It's essential to rent a car when visiting the Big Island. As the name suggests, it’s a very big island, and it takes a while to get from point A to point B.
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 standard compass directions such as north and south, 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 given out at car rental agencies, but if you are doing a lot of driving, invest about $4 in the standard Big Island map available at local retailers. GPS is often unreliable.
For those who want to travel from the west side to the east side, or vice versa, the newly rerouted and repaved Saddle Road, now known as the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, is a nice shortcut across the middle of the island. This is especially convenient if you are staying on the Kohala side of the island and wish to visit the east side. Hazardous conditions such as fog are common.
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 $102. Mobile phone use is strictly limited to talking on a hands-free mobile device, and only for those over 18. 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 except for California. 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: Keep your tank filled.
Parking can be limited 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 along the scenic bayfront.
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. Major roadworks have been ongoing in the five-mile stretch between the Kona airport and town, so give yourself extra time if you need to catch a flight. 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. These can also occur suddenly, even if it's not raining, and take you by surprise. Stay clear of ponding or rising water on roadways and heed emergency weather advisories not to cross flooded roads.
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 motorcycle. Rates are usually better if you reserve though a rental agency's website, and most sites allow you to reserve for free. It's wise to make reservations 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, 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.
If exploring the island on two wheels is more your speed, Big Island Motorcycle Company rents motorcycles and mopeds.
Rates begin at about $30 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 $27 to $30. 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 booster rentals range from $8 to $10 per day.
In Hawaii, a 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.
Car Rental Insurance
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 or not 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.
Both Uber and Lyft introduced service on the Big Island in 2017 but are not permitted to pick up at the airport. There is more service in Hilo and limited service in Kona, but those who plan on traveling long distances may find that regular taxis are a bit cheaper.