This is an article that I felt needed to be written because it took me a few days and a lot of struggle in Kauai to learn how to be able to travel here for cheap and to have fun with it – with the consideration that I don’t know anybody here. So if you DO intend on coming to this magical healing island, then I’m going to give you a good outline of the very best way that you can do it for the very lowest of travel expenses. Yay for traveling.
Probably the biggest expense you’ll experience here is car hire. Unfortunately you need to be 25 to hire a car so for those of you who are younger than that OR if you really, really don’t want to hire a car, then apparently you can get around via public transport and hitchhiking. However, I haven’t seen many buses.. only an occasional few. Hitchhikers are common here but personally I can’t recommend it for safety reasons. If you’re over 25 I highly recommend saving up enough money for a car. You’ll be driving up and down the coast line a lot and you will appreciate the secure space to keep your gear.
The cheapest option is hiring the smallest and most economical car. Hiring a truck or a 4WD will cost you a lot. I got lucky. The woman behind the counter when I went to pick up my little car took one look at me and my backpack and decided that I was hiking and camping so needed a big 4WD. So she upgraded me for not a lot more cost. Mind you, it has been close to two weeks and I am yet to need that 4WD functionality. But I have slept in the back of it once and was grateful that it was big enough for that.
I always go for the optional full insurance coverage which usually costs about as much as you’re paying for the car per day. You can choose to use your own car insurance if you’re a US citizen or if you have excellent International travel insurance that may work too. Just read through your policy first and know EXACTLY what the deal is. I HAVE had to use my insurance once. I got a VW camper van bogged in the desert in Joshua Tree and had to get it winched out which damaged the rear of the car. The insurance that came with the rental had an excess of about $700 so I had to pay that. Luckily I had good travel insurance at the time so I got a full refund with my travel insurance company. But there was a good few weeks that I was out of pocket with that $700.
The most important thing to keep in mind with renting a car is that gas is super expensive in Kauai. I recommend that you plan your day around the distance that you’re going to travel. In the beginning of my journey I was driving up to the northern end of the Island to set up my tent, then driving back into Kaapa to get some food and use the Internet, then driving back up a couple of hours later. This trip was one hour each way and a huge waste in gas so I quickly learned to plan a little better.
Expect to pay anywhere between $100-$300 per week for your car depending on what car and what insurance you get. I love to use Hotwire for the best deals.
The other option (that was inspired by a man in a tent next to mine last night) is getting around by push bike. The land along the coast line is flat so you don’t have to battle any hills and you can attach your gear and tent onto your bike. There are many places that rent out bikes here and if you contact a rental place well in advance you might be able to find someone that’s willing to help you out with a bike that is well enough equipped for carrying gear.
The problem with traveling this way is that you will be limiting yourself to what you can do and where you can go. It’s not like you can just pop into town for lunch. The 30-60 minute drive is a lot longer by push bike. This option is a great one if you like to take things slow, eat at your camp site and plan a whole bunch.
Where To Stay
The great thing about this Island is that there are a few options to do accommodation for cheap. You’d think the most obvious would be one of the three hostels that are on the Island but actually they’re still kind of expensive and don’t carry a good energy. I walked into one and walked straight back out of it again and now won’t go anywhere near it.
Couchsurfing is fun if you can line that up. I couchsurfed with an awesome family on my first night here. My host and his family were fire dancers and he’d spent a couple of years on an inner spiritual journey on his own in the jungle, the second year without anything man made (no tent, no clothes, nothing!). Make sure that you have a good couchsurfing profile and contact potential hosts WELL in advance. I made the mistake of contacting them too late and most didn’t have enough time to reply.
Combining couchsurfing with camping is my most recommended way to get your accommodation sorted in Kauai. Camping can be a little tricky to figure out so I’ll give you a rundown here that will get you sorted.
There are a few camp sites around the Island but for solo female travellers I only recommend two – Anini and Haena. Both these camp sites are beautiful, feel safe and are frequented by families who simply wouldn’t allow any campers with bad intentions to stick around.
1. Hiring versus bringing your gear with you
If you have a little tent and sleeping bag then I recommend you bring them with you. You CAN hire here but there are only three places that offer it and the cheap one gets booked up well in advance. The difference in cost is $35/week for a tent at the cheap place and $75/week at the expensive place. If you do go to the expensive place then don’t bother hiring a mattress pad or sleeping bag because you can go to Kmart and buy them for about half the cost of what they charge you for a week. Kmart is about a 20 minute drive from the main area that you’ll probably be spending a lot of time in so it’s not too far. A fleece blanket at K-mart will cost you about $18 and a good thick mattress pad less than $20.
I also treatment myself to a pillow which cost about $5 and was definitely worth every cent.
2. Camping permits
I stress that you do need a camping permit, even if you don’t like to follow rules. The first night of camping I didn’t have a permit because I couldn’t actually figure out how to get one, and my tent got tagged by a ranger just before sunset with a red card that said “Please clip your permit to your tent”. I had the most uncomfortable night sleeping with one eye open and then had to wake up at sunrise to pack up my tent and leave. Rangers come every morning at these two sites to check permits and ofter after dark too. Usually I wake up with hearing them rustling on the edge of my tent checking my paperwork. The earliest I’ve heard them is 6am but apparently they can come as early as sunrise which is closer to 5am. There was a night that a ranger came to check my tent at 8pm as well. It was already after dark and unexpected!
Permits are CHEAP and easy to get and I encourage you to get them WELL in advance so that you actually get in. I booked after I got here and it was impossible to get into any of the good sites on Friday and Saturday nights, so I have been only able to camp during the week. If you don’t mind finding somewhere else to stay on the weekends then you can definitely be a little more spontaneous like I was and get the permits once you arrive on the Island.
Note that all camp sites are closed for one day each week for maintenance. I think this is really just a way to make sure they don’t have anyone permanently living there. So you will need to move your camp around on these days. Luckily not all camp sites are maintained on the same day.
You can apply for permits online but if you’re like me and can’t figure that out then you can do it in person. You’ll need to go to the office in Lihu’e and fill out a small form. They’ll want to see some form of identification and they will ask for payment then and there. They’ll also give you a copy of your permit in a plastic bag for rain protection with a little twist tie to hang on your tent. The man I dealt with at the permit booth was just lovely and happy to offer advice.
The permit counter in Lihu’e is located in the lobby of the Piʻikoi Building, in the Lihuʻe Civic Center, 4444 Rice Street, directly across the street from the Lihuʻe Post Office. Their operating hours are 8:15am-4pm Monday to Friday except holidays.
3. Camp site amenities
These camp sites have clean restroom blocks and an outdoor cold shower with privacy but no door. I can be a bit of a princess at times but will have a cold shower if I absolutely have to. It’s not that bad, especially considering the all year around warmth of the Island. In the early evening I’m pulling on a sweater so if you’re going to shower it’s better to do it when the sun is up.
Some beaches also have outdoor cold showers so when you rinse off after your beach swim you can use that time to lather up too.
Another option (and one I’ve used) is to schedule in a spa treatment or massage on a day that you’re really wanting to have a shower or wash your hair. I’m fine with not showering for two or three days but with the salt in the air I really need to wash my hair every few days. I scheduled in a treat massage with Angeline’s Lomi Lomi on a day that I really needed a hair wash. It was perfect! I got a beautiful spa treatment and massage along with a nice hot shower and a hair wash with the shampoo they provided. Genius. If you don’t want to spend so much most spas offer a steam and Jacuzi or similar for around $25. When you’re spending $3/night on your accommodation $25 for a spa an hot shower doesn’t seem so much!
By the way, I HIGHLY recommend Angeline’s Lomi Lomi. It was a super healing experience and definitely one of the highlights of my trip.
This is a new service that I only discovered while on the Island. It basically allows people to rent a room out in their house as if it’s a bnb without actually having to be a business. The most excellent thing about this is that you’ll get a room for a lot cheaper than you would be booking into an actual bnb.
I was able to rent a very rustic “jungle cabin” with shared bathroom and kitchen on the Island for two nights for around $40 a night. That’s cheaper than a private room in a hostel and way cheaper than a hotel or any established bnb business. The rustic part of it didn’t bother me considering I’d been camping for most of the week. I was happy to get a hot shower, access to a fridge, a powerpoint and wifi!!
Filling Your Belly
Food in Kauai is going to be one of your biggest expenses. I treated myself one night and ate out at a cute little restaurant. It was delightful but honestly not really worth the expensive. I could have camped for almost three weeks with the cost of the bill. And that was just one meal!!
The most ideal situation is to be settled in one camping ground for a good period of time so that you can set up a little food making station. Opt for foods that don’t need cooling or refrigeration so you don’t need to worry about the hassle of a cooling device.
Make sure you that have your food in a sealed container. There are MANY chickens and roosters on the Island that WILL eat your food if you leave it out. I left a banana out one night on a picnic table just outside my tent, and woke up to an entire family of hens and their cousins devouring the last remnants of the banana.
If you get to the camp site early to set up (you can start setting up by 12 noon) then choose a spot under a tree to protect your tent from the rain and next to a picnic table that you can use for food preparation.
You can hire a camp stove in Kauai or you can buy one at K-mart or Walmart. Or you can do the raw food option and get a knife and a cutting board. I bought a pocket knife for less than $2 at a drugstore and it has done the job well.
If you choose to eat out then the good news is that you can always find a good healthy meal for less than $10. Papayas health store in Kaapa and Hanalei has a little “cafe” section that offers an organic salad bar and small range of hot cooked foods which are charged by weight. Usually I pay around $6 per meal. They also offer healthy wraps and sandwiches in to go boxes that you can grab for a picnic or hike.
A friend of mine who has been a bit of a gypsie for years loves to buy gluten free crackers, pesto, avocado and hommus from the health store and carry that around to snack on along with a bunch of fruit. I’ve borrowed this little technique from him and it does make a small food budget stretch a long way. Just make sure that you eat your dips relatively quickly after you open them so that they don’t go bad.
Fresh and dried fruits and nuts are always a winner to carry around for the perfect snack.
Farmers markets are on here almost daily and they’re always a great option for buying fresh produce for a little cheaper. I highly recommend getting yourself a little wooden bowl and fork and spoon to make up your own salads (or whatever else) with the produce you pick up from the market.
If you’re adventurous and know your plants then this Island is abundant! On some hikes you can often edible plants along the way and coconuts are absolutely everywhere. I’m not sure what the laws are on climbing up a tree to grab a coconut so you might want to do that somewhere private or check what the rules are first!
The Best Guidebook That’s Worth It
I was on the Island for a week before I discovered this little gem. It’s a comprehensive and very well written small guide to the Island. I haven’t seen the actual book but I LOVE the app. It costs about $6 to download and in my opinion well worth it. Just in a time that I was beginning to get a little bored with the Island this guide pointed me towards some of the most special secret spots.. one which has now become the highlight of my adventure here so far.
All of that should get you well on your way to your grand adventure!! Travel safe and enjoy the magic, beauty and abundance of Kauai.