Big Island vs Oahu: Which Hawaiian Island is Better?

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When thinking about which Hawaiian island to visit, you might think the choice is easy.

For much of the last century, Oahu was considered the better island, with it being more developed than its counterpart.

However, in recent years, the Big Island has gained in popularity and more and more people are visiting there to experience the slower pace of life and rugged landscape.

There are so many reasons to choose one island over the other, but which is really the best?

The answer to that question depends on who you ask and what you value.

There are some clear differences between Big Island vs Oahu, so let’s break it down to see which island is better for first-time visitors.

Should You Visit Big Island or Oahu?

What is Big Island Known For?

Big Island gives you a chance to disconnect from digital distractions and experience a slower, more grounded approach to life.

Expect a stunning breadth of outdoor activities that take you through unusual terrain – like the vicinity of an active volcano.

If being out in nature appeals to you, especially with the promise of very few humans; you’ll love this authentic Hawaiian retreat.

Oahu turquoise water white sand and palm trees
waikiki beach with diamond head in background

What is Oahu Known For?

Oahu is the best pick for those who want to experience a bit of everything.

First-timers in particular would come to appreciate its ease of travel and open access to various attractions.

From shopping to beach time, to shark diving and touring through museums; your itinerary is a creative endeavor.

It’s also the preferred option for those who can’t live without modern comforts.

Beaches

If we’re looking at beaches alone, the Big Island vs Oahu debate on outdoor fun is rather skewed towards the latter.

What Are the Beaches Like on Big Island?

Big Island beaches are absolutely magical to the eye, but not so much for your swimming or surfing needs.

Aggressive reefs and rips are huge surfing “no’s” unless you’re extremely experienced.

If snorkeling is a must-include for you, Hapuna Beach and Kahalu’u Beach Park are the safest, most sheltered options.

Still, photographers and casual beach loungers appreciate the unusual color palette of beaches on Big Island.

Papakolea Beach’s green sand puts you in a different world. Elsewhere, volcanic shores set up a striking contrast of black grains against aquamarine waves.

You’ll also be pleasantly surprised by Magic Sands Beach as the sand changes color by the day.

Oahu Beach and scenery
oahu beach and scenery

What Are the Beaches Like in Oahu?

Oahu slides in to knock Big Island off the list of contenders, especially when it’s summer surf season.

Waikiki Beach is a world-famous name, linked to a 2-mile stretch of luxury hotels and tourist haunts.

When it comes to pristine white sand, no place in Hawaii does it better.

Speaking of surfing, Oahu’s North Shore lures in daring crowds who love huge swells.

You can also kayak and dive with sharks along this rocky coastline, or hit up Hanauma Bay on the opposite end instead.

More examples of Oahu’s beachy charms include Lanikai Beach, Waimea Bay and Turtle Bay.

Does Big Island or Oahu Have Better Beaches?

Oahu takes the lead this time! Not even the crowds can deter a beach lover – there are plenty of options for you to choose from anyway.

The diverse cast of beaches in Oahu allows for sun tanning, sunset viewing, thrilling water sports and everything water-related.

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Things to Do

Big Island and Oahu are both charming places, but their charm factor lies in rather different directions.

Things to Do on Big Island

Big Island is like a slumbering giant from ancient times. As centuries passed, forests, waterfalls, plantations and people grew up on top of… an active volcano.

That’s right; Big Island is famous for its volcanoes (all five of them) and the accompanying landscapes.

Hawaii Volcanoes Natural Park is a must-do for this reason – offering both amazing hikes and views.

More unusual terrain shows up in form of colored sand, such as at Punalu’u Beach.

Many of these skirt verdant valleys like Pololu Valley and Waipio Valley, which outdoor enthusiasts happily tackle.

If you’re steady in your hiking shoes, take the opportunity for some photo ops along Big Island’s impressive coastline.

Helicopter rides are popular for this very reason. Not a fan of sky-high adventures? Hapuna Beach is a great snorkeling destination.

Apart from its terrifyingly beautiful landscapes, Big Island is a peaceful getaway from city life. Easy and comfortable excursions include coffee plantation tours.

There may no longer be 600+ of them, but those still in operation offer a fascinating glimpse of Hawaii’s coffee culture.

Historical runs may also take you to the ancient caves of Waipio Valley, or the sacrificial temple of Mo’okini Heaiau.

For those who prefer immersive experiences, traditional craft workshops are available in the towns.

Learn a Tahitian dance or how to whip up a Polynesian meal at home.

Waipio Valley Big Island Hawaii
waipio valley big island hawaii

Things to Do in Oahu

On the flip side, Oahu is the most modern and metropolitan of the Hawaiian Islands.

Shopping and food ventures are guaranteed at some point during your trip.

Then there are beach clubs, wellness spas, and even art galleries to browse; city entertainments are always within reach.

There’s a focus on Hawaii’s rich history as well.

You can dive into the various industries that have cycled in and out of Hawaii – Dole Plantation and Polynesian Cultural Center are great learning spheres.

You can also tour royal residences such as Iolani Palace, or discover Hawaii through the collection at the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art.

Most notably, Oahu is the site of Pearl Harbor.

The scars of WWII are on display at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, Battleship Missouri Memorial and Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum.

That’s not to say that Oahu doesn’t boast an impressive resume of outdoor activities too.

Visiting beaches in Oahu is a must, especially when beach shops cater to every water activity you can think of.

You can snorkel, paddleboard, surf, and even swim with sharks!

From Waikiki’s tourist-studded presence to the diving sites of Hanauma Bay – you’re set for a day under the sun.

Other outdoor activities take you inland to Oahu’s own volcanic remains, pretty Lyon Arboretum and dino-infested Kualoa Ranch.

Note that hikes outside of Honolulu’s borders (the Maunawili Falls Trail and Pillbox Hike, for example) are readily accessible; a far cry from Big Island’s isolated reaches.

Are There More Things to Do on Big Island or Oahu?

Both Big Island and Oahu have unique selling points: unfiltered adventures in wilderness, or an indoor-outdoor blend.

Big Island’s diverse landscapes and unspoiled nature is a dream come true for outdoor enthusiasts. 

Oahu, on the other hand, allows you to pick a wide variety of things to do during your Hawaii trip.

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Nightlife

Nightlife in Oahu

Nightlife on Big Island or Oahu? Oahu, for sure.

Nightlife in Oahu will keep you out ‘til 2AM – a Hawaii rarity! Honolulu in particular is a mishmash of events; you’ll hop from karaoke bars to beachfront nightclubs.

Even the luaus on Oahu catch onto its spirited evening kick, imbuing extra pizazz in the shows ‘Rock-A-Hula’ and ‘Waikiki Magic of Polynesia’.

Slower nighttime entertainment includes twilight dinner tours and the Star of Honolulu Cruise, which shows off Oahu in a different light.

If you move away from the party-centric spots to more wholesome areas, like Kailua, your evenings pan out with chill drinks by the water.

Kona Brewing Co Big Island
photo by kona brewing company

Nightlife on Big Island

Big Island isn’t made for partying at all. Evenings are for unwinding, usually within the privacy and quiet of your hotel room.

Kona and Hilo offer some late-night diners where live music adds an element of “being out”.

Humpy’s Big Island Alehouse and Kona Brewing Company are two such examples.

Hilo Town Tavern’s Open Mic Mondays take it a step further with all-night happy hour cocktails.

Proper dance floors are rare, but you can always take a spin between the tables – if you don’t mind the stares.

Does Big Island or Oahu Have Better Nightlife?

It goes without saying that Oahu is the center of nightlife in Hawaii.

Metropolitan Honolulu is the biggest city among them all, featuring the traditional venues of nighttime fun: bars, nightclubs, live music lounges and other party spaces.

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Restaurants & Dining

Foodies are inevitably drawn to Hawaii’s farm-to-fork philosophy – and so are celebrity chefs.

Dining on Big Island

Affordable and innovative, Big Island’s dining scene is slowly earning big attention.

The many farms on the island directly contribute to local eateries, from succulent pork cuts to fresh seafood.

These produce also make their way to Hilo’s farmers’ markets, to be served in traditional dishes.

Most dishes, whether in casual al fresco diners or classy locales, play up traditional cuisine with a modern twist.

Think mahi-mahi with nutty toppings, or poke in nacho form! And of all three meals, breakfast is exceptional thanks to the famous Hilo coffee.

Like Big Island’s fresh produce, the locally produced coffee beans have gained quite the smooth reputation.

monkeypod kitchen oahu hawaii usa
photo by monkeypod kitchen

Dining in Oahu

Oahu’s advantage lies with the sheer volume of its restaurants. Where there’s a demand, there’ll be growth; Oahu has become a melting pot of flavors.

International and local cuisines share the streets, pitting Portuguese pastries against immaculate sushi rolls.

Food trucks are parked in the lots between sit-down restaurants, while fine dining comes with luxurious views in beachfront resorts.

You could be indulging in loco moco for lunch, and skimming through a Hawaiian-French fusion menu in the evening.

Is Big Island or Oahu Better for Food?

Oahu takes the cake when it comes to dining, if only because the options are so diverse.

We can’t speak for the quality of every restaurant, but when it comes to quantity – Oahu’s international, local, budget, upscale, fusion and street food buffet is truly exceptional.

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Accommodations

Where to Stay on Big Island

Accommodations in Big Island are divvied up between the east and west.

For pampering and all-inclusive stays, turn your search towards Kailua-Kona.

The Kohala ‘Gold’ Coast carries bespoke resorts and luxury condos that rent out for $500-$600 per night, while Kailua-Kona town proper offers mid-range hotels that average $120 to $250 a night.

Budgeteers should stay around the Hilo region, which mainly features alternatives to business hotels.

Think local inns, guesthouses and rental homes (nothing fancy). Guesthouses and hostels start at $60 per room.

Alohilani Resort Waikiki Beach
photo by Alohilani Resort Waikiki Beach

Where to Stay in Oahu

Oahu is highly accommodating when it comes to lodging.

Lucky for you, its metropolitan build and high tourist numbers mean that you get plenty of variety – some at very reasonable prices!

There are so many areas to stay in Oahu, but Honolulu and Waikiki make up 95% of Oahu’s accommodations, with beachfront resorts offering everything under sun.

Expect to pay more for immediate beach access as exclusive rental houses charge up to $700 per night.

You can also find large-scale resorts along the Leeward coast.

As you move inland and further away from Waikiki, the prices drop rather significantly.

Hotels fall within the $150 and $350 range depending on their amenities, while hostels offer a competitive $40 per night.

For somewhere in between, look at B&Bs and small-sized vacation homes for rent.

Before settling on an accommodation, think about where the Big Island and Oahu attractions you want to visit are located.

You’d want to take commute into consideration as well.

Are Hotels Better on Big Island or Oahu?

Thanks to its developed cities, Oahu offers a higher number of options.

There’s truly something for every budget, whether that’s a beachside luxury condo or a cheap guesthouse bed.

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Cost & Budget

The cost of travel for Big Island and Oahu is closer than you’d expect!

Let’s break down the average 7-day budget for two and see how each area compares.

Average Budget for 1 Week on Big Island

The average one-week Big Island trip budget for two is approximately $4000.

Here’s the breakdown:

Flights – Depending on departure location and time of the year, economy round-trip costs around $350-$700 per person.

It’s cheaper to fly in from the west coast (if you’re in the States), and cheaper to fly into Kona compared to Hilo.

Car Rental – You’re very likely to rent a car on Big Island as the attractions are spread out. Expect to spend $40 a day; $280 a week on car rental.

Public Transport – Daily transportation costs easily hit $30 as taxis are significantly more costly here.

Accommodations – Daily rates average around $250 per night. That’s $1750 a week.

Food – Food trucks cost $10 – $15, a cheaper deal compared to sit-down meals.

Lunch averages $15 – $20 per person but prepare to pay more for dinner.

The average weekly food costs in Big Island for two amounts to $700 (excluding drinks).

Activities – Plenty of activities are free, aside from equipment rental costs.
Snorkeling or helicopter tours average $100 – $150 per person while Hawaii Volcanoes National Park costs $30 per vehicle.

Assuming you’ll be snorkeling and visiting national parks at least once, expect to spend at least $300 in a week.

Diamond Head Oahu
Oahu aerial view

Average Budget for 1 Week in Oahu

The average one-week Oahu trip budget for two is approximately $4,500.

Flights – Depending on departure location and time of the year, economy round-trip costs around $350-$700 per person.

It’s cheaper to fly in from the west coast (if you’re in the States).

Car Rental – You don’t have to rent a car to get around Oahu efficiently, but rental costs aren’t exorbitant either.
The average car rental price in Oahu is $30 a day; $210 a week.

Public Transport – Taxi rides hover around $17, with public transport being slightly cheaper.

Accommodations – Daily rates of hostel beds average $40, while mid-range hotels cost between $150 and $350 while private beach houses cost up to $700 per night.
If we take $300 per night as the average, that’s $2100 a week.

Food – Breakfast costs around $5 while lunch averages $15 – $20 per person.

Dinner may cost more. The average weekly food costs in Oahu for two amounts to $560 (excluding drinks).

Activities – General tours and admission tickets are around $22 per person, while equipment-based activities cost more.

Luaus average $65 – $110 per person while day tours charge between $100 and $150.

Assuming you’ll be experiencing a luau and at least one tour, expect to spend at least $450 in a week.

Is the Big Island or Oahu Cheaper to Visit?

While Oahu is suitable for various budgets, Big Island is cheaper overall.

It’s true that more funds get funneled into car rental, but you pay less to enjoy Big Island’s outdoor attractions.

You’re more likely to get cheaper flights too, thanks to fewer crowds.

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