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Kauai Travel Tips: START HERE If You’re Planning a Trip to Kauai

Kauai…the Garden Isle…the island your Jurassic Park dreams are made of…she’s quite a beauty! 

I’ve got about 15 posts on Kauai on this site (not including the other islands or general Hawaii planning posts)…that’s a lot of good info! 

To help you round it all up, this page is going to serve as home base for all of my Kauai travel tips. 

Kauai Travel Tips

Here’s a quick “table of contents” for what’s in this post:

  • When to Go to Kauai
  • How Many Days to Spend on Kauai
  • Flying to Kauai (Which Airport)
  • Lay of the Is(land)
  • Where to Stay on Kauai
  • Things You Can ONLY Do on Kauai
  • Kauai Itineraries
  • Do You Need a Rental Car?
  • When to Book Activities
  • What to Pack

When to Go to Kauai

There’s never a bad time to go to Kauai ; )

But here are a few notes: 

Summer vacation and winter break are peak season in Hawaii so expect higher prices and crowds. 

The weather is pretty temperate and more or less the same all year round. The major thing is that during the winter months it rains a LOT more on the north shore. But that’s why it’s so green and lush!

Whale season is December through April. 

Hurricane season is technically August through October, but they’re pretty uncommon in Hawaii. 

When the kids go back to school is the BEST time to visit (in my opinion). The crowds practically disappear and prices are about as cheap as you’ll ever find them. 

If you live in a cold weather climate, it’s pretty dreamy to be able to leave the cold and head to Hawaii during the winter ; ) 

How Many Days to Spend on Kauai?

I rarely ever suggest spending less than one full week on any one Hawaiian island and if you want the full Hawaiian vacation experience, I think that’s the best game plan for Kauai. Six full days is a good amount of time to really explore the island but still have plenty of down time to actually have a “vacation.” 

BUT if you’re on a mission to see and do a lot and you’re more of the go-go-go type, you can see a LOT on Kauai in 3-4 days. Now, that’s a pretty active 3-4 days, but if you’re wanting to tack on a few days before or after visiting another Hawaiian Island to experience what makes Kauai unique, then it’s definitely doable. 

Kauai is probably the most compact of the main Hawaiian Islands so if you only have a few days, you really can see a lot compared to Maui or the Big Island where I would definitely not recommend less than a full week. 

Flying to Kauai (Which Airport)

Kauai’s main airport is the Lihue Airport (LIH). This is where you’ll fly in coming from the mainland and on interisland flights. 

From Lihue, it’s about a 30 minute drive to the Poipu resort area (South side), and about a 50 minute drive to the Princeville resort area (North shore). 

Lay of the Is(land) South Shore vs North Shore? 

I’ve done a deep dive into that question here, but they’re very different. The north shore is lush, green, and a little more “local” feeling. But there aren’t as many resorts and hotels and it rains a LOT (especially in the winter). 

The south side is a lot more tourist friendly (more resorts, swimmable beaches, sunshine, etc.) but isn’t quite as dramatically stunning. Only moderately stunning ; ) Most people stay on the south side and make day trips up to the north shore when the weather looks good.

Where to Stay on Kauai

This is where it all starts when you’re planning your trip. Kauai isn’t a very large island (that’s relative because all of the Hawaiian Islands are actually pretty big compared to islands in the Caribbean or elsewhere), but it has several distinctive areas. 

Most people get hung up on whether to stay on the south side (dry and sunny) or the north shore (rainy but GORGEOUS). One of the most helpful posts on my site is this breakdown of where to stay on Kauai. It’s got pros and cons of each area, specific recommendations on hotels and resorts plus my picks for family friendly places, honeymoon resorts, and budget options. Read that post  here.

And read my review of staying at the Grand Hyatt Kauai here

***Want to save major $$$ on your trip to Hawaii? I get asked ALL the time how I’m able to travel so often to Hawaii and stay at really nice resorts. Well, my favorite travel hack is cashing in points to score free airfare and free nights at some of Hawaii’s most high end resorts. Read my full guide on the exact system I use to max out credit card rewards here. Seriously, it’s going to save you soooo much money. 

Things You Can ONLY Do on Kauai

I could give you a list of 100 things you absolutely don’t want to miss on Kauai (and believe me I have on this blog), but I’m going to keep it short and sweet here. 

You can go to ANY Hawaiian island and find beautiful beaches and fun adventures like snorkeling, surfing, paddleboarding, horseback riding, atv rides, tennis, golf, zipling, etc. 

There are a lot of things that are 100% amazing (and worth your time and money), but you’ll find some version of it on every island. But there are the things you absolutely don’t want to miss on Kauai whether or not you have 3-4 days or two weeks: 

Napali Coast Boat Tour: During the summer months (April to October), you HAVE to take a Napali Coast boat tour that leaves out of Hanalei. This is classic Hawaii…the Hawaii you see in movies, and it’s not to be missed. This coastline full of soaring green, jagged cliffs lined with white sand beaches is a sight that many choose to see on a helicopter tour but it’s best explored by ocean raft where you can zip in and out of sea caves and feel the ocean spray on your face. Read more about Napali Coast boat tours here

Hiking Kalalau Trail: This famed trail along the Napali Coast is 22 miles round trip and requires a permit, but the first two miles (four round trip) are open to day hikers. The trailhead is at Ke’e beach at the end of the road on the north shore (reservations for parking and entry are required). Even if you’re not an avid hiker, you really need to try this one. Read more about hiking the Kalalau Trail here

Waimea Canyon: Second only to the Napali Coast, the Waimea Canyon is Kauai’s biggest attraction. Called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” it’s pretty stunning. There are a handful of overlooks, each offering a different perspective of the canyon. Don’t miss the Kalalau overlook. This is a great glimpse of the Napali Coast. 

Read more in this post >> Things You Can ONLY Do on Kauai

Kauai Itineraries

I’ve put together a few different itineraries for Kauai here: 

3 Day Kauai Itinerary

4 Day Kauai Itinerary

5 Day Kauai Itinerary

Do You Need a Rental Car? 

You absolutely will need a rental car. Hawaii is not an all-inclusive destination where you’ll arrive by shuttle and never leave your resort (I mean you could do that…but it’s pretty expensive just to get to Hawaii so most people want to actually see Hawaii. If you want a cheaper resort only vacation, just go to Mexico). 

Also, even though Kauai is the smallest main island, it’s still pretty big. Driving from Poipu on the southside up to the north shore can easily take an hour. And public transportation isn’t very good. 

So you’ll most definitely want a rental car for your stay even if you’re staying in a resort area. I always book through 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.

When to Book Activities?

One of the top questions I get asked is when the best time to book activities/tours/excursions is. Honestly, if there’s something you know you want to do for sure…you should book it as soon as you can. 

There’s no advantage to waiting until the last minute. You won’t find better deals and more than likely you’ll end up missing out because things sell out. In the post COVID landscape, so many activities and tours in Hawaii (luaus, snorkeling tours, ziplining, atv rides, even RESTAURANTS) are fully booked 2-4 months in advance. 

What to Pack

You’ll want the usual beach vacation clothes, but a trip to Kauai also means a lot of exploring and there are some odd/specialty things you won’t want to forget.

Read my full Hawaii packing list plus tips on what to wear here

More Posts about Kauai

Besides everything above, I’ve got even MORE info on Kauai. Check out these posts: 

Things to Do in Poipu

Best Restaurants in Poipu

Napali Coast Boat Tour vs Helicopter Ride

Maui vs Kauai

Hawaii Travel Tips

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.