Traveling to Maui? We've got the inside scoop on Hawaii budget travel options and the best things to do in Maui. Here's how to save money and have more fun - updated for 2021.
Dreaming of a Maui vacation? I can't blame you! As far as tropical vacations go, it’s pretty great. And it’s no secret – Maui is synonymous with “paradise” the world over!
Yes, Maui can be busy. But 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 (which ARE fantastic!) you can still enjoy its most popular destinations – cheap n’ calm in peak season.
We spent a week in Maui, loving every moment of it, and we stayed on budget. And you can too! This isn't your ordinary Maui travel blog post! Follow along with our Maui vacation adventure.
Maui Accommodation Choices Don't Have To Be Expensive
Maui's gorgeous luxury hotels and resorts are breathtaking - but Maui beach resort prices can be very intimidating. Never fear! There are a lot of budget-friendly choices if you know where to look. One option is to search inland. There are abundant farms, inns, and guest homes in central Maui and Maui b&b options have never been better.
These kinds of accommodations offer more “bang for your buck” (for instance, some include farm style breakfasts and eco tours), and provide a slice of real authentic Hawaiian life. The main disadvantage - for some people, at least - is that they are often quite far from the beach. But for us, a short drive to the shore was well worth the savings and we'd never pass on the chance to experience a part of Maui that many travelers overlook.
Another excellent choice is to look into Maui vacation rentals, be it a house, cottage, condo, or ohana. Ohanas are a Hawaiian form of an “in-law suite”, usually a full bedroom and bathroom with a combined mini-kitchen and sitting room. We found a great ohana rental (<-- very similar to this one) that cost less than $100 a night. We were in the heart of Lahaina, and just a few blocks from the beach. While it would have been lovely to overlook the ocean, it was worth the short walk to save hundreds of dollars.
Our charming ohana was the perfect size for us. It included a tiny but full kitchen and a small patio area with a BBQ. It also had a regular sized bathroom, a wee dining area, and a couch for lounging. It came with WI-Fi, flat screen TV, and DVDs – including Anne of Green Gables!!
If you see a rental home with an attached ohana but that ohana doesn't have its own listing, it’s worthwhile 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: Maui Car Rental 101
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 run infrequently.
Unless you plan to stay exclusively on a resort, you will need a car rental. However, Maui van rentals and car rentals aren't necessarily cheap. 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. You can also try calling the car rental agency directly, explain the limitations of your budget, and ask for their recommendations about what vehicle will best meet your needs. Never underestimate the value of the human touch!
Budget Eats in Maui
Food prices in Maui are comparable to major Canadian and Western European cities. We found that Maui was more expensive on average than most American destinations and you can't really classify it as a “cheap eats” destination. But, like any spot, there are great deals waiting to be found.
One of our time honored strategies was to head to the grocery store. Hey, we had a great kitchen at hand. Why not use it! The grocery store was like the land of opposites for us. Food that was fairly cheap for us in Ottawa was rather expensive in Maui but items we classify as special treats were actually locally grown food in Maui - hello, fresh pineapple!! Banana, coconut, mango, papaya, oranges, guava, mushrooms, avocado, and green onions were all great deals, as was fish and sushi. We also found made-in-Maui potato chips, ice cream, and other snacks.
As Canadians, we quickly caught on to the fact that many American grocery store chains don’t necessarily have sales - they have special “member prices”. And you can get these prices too! Just apply at the customer service desk for a visitor’s card.
Farmers’ markets and fruit stands are another great option for well priced food – provided you follow a few tips. 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 has inflated prices (I'm looking at you, Hana Highway!) I always had small bills on hand so I could 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. (Another good reason to have cash on hand? So you can easily visit the Maui food trucks!)
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. Even in our well equipped rental property I might have been a bit nervous about hacking away at a coconut! And don't be afraid to ask if there are smaller bundles available.
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 estimate it was about the equivalent of 2 to 3 muffins. I NEVER saw a full-sized loaf from a traditional bakers’ pan. If you enjoy the banana bread, buy some. But - truth time! -it honestly tastes the same as my own homemade banana bread! Please don't hate me, Maui! It's indeed delicious but it's really just classic homemade banana bread. We must have spent nearly $50 trying different samples around Maui before I came to that conclusion!
Are restaurant meals more your style? The many tourists of Maui will work to your advantage! One of our best Maui travel tips is to check out the plentiful supply of touristy magazines and brochures at the airport and car rental counter offers tons of coupons for discount drinks, 2-for-1 breakfasts, and plate lunch specials. I don't think we paid full price for a drink in a week. Do your happy hour research and check out Facebook pages to learn when you can drop in for 2-for-1 drinks.
We especially liked 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 it and we considered one of the best Maui travel deals we encountered.
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. We saved about 40% when 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! (One surprising thing we ate a lot of in Maui - pizza! It was delicious with local pineapple and veggies and very affordable too).
Our Biggest Budget Temptation: Shave Ice in Maui
I can't talk about food without chatting about Hawaiian shave ice. Served in huge plastic cups, the servings are generous, but the prices can be high – about $5+a serving on average. So worth it! 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 spots. 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! It wasn't really cheap -but it DID keep me calm!
Fun in the Sun - Exploring Maui's Beaches and Scenic Routes. Check Out Our Favourite Things To Do in Maui!
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. Even on the gorgeous beaches! 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 excursions 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. This was a real boost when driving the Hana Highway – we left early enough to continue driving around the southern tip of Maui, one of the most spectacular and isolated drives in the state.
The time change and early wake ups also helped for one especially important activity. We had no problem getting up at 4am to drive to the top of Haleakala National Park to see the sunrise! And on the way back down, we passed several hiking trails before settling on one of the less “fancy” trails. Featuring unique trees from around the world, we enjoyed a gentle nature walk entirely on our own – not a single tourist in site. Crowds? What crowds?
Instead of making a beeline for the beach later that day when it would be crowded, we took advantage of our location to visit the nearby Surfing Goat dairy, picking up some delicious goat cheese for later that day.
But beach visits we did have in abundance! And we only had company when we wanted to. When it came to snorkeling at a local beach – it was just us and some young families. We knew the beaches were busiest on the weekends when locals go to hangout, so we concentrated on weekdays for the most popular locations.
Flexibility helped us. Finding beach parking mid-day can be tricky and, at first, it 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. (Curious about what kind of towel you should bring? You hotel or guest house will be able to help and we have a full article on travel towels for you to check out here!)
Make A Splash! We Found Affordable Snorkeling in Maui (and you can too!)
You've probably heard about Maui's Molokini tours. One of the most popular activities in Maui is to go snorkeling around 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! Happily, I discovered a lot of Molokini tours to choose from.
After a lot of reading, I realized that 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. (There were several well reviewed companies in my Lonely Planet guidebook. In the end, we went with Kai Kanani Charters.)
The boat ride was a blissfully short 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!
Our boat offered low-key fruit and muffins – all we needed – and we were thrilled with the personal attention. And since no one else had been there to stir up the water, we had crystal clear views and a great experience. Yep, Maui snorkeling is phenomenal! (Budget travelers, take note: Afternoon Molokini snorkel tours are cheaper but visibility is greatly reduced.)
If you're a bit more ambitious and want to catch a wave, I can't make any personal recommendations about Maui surf lessons, but I've read great things about Maui Surfer Girls and their packages.
PS: Don't forget your flip flops! We love these ones in particular.
Maui Whale Watching - Yep, We Found Affordable Choices Here Too!
First, we snorkeled with the whales (well, not REALLY!) Now it was time to see them! Or, at least it was for Ryan. He loves boat rides! But not me – you couldn't pay me to ride the waves! But Ryan was adamant. He just wanted to see whales. So we stopped in at a random trip outfitter to inquire about prices.
We learned some big lessons here. And they weren't all fun! The first thing the outfitter told us was “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”. And we totally fell for this sales ploy!
Looking back, boat Y was of course more expensive than boat X - but it's hard to say if it really was more or less crowded. We saw several whale watching boats at the pier and they all looked like they had the same amount of passengers and the same amount of staff and amenities. In the end, Ryan enjoyed a a 60 minute boat ride and he had a fantastic time. But we suspect he would have had just as much fun on the least expensive boat. Unless you are keen on a semi-private tour, chances are you won't notice whatever mysterious factors go into making one whale watching tour $10, $15, or $25 more expensive than another one.
Don't Be Afraid To Head Away From The Water
Finally, farms, gardens, 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. Some of our most memorable vacation moments were tremendously affordable and offered tons of fun. We loved the Whalers’ Museum north of Lahaina in particular.
Every museum had a good reason to visit on a certain day or a certain time. For instance, in Lahaina, the local museums would stay open late on the monthly Friday Arts Night, offering special candle lit tours. And their neighbouring Maui art galleries are gorgeous! If you are interested in visiting, check out their website to see the calendar of events to get the most for your visit.
We have to give a special shout out to Maui's wonderful farms. If you're looking for wine makers or fruit vendors or even a lavender farm, Maui has it all. We really fell in love with Maui Grown Coffee farms and shop in Lahaina, where we got amazing insight into the local coffee industry and incredible java every morning. And it always seemed like we were the only travelers there.
If I could go back and add in one more thing, it would be yoga - Maui would have been a gorgeous destination for this!
We Loved Our Maui Budget Travel Experience!
We loved every minute in Maui. I can’t claim it to be an ultra cheap 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"?
If you enjoyed this article, you'll also like:
Visiting Haleakala At Sunrise
My Perfect First 24 Hours in Maui
The Hana Highway and Routes Less Taken
Hawaii Is Paradise - And So Is The Coffee!
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