Navigating your Hawaii vacation

A Honolulu to Kauai jaunt can be either fast and efficient, or slow and languorous ... but nothing in between. While attempts have been made to run regular ferry service between the islands, currently, the only way to island-hop is by air (fast). The other option (slow) converts mere transit into a vacation – by taking a commercial cruise or a private boat charter.

The only exception is a ferry that operates between Maui and Lanai (a Maui–Molokai ferry ceased to operate in October 2016). But if your destination is Kauai, read on.

Hawaiian island hopping for beginners

You've arrived in Honolulu, wandered Waikiki, traipsed through the Ala Moana Center, and gawked at Diamond Head. Now the outer islands are beckoning, and you're starting with Kauai at the top of the chain.

The only real option is to fly – and honestly, many islanders think nothing of flying to a neighboring island to meet a friend for lunch. The flights are fast, mostly cheap, and, well, the only way to go. Honolulu airport is the hub, so if you're traveling from, say, the Big Island to Kauai, you will almost always have to stop in Honolulu. But the flight between Honolulu and Kauai is non-stop (one can hope!) directly to the Lihue Airport (LIH). It takes about 25 to 30 minutes, and usually runs from about $135 to $200 round trip, depending on the day of the week and fare type.

Hawaii was long dominated by just two airlines – Hawaiian and Aloha – but Aloha Airlines ended operations in 2008, and since then, several smaller airlines are competing for your business along with Hawaiian, making it pretty nice for the consumer. Here's the rundown:

  • Hawaiian Airlines‌‌:‌ This is the granddaddy of Hawaii's airlines, having operated in the Islands since 1929. Its age is not yet showing; however, it remains among the most reliable, tends to have the most comfortable planes (usually jets), and frequently offers the cheapest price. It has a small subsidiary, 'Ohana by Hawaiian, that serves Molokai and Lanai.
  • Island Air‌‌:‌ This airline is now second to Hawaiian Airlines in size, but it operates only propeller planes. Some travelers cite its cheaper prices, but for most flights, Island Air is comparable to Hawaiian in price. ‌Fun fact‌: Larry Ellison, the billionaire owner of Oracle, bought Island Air in 2013.
  • Mokulele Airlines‌‌:‌ This airline runs between Honolulu, Maui, Molokai, and the Big Island only, flying nine-passenger Cessna turboprop planes. Fares are more expensive than the larger airlines because of the many smaller airports it services and the close-up view of the islands it provides.
  • Makani Kai Air:‌ The smallest of the bunch, this airline flies only between Oahu, Maui, and Molokai, also operating nine-passenger Cessna aircraft.

From Honolulu to Kauai by boat

While you can't get to Kauai from Honolulu by boat in any normal transportation sense, you can take a cruise or charter if you are really hankering for an ocean experience.

Several cruise lines offer inter-island cruises, although only one starts and ends in Hawaii: Norwegian Cruise Line, which traverses the four main islands (Oahu, Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island) in seven days. It stops in Kauai for one night at Nawiliwili Bay just south of the Lihue Airport. Other cruise lines tour the islands but start or end in Vancouver or Los Angeles, including Princess Cruises, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity Cruises.

Another option – if cost is no object – is to charter a sailboat and really travel in style. Tradewind Charters runs an eight-day cruise from Oahu to Kauai and back. Other Hawaii boat charter companies offer day trips on individual islands, with no option to actually sail between islands.

So whether you choose to take a quick direct flight from Honolulu International (HNL) to the Lihue Airport, explore the inter-island flights provided by Hawaiian Airlines, Island Air, Mokulele Airlines, or Makani Kai Air, or indulge in a leisurely cruise or private boat charter, the island of Kauai with its natural beauty, including Hanalei, Napali, Waimea Canyon, Kalapaki, and the stunning waterfalls, awaits you. Plan your trip, pack your bags, and get ready for an unforgettable Hawaiian adventure.

Note:‌ Keep in mind that flight availability, airfare, and schedules are subject to change, so it's advisable to check with the respective airlines or cruise lines for the most up-to-date information.