This post may contain affiliate links. Meaning, at no extra cost to you, we may earn a commission, or miles and points from the companies mentioned in this post.
Hawai’i is notoriously expensive but there are lots of ways to keep your trip reasonable, not limited to sleeping in your rental car, eating nothing but pb&js, and showering at public beach parks. PSYCH! Okay, we dabbled in those things. Greg and I just spent an awesome, like ready to move there, 8 days/8 nights and it cost less than $1200 for everything. Here’s how we did it and how you can too!
We are fortunate that as part of his benefits, Greg’s job allows us to fly standby for free, and we did so round trip from Tucson to Kailua-Kona which would’ve cost us around $600/person if we had paid cash. All the major airlines, as well as Hawaiian and Alaska, fly to the islands of Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii, and flying from the mainland can cost anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to thousands upon thousands for a round trip flight. With so many carriers going to the Islands, and with Southwest beginning service soon (hellooooo Companion Pass), prices can get competitive and there are several programs to choose from to utilize frequent flyer miles. If you don’t have any miles yet, I’d suggest signing up for The Flight Deal daily newsletter for cheap airfare deals. Side note: Unless it’s some unbelievably great deal and you’re absolutely sure your plans won’t change, I would only recommend booking airfare through the airline’s website, and not through a third party.
Award flights, economy round trip from the mainland:
Hawaiian Airlines: 40-120k + $11.20
American: 40-100k $86.20
United: 45-90k + $86.20
Delta: 60k-infinity + $11.20
Alaska: 35-60k +$12
Now this is where I really shine. When we were in Maui I found a rental through Advantage for $112 for the week. We couldn’t find anything less than $800 for eight days on Hawai’i so I Binged ‘booking rental car with points’ and Hilton Honors came up. You can redeem minimum 12k Hilton points + cash to book a rental car through Alamo, Enterprise, or National. To pay for the whole thing would’ve cost us 133,056 Hilton points, so I tried points & cash and it ended up costing us 12,000 Hilton points + $252.20. I had never heard of this option and was happy as a lark about that massive discount! The whole thing was through a third party, but we didn’t have any trouble at the Alamo desk and were able to check in by kiosk and pick our own car, saving us gobs of time in a humid, cramped office.
Our flight didn’t get into Kailua-Kona until 9:00p and we didn’t have a single hotel program offering award nights. All the hotels were $200/night minimum, so we looked to Airbnb for the cheapest option with a late arrival and a flexible cancellation policy. We booked a private room through delta.com/airbnb to earn 2 miles/$1 and paid $203.45 for two nights. It didn’t have kitchen access, but it was a roof with a bed and wifi and indoor plumbing. But that’s Hawaii- there’s some jackass near Kona renting out the back of his dump truck for $75/night. And another offering a bed on his front lawn. Yeah, I’m sure the views are nice, but I’m human and I like a shelter. That said, when you’re not booking last minute, Airbnb has tons of awesome, reasonable properties on the Big Island to choose from. Get $40 toward your first Airbnb stay if you sign up through this link and start a dope wishlist for your life plan.
Following the Airbnb, we went straight to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and found a $10/night walk-in campsite at Nāmakanipaio. The drive-up sites are $15/night and save you about 13 steps, so we were happy to save $5/night for the extra calories burned. Nāmakanipaio is a half-mile walk to the Jaggar Museum and its amazing view of the Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, and you can see the glow of the volcano above your tent at night. It’s magical. And it offers potable water and flushing toilets and cute little cabins that don’t have electricity but do include showers for about $90/night. Check out the Volcano House site for more information on cabins, and Airbnb for fun local places outside the park.
We went to the Big Island to cross a new national park and high point off our list, but didn’t want to spend the night at sea level before hiking to Maunakea’s 13,796 ft summit. Nāmakanipaio Campground is around 4000 ft, but a long drive, so we ended up sleeping in the car in a pullout on the Mauna Loa road to acclimate above 6,000 ft before our hike. Woohoo free lodging!
We wanted to spend our last few days on the island lying by the water doing nothing, and after five days of hiking we desperately needed a shower. There are quite a few hotel chains on the Big Island at which to use award points but the trouble with big resorts is that nearly all of them charge resort fees, upwards of $30/day for “gym, pool, and wifi use”. What? Nothing makes old lady Warcken crazier than paying for things that should be included. Nearly all of them also charge parking fees, anywhere from $18-37 a day. WHAT? If resort fees make me crazy, having to pay for parking about makes my head explode.
Full disclosure: I would not recommend going to Hawaii and just staying at one resort the whole time. If a resort experience is what you want, you can find much cheaper deals on the mainland, in Central America, or the Caribbean. The Big Island is just too good to restrict yourself to one property, and it’s much too big to get around without a rental car I wouldn’t dream of paying to park. #personalopinions
Thanks to credit card applications, we have a bunch of interchangeable SPG and Marriott points burning holes in our pockets. Unfortunately the Sheraton Kona wasn’t available, but I think we would’ve been happier at the Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel anyway. The Courtyard is smack in the middle of charming downtown Kailua-Kona, doesn’t have resort fees, and offers a whopping five free parking spaces in front of the hotel (otherwise $18 for the secured lot). Again, I wouldn’t recommend spending your entire holiday there, and I would never pay cash for the property, but it was just what we needed. There are mini fridges and coffee pots in the room so we were able to keep yogurt for breakfast and get free coffee from housekeeping. We ate the rest of our groceries for lunches and walked to local places for dinner. Tunaichi Sushi is really close, very reasonable, and super good. We tried going back a second time but they were closed. Wah wah.
There are Safeways and Walmarts and a Costco on the Big Island, and prices are surprisingly reasonable compared to the mainland. For example, the $4.14 I pay for a quart of heavy whipping cream at home was just $4.84 at the Walmart in Kona. Seriously, let’s move! Note: a plain loaf of bread in Volcano Village was over $6.00. Boooo. We didn’t have a cooler, so we stocked up on dry groceries except for jelly for our pb&js (the nights were cold, it held up fine). After paying nine prices for drip coffee at Volcano House I chose to go without. $3 for drip, what a racket. We could’ve lied and said we were staying there to get it free, but we are honest folk. For each meal out we paid around $30 incl tip for the both of us, except for McDs of course, which is the best deal around.
We are simple people who enjoy simple experiences- birding, hiking, lava gazing, sunbathing, so the only thing we paid extra for outside of a bird book, a Volcanoes hiking map, and the America the Beautiful Pass we never leave home without, was the chance to snorkel with manta rays. We went for convenience over reputation and it ended up being the worst part of our trip. The snorkeling was awesome, but our boat was obviously a party barge and the crew was more concerned about showing their ass cheeks than they were about learning, or teaching us, anything about mantas. Do your research.
Lodging: $233.45 + 60,000 Marriott Rewards points
Transportation, incl gas: $298.96 + 12,000 Hilton Honors points
Food: $93.46 groceries, $227.27 restaurants
Grand total: $1121.39 + 72k points, or $140.17/day. I’ll take it!
You can see our credit card page for all the cards we personally carry and the reasons we recommend them, but here are a few that would definitely help getting to and staying on the Big Island:
Earn 30k bonus miles + a $0 companion fare after meeting the minimum spend. Buy one ticket, get one for just taxes and fees from wherever Alaska flies. Subsequent annual companion fares are $99 + taxes and fees, just for being a cardmember. Earns 3x miles Alaska purchases, 1x miles all other purchases. $75 annual fee, no foreign transaction fees.
The sign up bonus is nearly enough for one award flight, but the companion fare is where this card really pays for itself- buy one get one free to Hawaii, are you kidding me? And you still earn miles when you use it! Amazing!
Earn 50k bonus points after meeting minimum spend + 5k points for adding an authorized user. Redeem points for travel or transfer 1:1 to airline and hotel partners. Earns 2x points on travel and dining, 1x points all other purchases. $0 annual fee first year, then $95. No foreign transaction fees.
The sign up bonus is enough to cover one round trip flight on United, or two round trips on British Airways if you fly out of LAX!
Earn 15,000 bonus points after meeting minimum spend + 2,500 points for adding an authorized user. Earns 5x points on quarterly bonus categories like gas stations and grocery stores, and 1x points on all other purchases. Points can be used in conjunction with Sapphire Preferred to transfer to airline and hotel partners. No annual fee, 3% foreign transaction fees.
I use this card strictly to compliment my Sapphire Preferred and pad my Ultimate Rewards account. If you were to sign up for both cards with the minimum spend + authorized users you’d be just shy of two round trip flights from anywhere on the mainland! This is the card I’ve had the longest, because it’s free and earns huge cash back on practical categories.
Earn 65,000 bonus points after meeting minimum spend. Complimentary silver status. Earns 7x points Hilton purchases, 5x points at U.S. gas stations, restaurants, and supermarkets, 3x points all other purchases. No annual fee, no foreign transaction fees.
This card’s sign up bonus saved us almost $600 right off the bat by using our points to book a rental car, with tons of points leftover. With no annual fee or foreign transaction fees it’s a no-brainer.
Earn 100,000 bonus points after meeting minimum spend. Free night every year, up to 35,000 points. Earns 6x points Marriott and SPG purchases, 2x points all other purchases. Automatic Silver Elite Status. $95 annual fee, no foreign transaction fees.
After meeting the minimum spend and adding an authorized user, this sign up bonus is enough for three totally free nights at the Courtyard King Kamehameha (I spelled that from memory, no big deal). You could also transfer them to your SPG account for a three night stay at the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay. It’s where the giant mantas hang out.
What are your favorite ways to keep vacations budget-friendly?