Read Before You Leave – Hawaii


It’s America – but it’s not. So while you can easily find a hamburger in Hawaii, the 50th state has its own unique culture and language – and yes, food too. Though it’s made up of hundreds of islands and atolls, tourists visit the six main ones: Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, Lanai, Molokai and Kauai. Among them you can find both pristine beach environments and the most cluttered, hotel-strewn beach ever (we’re looking at you, Waikiki). Since Honolulu is the capital city and gateway to Hawaii, we’re focussing on the city and its island of Oahu. Wonderful things come from Hawaii including surfing, loud shirts, ukuleles and poke bowls. Add your post-holiday glow to that list with our handy Read Before You Leave guide.

SEE ALSO: Read Before You Leave - New York

Entering the US

Australia is a participant in America’s Visa Waiver Program, meaning Australians don’t need a visa for visits of 90 days or less. We must, however, obtain an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) through the Department of Homeland Security site. Authorisation is usually granted on the spot but it’s advisable to apply at least 72 hours before you travel in case there’s an issue. ESTA-approved travellers also need a (machine-readable) ePassport.

If you overstay, the American Government could arrest, deport or even bar you from returning to the States. Your kids will never forgive you if they can’t go to Disneyland.

Flying in to Honolulu

Daniel K. Inouye International, otherwise known as Honolulu International, is one of the busiest airports in the United States, with more than 21 million passengers passing through each year. If you’re transiting to another island, it’s possible to walk between the international and domestic terminals. There’s also a free shuttle bus.

Start planning now

The airport is located 16 kilometres from the city, or about 25 minutes’ drive. There’s a taxi rank outside the baggage-claim area and the journey costs about US$40. Alternatively, The Bus, which shuttles passengers all around the island of Oahu, starts at US$2.50 one-way.

Check-in for Qantas-operated flights is in Lobby 4 on Level 2.

SEE ALSO: A First-Timer's Guide to Honolulu

Vaccine advice

While there are no specific vaccines recommended for travel to the US mainland or the Hawaiian islands, it’s worth checking the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for updates on infectious-disease outbreaks. At the time of writing, 224 local mosquito-borne cases of the Zika virus were reported throughout the US, though none of them in Hawaii. It’s also wise to ensure all your vaccinations are up to date.

Transport tips

Public transport on Oahu consists of The Bus, which has extensive routes and offers multi-day visitor passes. In Waikiki, the Waikiki Trolley visits major tourist destinations and has multi-day tickets with unlimited rides. Many tourists opt to rent a car, moped or motorcycle to do their own exploring.

Money matters

At the time of writing, the Australian dollar was buying around 79 US cents but consult a reliable currency conversion service for up-to-date foreign-exchange rates.

Check with your bank that you won’t be hit with extra fees when using your credit card in Hawaii. Your Australian bank and American ATMs will each charge you for withdrawing money from your debit card, too, so it might be worth organising a travel card (most banks have one) with low or no fees to use while you’re away.

In any case, inform your bank of your travel plans, lest overseas purchases are misconstrued as fraud and your card is cancelled.

Finally, tipping in the US is such a complex ritual that we have addressed the etiquette here.

Weather wise

Hawaii is perpetually pleasant: the weather ranges from hot and dry during the summer months to warm and wetter in the winter. Hawaiian islands all have unique microclimates – incredibly, it’s often possible to ski on Mauna Kea on the Big Island (also known as the Island of Hawaii) during winter – and have après ski drinks on the beach after. On Oahu, the coolest months are January and February – but it’s only chilly enough for a jumper or light jacket – and the water is warm enough to swim year-round.

When to go

Because the weather never dips too far below 20 degrees Celsius, tourism to Hawaii tends to depend more on the weather in other places. During the Northern Hemisphere winter, North Americans and Japanese tourist escape chilly climates for a sunny island getaway. The peak tourism season runs from December to April, with things slowing down a little after that (with another spike during the US summer holidays). The Northern Hemisphere autumn months are great times to go – fewer tourists, lower prices and lots of sunshine.

SEE ALSO: Which Hawaiian Island Should You Visit?

Dress code

Thongs are called slippers (“slippahs”) in Hawaii and they count as daywear, beachwear and eveningwear. This will go down well with most Australians – throw in your favourite pair of Havaianas and you’re basically covered for footwear. However, there are a lot of excellent hikes around Hawaii, so if you’re planning to do anything more energetic than beach-lounging, bring along a pair of sturdy hiking boots or sneakers. In terms of clothing, people really do wear Hawaiian shirts (called aloha shirts here) and muu-muus and bright, tropical prints fit right in. A pair of swimmers with some denim shorts and a t-shirt or a sundress pulled on over the top will suffice for most daytime activities. If you’re planning to hit the bars and restaurants of Waikiki, you’ll need something slightly more elaborate: think fashionable but still relaxed – there’s no need for stockings, sequins or tight tailoring. If you’re travelling in the cooler months, bring along a cardigan and a lightweight waterproof rain jacket.

Tap water

Hawaiian tap water is naturally filtered through porous volcanic rock and is among the best quality in the US.


In Hawaii, roads are often built into steep cliffs so taking your eyes off the road to admire a distant breaching whale is dangerous. Likewise, in keeping with the island pace, local drivers tend to stick to a steady, languid speed; tourist road rage is not appreciated.

Insurance policy

Without comprehensive travel insurance, tourists will pay through the nose for medical treatment in the US. Smart Traveller advises that a visit to the GP for a sore throat, say, will run up a bill in the hundreds of dollars – and this is before any extras such as blood tests or medication.

The language barrier

There are two official languages in Hawaii: English and Hawaiian. The local language is spoken often and taught in schools here. There’s no need to learn Hawaiian – English is spoken everywhere – but knowing a few words will endear you to locals: maholo means “thank you”, wahine (pron. wahin-ay and kāne (pron. kahn-hay) mean “women” and “men” respectively (useful when looking for bathrooms). Of course, aloha means both hello and goodbye, but it’s more than that: it’s a way of being. Hawaiians do things with aloha, and it conveys love, affection and good feelings.


  • Don’t refer to people who live in Hawaii as “Hawaiian”. The word only applies to people of native Hawaiian descent who make up less than 10 per cent of the population. Everyone else can be referred to as “locals”.
  • It may feel like a cheesy gesture aimed at tourists, but the presentation of a lei (flower garland necklace) is a symbol of goodwill that’s been a part of Hawaiian culture since Polynesians arrived on the islands. It is polite to accept the lei and to wear it as long as you’re in the presence of the giver.
  • Leave your aggressive driving at home: beeping your horn or cutting people off is not driving with aloha.
  • This is where surfing was invented and it’s a serious pastime. If you’ve come to Hawaii to surf, check which beaches are accepting of outsiders before you drop-in on a local.

Where to stay

Oahu is the most-visited of the Hawaiian islands and many major hotels and attractions are clustered in the Waikiki area of Honolulu. It’s a lively spot with plenty of accommodation for various budgets as well as restaurants, shopping and nightlife. Waikiki Beach is always packed and the area is very focussed on tourism.

The Leeward Coast, to the southwest of the island, is a half-hour drive from Waikiki and offers a slower, less frenetic pace than the downtown area. There are still plenty of hotels, as well as beautiful beaches and a championship golf course.

Even more serene is the North Shore, which is lush and mountainous with legendary surf beaches. It’s about an hour from Waikiki and offers a more local experience – think roadside shrimp stands and surfboards leaning on shack walls.

Phone calls and mobile data

Before you land, disable data roaming and don’t answer incoming calls on your mobile phone if you want to keep your monthly bill in check. Invest in a prepaid travel SIM card if keeping in touch with home is important. 

If you need to make calls in Hawaii, buy a US SIM card for local calls and mobile data. Remember, this will only work if your phone is not locked to your Australian carrier. Also note that Australian mobile phones operate on a GSM network. In America, both GSM and CDMA networks are in operation. This means that your Australian handset won’t work on a CDMA network such as Verizon. See WhistleOut for more in-depth information on using your mobile phone overseas.

Consider buying a cheap handset from one of the US’s many big-box stores, such as Walmart (there are two in Honolulu). It will come with credit preloaded but keep in mind that in America you’re charged not just for making calls and sending texts but also receiving them.

Phone home

To call Australia, dial +61 followed by the phone number – including the area code minus the zero. So, to call a Sydney landline telephone, you would dial +61 2 then the phone number. To call a mobile phone, use the same country code and dial the mobile number minus the first zero.


Power sockets in the US (120V) have a lower voltage than those in Australia (230V) and a higher frequency (60Hz compared with Australia’s 50Hz). Most gadgets are designed to work on a range of frequencies and voltages but double-check if you’re in doubt. Power plugs and sockets also have a different configuration so you’ll need an adaptor.

Handy apps and websites

The Bus [] and The Waikiki Trolley for planning your route on public transport.

Uber if public transport fails.

Smart Traveller for safety information.

XE for currency conversion.

Daniel K. Inouye International Airport for information on flights, weather, traffic, parking, terminal locations and airport shuttles.

Gate Guru for flight status, airport information and rental cars.

Hawaii Weather NOW gives real-time weather information with alert notifications in the case of extreme weather.

Go Hawai’i is the tourism board’s official app and features handy destination information for each of the main Hawaiian islands.

Hawaiian Words is an app that translates English to Hawaiian and vice versa, complete with meanings and pronunciations.

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