Dreaming of the Pacific Islands: United's Island Hopper and my bucket list trip post-corona
Even before I joined TPG five years ago, I dreamed of one day experiencing United's Island Hopper, a Boeing 737 flight that travels roughly 4,500 miles between Honolulu and Guam, stopping at some of the world's most picturesque islands along the way.
The flight is a lifeline to the Pacific islands, which is why it's one of the few international flights United continued to operate during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, serving as a link between communities throughout Micronesia.
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United operates Flight 154, from Honolulu to Guam, and Flight 155 on the return, delivering food, mail and other necessities, in addition to residents and tourists traveling between the Marshall Islands, the Federates States of Micronesia, the state of Hawaii and the U.S. territory of Guam.
On the westbound trip, the Island Hopper makes up to five stops between Honolulu and Guam, but only twice each week — travelers who want the full experience need to depart Honolulu (HNL) on a Monday or Friday, with abbreviated service on Wednesdays and Sundays. The full trip breaks down as follows:
TPG's Zach Griff and I were talking about booking this #AvGeek adventure before coronavirus hit, and we're still planning to experience the Island Hopper at some point — ideally later this year.
Unfortunately, saver-award availability in business class is incredibly hard to come by, but there is economy availability here and there, giving United MileagePlus members an opportunity to book at a decent rate. I'll let Zach Griff explain our booking strategy, below:
Though getting tickets to fly the Island Hopper is as easy as heading to United.com, there’s considerable planning and research to make sure we’re on the right flight. We want to ensure that we’re on the complete, five-stop Island Hopper — some days of the weeks it skips Kosrae.
And once it comes time to book, you’ll realize that it’s expensive. Cash tickets for the one-way journey from Honolulu to Guam start at $1,400 in coach and $3,000 in business. Thankfully, there’s plenty of award availability for tickets in economy. If you’re redeeming United miles, you’re looking at 27,500 miles (or more since UA tickets are now priced variably). Business-class award availability is quite scarce — in fact, I couldn’t find a single date through the end of the schedule with saver-award space. If redeeming United miles, you’re looking at 110,000 miles as a standard award for the five-stop journey.
If we’re spending 14 or so hours on a 737, we’re going to want to sit up front. Fortunately, we’re both Premier 1K members, so we can apply PlusPoints to upgrade these flights. The Island Hopper is considered a short-haul flight, so we’d each be out 20 PlusPoints for the entire journey. However, I haven't found upgrade space for 1K members (PZ class) on the days when the Island Hopper makes all five stops. There’s a bit of space if you fly the truncated four-stogump version, but we’d like to do the complete journey.
We could wait-list our PlusPoints upgrades in the hope of them clearing. Another strategy would be to find a friend with Global Services status, whose upgrades clear into the far more common PN fare class. And thankfully, there’s plenty of "PN" availability on the complete, five-stop Island Hopper.
We haven't decided if we'll stop for a few days along the way, but I'd certainly like to. Kwajalein is an active military base in the Marshall Islands, and it's off-limits, so that's out — we could stay at least a couple nights in Majuro, Kosrae, Pohnpei and Chuuk, though.
Finding places to stay in Oahu, Hawaii, or in Guam is not an issue. I've spent time on both islands — in Honolulu, my first pick would probably be the Royal Hawaiian, which is available starting at 50,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night, but I've been eager to try the Moana Surfrider, which starts at 50,000 Bonvoy points per night. Meanwhile, in Guam, I had a great stay at the Hyatt Regency (20,000 World of Hyatt points), and wouldn't hesitate to return.
There aren't any chain hotels on the smaller islands, so redeeming points from a major loyalty program won't work. Rates for decent accommodations hover around $100, so we can stay fairly inexpensively — booking the right flights, with upgrades and multiple overnight stops, is proving to be a bit of a challenge, though.
Although it's too soon to predict whether or not we'll be able to pull off this trip in 2020, I've definitely enjoyed researching options and dreaming about the flight and all the incredible stops along the way. Worst case, we'll postpone until next year, but one thing's for sure: this trip is happening — hopefully very soon.
For more on flying United's Island Hopper, see:
- 12 things to know before flying the United Island Hopper
- Your guide to the best seats on United’s Island Hopper
- Maximizing the United Island Hopper using United’s Excursionist perk
Editor’s note: The team at The Points Guy loves to travel, but now is not the time for unnecessary trips. Health officials say the fastest way to return to normalcy is to stop coming in contact with others. That includes ceasing travel. We are publishing travel guides because we should all use this time to think about and plan our next adventures. TPG doesn’t advise booking trips for travel until later this year — and even then, be mindful of cancellation policies.