Kona vs Hilo: Best Area to Stay on the Big Island

If you’re planning a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, you’re in for a great time. It’s not the island that most first time visitors to Hawaii choose to visit (most favor Oahu or Maui) and sometimes that’s because visitors are intimidated by the island’s size.

All of the other Hawaiian Islands could fit inside the Big Island TWO TIMES. This is, of course, why they call it the Big Island. And it makes it hard to really explore the entire island from one central location. 

While the island is home to more than half a dozen different regions, it’s generally divided into two sides: the Kona side and the Hilo side. 

Kona and Hilo are the two big cities (although city is a generous term) on the Big Island and the two spots that most visitors choose as a basecamp for exploring the island. 

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Kona vs Hilo

The Big Island is definitely the most diverse Hawaiian island climate-wise. It has something like 12 out of the world’s 14 unique climate zones. So there is a LOT to do on this island and depending on where you stay, your experience could vary a lot. 

By FAR the vast majority of visitors to the Big Island stay on the Kona side. It’s the hub of tourism and home to the bulk of beaches, resorts and condos, and sunshine. 

But the Hilo side has a lot to offer people looking to get a little more off the grid and explore the jungle. 

Soooo…Kona vs Hilo…which is better? It depends what you’re looking for!

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

  • The Cliff Notes
  • The Lay of the Is(land)
  • Specific Kona vs Hilo Comparisons
    • Best Weather
    • Best Beaches
    • Best Activities
    • Best Snorkeling
    • Best Dining & Nightlife
    • Best for Honeymoons & Luxury
    • Best on a Budget

Who Wins? Here are the Cliff Notes

It’s hard to declare a “winner” here because these are both so radically different. After reading a bit here you should immediately know what you want to do (whether that’s pick one or split your trip between both). But more specifically…

Kona is the dry side of the island (somewhat barren actually) and home to endless lava fields. But it’s also where you’ll find 90% of the island’s beaches and visitor amenities (resorts, hotels, dining, shopping, etc.). 

Hilo is the lush, wet side of the island and where you’ll find the features that attract most people to the island (Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the black and green sand beaches, waterfalls, etc.).

Even though the eastern side of the island (Hilo side) has a lot to offer, the vast majority of visitors stay on the Kona side (the west side). It’s just way more suited for visitors. 

Kona vs Hilo: The Lay of the Is(land)

The Kona Side (Kona, Waikoloa & Kohala)

The Kona side of the island refers to roughly the entire West side of the island, including the town of Kailua-Kona (usually referred to just as “Kona”). This is the drier side of the island (no lush jungles or rainforests here) and it is mostly barren lava fields as far as the eye can see. But no rain also means the best beaches (the vast majority on the Big Island are found on the Kona side) and therefore all of the resorts and condos. 

I would consider the Kona “area” to include the actual town of Kailua-Kona south to Keauhou Bay and north up past Waikoloa to Kohala. That’s over 40 miles of coast with HUNDREDS of places to stay! 

Let’s talk about actual Kona town. “Downtown” Kona is somewhat similar to Lahaina (Maui), but not quite as nice…waterfront, shops and restaurants with a smattering of small historically significant sites and generally a cruise ship port type vibe. 

I’m not a huge fan of the area but a lot of people like it. It’s fun to have dinner on the water one night but it’s not where I’d want to spend my whole trip. There are a few beaches right around town and quite a few budget style accommodations.

If this area looks good to you, check out the Royal Kona Resort and King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel (Courtyard Marriott). 

Once you leave the downtown area, things start to get pretty spread out. There just aren’t a lot of centralized areas on the Big Island where you’ll find a clump of resorts/hotels and shops/restaurants plus departure points for activities. You’ll pass one resort area and drive 10 minutes or so until you come to the next one. 

There are a few resorts south of Kona town, but I think the best area on the island is north of Kona. Waikoloa and the Kohala Coast  is where you’ll find the best beaches on the Big Island. 

Because it’s one long stretch of resorts (but very spread out), you’ll also find quite a few shops and restaurants. What you won’t find a lot of are budget accommodations. Kohala is all about luxury. It has the same type of landscape you’ll find all across the Kona side of the island (lava fields) but you’ll be a little bit closer to spots on the north shore including the Kohala Forest, Waipio Valley, Pololu Valley, and Hamakua.

If you like a little bit of a resort area (not just one resort/hotel but a bit more built up), you’re going to want to stay in Waikoloa. There are 3-4 large resorts in the area and two fairly good sized shopping centers. Because it’s more concentrated, a lot of tours and excursions do pickups in Waikoloa. 

And because it’s more built up, you’ll find more reasonably priced options. 

***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. 

The Hilo Side (Hilo & Volcano)

The Hilo side of the island (roughly the eastern half of the Big Island) is as lush a place as you’ll find anywhere in Hawaii. This side is all jungles and rainforests and it’s green, green, green. 

And it’s that way because it rains a lot. Like, all the time. Which is why you’ll find some of Hawaii’s most spectacular waterfalls right outside of Hilo. But the rain situation is why most visitors forgo staying on the Hilo side and opt for sunnier Kona instead. 

Hilo has some of the Big Island’s absolutely must see spots so you HAVE to spend some time here. 

Hilo town is one of the most charming towns in Hawaii. It was originally built to be the capital but because it rains all the time here, that honor went to Honolulu. Hilo is not nearly as touristy as Kona and you won’t find any big resorts here but you will find plenty of budget options that make a great home base from which to explore this part of the island. 

There aren’t really many swimmable beaches near Hilo (but you will find the famous black sand and green sand beaches on this side of the island!). 

If you decide to stay a couple of nights in Hilo (instead of doing a day trip or two), it’s primarily to adventure and explore and not so much to relax. 

While there are a few hotels in Hilo, things are a lot more primitive than on the Kona side. 

The Hamakua Coast, Puna, and Punalu’u are also all beautiful regions of the Hilo side that are absolutely worth being explored but I would recommend hitting them as day trips from Hilo (or driving through from Kona) instead of trying to stay there as they’re all pretty remote and lack many accommodation options.

The little town of Volcano is nestled right outside the gates of Hawaii Volcano National Park and is basically a basecamp for park explorations. This area is very lush and jungly (is that a word??) but pretty remote and not too convenient for anything other than exploring the park, which is a pretty major thing to do and could easily take a couple of days if you’re super into it (most people spend half a day or so). 

Volcano has a LOT of great vacation rental options (jungle tree houses, cottages, cabins, etc.) some of which could be called luxury so it’s probably your best place to find a nice place to stay on this side of the island. 

Specific Kona vs Hilo Comparisons

Now that you know the lay of the land and have had the quick rundown on where these two resort areas are and what they’re like, let’s get into some nitty gritty comparisons between the two places…

Kona vs Hilo: Weather

The weather is a huge distinguishing factor between Kona and Hilo. The Kona side of the island is known for being pretty hot and sunny all year round. It’s not like it never rains, but it’s soooo much less than the Hilo side of the island, which is one of the rainiest spots in Hawaii. 

But you know what all that rain means??? Lots of rainbows and waterfalls! So it’s a trade off. 

While it does rain a lot on the Hilo side of the island, it’s also the jungle and so this side of the island is more about hiking, adventures, and exploring instead of beach activities so sunshine isn’t as much of a necessity. 

But if you’re looking for the traditional Hawaii vacation vibes (sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, a mai tai in fan), you’ll definitely find better weather on the Kona side. 

Kona vs Hilo: Beaches

This isn’t really much of a contest. BY FAR the best beaches on the Big Island (and the best weather conditions for being at the beach) are on the Kona side of the island. 

There’s a big misconception that there aren’t many beaches on the Big Island but I think it’s just that it’s SUCH a big island and since beaches are only found on the coast, that leaves a larger percentage of the island that isn’t super close to a beach when compared to other smaller islands. 

The whole Kona side of the island is pretty much one long strand of beaches nestled into the lava rocks, but two of my favorites are Mauna Kea Beach and Hapuna Beach. 

Hilo definitely isn’t known for its beaches, but Carlsmith Beach Park and Richardson Beach Park are your best bets. 

And while it’s not really a swimming beach, Punalu’u Beach is for sure a don’t miss!

Kona vs Hilo: Activities

Both sides of the island have PLENTY to do (you could easily split your vacation time between the two) and whichever side you decide to stay on, you’ll still want to spend a fair amount of time on the other side. 

My Favorite Things to Do on the Kona Side

Snorkeling with Manta Rays

Kona Coffee Tour

Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm

Snorkel Kealakekua Bay (at Captain Cook’s Monument)

My Favorite Things to Do on the Hilo Side

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Black AND Green Sand Beaches

Akaka Falls

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens

Kona vs Hilo: Snorkeling

You’ll find the best snorkeling on the Kona side of the island. 

Kealakekua Bay is one of the best snorkeling spots in Hawaii plus Two Step is a popular snorkeling spot near Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park.

I’ve also always found pretty decent snorkeling off the beaches up around Waikoloa and Kohala. 

Kona vs Hilo: Honeymoons & Luxury

If you’re visiting on your honeymoon and you’re looking for a bit of luxury, you’ll definitely want to stay on the Kona side of the island. Not only is it vacationland, but the Big Island is actually home to some of the best beach resorts in Hawaii. 

The Four Seasons Hualalai and Kona Village are NEXT LEVEL LUXURY RESORTS.

But the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and the Mauna Lani Resort are plenty posh enough for me!

I’ve written a full post ranking the island’s best beach resorts >>> here

Kona vs Hilo: Budget

While you can find budget friendly options on the Kona side (you’ll definitely be looking for a condo over a hotel), there are some real bargains on the Hilo side. 

Not only are the hotels in Hilo pretty inexpensive, but there are a lot of vacation rentals on this side of the island especially around Volcano where there are a lot of “tree house” type accommodations in the jungle. 

Kona vs Hilo: Location & Accessibility

There are two airports on the Big Island: One in Kona (KOA) and Hilo (ITO). Most flights coming from the US Mainland arrive in Kona but if you’re traveling interisland and staying near Hilo, the Hilo airport is a good option. 

Neither is really a major airport, but the Kona airport is definitely the main airport on the island. 

From the Kona airport, most of the resorts on the Kona side of the island are a 15-30 minute drive. It’s 1.5 hours to Hilo and 2 hours to Volcano from the Kona airport. 

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.

Where I Like to Stay on the Big Island

I always end up staying on the Kona side of the island and just making day trips over to Hilo and the National Park. And that’s because the options for hotels are just 100X better in Kona. And I’m a hotel person. Although staying at the Volcano House in the National Park or in a luxury treehouse in Volcano could be a bucket list thing. 

I’ve done a whole post here ranking the best beach resorts on the Big Island, but here’s a quick summary. 

If money is no object, stay at the Four Seasons Hualalai.

If the Four Seasons is a little too extravagant, but you can still splurge, I LOVE the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. It was the first resort built on the island over 50 years ago by Laurance Rockefeller and it has dreamy vintage Hawaii vibes but completely modern rooms and amenities. They have an onsite manta ray viewing location and what I think is the best beach in Hawaii. 

The Mauna Lani Resort also does understated luxury like nobody’s business. 

A step down from those, the Fairmont Orchid is a great property that has most of the trappings, but is a little more lowkey (and usually less expensive) than the ones above. 

The Westin Hapuna Beach Resort sits on a top notch beach and has great pools overlooking the ocean. 

If the price was right, I would also consider the Waikoloa Beach Marriott. That area is nice if you like a little more going on and it’s next door to one of my favorite spots on the island…Lava Lava Beach Club! And in the same category, I would check out the Outrigger Kona Resort. It’s south of Kona a bit (all of the other options above are north of Kona – some quite a bit) and it’s recently been undergoing a pretty big renovation. 

And if budget reigns supreme (the places mentioned above range from pricey but doable to downright absurd sometimes) and you want a more central location to get out and see the island, I would consider the Royal Kona Resort and the King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel

In Hilo, I would stay at the SCP Hilo or if you’re a National Park junkie or visiting when there’s some serious lava action, I would stay at the Volcano House in the National Park. 

And if none of that suits you or is exactly what you’re looking for, there are soooooo many condo and vacation rental options on the Big Island. 

To Split or Not to Split

It’s hard to say the perfect way to do the Big Island, but you’ve got two main options. 

1) Stay somewhere on the Kona side for the whole week (I do NOT recommend less than a full week on the Big Island if you’re trying to see and do much) and taking at least two separate days to do day trips to the other side of the island. 

I would drive across the Hamakua Coast (north shore) to Hilo and back on Saddle Rd one day and then drive over on Saddle Rd and do  Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Punalu’u (black sand beach), the green sand beach and drive back along the south side to Kona on another day. 

2) Split your trip and stay part of the time near Kona and part of the time near Hilo. If you go this route, I would do Hilo side first since it’ll be mostly exploring and Kona side second to relax. 

The planner/logistics specialist in my likes option 2. The vacationer in me likes option 1. It’s a constant battle. What makes the decision a bit easier is that there’s not a place in Hilo that I LOVE to stay. 

However as a National Parks enthusiast, it is on my bucket list to stay at the Volcano House. Getting a reservation there is probably the only thing that would make me budge from staying in Kona the whole time. But also, I’m from the midwest so spending a couple of hours in the car to get somewhere isn’t a dealbreaker for me.

Want to read more posts about the Big Island? I’ve got plenty!

Things You Can ONLY Do on the Big Island // 7 Day Big Island Itinerary // One Day in Hilo // One Day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park // Where to Eat on the Big Island // Stargazing at Mauna Kea

Kona vs Hilo // Big Island’s Best Beach Resorts Ranked // Big Island 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.