The Big Island of Hawaii is a real Hawaiian gem. We have visited all four major islands now and this one feels the most local to us. The Northern coastline valley hikes, the blacksand beaches, the lava tubes, the secluded beaches and the rainforest hikes on this island are really unmatched. The Big Island is also home to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park where we got to see an actively erupting volcano, a once in a lifetime experience.
Also, although Hawaii may have a reputation for being an expensive place to visit, you really can visit Big Island, Hawaii on a Budget. Most of our favorite activities on the Big Island were free or cost very little. Your most expensive costs will be your flights, accommodations and rental car (you need a rental car to visit the Big Island). See our posts How to Book Accommodations on a Budget, 5 Ways to Save on Flights and How to Save on a Rental Car for more tips on how to save money on these.
This adventure was also our first major trip away from the Midwest with our three month old daughter. We loved exploring the island with her! For tips on traveling with a baby, please see our Top 10 Baby Travel Tips, How to Hike with a Baby and Flying with a Baby posts.
We recommend spending about a week, if not longer, on the Big Island. Everything is quite spread apart and to see the whole island, even a week, may be quite challenging. Here is our quick guide about the Big Island, Hawaii.
FYI: This post is based on a trip taken in early November
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What to Do on the Big Island on a Budget
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes. While we were visiting this park, we were lucky enough to see one of those volcanoes actively eruptIng. It was truly unforgettable and a once in a lifetime experience! In addition to seeing an active volcano, there is a lot of different hiking to do at this park. You can hike through lava tubes, across a volcano crater and along Sulfur Banks (or sulphur if you are British). For all the details on visiting this park, see our Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Quick Guide.
Cost: $35/car or no charge with America the Beautiful Pass
Budget Tip: If you plan to visit more than 2 National Parks in one year, this pass pays for itself and will save you money
Pololu Valley Lookout and Hike Pololu/Awini Trail
This area was our favorite hike that we did on the Big Island. It gives you the most bang for your buck. You see a lot of beautiful scenery without an excessive amount of hiking. This hike starts at the Polo Valley Lookout point. You get some stunning views even just from the lookout point you can drive up to. Even if you are not able to hike, it is worth seeing the lookout point from the beginning of the trail.
Pololu/Awini Trail Hike
From the lookout point, you descend down on the Pololu trail about a half mile on a rocky path into a rainforest valley before coming to the black sand beach. From here, you can continue on up the other side of the valley into the mountainous rainforest on the Awini trail. You really can hike as far as you want on this trail or as little as you want on this trail. In our opinion, the best views are from the valley floor after the initial descent before the beach or from the lookout point at the beginning of the trail.
Arrive Here Early
When we got here at approximately 9 AM, there were only a couple cars in the parking lot but when we left, there were cars parked up the entire street. It was nice to have the valley almost completely to ourselves in the morning.
This white sand beach located on the Northwest side of the island was our favorite beach on the island. It had a good amount of shade, something very important to us especially with our three month old daughter. Although we have a stellar sun tent (which we highly recommend), the additional natural shade helps keep her (and us) cooler and more comfortable. It also had soft sand and clear water – great to walk in and wade out to cool down. Further, due to the limited public parking to access this beach and the fact that it is located behind a private residence/ resort, it did not feel overcrowded. There are also very clean bathrooms and a shower area not far from the beach.
We visited this beach twice since we liked it so much. We were able to set up under a tree. The ocean breeze and shade made for very comfortable afternoons relaxing on the beach.
Parking at Kaunaoa Beach
The parking situation at Kaunaoa Beach is a bit tricky. If you want to almost guarantee you are going to get parking, arrive before 9 AM or after 4 PM. There are only 40 spots in the parking lot. You have to get a ticket from the front gate attendant at the Mauna Kea private residence/resort. The public parking is gated so the attendant at the front always knows if there is a spot available. The first day we visited this beach, we had no problem getting parking right away but the second time we had to circle around for about 10 minutes before a spot became available and we could drive back to the parking area. Try going around lunchtime (if not going early morning or late afternoon) to get a spot when a lot of people tend to leave.
Punaluu Black Sand Beach
We visited three black sand beaches on the Big Island (also at Waipio Valley and Pololu Valley) and this was our favorite of the three. The sand is much darker than any other black sand beach we have seen (including the one in Santorini Greece—coming soon, Santorini, Greece Quick Guide). The sand here is also much more fine and soft than the others we visited. We enjoyed a picnic lunch at this park. Be sure to bring food with you as there is none available here and nothing in the close surrounding areas.
Tip: If you are visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, this beach is only about 20 minutes Southwest from the main park entrance. We recommend visiting both on the same day to decrease driving (unless you are staying on the East side of the island).
Waipio Valley Lookout and Hike
This stop is a cool lookout point over a mountainous valley that leads out to a black sand beach on the coastline. Here, you can also hike down into the valley and onto the black sand beach. This hike involves a very steep descent on a paved road (about 1,000 feet of elevation) and then a hike through the rainforest on a flat dirt (more like mud) road before coming out to the black sand beach. This hike was extra special because we saw some wild horses on the beach and crossing through the river in the valley. Definitely not something you see every day! The hike in total is about 3 miles or so roundtrip, depending on how far you go out onto/across the black sand beach.
You can alternatively hire someone to drive you down into the valley but we found the hike to be rewarding and not overly strenuous as it was mainly in the shade. We recommend completing this hike before noon though to avoid full sun as that would have made it feel a lot more difficult.
We completed this hike with our infant daughter so Natalie had approximately 15 extra pounds strapped to her. If she can do this hike with the extra weight, have confidence you can do it too if you are physically active. For all of our tips on hiking with your baby, see our How to Hike with a Baby post.
Note: Check to make sure the hike down to Waipio Valley is open to visitors during your visit. Last we heard in March 2022 after our visit, the hike was closed to only locals. However, this may change so just be sure to check before deciding to hike. Regardless of the hike being closed, you can still view Waipio Valley from the elevated viewpoint and this is still very pretty (and little physical exertion required).
Hike to the Secluded Makalawena Beach
This beach is really neat because it can only be accessed by hiking out to it. Consequently, this seclusion keeps the crowds down as people in general like easier beach access. It is about 1 mile to 1.5 miles one-way hike out to the beach and with little to no elevation change.
For hiking to the beach, you have to drive on a very bumpy and rough road to get to the trailhead. This road is so rough that we ended up parking on it about a half a mile further away from the trailhead because we thought it would be much easier to walk on it then drive on it in our sedan rental car (and we were right). There are several spots along this road that you can park on before getting to the actual trailhead and we would recommend doing that even if you have a 4WD vehicle. You have to drive so slowly that it is quite frustrating and you can almost move faster walking.
This beach is pristine and well worth the effort to get to it. It is rated as one of the best on the Big Island. It has classic white sandy beaches and clear blue water. We enjoyed setting up our sun tent and playing in the sand with our daughter. We love our sun tent, especially for beaches like this where shade is super limited as it allows us to create our own.
Sunset in Kona
The sunset in downtown Kona really is unmatched. We recommend watching it by the waterfront! There are several restaurants you can eat at and watch the sunset but if you plan to get a sunset spot, you will need to get their hours in advance. There are plenty of areas where you can watch the sunset for free though. Just walk around and you’ll find them.
We could see the sunset from our Airbnb (which was awesome too) but seeing it on the waterfront really is magical. We have seen a lot of sunsets in cool locations and this definitely is in the top five.
Rainforest Hike on the Makaula Ooma Trails
If you are looking for a hike that mainly only locals do and where you will not see many other people, this is the hike for you. This rain forest hike was really pretty. It took us through a lot of different rainforest flora and the best part, we only saw three other people the entire hike. This also is located very close to the Airbnb we recommend in Kona. This hike does not take you to a specific lookout point but really makes for a peaceful hike through the rainforest.
This hike can cary in length. It can be as short as a mile with minimal elevation gain or as long as 4 miles with approximately 700 feet of elevation gain if you hike the whole path.
Shout out to our Airbnb host for recommending this to us!
Hilo is the biggest city on the East side of the island yet it feels very local and not touristy. It felt like ‘Old Hawaii’ to us and much different than the more glamorous and built up Kona side of the island. There are a lot of different things you can see in this city. We just spent a brief afternoon here and recommend seeing the below, particularly the Kaumana Caves.
Given the untourist nature of this area, don’t expect a lot catering to non-locals. We arrived in Hilo around 2 PM and found most restaurants were actually closed for lunch. If you are looking for a lunch spot, we would recommend arriving sooner than that.
Also, since there is so much driving and so much to see on the Big Island, you could consider flying into Hilo and out of Kona or vice versa to break up your time on the island as there is an airport (less popular so less flights to it) in Hilo as well. This logistically did not work for us but definitely something to consider.
These lava tubes are located a short drive outside the city center. They are super cool and definitely our favorite thing we saw in Hilo. These caves felt much more untouched than the Thurston Lava Tubes at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Given this, there is a lot more skill and care that is required to explore them. Make sure you are wearing proper hard-soled shoes and that you have a headlamp with you otherwise you won’t make it very far in these caves.
As far as hiking boots, we recommend Men’s Keen Waterproof Hiking Boots & Women’s Keen Waterproof Hiking Boots which we have been using for over 7 years. These are great in the cave and the rainforest. And these are the headlamps we use.
These caves also do get quite narrow eventually and require quite a bit of crouching down and crawling. We were limited in how far we could go as we had our three month old daughter with us in the Ergobaby. Regardless, even going a short distance in these caves is worth seeing.
This waterfall gets its name from the rainbow that tends to form within the waterfall midday. When we visited, we did not see a rainbow at this waterfall but think it is worth checking out if you are in Hilo. For your best chance of seeing the rainbow, try to go around noon when the sun is most full. This waterfall is very accessible too. We were able to roll our stroller up to it which is always a huge plus. Sometimes you just need a break from baby carrying! Likewise, it is wheelchair accessible.
It also feels a bit strange because you literally are right in the city center and all of a sudden bam, there’s a big waterfall. Don’t expect to be by yourself at this waterfall though. Since it is so accessible and near the city center, a lot of people are usually there. This is a brief stop.
Tip: If you are in Hilo, go see Rainbow Falls. However, we would not recommend driving across the entire island just to see this. We recommend doing a big loop to see/hike Waipio Valley, visit Akaka Falls State Park and then visit the stops in Hilo. This itinerary will save you some driving and allow you to see more sites.
This destination is another natural phenomenon that you drive up to right from the city center. Like Rainbow Falls, this is a brief stop. It is also stroller and wheelchair accessible. If you are in Hilo, definitely make the stop here. However, like Rainbow Falls, do not drive across the whole island just to see this.
Liliuokalani Park and Gardens
These Japanese gardens located along the oceanfront have a lot of different pretty and unique flora. Our favorite site here was the huge Banyan tree. There are additionally some nice paths to walk on around the gardens and most are stroller/wheelchair accessible. We also enjoyed eating some takeout in the park overlooking the waterfront. Like Rainbow Falls and Boiling Pots, stop here if you are in the area but do not drive across the island to see it. This is not a must do but a good spot to relax.
Akaka Falls State Park
This state park is located on the Northeast side of the island. It is in between Waipio Valley and Hilo. It is home to one of the biggest waterfalls in Hawaii. It really is quite impressive! There is about a half mile loop path that you can walk on. It is a paved path but does have some stairs. This is another brief stop. Combine this with visiting Waipio Valley.
Cost $5/person, $10 to park (if you park in the lot but the lot was full so we parked on the road for free)
Where to Eat
On the Big Island, things are really spread apart. Many of the places you will visit here will not have a lot or any restaurants around them. Given this, we packed lunches most days or ate at our Airbnb (which had a full kitchen). Definitely be sure to pack a lunch for the beaches and the National Park as you will not really have any other food options.
The restaurants with the best views and the most variety on their menus are in Kona. However, there are really some hidden gems where you can get a traditional Hawaiian plate lunch while traveling around the island in some of the small towns. We would recommend just stopping where it is convenient for you.
Also, the roadside fruit stands are really great! Our favorite one was south of Kona, South Kona Fruitstand. Natalie had a pineapple passionfruit smoothie here that was out of this world. We also got some unique pineapple carrot cake here. Can we fly back to the Big Island just to get these? That’s how good it was!
Visiting Big Island, Hawaii Budget Tip: Go grocery shopping at Costco
In Hawaii, food is significantly more expensive than the continental US, particularly in the Midwest where we live. It makes sense given that almost everything needs to be shipped to islands. However, at Costco, some products are still the same price as they are in the midwest. We were surprised that we could get large bags of spinach, rotisserie chicken and some other produce for the same price we could at home. Other things are still more expensive than they would be at home but significantly less expensive than they are at other grocery stores in Hawaii.
Definitely buy pineapple when you are at Costco as you will not find it for less anywhere else! And with anyone familiar with Costco, the produce is always great quality. If you have a Costco membership and are going to be staying more than a couple days, it makes complete sense to go shopping here. We did most of our grocery shopping at Costco and then some things that we just really did not need large quantities of, we bought at the local Safeway.
Costco on the Big Island is located about 10 minutes south of the airport. It was quite close to our accommodations but depending on where you’re staying, it will probably make most sense to stop there after you land if you fly into Kona.
Where to Stay on Big Island Hawaii on a Budget
The Big Island of Hawaii is very BIG. Unlike the other Hawaiian islands, if you want to see the whole island, you have to do a lot more driving. In our opinion, there is no perfect central homebase spot to stay because everything is pretty spread apart. Ideally, you would see this island by hopping around from different accommodations every night or so. However, packing up and moving every day or so can be stressful and may not actually save you as much time as you think.
We wanted a consistent homebase for our whole time on the Big Island and we chose to stay just outside of Kona. If we were to visit again, we would stay here or on the more Northern end of the island. The activities we enjoyed most, other than visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, were located in these areas (Pololu Valley, Waipio Valley, Makalawena Beach and Kaunaoa Beach). If you want to spend more time exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you will probably prefer to stay in Hilo or Volcano Village.
Our Kailua-Kona Airbnb was perfect for us. We had sunset views every night from the kitchen window and it had everything we needed (including lots of baby items which was a HUGE plus with a three month old). It was very spacious, updated and clean. Also, the host was super kind and helpful! And as always, this accommodation was budget friendly. If you are looking into Kona, definitely stay here!
We hope this guide helps you plan your trip to the Big Island on a budget. Anything you’d add to our guide on visiting Big Island, Hawaii on a Budget? We’d love to hear your feedback and questions. Please leave us a comment!
For more Hawaii trip tips, please see:
- Oahu, Hawaii Quick Guide
- Kauai, Hawaii Quick Guide
- Maui, Hawaii Quick Guide
- Haleakala National Park Quick Guide
- 5 Stops on the Road to Hana
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Quick Guide
And remember, Always Have A Trip Planned!
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