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Everything you need to know about inter-island travel in Hawaii

Dec. 26, 2019
11 min read
Southwest Hawaii Island Hop
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With just eight miles separating some of the closest major Hawaiian Islands (such as Lanai and Maui), this Pacific archipelago is a tempting destination for island hopping. And it can be quick and easy to explore multiple Hawaiian islands — but you have to be strategic. Furthermore, to really enjoy Hawaii you don't want to constantly be on the move, so you need to stay on each island long enough to soak it all in before continuing onto the next.

To get around the islands of Hawaii, you can fly by helicopter, travel by ferry or hop on a boat. But while there are options, in most cases, you are probably boarding a flight before saying aloha to your next Hawaiian island destination.

To help you plan a seamless Hawaiian vacation, we're breaking down all the ways you can get around the islands that make up the Aloha State.

Kauai's Waimea Canyon: the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. (Photo by Don Smith/Getty Images.)

Oahu is the hub

Oahu is the hub of Hawaii and its inter-island travel. This is where international flights into Hawaii will likely land, as well as where the majority of the U.S. mainland flights operate. You can catch a flight from Honolulu International (HNL) to almost all of the major neighboring islands. If you’re not sure which islands you might want to hop to on your Hawaiian vacation, it's still a pretty safe bet to book your main flights in and out of HNL. That said, don't get too comfortable and only stay on Waikiki the whole time as Hawaii gets much, much better the more you explore.

Honolulu airport. (Photo by Getty Images.)

From HNL, it should only take about 30 to 45 minutes of flight time to get to the other major Hawaiian island on a nonstop flight. If you can lock your main flights into or out of Honolulu, you can trust that the rest of the logistics can be worked out later.

Related: Best ways to get to Hawaii using miles and points

Flying between the islands

Traditionally, Hawaiian Airlines has been the dominant airline operating inter-island travel, and it still is a very common choice with multiple daily flights between the islands. However, Southwest Airlines is now a very formidable competitor in Hawaii, which is great for travelers looking for the best deal to fly to the Big Island, Maui or Kauai.

Southwest flies to Hawaii! (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.)

Southwest operates flights from HNL to Kauai (LIH), Maui (OGG), Hilo (ITO) and Kona (KOA). However, know that you will be going through Honolulu on those flights, so if you wanted to fly nonstop from Kona to Kauai, your best bet is probably Hawaiian Airlines for that type of route.

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There's also Mokulele Airlines which has 120 daily flights with some unique Hawaiian destinations including Lanai and Hana.

Another option is Makani Kai Air, which is a charter company with a small fleet of small planes that will fly travelers between the islands to places like Princeville on Kauai, Molokai or the Kalaupapa Peninsula, a national historic park that requires a permit for entry.

Lanai Air is a turbo-prop option for those heading from Honolulu right to the small island of Lanai to stay at the Four Seasons or similar.

Take the Ferry to Lanai

Prefer to spend some time at sea to heading back to the airport? It is possible to take a ferry between Maui and Lanai with the Expeditions Lanai Passenger Ferry. The hour-long journey will cost you about $30 one-way (kids $20), but there are only five departures and returns each day, so you have to plan day trips carefully.

(Photo by Isabel Thottam.)

Fly to Molokai 

The island of Molokai is not accessible directly from the U.S. mainland. In order to get to this island, you’ll need to take a connecting flight from HNL, OGG or JHM. You can book flights via Hawaiian Airlines, Makani Kai Air or Mokulele Airlines to Molokai from these three airports, and the flights only take about 25 minutes.

Book a cruise between the islands

If you really want to get the most out of your Hawaiian vacation and have the time and budget to do so, consider taking a cruise. Cruise lines such as Disney Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line offers a variety of itineraries that take you to the four major islands — some even include overnight stays. You’ll see Oahu, Kauai, Maui and the Big Island without worrying about how to get around other than getting on and off the ship. With Norwegian, you can also combine a cruise around Hawaii with a trip to French Polynesia, which sounds most excellent to us.

In the case of Disney, the cruises around Hawaii are actually 10-night cruises that start or ends in Vancouver with stops on multiple Hawaiian Islands.

Related: How we used points and miles for a family Hawaiian vacation

Photo by Isabel Thottam.

(Photo by Isabel Thottam)

Helicopter to remote areas

If you want to get dropped into a really remote Hawaiian area, the only way to do so is by helicopter. Blue Hawaiian is a charter company and will take hikers and travelers to less-touristed areas and far-flung trailheads.

Unless you are invited by the owners, a helicopter tour is the only way you'll land on the pristine so-called Forbidden Island of Niihau. This lightly inhabited island is 70-square miles in size and can (sometimes) be seen from Kauai's Waimea Canyon. Half-day excursions to Niihau start at $465 per person.

Unfortunately, helicopter tours don't allow you to bring your suitcase and simply get dropped off to start a new island life — you'll have to return with the pilot to the island you departed from.

Use airline miles for intra-Hawaii travel

You can use a variety of airline miles to island-hop around Hawaii, but most of them bring you right back to the same Hawaiian Airlines operated flights. However, not every airline charges the same number of miles for inter-islands flights on Hawaiian, so it pays to shop around with the miles you have available. And, of course, if you are flying on an inter-island route operated by Southwest, then you have yet another set of choices. Here’s a rundown of some popular options, prices listed as one-way except where noted.

Kona airport (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.)

(Here's what it is like to island-hop on Hawaiian Airlines and what it is like on Southwest Airlines.)

American miles to fly Hawaiian: 7,500 miles in economy, 15,000 in first

Delta miles to fly Hawaiian: 7,500 miles in economy

Hawaiian Airlines: 7,500 miles in economy, 15,000 in first

JetBlue points to fly Hawaiian: 6,000 miles in economy, 12,000 in first

You can transfer points from Chase Ultimate Rewards to JetBlue at a 1:1 ratio if you have cards such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. Citi ThankYou has a 1:1 transfer ratio to JetBlue. Those with the JetBlue Plus Card get 10% of their redeemed points back.

Note that JetBlue awards on Hawaiian Airlines must be booked over the phone with JetBlue, but in our test call, availability lined up roughly with what United displayed as available.

United miles to fly Hawaiian: 7,000 miles in economy (10.5k miles if travel is within next 30 days)

Virgin Atlantic miles to fly Hawaiian: 7,500 miles in economy, 15,000 in first (infants 2,000 miles in economy/10,000 in first)

A benefit of using Virgin Atlantic miles is that they are easy to earn, as you can transfer from Amex Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and even Marriott Rewards. We’ve also seen periodic transfer bonuses from both Amex and Citi in the past, so your award rates could be discounted even further by transferring during these promotions.

Southwest Airlines: Many inter-island fights on Southwest are currently available for 2,000 to 4,000 Rapid Rewards points each direction. You can earn Rapid Rewards points from Southwest credit cards, such as the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card . You can also transfer your points in on a 1:1 ratio from Chase Ultimate Rewards and cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. On Southwest, you’ll get two free checked bags and access to in-flight streaming entertainment at no charge (on your own device). You can also put that Southwest Companion Pass to good use to score a 2-for-1 deal!

Free island-hop via the United Excursionist Perk

If you want to get a Hawaii island-hop in your larger booking "for free," book your trip to Hawaii using United miles. For example, you could fly Houston – Honolulu (stop) – Lihue (stop) – Houston for the same number of miles as just Houston to Honolulu and back (45,000 in saver economy). Since Hawaii is in a different award chart region than the Lower 48, it works for a free stopover using the United Excursionist Perk on a round-trip booked with United miles.

Here are the best credit cards for flying with United miles. If you do book your island hop with United, you'll need to get your Hawaiian Airlines confirmation code to select your seat directly with Hawaiian.

Bottom line

Most of your Hawaiian island-hopping is likely to be done via commercial aircraft, though there are some exceptions to that general rule. You may not need to use airline miles for an inter-island trip in Hawaii if cash prices are low enough. We always recommend doing the math to make sure you are getting a decent value for your points. But if you are flying Southwest (fixed-value points), or when prices cross that $100 threshold, using miles become a deal worth considering.

Ready to island-hop on Southwest Airlines. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.)

To help you on your Hawaii-planning journey:

Additional reporting by Isabel Thottam

Featured image by (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
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.