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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.