10 Ways to Save on an Oahu Vacation

June Casagrande
By June Casagrande 
Edited by Mary M. Flory

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With Southwest Airlines beginning flights to Hawaii, the Aloha State is in easier reach for the budget-minded travelers who make up the carrier’s loyal fan base. Now the question is: How do you save money once you touch down?

The famously pricey Hawaiian Islands pose a challenge to Southwest’s frugal flyers. But on the island of Oahu, a Hawaiian vacation can be affordable.

Home to state capital Honolulu, Oahu is the most developed and densely populated island. But a short drive from the main resort area, Waikiki, you’ll find everything vacationers dream of. Waterfalls, emerald green mountains, world-class snorkeling, funky surf towns and some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, including picture-perfect Lanikai and Waimanalo, can all be found on this island.

Here are 10 tips for saving big on an Oahu vacation.

1. Visit when school is in session

The most expensive time to visit Oahu is anytime the kids are out of school, especially Christmas and midsummer. Any other time of year, you can find great deals, with clean, budget properties a short walk to the beach starting under $100 a night.

2. Stay a few blocks from the beach

Only a handful of resorts sit right on the ocean in Waikiki, including the famous “Pink Palace” Royal Hawaiian (a Luxury Collection resort part of the Marriott Bonvoy rewards program), the opulent Halekulani and the sprawling Hilton Hawaiian Village. But across the street and a few blocks inland, you’ll find dozens of more affordable options. The catch is that you won’t be able to lounge at a hotel pool right at the ocean. And no, the major resorts don’t sell day passes to their pools.

3. Check out vacation rentals

Oahu has tons of clean, pleasant vacation rentals all over the island, including plenty in walkable Waikiki. Many are in the same buildings as hotel rooms you might book. Ilikai, Aqua Palms and Outrigger Shore are just a few of the properties with both hotel rooms and private vacation rental units. Before you book a hotel, browse vacation rentals on VRBO and HomeAway. Make sure to compare total costs, which include resort fees for hotels and cleaning and management fees at condos, instead of the barebones nightly rates.

4. Budget for resort fees

Virtually every hotel on Oahu has a “resort fee” — a nightly charge of anywhere from $20 to $45 that covers a bunch of things you probably won’t use, like a free photo, free local phone calls or wedding vow renewal on the beach. Really, these fees are just a way for the hotels to make their nightly rates look more attractive at first glance by shifting a portion of your costs into a separate category.

5. Do the math on rental cars

You’ll enjoy your Oahu vacation more with a rental car. And you can often find good rates, especially on DiscountHawaiiCarRental.com. But parking costs are brutal. One example: $45 a night for self-parking and $52 per night for valet at Hilton Hawaiian Village (and that’s on top of the $45-a-night resort fee). On the other hand, getting to and from the airport without a rental car could cost you about $100 round-trip, and you’ll still have to pay to get around the island.

Add up the total costs of each option. If you don’t get a car for your whole trip, you’ll definitely want one for at least a day to explore the island. You can pick it up in the morning and return it in the evening at lots of locations near your hotel or condo. There is bus service on the island, but it’s slow, and every minute you’re in Hawaii is quantifiably precious.

6. Beware of meals with an ocean view

Feel like a burger and a cold brew for lunch? Belly up to an oceanfront cafe at any of Oahu’s on-the-beach resorts and you could be out $70 plus tip for a lunch for two. Beachfront breakfasts can be equally outrageous. But step away from the ocean and cheap eats abound.

Cheeseburger Waikiki, Eggs N Things, MAC 24/7, tons of great ramen places and a huge selection of fast food and Denny’s-type chains can be found off the resorts. For a decently priced beachfront breakfast buffet, check out Duke’s at the Outrigger Waikiki. Don’t assume breakfast-included hotel packages are a deal. They’re often more expensive and more limiting than paying separately for breakfast.

7. Alternate pricey meals with cheap eats

There are plenty of fine-dining restaurants on Oahu worth a splurge. Alan Wong’s, La Mer at Halekulani, Michel’s at the Colony Surf and Beachhouse at the Moana Surfrider are just a few. Offset the cost by going cheap on other meals. ABC Stores are convenience markets all over the island selling packaged sandwiches and salads, hot soup, hard-boiled eggs and other grab-and-go eats. Bring muffins back to the room for the next day’s breakfast or buy a loaf of bread and a package of ham to make your own picnic lunch. If you’re on the beach at Waikiki, grab lunch at Steak Shack at the Outrigger Waikiki or Happy’s Snack Bar behind the Hale Koa. On the North Shore, sample the island’s famous shrimp trucks or grab a plate lunch at Ted’s Bakery.

8. Scope out some shade

If you lay your beach towel under the sun, it won’t be long before you have to escape the UV rays to someplace you’re likely to spend money. But if you find a spot in the shade, a $6 paperback can deliver a full day of tropical relaxation.

The beach-umbrella-and-lounger sets you can rent in front of the major resorts can run $50 or $60 for a full day. But if they let you spend the day chilling on the beach instead of shopping, dining or visiting paid attractions, they just might be a value. You can buy cheap umbrellas and chairs at an ABC Store or another market. There are also shady, grassy areas with fabulous views and easy access to the water at DeRussy Park, Kapiolani Park and Ala Moana Beach Park.

9. Get a Go Oahu Card

If lounging around all day wasn’t the kind of vacation you had in mind, get a Go Oahu Card. It’s a customizable package of discounted tickets for snorkeling, catamaran tours, museums, kayaking, Pearl Harbor admission tickets and more. One-day passes start around $74.

10. See why the best things in Hawaii are free (or very cheap)

Though there are plenty of activities worth paying for on Oahu — like ATV tours and helicopter rides and the Bishop Museum — it’s possible to have a wonderful time on Oahu while paying nothing or next to nothing for activities.

Every beach in Hawaii, even if it abuts a luxury hotel or private home, is public land. Hike through a rainforest to Manoa Falls. Watch world-class surfing in winter on the North Shore, or keep an eye out for humpback whales and spinner dolphins. Enjoy live Hawaiian music and hula for free in the Royal Hawaiian Center shopping complex. See water shoot up like a spout from the Halona Blowhole. Explore a botanical garden. Pay your respects to the fallen aboard the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. Reserve a barbecue grill at a beachside park and have a picnic with the kids. Or, for just a few dollars, rent a snorkel set, surfboard, kayak or ocean bike and get out on the water.

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Planning a trip? Check out these articles for more inspiration and advice: How to save on a destination wedding in Hawaii NerdWallet’s top travel credit cards How to save for a vacation

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