Find Your Aloha: Hawaii on a budget

Winter is prime time for many Alaska families to pack the flip-flops, shorts, and tees and fly to the Islands of Hawaii. AKontheGO contributor Danielle Benson did just that with her three kids, and found many budget-friendly options that pleased her tweenage crew. 

Image by Danielle Benson

by Danielle Benson

I’ve long dreamed of the day my kids would pick an adventure as a gift over an item, and they did it younger than I expected. I won the golden ticket.

Hawaii. The paradise island has been the unanimous Nugget response to every “What do you want for…” question for the past three, probably four years. Every time they’ve been gifted money, they have asked me to put half of it into our Hawaii Vacation Account. They’ve impressed me with their patience and determination. This past Thanksgiving was the reward.

Several factors helped make this trip the ultimate Budget Hawaii Vacation. First, we earned enough airline miles over the past several years to have enough Alaska Airlines  miles for three of our plane tickets. We used our Alaska Airlines credit card $121 companion ticket benefit to buy the last two plane tickets. According to the budget, our family of five flew to Hawaii for the cost of one regular ticket plus the companion fare and a few small fees.

Second, we decided to limit our adventure to Oahu, home to Waikiki and Honolulu. We lived on Oahu for four years. Two of my three Nuggets were born at Tripler Army Medical Center, the very large pink building slightly up the hill from downtown Honolulu. While I would have loved to hop over to Kauai, Maui or the Big Island, time and budget constraints forced me to limit this trip to Oahu. Also, the large motivation for this particular trip was that my kids don’t actually remember living in Hawaii. We left when the youngest were turning three years old, and family pictures of them smiling, in diapers, sitting on the beach in paradise were taunting.

The Benson family enjoys a scenic turnout on the windward side of Ohau. Image by Danielle Benson

Third, we rented a condo on Oahu’s North Shore, near the unique Hawaii town of Haleiwa , through VRBO, Vacation Rental By Owner. The two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo walked straight out onto the beach. It had a full kitchen, boogie boards, snorkel equipment, beach towels and chairs. It was larger than any hotel room we would have crammed ourselves into, and access to the kitchen saved us a lot of money. I stopped at Wal-Mart on our first morning on the island, and was surprised to find some prices cheaper than Alaska’s Wal-Mart. For example, a box of oatmeal in Alaska costs $3.42. In Hawaii, the same exact brand was $2.92. However, Hawaii Wal-Mart did charge extra bottle deposit fees and we had to pay $0.10 per plastic grocery bag. Considering we would have eaten the same breakfasts, sandwiches, snacks and hot dogs at home, I didn’t include these grocery costs in our budget.

We did not eat out, except for a few special meals. Our first morning breakfast was enjoyed at Café Haleiwa, a favorite breakfast stop we enjoyed when we lived on the island. The Nuggets munched on sweet Hawaiian bread french toast and blueberry pancakes. The husband and I ate large portions of eggs with bacon, toast and coffee. We were all fueled for the day, and the check total was $54.

Shrimp for Thanksgiving? Of course, especialy when it comes from a beachside shrimp truck! Image by Danielle Benson

Our other large meal was from the shrimp truck open on Thanksgiving. While my old favorite, Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck was closed, we found Camaron Shrimp Truck open, and for a total of $64, we ate from three gorgeous garlic shrimp meals and two fish and chip meals. In fact, two kids couldn’t finish the salads included with the meal, and ate it as a snack later that day. Mmmm. Hawaii Thanksgiving dinner.

A take-out order from Spaghettini’s covered two dinners. We ordered a large pizza, ravioli and salad, and had so much food left over that we skipped our dinner plans at Haleiwa Joe’s  to reheat the leftovers the next evening. Two dinners totaled $40.

We did enjoy an afternoon treat of iced coffees from Island Vintage Coffee  for the adults and shaved ice for the kids while strolling the shops in Haleiwa that cost us less than $35 total.

Login Benson gives a dolphin a smooch at Dolphin Quest on Oahu. Image by Dolphin Quest

Hawaii is a tropical playground, and the beaches are free. There was no need for us to spend buckets of money having fun, but thanks to gifts from family members, the Nuggets did have a luxury experience.

A very generous uncle gave my three kids an amazing experience at Dolphin Quest at the Kahala Hotel. Normally costing $225 per person, I had explored this option previously, but loved the idea of family members using the opportunity to give their Christmas gifts to my children early, and in the way of an experience. The kids spent 30 minutes swimming with the dolphins and are still asking questions about dolphin behavior, and by extension, the health of our oceans. Dolphin Quest left a lasting impression, while educating and inspiring all three of them. And our valet parking was validated, so I was thrilled.

I also scheduled surf lessons through the military White Plains Beach MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) on the Leeward side of the island. Far from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki, this was one of our favorite spots when we lived on Oahu. The beach is open to the public, but the military has a fantastic set of amenities here. Beach cottages are available for rent, as are surfboards, body boards and paddle boards. An hour surf lesson is only $35, but you do have to have a military ID. Due to aggressive tides, our surf lessons were canceled, but we all enjoyed a full morning at White Plains Beach without any complaints.

Oahu’s Hanauma Bay is a popular location for snorkeling, provided you can beat the crowds. Image by Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

On our second morning we made the drive out to Hanauma Bay for snorkeling. The parking lot was already full and closed, so we parked down the hill, hiked our way in and paid $22.50 for our party of three people age 13 to adult to snorkel. Children 12 and under are free, as are active duty military. After a brief 15-minute wait, we watched a short video on protecting the reef before swimming. This total excursion would have been a struggle with smaller children, but my teen and tweens had a great time snorkeling, even if the bay was choppy and windy that day. The only complaint was the crowds, but this was a tourist destination, so it was worth dealing with the masses for the underwater views.

Thanksgiving morning was spent body boarding at Waimea Bay  and the afternoon and evening included investigating crabs and fish in the tide pools near the condo, and the shops around downtown Haleiwa. We enjoyed soaking up all that the free fun Hawaii beaches had to offer.

Budget Breakdown- Hawaii

-Flights for five- $786, plus saved airline miles
-Rental car, booked through Costco Travel- $110
-North shore condo rental for four nights from $1,169 includes fees, taxes and cleaning charge.
-Eating out- $193
-Activities- $23

Grand total for a family of five- $2,281 or $456.20 per person. Definitely not cheap, but considering we had four glorious nights in paradise, it was well worth the price. The Nuggets have already starting asking when we can start saving for the next trip.

I have my fingers crossed that when I start up the vacation slide show on Christmas morning, the nuggets don’t miss unwrapping a pile of gifts.

Next time, we will…
-Get to another island. We are torn between the Big Island and Kauai.
-Save up to stay another night. Four nights only gave us three full days, and they zipped by.
-Look into SCUBA, specifically age requirements. It would be very expensive and take some class time before we leave, but I am already SCUBA certified and the kids are itching to do it.

Danielle Benson is mother to twin tweens and a teen. She lives and adventures from her home base in Eagle River. 

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