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Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii (Photo: Shane Myers Photography/Shutterstock)
Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii (Photo: Shane Myers Photography/Shutterstock)

Visiting Hawaii by Cruise or by Land: Pros and Cons

Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii (Photo: Shane Myers Photography/Shutterstock)
Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii (Photo: Shane Myers Photography/Shutterstock)
Katie Morell
Marissa Wright

Last updated
Apr 25, 2024

Read time
6 min read

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 an inviting whiff of plumeria flowers, a warm breeze and unfaltering sunshine. Having a bad vacation in Hawaii is nearly impossible, but should you visit via cruise or land?

Adventure seekers never run out of things to experience, from surfing and bodyboarding to hiking steep cliffs and skydiving over deep blue waters. Those interested in more relaxing pursuits have an array of options as well, including sitting by the pool or on the beach, taking a ride on a catamaran, or just going for a leisurely drive.

But what is the best way for busy travelers to visit this fan favorite? Should you visit Hawaii by land or by sea, onboard a cruise ship? Cruise Critic breaks down both options' pros and cons to help you decide which is right for you.

Cruising to Hawaii for Your Vacation: Pros

Exterior aerial shot of Disney Wonder cruising in Hawaii during sunset
Disney Wonder in Hawaii (Photo: Disney Cruise Line)

See More of Hawaii in Less Time

Exploring Hawaii by cruise is the perfect way for someone to visit the 50th state and see as many locations as possible. Most cruises 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. Some cruises also leave from Honolulu and Oahu.

Most Hawaiian cruises stay in port for a decent amount of time (sometimes even two full days), which gives you several hours to explore the ports.

Cruising tip: Shore excursions are incredibly comprehensive and a great way to explore Hawaii. They can include everything from ziplining and volcano viewing to luau going and snorkeling in craters. Booking shore excursions for the whole family is undoubtedly the best way to explore the islands.

Less Expensive to Cruise Hawaii Than Exploring It by Land

Hawaii is a notoriously expensive vacation destination. According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, land visitors spent an average of $230.80 a day in 2022 on lodging, food and beverages, shopping and entertainment.

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 that you'll see less (or no) savings depending on how much you choose to spend on excursions and dinners in specialty restaurants as these are not included in your overall costs for cruising.

Planning Is Easier on Cruise Ships in Hawaii

For travelers who aren't big on planning, there is no better way to travel within Hawaii than by cruise. It’s the ultimate “sit back, relax and enjoy” way to vacation.

Cruisers can hop aboard 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 beforehand; instead, just visit the excursion counter to purchase a pre-planned tour when you get onboard.

If you're interested in popular shore excursions, we recommend going to the excursion counter after you board. Some excursions may not be available if they’re pre-booked by other cruisers.

Want to rent a car at your next port? No planning is 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.

Cruising to Hawaii for Your Vacation: Cons

Pride of America in Hawaii (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Pride of America in Hawaii (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Can't Go In-Depth When Visiting the Islands

Although a Hawaiian cruise does enable you to see multiple islands in one trip, 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 return 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.

More Time at Sea Than on Land (Usually)

Cruise lines run round-trip itineraries from the U.S. and Canada, along with one-way sailings to and from a mainland port and Hawaii. This means cruisers often spend more days at sea than they do exploring the islands.

For example, a Princess Cruises' 15-night cruise from Los Angeles includes nine days at sea and four days in Hawaii.

Sea days can be rough and we highly recommend bringing your favorite treatments for seasickness so you can have a great time onboard. If you’re traveling with first-time cruisers (or are a first-timer yourself), be sure to come prepared with travel essentials, but you can always visit with the cruise ship doctors onboard.

Exploring Hawaii By Land: Pros

Couple Shooting at Volcano (Photo: Maridav/Shutterstock)
Couple Shooting at Volcano (Photo: Maridav/Shutterstock)

Pro of Visiting Hawaii By Land: Take Your Time While Exploring

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 explore two islands in a week, that gives you at least three days per island, which is far more time than you would have on a Hawaiian cruise.

Being there for full days and overnight also gives you opportunities to experience the islands during hours that cruise passengers rarely experience, like an early morning beach jog or sunset tour.

Pro of Visiting Hawaii By Land: More Flexibility With Your Plans

Visiting Hawaii by land also allows you to change up your schedule at a moment's notice. Instead of being tied to a cruise schedule and knowing you must be back on the ship by a specific time (or be left behind), exploring the islands by land allows you the freedom to change plans when you feel like it.

Bear in mind that if you enjoy changing your plans at a moment's notice, you’ll have to make flexible booking options.

Exploring Hawaii By Land: Cons

Mudbug Off-Road Adventure (Photo: lukovic photograpy/Shutterstock)
Mudbug Off-Road Adventure (Photo: lukovic photograpy/Shutterstock)

Visiting Hawaii by Land Is More Expensive Than Cruising

The cost of living is the biggest downside of visiting Hawaii by land. As mentioned, Hawaii is notoriously expensive, so you can save quite a bit by cruising around the islands. While cruising to Hawaii isn’t known for being “cheap,” it’s comparable to exploring locations like Hawaii by land, as cruising has many fees and hidden costs.

According to the Hawaii Tourism Board, land-based visitors spent an average of $30.80 per person per day on restaurant food in 2022, which is far more than you need to pay on a cruise ship where you can eat in a complimentary restaurant every day.

More Complicated Planning Is Required

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, booking inter-island flights, etc.

When on a cruise, there is always someone to ask for help, food is easily available (and mostly included, barring specialty restaurants) and transportation to the various islands is provided.


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