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Comparing Premium Airline Service To Hawaii

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There are plenty of great reasons to visit Hawaii, and there are fortunately plenty of options to get there in a premium cabin. However, as TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Jason Steele explains below, not all first- and business-class service to the islands offers an especially luxurious experience. Read on for a rundown of all your premium-class options for flights from the continental US.

It’s no surprise that Hawaii is one of the most popular destinations for award travelers, and luckily there are plenty of options for getting there using miles. Depending on where you’re coming from, it could be worth splurging for a premium award, but as you’ll see not all first and business-class cabins are created equal; the food, comfort and service will vary dramatically between airlines and even by route.

In today’s post, I want to take a look at how premium airline service to Hawaii is different than other routes, and compare the service offered by each airline.

HOW SERVICE TO HAWAII IS DIFFERENT

Although Hawaii is a domestic destination, airline service to the islands is unique in a few ways. First, airlines know that most passengers are leisure rather than business travelers, so they tend to place their oldest aircraft with their least up-to-date interiors on these routes. In fact, several airlines actually operate a sub-fleet of airplanes with “Hawaiian configurations” that are inferior to those used for international service. As a result, passengers often pay a premium to sit in first class, only to be disappointed by its comfort and service.

Another way that service to Hawaii differs from regular domestic routes is that many airlines group this destination in a separate region from the continental US, so you’ll need to redeem more miles for a flight to the islands than you would to other American destinations.

COMPARING PREMIUM SERVICE TO HAWAII

There are six airlines currently offering service to Hawaii from the US mainland (Allegiant is in the process of withdrawing from this market).

Alaska Airlines

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First-class seats on Alaska Airline’s 737 aircraft that services Hawaiian routes.

Service: Alaska offers extensive service to several Hawaiian islands from cities along the West Coast including Anchorage, Oakland, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, San Jose, Seattle-Tacoma and Bellingham, Washington. It uses its 737 narrow-body aircraft with standard domestic first-class seats that have just 36 inches of pitch. While there’s no seat-back entertainment on these routes, the airline offers entertainment on its tablets or on your own device via Wi-Fi streaming.

Prices: I was able to find fares in first class for as little as $544 round-trip, though for most dates you’ll be looking at $1,000-$2,000. Awards in first class are 40,000 miles each way at best (so 80,000 miles round-trip), and there’s decent award space.

Recommendations: While Alaska’s first-class seats are nothing special, you can sometimes score cheap cash fares for this cabin. Travelers should strongly consider paying out of pocket when these low prices are available, especially since they can earn 3x miles for tickets purchased with the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card.

American Airlines

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First-class seats on American’s 757, which operates flights from LAX to Hawaii.

Service: American Airlines offers service to several cities in Hawaii from its hubs in Dallas-Ft. Worth, Los Angeles and Phoenix. On flights from Los Angeles, it usually operates Airbus A321s featuring standard domestic first-class seats with large-screen seat-back entertainment and power.

Flights from Phoenix are typically served by Boeing 757-200 aircraft with standard first-class seats in an outdated configuration with television monitors on the ceiling. Meanwhile, flights from Dallas-Ft. Worth are operated by Boeing 767-300 wide-body aircraft featuring the carrier’s old international configuration with angle-flat seats and handheld video devices. No matter the aircraft, the service on these flights is similar to domestic first class, so don’t expect an amenity kit or other fancy perks.

Prices: I found that prices for advance-purchase round-trip fares between LAX and Honolulu average about $1,305, which is a lot to spend for a plain old first-class seat on a narrow-body aircraft. First-class Saver awards are 40,000 miles each way, which can be a good value especially when you’re flying from the eastern half of the country. While there’s often some award availability on flights to Hawaii from Los Angeles and Phoenix, it’s difficult to find Saver award space on American flights from Dallas to Honolulu or Maui.

Recommendations: If you can find a Saver award on a flight from Dallas-Ft. Worth, this would offer excellent value. If you can’t, I’d strongly recommend connecting in LAX to ride on one of the carrier’s Airbus A321 aircraft and avoiding American’s Boeing 757 service from Phoenix. And if I were originating in the eastern half of the US and ticketed on a flight through LAX or Phoenix, I would try to take advantage of every opportunity — such as a delay or a schedule change — to be re-accommodated on a 767 flight out of Dallas.

Delta Air Lines

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Delta’s Airbus A330 is the carrier’s best option for premium-class flights to Hawaii.

Service: Delta offers service to Hawaii from many of its hubs including Atlanta, Minneapolis, New York-JFK, Portland, Salt Lake, San Francisco and Seattle. It utilizes a wide variety of aircraft types to reach the islands, including Airbus A330-300 wide-bodies from Atlanta, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City (the latter two routes are seasonal), and Boeing 737-900ERs, 767s and 757s from the West Coast.

The Airbus A330 offers an international configuration with fully lie-flat seating and direct aisle access. On the other hand, the 737s, 757s and 767s are a mixed bag at best. The 737-900ER is one of the newest aircraft in Delta’s fleet, and it has the most up-to-date first class with high-res seat-back entertainment in first class as well as power. The 757 and 767 aircraft that Delta flies to Hawaii are generally its oldest aircraft with the most worn interiors.

Prices: Round-trip flights between LAX and Honolulu with plenty of advance notice (travel dates in March 2017) are generally in the $900-$1,000 range. While Delta doesn’t publish an award chart, these same flights were generally 95,000-165,000 miles round-trip.

Recommendations: Delta seems to price first-class revenue seats somewhat aggressively, however its six-figure award prices for these same seats can be outrageous. If you’re able to find a reasonably priced first-class seat on a flight operated by an A330, you’ll enjoy much of the same experience found on an international business-class flight. However, those connecting from the West Coast will want to avoid the older 757 and 767 aircraft. Finally, you can book first-class Delta awards to Hawaii for just 45,000 miles using miles from Korean Air SkyPass, which is a transfer partner of both Chase Ultimate Rewards and the Starwood Preferred Guest program.

Hawaiian Airlines

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Hawaiian’s updated A330 first class is a huge improvement.

Service: Hawaii’s biggest airline offers transoceanic service on either its Boeing 767 or Airbus A330 wide-body aircraft. The carrier flies between the islands and Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York-JFK, Oakland, Phoenix, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle.

The carrier’s first-class section features standard recliner seats, albeit with more legroom than most domestic first-class cabins, and each seat includes a footrest. The 767 fleet offers 42 inches of legroom in first class, while the A330 fleet currently offers 45 inches. Thankfully, Hawaiian announced a complete retrofit of its A330 fleet’s first-class cabin to feature fully lie-flat seating and direct aisle access. The retrofit is currently underway and should be completed by the end of of 2017. At the same time, Hawaiian will begin retiring its small remaining 767 fleet next year, replacing it with next-generation A321 and A330 aircraft.

Prices: I found prices for round-trip flights between LAX and Honolulu to be in the $1,200 to $1,400 range for advance-purchase tickets. Award flights using HawaiianMiles start at 40,000 miles each way for first-class Saver awards. Hawaiian is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest.

Recommendations: Hawaiian currently offers a slightly better first-class experience than most other airlines with domestic first-class cabins, and its new product should be comparable to a long-haul business class experience. Once the new first-class seats are available on most flights to Hawaii, both revenue and award tickets (not to mention upgrades) will offer a better value —especially for 11-hour flights from the East Coast.

United Airlines

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United operates a 767 with lie-flat seats on flights from the East Coast to Hawaii.

Service: United offers service to Hawaii from all its major hubs, including Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco and Washington Dulles. As with American and Delta, the service your receive will depend heavily on the city you depart from and the aircraft flying that day. Service from LAX and San Francisco is predominantly on Boeing 737 narrow-body aircraft with a pretty standard domestic first-class experience, occasionally with seat-back entertainment. United also serves Denver (and occasionally other cities) with its Boeing 757, which features a dated first-class product with old video monitors hanging from the ceiling.

Service from Chicago and Houston typically uses a wide-body Boeing 777, but in a special configuration for Hawaiian flights that actually has the airline’s old international, recliner-style business-class seats. While this configuration does offer a generous 53 inches of pitch and a relatively spacious 2-3-2 configuration, it’s disappointing that United reconfigured aircraft with old, leftover seats from its obsolete business class. There’s no seat-back entertainment, but you can use offered handheld video devices. Meanwhile, service from Newark and Washington-Dulles typically uses the Boeing 767-400ER wide-body with the airline’s newer BusinessFirst international cabin with fully lie-flat seats.

Prices: I found prices for round-trip flights between LAX and Honolulu to be in the $1,200 to $1,400 range for advance-purchase tickets. Award flights booked through the MileagePlus program start at 40,000 miles each way at the Saver level.

Recommendations: Based on my experience flying United first class from Denver to Maui, I’d avoid paying a premium for the airline’s narrow-body premium class (such as that found on the 757). The legroom was scarce, and the service was minimal despite it being a seven-hour flight. The old recliner seats on United’s 777 could be a reasonable option for daytime flights, but they likely won’t cut it for east-bound red-eyes. On the other hand, any time you’re able to find award space to Hawaii on the 767-400ER with lie-flat seats, it’s a good deal.

Virgin America

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Virgin America’s recliner-style seats can be a great option for daytime flights from the West Coast.

Service: Virgin America now offers service to both Honolulu and Maui from Los Angeles and San Francisco. All Virgin America A320 aircraft have the same first-class cabin with recliner seats, a generous 55 inches of pitch and video-on-demand entertainment. The airline offers Hawaiian-inspired first-class meals on flights to and from the islands including smoked marlin and lemon-pepper mahi mahi.

Prices: I found prices the best prices for round-trip flights between LAX and Honolulu to be in the $1,200 to $1,400 range for advance-purchase tickets. If you’re redeeming through the Virgin America Elevate program, a round-trip award will cost you approximately 46,000 points. The carrier is a 1:1 transfer partner of the Starwood Preferred Guest program, in addition to being a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards, albeit at a 2:1 ratio for both.

Recommendations: Short of a fully lie-flat seat, Virgin America’s first class is the best premium cabin option for flights to Hawaii. Its recliner seats are far more comfortable than most airlines’ domestic first-class product, and if you’re taking a daytime flight from the West Coast you don’t necessarily need the lie-flat feature anyway.

On a recent flight from Honolulu to San Francisco in first class, passengers received food and service similar to what you might from a foreign carrier’s international business class, a far cry from the indifferent attitude often displayed by other airline’s flight attendants, even in domestic first class. My experience confirmed Richard Branson’s contention that Virgin America is competing on service and passenger experience.

CHOOSING THE BEST OPTION FOR YOU

When purchasing a first-class ticket to Hawaii, it’s extremely important that you look closely at the aircraft operating the flight, as your experience can vary dramatically based on which plane is used on your route. As of this writing, Delta and Alaska were offering some of the least expensive first-class seats from Los Angeles to Honolulu, but keep in mind that their products are just like any other domestic first-class cabin. Virgin America’s great service could make it an ideal pick for premium-class flights from the West Coast, while Delta and United are good picks for overnight flights from the eastern half of the US, thanks to their flat-bed seats on longer routes.

Finally, it will be interesting to see how Hawaiian Airlines’ new first-class cabin stacks up to the currently available option once it’s widely available, and if Virgin America is able to continue to offer the same product following its acquisition by Alaska (though it does seem likely).

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.

What’s your favorite option for flying to Hawaii in a premium cabin?

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