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First-timers to Hawaii struggle to pick the perfect island. So how, in this Pacific archipelago of more than 130 islands and islets, do you find one with beautiful beaches, stunning emerald mountains, surreal volcanic landscapes, authentic Polynesian culture, great golf courses, fantastic snorkeling, breathtaking waterfalls and foodie experiences galore?
Easy. Just head for any of the four islands accessible nonstop from the U.S. mainland — Oahu, Maui, Kauai or the Big Island of Hawaii — and you'll have it all. But how do you pick from these four finalists? If it's your first time in Hawaii, your ideal island will depend on your travel style and to-do list.
For most travelers visiting Hawaii for the first time, the Big Island of Hawaii should be the winner because it offers the most diverse experiences. But before you book a flight here, make sure this is really the best island for you.
Here's our guide to Hawaii travel for beginners.
Check your Hawaii must-haves
Most of the things you'll want to do and see in Hawaii — from luaus to waterfall hikes to horseback riding and ziplining — are available on all four major islands.
But if one of the following activities in this Hawaii travel guide is on your must-do list, the choice is clear for your best island to visit in Hawaii for the first time.
Traversing an active volcano: Every island has dormant volcanoes to explore, but the Big Island is the only place you'll have a chance to see lava flowing. Check this National Park Service web page for Kilauea eruption updates.
Driving the Road to Hana: This world-famous trek, with stops at waterfalls, a eucalyptus grove, roadside eats and more, is on Maui.
Touring the Napali Coast: Kauai is home to this breathtaking stretch of seaside cliffs dropping down to turquoise blue waters, which you can tour by catamaran, helicopter or kayak or hiking trail.
Paying respects at Pearl Harbor: For WWII history buffs, Oahu is the place to go.
» Learn more: Should I island hop in Hawaii?
Big Island at a glance
With over 4,000 square miles (and counting!), Hawaii Island has tons to offer travelers who don't mind a lot of driving. Snow-capped mountains (yes, snow in Hawaii), stunning beaches, lava fields that make you feel like you're on the moon's surface — they're all here.
Big Island highlights
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has more than 520 square miles of volcanic landscapes to explore, including lava tubes, steam vents, petroglyphs, rainforest trails and, if Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes and fire, cooperates, flowing lava.
Has the only green- and black-sand beaches in Hawaii.
Offers night snorkeling with manta rays.
Mauna Kea's observatory is a must-visit for stargazers.
Light pollution is kept to a minimum on the Big Island, which helps the astronomers on Mauna Kea and makes for a surreal nighttime experience when driving around.
Big Island drawbacks
It requires a lot of driving to see it all.
Resorts on the beach can be pricey.
During dry seasons, the Kona Coast area can seem parched and arid.
Big Island tips
Fly into Kona International Airport to land on the sunny, beachy side of the island. Fly into rainy Hilo International Airport if you want to make a beeline for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
You will certainly want to rent a car here since the island's best offerings are spread out.
The Kona Inn Shopping Village is fun for dining and strolling, but it's not the best area to stay because it's touristy and lacks a good beach.
Where to earn or redeem points on the Big Island
IHG Rewards members can stay at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Kailua-Kona for around 40,000 points per night.
Maui, at a glance
The Valley Isle is great for golfers, beach bums and families looking for an oceanfront condo where they can cook out and relax by the pool with a big brood.
Haleakala, a dormant volcano, offers a once-in-a-lifetime sunrise experience, plus great hikes and cycling.
The Road to Hana can be a slow drive through a tropical paradise.
Excellent whale-watching November through February — often without leaving dry land.
Black Rock in the Kaanapali area, between the Sheraton Maui and the Royal Lahaina Resort, has excellent snorkeling right off the beach.
Resort areas can feel like one big, manicured golf course.
Activities are fewer and farther between.
Beach resorts can be pricey, especially in Wailea.
Maui's two main resort areas, Kaanapali and Wailea, offer some of the best accommodations for visitors looking for a relaxing resort vacation on the beach with all the conveniences and amenities.
Road conditions on the Hana Highway can be tricky — or even treacherous. Consider taking a tour or renting a vehicle that can handle challenging terrain.
Rental car insurance may not cover you on some roads around Hana. Learn your rental car company's terms and credit card insurance coverage before you head out.
Mama's Fish House, a favorite destination for Maui-bound foodies, can book up three to six months in advance.
Old Lahaina has a wealth of museums and historical sites for history buffs, offering a glimpse into Maui's fascinating past.
Where to earn or redeem points on Maui
Best Western Rewards members can find rooms in the historic, walkable Old Lahaina area at the Best Western Pioneer Inn, starting at around 56,000 points per night. Travelers rich in Hilton Honors points can sometimes find rooms at the luxurious Grand Wailea, A Waldorf Astoria Resort starting around 500,000 points per night.
» Learn more: Maui trip planning — Kaanapali or Wailea?
Kauai, at a glance
Home to just about 66,000 residents — a tiny number compared to Oahu's population of nearly 1 million — Kauai is the place for travelers looking to spend less time around humans and more around spinner dolphins, sunbathing monk seals, sea turtles, free-roaming chickens and abundant natural beauty.
Home to the breathtaking Napali Coast, which can be explored by catamaran, kayak, helicopter or hiking the 11-mile trail Kalalau Trail.
Queen's Bath, near Princeville on the island's northern side, is a stunning natural tide pool you can explore or swim in when the ocean waters are calm.
Explore Waimea Canyon, the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific," on a hike or with easy stops along a driving tour.
Sandy beaches convenient for visitors are fewer and smaller than on other islands.
Bugs and big spiders may make for unwelcome guests in hotel rooms and condos.
A limited number of restaurants in resort areas.
In the winter, ocean waters turn treacherous on the island's north side. Stick with safer southern swimming spots like Poipu Beach in these colder months.
Read up on the safety of Kauai helicopter tours, as there have been several fatal crashes.
Apply early for a permit to hike the Kalalau Trail, as they sometimes sell out.
Where to earn or redeem points on Kauai
Formerly a Marriott property, the beachfront Royal Sonesta Kauai Resort Lihue, boasting one of the biggest swimming pools in Hawaii, goes for 40,000 Sonesta Travel Pass points per night. Hilton loyalists will find rooms at the Hilton Garden Inn Kauai Wailua Bay starting at around 60,000 Honors points per night.
» Learn more: What to know about Sonesta hotels
Oahu, at a glance
Oahu, home to the state capital Honolulu and its bustling Waikiki district, is two vacation destinations in one. First, it's a place where you can lounge on the sand steps from literally hundreds of restaurants. Or secondly, jump in a car for a short drive to some of the most beautiful unspoiled beaches, botanical gardens and snorkeling spots in the world.
It's considered to have the best beaches in Hawaii.
A shopaholic's heaven, especially for luxury brands including Hermes, Saint Laurent, Harry Winston, Chanel, Dior, Jimmy Choo and many more.
Lots of budget-friendly accommodations, with hotels steps from the beach starting around $100 per night and some condo properties even lower.
Pearl Harbor National Memorial has four attractions, but the must-see is the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial.
An easy stop off Kamehameha Highway on the North Shore, Laniakea Beach, better known as Turtle Beach, attracts grazing sea turtles you can see right from the sand.
Byodo-In Temple offers a serene escape in a mountainous rainforest setting.
Reservations for world-famous snorkeling spot Hanauma Bay open up two days in advance and can get snapped up in minutes. Visit the Hanauma Bay booking site at 7 a.m. on the nose two days before you plan to visit to grab your spot.
Waikiki is the only place in Hawaii where you don't really need a rental car, but get one for at least a day so you can explore some of the beautiful, unspoiled parts of Oahu.
An umbrella and beach lounger set can cost up to $85 but may be worthwhile since it gives you a shady Waikiki home base for a whole day.
Aspiring surfers can get lessons on the gentle waves just steps from any Waikiki hotel.
Waikiki is very crowded and dense.
There's lots of traffic around the island, especially during rush hour. Hotel rooms on lower floors can get a lot of street noise.
Parking and resort fees combined can eat up $100 per day of your travel budget.
Where to earn and redeem points on Oahu
Wyndham Rewards members can stay just steps from the beach at the Ramada Plaza by Wyndham Waikiki, starting at about 15,000 points per night. The Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa, right across the street from the beach, has rooms starting at around 20,000 World of Hyatt points per night.
» Learn more: How to travel to Honolulu on points and miles
If it's your first trip to Hawaii
Chances are, the Big Island of Hawaii has everything you're looking for. But depending on what you want to do, one of the other islands accessible from the mainland — Maui, Oahu or Kauai — could be a better fit.
Now that you know where to go in Hawaii for your first trip, take this final tip to heart:
Pick just one island for visits of eight days or less. Otherwise, you'll spend too much of your precious vacation time in long lines at airports, hotel check-in desks and car rental agencies.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card