Planning a Trip to Oahu: Travel Tips, Itineraries, Hotels & More

Planning a trip to Oahu blog cover image.  Text overlaying an image of a girl walking along the entrance road at Hoomaluhia Botanical Gardens, surrounded by lush green vegetation

Even if you never plan on leaving the world-famous beaches, there are still some things you need to consider when planning a trip to Oahu. These include things like finding the best possible place to stay for the duration of your trip and booking the right flights.

Of course, most people will want to explore at least a little, especially after learning how many incredible things to do on Oahu there are beyond beach bumming in Waikiki. Perhaps you have some flexibility as to when you will be visiting…

No matter who you are and what type of trip you are planning to Oahu, this guide will answer all questions and provide step-by-step guidance.

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Planning a Trip to Oahu Overview

Below is a quick summary overview detailing the most important considerations and things to know when planning a trip to Oahu.

Oahu At a Glance

  • Nickname: The Gathering Place
  • Where to Stay: Waikiki or Honolulu
  • Recommended Days: 5-7
  • When to Visit: Spring or Fall
  • Airports
    • Honolulu (HNL) – Main Airport
    • Kalaeloa (JRF)

Best Hawaiian island for first-time visitors, people who prefer resorts, cities, and tourist attractions, and who don’t mind crowds. However, there is plenty of beautiful nature to discover as well!

Hawaiian Words, Customs & Culture to Observe

There are a few customs that are helpful to understand as well. All too many tourists forget that while this is a vacation destination to them, it is home to the locals. As such, it is important to treat people on the island as if you are guests in their home.

Beyond typical manners, here are a few Hawaiian customs to note:

  • Tipping: Locals survive on tourism! In the US, 18-20% has become standard, 15% minimum.
  • Aloha: This word means a lot in Hawaiian, including both “hello” and “goodbye”, but also “love” and “peace”.
  • Mahalo: The Hawaiian word for “thank you”.
  • Island Time: The Hawaiian culture is a “lei-d” back culture (pun alert!) Expect a slower pace and less concern with punctuality on Hawaii than on the mainland.
  • Attire: Outside of a few luxury clubs or restaurants, casual attire is the expectation. Flip-flops (known as slippers in Hawaii) can be worn to any restaurant or outing.
  • Shaka: The “shaka” is the hand signal using the thumb and pinky with a side-to-side motion that is often translated to “hang loose” on the mainland. In actuality, it is closer to “aloha” and/or “mahalo” in Hawaii. It can be hello, goodbye, thank you, or anything really with positive intention. Think of it a bit like a polite wave or a thumbs up.
A hand showing the Hawaiian shaka greeting

Top 5 Oahu Travel Tips

  1. Always book your arrival flights as direct flights to Oahu.
  2. Book well ahead of time. Oahu is the most touristed of the Hawaiian islands and tours, hotels, and popular activities fill up quickly.
  3. Bring your own snorkel and mask unless you only plan on snorkeling with tours. Renting snorkel gear can add up quickly. For example, rentals at Hanauma Bay alone are $20.
  4. Stay outside Waikiki if you do not enjoy crowds.
  5. Bring only reef-safe sunscreen. All other sunscreens are illegal in Hawaii.

When to Visit Oahu

A landscape photo showing the greenery of Oahu from the Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden.

There is no bad time to visit Oahu or any of the Hawaiian islands. The only factors that change based on the time of year are the likelihood of rain and the size of the crowds (which affects availability.)

The rainy season in Oahu is from November-March. However, it is still more likely than not that you will see plenty of sunshine if visiting in the winter. The winter months are also the best for whale watching as migrating humpback whales frequent the Hawaiian waters.

April, early-May, September, and early-October are the best months to visit Oahu. This is when the island is in its dry months but before/after the crowds and price hikes of peak season take effect.

How to Plan a Trip to Oahu: Step by Step

  • Step 1: Review Hawaii travel restrictions
  • Step 2: Book your flights to and from Oahu
  • Step 3: Book any inter-island flights or ferries
  • Step 4: Find the best place to stay on Oahu for your budget
  • Step 5: Create your perfect Oahu Itinerary
  • Step 6: Book tours and activities early
  • Step 7: Establish how to get around (car rental, tours, etc)
  • Step 8: Pack your bags!

Traveling to Hawaii in 2022

Turquoise waters and white sand beach surrounded by black lava rock as sen by airplane when traveling to Hawaii
The Big Island adventure begins before you even land!

Hawai‘i is welcoming most travelers again. However, there are some pre-travel requirements for international travelers visiting Hawai‘i.

Domestic Travel to Hawaii

As of March 26, 2022, there are no COVID-related requirements for domestic passengers arriving in Hawai‘i.

You can find current information, advice, and guidelines related to COVID and travel in Hawaii on the Hawaii Covid-19 website here.

International Travel to Hawaii

For those traveling from international destinations with direct flights to Hawaii, you will need to follow federal international requirements. There are no additional State of Hawai‘i requirements.

As of June 12, 2022, international visitors are no longer required to show a negative COVID-19 viral test or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 before they board their flight.  However, the CDC is still requiring proof of vaccination for international visitors to travel to the United States. Requirements are constantly changing so ensure you check the CDC website or within your airline for current guidelines.

Planning a Trip to Oahu: Booking Flights

An aerial panorama of the entire island of Oahu from the plane.
A view of Oahu from the flight.

The first thing you should do when planning a trip to Oahu is to find your flights to and from Hawaii. If possible, you should always try to book a non-stop flight to Oahu to avoid a vacation disaster scenario involving delays and missed or canceled connecting flights.

Your return flight is where you may be able to save some money by booking a one-stop. If something goes wrong on the way home and you are delayed a day or two, it will still be unfortunate but will not impact an entire itinerary that was planned months in advance!

If budget is important, the trick to finding the cheapest flights to Oahu is flexibility. The fewer restrictions you have on the date of arrival and departure, the easier it is to find affordable flights.

Bearing all this in mind, the best tool available for booking airfare is SkyScanner. This allows flexible searches which makes it easy to find the best, cheapest dates to fly. You can search for the cheapest flights from home to Oahu by date, month, or even by year!

Skyscanner flight search for flights to and from Hawaii
An example of a flexible flight search with “Cheapest Month” selected.

WARNING: Always use the airport code “HNL” or “Honolulu” when searching flights to Oahu. If you just type in “Oahu”, you may get the Oahu HDH airport instead!

Planning a Trip to Oahu: Island Hopping

If Oahu is the only Hawaiian Island you will be visiting, you can skip this section. If not, you may want to bookmark our COMPLETE GUIDE TO ISLAND HOPPING IN HAWAII to learn about flight options.

There is only one ferry in Hawaii and it does not service Oahu. If you want to island-hop, you will have to fly!

From Oahu, it is possible to fly commercially to any of the other major Hawaiian islands of Maui, Big Island, or Kauai. Flights begin at $45 and take about 45 minutes to any of the major islands through Hawaiian Airlines.

You can also reach the smaller sister islands of Lanai and Molokai from HNL through Mokulele Airlines.

If you plan on doing any island hopping during your visit, booking your ongoing flights should be the first thing you do once you’ve booked your initial roundtrip tickets.

READ THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO
HAWAII ISLAND HOPPING

Planning a Trip to Oahu: Where to Stay

View of Waikiki Beach in Honolulu and Diamond Head in the background as seen from a high rise hotel.  Waikiki is the best place to stay when planning a trip to Oahu.
Waikiki is the most developed and most popular place to stay on Oahu.

Deciding where to stay is perhaps the most important detail for planning a trip to Oahu! It determines your proximity to events, activities, services, and beaches, and must be comfortable enough for you to enjoy your vacation.

The neighborhood of Waikiki in Honolulu is by far the most popular place to stay on Oahu. In fact, over 90% of tourist accommodation options are in Waikiki / Honolulu. It is walking distance to some of the best beaches in Hawaii and has everything you need for a vacation on-site.

However, such crowds and busy beaches are not for everyone. For those that want some respite from the hordes of tourists, it is worth considering staying in Kailua on the southeast (windward) region or on the North Shore.  Within these areas, you will find more guest houses, villas, and small hotels in these regions, rather than high-rise hotels and resorts.

Planning your Oahu Itinerary

Once your accommodation and flights are booked, it is time to decide how you want to spend your time in Oahu. Is this a relaxing vacation, a sight-seeing adventure, or a bit of both?

Oahu is the most popular Hawaiian island and everything from tours to hotels and permit-required sights fill up quickly. If you plan on spending all your time on the beach in Waikiki, you don’t need an itinerary – you just need a cocktail menu!

However, if you are interested in exploring “The Gathering Place” and seeing the different regions, historic sites, and/or incredible nature, you should spend some time researching the things to do on Oahu that interest you most and planning out your days.

Crafting your itinerary involves more research and thoughtfulness than we can pack into this guide. For help with the most critical details of planning a trip to Oahu consult the complete guide below:

THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO CREATING
THE PERFECT OAHU ITINERARY

Planning a Trip to Oahu: Tours & Activities

When it comes to booking your tours and activities in Oahu, sooner is better! Know ahead of time that the most popular activities tend to sell out weeks or even months in advance.

If there are certain tours or activities you are excited to include, such as one of Oahu’s best luaus or a snorkel tour to Hanauma Bay you will want to book it now.

Additionally, some destinations require permits. The most important to arrange beforehand are Pearl Harbor Memorial and Diamond Head. While both of these activities are free, permits are required in advance and can be challenging to get.

Therefore, although we wouldn’t typically recommend taking a tour for an attraction that is otherwise free, in these cases it may be your best option. You can explore tours for Pearl Harbor here and tours to Diamond Head here.

If you have not yet done so, you should consult our 5-7 Day Oahu Itinerary for specific recommendations and advice on the best tours, destinations, and activities to do on Oahu. However, you can find the most popular below.

Planning a Trip to Oahu: How to Get Around

Drone photo of the H3 highway of Oahu as it curves into a tunnel between lush green mountains.  Rent a car when planning a visit to Oahu.
The H3 Scenic Highway shows why rental car is the best way to get around Oahu.

To be clear, those that never plan on leaving the beaches, resorts, and surrounding area of Waikiki will do fine without arranging any additional transport. However, the best way to explore Oahu is by renting a car if you want to see more of the island.

Rental cars are typically an affordable $30-$50 per day. However, it is worth keeping in mind when that most hotels in Waikiki charge $35-50 per night for parking as well.

Public transportation services will get you to the majority of the popular tourist attractions and destinations and do not require any reservations. The downside is obviously slower commute times and confinement to a schedule.

The other option to consider if you are not comfortable driving a car in Hawaii is to stick to tours that include shuttles and pick-ups. If you are planning a trip to Oahu that does not include car rental, make sure you book accommodation in Waikiki as this is the main pick up point for tours and buses.

Packing for a Trip to Oahu

A printable Hawaii Packing List for planning a trip to Oahu.

Once everything is booked and arranged, the final step in planning a trip to Oahu is packing your bags! This small step can actually be a major source of stress for people who do not get the opportunity to travel often; what if you forget something important?!

The best thing to do when packing for a trip to Hawaii is to print a checklist of the essential items that are most important to bring.

Next, browse some guides to see if there are items you may not have thought of or maybe didn’t even know existed! These are items like reef-safe sunscreen, sand-repellent towels, and reusable grocery bags as Hawaii has banned plastic bags. Unless you plan to only take tours, it is also worth bringing your own snorkel gear. Rental prices can add up quickly, for example, snorkel gear rental at Hanauma Bay alone is $20 per day.

For a PRINTABLE CHECKLIST and COMPLETE guide to packing for Oahu, consult our
ULTIMATE HAWAII PACKING LIST

More Oahu and Hawaii Travel Guides

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