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The best time to cruise to Hawaii

Sept. 22, 2022
12 min read
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Hawaii is a year-round cruise destination known for its tropical weather and warm South Pacific waters teeming with sea life, so the best time to cruise to Hawaii is often whenever you can get there. But some months are hotter or rainier than others, specific time periods attract more crowds and certain seasons are known for signature activities such as whale watching and big-wave surfing.

Only one major cruise line, Norwegian, offers year-round itineraries, but more than a half dozen others sail 9-to-16-night, one-way or round-trip cruises to Hawaii from ports on the West Coast and in Hawaii during specific times of year. That means you’ll have a greater selection of cruise dates and itineraries in certain months, generally October through April.

But when exactly is the best time to cruise Hawaii?

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It depends on what you prioritize. The weather in Hawaii is generally at its most pleasant in April, May, September and October, but if you prefer it hot and dry, the best time to cruise Hawaii is from June to August. The best times to see whales are the winter months (January through March), but you’ll likely experience some rain. The best times to cruise for low prices and great value are early November and early December.

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It is worth repeating, however, that there really isn’t a bad time to set sail in Hawaii.

Here’s a look at what you can expect when taking a cruise during each seasonal travel period in Hawaii. Knowing the general weather outlook and what natural phenomena or special events will be taking place can help you pick the right time to cruise for your travel group.

Hawaii’s seasons

More than 10,000 humpback whales migrate to the waters around Maui in winter. M SWIET PRODUCTIONS/GETTY IMAGES

There are only two seasons in Hawaii: summer (May to October, when the average daytime temperature is 85 degrees) and winter (November to April, when the mercury dips slightly to an average of 78-80 degrees). Even at night temperatures rarely drop below 65-75 degrees.

Love to swim and snorkel? Seawater in Hawaii is generally around 74 degrees in winter and 80 degrees in summer — and dolphins frolic in Hawaii’s waters year-round. Hawaii’s latitude close to the equator also means sunset times have little variation, occurring between 6 p.m. and 7:15 p.m.

The wildcard is precipitation. Hawaii is known for its abundant sunshine and lush, tropical vegetation — and the latter needs rain. So yes, you’re likely to encounter some showers during your visit to Hawaii, but more so in some regions and during specific months. In December and January, the islands receive almost 3 inches of rain, while the tally is less than half an inch in June, July and August.

It’s also important to note that each of the four major islands typically visited on a cruise — Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the island of Hawaii — have what are called windward and leeward sides. The windward sides, which are lusher and greener, get more rainfall, while the leeward sides are generally sunnier and warmer.

For example, on the island of Hawaii, many cruises call on both Hilo, located on the windward side and known for its rainforests and waterfalls, and Kona, located on the leeward side and known for its arid climate and lava landscapes. So, it’s possible in a single day to experience endless sunshine on one side of an island and intermittent downpours on the other. But there’s a silver lining: the Hawaiian Islands are famous for their incredible rainbows.

What about major tropical storms? Although hurricane season in the central Pacific runs from June through November, storms making a direct hit on the Hawaiian Islands are pretty rare. Just five hurricanes or tropical storms have caused major damage since 1950 — the most notable of which, Hurricane Iniki, devastated the island of Kauai in early September 1992.

Related: When is the best time to book a cruise?

Winter: January to March

Winter is peak season for tourism in Hawaii — even though it is also the rainiest period in the islands — so airfares and hotel room rates are apt to be high and popular attractions are likely to be crowded. Still, a chance to escape the cold blanketing much of the mainland U.S. from January to March means it’s among the most-desired times to enjoy a visit to the Aloha State. You’ll find the most cruise options during these months and by booking well in advance (at least six months) you can likely snag a good-value cruise fare.

Weather-wise, daytime temperatures are comfortable at around 80 degrees, with nighttime lows of 65. Rainfall averages just under one inch a month in Honolulu, but certain ports are more likely to experience showers than others. These include the aforementioned Hilo on the island of Hawaii and Nawiliwili on Kauai, where monthly rainfall averages 4-5 inches in December and January.

Winter is also the season to experience two of Hawaii’s most incredible phenomena. One is the annual migration of more than 10,000 humpback whales to the waters around Maui, where females give birth to their young. The other is big wave season (with swells as high as 30 feet) on the North Shore of Oahu, where professional surfers ride gigantic curls — the Banzai Pipeline being the most famous — during annual surf competitions in January and February.

Other events that can affect flight availability and crowds during this period are the Tournament of Champions PGA golf tournament at Kapalua on Maui and the All-Star Hula Bowl Classic Football Game on Oahu, both of which take place in January. Spring break in March is also a popular time for family vacations in Hawaii, so crowds can be expected.

Related: 6 national parks you can reach by cruise ship — and 2 are in Hawaii

Spring: April and May

May 1 is a statewide holiday in Hawaii known as Lei Day. HIRO PHOTO H/GETTY IMAGES

The spring sweet spot, between the winter peak but before the summer onslaught, is a terrific time to book a Hawaii cruise, although there are slightly fewer sailings during these months. Since this is the shoulder season, cruise fares, airfares and hotel rates are generally well priced.

The weather is also more than likely to be ideal, with just an inch of rain or less per month on Oahu, Maui and the island of Hawaii and about two inches on Kauai. Temperatures will be in the high 70s to mid-80s.

Spring also marks the tail end of humpback season; cruisers on April and even early May sailings may be able to spot a few of these mammoth creatures hanging around before beginning their long journey up to Alaska. Sea turtles can be spotted on all the islands in spring, but especially around Maui and Lanai as the waters warm with the approach of summer.

Traditionally, Japanese travelers have visited Hawaii in late April and early May during the so-called “Golden Week” when four Japanese holidays occur over a period of seven days. After three years of COVID-19-related vaccination and testing requirements were lifted in mid-2022, Hawaii expects to see a surge in Japanese tourism for Golden Week 2023, so plan accordingly to avoid the crowds. May 1 is also a statewide holiday in Hawaii known as Lei Day.

Related: A beginner's guide to picking a cruise line

Summer: June to August

Summer is actually Hawaii’s busiest season since the islands are extremely popular with both families and honeymooners. They are also at their warmest and driest. That’s great if you like the heat (daytime highs approach 90 degrees in July and August) and prefer to swim in water that’s almost as warm as the air. Calmer waters on the north shores of Oahu, Maui and Kauai also mean that some beaches can be enjoyed by more than just surfers. And on land, less rain means safer trail conditions if hiking is on your Hawaii must-do list.

But summer is also least busy when it comes to cruise ship arrivals, with only Norwegian and Princess offering sailings from June to August (when most cruise lines move their Pacific-based ships to Alaska). Hotel occupancy is extremely high, so pre-and post-cruise stays can be pricey.

Summer festivals include the Ukulele Festival Hawaii on Oahu (in July), Duke’s OceanFest in Waikiki (in late August) and Koloa Plantation Days on Kauai (in July). Bon season, an obon dance tradition handed down by Japanese plantation workers, means bon dance events are held throughout the islands during the summer months. King Kamehameha Day (June 11) is a popular annual holiday in Hawaii.

Turtles are also abundant in Hawaii’s warm, calm waters during this time since it’s nesting season, while dolphins frequent Hawaiian waters year-round. So, while you’ll miss the chance to see wintering humpback whales, there’s still plenty of sea life to spot.

Related: Cruise vs. all-inclusive resort: Which budget-friendly option is best for you?

Early fall: September and October

Early fall is another shoulder season that offers good weather (as noted above, Hawaii is generally not in the path of storms during the central Pacific hurricane season) and fewer crowds. Cruise tourism to Hawaii begins to pick up again as cruise lines reposition ships from Alaska, and it’s possible to find good-value fares during this time by booking well in advance or even last-minute. Airfare and hotel rates for pre- or post-cruise stays should be lower, too.

Weather-wise, September’s rainfall is similar to that of the summer period, with totals under half an inch on Maui, an inch on Oahu and the island of Hawaii, and two inches on Kauai. Rainfall is double those amounts in October, but still less than in November and December.

Events to keep in mind when booking a cruise in September or October are the Ironman triathlon world championships, held annually in early October in Kona on the island of Hawaii, and several food and wine festivals, including the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, which takes place in late October in Honolulu.

Related: The 9 best fall cruise itineraries

Late fall: November and December

December is Hawaii's rainiest month. CAVAN IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES

Late fall and early winter in Hawaii bring a major influx of tourists over the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s breaks. But the weeks in between are both great times to snag a deal on a Hawaii sailing — early November for a less-harried ambience and early December for lower cruise fares and airfares. Yes, December is Hawaii’s rainiest month, but it doesn’t rain every day and certainly not all day. (The rain comes in small bursts and mostly after dark.) Temperatures can dip into the 60s at night on some islands.

Once the calendar page hits mid-December, however, Christmas and New Year’s crowds begin arriving and cruise, airfare and hotel room prices skyrocket. If you’re on a tight budget or crowds make you crazy, it’s best not to book a holiday cruise.

Events to keep in mind include the annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival on the island of Hawaii in early November and the Honolulu Marathon in early December.

If a post-Thanksgiving/pre-Christmas cruise in Hawaii sounds appealing, you’re apt to encounter the arrival of the humpbacks during the first two weeks of December. The waves on Oahu’s North Shore also begin to swell, making for dramatic photos. And seeing this palm-tree-studded paradise decked out in holiday decorations along with abundant tropical poinsettias in full seasonal bloom makes for a memorable travel experience.

Bottom line

The best time to cruise Hawaii is the season or month that best suits your schedule, interests and/or budget. If abundant sunshine is paramount (and you don’t mind sharing paradise with lots of fellow visitors and are OK if temperatures approach 90 degrees), think summer — although you’ll have fewer cruises from which to choose and hotel rates will be high. If you’re looking to escape the cold and want to see whales, big waves and tropical Hawaii at its most lush (and don’t mind a bit of rain), opt for winter, when most major cruise lines sail the islands. Again, expect to pay a premium, especially for a pre- or post-cruise hotel stay.

The two shoulder seasons, April-May and September-October, offer up a happy medium with pleasant weather and generally good prices, while the lulls during early November and early December mean pre-holiday deals on flights and cruise fares are often available. These last three time periods are all the best times to cruise for overall value — even if you might miss seeing whales and those ginormous North Shore waves.

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Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

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  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases