The mystic islands of Hawaii were formed when volcanic lava bubbled from the ocean floor and built up over time, until it rose dramatically into the island chain we recognize today. Over millions of years, plants and animals colonized the new land, creating an isolated ecosystem in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The islands are a tourism hot spot famous for their beaches, tropical rain forests, volcanoes, legendary surfing waves, and seasonal whale watching. Each island in the chain has its own local vibe and unique characteristics.
The island of Kauai has a small-town, rural atmosphere compared to some of the busier islands. The major outdoor attractions on the island are the Waimea Canyon overlook, hiking in the rain forests, the striking Kalalau valley, beach walking, visiting waterfalls, and snorkeling on the reefs. You can even visit several filming locations from the movie Jurassic Park. A lot of the landscape shots for the movie were filmed on the island.
Organizing a vacation to the remote island of Kauai can feel like a financially daunting task. The cost of flights, rental cars, and hotels can add up quickly to make for a very pricey getaway. However, if a traveler is willing to explore alternative accommodations for their stay on Kauai, and sacrifice some luxury amenities, the vacation budget can become more reasonable.
Through several organizations, the island offers a unique opportunity to tent camp on beachfront locations with the purchase of inexpensive permits. With some planning, and thorough prep work, a budget traveler can spend a week on the island for $100 or less.
What you will need to plan your budget Kauai vacay:
1. A flight reservation
Book your flight through discount sites for the best rates. Use the TrulyTraveled airfare deals page for tips on how to shop around for a cheap flight.
Kauai’s airport is located on the south side of the island in the town of Lihue. When you arrive in Lihue, go ahead and get your shopping out of the way. It is the largest town on the island and food, fuel, and other necessities are less expensive here than elsewhere on the island. You will also reserve or pick up permits for your County of Kauai-maintained campsites in Lihue (more on that later).
2. A rental car reservation
The island does not have a great public transportation system. Getting to and from the sometimes remote campsites would be almost impossible without a car. Book a car in advance with a discount company, like Rent a Wreck, or try bundling a car with your airfare for extra savings.
During your stay on the island, be wary of potential theft items in your rental car. There have been car break-ins reported at trail heads, so consider the insurance packages carefully to fully protect yourself. Remember that anything of value will be locked in your car, so maybe limit the number of expensive gadgets or jewelry you bring with you on this trip.
Side note: gas tends to be more expensive in Hawaii than on the mainland. Check the current rate ahead of time to more accurately budget for this portion of your trip’s expenses.
3. Camping supplies
Most of the campsites on Kauai are self-service. They do not provide tents, sleeping bags, water filtration devices, or anything else you will need to camp comfortably. If you can, bring all your gear with you on your flight to avoid buying gear on the island. Be knowledgeable about your gear and how to use it before arriving. However, do not bring food with you on your flight. Hawaii has very strict agricultural laws and you risk a fine.
If you realize that you forgot something after arriving, you may be able to find it inexpensively at the thrift stores in town. We picked up a snorkeling mask, a beach towel, and a pair of flip flops at a local thrift store for under $10.
4. Permits for the campsites
All the campsites on Kauai require visitors to obtain a permit and pay a permit fee. The permits that are available online for the more popular sites book up months in advance. If you are visiting in the busier summer months, you may find that they book up even more quickly. If possible, book some of your sites online in advance before your trip. This is especially true if you want to hike the very famous Kalalau trail (currently closed), which is strictly regulated.
The process to reserve a permit will be determined by which campsites you choose to stay in. The categories below will help you make that decision.
Camping on Kauai – the three categories:
1. Campsites operated by the State of Hawaii
This category includes any campsites run by the State of Hawaii, of which there are multiple locations on the island of Kauai.
Purchasing permits for State Park camping can be done ahead of time in an easy online process. Select the campsite you are interested in from this map, and check to see if there is availability for the dates you need. You will notice fees are different for residents of Hawaii versus non-residents. Non-residents pay a fee of $18/per night for up to six people at most of the locations. The famous Kalalau trail carries a higher fee of $20/per person/per night, due to its immense popularity. Print these permits ahead of time and have them with you during your stay.
The website also posts updates on the status and potential closures of each campsite. The island is currently experiencing multiple closures due to the intense flooding that occurred in April of this year. You will be refunded if a campsite is closed on a day you have already purchased a permit for.
Campsite locations near Koke’e State Park and Waimea Canyon are the only inland campsite locations on the island. The hiking trails surrounding these campsites are densely wooded and allow visitors the chance to look down into the Kalalau valley, as well as hike down into Waimea canyon.
The Polihale state park campsite is a remote beach park location, with a sheltered lagoon area for swimming. The park is at the end of a long dirt road. Read your rental car agreement and insurance carefully. It may not cover damage resulting from driving on a dirt road.
The Na’Pali Coat State Park is the home of the world famous Kalalau Trail. There is tons of information available on the internet on hiking this remote trail. There are two campsites on the eleven-mile trail where visitors can spend up to five nights.
Unfortunately, due to the horrible flooding in April, the trail is currently closed indefinitely. Until it is reopened, visitors can camp at the Milolii location, accessible by way of boat or kayak.
At these campsites, you will need to be prepared for a back-country camping experience. Expect limited amenities, primitive compost toilets, and water sources from streams or rivers. You will need to bring a filtration system to make the water in the rivers and streams safe to drink. Additionally, you will probably not have cell phone reception and help would be several hours away if there was an emergency. Be prepared.
2. Campsites operated by the County of Kauai
The County of Kauai hosts several campgrounds around the island such as Anahola Beach Park and Anini Beach Park. During our stay, we had very pleasant experiences with all of the campsites on the north side of the island. They are all beautiful beach-side locations with a friendly, safe atmosphere. We had a less pleasant experience with the campsites on the south side of the island. There appeared to be a homeless population living at these two sites and we did not feel as safe as we did at the other locations. To help make your selections, you can read online reviews of other campers’ experiences at each campsite.
These sites are very budget friendly, costing $3 per person per night. The reservation system is a little more complicated than the state system. Reservations must be made, paid for, and picked up in person at the offices on the island, so you won’t be able to reserve them ahead of time. There is an office, located near the airport in Lihue, that is an easy stop while you are gathering supplies in town. However, the office operates on business hours, so if your flight arrives too late in the evening, or on the weekend, you will not be able to get your permits until the next business day.
Although you must get your permits in person, you can do your research online ahead of time at the county website. This will make the office visit faster once you arrive in Kauai. Plan carefully: the campsites are closed for cleaning one day per week, and some are closed intermittently due to damage or flooding. Check for updates closer to your trip to make sure your itinerary will work out.
Expect running potable water, outdoor showers, toilet facilities, and lots of neighbors at these popular campsites.
3. Privately owned campsites
There are a couple of privately owned and operated campsites on the island, such as Camp Naue run by the YMCA and Kumu Camp at the Anahola Beach Retreat. These sites offer similar amenities to the county-run sites, with running, potable water and bathroom facilities. Kumu camp also offers fancier rental yurts and bungalows at additional cost.
For reservation fees, Camp Naue costs $20 per person and Kumu camp costs $25 per couple per night. Call these companies ahead of time to make reservations.
Plan your trip carefully to optimally budget your time, gas mileage and permit fees.
Planning your trip can take a bit of finesse. You need to factor in closures of campsites due to weather and maintenance days, drive time between campsites, and obtaining permits from the various platforms.
For instance, access to the campsites near Waimea Canyon are quite a distance away from campsites on the north side of the island. It would be inconvenient to drive back and forth between them frequently. Plan your route as logically as possible to avoid wasting too much time and gas driving between sites.
When obtaining your permits for camping you can save some money by splitting your time between the inexpensive county-operated campsites and the more expensive private and state operated campsites. Budget travelers can easily plan a five-night vacation for under $100 using this method. Staying more frequently at the county sites, which cost only $3 per person, can decrease your cost of accommodation even further.
Planning a camping trip to Kauai can be a pleasant experience accomplished on a tight budget. The traveler will have a unique experience that differs from conventional tourism, get to spend more time outdoors, and book oceanfront accommodation at a steeply discounted rate.
If visiting Kauai has always felt too expensive for your budget, beach-side camping may be the solution you have been looking for.
Happy camping budget travelers!