The capital of the tropical state of Hawaii, Honolulu is on the island of Oahu and is one of the most iconic cities in the United States. Home to legendary attractions like Waikiki Beach, the Royal Hawaiian Center, the Hawaii State Art Museum, and the beautiful beaches of the North Shore, Honolulu is a fantastic place to visit to immerse yourself in vibrant Hawaiian culture and enjoy the incredible nature and marine life this island chain is famous for.
What downtown Honolulu is not famous for, however, is being cheap. The Hawaiian islands have one of the highest costs of living anywhere in the US, and that's even more true in the biggest city in Hawaii. The price of everything from car rentals to food to activities to accommodation can be truly astronomical here, and there's really no limit to how much you can spend when visiting Oahu. For that reason, it's important to find ways to save money where you can.
Luckily, it is possible to visit Honolulu on a budget. All you need is a little advance planning, and you'll find it's possible to visit Oahu on a budget and enjoy cheap things to do, see, and eat when you visit Hawaii.
The first step to enjoying your time in downtown Honolulu is to travel light. Drop off your bags at a suitcase storage in Honolulu so that you're not weighed down and can enjoy all the free things there are to do here, as well as some affordable activities and accommodations that can help you save money on a memorable vacation.
Cheap places to stay in Honolulu
Hotels are usually the biggest single expense on any vacation, and that's definitely true when visiting Oahu. In this tropical climate, there are no real seasons and, therefore, no off-season. This is a desirable place to visit and live year-round. The average price for a night in a Honolulu hotel room is around $250, so it makes sense to try and save money on accommodation wherever possible.
If you want to stay close to major attractions like Pearl Harbor or Waikiki Beach, you'll pay a premium to be within walking distance of what you want to see. But Honolulu has many neighborhoods and a decent public transportation system that makes it perfectly viable to consider staying somewhere away from the center of the city. Staying in Honolulu neighborhoods can not only save money but can also help you see a different side of island life when you visit Oahu and live more like a local.
You could also consider taking advantage of vacation rentals. Often, renting an apartment comes with kitchen facilities, so you can make your own meals and save money that way. Hawaii homeowners are well aware they can make a lot of money renting out their properties to visitors, but there's enough competition in Honolulu to keep prices at least somewhat competitive.
If you do want to stick to a hotel in the city itself, you may still be able to find a bargain. Check out some of these affordable options for visiting Oahu on a budget for your Hawaiian vacation.
Polynesian Hostel Beach Club
If you want to stay close to Waikiki Beach - and given the option, why wouldn't you? - this two-star hotel provides a good option when visiting Hawaii. Situated right by the main sandy beach of the city and not far from all the beaches you'll find around Diamond Head, this hotel is also convenient for the major historic sites and a great place to stay if you want to be close to the glittering Pacific Ocean.
The location is definitely what makes this hotel worth considering, along with the affordable price. Staying here may not make you feel like Hawaiian royalty, but you really can't argue with the neighborhood.
Hawaii's tourist season lasts all year, but the end of December and the first week of January are generally the busiest times to visit Oahu - and, therefore, the most expensive. A room in this hotel just before Christmas can cost as little as $30 for a bed in a dorm. You can also get a semiprivate queen room for $70 a night. This room sits at one end of the dorm behind a locked door but shares a bathroom with the dormitory.
This is an unapologetically no-frills hotel, but you will find free Wi-Fi, a communal kitchen, a barbecue area, and a TV lounge. The front desk can also loan you a boogie board or snorkeling gear so you can head straight to the beach and enjoy some of the best free activities in all of Honolulu.
Waikiki Monarch Hotel
Ideally located for exploring downtown Honolulu and its best free activities, this hotel is a little more upscale than a hostel but still very affordable for an Oahu trip. If you don't mind being surrounded by tourist crowds, this is a great place to consider, as it's close to Waikiki Beach and not too far from the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. This is a more upscale neighborhood where you'll find great surf beaches and hula shows on Kuhio Beach, and the views of Diamond Head across the bay, plus proximity to Honolulu Airport, make it a tempting option.
In late December, you can get a standard room with a king-size bed for around $150 a night. The hotel has a fitness center and an outdoor pool, plus its own restaurant and bar. If you want to explore Oahu on a budget but still want to enjoy a little luxury on your trip, this is a great option to consider.
The Imperial Hawaii Resort
Situated next to Fort DeRussy Beach Park, this resort hotel is just steps away from the water. In December, you can get rooms for around $160 a night. There's a good selection of rooms here, including a studio with both a sofa bed and a Murphy bed that can sleep up to four guests for that low price. Alternatively, you can spend $220 on a room with a queen bed, Murphy bed, and sofa bed that will sleep up to six people. That makes this an excellent option if you're traveling in a group or a larger family.
The rooftop pool offers incredible views of the city, and there's also a hot tub and hot stone sauna. You can rent beach equipment from the front desk, and laundry services are available. There's even parking available for $35 a day, which is helpful if you have a rental car. In short, this is a well-equipped hotel and a great location at a very reasonable price, considering what it offers.
Cheap things to do in Honolulu
There's no point going all the way to Hawaii and not seeing anything. Along with accommodation, the cost of activities when you visit Oahu can quickly add up. But at the same time, you don't want to cheap out and miss out on some of the spectacular things to do Hawaii offers.
Luckily, having a good time doesn't mean spending a fortune. Oahu's incredible natural surroundings mean it's easy to have a great time in Oahu on a budget. After all, it doesn't need to cost anything to visit the beach or enjoy one of the many hiking trails on the island, and a day spent beach hopping for free could easily be the highlight of your trip.
A day pass for Oahu's bus system cost $7.50, plus two dollars for a reloadable card. With that, you have access to some of the best beaches the island has to offer. From Waikiki, you can head out to gorgeous locations like Hanauma Bay, Waimanalo Beach, Kailua, or the relatively unspoiled North Shore. This is a great way to see more of Oahu on a budget, and each incredible beach offers its own unique beauty.
It may not sound all that inviting, but Shark's Cove is one of the premier snorkeling destinations in Oahu. You can rent snorkel gear or even buy your own relatively cheaply and head out to explore the crystal clear waters close to Waimea Bay. In this unspoiled area, there aren't any stores, so make sure you bring your own gear and maybe some snacks and drinks to keep you going as you explore the warm and fertile waters off the island.
Royal Hawaiian Center
Perhaps the epicenter of traditional Hawaiian culture, the Royal Hawaiian Center is the perfect place to learn more about the traditions and history of the Hawaiian people. The center features exhibitions, storytelling sessions, and classes in traditional Hawaiian arts like ukulele playing, hula dancing, and lei making. Many of these classes are free, so you can go home with a new skill and a deeper understanding of Polynesian culture.
Cheap places to eat in Honolulu
Spam, anyone? The infamous canned lunchmeat was historically a big part of Hawaiian cuisine and still holds a place in the heart of many Hawaiians, but Hawaiian cuisine has much more going for it. Hawaii is a kind of crossroads of Pacific cultures, with lots of immigration from Japan and China as well as from the mainland USA, so you can find excellent food to eat just about everywhere here - some of it very cheap. Whether you're looking for the best street food and food trucks in Honolulu or just a cheap restaurant where you can hang out for a while, you'll find some good options here.
This colorful local chain is the place to come for the legendary Hawaiian plate lunch - featuring meat, rice, and macaroni salad. There are thousands of variations on that basic theme, and you'll find around a dozen on the menu of the Rainbow Drive-in, costing between $10 and $12 each. Not only is this a cheap meal, but it's a good way to eat like real Hawaiians do.
Musubi Cafe Iyasume
For more traditional Hawaiian cuisine mixed with the always-popular flavors of Japan, head to this cozy café and try the spam musubi. At less than three dollars a piece, you can afford to try a bunch of the different varieties they have on offer, and there are also udon noodles and the ubiquitous poke bowls here to help you eat like a local.
Although not the most charming location to eat, locals know that this chain of supermarkets is one of the best places to come for a poke bowl. You can order bowls to go at the dedicated poke bar and pay by weight, making this a great cheap option for a picnic on the beach.
Cheap bars in Honolulu
Thanks to the tourists it attracts throughout the year, Honolulu has a thriving nightlife scene. And while you can spend a fortune on a fruity cocktail at a bar overlooking the beach, there are also some cheaper options for places to drink and hang out in the city.
Proof that there's an Irish bar everywhere, even in a tropical paradise like this, Anna O'Brien's is a perennially popular bar with frequent live entertainment and great drink specials.
This neighborhood pub is a great place to eat and drink on the cheap. Taco Tuesday means $1.25 tacos and four dollar bottles of Corona, and on Whiskey Wednesday, you can drink Jim Beam for four dollars a glass. With $0.50 chicken wings on Sundays combined with drink specials every other night of the week, this is an understandably popular place in the heart of Honolulu.
Bonus budget tips for Honolulu
Take advantage of free activities: There are plenty of free activities in Honolulu, such as hiking, visiting beaches, and attending cultural events. Check local listings for free activities during your visit.
Cook your own meals: Dining out can be expensive in Honolulu, so consider cooking your own meals. Many hostels and Airbnbs have kitchen facilities, which can be a great way to save money on food.
Purchase a Go Oahu Card: If you plan to visit multiple attractions in Honolulu, consider purchasing a Go Oahu Card. This card offers discounts on admission to many popular attractions and can save you money in the long run.
Shop at local markets: Instead of shopping at tourist traps, consider shopping at local markets for souvenirs and gifts. Not only will you likely find unique items, but prices tend to be lower than at tourist shops.
Honolulu offers paradise — for a high price. However, if you take advantage of the great free things to do in the city, combined with cheap flights and affordable accommodation, you can have a great time here without spending a fortune. It all starts with leaving your bags behind at a convenient Honolulu suitcase storage, so travel light and enjoy everything the city has to offer — on the cheap.