I had the fortune of a getaway to Oahu last week. It was an impulsive trip for therapeutic reasons, and I decided when I went I was going to spend as little as possible while still enjoying the beauty of the island.
My focus was to feel the aloha and appreciate the magic of Hawaii without spending a lot of cash. To save money, the trick is really to think like a local and not a tourist. I spent three days in Kailua, two days on the north shore, and my final two days in Waikiki. Here’s how I saved money on my week long adventure in Oahu.
Fly Off Season + Pack Only a Carry On
One of the biggest expenses, in addition to lodging, is actually getting there so the cheapest way to do it is to avoid summer and the holiday season and instead fly to Hawaii in the off season. I found a non-stop round trip ticket from San Francisco to Honolulu for less than $400 because I booked my trip for travel in October. Hawaii is in a tropical climate and the entire week I was there, it was still balmy and hot, and also much less crowded than it is in summertime. Also, save on those pesky $25 fees to check a bag each way by packing light! All you really need for a week long beach vacay are a few pairs of shorts, tank tops, a bathing suit, and flip flops, easy to pack in a carry on bag.
Read the Local Guides
Every Hawaiian island has a “This Week” publication and it’s filled with a lot of helpful information and also coupons for discount activities, this is really helpful if you want to get an idea about what’s out there and compare prices on excursions, tours, luaus, etc.
Skip the Pricey Hotels
I’m an huge fan of staying with Airbnb hosts, and I did it twice on this trip. I rented a private room with a local family with my own bedroom and bathroom. I reasoned I’m only there to sleep and shower so it saved me a ton of money. I swam in their pool and played with their kids and sunbathed under their palm trees. I borrowed their beach chair and umbrella and beach towels when I went to the beach, I made new friends on the island and it was really great!
Eat Like a Local
If you can rent a room with a mini fridge that’s the best, then you can stock up on a little fruit and some water (or adult beverages) at the grocery store. I found fresh poke at the grocery stores, and inexpensive plate lunches at the shopping centers, all based on recommendations by locals or search engine tips. Also look for food trucks! They offer a great selection of fresh seafood and tasty tacos.
Opt for Public Transportation
I love to walk so I never needed any transportation while staying in Waikiki on my last two days since it’s pretty condensed, but to explore the island you have two options, get a cheap rental car or take The Bus which goes all over the island. For my first 5 days in Kailua and the north shore, I rented a car for $20 a day but returned it when I got to Waikiki. Most hotels charge hefty parking fees, so I recommend you skip the rental car in Waikiki and rent a bike or scooter, or get a trolley pass or just walk!
Skip expensive tour guides and lessons and get out on the water on your own. Find a safe beach or cove with a lifeguard and outdoor showers and bathrooms. Rent a surfboard or SUP or kayak from the local surf shack, then get out on the water by yourself!
One non-profit I wanted to mention that helped me save money was Travel2Change, this exists on all the Hawaiian islands. One morning I volunteered to clean up microplastic on the beach in exchange for discount snorkel gear and a kayak. I also got to spend two hours with an Outrigger Canoe team in Waikiki for free by booking it through that organization. Definitely check it out!
Stroll Around the Resorts
I’ve stayed in fancy resorts before, but they’re really expensive so on this trip I just went exploring the hotels on foot. The lobbies and grounds of the resorts along the beaches are open to the public so I stalk them all and check out the decor and stroll through the pools and the gardens. Most of the resorts have public beach access so you can walk around them then head out to the beach.
If a resort has a particularly cool vibe or view or drink special, one thing I’ll do is splurge on cocktail at the bar and pretend for a moment I’m a guest there when I’m not. :)
But when it comes to adult beverages, they add up quickly when you’re on vacay so….
Take Advantage of Happy Hour
Another great way to save money in Oahu is to search out the happy hour menus for less expensive appetizers and food. I loved Uahi Grill in Kailua for mai tais and sashimi, and the Hula Grill (above the famous Duke’s) in Waikiki for mai tais and tacos.
If you’re hanging out on Waikiki Beach there’s a beach front drink stand called Koa Oasis for less expensive beers and cocktails, and includes a military discount.
And of course you can always grab a cheap cooler and some adult beverages at the local market and then just camp on the grass or sand to soak up the sun.
Become a Beach Bum
A primary reason anyone travels to Hawaii is for the beaches so embrace the beach bum life! All you need is your swimsuit and towel, rent a beach chair and umbrella for the day, pack a cooler of sandwiches and beverages and have fun in the sun. You can’t beat the people watching: cute little kids, locals walking their dogs, and all different kinds of people playing in the waves. Like the other Hawaiian islands, Oahu has so many public beaches where couples and families all hang out for hours with a picnic and their beach toys, I’m always entertained by the surfers!
In Waikiki, there were a lot of beach stands and a few stores across from the beach where you could purchase an inexpensive float for the day for just a few bucks and go float in the turquoise waves!
Embrace Hawaiian Traditions
In different parts of the island you can find free hula lessons or ukulele lessons and see free hula shows – the This Week guide mentioned above has a lot of that information and it’s also advertised around so keep your eyes open!
Explore the Natural Beauty
Hikes and botanical gardens are free (or sometimes there’s a nominal fee for entry) so make the jungles and the mountain tops part of your experience! In Kailua, I did the Pillbox Hike for 360 degree views of Oahu and in Waikiki I hiked all the way to the top of Diamond Head. All that exercise led to amazing views! I also visited the Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden and saw some really stunning botanicals, highly recommended!
Sunsets are Free!
The iconic Hawaiian sunset is alone worth the trip, right? If you’re on a beach with a western view they’re for you to enjoy in the evening!
Just a few more of my images to show off the beauty of Oahu….
Many of these money saving tips apply to the other islands — Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island too. Friends who live in Hawaii, what did I miss? What are some of the local tips you can share to make visiting Hawaii affordable?