Maui on a budget – tacos, trailers, and cheap cars

Staying in a trailer, driving a 2003 Nissan Sentra, and eating tacos from a roadside truck may not be the first visual that comes to mind when you think “Maui vacation,” but budget travel does exist on this expensive island. Most would-be visitors think the words “Maui” and “budget” are somewhat of an oxymoron, and for the most part, they’re right. But in this land of expensive lunches and overpriced trinkets there are buried bargains to be discovered. The island is a haven for rich retirees, and this culture drives the cost of just about everything with a price tag. If it’s expensive dining, golf, and shopping you want, Maui will surely please. But for those who can barely afford the plane ticket from the mainland, here are a few tips that might make your Maui dream vacation seem a little more like an affordable mainland getaway.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user adam*b)

Cheap eats

Each of the main towns has its own affordable eateries that can keep you on track with your food budget. Hawaiian tourists know that there is phenomenal cuisine to be had on the islands, but sometimes you just need a quick bite while on the go that won’t bite back at your wallet. Fast food staples like Taco Bell, Subway, and McDonald’s can be found in all the more populated areas. Prices are close to that of the mainland and these less-than-par culinary stops can save you, since a typical lunch at a local cafe could run you $15-$20 per person.

If fast food isn’t your style there are local joints that offer alternatives to cardboard burgers and mass-produced tacos. In south Maui, try Cinnamon Roll Fair in Kihei. A cup of joe and a gargantuan sticky cinnamon roll will only set you back a matter of dollars and start your day off right. For lunch, swing down to the Big Beach area and look for the food trucks. The Jawz Tacos van will satisfy your Mexican food fix, and they even serve alcohol if you’re in the mood for a mid-day cocktail. If you’re in west Maui head to Star Noodle in Lahaina. Grab a bowl of Udon for just seven bucks and get your belly filled for the entire afternoon.Dining in – Costco

As soon as you sit down to your first meal on Maui you realize that eating can be one of the most expensive things you do here. An age-old budget strategy is to load up on groceries and eat in the room when on vacation. While this is certainly the way to go for saving you some coin, groceries on the island will cost more than elsewhere in the U.S. The thing to remember is that most everything needs to be imported from the mainland, whether that be Asia or North America. A long ocean journey means that you pay a premium so things can be transported to the islands.

Costco saves the day when it comes to budget grub. The wholesale grocer somehow gets things to the island with minimal up-charge. They also buy local when possible so seafood is not only affordable but of amazing quality and taste. If stocking up for a two week stay, or a family to eat on, this warehouse of food can save a bundle. When leaving the airport in Kahului, Costco will be on your left as you exit.


Maui, and Hawaii in general, are expensive places to live. But not everyone who plants their flag on this remote island chain drives a Land Rover and eats lobster every night. Much of the population is made up of transplants from the mainland U.S. and other countries around the pacific rim. These people are the ones who make this island tick by working in the restaurants, guiding the tourists, and harvesting the sugar cane. Where do these people go out to dinner if they don’t have a platinum Diners Club card?

Many restaurants offer two-for-one deals that are quite popular. Some restaurants run these specials on certain nights of the week and pack the place with locals and tourists alike hunting for an affordable meal. Some hotels even pass out coupon booklets to guests that feature the local two-for-ones. There are also twofers that go unadvertised. Residents ask for them by name. If you find yourself in a restaurant, have already been seated, and are smacked with sticker shock when you open the menu, simply ask what their two-for-one special is. If they have one, you’ll be glad you inquired.

Economy car rentals

Put simply, taxis are not economical on Maui, and public transit buses offer little flexibility. When visiting the island for more than a day, just rent a car. Shopping around for online coupons is one way to cut your rental expense, but if you aren’t picky about what you drive there are other ways. Local renters like Kihei Rent A Car, for instance, will rent an older model car for less than $150 a week. If you don’t mind rolling in a 2003 Nissan Sentra, you can save some serious cash.

Choosing a rental car that gets good mpg will also help you stretch your island dollar even further. Gas on Maui is expensive and pump prices are often $1-$2 higher per gallon than they are on the mainland. Choosing an economy or compact car will keep you on track with your budget, not to mention give you an advantage with parking since the island is filled with compact spaces.

When renting a car on Maui, the rental agency will most likely try to scare the living crap out of you. We endured a five minute lecture on how our first-born child would be confiscated if we brought the car back with dings or scratches. Your best strategy here is to listen politely and then scan the car for all existing damage. Use the crude automobile sketch the company provides and make sure you find a scratch on all sides of the car. This will prove priceless when you bring the car back and the person who checks you in finds a gash in the fender that wasn’t recorded by previous attendants.


Condos and resorts dominate the lodging landscape of Maui. But don’t reel too hard at the sticker shock you’ll experience at these high-end hotels. Consider mainland staples like the Days Inn. Directly on the beach in Kihei and convenient to shopping and eating, this clean hotel is a hidden gem. Catching a room for $100 a night is not unheard of here.

If you want to go even cheaper and create a unique experience for yourself, check out Maui Bamboo Beach Cabanas. It may be a mouthful but it will save you a pocketful. These trailer-like beach huts are tucked into a private setting near Makena Beach. You won’t be beach side or have an on site masseuse, but you will be looking at $65 per night, which is as cheap as it gets on Maui.

When planning your Maui vacation, budget travel is not impossible. Spending a few hours delving into the web for bargains and taking the time to research your local restaurant options could keep you from breaking the bank. Reading through travel guides like Maui Revealed and website like will help you prepare for your budget trip to Maui ahead of time and allow you to avoid some of the expensive spending pitfalls to be had on the island.

Top 10 restaurants on Maui

Being isolated in the middle of the world’s largest body of water doesn’t mean you have to be isolated from top notch cuisine. On the contrary, so many cultures mingle in these off-the-beaten-path locales, some of the best food in the world can be had here. Maui’s cuisine is an example of one of these melting pot food cultures. Native cuisine, Asian accents, mainland staples, and completely new creations mix to form a very fun island dining experience.

Picking the top 10 restaurants on Maui is like picking the ten best places to drink in Ireland. The variety of menu options, price ranges, and atmospheres can be mind-boggling to a tourist only on Maui for a short time. Lucky for you we’ve done the research (read: extensive eating and sampling) and selected some of the best places to get your grub on. These picks cover a wide variety of cuisines and are hot spots for both locals and visitors.
Mama’s Fish House

Mama’s (photo above) is the place all romance-seeking couples must visit before leaving the island. Many walk away with tears in their eyes – both from the extraordinary service and food, and from the price of their check. Mama’s is not cheap. In fact, the prices are down right outrageous. But a meal at Mama’s is required dining, and for good reason, the restaurant has a long tradition of being the most romantic spot on the entire island. There aren’t many places that can rival the perfectly curved palm trees and immaculately manicured garden grounds in the light of a Maui sunset. After the valet parks your car, because there are no other parking options, stroll through the grounds to see the outrigger canoe and a traditional wooden tiki before being seated. The menu typically includes fish caught off the shores that day by local fishermen. The name of the angler who pulled your fish in will be listed on the menu above the description. The service is impeccable – we didn’t even notice when our glasses were being filled. The chef prepares some scrumptious dishes and incorporates fresh local ingredients such as coconut and macadamia nuts.

As mentioned, the valet parking is a must, since the space for your ride is non-existent beyond what is reserved for valet. The restaurant is located just beyond Paia on Hana Highway. There is no slow night at Mama’s, so reservations are highly recommended. Dinner for two and a bottle of wine will easily set you back a few hundred dollars. The food and service will impress, for sure, but it’s the million-dollar sunset you’re paying the premium for. If celebrating a special occasion, let them know when you make your reservation – a personalized card will await you along with other special treats.

Merriman’s at Kapalua

Mama’s may be the place the locals recommend to tourists, but Merriman’s is the place they keep to themselves. Merriman’s prices could put a dent in your vacation budget, but the food will be etched in your memory forever as one of the best dining experiences you’ve had. The chef, Peter Merriman, takes the “farm to table” concept and makes it a reality with this restaurant. Working hand-in-hand with local fisherman and farmers he has sculpted a menu packed with fresh-from-the-garden (and sea) foods that explode with flavor.

Merriman’s features several organic menu items and the friendly management and staff pride themselves on the restaurant’s support of locally grown foods. Of the menu items we tried, the butterfish with lobster was superb, and the scallops (pictured above) were creamy and seasoned to perfection. Since the fish is caught only hours before it hits your plate, it holds its full taste. Both menu items we tried paired well with the grenache we ordered. The wine list is extensive and has something for every taste. Merriman’s makes for an excellent alternative to Mama’s for your fine dining experience on the island. Located north of Lahaina, this indulgence is situated in the Ritz Carlton complex.

Fred’s Mexican Cafe

Now that we’ve gotten a few of the more foo-foo places out of the way, let’s talk affordable fun. Fred’s may not be a likely name for a Mexcian restaurant, but you’ll soon forget the name once you peruse their authentic Mexican choices. Fronting South Kihei Road, the main drag in Kihei, this double-decker restaurant/bar sees its fair share of traffic. Breakfast is a good choice at Fred’s, with excellent bloody marys and homemade muffins. Several shops and a busy local beach are located within walking distance making it a great lunch stop while you’re out exploring. Walk off that huge burrito after lunch, or just let it cook in your belly while sleeping in the sand. Lunches will cost $20-$30 for two including drink and tip, which is considered a cheap lunch on Maui.

Pupu Lounge Seafood & Grill

This is another Kihei favorite that doesn’t break the bank. Pupu means appetizer in Hawaiian, and you’ll find pupus all over the island. You can even buy a shirt here flaunting the fact that you ate their pupu. Interestingly enough, the Pupu Lounge isn’t the cleanest place. In fact it might be a little off-putting upon arrival with the dingy carpet and the scattered dirty tables. Squint your eyes a bit and allow enough time for your food to show up. You’ll be happy you stuck around. Seafood reigns here and they pride themselves on how fresh it is at the Pupu Lounge. Fried or grilled, they have a variety of the ocean’s bounty ready to be cooked up. Or if you prefer your food a little less cooked, try the ceviche. Ceviche is seafood, often shrimp or fish, that has been marinated in lime juice and spices. It is not cooked in the traditional sense. Instead the meat is broken down by the acidity of the lime juice. The Pupu Lounge has some of the best ceviche on the island, and if you like lime, cilantro, and seafood, you’ll be a happy camper.

Star Noodle

Star Noodle is located in Lahaina – well sort of in Lahaina. At the top of Kupuohi Street there is a small warehouse district, and tucked into the back of this is Star Noodle. Its location makes it a somewhat hidden gem in west Maui. While most tourists in Lahaina stick to the shops and restaurants on Front Street, those who venture up the hill a bit will find something special.

Sure, Star Noodle is a fun noodle restaurant, as you would expect, but their pupu selection is extensive as well. This makes for a great place to appetize into bliss, and snagging food off a table mate’s plate is acceptable, and completely expected. Prices are affordable at around $10 a plate, making this is a place you can bring the family and keep the bill to a minimum with wise ordering strategies. Star Noodle opens for dinner at 5:30 and the locals flock, so be there when the doors open or be ready for a wait. If you do have to wait, it’s worth it.

Big Wave Cafe

Back in the south Maui town of Kihei there is a mythical breakfast joint which breaks the laws of the Maui universe – Big Wave Cafe. The food is excellent, the seating is open-air, and the coffee is delicious and hot. Breakfast is breakfast though, right? Wrong. Maui has its share of waffle, omelet, and muffin slingers, but Big Wave has something most of the others don’t, mainland prices. The regular menu prices are affordable but if you eat before 9am you will be treated to a combination breakfast with meat, eggs, coffee, and more for as little as $3.99. Trust me when I tell you that a Maui meal for two coming in under $10 is as rare as a mountain in Kansas. That is, unless you are a big fan of Taco Bell.

Ono Gelato

Ono means “Good” in the native language and “Gelato” is an Italian ice cream delicacy – and “good ice cream” is exactly what they do at Ono Gelato. They serve up this whipped creamy delight in three different towns across the island – Paia, Lahaina, and Kihei. Ono Gelato may be considered an ice cream shop, and not a restaurant per say, but it’s still a must-try eatery on the island. Made fresh every day, Ono Gelato believes that, “gelato tastes better with organic ingredients” and “cows should just say no to drugs.” After sampling enough flavors to substitute a meal, I agree wholeheartedly. Their locally grown fruits are busting with flavor and the organic whole milk gives the gelato a rich texture. With dairy and non-dairy versions of their frozen specialty, and flavors ranging from coconut to doughnut, everyone in your group should be able to find something to love.

Buzz’s Wharf

The atmosphere is decent, the service is fair, and the view of the harbor is good enough. So why did Buzz’s Wharf make the top 10 restaurants on Maui list? I have one word for you – shrimp. More specifically, the markea prawns flown in from New Caledonia in the south pacific. Buzz’s is the only place on the island you can get these delectable little sea monkeys. These prawns don’t taste like your average shrimp from the gulf of Mexico or Thailand though. The markea prawn tricks your palette into thinking you’ve just tasted a lobster rather than a shrimp. This doppelganger won’t set you back as much as its larger crustacean cousin.

The Tahitian platter costs under $30 and features the markea prawns. Dipping the tender meat into hot butter could convert even the most dedicated of lobster lovers. Dinner is the best time to indulge here. Enjoy watching the waves crash on the rocks, the lights of south Maui, and of the boats docked just outside in Ma’alaea harbor as you scarf down your lobster-like shrimp.

Sea House

Situated on Napili Bay, this favorite of west Maui has stellar sunset views. The sundown spectacle draws hordes of diners to Sea House every day. The location is directly on the beach, and perfect for romantics who want to enjoy the sun slipping below the horizon. The prices at lunch can accommodate a family on a budget. The combination of families at lunch and lovers at dinner is the secret to Sea House’s success – that and the food. Lobster, filet mignon, and a host of sushi and salad options provide enough variety to satisfy anyone. Sea House is located in the Napili Kai Beach Resort, north of Lahaina.

Cheeseburger Restaurants

Formerly known as “Cheeseburger in Paradise” this chain has adjusted its name due to some trademark conflicts with a certain island-hopping, guitar-strumming crooner. Cheeseburger Restaurants may seem like a generic brand for a business, and hopefully they’ll fix that, but their burgers are not generic in the least. Your cravings for meat will be satisfied here by plump portions of beef stacked with melted cheese and the crisp veggies of your choice. The original locations sits on the shore on Front Street in Lahaina, and this two-story open-air building is a fantastic place to catch a sunset, drink a talk cold one, and fill your belly. The fries at Cheeseburger are fat, salty, and delicious too. What did you expect from a high class burger joint?

Cheeseburger offers a truly Hawaiian restaurant experience, but don’t be surprised when you hit Vegas and see that the chain has spread its wings and landed on the strip. A good restaurant can’t be held down.