So you’ve decided to vacation on the Hawaiian island of Maui? Good choice, seriously. However doing a road trip around Maui on a budget can be tricky but it is possible. Now you won’t necessarily find free (and legal) camping, or cheap hotel prices, or food that isn’t a bit pricey. So a modest budget is necessary.
Maui is a like a dream, well a dream like one I would have. The clear water beaches are perfect for swimming and snorkeling. The red, black, and white sand was the main reason I wanted to visit the island. And oh my, the hiking and waterfalls were just icing on the cake.
Once we arrived in Maui for our week-long vacation, we rented a car, stopped at the grocery store for supplies, and hit the road to our first campsite (three actions that are always at the top of our ‘to do’ list once we land in any destination). Although we had a car, we had a backpack ready for backcountry. Maui has a national park, Haleakala National Park, where you can definitely find some great backcountry campsites if you’re into hiking with a pack on an island (p.s. it’s pretty fucking awesome).
Before I get into the nitty gritty, there is one thing that I should make explicitly clear: car camping is necessary to actually make this a budget-friendly road trip. Now that I’ve bored you with a way-too-long intro. Let’s delve into logistics, shall we?
What kind of car should I get?
In order to have a road trip, you kinda sorta have to have a car. One of your biggest expenses will be the car rental. However don’t bother with a Mustang or a Jeep. You will look like a tourist, I promise you that, because so many people end up renting those cars (why? it’s just a rental people).
Unless you want to do some off-roading, an SUV is not necessary. Since there are many one-lane roads in Maui, I highly recommend going with a smaller car. You might as well save some cash by choosing your cheapest car option with the best gas mileage. Yeah gas, that’s an expense too. Good thing it’s a smallish island because, boy, gas in Hawaii is not cheap.
Where should I go?
From the airport, you must decide to head either east or west. Head west to get to Lahaina or east to go to Hana. For us, Hana was more our vibe, while Lahaina seemed pricey and full of tourists. Both are great options to choose though. It’s Maui. There are beautiful beaches and awesome scenery everywhere. If you are serious about a road trip, you’ll end up seeing a lot of the island by car anyway. We had time to visit both cities.
Our favorite cities were Hana and Paia. Paia is a cute yet touristy town that has lots of shops (wifi!) and a nice beach. Hana is a small beach town, like really small, like so small that public wifi wasn’t found anywhere and everything closes early. We loved Hana though; it didn’t seem to be as full of tourists as other towns in Maui (I’m talking about you Lahaina).
The famous ‘Road to Hana’ is a trippy trip that you must freakin’ do. It’s a winding road that is full of great scenery and one-lane bridges. There are waterfalls to stop and view along the way. Hit up this road early to avoid traffic and please pull aside for speeding locals if you’re being obnoxiously slow.
Where should I stay?
I highly recommend camping if you have the gear. Hotels prices are outrageous all over the island. And some hostels can actually get quite pricey too. Some campsites have basic amenities and require you to have a tent while other campsites offer glamping opportunities.
There is beach camping in Maui, however some of the beach parks can get pricey especially for travelers that don’t have a Hawaiian driver’s license. Locals do end up getting campsites at a cheaper rate. Therefore, we resorted to two options, a state park and the national park.
So I decided to head to Lahaina, where should I camp?
For us, we chose to stay at a private campsite called Camp Olowalu. This was our most expensive campsite the whole trip. However our site was by the beach and there were hot showers and electric outlets.
So I decided to head to Hana, where should I camp?
There are two options near Hana for camping, Haleakala National Park and Waianapanapa State Park. I must express that there is actually no camping within the small town.
Haleakalā National Park
Now we own a National Parks Pass, which grants us entry to U.S. national parks for an entire year. So we did not have to pay a fee to camp in the national park, something that really kept camping costs down.
This campground is a great option because there are so many spots. Now you may be tempted to park at the sites with small barbecue pits. However there are a number of campsites in the woods that are closer to the shoreline and are more private. I recommend looking around first before settling on the first sites you see.
Waianapanapa State Park
Since you can only stay at a campsite in the national park for three nights in a 30 day period, we also stayed at Waianapanapa State Park, which has a black sand beach. Camping here is not as scenic or private as camping at the national park. You’ll be sharing a grassy camping spot with a number of campers.
What other campsites do you recommend?
If you brought warm layers, head up to Haleakala’s drive-up high elevation campsite known as Hosmer Grove Campground. Since this site is at 7,000 feet above sea level, temperatures drop during the night. So an insulating jacket, beanie, gloves and sleeping bag are pretty much required, unless you want to freeze during the night. The area to camp is not very private (it’s on a grassy knoll) and parking can be an issue when it gets busy. However since you’re already up at this campsite, you might as well wake up early and head up to the top of Haleakalā.
What are the must-see beaches?
These aren’t the only beaches on the island. However these are the beaches we visited that were the most scenic and had the least amount of strange hobo hippies [insert laughing emoji and eye roll emoji here].
Red Sand Beach
My all-time favorite beach was the red sand beach, which is in the town of Hana but requires a small but steep hike to reach. The locals won’t tell you where this gem is, and I’m not going to tell you either. It’s utterly gorgeous but tourists sometimes litter and disrespect the area. People even steal the sand (like wtf?!). Therefore I’m not going to promote it’s exact location. I’m sure you can find it with some savvy internet skills.
Black Sand Beach
As mentioned above, the state park near Hana is home to a black sand beach. This is a small beach that fills up during the day, so make it a sunrise or sunset destination. The black sand is blistering hot during the day anyway so save yourself the distress of looking like a dumbass when you have no choice but to awkwardly run across the hot sand when you forget your flip flops.
White/Yellow Sand Beaches
This beach has beautiful sand and clear water. Access to the facilities however are only for hotel guests but that shouldn’t deter you from visiting Homoa. The water is clear and the waves are great for boogie boarding. On a clear day, you can even see the Big Island. We enjoyed this beach because it’s big and it really wasn’t too crowded.
Big Beach & Little Beach
These popular beaches, which are next to each other, has fine yellow sand and the clearest water. However expect parking to be impossible later in the day so hit up this hot spot early to snag parking. Now Big Beach in itself is stunning. Do be aware that waves will break almost at the shoreline so that’s a strange yet dangerous wonder. If you don’t mind nudity, hike up and over the cliff at the end of Big Beach to the reach Little Beach (aka the nude beach). We visited the nude beach on our last day, when we were sunburnt af, so we didn’t shed it all but almost everyone there did. This beach gets bigger waves than Little Beach and is quite scenic. However it is a bit small, and naked bodies littered the beach as early as 11 a.m. But where else are you gonna get rid of those tan lines?
What are some other tips on budget travel in Maui?
- Buy snacks at a grocery store.
- Food from restaurants can get quite pricey. Buy some food at a grocery store so you aren’t always eating out for every single meal. Support a Hawaiian company, instead of a big box store, by shopping at Times Supermarket. Remember to bring reusable bags!
- Have cash.
- Food trucks can be a cheaper alternative to eating at a restaurant but not all of them accept credit or debit cards.
- Buy produce at the farm stands. There are many farm stands in Maui where you simply leave a cash payment or donation.
- Use an app to find where the cheapest gas stations are.
- Do free activities.
- You don’t have to pay for a guided tour or a helicopter ride to experience Maui. Visiting the beach and going on a hike are two free things that are worth doing.
- Bring a camp shower.
- Not all campsites have showers. We ended up bringing our camp shower, which if left laying in the sun for a couple hours will heat up to a nice temperature. We were able to rinse the sand and salt off our bodies every night.