The decision to rent a car — or not — depends on two things: which island you’re visiting and what you’re planning to do. Most car rental companies operate at the airports, making it easy and convenient to get a vehicle. Options run the gamut, from small economy cars and sporty convertibles to luxury SUVs and four-wheel-drives. Navigating island roads is a cinch with GPS and the free maps that are offered on your Hawaiian Airlines flight and at the rental agencies. Just remember to explore with the Travel Pono mindset: research the parking options beforehand, make reservations if needed, follow the speed limits and do your part to preserve the way of life in Hawaii.
Should I rent a car on Oahu?
Restaurants, shops, beaches, activities and several major attractions (including the Honolulu Zoo, Waikiki Aquarium, Kapiolani Park and the U.S. Army Museum) are within walking distance of most hotels in Waikiki, so if you’re not going anywhere else, you won’t need a car.
If you do want to sightsee, it will be much easier with a car. One major benefit is you’ll be able to do things at your own pace. Oahu isn’t big; without stops, you can drive around the island in about two hours. That said, there are things you might want to see and do that aren’t accessible by public transportation. And while you could take a tour, you’d be on its set schedule, possibly spending more time at one place than you want to and less time than you prefer at another.
What about TheBus?
Oahu is the only island with a comprehensive bus system, simply known as TheBus. Luggage is prohibited on board, so if you’re traveling with bags, TheBus can’t take you to and from the airport. The good news is if you aren’t in a rush, many of Oahu’s top visitor attractions are on bus routes, including Chinatown, Iolani Palace, Sea Life Park and the Polynesian Cultural Center. On weekdays, it’s a good idea to avoid morning and afternoon rush hours, so you’ll have a better chance of landing a seat.
When paying fares, be aware that exact change is required. Discounted rates are available for children aged 6 through 17, persons with disabilities and seniors 65 and older (you’ll have to show a valid U.S. Medicare card). One child 5 years and younger rides free when accompanied by a fare-paying passenger and not occupying a seat. You can buy one-day, seven-day and monthly HOLO card passes, which allow unlimited rides during the time purchased. Bus drivers issue one-day passes; Foodland, Times Supermarket and 7-Eleven stores are among the locations selling monthly passes. Call (808) 848-5555 to get specific route information.
Where does the Waikiki Trolley go?
The Waikiki Trolley is a fun, convenient option because you can hop on and off as you please throughout the day. San Francisco-style trolleys and double-decker buses carry passengers on themed routes in Waikiki, downtown Honolulu and along the East Oahu coastline: Red Line (cultural Honolulu tour), Blue Line (panoramic coastline tour), Pink Line (Ala Moana shopping shuttle), and Green Line (scenic Diamond Head).
Popular stops include Bishop Museum, Ala Moana Center, Honolulu Museum of Art, Foster Botanical Garden and Diamond Head Crater. Single line (good for one day) and one-, four- and seven-day all-line passes are available.
Do I need a car on the Neighbor Islands?
Unless you want to just relax at your hotel, the answer is yes. Driving is the best way to get around and will provide you with the most flexibility.
Hawaii Island is known as “The Big Island” for good reason — spanning 10,931 square miles, it has a lot of ground to cover. The Hele-On bus system doesn’t offer daily service to the entire island, so your best bet for a mega road trip is to rent a car at the airport in Kona or Hilo. (Luckily, you can snag exclusive rates when you book with one of our rental car partners.)
Maui stretches wide with only one route to get to the popular West Maui resorts. Some hotels offer complimentary shuttles, and you certainly can join a tour group to Haleakala, but renting a car does give you more flexibility. Keep in mind that some of Maui’s roads are narrow and prone to congestion at peak times of the day.
On Kauai, you could opt to explore with The Kauai Bus, which reaches the major towns — but not all the major attractions — and comes with a live bus map online. If you do decide to rent a car at Lihue Airport, remember that Kauai has many two-lane roads and one-lane bridges, plus you cannot drive completely around the island because of the Na Pali Coast on the leeward (west) side.
Other Things to Consider:
- Check out vacation packages that include a room, car and airfare. Generally, the cost will be cheaper than if you pay for each component separately. Another rule of thumb: rates for flights, hotels and rental cars are lower during off-peak periods, when there’s less demand.
- Along with the car rental cost, you’ll have to pay for gas, insurance (check your policy first as you may have adequate coverage) and parking fees, which can run up to $45 per day at hotels.
- Gas is more expensive in Hawaii than on the Continental U.S. and higher on Molokai and Lanai than the other islands. Per refueling: The cheapest alternative is to fill the tank yourself before you return the car.
- Drivers 21 to 24 years old can rent a car from most major companies, but a surcharge is tacked on; it averages $25 per day but can be higher depending on the location. Also, renters in that age bracket may be restricted to certain car categories (e.g., only economy through full-size cars; no minivans, SUVs, convertibles or luxury cars).
- Avoid driving in rush-hour traffic (between 6 and 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 to 6 p.m.) on all islands. Heed parking signs, as hours for street parking can be curtailed during those hours. You’ll be responsible for parking tickets and towing fees.
- If you rent a four-wheel-drive, be sure to first find out which sites are on the rental company’s no-no list. Off-roading in places on that list violates the terms of your rental agreement, so if the car winds up being badly damaged, you’ll literally pay the price for it.
- Uber and Lyft operate on every island except Molokai. These ridesharing services can take you pretty much wherever you want to go, but, like taxis, they could wind up being pricey.
- On Oahu, there are several ways you can get to and from the airport if you’re not renting a car: taxi, Uber, Lyft, TheBus (if you’re not traveling with luggage), shuttle and limousine. For the latter two, research options or consult your hotel’s concierge staff for recommendations; it’s best to make reservations in advance.
- Many street names throughout the Islands are in the Hawaiian language, so it will be helpful if you can properly pronounce and/or spell them when seeking directions.
- If you’re physically fit and so inclined, rent a bike in lieu of getting a car. Biki, Honolulu’s bikeshare program, offers more than 130 self-service stops; you can pick up a bike at one location and return it at another. Go for a single ride, buy a monthly plan good for unlimited 30-minute rides or opt for 300 pre-paid minutes of bike time to use for rides of any duration over the course of days, weeks or even months.
- Finally, remember the three basic Rules of the Road in Hawaii:
- Follow all laws.
- Refrain from using your car horn. It’s not customary in the Islands and considered rude.
- Drive with aloha (meaning don’t tailgate, use your signal, and wave a “thank you” when other drivers let you merge into their lane).