Doing a helicopter flight over Hawaii's islands is a unique (and expensive) way of experiencing the tropical archipelago. From dense jungles, endless waterfalls, remote mountain tops and volcanic calderas, there is bit of something for every taste here.
During our stay in Hawaii we split into two groups and we did two different tours, on different islands with different operators. With an accumulation of those experiences, let me try to provide some general advice and a guide covering all the major things you might want to consider before booking a flight.
Is a helicopter tour the right thing for me?
This is actually the first question you should be asking yourself. Considering the high price tag, you really want to be sure that this is the experience you want to spend your time and money on during your holidays. How expensive is it exactly? Well that of course depends on the tour, the island and the operator, but you will be looking at a price range roughly between $200 and $700 per person (prices from 2017).
Having that sum in mind, you want to make sure that this is something you will truly enjoy, and there are a few things that might prevent you to do so. Strong fear of heights and fear of flying for instance, especially if you never have been in a helicopter before.
Another thing to look out for is motion sickness. Helicopters can easily be subject to turbulence, and if you're generally prone to motion sickness then this is definitely an issue. You don't want to be stuck for 2 hours straight while puking in a tiny white bag.
So what is the best island to fly over?
Maui is probably my favorite island, and although maybe not as eye popping from the air as the Big Island or Kauia, it still offers spectacular views. Also chances are high you might be staying here, so a helicopter tour is more accessible than on the other islands.
What you will see is towering sea cliffs, rain forests and waterfall filled mountains ranges and valleys. Also you will get a view of the Haleakalā crater, a dormant volcano that covers almost 75% of Maui.
Remember that opening shot at the start of Jurassic Park? The one when they reach the island? That is Kauia. I personally cannot say much about the island as that is the one place we didn't have the chance to visit, but judging from descriptions and footage on the internet, it is nothing short of spectacular.
The highlights are probably the Waimea Canyon, also known as the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific", and Mount Waialeale, the center of an ancient volcano with it's "Wall of Tears".
This is probably the most versatile island in terms of what to see. It is one of the most geologically active areas on earth and the Kilauea volcano has been erupting continuously for over 30 years. The activity levels are not always the same, but chances are high you will be able to see some lava flows. In any case, the volcanic badlands and the caldera are a spectacular view no matter how high the activity levels are.
On the other side of the island at the Hamakua coast and the Kohala mountain range, the view will drastically change. Instead of black, fuming landscapes, here you will see high sea cliffs, lush rain forests and cascading waterfalls. A very stark contrast. However these things you can also see on the other islands, so I would say pick the Big Island if brimstone and fire is your thing.
What to expect?
You can expect a fun ride (if you enjoy helicopters) and some stunning views. The pilot will do his/her best to circle around the sights as much as possible so that everyone gets a good view. Also the pilot will be narrating and commeting all interesting landmarks during flight.
No one controlls the weather, so you might get patches of rain druing the tour while flying through clouds. Obviously if the weather forecast is generally very bad, maybe you should change your booking.
Some sights might change depending on the season and daily conditions. For instance the waterfalls will generally be bigger during the winter months. Also the general visibility on the Big Island changes daily depending on the volcanic fumes. Same goes for volcanic activity - it varies.
I have to mention though that the experience will not be the same for everyone. How much you are able to see will greatly depend on your seating position and your type of helicopter. Different operators have different helicopter models, and some provide better viewing than others (you can usually find the model details and descriptions on their websites). But much more important is your seating position. Generally I would categorize them as this:
- Front seats: First class
- Back window seats: Economy
- Back middle seats: Luggage compartment
I might be exaggerating a bit on the back middle seats, but generally the seating does have an impact. The 2 front seats are the best BY FAR. You get a full open view to the front, above, bellow and to the sides.
Your next best option are the 2 window back seats.You will get a nice view here (subject to the helicopter model - some have bigger back windows than others), however you can only see to one side. Every tour will have a "preferred side", and although the pilot will do his/her best to accommodate everyone, one side will still be better than the other.
And finally we have the back middle seats. Now here you will see a bit of the front and a bit on both sides, but a big part of your field of view will always be obstructed. Also if you're prone to motion sickness, avoid this spot at all cost.
How to book?
There are A LOT of operators to choose from, just have a look on tripadvisor.
Blue Hawaii is the big player here, they have been around the longest and are generally regarded as a safe bet. Also, their Eco-star helicopters have improved passenger space and visiblity.
But that doesn't mean other operators are bad by any means. We flew with Sunshine helicopters while the Nikki's parents flew with Blue Hawaii and the experiences were pretty much the same.
There is one thing worth mentioning though. Remember the importance of seating positions? On Blue Hawaii you generally cannot choose your seat, and your seat will be allocated according to the weight balance in the helicopter (partners do not get separated). Generally it seems they prefer to have the heavier passengers in the center of the cockpit (middle back seats).
Sunshine helicopters on ther other hand will let you "secure" the front 2 seats - against a higher price of course, which is around 10% more than the usual price. If you want my opinion - take it. It's worth it. Also if you don't, you're most likely to sit in the back as they will try to fill every flight (and there will be someone who payed those additional 10%, and after 2 hours of staring at their iphones blocking your view, you will hate them). Also, if you get the 2 front seats, please be considerate of the guys in the back.
Some final words
- Avoid any bright clothing or too much exposed skin as it will reflect in the windows.
- If you want a video of the flight and have a decent camera, take it with you. The on board cameras have mediocre quality and the footage comes with a watermark.
- If you want to take photos, take a polarizing filter if you have one. It will help reducing window reflections.
- You are not allowed to take any bags with you, only what you can hold in your hands. So plan carefully.
- If you're wondering what lens to take, it depends. All the photos above are taken from the middle back seat, however with 2 different lenses - one wide angle and one telephoto. If you're on the middle back seat I would the say the telephoto is your best bet, as you can look past some of the obstruction in your view. However be ready for shakes - I suggest a fast shutter speed. A wide angle lens on the other hand works well if you're aiming for immersive shots from within the cockpit.
And finally two big shoutouts. First and foremost, Pam and Chris thanks again for this amazing experience that we couldn't have afforded otherwise! You guys are much too good to us and we really appreciate.
The second shoutout, maybe a bit random, goes to the cool dude at the Budget car rental counter at Kona airport. He upgraded our cheapest 4 seater to a bright red, convertible Ford Mustang, for free. Cheers bro!!