Oahu, the third-largest of the Hawaiian Islands, is appropriately nicknamed “The Gathering Place.” This island is best known for Honolulu, Waikiki’s beaches and resorts, surfing on the North Shore, and the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
However, there’s so much more to see on Oahu than you might imagine. To help you make the most out of your Hawaii vacation, we’ve put together the ultimate Oahu travel guide. Read this guide to avoid making first-time visitor mistakes!
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Oahu feels like visiting another country without leaving the U.S.
Hawaii is a popular destination among U.S. citizens because you can feel like you’re visiting another country without needing a passport! Additionally, American visitors won’t need to exchange money (as the currency is the U.S. dollar).
Another big advantage to visiting Oahu is that your phone service will work like normal! Unlike other vacation spots, you don’t have to pay any extra fees or buy a SIM card to use your phone on the island (if you are a U.S. resident).
Nonetheless, remember that Hawaii runs on Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time. With this in mind, you’ll be three hours behind the West Coast and six hours behind friends and family on the East Coast. Additionally, tipping on Oahu is also the same as in the mainland United States: 15-20% is customary.
You will need to reserve a rental car.
Although renting a car on Oahu can be pricey, it’s a necessary expense to leave the Waikiki area. Many visitors will opt to go carless during their stay on the famous Waikiki Beach and then hire a vehicle to explore areas like the North Shore or the Windward Coast.
First things first: if you choose to rent a car for the entirety of your stay, be prepared to pay nightly parking fees. Like most things in Hawaii, gas is probably more expensive here than back at home, too. However, we still think a car rental is 100% worth it during your stay on the island.
After all, it’s important to note that Oahu–along with other islands like Maui and Kauai–is different from other popular tropical destinations. Mainly, because you likely won’t spend all of your time at your resort. The island and its accommodations aren’t set up to be all-inclusive; therefore, you can see why a rental car is such an important item on any Hawaii travel checklist!
Plus, part of the appeal of a vacation to Oahu is the chance to get out and explore on your own (especially if you have your own car). Discovering your favorite beach, local eatery, and shave ice joint are all part of an authentic island experience. Believe me, you won’t want to stick to downtown Honolulu for your whole trip!
One or our top Oahu tips: take traffic and peak travel times into account when driving around the island. For example, you can expect “rush hour” driving into Honolulu from 5-8 A.M. and leaving the city from 3-6:30 P.M. Driving from the south shore to Oahu’s west side (like Ko Olina or Kapolei) can be tough in the evenings.
You’ll probably stay in Waikiki for at least part of your vacation.
According to the 2020 Visitor Plant Inventory from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, approximately 78% of all Oahu hotels are located in the Waikiki/Honolulu area. Some of the most popular properties in this area include the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Moana Surfrider, the Sheraton Waikiki, and Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort. So, most visitors end up staying in Waikiki for at least part of their Oahu vacation.
We don’t mean to imply that this is bad in any way–Waikiki just offers more of a “touristy” experience. Therefore, we highly suggest taking day trips to explore other parts of the island, even if you’re based in Waikiki during the whole trip. Popular spots include the North Shore beaches, Kualoa Ranch, and Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden.
Although most hotels are located along Waikiki Beach, you can find Oahu vacation rentals or Airbnbs in other places. For example, the North Shore, the Leeward Side, and the Windward Side are all options.
The best luxury resort on the North Shore is Turtle Bay (where Forgetting Sarah Marshall was filmed), followed by Courtyard by Marriott Oahu North Shore. For a quieter resort experience, you can also check out the Ko’olina area, where both the Four Seasons Oahu and Aulani, the Disney resort, are located.
Hotels charge extra daily resort fees that are mandatory.
If you’re traveling to Oahu and staying in a hotel, know that most properties charge additional fees. Specifically, daily resort fees help to cover certain amenities and activities, which vary depending on the hotel. For example, they may cover wifi, phone calls, surfing lessons, yoga, cultural activities, etc.
The price can range from $10-40 per night, which can easily start to add up if you’re staying for a whole week. While a resort fee is a frustrating extra expense, unfortunately, there’s no way to get out of it. So, make sure to look up each property’s resort fee when preparing the budget for your vacation.
We also recommend researching exactly what this charge includes so that you can take advantage of the amenities and activities. After all, you technically paid for them! Many visitors assume that if hotels charge resort fees, they may save some money by renting a vacation rental or Airbnb instead.
Most of the time, renting a home can make your vacation more budget-friendly; however, be aware that you may still notice extra fees. For example, rentals are likely to tack on service fees, property-related vocational rental fees, cleaning fees, or administrative fees.
Don’t spend all your time in Waikiki.
As we mentioned above, the chances are very high that you’ll stay in a hotel in Waikiki at some point during your trip. However, one of our best Oahu travel tips is to also make time to explore outside of the touristy area. This way, you’ll get to experience quieter beaches, awesome hiking trails, authentic Hawaiian cuisine, and more.
Here are just a few of the top activities on Oahu that you’ll have to leave Waikiki to discover:
- On the Windward Coast, Lanikai Beach is often voted one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The sand is soft and powdery, and it’s a great place to go kayaking or paddleboarding.
- Kualoa Ranch, also on Oahu’s east side, offers some of the most popular guided tours on the island. It was also a filming spot for movies and TV shows like Jurassic Park, 50 First Dates, and Lost. We recommend the ATV Raptor tour, the Hollywood Movie Sites tour, or the Electric Mountain Bike tour.
- On the southeast coast, Hanauma Bay is one of the best places to go snorkeling on Oahu. This nature preserve is a great place for beginner snorkelers to see Green Sea Turtles, Triggerfish, Tang, Surgeonfish, Butterfly Fish, Parrotfish, and more.
- Waimea Bay, on the North Shore, is the perfect beach to visit as a family. While you can expect surfers here in the winter, the water is super calm in the summertime, making it ideal for swimming and snorkeling.
All beaches on Oahu are public land.
You read that right; there are no private beaches on Oahu or any of the Hawaiian Islands for that matter. In fact, the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court ruled that the public has the right to access any beaches or shorelines throughout the state below the “upper reaches of the wash of the waves” (HRS §§ 115-4, 115-5, Revised 2010).
This decision means that both locals and tourists alike share a common law right to visit all of Oahu’s beaches! Even if there are houses built along the beaches, you’ll always find public rights-of-way running between these private properties. There are only a small number of exceptions for certain federal government areas.
Be respectful of the land at all times.
It’s sad even to have to remind people of this, but you’d be surprised at how horribly some tourists behave while they visit Oahu–especially to the wildlife. When you’re at the beach, keep an eye out for signs that indicate when it isn’t safe to swim or when wildlife is nearby. You may see signs that mark rip currents, a strong current, dangerous shore break, slippery rocks, or no swimming.
It’s important to note that Green Sea Turtles frequent many of the beaches. Therefore, keep in mind that it’s illegal to touch or harass any of these animals. As a result, Hawaiʻi’s Division of Aquatic Resources recommends keeping a distance of at least 10 feet (3 meters) from all turtles.
Additionally, if you choose to swim or snorkel, be careful not to step on the coral. When you walk or stand on the coral, these actions can kill the living coral polyps. Another quick reminder: take all of your trash with you and don’t litter!
Please also respect “kapu” and “no trespassing” signs while exploring the island.
Don’t leave valuables in the car when beach hopping.
When it comes to violent crime, Hawaii is safer on average than the mainland U.S. However, property crime is much higher in the Hawaiian Islands. Essentially, what this comes down to is that rental cars and tourists are easy to identify.
To avoid becoming a victim, don’t leave any of your valuables in the car. Even if you’re just stopping to take a quick photo or run in a store, we always recommend carrying your belongings with you. If you have to leave something in your rental car, at the very least, make sure that it’s not visible.
Even when you’re on the beach, we suggest keeping an eye on your personal items. For example, if someone wants to go swimming and you’re in a group, make sure that one person stays with your possessions.
Pack reef-safe sunscreen.
One of the most important travel tips for Oahu is that sunscreen is an absolute must! Nonetheless, your go-to sunscreen brand may contain chemicals that are harmful to both the ocean and marine life. Just think about it: every time you go swimming, your sunblock washes off into the water.
Unfortunately, when your it contains chemicals such as oxybenzone or octinoxate, you can end up hurting the coral reef in the process. So, when purchasing sunblock for your vacation, make sure to buy reef-safe sunscreen.
For example, Sun Bum, Aveeno Positively Mineral, Thinksport, and TropicSport Mineral Sunscreen are all currently approved. If you’re ever in doubt, read the ingredients on the back to double-check that you don’t see oxybenzone or octinoxate.Or, if you buy your sun protection in Hawaii, you’re already good to go!
Hawaii recently instituted a complete ban on sunscreens with coral-harming chemicals. Therefore, all sunscreen available for purchase there is already deemed safe to the environment. If you’d like to buy skin protection that’s made in Hawaii, check out Kokua Sun Care, Mama KULEANA, Little Hands Hawaii, or Raw Love Mineral Sunscreen.
Pack water shoes.
If you’re planning to swim, snorkel, or even hike when you travel to Oahu, you won’t want to forget water shoes. We’ve had so many people ask us: do I NEED water shoes for a trip to Hawaii? It’s true that they aren’t necessary, and you can get by without them. Nonetheless, we think they’re a key item to have.
For example, at many of the beaches in Oahu, you’ll find yourself walking over slippery rocks to enter the water. We’ve seen so many people slip and fall or even cut their feet in these dangerous areas. So, instead of risking a possible injury, invest in some comfortable water shoes with good traction.
Apart from the sharp beach rocks, swimmers and snorkelers also have to watch for sharp coral reefs. For this reason, you’ll sometimes hear these shoes called “reef shoes.”
Even when you’re not in the water, anti-slip footwear can be great to have! Especially when hiking on Oahu, you’re likely to come across muddy trails. So, why not get your water shoes dirty instead of your nice tennis shoes?
Have some cash on hand for parking and other small expenses.
Most establishments on Oahu–particularly in tourist areas–accept all major credit and debit cards. Nonetheless, having a small amount of cash on hand can be extremely useful. To avoid ATM withdrawal fees, bring cash with you from home.
We suggest carrying a small amount with you each day–around $50 should be good. The great news is that you don’t have to exchange any money (if you’re American) as Hawaii is part of the United States. Therefore, the currency is the U.S. dollar.
If you’re wondering where you might need cash on Oahu, here are a few examples:
- Many mom-and-pop type restaurants or establishments will only accept cash. For example, Giovanni’s Food Truck is well-known as a cash-only establishment.
- If you plan to go on a tour of any type, you may want to tip your guide in cash. If you’re renting a car and plan to valet anywhere, you may want cash to be able to tip your valet.
- Some parking garages or beach parking lots only take cash.
- Many of the most popular farmers’ markets on Oahu only accept cash. So, if you want to purchase fresh produce, flowers, or food, make sure to have cash, especially in small denominations. At Aloha Stadium Swap Meet, for example, you’ll find a mix of vendors, some of which accept cards but many do not.
Make reservations for any sit-down restaurants in advance (when possible).
Oahu is a trendy destination right now; therefore, if you want to dine at some of its top restaurants, you may be looking at waiting in long queues. When possible, you’ll definitely want to make reservations in advance. If there are any specific places you’re hoping to visit, start researching if they take reservations at least a month out from your trip.
For example, The Pig and the Lady, Mud Hen Water, and Hau Tree are all beloved establishments that also take reservations. Nonetheless, if the restaurant you have in mind doesn’t take reservations, you still have options. Many visitors choose to order take-out instead of waiting in long lines to dine inside.
You can also order from certain popular restaurants on Uber Eats or GrubHub. However, if you’d still prefer to dine in, we strongly recommend dropping by at an off-peak time. You may have better luck showing up before the restaurant opens or an hour before it closes.
Don’t forget your hiking shoes.
One activity you won’t want to leave off your Oahu itinerary is hiking! For example, Diamond Head Crater is probably the best-known trek due to its proximity to Waikiki Beach. Other favorite Oahu hiking trails for tourists include the Lanikai Pillbox Hike, the Makapuʻu Point Lighthouse Trail, and Manoa Falls.
Or, for more of a challenge, don’t miss the Koko Crater Tramway Hike, better known as the “Koko Head Stairs”. With this in mind, you’ll want to make sure you have a durable pair of hiking shoes in your suitcase! In particular, water-resistant shoes with good traction are going to be your best option.
Always remember to check the conditions of the trail you’d like to hike online to make sure it’s open. Certain hikes will close on particularly rainy or muddy days. Additionally, the Hawaiian government constantly reviews the safety of its popular hiking trails.
When a trail is deemed dangerous for guests, the decision is made to close it permanently. For instance, this is the case for the Stairway to Heaven Hike and the Crouching Lion Hike. Do NOT attempt to hike these trails.
The winter in Oahu marks North Shore surf season.
Hawaii is in the Northern Hemisphere, just like the rest of the United States. Therefore, you might conclude that the islands experience all of the same seasons as the mainland. However, the Hawaiian Islands really only have two seasons: summer (from May to October) and winter (November to April).
While Oahu has a winter season, it’s not actually very cold, making the island a great destination to visit year round. For example, the average high temperature during this season is around 80°F (26°C). Nonetheless, whether or not you’ll be able to swim or snorkel is up in the air due to the enormous waves that occur during the winter months.
On the plus side, these legendary waves on the island’s North Shore attract some of the best surfers in the world. Additionally, many of the big surfing competitions take place during this season, including the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing.
Fun fact: if you’re not into surfing, winter is also the best time to go whale watching in Oahu. Especially during February and March, you’re very likely to spot Humpback Whales!
An important part of visiting Oahu is learning about traditional Hawaiian culture.
Visiting the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie is one of the best ways to learn about traditional Hawaiian culture. We highly suggest booking the Ali’i Luau Package, which includes an immersive cultural experience in the island villages, the Alii Luau Buffet with live entertainment and a lei greeting, and luau-level seating at the “HA: Breath of Life” evening show.
Hawaii, Aotearoa, Fiji, Tahiti, Tonga, and Samoa are each represented in the six island villages at the center. Here, you can take hula lessons, learn how to fish, and try your hand at playing the ukulele. Moreover, you’ll learn about other important Polynesian cultural traditions, dances, cuisine, and music.
If you’re planning to visit the Polynesian Cultural Center, book your tickets as soon as possible. Some of the VIP and upper-level packages sell out over 2-3 months in advance.
Plus, don’t forget that the center is also a great spot for souvenir shopping! You can bring home items made in Hawaii like clothing, jewelry, ukuleles, macadamia nuts, and decor. If you want to learn more about Hawaii but need an activity nearby in Honolulu, check out the Bishop Museum or Iolani Palace.
Remember to try authentic Hawaiian food.
Another awesome way to experience traditional Hawaiian culture is to try authentic Hawaiian cuisine! Some of the most popular options include Kalua pig, Laulau, Poi, Poke, Lomi Salmon, Squid Luau, and Shave Ice.
If you plan to be on the island’s Windward side, you HAVE to stop by Waiahole Poi Factory. This long-established joint in Kaneohe serves some of the best Squid Lu’au, Kalua Pig, Laulau, and Haupia on the island.
Helena’s Hawaiian Food in Honolulu is another well-known local restaurant where you can try favorites like Kalua Pig, Lomi Salmon, Laulau, Luau Squid, Poi, and Haupia. For poke, Ono Seafood and Fresh Catch are two of the best spots on the island.
You also shouldn’t leave Oahu without trying authentic Hawaiian shave ice! The best spots are Matsumoto Shave Ice in Haleiwa and Waiola Shave Ice in Honolulu. Make sure to try some of the flavors that are traditional to Hawaii, like lilikoi (passion fruit), haupia (coconut cream), li hing mui (sweet and sour plum).
Make a reservation in advance to visit Pearl Harbor.
When searching for tickets to visit the Pearl Harbor National Memorial in Central Oahu, the process can be confusing. Entry to the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, the exhibits along the harbor, and parking are all free.
However, you will need a timed ticket to go out to the USS Arizona Memorial. Now, you can only make official reservations for Pearl Harbor National Memorial’s USS Arizona Memorial Program via the Recreation.gov website.
While visiting this historical site is free, note that the website will charge you $1 per person to make the reservation (non-refundable). Upon receiving your confirmation email, either print out your QR code or take a screenshot of it on your phone.
Buy bathing suits and resort wear from Hawaiian brands on your vacation.
If you need a new bathing suit for your trip to Oahu, why not support local businesses on the island by shopping in person there instead? For women, check out Issa De’ Mar or Sundaze Bikinis. For men, take a look at Honolua Surf Co. They have locations in Ko Olina Center, the International Marketplace, and Hilton Hawaiian Village.
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This article was first published in July 2021 and has since been updated.