Aloha, fellow travel enthusiasts!
Are you dreaming of a tropical getaway to Hawaii? With its stunning beaches and breathtaking landscapes, it’s no wonder that the islands are on everyone’s bucket list. However, with so many tourists flocking to Hawaii year-round, it can be easy to make mistakes that could ruin your trip.
As someone who has been visiting Hawaii for years with my boyfriend, I’ve learned firsthand about the importance of respecting local culture and social norms. In this article, I’ll share my expertise on what not to do in Hawaii and how to avoid common travel faux pas.
Whether you’re planning your first trip or returning for another visit, these tips will help ensure that you have an unforgettable experience while showing respect for the people and marine life of this beautiful destination.
Warning: after reading this article, you may find yourself booking a one-way ticket to paradise!
- Don’t visit in peak seasons.
Hawaii and its islands are terrific all year long, but the throngs of tourists crowding the beaches, hiking trails, streets, and even resorts can dampen the vacation experience. For this purpose, visit during the off seasons, from April to May and September to November, as the Fall and Spring seasons usually mean a lack of crowds and cheaper prices.
However, the drawback of coming in the off-season can be unpredictable weather conditions like unexpected rain showers or thunderstorms, so always check the weather before planning your trip.
- Learn about the culture before you go
Hawaii has a history and culture separate from other US states. Their population is also diverse, with Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Portuguese, and Caucasians, who’ve been living here as locals for decades. For these reasons, it’s important to be informed about the people and customs before visiting so you don’t risk offending anyone.
Some sites you can visit to learn about Hawaiian history include the Iolani Palace in Honolulu, once home to Hawaiian royalty, and the Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve, to learn about the natives.
Also, attend the local festivals to appreciate the culture, like the Merrie Monarch Festival, East Maui Taro Festival, and the King Kamehameha Celebration.
- Don’t forget to book a rental car.
Rental cars in Hawaii are like public transportation in Europe; indispensable. Don’t make the mistake most tourists make in avoiding the extra cost of booking a car, thinking they can walk places. Since the islands are vast, and most locations are spaced apart, getting around on foot will be a big problem.
In addition, you’ll be spending way more money on taxis, buses, and tours to get places than you would on a rental car. So be a smart traveler, and book your car well in advance, to get the best prices and cars of your choice. This also helps you avoid the mistake of booking a vehicle on landing and paying ‘tourist prices,’ which are double what you’d have to pay on a pre-booking.
- Don’t get a convertible
You can’t make the smart decision of booking a car beforehand only to spoil it by renting a convertible. The sunny weather in Hawaii can change to overcast pretty quickly (but not often), and a convertible makes it impossible to avoid the rain, especially when the often-used roofs don’t slide in place on time.
Instead, book a Jeep, SUV, or any sturdy 4WD, as the terrain on the islands gets rough on unpaved roads. Especially if you plan to take the Road to Hana, a four-wheeler is necessary to navigate through East Maui’s hairpin curves and narrow roads.
- Mind the signs
When in Hawaii, you’ll encounter many signs on beaches, hiking trails, and even roads advising you to avoid a certain path. Although the haphazard signs, usually put up by locals, appear harmless, the danger is very real. There have been countless deaths, accidents, and fatal injuries on the islands, as people venture to closed areas for a little adventure and risk their safety.
You can always find a spot in Hawaii to enjoy the views, so avoid the places that most people advise against, like Kaihalulu Beach, a red sand beach in East Maui with a dangerous trail known to have taken many lives.
In addition, be wary of signs with Hawaiian words like ‘kapu,’ which means keep out.
- Don’t be in a rush to get places.
You’re on vacation in Hawaii, so relax and take things slower than usual because the island and its people do. Being on Hawaiian time or island time means that everything is slower; some places open late, and even cars on the highway drive at a relaxed speed. In fact, most cars drive around 55 miles an hour, so be mindful of that and keep a relaxed schedule.
However, one thing to consider is that locals work and live on the islands, so they’ll need to get places quicker than the average tourist. So if you see cars lining up behind you on the road, give way to them and show some aloha spirit.
- Don’t touch the sea creatures.
This warning goes for all the wildlife and marine life you’ll encounter in Hawaii; sea turtles, monk seals, dolphins, crabs, etc. The Hawaiian green sea turtle is threatened, and the monk seal is an endangered species, which the island protects by making natural living environments on beaches and state parks. So if you visit one and see the creatures, don’t get too close, pick them up or touch them, as it’s against state laws.
In addition, touching some of the animals can lead to the spread of bacteria, so be mindful of the health effects.
Instead, you can take pictures from afar or view them up close in protected places like the Maui Ocean Center and Waikiki Aquarium, housing thousands of marine animals. Also, visit the Honolulu zoo to see the wildlife safely.
- Avoid smoking on the beach.
Being in the open-air environment of beaches doesn’t excuse the act, as smoking on the beach is illegal in Hawaii. Unfortunately, some travel guides miss this point because it’s considered common knowledge, but mentioning it is important so that visitors get awareness.
Hawaii’s natural ocean ecosystems suffer because of careless tourists, so don’t be that person and leave smoking behind when visiting Hawaii.
- Decrease your carbon footprint
This goes without saying, but being mindful of the carbon trails you leave behind is essential anywhere in the world, and Hawaii is no exception. Unfortunately, tourists often litter on beaches, and trailheads, leaving behind plastic waste, broken glass, shoes, and camping equipment. These acts compromise the islands’ natural beauty and pose a threat to animals that pass through those places.
So always keep a recycling bag with you when traveling to far-off places on islands, and pick up any trash you see.
- Use reef-friendly sunscreen
Many sunscreens have chemicals that are toxic to coral reefs, severely damaging them. Hawaii has phased out sunscreens which compromise the reefs, but tourists still bring their own. As you enter the waters, the sunscreen washes off your skin and ultimately coats the corals, causing them to bleach.
For this purpose, research reef-friendly or reef-safe sunscreens before your visit, or purchase them directly from the local markets, which only sell the safe variety.
- Don’t step on or touch the corals.
Now that we’re on the topic of reefs don’t touch the coral reef or step on them under any circumstances. Corals are living creatures that have developed over the years and built protective reef structures around them for safety. However, sometimes even touching the coral can cause it damage, so try to admire it from a distance.
Plus, the corals are often sharp and can cut your skin if you step on them, so go in the water carefully and try to swim past corals instead of up close.
- Lava is often active – don’t touch it.
Not touching lava seems obvious, but a warning is necessary because of the number of people in Hawaii who venture too close to lava and pay the price. However, if you stick close to your guides and avoid getting near the lava rocks, it’s completely safe and an unmissable experience.
The Big Island in Hawaii is home to the most erupting lava structures, which are worth the visit to see active volcanoes. You won’t always find active lava on the Big Island, so check the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s website for the best time to visit.
You’ll notice a pattern here of not touching things; lava rocks, sea creatures, and coral, so just admire them from afar.
- Don’t take the lava rocks home.
Lava rocks are a favorite souvenir among tourists, as thousands are taken off the beaches and volcanoes each year. However, legend says taking lava rock from Hawaii activates Pele’s curse and results in a stream of bad luck for the taker.
Sounds like nonsense? The US post office receives hundreds of packages containing lava rocks taken from Hawaii to be returned to the islands. Most are enclosed with notes of apologies and detailed accounts of sickness, accidents, strange occurrences, and more that occurred after taking the rocks home.
Whether legend or reality, don’t do this selfish act and let nature stay its course. Instead, you’ll find many local stores in towns like Paia selling beautiful island souvenirs and handicrafts, a much better alternative to a lump of stone.
- Taking the sand home isn’t allowed, either
This act has more legal than legendary consequences, as taking the sand from Hawaii’s beaches with you is against the law. This is more common than you think, as tourists are tempted by the multi-colored sands found in Hawaii, like the black sand at Honokalani beach and the rare red sands of Kaihalulu Beach.
Although taking some sand in a jar home seems harmless, you’re taking it away from the beaches, which can cause a shortage of sand over the years. We find that taking a token reduces its charm, while coming home empty-handed tempts us to revisit the islands each year.
- Remember that Hawaii is the 50th state.
Sometimes people forget this very simple fact; Hawaii is one of the 50 states, making the people here American as well. I can’t recount how many times tourists have introduced themselves to locals by stating that they’re ‘American’ citizens, assuming that the locals somehow aren’t.
This also affects how tourists interact with locals, and Hawaii in general, treating it like a third-world country or undeserving of respect. Although the people of Hawaii were an indigenous community with their religion and culture, they’re a diverse group now and an important part of the US, as any other state.
- Don’t call everyone Hawaiian.
It’s important to recognize that ‘Hawaiian’ refers to natives of Hawaii who have ancestral roots in the islands, and not everyone from Hawaii fits this category. The people living there are instead called locals since immigrants from around the world settled here decades ago and now call Hawaii their home.
We’ve encountered many Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Portuguese, and Chinese people, who’ve spent their whole lives in Hawaii and proudly call it their home. So pass a smile and get to know the locals, who all share in the aloha spirit.
- Stay a safe distance from blowholes.
A terrific attraction in Hawaii are the blowholes, which erupt to 20 ft. or more in the air when the high tide comes in. These are a wonder of nature that you can find an abundance of in Hawaii, however, they’re also somewhat dangerous.
The blowholes spray water on even those standing at a safe distance but get too close, and the water pressure can knock you a few feet away. Most people try to get close to blowholes for a good photo-op, but let me tell you that your safety is not worth risking for a picture.
Some great blowholes you can visit (safely) are the Nakalele Blowhole on Maui’s West shore and the blowholes in Waianapanapa State Park in East Maui.
- Don’t miss the Hawaiian food.
Hawaii has some of the most delicious food in the world, with each island offering new flavors and specializing in delicious dishes. So don’t just stick to chain restaurants like Mcdonalds or PandaExpress, eating the same food you would at home.
Instead, try the traditional Hawaiian loco moco, fresh poke bowls, malasadas, plate lunches, and much more from the local eateries. You can hit up a few great places: Koko Head Cafe in Oahu for gourmet-style island foods, Kihei Caffe and MonkeyPod Kitchen in Maui for great loco moco and poke, and any local seafood place on the Big Island.
- Don’t spend all your time in Waikiki.
Although Waikiki has great attractions, it’s not all there is to Hawaii. Most people only stick to tourist hotspots when they visit Hawaii, like downtown Honolulu or Waikiki’s resorts, but the islands offer much more than just metropolitan cities.
Each island in Hawaii holds something special for every traveler, like Oahu, which is fast-paced, with luxury hotels, large-scale shopping malls, and an active nightlife. If you want to take in the best waterfalls, hiking trails, and secluded beaches, head to Maui. Don’t miss the Big Island for erupting volcanoes, vast expanses of empty land, and beaches. Kauai has all the natural wonders of Hawaii, aptly called the Garden Isle.
So do your research on the type of activities you’re looking forward to on vacation, and Hawaii’s islands will have you covered.
- Give way to people on the road.
Seems like a pretty simple thing to know, right? Well, you haven’t seen the traffic lining Hawaii’s main roads, especially in Oahu and the Road to Hana in Maui. The excess of travelers in cars can cause blockages on the roads often, which is a big problem for locals who live and work on the islands. This is especially troubling for them in peak seasons, as their usual routes get packed with hours worth of traffic.
We hear that the Hana Highway gets so crowded with cars now that the usual 5-7 hour road trip becomes even longer.
The best thing you can do is give way to others on the road who seem to be in a rush and pass them a friendly shaka (a Hawaiian hand gesture of approval.)
- Don’t underestimate sunscreen.
It’s not uncommon to see someone tanning on the beaches in Hawaii and slowly turning a scary tomato-red color in front of your eyes. That’s a sure sign of not wearing enough sunscreen. Unfortunately, a common mistake tourists make is underestimating the amount of sunscreen they’ll need, as the sun shines strong and long on the islands.
Apply a generous amount, and reapply every time you get out of the water for maximum coverage (nothing less than SPF 30!) Also, remember to use reef-friendly sunscreen!
- Don’t ignore weather warnings.
You’ll often get weather warnings on your trip, advising against leaving hotels, asking to seek shelter immediately, or just informing about the closest storm. Never ignore the weather warnings in Hawaii, as the coastal climate is unpredictable, and light rain can quickly turn into a torrential downpour.
Although the overcast sky often clears, especially when you’re driving around the island, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Plus, your hotels have a good idea about the weather at different destinations, so check with them before driving out to places.
- Plan your rainy-day activities
Since we’re on the topic of weather, always keep room in your itinerary for some indoor activities on the rare occasions that it rains all day long. Of course, the rain depends on which island you’re on, with Maui having 250+ sunny days, while the Big Island receives the most rain.
Some great things to do when stuck indoors include taking advantage of your hotel’s spa facilities, engaging in activities with locals like lei-making, learning the Ukulele, and enjoying the rain from an outdoor lanai. We always go to malls when it rains, and by the time our retail therapy is over, the weather clears.
- Don’t swim in murky waters.
Although the waters in Hawaii’s beaches and waterfalls are clear and clean, they can turn brown or murky when passing through a polluted path or stream. If you encounter any such waters, stay out and away from them. Brown waters aren’t just dirty but high in bacteria that can cause infectious diseases on contact with the skin.
This is particularly common in the Hawaiian waters, which carry a high percentage of the Staphylococcus bacteria, which causes a horrible infection when it comes in contact with an open wound. So stay out of all bodies of water in case of a fresh wound.
In addition, brown water is a feeding place for sharks, especially near river mouths which usually carry dead animals out to sea.
- Don’t leave valuables in your cars.
If you forget any valuables in your car and venture away for a while, it’s possible to come back to shattered windows and a stolen item. We’ll clarify that robberies aren’t common in Hawaii as it’s a safe place for visitors and the locals greatly respect tourists. However, there’s a growing homeless population on some parts of the island, usually secluded areas like hiking trails, which can cause incidents like these.
For your safety, don’t leave anything important behind in your cars or hide it under the seats. People have said hiding things works often, as the robber usually takes a glance for things in plain sight.
- Don’t wear shoes inside someone’s house.
On the occasion that you’re invited to a local’s home in Hawaii, remember to always take your shoes off before entering. This custom comes from Japanese tradition, and after years of Japanese families living on the islands, it has become commonplace in every home.
Instead, you can move around in your socks or a pair of comfy indoor slippers. That’s because leaving shoes outside prevents dirt and germs from entering the house.
- Be kind to your servers.
The hospitality industry is integral to Hawaii since its economy benefits from tourism. The service is also impeccable in most places, as each restaurant, hotel, and market spreads the aloha spirit through kindness. So it goes without saying that you should be kind in return to servers and tip them generously when possible.
Since COVID spread and caused lockdowns, many businesses in Hawaii had to close down and only recently reopened with half the staff. So service might be slow in some places and not the same as when you visited before the pandemic. So supporting local businesses is the best way to help bring things back to normal.
- Don’t trespass on private property.
A majority of the destinations in Hawaii are open to the public, like all the beaches. However, some residences have privately owned oceanfront shores and trails and are not open to visitors. You aren’t permitted to enter these places, and it’s a violation of state law if you do.
Tourists still engage in trespassing for a bit of adventure, as the landowners are often not around. The biggest problem is that private trails and beaches are not maintained like public ones, so you risk injuries and accidents by visiting them.
In such cases, just remember that you wouldn’t like someone sneaking into your yard when you’re away, so don’t return the favor.
- Don’t turn your back to the ocean.
The gorgeous Pacific Ocean that touches Hawaii’s shores isn’t all about beauty, it can turn feral in a second if you’re not looking. So although there are plenty of calm waters on Hawaiian beaches, where water is protected and safe for swimming, you should always watch your back in case a big wave comes.
We recommend visiting beaches with lifeguards stationed, especially if you have younger children. Adults should also avoid swimming in rough waters and only tackle surfing if they’re well-trained. You can get surfing lessons and certifications for other water sports on Waikiki beach, where a local provides training.
- Don’t rush through the islands.
Like I mentioned before, you’re on island time in Hawaii, so take things slowly. That includes your travel itinerary, which is probably chock full of activities to perform in a few days. The Hawaiian islands should be savored and enjoyed peacefully, as rushing from one place to the next will kill the fun, considering how each place offers new sights and experiences.
If you want to enjoy Hawaii’s islands to the fullest, plan a 10-14 day trip, allotting a few days per island. And if you only have a few days, just visit one island and enjoy it completely. Trust us, this makes traveling much more fun, and you get your money’s worth.
- Don’t just stick to resorts.
Hawaii has hundreds of resorts, each more luxurious and expensive than the last, offering world-class amenities. Although such places can upgrade your vacation, they also break the bank and take away from the Hawaii experience of living close to nature.
The best vacation is when you only go to your hotel to sleep or shower and spend the rest of the day exploring your destination. The same goes for Hawaii, so we recommend booking a local hotel instead of chains like the Marriott or the Four Seasons.
You can also reserve villas, cottages, or cabins, which come furnished and are usually located inside forests or state parks. Another great way to spend a few nights is camping on designated campgrounds with full amenities available.
- Don’t go to sleep early.
Who has time to sleep when you’re in heaven? You can return to your daily sleep schedules after vacation because the nights in Hawaii are meant to be savored. In Oahu, you’ll find torch-lighting ceremonies on the beach after sunset, late-night luaus with traditional Hawaiian performances, and musicians lining the streets playing fine tunes.
Another unmissable activity in Hawaii is stargazing, where you can see a breathtaking sky filled with thousands of twinkling stars and even spot constellations. A moonlit walk on any beach in Hawaii, particularly on a cloudless night, is the perfect way to view the stars and conclude your day.
Where should tourists avoid in Hawaii?
Tourists should avoid some places like beaches and trails with high risks, like Kaihalulu beach in East Maui. Besides these, avoid neighborhoods with high crime rates like Kapaa, Hilo, and Waimea. A general rule is that places with dense populations are usually safe, and secluded spots must be avoided.
Is Hawaii dangerous for tourists?
Hawaii is a very safe place for tourists with no risk of attacks, otherwise, it wouldn’t be a prized travel destination. There’s only a risk of robberies when visiting far-flung areas, abandoned trails, and neighborhoods notorious for crimes that require keeping an eye out for valuables.
What should I avoid in Hawaii?
Avoid the following; touching marine life, lava rocks, and corals, going out in bad weather, getting close to blowholes and high tides, and everything mentioned in the list above. Remember to stick to your common-sense, and gut instinct, and every place in Hawaii will be safe for you.
Concluding What Not to do in Hawaii For Every Traveler
After visiting Hawaii, you’ll know that; it’s heaven for a tourist, the locals are kind-hearted, and a large number of fun activities await. But, unfortunately, it’s the rookie travelers and some entitled people that make common mistakes, harming themselves and the environment.
You can enjoy a terrific trip in Hawaii by just doing some research before visiting, being considerate to locals, and staying away from things that look sensitive or dangerous.
Through our visits to the islands over the years, we’ve learnt that befriending locals is the best way to enjoy your stay, as they inform you of all the rules and norms, and provide the best company to hang out with.
Hawaii has something fun for everyone and is a truly amazing place to visit, so read the major no-nos mentioned above before going and have a super-fun trip.
And always remember to spread the aloha spirit when you go!
Last Updated on March 12, 2023 by Brigitte