The United Island Hopper is a well-known AvGeek bucket list item. For those unfamiliar, it’s a flight between Honolulu and Guam that stops at several destinations in the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia, including Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Chuuk, with additional tag flights from Guam to other destinations in the Central Pacific, including Palau, Saipan, and Yap. It’s certainly a unique route, especially since it’s flown by a major U.S. carrier.
Being fond of window seats, I’ve been wanting to take this flight for several years now simply for the views of the islands from above. Many who do this take the westbound flight, as it leaves Honolulu in the early morning and reaches Guam by sunset. There are often cheap United fares to places like Manila that allow passengers to take the Island Hopper flight enroute.
I had a week in mid-January to explore, but only had a few weeks notice to book. Fares weren’t that cheap so I decided to book an award ticket using United miles (transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards). While it’s a pretty normal 737-800 with domestic first class seats that flies the route, it’s difficult to find saver business class space. Instead, I booked economy and was able to select window seats and upgrade to Economy Plus at check-in thanks to my United Silver status (that I have via Marriott/SPG Platinum).
For the return, I found saver business class space via Tokyo on the United 777-300ER, meaning I’d be guaranteed the new Polaris seat. The economy class portions cost 35K miles, while the return cost 70K miles, making the price 105,000 miles + about $130 in taxes (this includes $70 of departure taxes combined paid on the ground at Pohnpei-20 and Koror-50). Pricey, but I have a decent balance of Ultimate Rewards points and the Polaris return flight was what made it worth it to me.
Since award tickets allow one stopover in the destination region via the Excursionist Perk, I decided to visit two islands – one was Pohnpei (PNI), while my destination was Koror in Palau (ROR). I was easily able to use the United multi-city tool to book the nonstop Newark (EWR)-Honolulu (HNL) with an overnight connection, Honolulu-Majuro (MAJ)-Kwajalein (KWA)-Kosrae (KSA)-Pohnpei with a stopover, continuing on Pohnpei-Chuuk (TKK)-Guam (GUM)-Koror all in Economy, then Koror-Guam-Tokyo (NRT)-Newark-Pittsburgh (PIT) in United Business, including the new Polaris on the 777-300ER.
Fortunately for me, I was able to secure Economy Plus seats on all the long flights, including the 10-hour Newark-Honolulu on the 767-400 and the 5-hour flight from Honolulu to Majuro. At 24 hours before my departure from Honolulu, I was able to use free wifi access to United.com on my Newark-Honolulu segment to check-in and select different seats for each segment of the Island Hopper, giving me a window seat in either Economy Plus or in the back with a middle seat open.
While the flight was supposed to depart Honolulu at around 7:25am, I got a notification the night before when I landed from Newark that my flight was delayed until 11:45am due to crew timing. My first thought was that I wouldn’t reach Pohnpei until 7pm at the latest, which was after sunset. A bit disappointed, but I was at least glad that I had advance notice so that I could enjoy the morning in Waikiki. If anything I was glad that I was stopping at Pohnpei since I definitely wouldn’t see it or Chuuk during daylight.
I had seat 7A on the 5-hour long Honolulu to Majuro segment. If you’re going to try for Economy Plus, this is a great row, as you even have space under the bulkhead to store a personal item.
This is the Seat Guru page for the aircraft on this route. You’ll see that 11A has no window, while 11F’s window is slightly misaligned. I’d say 7A is certainly the best, because as you go back toward rows 12-21 in Economy Plus and up to row 28 or so in Economy minus, the wing will obstruct views. Rows 8 and 10 are fine.
As we were boarding, I noticed that the couple in 7B and 7C were giving warm greetings to almost every 5th passenger. They were from Majuro and it’s obvious that people on the atoll know each other well. This flight really is a lifeline for the residents of these islands. We tend to frame it as a Honolulu to Guam flight with stops at different islands, but I think it’s telling that when the lead flight attendant welcomes passengers on board, it’s announced as a Honolulu to Majuro flight, with continuing service to Kwajalein, Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk, and Guam.
We took off from the reef runway at Honolulu and immediately turned around toward the southwest. While my face was glued to the window, many passengers behind couldn’t care less, and were fast asleep with window shades down. Indeed, this 5-hour flight has great views of the open ocean, but those flying to Majuro are probably used to the view.
This is also the only segment that’s catered with actual food – while it’s normally a breakfast item, it was catered with lunch today due to the delay. An option of stir fried noodles or chicken with rice. I chose the latter. You’re well off finding food to bring onboard with you, whether it’s snacks or stuff you buy post-security.
Since the in-flight entertainment resets on each departure and is a loop, it’s also the only segment where the IFE is of any real use to you, since you’ll actually have time to watch a movie or two. There is a looping moving map channel as well.
I also fielded questions from the woman in seat 7B, like “where I was going.” She then offered to show me around Majuro in case I ever went there. Fellow passengers on this flight sure are friendly.
Landing into Majuro was absolutely gorgeous. I got off here to stretch my legs, but was unable to get a stamp for the Marshall Islands. I guess I’ll have to return another day for that.
I switched to a normal seat in the back on the right side in 34F. While it’s a tight squeeze, 34E was empty, so I was able to stretch out a bit. The remaining segments are rather short, mostly under 1 hour each. I certainly was glad I had bulkhead Economy Plus for the long segment.
Unfortunately, we had another 90-minute delay on the ground in Majuro due to a light that wasn’t supposed to be on in the cockpit. This basically meant that I wouldn’t see the island of Kosrae, which was a bit ironic since I had booked this particular day because the flight two days before skipped Kosrae.
Eventually, we took off and headed to Kwajalein. On these segments, you won’t get food, not even for purchase, so it’s important to bring snacks. You might get a 100-calorie almond pack on the final segment, but that’s pretty long to wait. Kwajalein is actually a U.S. army airfield, and I heard the stories from prior flyers that pictures of the island are strictly. Instead, I took in the view with my eyes, fortunate to at least see this island before the sunset.
While no one is allowed off the plane at Kwajalein (unless it’s your destination), I was able to stretch my legs in the aisle and move back up to 7A for the segment to Kosrae. If you can sit in 7A on any segment between Majuro and Guam, do it – that’s because the flight has an on-board mechanic in seat 7C who flies with the plane and troubleshoots any issues that come up. I asked him a few questions, but he was a quiet fella.
Like I said, I landed at Kosrae and Pohnpei in the dark, so no good photos there on arrival. I was in fact a bit lucky to have a stopover in Pohnpei, because the flight ended up overflying Chuuk and going straight to Guam after it dropped me off.
Luckily for me, United counted these 4 delayed flight separately, so I got to my hotel with 4 emails offering a $100 e-certificate or 5,000 miles for the first segment, and $50 or 2,500 miles for each of the 3 short segments. I ended up getting $250 back in e-Certificates, which pretty much paid for my airport taxes on this entire trip and then some.
I chose Pohnpei simply because it seemed like it had a reasonable amount of things to do in the 2 days I was scheduled there. With the delay I ended up having 1 full day and 1 morning, which was enough for me (I enjoy remote places but get bored quickly). I stayed at the 7 Stars Inn, which I would recommend in a heartbeat. This hotel as well as the Mangrove Bay Hotel offer tours in case you’d like to go around the island. I was able to visit the ruins of Nan Madol and a few waterfalls, as well as hike to the top of Sokeh’s Ridge to get a bird’s eye view of the airport and the main city. You can rent a car or hire a guide from one of the two hotels above.
After landing in Pohnpei on Saturday night, I continued onward on Monday afternoon. This was special day, as the airport was quite busy since there was both an eastbound flight from Guam as well as a westbound flight from Honolulu that would intersect here. That said, check-in was fairly easy!
Pohnpei also had the best waiting area of all the airports, including a snack vendor and a restaurant, as well as useable wifi and power outlets. It even had two gates! There was also a VIP lounge though it wasn’t open when I was there.
What I loved the most was their priority seating at the gate!
While the eastbound hopper was ready for departure by the time I got to the waiting area, it waited about 20 minutes for the westbound hopper to land and clear the runway before departing. For a brief moment, this remote island had two United 737-800s, more than I often see in Pittsburgh …
I also used this trip to get used to my new GoPro, so here’s a video of takeoff from Pohnpei!
The remaining legs to Chuuk and Guam were relatively short. The cabin crew started their days in Honolulu (on the previous day, technically), while the same mechanic sat next to me in 7C – he flew to Guam on Saturday, then back to Majuro on Sunday, and was heading back to Guam today!
The views landing into Chuuk were perhaps my favorite, and if I were to go back to another island on this trip, I’d go back here. Even their ramp was the prettiest of the bunch.
The flight to Guam was more of the same. I ended up connecting to Palau later that evening, but landed in the dark.
Conclusion and Tips!
All in all, the Island Hopper lived up to the hype. It’s such a unique route and you’ll get to see some remote parts of the Central Pacific from the air. If you can book an award that allows stopovers, I highly recommend it. I was happy to stop on Pohnpei, and Chuuk would be my next stop if I come out here again, particularly after getting a diving certification. If you’re thinking of doing the Island Hopper, here are some tips:
- Obviously get a window seat. Status can help you get a free window seat in rows 7-10 with good legroom. At 24 hours before departure, you can select different seats on each segment when you check-in.
- BRING SNACKS! You will get hungry and there is no food for purchase onboard. Snacks are limited even at the airports. If you do want to buy something at these airports, have cash in US dollars handy.
- BRING A POWERBANK! Only Business Class and Economy Plus have power outlets, but they can be unreliable.
- Bring your own entertainment. The IFE resets for each segment and is full of looping channels, so you won’t be able to finish any movies on the shorter hops.
- Prepare to be disconnected. Only Pohnpei (PNI) had free wifi access of all the Island Hopper stops. T-Mobile international data did not work anywhere between Honolulu and Guam. If you’re a Swarm check-in addict like me, use offline check-in with your GPS on to save your spot for later.
- The left side is generally a good side to sit on. The right side was good on the Majuro-Kwajalein segment since you take off to the east from MAJ and turn around to the west after a right-turn. Kwajalein will be on the right when you land. On the Pohnpei-Chuuk segment, takeoff was better on the left, but landing was better on the right.
- Start a conversation with your seatmates – the locals are very friendly and may give you insight on the area!
- Even if the flight attendants ask people to stay onboard during the stops, they can’t stop you from stretching your legs and visiting the tarmac and terminal (except at Kwajalein). That said, take all of your bags with you, since any unattended bags will be tossed off the plane! Even when you get back on, be mindful of where you put your bags in the overhead bin since they may do the check after boarding.
- The full Island Hopper is Honolulu-Majuro-Kwajalein-Kosrae-Pohnpei-Chuuk-Guam. Not every flight stops at Kosrae – if you want all the dots and lines for your flight map, make sure you book a flight with each stop.
- Have a blast!