With so much to do, planning a trip to Big Island can be challenging for first time visitors who want to see everything. Did you know that in one visit, you can snorkel with manta rays, turtles, and dolphins, visit a lava lake, explore a green sand beach, and see the Milky Way from Mauna Kea?
Of course, so much activity is not everyone’s idea of the ideal Hawaiian vacation. Luckily, a trip to Big Island can also be as easy as finding a hotel in Kona and just relaxing on some of the beaches nearby.
No matter what type of traveler you are or how much experience you have, this guide will walk your step-by-step through the process of planning a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii.
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Planning a Trip to Big Island Overview
Below is a quick summary overview detailing the most important considerations and things to know when planning a trip to Big Island.
Big Island Overview
Best Hawaiian island for people who value space, seclusion, and budget over manufactured and lavish experiences. Also for those who visit Hawaii with a sense of adventure, rather than seeking things trendy or touristy.
Hawaiian Words, Customs & Culture to Observe
There are a few customs that are helpful to understand as well. All too many tourists forget that while this is a vacation destination to them, it is home to the locals. As such, it is important to treat people on the island as if you are guests in their home.
Beyond typical manners, here are a few Hawaiian customs to note:
- Tipping: Locals survive on tourism! In the US, 18-20% has become standard, 15% minimum.
- Aloha: This word means a lot in Hawaiian, including both “hello” and “goodbye”, but also “love” and “peace”.
- Mahalo: The Hawaiian word for “thank you”.
- Island Time: The Hawaiian culture is a “lei-d” back culture (pun alert!). Expect a slower pace and less concern with punctuality on Hawaii than on the mainland.
- Attire: Outside of a few luxury clubs or restaurants, casual attire is the expectation. Flip-flops (known as slippers in Hawaii) can be worn to any restaurant or outing.
- Shaka: The “shaka” is the hand signal using the thumb and pinky with a side-to-side motion that is often translated to “hang loose” on the mainland. In actuality, it is closer to “aloha” and/or “mahalo” in Hawaii. It can be hello, goodbye, thank you, or anything really with positive intention. Think of it a bit like a polite wave or a thumbs up.
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Top 10 Big Island Travel Tips
- Try to book non-stop flights to Kona to minimize the impact of connecting flight complications. If none are available, try to arrange the 1-stop layover for one of the Hawaiian islands in case you get stuck or delayed overnight.
- Book tours far ahead of time. The most popular Big Island activities sell out weeks or even months in advance.
- Kailua-Kona and Waikoloa on the west coast are the best places by far to stay on Big Island.
- Do not miss the manta ray night snorkel tour! It is one of the most magical experiences anyone will ever have.
- Be sure to bring hard-bottom beach shoes; most of the Big Island beaches are littered with sharp lava rock and many require lengthy walks to get to.
- Try to get to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at twilight or at night to see the otherworldly glowing red lava lake.
- Bring only reef-safe sunscreen. All other sunscreens are illegal in Hawaii.
- Bring your own snorkel and mask unless you only plan on snorkeling with tours. The Big Island is the best place to snorkel in Hawaii and it is free if you have equipment!
- Visit popular snorkel spots Two Step and/or Ho’okena at sunrise to see spinner dolphins.
- May and September are the best months to visit as they typically are dry but fall outside peak season, meaning more availability and lower prices.
When to Visit Big Island
The sun is almost always shining on the Kona region of Big Island, so anytime is a good time to visit.
The peak travel season is from June-August, so avoiding these months is recommended if possible. Aiming for winter and shoulder seasons means more availability, smaller crowds, and typically cheaper air and hotel fare.
While the Hilo region can receive rain nearly year-round, the rainy season in Kona is from November-March. It is still warm and the rain rarely lasts for more than half a day. The winter season also brings migrating humpback whales to the Hawaiian waters.
April, early-May, September, and early-October are the best months to visit Big Island. This is when the island is in its dry season but is not overrun by peak season tourism.
How to Plan a Trip to Big Island: Step by Step
- Step 1: Review Hawaii travel restrictions
- Step 2: Book your flights to and from Kona
- Step 3: Book any inter-island flights
- Step 4: Find the best place to stay on Big Island for your budget
- Step 5: Create your perfect Big Island Itinerary
- Step 6: Book tours and activities early
- Step 7: Establish how to get around (car rental highly recommended)
- Step 8: Pack your bags!
Traveling to Hawaii in 2022
Hawai‘i is welcoming most travelers again. However, there are some pre-travel requirements for international travelers visiting Hawai‘i.
Domestic Travel to Hawaii
As of March 26, 2022, there are no COVID-related requirements for domestic passengers arriving in Hawai‘i.
You can find current information, advice, and guidelines related to COVID and travel in Hawaii on the Hawaii Covid-19 website here.
International Travel to Hawaii
For those traveling from international destinations with direct flights to Hawaii, you will need to follow federal international requirements. There are no additional State of Hawai‘i requirements.
As of June 12, 2022, international visitors are no longer required to show a negative COVID-19 viral test or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 before they board their flight. However, the CDC is still requiring proof of vaccination for international visitors to travel to the United States. Requirements are constantly changing so ensure you check the CDC website or within your airline for current guidelines.
Planning a Trip to Big Island: Booking Flights
The first step in planning a trip to Big Island is arranging your flights!
While there are fewer non-stop flights to Kona (KOA) than Oahu and Maui, plenty of departure cities do offer one and you should try your best to book at least your arrival as a direct flight. If unavailable, the next best flight to find is one with the only layover in Oahu or Maui.
The reason it is so important to book direct flights to begin your Hawaiian vacation is that any delays, especially overnights, can cause a ripple effect that impacts every reservation and booking you’ve pre-arranged.
If, for example, your first flight arrives late, you may miss your connecting flight. Or maybe you’re there on time but it gets canceled. Now you’re stuck somewhere random overnight and have to scramble to re-arrange your entire itinerary.
Typically, the return flight has lower stakes if something prevents you from getting home on time. If budget is a priority, you can potentially find a cheaper flight with an extra stopover on the return, but should always book your Hawaii arrival flight direct if possible!
If you have flexibility in your dates, use SkyScanner to find the cheapest flights possible using the flexible departure feature. Just type in your departure city in the “From” field and enter KOA in “To”, then search for the cheapest ticket within the month you are planning a trip to Big Island, or even the cheapest ticket available within the calendar year you are seeking!
Planning a Trip to Big Island: Island Hopping
There are no sister islands that you can visit from Big Island, but Hawaiian airlines offers commercial flights starting at $45 to Maui and Oahu. They also offer flights to Kauai for $85 with one connection, or $109+ direct.
If you are planning on visiting Maui from Kona, you should also consider the small-place scenic flight option with Mokulele Airlines. They also offer a flight from KOA to OGG (Maui’s major airport) starting at only $49, but you’ll be in a prop plane where every seat gets its own window!
FIND OUT MORE:
COMPLETE GUIDE TO HAWAII ISLAND HOPPING
If you plan on doing any island hopping during your visit, booking your ongoing flights or scenic tours should be the first thing you do once you’ve scheduled your initial roundtrip tickets.
Planning a Trip to Big Island: Where to Stay
Once you have flights arranged, choosing the right place to stay on Big Island is the most important budget item remaining for planning a trip to Big Island.
As this is such an important part of planning your vacation, you may want to read our complete guide on choosing Where to Stay on the Big Island: Best Areas, Hotels, and Resorts.
The place or places you decide to call home for your Hawaiian vacation will determine your proximity to Big Island’s best beaches and attractions, as well as how comfortable your time is.
Without a doubt, Kailua-Kona and Waikoloa are the two best places to stay on Big Island. Both of these towns are on the dry side of the island and in close proximity to beaches.
Kailua-Kona has the most options for accommodation and is closest to town. For this reason, it is the most popular choice.
Waikoloa, however, is the better option if you are looking for holiday stays that never require driving or even leaving your resort. This area gets the most sunshine, has the better beaches, and is designed to be more all-inclusive.
Planning your Big Island Itinerary
With your flights and hotel booked, it is time to actually plan your time on Big Island. There are a handful of extremely popular activities and tours that are “can’t-miss” and book up well in advance which would be advisable to arrange as soon as possible.
This is also the part that most first-time visitors to the islands find the most challenging. For help arranging your daily schedule, consult this complete guide to creating your perfect Big Island itinerary.
Some of you may need nothing more than a beautiful beach and a cocktail menu, while others will want to experience as many once-in-a-lifetime activities as they can. These include things like swimming with manta rays and watching a boiling lava lake bubble and pop with liquid magma at Volcanoes NP.
Crafting your itinerary involves more research and thoughtfulness than we can pack into this guide. For help with the most critical details of planning a trip to Big Island and finding the best things to do while there, consult the complete guide below:
THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO CRAFTING
YOUR PERFECT BIG ISLAND ITINERARY
Planning a Trip to Big Island: Tours & Activities
The good news for most people is that most of the best things to do on the Big Island can be arranged on a self-tour. This means that as long as you have a car, the majority of the must-see items will not require a tour.
That said, there are a few that you cannot experience without a permit or reservation. Among them, the ones we highly recommend booking as soon as possible to avoid sold-out dates are:
- Manta Ray Night Snorkel – A life-changing experience.
- Captain Cook Monument – Considered Hawaii’s Best Snorkel Spot.
- Voyagers of the Pacific Luau – The best luau on the Big Island.
- Big Island Sunset Sail – A magical way to celebrate a special occasion.
- Kona Brewery Tour – For the craft beer lovers among you.
No Tour Needed (but still available) Big Island Activities
While the items above require a tour, there are plenty of other amazing things to do on Big Island that you can get to all by yourself! That said, most are also available as tours for those who do not want the hassle of coordinating a trip.
The best activities that can be done with or without a guided tour include:
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
- Papakolea Green Sand Beach
- Snorkeling at Two Step
- Explore the Hilo rainforest
- Stargazing at Mauna Kea
Discover the Waipio Valley(currently closed, but stay tuned)
If you have not yet done so, you should consult our 5-7 Day Big Island Itinerary. This will help you align the tours you want to take, both self-drive and otherwise, with the best days to book them.
Planning a Trip to Big Island: How to Get Around
The Big Island of Hawaii is an easily drivable island, which is fortunate as the public transport options are very limited and unreliable for maintaining schedules.
The best way to get around the Big Island is to rent a car and have it with you for the duration of your trip. Costs and distances can start to stack up if you are forced to rely on rideshare apps like Uber, and buses will not get you everywhere you want to go. Compare car rental prices here.
If you are not comfortable driving, the next option is to take guided tours for the different activities mentioned. If this is going to be the case for you, be mindful of pick-up locations in relation to your accommodation when arranging tours.
Packing for a Trip to Big Island
The last thing you need to do for planning a trip to Big Island is the easiest, but sometimes the most stressful; pack your bag!
Having a printed checklist with all of the essentials can be a huge source of stress relief. Still, there are likely a handful of items you’ve never thought of worth bringing, or even some you didn’t know existed!
To make your life easy, load our ULTIMATE HAWAII PACKING LIST in another browser. This provides a printable checklist and goes through 25 items you probably wouldn’t have thought of. These are things like reef-safe sunscreen, a legal requirement in Hawaii, or compact waterproof bags to protect your electronics on boat tours from the highly corrosive saltwater and spray.
If you have never been to Hawaii before and/or do not travel often, the guide below will be your best friend.
Find a PRINTABLE CHECKLIST and COMPLETE GUIDE to packing for Big Island:
ULTIMATE HAWAII PACKING LIST
More Big Island and Hawaii Travel Guides
Did you find this guide on planning a trip to the Big Island helpful?
There is a lot left to consider when planning your visit – browse our most popular guides below to help make planning a breeze!
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- Hawaii Travel Guides
- Printable Hawaii Packing List
- Planning a Trip to Hawaii: The Ultimate Guide
- Hawaii Island Hopping Guide: How to See Every Island
- Best Things to Do on Hawaii: The ULTIMATE Hawaii Bucket List