Dreaming of a family vacation in Hawaii? Feeling deflated about how to ever be able to afford it? Let me help by sharing our itinerary that kept our “on the ground” costs much more reasonable.
When we found super cheap flights to Hawaii ($374 each for Atlanta to Honolulu, when normally $900 and up) we decided to just take a leap and purchase them, knowing we could work out the details later. We also decided that we were going to make such a long journey worth it, so we booked a 14 day stay, since my husband had enough vacation banked at work. I homeschool our kids so we are always available to travel, as well.
I really had a blast exploring all the amazing opportunities on the island. I had on my wish list to attend a luau, to swim with dolphins, to do some guided snorkeling and to visit lots of museums and cultural centers.
And then I started looking at the ticket prices for it all and my stomach just churned! I quickly realized that we would be spending well over a thousand dollars on activities alone if we did all the things on my list. Once I realized what we were going to be spending on housing ($188/night, on average…more on that in a future post) and setting aside about $400 for food (yes, groceries are more expensive in Hawaii), there just wasn’t much money at all left over for fun activities, and certainly not as much as I was calculating we would need. Almost everything had to come off the list and I needed a new plan.
But friends, here’s the wonderful news about Hawaii: the beaches and hiking trails are some of the most breathtakingly gorgeous things to see on O’ahu, and they are either completely free, or they only require a small fee (usually to park your car). You simply need to get out of the “tourist” mindset that says you “can’t miss” XY and Z tourist destination. This isn’t to say that experiences such as these aren’t cool, but if your budget is tight, they really aren’t necessary. We were told over and over, for example, that we simply couldn’t leave O’ahu without attending a luau. Ticket prices for luaus with good reviews were $125/person, so we certainly DID leave the island without attending one, and guess what? We had a BLAST and don’t feel as though we missed out one bit!
So here’s what we ended up doing during our time in O’ahu, day by day. We had a planned itinerary that varied a little bit from the final product, and that’s because it’s important to be flexible and to be willing to shift and change based on what the weather’s doing (it was overcast and windy pretty much every day when we visited at the beginning of March) or what the family simply feels up to that day, or based on new discoveries you might have accidentally discovered. Be ready and willing to simply pull over by the side of the road when you see something you want to explore!
- Arrive in Honolulu.
- Pick up rental car*
- Go grocery shopping (we shopped at a nearby Costco, but there are several options)
- Drive to Lanikai Beach (about 35 minutes away)
- Arrive at our rental, unload the groceries and quickly head to the beach to get some fresh air and help keep us awake (we’d been awake for about 21 hours at that point).
- Morning hike in Lanikai Beach area (Pillbox Hike)
- Afternoon spent at Lanikai Beach
- Morning at Kailua Beach
- Special treat at Island Snow shave ice (President Obama’s favorite shave ice on the island!)
- Afternoon hike at Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail (paved, very kid friendly)
- Check out the nearby blowholes and tidepools on the way back home
- Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve (spent the entire day here snorkeling and relaxing!) (Cost $7.50 per adult, kids 12 and under are free, and $1 to park).
- Catch a gorgeous sunrise on Lanikai Beach (watch your weather for the best day to do this; you won’t regret it!)
- Waterfall hike at Nu’uanu Pali State Wayside (state park)
- Afternoon at Kailua Beach
- Travel to Honolulu to see Pearl Harbor (don’t miss out on the Junior Ranger program offered for a nominal fee) (we also sprang for the headsets that provide a self-guided tour at $7.50 each)
- Quick self-guided driving tour of Honolulu historical sites (such as the royal palace)
- Stop by Nu’uanu Pali Lookout on the way back to the condo
- Late afternoon beach session at Lanikai Beach
- Quick morning trip to Lanikai Beach to say goodbye
- Pack up the condo and load up the car
- Drive to Byodo-In Temple to look around for a bit (it’s lovely!) ($5/person…worth it if you stay for an hour or more, in my opinion).
- Picnic-style lunch in the car as we traveled and looked around the area
- Arrive at new condo at Punalu’u Beach
- Unpack, and go enjoy the VERY quiet beach!
- Day to catch up on some homeschooling and some work, and simply enjoy the beach for the day
- Visit Kualoa State Park for a beach day (totally free). You will be located pretty much right next to the “secret beach” that folks pay $$$ to visit!
- Afternoon visit to Polynesian Cultural Center marketplace to pick up a few special treats and souvenirs (it’s free to enter the marketplace!)
- Quick visit to Puu o Mahuka Heiau, which is a large ancient religious temple site. Beautiful views and a good opportunity to learn more about traditional Hawaiian culture.
- Visit Waimea Valley. It’s a very beautiful botanical gardens, cultural learning opportunities, and the opportunity to swim to a waterfall, all at a fraction of the cost of the Polynesian Cultural Center. This was our most expensive “tourist” outing, costing $48 for all 4 of us, and it was very much worth it!
- Watch surfers on the Banzai Pipeline
- Take kids to a community playground across the street from Sunset Beach
- Visit Shark’s Cove tidepools
- Lunch at the food truck stands across from Shark’s Cove (a bit on the pricey side for food truck fare, so you could pack a lunch instead)
- Afternoon of swimming and relaxation at Turtle Bay (a North shore resort that is $$$$$ to stay at, but the beach, itself, is free!).
- Beach day back at the condo
- Try to catch the sunset at Sunset Beach park (we struck out)
- Another beach day at the condo (we had other plans, but we had so much fun the day prior that we decided to do it again!)
- Late afternoon travel into Honolulu to see the Honolulu Festival parade (once a year event, and if I had to do it over again I don’t think it was worth the hassle…traffic was beyond insane).
- Morning visit to the beach to say goodbye
- Pack up and leave the condo
- Drive down to Ko Olina to check out the lagoons by Disney Aulani (parking lots are small…as in about 20 spaces per lagoon, so get there early if you can!).
- Check out all the resorts and hang out at the lagoons. If I had this day to do over again I would have made a beeline for the Mariott, gone through the vacation club presentation (90 minutes) and then taken advantage of the day pass you are given as a reward so we could have played in their pools. I didn’t realize that was an option until we were too short on time.
- Head across the street to the shops at Ko Olina and get the best iced coffee of your life at Island Vintage Coffee. SOOOOO good!
- Late afternoon in downtown Honolulu exploring while my husband had a meeting with city officials to talk shop (he works in city government).
- Fill up the rental car with gas at Costco (best price!) and return it.
- Back to the airport for an overnight flight back to the mainland. Aloha, Hawaii!
Are there any specific elements of our trip that you’d like to hear about in more detail? Any questions for me? I am so appreciative of all the great blog posts I read before our trip that helped me make plans, and I want to pay that forward by helping you! Please don’t hesitate to leave me a comment below.
*A Note on Renting a Car
Renting a car on O’ahu is likely to come at a cost higher than you have ever paid before for a rental (around $750 for two weeks). This reality stung something fierce when I first started pricing out options. I even poked around different chat boards to get advice on whether or not we could just use public transportation to get around the island. And you can do that, by the way. But you will make big sacrifices of time in order to do that, and ultimately I wasn’t willing to trade the extra time for the cost savings. You may reach a different conclusion. In our case, we were able to trade in about 4 years’ worth of points my husband had accumulated through a wellness program at his work (he rides his bike to work every day and earns points for that healthy choice). We were so relieved to see that he had enough to provide us with a free car rental, so that really helped our budget for the trip. You may have something similar at your work, or perhaps you have some credit card points that can be applied to a car rental. Do some digging to see if you might have something like this available, because I will tell you that having a car was absolutely critical for us. We used it every single day, and it’s how we were able to see and do so many amazing things.