$11.20 to Fly to Hawaii and Other Vacation Hacks

Happy Aloha Friday, everyone!

Earlier this month my wife and I got back from a 10 day Hawaii trip, and I’m just sitting down to tally up all the travel expenses. This being a personal finance blog and all, I thought I’d share the numbers and costs.

It’s not like we’re extreme frugal travelers or anything, but we’re also not big spenders. We found a few ways to cut corners (free flights, avoided some tourist traps, stayed with friends a few nights) but spent heavily in other areas — intentionally. 😎

Here’s the summary of costs:

  • Flights: $22.40
  • VRBO hotel (7 days, including trip insurance): $1,615.60
  • Rental car (10 days): $356.87
  • Ubers (to/from airport): $149.70
  • Gas: $48.08
  • COVID tests: $400
  • Food/Booze (incl friends): $1,487.25

TOTAL: $4,079.90

Things we *didn’t* spend on:

  • Dog sitter for Cooper: $0
  • Time off work: $0
  • Shopping/souvenirs/excursions: $0
  • Parking in Waikiki: $0

Some Trip Highlights

It’s been ~5 years since we visited last, and almost 9 years since we lived in Hawaii. Most of our friends in HI have gotten married, had kids, bought houses, etc. so there was a lot of catching up to do. Here were some of the trip happenings:

  • We caught up with 21 friends over 10 days. (My wife has mad scheduling skills!) Dinners, BBQs, happy hours — we ate very few meals alone.
  • Went out to the sandbar in Kaneohe, snorkeling and paddleboarding.
  • Surfed the North Shore (a very humbling experience)
  • Sat poolside at the Elk’s club for an entire day drinking cocktails
  • Fishing at One’ula Beach (🐟 caught = 0, 🍺 drank = 7)
  • Poker night at friend’s house (only lost $7, not bad!)
  • Pho, ramen, udon noodles, spam musubi, the best poke on the island, etc… My wife is a huge foodie (if you want any food recommendations, drop questions in the comments and wife will respond! *hopefully)

COVID, Vaccines, and Travelling to Hawaii

Quick update (as of April 2021) on the COVID situation as I know many people are still freaked out to travel by plane. My wife and I each got our first vaccine shot in early March, so we were traveling half-vaccinated. I realize 1 shot doesn’t give you full immunity, but given the safety measures at airports and on airlines etc, we felt pretty safe to travel. We also called our friends on the island to get the local pulse on how COVID was being handled. The week we traveled Hawaii was averaging about ~53 new COVID cases per day in the entire state, so we felt OK traveling.

At the time we flew, the state of Hawaii was enforcing either a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all travelers, OR you could bypass quarantine if you could produce a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of your flight. This is why we paid $400 in COVID tests … Hawaii wouldn’t accept just any negative test, it had to come from one of their “trusted partners” — which turned out to be a real expensive pain in the ass to find. In Los Angeles there are only about 5 trusted testing partners, each with costs of $175-$300 PER rapid test — regardless of insurance.

As for social distancing, we flew out of Long Beach Airport which is mostly outdoors. Honolulu Airport was fairly empty. Our plane on the way there had 80 passengers out of 175 seats, so quite spacious. Plane on the way home we somehow scored Row 1 all to ourselves.

Pic taken from our plane window on the flight home right after takeoff!

Free Flights via Southwest ($22.40)

This is talked about a lot in the FIRE community, but for those that don’t know… Southwest Airlines offers some wicked credit card promotions that if combined correctly, let you earn a “companion pass” for a few calendar years. This means a selected partner can fly with you, for free, on any flights within a set time period.

In early 2019 I signed up for 2 credit cards (SW personal and SW business) and received the companion pass as well as 125,000 welcome SW points to cover flights. Our companion pass was supposed to expire last year, but Southwest extended this through 2021.

All in all, we paid $11.20 each for our flights, so $22.40 total. Crazy, isn’t it?

Couple other flying notes and savings:

  • We brought breakfast to the airport (and drank coffee before we left home in the morning) so this saved us from buying expensive convenience food/coffee.
  • My wife made salad and lunch wraps for the plane flight so we didn’t have to buy anything while flying and weren’t hungry when we landed.
  • Free movies, text messaging, etc. on Southwest and we packed all our headsets/cables/technology stuff so we wouldn’t have to buy anything.

These might seem small and obvious, but tiny airport costs really add up. Planning in advance can shave hundreds off your total trip cost.

VRBO & Crashing With Friends ($1,615)

Lodging is one area we were happy to splurge on. We were invited to stay with a handful of friends (for free), but part of this vacation plan was for me and my wife to spend time together just the two of us. We ended up staying 3 nights with friends on the North Shore and got a rental condo for 7 nights in town (Ilikai Hotel).

A peek inside the condo

Sunset from our balcony

Even though this place was expensive (worked out over ~$220 per night after fees/taxes), we found a few ways to save money:

    • Parking = $0. We always scoured and found free overnight parking at the Ala Wai Marina, right next to our hotel. This saved us a whopping $28 per night that our hotel charged.
    • Home cooking: We chose a VRBO with a big kitchen so we could make our own convenience foods and snacks. This saved us hundreds by preparing our own food.
    • BYO everywhere! Before checking into the hotel, we hit Walmart and bought about $300 of wine, champagne, hard seltzers and beer. Having our large hotel fridge stocked meant we had cold drinks to bring everywhere vs. buying at higher prices along the way.

Food and Booze ($1,487)

Approximately $600 of this was buying food and drinks for other people. My wife and I like to pick up the bar tab sometimes, buy drinks, and take friends out to say thank you. (Our friends also hosted us and treated for some meals, too!)

Half of the time we splurged — our most expensive dinner was $170 for 5 people at Moku Kitchen in Kaka’ako — and the other times we ate quite cheaply — homemade avocado toast or scrambled eggs for breakfast.

A cheap and delicious egg breakfast we made for probably under $5 of ingredients.

All in all, food is something we never regret spending money on while traveling. Especially meals with friends.

Coast FIRE and Blowing Our 2021 Travel Budget:

My wife and I budgeted about $10k for travel this year, and we’ve already blown about 5k of it on trips! Oops. 😬  And with a lot more travel planned this summer, it’s likely that we’ll go way past our anticipated amount.

But, this doesn’t concern us too much.

The beauty of Coast FIRE is that we no longer have to contribute to our investment accounts to grow our retirement nest egg. As long as we’re earning roughly the same amount we spend each year, our portfolio should naturally double in size every 10 years or so.

Even if we end up spending $2k, $3k, or even $10k over our travel budget this year, it only puts a small dent in our retirement timeline. We are prioritizing travel while we are young (and have no kids!) vs. trying to save as much as possible and retire early.

Do you have any “revenge travel” planned this year or next? Curious to hear if you think blowing $4k over 10 days in Hawaii is careless. What’s your average trip cost?

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  1. The Millennial Money Woman April 30, 2021 at 7:54 AM

    Aloha and Happy Friday Joel –

    You have no idea how much I enjoyed reading your article – I felt like I was in HI too for a brief moment too!

    That’s pretty sweet how you and your wife were able to save so much on your flights to HI… I know that Southwest is inexpensive, but I’m really surprised to see how those Southwest cards helped you save so much. Something I should check into as well.

    I’ve never visited HI but that’s a vacation spot on my checklist.

    By the way… I’m impressed to see how your wife scheduled so many appointments in such a relatively short period of time. That’s pretty awesome.

    A question for your wife – those 2 egg breakfasts (the picture you shared) look SO refreshing. Do you guys have a recipe?

    Have an awesome weekend!


    1. Wife! April 30, 2021 at 9:43 AM

      Hello Fiona!!

      I’m glad you liked the photos! I love food. And taking pictures of my food. Not sure why!

      That egg dish was a bunch of leftovers topped with avocado. I think I mixed the eggs with leftover spinach dip… sautéed veggies/cheddar cheese and done!
      Good luck :)

      1. Fiona April 30, 2021 at 7:55 PM

        Oh my goodness, that sounds so delicious!! Thank you so much for sharing your recipe :) When I read that your breakfast cost less than $5… AND it looked healthy, I knew I had to ask lol :)

        I appreciate it and have a lovely weekend!

  2. Sharon April 30, 2021 at 8:28 AM

    I spent 10k on a trip to NYC for my 60th birthday 2018. That was for 4 people. The one thing I did for myself on my 60th was spend $2450 for 1 ticket to see Bruce Springsteen on Broadway. My mom was going to take me; sadly she passed in May. So I took some of the money she had left me and took her brother, her best friend and my partner. It was money well spent and I am eternally grateful for the experience.

    1. Joel April 30, 2021 at 10:17 AM

      So cool Sharon! Trips like that are priceless :)

  3. Holly April 30, 2021 at 10:25 AM

    Thanks for the post. My husband, son, and I will be visiting Oahu and Maui in June (love travel hacking!). As foodies too, we’d appreciate your wife’s recommendations. Thanks

    1. Joel April 30, 2021 at 4:18 PM

      Woohoo! We’re not familiar with Maui, but Oahu eats we can recommend a few places :)

      If you’re driving around the island, there’s a local hawaiian food place called Keneke’s. They have 2 locations, both in the middle of nowhere (and kinda ghetto, so PLEASE be careful and mind your belongings and park your car in sight!). Little do most people know, Keneke’s also does event catering and they catered for our wedding! All our guests were raving bout the food and got to try all the local dishes.

      For Ramen – my wife’s fav is a place called Tenkaippin on Kapahulu. It’s probably 1-2 miles out of Waikiki so a little schlep if you’re on foot. Also on Kapahulu is the Rainbow Drive in which is one of the oldest restaurants and has a cool vibe and story. https://rainbowdrivein.com/story/

      For Japanese food there’s a sneaky place called Shirokiya. It’s closed now but might be open when you go there in June!! It’s actually a market/food court that’s located inside Ala Moana shopping center. Really fun vibe there, here’s the latest on that.. https://www.khon2.com/local-news/shirokiya-japan-village-walk-to-remain-closed-until-april/.

      For Poke, honestly I think Foodland makes the best poke that is available almost anywhere. But the hole in the wall place that we love is on the North Shore, inside the Kahuku Superette. From the outside it looks like a plain ol’ convenience or liquor store. But if you venture inside at the back you’ll see a seafood stand with what we think is the best Poke on the island. It’s expensive, like $17 a lb, but kind of fun and whatnot. I wouldn’t travel to the north shore just for that, but if you’re up there it could be cool. Ooooh actually Tamura’s has awesome poke too, and looks like they have locations on Maui and Oahu… https://www.tamurasmarket.com/locations/


  4. Tim April 30, 2021 at 10:48 AM

    I’d like more info on how you spent zero for dogsitting!

    1. Joel April 30, 2021 at 3:47 PM

      Hey Tim! A couple years back my wife and I helped dog sit for a friend when they went out of town. So for our trip, we called in a favor and had them watch Coops. Part of the deal was they could stay at our house while we were away, which was a nice break from their apartment after a year of COVID working in the same space!

      Another thing… A regular reader on my email list is a big TrustedHousesitter.com user and house/dog sits all over the world. Almmost a full time hobby actually. I believe she lives in South Africa and loves coming to the USA to watch people’s houses and pets. She pays for the flights I believe and basically stays at your house (for free) and uses it as a base to explore stuff. I’d be happy to set up an email introduction – shoot me an email if so. :)

  5. Ayaz Sayeed April 30, 2021 at 10:58 AM

    Thanks for documenting your trip and the planning behind so well for the rest of us! Really appreciate it.

    1. Joel April 30, 2021 at 3:52 PM

      No problemo. I’ve been getting questions via email about the best Luau on Oahu… Personally, I think the Polynesian Cultural center has the best luau and night performance. It’s a whole day/night event (and kinda expensive) but I think it’s definitely worth it and exposes you to a TON of interesting cultural stuff. Great family activity btw.

      There’s also a luau at Ko’olina also which my wife has been to. Again, it’s a whole day type of thing where many activities are included. Boats, games, etc. I think it’s called Paradise Cove Luau. You might want to research and check these are open due to covid! Again, it’s expensive, but, also worth it. :)

  6. Impersonal Finances May 1, 2021 at 2:51 AM

    Southwest Companion pass is really remarkable. I’ve considered working toward it myself–and I don’t even have a current companion. Unfortunately it does have to be the same person for the duration of the pass, so I can’t keep trying to impress different first dates with cross country flights.

    1. Joel May 1, 2021 at 12:02 PM

      Hey IF! Actually I think you can change your SW companion up to 3 times per year. So you could technically impress 3 lucky first dates!

  7. Success Triangles May 2, 2021 at 12:08 PM

    How did you get the rental car so cheap? I’ve been reading stories about how they have increased to $1,000 PER DAY in Hawaii and tourists are resorting to renting U-Haul trucks!


    Also, did you try Hula Pie at Duke’s or Kimo’s? It’s the best dessert in the history of mankind ;-)

    1. Joel May 2, 2021 at 1:18 PM

      I heard that also! When we picked up our car the rental guy dropped his jaw at our rate. Honestly we found it by accident. I google on Kayak.com for a rental car in Honolulu for 10 days, and that’s what came up first. It was a promo offer, had to book within 10 minutes of the listing.

      One trick we found… We scheduled the pick up and drop off at the Waikiki rental car location instead of the Honolulu Airport location. So it cost us an extra few bucks in Uber/Lyft to get from the airport to Waikiki to get the car, but the difference in price to pick up the car at the airport rental place was enormous. Even when we dropped the car back off I asked if I could drop it at the airport instead of waikiki… They said it would be a $200 added charge or something ridiculous.

      1. Success Triangles May 9, 2021 at 11:38 AM

        Great tip!

  8. Amanda Rufener May 2, 2021 at 11:42 PM

    After COVID.. this trip looks like it was worth every penny! Seems like you and the wife needed a few nights to splurge and a few nights to just hang with awesome friends! Also great you were able to manage free dog dog sitting and no need for souvenirs (though, I hear some kids in your area are obsessed with Maui’s Fish Hook!). The fact that you only had to pay $20 for the full flight is reason enough to make everything else work in your favor!

    1. Joel May 5, 2021 at 1:37 PM

      We have VERY kind friends for dog sitting :). Thank you Amanda :)

  9. GELVOS May 4, 2021 at 12:59 PM


    After COVIDit is very important to take care of our self especially our mind. Great trip and I would say worth the fight costs of $11.20 to Hawaii.

    I hope I can travel very soon after I got my second vaccine :-)