Hawaii cruise guide: Best itineraries, planning tips and things to do
Hawaii and cruising seem like a match made in heaven. You can experience all the beaches, water sports, lush scenic areas and Polynesian culture without having to settle for just one island — or deal with the hassle of flying between them.
In addition, you get a convenient home base to leave your stuff, enjoy evening entertainment without a drive and linger over dinner without worrying how much the bill will come to.
However, it's not all paradise in the Hawaii cruise world because itineraries are limited. Why? U.S. government regulations prohibit foreign-flagged ships from sailing between U.S. ports without visiting a foreign port.
Because most cruise ships are flagged in another country, they cannot offer interisland cruises. Only two lines currently offer those. The rest must sail long cruises at least one-way, if not round trip, from the west coast of North America.
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If a Hawaii cruise sounds like the perfect getaway to you, you'll want to read up on which lines offer which types of itineraries, as well as which islands and ports you must visit.
Here, we've gathered all the information you need to know to choose the perfect Aloha State sailing for your travel style, budget and allotted vacation time.
Why cruise to Hawaii?
I probably don't need to convince anyone why Hawaii is an amazing vacation destination. It has everything — gorgeous beaches, fabulous snorkeling and diving spots, scenic hiking trails, fascinating local culture and history, delicious cuisine, renowned resorts and golf courses, and plentiful waterfalls and rainbows.
Why should you cruise instead of booking a hotel or resort stay on land? The main reason is to sample more islands.
Most travelers stick to one, possibly two islands, during a Hawaii vacation. If you want to sample the highlights of several islands, from Volcanoes National Park near Hilo, Hawaii, to Kauai's Waimea Canyon and Napali Coast, it's much simpler to do that from a cruise ship.
Additionally, lodging prices in Hawaii can be high due to its popularity as a vacation destination. Restaurants are also more expensive than on the mainland because many staples have to be shipped in from afar.
On a cruise, you're free to sample Hawaiian cuisine during your time in port, but can take as many meals as you want on board, many of which are already covered in your cruise fare.
When do cruises go to Hawaii?
You can sail to Hawaii year-round, but the itinerary options vary based on the month you choose. Norwegian Cruise Line is the only major cruise line to offer year-round, weeklong cruises.
If you're looking for a longer itinerary, sailing round trip from the west coast of North America, or a small-ship adventure cruise, you'll have the biggest selection of cruises between October and April.
The beginning and end of the Alaska season in the spring and fall is when you'll find one-way repositioning cruises either between Hawaii and Vancouver, British Columbia, or Seattle, or from the Pacific Northwest all the way to the South Pacific, stopping in Hawaii along the way.
The summer offers the fewest Hawaii cruise options.
Related: Best time to cruise Hawaii
Best Hawaii itineraries
Cruises to Hawaii fall into three categories: weeklong interisland cruises, round-trip cruises sailing to/from the West Coast and one-way repositioning cruises.
The best cruise for you depends on how much vacation time you have, how many islands you want to visit, whether you're looking for overnight port stays and how you feel about multiple sea days in a row.
The best Hawaii itinerary in my opinion is Norwegian Cruise Line's seven-night round-trip Honolulu sailings on Pride of America. The U.S.-flagged ship is the only big ship able to sail interisland itineraries without calling on a foreign port.
The itinerary features two-day overnight visits to Maui and Kauai and stops in both Kona and Hilo on the Big Island, as well as scenic cruising along Kauai's famed Napali Coast. It's easy to book pre- or post-cruise stays in Honolulu to explore places like Waikiki Beach, Diamondhead Crater and Pearl Harbor.
For a completely different interisland cruise, UnCruise Adventures offers a more off-the-beaten-path, adventure-focused sailing on the 36-passenger Safari Explorer.
It also visits Maui and the island of Hawaii, as well as the smaller islands of Lanai and Molokai. Expect lots of water sports and nature-based outings, and daily plans that can change due to the weather or a whale sighting. These expedition cruises run from November to April.
Related: The best ways to get to Hawaii using points and miles
Round-trip Hawaii cruises from the West Coast
Most of the major cruise lines offering seasonal Hawaii cruises — such as Carnival, Princess and Holland America — offer 14- to 18-night round-trip itineraries from West Coast ports such as Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego and San Francisco, in California; Seattle; and Vancouver. These sailings run from the fall into the spring. Some lines offer just a few round trips while others offer months of Hawaii cruises.
The itineraries all follow a similar pattern: A four-day Pacific Ocean crossing, daily port stops in three or four Hawaii ports (occasionally with an overnight), another five days at sea, then a stop in Ensenada, Mexico, on the way home. If you're sailing from Vancouver, expect five days for the crossing and no visit to Mexico.
You may find some longer grand voyages sailing round trip from North America to Hawaii plus other South Pacific destinations. For example, Holland America offers some epic 35- to 51-night cruises round trip from San Diego
These Hawaii cruises are best for retirees, who have the time to enjoy leisurely ocean crossings on either end of the trip.
The final type of Hawaii cruise is the one-way repositioning sailing, typically offered when ships are heading to or leaving Alaska. The cruise line schedules these sailings to swing by Hawaii on their way to the South Pacific or Australia or perhaps before the ship begins Mexico cruises from southern California or transits the Panama Canal to the Atlantic.
The shorter options, such as 10- and 11-night Hawaii cruises offered by Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, sail between Vancouver and Honolulu, leaving you to book a one-way flight to or from Hawaii. Longer one-way sailings from upscale brands, such as Oceania, Seabourn and Silversea, will traverse the Pacific Ocean between Tahiti (or another far-flung island) and Vancouver or Seattle.
The shorter, one-way sailings are a good compromise for travelers who don't want to take a full two weeks or can't imagine 10 days at sea on one vacation but do want some relaxing time on the ship. They also allow pre- or post-cruise stays in Hawaii. The longer one-off journeys are more for folks wanting to explore a wide swath of the Pacific, with Hawaii being a small part of that deep dive.
Related: The best Hawaii cruises for every type of traveler
Best Hawaii cruise lines
It's no surprise that I find Norwegian Cruise Line to be one of the best Hawaii cruise lines because it offers a unique product that's a reasonable vacation length for most people and really allows its guests to experience many of Hawaii's highlights.
Princess Cruises is definitely the leader in the two-week, round-trip Hawaii cruise department, offering more sailings out of more homeports than any other line. Carnival, Holland America and Viking also offer this type of sailing, but not as frequently. Holland America is a great choice for round-trip sailings that explore deep into the South Pacific.
Sister lines Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean are good bets for those hybrid one-way cruises from the West Coast to Hawaii.
Seabourn, Silversea and Oceania offer upscale accommodations, fine dining and multiple fare inclusions for travelers looking to journey in style across the Pacific Ocean, stopping in Hawaii along the way. Seabourn and Silversea feature smaller ships, more fare inclusions and higher prices than Oceania.
UnCruise Adventures is the line for travelers who want to get off the beaten path on a small ship with a flexible itinerary. These sailings are perfect for active folks who want to get up close to nature. You don't have to be a true cruiser to love UnCruise, but you do need a large budget, as intimate adventures don't come cheap.
Things to do in Hawaii
Whether you're looking for utter relaxation or an adrenaline rush, you'll find plenty of things to do in Hawaii. The islands have much to offer families, couples and friends of all ages.
Obviously, a top attraction is Hawaii's many beaches. You can plop down in the sand on beautifully manicured strands of white sand or find more rugged volcanic black sand beaches. Look for beach parks with sheltered swimming areas for families or find a secluded beach away from popular tourist areas. Some beaches can have strong currents or rough seas during certain times of the year, so always exercise caution when swimming.
Water sports are also a big draw, whether that's surfing Hawaii's waves or snorkeling with green turtles in Maui. Kayak out to sea or along Kauai's Wailua River, or try your hand at kite-surfing or stand-up paddleboarding. For a more chill afternoon out on the waves, consider a whale-watching cruise, sunset sail or scenic boat ride along the Napali Coast.
Nature lovers can find a variety of hikes within lush green forests or along the rocky landscape of the Waimea Canyon. Maui's road to Hana is a must-do if you like twisty roads and cascading waterfalls. Watch the sun rise or set, bike down the extinct Haleakala volcano, or visit a live one at Volcanoes National Park near Hilo on the island of Hawaii.
Many travelers enjoy learning about Hawaiian culture and history. Attend a luau where you can feast on Hawaiian cuisine and enjoy music, dancing and fire play. Some take place on plantations where you can discover more about local agriculture. Or, stop by historic attractions, such as Honolulu's Iolani Palace or the Big Island's city of refuge, to learn about the ancient Polynesian culture or the Kingdom of Hawaii.
Related: Best Hawaii cruise shore excursions
Best Hawaii cruise ports
The islands of Hawaii only offer a few cruise ports for ships to visit. (UnCruise Adventures is the exception, calling in a few smaller places that the big ships can't go.) All of them are top-notch, so it's hard to say which one is the best overall. Certainly, some ports are better for different types of activities.
The following Hawaii ports are the ones commonly found on cruise itineraries.
Honolulu is known for Pearl Harbor, where you can visit the USS Arizona Memorial Museum, the Battleship Missouri Memorial, a submarine museum and an aviation museum. Cruisers can catch some rays at Waikiki Beach or hike the Diamond Head crater.
Learn about Hawaiian history at the Mauna 'Ala royal mausoleum and the Iolani Palace, or Hawaiian culture at a luau or the Polynesian Cultural Center. You can also take a tour to Oahu's North Shore. Oahu is the turn-around port for Pride of America, so travelers should consider a pre- or post-cruise stay to see the sights.
The small but mighty Kauai is one of the best Hawaii ports for outdoor, nature-based adventure. Get your cameras out for the rocky landscapes of the Waimea Canyon and the breathtaking cliffs of the Napali Coast. If you like hiking or kayaking, you've come to the right island, but you can also take it easy on any number of nearby beaches.
Take a riverboat along the Wailua River to the Fern Grotto, or hop a tour bus to see where many of your favorite movies were filmed. It's also a good spot for a luau if your ship stays in port late enough.
The Big Island is the only island offering two major ports for cruise ships: Hilo on the east coast and Kona on the west. Hilo is the jumping-off point to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where you can hike through a lava tube or watch steam venting from the still-active volcano.
The area is also home to numerous waterfalls you can visit, such as Rainbow Falls and Akaka Falls, as well as black-sand beaches. Kayak or snorkel in Hilo Bay, or — for something different — visit the Volcano Winery to sample vintages made both with grapes and local fruits.
Related: How to choose the best Hawaiian island for you
The second cruise port on the island of Hawaii, Kona is one of the best ports for visiting a coffee plantation and sampling local Hawaiian coffee. For travelers more interested in ancient Polynesian history, the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, the site of an old city of refuge, is a fascinating place to visit. Otherwise, Kona offers plenty of beaches, snorkeling opportunities and boat and submarine tours.
Lahaina or Kahului, Maui
Maui also has two cruise ports, but they serve the same area and attractions. The difference is that Kahului is in an industrial area near the airport. Cruise ships dock there, but you'll need to take a tour or other transportation to see the sights.
Lahaina is a major tourist destination for its restaurants, shops and boat tours, but ships must anchor and transport passengers to shore via tender boats.
Must-sees on Maui include the extinct volcano Haleakala (for sunset or sunrise visits or bike rides down the steep slopes), the twisty road to Hana with its waterfall views and many gorgeous white-sand beaches. Maui is the best Hawaii cruise port for whale watching in season or snorkeling in its clear waters. Visit the Maui Ocean Center to check out more sea life while staying dry.
When to book a Hawaii cruise
The earlier you book a Hawaii cruise, the better. That's because the cruise lines offer comparatively few Hawaii sailings as compared to Caribbean and Bahamas cruises, for example.
Norwegian Cruise Line bases only one ship in the region; other lines only sail to the islands seasonally. Booking early will not only guarantee you get the cabin type you want on the sail date you prefer, but may also get you the lowest prices and promotional booking bonuses (i.e. free stuff). In addition, unless you live on the West Coast, a Hawaii cruise will require a long flight either to California or Honolulu, so you'll want plenty of time to find an airfare deal or available award seat.
Related: When is the best time to book a cruise?
What to bring on a Hawaii cruise
What to bring on a Hawaii cruise depends on which cruise you're taking. If you're on a weeklong sailing on casual NCL, you can skip the dressy clothes and prioritize casual outfits that work with whatever beachy or sporty excursions you've got planned in Hawaii. Sun hats, sunglasses, reef-safe sunscreen and water-friendly shoes are all must-pack items. Don't forget your camera (or waterproof case for your cellphone) and binoculars for whale watching.
Travelers on a longer Hawaii sailing on a line like Princess will want to bring nicer clothes for dinners on board, as well as plenty of activities for all those sea days. That could include books or an e-reader, a packable board game, a knitting project or a journal. UnCruise passengers should pack hiking boots, moisture-wicking athletic clothing, plenty of swimsuits and waterproof bags to protect their gear.
Related: Cruise packing list: The ultimate guide to what to pack for a cruise
A cruise can be an ideal way to explore multiple Hawaiian islands in one trip and save on costs such as dinner and car rentals.
However, unlike in other cruise regions, travelers are limited in the itineraries and times of the year they can sail. Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America is a great way to visit the islands in just a week, but fans of leisurely trips with lots of sea days should look at round-trip cruises from California.
Once you've decided how you want to cruise Hawaii, you can seek out the best cruise fares so you're ready to say "Aloha!" to an incredible vacation when the right deal pops up.
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