Hawaii By Cruise Ship or By Land?

In the current economic climate, many people either are cutting back on their vacation spending or trying to make sure that the get the best value for their money. Hawaii is a popular vacation destination reached by either air or sea. I thought it would be interesting to evaluate the over all value of an air and land Hawaiian vacation verses a round trip cruise from either San Diego or Los Angeles.

Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Honolulu, Hawaii for 5 beautiful days. A few years ago we took a 15 day cruise from San Diego to Hawaii and back. Here’s my evaluation of the two different types of vacations from and over all value and budget perspective.


This is generally one area where a land based vacation almost always beats a cruise. For our recent trip we stayed at the Hilton Waikiki Hawaiian Villages. This hotel had several different types of accommodations including both hotel rooms and time share condominiums with full kitchens. Our hotel room was in the furthest waterfront tower, the Rainbow Tower which offers beach and Diamond Head views on one side and marina/waterfront views on the other side. We would have preferred the Diamond Head views,but our marina/waterfront views were more than spectacular. The room was spacious, but included two queen beds rather than our requested king size bed. In contrast our cruise ship room was about 1/2 the size of the hotel room, included a balcony (actually a free upgrade), a king bed, an upper bunk and a single sofa bed. However for that cruise we shared the small room with our two kids. This hotel room definitely won out over the small ship’s cabin, but the views on the cruise ship were ever changing and equally or more spectacular.


Both a luxury resort like Hilton Hawaiian Villages and cruise ships like the Celebrity Infinity have comparable amenities like pools, water front/view bars, restaurants, shopping, spas, art work, and entertainment venues. While the Hilton Hawaiian villages is beachfront and expansive, and cruise ship is mobile and compacts. Each of those features has their own advantages and disadvantages so in terms of amenities, I’d have to say the two options are comparable.

Drink Prices

The prices for drinks at the Hilton Hawaiian Villages were pretty high. $8.00 for a beer, $10.00 for a wine by the glass, and $12.00 for a frozen or tropical drink. On our cruise ship the drink prices were actually very similar with beer at around $6.00 or $7.00, wine for $8.50 to $10.00, and fancy drinks for $8.00 to $10.00. However, the difference between buying a drink on a cruise ship verses buying a drink at a land based resort is that the land based resort doesn’t restrict you from buying your own alcohol at the store and bringing it onto the resort grounds. You probably would be prohibited, or discouraged from drinking your own alcohol in public areas, put those restrictions would never apply to your room. Most cruise lines have policies that prohibit or only allow a small amount (two bottles of wine) to be brought on board a ship. On a cruise ship, unless you buck the rules and smuggle alcohol onboard, you must pay their prices for the drinks. On land, though we most often spent our time enjoying the drinks and ambiance in the the resort’s beach front bar, we certainly had many more options. So for drink prices I would actually say that the cruise ship wins slightly because of their over all slightly lower drink prices. For those on a tight budget, the air and land vacation gives vacationers the option of purchasing their own alcohol at retail prices.


What can I say, food in Hawaii, especially at a resort, is expensive. Breakfast at a resort or beach front restaurant can be as much at $25 per person. However, there is always the option of walking off the resort and visiting a McDonald’s or an I-Hop. At McDonald’s, I was able to get breakfast for less than $5.00. For lunch there were many options, including fast food, local “Mom and Pop” restaurants, sandwich shops, or Hawaiian favorites. Off the resort, the prices might be the same or only about 10% to 20% more compared to what you would pay for the same meal at home. In the Waikiki beach area, there are places to grab a bite to eat in all prices ranges from resort to inexpensive. You just have to go off the resort properties for your less expensive eateries. The price for fine dining can vary, but generally the prices run about $50 to $80 per person for a fixed price pre-set menu, and can total well over $100 for 4 or 5 course a la cart. One option for those who wish to save money during their visit to Hawaii is staying at a place with a full kitchen and self catering. However, more than likely, you going to have an increase in the price of your accommodations price with the addition of a kitchen. By contrast, a cruise ship fare includes most if not all of your food. Dinner in a cruise ship dining room usually includes a choice of appetizer, soup, salad, entree and dessert. Even if you decide to splurge a bit an dine at one of your ship’s extra charge dining venues, then your price is more likely to be at a price $25 to $30 per person for food. Generally, if passengers enjoy fine, full service dining, the cruise is a better value for food than a land based Hawaiian vacation. However the option of budget dining or self catering might be attractive for a budget vacation.


Both cruise ships and Hawaiian hotels offer sight seeing excursions for their guests. Surprisingly their prices are pretty similar. For those on a tighter budget, whether on a cruise or on land, vacationers have the option of renting a car or even taking public transportation. When we took our cruise, we rented a car in three of our ports for less than $100 per day. That option provided the most flexibility and the best value at under $25 per person. For those on a super tight budget, Oahu offers a reliable and cheap public transportation in the form or “The Bus”. For just $2 passengers can take any route and get one transfer. I arrived in Honolulu on a separate flight from my husband and had about 6 hours to wait for his arrival. I actually took the circle island tour on the public bus. This trip took me all the way through the valley, out to the North shore, and then down the windward coast. I could have gotten off the bus and visited some of the quaint towns and dramatic beaches, but it was raining off and on and I didn’t want to bother dragging around my suitcase. However, there were other passengers who joined the bus for a return trip to Honolulu who had spent the day on the North shore for the cost of one bus fare, $2 for adults, $1 for students and seniors. The bus stops right near the cruise terminal, so a savvy cruiser could also utilize this transportation system for their visits to nearly any place on islands. Just keep in mind that this is budget, not luxury transportation. For more information on “The Bus”, you can visit the City and County of Honolulu Website.

Over All Value vs Tight budgeting

Cruise ships excel in providing a nearly all inclusive vacation at a much lower price than a land based vacation. A cruise might cost around $100-$150 per day per person. That price includes accommodations, meals, shows, transportation between ports, activities, and enrichment seminars. If you figure in another $100 per person per day for excursions, beverages, and tips. A total cruise price might be somewhere in the neighborhood of $200-$250 per person per day. A frugal cruiser who skips excursions and extra price beverages, and chooses a least expensive room category could cruise for under $120 per person per day. When you compare that to Hawaiian land based prices with comparable meals and entertainment your bills could easily add up to much more than a cruise. Accommodations: $200-$400 per night, $100-$200 per person per day. Resort Based Dining: $125 Per person per day. Entertainment: $43-75 for a production show in Honolulu. Excursions: $18-$100 per person per day depending on the type of activity. Beverages: $20 for Two drinks per person per day at a resort. You might not do an excursion every day or see a show every day, but for comparison purposes we’ll figure in either an excursion or a show per day and use the average price. For a comparable experience to the level of service, activities, accommodations and entertainment provided by a cruise ship, the land based Hawaiian vacation would probably cost about $350 per day per person. These figures also don’t include airfare, so if you could drive to San Diego or Los Angeles, you would need to apply another $400-500 per person to your land vacation to cover the cost of flying to the islands. The budget vacation possibility with the air/land Hawaiian vacation is that there are many less expensive options than a beach front Waikiki resort hotel. Visitors could keep their prices much lower than my figures with budget accommodations, self catering or budget meals, and self guided excursions utilizing an inexpensive rental car or even taking the islands public bus system. However that style of vacations doesn’t provide the luxury and value that most cruise ships provide.

In these tight economic times, many of us are still working hard and wanting that week or two off for a luxury vacation. However, we may now have a smaller vacation budgets. That may mean choosing a more basic vacation or looking at other different types of vacation experiences. For those who have always done land based luxury vacations, a cruise may offer more “bang for the buck.”