6 Tips for Choosing a Hawaii Helicopter Tour

Six tips for Hawaii helicopter tour

In my opinion, a helicopter tour is much more thrilling than any amusement park ride I’ve ridden. The views are beyond description and there is so much to see. A helicopter tour in Hawaii is an ideal way to see the islands’ cliffs, forests, volcanic shape, beaches and craters. One of the reasons I love Hawaii is the diversity of terrain and by taking a helicopter tour, you can really see that. Before you take a helicopter tour, you should spend some time researching your options online. Here are tips to help you choose the best tour and enjoy it.

A view from a helicopter of remote Kauai waterfalls.

A view from a helicopter of remote Kauai waterfalls.

1. Make a Safe Choice – Each year, thousands of Hawaii visitors enjoy safe, scenic helicopter tours across the Hawaiian Islands. Before boarding a helicopter, it is important to recognize that there are risks. Accidents are infrequent, but they can and do happen.

How do you make a safe choice? First, choose a helicoptor tour that advertises that they are certified as a FAA Part 135 Air Carrier, which means that the operator is subject to higher standards than general aviation operators.

Next, you might find it helpful to look up accidents from the National Transportation Safety Board.   You can use this query form to search the accidents database.  To get Hawaii results, be sure to select Hawaii as the state and Helicopter as the category of aircraft. The report can be rather cumbersome to review. As you will see from the report, most incidents are nonfatal, thankfully. Several incidents have happened during flight instructor training while no passengers were onboard. Do take note of the “doing business as” column as name changing is a little trick that helicopter tour companies play to try to disguise their safety incidents.

For your reference, I’ve culled through the NTSB helicopter accident report for incidents in Hawaii. The follow list is of all the fatal accidents on sightseeing tours since January 2004:

  • November 10, 2011 – Blue Hawaiian Helicopters tour from Maui to Molokai
  • March 11, 2007 – Inter-Island Helicopters on Kauai
  • March 8, 2007 – Heli-USA Airways, Inc. on Kauai
  • September 23, 2005 – Heli-USA Airways, Inc. on Kauai
  • September 24, 2004 –  Bali Hai Helicopter Tours, Inc. on Kauai

2. Know the Seating Arrangement – Most helicopters used for touring have six passengers with a seating arrangement of two passengers in front and four in the back. That means that two people are going to be stuck in the middle seats in the back and with limited view. A-Star and Eco-Star type helicopters carry six passengers. The Eco-Stars are generally a little nicer than the A-Stars because they offer a bit more room, less noise, and more window space.

Though harder to find, there are some tour helicopter tours that take only four passengers. In that case, all four passengers have a direct window view.

Helicopter tours are best enjoyed if you are enjoying the ride rather than stressing over getting the best photo. For serious photographers, consider taking a doors-off tour. Without the doors, you don’t have to contend with refections and distortions from the windows. With the doors off, you’ll get much better photographs. As long as you are strapped in with the safety belts, you won’t fall out. You will be exposed a bit more to the elements and the cooler temperatures at the higher altitude. Make sure your camera equipment is secure.

Helicopter tour companies that we have used with great results are Safari HelicoptersInter-Island Helicopters (four passenger, doors off) and Blue Hawaiian. We took a unique eco-tour with Safari Helicopters and a standard tour with Blue Hawaiian.

Bear in mind that seating will be based on the weight of you and your friend/partner. Weight needs to be balanced on the helicopter to make it fly properly and ultimately for safety reasons. It has been our experience that couples always sit together.

If you are taking a helicopter tour in Kauai, request the right side because most tours circle the island clockwise and you will be able to get the best view of the Na Pali Coast from the right side. You can make the request, though they cannot guarantee seating.

3. Shop online for best pricing – Most companies offer a nice discount for booking directly with them online.

4. Timing your Tour – If possible, try to book your tour on the first or second day of your trip so that you will gain a better orientation of the island.

5. What to do on the day of your tour:

Do

  • Pay close attention and follow all safety instructions and don’t hesitate to ask questions about them.
  • Wear dark clothing without pattens to minimize the glare on the windows.
  • If you are prone to motion sickness, make preparations and/or take medication per labeled instructions.
  • Use high speed film/settings for your camera.
  • Hold your camera lens near the window to minimize reflections. Just don’t touch the window because the vibration will transfer to your hand and camera.

Don’t

  • Wear earrings because they could get in the way of your headphones.
  • Spend too much time looking at the scenery through tiny viewfinder of your camera.
  • You might want to avoid having a meal just before the tour.

6. Know which islands are the best for helicopter tours. I’m sure helicopter tours of all the islands are quite nice, but if you have a choice go with Kauai or the Big Island. Kauai is my top pick because of the views of Waimea Canyon, the Na Pali Coast, and seeing the remote waterfalls at the Waialeale Crater. The Big Island would be my second pick because of seeing the volcano activity at Kilauea. I have been fortunate enough to enjoy helicopter tours of Kauai, the Big Island, and the Great Barrier Reef. My favorite was the Kauai tour.

I’ll close these tips for finding the best helicopter tours in Hawaii with a few photos from tours helicopter tours I’ve taken in Hawaii.

This photo is of the Na Pali Coast of Kauai. Notice the rainbow:

image

The following photo of “liquid rock” in action was taken at Pu’u O’o. At the time, a helicopter tour was the only way to see any active lava flow.

image

 

The following photo is from the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory showing a lava flowing as viewed from the air.

lava flow on big island photo by HVO

Cliffs of the Hamakua Coast on the Big Island.
Waterfalls along the Kohala Cliffs

Please feel free to add your helicopter tour tips in the comments.


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About Sheila Beal

Sheila Beal is the founder and editor of Go Visit Hawaii. You can connect with Sheila Beal on Twitter, Go Visit Hawaii on Facebook, or Sheila Beal on Google+.

43 comments

  1. Awesome! it seems really interesting, but I think would leave the helicopter dead :-)

  2. The helo tour was the best part of our trip to Oahu. The island greenery and blue ocean comes alive from way up there.

  3. “Don’t spend too much time looking at the scenery through the tiny view of your camera” is good advice. Not only are you missing out on the breadth of the beauty, but you may discover motion sickness that you never knew about!
    Our daughter-in-law realized that she was becoming “uncomfortable” during our helo ride. Once she put the camera down and took a few relaxing breaths, she was fine. I was born and raised on the island; this was my first helicopter tour and I loved it!!

  4. Wow. Thanks for this post. I’ve been to a lot of amusement parks but never have I taken a helicopter ride. (Only in a dream.) It would be amazing to do it for real.

  5. Any thoughts on claustrophobia?

    • Hmmm, CF. I’m not sure about that one. I think that the windows help to keep you from feeling closed in. I would say that if you don’t feel claustrophobic on a small plane, you would most likely not feel claustrophobic on a helicopter. You might want to call one of the helicopter companies in Hawaii and ask them about it. I’m sure they’ve had clients with the same concerns. Hope that helps.

  6. Hi Sheila,

    You blog is simply great and helped me a lot saving many hours to plan my visit to Hawaii in the thanksgiving week. I originally did not plan to go to Kauai but now I am reading your blog on this helicopter tour and I am tempted. Do you think it’s possible to spend a day , flying to Lihue from HNL in the morning around 11:45 AM or earlier , take the helicopter tour 90 Min and back to HNL again in the evening with the 4:00 PM flight ? The Safary helicopter tour departs from Lihue airport, do we need a car there to go to the heliport and comeback to the main airport to catch our flight back ? I will have my son , 4 yrs old and my husband with me, you think 4 yrs old can take the helicopter tour ? Thanks, Mou

    • Hi Mou — I’m excited to hear that you’re finding GoVisitHawaii.com to be useful for your vacation planning!

      I think that it would be possible to get in a nice helicopter tour of Kauai with a quick day trip from Oahu.

      I’m not sure about the minimum weight/age requirements for helicopter tours.

      I recommend you call Safari directly to ask your questions. I’m sure they’ll be glad to assist you with your questions and pick up from the airport. Here’s their toll free number: (800) 326-3356

  7. Oh Wow Sheila, I did not expect so quick reply..can not thank you enough. I called them and sounds like it’s possible !

    Mou

  8. Hi Sheila,
    Is there a particular helicopter company that you would highly recommend, with a nice balance between pricing, as well as the level of safety and satisfaction?

    • Hi Peter — Just my opinion, but from my observation, Safari Helicopters seems to take safety very seriously. I had a chance to talk to the owner one time and I was impressed at how much he stressed safety and how they have a schedule to replace parts before they show wear and tear.

      Safari offers discounts for booking online.

      Hope that helps and that you have a great helicopter tour! Please come back and tell us about your experience.

      • Sheila you are correct! If you type in “helicopter accident hawaii” I don’t see anything negative for Safari helicopters. They have never had a fatal accident. Unlike some companies who just pay alot to advertise that they are the “Best” in the state!

  9. We used Paradise Helicopters when we went to the Big Island! They were great and we did get to see lava! We also stopped in one of the valleys on our way back where we were able to explore and eat fresh tropical fruit right from the earth. It was wonderful!

    You can check it out on my blog

  10. Many thanks Sheila, your Go Visit Hawaii has been a big help. My wife and I are cruising the Hawaiian Islands in this May and have been researching the best option for a Helicopter flight. You have confirmed our choice of Kauai.
    Am also considering the “Entire Kauai Island Air Tour” in a fixed wing AIRVAN GA8 Aircraft of 1 hr duration. It is more economical, but am looking at value for money regardless of cost. Would appreciate any thoughts and comments

  11. Sheila
    Hello, I will be going to Hawaii this July 2014

    I was wondering about the helicopter tour.

    Are there any updates for 2014?

    I love your site, I’ll be on it until I leave.

    Thanks

  12. There’s nothing particularly risky about flying with the doors off, per se, because everybody is strapped into their seats; you cannot fall out. As a pilot, I’ve flown with doors on in cool weather and doors off in sunny, warm weather, and when the sun is hot and bright, doors off is definitely better. Due to limited human depth perception, after one is a few hundred feet off the ground there is little sensation of height, so it shouldn’t even bother someone with acrophobia.

  13. Your article is so helpful! We are going to three islands during our trip to hawaii (Maui, Kauai, and big island). We went ahead and booked DOORS OFF helicopter tours in Kauai and Big Island, but now that we are looking at costs, I feel like I might want to give up on one of them. Can you tell me what the pros and cons of the helicopter ride is in both Kauai and Big Island?? I may even end up doing both, but if I had to choose one which one. Some people say Kauai and some say Big Island.

  14. Sheila, do you know if it is possible to take a helicopter from one island to another for the purpose of inter-island travel (not a tour)?

  15. In 2012, my teenage daughter and son decided they wanted to visit Hawaii. Since we live in New York, I replied “I’m not flying halfway across the world to go to the beach!” Famous last words! We visited Maui in 2012, The Big Island and Oahu in 2013, and are set to visit Kauai in 2015. I can’t get enough of Hawaii! Anyway, thank you for the info about the helicopter tours. It sounds like a once in a lifetime activity, similar to our 6-seat prop plane tour of the Alaska fjords. I wasn’t convinced at first that it was safe, but it’s still one of my fondest memories. I’m sure the helicopter tour of Kauai will be similar.

    • David – your situation sounds a lot like mine. I never wanted to go to Hawaii in the first place, but my husband and our friends of wanted to go to Maui, so I relented. Our first trip was to Maui, where we first fell in love with Hawaii. Six months later, we were in Kauai and then another six months later, we were on the Big Island.

      We have also taken a prop plane tour of the fjords in Alaska. It was stunning. I think you will find Kauai to be equally amazing by helicopter.

  16. We are planning a trip to Oahu in Feb. 2015 and would like to take a helicopter tour. Can you recommend a good helicopter tour company–reasonably priced, safe and will give a great tour?

  17. Your blog is perfect … exactly what I was looking for. We are going to Big Island in a week with our 12 year old daughter and (almost) 8 year old son. My son’s primary interest is to see the volcano so we were planning to take a helicopter tour. I had 2 questions –
    1. Do you think a doors-off trip to the volcano would be too harsh for our 8 year old?
    2. We are thinking of either paradise or Safari Helicopters as they seem more economical. Do you recommend any particular company?

    • If you really want to experience everything about volcanoes do a tour with lavaland Hawaii. We did a your with them and it was amazing. Do both the helicopter ride and the tour with them to get the most out of your visit. Also. We did the closed door. Sulfur is not a good chemical to breathe in with open doors

    • I think it’s safer to be in an enclosed helicopter with children. When you buckle your seat belts, you’re held safely inside, but nothing stops anybody from unbuckling on a whim. Also, we found it to be a little scary at first with the doors off. A child might become even more frightened. — That’s just my 2 cents.

      I haven’t heard anything bad about Paradise. I did have the opportunity to meet the owner/operator of Safari once and I was really impressed with his dedication to safety and keeping the equipment well maintained.

      Don’t forget that you can see a lot of volcano history and activity on land at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Here’s a day-trip sight seeing plan from the Kona side to the Hilo side: http://www.govisithawaii.com/2013/06/03/kona-hilo-day-trip-waterfalls-volcano-lava/

      • One more thing, I recommend you call the helicopter companies to ask them if they’re flying over the active lava flow. The lava flow erupts in different spots, flows for a while and then stops before moving on to another site. There is no guarantee that it will be flowing in the future. At the time of writing this comment, lava is flowing in Pahoa towards residential areas. The county was prohibiting helicopters from flying and/or hovering over the residential areas. So, check to see where they’re able to go over the

          active

        areas.

  18. do you recommend take the tour in the morning or in the afternoon? i read some reviews that the best time to visit (see) waimea canyon are in the morning (less clouds) but in the other hand the best time to see the real color on napali coast is in the afternoon. i’m wondering if i take a tour in the afternoon will be better? i really want to take nice photos (good colors) of waimea canyon and napali coast.

    Thanks

    • There are no weather guarantees. There are some typical weather patterns, but they are not the exact same every day.

      We’ve taken three Kauai helicopter tours. All of them have been in the afternoon and all of them provided beautiful Waimea Canyon views/colors. Waimea Canyon is adjacent to the Na Pali Coast so the weather is very similar.

      If you are having trouble deciding when to schedule your Kauai helicopter tour. Call or email the helicopter tour company you are considering and ask for their advice.

  19. Thank you for this amazing website! I am literally planning my entire Hawaii trip based on your recommendations, notes and details!

    Onto my question – I am visiting Kauai and Maui during my trip. I have booked a sunset dinner cruise to visit the Napali coast in Kauai. I was initially intending to take a helicopter tour in Maui, but now torn between the 2 islands since you have recommended Kauai as #1 for helicopter tours. Since am taking the cruise, do you still think its a good idea to go for a helicopter tour in Kauai or would you advise I go for one in Maui? Looking forward to your feedback..

    • Vid – glad you’re finding Go Visit Hawaii useful for your Hawaii vacation planning.

      You can’t go wrong with a helicopter on either island. I’ve toured both islands by helicopter and I really think Kauai is best. It gives you a different perspective of the Na Pali Coast, Waimea Canyon and if conditions permit, a peek into Waialeale. Also, see this article on viewing the Na Pali Coast by land, air and sea: http://www.govisithawaii.com/2011/04/11/na-pali-coast-by-land-air-sea/

  20. Which helicopter tour company would you recommend for the big island for a big guy (about 270 lbs). From my limited research, it looks like there can be some pretty hefty (no pun intended) extra charges for big people.

    • Charlie – unfortunately, we do keep up with that data as it is subject to change without notification. If you are going to be staying in a hotel, call the concierge at the hotel and ask for their advice for your situation. They normally have regular conversations with the helicopter tour companies to keep informed of changes and may have extra insight that’s not available online.

      To help with your online research, the major helicopter tour companies on the Big Island are Safari Helicopters, Paradise Helicopters, Sunshine Helicopters and Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. If there are any other companies, I am not aware of them.

  21. How far in advance do you need to make reservations for a helicopter ride? Thank you.

    • Our advice would be to book as far in advance as you can to make sure you get the helicopter tour that you want — especially if you are visiting around a holiday or during the peak summer months. That being said, we’ve booked a tour with only a day or so advance planning, but that was during October when crowds are low.

  22. What is the best time to go to Hawaii? We are a group of 5 family members, can we hire a private helecopter for the Big Island and Mauai? Is it cheaper to take helecopter tours per person for each island or take a private helecopter? We are planning to go there for 3 days and 2 nights.

    Thank you!

    • Ketan – Here’s our article on the best time(s) to visit Hawaii: http://www.govisithawaii.com/2007/10/15/the-best-times-to-visit-hawaii/

      To our knowledge, there isn’t a helicopter tour that covers both the Big Island and Maui. You would most likely have to tour those islands separately. However, you might be able to charter a service that covers both. We’ve just never heard of one.

      We haven’t every priced out private helicopter charters. If that is of interest to you, contact some of the helicopter tour companies directly for their pricing and advice. Perhaps start a Blue Hawaiian which has a presence on both the Big Island and Maui.

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