Visiting Oahu (without breaking the bank)

By: Kathryn Vance

Hawaii has been on my travel bucket list for years, but (similar to many people) the costs associated with visiting the islands always deterred me from going. So, when I received an invitation to meet friends in Oahu for a week with a free hotel room, I was determined to make the trip.

As I prepared for the trip and mapped out a budget (I can’t help it, it’s the financial planner in me!), I found myself becoming more and more excited for the adventure ahead. To add to the anticipation, it seemed like every person I spoke with talked about Hawaii like it was a pineapple/palm tree/sunset-infused version of Heaven. Now I understand why! After just hours, Oahu quickly felt like paradise. It’s hard to think differently when this is your first view after leaving the airport, right?

When to Visit

Visiting Hawaii during the winter months will be more cost-efficient, but the unpredictable weather and greater rain possibilities during these months can present challenges in your schedule. Even so, the winter months are a great time to travel (as long as you’re willing to have flexible plans!) if you want to snag a good deal, go whale-watching, or avoid the larger crowds of the summer.


The biggest expense will likely be travel costs no matter what time of year you visit. Even during the off-season, round-trip flights can cost close to $1,000. Luckily, American Airlines takes off-season into consideration for those booking with award miles - my roundtrip flight was only 40k award miles (compared to the average of 72.5k award miles during peak season) to Hawaii’s main airport, Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL). If you’re able to max out rewards to help cover your flight, you can easily plan an incredible trip without breaking the bank.

Another note about flights to Hawaii (and one I wasn’t entirely prepared for) … the flights are long! Flying from Charlotte with one layover each way, we were in the air for over 12 hours on the way to Hawaii and about 10 hours on the way home. Do whatever you can to get some rest on the flight there to help your body adjust to the several hour time difference from home.

Once you arrive, the best way to explore all Oahu has to offer is by renting a car. The cost is quickly justified by the ridiculous taxi and Uber fares from the airport, which are usually upwards of $80 (and likely more depending on where you stay). We found a great rental car deal with Hertz by using a AAA membership! Renting a car is the easiest way to get around the island and more economical than taking a taxi or Uber everywhere.

Where to Stay

Our home for the week was Marriott’s Ko’Olina Beach Club, located in a resort area on the west side of the island about 25 minutes from the airport. This area creates the true “vacation feel” of staying at a resort, plus the private lagoons at each resort makes for relaxing beach time. The proximity of Ko’Olina to all of the places we wanted to explore in other parts of the island was a major pro and made it easy to build adventures into our day!

Waikiki, Hawaii’s oldest beach resort area, has the largest selection of accommodation options. Staying in Waikiki has a number of pros - the area can offer more affordable accommodation options than other parts of the island, you’ll find a ton of restaurants and shopping nearby, and you could avoid renting a car if you want to stay in and around Waikiki, sticking to the beaches and attractions nearby. On the flip side, Waikiki can be more crowded than other parts of the island.

If you’re looking for a more local feel, you can find great Airbnb and VRBO options on the North Shore (a little over an hour from the airport and Waikiki) and near Kailua + Lanikai Beaches on the windward side of the island (around 40 minutes from the airport and Waikiki). The beaches will likely be less crowded than in Waikiki and you can enjoy the island’s local vibes on a more personal level.

Where to stay on your trip to Oahu depends largely on what type of vacation you’re looking for!

“The Gathering Place”

Oahu’s nickname represents the popularity of the island - most local Hawaiians live here and it also attracts the most visitors each year. On Oahu, you can find - Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii; the North Shore, famous for its big waves and surfing competitions; Pearl Harbor, home to the USS Arizona Memorial and an incredibly important moment in American history; Waikiki Beach, one of Hawaii’s most popular beaches that’s framed by the stunning Diamond Head crater; and so much more.

One of the great things about Oahu’s attractions is that, depending how you spend your time, your biggest expense could very well be the $5 car entrance fee at Diamond Head State Monument. Between the hiking, snorkeling, and beaches, Oahu offers a lot of exciting activities to fill your days at little to no cost. Inclement weather at the beginning of our trip that kept us from a few of our planned adventures, but that was the gamble we took visiting the islands during off-season. These highlights of our trip (in addition to our gorgeous beach views from the private lagoon each day) gave us a tasteful flavor of what Oahu has to offer and it certainly did not disappoint!

+ Visiting the surfing capital of the world, Haleiwa (hah-lay-EE-wah): We visited the town of Haleiwa on the North Shore on a stormy day with 50 mph winds and nearly 40-foot waves. While the cliff-jumping and surfer-watching we set out to do fell through due to the beaches closing, we were able to eat our way through the town’s famous eateries - Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck and Matsumoto’s Shave Ice. Haleiwa has been attracting tourists since the early 1900s and still brings them in by offering delicious food, exposure to the local’s culture, and a great surfing atmosphere.

+ Taking a step back into U.S. history at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center: Visiting Pearl Harbor was a surreal experience - the National Park Service does an incredible job of making you feel like you’ve taken a step back in time and are truly experiencing one of the most defining moments of U.S. history through every detail at the center. The USS Arizona Memorial is currently closed for restoration, but you can still get a boat tour of Pearl Harbor that takes you relatively close to the memorial. The closure definitely didn’t stop anyone from coming, because we still had a challenging time reserving tickets. Be sure to reserve tickets (they’re free!) online ahead of time at - tickets open up two months ahead of time, plus additional ones are released each day for the following day’s reservations. We set an alarm on our phone to make sure we reserved them at the right time and didn’t miss our opportunity! The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center and USS Arizona Memorial are definitely must-sees - I personally wouldn’t take my chances on a walk-up ticket.

+ Exploring what the most popular part of the island has to offer in Waikiki: Although it’s a little more crowded than what I typically look for in a beach, Waikiki truly does have a lot to offer - whether it’s shopping along the famous store-filled Kalakaua Avenue, watching surfers and the waves roll in while having a bite on the porch at Duke’s Waikiki, or sunbathing on Waikiki Beach with Diamond Head State Monument in the corner of your eye. Even if you opt to stay elsewhere during your visit, Waikiki is worth walking around to truly embrace Hawaii’s surfing atmosphere.

From the warmness of the locals to the breathtaking sunsets, incredible food, and exciting adventures to explore, it’s hard to leave Hawaii without craving more of the culture. By the time you leave, “aloha” and “mahalo” will flow off your tongue like a local!

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