Best Hawaii Lodging, Transport & Touring

(Last Updated On: January 25, 2017)

Best Hawaii lodgingBest Hawaii lodging is the last major element for the visitor planning that first Hawaii vacation. And as soon as you know where to sleep, you’ll be concerned with how to get around and how to make the best use of your time in the islands. This part 3 blog will help you with all these details. (Previous installments covered Visiting Hawaii and the Best Hawaiian Islands.)

Best Hawaii Lodging, by the Numbers

Just as we did when considering which islands to visit in the first blog of this series, we’ll start with some data taken from the most recent (2015) Hawaii Visitor Research Report. Here’s where Hawaii’s 8.6 million visitors find their best Hawaii lodging:

Best Hawaii lodging

            Interpreting the Data

What we can learn from this data?
– Only a very small number of visitors (4%) stay in more than one type of lodging.
– Only about 1% of all visitors stay in B&Bs, hostels, camp sites (including sleeping on the beach) or on a cruise ship.

We can basically ignore these least popular options, and that gives us the breakdown in the right-hand column. It shows us that:

– For most visitors, “best Hawaii lodging” means a hotel, the choice of 59% of visitors to Hawaii.
– Condo rentals are “almost” the best Hawaii lodging. Condos net 15% of visitors. In fact, the share of condo-type rentals is actually higher, because many timeshare properties rent out their unoccupied units just as if they were condos. The guest may not know or care whether they are staying in a condo (belonging to a single owner) or a timeshare (belonging share-wise to many owners). Thus the true share of condo-type housing is actually somewhere between 15% and 23%. Timeshares that are truly occupied as timeshares are somewhere below 8%.
– Those lucky enough to have a friend or relative to stay with count as 10% of the total. That might be the best Hawaii lodging of all!
– Rental houses accommodate another 8% of visitors.

Best Hawaii Lodging – Narrowing the Choice

Best Hawaii lodging

Bananas growing at Honokeana Cove, Maui

With help from the table above, we can narrow the best Hawaii lodging to just a couple of options.

First of all, most visitors to Hawaii do not have friends or cousins to stay with. Most do not own timeshares. And a rental house generally does not provide the on-site help that a newcomer needs. For these reasons, most choose a hotel or condominium, a choice that’s the best Hawaii lodging for most new visitors.

Those who often take short business trips get used to staying in hotels. A hotel is what will first come to mind when they think about a vacation. However, what fits an overnight trip to a major city may not work for a one- to two-week vacation. In addition, even among hotels there are properties offering quite different experiences and prices.

The thoughtful first-time traveler will consider a range of options, both hotels and condos, before a final choice. You can indeed find the best Hawaii lodging, and that lodging is the one that is best for you.

            The Property Label Doesn’t Tell You Much

It’s important to note that the label “hotel” or “condo” tells you practically nothing about the property. Some properties offering hotel rooms have minimal staffing and facilities, while others offer a self-contained resort experience. The only constant factor is that hotel rooms don’t have a kitchen, unless the property is billed as a “condo hotel.” Some condo properties have staff that you never see and very few onsite amenities. On the other hand, others easily compete with hotels with their variety of offerings.

Using online sources to sort out the differences does not always work. Online travel agencies such as TripAdvisor.com label properties as “hotels” or “specialty lodging,” the latter category consisting primarily of condos. TripAdvisor defines hotels as properties that provide daily maid service and 7/24 front desk staffing. However, their categories are not always accurate because they mis-classify some condo properties as hotels.

Bottom line: If you stay at a big-name luxury hotel, you have a good idea what you will receive for your luxurious lodging cost. But for any other hotel, and for all condos, you must research the specific property. Otherwise, you have no basis for deciding that it is the best Hawaii lodging for your vacation.

Best Hawaii Lodging: Hotels & Condos

As discussed above, the best Hawaii lodging for most first-time visitors will be a hotel room or a condominium rental. But not just any property.

You should eliminate bare-bones accommodations, whether they are labeled “hotel” or “condo.” By this we mean properties that offer nothing more than you would expect from a roadside motel adjacent to an Interstate highway. If all the hotel gives you is a place to sleep, you are missing a lot of valuable free advice to help you have a great vacation.

Moreover, you should only consider properties with attractive on-site activities that you will enjoy. The most distinctive thing about Hawaii as a destination is that it’s a tropical island. Therefore, your accommodations should have both tropical landscaping and direct access to water. What kind of water? Certainly the ocean, but it’s also desirable to have a swimming pool on site.

This early filtering reduces your choices to, oh, perhaps a hundred properties on each major Hawaiian island. We’ll now talk about the good, the bad and the ugly associated with hotels and with condos, so you know what to look for. We are not simply interested in “amenities” (number of swimming pools and so forth). We also want to consider the style of the property, by which we mean the nature of experience that it offers the visitor.

Hawaii Hotels: Good, Bad & Ugly

Best Hawaii lodging

Hotels on Kaanapali Beach, Maui

This discussion refers to hotel properties that have passed the basic screens above and therefore may qualify as best Hawaii lodging.

            Hotels – the Good:

– Hotels are a good fit for visitors with more money than time.
– Most large hotels provide entertainment, restaurants and activities on site – you never have to drive anywhere.
– Golfers are a special case. Those intent on playing a particular big-name course will get preferential treatment if they stay at an affiliated hotel.
– If you choose to take commercial tours, the tour guides will pick you up at the hotel’s front door.
– If you want privacy, for whatever reason, a large hotel’s impersonal environment provides that once you are inside your room.

            Hotels – the Bad:

– What if you want to enjoy simple entertainment such as relaxing by the swimming pool? You can expect to walk down a long hallway, wait for the elevator, then walk through the lobby and across the property to get to the pool. If the loungers are occupied you may need to tip an attendant to find you one or reserve you one.
– In most hotels, cooking facilities are non-existent, so if you want to eat, you need to go to a restaurant or café. If you’re at the property for more than a few days, you may get bored with the selections available.
– You will have few opportunities for personal contact with Hawaii residents. In addition, those whom you meet will generally show you only the Hawaiian-ness that the hotel has trained them to present.

            Hotels – the Ugly:

– Why did you pay all that money to travel to Hawaii and stay in an expensive hotel that gives you so little contact with the island you are visiting? It’s like experiencing Paris by staying at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas, or by eating lunch at the French Pavilion in Walt Disney World. If all you want is a faux Hawaiian experience, save yourself trouble. Your best Hawaii lodging might be to stay home, visit a tiki bar and order a mai tai!
– You need to make it a point to get in your car and explore on your own. If you don’t, your experience of Hawaii will be filtered and weakened by the packaging of whatever entertainment the hotel offers.

Hawaii Condos: Good, Bad & Ugly

Best Hawaii lodging

Honokeana Cove condominiums, West Maui

Could a condo be the best Hawaii lodging for your trip? Again, we are referencing condo properties that passed the basic screens above – well-landscaped properties with good water access and on-site activities that attract you.

            Condos – the Good:

– Condos are a good fit for visitors with more time than money. Room rates are less than hotels, and you save additional money by preparing meals rather than eating out every time you’re hungry.
– You can easily find condos with on-site water activities. Most don’t have restaurants on site but are walkably close to both restaurants and shopping.
– If you choose a moderate-sized low-rise property – say 30 to 100 units in 2 stories – everything that the property offers is just a few feet from your unit. No mile-long hallways and slooooow elevators. And you’ll find that condo guests tend to be friendly, with a ready “hello” – perhaps too ready!

A couple of other considerations:
– Because condo properties tend to offer fewer on-site activities than large hotels, you are motivated to get out and explore the island in your rental car. This generally yields a more fulfilling vacation experience.
– If you’ve chosen a condo property with full-time on-site staff, you can get touring advice and all kinds of assistance when you need it. (If it’s a bare-bones property, you’re mostly on your own.)

            Condos – the Bad:

– Yes, you can cook and save a peck of money on your vacation. But that means that part of your precious vacation time is spent in a grocery store. Perhaps a charming neighborhood Hawaiian grocery store, but a grocery nonetheless.
– Unlike hotels, air conditioning is not a given at rental condos. A few properties are 100% air conditioned, others offer AC only in specific units, and many have nothing but ceiling fans. If AC is important to you – and it will be if you visit Hawaii in August through October – do your research!
– Because condos are less formally run than hotels, don’t count on the front desk to give complete guidance on touring: find out about tours in advance of your visit. Some popular visitor activities such as luaus and (during the winter) whale watch cruises recommend advance reservations.

Condos can give you a great vacation for your money, but for that reason they book up early. In the busy winter season, the most popular condos are fully occupied, with bookings accepted up to one year in advance. If you want the best, you have to plan ahead.

Condo properties are unique, some providing a much better experience than others. Therefore, even more so than with a hotel, you need to read reviews from past guests wherever you can find them: start with TripAdvisor.com, yelp.com and VRBO.com. Moreover, since each condo is individually owned and therefore different, make sure that the property guarantees you the specific unit you have chosen, the one with those glowing reviews, and not some supposedly equivalent unit.

            Condos – the Ugly:

– Most condos are older properties, with less soundproofing than large hotels. It’s always possible that you will have noisy neighbors, requiring you to tactfully ask the rental office for assistance.
– In the rare instance that something goes wrong – say your condo’s water heater or refrigerator stops working – the management has fewer rooms to work with compared with most hotels. They may not be able to move you to another unit, and may not fix the situation to your satisfaction.

Best Hawaii Lodging – Hotel or Condo?

The advice given above has been pretty detailed, so here’s the distillation that will help you find your best Hawaii lodging:
– Read guest reviews before you choose your lodging: this is essential for condos, but also strongly recommended for hotels.
– Hotels cost more but are more efficient if you have only a few days on an island. They give you a narrower vision of Hawaii, through the lens of corporate tourism.
– Condos save money and work well if you can spend a week in one place. They offer a more personalized experience of the Hawaiian islands.
– The principal drivers for hotel versus condo are time and money. Your desire for a more intimate setting may also affect your decision.

Best Hawaii lodging

Honokeana Cove, Maui at 2 a.m. during February

Best Hawaii Local Transportation

There may be a few vacation destinations where you don’t need a rental car, but Hawaii is not one of them. Each island has much to discover and enjoy, and unless you’re there very briefly (e.g., a cruise ship visit) you are cheating yourself if you don’t get out and explore.

Yes, it’s possible to take a shuttle from the airport to your lodging, and rent a car for just a few days of your visit. However, unless your hotel is overcharging you for parking, you are usually better off to get a car for your whole trip.

For the best selection and price, reserve your car well in advance of travel, before you reach Hawaii. I have personally found Costco Travel a great source. It gives consistently low rates, no charge for one additional driver, and no penalty for cancelling the reservation. However, if you’re not a Costco member there are other good options. Check the excellent car rental advice at Jon’s Maui – Jon’s advice applies to all the Hawaiian islands, not merely Maui.

            Transportation Traps for the Unwary

Let me say that in my experience, Hawaii car rental agencies have never tried to cheat me. However, two unpleasant experiences with rental cars at Los Angeles airport sensitized me to the traps that await. I offer you the fruits of my hard-won education into rental car scams:

            – Collision Damage Waiver:

This “insurance coverage” offered by car rental companies is outrageously expensive. I personally prefer to use American Express Premium Car Rental Protection, which for $24.95 per rental gives excellent primary coverage on a rental. Most Visa and some MasterCards offer various degrees of protection. Kiplinger offers additional advice for avoiding CDW and other unnecessary fees.

            – Self-Inspect:

Regardless of how well you think you are insured, you should examine your rental car, fill out the company’s inspection form and give it to them, keeping the copy for yourself. Some car rental staff will tell you, oh, that ding doesn’t count as long as it’s smaller than a dime/quarter/dollar bill. Smile politely and write it on the form as a ding anyway. After all, the person talking to you is probably not the person who will inspect your car after you return it.

If you look carefully you can usually find dents and scratches on front and back bumpers and on the edges of doors. Check also for nicks in the windshield. (Dollar Car Rental once tried to charge me $250 for a windshield chip.) Turning in an inspection form with many nicks marked makes it very unlikely that the rental company will try to charge you with any damage. And if they do, you’re in an excellent position to argue that you did not cause the damage in question and that they rented you a “junker.”

If it’s after dark and you can’t inspect the car properly when you pick it up, note that on the inspection form. Phone your additions to the company the next day, keeping a record of the name of the person you speak with.

            – Loss of Use:

If you are so unfortunate as to sustain rental car damage, the rental company can charge you a “loss of use” fee for the time the car is out of service during repairs. After phone call and mail inquiries, my best information is that Budget and Avis will not provide proof of “loss of use” to your insurance company or credit card company. Therefore, your insurance will not cover any such charges by these car rental companies. Alamo, Enterprise and National will provide such proof; therefore, your insurance coverage is more complete if your car rental is with these companies.

Best Hawaii Touring

Best Hawaii lodging

Visitors at Nakalele Blowhole, West Maui

Now you’re almost ready for that great vacation. You’ve chosen the best island or islands, and the best Hawaii lodging. But how will you spend your time?

There are literally too many possibilities on each of the four major Hawaiian islands. This is how I suggest proceeding: Start with the noncommercial (or mostly noncommercial) online tour guides for advice. Here are a few that are particularly useful:
– The Hawaii Convention and Visitors Bureau “Guide to the Hawaiian Islands.”
– The Go Visit Hawaii “First Time Visitors’ Guide to Hawaii.”
Fodor’s Hawaii.
Frommer’s Hawaii.
– Alternative Hawaii’s “Be Your Own Tour Guide.”

Include some free and almost-free activities, because those will give you a more personal experience of Hawaii. For those events where a guide or tour operator seems like a plus, shop from reliable sources like these:
Tom Barefoot’s Tours.
Roberts Hawaii.
– Gray Line Polynesian Adventure Tours.

The following links provide more depth about my personal favorite, the island of Maui:
– Free and Almost-Free Activities on Maui.
– The Jon’s Maui website.
– Whale watch cruises with the nonprofit Pacific Whale Foundation.
Old Lahaina Luau.

Visiting Hawaii, on the best Hawaiian islands, with the best Hawaii lodging – one of the world’s great vacations. Are you ready? I’ll see you there!

Image credits:

Hotels on Kaanapali Beach, Maui by Joe Parks from Berkeley, California via Wikipedia Commons

2 a.m. Maui moonlight and Nakalele Blowhole photos by Art Chester

Other images courtesy Honokeana Cove Rental Association LLC

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