25 Mistakes Tourists Make While Visiting Hawaii

It’s obvious why Hawaii is a popular tourist destination. The islands boast a variety of spectacular natural landscapes, a rich cultural history, delicious food and countless opportunities for adventure.

While locals welcome tourists from around the world with open arms, they’ve also observed visitors making a few mistakes during their stays. We asked people who live on the islands to share some of these faux pas.

Locals have noticed many visitors to Hawaii making the same mistakes. 

From touching wildlife to ignoring road etiquette, here are 25 mistakes tourists often make while visiting Hawaii ― and some advice for avoiding these errors during your travels.

1. Touching Wildlife

“Do not touch sea turtles, monk seals and other wild animals living in Hawaii. Unfortunately, I can’t repeat this one enough because people keep doing it. Both of these beautiful creatures are on the endangered and threatened species lists, making it a federal offense to touch or harass them. Getting that close-up selfie is also a big no-no. People have been heavily fined, featured on the local news and even hunted and harassed on social media. Many local families consider the honu (Hawaiian green sea turtle) to be their ʻaumākua ― a family god or ancestor — and disturbing them is disrespectful and taboo.” ― Amy Fujimoto, blogger at Aloha With Love

2. Wearing Reef-Unfriendly Sunscreen

“Staying protected against the sun’s harmful UV rays is a challenge for anyone. One thing you won’t see locals doing is applying spray sunscreen that drifts off into the wind, barely covering the skin appropriately. If you want to be protected, long sleeves, hats and sunglasses all do fine in the waterproof category. Be aware that some sunscreens have coral reef-destroying chemicals (oxybenzone & octinoxate). Avoid aerosols, and consider products that include mineral sunblocks with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.” ― Maryrose and Reid Hicks, bloggers at Wanderlustyle

3. Saying ‘Hawaiian Shirts’

“Don’t call tropical print shirts in Hawaii ‘Hawaiian Shirts.’ They’re called ‘Aloha Shirts’ and are very common to see people wearing, even professionally.” ― Julie Estrella, blogger at Aloha Lovely

4. Taking Lava Rocks And Sand Home

“If you visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, know that taking the lava rocks, black sand or any natural resource out of the park is a federal offense. Many people also believe that taking the rocks and sand is stealing from Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, and any misfortune you experience is your punishment from her. This may or may not be true depending on who you ask, but every year more than a thousand rocks, bags of sand and even seashells are mailed back to the national park, post offices, universities and even Hawaiian Airlines with letters of apologies.” ― Fujimoto

5. Hiking Unprepared

“One common mistake I’ve noticed is when tourists hear about hikes that are off the beaten path and decide to try to find it and hike it without local knowledge or a local friend. They don’t know where to park, where to start the hike, what the inherent dangers are on the hike, etc. This can prove dangerous, as many of the hikes in Hawaii are not easy and tourists who are not experienced can quickly find themselves in trouble if they do a hike beyond their skill level. My suggestion is to always do your homework before any hike, especially if you aren’t going with someone who knows the area or has done that exact hike before.” ― Jimmy Wilkinson, photographer at OpticalHi

Tourists shouldn't hike off the beaten path without taking the proper precautions. 

Tourists shouldn’t hike off the beaten path without taking the proper precautions. 

6. Not Monitoring The Water

“There are several inherent dangers related to the ocean that tourists often are completely unaware of. One of those is that though the water looks calm and inviting, large swells can sometimes be several minutes or even longer between breaking, which means someone who jumps into a seemingly calm ocean can find themselves in serious trouble if they entered in between the swells. My suggestion: Always spend at least 15-20 minutes simply watching the ocean to see if and where any waves may be breaking before swimming or exploring the exposed rocks close to the water. ― Wilkinson

“Probably the best advice I could give to tourists is that seasons matter here in Hawaii. Everyone thinks we get summer weather all year round. That may be the case as far as temperatures go but what most don’t know is that the ocean changes drastically during winter and summer seasons. Don’t be afraid to talk to lifeguards. They know the ocean better than anyone and usually give good advice on where not to swim. I encourage all visitors to visit this website for more information about ocean safety in Hawaii.” ― Chad Koga, photographer at Chad Koga Photography

7. Doing It ‘For The Gram’

“No geo-tagging ― especially if you have the benefit of being taken to special places with a local. It is disrespectful, and doing it for the ‘gram’ is frowned upon.” ― Juice Aguirre, founder of Juice Productions Hawaii

“Too many times we see visitors trekking along dangerous (or illegal) trails just to get the Instagram post they’ve seen on social media. Or they snap the pic and leave — without even enjoying just being there. While social media is great at sharing travel experiences, posting to it shouldn’t be your travel goal.” ― Catherine Toth Fox, blogger at The Cat Dish

8. Being Rude On The Road

“Whether you’ve just landed or are still enjoying your vacation, driving in Hawaii comes with a little extra responsibility. Too often we forget that aloha extends to the mahalos we give one another, especially in tight situations such as when cars wait until the last minute to merge and a fellow driver lets them in. So many times, I’ve experienced the lack of thankfulness from drivers I’ve rescued in a bind. Give a wave, or better yet, throw a shaka out the window. There’s a lot of traffic these days and a shaka can go a long way!” ― Nainoa Ciotti, photographer at ThreeIfBySea

9. Turning Your Back On The Ocean

“I’m not quite sure who coined the phrase, ‘Never turn your back on the ocean,’ but it is one of the biggest mistakes that I see tourists make. At a young age, this phrase was ingrained in my brothers and I for two important reasons. The ocean is a great place to swim, surf, dive and play, but it can also be very dangerous, especially for the inexperienced. Most people are cautious in the water, but forget that mindset when they are dry and on the sand. I remember when I was a city and county lifeguard, we would have to rescue countless people who got swept out by waves crashing on the shore. ‘Never turn your back on the ocean’ also serves as a gentle reminder for us to always show our respect for the ocean and everything that calls it home.” ― Ciotti

10. Not Trying Local Foods

“Do not leave Hawaii without trying Kona coffee, shave ice, poke, spam, or malasadas. I know all those sound cliche for Hawaii, but you cannot get a better product or experience outside of Hawaii. For shave ice I love Waiola or Uncle Clay’s on Oahu. Kona coffee can be found everywhere but I highly recommend a peaberry. Malasadas have to be from Leonard’s, and I usually get my spam meals from McDonald’s, where it’s on their local menu, or 711. For poke you can’t go wrong with Ono Seafood or Maguro Brothers!” ― Vince Lim, photographer at Vince Lim Photo

This lunch plate includes Kalua pork and pork lau lau with lomi lomi salmon, loco moco with brown rice and spam musubi.

This lunch plate includes Kalua pork and pork lau lau with lomi lomi salmon, loco moco with brown rice and spam musubi.

11. Making Yourself Vulnerable To Theft

“When you do go on a hike, do not leave valuables in your vehicle!” ― Wilkinson

12. Off-Roading At Sandy Beaches

“Don’t take your rental convertible Mustang off-roading ON A sandy beach. I see so many of them stuck in the sand.” ― Nova Rizzo, blogger at The 96815

13. Entering Someone’s Home With Shoes On

“’Ohana is a big part of what makes Hawaii so special. In some way or another, on top of our immediate ’ohana, we’ve created an extended family within our communities, within our workplaces and with our friends. We are quick to extend our aloha and invite a fellow neighbor or friend in, to talk story over some drinks and pupus, even if we’ve just met. With that being said, a big no-no we see non-locals make is walking into someone else’s house with their slippers on. As a word of advice, when someone invites you over for a pā’ina, ‘Leave your slippers at the door,’ and don’t take better ones when you leave. We don’t want you to spend time at your first party wiping up the sand and dirt you tracked into the house.” ― Ciotti

14. Trashing The Islands

“Respect the Aina: Above all, take care of the islands as you would your own home. Just like the Earth, Hawaii is a fragile ecosystem. Its pristine beauty can only be enjoyed by future generations if we consistently strive to care and respect it. Pick up after yourselves, leave no ‘footprint.’ No littering. Using refillable canisters are a MORE reliable alternative than a one-time-use plastic water bottle.” ― Hicks

15. Not Learning The History

“The biggest mistake tourists make when visiting Hawaii is not reading up on the history of Hawaii before they arrive. How Hawaii became a state is both a fascinating and tragic story.” ― Takara Swoopes Bullock, blogger at Fun Little Ohana

16. Walking Everywhere In the Ocean, Including On Coral Reef

“Besides the damage to any coral under your feet, creatures that feel threatened by an unknowing tourist foot can attack. In my experience, moray eels sometimes like to hang out in holes in tide pools that are at least waist deep in water. Watch your step because you do not want to get bitten by one. Pokey sea urchins will also ruin your vacation by giving you a limp for the rest of your stay.” ― Fujimoto

17. Ignoring Signs

“This means signs that say, ‘No Parking,’ ‘Do Not Trespass,’ ‘Dangerous Current,’ ‘Warning: Jellyfish.’ These signs are meant to keep you safe and respectful. Locals heed them — and visitors should, too.” ― Fox

18. Failing To Learn Surf Etiquette

“Some people learn quickly, but for the majority I would recommend investing in a lesson not just to learn the basics, but also the proper etiquette. There are rules when catching waves and it’s very possible you’ll get told off if you take a wave that you shouldn’t have. For safety reasons, be a good swimmer and know that there’s a chance your board can get carried away and you’ll have to swim for it.” ― Fujimoto

There are many rules when it comes to surf etiquette. 

There are many rules when it comes to surf etiquette. 

19. Standing Where The Rocks Are Wet

“Here’s some good advice from my dad: Wet rocks mean the big waves are reaching those spots. Don’t stand on the wet rocks and don’t turn your back on the ocean. I constantly hear on the news about tourists getting swept out to sea. There have been plenty of near-drownings, drownings and deaths of all ages from children to healthy adults.” ― Fujimoto

20. Not Scheduling Downtime

“I get it ― visiting Hawaii is exciting and tourists want to see ‘everything’ they can, so they jam-pack their schedules of things to do. I think it is a mistake to overbook (or fill your schedule with so many activities) because they go back home feeling tired and needing another vacation. Part of the Hawaiian culture is being laid-back and enjoying the Aina (the land). Tourists should ‘experience’ that being laid-back when they visit Hawaii. Spending time at the beach can be a ‘downtime,’ as long as you are not hopping from one beach to another.” ― Liza Pierce, blogger at A Maui Blog

21. Planning To Eat Or Shop Late At Night

“On the smaller neighbor islands, keep in mind that local restaurants and shops may close down early. It’s safer to plan afternoon shopping excursions and early dinners. Check their opening hours in advance especially on Sundays. Also, don’t be surprised if you can’t find anything open on a late Sunday afternoon in the airports. We like to dig out a little early to enjoy the rest of our weekend.” ― Fujimoto

22. Visiting During Jellyfish Season

“The Portuguese man o’ war and box jellyfish swarm into certain Hawaii shores every month depending on the wind, tide and moon. Although it only happens if conditions are right, it’s something to consider when planning your trip to paradise. I hardly pay attention to it now as I’ll either chance it or just hang out on the sand if it’s really bad, but if you know you’ll have a bad reaction, plan your beach days to avoid the jellies. Jellyfish show up roughly eight days after the full moon and hang around for three to five days.” ― Fujimoto

23. Thinking Everyone Who Lives In Hawaii Is Hawaiian

“Hawaii is not like Texas or California, where you can add an ‘an’ at the end of the state name to describe people who live in the Islands. Hawaiian relates to the indigenous people of Hawaii. You can be native Hawaiian by ethnicity and never live in Hawaii. That said, people who have lived in the Islands for generations but do not possess any actual Hawaiian blood are not Hawaiian. They’re kamaʻāina, or local.” ― Fox

24. Choosing The Wrong Location

“When planning on where to stay on Oahu, definitely decide if you want convenience or if you want to be off the grid. Most people stay in Waikiki which is central to just about everything, and is why all the hotels are located here. There are also beautiful places to stay on the north and west sides of the island but the commute to Honolulu, where most restaurants, bars and malls are can be challenging. Traffic on Oahu can be just as bad as the 405 in LA during rush hour. Even though the island is small, there are only a few major highways so plan your commute accordingly. If you are driving out of Honolulu to either the north shore or west side, leave before 3 p.m. to avoid traffic. If you are commuting to Honolulu in the morning, leave before 6 a.m.” ― Lim

25. Cramming In Too Many Islands At Once

“Some people will create a busy itinerary and cram too many islands into one trip, limiting their time on each island. Getting to know an island intimately takes time. Each island has a different history, a variety of habitats and even a unique local culture that you’ll want to get to know. I recommend spending at the very least four days on Oahu, the Big Island, Maui and Kauai.” ― Fujimoto

Quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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