Spring Break on The Big Island – Only Paid for Meals!

One of the biggest changes for us since coming back to the US is traveling less than we used to when we lived in Asia. Also, we now live in Hawaii, which is far from EVERYTHING (look it up on a map. We are surrounded by ALL THE OCEAN!). The first year anywhere always involves adapting, and Hawaii is NOT like the rest of the USA (more on that in another post), which means we’ve traveled a lot less. We did make our one trip of last year count – we spent five days on the island of Hawai’i, aka the Big Island.

The Big Island is known for many things – among them, being the site of the original Ironman competition and the home of the tallest mountain in the world if you count from the bottom-of-the-ocean origin. It also became widely known a year and a half ago for the extended eruption of the Kilauea volcano. While there was no lava when we went, the effects of the eruption could still be felt, most notably in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

In this post, we’re going to focus on two things: what we did and how we went for cheap for a whole week. Let’s start with the money business, shall we?

We kept our costs down by using miles and points to pay for flights, hotels and car rental.

Inter-island flights for two adults came to about 15,000 miles through United. Flights are on partner Hawaiian Airlines. We paid somewhere between $20-$25 in taxes and fees. Inter-island flights are typically very inexpensive on their own, and they’re relatively short. From Honolulu to Kona, we were in the air for maybe 20 minutes, in reality. Thanks to the arrival of Southwest to the islands last fall, airlines are really making an effort to keep flights competitive. Southwest flies between Oahu, the Big Island, Maui and Kaua’i. If you have Southwest points, I can see how using them to either come to Hawaii and/or island-hop could be worth it.


We didn’t really feel the need to stay in Hilo, the more rural and rainforest-like side of the Big Island. We decided to stay in Kona (closer to the airport, better serviced and with better beaches) and play it by ear regarding Hilo. I’m glad we decided on that because it doesn’t really seem like it’d be worth staying in Hilo for very long but again, it depends on the vacation you want. Most excursions to go stargazing at Mauna Kea, for example, leave from Hilo.

Let’s establish something from the start. Hotels in the Hawaiian islands are at a level of expensive we have never. ever. seen. Accommodation is probably going to be the most expensive part of your trip if you come to Hawaii, which means two things: 1) If you know someone here, save the money and stay with them; 2) If you can use miles or hotel points to save money on accommodation, use them. The recent clampdown on vacation rentals in Oahu hasn’t helped the case either.

So we stayed in Kona for a week by using all of our Marriott Bonvoy points and the free anniversary night that came with our co-branded credit card. Thanks to that we saved about $1500 in the hotel.

The rest of Cam’s United Miles went to renting a car – very necessary if you want to actually go out and explore. Drives are not short and there isn’t a lot on the roads. I don’t recall ever seeing a bus.

Our plans were fairly simple and not that ambitious: the only thing we planned to go see as a must was Volcanoes National Park. At the time, there were still a lot of areas of the park that were closed to the public, and some that may never open again. It is still incredible to see the Earth so alive. There is steam coming out of the ground. Going when you know that there’s magma down there that could come up is weirdly striking.

The National Park Service keeps their page very up-to-date so you can plan your visit.

Would we go again? Yes.

You can go to Volcanoes for more than a day and camp. It is a significant drive from Kona and roads are mostly two-lane, so keep that in mind when you’re making your plans.

The rest of the time was primarily spent following the Vacation Trifecta of reading, napping and swimming…minus the swimming. The ocean on the Big Island is far too cold for my Caribbean sensitivities.

One of the highlights of our trip was going to Punalu’u beach, a black sand beach where turtles often come out to rest. In our afternoon there, we saw two! Turtles are not uncommon in Hawaiian beaches and people tend to be careful with them. However, not all tourists have that kind of education and can be rather aggressive when taking pictures. If you ever see an animal on a beach (like a turtle, or a seal) give them space. We are the ones visiting their home, and not the other way around.

Some things we want to return to the Big Island to see:

  • Visit Volcanoes National Park again – We only picked one trail to explore and there are at least six more if I’m remembering correctly. Since we went last March (yes, yes, I know how late this entry is!) some areas of the park have reopened too.
  • Hilo – while the town of Hilo doesn’t seem to be anything to write home about, the rainforest around it is worth exploring.
  • Mauna Loa and/or Mauna Kea – We would love to go up one of those two for stargazing/sunrise hiking. You have to go on a tour and they are quite pricey. But we intend to do that before we leave Hawaii, whenever that is.

Other travels we still have to share with you here:

  • Maui this past Thanksgiving: One of the most relaxing vacations we’ve had in a while. Short but sweet.
  • The Dominican Republic this past Christmas. Here we will mostly share some of our favorites, old and new, in terms of accommodation. Find great service and give them your business. Being a return client can make a huge difference in the service you get, especially in small hotels.

Enjoy the striking nature of the island of Hawai’i. And remember, Southwest flies here now! Hundred percent not sponsored, but their inter-island flights cannot be beat, seriously.

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