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It can feel like the stakes are high when you’re picking a spot for your family vacation. Will your kids like the island you choose? (Spoiler: yes). Will you have an amazing time as a family with memories that will last a lifetime on the island you choose? (Also, yes).
Whether you pick Maui or Oahu for your family vacation, the odds are you will have an excellent time. But there are some things that make Maui a better choice for some and other things that make Oahu a better choice for other families.
For us, Maui is the better option for a vacation with kids thanks to the great snorkeling options, nice family beaches, Haleakala National Park and activities in upcountry Maui.
But there’s more to the Oahu vs Maui for kids decision than that. Read on for our in-depth comparison of the two islands so you can choose what’s really the best spot for your family vacation.
Maui in a Nutshell
Luxury resorts abound on the Valley Isle, but that’s not it’s only allure. Maui offers a wide variety of experiences. You can drive the Road to Hana, hike through a volcano crater, sample the honey, and pet the alpacas while exploring upcountry Maui, and snorkel at the best snorkeling spots in all of Hawaii. Maui offers a luxury experience but also so much more.
Oahu in a Nutshell
Oahu is a cosmopolitan island. Here you’ll find great restaurants, museums, live entertainment, jagged cliffs, and famous vistas from spots like Waikiki Beach. While some may call the island the Manhattan of the Pacific, thanks to its population density and tall buildings, it is more than that. Cultural experiences, ecological experiences, and surfing Waikiki Beach are just a few of the things that visitors look forward to experiencing.
We have a full Oahu guide to help you plan the best trip.
Maui vs. Oahu for Kids: Differences
While Maui and Oahu are both excellent islands for your family vacation, there are some differences that will impact the feel of your vacation.
Oahu has more of a city vibe
When you land on Oahu for the first time, you might be in for a little bit of a shock: Oahu has multi-lane freeways, large buildings, traffic, and can have more of a city vibe. The island is home to just over 1 million people, whereas Maui’s population is much smaller at 165,000 people. So things are a little busier, a little more crowded, and you’ll navigate the pros and cons of being on a more cosmopolitan island.
Maui has larger resorts
If your kids are in search of huge pools, fast waterslides, and a big resort experience, that’s easier to find on Maui. While Oahu does have some large resorts, Maui takes the cake here. Their resorts feel more kid-friendly, with large pools, a number of activities catered to kids, and more space for your kids to roam.
We’ve stayed at almost all of the big resorts on the island and you can find our review of the best kid-friendly resorts here.
Oahu vs Maui for Kids: Similarities
These islands are not so different. They do share a number of similarities that will ensure you have an excellent vacation, regardless of what island you choose to visit:
- Excellent beaches: while we do think Maui has the slight edge for family-friendly beaches, they both offer plenty of great places for your family to enjoy the sand and the water.
- Amazing sea life: whether you choose to go on a boat tour, snorkel from the beach, or visit an aquarium, both islands offer the chance to view and appreciate the impressive sea life.
- Fun luaus: a luau is not a requirement when visiting Hawaii, but if you do want to go to one, both islands have top notch options.
- Amazing sunsets, memories, and more: honestly, we have lived on both islands and we have had some of our best family memories on each island. They both somehow make everything feel so special.
While I can spend days telling you how wonderful each island is, here are some definitive reasons you’ll want to choose Maui or Oahu for your family vacation.
Why Maui is Great for Kids
Considering Maui for your family vacation? Here are some reasons you’ll love taking your kids there:
Excellent family beaches
Yes, all of the Hawaiian islands have beautiful beaches. While Oahu might win (in our opinion) for the best overall beaches, Maui wins for having the most kid-friendly beaches. While this comes with the caveat that the ocean is not a pool and is never truly safe, there are plenty of beaches to enjoy with your family that are usually more protected from large waves and currents. For example, bays like Napili Bay and Kapalua Bay will often see calm water. And you can’t forget Baby Beach in Lahaina for your younger kids.
If your kids are old enough and strong enough swimmers, snorkeling is an amazing activity in Hawaii. We have taken our son snorkeling a number of times and looking at the fish is one of his favorite things to do at the beach. You can snorkel on either island, but Maui has some amazing sea life and great snorkeling spots that you can enjoy as a family.
We’ve taken our son out on a number of snorkeling trips, and this sunrise snorkel was by far his favorite experience.
Haleakala National Park
For your budding volcanologist, a trip up to Haleakala National Park is such a cool experience. Take a short hike, peer into the crater, and you’ll be absolutely amazed by the beauty. Whether you visit Haleakala Volcano at sunrise, sunset, or sometime during the day, this is such a great day out on the island.
If you’re going to visit for sunrise, this is our favorite guided tour (because really, who wants to drive up a mountain themselves at 2:30 am).
Amazing whale watching
If you are visiting Maui between mid-December and mid-April, you are in luck! This is whale season in Hawaii, when thousands of humpback whales make their annual migration from Alaska to Hawaii to birth their babies and breed. Maui is a great place to be for whale watching thanks to the Maui Nui Basin — the shallow waters between the islands of Maui, Lana’i, and Kaho’olawe. Whether you decide to head out on a whale watching adventure or just want to see them breach from the shore, Maui is the place to be during whale season.
We have a Maui whale watching guide that’ll give you everything you need to know and after going on countless tours, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite whale watching tours (and we have discount codes for some!).
A trip to Maui isn’t complete without a visit to historic Lahaina town. The former capital of Hawaii and an old whaling village, there is so much to see and do for an afternoon with the kids. Grab shave ice or ice cream and sit under the Banyan tree, stroll Front Street and visit the stores, restaurants, and souvenir shops. Take a ride underwater on the Reefdancer or the Atlantis Submarine.
Get more ideas for things to do in our full Lahaina guide.
Ferry to Lana’i
You can head off Maui for the day and jump aboard a ferry to Lana’i, an island in Maui County that is just a quick 45 minute ferry ride away. While our son enjoys the ferry ride over as an adventure in itself, there’s more to explore once you dock on the island. You can walk over to Hulopoe Beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in Hawaii or you can rent a car and drive to sights like Shipwreck Beach. Check out our list of other things to do when you’re on Lana’i.
Take a farm tour
We love a good farm tour and Maui has plenty of them! Whether you are interested in learning how Pineapples are grown, visiting goats and alpacas, or getting to drink fresh coconut water right out of a coconut, Maui has farm tours that will educate and entertain both you and your kids.
Check out a list of our favorite farm tours on Maui.
Maui Ocean Center
While there is plenty for your kids to experience at the beach or out snorkeling, the Maui Ocean Center offers an easy way for kids to see even more marine life. This aquarium is the largest living reef aquarium in the western hemisphere. There are some very cool exhibits (you can touch a starfish!), but the real showstopper for us is the underwater tunnel. We can spend 30 minutes or more just looking at the manta rays, sharks, and large fish that swim over us as we walk through the tunnel. It’s truly beautiful!
Road to Hana
The Road to Hana is a full day adventure that is amazing for kids (and adults), with a few caveats. This full day adventure take you to east Maui by way of the scenic and windy Hana Highway. Pass over bridges, drive along winding roads along the coast, pass by waterfalls, botanical gardens, stop at a black sand beach, and more. The lush landscape of east Maui makes it feel like you’re on a totally different island.
While we love doing the road to Hana with our son, we take it slower with him as he doesn’t love long car rides (he’s four), and we usually spend a night in Hana before heading back to west Maui.
Check out where to stay in Hana for one night.
Explore our 68 Things to Do in Maui with Kids for more ideas!
Why Oahu is Great for Kids
Thinking about an Oahu getaway for your family? These are some of the reasons your family will have an amazing time.
Less expensive hotel options
While no vacation to Hawaii is cheap, some islands are more expensive than others. Maui has some of the most expensive hotels in the world. And while Oahu’s hotels aren’t inexpensive, they cost less than what you’ll find on Maui.
According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s Hotel Performance Report, the average daily rate for hotels on Oahu was $259 while the average daily rate for hotels on Maui was $610. And even if you’re just looking in the luxury hotel category, a luxury hotel on Oahu averaged $644 per night while a luxury hotel on Maui averaged $1,051.
These differences in hotel costs are one of the main reasons why Oahu is the cheapest Hawaiian island to visit.
Disney Aulani Resort
While we’re on the topic of resorts, Oahu has one very well-known family-friendly resort: Disney’s Aulani Resort. Located on the leeward side of the island in Ko Olina, this resort offers a unique experience. Your kids (or you) will get to enjoy hobnobbing with the characters while enjoying the many activities at the resort and the very impressive pool. We spent hours floating around the lazy river with our son during our stay.
The lagoons in Ko Olina are also a draw for kids. They’re manmade protected lagoons which make it easy for young swimmers to enjoy playing in the sand, without the threat of dangerous waves or currents. And you don’t need to be staying at the resort the enjoy these beaches — all beaches in Hawaii are public and you can find public parking available at each of the four lagoons (you’ll find the largest public lot at lagoon 4).
Check out our full list of family friendly resorts on Oahu.
My son is a sponge and even at age 4, he enjoys learning about where we are and listening to the stories about the history. While you can do this on any island, Oahu has more cultural activities to help you and your kids learn about the culture and history of the native Hawaiians. Your kids (and you!) can enjoy the Bishop Museum, which has interactive exhibits, or Iolani Palace. And there are plenty of free hula shows to enjoy. The Royal Hawaiian Center has a wonderful free evening show with hula and songs that teach us a little about Hawaii’s past.
Mountains, jagged cliffs, waterfalls, horses, and UTVs. These are all things that are magic for our son. And when you’re on Oahu, you have the opportunity to experience them all with Kualoa Ranch. The ranch is spectacularly gorgeous and it offers tours and activities that visitors of all ages can enjoy.
At the ranch, you really feel like you’re on a completely different island. We’ve visited many times as a family and we just recently did the Malama Aina tour where we all had a great time getting dirty weeding a taro patch. Maybe weeding and walking in the mud doesn’t sound like your idea of a great vacation, but it was actually very fun and memorable (not to mention educational).
Check out all of the tours that Kualoa Ranch offers.
Pearl Harbor Museums
Visiting the Pearl Harbor museums is an activity that people of all ages can enjoy, including preschool aged children. While our son at four years old is too young to appreciate and understand the USS Arizona Memorial, the other museums really hold his attention. He loved walking through the USS Bowfin submarine and learning about the different planes at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. It was a great day out and one we all are excited to repeat again.
Explore our 23 Things to Do in Oahu with Kids for more ideas!
Is Maui or Oahu Better for a Family Vacation?
Deciding between Maui or Oahu for a family vacation depends on your preference, your child’s interests, and your vacation budget. We prefer Maui because of great snorkeling options, nice family beaches, Haleakala National Park and activities in upcountry Maui.
Oahu might be a better choice if you are interested in enjoying more museums and culture as a family, if your children are eager to stay at Disney’s Aulani, or if you want a vacation where your budget can stretch a bit further.
What’s the Best Island to Visit in Hawaii with Kids?
There is no one best island for everyone. Each island has its draw for different families:
- Oahu is the best for families that love museums, history, culture, and want to stretch their vacation dollars further.
- Maui is best for families that are looking for the best beaches and ocean activities. Plus, any luxury-seeking families that want excellent resorts.
- The Big Island is the best for families that are volcano enthusiasts and want a quieter, slower pace to their vacation.
- Kauai is best for families with kids who love hiking, viewing waterfalls, and enjoy being out and experiencing nature.
Explore more about what Hawaiian island is best for visiting with kids.
Is Maui Good for a Family Vacation?
We might be biased because we actually chose to live on Maui with our kids. But we think Maui is nearly perfect for a family vacation. We love the variety Maui offers: from the great resorts and resort pools to the farm tours and country feel of upcountry. Plus, it’s always amazing taking a trip to Haleakala and watching your kids gaze out over the impressive crater. We love Maui and think it’s pretty close to perfect for an amazing and memorable family vacation.
Check out our full list of things to do on Maui with kids, organized by age group.
Planning Your Family Trip to Maui or Oahu
No matter what island you choose, we have an itinerary for you. Our itineraries take you step by step on excursion days around the island so you can see and experience the best. Plus, our Quick Hits section ensures you always have a list of the best meals and beaches at your fingertips.
Don’t take our word for it: check out this review of our itinerary from one of our YouTube subscribers:
I bought your Maui Guide and that was the best investment I’ve made for a vacation. I just bought tickets for Kauai for February and I will be buying your guide again. Thank you so much for your comprehensive guide and for thinking of families with small children. I appreciate you!Gabby B.