We think that renting a car in Hawaii is one of the most important things you can do to get the most out of your vacation. Over 80% of the visitors to the Big Island agree and rent a car during their stay.
Harpers is the only company that allows you to take some of their cars to the Maunakea summit. All other rental car companies only allow their cars to be taken up as far as the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy (a.k.a. the visitor center). A good way to reach the summit without a 4WD is by joining a tour.
For most people a visit to the visitor center, which organizes free stargazing nights, is more than enough to satisfy their curiosity. Read more about how to visit the Maunakea summit on our website.
All car rental companies on the Big Island prohibit you from taking your rental car on the road to Green Sand Beach. You can take the car as far as the end of South Point road, from there it is a 2.7 mile (4.3 km) hike to the beach. Note that the rides offered from the parking lot to the beach are operating illegally, without the consent of the landowner.
Read more about visiting Green Sand Beach on our website.
In general, yes. The island is big, our public transport is not well suited for tourism purposes, and taxi or shared ride services are expensive. Renting a car also gives you a lot of flexibility and peace of mind.
If you plan to spend a significant part of your stay at one place (the beach) and don’t mind relying on (and paying for) tours to see our island highlights you can do without a rental car, but keep in mind that this will add considerable cost to your vacation.
To get good deals on rental cars we refer you to our current local favorite car rental company.
It is possible to make your way around the Big Island using public transport but it is both more time efficient and convenient to rent a car.
Table of contents:
- How to get the best deals for your rental car:
- Rental car pickup locations:
- Rental car FAQ/tips specific to the Big Island:
Most of the national car rental agencies have offices at any of the two international airports (ITO – Hilo and KOA – Kona). If you have a clear favorite please go ahead and book with your rental agency of choice. Keep reading if you are willing to shop around to find the best possible deal on your rental car.
1: Find the best deals (for the Big Island)
The price of a rental car depends on many factors. The two most important things that influence price are  availability and  how soon you need a rental car.
As for the time of booking the most important tip we can give you is the following: book early if you are going to be on the Big Island during popular events such as the Ironman triathlon (mid-October) or the Merrie Monarch Festival (mid-April). Christmas is also a notorious period if it comes to renting a car.
We recommend the following strategies to get the best price:
- Our best tip: book at a local car rental agency (lower prices for almost everyone)
- Book early and update your booking when prices drop (also good results but more work))
- Book early and use priceline (good tip if you know what you are doing)
- Rent your car for an extended period (typically only works for 30+ days rental periods)
These points are explained in more detail below.
Get the best price with a local agency
The best way to find a good deal on a Hawaiian car rental is to shop around at the local rental agencies. Besides, why not go local?
Some of our rental agencies have negotiated guaranteed discounts with the biggest rental car companies, and pass part of these discounts on to their costumers. You can get especially good rates if you are willing to be flexible about the exact details of the make and model of your car.
The following local booking site offers discount rates on car rentals in the state of Hawai’i. We use them ourselves every time we need an extra car, and have never found better rates:
Book early and wait for lower prices
One strategy to get a good deal on a rental car is to book early at the local rental agency mentioned above, and then to check back in at a later time to look for lower prices. About 6 weeks before your departure is a good time to try to find a better deal. For this strategy to work it is important to make your first reservation with an agency that allows cancellations without a penalty.
For example, a mid-sized 8 days car rental might cost $450 the first time you book 4 months before you arrive at Hawaii. Typically, this price will start declining down to say $240 at 1 or 2 weeks before arrival. The last days before arrival, prices can suddenly jump up to ridiculous prices again. We have seen examples where a car that was at its lowest $240 suddenly jumped up the $900 in the last days before arrival.
Using this method can potentially save you a couple of hundreds of dollars but does require that you invest extra time in booking and re-booking. It works best for people that like to plan ahead.
Book early and play the “Priceline game”
This method can potentially give you the largest savings but should be combined with making an early booking (that can be cancelled for free) as a backup.
Priceline is a website connects customers and car rental agencies via an online bidding system. You can bid whatever you want on a rental car, and if the rental agency accepts, the deal gets ‘locked in’.
- The advantage of this system are the potentially very low prices. 30% to 40% discounts compared to ‘direct’ booking prices are not uncommon.
- The disadvantage is that you are paying upfront and that you can not cancel/change/extend your booking once your bid is accepted. A good rule of thumb is to aim for at least a 30% discount compared to the direct rate to justify this lack of flexibility.
If you use Priceline far in advance it is best to start your bidding low because ‘normal’ prices are expected to drop (except around the really busy periods, in which case you should book early), and once you make a deal using Priceline it cannot be canceled. Prices generally drop once the rental date approaches, but it is possible you won’t find a good enough deal with this service. It is important to already have an early booking that can be cancelled for free so that you don’t find yourself without a car on Hawaii.
Priceline works with many of the large car rental agencies such as Hertz, Budget, National, Avis and Alamo, and the quality of the cars you rent is equal to the ‘normal’ car rentals. Go to the priceline website to give this strategy a shot.
Better prices for long term car rentals
If you are staying for more than 30 days and want to rent a car on the Big Island, have a look at e.g. island discount rentals (only in Hilo). This company rents out used cars and offers very competitive prices on longer term rentals.
2: Rental Car pickup locations
Convenience and price are important things to pay attention to when renting a car. Knowing that the pickup location of your rental car is close to your point of arrival often gives the peace of mind that the start (and end) of your time on Hawaii go as smooth as possible. Here are the most important pickup locations on the Big Island:
Pickup locations in Hilo
Getting to your rental car in Hilo is straightforward whether you arrive by airplane or by cruise ship. The following seven rental car companies are represented at the Hilo Airport (last checked January 2020 from source):
Pickup locations: the offices of all these agencies are located on the side of the road opposite to the arrival and departure terminal. Harper’s and Enterprise are not represented at the airport, but offer a shuttle service. Especially Harper’s might be of interest for you if you are looking to rent a 4WD car that can take you to the Mauna Kea summit.
There is no public bus service to or from Hilo airport. If you don’t have a rental car your transport from the airport would have to be either by taxi or personal pick up. Hilo International Airport (ITO) is located on the edge of Hilo, about 3 miles east of the downtown area.
Pickup locations on the Kona coast
Getting your rental car near Kailua Kona is easiest directly at the airport. You can find the check-in counters for all major car rental companies directly across the street from the luggage claim.
You can find more offices of rental car agencies in the town of Kona at the King Kamehameha hotel (important for people arriving by cruise ship) and scattered through the resorts on the north Kona / Kohala coast (important for people staying at the resorts that only want to rent a car for a few days of their stay).
Rental car agencies at the Kona International Airport (KOA)
Kona International Airport is located about 8 miles north of Kailua-Kona and 19 miles south of the Kohala resorts. The rental car agencies servicing the Kona airport are:
All car rental companies maintain check-in counters away from the arrival and departure terminals and are served by free shuttles. These shuttles stop at the center median located across the street from baggage claim areas A and B (last checked January 2020 at source).
Rental car agencies in Kailua Kona
The rental car offices in Kona are all centered around the Kailua pier at Ali’i drive. This is to facilitate the cruise ship passengers that arrive in Kona at the Pier.
- Thrifty, Hertz and Dollar all have set up shop in the King Kamehamea Hotel (source), across the street from the pier.
- Enterprise has its office a bit further away, at a 20 minute (1 mile) walk from the pier ( at 74-5583 Luhia Street).
Rental car agencies at the Kona and Waikoloa resorts
North of Kona, at 19 miles north of the airport, you can find the Waikoloa resorts. The following rentals car agencies have an office in one or more of the resorts:
At 27 miles from the airport (32 from Kona) there is an Enterprise office that services the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.
South of Kona, there is a Hertz office at the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay.
3: Assorted tips for renting a car on the Big Island (FAQ)
Wow, you made it all the way to the end of our guide. Thank you for your interest!
We have reserved this space to leave our advice on frequently asked questions about renting a car on the Big Island. At the moment these are the following:
- Can I take a rental car to the Maunakea summit?
- Do I need to rent a car for my whole stay on the Big Island?
- When should I book my rental car extra early?
Please drop us a line if you have another question about renting a car on the Big Island that is currently not answered on this page.
1: Can you take your rental car to Mauna Kea?
Most rental agencies do not allow you to take your car onto the really rough roads of Hawaii. In the case of your Hawaiian vacation this is most relevant if you want to go stargazing on the Maunakea summit.
Rental cars are allowed up the mountain as far as the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy (a.k.a. the visitor center). The road to the summit of Mauna Kea between the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy and the telescopes on the summit is off limits for most rental cars.
If you want to drive up the mountain yourself (instead of joining a tour) you need a 4WD car. The only 4WD rental agency on the island that allows their car to be taken that far up is Harpers Car Rentals. Harpers operates from two locations: one in Hilo and one in Kona.
Consider double booking a 4WD with them for a day in addition to your own rental car since this probably will be your cheapest option.
The beach at green sand beach is another place you should not visit using a rental car. Leave your car at the parking and hike out for the last few miles, and make sure to not leave any valuables behind in sight.
2: Do you need a rental car for your whole stay on the Big Island?
If you plan to spend a significant part of your stay at one location and plan on relaxing at your accommodation a lot you might be best off renting a car for only a part of your vacation. Keep in mind though that, even if you stay at the resorts close to the beaches, having a car is still really handy to explore those beaches.
If you only need a car a couple of days it would be best to rent a car close to where you are staying even if that means you’ll pay a slightly higher price. The extra travel time to pick up and return the car adds up quickly.
If you want to rent a car during your whole stay on the Big Island renting a car directly at the airport is your best option. You save the money and effort you’d otherwise spend on getting to your accommodation from the airport by shuttle, bus or taxi. Last time we checked, for example, there were no free airport shuttle from Kona airport to any hotel, so estimate to pay about $50 per person for shuttles to Kohala resorts, and $30 to $35 to Kona.
3: When should I book my rental car extra early?
Because the Big Island is an island, there is a hard limit on the amount of cars that can be rented. During the especially busy periods it is normal that all these cars will be reserved making it impossible for you to rent a car if you start looking late. Don’t get stranded, plan ahead and book early!
The following special events and dates are notoriously busy and often all available rental cars will be used for the period between a few days before and after the event:
- Ironman Triathlon (mid October)
- Merrie Monarch festival (mid to late April)
- The time between Christmas and New Year (~December 20th to January 2nd)
Call ahead or make an early reservation if you don’t want to be unpleasantly surprised upon arrival.
footnote on booking your car with Priceline and Discount Hawaii Car Rentals
We are part of the affiliate programs of discounthawaiicarrental.com and priceline. This means that we receive a small fee for every completed booking we send their way. This way you can help us cover the costs to host and maintain this website *while* you are booking your trip to paradise.
Read more on our participation with affiliates here.