Hawaii Helicopter Tours: 8 Tips Before You Book

If you are planning a trip to Hawaii, one thing you should include on your itinerary is a helicopter tour.  Aside from the obvious (that Hawaii is breathtaking from above), a fair amount of the islands can only be seen from the air.  Kauai, for example, is only 10% accessible by car.  The rest of it has to be seen by foot, boat, or my favorite - helicopter!

Having been to Hawai'i over 50 times, I have seen and done a lot over the years yet helicopter tours continue to sit at the top of my Oahu's Top 10 list.  If you are into photography even at the hobbyist level, there is no better photo opportunity than this.

Side note: let’s talk about drones real fast.  Can drones get you the same photos that a helicopter tour can? Sure, possibly, but there’s one huge difference: the experience.  If your goal is just to get the shot, use a drone.  If you’re like me and you instead focus your trips around experiences and “getting the shot” is an after thought to that - do a helicopter tour.  Seeing the beauty of Hawai’i from the air is something you will never forget and cannot be accomplished by looking through your GoPro pics from your drone on your laptop :)

Assuming you are convinced that a helicopter tour is a must on your Hawai'i bucket list, here are 8 tips you should know before you book!




Find a company that you feel safe with

First and foremost, find a company that makes you feel comfortable.  Helicopters can crash, yes, and it’s certainly not unheard of in Hawaii.  Google the company, research their safety ratings, etc.  Before I went on my first tour I was very hesitant because my mom grew up in Hawaii and almost scared me out of doing it because she had heard about a crash or two.  However, the company I ended up choosing in Oahu answered all of my questions and made me feel completely at ease.  The last thing you want is for your flight to be ruined by anxiety so do your research!


Pick the right route

It’s probably safe to assume that before your Hawai’i trip starts, you’ll have done a fair amount of research on what to see and do there.  The same should be applied to your helicopter tour. Look at the different options each company offers and make sure there’s one that fits your needs.  Do you want to focus on a specific part of the island? See the entire island more briefly? Are all the specific sites you hope to see included in the route? 

My $.02 - if you’re splurging on a helicopter tour, book a longer duration so you can see more.


Research the seating chart

If you’re into photography this one is important.  You will need to be flexible on the day of because the seating arrangement is dependent on weight, not whoever calls shotgun first.  Odds are you’ll aim to get a window seat, but you should also go a step further and figure out which side will likely be best.  You can figure this out based on the route - you’ll want to sit on the side closest to the island.  So if you are flying clockwise around the perimeter of the island, sit on the right; if counter-clockwise, the left.  If you want to be extra sure, ask your tour company which side has better views (but do it before hand via email or on the phone so people not in your group do not hear!) ;)

One exception to the rule is if you are flying doors-off.  More on that below!


Shop around for pricing

There are so many options for helicopter tours in Hawaii and each company usually offers numerous different tours so make sure you shop around a bit. Compare duration, what is included, etc. and be sure to check their site directly because often times you can find better deals there.  When booking tours in Hawai'i I always book through the company's site directly instead of those pushy tour companies you see handing flyers out at all the tourist spots!


Think about timing

If you are brand new to the island you will be visiting I’d suggest doing your tour closer to the beginning of your trip.  This way you’ll get a chance to see hopefully the majority of the island and identify things you’d like to explore further (on ground) while you still have the time.  Regarding time of day, weather patterns differ by island so I would ask the company you choose which time of day is best if there are multiple options since they will of course be the experts.  In general try to avoid times where there will be dark shadows or poor lighting.


Go doors off

If there is one tip you take from me, this should be it. Why go doors off? Totally. Unobstructed. Views.  Not just out the door that you are closest to, but out all doors! Last time I went I sat on the left window seat yet I was able to get photos out the back right door as well thanks to the ginormous hole.

If you do go doors off, bring a jacket! You’ll need one even if it’s 85 degrees out, I promise.  It is freezing up there especially when you are in an open air helicopter!  You also can’t have anything loose on you so dress accordingly. Make sure to wear shoes that cannot fly off, too.


Bring the right equipment

What "the right equipment is" will depend on how serious of a photographer you are.  Whatever camera you have will be good (any camera is better than no camera), but if you’re really trying to get awesome shots I’d bring the best camera you own and a wide angle lens. All of the photos on this post were taken from my dSRL with a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens that I rented for $39 from Hawaii Camera.  If you plan to visit Oahu and don’t own a great wide angle lens or simply don’t want to lug it all the way to Hawai’i with you, check them out.

Keep in mind that helicopters can be bumpy so you’ll want to shoot at a fast shutter speed.  Mine was at 1,000 or above in all of these photos.  You’ll likely also move in and out of sun and shadows so make sure to check your screen every once in awhile to confirm you’re getting what you’re expecting.

Note if you go the doors off route you cannot bring a change of equipment (lens, memory card, etc.) so make sure you are prepared!

If you want more info on camera settings for helicopter photography, check out this post by Paul Timba.


Enjoy the experience

Cheesy, right? But really, don’t spend 100% of the time looking through your camera’s view finder.  Take a lot of photos (of course!) but make sure to also put down your camera and enjoy the views from your own eyes as much as possible.  It really is remarkable.