There’s a saying in Hawaii: there’s a cost to paradise. Among the US states, Hawaii had the highest cost of living in 2019, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center.
The median price of a single-family home on Oahu is more than $1 million. And gas costs nearly $5 a gallon. But there are still plenty of low-cost ways to enjoy the best of the islands — pristine beaches, local flavors, stunning natural beauty — without sacrificing your experience. Here’s how.
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1. Plan a fall or spring vacation
Hawaii is a year-round destination, and that’s good news for budget travelers. You can find deals on airfare and accommodations during the slower shoulder months — September and October, January and February, April and May — avoiding peak travel times like summer, winter and spring break.
2. Be smart about island-hopping…
Why fly all the way to Hawaii and stay on one island? If you’re set on seeing more than one island on your vacation, you should take advantage of cheaper options on interisland airfares.
Southwest Airlines, which entered the interisland market in April 2019, offers Wanna Get Away rates— sometimes as low as $39 one way — with no-frills service and no assigned seating. Mokulele Airlines operates Cessna 208EX Grand Caravans that seat up to nine passengers and flies into smaller airports, offering round-trip fares for less than $200 per person.
Planning tip: If you’re on Maui and want to visit Lanaʻi, you can book a ride on the Expeditions Maui-Lanaʻi Passenger Ferry. Tickets start at $30 one way and take about an hour. Bonus: if you’re traveling between islands from January to April, you may see humpback whales along the way.
If you’re island-hopping by ferry between January and April, you might see humpback whales on the way © George Karbus Photography / Getty Images
3. …Or simply stay on one island
Island-hopping can be pricey — you’re paying for additional airfare and accommodations, and if you’re not on Oʻahu, you’ll likely have to rent a car, the price of which fluctuates with demand.
By staying on one island, you can really explore everything it has to offer. Oʻahu is bustling, with tons of restaurants, shopping, beaches, museums and hiking trails. Maui is just as vibrant, with more country charm and quaint towns like Hana and Makawao.
Kauaʻi is the most laid-back of all the islands, with verdant landscapes, breathtaking beaches and a quieter pace. Hawaii Island, aka the Big Island, boasts active volcanoes, rolling ranchland and old-Hawaii charm.
4. Keep your car-rental period short
While opting out of renting a car during your entire vacation may be the most cost-effective, it’s also very limiting – even on Oʻahu, which boasts a great public bus system. You’ll want to get out of resort areas and venture into different neighborhoods, find hole-in-the-wall eateries and experience the islands the way locals do.
Instead of renting a car for the duration of your stay, consider a car hire for just a few days, optimally keeping your costs under $100.
Reduce your time with a rental car by using Hawaii’s ridesharing services © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet
5. Use local ridesharing services and rentals
All of the main islands have ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft, O‘ahu featuring the best coverage. But there are new local services as well.
In June 2021 Holoholo, a new rideshare company, launched on Oʻahu, Maui, Kauaʻi, Hawaii Island and Lanaʻi with a wider selection of rides — hybrid, electric and luxury vehicles, rides with vaccinated drivers and drivers pre-approved to enter US military bases and options for those requiring additional mobility assistance.
Fares are based on distance and calculated up front, and rides can be scheduled in advance. Turo also recently entered the Hawaiʻi market, offering the more affordable option of renting vehicles directly from local owners.
Hui Care Share is a round-trip, station-based car-share program on Oʻahu only, where you can book a vehicle by the hour or day, now or in the future. The service includes 170 vehicles parked at 65 stations throughout urban Honolulu — downtown, Waikiki, Kakaʻako, Ala Moana, Mānoa, Kaimukī — and Ko Olina. The best part? Gas, insurance and roadside assistance are all included.
6. Take public transportation
You can also ditch the cars entirely — no worries about parking! — by using public transportation.
On Oʻahu, there’s TheBus, a public bus service with a fleet of 542 buses providing daily services on 101 routes across the island. Adult fares are $3 (one way), to be paid in cash upon boarding, with discounts for seniors age 65 and up and youth ages 6 to 17. TheBus conveniently stops at some of the island’s most popular visitor destinations, including Waikiki, Ala Moana Center, Bishop Museum, Kualoa Ranch, Polynesian Cultural Center, Pearl Harbor, Waimea Valley and Hanauma Bay.
Maui also operates a public bus system with service in various parts of the islands, from Kaʻanapali to Upcountry.
Read more: How to get around in Hawaii
7. Get around by bike
Another option is to ride around Oʻahu on a bike using the island’s only bikeshare program, Biki, which has 1300 bikes at more than 130 self-service Biki Stops throughout Honolulu.
It’s a great option for short jaunts to the beach or to grab lunch nearby. Rides are $4.50 per bike for a single ride for up to 30 minutes, $12 for unlimited rides within 24 hours or $30 for 300 minutes to use in any increment for one year (the best option to use over an entire vacation stay).
State-run hiking trails are usually free to access © Maridav / Shutterstock
8. See Hawaii’s beaches, trails and gardens
Enjoy the best parts of Hawaii — its beaches, gardens, parks and hiking trails — without spending much.
Most beaches in Hawaii are free and accessible year-round. Some — like Hanauma Bay on Oʻahu and Hāʻena State Park on Kauaʻi — require reservations with a small fee for visitors. Pristine nature reserve Hanauma Bay has an online reservation system, limiting the number of visitors to fewer than 800 a day. It costs $25 per person to enter (free for Hawaii residents and children aged 12 under) and another $3 for parking ($1 for residents).
To visit Hāʻena State Park — which includes Kēʻē Beach and the start of the Kalalau Trail along the famed Nāpali Coast — you’ll need to secure a reservation and pay a $5 entry fee and $10 for parking (free for residents).
While state-run hiking trails are normally free to access, some have small fees. For non-residents, it costs $5 to hike to the top of Diamond Head (Lēʻahi in Hawaiian) on Oʻahu, plus $10 for parking (both payable by credit card only), or to visit the popular ʻIao Valley State Monument on Maui (currently closed through February 2023 for improvements, so check the official website for any updates before you go).
Most botanical gardens charge a nominal entrance fee, though some, including the popular city-run Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden on Oʻahu, are free to explore.
9. Eat affordable local dishes: bento boxes and poke bowls
While each island boasts upscale farm-to-table restaurants that will break your food budget, Hawaii is also known for its homestyle local cuisine. Plate lunches, bento (Japanese box meals) and poke bowls (cubed ahi, raw and seasoned, and served atop rice) are plentiful — and affordable.
Get loaded plates of teriyaki beef, shoyu chicken or hamburger steak and gravy at popular drive-ins, such as Rainbow Drive-In on Oʻahu, Hawaiian Style Cafe on Hawaii Island and Tin Roof on Maui.
Seek out okazu-ya (Japanese deli-type eateries), which serve à la carte portions of local favorites — shoyu pork, chow fun noodles, shrimp tempura and musubi (rice balls). Some popular ones are Kawamoto Store on Hawaii Island, Fukuya Deli on Oʻahu, Honokowai Okazuya & Deli on Maui and Po’s Kitchen on Kauaʻi. And poke bowls are everywhere — affordable and filling meals you can grab even from convenience stores.
Planning tip: If your short-term rental has a kitchen, you may want to save money by cooking in. Hit up one of the many farmers markets run by the Hawaiʻi Farm Bureau Federation or FarmLovers Markets. You can meet local farmers, buy fresh and local produce and even pick up artisan-made gifts, such as jams, hot sauces, cookies, vinegars and honey. Many serve prepared foods too.
10. Find free and low-cost activities and tours
You can still immerse yourself in Hawaii and its rich culture without a pricey lūʻau or helicopter tour through free (or cheap) classes around town.
Many hotels and malls offer free entertainment and classes in cultural practices, such as lei-making, ukulele-playing and hula. The Royal Hawaiian Center in Waikiki offers all that, plus lauhala-weaving and free Hawaiian entertainment. Kāʻanapali Beach Hotel on Maui provide complimentary cultural classes to its guests at its Hale Hoʻokipa; learn to hula, make tapa cloth, restring kukui-nut leis, speak short words and phrases in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) and even find your way around with pānānā, or traditional navigational techniques.
On Oʻahu you can rent surfboards at stands along Waikiki Beach for about $20, or pay a little more for a lesson from a beach attendant. You can also rent surfboards, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, boogieboard with fins, snorkel gear and more from Surf in the City Waikiki.
Opt for self-guided tours to save some money. Hōlualoa Kona Coffee Company on Hawaii Island offers free coffee-roasting tours and samplings for a small fee. Stroll the grounds of the state’s largest coffee grower, Kauaʻi Coffee Co, at your leisure to learn about coffee and its history in the islands.
For about $35 you can go on a walking tour of Oʻahu’s historic Chinatown district with the Hawaiʻi Heritage Center, where you learn about the rich history of the neighborhood, Chinese immigration to Hawaii and architecture. The fee includes gallery entry and two small gifts with cultural and historical significance, and you’ll even sample some of the food from neighborhood shops and restaurants.
Planning tip: Download the Shaka Guide app for self-guided GPS audio tours of popular attractions across the islands. Featured tours include Road to Hana on Maui, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park on Hawaiʻi Island and Waimea Canyon on Kauaʻi. Each tour cost $20 and works offline.
Average cost in Hawaii
Hostel room: $30 to $150 a night
Basic room for two: $150 to $300 a night
Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): $80 (for private room) to $6000 a night (where President Obama stayed in Kailua)
Public transport ticket: Adult fares on TheBus on Oʻahu are $3 (one way), with discounts for seniors age 65 and up and youth ages 6 to 17.
Coffee: $2.25 (hot coffee at Starbucks) to $12.50 (Kona Estate coffee brewed fresh, using the Chemex pour-over brewer at Honolulu Coffee)
Sandwich: $7 (Andy’s Sandwiches & Smoothie) to $13 (at Sprout Sandwich Shop)
Dinner for two: $50 to $500
Beer/pint at the bar: $7 to $12