Hilo or Kona, Hawaii: Where to Stay on the Big Island
An itinerary for the Island of Hawaii requires seeing sights on both sides of the Big Island. Where do you need to make your travel base – Hilo or Kona?
Kona, not Hilo, is the place to stay on the island of Hawaii during your vacation. Kona offers better weather, the best beaches and snorkeling, newer resorts, more vacation rentals, and more nightlife compared to Hilo Town. Hilo is worth a visit but may not be worth staying for more than a night.
Erica and I make Kailua-Kona our launching pad during our Big Island vacations. I love the vibe and history of Hilo Town but there are not enough things to do to justify staying in Hilo or staying on the east (windward) side of the island for more than 2-nights.
For prices, where to stay in Kona or Hilo, and how to allocate enough days to both locations, read on.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Kona or Hilo for Vacation
The Big Island might be your whole Hawaii vacation, 10 amazing days to see the island. Or, it is one of three islands you are touring so you can only allocate 3-days to seeing the sights.
Either way, Kona is the side of the Big Island you need to stay for your vacation.
The Big Island is my favorite island, after my home on Maui. I love the chill vibe, the many climates, and the coffee. The coffee brings me back. If Kilauea volcano erupts again (it will) then that will bring me back.
I’m sure your interests in visiting the island will be different from mine. Therefore, we need to consider the following seven items when deciding between Hilo or Kona to stay.
🍍 Rental Car
🍍 Where to Stay
🍍 Things to Do
🍍 Number of Days on the Big Island
Hilo or Kona: Location on the Big Island
First, let’s get our bearings. Hawai’i is big, but how big.
I could throw out stats like it is 4,028 square miles, 63% of the State of Hawaii’s landmass, bigger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined, and bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. But who really cares.
It takes 1-hour and 40-minutes to drive from Kona to Hilo. That is the shortest route, taking you between the massive shield volcanoes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, on the aptly named Saddle Road.
The northern route taking you through Parker Ranch’s cowboy country is 2-hours and 10-minutes. The southern route taking you through the southernmost point in the United States is 3-hours.
Kailua-Kona to Hawai’i’s Volcanoes National Park is a 2-hour (83-mile) drive. From Hilo, the drive is 50-minutes (30-miles).
Therefore, Hawai’i is big but also a manageable drive. You can go to Volcanoes National Park from Kona on a day-trip. A lot of driving but one can still see all the sights and get back to their resort or vacation rental.
With our toddler and dog, during our trip in January, we stayed in Kona but did one-night outside of Volcanoes National Park. We were able to see everything on the windward or east side of the Big Island plus the park during this 1-night, 2-day trip.
Hilo or Kona: Weather
Hilo has a rainforest climate, meaning it averages 127-inches of rain a year. Hilo is the fourth wettest-city in America.
Kailua-Kona, on the other hand, averages 18-inches of rain a year.
The difference in rainfall is the main reason Kailua-Kona has become the main tourist destination on the Big Island. The state and private enterprises have invested in the Kona Coast with resorts, roads, restaurants, and activities to take advantage of the leeward climate.
Kona is still green though. The seaside town is on the slope of a lush, tropical volcano.
Temperate wise, they are similar. Kona has an average high of 84 degrees Fahrenheit and Hilo’s average high is 81 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hilo or Kona: Which Airport to Arrive
The Big Island has two major airports. Oahu doesn’t even have two commercial airports. You can fly into Elison Onizuka (Kona) International Airport (KOA) or Hilo International Airport (ITO).
Kona airport is the most popular with the most flights and most airlines operating out of it. Kona welcomed 1,261,197 passengers in 2019 compared to Hilo welcoming 47,872 people. (source: Hawaii Tourism Authority)
There is a negligible difference in ticket prices between flying to Kona or Hilo. Kona and Hilo do enjoy the cheapest roundtrip flight to Hawaii per our research.
The decision on where to fly in and out of the Big Island has more to do with your itinerary. If most of your activities will be enjoying the rainforest and volcanoes around Hilo then it would be best to stay in Hilo and fly into and out of Hilo International Airport.
I know what you are thinking, fly into Kona and fly out of Hilo. It is a good idea but the rental car price will get you. The different pick-up and drop-off locations will make for an expensive rental car. Plus, you are on an island with the highest rental car fees compared to the other Hawaiian Islands. You’d be better off driving the hour and a half back to Kona, if on the Hilo side.
See What is the Cheapest Hawaiian Island to Visit for the numbers.
The major airlines that fly into Kona are United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, and Alaskan Airlines.
Hilo airport is smaller with Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and American Airlines from the mainland direct to Hilo.
Hilo or Kona: Do You Need a Rental Car
I recommend getting a rental car regardless of staying in Hilo or Kona. You will need a car to see all the sights on your itinerary for either location.
Hilo is walkable as it is small compared to the sprawled out Kailua-Kona area. But, you won’t be spending all your time in Hilo. To see waterfalls, explore the rainforest, find unique places to eat, see the volcanoes, and all the other activities around Hilo will require a rental car.
We do recommend you book through Discount Hawaii Car Rental. We saved over $300 by booking through them over New Year’s Eve compared to directly with a national car rental company. It was a week-long rental, crazy expensive over the holidays but so much better with Discount Hawaii Car Rental.
Hilo or Kona: Where to Stay
Where to stay, in Hilo or Kona? When it comes to accommodations, Kona provides more options in regards to hotels, resorts, and vacation rentals.
Kailua-Kona is the resort area due to the nicer beaches and better climate. The Kohala Coast, north of Kona, is littered with five-star resorts like the Mauna Lani, Hilton Waikoloa Village, and the Fairmont Orchid. On the Kohala Coast, average room rates are $480 per night compared to $318 for the rest of the island (source: Hawaii Tourism Authority).
Hotel options in Hilo are few and far between. The only big brand hotel is a DoubleTree by Hilton. There are no five-star or four-star hotels or resorts. There are only a few hotels in Hilo and they are getting dated. They are comfortable places to stay and provide good service.
Hilo offers the cheapest prices for hotels and vacation rentals.
Hotels: Looking at 3-star hotels in July for two people:
🍍 Kona averages $192 per night
🍍 Hilo averages $148 per night
Vacation rentals: Looking on Airbnb and Vrbo for a one-bedroom apartment in July:
🍍 Kona averages $116 per night
🍍 Hilo averages $98 per night
Hawaii Tourism Authority doesn’t differentiate between Hilo and Kona in their data, but you can expect to pay the following hotel rates as of January 2020.
|Upper Upscale Class||$258.71|
|Upper Midscale Class||$161.04|
|Midscale & Economy Class||$178.52|
Hilo or Kona: Price
From food to gasoline, Hilo is the cheaper option for the cost of goods. Hilo is home to the main port on Hawai’i so all goods come into Hilo first.
The longer logistics, more tourists in Kailua-Kona, plus Kailua-Kona being more populated with a wealthier demographic, makes Kailua-Kona more expensive for your everyday goods.
Kailua-Kona does have a Costco, Target, Walmart, and other big box stores so you can find good deals to stock your vacation rental or for a cheap dinner.
Hilo or Kona: Things to Do
Hilo and Kona offer different worlds to explore. Hilo is a lush rainforest with waterfalls, hikes, and volcanoes. Kona is beach-bumming, manta ray snorkeling, whale watching, and coffee tasting.
What kind of vacation are you looking for?
Kailua-Kona is the more popular place to stay on the Big Island because of the beaches, ocean sports, and dining and luaus due to all the resorts.
We love to stay in Kailua-Kona because there is more to do on the leeward side of the island.
During our last trip, we drove the entire Kona coast to check-out beaches, coffee plantations for tastings, and cultural sites. I went Night Snorkeling with Manta Rays and loved it.
Kailua-Kona is situated to allow full access to the leeward coast while still making it convenient to jump down to Volcanoes National Park and black sand beaches for a day trip.
Kailua-Kona also has more dining options, from food trucks to Hawaiian regional cuisine, to international favorites. The resort area caters to all taste buds.
Hilo offers more outdoor activities and is also well-positioned on the windward coast for sightseeing. Head to ‘Akaka Falls and Rainbow Falls, botanical gardens, the country’s only rainforest zoo, ziplining, and Volcanoes National Park is only 50-minutes away.
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach with sea turtles resting on it is an hour 15-minutes away from Hilo.
There are Hawaiian historical sites and charming towns on both coasts of Hawai’i to explore. But Kona has the more striking and photographed Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park.
Hilo and Kona are about equal distance to Mauna Kea stargazing and observatories.
With so much diversity on one island, it is best to visit both sides if you have time.
Hilo or Kona: Number of Days on the Big Island
The average length of stay in Hawai’i in 2019 was 7.3 days. That includes people island hopping. I hope you can stay longer.
If you are staying for a week on the Big Island and don’t mind hotel hopping, I recommend staying 6 nights in Kailua-Kona and 1 night (2-days) in the Hilo or Volcanoes National Park area.
Take one day on the east (windward) side of the island to see the sights around Hilo and the second day to visit Hawai’i’s Volcanoes National Park and drive the southern road home taking in the sites and small towns.
If you are staying longer, then stay two or three days to explore more of the Hamakua Coast north of Hilo and do every hike and drive around Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.
When Kilauea volcano starts erupting again then that is a game-changer, do what you must to see the lava flowing.
Hilo or Kona: Pros and Cons Summary
I just dumped a lot of information on you to decipher between staying in Hilo or Kona. Let me summarize the considerations for you to ponder.
Pros for Staying in Kona vs Hilo
✅ Kona has a bigger airport with more daily flights
✅ More sunny days and warmer weather in Kona
✅ More hotel and vacation rentals to choose from
✅ More restaurants and dining options
✅ Better beaches, diving, and snorkeling (manta rays!)
✅ Kona coffee (I’m big into coffee)
Cons for Staying in Kona vs Hilo
❌ Hilo has cheaper lodging
❌ Hilo has more outdoor activities like hiking, ziplines, and viewing waterfalls
❌ Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park is closer to Hilo
❌ Hilo is a lower cost of living town
The Big Island’s Best Side to Stay
For Erica and me, the best side of the Big Island to stay on is the Kona side. We find more activities and beaches to keep us and our family entertained. We enjoy the surf and sipping fresh Kona coffee under the sunny days on the Kona side.
Your craving for jungle hikes and waterfall swims may make you want to spend more time on the Hilo side.
Whatever you fancy, I still say spend the most of your nights on the Kona side and give a night to the Hilo side. You won’t regret it as it is a big island with a lot to see. You won’t want to drive all-day past those beaches and food trucks.
You will need a rental car for your trip, so check out Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. You get access to all the big national car rental chains without paying their rates. You will be shocked by how much you can save. We always are.
I'm the co-founder, with my wife Erica, of The Hawaii Vacation Guide. We live on Maui with our toddler Henry and our sweet but quirky dog Hattie. I have a thing for photographing pineapples and learning to surf.
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