Review: United's Island Hopper from Honolulu (HNL) to Guam (GUM)
Every points and miles enthusiast has his or her own dream itinerary, but few routes are as unique as United's Island Hopper, which travels from Honolulu to Guam with stops at several small islands in between. Here's TPG Contributor Michael Spelfogel's review of the Island Hopper flight experience.
As an aviation enthusiast, United Airlines Flight 154 (aka the Island Hopper) is the holy grail of flight routes: HNL-MAJ-KWA-KSA-PNI-TKK-GUM, or Honolulu-Marshall Islands-Kwajalein Atoll-Pohnpei Island-Micronesia-Guam. The flight departs Honolulu three times per week, making five stops on its way to Guam, with each of them being on a small atoll or island nation that relies on the flight as its only source of tourism and other goods coming to the island. Booking the Island Hopper is usually quite costly, but thanks to my 70,000 United MileagePlus miles, I booked an open-jaw round-trip flight with a two-day stopover in Pohnpei, allowing me to visit three of these tiny Pacific islands.
Booking the Island Hopper with United MileagePlus miles can be rather complex so I wrote a separate, detailed guide about how to do it. I was successful in splitting segments for each leg, an important victory because I was eligible for United Complimentary Premier Upgrades on each individual leg from MAJ to GUM. Although United representatives did not clear the upgrade in Honolulu (HNL), I was able to show my segment boarding pass to the gate agent at KWA and managed to get an upgrade for the individual flight.
Check-In and Boarding
Check-in at Honolulu International Airport (HNL) was relatively easy, as the airport wasn't crowded early in the morning. I was able to get my two traveling companions Economy Plus seats for free even though they did not have premier status (only I did) and were traveling on separate reservations. The agent also allowed us to check all of our carry-on bags for free, which was especially helpful because passengers have to remove all bags if they wish to deplane at any island along the route.
HNL also has TSA PreCheck, so we breezed right through the airport to the gate. The gate itself is confined to a small area so agents can do a passport check before you board. Be sure to pack plenty of snacks since you are only served one meal and one snack the entire 15-hour flight. You can also buy food at each island if you deplane, but options can be limited.
United has a special team and additional agents on hand to expedite the boarding process both at the gate area and on the plane. Flight attendants vigorously rearranged bags to make sure all carry-ons fit, ensuring the plane could push back on time — a late departure, even by just a few minutes, can mean a crew time out somewhere along the route should there be other delays.
Cabin and Seat
United uses an updated 737-800 for its Island Hopper route and we were happy to find that the aircraft is now retrofitted with outlets and televisions at every seat. Row 7, the first in the economy cabin, is a bulkhead Economy Plus row and the best on the plane — the first-class partition doesn't go completely down to the floor so you can stretch your legs out into first class. Be sure to look at SeatGuru’s seat map of the plane, as some areas like row 12 are missing windows. The mechanic — yes there is an onboard mechanic — sits in 7C, so 7A is a great seat if you want to chat with the mechanic and have a nice view of the left side of the plane.
The Economy Plus seats are very desirable, especially considering the entire route takes almost 15 hours (on a narrow-body domestic-configured plane) if you do it all on the same day.
The First Leg: HNL-MAJ
The flight pushed back almost an hour late from the gate because of “weight imbalance” issues. Despite our tardy departure, the crew assured us that we were not in danger of a crew time out (apparently United builds in about a 3-hour window just in case). We taxied, took off from the Reef Runway and within minutes, only the Pacific Ocean could be seen out the plane window. Here's a cool time-lapse video I took of our takeoff from HNL:
The flight to Majuro (MAJ) in the Marshall Islands was more than five hours long, so I watched a few movies on the way. The only true meal was served on this leg: a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich that came with a fig bar, yogurt and a juice box. As I said above, pack your own food!
On each leg of the trip, my friends sat on the opposite side of me so we could get a bunch of great photos and for the first leg, the left side was the real winner. We flew over Majuro's narrow strips of land before descending to the first airstrip — the landings really are as spectacular as the FlyerTalk trip reports suggested.
In Majuro you can get off the plane but you have to re-board and risk losing precious overhead bin space — this is why I recommend checking your carry-ons if possible. We were able to get passport stamps in Majuro just by asking the immigration officials. MAJ has a small gift shop and food store in the terminal, but there's no free Wi-Fi.
Second Leg: MAJ-KWA
After re-boarding, we were quickly on our way to Kwajalein Atoll (KWA). As we were preparing to land, the flight attendants asked us not to take pictures as the island is being used as an active US military base — passengers whose final destination is not KWA are also not permitted to deplane at this stop. The approach was quite nice and I would recommend sitting on the left side of the aircraft to get the best view. In between each island is usually a short 45-minute hop, but soft drinks were served, so that was nice.
Third Leg: KWA-PNI
Before pushing back — well, turning around, as there is limited ground equipment here — I showed the ground staff my boarding pass that said “Upgrade Standby." There were now a few open seats in first class and the agent quickly ushered me up to the front. The premium seats are pretty standard for domestic first class, with individual outlets as well as larger seat-back televisions.
On the short island hops, first class passengers receive a snack in addition to any alcoholic or soft drinks. This came in handy as I had now finished all the food I'd brought with me and was starving. The banana and bag of pretzels were able to hold me over until our next stop in Pohnpei.
Our approach to this island was a bit different because Pohnpei is more like one large and mountainous island instead of several low-lying island chains. If you sit on the right side of the aircraft, you'll have a tremendous view of Sokehs Rock, which dominates the island’s skyline. We actually chose to use our free stopover in Pohnpei, one of the islands of the Federated States of Micronesia, so we could explore the Nan Madol ancient ruins as well as several waterfalls and snorkeling spots around the island.
A Two-Day Stopover in Pohnpei
Spending two days in Pohnpei turned out to be one of the best experiences of our whole trip. We were the only three western tourists on the island and aside from a group of Japanese tourists, we basically had the entire island to ourselves.
We stayed at the 7 Stars Inn, which was comfortable, cheap and had free Wi-Fi, but not much more. Most people come to the island to scuba dive, but you should also consider renting a car and driving the circle road to explore the rest of the island.
On the far side of the island, we checked out the ancient Nan Madol ruins. Getting there was a bit challenging — our rental car broke down so a taxi driver actually took us the rest of the way to the ruins. We were also required to pay between $1 and $3 at three distinct checkpoints along the entrance road. Once at the site, we took our time exploring the inside of the temples as well as the barrier walls that bordered directly on the Pacific Ocean. This was one of the most beautiful ancient sites I have ever seen and it’s not publicized at all!
After that, we took a 25-minute ride to Kepirohi Waterfall, a beautiful waterfall you can swim under!
While on the islands, make sure you try the tuna, which fishermen catch daily — I had some of the best raw tuna ever and it was usually $5 for a dozen large pieces of sashimi! The sunsets there are unbelievably beautiful and we made sure to find a scenic place to watch it each night.
Fourth Leg: PNI-TKK
After our short break from flying, we re-embarked on the next westbound flight from Pohnpei to Chuuk International Airport (TKK) in Micronesia.
Sit on the right side of the plane for great views of Pohnpei as the aircraft makes its turn out of the airport as well as awesome views of Chuuk Lagoon upon descent.
Chuuk is interesting in that it consists of a series of islands and uninhabited atolls. This was our second choice for the next stopover, as there are amazing opportunities for diving with shipwrecks, but we ended up choosing Palau instead.
After landing at TKK, we made friends with the captain and got to check out the cockpit as well as do a pre-flight walk-around. Apparently fire trucks follow the plane after it lands at each airport because they have to douse the tires in water to cool off the brakes, which don’t have time to cool off between each stop.
Fifth Leg: TKK-GUM
The last leg of our journey was from Chuuk to Guam — after taking off, it was about a three-hour flight.
Back in economy, they served us a light snack, but the food overall was quite lacking. It was sunset when we landed in Guam and many of the restaurants at the airport were already closed for the night. Guam has both TSA PreCheck and Global Entry, which expedited the transfer process for passengers who were continuing to Hong Kong, Manila, Yap or Palau.
The United Island Hopper proved to be a rewarding experience that combined aviation interest with the natural beauty of remote South Pacific islands. I don’t think I would rush back to do the trip again in the very near future as it was not your typical beach vacation by any stretch of the imagination, but this is definitely a must for any aviation enthusiasts out there.
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