How to Vacation in Hawaii on the Cheap

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Image: Alice Truong for Discovery Channel

When tourists think Hawaii, they imagine pristine beaches, lush jungles and an air of relaxation. When they arrive, they can’t help but cringe when taking out their wallet. After all, it is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and living in paradise comes at a cost. Of course, it’s entirely possible to vacation without breaking the bank. We take a look at how you can shave costs on your next Hawaiian vacation.

Flight specials

Even during peak tourist season, it’s possible to find affordable air fare. The key is to know when they happen. Hawaiian Airlines commonly runs specials, with round-trip flights from parts of California for less than $400. (I myself snagged tickets close to the Memorial Day holiday for $350, all fees included.) To keep your finger on the pulse of travel deals, sign up for fare alerts either directly from an airline or from a booking website, such as Kayak.

Lodging

OK, so you have your cheap flights, but hotels are still pricey. To which we present a few great options:

Image: Alice Truong and Mat Strand for Discovery Channel

The Great Outdoors. Fall asleep with the stars above you, the sound of water lapping on the shore, and wake up to the warmth of the sun. Even if you don’t intend to backpack your entire stay, it’s worth bringing a light tent and sleeping bag for an evening or two. Be sure to secure proper permits, if needed, which can vary from a couple bucks to $20 an evening. Some state parks also rent out cabins for $30 to $90 a night. Some campgrounds, such as Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, offer free camping on a first-come basis.

A private room on the north shore of Kauai rented through Airbnb. Image: Mat Strand for Discovery Channel

Rent a room or an entire home. You might find some surprisingly luxe accommodations on a budget. Traditionally this has meant calling up different agents who represent private rentals to find out what’s available. But in today’s tech age, you can cut out the middle man and look for a vacation rental of your own. Many travelers are using Airbnb to find cozy alternatives to hotels, with options running the gamut, including questionable couches, tidy guest rooms, modern lofts, fun tree houses, grand castles and even house boats. Since the company’s launch in 2008, Airbnb has booked more than 5 million nights, a milestone it celebrated in February.

An apartment in the south shore rented through Airbnb. Image: Mat Strand for Discovery Channel

Depending on what you’re looking for, a night can cost as much as a camping permit, except you have a roof over your head instead of mesh. When I was in Kauai recently, I booked two separate rentals on Airbnb, a private room on a gorgeous secluded six-acre property on the north shore of the island ($65 a night) and a one-bedroom condo on the south shore ($135 a night). These two experiences showed the different sides of the island but also the different sides of Airbnb. The former residence functioned much like a spiritual community (jokingly, I referred to it as a hippie commune) that housed locals and travelers, who were respectful and had intriguing stories to share; the latter came with a warm host who went out of her way to make me feel welcomed. From the booking process, my host had been in regular communication, answering any questions I had (yes, even my questions about camping permits) and keeping me posted on upcoming events. Experiences on Airbnb can range from subpar to stellar. The key to finding the right rental is reading property and host reviews. Furthermore, images that are overlaid with a “Verified Photo” tag means the photos were taken by a professional Airbnb photographer, which means you get what you see.

Activities

Image: Alice Truong for Discovery Channel

Activity booths vs. booking direct. Even if you’re interested in pricey tourist activities, you can still save a few dollars. If you want to go on a boat trip or helicopter tour, do a little bit of comparison shopping. Activity booths sometimes set up shop in high foot traffic areas, such as outside grocery stores, offering steep discounts. But keep in mind that these booths are always trying to sell you something, so exercise judgment and check out the specific companies they recommend (read: take a cut of commission from). On the other hand, if a luau at a well-known venue typically costs $100 and you can get it for $30-$40 at the booth, why not? Also look into booking directly with a company (either through the phone or website). Many will offer some sort of discount (you might have to ask) because they don’t have to dish out hefty commissions to the aforementioned middle men.

SCUBA diving. If you’re a SCUBA enthusiast and don’t mind doing shore dives (it’s advisable to learn the terrain first), renting gear for a week costs roughly the same as a two-tank boat dive. Some shops charge you only for the days you were under water, even if you hold on to the gear the entire time. For example, I had my gear for nine days but was charged only for four.

Other activities. And of course, there are plenty of activities that won’t cost you a dime, except maybe the gas to get there. (On another note, the speed limit is so low in many parts of Hawaii you might find yourself unintentionally hypermiling.) This includes hiking, swimming, beach combing, sight seeing and my personal favorite, taking photos.

Food

A menu from Chalupas, a delicious food truck in Poipu, Kauai. Image: Mat Strand for Discovery Channel

If you’re OK with foregoing white table cloths, food doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Look for delicious food trucks, burger stands and many laid-back restaurants without table service. Just like in the mainland, checking reviews sites such as Yelp will be helpful. It’ll give you a sense of price range at different venues and might help you find happy hour or other specials. Also pick up free tourist materials to see if you can find any deals. Or if you’re ambitious enough, go catch dinner.

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