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Technically, the Big Island of Hawaii is the only island you can completely circle by car, and driving is the best way to enjoy the sightseeing opportunities afforded by the miles of scenic roadway.
Instead of using compass directions, remember that Hawaii residents refer to places as being either mauka (toward the mountains) or makai (toward the ocean) from one another. Hawaii has a strict seat belt law. Those riding in the front seat must wear a seat belt and children under the age of 17 in the back seats must be belted. The fine for not wearing a seat belt is $92. Jaywalking is also very common in the islands so please pay careful attention to the roads, especially while driving in downtown Hilo, Kailua-Kona, and the smaller towns around the island.
You can count on having to pay more at the pump for gasoline on the Big Island than on the U.S. mainland.
Parking can be a challenge in downtown Kona. If you're willing to walk several blocks, you should be able to find free parking off Alii Drive on some of the residential streets. Otherwise, there are municipal lots just off Alii Drive with an honor system. You will be ticketed if you don't pay. In Hilo, there is a good availability of free parking.
It's difficult to get lost in most of Hawaii. Roads and streets, although they may challenge the visitor's tongue, are well marked. Free publications containing good-quality road maps can be found on all the Islands.
Roads on the Big Island are generally well-maintained and can be easily negotiated. Most of the roads are two-lane highways with limited shoulders—and yes, even in paradise, there is traffic, especially during the morning and afternoon rush hours. Unless you have a four-wheel drive vehicle, do not attempt Saddle Road between Hilo and Waimea; it's narrow, windy, and poor in many areas. Most rental car agencies do not allow driving on Saddle Road, and several companies make you sign a statement that you won't, even if you rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Gas stations are fairly far apart and in rural areas it's not unusual for the stations to close early. If you see that your tank is getting low, don't take any chances; fill up when you see a station. In Hawaii, turning right on a red light is legal, except where noted. Use caution during heavy downpours, especially if you see signs warning of falling rocks. The road to Ka Lae, the southernmost tip of the U.S., provides gorgeous views, but is narrow: if you want to enjoy the views, pull over to the side.
Should you plan to do any sightseeing on the Big Island, it is best to rent a car due to the size of the island. With more than 260 mi of coastline—and attractions as varied as the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Akaka Falls State Park, and Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site—ideally you should split up your stay between the east and west coasts of the island. Even if all you want to do is relax at your resort, you may want to hop in the car to check out one of the island's popular restaurants.
While on the Big Island, you can rent anything from an econobox to a Ferrari to a motor home. Rates are usually better if you reserve though a rental agency's Web site. It's wise to make reservations far in advance and make sure that a confirmed reservation guarantees you a car, especially if visiting during peak seasons or for major conventions or sporting events. It's not uncommon to find several car categories sold out during major events on the island like the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo in April or the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kailua-Kona in October. If you're planning on driving to the 13,796-foot summit of Mauna Kea for stargazing, you'll need a four-wheel drive vehicle. Harper Car and Truck Rental, with offices in Hilo and Kona, is a good source for 4x4 vehicles.
For some, renting an RV or motor home might be an appealing way to see the island. Harper's has motor homes available and Oahu Camping Vans rents out Volkswagon Westfalia camping vans. And if exploring the island on two wheels is more your speed, Kona Harley-Davidson rents motorcycles.
Rates begin at about $25 to $35 a day for an economy car with air-conditioning, automatic transmission, and unlimited mileage. This does not include the airport concession fee, general excise tax, rental vehicle surcharge, or vehicle license fee. When you reserve a car, ask about cancellation penalties and drop-off charges should you plan to pick up the car in one location and return it to another. Many rental companies in Hawaii offer coupons for discounts at various attractions that could save you money later on in your trip.
In Hawaii you must be 21 years of age to rent a car and you must have a valid driver's license and a major credit card. Those under 25 will pay a daily surcharge of $15-$25. Request car seats and extras such as GPS when you book. Hawaii's Child Restraint Law requires that all children three years and younger be in an approved child safety seat in the backseat of a vehicle. Children ages four to seven must be seated in a rear booster seat or child restraint such as a lap and shoulder belt. Car seats and boosters range from $5 to $8 per day.
In Hawaii, a valid mainland driver's license is valid for rental for up to 90 days.
Since the road circling the Big Island is mostly two lanes, be sure to allow plenty of time to return your vehicle so that you can make your flight. Traffic can be bad during morning and afternoon rush hours, especially in the Kona area. Give yourself about 3½ hours before departure time to return your vehicle.
Everyone who rents a car wonders whether the insurance that the rental companies offer is worth the expense. No one—including us—has a simple answer. It all depends on how much regular insurance you have, how comfortable you are with risk, and whether or not money is an issue.
If you own a car and carry comprehensive car insurance for both collision and liability, your personal auto insurance will probably cover a rental, but read your policy's fine print to be sure. If you don't have auto insurance, then you should probably buy the collision- or loss-damage waiver (CDW or LDW) from the rental company. This eliminates your liability for damage to the car. Some credit cards offer CDW coverage, but it's usually supplemental to your own insurance and rarely covers SUVs, minivans, luxury models, and the like. If your coverage is secondary, you may still be liable for loss-of-use costs from the car-rental company (again, read the fine print). But no credit-card insurance is valid unless you use that card for all transactions, from reserving to paying the final bill.
Diners Club offers primary CDW coverage on all rentals reserved and paid for with the card. This means that Diners Club's company—not your own car insurance—pays in case of an accident. It doesn't mean that your car-insurance company won't raise your rates once it discovers you had an accident.
You may also be offered supplemental liability coverage; the car-rental company is required to carry a minimal level of liability coverage insuring all renters, but it's rarely enough to cover claims in a really serious accident if you're at fault. Your own auto-insurance policy will protect you if you own a car; if you don't, you have to decide whether you are willing to take the risk.
U.S. rental companies sell CDWs and LDWs for about $15 to $25 a day; supplemental liability is usually more than $10 a day. The car-rental company may offer you all sorts of other policies, but they're rarely worth the cost. Personal accident insurance, which is basic hospitalization coverage, is an especially egregious rip-off if you already have health insurance.
You can decline the insurance from the rental company and purchase it through a third-party provider such as Travel Guard (www.travelguard.com)—$9 per day for $35,000 of coverage. That's sometimes just under half the price of the CDW offered by some car-rental companies.
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