Hawaii is one of the most beautiful places in the world! But, it is also one of the most expensive. According to Payscale, the cost-of-living in Honolulu is 65% higher than the national average. I actually moved to Hawaii on a whim back in 2011 and lived in a 2 bedroom apartment that was shared between 4 people and our monthly rent was $3,000! Insane right?
My roommate had to live in a tiny dungeon room with no door, no windows, no closet, and no overhead light. And since I was a server and living off of tips, I had to get creative in order to really enjoy my time there without going totally broke. If you are planning a trip or even a move to Oahu, follow these 13 insider tips to travel like a local and avoid breaking the bank.
Picnic on the beach
One of the best things about Oahu is that all of the beaches are public land. There are no private beaches anywhere as “they belong to no one and everyone”. So while the most popular beaches are overcrowded with tourists, you don’t have to wander far to find your own patch of paradise. Grab some fresh shoyu poke at any Foodland grocery store (which is arguably the best poke on the island), a bottle of rosé and a blanket and enjoy an afternoon picnic in the sand.
A few of our favorite “off the beaten path” beaches:
- Leahi Beach Park – east of Waikiki and where a lot of locals BBQ
- China Walls – it’s not really a beach but there are huge rocks and even bigger waves and it’s an epic spot to watch sunset
- Makapu’u Tide Pools – also not a beach but amazing tide pools that are perfect for a swim! Be sure to go at low tide and be careful of the blow holes!
- Shark’s Cove – on the North Shore. There is also a great food truck nearby which bears the same name.
- Kaena Point – if it weren’t for this bit of land on the far west end of the island, you’d be able to drive a full loop around the outer edge. The further you head toward the point, the more secluded the beaches get. Beware the last couple miles of road are for only the most rugged 4×4 vehicles (and all of the shore line is rocky once you go past where the pavement ends anyways).
- Lanikai Beach – okay, this beach definitely isn’t “off the beaten path” but it is the most beautiful beach on the island of Oahu (in my humble opinion) and a must-visit! Rent a kayak and paddle out to the islands off the coast for a fun afternoon adventure.
Surf at sunset
The surf on Waikiki Beach is some of the best in the world for beginner surfers. The water is warm, it is reasonably shallow, and there is a long, sandy break so you’re never in danger of scraping yourself on reef. There are loads of “beach boys” slinging surf boards and SUPs that you can rent for a few hours or for the full day. If you arrive during midday the rental prices are high and the break is crowded with tourists who have no idea what they are doing. Opt to go later in the day, around sunset, when the beach boys will cut you a deal and you’ll get epic sunset views from the water.
Call our buddy Tommy (808-277-0739) for the best deals on boards. He’ll deliver it to you pretty much any time of day! Just tell him Nick and Val sent you…
Book an Airbnb
As with all travel, the biggest expenses you’ll encounter on your Hawaiian vacation are airfare and accommodations. The hotels in Waikiki are outrageously expensive (but gorgeous) and due to a desire to “keep the country country”, the only hotel on the North Shore is Turtle Bay (which is worth a visit to see where Forgetting Sarah Marshall was filmed).
Fortunately Airbnb has opened up the market for reasonable priced and conveniently located accommodations. Many hotels off of the main strip in Waikiki (think Kuhio Ave) are essentially half hotel, half condo and many of those condo owners rent their spots out on Airbnb. So there are plenty of affordable options right on the outskirts of Waikiki. We prefer to stay near Kapiolani Park which is closer to our favorite “off the strip” restaurants and beaches.
We always recommend that vacationers split their time between the North and South ends of the island as they are two very different experiences. You can find some amazing Airbnb spots on the North Shore that are either right on the beach or a short walk away. We like to stay near Sharks Cove beach for quieter, more secluded beaches.
Take a hike
Hiking is free! And there are so many amazingly beautiful hikes in Oahu, it would be a pity not to take advantage. Of course there are the standard tourist hikes of Diamond Head and Manoa Falls, but you may find these too crowded to enjoy. Do some research before hand and you’ll find dozens of amazing alternatives all throughout the mountains and valleys of Oahu.
A few of our favorite hikes:
- Koko Head Crater Trail – railway ties were stacked into stairs that climb up the side of a mountain. It is short but strenuous and you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views from the top!
- Makapu’u Tide Pools – the hike down to Makapu’u Tide Pools is a difficult scramble so this isn’t a great one for the kids. Once at the bottom there natural pools that are perfect for swimming and even a blow hole. Only swim during low tide and be careful of big waves – they can be dangerous.
- Lanikai Pillboxes – another short but strenuous hike up to old bunkers that overlook the spectacular Lanikai beach.
- Three Peaks of Olomana – disclaimer: we’ve only made it to the first two peaks of this challenging hike (several people have died from falling off of the third peak so exercise caution). There is a skinny beaten path that runs along the jagged ridge line with steep drop-offs on either side. The first peak is scary but doable and it gets progressively more terrifying the further you go. But the views are second-to-none and the hike is an epic adventure!
- Lulumahu Falls – this hike starts with an easy hike through a bamboo forest and then follows a river up to a small waterfall at the end. It’s not strenuous and would be a good time for the family.
Eat off the main strip in Waikiki (Kalakaua Ave)
Kalakaua Ave is the touristy street that runs through the center of Waikiki. It is packed full of hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops. It is extremely crowded during the day and comes alive at night with street performers and live music. It is fantastic for people watching but not so fantastic if you are looking for a reasonably priced meal. When I lived in Hawaii I would most certainly head to Kalakaua for the nightlife but it was incredibly rare that I actually purchased food there (unless my parents were visiting and footing the bill).
Luckily there are tons of awesome restaurants within walking distance that offer better food and much better prices. Kuhio Ave runs parallel to Kalakaua and is like a whole other world considering that it is just one street away. You’ll see a significant price difference in the hotels, restaurants, and bars on Kuhio compared to Kalakaua. Or, better yet, head to Monsarrat or Kapahulu Avenues which was where I spent the majority of my money on meals. Locals eat here because the food is delicious and the prices are on point.
A few of our favorite restaurants “off the strip”:
- Uncle Bo’s Pupu Bar – try the Seafood Trap and the Bo’s Big Nachos… heavenly…
- MAC 27/7 – if you’re in need of a great late night meal (they’re open 24/7 as the name implies)
- Diamond Head Market & Grill – perfect for a grab-and-go lunch. The scones are the best on the island and the pre-packaged salads are epic.
- Diamond Head Cove Health Bar – the best acai bowl you’ve ever had!
While you’re at it, avoid shopping on Kalakaua Ave:
When I was living on Oahu I was made fun of time and time again for my “granny panty” bathing suit bottoms. So I was on the hunt for an itsy bitsy new suit and decided to check out San Lorenzo Bikinis. First I checked the store on the North Shore and found one I liked but they didn’t have my size so I checked their other store on Kalakaua Ave in the heart of Waikiki. They had it, but it was 30% more expensive for the exact same suit!
When I asked the clerk “how is this possible?” her reply was simply “higher rent, higher prices”. So there you have it. It costs a boatload for stores to rent beachfront property in Waikiki so they pass the costs on to you. Luckily there are many other awesome spots that are easy to get to and less expensive.
A few of our favorite shops that are “off the strip”:
- Raging Isle Surf & Cycle – a one-stop-shop for men and women’s trendy beach clothing in Haleiwa
- HI Life Store – for locally made clothing
- Art and Flea – for an amazing market on the last Thursday of the month. Local artisans, live music, and food carts – you’ll want to buy it all!
- Ala Moana Center – a huge mall with every store you could ever wish for plus Mai Tai Bar which is an open-air bar that is favorite with the locals!
BYOB (Bring your own bottle/booze)
Hawaii has quite strict laws regarding liquor licensing for businesses. There is a law regarding “stacking” whereas you can only have one drink in front of you at a time. So if you want to order 2 cocktails before happy hour ends, you’ve got to chug one before you can order the other. But for some reason if you order a beer and a shot at the same time it’s cool – such nonsense.
It’s also really difficult for businesses to get a liquor license so many avoid it altogether and instead opt for a BYOB approach. So rather than spending $15 on a watery Mai Tai, you can stop at a grocery store, pick up a 6-pack of beer or a bottle of wine, and the restaurant will happily let your drink your own (cheap) booze. In fact, many will even keep it in their refrigerator for you!
A few of our favorite BYOB restaurants:
- South Shore Grill – Go for Taco Tuesdays!
- Sunrise Restaurant – It doesn’t look like much from the outside but the food and hospitality are amazing. Try the ox tail soup!
- Morio’s Sushi Bistro – A tiny (4 table) restaurant in an unassuming strip mall that many consider to be the best sushi on Oahu. You’ll need to make call weeks (if not months) in advance to secure one of the coveted dinner reservations. If you go make sure you bring some extra beer to share with Morio and his staff!
- Karaoke Hut – It’s not a restaurant, but if you book a private room you can bring in all the food and drinks your heart desires. Just don’t pull a Val and start a food fight – they’ll definitely take your entire room deposit…
Utilize Oahu public transportation
Oahu is pretty well established when it comes to public transportation. You can get to most tourist destinations on the island on a public bus. Uber is also quite popular. Of course if you have the time and the funds it’s good to rent a car so you have the freedom to explore the island in it’s entirety.
Skip the luau, take a catamaran cruise instead
Who am I kidding? I’m 95% sure you’ll be going to a luau during your Hawaiian getaway. Keep in mind a few things; first of all they are expensive. Second, location is incredibly important. Make sure it takes place on a beach, not on the roof of a parking lot (this is really a thing, I’m not making it up). It makes a difference, I swear. Also, the food is bland, the drinks are so sweet that they will make you nauseous, and you’ll never ever see a local attending a luau by their own free will. And my final rant is that the dancing is cliché and you can see pretty much the exact same performance on the lawn in front of the big pink hotel in Waikiki every day.
Instead, take an amazing and affordable catamaran booze cruise at sunset. Our favorite is Na Hoko II which departs from the beach right in front of Duke’s Canoe Club every hour and a half. It’s a totally fair price and loads of fun! Stick to beer if you want to get your moneys worth. Listen to their jams or plug in your own and get ready to party!
Camp on the North Shore of Oahu
So… camping on public beaches isn’t technically “legal” in Hawaii but you can “fish” all night until the break of dawn while snoozing in a tent nearby. So if decide you’d like to camp you can throw a fishing pole into a deep hole in the sand, toss the line into the ocean, and you’re good to go!
We actually camped quite a bit on Oahu without a fishing pole and never had any trouble. But… we anticipated and accepted the risk. If you drive out toward Ka’ena Point you’ll find lovely and basically deserted coastline as far as the eye can see. Even if you don’t have camping gear, the weather in Hawaii is perfect so just toss a blanket on the sand and sleep under the stars!
If you don’t have a fishing pole handy or this makes you nervous, try:
- Bellows Field Beach Park – Be sure to book a spot well in advance, it’s a popular spot!
Have dessert at Honolulu Cookie Company
They would probably murder me for suggesting this as an option but Honolulu Cookie Company has delicious cookies and their conveniently located stores always have full boxes of samples just sitting there waiting for you to try. And the stores are generally pretty busy so no one will really notice if you casually walk around sampling the goods and then walk out empty-handed.
Take advantage of happy hour in Waikiki
I’m mentioned a few times that the main strip in Waikiki is unreasonably expensive BUT you can actually find some really fantastic deals if you know what you’re looking for. Most bars offer a “happy hour” around the 5pm hour, but some are better than others.
Our fave happy hours spots:
Take an inner island flight
This isn’t necessarily a money “saver” unless you want to visit other Hawaiian islands someday and figure you are so close so you might as well do it now. If you’ve been dreaming of seeing Maui or Kauai or the Big Island, the best time to pull the trigger is now, when you are so close! You can get crazy amazing deals at all times of the day and anytime of the year.