You can get away without renting a car if you plan on staying in Waikiki. But if you want to explore the rest of the island, there's no substitute for having your own wheels. Avoid the obvious tourist cars—candy-color convertibles, for example—and never leave anything valuable inside, even if you've locked the car. A GPS will save you on phone data and guide you through Oahu’s sometimes-confusing streets.
If you are renting a car, reserve your vehicle in advance, especially when traveling during the Christmas holidays and summer breaks. This will not only ensure that you get a car but also that you get the best rates. Also, be prepared to pay for parking; almost all hotels in Honolulu (and many outside of Honolulu) charge for parking.
Except for one area around Kaena Point, major highways follow Oahu's shoreline and traverse the island at two points. Rush-hour traffic (6:30–9:30 am and 3:30–6 pm) can be frustrating around Honolulu and the outlying areas. Winter swells also bring traffic to the North Shore, as people hoping to catch some of the surfing action clog the two-lane Kamehameha Highway. Parking along many streets is curtailed during these times, and tow-away zones are strictly enforced. Read curbside signs before leaving your vehicle, even at a meter.
Asking for directions will almost always produce a helpful explanation from the locals, but you should be prepared for an island term or two. Instead of using compass directions, remember that Hawaii residents refer to places as being either mauka (toward the mountains) or makai (toward the ocean). Other directions depend on your location: in Honolulu, for example, people say to "go Diamond Head," which means toward that famous landmark, or to "go ewa," meaning in the opposite direction. A shop on the mauka–Diamond Head corner of a street is on the mountain side of the street on the corner closest to Diamond Head. It all makes perfect sense once you get the lay of the land.
Gasoline is noticeably more expensive on Oahu than on the U.S. mainland.
Oahu is relatively easy to navigate. Roads, although their names are often a challenge for the tongue, are well marked; just watch out for the many one-way streets in Waikiki and downtown Honolulu. Keep an eye open for the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau's red-caped King Kamehameha signs, which mark major attractions and scenic spots. Ask for a map at the car-rental counter. Free publications containing helpful maps are found at most hotels throughout Waikiki.
In case of an accident, pull over if you can. If you have a cell phone, call the roadside assistance number on your car-rental contract or AAA Help. If your car has been broken into or stolen, report it immediately to your rental-car company. If it's an emergency and someone is hurt, call 911 immediately.
AAA Help. 800/222–4357; www.hawaii.aaa.com.
Rules of the Road
Be sure to buckle up, as Hawaii has a strictly enforced mandatory seat-belt law for front- and backseat passengers. Children under four must be in a car seat (available from car-rental agencies), and children ages four to seven must be seated in a booster seat or child safety seat with restraint such as a lap and shoulder belt. Hawaii also prohibits texting or talking on the phone (unless you are over 18 and using a hands-free device) while driving. The highway speed limit is usually 55 mph. In-town traffic travels 25–40 mph. Jaywalking is not uncommon, so watch for pedestrians, especially in congested areas such as Waikiki and downtown Honolulu. Unauthorized use of a parking space reserved for persons with disabilities can net you a $250–$500 fine.
Oahu's drivers are generally courteous, and you rarely hear a horn. People will slow down and let you into traffic with a wave of the hand. A friendly wave back is customary. If a driver sticks a hand out the window in a fist with the thumb and pinky sticking straight out, this is a good thing: it's the shaka, the Hawaiian symbol for "hang loose," and is often used to say "thanks."
Hotel parking garages charge upwards of $20 per day, so if you're staying in Waikiki you may want to rent a car only when you plan to sightsee around the island. You can easily walk or take public transportation to many of the attractions in and around the area.
If you are staying outside Waikiki, your best bet is to rent a car. Even though the city bus is a wonderfully affordable way to get around the island, you'll want the flexibility of having your own transportation, especially if you're planning lots of stops.
Make sure that a confirmed reservation guarantees you a car. Agencies sometimes overbook, particularly for busy weekends and holiday periods.
You can rent anything from an econobox and motorcycle to a Ferrari while on Oahu. Rates are usually better if you reserve through a rental agency's website. It's wise to make reservations far in advance, especially if visiting during peak seasons.
Rates in Honolulu begin at about $25 a day for an economy car with air-conditioning, automatic transmission, and unlimited mileage. This does not include the airport concession fee, general excise tax, rental-vehicle surcharge, or vehicle-license fee. When you reserve a car, ask about cancellation penalties and drop-off charges, should you plan to pick up the car in one location and return it to another. Many rental companies offer coupons for discounts at various attractions that could save you money later on in your trip.
In Hawaii you must be 21 years of age to rent a car, and you must have a valid driver's license and a major credit card. Those under 25 will pay a daily surcharge of about $15 to $30. Request car seats and extras such as GPS when you make your reservation. Hawaii's Child Restraint Law requires that all children under four be in an approved child safety seat in the backseat of a vehicle. Children ages four to seven must be seated in a rear booster seat or child safety seat with restraint such as a lap and shoulder belt. Car seats and boosters run about $13 per day.
In Hawaii your unexpired mainland driver's license is valid for rental for up to 90 days.
Be sure to allow plenty of time to return your vehicle so that you can make your flight. Traffic in Honolulu is terrible during morning and afternoon rush hours. Give yourself about 3½–4 hours before departure time to return your vehicle if you're traveling during these peak times; otherwise plan on about 2½–3 hours.