How to Visit Hawaii on a Budget

It’s the stuff of wistful daydreams, the kind of paradise that’s inspired generations of artists and musicians, not to mention countless rom-coms. Everyone has dreamed of escaping to Hawaii on a budget, but it’s one of those destinations that always seems just out of reach.

The sun bakes down, heat reflecting off the white sand. In front of you, the rich blue waves lap against the beach; behind, a volcano towers over the green and yellow island paradise. Somewhere in the distance, you can hear a Hawaiian guitar gently lilting away. 

hanauma bay

This gorgeous beach is just 25 minutes from Waikiki


Yet it's the family destination you’ll always do next year, because flights are too expensive, hotels are booked, or everyone just doesn’t have the time to fly out to the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The thing is, Hawaii doesn’t need to be put in the too-good-to-be-real basket. These remote islands aren’t as impossible to do on a budget as you may think.

While it’s true that Hawaii will never exactly be an economical destination, it’s definitely possible to cut costs while still enjoying the most the archipelago has to offer.

Having said that, be prepared to accept there are some stubborn costs you’ll inevitably have to handle for a Hawaii vacation. One such cost is …

Flying to Hawaii



Unsurprisingly, a remote island chain in the middle of the Pacific Ocean isn’t the cheapest place to fly to. Prices are particularly bad from November to New Year, when Hawaii’s peak season sees mainlanders flocking to the beaches to escape the cold.

September is also an expensive time to fly to the Hawaiian islands due to the extremely popular Aloha Festival. If you’re traveling to Hawaii for this event, consider arriving as early as possible to save money. It simply isn’t the best time to visit Hawaii.

surfboards waikiki

About to surf Waikiki on a small day



Otherwise, wait until late January or February for prices to drop on flights to Hawaii.

From North America, United and WestJet both regularly offer good deals during during the low season, while AirAsia is a good airline to keep an eye on if you’re traveling from Asia or Oceania.

cheacp flights to hawaii


Tools like Skyscanner can be a real life saver while searching for cheap flights to Hawaii, and should be used by anyone aiming to keep costs to a minimum.

After all, the less you fork out on flights, the more you have left over for other expenses, like …


Where to Stay in Hawaii on a Budget 

If flights are pricey, the accommodation can be brutal in Hawaii, especially for the uninitiated. Cheap places to stay in Hawaii are in limited supply.

You can easily spend upwards of $500 a night on a luxury hotel or resort, making accommodation arguably the biggest cost you’ll probably be hit with during your trip to Hawaii.

Unlike flights, however, it’s really not so easy to avoid high accommodation costs (continue reading or skip to our recommendations ).

Even in low season, most high-end accommodation barely budges in terms of price, and outrageously high land prices on the archipelago mean cheap options are few and far between.

waikiki beach

 

The local AirBnB market sorely lacks  good but affordable family accommodation, and what there is is usually booked early. But you should always spend some time looking for new Airbnb listings in Hawaii that are opening up and offer lower prices in order to grab the first few guests and score good reviews.

Even a dorm bed in a crowded hostel will cost at least $40 per person a night.

Most budget travelers agree the sweet spot for saving money seems to be at the 2-3 star level, with the islands’ midrange hotels competing somewhat.

Find Top Accommodation Deals in Oahu, Hawaii

waikiki hawaii

If traveling with kids stay in or close to Waikiki; it will keep things easier and cheaper.

There is no cheapest island to visit in particular. However, with some patience, planning and luck, bargain hunters can find reasonable midrange accommodation for as little as $100-150 a night during low season. In general, you can expect clean but spartan accommodation in this price range.

A few names to keep in mind include the Ewa Hotel Waikiki, Vive Hotel Waikiki and Ramada Plaza in Oahu, Kahana Villa, What a Wonderful World B&B in Maui and the Hilotown Hale on Big Island.

All the above mentioned hotels offer midrange accommodation with good quality service for pretty reasonable rates, especially during low season.

Rooms themselves may lack the luxuries of a high end resort, but remember: you’re not visiting Hawaii just to sit in the jacuzzi or go to the hotel gym – you’re here for the beauty of these incredible islands.

In that respect, even some of the budget options can really deliver.

For example the 3 star Vive Hotel Waikiki in Honolulu has some genuinely impressive beach views that come at a fraction of the cost of some of its neighbors.


Car Rental in Hawaii 


Getting a rental car is a can of worms best avoided by budget travelers in Hawaii. While occasional good deals can be found, there’s no denying the market for car rentals here is not particularly consumer-friendly.

For one, just three big companies have carved out a comfortable tri-poly, despite the fact demand far exceeds supply in peak season. If you do rent a car, it’ll almost certainly be with Avis, Enterprise or Hertz.

cheap car rental hawaii



With these companies expect to pay around $100 a day, plus be prepared to seriously burn your budget on some of the nation’s highest fuel costs.

You might be able to shave off a few bucks with your Costco, AAA or AARP membership, and by opting for the cheapest vehicle available. Less fuel efficient large vehicles tend to have the cheapest upfront rental costs, which is a small consolation for families.

If you’re dead-set on renting a car, consider something like Turo, an AirBnB-style peer-to-peer car rental service. Unlike Hawaii’s inflated AirBnB market, Turo can deliver prices significantly lower than its conventional competitors.

drving in hawaii


One notable exception, however, is Cheap Rental Car Hawaii. The cars might not be new but are in very good condition- don't be picky now if you're going to save 30-40 usd/day! We used them while visiting Oahu on a budget and were very pleased.

A final option if you're really trying to do a Hawaii trip cheap is to brave the wild west of Craigslist, where you can almost always find temptingly cheap deals on car rental around Hawaii.

This option isn’t really a great idea though. You’re putting a lot of trust in a stranger and their vehicle, and don’t expect too much in the way of professional support if you experience a breakdown.

Hawaii tourism simply isn’t best done in a borrowed car.

At this point, you’re probably grinding your teeth over the headache that is car rental in Hawaii. Indeed, car rental is usually the third highest cost for short-term visitors to Hawaii, after accommodation and flights.

Use Public Transportation


Luckily, you can sidestep this cost by just skipping car rental and sticking with public transport. Honolulu’s bus system has regular, easy to navigate service that covers most popular tourist spots. Almost all major beaches can be reached by bus.

For example, from Waikiki Beach you can take the 22 to Diamond Head and Hanauma Bay, while the Kailua and Lanikai beaches have stops on Route 70.

In fact, if you join the crowds and find accommodation in Waikiki, you could easily go most of your vacation on foot, perhaps renting a bicycle or using one of the afore-mentioned bus lines for longer excursions.

Public buses cost $2.75 for a single ticket, though if you’re doing multiple trips you’re better off buying day passes for $5.50. For a day out, you can buy everyone in the family a pass in the morning, and forget about transport costs for the rest of the day.


Eating in Hawaii on a Budget



As you’d probably expect, food is going to be your biggest cost after transportation. In fact, depending on how you eat, you could imaginably spend just as much on food as accommodation.

Almost all food is imported to Hawaii, making prices here often exorbitant. Add in an inflated market in areas like Waikiki, and routinely eating out can massacre your budget.  But look around, and you'll easily find food at similar prices as you'll find them in touristy spots in mainland USA.

farmers market hawaii



Shrewd travelers, however, will prepare their own food. If you don’t go straight to Walmart, then consider taking a trip to the KCC Saturday Farmers’ Market. Held every Saturday morning, this is Honolulu’s largest market, and a good place to pick up quality seafood for reasonable prices.

If you’re willing to invest some time in exploring this lively farmers market, there are plenty of good deals to be had. Stick with local products as much as possible, such as Hawaii’s delicious guavas.

As you explore, keep an eye out for ono grinds – Hawaiian-style cheap eats that are extremely popular among locals, and for good reason. They’re cheap, easy and can be outright delicious.

Anyone in Oahu shouldn't skip on a trip to Gina’s BBQ for its unique take on Korean Kalbi short ribs. Expect some seriously tangy ribs.

In Waikiki you've got McDonald's and Burger King on Kalakaua Avenue overlooking the ocean with combos at 6 USD, buffets starting at 20 USD, plenty of nice restaurants of all kinds where plates run at 15 USD, the list goes on. 

But of all the places we found there are two we kept returning to that I highly recommend: the food court at the International Market Place and Duke's, right on Waikiki Beach.

The International Market Place is the place where you'll find all the souvenirs you'll want to take back home and more. Located between Kuhio Boulevard and Kalakaua Avenue it has plenty of stalls and shops where you'll find everything from aloha shirts to ukeleles...  


And then there is the food court at the center, open 6 pm to 10 pm where you'll find all sorts of exquisite food including Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipino plus pizzas, burgers and the rest with most dishes at around 8-9 USD. Fantastic flavors at very fair prices...and portions are generous too!

If you want to kick it up a notch and enjoy a great atmosphere plus good food without paying over your head then make your way to Duke's. This very successful restaurant is right on Waikiki beach and is reached though a passage from Kalakaua Avenue.

dukes waikiki

You better head here for a nice dinner at affordable prices


It is actually quite big yet we always found it full or almost full, without feeling overcrowded. I owe it's success to the location itself, live music, friendly prices, good food...and even better cocktails!

The open air tables are illuminated by torches ( I highly recommend you come here for dinner) and with the small surf crushing just a stone's throw away I guarantee you'll have a good time.

Definitely one of the top Oahu restaurants in my list!

On Big Island’s Kona, you’re going to need to eat at least once at Da Poke Shack, a local classic for its fresh seafood. They only trade in fresh catch, and you’d better arrive early; once the day’s catch has been sold, this place closes its doors.

seafood hawaii


Despite being rated the #1 restaurant in the US on Yelp back in 2014, this place hasn’t forgotten its roots, and remains an affordable option that largely caters to a local crowd.


Things to Do in Hawaii on a Budget


While planning a trip to Hawaii, bear in mind that food, transport and accommodation are all expensive on the islands – so you’re probably expecting more bad news when it comes to the best things to do in Hawaii on a budget.

Alas, there’s finally some good news for budget travelers planning a trip to Hawaii: the best things to do in Hawaii are all either cheap or entirely free

hanauma bay snorkeling

Hanauma Bay is one of those must visit spots. It is a protected are so there is an entrance fee though.


Just pick any of Hawaii’s glorious public beaches, and you’ve got a day of fun that needn’t cost anything more than the price of a bus ticket. Gear rental is competitive on most beaches, so shop around and you should be able to find a decent deal on a board or snorkeling gear (you might as well bring your own!).

When you get hungry, its usually easy to pick up some cheap and easy ono grinds to fill your belly.



If you somehow get bored of Hawaii’s world class beaches, then head inland for some incredible outdoor adventure opportunities.

Kaua‘i island’s famed Koke‘e State Park has days of hiking trails through tropical rainforest, not to mention the awe-inspiring walk over Kalalau Valley. This is arguably the best place anywhere in the archipelago to experience native Hawaiian flora and fauna, including diverse birdlife and opportunities for trout fishing. Best of all, entrance is free! Parking will likely set you back around $5-10, and camping sites are available for around $12.

These sites are extremely basic, though this is arguably the best Hawaiian island for kids.

Back in civilization, Hawaii loves to share its vibrant culture with visitors, and there’s no shortage of free/cheap events throughout the year.

A good place to start is the Royal Hawaiian Center in Honolulu, which always has upcoming cultural events open to the public. As one of Hawaii’s largest shopping malls, it’s also a good place to hang with locals, particularly on weekends.

Check their cultural program for upcoming events. Some common activities include ukulele classes, hula dancing and lei-making.

swim with sharks

 Swimming with sharks in Hawaii isn't a budget activity, but it is one great experience.


Then in the evening, head over to Kuhio Beach for the almost-daily free hula and torch lighting shows.

Meanwhile on Fridays, the Hilton Hawaiian Village puts on a free fireworks show, which can be a lot of fun for the whole family.


For a real show though, don’t miss the two hour celebration of island culture at the Oahu: Magic of Polynesia Show. Tickets can drop below $60, which is a good deal given how impressive the show is.

A popular activity is to swim with sea turtles in Oahu (read my detailed post on how to do it for free in Oahu)  or swim with dolphins; there's no need to book a tour to make the first happen, and while you might need a tour to swim with dolphins (read about our swim with dolphins in the wild) many also include swimming with turtles in the price. 

swim with turtles oahu hawaii


There is no cost to visit Pearl Harbor either (many tour organizers will make you believe there is one!).

If planning on visiting parks,  museums, joining tours and overall participating in paid-for activities (you will more than once, for sure) definitely consider purchasing a Go Oahu Card

These cards include the entrances to 34 very popular attractions in the island (including the always popular Polynesian Cultural Center Luau, a hike to Makapuu Lighthouse, a Waimea Bay Valley walk and the Grand Circle Island Tour I did of which you can see the video below) and will certainly save you a huge chunk of money. 


Whatever you end up doing, there's no shortage of things to do in Hawaii on a budget.


Extra Hawaii Budget Travel Tips

  • Deciding which Hawaiian island isn’t easy, but avoid island hopping as much as possible if you're trying to do Hawaii the cheapest way. Moving islands will quickly drain your budget if you're trying to do Hawaii on the cheap, so stay on one island if you can.
  • There’s no best island in Hawaii as each has it's own character: some might like on, others will prefer another.
  • As with all budget travel, you should make sure to plan your trip in the low season. April to June see the best bargains for anyone looking to do a budget Hawaii vacation. In terms of price, these months represent the cheapest time to fly to Hawaii. 
  • All inclusive Hawaii packages aren't necessarily the best way to do Hawaii on a budget. Although it's definitely possible to occasionally pick up Hawaii vacation packages on the cheap around June, you're often still better planing and traveling to Hawaii on a budget alone.
  • Hawaii weather is best from April through to September, when temperatures are warm and skies clear.


Conclusion

Hawaii is expensive, yes, but if you do your research it doesn't have to be more expensive than tourist cities like San Francisco, New York or Miami. In fact I was surprised that you can actually get by with less money than what you think.

Sure, accommodation will almost certainly be one of the biggest hurdles, but there are ways around it. Check Airbnb, or look online for apartment rental companies that are not on this site. 

You should be fine when it comes to food, and if you get around with public transportation or rent a cheap car you'll find that you can spend more than what you thought on fun activities.


Plan Your Hawaii Trip on  Budget

Accommodation in Oahu

Booking.com has over 500 hotels in Oahu including apartments and resorts. You get free cancellation on most rooms and a best price guarantee. Check prices.

Don’t forget Airbnb for your home rental stays.

Flights to Oahu

Skyscanner is a comparison website that searches millions of flights. Once you find your best deal, book directly through the airline (no extra fees).

Rental Cars in Oahu

RentalCars.com is the world’s biggest car rental booking service that compares all the major brands like Hertz, Avis, and Alamo. Check prices for Honolulu airport.

RV Rentals Hawaii:

Outdoorsy is the largest RV rental marketplace on the planet. They offer ease, flexibility and some unique and cool campervans for your Oahu road trip. Find your RV rentals for Oahu here.

Tours in Oahu

Get Your Guide offers small group tours and activities in Oahu including tickets to the popular Oahu attractions.

Leave a Reply 45 comments

How to Plan a Trip to Hawaii - Momma To Go Travel - September 15, 2020 Reply

[…] A vacation home is a popular Hawaii accommodation because most Hawaii trips are longer, and therefore you are more likely to crave the comforts of home. For us, staying in a vacation home allowed us to have more space, cook our own food, and do our own laundry. Eating out is expensive in Hawaii, especially eating at a resort, so being able to grocery shop and make some meals at home will allow you to splurge on amazing meals out! Staying in a rental helped us visit Hawaii on a budget. […]

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How To Save Money Traveling To Hawaii – Save money, Make money - April 27, 2016 Reply

[…] Visiting Oahu on a Budget: 4 Tips to Save … – Read these 4 essential tips that are saving money to hundreds of travelers. From where to eat to where to rent a car I guarantee you’ll save money! […]

Shailesh - October 25, 2012 Reply

Nice tips for me because i travel need to save money… gud job thnx

    maitravelsite - January 19, 2015 Reply

    You’re welcome!

candy - October 16, 2012 Reply

I will be traveling with a group of friends to Honolulu in 2 weeks! flight, condo and rental car is already paid for….do you think i could realistically get by on around $350 total in spending money for 6 days? i plan to surf once (we’ll likely get a group rate for that) and i’m sure we’ll hike diamond head & visit pearl harbor….but otherwise we’ll be eating and drinking cheap and just lounging on the beach mostly. so again, based on your experience is $350 for 6 days realistic? thanks in advance!

    maitravelsite - October 16, 2012 Reply

    Hi Candy

    Absolutely. Diamond Head and Pearl Harbour are free to visit, and if you rent the board with the people I recommend you’ll save a good chunk of money. If you don’t spend it in alcohol you should be fine. No luxuries, but it can easily be done.

Krystal - June 14, 2012 Reply

Thanks so much for posting this info! You saved me a ton of money on the rental car for my wedding/honeymoon!!! Thank you thank you thank you!!!

    maitravelsite - June 14, 2012 Reply

    Hey Krystal, I’m very pleased to hear this! You just brought a big smile to my face 🙂 Have a wonderful wedding and honeymoon!

Hannah - February 6, 2012 Reply

Coming back from Hawaii a few weeks ago, I have found that you need to check websites such as Groupon and Travelzoo. You can find amazing deals on these sites that allow you to save up to 60% The cool thing about this is that you can download the coupons almost instantly.

    maitravelsite - February 6, 2012 Reply

    Thanks for the tip Hannah 🙂

Anurag - December 20, 2011 Reply

Hawai is my dream destination and i wish that one day i could go there…..though its too expensve but u really gave some good information to save the money.
Thanks

    maitravelsite - December 20, 2011 Reply

    Glad you found the post useful 🙂

maitravelsite - December 16, 2011 Reply

Groceries are expensive, yes, but as a tourist things to not have to be as bad…going anywhere in the US is not cheap anyhow and I didn’t find Oahu to be as expensive as I expected it to be.

Oliver@picket fencing - December 15, 2011 Reply

Yes since the place is something that is worth watching I think it would be a great idea to join yourself in the league. I want to spend some time in Hawaii but since the packages for it are not affordable and very expensive I don’t feel like spending money over it. Let’s see! May be I will plan to go somewhere else if not Hawaii.

Greg - November 28, 2011 Reply

Surfing has been my thing since high school. In fact, it’s one of the top three reasons why I travel 🙂 Thanks for the wonderful “online trip” to Hawaii. It’s on my destinations next year.

elizahart - November 24, 2011 Reply

I’ll be visiting Hawaii next year with my husband.. Can’t wait to get there! It looks so wonderful!

    maitravelsite - November 24, 2011 Reply

    You will have a blast Eliza!

Pamie - November 17, 2011 Reply

How i wish i could visit Hawaii..This is my dream..Even its too expensive there’s a lot of beautiful places..Thanks for sharing this beautiful photo..

    maitravelsite - November 17, 2011 Reply

    Pamie, it isn’t that bad, really. In fact I found it can be surprisingly affordable, and I´m a budget traveler.

Free Volunteering - November 14, 2011 Reply

Thanks a lot for the article. I’m thinking of travelling there in the next year or so – can’t wait!

    maitravelsite - November 15, 2011 Reply

    Hope this saves you some cash!

spade56 - November 8, 2011 Reply

I was in Oahu earlier this year as well. Since there were 7 of us traveling, the hotel rooms were reasonable, and we actually rented a limo one day to do the circle island tour — it was much cheaper than if we had to pay for individual tickets for the mini-bus tour. | 😛

June@CreditDonkey - November 4, 2011 Reply

Wow that accommodation looks great and the sea is just perfect. Thanks for bringing you Hawaii experience to us and these tips will come in handy when I get there. Did you enjoy your overall stay?

    maitravelsite - November 8, 2011 Reply

    I absolutely did!

Marquitta - October 31, 2011 Reply

How I wish i could go to Hawaii..I want to learn surfing..But I think going to Hawaii it expensive..

    maitravelsite - October 31, 2011 Reply

    Hey Marquitta, thanks for stopping by! Depends on where you are flying from, but you can find return flights from LA or San Diego for 350 USD…not bad I’d say 🙂

Victoria - October 19, 2011 Reply

Living on the Pacific Coast, Hawaii is one of those places everyone seems to go, but when you can only travel on a small budget it sure feels out of reach. I am so glad you shared this because there is definitely the stigma that you can’t go to the Hawaiian Islands without spending an arm and a leg.

    maitravelsite - October 19, 2011 Reply

    Glad this helps, it really isn’t that bad!

Camels & Chocolate - October 18, 2011 Reply

We went to Oahu for the first time earlier this year, and I was surprised by how much more affordable it is than the other Hawaiian isles!

    maitravelsite - October 18, 2011 Reply

    We were told that Maui is the most expensive!

Stephanie - The Travel Chica - October 16, 2011 Reply

I had actually written off the possibility of visiting Hawaii due to expense. Maybe I need to re-think that.

    maitravelsite - October 17, 2011 Reply

    I suggest you do 😉

Abby - October 14, 2011 Reply

You look so happy with your surfboard! Yes, I found Hawaii totally affordable — but expensive to get there!

    maitravelsite - October 17, 2011 Reply

    Hehe… I was looking forward to that session!!

Raymond @ Man On The Lam Travel Blog - October 12, 2011 Reply

I was in Oahu earlier this year as well. Since there were 7 of us travelling, the hotel rooms were reasonable, and we actually rented a limo one day to do the circle island tour — it was much cheaper than if we had to pay for individual tickets for the mini-bus tour. Plus we got to bring booze. 🙂

    maitravelsite - October 12, 2011 Reply

    Ha! Yup, the more the cheaper! How long were you there for?

Erica - October 11, 2011 Reply

We were strongly considering moving there for a few months before this trip we were on. Was looking into it and you can totally live there on smaller budget. Looks like you definitely took advantage!

    maitravelsite - October 12, 2011 Reply

    It is not as bad as they say, and we now know we will head back! How come you didn’t take a short trip though?

Amanda - October 10, 2011 Reply

I visited Hawaii this past February, and also found it to be totally affordable! I stayed with a friend (yay free bed!), and bought a 4-day bus pass that was good for unlimited rides on TheBus. And then I stuck to a lot of the free or cheap sightseeing options that are abundant. Pearl Harbor was fantastic (and free), the North Shore was fun to go beach hopping, and Hanauma Bay was a very cheap way to spend a great afternoon snorkeling.

    maitravelsite - October 11, 2011 Reply

    Free accommodation…great deal! TheBus is a great option yoo, though getting to the North Shore takes very long, or even to the west coast. Totally agree with the two trips you mention, though I have to admit that I expected more from Pearl Harbor…

DTravelsRound - October 10, 2011 Reply

These are great tips! I always forget about renting a place for short-term travel!

    maitravelsite - October 10, 2011 Reply

    I recommend you don’t…I have found very good deals in soooo many places!

Ali - October 10, 2011 Reply

Wow, looks like you had a good time in Hawaii, definitely won’t forget to surf when I am there. You are right about accommodation and food, these two can prove to be the most expensive and I totally agree dorm room in a hostel, no matter how cheap is out of question. One way to cut down these costs is voluntourism, help someone out with something and in return get food and accommodation. I think it’s a good bargain because mixing with the locals is definitely going to help you explore places not otherwise listed in travel guides. I’d suggest you check out http://volunteerstays.com/. Offers a lot of similar opportunities.

    maitravelsite - October 10, 2011 Reply

    That can indeed be another option, thanks for sharing!

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