Oahu is a truly beautiful Island a real tropical paradise filled with towering green mountains, stunning golden sandy beaches, and even a glittering modern city. It is a real dream destination. But like any dream, the reality is often very costly. For many, the cost of an Oahu vacation seems too much and the dream never becomes a reality. However, While Oahu is undoubtedly expensive, it need not be prohibitively so.
By booking wisely, bagging cheap flights, finding cheap eats, and indulging in the many completely free things to see and do on the island your dream Island destination could be a lot more attainable than you think. Here in our how-to-visit Oahu on a budget Article, we take you through all the ways we have found to save money and still do more on your next Hawaii getaway.
Short of learning to swim very well the only cost-effective way to get to the islands is by plane. Flights into Hawaii are very expensive, especially as they are Domestic flights. A flight out to Honolulu can be double what a cross-country flight to New York would cost despite being a similar flight distance.
This is all to do with Capacity and simply put fewer people fly out to Hawaii so there is less competition for seats and higher prices.
This said, flights are not mindboggling expensive to Oahu (more so to the other islands) and return trips can be found for well under $300 at the less busy times. It is all about booking at the right time and keeping an eye on flight prices.
We use Skyscanner.net and increasingly GoogleFlights to search and track prices to ensure we are getting the best deal. Flights are a live market and prices fluctuate throughout the year. As a rule, flights will be fairly cheap as they are announced, approximately 1 year from the date of travel. They then either dip or rise in price depending on demand, This sort of period around 11-9 months before travel is one of the best times to book IF the prices are low. If you find good deals this far out it is advisable to book as these will likely be the lowest you will find as the airline wants to get an empty flight fuller.
If your chosen dates do not dip in this period keep an eye on them, they will normally dip at some point, use a “month view” to see how your dates compare to other dates. If they are especially high it is likely they will not drop, the flight may be nearly full, Either bite the bullet, choose a different date, or keep playing the waiting game.
With three months to go, this is time the airlines may start to seriously drop prices to get those planes full. These prices are RARELY better than the early bargain you find, the best prices are usually 12-9 months out. But on rare occasions, desperate airlines offer really late bargains. But this range is better for bargain hunters. Not people looking for specific dates. If you are planning your trip 2-3 months out you are doing it wrong!
Waiting till less than 30 days out will only ever produce sporadic bargains to random locations. Yes, you can grab a bargain to “somewhere” but hoping it’s to Oahu is very unlikely.
Cheap Eats and Happy Hours In Oahu
One of the biggest expenses you will have is food. This can easily outstrip the cost of hotels, flights, and activities as the most costly part of your trip. With Entree’s regularly exceeding $40 even in moderate restaurants, it is not hard for a family of 4 to eat several thousand Dollars worth of food on a trip! Of course, where there is a huge expense there is also the opportunity for huge savings!
The best way to save money on food and drink is to buy your own, at least for some meals. Eating out is expensive and while it’s part of the Hawaii experience and certainly highly recommended for at least some of your meals it is also recommended to head to the supermarket.
You need to make sure you get a condo or hotel that offers cooking facilities in the Room, and then you can whip up some great meals. While many people do not want to cook (and clean!) on their vacations it is simply the easiest way to save a big chunk of money. And to save on the cleaning, use a BBQ
Some Hotels, and most Condo Complexes, have BBQ Grills outside for residents to use. These are Gas Grills that are easy to use and offer a fantastic way to keep your costs down AND enjoy the wonderful Outdoor lifestyle Hawaii offers.
We do nearly all our cooking on Grills when on the islands. There is nothing better than cooking a large steak, barefoot, on the grill while sipping a cold one or a Mai Tai.
Hotels and Condos with BBQ Grills in Waikiki and Oahu
- Waikiki Shores – Charcoal grills in Fort DeRussey Beach Park
- Aston at the Waikiki Banyan
- Aston Waikiki Tower
- Hawaiian King
- Luana Waikiki
- Prince Waikiki – Additional Charge
Honolulu is a large city and has most of the amenities you would expect, naturally there are several large-scale supermarkets in the city, and getting your groceries there will slash any food costs you may have. We tend to head to Safeway or Foodland farms, but there is also a large Walmart, Sam’s Club, and a Big Ass Costco.
Outside of Honolulu things are a little more scarce, but there is a Costco in Hawaii Kai, Ko Olina, and Waipo. There are Large Safeway Stores all over the Island and Foodland Farms, and there are several Walmarts, but most are near Honolulu. If you are staying up on the North Shore then you are pretty limited. There are a couple of Foodland Stores in Pupukea and Laie.
We tend to prefer Safeway and Foodland Farms as they have more of an Islan flavor and both have great Poke. Remember to Join the Members clubs if you are not already as the savings are huge compared to non-members’ prices, and check out the Weekly ads for any deals and coupons!
You will also save a fortune on drinks if you have a room or condo with a fridge/Freezer. Making your own Mai Tais or sticking up on beer and wine is a sure-fire way to slash those horrendous Bar Bills.
When you do want to eat out then Happy Hours are the number one way to save when dining out. Many Eateries including some of the best restaurants offer happy hour menus. These are mostly PuPus Menu’s and are often half off or Buy one Get one Free. PuPus are Hawaiian Small Plates, like Spanish Tapas and by hitting the Happy Hours you get a real taste of the Hawaiian cuisine without committing to large meals. We love Pupus for this and when it’s a 50% off Happy hour it’s even better, there will be great drinks offers too so load up on Mai Tais!
- Maui Brewing Company – 50% off Apps and $2 off beers and $3 Off Cocktails
- RumFire – Craft Cocktails and PuPus at reduced Prices
- Plantation Bar At the Hula Grill – $5+ Pupus and Cocktails for under $10
Best Happy Hours in Oahu
Being a Major US City there are many chain restaurants up and down that are usually only slightly more expensive than at home. Sure they may have the odd Hawaii Special on the menu but essentially they are just what you know. While this might not exactly be in the spirit f Hawaiian Cuisine it can get you a few cheap lunches and breakfasts when you just don’t want to do it yourself. For this, we are talking Mcdonalds, Red Lobster, Taco Bell, Cheesecake Factory, KFC, Denny’s, it’s not fancy but its cheap and cheerful.
The Other way of doing it is to eat like a local. Despite this being a tourist hotspot there are still nearly a million people living on the Island and they rarely dine in the high-end tourist spots. Sure they eat at home, and in the Fast Food restaurants we already mentioned but they also hit the local island food spots. Try Ono Seafood, or Haili’s Hawaiian Foods Both on Kapahulu Drive, Surf and Turf Taco’s in Waikiki. Over one the North Shore Tita’s Grill offers great Hawaiian Cuisine in a stunning outdoor setting very inexpensively.
Where to Stay in Oahu on a Budget?
Next on the list of expenses are your lodging costs. There is no getting around it Hotels on Oahu are expensive. Budget hotels can be over $200 a night with high-end offerings soaring up to $1000 a night! There is also a real lack of budget accommodation on the Island and little option but to pay the expansive hotel prices.
Condos are the best option for families and Legal Condo Rentals are big business on the Island but Condo Rentals are not always 100% Legal. There is a current big crackdown on illegal units so expect any illegal lets to be removed from the market pretty quickly. For now, we think the best option is to stick with booking from the complex owners. The Truth is these Private Rentals are not always a whole lot cheaper than booking through the property, and can be a lot more hassle and have significantly more risk. But they can be cheaper and you get the advantage of knowing EXACTLY which unit you are getting.
If you are looking for Private Lets check out:
But Do not assume that just because they are advertised they are legal, very few Condo Rentals in Oahu are legal, read more about this here
Whether you are booking a Condo or a Hotel the next question is where. Unfortunately in Oahu, there are few really cheap locations. Waikiki is really one of the cheapest locations on the Island, and the place most people choose to stay.
Looking for cheap accommodation in the City is far more about choosing between Oceanfront and a few streets back, right in the middle or just out of the buzz a little and of course between, slightly run-down and tp the range luxury. A Hotel that is a little older and setback a few blocks is going to work out a lot cheaper than a high-end luxury hotel. Again, some of the outlying hotels such as the areas down by Diamond head can be cheaper, and also offer some more relaxed and peaceful locations, offset by the fact you have a good trek to get into the City.
A few budget options can be found here, but our budget criteria are quite high at under $200 a night:
- Ramada Plaza by Wyndham Waikiki
- Imperial Hawaii Resort at Waikiki
- Waikiki Central Hotel
- Polynesian Residences Waikiki Beach
- Queen Kapiolani Hotel
And we go into more detail about those in our Budget Waikiki Hotels Page.
Outside of Waikiki, Prices can still be quite high. There is no real part of the island that offers budget accommodation, it is always a trade-off between location and hotel quality. Ko Olina is a high-end location and generally expensive. There are some cheaper options on the North Shore but expect a low level of accommodation. These are often really fun places to stay and the natural beauty is unparalleled but doesn’t expect much luxury, or even your own bathroom! Try the Backpackers Vacation Inn and Plantation Village for about the cheapest accommodation on the island. You can bag some cheap chain hotels near the airport but don’t. These are soulless and not near anything of interest, only good for layovers or business travelers.
Grab a Package Deal
For most of our City Breaks and Road trips, we forgo travel agents and PAckage deals as we prefer being our own Travel Agent, however, with Hawaii you can always bag a great deal. Tourist operators book up hotels and block-book (or provide their own) airplanes, so if a particular time of year is not selling well they can stand to lose quite a bit of cash. They solve this by getting bums on seats and hotel rooms filled by offering steep discounts. Always keep an eye out for bargains.
When to Book
The Biggest tip on booking is to time it correctly. While hotel occupancy rates are high year-round and hotels can expect to fill up rates stay pretty uniform. But there are always dips where prices are cheaper.
This is why we use Booking.com. Their FREE cancellation means you can book right away at the current price, but continue to monitor the prices as your trip draws near. That way if you find a better price (or hotel) you can cancel the original booking and rebook at the better price EVEN if that price is on Booking.com
We have saved thousands of dollars over the years doing this, and have never had an issue, just make sure the hotel you are looking at offers FREE cancellation.
When to Stay in Oahu?
The other big impact on hotel prices is the season. Again Occupancy rates are high year-round. However, you are going to find cheaper rates in the two, shoulder seasons. These tend to be more a case of you will pay the base rate and it just goes up in Peak season rather than big discounts, although they do happen.
By the end of March, the winter sun-seekers are heading off along with the whales, but the weather is improving and the Pulmari trees starting to bloom making spring a wonderful time to visit. Again once the Kids head back to school in September the summer peak drops and so do prices. September can be just as hot as July and August, October cools a little but is still excellent. November temps are still warm and you get the whales arriving, by December prices have begun to rise again for the winter peak.
Getting Around Oahu on a Budget
Oahu’s public transport system is not the best. The island is small and for the most part, people rely on Personal Cars. There is a decent bus network but it is more geared towards locals than tourists and while you can utilize this it is not a fun way to spend your time in paradise. We talk about getting around Oahu without a car here.
Waikiki, however, is a very small part of Honolulu and most of the district can be reached on foot. We never use a car or the bus in Waikiki, we simply take to our feet and walk wherever we need to go. We only start looking for transport when we head ou the City. And for us, we just prefer a car.
Budget Rent A Car
A rental car is by far the best way to get around the island. Being from the UK we tend to use RentalCars.com. These are Car Rental Brokers that search for all the best deals from the major suppliers. We tend to use these as insurance requirements are different from outside of the UK. US Drivers can often use their own insurance or have insurance on a credit card, From the UK we cannot do this and Rentalcars.com Has insurance included.
The other company we use which offers seriously competitive rates for all drivers including those with their own insurance is DiscountHawaiiCarRental.com
Things to do for FREE or Cheap
As a City Guide, most of our focus is on City Breaks, and in Cities, it is very hard to find things to do that are free or very inexpensive. However, Hawaii vacations are very different. You can easily head to Oahu and do nothing that actually costs anything at all and still have a really incredible time. The Island is a genuine Tropical Paradise and simply exploring the stunning shorelines is a lifetimes venture!
While simply sitting by the pool, or sunbathing on a beach can be the highlight of your Hawaiian vacation we want to look a little deeper than that, but don’t let that stop you from kicking back for a few hours every day.
The Island has some seriously stunning beaches, all dripping with their own unique style and differences. From the iconic and pack Waikiki to the rugged and lost coastlines of the North Shore, the manicured perfection of Ko Olina to the natural paradise of Hanauma Bays protected cove. If you are staying in Waikiki or Ko Olina then take some time out to explore some of Oahu’s more natural and truly stunning beaches.
We think Hawaii’s Landscapes are the second most beautiful place on earth! The Most Beautiful? Hawaii’s Aquascapes!
Dipping your head under Hawaii’s stunning ocean waves opens your eyes to a new and beautiful world filled with stunning fish, noble Coral reefs, and bewitching Green Sea Turtles or Honu. The Ocean Temperatures are a balmy 76°F (24°C) to 81°F (27°C ) which are plenty warm enough for year-round snorkeling with air temps also warm enough all year round for swimming and beach activities.
One of the most important sites of historical significance in the whole of the United States. Pearl Harbor is simply a must-visit when heading to the island. The sense of historical importance is palpable and some of the exhibits on display are incredibly powerful.
There are three additional museums. The USS Missouri (Mighty Mo), The Bowfin Museum, and the Pacific Aviation Museum, which all incur a fee. But the Memorial Museum is free to all.
Additionally, there is the USS Arizona Memorial. She remains on the bottom of the bay acting as a memorial and War Grave to the 1,177 souls lost aboard the vessel that day. The trip out to the memorial is free but a $1.50 booking fee is required
You simply must visit Peal Habor when on the island and while we love the additional museum it is great to see the main experience is free.
We Love a Good Luau and Oahu has some of the best in the State but let’s not pretend they are not expensive! For many, they are the highlight of their trip and a major part of any Hawaiian experience. But if you just can’t afford $150-$200+ per person for a meal and a show, then you need not miss out completely.
The Free Hula Shows put on by the Waikiki Improvement Association are a great way to experience some Hawaiian Culture without forking out hundreds of Dollars
Situated in the beautiful Fort DeRussy Park the Hawaiian Army Museum is a free-entry museum based on the history of the warfare of the Hawaiian Islands, from the early battles between Islands clans to the huge strategic importance of the island’s help in WW2 and Vietnam.
The museum is fairly small and only has limited exhibits but there are several tanks, artillery pieces, and even an ah-64 Cobra attack helicopter. It is definitely worth checking out and as it is free it can’t be beaten on price.
Oahu has a huge range of diverse and wild landscapes and locations. Large parts of the Island are devoted to wilderness and wild areas. There are large mountain ranges, stunning coastlines, and dense jungles. This leads to some of the best hiking on the planet.
On top of the free attractions, money-savers may still want to do some of Oahu’s many awesome paid attractions to really make their trip special. These range from Luau’s, Ocean Cruises, Whale Watching, Island Tours, Pearl Habour Museums, Exploring Jurrasic Park at Kualoa Ranch, ATV Tours, Helicopter Tours, a Huge Selection of Water Sorts and even Ziplining. There is an awful lot going on In Oahu.
Read our Full guide on Things to Do on Oahu for many great ideas on things to do. However, these are going to bump up your budget quite significantly so let’s take a look at the ways you can save some money on these headline attractions.
Discount Hawaii Attractions
There are nearly endless “discount” attraction companies all offering the best attractions at the cheapest prices. These are often no cheaper and even in many cases more expensive than booking direct. Even the “Tripadvisor” backed Viator is often more expensive (after taxes and fees) and offers less protection than just booking directly with whatever attraction you wish to book.
To save the most money, or as we like to look at it Send less but do more is with an Attractions Pass. We are big fans of these passes when Visiting Cities and They work great on Oahu as well. The Go Oahu Pass is the only pass available on the Island and it covers a huge number of attractions.
Savings can be as high as 50% and can add up to over $300 on the longer passes. It really is a great way to save huge amounts of money and do far more than you would without a pass. It covers Luaus, Island Tours, Catamaran Cruises Kualoa Ranch, Pearl Harbour Museum, and a whole load more.
We have a Full Review of the Go Oahu Pass here to see if this option is right for you
Have Your Say
Got any money-saving tips for Oahu? A favorite Hotel, a fantastic Happy Hour? A great cheap restaurant or food truck, or just something cool to do for free? Whatever it is fire away in the comments below and share it with our readers. Got any Questions? Again just leave a comment and we will get right back to you!