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How to vacation correctly in Hawaii (for the cost-conscious traveler)

I just returned last week from a one week vacation from Honolulu, Hawaii. It was a great time for me and my family but it could have been cheaper, less tiring, and less stressful. Keep reading and you may find some of the advice here helpful for your situation if you are looking to go on vacation to this island paradise. I booked all my flights and hotel from Expedia because I like how the user interface allows you to move your travel time a day before or a day after to try and find a better schedule or cheaper cost. I also booked my car rentals through Expedia and they offer some generous discounts for booking flights+hotel package.

I found the Hilton Hawaiian Village is always cheaper than most of the hotels on Waikiki and is a great location because it’s at the start of the strip and close enough to Ala Moana mall too. The flight was cheap if you leave from Seatac airport. I booked using hotel for a one-night stay at Surestay Best Western, and parked on their lot for 8 days. They had a 24-hour shuttle which is very important because my flight was early in the morning the next day, and other cheaper alternatives I looked at were only open from 8am-11pm. I felt well-rested and also thought the car would be safe. I was worried my car battery would need jump-starting after 8 days so I brought a battery-pack in the trunk even though I did not need to use it. The hotel concierge and shuttle drivers were around so I’m sure I could have gotten some help from them too especially if the return flights ended up being 3am in the morning.

The flight was hard because there was a 1.5 hour layover in Maui and 3.5 hour layover coming back. We had a flight delay con our return flight and had to drive back from Seattle after that so the entire return trip door took 25 hours in total. My suggestion is to take direct flights if they are inexpensive enough. Expedia offers standby flights and non-direct flights because they are cheaper and show up top of your search. Just keep in mind the hassle of having to pick your seats at the check-in counter with the flight agents, and having to contend with limited overhead baggage storage because seats were at the end of the aircraft. I had to check in 3 luggages in Maui because all the overhead luggage storage was already taken, which is very likely if you are last in line. I had to go to baggage claim which meant having to line up again for TSA security checkpoint in Maui and they have a notoriously long lineup.

If you are renting a car, do not go to Economy car rental on Lawehana Street right across from Target. This location is at least 10 min away from the airport and the airport shuttle driver will ask you for a tip. The agents at the counter have little customer service, especially the one that answered the phone in the mornings. He screamed out “what the hell are you talking about” when he didn’t understand my question when I called in to confirm the return of the vehicle. The gates are closed too until 8am so the drop off is tricky especially if you have an early flight because you have to find street parking outside of the lot gates. There is an after-hours drop box but if there is no street parking available, you will have to park farther the they will likely not know where you parked so they can check you in. I was lucky there was space in their driveway that lead up to the locked gates because they would be forced to check me as I was blocking the entrance. The midsize that I rented kept getting tire pressure notifications and I had to always look for a gas station to top-up the air in one of the tires. The paint was also coming off a little and this car was generally not well maintained. I would have overlooked all that if not for the rude customer service agents and the limited office hours for after-hour returns.

The first night, I had to park at the hotel parking structure for $65 a night. I was disgusted at myself for not doing more research there but I thought to myself that it was just for one night, and that I should be able to find free parking by Ala Wai canal the next night. After parking and getting checked into the room, we walked up and down the length of the Waikiki beach from Hilton Hawaiian Village lagoon to the police station where the statue stands. Walking barefooted in the white sand and warm ocean water was so worth it. There is a block party on Kalakau Avenue too with many vendors and food trucks from Royal Hawaiian Village Center to police station. Walking up and down that was great, except for the prices of the food. A pineapple fruit costs $15 so I definitely did not fall for that. We walked over through Outrigger hotel back to the beach for another lazy stroll back to the Hilton hotel. The ABC stores were open late but I cautioned my family to stay from buying any souvenirs there just because the prices have been jacked up for tourists. We spent the night listening to the live band at Tapa bar with some Maui IPA.

The next day, I met up with family for some breakfast at Liliha bakery in Ala Moana Center. I drove up to Aloha stadium to get some cheaper souvenirs from the swap meet which happens Saturdays and Sundays. Parking was $2 per person. I bought some cheap local t-shirts with Waikiki and North Shore prints on them for $4 each; bought a UH Manoa t-shirt for $10; surfers necklace with a cross for $2.50; two-piece bathing suit for my daughter for $23; temporary (2-week long) Samoan arm tattoo for my son for $25; a YSL belt for $25; matching aloha shirts+mumu dresses for $56; seashell wristbands for $2. We must have walked around the swap meet three or four times before heading over the new skyline trains. These above ground trains just opened in June 2023 and ran from Halawa Aloha stadium to Kualaka’i East Kapolei which was 9 train stops. The second to the last stop was UH West Oahu which I never got to visit having graduated from my alma mater at UH Manoa back in ‘94. They are building an entire community across the campus and definitely encouraging more people here by routing the rail through there. To board the skyline trains, we had to spend $3 for the Holo card and then add $2 value to the card which was enough for a round trip. For parking, I went up and down the Ala Wai canal where free overnight parking was allowed but I was unlucky and all spots were taken. I grudgingly drive back to the hotel parking structure to park my rental car and incur another $65 parking fee.

The Monday, we had breakfast Tropical Bar & Grill in the hotel grounds by the beach. We then drove up to North Shore to head over to Polynesian Cultural Center for our 12:30pm ticket start. I took H1 highway and passed by the Dole Plantation, Haleiwa old town, Shark’s cove. The traffic through the coastline was terrible because everyone slowed down to watch the beautiful scenery. We stopped by McDonald’s nearby Brigham Young University and I noticed there was a lot of roosters and chickens walking around freely. There was a lot more than I remembered. Parking was free and I prepurchased the $79 tickets for the self-guided tour to see the 6 villages only. I didn’t get the dinner or the HA late night show because the family didn’t really like the Kalua pig or the all you can eat buffet. We also didn't want to drive back through H3 highway at night because of lack of street lighting. We got to see all the villages and the performances except for Tahiti. There was just too much to see and do to fit everything inside a 5 hour window. I enjoyed seeing Kap again after 20 years and was surprised he was still climbing coconut trees at his age. He has now resorted to selling his artwork and we follow him on Instagram and TikTok @kapcultureandart. The Haka performance at Aotearoa village is always popular and I think everyone enjoyed that the most. We did the canoe ride around the park close to the end of the day to avoid long lineups. They didn’t have the parade of all the villages on the water and I’m not sure if they have eliminated that from the event schedules which was unfortunate. We walked around with our matching aloha+mumu attire and at least two people commented that they appreciated our look. For dinner, we ate at the Korean food truck at $15 per plate which I thought was overly expensive. The drive back was nice as there was still some sunlight to see the beautiful mountain forests. I was able to find free parking that night too on Ala Wai canal. I realized later on that the front desk didn’t really keep track of when I parked and when I didn’t park at the hotel, they just enabled access throughout my whole stay. I could have just stayed at the parking structure and told them I didn’t but that would not  have been against the aloha spirit.

On Tuesday, I rented us some snorkeling gear for $10 per set which included the goggles and fins. We drove up to the end of Waikiki at Kaimana beach where they had a coral reef and plenty of colourful fish, sea urchins. Sea cucumbers, and some some crabs. I couldn’t believe they were this close to the shore, it was amazing. Next we drove up to Diamond Head to see if we can hike to the top. The reservation website unfortunately showed no available parking spots at the top. We could have parked at the bottom and taken the Uber to the foot of the hiking trail but it was too hot to do anything strenuous. We decided to drive up to east Honolulu instead to see Haunama Bay and the Blowhole lookout. I tried making a reservation at Haunama Bay but unfortunately they are closed on Tuesdays. We drove by it instead and stopped by blowhole lookout. We walked down to a secluded beach below and climbed inside a cave. It was very windy that day because of Tropical storm Calvin slated to hit the big Island Hill on Wednesday. We walked up Waikiki strip after that to the Royal Hawaiian Center to watch free hula show and live band. I met up with my old friend for some ramen noodles at Ward Center and got to meet his lovely family too for the first time. We stopped by Ala Moana beach and threw the football back and forth reminiscing the days before responsibilities. It was a very memorable night. 

On Wednesday, we drove to Waipahu to meet up with family and have some brunch at Zippy’s. We then met up with another family around Aloha Stadium area at Ala Ilima street. We drove up with them to North Shore to Kualoa Ranch for 90 minute Jungle Expedition Tour. We had a very funny tour guide who provided Hawaiian history, culture, and movie trivia covering Jurassic World, Jumanji, and 50 First Dates. We also did a small hike up to a lookout point for some photos. Breathtaking! I drove back to Ala Moana foodcourt for some dinner. If you can avoid this place, please have dinner at a healthier establishment. Two nights in a row, I have had the saltiest of foods because I ordered Tonktasu Spicy Ramen one night and Curry another night. I had to ask the ramen shop to add more broth to help with dilute the sodium. I should have gotten some refund that night. I headed back to the hotel, brought down the Longboard beer from the hotel fridge instead of spending the $15 for a 9oz beer at Tapa bar, and listed to some live band. We also met up with family who worked in the kitchen and he brought some pizza and salmon poke from the luau that night. I did try to look for parking again and must have gone around at least 5 times to no avail. I begrudgingly parked in the hotel parking lot that night making it 3 nights out of the 5, but it did work out well because i had to drag all our luggages to the car the next day so it helped that I parked near the hotel. I did end up saving a little but found out when I checked out that night that they charged me twice on Tuesday and that they automatically assumed I would park there for the entire duration of my stay with no means of determining if I did or not. This means I could have parked there everyday and just told them I only parked the first night if I wanted to. I couldn’t do that however and neither should you (wink). I must have stayed until 1 am that night packing and knew I had to wake up at 5am to avoid any traffic getting to the airport the next day.

On Thursday, I was glad we left early because there was no traffic getting there. I parked the car outside the Economy rental gates, dropped the keys in the overnight return mailbox, and called the Uber to the airport which took 7 minutes and cost me US$11. I checked in, paid the $30 to checkin one luggage, went through a short TSA lineup, walked to our gate and waited for the Hawaiian Airlines agent for the seat assignments to Maui. The problem with cheap tickets via Expedia is having to wait for seat assignments which usually don’t happen until we are close to boarding and by then, all the good seats are taken. We were given seats at the very end of the aircraft and there were no spots left in the overhead compartments for our three carry-on luggages. That meant having to exit the baggage claim area and lining up again through security TSA checkup. Maui always had long lineups going through security checkups and this was no exception. I had a 3 hour layover which was fine because I was also contemplating going out of the airport for some sightseeing but decided against it because of these long lineups coming back. Once checked in, I find out that there was a delay out of Seattle so we didn’t get to fly out of Maui anyway until 6pm so we have already been travelling for 12 hours by that time and I was tired but had to keep going because I know I still have to drive home after that. I arrived at Seatac at around 3am and was glad the Surestay Best Western hotel operated a 24 hour shuttle. I called them for pickup and the driver drove us back to our car which was thankfully still in one piece. This hotel was great and provided ample security I felt. 

When I got back home, it was 6 am on Friday morning which meant we had been travelling for 25 hours. That is insane and I would not put my family through that again. The savings was not worth it. My recommendations for a truly relaxing Hawaiian vacation are:

  • If you use Expedia to book your travel, do not pick the flights that put you on standby seats;
  • Pay a bit more for direct flights with no layovers;
  • If you need a rental car, make sure you bring copies of your car insurance. They ask for it.
  • Check the office hours and overnight drop box location if available, in case your flight is very early in the morning. Arrange with the rental agent in advance your return agreement.
  • Haunama Bay is closed on Tuesdays so make sure you reserve online a few days in advance.
  • The Diamond Head parking lot fills up quick, make sure to book online a few days in advance.
  • You can save on tickets at the Polynesian Cultural Center by skipping the Luau, Grand buffet, or the HA evening performance. The 5 hour self guided tour of the 6 villages is more that enough.
  • Reserve at Kualoa Ranch early if you want to see the Movie Site Tour as that sells out quickly.
  • Give friends and loved ones at least 2 weeks advanced notice of your itinerary so that everyone know what to expect when;
  • Stay at Hilton Hawaiian Village or the Outrigger Hotels right on the beach to avoid having to cross Kalakau Ave to get to the water;
  • Find out in advance where to park your car for free around the area, or include in your travel costs hotel parking to save you from having to waste time each night looking for free street parking.
  • Do not shop at ABC stores. Go to Aloha Stadium instead and buy your souvenirs there;
  • Ensure your park and sleep hotel offers 24 hour shuttle pickup from the airport.
  • Look into TSA pre check enrolment to save yourself from long lineups.


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