Helicopter tours of the tropical Hawaiian islands is one of those once-in-a-lifetime things visitors do if they have the chance. During our trip to the big island of Hawaii, we had a chance to try Blue Hawaiian Helicopter tour from Hilo and fly over an active volcano with our two-year old daughter. Here’s the highs, lows, and need-to-knows.
Blue Hawaiian has locations all over the islands of Hawaii. On the Big Island of Hawaii departure points are located both on the east (Hilo) side of the volcano as well as on the west (Waikoloa) side and offer daily departures. Helicopter tours are also available on Maui, Kauai and Oahu.
As my family and I spent all of our time on the Big Island of Hawaii, I will cover our experience with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters from the Hilo side of the island.
Pro Tip: If you have a rental car and don’t mind a drive, consider driving to the Hilo side of the island to save money. The Waikoloa departures may be closer to your hotel but the area surveyed will still be the Hilo side, so by departing from Waikoloa, rides are longer and thus more expensive flying from Waikoloa to Hilo by helicopter. Driving to Hilo and starting your tour there saves money and offers a pretty view of the island on the way to and from.
From Waikoloa (Kona) prices were higher, and when buying three tickets we thought we would utilize our rental car and save some money on what would already be an expensive day. There are a few ways to book a helicopter tour; direct from the company’s website, through your hotel, or via various third parties. After very little research it was obvious that the way to get the best deal was to find a third-party option. As I mentioned in a previous post, we found our flight deal inside one of the coupon books that are easily found in the resorts and around various sites of the island. The coupon was from Expedia and with this deal we paid $168.55 per person for a flight on the “A Star” from Hilo airport. In addition to the discounted rate we also received a free dvd (though not of our specific tour), a free t-shirt, and 25% off any additional items in the gift shop.
If you book directly from Blue Hawaiians website the options and prices look something like this:
The Kona side (Waikoloa) offers two tour options:
- “Kohala Coast Adventure” 50 minute flight over the Kohala coast – $266.26 includes valleys, mountains and waterfalls.
- “The Big Island Spectacular” 1 hour 45 minute flight over Kohala and Hilo – $589 includes a tour of the active volcano, rainforest, mountains and sea cliffs. For an additional $150 you can even make a waterfall landing.
From Hilo you can book the “Circle of Fire plus Waterfalls” 50 minute flights – $259 / $309 (depending on the type of aircraft) includes flight over an active volcano, rainforests and waterfalls.
Maui offers 5 different tour options varying from a 30 minute flight over the west Maui mountains from $152 up to a 1 hour and 30 minute flight covering the entire island for $321.21.
Kauai 55 minute flight – $246.56 covers the entire island of Kauai and flies over canyons, waterfalls, coastline, and if weather permits will even fly into the center of the crater Mt Waialeale.
Oahu offers two options from Honolulu:
- “Blue Skies of Oahu” – $210.83 tours Waikiki beach, Diamond Head and over the coastline to legendary Sacred Falls and more.
- “Complete Island Oahu” – $271.89 covers the entire island and includes all of the “Blue Skies of Oahu” sites plus Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial, Ko Olina resort area, Makaha Beach and Yokohama Bay.
While our pilot was polite, I am not sure he was subtle. It was clear that inside the gift shop there would be an envelope of encouragement that could be left for the pilot. The envelope was about a standard US $20 bill wide.
We hadn’t researched appropriate tipping before were surprised with this “envelope of gratitude” and didn’t know what, if anything, we should put inside. It wasn’t until I was going back through our documents for this article that I noticed a little this note at the bottom of our receipt that may have been helpful to notice beforehand.
After doing some research it seems that there are two schools of thought. The first is that some feel tipping is totally unnecessary, you wouldn’t tip a pilot on any other flight and that is essentially what it is, a commercial flight.
At the same time, this is not a normal flight. The pilot is the flight attendant, the tour guide, and sitting side by side with four passengers with everyone else just one row behind him. He got to know each of us, accommodated requests for viewing various places and provided an educational and exciting tour. We left less than some recommended ($20/person or 10%) and more than nothing. For what it’s worth we were the only ones from our flight that left an envelope so whether you choose to tip or not – either seems acceptable.
Sitting up front with a mild fear of flying on large planes and a huge fear of flying in little aircraft, I was uncertain how this experience would play out. I was in tears during the safety demonstration video, but it turns out that was much scarier than the actual flight itself. After everyone was belted in and had their headphones and mic check, we heard “Highway to the Danger Zone” come over our headsets and we had lifted straight off the runway.
Lucy was in the back seats with Dad and still uncertain what to make of everything that was happening. As a full paying passenger, she had a headset and microphone – this was a big hit. She loved when the pilot would talk to her over the headset and got even greater joy out of hearing herself respond. I am pretty sure she enjoyed chatting up the pilot more than she did enjoying the views of Hawaii from above.
As advertised, we flew out over the water then over the active volcano. It tends to be cloudy and rainy on this side of the island but that didn’t hinder our experience. We flew through the mist of the clouds and over the burnt ash where down below we could see boiling hot lava streams and steam coming up from the ground.
We may have had some preconceived idea about what we thought boiling, gushing lava would look like and from the Blue Hawaiian website you can’t blame us. It looks as though you just might see red-hot lava spewing out of a mountain top. We did not see huge, shooting lava as on the brochure, but could see the lava in cracks and while this was less of a thrill maybe, it was still pretty incredible. It was nerve-racking to fly over a volcano. I may have played out a horrible scene or two in my head that should an emergency landing take place, it would have incinerated the helicopter.
Our pilot and guide helped add to the excitement as he circled quite hard over openings and got maybe closer than I was comfortable with. As the tour came to its close and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” came over our headsets, we headed towards some beautiful waterfalls and then made our way back over into the city where we landed right on time.
All in all we enjoyed our experience flying over the island of Hawaii by helicopter and I would recommend the tour to friends and family visiting Hawaii. We have been itching to get back to Hawaii and while we had this great experience, we probably wouldn’t book the tour again unless we got an unbelievable deal or were going to see something else (maybe over Kauai).
As the tour is a commercial flight the same rules apply to children that would on a commercial airplane flight. Children aged 24 months and younger are eligible to fly as “lap infants” and children over 24 months require their own seat. Some things that are a bit different here are the seat belts that fit more like a harness, and the wearing of a flotation device that is required (for all passengers but looks different for child passengers). Of the flights we saw take off before us and after us, Lucy was the only child we saw and while I am sure that other children take these flights, it may have been beneficial to the airline and ourselves to offer a child rate ticket. I assume that there are some families that can not justify the price and I know that even on our flight, some seats flew empty.
Other Essential Details
It is important to note that there are very strict weight requirements for helicopter flights. When we called in to book our tickets, we had to give our exact weight to the agent over the phone and we were told that we would then be weighed again once we arrived at the airport. For passengers weighing more than 250 lbs a second seat is required for purchase and offered at a rate of 50% of the full fare ticket.
After a “weigh in” at the check in desk, the computer distributes assigned seating to balance the aircraft which means you may not be seated directly next to your traveling companions but with such a small cabin everyone is basically right next to everyone else. Once you have been weighed you are asked to sit through a safety demonstration and given an inflatable life vest to wear during your flight. Boarding the aircraft is done one at a time and with assistance from Blue Hawaiian staff.
While it was totally worth it to do it once, when we return to Hawaii next year we won’t likely do it again. Restrictions like weight can be a hazard even for passengers who wouldn’t otherwise worry about buying a second seat, children are expensive unless they are under 24 months. Lastly, it was a great experience but didn’t necessarily match our expectations (as set by the brochure).
Have you tried an island helicopter tour with Blue Hawaiian or another provider? How did your experience differ from mine?
We have done two helicopter tours.
The most recent was a tour of Monserrat by Caribbean Helicopters in February 2017. It was fantastic. Our son loved sitting up front with the pilot in the “bubble”. The pilot was very knowledgeable and personable.
In 2015, we chartered a helicopter for the day to tour around the BVIs. This was to nearly extravagant as it sounds, it was just a bit more than chartering a private sailboat for the day. The company was Antilles Helicopter Service. We flew out of Virgin Garda and around the BVIs (Necker, Saba, Tortola, etc.) down to Anegada where we landed on the beach. We spent a couple of hours touring the island, swimming and lunch on the beach. Typing this makes me very sad given the current state of the BVIs. The water clarity was amazing, we could see sharks, turtles and schools of fish from the air. The pilot was an absolute delight and really enhanced our experience.
Tipping is interesting because I wouldn’t tip my airline pilot. We did tip both pilots because, as you mentioned, they were as much as a tour guide/educator as a licensed pilot. Both were employees of the companies. I don’t remember the amount but likely 20-25% of the cost.
Your tour around the BVIs sounded amazing – I’m totally jelous. Your tips were more generous than mine, but it also felt a little more like scheduled flights and some midpoint between a true commercial airline and a tour company. I am not sure if I would revise it given the chance again, but I will say that perhaps it is based on an experience-by-experience basis.
Have you even considered how loud helicopters are, and how it affects the people, the land, and animals on the ground? Have you even thought about the invasion of privacy people feel as you fly over them taking pictures of the properties they own, and maintain, like they’re animals in a zoo? Have you thought about all the exhaust pollution that you spew all over the islands?
This is not Disney Land. People LIVE here. Helicopter tours are the most disrespectful way to view the island. You disrespect the people, you disrespect and pollute the land, you disrespect and pollute the flora and fauna.
Promises not kept
I purchased 3 tickets 6 months ago for a helicopter trip provided by Blue Hawaiian. I was later informed I would need to pay an additional fee of $170 because of my weight. I requested the fee be waived, which blue hawaiian agreed to. On the day of the flight they demanded the fee anyways. I refused and they would not refund me. I believe they breeched our agreement. Adding a last minute fee, they had already waived, seems very unethical. Seems they are more interested in $$, than the customer experience.