Hawaii on the Cheap!
As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, I did not keep a daily journal for Hawaii, and I did not make daily blog posts. The main reason why not is because… I simply didn’t feel like it once I got there. However, I did learn A LOT during our stay, and I did take lots of notes on everything I learned. Now, I pass this consolidated information on to you in the spirit of a true Maven, in hopes that you might find it invaluably useful for any future adventures, vacations, or trips you may take there. I’m using the outline below as a way of telling some of the story of our trip, while also relaying all useful information in an organized and concise fashion. Most everyone dreams of their idealistic tropical vacation, but not everyone gets to experience it. Well, I’m here to let you know you can. Enjoy!
Since Hawaii is a string of islands, you won’t be walking or driving there, sadly. You’ll be most likely flying, boating, swimming, or floating there, but probably flying. Through Expedia, I was able to book a one way, non-stop flight from Atlanta to Honolulu (on Oahu) for $330 per ticket. Atlanta is essentially one of the furthest locations in the continental U.S. you can get from Hawaii, so in theory, if you live closer to Hawaii than the eastern seaboard, you should be able to find something comparable or cheaper than my price with a little shopping around. I might also add, the bigger the airport, the cheaper the ticket (usually). So if you live a couple hours away from a relatively large airport, then it could be drastically cheaper to fly out of there, rather than the smaller, local airport (even if it’s international). For example, I live near the Pensacola International Airport, which is a decently sized, but all flights from there were two to three hundred dollars more expensive than other, more major airports. Atlanta and New Orleans were much cheaper; cheaper to the point I could have bought a Greyhound bus ticket to either of them and still saved a ton of money by not flying out of Pensacola. Moral of the story is… work the system and consider all options in various locations.
Here is a fun fact I figured out… you can fly out of San Diego or Los Angeles to Hawaii for well under $200 on most week days (I saw a lot of tickets for $160). The cost of a Greyhound Bus ticket from Florida to San Diego or Los Angeles is $150-$200, and potentially much less if you’re not traveling from one side of the country to the complete opposite. Also, the cost of traveling between the Hawaiian Islands is usually less than $100 if you fly on a weekday, whether using commercial airlines, or the smaller, puddle jumper, ten passenger or less planes. Most tickets I saw between islands were about $90 on any given week day.
Basically, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune to get there, or travel between the islands.
Once you’re there, how do you get around? Good news, there’s options to fit every budget!
Firstly, you can rent a car, and the options for renting are actually quite plentiful. You can opt for the more traditional and expensive route by renting through any of the major companies you can find at nearly every airport in the world, or peppered throughout most cities and larger towns (Hertz, budget, enterprise, dollar, etc.). You can also use the rental car app “TURO.” This app connects you with people who rent their privately owned vehicles out to strangers for rates far cheaper than traditional rental companies. Prices can range from dirt cheap to super expensive, depending on the vehicle the owner is renting out. I believe TURO does credit checks on the people who rent through their app, so that can be one drawback if you have bad credit, or no credit.
Your next rental option is to rent vehicles through private owners via Craigslist. This can be extremely cheap and potentially hassle free, but then again it can also be risky for both parties. For example, the vehicle could be less than reliable, or you might total their vehicle without any sort of third party to hold anyone accountable. But hey, what’s living if you’re not living dangerously once in a while? You gotta take the training wheels off of life some day…
Your final rental option is to go through unincorporated, privately owned rental car companies. I only found two of these, and they were both on the island of Maui, however I was extremely pleased with the pricing, quality of vehicle, ease of doing business, and vehicle options. You can rent an old beater car for about $25 per day, without having to purchase any extra insurance through them (so long as you have full coverage yourself). To rent a Minivan (which you can also sleep and camp in), you’ll be looking at about $32 per day. If you want to rent a vehicle without any insurance whatsoever, then they require a $1000 deposit which is 100% refundable upon the return of the vehicle in one piece. The companies on Maui that rent these vehicles are: “Aloha Rent a Car,” and “Kimo’s Car Rental” which are both in the city of Kahului (where the main airport resides). They are both within three minute’s walking distance of each other, and I know for a fact that “Aloha Rent a Car” provides a free shuttle to and from the airport. These are some of your rental options!
Your next option for getting around is public transportation using the intricate bus system, taxis, or Uber. You can get just about anywhere on the islands using the bus system. On Oahu, it costs $2.75 to ride one bus, or $5 for a daylong pass to ride any bus, anywhere on the island. On Maui it costs $2 to ride one bus, and $4 for a day pass on any bus, to anywhere. Every bus is capable of carrying a bike on the front, so if you buy a bike to get around town, you can load it onto any bus for those longer trips across town or the island (if you’re feeling lazy or unsafe). The bus system can get extremely confusing, especially for longer trips across the islands. Luckily there are apps you can download that show the routes, schedules, and real time updates. The best one I found was an app called “Rider,” which supposedly has most of the bus routes of the world programmed into it. All you have to do is select where you are, and it will automatically load the bus routes for that location. It was incredibly helpful! Bus travel is extremely cheap and convenient, but it can also be very time consuming. If you’re on a tight budget, and not on any kind of schedule, then I highly recommend using the bus system as your main mode of transportation. If you can’t download the app, then I suggest chatting with locals at the bus stop, or sitting near the front of the bus and chatting up the driver. Sometimes patience can run thin with the drivers, but if you keep it cheery and respectful, without disrupting the flow of people on and off, they’re usually more than happy to help, or make calls on the radio to find answers for you. This was how I was able to find an express bus from one side of the island to the other on both Oahu, and Maui.
Your next options for transportation are a little more… manual. You can buy or rent a bike, walk, or hitchhike. Firstly, Maui is more bike friendly than Oahu is (in terms of roads), however, you can easily get around on both with a bike. When I tried to research “biking around the Hawaiian Islands” before getting there, almost everything I read said “DON’T DO IT!” “YOU”RE GOING TO DIE!” This was a clear example of people projecting their fears onto others. While conditions may not be ideal or perfect everywhere, you damn well sure can ride a bike anywhere you want on those islands. For Oahu, it will be ideal within the city, as well as most places on the north shore. In Maui it will be ideal through most of the island, but can get a little dicey on the “Highway to Hana” along the East coast of the island, as well as the highway that runs along the western coast. Despite the narrow curves on both of those highways, I saw plenty of people biking them with and without gear attached to their bikes. Riding a bike anywhere in the world is a risk, but it’s by no means anywhere near impossible to do in Hawaii. My official recommendation is this… if you know how to ride a bike with confidence, and have even an ounce of situational awareness, as well as common sense… you can ride a bike anywhere in Hawaii.
Lastly, you can walk or hitchhike if you’re absolutely pinching pennies, or simply want to experience everything from a different, slower, chancier perspective. Walking is walking, so I don’t really have much to say on that; you can walk anywhere given enough time to do so, and the islands are not very big. For example, the farthest between two points (by far!) on any of the islands is only 90 miles (as the crow flies).
Hitchhiking is also a very viable method of getting around. Many locals get around by hitchhiking and it’s considered extremely safe within the islands. After road walking five miles to a remote beach on Oahu, I was able to score a ride back to town with the very first vehicle to pass by; they even tossed me a beer. This doesn’t take into account the two other vehicles who stopped and offered rides without me even asking when I originally walked up there. I declined because I was taking in the sights and looking for spots to fish during the walk. Word of advice: Hitchhiking becomes easier the further away from touristy spots that you get. As far as appearances go, if you look like a local, or have that rugged “traveler look,” you are most likely to be picked up by a local whether you are in a touristy area or not. If you are dressed like a tourist, then you have the potential to get picked up by a local, but also other easy going tourists who may perceive you to be in some sort of “predicament.” I recommend an “active hitchhiking” approach, i.e. walking with your thumb out rather than standing on a corner.
I would also like to add that you can have your vehicle shipped by boat from the west coast of the mainland to any of the islands for around a thousand bucks. If you are planning to stay for a while, then this might come in handy for transportation or even accommodation, as you will see in the next section of this article. Gas is expensive however, usually over $3 per gallon and frequently over $4. More information on shipping your car, HERE!
This about sums up transportation in Hawaii; it ranges from expensive, to cheap, to dirt cheap, to free. Take your pick!
Now that you’re in Hawaii and can get around, where are you going to sleep? As usual, you got options. Sadly, if you’re trying to stay in hotels, condos, or resorts, you’re going to pay out the nose for them, everywhere. I’m not even going to touch on those options, because they’re far too expensive to fit the spirit of this article. If your budget allows for these types of places, then you can easily find what you need without my help. My goal is to offer a comprehensive and consolidated list of cheap, or even free options when it comes to every aspect of your trip.
Firstly, when it comes to actual accommodations, you’re cheapest options are going to be Hostels, Airbnb, or couch surfing. There are apps and websites for finding all of those, so I won’t get long winded on here about them. I will say that hostels are going to run about $30 to $50 for a bunk in a shared dorm room, and $60 to $100+ for a private room or semi private rooms (per night). I called around eight different hostels on Oahu and Maui to come up with these figures, but also looked online at many others. If you go online, you can sometimes find cheaper deals than what they might offer you over the phone, or in person. Not the cheapest hostels ever, but cheap compared to hotel alternatives around these islands. I particularly liked the “Waikiki Beachside Hostel,” which resides in the heart of Waikiki, one block from the beach, serves free breakfast at 9am every morning, and costs about $30 bucks a night for a bunk in a dorm room. Very affordable, excellent location for exploring and easy transportation. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s on one of the most famous beaches out of all the islands (also most touristy). Waikiki Beachside Hostel has a total capacity of around 250 people, so you’re bound to make new friends. There is also a bike and moped rental company right next door.
You’re next cheap option for where and how to lay your head at night is to camp. You can camp in State Parks, National Parks, County Parks, and Beach Parks. All camping requires a permit that can be scheduled and paid for online HERE. Many parks will have bathrooms, showers, and fresh water.
On the Record: If you want to do things exactly by the book, then you should follow the guidelines for attaining a camping permit. Keep in mind, you must have your permit printed out and on your person when you camp. Also, you must purchase your permit no less than three days in advance, but not more than 30 days out from your first night of camping. This is easy to remember because the website won’t allow you to purchase permits outside those time ranges. Simply keep this in mind, because you won’t be able to purchase a permit for a spot with only one or two days notice. You’re looking at around $20 per night if you want to do permit camping. I even found a deal that was $50 for five nights on a more remote beach-side location.
Off the Record: I wouldn’t even sweat getting a permit for County Parks or Wayside Beach Parks. There didn’t seem to be any kind of official body checking these areas; plus, there were already so many other people camping or parked in these places (including homeless), I don’t know how they would even begin to enforce any permit rules. To be safe, maybe camp with a permit for a couple nights to scope out the activity, then freeload it after that if the coast seems clear. If you plan to camp in State Parks or National Parks, then you should probably go with a permit; these campgrounds will most likely be better kept up, having bathrooms, showers, and fresh water. These locations will also be keeping the homeless at bay.
If you want to stealth camp, then you do so at your own risk. It is absolutely POSSIBLE to stealth camp around many parts of the island, or even sleep in public places with the other homeless (if you don’t mind the company, as well as watching your belongings like a hawk). Almost all land in Hawaii is either privately owned, military, or some form of state/federal government owned. That being said, if you’re not picky, you can easily find little nooks and out of the way places in the local jungles, rocks, beaches, and mountainsides where your presence will go more or less unnoticed; you just have to look and keep your wits about you.
Your final option is car camping. If you rent a car, van, or truck, you can easily sleep inside the vehicle. Word of warning: it is not always safe to park in rural areas. There is a great deal of poverty within the islands and seemingly abandoned or unattended vehicles do get robbed very often. Your best bet would be to find a popular beach, or large parking lot (like Wal-Mart or a mall) to sleep over night in your vehicle. Jessica and I slept very comfortably in a minivan on Maui for eight days using this method. We parked on the beach along a stretch of Highway and never had a problem with anyone.
On Maui, my recommendation for car camping, or any kind of camping for that matter, is a stretch of Highway 30 starting at “Papalaua Wayside Park,” and continuing several miles West. There are quite literally hundreds of places to pull over and park/camp directly on the water. The beaches range from rocky to pure sand, and people surf, paddle-board, dive, and snorkel along them every single day. In the winter you can see countless humpback whales breaching and spouting a short distance offshore; we did. If you are planning to park or camp anywhere along this stretch of highway, then it is my personal recommendation that you absolutely DO NOT need a permit. It’s perfectly free, and there are tons of people utilizing this area every single day and night. If you wanted, you could also make a fire, as we saw others having them every night (there is a ton of wood and debris on the other side of the highway). If you flew to Maui right now, you could confidently camp for free along this stretch of road, possibly indefinitely. So sleeping/camping in a vehicle is yet another cheap and convenient way to bundle your transportation/accommodation needs into one package. If you’re not too uptight, you can bathe in the plethora of outdoor showers that accompany almost every popular beach. If an outdoor shower bothers you, then you can go to the public and FREE aquatic center on the eastern outskirts of Lahaina right on the corner of Highway 30 and Shaw Street. The showers are hot!!
These are your accommodation options, and most of them apply across all the islands. I never visited the Big Island, but from what I’ve heard from locals and everyone else, it is the most laid back of all the islands, with the most space and options to do all of the things discussed above. Where there is a will, there is a way.
Unfortunately, being the major tourist destination that it is, eating out in the Hawaiian Islands can get really expensive. Fast food prices are still the same as they are on the mainland, but not everyone wants to eat fast food every day. Certain seafood items will cost less at some restaurants compared to others on the mainland, but most meats are fairly expensive, including burgers. Most places charged around twelve to fifteen bucks or more for a regular old burger. If you want to eat as cheaply as possible, then I strongly recommend buying groceries. Even certain grocery items are more expensive over there, but others are cheaper. Fruit and vegetable produce is for the most part very cheap, as well as most seafood (compared to the mainland). If you were to take a backpacking stove, you could easily cook and eat for incredibly cheap.
If you want to attempt to eat for free as much as possible, then you could forage coconuts and certain other fruits with fairly little trouble, depending on what part of the island you were on. When camping on the beach, you could easily snorkel with a Hawaiian Sling Spear (which you can get at Wal-Mart or just about anywhere on the islands) and procure a seafood dinner from the reef every night. The reefs are close to shore and populated with tons of edible fishes. For the record, a fishing license is not required for anybody in the state of Hawaii; it’s free for locals and tourists alike.
My best advice for eating cheaply in Hawaii is to definitely bring your own stove, or buy something simple when you get there. Eating out every day will certainly get expensive quickly. If you’re the type that hunts, and you’re not picky, then I got some good news for you. There are wild chickens ALL OVER the islands (not so much Oahu). They are considered pests, but nobody eats them because they taste “rangy.” Some try to catch and domesticate them, but mostly they just roam around the jungles, towns, and cities unchecked, pooping everywhere. Believe it or not, they are descendants from the original chickens that Captain Cook brought to the islands when he first landed there.
Since Hawaii is a string of tropical islands near the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the climate is unsurprisingly tropical, which means humid and warm. It never got below 60 degrees (at night) the whole time we were there, and this was January and February. The days were in the 70’s and 80’s, and there was always a breeze. Rain can occur at any time on any day, but for the most part it’s sporadic and short lived. The forecasts were hardly ever “spot on.” I must say, even when it did rain for prolonged periods of time, it wasn’t really a “depressing rain.” It was more of a happy, warm, cheerful rain. Regardless, you can expect the climate to be hot, full of moisture, and all things tropical. No surprises.
Hawaii is notoriously known for having ill tempered locals that hate tourists, especially tourists that encroach upon their favorite beach areas. I can’t attest to how they treat newcomers in the surfing lineup at their hidden/remote beaches, but I can attest for the overall treatment I received around the islands. Nearly every local I came in contact with was friendly and respectful. Some were short of patience and visibly agitated in certain traffic or high foot traffic areas, but I think this is true for the majority of places in the world. For the most part, if you give respect, you will get respect. Do not be overly patronizing, do not be obnoxious, and do not be condescending or act in an entitled manor. Those are tried and tested ways to getting on the shit-list of just about anyone, especially the locals in a place you’re not local too. If you’re not sure if you’re supposed to be somewhere, then ask, or ask permission. Most people in the world don’t go out of their way to be rude to other people, so try not to give anyone a reason to. The Hawaiians are extremely friendly and helpful in nearly every situation, and the only perceived agitation I could find was a shortness of patience, probably from dealing with a never ending stream of tourists and their barrages of common questions and statements. Aside from that, everyone seemed pretty happy to be alive!
Out of all the states in our union, Hawaii probably has the most unique and distinct culture of all. In fact, it doesn’t feel like you’re in the United States while you’re there, it feels like another country. As you may or may not know, the Hawaiians get their culture from the Polynesians, who discovered and landed on the islands around 500 AD. The pace of life is slow outside the cities, and if you want a taste of “authentic” Hawaiian/Polynesian culture, then you can easily pay for it just about anywhere. Luaus and other traditional events/functions are offered all over the place. I did not attend any, so I cannot attest to how touristy or un-touristy they may be, but my guess would be they probably ooze touristy-ness.
Bottom line, the culture, mood, and topography of Hawaii feel distinctly foreign, not American, and that’s what makes it so great.
Aside from the fact you can feel extremely trapped and claustrophobic at times on these small islands, there is a proverbial TON of stuff to do if you have the right interests. Major activities which can be done almost anywhere at anytime on the islands include, but are not limited to… Lying on the beach doing nothing, swimming, snorkeling, epic hiking, waterfall hunting, Scuba Diving, Whale watching, fishing, spear fishing, kayaking, surfing, stand up paddle boarding, shopping, sightseeing, moped riding, hunting wild pigs, driving around, helicopter rides, body surfing, food sampling, fruit picking, drinking, walking around aimlessly, bike riding, parasailing, and generally enjoying the fantastically warm climate on any given day of the year. Take your pick. My personal favorites are lying on the beach doing nothing, spear fishing, snorkeling, hiking, kayaking, fishing, and food sampling.
A fantastic app for hiking and finding amazing sights is the “All Trails” app. It’s easy to use and super informative. It shows you where all and any trails may reside in any given location, then provides all details regarding difficulty, length, elevation, user reviews of the trail, and user uploaded photographs of different sights on the trail.
There are so many highlights in the Hawaiian Islands; I couldn’t possibly list them all. Some major ones (or at least major to me), are Pearl Harbor (on Oahu), visiting Honolulu (the capital, also on Oahu), witnessing the Waikiki Sunset, looking for waterfalls, visiting any active volcanoes, visiting black or red sand beaches, driving the “Road to Hana,” climbing Mt. Mauna Kea (the tallest mountain in Hawaii, but also the tallest mountain on earth from underwater base to top), eat Poke’, eat Poi, hike the “Stairway to Heaven” (on Oahu), drink a Mai-Tai, snorkeling the endless reefs, booking an offshore fishing trip, eat some Huli Huli chicken, or take a Whale watching boat ride in the fall or winter. There are of course tons of other things to do, some of which will cost ya, but these are some of the highlights I experienced or was told about. I could honestly go to Hawaii and not do much more than lay on the various beaches and feel totally fulfilled, but I’m easy.
Maybe you want to move to Hawaii, or stay there long enough to get a job that offsets the costs of getting there, staying there, and leaving. Welllll… there’s options for that too!
Firstly, with their booming tourist industry, there is a revolving door of tourist related jobs, you simply have to look. If you’re trying to find something a little more informal, you could find a job volunteering or working on a farm, or even handing out flyers in front of a business. Jessica was offered a job on the spot to stand in front of a sushi restaurant and pass out flyers for an hourly, under the table wage. If you wanted to cover eating expenses, you could easily find a business to stand in front of and pass out flyers or wave a sign for whatever wage they were willing to pay you. Just an idea!
The next most popular and fun way to get to Hawaii and live there basically for free with your food paid for, is to work on a farm. You can do this either by simply walking onto a farm and asking about volunteer/job opportunities, or by going through a “WWOOF’ing” program (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). How these opportunities work is like this: you volunteer to work on a farm for free (usually 6 hours a day, 5 days a week), in return for free accommodations on the farm (with other volunteers), and free food provided to you. Your time off can be spent however you like; working another job for real money, exploring the island, or all of the above. Working on a farm is simply an advantageous way to live/stay in Hawaii for weeks or months at a time, essentially for free. You can find more details as well as opportunities to sign up for a WWOOF program, HERE!
Your life of leisure on a tropical island is no longer only a dream!
Getting Home/Moving on
Ok, so the trip is over and it’s time to go home or move on. What do you do? There are several things, but flying back across the country out of Hawaii isn’t necessarily as cheap as getting there from the larger airports on the mainland. If you didn’t lock in a round trip price when you purchased your original flight, then it can be a bit of a crap shoot, believe me! I personally don’t like putting timelines on trips (hence the one way ticket), and if you don’t either, there are strategies to affordably get out of Hawaii after affordably getting there, without the constraints of a round trip deal/deadline. Here is how…
If you’re wanting to move on to other parts of the world, then Hawaii is an excellent stepping stone for reaching other parts of Asia, Australia, New Zealand, as well as other Indo-Pacific Islands. You can purchase flights from Hawaii to these parts of the world for far cheaper than they would cost on the main land. Just a suggestion.
Lastly, as I mentioned earlier; flights between Hawaii and San Diego/Los Angeles are very cheap, both ways, usually less than $200. Rather than spend upwards of $600 to $700 (or much more) trying to fly back to your closest home base airport; you can buy a flight to San Diego or Los Angeles, then take a Greyhound bus back home from there. I found all travel into and out of San Diego (both flights and buss) to be cheaper than Los Angeles, on average. Your bus ticket to anywhere else in the country will cost next to nothing compared to flying; most likely less than $200, even when going clear across to the east coast. The biggest drawback is sitting on a damn bus with strangers for days and nights on end (I’ve done it, sadly), but you can’t beat the price, the sights, and the experience.
Make the journey your destination and have fun getting to wherever you’re going!
Some of the drawbacks to a Hawaii trip (even a cheaply planned one), is the cost. Everything caters to tourists, so you’re going to get tourist prices on almost everything you want to do that costs money. The next biggest drawback is the poverty and the homeless crisis. There are A LOT of homeless people in Hawaii, especially on Oahu. The fantastic weather makes it easy to be homeless, and there is also a rampant drug problem among many of these homeless (mostly meth, alcoholism, and some mental illness). Due to these factors, there is quite a high rate of theft in the islands, so don’t leave your things or your vehicles unattended, especially in what you think might be a secluded area. Even highly populated areas are subject to a lot of theft; opportunists will snatch your things the first minute you leave them unattended to go for a swim or walk. Always keep an eye out or leave someone to guard the stuff if you don’t take it with you. These are the biggest negatives I can think of off the top of my head; conventionally expensive, poverty, lots of homeless, and high theft. Luckily, I’ve imparted the knowledge, resources, and hopefully the confidence to have an unconventionally great trip to Hawaii!
The hardest part of any adventure is making the decision to simply GO! Decide you’re going to do it, then leave. The rest will fall into place. I hope this article has been helpful and not too boring. If you have any other questions, please post them in the comments and I will answer them, as well as add them to the article if they apply!
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