How to Save Money on a Honolulu Vacation

by Gray Cargill on April 9, 2014

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Do you dream of vacationing in Hawaii, but think you can’t afford it? You might be surprised. There’s no doubt that visiting Hawaii can be very expensive. Even if you can get a great deal on airfare, it certainly isn’t going to be the cheapest vacation you’ve ever taken.

But it might not cost as much as you think–even for the solo traveler. In Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, you can save money in a lot of areas without sacrificing a great time. After a couple of visits to Honolulu as a budget traveler, I’ve figured out a few ways to save money here:

 

water sports in Waikiki

Looks like fun, eh?

 

Save Money on Airfare

Airfare isn’t too bad from the West Coast of the U.S., but for the rest of us, it’s likely to be one of the most expensive components of your trip. If you have a year or two before your trip, start stockpiling frequent flier miles by flying a single airline or alliance whenever you travel. Get a rewards credit card for that airline with a good sign-up bonus (35,000 miles or more is good in my book). Use this card for your regular expenses (like groceries and bills) and pay it off each month. All of this will help you accumulate miles faster.

I have been stockpiling miles this way on United for the past couple of years. I cashed in some of those miles for a round trip flight to Honolulu in January by booking Economy Saver Award flights. Economy Saver Award flights require fewer miles than regular award flights, but you may need to book further out to find them. I only had to pay $100 out of pocket, plus another $10 for trip insurance (which was also cheaper than usual since my flights were paid for in flier miles). By contrast, my flight to Honolulu in 2012 cost about $1,000.

 

trolley bus

The Waikiki trolleys are not the most economical way of getting around.

 

Save Money on Ground Transportation

Unlike the other Hawaiian islands, you don’t really need to rent a car in Honolulu. Rental cars are expensive, and parking at pretty much any hotel will cost you another $25 or so per day. Just don’t do it. If you want to see the rest of the island, rent a car for just a day or pick a Circle Island tour that will take you to all the places you want to see. Book an airport shuttle to get to your hotel from the airport, rather than a cab, and you’ll save even more money (around 50%).

You can also use TheBus (the public bus) to get around Honolulu, Waikiki Beach, and the island. (Though it will take much longer to get around the island than if you were to drive yourself.) If you are using TheBus, you can buy a 4-day pass at any ABC Store—but crunch the numbers first. If you won’t use the bus that much, you may be better off paying for each ride in cash. (Adult fare is $2.50 one-way; a 4-day pass is $35.) Keep in mind that Waikiki is very walkable if you’re in reasonably good shape.

 

Walkable Waikiki

Waikiki is very walkable, for the most part.

 

Save Money On Accommodations

There are some simple tips for saving on accommodations while in Honolulu. If you’re the type to use Couchsurfing or AirBnB, obviously, you might start there. There are also hostels, such as the Waikiki Backpackers Hostel.

Even if you want to go the traditional route of staying in a hotel (as I always do), there are ways to save money on this expense:

If you’re on a tight budget, forget about staying at a hotel on the beach. The further away from the beach your hotel is, the cheaper it tends to be. Keep in mind that as long as you’re in reasonably good health, everything in Waikiki is within walking distance of the beach, and you are able to use any stretch of the beach you want; it’s all public.

 

Waikiki

There are plenty of hotels in Waikiki. Not all of them are on the beach.

 

Travel during the off-season. This is when you might be able to score that beachfront dream hotel for a price you can afford

Sign up for hotel email deals and do some bargain hunting online. Some less expensive hotels I would recommend looking at are the lower-end Aqua properties (like Aqua Palms and Queen Kapiolani), the lower-end Outrigger properties, Ohana East and Ohana West, and hotels along the Ala Wai Canal. Or just Google “budget hotels waikiki”.

Switch hotels mid-trip if that will save you money.

 

Fridge

I’ll take a fridge and coffee maker in my room over a flat screen TV any day.

 

Save Money On Food

Yes, there are some expensive restaurants in Honolulu—and you’ll probably want to try some of them. But not every meal every day has to be expensive. Here are some ways you can save money on food in Honolulu:

Book accommodations with a refrigerator. You can use it to store leftovers or materials to make your own meals in your room. Head to the nearest ABC Store for things like drinks, fruit, yogurt, cereal/milk, sandwich materials, etc. to store in your room. Plan to eat some meals in your room–or better yet, on your lanai. Believe me, breakfast on your lanai while watching the sun rise can be just as memorable as any restaurant breakfast. Over the course of a week, I ate 5 meals in my room or on my lanai–3 breakfasts, a lunch and a dinner. It didn’t ruin my vacation at all.

 

Diamond Head Sunrise

Not a bad view for breakfast, is it?

 

Look for meal deals. There are some restaurants right in the heart of Waikiki that offer specials—for instance, Cheeseburger in Paradise has a $5.99 daily breakfast special (2 eggs, hash brown, toast and coffee) and iHop offers the 2x2x2 (2 eggs, 2 pancakes and 2 pieces of bacon or sausage) for around $7. A pastry or egg sandwich from Starbucks can be had for around $5 or less. Wolfgang Steakhouse in the Royal Hawaiian Center has a $10 lunch deal between 11am-3pm. Lots of bars and restaurants have Happy Hour food and drink specials, so if you’re okay having dinner early, you can save money that way, too.

 

Farmers Market

Hit up the Hyatt Regency Farmers Market for dinner.

 

Go local. Find the locals joints like the Rainbow Drive-In, Marukame Udon, Ono’s Hawaiian Foods, and Zippy’s for plentiful food at cheap prices. Head to the weekly Farmer’s Market at the Hyatt Regency to create your own meal from vendors there. Turn it into a picnic on the beach or your lanai.

 

USS Arizona Memorial

Visiting the USS Arizona Memorial is free (but you do need a ticketed time, as it gets very busy)

 

Save Money On Activities

You don’t need to spend a ton of money on activities when you’re in Honolulu. Just being outside in the warm sunshine with a view of the ocean is a lovely way to spend the day. But if you’re doubtful, here is a sample list of things you can do for free (or very cheaply) in Honolulu:

FREE

  • Spend the day on the beach; go swimming.
  • Walk the length of Waikiki Beach
  • Take in the Torchlighting Ceremony and Hula Show at Kuhio Beach Park
  • Walk all over Waikiki sightseeing and taking photos.
  • Watch the Friday Night Fireworks at the Hilton Hawaiian Village
  • Head to the Royal Hawaiian Center for some free live entertainment, or take a class in hula, ukelele, or lei-making (all free)
  • Visit the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor
  • Punchbowl National Cemetery / National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
  • Browse Art on the Zoo Fence (browsing is free; but don’t blame me if you’re tempted to buy something–there’s some great artwork here)
  • Head downtown for photo opps of the statue of King Kamehameha in front of the Courthouse and of the exterior of Iolani Palace (it only costs money to go inside)
  • Go for a walk along the Ala Wai Canal
  • Check out Chinatown

 

View from Diamond Head

Climb Diamond Head for terrific views of Honolulu. It’s a very affordable activity.

 

CHEAP

  • Take TheBus to Diamond Head and climb the crater. ($1 admission if you walk in, $5 if you drive in; add $5 round trip bus fare if you are taking the bus there)
  • Take TheBus to Hanauma Bay ($7.50 admission; add $5 round trip bus fare if getting there by bus)
  • The Waikiki Aquarium is just $9 and makes a great rainy day activity.
  • For the cost of bus fare, you can explore Honolulu or even go on a Circle Island Tour of your own making using TheBus.

 

Whale tail

Give yourself permission to splurge on the things that are important to you.

 

Don’t be Too Cheap, Though

After all, this is your dream vacation, right? If you’re too busy pinching pennies, you won’t enjoy yourself. Remember, everything in moderation. So eat some cheap meals on your lanai so you can splurge on some special meals out; enjoy some free activities and then spend some money on something you really want to do, like a luau or a tour.

Chances are, no matter what you do, you’ll have a great time. Surrounded by the beauty of Oahu, the near-perfect weather, the ocean views, the warmth and friendliness of the Hawaiian people, and the laid-back island lifestyle, how can you not?

 

Sunset off Kapahulu Pier

Sunset off Kapahulu Pier

Frank April 20, 2014 at 11:44 pm

Dream places like Honolulu get lionized, so you think it is too expensive due to its reputation in the media, but us budget travelers know better, don’t we?

Gray Cargill April 23, 2014 at 6:14 pm

There’s almost always a cheaper way to experience a place, it’s true, Frank. The trouble is that people get it into their heads that they just have to experience things a certain way (like they must have a balcony overlooking the ocean or a room right on the beach, or they have to stay in the most expensive hotel, etc.). I think it’s 50% the media and 50% people’s own dreams and expectations.

Eileen April 9, 2014 at 9:39 pm

Fantastic post! I’ve been piling away my miles for months now, hoping someday to take them all, cash ’em in and do Hawaii up BIG. I’ll keep these tips bookmarked too for some cheap and free options, they’re fantastic.

Gray Cargill April 10, 2014 at 5:04 pm

Eileen – Good for you! Keep racking up those miles. It really makes a difference.

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