There are two ways to cross the Pacific Ocean by air today- the most common, fastest way is to take a 12-14 hour non-stop flight from an Asian city such as Tokyo or Shanghai to a North American city like San Francisco or Los Angeles, but the little-known alternative is to take a long scenic route across multiple tiny islands, with the highlight being the United Island Hopper- a thrice-a-week flight between Guam and Honolulu making 5 intermediate stops in Micronesia and Marshall Islands.
Why would anyone want to do this? The short answer is- because it exists! The long answer is-
(a) You love sightseeing and visiting offbeat places. You get to see turquiose blue waters, coral reefs, lush green mountains and forests in two exotic countries- Federated States of Micronesia and Republic of Marshall Islands, albeit mainly from the air and at the airport, OR
(b) You love flying and are an aviation geek. The Island Hopper is a flight with unique challenges- short runways, airports with very little facilities, almost non-existent radar coverage, and very long work hours. It is fascinating to see how the pilots and the crew handle these situations
In my case, it was a bit of both of the above, making the island hopper a bucket list item that I got to check off in January 2018 on my way back from India to the US. My itinerary was Mumbai-Tokyo-Guam, stay one night in Guam, Guam-Chuuk-Pohnpei-Kosrae-Kwajalein-Majuro-Honolulu, stay one night in Honolulu, and Honolulu-Oakland (near San Francisco) thereby making it a three-day voyage across the Pacific.
Highlights and interesting tidbits from my journey-
- The Guam-Honolulu Island Hopper is operated as a single flight number (United 155) but at check-in at the airport, I was given the option to select different seats for each of the 6 segments, and given 6 boarding passes! A nice souvenir.
- The flight length including all the stops is so long that it requires an extra set of pilots who switch duty midway, and since it flies through remote territory, there is a mechanic with a toolkit onboard too in case any repairs are needed enroute. They all occupied the first row of seats.
- The first segment from Guam to Chuuk takes 1.5 hours and is the only hop where breakfast was served. It was nothing too memorable- just a small bowl of fruits and a muffin. I had requested vegetarian meal in advance, but since there was no meat in the regular breakfast anyway, I was served the exact same thing but with a "Vegetarian meal" label stuck on the tray!
- We were greeted by a firetruck waiting at the end of the runway at each of the 5 intermediate islands. This is a daily ritual, just in case the wheels of the plane overheat due to hard braking necessiated by short runways at the islands.
- The flight between islands is monitored remotely from United's West Coast hub in SFO since there is no reliable Air Traffic Control on the islands. We departed Chuuk 4 minutes earlier than scheduled time and the pilot informed before takeoff he has to "first call San Francisco to update the flight time!"
- Transiting passengers are usually allowed to get off and walk to the airport buildings at 4 out of 5 intermediate stops (Kwajalein is an active US military base, so only authorized passengers can get off the plane), however we arrived late at Kosrae so the crew asked all transit passengers to stay inside to expedite boarding and get out on time
- Kosrae airport does not have radar to monitor air traffic, according to our pilots, so they handle only one plane at a time in the air or on the ground. We had to wait 20 minutes before takeoff because there was another flight incoming and we were not allowed to turn on our engines until that flight lands, stops and turns off its engines. Island rules!
- On the last leg between Majuro and Honolulu, "dinner" was served, consisting of a sandwich, a cereal bar and a packet of almonds. There are no special meals- everyone gets a turkey sandwich. Eat it or leave it!
- I had to go through US Immigration twice- once in Guam as the first Port of Entry into the US, and then again in Honolulu since the flight makes intermediate stops in international territories of Micronesia and Marshall Islands.
So, is it worth the effort? How are the views? I will let the pictures and videos speak for themselves. If you are here just to read how can you do this journey, click here to skip past the pictures.
The most beautiful sights are just before landing and just after takeoff from every island. Still images can't capture all of it, so I took videos of every landing and takeoff (except the one in Majuro which was in darkness). The best views were while climbing out of Kosrae, seen here-
You can watch all the other takeoffs and landings on this YouTube playlist.
I want to do this! How to book?
The easiest way to do this journey is using United miles. You will need 60,000 United miles. How to get those if you are not a frequent United flier? If you are in the US, Chase Ultimate Rewards points that you earn from Chase Sapphire Reserve or Preferred credit cards can be transferred 1:1 to United MileagePlus miles, as explained here. If you are a few points short of 60K, you can purchase miles from United, but they are not cheap.
Before you transfer or buy miles, make sure the itinerary is available on the dates you wish to travel. If there is one thing United does really well, it is searching for Award travel. Go to united.com and book this trip as a Multi-city itinerary using miles with three legs- 1) your origin city to Guam, 2) Guam to Honolulu, and 3) Honolulu to your destination city. Start with the 2nd leg first since it is the most critical part, for the other two legs you have multiple options.
Step 1: Guam-Honolulu. 27.5K miles - One of the results you will see when you search for Guam to Honolulu flights will be UA 155 with 5 stops if you pick the right days of the week (the Island Hopper skips 1 or 2 islands on some days, make sure you choose a day when it shows 5 stops, not 3 or 4 stops). Also, there are non-stop flights between Guam and Honolulu which skip all the intermediate islands, make sure you are NOT choosing that one by mistake!
Step 2: Origin-Guam (Mumbai/Delhi-Guam is 32.5K miles) - There are multiple options available for this part, choose the one that works for you. I flew Mumbai-Narita-Guam on ANA and United, this is a great flight if you can snag it for 32.5K miles, it is not always available. From Delhi, a good option is via Shanghai on Air India. Be very careful about dates, you do not want to arrive in Guam AFTER your next flight has departed!
Step 3: Honolulu-Destination - Before booking this, hold on! Honolulu to US West Coast is a very popular route with multiple airlines, so you can sometimes get a better deal outside rather than booking on United (also, get to fly on a better airline than United!). For example, Honolulu-Bay Area flights are often as low as $169, so don't waste your United miles on that leg. Of course, if you have a ton of United miles, you can redeem 25K miles for a Hawaii-US mainland ticket instead of paying cash.
Ready to book? Some tips and warnings before you take the plunge-
- The Island Hopper flight is long and tiring. The entire Guam to Honolulu journey with 5 stops takes 15 hours. Ideally, you can get off the plane at 4 airports and stretch, but don't count on that always happening. If the flight is delayed or weather is bad at any stop, the crew will ask transiting passengers to stay inside during the layover.
- You can take the Island Hopper westbound or eastbound, starting in either Honolulu or Guam. There are pros and cons to both- westbound from Honolulu you get to see all 5 islands in daylight, but the first leg when you are most excited is a 5-hour non-stop run to Majuro and the islands start only later when you start getting tired. Eastbound from Guam you get to see 4 islands in daylight as Majuro is reached after sunset but you get done with all of them first and the last leg is a 5 hour overnight run to Honolulu that you can sleep through.
- There is no food available, carry your own. The flight only serves two small snacks and a few drinks, and the airports are tiny with almost no food options. I carried the quentessential Indian travel snack- theplas! No shame in that.
- There is no entertainment on the plane, take your own (I downloaded Black Mirror on Netflix on my iPad). Technically, the planes have seatback TV but they play a fixed movie which is reset at the start of every leg, so if you are someone who likes to watch the first 45 minutes of a movie 6 times, you are in luck!
- There are no power outlets on the plane, carry a power bank. You will be taking lots of photos and/or watching stuff on your phone/tablet/laptop. The last thing you want is an empty battery in the middle of the Pacific.
- There is no connectivity enroute. The plane does not have wi-fi, only Majuro has working wi-fi in the airport (paid), and there is almost no cellphone reception at the islands. Plan to be offline for ~20 hours.
- The Micronesia-based crew of the Island Hopper flight is fantastic and super friendly but at the end of the day, it is still a United flight. Keep your expectations low as you Fly the (Not-so)Friendly Skies!
If all of this does not deter you, congratulations! You are ready to go island hopping! Do it, it will be an experience of a lifetime!