Visitors to Hawaii are spoilt for choice in terms of options with a number of stunning islands to choose from. Each has their own unique charms and reasons to visit. In this post, we’ll look at the best islands in Hawaii for budget-minded, independent travellers.
The Best Islands in Hawaii – Top Three picks for Independent & Budget Travellers
While not the largest island, Oahu is home to around two thirds of the state’s population and it is generally regarded to be the easiest Hawaiian island to visit on a budget. That’s in part because it’s the most accessible with Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye Airport the most likely arrival point, certainly for international visitors.
You can fly into Honolulu from countries on both sides of the Pacific Ocean with direct connections to cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Tokyo, Auckland and Sydney, as well as most major North American cities. To reach the other islands, you’d most likely have to fork out for an extra flight or two as there are surprisingly limited options in terms of ferries in Hawaii and these inter-island airfares can prove costly despite the very short distances.
Oahu is the best bet for those looking for a bit more than just beach breaks and nature. While it certainly also caters to both of those things with some iconic surf destinations such as Waikiki Beach, the island is also the location of some of Hawaii’s main tourist sites and points of interest such as Pearl Harbour, the bombing of which was one of the important moments in World War II.
This is also the place to go for anyone looking for nightlife. Most of the other islands are relatively quiet places, where you can really embrace that laid-back Hawaiian lifestyle but those looking for late nights, bars, clubs and live music will find the biggest range of options in Honolulu and Waikiki on Oahu island.
Away from Oahu, the best bet for budget travellers in Hawaii is probably Big Island. At the time of research (March 2021), it had the largest range of options in terms of more affordable Airbnb’s and these were largely quite spread out making it relatively easy to do a bigger backpacking trip around the island, although you can still expect to perhaps spend slightly more than on the US mainland.
Big Island, sometimes just referred to as the island of Hawaii, is a great option for nature lovers and anyone looking to experience a variety of different landscapes. It’s also really well known for its wildlife with everything from wild horses to green sea turtles.
It’s Big Island’s natural diversity that sets it apart from the rest though. You can find sandy white beaches, black lava fields, rainforests, dramatic mountain valleys and even snow-capped peaks on Big Island. You’ll struggle to find such an incredible range of different landscapes in such a small area anywhere else on earth.
While considerably smaller, Molokai rivals Big Island for the crown of the best island in Hawaii for outdoor adventure. It certainly ranks amongst the top three Hawaiian islands for independent travellers due to the absence of major resorts and the “off the beaten path” vibe but finding decent accommodation on a budget is more challenging than on the other two islands cited above.
The largest town on Molokai is Kaunakakai but with a mostly native population of around 3,000, it’s not exactly a hub of energy and action. You may have some luck finding a cheap room there and it’s a good launchpad for exploring the island which offers a real escape from the high-speed pace of modern life.
Molokai is quite a curious place in many respects in that despite being located right in the middle of the Hawaiian island chain, it has largely watched on and remained the same as its neighbours have cashed in on mass tourism. That somewhat negative attitude towards tourism is palpable on the island and can leave some visitors feeling a little uncomfortable with many residents keen to ensure Molokai doesn’t end up being consumed by resorts and cruise ships, as is the case in other Hawaiian islands. Therefore you might not want to take its nickname as the “friendly isle” too literally.
How many Hawaiian islands are there?
In total there are 137 Hawaiian Islands, however most are very small and uninhabited. When people refer to Hawaii, generally they are referring to a group of seven or eight main islands. Kahoolawe, the smallest of the eight, doesn’t have any residents and access is restricted due to the risk of unexploded ordnance (it used to be used as a training ground and bombing site for the US military).
Therefore visitors to Hawaii, mostly have a choice of the following seven islands (ordered from largest to smallest), although in truth the privately owned Niihau island is also off limits to most visitors.
|Hawaii||185,000||The Big Island|
|Maui||155,000||The Valley Isle|
|Oahu||975,000||The Gathering Place|
|Kauai||70,000||The Garden Isle|
|Molokai||7,000||The Friendly Isle|
|Lanai||3,000||The Pineapple Isle|
|Niihau||250||The Forbidden Isle|
Aside from the three islands detailed above, Hawaii has some other great options. Maui is another fabulous place to visit and is often viewed as the best island in Hawaii to live. Maui residents may argue it is one of the best places in the world with some of the best beaches in the Pacific while it’s also one of the best locations for whale watching.
Kauai also has some stunning natural sights, including some of the most dramatic coastlines in the world and the Waimea Canyon, known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”. Lanai, the other Hawaiian island which you definitely can go to, is more like Molokai in that it has an “off the beaten track” feel and offers a chance to unwind.
While it is a year-round destination, the best time to visit Hawaii is between March and October with the beginning or end of that period perhaps offering the best conditions, although clearly it does depend on what kind of trip you are looking to have.