Looking for some the best Oahu travel tips? Here’s everything you need to now before traveling to Oahu:
This post may contain some affiliate links, which means I’ll make a little money on anything you choose to purchase. But of course, I only recommend my absolute favorites to you. Thank you for supporting the brands that make Hulaland possible.
1.Oahu is the second oldest of the Hawaiian Islands. It was created by a volcano almost 3 million years ago. It’s also the second smallest of the four main Hawaiian Islands, but has by far the largest population at almost one million people.
2.It’s called the “Gathering Place.” Oahu is called the gathering place, because…well…it’s where the people gather! Oahu is home to a lot of people and it’s by far the most heavily visited of the Hawaiian Islands.
3.Hawaii was the 50th state added to the United States of America. Despite it being a US state, more than one person has asked me if you need a passport to travel there. You don’t. Also, when referring to the contiguous United States, you don’t call it “the states” like you would when traveling internationally. You refer to it as “the mainland.”
4.It may feel like a different country, but remember, you’re still in the US. Hawaii has a very distinct culture and its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean often makes it feel like a foreign land, so many visitors question how things are done. Here’s the deal, everything works like it does back home, except when it doesn’t : ) Seriously though, your phone service and everything works exactly like it does at home. But you will find yourself subject to the quirks of “island life.” Things move slower so relax and just go with the flow.
5.The Hawaiian Islands run on the Hawaii-Aleutian Time Zone. Hawaii also doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time so they’re 3 hours behind West Coast time (6 hours behind East coast time) when we’re on Daylight savings time, and 2/5 hours when we’re not.
6.Hawaii is a melting pot of cultures. Here’s some terminology for you: “Hawaiian” refers to anyone born with Hawaiian blood. “Local” refers to anyone born in Hawaii (except white people). “Haole” refers to white people and tourists in general. The term “kama’aina” is also thrown around which refers to anyone from or living in Hawaii regardless of their ethnicity.
RELATED: Not very familiar with Oahu? Read up on the lay of the (is)land and where to stay plus my favorite beach resorts, budget hotels, condos, honeymoon resorts, family friendly resorts, luxury resorts, and boutique hotels.
7.It seems like a world away but Hawaii is actually only a 5 or 6-hour flight from California. It’s 6 hours going to Hawaii, and 5 hours coming back from Hawaii. Honolulu International Airport (HNL) is the airport that you’ll fly into. You can get a direct flight to Honolulu from Newark (New Jersey), Atlanta (Georgia), Boston (Massachusetts), New York (New York), Washington, DC, Phoenix (Arizona), Dallas (Texas), Houston (Texas), Denver (Colorado), Chicago (Illinois), Anchorage (Alaska), Seattle (Washington), Portland (Oregon), and pretty much every major city in California.
8.Hawaii sits north of the equator, so its seasons match the mainland US seasons. Our winter is their winter, and our summer is their summer. Now, winter is a relative term in Hawaii, but it generally does mean more rain and higher surf (especially on the north shore).
9.Expect to pay more…for everything. This probably isn’t a huge surprise to anybody. The Hawaiian Islands are some of the most remote islands in the world and pretty much everything has to be shipped in. So expect to pay more for food, gas, and other supplies than you would on the mainland US. This doesn’t mean that it’s as outrageously expensive as you might think. As is the case anywhere, you can go luxury, or you can go budget. The choices are there for both and everything in between.
10.The resort areas are more expensive. As an extension of #9, generally speaking everything in a resort area will be WAY more expensive than on other parts of the island. On Oahu, this pretty much means Waikiki. Restaurants and bars will always be more expensive in resorts than in locally owned/independent places. Ko’olina is also a more expensive resort area.
11.Stock up on groceries for your condo or hotel room. If you’re looking to save a few bucks, or just need to pick up some essentials that you forgot to pack, you’ll have plenty of options on Oahu. There are a couple of Costcos, Walmarts, Targets and a variety of grocery store chains (including Whole Foods). And if you need a pharmacy/drug store, that would be Longs (this is a CVS/Walgreens equivalent). While thousands of miles away from home, there’s really nothing that you can’t find on Oahu if you forget to pack it.
12.Casual is the name of the game on Oahu. There’s really nowhere to go on Oahu where shorts and flip-flops won’t do. Even in the nicest restaurants, ladies will be fine in a casual sundress and sandals, and men will be okay with khakis and an aloha shirt. Tommy Bahama rules.
13.It’s a decent sized island, and expect plenty of traffic. As a general rule of thumb, just expect traffic everywhere you go on Oahu. It used to just be in and around Waikiki/Honolulu, but anymore there are so many tourists (and the roads aren’t always the greatest) that you can expect more crowds heading out to the north shore everyday and even over in Kailua. Basically, think about the traffic patterns of locals commuting in and out of Honolulu each day. So if you’re headed out to the west side in the morning, there won’t be any traffic going that direction since everyone is traveling into Honolulu, but by 5PM, it will take you quite a while to get out to Ko’olina. The same is true for the north shore and for Kailua. There’s not much traffic headed into those areas in the mornings because everyone is headed out, but in the evenings there’s not much traffic headed out because everyone is headed in. Just always plan extra transit time on Oahu.
14.You will need a rental car. A lot of people stay in Waikiki without a car, and while there is a trolley system within Waikiki and a public bus system around the island, I fully recommend renting a car. Hawaii is not an all-inclusive like destination where you’ll arrive by shuttle and never leave your resort. You’ll want to get around and explore the island. The best of Oahu is not Waikiki and if you only stay there (or even only rent a car for one day), I think you’re missing out. Factor in nightly parking fees in Waikiki though. And while a lot of people opt for no car when staying in Waikiki, if you’re staying outside of Waikiki, a car is an absolute necessity. I always book through Discount Hawaii Car Rentals because they have the best prices.
15.You’ll likely stay in Waikiki. Waikiki has something like 95% of all the hotel rooms on the island. If you want to stay on the north shore (love it there!), the only resort is Turtle Bay. Otherwise, you’ll need to do a vacation rental. Same with Kailua side. No hotels, only vacation rentals. You will find a few awesome resorts out in Ko’olina on the west side and it’s a nice place for a more quiet beach vacation (with much nicer resorts than you’ll find in Waikiki).
16.Winter means big surf on Oahu. If you’re visiting Oahu during the winter, you’ll be able to see some of the best surfers in the world take on some of the biggest waves in the world. The north shore of Oahu is transformed in the winter from sleepy little towns to an international surf mecca. Don’t expect to do any swimming or snorkeling on the north shore in the winter.
17.Be prepared for tourists. While Oahu has more visitors than any of the other islands, the majority of the visitors also have a very “touristy” vibe. Think loads of Japanese tourists pulling up in tour buses at Oahu’s most popular spots, swarming around, taking pictures, and then getting back on the bus to hit the next spot. While you’d expect this kind of scene in Europe or other destinations where you “tour” more than vacation, I was a little surprised to see it in Hawaii for the first time.
Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.
18.Oahu is a foodie’s paradise. In addition to having some amazing local food, Oahu also has some Hawaii famous places. Leonard’s, Ted’s Bakery, Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck, Matsumoto Shave Ice…so many places! Do your research depending on what kind of cuisine or food style’s you’re interested in and plan your trip around hitting some awesome food spots!
19.Reserve Pearl Harbor tickets in advance. Tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial are free, but they only give out about 1200 a day so it’s best to reserve them in advance (otherwise they may sell out or you may end up showing up at 11AM and not being able to get tickets until 4PM). There’s a small service charge if you book online, but you can reserve here.
20.Head over to Lanikai Beach. Easily the prettiest beach on Oahu, Lanikai is super tranquil and the perfect spot for swimming, sunbathing, and otherwise frolicking around. Located in a small neighborhood in Kailua, there’s not a lot of parking (you just grab a spot in the neighborhood wherever you can find it), but it’s such a lovely place to spend a few hours (or days!).
21.Snorkel at Hanauma Bay. If you’re an avid snorkeler, you will not want to miss snorkeling at Hanauma Bay. It’s a protected nature preserve, and you’ll pay $7.50/person for admission. It’s open everyday except Tuesday from 6AM-7PM, but once the parking lot if full, you won’t be able to get in so go pretty early. On nice days, it fills up by 8 or 9. Take your own gear or pay a steep rental fee (I think around $12). There are great facilities (restrooms, showers, lockers, etc.), a snack bar, a gift shop, and a little museum/exhibit.
RELATED: 15 Things to Do on Oahu
22.Experience some traditional Hawaiian culture. While there are plenty of cheesy, touristy things to do on Oahu (especially Waikiki), you’ve got to experience some traditional Hawaiian culture while you’re there (and I don’t mean the Dole Plantation or a Waikiki luau). Spend a day (or at least evening) at the Polynesian Cultural Center, or if you’re looking for something in Honolulu, check out the Bishop Museum.
23.If you want to see sea turtles but you’re not a snorkeler, head to Laniakea beach. Located on the north shore about four miles east of Haleiwa, Laniakea has quite a few rocks along the sandy beach that grow a certain kind of algae that sea turtles love to chow down on! It’s not uncommon to spot a half dozen turtles in the shallow water or even sunning themselves on the beach. There’s parking across the street, but you may have to park and walk a ways as this is a pretty popular spot.
24.Plan at least one nice dinner for sunset on Waikiki. Duke’s and RumFire are the staple, tried and true restaurants on Waikiki. For another laid back option, I also like Mai Tai Bar at the Royal Hawaiian. The food is lighter, but you’ll have a great view of the luau next door.
25.Get the Go Oahu Card. This 1, 2, 3, 5, or 7-day all-inclusive card will get you admission to some of the most popular spots on the island including the Polynesian Cultural Center, Kualoa Ranch, Hanauma Bay, Pearl Harbor attractions, Dole Plantation, Iolani Palace, Bishop Museum, snorkeling excursions and more! If you’re planning to do one or two big experiences, this card could save you quite a bit of money. Purchase it here.
Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! It’s always my goal to provide a TON of value to YOU. To that end, lately I’ve been packing my Instagram (@hula.land) FULL of content and adventures that you might want to check out. A lot of my post captions are like mini blog posts with travel info, I’ve got IGTV review videos for luaus and excursions, and helpful story highlights like grocery store prices and hotel reviews. Not to mention that my feed is pretty much the ultimate tropical eye candy! You can follow me here and share my account with your friends! Your support really helps me to keep this blog running!
Also, if you have ANY questions about planning your trip to Hawaii, you can join my free Facebook group here. I’m in there answering questions every day and there are 5000+ other friends who have a ton of Hawaii information to share!