How to Choose the Best Hawaiian Island to Visit

Wondering which island is the best to visit? Learn the features of Hawaii’s main islands.
Last updated Nov 30, 2021 | By Ben Walker | Edited By Melinda Sineriz
Women in a convertible in Hawaii

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If you’re saving for an epic vacation, you have to consider Hawaii as a destination. The beautiful Aloha State is an island paradise that checks a lot of boxes for many travelers — including great food, loads of activities, and amazing scenery.

But which of the six major islands should you visit? Oahu and the bustling city of Honolulu? Kauai for its immense, natural beauty? Learn the details of each island so you know which is the best Hawaiian island to visit for you.

The best Hawaiian island for each type of traveler

Alexander Demyanenko/Adobe Kauai Island

Every traveler has different preferences. You might enjoy spending time in nature, while someone else prefers more of an urban setting. Each situation can vary as well. A family of four might have different interests compared to a couple without kids.

Keeping these points in mind and with our research, we’ve sorted the six main Hawaiian islands into separate categories that might appeal to specific groups of travelers. See which island(s) might align most with your interests.

Hawaii: Best for nature lovers

Dudarev Mikhail/Adobe Coastline of the Big Island

The island of Hawaii is known as the Big Island because it’s the largest in the Hawaiian chain of islands. In fact, it’s nearly twice as big as all the other islands combined. Compared to the smaller islands, this gives you plenty of room to spread out and explore the varied landscapes you’ll find here.

These landscapes range from active volcanoes and lava fields to green valleys and black sand beaches. And the climate zones vary as well, from wet tropical to alpine tundra. For any nature lover, the Big Island has a bit of everything.

Popular regions include Kona and Hilo. Some of the island’s most popular attractions are Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Punaluu Beach, Akaka Falls (one of the tallest waterfalls in Hawaii), a Kona coffee tour, and the Mauna Loa macadamia nut visitor center. But you can also go swimming, snorkeling, and hiking. One of the more unique family-friendly activities would be viewing manta rays at night.

Kauai: Best for relaxation

Katrina Brown/Adobe The coastline of Kauai

Often called “The Garden Isle,” Kauai is the fourth largest island among the Hawaiian islands. The Garden Island nickname likely comes from the vast, green valleys you’ll see if you visit Kauai. This serene landscape plays into the calming atmosphere you experience around the island.

For this reason, and the fact Kauai has fewer visitors than Oahu, travelers here can often feel more relaxed in this laid-back environment. Kauai is covered in rainforests and rivers (perfect for kayaking), which can help stoke your adventurous spirit if you’re feeling up to it. If not, simply enjoy the local culture prevalent in the small towns scattered across the island. Maybe take a helicopter ride over the Napali Coast State Park.

A few of Kauai’s popular regions include Lihue, where the airport is located, and the South Shore. Some of the island’s most popular attractions include Waimea Canyon (“The Grand Canyon of the Pacific”), Poipu Beach Park, Hanalei, Waimea, and visiting over 60 film locations (such as “Jurassic Park” and “King Kong”).

Lanai: Best for golfers

Aunging/Adobe Golf ball and club

Obviously, you don’t have to golf to visit Lanai, but it might make for an extra special visit if you do. This is the smallest inhabited Hawaiian island that’s open to visitors, and it’s home to world-class resorts (like the Four Seasons Resort Lanai) and two golf courses. Both golf courses are equally intriguing, though for different reasons.

World-renowned golfer Jack Nicklaus designed the Manele Golf Course. It offers beautiful ocean views and the opportunity to play along the cliffs of the island. On the other hand, the Cavendish Golf Course is a public course that’s free to play. Yes, you heard correctly — a free-to-play golf course in Hawaii! Don’t expect any preferential treatment or the best grounds, but it’s still a chance to play free golf in one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

For the non-golf inclined, there are over 89,000 acres of countryside to explore on “Hawaii’s Most Enticing Island.” This makes the island a prime spot for ATV rides, whale watching (humpback whales), horseback riding, and exploring hiking trails.

Oahu: Best for families

Tropical studio/Adobe Family snorkeling

Hawaii might hold the title of the Big Island, but Oahu gets called “The Gathering Place.” And it’s no wonder why — the third largest Hawaiian island is also the most popular and diverse. This is where you’ll find the highest concentration of people, the most restaurants and nightlife, and the most activities.

With all the activities, Oahu is often a prime location for traveling families and first-time visitors. If you stick around any of the populated areas, such as the big city of Honolulu, everything you would need is within reach. You don’t have to travel far for food, and there’s plenty to do as well as a large selection of places to stay. For example, check out some options for the best hotels for points in Hawaii.

Oahu’s popular regions include Honolulu (where you can find Waikiki Beach) and the North Shore. Surfing is a popular activity on Oahu, and other popular attractions include Pearl Harbor, Makapuu Lighthouse, Diamond Head, and Waikiki Beach.

Maui: Best for couples

Scott Griessel/Adobe Two women laughing

Maui, known as “The Valley Isle,” is the second largest among the Hawaiian islands. It’s a popular destination for visitors to Hawaii and is often voted as one of the “Best U.S. Islands” by Conde Nast Traveler. Maui sits between Molokai and Hawaii and is just nine miles from Lanai.

Maui is separated into five regions, including West, Central, South, Upcountry, and East. Some of the most popular regions include West, Central, and South Maui. Still, Upcountry and East Maui provide fun activities (taking the road to Hana and visiting the Haleakala National Park) if you’re out that way.

For couples, Maui can typically provide the ideal vacation destination. You get the perfect mix of amazing beaches (including white sand beaches), hiking, and water activities — and it’s not as busy as Oahu. However, it’s still very popular.

Molokai: Best for adventurers

kuznetsov_konsta/Adobe Two people kayaking

Hawaii’s fifth-largest island, Molokai, is actually quite small. Not quite as small as Lanai, but at 38 miles long and 10 miles wide, you wouldn’t call this island “big” by any means. Still, you don’t visit Molokai for its size, you visit for its cultural elements and the adventures you can have here.

You won’t find loads of resorts or bustling cities here, which inevitably pushes you to experience the outdoors and interact with the island’s people. Some of the most popular attractions on “The Friendly Isle” include Kalaupapa National Historical Park, Papohaku Beach, and Halawa Valley.

Saving on Hawaii travel

shanemyersphoto/Adobe Sunset on a Hawaii coast

Hawaii is a beautiful vacation spot, but it’s not necessarily cheap to travel there. Check out these different ways you can help save money on your Hawaii trip.

Use travel credit cards

Some of the biggest expenses for travelers include flights, hotel stays, and rental cars. Significantly reducing how much you pay for these services could free up money to be used elsewhere.

Fortunately, travel credit cards offer valuable rewards and benefits that can help you save money on travel-related expenses. If you compare credit cards, you’ll find a wide variety of cards to choose from. For example, certain credit cards are specifically designed to help with hotel stays, while others can help with flights. With these cards, you could use their rewards for virtually free flights or hotel stays.

For more details on hotel cards, check out our list of the best hotel credit cards. For more information about airline cards, check out our list of the best airline credit cards.

Visit during the off-season

Many travelers to Hawaii tend to visit when the weather where they’re from isn’t pleasant. This is typically during the fall, winter, and spring months when it might be overcast, cold, or rainy. Hawaii can get beautiful weather all year, though the specific conditions could depend on which Hawaiian island you’re visiting and the season.

If you’re planning to fly to Hawaii, consider choosing a time of year that might not be as busy. As is the case with virtually any travel destination, prices for flights and hotel stays are often better when it’s not peak season. During Hawaii’s off-season, which is considered late spring (mid-April) to fall (September to mid-December), you might find more affordable prices.

But remember, certain dates might see spikes in prices throughout the year, even if it’s the off-season. For example, the summer months can be prime vacation time for families since kids are often out of school.

Choose less expensive areas

A good rule of thumb for any budget traveler is to venture slightly off the beaten path. The busiest areas of any popular travel destination are likely to be the most expensive, simply because there’s a high demand for lodging, food, and activities. If you want to try and help reduce your Hawaii vacation expenses, consider booking a trip that doesn’t revolve around the most popular areas in Hawaii.

This can be difficult if you want to see and visit certain places, such as Hawaii Volcanoes National Park or Pearl Harbor. But since the islands are relatively small, it’s fairly easy to stay in one part of the island, which could be less busy and less expensive, and still visit other nearby areas.

When it comes to beaches, Hawaii has many. So don’t feel like you have to stay right in Waikiki Beach or Honolulu at all. If you’re willing to venture away from these types of areas, your wallet is likely to thank you.

Volunteer with Malama Hawaii

The Malama Hawaii program helps connect visitors to Hawaii with opportunities to volunteer and give back in different ways. This could include helping clean up coastlines and beaches, planting native trees, restoring natural or historic sites, and more. And for your service, you’re typically rewarded with a special discount or even a free night with partner hotels.

To participate in the program, simply book a Malama Hawaii package online and follow the instructions you’re given. In some cases, you might receive a DIY beach cleanup kit or something similar when you arrive at the hotel. Of course, you shouldn’t participate only to receive some sort of discount, but it’s a nice bonus on top of the service you would be providing.

FAQs

lucky-photo/Adobe Beach with a palm tree

Which island is best for first-time travelers to Hawaii?

Oahu is typically considered one of the most “touristy” Hawaiian islands because it attracts the most visitors. This could be ideal for first-time travelers to Hawaii because there are plenty of activities to do and loads of restaurants around. And you still get beautiful Hawaiian beaches and scenery.

What island is the best for surfing?

Excellent spots for surfers can be found all over Hawaii, but Oahu is one of the most well-known surfing destinations in the world. Popular surf spots include Waikiki, Sunset Beach, Pipeline, and Haleiwa.

What are the best beaches in Hawaii?

The best beaches are the ones you find yourself enjoying the most. But for popular beaches, there’s Waikiki Beach on Oahu, Makena Beach on Maui, Hanalei Beach on Kauai, Hapuna Beach on Hawaii, Papohaku Beach on Molokai, and Hulopoe Beach on Lanai.

Bottom line

EpicStockMedia/Adobe Man surfing in blue ocean water

For island paradise destinations, it’s hard to beat Hawaii. The Hawaiian islands have everything you need for a warm vacation in a tropical atmosphere. But even though Hawaii is part of the U.S., it’s located far from the mainland. The distance plus its popularity often equates to an expensive vacation.

Fortunately, there are ways to save on your Hawaii trip. If you can leverage the rewards and benefits of certain credit cards, you might be able to immediately reduce your biggest expenses, such as flights and hotel stays. To learn more, check out our list of the best travel credit cards.

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  • Earn 60,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months
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Author Details

Ben Walker Ben Walker is a credit cards and travel writer at FinanceBuzz who loves helping others achieve their travel goals through financially-sound decisions. For nearly a decade, he has been using credit card points and miles for the sole purpose of traveling the world. Ben has been featured in The Washington Post, MSN, Debt.com, and Finder.com.