The Complete Oahu Vacation Guide

February 11, 2010 by Lisa
Filed under: Most Popular Questions, Oahu, Oahu Activities, Vacation Planning

Plan Your Best Vacation to Oahu Ever - Where to Stay and What to Do On Oahu

This is the Complete Oahu Vacation Guide, which is just about everything I know about Oahu that I think a first time oahu visitor wants to know at one time. This is the online version of my ebook, Plan Your Best Vacation to Oahu Ever, so if you’d rather read this in ebook form or be able to download it to your computer, you can right-click on the ebook link and save it.

Topics in this guide

Aloha!
So you’re planning a vacation to Oahu – congratulations! You are going to have SUCH FUN! First, you‟ll be flying in to Honolulu Airport (HNL). You may not need a rental car because the public and activity transportation is so good (and because parking fees are sometimes pretty high).

Also check out Hawaiian for great rates to Hawaii.

This is all my opinion, based on my preferences and resources. I hope my opinions help point you in the direction you most want to take based on your preferences and resources.

My Favorites on Oahu

Honestly, I like Waikiki the best. Probably because I live in Hilo (which is slow and quiet with not too much to do) so I like to visit the high energy with tons to do area of Waikiki. We always stay in Waikiki, we love Waikiki Beach, and we like to walk around downtown and ride the trolley around at night.

My favorite hotel: We generally stay in a different hotel every time we go but if I had to pick an absolute favorite, maybe it would be the Hilton Hawaiian Village (typical best price: $171 on expedia).

Rental Car or not.
My husband likes to get a car because that’s how he is, but if just my son and I go, we don’t. We take a shuttle from the airport to the hotel ($11 per person) and avoid the parking fees and headache.

Activities Outside of Waikiki:

If we want to do something outside of Waikiki, we consider the bus, a shuttle, or renting a car for the day in Waikiki. Don’t worry, this will all be incredibly easy to figure out once you get here. People will be falling over themselves to get you to take their shuttle or rent their car.

Availability of transportation: In the busy season (when we’re not in a recession ) availability might be an issue, but not usually. I wouldn’t worry about it.

Staying outside of Waikiki:

If I wasn’t going to stay in Waikiki, I would stay on the North Shore (turtle bay resort – best price I’ve found: $218 at Priceline) or maybe in a vacation rental on or near Lanikai Beach (Kailua area).

West Side? I’m not a big fan of the West side, probably because there are minimal tradewinds and I just get too hot, but there are some wonderfully inexpensive beachfront, long-term rentals out that way (Makaha Beach Cabanas, Hawaiian Princess).

Best Weather on Oahu

Oahu is an island full of great weather – you really can’t go wrong, winter or summer. Waikiki is great weather; the best you really need. The West Side has the least rain and the most sun, but it is far from everything. The East side has a bit cooler weather and not TOO much rain, especially close to the ocean.

Best Hotels in Oahu

These are the best hotels in all of Oahu, in my opinion. Generally, in Oahu you will find small pools with minimal extras at the hotels, because the great swimming beaches and extras are so easily available scattered around the island. Expect *not* to spend your whole vacation at the hotel.

If you consistently find higher prices than what I have found, maybe prices are up due to season high season or some other reason. If you find lower, don’t question it, just book it!

Best Overall, Beach-Locations, and Luxury Hotels On Oahu

This is my opinion – the prices given are the best price that I could find based on a search of Priceline, Expedia, hotels.com, and the hotel website for the same time period. Prices could change, I just wanted to give you an idea of what the hotel rooms cost for each hotel.

You can click through to expedia for a review, or download my book for a very short blurb on each hotel.

Best Family Hotels on Oahu

Best Budget-Priced Hotels On Oahu

Many of these hotels don’t list with expedia and priceline. If you call them directly for reservations, be sure to ask: “do you have any discounts that could bring my rate down?‟ You could get a yes and a better rate off the bat.

I also highly recommend bidding on priceline. Most of these smaller operations do not sell rooms to priceline, and so if you are bidding on Priceline you will normally get something like the Waikiki Prince Hotel, which is a nice hotel. I have seen bids accepted for $75 there.

You’ll have the most luck with getting low bids accepted on priceline when the hotels are hurting for visitors, but try anytime. You could really get some good deals. When the hotels are hurting for visitors, I would even bid $95 or so on 4 star hotels. According to the Bidding for travel, the 4 star Hawaii Prince Marina has accepted bids at $75 in September of 2009 (last minute bids).

Best Romantic Hotels and Hotels for Weddings On Oahu

Bidding on Hawaii Travel at Priceline and Hotwire

Bidding on Priceline and hotwire is a great way to save money on hotels and sometimes even flights to Hawaii. I have personally bid and gotten $55 at the Royal Kona Resort, and $120 at the Waikoloa Marriott. My friend got $110 at the Waikoloa Hilton, and $85 at the Hapuna Prince. I know someone who bid and received a roundtrip flight from San Francisco to Honolulu for $250. These are good deals!

Oh, and don’t forget car rentals. You can get great deals on car rentals by bidding. The only issue with bidding for hotels is that you won’t know what hotel you get until you are locked in to paying for it. You just specify a certain star level or class of hotel. The only issue with bidding for flights is that you won‟t be able to specify an exact time, but they do tell you it will be sometime between x morning hour and x evening hour, so not too bad.

So How Should I Bid on Hawaii Travel?

Hotels: I like to decide on a hotel I like, then find out what its star level is. Then on Priceline, I go directly to naming my own price, and during the process priceline will tell you what the average price is for that star level. I then bid half of that. The priceline website will have a ticker of recently accepted rates in the area you are searching for that is helpful.

An awesome resource is the bidding for travel forum. If you scroll down on the home page you’ll see three Hawaii forums, based on which islands you are planning to visit. People bid, and then come here and post their accepted and rejected rates. I have heard that the posted “median retail prices‟ at priceline are sometimes inaccurate. I don’t worry about this in Hawaii because I am so familiar with what the hotels cost here.

You, however, may want to check prices on the website of a few hotels that are the same star level as you want. You can then try to bid 50% of that. Rental Cars – $15 a day is a good place to start, and check the recent winning bids on Priceline.

Flights – I like to bid 50% of whatever the going rate is and then bid up in $50 increments if that is refused.

Most Fun, Must-Do, Activities and Things to Do on Oahu

This is my list of the most exciting and fun things to do on Oahu in my opinion.

Wild Side Specialty Tours – small group, eco-minded, really cool, wild-dolphin swims. One of the most awesome things you‟ll ever do.

  • Atlantis Submarines tour. Good fun for kids and adults, very interesting, not scary. We had dolphins circle us when I went. That was really cool.
  • Learn to surf on Waikiki Beach, just show up and look for signs
  • Bodysurf at any beach with some wave action
  • Dolphin Quest at the Kahala Resort is good fun
  • The Arizona memorial is interesting to some, but my family enjoys the USS Bowfin Submarine museum and the Mighty Mo more.
  • Sea Life Park is cool if you have kids or are interested
  • The Polynesian Cultural Center is well-done with plenty of interesting shows and exhibits
  • The Bishop Museum is interesting to people who have an interest in Hawaiian culture and history
  • Charter Boat Fishing
  • Glider rides, sky-diving, or hang-gliding if you‟re brave
  • Helicopter or airplane tours of the island
  • Hiking Diamond Head, Manoa Falls, or Kapena Falls
  • Kayak Kailua Bay
  • Stand-up Paddleboarding, the newest craze around the world and in Hawaii. Easy, and good fun, but you may be sore the next day. If balancing is hard or if you have a wiggly child on the front, just paddle on your knees. Easiest for beginners with flat water and no wind. Go in the morning.
  • Sunset Sails in Waikiki. Just walk up to the boat on the beach and ask about it. Amazing sunsets every night and in your face
  • Whale Watching December to May – Whale watching is actually better on the other islands for some reason, but if you do manage to find a boat you like and see some whales it‟s an awesome experience
  • Hanauma Bay is cool for many – snorkeling with TONS of fish in a protected cove, and on 2nd and 4th Saturdays you can do it at night. Cool.

Inexpensive or Free Activities on Oahu

  • If you have kids, the Waikiki aquarium is worth a look and fairly inexpensive.
  • A Hanauma Bay snorkeling trip – this is the only beach in Hawaii you’ll have to pay to visit, but it’s not expensive at all
  • Rent snorkel gear, a paddle board, surfboard, boogie board, or kayak
  • Body surf at any beach with mild wave action, except Sandy’s, or anything with big waves. You want to enjoy your vacation, not see what the inside of Hawaii’s hospitals look like.
  • Hike anywhere. The hiking is really good and sometimes quite easy on Oahu, with great rewards (think waterfalls)
  • Honestly, Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park is a fun day at a decent price. My family likes it.
  • In the winter, head out to the north shore to watch the big wave action. You‟ve never seen anything like it.
  • Dole Pineapple maze – a hedge maze in the Guinness Book of World Records. It‟s cool and only $5.
  • Chinatown – authentic! And interesting
  • Hawaii‟s Plantation Village
  • Sea life park admission is relatively inexpensive if you don‟t do anything extra
  • Waimea Valley Audobon Center – used to be adventure park but now it‟s more of a garden. If there’s a lifeguard you can swim in the pool under the waterfall at the end of the park.
  • Beach-hopping – Just drive, walk, or take the bus until you find a beach and hang out. It’s really that easy on Oahu.
  • Catch the free torch lighting hula show every other evening in Waikiki. Just ask your hotel staff. It’s a great show.
  • I like to walk through the lobbys of the grander hotels on Waikiki beach to see what’s going on there. They don’t mind. No one questions you, but if someone ever did, you could just say you are scoping out the hotel for your next trip.
  • The Marriott Waikiki Beach has a mini-version of the Halona blowhole that goes off in their lobby every once in a while. Some places have cultural demonstrations, live music, or hula shows.

Best Ways I like to Save Money on Oahu

Bidding for travel
I like bidding at priceline for hotels and rental cars and airfare. This can save a lot of money right away

Hawaii Entertainment Book

Entertainment.com sells coupons books for dozens of locations across the country. The Hawaii book is pretty good if there are two of you, especially for fine dining deals. The Buy One Get One free Entrees are phenomenal.

There are also activity and casual dining coupons, national coupons (like free upgrade or free day car rentals, six flags coupons, and hotwire coupons) and supposed hotel savings. In my experience, the hotel savings are not any better than what you can find on the internet, and so I don’t recommend them. If you have a different experience I’d love to hear about it.

The book is typically best for Oahu, second best for Maui, and marginal for the Big Island and Kauai. I can’t recommend it for Kauai or the Big Island, really. Sigh. Wouldn’t it be nice if that changed in the near future. Check to see if the book works for your trip.

Go Oahu Card
The Go Oahu Card is a discount card that you pay a one-time fee for and then you can do whatever activities covered under the card at any time. I really like it for a certain class of vacationer: The type that consistently gets out and GOES to activity after activity. If you plan on lounging on the beach most of the day, this is not for you.

I also really like this for a gift to honeymooners or vacationers. What a great gift! (and I like the entertainment book as a gift too). Check to see if the card works for you.

Best Oahu Beaches and Must-See Beaches on Oahu

Don’t hit all of these unless you are really into beaches. Just pick a few and take your time.

** Note: In Hawaii, all beaches are public. Anywhere that there is water, there must be public access to the shoreline. If you are in a residential neighborhood and want to check out the beach, just look for the blue signs that say “shoreline access” and follow the path, even if it’s directly between two houses. Sometimes, though, residential beaches do not have restrooms or showers.

Don’t worry about directions too much. Oahu is a small island and you can see the ocean from almost everywhere. If you can see the ocean, you can find your way.

Waikiki Beach – This is where all the action is. Instant surfing lessons, paddle an outrigger canoe, walk up to a catamaran and be riding it over the open ocean an hour later … Waikiki Beach is an awesome whirlwind of activity and people with consistently awesome weather and mellow surf.

There’s a protected area for babies to play, plus wide spots and perfectly sandy spots. It’s like a giant, beautifully clean bathtub that you are sharing with the world. I love Waikiki Beach. A must-see beach.

Ala Moana Beach – This is a locals beach, and it’s very close to Waikiki Beach. It fringes Ala Moana Park, which is a great place to walk or picnic. It’s well protected and wonderful for kids.

Kahala Beach – A pretty beach in a very rich, residential area. Shallow reef with good snorkeling in some areas.

Hanauma Bay – The value here isn’t so much in the beach as it is in the snorkeling. The fish are everywhere, and they don’t run from people too much. They are used to us.

Kailua Beach – Awesome beach with tons to do. Rent kayaks right at the park and head out to the offshore islands.

Lanikai Beach – One of my favorite beaches ever. Really what a Hawaiian beach that is not a cove should look like. Lazy, gorgeous, relaxation beach.

Laie or Hukilau Beach – Really cool beach with one awesome off-shore island. Mostly calm and swimmable.

Sunset Beach – In the summer (may – September) this is an awesome, fun beach to play at. In the winter, the waves will scare you out of the water, but drop your jaw when they are rocking. It’s fun either way.

Sharks cove – An amazing snorkeling cove in the summer. In the winter the waves get too big.

Waimea Bay Beach Park – Awesome, awesome beach. Beautiful and fun. Turtles like it, people like it, definitely check it out for swimming in the summer. In the winter, you want to check it out but for the WAVES. Waimea Bay is where some of the biggest and wildest surfing waves in the WORLD are.

The south side and the west side have some very nice beaches that I have not mentioned (Ko Olina Lagoons, Makaha Beach Park, Papaoneone Beach …) but I am not going to go into them. If you are staying out there, you‟ll find them. If you are not staying out there, in my opinion it‟s not worth a trip because the beaches in the areas where you will be already are just as good. The only difference on the west side will be less people for the most part.

Oahu Areas, Weather, and Seasons

Waikiki/Honolulu Overview

Waikiki is where most people who visit Oahu stay. It is essentially the beachfront area of the large city Honolulu. It is incredibly safe for a large city. In fact, all of Hawaii is very safe. There are some thefts from cars, but person on person crime is very rare. There are over 80 hotels in Waikiki alone. The beach is packed every day – but it’s a good and fun kind of packed; lots to do and lots of happy people running around doing it.

The water is clear and refreshing (72 degrees year round) and the beach is clean. I like Waikiki. Some people will shun it because of the rampant commercialization and the skyscrapers and the buildings packed on top of each other, but as long as you know this is what it will be like, you can still enjoy Waikiki. The beach is phenomenal and makes up for all of that, plus the “country” of Oahu is a short ride away by car or bus. Good deal. Waikiki Hotels will offer the best deals in all of Hawaii and Waikiki activities such as surfing lessons and sunset or dinner cruises will also offer the most competitive prices in the islands.

Waikiki Weather and Waves

Average Temperature in Summer (May – September): High: 87 to 89 degrees F Low: 72 degrees F
Average Temperature in Winter (October –April) High: 80 to 84 Low: 68 to 70
Avg Rainfall per month in Summer ½ inch Avg Rainfall per month in winter 2 inches Waves in Winter Generally small waves in winter – still usually big enough for a beginner to learn to surf, but almost never so big your babies can’t play on the shore.

Waves in SummerHawaii gets South Swells in the summer, which means that occasionally, the waves will be so big on Waikiki Beach that you won’t feel comfortable being in the water unless you are an expert swimmer. There is an area in the center called Kuhio beach or Baby beach where there is a wall blocking the waves, so people can still get in the water. I wouldn’t try first-ever surfing lessons during a south swell though.

The Rest of Oahu Overview

Outside of Waikiki and Honolulu, you can find one Hotel on the North Shore, the Turtle Bay Hilton, and a few hotels on the West Side of the island like Makaha Bay Towers and Ko Olina Resort. All of these hotels are at least a half hour drive from Honolulu and the airport. There are also countless vacation rentals and bed and breakfasts scattered around the island.

Ewa Beach area

Location: South side on the other side of Pearl Harbor from Waikiki

Weather: Hot and sunny all the time, even at night this area will be slow to cool down Rain: very little – 20 inches or less a year

Waves: occasional big waves in the summer Beach: Ewa beach is long and pretty, with houses lining it. This is a residential area, and some of the beach leads to clear water, some is full of coral, rocks, and seaweed. We still swim in it but this may not be what you are looking for. Activities: Nothing really except hanging out on the beach. You‟ll have to go elsewhere for boats and attractions.

Hotels: None. There are plenty of vacation rentals.

West Side of Oahu This is Ko Olina, Nankuli, Waianae, and Makaha.

Safety Issue?
You may have heard that Makaha and Waianae are not safe areas. Well, it’s true that they are considered a poorer areas but that image of being not safe is outdated. Don’t leave valuables in your car and you’ll be fine out here.

Weather:
Hot and sunny all the time, even at night this area will be slow to cool down Rain: very little – 20 inches or less a year Beach: There are many awesome beaches in this area.

Activities: The Ko Olina Hotel has some ocean activities, and Wild Side Specialty Tours: operates a wild dolphin swim in the area too.

Hotels: Ko Olina Resort , Hawaiian Princess, Makaha Beach Cabanas, and Makaha Valley Towers. You‟ll also find vacation rentals. Some of the places in Makaha offer great long term rental opportunities.

East Side of Oahu

This is Waimanalo, Kailua, Lanikai, Kaneohe, Kaaawa, Waimea, and Laie, although Laie is practically on the North Shore.

Weather:
A bit cooler than the South and west sides thanks to constant onshore winds. Rain: A bit more rain, than other areas too, but not too much if you are on or near the beach. Between 30 and 60 inches a year.

Beach: Tons and tons of blow-your-mind-awesome beaches.

Activities:
Lots of stuff to do: hike, windsurf, kayak, shop, sightsee, snorkel, lounge on the beach, and tons more. Hotels: None. Many phenomenal vacation rentals. I like Waimanalo area, Kailua, and Lanikai area – especially Lanikai for the beach.

North Shore of Oahu

This is Waimea, Kahuku, and Haleiwa. Small, laid-back, surfing towns.

Weather: Hot and sunny Rain: Between 20 and 40 inches a year.

Waves: Waves big enough to shake the ground in the winter months. People come from every country just to look at these waves. No waves in the summer months.

Beach: Great beaches and snorkeling coves. Swim in the summer, come just to look in the winter, unless you are an expert surfer.

Activities: Lots of stuff to do: hike, shark dive, gliding, kayak, shop, sightsee, snorkel, jet ski, lounge on the beach, and tons more.

Hotels: Only the Turtle Bay Hilton. Lots of right-on the-beach vacation rentals.

Summary

So that’s it, have a wonderful, wonderful vacation. Hawaii is a great place and you really can’t go wrong here. Leave me a comment if you want to share any stories or ask any questions.

Comments

15 Comments on The Complete Oahu Vacation Guide

  1. 8 Free Hawaii Guide Books on Fri, 12th Feb 2010 12:34 am
  2. [...] – right click the link and download the book to your computer, or read it at the online version, The Complete Oahu Vacation Guide. They are a little different but not too [...]

  3. Susan on Wed, 28th Jul 2010 2:08 am
  4. I am disabled and use a cane. Which of the oahu beaches would have the least amount of incline when getting in and out of the water..??

    I love “bobbing” in the ocean but worry about getting out. I needed help getting out of the water at Waikiki beach.

    Do any of the other beaches have a more gradual incline?

  5. Lisa on Thu, 29th Jul 2010 4:26 am
  6. Hi Susan, wow, well, that’s a hard one. I was going to suggest Waikiki beach until I read that you have trouble there. It’s not something I’ve ever paid attention to. Is there any way to bring a cane that won’t be hurt by the water and just bring it in with you? … and maybe Kailua beach would be good for you but I just don’t know – like I said I’ve never paid attention to the incline.

  7. Norma on Wed, 8th Dec 2010 10:00 pm
  8. I thought it would be cheaper to book early of which I did and now it seems like all the deals are dirt cheap! how can that be!

  9. Lisa on Fri, 10th Dec 2010 3:12 am
  10. Well, that can happen sometimes – but not always. Sometimes the prices triple or you just can’t get seats. Who did you buy your tickets through? Maybe you can get them to refund the difference or just cancel and buy now.

  11. Joy on Sun, 30th Jan 2011 8:12 am
  12. Hi Lisa,

    I am reluctant to use Priceline as they don’t say if the my husband can drive without an added charge. Many rentals now charge $12 a day for even a spouse as added driver so that makes a “good” deal not good at all. What do you know about this?

  13. Lisa on Mon, 31st Jan 2011 8:51 pm
  14. Hi Joy, sorry, I don’t know anything about this and haven’t run into it yet.

  15. Rose on Wed, 3rd Aug 2011 8:24 pm
  16. My teenager really wants to see the Arizona/Pearl Harbor. I have seen tours advertisement (e.g. Aloha tours). Is it worth going on a guided tour? This is our first time in Hawaii.

  17. Lisa on Sat, 6th Aug 2011 1:02 am
  18. I don’t generally prefer guided tours but I know some people do. I guess it depends on your preference.

  19. Marie Reyes on Tue, 9th Aug 2011 4:59 pm
  20. We are planning our first trip to Hawaii so I’m looking for some input about Oahu. We would like to stay at an affordable hotel on the beach that is near shopping & restaurants. We’d also like to go kayaking and attend a Luau. Do most hotels offer a Luau and is it very expensive?

  21. Lisa on Tue, 9th Aug 2011 10:52 pm
  22. On what beach do yo want to stay on? Most hotels on Oahu do not offer a luau, but many do. Yes, luaus can be quite expensive. $65 or more.

  23. Marie Reyes on Mon, 15th Aug 2011 8:48 pm
  24. I’ve heard that the beach along Waikiki is nice but I’m not sure because I’ve never been to Hawaii. I’m disabled and can’t walk very far so that is why we were looking for a place that doesn’t have a huge gap between the hotel and the water. I have a wheelchair that I use for long distances. Where do you think would be the best place to stay that’s near the beach and maybe within walking distance to restaurants & shopping? Also, could you recommend a good place to attend a Luau? Thanks so much for your help!

  25. Lisa on Thu, 18th Aug 2011 5:47 am
  26. There’s tons of hotels that are right on the beach in Waikiki. I like the Hilton and the Royal Hawaiian. There’s also tons that are just across the street. I like the Waikiki circle hotel and the hyatt. There’s aerial photos here
    http://wizardpub.com/oahu/oahaerials.html

    and the Polynesian cultural center is a great place for a luau.

  27. Marie on Sat, 20th Aug 2011 7:01 pm
  28. Thanks so much for the info Lisa!

  29. Ryan Weed on Fri, 1st Jun 2012 11:38 pm
  30. Aloha Lisa,

    We are Hawaii Beach Time, a beach equipment rental business on Oahu that delivers, sets up, and picks up, at any beach on the island. Our gear includes kayaks, umbrellas, chairs, coolers filled with ice, snorkel sets, stand-ups, etc. We are the only service on the island that offers this and we want people with an influence like yours to experience it- ON US!! If you or someone you know would like to have a beach day anywhere on Oahu, please call into our offices(808-585-1474), ask for me (Ryan) and reference this message and we will be happy to accommodate you with whatever you would like. Feel free to check out our website at http://www.hawaiibeachtime.com as we are a great resource that you may find useful to the many travelers I am sure you come in contact with through your website. We are always looking for positive press through links and write ups so feel free to mention us if it suits you and your business. Thank you so much for your time and we look forward to hearing from you.

    Aloha

Tell me what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!