Some of the most amazing places on the Big Island are difficult to reach over land; however, taking a helicopter offers instant access to those wonders in a very short amount of time. Helicopter tours depart from Kona, Hilo, and Waikoloa and can last between 1 hour and a full day.
Our helicopter tour guide is split into 3 chapters:
- Different kinds of helicopter tours
- Popular Big Island helicopter tours (list)
- Helicopter Tour FAQ:
Take a helicopter ride on one of the first days of your trip. This will help set your priorities for the rest of your stay on the Big Island (you’ll probably want to visit that secluded beach you saw from above).
Helicopter tours are not cheap with prices starting at about $150/hour, but if your budget allows we highly recommend taking one.
1: Different kinds of helicopter tours
Not all helicopter tours are the same and your choice will depend mostly on your budget and priorities. In any case, the three main attractions on the Big Island that are worth seeing from the air include:
Lava and volcanoes helicopter tours
The lava and volcanoes helicopter tours are best suited for people that are jazzed about glimpsing an active volcano in action. These tours tend to be the shortest and most affordable when they depart from Hilo because the active part of the Kilauea volcano is closest to the Hilo airport.
The flight will typically makes a 40 to 50 minute journey southwest to lower Puna where there are a few active vents from the Kilauea volcano; more notably, here you will see where the 2018 LERZ eruption took place. The helicopter then veers northeast to the waterfalls and jungle at the Hamakua coast, the last stop of the tour before heading back to the airport.
Waterfalls and dramatic cliffs
The best places to see these on the Big Island are to the north (Kohala) and east (Hilo + Hamakua) sides. The Kohala coast with the Waipi’o valley is dotted with 2000+ ft cliffs and waterfalls, hands-down be the best part of a helicopter ride above this location.
The above two tours (#1 and #2) tend to be the most affordable because they don’t last as long as the third option:
Circle island helicopter tours
A circle island helicopter tour combines all of the above, and if you’re really polite maybe even a bit more. These tours will probably last the whole day with 2 hours of flight time at the most. The rest of the time is used for on-ground sightseeing at locations that differ per tour. If you do decide to go for one of the circle island tours, we recommend you request your pilot to fly over the west (Kona) coast at the end of the tour in order to witness a sunset you will not forget.
2: Most popular helicopter tour companies
Helicopter tours are big business in Hawaii. Most operators offer special prices or discounts at least a couple of months out of the year, and it is certainly worth your time to compare prices. Here are four of the biggest Helicopter Tour Operators:
- Paradise Helicopters (occasional discount coupons are available for amounts between $25 and $100. Details)
- Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tours
- Safari Helicopters
- Sunshine Helicopters
Want to directly compare the prices for the tours offered by Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tours, Paradise Helicopters, and Sunset Helicopters? Click on either the banner below or here. This will take you to the ‘hawaiiactivities’ website, a useful resource when comparing helicopter tours and you’ll even find discounts1 on occasion.
Where do the helicopter tours take off?
Some operators take off from the airport, while others include transportation to a helipad a couple hours away. Because the drive to and from the heliports can easily tag a few hours on to your tour, here are the departure heliports for the biggest companies below:
- Hilo International Airport (3x): Paradise Helicopters, Safari Helicopters, Blue Hawaiian Helicopters
- Kona International Airport: Paradise Helicopters
- Hapuna Heliport: Sunshine Helicopters
- Waikoloa Heliport: Blue Hawaiian Helicopters
- Waimea / Kohala Airport: Paradise Helicopters
Conversely, here’s a reordered list detailing an operators various departure points if you already know who you would like to fly with:
- Paradise Helicopters fly from the Hilo airport, the Kona airport, and the Waimea / Kohala airport. They may provide free round-trip transportation to and from the Kona International Airport, but make sure to check the conditions on their website.
- Blue Hawaiian fly from the Hilo airport and from the Waikoloa Heliport, 4 miles SW of Waikoloa Village.
- Safari Helicopters fly from their home base in Hilo, at the Hilo airport helipad.
- Sunshine Helicopters fly from the Hapuna Heliport, located 30 minutes (27 miles) north of the Kona airport east of the Hapuna Golf Course.
Helicopter Tours from Kona or from Hilo?
Depending on where you take off, the price difference can be significant. Kona tours cost sometimes almost twice as much as the Hilo tours. Keep in mind that depending on what you want from the tour you might be better off choosing the more expensive Kona option.
Tours from Hilo are understandably cheaper because your departure heliport is closer to the active lava and flight times are shorter—tour prices are based on your air time. Tours from Hilo often involve a quick round trip to see lava, and may sometimes include a visit to several nearby waterfalls.
Tours from Kona need to cover more distance to get to the active lava, making the visit a “circle island” tour. This will likely include a glimpse of the impressive 2000 ft waterfalls at the Kohala coast, which are almost impossible to see from the ground. The tour will also fly over the tropical and lush Hamakua coast, as well as pass over south Kona with famous sites such as the city of refuge.
Summarizing, if you are looking for lava and just lava, book your tour from Hilo. If you want to splurge, live a little, you will not regret booking a circle island tour.
3: Helicopter tours FAQ
- What to expect on a Helicopter Ride?
- How to get the best value out of a helicopter tour (10-point checklist)
- What is the added value of a Helicopter tour?
- What does a helicopter tour look like? (video)
Q1: What to expect on a helicopter ride?
While all helicopter operators organize their tours with slight differences, the outlines are very similar. The procedures are time-tested and all operators we mention on our website place a large emphasis on safety. The following details the typical experience when booking a tour:
When you book you will be asked to provide the weights and heights of everyone in your group and about seating preferences. This is a necessary safety feature, making sure the helicopter is balanced. Be honest, because the weights are double checked at check-in and inaccurate information could lead to delays in order to re-balance, and in some cases re-schedule the tour.
You will also receive a confirmation email with valuable information on what your are (and are not!) allowed to bring in the helicopter. Make sure to read this email properly and to share the information with the other people in your group to avoid unpleasant surprised.
Check-in for the helicopter tour is usually about an hour before take-off. During check-in your information will be verified and you will be given a safety briefing. During this briefing you receive instructions on how to approach the helicopter safely, how to behave while inside of the helicopter, and where your place in the helicopter will be.
Once you make it into the helicopter and are strapped in you put on your headset. These consist of high-quality headphones and an internal communication system that you can use to talk to the pilot and the other people in the helicopter. Usually the pilot will start by introducing himself and talk everyone through what today’s tour will be all about. This is the best time to talk about any special requests you may have.
The real fun starts when the helicopter takes off! You quickly see the land below you get smaller and start having a really good overview of the land. Try seeing where you left your car and orientate yourself to see where you’ll be going. Make sure to have your camera ready but to also take in everything through your eyes (not your lens!). See our two tips for making better photos on a doors-on helicopter tour below for how to get most out of your pictures.
After the tour you will return to the spot you took off from. This is the time to take one last helicopter-selfie if you want to, and to say goodbye to the pilot and the ground staff that helps you disembark. Tips are appreciated if you did appreciate the tour and think the pilot did a stellar job.
Q2: How can I get the most out of a helicopter tour
We have made a checklist to go through if you have never been on a helicopter tour before. You can use this checklist for example when deciding between different tours. Do not hesitate to contact each tour operator before booking, because a little preparation really can make a big difference.
Our checklist for a stellar helicopter tour with questions to ask the helicopter tour operator:
- How much airtime do I get during your tour?
- How many passengers do you take in your helicopter?
- What areas of the Big Island do you fly over?
- Can you guarantee a window seat? (very important if you want to take photo’s!)
- How close does your helicopter take me to waterfalls, craters, lava, etc.?
- Is a tour with “doors off” possible?
- From which place on the Big Island do you helicopters take off? And do you provide transport from [your location]?
- If there are no active lava flows, can we still see lava lakes or otherwise active lava?
- How flexible are you on the timing and route of the tour?
- Do you offer special fares?
Bonus tips for while you are in the helicopter with doors-on:
- Wear a dark or black shirt if you don’t go on a “doors off” helicopter tour
- Bring a polarizing filter for your camera if you have one.
Reflections of light clothes will reflect back from the windows into your camera and these are some pictures that you don’t want to be in yourself.
Q3: What is the added value of a Helicopter tour?
Flying over the Big Island in a helicopter lets you see the land in a way that few people ever will. A helicopter tour can help you pick your favorite destinations and help decide how to arrange the rest of your stay.
Think for example about the hidden waterfalls falling over the 2000-feet high cliffs of Waimanu valley and Waipi’o valley. These sights are very difficult to see from the ground, but perfect to explore from a helicopter.
Taking a helicopter tour is also the only way to get an (almost) guaranteed look at the lava. The Kilauea volcano can be unpredictable and easily visible lava flows have been common the last few decades. However, there is no guarantee that this will be the case during your visit. Helicopters can fly over the Kilauea craters, allowing you to see straight into the fiery action.
Q4: What does a helicopter tour look like? (video)
This is technically not a question, but seeing a video shot during a helicopter tour is one of the best ways to prepare yourself for one. This video by youtube user bship5225 shows footage shot during a “doors off” helicopter tour over the Kilauea volcano, as well as a few waterfalls.