What to pack, where to stay

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If you’re finally thinking of taking a long-awaited trip to Hawaii now that the state’s travel restrictions and mask mandates have been lifted, it’s a great time to do so, as airline ticket prices are still relatively low. Whether you’re looking to escape it all or want a city experience with a tropical vibe, Hawaii offers something for every kind of tourist.

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No matter where your Hawaii travel plans take you, there’s no reason to pack a huge suitcase when you really only need a small carry-on. Take it from me, a frequent traveler to Hawaii as well as a former resident of the Big Island: Less is definitely more.  

I’ve put together a comprehensive list of things to know about traveling to Hawaii, as well as a Hawaii packing list that includes all the necessities so that you can vacation in style without bringing too much stuff. 

Hawaiian Landmarks: Travelers will soon need reservations to visit one of Hawaii’s iconic landmarks, Diamond Head

►Cruise News: A ‘full season’ of sailing: Alaska cruising resumes after two pandemic-stunted years

What to pack for Hawaii

Be well-prepared for your new adventure!

1. Really good reef-safe sunscreen

You’ll need to pack plenty of high quality sunscreen for your trip to Hawaii, but make sure that you opt for a brand that’s considered to be safer for coral reefs. The chemicals from traditional sunscreen have damaged Hawaii’s exquisite coral reefs, spurring the state to ban sun protection products containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. Keep your skin safe from the sun while also protecting the reefs by opting for Sun Bum’s lotion or face stick.

2. A hat that provides plenty of coverage

Your favorite baseball cap may protect your face enough when you’re walking city sidewalks, but the sun in Hawaii is incredibly strong—especially at the beach and out on the ocean. Get every traveler in your party a hat with a wide brim to ensure that their ears, noses and necks remain sunburn free no matter how many hours you spend outside. 

3. Several great bathing suits 

Hawaii’s weather is warm and humid, which makes it ideal for a tropical vacation—but not ideal for drying wet bathing suits quickly. Avoid the uncomfortable sensation of having to put on a cold, damp swimsuit by bringing more than one. I like J.Crew bathing suits for the whole family because they’re durable and come in lots of different colors and styles—including some with long sleeves.

Shop swimsuits at J.Crew  

4. At least one rash guard 

I know that the main souvenir that people want to bring home from a Hawaiian vacation is a suntan, but most tourists end up scorched instead. Especially if you’re planning to take a surf lesson or a snorkel boat trip where you’ll be spending hours out on the water, you’re going to need a long-sleeved rash guard to protect your not-used-to-Hawaiian-sun skin.

5. A few shorts and T-shirts 

You’re most likely going to be spending the majority of your time in Hawaii wearing a bathing suit, so don’t bother packing a hugely varied wardrobe. Throw in a few pairs of casual shorts and some T-shirts or tank tops, and you’ll be outfitted just fine for almost any activity. Life in Hawaii revolves around the beach, so swimwear is appropriate attire for practically everything.

If your vacation includes plans for golfing one of the incredible courses located on The Big Island, Maui or Lanai, you’ll need to pack a collared golf shirt, golf shoes and longer shorts, as most of those courses have such a dress code. But unless you’re planning to golf every single day of your Hawaii vacation, skip bringing your own clubs and rent a set instead. 

Shop shorts and T-shirts at Old Navy 

6. Skip the fancy clothes

Even if your destination is one of the Four Seasons properties, don’t bother packing a tie or a suit coat or even closed-toed shoes. Hawaii is relaxed and ultra casual—just what a vacation destination should be. There’s a longstanding joke that “Hawaiian formalwear” means wearing a Hawaiian shirt with your usual shorts and slippahs (or flip flops as mainlanders call them). If you want to splurge on some island-appropriate apparel for a luau or a night out, you can’t go wrong with a classic Tommy Bahama shirt or a vibrant Farm Rio dress. 

7. One sweater or light jacket

Certain areas of Hawaii get very windy in the afternoons and evenings (hence the term “windward side”), so you’ll want to have a sweater or jacket on hand to ward off any chill. This is an especially important item if you’re planning to visit Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, where temperatures can get down into the 30s (yes, really). 

Shop sweaters and jackets at Old Navy

8. Comfortable sandals 

A pair of easy-to-slip-on sandals are all you’ll need for days at the beach or the pool. Opt for a pair that’s waterproof so you don’t have to worry about leather or other materials getting wet.

I love my waterproof Birkenstocks because they come in a wide variety of colors and look chic enough to wear out to dinner. 

9.  A waterproof phone case

It can be easy to get carried away by Hawaii’s natural beauty and forget that you’re holding your smartphone while standing in the ocean or a swimming pool. Avoid having to spend your Hawaii vacation at the Apple Store—there are only three in Hawaii and they’re all on Oahu—and invest in a waterproof case so that you can safely take photos anywhere, even underwater.

Get a Syncwire Waterproof Phone Pouch, 2-pack at Amazon for $11.99

10. Hiking shoes

Hawaii has so many incredible hiking trails, but many of them are rocky, narrow and prone to being muddy due to the tropical rain showers. Don’t try to go hiking in Hawaii in a flimsy pair of slippahs. If you’re planning on doing some hiking, pack a pair of sturdy tennis shoes or hiking boots so that you can navigate trails safely and easily.

Shop hiking shoes at REI

11. Lightweight beach bag

Let your favorite beach bag do double duty and use it as your personal item carry-on for the airplane. That way it doesn’t take up space in your luggage, but you’ll have it to use to tote all the beach gear when you get to the islands. I love Baggu’s Cloud Bag because it’s lightweight, packable and chic enough to double as a purse. 

Get the Cloud Bag at Baggu for $56

What to know about Hawaii 

While there are a total of 137 Hawaiian islands, only six are open to tourists. These include Oahu (where the capital, Honolulu, is located), Hawaii (also known as The Big Island), Maui, Kauai, Molokai and Lanai.

The weather is warm all year round, with temperatures almost always in the 80s during the day, hence the reason it’s a popular tourist destination. The ocean is deliciously warm as well—about 80 degrees—so skip packing that heavy wetsuit. It rains sometimes and certain islands and elevations experience more rain than others, but it’s tropical rain that’s warm and usually doesn’t last long.

One thing worth noting if you’re traveling with kids: Hawaii hotels are known for having incredible Keiki (Kids) Clubs. At press time, most of the clubs had not yet reopened post-Covid, so call to check on availability when booking. Camp Penguin at The Hilton Hawaiian Village and the Mauna Lani Keiki Program are both outstanding when in session. 


The brightest night lights in all of Hawaii.

Waikiki Beach is the famous 1.5-mile stretch of white sand and warm water that first attracted tourists to the Island in 1901. Oahu is also home to the famous Pipeline—located on the North Shore—where you can watch experienced surfers catch some serious waves. Oahu has it all: night life, hiking on Diamond Head, world-class restaurants, the Pearl Harbor memorial, designer boutiques and the only actual Royal Palace in the United States. 

Where we like to stay: The Hilton Hawaiian Village is great for kids (five pools! Right on Waikiki beach! A waterslide! Camp Penguin!) or, the Halekulani for an adults-only splurge.

Hawaii, The Big Island

The main island may not be the biggest touristic attraction, but its size guarantees plenty to see regardless.

The Big Island is pretty big—it’s the size of the state of Connecticut—and it’s divided into two sides, Kona and Hilo. Kona is a more popular tourist destination for its beaches and mostly dry weather. For a truly unique experience, plan a drive to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park where you can explore a lava tube, go hiking or drive around the crater. There are 10 climate zones on the Big Island alone (including snow) so be sure to pack a warm jacket if you’re heading up Mauna Kea. Be aware that the roads on the Big Island are very dark at night, so plan excursions accordingly.   

Where we like to stay: The Mauna Lani is incredible for both adults traveling solo and families with kids.    


Some of the most beautiful beaches you'll ever see.

Maui’s beaches are unparalleled, so if you’re drawn to the coastline, you won’t be disappointed by the wide, white sandy shores all over Maui. Every winter, large numbers of humpback whales migrate from Alaska to Maui, making it the ideal place to spot these majestic creatures if you happen to be there between November and April. For vacationers who crave adventure, make a reservation to see the sunrise at Haleakala National Park, or book a snorkeling day trip with Sail Trilogy (its warm cinnamon rolls are a delicious morning treat).  

Where we like to stay: The Grand Wailea is great for families with kids, and the Four Seasons Resort at Wailea is a splurge-worthy honeymoon destination or romantic escape. 


The best place for rainforest hiking.

Kauai is called “The Garden Isle” for good reason: It’s almost entirely a lush tropical rainforest. Part of the reason for this is that it rains a lot, so if you’re hoping for a vacation without any drizzle, you may be disappointed. That being said, Kauai is a hiker’s paradise, with loads of trails and plenty of gorgeous natural vistas to explore. Keep an eye out for the famous wild chickens that roam the island. 

Where we like to stay: For families and couples alike, The Grand Hyatt Kauai is located on Poipu beach which has the sunniest weather. 


The world's tallest sea cliffs truly are a sight to behold.

Infamous for once being home to a leper colony, Molokai has one of Hawaii’s largest white sand beaches and the highest sea cliffs in the world. This is the one island I’ve never visited, but if you’re looking to experience authentic, untouched Hawaii, it’s likely worth a visit. Kalaupapa National Park is the site of the old leper colony, and it can only be reached by taking a mule ride. 


Lanai has little traffic and beautiful vistas.

Formerly a pineapple plantation, Lanai is now privately owned by Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle. Lanai is a sleepy island with no traffic lights and just three places to stay, two of which are Four Seasons properties. It’s truly an escape from fast-paced mainland life, and the snorkeling and scuba diving are incredible. 

Where we like to stay: There aren’t many choices for accommodations on Lanai, but the Four Seasons Resort Lanai is great for families or couples. If you want to save money but still visit this island, the Hotel Lanai is more rustic but located conveniently in Lanai City. 

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