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Arriving by Air: Kailua Kona is served by Keahole International Airport (KOA) with direct non-stop flights to and from the mainland U.S. and Japan, and interisland flights, mostly routed through Honolulu, but with a few direct flights to other islands as well. Interisland flights are via 'Ohana by Hawaiian, Island Air, and Mokulele Airlines.
Non-stop service to the mainland, Japan, and Canada seasonally, is available on United with 5 roundtrip flights a day non-stop from Denver, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, on American, Delta, JAL, and Air Canada. There are non-stop flights from Phoenix, on American.
Code share arrangements with other airlines are also available. Hawaiian flies through Honolulu to connect to the mainland, and also offers service to the Pacific, including Sydney.
Keahole Airport is located about 11 miles north of Kailua-Kona proper and 20 miles south of the Kohala resorts, and has an abundance of rental car agencies. There is an airport shuttle service, and taxis and limos are available. There is no free airport shuttle offered by any hotel. Estimate $50 per person for shuttles to Kohala resorts, and $30 to $35 to Kona.
Most people rent cars, as there is not a lot of public transportation. The Hele On buses are mostly designed to move workers to and from the resorts and don't offer much in the way of local service. There are free shuttles for Hilo Hatties, and sometimes for KMart and WalMart, that operate from Kailua Kona around the pier on days when the cruise ships are in. On days when there is not a ship, there is no service.
Rental car companies all place restrictions on some roads--Mauna Kea, South Point, and Waipio are all prohibited by most car rental agencies, as is driving off a paved road--even in a 4x4 vehicle. Saddle Road may be prohibited by your contract. It is written in the rental contract, and the state is an "At fault " state for insurance. Any damage done to the car being operated in a prohibited area will be billed to you directly and you will be required to pay prior to leaving the island. These charges can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, in the case of a 4x4 getting stuck.....and it is wise to obey any contract you put your name on.
Driving: The Big Island is encircled by what is essentially one main road. It changes names and numbers, but, essentially, it is Highway 11 to the south of Kailua-Kona, and Highway 19, north and east to Hilo. There are roads running parallel to these for varying distances, and a few north/south connectors to these parallel roads. Getting around is pretty simple, but, like the rest of the world, traffic is getting worse. It is good to avoid the peak traffic from around 2:00 PM to 5:30 or 6:00 in the area from the airport to Kailua Kona, and also further south from Keahou to Kainaliu, if at all possible.
Speed limits are 35 to 55 mph even on the highways. There are few passing lanes and no divided highways. Avoid driving after dark as the roads are poorly marked and there is no street lighting. Expect local drivers to drive under the speed limit much of the time. Use extra caution when driving...this island has the highest number of fatalities in the state, even more than Honolulu.
There aren't a lot of alternate routes, so the best solution is just to time your travel to miss the traffic. Any road work will tie up traffic, as well, since there are so few alternative corridors. If you MUST travel southbound (say from Waimea to Kailua-Kona) at peak traffic, try the upper loop on State Route 190, Mamalahoa Highway, also called the "old" Belt Road, which will bring you into Kailua Kona on Palani Road, or, if you take the turn off to Holualoa and follow it all the way to the end, it will bring you into Keahou at King Kamehameha III (Kam 3) Road. This doesn't really help much if you are going on further south to Capt. Cook or Kealakekua, but is something of an improvement if you are just trying to get to Keahou.
Arriving by Cruise Ship: There is one ship a week calling at Kailua-Kona year-round, the Pride of America operated by NCLA. Seasonally, Holland, Princess, and other lines call, usually from the West Coast on a round trip, occasionally starting in Honolulu and calling at Fanning Island. Kailua Kona is a tender port, and sometimes scheduled calls are cancelled due to high surf, particularly in the winter months. Arrival by tender is at the Kailua pier, which is also the starting place for the Ironman Triathalon. Kailua-town is very walkable from this point, with the bulk of the town to your right as you come off the pier.
There is an Enterprise Car Rental in town, with the rest of the major rental agencies out of town at the airport. Free shuttles operate on "boat days" to Hilo Hatties, WalMart and KMart. The Ali'i Drive shuttle runs the length of Ali' i Drive along the ocean front from the pier to Keahou. Ships offer excursions to spots further afield, and taxis and other rentals are generally available to those exiting the ship fairly early. From time to time, horse-drawn carriage rides through Kailua-town have been offered, although they haven't been seen lately.