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Deciding between Oahu vs Kauai is a challenging task. Both islands have picturesque beaches and unique natural landscapes that make them two popular islands to visit. But if you look closely, you’ll find that these two islands are actually very different from one another.
Oahu vs Kauai: As Hawaii’s most visited island, Oahu is a good, all-around choice for those interested in beautiful beaches and a lively city experience. It’s also the cheapest island to visit, which makes it an excellent option for budget travelers. On the other hand, Kauai is better suited for nature lovers and adventure enthusiasts, as it’s more remote. That also means it is far less crowded. So, if you prefer a quiet getaway with a laid-back Hawaii atmosphere, you will likely find Kauai to be more peaceful.
However, there’s so much more to consider when deciding which island to visit. In this article, we’ll compare the main similarities and differences between Oahu vs Kauai so you can choose the best place for your Hawaiian vacation!
Wherever you decide to land, we have some quick links to make planning the trip easier:
Take a deep dive on each island with our Oahu Travel Guide and our Kauai Travel Guide.
Find an awesome place to stay and plan memorable activities with our curated databases.
Work your way to a free Hawaii vacation with our sister site Booked With Points
Oahu in a Nutshell:
Oahu is the most popular destination in Hawaii and is unlike any other island in the archipelago. Home to the state’s capital, Honolulu, the island is a bustling and vibrant hub of activity suitable for all types of travelers.
The most famous area of Oahu is Waikiki, which is world-famous for its golden sand beach, high-end resorts, and lively shopping and dining scene. But Waikiki is busy and crowded, and it may not exude that classic island atmosphere many vacation goers seek. However, it’s still an iconic part of Hawaiian history and culture that every traveler should see at least once!
You also have the opportunity to experience so much history and culture on Oahu. You can tour Pearl Harbor and visit the USS Arizona Memorial, learn about Hawaiian history at Iolani Palace and the Bishop Museum, and enjoy a cultural sail, which we think is actually better than a luau (though Oahu does have some great luaus)
There’s also the North Shore of Oahu, a quieter and more laid-back destination with beautiful beaches and a strong surfing culture. Ko Olina on the southwestern coast is also a good choice for families or luxury travelers with its 5-star resorts and swimmable coves.
At the end of the day, Oahu is a diverse island that has something to offer everyone. Between the cultural attractions, sun-soaked beaches, and energetic city life, you’re guaranteed to have a great stay when you’re here.
Looking for things to do on Oahu?
The 5 Best Turtle Canyon Snorkeling Tours from Waikiki
The 4 Best Oahu Luaus: our honest review
Hawaiian Waikiki Catamaran Sail: Better Than a Luau
Surf lessons on the North Shore for the summer and surf lessons from Waikiki
Kauai in a Nutshell:
Often referred to as the Garden Isle, Kauai is a lush, tropical paradise and one of the most beautiful islands in Hawaii. Over 90% of the land is used for Conservation and Agriculture, while 70% is inaccessible by foot, creating an untouched world that attracts travelers from around the world.
For this reason, Kauai is also a playground for adventure seekers. There are rugged cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and dramatic canyons waiting for you to explore. And with over 111 miles of coastline, it has more accessible beaches than any other island! Popular activities include hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, and even mountain tubing!
But if you’re here just for some rest and relaxation, there are plenty of nice resorts where you can chill out. In places like Poipu and Princeville, you can find upscale resorts and top-notch amenities where you can really enjoy an authentic Hawaiian vacation.
And let’s not forget about the rain! The abundant rainfall contributes to the island’s rich, verdant landscape that makes a spectacular backdrop for your tropical vacation. While this can be a deal breaker for some, Kauai still has many beautiful beaches where you can swim and snorkel to your heart’s content. Besides, rains in Hawaii tend to be short and warm.
Looking for things to do on Kauai?
5 of the Best NaPali Coast Boat Tours
Wailua River Kayak and Hike to Secret Falls
The 3 Best Kauai Luaus: our unbiased review
Waterfall Triple Trail UTV Expedition (private waterfall)
Hawaiian Island Cheat Sheets
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We’ll share 4 can’t-miss activities on each island, a map with the main sights in town, & famous local grindz (eats)!
Oahu vs Kauai for:
Choosing where you stay on the islands is one of the most important factors to consider. Thankfully, both Kauai and Oahu have some great accommodation options, although they cater to different travel styles and preferences.
For example, the most popular resorts on Oahu are located in the bustling neighborhood of Waikiki. These hotels are located in a very lively area (after all, Waikiki is the most visited destination in all of Hawaii!), which means they can be expensive, crowded, and somewhat commercialized.
However, the Halekulani and the Royal Hawaiian offer exceptional experiences for those interested in a beachfront stay in Waikiki. You can also find other accommodation options like guesthouses, hotels, and even hostels.
If you prefer something a bit more remote, you can also choose to stay in the luxurious Four Seasons in Ko Olina or at Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore. These areas are further away from Waikiki and Honolulu, although they still can be crowded, especially during the high season.
The resorts in Kauai offer a completely different experience for vacation goers. The island, in general, is quieter and more laid back, and the hotels here reflect that same easygoing atmosphere. And while there aren’t as many options as there are on Oahu, we believe Kauai gives you a more traditional taste of island life.
Poipu is a great area to stay, as it is close to some of Kauai’s most beautiful beaches. We love the Koloa Landing Resort or the Grand Hyatt Kauai if you want an upscale beachfront property. Kauai also has some fantastic vacation rental properties. So if you’re craving the comforts of home (or at least home-cooked meals), then you’ll have lots of choices on the island.
Winner for best resorts (and vacation rentals): Kauai
Hawaii wouldn’t be as popular of a vacation destination if it wasn’t for the beaches. And while Oahu and Kauai have lots of sandy spots to discover, we would say that Oahu has a slight edge due to the variety and diversity of its coastline.
There are lively beaches (Waikiki Beach), snorkeling beaches (Pupukea Beach – Shark’s Cove), and even secluded beaches far off the main tourist path (Kualoa Regional Park). With so many places on the island, there’s really something for everyone on Oahu.
But that’s not to say that the beaches on Kauai aren’t as good. The unspoiled landscape of lush jungle and rocky cliffs in the north provides a different kind of beauty that you simply can’t find on Oahu. And in the south, near Poipu, you’ll find some good swimming and snorkeling beaches as well.
One thing to keep in mind is that beaches on both islands can be rough in the wintertime. Because of the large swells and dangerous currents, it’s possible that the beaches will be off limits for swimming or snorkeling. The southern coast of Oahu and Kauai are tamer, although it’s always a good idea to check the weather conditions or lifeguard alerts before heading into the water. As always, when in doubt, don’t go out.
Winner for best beaches: Oahu
Looking for the best beaches on the islands? Look no further!
The 7 Best Kid-Friendly Beaches on Kauai
The 10 Best Beaches on Kauai: stunning spots you don’t want to miss!
5 Best Snorkeling Spots on Oahu
10 Best Beaches on Oahu: Secluded, White Sand, Find It All
Known for its crystal clear waters and abundant marine life, Hawaii is one of the best places in the States to go snorkeling. There are world-class snorkeling spots on Oahu and Kauai, attracting snorkelers of all skill levels.
On Oahu, novice snorkelers will love the protected reef of Hanauma Bay and the sandy shores of Shark’s Cove. More experienced swimmers can test out Electric Beach on Western Oahu if they want to see reef fish, sea turtles, and even spinner dolphins.
But if snorkeling is a top priority on your trip, then Kauai is the island you’ll want to visit. This is mainly because it is home to the specular Napali Coast, which is renowned for its underwater landscapes. There are lots of boat tours available (snorkeling and non-snorkeling) if you’re interested in admiring the coast from both above and below the ocean’s shore.
Otherwise, you can snorkel pretty much anywhere around the island, although we prefer the northern coast in the summer. But since the waves can be rough and dangerous in the winter, those snorkeling in the colder months are better off at one of the many beaches in the south.
Winner of best snorkeling: Kauai (but only slightly because of the Napali Coast!)
After a day of snorkeling or sightseeing, many travelers like to hit the town for some drinks and entertainment. But when it comes to nightlife on Kauai and Oahu, there’s only one contender – Oahu!
As the most populated island in Hawaii, Oahu has a seemingly endless number of bars, nightclubs, lounges, and live music venues. They are mostly concentrated in Waikiki or downtown Honolulu, although beach bars and more laid-back places can be found almost everywhere around the island.
Kauai, on the other hand, is definitely not a party destination. The nightlife scene here is quieter and mostly in the local or hotel restaurants. Many places offer live music, which is a great way to unwind after spending your day hiking or swimming. However, you’ll find that places are rarely open late into the evening. Most bars and restaurants will likely close their doors before midnight.
Of course, you can also go to a luau, which many travelers consider a quintessential Hawaiian experience. If you want to do this at night, there are plenty of options on Oahu and Kauai. This is a great opportunity to learn more about Hawaiian and Polynesian culture, as luaus feature traditional hula and fire dancing along with traditional Hawaiian cuisine.
Winner of best nightlife: Oahu
Traveling to Hawaii isn’t a small expense. Between the cost of flights, hotels, food, and tours, you can easily spend thousands of dollars on vacation. However, Oahu is cheaper to visit than Kauai. In fact, it’s actually the cheapest destination out of any of the Hawaiian islands, which makes it a great option for those looking for something slightly more budget-friendly.
The biggest cost savings come from accommodations, as Oahu hotels are roughly $150 cheaper per night compared to hotels on Kauai. This is a huge benefit when deciding between the islands, especially if you’re staying for several days or weeks. Vacation rentals also tend to be cheaper than hotels, but they are also much cheaper on Oahu ($247 per night compared to $386 a night in Kauai).
We’ve researched what it might cost to book a vacation to both Oahu and Kauai during the busy summer season. For a 7-day, 6-night trip for two, here’s what you can expect to pay when planning a trip to Oahu.
- Airfare: $836 (if leaving from the west coast)
- Hotel: $1,836 (or $1,422 if staying in a vacation rental)
- Rental Car: $343
Oahu Total: $2,601 – $3,015
On Kaui, these prices are noticeably more. For a 7-day, 6-night trip for two to Kauai, the cost is roughly the following:
- Airfare: $902 (if leaving from the west coast)
- Hotel: $2,748 (or $2,316 if staying in a vacation rental)
- Rental Car: $399
Kauai Total: $3,617 – $4,049
As you can see, you’ll likely spend $1,000 more for a trip to Kauai than you would to Oahu. But keep in mind that these are just average prices. The exact cost will depend on when you travel, the type of accommodations you choose, etc. If you want to get more for a whole lot less, learn about booking your Hawaii travel with points, and get there almost for free!
Winner of cheapest cost: Oahu
Hawaii is a tropical paradise, and most travelers expect to have warm weather and clear skies every day on their trip. And while the islands generally have consistent, beautiful weather, the climate varies greatly depending on where you go and the time of year you’re visiting.
Both islands enjoy year-round warm temperatures in the mid-70s to mid-80s°F. They also have distinct wet and dry seasons. The dry season runs from April to October, while the rainy season lasts from November to March.
However, the main difference between Oahu and Kauai is the amount of rain. Kauai gets more rain than every other Hawaiian island and even more than most places in the entire United States! While winter is the rainiest time of the year (especially in the north), it can still rain anywhere on the island.
But don’t let this deter you! Because it gets so much rain, the Garden Isle is incredibly beautiful when everything is green and lush. It’s also more humid than Oahu, which we think adds to the tropical atmosphere! And keep in mind that you’re unlikely to get an all day downpour anywhere in Hawaii.
Winner of best weather: Oahu
The islands aren’t just good for snorkeling and swimming. They also have some great hiking opportunities for those looking to explore the dramatic Hawaiian landscapes. Oahu and Kauai are both great islands for hikers, so choosing where to go mainly comes down to your own personal preferences.
If you’re staying in Waikiki on Oahu, there are lots of easy to moderate trails within reach. The most famous hike is Diamond Head, which we recommend doing for sunrise for the jaw-dropping views. Just remember to reserve your spot online, as there are only a certain amount of Diamond Head visitor permits given out per day.
Other popular treks on Oahu include the Pillbox hikes, Makapu’u lighthouse, and Manoa Valley.
Kauai is another great destination for avid hikers. The north shore of the island is dotted with waterfalls, beaches, and legendary lookouts that are sure to please any outdoor enthusiast. And the famous Kalalau trail departs from the North Shore, but be sure to secure a permit before you go. The western side of Kauai is home to the famous Waimea Canyon, which many people refer to as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. You can visit both of these areas (or customize your own hiking experience) on this Kauai hiking tour.
Because of the beautiful, untouched landscapes, we have to say that Kauai is the better option for hiking!
Winner for best hikes: Kauai
If you’re craving a bit of excitement on vacation, then we highly recommend booking your trip to Kauai. The island is an adventure-lover’s dream with tons of activities on land and on water.
As we mentioned earlier, the Napali Coast is something you won’t want to miss during your visit. Whether you book a boat ride or a helicopter tour, it’s definitely worth seeing this sliver of stunning natural beauty any way you can.
However, the Napali Coast isn’t the only thing for adventure seekers. You can also go mountain tubing through caves and waterfalls or kayaking up the scenic Wailua River. Between these excursions and the beautiful hiking and snorkeling opportunities, it’s easy to see why Kauai is our top pick.
But even if you choose Oahu, you can still do some fun activities while you’re here. For example, you can go surfing on the North Shore, horseback riding on the beach, or diving through the volcanic lava tubes of Pupukea Marine Life Preserve.
Winner of best adventure activities: Kauai
In Summary: Oahu vs Kauai
Each Hawaiian island has its own identity, which makes them a perfect fit for some travelers or second best for others. Oahu is a budget friendly option for a relaxed beach vacation with nightlife. Kauai is an oasis for nature lovers looking for unmatched resort experiences.
No matter what you’re looking for out of your vacation, Hawaii has it. Check out some of our other comparisons:
Oahu vs Big Island: Pick The Right Island for Your Trip
Big Island vs Kauai: Which One Is Ideal For Your Vacation
Maui vs Big Island: Beach Vacation or Adventure (you decide)
Maui vs Kauai: Pick the Right Island for Your Trip
Oahu vs. Maui (from someone who has lived on both)
Picked your island? Now for your itinerary!
Now that you know which island suits you best, grab the itinerary to go with it! Our itineraries give you everything you need for the perfect vacation, no matter what you’re looking for! What to pack? Check. Great food? Check. Free parking? Check. The best hotels? Check. Full, customizable excursion days? Yep, we have that too.
Our three weeks consisted of time on Oahu,The Big Island and Kauai, it was an unforgettable experience for us. Everything went very well, thanks to the Itineraries we bought from you!! They were the best! We set out each day with an itinerary in hand, which made all the difference! Thanks so much for your wonderful Itineraries!Kim and Clyde