Are you excited for your first time in Hawaii? Here are a few mistakes that you should avoid making during your trip (from a Hawaii local!)
Before visiting Hawaii, it can be hard to know which places are worth your time and which ones aren’t. It’s even harder to know and understand local etiquette! But this guide is here to help ensure that you avoid all of these mistakes during your first time in Hawaii.
Spending All Your Time in Waikiki
Most first time visitors to Hawaii spend all of their time in Waikiki. They stay at a hotel in Waikiki, spend the day at Waikiki Beach, and eat at restaurants in Waikiki. Unfortunately, Waikiki is far from the true Hawaii. That’s why Waikiki is at the top of my list of Hawaii tourist traps. Ask any local, and they’ll tell you that they avoid Waikiki at all costs.
To avoid making this mistake during your first time in Hawaii, consider staying somewhere else. If you’re committed to visiting on Oahu, there are tons of other areas to stay on the island. Ko Olina and the North Shore are the most popular alternatives.
If you’re sure that you want to stay in Waikiki, make sure that you go out an explore the rest of the island, as there are tons of things to do on Oahu.
Not Renting a Car
To explore the islands, you pretty much have to have a rental car. On Oahu, you may be able to pull off using public transportation, but I don’t recommend it unless you’re on a tight budget. On any of the other islands, public transportation is pretty ineffective. Basically, if you plan on exploring the islands during your first time in Hawaii (which you definitely should), rent a car.
Ignoring Island Time
In Hawaii, we live on island time. This is most obvious while driving. Don’t expect us to go more than fifteen miles per hour over the speed limit. And if you go faster than that, everyone will know that you’re not from the islands and will glare at you for being a reckless driver.
Another aspect of island time is that everything closes early. This is especially relevant if you’re on Kauai, Lanai, Molokai, Maui, or the Big Island. Most restaurants don’t stay open past seven or eight, so keep that in mind when planning for dinner. And don’t expect much nightlife at all unless you’re in Waikiki.
Honking Your Horn
One of the worst things to do while driving in Hawaii is honk your horn. Hawaii locals NEVER honk their horns. On the rare occasion that we hear a car honk, we all know that it’s a visitor. And we all think something along the lines of, “that’s rude.” So don’t be rude. Don’t honk your horn.
Confusing “Hawaiian” and “Local”
While people from California can call themselves Californian, people from Hawaii will never call themselves Hawaiian.
There’s a lot of history and nuance behind this, but to put it simply, Hawaiian is an ethnic group with a culture, language, and history. For someone who is from Hawaii but not Hawaiian to claim that they are Hawaiian would imply that they fully understand the complexities behind the Hawaiian ethnicity.
Instead, to indicate that someone is from Hawaii, we usually say that someone is local or a local. This also has its nuances – how long does someone have to live in Hawaii before they become a local? – but it’s much less problematic than calling someone from Hawaii “Hawaiian” if they are not ethnically Hawaiian.
Assuming All the Islands Are the Same
Each Hawaiian Island has its own unique vibe. For example, if we compare Maui and Oahu, the two are very different. While Oahu is great for families and budget-travelers, Maui is perfect for couples. While Oahu has a wide array of restaurants, Maui is limited to hidden gems. And those differences are just a start.
Even the different sections of each island have completely different vibes. The Big Island of Hawaii has erupting volcanoes at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, stunning beaches like Kua Bay and Pohoiki Beach, dense rainforests, dry deserts, and snow-capped mountains. Could it be any more diverse?
For those planning for their first time in Hawaii, it can be difficult to know the distinctions between the islands. Luckily for you, we have a guide to figure out the differences between the Hawaiian Islands!
When visitors find out that each Hawaiian Island is different, they then decide that they have to travel to all of them in one go, especially since flights between islands are pretty cheap. That’s also not a wise move. If you only have a week, you can spend that on just one island (or maybe two), because each island has so much to do! But if you are planning a longer vacation, consider island hopping.
Assuming Hawaii Has No Issues
For centuries, Hawaii has been painted as this picture-perfect paradise, completely free of issues. That’s simply not true. As a matter of fact, this single story of the islands is problematic.
One example of this is Hawaii’s homelessness problem. There are about 7,000 homeless people across all of the Hawaiian Islands. While this is in part due to Hawaii’s ridiculously high rent and low wages (many have to hold down two full-time jobs just to pay rent), there are also a number of homeless people who are sent to Hawaii from the continental U.S. Why? Because there’s a belief that it’s “better to be homeless in Hawaii.”
While to some extent that idea may be true, because there aren’t harsh weather conditions to deal with, there’s also another side to the story. Because of the high cost of rent, food, and practically everything else in the islands, it’s harder to get out of homelessness than it would be on the mainland.
Because many visitors aren’t aware of this problem and others during their first time in Hawaii, they often judge these issues extra harshly.
Driving on H-1 Going West at 5 P.M.
Another (much less important) problem in Hawaii is traffic. Traffic going from Honolulu to the west side of the island (think Ko Olina and Kapolei) between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. is atrocious. 5 p.m. is the worst time. On average, a drive that should take half an hour takes an hour and a half. Basically, avoid driving on H-1 going west at 5 p.m.
Leaving Valuables (Or Things that Could Hold Valuables) In Your Car
While awful traffic is an unpleasant issue, it’s not quite as bad as our issue with petty theft. If you leave valuables visible in your car, there’s a pretty good chance that your car will get broken into. Even if you leave something that could hold or hide valuables (such as a bag or a towel), your car could still get broken into.
Your best bet is to just not have any valuables in your car at all. However, if you need to stash your valuables somewhere, in the trunk, in the glove compartment, in the center console, or under the front seats (airplane-style) are all good options.
Bothering the Animals
There are so many amazing wild animals in Hawaii. Turtles, monk seals, dolphins, and boar are the ones we come across most often. Many visitors during their first time in Hawaii try to get close to these animals. Some even treat these wild animals as if they were in a petting zoo. But remember: they are WILD animals.
These wild animals can be violent if you provoke them, so give them their space, don’t chase them, and don’t feed them food.
Ignoring “Kapu” Signs
The word “kapu” is a word from the Hawaiian language, which at its simplest means “forbidden” or “sacred.” It was originally used by the ancient Native Hawaiians as a term used to describe the laws that were in place. This set of laws governed every aspect of life and breaking any part of it would lead to some form of punishment, even death.
Now, the word “kapu” is often accompanied by the words “no trespassing” on signs warding off people from entering the area. However, these words do not equate in meaning to locals. “Kapu” still has an air of sacredness to it. The reason you would not enter an area marked “kapu” is out of respect. Respect for what or whom you ask? The answer isn’t definitively clear from simply “kapu.” Perhaps nature, the Hawaiian gods, the night marchers (mythological Hawaiian ghosts), the ancient Native Hawaiians, or even the Native Hawaiians of today.
Wearing a Flower on the Wrong Ear
Lots of visitors to Hawaii, especially first time visitors to Hawaii, love to wear flowers in their ears. But wearing a flower in your right ear means something very different than wearing a flower in your left ear. When you wear a flower in your right ear, that means your single. But when you wear a flower in your left ear, that means you’re taken. Here’s an easy way to remember: your wedding ring goes on your left hand, so if you’re taken, the flower goes in your left ear.
Calling It “Shaved Ice”
In Hawaii, there is a treat that’s basically small pieces of ice covered in fruity syrup. Many people incorrectly refer to this as “shaved ice.” It’s not “shaved ice.” It’s “shave ice.” If you are going to call it shaved ice, you better get used to iced cream too. Plus, any place that says shaved ice isn’t making it right.
*Pro Tip: For the best shave ice in Hawaii, head to Ululani’s on Maui! (They also have a location on the Big Island.)
Stepping on the Coral
Did you know that coral is actually an animal? Many visitors during their first time in Hawaii go snorkeling, but don’t feel like swimming the whole time, so they stand on the coral. This actually harms the coral! Plus, there is usually algae growing on the coral as well, and by stepping on the algae, you kill the algae, a major food source for marine life.
To avoid this, try to swim when you’re over coral. Or simply avoid going over coral in the first place. If you need a break, try to find a patch of sand to land on instead.
Forgetting to Learn About Hawaiian Culture
Sadly, visitors to Hawaii often forget to learn about Hawaiian culture. They may get a lei when they arrive, and they may watch a bit of hula, but there’s so much more to Hawaiian culture than that! There are museums, festivals, and even historical walks that allow you to dive deeper into the beautiful Hawaiian culture, so take some time to learn about it!
Ignoring the Power of the Ocean
Almost every time I go to a Hawaii beach that has tourists, I see someone ignoring the power of the ocean. Sometimes I’ll see people swimming alone, other times I’ll see people on the edge of sharp rocks where the waves crash, and other times I’ll see people try to swim in the water when the waves are way too big for swimming.
It’s important to remember that the ocean is a powerful, potentially dangerous force. If you understand it and respect it, it can be amazing. But if you don’t take the time to educate yourself about the ocean, it can be very dangerous.
To get you started, here are a few key tips:
- Know how strong of a swimmer you are. And don’t try to overestimate your abilities.
- Don’t enter the water if the waves are large! Anyone who has been in the water with large waves can tell you that you can get quite a beating.
- If waves are crashing on the rocks, don’t go to the edge of the rocks. Stay a safe distance away from the edge.
- Do a little research on the beach in advance for rip currents that you may not be able to see. These rip currents can pull you out without you even realizing it.
Ignoring Warnings and Advice from Locals
If a local gives you a piece of advice, listen to it. Hawaii locals have been exploring the islands for years. We know where people usually take wrong turns on hikes and where to get the best malasadas. Treasure whatever information a local gives to you, because it’s pretty hard to get.
Ignoring Warning Signs
As you’ve probably gathered by now, our tips and signs are to help keep you safe. There are shocking statisticscomparing the deaths and injuries of tourists and locals in Hawaii (Spoiler: the locals’ numbers are pretty low. I can’t say the same for the tourists.) The warning signs, especially the ones at beaches and hikes, are there for a reason! Please don’t ignore them!
Only Eating Familiar Foods
Hawaii is the capital of fusion food! From malasadas to manapuas to musubis, Hawaii is home to amazing foods that you can only get in the islands. There are so many delicious foods to try in the islands that we created both part one and part two of a Hawaii food bucket list.
Attempting to Speak Pidgin
The islands are home to a local dialect called Pidgin. While it might be helpful to know a few words (for example, “passion fruit” is “lilikoi”), some visitors make the mistake of trying to speak Pidgin to bond with the locals.
Don’t do that.
If you attempt to speak Pidgin and you didn’t grow up speaking Pidgin, it’s cringeworthy and doesn’t help your reputation at all. You’re not going to get any extra local tips or really any benefits by attempting to speak Pidgin.
Wearing Your Shoes in Someone’s House
In Hawaii, you never wear your shoes into someone’s house. You always take them off at the front door and then walk around the house barefoot. There’s a little bit of a discrepancy on where this tradition came from, as some say it stemmed from Japanese culture while others say it’s from Hawaii’s plantation days.
Forgetting to Bring a Jacket
When visitors think of Hawaii, they think of eternal sunshine and warm weather. And while that’s true most of the time, we do get our fair share of rain, and it can get a little chilly at night. Consider packing a sweatshirt or something to keep you warm and an umbrella or rain jacket to keep you dry.
Hiking During or After Rain
Most hiking trails in Hawaii are heavily impacted by rain. Locals know that there are certain hikes that you just shouldn’t do if it’s currently raining, because of the danger of flash floods. And there are also hikes that you shouldn’t do after a heavy rain, because it makes the hike way more dangerous than it would be if it were dry.
To avoid these issues completely, avoid hiking in Hawaii during or after rain.
Hiking a Trail You Haven’t Researched
Before you hike anywhere in Hawaii, be sure to do your research. Know where to park, what to bring, where the trail starts, whether the hike is legal or illegal, how long the hike is, and if there are any questionable turns you should be aware of. Most of the time, this information is not obvious on Hawaii hikes!
Some of the best and most popular hikes on Oahu are illegal. Most require street parking. Many have potentially confusing trails. Unless you’re hiking to Makapuu Lighthouse or Diamond Head, you’ll have to do research in advance to know what you’re doing. It would be even better if you can get a local to guide you. Bottom line: be prepared!
Calling Them “Hawaiian Shirts”
They’re not “Hawaiian Shirts.” They’re aloha shirts. And they make great gifts from Hawaii.
Taking Shells, Coral, Sand, or Lava Rock
According to a Hawaiian legend, if you take a lava rock from Hawaii, Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, will put a curse on you. As a matter of fact, hundreds of people have sent back the lava rocks (and coral, sand, and shells) that they’ve taken, asking postal workers to take them back to where they belong!
Regardless of whether you believe Pele’s curse or not, it’s important that you don’t take any shells, coral, sand, or lava rock from Hawaii. If everyone took just a little bit of sand or a handful of shells, there would be none left! And considering the fact that Hawaii gets ten million visitors every year, it wouldn’t be long before Hawaii became completely bare.
Using Chemical Sunscreen
I have to start this section by saying please wear sunscreen. I’ve seen tourists burned so badly that they can’t move – and I see that at least once every week. That’s not the way you want to spend your first time in Hawaii.
That said, it’s important that you use reef-safe sunscreen rather than chemical sunscreen. Many of the chemicals in traditional sunscreen are extremely harmful to coral and marine life. As a matter of fact, these chemicals have been proven to be harmful to humans as well! These consequences are so far reaching that we wrote an entire article about reef-safe sunscreen to help you learn more. And if you’re looking for a reef-safe sunscreen brand, Kokua Sun Care is a fantastic one.
Buying Tacky Souvenirs
When tourists by pink ukuleles or hula girl bobbleheads, it’s truly a shame. The tinny, pitchy sound of the brightly colored ukulele doesn’t do the beautiful music of the local instrument justice. And the hula girl bobblehead certainly doesn’t highlight the beauty and history of this treasured Hawaiian dance.
Instead, purchase something that the locals would actually buy. Leis, snacks, a legitimate ukulele. For more ideas, here are the best souvenirs to buy in Hawaii.
Implying that Hawaii Isn’t Part of the U.S.
The number of times I’ve heard visitors say, “back in the U.S.,” while they’re in Hawaii is astonishing. Hawaii is part of the United States. Yes, the local culture and the natural landscapes may be quite different from the mainland, but that doesn’t make us separate from the other 49 states.
Disrespecting the Land and the Ocean During Your First Time in Hawaii
As you can tell from the other tips on this list, it’s very important that you respect the land and the ocean in Hawaii. While I’ve listed out a bunch of tips that can help you do so, the simple things also count. Picking up trash on hikes and gathering plastic on the beach may seem small, but these good deeds add up! By doing so, you’re helping to keep Hawaii beautiful for your next visit to the islands.
What mistakes did you make during your first time in Hawaii? Let me know in the comments!
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