Most people think that “Hawaii” and “budget” don’t belong in the same sentence. After all, it’s supposed to be a splurge to visit a gorgeous tropical paradise… right? We’re here to tell you that traveling to Hawaii on a budget is possible and can be even more rewarding than what the brochures from expensive resorts show you. Keep reading for our best tips to save money on a trip to Hawaii.
Finding the cheapest way to go to Hawaii
If you’re traveling from mainland US to Hawaii, there’s a very good chance that you can score an awesome deal on your airfare to Hawaii and there are lots of ways to do it.
First, be flexible about your dates and which island you visit – within reason. Since airfare and lodging are the two biggest components of your Hawaii trip cost, you’ll want to balance those two to minimize your costs. Second, weigh the many options you have for using cash or points to book those plane tickets. Here are just a few ways to save money on airfare to Hawaii:
Find the cheapest airfare for cash payment
Sometimes the simplest thing to do is pay cash for a plane ticket, and with the great deals you can often find from America’s west coast it just might make sense. The first place to start your search is on Skyscanner. We love using Skyscanner to find flights because it allows us to reflect our total flexibility – we can allow nearby airports on both ends and search for whole months at a time to land the best rate. Even if you don’t end up paying cash, it’s always important to know the going rate for flights when evaluating whether or not an award redemption is worthwhile.
Pro tip: If you decide to buy a flight outright, make sure to purchase with a high-earning credit card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or the Chase Ink Business Preferred (both 3x points on travel, and you can click here to get a huge sign-up bonus on the Ink) and sign up for the airline’s frequent flyer program.
Look for special deals
Many frequent flyers have heard of Southwest’s “companion pass”, but did you know that Alaska Airlines offers a similar one too? Alaska’s is a little different (only one per year and generally $99 per companion ticket plus taxes, but the base fare is often waived in the first year with promotions) but Alaska Airlines has tons of flights to Hawaii! And it’s not one of those gimmicks where you have to pay an exorbitant price for the first ticket in order to use a companion fare on the second one, you can just buy any regular ticket on the website. Especially for west coasters who already have access to bargain plane tickets to the Aloha State, this might be one the cheapest way to travel to Hawaii.
Book with frequent flyer miles
Obviously the cheapest way to go to Hawaii is not to pay for it! If you’ve racked up enough frequent flyer miles with one airline to cover your tickets to Hawaii, it might be worth considering using them… or maybe not. Since you’ve already researched the cash price for plane tickets, you can easily figure out what value you’d be getting for your redemption. We recommend targeting at least 2 cents per mile, but sometimes it makes sense to redeem for as little as 1.5 cents per mile if you really don’t want to spend the money out of pocket (after all, if you’re buying four plane tickets to pretty much anywhere you’re looking at a minimum of a thousand dollars). Here are the major airline award redemptions for from the continental US to Hawaii as of October 2018 (economy class for us, folks):
American Airlines – 45,000 peak; 40,000 off-peak
United Airlines – 45,000 peak
Delta Airlines – 45,000 peak
Alaska Airlines – 30,000
British Airways – 25,000+ (operated by AA, points depend on mainland origin city)
From the chart above, it’s clear where the value in frequent flyer tickets to Hawaii lies. Alaska Airlines and sometimes British Airways offer far better value than the mainline US carriers. British Airways offers a distance-based award chart, so passengers coming from the west coast only need 25,000 miles for a round trip, while east coasters would need a whopping 52,500 miles! Ok, so how can you earn enough British Airways Avios points as an American? Simple: open up a Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Ink Business Preferred card and once your sign-up bonus hits, do an instant transfer to your Executive Club account! Then redeem here through your account.
For US flyers who had an account with Virgin America before its acquisition by Alaska, you may have more sitting in your Mileage Plan account than you thought! It turned out that Ronnie and I had each accumulated almost exactly 15,000 miles in our accounts, so we were each able to purchase a one-way ticket for him with our miles that had been sitting around unloved for a few years. Score!
Redeem Chase Ultimate Reward Points
The final way to save money on plane tickets to Hawaii is actually how we picked up three of our four tickets. Since we’ve accumulated a ton of Chase Ultimate Rewards points through our Sapphire Reserve and Ink Plus cards, we took advantage of their flexibility to buy our remaining tickets. One of our favorite features of Ultimate Rewards points is that you can redeem them for almost any travel expense through the portal; your redemption rate is 1.25 cents per point with most Chase cards and 1.5 cents per point if you have the Sapphire Reserve card (even if the points were earned on a different Chase card).
In our case tickets on Alaska were $445 each if purchased with cash, so we redeemed almost exactly 30,000 points for each. Ultimate Rewards points do not transfer to Alaska Airlines, but by purchasing through the portal our whole family was on the same flight and the only out of pocket expense was $11.20 to cover the taxes on Ronnie’s ticket.
If we hadn’t cared about using those lingering Alaska miles before expiration (or if we didn’t have them), we could have transferred 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points to British Airways (with around $45 to cover taxes as well). That option would have saved us points/miles overall, but if would have taken more from the stash that we regularly rely on. The decision on how to redeem isn’t always clear-cut and may depend on your own preferences and future travel needs.
Save money by going carry-on only! Check out our full (but minimalist) women’s packing list for Hawaii.
Where to stay in Hawaii on a budget
Hopefully we’ve gotten you to Hawaii without putting too big of a dent in your wallet. The other huge chunk of the cost of a Hawaii vacation is accommodation. If you really want to plan a budget trip to Hawaii, we strongly recommend looking for a home exchange.
There are so many reasons why we love home exchange, and a few that are extremely relevant to planning an affordable family vacation to Hawaii. First, your cash expense to do a home exchange in Hawaii will be less than one night in a hotel. Second, having a real home with a kitchen means you can avoid pricey restaurant meals – and they sure are pricey in Hawaii! Third, being away from the main tourist areas means almost everything will be less expensive (not to mention less crowded) – groceries are cheaper, our GuesttoGuest house on Oahu had its own parking and the house even came stocked with boogie boards and snorkel gear so that we didn’t have to rent.
Beyond the economics, doing a home exchange in Hawaii had other amazing benefits. Everyone had plenty of space to stretch out. We had our own laundry facilities. We hung out at “locals only” spots rather than the crowded tourist beaches. There was a second fridge for all our Costco supplies. Oh, and we even had enough space that both grandmas came to join us for a few weeks during our slow travel on Oahu!
The cost of a GuesttoGuest exchange is 10 EUR per night (or 130 EUR per year if you join their Optimal Plan), plus however many points you need to cover the exchange. If you complete your GuesttoGuest profile and join Optimal, you’ll start off with 1250 points even before you host anyone – and with dozens of GuesttoGuest homes throughout the Aloha State for 100-150 points per night, you should be covered for most trips! Curious about GuesttoGuest home exchange?
Hawaii car rentals
Renting a car in Hawaii seems, like many things, to be more expensive than on the mainland. In some places like Honolulu and Waikiki you can stay amidst the tourist throngs and get by without a car – walk to popular beaches, walk to mini marts, walk to tourist restaurants, and rely on hotel concierges to book activities on other parts of the island that include transportation. You can take buses to some places on Oahu, but they can be very time consuming.
If you are a solo traveler in Hawaii, it might make sense to go stay in one of the cities the car-free route since all of those small (or large) premia are only impacting one traveler. For couples or families, though, you’ll more than make up the cost of a rental car by saving money on pretty much everything else. You’ll also gain the freedom to explore beautiful, peaceful spots that most tourists don’t get to. Moreover, in many parts of Hawaii you absolutely need a car to get around.
We have two favorites for finding deals on car rentals in Hawaii (and everywhere else). The most straightforward is good old rentalcars.com. You can quickly search for the type of car you want across tons of providers of all sizes and reserve without any upfront payment. Nearly every reservation can be cancelled, so we often check back weekly leading up to our travels and rebook if we see a better rate.
A newer player in the market, and ultimately the best deal on our trip to Hawaii, is Autoslash. It’s also a search engine that covers multiple car rental companies, but it’s a little different than Rentalcars.com. The booking process is a little more involved – you’ll fill out several screens of information and supply your email address, and then receive a customized link with the results. If you find a deal you like from a provider you feel comfortable with, click through to reserve your discount Hawaii rental car! Your credit card will be charged up-front, but you can always cancel and re-book up to two days in advance. Even cooler, if you give Autoslash your confirmation number their system will automatically notify you of lower rates that pop up for your dates – though I’ve found that system only somewhat useful, as it presumes you’re willing to book with any company for any class.
Our rental car ended up being by far the most expensive component of our trip to Hawaii. Things got a little complicated since we were joined by the grandmas for part of our trip, so we ended up with a minivan for our whole five week trip (since it was basically the same price as renting one compact car for five weeks and a second compact car for a week and a half in the middle). Though the minivan was pricey at $1600 for five weeks, it was handy to have for hauling around a big stack of boogie boards, beach towels and cases of food from Costco (more on that below). If you plan to shop at Costco and haul around lots of beach gear, you may want to consider sizing up from the smaller options. For reference, the quote we received for an intermediate car for 10 days was just shy of $500.
What’s the best place to get gas in Hawaii? Costco. Seriously, folks. On average gas was 70 cents cheaper per gallon at Costco than at other local gas stations. That’s more than $10 saved every time you fill up! The Costco in Hawaii Kai doesn’t have a gas station, but the others on Oahu do.
Saving money on food in Hawaii
If you’re planning a budget Hawaii vacation, you’ll need to think carefully about how and where you’ll eat. Many items have to be transported to Hawaii by ship, so food prices in Hawaii can be anywhere from a few cents to a few dollars more than on the mainland.
Of course the best way to save money on food in Hawaii is to book a vacation rental with a kitchen and prepare food yourself. But even if you plan to make all your meals at your home away from home, you’ll have to be judicious in you grocery purchases. But we’ve done some scouting for you and have a few suggestions to help you through since grocery prices in Hawaii can be quite daunting.
First, let’s discuss Costco. If you already have a membership and you’ll be visiting Hawaii with a few other people, Costco in Hawaii can be a great value! Prices are nearly the same as at Costco on the mainland, and prices are much cheaper than local grocery stores for items like dairy, eggs and meat. There are seven Costco locations in Hawaii, including four on Oahu.
In addition to food and pantry staples, you’ll find some beach gear, Hawaiian shirts and other handy items. While you’re there, grab a meal at Costco – it doesn’t require membership and the whole family can eat for less than $10! It’s not a nutritious choice to make every day, but if you’re going to Costco in Hawaii once every week or two it’s a great way to save a little money without cooking at home.
Pro tip: If you don’t have a Costco membership but know someone who does, have them buy you some Costco Cash cards (gift cards). You can use these without a membership!
All that said, before you dive in on a Costco membership for your trip to Hawaii consider whether or not you’ll actually make it through a 20 pound bag of rice during your vacation. And where will you store all that food? What should you do if you’ll only be in Hawaii for a short time or you aren’t bringing an entire football team? Head to Target!
That’s right, the big red bullseye of value has made it to paradise! You’ll find locations on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island and the stores are full of all your favorites from the mainland – plus some local specialties in the “Aloha Shop”. Since Target carries groceries – both house brand and national brands, it might just be the best place to do your grocery shopping in Hawaii. Similarly, if you prefer to shop at Walmart you’ll find tons of stores on Oahu and one or two on the other islands.
You may notice that prices in those stores are a little higher than what you’d find on the mainland, but fear not: both stores offer price match guarantees. Just pull up the item you want on your phone from the store’s website – or another major website – and they’ll give you the lower price right there at the register! I saved 20% on our sunscreen that way. Target will definitely be your friend when you travel to Hawaii on the cheap.
Another local option is Foodland. We found many items there that were only a little more expensive than at our local grocery stores on the mainland, though some things (like dairy and eggs) were much more expensive than we found at Costco. Sign up for their Maika’i card for extra discounts and make sure to check out the poke counter in the back of the store – we got an inside tip that many locals hit Foodland for their own poke fixes.
Discount activities in Hawaii
One of the great things about a vacation in Hawaii is that there are so many amazing things to do for free that take full advantage of what makes the Aloha State special. You can relax on the beach, hike to a waterfall, go on a scenic drive and even attend a hula performance – all for free! We’ve had plenty of days in Hawaii when we didn’t spend a dime (except on shave ice, but that’s a different story). But what about big ticket paid activities? Can you still do them even if you’re visiting Hawaii on a budget? Here are a few ideas for how to have those special experiences without busting your budget.
Go Oahu Card
The Go Oahu Card by Smart Destinations bundles multiple activities together to save you money. There are two different options to choose from: All-Inclusive or Build Your Own.
With the Build Your Own pass, you can choose any two (or more) options from their huge menu of choices and the whole bundle will get a 20% discount. Simple! There are options ranging from luaus to catamaran snorkeling trips to hikes to movie tours, and many activities offer free transportation from Waikiki in case you don’t have a car.
The All-Inclusive pass has a different structure. It requires a little more planning, but can be an even better way to get discounts on attractions in Hawaii. You pay a fixed rate based on the number of days you’d like to use the card (which can be spread over a two week period) and then you can do as many of those activities as you can squeeze in! You can choose cards for 1, 2, 3, 5 or 7 days – cards for 3 days or more include your choice of one “premium” activity like a luau, a sunset dinner sail, snorkeling with wild sea turtles or even a semi-private surfing lesson.
If you’re visiting Oahu for a week, we think the 3 day card is the sweet spot for value at $199 per adult and $179 per child. Why? Because the award-winning Polynesian Cultural Center and its evening shows are included, and that ticket would cost you $125 per adult and $100 per kid on its own! There are plenty of other high-value activities included for the other two days so that you’d easily get plenty of value from the 3-day card.
Check out just a few activities you can do with your Go Oahu card:
Remember the Entertainment Book that our families all used to buy during fundraisers in the 1980s? They’re still around. And they actually offer some pretty good deals in Hawaii on several islands!
As with most deals in the Entertainment Book, you’ll generally find 2-for-1 type coupons. You’ll find coupons for plenty of restaurants, but also coupons for wonderful attractions like the Polynesian Cultural Center, Twogood Kayaks, the Bishop Museum, all of the Pearl Harbor sites and more. If you use it for even one or two activities in Hawaii, it’ll pay for itself. You can even choose a digital book to have all the deals at your fingertips! See all the deals available in the Hawaii Entertainment Book.
Groupon and Living Social
Other great resources for saving money in Hawaii are daily deal sites like Groupon and Living Social. You can find discounts on sailing trips, helicopter rides, parasailing and more. If you’re looking for things to do in Hawaii on a budget, make Groupon your first stop! Check out the deals here.
Use your memberships
You might have the key to cheap and free activities right in your wallet! If you’re a AAA member, always ask when booking hotels or activities if they offer a special rate. And if you are a member of a science center back home that participates in the ASTC Passport program, bring your card to the wonderful Bishop Museum in Honolulu to receive free admission. We went twice (for free!) and even considered a third visit!
There are almost 50,000 US military personnel and their dependents living in Hawaii (population around 1.5 million). Military families vacationing in Hawaii will find discounts almost everywhere on admission to attractions. You’ll also benefit from lower hotel rates and access to four commissaries on Oahu, plus an exchange where you can buy discounted gifts. Thank you for your service!
What are your secrets to visiting Hawaii on a budget?
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Many thanks to our awesome partners in paradise, including GuesttoGuest, Smart Destinations, Polynesian Cultural Center and Twogood Kayaks; all opinions are my own.