Steaming volcanoes, swaying palm trees, and coral reefs, teeming with fish—-it’s undeniable that the Big Island of Hawaii is a tropical paradise, just waiting to be explored. However, the island is, well, BIG so how are you supposed to get around? Do you need a rental car on the Big Island? Here’s everything you need to know about renting a car on the Big Island, from what kind of traveler should rent one (and which ones shouldn’t) and budget tips to help you save your hard-earned cash.
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If you want the TLDR of whether or not renting a car makes sense on the Big Island of Hawaii, here goes—unless you’re planning on relaxing at your resort the whole time, getting a rental car is going to make sense for the vast majority of travelers, given how HUGE the Big Island is and how spread out its main attractions are. In fact, about 90% of travelers to the Big Island choose to rent a car!
On the other hand, if your only plans on the Big Island involve sipping Mai Tais by the pool (no shame in that—you do you, friend!), you almost certainly don’t need to rent a car—and to rack up all of the associated expenses, like parking, valet, and fuel costs.
But more on those below…
The Benefits of Renting a Car on the Big Island
So… why is it worth it for most travelers to rent a car here?
You’ll have total flexibility and freedom to explore.
The number one benefit of renting a car on the Big Island (and anywhere, really!) is that you’ll have total freedom and flexibility to go wherever you please, whenever you please.
With a rental car, you’ll easily be able to shift watching the sunset from Mauna Kea from Day 3 of your Big Island itinerary to Day 4 if the weather happens to look better that day (it can be pretty unpredictable here, y’all!). Or let’s say our good ol’ friend, jetlag, has you up at 4 AM during your first day of the trip—you can easily just hop in the car and go watch the sunrise on the beach.
On the other hand, without a car at the ready, you’ll need to rely on public transit, rideshare, or group tours to get around the island—meaning you’ll be beholden to someone else’s schedule or availability.
For example, the last time that my husband, Justin, and I visited the Big Island, we arrived at the Kona airport, the most popular place for travelers to stay, around 10 PM and just assumed that we’d be able to find a rideshare to our accommodations in downtown Kona. Not so—there were no rideshare drivers on that part of the island! ZERO. We had to wait for probably an hour or so for a taxi to show up and eventually drive us where we needed to go. I know… we were shocked too.
Using rideshare apps or going on group tours adds up.
While I’m a big lover of public transit, your only option on the Big Island, Hele-on bus, is really designed for locals to get back and forth from work and is less than ideal for tourists. Not only would it take a loooong time to get around the island using this option, but it would also preclude you from hitting up some popular tourist destinations, such as the Green Sand Beach or the Pololu Trail.
Which leaves you with either getting around using guided tours to get to the places you want to explore and rideshares or taxis to get everywhere else, like restaurants or shops.
Guided tours are AWESOME, but they can be pretty pricey—plus some of them, like manta ray snorkeling tours in Kona, usually don’t include a pick up at your hotel (meaning you’d also have to pay for a rideshare to wherever the tour departs!).
As mentioned above, ride shares can be few and far between. Plus, given how spread out the Big Island is, you would wind up spending a TON of money if you totally relied on rideshare to get around. Which brings me to…
Shockingly, the Big Island is big.
The Big Island encompasses a whopping four THOUSAND square miles and 63% of the landmass of the Hawaiian archipelago. So… yeah, the Big Island is pretty huge.
For example, from Kona, it takes over an hour and a half to drive to Punalu’u Beach, known as one of the best spots on the island to see turtles (and would cost you around $160 one-way with rideshare) or over two hours to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (costing around $225 one-way with rideshare). And that’s if you can even find a rideshare to take you! Let alone, take you back to your accommodations afterwards.
So if you’re interested in traveling as affordably as you can and being able to design your Big Island itinerary in a way that you can squeeze in as much stuff as possible during your time in Hawaii, getting a rental car is kind of a no-brainer.
You won’t be able to enjoy scenic drives on the Big Island.
I LOVE me a scenic drive—it’s an awesome low-impact activity if you’re worn out from more active adventures or a great way to spend a rainy day while still taking in the scenery.
The Big Island has some pretty famous scenic drives—for example, the Chain of Craters Road, where you’ll drive along 18 miles of volcanic rock, craters, and, at times, active lava or the short but stunning Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive, where you’ll snake your way through a lush rainforest.
Without a rental car, you won’t really be able to enjoy this relaxing activity—and did you really fly all the way to the Big Island to limit what you can do here?
Why Renting a Car on the Big Island Might Not Be For You
While renting a car generally makes sense for most travelers on the Big Island, it certainly doesn’t for everyone.
You plan to spend your whole time at the resort.
Listen, if you’re traveling to the Big Island to exclusively kick back, relax, and recharge at a swanky resort, like the Four Seasons Hualalai or Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, by all means, GO FOR IT! You won’t need a car to lay around the pool and soak up that sun.
In fact, most resorts charge a not insignificant parking fee—for example, the Hilton Waikoloa Village charges $44 a day for self-park or $55 for valet parking. So why spend money to park a rental car (in addition to the already pricey hotel and resort fees) that you’re not even going to use?
You prefer to take tours.
Some people just prefer going on tours—and I totally get it! With a guided tour, you don’t have to worry about driving yourself or finding parking, you’ll get to meet a knowledgeable local guide and other travelers, and you’ll usually get to know the history and cultural context behind whatever you’re exploring.
So if you’re primarily planning on hanging out at your resort and heading out on a couple of tours here and there, getting a rental car on the Big Island probably isn’t worth it.
And while we’re on the topic of tours, be sure to check out our post all about manta ray snorkeling in Kona, which is one of my favorite tours I’ve EVER taken!
You’re a hardcore budget traveler.
I’m not going to lie to you—rental cars on the Big Island—and really, all of Hawaii—are expensive. Prices can fluctuate quite a bit but, depending on when you’re visiting, you can expect to pay over $150 a day for a compact vehicle—and much more for larger vehicles. Add in fuel and parking costs and renting a car on the Big Island isn’t exactly a budget-friendly convenience.
Getting around the Big Island by bus would definitely not be ideal, but it’s better than not exploring the island at all! And best of all, the bus is actually totally free!! The free bus fare is a pilot program and may revert to a $2 per ride in the future. Still—$2 per ride is quiiiiite a bit cheaper than $150 a day!
If you’re a budget-traveler or like finding good deals like we do, check out our video below, where we detail how to do Hawaii on a budget…
Do You Need a Rental Car on the Big Island of Hawaii?
As I mentioned above, it makes sense for most travelers to get a rental car while they’re on the Big Island.
But if you’re still not sure if it makes sense for you, I’d recommend:
1. Pick a good home base
Consider where to stay on the Big Island—most travelers choose Kona or Hilo. We wrote a whole article about Kona vs. Hilo, but in a nutshell, Kona is sunny and dry and better for enjoying beaches and water activities, whereas Hilo has moodier weather, with lush rainforests and seemingly countless waterfalls.
2. Plan ahead
Make a loose itinerary of what you plan to do during your stay (psssst… we did all the heavy lifting for you and planned out an entire Big Island itinerary) and map out all of the places you want to stop at on Google Maps each day from your accommodations.
3. Do the math
For each day of your trip, figure out whether you can walk, take public transit, go on a guided tour, or will need ride-share to get between all of the destinations and estimate how much transportation will cost each day.
- If you’ll need to take rideshare to get from Point A to Point B, you can plug your starting and ending point into either Lyft or Uber and get an approximate cost of how much it might cost.
- If you’re looking to book guided tours to visit places, I love Viator, which is basically a huge tour aggregator. You can find all kinds of cool adventures there, from helicopter tours over active volcanoes to a tour to watch sunset and stargaze at the summit of Mauna Kea, which some consider to be the tallest mountain on the planet (as measured from the seafloor to its summit!). Just remember to double check whether the tour includes pick-up at your accommodations!
Add up how much it would cost for you to get around the Big Island without a rental car.
4. Shop around
Check to see how much a rental car is. I prefer to use aggregator sites, like Discover Cars, which allow you to effortlessly compare a bunch of different rental companies against each other.
I also like Discover Cars because, unlike some aggregator sites, the quoted price includes ALL of the mandatory taxes and fees, so you won’t have any unhappy surprises when you show up at the rental counter (I once started crying at a rental car place in Mexico because there had been so many hidden fees through another aggregator site—not again!).
Remember to account for fuel costs and any costs associated with parking at your hotel.
5. Weigh your options
Compare the costs of renting a car versus using other forms of transportation during your trip. Be sure to factor in any extraneous factors (like the freedom and flexibility of having your own set of wheels) and I think the answer will become pretty clear!
Tips for Saving Money on Rental Cars on the Big Island
So you’ve decided to rent a car on the Big Island—smart choice! If you’re looking for ways to cut down on your costs, though, here are some tips to consider:
Given you’re reading this article, this is probably a no-brainer, but book reservations online and use aggregator sites like Discover Cars, instead of calling a bunch of different rental car companies.
By shopping for rental cars online, it’ll be WAY easier to compare prices and modify your reservation, if needed. Plus, third party booking sites often have considerably cheaper deals than if you were to book directly.
Book waaaaay ahead of time and continue to check prices.
This one’s kind of annoying but it can definitely pay off.
As soon as you know you’re going on your trip, book the best rental car reservation you can find for your trip dates. Every few weeks, double check to see if the price has dropped at all and, if it has, cancel your existing booking and rebook at the better rate.
I’ve had this approach pay off on many occasions—I’ve had instances where I booked six months in advance and only saw the price of rental cars skyrocket (costing an extra THOUSAND dollars more per week!) and also instances where I saved a few hundred dollars when prices dropped closer to my trip.
Just be sure to book through a site that has refundable reservations, like Discover Cars! One time, I made the very stupid mistake of booking through another third party aggregator and panic-purchased the cheapest option I could find (which was non-refundable), because all of the prices were so expensive. Prices wound up dropping pretty significantly by the time my trip had rolled around, so I spent a couple hundred dollars more than I needed to on that reservation!
Structure your itinerary so you only need a rental car part of the time.
Play around with what you want to do each day of your trip and figure out if there’s any days where you might not need a car—for example, maybe there’s a day where you just plan to hang out on a beach 15 minutes away from your hotel or you’re going on an epic guided tour of the island.
If you shuffle these days to the start or end of your itinerary, you’ll be able to shave a couple of days off your car rental reservation, which can save you at least a couple hundred dollars!
Try booking at a non-airport rental car facility.
Given the whole supply and demand thing, it’s usually WAY cheaper to book rental cars that you pick up at pretty much any non-airport facility. While you will need to take a ride share from the airport to the rental car facility, the amount you save on the actual car should more than make up for it!
Visit during the off-season.
Everything—from your airfare and hotel to, yup, your rental car—will be a LOT more affordable if you go in the off-seasons (April through early June and mid-September through early December).
Book a hotel that doesn’t charge for parking or includes the cost in the resort fee.
So this one won’t save on the rental, but it will help you cut costs associated with your transportation—find a hotel that includes parking in what you’re already paying them! Around Hilo, it should be pretty easy to find hotels with free parking, but you’ll probably need to hunt around a bit if you’re staying near Kona. Great news, though—I did some of the homework for you.
Check out these hotels with free parking in Kona:
- Aston Kona by the Sea: This hotel, perfectly located near Kona’s bustling downtown but tucked away from the action, has all of the amenities that you’d want at a Hawaiian resort, like a pool overlooking a beautiful beach and rooms with ocean-view private balconies.
- Kona Coast Resort: This resort is perfect for families or groups, with private villas, complete with fully-equipped kitchens, washers and dryers, and outdoor patios, instead of just plain ol’ rooms. The resort also offers—count ‘em—three hot tubs, two outdoor pools, and one sauna.
- Kona Reef Resort: This resort (yet another where you’ll get a fully-equipped kitchen with every room) has some nice perks, like free breakfast every Monday, complimentary coolers and umbrellas, and of course, a pool with plenty of lounge chairs.
Frequently Asked Questions About Renting a Car on the Big Island of Hawaii
Do you need a high clearance, four wheel drive, or other kind of special vehicle to get around the Big Island?
In short, no—you’ll be able to get around the Big Island just fine in a standard sedan, given that the majority of the roads are paved and well-maintained.
While there are a couple of roads on the Big Island that you’d need a four wheel-drive vehicle for, like the extremely rugged road to the summit of Mauna Kea, most companies don’t let you take their rental cars on unpaved roads anyway!
If you’re interested in heading to any spots that may require a four wheel-drive vehicle, I’d suggest booking a tour (like this Mauna Kea summit tour) instead of risking it in any kind of rental car, four wheel drive or not. I PROMISE that the tour will be a lot cheaper than however much the rental company will charge you if you accidentally damage the car whilst off-roading!
Are there cheaper alternatives to rental cars on the Big Island?
Besides public transit, you could also consider renting a scooter, which, costing about $60 a day, will save you a bit of money. Check out Hawaiian Island Scooters if you’re interested in this—they have incredible reviews!
In addition to being more affordable than rental cars, scooters are awesome because they allow you to feel a bit more ingrained in the Big Island’s jaw-dropping landscape. As for drawbacks, they won’t protect you when the weather is unpredictable (which is often here); they’re not great at transporting bulkier items, like, say, luggage; and they’re more dangerous than driving a car.
You can also check out Turo, a site that allows you to rent a vehicle from a local and usually is a bit more affordable than renting through a regular company. To be honest, I’ve heard horror stories of hosts scamming renters and charging them for damage they didn’t cause, so I personally haven’t used the service. However, it’s definitely something to look into if a rental car is outside of your budget while you’re visiting the Big Island.
So do you need a rental car on the Big Island? Almost certainly yes, but I promise you the expense will be worth it! Do you have any questions about getting a rental car on the Big Island or budget hacks for saving money when renting a car? Let me know in the comments below!
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