Big Island Travel Guide
Unless you have a travel agent in the family, you’re probably among millions who book arrangements online. But it pays to know the options, especially for complicated destinations like Hawaii. Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) and discounters (like Priceline, Expedia, and Pleasant Holidays) have websites for booking airline, hotel, and car reservations without directly contacting the company itself. Aggregators (like Kayak and Hipmunk) compare travel offerings so you don’t have to. These businesses offer good prices from their relationships with wholesalers, who make cheap, bulk reservations for resale. Yet another option is to consult a Hawaii-based inbound travel company. Because the travel industry has changed so much over the years, these companies can give you the best of both worlds—the personal service of an old-fashioned travel agent and connections to wholesalers as well as the local travel industry. Sometimes they offer deals that beat what you can find yourself.
Hawaii-Aloha Travel (6800 Kalanianaole Hwy., Honolulu, HI, 96825. 800/843–8771. www.hawaii-aloha.com.)
Flying time to the Big Island is about 10 hours from New York, 8 hours from Chicago, 5 hours from Los Angeles, and 15 hours from London, not including layovers. Some of the major airline carriers serving Hawaii fly direct to the Big Island, allowing you to bypass connecting flights out of Honolulu and Maui. If you're a more spontaneous traveler, island-hopping flights depart daily every 20 to 30 minutes or so.
Although the Big Island's airports are smaller and more casual than Honolulu International, during peak times they can also get quite busy. Allow extra travel time getting to all airports during morning and afternoon rush-hour traffic periods. Plan to arrive at the airport 45 to 60 minutes before departure for interisland flights.
Plants and plant products are highly restricted by the Department of Agriculture, both upon entering and leaving Hawaii. When you leave the Islands, both checked and carry-on bags will be screened and tagged at the airport's agricultural inspection stations. Pineapples and coconuts with the packer's agricultural inspection stamp pass freely; papayas must be treated, inspected, and stamped. All other fruits are banned for export to the U.S. mainland. Flowers pass except for gardenia, rose leaves, jade vine, and mauna loa. Also banned are insects, snails, soil, cotton, cacti, sugarcane, and all berry plants.
You'll have to leave dogs and other pets at home. A 120-day quarantine is imposed to prevent the introduction of rabies, which is nonexistent in Hawaii. If specific pre- and post-arrival requirements are met, animals may qualify for a 30-day or 5-day-or-less quarantine.
Airlines and Airports
Airline and Airport Links.com (HI. www.airlineandairportlinks.com.)
Airline Security Issues
Transportation Security Administration. Transportation Security Administration can be consulted for up-to-the-minute changes to airport and traveling security. HI. www.tsa.gov.
Air Travel Resources in Hawaii
State of Hawaii Airports Division Offices (HI. 808/836–6413. www.hawaii.gov/hnl.)
Honolulu International Airport (HNL) is the main gateway for most domestic and international flights into Hawaii. From Honolulu, interisland flights to the Big Island depart regularly from early morning through mid-evening. From Honolulu, the travel time is about 35 minutes. From Maui, it’s about 20 minutes. Many carriers now offer nonstop service directly from the mainland to the Kona International Airport at Keahole (KOA) and Hilo International Airport (ITO). The two Big Island airports are "jetway free," meaning you can enjoy those balmy trade winds the moment you step off the plane, a welcome and rather quaint way to arrive in the Islands.
Hawaii's major airport is Honolulu International, on Oahu, 20 minutes (9 miles) west of Waikiki. To travel to the Big Island from Honolulu, you will depart from either the interisland terminal or the commuter-airline terminal (also called the "old interisland terminal" by locals), located in two separate structures adjacent to the main overseas terminal building. A free shuttle bus, the Wiki Wiki Shuttle, operates between terminals.
Honolulu International Airport (HNL) (300 Rodgers Blvd., Honolulu, HI, 96819. 808/836–6413. www.honoluluairport.com.)
Big Island Airports
Those flying to the Big Island regularly land at one of two fields. Kona International Airport at Keahole, on the west side, serves Kailua-Kona, Keauhou, the Kohala Coast, and points south. There are Visitor Information Program (VIP) booths located at all baggage-claim areas to assist travelers. Additionally, the airport is home to newsstands and lei stands, Maxwell's Landing restaurant, and a small gift shop.
Hilo International Airport is more appropriate for those planning visits based on the east side of the island. Here, you'll find VIP booths across from the Centerplate Coffee Shop near the departure lobby and in the arrival areas at each end of the terminal. In addition to the coffee shop, services include a Bank of Hawaii ATM, a gift shop, newsstands and lei stands. Waimea-Kohala Airport, called Kamuela Airport by residents, is used primarily for private flights between islands, but has recently welcomed one commercial carrier.
Hilo International Airport (ITO) (2450 Kekuanaoa St., Suite 215, Hilo, HI, 96720. 808/961–9300. www.hawaii.gov/ito.)
Kona International Airport at Keahole (KOA) (73-200 Kupipi St., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/329–3423. www.hawaii.gov/koa.)
Waimea-Kohala Airport (MUE) (Waimea-Kohala Airport Rd., Waimea, HI, 96743. 808/887–8126. www.hawaii.gov/mue.)
Check with your hotel to see if it runs an airport shuttle. If you're not renting a car, you can choose from among 17 taxi companies serving the Hilo Airport. The approximate taxi rate is $3 for the initial fare, plus 30¢ every 1/8 mile, with surcharges for waiting time (30¢ per minute) and baggage ($1 per bag). Cab fares to locations around the island are estimated as follows: Banyan Drive hotels $11, Hilo Town $12, Hilo Pier $13, Volcano $75, Keaau $22, Pahoa $50, Honokaa $105, Kamuela/Waimea $148, Waikoloa $188, and Kailua Town $240.
At the Kona International Airport, taxis are available. SpeediShuttle also offers transportation between the airport and hotels, resorts, and condominium complexes from Waimea to Keauhou.
SpeediShuttle (Kona International Airport, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 877/242–5777. www.speedishuttle.com.)
Serving Kona are Air Canada, Alaska Air, American, Delta, go!, Mokulele, Hawaiian, Island Air, United, US Airways, and Westjet. Go!, Hawaiian, Mokulele, and United fly into Hilo. Airlines schedule flights seasonally, meaning the number of daily flights varies according to demand.
Air Canada (HI. 888/247–2262. www.aircanada.com.)
Alaska Airlines (HI. 800/252–7522. www.alaskaair.com.)
American Airlines (HI. 800/433–7300. www.aa.com.)
Delta Airlines (HI. 800/221–1212 for U.S. reservations. www.delta.com.)
United Airlines (HI. 800/864–8331 for U.S. reservations; 800/538–2929 for international reservations. www.united.com.)
US Airways (HI. 800/428–4322. www.usairways.com.)
Westjet (HI. 888/937–8538. www.westjet.com.)
Should you wish to visit neighboring islands, go!, Hawaiian, Island Air, and Mokulele offer regular service. Prices for interisland flights have increased quite a bit in recent years, while flight schedule availability has been reduced. Mokulele now serves Waimea. Planning ahead is your best bet.
Mokulele Airlines (HI. 888/435–9462. www.mokuleleairlines.com.)
Hawaiian Airlines (HI. 800/367–5320. www.hawaiianair.com.)
Island Air (HI. 800/388–1105. www.islandair.com.)
go! Airlines (HI. 888/326–7070. www.iflygo.com.)
Iolani Air Taxi, based on the Big Island, offers on-demand service between islands. If you're interested in getting off the beaten track, Iolani can fly you to remote airstrips.
Iolani Air Taxi (808/329–0018 or 800/538–7590. www.iolaniair.com.)
Travelers can take advantage of the affordable Hawaii County Mass Transit Agency's Hele-On Bus, which travels several routes throughout the island. Mostly serving local commuters, the Hele-On Bus costs $2 per person (students and senior citizens pay $1). Just wait at a scheduled stop and flag down the bus. A one-way journey between Hilo and Kona takes about four hours. There's regular service in and around downtown Hilo, Kailua-Kona, Waimea, North and South Kohala, Honokaa, and Pahoa.
Visitors staying in Hilo can take advantage of the Transit Agency's Shared Ride Taxi program, which provides door-to-door transportation in the area. A one-way fare is $2, and a book of 15 coupons can be purchased for $30. Visitors to Kona can also take advantage of free shuttles operated by local shopping centers.
Hele-On Bus (HI. 808/961–8744. www.heleonbus.org.)
Visitors who rent a car on the Big Island quickly learn it’s a big, big island. Fortunately, when you circle the island by car, you are treated to miles and miles of wondrous vistas of every possible description. In addition to using compass directions, Hawaii residents often refer to places as being either mauka (toward the mountains) or makai (toward the ocean).
It's difficult to get lost along the main roads of the Big Island. Although their names may challenge the visitor's tongue, most roads are well marked; in rural areas look for mile marker numbers. Free publications containing basic road maps are available at most retailers, but if you are doing a lot of driving, invest about $4 in the standard Big Island map.
Turning right on a red light is legal, except where noted. Hawaii has a strict seat-belt law that applies to both drivers and passengers. The fine for not wearing a seat belt is $92. Many police officers drive their own cars while on duty, strapping the warning lights to the roof. Because of the color, locals call them "blue lights."
You can count on having to pay more at the pump for gasoline on the Big Island than almost anywhere on the U.S. mainland. Prices tend to be higher in Kailua-Kona and cheaper in Hilo. Gas stations in rural areas can be few and far between, and it’s not unusual for them to close early. If you notice that your tank is getting low, don't take any chances.
Parking can be a challenge in historic Kailua Village. A few municipal lots near Alii Drive offer convenient parking on an honor system. (You'll be ticketed if you don't pay.) There is one free county lot downtown. In Hilo, you’ll find plenty of free parking.
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 and before and after school. Jaywalking and hitchhiking are very common, so pay careful attention to the roads, especially while driving in rural areas. Also use caution during heavy downpours, especially if you see signs warning of flash floods and falling rocks.
Should you plan to sightsee around the Big Island, it is best to rent a car. With more than 260 miles of coastline—and attractions as varied as Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Akaka Falls State Park, Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historic 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 sports car to a motor home. Rates are usually better if you reserve though a rental agency's website. It's wise to make reservations far in advance and make sure that a confirmed reservation (usually free) 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, such as the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo in April or the Ironman World Championship triathlon 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 the only company that allows its vehicles to be driven to the summit.
For some, renting an RV or motor home might be an appealing way to see the island. Harper has motor homes available and Hilo-based Happy Campers Hawaii rents out classic Volkswagen 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.
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 pay a daily surcharge of $15 to $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 a rental for up to 90 days.
Because the road circling the Big Island can be two-lane, narrow, and windy in places, allow plenty of time to return your vehicle so that you can make your flight. Traffic can be heavy during morning and afternoon rush hours, especially in the Kona area. Roadwork is ongoing and often unscheduled. 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 probably covers a rental, but call your auto insurance company to confirm. If you don't have auto insurance, then you will need to buy the collision- or loss-damage waiver (CDW or LDW) from the rental company. The CDW allows you to walk away from most incidents, so it might be worth the peace of mind. Some credit cards offer CDW coverage, but it's usually supplemental to your own insurance and rarely covers SUVs, minivans, and luxury models. 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.