Traveling to Maui? Here's how to save money and have more fun!
As far as tropical vacations go, it’s pretty great. And it’s no secret – Maui is synonymous with “paradise” the world over!
So much has been made of the tourists who are overrunning and overwhelming Maui, it’s almost become trendy to write articles on “hidden” or “undiscovered” Maui. In fact, National Geographic Traveler had an entire cover story on it a few years ago. And while Maui does indeed have many under-explored, off the beaten track destinations, you can still enjoy its most popular destinations as well – cheap n’ calm in peak season.
Meet Maui's Budget Accommodations
It’s easy to be intimidated by the high cost of resorts and hotels in Maui, but there are extensive budget options in Maui if you know where to look. One option is to look inland – there are multiple B&B’s, farms, inns, and rental properties in central Maui. They have the advantage of being less expensive, offering more “bang for your buck” (like farm style breakfasts and eco tours), and offering you a slice of real authentic Hawaiian life. The main disadvantage, however, is that they are often quite far from the beach and the beach one of the main reasons visitors come to Maui.
Another excellent choice is to rent a vacation property, be it a house, cottage, condo, or ohana. Ohanas are a Hawaiian form of an “in-law suite”, usually a full bedroom and bathroom attached to a combined mini-kitchen and sitting room. We found agreat ohana rental that cost less than $100 a night.
Our lovely ohana was the perfect size for us and included a full, but tiny, kitchen, a small patio area with a BBQ, and included wi-fi, flat screen TV, and DVDs – including Anne of Green Gables!! We were in the heart of Lahaina, and just a few blocks from the beach. While it would have been nicer to be right on the beach, it was worth the short walk to save hundreds of dollars.
If you see a rental home with an attached ohana that doesn't have a separate listing, it’s worth your while to contact the owners directly to see if they will rent the smaller section to you. If you are staying for a week or more, they might just take you up on the offer.
Getting Around Town
While Maui does offer an excellent public transit system, it is much better suited for residents than visitors. The bus system really restricts the amount of items you can carry with you (no huge beach bags or surf boards!) and some buses can run infrequently. Unless you plan to live exclusively on a resort, you will need a car rental. And car rental agencies certainly know this. It’s difficult to get a good rental deal in Maui because it is so popular. Difficult, but not impossible. As always, exhaustive legwork is your best strategy. Search early and search often. If you are going to use a jeep or SUV for part of your adventures, consider switching half way through to a less expensive economy car.
What To Eat
Food in Maui is comparable to major Canadian and Western European cities – it’s more expensive on average than the typical US city, and you can’t classify it as a “cheap eats” destination. But, like any other city, there are great deals waiting to be found. Maui grocery stores may have some surprising prices – foods that are cheap at home may be expensive here because of transportation costs. But the local produce – including the delicious fruits you've been dreaming of – are reasonably priced. Many grocery chains don’t have sales so much as they have special “member prices” and you can get these prices too – just apply at the customer service desk for a visitor’s card.
The many tourists of Maui can also work to your advantage to save money. If you just want a basic drink, there should be many happy hour options every night of the week. The endless touristy magazines and brochures at the airport offer tons of coupons for discount drinks, 2-for-1 breakfasts, and plate lunch specials. We also found great discount breakfast specials at local diners and terrific deals at plate lunch shacks – provided you buy the more economical “small” size.
We’re big appetite folks and we never came close to finishing the regular size plate lunches, with all that rice and macaroni salad. But to save about 40% we ordered the small version and still got a generous serving of stir fry or stew over a scoop of rice. Better to save the rest of your money for other treats!
Farm Stands? Tell Me More!
Farmers’ markets and fruit stands are another great option for well priced food – provided you follow a few tips. Ask the vendors at the farmer’s markets to slice your fruit (esp coconut), as you may not have the necessary equipment to so do safely in your kitchen.
When it comes to fruit stands on the side of the road and at the end of driveways, I suggest you drive by a few to get a firm idea of prices before you buy. Often the first stand or two at the beginning of the scenic drive have greatly inflated prices. Still, I always have small bills on stand so I can stop at the smaller stands with an “honor system” jar for payment. This is a great way to pick up pineapple, mango, papaya, and avocado.
And the famous Maui banana bread proudly sold everywhere? Sure, it is tasty. And since I often had banana bread growing up, I savor it as a delicious, hearty snack. But keep in mind that the $5-$7 “loaf” will be a mini-loaf - I never saw a full-sized loaf from a traditional bakers’ pan. If you enjoy the banana bread, buy some. But it honestly tastes the same as my own homemade banana bread! We must have spent nearly $50 trying different samples around Maui before I came to that conclusion!
Vanessa's Biggest Budget Temptation
Another potential money pit – but a very delicious one! – is Hawaiian shave ice. Served in huge plastic cups, the servings are generous, but the prices can be high – about $5 a serving on average. I fell in love with Ululani’s shave ice in Lahaina and I’m not alone, as it’s one of TripAdvisor's top ranked shave ice locals. I went through at least once a day and between me and my husband, we easily spent $100 during our trip.
For me, it was money well spent! For everyone else I would recommend asking for mini-sizes and, if you like fancy flavors, save your money for a well reviewed shop. You really can taste the difference quality makes. If you just want some sweet refreshment in a basic flavor like pineapple, you can save a few bucks and go to any shave ice stand or truck.
Fun In The Sun!
We found Maui to be an excellent location in terms of saving money on activities and entertainment and we never felt like we were overrun by tourists. In Maui, as with any busy and popular destination, the trick is often to start extra early and come prepared.
Before we traveled, we knew about Maui traffic jams – gee, just like at home, folks need to get to work! We judged our travels accordingly and this gave us an extra incentive to hit the road early. Using the extreme time difference to our advantage, we woke up super-early on our first few days.
We had no problem getting up at 4am to drive to the top of Haleakala National Park to see the sunrise. On the way back down, we by-passed several hiking trails before settling on one of the less “fancy” trails. Featuring exotic trees from around the world, we enjoyed a gentle nature walk entirely on our own – not a single tourist in site. Instead of making a beeline for the beach later that day, we took advantage of our location to visit the nearby Surfing Goat dairy, picking up some delicious goat cheese for later that day.
Make A Splash!
One of the most popular activities in Maui is to go snorkeling off the sunken crater of Molokini. I have to admit, I did some extensive research on this, but not to save money. My seasickness is so notorious, I was really nervous about the trip. And there were endless trips to choose from – several well reviewed companies in the guidebooks, many many more options in the tourist shops throughout the island.
What made the most sense for me is that we ultimately wanted a snorkel trip, not a boat trip. The allure of a BBQ lunch or free booze on board wasn't enough to tempt my queasy stomach – and none of it would have enhanced our snorkeling experience. In order to save my stomach and save some money, we bypassed the endless outfitters operating out of Maalaea and instead drove an extra 30 minutes to Makena. (We went with Kai Kanani Charters.)
The boat ride was a blissful 15 minutes and our super early start ensured that we had only a dozen passengers on our boat – and we were the very first to arrive. In fact, it wasn't until we were getting to leave that we saw the first other boats arrive! Crowds? Tourists? Not on your life, here at Maui’s most popular tourist destination. And since no one else had been there to stir up the water, we had crystal clear views and a great experience. Our boat offered low-key fruit and muffins – all we needed – and we were thrilled with the personal attention.
Tourist Traps Pay Off!
Every now and then, however, it does pay to go the most touristic route you can. My husband really wanted to do a whale watching boat ride. Not me – you couldn't pay me to ride the waves! He didn't care about on board naturalists or any special features. He just wanted to see whales. So we stopped in at a trip outfitters at random. Of course, they tried to sell me on having the smoothest boats in the world – ha! The one mistake we did make was believing the outfitter when he said “No, I’m not going to stick you on “boat X”- they cram people in. Instead, I’ll get you on “boat Y”, they carry about 25% less people and have an on-board naturalist”.
Looking back, boat Y was more expensive than boat X, and he earned more money. Maybe he even got special kickbacks from boat Y. We were very swept up in his “I’m looking out for you, I don’t use shoddy companies” line. But he did! He had all their prices advertised! So I guess we learned a lesson and paid an extra $15 for it. It was a 60 minute boat ride – unless you are getting a private tour, you will likely not hear or care about the on board naturalist – a title that actually carries no real regulation. Believe it or not, there may be times when it pays to go for the bottom of the tourist barrel!
Be The Early Bird!
Again and again throughout our trip, we found that early bird starts made all the difference. Driving the Hana Highway – we left early enough to continue on driving the southern tip of Maui, one of the most spectacular and isolated drives in the state.
Snorkeling at a local beach – it was just us and some young families. Flexibility helped too. Getting beach parking mid-day can be tricky and, at first, was frustrating. But our track record improved once we realized there are a few limited beach parking spots at each hotel lot and that you can get validated parking at many lots associated with local shopping plazas. When we couldn't find parking at a popular snorkeling beach, we just went to the next one on our list. We knew the beaches were busiest on the weekends when locals go to hangout, so we concentrated on weekdays for the most popular locations.
Head Away From The Beach
Finally, historical societies and museums are alive and well in Maui. We always found their work to be outstanding and well worth the price of admission or donation. There are so many unique aspects of Hawaiian history – Polynesian, military, missionary, whaling, agriculture, ranching, quilting, and more. And every museum had a good reason to visit on a certain day or a certain time. In Lahaina, the local museums would stay open late on the monthly Friday Arts Night, offering special candle lit tours. If you are interested in visiting, check out their website to see the calender of events to get the most for your visit.
Some of our best value, most memorable vacation moments were tremendously affordable and offered tons of fun. We loved the Whalers’ Museum north of Lahaina, the MauiGrownCoffee farms and shop in Lahaina, where we got amazing insight into the local coffee industry and incredible java every morning, and Betty’s Cafe in southern Lahaina, where every night we got $5 large double mai-tais at the 9pm happy hour – as well as a free view of a neighbouring luau’s fire show.
We loved every minute in Maui. I can’t claim it to be a budget destination, and there are endless temptations to spend your money – and then some. Every experience you desire, from relaxation to adventure, is available for a hefty price. But we managed to incur reasonable costs and never once felt like we were stuck in a tourist trap, even while participating in some very touristy activities With some hearty pre-trip research and a bit of ingenuity, Maui was everything we dream of.
And best of all: it was cheap n’ calm, even during peak season!
As always, I welcome and encourage your comments. How do you find good deals in places known for being "touristy"?
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