Fly Return or Two 1-Ways to Kona & Hilo? What To Consider; Big Island, Hawaii

The Big Island of Hawaii has two major airports, Kona and Hilo. I’m currently planning a trip there now and I’ve been debating about whether to fly round trip or do, two one- ways.

I’ve decided to fly round trip to Kailua-Kona airport because I can fly direct from San Francisco and because I am staying on the island long enough (8 full days to drive back and forth to Kona).

{Unique Perspective to this Article}

Like a lot of people who are planning a holiday, I start by going online – understand the basic geography of the destination, read general info, and read what other people have shared about their travel experience. Of course I look up general pricing for accommodations ad car rentals too. I gather as much info as I can that’s relevant and then start making decisions.

What makes this article unique is that I haven’t actually gone on this trip yet. I’m not writing this article with my perfect 20-20 hindsight. I’m writing it based on having gathered as much info as I can and then making a decision. I have no idea whether I’ll regret it or not, and I’ll post an update after I get back.

I read so many differing opinions online about what to do with this Big Island question in particular. But what I didn’t see was a general template or formula for how to make this decision.

So this article is about how to decide vs. what to decide.

{Variables to Consider When Deciding}

  • where you’re arriving from
  • total number of days/nights of the trip
  • whether you want to see the east and west sides of the island
  • what you want to explore on each side
  • airfare differences
  • cost differences (direct flights, travel time, car rental)
  • flight options
  • driving distances and road conditions
  • access to grocery stores (since I’m going to rent a condo)

Most people assume that everyone wants to visit the east and west sides of the island. But maybe not, especially if you’re on limited time.

Here’s how to weigh some of these variables:

Flights are less expensive into Kona, especially for people arriving internationally. Hilo and Kona are both international airports but Kona is definitely bigger.

If you’re going to the Big Island for 5 days or less, I recommend flying into one airport and out of the other. The underlying assumption in this statement is that you plan to visit both sides of the island. If you’re not going to visit both sides, then just pick one airport and fly round trip.

Balance lowest airfare with flight options (direct?, flight times?). Are the airfare differences big or small, to you? What’s more/most important to you? i.e. lowest airfare, saving time, convenience. All of those things important. But when push comes to shove what’s most important to you?


{Brief Geography of the Big Island

Kona is on the western side of the island and Hilo on the eastern. They’re far enough from each other, with plenty to explore between the two, that it’s popular for people to fly into one airport and out of the other; essentially breaking up the trip to explore each side of the island.

The east side is the “wet” side of the Big Island. You’ll find the famous Hawaii Volcanoes National Park there. Of course with volcanoes come hot springs and as the wet side of the island you’ll find the most spectacular Big Island waterfalls on the east side, such as Akaka Falls.

The west side of the island is where you’ll find more of the pristine beaches, tourist attractions, entertainment, sea turtles (YAY!) and accommodations and resorts.

I’m headed to my first trip on the Big Island, this April (so excited!). I’ve been researching debating about whether to fly:

  • arrive & depart Kona
  • arrive & depart Hilo
  • arrive Kona; depart Hilo
  • arrive Hilo; depart Kona

The only reasons I’m debating this at all are because I have enough days on the island to warrant driving back and forth (8 full days). Additionally, Californians are lucky to have the Hawaiian paradise, just a few short hours away so I know I won’t get to see everything the massive Big Island has to offer on this trip and that’s ok. It’ll be an excuse to plan another trip there!

Here’s how I decided to fly round trip to Kona vs the other 3 options.

{Round Trip to Kona Pros + Cons}


  • cheaper flights ($540 return vs. $590 return Hilo)
  • direct flights to Kona (from California)
  • I’m planning to rent a condo with a full kitchen. The grocery stores (Safeway and Coscto are very close to the Kailua-Kona airport, not Hilo.
  • No rental car surcharge since car pick/drop off are at same location (applicable to any round trip)
  • greater demand of rental cars = more options


  • spend time driving across the island to get back to Kona (2-2.5 hours); same applies if fly round trip out of Hilo.

Yes, it’s a 2.5-3 hour drive to get from Kona to Hilo and vice versa. But it’s a super scenic drive (along the Hamakua Coast route, on Highway 19), with a lot to see and enjoy along the way, Waimea, Akaka Falls, Rainbow Falls, Four Mile Scenic Drive and the Botanic Garden.  So if I time things right, I can incorporate that into the trip.

{Round Trip to Hilo Pros + Cons}


  • car rental is on-site vs. a shuttle at Kona airport


  • more expensive ($590 return vs. $540 return Kona)
  • fewer flight options
  • no direct flights = several more hours in transit

{Two One Ways Pros + Cons}


  • might find a good deal on fares (even cheaper than round trip)
  • no driving back and forth across the island


  • no direct flights to Hilo (from mainland)
  • adds on 2+ hours in transit
  • potential rental car charge for two-location pick up/drop off

{Airfare Differences Negligible But Flight Times Aren’t}

First, as everyone knows, airfares vary, change often, can change quickly, and are seasonal. The fares and info below are based on a round trip in mid-April to/from San Francisco to the Big Island – no stops or time spent on any of the other islands or anywhere else.

The cheapest flights I found were $540 roundtrip to Kona vs. $590 round trip to Hilo. I found an even cheaper fare, $515, to arrive into Kona and depart out of Hilo.

Looking at this you might think it makes sense to fly into Kona and depart from Hilo. BUT, the lower fare isn’t enough (in my opinion) to justify the increased time cost.

Flight time San Francisco to/from Kona: 5-5.5 hours (direct)
Flight time from San Francisco to/from Hilo: legs range 7.5-9+ hours; plus there are no direct options or only the Kona leg .

Additionally there are more flights to Kona which means more options and better flight times.

This is where personal preference comes in.

  • I’m willing pay, not a whole lot more, and get on direct flights.
  • I’d rather depart early morning and arrive with time to enjoy at least half the day vs. waste a whole day in transit.
  • And I’m willing to drive to one side of the island and back.

It’s about 2.5-3 hour drive to get from Kona to Hilo and vice versa. And the only reason I’m willing to do it is because I found out that the drive is very scenic and there are several things along the way that I want to see anyway.

No matter what, I’m going to pay the price in time. Either 2.5-3 hours extra travel time vs. driving time. In this case, I choose driving. If it wasn’t a scenic drive with lots to see along the way I probably would’ve chosen to fly into Kona and depart from Hilo.

{Rental Car Fees on the Big Island}

To be honest I’m not sure yet what to make of this. When I briefly priced out rental car fees on and, the prices to pickup and drop a rental car at the same airport vs. pick up and drop off at two different airports were either the same or so close that it’s not worth mentioning.

On Hertz, however, there was a big difference ($400) to do two-location vs. round trip. I checked, and Hertz has offices at both airports. At first I thought, maybe Hertz doesn’t have their own office in Hilo and has an arrangement with another rental company to accept and dispatch their cars, hence the big price difference, but that’s not the case; Hertz has locations at both airports.

Online I saw people post about a two-location charge ranging from $50-$85. Additionally, I read some posts (but haven’t looked into) that you can rent your car through Costco and they don’t have a charge for two-city.

I’m sure there’s a reason, I just haven’t figured out what it is yet.

Additionally, there’s gas costs to consider. The least expensive gas seems to be available at Costco (on the western side, near Kailua-Kona airport). You can track Big Island gas prices here. The current prices on the Big Island are a little cheaper than what I’m accustomed to paying where I live so that’s a moot point for me.

My best advice is to price out rental cars on your favorite website(s) and make sure to thoroughly check that there are no hidden or omitted fees that you’ll get slapped with later.


The objective of this post is to share how to decide between flying into Kailua-Kona  International Airport or Hilo International Airport. The purpose is not to make a suggestion one way or the other. This topic has been covered on TripAdvisor but no one gave a framework to think this through, so I did. Here are the things to consider:

  • where you’re arriving from
  • total number of days/nights of the trip
  • whether you want to see the east and west sides of the island
  • what you want to explore on each side
  • airfare differences
  • cost differences (direct flights, travel time, car rental)
  • flight options
  • driving distances and road conditions
  • access to grocery stores (since I’m going to rent a condo)

I did make one recommendation, which is if you’re staying on the island for less than 5 days then, to save time, it would be best to fly into one airport and out of the other….assuming you plan to explore both sides of the island.

{About PassportPages}

I created the PassportPages travel blog, to provide nuanced, detailed travel advice, tips, and hacks for traveling all over the world — from a unique and different perspective than the other popular travel blogs. There aren’t as many travel blogs geared towards:

  • nuanced, detailed travel tips and advice
  • vegetarians/vegan travelers
  • ethnic Americans, Canadians, and others
  • women, especially petite women

{About Samta}

When I’m not traveling and/or adventuring (and even when I am), I operate my tech startup, ShaadiShop. ShaadiShop is a marketplace for Indian-friendly wedding venues in California.

During undergrad I decided to study abroad which triggered my travel passion. I lived in Adelaide, Australia for a year and after that, for the next 10 years I spent 1-2 months each year, traveling to various destinations around the globe, on my own while I managed my direct marketing company.

I think traveling solo, prepared me to become an entrepreneur – journeying into new experiences, figuring it out as I went, self-reliance, facing your fears head on, trying new things, and so much more!

Then I decided to get a Masters in Business Administration in southern California, and I met my husband. Now we travel around the globe together and often. I love backpacks, vegetarian and vegan cooking and of course planning our next trip. I’m also kinda addicted to blueberries. =p

Check in on the blog or better yet follow PassportPages to get travel info from around the world. And definitely post your questions and comments. I love hearing from our readers! Cheers!

Samta, Founder, PassportPages
Other PassportPages articles that you might like:
Hawaii for Vegans and Vegetarians
6 Natural, Travel Heath-Beauty Tips That No One Talks About 
Staying Safe Rules for Solo Female Travelers
Simple Step-by-Step Guide To Plan Your Next Holiday




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