It's no secret that Hawaii isn't one of the cheapest places to take a vacation—but it doesn't have to be as expensive as you think either. The Big Island has tons of activities you can do for little to no money.
The most expensive part of your trip to the Big Island will be your accommodations, food, and renting a car. But after that, you don't need to break the bank to find incredible adventures to go on.
Here are my top ten favorite cheap activities to do on Hawaii's Big Island.
I think one of the biggest misconceptions about Hawaii is that you need to pay for an expensive boat tour to take you to the "best snorkeling spots around the island." In fact, some of the best snorkeling spots are completely free.
Funnily enough, I was snorkeling one day and one of those expensive boat tours came by to drop off a bunch of tourists. My boyfriend and I laughed because we realized that we had been thinking about booking that tour and it turns out that the spot they bring you to is the one that we had just driven to on our own...for free.
So my first tip is: Don't waste your money on snorkeling boat tours.
If you don't have your own snorkeling gear, no problem! I went to Hawaii without bringing cumbersome snorkeling equipment and it didn't matter. There are plenty of cheap rental shops on the island. My favorite shop was Snorkel Bob's because you could rent a complete package (goggles, snorkel, fins, and a de-fogging solution) for just $11 per day.
They even give you a handy guide with a list of all of the best snorkeling spots on the Island. Our favorites were Kahaluʻu Beach Park and Honaunau Bay (also known as "Two Step," but I'll talk more about Two Step later.)
Parking at Kahaluʻu Beach Park is completely free and they have a generous-sized parking lot. There is a lifeguard at this beach which is helpful because half of the beach is dedicated to surfing and the lifeguard will warn snorkelers if they are drifting over to the wrong side.
When you snorkel here, make sure to bring your go-pro if you have one. There is such a variety of undersea life to see! (That's where we took that photo of the sea turtle above.) Just make sure you're a strong swimmer if you decide to swim out deeper because there is a strong current here (hence why part of the beach is for surfing).
And make sure to remember to wear reef-safe sunscreen, because the reef ecosystems are fragile.
2. Swimming With Dolphins
Similar to the first item in this list, there are a bunch of tours that say they will take you to see and/or swim among spinner dolphins. But this is another thing you can do for free.
As I mentioned above, Two Step is another one of the best places to snorkel on the Big Island. Two Step isn't a normal beach, it's actually made of lava rock so make sure to wear your water shoes otherwise you risk cutting your feet.
This bay is nicknamed "two step" because there is an area in the lava rock that basically formed stairs that snorkelers and divers can use to step into the water. Just make sure to step into the water just after a wave has come in, because if you try to go into the water while a wave is coming, it will probably push you back into the lava rock (which won't be fun for the skin on your back).
Here is the secret to Two Step: Rent your snorkeling gear the evening before and get there around 7-8am. I know that seems really early for snorkeling, but that's when the spinner dolphins are the most active. It's also before most of the other tourists get there (we found that it started to get busier around 10am).
You'll know whether there are dolphins present because they like to jump out of the water a lot, so just keep your eyes open.
If you're lucky enough to get there while the spinner dolphins are there, it's okay to get in the water, but you don't want to get too close to the pod and you definitely can't touch them (it can actually harm them). Just enjoy snorkeling in the water while the dolphins swim around you.
When we went, we got surrounded by a pod of probably 20-30 dolphins and it was beyond magical (the photo above was taken at Two Step).
Other than spinner dolphins, we also saw a sea turtle, a white tip shark, and a ton of colorful fish. So even if you miss the dolphins, Two Step is an amazing place to snorkel.
3. Hiking Pololū Valley
Pololū Valley is, in my opinion, one of the most scenic spots on the Big Island. It's located at the northern tip of the island and the views, even just from the parking area, are phenomenal.
I recommend wearing hiking sneakers—or at least sandals with straps on them—because this hike is pretty steep and flip flops would probably make you trip.
At the bottom of the hike is the beach, but it's not the kind you'd really want to lay on and tan or play volleyball—this beach is made up of rocks and lava rock. It's also not the safest beach for swimming because it's known for its extremely strong currents. But it's beautiful to look at!
If you keep walking in the woods right behind the beach, you'll eventually find a hiking trail. It's a decent hike so if you plan to do it, make sure you bring enough water—once you get near the top it's full sun.
Making it to the top of the hike will reward you with sprawling views of the valley. You'll know you made it because you'll see a broken bench at the top.
Unfortunately, the hike isn't a loop and you'll have to hike back down the way you came, then back up to the lookout.
(The entire hike took us about four hours because we went slow and took our time, but it could be done in about two and a half hours if you're pressed for time.)
When you're sufficiently hot and sweaty, make sure you stop at a farmstand on your drive back home. There is one located close to the lookout and it was so refreshing to grab a fruit smoothie after hiking in the heat all day!
4. Watching the Sunset and Stargazing From the Mauna Kea Visitor Center
The dormant volcano of Mauna Kea is the highest point on the Big Island at over 4,000 meters above sea level. You can drive to the Mauna Kea visitor center and park (at no cost) to see one of the most spectacular sunsets you'll ever see.
However, the real draw of Mauna Kea is the stargazing. The view of the stars from the top of Mauna Kea is so clear that The Mauna Kea Observatories were set up there. It's unlikely that you'll ever get a clearer view of the night sky.
Make sure you dress warm because, as you might expect at that altitude, it is freezing up there, especially after the sun goes down. You'll also want to wear sneakers because the best views come with a bit of a hike.
Across the street from the parking lot, you can make a short hike (maybe 10-20 minutes depending on what shape you're in) to an overlook. Make sure you hike slowly because at that altitude, it can be difficult to breathe (especially if you have asthma like I do) and it can make you feel light-headed.
Once you make it to the top and stop hiking, it gets much easier to breathe and you can take in the views.
Make sure you bring a flashlight for the hike back down because the top of the mountain gets very dark once the sun sets—there isn't much lighting because it would make it harder to see the stars.
5. Watching Sea Turtles on Punalu'u Beach
Punaluʻu Beach is the most famous black sand beach on the Big Island. It's about an hour and twenty-minute drive from Kailua-Kona and is located on the southern part of the island.
However, black sand isn't the only thing the beach is known for—the beach is a well-known sea turtle nesting area. There is an area on the beach sectioned off with rocks where the sea turtles often come ashore to relax and nest and it's a sight to see.
The beach is also a great place to spend the day—there were many people relaxing on blankets, swimming, and playing beach sports and there were also vendors selling souvenirs and food. It's a good beach to relax with your family, and there's no admission fee.
6. Spelunking in the Kaumana Caves
If you happen to be in the Hilo area, set your GPS to the Kaumana Caves. You can park for free, cross the street, and walk down a set of steep stairs to find the cave openings. There is no entrance fee to explore these caves, but that also means there are no safety measures so be careful.
Make sure that you have closed-toe shoes (mid-height hiking shoes would be the best) because these caves are actually lava tubes and so the ground is uneven and sharp. You'll also need a flashlight (a headlamp would be the most convenient) because there is absolutely no light in these caves. We turned our lights off just to test it and it's completely pitch black—you can't see your own hand in front of your face. Last of all, don't wear shorts. there are many points in this cave where you need to climb and crawl and with shorts, you're sure to scrape up your knees.
There are two lava tubes to choose from and I recommend choosing the tube located on the left side as you walk down the stairs. This tube actually has an exit and a huge hole in the ceiling at the end with vines hanging down that make it look like it's straight out of Jurassic Park. Alternatively, the lava tube on the right has no end that we could find—it just kept going and we didn't see any kind of openings, just lots of rocks.
7. Looking for Waterfalls in Hilo
If you're planning a trip to the Big Island, then you've probably heard that it's always raining on the Hilo side. This is not a myth. The Hilo side of the island gets an average of over 140 inches of rain per year (to put this in perspective, the average rainfall for the rest of the United States is around 30-40 inches). So why go to Hilo? Because lots of rain means amazing waterfalls!
Akaka Falls is the most famous waterfall in Hilo because of its height, but Rainbow Falls is beautiful as well (and free to see). Akaka Falls does have a small entrance fee, but you get to walk around the well-kept trails before arriving at the waterfall
8. Liliʻuokalani Park and Gardens in Hilo
Liliʻuokalani Park and Gardens is my last recommendation for the Hilo side of the island. It might sound lame that I'm suggesting a park, but no joke, this was one of our favorite parts of visiting Hilo. We ended up staying here for about three hours without even realizing it.
This park has Japanese gardens and (having visited Japan myself) I can say that these gardens brought about the same sense of serenity as the ones in Japan did (minus the koi).
There's a bamboo grove, a pond, many bridges, and lots of wildlife to watch. And the park is right across the street from the ocean, so you can pop over there and watch the fish swim around the pier. It makes for a truly relaxing afternoon.
9. Go Kayaking
If you're looking for a cheap way to get a new perspective on the Big Island, then try renting a kayak. To be fair, this excursion isn't free, but if you rent one on your own rather than taking a guided tour, then it's much cheaper.
Spinner dolphins sometimes like to hang out in Kona Bay and if you rent a kayak (we rented ours from Kona Boys Beach Shack) you can paddle out to the bay and get a front-row seat!
It's also fun just to spend an afternoon kayaking around the Island to take in the views of the landscape and volcano.
10. Drive Around and Explore
I pinky promise that I didn't just put this one in here to get the list to an even ten places. You need to rent a car in order to get around the Big Island, so you might as well take advantage of it.
One of our favorite things to do on our trip was to just hop in our car and go. After all, you can't get lost if you have no destination. We spent hours just driving around the island and it's thanks to our explorations that we found some of the items on this list. We also drove through some lush jungle roads, through some local villages, and we saw things we wouldn't have seen if we just stuck to what we read in the travel guides.
So if you've always wanted to visit Hawaii but you're afraid that it's too expensive, remember that you don't need to book tours, pay entrance fees, and go into credit card debt in order enjoy what the island has to offer.
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See you soon!