Hawai’i is so laid back it’d be tempting to say you don’t have to follow any rules when you travel there. But learning essential Hawaii travel tips – from etiquette to cultural norms to local quirks – will make for a better vacation (and help you be a more responsible traveler).
While there isn’t as strict etiquette as you’d find in Japan or as stringent cultural rules as you might find in Saudi Arabia, there are things you should and shouldn’t do to abide by local rules and to have a great trip.
20 Top Hawaii Travel Tips
Here are our top 20 must-know Hawaii travel tips we share with our travel planning clients who head there:
Each Hawaiian Island Is Unique
The first of our Hawaii travel tips? If it’s your first time in Hawai’i, you might be surprised to learn that each of the seven inhabited islands is distinct. We’re talking about each island’s topography, age, history, and culture as its own.
Go to Maui for farm experiences; Big Island for lava and the famed Kona coastline; O’ahu for city meets sea culture; head to Lāna’i for pure luxury; Moloka’i for an off-the-beaten-path adventure; or Kaua’i for rainforest vibes. And, of course, make sure you eat well while you do so! Head here to decide which Hawaiian island to visit.
Embrace The Aloha Spirit
If you only remember one of these Hawai’i travel tips, have it be this one. The Aloha spirit is like the Golden Rule met the best hospitality, and it is alive and well in Hawai’i. You’ll find locals are warm and welcoming as long as you are kind and respectful. Embrace the Aloha spirit and spread good vibes throughout your trip.
Adjust To “Hawai’i Time”
No, we’re not talking about the time zone but the pace at which life moves. Known informally as “Hawai’i time,” people drive slower, talk slower, and some services may unfold more slowly. Rather than find it frustrating, be present and enjoy it!
Use “Hawaiian” Only To Refer To Indigenous People
This is one Hawai’i travel tip we cannot emphasize enough: pay attention to how you use the word “Hawaiian.” When it comes to describing people, the term “Hawaiian” is used exclusively for native Hawaiians who have Hawaiian ancestry. All other people living there are called “residents of Hawai’i” or “locals.” If you’re unsure about someone’s background, it’s best to use the term “local.”
Or To Refer To Traditional Hawaiian Food
Of course, “Hawaiian” isn’t exclusive to people but everything from traditional indigenous culture to food, clothing, and dances. “Hawaiian Food” refers to foods historically made by native Hawaiians. Traditional Hawaiian foods you may encounter include while eating at the Kauai best restaurants are dishes like lomi lomi, kālua pork, haupia, poi, poke, and kūlolo, and they’re all very much worth seeking out.
Learn A Few Hawaiian Words
Along those lines, you’ll find Hawaiian words used in everyday language, so another of our essential Hawaii travel tips is to learn a few local words. “Aloha” means “hello” and “goodbye.” “Mahalo” means “thank you.” Kāne” means “man,” while “Wāhine” means “woman.” “Lānai” means porch. “Haole” means a non-native local who is usually of Caucasian descent. You might even hear “A hui hou,” which means “until we meet again.” Head here for a comprehensive list of standard Hawaiian terms.
And Learn Some Pidgin Too
During Hawai’i’s plantation era, there were different groups of immigrants, each with their language, and they had to find a way to communicate. The result is Hawaiian pidgin–aka a Creole distinct to Hawai’i. Locals use it regularly; you’ll even see pidgin terms on restaurant menus. We wouldn’t recommend using pidgin as a non-local, but knowing if you encounter the words as you travel is helpful.
Know Lei Etiquette
If you’re given a lei (aka a flower garland common across Polynesia), always accept it as it is considered a symbol of Aloha. The correct way to wear a lei is not like a necklace, but rather evenly draped over your shoulders with some hanging both in the front and back. Traditionally, you do not throw a lei away but return it to the earth, but these days many people hang it to dry to have it as a keepsake.
And Know What You Can Bring And Take
The Hawai’i Department of Agriculture works hard to prevent the spread of invasive species. As such, they prohibit fresh fruit and plants from entry into Hawai’i. So, ditch your apple or other fresh fruit snacks before you land in Hawai’i. Also, please ensure any produce, fresh food, or flowers are commercially packaged on departure. Otherwise, you will need to give them up before boarding.
It Can Be Expensive
Smackdab amid the Pacific Ocean, Hawai’i is the most isolated landmass in the populated world. So, it should be no surprise that things are expensive. There are many local makers and farmers, but most things – cars, electronics, and food – are brought in via boat or airplane, and that extra cost is passed on to the consumer.
Shop And Support Local
All that to say, one of our top Hawai’i travel tips is to shop locally. This is a good practice when you’re aiming for more sustainable travel habits. But also, the past decade brought about a wave of creativity and a boom in small business entrepreneurialism; you can see evidence of it across the islands. Avoid the chains and seek out the locally-owned businesses as you travel across Hawai’i.
Be Prepared For The Plastic Bag Ban
If you’re heading to O’ahu, know that Honolulu has one of the nation’s strongest bans on plastic bags. After being delayed by the pandemic, the ban went into effect in April 2021, and the ordinance prohibits businesses from giving out plastic bags, utensils, and straws. Customers can still request paper bags or disposable utensils made from recycled material for a nominal fee. Have a reusable tote with you for any purchases during your trip.
Get A Rental Car
We love to walk or use public transport whenever possible, but a top Hawai’i travel tip is to have a rental car. Unless you plan to stay at a resort or use rideshare services to get from point A to B, you’ll be best off renting a car. There are many off-the-beaten-path things in Hawai’i, from hikes to beaches to small towns, so it’s best to have your vehicle explore it all at your own pace. Rental cars can be in high demand, so contact us if you need help finding a solution.
Use Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Hawai’i banned the sale of sunscreens with coral-harming chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate, and the law went into effect in early 2021. Now you’ll only see reef-safe sunscreen available in the stores, but that means you are responsible for only using reef-safe sunscreen while you’re on the island. Read more about what kinds of sunscreen you cannot use and the brands you can use here.
Be Realistic About Your Water Skills
Between Jaws on Maui and Pipeline on O’ahu, some of the world’s most impressive waves are found in the Aloha State. Add to it that there are a lot of rip currents, many rocky beaches, and coral reefs just beyond the shoreline, and, well, there is a lot to contend with when you hop in the water.
Be realistic with your water knowledge and swimming strength, whether you’re looking to surf, SUP, or snorkel. If in doubt, don’t go out and find a calmer place to frolic, like O’ahu’s Waikīkī Beach, Kauai’s Hanalei Bay, Hawai’i’s Kona Coast, or Maui’s Wailea.
And Your Outdoor Knowledge
The land is also unique in Hawai’i, from waterfalls to steep trails and lava fields to active volcanoes. Also, the weather can change quickly, with a rainstorm or flash flood arriving in minutes. All that to say, plan before your adventure. Check the weather forecast, and when you pack for Hawai’i, bring extra water, sun protection, layers, and appropriate footwear.
Please pay attention to hunting season, as many wild boar and venison hunters are out and about. And do your best to stay off private property – it’s not always clearly marked, so you may sometimes unwittingly trespass!
Pack For All Weather
When we talk to our travel planning clients, they’re usually well prepared for Hawai’i’s sun. However, many are unprepared for the rain. Outside of winter, it rarely rains all day in Hawai’i; however, there are often showers in the afternoons, especially in wetter spots like Hāna on Maui or Kaua’i. Read up on what to pack for Hawai’i to be prepared for various weather and experiences.
Take Your Shoes Off Indoors
Speaking of, it’s common courtesy to take your shoes off before entering a house in Hawai’i. You might also find that small businesses like a wellness center or a boutique may ask you to remove your shoes and leave them near the door.
Stay Away From Protected Species
Hawai’i is home to amazingly diverse wildlife; many can only be found on the islands. Sadly, the state has been nicknamed the “endangered species capital of the world” as it’s home to unique, protected animals such as Monk seals, Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles, spinner dolphins, humpback whales, the hoary bat, and the Hawaiian goose (aka the nēnē).
Please keep your distance from these animals and limit your time near them. The most responsible choice is to adventure with a trustworthy tour provider for things like stargazing, hiking, or whale watching. You can read more about the state’s various protected species here or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you need help finding a tour operator.
Along those lines, Hawai’i has made a concerted effort to encourage visitors to travel responsibly by doing things mentioned here – like buying local and respecting protected species – as well as land and ocean conservation efforts. Read more about how to travel responsibly to Hawai’i here or learn how you can volunteer while in Hawai’i.
Frequently Asked Questions
Before visiting Hawaii, it's important to decide the best time to go, make some reservations in advance, respect Hawaiian culture, underdress for success, learn the local surfing etiquette, be aware of floods, and protect your belongings.
To make the most of your trip to Hawaii, choose the right island(s) based on your preferences, plan your trip during the best time of year, consider renting a car for easier exploration, and avoid trying to see multiple islands in a short amount of time.
To be a respectful and ethical traveler in Hawaii, engage with local culture and communities, book activities through locals, shop and dine at locally-owned spots, leave the islands better than you found them, and be a respectful driver.
A Word About Travel To Hawai’i
As with so many beautiful destinations, overtourism is a struggle in Hawai’i, and there is a serious discussion about how to mitigate it best. While this has long been a hot-button topic in the Aloha State, fuel was added to the fire when tourism was cut off during the pandemic, and locals got a taste of life in the islands without mass tourism.
Proposed solutions range from outright ending tourism to Hawai’i to advocating for more mindful travel through education of local culture and customs. Read more about this here and tips for locals on how to be more mindful travel to Hawai’i. And read on for basic etiquette and culture you should know, no matter if it’s your first or fifteenth visit to Hawai’i.
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More Hawaii Travel Tips
Plan for your trip by reading these articles:
- Which Hawaiian Island To Visit
- Food Terms You’ll Come Across In Hawai’i
- Hawai’i Food Tours To Check Out
Have Us Plan Your Hawai’i Trip
Did you know we’re also a boutique travel agency specializing in Hawai’i vacation planning? If you’re looking to plan a trip to Hawai’i, our Hawai’i trip planner services are here to help you plan your perfect itinerary.
Photo Credit: All photos by Maridav
Hawaiian Diacritical Marks: To be accurate and respectful of the Hawaiian language, we use diacritical marks in our articles on the region. For more about which effects are used in the language and how to find proper spelling, refer to this Hawai’i Magazine article.