Hawaii Rental Car Suggestions
On any Hawaiian island, including Oahu, a rental car is definitely the best option for getting around and seeing all the sights we detail both here on our website and in our physical guidebooks.
That said, simply the thought of renting a car is enough to elicit sighs and groans from many people, as long lines, "fine print," and other hassles typically come to mind.
There is no "serious" bus service on the islands, excluding Oahu, and taxi services are both expensive and illogical for sightseeing purposes. Mopeds and bikes can be a practical alternative for day excursions along the drier south coastlines. However, they generally are not as useful in other parts of the island; especially where long distances and/or rainstorms may prevail between locations you'll want to see.
Ultimately, your best bet is to get a rental for your stay on any one of the islands, especially Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island. Below are some tips when acquiring your rental car:
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SUV, 4x4, or car. Which do you need? For years we've heard debate about what vehicle best suits the needs of folks visiting the islands. There are rumors, especially on the Big Island, that you MUST have a 4x4 to visit the island, but this is simply not true. A 4x4 on any island is almost a complete waste of money, and we'll tell you why in a minute. In fact, of ALL the places listed on our website and of ALL the places written about in our guidebooks, the ONLY place you will need a 4x4 to reach is the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. Every other location we describe has either a drivable road, a trail available for access, or is kapu (off-limits). So, save yourself money and rent a regular car.
OK, just so we're thorough, we want to make sure you know the real policies regarding any "off-roading," including 4x4 rentals. This is specifically meant for visitors to the Big Island, though it's applicable statewide. While policies and regulations about where you can and cannot go in a rental are always changing, we can tell you this: currently, there is NO rental agency that allows off-roading on the Big Island (or any other island) without severe risks. A little research might lead you to one of the few Big Island companies- Harper's being the most prominent- that allow visitors to drive on Saddle Road and to the summit of Mauna Kea. However, there is some fuzziness regarding how much off-roading you can do with these rentals. We can promise you they are all very strict about damage and will check the car very thoroughly- including with mirrors under the car- when you return it. If you are on any other island, it doesn't matter who you rent from or what you rent (including a Hummer). If you off-road, you are technically violating your rental agreement. If you violate your rental agreement, you void ALL of your insurance (no matter who it's with, including rental insurance you're using from back home). We've heard horror stories of how folks have to pay off their ENTIRE rental because they damaged it or got it stuck somewhere off-roading. And you cannot leave the state before you settle all debts. Don't make a costly mistake - stay legal and stay on the roads!
We recommend you book your rental online as many rental companies have online specials. Booking your rental together with a flight and/or accommodation will also save you money.
Book as far in advance as possible. Depending on when you travel, the rates may increase or decrease according to demand from other travelers. We always figure that planning ahead on this never hurts.
When possible, rent two-, three-, five-day, or week-long packages, as these are generally priced lower than any others.
At the rental counter, you'll be given three options in regards to refueling the vehicle. Two are good deals and one is not. You can choose to prepay for a tank of gas, usually at a special (lower) rate, which allows you to return it with any amount of fuel in the tank. Or you can choose to refuel at the going rate for gas stations near the airport before you return the car. The final option is the most expensive option- to return the car and let the rental agency refuel it for you. Just be warned that their refueling rate is significantly higher than the going rate for gasoline at stations (up to two dollars more).
So which option is best for you? Here are the benefits of each option and some price estimates to go along.
If you choose the prepay option you'll be charged at the counter for a full tank of gas. The rates that most rental agencies charge per gallon are typically only pennies cheaper than the going rate on the island, but it's still a way to save some money. Of course, you are not reimbursed for what fuel remains in the tank when you return the car. So if you return the car with a half tank of gas then you paid for something you didn't use. The prepay option is ideal for people who don't want to worry about refueling their car on the way back to the airport or who think they'll return the car nearly empty.
The other option you have is to refuel the car yourself before you drive back to the airport. This can be the cheapest alternative for many folks because you leave with a "free" tank of gas at the time of your rental, and you're only responsible for filling the tank back up when you return. Ultimately, you pay only for what you used on the island. This is the best option if you plan to do a lot of driving on the island and have the time to refuel on your way to the airport. Just keep in mind that gas stations are only allowed to get so close to airports for security reasons, so make sure you top the car off when you return it.
The last option we do not recommend because it's the most expensive. If you don't prepay for your fuel, and you return the vehicle with a half tank, the rental company will charge you a much higher rate to refuel the car once it's back in their possession. The rate is usually extremely high; therefore, we highly advise you not to choose this option unless you absolutely have to.
As far as insurance goes, expect to hear the sales pitch telling you it's needed. We can almost hear the statistics now on Hawaii roads and accident costs. Don't let the rental folks talk you into anything you don't need. Consider the following: The rental insurance they want to sell you is temporary insurance, but the fact is, you might very well already have it. Check with your insurance agent for your personal vehicles to see if you're covered. If you rent cars regularly, a non-owners insurance policy can provide traditional liability coverage to a rental car. If you do already have car rental insurance, you can save a bundle by avoiding this cost. Second, check with the credit card company you make the purchase with, as they may also provide you protection as a cardholder. Just be sure to clarify with your credit card company what they cover and what the limits are. We should also refer back to Tip #1 here. If you do off-road, any insurance you do have (regardless of who it's with) is void - even your own insurance will only cover you for what's legal by the rental agreement.
Speaking of credit cards, expect to pay with one. Some companies may accept checks, but they definitely won't accept cash. Also, don't just assume if you book ahead of time that you've paid all the fees associated with the rental. Occasionally, additional fees will be charged at the time of the rental, one of which we detail next.
The "underage" curse of renting in Hawaii. This is one of the biggest and most despised surprises to all renters under the age of 25. Welcome, young honeymooners, first-time adult vacationers, and college students! Yeah, right. In Hawaii, you are obligated by law to pay an underage fee for the supposed risk the rental companies must take to insure you to drive on the island. This fee can be as much as $25-$75 a day or more and quickly adds up. Also, as far as we know, if you're under 21 you can't even rent a vehicle on Hawaii.
If your car breaks down while in Hawaii, be sure to call the 800 number provided with your rental package. If you fail to call them first in the event of an emergency your expenses may not be covered. After you call them, call your own insurance to see if they'll cover any costs the rental agency won't- such as a blown tire, etc.
If you arrive and are told the model you reserved is not available or isn't what you were looking for, you'll have the opportunity to "upgrade/downgrade" accordingly. This could be a bait and switch tactic, or they may just be overstocked on larger models, so be careful. If you're good at negotiating you might be able to get a larger vehicle at a really good rate, so don't feel shy about pressing them for the better vehicle at the same rate you already paid. After all, it's their fault for not having your model. Usually, you'll be given the upgrade at the same rate, but if not, definitely argue it. If all else fails, cancel your rental with them and go to a competitor. If they actually let you walk away from the desk empty-handed you're probably better at another company anyway.
Be prepared to wait once you arrive (up to two hours); the lines at most rental counters can be long and require patience. Some folks like to use the "split up" tactic of having one individual head for the rental counter as soon as they get off the plane while the other waits for the luggage. This used to work fairly well, but since more and more folks are doing it - it's 50/50 now. Plus, if you land right after another large flight, you can count on waiting even longer. But relax, you're in Hawaii now!
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Updated 2023 Hawaii Visitor Guides
If you're visiting Hawaii soon, be sure to download a copy of one of our updated 2023 Hawaii Visitor Guides. We've updated the packets with a lot of new great information for potential visitors (and for those who've been a time or two as well).