Backpacking Hawaii – my Oahu itinerary and best tips

Backpacking Hawaii – my Oahu itinerary and best tips

4 January, 2020 6 By Amanda

Let’s get it clear directly – backpacking Hawaii on a budget isn’t easy, but, it’s definitely doable! We spent one week on Oahu and managed to experience gorgeous views, stunning beaches, delicious food and much more without breaking the bank. There are so many things to see on Oahu!

In the first half of this post, you’ll find my Oahu itinerary, filled with things to do on Oahu – and most of them are free. The second part of the post is full of information and tips on how to visit Hawaii on a budget, so you can afford to explore this beautiful place!

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Backpacking Hawaii on a budget - go on hikes
There are lots of things to do in Hawaii, even for budget travellers!

My Oahu itinerary – one week on Oahu

Day 1: Explore and relax in Waikiki

This will be your first day on Oahu and you’ve most likely travelled for quite a while to get there. Why don’t you spend the day relaxing in Waikiki? Here’s everything you’ll need for the day – a beautiful beach, shops (perfect if you’re looking for souvenirs!), tourist attractions (such as the banyan trees) and plenty of restaurants. Trying some Hawaiian food is a great idea, especially if you don’t feel like cooking after your long flight!

Beautiful tree in Honolulu
Waikiki is full of beautiful banyan trees.

If you have a car, I highly recommend driving to Tantalus Lookout just before sunset. The view over Honolulu is stunning!

Tantalus Lookout, Oahu. One of several free things to visit when backpacking Hawaii.
Drive to Tantalus Lookout to watch the sunset!

Day 2: Visit Diamond Head, Kapiolani State Park and Pearl Harbor

Get up early today and make your way over to Diamond Head to hike to the top of what used to be an active volcano. It opens at 6:00 in the morning but as long as you’re there before 8:00, you should be fine. Just keep in mind, the earlier you go, the fewer people will be there. Also, the heat won’t be terrible if you go in the morning!

You can access Diamond Head by foot, bus or car. If you need to park your car in the adjoining parking lot, you’ll have to pay a fee. When I visited in 2019, this fee was $5. If you’re visiting without a car, there’s a $1 fee per person.

Admiring Diamond Head, Honolulu, while backpacking Hawaii.
You can also see Diamond Head from the Kapiolani State Park!

When you’re done admiring the beautiful view of Honolulu, Kapiolani State Park is a nice place to visit. It’s pretty much right between Waikiki and Diamond Head, and a great spot for having a picnic.

Some people would suggest going to Hanauma Bay to go snorkelling after this, but I have another favourite spot on the North Shore. Also, it’s free – I’ll get back to it on Day 3!

In the afternoon it’s time to visit Pearl Harbor. If you don’t have a car, you can take the bus directly from Honolulu to the visitor centre.

Pearl Harbor Historic Sites
You can visit Pearl Harbor for free.

To be able to get the most out of your visit to the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites, you should pre-book your free tickets. You can also gamble and show up on the day, but there’s only a limited amount of tickets available each day. Read more about how to get free tickets to Pearl Harbor and plan your visit accordingly.

Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor
The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.

Day 3: Visit Dole Plantation and explore the North Shore beaches

It’s time for a road trip! Start your day at the Dole Plantation. If you’re a pineapple lover, you’ll love this stop. There are pineapples to sample and you can buy pretty much anything that has to do with pineapples. You can also pay to explore different attractions such as the Pineapple Garden Maze.

If you don’t have a car, don’t worry – the bus stops here as well.

Dole Plantation. Oahu
Make sure to visit Dole Plantation when driving to the North Shore beaches.

Next stop is Haleiwa. We strolled around this picturesque town for a while.

Halewa, North Shore, Oahu
In addition to the beautiful Nort Shore beaches, Haleiwa is also a must-see on the North Shore.

We also tried the Matsumoto shave ice. Delicious! We had it later on our way back down again, though – the next stop is snorkelling.

Shave Ice, Hawaii
Having shave ice in Hawaii is a must!

Head over to Shark’s Cove! If you’ve already had ice cream (and pineapple…) you might want to rest first. If you haven’t snorkelled before, I recommend reading these safety tips.

I loved snorkelling here. There were lots of colourful fishes, but a lack of people. Also, it’s free – perfect if you’re backpacking Hawaii! When we visited, the water was calm. However, be aware that there might be waves. It’s the North Shore after all – that’s what it’s famous for!

After Shark’s Cove, end your day at one of the beautiful North Shore beaches – see turtles at Laniakea beach! Laniakea is the perfect turtle beach on Oahu, we saw several turtles during our short visit. Remember to respect the turtles and give them space. When we visited, volunteers helped with this. They are also more than happy to answer questions about the turtles!

See turtles in Hawaii, Laniakea Beach
A turtle at Laniakea Beach!

Day 4: Explore the beaches on Oahu

After a rather long day yesterday, let’s have a beach day! You can either do Waikiki again, but if you’re like us, I recommend escaping to one or several of the other beautiful beaches nearby. We decided to take the bus to Makapu’u Beach where we spent half a day.

Makapuu Beach, Oahu
Makapu’u Beach is the perfect place to spend one day on Oahu.

We also walked the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail which is next to the beach – be very careful if you’re walking there from the beach though, since you’ll have to walk on the road which usually is really busy with cars and buses.

Makapu'u Point Lighthouse Trail
There are so many places to visit on Oahu – this is the view you’ll get when walking to Makupu’u Lighthouse.

If your looking for easy hikes on Oahu, this hike might be something for you. It’s around 4 kilometres and classed as easy.

We had been enough in the sun so we decided to end our day after the hike to the Makapu’u Lighthouse, but if you’re up for even more adventures, bring your bathing suit to the Lighthouse Trail as well – there are hidden tide pools if you wander off the main trail!

If you want to try another beach than Makapu’u Beach, Sandy Beach might be one to check out – especially if you’re into bodysurfing.

While you’re in the area, don’t forget to visit Halona Blowhole.

Day 5: Hike the Stairway to Heaven or up the Koko Head Stairs

After a relaxing beach day, it’s time for a hike! This isn’t just a regular hike, this is the hike. At least for my partner Fredrik, who had been dreaming of doing this hike for many years. Naturally, I agreed to join him hiking the Stairway to Heaven!

Stairway to heaven, Hawaii
Hiking the Stairway to Heaven is illegal – but there’s another way up.

You should be aware that hiking the Stairway to Heaven, also known as Haiku Stairs, isn’t one of the easy hikes on Oahu. We didn’t actually hike up the stairs though – that’s illegal and you’ll risk getting a fine. Instead, we took the legal backway through the Moanalua Valley Trail – which was really tough as well, and also quite dangerous in some parts.

If you’re looking for a shorter but still pretty tough hike, Koko Head Stairs might be something for you.

Koko Head Crater, Oahu
The view from the Koko Head Stairs is amazing!

Whichever hike you choose, remember to start early in the morning to escape the worst heat!

Day 6: Explore the east coast

It’s time to explore the east coast! A lot of people seem to forget about this part of Oahu, but I love it. The beaches are amazing, there are usually not that many tourists around and there are several beautiful stops to check out.

Lanikai Beach, Oahu
Lanikai Beach is a must when visiting Oahu.

The first stop is Lanikai Beach. It’s known as one of the best beaches on Oahu and it’s easy to see why. With gorgeous views and soft sand, this makes a perfect first stop on your way up the coast.

Ho'omaluhia Botanical Garden
This is Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden, on a rainy day.

Next stop is not far away – Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden. Unfortunately, it started to rain a lot when we arrived (told you, the weather changes quickly!), so we decided to drive on to Kualoa Point.

Chinaman's hat, Oahu
This is the view of Chinaman’s hat from Kualoa Point, Oahu.

From Kualoa Point, you’ll get a perfect view of Chinaman’s hat. Yes, that’s an island that’s named after its shape!

If you’re a fan of Jurassic Park and have some extra money to spend, check out Kualoa Ranch before continuing up the coast.

Giovanni's Shrimp Truck, Oahu
Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck is perfect for shrimp and garlic lovers.

When you’re almost done driving up the east coast, you’ll pass Giovanni’s Aloha Shrimp. If you like garlic and shrimps, you should probably try their famous shrimps. Although, I must say, it wasn’t exactly what we expected.

Relax at a beach for the rest of the day or why not go and see the turtles again at Laniakea Beach. Decide if you want to drive back the same way along the coast or if you’ll make a loop and go back via Dole Plantation. Both ways should take roughly the same time, depending on the traffic.

Day 7: One last day of backpacking Oahu

If you’re lucky enough to have another whole day for backpacking Oahu, I recommend thinking about what you want to get out of this visit. There are so many things to see on Oahu! Is there something that I haven’t mentioned in this Oahu itinerary that you’d like to do? Maybe you want to try some more food, go on another hike, visit more North Shore beaches, check out Waimea Valley or perhaps even visit a luau?

You don’t want to stress when backpacking Oahu, so having one extra day where you have nothing planned might be a good idea as well – perhaps it’s been raining during one of the other days? Leaving the last day unplanned is a great way to make sure you have enough time to explore Oahu, but also to relax and enjoy all the beautiful beaches Oahu has to offer.

That’s my Oahu itinerary – I hope you’ll enjoy it just as much as we did!

What to think of before you start backpacking Hawaii

Here are some tips on what to think of before going backpacking in Hawaii.

Backpacking Oahu

Before we booked our flight from Canada to Hawaii, we did some thorough research on what island to visit in Hawaii. Since we love exploring hidden gems and more remote areas, one of the other islands would probably have been better for us. However, Oahu seemed like a good choice when it comes to backpacking Hawaii. There are so many places to visit on Oahu! You can easily stay for one week on Oahu and have plenty of free things to do. Just the flight alone was way cheaper to Honolulu than to any of the other islands – the decision ended up being pretty simple for us in the end.

How to get around Oahu

Since we booked our trip to Hawaii several months in advance, we managed to find a good deal on a car for half our stay, 4 days. The other days, we took the bus wherever we needed to go. It’s very simple to use, but it can take a lot of time to travel between places. We only took the bus to places where we wouldn’t need to transfer, and explored places further away with our rental car instead. I can recommend renting a car if you’re planning on following my Oahu itinerary, since the bus to the North Shore can take several hours. That’s a lot of valuable time taken away from your trip and there are a lot of places to visit on Oahu!

Rental car on Oahu
Let me tell you, driving around Oahu in this car made me feel like I abandoned backpacker life for a while – but, it was the absolute cheapest rental car in Honolulu that we could find!

How to save money on a rental car

There are some easy ways to save money when renting a car. To start with, compare different companies and secure your car rental early. Before you book it, make sure there are no cancellation fees. Many people leave it after this and are happy with their booking, but you might be able to get a better deal! Check the prices regularly. If the price drops, just cancel the booking you made and make a new one. We’ve done this several times and it adds up – by doing this, we’ve saved hundreds of dollars, so far.

Another tip which can help you save money when backpacking Hawaii is checking the different types of cars you can rent. We ended up booking a convertible car instead of the standard option. It was the cheapest alternative during our days on Oahu!

Lastly, try to find a way to get around having to buy the rental companies’ insurance if it’s not included in the price already. This is how we’re saving the most money on the cars we rent here in North America. Look into if you might be able to cover the insurance for the rental car on your credit card or consider getting insurance from an external company.

How to get to Honolulu from Honolulu International Airport

You can pick up your rental car directly from the airport. If you’re planning on taking the bus instead, number 19 leaves just outside the airport and goes all the way to Waikiki. However, you should know that luggage is not allowed on board, which can make things a bit complicated if you’re not travelling with a relatively small bag that can be stored under your seat or put in your lap.

If you have luggage, you can either take a taxi or go with a shuttle service. However, when we visited, it was actually cheaper to just rent a car for one day at the airport.

Where to stay on Oahu

Book accommodation that fits the intentions for your trip. Do you want nightlife? Peace and quiet? Tourist attractions? Or maybe more of a local touch?

The choice was easy for us. Since we didn’t have a rental car for the whole of our visit to Oahu, we wanted to stay close to a bus stop. However, we didn’t want to stay in Waikiki, we prefer being away from the crowds. Instead, we rented a room in Hawaii Kai from a lovely family. They even taught us how to play the ukulele! This accommodation was actually cheaper than staying in hostels, which we usually do. The location was perfect for us – close to the beach, a quick bus ride to get to Honolulu and, of course, walking distance to the Koko Head Crater. Perfect for us hiking lovers!

Koko Head Crater View, Oahu
We spent one week on Oahu.

If you also plan to rent a car for at least part of your stay, consider staying outside of the busy centre in Honolulu – unless that’s what you’re coming to Hawaii for! Waikiki is a very popular spot for tourists – you’ll have the beach, shopping and restaurants pretty much right outside your doorstep.

I’ve been to Oahu twice, and the first time I didn’t have a rental car. That time, I stayed in Waikiki since that was the easiest place to catch a bus to explore other parts of the island. If this is your case as well, you might want to consider doing the same thing. Check if the bus goes to the places you want to visit before booking your accommodation. Luckily, a lot of the things to see on Oahu are accessible by bus, but remember, taking the bus on Oahu usually takes a long time.

Different accommodations on Oahu

Before booking our trip, we thought a lot about this question: should we stay in one place for the whole week on Oahu or perhaps book two different accommodations?

You could absolutely split your stay between Honolulu and the North Shore, especially if you’re thinking of staying at hostels. If you’re thinking of doing so, you might want to change the order of the days in my Oahu itinerary since it’s based on staying near Honolulu – you probably want to do all the activities in the south first before heading up to the North Shore for the second half of your stay.

If you’re backpacking Hawaii and looking for a budget-friendly place to stay at in Waikiki, both Polynesian Hostel Beach Club and Waikiki Beachside Hostel offer affordable accommodation in dormitories. Last time I checked, both hostels charged as good as the same price.

For the North Shore, I would go with Backpackers Vacation Inn and Plantation Village. It’s in Pupukea and right next to Shark’s Cove, which is one of the best spots for snorkelling on Oahu! Also, the North Shore beaches are amazing.

Backpacking Oahu – how to keep the costs down

Except for my previous tips on how to save money when booking a rental car, there are also other things you can do while backpacking Oahu to keep your costs down.

The number one priority is making your own food. You can save so much money by doing this. It doesn’t have to be every day, because Hawaii has a lot of yummy food to offer, but by reducing the times you eat out, you’ll save a lot of money.

Hiking in Oahu
When backpacking Hawaii, do things that don’t cost anything, such as hiking, to save money! This beautiful view is from the legal way to the Stairway to Heaven.

The second thing that we focused on during this trip, was finding free things to do on Oahu. There are more than you know! There are so many beautiful waterfalls, hikes, beaches and viewpoints that are completely free to visit. When backpacking Hawaii which, to be honest, is a rather expensive destination, free activities will definitely help you keep the cost down.

My last tip is for anyone thinking about using the bus on Oahu quite frequently – consider buying a day pass for the bus, especially if you’ll need to transfer buses when you explore the island. And, yes, the bus on Oahu is called The Bus.

Do you want more tips on how to keep your costs down when backpacking Hawaii? Read this post about how to travel for free or really cheap.

Backpacking Hawaii – my Hawaii packing list

Here’s a Hawaii packing list so you don’t forget anything you’ll need when backpacking Hawaii!

For the beach

You probably want to spend some, or quite much, time on the beach. The essentials to remember is sunscreen, a bathing suit (or two), a towel, sunglasses and a hat. I would also add a book and some aloe vera, which could help if you accidentally stay for too long in the sun. Remember to stay safe and seek shade regularly. You don’t want to get sunburnt – not only is it dangerous, but it can also easily ruin the rest of your trip! Believe me, I’ve learnt the hard way.

You might also want to bring snorkelling gear, although you’ll find plenty of places on Oahu where it’s available to buy or rent.

For the hikes

If you’re going to follow this Oahu itinerary, be prepared to do some hiking – Hawaii is too beautiful not to go on hikes! Pack comfortable and practical clothes for hiking and be prepared for all kinds of weather. Even if you think Hawaii is all about the sun and warmth (at least that was what we expected!), we ended up having rain several times. Luckily we did bring our raincoats, since we came from Canada where we had travelled for a year.

When hiking, your shoes are probably even more important than your clothes. Don’t go hiking in flip-flops as I’ve seen so many people do. One wrong step and your amazing trip could turn into a hospital stay! You might not need heavy hiking boots, depending on what hikes on Oahu you’re planning to do, but you should definitely bring something comfortable and safe. Lately, I’ve been hiking in my running shoes. They’re steady, comfortable and rather light which has been great when hiking in Hawaii since it’s such a warm destination.

For one of the hikes, the legal way to Stairway to Heaven, we brought microspikes – if you’re thinking about doing this hike, I definitely recommend adding microspikes to your Hawaii packing list.

Moanalua Valley Road, Oahu
I loved hiking on Oahu, especially with views like this one. This photo is from the legal trail to Haiku Stairs (Stairway to Heaven).

Also, remember to bring a backpack you can use for day trips. Fill ut up with some bottles of water, snacks and a first aid kit and you’re ready to go!

General packing tips

When backpacking Hawaii, or just backpacking in general, you usually don’t have much room in your bag for more than the absolute necessities. Before you close your bag to get on the plane, think it through one more time. Do you really need all those clothes? All the accessories? Or, my usual problem, all those books?

My last tip for your Hawaii packing list, if you’re thinking about taking the bus, is that you should bring some cash. The Bus doesn’t accept card payment and you need to give the driver the exact fare, you won’t get any change back. Here’s a link to check the current price for taking The Bus.

Backpacking Hawaii, or more specifically, backpacking Oahu is one of the highlights so far during our 16 months abroad. I hope this post has helped you prepare for your trip – have a wonderful time backpacking Oahu!

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