A flag flys from the bow of the USS Bowfin submarine, with the USS Arizona Memorial and the USS Missouri Battleship in the distance, a common sight when you visit Pearl Harbor.

Visit Pearl Harbor: Why is it so complicated?

by Suzanne G.

Why is planning a visit to Pearl Harbor so complicated? The short answer is high demand and a complicated organizational structure. 

The first thing you should know is that Pearl Harbor is one of the most visited sites in Hawaii. With over 4,000 visitors a day, a reservation system for the USS Arizona Memorial is required to manage it effectively. The reservation system helps to space out visitors and prevents overcrowding at what is meant to be a quiet place of reflection and remembrance. Also, the USS Arizona Memorial is only accessible by ferry. This requires a bit more planning and coordination than your average memorial. You can just show up whenever, and some visitors still do, but you will have a much more meaningful experience (and a more enjoyable day) with some forethought.

The second thing that you should know is that different government agencies and organizations manage different parts of Pearl Harbor. For example, the greater Pearl Harbor Naval Complex, which encompasses the USS Arizona Memorial and many other important memorials and museums, is under the authority of the US Navy. However, the USS Arizona Memorial and the Pearl Harbor Memorial Visitor Center are units of the National Park System. Only Navy boats are allowed to travel in naval waters, so the ferry transporting people from the visitor center to the USS Arizona Memorial must be Navy-operated.  While the NPS manages the USS Arizona Memorial program, the day-to-day operation is an ongoing collaboration between the Navy and the National Park Service. 

There are also three additional museums that are managed by separate non-profits within the Pearl Harbor complex. These are the Pacific Fleet Museum (which includes the USS Bowfin Submarine), the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, and the USS Missouri Battleship Museum. While all NPS-managed sites are free, each of these three museums charges its own admission. If you wanted to see all of the four main sites (Arizona, Bowfin, Aviation Museum, and Missouri), you’d have to reserve or purchase all four tickets separately. That’s on top of coordinating your transportation and meals for the day! All the logistics can be quite daunting and many visitors book through a tour company to save time.  

While planning a visit to Pearl Harbor can be strenuous, the experience is absolutely worthwhile. This is the site of one of the most significant events of the 20th century, after all. It is a must-see when you visit Hawaii. The real question is how much of Pearl Harbor do you want to see, and what is the best way to go about it. Below are answers to some common questions, plus additional information and advice to help make planning your visit to Pearl Harbor a little less complicated.   

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Should we take a tour or plan it ourselves? Tours simplify the planning process and provide convenient, reliable transportation from Waikiki to Pearl Harbor. But if you have the time, you can certainly do it yourself. Public transit is inexpensive, but requires a connection and a long walk, and can take up to two hours each way. Meanwhile, taxis from Waikiki cost around $30 each way, which is not much less than what a tour company might charge for a fully narrated tour. Tour companies will book the tickets for whatever sites you want to visit and make your reservation for the USS Arizona Memorial. If you are planning a day trip from Maui, the Big Island, or Kauai, tour operators will even arrange your flights and airport pickups for you. While going with a tour company has many benefits, you don’t have to do it. Just know that it will take up more time than you might expect. There are also hybrid options like the Pearl Harbor Passport which includes multiple museum tickets (but not the USS Arizona Memorial) and leaves you in charge of transportation.  
  1. Should we make reservations for the USS Arizona Memorial or wait stand-by? This depends on your schedule and level of patience. Many people use the stand-by system and get lucky, while others wait for hours or don’t get in at all. The USS Arizona Memorial program lasts 45 minutes, but a new program starts about every 10-15 minutes. Unless weather or some other circumstance interrupts service, wait times will depend on how many people are in front of you in the stand-by line and how many reserved seats go unclaimed. Do know that ‘stand-by’ at Pearl Harbor literally means stand by. You can’t just put your name on a list and walk around looking at exhibits while you wait. You will literally stand in line in a roped-off area, outside, waiting for an open seat on the ferry. Therefore it is not the best choice for anyone with mobility issues, heat sensitivities, or small children.   
  1. What else should we see besides the USS Arizona Memorial? The USS Arizona Memorial is the most visited site, but the visitor center also has some nice exhibits to see, and watching the twenty-three-minute park film is a must. The USS Bowfin Submarine and the Pacific Fleet Museum are also located at the visitor center but they are operated by a different organization. The entrance fee is currently $22. Visitors can listen to an audio tour while walking around the submarine’s interior and living quarters and then tour the museum afterward. On the adjacent Ford Island, visitors can see the USS Oklahoma and USS Utah memorials (free), the Pacific Aviation Museum ($26), and tour USS Missouri Battleship ($35). The aviation museum houses many WWII-era airplanes and exhibits about early aviation’s important role in the war. Meanwhile, the USS Missouri Battleship offers free guided tours of the exterior decks, including the very deck where the Instrument of Surrender was signed. While the four main sites (Arizona, Bowfin, Aviation Museum, and Missouri) are interesting and historically significant, you’ll need a full day to see them all. If you have only half a day, visiting the USS Arizona Memorial and the USS Missouri Battleship is recommended. These two sites bookend the war in the Pacific, with one representing the beginning and the other the end.  

Visit Pearl Harbor: Know Before You Go

  1. Entrance may be free, but Pearl Harbor is not necessarily cheap. Entrance to the visitor center, its exhibits, the USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, or USS Utah memorials is FREE. But you will likely incur extra costs along the way. Even if you don’t take a tour, you will need to pay for transportation costs to get there. You are also likely to pay extra fees along the way like parking, storing a bag, food, snacks, gifts, etc. There are also three museums located within the complex that you may want to visit. Each museum charges an admission fee, from $22 to $35 per adult.   
  1. Leave your purse or backpack at the hotel. The visitor center does not allow bags that can conceal potentially dangerous items, and the same is true for the memorials and museums. However, they do allow tiny clutches and clear bags, like those allowed through security at stadiums and other big events. Likewise, you can bring in any items that you can carry in your hands (phones, wallets, water bottles, etc.). There is a building near the entrance where you can check your bag. This will cost between $7-$10 per bag. Also, be aware that the bag check line is usually long. If you are on a tour and need to catch a bus this can become a big hassle. And tour companies will NOT let you leave your bag on their buses. It is much easier to leave the bag behind for the day. For more on the NPS bag policy click here.        
  1. Having a reservation does not necessarily guarantee passage to the USS Arizona Memorial. The ferry occasionally shuts down due to weather or other unforeseeable circumstances. The Navy-operated ship that transports visitors to the memorial is a small, open-sided pontoon-style ferry. Flat-bottom boats are unstable in rough water, so what seems like moderate winds can make it unsafe for travel. Likewise, any required maintenance or repairs to the boats, docks, or memorial can also shut the ferry down temporarily. Like almost everything in Hawaii, your visit to Pearl Harbor is weather-dependent. Exercising patience and leaving a little wiggle room in your itinerary for rescheduling is always a best practice. 
  1. The Navy restricts access to Ford Island. Visitors can only access the island via a free shuttle from the visitor center or through an authorized tour operator. Sites on Ford Island include the Battleship Missouri, Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, and the USS Utah and USS Oklahoma memorials. 
  1. The Pearl Harbor Visitor Parking fee is $7 per day. Pay at the kiosk and be sure you know what your license plate number is.

Additional Pearl Harbor Tips

  1. Go early in the day. The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center sees around 4,000 visitors a day. By mid-afternoon, the parking lot is full and the facilities are a mess. It also gets quite hot and shade and air conditioning are limited. Additionally, the seas are rougher later in the day thanks to the afternoon tradewinds, so there’s a slightly greater chance the ferry will get shut down. 
  1. Eat before you go and bring a water bottle. Food options are limited. There’s a hot dog stand and a snack/drink kiosk at the visitor center. There are also snack bars inside the Bowfin/Pacific Fleet Museum, the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, and the USS Missouri Battleship Complex. They serve your typical concession stand fare (burgers, hot dogs, fries, etc).
  1. Watch the park film before you visit the USS Arizona Memorial. There is a 23-minute mini-documentary that explains the events leading up to the Dec. 7, 1941 attack, including personal accounts and real footage from that day. The park film is an integral part of the experience. It is informative and moving, and watching it will give you the opportunity to connect with history through storytelling. Viewing the film used to be a mandatory part of the USS Arizona Memorial program, but it is now optional. The film plays twice an hour, all day long, and is open to the public. Although you can view it at any time, watching before taking the ferry will greatly enhance your visit.
  1. Remember that Pearl Harbor is a cemetery and not an attraction. Somewhere along the line, a ranger will remind you of this if you forget.  The memorials are places for reverence and reflection, not for taking selfies or talking loudly about your dinner plans. Pearl Harbor in general is a somber, quiet place for introspection. It is also an excellent place to visit if WWII history interests you. Unfortunately, some visitors arrive expecting a war museum with more “action” and displays of military might, only to leave disappointed. There are many interesting sights to see at Pearl Harbor, but it is not a theme park.