BACKPACKING HAWAII: THE ONLY GUIDE YOU NEED
BACKPACKING HAWAII: THE ONLY GUIDE YOU NEED
Despite our travels round the world, there’s two words that continuously shock people most – backpacking Hawaii. Surely, it’s reserved for the rich? A haven for the honeymooners? In some parts yes, but we were determined to tick Hawaii off our backpacking bucket list and now that we have, we’re sharing the secrets on how we did it. Backpacking Hawaii on a budget is not only doable but we had the most unforgettable time and didn’t feel like our modest budget held us back, here’s our secrets.
BEFORE BACKPACKING HAWAII – STEP ONE: CHOOSE YOUR ISLAND
If like us, you had no idea that Hawaii is made up of more than 100 islands your first task is choosing which island to visit. There are eight main islands although only six are open to visitors – one is privately owned and one access is prohibited.
Before backpacking Hawaii you need to ask yourself these questions:
- How much is your budget?
- How much time do you have?
- What do you want to do whilst you’re there?
All are magic in their own way, so we’ve provided a very brief roundup before your backpacking Hawaii adventure begins.
Hawaii / The Big Island
The island of “Hawaii” is more commonly known as The Big Island. Although the largest island, it is the third most popular choice for visitors but is the best island if you want to see lava.
The second largest island. Due to its mountain ranges and valleys, it is often referred to as the Valley Isle. Maui is the second most popular Hawaiian Island with tourists however, as it is nicknamed “playground of the wealthy,” it is not the most popular if you’re planning on backpacking Hawaii as budget accommodation can be hard to find!
Also known as “Garden Island” Kauai’s tropical climate means the island is covered in waterfalls and lush vegetation. Kauai is not only the fourth largest of the islands but the fourth most visited also. If beaches are the reason you’re backpacking Hawaii, Kauai has more coastline with beaches than any other Hawaiian island. The best part? As there are so many beaches (and far less visitors) it’s likely your footprints will be the only ones there!
Home to Honolulu, as well as Pearl Harbor and the world famous Waikiki beach, it’s no surprise if this is the only Hawaiian island you’ve heard of. With nearly 4.7 million visitors visiting Oahu each year, it is the most visited of all the Hawaiian islands. Due to its popularity, there is accommodation to suit all budgets as well as numerous free activities, making it the ideal island if you’re planning on backpacking Hawaii.
Molokai is the fifth largest Hawaiian island. The population is approximately 8,000 residents with the majority based in or around the main town, Kaunakakai. Nearly 40% of Molokai’s residents are of Hawaiian descent, earning it’s nickname as “The Most Hawaiian Island”. It is home to the world’s highest sea cliffs and the stunning Kalaupapa Peninsula. If you’re looking for tours and resorts, Molokai is not the place. With only 1 hotel on the island (plus a few condos as holiday rentals) and only a handful of alcohol licenses, expect a slow and cultural experience of “the old Hawaii” not catered to tourism.
Believe it or not, nearly the entire island of Lanai was once covered by a pineapple plantation, earning it’s nickname as “The Pineapple Island”. Although most of the island is still undeveloped, several resorts and golf courses are now open to tourists, making it the fifth most visited Hawaiian Island.
As it’s the seventh largest island, we’ve included it in our wee round up, however it’s impossible when backpacking Hawaii to visit Niihau as it is privately owned.
Lastly, the smallest of the eight main Hawaiian islands, Kahoolawe is only 45 square miles! Again, you will be unable to visit when backpacking Hawaii as the island is uninhabited and as it was once used by military for target practice, access is prohibited because unexploded artillery shells are still present on the island.
What Is The Cheapest Hawaiian Island?
In an ideal world we’d all have the time and money to visit every island however if backpacking Hawaii on a budget we recommend Oahu and The Big Island. If searching for the cheapest Hawaiian island, this post compares the cost of them all, with the Big Island and Oahu proving most popular if visiting Hawaii on a budget. We will share a few hidden gems so you can avoid the tourist traps whilst sticking to a budget with the best free activities and money saving tips! We guarantee your time backpacking Hawaii will be incredible, without breaking the bank!
BEFORE BACKPACKING HAWAII – STEP TWO: VISAS
Like Mainland US, you do not need a Visa for Hawaii for up to 90 days, if the intention of your trip is solely sightseeing, transit or in this case backpacking. For backpacking Hawaii, you will likely be required to purchase an ESTA through the Visa Waiver Program. As you are visiting Hawaii on a budget, you will be glad to hear an ESTA is relatively cheap and costs $14 (about £9) and generally is valid for multiple trips over a period of two years. Like all trips, check if you require a Visa as everyone’s passport follows different rules.
BEFORE BACKPACKING HAWAII – STEP THREE: BUDGET
Firstly, read our post on how anyone can afford to travel the world to learn a few bonus tips to save for your backpacking Hawaii trip. Secondly, prior to backpacking Hawaii, Daz the excel enthusiast created “the spreadsheet of doom” a budget planner which helped us track our savings prior to our travels and track expenditure whilst we were away, this can be downloaded for free from our resources page.
BACKPACKING HAWAII FOR FREE
Fun fact, backpacking Hawaii for FREE is possible. Well, sort of. Although you will still need to pay flights, the most expensive thing about backpacking Hawaii is accommodation and these are how we stayed (and played) in Hawaii for free.
When backpacking Hawaii, 4 weeks were spent on Oahu where we didn’t spend a single penny on accommodation thanks to Workaway. In exchange for practising English and a few household chores we dined like kings and stayed a stone’s throw from Honolulu for free. Our lovely host family also gave us a car to explore the island and took us to the best places to eat in Oahu which only the locals know about! Sound like a good deal? Not only did we create a full Workaway review with absolutely everything you need to know so you can join too, we also let you in on a few secrets as to how to get your dream host to say yes with our Workaway profile tips!
2. House Sitting
We so wished we discovered this prior to backpacking Hawaii. The idea is simple – you care for the home and pets of a holidaying family, and in exchange you stay in their home for free. During our travels in Australia, we spent Christmas in a beautiful home with a private pool for free thanks to joining Trusted Housesitters. For the small fee of £89.00 per year (which is basically one night’s accommodation) you have one year of unlimited access to beautiful homes all over the world.
3. Couch Surfing
We’ve yet to try couch surfing as we’ve had the best time using options 1 and 2 above, however it is hugely popular in Hawaii. The site lists nearly 13,000 hosts in the state of Hawaii alone! It is the perfect balance between the two – you aren’t expected to volunteer your time like Workaway, but the house isn’t empty like Trusted Housesitters. Essentially, it’s a bed to sleep in for free, although we have heard rave reviews about fabulous hosts who also play tour guide during your stay and staying with a local will always be more educational than an expensive resort.
BACKPACKING HAWAII COSTS
We’re not the type of people to sugar coat the truth – paradise comes at a price. Although we said visiting Hawaii on a budget is definitely doable, do not expect it to be as cheap as backpacking Europe. Hopefully you’ve learned a few tips on free accommodation which can save a huge chunk of your budget.
The time of year also plays a major factor and by us backpacking Hawaii in January this was peak season so flight costs were high. We recommend reading this post, which has numerous strategies for finding the lowest flights to Hawaii specifically.
As a rough guide backpacking Hawaii costs are as follows:
Hostels In Hawaii: £30.00 – £50.00 (for a dorm bed)
Airbnb Room: £40.00 – £75.00+
Car Rental Per Day: £20.00 – £40.00+
Food Truck Lunch: £7.00 – £12.00
Coffee From A Cafe: £2.50 – £3.50
Beer At The Bar: £5.00 – £6.00+
Backpacking Big Island Cost – 6 Days, 2 People
Transport (Approx. £300.00)
On the big island we hired a car through Thrifty, the car hire including insurance was approx. £200.00 for the 6 days.
We also spent around £100.00 on fuel during our time on the Big Islands (this was roughly 3 full tanks).
Accommodation (Approx. £276.00)
We booked our accommodation through Airbnb for the Big Island, in a Jungle Hut outside of Hilo – ideal for visiting Hawaii on a budget as it had cooking facilities to make our own food (which was the intention, but we ate out as the food was too good). Due to the time of year, this accommodation was considered “cheap” for the Big Island. However, it was one of the most unique experiences that we have ever had as the hosts taught us fire dancing and introduced us to traditional ahi poke.
Food, Drinks and Activities (Approx. £270.00)
Most of our activities on the Big Island were free, our highest expenditure was eating out, due to having just arrived from the UK our jet lag meant we were awake at 5am, and asleep by 8pm which resulted in eating out almost every meal.
Backpacking Oahu Cost – 27 Days, 2 People
Transport (Approx. £40.00)
Our Workaway host was kind enough to give us a car, so the only transportation costs we had were for fuel in Oahu.
Our accommodation in Oahu was FREE due to Workaway. For a rough guide, hostels in Hawaii are not cheap and after a very quick look Waikiki beach side hostel including breakfast is £37 per night for a dorm bed.
Food, Drinks and Activities (Approx. £700.00)
We were provided with 3 meals a day by our Workaway host however, we did eat out at some amazingly cheap places which were hidden gems, thanks to our hosts suggestions. Although a few are pricey, many places to eat in Oahu are affordable on a backpacking budget. The most expensive activity that we did whilst backpacking Hawaii was the Polynesian Cultural Center which was approx. £110.00 for both of us. We did splurge a little on food, drinks and activities because we were saving on accommodation, however £350 each for 27 days isn’t too bad considering it’s Hawaii!
MONEY SAVING TIPS FOR BACKPACKING HAWAII
Download “Da Bus” app for real-time information about where the nearest bus is and you can even take a virtual tour to understand what you’ll see on route. It’s the most cost effective to buy a one-day pass for $5.50 to hop on and off at your leisure. Uber also is in use, so use our money off voucher to save extra pennies!
If backpacking Hawaii, these are the perfect way to save money! If you can spare an hour or two to listen to the most boring presentation of your life you will score a free (or heavily discounted) activity as a thank you. Just show some fake interest but don’t actually commit to buying anything. There are SO MANY as you walk through Honolulu just look for anyone smartly dressed holding a leaflet, chances are they’re selling a timeshare!
Although it looks more expensive, an Airbnb host is often the perfect money saving way to get your own tour guide. Not only did ours teach us fire dancing, but they gave us our first taste of traditional Ahi (Tuna) and offered to take us out on their boat. When researching for this post, we found accommodation on Airbnb far cheaper than Booking.com and cheaper than most hostels in Hawaii.
5. Pick Up Leaflets At The Airport
We were able to do a free coffee plantation tour thanks to a coupon in a leaflet and in some larger tourist guide magazines, the back pages are filled with vouchers and discount coupons so definitely grab a few as you wait for luggage!
6. Groupon Or Get Your Guide
Discount sites will become your new best friend if visiting Hawaii on a budget with Get your Guide & Groupon being our favourites. Although we recommend many free activities there are some unmissable tours such as Polynesian Cultural Center which are so worth the money and we really recommend when backpacking Hawaii.
7. Travel Off Season
This is common sense, but when backpacking Hawaii you will soon realise it’s the vacay destination for American families which is not only reflected by the busy beaches and traffic but air fares and accommodation costs. May and September are ideal months for visiting Hawaii on a budget, they’re perfect for the best weather, least crowds, and lowest costs.
8. Eat Like A Local
Check out our North Shore Oahu post where we cover our favourite food trucks and farmer markets, perfect for picking up fresh produce if visiting Hawaii on a budget!
9. Buffet Dining
It is America after all and we were surprised at how many buffet dining options there were. A one off fee + eat as much as you like = backpackers dream. Our best places to eat in Oahu explains more.
Camping on Bellows Field beach park was a favourite memory from backpacking Hawaii. In Oahu a 3 day camping permit (Friday until Monday) is only $32. More information can be found here.
Now we have the finances out the way, let’s get into the fun stuff. Getting to Hawaii is the expensive part but once you’re there, it’s surprising just how many free activities there are! When backpacking Hawaii we were able to dine like locals, tick lava off our bucket list and see some of the best views all without splashing the cash. In Oahu we did have the advantage of living with locals who showed us a few hidden gems which we’ll share with you too. On the Big Island our Airbnb host was an unexpected hero teaching us fire dancing until the early hours of the morning!
THINGS TO DO IN OAHU FOR FREE
Watch Our Highlights From Backpacking Hawaii In Our Oahu Vlog
If you want the best views of Oahu without spending a penny, then you need to read this post on the best hikes on Oahu. Hands down, the best hikes we have ever done (although hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing would be a close contender). The best part is, there are hikes on Oahu suitable for all abilities. If you are beginners (like us) or you only want to drag yourself away from the beach for an hour or two, Oahu has the perfect hike for everyone!
Escape the expensive resorts and over prices restaurants of Honolulu, and head to the North Shore for a true taste of Hawaiian culture. When backpacking Hawaii, the North Shore had so much to see and do without spending a penny. Luckily for you, we created a round up of the best things to do in North Shore Oahu, with free highlights including the arty town of Haleiwa and the dole pineapple plantation (which is free to enter, you just need to buy the famous dole whip!)
Free Waikiki Activities From Hula Dancing To Ukulele Lessons
Imagine backpacking Hawaii and getting to learn ukulele, hula dance and weave a lei all FOR FREE. The Royal Hawaiian Center has a jam packed schedule of free workshops, events and entertainment to encourage visitors and locals to embrace the authentic Hawaiian culture and traditions. Find the class for you, from their busy events schedule here.
Kaka’ako – Downtown Honolulu Street Art
Kaka’ako is north-west district of Waikiki and home to some of the best street art we have ever seen, even after living in Melbourne for 6 months! Thanks to the graffiti gurus at Pow! Wow! Hawaii, an organisation that promotes street art and artists, this otherwise sleepy industrial area full of mechanic garages, warehouses and factories has been transformed into the most colourful outdoor gallery with few walls left untouched. Such a fab find when backpacking Hawaii as it’s too easy to spend a whole morning here, discovering art around every corner!
Statue Of Duke Kahanamoku
Standing right on Kuhio Beach (a part of Waikiki Beach) is the statue of surf legend Duke Kahanamoku. The statue is a popular photo opportunity with tourists, but four nights each week around sunset, a traditional torch lighting ceremony takes place by the statue. This is then followed by a free one hour hula show with talented entertainers so it’s definitely worth a look!
Sunset On The Beach Outdoor Cinema
What better way to spend an evening on Waikiki Beach that in front of a huge 30-foot screen watching one of your favourite movies? Approximately once a month, sunset on the beach hosts an outdoor cinema so you can do just that – completely free! Who said backpacking Hawaii was expensive?! View the schedule here.
Fireworks At The Hilton
This was one of our favourite evenings from backpacking Hawaii. Each Friday, the Hilton Hawaiian Village puts on a free firework show on Waikiki Beach. With the fireworks show starting at 7:45pm (or sometimes 8pm depending on the season) we took a BBQ and some deck chairs and made it a full evening affair. It does get crowded so arrive early to secure your space and that way you can also watch the beautiful sunset beforehand!
A Pearl Harbor visit must be done when in Oahu to not only learn about the devastating events of December 7th 1941 but to experience a day that changed the course of history and forced the US into World War II. Each morning 1,300 free tickets are released, so arrive for doors opening at 7.00am to ensure your Pearl Harbor visit. From the visitor centre, you pick up your tickets and watch a film on the historic events of Pearl Harbor before taking a shuttle boat to the floating memorial shrine, which has been built on top of the sunken Arizona.
Ok, slight lie, this one is NOT free but it was only $5.00 per person and so worth the money. The Byodo-In Temple is such a beautiful and peaceful place to visit during your time backpacking Hawaii. It is a non-practicing Buddhist temple which welcomes people of all faiths to enjoy it’s beauty and peaceful surroundings. It is located at the foot of the Ko’olau Mountains in Valley of the Temples Memorial Park and is a small scale replica of the Japanese Byodo-in Temple which is over 500 years old! It was built in the late 60s to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii however has been used as a film set in recent years with episodes of Hawaii Five-O and Lost being filmed there.
FREE THINGS TO DO ON BIG ISLAND, HAWAII
From our time backpacking Hawaii, the Big Island was everything we hoped and dreamed. It was like witnessing worlds colliding with the luscious rainforest, fiery lava and mesmerising ocean all in one place. The landscape of the Big Island is mind blowing and best of all, exploring the island’s natural beauty is completely free – you just need to know where to go!
Backpacking Hawaii – The Big Island Roadtrip
Lava On The Big Island
One of the main reasons we wanted to go backpacking Hawaii was to see lava. Since the eruption of the Kilauea Volcano in August 2018 both the landscape and local people were left devasted after 13.7 square miles of land was covered in lava, destroying over 700 homes and covering over 30 miles of road.
We drove along Crater Rim Road and Chain of Craters Road, before parking up (for free) and then you have an option for hiring a bike to do the 10km trek, a shuttle bus or walking (which is obviously the free option)!
Due to the recent eruptions, the access routes we used during our trip may no longer be in use so do your research prior to establish where and how you can see lava on the big island. Do not let the eruption deter you from backpacking Hawaii as the island relies on tourism and even if the lava is not currently flowing the landscape is otherworldly regardless!
The Painted Church – Captain Cook
The Painted Church is officially called St. Benedict Roman Catholic Church and is situated in the South Kona district near Captain Cook. To be honest, when backpacking Hawaii we have no idea how we stumbled upon this stunning hidden gem but it is so worth visiting. The interiors are adorned in colourful paintings and depictions of the bible, painted by a priest Father John. These paintings were used to teach the Bible as many people could not read or write. Like most churches, it is completely open and free to enter.
Watch The Snow & Stars At Mauna Kea
When backpacking Hawaii one of the best free activities is stargazing. We were mind blown by the amazing array of stars due to the little light pollution and stunning open spaces. When visiting the Big Island one of the best viewing points for both the stars AND snow (yes, snow in Hawaii) is Mauna Kea.
Mauna Kea is in fact a dormant volcano, and at 13,800 feet above the Pacific Ocean, not only is it the highest point in Hawaii (hence the occasional snow) but technically Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world. This is because if you measured it from the base under the ocean, Mauna Kea would be 33,000 feet which is even taller than Mount Everest!
We drove from the Mauna Kea Access Road up to the visitor centre, which is around 9,200 feet above sea level. We did the drive around sunset which was one of the most beautiful drives, but it was so busy we struggled for a space, so arrive as early as you can!
It is worth waiting around as the stargazing here is a once in a lifetime opportunity – even better it’s completely free! It can get chilly so we recommend taking a jumper and trainers instead of flip flops as your toes will get cold! As a little tip, the visitor centre sold overpriced pot noodles and hot chocolate as free hot water is provided, so if you take your own tea bags, noodle pots etc you can keep warm whilst you stargaze without getting ripped off!
Due to our rental car, there was rules on how far up Mauna Kea we could drive. To be honest, this didn’t affect our view of the night sky as we could see it regardless of the fact we weren’t at the summit. Keep this in mind during your backpacking Hawaii adventures if you have plans to tick the highest point in Hawaii off your bucket list as your hire company may not let you!
Another (Free!) highlight of the Big Island is the beautiful waterfalls dotted around the island. There are two which you must squeeze into your backpacking Hawaii schedule as they will take your breathe away!
The Rainbow Falls are an 80 ft. waterfall in the Wailuku river in Hilo. As the name suggests if you time it well, you can view a rainbow formation over the falls. The best time is early morning!
Involves a short, easy but very scenic hike taking around 1 hour. Firstly you will arrive at Kahuna falls which plummet 100 feet, follow round the bend to Akaka falls which are an impressive 442 feet! When backpacking Hawaii, these cannot be missed!
Hilo Farmers Markets
The town of Hilo itself is fun to explore and wander the colourful streets. We loved the quaint shops, authentic architecture and vibrant street art. When backpacking Hawaii, try and time your visit to Hilo to coincide with the farmers markets. We were stunned at how big the avocados were here and haven’t found bigger since! Not to mention if you do buy anything, their produce is far cheaper than supermarket chains!
Panaʻewa Rainforest Zoo
After wandering round Hilo, there is Panaʻewa Rainforest Zoo nearby – the only natural rainforest zoo in the United States. The luscious plant life is just as interesting as the animals, with so much to see and learn. It was the first time we’d seen peacocks in the wild as there were several roaming the car park here, which Lauren found particularly fascinating! It is free to enter (although we gave a donation and encourage you to do so) and it is open 9-4pm every day. More info here.
Coffee / Chocolate / Macadamia Plantation – Free Tour
Fun fact, Hawaii is the only US state where cacao is grown and there are numerous coffee, macadamia and cacao plantations which offer free tours! The best part about free tours? Free samples! We did the Mountain Thunder Coffee Tour and loved it. We found it in a leaflet we picked up from the airport, so definitely keep an eye on those back pages of tourist magazines for coupons like this! The tour lasted around 30 minutes and then there were free tastes of both coffee and tea as well as the tastiest chocolate covered coffee beans. More info on Mountain Thunder.
Punaluʻu (Black Sand) Beach
This beach was unforgettable for two reasons: black sand and turtles. It was the first time we had ever seen both and it was such a memorable experience, we beg you to add this beautiful beach to your backpacking Hawaii bucket list. Please be careful near the turtles, there are laws in place in Hawaii regarding how close you can get with hefty fines in place.
ARE YOU READY TO GO BACKPACKING HAWAII?
Hopefully after reading this guide, you have read our tips on how anyone can afford to travel the world, have our budget tracker downloaded, have our free accommodation tips saved and have a free activity (or 10) you’d love to do! Let us know in the comments if you have any further questions and how your backpacking Hawaii trip goes!
For more photos of our adventure, please take a peek at our Hawaii gallery.
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