Pearl Harbor: A How To Guide

When Chris and I started planning our Hawaii trip Pearl Harbor was right up there on the must see list. Yet, as we started to investigate how to visit Pearl Harbor, things started to get a little confusing.  There didn’t seem to be an authoritative website to help plan the visit and, in lieu of this, a plethora of tour websites had popped up to take the place.  Anybody who knows me well will know that I tend to like to do things the right way so this lack of clarity frustrated me.

This is a logistical post covering how to plan an effective day at Pearl Harbor.  If you’re looking for information about the history of the site, that’s well covered elsewhere.  Also consider that this plan is based upon the experience of a young couple without children, and unlikely to be suitable for families with young kids.

Background

So, why isn’t there an authoritative site to help visitors plan their day?

Pearl Harbor is made up of several sites, operated by a variety of different bodies.  You don’t visit Pearl Harbor, per se.  Instead you visit one or more historic sites in the Pearl Harbor vicinity.

The website Pearl Harbor Historic Sites ties all these sites together, yet, still doesn’t provide sufficient holistic information about how to plan a day effectively and with adequate time to visit all sites.  Hence this post.

What to Avoid

  • Avoid tours.  We spent eight hours at the various Pearl Harbor sites.  Most tours provide less than half this time at Pearl Harbor then add shopping centre visits as time-fillers while charging more than double what you need to pay.
  • Avoid bags.  You’ll have to check them as soon as you arrive (a waste of time), so you’re better to take none in the first place.  Take a small camera (without the bag), buy your food and drinks, and follow the below recommendations to avoid the sun and you’ll have no need for a bag.

The Perfect Day

  • Two months before your visit:
    1. Book your Passport to Pearl Harbor.  The Passport gives you access to all four of the Pearl Harbor historic sites.  It’s marginally cheaper than buying tickets for each site separately, and means you don’t have to fuss around purchasing multiple tickets on the day.  You also receive audio guides for most sites.
        
      Critically, the Passport allows you to pre-register your time for the USS Arizona Memorial.  Time slots become available two months out, and I recommend you book the 9:00 AM program, per the itinerary below.
        
  • One week before your visit:
    1. Organise your transport to and from Pearl Harbor.  There are plenty of options for getting from your accommodation to Pearl Harbor and back suiting your location and budget.  I’m not going to claim to know which is best for you.  If in doubt, speak to your accommodation.

      As a guide, the drive from Waikiki is around 40 minutes to arrive at 7:30 AM on a weekday, so a 6:45 AM accommodation departure is advisable.

      Ensure the return part of your journey allows you to depart after 4:00 PM. Many transport providers offer final pickups no later than 3:30 PM, which is pushing it if you get delayed on Ford Island.
        
  • The day of your visit:
    1. Arrive at 7:30 AM.  It’s an early start for sure, but will give you a chance to see some of the busier sites before the crowds arrive and while it’s still relatively cool.

      Have your Passport (to Pearl Harbor) documentation with you and head through security then straight to one of the Tickets and Information desks.  Pick either, as you’ll need to visit both (remember those half-dozen organisations mentioned above).  Having visited both desks you’ll have all the tickets you need for the remainder of the day.

      Google Maps provide a Street View tour of the visitor centre vicinity if you want to familiarise yourself before you arrive.
        
    2. Visit the USS Bowfin submarine.  Moments walk from the main entrance, this is a great way to start your day and see the Balao-class submarine before it becomes hot and crowded.  Skip the associated museum for now, grab your audio guide and head aboard.

      The self guided tour takes about 30 minutes and you should aim to be heading back towards the USS Arizona Memorial at about 8:30 AM.
        
    3. Prepare for your USS Arizona Memorial program.  You should aim to be waiting at the program departure point, a short walk from Bowfin, by 8:45 AM (assuming you booked the 9:00 AM program).  Collect your audio guide and wander over whilst listening to some preliminary history about the site.  I’d also recommend a bathroom break at this point, as there are no bathroom facilities once the program commences.

      The program consists of a historic film, a short boat ride to and from the memorial, and time spent paying respects at the memorial itself.  If you booked the 9:00 AM tour, you should be back at the visitor centre by around 10:15 AM.

      Don’t miss your time slot as there are limited places and you’ll most likely be unable to book another time that day.
        
    4. Break time.  Now is a good time to buy a snack and a drink (something hydrating like water or electrolyte drink).  The time-bound part of your day is complete, so you can visit the remaining sites at your leisure, though I’ll continue to recommend an itinerary order.
        
    5. Take the bus to Mighty Mo.  When you’re ready, head up to the bus shelter in the northeast corner of the visitor centre where you’ll await the next bus to Ford Island.

      Ford Island is an active military base and accessible only by a shuttle bus which runs every 15 minutes in a loop from the visitor centre, to the USS Missouri Memorial, to the Pacific Aviation Museum, then back to the visitor centre.  You’ll spend the next few hours visiting historic sites on Ford Island before returning by bus.  Confirm with the bus driver what time you need to board the bus to be back at the visitor centre if you have a specific time in mind.  Also consider that the bus may fill up on a busy day meaning you’d need to wait 30 minutes.

      Your first stop is the awe inspiring USS Missouri Memorial.  Swap your ID for an audio guide (don’t forget to collect your ID on the way back) then step aboard the 71 year old battleship and explore at your leisure (an hour or two).  When you’ve explored sufficiently, or your stomach is hinting that it’s had enough of the subtle rolling, it’s time to think about lunch.

      Before jumping back on the bus, I recommend a quick visit to the USS Oklahoma Memorial which is just inland from the bus shelter.  A touching memorial to the 429 who lost their lives aboard the USS Oklahoma, it’s well worth a visit to pay your respects.
        
    6. Lunch time.  The bus runs in one direction, so hop aboard the next bus which will take you to the Pacific Aviation Museum where you’ll first find Laniākea Café, the self proclaimed “best place to eat at Pearl Harbor“.  Regardless of the quality of the food, it’s certainly the most comfortable eatery so enjoy a bite to eat and rest your legs before continuing on to the last few sites.
        
    7. Explore the Pacific Aviation Museum.  Have a look at the introductory film in the auditorium, then take your time to wander around the various exhibits throughout hangars 37 and 79.

      When you’re finished, head back to the main entrance and await the bus which will return you directly to the visitor centre.
        
    8. Conclude with the Bowfin Submarine Museum.  The air-conditioned museum, closest to where the bus will drop you off, is the perfect place to escape the hot afternoon and conclude your day at Pearl Harbor.  Collect your audio guide then explore the exhibits where you’ll see everything from the humble beginnings of submarining right up to the modern, world-ending missile launchers (a chilling way to end the day).

I hope this post helps bring together disparate information in a summary that helps you plan a great day at Pearl Harbor.  I’d encourage you to read further on the individual sites, as some background knowledge will further enhance the experience on the day.

If you have any comments, updates, or differing perspectives, please leave a comment below.

6 comments

  1. hi! This is very helpful. thanks for doing this. Quick question, we’ll have our two daughters in tow (6 and 2) so I don’t think they will be good for the whole day (but my husband is really excited to see what he can). Can you recommend a shorter tour? What shouldn’t we miss?

    • Hey Gillian,

      A must see is the USS Arizona Memorial program, and I’d try to cover it off early in your day. This program provides a history of the site and the events of 7 December, 1941 (in the form of a short film), followed by a boat ride to the USS Arizona Memorial where you may reflect and pay respects to those who lost their lives. I would imagine you’d want to carry your 2 year old for the parts of the program which are on the water: the boat ride and time on the floating memorial.

      The other three sites are all interesting for their own reasons. Which you choose will depend upon what is most interesting to your family (i.e. submarines, battleships or planes). I agree that attempting all sites in one day is probably a bit much with young kids.

      The Pacific Aviation Museum is probably the most physically accessible with kids (least trip-hazards and places to bump your head), followed by the USS Missouri Memorial, then the USS Bowfin submarine. The submarine is quite cozy inside, but not impossible with kids. In fact, from memory they have a separate audio program tailored for children. If you do the USS Bowfin, I recommend you do it early in the day before the crowds.

      Not being a parent myself, I find it difficult to make specific recommendations. The website pearlharboroahu.com has a page which is very pro-kids, so I’d check that out. I would also recommend making contact with the Pearl Harbor Visitor Centre and asking for their recommendation, especially regarding bags and equipment. There are very strict bag policies in place that you should understand before you arrive so you can prepare.

      I hope that helps a little and that you, your husband, and your girls have an incredible time.

      Andrew

  2. Hi Andrew
    We are visiting Pearl Harbour next week but I booked our passports months ago. Thanks for all your advice it has been so helpful. One question is I am a bit confused about the Arizona tour in conjunction with the passport as I can’t remember booking a tour when I booked the passports:( Do I need to do this seperately or is it done together and I just can’t remember my tour time.

    Thanks Sharon

    • Hi Sharon,

      Glad you found the post helpful, and thanks for the query.

      When we booked our passport, we had to specify an Arizona Memorial time (the presentation & boat ride is included as part of the passport). The confirmation email should have your tour time, though it may be buried in the details. Ours said:

      Passport to Pearl Harbor
      9:00 AM HST – USS Arizona Memorial
      8:00 AM – 5:30 PM HST – Passport
      2 Adult

      If you can’t find the details in the email I’d recommend giving Recreation.gov a call with your reservation number handy and confirming.

      Have a great time – Hawaii is incredible and Pearl Harbor is a real highlight.

      Andrew

  3. This is very helpful. We are travelling at Christmas so want to plan every detail so we don’t miss out with overwhelming crowds! We will be booking the passport or may even purchase the Oahu Pass which notice covers the cost of many of the extra tours. I did notice on the website that the earliest you can book the USS Arizona memorial program is 11am online. Given this, I was thinking of booking it toward the end of the day (2pm). Any recommendations on order of seeing the sites? Any views on the Oahu go card? I know that you still have to prebook the memorial tour time online.

    • Hi Diane,

      That’s exciting that you’re travelling Hawaii at Christmas, it’s bound to be an incredible vacation.

      We didn’t use the Oahu Pass, so I’m not familiar with the options available. I assume it provides a discount when presented at any of the Pearl Harbor sites, which doesn’t sound like a bad option. None of the sites were particularly expensive when we were there (even without the Passport), so I’d make sure the pass includes plenty of other discounts that you intend to use around the island to make it worthwhile.

      From memory, the time slots for the USS Arizona Memorial become available two months out and book up very quickly (within the day). If you’re unable to get a 9 AM slot, 11 AM should be fine. If you’re using our itinerary you could shuffle the Bowfin Submarine Museum forward from the end of the day and do it between the USS Bowfin submarine and the USS Arizona Memorial. Grab a bite to eat before you join the USS Arizona tour.

      If you prefer the 2 PM USS Arizona tour then I’d head straight over to Ford Island when you first arrive, as you’ll need to spend a few hours there visiting the USS Missouri Memorial, the USS Oklahoma Memorial and the Pacific Aviation Museum. I think it’s best to do Ford Island sites in one go, as you could end up wasting time getting the shuttle bus back and forth. Grab lunch at Laniākea Café (at the Pacific Aviation Museum) and give yourself plenty of time to get the shuttle bus back, as it can get busy in the middle of the day. You can finish the day with the submarine sites after your USS Arizona tour.

      I hope those suggestions help, and that you have a wonderful, safe and enjoyable trip.

      Andrew

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