The Aloha spirit, ideal temperatures year-round, amazing beaches, and incredible natural scenery– it’s no wonder Hawaii is known as paradise. If you’ve committed to vacationing in Hawaii, chances are you’re planning on checking out Oahu.
If you’re looking for recommendations on things to do in Hawaii or just searching for general tips to make your first time in Hawaii better, I am here to help. Being from California, situated so close to the islands, I’ve been to the Hawaiian Islands a total of 8 times thus far.
I absolutely love the island of Oahu for its liveliness, good food, adventurous opportunities, and general lack of mosquitos (for the most part). And I’m sure you will too!
This post reveals my top Oahu tips for first-timers. I hope this post prepares you well and helps you make the most of your trip while saving you some money as well.
Please note: This post contains affiliate links. You won’t be paying a cent more for any of your purchases, but the small affiliate commission I receive will help keep the content coming to you. Thanks!
WHEN TO GO TO OAHU
Honestly, I’d argue that it’s always a good time to go to Hawaii. It’s actually warm and sunny year-round, though there might be rain in the forecast some days. In the summer, the weather in Hawaii is warm, dry, and hot. In the winter, it’s warm and slightly more humid.
During the winter months (December to February), people flock to the islands to escape the cold of their hometowns and to get a bit of sun instead. Peak season runs from December to April. Throughout the rest of the year, things slow down a bit with a second spike during the summer months.
Having said that, the “best time to visit” is between April to May and September to November when getting there is a bit cheaper and the temperatures aren’t quite as hot or humid.
Avoid peak season where hotel rooms and flights will be at their most expensive. Keep an eye out for cheaper flights and discounted hotel rooms in late January, February, May, September, and October.
CAR RENTALS IN OAHU
I highly recommend renting a car.
If you plan on exploring parts of the island outside of Waikiki, a car is absolutely necessary and you will not regret the decision of renting one. Even if you are staying in Waikiki, without a car, you’ll be pretty much confined to that area.
That will make for one heck of a mediocre vacation in Hawaii because the best parts of Oahu are outside of the Honolulu area!
Be practical with the car rental.
Everyone dreams of driving a convertible or a jeep with the top down in Hawaii which is great and all, but remember that the weather is tropical and rain can come down at any moment.
Always check the weather before you head out. If you’ve rented a convertible, be sure to put the hood back on before leaving your car for prolonged periods of time.
Uber, Lyft, and taxis are available in Hawaii, but these options will be more expensive than renting a car, especially if you plan to move around a lot. Since cell phone service could be limited in the more rural areas, rideshare transportation may not be the most reliable option here.
If you are the type to compare prices between rental car companies, book through Priceline’s rental car search tool. Not only does the tool allow you to compare rental car prices, but most of the time, you can book with no prepayment and no cancellation fees.
These two reasons are exactly why we love using Priceline to lock in rental car reservations, even if we aren’t 100% certain we’ll go on our trips!
Consider alternatives to big car rental companies.
If car rental prices are through the roof due to seasonality or car shortages, consider renting a car through Turo.
WHERE TO STAY IN OAHU
Staying in Honolulu/Waikiki can be a good idea for first-timers, as it puts you close to plenty of introductory things to do, places to eat and shop, and tourist attractions.
While it is convenient and close to a lot of restaurants, bars, and shopping, there are some drawbacks.
First off, because of how compact and populated this area is, street parking is hard to come by.
Do note that a lot of the hotels and resorts here charge both resort fees and parking fees. These fees range anywhere from $20-50 per night for parking and $15-35 per night for the resort fee.
So if you’ve found a hotel you like, be sure to check for these ‘hidden’ fees!
Many hours of research later–here are a few hotels that I’ve found to be the most budget-friendly in the Waikiki area, after accounting for all the added fees:
- Ramada Plaza by Wyndham Waikiki – no resort fee!
- Aqua Oasis – affordable, even with both parking and resort fees factored in.
- Polynesian Residences Waikiki Beach – affordable resort fee and parking fees.
If you’d rather get off the beaten path a little, I would actually recommend staying in a VRBO vacation rental or hotel on any part of the island other than Waikiki. While Waikiki is beautiful, it is also very developed, meaning it’ll have more of an impersonal city feel.
Other parts of Oahu are way more scenic!
My favorite part of the island to stay is in Kailua, located on the East Shore. Lanikai Beach, named one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, is located on the Eastern part of the island, too.
Best lodging/transportation combination: Rent a car + rent a vacation home/private room in a neighborhood with driveway parking or street parking outside of Waikiki. Free parking = more money to spend on other parts of your vacation!
WHAT TO PACK FOR OAHU, HAWAII
Bring a lightweight jacket.
The weather is quite variable depending on what part of the island you’re on. Depending on when you go, one side of the island can be sunny while the other side sees fog and rain. Nights sometimes get cold, as do hiking summits. Better yet, go with a lightweight rain jacket to cover all your bases.
Sunscreen is a must.
Even if you don’t normally wear sunscreen outdoors, I implore you to wear sunscreen, especially during your first few days in Hawaii. If you do burn easily make sure to also pack some aloe vera gel.
Even if it’s overcast and cloudy, the UV index can be very high, so be sure to apply whenever you’re outdoors. If you plan on snorkeling near the reefs, choose a coral reef-safe brand, as traditional sunscreen contains chemicals that damage and even kill the precious reefs. Here are a few travel-sized biodegradable sunscreens you can easily buy online:
- Badger Reef Safe Sunscreen – SPF 40 Kids Clear Sport
- Badger Reef Safe Sunscreen- SPF 35 Clear Zinc Sport Unscented
- Thinksport SPF 50+ Mineral Sunscreen
- Babo Botanicals Zinc Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30
- All Good Sport Face & Body Sunscreen Lotion
Don’t forget the bug spray.
When you are packing for Hawaii in general, you may want to consider getting some travel-sized mosquito repellent. While mosquitos don’t hang around Waikiki, they can be found in the more lush tropical settings of the island.
While mosquitos exist year-round, the peak season for mosquito activity is during the warmer months, running from March through early November.
Repellent may not be as necessary on Oahu compared to some of the other less developed islands, but it’s good to have it just in case. Just remember to pack it in your checked luggage so it doesn’t get taken away at the airport!
As an alternative to using mosquito repellent, you can also wear long-sleeved tops and loose linen pants.
Bring hiking boots / water shoes if you plan to do outdoor activities.
If you have one that serves as both, even better. Having some sort of protection from the many rocky shores as well as decent traction on muddy trails and wet rocks on hikes is very crucial for outdoor adventures in Hawaii.
A waterproof phone case to capture all the fun.
If you plan on doing a bunch of adventurous activities (ziplining, skydiving, kayaking, paddling, ATV-ing) and/or want some underwater footage when surfing or snorkeling, you should definitely go with the waterproof GoPro.
Too expensive? The next best thing is a waterproof phone housing!
While most new phones are waterproof to some extent these days, they aren’t meant to stay submerged for prolonged periods of time without protection. With an actual heavy-duty waterproof phone case, you’ll have peace of mind bringing your phone with you when participating in water activities.
On our last trips to Hawaii, we forgot to bring our waterproof phone cases and our GoPro camera. We totally missed out on a bunch of awesome underwater photo ops during two snorkeling trips!
These phone cases provide excellent waterproof performance housing for underwater photos and videos. They’ve been tested more than a thousand times, and the case enables you to dive to 50ft/15m of depth in water for 60 minutes without leaks.
A sand-free beach mat.
There are actually beach mats that are quick-drying, waterproof, and sand-proof, making setting up on the beach super, super easy.
This beach mat is all those things, plus it has sand anchor pockets and 6 ground stakes so that your beach mat is wind-resistant even when you’re not laying on it!
TOP FOUR POPULAR TOURS IN OAHU
- Ultimate Circle Island Adventure with Waimea Waterfall: full-day tour featuring a ton of Hawaii’s landmarks, then lunch at the famous Fumi’s Shrimp Stand on the North Shore!
- Chief’s Luau Admission: experience a luau on Oahu, complete with a lei greeting! You can partake in a few activities before eating, followed by a Polynesian show.
- Turtle Canyons Snorkel Excursion from Waikiki: snorkel with green sea turtles, tropical fish, and more!
- Three Star Deluxe Sunset Dinner and Show: Watch the Hawaiian sunset while enjoying a 5-course dinner with live entertainment.
THINGS TO DO IN OAHU: ESSENTIAL TIPS
Ziplining in Oahu
You must have closed-toed shoes (strapped on sandals will not do). Don’t forget to pack them!
These are some good spots to zipline in Oahu:
Snorkeling in Oahu
The main (and arguably the best) snorkeling venue on Oahu is Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve.
Avoid touching the coral reef with your body parts. If you don’t you might get cut up on the reef. Highly recommend carrying some bandaids with you just in case.
Your normal sunscreen can really damage the reefs. You’ll need to buy special sunscreen, which can be purchased onsite at larger snorkel areas.
Bring your own snorkel gear if you already own this. It’ll save you money on rentals, which average $15-25 per person for the combo of mask and fins. If not, consider investing in a snorkel set you can call your own.
If your snorkel mask starts fogging up, ask the staff to apply some of their anti-fog spray. Otherwise, spit directly into your mask, wait a few seconds, and rinse it out. No more fogging!
Bring water shoes if you’re not using fins. These are good for getting wet, and providing protection from the rocky shores. All the best snorkel spots are in rocky, coral-filled areas which means you can really scratch up the soles of your feet if you’re not careful!
Trust me, I’m speaking from experience. It’ll be best to bring along a first aid kit too!
Hiking on Oahu
For an easy and relatively short sunrise hike, do the Lanikai Pillbox hike or the Diamond Head hike. It is very early but amazing. Definitely bring water.
Other hikes for first-timers include Makapu’u Lighthouse was a pretty good hike for any level of hiking experience. If you feel daring, there’s a more advanced hike down to a natural pool when you get nearer to the top.
Koko Head is a very popular one for the more athletic bunch and will definitely give you sore, wobbly legs by the end of it. I’ve also seen the sunrise from here, which is also pretty spectacular.
Beaches on Oahu
Bring coverups to protect you from the sun, because the sun is strong in Hawaii. Having said that, sunscreen is a must.
Best calm beaches for wading, swimming, chilling out: Lanikai Beach and Kailua Beach (East Shore).
Best beaches for surfing: North Shore.
Pro Tip: When traveling with children, avoid beaching at the North Shore. Even if you’re just looking for a calm beach to relax at, avoid beaching at the North Shore. Waves tend to be prime for surfing, which means impossible for swimming and lounging. Unless you like to sit on the sand and watch the waves crash vigorously. Also, definitely avoid Sandy’s Beach if you’re looking to swim.
FINDING FREE THINGS TO DO IN OAHU
For the most part, beaching and hiking are your best bet for enjoying Hawaii without dipping into your pocket, especially since Hawaii is known for its abundance of beautiful beaches and lush tropical greenery.
If you’re in search of other things to do, see if there are any festivals and events going on that week you’ll be visiting.
The Royal Hawaiian Center offers free cultural programming for both visitors and locals. Classes and demonstrations include things like hula dancing, lei making, ukulele, Hawaiian massage, Hawaiian quilting and more.
Another option is to walk around Waikiki. It’s a long stretch of beach, eating, and shopping but it’s very, very busy. If visiting Hawaii for the first time, you should definitely visit the Waikiki area.
It’s fun, there’s always something going on and the walk to the lookout on Diamond Head is well worth it. However, allocate some time to check out other areas with more charm and culture, such as Kailua and the North Shore.
PAID ATTRACTIONS IN OAHU
Consider a Go City Oahu attraction pass. The Go City Oahu Pass is a digital attraction pass that provides easy access and discounted admission to some of the island’s most popular activities, tours, and excursions.
With the Go City All-Inclusive Pass, you can experience the very best of Oahu for one flat fee! You’ll ultimately save far more money compared to buying separate tickets to attractions/tours.
DEAL ALERT: For a limited time, use the above link + the promo code AFFGOALL for an additional 5% off your Go City pass. This code is valid for any Go City pass in any destination!
Pearl Harbor is probably going to take a full morning due to there being frequent lines, so take this into consideration when planning out your day.
When picking a luau, consider The Polynesian Cultural Center. The Polynesian Cultural Center is Hawaii’s #1 paid attraction and is considered a must-do for both travelers and Hawaii locals. Situated on the famous North Shore of Oahu, PCC is essentially a cultural park that brings to life the spirit of Polynesia through its six Polynesian villages.
For the same price as some other luau’s that only come with dinner, packages at the Polynesian Cultural Center include admission to the park with demonstrations and activities, a luau dinner, and a 1.5-hour cultural show at the end (with firing dancing and everything).
WHAT TO EAT IN OAHU
You don’t have to spend a fortune in order to have a good meal in Hawaii. Be very open to eating at lunch trucks, it’s part of the culture there! Remember to carry some cash with you, as some of the food trucks in the North Shore are cash only.
Steer clear of restaurants in tourist-heavy areas like Waikiki and instead do as the locals do. Get some fast food at Zippy’s or Rainbow Drive-In. You must try the chili rice, and this is someone who really doesn’t enjoy traditional chili… must!
Plate lunches and poke bowls are the way to go.
Head to one of the many Foodland supermarkets around the island and pick up some beach picnic foods. Perfectly delicious prepared foods, including many varieties of poke, are available at reduced prices in supermarkets throughout the islands.
When on Oahu, you’re going to come across garlic shrimp. Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck or Fumi’s Kahuku Shrimp in the North Shore are great options for first-timers.
Are you even in Hawaii if you’re not eating shave ice? For dessert any time of the day, get yourself some Hawaiian shave ice. Waiola, Matsumoto and Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha are three of the most popular options. Be sure to get extra toppings such as mochi/rice balls, condensed milk, or ice cream.
If you’re in Honolulu the last Friday of the month, don’t miss the Eat the Street food truck gathering. Held from 5 to 10 p.m. at 1011 Ala Moana Blvd.
SHOPPING FOR SOUVENIRS IN OAHU
If you’re looking to save money, bypass the malls in Waikiki and tourist-centric surf shops and instead, shop like a local.
Check out the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet on Saturdays. Open on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet is bargain central for cheap souvenirs and Hawaiian shirts.
Walmart and Don Quijote are two great places to pick up discounted souvenirs like chocolate-covered mac nuts, Kona coffee, shortbread cookies, li hing candies, aloha shirts, lotions, tote bags, etc.
You can nab some unique, locally made items to bring home if you happen to be in Honolulu on the third Saturday of the summer months. Honolulu Night Market is a great place to stock up on clothing and jewelry crafted by local designers, as well as to enjoy art, entertainment, and food.
Looking for other unique souvenirs to bring home? How about some cans of specially-flavored Spam? Hawaiians consume the most Spam out of any US state – more than 7 million tins a year. You can find so many varieties and flavors of this stuff, it’s no joke!