Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

Don’t pass up the spam musubi. And don’t automatically assume you need a rental car for the whole trip.

Dreaming of turquoise waters, swaying palm trees, and the warm embrace of Hawaiian hospitality? Oahu beckons, but the sticker shock can sometimes feel like a cold splash of reality.

Oahu is the most developed and densely populated of the Hawaiian islands and is home to the state capital, Honolulu. And in fact, Honolulu is the second most expensive city in the U.S., according to NerdWallet’s database of nearly 300 major cities.

With a little planning and savvy know-how — your dream vacation doesn’t have to break the bank. From scoring deals on flights and accommodations to uncovering hidden local gems and free adventures, this guide unlocks 17 secrets to experiencing the magic of Oahu without necessarily maxing out your credit card. So, pack your aloha spirit, grab your reusable water bottle, and get ready to discover the paradise that awaits, thrifty traveler style.

Here are 17 underrated tips for saving on an Oahu vacation.

1. Visit at the right time

Visiting during shoulder season might mean more rain — but also more rainbows. (Photo by Sally French)

Visiting during shoulder season might mean more rain — but also more rainbows. (Photo by Sally French)

All the Hawaiian islands unsurprisingly draw in snow birds, seeking a tropical respite from bad winter weather in most other states. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s tend to be pricey.

Another good rule of thumb? The most expensive time to visit Oahu is anytime the kids are out of school, which includes not just Christmas but also spring break and summer.

One underrated strategy? Travel during shoulder season, which is when the crowds have gone home after peak travel season, but the off season hasn’t just yet begun. Prices are lower, hotels are emptier and all around, things have calmed down.

In Hawaii, shoulder season is typically March through May, plus September through Thanksgiving.

2. Comparison shop for airfare

Especially now that Southwest Airlines runs flights to Hawaii, the Aloha State is in easier reach for budget-minded traveler. Southwest fares are generally lower than other airlines — made even lower once you factor in benefits like free checked bags.

But, comparison shop against all airlines. Tools like Google Flights can be helpful in scoring sweet deals on Oahu airfare. Choose “Any dates” if your schedule is open. From there, use the calendar view to see price fluctuations across the month. It also offers filter views so you can compare all sorts of flights on factors including airline, number of stops and layover city/time. It also offers a Google flight alerts so you can get notified when fares dip.

3. Stay at least a block away from the beach


The Royal Hawaiian is a must visit, but you don’t necessarily have to stay there to bask in its pink glory. Just stroll through the lobby. (Photo by Sally French)

Only a handful of resorts sit right on the ocean in Waikiki, including the famous “Pink Palace” Royal Hawaiian. That property is a Luxury Collection resort part of the Marriott Bonvoy rewards program, and it’s absolutely worth a visit.

But another Marriott property, the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani, sits just inland from the Royal Hawaiian. Though the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani is not strictly beachfront, guests can easily walk across the street to one of the country’s most famous stretches of sand. And anyone from the public step into the Royal Hawaiian’s lobby to admire its pink everything — all the way from the pink umbrellas at the bar to the pink pancakes at the cafe. Yet even better: Sheraton Princess Kaiulani guests can take advantage of Marriott’s reciprocal benefits. events at Across the Marriott hotels on Waikiki — Sheraton Princess Kaiulani, Moana Surfrider, Sheraton Waikiki and The Royal Hawaiian — guests can partake in each hotel’s luaus, live music and cultural celebrations (and they can charge items to their rooms across those properties).

Many rooms at the Halepuna Waikiki by Halekulani still have ocean views, even though the resort isn’t necessarily considered beachfront. (Photo by Sally French)

It’s a similar story over at Halepuna Waikiki by Halekulani. This boutique hotel is smaller (and generally far cheaper) than its sister property, Halekulani, On the Beach at Waikiki. Since it’s located across the street (in the inland direction) from Halekulani, you’re not far from the beach. And often, you can still score a room with an ocean view, thanks to the way the Halepuna towers are situated.

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4. Consider vacation rentals

If a hotel isn’t your style, consider a vacation rental such as Airbnb. If Airbnb isn’t your thing (hey, Airbnb holds a monopolistic grip on the vacation rental industry) — but you still want a vacation home — also consider many of the Airbnb alternatives including Vrbo.

While there are plenty of vacation rentals in walkable Waikiki, these sites can often be better than hotels if you’re seeing to go elsewhere on the island.

Just make sure that — if you’re trying to understand which is cheaper: Airbnbs vs hotels — that you compare total costs. That means resort fees for hotels, as well as cleaning fees at vacation rentals.

5. Budget for resort fees (or other extra fees)


The amenities at Turtle Bay Resort are incredible (including this water slide) but you’ll pay for them via mandatory resort fees, which start at $50 per day and go up depending on your room type. (Photo by Sally French)

Speaking of resort fees…many hotels on Oahu charge them. These fees aren’t per stay, but rather per night, and they generally run from $20 to $45. Sure, they purport to cover things like the waterslide and snorkels at some properties, but often they cover a bunch of things you probably won’t use, like a free photo, free local phone calls or wedding vow renewal on the beach. Critics say these fees are just a way for the hotels to make their nightly rates look more attractive at first glance by shifting a portion of your costs into a separate category.

Then again, you might also book one of the Oahu hotels without resort fees, of which there are some solid options. Among the best are Halekulani and its sibling property Halepuna Waikiki.

If you’re willing to venture outside of Honolulu, there’s also Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa, which is a Disney Vacation Club property. Even if you’re not a member, it also sells rooms to non-members at cash prices.

5. Book better rental cars

Many people book rental cars for their Oahu vacation, which can be critical to getting around some of the more off-the-beaten path attractions, including lesser-known waterfalls, hiking trails and those restaurants that the tourists haven’t heard of.

Just beware that car rental prices ballooned especially in the early years of the pandemic (and have largely remained high). If you do rent a car, there are some ways to save. That includes being smart about the rental car company you choose. Even more critical in saving money is booking at an offsite rental car location versus the airport outpost.

6. Understand the full cost of renting a car

Budget for not just rental car costs, but also the extras like gas and parking fees. Hawaii almost always has the highest gas prices of any state, according to AAA data.

Then there are brutal hotel parking fees. One example: $45 a night for self-parking and $52 per night for valet at Hilton Hawaiian Village (and that’s on top of the $45-a-night resort fee).

» Learn more: The cheapest way to rent a car on vacation

7. Embrace the bus (or at least mass transit)

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You may enjoy your Oahu vacation more with a rental car, but not necessarily. In fact, it’s totally feasible to get around Honolulu without a rental car.

Waikiki is super walkable. If you’re prepared to get some serious steps in, then it’s not unheard of to walk from Waikiki Beach to the top of Diamond Head.

Oahu’s public bus service is called TheBus, and cash fares are $3. Because so many locals ride it, buses come frequently and have a variety of routes. Particularly if you want to hit the tourist hot spots, you can also book mass transit that’s not necessarily TheBus. For example, the Waikiki Trolley is designed for tourists and only hits the main attractions.

Additionally, lodging or activity providers will offer shuttle services as an add-on fee. For example, the Polynesian Cultural Center is an absolute delight, but it’s located on Oahu’s North Shore. For folks staying in Waikiki, you might book the $26 per person round-trip shuttle ticket — which also saves you from making the roughly hourlong drive yourself.

8. Consider hourly or daily rental car alternatives

Zipcar rentals can be a convenient way to have a card in Oahu, particularly if you just want it for a day. (Photo by Sally French)

Of course, you might want a rental car to get around on your own schedule — particularly if you’re headed to destinations that wouldn’t be efficient on the bus. For that, embrace rental car alternatives like Getaround, Kyte or Turo.

Many of these are bookable by the hour, so you can only pay for the periods where you really need it (and avoid the overnight parking fee). Pickup locations are also generally easy to find, particularly in the big tourist hubs. For example, there are a bunch of Zipcar vehicles in the parking lot of Waikiki’s International Market Place.

9. Beware of meals with an ocean view

Belly up to an oceanfront cafe at any of Oahu’s on-the-beach resorts and anticipate high prices. Venture just a few blocks inland for better food — and at lower prices.

Cheeseburger Waikiki, Eggs N Things, MAC 24/7, tons of great ramen places and a huge selection of fast food and Denny’s-type chains can be found off the resorts.

10. But don’t balk at beachfront buffets completely

Buffets aren’t for everyone — particularly folks with smaller appetites. But for people who load up at buffets — and thus might only need that (or perhaps one other meal) that day — buffets can be a swell deal.

At certain Waikiki buffets, the views are so spectacular that they make for an incredibly unique brunch experience that you’ll likely remember long after the credit card statement came through.

So what are the best beachfront buffets in Waikiki? There are two standouts.

Duke’s at the Outrigger Waikiki offers a breakfast that runs until 11 a.m., so you could easily merge breakfast and lunch into one meal. As of early 2024, it costs just $25, and includes made-to-order omelets, spicy Portuguese sausage and banana pancakes.

The Veranda at Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort & Spa, Waikiki Beach offers one of the most extensive (and unique) breakfast buffet menus you’ll find anywhere. (Photo by Sally French)

For a slightly more expensive (but far more elegant) option, dine at the Veranda, which is located on the wraparound porch at the iconic Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort & Spa, Waikiki Beach. Their breakfast buffet comes in at $44 (as of February 2024), but it has specialty items that are hard to come by anywhere else. That includes Mochiko waffles, loco moco and the Moana’s own pancake recipe featuring lilikoi curd.

11. Take advantage of free food (at certain hotels)

Don’t assume breakfast-included hotel packages are a deal. They’re often more expensive and more limiting than paying separately for breakfast. That said, some Oahu hotels do include free breakfast.

Many of the major hotel chains that offer free breakfast have outposts in Hawaii, making for a golden opportunity to take advantage of a free meal. Here’s a sampling of some hotels on Oahu that typically offer free breakfast (though confirm the actual terms before booking), broken down by hotel brand.

Some of these hotel brands offer free meals or food vouchers for members with elite status, which we’ve also noted here.

IHG hotels on Oahu with free breakfast

The breakfast buffet at Holiday Inn Express Waikiki. (Photo courtesy of IHG).

If you want free breakfast at any IHG hotel, you’ll need to hold Diamond elite status in the IHG One Rewards program. On Oahu, there’s one hotel in the IHG family that offers free breakfast to everyone:

  • Holiday Inn Express Waikiki, an IHG Hotel.

Hilton hotels on Oahu with free breakfast

Embassy Suites is known for its made-to-order omelette bar. (Photo courtesy of Hilton)

Hilton Honors members can get free breakfast by holding either Gold or Diamond elite status. With that, you get a daily food and beverage credit to use on not necessarily just breakfast, but rather any meal of the day at all properties that don’t otherwise offer free breakfast to all guests. The amount of the credit varies by hotel brand, but generally speaking, more upscale hotel brands offer a higher credit. Otherwise, the following Hilton properties on Oahu offer free breakfast to all guests:

  • Embassy Suites By Hilton Oahu Kapolei.

  • Embassy Suites by Hilton Waikiki Beach Walk.

  • Hampton Inn & Suites Oahu/Kapolei.

Hyatt hotels on Oahu with free breakfast

The breakfast buffet at Hyatt Place. (Photo courtesy of Hyatt).

You can get free breakfast at all Hyatt properties by having Hyatt Globalist elite status. The deal is good every day of your stay for up to two adults and two children, provided they’re registered guests. Otherwise, the following Oahu hotel offers free breakfast to all guests, World of Hyatt loyalist or not:

  • Hyatt Place Waikiki Beach.

Marriott hotels on Oahu with free breakfast

The breakfast buffet at Residence Inn. (Photo courtesy of Marriott).

At most Marriott properties, breakfast is typically included if you have Platinum status or higher in the Marriott Bonvoy program. If you don’t have status, you can get free breakfast as a guest at the following Marriott hotel:

  • Residence Inn by Marriott Oahu Kapolei.

There are also plenty of boutique or independently-owned hotels that usually offer free breakfast. Oasis Hotel Waikiki, Vive Hotel Waikiki and Waikiki Resort Hotel are among those that offer a continental breakfast buffet.

12. Alternate pricey meals with cheap eats

House Without a Key is one of Oahu’s top restaurants, serving as a fantastic indoor and outdoor gathering spot at the Halekulani hotel. It’s spectacular especially during sunset, but it’s pricey. (Photo by Sally French)

We told you about free breakfast, but what do you do if your hotel doesn’t offer it? And what about the other meals of the day?

Sure, there are plenty of fine-dining restaurants on Oahu worth a splurge. That includes Alan Wong’s, La Mer at Halekulani, Michel’s at the Colony Surf and Beachhouse at the Moana Surfrider.

That said, seek to offset the cost by going cheap on other meals. Here are a few recommendations for cheap eats on Oahu:

A plate meal featuring tacos from South Shore Grill. (Photo by Sally French)

For food near Diamond Head, don’t miss the plate lunch or tacos at South Shore Grill. The Japanese food at Pioneer Saloon is excellent too. Either make for a post-workout meal after hiking Diamond Head.

If you’re on the beach at Waikiki, grab lunch at Steak Shack at the Outrigger Waikiki or Happy’s Snack Bar behind the Hale Koa.

On the North Shore, sample the island’s famous shrimp trucks. You might also grab a plate lunch or slice of cream pie (or both) at Ted’s Bakery.

» Learn more: Dining out? Don’t leave credit card rewards on the table

13. Snack smarter

The ABC Store deli. (Photo by Sally French)

We told you about restaurants, but what about snacks or grab-and-go foods?

ABC Stores are convenience markets all over the island selling packaged sandwiches and salads, hot soup, hard-boiled eggs and other grab-and-go eats. Adventurous eaters should embrace classic Hawaiian foods, including spam musubi, which usually costs less than $3 at ABC Stores. ABC also tend to sell poke which can be expensive in restaurants, but is generally pretty affordable at the deli.

Musubi Cafe Iyasume has a range of spam musubi options. (Photo by Sally French)

If you’re a spam musubi superfan, don’t miss Musubi Cafe Iyasume, which has a handful of locations around Honolulu. There, you’ll find unique toppings for your spam including kimchi, eel, avocado, bacon and egg.

14. Scope out some shade

If you lay your beach towel under the sun, it won’t be long before you have to escape the UV rays to someplace you’re likely to spend money. But if you find a spot in the shade, a $6 paperback can deliver a full day of tropical relaxation.

The beach-umbrella-and-lounger sets you can rent in front of the major resorts can run $50 or $60 for a full day. But if they let you spend the day chilling on the beach instead of shopping, dining or visiting paid attractions, they just might be a value. You can buy cheap umbrellas and chairs at an ABC Store or another market.

There are also shady, grassy areas with fabulous views and easy access to the water at DeRussy Park, Kapiolani Park and Ala Moana Beach Park.

15. Consider a Go Oahu Card

Located in Honolulu’s capitol district, Iolani Palace is a National Historic Landmark. It was home to the Hawaiian Kingdom’s two final monarchs, King Kalakaua, and his sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani. (Photo by Sally French)

If lounging around all day wasn’t the kind of vacation you had in mind, you might find value in Go Oahu Card. It’s a customizable package of discounted tickets for snorkeling, catamaran tours, museums, kayaking and more. One-day, all-inclusive passes start at about $110. Among the attractions generally available for access once you hold the card include:

  • Polynesian Cultural Center (about $98 normally).

  • Wet ‘n’ Wild Hawaii Waterpark (about $80 normally).

  • Kualoa Grown Fruit and Farm Tour (about $55 normally).

  • Sea Life Park Hawaii (about $45 normally).

  • Iolani Palace (about $29 normally).

  • Bishop Museum Honolulu (about $27 normally).

It’s not for everyone, as you’ll maximize value the more you do while holding the card. Many of the top attractions also require advance booking (and space can fill up if you don’t plan well in advance). But particularly for the kind of ultra-planner traveler who would rather visit a lot of places (in exchange for spending less time at each place), the card can prove to be far more valuable than buying an individual admission ticket to each attraction.

16. See why the best things in Hawaii are free (or very cheap)

Though there are plenty of activities worth paying for on Oahu — like ATV tours and helicopter rides and the Bishop Museum — it’s possible to have a wonderful time on Oahu while paying nothing or next to nothing for activities. Here are some awesome free activities on Oahu:

Diamond Head is the best hike, but there’s a fee. (Photo by Sally French)

For active and outdoor enthusiasts: Every beach in Hawaii, even if it abuts a luxury hotel or private home, is public land. There, you might rent a snorkel set, surfboard, kayak or ocean bike and get out on the water.

Watch world-class surfing in winter on the North Shore, or keep an eye out for humpback whales and spinner dolphins.

As far as hiking, there’s no shortage. If you do just one hike, it’d be Diamond Head, though there’s a small entrance fee. Given that, your best free hikes are Manoa Falls if you prefer rainforest hikes. If you want a booty burner, the Koko Crater Trail is extremely challenging. The Makapu’u Lighthouse trail offers a nice blend of views and enough of an incline to feel like you worked hard – without being completely wiped out.

The Moana Surfrider becomes particularly magnificent in the evening, as musicians perform live music under the majestic trees. (Photo by Sally French)

For shopping and entertainment: In Waikiki, enjoy live Hawaiian music and hula for free in the Royal Hawaiian Center shopping complex. Stroll through the lobbies of Waikiki’s most iconic hotels, most of which are free to access. The Moana Surfrider is especially stunning in the evening, and there’s almost always live music in both the indoor bar and on the outdoor patio.

U.S.S. Arizona Memorial. (Photo by Sally French)

For history: Pay your respects to the fallen aboard the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor National Memorial museums and grounds are free.

A Dole Whip at the Dole Plantation. (Photo by Sally French)

For tourist attractions: While most of the tourist attractions command admission fees, many offer components that don’t require a ticket. At the Dole Plantation, you can still wander through the pineapple gardens, visit the gift shop and ogle at the paid attractions, like the train. You might also buy the iconic Dole Whip while you’re there (for a fee, of course). On Oahu’s North Shore, the Polynesian Culture Center is another gem. You’ll need a ticket for some of its highlights, including the evening show and “Island Villages” tour, but some components of the sprawling complex don’t require a ticket, such as the Hukilau Marketplace and the Football Hall of Fame.

17. Maximize credit card benefits (including free night certificates) at Oahu hotels

Because Oahu hotels tend to be so much more expensive than elsewhere in the U.S., a Hawaiian vacation can provide a golden opportunity to maximize hotel credit cards. Particularly among loyalists who hold hotel free night certificates, a night Oahu can be among the best ways to spend it (just beware, the downsides of free night certs).

Many hotel credit cards offer elite status as a benefit for holding it, which can mean an upgrade to that ocean view or suite. Some offer additional perks like statement credits, free meals or access to premium lounges, which can go a long way in saving you money on your Hawaiian vacation.


By Lala