First, if you’re reading this, congratulations on having the absolutely wonderful dilemma of trying to decide between Hawaii or Mexico for a family vacation. Second, if you’re reading this you’re probably a parent so I’ll save you some time and let you know that both are great options. However, if you have a few minutes and want a more detailed comparison of the pros and cons of each of these popular family vacation destinations then continue reading…
Hawaii or Mexico: Picking the best destination for your family
As with any trip there are lots of factors to consider when you’re deciding whether to go to Hawaii or Mexico. Budget, safety, transportation, flight length, attractions, natural beauty, and culture are just a few things to ponder. Take a look at the CDC website if you’re thinking of traveling to Mexico to find out about any current health or safety issues.
Typically Mexico is a more affordable destination than Hawaii. If you like all-inclusive resorts you can find some great deals, especially if you’re able to travel during non-peak times (ie: not during winter or spring break). Even boutique hotels are more affordable in Mexico or at least offer a little more bang for your buck. Over spring break we stayed at a quaint hotel on the beach in Tulum, complete with a delectable breakfast, air-conditioning, and a large ocean front room for $225 a night. Not a brag-worthy deal but I certainly felt like a celebrity and for half the price of what that would cost in Hawaii.
Aside from the cost of accommodation, food in Mexico also tends to be cheaper. Restaurants in tourist areas will have prices that are comparable or only slightly cheaper than California prices but when you get outside of these areas you can have a fantastic plate of food for a fraction of what it would cost at home. In Hawaii food is expensive. Even when you go to a grocery store you’ll be shocked by the cost of a gallon of milk. That being said if your heart is set on Hawaii there are good deals to be found on Airbnb and microwaved Instant Ramen tastes like a gourmet meal when it’s eaten after a day of frolicking in a tropical ocean.
The trade-wind breezes blow aloha through the Hawaiian islands and the vibe is laid-back. You can leave your flip-flops on the beach and go for a swim without worrying that someone is going to take them. In Hawaii walking after dark feels safe and you can open your mouth in the shower without any unpleasant stomach ramifications.
That being said, I’ve been to Mexico numerous times and the worst things that has happened to me is my son who was eighteen months old contracted salmonella. He was fine but coming home from a vacation and needing to make a trip to the doctor isn’t ideal. So while I would not describe most tourist destinations in Mexico as unsafe, I would say that you do need to be a little more vigilant about theft and health than you do in Hawaii. Especially, if you’re traveling with babies or young children who will be more likely to ingest water in the bath or try to pet every stray dog that wanders past.
Hawaii is pretty straightforward when it comes to driving. Aside from the occasional distracting rainbow or rooster crossing it’s not much different than driving at home. However, rental cars, like everything in Hawaii are a little more expensive than what you’d find on the mainland.
Driving in Mexico is always an adventure. In many parts you’ll find wide-open highways and plenty of signage. But navigating your way through a city can be a white-knuckled driving experience that can lead to some tense marital moments. As far as renting a car goes, it’s not too different from renting a car in the U.S. Rental car companies will likely try to convince you to purchase extra insurance so be sure to do some research on what’s covered by your credit card/auto insurance company. If renting a car and driving in a foreign country sounds like the antithesis of a relaxing vacation many places can arrange to have a driver pick you up from the airport or recommend a shuttle service.
Flight length really depends on where you’re flying to and from. Most west coast cities have direct flights to the most popular tourist destinations in both Mexico and Hawaii. Flights to Mexico might be slightly cheaper but there’s also good deals to be found flying to Hawaii also.
Although the flight duration might be similar to both places you will have to go through customs if you’re flying to Mexico which can add a little extra time to your travel day. You’ll also need a passport. Easy enough for a person without kids, but parents beware that getting passports for kids requires jumping through a few bueracratic hoops.
Both Hawaii and Mexico have plenty of natural beauty. In the Yucatan you’ll find steamy jungles and stunning tourqoiuse water that rivals the most beautiful places in Kauai for it’s ability to make your heart skip a beat. And you can’t beat swimming in a crystalline cenote or eating fish tacos while watching the sunset in Baja. However, something that puts a slight damper on the natural beauty of Mexico is the prevalence of trash. Many of the popular tourist areas have workers who remove trash that washes in with the tide but that doesn’t hide the fact that trash is an issue. In Hawaii you’ll find the occasional plastic bag or bottle cap but for the most part the beaches are clean.
Teach your kids a little Spanish, visit a Mayan ruin, eat some street tacos and you’ll feel like you’re taking the first steps to raising a worldly child. But that’s only if you get outside the resorts and the main tourist areas. If you don’t venture out beyond the resort or theme parks you won’t get much of a glimpse of the fascinating culture that makes a trip to Mexico meaningful.
Likewise in Hawaii it’s going to take a little effort to peel away the layers of leis and floral shirts to find the more soulful side of the islands. Read my article on educational experiences in Maui to find out more about ways to learn more about the history and culture of Hawaii.
Things to Do
If you’re planning on wanting to do some hikes with the family or endless snorkeling, Hawaii is definitely the better choice. In Mexico the reef is off the coast so the best snorkeling sites require a boat ride. That’s not to say you can’t snorkel from the beach in some places, it’s just not the same variety of fish and water clarity as when you take a boat ride. In Hawaii there are a multitude of nice snorkel spots that are just a few flipper kicks away from shore. If you do want something a little extra special there are plenty of tour groups that offer snorkel boat trips, although plan on spending $100+ per person.
Hiking in Hawaii, like snorkeling, is also very accesiable to tourists. There are plenty of signs, trail maps, and information on the internet to help you find a trail that most likely has a waterfall, a secluded beach, a stunning vista, or possibly all three! Mexico has hiking but from what I’ve seen the trails aren’t quite as prevalent or well marked. If you’re a avid hiker you will be fine but families will probably find hiking in Hawaii is logistically easier.
If zip-lining, horseback rides, theme parks, and boat rides are what you picture doing on your vacation, both Mexico and Hawaii have plenty of these type of attractions. Read my article on exploring the Yucatan with kids for more ideas on interesting things to do in the Cancun/Tulum area.
Bottom Line: Mexico is often a better option for budget travel but you will have to be more vigilant about keeping an eye on your belongings. If you’re traveling with toddlers spending a little extra money to go to Hawaii might be worth the splurge because you won’t have to worry about things like stray dogs, drinking bottled water, and dealing with getting a passport. Either way both places are great family trips!