Last updated on December 26, 2022 by Wandering our World
Aloha! For many, a Hawaiian vacation is a dream – the ultimate once-in-a-lifetime destination. So, you want to get it right and make sure you get the most from your vacation. However the first big decision you have to make is which Hawaiian island is best for you. And for many, that decision comes down to a straight battle between Oahu vs Big Island.
But that’s where we’re here to help!
We know both these islands, so right here we’re going to compare Hawai’i Island, nicknamed the Big Island, and Oahu Island, the home of the state capital Honolulu.
But in a nutshell as we’ll show you below, if you want to party, shop, and lie on the beach, Oahu could be the perfect choice for you. However if you’re looking for a more adventurous vacation, exploring volcanoes and getting away from crowds, the rugged Big Island might be the better choice.
Although the reality is, that’s just scratching the surface when it comes to the differences – and similarities – between the Big Island and Oahu. We’ll show you which has the best beaches, best surfing and scuba diving, the best hotel options and far more.
We’re sure by the end of reading this you will have made your final decision between Oahu and Big Island. So let’s get started!
- Which Is Easier To Get To
- Which Is Better For Beaches
- Which Is Easier To Get Around
- Which Is Better For Surfing
- Which Has The Better Shopping
- Which Has Better Hotels
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- Which Is Better For Activities
- Which Is Better For Scuba Diving
- Which Is Better For Food
- Which Is Better For Families
- Which Has The Better Nightlife
- Which Has The Better Weather
- Which Is Safer
- Which Is The Better Choice
Which Is Easier To Get To?
As the home of the state capital, Honolulu, is located on Oahu Island, for many, finding a flight here may be a little easier than finding a direct flight to the Big Island.
Honolulu is home to Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, the island archipelago’s busiest airport. You should have no problem finding a direct flight here from any of the major cities on the western seaboard of the United States.
If you are traveling from elsewhere on the planet, there are also direct flights available from places like Japan and Australia.
The Big Island, whilst still relatively easy to reach, has fewer incoming flights.
But if you are a little flexible with your dates when booking, you should also be able to find a direct flight to Big Island from many major cities on the west coast of the US pretty easily.
But if you are not flying from or through the United States, you may need to fly through Oahu Island and then connect with a short domestic flight.
Which Is Better For Beaches?
Who doesn’t plan on spending some time lazing on a beautiful beach on vacation?
Whilst beach time is important in Hawaii, there’s also a lot more to consider when selecting your vacation destination. But we’ll have a quick look through the beach options for these two island destinations first.
Oahu: The Beaches
Waikiki Beach, arguably one of the most well-known beaches in the world, is located on Oahu.
A stone’s throw from the center of Honolulu, this beach is a must-visit if you visit Oahu. The gentle arc of white sand is great for some sun worshipping and is also a great spot for some easy swimming, snorkeling, and surfing.
Whilst this iconic beach is a must-see, many prefer a beach surrounded by nature rather than backed by high-rise hotels. But do not worry, Oahu has plenty of more remote and rustic beaches to laze on too.
If you’re planning to get a little closer to nature, Hanauma Bay should be on your list of beaches to visit. This dedicated snorkeling beach is located inside the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, and whilst there is an entrance fee for non-residents, the beach is manned by lifeguards and offers some excellent snorkeling in calm waters.
If this popular beach is still a little too crowded for you, then you should check out Lanikai Beach on the west coast of the island. A little farther from the hustle and bustle of Honolulu, this quiet beach is perfect for getting away from it all with the family.
In general though, expect more of a busy beach vibe on Oahu than on the Big Island. Places like Waikiki are lively, full of beach bars, and have a party atmosphere that you won’t find replicated anywhere on Big Island.
Big Island: The Beaches
The Big Island is also home to some fine beaches.
The beaches on Big Island can be a little more rugged than in Oahu, and you may have to work a little harder to reach them. But the result of that little extra work is some stunning beaches – some you may even have all to yourself. That’s almost impossible in much busier Oahu.
Makalawena Beach is one of the most highly rated beaches on the Big Island. Located a little to the north of Kona International Airport, this secluded beach is perfect for relaxing in tranquility with a good book. It’s well worth the short walk across the lava stone to reach this idyllic spot.
Another winning beach on the Big Island is Hapuna Beach. This half-mile stretch of golden sand is a short distance from Makalawena and has a few more amenities close by.
And for those seeking something a little different, the rugged Punaluu Beach in the south of the island will not disappoint. The black sand on this beach offers a different feel to the golden sands of the beaches to the west. With its ease of access, this is one of the best volcanic-sand beaches on the Big Island and well worth a visit.
As you may have guessed by now, beaches in Oahu tend to be more convenient and you’ll have plenty of amenities close by like bars and restaurants. There’s less chance of those amenities at beaches on the Big Island, but what Big Island does have is rugged wild beaches that are far less busy.
Which Is Easier To Get Around?
Once you have figured out how to get to your chosen destination, the next thing to consider is how easy it is to move around and see the sights.
Oahu has the best public transport options in Hawaii. The bus makes it relatively easy to get around the island. If you plan to spend the majority of your time in and around Honolulu, you may be content using the bus system, but if you want a bit more freedom to explore on your own terms, then you could also look into hiring a car for a few days of your stay.
The Big Island also has a bus service, but it isn’t the quickest way to get around the island. As the Big Island is, well, bigger than Oahu, a hire car may be the way forward for exploring this island.
If you plan to explore the more rugged areas of the Big Island, maybe a 4WD vehicle will make life a little easier along the way too.
Which Is Better For Surfing?
As the birthplace of surfing, most visitors to the Hawaiian Islands will, at least, contemplate trying surfing. And many will look at Hawaii with surfing as the main reason for travel.
Both islands also have plenty of surf schools and options for both beginners and the more advanced alike.
But which offers the better surf options—the Big Island or Oahu? While both islands offer the chance to grab a board and hit the waves, your skill level, or lack thereof, should be a factor when choosing where to surf. As we show below…
If you are a beginner surfer or looking to try for the first time, perhaps Oahu will offer you the best chance to grab a wave.
With an abundance of beginner spots, you will have no problem finding accessible, easy waves here. Oahu is also home to plenty of surf spots for the more advanced surfers too.
The downside of surfing on Oahu is that it is the more crowded island, and the surf spots may have a little more traffic, but the abundance of choice helps keep surfers spread out around the island’s breaks.
Oahu is home to some of the most iconic surf spots on the planet, though – Waikiki, Pipeline, and Sunset Beach immediately spring to mind.
Big Island: Surfing
The Big Island is also a great spot for catching waves. Although there’s a few less places for beginners and pro surfers alike, the draw of surfing on the Big Island is the lack of crowds.
The surf spots can be a little harder to reach though, but the less-crowded line-ups more than make up for this.
If you are looking to make surfing a major part of your vacation, the size of the bigger island is also a factor to consider – maybe consider splitting your time between a couple of the surf spots.
But bear in mind that although the Big Island does have some great surfing, the other islands are more convenient for those planning a ‘surf holiday.’
For surfing in the Big Island, the two main areas to check out are Kona in the west, and Hilo on the island’s east side.
Which Has The Better Shopping?
If you want to indulge in some retail therapy while on vacation, Oahu will definitely provide you with more options and more high-end options.
In and around Honolulu and Waikiki, you will find plenty of opportunities to spend your well-earned dollars. The DFS Galleria, the Royal Hawaiian Center, and Waikiki Beach Walk are all convenient to Waikiki, and offer a great place to hide from the midday heat.
For those seeking a more luxurious range of shops, Luxury Row will meet your needs with haute-couture boutiques to satisfy your retail needs.
The Big Island is also home to some shopping options, but as a larger island, they tend to be a little more spread out. Head to Kona or Hilo for the best choices of shops, and the Queens’ MarketPlace in Waikoloa is also worth checking out. If you are looking for beachwear or picnic supplies, then Keauhou Shopping Center will be a good bet.
Although Oahu has more shopping options than the Big Island, you can find most of what you will need on the Big Island too.
Which Has Better Hotels?
Both islands offer a wide range of accommodation, but Oahu, with its higher visitor numbers just edges it when it comes to hotel choices.
Waikiki and its strip are laden with luxury options for the less frugally minded. Outside of this area, there’s plenty of choice, with options to suit everybody’s budget and needs.
For luxury all-inclusive options on the Big Island, check out the Kailua-Kona area. The Big Island also has many mid-range hotels on offer, and for those seeking to stretch the budget a little farther, Hilo in the east can accommodate your needs well.
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Budget: Located in the heart of Waikiki, 2 minutes walk to the famous Waikiki Beach and surrounded by shopping and dining is the luxury boutique Halepuna Waikiki hotel. This four-star hotel will stretch budgets, but the panoramic views of the ocean and city – alongside the gorgeous infinity pool – will be worth it. See photos and rates here!
Luxury: With its gorgeous rooftop infinity pool that looks out unobstructed onto the Pacific from Waikiki Beach, its hard to find anything more luxurious than Espacio – The Jewel Of Waikiki. The location is perfect, the suites unbeatable, and the service world class. See photos and rates here.
Budget: Set in the the town of Volcano, 5-minutes drive from Volcanoes National Park, and with the hotel itself called Volcano Village, it’s pretty clear what the main reason for staying here is! But not only is this hotel the best spot to visit Hawaii’s famous volcanoes, this gorgeous property is the embodiment of aloha spirit, and the garden it sits in is a fantastic place to unwind and relax. See photos and rates here.
Luxury: Sometimes on vacation you just want every amenity possible alongside celebrity treatment. That’s exactly what you’ll get at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. From the swimming pools and breathtaking ocean views on this beachfront property to their 18-hole Jack Nicklaus designed golf course, you may find it hard to leave and explore the rest of the island if staying here! See photos and rates here.
Which Is Better For Activities?
Oahu: The Activities
This island certainly delivers when it comes to finding something to do while on vacation, from volcanoes to war artefacts, helicopter tours to movie sets!
For those seeking to learn a little history while vacationing on Oahu, the educational Pearl Harbor Tour is a must. Learn all about that fateful day on the 7th of December 1941, which signaled the beginning of the US’ involvement in World War II.
Also, for the history buffs on Oahu, ‘Iolani Palace also offers the chance to step back in time. This palace was once regarded as one of the most opulent in the world and affords you the rare chance to see a royal residence on American soil.
Another big draw on Oahu, especially for families, is the Jurassic Park Movie Tour, including the immediately-recognizable Kaʻaʻawa Valley, where some of the movie’s most iconic scenes were filmed.
And for those looking to explore Hawaii’s volcanoes, Oahu offers the Diamond Head Summit Trail for walkers looking for spectacular photography opportunities.
Big Island: The Activities
Although bigger, the Big Island is a slightly quieter island, but there is still plenty to keep you occupied during your vacation.
If you are fascinated by volcanoes, head to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for your chance to see the Kīlauea volcano – one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and one of Hawaii’s biggest tourist attractions. It’s a fantastic place to see lava!
For astronomers, Hawaii is a fantastic location for star-gazing and a visit to Mauna Kea should be on your to-do list. The Mauna Kea Visitor Center, at 9,200ft (2,800m) above sea level, is definitely worth the trip.
As a more expansive island, the Big Island also has plenty of opportunity for hiking across lava fields and nature treks, and is home to some excellent golf courses. When it comes to nature activities, we think Big Island has Oahu beat.
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Which Is Better For Scuba Diving?
Surrounded by deep, blue water and healthy coral reefs, Hawaii is on the bucket list of many scuba divers.
Both islands will give you the chance to dip below the waves and get friendly with Hawaii’s diverse marine life.
Oahu also has some wrecks to explore, with the wrecks of USS YO-257 and San Pedro being very popular amongst visitors.
But perhaps the most famous dive in all of Hawaii takes place in the waters surrounding the Big Island – the manta ray night dive out of Kona. This unbelievable experience will leave everybody slack-jawed in amazement as these giant rays swoop inches above the divers’ heads.
In general, the diving in Hawaii can be excellent, and many lucky divers tell tales of the great hammerhead sharks and various other pelagic species. Keep your eyes open for the humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa (or reef triggerfish)—the state fish of Hawaii.
Which Is Better For Food?
One thing is for certain, you will not go hungry in either of these Hawaiian destinations as both offer excellent options for every size of wallet.
Oahu has the edge on the finer dining options, mainly due to having more choices, especially around the Waikiki area. But the Big Island also has some excellent options, just perhaps fewer options.
Top choices in Oahu include Senia, which offers the chance to dine at the chef’s counter facing the open kitchen, and The Pig & The Lady, which has fed and watered such celebrities as Barak Obama. A reservation is highly advisable for both of these restaurants.
Top choices on the Big Island include Merriman’s in Waimea and Lava Lava Beach Club. At Lava Lava, you can enjoy a sunset meal on the sand, but it’s essential you book a table for this prime-time slot. Both serve excellent food with a local flavor.
For simpler fares, both islands have a wide range of options for all palates, especially sea food lovers who will love Hawaii’s iconic poke bowls.
Which Is Better For Families?
Both destinations have been popular amongst families over the years.
Oahu, being the main tourist area in Hawaii, probably just edges it here though, but it depends a little on how adventurous a family you are. The Pearl Harbor Museum and the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu are great days out with or without kids in tow.
The Big Island also has plenty of activities to keep the children engaged, but the feel here is more for outdoor activities, such as hiking and volcano exploring.
So, both islands can be great for kids, it just depends on what your kids love to do on their vacation.
Which Has The Better Nightlife?
We have a clear winner in this department! If you are looking to party long into the night, then Oahu will be a better choice than Big Island.
And for partying on Oahu, you should look no further than Honolulu and Waikiki. For bars, there are some excellent choices for an early evening drink, including Mai Tai’s Bar on the roof at Ala Moana Mall and Buho Cantina, offering excellent views over Waikiki.
For those looking for the clubs later in the evening, head to Manifest or the District for an excellent night out.
While the Big Island is quieter, generally speaking, it’s still possible to enjoy yourself after dark and find a decent party vibe.
In the early evening, head to Humpy’s Big Island Alehouse for some sumptuous ales as the sun sets, or go to The Kona Brewing Company which will sate the thirst of any craft beer lovers.
Although you’re less likely to stumble out of a club at 3am on the Big Island like you could in Oahu, there are still some great drinking establishments, and if you are looking to enjoy these bars, Kona will be the best place to stay on the Big Island.
Which Has The Better Weather?
The location of the Hawaiian archipelago, in the center of the Pacific Ocean, ensures there’s plenty of sun. But, as with most tropical locations, some times of the year will have more sun, and others will experience more rain.
In general terms, there is a wet season and a dry season. The distance between these two delightful destinations is about 150 kilometers, as the crow flies, so both experience similar weather patterns.
The State of Hawaii’s location in proximity to the equator, also means there is little change with the amount of daylight throughout the year.
An interesting feature of both islands is the effect of the trade winds. The trade winds are the dominant wind factor in Hawaii, and due to this the eastern side of its islands will experience more of a breeze throughout the year and slightly more rainfall, with the west coasts of the islands a little calmer and drier.
In terms of when to visit, generally speaking, Hawaii is a year-round destination. June through to December are usually seen as the quieter months on the islands, and at this time of year there is usually a little more rainfall and even the occasional hurricane.
December, especially around Christmas, can be busy, and the months of April through early June are often the best months for perfect weather conditions.
Which Is Safer: Oahu Or The Big Island?
On the whole, the State of Hawaii is a safe place to vacation.
Although its crime figures are slightly above average compared to other states in the US, as a state with large tourist numbers, this is not entirely surprising as tourists sometimes let their guard down in this respect.
The Big Island and Oahu share very similar statistics when it comes to crime. As with any tourist destination around the world, the crime numbers for theft can be a little higher than in non-tourist locations, so please keep a close eye on your belongings, especially at the beach.
But, all-in-all, you don’t need to be overly worried or concerned about crime in Hawaii – just use some common sense.
Oahu vs Big Island: Which Is The Better Choice?
Picking a winner between these two idyllic locations is not an easy task. And if you ask two people to pick their winner, chances are they will give different replies.
Ultimately the final decision on which island to choose comes down to you and your preferences for your vacation.
If you want to party, shop, and lie on the beach, perhaps Oahu is the perfect choice for you. But if you are more inclined to get out and about in the great outdoors, the rugged environment and less crowded Big Island might be the perfect match for you.
Whichever island you choose, Hawaii is a stunning vacation destination. Just make sure that you enjoy your trip…