A visit to the Hawaiian Islands holds a firm spot on many bucket lists and for good reason. Stepping off the plane in Hawaii brings with it an inviting whiff of plumeria flowers, a warm breeze and unfaltering sunshine. It is nearly impossible to have a bad vacation in Hawaii because activity options are limitless.
Adventure seekers never have a drought of things to try, from surfing and body boarding to hiking steep cliffs and skydiving over deep blue waters. Those with an interest in more relaxing pursuits have an array of options including sitting by the pool or on the beach, taking a ride onboard a catamaran or just going for a leisurely drive.
But what is the best way to visit Hawaii? Should you visit by land or by sea, onboard a cruise ship? Cruise Critic breaks down the pros and the cons of both options to help you decide which is right for you.
Exploring Hawaii by cruise is the perfect idea for someone who may only visit the 50th state once and wants to see as many locations as possible. Most cruises -- with the exception of Norwegian's Pride of America, which sails weeklong cruises roundtrip from Oahu -- leave from and return to a U.S. mainland port, but all typically visit four islands: Oahu, the Big Island (also simply called Hawaii), Maui and Kauai.
Worried you won't see enough of the islands during your cruise? Fear not. Most Hawaiian cruises stay in port for a good amount of time (sometimes even two full days), which gives you several hours to explore. Extra bonus: Shore excursions are incredibly comprehensive and can include everything from ziplining and volcano viewing to luau going and snorkeling in craters.
Hawaii is a notoriously expensive vacation destination. According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, land visitors spent an average of $194.50 a day in 2015, including lodging, food and beverages, shopping and entertainment. While prices for Hawaiian cruises vary depending on the cruise line, on a typical 14-day sailing, you can expect to pay between $1,200 and $4,500 (and up), which breaks down to around $85 to $321 per day.
The most pronounced financial benefit of taking a cruise versus traveling by land is that cruising takes out the expense of inter-island flights. Cruising also allows visitors to Hawaii to save on pricy land-based meals in favor of free restaurant options onboard their cruise ship. Note: You'll see less (or no) savings depending on how much you choose to spend on excursions and dinners in specialty restaurants.
For travelers who hate planning, there is no better way to travel within Hawaii than by cruise. Cruisers can hop onboard their ship and relax by the pool while all the planning is done for them. This means you don't have to book tickets to Pearl Harbor ahead of time; instead, just visit the excursion counter when you get onboard to purchase a pre-planned tour. Want to rent a car at your next port? No planning necessary. Most ports offer free shuttles to rental car centers where you can organize your travel for the day onsite. The ease of planning afforded to cruise goers is a major benefit over planning every minute detail during a land-based trip.
Although a Hawaiian cruise does enable you to see multiple islands in one swoop, it doesn't allow you to get a particularly in-depth experience of any of them. Though ships often stay in port for longer, many passengers come back to the ship within eight hours -- a time frame that allows them to see one or two attractions, but not enough to get a deep feel for the locale. If you are the type of traveler that likes to entrench yourself in the day-to-day life of local residents, a cruise may not be for you.
With the exception of Norwegian's Pride of America (the only cruise ship to sail entirely within the Hawaiian Islands), all other cruise lines run round trip itineraries from the U.S. or Canada, or one-way sailings to or from a mainland port and Hawaii. Covering such a large swatch of the Pacific Oceans means cruisers often spend more days at sea than they do exploring the islands. For example, a Princess Cruises 14-night cruise from Los Angeles includes nine days at sea and four days in Hawaii. A Royal Caribbean 11-night sailing starting in Vancouver and ending in Oahu features five days at sea, and five in port.
While it may seem like each Hawaiian island is small, it can take weeks to truly explore all the attractive nooks and crannies. Opting to explore the islands by land allows you the freedom to take your time when visiting the islands. Even if you are exploring two islands in the span of a week, that gives you at least three days per island, which is far more time than you would have when taking a Hawaiian cruise.
Being there for full days and overnight also gives you opportunities to experience the islands during hours cruise passengers rarely get to experience, say on an early morning beach jog or during a sunset tour.
Visiting Hawaii by land also allows you to change up your schedule on a moment's notice. Instead of being tied to a cruise schedule and knowing you must be back on the ship by a certain time (or be left behind), exploring the islands by land allows you the freedom to change plans when you feel like it.
The cost of living is the biggest downside of visiting Hawaii by land. As already mentioned, Hawaii is notoriously expensive, so you can save quite a bit by taking a cruise around the islands. According to the Hawaii Tourism Board, land-based visitors spent an average of $26.60 per person, per day on restaurant food in 2015, which is far more than you need to pay on a cruise ship where you can eat in a complimentary restaurant every day.
Land-based visitors also face logistical challenges that cruise passengers don't have to worry about. These can include renting cars, finding places to eat, identifying the best activities to do for your group, booking inter-island flights and so on. When on a cruise, there is always someone to ask for help, food is easily available (and mostly included) and transportation to the various islands is provided.
Updated August 21, 2018