13 ways to save on a Hawaiian vacation

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Ahhhhh, a Hawaiian vacation. Even the word sounds like a nap on a warm, sun-kissed beach as cooling trade winds reset your internal stress gauge. That is, until you get the bill for that four-star resort, the breakfast buffet, a treasure trove of souvenirs and the grocery store’s $8 jar of jam.

Unless you use our tips to visiting Hawaii for less.

Even if you decide to go during peak season (January through March and the summer months), there’s no need to let island breezes blow away your hard-earned dollars. Hawaii offers plenty of free and money-saving opportunities for authentic cultural experiences, great food and beautiful beaches where you can watch the sun melt into the Pacific.

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Accommodate a discount. Select a less expensive island for your vacation. Bruce Fisher, a Honolulu-based travel agent at Hawaii-Aloha.com, says Oahu and Maui are the least pricey; Kauai and the Big Island take a bigger bite out of your trip budget. “There are more deals with a bigger population,” he says, in accommodations, dining and activities.

Seek budget destinations. But that doesn’t mean you have to avoid the more expensive islands. Just as every city offers a less expensive area of town for your stay, every island offers a discount. Perhaps it’s relatively undiscovered, or it’s a few blocks away from the beach.

“If you don’t mind staying a block or so off the beach, Oahu’s Waikiki Beach offers very affordable accommodations, usually under $125 per night,” says Sheila Beal, a Hawaiian vacation expert for GoVisitHawaii.com.

Even the island of Kauai offers some reasonable locales. “For an oceanfront resort, I really like the Lihue and Kapa’a area of Kauai, where you find fairly nice accommodations for around $200 or less per night,” Beal says.

Hunt down hotel deals. Many hotels in Hawaii offer perks, such as free Internet with hotel loyalty club membership; third-, fourth- or fifth-night free packages; breakfast-included deals; and hotel and car packages. Whether these actually represent a deal — for example, a buffet that offers cold muffins and little else — takes a healthy sense of skepticism.

If you don’t feel like slaving over Google searches for weeks before your Hawaiian vacation, use a travel agent specializing in island trips — one who has been to the resort or hotel in question, Fisher says. That agent also may be able to guide you to less expensive options or get you a free upgrade.

Park for less. On most islands, a rental car is a necessity. From grocery stores to picturesque, less populated beaches, the islands seemingly were set up with the driver in mind. Beal suggests budgeting $20 per day for a rental car; you may be able to reserve one for less through bidding on Priceline.com. However, some islands, such as Oahu, offer decent public transportation.

Cook up savings. Staying in a condo or a kitchen-equipped hotel room offers a big break on daily dining expenses. Fisher suggests doing your shopping at Costco if you’re a member, as food prices may be comparable to the mainland. But don’t be afraid to look local as well. You may catch a good price on fish at the fishermen’s terminal or on produce directly from a farm stand or at a farmers market.

Pack parsimoniously. Ask whether your condo or hotel offers laundry facilities. You may be able to get away with a few pairs of shorts, several T-shirts and your swimsuit. Water gear — snorkel equipment, boogie boards, etc. — can be rented weekly on Maui. Sans heavy bags, you’ll also save on checked-baggage fees from the airlines.

Browse for Web discounts. Some savings can only be secured when you book online, says Beal. For example, Maui Classic Charters offers a $10-per-person discount when you book a trip using the company’s website. Alternately, seek out Groupon or LivingSocial Web deals for your destination for a few weeks or month before you leave.

“You can get great deals on kayaking and sunset sail cruises,” Fisher says.

Luau for less. “The ‘Hawaii Entertainment (Coupon) Book’ offers some excellent luau coupons,” Beal says. “You can more than recoup the cost and save on top of that with the luau coupons alone.”

She adds that the books offer the most value for the island of Oahu. If there’s a particular luau you want to attend, shop around for the best luau prices. But be careful. Compare all costs equally, including whether tips are included or are additional, and whether it’s an open bar, pay-as-you-drink, or one or two drinks per customer.

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Don’t go broke at breakfast. Skip the resort breakfast buffets, which can cost $35 per person or more, Beal says. “Your wallet and waistline will thank you,” she says. She recommends ordering breakfast menu items a la carte, which often costs $10 to $18 per person.

“You may need to request the menu, as most staff assume guests will opt for the buffet,” Beal says.

Want to spend less on breakfast? Pick up fresh mangos, bananas and guavas from a grocery store or farmers market, and store them with milk in your minifridge.

Say ‘mahalo’ (thanks) for meal savings. Skip dinner and spend some time at a restaurant happy hour, where you’ll give your wallet a break with discounts on pupus, or appetizers, and a mai tai. In the evening, pupus are a Hawaiian tradition in many restaurants and bars. Pick from seafood, meat or veggie options, including many delicious Hawaiian foods such as poke, sashimi and kalua pork.

Court your food discounts. “For cheap fresh eats, try the food courts anywhere in Honolulu,” suggests Pam Mandel, a freelance writer and photographer who visits Hawaii at least once a year and blogs at NerdsEyeView.com.

“There’s sushi, tacos, noodles, bento and amazing desserts,” Mandel says, influenced by the international populations that have moved to Hawaii. “You just won’t have the charm of the seaside hotel restaurants,” she says. You probably won’t miss the prices, either.

“In Waikiki, the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center has expansive seating at the food court, and you can share your table with tourists and locals alike,” she says.

Fill up on culture. Hawaiian culture, art and history are compelling reasons to visit the islands and a way to experience authentic Hawaii. Many museums and cultural institutions offer free admission on certain days, and some are free year-round, such as the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument in and around Pearl Harbor.

Hotels may include admission passes with a night’s stay, says Fisher. Or purchase an activity and attraction pass, such as the Go Oahu Card or the Big Island Museum discount pass, if you plan to visit many attractions in just a few days. Pay attention to fliers and signs; for example, you can enjoy a children’s daytime hula show in Maui at a local shopping center.

Free fun on Hawaiian vacation. Check the convention and visitor bureaus’ websites for a listing of free and almost-free activities, museums, national parks, festivals and events, including the articles “101 free and exciting things to do on Oahu,” “Affordable Kauai: Top 10 free (or nearly free) ways to enjoy the garden isle,” and “Free (and almost free) on Hawaii, the Big Island.”