Maui vs Big Island: Which Hawaiian Island to Visit?


Disclaimer: This article contains affiliate links. That means if you click a link and make a purchase, we may make a small commission. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases. For more information, see our privacy policy.


A vacation in Hawaii is a dream vacation for most. Choosing whether to visit Maui or the Big Island is no small task. Both are filled with delicious food, beautiful landscapes, and relaxing beaches. However, when looking at Maui vs the Big Island, there are a few key points to consider that could help inform your decision. 

In general, choose Maui if you’re looking to explore small towns and want a bit of nightlife. On the other hand, choose the Big Island for a huge variety of activities and landscapes along with easy access to active volcanoes.

We’re laying out everything you need to know when choosing between these two islands. Let’s get started. 

Maui 

The Island of Maui gives its visitors a little bit of everything. It has stunning beaches balanced with charming small towns and stunning landscapes.

Between wineries, lavender farms, whale watching, and snorkeling at one of Maui’s many scenic coves, there’s a little something for everyone. Here’s what you should know before visiting Maui. 

Big Beach on Maui
Big Beach on Maui

Accessibility 

Whether you’re flying to Maui from another island or the continental United States, you’ll most likely fly into Kahului Airport. This is Maui’s main airport, although there are two smaller airports in West Maui and East Maui.

Some airlines offer nonstop flights from larger cities on the west coast of the U.S. if you book far enough in advance. It’s also common to have a layover at Honolulu International Airport. 

If you want to explore the island, plan to have a rental car for at least a portion of your visit. While most visitors fly into Kahului, they likely stay elsewhere on the island. Some resorts and hotels offer a shuttle service from the airport to the accommodation.

Uber is available in the busier parts of the island, but expect more difficulty finding one in the less touristy areas. This makes it all the more important to have a rental car for days you want to explore. 

You can browse Rentalcars.com to compare prices for car hire options. Alternatively, there are many day tours you can take such as this full-day tour to the Road to Hana or this nature tour.

The roads throughout Maui are mostly well-maintained. You won’t have any trouble while driving on the main highways. Be on the lookout for sharp turns and slow down while driving along steep cliff sides.

If you drive on the Road to Hana or Hana Highway, drive slowly. The routes are known for their narrow and winding roads that can make driving them hazardous. 

Famous Road to Hana
Famous Road to Hana

Affordability

Maui tends to be one of the most expensive Hawaiian islands. Between flights, lodging, food, and activities, you should budget for more money trips to Maui.

However, that doesn’t mean that Maui is out of reach if you’re traveling on a budget. There are more affordable Airbnbs and hotels that can make the entire trip more comparable to visiting the Big Island. 

Honolua Bay
Honolua Bay

Things to do on Maui

When headed to Hawaii, beautiful beaches are probably top of mind. Kapalua Bay Beach, Ka’anapali Beach, and Polo Beach are all great options, depending on where on the island you’re staying. Big Beach is very popular among visitors. It’s expansive with public restrooms and food carts in the parking lot. 

Along with visiting all the stunning beaches the island has to offer, head to a luau. It’s a unique experience that you can only have in Hawaii.

The Old Lahaina Luau is the most popular one since it’s advertised as the most authentic luau on the island. Lahaina is a quaint small town that many visitors orient their visits around. It’s a great place for shopping and grabbing a bite to eat. 

If you’re interested in snorkeling, Maui is a great place for it. Honolua Bay and Molokini Crater are both excellent snorkel spots. You can join a snorkelling tour for the day.

There isn’t a beach at Honolua Bay, but it’s not uncommon to see sea turtles swimming around the bay. Surfing, paddle boarding, kayaking, and boogie boarding are all great adventure activities to consider. 

Town of Lahaina
Town of Lahaina

Any research you’ve done about Maui points you in the direction of the Road to Hana. It’s advised that you get an early start as it’s a popular route, but when you start driving it’s not hard to see why.

Driving the entire road is a full-day activity. It’s a windy and narrow road that carves along the cliffside through a lush and beautiful part of the island. If you want to avoid crowds, the Road to Hana might not be the best way to spend your time.

However, it can be worth doing once because it does take you through beautiful landscapes. The Pipiwai Trail, Seven Sacred Pools, and Hana are three highlights of the drive. 

If you’re torn about doing the Road to Hana, plan out the rest of your itinerary first. Make sure you pay a visit to the Haleakala Crater for a spectacular sunrise viewing. The sunset is also stunning and doesn’t require you to make a reservation. You can join a sunset tour if you don’t have your own transport.

Wai’anapanapa State Park should also land high on your priority list. It’s a beautiful black sand beach with caves, arches, trails, and viewpoints to explore. Waves tend to get rough along this section of coastline, so be careful if you get close to the water. 

While there are countless ways you can spend your time in Maui, consider closing out your itinerary with a visit to the Upcountry.

The hilly section sits on the interior of the island. Small towns are tucked within the hills here. There are lavender farms, wineries, and farm-to-table breakfasts, which are highlights while visiting the Upcountry if you have time. 

Haleakala Crater
Haleakala Crater

Where to Stay on Maui

Aston Maui Hill – Located in the town of Wailea, this hotel is an excellent mid-range option on Maui. They have a number of bright, airy and comfortable rooms to choose from, a gorgeous swimming pool and a great location for exploring the island. Click here to check availability

Maui Kai Condos – If you’d like your own self-catering space while visiting Maui, then these hip condos in Lahaina are a great choice. They offer a range of apartments to choose from – offering views of Lanai and Molokai in the distance. Click here to check availability

Private Rental – Those looking for a private vacation rental will be spoilt for choice on Maui. There are countless properties — like stunning ocean-view condo — to choose from located all over the island. Click here to browse Maui private rentals!

Hakuna Matata Hostel – Budget and solo visitors to Maui will love this cool hostel in Lahaina. Centrally located, there are lots of dorms and private rooms to choose from, great common areas and an excellent social atmosphere. Click here to check availability

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Maui hotels!

Big Island

The Big Island is well known for its diverse landscapes. As the largest island, it comes packed with places to see and explore during your visit. The two sides of the island, dry and wet, means you’ll have the perfect combination of stunning beaches and lush natural landscapes to fill your itinerary. Here’s what you should know when visiting the Big Island

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach on the Big Island

Accessibility

There are two airports in Big Island: Kona and Hilo. Kona is the larger one and generally offers more affordable flights.

You can often find direct flights to Kona from major cities on the continental United States. If you’re flying into Hilo first, you’ll most likely have a layover at a major airport on one of the Hawaiian islands. Most visitors fly into Kona and rent a car to drive to Hilo.

That said, you’ll want a rental car while on the Big Island. Depending on your itinerary, you can use it for a portion of your visit or the entire time.

There are tours available such as this full-day tour or this small-group tour, but it’s generally better that you have a rental car to explore the island at your leisure.

The drive from Kona to Hilo through the center of the island takes just over one hour. Driving along the coast between cities takes anywhere from two to three hours.

Getting around the island itself is easy. The main highways are well-maintained. If you’re driving along the coast or taking any curvy routes, make sure to slow down. If you’re driving after dark, be extra cautious because street lights aren’t common anywhere except downtown areas.

Secluded Bay near Hilo
Secluded Bay near Hilo

Affordability

Like we mentioned above, Maui tends to be the most expensive Hawaiian island to visit if you are choosing between Maui and the Big Island. However, you can structure a trip that keeps the price for both a Big Island vs Maui vacation relatively affordable.

Renting an Airbnb and cooking for yourself will help bring overall costs down. When comparing Hilo and Kona, Hilo tends to be more affordable. It’s smaller, more lowkey, and caters to locals as opposed to Kona that’s been more built up for tourists. 

Hapuna Beach near Kona
Hapuna Beach near Kona

Things to do on the Big Island

The list of things that the Big Island offers is endless. It’s more than double the size of any other Hawaiian islands and filled with diversity. Starting on the “dry” side of the island, here is where you’ll find the island’s best beaches.

Hapuna Beach, Kiholo Bay, and Kahalu’u Beach Park are three great options to enjoy the island’s beautiful beaches, however, if you want something incredibly unique, head to Mahana Green Sand Beach on the southern end of the island. 

If you drive slightly northeast, you’ll come to two valleys. Waipi’o Valley is the most popular. However, you can only visit the lookout as the trail down to the beach below is permanently closed due to unsafe conditions.

If you’re looking for a similar experience with fewer people, check out Pololu Valley. Here, you can take a trail down to a black sand beach and look back into the canyon. Take this trail carefully. It’s steep and uneven, so make sure you wear proper hiking shoes and bring sunscreen. 

Hilo is located on the “wet” side of the island. As opposed to the exposed lava rock and white-sand beaches you saw on the side nearest Kona, here you’ll find lush and dense rainforests. Akaka Falls and Rainbow Falls are two highlights you should check out. Downtown Hilo is charming, with a local farmer’s market that’s a favorite for most visitors. 

Akaka Falls
Akaka Falls

From this side of the island, you’re also closer to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Here, you can see the lava and steam from active volcanoes. Visit Kilauea, the Thurston Lava Tube, and hike Devastation Trail. You can also drive out to the coast to see the Holei Sea Arch.

If you’re able to visit the park after dark, go to the Kilauea overlook for the chance to spot lava glowing from within the crater. You’ll see volcanic smog (vog) backdropped by a starry night. It’s a picture-perfect view on a clear evening. 

The Big Island is the only place where you can scuba dive or snorkel with manta rays. Some hotels shine lights on the water near the shore, so you can still catch a glimpse of the mantas without getting into the water. Alternatively, you can join a guided night tour.

Finally, the Big Island is well known for its coffee. Kona coffee is famous on the island and continents U.S. There are coffee farms all over Kona. Save some time to visit one or two of these farms. Most offer free tours and tastings, so you can get a behind-the-scenes look at how the coffee beans are picked and processed. 

Holei Sea Arch
Holei Sea Arch

Where to Stay on the Big Island

Kona Tiki Hotel – Mid-range visitors to the Big Island will love this great hotel located in Kona. They have a wonderful swimming pool to enjoy, a fantastic location along with an array of rooms to choose from. Click here to check availability

The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls – Those looking to stay on the Hilo side of the island will love this luxury getaway just outside of the town. They offer rooms and cabins along with a fabulous breakfast available in the mornings. Click here to check availability

Private Rental – Having your own vacation rental on the Big Island is a popular option and you will find plenty of properties — such as this fully-furnished condo in Kona or this beach studio in Hilo — available across a number of different platforms. is available in Kona. Click here to browse Big Island private rentals

My Hawaii Hostel – If you’re visiting the Big Island on a tight budget, then consider booking a bed in this hostel location in lively Kailua-Kona. They have a range of dorms to choose from along with great common areas and a good location. Click here to check availability

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Big Island hotels!

Coast on the Kona side
Coast on the Kona side

Maui or Big Island: The Verdict

Now that we’ve covered the highlights of whether you should visit the Big Island or Maui for vacation, let’s look at the verdict. 

If you want a huge variety of activities, head to the Big Island. Here you’ll find an ideal blend of relaxing beaches and beautiful landscapes. Within a single day, you can walk through hardened lava fields, see a towering waterfall in the middle of a lush rainforest, and enjoy a mai tai while watching the sunset on the beach.

On the other hand, if you’re more interested in staying in quaint small towns, exploring lesser-known natural spaces, and snorkeling, Maui is the better option.

If you want to snorkel or scuba dive with mantas, visit the Big Island. It’s the only Hawaiian island where you can do this activity. Surfing, paddle boarding, and kayaking can all be done on both islands. 

If you’re seeking nightlife, head to Maui. While the island’s towns are small, they are full of life. Kona and Hilo also have nightlife, but it’s more family-friendly. 

In terms of affordability, the Big Island tends to cost slightly less than Maui. From flights to lodging, the average cost of visiting Maui is more than the Big Island.

The Big Island also tends to be easier to get to from most places. You’re more likely to have a layover in another Hawaiian city when heading to Maui. 

If you want to see active volcanoes, the Big Island is the place to be. You can explore Volcanoes National Park during the day and after dark to see the lava glowing within the craters. 

Whether you visit Maui or the Big Island for vacation, you’ll have a memorable trip. Both the Big Island and Maui have so much to offer visitors and there is no bad choice between the two. Use these tips to plan a perfect itinerary. 

Are you planning a trip to Hawaii? Wondering which island to visit? Let us know in the comments!

Like It? Pin It!
Avatar photo

Audrey Webster is a writer for The World Was Here First. She is an Oregon native who has visited countries across the globe and currently spends her weekends exploring the Pacific Northwest and surrounding states. Her approach to traveling combines exploring famous tourist sites and wandering off the beaten path to discover new destinations.

Comments

  1. I lived in Hilo from November 15, 2022 until this past May. My worked in Kona so it was not like here in California in terms of traffic, saddle road is just one long street. Hilo was definitely quiet but I found I was spending more time in Kona for fun.

    Reply

Leave a Comment