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First Timers Guide to Visiting Waikiki with Kids

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Located on the island of O’ahu in the city of Honolulu, Waikiki is often the place many tourists visit on a first vacation to Hawaii.

Our family, of course, sometimes does things a little backwards. We’ve visited many of the islands of Hawaii regularly in our travels. But until recently, we had always skipped over Waikiki and the city of Honolulu.

Why? Our Hawaii travel style is much more R&R and we always suspected the high rise hotels, high crowds, and bustle of Waikiki might not be a fit for the kind of vacation we prefer.

Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head in Oahu Hawaii

But eventually curiosity got the better of us! My husband, kids, and I headed to Waikiki Beach for a 5 night trip during spring break this year to check out what we had been missing all these years in our other Hawaii travels. Because we had been to the island of O’ahu many times, some of the logistics were familiar to us. But we also got to experience the Waikiki portions of our trip with fresh eyes.

If you are considering Waikiki as well, I now have a lot of thoughts and opinions to share! Here are all the essentials that first time visitors to Waikiki need to know to plan a successful trip to the area, particularly with kids.

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Waikiki Basics

View of Honolulu from Hilton Hawaiian Village

Waikiki is an area within the city of Honolulu, Hawaii – the state’s capital and largest city. The neighborhood is on the south shore of the island of O’ahu. The famed Waikiki Beach area is just one of several beaches in the area, although the terms Waikiki and Waikiki Beach are used somewhat loosely and interchangeably.

The beach is legendary, known for surfing and a bustling “see-and-be-seen” culture. The beach itself is long, but fairly narrow and often quite packed with tourists and locals alike.

The feel of the entire Waikiki area is distinctly urban. High rise hotels are densely packed along the beach and in surrounding inland blocks. The area is highly walkable, with retail and restaurants on every corner, including a few very large indoor shopping malls. While a lot of the shops feature high-end expensive brands, Waikiki attracts tourists of every budget. There are accommodations at more modest price points among the luxe options too.

Waikiki vs. Everywhere Else in Hawaii: What Destination is Right for Your Family?

Kid on Beach in Ocean at Waikiki with Diamond Head in View

A lot of travelers choose Waikiki by default because it has the iconic name. It also has a more accessible location for many travelers. Flights into Honolulu tend to be cheaper from most mainland destinations than flights to the other less populated Hawaiian island airports. Often flying into these other airports requires a flight change, so travel time to get elsewhere is longer as well.

But before you choose Waikiki by default for your vacation, I think it’s important to consider whether it is the right destination for your family or travel group. If you like peace and quiet, it’s going to be hard to find it there. If you like a lot of action and a variety of things to do (particularly dining and shopping), however, Waikiki might just be the perfect fit.

Personally, I’m glad we waited to visit Waikiki. I think Waikiki was a better fit for us now that our kids are 13 and 8 than it would have been in years past. The kids enjoyed some of the dining options, even tolerated a bit of shopping, and just generally liked the people-watching and bustle of a more urban environment. I think Waikiki would also work well for families with older teens.

Waikiki would probably not have been a destination we would have enjoyed with our kids when they were little ones. The logistics can be harder than a lot of other Hawaii travel options and you’re more likely to encounter hassles and hiccups. Travel logistics with babies and toddlers are hard enough, so why not go somewhere that manages those better?

Where to Stay in Waikiki with Kids: Hotel Pros & Cons

Hilton Hawaiian Village

We had planned and canceled trips to Waikiki several times, so I had closely researched all of the major hotels up and down Waikiki Beach multiple times. If you plan to visit Waikiki with kids, be aware that finding a hotel with a room type that works for your family may be the hardest part of the vacation planning. It is honestly was kept us away so long!

Our family prefers to share one room, so we normally look out for rooms with two queen beds or even ones that have bunk beds or an extra twin bed trundle. In Waikiki, these kinds of family-friendly room configurations are nearly impossible to find at any of the major hotels.

To the extent hotels have room types with two beds in one room even available, most of the options are two double (full) beds. This can make for a tight squeeze for siblings sharing a bed as well as couples used to a queen or king back home. Two doubles just doesn’t work for our family except in a real pinch.

Many families look for two rooms as a result. But with Hawaii prices, the cost can get out of hand quickly! Thankfully some Waikiki hotels have family rates that offer a discount on a second room (that will usually be guaranteed to be adjacent or connecting). But these rates are not always available during peak periods like school holidays.

Timeshare properties also abound in Waikiki. In some instances, these properties are ideal for families, as they can have full kitchens and multiple bedrooms. Often you can get a true deal on one of these accommodations if you are willing to sit through a timeshare presentation. But a lot of the timeshare properties are not located directly on the beach and have more limited amenities, so that may not be the kind of Hawaiian vacation you seek.

After dozens of hours of research, we ultimately stayed in the very well-known Hilton Hawaiian Village in its iconic Rainbow Tower. I’ll have a full review of the hotel on the site soon, but we had very mixed feelings about the property. It was crazy crowded, rooms were dated, and we found it overpriced for the services and amenities offered, even after we paid extra for a junior suite to have bed types that suited us better. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend it, even though it has some really ideal kid-friendly features like a man-made lagoon for watersports and swimming.

Hilton Hawaiian Village Lagoon and Rainbow Tower

What Waikiki hotels would I recommend to families? We toured and dined in a lot of the other hotels in the area. The following were the ones that were standouts to me and I’d consider in the future (albeit with some caveats for families, mostly when it comes to room layouts):

The Royal Hawaiian Resort: An iconic luxury hotel known as “the pink palace of the Pacific.” My husband had stayed here once a few decades ago and loved the history of the hotel. Room types, however, include 2 double beds only. In some seasons, the hotel offers a discount on a second room for families who need more space, but it wasn’t available on our travel dates.

The Royal Hawaiian Hotel Waikiki

Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort & Spa: Again, the hotel has rooms with 2 doubles only but the majestic setting and prime location make it a top pick if you can make the room options work for your family. I could not find any evidence of that a discounted second room rate is offered here. We loved the afternoon tea at the Veranda here, so make it a destination to dine and explore even if you don’t stay at the hotel.

Halekulani Hotel: One of the priciest hotels on Waikiki, but in a fantastic location and offering everything a luxury traveler would want. Families will need two rooms, as room occupancy is limited to 2-3 people. Look for the hotel’s “Family Plan” that offers a second connecting room at a substantial discount.

Halekulani Hotel Exterior and Pool in Waikiki Beach

Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort & Spa: Not quite on the beach, but nearly so (across a single very close crosswalk). Rooms with two queens are available! The hotel has a fun rooftop pool with prime views of the absolute center of the Waikiki action.

Hyatt Regency Waikiki

Other Waikiki Hotel Tips

A few other other essentials of note for family travelers when it comes to hotels in Waikiki. First, if you are in search of kids clubs, they are few and far between on Waikiki compared to many other destinations in Hawaii. Indeed, the few that existed before 2020 do not appear to have reopened yet.

Second, if you and your family like giant pool areas with water slides, splash pads, and other features, these are not common in Waikiki either. Most of the hotels are right on the beach with limited geographical footprints that simply don’t accommodate an enormous resort pool. You’ll find a lot more of that style resort on other Hawaiian islands, particularly in Maui, instead. The only mega resort that has anything resembling these options is the Hilton Hawaiian Village (but, see my reservations about that property above).

Essentials for Flying into Honolulu

Honolulu Airport HNL

If your destination is in Waikiki, you should book flights into Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL). This airport is the largest in Hawaii and is served by many airlines, including a number of international carriers as well as the following US-based airlines: Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Sun Country, and United.

Related: What it’s like to fly Southwest Airlines to Hawaii

HNL is a mid-sized airport but the layout is a little awkward. Some of the more distant terminals, while technically walkable, are better served via shuttle (known as the Wiki Wiki). That can take time and be awkward with strollers, roller bags, and kids, so plan for extra time on departure if you find that your airline is located at a more distant gate when you arrive.

Hawaii has now dropped all special entry requirements in 2022. Anyone arriving on domestic flights from anywhere in the other 49 states will find the experience just like all other domestic travel. On departure, the airport does have an agricultural inspection to complete before checking bags (just a quick bag scanner).

Much of the airport is semi-open air so it’s not always the coolest, so be sure to dress for a little heat and humidity.

Ground Transportation from HNL Airport to Waikiki Hotels

A lot of tourists visiting Honolulu rent a car for their vacation, and all the major rental car companies have locations at HNL. Before you rent a car in Hawaii, however, be sure to check parking fees at your hotel and consider whether you really need a car for the entirety of your stay.

Related: Complete Guide to Renting a Car with Kids

If you just need airport transfers, there are private car services and shuttles aplenty at HNL, along with taxis and rideshare options. If you need a car seat for little ones, Honolulu Airport Transfer is one of several companies that can provide one if you don’t want to bring your own.

If you have your own car seats or have kids old enough to no longer require them, the ground transportation options are cheap and easy. Charley’s Taxi has a flat rate of $29 from the airport to all Waikiki hotels. We used this on our recent trip but found that we had to wait a very long time for our pre-booked taxi. Instead, I’d just recommend walking up to the taxi stand and paying the meter fare of a few dollars more of whatever taxi company happens to be in line.

Alternately, consider booking an Uber or Lyft. The pickup locations are a bit more convenient than they used to be in the past but can sometimes still be a walk from the bag claim. Just be sure to watch for surge pricing – you may actually come out ahead at the taxi stand in comparison!

Related: Tips for taking Lyft or Uber with Kids

Transportation around Waikiki & Waikiki Beach

Waikiki Beach Surfboard Alley

Once you make it to Waikiki, what kind of transportation do you need during your stay? If you are staying in Waikiki proper, there is a lot that is within walking distance so check first before assuming you need to get in a vehicle.

If you need to go slightly longer distances, the easiest thing to do is take a taxi or rideshare – especially with older kids who don’t need a car seat (or just need a compact booster like the BubbleBum). I’d highly recommend that you not drive between locations in Waikiki yourself with a rental car, as parking locations are inconvenient and parking costs nearly everywhere are high.

While we had initially planned to use Uber and Lyft a lot, we found taxis to be what we used far more often. Why? Ridesharing vehicles often are required to use more distant pick up and drop off zones at some hotels. Taxis are given preferential treatment and can be in more convenient places.

Many taxis also queue at spots where tourists are likely to need them, such as at the taxi stand right in the Diamond Head parking lot. It’s a lot easier to jump in an already-waiting cab than it is to wait for a ridesharing driver to respond in the app and travel from a distant location to you.

Another option for families with younger kids who might otherwise need a car seat to ride in a taxi or rideshare vehicle is the Waikiki Trolley.

If you want to explore farther afield and don’t have a rental car for the entirety of your stay, there are a number of rental car locations in and around Waikiki. Just rent for a day or two for excursions to the North Shore or elsewhere on the island to save money. Depending on where you are staying, the Alamo near Ala Moana Center, Avis within the Sheraton Waikiki, or Hertz by the Hyatt Regency Waikiki are all convenient choices.

Family-Friendly Things to Do On and Near Waikiki

Duke Kahanamoku Statue Waikiki

There are enough activities in and around Waikiki that you could easily fill a week or more without trying. We weren’t able to do even all of our top picks during our stay. So research carefully and pick a few highlights you don’t want to miss!

A few of the essential things to do in and around Waikiki with kids include:

Hike Diamond Head

Diamond Head State Monument Entrance Sign

Looming large down the beach from Waikiki and jutting out into the ocean is the enormous crater of Lēʻahi, also known as Diamond Head. This is a favorite hike for tourists and locals alike.

The 2 mile hike has a couple of mildly strenuous sections, including some serious stairs to climb and a very tight tunnel, so this isn’t for everyone. My kids had no problem with it at 8 and 13 and I’d surely recommend it for kids 5 and up. Wear good hiking shoes and watch the weather carefully – it can be raining on top of Diamond Head when it’s perfectly sunny on Waikiki Beach.

Due to its popularity, the state of Hawaii has now implemented a reservations system for non-locals as of May 2022 to prevent overcrowding. Reservations open 14 days in advance and are required for entry and parking. Parking reservations book up much farther in advance than reservations for entry only (especially for morning arrival times) so consider taking a taxi or rideshare to Diamond Head if you can’t get one of the reservations that includes parking. Make reservations here and get more tips on visiting and hiking Diamond Head here.

Tour Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor National Memorial and Visitor Center Entrance Oahu Hawaii

Pearl Harbor is the site of one of the darkest days in United States history when the Japanese staged a surprise attack on the military base, launching the United States into World War II. Although we had been to O’ahu several times before, we waited to visit Pearl Harbor until our kids were old enough to comprehend some of the history. I think our 8 year old was just old enough to have some powerful takeaways and it was truly a match for our 13 year old’s understanding and interest.

You need the better part of a day to see the entire complex. With kids, you likely will need to pick and choose the sites that are most interesting to you and not try to do them all. There are several places to visit within the complex that have different operators and methods of entry, including:

Operated by the National Park Service:

  • USS Arizona Memorial: $1 reservations are required in advance to take the boat to the final resting place of the sunken ship and are very in-demand. Standby line offered, but often several hours long.

Operated by Pearl Harbor Historic Sites, separate entry fees are required (can be purchased individually or as a combination ticket):

  • Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum
  • Battleship Missouri
  • Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum (USS Bowfin)
USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor Oahu Hawaii

There are plenty of tour companies that will transport you to Pearl Harbor. The only reason to book one of these providers is if you are unable to get USS Arizona tickets on your own – some tour providers include them (but read the fine print carefully because many promise USS Arizona entry but then don’t actually have reserved time tickets). Since I was able to get tickets myself, we simply took a cab. Charley’s Taxi has a $45 flat rate from Waikiki hotels and the drive is about 25 minutes.

Sample Local Treats

Royal Hawaiian Bakery Waikiki

From malasadas to shave ice, there are plenty of sweets and snacks around the Waikiki area. I don’t think it’s necessary to travel far to find something delicious, so do a quick Yelp search for what’s nearest to your hotel or another area you plan to visit. I guarantee that a place claiming to have the best shave ice on O’ahu will be within a 5-10 minute walk of wherever you are!

If you want to visit one of the more well-known treat destinations in O’ahu, Leonard’s Bakery is probably the most famous for its malasadas. Lappert’s Ice Cream is also quite well-known, but we found the lines at the Hilton Hawaiian Village location too long to ever wait for.

Our family enjoyed stopping into to the bake shop in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel for a sweet treat as we were strolling the shops in the area.

Attend a Luau

If it’s your first trip the islands, a luau is a must-do. Some luaus are, of course, more authentic than others. But even the more touristy ones can be a lot of fun if they have shows on a date and in a location that works for you. Nearly all luaus are pretty pricey as they include live entertainment, a lot of food, and often some alcoholic beverages for adults.

For a family with younger children, there is a potential for savings if you can find a luau that doesn’t charge for your younger kids. Some require tickets as early as age 3, but others won’t charge until kids are 5 or 6.

My friend Marcie at Hawaii Travel with Kids has some great recommendations for family-friendly O’ahu luaus that can get you started on comparing the options. We didn’t make time for a luau on Waikiki as we’ve attended luaus on multiple occasions, including the KA WA’A Luau down the road at Disney’s Aulani. (Related: Best Splurges at Disney’s Aulani Resort).

Beach Time

Waikiki Beach Surfers

Last but certainly not least, be sure to leave plenty of time to hang out on the beach. The people-watching on Waikiki Beach is amazing, and it’s essential put your feet in the water, make a sandcastle, or just watch the surfers.

There are also a number of activity operators in the beach areas, from parasail companies to surf lessons.

We especially enjoyed the beach and lagoon by the Hilton Hawaiian Village where we stayed. Note of course that both of these are open to non-hotel guests (all beaches in Hawaii are public!). So they get busy! We were able to rent an Aquabike one day and spent some time on another day on the main beach taking a dip in the ocean.

Hilton Hawaiian Village Aqua Bike in Lagoon

Family-Friendly Restaurant Highlights

Restaurants options abound in Waikiki. Whether it’s food trucks or fine dining, you can find just about every price point and type of cuisine in the area. We hit a few of the tourist highlights, but also went in search of some unique dining experiences that may not seem entirely obvious to family travelers, with very rewarding results!

Here are our top family-friendly dining recommendations:

Duke’s Waikiki: It doesn’t get much more famous than this restaurant celebrating the legacy of Hawaii’s most famous surfer. Great seafood, a location overlooking the center of the Waikiki scene, and a chance to try Hula Pie. Duke’s is super popular, so I recommend dining at non-peak times to dodge the crowds or making a reservation early.

Duke's Waikiki Honolulu

House without a Key: This open air venue at the Halekulani has live music and a solo hula dancer nightly under the kiawe tree at sunset. While it sounds (and is) a little fancier, it’s a great fit for families to take in some Hawaiian culture. Ultimately, a meal here is far less expensive than a luau so it may fit that interest at a lower price point and lower-key elegant setting.

House without a Key Halekulani

Afternoon Tea at the Veranda at the Moana Surfrider: Again, sounds fancy but this is another place to dine that totally kid-friendly! We took afternoon tea here as a late lunch one day and found the outdoor porch setting magical, the food beautiful and delicious, and the prices quite reasonable. The keiki tea option came with sandwiches that were more of a fit for picky eaters (although still too exotic for my super picky 8 year old who was able to order a cheeseburger off the regular menu).

Moana Surfrider Veranda Afternoon Tea

Blue Water Shrimp: If you just need a quick bite and are staying in or near the Hilton Hawaiian Village, this is the top spot for seafood in a super casual setting with seating. We got a hot tip from several friends to try it and were not disappointed. Food was a steal (by Hawaii price standards at least) and delicious. I tried both the garlic shrimp and the coconut shrimp on two different visits – you can’t go wrong with either!

Final Thoughts

Our family had a lot of fun on our Waikiki trip, and I’m very glad we tried another kind of Hawaii vacation experience. The Waikiki scene and bustle was a great way to mix it up. We loved the location that positioned us to do a lot of activities that we had otherwise missed because of distance or wanting to spend time at our resort.

That said, I don’t think we will make Waikiki a major focus of our future Hawaii travels. We will probably return to the area here and there, but it will likely be for a few nights when we split our stay between Waikiki and either another part of O’ahu or another Hawaiian island. It’s worth seeing for sure. But also be sure to get beyond Waikiki to other parts of Hawaii to see the unique and broad range of experiences the Hawaiian islands have to offer!

More Tips For Hawaii Destinations with Kids

O’ahu with Kids In-Depth Travel Guide

Oahu with Kids Travel Guide

Need even more detailed information to plan your trip to Waikiki with kids? My friend Marcie of Hawaii Travel with Kids has an amazingly detailed O’ahu with Kids travel guide available for purchase on her site. This guide will take a lot of the planning and guess work out of your trip with detailed itineraries and lots of advice I know she has personally tried and tested (with her kids!).

Additional Hawaii travel reading on Trips with Tykes

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