Technically, the Big Island of Hawaii is the only island you can completely circle by car, but each island offers plenty of sightseeing from its miles of roadways.
Oahu can be circled except for the roadless northwest-shore area around Kaena Point. Elsewhere, major highways follow the shoreline and traverse the island at two points. Rush-hour traffic (6:30 to 8:30 am and 3:30 to 6 pm) can be frustrating around Honolulu and the outlying areas, as many thoroughfares allow no left turns.
Traffic on Maui can be very bad branching out from Kahului to and from Paia, Kihei, and Lahaina. Parking along many streets is curtailed during these times, and towing is strictly practiced. Read curbside parking signs before leaving your vehicle, even at a meter.
On Kauai, the 15-mile stretch of the Napali Coast is the only part of the island’s coastline that's not accessible by car. Otherwise, one main road can get you from Barking Sands Beach on the West Side to Haena on the North Shore.
Although Molokai and Lanai have fewer roadways, car rental is still worthwhile and will allow plenty of interesting sightseeing. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is best.
Asking for directions will almost always produce a helpful explanation from the locals, but you should be prepared for an Islands term or two. Instead of using compass directions, remember that Hawaii residents refer to places as being either mauka (toward the mountains) or makai (toward the ocean) from one another.
Other directions depend on your location: in Honolulu, for example, people say to "go Diamond Head," which means toward that famous landmark to your east, or to "go ewa," meaning in the opposite direction, toward a town in leeward (West) Oahu. A shop on the mauka–Diamond Head corner of a street is on the mountain side of the street on the corner closest to Diamond Head. It all makes perfect sense once you get the lay of the land.
Gasoline is widely available everywhere but the farthest corners of the main islands. National chains like 76, Chevron, 7-Eleven, and Shell are ubiquitous, and accept all major credit cards right at the pump or inside the station. Gasoline is generally more expensive than on the mainland United States and also more expensive closer to the airports, where you'll need to refuel before returning your car. Neighbor Islands have higher gasoline prices than Oahu.
It's difficult to get lost in most of Hawaii. Although their names may challenge a visitor's tongue, roads and streets are well marked; just watch out for the many one-way streets in Waikiki. Keep an eye open for the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau's red-caped King Kamehameha signs, which mark attractions and scenic spots. Free publications containing high-quality road maps can be found on all islands. And, of course, a GPS or your passenger’s smartphone are great ways to find your way around, too.
Many of Hawaii's roads are two-lane highways with limited shoulders—and yes, even in paradise, there is traffic, especially during the morning and afternoon rush hour. In rural areas, it's not unusual for gas stations to close early. If you see that your tank is getting low, don't take any chances; fill up when you see a station. In Hawaii, turning right on a red light is legal, except where noted. Use caution during heavy downpours, especially if you see signs warning of falling rocks. If you're enjoying views from the road or need to study a map, pull over to the side. Remember the aloha spirit when you are driving; allow other cars to merge, don't honk (it's considered extremely rude in the Islands), leave a comfortable distance between your car and the car ahead of you; use your headlights, especially during sunrise and sunset, and use your turn signals.
If you find yourself in an emergency or accident while driving on any of the islands, pull over if you can. If you have a cell phone with you, call the roadside assistance number on your rental car contract or AAA Help. If you find that your car has been broken into or stolen, report it immediately to your rental car company and they can assist you. If it's an emergency and someone is hurt, call 911 immediately and stay there until medical personnel arrive.
AAA Help. 800/222--4357; www.hawaii.aaa.com.
Rules of the Road
Be sure to buckle up. Hawaii has a strictly enforced seat-belt law for all passengers—front and backseat. Always strap children under age four into approved child-safety seats. Hawaii's Child Restraint Law requires that all children three years and younger be in an approved child-safety seat in the backseat of a vehicle. Children ages four to seven must be seated in a rear booster seat or child restraint such as a lap and shoulder belt. Children 18 and under are also required by state law to use seat belts.
The highway speed limit is usually 55 mph. In-town traffic moves from 25 to 40 mph. Jaywalking is common, so be particularly watchful for pedestrians, especially in congested areas such as Waikiki. Unauthorized use of a parking space reserved for persons with disabilities can net you a $150 fine. All four Hawaii counties have implemented bans on handheld cell phone use by drivers. If you must use the phone, pull to the side of the road to avoid a costly ticket.
If you plan to do lots of sightseeing, it's best to rent a car. Even if all you want to do is relax at your resort, you may want to hop in the car to check out a popular restaurant. All the big national rental car agencies have locations throughout Hawaii. There also are several local rental car companies so be sure to compare prices before you book. While in the Islands, you can rent anything from an econobox to a Ferrari. On the Big Island, Lanai, and Molokai, four-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended for exploring off the beaten path. It's wise to make reservations far in advance and make sure that a confirmed reservation guarantees you a car, especially if visiting during peak seasons or for major conventions or sporting events.
Rates begin at about $30 to $40 a day for an economy car with air-conditioning, automatic transmission, and unlimited mileage, depending on your pickup location. This does not include the airport concession fee, general excise tax, rental vehicle surcharge, or vehicle license fee. When you reserve a car, ask about cancellation penalties and drop-off charges should you plan to pick up the car in one location and return it to another.
In Hawaii you must be 21 years of age to rent a car and you must have a valid driver's license and a major credit card. Those under 25 will pay a daily surcharge of $10 to $30. Your unexpired mainland driver's license is valid for rental for up to 90 days. Request car seats and extras such as GPS when you make your reservation. Car seats and boosters range from about $10 to $15 per day.
Since many island roads are two lanes, give yourself about 2½ hours before departure time to return your vehicle.