30 Mistakes to Avoid During Your First Time in Hawaii

diamond head first time in Hawaii opener

Are you excited for your first time in Hawaii? Here are a few mistakes that you should avoid making during your trip (from a Hawaii local!)

Before visiting Hawaii, it can be hard to know which places are worth your time and which ones aren’t. It’s even harder to know and understand local etiquette! But this guide is here to help ensure that you avoid all of these mistakes during your first time in Hawaii.

waikiki and honolulu buildings

Spending All Your Time in Waikiki

Most first time visitors to Hawaii spend all of their time in Waikiki. They stay at a hotel in Waikiki, spend the day at Waikiki Beach, and eat at restaurants in Waikiki. Unfortunately, Waikiki is far from the true Hawaii. That’s why Waikiki is at the top of my list of Hawaii tourist traps. Ask any local, and they’ll tell you that they avoid Waikiki at all costs.

To avoid making this mistake during your first time in Hawaii, consider staying somewhere else. If you’re committed to visiting on Oahu, there are tons of other areas to stay on the islandKo Olina and the North Shore are the most popular alternatives. As a matter of fact, one of the best places to stay on the island is the Four Seasons Resort Oahu in Ko Olina. Or, if you have kids, check out Disney’s Aulani Resort, which is also in Ko Olina.

If you’re sure that you want to stay in Waikiki, make sure that you go out an explore the rest of the island, as there are tons of things to do on Oahu.

Book Here: Four Seasons Resort Oahu in Ko Olina

Book Here: Disney’s Aulani Resort in Ko Olina

Book Here: Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu’s North Shore

red Keep on Lanai garden of the gods

Not Renting a Car

To explore the islands, you pretty much have to have a rental car. On Oahu, you may be able to pull off using public transportation, but I don’t recommend it unless you’re on a tight budget. On any of the other islands, public transportation is pretty ineffective. Basically, if you plan on exploring the islands during your first time in Hawaii (which you definitely should), rent a car.

In case you’re looking for recommendations, a few of the most reliable and affordable rental car companies in Hawaii include Enterprise, National, Hertz, and Alamo.

Ignoring Island Time

In Hawaii, we live on island time. This is most obvious while driving. Don’t expect us to go more than fifteen miles per hour over the speed limit. And if you go faster than that, everyone will know that you’re not from the islands and will glare at you for being a reckless driver.

Another aspect of island time is that everything closes early. This is especially relevant if you’re on Kauai, Lanai, Molokai, Maui, or the Big Island. Most restaurants don’t stay open past seven or eight, so keep that in mind when planning for dinner. And don’t expect much nightlife at all unless you’re in Waikiki.

black leather Nissan steering wheel first time in Hawaii

Honking Your Horn

One of the worst things to do while driving in Hawaii is honk your horn. Hawaii locals NEVER honk their horns. On the rare occasion that we hear a car honk, we all know that it’s a visitor. And we all think something along the lines of, “that’s rude.” So don’t be rude. Don’t honk your horn.

Confusing “Hawaiian” and “Local”

While people from California can call themselves Californian, people from Hawaii will never call themselves Hawaiian.

There’s a lot of history and nuance behind this, but to put it simply, Hawaiian is an ethnic group with a culture, language, and history. For someone who is from Hawaii but not Hawaiian to claim that they are Hawaiian would imply that they fully understand the complexities behind the Hawaiian ethnicity.

Instead, to indicate that someone is from Hawaii, we usually say that someone is local or a local. This also has its nuances – how long does someone have to live in Hawaii before they become a local? – but it’s much less problematic than calling someone from Hawaii “Hawaiian” if they are not ethnically Hawaiian.

green mountain range on ocean with deep crevices Na Pali coast first time in Hawaii

Assuming All the Islands Are the Same

Part of the reason many visitors assume all of the Hawaiian Islands are the same is because they’re just not sure how many islands there are! As a matter of fact, one of the most common questions about Hawaii is how many islands there are! (Spoiler: There are eight, but only six are visitable.)

Each of these eight Hawaiian Island has its own unique vibe. For example, if we compare Maui and Oahu, the two are very different. While Oahu is great for families and budget-travelers, Maui is perfect for couples. While Oahu has a wide array of restaurants, Maui is limited to hidden gems. And those differences are just a start.

Even the different sections of each island have completely different vibes. The Big Island of Hawaii has erupting volcanoes at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, stunning beaches like Kua Bay and Pohoiki Beach, dense rainforests, dry deserts, and snow-capped mountains. Could it be any more diverse?

For those planning for their first time in Hawaii, it can be difficult to know the distinctions between the islands. Luckily for you, we have a guide to figure out the differences between the Hawaiian Islands!

When visitors find out that each Hawaiian Island is different, they then decide that they have to travel to all of them in one go, especially since flights between islands are pretty cheap (thank you Hawaiian Airlines, Mokulele Airlines, and Southwest Airlines). That’s also not a wise move.

If you only have a week, you can spend that on just one island (or maybe two), because each island has so much to do! But if you are planning a longer vacation, consider island hopping and using Skyscanner to get the best flight deals around.

Assuming Hawaii Has No Issues

For centuries, Hawaii has been painted as this picture-perfect paradise, completely free of issues. That’s simply not true. As a matter of fact, this single story of the islands is problematic.

One example of this is Hawaii’s homelessness problem. There are about 7,000 homeless people across all of the Hawaiian Islands. While this is in part due to Hawaii’s ridiculously high rent and low wages (many have to hold down two full-time jobs just to pay rent), there are also a number of homeless people who are sent to Hawaii from the continental U.S. Why? Because there’s a belief that it’s “better to be homeless in Hawaii.”

While to some extent that idea may be true, because there aren’t harsh weather conditions to deal with, there’s also another side to the story. Because of the high cost of rent, food, and practically everything else in the islands, it’s harder to get out of homelessness than it would be on the mainland.

Because many visitors aren’t aware of this problem and others during their first time in Hawaii, they often judge these issues extra harshly.

traffic jam first time in Hawaii

Driving on H-1 Going West at 5 P.M.

Another (much less important) problem in Hawaii is traffic. Traffic going from Honolulu to the west side of the island (think Ko Olina and Kapolei) between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. is atrocious. 5 p.m. is the worst time. On average, a drive that should take half an hour takes an hour and a half. Basically, avoid driving on H-1 going west at 5 p.m.

Leaving Valuables (Or Things that Could Hold Valuables) In Your Car

While awful traffic is an unpleasant issue, it’s not quite as bad as our issue with petty theft. If you leave valuables visible in your car, there’s a pretty good chance that your car will get broken into. Even if you leave something that could hold or hide valuables (such as a bag or a towel), your car could still get broken into.

Your best bet is to just not have any valuables in your car at all. However, if you need to stash your valuables somewhere, in the trunk, in the glove compartment, in the center console, or under the front seats (airplane-style) are all good options.

turtle laying on black sand beach first time in Hawaii

Bothering the Animals

There are so many amazing wild animals in Hawaii. Turtles, monk seals, dolphins, and boar are the ones we come across most often. Many visitors during their first time in Hawaii try to get close to these animals. Some even treat these wild animals as if they were in a petting zoo. But remember: they are WILD animals.

These wild animals can be violent if you provoke them, so give them their space, don’t chase them, and don’t feed them food.

Ignoring “Kapu” Signs

The word “kapu” is a word from the Hawaiian language, which at its simplest means “forbidden” or “sacred.”  It was originally used by the ancient Native Hawaiians as a term used to describe the laws that were in place.  This set of laws governed every aspect of life and breaking any part of it would lead to some form of punishment, even death.

Now, the word “kapu” is often accompanied by the words “no trespassing” on signs warding off people from entering the area.  However, these words do not equate in meaning to locals. 

“Kapu” still has an air of sacredness to it.  The reason you would not enter an area marked “kapu” is out of respect.  Respect for what or whom you ask?  The answer isn’t definitively clear from simply “kapu.”  Perhaps nature, the Hawaiian gods, the night marchers (mythological Hawaiian ghosts), the ancient Native Hawaiians, or even the Native Hawaiians of today. 

Wearing a Flower on the Wrong Ear

Lots of visitors to Hawaii, especially first time visitors to Hawaii, love to wear flowers in their ears. But wearing a flower in your right ear means something very different than wearing a flower in your left ear.

When you wear a flower in your right ear, that means you’re single. But when you wear a flower in your left ear, that means you’re taken. Here’s an easy way to remember: your wedding ring goes on your left hand, so if you’re taken, the flower goes in your left ear.

red, white, and yellow shave ice

Calling It “Shaved Ice”

In Hawaii, there is a treat that’s basically small pieces of ice covered in fruity syrup. Many people incorrectly refer to this as “shaved ice.” It’s not “shaved ice.” It’s “shave ice.” If you are going to call it shaved ice, you better get used to iced cream too. Plus, any place that says shaved ice isn’t making it right.

*Pro Tip: For the best shave ice in Hawaii, head to Ululani’s on Maui! (They also have a location on the Big Island.)

Stepping on the Coral

Did you know that coral is actually an animal? Many visitors during their first time in Hawaii go snorkeling, but don’t feel like swimming the whole time, so they stand on the coral. This actually harms the coral! Plus, there is usually algae growing on the coral as well, and by stepping on the algae, you kill the algae, a major food source for marine life.

To avoid this, try to swim when you’re over coral. Or simply avoid going over coral in the first place. If you need a break, try to find a patch of sand to land on instead.

Forgetting to Learn About Hawaiian Culture

Sadly, visitors to Hawaii often forget to learn about Hawaiian culture. They may get a lei when they arrive, and they may watch a bit of hula, but there’s so much more to Hawaiian culture than that! There are museums, festivals, and even historical walks that allow you to dive deeper into the beautiful Hawaiian culture, so take some time to learn about it!

One of the easiest ways to learn about Hawaiian culture is by visiting an authentic Hawaiian restaurant. Luckily, I’ve written up an article about the best Hawaiian restaurants in Hawaii!

surfer on huge wave at Pipeline first time in Hawaii

Ignoring the Power of the Ocean

Almost every time I go to a Hawaii beach that has tourists, I see someone ignoring the power of the ocean. Sometimes I’ll see people swimming alone, other times I’ll see people on the edge of sharp rocks where the waves crash, and other times I’ll see people try to swim in the water when the waves are way too big for swimming.

It’s important to remember that the ocean is a powerful, potentially dangerous force. If you understand it and respect it, it can be amazing. But if you don’t take the time to educate yourself about the ocean, it can be very dangerous.

To get you started, here are a few key tips:

  • Know how strong of a swimmer you are. And don’t try to overestimate your abilities.
  • Don’t enter the water if the waves are large! Anyone who has been in the water with large waves can tell you that you can get quite a beating.
  • If waves are crashing on the rocks, don’t go to the edge of the rocks. Stay a safe distance away from the edge.
  • Do a little research on the beach in advance for rip currents that you may not be able to see. These rip currents can pull you out without you even realizing it.

Ignoring Warnings and Advice from Locals

If a local gives you a piece of advice, listen to it. Hawaii locals have been exploring the islands for years. We know where people usually take wrong turns on hikes and where to get the best malasadas. Treasure whatever information a local gives to you, because it’s pretty hard to get.

Ignoring Warning Signs

As you’ve probably gathered by now, our tips and signs are to help keep you safe. There are shocking statistics comparing the deaths and injuries of tourists and locals in Hawaii (Spoiler: the locals’ numbers are pretty low. I can’t say the same for the tourists.) The warning signs, especially the ones at beaches and hikes, are there for a reason! Please don’t ignore them!

hand holding kimchi spam musubi first time in Hawaii

Only Eating Familiar Foods

Hawaii is the capital of fusion food! From malasadas to manapuas to musubis, Hawaii is home to amazing foods that you can only get in the islands. There are so many delicious foods to try in the islands that we created both part one and part two of a Hawaii food bucket list.

For some of the top places to get Hawaii’s best dishes, check out our restaurant guides for KauaiOahu, and the little resort area of Ko Olina, Oahu.

Attempting to Speak Pidgin

The islands are home to a local dialect called Pidgin. While it might be helpful to know a few words (for example, “passion fruit” is “lilikoi”), some visitors make the mistake of trying to speak Pidgin to bond with the locals.

Don’t do that.

If you attempt to speak Pidgin and you didn’t grow up speaking Pidgin, it’s cringeworthy and doesn’t help your reputation at all. You’re not going to get any extra local tips or really any benefits by attempting to speak Pidgin.

Girl's shoes and legs outside of car window

Wearing Your Shoes in Someone’s House

In Hawaii, you never wear your shoes into someone’s house. You always take them off at the front door and then walk around the house barefoot. There’s a little bit of a discrepancy on where this tradition came from, as some say it stemmed from Japanese culture while others say it’s from Hawaii’s plantation days.

Forgetting to Bring a Jacket

When visitors think of Hawaii, they think of eternal sunshine and warm weather. And while that’s true most of the time, we do get our fair share of rain, and it can get a little chilly at night. Consider packing a sweatshirt or something to keep you warm and an umbrella or rain jacket to keep you dry.

Hiking During or After Rain

Most hiking trails in Hawaii are heavily impacted by rain. Locals know that there are certain hikes that you just shouldn’t do if it’s currently raining, because of the danger of flash floods. And there are also hikes that you shouldn’t do after a heavy rain, because it makes the hike way more dangerous than it would be if it were dry.

To avoid these issues completely, avoid hiking in Hawaii during or after rain.

girl hiking mountain ridge during golden hour

Hiking a Trail You Haven’t Researched

Before you hike anywhere in Hawaii, be sure to do your research. Know where to park, what to bring, where the trail starts, whether the hike is legal or illegal, how long the hike is, and if there are any questionable turns you should be aware of. Most of the time, this information is not obvious on Hawaii hikes! 

Some of the best and most popular hikes on Oahu are illegal. Most require street parking. Many have potentially confusing trails. Unless you’re hiking to Makapuu Lighthouse or Diamond Head, you’ll have to do research in advance to know what you’re doing. It would be even better if you can get a local to guide you. Bottom line: be prepared!

Calling Them “Hawaiian Shirts”

They’re not “Hawaiian Shirts.” They’re aloha shirts. And they make great gifts from Hawaii.

Taking Shells, Coral, Sand, or Lava Rock

According to a Hawaiian legend, if you take a lava rock from Hawaii, Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, will put a curse on you. As a matter of fact, hundreds of people have sent back the lava rocks (and coral, sand, and shells) that they’ve taken, asking postal workers to take them back to where they belong!

Regardless of whether you believe Pele’s curse or not, it’s important that you don’t take any shells, coral, sand, or lava rock from Hawaii. If everyone took just a little bit of sand or a handful of shells, there would be none left! And considering the fact that Hawaii gets ten million visitors every year, it wouldn’t be long before Hawaii became completely bare.

woman holding tin of Little Hands Hawaii reef safe sunscreen first time in Hawaii
Photo Courtesy of Little Hands Hawaii

Using Chemical Sunscreen

I have to start this section by saying please wear sunscreen. I’ve seen tourists burned so badly that they can’t move – and I see that at least once every week. That’s not the way you want to spend your first time in Hawaii.

That said, it’s important that you use reef-safe sunscreen rather than chemical sunscreen. Many of the chemicals in traditional sunscreen are extremely harmful to coral and marine life. As a matter of fact, these chemicals have been proven to be harmful to humans as well! These consequences are so far reaching that we wrote an entire article about reef-safe sunscreen to help you learn more.

If you’re looking for a reef-safe sunscreen brand, Little Hands Hawaii (also available on Amazon) is a fantastic one. For more options, here are many of the best reef safe sunscreen brands in Hawaii.

Buying Tacky Souvenirs

When tourists buy pink ukuleles or hula girl bobbleheads, it’s truly a shame. The tinny, pitchy sound of the brightly colored ukulele doesn’t do the beautiful music of the local instrument justice. And the hula girl bobblehead certainly doesn’t highlight the beauty and history of this treasured Hawaiian dance.

Instead, purchase something that the locals would actually buy. Leis, snacks, a legitimate ukulele. For more ideas, here are the best souvenirs to buy in Hawaii.

Implying that Hawaii Isn’t Part of the U.S.

The number of times I’ve heard visitors say, “back in the U.S.,” while they’re in Hawaii is astonishing. Hawaii is part of the United States. Yes, the local culture and the natural landscapes may be quite different from the mainland, but that doesn’t make the islands separate from the other 49 states.

Along the same lines, many people believe that you need a visa to visit Hawaii specifically. That is also not true. If you are a citizen of the United States, you do NOT need a visa to visit Hawaii. However, if you are from a country other than the United States, you may need a visa to visit the United States in general (including Hawaii), depending on your country of citizenship.

For more information on whether or not you need a visa to visit the United States (and Hawaii) as well as an easy way to obtain this visa, refer to iVisa.com.

Disrespecting the Land and the Ocean During Your First Time in Hawaii

As you can tell from the other tips on this list, it’s very important that you respect the land and the ocean in Hawaii. While I’ve listed out a bunch of tips that can help you do so, the simple things also count. Picking up trash on hikes, using a reusable water bottle, and gathering plastic on the beach may seem small, but these good deeds add up! By doing so, you’re helping to keep Hawaii beautiful for your next visit to the islands.

What mistakes did you make during your first time in Hawaii? Let me know in the comments!

Planning your first trip to Hawaii? Pin this post for later!

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    1. Thank you so much, Don! I agree – it’s always better to ask when you are unsure.

  1. Great tips!!! Thanks for sharing. My biggest mistake I made was having a friend who lives there show me around when she clearly did not respect the island. I took it upon my own to explore alone and talk to locals myself.

    1. Oh no! I’m glad you decided to talk to the locals yourself, JM. I hope you had a wonderful trip!

  2. What interisland flights are you taking the are so cheap? When we lived in Kona, even mokulele flights were expensive!

    1. I remember maybe about 15 years ago, there was a little airline called Go! Airlines that had special $5 interisland flight deals!

  3. Thank you for such a great article with important points – some of which I haven’t read anywhere else.

    I do a lot of research before trips and prioritize respecting local cultures and areas but one mistake I made was going in the water at Sandy Beach on Oahu. I have a healthy fear of the ocean but figured going in the water up to my knees (or maybe slightly past) was fine, even if the waves were breaking pretty powerfully (no flags up advising to stay out of the water, but powerful compared to other beaches). It didn’t take very long for a wave to pick me up and dump me upside down. I lost my favourite sunglasses but didn’t break my neck so I have that to be thankful for.

    After I got home I was listening to a podcast that had one of the EOLA lifeguards on it and at one point he started talking about how to handle tourists that go to Sandy Beach and even though he wasn’t talking about me specifically (I didn’t have any lifeguard interactions while there, I was only in the water maybe five minutes), I was cringing the whole time and swore to myself that I won’t ever go to another beach without researching first.

    Sorry for the essay, and thanks again for your wonderful post!

    1. Hi Laura!

      Thanks for sharing your story! Yeah, Sandy Beach is quite a dangerous one. Your story definitely helps to highlight how important it is to be informed.

      Thanks for reading!

      -Sarah from Borders & Bucket Lists

  4. I worked there for 5 months all expenses paid and had quite an adventure. The only one I didn’t know was the side you put the flower on in your hair. Not even the locals told me that one!

    1. Wow, you learned a lot during your short time in the islands, Jeanie! I’m glad this article was able to teach you something new!

      Sarah from Borders & Bucket Lists

  5. Due to the shortage and crazy expense now of rental cars, I highly recommend booking tours or taking shuttle buses. On a tour bus or van you usually get some fun extra info or stories about the island from your tour guide, you are free to look out the window the whole time, and you save the hassle of trying to navigate an unfamiliar location. Plus you will almost certainly get to see things you might miss if you’re trying to do it yourself for the first time! Whether you just want to take a shuttle bus to the Polynesian Cultural Center that will pick you up from and drop you back at your hotel, or you book a smaller tour to take you on hikes or around to different foodie spots on island, tours led by locals give you a different flavor, insider info, and provide much needed jobs to people who live here and would love to share it with you!

    1. Hi Callie! Yes, I heard about the huge surge in rental car prices! Tours are a fantastic alternative, especially if you find a good one. If you’d like to have a bit more of the freedom that a rental car allows, I’ve actually seen tourists renting U-hauls for just $20 a day. That’s definitely a unique (and affordable) work around.

  6. Really great article!! Thank you so much! I do try to keep myself in line with the local culture, but you spelled it out wonderfully. Also appreciate the tips on the “water” concerns. BTW, we did rent a car, because we thought it would be a wise decision. Rented through Turo, for the first time, as it was 2021, when COVID was clearing up and everyone was ready to get away. Peace to you for this info.!

    1. Hi Angie! Thanks for sharing! I’ve heard about Turo, but I haven’t tried it out myself. I’m glad it worked well for you during your Hawaii trip.

  7. Thank you for sharing your insight and advice! I am planning a trip next year and definitely don’t want to be the stupid tourist.

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