Even though Hawaii was already on our never-ending bucket list, our recent trip to the islands was a bit of an impromptu trip. We actually planned to head to Australia in that same period when we spotted a great flight deal for Honolulu. Without hesitation – and without preparation – we booked the tickets for a three-week island hopping Hawaii vacation. This time frame allowed for plenty of time to explore more than one island. So yay, we were going island hopping in Hawaii! But the initial excitement quickly turned into panic when we realized the amount of research ahead. We had no idea which Hawaiian islands to visit and how to travel between islands in Hawaii. So many questions were going through our head: Is it easy to travel between Hawaiian islands? How far are they apart? Which are the best islands in Hawaii for families? What’s the cheapest way to travel between Hawaiian islands? And what’s the quickest way? Can you travel between Hawaiian islands by boat? And if there’s a ferry service, do you book it in advance? And how long does it take to travel between Hawaiian islands?
In order not to feel any bit as overwhelmed as we did, read this – before you book your flights – and you’ll know exactly how to go island hopping in Hawaii. This is the essential travel guide we wish we had when we booked our trip. So, let’s dive in and find out what’s the best way to travel between Hawaiian islands.
Map of the Hawaiian islands
For your convenience, we’ve created this map showing the inter-island transportation options.
How to island hop in Hawaii
Island hopping in Hawaii by plane
Flying to Hawaii: Hawaiian airports by island
Let’s have a look how many islands on Hawaii are open to visitors and which airports in Hawaii are best to embark on your adventure.
- Oahu: The most popular island is home to the state capital as well as the only international airport in Hawaii: Honolulu Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HLN). Because it’s such a hub, prices from the mainland to this airport are often better priced than those to the other islands. So, Honolulu International Airport is a great choice to start island hopping in Hawaii.
- Maui: The number of direct flights from the mainland of the United States to Maui’s main hub, Kahului (OGG) is increasing which is why it’s becoming a major competitor for Honolulu airport price-wise. Again, a good choice to start off and end your Hawaiian trip. When you’re staying in Ka’anapali, nearby West-Maui’s Kapalua airport (JHM) might be a valid option for inter-island flights but you’ll likely be traveling in a smaller plane and thus spend more time in the air.
- Kauai: The island’s major airport is Lihue (LIH) to which only a handful of (mainly Californian) destinations fly directly. Most visitors will need to transfer in Honolulu. If you consider flying to Kauai directly, then note that it’ll be more expensive. That’s why Kauai might be the better choice as an in-between island.
- Big Island of Hawaii: As the name suggests, this is the largest island which explains why there are two Big Island Hawaii airports: Kona (KOA) & Hilo (ITO). Some airlines offer direct flights to Kona and a rare one maybe even to Hilo but it will cost you. So, just as for Kauai, we’re recommend you to visit the Big Island from or in between Oahu and Maui.
- Lanai and Molokai: There are no direct flights from the mainland to neither Lanai nor Molokai, only inter-island flights.
Flying in Hawaii: Airlines that travel between Hawaiian islands
At the time of publishing this article, these are the carriers offer inter-island Hawaii flights:
- Hawaiian Airlines (and its regional subsidiary ‘Ohana by Hawaiian Airlines)
- Southwest Airlines operates between the Hawaiian islands. However, flights always start or end in Honolulu. So, if you want to fly from Maui to Kauai non-stop, then you’re better off opting for another airline.
- Mokulele Airlines.
- Makani Kai air.
- Lanai City is a luxury connection between Honolulu International Airport (HNL) and Lanai.
Cost of going island hopping in Hawaii
How much does it cost to travel between Hawaiian islands? Well, remember our excitement after booking that great flight deal for our family of four? Turns out it only lasted until we researched tickets prices for flights between Hawaiian islands. Is island hopping in Hawaii expensive? We think so, especially because the number of inter-island flights that are scheduled on a daily basis is pretty high. We therefore never expected to see these relatively high prices. An important Hawaii fact to consider when planning your itinerary.
Travel between Hawaiian islands cost outline (based on our Hawaii island hopping itinerary):
- Day 1: Oahu (Honolulu airport – HNL) to Maui (Kahului airport – OGG)
- Day 2-5: Maui
- Day 6: Maui (Kahului airport – OGG) to Big Island (Hilo airport – ITO)
- Day 7-14: Big Island
- Day 15 : Big Island (Kona airport – KOA) to Oahu (Honolulu airport – HNL)
- Day 16-20: Oahu
We paid a total of $249,60 (about €220) per person for these 3 inter-island flights. The second flight, the one from Maui to Hilo, was the most expensive one at $80 (about €70) per person despite being the shortest of the three. So, we finally did manage to find an okay deal but it took some figuring out the best dates, flight times and route for the most interesting Hawaiian island hopping itinerary. Of course, you could reduce the cost by spending your transferable credit card points or miles wisely.
Tip: Use this Hawaii travel cost calculator to budget your entire trip to the islands (Hawaii inter-island flights, rental car, accommodation, food and excursions).
Before-mentioned ticket price does not include checked bags. Luckily we pack rather light because, for a family of four on a three-week trip, luggage supplements can significantly increase the total cost. On inter-island flights with Hawaiian, you pay $25 (€22) for the 1st bag and $35 (€31) for the 2nd bag. However, Hawaiian Miles members only pay $15 (€13) for the 1st bag and $20 (€17,5) for the 2nd bag so if you haven’t registered for their loyalty program yet, then do so before you travel in Hawaii!
Choose the scenic side
You want to sit at the right side of the plane when you go island hopping in Hawaii, simply because the scenery is spectacular! Of course you could figure out yourself what that side is from the map but hey, you appreciate excellent service just like we do, now don’t you? That’s why we’ve gathered the best seating sides for Hawaii inter-island travel:
- Honolulu → Maui Kahului: left
- Honolulu → Kauai Lihue: right
- Honolulu → Kona: left
- Honolulu → Hilo: both
- Maui Kahului → Honolulu: right
- Maui → Hilo: both
- Maui → Kona: left
- Kauai Lihue → Honolulu: left
- Kona → Honolulu: right
- Kona → Maui Kahului: right
- Hilo → Honolulu: right
- Hilo → Maui: right
Flight times and airport infrastructure
Traveling between islands in Hawaii by plane will take anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes. Out of the 3 inter-island flights we took, 1 was delayed and 1 was canceled (we were rebooked after a 2 hour wait).
The airports of Kahului and Hilo were pretty decent and staff were very kind and helpful but Kona airport seemed very basic. We had to walk barefooted over a disgusting carpet – luckily, disinfectant wipes are part of my standard equipment – and were treated with anything but the aloha-spirit. At least the gate was the cutest we had ever seen.
Hawaii island hopping vacation packages
For those visitors who don’t have the luxury of spending three weeks on the islands, like we did, day trips between Hawaiian islands are a great alternative. It saves you the fuss of packing and planning and most importantly… it saves you precious Hawaiian vacation time!
Boating between Hawaiian islands
Island hopping Hawaii ferry service
Prior to researching our options for island hopping in Hawaii, we had expected there to be a passenger ferry. Unfortunately, there’s no actual ferry service between the islands in Hawaii anymore, except for the Lanai – Maui ferry (from/to Lahaina harbor). At the time of publishing this post, it operates five times daily. We can’t talk from personal experience but we do imagine the views from aboard the ferry to be very scenic.
Generally speaking though, flying is the best way to island hop in Hawaii simply because the options are limited.
Hawaii island hopping cruise
The only real option to travel between Hawaiian islands by boat, is by booking cruise. Can I make a confession? We’ve never taken a cruise before. Those giant vacation ships remind us of those massive, all-inclusive, loud resorts we once visited (a looooong time ago). That’s just not how we like to travel anymore. So, we would prefer prefer small-vessel cruises, comparable to low-key, boutique style hotels with personal service. The UnCruise Hawaiian Seascapes adventures, for example, really appeals to us. With a capacity of just 36 persons, this is the only Hawaii island hopping cruise we would consider.
Which Hawaiian islands to visit and for how long
The Hawaiian archipelago consists of many islands but only six of those islands are inhabited.
‘The Gathering Place’ is Hawaii’s most popular island and home to state capital Honolulu. Apart from the famous tourist sites, such as Waikiki beach and Pearl harbour, Oahu is actually surprisingly rural. But since many tourists are keen on exploring the island’s attractions, it can get quite busy. With 100 things to do on Oahu, you have plenty of exciting sightseeing options to escape the crowds. We barely got to see the Honolulu highlights in the time that we spent on Oahu. Okay, I admit that we had a hard time leaving our superb Alohilani resort at Waikiki beach too but still….
If you want to explore the Honolulu area and you’re ready to book your attractions in advance, then we’d recommend to spend at least four days on Oahu. However, if you really want to discover what Oahu is all about then we would advise you to stay a bit longer, like we will next time. And if you prefer to see the true soul of the island, then these top things to do in North Shore Oahu are a great place to start. I really wish we had taken the time to explore that part of the island. Next time, for sure, we’ll be planning some outdoor adventures in Oahu.
The Big Island of Hawaii
Often referred to as ‘Hawaii’, this island is all about purity and authenticity. This is the best Hawaiian island for families with a sense of adventure, nature-lovers and thrill-seekers. The landscape is incredibly diverse:
- It offers some of the best hikes in Hawaii in and around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park featuring the famous Kilauea volcano.
- You’ll find the most gorgeous scenery near Hilo.
- The colorful Big Island beaches are mind-blowing, especially the rare Papakolea green sand beach and high number of black sand beaches in Hawaii.
- Its picture-perfect Hawaii waterfalls are often easily accessible.
- Culture buffs will take pleasure in visiting the many cultural sites, such as Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park.
This is the youngest island out of all six inhabited ones and also the biggest, almost twice the size of the other three vacation islands combined. Therefore, it is recommended to divide your time over the two inhabited coasts, the lush east coast (Hilo area) and the sunny west coast (Kona area) with its white beaches. Check out our article on where to stay on the Big Island to find your perfect spot.
You should at least spend a week on the Big Island to take in all its beauty. If you want to add a few days to relax too, as you should, then you’re looking at 10 days.
‘The Valley Isle’ forms the perfect introduction to Hawaii. The island offers an excellent combination of gorgeous resorts, lush nature and the best beaches around. There are no cities, only some small towns so it never feels crowded (except when you’re driving the Road to Hana but that’s another story). Everyone will feel right at home in Maui.
- Sports enthusiasts for one, since the island is ideal for snorkeling and hiking. We’ve dedicated an entire article on the most spectacular Maui hikes.
- But also families with young children have plenty of options on the Valley Isle since it’s just as perfect for little adventures. Just check out our ultimate list of things to do in Maui with kids.
- With all this activity, you’d almost forget that the island also counts as a prime honeymoon destination.
So, whether you’re looking for romance, family fun of thrills, Maui is the place to be. Check out our article on where to stay in Maui to find your perfect spot. Since our stay was just a day or so too short to see all highlights (and to make a second attempt to drive the Road to Hana), we’d recommend you to spend a week on Maui.
‘The Garden Isle’ is the one that got away… this time! We’re already making plans to return to Hawaii in a year or two and then this little gem will be the first we’ll visit. Kauai is the youngest of the Hawaiian islands but also the wettest one, especially in some areas. But that’s not all bad because the rain results in the most stunning scenery. Thanks to its unique climate, Kauai is often described as the most beautiful Hawaiian island. Do carefully consider where to stay on Kauai to find your place in the sun because some areas are wetter than others.
From what we’ve researched, this Hawaiian island has the same adventurous soul as the Big Island but is a bit less accessible. That was also the reason why we chose not to include it in our planning. This actually turned out to be a good decision because the island of Kauai suffered some severe flooding when we were in Hawaii (april 2018).
We feel that 5 days would be a minimum to spend on this beautiful island.
Molokai and Lanai
The other two inhabited islands, Molokai and Lanai, may be great for day trips but also for visitors who have been to Hawaii numerous time and are ready to travel deeper and more off-grid. Or maybe for the unconventional tourist who’s looking for unspoilt beaches and rolling green hills untouched by tourism.
Suggested island hopping Hawaii itineraries for first time visitors
10-day Hawaii itinerary
A two-island combination of either Oahu, Maui or Kauai would be ideal to explore the best of the chosen islands but it won’t allow much time for relaxation. We would personally suggest to start with Maui. It’s the perfect place to recover from a jetlag and very well-connected to the mainland which might save you a layover.
2 week Hawaii itinerary
Again, a combination of two of the above islands would be ideal because at this pace you’ll have plenty of time to spend to relax on one of the beautiful beaches. If you’re more of an active type, you could try and squeeze in a third smaller island (just not the Big Island) or book a one-day island hopping package. Start in Maui and build up from there.
Or, if you’re looking for a very active vacation, you could combine Big Island with Kauai for the ultimate outdoor experience in Hawaii.
3 week Hawaii itinerary
Three weeks is just enough time to combine the Big Island with two smaller islands, like we did. Or you can take spend your days on the three smaller islands at a slower. Whatever option you choose, after three weeks of island hopping in Hawaii you’ll have explored some pretty amazing places.
Best time to travel to Hawaii
The weather may also be a deciding factor in selecting the islands for your Hawaiian island hopping itinerary. After all, rainbows and waterfalls wouldn’t be there without the occasional shower. Each of the Hawaiian island boasts several climate zones, one more humid than the other. Hawaiian summer runs from May to October and has an average day temperature of 85° F (29.5° C). The winter months are November to April with an average day temperature of 78° F (25.6° C). Tropical storm season typically runs from July through November.
Also the trade winds are a big factor in Hawaiian weather. Coming from the north and east, these pick up moisture from the warm ocean waters and bring heavy rainfall to this side of the Hawaiian islands. That’s why these northeastern sides are called the windward sides. Now you know why you’ll find most of the lush nature and waterfalls on this side of the islands. This picture was taken on the Road to Hana adventure which is clearly located on the windward side of Maui. We gave up after a while since it got too dangerous…
When will you go island hopping in Hawaii?
If you made it to this point, then you might consider yourself an expert at how to travel between Hawaiian islands.
It’s an ambitious adventure, especially when you’ve traveled over 35 hours to even get to Oahu like we did. Oh yes, we did: a 3 hour drive to Amsterdam, an 8,5 hour flight to Washington DC, waiting at immigration for 2,5 hours, a 16 hour stopover and a 10,5 hour flight to Honolulu. Was it worth it? Totally! Would we do it again? In a heartbeat because it was our most epic travel adventure so far. Can you see yourself as a Hawaii Island hopper too? Let us know in the comments!
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