One has three alternatives. The most obvious choice is a hotel. A very popular choice is renting a vacation home. Lastly, a much less popular choice is a bed and breakfast. The reasons for choosing each will be detailed below.
Hilo is small. I only takes 10 minutes to drive from one side to the other. Therefore, the location isn’t important except if you are spending time at the facility enjoying the grounds and area around the facility.
Hilo is old. This is the charm of the town. If you are looking for a “resort” level of hotel, they don’t exist. A common word in hotel reviews is “dated.” No hotel has anything more than a modest pool.
Hilo is wet and humid. This is what makes it so beautiful, but it is also what can make a room “musty” smelling. Towels and bedding must be washed in bleach and thoroughly dried. If left unused too long the smell tends to come back. It isn’t unhealthy, but most people are sensitive to even a small amount of moldy smell.
Choosing between a Hotel, House or B&B
It’s funny how people are fine spending between $600 and $1,200 per person to fly to Hawaii, $400 for a rental car for a week and then try to save $50/night getting the cheapest hotel/house. You get what you pay for. You will forget about the additional $500 you paid, but you will always remember a magical location you want to come back to one day.
Hotel – Short stays. Small groups. Place to sleep only. Houses charge a cleaning fee regardless of how long you stay. It costs much more to clean a house than a hotel room. Cleaning fees range from $50 to $200. If the stay is only a day or two, a house gets expensive when that fee is averaged over a very short stay. A hotel is great for a party of 2. If you find a large hotel room with 2 queen beds, you can get 4, although there is no privacy. Hotels have A/C, homes do not. This is because a hotel doesn’t have enough windows to keep a room cool with just fresh air. Still, if your health requires A/C a hotel is a plus. Hotels are fine for a couple of days, but not so fine for a week. Longer stays require laundry facilities and the desire to cook basic meals. Neither easily done at a hotel.
House – If you are more than a couple, you will appreciate the privacy of a house. You won’t need to share a bedroom with 3 other family members. Staying a few days? Get groceries at Walmart or Safeway and BBQ outside near the water. Look for a house you want to relax at. It doesn’t cost much more to be on or near the ocean. If you go in the ocean and want to dry your clothes, you will have a dryer at hand. Get a house where the yard is cut back. Otherwise mosquitoes will be a big problem. Houses allow you to enjoy the waves of the ocean. Sounds odd, but Hotels are in the bay, behind the breaker wall. If you came to Hawaii to enjoy the ocean, the bay location doesn’t offer that. VRBO is by far the largest booking site for homes. They are owned by Homeaway and the home listings are generally identical.
Bed and Breakfast – The only reason to book a Bed & Breakfast is if you like to meet new people. They otherwise have the drawbacks of both of the above. There is little privacy, thin walls, shared bathrooms and no kitchen or laundry. With Hilo hotels and rental homes offered in great locations, Bed & Breakfasts are not popular.
There are 5 “major” hotels and another few “minor” hotels. The difference being the size of the facility and number of rooms. Below is an overview in order of how nice they are. This is my opinion based on my visits, guests I have spoken with and online reviews. The major hotels are all located on or around Banyan Drive. This area is at the center of Hilo Bay, on the water. Nice area very close to Liliuokalani Park & Gardens and Coconut Island.
- Hilo Hawaiian. The only hotel I would recommend that is more “nice hotel” than motor lodge. It is the largest hotel, with a large lobby, decent pool area and great location. In addition, the height will give you nice views is you go above the 3rd The design is dated, but not horribly so. 71 Banyan Drive, Hilo. $157 to $220.
- Hilo Seaside. Again, aside from the Hilo Hawaiian, these hotels resemble motor lodges. You arrive late, sleep and leave early. Guests who like these hotels tend to just want a place to drop for the night. The Seaside offers clean rooms, great customer service, a nice view of the bay in front and walking close to The Coconut Grill and Ponds (my favorite). They charge for Wifi, which is a sin. 126 Banyan Drive, Hilo. $105 to $135.
- Hilo Naniloa. A large hotel that is under remodel. Currently it has a very modest looking, just short of an abandoned look. Don’t expect much. Don’t expect to a facility you will want to spend time at. As with the others, the location is good. Free wifi. 93 Banyan Drive. $140 to $300 for suite.
- Uncle Billy’s Hilo Bay. The most dated and tired of the motor lodge group. Tripadvisor offers many entertaining reviews. As with all the above, the location on the bay is great. Just don’t expect more than a room with a bed. You save a little money and the wifi is free. 87 Banyan Drive, Hilo. $99 to $150.
- Dolphin Bay. With only 18 rooms it qualifies as a small hotel. Unlike a hotel, there is no A/C, pool or restaurant, but the rooms have kitchenettes. This resembles a vacation home rental with a hotel look. The hotel is above town a few minutes so. Not on the water. The reviews are consistently positive. A great combination unless it is hot as it won’t ventilate as a house. Managed by owners who are available to assist guests. 333 Iliani St., Hilo. $129 to $229.
- Arnott’s Lodge. On South Hilo bay but not on the water. A hodge podge of different sized rooms just out of town. Clearly for the rustic, youth hostel type traveler. Not an attractive area. Read reviews on Tripadvisor to make sure you are the right traveler.
Vacation Home Rentals
Why are vacation homes so popular in Hilo? Just scan over the poor quality of the hotels, above. An example of how popular homes are can be illustrated by how often Hawaiian residents book them. About 20% of our bookings come from Hawaiian residents. They are familiar with the hotels and avoid them. They also don’t like staying right in town. Because every house is different and there are so many, it is pointless to review them individually. Instead I will provide pointers in choosing one and describe areas they reside in.
Point 1. Ocean view vs. On ocean vs. Ocean access. Many homes offer some type of ocean view. A distant ocean view isn’t worth much. It is important to know that less than 1% of this side of the island has ocean access. If it is isn’t designated a “Park” it doesn’t have ocean access. The areas around Hilo Bay at Banyan Drive have access, but it is a bay. It is more like a lake than an ocean. There are two parks on South Hilo with safe ocean access: Onekahakaha Beach Park and Richardson’s Beach Park. That’s it! Don’t be mislead by pictures on web sites showing their own ocean access. These are WAY outside of Hilo (40 minutes without traffic). Of the two beach parks, Onekahakaha is great for very small children because it is sandy and protected from waves. Richardson’s Beach Park is a must see destination and one of 6 stops on the Hop on Hop off bus.
Point 2. Location near Hilo. Ninety percent of the popular destinations are in Hilo or close to Hilo. All the nice restaurants and the major shopping is in Hilo. Downtown Hilo has a certain charm, as an older historic non-tourist town. It is where locals live and work. Vacation rentals in town are not popular. You will want a car for everything. It is not a walking town. Get a home a few minutes out of town in a location that allows you to enjoy beautiful Hawaii without getting in a car. They are popular and just a little more money. VRBO and other sites have a “location” tab on their site. Use it! As mentioned in point 1 and again in point 3, it is easy to get mislead and book a house in the middle of nowhere – with a lagoon in front.
Point 3. Hilo, Puna, Kapoho locations. There are very few homes North of Hilo. For good reason. The cliffs are tall giving the homes only a distant ocean view and there is little to do there. The road to the Volcano (Highway 11) is on the South side of Hilo, along with many destinations. The advantages are staying in Hilo but outside of downtown are described above in Point 2. Just South of Hilo is an area called Puna. It is a local residential community. Although it looks very close to Hilo on a map it requires going Highway 11 for about 7 miles and across on Highway XXX about another 7 miles. It is about a 20 minute drive depending on the location of the house maybe 25 minutes if the house is on the water. It is a popular location for those wanting a private, quiet location but still Hilo close. Many homes are on the water. Great views of crashing waves in front of your homes. No water access. You will save money renting great homes just out of town here. Because highway 130 meets up with Highway 11, it is just as close to Volcano National Park and other destinations ( Zoo, Mauna Loa Nut factory) as Hilo. The next popular location are the homes in Kapoho. These homes are between 45 and 55 minutes from Hilo, further South on Highway 130. They are only recommended for the traveler who wants to spend quiet time rarely leaving the house. Their remote location makes them a very poor choice for those wanting to tour this side of the island. Stay near Hilo and take your car to Richardson’s Beach Park for better snorkeling, public bathrooms and store conveniences.
Point 4. Money. For a party of 4 the Hilo Hawaiian will cost about $200/day while my Paradise Park homes will cost $235/day plus cleaning. My homes across from Richardson’s Beach Park will cost $350/$400 a day. The economics get better for houses with parties above 4 as more then one hotel room will be required. Renting a vacation house for a week brings the cost down to $225 and $315 plus cleaning. Not cheap, but there is no better location on this side of the Island.
Bed and Breakfasts
These can be found by using Google to search out a handful of sites that offer them. I will admit that I am biased against them. Hilo does not have grand, historic homes that have been converted. These are regular homes, cut up to make several rentals. Run by owners that take regular homes and convert them. The ownership is not driven by a love for historic buildings, just a bored homeowner with a way to make side income. I only know of one rental personally. It is in a nice location, but managed by a very nutty owner. As mentioned above, there is no kitchen, laundry, A/C, privacy or cost savings.