The sugarcane plantations kept booming. Business was good. Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. Hawaii was admitted as the 50th state in 1959. And now tourism is the most dominant economic driver in the islands.
While many native Hawaiians feel that their land (and to some extent their culture) has been stolen from them, they’re largely VERY welcoming to visitors. But that’s what you are…a visitor in someone’s home. If you get that and behave accordingly, Hawaii is the greatest place on earth you’ll ever visit. Yes, it’s very beautiful, but there are a lot of beautiful places. The people and the way that they share their culture is what makes it special.
All of this being said (and thanks for hanging with me), there’s a sort of “code of conduct” that’s expected among visitors. Some of it is law, some is common sense and decency, and unfortunately some of it just has to be spelled out. So here’s a roundup of things to do (and not do) when you’re visiting Hawaii:
Common Courtesy Rules for Visitors to Hawaii
Don’t act like an entitled tourist. It’s the worst. Just because you’re spending a lot of money to be there doesn’t mean you can 1) act like a jerk, 2) be demanding, 3) do whatever you want. Hopefully this sounds super dramatic to you and something that should go without saying WHEREVER YOU ARE IN THE WORLD, but hey, some people are crazy and it has to be said. Need an example? Have you seen the rainbow eucalyptus trees? They’re crazy cool. A eucalyptus tree found in Hawaii whose bark is literally like a rainbow. You know what people do? THEY CARVE THEIR NAMES INTO IT. Why on earth would you do that??? Just stop.
Don’t trespass on private property.
Again, seems like a no brainer right? You’d be surprised. Just because you read about a hike to a waterfall in a guidebook doesn’t mean you can go there if it’s on private property. This is particularly a big problem along the Road to Hana on Maui. If you have to climb around a gate or ignore posted signs, don’t do it. Also, it’s generally appreciated if you don’t geotag locations on social media of sites that are considered secluded or special to locals (even if it’s legal to access).
Don’t touch the sea turtles or the monk seals.
Both Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles and Hawaiian Monk Seals are protected species meaning IT’S A FEDERAL OFFENSE TO TOUCH THEM. You’re required to keep a MINIMUM 10 foot perimeter from these creatures whether they’re in the water or on the land (it’s not uncommon to see them sunning themselves on beaches). And if you’re in the water you should stay even further away because you have less control. Some beaches (especially Ho’okipa on Maui) set up fairly large perimeters around turtles and monk seals (more common for the monk seals because they’re more rare) so be sure to respect the perimeter and don’t be one of those people that ducks under a rope because you’re “technically allowed to be 10 feet away.” The good news is that the numbers for these species (especially the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles) is GROWING because of their protected status.
Tread lightly on the environment.
The staggering number of visitors that Hawaii receives annually means it can be a real strain on the islands. But there’s a lot you can do to make a difference. Pick up your trash. Heck, pick up other people’s trash.
Use Reef Safe Sunscreen.
Tons (literal TONS) of sunscreen ends up washed around Hawaii’s beautiful coral reefs each year and it’s increasingly being understood how harmful it is (how much conditions improved during the COVID shutdowns was pretty astounding). Hawaii recently passed a bill making it illegal to sell sunscreen with two ingredients found to be most harmful to reefs and it makes a HUGE difference when people wear reef safe (or at least reef friendly) sunscreen when in the ocean. Read this post for more information about reef safe sunscreen.
Don’t drive like a jerk.
Or just be clueless in general. Remember, while you’re on vacation, the locals are not. Be aware of your surroundings and try not to hold anybody up. When in doubt, just pull over and let them go around. Don’t stop your car in the middle of traffic because you want to take a picture of a rainbow or a mongoose or a chicken or a waterfall (every other visitor there also wants to do the same and it can create a real traffic jam which isn’t something you want to deal with every day when you’re trying to get to work). Don’t park illegally by the side of the road (super important along the road to Hana on Maui). Don’t park in front of business and then leave your car there while you’re at the beach. Know the one lane bridge rule: there are places (mostly along the road to Hana on Maui or the north shore of Kauai) where there are one-lane bridges. The local custom is to let 5-7 cars go at a time. If your side is going, count how many cars go ahead of you to determine whether you should go with this batch or stop and let the other side go first.
These are all local courtesies. Locals aren’t grumpy that tourists are there, but they do get frustrated when they’re trying to go about their daily business and they can’t. Imagine dropping your kids off for school, going to the grocery store, doing WHATEVER and having to battle hundreds of people and cars who are kind of lollygagging around. Here’s the deal: you probably will get in somebody’s way at some point, but your attitude goes a long way. Be aware, apologize, smile, let them go ahead. Just be nice.
Practice ocean safety. And safety in general.
The ocean is no joke. Quite a few people drown every year and a lot of it is avoidable. Never get in the water without watching it for a while. Never turn your back to the ocean. Do you really need to be snorkeling on your own 100 yards from shore? Stay away from blowholes. Stay away from rocky areas when there’s high surf (there’s always tempting natural pools to swim in but it’s so risky). Don’t swim at beaches where there are warnings posted. Stay on trails. It’s not like locals don’t want you to have any fun. But besides these things being in the best interest of YOU, here’s something to think about: for every first responder/coast guard/helicopter that’s dispatched to help someone who got themselves into a not so smart situation, those are resources that aren’t available to local families when they need help. And on an island with finite resources, that can be a big deal.
Know the lingo or at least make an attempt.
Nobody is going to be mad at you for not speaking Hawaiian (not many people do anymore), but it goes a long way to make an effort. “Aloha” means hello, goodbye, and love. “Mahalo” means thank you. “Keiki” means kid (you’ll see this a lot…kids menus, etc.). Pronouncing Hawaiian words can be TRICKY. Here are a couple of tips:
The vowels are pronounced like Spanish:
“A” = ah
“E” = eh
“I” = ee
“O” = oh
“U” = oo
99% of the time you pronounce every letter distinctly
The exceptions are: “ao” is pronounced “ow”, “ai” is pronounced “eye”, “au” is pronounced “ow”
Something else useful to know: “Hawaiian” refers to anyone born with Hawaiian blood. Like, ancient Hawaiian blood, not just born in the state. “Local” refers to anyone born in Hawaii (except usually white people but sooooometimes them too). “Haole” refers to white people and tourists in general. It can be derogatory, but not necessarily. The term “kama’aina” is also thrown around which refers to anyone from or living in Hawaii regardless of their ethnicity.
Miscellaneous Hawaii Travel Tips
Here’s a smattering of tips, FAQs I get a lot, plus just a few topics it’s good to be aware of when planning your Hawaii trip:
How much does Hawaii cost? In short…as much as you want it to cost. While I would never call Hawaii a “cheap” travel destination, it can certainly be done on a budget. I’m all for saving money, but I wouldn’t call myself a budget traveler (I like to research how much something is going to cost according to how I like to travel and then save until I can afford it). In general, you can find random airfare deals, stay in cheap condos, cook all of your meals, and just bum around the beach for free and that’s easy enough to figure out. Or you can spend $20K+ on a lavish once in a lifetime super vacation. Most people are somewhere in the middle. In general, most things do cost more in Hawaii than on the mainland. I mean, you’re on an island in the middle of nowhere and everything has to be shipped in. But if you’re coming from high cost of living areas on either coast, or if you’re used to vacation in high tourist areas, you’re probably not going to be too terribly phased by the prices. If you live in the midwest and mostly go to Branson, you’re likely to be shocked. Here are a couple of posts to give you a better idea:
What’s the weather like in Hawaii? In a word…tropical. But pleasant. Hawaii sits north of the equator, so its seasons match the mainland US seasons. Our winter is their winter, and our summer is their summer. Now, winter is a relative term in Hawaii, but it generally does mean more rain and higher surf (especially on the north shore). While there is a slight drop in average temperature during the winter months, coming from the mainland, you’re not likely to notice it as much as the locals do. The water is pretty much the same temperature year round. It’s warm. If you’re on the water at night and there’s a breeze, you might want a light jacket or sweater. More about the best time to go to Hawaii here
You will need a rental car.
Hawaii is not an all-inclusive destination where you’ll hop on a shuttle to your resort and never leave. Most of the islands (with the exception of Oahu) have very poor bus service so that’s not an option. Ubers and Lyfts are somewhat limited and can be VERY expensive if you’re going very far (most people underestimate how big the island is). So even if you’re staying in a resort area, you’ll most likely want a rental car (even if it’s just for certain days). You don’t need 4WD and you don’t need a Jeep. But a Jeep is fun.
I always book through Discount Hawaii Car Rentals because they have the best prices. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.
Get familiar with agricultural inspection.
The islands are large, and it can take a while to get around. Unlike islands in the Caribbean where you can get from one side to the other in less than 10 minutes, the Hawaiian Islands are LARGE. Plus there are only a few roads around the island, so it can take a while to get around. Oahu has a lot of traffic even outside of Waikiki/Honolulu. Kauai and Maui both have their areas of congestion even though it’s a lot less people. Just don’t underestimate driving time if you’re going to a different part of the island (especially if you need to be on time for a tour or excursion).
Casual is the name of the game in Hawaii. There’s really nowhere to go in Hawaii where shorts and flip-flops won’t do. Even in the nicest restaurants, ladies will be fine in a casual sundress and sandals, and men will be okay with shorts and an aloha shirt. Tommy Bahama rules. Less is more.
Hawaii is super strict about any plant or animal species (fruits, veggies, animals, soil) coming into the islands. You’ll fill out a declaration form on the plane before you land (take a pen because the flight attendants don’t always have them). You’ll also have to put your bags through a scanner prior to your departure.
Take your own bags. Hawaii banned plastic shopping bags a long time ago so either bring your own reusable tote bags or pay $0.50 at places like Target and Walmart (most grocery stores have paper bags available. There’s a movement to get single use plastic items like silverware and straws banned as well but TBD on that.
Want to see the whales?
Anytime is a good time to go to Hawaii, but whale season is especially magical. Humpback whale season is officially December 15-May 15 but these guys don’t usually travel with a calendar so those dates are really just guidelines. February is HIGH SEASON for whales though so if that’s a big must of your trip, come then. Also, while you can see the humpback whale’s yearly migration from all of the islands, they’re thickest around Maui in the channels between Maui and Lanai and Molokai. You’ll find plenty of whale watching excursions, but you’ll be able to spot them from the shore on beaches on the south and west sides. I’ve sat on Kapalua beach and watched them breach all day long.
Should I pack my snorkeling gear or buy/rent once I get there?
It’s really up to you. If you have nice gear that you like, bring it. There are also plenty of rental places on all of the islands that have pretty good deals for multiple days (Boss Frogs, Snorkel Bob’s). You can also buy a cheap set from Costco/Target/Walmart. The only thing I wouldn’t suggest is buying a set and then dumping it when you leave. While beach chairs and boogie boards can be passed along to another family pretty easily when you’re ready to leave, nobody wants your used snorkeling gear. Who the heck even knows how to clean it? And they don’t need any more of it in the landfill. So either bring it from home, rent (the pro shops know how to clean it), or buy it and take it home with you. Also, DON’T get the full face mask kind. They’re super dangerous.
More Hawaii Travel Tips I Feel Strongly About
Don’t book illegal vacation rentals. This has started to become a major problem in the last few years, but it’s starting to reach a boiling point. The rise in popularity of sites like Airbnb has resulted in a lot of property being bought by wealthy folks from the mainland (or internationally) and being rented out as short term vacation rentals to visitors. In addition to creating a housing crisis (it becomes much harder for local families to afford to be able to stay in the area), it also changes the community (i.e. more businesses and amenities catered towards tourists and less towards residents).
What does that mean for you? To get this problem under control, different counties (islands) have been passing (or starting to enforce) legislation that cracks down on illegal rentals. Lately, it’s been most dramatic on Oahu where there have been estimated to be as many as 10,000 illegal vacation rentals, but the other islands are turning their attention to cracking down on this problem.
A lot of visitors are shocked that it’s even an option to book something illegal on Airbnb or Vrbo, but the truth is those sites are just marketplaces and it’s up to YOU to use due diligence to make sure what you’re booking is on the up and up.
I’m not talking about shady listings where they’re trying to scam you. 99% of these properties are legitimate homes, apartments, ohanas (a separate dwelling on somebody’s property) either rented out by the owners or a property manager. Just like Airbnb works anywhere in the world. They range in price, size, location, and amenities. But they don’t have permits to be operating as short term vacation rentals and they’re located in areas of the island that are considered residential (we’re not talking condos).
In short…it’s always been illegal to rent a house on a site like Airbnb or Vrbo that didn’t have a permit (the majority of them), but now they’re enforcing it.
As the renter, (right now) you won’t get fined if the owner gets caught, but you could be left with no place to stay on short notice. So basically…if you’re set on alternative forms of accommodation besides a resort, hotel, or condo, you’ll need to read up on the zoning for each island and either pick something that’s in a zone that doesn’t require a permit, or pick something that does have a permit. I’ll be honest…there aren’t a ton of permitted short term vacation rentals on each island (outside of tourist areas where they’re mostly condos) so the ones you will find tend to be not super cheap. I will give you a heads up about a situation on Oahu…their official law is that short term rentals are any rental less than 30 days so as a work around a lot of places will say they have a 30 day minimum on Airbnb but kind of squirrel around and only charge you for the week you want to stay. It’s still illegal and it’s uncertain how it’s going to be handled.
I don’t want to scare you away from using sites like Vrbo and Airbnb, because they actually have amazing places to stay but I SERIOUSLY SERIOUSLY SERIOUSLY recommend only using them to book places in tourist zones. On Oahu, book places in Waikiki, Ko’olina, and Turtle Bay. On Maui, book places in Ka’anapali up to Kapalua and in Kihei and Wailea. On Kauai, book in Poipu and Princeville. On the Big Island, book around Kona and up around Waikoloa on the Kohala Coast. Those obviously aren’t the only places you can find legal rentals on each island, but those tend to be the major hubs.
I’m not trying to discourage people from staying in more residential parts of the island (if done legally), BUT just be extra careful to be aware of your surroundings and know that not everyone around you is on vacation. Imagine stopping by the local market/deli to grab breakfast on your way to drop the kids off at school and not being able to park because all of the tourists have used the few spots as beach parking. It’s stuff like that that sets the local community a bit on edge sometimes. It should go without saying, but when you’re staying in a neighborhood you’re not staying in a resort and not everyone is there to cater to you on your vacation. But that’s what makes it a more local experience!
I think the best place to book vacation rentals in Hawaii is on Vrbo. You can filter by price, bedrooms, etc. to find exactly what you’re looking for.
Don’t book flights before you find a place to stay.
My inbox is full of messages right now from people who booked cheap flights to Hawaii and are having a hard time finding a place to stay. It’s not that there’s NO place to stay, but things are either waaaaay more than they thought for something basic or they were hoping to stay at a nice place and everything is sold out. If where you stay is important to you (it’s way more important to me than saving on a flight), make sure the dates work with accommodations before you book. You can usually save a whole lot more by picking your dates around availability/offers at resorts and hotels than you can booking cheap flights. In my experience, most of the time airfare doesn’t fluctuate as much as rooms do.
Traveling to Hawaii post COVID is a TRIP.
Hopefully this becomes irrelevant sooner rather than later, but travel to Hawaii is pretty crazy right now. Travel everywhere is pretty crazy right now. The post COVID travel landscape seems to look like paying way more for way less, but that’s just the way it is.
Demand is greater than supply and right now that means a huge shortage of rental cars and activities/tours booking MONTHS in advance (mostly because they’re still at limited capacity). Restaurants are even booked up months in advance. Service at most places is a little substandard because there aren’t enough workers and there’s too many customers. The workers who are there are often getting nasty treatment from angry customers. That’s misplaced for sure.
This situation isn’t unique to Hawaii, but since they’re very remote islands and resources are finite, it seems like an extra big problem. If you’re choosing to travel right now (that’s right…travel is a privilege), pack your patience and be kind. If you have super over the moon expectations or this is a once in a lifetime trip for you, maybe consider delaying for a bit until things can get sorted out.
“Is (fill in the blank) worth it?”
Wow I get this question a lot. I used to try to answer it based on my personal experience and opinions and a delicate cost/benefit analysis plus trying to figure out what the question asker’s expectations are. Here’s what I’ve come to realize….if you’re asking if something is worth it…it’s probably not…FOR YOU.
Different people have different expectations and also tolerances for spending money. Some people don’t think anything of dropping $300 on dinner for 2 and some people could never stomach that in a million years NO MATTER WHAT. Value for money and time is very subjective and everybody likes to/is comfortable spending their time and money in different ways.
Same thing when people ask if something is a “must do.” “Is Pearl Harbor really a must do?” If you’re asking, it’s probably not. For me, it absolutely is. On my first trip to Oahu, I was only there for two days and I spent one of them at Pearl Harbor. But I have friends who have been to Oahu many times, have never been, and absolutely don’t feel like they’re missing anything. So if you read a normal amount of information/reviews about something and you’re still wanting to ask if (fill in the blank) is worth it…it’s probably not.
You’re allowed to spend your Hawaiian trip however you want and in a way that you’ll feel good about. You don’t HAVE to go to a luau. You don’t HAVE to go out on a snorkel boat. You don’t HAVE to make reservations for that one restaurant everyone is talking about when the idea of spending that much money on dinner makes you feel kind of ill.
Take everything you read with a grain of salt.
I once had a reader reach out to me and say that she had planned a grand trip to Europe the year before with no problem but planning her trip to Hawaii was turning into the biggest struggle because every review she read about everything said it was 5/5 stars earth shatteringly amazing. How do you pick a resort when everybody that stayed at each place says it’s the most magnificent resort in Hawaii hands down? How do you pick a luau when every review says it was the best luau they’ve ever been to (without saying how many luaus they’ve been to…)? It’s tough.
It’s easy enough to get an accurate picture of most places based on reviews and group consensus, but the thing about Hawaii is that everyone is relaxed, happy, and on their dream vacation so they’re just super positive. There’s not a whole lot of negativity which is sometimes where the most insightful reviews come from. So….read through this blog. I’ve spent a LOT of time in Hawaii and also researching EVERYTHING in and about Hawaii so I have a much broader perspective than most people who can only speak to what they did on their 7 day vacation.
Also…if you’re reading reviews (TripAdvisor is my favorite) I always filter to read the negative reviews first and pay attention to anything specific they say (general disgruntledness is as unhelpful as a glowing vague review). Do they mention anything that’s a particular trigger for you? Are the things that bothered them not of a particular concern to you? Same thing with the positive reviews…are they super specific or pretty generic? One detailed review is more helpful than 100 “it was amazing!!!” reviews.
So to wrap that up, be clear about what you enjoy, what you don’t enjoy and don’t feel like you have to do everything that’s recommended on the internet. You’re allowed to spend your vacation how you want to spend it. There’s nothing that’s such a “must do” or so “worth it” in Hawaii that you should do it even if you’re not particularly interested.