Debating Between Lodging Options on Oahu: Aulani vs. Waikiki vs. Kailua

When I first started planning our visit to Oahu, we were only supposed to stay there for two nights. My main goal was exploring the island of Kauai, which is one of my favorite spots in the whole world. But then, Hawaii has morphed into a stopover on the way to Japan.

Since we are scheduled to fly from Honolulu to Osaka, it made the most sense to base our entire stay on Oahu. As much as I tried to rationalize splitting our four nights between Kauai and Oahu, it would probably push my poor husband over the edge. And in the end, we really wouldn’t do either island justice.

Plus, the more I researched Oahu, the more it appealed to me. There is truly something for everyone here. See Nancy’s post for top ten family activities on Oahu. We have only spent a few hours on the island during a layover and didn’t really venture beyond Pearl Harbor. It’s time to change that.

Now I just needed to decide where we would stay. I have narrowed it down to three possible options, and hopefully my reasoning will help those of you going through the same type of dilemma.

Aulani resort

Last year I wrote a post with reasons why I should/should not splurge on Aulani.  I won’t rehash the whole thing, but let me summarize. Basically, there is no way I would ever pay $600 per night to stay in Aulani. Obviously, I would never tell someone how they should spend their money. How obnoxious would that be, right? But the regular price tag for me personally is a deal breaker.

Is Disney’s Aulani Resort in Hawaii Worth the Cost?

Nancy’s photo of Aulani

However, the rate becomes somewhat palatable when booked through DVC rental store (between $325-$375 per night). For this price you get free Kids Club, tons of activities, a family-friendly beach and so on. Of course, you also get crowds and a fairly cramped room to share with your kids.

But the biggest issue for me was the location. Originally, I was planning to stay in Aulani for two nights and only visit Pearl Harbor. With four nights, there are other things I want to do on the island. I have my heart set on Kualoa Ranch, and that’s an hour one-way drive from Aulani. Ditto for Hanauma bay.

We could stay in Aulani for two nights at the end of the trip and focus on amenities, but that just complicates things. And this trip is already complicated enough, with Japan addition and all. We will be staying in at least six different places as it is.

Plus, honestly, while I have no doubt my kids would love Aulani, I’m not sure my husband and I would. And if I’m paying $375 per night for hotel, I better be sure I will love it. We are not Disney fanatics, so this is just another crowded resort. If my kids don’t know about Aulani, they won’t know what they are missing.

As much as I try to make my kids happy during trips, the adults always get priority. Why? Because we are the ones paying! Don’t tell the mommy-shaming police.

And so, Aulani was out.

Waikiki beach

From a points collector perspective, this area makes the most sense. It has the highest concentration of hotels and is fairly central to most of the activities on the island. Plus, there is a beautiful beach right there. As a bargain hunter, you will have a tough time here, but there are a few deals to be had. Namely:

1) Hyatt Centric Waikiki Beach

It costs 15,000 Hyatt points, so it’s eligible for renewal certificate from Hyatt co-branded credit card.

2) Hyatt Place Waikiki Beach

It costs 12,000 Hyatt points per night, and you get free breakfast.

3) Wyndham at Waikiki Beach Walk

It costs 15,000 Wyndham points per night, though availability is scarce. You get a condo unit with a separate bedroom, plus sofa bed in the living room. IMO this is the biggest points bargain in Waikiki, but good luck finding award availability.

4) Waikiki Marina resort at Ilikai

The cost is 15,000 Wyndham points per night. You get a studio unit, with a king bed and a sleeper sofa. Award availability is very good, unlike the other Wyndham property on the list.

5) Holiday Inn Waikiki

It costs 40k IHG points, so it’s eligible for annual renewal certificate.

6)Embassy Suites by Hilton Waikiki Beach Walk

Not exactly dirt cheap, but! For 70k Hilton points you can get a 1-bedroom suite with two queen beds and a sleeper sofa. There is also free breakfast and evening reception. All in all, this is a solid value for families, especially if you are swimming in Hilton points or have a few weekend certificates to spare. It’s also listed as a resort, so you can utilize your $250 credit from Amex Aspire card.

As someone who is not swimming in cash, I found Waikiki area to be quite appealing because it would allow me to utilize hotel points instead. I had some Wyndham currency and a sizable Hilton stash that would come in handy. The problem? I would have to spend my long-awaited Hawaii vacation in crowded Waikiki beach, sharing it with thousands of other tourists.

The more I researched Waikiki, the more I knew this was not the right place for us. I’m sure we would have fun, but there had to be a better option, even if it meant paying cash.

Kailua area

The other day, I was talking to my husband about our previous trips to Hawaiian islands. I was reminiscing how we had to stay in super cheap studio rentals on someone else’s property because that’s all we could afford. His response: “That was my favorite part!”

Our tiny cottage that cost only $65 per night all-in

The thing is, I really liked it too. We were in a local neighborhood, away from all the fancy resorts. But it allowed us to experience a slice of real Hawaii before AirBnB was cool. We were never really the cool kids, we just couldn’t afford anything else.

No money for luau, but we got to watch the hula dance for free from a nearby restaurant (Hula hacking?)

Even though our financial situation is better these days, staying in a local area still holds the most appeal. So, I knew what I had to do.

I wanted a Kauai-esque experience on Oahu, and this led me to Kailua, located on the East side of Oahu. While birds-eye view of Waikiki area looks like this:

Photo by AussieActive on Unsplash

Here is the town of Kailua:

Photo by Hamza ERBAY on Unsplash

It doesn’t hurt that Kailua beach is one of the best in the world. I found this photo of scenery in a neighboring town of Kaneohe, and asked my husband what it reminded him of:

Photo by Colton Jones on Unsplash

He said that this was definitely a photo of Kauai. Nope!

There was a problem, however. It’s not that easy to stay in Kailua, not legally anyway. Tourists won’t get arrested for renting from an illegally-operated AirBnB owner, bit there are a lot of other issues. Oahu has just passed a new law meant to curtail the proliferation of illegal vacation rentals, so you may pay for a place only to find that it’s no longer operating when you get there.

How to know for sure if your vacation rental is legal or not? Look for NUC (nonconforming use certificate) number in the listing, which is one of new law’s requirements.

This is a complicated issue, and I can honestly see both sides. But for me personally, it was a no-brainer to comply with local laws for ethical reasons. Fortunately, I was able to find a legal vacation rental located within a short walk from Kailua beach. There aren’t that many in the area, but they do exist, mostly bed-and-breakfast type as well fancy oceanfront properties.

The price of the one I found on Homeaway.com  was $300 per night all-in, a whole lot more than $65 we paid back in the day. Still, the unit has two bedrooms with A/C, a kitchen, plus washer and dryer. There are no resort amenities, but there is a spectacular beach within walking distance.

More importantly, it will help us experience Oahu the way I want to experience it. Kailua is within a thirty-minute drive to the airport, Kualoa ranch and Pearl Harbor, so it’s pretty convenient for what we want to accomplish in the area.

Bottom line

The point of the post is not to trash Aulani or Waikiki area. I haven’t stayed in either one, so not really qualified to give an opinion. If our stay in Hawaii was longer and if we didn’t plan to fly to Japan afterwards, I would totally consider Aulani.

Likewise, if my financial situation didn’t allow splurging on a vacation rental in Kailua, I would burn my points on a Waikiki hotel and wouldn’t think twice. These are first-world-problems, amigos.

But Hawaii is special to me and worth the splurge despite my middle-class status. Maybe I’m just being nostalgic, but staying in a local neighborhood (again) feels right. I would rather save my hotel points for an airport stay or a road trip where I just need a place to sleep. I’m sure my kids would prefer pools and other amenities of a hotel, but that’s what our local Florida getaways are for.

Readers, where do you usually stay while visiting Oahu?

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Author: Leana

Leana is the owner and founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.

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12 thoughts on “Debating Between Lodging Options on Oahu: Aulani vs. Waikiki vs. Kailua

  1. Aloha Leana!

    Here’s my two cents. I used to be DVC with Aulani, and the place is a lot of fun. However, the property suffers from crowding issues, meaning pool chairs are hard to come by unless you snag them first thing in the morning, and they often run out of inner tubes for the slide and pool. The pools themselves are way overcrowded too, while on-property dining is astronomically expensive. Further, Ko Olina is rather isolated, so while its nice and has excellent beaches, you’re far from everything else. There is a historic train ride out there, though (Hawaiian Railway Society) and a small aviation museum at the former Barbers Point NAS.

    I’d recommend staying away from vacation rentals unless you’re booking with a permitted one. On August 1, a new law went into effect cracking down on unlicensed vacation rentals, which is most of them. Right now, there are only 600 permitted rentals, most of which are in Waikiki.

    As far as Waikiki goes, the Hyatt Centric is a solid option. Lovely, quiet, large rooms in a super convenient, central location within an easy walk to the best shopping and dining in the area. Great values too! The Hyatt Place, I’m not so much a fan of. The free breakfast is nice, but the rooms receive a considerable amount of noise from outside the hotel and within (super thin doors, etc). And the elevators are slow as heck! Unfortunately, I don’t have any experience with any of the IHG properties or the Embassy Suite. If you have Marriott points to burn, though, and want a splurge, you can redeem points at the Ritz-Carlton Residence Waikiki 😉

    Hope this helps and please do let me know if you want any more of my thoughts. Always happy to share and assist.

  2. Aloha! Island Miler, thank you so much for local’s perspective.You know, at first I wasn’t super excited about spending our entire Hawaii stopover in Oahu. However, the more I researched it, the more I realized that I was wrong. There is so much to do, yet many areas on the island look laid-back. I guess I’ve always (wrongly) associated Oahu with Waikiki.
    I was really tempted by Aulani. If we were spending several weeks exploring Hawaiian islands, I would find an excuse to add it to the itinerary. However, it just didn’t seem like a good idea in this particular scenario. Plus, the crowding issues and isolated location were a factor.
    We reserved a rental in Kailua. I did check, and it’s legal, with a grandfathered certificate. I totally agree on staying away from any rentals that can’t prove legal status.

    • I totally get that, but I’m glad you came around :). I think that’s most people’s mistake; thinking of Oahu as only Waikiki and not bothering to dig deeper. But, Waikiki is getting better too. The place is home to food halls, restaurants, bars, etc. that many locals frequent too now. Either way, Oahu is a wealth of history, excellent food at all price points, beaches, hiking, etc. We’ve got it all!

      I am glad you were able to nab a legal vacation rental too (doh! sorry, I missed that in the original post!). And, I’m sure you already know, but Pali Highway, one of three main arteries between Kaneohe/Kailua and Honolulu continues to remain closed (with contraflow hours) due to ongoing landslide mitigation work.

      I look forward to reading about your adventures on Oahu.

      Aloha!

      • Hmm, I didn’t know about Pali Highway closure. We are going next summer so hopefully, things will be back to normal. But either way, I think we will love Kailua area!

      • Leana, ah you guys are going next year. Won’t be a problem, thank *knock on wood.* Was supposed to be done this month, but got pushed back to November. By the way, if you’re going to Kualoa Ranch, check out the nearby Waiahole Poi Factory too. They make good Hawaiian food, but their Sweet Lady of Waiahole dessert of warm kulolo (pounded taro with coconut and brown sugar) with haupia (coconut) ice cream is a local favorite.

      • Wow, thank you so much for the tips! I will make sure to write them down. Yep, not going till next year, but it’s never too early to dream. 🙂 I can’t believe it’s been 12 years since we last visited Hawaii. Way too long.

      • Wow, you’re much overdue for a visit, then! Much has changed in that time too, especially when it comes to our food scene. So, if you’re looking for a uniquely Hawaii dining experience, I highly suggest checking out Mud Hen Water. They do a unique twist on both local comfort foods and native Hawaii cuisine, while sourcing as much of their ingredients locally as possible. And definitely try the brownie for dessert if you go!

        In Kailua itself, Roy Yamaguchi (Roy’s) opened GOEN Dining + Bar, which is a more casual (but still pricey) take on his namesake restaurants. Nico’s Pier 38 is a great seafood spot known for their furikake ahi (order rare if you like raw fish) and local favorites (haven’t been to this location though, only the Honolulu one), Over Easy is a popular brunch spot that was started by two Alan Wong alumns, as someone else mentioned Moke’s but try the Lilikoi pancakes (I typically don’t care for pancakes), Kono’s for their excellent kalua pork (even as a breakfast bomber), and local-staple Zippy’s (saimin, Korean chicken, loco moco, chili cheese fries, and apple napples are my go-tos).

        If you head up to the North Shore, skip the shrimp trucks and check out Kahuku Farms. The offer tours, but I go for their acai bowls made with homegrown acai and bananas. It’s seasonal, so if they don’t have, they may have an equally delicious cacao-banana bowl with homegrown cacao and bananas. Their roasted veggie pizza is really good too, while many like their grilled banana bread (never tried). Their lilikoi butter is simply amazing too.

        Aloha!

      • @Island Miler Yes, it has been too long, I agree! I’m from Europe, so we are constantly saving points for trips there. As a result, Hawaii kept getting pushed back. Plus, we wanted to wait till the kids got older.
        Thanks again for all the tips! Super useful. Aloha and mahalo!

  3. We stayed in Kailua three years ago and loved it! Some great restaurants in the area. I liked moke’s Bread and breakfast. Try the Mocos locos! You can find them on trip advisor. Personally I felt like Kailua was a great location between the north shore and Honolulu area 🙂 we drove all over the island. Have a wonderful trip

    • @Tammie Thank you so much for restaurant recommendations! I will definitely keep them in mind. I really think Kailua is the right choice for my family, so I’m very excited.

  4. We’ve done all of the above.
    Aulani is Disney-great but commercialized and not authentically Hawaiian.
    Waikiki is basically like a California coastline-good food, great waves but too many people.
    Kailua was great for us. Highly recommend Pat’s for a relaxing beach vacation!
    https://patskailua.com/

    • @JB If my husband and I were more into Disney, Aulani would be a no-brainer. I still have second thoughts on skipping it because I doubt we will get a chance to stay there again. But I didn’t want to switch hotels if I could help it. Oh well, there are plenty of fun resorts in Florida that my kids will enjoy. Plus, we are planning to take them to Disney parks within a year or two. They will get their Disney fix!
      I’ve actually looked at the website you’ve mentioned, and a few Kailua rentals caught my eye. However, I ended up reserving a cheaper (legal) apartment via HomeAway.com But the link you’ve provided is a great resource!

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