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Travel to Kauai: Everything You Need to Know

Last updated August 24, 2021

If you’re craving shimmering white-sand beaches, scrumptious fresh food, wild adventures and piña coladas by the pool, it’s time to travel to Kauai.

The oldest and northernmost island in the Hawaiian chain, Kauai is paradise draped in emerald valleys, mountain spires and jagged cliffs.  

But travel to Hawaii isn’t quite like it used to be—what with ever-changing restrictions and protocol mandates.

Here’s all you need to know to plan, prepare and execute a smooth, safe and memorable post-pandemic vacation to Hawaii’s Garden Island.

Kauai has four main areas, each with a unique and distinct difference.

What’s great about this breathtaking island is that no matter where you stay, it’s possible to hit any of the other shores and coasts within a couple of hours. 

Resorts are the best in terms of accommodation type and getting the most bang for your buck. There are plenty of beautiful, highly rated resort and timeshare options available around the island. 

When staying in a resort you typically benefit from a concierge, shuttle services, larger rooms often with a kitchen unit, a washer/dryer, numerous pools and many more amenities. 

Lots of resorts even have their own private beach and delicious restaurants to dine in if you choose to stay close to the room after a few piña coladas. 

Kauai Hanalei Bay

North Shore

The North Shore is known for its dramatic scenery. It’s actually named one of the most stunning spots in the world! 

Having stayed in Princeville, I couldn’t recommend it more. This shore is very lush due to the frequent rainfall, so it’s important to avoid peak rain season during the winter months. 

North Shore is also known for being more luxurious, which means it comes in at one of the pricier areas to stay. That said, it is home to many beautiful beaches, hiking trails and incredible views of the coastline. 

The top cities in the North Shore are Princeville, Hanalei and Kilauea. 

South Shore

For the best weather, the South Shore is the way to go. This shore has the most beaches, shopping and dining options. 

This also means that the shore is the most densely populated and a very popular tourist spot. It’s worth the extra crowds to stay down south if you’re wanting a dry and sunny trip. 

Some popular cities to stay in are Lawai, Poipu and Koloa. 

East Coast

Also known as the “Coconut Coast,” the East Coast is full of coconut trees, beaches and dozens of attractions that are sure to keep you entertained. 

This coast is the most affordable in terms of accommodations. It’s also the most “central” part of the island. 

While not the most attractive part of Kauai in comparison to the North Shore and South Shore, there are many attractions worth exploring on the East Coast. These include the Kauai Path, Wailua falls (try kayaking the river to the falls, it’s unforgettable), and the town of Kapaa, home to great restaurants. 

Cities to consider for your preferred home base include Wailua, Kapaa and Lihue. 

West Side

Noted as the least popular place to stay on the island, the West Side is still home to many remarkable landmarks and is a dream for hikers and adventure seekers looking for a challenge. 

Due to recent landslides, it’s important to note that many routes to the West Side from the North Shore have been closed for repair and safety purposes. Because of this closure, the West Side is the hardest to get to.

There are very limited restaurants and places to stay on this side of the island. It’s dry and desolate, hence why it is home to the Waimea Canyon (which is an absolute MUST and labeled the Grand Canyon of the Pacific).

The West Side isn’t necessarily the best place to stay, but it is definitely worth taking a day trip to explore and adventure. 

The top cities on this side of the island are Waimea and Hanapepe. 

Bonus points

Now that you’ve done all the steps to prepare for your trip to Kauai, it’s time to jump into the adventures awaiting you on this stunner of an island. 

In order to optimize your travel on Kauai, I suggest creating a “must-see” list of top sights, restaurants and activities you want to experience. 

This is a great opportunity to try new things you’ve never tried before and to face some fears such as snorkeling, surfing or flying in a helicopter?

Kauai has some of the freshest food I’ve ever had, so have fun expanding your palate. Vegan and plant-based cuisine are huge on the Hawaiian Islands (the best being found in food trucks and small shacks!). “Yelp!” is a great tool for finding the top-rated places to dine. 

If you’re a Food Network fanatic, there are lots of places visited by Guy Fieri on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

Try not to sleep too long adjusting to jet lag. My tip is to always catch up on sleep in the sun by the poolside or in the sand, just be sure to wake up in time to lather up.

There is so much to see and explore on Kauai you’ll never be at a loss for plans or adventure. 

Wherever you find yourself, it’s sure to be incredible. Here is a quick list of my favorite places on the island: The Queen’s Bath, Wailua Falls (Kayaking Trip), Hanalei, Waimea Canyon, Poipu Beach.

Travel to Kauai landscape

Travel on Kauai

If you plan to explore all of the incredible sights along different shores of the island, chances are you’ll want a rental car. I cannot stress this enough, book that car TODAY. 

Due to the pandemic, many rental car companies sold their inventory since no cars were being rented out. Now that things are open, these companies aren’t properly supplied for the huge demand of travelers wanting to rent vehicles. 

If your trip is in less than three weeks, it’s likely already too late to find a rental car through major companies, at least at a decent price. 

Fortunately, there is a shared care service called Turo, which is a website where locals rent out their cars to visitors and is a direct owner to customer exchange. This means that these cars aren’t owned by one branch or company, but by the individual renting it out. 

Turo is a GREAT way to find a car at a great rate without dealing with all of the added fees and stress that comes with a rental car company. This saved us on our trip and allowed us the freedom to explore the island instead of staying on just one shore.

If you’re just going to stay on one shore of Kauai, there are a few other means of transportation you can look into. The first is bike rentals. There are plenty of reliable and affordable bike rental businesses on the island. 

You can go the more “active” route and rent a normal bike or if you’re going longer distances, you can look into electric bikes. These are very common and can make for a fun, more physically active way to explore the island.

Another way to see the sights is to travel on Kauai’s bus system. From personal experience, this is probably the least reliable means of commuting. 

While it was a pretty uncommon occurrence, we got stuck on the bus for three hours due to a car incident on the bridge. We couldn’t turn back around since we weren’t in control of the route, so I’d really recommend looking into traffic and construction updates before choosing the bus. 

Packing for Kauai is not like packing for the other Hawaiian Islands. This island is more laid-back and casual when it comes to attire. 

I wore dresses and wedges at night and received many confused stares, but they were always followed by kind compliments. I could tell that no one else around me was dressed up more than flowy pants and nice sandals. 

Most of your trip will likely be spent in swimwear and activewear. Be sure you have clothes that you’re comfortable staying active in. 

Below is a universal checklist covering all the basics to bring when you travel to Kauai. 

Hiking gear

Make sure you pack clothes comfortable to hike in and that you don’t mind getting dirty. This includes a pair of hiking-specific footwear (Nike sneakers won’t do in this terrain). 

Sunscreen and bug spray

Since most of your time is spent outdoors, you want to be protected. Hawaii sun is next-level. You can get burned in less than 15 minutes (I speak from painful experience). 

Grab a clean, reef-safe sunscreen of at least 30 SPF. Also, grab a bug spray for hiking and kayaking days, otherwise, the mosquitoes will have a field day. 

Supportive swimwear

While stylish and luxury swimwear is always a move, for this trip, I advise investing in supportive swimwear that you can be active in without feeling exposed. 

I chose a variety of swimwear solely for pictures and other swimwear that could double as an outfit when paired with the right cover-up or shorts.

Casual day-time fits

As mentioned before, Kauai is the most laid-back of the Hawaiian Islands. 

You don’t need to dress as if a modeling scout is going to discover you at dinner. A few pairs of nice shorts, casual tops and jumpsuits are perfect. 

It’s smart to pack a “dressy” outfit. There are some occasions that call for a step up from casual restaurants—such as a Luau or fine-dining restaurant. 

For this, I suggest a nice sundress, jumpsuit, button-up with solid shorts or a two-piece set. 

Prepare for rain

Chances are you’ll run into a light shower at least once on your trip. I suggest packing a light rain jacket and a small umbrella just in case.

Shoes

Okay, yes shoes are pretty obvious. It’s the KIND of shoes you want to be sure to pack. As mentioned earlier, hiking shoes are a must. There is a lot of walking on this island, so the more comfortable the shoe the better. 

It’s also hot, so sandals are a go-to, but, make sure they are ones you can walk in without blisters or foot pain.

Snacks

Pack a few snacks for the commute to the islands as well as some to have on hand to grab between daily activities. 

I was so happy that I had some of my favorite protein bars and other healthy snack options when I needed a quick pick-me-up between meals. It’s always smart to avoid anyone getting hangry and dampening the vacation mood!

Masks/sanitizing products

Pack a few breathable masks you can hand wash or bring a handful of disposable masks. 

Stock up on wipes, hand sanitizer and other disinfectant products to keep yourselves and those around you healthy and protected. 

Flight necessities

The travel to and from the islands is at least three hours from wherever you’re flying from, so bringing extra things to ensure a comfortable and enjoyable flight is very helpful. 

Consider packing a neck pillow, eye mask, earbuds or headphones, facial spray, chapstick, tissues, books and anything else you may need to make the flight “fly by.”


Tips, tricks and getting there

Depending on where you’re traveling from, travel to Kauai can be pretty pricey. For my latest trip, I used some of my saved Delta SkyMiles and paid the difference. However, there are many ways to find affordable flights that won’t break the bank. 

Below are a few resources for flight price checking, experts on budget travel and tips for getting great rates from your preferred airline. 

Download travel deal apps

One way to stay up to date on the latest airline deals is to download apps designed solely for this purpose. Here’s a list of some of the top-rated apps and websites that can help you book a flight for the best possible price:

  • SkyScanner 
  • App in the Air 
  • Kiwi
  • Hopper 
  • Momondo

Follow the experts

Another tip I’ve found very helpful is actually following budget travel influencers on Instagram and TikTok. They’re constantly sharing personal tips and tricks that have helped them travel the world on a tight budget.

Stay on a preferred airline

If you’re a dedicated flyer to a specific airline, fear not. There are still many hacks to saving on flights, it just requires a bit more pre-planning and flexibility. 

Consider opening an airline credit card. This way, any money you spend using this card will go toward paying for future flights. Use this card to buy your tickets and it’s as if you’re directly investing in your next flight. It adds up quicker than you’d expect! 

Be flexible with your dates and times. If you’re looking to travel to Kauai on an exact date at 9 am, chances are there’ll be little to no wiggle room in prices. If you know you want to go around a certain time of year, check far in advance. This is when you can score the cheapest flight. 

There are many other resources beyond what is listed above to guide you in making smart, money-saving flight decisions. If you’re inspired, try a few, or all of these tips. They’re definitely worth a shot and can be used for future flights as well. 


Kauai beach

Before you fly: what to know

There are a few key steps to take pre-trip to ensure easy travel to Kauai. 

Safe-travel protocols are constantly being updated by the Kauai Government, so it is crucial that you stay current on the most recent mandates in alignment with your scheduled trip. 

If you are fully vaccinated, it is still required for anyone who did not receive their vaccine in the state of Hawaii to be tested. It is mandatory to show a negative COVID-19 test from an accepted NAAT Test Site taken within 72 hours from your LAST flight to Hawaii. 

This means if you have a layover, you will time out your testing to the last leg of your trip. 

No need to stress. If you follow all of these steps correctly, you can avoid the 10-day quarantine and get about your adventures right away. 

Official website

The best advice is to visit the official site for Kauai’s Government updates and travel information. Take some time to read through everything thoroughly at least one week before your trip. They provide you with all links to external sites and forms necessary upon arrival. 

Another tip is to use the “Visitors+” tab at the top of the screen that contains an abundance of helpful tips and information on all things Kauai travel—from bus schedules and hiking trails to vacation guides and festivals.

Create a “Safe Travels” account

The key to a smooth arrival into Kauai is completing your “Safe Travels” account where prompts will lead you to fill in specific information regarding your trip including exact flight details and hotel/resort plans. 

I’m assuming this is for contact tracing if a positive COVID case is detected and could mean possible exposure. However, all of these steps are to avoid that from happening, so there’s no need to worry. 

If you have had COVID recently and recovered, there is an option to be exempt from the testing and quarantine protocols altogether. 

There are a few other ways to be an exception to the testing requirements and they can all be found in the “Safe Travels” tab called “Apply for Exemption/Exception from Quarantine.”

The “Trips” tab is where you will fill in all trip-related information and the health questionnaire, which asks a few questions about your personal health records and any possible COVID-19 symptoms or exposure within the last 14 days. 

This must be filled out 24 hours before your flight.  Here you will also upload your negative COVID-19 test from an approved testing site. 

Once you complete your safe travels account successfully, you will receive a QR code that is basically your golden ticket into the garden island and immediate vacation excitement. 

This QR code is VERY important. Trust me, you do not want to be the passenger without it holding up the lines at the airport. 

You also need to show your completed and updated Safe Travels Information at check-in if your resort requires it. 

Testing protocol

Unless you have passed the testing exemption or were vaccinated in Hawaii, you will need to provide a NEGATIVE PCR test to avoid quarantine. Rapid tests are not accepted. 

Testing can be expensive depending on where you decide to get it done. You could always purchase an at-home test from major testing sites such as Costco, however, we were able to avoid paying anything altogether!

Check the Kauai.Gov/covid-19 website, they provide a list of Hawaii government-approved testing sites. 

Walgreens is by far the best option for testing. If you live near one you can schedule an appointment online and perform a self-test at your local store for FREE. The best part? It is a certified PCR test and results are given to you via e-mail the same day. 


Kauai harbor

You’re ready to go

Kauai is the perfect wellness destination for healthy food, tons of adventure and amazing scenery. It truly makes for the ideal post-pandemic vacation spot. Now that you’ve read through this guide to travel to Kauai, you’re ready to go! 

For more wellness-inspired vacations, be sure to explore all of the incredible destinations Vacayou has to offer. 

There is truly no better way to treat yourself to some TLC than a trip designed to improve health and happiness—and Vacayou is the perfect start. 

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