You’re going to Hawai’i! If you’ve never been, you’re in for the trip of a lifetime. If you’ve been before, you already know what a special place it is. Either way, I think you’ll love it. Before you go, however, you might start to feel overwhelmed with all the planning. Which island or islands should you visit? Where should you stay? Can I drive between the islands? (The answer is no!)
I have a ton of helpful guides for you on my Hawaiian Islands Page, but this post in particular was written to help you navigate what you should really take a little time to plan. You want flexibility in your trip–you’re on vacation in paradise, after all!–but if any of the things below are on your “must do” list, you will want to book them in advance. I’ve broken it down for you by general category, then by island to help you stay organized!
Any Hawaiian Island
These are things you can do on any of the Hawaiian islands, so no matter which island or islands you choose, you’ll want to do a little research to find the best tour company you want to use, and make sure you book it ahead of your trip!
This could be a sightseeing excursion to see Kaua’i’s Napali Coast, or it could be fishing charter! Maybe you want to enjoy a sunset dinner cruise or a mid-day catamaran tour. You may be able to book some of these tours when you arrive, but if you want to make sure there’s enough space for you and the friends or family with you, book it 6-8 weeks in advance.
Okay, fine, people will tell you this is super touristy and a real traveler would never do this. But I’m here to tell you that I loved our luau on the Island of Hawai’i, and having visited nearly 50 countries on six continents, I’d say I qualify as a “traveler” to even the snobbiest of travelers! If you want to go to a luau, you’ll enjoy it. It’s the ultimate cultural experience with dinner and a show to boot! You can enjoy a luau on the Island of Hawai’i, Kaua’i, Mau’i, or O’ahu, but you’ll want to book 6-8 weeks in advance.
Read on: What It’s Like to Go to a Luau
We took the most spectacular helicopter tour on our fourth anniversary trip to Mau’i. We flew over the West Mau’i Mountains and the sea cliffs of Molokai, and it was truly aw-inspiring. A couple of years before that, we took a scenic flight around Kaua’i to see waterfalls and conservation properties you can only see from the air. The real treat, however, was seeing the Napali Coast from the air. The word “majestic” kept coming to mind, and I can’t think of any better descriptors.
Scenic flights take off from almost every island (with the exception of Lana’i), and you will definitely need advance reservations! Take a look at your options online, and choose the best scenic flight for you, whether that’s in a tiny plane or a helicopter. We’ve done both and were equally pleased each time! Plan to book 6-8 weeks in advance to get the tour and time you want.
The snorkeling in Hawaii is some of the world’s best, so if you like to snorkel, you’ll certainly want to reserve your space on one of the many tours offered from every island! You’ll come face-to-face with sea turtles, fish of every size and color, and coral that’s brighter and more elegant than you could ever dream. Book 6-8 weeks before your trip.
More here: The Ultimate O’ahu Bucket List
This is available from almost every island. You can see whales from shore, but if you want to get a little closer, you’ll want to book a tour. Whales make Hawaii their winter home, so you’re in luck if your trip falls from December through May. If you’re visiting in summer or fall, you’ll simply have to plan a trip back to see the whales in winter or early spring! Book 4-6 weeks in advance.
Island of Hawai’i
Lava Boat Tours
Full disclosure: At the time of this writing, lava is no longer flowing into the ocean from the Island of Hawai’i’s eastern coast. However, lava is unpredictable and could re-emerge with a lasting flow at any time! If the lava boat tours do start back up in the future, it’s worth booking 1-2 months in advance to secure your place!
Kauai is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, and when people ask me which island they should visit, this is the one I recommend. Nearby Ni’ihau is visible from Kauai, but it’s called the “Forbidden Island” because it is privately-owned, and you must be invited or take one of the approved tours, starting from Kauai, to visit.
Ha’ena State Park and Kalalau Trail
Updated as of March 15,
The Kalalau Trail on the world-famous Napali Coast is a beautiful hike that provides the only land access to the area. It’s also extremely popular! For that reason, non-local visitors need a reservation to park here and to hike the trail, which can be made up to 30 days in advance and as close as one day in advance. You will also need a permit to access the full 11-mile trail (one-way), camp, or kayak into Kalalau (available only in the summer months).
There are two ways to visit Ni’ihau: by invitation from a resident or by Ni’ihau Helicopter Tours. We chose to visit Ni’ihau on our recent trip to Kaua’i (the only way to visit), and it was truly a spectacular experience.
Half-day Tour of Ni’ihau
With the helicopter company, you can take a half-day tour that includes a scenic flight, information about the history of the “Forbidden Island,” lunch and about three hours on the beach to snorkel, swim, observe true wildlife, or simply relax in the sun.
For a more rugged adventure, you can also sign up for a safari with Ni’ihau Helicopter Tours. Up to four hunters can take a multi-day safari trip to hunt Polynesian boar and hybrid sheep, both of which have reached overpopulation and have caused damage to the island. For either tour, plan to book 4-6 weeks in advance. This will give Ni’ihau Helicopters time to find others to join your tour to meet the minimum.
We planned to Visit Lana’i for our anniversary in May of 2020, but of course we had to cancel. We now plan to visit next month, so stay tuned!
Mau’i is arguably one of the most famous and most visited islands in the world, which makes for some crowds at peak seasons and beyond! The island has so much to offer, but some activities require advance planning as a solution for keeping crowds low and providing a less hectic experience for everyone.
Watching the sunrise at Haleakala National Park has required advance tickets for several years now. Tickets are released 60 days in advance at 7:00am Hawaii Time, and more tickets are released 48 hours in advance also at 7:00am Hawaii Time. The cost to reserve online here is $1, and your ticket covers entry for one car (and, of course, the people in the car), for one of four viewing areas. Also note that one person can only reserve one ticket every three days.
Another tip: bring warm clothes! You’ll be at an elevation of 10,000 feet!
More here: What to Pack for Mau’i
Wai’anapanapa State Park
Wai’anapanapa State Park was an absolute highlight for Steve and me, and we will definitely go back on our next trip to Mau’i! It’s located along the Road to Hana and has a black sand beach, as well as picnic areas. The part that stood out to us, however, was the beautiful, dramatic hike along the coastline!
When we visited in 2018, we did not need a reservation, but now both the entrance fee of $5 per person and $10 per car parking reservation are required. Time slots do sell out, but reservations can only be made up to two weeks in advance.
Must read: Hiking Hawaii: Mau’i
Mama’s Fish House
If you or one of the people you’re traveling with is a foodie, this is probably already on your “must do” list! Despite its down-home, casual name, Mama’s is a fine dining establishment with a dress code. The food is amazing, but no matter what you get for your main meal, you have to save room for the Black Pearl dessert! It’s on the pricey side, but if it’s worth it to you, it’s worth it!
Pro tip: Mama’s is quite close to the airport, so I recommend doing what we did and making your reservation for your last day, possibly before your red-eye flight back to the Mainland! Just be sure to call for your reservation at least 4-8 weeks out.
All the details: What it’s Like to Eat at Mama’s Fish House
Never heard of Molokai? You’re not alone! This less-visited island is home to a former Leper Colony, the tallest sea cliffs in the world, and is one of the last unspoiled islands in Hawaii.
Halawa Valley Hike
If you’re looking for a true, Hawaiian cultural experience, the Halawa Valley Cultural Hike is it. This guided hike starts at an actual Hawaiian person’s home, and includes a cultural intro to Hawaii, a walk through a taro garden, and a hike through your guide’s private property to a beautiful, secluded waterfall. Book 1-2 months out.
More specifics here: How to Take the Halawa Valley Cultural Hike
Kalaupapa Naitonal Historic Park
At the time of this writing, the Kalaupapa National Historic Park is closed to visitors due to the residents’ heightened risk of contracting COVID-19. It is still home to a handful of residents who are now cured of Hansen’s Disease (formerly called leprosy), though their immune systems are permanently compromised.
When tours do begin again, I highly recommend a visit. Whether you’re interested in medical tourism, history, or just like doing things few people have done before, you’ll appreciate your visit here. I also recommend reading Molokai and Daughter of Molokai before your trip to the island to get a sense of what life was like for the residents before the cure became available. When tours begin again, plan to book 6-8 weeks in advance.
When you think of Hawaii, what landmarks come to mind? Diamond Head? Pearl Harbor? Surfing? It’s all on O’ahu! The state’s capitol of Honolulu is also located here, so you will likely be passing though here, even if you’re enroute to another island!
Kualoa Ranch (Jurassic Valley)
There are several different experiences to have at Kualoa Ranch (where Jurassic Park and other films have been made) on O’ahu’s east side. Most activities can be booked within a week of the date you want to visit, but if you want to take the Hollywood Movie Sites Tour, 1- or 2-hour Raptor Tours, or the Jurassic Adventure Tour, you will want to book at least 4-6 weeks in advance!
Pearl Harbor National Memorial
A trip to O’ahu is not complete without a visit to Pearl Harbor National Memorial. I’d like to note that entry is FREE, and you do not need an advance reservation for entry to the National Memorial, but it’s a good idea to make a reservation here for the USS Arizona Memorial at peak times, or if you want to go on a particular day and time. You can reserve tickets up to 60 days in advance, but there will likely still be availability 1-2 weeks before you plan to visit.
Keep reading: Your Ultimate Guide to Pearl Harbor National Memorial
This is one of the most iconic things to do on O’ahu! Duke Kahanamoku himself, the father of modern surfing and 20th century Olympian, was one of the original “Beach Boys.” The Waikiki Beach Boys (not to be confused with the well-known musical group or the baseball team) taught tourists to surf, gave ukulele lessons, and have generally wooed young ladies on Waikiki since 1901. You can still get a surf lesson on the beach today, but it’s a good idea to book 2-4 weeks before your trip.
Read next: The Ultimate O’ahu Bucket List
Want more about the best things to do in Hawaii? Check out my post: The Most Helpful Hawaii Blog Posts You Will Ever Find! And you’ll find everything you need and more on my Hawaiian Islands Page!
Love this post? Pin it for later!