Oahu and Hawaii Island offering free public bus rides: 'A great way to save some money'

HONOLULU – Just in time for back-to-school traffic and at a time when Hawaii has the highest gas prices in the country, Honolulu's largest public transport system, TheBus, is offering free rides for five days, from August 22 to 26.

To take advantage of the Free Fare Week, riders need to swipe their HOLO Card – a "passport for travel" throughout the state, according to J. Roger Morton, Director of the Department of Transportation Services for the City & County of Honolulu – rather than pay with cash.

Owners of the HOLO card can tap the card when boarding a bus and load monthly passes onto it too. When the highly anticipated Honolulu Rail Project is completed, the card will also be used to ride that service.

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Honolulu passenger bus with BAE Systems’ HybriDrive
Honolulu passenger bus with BAE Systems’ HybriDrive

HOLO Cards are available for free from now until Aug. 26 at select retailers, TheBus Pass Office and some Satellite City Halls. Typically they cost $2. (In Hawaiian, holo means "to go" or "progress.")

The decision was made by a unanimous vote by the Honolulu City Council to boost interest in the public bus. Pre-pandemic, the bus transported 195,000 people around Oahu a day, and that number dropped to 35,000 during the height of the pandemic, according to Morton. Since then, ridership has steadily increased.

TheBus is using the promotion to introduce the HOLO card and "get it into the hands of as many residents as possible," Morton said. The goal is to have people reconsider their commute patterns.

"TheBus is a great way to save some money," he continued. "It's not for everybody but (works) for some."

Can tourists ride the bus in Oahu and Hawaii for free?

While the promotion is mainly to attract residents to use the system, visitors who "are going to be in town for a while" may find the HOLO card a worthwhile purchase since TheBus serves the entire island. Typically, visitors make up around 9-12% of TheBus ridership, Morton said.

This is the first time TheBus is offering such a promotion. As for future free fares, Morton said TheBus will "probably do this again."

Is there economic assistance for TheBus?

Morton noted that TheBus also offers a Low Income Transit Pass Program to help those with "extremely low income" get a subsidized HOLO card.

Is there another free transit option in Hawaii?

Oahu will be the second island offering free public bus rides to people. From now until Dec. 31, 2025, those on Hawaii Island can ride its only mass transit option, Hele-On, for free, thanks to pandemic relief federal funds. Officials said the free transit is meant to help alleviate the increased cost of living.

"We believe going fare-free has also helped in ensuring equity for everybody and removes a barrier for particularly low-income people needing to access destinations and don't have to worry about paying," John Andoh, Mass Transit Administrator & General Manager of County of Hawai’i Mass Transit Agency. It's also a social service, he said, so it will hopefully help reduce congestion and improve the economy.

Does the bus go to the airport?

The Hele-On bus offers direct service to all airports on Hawaii Island and covers most of the island, which is the largest in the state. From 2005 to 2013, Hele-On ran free to everyone as well.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How you can ride the public bus for free on Oahu and Hawaii Island