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If you’re planning a trip to Hawaii, you can’t go wrong with Kauai or the Big Island. While they may not be as popular as the bustling island of Oahu, both of these islands are stunning destinations where you can enjoy spectacular tropical scenery, beautiful beaches, and an array of exciting (or relaxing) activities.
But which island is the best choice for your vacation? Where will you find the best snorkeling, the coolest hikes, or the cheapest accommodations? While there are many good reasons to visit both Kauai and the Big Island, we’ll compare both islands to help you make your final decision about where to go.
The best island in the Big Island vs Kauai debate depends heavily on the type of vacation you want to have, and they come neck-and-neck in a lot of ways. You can find unique adventures great hiking, and top notch resorts on either island, but the Big Island pulls ahead in the race with great beaches, snorkeling, weather, and affordability.
Want to dive a little deeper?
Get the full scoop on each island with the Kauai Travel Guide and the Big Island Travel Guide, both packed with everything you need to know and our best resources.
Explore our Where to Stay and Activities databases to find the best your island of choice has to offer.
Want to get to Hawaii and spend less? We’ve got that covered too, learn all about booking your trip with points.
Kauai in a Nutshell:
The Garden Isle Kauai is a lush paradise and one of the more remote islands in Hawaii (over 90% of the land is used for Conservation and Agriculture, while 70% is inaccessible by foot). For this reason, it’s a popular destination for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts, as the unspoiled landscape is the ideal setting for exploring.
There are lush rainforests with hiking trails, tranquil rivers for kayaking, and over 111 miles of coastline for swimming and snorkeling. The island is also dominated by some pretty awe-inspiring landmarks, including the rugged Napali Coast and the majestic Waimea Canyon.
And while Kauai is suited for exploration, it’s also a great place just to sit back and relax. With beautiful towns and lots of highly-rated beachfront resorts, you’ll also have plenty of time to unwind and enjoy a bit of island living.
Just be prepared for some rain! Kauai is one of the rainiest places on the planet (the outer parts of the island get 30 to 40 inches a year, while Mt. Waialeale gets a whopping 450 inches a year!). If you prefer clear and sunny skies, we recommend visiting from April to October and sticking to the southern coast.
Big Island of Hawaii in a Nutshell:
The Island of Hawaii (more commonly referred to as the Big Island) is hard to sum up in just a few paragraphs. It’s the biggest island in Hawaii (larger than all the other major islands combined) and features a diverse topography of snow-capped mountains, fiery volcanoes, lush jungles, and sun-soaked beaches. With so much to see and explore, it’s a good choice for practically all types of travelers.
Those seeking adventure can scuba dive with manta rays, hike the rim of the Kilauea crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, stargaze atop Mauna Kea, or surf the shores of the Kona coastline. But if you prefer something more low-key, then the Big Island offers a wealth of leisurely activities as well. There are beautiful beaches, charming towns, and working coffee farms that you can visit during your stay.
But remember, the island is massive, and the distances between cities and attractions can be significant. If you only have a limited time, it’s best to stick to one area to make the most of your visit (you don’t want to spend hours each day going from one place to another). However, the Big Island is a good destination for those with several days or weeks to spare, as there is plenty to keep you occupied during your stay.
Check out our favorite Big Island activities:
Tried and Tested, the 5 Best Manta Ray Snorkel and Dives
The 10 Best Big Island Farm Tours You Won’t Want to Miss
The 10 Best Big Island Waterfalls (+ ones you can swim in!)
Kauai vs Big Island for:
The Best Resorts
Where you stay in Hawaii can greatly impact your trip. Even if you’re out the whole day exploring or sightseeing, it’s always nice to have a comforting place that you can come back to.
While there are some great accommodations on both islands, we have to say that we prefer the resorts on the Big Island. The Kohala Coast is one of the best areas to stay in, as it is renowned for its picturesque beaches, top-notch golf courses, and luxury resorts. If the price is outside of your budget, it’s also possible to find some more affordable options further south near Kailua-Kona or on the eastern coast near Hilo.
But don’t get us wrong – there are some really good resorts on Kauai as well. Although there aren’t as many options as on the Big Island, Kauai resorts tend to be more intimate and less crowded. So, if you prefer somewhere more off the beaten track, then Kauai could be the better option for you.
The variety of accommodation options on Kauai is also better suited for backpackers and adventure travelers. It’s easier to find mid-range hotels, hostels, and vacation rentals here. And because things are less commercialized, it’s a great choice for those who want to experience a more local way of life.
Check out our Where to Stay section for the best hotels and vacation rentals on each island.
Winner of best resorts: the Big Island
These are some of our favorite places to stay:
Koloa Landing Resort Review: the best resort on Kauai
Grand Hyatt Kauai: steps from Shipwreck Beach
Mauna Lani, an Auberge Resort: our best trip yet?
Westin Hapuna Beach: wake up on the best beach on the Big Island
If you’re planning a trip to Hawaii, having access to a picture-perfect beach is probably an important factor when choosing which island to visit. While Kauai and the Big Island are littered with beautiful beaches, they are very different from each other in terms of their characteristics.
The golden-sand beaches of Kauai are characterized by their rocky cliffs and jungle setting, especially in the north. But during the winter, these beaches are too dangerous for swimming, as the currents are incredibly rough and strong.
If you are traveling to Kauai during this time, you’re better off going to the beaches further south near Poipu Beach Park. With calm waters year-round, it’s one of the best places to go snorkeling or swimming on the island.
Kauai’s beaches are stunning because of the surrounding nature, but the Big Island’s beaches are unique because there are so many different ones to choose from! Sure, you have the classic white sand beach (Hapuna Beach is our favorite), but there are black sand beaches (Punalu’u Beach) and green sand beaches (Papakōlea Beach), too!
Most of the best beaches are on the leeward side up towards the Kohala Coast, although you can also find some good spots in Kailua-Kona. And in the winter, the water down south of Kailua-Kona is much calmer than other parts of the island, so it’s far better suited for swimming.
Winner of best beaches: Kauai
Speaking of beaches, Hawaii is blessed to have some of the best off-shore snorkeling opportunities in the United States. Between the colorful corals, tropical fish, and a variety of marine creatures, each island offers a unique underwater experience.
If snorkeling is a priority, then you should visit Maui, which is unbeatable when it comes to vibrant sea life. But if the choice is between the Kauai and the Big Island, then we believe the Big Island is the better choice.
As the newest island in the Hawaiian archipelago, there is very little stream run-off or sand, so the underwater visibility is impeccable. This is especially true on the leeward side, which is where you’ll find most of the best snorkeling spots.
Our favorite is Kealakekua Bay, near the Capitan Cook Monument. This a protected marine reserve, so the marine life is flourishing, and you’ll likely see creatures that can’t be found anywhere else on the island.
Here are some of our favorite Kealakukua Bay tours:
- Kealakekua Bay Snorkeling Trip (large boat, great price)
- Kealakekua Bay Snorkeling (small group)
- Catamaran Snorkel in Kealakekua Bay (Captain Cook Monument)
- Power Raft Snorkel Tours to Kealakekua Bay Plus a Kona Coast Cruise
And we can’t forget that the Big Island is the only place in Hawaii (and one of few in the world) where you can snorkel with manta rays! Check out our favorite manta ray tours plus learn more about snorkeling and diving with them!
Kauai is also a good island for snorkeling, but only during certain times of the year. The north side is amazing in summer, and there’s a high chance of seeing turtles during your outing. But the currents are extremely rough in the north during winter, and going into the water is not advised.
However, you can head down south to Poipu if you’re here in winter, as it has good year-round snorkeling (it’s also one of the best beaches in Kauai for swimming or sunbathing too!). The waters are calm, clear, and perfect for beginner snorkelers or families.
Winner of best snorkeling: the Big Island
Unfortunately, neither Kauai nor the Big Island is known for their wild nightlife (that would be on Oahu). Therefore, we wouldn’t recommend either island if you’re interested in late-night parties or nonstop entertainment.
Sure, the islands are quiet, but that doesn’t mean they are completely dead in the evening. While you won’t find any big nightclubs or crazy beach parties, there are lots of bars and restaurants where you can enjoy a drink or even live music. However, many of these venues tend to close early – around 10 or 11 at night.
If you want something a little more lively, another option is to book a Hawaiian luau. Not only will you be treated to a delicious dinner and tropical cocktails at sunset, but you’ll also get to watch traditional Polynesian dancing. There are many different luaus to choose from on Kaui and the Big Island, so you’ll have plenty of options depending on your location, interests, and budget.
Winner of best nightlife: It’s a draw!
When planning a vacation to Hawaii, the cost of your trip likely has a big influence on which island you choose to visit. And while Hawaii is not the most budget-friendly vacation spot in the US, there are some islands that are cheaper to visit than others.
When taking airfare, accommodations, and rental car costs into consideration, the Big Island ends up being the cheaper destination for travelers. This is mainly because airfare to the Big Island is relatively affordable (Kona is the cheapest port to fly into out of all the islands).
Hotel costs are also a tad lower on the Big Island than on Kuaui. But if you’re on a tight budget, then we recommend booking a vacation rental instead. There are tons of affordable apartments and condos on both islands, but you can find the biggest savings by staying in a rental on the Big Island.
To show you what we mean, let’s compare a trip to Kauai and the Big Island during the busy summer season. For a 7-day, 6-night trip for two, here’s what you can expect to pay for a vacation to the Big Island.
- Airfare: $806 (if leaving from the west coast)
- Hotel: $2,658 (or $1,482 if staying in a vacation rental)
- Rental Car: $490
Big Island Total: $2,778 – $3,954
For the same type of hotel and rental car on Kauai, you’ll see that the prices are much higher. For a 7-day, 6-night trip for two, here’s what you should budget for:
- Airfare: $902 (if leaving from the west coast)
- Hotel: $2,748 (or $2,316 if staying in a vacation rental)
- Rental Car: $399
Kauai Total: $3,617 – $4,049
Based on these calculations, you can save more than $1,000 by choosing the Big Island over Kauai. Of course, these are just cost estimates, as the real price of your vacation will vary depending on the time of the year you go and the type of hotel you choose. But generally speaking, the Big Island is the cheaper island to visit!
Winner of cheaper travel costs: The Big Island
As we mentioned, Kauai is one of the rainiest places on earth (there’s a reason why it’s so lush here!). While it doesn’t rain every day of the year, the island does get significantly more rainfall than the Big Island.
The southern shore around Poipu tends to be dryer than up north in Hanalei. But keep in mind that it will never be completely rain-free. So if you’re hoping for clear skies with consistently sunny weather, then Kauai may not be the best choice.
On the Big Island, the weather varies due to the island’s size and different geological formations. Out of the 13 climate zones in the world, the Big Island is home to 8 of them! The west coast near Hilo is quite rainy, while the Kohala Coast is generally dryer and warmer.
In fact, the entire leeward side of the island is warm, even in winter. However, Kailua-Kona can get some rain, although it’s nothing compared to what you’ll see on Kauai.
Winner for best weather: the Big Island
Going for a hike is a great way to experience the natural beauty of Hawaii. And regardless of which island you choose, you can count on there being some exquisite trails for you to trek.
On Kauai, you have Waimea Canyon (which some call the Grand Canyon of the Pacific), a striking landscape of deep cliffs, verdant valleys, and cascading waterfalls. There are numerous trails within the state park, ranging from easy hikes to more challenging routes, so it’s suitable for all types of hikers. And for a real challenge, you have the Kalalau trail on the north shore, but be sure to get a reservation and permit before you go!
You can also book a private tour for a customized route through the magnificent canyon. Depending on your skill level or how long you want to be outdoors, they craft the perfect itinerary for your group to make sure you see everything you want to.
The Big Island is also an outdoor playground for hikers. Trekking through Volcanoes National Park is a must for its otherworldly terrain of lava tubes, craters, and rainforests.
Or, if you’re on the island’s leeward side, you can visit the stunning Kohala Waterfall on a guided tour. Make sure to bring your swimsuit because swimming in the pool at the base is a great way to cool off after your hike!
As you can see, Kauai and the Big Island are two excellent choices if you love hiking. Therefore, it’s impossible to decide between the two!
Winner of best hikes: Kauai
Some people love Hawaii for its relaxing beaches, while others are here for more exhilarating experiences. Either way, Kauai and the Big Island are excellent choices for adventure-seekers who are craving a bit of fun and excitement to get their heart racing.
On the Big Island you can enjoy one never-ending adventure after the other, from hiking an active volcano to ziplining through the rainforest. You can even snorkel with gentle Manta rays or spend the day on a black sand beach!
But on Kauai there is no shortage of adventures either. You can sail along the scenic Napali Coast on a boat ride or view it from high above the clouds from a helicopter. If you prefer to be in the water, then Kauai is also a good place to go kayaking or mountain tubing.
So regardless of which island you choose, you can rest assured knowing that you won’t get bored.
Winner of best adventure activities: it’s a draw!
Ease of Sightseeing
This might seem like a strange category, but it’s important to consider in the Big Island vs Kauai debate. The Big Island is big. At 4,028 square miles, it’s over 60% of Hawaii’s total land area. So when your’e visiting, you will spend a lot of time in the car.
Kauai, in contrast, is the smallest of the four major Hawaiian islands. At only 552 square miles it’s significantly more compact than the Big Island. And when you consider that 90% of Kauai is not accessible by car, it feels even more compact, while not feeling the slightest bit crowded.
On Kauai, you’re going to spend far less time driving from place to place, which is a real win, especially if you have young kids in the car like we have. Taking a day trip from the south shore to the north shore isn’t a challenge.
While this probably isn’t the main consideration in your decision, it’s important to make note of when you pick your island.
Winner of east of sightseeing: Kauai
In Summary Big Island vs Kauai
The Big Island takes home one additional win over Kauai in our opinion. With sunny skies, great resorts, unmatched snorkeling, and better prices, it’s a dream trip. However, this doesn’t mean Kauai is without its charm, it still boasts amazing activities, a wonderfully laid back vibe, stunning hiking, and lush scenery.
The Itinerary for Your Winning Island
Whichever island suits you best, get everything you need for the perfect vacation all in one place. From full excursion days, to the best restaurants, the best beaches, can’t miss activities, all the way down to where to find free parking, these itineraries have you covered.
Just wanted to reach out and thank you for your tips and your excellent travel guide. I recently returned from a week in Oahu and had a blast. Your videos and guide helped my trip to be super relaxing and stress free — easy to navigate the island when someone has already told you the best spots to go to! Already recommended your stuff to some friends of mine. Looking for award to my next trip to Hawaii already.Bo G.