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Is Airbnb Illegal in Hawaii? How to Book Safe Vacation Rentals on Oahu

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Is Airbnb illegal in Hawaii? It’s a question that’s popping up more often now because let me tell ya…things are changin’! 

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.

In a nutshell, no, companies like Airbnb and Vrbo are not illegal in Hawaii, but certain counties (i.e. islands) are starting to pass legislation cracking down on illegal vacation rentals (ones that don’t have permits to operate). 

So, what’s the big deal?

Vacation rentals in local neighborhoods (I’m talking about houses and apartment units in neighborhoods, not condos in high tourism areas) have been a major problem in the last decade or so, but it’s starting to reach a boiling point. 

The rise in popularity of sites like Airbnb has resulted in a lot of property being bought by wealthy folks from the mainland (or internationally) and being rented out as short term vacation rentals to visitors. In addition to creating a housing crisis (it becomes much harder for local families to afford to be able to stay in the area), it also changes the community (i.e. more businesses and amenities catered towards tourists and less towards residents).

What does this mean for you? 

To get this problem under control, different counties (islands) have been passing (or starting to enforce) legislation that cracks down on illegal rentals. Lately, it’s been most dramatic on Oahu where there have been estimated to be as many as 10,000 illegal vacation rentals, but the other islands are turning their attention to cracking down on this problem. 

A lot of visitors are shocked that it’s even an option to book something illegal on Airbnb or Vrbo, but the truth is those sites are just marketplaces and it’s up to YOU to use due diligence to make sure what you’re booking is on the up and up. 

I’m not talking about shady listings where they’re trying to scam you. 99% of these properties are legitimate homes, apartments, ohanas (a separate dwelling on somebody’s property) either rented out by the owners or a property manager. Just like Airbnb works anywhere in the world. They range in price, size, location, and amenities. But they don’t have permits to be operating as short term vacation rentals and they’re located in areas of the island that are considered residential (we’re not talking condos).

In short…it’s always been illegal to rent a house on a site like Airbnb or Vrbo that didn’t have a permit (the majority of them), but now they’re enforcing it.

As the renter, (right now) you won’t get fined if the owner gets caught, but you could be left with no place to stay on short notice. So basically…if you’re set on alternative forms of accommodation besides a resort, hotel, or condo, you’ll need to read up on the zoning for each island and either pick something that’s in a zone that doesn’t require a permit, or pick something that does have a permit. I’ll be honest…there aren’t a ton of permitted short term vacation rentals on each island (outside of tourist areas where they’re mostly condos) so the ones you will find tend to be not super cheap. 

Here’s how this is playing out on Oahu…their official law is that short term rentals MUST have a permit to operate if they’re outside of preapproved tourism areas (more on that later). Short term rentals are currently classified as anything less than 30 days, but it’s soon to be increased to 90 days to close a loophole. 

The last work around people found was that they were able to rent out the property once within a 30 day period even if the stay was for less than 30 days (what many of the listings on Airbnb are currently for once you start reading the fine print), but this new move to 90 days will wipe that option out. So if you’re staying in a vacation rental outside of the tourism zones, it MUST have a permit. And that’s on you to investigate. Here is a complete list of permitted short term vacation rentals

I don’t want to scare you away from using sites like Vrbo and Airbnb, because they actually have amazing places to stay but I SERIOUSLY SERIOUSLY SERIOUSLY recommend only using them to book places in the pre approved tourist zones. 

On Oahu, those zones are Waikiki (the main tourism hub on Oahu), Ko’olina (a resort area on the west side), and Turtle Bay (a resort area on the north shore). Any rentals in those areas are legal to rent short term and don’t require individual permits. 

Highly sought after vacation rental areas like Kailua and Lanikai on the windward side or small towns along the north shore are the areas that have been most impacted by illegal vacation rentals so it’s going to be much harder to find legal rentals in those spots. 

Is this a major bummer?

I guess it depends on your perspective. In a lot of online travel forums and groups I monitor,  there’s a lot of grumbling about greedy corporations just wanting to make it more expensive to visit Hawaii, etc. That’s kind of not the point. 

Hawaii (Oahu in particular) has always been a highly visited destination. And not to get too heavy, but many locals feel like their land, culture, and lifestyle has been stolen from them (another story for another time). As deals were made with developers to build tourism-centric areas on the islands, high rise luxury resorts went up in places where families used to take their children on the weekends. 

Since Hawaii was becoming so dependent on tourism, maybe it was seen as a necessary evil. People staying in the hotels and eating at the restaurants and taking the tours made Hawaii’s economy go around in a modern age. 

And then things got more modern. I think the ease of finding information on the internet (hi hello there blog reader ; )  makes travel so much easier and accessible and innovative travel apps (Airbnb, Turo, etc.) really turned the travel industry on its ear. People seeking more “authentic and local” travel experiences now have major networks to find places that in times past would’ve been hidden gems spread mostly by word of mouth. 

In Hawaii, that looks like a MAJOR influx of visitors who are no longer happy staying in the tourism bubbles built for them, but want to have authentic experiences in local neighborhoods. 

Not too long ago, I read a post a lady had written on Facebook who was disappointed about the direction short term rentals are headed in on Oahu. She said she loves to experience “living like a local” when she’s on vacation. It was meant well, but all I could think was how tourists playing locals on vacation means that actual locals can’t live there. 

So many locals are forced out of neighborhoods where their families have lived for generations, if not off the island entirely. 

I really do understand wanting a more off the beaten path experience than what the big resorts offer. And in small numbers that’s still available in Hawaii (although it might not be cheap), but when the masses start leaving Waikiki and heading to the north shore or Kailua, it just doesn’t work. And a lot of frustration that locals have with tourists stems from them not being satisfied with the areas that were built for them and wanting to come into local neighborhoods instead. 

So all of this is just to offer another perspective. This isn’t actually limiting affordable accommodations on Oahu (there are sooooo many places you can stay in Waikiki for $100/night), but it’s limiting cheap accommodations in local neighborhoods. 

The Best Way to Book LEGAL Vacation Rentals on Oahu

I think the best place to find (and book) Oahu vacation rentals is Vrbo. They’ve been around forever and are probably the most reputable booking platform online (with owners and vacationers alike), which means that you’ll find more quality properties listed on Vrbo than anywhere else online. I used to book more often with Airbnb, but I’ve begun to find that they often don’t have what I’m looking for (especially when I want to book a condo/unit within a resort property). So all of the condo complexes I will be linking to are bookable within Vrbo.

Vrbo has an enormous amount of traditional vacation rental listings (condos in resort areas), but they also have so many options that are more “off the beaten path” in local areas. But overall, you’re going to find properties listed by owners who take their rental business very seriously and are committed to providing you the best accommodations possible.

How does it work? By doing a simple search by island (or specific area), you’ll be able to find a wide (price and type) range of accommodation. You can refine your search to fit certain criteria (part of the island, price, style, etc.) before you start weeding through specific properties.

The number of search results you’ll find by island can be extremely overwhelming, so I would suggest putting as many filters as possible (especially price and number of bedrooms) and then viewing the results on a map so you can get an idea for where everything is located.

In this post, I’m recommending several condo complexes (also called condo-tels or condo resorts) by area on Oahu that I think are good places to stay. I’ve also got descriptions of each area so you can figure out what part of the island is most appealing to you.

North Shore Vacation Rentals & Condos

Oahu’s famous north shore stretches all the way from Laie to Haleiwa and is what locals call the “country.” You won’t find a Target or Costco up there. But you will find gorgeous beaches (only swimmable in the summer), and sleepy little surf towns. The only resort on the north shore is Turtle Bay and it’s lovely. There are some condos situated in the Turtle Bay resort area.

Villas at Turtle Bay: Clustered around the main resort, these villas and condos are the perfect blend of the resort amenities (beaches and resort shops and restaurants) and the added comforts of a vacation rental (kitchen, laundry, etc.) Find specific condo units here.

Kuilima Estates: A bit further away from the resort and beach, this property is still very convenient with a beautiful location. Find specific condo units here.

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.

Ko’olina Vacation Rentals & Condos

This resort community on the west side feels a world away from Waikiki, but very much like a vacation spot instead of the more “local” Kailua and north shore. In Ko’olina you’ll find a Four Seasons, Marriott, and the big Disney resort as well as a small shopping center. There’s also a Target and Costco in nearby Kapolei. Otherwise, Ko’olina is a little remote from the rest of the island, which could be a good thing!

Ko’olina Beach Villas: The Ko’olina Beach Villas is a large resort complex that sits on its own lagoon in between the Marriott and Disney’s Aulani Resort. The pool is lovely and the units are large and new. Find specific condo units here.

Marriott’s Ko’olina Beach Club: This is the best option if you want a resort atmosphere while still retaining the amenities of a condo. Find specific condo units here.

Makaha Shores: Situated on a gorgeous beach on the west side, this is a much more local area and although a little bit removed from the rest of the island, it’s a good bang for your buck. Find specific condo units here.

Waikiki Vacation Rentals & Condos

Waikiki (a beachfront neighborhood in Honolulu) is home to about 95% of the island’s hotel rooms, so by default, it’s where most tourists end up. Waikiki/Honolulu is basically a big city on the beach. Think endless high rises, flashy shopping centers, all the major chain restaurants, and a million people. All of the major hotel chains are represented as well as plenty of budget options and even trendy new boutique hotels. But there are also a few condo properties that I like in the area.

Illikai Hotel & Luxury Suites: The Illikai is the best place to get the classic Waikiki experience. It’s got a great location, modern units, but it costs a fraction of the price as nearby resorts. Find specific condo units here.

Waikiki Banyan: This large tower is a couple of blocks from the beach, but many of the higher floors have ocean views. There’s a good sized pool and tennis courts. You’ll definitely get a city vibe staying at this property amidst the high rises, but the price is right. Find specific condo units here.

Still Looking for a Place to Stay?

Here’s one more really important thing you need to know before your Hawaii trip…

Reservations You Need to Make BEFORE Your Hawaii Trip

You’ve got your airfare, hotel, rental car and your big activities booked, so you should be good to go, right? Wrong!

Travel is BOOMING in Hawaii so a lot of state and national parks used the closure and reopening to institute reservation systems at some of the island’s most popular spots to make things a little more sustainable. 

That means that there are now over half a dozen sites (beaches, trailheads, etc.) that require advance reservations. And some sell out well before you arrive on the island so you really need to have some sort of a plan. 

I recently saw somebody in a Hawaii travel group post in a panic that they didn’t know they had to make reservations for things in advance…they thought they could just show up and “go with the flow.” I was tempted to say, well, “as long as the flow doesn’t take you somewhere that requires reservations, you can!” ; )

But I don’t want YOU to be that person, so I’ve pulled together a list of all the places you need to reserve entry in advance (plus all the details on booking windows, price, links, etc.) and a handful of popular tourist hotspots that book out really far in advance too. 

Haleakala National Park (Maui)

To visit Haleakala National Park for sunrise at the summit, you must make reservations in advance here

Reservations are required to enter the park gates between 3AM and 7AM (sunrise hours). 

Online reservations are $1 per reservation/vehicle PLUS you’ll pay the park entrance fee of $30/vehicle when you arrive (National Park annual passes are also accepted at the gate).

The reservation booking window opens 60 days in advance at 7AM HST. There are also a limited number of tickets released two days before. 

You can make one reservation every three days with the same account. So if you want to make reservations for back to back days (in case of weather/conditions), you’ll need to do so with separate accounts (email addresses).  

If you can’t get reservations for sunrise, you can enter the park anytime after 7AM without reservations. The summit is spectacular during the day and you don’t need reservations for sunset. 

I strongly recommend creating an account before and making sure you’re logged in at 7AM HST because it’s not uncommon for reservations to sell out quickly. 

Waianapanapa State Park (Maui)

To visit Maui’s famous black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana, you must make reservations in advance here

Reservations are required to visit the beach and are distributed in windows from 7AM-10AM, 10AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-3PM, and 3PM-6PM. And they are pretty strict about exiting by the end of your window time (you can arrive anytime within your window). 

It’s $5/person to enter plus $10/vehicle to park and those fees are paid when you book your time slot. 

Reservations open up 30 days in advance. 

Iao Valley State Park (Maui)

To visit the lush, green mountains and hike at Iao Valley State Park, you must make reservations in advance here

Reservations are offered for 90 minute time slots beginning at 7AM and ending at 6PM. They ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your time slot. 

Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park. 

Reservations open up 30 days in advance. 

Diamond Head (Oahu)

To hike to the top of Waikiki’s famous Diamond Head, you must make reservations in advance here

Reservations are offered in two hour increments beginning at 6AM (6AM-8AM, 8AM-10AM, etc.) and ending at 6PM. If you’re parking onsite, they ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your reservation window. 

Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park. 

Reservations open up 30 days in advance. 

Tip: I recommend booking one of the first two time slots because there isn’t much shade on this hike and it gets pretty hot. 

Hanauma Bay (Oahu)

To snorkel at Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay, you must make reservations in advance here

Entry times are staggered in 10 minute increments from 7AM to 1:20PM with roughly 1000 slots being assigned in advance every day.

Reservations can be made two days in advance and they open at 7AM HST. They’re usually gone in minutes (if not seconds).

If you’re unable to get an advanced reservation, you can try for a day of, walk in ticket. They open at 6:45AM and they only have a limited number available. Everyone in your group needs to be present when you purchase your tickets in person. 

There are no reservations for parking and it’s first come, first serve. $3/vehicle. 

It’s $25/person to snorkel at Hanauma Bay (12 and under, active military, and locals with HI ID are free).

The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open Wednesday through Sunday (CLOSED MONDAY AND TUESDAY) from 6:45AM-4PM. Last entry is at 1:30PM, the beach is cleared at 3:15PM and you have to leave the facility by 4PM. 

Jellyfish patterns can also affect whether or not the bay is open so double check the day before/day of. 

USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor (Oahu)

If you want to take the boat tour at Pearl Harbor out to the USS Arizona, it’s recommended to make advance reservations here

Online reservations are guaranteed a specific boarding time to go out to the USS Arizona. If you’re unable to get an advance reservation, you can wait standby when you arrive. The line could be short (15 minutes or so) or long (hours) and it just depends on the day (if they’re having problems with the loading dock sometimes they don’t take many from the standby line) and the time of day. 

Reservations are supposed to open up 60 days in advance, but keep an eye on your exact dates, because lately they’ve actually been opening up about 57ish days in advance???

They also release a small batch of tickets the day before. 

The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is free, but it’s $1 to make the reservations online. 

They recently started charging $7/vehicle for parking at Pearl Harbor. 

Haena State Park / Kalalau Trail (Kauai)

If you want to hike Kauai’s famous Kalalau Trail, you must make advance reservations here

You’ve got three options here: 

1) Parking & Entry: This is the most flexible option and also the most limited. THESE RESERVATIONS SELL OUT IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. There are three time slots available: 6:30AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-5:30PM and 4:30PM to sunset. You can purchase multiple time slots if you want to stay longer. It’s $10/timeslot (parking) plus $5/person and you have to reserve every person when you initially book. Everybody has to arrive in the same car and your ID needs to match the reservation. 

2) Shuttle & Entry: If you can’t get parking at the trailhead, there’s also a shuttle option. Shuttle reservations are $35/person (16+), $25/person (ages 4-15), 3 and under can ride free. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes 6:20AM to 6:40PM.

3) Entry Only: If you’re a Hawaiian resident (with HI ID) or someone WITH a Hawaiian resident, you can purchase entry only for $5/person with no advance reservations. Also, if you’re walking or biking to the trailhead you can do this option. But there is NOWHERE to park in the area to walk in. So this really only works for those with bikes or who are staying close enough to walk. They will tow your car if you park outside the designated areas. 

The reservation window opens 30 days in advance at 12AM HST. The parking & entry option usually sells out in a minute, but the shuttle availability will last longer. 

There are a TON of FAQs here including the possibility of snagging a canceled reservation. 

Other Things to Book in Advance

Hawaii is a busy place these days! Besides the state and national parks above, here’s a handful of miscellaneous things you should make reservations for in advance (if they’re on your radar):

Mama’s Fish House (Maui): The iconic spot is the most popular restaurant in Hawaii and they’ve been opening reservations (and selling out) 4-6 months in advance. You can call and get on the waitlist for one day or you can set notifications on OpenTable to alert you for cancellations every day of your trip. Most people have pretty good success on OpenTable. 

Old Lahaina Luau (Maui): Honestly, any luau you’re planning to attend you should book early, but most people are usually shocked how far out the Old Lahaina Luau books out. Book it as soon as you know your dates (I think they open at the six month window). They also have a waitlist. 

Kualoa Ranch UTV Tour (Oahu): Everybody loves Jurassic Park so getting to ride UTVs where they filmed the movies is very popular. The ranch offers a lot of different tours but the UTV tours usually book out a couple of months in advance. 

Spa Reservations: If you’re staying at a resort with a spa (or planning on visiting one), don’t wait until you arrive to make your reservations. I’d make them at least a month in advance. 

Tee Times: Same for golf, reserve your tee times well in advance. 

Dining Reservations: Any “fancy” or resort restaurant is likely to be booked up these days so if you like having a nice dinner every night, make your plans in advance. 

Want to read more? Don’t miss some of my most popular (and favorite) posts about Oahu:

If you’re trying to figure out where to stay, you’re going to want to look at my favorite boutique resort in Waikiki and the lowdown on where to stay on Oahu besides Waikiki. Plus I’ve got the scoop on how to avoid illegal vacation rentals and a roundup of where to stay in Ko Olina and reviews of the Laylow and Disney’s Aulani Resort. And a LOT more on Aulani like is Aulani worth it?, tips for staying at Aulani, how many days to spend, and the best things to eat and drink at Aulani

If you’re researching luaus on Oahu, I’ve written quite a bit. First, I’ve got a full breakdown of the best luaus (and the worst) on Oahu. Then I’ve got complete reviews of Paradise Cove, the Polynesian Cultural Center, and Aulani’s Ka Wa’a Luau. And if you’ve narrowed it down to the top two most popular on the island and still can’t decide, here’s Paradise Cove vs Polynesian Cultural Center

If you’re trying to put together an itinerary full of the best things to do, take a look at my best 5 day itinerary, and roundups of the best things to do in Waikiki, “secret” things to do on Oahu, plus my favorite things to do in Kailua and the windward coast, in Ko Olina, and on the north shore. And if you’re looking for food recommendations, I’ve got the best restaurants in Ko Olina and where locals eat in Waikiki

And last but not least, some of my favorite things on Oahu like Jurassic Park at Kualoa Ranch, Shangri La and the Honolulu Museum of Art, tips for visiting Pearl Harbor, easy hikes on Oahu, and the best spas on Oahu. And everything you need to know BEFORE you go to Oahu.

P.S. Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! If you have ANY questions about planning your trip to Hawaii, you can join my free Facebook group here. I’m there answering questions every day and there are 7500+ other friends who have a ton of Hawaii information to share!

Also, if you want to follow along on my travel adventures in real time, you can follow me on Instagram (@caitylincoln). My post captions are full of travel tips and I have a ton of story highlights and videos with great info. And please share my account with your friends that are headed to Hawaii! Your support really helps me keep this blog running!