You’ve decided you’re going to Hawaii, you’ve booked your plane tickets and you’ve even started planning your itinerary. Naturally one of your first questions will be how to get around in Hawaii. Am I crazy for renting a car in Hawaii? Or would I be crazy to rely on buses and Uber in Hawaii to get around? How expensive is it to rent a car in Hawaii?
These are all great questions, and we’ll try to step you through the process with these important Hawaii car rental tips. From choosing how to get around Hawaii, to reserving a rental car in Hawaii (and hopefully saving some money on it) to navigating some of the unique logistics we’ve got you covered for your car rental in Hawaii. Spoiler alert: I’ve rented a car on my last three trips to Hawaii and I’ll do it again next time.
Already decided you want to rent a car? Book it here and then keep reading for more tips.
2020 update: Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that the coronavirus pandemic has changed travel planning dramatically. The details of re-opening to trans-Pacific travelers with negative test results have been changed several times as conditions on the islands have fluctuated. Be sure to get the latest updates here before planning your travel to Hawaii Remember that Hawaii’s strict rules are in place for the protection of those who call the islands home, so please be sure to respect all guidance as you plan your trip and once you arrive. Mahalo!
Renting a car in Hawaii is the best way to explore
Let’s start with the basic question: should you rent a car in Hawaii? After spending plenty of time in the Aloha State on different islands, I come down firmly on the side of “yes, you should rent a car in Hawaii for at least part of your visit”.
Hawaii has so much to offer beyond its cities and its packaged tourist-only resort areas. There’s stunning scenery, there are amazing hole-in-the-wall restaurants and, most importantly, there are real people who live on the islands who you’ll never meet and talk to if you spend your whole vacation at a resort. Having a rental car in Hawaii and a sense of adventure allows you to get to know it in a deeper and more meaningful way.
From a practical perspective, you also benefit from the added flexibility. If you want to try different activities or guided tours, not hiring a car in Hawaii leaves you tied to the schedule (and price tag) of the optional transportation services that many activity companies offer. That can be fine sometimes, but if you’re a big group the prices can add up. You might also find that you go to the far side of an island for an activity like the wonderful Polynesian Cultural Center and then want to explore the surrounding area… which you can’t do if you have to take their van back to your hotel.
Having a rental car also allows you to stay in a legal Airbnb in a quieter area rather than in a crowded hotel zone. To understand what a difference that can make to the type of trip you have, check out the pros and cons of different places to stay on Oahu.
On one of my trips to Big Island I stayed at a fancy resort in an isolated area and it was truly lovely. But by the end of the second day I was tired of the limited on-site food options (and their high cost) and longed to check out some other nearby sites. On the flip side, some of my fondest memories from our time on Oahu were scenic drives up the magical Windward Coast with Hawaiian music playing in the background and rarely another soul in sight.
To make your scenic drives even more meaningful, download the Shaka Guide app for the island you’re visiting! These expert local guides have put together the perfect driving tours all over Hawaii. Download yours here:
Hawaii car rentals can get pricey
Like so many things in Hawaii, car rentals aren’t cheap. Exactly how much your Hawaii rental car will cost depends on where you rent it, when you rent it and how long you keep it. Renting for a 7 day period usually winds up cheaper per day than a little shorter or a little longer, so if you only need a rental car for part of your trip you can take that into consideration.
As a point of reference, our Oahu minivan rental worked out to $46 per day, while our Big Island sedan rental was $35 per day. Those are very competitive for Hawaii car rental rates – you won’t find $12 per day like at some busy mainland airports, especially since you’ll probably want some extra trunk space during your visit (more on that below). Click here for more tips on visiting Hawaii on a budget.
Check rental car rates for your trip here:
- Oahu rental car prices
- Maui rental car prices
- Kona rental car prices
- Hilo rental car prices
- Kauai rental car prices
You can also rent cars by the day at some of the major resorts, though you’re a captive audience to whichever company happens to be located on-site and the selection of cars may be more limited. However, it does give you the flexibility to get up in the morning and decide you’re in the mood for adventure! Just be ready to pay for it.
If you’re American, your regular car insurance should at least cover you for liability. We love having a “premium” travel-focused credit card, as it comes with primary rental car coverage. That means that if we rent using that credit card and something happens, the credit card’s insurance kicks in before tapping our regular auto insurance. Our auto policy (which is combined with our home owner’s policy) will never increase because of an incident on vacation. But this is important: you must decline all insurance coverage offered by the Hawaii car rental agency for your credit card’s policy to take effect.
You can also save by bringing your own travel car seat if you’re visiting with kids. Renting a car seat can cost $60 per child for your visit, which is more than some lightweight car seats cost to buy new!
One expense you won’t have to worry about when renting a car in Hawaii? Toll roads. As of this writing, there are no toll roads in Hawaii. Some of the most popular roads on Kauai don’t even have traffic lights!
Gas in Hawaii is expensive
It probably goes without saying that gas in Hawaii is expensive. Like most things in the state, it has to be transported in by boat. How expensive it seems to you will really depend on where you live and where you fill your tank – both at home and on vacation.
If you live in the middle of Los Angeles like we used to, prices in Honolulu won’t seem that outrageous. But if you live in the Midwest or an area with low cost of living (or at least a low gas tax), gas prices in Hawaii might be close to double what you’re used to.
The best way to combat the high gas price in Hawaii is to be choosy about where you fill up. You’ll find at least one Costco location on each of the popular islands (four on Oahu, one on each of the other islands) – Lanai and Molokai don’t have Costco and probably never will. Gas prices at Costco in Hawaii are similar to the mainland – that is, substantially cheaper than other options. If you have a Costco Visa card and an Executive membership like we do, you’ll also earn a combined 6% back when you fill your tank at the warehouse. Be prepared that Costco gas stations in Hawaii move on island time, so the lines can be long. Oahu also has two Sam’s Club locations, where gas is priced comparably to Costco.
My advice? If you’re a Costco member, stop to fill up any time you’re passing by and have less than 3/4 of a tank. You’ll save money on gas in Hawaii and avoid running out of gas in a remote area.
What kind of car should you rent in Hawaii? It depends
In my experience, what kind of car you need for your trip to Hawaii really depends on where you’ll be staying. I know it sounds strange, but hear me out.
If you plan to stay at a beachside hotel or resort where you can walk to the beach, you’ll probably just be driving to dinner and excursions. You need enough space for all of your passengers and their luggage (check out my minimalist Hawaii packing list here to avoid issues) but that’s about it. Choosing Hawaii rental cars on the smaller side will save you money on the rental and on gas.
If you’re like us and prefer to stay in an Airbnb or Home Exchange to have more space and save money on food, you may prefer a bigger car. You’ll potentially be hauling a full set of beach chairs, an umbrella, boogie boards, snorkel gear and sand toys everywhere you go. That’s been our experience at least! On our lengthy trip to Oahu with kids and grandmas in tow we opted for a minivan and it was amazing to have so much trunk space. Even once the grandmas left and we could fold down the back seat, we were still grateful to have the extra space for all our beach gear.
A minivan is probably overkill for most visitors to Hawaii, but if you’re staying in a rental home and transporting beach gear make sure you get a Hawaii rental car with decent trunk space.
Car seats are required in Hawaii
If you’re visiting Hawaii with kids, this section is for you! If not, feel free to skip this one.
It should come as no surprise that car seats are required in Hawaii. Hawaii’s car seat laws are pretty minimal and far less than what is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the NHTSA. They only require that children be in a harnessed car seat until age 4 (and following manufacturer limits on minimum age to forward face) and in a car seat or booster seat until age 7.
A much safer choice is to keep your child rear-facing until at least 2, but ideally until he reaches the maximum rear-facing limits of his car seat. There are some wonderful lightweight convertible car seats that will make traveling with your young child a breeze!
For children 4 and up, the Ride Safer travel vest is a great ultra-portable car seat alternative to bring to Hawaii. We’ve used ours for years and it’s one of our favorite items of family travel gear. If you prefer a regular car seat (as we often do for trips to Hawaii), these will serve you well.
Kiddos who are at least 5 (but preferably 6+) and able to sit properly at all times can ride in one of these travel booster seats.
Some rental car locations in Honolulu are surprisingly far from the airport and involve (fast) driving on major streets in a car rental shuttle. While shuttles have a size advantage over passenger cars, it’s still advisable to buckle your child’s car seat in if possible and ideally in a row that faces the front of the shuttle. Even if your installation isn’t perfect, it’s preferable to your child being totally unrestrained in a moving vehicle going 40 miles per hour.
Renting a car on the Big Island? Be careful of one-way drop fees
The Big Island is big enough that many visitors consider flying in to one side (Hilo) and out of the other (Kona). After all, to make the most of your time there you’ll want to split your stay between the two areas – find out more with our Big Island itinerary.
Just be prepared for a one-way “drop fee” if you rent a car at one airport and return it at the the other. They’re usually in the range of $75-85.
Is it the end of the world to pay a drop fee? Certainly not. We’ve done it many times in other places when it made the most sense for our itinerary.
On the Big Island it will really depend on how much time you have and how the flight costs break out. On our most recent trip to the Big Island we got an amazing award ticket redemption but we could only use it to fly to Kona roundtrip, so we bit the bullet and drove across the Saddle Road and on to Volcano Village as soon as we landed. It was mid-day, so we had plenty of time to do it (and also stop for groceries) before dark, but it was two hours of driving after a five hour flight. If you’re coming from the east coast and your travel involves multiple flights then your calculus might be different.
One a different trip the price for flying into one airport and out of the other wasn’t any higher, so it was worth the time and reduced driving to pay the drop fee. Before you solidify your Big Island itinerary, it’s worth weighing all of these factors and checking the price of a one way rental to decide what’s right for you.
Parking in Hawaii can be totally free or really expensive depending on your trip
On our five week family trip to Oahu, I don’t think we dropped more than $50 total for parking. We stayed at this super amazing house that had free parking, visited public beaches and generally explored all over. Every now and then we paid a few dollars at a meter in Honolulu, for the lot at Hanauma Bay or to park close to the Diamond Head hike.
What we didn’t do on that trip was hang out at fancy hotels. We’ve done that before and it can be wonderful, but if you’re planning on that kind of trip you need to budget around $30 per night for parking (some hotels are a little more, some a little less). That’s especially true if you’re staying in tourist-heavy areas like Waikiki, Ka’anapali or Waikoloa.
If your plan is to stay at a hotel in Waikiki, you may be able to get away with public transportation, the trolley and Uber most of the time and then renting a car for just a day or two as needed to go to the more remote parts of Oahu. You might even be able to snag a hotel with free parking. If you’re visiting Ka’anapali on Maui, you can try to rely on the free resort shuttles or the $1 bus to Lahaina. You might even be able to get away with that in Kona town since it’s close to the airport.
But popular areas like Ka’anapali, Waikoloa and Turtle Bay are so far from their closest airports that taxi and shuttle costs add up quickly. Here are sample rates for SpeediShuttle:
- Oahu airport to Ko’olina: $23 per person each way
- Maui airport to Ka’anapali: $35 per person each way
- Kona airport to Waikoloa: $31 per person each way
- Kauai airport to Princeville: $43 per person each way
Depending on your plans and how many people are in your party, it might make sense to pay for the airport shuttle transportation and then just rent a car at your resort as needed. That could work well if you’re staying at a place like Aulani where the on-site offerings will keep you busy all day and all night! Just make sure to weigh all of your options carefully before deciding.
Driving to the summit of Mauna Kea? Read your contract first
If you’re planning to drive your regular old rental car to the summit of Mauna Kea, think again. To go past the Visitor Information Station (VIS), you are required to have a 4WD vehicle as the road is steep and unpaved. Some people do take normal cars up in violation of their rental agreements, but if the car gets stuck or damaged up there the costs can run into the thousands of dollars.
Even a 4WD vehicle rented from a normal rental agency isn’t allowed to go off-roading. There’s really one option if you want to drive to the summit of Mauna Kea yourself: Harper.
Harper Car & Truck Rental isn’t cheap and customer experiences vary, but their motto when I encountered them on my first visit (almost 20 years ago) was “The only way to the top”. And that’s because they will rent you a suitable 4WD truck and permit you to drive it to the summit of Mauna Kea. You still have to make sure you don’t mess up the undercarriage by scraping over boulders, but I’ve been to the summit of Mauna Kea in Harper vehicles twice and never had an issue.
Another option if you want to visit the summit of Mauna Kea is to go on this organized tour. While individuals visiting the summit have to come down at least 30 minutes before sunset, this experienced tour operator can bring you up to watch the sunset and then do some of the world’s best stargazing before you head back to the VIS to explore.
Car break-ins in Hawaii are common
The good news: Violent crime in Hawaii is substantially lower than on the mainland (35-50% lower by some estimates).
The bad news: Property crime is much higher in Hawaii than on the mainland. Theft of both cars and personal property is high, and tourists are a popular (and easy) target.
While nothing is a guarantee, you can decrease your chances of being a victim of property crime in Hawaii by leaving valuables at your hotel or Airbnb. You definitely don’t want to leave anything visible in your car when you lock it up to head to the beach. Even having a less-fancy rental will probably make you less of a target for those inclined to break into cars.
It can be tough to protect your personal property when you’re at the beach and you want to go in the water. If you’re traveling as a group, it’s always a good choice to take turns so that someone can stay with your stuff – especially at a crowded beach like Waikiki where people are constantly walking through.
We have sometimes left our stuff unattended at quieter beaches like Bellows on Oahu or Punalu’u Beach on Big Island, especially when we’re staying fairly close to shore and can keep our eyes peeled. Bellows is one of my favorite beaches on Oahu because you basically tailgate right there on the sand, backing your car in through the massive ironwood trees that front the sand. One of our best tricks is to hide the critical stuff like the car keys under our sandwiches and snacks in the cooler. We usually put our water-resistant iPhones in this, with these to store our credit cards.
Remember, most property crimes are crimes of opportunity. We haven’t had an issue after many trips to Hawaii (knock on wood) and hopefully you won’t either.
Don’t get your car key wet
This probably goes without saying, but do your very best not to get your rental car key wet. Gone are the days of a simple metal key you can slip in your pocket or put on a lanyard around your neck when you’re in the water. As you probably realize, today’s car keys are much more sophisticated and electronic.
Why is this worth saying? Because so many people have issues. So many Hawaii activities are water-focused that there are always slip ups – you don’t realize the key is in the pocket of your board shorts, and you rush into the pristine water at your favorite beach on a hot day.
Or worse, you try to be prepared by putting the keys in one of these when you go snorkeling but you didn’t test it in advance… and discover that it has a puncture. For the record, we haven’t had that issue but I always test for at home when I’m packing for Hawaii.
If your car key gets wet in Hawaii, you can first try to shake it, blow on it and put it in the sun for a while and hope that it dries enough to function again. Sometimes that works!
If it doesn’t, you’ll need to either call AAA or the phone number on your key tag for assistance. That’s not a big deal if you’re near one of the cities, but can be a real challenge if you’re in an area with bad reception. Even once you manage to make the call, it can take a long time (sometimes a few hours) to get service from a tow truck or the rental car agency, and it will be at your expense.
So do yourself a favor and be careful with those keys. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Hawaii Car Rental FAQs
Renting a car in Hawaii is the best way to explore the islands and get out of the tourist-oriented resort zones or the big city of Honolulu!
If you want to see beyond the busy resort areas of Maui, renting a car on Maui is a good idea. If you choose not to, there are a few small shuttle/bus routes you can take (like the bus between Kaanapali and Lahaina) or you can sign up for organized day tours.
The minimum age to rent a car in Hawaii depends on the specific rental agency. The minimum age to rent without paying an extra fee is 21 or 25 depending on the company, and a few will rent to visitors as young as 18 (for a hefty extra fee).
Plan your trip to Hawaii
I hope these tips have helped you feel more confident in your Hawaii travel planning. Be sure to click through the articles below or sign up for Hawaii travel planning tips by email.
Travel planning resources:
Compare rental car prices for Hawaii
5 simple money-saving hacks for booking.com
General Hawaii resources:
How to visit Hawaii on a budget
Renting a car in Hawaii: 10 things you NEED to know
What to pack for Hawaii
Is a cheap GoPro knock-off worth it?
Hawaii with kids:
What’s the best Hawaiian island for families?
Is it worth visiting Hawaii with a baby?
Top 10 things to do with kids on Oahu
The best snorkel gear for kids of all ages
Best Oahu travel guide book
Perfect 7 day Oahu itinerary
Where to stay on Oahu
Getting the most bang for your buck on your Go Oahu discount card
Insider tips for visiting the Polynesian Cultural Center
The best beaches on Oahu (and why to visit them)
Where to find the best shave ice on Oahu
The best easy hikes on Oahu
Kayaking to the Mokes with Twogood Kayaks
Family-friendly kayaking with Holokai Adventures
Visiting Pearl Harbor
Best Maui travel guide book
Perfect 3 day Maui itinerary
Big Island resources:
Best Big Island travel guide book
Perfect 5 day Big Island itinerary
Best Kauai travel guide book
Perfect 3 day Kauai itinerary
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