Hawaii Guide: Which Island is Best for You and When Should You Visit
If you’ve never been to Hawaii, it can be tough to know which island is the best fit for you. Each destination is unique for its scenery and conditions, but also for its available activities and transportation, costs, and accessibility. So, if you’re wondering which Hawaiian island you should visit, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll compare each of the four major islands to help you make a decision here.
And, if you’re looking for some guidance around whichever island you choose, Shaka Guide has several audio driving tours for each. Our tours are especially great for getting acquainted with the islands, so they’re perfect if you are planning your first visit to Hawaii!
The Best Island in Hawaii For Your Visit
Ka‘ena Point | Photo by Joshua Ness
You should choose which island to visit based on your own wants and needs. Maybe you’re looking to save money or partake in a particular activity? Here, we’ll give an overview of what may or may not be available and convenient on the most popular islands.
Oahu is the most developed of the Hawaiian Islands. If you’d like to stay in a big city, or just have one available, you’ll want to stay on Oahu. During the winter, Oahu has some of the best surfing conditions in the world and is host to several major surfing competitions including the famous Billabong Pipemaster and Eddie Big Wave competitions.
If you would like to shop on your Hawaiian vacation, most islands have boutiques available, but Honolulu is home to almost any store or brand that you might be in search of. In addition, although cities are usually more expensive, traveling to Oahu isn’t quite as pricy as some of the more remote islands.
Honolulu Hawaii | Photo by tommy143
That being said, Oahu is also the easiest island to travel to from other islands thanks to the Honolulu Airport. If you’re visiting for enough time to take a mini-trip, you can easily get to Oahu from any of the major islands in about two hours from check-in to taxi.
Oahu has the most residents and receives the most tourists of the islands, so if you’re looking to get away from crowds, you might choose a different destination. That being said, Oahu’s North Shore only gets crowded during events and peak seasons (aka "winter").
About the Big Island
Flowing lava from a volcano | Photo by skeeze
Prices on The Big Island are about as affordable as you’ll find on any tropical island. It’s also the second least rural having two major towns with the typical stores and commercial airports. There’s also great surfing on the Big Island if you know where to look and plenty of hikes and beaches to explore.
The two major cities on the Big Island are Hilo and Kona. Hilo is more of a residential town. Kona is more touristy and has a variety of resorts and boutiques. Overall, the Big Island is a good middle ground between remote and accessible. Finally, if you’re specifically hoping to see lava, the Big Island is home to Kilauea which has been erupting for most of the last three decades. Please note: there are currently no active lava flows on the Big Island.
Black Sand Beach in Maui | Photo by kdvandeventer
Maui is about the same size as Oahu but receives almost half as many visitors and the residential population is also a fraction of Oahu’s. So, Maui is much less crowded but remains a more touristy destination than Kauai or Big Island. If you’re looking for the resort-experience, Maui is likely the island for you.
Kauai has more beach shore than Maui, but Maui’s swimming conditions are usually better, and there are still a whopping 30 miles of beaches on the island. So, if you’re looking to hop from beach to beach, Maui is an ideal vacation destination.
If Maui sounds like the perfect spot for you, know you'll pay a premium. Hotels are generally upwards of $400 and you'll be hard pressed to find something on the inexpensive side.
Napali Coast Kauai Nawiliwili | Photo by kdvandeventer
The scenery of the Kauai is truly surreal. You won’t see anything like the rugged mountains, white-sand beaches, and green jungles of the Na Pali Coast anywhere in the world. The famous Kalalau Trail is a dream of a backpacking trip and the most remote place on any of the four major islands. If you’re all about the outdoors and adventure, Kauai is likely the island for you.
Of the four easily-accessible Hawaiian Islands, Kauai is the most remote and also receives the fewest tourists. If you’re looking to get away from daily life, Kauai will probably feel the least connected from the mainland and have the lowest number of other visitors.
Getting Around Hawaii
Each of the Islands have different options available for getting around. Your quickest and easiest choice is always to rent a car near the airport you fly into. However, if you’re looking to save money or avoid driving, some islands have other options available too, such as bus systems or rideshares. If you do decide to rent a car, Shaka Guide's driving tours will make sure you don’t miss any of the important attractions.
Getting around Oahu
Oahu is the easiest island to get around. There are several car rental companies at the Honolulu Airport if you’d like to drive the island. If you’re looking to save a few dollars on transportation, the Oahu bus system can get you within walking distance of almost anywhere on the island. The bus costs $2.75 for a single ride or $70 for a monthly pass. Alternatively, Lyft and Uber are always available in Honolulu and most towns, but finding one in a more remote area can be difficult.
Waikiki is a particularly easy area to get around. The entire neighborhood, as well as much of Honolulu, is walkable with frequent bus stops. Taxis are also easy to hail around Waikiki in case you need to get somewhere fast. And, if you're staying in Waikiki and looking to leave a day, there are rental car agencies around town, as well. Waikiki also has Drive Hui and Turo available, which are essentially vehicles that you can rent from individuals and drive yourself. You're able to book these services by the hour, which is particularly nice for day trips outside the city.
Drive Hui Car Rentals
Getting Around Big Island
There are rental car agencies near the Hilo and Kona airports on the Big Island. There is also a decent bus system that connects to most of the island’s towns, but you might have a hard time getting to more remote attractions. The Big Island bus system costs $2 per ride with a free bus change to your destination or $60 for a monthly pass. You should only count on rideshares like Lyft and Uber to get you around the island’s two major towns.
Getting Around Maui
Maui is more difficult to get around then both Big Island and Oahu, so you will probably want to rent a car for your stay. Lyfts and Ubers are pretty sparse and probably more expensive than you’ll be used to. There is a bus system that picks up once per hour, so don’t miss it if you have somewhere to be. The bus costs $2 per ride, but there is also a $4 day pass that you’ll probably want to consider. Monthly bus passes on Maui are $45.
Getting Around Kauai
If you’re going to Kauai, you’ll probably want to rent a car. The bus is capable of getting you to most communities and many of the island’s beaches, however, you won’t be able to get to any of the island’s inland attractions. Rideshares can be found in some of the larger towns, but you probably shouldn’t rely on it as a primary means of transportation.
Best Times to Visit Hawaii
Sunset Colors | Photo by Michaela @m_hampi
Depending on how you’d like to spend your vacation, you can also choose what time of year you should visit. Maybe you want to avoid crowds or rain, or take part in a seasonal attraction? We’ll go over everything you need to know to help you arrive at the best possible time for your vacation in this section.
Crowds and Travel Costs
If you’re hoping to avoid crowds and save on travel fare and ticketing, you’ll want to visit outside of the peak tourism seasons. Peak Hawaii travel seasons are around the winter holidays from late November to early January, the summer vacation months from June to August, and the spring break months of March or April.
Hawaii Beach Ko Olina Resort | Photo by Mariamichelle
All of Hawaii only has two real seasons: a wet winter and dry summer. The winter is from November to March and usually a bit cooler with averages temperature around 77 degrees. The summer season from April to October doesn’t see as much rain, and temperatures sit around 82 degrees.
Sunset Surfer Surfing | Photo by Justasurferdude
Surfing and Swimming
The waves are best for surfing during the winter when swells peak. If you’re here during this time, you might be paddling out next to professional surfers seeking out world-class waves. There are also several surf competitions that happen during the winter season if you’re just looking to watch.
These swells also mean that swimming is worse and less accessible during the winter months. The large waves and strong currents from November to March can make certain beaches totally off-limits to swimmers.
Humpback Whale Maui | Photo by foco44
You can whale watch by land or boat on each of the islands, however, you’ll need to ensure you’re there the correct time of year if you’re hoping to spot them. Whales visit the Hawaiian seas in their highest concentration from January to March, but you might get lucky and see them from November to May.
Best Hawaiian Islands for Kids?
If you’re looking for the best island for the whole family, you’ll probably make everyone the happiest by visiting Oahu. There are plenty of family-friendly restaurants around the island, as well as lots of beginner lessons -- like surfing -- so the kids in the group can try something new! The waters on at Waikiki are also ideal locations for children to swim or learn to surf. And for the adults, there are plenty of bars and a nightlife scene on Oahu once the kids are down for the night.
Most Affordable Hawaiian Island?
The Big Island of Hawaii and Oahu are both more affordable than the other Hawaiian islands. For ticketing, you’ll find that Oahu has the cheapest flights since its airport is the largest and you won’t need to fly inter-island. However, once you reach your destination the cost of living and visiting on the Big Island make it the cheapest Hawaiian island to visit. Necessities like food and lodging are more affordable on the Big Island since it is more residential, and you won’t be paying the high tourism and remoteness premiums of Oahu, Kauai, and Maui.
Hawaii Beach | Photo by Flotograph
Best Island in Hawaii for Beaches?
The best island for beaches is definitely a point of debate and somewhat subjective. If you’re looking for calm swimming water, beautiful scenery, and an abundance of options, we feel comfortable saying that Maui is the best island for beaches. Kauai does have 50 miles of beaches compared to Maui’s 30, however, Kauai also has stronger breaks and currents that make many of it’s most scenic beaches less than ideal for swimming.
Best Island in Hawaii for Surfing?
All of the Hawaiian Islands have wonderful surfing spots, however, the conditions on Oahu are generally considered the best whether you’re just learning or a veteran of the wave. Waikiki has perfect waves for learning to stand up on your board, while the North Shore has professional-level waves much of the year (but especially in the winter).
Best Island in Hawaii for Shopping?
Honolulu is the major commercial hub of Hawaii, and Waikiki has every designer and boutique you could name. So, if you’re hoping for a bit of retail therapy, you’re best option is definitely going to be Oahu.
Hawaii Hike | Photo by free-photos-242387
Best Island in Hawaii for Hiking?
If you’re a hiker, you can’t go wrong with a visit to any of the Hawaiian Islands. However, we at Shaka Guide are partial to the unreal mountainous ridges of the Na Pali Coast in Kauai. If you’re looking to backpack, the Kalalau trail is a 22-mile round-trip trek into some of the most beautiful lands that the world has to offer. The Big Island is a close second for its 15-mile trail to the Waimanu Valley.
Best Island for Viewing Lava?
The Big Island has two of the most active volcanoes in the world including the single most active volcano of the last 30 years. There’s not currently a flow, however, volcanologists are reporting that the magma chamber in Kilauea are refilling as you read this!
Best Island in Hawaii for First-Time Visitors?
If you've never been to Hawaii and are nervous about the trip, Oahu is the best island for first-time visitors. It is by far the easiest to get around and navigate, and you'll have access to all the services, stores, and amenities you're used to on the mainland. Other islands are much more remote and less developed, whereas Oahu has the islands' only large city. Public transportation on Oahu is also excellent and can get you to most of the island's popular attractions affordably.
However, if you're planning to island hop or looking for a more remote destination, Shaka Guide can help you navigate your vacation on Maui, Kauai or Big Island.
Overall, there is really no “best island in Hawaii.” Depending on what you’re looking for, each of the four easily accessible islands could be best for you. If you’d like a major city and the things that come with it with-in driving distance, Oahu is your only option. However, you can save a lot of money by choosing to visit the Big Island instead. Alternatively, if you’re looking for remoteness and smaller crowds, Kauai is probably your best bet, but if you’re seeking a resort experience, then you might consider the Island of Maui.
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