Hawaii Big Island Car Rental: What To Know In 2024

Man getting into a white rental car on the Big Island Hawaii

Looking for information on a Big Island car rental for your trip to Hawaii? You’re in the right place! I recently returned from a 6-day Big Island vacation and rented a car for this trip to get around the island.

In this post, I cover tips from my personal experience of what to know about renting a car in Hawaii.

Tip: I recommend renting a car for pickup at the Kona International Airport. This is the main airport on the Island of Hawai’i where you’ll be flying into.

For my trip, I booked a car with my favorite car rental company Discover Cars. This is the company that I love to use because they offer the best deals and tons of cars to choose from.

You may also be wondering how difficult is it to drive around on the Big Island. I booked hotels in various locations on the island to explore different parts of it and it was very easy driving around.

Some of the links used in this blog may be affiliate links. At no extra cost to you, I earn a small commission when you book through these links for which I am very thankful!

How To Rent a Car On The Big Island

When I book rental cars for my trips, I love to use Discover Cars. Discover Cars offers the best car deals online and free cancellation up to 48 hours before your scheduled pick-up time.

Here are the steps for renting a car on the Big Island:

Book The Rental On Discover Cars

Head over to the Discover Cars website here and for the location select ‘Kona International Airport (KOA), Kailua-Kona, USA-Hawaii’.

Kona International Airport is the most popular place for renting a car on the Big Island. Getting a car rental at the airport is very convenient so you can land after a long flight and head directly to pick up your car. The Big Island airport is very small and has complimentary shuttles that will take you to the car rental pickup location.

For my Hawaii trip, I booked a full-size car. The main highways on the Big Island are paved so you don’t need a 4WD or SUV to get around. The full-size car got me everywhere I wanted to go including the famous Saddle Road Drive and Chain Of Craters Road within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

If you’re traveling with a family or friends group, you’ll want to select a bigger car to fit everyone’s luggage in the trunk. If you’re not sure what type of vehicle to get, check out the super handy chart at the top of the Discover Cars website.

Many couples opt to get a Jeep Wrangler or a convertible. The weather in Hawaii is usually warm so you can enjoy cruising around the island with the top down.

Keep in mind that there is theft on the Big Island so never leave valuables unattended in the rental car. And it can rain unexpectedly at any moment so having a convertible is fun, but not always the most practical car to drive in Hawaii.

Select Full Coverage

For a bit of peace of mind, I always opt to select full coverage when booking through Discover Cars. The one time I skipped it, my rental car’s windshield got damaged and I had to pay to replace it… out of pocket.

If there are any issues during your trip, with full coverage you’ll be able to easily file a claim and get refunded for costs related to repairs, towing, accidental dings, broken windows, lost keys, and more.

85% of customers select this option because there is nothing that worsens the mood on a vacation than dealing with unexpected car issues! (I’ve been there before).

Here you can see what’s covered under Discover Cars full coverage:

When you go to pick up the rental car, the rental company will hold a security deposit on your credit card. If anything happens during the trip, you could be charged this security deposit, unless you have full coverage on Discover Cars.

With the full cover, you’ll be reimbursed for any damage (up to $3300). And it costs less than $10/day!

Having a car rental on the Big Island is a must for visiting tourist attractions.

Tips For Getting a Car Rental On Hawaii’s Big Island

To get a car rental on the Big Island of Hawaii, you’ll need a valid driver’s license, be at least 21 years of age, and have a credit card in your name. Drivers under 25 years of age will likely be charged an Underage Drivers fee.

For booking a car rental in Hawaii you’ll want to:

Check Car Rental Company Reviews

I recommend going with a company with a rating of 7 or higher. If something goes wrong, you’ll want a rental car company with good customer service willing to help you out 24-7.

I’ve gotten stuck with an unusable vehicle rental in Maui before when booking from a low-rated company. It was nearly impossible to get a hold of them over the phone and when I did, they refused to pick up and exchange the rental car. You do get what you pay for so it’s important to check reviews before you book.

I did have a small issue with the car rental key on my latest Big Island vacation too. But because I booked with a highly-rated company, I was able to stop by the car rental agency and easily take care of the issue within a few minutes.

Book Early In Your Trip Planning

It’s best to book a rental vehicle early on when you start planning your trip. The longer you wait, the more you’ll end up paying.

Discover Cars offer free cancellation so you won’t be penalized if your trip plans change.

Check The Car Rental Fuel Policy

Many of the rental agencies have a ‘Full To Full’ policy. Before leaving the lot, make a note of the fuel level and return it at the same level to avoid extra fees.

There are a few gas stations just south of the airport where you can shop around for the best prices and fuel up.

Be Aware Of The Rental Car Deposit

When you go to pick up a rental car, you’ll need to put down a credit card for the deposit. Make sure you have plenty of available credit left on your card. This deposit typically goes away a few days after your trip.

I advise against using a debit card because the deposit will be temporarily taken out of your bank account. If you don’t have enough funds, you might be denied the rental car or face overdraft fees.

Browse the best Hawaii Big Island rental cars on Discover Cars here!

Kona International Airport in Hawaii.

Picking Up Your Rental Car At Kona Airport

Kona International Airport is very small so once you land, it only takes a few minutes to exit the airport.

All of the major rental car companies such as Alamo, Avis, Budget, Hertz, Thrifty, and Dollar are located in the same spot along Aulepe Street. You will need to take a quick shuttle to get there.

After checking in with your rental company, you will be assigned a car in the parking lot. I highly recommend taking a video and photos of the entire car interior and exterior for your records. Note any existing scratches, dings, and damage if there are any. Do the same when you drop off the car as well.

When returning the car, you can come back to the same location and find your rental car company lot on Google Maps. The return process was very easy and quick.

Why Rent a Car On The Big Island

Over the past few years, I have visited several of the Hawaii Islands including the Big Island, Oahu, and Maui. I always get a car rental in Hawaii so I can easily navigate around the islands.

While you can book some guided tours that offer transportation, I prefer to have a rental car for getting groceries, going to remote locations, hikes, scenic drives, and exploring various tourist attractions that are a bit off the beaten tourist path.

I also like to stay in different parts of the islands to be closer to various landmarks. Having a rental car allows me flexibility in my travel plans and explore more in less time.

Pros of having a rental car:

  • Freedom to explore any destination on your own
  • Convenience to go to get food and groceries
  • Cost can be cheaper than booking expensive tours
  • Don’t have to wait for Uber drivers to pick you up

Keep in mind: If you plan to visit Hilo, you will need a rental car to get across the island. It takes around 1.5 hours to drive to Hilo from Kailua-Kona one way so having a car is a must!

Outdoor pool next to the ocean at the Mauna Lani Auberge Resorts Collection
If you plan to stay at a resort for the entire trip, you may not need a rental car (photo by Mauna Lani, Auberge Resorts Collection).

When Not To Get a Car Rental On Big Island Hawaii

If you plan to book a resort in Kailua-Kona or Waikoloa where you can relax for the entire vacation, there isn’t much of a need to rent a car.

Most resorts have restaurants, bars, pools, entertainment, and convenience stores on the property where you can get anything you may need for your entire stay. You’ll just need to grab an Uber or a Taxi from the airport to get to your hotel.

There are plenty of hotels near downtown Kona where you can stay at the center of the tourist activities. During my trip, I booked a few nights at Royal Kona Resort and PACIFIC 19 Kona Hotel which were within walking distance of local restaurants, bars, souvenir stores, and the beach.

Many tour companies offer hotel pickup in Kona if you want to explore outside of your hotel without having a rental car. Some of the most popular tours to book on the Big Island include:

Sunset at Mauna Kea summit
Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain on Earth (from base to peak).

An alternative option to getting a rental car is to book a Buggy Rental on the Big Island. This tour operator offers 4 and 8-hour rentals in a fun VW Manx-style buggy that you can take around the island!

In summary: If you’re planning to visit Kona, a rental car might not be necessary. If you plan to visit Hilo, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, head on a road trip, and explore multiple destinations, it is highly advisable to have a rental car.

How Much a Big Island Hawaii Rental Costs

While Hawaii is an expensive destination, renting a car on the Big Island was much cheaper than I expected. I visited the Big Island in July during the peak summer travel season and paid around $65 per day by booking through Discover Cars.

I do recommend booking your rental car early as early as possible. Hawaii does experience busy travel seasons and car shortages. If you wait too long, you may end up paying ridiculous rental car prices.

Discover Cars offers free cancellation up to 48 hours before your pickup. You can book your rental car early on in your trip planning and easily cancel without a cancellation fee if things change.

Road closure in Hawaii after an unexpected lava flow.

Road Conditions On The Big Island

Many visitors wonder about the road conditions on the Big Island in Hawaii. If you’re concerned about getting stuck on bad roads – don’t worry! Most of the highways on the Big Island are paved, well-maintained, and easy to navigate.

Keep in mind there are many locations with limited parking, blind corners, and people crossing the highways at unexpected times to access attractions.

During my 6-day Big Island trip I had no issues with navigating around the island and never had to go ‘off-roading’. I visited some of the most common tourist attractions like Hilo, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, beach parks, Akaka Falls State Park, and Kona coffee plantation along with many others.

Read Next: 30 Best Hawaii Big Island Things To Do On a Vacation

Download an Offline Google Map

While there is reception in the main cities like Kailua-Kona and Hilo, I did run into ‘no service’ zones while driving around the island.

I highly recommend downloading an offline map version on Google Maps so you can easily navigate around, even if you lose signal.  

Saddle Road on the Big Island in Hawaii
Saddle Road is one of the most beautiful drives on the Big Island.

Driving Saddle Road On The Big Island

The most common road trip route on the Big Island is the State Rte 200, also known as the Saddle Road. This road connects both the west and east sides of the island. If you plan to visit Hilo from Kailua-Kona, you will need to drive the Saddle Road across the island.

You can take other scenic routes in the northern and southern parts of the island which are much longer. At 77 miles in distance, Saddle Road is the shortest option and only takes 1.5 hours.

My biggest tip is to avoid driving Saddle Road at night as there are wildlife including goats and pigs crossing the highway at unexpected times.

State Route 200 also has limited amenities and I did not see any gas stations, rest stops, restrooms, or food options along the way. It’s best to fill up on gas, food, and water in Kailua-Kona or Hilo before heading into this highway.

Chain Of Craters Road on the Big Island.

Driving Chain Of Craters Road

Chain Of Craters Road is another popular route to drive on the Big Island. This scenic highway is located within Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park and features volcanic landscapes, craters, hiking trails, lookout points, and petroglyphs.

This highway is wide and paved so any rental car will be able to handle it. Just make sure to fill up on gas, food, and water before going on this drive. There is very limited reception and amenities past the Kīlauea Visitor Center.

The Chain Of Craters Road starts at the Devastation Trail and travels for 19 miles south to the Hōlei Sea Arch. It takes around 45 minutes to drive this route going one way without making any stops. Once you reach Hōlei Sea Arch, you will need to turn around and backtrack the same way that you came.

I recommend setting aside a few hours to drive this route and explore all of the top attractions and viewpoints along the way.

Hōlei Sea Arch marks the end of the Chain Of Craters Road.

Ready to plan your trip to the Big Island in Hawaii? Use this link here to check for the cheapest rental cars on Discover Cars!

FAQ: Hawaii Big Island Car Rental

Here are a few frequently asked questions on how to rent a car in Big Island Hawaii to help you more with trip planning.

Is it worth renting a car on the Big Island?

If you plan to explore outside of your hotel, it is so worth getting a rental car on the Big Island. I rented a car on my 6-day Big Island trip and used it all day long every day.

Is a car needed on the Big Island of Hawaii?

If you plan to stay at a resort in Kailua-Kona or Waikoloa for the entire trip, it is not necessary to rent a car. If you wish to visit Hilo, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, and different beach parks, you will need a rental car to get around.

Most visitors do end up renting a car because there is so much to see and do on the Big Island. This is the biggest of the Hawaiian Islands so getting around without a car can be a challenge.

Woman walking into the Nahuku Thurston Lava Tube on the Big Island in Hawaii
Nahuku – Thurston Lava Tube at Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.

Is it hard to get around Big Island without a car?

Many of the Big Island attractions are situated in different parts of the island hours apart so it can be hard to get around without a car.

Without a car, you’ll be limited to nearby restaurants, cafes, bars, and beaches within walking distance or a short Uber ride from your hotel.

Is driving on the Big Island difficult?

Driving on the Big Island is not difficult as long as you stick to the main highways and roads. The highways in Hawaii do have a lot of windy turns, steep inclines, blind corners, and wild animals crossing the road so it is not recommended to drive long distances at night.

What kind of car is needed for Big Island?

If you’re visiting Big Island for a vacation, any rental car will do! The highways and roads on the Big Island are well-maintained so you can easily get around in any kind of car.

I prefer smaller to mid-size cars on my trips because they’re easier to navigate and park, especially in popular tourist attractions where parking can be limited.

Several locations on the Big Island are not accessible by a rental car:

  • Mauna Kea. There are restrictions for driving up to the top of Mauna Kea – the tallest peak on the Big Islan. To make things easier I recommend booking this Mauna Kea Summit and Stars Small-Group Adventure Tour that provides transportation in a luxury van.
  • Papakōlea Beach. Due to the fragile environment, it is illegal to drive all the way to the Papakōlea green sand beach. To reach this beach you will need to park your car and hike the 5.6 mile long Papakolea Green Sand Beach Trail.
  • Waipio Valley. Waipio Valley is a remote area in the northern part of the island. Some of the roads here are prohibited by rental companies and off-limits to non-residents.
Papakolea green sand beach in Hawaii
Papakōlea Green Sand Beach in the southern part of the Big Island.

Where should I rent a car on The Big Island?

The best location to rent a car on the Big Island is at the Kona International Airport. Renting a car at the airport is very convenient so you can land after a flight, exit the terminal, and take a quick shuttle to the car rental companies.

Is it worth going to the Big Island?

If you’re thinking of visiting the Big Island of Hawaii, it is so worth it! From active volcanoes to jungle waterfalls, pristine beaches, and relaxing beach resorts, this tropical destination offers so much to its visitors.

How many days do you need on the Big Island?

I visited the Big Island for 6 days which was enough time to see all the major highlights, stay a few nights in Kona, make a day trip to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, and take a Night Manta Ray Adventure in Kona.

Manta ray swimming in the ocean
A manta ray night snorkel tour is one of the best things to do on the Big Island.

How far apart are Kona and Hilo?

Kona and Hilo are around 77 miles apart from each other on opposite sides of the Big Island. To travel between these two cities, you can go on a 1.5-hour long drive along Highway 200, also known as the Saddle Road.

Do I need a four-wheel drive vehicle to drive around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park?

You do not need a 4-wheel drive to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The main highway within this National Park is paved so any rental car will do!

Looking for more Big Island Hawaii travel inspiration? Be sure to check out some of our other popular posts below:

This post is written by Laura Sausina. Hi, I’m the founder of the Fun Life Crisis travel blog and I’ve been traveling full-time for the past 7 years. Here I share my experiences and tips to help 100,000 people a month plan their adventures around the world! Read more about me here.

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