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When prospective visitors to Hawaii Island hear that driving is the most time efficient way to see the entirety of the “Big Island,” they might wonder if the destination is right for them. After all, many people, especially those coming from commuter cities terrorized by traffic jams, like me, might think that driving has no place in a vacation.
But, as I found out during my road trip, driving on the Big Island is nothing like driving through Los Angeles. For one, it’s an absolute pleasure. Driving showcases the various and constantly changing surroundings, climates and offerings of Hawaii Island, which is quite possibly the world’s best drive-in theater.
The following tips help ensure that driving is a memorable part of your journey, rather than just a means of transportation.
1. Use a travel agent to make your rental car reservation before departure. Many visitors to the island choose to rent cars so having your reservation taken care of early is a huge relief. Take my word for it — you will not be in the mood to shop around for rental cars after landing, especially if you’re arriving late. Even more importantly, rentals companies might sell out of their stock or of the category of car you need.
2. Factor in the price of a rental car in your overall vacation spending. First and foremost, this is a way to manage expectations for your Hawaii vacation. Renting a car in Hawaii may be essential, but having your own private automobile, and the independence that comes with it, is a luxury. Prices for rentals on the island are quite steep — yes, more than what you’re used to paying on the mainland — and there are a variety of taxes that are added to your bill. If you are aware of these charges, you’ll be able to budget more wisely. Here are some of the charges you can expect to pay:
• $75 for a one way fee, if you choose to pick up your car in one airport and fly out of the other airport. Don’t let this added fee deter you from flying into Hilo and flying out of Kona, though. Consider the money you save in gas by not having to drive back and forth.
• $27 a day, if you’re under 25 years old.
• An 11.11 percent Concession Recovery Fee of your subtotal charges
• A .38/day Vehicle License Fee
• A sales tax of 4.1665 percent of your subtotal charges
• A $7.50/day Hawaii State Surchage
• The actual rate of your car, which varies depending on the category of car and whether you’re renting the car on an hourly, daily, weekly or monthly basis. In some cases, renting at the weekly rate may be cheaper than renting for the daily rate. For example, if you’re renting for five days, the weekly rate of $194.99 is cheaper than the daily rate of $39.
• Any added insurance plans. Double check your own automobile insurance and the policies of your credit card before opting for the rental car’s myriad insurance plans, which can add a hefty sum to your total bill.
3. Choose to refuel the gas yourself. Plan to stop at the gas station before returning your vehicle at the airport. This is the cheapest option in regards to gas, which is expensive on the island.
4. Pack a snack. Distances between major landmarks can sometimes be more than an hour long. Don’t spoil a perfect opportunity to feast on the island’s fresh fruits or, if you want a snack to eat while at your destination, pick up some macadamia nut pie. Some of the island’s main attractions — such as Ka Lae, Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Akaka Falls and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park¬ — don’t sell food.
5. Download apps to your Smartphone. Bring your car charger — you’ll need it because a phone loaded with the right apps will be useful. Some great apps for maximizing your drive through unfamiliar and, at times, remote areas include The Weather Channel, which is particularly useful for Hawaii Island, which boasts all but two of the world’s climate zones. Also helpful are Google Maps, for step-by-step GPS directions; and Yelp, for spots worth stopping for, according to locals.
6. Police cars are unmarked and tickets are expensive.
7. Stay at places along the way. There’s no better way to get a sense of place than staying at one of the charming inns or bed and breakfasts located in the island’s small towns. At the Pahala Plantation Cottages, guests can stay in a former plantation home, fully decked out in original antique pieces, in many cases passed down from families in the neighborhood.
8. Listen to the local radio. You’ll learn some local slang, hear what the locals are listening to, get a taste for traditional Hawaii music and know what issues and events are top of mind.
9. Turn the music off, too. Listening to the falling rain, the wind comb through the palms, the crashing waves or simply your own thoughts and reactions as you drive through new territory can be very interesting and stimulating, not to mention helpful if you’re trying to reach a new destination.
10. Go with the flow. Agro drivers are a normal feature in some cities, but most drivers on Hawaii Island bring the spirit of aloha to the road. Most employ the usual best practices such as using turn signals, limiting the use of the horn to absolute emergencies, driving at the speed limit and using headlights during rain and fog. Embrace your changing surroundings, and stop on the side of the road if you’re checking directions or sightseeing. You never know what you may see — one of my favorite memories was stopping at the side of an empty road to check directions, only to look up and see a horse staring back at me.