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Planning for Hawaii on a Budget: Oahu

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

Why? It probably has something to do with the cost of getting to the said island and then staying on it.

If the phrase “paradise” shows up, most likely so will the dollar signs. But that doesn't mean a budget traveler cannot afford the experience.

Ko Olina lagoon on Oahu (photo: Michelle Maria, Pixabay)
Ko Olina lagoon on Oahu (photo: Michelle Maria)

Even such famous (and pricey) destinations like Hawaii can be done on a budget if you do your homework and plan.

I've been preparing for a week-long trip to Oahu and have a solid plan on how to stick to my budget while still experiencing as much of Hawaii as possible.

Here's what I've learned about planning for Hawaii on a budget, specifically Oahu.

Waikiki Beach (photo: skeeze, Pixabay)
Waikiki Beach

Get a Deal on Airfare

If you're like me and heading to Hawaii from the East Coast, airfare will cost a pretty big chunk of change.

Even flying from the West Coast isn't cheap. The key here is to keep an eye on flights early on various airlines and booking sites.

Using a site like Skyscanner with a ‘check whole month' feature is helpful because you can see when the cheapest day to travel is.

I kept an eye on Skyscanner for weeks before I booked my flight and eventually bought 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.

Use the Skyscanner search box to find the best flight deal; you might be surprised at what you see!

Also, be sure to download the Skyscanner app.

Related: How to Find Cheap Flights

Waikiki Beach is a good place to stay when planning for Hawaii on a budget (photo: yestoforever, Pixabay)
Waikiki Beach – Honolulu, Oahu (photo: yestoforever)

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 from Oahu to Kona on the Big Island can set you back $150.

Plus, exploring only one island means you can devote more time to it and travel slower.

If you decide to go this one-island-only route, I suggest Oahu, home to Honolulu's state capital.

Yes, Honolulu is probably the most touristy 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.

See also: Island Hop the South Pacific on a Budget

Road to Hana (photo: nlang06, Pixabay)
Road to Hana (photo: nlang06)

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 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 the way to go. It will save you money on rental car fees and gas (which is expensive in Hawaii), and you'll even do your part to help the environment.

Diamond Head mountain and Waikiki beach (photo: alemus, Pixabay)
Diamond Head mountain and Waikiki beach (photo: alemus)

Stay in Hostels

Yes, Oahu DOES have hostels! Many Honolulu hostels are around Waikiki Beach, which means they are close to restaurants, nightlife, transportation, and inviting Pacific waters.

As long as you're willing to sacrifice room service and book a dorm bed, you can get the same views in a hostel for a fraction of what you'd pay at Waikiki hotels.

Where to Stay in Honolulu – Waikiki

Polynesian Hostel Beach Club – Beds start at $26 in the 6-person dorms; semi-private and private rooms are also available, with a studio costing $75.

Perks include free wi-fi; complimentary snorkels, masks, and beach gear; and surfboard and bike rentals for an extra charge.

Check Price & Availability at Hostelworld.com

Waikiki Beachside Hostel – standard rates average $34 per bed in the dorms. Semi-private rooms are also available. Perks include free wi-fi, surfboard and moped rental (extra charge), and discounted tours.

Check Price & Availability at Hostelworld.com

Hostelling International Honolulu – Beds start at $25 per night for members ($28 for non-members); private rooms are available for $58 for members ($64 for non-members). Perks include proximity to the beach and free boogie boards and sports equipment.

Check Price & Availablity at Hostelworld.com

We also recommend checking out Hotels Combined, a meta-aggregator that searches all the popular booking sites and compares all the best deals.

It's worth a look as any time you can score a sweet hotel deal for what you'd be paying at a hostel or close to it!

Click here to search on Hotels Combined.

Staying in a hostel will save you a lot of money (even the private rooms are less than half what you'd pay at a hotel), and you'll also have the opportunity to meet travelers from around the world.

Waikiki Beach, Honolulu (photo: skeeze, Pixabay)
Waikiki Beach, Honolulu

Get Some Sun

Sitting on the beach, soaking up some sun, and people-watching won't cost you anything.

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, 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.

Related: The Beauty of Oahu

Consider a visit to the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor when planning for Hawaii on a budget (photo: drewga, Pixabay)
USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor (photo: drewga)

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 across Oahu that you can do for free or for little cost. For example, consider the following. Everything below are things to do in Oahu with kids, too.

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 want to see some hula or learn some moves yourself, consider checking out the Royal Hawaiian shopping center in downtown Honolulu.

They offer free hula lessons, lei-making classes, and even ukulele lessons on weekdays. 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 Japanese attacked the U.S. 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 visiting 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 yourself 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 strenuous hike, but you'll be rewarded at the top with panoramic views of Honolulu.

Related: 3 Popular Hikes on Oahu

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 the Pineapple Garden Maze is one of the main attractions. 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 charge $100+ 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 excursion.

***

There are, of course, many other ways to save money in Hawaii.

Eating at local restaurants, cooking meals, ignoring kitschy souvenirs, or finding a friend to stay with can also help you keep expenses down.

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.

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Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:

Sharon

Monday 2nd of May 2016

I am going to Honolulu in November for 2 weeks and was thinking to go Island hopping and visit Maui for the day. My plan was to leave early and get a cheap flight to Maui. Can I visit this Island on my own or do I need to pay for a tour. I'm not going to be hiring a car so I'm relying on the bus from the airport into town? Any advice would be great.thanks Sharon

Tobi

Thursday 7th of April 2016

Nice Post about Hawaii. I totally love Hawaii too. If you want to check out my post: Hawaii Kauai

Amanda Oahu

Sunday 27th of September 2015

Good tips ! This is how I got started on my " week long " trip to Hawaii ! I didn't go back! It's been 4.5 years now! ~Amanda

Pete

Wednesday 5th of August 2015

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

Katey W

Friday 31st of July 2015

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 Roomorama.com 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 :)

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