Hawaii is a top destination for many vacationers, but people tend to choose one island and stick to it. Oahu is the most popular island and sees almost 5 million visitors every year, with Maui a close second.
On the other hand, the islands of Molokai and Lanai have a fraction of those tourist numbers. You might not have heard of them! We’ve put together a short guide to demystify inter-island travel for the first-time visitor.
Flying is the Best Bet
Unless you’ve booked a cruise, the easiest and most efficient way to maximize your time in Hawaii are inter-island flights. They’re relatively inexpensive and allow you to spend more of your time enjoying Hawaii. Hawaiian Airlines is still the main carrier to use, though you can also fly Mokulele (the local commuter) that sometimes beats Hawaiian’s prices.
Ferries Are Mostly a Non-Starter
You might be surprised to hear that passenger ferry options available in Hawaii are quite limited, both on which islands are serviced and how often they run. In fact, there is only one.
A ferry departs from Lahaina – running 5 times a day between Maui and Lanai. This scenic trip takes just 45 minutes shore to shore. Lanai is a fairly well-kept secret but is known among luxury travel experts as a place of quiet beauty and some of the best 5-star resorts on Hawaii. If you can afford a stay, we highly recommend. If not, a day trip is still a fun excursion. In the past, the entire island was made up of pineapple plantations. There’s a lot of history to explore on Lanai.
There used to be ferry service between Molokai and Lahaina via Molokai Ferry but service was suspended a few years ago. Now, the only way to get to Molokai is via flights from Maui at either Kapalua or Kahului (OGG) airports, or Honolulu from Oahu. It takes about 45 minutes to travel to Molokai, with most people opting for a day trip. There are limited accommodation options on Molokai – if you choose to make the trip, remember that most of Molokai is rural and unspoiled, with limited infrastructure for tourists compared to the major islands. The 8,000 Hawaiians who live on Molokai appreciate respectful visitors and like to tell people this is the “real” Hawaii.
Time is at a Premium
Getting from one island to another can really eat into your vacation time, even when you’re flying. Part of the reason for this is that most flights are routed through Honolulu on Oahu. From Oahu all of the islands are just a 30 to 40 minute max flight, but you should plan on allowing a few hours getting from one island to another.
This is one reason a lot of people opt for a deep dive into one island, rather than dabbling a bit in each. There’s so much variety in each island, with so much to see and do. Unless you have a few weeks or months to leisurely explore them, it might be best (and most relaxing) to limit yourself to one or two islands max.
Do Your Homework
Every island has a personality all its own. You should do some research or talk to a travel agent specializing in Hawaii before you commit. Maui is famous for natural beauty, the Hana Highway, being family-friendly and catering to weddings/honeymooners. It is not known at all for a buzzy nightlife.
Night owls might be better served by Oahu, where the urban vibes of Honolulu will keep you plenty busy.
The Big Island doesn’t get as much buzz or as many visitors, but it’s got fantastic shopping, dining and accommodation as well as natural beauty. And the Big Island’s claim to fame – Kona coffee – is well represented in cafes and coffeehouses all over the island. You can also take coffee plantation tours year round.
Kauai’s natural beauty and awesome coastline have been immortalized in many movies and television shows over the years, but it’s still the least visited of the top 4 islands.