Turquoise seas, white-sand beaches, palm trees and fruity drinks – both Hawaii and the Caribbean Islands have all the ingredients for a dreamy, tropical getaway. For travelers in North America looking for island escapes, this is a common travel conundrum – but even if you're coming from further afield, how do you choose?

Here are the most important things to consider when looking to travel to either of these paradise destinations. 

A woman enjoying summer vacations and drinking juice
There'll be fruity drinks aplenty, regardless of whether you choose Hawaii or the Caribbean © Vladimir Vladimirov / Getty Images

How far are you willing to go? 

With 65 major islands in the Caribbean and 6 in Hawaii – not to mention heaps of smaller and private islands – deciding on a spot for your warm-weather escape may seem daunting. Where you’re coming from may be the biggest consideration – the Caribbean is easier for East Coasters to visit, while Hawaii has frequent flights from the West Coast. If you're American and don’t have a passport, Hawaii is the obvious option, as you do not need your passport to travel to the remote islands. However, Key WestPuerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are also open to passport-less US citizens. 

Consider the costs

Resorts offer package deals for both Hawaii and the Caribbean, but the Caribbean will typically put less of a dent in your wallet. Puerto Rico and the Bahamas are especially affordable. The Caribbean is known more for its all-inclusive resorts, which help immensely to stay within budget, while many of Hawaii's à la carte-priced resorts can add up fast.

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Waikiki Beach and buildings,Honolulu,Oahu,Hawaii,USA
Honolulu's Waikiki Beach can get crowded during the winter high season © Peter Unger / Getty

The time of year will determine the crowds

Both Hawaii and the Caribbean have distinct off-seasons. For the Caribbean, that's the hurricane season, which lasts from June through November. Cheaper prices and thinner crowds are pros; the chance of an actual hurricane blowing away your vacation is the definite con. Things start hopping again with the winter holidays and go crazy during March and April for American Spring Break. In Hawaii, winter is busy, while spring and fall are more peaceful and still offer gorgeous weather to boot.

St. Jean Beach from the air, Gustavia, St. Barts
The view of St Jean Beach in Gustavia, St Barts © Per Breiehagen / Getty

How much time do you have?

If you're on the East Coast, a weekend Caribbean jaunt is totally doable – the flight from New York to Nassau, Bahamas, is only about three hours, for example. Plenty of companies offer extended weekend packages to best take advantage of your limited time. A Hawaiian getaway is a longer commitment – the trip from Los Angeles to Honolulu takes nearly six hours. So once you're there, you'll want to spend at least four or five days to make it worth the journey. Hawaii Airlines has many daily shuttles between the islands, making it easy to hop around and make the most of your time.  

How to get around in Hawaii

Narrowing it down by interest

While both regions offer sand, sun and waves, each has its own standout features:

Volcanoes: Hawaii's got the biggest volcano in the world 

A few Caribbean islands, including Martinique and Guadeloupe, have volcanoes, but nothing compares to the lunar landscapes and flame-spitting peaks of the volcanic Hawaiian Islands. Kīlauea, the world's most active volcano, is a pilgrimage in and of itself, as is neighboring Mauna Loa, the world's biggest volcano. See both with a trip to the awe- and terror-inspiring Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. Truly one for the ‘bucket list.’

Beaches: gorgeous coasts all around 

Please, don't make us pick! The Caribbean has pink sands. Hawaii has black sands. Both have sugar-white sands stretching for miles into an infinity of cyan water. Many Caribbean beaches are family-friendly, with shallow waters and little surf, but Hawaiian waters are better for water sports.

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Explore Santo Domingo's historic colonial district in the Dominican Republic © Holger Mette / Getty Images

Colonial cities: the Caribbean's got the cobblestones and pirate haunts

The Caribbean takes the cake here with the oldest cities in the New World. Amble down the narrow cobblestone streets of Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial (Dominican Republic), check out 17th-century pirate haunts in Nassau, Bahamas, or admire the filigreed balconies and fluted columns of San Juan, Puerto Rico's Spanish mansions. Whether you're sleeping in a monastery-turned-hotel, dining in a former 18th-century plantation house or touring tumbledown Colonial forts overgrown with hibiscus and climbing vines, the past never seems far away.

These 5 islands are the Caribbean’s best-kept secret

Sailing: seek out the calm breezes of the Caribbean

For sailing, the calmer, shallower waters of the Caribbean make for a smooth ride, and the close proximity of many of the islands makes island-hopping a breeze. Most of the upscale resorts in the region offer marinas to dock your mega yacht. If you're yacht-less, you can always rent – boats are available both with and without captain and crew.

Early morning surfing at the famous Hanalei Bay, on the island of Kauai
Experience incredible surfing at Hanalei Bay in Kauai, Hawaii © Glowing Earth Photography / 500px

Surfing: Hawaii is one of the world's greatest surfing destinations

If it's waves you want, Hawaii's tops. The sport in its modern form was first popularized here in the early 20th century, and the islands continue to attract the biggest names in surfing from across the globe. It's not uncommon to see Hawaiian kids surfing when they barely look big enough to walk – it's less a sport here than a religion, a way of life.

Hiking: Hawaii is a tropical paradise best explored by foot

The level topography of most of the Caribbean islands makes hiking a bit...flat. Hawaii presents no such problems. Whether you're picking your way across fields of dried lava or traversing the rim of Waimea Canyon en route to jungle-ringed Waipoo Falls, the islands offer hikes for all levels.

Music: the Caribbean's got the beats while smoother vibes await in Hawaii

It's steel drum vs. ukelele. Hawaiian music is great, but the Caribbean offers a vast breadth and depth of danceable beats, from Cuban salsa to Bahamian goombay to Jamaican dancehall, reggae and ska to the calypso of Trinidad and Tobago to the zouk of the French West Indies. You can't walk down the street without hearing the sound of a steel drum or a tinny soca beat coming from a transistor radio, and you can hardly help shaking your hips.

You might also like: 
17 best places to visit in Hawaii
Caribbean destinations this winter: a guide to finding your idea of paradise
When to visit Hawaii

This article was first published Feb 15, 2012 and updated Dec 7, 2021.

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