made using gelatinous coconut pudding, pastry and whipped cream.
  • Mai Tais – The world-famous cocktail is ubiquitous in Hawaii. It’s a mix of rum, curacao, lime juice and syrup.

And you must sample different Hawaiian fruits too! Pineapple is a no-brainer and easy to get. But also try some more exotic fruits native to Hawaii, like rambutan.

Our Hawaii travel advice: 5 Top tips

1)Take your time

Any good Hawaii travel planning guide will tell you: Don’t try to do everything at once. You’ll end up getting burnt out and not enjoying these beautiful islands to their fullest potential.

Take time to just “be” on Hawaii. Focusing on one island only (especially if visiting for less than 10 days) will help you to experience the best of Hawaii.

2) There’s more to Hawaii than Honolulu

While sticking to one destination is a good idea, there’s also much more to experience than the main tourist sights on Oahu.

If you’re visiting Hawaii for the first time (maybe the only time?), add another island – like Maui, Kauai or the Big Island – to your itinerary, in addition to Oahu.

3) Don’t miss out on the ocean

There’s a lot of land-based fun to be had in Hawaii, from hiking to eating, but don’t skip out on exploring the surrounding ocean. Take a look at our round-up of the best Hawaii water adventures, including everything from scuba diving to surfing.

Just protect yourself from the sun with a hat and reef-safe sunscreen!

4) Know what to pack

Don’t pack too much. You’ll be in shorts and T-shirts a lot of the time. But be sure to bring what you need, like snorkeling gear and/or water shoes for waterfall adventures. And you’ll need a sweater or light jacket in winter!

See our guide to packing for a Hawaiian vacation for details.

5) Book in advance

In recent years, Hawaii has become an even more popular vacation destination than before.

In the past, we could leave booking our flights and accommodations until closer to our trip. But now we recommend booking your Hawaii adventure at least a few months in advance. Make reservations at popular restaurants in advance too.

That wraps up our guide to the Hawaiian islands!

We hope our Hawaii travel guide has given you a thorough look at visiting this slice of Pacific paradise.

Whether it’s your first Hawaii visit, or you’re returning for another adventure, there’s one thing you’re guaranteed – an awesome time!

Our top travel tips and resources

Hotels: Booking.com is great for scoring a “wow” hotel – or at least a decent one. (We especially like their flexible cancellation policy!)

Vacation homes, condos and rentals: We prefer and use Vrbo (Vacation Rentals by Owner).

Tours: For the best local food, walking and other guided tours, plus skip-the-line tickets to attractions, check out Viator (a TripAdvisor company) and GetYourGuide.

Car rental: Renting a car is often one of the best ways to explore off the beaten path. Discover Cars searches car rental companies so you get the best rates.

Travel insurance: SafetyWing is designed for frequent travelers, long-term adventurers and digital nomads. It covers medical expenses, lost checked luggage, trip interruption and more. We also have and recommend Medjet for global air medical transportation and travel security.

Travel gear: See our travel shop to find the best luggage, accessories and other travel gear. (We suggest these comfy travel sandals for city walking, the beach and kicking about.)

Need more help planning your trip? Check out our travel tips and resources guide for airline booking tips, ways to save money, how to find great hotels and other crazy useful trip planning info.

Pssst! If you make a booking or purchase through our site, we may earn a small commission (at no cost to you). Thanks!


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Hawaii Travel Guide

Photo credits: 7 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase


About the authors

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George Mucalov are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents. See About.

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