With its lush landscape, numerous volcanoes, incredible beaches and delicious food, it’s no wonder that Hawaii is one of the most popular travel destinations in the U.S. However, picking where to go in Hawaii can be challenging — depending on the island you visit, there are numerous cities to choose from.
If you’ve decided to visit the Big Island, you’re likely weighing the pros and cons of a stay in Hilo versus Kona. Both cities have a lot to offer, but they have vastly different experiences for your vacation. Here’s a look at each destination.
When traveling to the island of Hawaii (aka the Big Island), the type of vacation will guide your decision for where you want to visit. Kona is on the western side of the island and is by far the more popular destination, with over one million annual visitors On the east coast is Hilo, which only sees about 300,000 visitors per year.
Not only are Kona and Hilo on opposite sides of the Big Island, but they also offer distinct experiences. The main differences are the climate and types of activities available.
While Kona has drier weather and is popular for snorkeling, whale watching and coffee tours, Hilo caters to travelers seeking out lush rainforests, active volcanoes and small-town hospitality.
When to visit
Hawaii is known as a tropical destination, and temperatures are fairly consistent throughout the year. The average temperature is 85 degrees during the summer (May to October) and 78 degrees in the winter. At night, temperatures can drop by about 10 degrees.
However, the weather in Kona versus Hilo can differ dramatically due to their location on opposite coasts on the island. Kona has mostly hot and dry weather, with about 18 inches of rain per year. Hilo receives about 130 inches of rain annually, making it one of the wettest cities in the U.S. The rainiest months are from November to March.
Where to stay
Both Kona and Hilo offer options that range from major hotel chains to local boutique properties. However, Kona has more choices if you’re looking to redeem hotel points for your stay. Here’s a quick list of what’s currently available near both cities and how many points you’ll need for a one-night stay.
Mauna Lani Point, a Destination by Hyatt Residence (from 25,000 Hyatt points).
Hilton Waikoloa Village (from 75,000 Hilton points).
Hilton Grand Vacations Club Ocean Tower Waikoloa Village (from 106,000 Hilton points).
Holiday Inn Express & Suites Kailua-Kona (from 40,000 IHG points).
Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel (from 35,000 Marriott points).
Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa (from 40,000 Marriott points).
The Westin Hapuna Beach Resort (from 52,000 Marriott points).
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (from 79,000 Marriott points).
Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo (from 50,000 points).
While there are a variety of redemption options from Hyatt, Hilton, IHG and Marriott in Kona, the only points hotel in Hilo is from Hilton. This might be a good reason to use a flexible point currency, like Chase Ultimate Rewards® or Capital One Miles. These programs allow you to redeem points at hotels without having to use a single hotel loyalty program.
Things to do
On a Hawaiian vacation, hitting the beach and relaxing is high on the list for many travelers. But for those who get restless after sitting still for too long, the Big Island offers numerous attractions for visitors.
Kona is widely known to have amazing coffee. Book a visit to one (or more) nearby coffee farms to sample the local coffee and bring home some fresh beans.
Snorkeling is also popular and Kona has some of the best snorkeling spots in the state, including Honaunau Bay, Kahaluʻu Beach Park and Kealakekua Bay.
For the adventurous, consider booking a manta ray snorkel tour out of Kona. If you’d rather stay in the boat but want to see something amazing, book a whale-watching tour.
For lush natural landscapes and hiking, Hilo has you covered.
Plan a hike to Rainbow Falls, the Boiling Pots or the Kaumana Caves. Volcanoes National Park is also accessible from this side of the Big Island. Not only can you experience active volcanoes on your tour, but this national park is a great option for stargazing, too.
You may also want to plan your trip around one of the many festivals that happen throughout the year. The Kona Coffee Cultural Festival is in November, and the Kona Brewers Festival happens in March. In Hilo, check out the Merrie Monarch Festival, a weeklong event after Easter that features hula competitions and other Hawaiian arts.
Traveling to Hawaii can get expensive, especially with a family. One thing to keep in mind is that Kona has more hotel options than Hilo — this allows travelers to splurge on a high-end resort or search for more budget-friendly accommodations.
In May 2023, the average cost of a hotel room on the Big Island was $370 per night. On the Kohala Coast, which is on the northern tip of the island, average room rates were higher at $505 per night.
Whether you’re staying in Kona or Hilo, it’s easy to access the entire Big Island during your vacation.
If you’re flying to the Big Island from the continental U.S., you’ll most likely arrive at the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport. It received more than 2 million incoming passengers in 2022, compared with 671,000 at Hilo International Airport.
Passengers flying into Kona were about equally split from domestic and inter-island flights, while almost 94% of Hilo’s incoming passengers were inter-island travelers. Depending on when you’re flying, expect to pay $300 to $500 for a round-trip economy ticket from Los Angeles to Kona.
Since you can drive between Kona and Hilo in about 90 minutes, you have a number of options during your trip. Many travelers split their time between these cities since it’s easy to visit both on the same trip.
Hilo vs. Kona recapped
When comparing Kona versus Hilo, the choice depends on what type of trip you want as well as your budget.
If you’re looking for a rainforest climate and lots of hiking, Hilo might be for you. If you want to use hotel points or prefer a drier climate, Kona is a great choice.
Since the two cities are about a 90-minute drive from each other, you don’t have to choose just one. If you rent a car, you can visit both places and explore the best that each has to offer.