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Morning or Afternoon? The Best Time of Day for Kauai Helicopter Tours & Other FAQs

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Kauai was pretty much made to be seen from the air. Only 20% of the island is developed (including roads!) which means that most visitors only see a tiny fraction of its splendors. And boy does it have splendors. 

While every Hawaiian Island has absolutely stunning scenery, Kauai is overwhelming in the “jagged, majestic green mountains that look like the backdrop to every single Jurassic Park movie” department.  

Sadly, many of its most beautiful sites are so remote and difficult to reach that they remain unseen by all but the most intrepid hikers. And that’s why helicopter tours are more popular on Kauai than any other Hawaiian Islands. 

FAQs about Kauai Helicopter Tours

For most people, a helicopter ride is a once in a lifetime bucket list experience. Because it seems like such a “big deal” (and maybe because it’s also so expensive), I get asked a lot of questions about tours. Here’s a round up of frequently asked questions…

Is a Kauai helicopter tour “worth it”?

I had never been on a helicopter before (and haven’t since), but it seemed like a real shame to miss out on a helicopter tour on Kauai. And I really just can’t say enough good things about my helicopter flight on Kauai. And there aren’t words to adequately describe the things I saw. All I can say is, if you’re on the fence about doing a helicopter tour on your trip to Kauai, do it!!! I’ve done a lot of tours, excursions, and activities on Kauai, but this is one of the few that I would repeat (others were amazing, but once was enough). 

What’s the best time of day for Kauai helicopter tours? Morning or afternoon?

If you’re paying all of that money, you want to get it right. Generally, mornings are going to consistently provide the best flying conditions. Wind and weather pick up in the afternoon and while you can never quite predict the weather, mornings are usually the best bet. 

However…the lighting during the afternoon is best along the Napali Coast. It’s kind of a technicality because the Napali Coast is impressive any time of day, but here’s how it works: the mountains along the Napali run north to south. The sun rises in the east so the sun is mostly behind the mountains during the morning hours leaving them somewhat shady. By late afternoon, the sun shines directly on the coast making all those crags and spires sparkle a bit more. 

So is there really that big of a difference? Yes and no. I would say for the casual tourist, morning is totally fine. All of the boat tours of the Napali run during the morning as well and it’s spectacular. If you’re a super serious photographer tasked with getting the perfect shot (I’m a professional travel blogger and I wouldn’t even call myself that) then late afternoon is probably best. 

But just know you run a bigger risk of your flight getting canceled later in the day if weather develops (which could also happen in the morning). 

 

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What to wear / bring on a helicopter tour?

It’s a quick flight so you’re not going to need much! There are lockers at most of the tour facilities to leave your belongings. You’ll definitely want to wear dark clothing if you’re doing a helicopter tour with doors on. This cuts down on the glare in your photos if photographing through windows. If it’s a doors off tour it’s not as important. But if you’re on a doors off tour, you’ll need a strap for your phone. 

When is the best time to book your tour?

Helicopter tours are VERY popular on Kauai (more so than the other Hawaiian Islands) so book in advance. I also recommend booking it early on in your trip so if you have bad weather there’s time to reschedule.

Are helicopter tours safe?

I’m not going to give you a yes or no on this one. I’ve done a tour with no problems and soooooo many tours are flown every day on Kauai, but there are records of accidents (usually because of ill maintained equipment or pilot inexperience regarding weather). You can review records from the National Transportation Safety Board here before you make your final decision regarding specific companies. 

Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.

Which company has the cheapest helicopter tours?

I don’t know, but seriously…don’t pick a tour provider based on price. Seriously. There are a TON of companies that offer helicopter tours of Kauai, but I don’t believe this is something you shop around to find the best deal. Helicopter and small airplane crashes aren’t unheard of in Hawaii and it’s usually a result of inexperienced pilots or ill maintained equipment. This is a time when paying more to go with a reputable company is a necessity. 

What are the most popular/recommended tour companies?

While I’m not going to do a rundown on every helicopter company here and there may be some good ones I’m missing, here are my top three that I would feel comfortable with: 

Blue Hawaiian: This is the company that I personally used. Blue Hawaiian is the granddaddy of all the tour operators. They fly on every major island, and their fleet is modern and impressive. I think they offer the most comfortable flight conditions available. They only fly doors ON flights. Their flights start at $339/person. 

Jack Harter Helicopters: Jack Harter is the original Kauai helicopter company and they offer some pretty amazing options. Their star tour is a 60 minute flight in a Hughes 500 (which seats three in the front including the pilot and only two in the back) with the doors OFF. This flight starts at $359. In addition to feeling more adventurous, booking this flight also ensures that you will have a window seat. I would consider the front middle to still be a window seat since the window stretches out to your feet right in front of you. There’s something about feeling the wind in your face as you’re hovering over a waterfall, but if you’re a nervous flier, I would probably stick to doors on. 

Island Helicopters: Island Helicopters is the only company to offer a landing during their flight. If you’re a fan of Jurassic Park, you’ll love this tour. In addition to the traditional circle island tour, it includes a stop at Manawaiopuna Falls (well known from the opening scene in Jurassic Park). This tour is $373 and lasts 80 minutes (including the landing). 

What will I See on a Kauai Helicopter Tour?

Here’s a rundown of what I saw on my flight with Blue Hawaiian: 

Once we were airborne, we flew over Nawiliwili Harbor and along the south side of the island. Our pilot (Bryan from Tennessee!) was great about pointing out places of interest and filling us in on the island’s geography and other interesting facts. We got some good views of Poipu before flying over Hanapepe Valley and on to the first major site of the flight: Waimea Canyon.

Waimea Canyon is a stunner from the roadside overlooks but from the air it was just spectacular. We flew down into the canyon, and up close to a waterfall but it was the rainbow(s) that stole the show here. It was a pretty special sight.

We flew over the edge of the canyon and came down over the Napali Coast (one of the big selling points of a helicopter ride over Kauai) and it was…raining! A lot. But it was still so amazing. Even in the rain, I was still blown away. We flew up the coast, oohing and awing, until we got to Ke’e beach and then followed the north shore into Hanalei Bay (we got a great view of Tunnels).

From here we flew into Hanalei Valley and then into Wai’ale’ale Crater (the birthplace of Kauai). This part of the flight was the real highlight for me. Hanalei Valley is so lush and green and getting to go into the crater (Bryan said only about 40% of flights get the right conditions to go in) was an otherworldly experience. The pictures just don’t do this place justice. The clouds were hanging low, it was raining lightly, and it was still gorgeous. Our pilot told us that many people have an emotional reaction to seeing the crater and it’s easy to see why. Our otherwise chatty flight grew silent as we flew through.

The crater was our last major site on the trip and from there we flew back across the island to Lihue. We had an uneventful landing (always a good thing!) and disembarked. On our way in, each group got to have their picture snapped in front of the helicopter.

Is it scary?

As someone who has mild to moderate anxiety and a decent fear of heights…I was a little nervous beforehand, I got a little psyched out once I was buckled in, but as soon as we were in the air I was completely fine. 

I have no issues with motion sickness, but I was told that if you’re prone to it then you should take meds before your flight.

On Another Note: If you’re looking for a condo or vacation rental for your trip, I always book with Vrbo. They’ve got the largest selection of rentals you’ll find anywhere and you can easily filter to find exactly what you’re looking for. Need a specific number of bedrooms and bathrooms? Narrowed it down to a certain location? Want flexible cancellation terms? Need to stay under a fixed budget? Click here to search for Kauai vacation rentals for your trip. 

How do they decide where everybody sits in the helicopter & what is the boarding process like?

Most companies leave out of the Lihue Heliport, which is right next to the airport. Blue Hawaiian’s headquarters are in a nice building with a check-in desk, gift shop, restrooms, and safety briefing area. When you check in, they take your weight really discreetly (I didn’t even know that’s what they were doing!) and this is how they determine seating assignments. 

About a half hour before our flight, we watched a safety video and got our personal flotation devices (a small pouch you wear strapped around your waist). This is also where we got our pilot’s name and seat assignments (there were three helicopters leaving at our departure time).

Everything is assigned based on weight distribution. The helicopters that Blue Hawaiian uses seat three in the front (Including the pilot) and four in the back. I did the flight solo and was told that I wouldn’t be put in a back middle seat but that if you’re a couple one of you will for sure be in a middle seat. 

Next we went outside and waited on the lanai and watched the helicopters land from the previous tour, unload, and get refueled before we were loaded on. This flight was on an ecostar, which is known for being one of the more “comfortable” aircrafts you can fly on. 

I was seat #1 which is front middle right next to the pilot (I would consider it a window seat) so I was the first one loaded. The flight crew led us out to the helipad one by one, buckled us in, and handed us our headsets. Once we were loaded, we could talk to the pilot through the headsets.

Want to read more posts about Kauai? I’ve got plenty!

Things You Can ONLY Do on Kauai // Things to Do in Poipu (South Side) // 5 Day Kauai Itinerary // 4 Day Kauai Itinerary (North Shore) // 3 Day Kauai Itinerary //

Where to Stay on Kauai: Princeville vs Poipu // Grand Hyatt Kauai Review // My Favorite Restaurants in Poipu

Kauai Travel Tips (Things to Know Before You Go) // Napali Coast: Boat Tour vs Helicopter // Kauai Helicopter Tour FAQs

Maui vs Kauai

Here’s one more really important thing you need to know before your Hawaii trip…

Reservations You Need to Make BEFORE Your Hawaii Trip

You’ve got your airfare, hotel, rental car and your big activities booked, so you should be good to go, right? Wrong!

Travel is BOOMING in Hawaii so a lot of state and national parks used the closure and reopening to institute reservation systems at some of the island’s most popular spots to make things a little more sustainable.

That means that there are now over half a dozen sites (beaches, trailheads, etc.) that require advance reservations. And some sell out well before you arrive on the island so you really need to have some sort of a plan.

I recently saw somebody in a Hawaii travel group post in a panic that they didn’t know they had to make reservations for things in advance…they thought they could just show up and “go with the flow.” I was tempted to say, well, “as long as the flow doesn’t take you somewhere that requires reservations, you can!” ; )

But I don’t want YOU to be that person, so I’ve pulled together a list of all the places you need to reserve entry in advance (plus all the details on booking windows, price, links, etc.) and a handful of popular tourist hotspots that book out really far in advance too.

Haleakala National Park (Maui)

To visit Haleakala National Park for sunrise at the summit, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are required to enter the park gates between 3AM and 7AM (sunrise hours).

Online reservations are $1 per reservation/vehicle PLUS you’ll pay the park entrance fee of $30/vehicle when you arrive (National Park annual passes are also accepted at the gate).

The reservation booking window opens 60 days in advance at 7AM HST. There are also a limited number of tickets released two days before.

You can make one reservation every three days with the same account. So if you want to make reservations for back to back days (in case of weather/conditions), you’ll need to do so with separate accounts (email addresses).

If you can’t get reservations for sunrise, you can enter the park anytime after 7AM without reservations. The summit is spectacular during the day and you don’t need reservations for sunset.

I strongly recommend creating an account before and making sure you’re logged in at 7AM HST because it’s not uncommon for reservations to sell out quickly.

Waianapanapa State Park (Maui)

To visit Maui’s famous black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are required to visit the beach and are distributed in windows from 7AM-10AM, 10AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-3PM, and 3PM-6PM. And they are pretty strict about exiting by the end of your window time (you can arrive anytime within your window).

It’s $5/person to enter plus $10/vehicle to park and those fees are paid when you book your time slot.

Reservations open up 30 days in advance.

Iao Valley State Park (Maui)

To visit the lush, green mountains and hike at Iao Valley State Park, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are offered for 90 minute time slots beginning at 7AM and ending at 6PM. They ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your time slot.

Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.

Reservations open up 30 days in advance.

Diamond Head (Oahu)

To hike to the top of Waikiki’s famous Diamond Head, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are offered in two hour increments beginning at 6AM (6AM-8AM, 8AM-10AM, etc.) and ending at 6PM. If you’re parking onsite, they ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your reservation window.

Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.

Reservations open up 30 days in advance.

Tip: I recommend booking one of the first two time slots because there isn’t much shade on this hike and it gets pretty hot.

Hanauma Bay (Oahu)

To snorkel at Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay, you must make reservations in advance here.

Entry times are staggered in 10 minute increments from 7AM to 1:20PM with roughly 1000 slots being assigned in advance every day.

Reservations can be made two days in advance and they open at 7AM HST. They’re usually gone in minutes (if not seconds).

If you’re unable to get an advanced reservation, you can try for a day of, walk in ticket. They open at 6:45AM and they only have a limited number available. Everyone in your group needs to be present when you purchase your tickets in person.

There are no reservations for parking and it’s first come, first serve. $3/vehicle.

It’s $25/person to snorkel at Hanauma Bay (12 and under, active military, and locals with HI ID are free).

The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open Wednesday through Sunday (CLOSED MONDAY AND TUESDAY) from 6:45AM-4PM. Last entry is at 1:30PM, the beach is cleared at 3:15PM and you have to leave the facility by 4PM.

Jellyfish patterns can also affect whether or not the bay is open so double check the day before/day of.

USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor (Oahu)

If you want to take the boat tour at Pearl Harbor out to the USS Arizona, it’s recommended to make advance reservations here.

Online reservations are guaranteed a specific boarding time to go out to the USS Arizona. If you’re unable to get an advance reservation, you can wait standby when you arrive. The line could be short (15 minutes or so) or long (hours) and it just depends on the day (if they’re having problems with the loading dock sometimes they don’t take many from the standby line) and the time of day.

Reservations are supposed to open up 60 days in advance, but keep an eye on your exact dates, because lately they’ve actually been opening up about 57ish days in advance???

They also release a small batch of tickets the day before.

The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is free, but it’s $1 to make the reservations online.

They recently started charging $7/vehicle for parking at Pearl Harbor.

Haena State Park / Kalalau Trail (Kauai)

If you want to hike Kauai’s famous Kalalau Trail, you must make advance reservations here.
You’ve got three options here:

1) Parking & Entry: This is the most flexible option and also the most limited. THESE RESERVATIONS SELL OUT IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. There are three time slots available: 6:30AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-5:30PM and 4:30PM to sunset. You can purchase multiple time slots if you want to stay longer. It’s $10/timeslot (parking) plus $5/person and you have to reserve every person when you initially book. Everybody has to arrive in the same car and your ID needs to match the reservation.

2) Shuttle & Entry: If you can’t get parking at the trailhead, there’s also a shuttle option. Shuttle reservations are $35/person (16+), $25/person (ages 4-15), 3 and under can ride free. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes 6:20AM to 6:40PM.

3) Entry Only: If you’re a Hawaiian resident (with HI ID) or someone WITH a Hawaiian resident, you can purchase entry only for $5/person with no advance reservations. Also, if you’re walking or biking to the trailhead you can do this option. But there is NOWHERE to park in the area to walk in. So this really only works for those with bikes or who are staying close enough to walk. They will tow your car if you park outside the designated areas.

The reservation window opens 30 days in advance at 12AM HST. The parking & entry option usually sells out in a minute, but the shuttle availability will last longer.

There are a TON of FAQs here including the possibility of snagging a canceled reservation.

Other Things to Book in Advance

Hawaii is a busy place these days! Besides the state and national parks above, here’s a handful of miscellaneous things you should make reservations for in advance (if they’re on your radar):

Mama’s Fish House (Maui): The iconic spot is the most popular restaurant in Hawaii and dinner reservations usually start filling up about 6 months in advance (they open up bookings 18 months in advance). Make reservations through their website and if the dates you want are already booked, you can join a waitlist. Most people have pretty good success getting in on the waitlist (even if it’s for lunch).

Old Lahaina Luau (Maui): Honestly, any luau you’re planning to attend you should book early, but most people are usually shocked how far out the Old Lahaina Luau books out. Book it as soon as you know your dates (I think they open at the six month window). They also have a waitlist.

Kualoa Ranch UTV Tour (Oahu): Everybody loves Jurassic Park so getting to ride UTVs where they filmed the movies is very popular. The ranch offers a lot of different tours but the UTV tours usually book out a couple of months in advance.

Spa Reservations: If you’re staying at a resort with a spa (or planning on visiting one), don’t wait until you arrive to make your reservations. I’d make them at least a month in advance.

Tee Times: Same for golf, reserve your tee times well in advance.

Dining Reservations: Any “fancy” or resort restaurant is likely to be booked up these days so if you like having a nice dinner every night, make your plans in advance.

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