What you need to know before going to Honolulu

From its stunning beaches to its historical landmarks, Hawaii's capital city has a lot to offer. Here’s what you need to know before you visit.

A shot of Honolulu, Hawaii.
  • Jetstar
  • October 2019

Capital city Honolulu is home to beachfront resorts towering over crescent-shaped shores, hula dancers, ukuleles, balmy breezes and nearby Waikiki beach. Pearl Harbor, the Ala Moana Center – the world’s largest open-air shopping mall - and Iolani Palace, the only royal palace in the US, are just a few of the island’s star attractions. And with nearly one million people, Oahu is also the most populated of Hawaii’s seven inhabited islands (including Hawaii, Maui, Molokai, Kauai, Lanai and Niihau) and the more than 130 smaller islands, atolls, islets and coral reefs that make up the 50th US state. But before you go, here is what you need to know…

Arrival info

It’s about a 15-minute drive to downtown Honolulu from the airport and about half an hour to the beaches of nearby Waikiki. You’ll find metered-fare taxis waiting for passengers outside the exit points to the airport, so make sure you ask the driver to start the ticker after you step in.

Taking an Uber or Lyft? Rideshare zones are in three locations on the second level outside lobbies 8, 5 and 2.

A road sign for Honolulu.
From taxis to shuttle buses, there are many transport options in Honolulu.

The island’s public transport system is simply called TheBus, jump on either route 19 or 20 for the trip to downtown Honolulu and Waikiki. But that’s only if you don’t have any luggage because the drivers rarely allow the extra space for it.

It’s always a good idea to pre-book a shuttle bus, as you’ll have the driver waiting for you with a sign at the airport, and most will track your flight so they are there on time for when you arrive.

To get from one terminal to another, a free shuttle called the Wiki Wiki (literally meaning ‘very quick’) ferries passengers and their luggage.

Getting around

To see the city’s major tourist attractions, buy either a one, four or seven-day pass aboard the Waikiki Trolley opens in new window (an open-air bus with side-facing seats) or double-decker bus. Each tour has its own route that you can jump on and off at popular tourist spots such as Pearl Harbor, the world’s largest open air shopping mall the Ala Moana Center, Honolulu Museum of Art, the Iolani Palace and others.

To see more of Oahu on your own itinerary, rental cars such as Hertz, Budget, Avis and Enterprise are all available direct from the airport. Find your self-guided route on the Shaka Guide app opens in new window but try and avoid Honolulu’s congested weekday peak hour traffic from 5am to 8am, and 3pm to 6.30pm.

Or, get around the city via public bus opens in new window for a very cost-worthy $5.50USD ($8AUD) day-pass, and pay the driver in cash.

For convenience, wave down or book a taxi, you’ll pay at least $3USD ($4.36AUD) flagfall and about $3USD per mile. There’s usually no booking fee, but keep the driver waiting for up to an hour and you’ll be at least $36USD ($52AUD) out of pocket.

The Waikiki Trolley bus in Hawaii
The Waikiki Trolley route covers the island's major tourist attractions.

Visa facts

As Hawaii is a US state, the same entry-rules apply. This means citizens from 37 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, can visit for up to 90 days under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Just head to the Department of Homeland Security’s website and fill in the Electronic System for Travel Authorization opens in new window (ESTA) at least 72 hours before your departure. And ensure there’s at least six months validity opens in new window on your e-passport from the date you leave Hawaii.

Currency

US dollar notes and coins are in circulation throughout the islands of Hawaii. You’ll find the Currency Exchange shops open until about 1.30pm upstairs at Honolulu Airport, and ATMs are located across both levels. Throughout the city, most banks are open from 9am until about 4pm to 6pm, depending on the bank and the day. The main banks are Hawaii National Bank opens in new window, First Hawaiian Bank opens in new window and Central Pacific Bank opens in new window.

Language

Hawaii is an English-speaking nation so you’ll have no problem traveling around or asking the locals for directions. But a little of the centuries-old Hawaiian language opens in new window never goes astray, so just remember to say aloha for your hellos and goodbyes, mahalo for ‘thank you’ and a hui hou kakou for ‘until we meet again’. To clarify toilet speak, restrooms often have Wahine (women) or Kane (men) on the doors. Pidgin English or Hawaiian Pidgin Creole is the melding of English and Hawaiian and is also an officially listed language of the islands. Common pidgin words include ‘broke da mouth’ for delicious, ‘ono grinds’ means good food, and I am done is ‘I am pau’.

An artwork made of of surfboards painted with the word 'aloha
While the locals speak English, a little bit of Hawaiian never goes astray.

Food

There is no other place on earth you would want to be other than in Hawaii itself to taste their marinated raw fish dish poke, the Poi which is made from the root of ground-up taro, or meat cooked in a traditional earth oven called an imu, during a lūʻau. A lūʻau opens in new window is a traditional Hawaiian feast, accompanied with performances from hula dancers swaying to the traditional ukulele and rolling drums.

If you’re after a quick bite to eat, then there’s food such as sushi, noodles, salads, pizza, ice-cream and the local favourite - shave ice - aplenty sold in cafes, restaurants, sidewalk carts or from food trucks. Also, cooked and canned pork meat, branded Spam, never lost its appeal among the locals after GIs introduced it to the islands sometime around World War II.

Two woman share a cup of shaved ice.
Shaved ice is the perfect snack for a sunny day.

Customs and etiquette

If someone furnishes you with a lei, wear it around your neck with it hanging equally down your front and back while you’re in their presence. Don’t twist it up into some kinda funky head decoration, or wrap it around your wrist (that’s a kupe’e). No. The Hawaiians have a deep respect and appreciation of the Lei, and as a visitor it is customary to do likewise. If you’re pregnant, then just make sure the lei is open (for example, like a scarf is open). A closed lei is considered bad luck as it represents the umbilical cord being wrapped around the baby’s neck. Or just decline by saying “I’m hapai” (pregnant). A flower in the right ear means you’re single and one in the left means you’re taken.

Offer your seat, open doors for, and let the elderly (kupuna) go ahead of you. Speak and walk quietly around sacred sites such as rock walls, temples, and ancient Hawaiian carvings, take your rubbish with you and leave the area as you found it. And leave the black sand or volcanic rock where it is, least you’re followed by years of bad luck.

Other than all of the above, have fun, just be polite.

A woman puts a lei on a man wearing a Hawaiian shirt.
The customary way to wear a lei is around the neck.

Dress code

Long gone are the days of grass skirts and loin-cloths. Although these pieces of clothing have been restructured to fit modern times, and are mostly worn during hula performances. Now’s the time to get loud with floral Hawaiian shirts because it’s always the season for Aloha-style fashion in Honolulu. Bring out the sarongs, sandals, shorts, skirts, singlets and sunscreen, for this is the land of sand and surf where casual attire is acceptable.

If going out, then women can dress cool in a smart casual maxi or a modern muumuu (a locally popular floral loose-fitting, cap-sleeved dress) with strappy sandals. While men can wear chino shorts and a breezy collared shirt with closed-toe boat shoes. But just observe, or chat to your host, if you’re unsure.

A rack of Hawaiian shirts
Hawaiian shirts are the clothing of choice for tourists and locals alike.

Connectivity

Most of the Hawaiian islands are connected to the great Wi-Fi gods in the sky, so you’ll have no problem browsing online, checking social media, or posting those insta-photos and, with an average internet speed of 20.6mpbs (megabytes per second), uploading Youtube videos should be hassle-free. Just make sure you buy a local SIM card and disable data roaming on your mobile phone to avoid total bill shock when you get home. To save money on data charges, make good use of the airport (Honolulu Airport has the fastest Wi-Fi speeds out of all the airports in the US, according to a recent study by Ookla), hotel, motel, cafe or restaurant Wi-Fi by downloading maps for offline use.

Weather

Hawaii is known for having only two seasons; Summer (Kau) which begins in May until the start of Winter (Hooilo) in November. So don your wide-brimmed hat and oversized glam glasses for balmy tropical temperatures year-round. The heat hits highs just above 30C in the driest month of June, and lows rarely dip below 20C in the rainiest month of December.

Palm trees in the sun
Hawaii enjoys balmy tropical temperatures all year round.

Electricity

In Hawaii, the power plugs and sockets are type A and B, whereas in Australia they’re type I. The voltage in Hawaii is 120v and the frequency is 60 Hz, whereas in Australia the voltage is 230v with 50 Hz. So, you’ll definitely need a converter. Just look for an adapter plug that fits in with the US mainland, as Hawaii has the same electricity sockets.