Looking down at busy Hanauma bay in Oahu, Hawaii
travel tips

Oahu, Hawaii: what to know before you go


Contributing writer

With white sandy beaches, sparkling blue water, epic mountainous hikes, rainforest waterfalls, and all the tropical vibes, Oahu is truly a bucket list vacation.

It’s not only the most populous Hawaiian Island but also the most visited. In addition to the beautiful landscapes, Oahu is home to the historic Pearl Harbor Memorial, the world-famous Waikiki Beach, and some of the best surfing in the entire world.

I recently returned from the most magical trip to the island and I am excited to share everything I learned and wish I knew before visiting Oahu. I hope this list helps you to have the most amazing vacation exploring this beautiful island! Without further ado, here are a few things to know before visiting Oahu.

Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head in Oahu, Hawaii

1. Oahu can be expensive, but there are many free activities

It’s no secret that Hawaii is expensive. If you are worried about spending too much, be sure to make a budget beforehand and stick to it. We spent an unnecessary amount on food by going out for each meal, but you can save money by booking a stay with a kitchen and going to the grocery store for meal supplies. 

Tours, rental cars, and hotels can also be expensive so be sure to prioritize what is the most important to you. An oceanfront property? A whale-watching tour? Or that epic convertible rental car? Pick and choose wisely to stay within your budget. 

 Although Oahu can be expensive, there are many free things to do on the island as well. For starters, most of the hikes and beaches are completely free to explore (with the expectation of some requiring a small parking fee).

Other free attractions include the Hawaii State Art Museum, the downtown Waikiki walking trail, Friday Fireworks (in front of the Hilton Hawaiin Village), watching the surfers at Banzai Pipeline, and the Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden.

2. Flying between islands is extremely affordable

Getting to Hawaii from the mainland can be pretty expensive, but flying between the islands is so affordable. You can oftentimes find tickets for as little as US$30 to the neighbouring islands. This would allow you to check out more of what Hawaii has to offer via a short and affordable flight! 

This is important to know before visiting Oahu so you can plan your vacation time wisely and decide whether or not you want to split your time among the other islands. 

A convertible driving down a tree-lined street in Oahu, Hawaii

3. Rent a car

The island covers almost 600 square miles and there is SO much to see. By renting a car, you have the flexibility to explore every inch of this beautiful island.

There are of course many guided tours that will take you around the island, but then you are spending a great amount of time on a bus and you do not get to choose the amount of time spent at each spot.

4. Expect traffic

Okay… I don’t mean to start this off on a negative note, but Oahu is home to the third-worst traffic in the entire USA. If you know this before visiting, you’ll be prepared and ready for it. Because trust me, a 5-mile trip can oftentimes turn into a 40-minute ride.

If you plan your trips through downtown Honolulu or the North Shore around rush hour, you should have much better luck. Leave early in the morning, mid-morning, or after 7 pm for a much quicker ride. 

Do not fret though! The views, hikes, and beaches are 100 percent worth a little wait in a traffic jam!

The blue waters of Lanikai Beach with the Mokulua Islands visible in the distance

5. Go beyond Waikiki Beach

Waikiki beach is definitely the most popular beach on the island, but in my opinion, not the best. There are SO many other amazing beaches on the island. Even though you may be staying near Waikiki beach, I highly suggest planning beach days at other beaches

Lanikai Beach is just 30 minutes away and offers crystal clear blue water that is great for swimming and kayaking. Other notable beaches include Kailua Beach Park, Waimanalo Bay Beach Park, and Sunset Beach.

6. Book in advance

I’m a super last-minute traveller, so I did run into a few problems in Oahu. It’s a popular place and some of the main attractions sell out immediately (examples include: Pearl Harbor, snorkelling at Hanauma Bay, and hiking Diamond Head). Be sure to do your research beforehand and book these tours before arriving. 

If you miss the advance tickets, most of the attractions offer last-minute finds, but you need to snatch them immediately. For example, Hanuma Bay releases tickets two days in advance at 7 am and they are usually sold out by 8:00! 

Also, if you have your heart set on a specific restaurant, reservations would be ideal to ensure a table

Lush vegetation on the Manoa Falls trail in Oahu, Hawaii

7. Pack your hiking shoes

Even if hiking isn’t your favorite thing in the world, you will not be disappointed in Oahu’s hiking scene! From dreamy waterfall hikes, to beautiful overlooks there’s surely a hike that will fit everyone’s interests.

Some of my favorites from the trip were Manoa Falls (1.7 miles), Lanikai Pillboxes (.9 miles), and the infamous Koko Head Tramway (1.6 miles). 

8. Don't pay too much attention to the extended weather forecast 

Before this trip, I checked out the extended weather forecast and immediately started stressing myself out. It showed six days of straight thunderstorms all day every day. UGH. How was I supposed to hike, swim, and explore when it was lightning out?! 

I even considered rescheduling. 

But, out of the six days we spent there, we only had one day of rain. 

Oahu is known to be always raining on some parts of the island (typically in the mountains), but you can drive for 30 minutes one way or the other and find the sunshine. Even if it does rain, it’s warm rain so just pack your rain jacket and have fun!

People snorkelling in Hanauma bay in Oahu, Hawaii

9. Rent snorkelling gear for the week

As stated previously, there are so many beautiful beaches to check out in Oahu. You can save money (and time) by renting snorkelling gear for the entire stay and bringing it along to each beach! Snorkel Bob’s offers a variety of long-term snorkelling gear packages and pricing! 

Although many of the beaches offer great snorkelling, none are quite as picturesque as Hanauma Bay. This nature preserve is home to calm and shallow water and some of the most beautiful sea life in all of Oahu. It’s a great spot for families and beginner snorkelers as well since there are always lifeguards on duty!

10. Pack reef safe sunscreen 

As 1 January 2021, Hawaii officially banned sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate (otherwise known as non-reef-safe sunscreen).

Obviously, no one is going to be watching you put on sunscreen, but do the right thing and protect the beautiful reefs! You can find reef-safe sunscreen at all of the stores in Hawaii or on Amazon before your trip.

In addition to using reef-safe sunscreen, please respect this beautiful island. It’s full of so much history, cultural traditions, and natural wonders that deserve to be around for many, many years to come.

Pick up your (and others') litter, stay on the trails, do not touch wildlife, respect the local traditions, and never take home anything from the land.

An aerial view of humpback whales swimming in Oahu, Hawaii

11. Winter is whale watching season

If you're hoping to do some whale watching in Oahu, make sure to plan your trip between the months of December and May. The humpback whales travel to the warm Hawaiian waters each winter to breed and give birth to their new calves.

There are many whale-watching tours to choose from, but if you watch closely enough, you may even be able to spot some from the beach or a hike! 

If you're looking for a great eco-friendly and responsible whale-watching tour, check out Wild Side. Wild Side focuses on educating its guests while striving for sustainability. The guides follow strict environmentally-based business practices and the business gives back to the marine world whenever possible.

12. Try the food trucks

The restaurants are tasty, but the food trucks have some of the best food! They are also locally owned and operated so you are supporting small businesses while doing so! Do not be afraid to try a fish taco with some fresh Hibiscus lemonade! 

Oahu is known for having a plethora of food trucks everywhere you look. From the beach parking lots, to complete food truck communities, you won’t have to go far to find one. Here’s a list (with addresses) to some of the best food trucks.

People swimming and sunbathing on North Shore Beach in Oahu, Hawaii on a sunny day

13. Spend a day on a North Shore road trip

It may seem “too far” away, but a North Shore road trip is a must while visiting Oahu. The entire trip will likely take you most of the day (it’s about 80+ miles round trip from Waikiki Beach), but you will not regret it.

Stops along this road trip could include Waimea Valley, the ‘Ehukai Pillbox Hike, Banzai Pipeline, the Dole Plantation and Ka’ena Point State Park.

14. Go with a plan

This one may seem obvious, but it’s crucial to have a plan BEFORE visiting Oahu. There are so many things to do that it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Having a plan beforehand will ensure that you have time to see and do everything that is on your bucket list.

If hour-by-hour itineraries aren’t your thing, I suggest making reservations for Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor, and Haunama Bay beforehand (they are the most popular) and then leaving the rest of your Oahu Vacation open for last-minute adventures!

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Author - Jordan

Jordan is a former elementary teacher turned freelance travel writer and the founder and editor of the USA travel blog, The Homebody Tourist. She is an avid planner, road-tripper, dog-lover, hiker, and adventurer. Jordan strives to plan and share adventurous USA road trips, weekend getaways, and dog-friendly itineraries that are jam-packed with all of the best things to do with (or without) your furry best friend! 

Last Updated 9 March 2023

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