When planning vacation, I found it very hard to forecast finances, because reviews on the internet are ranging from extreme savers that survive on $2,000 to an extravagant $10,000 budget, and it's still unclear how they get this or that because they didn't publish details. Well, I kept detailed records of all expenses, just for the fun of it. So now I can answer this.
Overall I intuitively felt we'll spend $4,500, though I hoped we can fit in $4,000. Actually we've spent $5,400, but it can be adjusted to about $5,000 if you discount things we'd necessarily spend at home if we didn't take this vacation.
Choice of island.
Since we've never been to Hawaii before, we didn't know what to choose. We chose Kauai island because it's quieter, has beautiful nature and it appeared by looking at weather forecasts that it had least rain.
Weather forecasts are all wrong. They show "rain" or "showers" for multiple days in a row, where it may actually be raining only for a couple of hours in the evening and in the morning. We were waking up around 10-10:30am and we had at least 4 hours of sun every day (sunset time was around 5:30pm). Native Hawaiians told us that Kauai is the rainiest island, because it is the greenest. It actually has a small canyon which is officially the rainiest spot in the world. So, even though internet forecasts looked favorable to Kauai, other islands likely had more sun. Also, we were told that the sunniest time is summer, June through August.
Hotel and transportation.
Kauai has an airport in Lihue and a couple of major places with hotels:
* Kapaa: cheapest hotels.
* Lihue: mid-range hotels.
* Poipu: more expensive hotels.
* Princeville: most expensive hotels.
I've heard there are plenty of options on how to stay, including renting private cottages, camping, etc, but we were only looking at the regular hotels. We were browsing travelocity for flight + hotel package from SFO, and we were first looking at Kapaa (offering packages at posted price around $2100), but then we decided to go with slightly higher budget and picked "Kauai Marriott Resort" hotel in Lihue for around $2600. They offered premium rooms with "garden view" (vs default "no view") for some $17-20/day, we took that and it made it $2718 (by the way, this number is very close to 50% of the overall money spent, which may be a good indicator for estimations). When we arrived we were offered an upgrade for the "ocean view" room for $100. I asked if it was for the entire stay, and got that it was per day. No, thanks :) This was good idea since ocean view wasn't perfect anyways, there were high hills so no sunset, and internet is full of complaints that a tiny 1% of ocean view is being sold as a pricey "ocean view room", so I am glad we didn't waste money on it.
Looking back, I am hesitating to say if it was a mistake. The hotel itself was good, we liked room service, we like big pool and spas, and we liked beach with sand (most other beaches are rocky and you need swimming shoes or flippers). However, unless you like golf, that is little interesting you can find in Lihue right outside of hotel. It's close to airport and close to Costco, but ideally you don't need to go to these locations in the middle of your stay.
Based on my past beach resort experience with Turkey and Mexico I thought that if I pay more for a hotel, I'll take care of more things in one shot, and will spend less with more comfort. This idea appeared to be totally wrong in Hawaii. The better hotel you choose, the more you're expected to pay out of pocket for every little thing you need, and especially for food, and too few things are already included. We never ate out in a hotel, because the prices are totally ridiculous: it would probably come up to some $250 per day for two people if meals and drinks are bought on the hotel territory. We have actually spent on average $118 per day through a combination of eating out and grocery shopping and cooking. This accounts for some mistakes we've made, and I can easily imagine getting this down to $40 per day if we only shopped at Costco and cooked. But it's difficult to do unless a hotel has a kitchen, a microwave and a nice big refrigerator. Cheaper hotel have all of that. Our hotel had no kitchen, a tiny bar-style refrigerator with no freezer, but we did buy a portable electrical cooker, a pan and some kitchenware, that helped a lot.
If I had to choose hotel again, with the information I have now, I'd probably choose a lower end hotel, with kitchen and stuff, closer to Poipu, and I'd make one trip to Costco right from the airport, to buy week-long supply of food. Poipu has perfect oceanshore with great views, great sunsets, great snorkeling, and some other attractions like horseback riding or ATV trips are near by.
Kapaa may be good for older people who don't like to cook, because eating out is the cheapest there. It's still very expensive comparing to the mainland, but probably best value to price ratio. Lihue is full of older people (average age around 50, and maybe one couple in their 30s per 10-15 people), and I presume they're either super-rich or it's a unexpected rip-off for them.
I don't know much about Princeville since we didn't get there. It is probably great for hiking but unless I have a specific plan in mind I'd refrain from planning "lying on the beach-style" vacation there.
Speaking of plans, unlike all inclusive hotels where you book all tours at the counters, here you have to enjoy the freedom of doing it all yourself, and it's pretty time consuming. I'd recommend doing a research upfront. We did research right there and spent a full day on it. Our hotel had bad AT&T reception, which made it even more difficult.
One things that many people overlook in planning is a lot of unobvious small expenses that are related to hotel and transportation, which, in our case, increased the original $2718 number by 26% to $3447:
|Tickets and hotel (per travelocity)||$2718|
|Hotel "resort fees": $25*7 + 4% tax||$182|
|Hotel: tips for the cleaning lady||$10|
|Tickets: upgrade for SFO-LAX 2x $8||$16|
|Tickets: checked baggage (2 bags x 2way, $25 each)||$100|
|Drive to airport parking 16mi x2; 16 mpg (due to traffic jams) * 1.5 car amortization * $4/gal||$18|
|Local airport parking - Anza park - 8 days, 4 hours at $13.75/day + 12% tax||$136|
|Rental car (+ $5 tax): "Enterprise", full size||$193|
|Rental car - gas||$56|
|Rental car - Amex insurance||$18|
|Tickets, hotel and cars (total)||$3447|
* Resort fees is something that every hotel charges these days, usually $25-35 per day, and you cannot decline that. Parking may be included or may be not, in our case it was.
* "Amex insurance" is credit card-provided optional service that I've signed up to cover rental cars with additional primary insurance. By default major credit cards to provide coverage, but it's secondary, meaning that it's only used if your normal insurance declines to cover, and it may mean that incident will always go to your insurance record, which may increase premiums etc.
* I usually rent full-size cars, they only slightly more expensive than compacts, but usually much more comfortable. This time I've got a Chevy Impala 2014 model, which was a very nice comfy car.
* RE checked baggage: we checked a big bag and a guitar. I like checking bags since it gives extra comfort during the flight, as you take fewer items on-board. This time we actually required a bag since we were carrying a portable stove and a pan. We brought two guitars, a full size classical guitar in checked baggage and a travel size guitar in carry-on. One more note about baggage: Hawaii have strict agriculture control, you can't bring fresh food items to or from there.
* Rental car - gas: could've been more if we explored a lot. We didn't.
We didn't do due homework of shopping for tours online. So instead we grabbed plenty of booklets at the airport and sorted through them. That gave us some information, but we ended up browsing online as well.
We chose 3 tours: a helicopter flight (Island Helicopters), an ATV tour (Kipu ranch ATV) and a snuba diving; spending total of $889 of them.
In the aftermath, I think all of the tours require good weather, which we luckily had. Maybe slightly less important for snuba diving. Two of the three tours require some extra 20% on top of the posted price. It's tips and misc expenses like insurance for ATV and DVD with video for snuba.
The helicopter flight was least pleasant and least useful, especially in terms of value per price. Initially I was looking at airplane ride as a cheaper alternative (some $75-100 less per person), but I've read reviews and people were saying it's important that helicopter flies closer and slows down. Although we could make good pictures (not sure if it's possible on the plane), I didn't feel much benefit for using a helicopter vs a plane. The takeoff felt great, but overall helicopter flight is difficult to handle. Both I and my wife did not feel well in the second half of a 60 minute flight. The value is quickly seeing what the island look like with some names of places, but that could've easily fit in a shorter and cheaper flight, or maybe even replaced with browsing maps and pictures. Headphones played some pop music in background, yet another nausea making factor.
Helicopter guys asked for an extra 4% in case of credit card purchase vs cash, so I paid cash. I thought it was illegal (breaking Visa rules), but once I checked, it's actually legal within exactly these limits: they can't add more than 4%. Take into account that ATMs usually give maximum $200 for a $3 fee (1.5%), and you lose 1-2% on cash back, so unless you brought a pile of cash with you, it may be easier to just pay with card. There is no international fee for U.S. residents.
ATV tour was great. Most people were riding single-rider ATVs, which are easy to handle even if you aren't a car driver. They give basic training with a few lap rides on the spot. The ride occurred on a large private ranch, with plenty of beautiful views and a guide that made occasional stops and told stories about places we saw. I was very impressed with the guide's language, professionalism and knowledge. It feels like he's from the kind of people you'd see working as major sales managers on the mainland, not a tour guide. On a side note, it's probably part of Hawaiian spirit: they have many talented people who love their homeland so much and aren't into big careers. We saw a Costco restaurant cashier who was making jokes and spoke like a golden-voice radio commenter. People like that don't work in Costco on the mainland. Anyway, the ATV tour was enjoyable. The only difficult part is 3 hour long crave for smoking. I don't understand why you should restrict smoking so hard. Let's retaliate and restrict soda the same way. Do you know how much damage I incur with second-hand soda drinking? Every time I look at you drinking soda, my brain gets brainwashed with the image of poison. I am getting fat by just knowing you exist. You should stop doing it in public places, and in front of children, and have a single dedicated soda drinking area on the back side of the airport, that's it! No, no, no, electronic soda drinks are prohibited too. Don't tell me it's just water, they look like soda so confuse people into thinking you drink a real soda. Hide yourself in a restroom and drink your electronic soda there, hoping that soda detectors will not alarm. Better yet use a soda patch and eventually quit all soda.
Snuba diving is somewhere in the middle between skuba diving and snorkeling, however, they say it's safe and you aren't expected to have any diving experience or certification. The internet tells that maximum snuba depth is 10 feet, which is about right. I think we were at 7-8 feet. Despite the whole event took over an hour, the actual dive is 35 minutes, which feels OK. It's probably only borderline more interesting than snorkeling: you still cannot touch fish, it's too fast, but you can swim closer to it. On the other hand, it's a great way to break the ice and begin snorkeling. We rented snorkeling gear on the other day for a small fraction of snuba price, and spent more time snorkeling in the same area, which was also a lot of fun. We're still waiting for a snuba video DVD in the mail, that should be fun, too. We did snuba at Lawaii beach, there is one more snorkeling site close by at Poipu, and probably more in more distant areas. Snorkeling gear rent is easy and can be easily found on google maps.
Tour expense summary:
|Helicopter: paid cash, $5 tip, $3 ATM fee||$358|
|ATV: +$20x2 insurance, $6 2x rain poncho, $10 tip||$330|
|Snuba: +$40 DVD, +$5 tip||$182|
|Snorkeling gear 1 day rental||$19|
Accessories, miscellaneous purchases, souvenirs.
We've bought some small stuff. It's hard to say that everything was trip-related, but I can argue that even if it wasn't strictly "necessary", or you could buy it at home, or you could reuse it later, for planning purposes it should be accounted as a fair trip expense, because chances are you're going to spend around the same amount of money on similar stuff next time.
|Cable DP to HDMI||$25|
|Hawaiian T-Shirt (Costco)||$21|
|Souvenirs: Bath soap||$21|
|Souvenirs: 15 post cards and 2 magnets||$14|
|Hot/cold bags (x2) in "Times" store||$10|
|Souvenirs: sea-shells with artwork (x3)||$8|
* Portable stove wasn't a good decision. It's hard to use it in a hotel with no kitchen: we used it in the bathroom, always worrying if it makes too much smoke to trigger smoke detectors. Luckily, we didn't. We also cleaned and stored it after each use, because we weren't sure if hotel staff would be happy to discover we were using this thing. If I was a hotel manager, I'd likely prohibit this for safety reasons. But let's say we weren't violating anything since we didn't know ;) Kauai Costco was selling nice portable slow-cookers which were probably much better choice for a hotel that didn't have its own kitchen, but we already had that stove. In fact, I am returning the stove because I think it doesn't fit the purpose and a portable slow-cooker is a better choice for the next trip of this kind. It was tempting to buy a microwave in Costco (they go for $80) but we couldn't take it home and I thought it would be too embarrassing to use it for a few days and return. So we saved some karma points for not abusing the return policy.
* DP to HDMI cable: I actually had one already but I forgot to pack it, so we could not watch movies from laptop on a big screen of our room's TV. I ordered from amazon with Prime overnight shipping (that was some extra $10 on top of Prime, and the total was $25) to the hotel address, and we got it next day, in the evening. Amazon shipping the missing cable next day to Hawaiian hotel was one of the most positive experiences! Even though it's redundant, I am not going to return it, let it be my memory item. By the way, as hotel want to squeeze every extra dollar from you and make you only buy their own movies, the standard remote control doesn't let you choose HDMI input. Button controls on the side of the TV sometimes help, but this time they didn't help either. After I looked at the back of the TV, I saw a modem-like thing attached to it with a modem-like cable. I detached that cable, and rebooted the TV, it started operating as a regular TV with "input" button working properly. Of course, don't forget to undo it before leaving. A laptop and a HDMI cable is a great way to watch movies, because you can bring your own selection and then use both big screen and loud TV's audio.
* Hawaiian T-Shirt: the lesson is to never buy outside of Costco anything that can be bought in Costco. Costco is the greatest Hawaiian store of all times. Just to give you an idea, the same T-shirt in a small store near our hotel was $120. Yes, 6 times more expensive, +500%.
* Pearl necklace: pearls looked cheap and authentic, so we had a little chat with the seller. She told us that in the past pearls were collected in Pearl Harbor - that's why the name, but these days there are much cheaper places to collect them, yet Hawaii are still considered world's Pearl capital therefore the cheapest pearls are sold in Hawaii. I've just read wikipedia articles about natural vs cultivated pearls, and looked on eBay: we could've gotten a very similar looking freshwater pearl necklace from China for $10 with free shipping. OK, we paid a 480% surcharge for a nice conversation and supported fellow Hawaiians :) By the way, I think it's a very ineffective way to support Hawaiians. I bet big share of the difference ($58-$10) go to federal taxes and profit of mainland corporations. So if you want to support Hawaiians, you're better off just giving them free cash (e.g. bigger tips) and then buying stuff on eBay from China.
In general food in Hawaii is extremely expensive. This does not apply to you if you are rich enough to throw an extra couple of thousands to always dine in random fine restaurants. This does not apply to you if you're an experienced wild life tourist in all-day hiking mode so you live on water and dried beef jerky snacks. This may not apply to you if you do the right prep: get a hotel with a kitchen and big refrigerator, or rent a private cottage, and visit Costco on day one to fill up that refrigerator. This may not apply to you if you're fine with McDonalds type of fast food every day (*shiver*). In all other cases, including ours, a big part of your Hawaii vacation experience is food hunt. How to both enjoy good food and also spend less.
I can give a rough idea comparing to my Kauai experience in California, Bay Area:
1. Fast food is about 1.3x more expensive for the same titles and comes in smaller portions. Meal for two at around $15.
2. Cheap restaurant (similar to lower-end restaurants marked with "$" on yelp) is about 2x more expensive and worse quality. Meal for two at around $30-40.
3. Average restaurants ("$"/"$$" on yelp) are OK quality and $50-60 for two, that's also about 2x increase. At first, you may experience cognitive dissonance between food price and quality, but remember to scale down your expectations: food quality should match what you'd normally get for $25-30 for two. You just pay $50-60. For the $50-60 level of quality, see next point:
4. Expensive restaurants, "$$"/"$$$" (and most hotel-hosted restaurants fall into this category) will be $80-100 for a minimalistic meal for two and around $150 for a good dinner with a dessert and a couple of drinks.
1. Costco is the best of the best of the best. The "restaurant" part of the Costco has exactly the same prices as you used to know. Fresh food, dry food and frozen food maybe in 1-1.3x range. The selection is actually better than on mainland, and especially raw fish. They sell sushimi-grade fish that can be eaten raw, and plenty of white sea fish at around $13-15/lb that is unique and very tasty. Big part of the entire gastronomic experience is lightly cooking white fish on a pan with a tint of garlic salt and black pepper and using cooking oil spray. Very yummy. If you don't yet have Costco membership, get one just for the trip, it will probably pay off on the first day.
2. Safeway. Don't get tricked by the brand name! Safeway does not tie price policy to brand, it adjusts to the environment. If Bay Area Safeway is similar to 2x more expensive than Seattle's Safeway and comparable to Seattle's Whole Foods, then Hawaiian Safeway is about 2x more expensive than Bay Area's Safeway. It is comparable to and, perhaps, even more expensive than Bay Area's Whole Foods. We spent $150 on what should cost at most $75. Unfortunately we only found Costco on day three, otherwise we wouldn't even go to Safeway.
3. "Times" - a nice grocery supermarket we've found right near Costco, which has competitive prices and sells exactly the stuff that Costco doesn't, such as beer in six-packs, small containers of milk and so on. I would guess that proximity to Costco is the price determining factor.
Since Costco and "Times" are in Lihue, Lihue is good for grocery shopping, and Kapaa isn't.
For the restaurants it's the other way: Lihue restaurants are ridiculously overpriced, while Kapaa restaurants are just enormously overpriced.
I'll post separate details on "normal" restaurants, fast food restaurants and groceries.
We went to a couple of restaurants.
* Kauai pasta was a good Italian place, above average and above my expectations, we ate there before we reached hotel. We had a nice conversation with the waiter about different things on the island.
* Shrimp station was more of a necessity, because we didn't yet establish a good cooking routine and we didn't yet discover Costco. It's a borderline between fast food and normal restaurant, probably closer to fast food, therefore very minimal tip. It wasn't bad, but it felt ridiculous to pay $33 for two portions of bread buttered shrimps and fries.
* Indian buffet was a place we just decided to try out to get some variety for the evening, and we were slightly disappointed. The selection is twice poorer than a regular Indian buffet (no rice other than plain jasmine rice, no meat other than chicken, one type of dessert, no fresh veggies and fruits), yet it was almost twice more expensive than a regular Indian buffet.
* Hikulau Lanai was an absolutely awesome place, and we planned it as a one-time experience (perhaps, I should move it into "tours" section?) and I also reserved possibility of spending up to $200. Actually ended up with $130 which includes $20 tip, and covered an appetizer, a couple of nice entrees, desserts and two cocktail drinks for each of us. One of the fish on my grilled fish platter was Walu (Hawaiian name for Escolar), which is a very nice exotic fish. It has stringy texture, somewhat in between calamari and regular ocean fish, and buttery taste. It was also a place with nice ambience, ocean view, etc.
* Bobby V's place was another disappointment. We had it on our last day, just before the flight back, and it was cheap Italian food with average American pizza, and barely warm coffee, yet as expensive as everything else on the
So, our luck factor was 40%: 2 good places out of 5, and 3 places with various degrees of disappointment.
I think for best experience all cheap restaurants should be avoided, and an expensive restaurant should be counted as "experience", along with other paid activities, and carefully pre-selected.
|Kauai pasta, $10 tip||$56|
|Shrimp station Kapaa, $2 tip||$33|
|Indian buffet "Shivalik", $5 tip||$40|
|Hikulau Lanai, $20 tip||$132|
|Bobby V's, $5.62 tip||$62|
|Food: Restaurants (total)||$323|
Food: Fast Food.
Fast food and occasional snacks or beach drinks is a category which is often overlooked in counting, because often paid in cash and forgotten, but I kept the records. These are small amounts, but they add up to a non-trivial amount which is subject to future planning.
|LAX airport, 2x beer||$23|
|Ice cream out (2x, +2x coffee)||$17|
|Beach drink, 1x||$11|
|Burger King, 2 meals||$18|
|Costco fast food, 1 person||$7|
|Costco fast food, 2 ppl||$15|
|Ice cream out (2x, +2x coffee)||$15|
|SFO airport Starbucks, 2x coffee||$7|
|Food: Fast Food (total)||$127|
* One cocktail on the beach is the only thing we've bought on the territory of our hotel (and it was fine but it was even more expensive than in an "expensive" restaurant).
* The ice cream place was near Poipu, we liked it so much so we stopped there again.
Summary of grocery hunting:
|Day 1: Safeway food and a sixpack of beer||$165|
|Day 3: Costco food and 1 btl.wine for $10||$50|
|Day 5: Costco food (fish, fruit, etc)||$96|
|Day 6: Costco food (tiramisu, shrimp, rambutan)||$30|
|Day 6: "Times" grocery (+beer)||$28|
|Day 7: "Times" grocery (alc.drinks only)||$11|
|Food: Groceries (total)||$380|
1. If we got to Costco on Day 1, we would have saved almost that entire amount spent in Safeway. We also lost part of the Safeway's food due to an incident in the hotel room: perhaps during the cleaning the refrigerator's plug was pulled out, and we only discovered it next morning. Most of the remaining raw food has died, about $30 loss.
2. Costco was selling really good small tiramisu cakes. We came back for another one. It was also selling cheap rambutan fruit. Safeway in Bay Area sells them by piece, and Kauai Costco was selling a few pound box for a similar price. So we had an opportunity to eat them like popcorn with movies :)
Let's add everything up in one table:
|Tickets, hotel and cars||$3447||64%|
|Food: Fast Food||$127|
A few observations:
* It is surprising that food came out only 15%. It did feel like major expense.
* The initial price of the hotel + flight package was $2718, and it is 50.5% of all of the money spent. If we're planning for the same level of economy vs comfort, we can just multiple that by 2.
* If we remove helicopter tour (-358), remove bad restaurants (-135), optimize food to avoid Safeway (-165), do not forget cable (-25), and buy necklace on eBay (-48), we could've bring it down to $4653 by saving $731 (15%). However, I think it's not fair to discount mistakes. We learn from mistakes but mistakes should be part of the budget. If we keep exploring new grounds, then next time we will make different mistakes, and best way to manage that risk is to budget for it. At least we learned, that the amount of buffer for mistakes is +15%.
** By the way, I am not sure if necklace is indeed a mistake or not. Maybe this can be viewed as purchasing the experience of suddenly owning a nice thing at the right moment: while on vacation, so it gets associated with the same vacation memories and stays there. Ordering and getting a few weeks later is a different experience. Maybe pre-ordering from eBay, hiding it and then giving it as a gift during the vacation would produce a similar effect. But then I'd lose possibility of choosing the right thing... It's complicated. Okay, maybe I just refuse to accept saying the necklace is worth $58, while, under these circumstances, in fact, it does :)
Another observation is that total money spent during the vacation is not very interesting metric. It's more interesting how much you should add to your normal spending. Therefore, we should deduct things we'd spent if we didn't go to vacation. We'd probably spend $200 on food, $40 on car (gas-mileage plus amortized deprecation and maintenance) and since it's near-holiday time, I can easily imagine spending some, say, $100 on misc gifts/snacks/unneeded stuff.
So, here it goes:
$5384-$340 = $5044, so we can round the total to $5,000.
On a final note in the spirit of vacation planning, I should mention one more important difference between resorts in Hawaii and the all-inclusive style resorts. The all-inclusive style creates many opportunities for new acquaintances: you eat together, you book trips at the same counter, and often go to trips with the same people you'll later see in a restaurant, on the beach, etc. In Hawaii there's nothing like that. Everyone is on their own, unless you're super rich, you don't eat in hotel's restaurants, and it's also more difficult to meet younger people because of so many retired people who would rather dwell in the hotel area than go out. This means, if you want a company, unless you're going with an existing one, you should specifically plan for activities where you can meet new people. Can be nightlife activities like clubs, or maybe longer trips like organized hikes, or maybe even finding people on the internet who'll go to the same location while you're still planning the trip.
I hope it was helpful. Feel free to add in comments. If there's a mistake or missing essential facts, just post a correction as a comment.