A vacation to Hawaii was never on my radar for a lot of reasons, and a big one was cost. Everything you read and hear about the place is that it is very, very expensive to visit. When we finally decided to take a trip to the Island of Hawaii (the Big Island), I knew I needed to pay close attention to make it a cost effective trip, while also still having a great vacation. I spent quite a bit of time researching and looking for ways to make it happen, and I’d have to say I was pleasantly surprised at how inexpensive a trip to Hawaii can be if you do it right.
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Cheap plane flights to Hawaii
Travel hacking through credit card sign ups is an awesome way to take trips for almost free, but that was not what we did for this trip, beyond having our normal airline miles credit card. (Though if you do want to rack up some great credit card rewards, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card we now have, and you can get 50,000 points for a sign up bonus – more than enough for one round trip ticket to Hawaii!)
My husband works as a construction superintendent and is in the middle of a custom home build, so it’s very difficult for him to take a week of vacation at one time. In fact, the last time he was able to take a full week off was May of 2016, and we weren’t expecting him to be able to take another week until at least early spring of next year.
This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info.
Last weekend, out of the blue, we found out that he would be able to take some time off for our eighth wedding anniversary. We had originally been hoping to maybe take a day or two off since it falls on a Monday this year and go somewhere close by. Once we figured out that all of a sudden we had the opportunity for a full week, I started looking online at airplane flights.
New Orleans, Austin, Nashville, South Carolina. We knew we wanted to go south to get to warmer weather, but otherwise we were pretty open to the destination. My dad then suggested Hawaii, and since I had never been, I decided to look more closely.
Since I’ve never been, we were open to which island we would visit, and I spent some time looking at different flight options to maximize our flyer miles and figured out that the Big Island had the best choices for that week (though I now want to visit Kauai on our next trip). Though we weren’t flexible on the dates, we were flexible on the destination, so that meant we could get 4 round trip flights to the Big Island for $94.80 + $160,000 miles (taxes and fees have to be paid out of pocket).
We booked four tickets instead of the typical three for our family because we are bringing my husband’s godfather along with us as a babysitter so we can go out just the two of us on the night of our anniversary. Leaving our son behind wasn’t even a consideration. We love traveling as a family but as this is our anniversary, we wanted some time just the two of us as well. Plus, an extra set of hands is always welcome for keeping up after a toddler.
Off season travel
Our favorite time to travel is in the off season, and this trip is no exception. There are fewer people to fight with at airports, prices are more affordable, and the destination tends to be a lot more relaxed. Even though this is a fairly last minute trip, because it isn’t a peak time to visit Hawaii, we were able to find some great deals.
The next step after securing our plane flights was to find a place to stay for the week. Before I bought our tickets, we had expected to go for 7 nights, but it turned out to require a lot fewer miles to go home on an 11PM red eye. Since it’s such a late flight, we won’t lose out on any real time on the island versus leaving even early afternoon the following day.
If you’re going for 7 nights, pay attention to weekly discounts. I found that a lot of places didn’t offer them, but enough did, and that can knock of 5-20% off your nightly cost.
When we go on vacation, we like to do a lot of exploring and we want to see as much of the island as we can while we’re there. Once we were short of seven nights, there wasn’t going to be a discount to stay in one place the entire time, so we decided to split our time and stay three nights on either side of the island.
Airbnb instead of an expensive hotel
We usually book condos or houses through VRBO or AirBNB because we like to cook and do laundry, and this trip was no exception. They tend to be cheaper and nicer than a standard hotel as well (unless you really love room service and housekeeping). I spent quite a bit of time researching on this trip because there are so many rentals and most of them cost quite a bit of money.
Side note – make sure to pay attention when you’re looking at lodging, because A LOT of the smaller more affordable places do not have full kitchens or laundry (or have you pay $5/load). Many of the places I looked at had a refrigerator and a microwave, and maybe a hot plate. If you aren’t planning to do any cooking on your trip, this can be a good option, but cooking your own meals really keeps down the overall trip cost. We like to try out farmers markets and find local ingredients and then make ourselves awesome meals for the fraction of the cost of a restaurant.
Laundry is another requirement for us as long as our son is in cloth diapers, but it also gives you the option to pack a lot lighter when you know you’ll be able to wash (and then rewear) your clothes halfway through the trip. We never pay for checked baggage, and then we can get moving as soon as the plane lands instead of waiting for our things to arrive.
We wanted to stay in Kona (the largest city on the island) for the first 3 nights so we would be there for our actual anniversary. By staying close in, we would be able to walk to dinner, have a few drinks, and not have to worry about paying for an Uber to get back to the condo.
After some searching, I found a 1 bedroom condo, two blocks from the beach and a few blocks from the main drag, $414.11 for 3 nights. This is definitely our biggest cost for the trip, but it was worth spending a little more money to be in a walkable location (and we’ll more than make up the extra price by avoiding Uber/taxi fees).
I then started looking at places to stay in Hilo, on the other side of the island, but I quickly realized we could save a good bit of money by staying in a more rural area 30-45 minutes outside of town. Since we would already be getting the downtown experience by staying in Kona, we decided we were more than happy staying farther out the second half of the trip.
We expect to do a lot of driving around the island anyway, so the house we’re staying at is more of a home base than a place to lounge all day. The cost for 3 nights outside of Hilo is $293.72 – $120 cheaper than staying in downtown Kona! If you aren’t interested in walking anywhere, it’s definitely cost effective to stay a little ways out of town.
If you haven’t stayed in an Airbnb before, I would highly recommend it. We love the flexibility it gives us while traveling as a family – full kitchen, laundry, and extra bathrooms, and it’s usually considerably cheaper than a hotel, especially when you travel as a group. If you’re new to Airbnb, here’s a link for $40 off your first stay.
Kona car rental
Next is the car rental. I was determined to get the best price for a car rental for our week, so I probably spent more time researching this than was really necessary, because after all the time I spent looking, Costco ended up having the best price.
If you don’t have a Costco membership, Thrifty had the next best price (but you have to pay $13.99 for an additional driver) and Dollar was close behind. If you go this route, make sure you search Groupon and general coupon codes, because you can usually get 10-20% off their list price this way. Even so, Costco ended up being the best deal. However, if you do end up renting direct from a car rental agency or through Expedia or a similar travel search engine, make sure you first click through Ebates because they offer 2-10% back on your online purchases. If you haven’t used Ebates before, you’ll get a $10 credit for signing up.
For 6 days, our car rental for a standard size car is $216.55 (this included a small up charge for a carbon offset, which is not a required cost, but one that’s important to us). Since there will be four of us plus a stroller, I decided it was worth the additional $4 for the week to have a slightly larger car.
For some reason, there isn’t a big cost jump between an economy or compact car and a standard size, but then it jumps up quite a bit for an SUV or minivan. Not only will the bigger car cost you more to rent, but you will also spend more on gas if you do any significant amount of driving.
Base cost for our 6 day Hawaii vacation:
- 4 plane tickets: $94.80
- 6 nights’ lodging: $707.83
- 6 day car rental: $216.55
- Total cost: $1,019.18
This leaves us $590.82 to spend while we’re there, or $96.80/day. Since we really plan on just spending money on food and gas, this seems like a reasonable number.
If we do end up going over budget some, it will be because of food. We love trying local cuisine when we travel, and while some of it can be very affordable, some may not be. I’m not going to beat myself up over an extra $100 because we got to try some fantastic food we couldn’t have at home. I’ll make sure to follow up when we return to let you all know how much we actually spent and what were must sees while we were there.
Hawaii can be a very expensive vacation, but it doesn’t have to be. Helicopter rides, luaus, and swimming with the dolphins are all great “once in a lifetime” type of events, but so is hiking on a volcano, tasting fresh roasted coffee, and walking on a black sand beach.
There are so many things we want to do and see while in Hawaii that we can’t possibly experience them all in a week, so why not pick the free ones? They’re the ones we want to do most of all, anyway.
If you want to learn a little more about how our trip went, here is a little bit more to read. Spoiler: it was an absolutely incredible vacation, and we can’t wait to go back (which we did – in January 2019).