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In general, yes, you need a car. The bus system is limited, taxis are expensive, and the shuttle services can be slow since they often make multiple stops. Just getting to your hotel from the airport will cost $40-70+. Beyond monetary costs, without a car you're restricting your options. Read "When Is it better to not rent a car?" and "Where can the bus take visitors?".
NOW! Most car rental reservations are complimentary/courtesy/fully cancellable with no penalty. All they require is your name, no credit card or payment info. The bargain-hunter strategy is to secure a cancellable reservation as soon as you've booked either air or hotel, then track that regularly and cancel/rebook if the price drops. Once you're two months out, follow a little closer. Methods for checking prices quickly/automatically are covered below.
Pricing will usually be cheaper if you do a 7-day rental
If you want a good, reliable price, go to Hawaiicarrentalcom, Discount Hawaii Car Rental or Hawaii Drive-O. They're essentially a travel agent that have contracts with the major car rental companies. They have fixed rate prices, depending on the time of year. They're not always the absolute lowest, but their prices are usually better than booking direct with the majors.
Costco is another favorite for rental cars. They have a variety of discounts/coupons, and their website now has single search engine that will give you a matrix comparison. These prices are only discounts on the current market rates based on supply and demand. You have to be a member to make a booking through their website. There are also some geographical restrictions. If you can't book through the website, then use Costco's discount/coupon numbers directly on the car rental company's website.
Another potential source of surprisingly good rates is through your credit card company's travel portal.
Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi Thank You use the same search engine and their rates can sometimes beat or at least match Hotwire.
CapitalOne has a Rewards Travel portal as well.
Check the cancellation policies at each though. You don't need to use points for redemption, you can pay with all-cash.
If you work for a large company, check to see if they extend their corporate rental car agreements allow personal rentals. Many give you a decent fixed rate, that includes very comprehensive insurance, that would cost $50+/day through the agency.
Kayak.com is a great tool for searching standard rates. Watch kayak regularly, once you've created an account doing your search again takes seconds, especially on the iPhone app. Watch for the rates to drop at Kayak, and when they do, recheck with Costco/Discount Hawaii Car Rental.
Autoslash.com is a new search engine that will search using public coupon codes/promotions. They will also track your rental for price drops after you have booked. Their only weakness is that they don't support all of the major rental agencies. Worth a look. They'll even watch prices on an itinerary you've booked on another site, and email you if they can beat it.
You'll pay a big premium for a Jeep or Convertible. They're very popular. Make sure you know the problems with both. First, you are exposed directly to the sun: protect your skin! Pack a hat for everyone before you leave.
Info current as of Dec '11.
Hawaiicarrentalcom: Price includes spouse. Some offers may include 2 additional drivers.
Discount Hawaii Car Rentals: Price quoted includes spouse as an extra driver. Some offers may include 2 additional drivers.
Alamo/ National Current policy: Alamo no longer lets your spouse drive free as a perk of their "Insider" frequent renter program. As of late 2012, Alamo at OGG (Maui) was charging an additional $12/day for a second driver.
Budget/Avis : Anyone you call your life partner is free (LGBT-friendly), otherwise $11/day, max $65 per rental period.
Hertz: Spouse/domestic partners free if you're in #1 Club Gold (easy to get for free).
Enterprise: Spouse or domestic partner free, otherwise fee varies.
Dollar/Thrifty: $12 per day for spouse or anyone else.
Whether or not they extend these on Priceline/Hotwire/Vouchers is YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary)
Priceline allows you to bid on a rental car.You place a daily amount, enter your credit card info, and it will tell you the total all-in price of the rental, and see if any agency will accept it. If you are accepted they charge your card, and give you the rental agency name and confirmation number. No changes/cancellations allowed. If nobody accepts it, you can try again as long as you change one parameter of your bid. After 24 hours you can bid exactly the same. Hotwire is similar, except it tells you the daily rate instead of bidding. The agency is still hidden.
You can save a lot, especially in low-season. There have been reports of accepted bids as low as $7 and $8 per day. That does not include taxes and fees, which are slightly higher than the taxes and fees on conventional rentals. You will need to do some research and know the caveats, mainly:
To get an idea of what to bid, first check Better Bidding and Bidding for Travel. They have forums for Hawaii rental cars in addition to hotels (sometimes they are active, sometimes they are not). They rely on users to report back with their failures/successes. They also will help you formulate a bid, but be careful, the mods can be pretty harsh sometimes. They are also a good resource for those that haven't used bidding/opaque services before. They should give you a rough idea of what the prices have been lately, near your rental period. If you don't have an idea of what to bid, then start at 30% off Hotwire's rates for your desired car type.
Need to make a change? Priceline has been know to offer one-time exceptions to the cancellation policy,charging a days rental for the privilege.
The State of Hawaii charges a Motor Vehicle Surcharge of $4.50/day for all rental cars, plus another $3.00 at airport locations. There is also a daily registration fee, a general excise tax, and for airport locations, an 11% recovery fee. Hawaii's rental car taxes and fees are actually in the middle third of the scale, when compared to other destinations. The "sticker shock" is sometimes because visitors haven't read all the details and didn't look at the final total. Just for fun, do a search for rental cars in cities like New York, Chicago, LA, Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, and other popular places. It will make Hawaii's costs look much better! In addition, Hawaii's rental rates (pre-tax) are far more competitive than most airports on the mainland. One thing to watch out for, most rental agencies will let you extend your rental day beyond 24hr for a small % of the daily rate. If this extends into an extra day, agencies can and will charge you another day of the $4.50-7.50 surcharge.
Information current as of Dec. 2011:
Check your car insurance at home to see if it covers rental cars. Hawaii is a no-fault insurance state, so please contact your insurance agency to find out how this will affect you should an accident occur. This will serve most people fine, it should be like driving your car at home. If you are risk averse, check your credit cards to see if they offer additional coverage. A lot of cards provide free "secondary" insurance, which only covers the costs after your personal car insurance has been paid, including There are a lot of car rental scams out there that overcharge for dings and dents and chips. Read up on Elliott.org to find out about these. Luckily, reports of these are fairly rare on Hawaii.
Amex offers various options for primary insurance, prices depend upon your state, ranging from ~$15-$30 for the entire rental period. This is generally the cost PER DAY that the agencies will charge you, and the Amex usually provides better coverage. A lot of the cards also provide free secondary insurance. Read the fine print!
Many of the Visa cards issued today are Visa Signature. They should provide free secondary coverage. Read the fine print!
You will probably see many people get a hard sell on insurance. Come prepared. ;Most car rental agents are very friendly, but they make the majority of their paycheck selling insurance add-ons. If you don't want a hard sell, say "no thank you, my personal insurance [insurance co. name] covers me in a rental car, and the deductible is $XXX." But always read the fine print!
This question gets very tricky with overseas visitors, and to those that don't drive at home, make sure you are covered. Be careful, do your homework, read all the paperwork!
One of the more popular guidebooks says to leave nothing valuable in your car, and leave it unlocked, to reduce the chance of thieves smashing your window. While that makes sense in theory, but check your rental contract/insurance terms/fine print. Leaving your car unlocked could leave you liable/responsible for damage/theft.
All the agencies will try to upsell people this option. Don't do it! It sounds good, until one realizes that any gas left in the tank at the time of return is not credited to the rental. Essentially, you've just given the agency that gas, and pre-paid for a full tank as well. Make sure you decline this--there are many gas stations on Maui and you won't save any money or time by buying gas in advance. Most visitors have a hard time gauging the level of the tank closely enough (to empty) to make this worth the money.
American Airlines' Frequent Flyer Program, AAdvantage, offers the ability to book a car with miles (you pay the taxes though). This can be a very useful tool for premium cars and periods of high-demand, especially Christmas. I've seen a week at Christmas go for $1000+ from Costco, yet only $300 + 1000 AA miles +~$100 in taxes . Mileage required is based on supply and demand, and you can use all miles, or a combination of cash + miles, with a minimum of 1000 miles. In order to calculate the taxes, do a dummy booking with the agency you choose. http://www.useaamiles.com
United also offers car rental through its Mileage Plus program at roughly 1 cent per mile.
Prepare to pay a massive premium. Fixed rate rentals are out the window. It is quite possible for agencies to be 100% booked, close-in. $100/day for a compact is not unheard of. Book in advance. The Use AA Miles option described above can be useful, see "Advance Options".
Sometimes, for some people, a rental car is not ideal:
Some Kaanapali resorts offer free transportation to Lahaina and other resorts in the area. In Wailea, the Fairmont Kea Lani and the Makena Golf and Beach Resort have limited free shuttles too. These are always subject to change, so do your homework about current status before depending on such possible services.
Where Can the Bus Take You?
The Maui Bus system is much better than it once was! It does not allow luggage, though, unless it's of a size you can hold on your lap. It isn't designed for in/out of the airport, either; the routes would make for a very long and out of the way trip to OGG.
The Bus costs $2.00 per person, per boarding. In other words, no transfers are given from one bus to the next. Here's a link to the Bus Schedule and Routes:
Yes, you can rent a car at either airport and return it to the other one. On Maui, there are two airports at which this is possible: Kahului (code: OGG) and the Kapalua/West Maui (code: JHM) airports. Sometimes this is a great option for visitors who don't want a car for their entire visit. They could shuttle to their lodgings and later pick up a car for a few days, then return that car when flying out of Maui.
The major resorts also offer car rentals at their concierge desks. Do keep in mind that you may pay a higher rate for dropping the car at another location, or a "drop fee".
If you are cruising, you can rent a car with a pickup at either Kahului Harbor or Lahaina Harbor. The link given for Discount Hawaii Car Rental has a specific page for Cruise ship passengers.