You booked that plane ticket and have your bags packed for Hawaii. Hawaii is synonymous with paradise. Most people save up an entire lifetime to experience everything the island has to offer. And holy shit, you’re finally doing it!
Now, I was born, raised, and have lived here on Oahu for most of my life. If you’re visiting the islands for the first time, I want you to make the most of your time here. Please don’t squander your precious vacation by making the same mistakes I see countless tourists make over and over again.
That’s why I put together this list of seven things to avoid on Oahu as a first-time visitor.
I guarantee if you do at least one of the following, you’ll have a better experience on the island.
Spending the Entire Time in Waikiki
Waikiki is the tourist hub of Hawaii. It’s oversaturated with high-end luxury shops, national chain hotels, and restaurants, and millions of people choose to stay there every year. You have everything a person could want and need within a 1-mile radius. Why venture out?
Well, firstly, you’ll find cheaper and more delicious eateries outside of Waikiki. A few of my go-to’s are Fresh Catch, Ono Seafood, and Helena’s Hawaiian Food.
Secondly, beaches, such as Lanikai and Makua Beach, are less crowded and more scenic.
And lastly, you’re not going to get the true essence of Oahu without escaping the hoards of tourists dressed in the same, tacky-ass Aloha shirts they bought from the ubiquitous ABC store.
Trying the Same Ho-Hum Food
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there’d be a huge crowd of tourists outside of the Waikiki Cheesecake Factory. Seriously?
I love cheesecake as much as anyone, but why’d you travel thousands of miles to eat food you can get anywhere? I challenge you to step out of your comfort zone and try new things.
Try local dishes like loco moco, malasada, kalua pig, shave ice, poke, and pipikaula short ribs. To understand Hawaii better, engross yourself in the food. I implore you to skip the chain restaurants and opt for the local cuisine. Not only will you have a cheaper, more delicious, and memorable meal, but you’ll also be supporting local small businesses. It’s a win-win for everybody.
Taking Only Public Transportation
Honolulu’s public transportation, or TheBus, ranks as one of the nation’s best. TheBus is cheap ($2.75 for a one-way fare), reliable, and gets people where they need to go. It’s great for local people. For first-time travelers, the biggest problem with TheBus is that it’s so much less convenient than a car.
But Shane, what about the parking in Waikiki? I heard it’s fucking expensive.
It’s true. Most hotels in Waikiki charge an exorbitant amount for parking, north of $40/night. Years ago, I used to work at a rental car company in Waikiki. The smart customers picked a car up soon as we opened. After exploring for the day, they returned the vehicle before closing to avoid the high parking fee.
If you ultimately decided to pay for parking, the price of a rental car is still worth it, considering the convenience factor and how much time you’d save.
Honolulu as a city is notorious for having the worst traffic in the US, if not the world. According to a 2018 report by transportation analytics firm INRIX, Honolulu ranked the 18th most congested city in the US and 111th globally. The study also reported that drivers spend an average of 92 hours per year in traffic, costing $1,282 per driver.
Many Hawaii residents, who work in town, live on the Windward and Leeward sides of the island, where housing costs are more affordable than in Honolulu. Thus, the morning traffic to town is bumper-to-bumper, and vice versa in the evening.
If you want to make a day trip to the North Shore, for example, I’d suggest leaving early in the morning between 6:00–7:00 AM. Heading back into town, best before 3:00 PM, or if you don’t want to feel rushed, after 6:30ish when the traffic dies down.
You have to remember we’re on an island, and running into some form of traffic is inevitable. If you plan, you can avoid the heaviest traffic congestion, which will result in less time behind the wheel and more time sipping mai tais on the beach.
Attending a Luau
Here’s a controversial take: I wouldn’t attend a luau.
From my experience, luaus are tourist traps. They’re pricey, the food is crap, and they don’t delve deep into the significance of the Native Hawaiian/Polynesian culture.
If you could give two shits on what I think, and it’s been your lifelong dream to attend a luau, you might as well go all-in by visiting Hawaii’s biggest luau spectacle: the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie.
If you prefer not to see yet another tourist’s cringeworthy attempt at the hula, forgo a luau altogether. You can get better Hawaiian food at a local establishment like Helena’s Hawaiian Food and learn more about the Native Hawaiian culture through a book.
Don’t be one of those tourists where the skin on their face and body is apple red from not applying enough sunscreen.
One of the main reasons why you’ve come to Hawaii is to soak up some glorious sun rays on the beach. But there’s nothing that will kill your vacation faster than a painful sunburn.
I suggest sunscreen with at least SPF 50 and generously lather that shit all over your face and body. Also, don’t forget to use reef-safe sunscreen because we need to think about the coral and all of the marine life.
Always on the Go-Go-Go
As I mentioned before, I used to work at a rental car company, and one of the branches I worked at was near the cruise ship line. We’d get customers renting and returning the vehicles on the same day as they had to get back on the ship for their next destination.
They’d have a laundry list of things they wanted to do here on Oahu with the seven to eight hours of freedom they had. I constantly told them about their itinerary, “You don’t have enough time.”
Rushing through all the sites is a shitty way to experience Oahu. Allow yourself at least three to four days, so you’re not running around like a headless chicken.
That’ll give you ample enough time to take a day trip out to the North Shore, do a couple of hikes, taste some delicious foods, and chill at the beach.
Plus, that frantic go-go-go mentality doesn’t mesh well here on the island.
If there’s anything we’ve learned living through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, it’s that Hawaii’s economy relies heavily on the tourism industry.
I’m not going to lie; it’s been nice to have our beaches, parks, and roads less crowded over the past year. That can’t sustainably last forever, though. We need travelers visiting the islands to help resuscitate our economy and get Hawaii residents back to work.
Along with avoiding the seven mistakes I’ve outlined — if you’re respectful of locals, leave your surroundings in a better state than you found it, and come here with an open mind — you’re going to have a worthwhile experience.