Big Island Trip Report: Sights, Beaches, Hilton Waikoloa, and I did it for Almost Free

Hilton Waikoloa Sunset

My wife, kids, and I spent a week on the Big Island of Hawaii the week before Christmas. It was a great trip.  It was wonderful to get away from this wet weather here in Portland and enjoy sunny skies and warm weather.  For this trip report I am going to break things up into three sections; sights/beaches, our hotel, and how we did this for nearly free. Personally, I hate reading long trip reports so I will try to be succinct, or just post lots of pictures.

Sights and Beaches

The Big Island is filled with lots of amazing sights.  We didn’t even scratch the surface of all the things to see and do.  Big things that we missed were hikes, Keck Observatory, and long drives exploring the island.

Hapuna Beach

Hapuna is a world class beach.  We only spent one morning here because the shore break was a little too big for me to feel comfortable having the kids playing too close to the surf. The boogie boarding was great.  I wish we could have spent more time at this beach. Sans kids I would have spent all day here relaxing and playing in the surf.

Hapuna Beach1

Hapuna Beach

Hapuna Beach

Hapuna Beach

Hapuna Beach Surf

Hapuna Beach

Mauna Kea Beach

We spent more time at this beach than any other.  It is a spectacular beach.  The building in the picture below is the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.  Which by the way is a Marriott property for those paying attention with Marriott points to burn.  Public parking for the beach is managed by the hotel and there are only 40 public parking spaces.  The downside is you need to get to the beach early to get a parking spot.  If the parking lot is full you have to park a mile down the road at Hapuna and walk.  The upside is that the numbers at the beach stay low so you have a lot of room to yourself.

Mauna Kea Beach

Mauna Kea Beach

Magic Sands Beach

This beach is in Kailua-Kona and is called Magic Sands because the beach virtually disappears during the winter and “magically” reappears in the summer.  From the surf you can see why the sand disappears.

Magic Sands Beach Winter

Magic Sands

Magic Sands Beach Surf

Boogie Boarder at Magic Sands

Spencer Beach

We stopped here on our drive back from the North Kohala coast to watch the sunset. This is also a great beach for kids.

Spencer Beach Sunset

Spencer Beach Sunset

Pololu Valley Lookout

On the North Kohala Coast the road ends at this lookout.  There is a trail that you can hike down to the beach, which we skipped.  On the drive to this beach make sure to stop in the village of Hawi.  There is amazing ice cream at Tropical Dreams and even more amazing fudge next door at the Kohala Coffee Mill.

Pololu Valley Lookout

Pololu Valley Lookout


Volcanoes National Park was incredible.  We all had a blast exploring various parts of the park.  The boys loved the Thurston Lava Tube.   Highlights for me were the Hilina Pali lookout, which had an incredible view of the island, and Kilauea crater glowing after sunset.

Thurston Lava Tube

Thurston Lava Tube

Kilauea Iki Crater

Kilauea Iki

Hilina Pali Lookout

Hilina Pali Lookout

Devastation Trial Forest

Devastation Trail

Devastation Trail1

Devastation Trail

End of Chain of Craters Road

Old Lava Flows meet Ocean

Big Island Old Lava Flows

Lava Flows Scar Hillside

Kilauea Crater

Kilauea Crater Glowing

Hilton Waikoloa Village

The Hilton Waikoloa is huge, there are three different hotel towers, a 4 acre lagoon, and pools galore.  I saw a sign that said the maximum pool occupancy is 2200 people and that was just for the pool by our tower.  The property is so large there is a boat and a tram to take you between the three hotel towers, the convention center, and the lobby.  Which are all in separate buildings.

The tower furthest from the lobby is the Ocean Tower it is the circular shaped building in the map below.  I think most people are booked into this tower.  It is a 20 minute walk from the lobby to the Ocean Tower.  We lucked out because I managed to get us upgraded into the Lagoon Tower, which is the building on the opposite side of the bay from the Ocean Tower.

So instead of a 20 minute walk to our room we had a 3 minute walk.  We were also upgraded into a one bedroom suite.  That made a world of difference for us as well with the 2 little guys.

Hilton Waikoloa One Bedroom Suite Bedroom Hilton Waikoloa One Bedroom Suite Living Room

The grounds, the hotel room, the pools, the lagoon, the dolphins, and the entire atmosphere were all fantastic.

Hilton Waikoloa View of Ocean Tower

Hilton Waikoloa View From Lagoon Hilton Waikoloa Lagoon2 Hilton Waikoloa Dolphin Lagoon

Hilton Waikoloa Kona Pool1 Hilton Waikoloa Kona Pool

While I enjoyed these things immensely I would not reccomend this hotel unless you can guarantee a stay in the Lagoon Tower.  Which if you are booking on points like I did, is not something you can guarantee, we just lucked out big time.  Why would I not recommend this hotel?

Well, I’ve never been nickel and dimed so much by a hotel in my life.  It was unbelievable. For instance, I needed a knife to cut a pineapple, so I called room service.  They told me it would be a $12 charge just to bring me a knife!  There is a $25 per day resort charge plus $25 per day parking fee ($30 per day for valet) The restaurants are all insanely overpriced and the food ranges from bad to average at best.  The breakfast buffet is $30 per adult and barely a step up from the free breakfast at a Staybridge Suites.

Also if you are staying in the Ocean Tower make sure you have everything before leaving your room and going to your car.  If you self park it is 20-25 minutes to your car, if you forget something….

There are some definite pluses about the Hilton Waikoloa.  Mainly, that it is a wonderful place for kids.  Both my boys enjoyed the lagoon and we spent almost every afternoon there.  I was fortunate to be upgraded into the Lagoon Tower.  If I was in the Ocean Tower I think our experience would have been much different and since I can’t guarantee that result I would probably opt for another location next time.  Still, it was a wonderful place and if you are paying the premium for the Lagoon Tower I think you will enjoy your stay as much as we did.

Booking This Trip on Miles and Points

We stayed 7 nights on the Big Island and our total out of pocket expenses were about $300.  When I booked this trip I set out with the goal of a $0 vacation including all expenses.  I thought it would make for a fun experiment.  In the end we spent about $300 of our own money for the entire trip, including all expenses.  We did all this with credit card signup bonus.


Airfare was covered with one credit card.  A couple years back the British Airways Visa had a 100,000 mile sign up bonus.  This was good for 4 round trip tickets to Hawaii on Alaska Airlines.  The taxes and fees came out to $20.


I signed up for 4 Hilton credit cards over the course of a year that netted me 210,000 Hilton points.  With meeting the minimum spending on each card plus putting a little extra spending on the card we got up to 240,000 hilton points.  This allowed us to book 5 nights for free with 200,000 points and then I booked two additional nights with cash and points for 20,000 points + $125.  The cash portion I charged to my Barclay Arrival card and used the points from the Arrival card to cover the hotel expenses.


To cover expenses we signed up for the Wells Fargo Propel World card, Barclay’s Arrival card, and the Chase Freedom card.  Each came with a cashback bonus and between these three cards we had about $1,100 in spending money.  Unfortunately, the hotel expenses that were not covered by points (two nights points and cash, parking, and three meals at the hotel) sucked up about $500.  So we ended up not having as much spending money as we had hoped for.  I guess I should not complain too much since we had an awesome vacation and only spent $300 of our own money.

Total credit cards for the trip was 7 spread out over a year. I applied for 4 and my wife applied for 3.

If you are interested in learning to travel for (almost) free like we did for this trip, check out my miles and points consulting page.  The best benefit of which is that I will assist you with all award bookings for a year.


This was one of our favorite vacations thus far with the boys.  We all had a wonderful time and the boys were still talking about Hawaii when we got home.  It was nice to escape the dreary winter weather here in Portland and get some sun and beach time.  We try to go to Hawaii every year and usually go in the fall.  We had such a great time that we are thinking about permanently moving our trip to the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which by the way is a low season in Hawaii so you can score some great deals.

If you have not been to the Big Island, add it to your bucket list.

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2 thoughts on “Big Island Trip Report: Sights, Beaches, Hilton Waikoloa, and I did it for Almost Free

  1. Glad you had a great time! The Big Island is definitely my and my family’s favorite. Amazing that you actually found Avios awards to use—you must have booked 12 months out! 🙂

    When your boys get older, be sure to take them to Ape Cave near Mt St Helens. My kid’s did it when they were 5 or 6 and they (and I) loved it!

  2. Pingback: Planning my Next Credit Card Churn – MilesPointsReselling

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