Last updated on August 30, 2022 by Wandering our World
For travelers on a shoestring budget, Hawaii is seldom the first destination that pops into mind. Backpacking in Hawaii, to say the least, is not the most common way of seeing this incredible state. However maybe it should be.
Honolulu and Waikiki are famed for their luxurious high-rise resorts and high-end shopping, but Hawaii is still a great destination for budget-conscious backpackers too.
With active volcanoes, iconic surfing, and some of the world’s finest beaches, don’t let a limited budget stop you from exploring this stunning Pacific Ocean archipelago.
While Hawaii is far from the cheapest destination for backpackers, there is still much to explore and enjoy whilst keeping an eye on your budget. And for those heading to or from Asia’s famed backpacker trails like Thailand or Australia, it can offer a great stop-over midway across the Pacific Ocean.
Hawaii is not just a playground for the rich. Its stunning and diverse terrain and its beautiful beaches can be enjoyed by all. And backpacking in Hawaii is one fantastic way to see these stunning islands.
- Getting To Hawaii On A Backpacker’s Budget
- Traveling Between Islands
- Backpacker Accommodation
- Budget-Stretching Tips For Any Hawaii Backpacking Trip
- Budget-Friendly Activities For Backpackers On Each Island
Getting To Hawaii On A Backpacker’s Budget
Being the United States’ most remote state does make Hawaii a little trickier to get to within a budget. Planning in advance is key to finding a budget-friendly flight into the middle of the Pacific.
The state’s busiest airport is Daniel K. Ino.uye International Airport in Honolulu, on Oahu Island, and this airport may be the easiest to find a cheaper flight to.
The good news is that Hawaii is a popular destination, and there are a few airlines competing for your fare. Whilst that means we can find some bargain flights; it will also mean searching through options may be a little time-consuming.
The more flexible you can be with your flights, the more likely that you will be able to find a bargain flight. Try to be flexible regarding your departure point too — a slightly longer journey to the airport may translate to a lower fare for the flight across the ocean.
While flying into Oahu has more options for flights, it is worth checking the flights which land on Hawaii’s other islands too. Maui, the Big Island, and Kauai are all home to international airports too.
But if catching a wave at Waikiki is on your must-see list, you can head to Oahu first, and then travel between islands via short domestic flights.
Traveling Between Islands
The island state of Hawaii is comprised of more than 130 islands!
The good news for your wallet is that only seven of these are inhabited, and only six of those are open to tourists—Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Lanai, Molokai, and Hawaii Island.
If you plan an itinerary that includes all six of those islands, then a large part of your budget will need to be allocated to domestic flights.
But if you pick out a couple of islands to visit and keep the inter-island flights to a minimum, then you will be able to use the saved cash to truly get the most out of the islands that you do visit.
To help with the planning, we’re going to have a run through the main backpacker activities on each of Hawaii’s main islands…
Hawaii offers a full range of accommodation to suit any budget—from high-rise resorts in Waikiki to remote campgrounds on Molokai, Hawaii has it all.
With some excellent planning, you can keep your accommodation costs down by mixing some camping on the trails with some hostel stays when you are in the towns.
Be sure to check ahead for availability when looking to camp, and to obtain any necessary permits for national and state parks in advance.
Another option to consider is the campervan. While the price to hire a campervan are not cheap itself, it does give you both a mode of transport for exploring the islands and your accommodation.
For meeting fellow backpackers, and trading stories and travel tips, check out Hawaii’s hostel scene. Oahu, the Big Island, and Maui have plenty of choices, but the smaller islands of Lanai and Molokai will have fewer hostels to choose from.
Budget-Stretching Tips For Any Hawaii Backpacking Trip
Take A Tent
Camping is the best way to reduce costs in Hawaii. Hotels can be very expensive, and hostels are limited in some locations.
There is a plethora of campgrounds dotted throughout the islands, but book ahead and check to see if you need a permit too.
Pack A Mask & Snorkel
if you plan to check out Hawaii’s diverse marine life, pack your own mask and snorkel so you don’t need to rent them every time. Then you have a free activity you can do everyday.
Renting your own vehicle is the best way to get around most islands, especially the less touristy ones. But bear in mind that rental prices can be high and gas prices can be very different on each island, with Molokai known as being expensive for gas.
An alternative is to hitchhike. Many attest to Hawaii being a very safe place for hitchhiking. Always keep your wits about you, but there will be plenty of lovely fellow backpackers driving around the islands too.
Take Advantage Of Nature
Get lost in nature at every opportunity! Many of Hawaii’s magical natural features are free of charge. But not all—some require a permit; some require a certified local guide.
But trekking and hiking the trails in Hawaii or snorkeling the reefs along its coastline are far less expensive than parasailing or helicopter flights!
Especially if you plan to camp, cook your own food rather than eating in restaurants. A camping stove will help you keep food expenditure to a minimum and stretch your backpacking budget a little further.
Budget-Friendly Activities For Backpackers On Each Island
Home to Honolulu and Waikiki, Oahu is perhaps the more expensive of the Hawaiian Islands. But with the busiest airport, it may be the cheapest gateway into the archipelago.
And there is plenty to see and do on Oahu that will not eat into your budget too much. Upon arriving in Honolulu, it’s definitely worth spending a day wandering around Waikiki – enjoying the world-famous beach, trying delicious local food, and taking in the breath-taking Hawaiian scenery.
For surfers, or those interested in trying surfing, Waikiki is perhaps the world’s most iconic surf spot.
Whilst surf lessons may eat into your budget a little, there’s also plenty to do in Oahu that will be a little less painful financially.
One such option is a visit to Pearl Harbor, as long as you plan ahead. Whilst there are options to join expensive tours of Pearl Harbor, it is also possible to obtain free tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial, and cheaper tickets to the visitor center tours. Although be aware the free tickets will incur a $1 booking fee.
No trip to Hawaii is complete without a visit to a volcano. And Diamond Head State Monument, at the eastern end of Waikiki, is one of Hawaii’s most famous attractions. Get up early in the morning to avoid the crowds and the heat and hike up an extinct volcano for some spectacular views.
For a mere $5, you can gain access to some excellent hiking trails and be rewarded by those stunning views from the top.
Another way to spend the day enjoying Oahu is to head to the North Shore and check out its beaches. A great place for a spot of snorkeling is Shark’s Cove. Don’t let the name put you off—the name is derived from the shape of the reef here rather than due to an abundance of sharks patrolling the shoreline. And there’s good news: snorkeling is free here. (Recommended: Sharks In Hawaii).
There are some stunning walking trails on Oahu too, and serious hikers will be rewarded with breath-taking panoramas en route.
One such trail is known as Stairway To Heaven, and although the steps themselves are now off-limits, you can still access this viewpoint via the Moanalua Valley Trail.
If you are looking for a more relaxed activity, then you can check out the Hawaii State Art Museum (HiSAM) in downtown Honolulu. This museum is state-sponsored and therefore is free to enter. Perfect for art-lovers on a shoestring budget.
The island of Maui lies to the east of Oahu, nestled between the Big Island and Molokai. It’s the second most visited of the Hawaiian Islands, after Oahu. Whether you are looking to spend your time sun-worshipping on stunning beaches or tackling nature head-first in the rugged outdoors, Maui can deliver.
If lying down in the sand is on the agenda, head to the south and check out the beautiful Makena Beach (also known as “Big Beach” or “Oneloa Beach”). This stunning stretch of sand is perfect for topping up the tan or grabbing a mask and snorkel and checking out the diverse and colorful marine life cruising the shallow reef—keep your eyes peeled for a turtle.
If you’re feeling a little more energetic or reinvigorated after a day at the beach, you won’t be disappointed with a day or two of hiking around Haleakala National Park.
With some stunning views and excellent walking trails, this is a great way to enjoy Hawaii without breaking the bank. There are campgrounds within the national park too, so you can economically stay overnight here too. Make sure you take in the summit of Haleakala volcano for an epic vista.
Another way to take in some stunning views of Maui is to get airborne. Although this may dent the budget slightly, the views and the sensation of soaring above the ocean are worth it.
Ocean lovers may also be interested in a trip out to Molokini Island, where the remnants of a volcano have formed a scimitar-shaped island with excellent scuba diving and snorkeling.
And if there’s still some wiggle room in the budget, check out some of Maui’s other dive sites and you may be rewarded with a shark or manta ray sighting.
Hawaii Island (Big Island)
The eponymous island of Hawaii is the easternmost and southernmost of the islands in the group. To avoid confusion between the name of this island and the name of the entire state, most refer to Hawaii Island simply as the “Big Island,” as it’s also the biggest in the chain of islands. And nature lovers will not be disappointed here either.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a must-visit, but as it is home to one of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea. If visiting this is high on your list, check ahead to make sure its activity hasn’t forced a closure of the park. The summit of Kilauea’s neighbor, Mauna Kea, is Hawaii’s highest point, and bizarrely, is often snow covered. (Related: Skiing and Snowboarding in Hawaii).
If your legs are a little achy after a day walking amongst the volcanoes, why not hit the beach to recover the next morning? The Big Island has some superb offerings in the beach department – from soft white sand, through green sand, to black, volcanic sand.
For picture-perfect white sand, head to Hapuna Beach on the westside of the island. This expansive stretch of sand often appears on lists of the world’s best beaches. It’s easy to get to and has excellent conditions for swimming, bodyboarding, or snorkeling. Be aware that if you drive there, you will need to pay a five-dollar parking fee.
For a beach with a difference, head to South Point Park, where you can find Papakolea Beach. Papakolea is one of four known green-sand beaches in the world. The sand gets its green hue from the mineral olivine, which is found in high concentrations in the lava from the nearby volcano. Also, whilst visiting Papakolea, you can head a little farther down the coast to take a photo at South Point, the most southerly point of the United States of America.
A forty-minute drive north from Papakolea Beach will bring you to Punaluu Beach, where the sand is a different color again – black. This volcanic beach is stunning. The rugged rocks, black sand, blue ocean, and swaying palm trees make it a spectacular sight to behold.
Scuba divers visiting the Big Island should not pass on the opportunity to experience one of the world’s most infamous dives—the Kona Manta Night Dive! The name reveals the big draw for this dive. Dive centers floodlight the ocean and the mantas come in to feed on the plankton in the lights. This one may take a small bite out of your budget, but it will blow your mind!
If excellent hiking is one of your must-haves when assessing your Hawaii backpacking trip, then Kauai should feature in your itinerary.
Aptly nicknamed “the Garden Isle,” Kauai offers some epic hiking trails. Perhaps the most epic is on the Na Pali Coast, at the western end of Kauai’s wild north coast – the Kalalau Trail.
This eleven-mile hike is spectacular, culminating in the secluded Kalalau Beach, where you can camp the night before heading back along the trail. You will need to reserve a permit in advance, and you should prepare yourself for a few steep climbs.
For a less-rugged trail, check out the Awaawapuhi Trail through the Na Pali-Kona Forest Reserve, or head to the South Shore for the Mahaulepu Heritage Trail.
Head in-land to Waimea Canyon State Park for some more jaw-dropping scenery. Often referred to as “the Grand Canyon of Hawaii”, this state park does not disappoint. The waterfalls and dramatic scenery lend themselves perfectly to nature photography and are sure to impress.
If you are looking for a great beach to chill and get stuck into that book you’ve been promising yourself you will read, Kauai’s best beach is on its south coast—Poipu Beach. The beautiful soft sand just begs to be lain upon.
Have your camera at the ready here too; you may be rewarded with a sighting of a Hawaiian monk seal. If you are lucky enough to encounter a monk seal, do not get too close, as they are a protected species. (Recommended: The Hawaiian Monk Seal & Where To Find Them!).
At the top of the list of Hawaii backpacking activities which won’t break the bank on Lanai Island is Hulopoe Beach. With its soft white sand and lush palm trees swaying in the ocean breeze, Hulopoe Beach is the perfect place to while away a few hours.
Excellent swimming conditions and snorkeling make this beach a winner with visitors and locals alike. Keep checking the ocean for a glimpse of a passing whale or pod of dolphins too!
At the eastern end of Hulopoe Beach is a trail up onto the headland, which offers views down into neighboring Shark’s Bay and over Puu Pehe Islet Seabird Sanctuary.
Another must-visit beach on Lanai is Shipwreck Beach, and there’s no prizes for guessing how this beach earned its name. The main attraction here is a WWII US Navy fuel tanker jutting out of the ocean close to the shoreline, which was deliberately scuttled here in 1954. There are more wrecks below the waves here too, but the sea conditions can be dangerous here.
If you are looking for a moderate hike along Lanai’s stunning coastline, check out the Koloiki Ridge Trail. This relatively easy hike takes you on a five-mile loop through pine forests, into the mountains, and along the coast, offering views across the Pacific waves to Maui and Molokai. It’s a great place for any backpacking in Lanai trip.
Molokai is the fifth-most populous of the Hawaiian Islands, located between Oahu to the north and Maui to the south. And of course, it’s another nature lover’s paradise. Known as “the Friendly Island”, many acknowledge Molokai, with its authentic Polynesian feel, as being a far cry from Waikiki and Honolulu’s hustle and bustle and luxury resorts.
There’s a less touristy vibe on Molokai than in other parts of Hawaii; fewer organized tours and excursions aimed at visitors, and not so many amped up tourist prices. This makes Molokai a great destination for stretching your dollars too which is a big plus when backpacking in Hawaii.
For those looking for some epic trails, you should bear in mind that the two most popular areas come with a small price tag. The Halawa Valley trails are only accessible with a certified guide, and you will need to obtain a permit if you plan to visit the Kalaupapa Peninsula. But don’t let that put you off these excellent beauty spots. The rugged and remote Kalaupapa Peninsula is where King Kamehameha V banished leprosy sufferers and has an interesting history to learn about too.
If you’re looking for beach action on Molokai, then One Ali’i Beach Park is your best bet. Being close to Kaunakakai, Molokai’s main town, this is the beach that sees the most visitors, with it being popular with locals and tourists alike.
The beach park has showers and restrooms and is great for a swim or watching the sunset in the evening. Don’t forget to bring your mask and snorkel too! You can also obtain a permit to camp here.
Backpacking Hawaii: The Nightlife
Backpacking in Hawaii is mostly about getting lost in nature, hiking, camping, and snorkeling.
And for those seeking crazy nights and cheap cocktails, maybe the Southeast Asian backpacking trails can more readily meet your travel needs.
But you can still find a great party or have an excellent night out whilst in Hawaii. It just might be a bit more expensive, especially if you are close to Honolulu.
The general rule is that the bigger the island, the easier it will be to party, with Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island being the best bets.
Backpacking in Hawaii: Our Final Thoughts
If staring in awe at the wonders of nature is high on your list of activities for your next adventure, look no further than backpacking in Hawaii.
With some of the world’s best and most famous beaches; active (and dormant) volcanoes; remote and rugged trails to hike; and the world’s best surfing, what’s not to like?
But to get the most from your adventure backpacking in Hawaii, planning is key! Planning can help you stretch the budget further and avoid any disappointment where permits are required.
And pack a hat with a chin strap! The scenery is so stunning that your jaw will be dropping at every turn…