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Updated January 14, 2019
The tradition of cruising in Hawaii started in the early 1900s when Matson, Inc., a freight company that shipped sugar from the islands, got into the passenger cruise line business. When tourists expressed interest in visiting, the company's founder, William Matson, opened up several of his ships for passenger travel.
Today, cruising around Hawaii affords you the luxury of seeing many islands on the same trip, without having to unpack your bags or pay extra for meals (as long as you eat onboard at free restaurants). Are you considering a cruise to Hawaii? If so, we've listed a few things you may not know.
1. Most cruise lines don't offer roundtrip Hawaii sailings.
If you want to fly to Hawaii, then catch a cruise ship 'round the islands, your only options are Norwegian's Pride of America, which sails year-round from Honolulu, or expedition line Un-Cruise Adventures' seasonal sailings. This is because foreign-flagged cruise ships sailing between U.S. destinations need to include a foreign port in their itineraries to comply with passenger shipping laws.
Other cruise lines that offer Hawaii sailings must sail round trip from California or Vancouver, spending more time at sea than in the islands, or offer one-way sailings between Vancouver and Honolulu.
2. Gambling is illegal.
Gambling of any kind -- including lotteries, horse races, bingo for money and sports betting -- is strictly prohibited in the state of Hawaii. This means that if you are on a cruise to the islands, going to the onboard casino will not be an option, as it will be closed. (Norwegian's Hawaii-based Pride of America doesn't even have one.)
This can come as a surprise to cruisers used to vacationing in the places like the Caribbean and Mediterranean where a visit to the ship's casino is sometimes a daily occurrence. Note that some cruise ships will have bingo onboard, but prizes will not be attached to a monetary value.
3. Expect a laid-back crowd.
Perhaps because Hawaii is a far (and expensive) flight for most people or that it is known less as a place to party and more as a luxury destination, the people who take Hawaiian cruises are not a wild party bunch. Norwegian's passengers tend to average in their mid 40s/early 50s, and families make up a large contingent, especially in the summer.
The two-week, round trip cruises from the West Coast cater to an even older crowd. So unlike many voyages to the Caribbean islands, you won't find a wild spring break crew on a Hawaiian cruise. This is great news for those looking for a laid-back experience.
4. Renting a car in port is easy.
For those who don't want to participate in a cruise-organized shore excursion, renting a car in port is a terrific way to go -- and easier than you might think. Hawaiian cruise ports don't look anything like those in Caribbean destinations: You won't find vendors immediately off the gangway and (with the exception of Kona) cute little villages won't be waiting for you immediately upon disembarkation.
Instead, you need to drive to get to points of interest, either by taking a cruise ship-sponsored or independent tour or by renting your own car. Several rental car companies offer free shuttles to retrieve cars in most ports; make your reservations in advance for the least hassle.
If you are going out on your own, be sure to ask for a map and create a game plan (will you go to the beach, golfing, shopping or to a museum?) with your group before you step off the ship. Also, be sure you know what the parking situation is in ports where you have an overnight stay and need to park the car overnight; most ports do not have onsite parking, and you will likely need to pay to park at a nearby lot.
Finally, always remember to take valuables with you when parking at beaches or tourist attractions to avoid break-ins.
5. Luggage storage is available at multiple Honolulu locations.
Honolulu is a common embarkation/debarkation port for round-Hawaii cruises. Don't let your luggage keep you from doing a few hours of sightseeing before or after your flight; there are several places to store your bags if you can't simply leave them at your hotel.
The Baggage Storage outpost at Honolulu International Airport will store your bags for $12 to $20 per day (depending on the size of the bags). It's about a mile away from the cruise port.
Pearl Harbor Visitor Center also has baggage storage; look for it near the entrance of the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum. As you approach the center, look to your right for a small shed. Purses or bags of any kind are not allowed on the USS Arizona Memorial and other historical attractions on the property, so this luggage storage services all visitors. You can store your suitcase (up to 50 pounds) and other bags for $3 per bag while you look around.
In addition, the cruise port that most Hawaii ships use allows passengers to store their bags onsite in the morning and pick up in the afternoon.
6. Weather isn't always postcard-perfect.
We know you know that it rains in Hawaii; after all, you can't get that lush green look and the nickname of the Rainbow State without some decent precipitation. But it's worth repeating that even in postcard-perfect Hawaii, weather can get in the way of your plans.
Rain and clouds can obscure your view during your scenic cruise along the Napali Coast or sunrise/sunset trek up Haleakala on Maui. It doesn't always rain all day, so you should take advantage of sunny hours to hit the beach or move outdoor plans a few hours later if you wake up to showers.
Also, water sports and boat fans should be aware that sea conditions can impact water-based activities; for example, the waters around Kauai get rough during the winter months, making snorkeling difficult (or dangerous) and causing cancellations of scenic cruises. In addition, it's not always hot in the islands, and if you trek above sea level (up Haleakala on Maui or Mauna Kea on Hawaii, for example), the temperature can drop substantially, necessitating warm clothing.