Though it’s easy to dream of the perfect Hawaii vacation, sipping mai tais on Waikiki beach as the warm sun tans your skin, turning that dream into reality can be quite hard when you’re on a budget. Having lived in Waikiki for a year and a half as a videographer, I learned how to stretch a dollar and still experience all the fun Oahu has to offer. Follow these tips and you’ll not only save money on your trip to the islands but also experience the quintessential Hawaiian attractions and discover some truly fun things off the beaten path.
Where to Stay
In Waikiki: If you’re willing to sacrifice ocean views and five-star service, you can save money and get a respectable room for around $150 a night in Waikiki depending on the time of year. I’d suggest staying in Waikiki your first time since the beach is within walking distance and most of the attractions are nearby.
Outside of Waikiki: For a cheaper option, the Pagoda Hotel has rooms for less than $100 per night and is only 1.5 miles from the heart of Waikiki.
Hostel in Waikiki: Now if you are really on a budget, there are a few hostels in Waikiki. These shared rooms typically run about $35-40 per night. The good thing about a hostel is they typically have free breakfast, and there’s always someone there to lend you tips on how to save even more money during your trip.
Makapuu Tidepools: Though most people head to Hanauma Bay for snorkeling, skip the crowds and keep driving further north towards the Makapuu tidepools. Walk about one mile from the parking area along the trail and then head down the side of the hill toward the pools. You’ll see amazing fish and other creatures in the water as the waves crash against the rocks. Just be cautious about entering pools close to the ocean, as the waves can be very powerful.
Henry Kapono: Every Sunday, Hawaiian legendary artist Henry Kapono performs a free show at Duke's Waikiki from 4 to 6 pm. With a beachfront location, the views and sounds will forever last in your memory. The cocktails are somewhat pricey but well worth it as you take in the show. Duke's also showcases other local musicians every night.
Hikes: If you like exercise and incredible views, hike one of Oahu’s many trails. I did the Kealia trail on the North Shore, which offers stunning views of the ocean and valley below. Love hiking? Follow this great guide to Oahu's best hikes.
Kuhio Beach Hula: Everyone should experience Hula while in Hawaii. Kuhio beach is a section of Waikiki located near the Duke Kahanamoku statue. There’s a torch-lighting ceremony and hula performances every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 6:30-7:30 pm, weather permitting. It’s free and open to the public.
Drive the Island
The No. 1 thing I would recommend to people visiting Oahu is to rent a car for a day and drive around the perimeter of the island.
Start in Honolulu and drive toward the North Shore. You’ll see the expansive pineapple fields across from the Dole Plantation on your way to the coastal town of Haleiwa. Stop in Haleiwa for a shave ice at the famous Matsumoto.
Once you’re done eating, get back in the car and head to Waimea Bay, home of the Eddie Aikau–Quicksilver Big Wave Invitational, which is only held when waves exceed 20 feet tall (equivalent to 40-foot faces). Beach access is free and be sure to jump off the big rock if you’re brave enough.
Keep driving east on Kamehameha Highway and you’ll pass a number of secluded beaches perfect for just relaxing and getting away from the crowds at Waikiki. The rest of the drive is stunningly beautiful. Like the Pacific Coast Highway in California, this stretch is right along the ocean, which makes it difficult to keep your eyes on the road.
Food and Drink
Pau Hana (Happy Hour) at Chart House: Often passed over for steak, a pork chop—when prepared properly—can be just as satisfying as any cut of beef. Chart House executive chef Randy Manuel simply seasons his chops with salt and pepper then quickly pan-fries them. Sliced in strips and served over a bed of cabbage, Manuel’s pork chops are among the many offerings during pau hana in the restaurant’s lounge area. Having celebrated its 50th anniversary in February 2018, Chart House is an island institution, which is located just outside of the main strip of Waikīkī, across from the Waikīkī Yacht Club. “We get a lot of locals and visitors,” Manuel says. “So our pūpū menu includes many items that will appeal to everyone and anyone.” More of a meal than a snack, Manuel’s fish and chips are a bargain at less than $12. Three generous pieces of saba (mackerel) are thickly battered and accompanied by chunky steak fries. Priced at $12.25, the escargots à la Ernest (named after a longtime employee) are bathed in butter and garlic, and accompanied by the mandatory slices of French bread to sop up the puddles of leftover butter. The oysters Rockefeller ($17.75) are legendary and almost synonymous with Chart House. Fresh half-shell oysters are topped with a rich Hollandaise sauce then placed under a salamander until the sauce begins to bubble.
Leonard’s Bakery for malasadas: If you have a sweet tooth you’ll want to stop by Leonard’s Bakery just outside of Waikiki in Kapahulu for its famous malasada. Located in Hawaii since the early 1950s, Leonard’s Bakery serves up these sugar-coated Portuguese donuts daily.
Rainbow Drive In: Also located in Kapahulu is another Hawaii institution, Rainbow Drive In. They sell everything from shoyu chicken to hamburger steak and the famous loco moco plate, which consists of a bed of rice topped with a hamburger patty and fried egg then covered in gravy!
Mike's Huli Huli chicken: Finally, we have the best dish I ever tasted in Hawaii and it's one that I still think about to this day. When you take your drive around the island, as I recommended, you’ll want to stop at Mike’s Kiawe Broiled Huli Huli Chicken in Kaneohe just off Kamehameha Highway. The chicken is cooked over kiawe wood, which gives it a smoky flavor. Their combination lunch plates typically consist of either chicken and shrimp or chicken and pork, and cost around $15. It’s well worth it and you can’t go wrong with either one. Bonus: You’ll also get to take in the amazing view of Chinaman’s Hat from your lunch table.
Looking for more? Surf over to our guide to more free things to do on Oahu.