7 Reasons You Need to Rent a Car When in Hawaii

Updated on September 23, 2019
davidbtubbs profile image

David is an avid traveler who enjoys seeking out relaxation and new experiences and sharing his insights with other eager adventurers.

If you’re like me, when you started planning your trip to Hawaii you thought about beaches, drinks, and relaxation. But after doing some research, you quickly discovered there is so much more to the islands of Maui, Kauai, the Big Island, and Oahu than you ever thought possible.

After this realization, one of the biggest decisions you have to make is whether you should spend the money to rent a car. This decision is important no matter where or how you stay in paradise. It changes how you experience the islands and even how much money you spend while there.

For some, the money for a car seems like an extravagance, but rest assured, it will be well worth it. Here’s why.

1. Groceries

You are likely going to stay far from a store, and while the bus systems on the various islands vary from decent to inconsistent, do you really want to spend precious hours on a bus when you could be sitting on the beach or trekking through the rainforest?

Whether you’re staying in a hotel or a short-term rental, having easy access to a grocery store will save you money. A car offers you the chance to pop over to Safeway or another grocery store and stock up on supplies for meals, snacks, and alcohol. Many of the hotels on the island have suites and standard rooms with a kitchen that makes meal prep a very good option for most days.

This is how I stayed the first time I visited Maui. Fetching groceries and supplies saved me tons of money during the trip compared to eating out or in the hotel restaurant, enabling my wife and me to invest in experiences and special meals while on the island.

Photo from the Kalalau Lookout. Combined with the nearby Waimea Canyon, this is a popular tour stop that can cost upwards of $300.
Photo from the Kalalau Lookout. Combined with the nearby Waimea Canyon, this is a popular tour stop that can cost upwards of $300.

2. Avoid Paying for Tours

Every Hawaiian island is filled with outstanding tour operators who have excellent local knowledge and equipment. They can take you on adventures across every part of their island and its surrounding waters. You can cut the cost of tours considerably by renting a car.

The $170 you might spend on a guided tour to the top of Mt. Haleakala and the minimum $200 you will have to spend on a bus down the Road to Hana can immediately be avoided. The same can be said for a tour of the Big Island and Kauai.

This isn’t to say you won’t find the tours valuable and helpful in an unknown place, but for the adventurous types out there or those willing to research and plan their own ventures will find a rental car a big help that can pay dividends.

Kauai's famous North Shore is a beautiful spot to really explore and watch the sun set.
Kauai's famous North Shore is a beautiful spot to really explore and watch the sun set.

3. Opportunity to See All of the Island

The islands may feel small and remote when you’re looking at them on Google Maps, but there is so much to these islands and there is no way to explore them all on foot or through specific tours.

Each island is filled with a diverse and welcoming community of villages and towns that are unique in their own way. Having a vehicle at your disposal offers you the opportunity to explore as far as the road will take you. You aren’t limited by what a tour operator will show you in their scheduled stops or by the property line of your resort.

The massive banyan tree just off Front Street in Lahaina, Maui is a must visit, along with its many nearby shops.
The massive banyan tree just off Front Street in Lahaina, Maui is a must visit, along with its many nearby shops.

4. Take in the Local Culture

There is a lot of local culture that you can’t get along the built-up resort areas on Hawaii, whether it’s in Kauai’s North Shore, the posh shopping in Maui’s Wailea area, or in the heart of Honolulu on Oahu. Stepping outside of these core areas with a rental car gives you so much to see. You might not be a local, but in my experience, locals treat you a little differently if you roll up in a tour bus in a tourist-centric shopping venue.

The area around Kauai’s village of Poipu is as far from the North Shore as you can image, but is home to an amazing beach that is flush with sea turtles, excellent local shops, and even better restaurants. Maui’s Upcountry and the village of Paia offer an alternative to the beachfront, corporate area of Wailea where you can even see a rodeo or check out a local surf shop. There is so much within the local day-to-day culture that is a car ride away that you just can’t get through a highly structured tour or stuck in your resort district.

5. Time Management on the Trip

You are only traveling to Hawaii for a finite amount of time. There is no way you want to waste a moment of it waiting or wishing you could do something else. With a rental car, you aren’t confined to your hotel or rental property. If you’re on Maui and want to head to Lahaina to walk the shops or head to Kula in the Upcountry to get away from the commercialized feel of some of the resort areas, you can hop in the car and just do it.

Along the same lines, say you want to explore one of the islands but have dinner reservations later that day. A car can ensure you can do both whereas buses and tours do not always run on time, nor to your desired schedule. Time is a precious resource while on vacation and a rental car can really make the management of this resource much easier.

6. Cost Effective

It may seem out of place to say that renting a car is a cost-effective way to travel, but in many cases, it is a cost-saving tactic even beyond the cost savings of tours mentioned previously. Even when factoring in the rental fee, insurance costs, and, of course, gas, renting a car can bring down the overall cost of a trip to Hawaii in many cases.

If you want to travel to Kauai to sit on a beach and relax while eating at your resort throughout the week, sure, renting a car is an added expense you don’t need. But if you want to see the islands and take in even a fraction of what they have to offer, renting is the way to go.

For example, say you plan on taking two bus tours through towns, coffee farms or a hiking group. You could expect to pay about $120–$200 per excursion. That’s a minimum of $240. As mentioned before, you will also save on meals if you can easily reach a grocery store. In my past trip to Maui, my wife and I spent $130 on groceries that filled the gap for 10 meals throughout the week. At a conservative $15/meal/person, that’s $300 and a savings of $170. As you can see, the costs start to stack up.

You could theoretically take a taxi or Uber for many of these trips—and that is a very valid thought—but you are limited by what they can do for you on a budget. They could easily take you to the store in the nearest town to stock up on groceries, but the savings go out the window when you want to travel across Kauai’s North Shore at your leisure or trek across Maui’s Road to Hana. You also lose the sense of freedom you should feel while on vacation.

Venture to Wailua Falls on Kauai and feel the freedom of dipping your toes into the water and listening to the rushing waterfall.
Venture to Wailua Falls on Kauai and feel the freedom of dipping your toes into the water and listening to the rushing waterfall.

7. Sense of Freedom

What the previous six points all have in common is that a rental car can give you a sense of freedom in nearly everything you do in Hawaii. I’ve traveled across more than a dozen tropical destinations and there truly is no place like Hawaii to explore. The highway system is good, it is completely safe to venture out of your resort, and English is spoken across the state. There is nothing holding you back from turning every day in Hawaii into an excursion day when you have a car.

You are free to explore and call your own shots day-by-day. You set your own schedule. You say where and when you leave a beach, town, or park. Is there any better feeling than that when out on vacation or holiday?

Important Notes to Consider When Renting

I have had the pleasure of experiencing Hawaii through the freedom of a rental car, but there are some important aspects of renting a car that every traveler should consider. The first of which is the cost of rental insurance for the car.

Double-Check Your Insurance

Renting a car in Hawaii isn’t like renting one in your hometown or even another vacation destination. Depending on the island, your travel insurance, credit card insurance, and regular car insurance policy that you already have will not transfer to the rental car. Read the fine print of your personal insurance policy and that of the rental car company.

When my wife and I arrived in Maui we were surprised to find out that our personal auto insurance and extended credit card coverage did not cover a rental on the island. Plus, the insurance through the rental company was very high—much more than the cost of renting the car itself.

Research Where Not to Drive

It is also essential that you find out where you should NOT drive. There are many areas around the islands of Hawaii that are dangerous to drive across. This includes the backside of the Mt. Haleakala that is partially not paved. It shows up on maps, but is very rough and not good on the car. Some buses and trucks make the time-saving drive, but is not advisable in a car, and many rental agencies will not let you drive on this road and will void your insurance agreement if you do so.

This leads into the second important thing to note: understand where you should and should not drive in a rental car. The Hawaiian islands are a beautiful set of tropical landscapes. But not all areas of the islands are easy to explore. Besides parts of the Hana Highway on Maui, there’s the interior of Kauai, and the Puna and Ka’u regions on the Big Island of Hawaii. These gorgeous areas are filled with roads that are not created equal and are not easily navigated at night by those new to the islands. Be cautious and understand that some places are best explored with some help from a local guide, in the light of day, and/or on foot.

Hawaii is truly yours to discover. Don’t let a minute go by where you don’t explore an aspect of these spectacular islands of paradise, whether it be mountain peaks, waterfalls, or the quaint shops off the beaten path. And, a rental car might just be the best way to see it all.

© 2019 David Tubbs


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    • davidbtubbs profile imageAUTHOR

      David Tubbs 

      10 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thank you Maxwell! It really comes down to how you want to experience your trip to Hawaii.

    • mxkamlongera profile image

      Maxwell Kamlongera 

      10 months ago

      Great article. I've always contemplated whether a rental car is worth it or not, but you bring some points that didn't occur to me. At the very least, I definitely think it's worth giving a go.

    • davidbtubbs profile imageAUTHOR

      David Tubbs 

      10 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks Liz! It really is a must in most situations.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      10 months ago from UK

      You put the case for a hire car in Hawaii very well in this article. It's a convincing argument.


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