Of all the Hawaiian islands, planning a trip to Kauai may be the most difficult and the most rewarding.
The incredible nature that makes “The Garden Isle” so beautiful is a result of the unique climate, geography, and weather systems that Kauai receives. However, these amazing landscapes and temperamental weather patterns also force visitors to do a bit more to prepare for their visit.
This guide will provide everything you need to know for planning a trip to Kauai. This includes the best things to see, how to get around, flights, cultural considerations, and general Kauai travel tips!
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Planning a Trip to Kauai Overview
Below is a quick summary overview detailing the most important considerations and things to know when planning a trip to Kauai.
Best Hawaiian island for people who see Hawaii as a place to be explored, not just a place to relax and sunbathe. Kauai is about adventure, activity, and nature more than it is about resorts and cocktails, though it has those too!
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 a 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 Kauai Travel Tips
- If non-stop flights to Kauai are not available, try to arrange the 1-stop layover for one of the Hawaiian islands in case you get stuck or delayed.
- Book well ahead of time. Kauai is a small island with fewer services than most, so things sell out quickly.
- Princeville is the most beautiful place to stay, but Poipu is the driest.
- Book at least one boat or helicopter tour of the Na Pali Coast. You cannot settle for the limited views by land of this unbelievable place.
- Bring only reef-safe sunscreen. All other sunscreens are illegal in Hawaii.
- Kauai is the only island with access to “The Forbidden Island” of Ni’ihau. If you want to visit all 7 inhabited island, you will need to make special arrangements for this one.
- Bring your own snorkel and mask unless you only plan on snorkeling with tours.
- Get your permits for the massively popular Kalalau Trail early if you wish to hike it.
- Kauai is located on the edge of a tropical zone and only has two seasons, both warm: wet and dry. Bring appropriate layers and footwear for winter (wet season) visits.
- 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 Kauai
Anytime is good to visit Kauai, but it is the smallest and wettest island. Accordingly, some months tend to be better regarding the amount of sunshine to expect and the availability of tours and accommodation.
The rainy season in Kauai is from November-March. It is still warm, but the ground will be extremely muddy on a lot of the nature hikes and you should expect to get wet.
April, early-May, September, and early-October are the best months to visit Kauai. This is when the island is in its dry season but is not overrun by peak season tourism.
How to Plan a Trip to Kauai: Step by Step
- Step 1: Review Hawaii travel restrictions
- Step 2: Book your flights to and from Kauai
- Step 3: Book any inter-island flights or boats, such as Nii’hau
- Step 4: Find the best place to stay on Kauai for your budget
- Step 5: Create your perfect Kauai 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 Kauai: Booking Flights
Before getting lost in all the things to do and see in Kauai, the first thing you need to do is book your flights! The more flexibility you have in your dates, the better and cheaper your options will be.
Try to book a non-stop flight to Kauai if any are available from your city of departure. If one-stop is the only thing available, try to ensure the layover is in one of the Hawaiian islands. This way you are stuck in Hawaii and not somewhere halfway between home and the islands if your connecting flight gets cancelled or you miss it due to delays in your first flight.
The return flight is typically less catastrophic if you are delayed somewhere as it does not ripple onward to impact all of your reservations. Accordingly, this is the flight to consider the more budget-friendly options that may exist.
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 to LIH and choose to search for the cheapest ticket within the month you are planning a trip to Kauai, or even the cheapest ticket available within a calendar year!
Planning a Trip to Kauai: Island Hopping
Kauai is the only island that allows tourists to visit “The Forbidden Island” of Ni’ihau. This private island is owned by the Robinson family and is home to less than 100 people. No one outside of this select group was allowed to step foot on the island without an official invitation prior to 2022.
However, those compelled to see it all can now arrange a half-day helicopter tour where they get a scenic flight over the amazing Na Pali coast and the island of Ni’ihau, as well as 3 hours on one of its best beaches.
You can also fly from Kauai to any of the other 3 major Hawaiian islands of Oahu, Maui, and Big Island with Hawaiian Airlines. Flights to Maui and Oahu start at $45, while Big Island is $85 with a layover or over $100 direct. There are no ferries, boats, or other airlines that service Kauai.
FIND OUT MORE: READ THE
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 Kauai: Where to Stay
Deciding where to stay is perhaps the most important detail for planning a trip to Kauai! Where you choose to call home for the duration of your visit will determine your proximity to the best things the island has to offer, your level of comfort, and so much more.
We recommend reading our extensive guide on the topic to make sure you find the perfect place for your vacation and understand the nuances involved with this decision:
LEARN EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW IN THE
WHERE TO STAY ON KAUAI COMPLETE GUIDE
Princeville and Poipu are by far the most popular places to stay on Kauai. This is where you will find the best resorts, restaurants, and tourist services.
Princeville is on the North Coast of Kauai which is the wet side of the island. This rain can be a deterrent to some, but it makes for unspeakably beautiful scenery. The North Shore is home to the famous Hanalei Bay, Tunnels Beach, and the start of the Kalalau Trail.
Poipu is the gateway to the south shore. This is the dry side of the island which boasts some of the most impressive landscapes in Hawaii, as well as idyllic beaches. The south shore is the region where you will find Waimea Canyon (aka The Grand Canyon of the Pacific), Koke’e State Park and the Kalepa Ridge Trail, Polihale Beach, and more. It is also the pick up point for most of the Na Pali Coast tours, as well as the helicopter tour to Ni’ihau.
Planning your Kauai Itinerary
Now that you have booked your hotels or BnBs and your flight to Kauai, it is time for the fun stuff – creating your perfect Kauai itinerary.
While most Hawaiian holidays are all about beach hopping and tanning, those who choose to vacation in Kauai tend to pick this island for the many beautiful places there are to explore and exciting things to do.
From kayaking rivers to secret waterfalls to flying over the jagged cliffs of the Na Pali coast, from soaking in the Queen’s Bath to hiking the Grand Canyon of the Pacific at Waimea Canyon, there are a ton of amazing, one of a kind experiences awaiting you in Kauai.
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 Kauai and finding the best things to do while there, consult the complete guides below.
PLANNING A TRIP TO KAUAI GUIDES:
HOW TO CREATE THE PERFECT KAUAI ITINERARY
35 BEST THINGS TO DO IN KAUAI: THE OFFICIAL BUCKET LIST
Planning a Trip to Kauai: Tours & Activities
Sooner is better in regards to tour and activity bookings when planning your trip to Kauai. As the island is so small and services limited, the most popular activities often sell out weeks or even months in advance.
Now that you have everything else booked, you will want to start making reservations for the things you would be most disappointed to miss. In particular, the following tours tend to go very quick and should be booked ASAP:
- Na Pali Coast boat tour
- Na Pali Coast helicopter tours
- Kayak tours of Wailua River to Secret Falls
- A Hawaiian Luau on Kauai
- Trips to Ni’ihau
Additionally, some destinations require permits. The most important to arrange beforehand is a permit for the Kalalau Trail if you are hoping to attempt this famous hike.
If you have not yet done so, you should consult our 5-7 Day Kauai Itinerary. This will help you align the tours you want to take with the best days to do them and also provides more information on what to consider when booking.
You will also want to browse the official Kauai bucket list with the 35 best things to do in Kauai to make sure you don’t miss anything once-in-a-lifetime.
Planning a Trip to Kauai: How to Get Around
The easiest way to explore Kauai is via a self-guided tour with a rental car. As the Garden Isle is so incredibly small, having a car will enable you to see pretty much every highlight in short day trips.
If you are not comfortable driving, the next option is to take guided tours for the different activities mentioned. Most of these provide pick-up and drop-off services from the Princeville and Poipu areas, which are the two most popular areas to stay.
Public transportation in Kauai is limited and not recommended with the precious value of vacation time. Rideshare apps such as Uber and Lyft are available on the island.
Packing for a Trip to Kauai
One final step in preparing for a trip to Kauai is to load up the suitcase with everything you’ll need.
The best thing to do when packing for a trip to Hawaii is to print a checklist of the essential items that are most important to bring. You should be able to find most basic essentials in Hawaii, but it is better not to count on it.
Once you have packed your essentials, especially medicines and personal items, you will want to do a bit of research regarding unexpected items to bring with you to Kauai. These include things like reef-safe sunscreen, which is a legal requirement in Hawaii, as well as cheap waterproof bags to protect your phone and electronics on Na Pali coast boat tours.
If you have never been to Hawaii before and/or do not travel often, the guide below will be your best friend. In it, we provide a printable essentials checklist, list of items you may want to consider, and general tips on what to bring and how to pack.
Even if you’re an avid traveler, you may find some things you’d likely have never thought to bring!
Find a PRINTABLE CHECKLIST and COMPLETE GUIDE to packing for Kauai:
ULTIMATE HAWAII PACKING LIST
More Kauai and Hawaii Travel Guides
- Kauai Travel Guides
- HAWAII Travel Guides
- 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