Review: United Airlines “Island Hopper” – Flight #1, Honolulu – Majuro

Advertisements

The United Island Hopper flight is one of the worlds most legendary flights for aviation enthusiasts. It consists of a single flight that links some of the Pacific Ocean’s most remote islands carrying passengers, freight and supplies of the islands on a lifeline basis.


This post is one chapter on our trip on the United Island Hopper and to Oahu & Kauai, Hawaii, United States. This trip was redeemed through Alaska Mileage Plan, United Airlines Mileage Plus and Marriott Bonvoy. It was further enhanced through Marriott Bonvoy Elite Status. For more information on how this trip was booked, please see our trip introduction here. For other parts of the trip, please see this index.

If you enjoyed this post, please follow us here or on social media through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for more travel tips and hacks on how to “Upgrade Your Travels”.


Review: United Airlines “Island Hopper” B737-8 – Flight #1, Daniel K. Inouye International Airport Honolulu – Marshall Islands Amata Kabua International Airport Majuro


The United Airlines Island Hopper is one of the worlds’ most unique airline routes. The United Airlines Island Hopper is a route between Honolulu and Guam that stops at several small islands in the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. The flight is flown between two and three times per week and is the only scheduled service for many of the islands on the route. I had already spent many hours over the course of several years glancing through the United Hemispheres in flight magazine in order to one day take this flight. As a result of it’s remoteness and isolation, the airline route is one of the world’ most unique air corridors and airline travel experiences.

The United Island Hopper Routes from United Hemispheres In Flight Magazine

These next posts set out my experience in flying the United Airlines “Island Hopper” flight that crosses the Pacific through some of the world’s most remote islands. For details on how I planned the United Island Hopper trip, please see our earlier post.

The flight sequence is so unique, there isn’t any way to really cover it in detail with just one sole post. As a result, I’ve split the flight up into one flight segment per post to allow for travellers that really want to get into the journey to read up to see what they can expect.

Today’s Flight Route: United Airlines Island Hopper

Planning to Fly the United Island Hopper on the Day of Travel:

In terms of the strategic planning for this flight, I read all the CNN, Conde Nast Traveler articles and Flyertalk threads for the flight. It became apparent some travellers (or should I say bloggers / content creators) hadn’t even flown the routes and were copying each other’s information.

All to say, the advanced research was quite insightful as to what to expect for the day. I read about tips that indicated that you should call around to have the United reservations agents split the segments / tickets so that you could get access to upgrades, different seats and the like; I didn’t bother following up with much of that since the experience was more about the route, instead of trying to game the system into upgrades.

I also read stories about United agents pro-actively moving you off the Island Hopper route in favour of the non stop United Airlines Honolulu to Guam; this was also not my experience although I did keep a regular eye on the itinerary to make sure that this didn’t lead to disappointment.

The tip that was most useful was to pack substantial food to bring along with you on the flight. United Airlines only caters the Honolulu – Majuro segment with a light meal. I ended up stopping at the ABC Stores the night before where I picked up some take away sandwiches (which got sent into secondary and swabbed by TSA at Honolulu), some Clif bars and Stanley nuts to snack on through the journey.

Overall, the preparation was a wise idea and gave me a great idea on what to expect.

Advertisements

Heading to the Airport:

I started the day like many other early morning flights. It was up at 4:30 AM Hawaiian Standard Time and out the door of The Sheraton Waikiki at 5:10 AM, leaving MrsWT73 to enjoy her $50 USD food and beverage credit by the pool for the next 2 days. I grabbed an $23 Uber over to Honolulu airport. The older Japanese driver was quite chatty for the early morning hour. If there was any saving grace, it was that 4:30 AM HST was actually 6:30 AM Pacific Standard Time, making the early rise feel a lot less early than it actually was.

I had attempted on line check in through the United Airlines app but the Canadian Passport I was travelling on didn’t seem to jive with the United Airlines reservation system. It suggested that I upload the document through the camera within the app but it didn’t work in the end, despite accurately grabbing all my document information and expiry dates. As a result, I had to turn up for a document verification at the airport. The system did automatically offer to select different seats for each leg of the journey. It may have been in my nature to jump around to different seats just ten to fifteen years ago. But these days, I am more of a sucker for consistency than experiencing a new economy seat position that you’ve probably already tried several times before.

Since I couldn’t get a boarding card through the application, and I was checking my rolling suitcase, I had to get to the airport before the check in cut off time. United had a check in cut off time of 75 minutes before flight for all flights departing Honolulu. My research recommended to check your carry on luggage, instead of deplaning with it at each stop. As a result, I had to get to the HNL counters by 6:10 AM at the latest.

Checking into the United Island Hopper:

On arrival to the Daniel K. Inouye Honolulu International Airport at the rosy hour of 5:40 AM, I tried again at the kiosk on arrival but ended up getting sent into the short Premier Access line in order to get the final paperwork completed. I indicated to the friendly agent that I was headed on the Island Hopper to which she responded that I “would be on the plane for a long time today”. While I was at the airport at the Premier Access desk, I couldn’t help but overhear an Australian man checking about 6 suitcases to Melbourne via Los Angeles. I guess there are people that take dog leg connections all over the world in order to save a few bucks on a fare.

United Airlines Check In at Honolulu International Airport
United Airlines Premier Access Check In at Honolulu International Airport
The United Island Hopper was the Second Departure of the Day

Despite entering all available personal information into my reservation profile, and a Global Entry Pass ID number, the TSA Pre-Check status did not turn up on the boarding card. As a result, it was the regular security line for me.

There wasn’t much left in terms of Free Economy Plus at check in for United Mileage Plus Silver Elites so I was really happy that I paid for the Economy Plus window seat well in advance. For some reason, Seat 7C that is typically occupied by the on board flight engineer was not blocked out and was available for seating; perhaps as this below was showing for the HNL-MAJ flight.

Hardly any Economy Plus Seats available for Free Upgrade at 70 Minutes Prior to Travel

Passing through over to the secure side, there wasn’t much open at this early hour. There was lonely Starbucks and a Burger King that were offering coffee. There were no Priority Pass Lounges open at this hour, so I settled for a Burger King Ham and Cheese Croissant sandwich “gut bomb” to fill me up for a long travel day ahead.

Deserted in the Early Morning Hours: Honolulu International Airport

The United Island Hopper flight boarded from Gate F1, which had a special passport check for all travellers. As the flight passes through both The Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia before arriving in Guam, it seems to be considered both a domestic and international flight at the same time. They must have a special “cabotage” exemption to allow service from Honolulu (US) to Guam (US).

Several weeks before my travels, the Coronavirus outbreak started in Wuhan China. On the day I travelled on the Island Hopper, the World Heath Organizational declared COVID-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The World Health Organization had declared it a pandemic on March 11, 2020; just 41 days after I took this trip.

On January 30, 2020, COVID-19 cases had already reached the United States and Canada. As a result, there were several early stage screening and inoculation checks for The Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia. In order to get into the holding area, we had a queue of inoculation checks with confirmation of measles, mumps and other ailments. Passengers were having to produce certificates of measles inoculations “within the past 2 years” and there was quite a bit of confusion over what was acceptable and whether original documents or scanned copies were allowable.

Vaccination Checks to Get into the Gate Holding Area
Getting Ready for the Island Hopper

After the rudimentary vaccination checks, once in the holding area, I had a first glimpse of the plane to be my home for the next 14 hours.

The United Airlines Boeing 737=800 Island Hopper
Hanging Out with Kwajalein Military Contractors and Base Personnel

This is along with a souvenir boarding card photo with the hopper all on one card.

A Single Boarding Card for all 5 United Island Hopper Flights
Advertisements

On Board the United Island Hopper:

When Boarding Group Two is not Group “2”, I boarded in the seventh group after the 6 other pre-boarding clients; those with disabilities, military, children, Global Services, 1 K, and Group 1.

I found myself the Economy Cabin and Economy Plus seat that I had carefully selected for the entire flight. It was easily worth it to pay the extra $59 USD for the 14 hour journey. As mentioned, there were only 1 or 2 economy plus window seats open at the check in window at 24 hrs and I was happy to not have chanced it.

United Economy Plus Seat 8F

I was in seated in 8F which had a split window with double the views. This made the flight photography a little difficult, but as long as you’re flexible and willing to adjust, it’s something that’s manageable.

In terms of picking the seat and side of the plane, I had picked seat 8F; mostly ahead of the wing and engine for unobstructed photo shots. It was also on the northern shady side of the westward bound plane, with the sun coming in from the south; preventing some glare into the cabin.

Next time, I would have probably picked 7F in the bulkhead as I still got the engine creeping into my photos more often than I would have liked, and the extra row forward may have made a difference. I was fortunate that no one ended up in 8E for this leg, so I had a little shoulder extra room to stretch myself out. I was also happy that the United Airlines B737-800 cabin was refreshed with in flight seat power (rows 1-21 only) that actually worked. I had packed a power bank with me anyway.

Simple Direct TV Entertainment Controls

On board, the flight started among like any other. Despite what I had read, there was a lot of bin space available for the flight and it was probably only about 60% full. The usual flight announcements consisting of a 4 hour and 24 minute flight time to Majuro. There was also a stern advance public address warning by the pilot surrounding for those travelling to Majuro or Kwajalein to ensure that inoculations had been received so that you would be permitted entry into the country.

There was a lot of general chit chatter amongst the travellers; more so than on other narrow body flights. Overhearing the conversations, the passenger ahead of me worked for the US Air Force, where as some of the other passengers appeared to be contractor types headed to Kwajalien (KWA) Air Force Base. They finalized the load, much of which appeared to be cargo headed to Majuro and Kwajalein.

Finalizing the Cargo Load
Our Position in Hawaii before Setting Out

We departed on the coral runway out of Honolulu. There was the usual interesting plane spotting on the way out of HNL. It’s interesting to see US Air Force jets parked at the nearby Hickham base, along with Jetstar B787’s.

Jetstar Boeing 787-8
United Airlines Boeing 777-200
US Air Force

As we climbed out of Honolulu, we had a gradual right turn towards The Marshall Islands and we were on our way.

On the Climb out of Honolulu
Climbing to Cruising Altitude
Advertisements

The Meal: A Hot Breakfast Sandwich

The only meal served on the flight was presented almost immediately after we got airborne. It was a Jimmy Dean Sausage Egg and Cheese on a Muffin, along with a Chobani Greek Yoghurt with a Mixed Berry. I don’t usually go for pop on the plane but they seemed to be giving out full cans so I went with a can of Sprite over ice in order to keep me hydrated for the long trip.

The Only Catered Meal on a Fourteen Hour Five Segment Flight
Jimmy Dean Sausage Egg and Cheese on a Muffin

The meal was also collected almost immediately after it started. I hadn’t even gotten through the McMuffin prior to them coming through to collect the trays.

In flight Entertainment:

There was a light amount of content on the Direct TV with in seat back entertainment screens so you didn’t have to rely on a tablet. There were about 7 Hollywood movies and the moving map. Unfortunately, the News & Information, Entertainment and Music Channels, Family & Kids Channels were all blacked out and not viewable as a result of not being over the Continental US. Most of the early chatter between passengers subsided pretty quickly as the shades went down for most people and they drifted off to sleep.

In Flight Direct TV

After breakfast, there was nothing to see but miles of expansive ocean. Much like a trans-continental flight, there wasn’t much to do but relax and enjoy. If you’re going to nap to rest after an early morning wake up, this is certainly the flight segment to do it on.

The monotony was broken up by some turns over what appeared to be the Johnston Atoll. I wouldn’t have even noticed it but we had a large S turn at 36,000 feet, despite no other aircraft traffic on view.

Viewing the Johnston Atoll:

The Johnston Atoll was claimed by the United States in 1858. It appears to be presently under the control of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service as an unincorporated territory.

A First Glance of the Johnston Atoll
Looking at the Johnston Atoll

The Johnston Atoll included at one time being a refuelling stop for the B29 Enola Gay as it transited the Pacific Ocean, in addition to military rocket and launch testing sites over the years. The United Island Hopper used to stop on the atoll between 1969 and 1970 but was discontinued after they started storing chemical munitions on the atoll.

The Johnston Atoll
The Johnston Atoll and Surrounding Islands
The Johnston Atoll and Surrounding Islands
The Johnston Atoll and Surrounding Islands

After the Johnston Atoll, there wasn’t much more to see for several hours until we arrived to the Majuro Atoll.

Advertisements

On Final Approach to the Majuro Atoll:

It took a while before we had anything to look at but eventually we started the approach into exotic Majuro Atoll. The islands and atolls themselves are changed in a flat U shape. Our approach took us over the eastern portion of these islands. We had a fairly quick approach and descent into Majuro in the Marshall Islands

Descending into Majuro
Coming Down from 38,000 feet into Majuro
Spotting the First Islands of the Marshall Islands
Amazing Shades and Islands
Approaching Majuro, Marshall Islands
Approaching Majuro, Marshall Islands
The Johnston Atoll and Surrounding Islands
Approaching Majuro, Marshall Islands
Advertisements

Landing at Majuro International Airport:

As we approached, there was the first public address announcement to indicate what transit passengers could and couldn’t do, with respect to staying on the aircraft. In this case of travel during the pre-pandemic world, transit passengers had the option of getting off, or staying seated on board for 45 minutes. As with past reports, passengers disembarking had to carry off and take all their carry on items with them off the aircraft. I was really happy I checked my bag.

On Final Approach to Majuro
On Final Approach to Majuro
On Final Approach to Majuro

The landing cards were also passed out. In unusual customs declaration oddities, it seems you have to declare more than $300 worth of clothes if entering the country.

Marshall Islands Declaration Cards
Bringing in Designer Jeans over $300? Better declare them!
Marshall Islands Declaration Cards

We had a short landing on the sole runway at Amatua Kabua International Airport at Majuro Atoll. After we landed, the local fire department came to pace the aircraft.

Landing at Majuro: The Fire Truck Welcoming Committee
Landing at Majuro: The Fire Truck Over Watch
Landing at Majuro: The Fire Truck Over Watch

As I got off the plane, we stepped onto a ramp jet bridge out into a cloudy space. The first sight to see was the small red terminal building with the famous YOKWE arrival sign, welcoming travellers to The Marshall Islands.

United Airlines at Majuro Atoll
YOKWE “Welcome to Majuro Atoll” at Amata Kabua International Airport
YOKWE “Welcome to Majuro Atoll” at Amata Kabua International Airport

Thanks to the early developing Coronarvirus situation, passengers were split into two lines; transit and arrival. I was tempted to line up at the arrivals desk for a passport stamp, but wasn’t able to make it past the screeners as they were all looking for documentation and stamps. The staff I talked to had no sense of humour about the whole thing, making it difficult to be where you weren’t supposed to be. Relegated to the transit lounge, I headed over to a small dark space.

Arriving into the Marshall Islands

Once in the transit lounge, I arrived to the reality of a new day. We had crossed the international date line and it was a day after we had taken off.

There was a small “Snack Time” concession stand selling everything from over the counter Duty Free, sandwiches, tinned soft drinks, to Newspapers to Hard Boiled Eggs out of a carton. I picked up a local copy of the Marshall Island Journal for “$1 on Majuro” proudly printed on the cover. Surprisingly to me, the paper was printed +1 day in advance, even with the time zone and international date line change

The Concession Stand at Majuro International Airport
The Marshall Islands Journal Newspaper

I happened to locate the exit immigration booth which happened to back onto the arrival booth. I flagged down the officer when he was done to ask to see if he could stamp my passport. Unfortunately, even with a souvenir patch to offer for him from my home country of Canada as a courtesy, he declined to stamp it; “only if you’re entering”. As with the case in many of these small airports, there is no way to enter the country to get the stamp, since once you enter, there is no way of getting back airside as all the security screeners and immigration people have left their posts. Reluctantly, passport stamp collection luck was not on my side today with the stamps.

While I was at tha Amata Kabua International Airport on Majuro, I was able to connect to the free wifi. Despite the wifi, there was no cellular service the entire time I was on the island. I was able to send a quick hello back to MrsWT73 who was comfortably set up at The Sheraton Waikiki Edge Infiniti pool enjoying a mai tai.

My Thoughts on the United Island Hopper between Honolulu and Majuro:

The first flight of the United Island Hopper between Honolulu and Majuro admittedly isn’t much different than an early morning flight that happens to travel over an ocean. It’s almost similar to a Hawaiian flight to the mainland. The flight really gets interesting towards the end of it starting with the first views of Johnston and Majuro Atolls. Fortunately, the best of the flight is yet to come.


If you’ve flown the United Island Hopper, did you stay awake after the early morning departure from Honolulu ?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: