Budget Travel: Honolulu

The bustling metropolis of Honolulu is a far cry for the palm tree paradise otherwise known as Hawaii, but warm weather, Waikiki beach boys, and white sand beaches are still plentiful and plenty good reasons to make that journey across the Pacific.

While Honolulu is not known for its cheap airfares and hotels, both can be found. Once here and nestled in, both relaxation and adventure lurks around every corner. By day, head ‘mauka’ (to the hills) or ‘makai’ (to the ocean) for an outdoor adventure that could cost less than a penny. In the evening, watch the sunset surfers in Waikiki and dine at one of the great local eateries around town.

To be sure, Honolulu has just the right combination of activities for even the tightest of budgets.
Getting in:

Although ATA and one of Hawaii’s beloved airlines, Aloha, closed earlier last year, there are plenty of options to get to and from the mainland. Hawaiian Airlines is the best and only locally owned airline company that frequently flies from the west coast to Honolulu for cheap. For those living on the east coast, United Airlines is a good option. Flights from the west coast cost between $350-600 roundtrip, while fares from the east coast cost between $600-800. That might sound like a pretty penny, but (aside from Miami) Honolulu is the only tropical locale in the 50 states.

Where to stay:
Nearly all visitors to Honolulu stay in Waikiki, the tourism center of the islands. Hotels and B&B’s cost between $100-200 a night, but there are a handful of hostels that are close to the beach and quaint enough.

  • Just one year ago (February 2008), Hostels.com declared the Seaside Hawaiian Hostel as one of the top five hostels in the world! This hostel is close to the nightlife on Lewers Street in Waikiki, the bus lines on Kuhio Street and Kalakaua Ave, and just blocks from Waikiki Beach. Guests can choose between tastefully decorated regular or premium dorms, semi-private rooms, or perfectly private ensuites.
  • If you don’t mind the sparse decor, the convenience of the Pacific Ohana Hostel can’t be beat. This place is smack dab in the middle of Waikiki and just a block away from the International Marketplace, Waikiki Beach, and buses.
  • Finally, Hosteling International-sponsored HI-Waikiki and HI-Honolulu Hostels are quiet and comfortable options for those looking for privacy, cleanliness, and friendliness.

All of these options will cost between $20-35 per night for dorm rooms and $40-75 for private rooms.

What to do/see:

  • International Marketplace: The International Marketplace has been an island shopping tradition for tourists and kama’aina (locals) alike. Most of the market sits under a huge, century-old banyan tree in the heart of Waikiki. Over one hundred shopping stalls, artisan stands, and mainstream shops sell special gifts and souvenirs. There is also a pleasant food court tucked in the center of the market that offers a variety of local and international cuisine. Also called “Duke’s Lane” between Kalakaua Avenue and Kuhio Street; open daily from 10 AM – 10:30 PM
  • Surfing in Waikiki: This is pretty much a must-do activity. Even if you’re a beginner, it’s best to rent a real fiberglass board from a place like Blue Planet (in Kapahulu) or Hawaiian South Shore (near Ward). Board rentals should cost only $25-30 a day. Check out my article on lesser known surf breaks in Waikiki for information on where to avoid the crowds.
  • Diamond Head State Monument: One of the most famous volcanic craters in the world, Diamond Head overlooks Oahu’s southeastern shores. The crater was originally named “Leahi” because its silhouette resembles the “brow of the tuna.” British sailors gave it its current name upon arrival on Oahu’s shores because the calcite crystals on the crater glistened in the sunlight from a distance. They mistakenly thought there might be diamonds in the mountain. The crater is over 3,500 feet in diameter, and visitors can climb to the 760-foot summit. The observation deck was constructed at the summit in 1910 to provide military target sightings. The trail is paved almost the entire way but can be steep in spots. Be sure to wear sunscreen and bring water on the hike, as there is no fountain up top. #(808) 587-0300; Hours: 6 AM – 6 PM; $1 entry; $5 parking
  • Pali Lookout: The Nu’uanu Pali Lookout (“Cool Height Cliff”) overlooks the steep cliffs of the Ko’olau mountain range, and remains one of the best vistas on Oahu. In 1795, King Kamehameha and his warriors defeated the Oahu armies by sending them over the cliffs, thereby claiming his victory and uniting the Hawaiian islands. The breathtaking sight and the gruesome history of the battle fought here is enough to cause a chill to run up your spine. Add to that the incredible winds that pass through the Pali and you could certainly be swept off your feet. To get there: Exit off the Pali Highway, just before the first tunnel heading from town to Kailua. Hours: Daytime (weather permitting); Entrance is free

Places to eat:

  • Waiola’s Shave Ice: It’s not called a snow cone or shaved (with a ‘d’) ice. It’s shave (sans ‘d’) ice, and it’s the coolest – in more ways than one. Waiola’s has made a name for itself as one of the only shave ice stores that surpasses the quality of Matsumoto’s in Haleiwa on the North Shore. The ice is like eating clean, puffy snow. The act of eating your treat is plain and simple, but the ordering of it is not: start with how big you want it and what you’d like inside (ice cream or azuki beans?); then tell them what flavor(s); finally, request a topping (lilikoi cream or condensed milk?).
  • Zippy’s chili or Rainbow Drive-In’s plate lunch: Zippy’s is Hawaii’s version of Burger King (of which we have none). The only thing worth eating at Zippy’s is the chili – either on fries or rice and with shredded cheddar cheese on top. It’s not chunky or spicy like Texas chili, but it’s oh-so-‘ono’ (delicious)! If chili’s not your thing, then plate lunch should or will be. Head to Rainbow Drive-In on Kapahulu Avenue and order a huge mixed plate lunch for just $6.50, which will come with barbecue beef and chicken, garlic mahi, two scoops of rice, and a scoop of macaroni salad. YUM!
  • 7-Eleven spam musubi: I once wrote an acrostic poem about my love of spam that went something like this:
Salty slab of not quite bacon –
Pig flesh so curiously pink,
Are you ever not on my mind,
Mocking my every taste bud?

If I need a pick-me-up or just something to fill my tummy, I head to the local convenience store and purchase this Hawaiian staple for just $1.29. Now, 7-Eleven offers a variety of spam musubi options: regular, deluxe (with seaweed and egg), Spam Lovers! (an extra large slab of spam), and katsu (breaded and fried spam). There is a reason why we Hawaiians love spam to such a degree that we consume more of it than any other locale in the world (almost 5 million cans of Spam are purchased per year). As the major Pacific port during World War II, spam was brought to the islands by the boatload mainly because it didn’t require refrigeration and it provided protein and sustenance for military personnel.

Once you experience the sights, the smells, and as Pico Iyer recently reflected upon, the sounds of Honolulu, you will head home Hawaii-fied and likely yearn to return for more of the same and a little something different sooner rather than later.