With its clean air, constant sunshine, and ocean breezes, it’s no wonder most think of Hawaii as a tropical paradise. But being a group of archipelago islands in the Pacific Ocean, it’s also one of the most remote places. The remoteness comes at a cost because everything is imported, making Hawaii an expensive place to live and visit.
Waikiki Beach and Honolulu can be compared with metropolitan cities like Vancouver and San Francisco when it comes to housing. While things cost a significant amount, there are some inexpensive things to do in Oahu and free options.
Saving money while traveling doesn’t mean I have to sacrifice enjoyment. There are always ways to stay within a travel budget but have a great time. During my last vacation to Hawaii, a 12-day Hawaiian cruise from Vancouver combined with a 4-day stay on Oahu.
I researched how to save money and visit major attractions. In the end, I purchased a Go City Oahu Card which gave me admission to many popular places on Oahu. By buying the card, I saved money but still enjoyed cheap Oahu activities.
Whether or not you purchase a pass, there are many options to do things on Oahu that are free and other cheap activities. If it’s your first trip to Hawaii, here is a list of cheap Oahu activities that are still fun.
Climb Diamond Head
One of the most beautiful views of Honolulu is from the top of Diamond Head crater. It costs USD 5 per car or USD 1 per person, and payment can only be made in cash. The Diamond Head State Monument is open from 6 am to 6 pm daily. Also, the last access to the state park closes at 4:30 pm.
More To Enjoy In Hawaii:
● A visitors guide to Pearl Harbor, a must-see in Oahu.
● Oahu or Maui, which island is better for me?
It’s important to note the trail winds up a mountain where there is no shade. For this reason, most hikers arrive in the early hours. Then, the round-trip hike is possible before the sun’s rays become unbearable. If you plan to arrive early, expect a crowded trail. Wear comfortable walking shoes, bring a refillable water bottle, a hat, and some sunscreen.
Most guides recommend a hiking time of 1-1/2 to 2 hours round trip. I made many stops to take lots of photos and catch my breath. Yet, I completed the round-trip hike in 1 hour and 10 minutes (and I’m no spring chicken, lol).
Also, be prepared for weather changes during the trek. I hiked early in the morning, and it showered a few times, making the trail slippery for the hike down. While the showers were refreshing, they’re not suitable for expensive cameras. So, it’s best to bring a rain sleeve to protect your costly investment.
While Oahu has numerous amazing hiking trails, this one is close to Waikiki. At USD 1 per person, not only is this one of the most inexpensive things to do in Oahu, but also one of the most rewarding.
Meditate At The Byodo-In Temple
The Byodo-In Temple is situated at the foot of the soaring Ko’olau Mountains in the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park. On several trips to Oahu, I tried to find this temple without success.
On my third trip and with the help of my GPS, I finally found it. It’s no wonder I couldn’t find it because it’s hidden at the back of a cemetery with no signage on the street to indicate its existence.
The admission cost is a bargain at just USD 5, and I’d have to say, this was one of the most amazing places I’ve seen in Oahu and well worth a visit. If you have a car, this should be top of your list of cheap things to do in Oahu.
The red temple is impressive and looks striking against the lush green mountains that shield it. The Oahu Temple is a smaller-scale replica of the over 950-year-old Byodo-In Temple in Uji, Japan.
The temple was constructed without the use of nails, and to mark the 100th anniversary of the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii.
The temple is surrounded by stunning gardens and a large koi pond. Near the gift shop, the majority of koi gather, waiting for the visitors to feed them. These are the largest and hungriest koi I’ve seen. My three bags of koi fish food didn’t last long, lol.
Take A Bike Tour Of Waikiki
Like many metropolitan cities, Honolulu has a bike share program called Biki. Launched in late June 2017, Biki has 1,300 bikes at 130 conveniently located self-service “Biki Stops” throughout downtown Honolulu, many of them near major hotels.
Sign up online, download their app, and purchase a rider plan. Plans include a $15 monthly, which includes unlimited 30-minute rides in a month, a USD 20 free spirit plan consisting of 300 minutes of riding time, and a USD 25 monthly fee for unlimited 60-minute rides in a month. Alternatively, you can purchase a USD 3.50 single ride use, for a quick trip around town.
If you don’t have a rental car during your vacation, the Biki bike share gives you the mobility to travel a little further and do an excellent tour of Waikiki. Renting a Biki bike is one of many inexpensive things to do in Oahu.
See A Botanical Gardens And Waterfall
If you love tropical plants, then visiting Lyon Arboretum is a must. The botanical garden is amazingly fragrant, with a plethora of Hawaiian species that will excite any nose.
While the Arboretum is free, it does suggest a donation of $5. The University of Hawaii runs the beautiful garden as a research center. Allow a couple of hours to enjoy the trees and tropical plants and a hike to Moana Falls. There are plenty of walking trails, but signage is limited.
Eat Dole Whip At The Dole Plantation
Located on the north shore of Oahu, the Dole Plantation is a favorite place for tourists. There is plenty of parking for private vehicles and multiple bus tours that stop here if you don’t have a rental car. While admission is charged for some areas, it can still be one of the better inexpensive things to do in Oahu.
The Dole Plantation is very “commercialized,” but some aspects appeal to both families and adults. The little ones will enjoy the “Pineapple Express,” a train that circles the plantation. Also, the maze is popular for both the young and old.
While I did not ride the train, walk the maze, or take the paid garden tour, I did enjoy seeing the stunningly colorful eucalyptus trees at the entrance. I also walked around the pineapple planting areas to see the different pineapple species, which was quite fascinating.
There are lots of plaques to read about the growing process too. These areas were all free. After a stroll through the gardens, be sure to visit the store to purchase a Dole Whip. A pineapple-flavored whipped ice cream.
Be Humbled By The USS Arizona Memorial
No visit to Oahu is complete without a visit to the Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor. Not only is this one of the best inexpensive things to do in Oahu, but it’s also one of the free things to do in Oahu. While the admission is complementary to the memorial, you need a time slot to enter, and these fill up fast.
It’s best to arrive early in the morning and get your free tickets, then browse the other areas of Pearl Harbour before returning for your ticketed time.
The memorial is built over the top of the sunken USS Arizona and marks the resting place of the 1102 sailors killed on Arizona. To visit the monument, you must first watch a film that shows the events that lead up to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941.
As you tour the memorial, look out into the water because oil from the sunken battleship is still visibly leaking from its hull.
I last visited Pearl Harbor in May 2019. During that time, the Arizona Memorial was inaccessible due to dock damage. The park repaired the dock, and subsequently, the memorial reopened to visitors in September 2019. While it was closed, I boarded a boat for a sail by the memorial and up to the USS Missouri Battleship. Onboard, visitors learn about the events that happened that fateful day in 1941.
Pay Your Respects To War Heroes
Raised in a military family, the Cemetery of the Pacific was a must for me. It’s also an integral part of Pearl Harbour. Perched on a hill, this spectacular cemetery offers impressive views of Honolulu and Diamond Head.
While pictures online can show the cemetery’s serene setting, they cannot capture the humbling feeling of reading all the names of women and men who lost their lives serving their nation.
The cemetery grounds are immaculately kept, and the trees that shoulder the central roadway are amazing. The setting is picturesque as the cemetery is set in the caldera of an extinct volcano. While this is not a common place for tourists to visit, it is a place that touched me deeply.
Spend some time reading the names on the gravestones, walk up to the chapel, and learn the significant war history displayed on intricate mosaics on the walls surrounding the chapel. But most of all, pay your respects to all those that gave their lives for their country.
While the admission is free, it’s best to visit by car as bus tours don’t stop in the cemetery. During my three visits to Hawaii, I had visited the National Cemetery several times. Nothing really prepared me for the very first time.
After spending some time walking the grounds, I noticed a group of men in military regalia gathering near the chapel. They proceeded to carry a casket draped in the United States of America flag. It was apparent this was a military funeral. With only one family member present, a woman, I still remember the haunting feeling as the “Taps” was played on a single bugle.
Watch A Torch Lighting And Free Hula Show
Unlike metropolitan cities that have electric street lights, gas torches light a part of downtown Honolulu. These torches add ambiance to the streets at night and an understanding of why Hawaii is called the “Islands of Love.”
On my first vacation to Oahu, I wondered how these torches were lit at night. I assumed someone flicked a switch and the flames came on automatically.
However, one night, while waiting for dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, I saw a scantily dressed man running through the street, lighting the torches one by one. I soon learned this is a ritual in Waikiki and one everyone should see.
In May 2019, I saw another lighting ritual in the Royal Hawaiian Center. During the summer, the O Nā Lani Sunset Stories starts at 7 pm as the torchbearers parade into the center court, blowing a horn.
After they light the torches in the courtyard, immerse yourself in the fantastic performance told through Hawaiian and Polynesian song and dance. This free hula show is popular, so take the time to see it one evening during your Hawaiian vacation.
There are many places in Honolulu to see the lighting of the torches. So, add this to your list of inexpensive things to do in Oahu.
Sample Coffee And Nuts
No visit to Hawaii is complete without sampling some Kona coffee and eating some macadamia nuts. What better way to sample than to visit a farm? I have stopped at the Tropical Farms Macadamia Nuts on #83 Kamehameha Hwy a few times on Oahu. This farm is right on the highway with plenty of parking.
It offers visitors free samples of the world-famous Kona coffee and tasty macadamia nuts. Gone are the days of just lightly roasted with salt. Today, macadamia nut samplings include Maui onion and garlic, Kona coffee glazed, caramel glazed, and honey glazed, to name a few. My favorite was the cinnamon glazed which I could have quickly eaten a whole bag, lol.
If you’re looking for a unique gift, the farm also offers a variety of inexpensive gifts that include local jewelry, scented oils, and lotions, as well as jams and preserves. During your visit, be sure to go through the back of the shop, which backs onto the farm area.
The farm has plenty of wild chickens who beg to be fed by breaking some of the macadamia nuts with a rock. Be warned; these chickens are quite aggressive in trying to get their fair share. The adults will fly up onto the wooden stump as you try to break the nuts.
Browse The International Market
For many years, visitors to Honolulu have enjoyed browsing the International Market in the downtown area, looking for that unique souvenir. The market is open for extended hours, and many of the stalls have been operating by the same families for generations.
In recent years, the market was closed and replaced by a sizeable Metropolitan mall with many name brands not unique to Hawaii. While it is disappointing to see many of the tented stalls gone, there is still a small strip of outdoor vendors selling inexpensive souvenirs.
During my last trip, I stayed close to the market, so I walked through it every night on my way to dinner. If you find anything you like, don’t be afraid to haggle with the vendors to get a better price.
Climb The Aloha Tower
The Aloha Tower, Waikiki stands as a welcoming beacon to visitors coming to Honolulu through its harbor just 15 minutes from Waikiki Beach. Most don’t know that you can ride the elevator to the observation deck on the tenth floor for spectacular panoramic views of the harbor and cityscape.
Visitors are allowed entrance to the observation deck from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm daily. With no entrance fee, this cheap Oahu activity is a must!
Built in 1926, the tower still has a vintage art deco feel. If you are cruising into Honolulu Harbour, the Aloha Tower will stand out among the city landscape. Browse the local shops in the shopping center or have a bite to eat at one of the restaurants.
Watch Free Fireworks
Nothing can be more perfect than ending a day in paradise than watching a sunset and fireworks. Every Friday night, the Hilton Hawaiian Village hosts a complimentary fireworks show over Waikiki Beach. The Beach offers plenty of spots for viewing the 10 minutes show, which starts between 7:45 and 8 pm, depending on the time of year.
Do note; that the show is not viewable from every area of Waikiki Beach. The optimal viewing spots are near the Hilton Hawaiian Village and on the beach area by Outrigger Reef on the Beach.
Another option to see the fireworks is from the water. Some local tour operators sell firework cruises, except these won’t be part of the cheap Oahu activities.
Enjoy The Sunset With A Loved One
Since you’re vacationing on the “Islands of Love,” what better way to end your day than watching a Pacific sunset on the beach. Grab a Mai Tai or a Blue Hawaii and head out to Waikiki Beach with a loved one.
Is there anything better than watching the orange glow of the sun reflecting off the water, feeling the tropical breezes on your faces, and listening to the tranquilizing sounds of the ocean waves?
If you have a car, head over to Ala Moana Beach Park for a more picturesque view of the sunset. This is a far more romantic spot and void of the large crowds on Waikiki Beach. Head out to the end of Magic Island to watch the sun lower behind the palm trees.
Saving Money On A Hotel
For less expensive accommodation, choose a hotel a few blocks from the beach. Ones without beach views and fewer amenities can save you hundreds of dollars. The Waikiki Sand Villa Hotel and Ohana Waikiki East by Outrigger, both offer reasonably priced rooms with a short walk to Waikiki Beach.
Happy travels ~ Karen