Planning for Hawaii on a Budget – Oahu

The following is a guest post by Amanda Williams. If you’d like to guest post on Go Backpacking, please read our submission guidelines.

Very rarely do you look at the itinerary of a budget traveler or backpacker and see a tropical, Pacific island listed there.

Why? Well, it probably has something to do with the cost, both of getting to said island, and then actually staying on it. If the phrase “paradise” shows up, most likely so will the dollar signs.

Waikiki Sunset
Sailboats silhouetted in a Waikiki sunset. (Photo by: gavdana)

But that doesn’t mean a budget traveler cannot afford the tropics. In fact, even such popular (and pricey) destinations like Hawaii can be done on a budget if you do your homework and plan ahead.

I’ve been preparing for a week-long trip to Oahu for months, and have come up with a pretty solid plan on how to stick to my budget, yet still experience as much of Hawaii as possible.

Here’s what I’ve learned about planning for Hawaii on a budget, and specifically Oahu:

Plane over Hawaii
The blue waters of Hawaii, as see from the air. (Photo by: The Daily Ornellas)

Get a Deal on Airfare

If you’re like me and heading to Hawaii from the East Coast, airfare is going to cost a pretty big chunk of change. Even flying from the West Coast isn’t cheap. The key here is to start keeping an eye on flights early on a variety of airlines and booking sites. Using a site like Bing Travel that has a fare predictor is helpful, because it can predict when the prices are likely to be going up or down.

I kept an eye on Bing for weeks before I booked my flight, and eventually picked up a round-trip ticket from Pittsburgh to Honolulu for $650, tax and flight insurance inclusive. The trade-off was extra layovers, but that’s a compromise I was willing to make.

A view of the city of Honolulu. (Photo by: Irargerich)

Have a Home Base

While island-hopping in Hawaii probably sounds appealing, it makes much more sense financially to pick one island and stick to it. Airfares from one island to another aren’t cheap — for example, going just from Oahu to Kona on the Big island can set you back $150. Plus, exploring just one island means you can devote more time to it and travel a bit slower.

If you decide to go this one-island-only route, I suggest Oahu, home to the state capital, Honolulu. Yes, Honolulu is probably the most touristed city in Hawaii. But it is also the largest city in the state, meaning there’s the most opportunity here to find ways to save money.

Hawaii Road
The road to Hana, on the island of Maui. (Photo by: the_tahoe_guy)

Don’t Rent a Car

Oahu — and Honolulu especially — has what I’m told is a pretty reliable transportation system called The Bus. You can go basically anywhere by bus for $2.50 one-way. Or, if you’re planning to stick around for a few days, purchase a 4-day pass for $25, which gets you unlimited rides on any regular and express buses. This, I think, is definitely the way to go. It will save you money on rental car fees, gas (which is expensive in Hawaii), and you’ll even do your part to help the environment.

Plumerias and a coffee mug.
Plumerias and a coffee mug. (Photo by: elisfanclub)

Stay in Hostels

Yes, Oahu DOES have hostels! Many Honolulu hostels are clustered around Waikiki Beach, which means they are close to restaurants and nightlife, as well as transportation and that inviting Pacific water. In fact, as long as you’re willing to sacrifice the room service and book a bed in a dorm room, you can get the same views and service in a hostel for just a fraction of the price you’d pay at the big Waikiki resorts and hotels.

Promising-looking Waikiki hostels include:

  • Polynesian Hostel Beach Club — Beds start at $26 in the 6-person dorms; semi-private and private rooms also available, with a studio costing $75. Perks include free wi-fi; free snorkels, masks and beach gear; and surfboard and bike rentals for an extra charge.
  • Waikiki Beachside Hostel — Beds as low as $13 for a co-ed shared large dorm right now with a special deal; normal rates average $29 per bed in the dorms. Semi-private rooms also available. Perks include free wi-fi; surfboard and moped rental (extra charge); and discounted tours.
  • Hostelling International Waikiki — Beds starting at $25 per night for members ($28 for non-members); private rooms available for $58 for members ($64 for non-members). Perks include close proximity to the beach, as well as free boogie boards and sports equipment.

Staying in a hostel will not only save you a lot of money (even the private rooms are less than half what you’d pay at a nearby hotel), but you’ll also have the opportunity to meet a lot of other travelers from all over the world.

The idyllic Hawaiian beach, on Oahu.
The idyllic Hawaiian beach, on Oahu. (Photo by: mandolin davis)

Get Some Sun

Sitting on the beach, soaking up some sun and people-watching won’t cost you a thing. Many hostels even provide free beach equipment like beach mats, boogie boards and snorkeling gear that you can take advantage of. On the weekend, check out Sunset on the Beach at Waikiki, where a free movie is shown on a giant 30-foot screen and local bands perform before the sun goes down.

And, if the crowds at Waikiki aren’t to your liking, simply hop a bus and head off to any one of Oahu’s other beautiful beaches. Head to Hanauma Bay for some of the best snorkeling in Hawaii, or check out Sunset Beach, Waimea Bay and Banzai Pipeline on Oahu’s North Shore for some of the best surfing in the world. If you’re on Oahu during the late fall/early winter months, you could probably spend days just watching surfers tackle 30-foot swells at North Shore.

USS Arizona Memorial
The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. (Photo by: jebvision)

Know About Free and Cheap Things to Do

Sure, you can pay $80 to attend a kitschy luau or take a bus tour around the island. But there are plenty of other things going on all across Oahu that you can do for free, or for very little cost.

For example, consider:

  • First Friday in Honolulu — On the first Friday of every month, crowds gather in Chinatown for free art exhibits, entertainment and restaurant specials.
  • Free lessons — If you do want to see some hulu or learn some moves yourself, consider checking out the Royal Hawaiian shopping center in downtown Honolulu. On weekdays, they offer free hula lessons, lei-making classes, and even ukulele lessons. At 6 p.m. every weeknight, there’s a free hula show.
  • Pearl Harbor — It’s hard for me to imagine visiting Honolulu without making the trip to visit Pearl Harbor, where the U.S. was attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941. It’s easy to get to by bus, and there’s a lot worth seeing. The USS Arizona Memorial and Museum are free of charge, as are the Bowfin Park Outdoor Exhibits and Submarine Memorial. Touring the USS Bowfin Submarine costs $10, and touring the USS Missouri Battleship will set you back $20. You can tack on the Pacific Aviation Museum for another $20. Don’t bother paying for a guided tour, however. You can go it on your own, or rent audio tours for a few dollars.
  • Hiking Diamond Head — If you’re the outdoors type, hiking up this extinct volcanic crater should probably end up on your list. You can take a bus to Diamond Head, and pay $1 to do the hike. It’s a moderately difficult hike, but you’ll be rewarded at the top with panoramic views of Honolulu.
  • The Dole Plantation — Ever wondered what a pineapple plantation looks like? Well you can visit one in Wahiawa. Admission to the grounds is free, but one of the main attractions here is the Pineapple Garden maze. Try your luck in it for $6.
  • Iolani Palace — Built in 1882, this palace in downtown Honolulu used to be the official residence of Hawaii’s monarchy. Take a self-led audio tour for $12.
  • Whale watching — During the winter months, whales are aplenty in Hawaii’s waters. And, while some operations will charge $100 or more for a sightseeing/whale watching tour, you can go for as low as $30 on the Star of Honolulu, a 4-story cruise ship, if you book an early-morning tour.


There are, of course, many other ways to save money in Hawaii. Eating at local restaurants instead of chains, cooking your own meals, ignoring the kitschy souvenirs, or finding a friend to stay with will also help you keep your expenses in check.

But, the moral of the story here is that anyone can afford Hawaii if they plan for it — even the budget travelers of the world.


About the Author: Amanda is a 20-something college grad with a journalism degree under her belt, which she plans to use to rid the world of bad grammar and “there, their, they’re” confusion. After studying abroad in New Zealand, Amanda has decided she’d love to move there one day so she can wear jandals, eat hokey pokey ice cream, and continue pretending she understands the rules of rugby.

When not working or blogging, Amanda can usually be found dreaming of her next travel adventure, wherever that may be. Follow her at A Dangerous Business, on Twitter @DangerousBiz or on Facebook.


  1. Laura says

    The bus is reliable in Honolulu… as in, it will come. But it is rarely on time. I used it for an entire summer while I was there. You can, however, call the bus company at any time, tell them where you are and they will at least tell you when the next bus will be coming. Hope you have a great time!

  2. Aheselton says

    I unintentionally discovered a way to shave a few dollars off my total when I went to Hawaii a couple of years ago. I was headed to Big Island, but I saved over $400 by booking my flight to Honolulu and taking an inter island flight for $50. In my case, island hopping paid off.

  3. Marquita (Marty) Herald says

    Congratulations Amanda – you did your homework! I live in Maui and have spent most of my life working in the visitor industry. It is refreshing to read an article that is creative and factual about the Islands. I see someone mentioned the bus . . . that’s also a good suggestion. Usually pretty crowded, but their clean and inexpensive and go pretty much everywhere. Good luck and have a terrific time!

    • says

      Thanks, Marquita! I actually used The Bus the whole time I was there, and it was great. Sure, not all of the buses run on time, and it takes a long time to get anywhere. But you really can’t beat the price and ease of it all!

  4. Sofia @ As We Travel says

    Good to know you don’t have to rent a car to get around, and that it’s cheaper taking buses. A lot of good info there!

  5. Josiah says

    Thank you so much for the amazing info, me and my best friend are planning on going in May, probably stay at a hostel and take the bus, and do a number of things you suggested , thanks a lot!

  6. sam says

    I’m going to hawaii to backpack for a month shortly and this was very helpful. I’m from NZ and we welcome people like you to NZ Amanda. Hope you get citizenship/residency one day and we cross paths.

  7. Kelly Rogers says

    You have great tips. And your readers are also sharing tips on how to save money in Hawaii. It’s great to find a blog that has a dynamic sharing of ideas.

  8. Rina says

    Anyone got any tips on where to travel solo in Maui? I’d like to spend a few days there but I have no idea where the best beaches are for surf/snorkelling/SUP, etc? Or is this place just for couples? HELP!

  9. says

    Great tips! I would add that Oahu has a lot of Farmers Markets. If you’re staying in a hostel, these are great to visit to find cheap local food. The one on Saturday mornings at Kapiolani Community College is the most popular and definitely worth checking out!

    • Sam says

      DO RENT A CAR! Best way to see the island, the bus from waikiki to the north shore takes forever so if you only go for a day trip can be pointless. If you do rent make sure you go on expedi or rent a car FROM THE AIRPORT. At least half the price of places in town, i got rental card for around $15 a day. You don’t need the extra insurance, just basic cover.

  10. Brian says

    Need a place to stay for two males.My younger Brother has just sworn into the U.S.M.C. AND has not seen the world,we have not been or gone anywhere together.Neither of us have seen the Island.That is one of are Dreams that we both have.We are from Huntington Beach and want some real surf. Thank you ……Brian.v

  11. Yolanda Dutro says

    Hey so the other day my friend and I were talking about how much we want to visit Hawaii. And the idea of backpacking there came up! Your website was very helpful and honestly gave me hope that this trip could actually happen.

    So tell me…did you go there yet? Because based on the writing it sounds like you havent yet. If you have… anymore insider tips? Like do we need a lot of cash on hand? Or what to pack.

    Thank you again!

  12. Katey W says

    Great advice! I must agree that though it’s usually crowded in hostels (and it may not be very comfortable) you get to meet other likeminded travellers, which is a boon of staying there. Plus you save money!! But I think I prefer renting rooms/apartments, because it’s private and cheaper than the average hotel. I tried renting through before and it was a surprisingly good experience (it was my first time, and I kept hearing horror stories about rental apartments……. it really deterred me from trying at the start). But now I am a convert :)

  13. Pete says

    Hi, I was wondering if I could save some money on ecomodation by just sleeping in a tent. Is it common or even possible around there? Thanks for your input

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