Maximizing the United Island Hopper Using United’s Excursionist Perk

Jul 28, 2019

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For many AvGeeks, the United Island Hopper is a bucket-list item. But, as this route is a lifeline to the islands it serves, it’s not a cheap flight to book with cash. Thankfully, there’s excellent award availability on the route — at least in economy — and you can experience it yourself from the continental US for under $30 out of pocket using United miles.

If you’re using United miles anyways, you might as well maximize the experience by using the United Excursionist Perk to visit two or more destinations along the way. Let’s show you how:

Basics of the United Island Hopper

The aptly-named “island hopper” flies four times a week between Honolulu (HNL) and Guam (GUM) with stops along the way in Majuro (MAJ), Kwajalein (KWA, stop skipped once a week), Kosrae (KSA), Pohnpei (PNI) and Chuuk (TKK). These Pacific islands are so small that they barely show up on a map, and yet they are so remote that you need to zoom pretty far out to put them into context.

United produced a great video about the Island Hopper, which I highly recommend watching. Just a warning before you click play: video may cause extreme desire to experience the United Island Hopper for yourself.

On TPG, we have a 2016 review of the Island Hopper and a couple of pieces that I wrote about my experience on the Island Hopper in 2017:

Basics of the Excursionist Perk

TPG has a full article about how you can travel more for fewer miles using the Excursionist Perk. But, let’s go over the basics. The perk is designed to allow MileagePlus members to see two cities in one region without having to pay for the intra-region flights.

In order to get this perk, your trip needs to start and end in the same region (i.e. North America) and the free leg has to remain inside the same region (i.e. Europe)

A classic example would be to fly from Newark (EWR) to London-Heathrow (LHR), stop and see London for as long as you want before flying from London to Brussels (BRU), then fly back from Brussels to Newark after visiting Brussels for as long as you want. The mileage cost is the same as a round-trip from Newark-London or Newark-Brussels. The flight from London-Brussels doesn’t cost any more miles.

While that’s the classic example, there’s some absolutely incredible awards that you can piece together using this perk. With a bit of creativity, you can score some redemptions where the free Excursionist flight would cost more than the flights you’re paying for and/or work out a four-destination round-the-world award for the cost of a round-trip award to Asia.

While I highly encourage you to explore the Excursionist perk for other redemptions, today we’re going to focus on how you can use it to fly the Island Hopper.

Visiting Two Destinations Along the Island Hopper

The straight-forward way to use the perk is to book an award to two different destinations along the Island Hopper. Since the free flight needs to be inside the same region, you can’t stop in Honolulu along the way. Instead, your destination choices are:

  • Majuro, Marshall Islands (MAJ)
  • Kwajalein (KWA) — an active military base, so you can only stop there if you’re authorized
  • Kosrae, Federated States of Micronesia (KSA)
  • Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia (PNI)
  • Chuuk, Federated States of Micronesia (TKK)
  • Guam, United States (GUM)

A round-trip from the continental United States to any two of these destinations will cost 70,000 United miles round-trip in economy. Award availability is pretty open in economy, and the taxes and fees are generally under $50 for the whole trip.

Here’s one example from Newark to Honolulu with an 18-hour overnight connection in Honolulu — enough for a quick visit without being too long and thus costing extra miles — before continuing onto Majuro. After staying five nights in the Marshall Islands, you’ll take the Island Hopper a few stops down to the superb scuba destination of Chuuk for four nights. From there, you’ll continue onto Guam and then have the option of flying through Honolulu, Tokyo or even Hong Kong on your way back to the East Coast.

The cheapest out-of-pocket is to fly back through Honolulu. Taxes and fees on this award are under $28:

Personally, I’d pay $20 more in taxes and fees for the opportunity to fly through Tokyo:

During the booking process, you’ll see the Excursionist Perk reflected, as the leg from MAJ-TKK prices at exactly 0 miles.

When I toggle over to the cash price of the same trip, it prices out starting at $2,257. While that’s not as bad as I thought it might be, it still provides a solid 3.18 cents per mile — more than double TPG’s most recent valuation of United miles.

Three Island Hopper Destinations

If you have the extra time, you can tack on an additional stop in Micronesia for as little as 8,000 extra miles. That’s because United charges juts 8,000 miles for a nonstop one-way flight under 800 miles intra-region in Oceania. Factoring in the restrictions in visiting Kwajalein, your options along the Island Hopper are between: Kosrae (KSA)-Pohnpei (PNI), Pohnpei-Chuuk (TKK) and Chuuk-Guam (GUM).

That means, you can book the following trip for 78,000 miles:

  • Continental US to Majuro (MAJ) through Honolulu (HNL)
  • Majuro to Kosrae (KSA)
  • Kosrae to Pohnpei (PNI)
  • Pohnpei to continental US through (at least) Guam (GUM)

Unfortunately, I haven’t found a way to add this into a single booking. So, you’re going to need to book the one-way intra-region as a separate reservation from the main reservation:

Going Further in Oceania

There’s three other amazing destinations that United serves in Oceania that aren’t along the Island Hopper: Saipan, Yap and Palau. If you’re interested in visiting one or more of these destinations, you can do so while still flying the Island Hopper. Just sub out one of the destinations along the hopper for one of these destinations.

For example, here’s a two-destination trip stopping in both Majuro and Palau:

Building Off of a Hawaiian Trip

The above Excursionist Perk examples don’t allow a stop in Hawaii. If you want to build a proper Hawaii stop into your itinerary, the simplest way of doing so would be to build an Island Hopper excursion off of a Hawaii trip that you booked separately — whether using miles or a cheap cash deal.

The mileage cost for a trip from Hawaii to two Oceania stops is just 55,000 miles using the Excursionist Perk. A simple example with all daytime flights would be from Honolulu to Kosrae, four nights in Kosrae before hopping to Guam, three nights in Guam and nonstop back to Honolulu:

Building Off of an Asian Trip

If you’re starting in Asia, the Island Hopping trip can be even cheaper — as TPG reader Sietse recently found out. Based in Beijing, Sietse and his girlfriend booked award flights from Beijing to Palau, Palau to Chuuk and then Chuuk back to Beijing. Since Palau and Chuuk are in the same region, the flights between them were free, and the awards cost just 35,000 miles round-trip per person.

Similarly, you can build an Island Hopper trip off of an existing trip to Asia. One of United’s hubs is in Guam and the airline operates a surprisingly large network out of Guam with routes to Hong Kong, Manila and all throughout Japan. That means you can take advantage of a great flight deal or redeem a separate award to Asia and then build a United Island Hopper experience off of that trip for half the miles of starting the in US.

Another advantage: you can fly the United Island Hopper twice! That’s what Katie and I did back in 2017 — although we were booking under 2016 rules — flying from Nagoya, Japan (NGO) through Guam to Saipan then along the Island Hopper to Majuro and back to Guam before continuing through Osaka and Beijing to Mongolia.

 

Unfortunately, this absurd of an itinerary isn’t still possible through the newer Excursionist Perk, but you can do a similar one. The limitations are that you have to start and end in the same region (Japan, North Asia or South Asia) and have both destinations in Oceania. Japan is the cheapest region to start and end from, with a round-trip costing just 30,000 miles with two stops in Oceania.

How to Get United Miles

If you need more United miles to make your Island Hopper dreams come true, credit card sign-up bonuses are the easiest and cheapest way of racking them up — either through the carrier’s cobranded cards or with a Chase Ultimate Rewards-earning card, with points that transfer to United at a 1:1 ratio.

Here are some current sign-up bonuses to consider:

  • United Explorer Card: Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus get expanded award availability on United-operated flights to make it even easier to redeem your miles — including for the United Island Hopper.
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Earn 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months after account opening.
  • Chase Sapphire Reserve: Earn 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months after account opening.
  • Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card: 100,000 bonus points after you spend $15,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.

Just remember that all of these cards are issued by Chase and thus subject to the issuer’s 5/24 rule.

Want to learn more about the experience flying the Island Hopper and visiting islands along the route, check out this Miles Away podcast about our experience:

 

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