There are many places in the world you can travel without needing a rental car to get you around. In some of these places, you can easily hop into a nearby rickshaw, tuk-tuk, jeepney, tram, or light-rail to bring you to your destination. However, the Big Island is not one of these places. Public transportation is not widespread, and taxis and Uber are expensive compared to the price of renting a car.
If you are planning to see the sites of the island, a rental car is a must! The Big Island is really a BIG island, and takes around 5 hours to drive around the island, and different attraction sites can be at a far distance from one another.
So, what kind of rental car is the best? Should you rent a 4×4?
The short answer is no. You can get by just fine with a regular economy car. A 4×4 would allow you to drive down to Green Sand Beach, Wai’pio valley, and the top of Mauna Kea, however, most rental car companies do not allow their cars to be taken on these roads, and if you get caught, can get fined heavily. You can park at the head of the trail to Green Sand Beach and hike in to the beach (around 2 miles). You can book a sunset or sunrise tour to visit the top of Mauna Kea (15k feet!). You can also hike down into Wai’pio Valley. However, 4×4’s are convenient for driving down to beaches and into little dirt road pullouts along the shore.
One thing to consider, for the more adventurous, is the possibility of renting a van and then camping out of it instead of staying in a hotel room. There are plenty of spots to car camp on the Big Island and you can shower and use the facilities at beach park restrooms. CarinHawaii.com and Rainbowcarrentals.com can rent out camping gear along with a van rental.