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NerdWallet: How to do a Hawaiian vacation on a budget

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This article is reprinted by permission from NerdWallet

When deciding where to travel this summer, Hawaii checks all the boxes for many tourists. The islands’ lush, tropical landscape provides a contrast from two years of mostly staying at home. It’s a far-off getaway, but it won’t require a negative COVID-19 test to return to the continental U.S. And, there’s no shortage of luxury.

Within the first two weeks of Hawaii’s announcement to lift travel restrictions, Expedia says it saw a nearly 30% increase in searches for spring and summer trips to Hawaii’s major ports. (Since March 26, 2022, the day after Hawaii’s indoor mask mandate ended, there have been no COVID-related requirements for arriving domestic passengers.)

Demand in some of the top destinations in Hawaii is outpacing pre-pandemic levels. Expedia says it’s already seeing six times more bookings for hotels on Hawaii’s Big Island for September 2022 than it did in September 2019. Oahu — which Expedia says is one of the most popular destinations — is seeing double digit-percentage increases in demand this summer versus 2019.

But while Hawaii might have a laid-back, low-stress vibe, the rules of supply and demand still apply. Couple that with rising travel costs everywhere due to rapid inflation, and a trip to Hawaii this year likely won’t be cheap.

However, you can still save money on a Hawaiian vacation. Here’s how to travel to Hawaii on a budget.

Airfare

If you’ve accumulated a stash of points and miles, flights to Hawaii can prove a good way to spend them. There are many ways to book cheap Hawaii flights with points and miles, especially if you’re willing to transfer miles between partner airlines. Among the biggest airlines flying to Hawaii are Delta Air Lines
DAL,
-2.04%
,
American Airlines
AAL,
-3.62%

and Southwest Airlines
LUV,
-3.54%
.

If you can earn a Southwest Airlines Companion Pass and you’d like to save on flights to Hawaii, this is an excellent opportunity to use it. The pass is essentially a buy-one-get-one deal on your Southwest flight, where you book a flight with cash or points, and you can book another at no cost aside from taxes and fees (typically just $5.60 per one-way trip).

If you can’t choose just one island, island-hopping in Hawaii is fairly convenient, as most flights between islands take less than an hour. The key when island-hopping: flexibility. Most of the best interisland deals are for flights through Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, so consider placing Oahu in the middle of your itinerary to take advantage of its interisland availability.

Be flexible on dates, too. Southwest has plenty of interisland airfares for just $45 — but if you’re married to a specific flight time or book last-minute, realize that some flights cost more than $200.

Lodging

Most of the major hotel brands have a strong presence in Hawaii, which can be handy if you have hotel points or free night certificates.

Hilton
HLT,
-2.38%

is an especially big player in Hawaii, and its lodging runs the gamut from affordable to opulent. If you have a Hilton free night certificate, which can be earned through certain Hilton credit cards, head to Maui. There you’ll find the Grand Wailea, A Waldorf Astoria Resort. One of Hilton’s most grandiose resorts, the Grand Wailea hosts a 2,000-foot-long pool complete with waterfalls and slides. Standard nightly room rates can easily run more than $1,500, but free night certificates can cover it.

If you’re traveling as a family or with a group, consider booking a vacation rental through a service like Airbnb
ABNB,
+0.02%

or Vrbo. They are sometimes cheaper than hotels and typically don’t require you to pay resort fees, which are otherwise common. They also often have driveways and kitchens, so you can avoid expensive hotel parking and the cost of dining out.

Watch: Hawaii’s Kīlauea Volcano erupting last year

Other ways to visit Hawaii on a budget

Dine out strategically

Speaking of dining out, it can certainly be part of the Hawaiian experience. But it can also eat up a huge chunk of your budget. Understand when you’re paying for mediocre food but a stellar view. If you’re up for adventure, head to a convenience store for fresh poke and Spam musubi, then find a beach (there’s no shortage of them) for a free, oceanfront dinner view.

Sidestep the paid luau

As far as entertainment, you can certainly pay hundreds of dollars for your group to experience a luau. While the array of entertainment and buffet food can be worth it for some travelers, there are plenty of free ways to watch hula, hear Hawaiian music and learn about the culture. Many major malls in Hawaii, such as Waikiki’s Royal Hawaiian Center mall, offer free shows and classes in lei making, hula, ukulele, lauhala weaving and more. On the Big Island, free coffee farm tours are abundant.

Some hotels also make their entertainment available to the public. Head to Marriott’s
MAR,
-0.67%

Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa to watch the nightly lele kawa (cliff jumping).

More: 3 tips for saving money on summer travel despite higher oil prices

Swap ticketed activities for cheaper counterparts

Some major, ticketed tourist attractions offer some components of their tours for free. At the Maui Tropical Plantation, you might pay $25 for a tram tour, but you can still explore a good chunk of the grounds, including its market, craft studios and cafe, at no cost. On Oahu, Dole
DOLE,
-0.74%

Plantation tours start at $7.75 per person, but purchasing a ticket might not be necessary. Admission to the grounds is free, and there you can typically find no-cost activities like pineapple-cutting and chocolate-making demonstrations, as well as a fish feeding pond.

Watch: Dive at Night in Hawaii for a Unique Experience

The bottom line

Travel to Hawaii was always popular — and all signs point to its popularity growing. According to a February 2022 NerdWallet survey, 28% of Americans who say the way they travel has changed since the beginning of the pandemic say they have stopped going on international trips and only travel domestically. Meanwhile, 16% only travel to destinations that don’t require COVID-19 testing or proof of vaccination. For tourists from the continental U.S., Hawaii checks both of those boxes, and a lot more. The Aloha State might be one of the best places to travel to this year — just have a plan for how you’ll pay for it.

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Sally French writes for NerdWallet. Email: sfrench@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @SAFmedia.

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