Some of the most amazing places on the Big Island are very difficult to reach over land, but taking to the sky makes it possible to see many of these wonders in a very short amount of time. Helicopter tours are our preferred way to take to the sky.
Departing from Kona, Hilo, and Waikoloa, helicopter tours can last between 40 minutes and a full day. They are not cheap with prices starting at about $350/hour but we consider them one of the unforgettable experiences on the Big Island and highly recommend splurging on one if your budget allows it.
Table of Contents
1: Different kinds of helicopter tours
Not all helicopter tours are the same and depending on your budget and priorities you have a few options. The three main attractions on the Big Island that are definitely worth being seen from the air are:
Lava and volcanoes helicopter tour
Important note: these tours explore active lava flows only *if* there is active lava on the surface. Otherwise you’ll get to see often still smoking remnants of older lava flows.
The lava and volcanoes helicopter tours are best suited for people that mostly want to see lava. These tours tend to be the shortest and most affordable when they depart from Hilo because the Kilauea volcano is closest to Hilo airport.
Typically you will make a 40 to 50 minute flight going southwest from the Hilo airport to lower Puna where the 2018 LERZ eruption took place and a few other vents of the Kilauea volcano (when active), then northeast to the waterfalls and jungle at the Hamakua coast, and then back to the airport.
The tour organized by Paradise Helicopters is a good example of a short (less than 1 hour) tour departing from Hilo that will let you see the current eruptive activity, waterfalls, and rainforest:
Helicopter tours from Hilo
A Helicopter tour to see lava, rainforest and waterfalls. Discover what Kīlauea Volcano has left in the wake of its recent historic eruptive episode.
Duration: 40 minutes
Free cancellation: up to 24 hours before tour
Waterfalls and dramatic cliffs
The best places to see waterfalls and dramatic cliffs on the Big Island are on the north (Kohala) and east (Hilo + Hamakua) side of the island. The Kohala coast with the Waipi’o valley 2000+ ft cliffs and waterfalls will hands-down be the best part of this ride.
The above two tours (#1 and #2) tend to be the most affordable because they don’t last as long as the third option:
Circle island helicopter tours
A circle island helicopter tour combines all of the above, sometimes with a bit more. These tours can take the whole day, with at most ~2 hours of flight time. The rest of the time is used for on-ground sightseeing at locations that differ per tour. If you do decide to go for one of the circle island tours, try to make sure that you will fly over the west (Kona) coast to see the spectacular sunset.
2: Most popular helicopter tour companies
Helicopter tours are big business in Hawaii and there is a healthy competition between tour companies. Most of these companies offer special prices or discounts at least a couple of months each year, and it is certainly worth your time to compare prices. For your convenience we list the biggest four Helicopter Tour Agencies:
The most relevant differences between these companies for visitors are obviously price, but also the departure heliport. We shortly discuss why we thing the place of departure is important:
- From where do the helicopter tours depart?
- Tours from Hilo vs. tours from Kona, why are Kona tours more expensive?
Finally, you can directly compare the prices for the tours offered by Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tours, Paradise Helicopters, and Sunshine Helicopters by clicking on either the banner below or on this URL. This will take you to the ‘hawaiiactivities’ website, which is useful to compare helicopter tours and to find occasional discounts1.
From where do the helicopter tours depart?
Your helicopter will off course depart from an airport or a heliport, but which one depends on the company you choose. Some companies even provide free transport to and from the airport. Because the drive to and from the heliports can easily take a few hours to your tour we summarize the departure heliports for the biggest companies below:
- Hilo International Airport (3x): Paradise Helicopters, Safari Helicopters, Blue Hawaiian Helicopters
- Kona International Airport (2x): Paradise Helicopters, Mauna Loa Helicopters
- Hapuna Heliport: Sunshine Helicopters
- Waikoloa Heliport: Blue Hawaiian Helicopters
- Waimea / Kohala Airport: Paradise Helicopters
If you already know which company you prefer and want to look up from which airport they depart we have reordered the list based on tour company:
- Paradise Helicopters flies from the Hilo airport, the Kona airport, and the Waimea / Kohala airport. They provide free transportation to the Kona airport from mot resorts along the Kona coast, but make sure to check the conditions on their website.
- Blue Hawaiian helicopters depart both from the Hilo airport and from the Waikoloa Heliport, 4 miles SW of Waikoloa Village.
- Safari Helicopters have their home base in Hilo, at the Hilo airport helipad.
- Sunshine Helicopters flies from the Hapuna Heliport, located 30 minutes (27 miles) north of the Kona airport east of the Hapuna Golf Course.
- Mauna Loa Helicopters flies their tours from the Kona airport.
Helicopter Tours from Kona or from Hilo?
Helicopter tours depart from 5 places: the Hilo, Kona, and Waimea airports, and the Hapuna and Waikoloa heliports (both close to the resorts). The price difference for tours leaving from these locations can be significant: Kona tours cost sometimes almost twice as much as the Hilo tours!
There is a good reason for this: your time in the air (see next paragraph). Depending on what you want from the tour however, you might prefer the more expensive Kona option.
It makes sense that tours from Hilo are cheaper because your departure heliport is closer to the (active) lava and flight times are shorter. After all, tour prices are set mostly by the amount of time that is spent in the air. Tours from Hilo often involve a quick return trip to the lava impacted areas, with perhaps a visit to several of the nearby waterfalls.
Tours from Kona need to cover more distance to get to the active lava (if present). Because of this, they often include a visit to the lava into a ‘circle island’ tour. This means you may get the see the impressive 2000 ft waterfalls at the Kohala coast that are almost impossible to see without an aerial tour. You will also fly over the tropical and lush Hamakua coast, and get to see south Kona with famous sites such as the city of refuge.
Summarizing, if you are looking to see just the lava, you should try booking your tour from Hilo. If you have the resources to splurge and the desire to see more of the Big Island from the air, a circle island tour is highly recommended!
3: Helicopter tours FAQ
Our FAQ (frequently asked questions) section is meant to answer whatever questions you may have about taking a helicopter tour. We give answers to the following 4 questions:
- What to expect on a Helicopter Ride?
- How to get the best value out of a helicopter tour (10-point checklist)
- What is the added value of a Helicopter tour?
- What does a helicopter tour look like? (video)
Q1: What to expect on a helicopter ride?
While all helicopter agencies organize their tours slightly different the outlines of their tours are very similar. The procedures are time-tested and all operators we mention on our website place a large emphasis in safety. We describe the ‘typical experience’ of booking and taking a helicopter tour:
When you book your tour you will be asked about any seating preferences you may have and to provide the weights and heights of all people in your group. This is a safety feature meant to make sure that the helicopter is balanced and the weights you provide will be checked again at check-in. Make sure to provide as accurate numbers as possible to avoid any delays that may arise from having to re-balance (or re-schedule!) the helicopter.
You will also receive a confirmation email with valuable information on what you are (and are not!) allowed to bring in the helicopter. Make sure to read this email properly and to share the information with the other people in your group to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Check-in for the helicopter tour is usually about an hour before take-off. During check-in your information will be verified and you will be given a safety briefing. During this briefing you receive instructions on how to approach the helicopter safely, how to behave while inside of the helicopter, and where your place in the helicopter will be. If your tour will be doors-off, there are some added considerations: long hair should be tied back, no hats, pockets need to be emptied, and phones should have a wrist strap (available for purchase for a nominal fee).
Once you make it into the helicopter and are strapped in you put on your headset. These consist of high-quality headphones and an internal communication system that you can use to talk to the pilot and the other people in the helicopter. Usually the pilot will start by introducing himself and talk everyone through what today’s tour will be all about. This is the best time to talk about any special requests you may have.
The real fun starts when the helicopter takes off! You quickly see the land below you get smaller and start having a really good overview of the land. Try seeing where you left your car and orientate yourself to see where you’ll be going. Make sure to have your camera ready but to also take in everything through your eyes (not your lens!). See our two tips for making better photos on a doors-on helicopter tour below for how to get most out of your pictures.
Doors-off flights offer the best photos because there’s no door or window between you and the incredible scenery, which is why professional photographers and videographers always fly doors off.
After the tour you will return to the spot you took off from. This is the time to take one last helicopter-selfie if you want to, and to say goodbye to the pilot and the ground staff that helps you disembark. Tips are appreciated if you did appreciate the tour and think the pilot did a stellar job.
Q2: How can I get the most out of a helicopter tour
We have made a checklist to go through if you have never been on a helicopter tour before. You can use this checklist for example when deciding between different tours. Do not hesitate to contact each tour operator before booking, because a little preparation really can make a big difference.
Our checklist for a stellar helicopter tour with questions to ask the helicopter tour operator:
- How much airtime do I get during your tour?
- How many passengers do you take in your helicopter?
- What areas of the Big Island do you fly over?
- Can you guarantee a window seat? (very important if you want to take photo’s!)
- How close does your helicopter take me to waterfalls, craters, lava, etc.?
- Is a tour with “doors off” possible? (at the moment the only company offering doors off flights is Paradise Helicopters)
- From which place on the Big Island do you helicopters take off? And do you provide transport from [your location]?
- What interesting lava-related things can we see if there is no active lava flows?
- How flexible are you on the timing and route of the tour?
- Do you offer special fares?
Bonus tips for while you are in the helicopter with doors-on:
- Wear a dark or black shirt if you don’t go on a “doors off” helicopter tour
- Bring a polarizing filter for your camera if you have one.
Reflections of light clothes will reflect back from the windows into your camera and these are some pictures that you don’t want to be in yourself.
Q3: What is the added value of a Helicopter tour?
Flying over the Big Island in a helicopter lets you see the land in a way that few people ever will. A helicopter tour can help you pick your favorite destinations and help decide how to arrange the rest of your stay.
Think for example about the hidden waterfalls falling over the 2000-feet high cliffs of Waimanu valley and Waipi’o valley. These sights are very difficult to see from the ground, but perfect to explore from a helicopter.
Taking a helicopter tour is also the only way to get an (almost) guaranteed look at the lava. The Kilauea volcano can be unpredictable and easily visible lava flows have been common the last few decades up to 2018. However, there is no guarantee that this will be the case during your visit. Helicopters can fly over the Kilauea craters, allowing you to see straight into the fiery action.
Q4: What does a helicopter tour look like? (video)
This is technically not a question, but seeing a video shot during a helicopter tour is one of the best ways to prepare yourself for one. This video by youtube user bship5225 shows footage shot during a “doors off” helicopter tour over the Kilauea volcano, as well as a few waterfalls.
The following video is made by one of our local helicopter companies and has a more polished look. It shows what one of their tours over the Kohala waterfalls and cliffs could look like: