Cheap Eats in Hawaii and Elsewhere

Five strategies to cut your travel food bill.

Marukame Udon Waikiki, HI

Delicious handmade Japanese noodles from Marukame Udon in Waikiki for as little as $3.75 per bowl.

Hawaii is an expensive travel destination, or so we’ve been told. And before arriving we fully expected to shell out a ton of cash on food. Needing to buy three meals per day, every day, at high-priced restaurants and cafes in this island paradise can really dent your wallet. But it doesn’t have to.

Here are the strategies we used to survive three weeks on the island and a lifetime on the road while still eating well and saving a fortune.

Are you going to eat all of that?

Lucys Taqueria Hilo, HI

Get in my belly! This baby sized “Burrito Grande” at Lucy’s Taqueria in Hilo, HI is all yours for $10.95.

Portion sizes in the U.S. are monstrous. But unless you’re Adam Richman of Man v. Food you don’t actually need to stuff yourself to the point of busting with everything that’s put in front of you. In most places Shannon and I can easily share a standard sized dinner portion and still leave with full bellies, not to mention full wallets.

For those traveling alone, leftovers are not only your friend; they’re a friend who picks up half your dinner tab.  

Better, faster, cheaper . . . street food

Nui's Thai, North Shore, Oahu

Grab some Pad Thai with shrimp for $7.25 at Nui’s Thai on Oahu’s north shore

We generally prefer to eat street food whenever we can find it. It’s not only cheaper than restaurant fare it’s often tastier and always speedier. The beauty of food trucks and stalls is that they can only do one thing to win repeat business: make great food. They can’t draw people in with hip décor, swank service or sometimes even a table, so their full attention goes into the meals they serve. As a bonus, there is no waiter to tip. 

Get off the strip

Chinatown Marketplace Honolulu

Chinatown’s central marketplace is light on ambiance but heavy on value. You’ll find a wide variety of vegetable and meat dishes here starting around $4.00.

All the reasons we love food trucks apply in reverse to restaurants on main tourist thoroughfares. They jack up prices and plate mediocre food knowing their vacationing patrons will never return. Meanwhile, a few blocks away a family owned restaurant is struggling mightily to earn the loyalty of local customers. It really is worth the extra effort in seeking them out.

How much can you save? Tons. In San Pedro, Belize, the beachfront resorts were charging $30 for plates of terrible barbeque and marinara pasta. A mere two streets away we found a local woman hand making papusas for $1.25 each.

Papusas, San Pedro Belize

Bonus Waikiki recommendation: Pearl’s Korean Barbeque serves up a massive plate of rice and four vegetable side dishes. There’s more than enough to share for $8.49 but you’ll have to venture into the basement of a shopping mall to find it.

Make your own

Kona Kitchen

This kitchen fed us for a week in Kona, HI

The best way to save a buck on dining out is to dine in. Wherever we travel we always try hard to find lodging that comes with full kitchens. Sometimes that means staying in hostels. Other times it means scooping up a bargain timeshare like the gigantic one-bedroom condo we scored in Kona, HI.

Loaded up with groceries we enjoyed bacon and egg breakfasts and roast chicken dinners that cost us just a couple of bucks per meal.

When we can’t have a full kitchen we at least try to find a room with a refrigerator. That enables us to store leftovers, have milk for cereal, and chill a six pack so we can skip the next tip altogether.

Go light on the drinks

Umbrella Drink, Mai Tai

This is something that works great in theory, although we’ve never actually tried it. The largest portion of most restaurant tabs is the bar bill. You can easily cut your dinner expense in half by simply drinking water.

Or, you can do what we did and head over to happy hour at the Shorebird in Waikiki for their $3.50 Mai Tais.

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17 Comments on “Cheap Eats in Hawaii and Elsewhere”

  1. Tom September 23, 2013 at 10:18 am #

    Excellent advice, Brian. Eating out when traveling is so seductive (new food to try!) but expensive. Like you, we usually follow for of you give points whenever we can.


    • Brian September 24, 2013 at 6:36 pm #

      The funny thing, though, is that in many places the local cuisine is pretty inexpensive. That’s obviously not true in places like Paris. But in many parts of the world you really can gorge on local food for pennies. It’s often when you try maintain your hometown diet abroad that you really run up the food bill.


  2. digger666 September 23, 2013 at 11:18 am #

    Reblogged this on digger666 and commented:
    Fairly common sense suggestions, which any experienced traveller will know. However, less experienced travellers are advised to take notes.


  3. cravesadventure September 23, 2013 at 11:25 am #

    Thanks so much for sharing your trips! When I was in Honolulu earlier this year I explored Chinatown and found some great, cheap eats – YUM. Happy Week:)


    • Brian September 24, 2013 at 6:31 pm #

      Chinatown and virtually any ethnic enclave in any good sized city typically yields similar results.


  4. writecrites September 23, 2013 at 5:52 pm #

    Great advice, and don’t forget all the farmer’s markets (if you have any sort of kitchen where you’re staying). There are a ton of them all over Hawaii. Too bad you missed Eat the Street” in which dozens of food trucks come together to provide a feast like you can’t believe. Gourmet food at budget prices.


    • Brian September 24, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

      Good tip on the farmers market. And yeah, we love those food truck events. That way we don’t have to hunt them down individually, which can be a bit of a pain.


  5. travelscapism September 23, 2013 at 7:37 pm #

    Great tips, I am looking to travel to Hawaii soon and have bookmarked this!


  6. Geeky Explorers (@GeekyExplorers) September 23, 2013 at 11:02 pm #

    We don’t buy into the no alcohol plan, so we trend towards street food to help lower the costs. I fell in love with the Hawaiian plate when we visited Hawaii – it was similar to my hometown garbage plate & helped when we went a little mai tai crazy. 🙂


    • Brian September 24, 2013 at 6:25 pm #

      Yeah, the no alcohol thing is an austerity too far for us as well.


  7. everthewanderer September 24, 2013 at 12:07 pm #

    Great tips! Hawaii is on my bucket list so I will definitely be keeping this gem of advice on hand!


    • Brian September 24, 2013 at 6:24 pm #

      Thanks. Definitely keep Hawaii on the list. It’s well worth the effort and the expense.


  8. Kristina September 28, 2013 at 4:05 am #

    This is very useful, thank you! We are off to Hawaii in January, I’ll have your tips in mind! 🙂


  9. Marcelino August 16, 2014 at 9:28 pm #

    amazing insight. Really enjoyed reading this blog. Keep up the good work and to everyone keep on learning!


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