Two years ago, after emerging from what was (to put it lightly) a rough time for our family, my kids and I decided we needed something fun in our future. Slips of paper bearing travel destinations went into a jar, and out came the one scrawled with the word Hawaii.
While I must confess I was secretly rooting for Walt Disney World or Hershey, Pennsylvania, I was excited by the prospect of a tropical vacation — until I saw the price of plane tickets. Apparently, there is no cheap way to get from the Midwest to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, particularly when traveling with five children.
Undeterred, I scrimped and saved and made it happen. This past August, the six of us spent almost two weeks on the islands, starting with four days in Honolulu and the rest of our time on the Big Island.
Since the plane tickets were jaw-droppingly expensive, I was all about making our time in Hawaii as cheap as possible without making it feel like I was being miserly. Fortunately, there is plenty to do that doesn’t cost a lot of money. Here are my top five choices:
1. Go to the beach
Oh, I see you rolling your eyes at my Captain Obvious suggestion, but it has to be said. The beach is the ultimate free activity in Honolulu. Hopefully your hotel will be close enough to walk but if not, check out TheBus for public transportation options.
After a lifetime of visiting Lake Michigan, I thought I knew the beach. Let me tell you; I didn’t know the beach. In Honolulu, the water was warm, the waves were big and the color was the most fantastic shade of blue. Apparently, all those gorgeous beach photos I saw online and assumed were photoshopped were, in fact, the real deal.
Seriously, don’t underestimate the beach.
2. Visit Pearl Harbor
Just outside Honolulu is Pearl Harbor, the site of Japan’s attack on U.S. soil. Even if you’re not a World War II buff, the Pearl Harbor historic sites are worth a visit. I thought I was fairly well-versed on what led up to the Japanese attack, but I learned there was a lot I didn’t know. Plus, it was a powerful experience visiting what is the final resting place for those who were aboard the USS Arizona when it sank on Dec. 7, 1941.
Plenty of tour companies sell Pearl Harbor excursions for upward of $100 a person, but don’t be fooled into forking over that much. You can enter the site for free, and tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial are free as well. You can reserve your tickets online two months in advance for a $1.50 service charge or claim one of the 1,300 or so walk-in tickets made available each day at no cost. Walk-in tickets can go fast, so plan to arrive in the morning if you want one. On the day of our visit, walk-in tickets were gone by noon.
The greatest expense involved in visiting Pearl Harbor is transportation. You can take TheBus which, at $5 round trip per person, is the cheapest option. I let myself be talked into letting the hotel arrange for a shuttle, which cost $15 per person.
3. Take a walk at Diamond Head
Honolulu has lots of palm trees and some parks, but it’s still something of a concrete jungle. Fortunately, it’s just a short ride (again, TheBus is your friend) to Diamond Head State Monument.
If you’re looking to stretch your legs, you can hike up to the summit and take in some beautiful views. It doesn’t cost much, but you will need $1 per person if you are walking in or $5 per car if you’re driving. Bring cash: That’s all that’s accepted.
4. Head to Hanauma Bay
There are lots of companies offering snorkeling expeditions in Honolulu, but the most inexpensive way to snorkel may be to look for a deal that takes you to Hanauma Bay State Park.
Unfortunately, jet lag conspired against us seeing the park, but here’s some intel that should help you: The bay is a big draw — the clear, shallow waters offer an amazing chance to get up close and personal with the fish. You are best off going early in the morning to avoid the crowds. Also avoid windy, wavy days if you can, because that churns up the water and makes it murky.
The destination has a reputation for nickel-and-diming visitors for parking, locker storage, tram rides to the beach (if you don’t want to walk) and snorkel rental. The best deal may be the tour offered by the park, which includes round-trip transportation from Waikiki as well as snorkel rental. Prices start at $22 per person plus a $7.50 park admission. That may not fall into your definition of cheap, but other snorkeling tours we considered charged $70 or more per person.
Hanauma Bay gets high enough reviews from others I’ve spoken to that I feel comfortable recommending it, particularly if you have younger children. The other tours we considered take you out about a mile or so offshore. That would have been perfect for my fish-in-water son, but not so fabulous for my nonswimmers. Hanauma Bay seems like a good bet to accommodate snorkelers with varying swimming ability.
5. Rent a car and see the island
On our first day in Honolulu, I asked our server at breakfast what she would recommend we do. She told us to rent a car and get out of the city.
She suggested driving up Highway H-2 to Wahiawa where you can stop by the Dole Plantation if you’d like. Then, head north to Waialua Bay for lunch. After that, Road 83 will take you around the northern tip of the island. On the way down, don’t forget to stop by Lanikai Beach, which makes a regular appearances on lists of the best beaches in the world.
Our server actually suggested splitting the drive into two day-trips, and if you do that, I recommend returning your rental car for the night. The cost of parking a car overnight in Honolulu could be almost as much as the rental itself.
We only had a few days on Oahu, so I couldn’t make this happen, but if you’re looking for a cheap suggestion from a local, here it is.
6. What was fun but not so cheap
Now, let’s talk about something that was fun but definitely not cheap: a luau. Before our trip, I had scratched a luau off our to-do list. I had heard they were long and expensive. Plus, they seemed a bit kitschy. Then my oldest son, who was desperate to try some authentic cuisine, discovered all the traditional Hawaiian dishes were served at a luau.
So we went to a luau.
And you know what? It was really fun. We went to the Waikiki Starlight Luau at the Hilton, which will set you back about $100 per adult. It was a lot of money for a relatively short event, but my three older kids said it was one of their favorite things on this vacation.
Another option would be to head to the Polynesian Cultural Center where you get not only a luau, but a day spent exploring traditional Hawaiian villages. The price is about the same as the Starlight Luau so, even when you factor in the cost of transportation to the center, it offers a much better value. I was quite sure it would have been disastrous for me to attempt a long day there with a tired 5-year-old and 2-year-old.
There you have it. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but if you were my friend (and you know you all are), this is what I would tell you to do during a trip to Honolulu. I certainly hope those of you who’ve been to Oahu will add your favorite activities in the comments below or on our Facebook page.