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Where to Stay on the Big Island: Kona or Hilo?

Are you planning a trip to Hawaii’s Big Island and are confused which side of the island you should find a hotel? Let me break down whether you should stay in Kona or Hilo when traveling to the Big Island. Scroll for all the info!
This post about where to stay on the Big Island: Kona or Hilo 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.

Because the island of Hawaii has so much to offer, couples, families, and those looking for a sense of adventure may have a difficult narrowing down where to stay on the Big Island. 

Both Kona and Hilo offer a wide range of activities for all ages, so booking the best Big Island hotel for your needs will depend on your travel goals.

Kailua Kona and Hilo each have their own dedicated airport, so getting to both areas is easy.

If you’re wondering where to stay on the Big Island, whether you’re leaning toward Hilo or interested in heading to Kona, this breakdown can help. Plus, find out the best kid-friendly Big Island resorts and hotels.

First trip to the Big Island? Read THIS first!

See my favorite accommodations option here

Don’t have time to read many Hawaii blog posts and reviews? Here are some of our top picks for visiting the Big Island.

Popular Big Island Tours/Activities

Favorite Big Island Resorts/Hotels

Want to Rent a Car in Hawaii?
One of the best places to rent a car in Hawaii is Discount Hawaii Car Rental because they get the best rates from top national companies like Alamo, Dollar, Thrifty, Avis, Enterprise, Budget, and Payless.

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

Where to Stay on the Big Island: Kona or Hilo, tips featured by top Hawaii blog, Hawaii Travel with Kids

Where to Stay on the Big Island of Hawaii: Kona or Hilo?

With its white-sand beaches, Kona, located on the west coast of Big Island, can be considered the heart of the Big Island.

Kona enjoys warm weather year-round and is a welcomed respite for sun-seeking tourists the world over. Visitors come for the wide variety of annual events held in Kona, including the annual Kona Coffee Festival.

Things to do in Kona

If you’re looking for things to do in Kona, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re interested in going on a submarine rideswimming with dolphinssnorkelingziplining, and manta ray diving, Kona is the place to go.

Where to Stay on the Big Island: Kona or Hilo, tips featured by top Hawaii blog, Hawaii Travel with Kids: Visitors play konane, a checkers-like game, at Puuhonua o Honaunau
Photo credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Heather Goodman

For those less adventurous, if you’re seeking some rest and relaxation on the beach, you can’t go wrong. The Kohala Coast provides lots of great beaches. Swimming with the manta rays is such a fun experience, and the Kona Side offers some of the best manta ray snorkeling on the entire island.

You can also enjoy a whale-watching tour during the winter months.

You can start your day with a tour of a working Kona coffee plantation to see how this famous Kona coffee is grown and harvested.  

Spend an afternoon strolling through plentiful botanical gardens or set up camp and enjoy nature in this lush paradise.

Kona’s landscape provides a wide variety of activities for all ages. Step back in time and learn about the unique history of Hawaii at one of two area petroglyph fields. Both the Pukao Petroglyph Field and Waikoloa Petroglyphs are easily accessible from central Kona.

Finally, it truly wouldn’t be a Hawaiian vacation without at least one luau. Enjoy a traditional luau for the ultimate Hawaiian food and cultural experience.

Read my full post on things to do in Kona

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Best places to stay in Kona

For the ultimate in luxury, consider the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai at Historic Ka’upulehu in Kona. It is the best area to stay in Kona.

Featuring a well-appointed spa, shops, and a golf course, the resort boasts stunning guest rooms dotted along the perimeter of the beach and golf course. Check out the latest prices and more details.

Similarly, the Mauna Lani offers a wide variety of activities for guests of all ages. It’s one of the best hotels in Hawaii with Peloton bikes, too!

Immerse yourself in the beauty of mountain views from this luxurious resort. Check out the latest prices and more details.

Families will enjoy a centrally located Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. We stayed there recently, and you can read my full review.

Located near the Kamakahonu National Historic Landmark, this beachfront hotel is perfect for families. Check out the latest prices and more details.

The hotel is close to restaurants, shopping, and the Kailua Pier. It provides the perfect home base for exploring the Big Island.

Where to Stay on the Big Island: Kona or Hilo, tips featured by top Hawaii blog, Hawaii Travel with Kids: Pool at Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii
Photo credit: Outrigger Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay

Another family-friendly hotel is the Outrigger Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay. Perfect for families of all sizes, this 4-star, kid-friendly resort features 4 restaurants and is located near the Kahalu’u Beach Park. Check out the latest prices and more details.

For budget-minded travelers wondering where to stay on the Big Island, the Kohala Village Inn in Kona offers family-friendly accommodations.

This eco-friendly inn, with its upbeat but rustic decor, is a warm, welcoming respite for a Big Island vacation. Check out the latest prices and more details.

The Kona Seaside Hotel is a contemporary beachfront property in a quiet, serene setting just minutes from the heart of Kona. Check out the latest prices and more details.

The Kailua Kona Side offers tons of great resorts and places to stay, making it a top choice when visiting the Hawaiian islands.

Where to Stay on the Big Island: Kona or Hilo?

The rain forests of Hilo provide a mixture of sunny weather and refreshing rainfall. Each year, Hilo experiences about 132 inches of rain, which leads to some of the lushest landscapes on the Big Island.

Home to the University of Hawaii Hilo, the town is the epicenter of regular life and is less ‘touristy’ than other parts of the Big Island.  

Things to do in Hilo

The Best Things to Do in Hilo Hawaii featured by top Hawaii blog, Hawaii Travel with Kids: Hilo Waterfall on the Big Island

If you’re looking for waterfall hikes, you’ll want to visit Hilo. Both Rainbow Falls and Akaka Falls are popular area waterfalls that are the perfect day trip activity on the Hilo Side.

Among the most popular things to do in Hilo, are helicopter tours, especially ones that go over Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

For those interested in astronomy, Mauna Kea provides fun, educational, and cultural exhibits for all ages. The planetarium is also a huge draw and a great way to spend an afternoon. 

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is close to Hilo and is definitely something to add to your itinerary.

Along the Hamakua Coast, you can also enjoy some black sand beaches, a green sand beach, sea turtles, and so much more.

Read my full post on things to do in Hilo

Best places to stay in Hilo

The Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo is a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Downtown Hilo. Centrally located to shopping, restaurants, and the airport, the waterfront hotel features a golf course and outdoor pool. It also offers free amenities for all ages. Check out the latest prices and more details.

Where to Stay on the Big Island: Kona or Hilo, tips featured by top Hawaii blog, Hawaii Travel with Kids: View of the ocean from the Castle Hilo Hawaiian Hotel on the Big Island of Hawaii
Photo credit: Castle Hilo Hawaiian Hotel

Castle Hilo Hawaiian Hotel is a full-service hotel near Hilo Town. Featuring stunning ocean views and the Mauna Kea, the hotel is the perfect home base for visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Check out the latest prices and more details.

Budget-minded travelers wondering where to stay on the Big Island may wish to consider SCP Hilo Hotel on the Big Island. This Hilo Bay Hotel is the ideal location for a relaxing beach vacation away from the hustle and bustle. Check out the latest prices and more details.

Much like the Hilo Seaside Hotel, Hilo Bay Hale Bed and Breakfast is an affordable and cozy alternative to hotels and resorts. Each room has its own private lanai, and the property is dotted with koi ponds and stunning landscapes. Check out the latest prices and more details.

The historic home is not to be missed if you’re looking for budget-minded accommodations with personalized service.

Where to Stay on the Big Island: Kona or Hilo, tips featured by top Hawaii blog, Hawaii Travel with Kids: https://hawaiitravelwithkids.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/princess-kaiulani-room-FILTERED.jpg
Photo credit: Inn at Kulaniapia Falls

The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls is a short drive from Hilo Town and offers a wide variety of family-friendly activities, including waterfall rappelling. Check out the latest prices and more details.

The resort offers several family suites with stunning views of the Kulaniapia Waterfalls, as well as private cottages and a guest house for larger groups.

How to Get From Kona to Hilo

There are multiple ways to get from Hilo to Kailua-Kona. With both Big Island airports in Kona and Hilo, you can fly to one of the Big Island Hawaii airports and then drive from Hilo to Kona.

The Kona to Hilo drive time is only three hours, and the distance from Kona to Hilo is not too bad at all, so, technically, you can do a day trip and go driving from Kona to Hilo all in one day. But, there is so much to do in each, so I think, if you can, spend a few days in each.

There is another form of transportation from Kona to Hilo. You can also take a Hilo to Kona bus.

The Hele-On Bus runs from Kona to Hilo but typically takes just under 3-hours.

The bus from Hilo to Kona is very affordable, only a few dollars, and is a great way to do the Kona to Hilo driving without driving with a rental car.

Learn more about how to get from Kona to Hilo easily

Kona or Hilo FAQs

What side of the Big Island is best to stay?

When asking, “Is Kona or Hilo better?” they are both good options, depending on what you want to do. There are multiple airports on Big Island Hawaii, so you can stay in either Kailua Kona or Hilo. The Big Island is pretty massive, and chances are, you’ll want to do a split stay if you plan on truly exploring the island. The driving from Hilo to Kona is not too bad either, so if you can’t stay on both, you can do a Hilo to Kona drive for a day trip.

What’s the difference between Kona and Hilo?

They have a completely different vibe. The city of Kona is definitely the resort area with tons of tourists, and it’s much drier and rockier than Hilo. Hilo feels a lot more laid back and local, with more greenery and college students. The Hilo nightlife is not as big as the Kona nightlife.

How long is the drive from Kona to Hilo?

It’s about a 3-hour drive along the coast (which is 125 miles) if you don’t stop. You can technically drive straight across the island in less time, but most rental car companies discourage tourists from doing that as you might damage the rental car.

Is Hilo or Kona better?

The Kona Coast offers tons of options for resorts and things to do. The Hilo Side has more natural beauty with gorgeous waterfalls and lush greenery. So when staying in Hilo vs Kona, the Kona Side offers more places to stay. So which is better, Hilo or Kona? That is up to you to decide!

Is Hilo worth visiting?

Hilo offers some of the most stunning sites to see on the Hawaiian islands, and definitely desires a visit. You can always fly to the Hilo International Airport and stay a day or two, or you can do a split stay so you don’t have to decide Kona vs Hilo!

What airport is on the Big Island of Hawaii?

There are multiple airports on Big Island, HI! The two airports on the Big Island of Hawaii are the Hilo Airport and the Kona Airport.

So, Should You Choose Kona or Hilo?

It is hard to decide Hilo vs Kona during your trip. Choosing the Big Island over other Hawaiian islands is only part of the decision to make!

Now that you know more about choosing Kona vs Hilo, what do you think?

Consider a Split Stay and Visit Both Hilo and Kona

For travelers seeking the best of both worlds, consider a split stay and visit both Kona and Hilo on your trip to the Big Island. This is a great 7-day Big Island itinerary that will help you figure out how best to split your days.

Traversing Hawaii Island generally takes an hour and a half. Visitors may consider renting a car in Hawaii or taking advantage of public transportation.

Whether you’re trying to decide what to do in Kona or creating an itinerary of things to do in Hilo, the Big Island offers plenty of activities for everyone.

Looking for more Big Island travel resources? Check out where to eat on the Big Island with kidsbest kid-friendly beachesBig Island waterfall hikes, and free things to do on the Big Island!