Hawaii is so laidback it’d be tempting to say you don’t really have to follow any rules when you travel there.
It's one of the premier destinations for a relaxing vacation and we get it. Land in the Aloha State and the trade winds and warm temps will put you in automatic chill mode. But keeping a few things in mind – from etiquette to cultural norms to local quirks – before you travel will make for a better vacation.
While there isn’t as strict etiquette as you’d find in Japan or 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.
Here are our top must-know tips for traveling to Hawaii:
Know Each Hawaiian Island Is Unique
If it’s your first time in Hawaii, you might be surprised to learn that each of the seven inhabited islands is distinct. We’re talking the topography, age, history, and culture of each island is a thing all its own. Go to Big Island for lava and the famed Kona coastline; head to Lanai for pure luxury; Molokai for an off-the-beaten-path adventure; or Kauai 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
The Aloha spirit is like the Golden Rule met the best hospitality and it is alive and well in the state of Hawaii. You’ll find locals are largely warm and welcoming so long as you too are kind and respectful. Embrace the Aloha spirit and spread good vibes throughout your trip.
Adjust To "Hawaii Time"
No, we're not talking about the time zone but rather the pace at which life moves in Hawaii. Accept the local lifestyle, including the slower pace. Known informally as "Hawaii time," people drive slower, talk slower, and even some services may unfold more slowly. Rather than find it frustrating, be present and enjoy it!
Use "Hawaiian" To Refer To Indigenous People
We've said it countless times, but just to be clear: pay attention to when and how you use the word "Hawaiian," When it comes to describing people, the term “Hawaiian” is used exclusively for people who have indigenous Hawaiian ancestry. All others are called “residents of Hawaii” or “locals.” If you're not sure as to someone's background, it's best to use the term "local."
Or To Refer To Traditional Hawaiian Food
Of course, the term "Hawaiian" isn't exclusive to people but to all things that came from traditional indigenous culture from food to clothing to dances. When it comes to food, the term "Hawaiian Food" refers to foods historically made by native Hawaiians. Traditional Hawaiian foods that you may encounter include dishes like lomi lomi, kalua pig, haupia, poi, poke, and kulolo 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. "Aloha" means "hello" and "goodbye." "Mahalo" means "thank you." "Kane" means "men" while "Wahine" means "women." "Lanai" 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 common Hawaiian terms.
And Learn Some Pidgin Too
During Hawaii's plantation era, there were different groups of immigrants, each with their own language, and they had to find a way to communicate. The result is Hawaiian pidgin–aka a Creole distinct to Hawaii. You’ll hear locals use it on the regular and even see pidgin terms on restaurant menus. We wouldn't recommend necessarily using pidgin as a non-local, but it is helpful to know in case you encounter the terms as you travel.
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 and have it as a keepsake.
And Know What You Can Bring And Take
The Hawaii Department of Agriculture works hard to prevent the spread of invasive species. As such, they prohibit fresh fruit and plants from entry into Hawaii. So be sure to ditch your apple or other fresh fruit snacks before you land in Hawaii. Also, on departure, make sure any produce, fresh food, or flowers are commercially packaged, otherwise, you will need to give them up before boarding.
It Can Be Expensive
Smackdab in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii is the most isolated landmass in the world that is populated. So, it should be no surprise that things are expensive. There are many local makers and farmers, but the large majority of 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, it’s very important to shop locally. The past decade brought about a wave of creativity and a boom in small business entrepreneurialism and you can see evidence of it across the islands. Try to avoid the chains and instead seek out the locally-owned businesses as you travel across Hawaii.
Be Prepared For The Plastic Bag Ban
If you’re heading to Oahu, know that the city of Honolulu has one of the strongest bans on plastic bags in the nation. After being delayed by the pandemic, the ban went into effect in April 2021 and the ordinance prohibits businesses from giving out plastic bags, plastic utensils, and plastic straws. Customers still can request paper bags or disposable utensils made from recycled material for a nominal fee. Be prepared by having a reusable tote with you for any purchases during your trip.
Get A Rental Car
Unless you’re planning 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 a lot of off-the-beaten-path things in Hawaii, from hikes to beaches to small towns, so it’s best to have your own car to explore it all at your own pace.
Use Reef-Safe Sunscreen
The state of Hawaii banned the sale of sunscreens that have coral-harming like chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate and the law went into effect in early 2021. Now you'll exclusively see reef-safe sunscreen available in the stores, but also that means that you are responsible for only using reef-safe sunscreen while you're on 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 the North Shore on Oahu, 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 your swimming strength no matter if you're looking to surf, SUP, or simply go snorkeling. If in doubt, don’t go out and find a calmer place to frolic like Oahu’s Waikiki Beach, Kauai’s Hanalei Bay, Hawai'i's Kona Coast, or Maui’s Wailea.
And Your Outdoor Knowledge
The land is also unique in Hawaii with everything from waterfalls to steep trails and lava fields to active volcanoes. Also, the weather can change quickly with a rainstorm arriving in a matter of minutes. All that to say, plan ahead before your adventure. Check the weather forecast, pack extra water and sun protection, bring extra layers, and appropriate footwear.
Please pay attention to hunting season as there are many wild boar and venison hunters out and about during the season. And do your best to stay off private property – it's not always clearly marked so you may unwittingly trespass at times!
Pack For All Weather
When we talk to our travel planning clients, they’re usually well prepared for Hawaii’s sun. However, many are unprepared for the rain. Outside of winter, it rarely rains all day in Hawaii; however, there are often showers in the afternoons, especially in wetter spots like Hana on Maui or on Kauai. Read up on what to pack for Hawaii to be prepared for a range of weather and experiences.
Take Your Shoes Off Indoors
Speaking of, it’s common courtesy to take your shoes off before entering a house in Hawaii. 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
Hawaii is home to an amazingly diverse wildlife and many can only be found in 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 email@example.com if you need help finding a tour operator.
Along those lines, the state of Hawaii 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 Hawaii here or learn about how you can do voluntourism while in Hawaii.
Read Our FAQs
Curious what the best time of year to travel to Hawaii is? Or if Honolulu is safe? Or what to do in case of an earthquake? Read more Hawaii travel FAQs here.
Have Us Plan Your Hawaii Trip
Many people dream of visiting Hawaii, but not everyone gets the chance to go. If you're one of those lucky travelers, you want to make the most of it. Our travel planning services are here to help you achieve the ideal vacation.
After discussing your preferences during a short consultation, we'll plan your perfect itinerary. Whether you're looking for custom travel planning or a small group trip, the Salt & Wind team is here to help. Contact us today to learn more.
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Photo Credit: All photos by Maridav