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Things to Do in Oahu, Hawaii – Activities & Accommodations on a Budget

By Lisa Overman

oahu byodo in templeOne of the best things about Oahu is enjoying the natural beauty of the island. But most people don’t think of “Hawaii” and “budget-friendly” at the same time. While getting to Hawaii can be expensive, enjoying your time on an island as amazing as Oahu doesn’t have to drain your family’s travel budget.

You can afford and enjoy a beautiful vacation, rich with culture and incredible sites. From the best beaches to the highest mountains, and from hidden hikes and temples to popular restaurants, the island is a smart and frugal traveler’s destination. Planning ahead and taking a look at these top ten picks will keep your budget on target.

One of the easiest ways to keep Hawaii affordable is to focus on the island’s outdoor activities that are fun and free. You can enjoy days at the beach, drives along the coast, and hidden hikes – relaxing in luxury and maximizing your budget at the same time.

Top 10 Insider Destinations on Oahu

1. Byodo-In Temple

My favorite site on Oahu is a replica of the original temple in Uji, Japan. When you explore this Buddhist temple, you can ring the sacred giant bell called Bon-sho, which is said to bring prosperity and peace. On the grounds you’ll find peacocks, a Japanese garden, and a Koi pond where you can feed giant Koi fish. The Ko’olau Mountains loom in the background, adding to the serenity of the temple and grounds. Admission is just $2 per person.

Byodo Temple

Byodo Temple on Oahu

2. Pu’u O Mahuka

This five-acre historical site and national landmark is sacred to native Hawaiians. The Heiau (temple) site is practically hidden, and the virtually undisturbed grounds await your visit. Its location high upon a cliff offers views of Waimea Bay.

Insider’s Tip: The entrance is tucked away on a side road, so watch carefully for signs. The road up to the temple is long and winding, but it’s well worth the drive.  The entrance to Pu’u O Mahuka is on Pupukea Homestead Road (Highway 835). From Kamehameha Highway (Highway 83) you’ll turn unto Pupukea Homestead Road. Look for the entry and a small sign across from the Pupukea fire station.

Puu O Mahuka Heiau

Pu'u O Mahuka

3. Manoa Falls

Tucked away in Honolulu is an easy walking path to a waterfall called Manoa Falls Trail. This quiet walk is surrounded by incredibly lush vegetation and Eucalyptus trees. The waterfall you’ll find at the end is small, but beautiful. While Oahu has plenty of rigorous hiking paths, the path to Manoa Falls is a simple, relaxed walk.

Insider’s Tip: Bugs know about this beautiful spot too, so take insect repellent and visit the waterfall in peace. When leaving your car unattended on hikes or beach stops, be smart and don’t leave cameras and valuables in the car.

4. Foster Botanical Garden

In the heart of Honolulu, you’ll find 14 acres of tropical beauty with several gardens, including an orchid garden and a butterfly garden. You’ll be enveloped in the tranquility of nature, right in the middle of the capital city. The fee for adults and children over thirteen is $5, and children six through twelve can enter for just a dollar. Kids under six get free admission as long as they’re with a paying adult. The garden, located at Fifty North Vineyard Avenue, is open from 9 am to 4 pm daily, except Christmas and New Year’s Day.

5. Diamond Head Crater

After a hike of just under a mile that is at times steep and difficult, you’ll get an exceptional view of the Hawaiian coast. While it may take up to two hours to hike the path and visit the whole crater, I’ve made this trip twice and feel that it’s well worth the effort. The park is located off Diamond Head Road between Makapu’u Ave and Eighteenth Avenue in Honolulu. The park is open from 6 am to 6 pm daily, including holidays, and entrance is $5 per car or $1 per walker.

Insider’s Tip: The hiking path has switchbacks and steep stairs through a cave, so bring a flashlight for these darker portions of the trip.

6. USS Arizona Memorial

Pearl Harbor is open to visitors from 7 am to 5 pm daily, and free tours of the USS Arizona Memorial start at 8 am. Marking the wreckage of the Arizona, destroyed in the December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor, the memorial is accessible only by a short boat trip. On the tour you’ll learn about the battleship and the attacks that brought the United States into World War II. When you’re preparing for the trip to the memorial, remember that no purses, backpacks, camera cases, or bags of any kind are allowed on the tour or in the visitor’s center.

Insider’s Tip: During tourist season, tickets are typically gone by noon, so pick the day you want to visit the memorial and get there early to ensure your spot.

7. Nu’uanu Pali Overlook

To get a taste of old Hawaii, check out the windswept views of the Ko’olau Mountains and Kaneohe Bay at the Nu’uanu Pali Overlook. While you’re there, walk the defunct Old Pali Highway. Few tourists make the walk down the highway and around the overlook, so you can avoid some crowds and get a great view at the same time.

Insider’s Tip: Come prepared with a jacket. The trail is always breezy and often windy, and you don’t want to miss out on the experience because of the chill.

8. Punchbowl National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific

Honor the sacrifice of those who served in the U.S. Armed Services by visiting this memorial, open from 8 am to 6 pm daily. Punchbowl includes a chapel, multiple memorials, and an opportunity to view military graves of soldiers, including those killed at Pearl Harbor.

Insider’s Tip: If you are fortunate enough to be on the island for Memorial Day, Punchbowl offers a special service. Graves are decorated with flower leis donated by local residents. The Memorial Day service includes a military band, gun salutes, and a military flyover.

9. Chinaman’s Hat

This scenic island is on the windward side of Oahu, and its conical shape resembles an immigrant worker’s straw hat. Isolated but close to the island of Oahu, this island is reachable by kayak from Kualoa Regional Beach Park, which itself is a great place for a picnic lunch as you drive around the island.

10. Haleiwa

While I love the North Shore for surfing and relaxing on the beach, I treasure a stop at Global Creations Interiors, in Haleiwa. The shop is a gem of island style art and gifts. You will find all price ranges and many items made by local artists. The mood of the store allows you to linger, absorbing the beauty as well as the island atmosphere.

Oahu’s Best Beaches

Sandy Beach

Most importantly, Sandy Beach is well-known for dangerous currents and rip tides. Located at the base of the Koko Crater near Hawaii Kai, it’s one of my favorite beaches. But unless you’re an expert surfer, you should just enjoy it from the sand. You’ll have a great opportunity to watch incredible surfers skimming the waves; you’d be hard-pressed to get better surf photos anywhere else. Plus, it’s family friendly with picnic tables and restroom facilities.

Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve

The beach is a natural half-moon shape with 2,000 feet of white sand. It’s a gorgeous place to spend a day snorkeling. You can rent snorkel gear, but if you’ll be there for a week you may choose to purchase your own gear. Summer hours at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve are 6 am to 7 pm, when you’ll find lifeguards, snack bars, and public restrooms; winter hours end at 6 pm. The preserve is accessible for most special needs too, with a tram to and from the beach that can accommodate wheelchairs. They even have free beach wheelchairs available at the beach kiosk from 8 am to 4 pm daily. These are free to visitors.

Insider’s Tip: Arrive early, because the parking lot fills up, and the staff will turn cars away. And don’t plan a visit on a Tuesday. The preserve is closed on Tuesdays year-round.

Lanikai Beach

This little slice of heaven fits the Hawaiian meaning of “Lanikai” (i.e. heavenly sea) perfectly. This precious, tiny, local beach is one of the most treasured spots on the island, and it isn’t your average Hawaiian tourist beach.

Insider’s Tip: This is a neighborhood beach, so there aren’t lifeguards or public restrooms, and parking is tough to find. Once you’ve located some parking, you can access the beach from public walkways.

lanikai beach sunset

Lanikai Beach at sunset

Kailua Beach Park

This beach is a great spot for windsurfing and swimming, with lifeguards, restrooms, showers, picnic tables, and even concessions.

Ehukai Beach

Known as the Banzai Pipeline, this beach is the best place to watch surfers. The Billabong Pipeline Masters Tournament takes place here, and you can watch world-class surfers take on serious waves year-round. Waves on this beach can reach 25 feet, and the water can be extremely dangerous during winter surf conditions, so look out for posted warning signs. Ehukai has lifeguards, public restrooms, picnic tables, and showers.

Insider’s Tip: If you want to watch the surf competitions, plan on arriving at dawn and be willing to park far from the beach. Traffic congestion will be high, and roads in this area only have one lane in each direction.

Bellows Air Force Station and Beach

Accommodations here are strictly for military families. This is one of the most gorgeous spots on the island. If you are lucky enough to have connections with the military, this is a must-visit beach. Bellows offers cabins and camping within the Air Force Station.

Kapiolani Park

At the edge of Waikiki, this park is a great destination of relaxing, walking, or having a beach barbecue with your family. This park offers restrooms, snack stands, lifeguards, and plenty of parking.

Cheap and Delicious Eats on Oahu

Roadside Shrimp Trucks

When I lived on Oahu, I came to love the cheap, fresh shrimp offered by these trucks parked off Kamehameha Highway in Haleiwa. If you’re visiting, you must experience the trucks for yourself.

From noon to sunset they provide scrumptious, picnic-style meals of fresh shrimp served in a garlic butter sauce or a sweet hot and spicy sauce, along with two scoops of rice. You can choose from several different trucks, each of which has its own slightly distinct menu. Some trucks have pork spare ribs, steak, or even smoked chicken. The price for a dozen shrimp with two scoops of rice is $12, which is a steal compared to restaurant prices around the island.

Coffee Gallery

At this local favorite in Haleiwa, you can enjoy an extensive breakfast and lunch menu with organic ingredients as well as fresh Hawaiian coffee and smoothies. At Coffee Gallery, you can relax and enjoy the free Wi-Fi on their screened patio while they grind the beans on site. If you’re a dessert lover, splurge on their locally made cookies and other treats. Prices are reasonable for the island; most lunches cost less than $9.

Grass Skirt Grill

Also in Haleiwa, you’ll find friendly service and authentic decor at Grass Skirt Grill. They serve enjoyable Hawaiian plate lunch selections including Hawaiian BBQ, Ahi sandwiches, and stateside favorites like coconut shrimp and teriyaki chicken. Prices average between $8.95 and $9.95.

Hawaiian Plate Lunch, Kailua Pig, Rice,

Hawaiian Plate Lunch

Champa Thai

With main courses costing $8 or $9, Champa Thai has an extensive menu of Thai selections. The restaurant is welcoming and comfortable with Thai art, plants, orchids, and table cloths. Champa Thai has three locations on Oahu: Pearl City, Kailua, and Honolulu. They are open Monday through Saturday from 11 am to 2 pm for lunch and 5:30 pm to 9:30 pm for dinner. On Sunday they are open for dinner from 5 pm to 9 pm.

Ono Hawaiian Foods

For cheap, authentic Hawaiian food in Honolulu, try this cash-only family restaurant. You can get a taste of true Hawaiian favorites like Kailua Pig and coconut pudding.

Zippy’s

Hawaii has a fast food market too, and Zippy’s offers a variety of menu items. You’ll find Japanese and Hawaiian favorites including pork saimin, fried noodles, teriyaki steak, and chicken katsu. You can also choose from American favorites like fried chicken, chili, and burgers.

Saigon Noodle House

For Vietnamese cuisine and cheap prices, check out Saigon Noodle House. However, keep in mind that it’s located in a strip mall called the Enchanted Lakes Shopping Center, which, despite its name, does not offer much of an atmosphere. It’s purely good food and budget-friendly prices.

Blazin Steaks

In Kailua, Blazin Steaks has a casual atmosphere, good food, and low prices. The menu features steak, chicken, and fish dishes, and meals come with rice and salad. Sauces and toppings include teriyaki, garlic, Korean BBQ, kimchee, Thai peanut, brown gravy, and mushroom. Steaks cost between $6.50 and $10, while chicken and fish go for $6. The restaurant has several other locations around the island.

Shaved Ice

For a local treat, Shaved Ice is a Hawaiian favorite. You’ll find several shops along the North Shore, but the best one is in the little town of Haleiwa on the North Shore. You can linger and enjoy this Hawaiian treat, made by filling a paper cone with shaved slivers of ice, your favorite flavored syrup, some ice cream, and Azuki beans. It’s a must-try for visitors to the island.

Free and Cheap Oahu Family Fun

hawaii kids surfing sunset

Kids surfing at sunset

Friday nights on Waikiki beach, the Hilton Hawaiian Village hosts a free fireworks show.

At Iolani Palace grounds, see the Royal Hawaiian Band on Fridays from noon to 1 pm.

The Royal Hawaiian Center offers a regular schedule of free entertainment including Hula, Ukulele, and Polynesian dances. The Royal Hawaiian Band performs a free concert here on the first and third Wednesdays from 1 pm to 1:45 pm.

Kapiolani Park Beach Center Promenade presents a torch lighting, Hawaiian music, and Hula performance every Saturday and Sunday at 6:45 pm.

Located on Hotel Street, on the second floor of the State Capital Building, the Hawaii State Art Museum offers free admission from 10 am to 4 pm every day, but they’re closed for all holidays. At the museum, you’ll find 360 works of art that express the Hawaiian culture.

For another local cultural favorite, the Bishop Museum has an extensive collection of Hawaiian artifacts and cultural exhibits. Though it’s not free, it’s great value for a must-see. For $17.95 for adults and $14.95 for children 4 to 12, it’s worth it to get up close and personal with Hawaiian culture. The museum is open from 9 am to 5 pm, and it’s closed on Tuesdays and on Christmas Day. Military families receive a discounted rate.

Seasonal Favorites on the Islands

In late January and early February, the Chinatown Festival is a great opportunity to experience an all-day block party in Chinatown. The festival includes martial arts, crafts, lion dancers, fireworks, and crafts. Then, in March, don’t miss the Dragon Boat Races at Ala Moana Beach Park at the edge of Waikiki.

hawaii dragon boat races

Dragon Boat Races

When spring arrives, the Merrie Monarch Festival is your chance to experience authentic Hula competitions. This annual festival is held on the Big Island of Hawaii, and since it’s extremely popular, you should purchase tickets and secure hotel rooms way ahead of time.

Later in the year, September’s big free event is the Aloha Festivals Floral Parade. You’ll see real Hawaiian cowboys riding horses, floats filled with Hawaiian flowers, and Hula dancers performing.

Cheap Accommodations

Hostels

The following hostels received at least an 80% rating from the various hosteling rating websites, and will be your best bet for your budget trip to Oahu:

Waikiki Backpackers Paradise
Two blocks from Waikiki Beach, at 431 Nohonani Street, this hostel provides free airport pick-up (but dropoff costs $9), free Wi-Fi, laundry facilities, and a rooftop garden. Private rooms for two with a bath are priced at $33.50 per person. Three-bed same-sex dorm rooms go for $29.95 per person.

Insider’s Tip: You’ll need a valid ID and airline ticket showing departure to be permitted to stay at Waikiki Backpackers Paradise. If you don’t have both, try another option.

Honolulu University Hostel
Near the University of Hawaii in Manoa, this hostel gets good ratings on cleanliness and facilities, and they’ll provide free sheets and towels. Though it is farther from the tourist areas, it is near some good hiking as well as restaurants and bars. Dorm beds in single-sex rooms go for $20 per night.

Aqua Waikiki Pearl
This newly redecorated site, just a six-minute walk to the beach at 415 Nahua Street, received good ratings and comes in at $84 per night for two adults and a child during a week in May. Guest rooms come with free Internet access, and room options include a queen bed and a double bed or one queen bed with a microwave, coffee maker, and refrigerator. You can also reserve a suite with a kitchen for a higher rate. The guest limit is four per room, but there’s no additional charge for a child.

Cabins and Camping

The Friends of Malaekahana rent rustic cabins at the beach at Malaekahana Bay on Oahu’s northeast shore. They offer a few cool options for rentals. First, their 8×8 “Li’l Grass Shacks” come with raised, padded sleeping platforms. These beachfront shacks come with tiki torches, a propane BBQ grill, an outdoor sink/kitchen prep area, a picnic table, and a fire pit, and the three windows provide a great sea breeze. Two adults and two children can sleep in these shacks, but you’ll need your own sleeping bags. Rates are $40 a night for two adults and $50 for two adults and two children.

Second, the “Eco Duplex” costs $80 a night and sleeps four. These accommodations offer a covered lanai, a kitchenette, and a bathroom with an outdoor shower. The Eco Duplex offers solar power, a propane BBQ, a double bed, and a futon. This option comes with Wi-Fi, and you’ll also get a charging area for laptops and other devices. An on-site host will answer any questions about the cabins or nearby sites. These cabins are located outside the town of Laie, at 56-335 Kamehameha Highway.

Cheap Airfare

I found cheap airfare deals on CheapOair, which listed a non-stop American Airlines flight from Chicago to Honolulu for $777 and a United Airlines flight for $709 with a stop in Phoenix. From LA, I found a nonstop flight for $420 dollars. Nonstop flights out of Seattle were as low as $522 on Alaska Airlines. All flights departed on a Sunday and returned on a Saturday in late May.

Insider’s Tip: Your best option for getting around the island is a rental car. Oahu has a decent public bus system, which got me to all of the major destinations, but the waiting time for the bus and making transfers will bite into your precious vacation time. However, the fare is very low, so if you’re on an extreme budget, it will work.

Final Word

Hawaii is a popular destination for honeymoons or once-in-lifetime family trips. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to go more than once and enjoy a deeply personal experience every time.

Oahu is a particularly exotic and beautiful destination with a great deals if you know where to look. It’s be easy to splurge too much on your first couple of days and find yourself with no budget remaining to enjoy the rest of your week on the island. But you don’t have to miss out on great meals and attractions just to save a few dollars. With these insider tips, you can plan and enjoy an exciting tropical island vacation at surprisingly affordable rates.

What are your favorite budget-friendly spots on Oahu? Share your vacation experience in the comments below.

(photo credit: Shutterstock, hammockinparadise, olaer, queen_of_subtle, neeta_lind)

Lisa Overman
Lisa Overman is an international traveler and writer. She writes on tropical destinations for Wanderlust and Lipstick. She is a former expat who spent four years in Germany. She also spent six years living on islands in the Pacific. She has her own website, LisaOverman.com where she writes on grief and loss.

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  • http://www.savings.com/blog/blog.html Amy Saves

    i love this list! gonna share it on digg and twitter. thanks!

  • http://www.andhawaii.com/ Lisa

    Yeah, oahu is definitely the best island to save a lot of money on!

  • http://www.lisaoverman.com Lisa

    Thanks for the feedback and for tweeting and stumbling it.

  • http://migrationology.com Mark Wiens

    Awesome article Lisa! I really enjoy the Manoa Falls trail and hiking around that area!

  • http://adventureswithben.com adventureswithben

    Thanks Lisa. I’ve bookmarked this for the eventual trip to Hawaii… someday.

  • http://www.sophiesworld.net Sophie’s World

    Excellent article with all the info on Oahu you need, I should imagine. Can’t believe I haven’t made it to Hawaii yet. Prawns by the wayside sounds yummy!

  • http://www.thetravelchica.com The Travel Chica

    I didn’t know Oahu could be done on a budget. Very useful info!

  • http://quirkytravelguy.com Scott – Quirky Travel Guy

    Wow, really thorough round-up. I haven’t yet done Hawaii because it does seem hard to do on a budget. It’s good to know there are some options!

  • http://www.lisaoverman.com Lisa

    Thanks Sophie, the prawns are very yummy. I hope you’ll make a trip to Hawaii. It is a great destination.

  • http://www.lisaoverman.com Lisa

    With planning and care Hawaii can be a wonderful budget destination.

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