14 Tips If You’re Visiting Oahu for the First Time

visiting oahu for the first time

Its hard to know what’s what when you’re researching a string of islands from far away – especially if you’re never been there! You’re also learning Hawaiian city names at the same time!

If you’re visiting Oahu for the first time, I have 14 tips especially for you! All in list format, no long block of text to sift through!

visiting oahu for the first time
Family photo session at Lanikai Beach. Alison Bell, Photographer

Tips for Traveling to Oahu Right Now

You’re traveling to Oahu right now, I’m assuming you’re on a plane or waiting to board. Your bags are packed and schedule is either confirmed or wide open. Maybe both.

Here’s what you need to know:

  1. Buy your sunscreen in Hawaii
  2. Hawaii does have an Interstate system – the H1, H2, H3 are built to Eisenhower Interstate Standards.
  3. Waikiki is not a municipality. It’s a neighborhood of Honolulu.
  4. I hope you packed comfortable shoes, if not buy some!
  5. Drink lots of water now
  6. Enjoy the sunrise your first morning while you’re jet lagged
  7. Download the All Trails app if you want to hike
  8. Set an alarm for Friday Fireworks at Hilton Hawaiian Village starting at 7:45 – every Friday
  9. Get food and coffee NOW for your room. You’ll be awake before anything opens! #jetlag
DSC 7962 by Alison Bell, Photographer

Hi! I’m Alison, your chaos coordinator, toddler briber, and parent commiserator. Oh! And Oahu family photographer!

As the ringleader of my own 4-boy circus, I know how hard getting family photos can be.

I run my photo session like a party. I give you something TO DO so you don’t feel awkward wondering, “Where do I put my HANDS?!”

Dad is playing with the kids, everyone forgets what’s ACTUALLY happening, and you look amazing bc you’re actually enjoying yourself. #whoknewphotoscouldbefun

Fast. Fun. Done.

Oahu First Time Visitor

If you’re planning a trip to Oahu as a first time visitor, there’s several things you should know. The most important being sunscreen. Hawaii was the first state to ban harmful chemicals that kill the reef. But the ban doesn’t prevent travelers from bringing it in. If you’re not esure about your sunscreen, just buy it on island.

  1. Oahu is the name of the most populated island. Its not the same as Honolulu, Waikiki or The Big Island. Honolulu is a city on the island of Oahu. Waikiki is a neighborhood in the city of Honolulu. Hawaii is the name of the “Big Island” which is a plan ride away.
  2. You’ll arrive at HNL Airport. Its a 20 minute drive to Waikiki and 30 minutes to Ko Olina from the airport
  3. You’ll want a rental car. If you’re staying in Waikiki, everything is within walking distance… until you want to leave the city. If you want to go to the North Shore, other towns and beaches, rent a car.
  4. Hawaii has an interstate system. Yes, its not truly “inter” state but it is built to the Eisenhower Interstate Standards meaning military vehicles, speed limits, etc are all the same. The H1 goes east to west, H3 goes through the Ko’olau Mountains, H2 goes through the valley to the North Shore.
  5. Popular restaurants and luaus can book months in advance. Dukes takes reservations 6 months out! Don’t let that scare you though. If you’re willing to eat early or late, you can usually get in. Read my list of restaurants and cheap eating hacks.
  6. Pack hiking shoes or good walking shoes. There are dozens of state supported hiking trails in Oahu – and its FREE! Some of the best views are at the end of a hike.
  7. Be ready for traffic. You might think its easy to get everywhere just because its an island. Not so! Commuter traffic in an out of Honolulu is intense in every direction during normal rush hour. Map out drive times and just enjoy the ride.
  8. Friday Night Fireworks – Hilton Hawaiian Village puts on a fireworks show every week at 7:45 or 8p depending on the time of year.
  9. Famous North Shore waves only happen in the winter. The rest of the year its quite calm, even placid.
  10. Buy your sunscreen on island. Hawaii was the first state to ban harmful chemicals that kill the reef. But the ban doesn’t prevent travelers from bringing it in. If you’re not esure about your sunscreen, just buy it on island.
  11. Don’t forget nightlife. Oahu is the only island in the Hawaii with a substantial nightlife seen. Bars, speakeasies, and gastropubs are open all hours.
  12. Explore the west cost – during the day. Its off the beaten path of North Shore & Waikiki with smaller things to do!
  13. Hawaii doesn’t observe daylight savings time. Its amazing! The time difference will vary depending on the time of year.
  14. Waikiki is a popular beach for MANY reasons. Don’t explore other beaches without a lot of research, and checking conditions – especially with small kids. Look at this video if you need proof. That beach is just east of Waikiki but vastly different.
Alison Bell, Photographer
Extended family session near Disney Aulani, Ko Olina.
Alison Bell, Photographer

Oahu Tips for Travelers

Regardless if you’ve been to Hawaii, or Oahu before, here are some tips for making the most of your trip!

  • Beach Etiquette – This is real on the east coast too!
    • Keep 10 feet from sea turtles at all times
    • Don’t touch any wildlife
    • Don’t shake off sand down wind from anyone
    • Take your trash – and any other trash you find
    • Respect the water, waves and current
  • Don’t touch any wildlife. Monk seals and sea turtles especially
  • Respect the land and culture. When in doubt, slow down, smile and leave it better than you found it.
  • There are seasons in Hawaii, just not like the mainland:
    • Summer is hot and dry. Very little rain and calmer currents
    • Fall the trade winds stop making it feel even hotter
    • Winter brings the rain and the huge waves. It does get cooler at night!
    • Spring the waves begin to calm and the rain lessense
  • Transportation – There’s lots of options for getting around. The Bus is a public option, Uber, Lyft, Hui, Turo and of course traditional car rentals.
    • Biki bikes in wakiki is super fun if you’re 16 and over.
    • Turo is great for skipping ridiculously long lines at the airport.
  • Don’t stack rocks. Read this article about why.
What to wear for Beach photos FREE guide by Alison Bell, photographer

Tips for Your First Time in Honolulu

If you’re visiting Honolulu for the first time, here’s what you need to know

  • Waikiki is a neighborhood inside of Honolulu
  • Bishop Museum & Iolani Palace are cultural sites about Hawaiian history and worth a visit
  • Traffic is heavy and parking can be a challenge
  • Diamond Head Crater is in the east end of Waikiki
  • Waikiki Beach is popular for a reason – safe waters, wide beaches with soft sand, long surf breaks off shore so you can swim safely or surf. Its also very crowded.
  • Pearl Harbor & the Arizona Memorial are on the far west end of Honolulu. They are must see sites but 30 minutes from Waikiki and not convenient to much.
Alison Bell, Photographer
Family photo session near Waikiki, Oahu. Alison Bell, Photographer

Tips for First Time to Oahu for Families

Just about everything already listed applies to families as well but here are some more specific things to consider:

Waikiki Tips and Tricks

  • Don’t rent a car. You’ll pay lots of money to park it at the hotel.
  • Everything is walkable
  • BikiBike rentals are great for 16 and older
  • Duke Kahanamoku Beach was named second best beach in the US for 2023
  • House Without a Key is my favorite place for cocktails – live traditional music & hula from 6-8!
  • Read my guide for eating cheap in Waikiki.
  • Another guide on where to eat in Waikiki – date nights, with or without kids, etc.
  • International Market Place is a great shopping center for food, shopping and street performers after dark. Its open air and built around a very old Banyan Tree

More Resources on Visiting Oahu for the First Time

I'm a USMC spouse, South Carolina native, recovering homeschool mama of a 4 boy circus. They've taught me the most important facet of family photography: KEEP IT FUN!

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I find joy in chaos. The louder, the better!

I'm a USMC spouse, South Carolina native, recovering homeschool mama of a 4 boy circus.

They've taught me the most important facet of family photography: KEEP IT FUN!

hey, I'm Alison!


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