Kauai on a tight budget can still be fantastic.
I adored my time there.
I traveled Kauai solo for two weeks on the cheap. I stayed in a hostel and ate inexpensively for the most part and yet still, it demanded a good budget. You can see what I spent here: Solo in Kauai: What I Spent. But that was a few years ago. I think it's fair to say that a lot has changed since then.
Because this post continues to attract many readers every month, I've decided to review and update it to make sure that my suggestions on how to enjoy an affordable Kauai visit are accurate.
Kauai Activities Free and Cheap: 12 Recommendations and One to Avoid
Travel activities on Kauai are being affected by the pandemic the same as everything around the world. At time of writing, the information below was accurate but check for yourself before you go as things do tend to change quickly these days.
- Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Waimea Canyon is on the west side of the island and a long way from where I stayed in Kapaa, but it was so worth the drive that I went twice when I was there. The views are stunning. They were all I needed on my first visit. The second time I went, I hiked. Read Another Hiking Humiliation and Then… Redemption.
- Water fun. For water sport rentals try Kapaa Beach Shop.
- Surfing Oh, I was envious. Every morning I'd see a group of 20-somethings put a couple of boards on a car and head to the beach. Fantastic, cheap entertainment. Here's a list of surfing beaches in Kauai. If you don't bring your own board, you can always rent one.
- Snorkeling Check this list of lifeguarded beaches for swimming and snorkeling which includes descriptions, maps, and directions.
- Kayaking Kayaking is very popular on the Wailua River. Try to go on a Sunday as, with the exception of Smith Tours, most companies don’t operate on Sundays, so the river will be quieter. Kayak to the start of the trail to the Secret Falls. The hike to the falls is about an hour. Go in the morning and you’ll have more time in that gorgeous forest without a lot of other tourists. Bring a picnic lunch.
- Farmers' markets. There's a farmers' market somewhere on the island just about every day of the week. Check them out for local food and crafts.
- Free music. Yes, it will cost you the price of a beer, but Trees Lounge in Kapaa is the place that a few locals recommended for live music. I went. It's not fancy and was described (accurately, I'd say) as a semi-dive on TripAdvisor. It's a bit dark and very basic but had good music and hopes to bring it back when it's safe.
- Mead tasting. It's not your typical tourist thing to do. Try the mead tasting at Nani Moon across the way from the Kauai Photo Tours office.
- Take in a festival. If you're lucky enough to have the dates of your trip coincide with a local festival you'll get a better sense of the real Kauai. Here's a link to Kauai special events.
- The Hindu monastery. A reader named Peggy shared the following budget Kauai tip: “One of my favorite things to do in Kauai is visit the Hindu monastery. It is the most beautiful place on the island, in my book. You can only visit between 9:00 am and noon but they are very welcoming of visitors and it is interesting to attend a Hindu service without having to go to India.”
- Kilauea Lighthouse. Also from Peggy: “The second thing not to miss is the Kilauea lighthouse. I am a birder and this is prime area for seeing red and blue-footed Boobies.” Neither of Peggy's activities cost money. Peggy's splurge recommendations: “I do recommend two things that cost money but are worth it – a helicopter flight over the island (you only need to do this once during your lifetime) and lunch or tea at the St. Regis in Hanalei. The food is farm-to-table, the hotel is posh, and the view of Hanalei Bay is unrivalled.”
- Sunrises and sunsets on the cheap. I saw my first Kauai sunrise through the window at the foot of my hostel bed. I woke up. Sat up. And there it was. Taking in the sunrises and sunsets are essential to any trip to Kauai. You can enjoy them on a wild beach or take them in at a resort lounge such as in Princeville. A bar or lounge at a nice hotel offers a bit of luxury for the price of a beer when on a budget trip.
- Take long oceanfront walks. It's an island. It's an island with one main road that follows the coast for much of it. A long oceanfront walk beckons. It's another essential experience in Kauai.
- Go to the beach. I particularly liked Anini and Anahola, both of which have lifeguards. I found Poipu, a very popular destination, to be a little too crowded for my liking.
- Hiking. From easy to challenging, there's hiking for every level in Kauai. I did a number of hikes beyond the Waimea Canyon. I found this site to be the most helpful in planning my hikes. I particularly like the kayak/hike to the secret falls. See below for more details on this.
One thing not to do. I'd advise against going to the South Pacific Dinner show. It's not cheap (about $100), the buffet is only okay, and the musical itself is high school quality. I love going to the theater as I travel, so I thought I'd try it out. I was quite disappointed.
Cheap Kauai: Where to Eat
Food, like most things, is expensive all over Hawaii. Here are tips on where and how to eat in Kauai on a budget.
- Food Trucks. For good quality at a reasonable price you're best to go to one of the food trucks. As I was told by a local, they are where the locals eat and if a truck is not up to snuff, it won't last long.
- Vegetarian. Kauai's Hindu Monastery maintains a list of vegetarian restaurants on the island.
- Small Town Coffee, Kapaa (truck). Located right across from Kauai Beach House Hostel and on the main drag at the north end of Kapaa, Small Town Coffee serves up great coffee and baked goods. They also have Anahola Granola. It's delicious and I had it for breakfast as often as I could.
- Safeway. You'll be doing some hiking and picnicking. Or maybe you'll be eating in. Either way, Safeway has a great deal at the deli counter. You can get one main and two sides for $8. Also, they have what they call their “Club” prices on specials throughout the store. If you’re not a club member you can always ask someone in line to swipe their card for you if you have club items. I did this twice and saved over $10 by doing so. Both times the person was happy to oblige.
- Bubba Burgers, Kapaa, Hanalei, and Poipu. If the veggie burger is good (I enjoyed it) I think it bodes well for the beef burgers being exceptional. And that's the reputation Bubba Burgers, with its three locations, has. They serve fresh ground Kauai “Grass-Fed” Beef.
- The Mermaid’s Café, Kapaa (truck/shack on main street). This is a little anomaly on the main street of Kauai. Squeezed between buildings with just a couple of picnic tables out front for patrons, you order at the window and wait for your meal. I really enjoyed their specialty, the Ahi Nori Wrap at $13.95.
- Hanalei Taro and Juice Company (truck). I enjoyed a fine lunch here when I was on a day-long photography tour. Everyone enjoyed the food – a lot! Being pescatarian at the time, I had the taro burger and, to be honest, I preferred the taro burger at Bubba Burgers over this one.
Budget Accommodation in Kauai
- Hostels. There were two hostels on the island and now, it seems there is only one. Fortunately, it was the better of the two. I stayed at the Kauai Beach House Hostel which has ocean views and I loved it.
- YMCA camp. The YMCA camp offers camping at $20/night. They have bunkhouses but they accommodate 10. The road in is a little rugged but the grounds are lovely. It's at the end of the road to the Waimea Canyon.
- Affordable resort. For a more affordable resort, consider Islander on the Beach. I didn't stay there but the reviews are very good.
- Affordable luxury by booking with the resort unit owner. This is where VRBO.com is amazing. Many resorts are partially financed by people buying units and then renting them out when they aren't using them. When you book directly with an owner of a unit rather than the resort itself, you often get a better price. I treated myself to two nights at the Aqua Kauai Beach Resort by booking through VRBO. Given that I booked on short notice the owner reduced the rate by $20 per night. My nightly rate came out to $73.39, including tax.
- Princeville. Princeville is an area at the north end of Kauai that includes high-end hotels and resorts. There are golf courses, restaurants, and the like there. It is possible to get a good deal here by booking through a site like VRBO. I considered this option but I don't golf and I was looking for something less resort-like but I did the research and there were deals to be had.
- Yurts. I stayed for a few nights at Kumu Camp, which no longer exists. There are yurts to rent on Airbnb.
Practical Tips for Kauai
- Find free Wi-Fi. On a more practical note, you may be in need of Wi-Fi. It may be free at your resort, hotel, or hostel but once you've headed out for the day it's difficult to find. Fortunately for solo travelers on a budget in Kauai or around the world, there's Starbucks. They are a reliable source for free Wi-Fi and for outlets for charging your technology.
- Be smart about the sun. The sun is strong in Kauai so wear a hat, protective clothing, and sunscreen to avoid burns and worse in the long term. Use an umbrella to create shade rather than a coconut tree loaded with coconuts. They, too, can do serious damage if you're hit on the head by one falling from such heights.
- Water safety. Be careful. The waters around Kauai can be dangerous and I saw signs advising people to only swim, surf, or snorkel at beaches that have lifeguards. Apparently, one or two visitors drown every month.
- Hiking safely. Stay on paths and watch for the signs indicating what hours you should be on the paths. Don't over-estimate your abilities for there are very challenging hiking trails in Kauai. As a solo traveler, joining a group is recommended.
Travel Around Kauai on a Budget
- Rent a car. For Having a car certainly makes getting to all the great spots on the island easier however, it is expensive. One way to save a lot is to get a small car and have a credit card that will cover your insurance. If I had taken insurance it would have more than doubled the price of my rental. Instead, I relied on my credit card insurance (the card I used to pay for the rental) and it worked. I had a fender-bender and it was covered without a hassle at all. However, that would not have been the case if I had rented a larger car. Check the fine print of your credit card insurance for details and be careful of any upgrade offers if your credit card insurance doesn't cover the upgrade. Word to the wise: book as far ahead as possible. Prices are particularly high and cars in great demand this year. Read How to Save on Car Rentals for tips on saving when renting.
- The local bus. The bus is an option though they aren't frequent and it will reduce how much you're able to do in your time there and where you can go. It costs $2 (exact fare) and it has bike racks on the front. The bus stops at every stop so don’t pull the cord because it’s for emergencies, not there to notify the driver that you want to get off the bus.
- Rent a bike. The highway in Kauai is very hilly and much of it doesn't have a decent shoulder so I don't recommend biking as your main source of transportation.
- A combination. If you can't get around to most places you want to go with the local bus, you could choose to take a day tour or two to get to the more challenging places like the Waimea Canyon. Just search Kauai tours on Viator and a variety of options will show up.
Do you have any tips for exploring Kauai on a budget? Please share them in the comments section below.