The Big Island of Hawaii has something to offer just about every traveler. Active volcanoes, huge mountains with world-class observatories, lush botanical gardens, and incredible snorkeling and diving.
Because it’s unlike anywhere else in the world, there are some important things you need to know before you go.
Read my tips below to make the most of your trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. It is an amazing experience!
The Big Island of Hawaii has very distinct leeward (dry) and windward (wet) sides. The southwest portion of the island is dry and hot. The northeast portion of the island is wet and can be chilly due to wind. It’s amazing that you can drive between two such distinct climates in less than an hour.
TIP: See below for tips on what to pack so you’re prepared for Big Island weather.
Beware vog! Vog looks similar to smog and is caused by volcanic emissions. Like smog, vog can be harmful to people with respiratory ailments. You can read more about vog and the current vog conditions here.
The inclines are pretty gradual on the Big Island, so you don’t always notice the change in altitude. If you have any divers in your group, fast changes in altitude (either driving or flying) can be dangerous after diving because of decompression sickness. If you or someone in your group is diving, check with the dive shop to find out how soon after diving you can drive to higher altitudes.
High altitude can also be harmful to people with respiratory ailments.
Mauna Kea, the drive through the middle of the island on Saddle Road, and coffee plantations are all high-altitude places that might impact divers and those with respiratory ailments.
Transportation & Traffic
You’ll probably need a rental car while staying on the Big Island. There is a lot to see around the island and a rental car gives you the freedom to see it all!
If you want to visit Mauna Kea‘s summit, you’ll need a four-wheel drive car. If Mauna Kea is not in your plans (or you don’t plan on going all the way up to the summit), then you’re fine with any rental car that fits your group’s size.
Traffic can be heavy between Waikoloa Village and Kailua-Kona. Leave plenty of time when driving between these two locations.
TIP: GPS and road signs aren’t great on the Big Island. Confirm directions with your hotel or ask at a local store before driving anywhere.
Where to stay
The Big Island of Hawaii lives up to its name – while it’s not huge, it does take 1-2 hours to drive across the island, depending on traffic and your starting/ending points.
When we visited the Big Island, we stayed at the same hotel in the Waikoloa area for our entire trip. But because there were so many great things to see around the island, we a lot of time driving back and forth from our hotel.
The next time I visit the Big Island, I plan to stay in multiple locations on the island. That way I’m not spending as much time driving.
I recommend staying in the following areas (which is what I plan to do the next time I visit the Big Island):
- Waikoloa Village: Start your trip at a resort in the Waikoloa Village area. The resorts in these areas have nice beaches and pool areas. You can start your trip off by relaxing and getting over jet lag.
- Kailua-Kona: Next, move to a hotel in the Kailua-Kona area. In Kailua-Kona, there are great places to eat and you’re close to some great snorkeling and diving adventures.
- Hilo: End your trip at a hotel in the Hilo area. From Hilo, you’ll have easy access to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where you can see active lava flow!
What to pack
In addition to your standard toiletries and regular travel items, here are some items I recommend packing for your trip to the Big Island:
- Rashguards: Rashguards are close-fitting tops that you can wear swimming or snorkeling. It’s possible that suntan lotion hurts coral reefs. With a rashguard, you can protect yourself from the sun and decrease your suntan lotion use. Rashguards are also good layering pieces for the chillier areas on the Big Island, like Mauna Kea and the coffee plantations.
- Rain Jacket: A rain jacket is a must for the Big Island. It serves a dual purpose. One is to protect you from the rain on the windward (wet) side of the island. The other is to protect you from the cold in the high altitudes and windy areas when added on top of other layers of clothing. You want a rain jacket that is compact enough so that it doesn’t take up a lot of room in your suitcase, but big enough to accommodate several layers of clothing underneath.
- Comfortable shoes: I usually prefer to wear hiking sandals in warm climates like Hawaii. But the Big Island has a lot of crushed volcanic rock that will get inside your shoes if you have any openings. For that reason, I recommend closed-toe hiking shoes for the Big Island.
- Hats: Pack several hats – not just for different activities, but because even a close-fitting hat might blow away in the wind! You want to have some back-ups available to you. You want a hat to shield from the sun and a hat that you can wear to keep warm on Mauna Kea.
- Sunscreen: If you have a favorite sunscreen that’s hard to find, bring it along. Otherwise, sunscreen is easy to find in convenience stores on the Big Island.
- GoPro: I didn’t bring a GoPro to Hawaii and regret it. Because there are so many cool things to see that involve water (whether snorkeling, walking through a cloud forest, or standing in a waterfall), I really wish I’d brought a waterproof camera. Next trip, I’ll be prepared!
- Optional: You might find the following items nice to bring along for your trip, but if luggage space is too tight, they can stay at home:
- Scarf that can double as a blanket (for Mauna Kea, but you can ask your hotel for some beach towels to bring along instead)
- Gloves (for Mauna Kea)
- Umbrella (a sturdy rain jacket can work in the place of an umbrella)
I hope these tips help you feel more prepared for your trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. For ideas on what to do while you’re there, check out:
- Hawaiian Volcanoes: Must Read Guide to Big Island Volcanoes
- Mauna Kea, Big Island of Hawaii: Essential Guide for Your Visit