Is Hawaii an expensive travel destination? The answer depends in part on your point of view and your preferred travel style. Certainly, it can cost a lot to get to Hawaii, and, when it comes to upscale hotels and fine dining, the sky's the limit. And there's plenty of temptation to fill your days and empty your wallets. From world-class shopping and spa resorts to spectacular excursions like helicopter tours and sunset cruises, you could easily spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a day on activities.
Or you could spend nearly nothing at all.
Hawaii has huge potential as a budget-friendly travel destination and the state's gateway city, Honolulu, has no shortage of free and frugal fun to occupy even the most discerning of travellers. Here are some of my favourite Honolulu activities, none costing more than a few dollars.
Hawaii's most famous attraction is completely free. The USS Arizona National Memorial at Pearl Harbor -- which reopens in March 2019 -- has no admission fee; even the parking is free. This is an exceptional value, as visiting the Memorial is an enriching and unforgettable experience.
To make the most of your time, it pays to plan ahead. In the high season, the number of visitors can exceed the number of admission slots -- you can reserve visitation slots or simply plan to arrive early in the day. It's important to note that Pearl Harbor is still an active military base. As such, I recommend reading this advice about how to drive to the Memorial. Hint: Not all exits that say "Pearl Harbor" go to the Memorial! (And if you somehow manage to get turned around in your efforts to avoid the wrong "Pearl Harbor" exits and wind up at an animal quarantine facility, take heart. You're not alone!)
The Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association offers free walking tours of the Waikiki Historic Trail six days a week. You can find the full tour details here. You can also do a DIY tour. The points of interest and historical information are displayed on surfboard style plaques! It's a great way to get oriented in the city.
Guides from the non-profit Hawaii Heritage Center offer free walking tours of Honolulu's Chinatown on Wednesdays and Fridays starting at 9:30 am. Their Facebook page also lists a lot of special events that are perfect for visitors.
Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday around sunset (6:00 or 6:30 pm) there is a torch lighting and hula performance with traditional music on Waikiki's Kuhio Beach (near the statue of Duke Kahanamoku). Only lawn seating is available, so bring a towel for extra comfort (and ice cream too, obviously). Duke is a legendary and much loved Hawaiian icon -- take a moment to pay tribute to him at his statue.
In researching free things to do in Honolulu, you might hear about free movies on Waikiki beach - which sounds amazing! But alas it appears that this program hasn't run consistently in the past few years. Still, it might pay to watch their page in case of future updates. It sounds like a fantastically fun thing to do.
Admission is always free at the Hawaii State Art Museum. On the last Tuesday of every month, there is also a free "meet the artist" lecture series. You are welcome to bring your own lunch or buy it from the in-house cafe, Artizen. During my first visit, I had a chicken panini with roasted asparagus and breadfruit on the side and listened to a presentation on the history of the Hawaiian cowboy -- fascinating!
The Honolulu Museum of Art and the Spalding House (the Museum's second location) are free on the third Sunday of the month. The main Museum's art library is always free and Spalding House guests can enjoy garden and gallery tours at 1:30.
Spiritually inclined travellers will be happy to know that guests are warmly welcomed to the Kawaiahao Church, where services are conducted in the Hawaiian language. You can find a full schedule of their services and events here.
It's not exactly free, but a morning spent browsing at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet is a great way to pick up interesting souvenirs, munch on complimentary samples of local treats like flavoured macadamia nuts and jam made with Hawaiian fruit, and drink fresh coconut milk from your very own coconut that is opened with a machete as you watch. The Aloha Stadium Swap Meet is also where I first tried Hawaiian malasadas (a Portuguese style donut). I joined a long lineup of people waiting by an unmarked white van -- yes, I know this sounds dubious, but I could smell cinnamon in the air! Best foodie decision I've ever made. It's open on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday -- bring some small bills for parking and treats.
Hotels in Hawaii are a slice of paradise in and of themselves, featuring rooms with gorgeous views, a host of cultural and recreational activities, and beautiful pools with bars that churn out delectable cocktails.
But what most guests overlook is the hotel garden. Nearly all hotels in Honolulu have a luscious tropical garden area that is often overshadowed by flashier amenities. And that's a shame. Take the time to hang out there with a good book and enjoy some well-deserved vacation time. But if you're looking for something a bit more lively, the following hotel attractions are all free and open to non-guests. If you're looking for free (or cheap) things to do in Honolulu, they're all good bets.
Check out the free fireworks show every Friday night at the Hilton Hawaiian Village on Waikiki Beach. It starts at 7:45 or 8:00 pm depending on the season and lasts for about 10 minutes. I enjoyed the show while lying on the beach of the Hilton Hawaiian Village, but you don't have to be on the grounds to see the show. Here's a helpful list with times and suggested viewing points.
Another Friday night freebie takes place at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Resort and Spa. Their weekly Aloha Friday Polynesian show showcases Hawaiian traditions such as music, lei making, and hula dancing.
At Duke's Waikiki restaurant at Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach, there's an impressive collection of surfing memorabilia and photos on the walls. Their $19 lunch buffet is a good value too.
Back in the day, everyone who was anyone stayed in the Moana Surfrider Hotel. Now a Westin Resort property, Waikiki's oldest hotel opened in 1901 and played host to Amelia Earhart, Frank Sinatra, and Lucille Ball. Free tours of the historic property are offered Mondays and Wednesdays at 11:00 am. Visitors meet in the Banyan Wing second floor lobby.
If you've travelled from east to west, take advantage of your jet lag and wake up early to tackle the hike up Diamond Head Summit Trail before the day's heat hits you. The climb up this extinct volcano is 1.6 miles, with plenty of stairs involved, but it's well worth it for the amazing views. As this hike is located within Diamond Head State Monument, admission is $5 a car or $1 for pedestrians (cash only -- bring along some extra money as there is often a shave ice vendor around the park gates and you'll have earned a sweet treat).
Manoa Falls gives visitors a chance to experience a jungle and rainforest all in the heart of a city. A beginner-friendly 1.6-mile hike takes you through some of Hawaii's most beautiful foliage (keep an eye out for the bamboo forest and the giant fern fiddleheads) to reach a 100-foot waterfall. While the water flow was really poor when I visited, it was still a spectacular walk and well worth the visit. Technically, there is a $5 fee for parking, but it seems inconsistently enforced (which is my roundabout way of saying that I didn't pay anyone!). Super frugal travelers can also park at the nearby Harold L. Lyon Arboretum for free so long as they don't mind the additional hike to the Manoa Falls trailhead.
Speaking of which, the Arboretum is free to visit and has a beautiful botanical garden and several hiking trails. They also offer low-cost classes and programs, including yoga and meditation, orchid care, and crafting macrame plant hangers.
And most important of all in Hawaii: Go to the beach! Sure, it's obvious advice. OF COURSE, you're going to go to the beach in Hawaii! But for a really memorable travel moment, try visiting in slightly off-hours. Grab a cup of Hawaii coffee from a local bakery, walk along the beach at sunrise, and watch the surfers. Or hang out a bit after sunset when all the photo-snapping travellers have wandered off and watch locals with metal detectors sweep the sand for spilled loot. You'll find that even in a tourist-mecca like Honolulu, there are plenty of special spots to claim as your own.
Thanks for reading. We hope this article helped open up some room in your budget if you're planning a trip to Honolulu. Happy trails!