10 tips for exploring Hawaii on a shoestring budget

The Aloha spirit, ideal temperatures year round, great beaches, and incredible scenery…it’s no wonder Hawaii is known as a vacationer’s paradise.

There’s only one problem: Paradise doesn’t come cheap. So, how can you do Hawaii on a shoestring budget? These 10 tips are a good place to start.

1) Think Hawaii; think Honolulu. It’s hands down the most developed and visited place on the islands, making it the cheapest and most accessible too.

2) Hawaii may be a year-round vacation destination, but there are one or two ‘off-peak’ periods throughout the year. Lookout for cheaper flights and discounted hotel rooms in January (last two weeks), February, May, September and October. More good news: February happens to be the best time of year to see humpback whales, and September is Aloha Festival time.

3) A condo rental is much cheaper than a resort stay. A weeklong hotel stay in Waikiki in May is around $200 a night. A nice one-bedroom condo on the other hand can be secured for as little as half that.

Waikiki Beach in Honolulu (Image: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson)

Waikiki Beach in Honolulu (Image: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson)

4) Of course, accommodation costs are best kept down by staying at a hostel. Our pick in Oahu is the Hostelling International Waikiki. It’s right by the beach and has great reviews on TripAdvisor. Northshore Hostel is considered the best on Maui.

Surfers stroll a Hawaiian street (Image: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson)

Surfers stroll a Honolulu street (Image: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson)

5) Stick to one island, two at most. Island hopping is costly (they’re farther apart than you might think). Most travelers and residents fly between islands. Be warned though – all flights head in and out of Oahu; with two flights as opposed to one one-hour direct flight, this can sometimes translate into six hours overall in transit. Oahu’s known as “The Gathering Place” for good reason.

If you do want to island hop, but can’t afford air tickets, then you have two options. The Maui–Lanai Ferry ($30 each way) and the Molokai–Maui Ferry ($67 each way). Sadly, the Hawaii Superferry which once connected Oahu with Maui is no longer in operation.

A ferry docked in Hawaii (Image: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson)

A ferry docked in Hawaii (Image: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson)

6) It’s a pain we know, but it really does pay to research local listings for free events and monitor daily deal websites.

7) Renting a car is really the only way to freely explore the islands on your own terms. Sadly, hire charges, insurance and fuel bills make it prohibitive for those on a tight budget. The Bus service on Oahu – imaginatively named The Bus – gives shoestring travelers access to many parts of the island. A four-day unlimited pass costs $25, and can be picked up at any ABC store in Waikiki.

You can't beat a Hawaiian beach! (Image: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson)

You can’t beat a Hawaiian beach! (Image: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson)

8) Eat a hearty lunch and light dinner – the former is heavily discounted over the latter at many restaurants (this is, of course, the case in pretty much every vacation spot around the world). Another cheap way to eat out is to catch up with a food truck. Check out this list of the top 10 food trucks in Hawaii. Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck is highly rated too.

9) Pass up the luau. Often far from authentic, these highly staged affairs are usually massively overpriced. Instead, pack a picnic of poke, lomi lomi, and poi (all readily available from local markets) and seek out a free evening hula show on the beach.

Hula on the beach (Image: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson)

The hula (Image: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson)

10) One for regular visitors: Many tourist attractions (including golf clubs) have different prices for local residents (known as Kamaʻāina). Repeat out-of-state (and foreign) visitors can access these rates by securing a Hawaii State Identification Card.

Written by insider city guide series Hg2 | A Hedonist’s guide to…

(Main image: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson)