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10 Things to Know BEFORE Planning a Hawaii Big Island Vacation

Do you need some advice on planning your first trip to Hawaii? Before you plan a trip to the Big Island, find out information that nobody will let you know!
This post about how to plan a trip to the Big Island was written by Marcie Cheung (a Hawaii travel expert) and contains affiliate links which means if you purchase something from one of my affiliate links, I may earn a small commission that goes back into maintaining this blog.

Hawaii is one of the most beautiful places in the world, filled with countless tourist attractions, ranging from museums to beaches.

When planning a trip to Hawaii, you may feel overwhelmed and have difficulty making decisions.

If you’re planning your first trip to Hawaii and need tips and advice! Keep scrolling for some unique tips you won’t be able to get from anywhere else while planning a trip to the Big Island.

Many traveling to the Big Island should read through this article to avoid common mistakes I see commonly in inexperienced travelers or to gain guidance as to where to go (and how to get there).

Whether or not you’re planning your first trip to Hawaii, keep scrolling for my tips to visiting the Big Island that’ll make it a smooth and unforgettable experience!

Why turn to me for Hawaii advice? I’ve been there over 40 times and gathered lots of tips!

Want to skip all the planning and just access my detailed Big Island Itinerary complete with daily schedules, fun activities, and travel hacks? Click the button below.

Big Island Travel Guide by top Hawaii blog Hawaii Travel Spot

Tips for Planning a Big Island Vacation

If you’re ready to have the vacation of your life, keep scrolling to learn some tips and things to know that’ll make your trip truly unforgettable!

1. Get a Rental Car on the Big Island

No matter what activities you have planned for the Big Island, you will absolutely need to rent a car. I’d recommend booking your car before you arrive to avoid the hassle as you get there. There are a wide variety of companies at the Big Island, so you’ll definitely be able to find an option that suits you.

Yes, you need a car rental for Hawaii Big Island. Image of someone wearing flip flops out a car window
Renting a car on the Big Island will save you a LOT of time!

Many of the best activities to do on the Big Island, especially in Kona, aren’t easily accessible by public transportation or booked tours. The cost of tours also piles up, especially if you’re staying for longer than a few days.

If you’re worried about the price of renting a car, I can assure you that it’s absolutely worth it and may even save you money in the long run. You’ll need it to efficiently travel between tourist attractions, restaurants, and where you’re staying.

However, I recommend Discount Hawaii Car Rental as an excellent cheap option for any tourist. You can also be assured of their quality, as they source their rental cars from some of the best companies in the nation, such as Alamo, Dollar, Thrifty, Avis, and more. Check out the latest prices and details.

For those traveling with children or for those who need any sort of accommodations, I’d pack anything you need to drive safely instead of counting on a rental. While the Big Island probably has what you need, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

As you drive, you’ll definitely need a GPS app, no matter how good your sense of direction is.

I’d recommend Big Island Shaka Drive, which functions as both a GPS and a mini tour guide, telling you about the history and cultural significance of the landmarks around you as you drive. See the latest reviews of the app

2. Look for Direct Flights

This is one of the best ways you can save a little money while traveling to Big Island. Many people traveling to the Big Island first take a flight to Honolulu, then an inter-island flight to Kona.

Try to book a direct flight to Hawaii Big Island. Image of an airplane flying over a beach at sunset
Direct flights will save you time and money.

This route is the most popular way to get to the Big Island, so plane tickets are often more expensive. It’s also much more inconvenient and can cost extra money, requiring you to pay around $120 for a mere 45-minute flight from Honolulu to Kona.

Instead, take one of the many direct flights from the West Coast to either the Kona Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport or the Hilo International Airport to save money, time, and energy.

3. Spend a Full Day at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

While planning out your trip itinerary, it’s essential to do your research and lay out realistic times for the activities you’re planning. I often see many making mistakes when planning a visit to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Image of a couple sitting on the ground looking at a map at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
There are tons of things to do at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park takes at least a day to entirely visit, possibly more, depending on how much you want to do. 

The park is a 3-hour drive from Kona, making the round trip take six hours. You’ll also have to factor out time to eat out, which takes much longer than ordinary at restaurants

Once you reach the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you’ll realize just how many things there are to do. Whether exploring lava tubes, hiking to the summits, or participating in a Big Island volcano tour, you’ll have lots to do. 

4. Choose the Right Big Island Luau

Many people fall into a bad habit of essentializing indigenous culture when discussing luaus, saying that they’re all the same. As a professional hula dancer, I can say that almost every luau is distinct and worth a visit.

Image of Hawaiian fire dancers on the beach in Hawaii at sunset
There are tons of Big Island luaus to choose between.

Of course, while you won’t visit every luau, I recommend checking out more than one if it fits your schedule. Luaus differ in countless ways: the culture they aim to convey, the methods they use to convey them, and, of course, the food.

One of the most popular Big Island luaus is the Island Breeze Luau, held on the shores of Kamakahonu Bay and Ahu’ena near the grounds of King Kamehameha the Great’s estate. They serve an immense variety of traditional Hawaiian food such as poke and Kona-style chicken.

While you’re there, beautifully dressed professional dancers representing King Kamehameha’s Royal Court will perform on stage.

Another popular luau, Voyagers of the Pacific, aims instead to teach you about the history of the area the luau is held in. I’d recommend booking seats at these luaus well in advance of your visit, as they are very popular!

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5. Try a Split Stay Between Kona and Hilo

It can be very difficult to choose between staying at Kona and Hilo, especially if this is your first time visiting. These two towns are the most popular towns for tourists to stay at during their vacations.

Hilo and Kona are very different experiences.

Rainbow Falls on the Big Island of Hawaii: Image of a short waterfall with a rainbow near the basin
Rainbow Falls in Hilo Hawaii.

Hilo, located on the island’s eastern side, is surrounded by natural attractions and is perfect for anyone who wants to spend their vacation hiking and admiring nature.

Kona, on the island’s western side, is lively with nightclubs, restaurants, resorts, and golf courses.

When planning their vacation, many forget that it’s possible to visit both. They’re only a 3-hr drive apart.

Staying at both can give you access to all of the immense variety of activities in the area, whether it’s Kona’s resort experiences and restaurants or Hilo’s Big Island waterfalls and hikes

6. See if Volcanoes are Active Before You Go

Many visit Hawaii looking forward to seeing immense volcanoes and red-hot lava. Unfortunately, depending on where you visit, you may not always be able to see the entrancing sights of fresh lava.

Always be sure to research where you’re going so you can be certain as to whether volcanoes are active as you vacation to Hawaii. 

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Image of lava
Always check to see if the lava is flowing before you go.

For example, while Hawaii Volcanoes National Park does have an active volcano, Kīlauea, that erupts as a lava lake, it is not always active at times in the year. Depending on when you visit, you could witness the breathtaking sight of lava or come back feeling sorely disappointed.

Be sure to research and set realistic expectations for the places you visit to have the best experience possible!

7. You’ll Find Most Big Island Resorts in Kona

As individuals debate whether to go to Kona or Hilo, they often consider activities, food, and travel without thinking about where they’re going to stay in each town.

If you’re traveling to Hawaii hoping to relax at a luxury resort and enjoy their views and amenities, Kona is the option for you. It has a much wider variety of high-quality resorts, whereas you’ll likely need to stay in a Hawaii vacation rent home in Hilo.

8. Visit a Kona Coffee Plantation

During your stay in Hawaii, you may notice at some point that coffee produced in Kona is often labeled as both the most luxurious and the most expensive brand at restaurants, stores, and local stalls.

Image of Kona coffee plants
There are lots of Kona Coffee farms worth a stop!

For those who love coffee or are just naturally inquisitive, a guided tour through a Kona Coffee Plantation will teach you about the coffee’s growth, cultivation, and harvest.

As a plus, you’ll even be able to bring some of your own Kona coffee beans home! Check out the latest prices and more details.  

9. Skip Merrie Monarch Week

If you’d like to experience tranquility in Hawaii and save money, it’d be best to avoid the Merrie Monarch Week. 

The Merrie Monarch Week is in early April every year when the Merrie Monarch Festival occurs. The festival celebrates Hawaii’s art, culture, and traditions and even has one of the world’s most famous hula competitions.

However, unless you attend the festival, I’d avoid the island this week. It draws hoards of tourists and hula dancers, increasing the prices of practically everything and generally making the experience much less enjoyable.

Read my full guide on the Merrie Monarch Festival!

10. Go Night Diving with Manta Rays

If you’re looking for a truly transcendent experience, try snorkeling or diving with manta rays in the dead of night.

Image of a manta ray swimming in the ocean
The Big Island is famous for their manta ray snorkeling trips!

Both the oceans and skyscapes are beautiful at this time of day. And the majestic manta rays are much more active then, allowing you to see their beautiful 29-feet wingspan and patterns.

The safest way to do this is by booking a seat on the Manta Ray boat tour from Kona. Here you’ll be practically guaranteed a sight – and swim – with these majestic creatures.

How to Plan a Hawaii Big Island Vacation FAQs

Where are the airports in the Big Island?

The two most commonly used airports on the Big Island are also the ones closest to resorts and hotels, so I’d absolutely recommend touching down at either the Kona Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport or the Hilo International Airport.

What side of the island should I stay at?

It totally depends on what you’d like to do! It’s very difficult choosing entirely between Hilo and Kona, so I’d recommend doing a split stay.

What should I pack for my trip to the Big Island?

Seeing as the Big Island almost always experiences warm tropical weather, bring a lot of warm summer clothing and flip flops. However, if activities like hiking or exploring the higher altitudes of parks and mountains are on your itinerary, I’d recommend bringing warmer clothing and proper hiking shoes.

Wrap Up

And there you have it! Those are some of my top tips for anyone planning a trip to the Big Island! Here’s to an amazing trip you’ll remember for the rest of your life. 

Looking for more Big Island travel resources? Check out cheap Big Island restaurants, things to do on the Big Island with family, Big Island or Kauai, Kona snorkel tours, Maui vs Big Island, cheap places to stay on the Big Island, and my Big Island packing list!

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