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13 Tips for Visiting Hawaii for the First Time

Planning your first trip to Hawaii? Travel bloggers share their biggest tips for what to do (and what NOT to do) to make the most of your first Hawaiian vacation. Scroll for all the tips before you travel to Hawaii!!
This post about tips for your first trip to Hawaii was written by Hawaii travel expert Marcie Cheung and contains affiliate links which means if you purchase something from one of my affiliate links, I may earn a small commission that goes back into maintaining this blog.

Hawaii is truly one of the best vacation destinations in the United States. From the sandy beaches to the waterfall hikes to mouthwatering restaurants, Hawaii has it all!

If this is your first time to the islands, it can be a bit overwhelming.

So, I’ve asked some of my fellow travel bloggers to share their best advice for Hawaii trip first-timers.

These bloggers are seasoned travelers and want you to learn from their mistakes and their smart planning so you can plan your ultimate vacation to Hawaii.

Keep scrolling for all their tips for your first trip to Hawaii.

Find out my top Hawaii travel tips for planning a trip to Oahu, Maui, or Kauai!

Want to skip all the planning and just access my detailed Hawaii Itineraries, complete with daily schedules, kid-friendly activities, and travel hacks? Click the button below.

13 Tips for Visiting Hawaii for the First Time

1. Stay on One Hawaiian Island

When people hear you are “going to Hawaii” for the first time, you will almost always get asked, “which islands are you visiting?”

In the past, when airfare was cheap and regulations were lax, it was easy to visit two or three different islands in a single week-long Hawaii vacation.

Today, however, you are better to decide which island you want to go to and enjoy that one, exploring its unique wonders, and then plan a return trip.

In many ways, Hawaii is a paradox. While it is a series of islands, people underestimate how big the state is as well as how big and diverse the individual islands are as well.

13 Tips for Visiting Hawaii for the First Time featured by top Hawaii blog, Hawaii Travel with Kids: Wide Angle Tikis at Place of Refuge (Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park) in Kona Hawaii
Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park on the Big Island.

For instance, on a visit to “The Big Island,” you can experience a tropical jungle on the east side, an arid desert on the west, grasslands to the north, and some of the tallest mountains in the United States in the middle.

A similar diversity can be found on the other islands, both in terms of geography as well as culture, and food.

As a result, while “island hopping” might be a fun concept, there’s really no need to do it since you can visit one Hawaiian island and never see all of it even on a week-long Hawaiian vacation.

James Hill from Cruise West Coast

2. Try the Local Food When You Visit Hawaii for the First Time

When you visit Hawaii, you’ll want to try the local food. On my first visit to Hawaii, I quickly fell in love with poke.

This delicious dish consists of tuna or another type of seafood chopped up and marinated with spices, sauces, and vegetables. You can get a variety of poke, whether you’re looking for a spicy one or a sweeter poke.

13 Tips for Visiting Hawaii for the First Time featured by top Hawaii blog, Hawaii Travel with Kids: Oahu poke places are all the rage because they are usually portable like this one
Hawaiian Poke. Photo credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)

You’ll never find fresher poke than when you’re visiting Hawaii, as many times the fish is caught that morning.

When I visited the Big Island, I stopped at Da Poke Brothers almost daily. You typically eat this with rice and sides like seaweed salad or macaroni salad.

I also recommend stopping at a small, local restaurant to try poke instead of eating it at a chain restaurant. You’ll get the experience of talking to the owners and learning more about the business that you’re supporting while on your Hawaii vacation.

Marissa Pedersen from Postcards to Seattle

3. Don’t Go to a Luau on Your First Night

For most first-time visitors to Hawaii, going to a luau is high on their bucket list! It’s a great opportunity to see parts of traditional Hawaiian culture and eat wonderful food.

Luau tickets aren’t cheap, so you’ll want to make the most of the experience.

13 Tips for Visiting Hawaii for the First Time featured by top Hawaii blog, Hawaii Travel with Kids: Hula dancers pose at the Aha Aina Luau on Oahu
Photo credit: Royal Hawaiian Hotel

One way to make sure you really enjoy your first luau is to schedule it for the end of your time in Hawaii.

No matter where you’re coming from, you’ll face a big time change when you go to Hawaii – 2-3 hours for west coasters and a whopping 5-6 hours for east coasters depending on the time of year!

Since most luaus don’t end until late at night, if you buy tickets for the beginning of your Hawaii vacation you’ll feel like a zombie before the first hula is over.

So do yourself a favor: plan your luau as a way to celebrate the end of your trip to Hawaii, not the beginning.

Melissa Conn from The Family Voyage

4. Use Reef Safe Sunscreen

When visiting Hawaii for the first time, one thing you’ll need to know is to use reef-safe sunscreen.

What is one of the very best things about visiting Hawaii? That amazing Pacific Ocean you get to swim in! The beautiful blue waters, colorful fish, sea turtles, and all of that coral reef that you find everywhere around the islands.

13 Tips for Visiting Hawaii for the First Time featured by top Hawaii blog, Hawaii Travel with Kids: Snorkeling woman exploring beautiful ocean sealife, underwater photography. Travel lifestyle, water sport outdoor activities, swimming and snorkeling on summer beach holidays.

However, when you are snorkeling or scuba diving, you need to make sure to protect the reef by using the correct sunscreen.

Many sunscreens you buy and bring to Hawaii have an ingredient called oxybenzone in them, which is very harmful to the coral reef systems in Hawaii. The chemical bleaches the reefs, ridding them of their color, and sometimes die altogether.

Most sunscreens you can purchase on the islands are reef safe, however it is best to make sure. In addition, if you are on a scuba or snorkel excursion, many times they will offer reef safe sunscreen for free.

All in all, one of the best things you can do in Hawaii is get out into the water and see the beautiful coral reef. Just make sure that you are using reef safe sunscreen when you are getting into that beautiful water!

Zach & Julie Ruhl from Ruhls of the Road

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    5. Research Beaches Before You Go

    On your first trip to Hawaii, I’d be willing to bet that heading to the beach is at the very top of your agenda. And if you’re traveling to Hawaii with kids, I’m sure they can’t wait to play in the waves!

    13 Tips for Visiting Hawaii for the First Time featured by top Hawaii blog, Hawaii Travel with Kids: Poipu Beach is a kid-friendly Kauai beach for families on the South Shore of Kauai
    Poipu Beach. Photo credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Daeja Fallas

    While beaches all over the islands can look peaceful and serene, it is imperative that you understand that Hawaii’s position in the ocean makes for unique and dangerous conditions.

    Do some research before you get to the island to determine the most family-friendly beaches, and stick with those.

    One of my personal favorites is Lydgate Beach on Kauai, with two protected swimming lagoons. Opt for lifeguarded beaches, and always check the beach warning signs when you get there.

    It sounds great to just wander out and find a serene, secluded stretch of sand somewhere, but there are often hidden dangers that continental beaches just don’t have to contend with. This doesn’t just go for families with kids – adults need to be equally cautious!

    Hawaiian beaches are incredible, and should absolutely be the first thing you do when you get to the island! But be smart about water safety and have a plan for where to swim.

    Dani Ward from Diapers in Paradise

    6. Always Check the Weather Before Hiking

    Before going on any hike, it is very important to check the weather and floodplains. If there is a possibility of rain, look to see if your hike goes through a floodplain or crosses any rivers.

    If it does, there is a chance for a rapid rise in water levels or water overflowing into the area you are hiking.

    13 Tips for Visiting Hawaii for the First Time featured by top Hawaii blog, Hawaii Travel with Kids: Young male tourist hiking on beautiful Pololu loop trail located near Kapaau, Hawaii, that features beautiful wild flowers and stunning views to the Pololu Valley. Big Island, Hawaii.

    When visiting a friend on Oahu, we did a spur-of-the-moment hike and didn’t look to see if it would rain. Partway through our hike, we got caught in heavy downpour. We didn’t mind and decided to keep going.

    Unfortunately, the rain didn’t stop and we didn’t realize how wide the rivers were that we needed to cross.

    When we reached the first river, we didn’t think we were too far from the end and decided to cross instead of going back up and down the mountain, which we felt would be too dangerous since it had been raining heavily for hours by this point.

    It was above our knees.  We soon reached the second river, which we could see rising rapidly from all the rain.

    It was very scary and taught us to always check weather and floodplains before doing any hike.

    Erin Tracy from Traveling Thru History

    7. Do Your Own Circle Island Tour of Oahu

    If you are visiting Hawaii and most likely Oahu for the first time, enjoy your visit to Honolulu and Waikiki and that part of paradise.

    13 Tips for Visiting Hawaii for the First Time featured by top Hawaii blog, Hawaii Travel with Kids: Tourist on Hawaii taking photo with camera phone during car road trip on the famous Road to Hana

    But if you really want to get a flavor of the entire island, go on a circle island tour. Or better yet, rent a car and do your own circle island tour, which is a fantastic way to experience the best and rest of the island.

    On a tour, you can choose where you want to go, the attractions that appeal to you or just do a fantastic drive with coastal views and find some nice scenic spots along the way to enjoy and photograph.

    You can visit popular attractions including Pearl Harbor, the Dole Plantation, Haleiwa, and the North Shore area with the Banzai pipeline, Sharks cove and into the gorgeous eastern coastlines.

    Along the way there, you can visit the Mormon temple, Byodo-In Temple and the stunning beaches at Lanikai and Kailua beach. It’s up to you to pick and choose what you want to do and see.

    For more inspiration, check out my tour of the North Shore of Oahu here for more images and popular things to do and see in the area.

    Noel Morata from This Hawaii Life

    8. Take a North Shore Tour

    With just three days in Oahu, I was overwhelmed with the tens of things to see and do with so little time.

    I wanted to see the best of Oahu’s North Shore without the hassle of renting a car, traffic, and parking.

    13 Tips for Visiting Hawaii for the First Time featured by top Hawaii blog, Hawaii Travel with Kids: Nothing is more iconic that this Haleiwa sign as you enter North Shore Oahu
    Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu. Photo credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Daeja Faris

    Instead, I packed a dry bag with a bikini, snorkel set, and sturdy shoes and hopped on the Surf Bus, a small group tour that stops at a handful of places around Oahu rather than at every noteworthy destination.

    Rather than being stuck on a bus all day, I had plenty of time to snorkel, hike, and go on a kayaking excursion. The day ended with a heaping pile of shave ice.  

    A North Shore tour of Oahu with just a few stops is the best way to make the most of a short stay in Oahu.

    Or, if you’re planning to stay a while, it’s best to do this tour at the beginning of your trip to Hawaii to get a feel for what parts of the island are worth venturing back to for full trips.

    Chantae Reden from Chantae Was Here

    9. Snorkel with Manta Rays

    An absolute must-do activity when you visit Hawaii is to snorkel or dive with manta rays at night.   

    Manta rays are enormous, with a wingspan of up to 29 feet! Seeing them is an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

    13 Tips for Visiting Hawaii for the First Time featured by top Hawaii blog, Hawaii Travel with Kids: Manta Ray in Hawaii

    Multiple boats leave from leave late every afternoon from Kailua-Kona on the Big Island. A nearby site has been set with enormous floodlights permanently mounted to the seabed in a large circle. 

    As dusk turns to dark, the lights are turned on. The light attracts swarms of microscopic, invisible-to-the-eye plankton. 

    Plankton are manta rays’ main food source, so their presence in turn attracts the mantas.  Divers sit around the circle of lights and snorkelers hold on to large rafts on the surface above them.   

    Before long, enormous creatures swoop out of the darkness, mouth wide open to scoop up the plankton. They turn and twist and glide around above the lights, often just below the surface (and snorkelers). It is a truly incredible sight! 

    Kids over the age of five can snorkel. Divers need to be certified. The site is open throughout the year, and although it is not guaranteed to see the manta rays, chances are good because of the lights/ plankton. Check out more Big Island Manta Ray snorkel tips.

    James Ian from Travel Collecting

    10. Hike to Papakolea Green Sand Beach On The Big Island

    Papakolea Beach is a green sand beach located on the most southern point on the Big Island, Hawaii. With only three green sand beaches in the world and one being in Hawaii, it’s a great opportunity for a great adventure.

    Image of Papakolea Green Sand Beach in Kona, Big Island

    You can get to this beach by taking highway 11, to the road to South Point between mile marker 69 and 70 to the end where you’ll find a parking lot. You can park your car there. This is where your hiking experience will start.

    The hike is about 2.8 miles and even though it can be hot, it’s a somewhat easy hike, my eight year old daughter had no problem doing it and you’ll witness some of the most beautiful landscapes.

    There are drivers waiting at the beginning of the hike to take you all the way to the beach for a fee but driving there is illegal.

    When you get there you have to climb down the cinder cone but don’t worry, it’s totally doable with children.

    When you plan your hike, make sure you’ll have plenty of water, food/snacks, sunscreen, sunglasses, hat and appropriate attire since there are no shaded areas or any food vendors at the Green Beach.

    This is a once in a lifetime venture for some people and you’ll be amazed by the beauty and the uniqueness of this gorgeous beach.

    Patricia Martin from Travel Fam Life

    11. Spend a Whole Day at The Polynesian Cultural Center when Visiting Hawaii for the First Time

    Originally, I thought it was just a luau and show but, I learned that it is actually an all-day attraction.  There are villages located all around the center representing different islands in the Pacific.  At each location, there are arts, crafts, or shows.

    Laie, Oahu, Hawaii, USA. - January 09, 2020: Polynesian Cultural Center. Monumental gate into the park with brown giant aboriginal statues. People and green vegetation under blue sky.

    We spent much of the day learning and laughing. Some of the shows are very funny and extremely entertaining.

    Our favorite shows were the water show called Huki, which told a history of how the Polynesian Cultural Center was formed, and Ha Breath of life was another amazing show with fire twirlers!

    We loved our time there and I know you will love it too!

    Tip – When you purchase your tickets make sure to upgrade to the luau. We made the mistake and ended up purchasing a buffet and didn’t realize it did not include the show.

    Lisa Manderino from Planning Away

    12. Volunteer with a Non-Profit

    There is no shortage of amazing tours to enjoy in Hawaii. As a former sea kayak guide and SUP instructor at Kailua Beach Adventures on Oahu, I can wholeheartedly recommend that you rent a kayak or take a guided tour in the beautiful Kailua Bay!

    However, beyond all of the sites to see and tours to take, I recommend that you do some research and find a local non-profit to give your time to. This is an amazing way to give back to the communities of Hawaii while digging into the local culture. Quite literally!

    At Papahana Kuaola, you can sign-up for one of their many volunteer days to work in their taro patches and learn about the root vegetable that has been at the core of Hawaiian’s diets for centuries.

    It’s incredibly refreshing to participate in something that is less transnational in nature and that exists to serve local communities.

    Although these experiences may be seemingly less glamorous, the experiences in which I connect with locals and in the case of the taro patches – get my hands a little dirty – have been the ones that I remember most fondly. 

    Hayley Spear from Hayley Sarah Blog

    13. Go Ziplining when Visiting Hawaii for the First Time

    Ziplining can be considered an extreme activity but once you have done it you are hooked (no pun intended). With so many options of tours and experiences to enjoy in Hawaii, it can be challenging to decide on which one to go for.

    Image of a woman wearing a red tank top going ziplining in Hawaii

    For our family, ziplining was on top of the list, as a matter of fact, this was my daughter’s favorite and since we had her with us we had to drive to Hilo and find a company that would allow kids.

    It was totally worth the drive, not only to visit some of the sites on that side of the Island, but the company we chose was amazing. The staff was so attentive to my daughter, they even went tandem with her since she was very light for one of the long lines.

    On our 4-hour zipline excursion, we got to zipline over a couple of waterfalls and some beautiful landscapes.

    If ziplining is on your bucket list, Hawaii is definitely worth a try. Just don’t forget to book in advance since the choices of companies that allow kids are very limited. 

    Patricia Martin from Travel Fam Life

    First Time to Hawaii FAQs

    Where should I go in Hawaii for the first time?

    Usually, I recommend that first timers start off with a trip to Oahu. It’s the most popular Hawaiian island, as well as the cheapest. Plus there are tons of attractions, activities, great food, and shopping. That’s why I think it’s the best island to visit in Hawaii for the first time.

    How to visit Hawaii on a budget?

    Are you hoping to save money in Hawaii? You can totally plan an affordable Hawaii vacation by traveling during shoulder season (mid-April to June and September to mid-December.) Plus, there are tons of free things to do in Hawaii.

    What’s the Hawaii time difference from the Mainland?

    Hawaii doesn’t participate in daylight savings time. So, they are 2-3 hours behind the West Coast, 3-4 hours behind Mountain Time, 4-5 hours behind Central Time, and 5-6 hours behind the East Coast.

    What do I need to travel to Hawaii?

    You’ll definitely need I.D., and a passport (if you are traveling from outside the U.S.) And be sure to check to see if there are any Hawaii travel restrictions in place.

    13 Tips for Visiting Hawaii for the First Time featured by top Hawaii blog, Hawaii Travel with Kids

    Wrap Up

    Before your trip to Hawaii, I suggested taking a look at my step-by-step Hawaii travel guide so you know exactly how to plan a trip to Hawaii. This is perfect for first-time visitors to Hawaii.

    And be sure to explore the rest of this top Hawaii travel blog for all the best Hawaii guides and Hawaii travel tips!

    Planning on visiting Hawaii for the first time? Check out our detailed posts about Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Big Island, Molokai, and Lanai! Plus, find out the best island to visit and the top things I wish I knew before going to Hawaii with kids.