What to Know Before You Visit O’ahu

Updated July 21, 2021.

It’s Travel Tip Tuesday! I don’t know about where you are, but where I am, it is cold outside! That also means I’m dreaming of beautiful Hawaii. I have a few friends planning trips to O’ahu this year, so I decided I need to create some “know before you go” material for this beautiful, historic, iconic island to help them–and perhaps YOU!–plan the perfect O’ahu getaway!


Fun fact: the Hawaiian alphabet only uses 13 letters. And if you turn on the news to check the weather or the surf advisories, you’ll hear a lot of nautical terms!

  • Aloha: Hello, goodbye, and love
  • Mahalo: Thank you
  • Leeward: the side of the island that is sheltered from the wind (on O’ahu, generally the south and southwest sides)
  • Windward: the side of the island that faces into the wind (generally the north and northeast sides)
  • Surf: Not surfing the sport. The surf is the water that breaks on the shoreline. If there is a “strong surf,” that means be careful out there
  • Tradewinds: also called “trades,” these are the winds that mostly come from the northeast of the islands in the northern hemisphere (that’s Hawaii!)
Waikiki as seen from Diamond Head, with calmer waters on the leeward side of the island!
More here: Hiking Hawaii: O’ahu

What to Bring

I have plenty of Packing resources for you to peruse, but here are some specifics for O’ahu that you may or may not think of:

  • Water shoes. Not flip flops (Hawaiians call them “slippahs”), not sandals, real water shoes. The beaches are beautiful, but even Waikiki is rocky in some areas. Nothing ruins a vacation in paradise like a cut foot stinging with salt water or a sore behind because you slipped and fell!
  • Sunscreen. If you’re going carry-on only, make sure to pack 3-ounce tubes. One three-ounce tube is sufficient for my husband and me for a week, but use your judgement. You can buy sunscreen on the island, of course, but better safe than sorry! Don’t forget to reapply!
  • Refillable water bottles. You can buy water there, but you can also just refill your bottle pretty much anywhere you stay or eat. If you plan on hiking for a couple of hours at a time or laying on the beach in the sun, bring more than one bottle with you.
  • Ladies: extra bathing suit bottoms. I often just wear my bathing suit under my clothes on an island. Guys can swim in their shorts, but I prefer to have my actual bathing suit on, especially if we go hiking. Many hikes all over Hawaii end with a waterfall into a beautiful pool–jump in!
  • Quick-dry clothing. You’ll get a little sweaty, and you’ll get wet walking around the shoreline in paradise! It’s also handy to have something quick-drying that you can throw on over a bathing suit.
  • Sunglasses. But please be careful not to lose them! And speaking of losing things…
  • Don’t bring your real wedding jewelry. Get a cheap place holder to wear instead–my husband lost his wedding ring in the ocean, and so have many others! Better to lose your place holder than the real thing!
  • A waterproof bag. I got the bag pictured below from San Gear on Amazon, and I will never go to the islands without it! Keep your phone, keys, money, book, water, etc. in here to keep it all dry and sand-free. This is especially helpful if you’re traveling solo or want to be in the water with the people you came to be with! No more worrying that your stuff on the beach will get swiped because you can have it with you in the water–and it floats!
Waterproof bag
More here: What to Pack for O’ahu

Getting Around

You won’t be disappointed if you stay in Waikiki the whole time you’re on the island, but you will also not regret exploring outside the main cities for a day or two either!

  • If you’re in Waikiki, consider walking to the rental car location. There are a ton of places to rent a car in Waikiki; plan to take a cab or Uber to your hotel and rent from one that is close to your hotel, especially if you are staying in Waikiki.
  • If you’re renting a car and are walking distance to the car rental place, book on non-consecutive days, or book each day separately. You will save $20-$50 per night when you drop the car off there instead of paying to park it at your hotel!
  • Don’t want to bother renting a car? Uber is the way to go! Unfamiliar with Uber? Check out A Traveler’s Guide to Uber!
  • Waikiki is very walkable! If you plan to stay around Waikiki for a few days, you don’t need a car those days.
  • There is one road that goes most of the way around the island. Be patient, be careful, and enjoy the scenery!
  • You can drive around the island in a day.
  • A book. Relax–you’re in Hawaii! Bring those books you keep meaning to read and enjoy them seaside.
My honey and the Duke Statue at Waikiki–walking distance from all Waikiki hotels!
More here: Hawaii’s Best Adventures

Utilize Your Jet Lag

Jet lag is a fact of travel, and if you’re coming from the mainland U.S., Europe, much of Oceania, or Asia, you will be several hours ahead of Hawaii! I have written about Jet Lag: Your Secret Travel Weapon before, but here are some specifics to take advantage of it on O’ahu:

  • Schedule morning activities the first two to three full days of your trip. If you want to take that morning snorkeling tour, get a head-start to drive all the way around the island to the best spot, or enjoy a sunrise viewing at a particularly beautiful vantage point. Start a long hike just before the sun comes up. Plan to do those things early on in your trip, before you get used to Hawaii time.
  • Plan your luau or nice dinner 3-4 days into your trip. You don’t want to fall face-first into your poi because it’s past midnight for your body! Let yourself get used to the time difference before you tackle those after-dark activities.
Start that hike early for a less crowded experience!
Plan ahead: What to Do on Your Last Day in Hawaii


It’s all poi and bananas until you realize there’s guava syrup.

  • Book your supper at Duke’s well in advance. As in, call today! It’s the most famous restaurant on O’ahu, named for and started by the hometown boy and father of modern surfing Duke Kahanamoku. It is right on world-renown Waikiki Beach, and it overlooks the water facing west. All these things make it a desirable dinner and sunset viewing destination. If you want to go for lunch, you will probably get in with no problem (but I’d still recommend an early for late lunch, not between noon-1:00). However, if you want that sunset, get a reservation!
  • Duke’s only dessert is the Hula Pie. It is also the only dessert you need, and it will feed 2-4 people, especially after a meal!
  • They have both coconut and guava syrup for your pancakes, waffles, or to spoon directly into your mouth!
  • Poi is mashed taro root; it is supposed to be purple, so don’t panic!
Get an acai bowl while you’re at it!
Keep eating: What to Eat on O’ahu

Pearl Harbor and Military Presence

  • If you’re going to Pearl Harbor, plan that early in your trip in case the weather is unaccommodating. The historical site and museum will be open, but the military is in full control of the boats that take you to the sunken ships in Pearl Harbor itself, and they can call off all tours at any time due to weather, military activity, or any other reason. They can close it for an hour or for the rest of the day, as deemed necessary. If you go early in your trip and the tours are cancelled, you can go back another day and try again. It’s completely free to visit!
  • You will watch a short video with real footage of the attack on Pearl Harbor before you take the boat to the U.S.S. Arizona.
  • There is a strong U.S. military presence on O’ahu.
  • You may not use your phone except to take photos in the theater, on the boat to the memorial, or while at the memorial; this is a time and place for contemplation, silence, and remembrance.
USS Arizona Memorial
Must read: Hawaii for History Lovers

Recommended Reading

I’m a writer, so it only makes sense that I like to read up on a place before I visit! A little fiction, a little fact, a little guidance, and you’ll be ready to take on beautiful O’ahu!

More here: Books to Read Before Your Trip to Hawaii

Want more O’ahu vacation inspiration, check out 10 Reasons to Visit O’ahu and What I Ate on O’ahu! And check out my Hawaiian Islands Page for all things Hawaii!

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9 responses to “What to Know Before You Visit O’ahu”

  1. This is great! You covered a areas that needed addressing. Well worded!!!

    1. I’m so glad! I am really excited for y’all’s trip! I also have “What to Know Before You Visit Kauai” coming out on Friday!

  2. What a fabulous post! Lots of great info. Now I only need someone to bu

    1. …buy me a ticket. Oops. Finger slipped. Lol

      1. Ha! Happens to me all the time! 🤣 I know, right?! Whenever you make it there, you’ll be prepared! I also have “What to Know Before You Visit Kauai” coming out on Friday!

      2. I will look for it!

  3. […] Also check out: What to Know Before You Visit O’ahu […]

  4. […] more? Check out What to Know Before You Visit O’ahu and my Pacific Islands Page for all things […]

  5. […] more? Check out What to Know Before You Visit O’ahu and my Hawaiian Islands Page for all things […]

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