Planning a budget trip to Hawaii? These are our favourite frugal and free things to do in Waikiki for $5 or less.
When Ryan and I took our first international trip together as a married couple, we went to Hawaii. While we had long dreamed of warm weather getaway, we hadn't exactly spent much time planning and saving for the trip. A combination of fortuitous factors meant that we snagged a last minute departure and a great hotel deal at the final hour - but we didn't have a lot of money to splurge on Hawaii's biggest temptations, like submarine rides, helicopter tours, and famous luaus. Instead, we put together a list of extremely frugal and free things to do in Waikiki, our main base. The result was an incredible week in a tropical paradise and a very affordable one as well.
My goal for this list was to limit costs at $5.00 per person or less and to concentrate primarily on the Honolulu neighbourhood of Waikiki but you will find great value at many price points across the state. Whether budget travel is a necessity for you or simply a preference, I think you'll love this affordable take on Hawaiian travel.
Stroll along the surfboards
The best way to get oriented to Waikiki is to follow the 21 surfboards serving as sign markers along the Waikiki Historic Trail. You'll see lovely beachside scenery, enjoy great people watching, and learn about local history. A special point of pilgrimage is the statue of Duke Kahanamoku, a beloved surfer, lifeguard, Olympian, and military officer.
Alternatively, you can walk along Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki's main drag. There are endless shops, restaurants, and hotels to check out.
Go to the beach
When you first step onto Waikiki Beach and survey its three miles of gorgeous soft sand, you'll immediately forget about your long flight and travel fatigue. This is one of the world's most popular beaches and for good reason. You won't find a better spot for a sunset or sunrise stroll.
Waikiki Beach is really eight beaches in one. Don't worry if you're not entirely sure what section you're in, as everything just melts together. Starting from the west side, the first beach is Duke Kahanamoku Beach and it's next to the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel. Heading east, you'll pass through Fort DeRussy Beach Park, Gray's Beach (erosion means this beach is pretty scarce), the Royal Hawaiian Beach (which is usually the most crowded section, as it's in the middle), Kuhio Beach Park (also known as the "the Ponds", this sheltered beach is popular with families), Queen's Beach, Kapiolani Beach Park, and finally concludes with Sans Souci Beach in the east end by Diamond Head State Park.
You can show Waikiki extra love by joining a beach clean up hosted by the local Improvement Association. These periodic events are a wonderful way to connect with locals and participate in sustainable tourism.
Float in the lagoon
Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon, by the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel and the Ala Wai Boat Harbor, is a lovely spot for swimming on the edge of Waikiki Beach. You'll enjoy fresh seawater but no waves, rocks, or seaweed.
Enjoy a spot of snorkelling
Early risers will appreciate the calm, quiet waters and good snorkelling along the Waikiki Marine Conservation District, which you can enter from Kapiolani Park Beach (the reef is visible from the shore - you can find exact directions here.)
If you don't have your own snorkelling gear, check with a friend who has recently been to Hawaii. It seems everyone picks up cheap gear, brings it home, and promptly never uses it again! Alternatively, inquire with your hotel's lost and found desk. If you're just enjoying one excursion, you can get away with using a mask and snorkel - flippers aren't essential.
Visit your hotel's "secret" garden
Nearly all hotels in Waikiki have a garden on their property. They're not really secret, to be honest, but they're all criminally overlooked in favour of gorgeous swimming pools, cool bars, and beautiful lobbies. But if take the time to explore your hotel's grounds, you'll discover a gorgeous tropical oasis.
We also love selecting "garden view" rooms as a frugal alternative to ocean view - the nightly view of the city's lights never fails to delight us.
Check out your hotel's classes and programs
Those "secret" gardens I love are often used to host hotel classes and programs, like making leis, listening to folklore, carving pineapples, sunrise yoga, and more. Even if some activities carry a fee, there are almost always free options to enjoy.
Sip free infused water
You know what every hotel lobby in Waikiki has? A large water dispenser filled with filtered water, ice, and slices of fruit. Forget paying for bottled water at the pricey ABC convenience stores that are all over Oahu. You can get pineapple, lime, and mint infused water for free at just about any hotel.
Listen to live music
Who doesn't love a free concert? Many hotels, restaurants, and even shopping centres in Waikiki offer free entertainment.
One of the best experiences is the Royal Hawaiian Band's presentation on Sunday afternoons at Kapiolani Park (which itself is a great place to visit - I talk about it below). Founded by King Kamehameha III in 1836, the band performs a repertoire that's heavily influenced by Hawaiian folklore.
Take in a show
Waikiki is filled with free mini luaus and Polynesian shows. The best known is the Kuhio Beach Hula Show. Several days a week it showcases authentic Hawaiian entertainment, including a ceremonial torch-lighting followed by conch-shell blowing and a complimentary hula performance on Kalakaua Avenue (near Uluniu Avenue.) Time varies according to sunset but usually starts at 6:00 or 6:30PM. Your hotel will have the exact schedule or you can check here.
A good alternative is the Aloha Friday program at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki. Every Friday afternoon, they present a Polynesian show with hula dancers, a Samoan fire knife dancer, and cultural demonstrations.
Another option is the Royal Grove Hula Show. Located at Royal Hawaiian Center, it offers music and a hula show nightly from Monday to Friday.
You can also check out the International Market Place Hula Show, which pays homage to Hawaii’s past monarch, Queen Emma. It begins with a procession along Kalakaua Avenue that leads to the Queen’s Court includes Hawaiian hula and Tahitian dancing.
Get crafty and cultural
If you're into crafting and cultural experiences, look beyond the programs offered by your hotel and check out the Royal Hawaiian Center (the same folks who put on the Royal Grove Hula Show mentioned above). They offer lessons in ukulele, hula, Hawaiian quilting, making a lei, lauhala weaving, lomilomi massage, and more.
Enjoy historical tours
Many of Waikiki's hotels are much more than luxurious places to sleep. They're legendary properties in their own right. At the Moana Surfrider (which dates to 1901) and Royal Hawaiian (aka the Pink Palace, which dates to 1927) historian-led guided tours are available.
Two things to note: On the Royal Hawaiian's tour page, it notes that the program is for hotel guests. Personally, I think it's worth committing a little gate-crash to join in or, if you want to play by the rules, give them a call and ask the concierge to add you to the list. I suspect they won't turn down a history-loving visitor. At the Moana Surfrider, finding up-to-date tour info is a bit tricky (my link above is a few years old.) Consider doing a bit of research before you head over to make sure they're still available.
Visit an overlooked museum
The US Army Museum of Hawai'i is an overlooked gem. While most visitors head to the outskirts of Honolulu to visit Pearl Harbor, there is an excellent tribute to Hawaii's military history right in Waikiki. Slated to reopen after renovations in December 2022, this wonderful museum even validates parking, making it an exceptional frugal activity.
Browse for bargains
If you love bargain hunting and the excitement of the search, the International Market Place, a collection of open-air shops in Waikiki, will be very satisfying. Sure, there are some decidedly non-budget options but there are good deals as well, plus inexpensive eateries and cultural events (like lei-making classes).
Another great option is the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet and Marketplace, a massive flea market where everything from silly t-shirts to fine art are available. Admission is $1.00 and you can spend hours wandering the stalls, picking up free food samples, and enjoying treats like freshly cracked coconuts.
Enjoy the sights and sounds of the farmers market
The KCC Farmer's Market, run by the Hawaii Farm Bureau, takes place not far from Diamond Head on Saturday mornings and offers free parking. This is the spot to chat with locals, enjoy tasty samples, and pick up local fruit, snacks, and light meals for bargain prices. Grab some taro chips from the Hawaiian Chip Company.
Snack on a malasada
These yummy, donut-like treats are available at shops all over Waikiki. The most legendary location is Leonard’s Bakery, which has been serving up baked goods since the 1952. Cinnamon sugar is my personal favourite.
Grab a cup of Hawaiian coffee
Finding a cup of coffee with 100% Hawaiian beans that's not part of a pricey hotel coffee shop is no easy task in Oahu. Here are some independent spots to check out.
Nosh on cheap eats at a legendary diner
Since 1961, the Rainbow Drive-In has been serving up bargain eats and making appearances on all your favourite Food Network shows. Now, I'll admit it would be hard to stick to a budget of $5.00 here but sandwiches (like spam 'n egg and tuna salad) are all under $5.00, while cheeseburgers are a steal at $3.75 and a serving of chilli with rice is just $4.50. Slush floats (strawberry punch with a scoop of vanilla ice cream) are affordable at just over $4.00. If your budget stretches to $10.00, you can buy just about anything on the menu.
Cool off with a shave ice
The best way to cool off from the Hawaiian sun is to enjoy the state's signature treat, shave ice. Shimazu Shave Ice, an unassuming little spot far away from the beach, regularly finds itself on lists of Oahu's best shave ice and its small cone (which includes a choice of three different flavoured syrups) rings in at $5.00. You can choose from popular options like pineapple, strawberry, and vanilla or branch out into something more memorable, like durian, li hing, or tamarind.
Savour quiet time at the park
Kapiolani Park is Honolulu's oldest public park. It's home to the Waikiki Zoo and Aquarium (sorry, definitely NOT free!) as well as the Queen Kapiolani Garden, which is home to beautiful flowering plants. There's always something going on in the park, including free concerts, festivals, and sporting events (it's the finishing point of the Honolulu Marathon). On Saturdays and Sundays, "Art On The Fence" takes place by the backside of the zoo.
Hike Diamond Head
Diamond Head State Monument is the extinct volcano on the east end of Waikiki, a symbol of Honolulu, and one of the most popular hikes in Hawaii. What you see from the beach is only a profile; the best place to visit for viewing the crater is at Diamond Head State Monument, where the crater itself can be visited.
Reservations to visit Diamond Head are $5.00 per person and there are additional fees if you bring your vehicle (I know, I know.... this is really stretching the idea of things being $5.00 or less!) However, this challenging and rewarding hike is well worth the cost and effort. Read about rules and regulations affecting your visit here.
Head to the movies (when available)
Unlike most of the items on this list, I haven't personally attended the Sunset On The Beach movie program, which screens movies for free on Queen's Beach, across from the Honolulu Zoo. But I want to do it so badly that it's been on my list for over 12 years now! Alas, I wonder if the pandemic has put an end to this wonderful freebie, as I haven't been able to find any recent listings. I'm hoping you'll have better luck than me. Check out the Waikiki Improvement Association online for any upcoming events - they're the folks in charge.
Hang out at the Friday night fireworks
Clear your calendar! On Friday nights, you need to visit the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel (or the nearby beach). Each week, the property hosts a fireworks show around 7:45PM. I suggest making early dinner reservations for a nearby restaurant and maybe heading over to the hotel for a drink before the show - you might just catch part of the Rockin Hawaiian Rainbow Revue program, which begins at 7:00PM
Check out this sneaky link for the scoop on free festivals and events
Want to know when different street festivals are taking place? You can see a list of upcoming activities by checking out this site which shows what festivals and events have their permits. Hurrah for bureaucracy!
Prepare to fall in love with Waikiki
When Ryan and I first landed at Honolulu's airport, we immediately fell in love with the building's open air design and the warm, fragrant breezes that floated over us as soon as we landed. We hadn't been on the ground for more than ten minutes before we declared that we were going to return again in two years. And we did! I suspect you'll love Hawaii and exploring Waikiki as much as we did - and that a repeat visit is in your future as well.
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