So, this is YOUR vacation and we didn’t want to do a full Do’s and Don’ts lecture in your face, so we created this mix of helpful tips to consider, some safety precautions to be aware of, some legal tidbits to keep you fine/jail-free, and some historical and cultural information to hopefully make your vacation more enriching and fulfilling. We’ll make changes as needed, but we hope this helps you have an amazingly awesome vacation!
FIRST, THE HAWAII BASICS
1. Hawaii is a state ????.
Okay, sorry, I don’t mean to undermine your intelligence, but it’s so far away that sometimes people forget. ????So just in case: Yes, we’re a part of the United States, we use US dollars, the main language is English, and we even have interstate highways!
2. Most banks in Hawaii are local – we pretty much have no larger chain banking institutions on the islands.
So, not to contradict the thing I said about being a part of the US, but, all the banks you’re familiar with in the continental US, are probably not in Hawaii. We do not have local branches for Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo, US Bank, or almost any other major mainland bank so if you’re worried about ATM fees, etc., you might want to check before you visit. Nowadays, most banks seem to have fee reimbursements or waivers, but it’s good to double-check your specific account policies before you arrive to save yourself any banking headaches. Many places in Hawaii — even vendors at craft fairs and farmer’s markets — take credit cards so don’t worry too much about carrying loads of cash, this is just a heads-up so you’re not surprised.
3. There are SIX ISLANDS that you can visit in Hawaii and you CANNOT drive (or float) between them.
Back in 2007, Hawaii had a short-lived interisland ferry — the Hawaii Superferry — but the program was cut short after about two years of service. I don’t know all the details; all I know is, I was taking care of two small children on the mainland at the time and never had a chance to try it [insert pitiful tears of regret here]. Anyhoo, currently, the main way to travel between islands is by plane (not including a ferry system between Maui and Lanai, the interisland cruise line, and the possibility of chartering a private yacht); most of these flights are between 30-50 minutes and available daily. While you can do a day trip between islands – some local residents do it for work – I don’t recommend it for your Hawaii vacation; it’s most likely not enough time to make the trip worthwhile. If you want to island-hop, consider taking at least 3-5 days to enjoy each island you’re visiting and plan ahead so you can book any car rentals and hotel accommodations as part of your vacation itinerary.
4. Hawaii has a ban on disposable plastic bags.
Most Hawaii stores are no longer allowed to provide disposable bags so you can either buy a reusable bag (hey, souvenir!) at the store or bring your own. Sometimes, these can make easy souvenirs, especially if they’re from a local grocery store but not all reusable bags sold on-site are pretty or convenient; usually, I just bring my own super foldable ones because I can throw them in my purse.
…but it applies to businesses selling sunscreen, not individuals using sunscreen. Even so, the ban was made to protect our Hawaiian coral reefs from certain common sunscreen ingredients and many people take it seriously and only use only reef-safe sunscreens. If you want more information about how to keep our oceans and coral reefs safe and what sunscreens are less harmful to the environment, please check out our article about the Hawaii sunscreen ban.
6. Hawaii has restrictions on plastic utensils and take-out boxes.
While this law primarily prohibits restaurants from using certain kinds of foam and plastic take-out packages and plastic disposable utensils, you may be impacted if you’re planning to do a lot of take-out during your vacation. For most restaurants, the packaging was simply switched to cardboard, but the utensils have become a bit more difficult (and even controversial in the early stages!). Most restaurants now use compostable “plastic” or wooden utensils, however, they may only provide them if you ask. One way eco-savvy locals and tourists are making this easier is by bringing their own set of utensils. Actually, I often did this for the kids when they were toddlers…although I have to admit that was more for my convenience than eco-friendliness. The adult versions available now are pretty cool and, personally, I like sets like these because they come with everything.
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***You might have noticed with the last three items a trend toward environmental protection within the Hawaiian Islands. Whether you see these laws as proactive and environmentally sound or a nuisance and unnecessary, please know that these kinds of environmental measures are really important, especially since we’re in the middle of the ocean. With limited land space, even trash becomes expensive if we have to ship it somewhere to be disposed of. In addition, as you may find while visiting some parts of Hawaii, the increase in population has led to more plastic waste on our once clean and pristine beaches – this is not safe for anyone as it results in damage to our local ecosystems, harm to our endangered animals and aquatic life, and microplastics in our fish which are now being consumed by us. Yuck.
ENJOY YOUR HAWAII VACATION TO THE FULLEST
“I’m going to Hawaii,” you say, “it’s all sunshine and beaches,” you say. WAIT! I don’t know what island or islands you plan to visit or what tour packages you booked but please make sure you do a little bit of homework and check out the areas you’ll be visiting. Hawaii has a LOT of microclimates and depending on where you go and what you do, those bikinis or all that hiking gear might not carry you through your 1-2 week Hawaii vacation. If you want some ideas on what to pack and more, please check out our Hawaii Vacation Packing List or our different island travel guides for more details.
2. Highly consider renting a car as part of your trip.
Okay, I know car rentals + hotel parking fees can be killer. So, while I’m not necessarily advocating for a car for your entire trip, I do recommend renting a car for a day or few while you’re in Hawaii. For one, on many of the islands, going further than the main tourist or resort area is usually much easier with a car, especially if you’re trying to make the most of your vacation time by visiting other places on the island. Unless absolutely necessary, I don’t recommend buses unless you’re going somewhere close by. Oftentimes, buses (on all islands) are not timely once you get out of the Honolulu area on Oahu or the primary tourist centers on the neighbor islands. The same can be said for rideshares and taxis depending on where you’re going and what time of day (i.e. rideshare within Honolulu is fine, but if you want to go to the North Shore, it will be costly, if they’re willing to take you at all). If you simply are unable to rent a car, I’d definitely make space in your budget for a few motor coach tours. Actually, I would recommend them even if you rent a car! When renting a car, remember to do your research about hotel parking fees and parking availability; those items vary by location and hotel.
3. Explore a little! – Go outside Waikiki or your all-inclusive resort.
Hawaii has great sun and beaches but that’s not all we have. Most likely you’re spending quite a bit of money for your Hawaii vacation, so go out, take a few motorcoach tours, and visit a few sights! When on Oahu, it’s really fun to do a half-circle day trip drive covering the south, east, and north sides of the island (you can go to the west side too, but I’d consider that a separate trip). On the Big Island, we always enjoy doing a round-the-island drive – it’s long but it can be done in a day and the Kona and Hilo sides of the Big Island are very different from each other. Basically, each island has something worth driving for so if you can, consider exploring some of the other areas on the islands you visit.
4. At the same time, don’t overbook your vacation with too many tours and activities.
Haha. Sorry, I hope these suggestions don’t seem contradictory – I guess what I mean is, “find balance in your vacation.” For one, you’ll be so exhausted that you’ll need a vacation from your vacation once you get back home! Secondly, whether it’s due to traffic and/or [insert an unpredictable event here], Hawaii isn’t known for being an on-time place so over-booking your schedule will make for a very stressful vacation. Usually, I’d recommend having 1-2 prescheduled activities with some flexible activities penciled in for most of your trip while keeping a few days open for relaxing on the beach and spontaneous fun! Please check out our individual island guides for some ideas while vacation planning. https://hawaiifamilylife.com/
5. “Island time” or “Hawaii time” is sometimes a real thing.
Before you get upset or think “it won’t happen if everyone just plans ahead,” I’ve come to realize that sometimes traffic happens. You leave early, check Google Maps, locate 3 parking garages near your destination, heck, you even looked up the restaurant menu and know what you’re going to order, then BAM! An unexpected traffic incident has you stuck in an hour of traffic for a typically 15-minute drive…or 5+ hours of traffic for a 50-minute ride home due to a broken Zip-Lane machine. (Yes, that dig was personal. It only happened once, but I was there and the traffic was SO BAD.) Typically, as long as you avoid Pau Hana traffic (end-of-work-day traffic) you’ll be fine. When I have to drive to a time-sensitive appointment, I always check Waze AND Google Maps (yes, I check both) a few times, then try to give myself a 10-minute buffer during non-busy hours and 15-20 minutes if it’s during high-traffic times. The extra time is usually because I hate being late because I can’t find parking. PRO TIP: always use the bathroom before heading out. Just in case…
6. If possible, avoid morning and evening high-traffic times.
If you don’t want that 20-minute drive to turn into a 50+ minute traffic jam, try to avoid driving toward downtown Honolulu and Waikiki from 7:30 am to 9:30 am and definitely avoid driving on the freeways (in any direction) from about 4:30 pm to 6:30 pm. You can check Waze or Google Maps before you head out but keep refreshing the screen to get the most up-to-date times.
7. Please try the local foods, not just malasadas (but try the malasadas too!).
Whenever we travel (even to a different part of Oahu), my husband and I really enjoy trying small hole-in-the-wall places. The only blip in our travel-eating routine was the 2-3 years when our oldest boys were little. We had two picky eaters and spent a few years chasing easy-to-accommodate fast food chains or mac and cheese kid’s menus at restaurants. And, while that might be the case for you too – no judgment here, I totally get it — if you can, it’s worth it to try Hawaii’s amazingly diverse local cuisine. We’ve hosted a lot of friends and family throughout the years and whether you think you don’t like seafood, the idea of SPAM makes you gag, or funky-looking dragon fruit has you flinching, if you really want to get the most out of your vacation, just try. I’ve had mainland friends who swear they hate seafood love Hawaii fish (even raw fish) and North Shore butter garlic shrimp! We’ve had friends who poo-poo’d SPAM musubi, only to become complete converts — I mean they literally made us stop at 7-Eleven shops daily just to eat them. And, just so you know, fresh tropical fruits taste nothing like their nasty frozen counterparts! (Seriously, I’m not hatin’, I use the frozen ones for smoothies.) Anyway, just try – and take a picture of your face when you do for your vacation memories.
AVOIDING LEGAL ISSUES, FINES, JAIL TIME, AND RECKLESS INJURIES
We actually have a whole separate list of safe Hawaii travel information but here are some that I want to that we wanted to highlight because they have been brought up in the local news recently: For ocean, hiking, weather safety tips, and more, please check out our article: Top Safety Tips When Traveling to Hawaii.
1. Please, please, please DO NOT TOUCH sea turtles, monk seals, or any other endangered animals in Hawaii.
This is not some social media challenge or a “cool way to defy the rules” kind of thing. Not only is this extremely disrespectful to the animals, but it hurts all the efforts made to help protect our endangered animals. Oh, and it’s totally ILLEGAL; you can get heavily fined and/or serve jail time. Touching an endangered species is a Class C Felony under state and federal laws and can include up to $50,000 in fines and up to 5 years in jail. Many locals are extremely attentive to these situations and will probably report anyone who is caught bothering, touching, or harassing an endangered animal.
2. Respect private property and cultural sites.
This has become another HUGE problem with the influx of tourists, specifically those hopping on social media bandwagons. First, seriously, is it ever okay proudly explain how to sneak through someone’s yard to visit a view from someone’s private property? A passing visitor might see this as a one-off incident but for the local homeowners and Hawaii residents, these incidents are alarmingly frequent. I’ve heard, read, or seen many examples: tourists sneaking through backyards, taking fruit from private fruit trees, homeowners dealing with belligerent tourists who illegally block their driveways, people desecrating cultural artifacts, etc. If you wouldn’t feel comfortable with random strangers regularly walking through your yard and tromping your rose bushes, why do it to someone else? Recent example here.
3. Pay attention to posted signs on beaches.
Lifeguards will post warning signs about dangerous currents, rough water, jellyfish, and more on a daily basis so don’t ignore those signs! Also, if possible look up the beaches you are visiting before you go. Some beaches are gorgeous but rough waves or hidden currents can make them deceptively dangerous and they may not be suitable for everyone. This is my go-to site for current ocean conditions: https://hawaiibeachsafety.com/
I think this law is specific to Honolulu but it is regularly enforced. I’ve walked around downtown Honolulu and will see police officers at intersections waiting to issue tickets to people on their phones while crossing the street. Ah, on a similar note, you also are not allowed to even touch your phone while driving (even at stop lights).
5. You have to be over 12 years old to ride in the bed of a truck.
I’m not sure if this is applicable since most families don’t rent pick-up trucks for their Hawaii vacations, but I just wanted to put it out there. For more information, click here.
6. Children under 4 years old must ride in a child safety seat and children ages 4 to 7 must ride in a booster seat.
I know car seat laws can vary from state to state, so make sure to bring or rent a car seat/booster seat if you’re planning to rent or borrow a car while in Hawaii.
CULTURE IN HAWAII – GETTING INTO THE ALOHA SPIRIT
1. Most people in Hawaii don’t honk their horns excessively.
It used to be the case that in Hawaii I never heard anyone honk a horn while driving unless it was a precautionary warning. Nowadays, the Hawaii driving culture is changing so while I do hear more mainland-style horn-honking (HA), it’s not usually as much as in other US cities; we usually like to keep it mellow. So when you’re stuck in traffic with no way out, just breathe. As much as we wish otherwise, Hawaii roads don’t have many alternate routes for redirecting traffic (most likely, they’re jammed up too) and, believe me, none of us want to be stuck and running late so it doesn’t make sense to be a jerk driver to everyone around you. While you may have an activity you paid for and can’t miss – we understand – we have kids that need to be picked up from childcare before we incur late fines, we have important meetings with clients that we can’t miss or restaurant reservations we want to get to – and we’d ALL like to get there without additional accidents or road rage drama.
2. “Hawaiian” and “local” are different.
When I first moved to the mainland, this mislabeling happened a lot. Considering people living in Minnesota referred to themselves as “Minnesotans,” it was perfectly legitimate to assume Minnesotans could refer to me as “Hawaiian,” right? Not the case for Hawaii locals. Anyway, I get it. It’s an awkward labeling mistake that often made me uncomfortable because it’s touchier in Hawaii than in most states. For “locals” – non-native Hawaiian Hawaii residents – there is a difference because being “Hawaiian” is a specific ethnicity and practically a separate nationality; we are not indigenous to the Hawaiian Islands so we are not “Hawaiian.” This is a really important distinction for many Hawaii locals so don’t be surprised (or offended) if they correct you.
So, that’s all I can think of for now. I’ll keep updating this list or creating a revised one as more ideas come up. Thanks so much and I hope this helps make your Hawaii vacation a little bit better!❤️