Chocolate Cake and Lie-Flats for All: Flying Hawaiian's A330 in First Class From San Diego to Honolulu
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Hawaii might never be just around the block for my family in Texas, but it became much easier to get to once we figured out the best way to fly to the Aloha State with kids.
Stopping for the night in California on the outbound and return cuts down potentially painful travel days into manageable ones. Even though we live in the Lone Star State, this also makes flying Hawaiian Airlines a realistic option, as its network from the West Coast to Hawaii is quite robust. Add in lie-flat seats on the Hawaiian Airlines A330 aircraft from San Diego (SAN) to Honolulu (HNL), and flying to Hawaii with a family becomes a breeze.
As soon as school let out for the summer, Grandma, Grandpa, my 9-year-old, 3-year-old and I packed up our swimsuits and excitedly started a three-week journey in Hawaii. This began with meeting up in California to cross the Pacific on a flight from San Diego to Honolulu. Of course, a perfect schedule and lie-flat seats don't guarantee a completely restful flight when little ones are involved, but it certainly increases the odds.
Hawaiian Airlines offers economy award tickets from the West Coast to Hawaii starting at 20,000 miles each way. However, those lowest-priced awards weren't initially available for our June travel dates, so we paid $309 per person one-way, which wasn't terrible to fly when and where we wanted.
You could book those tickets directly with Hawaiian Airlines with a card such as the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and then use the miles from that card to wipe out some or all of the travel charge. However, in my searches, the lowest prices aren't always available if you try to book via a third-party booking site with Chase, Citi, and so on, so booking directly with Hawaiian Airlines is the best call even if you later want to wipe out the charge with fixed-value points.
Economy seats would have been fine for the roughly five and a half hours of flying (especially since Hawaiian Airlines offers some of the larger economy seats on US carriers), but a couple of weeks before travel, I decided to splurge and make this a once-in-a-lifetime trip for my parents and us as special as realistically possible. Though a few lie-flat, first-class seats on our flight were available for 40,000 Hawaiian Airlines miles, we were already about $300 into our economy tickets, so I was able to upgrade our seats to first class for another $350 per person without change fees. (Here are the best credit cards to maximize airfare purchases.)
First class was a splurge, to be sure, but one I was happy to make. I kept the upgrade a secret from everyone until we boarded and turned left, which led to a little confusion but a lot of excitement. Though prices vary, Hawaiian Airlines prices first-class seats to and from the West Coast to Hawaii from about $600 each.
We excitedly arrived at San Diego International Airport at about 7am, plenty early for our 9:20am nonstop flight to Honolulu. Since we were traveling just with carry-on bags and had already checked in and printed boarding passes at the hotel, we headed straight through security without problems and pieced together a light breakfast from the food court. I hadn't told anyone we were getting fed well in first class, so I tried to steer everyone toward lighter options.
We didn't worry about hauling our small traveling circus to an airport lounge on this part of the trip, but we could have used our Platinum Card® from American Express to access the Air Space Lounge, also in Terminal 2 at SAN, since my mom also had an authorized-user card. Our group of five could have gone into the lounge under our two Platinum cards with two guests included per card.
Instead, after filling our tummies a bit, we went straight to the gate, fully loaded with all of our carry-on bags. We just sat on the floor, since there wasn't a cluster of chairs large enough for our group and we didn't have too much longer to go.
Boarding started at 8:35am, about 45 minutes before the scheduled departure. Hawaiian Airlines allows families with strollers and car seats to board early, so I was able to keep the first-class seats a secret all the way to the plane. Apparently, none of them actually looked at their boarding passes too closely!
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Cabin and Seat
When we walked on board, I told our group to turn left, which meant going past the extra-legroom seats and into first class.
My parents sort of panicked, thinking I had lost my mind, since they thought we were in Row 35, but they cautiously followed my lead, since I've done weird things like this before.
Before long, the pieces started to come together, and with calming Hawaiian music playing in the cabin, we settled into five of the 18 lie-flat seats (arranged in three rows in a 2-2-2 configuration).
Not all Hawaiian Airlines first class seats are lie-flat. Here's how to be sure you are booking the right ones.
My mom and I each sat with one of the two kids in the middle row (all that was left when we booked), and my dad had his window seat in the second row. These seats really work out great for families who can pair off into groups of two.
Those who fly in premium cabins frequently complain about these seats, saying the padding is too thin, the beds are too short, and on and on. But we loved them: There was power and a USB port at each seat, and the seats themselves were so easy to use that even a 3-year-old could do it. In fact, mine used that up-and-down wheel to bring her seat to lie-flat and back with more frequency than I probably wanted.
It's important to note that my parents fly Spirit Airlines more than any other airline (and not even in the Big Front Seats), so this really was a big departure from their norm, which made it that much sweeter. With mai tais in hand, they were all smiles for their first trip across the Pacific.
Oh yeah, the kids settled right in with their guava juice, too.
Amenities and IFE
There were no built-in entertainment screens in Hawaiian Airlines first class. Instead, the airline used an expandable stand built into the seat, along with iPads preloaded with content. That was sort of a clunky solution, but it worked just fine, especially for kids, since tablets are like their third arms.
There was no Wi-Fi on this flight.
Once in the air, the flight attendants promptly set up the large touchscreen tablets loaded with a few dozen selections, including kid-friendly movies such as "Frozen," "Cars," "Big Hero 6," "Mary Poppins" and, of course, "Moana." There were also a few games loaded for the tween set. While the selections weren't endless, there were plenty of kid-friendly films for the less-than-six hours to Hawaii. If you fly this route regularly, the content may become thin after a couple of trips.
Just like the seat itself, this tablet setup was so easy to use that my preschooler made short work of selecting a movie.
If there was one complaint I had about the entire Hawaiian Airlines first-class experience, it was that the pillows were ridiculously flimsy. The blankets weren't great, either. Yes, I know, first-class problems, but if the airline spent another $1 or so per pillow, it could make a world of difference in comfort. These were the smallest and flimsiest pillows I had ever had in a premium cabin.
The longer Hawaiian Airlines first-class flights, such as those from Boston (BOS) and New York-JFK, get much better pillows, blankets and even amenity kits. However, these flights from the West Coast are very limited in the way of onboard soft creature comforts, with skimpy pillows, thin blankets and no amenity kits.
If you or your little one needed to stretch their legs, the galley behind first class had a decent amount of room to stand up for a little bit before settling back in.
Food and Beverage
Things started strong with predeparture mai tais and juice, and the offerings kept going once we were in the air.
There was only one meal served: brunch. Our menu listed the courses: a beverage of choice with Mauna Loa macadamia nuts; fresh fruit with warm croissant; omelet with Parmesan sauce, caramelized onions, shiitake mushrooms and pork sausages; and mango panna cotta (but we ate some sort of chocolatey cake goodness for dessert instead).
The adults enjoyed the brunch entree.
But since this is a family-focused article, it is worth noting that there were no child meals available, even in first class. Hawaiian Airlines only has child meals on international flights (excluding flights to Pago Pago, American Samoa, and Papeete, Tahiti).
But the croissant was a kid-friendly hit, as were the fruit and chocolatey dessert.
Later on in the flight, the snack basket came around with options such Hawaiian potato chips.
My kids went for a few rounds of inflight apple juice, but adults could have indulged in prosecco, red or white wine, Hawaiian beers or Hawaiian rum.
While I think the flight attendants' eyes might have gotten a little wide when our small army of five ranging from 3 to 70 years young settled into first class, they seemed amused by our excitement and photo-taking overload. In fact, they even offered to take photos with us all in the shot.
We were the only young family in the cabin, but the service for both the adults and kids was friendly and helpful. They were able to meet all of our needs, even when the kids needed some things out of sequence. For example, my 9-year-old fell asleep shortly after takeoff, so she didn't need a tablet or snacks until halfway into the flight, and they were able to help her out when she did.
It's sure a luxury to fly a family to Hawaii in Hawaiian Airlines lie-flat seats, but it's not impossible even if $600 or more per ticket isn't in your family vacation budget. Award prices for first class start at 40,000 Hawaiian miles each way, and not only can you rack those up with the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard, but you can also transfer Amex Membership Rewards points at a 1:1 ratio from cards such as the American Express® Gold Card and the Platinum Card® from American Express (and yes, occasional transfer bonuses have happened).
The 3-year-old didn't nap on this flight, even though she was comfortable. Truth is, I don't like missing a minute of flying up front either, so I don't blame her. A little after our 12:35pm arrival, a gate cleared in Honolulu, and our journey arriving to Hawaii in style was over.
It wasn't cheap, but I don't regret a penny of it. It was a fun surprise for the whole family, and we were all happy and comfortable for the entirety of the flight. I can't think of a better way to start a three-generation trip of a lifetime.
To listen to an interview with Brian Kelly talking to the CEO of Hawaiian Airlines listen here:
All photos by the author.