Trip Planning on a Budget: How I Stayed a Week in Hawai’i for $922

A couple weeks ago I mentioned that I was posting in a tent. Well, today I’ll tell you why!

One of the few perks of Graduate School is being sent to conferences to present your research. And I was lucky enough to get my paper accepted to the 2018 Nuclear Science and Radiation Effects Conference (NSREC) which just so happened to be taking place in Hawai’i of all places!

I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore such an awesome place, so I started planning a second week on my own dollar for after the conference.  A few things became abundantly clear

1) I’d need a week to properly explore the island.
2) The island is bigger than the State of Rhode Island. A rental car was absolutely necessary.
3) I’d need to do everything for under $1000 because generous salary is definitively not one of the perks of grad school.

My grant was paying well over $200/night for my hotel at the conference, so clearly that was not an option for my vacation week. Luckily I’m an outdoorsy kind of guy and I own camping equipment. If you wanted to do a trip like this, here is my equipment list: Kelty Salida 2 tent ($115), Teton Scout 3400 Backpack ($55), Katadyn 3.0L water filter ($50), Coleman Fleece Sleeping Bag ($18),Inflatable Sleeping Pad ($47), Camp Pillow ($14), Collapsible Cook Set ($16), Primus Trail Stove ($19), Stainless Steel Tea mug ($6), 100 ft paracord nylon rope ($10).1I did buy a lot of the equipment for this trip since this was my first solo trip. I’m not including it in the total cost of the trip though, because it’s good equipment that I’m going to use on plenty of future adventures!  Total Cost: $350.2Including the cost of the permits, this comes out to be ~$65/night for lodging, which is on par with a hostel, less than a Bed & Breakfast, and way less than a hotel.  So I bought some permits to camp on the county-owned beaches, packed up my tent and sleeping pad, and got ready for a packed week of hiking, camping, and exploring!

Now, this is not meant to be a guide, but merely a way to show that it’s possible to do amazing things even while sticking to a strict budget. Ultimately, it’s a lesson in spending money on the things that make you the most happy. For me, that was heavy on the hiking and seeing as many beautiful sights as I could, while leaving out the luxurious nights in a hotel. After all, I have a pretty nice mattress back home, so being comfortable is something I can do all the time. I also could have done it for far less by not paying for any tours, taking my chances and camping illegally, or simply not buying gifts for my family. But all those things made me happy or reduced stress, so I didn’t mind paying a reasonable amount.

Day 0: Preparing for the week ahead

Definitely not the car I wanted to drive the narrow windy roads of Hawai’i in.  But still, not bad for $39/day

NSREC ended at 12:30 on Friday, which gave me the whole afternoon to pick up my rental car and buy the food and supplies I would need for the rest of the trip. Remember how I chose the cheapest rental car option? Well, apparently they had a surplus of Minivans because they put me in this 8-passenger gas-guzzling monstrosity.

Well, hey, at least it’s big enough to sleep in if something goes wrong (foreshadowing…).

I went to the nearest of the two Targets on the island to pick up food and supplies. Since I was going to do a lot of hiking, non-perishable protein was a must. Pouches of pre-cooked salmon, granola, trail mix and Cliff Bars were the big ones here. I also picked up 2 boxes of rice mixes and some macaroni and cheese with 11g of protein. Some apples, dried pineapple, and banana chips rounded out the snacks. The last item was a big can of camp fuel for my stove. Oh almost forgot the most important part: a box of Earl Grey Tea.

I grew up on the East Coast. This was my first Ocean sunset!

I drove up to Spencer Beach Park, my first campsite, pitched a tent right near the ocean, and cooked my rice and salmon dinner to an absolutely perfect ocean sunset.

Rental Car: $38.49
Groceries $99.11
Camping Permit $21.00
Day 0 Total: $158.60

Day 1: Waimanu Valley Backpacking

First glimpse of Waimanu Valley from the backpacking trail
Perks of a rainy day? Long exposure shots

I had read about a campsite only accessible by backpacking in the middle of a picturesque valley with beautiful waterfalls, and I knew I had to see it.  I paid a local business $20/day to park my car overnight.  Later I found out that street parking was perfectly fine, so that would have been some money saved. But since I was leaving everything except the essentials in the car, I suppose it was good peace of mind to have it parked out-of-the-way.

It had rained the entire day and night before, and it continued raining in the morning. The hike was excruciating. The hike started with a steep 1000 ft decent on a 4×4-only road into Waipio Valley, crossing of a fast-moving waist-high river, and another steep 1000 ft ascent up the other side of the valley. Once on top, there were 6 miles of ups and downs with no fewer than 12 overflowing stream crossings. Finally I was greeted with an amazing view of the Waimanu Valley and its waterfalls.

What is it about falling water that is just so darn beautiful?

But the campsite is in the valley, so now to make another 1000 ft descent on an incredibly steep and slippery trail, only to be greeted by another river to cross, except this one was chest high. I finally made it to the campsite, set up camp, and collapsed, utterly exhausted but accomplished.

Now, I consider myself to be in pretty good shape and a reasonable hiker. But steep cliffs, river crossings, and no cell service if something went wrong all made the hike nothing short of terrifying. Beautiful and absolutely amazing, sure, but terrifying nonetheless.

Rental Car: $38.49
Parking $20.00
Camping Permit $19.80
Day 1 Total: $78.29

Day 2: Waimanu Valley Backpacking Continued

Waimanu Valley at sunrise
The mist from the waterfall made it difficult to capture just how amazing this was

My original plan had me staying 2 nights in Waimanu valley, but I decided to leave early for a few reasons. 1) It finally stopped raining overnight, and the chest-high river had dropped to a far more manageable waist high. 2) Rain was forecast to pick up again in the afternoon and continue overnight. 3) another hiker was heading out that day, and the buddy system always helps the nerves.

So, after a cup of tea overlooking the rocky shoreline, I visited the beautiful waterfall I saw the day before and, oh my, standing at the base of a 700 ft waterfall is an incredible experience.

After that, I did the same thing in reverse; across the (now shallower) river, up the valley, over the (much tamer) streams, down the valley, and across the other river. This time, however, my new hiking buddy and I met a local guy offering rides up the valley in his truck. My body was completely spent at this point, so I quickly agreed. He took us for a tour of Waipio Valley and talked about the history of the area, cracking jokes the whole time. Then he drove us up the valley and right to our cars. Best $10 spent ever.

Since this night’s permit was for the place I just hiked out of, I decided to drive to my next destination, Laupahoehoe Point. Without a permit and in no condition to set up a tent, I decided to stay overnight in the car in the parking lot.

View of Waipio Valley as I’m trying to muster the strength to keep hiking
Rental Car: $38.49
Parking $20.00
Ride out of valley $10.00
Camping Permit $19.80
Day 2 Total: $88.29

Day 3: North Island Exploration

Sunrise over a rocky shoreline

Luckily, no one came looking for my permit that night. Unluckily, sleeping in a minivan while unbelievably sore is not particularly restful. But the morning greeted me with a beautiful ocean sunrise, so hey, I’ll take what I can get.

Setting up camp at Laupahoehoe Beach Park

Now for a major gripe about this trip: apparently the “Shower Facilities” listed on the permit reservation site don’t mean enclosed showerhouses with warm water. No, it means “outdoor shower with cold water that is really only meant to wash sand off your body.” Oh well. I guess they call it a “bathing suit” for a reason.

I could barely walk, but I did my best exploring the different shops on the northern coast of the island. I got my mom a handmade serving bowl from a local artist and my dad some small prints of another local artists’ work. After blowing the day’s budget on gifts and some lunch (expensive, but delicious), I headed back to Laupahoehoe point to set up camp, washed out my terrible smelling hiking clothes, and made dinner.

Rental Car: $38.49
Tea $3.00
Lunch $14.29
Gift Shop 1 $20.00
Gift Shop 2 $20.00
Camping Permit $21.00
Day 3 Total: $116.78

Day 4: Hilo Exploration

My phone’s wide angle lens really captured just how tall these palm trees are

This day was all about exploring the lush jungle areas near the City of Hilo. After a breakfast of dried pineapple and some tea, first stop was a Tropical Botanical garden just north of the town of Hilo. It was STUNNING.

Now, I’m a collector of houseplants (which, thanks again for watering all those plants during my trip Joey!). I found 7/9 of the species I have at home and in the office, and they were all huge! And growing outside! It was really cool to see. $20 was a bit on the pricey side, but I spent all morning admiring everything, so money well spent for sure.

Next I made my way into Hilo. I parked near a public Japanese-style garden with ponds and footbridges overlooking the ocean so I could do a little computer work. I totally lost track of time and ended up missing the Pacific Tsunami Museum, which I really wanted to go to. Most of the shops were still open so I got some presents for my sisters, and some extra protein in the form of beef jerky for me. On my way back I stopped at a park with the iconic statue of Kamehameha the Great.

Kamehameha was the man who united the Hawaiian islands under one kingdom though both diplomacy and brutal war
Rental Car: $38.49
Tropical Botanical Garden $20.00
Gift shop 1 $8.85
Gift shop 2 $15.60
Groceries $9.00
Camping Permit $21.00
Day 4 Total: $112.94

Day 5: Mauna Kia Summit Hike

Hiking above one of the cloud layers was incredible. Looking south toward Mauna Loa

This day was the second major hike of the trip: a 6 mi long, 4600 ft high trail from the 9200’ Mauna Kia Visitor Information Center to the 13800’ summit. I wasn’t sure I was going to actually make the hike since I was still very, very sore, but I knew I had to at least visit the Visitor Information Center (VIS). So I packed up the minivan at sea level, and started the hour and a half drive up. This was an amazing drive because it started in the lush sea-level jungle, and ended in a barren lava-rock desert at 9000’. There was a small band of grassland where the land hit the clouds, which was really cool.

I was actually feeling pretty good after the drive, so I packed up some sunscreen (hiking above the clouds, remember?), 2.5 liters of water, and a sweatshirt, checked into the VIS, and started hiking. And wow, it was incredible!

Hiking above the clouds is a feeling like nothing else. The porous lava rock that made up the mountain was like nothing I’d ever hiked on before.

Unfortunately, the novelty wore off at about the 3rd hour of hiking. The lava rock was so light that it shifted under my boots like sand, and used a lot of energy to climb. There was nothing to see but clouds and barren rocky landscapes. But the hardest part was physical: I realized I didn’t pack enough water, and a splitting headache / racing heartbeat indicated altitude sickness had fully set in. But I really wanted to see the observatories at the summit, so I persevered, and I made it!

Near the top of Mauna Kia. The observatories were right behind me

I was very lucky and met up with a group of European tourists who rented a 4×4 to drive the access road from the VIS where I parked to the summit. I shamelessly asked them for a ride back to my car, and they graciously agreed. I had enough water that I wouldn’t have died and made it to the summit juuuust as my time-to-turn-around-otherwise-you’ll-be-hiking-in-the-dark rolled around, so I could have made it back down myself. But I liked this plan better.

My biggest regret about the trip is I didn’t get to stay at the VIS for the free stargazing. All of my trip had hazy nights where I couldn’t see the stars, but since the VIS was above the cloud cover, it would have been amazing. They had telescopes and everything! Unfortunately, my camping reservation at Spencer Beach Park locked its gate at 9:00, the sun set at 7:30, and it was a 1.5 hour drive between the two. So after an expensive gift shop keepsake and a leisurely dinner out of my van, I drove back down the mountain just in time to watch the sunset over the beach.

Rental Car: $38.49
Gift $30.00
Camping Permit $21.00
Day 5 Total: $89.49

Day 6: South Island Exploration

The carvings range from people to geometric shapes to characters from the Latin alphabet

First stop of the day was a Petroglyph historical site next to the resort that housed the Conference I had attended just a week prior. I happened upon a tour group from one of the resorts, and snuck in! The tour guide was totally fine about it and he talked about the caves where the first polynesian settlers lived and how the trees that surrounded us were brought to the island to contain the cows that were also brought to the island. But the most interesting part was a large area of smooth rock with hundreds of mysterious carvings. Overall, pretty cool for no money spent haha!

View from the top of a hill at the Kahuku Unit

Since Kiluea erupted a few months before my trip, I couldn’t visit Volcanoes National Park. Instead, I visited the Kahuku Unit, an old ranch and mining operation that was donated to the National Parks. It was hit by a 1868 eruption of Mauna Loa, resulting in half of the land being perfect lush grassland, and the other half a barren lava flow.

Next stop was the southernmost point of the United States. I was expecting a plaque or something, but there was nothing except picturesque cliffs overlooking a vast ocean

Just down the road was the trailhead for Papakōlea Beach, or as it’s more commonly known, Green Sands Beach. Accessible only by a 2.5 mi hike or an illegal 4×4 ride, the beach is in an extinct volcano half eroded away by the ocean. The result is a black sand beach with tons of tiny green gemstones from inside the lava cone. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Absolutely worth the hour seaside walk out there.

I don’t think I’ve ever visited a beach inside a lava cone before!

Clearly, it was a busy day, and I ended up getting back to the car just in time for sunset. 40 minutes of driving later, I finally arrived at my final campsite well past dark. Set up my tent, made some ramen, and was about to call it a night when I was greeted by a local family who had rented out most of the beach for the dad’s birthday. They were amazingly kind, and after I told them about my week and that I was here alone (despite the minivan), they insisted I join their celebration. And it was absolutely amazing. I am still blown away by their generosity and their willingness to share their family time with a complete stranger, and a mainlander no less! If you guys happen to be reading this, first and foremost, I hope you were safe from the hurricane, but second, thank you so much for your kindness!

Rental Car: $38.49
Gas $60.28
Camping Permit $21.00
Day 6 Total: $119.77

Day 7: Kona Exploration

Miloli’i Beach was a lovely tiny beach among the rocky shoreline

Despite a very late night, I still woke up at the crack of dawn because … well … tent. But I made some tea by the beach and just sat by the ocean. Calm seas, a light ocean breeze, and the morning sunlight is my heaven.

All good things must come to an end, so I packed up my tent, said my goodbyes to my new friends, and made my way to the city of Kona. I planned to stay at a Hostel with a proper shower for my last night, and I could not wait to take that shower. I checked in just as soon as they let me, and I must have stayed in that shower for 45 minutes. If tea by the beach is heaven, this shower had to be a close second.

Hulihe‘e Palace was a nice historical visit

Proper shower complete, I made my way to downtown Kona. Like Hilo, downtown Kona was totally different from the rest of the island because it’s where most of the tourists stay. I managed to channel my tourist just long enough to visit some shops and pick up the last of my sisters’ gifts. Next was Hulihe’e Palace Museum, one of the summer palaces for the Hawaiian royal family before it’s annexation by the US. The place today shows the royal family’s history, examples of ceremonial dress and items used during the kings’ reign, and rooms furnished with the family’s actual furniture.

There were so many different types of sand on the island. This particular beach was mostly crushed shells

Next stop was a beach near the Airport for some swimming, since I had done surprisingly little on the trip so far. This particular beach was made up of coarsely crushed shells, which was cool to look at. But the real highlight was all the tropical fish who were swimming with me! Had some regular swimming goggles so I could see underwater, but I really wish I spent the $5 to rent a snorkel for the day from the Hostel. Oh well, incredible experience nonetheless!

I spent the daylight cleaning and packing all my stuff into their respective bags for my flight the next day. I then slept in an air conditioned bed for the first time in a week.

Rental Car: $38.49
Hulihe’e Palace Admission $10.00
gift $10.00
more gifts $26.02
My Hawaii Hostel $45.77
Day 7 Total: $130.28

Day 8: Time to go home 🙁

Magic Sands Beach was definitely the most crowded beach I went to, but the white sands and crystal clear waters were still astounding

This day was tough. After a week of exploring, hiking, and talking to as many people as my socially anxious self could, I really felt that I was getting comfortable on the island. I could pronounce all the locations, and had been all over the island except the most extreme northwest corner (too out of the way) and the southeast corner (blocked off due to erupting volcano). After making a final cup of tea on the island, I walked to the nearest beach and just admired the crystal clear water and the brilliant white sands.

On the way back to the Hostel, I stopped at a delicious food truck for a hamburger made with local ingredients. With my rental car due at 1:00 PM,3(on penalty of being charged for another whole day) I refueled, dropped the car off, and took the shuttle to the airport. My journey had come to an end.

The island’s flowers were beautiful
Lunch $14.95
Gas $12.14
Day 8 Total: $27.09


I choked up a bit getting on this plane to fly home

The total cost of the week was $921.53, or $115.19/day.  Compared to the $200/night of my conference hotel, this was quite a steal!  Food, shelter, activities, and gifts, all for just over $100/day.  “But Joe,” I hear you say, “It’s only that cheap because you didn’t have to pay for the flight yourself!”  Well, sure.  But the point of this post is to use the opportunities you’re given to their maximum.  Do you have a business trip coming up?  See if you can push the return flight back a week (after all, that’s exactly what I did).  But if that’s not what you wanted to hear, flights are roughly $1000 from where I live to Kona.  I’d say an unforgettable week in an amazing place is worth $1900 every once in a while.

The biggest thing for me is that I learned some of the history according to the people who actually lived it.

Before it was a US State, the Hawaiian Kingdom was an independent nation with a functioning government and a proud people. The Kingdom brokered trade deals with economic powers from around the world and became a major hub of trade routes.

Waipio and Waimanu valleys were once more settled than the coastal cliff towns of Honoka’a etc., full of agriculture. But it was all destroyed in a massive tsunami in 1946. Some people returned to Waipio valley, but no one returned to Waimanu. Also, jet-skiing across the ocean is a much easier way into Waimanu valley.

The island is beautiful, to be sure, but life is difficult. Things are expensive since it’s difficult to get them to the island and tourists inflate the prices further. Also, most jobs are low-paying service jobs related to the the tourism industry; the same industry that’s largely a result from US imperialism and is causing rapid destruction of coral reefs.

I got to learn these things because of the things that I did off the beaten path. The hikes into Waimanu Valley and up Mauna Kia were seen as a sort of street island cred that only the locals do. And every shopkeeper, tour guide, and even celebrating family with whom I shared my story shared a story of their collective past in return.


They say good experiences make good memories, and bad experiences make good stories. This trip left me with many good memories and a couple of good stories, so I’d say it was a total success even though I spent a fraction of the price of a typical “tropical vacation”.

2 response to "Trip Planning on a Budget: How I Stayed a Week in Hawai’i for $922"

  1. By: Frugal Professor Posted: October 2, 2018

    This post is brilliant! This is a trip I could get excited about taking my family on! I’ll run it past Mrs Frugal Professor and see if it sticks.

    Also, each of your posts has a random “?p=719” thing at the end of it rather than a proper name. You can manually change existing posts here:, but then links to your blog will be broken.

    There is a way to change the default setting within WordPress, but I can’t seem to remember how to access it. MrMoneyMustache has the year/month built into his URL structure. I don’t think it matters how you do it, but it’s easier to link to your blog posts when it’s not random URLs, but instead something that conveys meaning.

    • By: Joe Posted: October 3, 2018

      Hey, thanks! Happy to have you on my half of the blog haha! Yeah, camping on the beaches was a great way to explore since there were places to stay all over the island. Just a heads up though I think the permits are per person, not per tent, so they will be more expensive for a family. That said, the one time my permit was checked was done so from afar, definitely too far to see how many people were on it. Your mileage may vary. Just remember, the only showers were outdoors!
      Good call on the URLs. By the time I found the option to change it, Joey and I already had a few dozen posts, and I’ve been dreading making the change since. Maybe I’ll bite the bullet this weekend and finally fix it

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