Hugh waved at the sights as we drove along the highway.

“That’s Ma`ili Beach all along here. Oh! See that guy by the road? He’s cooking kalbi barbecue — buy lunch from somebody like him. Oh! Tamura market — they have the BEST poke! Going to watch surfing on the North Shore? Great food trucks there! Visit Hale`iwa — pronounced ‘HAH-lay-EE-ba’ — yeah, just like that, that’s good!”

A bell rang. Hugh slowed to a stop and a woman sitting behind me got out.

“See you!” said Hugh, and we pulled back on the road. I was lucky that day to have boarded Hugh’s bus and was getting a guided tour of the west side of Oahu.

Faced with the long Seattle winter, I needed a warm, sunny getaway ― cheap. I’d heard the bus system on Oahu is so good you can forgo a rental car, and I figured I’d find some good prices on Airbnb. Here are best practices without breaking the bank.

Go when others stay home

I planned a six-day trip exploring beach towns beyond Honolulu. Avoiding major holidays, I found a midweek, nonstop round-trip fare from Seattle to Honolulu for $397. On my Hawaiian Airlines flight, I got snacks, lunch, a fruity rum drink and an Oahu map ― all free. I arrived at 12:30 p.m., with enough time to take two buses to my spotless Airbnb, drop off my luggage and take another bus to a beach before sunset.

Book a room with a (good re) view

Staying near a bus line was essential. My other Airbnb criteria included: great reviews, safe neighborhood and my own bedroom and bath. I chose two nights in Kapolei, a planned town near west side beaches, and three nights in Kailua, an upscale beach town on the east (“windward”) side of Oahu. My comfy Kailua place was three blocks from the beach, with beach chairs, umbrellas, boogie boards and a bike. My total lodging costs averaged less than $90 per night.


Hop on the bus

Oahu’s bus system didn’t disappoint. Every day, I bought a pass for $5.50, and (except for Sunday) never waited very long for a bus. Some drivers recommended better routes than what I planned; I took to running my itinerary by them. You can call for bus information daily until 10 p.m. According to the transit website, everything carried on must fit under the seat or on your lap; I packed a small backpack and a shoulder bag (plus a cloth grocery sack — Oahu has banned plastic bags).

Listen carefully for your stop. Many place names begin with “K,” and they can be easy to mix up if you aren’t paying attention. In Kapolei, I took the bus to Kealanani Avenue, then got off at Kamaaha. In Kailua, I got off at Kuaaina Way, turned right on Hualani, turned left on North Kainalu, and walked past Kaimi. In one case, I got off at the wrong street and trudged farther in the hot sun than I intended, but once I saw names on the street signs (and wrote them down), I was ready for the next ride.

Eating and entertainment on a budget

Expensive meals aren’t necessary in Hawaii. Cheap, delicious eats can be found at places like grocery stores, pho restaurants, farmers markets and lunch trucks.

As for activities, walking beaches, boogie-boarding waves and people-watching are free. One rainy day, I visited the Bishop Museum in Honolulu to learn about Hawaii’s history. A coupon from a tourist magazine got me a few bucks off admission (put toward coconut gelato in the cafe) and I caught a free guided tour.

I also caught a surfing competition on Oahu’s North Shore. The bus passed miles of beaches thronged with people and lunch trucks. But the ocean seemed awfully calm without the legendary 30-foot waves I’d read about in magazines. I got off at Waimea Bay and visited the lifeguard station. I watched local kids surf 5-foot swells, then caught a bus to Hale`iwa and feasted on coconut shrimp from a food truck.


I bought lightweight gifts I could carry easily, like small bottles of fragrant plumeria lotion and lip balms with kukui and macadamia oils (discounted with another coupon). At thrift stores, I picked up local music for myself and a Hawaiian shirt for my brother-in-law. At a farmers market in Kailua, I found packets of spices and a small jar of raw wildflower honey.

I ran into Hugh the bus driver once more on another route. This time, we exchanged emails, and when we reached my stop, he stood up and embraced me.

“You come back,” he said, “and I’ll show you my favorite places.”


If you go

Bus information:; 808-848-5555

Travel guides: (Oahu), (Kailua), (Hale`iwa)

General information: