Best Way to See Oahu in One Day

Are you island hopping from Maui, Kauai, and/or the Big Island and only on Oahu for a day or two? Have you spent your days by the pool of a Waikiki hotel, realized that your vacation is almost up, and are scrambling to squeeze in some sightseeing? Whatever the case may be, you want to see as much of Oahu as you can in a 12 to 18-hour period. Below is a breakdown of your options, and our recommendations for which ones to choose based upon your preferences.

6 Ways to Explore Oahu in One Day and Which Options You Should Choose

Option 1: Shared Tour Shuttle

As your guide to the real Hawai’i we have to be honest and recommend against this option. We shun shared shuttle services for the same reasons we do when it comes to the best way to get from Honolulu airport to your hotel. But beyond the crowded transporter, and inflated rates (when adding per-person costs for your party), there is a more pressing reason to skip it – it’s the least authentic way to see the island. Think about it, you’re herded from your resort lobby and on to a bus with dozens of tourists. You have a pre-set Circle Island schedule that allows you about 15-minutes per stop to see (not experience) an historical landmark, place of cultural significance, rainforest, legendary beach, local wildlife/sea-life, and other natural attractions. It does not afford you the opportunity to spend a few extra minutes to dive deeper, reflect, or connect with a special place. At least not without others breathing down our neck to do the same. Plus, shared shuttles are a bit of a thorn in the side of locals. Ever heard of turtle traffic? It’s the bane of the North Shore, as tour buses are responsible for holding up Kamehameha Highway traffic, namely at Laniakea aka “Turtle Beach”.

Look, shared shuttle tours have their place on the island. Seniors (kapuna) love them, as do those who prefer an “all-inclusive” experience when on vacation. But if you want to immerse yourself in the culture of Oahu, this isn’t your cup of kava.

Recommendation: Great for vacationing kapuna, but that’s about it.

Option 2: Car Rental

Renting a vehicle to see Oahu is a great option for people who don’t mind fussing with GPS and fighting through traffic. For years, Honolulu ranked worst in the entire nation for traffic. Sure, it recently seceded its notorious distinction to LA, but that was due to the state’s travel restrictions of 2020-21. Rest assured that Oahu will once again lay claim to the title. The reopening of the state to international travel also changed another important car rental consideration – price. Rates rose to an average high of about $700 per day during the reopening as Mainlanders flooded the gates to paradise. While that rate has come down, vehicle rental prices remain to be higher than what you find on the mainland. If considering an SUV or jeep (optimal for island exploring) for instance, you’re looking at upwards of $250 per day. That said, if you’re willing to give up 2-hours of free time to suffer through one of Waikiki’s time share presentations, you can score a free car rental along with some other swag. Either way, you will need to create an itinerary of must-see attractions on Oahu, and map out your route in a logical manner that takes from from the first place to the last, which leads you back to the rental service and/or hotel.

Recommendation: Not for everyone, but great for those who have the budget, patience, planning, and driving skills.

Option 3: Moped / Motorcycle

Does peddle-to-the-metal tickle your fancy? If you’re comfortable on the open road without being enveloped in steel, then you can see a great deal of the island via a moped. But the speed and performance on the highway are limited. It’s appropriate for exploring the south shore and windward side (from Waikiki) to see places such as Diamond Head Beach, Halona blowhole, Makapuu, Waimanalo Beach, Sandy Beach, China Walls Hawaii Kai, Kailua, and even Chinaman’s Hat in Kaneohe, but not so much for jaunts to the North Shore nor over to see the westside of Oahu’s attractions such as Makaha. We recommend renting your moped/scooter from Hawaii Style for shorter trips around Oahu. In order to see more of Oahu without being constrained by windows, a motorcycle is the most freeing way to soak it all up while feeling the wind in your hair (helmets not required, but recommended). For motorcycle rentals, we recommend Cruzin Hawaii (view directions) and Chase Hawaii Rentals (view directions).

Recommendation: It’s a great option with some limits for those inexperienced on the open road.

Option 4: Helicopter Tour

Best Way to See Oahu in One Day
image: Michelle Spollen @micki

Logistically, this is the most efficient route, as what better way to see it all in a short span of time than a bird’s eye view? That said, it’s not for those with acrophobia and/or an uneasy stomach when it comes to navigating high elevations. It’s also not the cheapest way to go. But if none of those disqualifying factors are an issue for you, a helicopter tour is hard to beat! Top operators include Paradise Helicopters (view directions), Blue Hawaiian (view directions), and the most recognizable of all – Magnum Helicopters (view directions).

Recommendation: For those with deep pockets and no issues with high-elevations.

Option 5: Public Transit

Until they get that dang Honolulu Area Rapid Transit (HART) up and running at some point in 2050, transit is the worst way to see the island in one day. It’s time-consuming, exhausting, will introduce you to some unsettling characters, and can make some think twice about calling Oahu paradise. That said, it can be done. It is also the cheapest option at just $5.50 for a day pass, and it may end up being more fun for you than most others experience.

We don’t recommend using The Bus to see attractions on the west side of Oahu, as the routes are inconvenient, infrequent, and you’ll spend more time looking at dust and concrete instead of lush scenery. Your best bet is The Bus to/and from the North Shore, which offers different routes and expands your opportunity to see and experience more, with a few caveats. For starters, you need to get up and at it EARLY. If you wake up after 6 AM you’re already too late. Also, have a detailed itinerary for what you want to see. We have a guide for how to spend a day on the North Shore without a car, that you can use for this particular neck of Oahu sightseeing. Otherwise, we recommend taking the #60 to see the beautiful windward side en route to the North Shore, then use the #52 to explore the North Shore and to ultimately make your way back to Ala Moana, then Uber back to your hotel from there. You will spend at least 5 hours on The Bus (not counting the time spent to walk around and explore) to see Oahu in one day.

TheBus 52: Wahiawa-Haleiwa (download route)

Best Way to See Oahu in One Day - TheBus 52

TheBus 60: Kaneohe-Haleiwa (download route)

Best Way to See Oahu in One Day

Recommendation: An option for those who have the time and don’t mind expending some sweat and tears to see the island.

Option 6: Private Custom Driving Tour

As addressed and dismissed above, shared shuttle operators offer little opportunity for an engaging experience. You may not also be up for being behind the wheel or handlebars, nor do you relish the idea of suffering Honolulu’s transit system. And while a chopper sounds awesome, it’s not the most practical means for seeing Oahu. Where does that leave you? With one of the most preferred but often unknown alternatives – a private custom driving tour.

Customization is the biggest benefit, as you get to dictate exactly what you want to experience. Do you want to see all of the top big wave surf destinations on the island? How about the most breathtaking beaches on the windward side? Perhaps you want to check out some of the island’s iconic film locations? From sea turtle spotting to shave ice tasting you can dictate the itinerary while a custom driving tour operator takes care of the leg work. Alternatively they can create an itinerary for you, after some brief discussion about what your general preferences are. That said, not all operators are created equally. Only one offers the flexibility you demand – Honolulu Airport Transfer. That’s right, the HNL transportation service that visitors have depended upon for well over a decade also offers custom island driving tours. Their rates are among the cheapest of any sanctioned shuttle service on the island. Most tour companies on Oahu charge between $120-$150 per person for day tour, but with Honolulu Airport Transfer, you pay just $60 per hour for you and up to three other passengers (small extra charge for larger parties). Call Call 1-800-929-1219 to ask about your custom driving tour.

Recommendation: Easiest way to see and experience Oahu in one day.

Do you have any questions about the above recommendations? Are you a new tour operator and think your service deserves inclusion on this list? Message us on Facebook to chat!