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Oahu is an incredibly small island at just under 600 square miles. This leaves many (at one point ourselves included) trying to understand how long driving around the island might take, and subsequently how long we need a rental car.
It takes between 4 and 6 hours to drive around Oahu depending on the route you take and the traffic. However, this only includes pit stops at select locations during your road trip.
For an in-depth road trip experience we’d recommend two or three days (depending on what you want to see and how long you want to spend at each location) of driving around Oahu.
How To Drive Around Oahu
Travelling around the island of Oahu is best done by travelling east out of Waikiki (avoiding the H2) and up along the coast to the North Shore.
There is no ring road, around the island of Oahu and instead, once you reach the North Shore you’ll have to take the H2 back down through the centre of the island to Waikiki.
As such if you want to travel to the likes of Kaʻena Point State Park or Maili then you’ll have to turn around and come back the way you came which significantly increases your travel time.
Sadly, this isn’t the only thing that can significantly increase your travel time when exploring Oahu as the island is subject to terrible traffic, especially on the H1 heading in and out of Waikiki.
Traffic is typically the worst between Monday and Friday and starts as early as 5am all the way through until lunch and then again from 3pm until roughly 7pm with people heading in and out of the surrounding areas for work.
To minimise potential delays we highly recommended planning your driving route in advance and allowing for some extra time wherever possible.
There are four freeways on the island of Oahu;
This is the main east-west highway and is just over 27 miles long connecting Honolulu to the central part of the island.
This highway is a key thoroughfare for both locals and visitors, connecting major residential, commercial, and tourist areas and is often subject to the worst traffic on the island.
This is a major north-south highway that runs for roughly 23 miles from Pearl City in the central part of the island to Waipahu, near the western coast.
This freeway provides access to some of Oahu’s top attractions such as the Pearl Harbor, the Dole Plantation, and the Waikele Premium Outlets shopping centre.
This is a limited-access toll road that runs from the Halawa Interchange in Aiea to the Kaneohe Interchange in Kaneohe.
This provides a direct route for travellers heading from the central part of the island to the windward side.
This is a short, limited-access toll road that runs from the H1 Freeway near the city of Pearl City to the H2 Freeway in the central part of the island.
This highway provides a convenient route for travellers heading from the central part of the island to the North Shore.
Accommodation During Your Road Trip
During the planning phase of our trip to Oahu, we wanted to travel around the island spending nights at hotels and vacation homes as we went.
However, outside of Waikiki, there are very few hotels and short-term vacation rentals are not permitted.
As such, many people (ourselves included) return to Waikiki after a day of exploring the island.
This isn’t ideal as the traffic back into the Honolulu area can be terrible (especially at this time). However, without splashing the cash in one of the very few luxury resorts in the north of the island, it’s somewhat unavoidable.
Our 3-Day Road Trip Around Oahu
We travelled around the island of Oahu using a rental car for three days, returning to Waikiki each evening.
On our first day, we picked up the rental car and headed out of Honolulu on the H2 towards the North Shore.
Originally we wanted to go to Laniakea Beach, however, because of the surfing contest and because we’d set off later than planned due to the hire car, there were no parking spaces available.
After circling the parking lot for 20 minutes we decided to head back to Haleʻiwa.
Haleʻiwa Aliʻi Beach Park has one of the largest parking lots in all of the North Shore. While it may not be as fancy as some of the other beaches in Oahu, it’s got plenty of space and facilities that make it a great choice for families.
After spending an hour here, we drove five minutes to the North Shore Marketplace.
The North Shore Marketplace has a number of different parking options, however, we went for the parking lot where Patagonia is located.
We spent just over an hour here grabbing snacks from the local store, browsing the shops for Hawaii souvenirs and picking up some lunch before heading back to Honolulu for our 3pm reservation to visit the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbour.
We finished up at Pearl Harbour at around 4.30pm and headed back to Waikiki. Given the time, the traffic was horrendous, and it took us the best part of an hour to travel the 13 or so miles to our accommodation.
We were able to wake up early and hit the ground running on the second day of our road trip in Oahu. However, even leaving Waikiki at 7am leaves you with some traffic heading out along the H1 and H2.
After just over an hour we managed to get parked up at Laniakea Beach, this time with no issues. However, we only spent around 30 minutes here since the water wasn’t suitable for swimming due to the high waves.
We then drove the 5 minutes to Waimea Bay Beach Park, however, much like Laniakea swimming was not permitted due to the high waves.
So after 30 minutes of playing in the sand with our little boy, we decided to take advantage of the waves and go and watch the surfing at Banzai Beach.
During our visit, they were setting up for the Billabong surfing contest that was due to start at the weekend, and as such parking was more difficult than usual.
However, we found a space at the side of the road which was just a short walk from an alleyway which connected the road to the beach.
Unlike some of the other beaches, we’d visited this morning Banzai was busy with surfers, spectators and photographers.
Again, due to the high waves, swimming was not permitted. However, much like most others here, we were more than entertained by the incredible surfing.
We spent just short of an hour here before moving on. However, had our little boy been older (14 months at the time) or we were travelling solo, we could have just as easily spent the rest of the morning if not all day here.
After Banzai Beach, we drove just over 5 miles (roughly 12 minutes) to one of the most northernly points in Oahu, Turtle Beach.
Turtle Beach is situated within the five-star luxury Turtle Bay Beach Resort, however, both entry and parking are available for the general public – although it can feel as though you’re trespassing on multiple occasions.
If you’re looking for an incredible family-friendly beach in the north of Oahu then we can’t recommend Turtle Beach enough!
Snorkelling gear, drinks and snacks are all available from the beach hut, while the beachside restaurant also has rave reviews.
We paid $5 for a bottle of diet coke and $5 for a Nature Valley cereal bar to tie us over for a late lunch so we could head out into the water for a swim.
However, as anyone with kids knows, nothing goes to plan and within ten minutes of getting into the water our little boy was looking to take a nap (damn timezones!)
So, we got changed, packed up and drove the 4 miles (10 minutes) to Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck for lunch.
It’s hard to read or watch anything about Oahu without someone mentioning Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck so it felt as though a right of passage to stop here.
The food at Giovanni’s was good, and the other cafés and food trucks nearby at The Mill (within walking distance) had plenty of road trip snacks, desserts and options for the little ones.
After lunch at around 1.30pm, we drove around the corner (literally!) to Hukilau Beach Park.
We had planned to stop here, however, the clouds were closing in. So instead, we took a few photos and headed across the road (again, literally!) to the Polynesian Cultural Center.
We didn’t plan to stop at the Polynesian Cultural Center, however, we decided that since we had the time and the parking spaces were available we’d enquire about tickets etc.
Sadly, the queue for tickets was way longer than anticipated so instead we wandered around the free marketplace for 20 minutes before heading back to the car.
Visiting the Polynesian Cultural Center is a full morning or afternoon, so if you are planning on spending some time here you’d want to extend this itinerary to four days or replace this experience with something else mentioned.
It’s hard not to be pulled towards viewing each and every beach along the North Shore of Oahu.
However, after getting in and out of the car multiple times we were grateful for the 12-mile (25-minute) non-stop journey to our final stop Kualoa Regional Park.
Much like Haleʻiwa Aliʻi Beach Park which we visited on the first day, the parking, facilities and amenities here mean that you could easily spend all day here during the summer.
However, in our case, the clouds continued to close in and rain felt somewhat inevitable.
By now it was almost 4pm and we were more than ready to head back to our apartment for the evening, so we drove the 25 miles along HI-83 and HI-61 back to Waikiki.
The journey is expected to take around 45 minutes, but given the time and therefore the subsequent traffic it was closer to 5.30pm before we got to the parking lot.
We began our third and final day of driving around Oahu at Diamond Head.
This is the most popular hiking spot in Oahu and is located just outside of Waikiki (roughly a 2-mile, 10-minute drive).
Tickets for Diamond Head must be purchased in advance on the Hawaii government website, and do sell out so in our case we booked these one week in advance to ensure that we got the morning slot that we wanted.
Since we were hiking Diamond Head with a baby we wanted to avoid the peak daytime heat and humidity at all costs and instead went for the first available morning slot at 7am.
Sadly many people come at this time to view the sunrise, however, the sun rises over on the westward side of the island and as such can not be seen from Diamond Head.
The hike provided incredible views out across Waikiki, however, the peak was significantly smaller and more crowded than we anticipated so we were quick to turn around and head back down to the car.
From here we drove back into town to pick up some well-earned Malasada Puffs from Leonard’s Bakery before heading to Hanauma Bay.
Hanauma Bay is located 9 miles (25 minutes) from Diamond Head, however, much like Diamond Head tickets must be obtained in advance and are significantly more difficult to obtain.
Tickets for Hanauma Bay are released at a set time two days in advance of your planned visit and sell out within a matter of minutes.
Limiting access to Hanauma Bay was done to limit the impact humans have on the diverse range of marine life and tropical fish species here.
However, don’t let the hassle of trying to get tickets here put you off visiting, as Hanauma Bay is incredible and is one of our personal favourite things to do on the island of Oahu.
While snorkelling and swimming are the most popular activities here, you can also sunbathe or picnic on the beach, take a guided reef walk or explore the hiking trails that offer breathtaking views of the bay and surrounding areas.
We visited Hanauma Bay in the morning and spent around three to four hours snorkelling here (the bay closes at 4pm, with the last ticketed entry at 1.30pm), although we could have just as easily spent longer.
Hanauma Bay is closed Mondays and Tuesdays and as such, you may want to adjust your itinerary to accommodate this.
After lunch from the fast food stall at Hanauma Bay, we planned to drive along HI-72 to cover the beaches and attractions we’d missed during our ring road trip the day prior.
However, we were so burnt out from getting in and out of the car all day we decided to head back to our accommodation in Waikiki instead.
Returning Your Rental Car
If you’ve picked up your rental car from Daniel K. Inouye International Airport then you’ll likely be returning the car to the same location before flying home.
In this case, I recommend arriving at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport with an extra 30 minutes to 1 hour so that you’re able to complete any paperwork that might be required and commute to the main terminal building.