When you’re planning a Big Island vacation, the question on every traveler’s mind is “should I stay in Hilo or Kona?” These two towns, on opposite sides of the island, offer totally unique vibes that are better suited for different kinds of travelers.
After spending several days in both of these cities, I’m breaking down everything you need to know about choosing Kona or Hilo as your Big Island vacation homebase.
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Pssst… visiting the Big Island? Check out our other posts on this incredible place: Snorkeling at Captain Cook: Everything You Need to Know About the Best Snorkeling on the Big Island Green Sand Beach: The Big Island’s Most Unique Beach Mauna Kea Hike: Everything You Need to Know About Hiking the Tallest Mountain in the World
Overview of Kona vs. Hilo
In this article, I’m going to pit Kona and Hilo against each other in some key areas, like cost, things to do, and the weather- and find out, once and for all, which one comes out on top (just imagine it like a wrestling match- Big Island style).
But first, let me provide some context around the Big Island and these two cities, shall we?
The Big Island is pretty, well, big and is divided into six areas: Kona, Hilo, Kohala, Hamakua Coast, Kau, and the Puna district. Each of these districts has its own unique vibe, attractions, and local activities, but most of the tourist infrastructure, like hotels and restaurants, are primarily located in either Kona or Hilo.
Kona is on the western side and is generally where the majority of tourists stay. It has a cute bustling downtown, full of coffee and acai bowl shops and enormous banyan trees. Kona also is closer to most of the better beaches, has more of a resort-y vibe, and is probably where you should go if you’re craving to lay by a pool, pina colada in hand.
Hilo is on the eastern side of the island and is better-suited for adventurous travelers, who want to get lost in Hawaii’s lush rainforests, watch volcanoes erupt, and soak up small town vibes. To be honest, Hilo has a gritty, or even “dated” kind of feel, with funky murals and faded paint splashed across many of the storefronts.
That’s not to say that Hilo is without its charms, though- it has a laidback, hippie undercurrent that is decidedly absent from Kona.
To get from Kona to Hilo, the shortest route is a one and a half hour drive straight across the island- or, if you’re a brave soul relying on public transit, it would take a little over three hours via bus ride. So, while it’s perfectly reasonable to take a daytrip from Kona to Hilo or vice versa, it’s a pretty long hike between the two- and you’ll do a whole lot less driving if you pick your homebase wisely.
So with that little intro out of the way, let’s get to know these two towns a little bit better.
Kona vs. Hilo: Weather
Kona’s and Hilo’s weather are quite different, thanks to the tradewinds’ patterns.
Kona is on the leeward side of the island and thus offers mostly hot and dry weather, receiving only 18 inches of rain per year. That’s not to say that Kona only sees sunny skies, though- in fact, it usually gets quite cloudy every afternoon, as clouds form around the neighboring mountain, Hualālai.
Hilo, on the other hand, is on the windward side and one of the wettest cities in the United States, receiving a whopping 127 inches of rain per year! Luckily, it usually rains between midnight and sunrise, with the clouds burning off during the day when you’ll be off having adventures. So, while I’d recommend bringing along a rain jacket (like this one for women or this one for men) for your stay here, don’t let Hilo’s wetness discount it completely!
In terms of temperature, Kona and Hilo are generally on par with one another, with Hilo usually being just a couple of degrees cooler than Kona.
Kona vs. Hilo: Activities
Okay, so here’s where the real meaty differences lie.
If you’re envisioning that your Big Island itinerary is mostly going to consist of days laying on the beach, snorkeling with abundant sea life, and hitting up luaus, Kona is probably going to be the right choice for you.
So what kind of activities can you actually get up to in Kona?
Things to Do in Kona
- Be a beach bum: Kona definitely wins in the “which city has more rad beaches” contest, with a hearty mix of family-friendly and more secluded stretches of sand. Some of my favorites include Kaunaʻoa Beach, Hapuna Beach, and Makalawena Beach.
- Visit a coffee farm: Ever heard of a little thing called Kona coffee? The slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa produce some of the best coffee on the planet, thanks to their unique volcanic soil and the combination of sunny skies and afternoon cloud coverage.
You can visit farms to see- and more importantly, taste– the coffee production process in action, from the initial planting of the tree to the final cup of steaming coffee. For some of the island’s best coffee tours, check out Hula Daddy, Greenwell Coffee, or Kona Joe.
- Go snorkeling: After visiting all the Hawaiian Islands, I feel confident that Kona and its surrounding areas not only has the best snorkeling on the Big Island, but actually, in the entire state. From the colorful state fish (with the most fun name!), humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa, to sea turtles, you can immerse yourself in the incredible underwater world of Hawaii’s coral reefs.
Some of the best snorkeling spots include Honaunau Bay (often called Two Step), Kahaluʻu Bay Beach, and- our favorite- Kealakekua Bay. To see why, check out our recent video below which features this incredible spot!
Friendly reminder that coral reefs are incredibly important to our planet, including protecting coastlines from erosion and providing shelter and food to 25% of the planet’s marine species. While coral may look like rock, it’s very much a fragile living thing- and by stepping on it or just touching it, you can damage the coral, which can take literal years to repair, or can even kill it. So please avoid touching, kicking, or standing on it and make sure to use reef-friendly sunscreen, like this one- most popular types of sunscreen can bleach coral and damage its DNA (basically leading to coral cancer).
- Swim with manta rays: One of the most unique things to do in Kona is to snorkel with manta rays. It’s one of the only places on the planet where you’re basically guaranteed to see them year round and to make it even more unique, you actually do it at night!
During a manta ray snorkel tour in Kona, your guides will put large floating lights in the water, attracting plankton, which, in turn, attracts manta rays. You’ll hang on to these lights as these graceful giants swoop, glide, and feast directly below you.
Any time you’re interacting with animals (especially on a paid tour), it’s important to make sure that you’re choosing an ethical and responsible tour company to ensure the animals are being respected and that you’re observing them in a non-exploitative manner. I chose to go with this company, because it’s one of a handful of tour operators (out of dozens and dozens!) that have been certified through the Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawaii, which is dedicated to ensuring that any tourism in Hawaii is done in a responsible manner.
- Go whale-watching: Every year, from November through May, an estimated 10,000 humpback whales migrate to the warm waters of Hawaii to breed and have their babies. While Kaui and Maui are the best islands to spot these magical creatures, the Big Island has some fabulous whale watching opportunities, too, like this whale-watching tour. If you’re visiting during the right timeframe, this is an unmissable activity on your Big Island itinerary!
Kona also tends to have a bit more food trucks, restaurants and popular tourist activities, like luaus, for visitors to enjoy and is not a bad jumping off point for further flung adventures on the island, like a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (around a two hour drive), the Waip’o Valley Lookout (less than an hour and a half drive), or the Green Sand Beach (about an hour and 40 minutes away).
All in all, it’s not surprising that Kona tends to be the more popular choice with visitors.
So what exactly does Hilo have to offer?
Things to do in Hilo
- Chase waterfalls: If, instead of beaches, you want to be immersed in a Fern Gully-esque rainforest, the incredibly lush Hilo side is a better match for you. In fact, there’s a number of gorgeous waterfalls, tucked away in the dense forests, for you to explore here, including Rainbow Falls, ʻAkaka Falls, and Peʻepeʻe Falls.
- Explore Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park: Of course, one of the best things to do in Hilo is visit the national park, which is home to one of the most active volcanoes on the planet PLUS the world’s largest active subaerial volcano on the planet. Plus, it’s only about a 40 minute ride away from downtown Hilo.
For example, you can explore some of the amazing hikes in the park, like the Kilauea Iki trail. Along this hike, you’ll descend down through an incredibly lush rainforest and hike across a solidified lava lake, a remnant of an eruption from the Kilauea Iki crater in 1959.
Alternatively, if you’re lucky enough to visit the Big Island while there’s active lava flow, your best bet of seeing the lava and its fiery glow will be at night. After a late night lava viewing, it’s much more convenient to only have to drive 40 minutes back to your accommodations, as opposed to potentially driving up to three times as long to the Kona area.
- Visit black sand beaches: Because of its proximity to Kilauea (which is the world’s most active volcano!), the Hilo side offers the island’s most beautiful black sand beaches. Consider visiting Punaluʻu Beach, a picturesque beach known for being a great spot to see new turtle friends, or the Isaac Hale Beach, the island’s newest beach formed by the large eruption in 2018 that offers the only publicly accessible hot springs on the Big Island.
All in all, while there’s undoubtedly tons to do on the Hilo side, Kona probably wins this round for its proximity to tons of awesome attractions (and, like, really killer food trucks!).
Kona vs. Hilo: Cost
No if’s, and’s, or but’s about it, Kona is a lot more pricey than Hilo, ranging from everything from gas to food to accommodations. For example, I snagged the cheapest Airbnb hosted by a Superhost that I could find in Kona for $100 a night, whereas I could find the same in Hilo for just $40 a night.
There’s probably a couple of reasons that goods and services are more affordable in Hilo:
- Almost all goods delivered on the island arrive through Hilo’s port, meaning there’s less logistical costs as compared to transporting it to the Kona side of the island.
- As mentioned above, Hilo has a more local and (at the risk of sounding negative) even a more “run-down” vibe than Kona. Because Kona generally has a wealthier demographic and larger tourist contingent, businesses of all kinds can get away with charging a bit more there.
So, if you’re on a tight budget, Hilo (and all of its outdoor adventures!) may be the better choice.
Kona vs. Hilo: Accommodations
Comparing accommodations in Kona and Hilo kind of goes hand-in-hand with the cost conversation above.
Kona is more of a glam beach town and has a bunch of swanky seaside resorts along its northern Kohala coast. While we opted for budget accommodations on our most recent trip to Hawaii, I’ve previously visited and stayed at the Hilton Waikoloa Village in Kona, where you can literally take a boat to be delivered to your room. Talk about bougie!
Per the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the average room rate around the Kohala coast is an eye-popping $570 a night, whereas the rest of the island reports an average around $370. So if you’re on a budget, you can certainly find more modest accommodations around Kona (although, sadly, you’ll probably not be driven around on your own boat), but expect the most affordable lodging to still run you at least $100+ a night.
In Hilo, on the other hand, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any fancy resorts. The most upscale accommodations on the Hilo side is the Grand Naniloa Hotel (owned by DoubleTree), which offers a golf course and a fairly simple pool. Beyond that you’ll find some dated (yet charming!) hotels and condo rentals.
Kona vs. Hilo: Airport
The Big Island is home to two international airports: Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport (KOA) and Hilo International Airport (ITO).
The Kona airport has more airlines operating out of it and a lot more daily flights than the Hilo one (in fact, it operates over 20 times more flights than Hilo!). Accordingly, airfare is typically slightly cheaper to fly into Kona than Hilo (although I’d definitely recommend checking both airports from your home city on Skyscanner– you never know when there may be a deal!).
You’ll obviously have to do less driving if you pick the airport closest to wherever you’re staying, but, if you find an incredible deal out of the other airport, I wouldn’t totally discount flying into that one instead. Remember that Hilo and Kona are only an hour and a half from each other!
Kona vs. Hilo: Rental Car
Not so fun fact- of all of the Hawaiian islands, it’s the priciest to rent a car on the Big Island.
So depending on whether you’re staying in Kona or Hilo, do you need a rental car on the Big Island?
Unless you’re planning on just staying at your resort the whole time (which, in my opinion, would be a waste on an island as incredible as this one!), you’re going to need a rental car, regardless of which city you’re staying in, to be able to properly explore. Outside of their downtown areas, neither city is particularly walkable and each of their respective attractions are anywhere from a short drive to multiple hours away.
You’ll have quite a few more rental company options in Kona and accordingly, may be able to find a better rate here. Otherwise, this category is kind of a wash.
Should I stay in Kona vs. Hilo?
So, if you’re wondering where to stay on the Big Island, the answer is (drumroll, please)…
It depends! On both your interests (do you like lazy beach days or rainforest hikes? bougie resorts or budget stays?) and how long you’ll be on the island for.
If you’re going to be on the island for just a couple of days and only have time to stay in one place, it probably makes sense for most travelers to stay in Kona, given its proximity to beaches, a broader range of activities, and better selection of hotels, restaurants, and flights. Just promise me you’ll still visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park!
If, instead, you’ll be here for a while (the average length that a visitor stays on the Big Island is a little over 8 days), I’d recommend splitting your time between the two. During my husband’s and my recent nine-day trip, we spent five days in Kona and four days in Hilo- and that felt like the perfect amount of time to explore both sides of the island.
Where to Stay in Kona and Hilo
Okay, so hopefully, I’ve helped you make up your mind about whether you want to stay in either Kona or Hilo (or both!).
So if you’re staying in Kona, I’d recommend checking out:
- My Hawai’i Hostel: If you’re really on a tight budget, this hostel provides both dorms and private rooms, super friendly staff, and a fabulous beach location.
- Kona Coast Resort: For more of a middle of the road option, the Kona Coast Resort offers spacious villas (each with their own washer and dryer!) and awesome amenities, like two pools and three hot tubs. The affordable pricing here is probably thanks to its quiet location, tucked away about 15 minutes from downtown Kona.
- Four Seasons Resort Hualalai: If you’re looking to treat yourself, there’s no better treat than this luxurious resort. Beachside spa? Check. Daily yoga classes? Check check. Infinity pool? They’ve got TWO of ‘em! When in paradise, why not indulge?
And if you’re staying in Hilo, consider:
- Dolphin Bay Hotel: If you can look past this hotel’s dated interior, you’ll find a family-run hotel with affordable prices, undeniable charm (I mean, they offer banana bread and have an adorably fluffy cat), and staff that goes above and beyond to make your stay nothing short of incredible.
- Hilo Bay Oceanfront Bed and Breakfast: For a more intimate stay, plan a getaway to this charming bed and breakfast- your room will literally be just feet away from the ocean- your days can be spent on the expansive front porch and your nights can be spent lulled to sleep by the sound of waves right outside your window (the big comfy bed certainly doesn’t hurt!).
Do you have any questions about staying in Hilo or Kona? I’d love to hear ‘em (or which one you chose!) in the comments below!