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Backpacking in Hawaii: Oahu on a Budget

I’d never given too much thought to backpacking in Hawaii. I always figured it’d be too expensive, but when the cheap flight gods revealed to me that the most cost effective way to get from New Zealand to Mexico was via Hawaii (and Las Vegas), we jumped at the chance to visit this iconic island destination.

Backpacking in Hawaii on a budget is actually fairly easy, but that budget obviously isn’t going to be as small as in other parts of the world. We ended up spending around $60 USD each per day, which isn’t bad considering we stayed in a private (sort of) double room a stone’s throw from Waikiki Beach and ate concerning amounts of burgers and buffalo wings. Here are some tips on how to go about backpacking in Hawaii on a budget (this is specifically centred on Oahu, as you can probably tell by the title).

Backpacking in Hawaii on a budget? Stay on Oahu!

Other islands in Hawaii might seem more exotic, but even though Oahu is heavily developed it still has most things you need for a great Hawaiian getaway. The beaches are nice, there are plenty of surf spots and there are volcano craters to walk around.  Staying in Honolulu is probably your best bet for cheap accommodation – we paid around $70 USD for a double room at the back of a hostel dorm. It wasn’t ideal but it was comfortable enough and even included all you can eat pancakes for breakfast, as well as free use of snorkeling gear, body boards and deck chairs (we stayed at the Polynesian Hostel).

Take The Bus

Oahu’s local bus service, conveniently called “TheBus”, is a cheap and easy way to get around the island. It costs $2.50 a trip and you can transfer 2 times on the same ticket, meaning you can get pretty much anywhere on the island for $2.50. It’s great value, and although the rides are sometimes longer than you’re expecting, there really is no other option if you’re on a budget.

Backpacking in Hawaii: Oahu on a budget

Cook your own meals (or eat fast food like we did)

One of the things I was looking forward to the most about America was all the unhealthy food on offer. We ate at a local burger joint called Teddy’s a few times, filling up on typical American junk food. We had planned to cook all of our meals but never got around to it, but with the free breakfasts and cheap lunches (we usually just bought sandwiches); we didn’t end up spending too much money on food. The hostel we stayed at did have a kitchen and we could have saved even more money if we had have cooked our own meals.

Backpacking in Hawaii: Dinner at Teddy's

If you’re spending a few days on Oahu you should think about checking these places out…

Hanauma Bay

Hanauma Bay is probably the most popular place to snorkel on Oahu. The only annoying part is having to watch a cheesy 10 minute video on environmental protection beforehand. Despite being packed full of people, you can usually find a peaceful place to snorkel among the fish and coral, and if you’re lucky you might see a turtle. I didn’t, but the variety (and size) of the fish was good enough for me. The beach is also really nice (if you can find a spot on the sand) and the view of the beach/water/reef from above is worth the trip there alone. You’ll have to pay $7.50 to access the beach and another $12.50 to hire a snorkel and mask – luckily we borrowed some for free from the hostel.

Backpacking in Hawaii: Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay

Diamond Head

The Diamond Head walk is a popular activity in Honolulu and offers up some great views of the coastline and city. There are some uphill sections but most people should be able to handle it – wearing good shoes is advised (but I never do that and I’m usually OK). The track winds up the side of an extinct volcano to a series of viewpoints. We walked to the start of the track from Waikiki Beach but you can also take a bus.

Backpacking in Hawaii: The Diamond Head hike, Oahu on a budget

Haleiwa

This place took quite a while to get to from Waikiki but it’s worth seeing. It’s an old surfing village and it still retains that laid-back, small town vibe. It’s full of old weatherboard houses, shops and cafes. It’s that kind of quaint little village that people (usually couples) go to eat and shop. Make sure you try the shaved ice at Matsumoto, apparently it’s the best on the island. There are also some big wave beaches nearby and a river where stand up paddle boarding is popular. Haleiwa makes for a great day out while backpacking in Hawaii, and there are also plenty of other beaches and towns further along the northern coast which we didn’t get time to visit.

Backpacking in Hawaii: Haleiwai, Oahu

Sandy Beach

Sandy beach is popular for surfers, but it’s also a good place to relax, go for a swim (be careful though as the water is rough) and walk around the coastline. There are some other beaches and coves in this area as well – we walked from Sandy Beach to a small secluded cove accessed by a steep track. I’m sure Oahu is full of spots like this and I’d love to have seen more of them, but Sandy Beach is a good place to start. Next time I go to Oahu (and Hawaii in general) I’ll hire a car.

Backpacking in Hawaii: Sandy Beach, OahuBackpacking in Hawaii: Hidden cove, Oahu

Waikiki

Waikiki is an extremely built-up suburb of Honolulu where you’ll find expensive hotels, shops, restaurants and bars. It’s a cool place to hang out but it does get crowded (and it’s not all that cheap). Thankfully there is also plenty of fast food available so you can find cheap food. The beach is great for an inner-city beach. The water is clear, the sand is bright white and there are quiet spots if you’re willing to look for them. Waikiki is an excellent place to base yourself while exploring Oahu on a budget (assuming you aren’t too choosy about your accommodation).

Backpacking in Hawaii: Waikiki BeachBackpacking in Hawaii: Waikiki

Pearl Harbour

We all know the story of Pearl Harbour (Josh Hartnett steals Ben Affleck’s woman while he’s fighting in WW2 and then the Japanese bomb an American navel base), so a trip to the scene of the crime is on most people’s itinerary. We went there but didn’t realise you have to arrive really early to get tickets for the USS Arizona Memorial (the most interesting part, apparently). I’ve heard you can also book these tickets online, so if you’re going to visit it’d be worth looking into that (they are free). We did manage to see the harbour and some old war ships. We could have waited around to enter the USS Arizona Memorial (they let some people in who don’t have tickets if those who booked them don’t show up) but the lines were long and moving too slowly.

Backpacking in Hawaii: Pearl Harbour

Old buildings in Honolulu

There’s a small section of Honolulu that still has a high concentration of grand old architecture. These palaces and administrative buildings are well over 100 years old. We went there quite late and they were all shut but it was a nice area to walk around while killing time until dinner.

Backpacking in Hawaii: An old building in Honolulu

Note: You can get to all of the above places by bus; you can even catch the bus to and from the airport (although they frown on oversize luggage). Check out the website for route information.

Have you been backpacking in Hawaii? Did you visit any other islands? Let me know in the comments below!

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.
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