Meta: With many things to do and cheap eating and lodging options, Oahu is the most affordable Hawaiian island. Here’s how to experience paradise on a budget.

The words ‘Hawaii’ and ‘cheap’ rarely go together, but they can

Hawaii likely conjures up images of beautiful tropical beaches, stunning vistas and lounging with a drink in hand. But these images also bring to mind dollar signs and prohibitive costs. However, travel to Oahu, the third largest and most affordable island of Hawaii, can be done in a budget-friendly way.

Oahu, known as “The Gathering Place” spans almost 600 square miles and has a population of about 980,000 people. It’s full of picturesque beaches, including famous surf spots; no shortage of outdoor activities, like hiking, and the diverse and multicultural state capital, Honolulu. 

The island has a lot to offer, from activities to accommodations, and it’s for precisely this reason that it is considered Hawaii’s cheapest island to visit. It just takes some planning to find inexpensive food and lodging and free or cheap activities. 

Really, Oahu is the most affordable Hawaiian island. Here’s why

According to Tripster, Oahu is the cheapest Hawaiian island to visit. This doesn’t mean that everything is cheap, and there are definitely high-end options like hotels that cost hundreds of dollars per night. However, the island has many options, so you’re likely to find accommodations, restaurants, and activities for any budget. 

Plus, Oahu is home to many popular sites in Hawaii, so visitors to Oahu won’t have to go far to get to them. For example, Waikiki Beach and the Pearl Harbor Memorial are both on Oahu. 

dennisflarsen/Pixabay

Getting around Oahu itself can be done by public transportation, so it’s not necessary to rent a car, according to Tripster. This saves another potential cost. An added bonus is that Southwest Airlines, known for budget-friendly airfares, has new routes to Hawaii (including Oahu and other islands), which means that it could be even more affordable to get to the state than ever before. 

Overall, according to travel guide Lonely Planet, it’s possible to do Oahu on a budget for less than $100 a day, including hotel stays and meals.

Hostels and apartment rentals: Your budget accommodations in Oahu 

When looking for a budget stay in Oahu, consider the mainstay of budget travelers everywhere: hostels. The website Hostelworld allows travelers to read reviews and book hostels all over the world, including on Oahu. Options for hostels in Honolulu start at about $20 per night, and hostels with private rooms start at a little over $80. 

One example is the Seaside Hawaiian Hostel Waikiki, which has an 8.9 out of 10 rating on Hostelworld and has dorm rooms starting at $21 per night. 

Tripster notes that hotels on Waikiki Beach will be more expensive. Look for accommodations that aren’t on the beach–they’ll be cheaper and just as close to any activities you want to do.  

Oahu is full of picturesque beaches, including famous surf spots; no shortage of outdoor activities, like hiking, and the diverse and multicultural state capital, Honolulu. 

Another option for a cheap stay in Oahu is through either shared rooms or private accommodations with Airbnb, which start at as low as $10 per night. Similar websites for renting homes or condos, like VRBO, can be used to find cheap alternatives to staying in hotels. Another perk of renting an Airbnb or staying in a hostel with a kitchen is that you’ll also be able to save money on food by cooking dinner. 

Eat like a local for cheaper dining in Oahu

Oahu does have elevated restaurants by famous chefs. However, as Hawaii’s most affordable island, there are also plenty of cheap, popular foods to try that will let you experience the local flavors. One cheap local dish is poke, bowls of marinated fish and rice. Also, local style plate lunches (which include rice, macaroni salad and meat in a container or plate) can also be bought for under $10. Some other cheap local eats to look out for include the frozen treat of Hawaiian shaved ice (flavored ice, kind of like a snow cone) and malasadas, a Hawaiian take on Portugueses donuts.

Japanese food is very prevalent in Hawaii, and two popular spots where meals cost less than $10 are Ethel’s Grill and Marukame Udon. The latter has a cafeteria-style setting and you may have to wait in line, but many travelers say it’s worth it. 

In addition, for cheap restaurants and local food, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau recommends going to residential neighborhoods like Kapahulu. 

Other cheap dining options popular throughout the island are food trucks, and in particular shrimp trucks (which serve shrimp dishes). Another way to save money on food is going to a local grocery store and packing a lunch–it’s convenient when you want to spend your day hiking or on the beach anyway.

The ultimate free activity: head to the beach

There are 112 miles of coast in Oahu, so a beach day is the perfect way to experience Hawaii on a budget. Oahu is home to the famous Waikiki Beach, known for its surf, hula shows and beach bars. Be sure to visit the statue of Duke Kahanamoku, an Olympic swimmer who was also important in the growth of surfing. At Kuhio Beach, a part of Waikiki Beach, there are also regular free hula shows.

Another famous beach on Oahu is the North Shore, also a surf spot. Other beaches are calmer and more suitable for families with children, like San Souci (also called Kaimana Beach Park). Hanauma Bay and Kawela Bay are great options for snorkeling and possibly spotting sea turtles.

Surfing and snorkeling may require putting out a bit of money if you don’t have your own gear, but just going to the beach is free. 

There’s more than just beaches on a budget 

Hiking is another free but quintessential Hawaii activity. (Note that you may have to pay for parking at some trails.) Oahu has various trails, including one to the top of Diamond Head, a volcanic crater that offers beautiful views of Honolulu and the Pacific Ocean.

Oahu has a lot to offer, from activities to accomodations, and it’s for precisely this reason that it is considered Hawaii’s cheapest island to visit.

There’s also the Makapuu Lighthouse Trail for another panoramic view and possible whale sightings in December through May, or the Manoa Falls hike through a rainforest that leads to the waterfall.

Another landmark that many visitors to Hawaii want to see is the Pearl Harbor and USS Arizona Memorial. It is run by the U.S. National Park Service, and the visitor center, museum, and memorial are free. (Add-on tours can be purchased.) However, visitors access the memorial by boat, so they must reserve free tickets to ensure their spot.  

In the city of Honolulu, visitors can explore the vibrant Chinatown neighborhood, go to Hawaii State Art Museum or visit the Hoomaluhia Botanical Gardens–all for free. 

Travel during the off season and book flights in advance

As is true for many destinations, visiting during the off season can help you save money in Oahu, because accommodations flights and other activities will likely be cheaper. Another side benefit of this means there will be less people. 

The peak season for Hawaii tends to coincide with times like holidays and school breaks.  Fall (until the Christmas holidays) and spring are generally considered the off seasons. Summer is high season since many people vacation during summer breaks, and winter, including the holiday season, is another high season. 

Luckily, the weather in Hawaii is generally nice all year-round, so the off-season times are just as pleasant for visits as the high-seasons, if not more. 

There are 112 miles of coast in Oahu, so a beach day is the perfect way to experience Hawaii on a budget.

Travel booking website Skyscanner recommended going in September 2019 for the cheapest flights (but note this can change by year). Regardless of when you decide to go, make sure you buy tickets far enough in advance for ideal prices. Skyscanner recommends buying tickets to Honolulu about five months in advance. 

Use public transportation and some final tips

Finally, when you’re on Oahu, travel by the public system, called TheBus. It’s available throughout much of the island. Prices on its website as of December 2019 reflect that a one-way fare is $2.75, and a day pass is $5.50. Routes can be found online. This can be a cheaper alternative to renting a car or taking cabs. 

In addition, it is generally helpful to plan ahead whenever you want to plan a budget vacation. This will ensure you stick to your budget every day, and if you do your research ahead of time for flight deals, discounted activities and more, you can avoid spending extra money. 

Overall, planning a budget trip to Hawaii doesn’t have to be impossible, and as the cheapest of the Hawaiian islands, Oahu is your best bet. If you take advantage of budget accommodations, eat cheap and stick to free activities, you’ll fully get to experience paradise without going broke. 

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

Find out more about saving in off-season Oahu, as well as other places on this list.

Get more travel planning advice for that budget trip you want to take.