Hawaii is a tropical island that is on many traveller’s must-visit list. From lush jungles with hidden waterfalls and wildlife to soft, sandy beaches. Colourful coral reefs teeming with marine life and powerful volcanoes. Hawaii is an island paradise. Unfortunately, a visit to these islands also tends to come with a hefty price tag. However, after spending a few days in Oahu myself, I found a few ways to save some cash. So for those looking for tips, here’s how to explore Hawaii on a budget.
Avoid Travel During High Season
Hawaii is a year round destination, but it’s definitely more expensive to visit at certain times over others. Normally, these times coincide with holidays and school vacations. When I was planning my trip I looked at arriving either the end of August or early September. A quick look at both flight prices and accommodation quickly allowed me to decide to push my visit to September. That one-week difference (before and after Labour Day) made a big difference in costs and, I imagine, crowds as well.
Keep Your Eye out for Seat Sales
One of the easiest ways to start your trip to Hawaii on a budget is to book your tickets when there is a seat sale. Thankfully, this seems to happen quite a lot. I’m Canadian and have signed up for both Air Canada and West Jet emails and I’m get notifications that flights to Hawaii are on sale a few times every year. I ended up getting round trip tickets from Ottawa to Honolulu for under $600 CAD which is a pretty sweet deal for such a long flight, and I’ve seen them go for even cheaper.
The best way to keep an eye out for these deals is to sign up for the airline emails. Often the sales are a few months out allowing you to either take advantage of a last minute deal or plan ahead. Another great site that I like to recommend is Secret Flying. You’ll need to check regularly but it’s a great place to find seat sales and error fares meaning you can get some insanely good deals.
Book Accommodation Well in Advance or Use AirBNB
If you read my article on solo travel in Hawaii, you’ll remember that I disliked the hostel I stayed in so much that I spent my last 2 nights in Hawaii in a hotel (the Surfjack Hotel– which was pretty cool!). While I don’t regret making that decision, I do regret not making it sooner. I did look at hotel prices when I first booked my trip and while they were still pricey, they were much cheaper than I ended up paying when I booked a week before. I also didn’t have as many options since Hawaii is so popular, places book up pretty quickly. I kicked myself a little bit for that poor planning on my part.
Hotels in Waikiki definitely aren’t cheap, so if you are looking for something more affordable take a look at Airbnb options. Especially those that have a kitchen so you can cook and prepare your own meals. Food is also expensive in Hawaii (more on that later) so being able to buy groceries and prepare your own meals will definitely help those trying to experience Hawaii on a budget.
Focus on the Free Stuff
Hawaii has so much to see and do, especially in Oahu. However, with so many tour options it’s easy to be sucked into believing you need to hire a guide or jump on a tour bus for the day to see and do things that are, in fact, free or extremely cheap.
For example, you don’t need to take a tour to go snorkeling. Hop on the local bus in Waikiki and head up the coast to Hanauma Bay where, for under $10, you can have access to a stunning beach area with some great snorkeling opportunities.
Love hiking? Then head to Coco Crater or Diamond Head, both of which will reward you with stunning views of the island.
Love museums? Pearl Harbour is free to visit- you don’t need to take a tour. You just need to sign up online ahead of time (I believe there is a $1 credit card fee for this reservation, but it also means you won’t arrive and be turned away because they are full up for the day).
As for those famous Friday night fireworks in Honolulu? You don’t need to be on a boat out in the water to see them! Check online to see the best viewing spots on the beach and head there so you can see them for free.
Take the time to research the activities you want to see and do first, and you’ll be able to save some money. By doing these types of activities on your own, you can then afford to splurge on other activities that you do need to join a tour for such as swimming with wild dolphins, whale watching, or taking a full day circle island tour.
ABC Stores and Food Trucks are Your Best Friend
Hawaii has lots of amazing food to try. From fresh fruits to poke bowls to shave ice but all of this delicious and beautiful food tends to come with a pretty hefty price tag. But don’t worry, there are some great food finds for those travelling to Hawaii on a budget.
One of my favourite things to do was stock up on snacks from the ABC convenience stores. They had bananas, apples, granola bars, yogurt, dried fruit and nuts, and even sandwiches and sushi rolls for sale. I stuck with the snack-type options to throw in my bag and take with me to the beach. Personally, I don’t tend to eat as much when it’s hot anyways (and it was HOT when I visited) so I was good with snacking throughout the day instead of going to a restaurant for a big lunch. It also helped curb my guilt when I got really hot and splurged on a rainbow shave ice. Which I did daily. When in Hawaii, right?
As for dinner, food trucks and quick-food type spots were my favourite picks. Food trucks offered everything from fresh seafood (mahi mahi is delicious), to Thai dishes, Indian plates, and more. A quick google search will show you where to find the top rated food trucks in the area or ask at your accommodation. When I visited, there was a temporary food truck park set up a couple blocks away where there were a couple dozen stands and trucks serving up delicious fresh food for half the price that you would pay in a restaurant.
Perhaps my favourite food find in Waikiki though was a place called the Poke Bar. It’s basically like the Subway version of Poke bowls. Pick your bowl size, the type of rice, your proteins, your veggies, and your sauce. You can take it to go or grab a seat on a stool and eat there. I ate here three days in a row and have been craving it since.
The best part? These are the types of places where the locals go so I actually felt that I was getting the real Waikiki experience, not the tourist one. A definite bonus considering my goal was to visit Hawaii on a budget.
Stick to One Island
As you already know Hawaii isn’t just one island, it’s a chain of islands and each one has something different and unique to offer. When I first planned on visiting I considered doing a bit of island hopping, but upon doing some more research I quickly realized that was not a good idea for someone trying to visit Hawaii on a budget. Since I was only in Hawaii for 6 days total, it made sense to just spend more time exploring Oahu rather than jumping around to see a little bit of multiple islands. If you have a couple of weeks in Hawaii, then it may be worth your while but for one week in Hawaii, I recommend picking one island and sticking to it.
One of the easiest ways to save money is to make sure you come prepared with the little things. You can easily eliminate a lot of costs by packing properly and making sure you bring what you need. Some of the best examples are:
- A reusable water bottle: Tap water in Hawaii is safe to drink (and pretty good too) plus a lot of places have water fountains (including by the beach). So cut down on plastic, save some money, and bring a reusable water bottle with you. Don’t have one? Try this one.
- Sunscreen: Lots of it. Trust me, you’ll need it. Keep in mind that Hawaii is banning sunscreens with chemicals and ingredients that can harm the coral and marine life, so you want to make sure that you bring an ocean-safe sunscreen. I recommend this brand which has been tried and tested.
- Snorkel gear: Whether you plan on scuba diving in Hawaii, or just snorkeling, you’ll need some gear. Sure, you can rent it but, let’s be honest, sharing snorkels is kinda gross. I recommend you bring your own to save yourself a few bucks and ensure that you have good equipment. I use a TUSA mask that I love and comes with me everywhere. You can find a good mask and snorkel kit for a decent price here.
- Drybag: Whether you are headed to the beach or maybe going out on a boat, a dry bag will come in very handy during your trip to Hawaii. Buy one here.
Hawaii may not be a cheap destination, but it doesn’t have to be as expensive as you think either. By following the tips and advice I’ve given above on how to explore Hawaii on a budget you can definitely cut down on your expected vacation costs.
A Note on Travel Insurance in Hawaii
Please, do NOT travel without travel insurance! I’ve had to rely on mine multiple times. While the cost may seem annoying and better spent elsewhere, trust me when I say you’ll be sorry if you don’t have it. For just a couple bucks a day, you can save yourself a whole lot of stress and money. I like to recommend SafetyWing for travel medical insurance as they are one of the most affordable options I’ve found, plus, they are who I use and I have had great experiences with them. Learn more about the importance of travel insurance here.