The day after my hike up Diamond Head I decided to visit Pearl Harbor Hawaii.
History was never my favourite subject at school. As one dull teacher after another tried to download an encyclopaedic dossier of British history into my brain, I’d long tuned out before we even got to the matter of World history, my teenage thoughts more consumed with finding the next acid rave (hey, it was the 90s). But I did remember Pearl Harbor. How could I not? The surprise Japanese attack on the pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor Hawaii naval base on 7 December 1941 that dragged the USA into World War II?
Over 2,000 people died that day including 1,177 men aboard USS Arizona. The crew had an average age of 19 and their fate was sealed in under 9 minutes – the time it took the boat to sink after it received a direct hit. Nearly 350 planes were annihilated and 20 Pearl Harbor ships were sunk within a mere two hours during the attack.
To quote United States President Franklin D Roosevelt, it really was “a day which will live in infamy,”
Can you visit Pearl Harbor Hawaii without a tour?
Due to its historical significance, visiting Pearl Harbor Hawaii was very high on my travel itinerary while I was on Oahu. I knew it wouldn’t be the cheeriest day out but I, like the 1.5 million others who visit Pearl Harbor each year, felt a compelling need to go. Due to the fact I spent a lavish 3 months exploring Hawaii, I was on a budget when I decided to visit Pearl Harbor. I therefore looked into whether you can visit Pearl Harbor without a tour and the answer is yes, so that’s what I did.
However, you might be weighing up your options so here’s the pros and cons of taking a Pear Harbor tour.
Benefits of taking a Pearl Harbor tour
- You get a guide – they will talk you through the history of Pearl Harbor and what the various sights are.
- Skip the line – most booked tours have priority access meaning no queuing in peak season.
- Last minute ticket availability – if the tickets are sold out online for visiting by yourself, you may still be able to get a reservations by booking Pearl Harbor tour tickets.
- It’s a lot easier – Your guide will arrange your Pearl Harbor tickets for you so you don’t need to figure out the ticket prices and packages and timings – it was pretty confusing doing it on your own.
- You can add on a broader tour through Oahu – if you’re already in sightseeing mode, let a guide show you the other highlights of downtown Oahu.
- It’s not that expensive – as Hawaii goes, Pearl Harbor ticket prices are pretty affordable even if you book a tour.
- You’ll save a lot of time – while the bus is wonderfully cheap, if you don’t have a lot of time, taking a Pearl Harbor tour with pick-up will save you a couple of hours (time you could spend on the beach).
Benefits of visiting Pearl Harbor without a tour
- Cost – $5 to visit Pearl Harbor (the cost of the bus fare, basically) – no tour can beat that if price is your main motivator.
- I don’t like big group travel at the best of times; at a memorial, even less-so. They can get noisy and disrespectful pretty quickly. (Don’t worry – the Pearl Harbor tours I recommend below are small group).
- You can take my own time to reflect or leave on a whim without following someone else’s schedule.
- You can focus on Pearl Harbor without being side-tracked to see other places that might not be on your list but are on a broader tour itinerary.
Best Pearl Harbor Tours
If you already know you want to book a guided visit, here are the best Pearl Harbor tours. What makes them the best? They’re small group, offer priority access to Pearl Harbor, have a fair price, include the best things to do at Pearl Harbor and are the top rates tours on offer.
Half-day Pearl Harbor Tour (Honolulu Pickup)
A small group tour with priority access. This Pearl Harbor tour covers the USS Arizona Memorial and Pearl Harbor Visitor Center the two best things to do at Pearl Harbor. You also get a drive through Punchbowl National Memorial Cemetery on the way back to downtown Honolulu. (Price: $55 per person, 5 hours)
Pearl Harbor & USS Arizona Memorial (Waikiki Pick-Up)
This is pretty much the same Pearl Harbor tour as above (and using the same local tour operator) but the pick-up and drop-off location is Waikiki instead of downtown Honolulu. (Price: $69 per person, valid for one day)
Official Full-Day Passport for Pearl Harbor (Self-guided)
This isn’t a guided Pearl Harbor tour but it is the best ticket to buy if you want to see all four sights at Pearl Harbor. I have more details on the Full-Day Passport ticket below but I’ve included the ticket here because this ticket is cheaper than booking each sight separately. Even better, booking through Get Your Guide (link above), you avoid the online booking fee charged by the National park Services. It’s also easier – booking is quick and easy, plus you get a mobile ticket. (Price: $72 per person, 5 hours)
Why I use the Get Your Guide website: I use Get Your Guide to book all my tours. I stumbled across them a few years ago when I was trying to visit the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the official website wouldn’t complete the ticket sale. I went onto the Get Your Guide app and booked the same ticket for the same price in seconds. I even got a mobile ticket in the app so I didn’t need to go and find a printer. The reason I’ve recommended the tours above is they are all Get Your Guide Certified. That means someone – an actual human – from Get Your Guide has tried and tested the tours to make sure customers get what’s promised and that the tours meet the high standards required to become Get Your Guide Certified.
How to Visit Pearl Harbor for $5 without a tour
How to visit Pearl Harbor by car
The good news is that it’s perfectly possible to visit Pearl Harbor without a tour. The simplest way to do this is to drive yourself if you already have a rental car. It’s a 20 minute drive from Waikiki Beach area. Parking at Pearl Harbor is free. Alternatively, you can take a taxi, Uber or Lyft.
If you don’t have a car and want the budget option, you can also easily visit Pearl Harbor by bus.
How to visit Pearl Harbor by bus
In fact, there is not one but two public buses that will drop you at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. The Number 42 (‘Ewa Beach) travels direct from Waikiki and Number 20 (Airport-Pearlridge) also visits the memorial via the airport. The journey takes around one to one and a quarter hours.
The wonderful company that provides this service is called The Bus and you can find details and timetables here. Even more wonderfully, the cost of getting from Waikiki to Pearl Harbor is only $2.75 each way, making for a $5.50 round-trip. (Sorry, the price went up 50 cents since I first visited – please forgive the now slightly inaccurate article title.)
It’s worth noting that you won’t find Waikiki on the Honolulu bus schedule – you’re looking for Kalakaua/Montsarrat. Equally, you won’t find Pearl Harbor – you’re looking for Arizona Memorial. This route map should clear things up.
Although the buses are cheap and direct, they are not exactly frequent – about every half hour (hey, I’m used to London buses that arrive every few minutes) so check out the Honolulu bus schedule and do some planning.
It’s also important to note that the buses stop after 3pm. So, even if you’re not a morning person (I’m certainly not), it pays to prise yourself out of bed for this particular visit.
Things to do at Pearl Harbor
Once at the memorial, things to do at Pearl Harbor together with the admission costs and packages is a bit confusing…at least they were for my tiny brain. You might want to simply visit the Pearl Harbor museum but there isn’t must one Pearl Harbor museum, there are a few. In fact, there are up to 14 different price packages to choose from across four sights and none of them very clearly highlighting the main, FREE Pearl harbor admission option.
Don’t worry, I’ve sifted through the information for you. Here’s the best things to do at Pearl Harbor. Below I have a separate section on the boring but useful sum-up of the packages and costs.
Pearl Harbor Visitor Center
This is effectively the entrance to Pearl Harbor and contains ticket desks and some historic information about Pearl Harbor. The Pearl Harbor visitor center is free to enter but it is by no means one of the highlights of a visit to Pearl Harbor – think of it like the lobby of the cinema. Plan your visit and Pearl Harbor tickets in advance otherwise it might be the only part of Pearl Harbor you get to visit.
The main sight and memorial to the attacks that took place in 1941. Since it’s the main sight, I go into more detail about USS Arizona Memorial below.
Known as the “Pearl Harbor Avenger”, this WWII submarine was launched a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor and played an important role in the war. Today, you can enter the submarine and take a self-guided tour. Bowfin Park is next to the USS Arizona site but it’s a seamless stroll – so much so that I didn’t realise I’d passed from one area to the other.
Known as “Mighty Mo”, USS Missouri was a WWII battleship and is the place where General Douglas MacArthur accepted surrender from the Japanese at the end of the war. Together with USS Arizona, and USS Bowfin, the three are commonly considered to represent the beginning, middle and end of the war. Mighty Mo is situated on Ford Island. Tickets are available at Bowfin Park and access to Ford Island is via a compulsory shuttle service (guess they don’t want us common folk wandering freely around their Naval base – fair enough).
Also located on Ford Island, this museum covers the period post WWII and on to the Vietnam War. Buying tickets and getting to the museum follows the same process as for Battleship Missouri.
When you’re doing your trip research (IF you’re doing your trip research!), you sadly won’t find one neat ‘Pearl Harbor’ website with all of the visitor information together because the four sights are run by separate bodies. However, links for each of the four is above.
If that’s not confusing enough, USS Arizona is one of 9 sights in the US (across 3 states) that make up the Pearl Harbor National Memorial (formerly the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument). For that reason, you will see USS Arizona under that title on the US National Park Service website.
Phew, glad we got that cleared up.
Due to interest and cost, I only visited the USS Arizona Memorial.
Visiting USS Arizona Memorial
USS Arizona Memorial is the most significant sight at Pearl Harbor and likely to be top of your visit list.
The memorial is offshore and features a platform that has been built over the spot where USS Arizona (the boat that sunk in under 9 minutes) lies. The boat remains at the bottom of the water and the shrine is kept in honour of the fallen military members, whose names are engraved in marble on the shrine’s far wall.
The memorial is reached by boat which leaves every quarter of an hour from the visitor centre complex (map of the visitor centre is here). Before boarding the boat you will pass through a small theatre where you will see a short film about the attack on Pearl Harbor (it lasts about 20 minutes). The documentary features some video footage, photos and newspaper clips from the time of the event, providing excellent immersion before taking the journey out to the shrine. The entire trip (video, boat and visit) takes around one and a quarter hours.
Parts of the sunken ship can be spotted from the platform and even to this day oil continues to seep from the wreckage, floating to the surface and presenting an oil slick of rainbow colours that belie the sadness of the site.
I was really surprised to learn that the remains of some of the crew members are still inside the ship. I stared over the edge of the memorial thinking about that for a long time, imagining what that day must have been like for everyone involved. I suspect even my most harrowing thoughts came nowhere close.
It was pure coincidence that the next memorial I visited after Hawaii was a few months later when I travelled to Japan. Prompted by the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US retaliated on 6 August 1945 by dropping the world’s first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. It felt poignant to see both sides of this battle and left me feeling selfishly relieved that I grew up in a different time.
I appreciate that as years pass the significance of the World War memorials depreciate in the minds of some people who see the events as so long ago they are an alien concept but I was offended to see a fair handful of tourists laughing, joking and posing for photos at Pearl Harbor like they were in front of the Eiffel Tower. Have some respect. (Sorry, lecture over.)
Back on land, within the visitor centre complex, there are exhibits, galleries, a remembrance circle as well as more practical facilities such as toilets and a cloakroom.
Pearl Harbor Tickets, Prices and Packages
If you’re searching for Pearl harbor free tickets, the sight you’re looking for is the USS Arizona Memorial. It’s the main main memorial at Pearl Harbor, and the good news is that USS Arizona Memorial is FREE. Together with your return ticket on the bus, the cost of your visit to Pearl Harbor can be as low as $5.50!
However, beware the hidden costs of a visit if:
- you want to book your USS Arizona tickets in advance – there is a fee of $1.50 per ticket (you can book up to 2 months in advance);
- you take an audio guide – $7.50 (thanks to the free video, I personally didn’t feel the need for the guide…even if it is narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis).
- you can’t pack light – there’s a $5 bag storage fee (more below).
There are four USS Arizona ticket prices for seeing USS Arizona Memorial.
USS Arizona Memorial: free admission but $1.50 if you book online.
USS Arizona Memorial with Narrated Tour: this bundles the free admission to the memorial with the audio guide ($7.50). The booking fee applies on top.
Passport to Pearl Harbor: This includes access to all four sights as well as providing the audio tour for USS Arizona and costs $72 (adults) and $35 (children 4-12 years). There is also an online booking fee if you book direct, which is why I recommend booking with Get Your Guide (link below). For an extra $10 ($5 for a child ticket) you can extend the pass to allow Pearl Harbor admission over two days. You can book the passport through Get Your Guide here.
One of the few sites that has simple pricing:
Child (4-12 years) $7
Includes an audio guide.
That’s all, folks.
You can also pre-book a combo ticket here which includes your USS Bowfin Museum admission and the USS Arizona Memorial narrated tour (including fees) for $25.
Mighty Mo Pass $29 (adult) $13 (child). This pass includes a choice of three guides:
- Mighty Mo Guided – a tour by a real, human-being (Retro!) and lasts 35 minutes.
- Acoustiguide – a 45-90 minute audio guide.
- GuideToGoiPod Tour – a 60-90 minute video tour presented on an iPod Touch.
Alternatively, you could choose to explore on your own. If you like to adventure on your own, you’re welcome to take a map and follow the informational signs around the ship at your own pace. Tour guides and staff are around the ship and available to answer questions or point you in the right direction.
Heart of the Missouri Tour and Mighty Mo Pass $54 (adult) $25 (child) – the Heart of the Missouri Tour is a strenuous look at the workings of the battleship that involves climbing up 10 sets of ladders. This pass also includes the Mighty Mo Pass.
Note that for this ticket the child age is 10-12 years. There does not appear to be any booking fees.
General Admission (self-guided tour)
$20 (adult), $10 (child)
The Aviator’s Tour (docent-guided tour plus visit to restoration shop)
$30 (adult), $20 (child)
A $1.80 service fee is applied to each ticket.
Tips for visiting Pearl Harbor
What island is Pearl Harbor on?
If you’re at the beginning of your trip planning, you might be wondering what island Pearl Harbor is on. The answer: Oahu. If you want an overview of the Hawaii Islands and what to see on each, I have written a guide to the Hawaii Islands here.
Where is Pearl Harbor located?
Pearl Harbor is located 13 miles north west of Waikiki beach on Oahu. It’s accessed by Highway 1 (coming from Waikiki beach). The address of Pearl Harbor is: 1 Arizona Memorial Place, Honolulu, HI 96818. Otherwise, just type it into your GPS and it should come up with the best Pearl Harbor directions for you.
Pearl Harbor Free Tickets
Pearl Harbor tickets are confusing. If you’re looking for Pearl Harbor free tickets, the sight you want is the USS Arizona Memorial.
Limited Pearl Harbor Tickets Available Each Day
There is a maximum number of USS Arizona Memorial tickets available each day (4,500) so if you’re visiting in peak season, you’re advised to book in advance or get there early to secure a ‘walk-in’ ticket. I walked in around 12pm in October and had no issues getting a ticket…which is a good thing because I wasn’t aware of the ticket restriction before I visited. You can collect your free ticket from the ticket booth.
USS Arizona Memorial – allotted times
The USS Arizona tickets are for an allotted time and even in low season I had to wait around 45 minutes before the next visiting time. This can stretch for hours in peak season for ‘walk-in’ tickets.
Pearl Harbor Hours
Pearl Harbor is open seven days a week from 7 am to 5 pm. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. You can find full details of the Pearl Harbor hours on the National Park Service Website here.
Last visiting time at Pearl Harbor
The last visit time for the memorial is 3pm. Visiting times for the other sights vary. If you plan to see a few of the sights, make sure you have time to get around them before you buy the bigger bundled Pearl Harbor tickets.
Bags and security at Pearl Harbor
You are not permitted to take into the sights any items that allow concealment so keep this in mind when you pack for the day. You are allowed to take a camera/phone, wallet and water, but it must be carried by hand (or pocket). Backpacks, purses and even camera bags must be stored at the cost of $5 per bag, regardless of size.
It’s worth knowing that the harbor is still home to an active US Military base, so take your best behaviours with you…or face the consequences.
Pearl Harbor Dress Code
It seems sad that there needs to be a dress-code reminder, but the National Park Service website reminds visitors that sandals are ok but bathing suits and profane t-shirts are not.
Best time to visit Pearl Harbor
If you are in Hawaii in December, keep the date of the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in mind. Not only does it draw extra visitors, but it also happens to fall during the peak winter season and the Honolulu marathon occurs around the same time. All of that means low availability. No need to avoid the date, just book in advance.
Parking at Pearl Harbor
Free parking is available if you choose to drive. You can find out more here.
Tips for visiting Pearl Harbor from an expert
We got really lucky and one reader also happens to volunteer at Pearl Harbor has stopped by and left some inside info. You can read Rob’s tips for visiting Pearl Harbor here (if you’re on a small screen, you can see Rob’s original comment in the reader comments at the end):
Thanks Rob – feel free to stop by any time and share more of your pearls of wisdom.
Planning Your Trip To Hawaii
Where to stay in Waikiki
On a budget: During my three months in Hawaii, I tried out a lot of accommodation in Waikiki and I can happily recommend any of the following hostels (private rooms available as well as dorms):
The Beach Waikiki Boutique Hostel (unbeatable location minutes from the beach)
Hokondao Waikiki Beachside Hostel (best if you like to party)
Hostelling International Waikiki (great for couples and families)
Seaside Hawaiian Hostel Waikiki (also a decent location)
Hotels: if you’re looking for something a bit more upmarket, here are the top 10 hotels in Waikiki (according to Tripadvisor). For beach lovers, check out the 10 best Oceanfront Hotels and if you really want to splash out or if it’s a special occasion, try one of these luxury hotels – The Moana Surfrider would be my choice…closely followed by the Outrigger Reef Resort and Trump International Hotel.
My favourite Hawaii Guide Books
I used the Hawaii Lonely Planet Guidebook. Although it’s not filled with pictures, it’s got all the details you need including train and bus routes and times as well as local maps.
If you’re a more visual person, check out the DK Eyewitness Guide to Hawaii complete with images and 3D guides to major sites.
Got any questions about planning your visit to Pearl Harbor? Let me know in the comments below.
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