Do Hawaii Like a Local

National Geographic Expeditions Marketing Manager Sarah Muenzenmayer shares tips on planning a Hawaii trip that’s budget-friendly and full of local color.

The wonderful thing about rain in Hawaii.JPGAs avid travelers in our early 30s, my husband and I like to plan trips that will challenge us–language barriers and exploring foreign cultures are the aspects of travel we find both adventurous and memorable. But with the hubby currently in grad school, we wanted a trip that was slightly easier to plan, not to mention easy on the wallet. Drawn to Hawaii’s natural beauty, we decided to skip the resorts and instead to camp along the spectacular coastline. Here are a few tips on how we kept our trip to the Big Island and Kauai challenging, and kept the total cost pretty darn low.

Wiki Wiki Kai our VW camper van.JPGCamp — What’s not to love about camping? You will save money, avoid tourists, and get to know more locals as you explore your surroundings. We woke up to a beautiful Hawaiian sunrise every morning, and by being mobile, we were able to experience as many different areas of the islands and linger as long as we liked. The Hawaiian Islands are full of low-cost campsites, and many are right on the beach. A little planning is necessary however, as you need to purchase permits for some sites. We chose to let our vehicle be our home while on the Big Island, and rented a VW Westfalia from the friendly owners of Happy Campers. In this photo, we navigated our van, “Wiki Wiki,” through Volcanoes National Park.

Fresh lemonade and lilikoi juice can be found at the Hilo Farmer's market.JPGEat as the locals do

— If you can, avoid hotel restaurants at all cost. It’s so much cheaper to do a little online research before you go, or ask the locals where they like to eat. Make a lunch out of the delicious homegrown or home-prepared foods from the Hilo Farmers Market (above); partake in delicious poke offered by fellow beachgoers; slurp saimin at a communal table in Lihue; and stop for a pineapple-topped, roadside burger in at Duane’s Ono-Char Burger in Anahola. Ono!

A sea turtle catches first rays of the day's sun.JPGGet out there early (or late)

— You’ve got an advantage if you’re camping, as you’ll be up with the sunrise (and the turtles, above) and can sleep within a 10-minute drive of the tourist hot spots. Because let’s face it, these places are popular for a reason and can’t be missed even by those of us who claim to travel “off the beaten path.” We were out on the water and paddling our way to the Captain Cook Monument in Kaelakekua Bay State Historical Park by 7:30 a.m., which meant that we could enjoy fantastic snorkeling of Kaelakekua Bay all to ourselves before the other kayakers and boatloads of people descended around 10:00 a.m.

The Waipio Valley.JPG

Go the extra mile (or more) — It’s a win-win situation if your body allows it: the deeper you go and harder you try, the more of Hawaii’s natural beauty you’ll actually experience, and the further you’ll get away from the other tourists. So hike down into the amazing Waipio Valley (above), even though the hike back up lies at an insane 25 percent grade. Make the time to hike the Kalalau Trail of the Na Pali coast, named one of National Geographic Adventure’s top 11 classic hikes in the world.

Photos: Sarah Muenzenmayer


  1. Carly
    So California
    February 21, 2012, 7:52 pm

    This is a great article. I’m not a camper though. But I love all the tips on the local places to eat. That’s my favorite thing to do on vaca. Kauai Vacation Rentals FB page has more great “locals” tips on things to do and eat in Kauai, if you want to check it out.

  2. Teri
    Hilo Hawaii
    January 17, 2012, 4:24 pm happy that we got this write up about us and the magical Big Island of Hawaii..come visit us and take the adventue of a life time!

  3. ged online
    February 10, 2011, 2:20 am

    Nice pics dude love them all.

  4. Inchirieri Auto
    October 30, 2010, 1:33 pm

    Thanks for the useful post! I wouldn’t have gotten this by myself!

  5. hotels catalina
    May 7, 2010, 2:36 pm

    I had no idea you could camp in Hawaii! That is definitely not advertised very much! That would be so fun.

  6. David
    February 23, 2010, 2:47 pm

    The first picture is truly awesome.Is it a real one?
    Best Hotel Rates

  7. David
    January 7, 2010, 6:47 pm

    If you are set on going alone, I would definitely stay at a hawaii beach hotel. There are many hotels that are not very expensive, even in Waikiki. I had a birthday party there once and it was about $150 a night. It was also a pretty nice hotel.
    As far as my concerns, I would stay away from areas like Waianae [not trying to be racist or stereotypical] but there are a lot of gangs, violence, drugs, and drinking there.
    If you don’t need to be in a nice hotel, there are many cheap, but okay hotels around town. Some are even about $50 per night. I would try to find a good deal at one and stay there.

  8. Zita
    January 4, 2010, 5:05 pm

    Can’t wait to go! I just booked Wiki Wiki Kai for our first trip to Hawaii at the end of February. My husband and I are in our late 50s, but we still enjoy rustic tent camping and exploring the local culture wherever we travel.

  9. Carnival Cruise Deals
    November 19, 2009, 10:09 am

    Where I’m from in Australia, a trip to Howaii is a big financial investment- so it’s good to have a few tips for when we arrive! Hoping to visit in 2010 sometime. Thanks for the insight :-)

  10. New York Hotels
    October 31, 2009, 7:03 pm

    SO great to know people keep track of social events – And that there is still a strong community sense in Hawaii. Try the last minute travel site. They offer event tickets at low prices there.

  11. sunshine Coast Apartment
    October 22, 2009, 5:44 am

    Where the question of Hawaii comes, there is nothing to tell more. We can describe Hawaii as the heaven of the world.
    The written post describes the beautiful ways to enjoy the heaven – Hawaii in an economic way.

  12. Hawaiian Traveler
    October 22, 2009, 2:00 am

    Very nice write up. As one who had traveled to the Hawaiian islands plenty of times before moving there, I quickly learned that if I wanted to save money I needed to stop being a tourist and stop spending money. Spending money comes very easy as a tourist in Hawaii. Eating like a local was the key for me as I quickly realized that most of my “tourist” money was being spent on food. A local also introduced me to the Sharing Hawaii help guide that was key in helping me to find all the free and really great activities in Hawaii and cheap restaurants and hotels – even in the crowded touristy areas. With each yearly visit for the past 3 years my wife and I cut our spending in half each year.

  13. Suzi
    October 12, 2009, 6:13 pm

    Since I am from Hawaii (Oahu) and currently live in Seattle, a lot of folks tell me they’re intimidated to visit Hawaii because they don’t know which islands to visit or how to choose from the multitude of available activities. I loved how you explored the camping alternative and focused on the lesser-known islands of Kauai and Hawaii. Perhaps another trip to visit Maui and Lanai? Even Oahu is worth a trip, despite its size and population. Great job! Mahalo :)

  14. jkiel
    October 9, 2009, 1:24 pm

    Oh yes, Ono burgers are the BEST! Gotta have the marionberry shake too, and watch the chickens while you eat!

  15. Amanda
    October 8, 2009, 11:54 pm

    Thanks for the useful tips. Camping and experiencing Hawaii as a local sounds like the way to go. Great article!

  16. Karen
    October 8, 2009, 3:56 pm

    Great article! I’ve been avoiding Hawaii for the past few years because it seemed so touristy and overpriced. But camping sounds like a great way to see the islands. Thanks Sarah!

  17. JoAnna
    October 8, 2009, 3:47 pm

    Great suggestions for a visit to Hawaii! The Hilo Farmers’ Market sounds amazing!