Hawaii is steeped in culture and even though it’s a US state, it has its own unique characteristics that truly set it apart from the rest of the US. In fact, some people would argue that it’s only technically part of the US and that many native Hawaiians never accepted the state’s annexation into the country. When planning a trip to Hawaii, you should start by familiarizing yourself with a few interesting facts about this gorgeous set of islands. There are a lot of things you should know before you go that should help you understand the culture more and overall have a much better trip.
If you’re headed to Oahu, we’ve got many different articles to help you plan your trip. Feel free to check out our Oahu itinerary for a great quick visit to the island, things to do in Oahu if you’re looking for fun activities, best açaí bowls for delicious smoothies and pitaya bowls and places to eat on Oahu if you’re a foodie looking for something delicious!
Also, if you want to read all about Hawaii’s history before you leave for your vacation, check out the Go Hawaii’s culture page.
Things to know about Hawaii when planning your trip
1. Mispronouncing the word “poke”
Once you get to Hawaii, whether it’s Maui or Oahu, you’ll see “poke” on many menus. Hawaiian poke is raw fish, usually tuna, served diced with vegetables and sauce. Sometimes it comes with rice as well. As a mainlander, you might immediately be tempted to pronounce poke, “pōk” but DON’T.
Nothing screams tourist more than mispronouncing poke. Pohk or even pokee are both incorrect pronunciations. The correct way to pronounce this delicious Hawaiian dish is “POKAY”, with an accent on the e. Some people have suggested writing the word with an accent on the e but that’s something that’s pretty frustrating and offensive to Hawaiians so just learn the correct way to pronounce it and you’ll be fine.
2. Forgetting sunscreen or buying a non-reef safe brand
Hawaii’s sun shines strong. Many a tourist has fallen prey to its deceptively cool breezes, breezes that trick you into thinking the day is cool and the sun is weak. However, don’t be fooled. Those tradewinds won’t prevent you from getting burned no matter how pleasant they are.
Be sure to religiously apply your sunscreen especially if you burn easily. All it takes is a few short hours and you’ll suffer from some of the worst sunburn you’ll ever have in your life. Starting a vacation with sun poisoning and burnt skin is the last thing you want to do. Trust us, we speak from experience.
And while you’re at it, be sure to use reef-safe sunscreen if you’re planning on going into the water or snorkeling. Below you can find a few of our favorites…
3. Renting a fancy car
While it may seem fun to rent a Ford Mustang to drive around Hawaii (by the way, we saw them EVERYWHERE on Maui), don’t do it. Renting a fancy hot car in Hawaii only alerts people to the fact that you have something worth stealing from. We spoke to a Maui local once who told us that those types of the cars are the first ones to get broken into. In fact, she mentioned that someone once had their Tesla stolen. So before you hit pay on that sweet ride, rethink your decision and decide whether or not it’s worth getting broken into and possibly ruining your vacation over. As she put it, the locals drive beaters and the tourists drive the fancy cars.
4. Traveling with your pet before doing thorough research
Rabies has never existed on Hawaii and as such there are specific guidelines that have to be followed in order for your pet to be allowed to enter the state. In a perfect scenario, your pet will be released from quarantine in under 5 days but this entails a lot of prepwork for about 4 months beforehand. We would recommend keeping your pet at home for this vacation. But if you’re visiting Hawaii for several weeks and you really want to travel with your pet, then be sure to follow the procedures very carefully. Do your research beforehand. More information here: animal quarantine in Hawaii.
5. Forgetting to check the weather before you hike
Hawaii’s weather is unpredictable at best. It rains off and on and depending which island you’re visiting and what side of the island you find yourself on, the weather will vary drastically. And the weather forecast is almost always inaccurate.
Hiking in Hawaii can be extremely dangerous depending on the hike you choose so checking the weather before you hike is extremely important. Many hiking deaths have been reported because of people hiking in rainy, cloudy weather so we recommend checking the weather the day of your hike and possibly even asking locals to ensure you are hiking safely.
6. Underestimating nature
Going hand-in-hand with the #5, don’t underestimate nature. If you’re not a great hiker, don’t choose hikes that are rated difficult or that require certain skills that you may not have. If you’re visiting a natural spring, make sure you wear the appropriate footwear. Don’t swim in waters that have strong currents and heed the signs. Use common sense.
Hawaii is rugged and untamed and that’s what makes it such a special island. There aren’t fences everywhere preventing you from falling; you have to rely on your own rationale and smarts. There are far too many stories of tourists having to be rescued from dangerous hikes or ones that sadly die while doing something unsafe. Don’t become a statistic by underestimating the nature around you.
7. Driving in a no-drive car zone
Certain areas are off limits to car rentals. This holds specifically true for Maui’s Road to Hana. Check with your car rental company before you leave to make sure there are no no-drive zones that will void your rental agreement.
8. Calling it shaved ice and not shave ice
This is one mistake we definitely made as Hawaii novices. I remember calling that delicious dessert “shaved ice” on numerous occasions until we realized that we were totally wrong and it was called “shave ice.” Shave ice is a must-try so be sure to add it to your list when planning a trip to Hawaii!
9. Hiking an illegal trail or private property
Not all recommended hiking trails are legal in Hawaii. They may be illegal to hike because the government says so or they’re located on private property and the owner just doesn’t want strangers wandering through their land.
One of the most popular illegal hikes in Hawaii is Haiku (Stairway to Heaven) on Oahu. You’ll see hundreds of photos of it on Instagram because many people have hiked it but it’s illegal. In fact, this is one of the few hikes where the law is actually enforced and the trail is patrolled. Many people have been given citations which can cost up to $1000.
While this is the extreme and most illegal trails are not quite this monitored, it is good to be aware of what is actually legal and open to the public. Use AllTrails to see if a trail is closed or open and be respectful of the law no matter how much you may want to do that hike.
10. Underestimating island sizes
It’s tempting to cram your schedule with multiple islands on your trip to Hawaii but unless you’re visiting for several weeks, we would recommend limiting yourself to one island on a 7-9 day visit. There are several reasons to space out your visit.
The first is that even though the islands are small, drive time tends to be much longer than expected due to traffic and road conditions. Second, if you happen to have less than stellar weather, you may not be able to do everything on your list (hikes, helicopter rides etc) because strong winds and rainy weather does tend to mess up travel schedules in Hawaii.
11. Forgetting there’s a time zone difference
Hawaii is part of the USA but once you travel there, you realize just how far away it is. In fact, if you live on the East Coast, you’ll discover that Hawaii is further away than some European countries. On top of that, there is a 6 hour time zone difference between the East Coast and Hawaii because Hawaii is on the Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time. So if it’s 1pm in NYC, then it’s 7am in Hawaii.
12. Believing you’re cursed by Pele if you steal lava rocks
Most national parks will prohibit you from taking any souvenirs off their property so leave lava rocks and sand in Hawaii and don’t try to take them home. But if you do, you won’t be cursed by Pele, the volcano goddess in Hawaiian mythology. Many tourists believe they will be cursed due to a superstition floating about the internet. In fact, the post offices in Hawaii receive countless packages of stolen rocks every year.
13. Assuming it’s cheap
Hawaii is as expensive as NYC or any other major city on the mainland. It isn’t a cheap destination so make sure you’re diligent in doing your homework beforehand and plan accordingly if you’re a budget traveler. Depending on the island you visit, hotels can cost upwards of $1000 but tend to average around $500-600 for a luxury resort and $200 for a well-rated hotel. Food ranges from $9-$13 for an açaí bowl, $15-$20 for fish tacos and fish sandwiches and $20-$$$ for dinner depending on the type of restaurant you’re dining in. Car rentals run around $200-$300 for just over a week. And unless you’re coming from California, expect to pay between $400-$800 for airfare.
14. Leaving valuables in a car
When you’re in Hawaii, you’ll repeatedly see signs warning you not to leave valuables in the car. Though crime in general is low on the islands, theft is high. So keep any valuables out of sight and as mentioned before, rent an island car, something that isn’t fancy and doesn’t scream tourist. Note that even in hiking parking lots and beach parking lots car theft has been reported.
We hope these tips will help you plan the perfect trip to Hawaii. If we had to pick a favorite from the ones we have visited, we would pick Maui. Maui is a great mix of rugged landscape and modern day shopping. But in reality, Hawaii is such a beautiful state that you really can’t go wrong whichever island you decide to visit.
15. Getting too close to wildlife
Many laws actually prohibit disturbing or touching wildlife including dolphins and turtles so make sure you don’t come too close to them in the event you spot them while swimming. Some of the laws are in place to protect you while others protect the animals from human harm. Keep your distance and remember that they are wild animals after all.