The Ultimate Australian Backpackers Guide to O'ahu, Hawaii

If you use the internet, chances are you have probably been seeing a lot of advertisements about cheap return flights to Hawaii. It's ridiculous. I can fly literally to another country, over 10,000kms away, for a cheaper price than flying from Melbourne to Perth 😱😱😱 

Logic.

Seeing as you're reading this, you probably haven't made the 10-hour flight over to the Hawaiian Islands yet. Perhaps the USD to AUD exchange rate has had you rocking back and forth in the fetal position (I've been there and done that), or perhaps the flight has got you feeling all sorts of anxiety (understandable, it's a pretty boring flight). Maybe you've done some research and firmly decided that you can't afford a holiday to Hawaii right now, and put it on the back burner. 

Well, throw all of your concerns out the window because I'm here to tell you how to live your best life in O'ahu on a backpackers budget. It's true, blowing a large amount of money in SUPER FUCKING EASY in Waikiki (hello hotels that are $350AUD/night) but you can also save a butt-tonne of cash by just doing a little bit of research, and by continuing to read this comprehensive blog post πŸ˜‰ 

Also, just as a little FYI, I am not affiliated with any of the businesses and websites that are mentioned in this article. Everything I recommend is purely from my own experiences and research.

Getting there

Okay, so you have decided that you want to go to Hawaii. Congratulations. Prepare to be blown away by the clear water, beautiful mountains and the kindness of the Aloha way of life. Now, you have to find a flight. But not just any flight, you want the cheapest flight. 

The best way to go about this is to have a flexible fly in and out date. Pick a month-long window and use an airfare comparison website such as Skyscanner to get an overview of what is cheap and expensive during that time. I always book through the airline directly as often it is a little cheaper. 

Jetstar has the cheapest flights to Hawaii from Australia. However, the prices can vary depending on when you fly (I've seen everything from $200AUD to $800AUD one way!) If you have a budget in mind, you can set up price drop notifications through the Jetstar website so that you can get a cheeky little email in your inbox every time the price drops within your budget and your dates - and there are ALWAYS sales. 

Always monitor other travel agents like Student Flights and Flight Centre on social media to see if there are any return deals going. I also like to use the app, I Know The Pilot to be notified when there are specials. 

To save extra $$$, challenge yourself and only bring carry-on luggage with you. If you're visiting Hawaii for two weeks or less you can get away with a couple of pairs of bathers, some exercise clothes, something nice to wear out and two pairs of shoes (remember, thongs are called flip-flops in the US) πŸ˜‰ Also pick up a couple of compression sacks from Kathmandu. These will save you a ton of space in your bags and make it easy to organise and store your clothes at your accommodation. 

As the flight is long, you're going to want to eat something. You can fork out $30 for plane food one way OR you can bring your own. I like filling my backpack with protein balls, dried fruit and nuts, chocolate and vegetarian pasta when I fly long distances. Pinterest also has a range of great snack ideas for traveling.

Flying over Waikiki and Diamond Head is quite the spectacle. 

Finding a place to sleep

Accommodation is an absolute KILLER! Luckily for you, I've done the leg work - or should I say bed work - for you. Choosing a place to stay in Hawaii is totally dependant on the type of vacation you want to have.

The cheapest option is to camp. There are a number of cheap camping spots around the island where you can set up camp and come and go as you please. In fact, you can sometimes even get away with camping for free in certain areas. Even though this isn't entirely legal, if you set up a hammock on O'ahu's North Shoe and ~happen~ to fall asleep there, no one is going to question you.

I spent way too many nights camping out in tents and hammocks along the North Shore. This is a Keiki Beach.

Hostels are also a cheaper option. You can rent a private room or a dorm for a really great deal. My two favourite hostels in Waikiki are the Polynesian Beach Club Hostel (aka The Poly) with 12-bed dorms starting at $27.16USD/night, and The Beach Waikiki Boutique Hostel with 6-bed dorms starting at $36USD/night. Both of these hostels have great social events and activities like free pizza on Friday nights, discount scuba lessons, cheap tours to other areas of the island etc. They are also only a block from Waikiki beach! Just watch out for the Wifi as it can get a little sketchy, but don't worry, Starbucks is just around the corner with all of your high-speed internet needs.

If you're wanting to stay in a hostel on other areas of the island, there are a few option in Kailua and one hostel up on the North Shore! Check out Hostel World to see photos, reviews and prices for hostels across O'ahu. 

The Poly - I spent 5 weeks of my life walking up stairs to the top floor of this building every day. The views from my bedroom window were definitely worth it. I honestly met some of the most amazing people at this hostel.

If you want to stay in a hotel your best bet is to monitor websites like Booking.com, Trivago.com and Hotels.com like CRAZY. Sign up for all the emails and get to know what is a cheap price for a hotel. I've stayed at two hotels in Waikiki, Aqua Palms and Queen Kapiolani - the latter was by far much better value for money (hello $109AUD/night for a room with a balcony and view of the city). Remember to read the fine print when you're booking a hotel as many places will slug you for a resort fee (about $35.00 USD/night) and you need to keep some cash to tip the bellboys. 

Hanging out in the pool at Queen Kapiolani

You can also use Airbnb in Hawaii, although technically it is considered illegal by the state. There are a lot of choices depending on the experience you want. I've found that Airbnb in Hawaii is more affordable if you have more than one person traveling with you so that you can split the costs. I wouldn't recommend it for solo travelers unless you want to have an entire apartment to yourself for some rest and relaxation. 

Couchsurfing is also available, if that tickles your fancy. There are plenty of places to stay and people willing to help you out if needed. As per usual, always use this website with caution. 

Spring days spent lounging around at my Airbnb on the North Shore! This little apartment was heaven for me and I spent most of my time working outside in the lush garden space.

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Getting around

O'ahu has fantastic transport that makes it easy to enjoy everything that the island has to offer. There's something to suit everyone's tastes, from hiring a $100+ Mustang to catching the public bus. 

The bus will run you back $2.50 one way and you MUST have this in cash (annoying I know). Your ticket will last you a few hours and up to two transfers. You can check out bus routes using Google Maps or they have a great app you can download from the app store called DaBus2 - yes, that's actually what it's called. Original. The bus runs all around the island but it will take you a couple of hours to get from Waikiki up to the North Shore due to all of the stops and the TERRIBLE traffic. 

Uber and Lyft are readily available on the island with most cars in the Waikiki, Downtown Honolulu and Kailua areas. Prices match what we pay in Australia so this option can be really cost effective, especially when you're sharing with a few different people. 

There are many car rental companies on the island and picking one comes down to your budget. Weekly rentals can often be cheaper than hiring a car for just a few days. You can use this website to compare car hire prices. My two favourite rentals are Dollar which is great if you have a super tight budget, and Enterprise which is fantastic for customer service and ease of use. If you rent through Enterprise via the Marriott in Waikiki you will often get a free upgrade as they only have a limited fleet available. Book online the night before for sometime after 10am and enjoy the bigger car. As an extra tip, some weekends Enterprise will have specials where you can hire a car from Friday to Monday for $12 a day. Keep an eye on the website as this deal runs out faster than you'd think. 

Car hiring companies make their money by offering you a bunch of shit you don't need. In the US, if you're under 25 you will incur a young driver fee and you might get pestered for all sorts of insurance and roadside assistance options. Make sure you read up on what your travel insurance covers you for and go in armed with knowledge. Also, you'll need a credit card NOT a visa debit to be able to hire - I got caught on this in 2016 when I visited Hawaii and it was super stressful. 

You can also download the app Turo which is kind of like an Airbnb but for cars. Local people can post ads on the app and you can hire their car for a cheaper price than if you went through a hire company. 

And if you're super lucky, you'll meet someone who has a car and you might be able to ride around with them for a small fee. 

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Cheap(ish) things to do

The first thing you will notice when you get to Waikiki is that there are SO MANY tour guides trying to get you to purchase one of their over-priced island tours. DO NOT EVEN BLINK AN EYE IN THEIR DIRECTION. Do your research and book everything yourself.

Fortunately, they can't charge you to swim in the ocean (yet) so one of the best things to do on the island is to enjoy one of the incredibly beautiful beaches. Waikiki beach is a safe place to swim and the sand is from Australia so it's kinda like swimming at home. It's great for families and if you are too lazy to travel further out of Waikiki to swim. Some other great beaches are Kailua and Lanikai for the crystal clear water, Waimea Bay for the cliff jumping, Sunset Beach (go for a sunset swim and you will understand the meaning of its name), Cockroach Cove (way nicer than it sounds), Yokohama Bay, Sandys, Waimanalo Bay, Makapu'u tidal pools (prepare to hike your way to these), Kawela Bay and Kahana Bay. Oh, and there's a trampoline in the ocean at Pounders Beach - you can thank me later for that one. 

Hikes are also free - as long as they aren't in a national park - so go nuts on the exploring. I've done a shit ton of hiking on O'ahu. You can download the app AllTrails from the App Store to see all the hikes on O'ahu and their intensity level + photos. Some of the super popular touristy hikes include Diamond Head (you need to pay $1 in cash to get in here), Koko Head, Manoa Falls and the infamous Stairway to Heaven (seriously though, this one is WORTH all the hassle), Makapu'u Lighthouse and Lanikai Pillboxes. My personal favourites are Crouching Lion, Koko Head Back Trail, Pali Puka, Ehukai Pillboxes, Kuliou'ou Ridge and Pu'u Manama. Hik3beasthawaii and Unreal Hawaii are two of my favourite websites for checking out hikes ahead of time. A lot of these trails have conspicuous trailheads and/or are illegal to an extent and these websites have a lot more information about finding trailheads and any hazards.

I would advise not to hike outside of your comfort zone or ability. Some of the hikes on O'ahu can get really sketchy and dangerous. People do die frequently so always hike with caution and avoid the rain if possible.

Snorkeling is a very popular attraction on the island as it is surrounded by many reefs and marine life. The most popular place to do this is at Hanauma Bay but it's littered with families and it also costs $14 + snorkel hire to enter. One of the more low-key and free areas to snorkel on the island is Shark's Cove on the North Shore. Snorkel hire is right across the road and fairly affordable.

One of my favourite days on O'ahu was spent Kayaking out to The Mokes with a bunch of people. We hired through Kailua Beach Adventures for $60USD for a tandem kayak and spent half a day paddling around in the ocean. Once we reached The Mokes, we did some snorkelling and saw several sea turtles and had lunch whilst sunbathing on the sand. Book online to save $$. 

Swimming with wild dolphins is on the bucket list for a lot of people, so if this is your cup of tea I would HIGHLY recommend booking a tour through EO Waianae Tours it will set you back $120USD but it is totally worth it! When I did this tour in 2016, I was swimming with a pod of 30 wild dolphins underneath me before they glided up and swam within arm's length. It felt like a dream. The tour also includes food and a session of swimming and SUP on the West Side of the Island and bus transfers to and from your accommodation.

Of course, being in Hawaii means that you might just be lucky enough to stumble upon a pod of dolphins whilst you're out swimming in the water - hopefully you have a snorkel and some fins handy! The west side is the best for dolphin pods.

In 2016 I swam within arm's length of dolphins, jumped off the top of a 5m catamaran and used a SUP for the first time. It was a magical day of firsts.

Hawaii is a very religious place as many missionaries sailed out into the Pacific with the intention of converting the Islanders (mostly) to a form of Christianity. Therefore, there are a lot of places of worship on the island. Seriously, it's overwhelming. One of the most tranquil places is the Byodo-In Temple which is about a 20 minute drive from Waikiki. The Buddhist temple is modeled after a 900-year old temple in Kyoto, Japan. There are beautiful gardens to get lost in, a meditation area, and you can light some incense in front of a large bronze statue of Buddha. Entry is $3 per adult and definitely worth the stop.

Waikiki has some GREAT shopping, so if you have space room in your suitcase, prepare to come home with a new wardrobe. Most items are cheaper than Australia, but check the exchange rate and the local prices before you go pouring the contents of your wallet out. For the best array of shops, make sure you check out Ala Moana which is the world's largest open-roof shopping mall.

Many people visit Hawaii in order to learn how to surf and whilst this isn't my area of interest, my trusty friends have worded me up with the DL on surf lessons in Waikiki. A lot of companies are expensive AF and can be a major tourist trap. The general advice is to do your research beforehand and try to book something before you arrive on the island. Don't fall for people renting on the beach or through hotels as they will be the most expensive. 

If you're after a traditional Hawaiian experience, you can catch a Hula show on Waikiki beach every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 6:30pm. Watch the sun set behind the horizon whilst listening to some traditional Hawaiian music.  

Also keep an eye on Couchsurfing events. If you aren't familiar with this website, sign up now! There are heaps of free/cheap events around Waikiki each week. You can also use the app to meet up with fellow couchsurfers for hikes, beers or whatever takes your fancy really. One of the best experiences I had on O'ahu was taking a sunset sailing trip with a whole bunch of fellow couch surfers. It was donation-based and we all piled on board with scores of alcohol and watched fireworks from the deck! 

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Eating & Drinking

Eating In

Buying groceries in Hawaii is depressingly expensive as practically everything gets imported from the mainland. With this in mind, learning to be a savvy shopper will save you a lot of $$ when it comes to feeding yourself on the island.

If you don't want to eat out all the time, shopping at farmers markets is your cheapest option for fruit and veg. There are a number of great weekly markets but my favourite in Waikiki was the one at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School every Saturday. Get the lychees if you go to that market, they're amazing! This website is a great resource to see where all of the markets take place.

There are so many farmers markets on O'ahu. This one is up on the North Shore near Turtle Bay.

In Waikiki there is really only one fully-serviced supermarket, Food Pantry. This supermarket is competitive with other stores that are situated in more local areas as long as you don't purchase any fruit and veg. However, the store is small and doesn't have a lot of options. Safeway is a hop, skip and a jump down Kapahulu Ave. from Waikiki beach (approx. one mile). If you're after specialty products or a wide range of things to choose from, this is the place you want to go. It's also just fascinating walking around the store as it's SO BIG (srsly, there's a Starbucks in there) and there's a lot of weird American food that is fun to marvel at.

When you arrive in Waikiki, you'll notice a magical chain of stores called ABC Stores. These stores have everything you could ever need in life. From cheesy tourist knick-knacks to cheap alcohol, be prepared to become best friends with the store assistants in your closest ABC store because you'll be there every day.

Some other places to shop are:

  • Foodland which is my favourite. This is mostly fuelled by the fact that they have AMAZING sushi and some pretty decent Poke (kind of like a traditional Hawaiian raw fish salad).
  • There are also two Wholefoods on the island one in Kahala Mall and Kailua if that's your thing.
  • You can shop at Costco if you have a membership. There are stores in Hawaii Kai, Downtown Honolulu, Kapolei, and Waipahu.

Eating Out

If eating out is your thing there are HEAPS of great places in Waikiki to eat. The cheapest meal you can get (aside from good old McDonalds) is from Marukame Udon. For as little as $5UDS you can get a giant bowl of handmade Japanese noodle soup. Bonus points if you dare to try some of the more random deep fried sides. There's always a line to get in, but it moves quickly and is totally worth it.

This whole bowl was literally $4.95USD.

If you have the hangover from hell Wailana Coffee Lounge is open 24/7 and do a deliciously greasy bacon, eggs and hashbrown.

On Tuesday nights you can have $3 tacos at Moose's. They're huge and delicious. Also, make sure you grab some of the waffle fries while you're there. After you feed, head upstairs with a cover of $5 to enjoy $1 drinks and tunes all night long.

Teddy's Bigger Burgers is my favourite burger joint on the island. So much so, by the time I left, they knew my name and gave me discounts. They have a number of specialty burgers that are all delicious. Get their fries smothered in garlic butter and parmesan, you won't be disappointed.

My mouth is honestly watering looking at this right now...

If you have a craving for eggs, check out Eggs n' Things. They have a couple of locations around Waikiki and although there's always a long and time-consuming line, it's always worth the wait. From omelets to a stack of pancakes, everything here is big and super filling.

Bills Hawaii is my favourite place to go whenever I'm feeling a little homesick. This is because they have arguably the best flat white on the island AND you can even get Vegemite on toast for $5. It's a little pricey overall but a great place to go for a date night.

Bills Hawaii is super fancy, but super delicious - with cold brew coffee too!

It wouldn't be a holiday to Hawaii without going to the Cheesecake Factory. Someone asked me once why Australians loved the restaurant so much and I had to conclude that it has something to do with the ridiculous meal sizes and good prices. The service here is always on point and there's a live band. You can share the main meals to save on $$ and be prepared to wait for a table. 

When your plate of food is bigger than you...

On O'ahu's North Shore is a food truck park that has literally everything to tickle your fancy. From fish tacos at North Shore Tacos to the most amazing vegan pad thai at the Elephant Truck, there's something for everyone. Also, check out the fish and chips at The Rainbow Truck.

Speaking of North Shore, Hale'iwa town has some great food spots. Hale'iwa Bows has the best acai bowls on the island, if not the entirety of Hawaii. Freshly made granola mixed with Sambazon acai and topped with more fruit than you can imagine? YES PLEASE. You should also check out Matsumoto's Shave Ice. It's a little touristy but they have so many delicious flavours to choose from - and don't go knocking condensed milk on ice until you try it, it's delicious! If you're into vegan/vegetarian food, make sure you check out Beatbox Cafe. Everything on their menu is vegetarian at the very least and they have delicious smoothies and kombucha. And lastly, if you're at Sunset Beach, check out Ted's Bakery for the best dessert pie you will ever tsate.

Giovanni's Shrimp Truck is famous for garlic shrimp and if you're around Kahuku you should definitely give it a try. 1 serving will feed two and just be aware that they only take cash. 

So garlic butter-y, so unhealthy, so delicious.

If you like smoothies Kahuku Farms has the best! Choose from a variety of items on their menu or mix your own. Everything is grown on their farm or in the local area! 

Maui Brewing Co recently opened a swanky new restaurant in Waikiki and is another one of my favourites. More on the pricey side but if you go for a beer and their Sriracha fries, you'll head out fed and watered for under $20. Also, their beer is really, really good.

If you're in search of poke you need to check out Ono Seafood. Ono in Hawaiian means really good/delicious and they definitely didn't lie when they decided to name this place. Just a short walk up off the main strip of Waikiki, it is hands down, the best poke on O'ahu. 

While you're up that way, go and get some malasadas from Leonard's Bakery. One malasada is never enough, just an FYI. Get a box and bring it back to your hostel and EVERYONE will want to be your friend. 

Guava goodness at Leonard's! This photo is by Tena from Flickr - I didn't grab a photo of these bad boys whilst I was on the island.

Hawaii has a huge Japanese cultural influence, so the sushi is really, really good! If you want to hinder your cravings, Doraku is delicious and kinda expensive. It's also apparently owned by Steve Aoki's brother, so there's that too.

Sushi goodness.

Lastly, if you have some good $$ to spare, try and have dinner at Duke's which is under Outrigger. The restaurant is literally right on the beach and they have fantastic burgers! Just be prepared to spend a cool $50AUD on your meal.

Drinking

Ah the US, where spirits are cheaper than a box of 20 Mcnuggets. You can pick up cheap alcohol from pretty much everywhere but for convenience, your closest ABC store has prices that are competitive with the larger supermarkets. The price of spirits will BLOW YOUR MIND. Beer is also really affordable. Stay away from wine, it's fairly overpriced compared to most Australian counterparts when you factor in exchange rates. 

My advice is to pre-drink as much as you possibly can and then head out to one of the bars/clubs that offer cheap drink nights, or else you're going to end up spending all of your money on drinks - and don't forget the tip.

Luckily for you, my liver and I did all the ground work for you...

Monday: Industry nights at Lulu's 

Cover: $10

Drinks: Between $6 - $10

Other notes: AWESOME pop & RnB music. Monday nights at Lulu's goes off.

Tuesday: Moose's 

Cover: $10 for general entry or $5 if you eat downstairs first and show your receipt! As mentioned above they have really good tacos for $3 on Tuesday nights!

Drinks: All basics are $1. Yes. $1. 

Other notes: Good music, generally more RnB. Dance floor with lots of lights

Wednesday: Playbar

Cover: $10

Drinks: All basics $1.

Other notes: Kinda dank but a lot of fun when you're very, very drunk which is easy when there are $1 drinks. Also, if you're under 21 you can come and party in here with your friends, you just can't drink.

So many messy and unpredictable nights were had with friends at Playbar.

Saturday: Kelly O'Neil's Irish Bar (it's not really that Irish)

Cover: None

Drinks: Between $6 - $12

Other notes: Live band, older crowd but always a good time. 

Sunday: Playbar round 2

Cover: $10

Drinks: All basics $1

Thursday - Saturday

There aren't a lot of bars that have specials. If you feel like drinking and you're a lady, Sky Bar has free entry on Friday's but you might want to try and get someone else to buy you a drink because a simple gin and tonic cost me $13.50USD + tip!

Otherwise, getting a whole case of beers and sitting on the beach drinking with a large group of pals never went astray. Just be aware that it is technically illegal to drink on the beach in Waikiki and you will get fined if you are caught/disrespectful/loud. Police patrol the area so either cover your drinks or put them away when you see the blue lights. The beaches close at different times (yes, the fact that beaches close in Waikiki is a weird notion for me too) and there are signs displayed at the entrances that have the opening hours listed. Try not to go outside of these times. 

Beach beers. BYO friends and sheets to sit on :)

Other things to note

It goes without saying, don't forget to slip, slop and slap. You're in a tropical environment and you will get burnt. Hawaiian Tropics is my favourite sunscreen brand over in Hawaii. Just make sure you read the SPF ratings as for some reason, selling sunscreen with an SPF of 4 is legal in Hawaii?

Yes. It's busy. Waikiki is the major tourist area in Hawaii so at times you will have to wait in lines, deal with families and crying children, and share the beach with one hundred of your closest friends. That being said, Waikiki has nothing on a summer day at Bondi Beach.

Peak season on the North Shore is during the Hawaiian winter. If you visit during this time expect a ton of traffic jams and tourists.

Speaking of traffic, the traffic on the island is literally the worst. One of my friends told me that there were more cars than people just on Oahu, which is weird to think about. Avoid peak times where possible and thank me later.

Always keep cash on you in Hawaii to avoid getting caught our when a shop or restaurant is cash only. It's also easier to keep some cash on you in case you need to tip anyone. 

Tipping is, unfortunately, a bit of a hassle when you visit the states. Sometimes your not sure if you should tip or not, and sometimes it seems really unnecessary, especially when the service is bad. Most restaurants now print the expected gratuity rates on the bottom of their receipts. 5% for average service, 10% for good service, 18% for excellent service and 20% if you're over the moon! You can tip via cash or with card. When tipping via cash, just leave a few extra dollar bills on the tab. When tipping via card, your server will take your card to swipe it and then bring it back with a pen and a receipt for you to sign and state your tip. Confusing, but you'll get used to it. If you're ever in doubt, just ask! Hawaii is a tourist area with a lot of Australians so most servers know that we struggle with the whole idea of it.

Don't forget that for some odd reason, the tax on an item is never included in the price that it is listed as being in the supermarket or in restaurants. There are apps you can get to calculate the tax for you. 

When getting from the airport to Waikik there are a few options. You can taxi/uber for around $35-$50USD. You can catch the city bus for $2.50 (this option takes about 1-1.5 hours) or a shuttle bus which will run you back $30USD for a two way trip. My favourite shuttle company is Speedi Shuttle

Like every holiday destination, it's about what you make of it. There are many different experiences to be had on O'ahu that are just outside of the main tourist strip. Go for an adventure and see where you end up, you might just be surprised.

Hopefully, you're now super excited for your looming holiday, or you're about to book your flights. Either way, if you have any more questions feel free to comment below and I'll do my best to answer them! 

travelCarolyn West