Waihee Ridge Trail is one of the most spectacular sites on Maui worth considering when deciding between Maui vs Big Island

Maui Vs. Big Island: Which One Is Better For You? 2024

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Are you deciding between Maui vs. Big Island for your Hawaiian vacation?

Vacationing in Hawaii is a dream come true, at least it could be if you choose the right destination.

Deciding which is the right island to travel to can be a tough call. But, if you’re wondering whether to visit Maui or the Big Island (Hawaii Island), you’ve come to the best place!

Besides covering important questions like which island is easier to get to, which island is cheaper, and which island has the best beaches, we’ll also highlight the top activities and natural wonders on each.

Volcanic rock beach on Big Island, Hawaii
One of the most beautiful beaches on Maui

Which Island Is Better To Visit: Maui or The Big Island?

Before we dive into specifics, it’s helpful to first compare Maui and Big Island on a larger level.

The Big Island, also known as the island of Hawaii, is the largest of the Hawaiian archipelago. In fact, it’s two times bigger than any other two of the Hawaiian islands combined.

Big Island offers visitors a massive variety of climate zones from tropical beaches to snow-covered peaks.

There are approximately 266 miles of coastline, colorful beaches, active volcanoes, and an incredible array of hikes. Its larger size means you’ll spend more time driving from place to place, but you may encounter fewer crowds.

View of Mauna Kea, one of the six volcanoes on Big Island

Maui is the second-largest island in Hawaii featuring gorgeous beaches, bamboo forests, a 10,000-foot-tall dormant volcano, world-class golf courses, lavender farms, and many great places to eat. Part of the island is lush and green, and the other part is brown and golden.

It is known as the “Valley Isle” because it’s flat in the middle with volcanic peaks to the west and east. Since Maui is more compact, it can be easier to hit multiple destinations without driving for hours.

Since it is well-known for its resorts and nightlife, it can be more crowded than the Big Island.

Maui is known for beautiful beaches like Baldwin Beach
Photo by Yvonne McArthur

Which Island Is Easier To Get To?

Both Big Island and Maui have two airports each, one that is most often used for international travelers, and another usually used for island hopping in the archipelago. Both are pretty easy to get to thanks to their international airports.

Big Island’s main airport is Ellison Onizuka Kona International (KOA). It serves international, domestic, and inter-island travelers and is located seven miles northwest of Kailua-Kona.

The smaller airport on Big Island is called Hilo International (ITO). This airport is mainly for inter-island travel as well as some west coast U.S.A domestic flights.

Maui’s main airport is Kahului Airport (OGG). It is located in Kahului, Central Maui. It is 40 minutes from Lahaina and 25 minutes from Kihei.

The secondary airport is Kapalua Airport (JHM) in West Maui. It is only 12 minutes from Lahaina and 47 minutes from Kihei. It primarily receives direct flights from Honolulu.

Which Island Is Easier To Get Around?

Unless you plan to stay at a resort, you’ll want a rental car on both the Big Island and Maui.

Both of these major islands have good roads that can take you around the entire island and that, for the most part, don’t require 4×4. Of course, it can be fun to rent a jeep, and a lot of tourists do so!

Having a rental car will open up both islands and let you see all the best destinations (plus less touristy spots). It is definitely the way to go if you can swing it.

Spectacular ocean views can be seen while driving on Hawaii regardless whether you see Maui or Big Island

If you’d rather not rent a car when you’re on Maui, you can get around by Uber, Lyft, taxi, or by public transportation. Of course, that won’t get you everywhere.

I recommend taking a couple of paid tours so you can visit the famous Road to Hana and Haleakala Volcano.

If you prefer a more adventurous option, you can rent a moped instead of a car. It would be a fun option for quick trips, but not the best for heading further afield.

Which Island Is Cheaper: Maui or The Big Island?

Prices can vary a fair amount across Hawaii, so cost is an important consideration when comparing Maui vs the Big Island.

On average, the Big Island is the second cheapest island, while Maui is the most expensive. In fact, Big Island could end up being 20% cheaper.

However, you should know that it’s completely possible to keep your costs reasonable on Maui and spend big bucks on the Big Island. A lot depends on your travel style and what you plan to do during your visit.

Big Island tends to be cheaper when it comes to airfare and hotels, while Maui has cheaper car and vacation rentals.

You can also save big by flying during the cheaper months of January and April and by choosing only a few paid activities to do.

Spend the rest of your time enjoying free or cheap activities such as hiking, enjoying the beaches, visiting volcanoes, having picnics, and watching the sunset.

If your budget is tight you may want to consider some other places like Hawaii that are more economical options.

Is Maui or Big Island Better For Snorkeling?

Although Big Island has a few great snorkeling spots, Maui definitely comes out ahead in this category. The snorkeling on Maui is jaw-droppingly awesome.

Snorkeling on Maui is one factor when deciding which island is better Maui or Big Island.
Photo by Yvonne McArthur

I can say this from experience because during my sixteen days on Maui, I snorkeled at just about every beach I visited. I saw hundreds of beautiful tropical fish, sea urchins, eels, sea turtles, and even an octopus. It was hands-down my favorite part of my trip.

Of course, if you decide to visit Big Island instead of Maui, you can still enjoy some top snorkel spots.

Which Island Has Better Beaches?

Both Big Island and Maui have amazing beaches, but there are some differences between them.

On Big Island, expect to find a wide variety of multi-colored beaches including its famous green sand beach. You’ll also find black sand, white sand, and red sand beaches.

Beautiful black sand beach on Big Island
One of the most beautiful beaches on Maui, with volcano in the background.
Photo by Yvonne McArthur

Maui’s beaches are classics, offering super soft sand, palm trees and tropical island vibes. Many of Maui’s beaches are tan colored, but you can also find red and black sand beaches.

Some are amazing for swimming, while others are better for viewing sea turtles, exploring tidal pools, and snorkeling.

Is Maui or The Big Island Better For Families?

Depending on the kinds of activities your family loves, both of these main Hawaiian islands offer great options.

✔️ Big Island may be perfect for your family if…

  • Your kids love hiking
  • Your family loves volcanoes and geology
  • Your kids can handle long stints in the car
  • You don’t mind some rain
  • You want to swim with manta rays
  • You prefer less touristy destinations

✔️ Maui may be perfect for your family if…

  • Your family loves spending time at beaches
  • Your family wants to spend lots of time snorkeling or whale watching
  • Your family prefers a dry location with less rain
  • You want to visit Haleakala volcano
  • You want to drive the Road to Hana
  • You don’t mind there being lots of other tourists

Best Things To Do On Maui

If you choose to visit the island of Maui, don’t limit yourself to a resort. Instead, get a rental car and go exploring! Maui has incredible hikes, amazing snorkeling, great beaches, and gorgeous scenery.

Check out these top four things to do on Maui:

➡️ Snorkel, Snorkel, Snorkel!

I LOVED snorkeling during my two weeks on Maui. It was my all-time favorite activity to do on the island. If you have snorkel gear, you can hop in the water from any number of beaches, making this an awesome free activity.

✔️ Note: Conditions are best for snorkeling between May and September when the ocean is flatter and visibility is at its prime. If you go in the winter months, consider humpback whale-watching instead.

Go on a Molokini Snorkel Tour

Whether or not you snorkel on your own, it is 100% worth it to go on a Molokini snorkel tour. During the tour, you’ll head out to Molokini Crater, a half-moon volcanic islet that rises out of the Pacific.

Visibility here is a jaw-dropping 150-feet or more, and there are hundreds and hundreds of fish.

Molokini Snorkel Tour on Maui beach is one reason to visit Maui
Photo by Yvonne McArthur

During my time snorkeling at Molokini, I saw a snowflake moray eel flashing between rocks, a small orange octopus hiding under a coral shelf, and multiple moorish idol fish. P

arrot fish chomped on the coral, a yellow chub flitted through the water, and a school of keeltail needlefish floated just beneath the surface.

And that’s not even close to the massive quantities of fish varieties I saw!

✔️ Tip: Book this badge-of-excellence Molokini snorkel tour and budget a bit extra to rent a neoprene shirt. The waters off of Maui are relatively warm, but it can get cold after spending a while in the water. Thanks to the neoprene shirt, I was able to stay longer in the water.

Snorkel on Your Own

If you are snorkeling on your own, consider visiting the following top snorkel spots: Honolua Bay, Ulua Beach, Maluaka Beach, Coral Gardens, and the Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve.

While snorkeling on my own, I saw sea turtles, the state fish, triggerfish, butterfly fish, a Christmas wrasse (gorgeous!), Hawaiian cleaner wrasse, and many more.

✔️ Tip: Find fish and coral near rocky outcroppings. Just remember never to step on coral or touch anything, especially the evil black and blue urchins. It’s also way more interesting to snorkel if you can identify the fish you see.

➡️ Hike into Haleakala Crater

Another wonderful and unique experience you should consider having while in Maui is visiting Haleakala National Park.

I had a blast doing the Haleakala sliding sands hike during my trip to Maui. My sister and I hiked down into the crater, across part of it, and then back up the steep side for a total of 13 miles. (There are shorter and longer options available.)

During the hike, you can see Hawaiian silversword–an endemic plant that only grows on Haleakala. You may also get to see a rare nēnē goose, Hawaii’s state bird.

Seeing a nēnē goose while hiking in Haleakala National Park, one of the best things to do on Maui
Photo by Yvonne McArthur

To hike the sliding sands trail:

Get an early start and drive up to Haleakala. Park in the Halemau’u Parking Lot, then hitch-hike to the summit. Take the Keonehe’ehe’e Sliding Sands Trail down into the crater.

After about three miles of loose sandy switchbacks, you’ll reach the crater floor. You can take the first turn off towards Halali’i (an 11-mile hike).

Haleakala sliding sands hike is one reason to choose Maui when deciding between Maui and The Big Island, Hawaii
Photo by Yvonne McArthur

Alternatively, keep walking another 2 miles to the second turnoff for a 13 mile hike (or even further if you wish). This second turn-off is little used, but the scenery is beautiful, leading between red, black, pink, and gray cinder cones.

Spend some time just standing still and not talking, enjoying the profound silence. Haleakala is one of the quietest places on earth.

Hiking Haleaka Crater on Maui is one reason to visit Maui compared to Big Island
Photo by Yvonne McArthur

Continue towards Holūa Cabin and keep going past it through a rocky valley. Climb up a series of very steep switchbacks followed by a gentler incline to Halemau’u Parking Lot.

Not into Hiking?

If you don’t like hiking, it is still worth visiting Haleakala. This 10,000-foot-high dormant volcano offers amazing views of the Valley Isle. The crater is massive and impressive.

It’s also a wonderful spot to watch the sunrise (reserve your spot in advance) or sunset. Wear warm clothes if you go up, as the weather is extremely chilly, especially at dawn and dusk.

The view from Haleakala National Park is a major factor when considering Maui vs. Big Island
Photo by Yvonne McArthur

➡️ Road Trip to Hana

One of Maui’s most iconic activities is the Road to Hāna on the east side of the island. This 68-mile two-lane road skirts around Maui’s east coast, circling the base of Haleakala Volcano.

A large portion of the Road to Hana travels through lush jungles, alongside craggy tidal pools, and through sweeping green valleys.

The road is narrow and twisty with over 600 curves and over 50 one-lane bridges. It makes for a road trip of epic proportions!

My sister and I did the Road to Hana in one 12.5 hour day trip, making multiple stops to enjoy the scenery, stop for snacks, and go on a couple hikes.

The view from Pipiwai Trail is one reason to choose Maui versus the Big Island
Photo by Yvonne McArthur

If you plan to do it in one day, get an early start! Six am is an ideal departure time if you’re leaving from Central Maui. It’s also best to have a couple drivers so you can switch off every 2-3 hours.

Here are a few of my favorite stops along the road to Hāna:

Twin Falls

A series of small waterfalls surrounded by tropical plants and flowers that fill the air with aromatic scents. This is one of Maui’s relatively easy hikes with a few rocks and some mud. You can swim in any of the three main pools at the base of the falls.

Coconut Glen

This ice cream shack is a worthy stop, offering delicious coconut ice cream in various flavors. The soursop ice cream was delicious!

Ka’enae Peninsula

Explore the craggy shore covered in lava rocks and tidal pools of Ka’enae. The scenery is breathtaking. Just be sure to wear sturdy shoes while clambering over the volcanic rock, as it is quite sharp. No swimming is allowed here, but you can find many interesting creatures in the tidal pools.

Ka'anae Pano is one of the best places to visit on Maui when deciding between Maui or Big Island.
Photo by Yvonne McArthur
Waiʻānapanapa State Park

Reserve ahead so you can visit (or camp!) in Waiʻānapanapa. This state park has a beautiful coastline and a famous black sand beach. It’s a great spot for swimming and fishing.

Travel Tip: If you like black sand beaches, consider making Guatemala one of your future destinations! Visit Guatemala’s volcanic black sand beaches and enjoy surfing, boogie boarding, deep sea fishing, and releasing baby sea turtles.

Thai Food by Pranee

Once you reach Hana, stop for lunch at Thai Food by Pranee. Yum!

Pīpīwai Trail

Hike this out-and-back trail through a bamboo forest to reach Waimoku Falls. The scenery is lovely and the trail includes several metal bridges and an impressive banyan tree.

When deciding between Maui vs Big Island consider Pipiwai Trail's beautiful bamboo forest.
Photo by Yvonne McArthur
When deciding between Big Island or Maui, Waimoku Falls on Maui is a major highlight.
Photo by Yvonne McArthur

After Pipiwai, continue driving along a bumpy road that cuts along a cliff beside a massive drop to the ocean to finish out your road trip. Driving this section was fun and a little scary. 

Once you reach the other side, you’ll be in the dry section of Maui – a beautiful desolate landscape populated by herds of cattle.

➡️ Hike Waihe’e Ridge

Waihe’e Ridge was one of my favorite activities I did on the island of Maui. It is a steep hike that travels through iconic Hawaiian landscapes.

Go early so you can park in the top parking lot, or park in the overflow parking and hike to the top parking lot.

The first section of the hike is VERY steep and leads past pasturage, then into a forest of towering conifers that is reminiscent of British Columbia, Canada. Keep walking, and the trees become deciduous, immense and curving into a high canopy.

Waihee Ridge Trail is one of the most spectacular sites on Maui worth considering when deciding between Maui vs Big Island
Photo by Yvonne McArthur

You’ll get views of the lush hills in the surrounding West Mauis, with waterfalls cascading in the distance.

Continue walking, and the trail turns a warm brown that meanders between a rolling ridge drenched in low greenery, ferns, and ti plants. If the weather is clear, you can see the ocean and turquoise coast below, and deep valleys dropping on either side.

This hike is 4.4 miles total, with 2600-feet of elevation gain. Be sure to take lots of water and snacks, and wear good hiking shoes, sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat.

Best Things To Do On The Big Island

If you decide to visit the Big Island of Hawaii, there are a ton of incredible outdoor activities to enjoy!

Nothing beats a night swim with manta rays or a helicopter tour of Volcanoes National Park. Big Island is also one of the few places in the world where you can visit a green sand beach!

Check out these top four things to do on the Big Island:

➡️ Visit Green Sands Beach

One of the absolutely best things to do on Big Island is walk to Papakōlea Green Sands Beach.

This famous beach is one of only four green sand beaches in the world. It gets its green hue from olivine crystals that eroded from cinder cones dating back to the 1868 eruption of Mauna Loa. Is that cool or what?

Papakōlea Beach is a prime swimming spot, which is perfect since you’ll want to cool off after hiking in!

Papakōlea Green Sands Beach is one of the best things to do on Big Island Hawaii compared to Maui.

To get there, drive to South Point on Highway 11 and park at the Green Sands Beach parking lot between mile markers 69 and 70. Walk down to the boat ramp, then take an immediate left onto the trail.

The hike is about 5.5 miles round trip and takes approximately two hours. The trail passes over old lava flows and dusty roads, then up and over a steep cinder cone.

Once you reach the beach you can swim, dig for shells and sea glass, sunbathe, and take pictures. You can also surf here, but the waves can be rough and there is no lifeguard, so only do it if you’re experienced.

✔️ Tip: Wear your swimming suit because there are no facilities at the beach. Also pack sunscreen and at least 2 liters of water per person.

➡️ Hike to ‘Akaka Falls 

Another great activity to enjoy on Big Island is to hike to ‘Akaka Falls. This is one of the Big Island’s most gorgeous waterfalls.

The hike itself is easy and only a 0.8 miles round trip. However, the scenery is so breathtaking you’ll end up spending way longer on the hike just to drink in the views.

Along the path, you’ll walk uphill between bamboo groves, wild orchids, and lush rainforests dotted with ferns.

Hiking to 'Akaka Falls Falls is one of the best things to do on Hawaii's Big Island

‘Akaka Falls plummets 442 feet into a gorge and is the main attraction. However, you’ll also see the much smaller Kahuna Falls at the beginning of the hike.

To get to ‘Akaka Falls National Park, follow this Google Maps link. The Falls is only about 25 minutes from Hilo on the eastern side of Big Island.

✔️ Note: Since this is a national park, you will have to pay an entrance fee of $5. The park is open from 8 am to 5 pm.

➡️ Dive with Manta Rays

Going on a night dive with manta rays is hands down the most exciting thing you can do on the Big Island.

During this incredible experience you can dive or snorkel with 10-foot manta rays!

Diving with Sting Rays is one of the best things to do off the coast of Big Island, and is worth considering when deciding which Hawaiian island to visit.

How it works

Manta rays eat plankton, and plankton are attracted to lights. In order to attract the rays, divers place a crate of super bright lights in a sand channel at a site near Kona. Plankton gather around it en masse. 

Once it’s dark, divers settle onto the sand around the crate and shine their dive lights, while snorkelers float on the surface and shine bright lights downward.

The gentle manta rays arrive, swooping and swimming around you like enormous ballerinas as they feast.

It’s probably the coolest thing you’ll ever do!

Book a Manta Ray Tour

If you are PADI certified, book your dive manta ray tour with Kona Diving Company.

If you’d rather snorkel, book with Hang Loose Boat Tours.

➡️ Helicopter over Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a huge attraction when it comes to visiting the Big Island vs Maui. It’s a prime spot for volcano enthusiasts.

And while the volcanoes are definitely worth exploring on the ground, taking a helicopter tour over the park bumps this experience to a whole new level.

View from helicopter in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

First a little more about Volcanoes National Park

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park encompasses two of the world’s most active volcanoes (Kīlauea and Mauna Loa), and reaches from sea level all the way to 13,680 feet.

It’s a fabulously unique landscape where you can see volcanic eruptions, learn about the native Hawaiians’ sacred sites, and go on fascinating hikes and road trips.

Helicopter Over an Active Volcano

This absolutely epic activity will give you the chance to fly over Kilauea and multiple lava flows. Seeing this volcano from the air is an amazing experience!

Keep your camera ready to snap shots of lava flows and maybe even a glowing crater.

For the best experience, book your excursion with Safari Helicopters.

✔️ Travel Tip: If you are a volcano enthusiast, consider making Guatemala one of your next travel destinations. Roast marshmallows over lava vents on Pacaya Volcano, or camp under the stars watching Acatenango Volcano erupt just a few miles away. Starlight, exploding lava, and the thunder of an eruption are an experience of a lifetime!

The Wrap-Up: Maui or The Big Island?

As you can see, both Maui and the Big Island have loads to offer the eager traveler. Both islands have so much natural beauty, plenty of hikes and waterfalls, and ocean adventures like snorkeling, whale watching, or swimming with manta rays.

The Big Island tends to be less crowded and a little cheaper than Maui, although you’ll probably spend a bit more on car rentals overall.

Both Hawaiian islands offer different exciting activities for families. Maui is best island for classic soft-sand beaches and ocean activities, while the Big Island takes the prize when it comes to volcanoes and colorful sands.

And there you have it! Maui vs The Big Island, which one wins out for you?

View from Twin Falls Road to Hana, Maui
Photo by Yvonne McArthur

About the Author

Yvonne McArthur is a writer, word-lover, and adventurer. She lives in Guatemala where she spent her childhood swimming in caldera lakes, mountain biking through maize fields, and toasting marshmallows over molten lava.

Yvonne enjoys roaming the country on Mo, her motorcycle, accompanied by her goggle-wearing canine sidekick. She loves sharing her passion for Guatemala with visitors and locals alike, whether on her own site, Guate Adventure, or other awesome travel blogs (like this one!).