Maximizing United’s Island Hopper Flight

Nov 5, 2015

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Every points and miles enthusiast has his or her own dream itinerary, but few routes are as unique as United’s Island Hopper, which travels from Honolulu to Guam with several stops at small islands in between. Today, new TPG Contributor Michael Spelfogel shows you how to book this coveted flight as an award, and demonstrates how to maximize the trip by building in additional segments.

Step aboard United’s 737 for an island-hopping adventure.

United flight 154, aka the Island Hopper, is a bucket list item for many flight enthusiasts. It’s a thrice-weekly flight from Honolulu (HNL) to Guam (GUM), with five intermediate stops on Pacific islands, each for less than an hour. The islands range from small atolls that are barely above sea level to mountainous islands that require steep approaches. At nearly all the islands, you can disembark the plane, buy local items and even get a passport stamp.

Traditionally, this is one of the hardest routes to find saver award availability on, especially in business class. Luckily, there are a few tricks to employ that greatly increase the likelihood of redeeming award tickets on this route at the saver level.

Booking Strategy

The Island Hopper is bookable online as part of a larger, multi-city itinerary. Unfortunately, UA 154 seems only to have limited saver availability right when it goes on sale about 335 days out, and then it disappears after two to three days. After that point, one of the intermediary segments sells out in saver, rendering the award ticket unbookable.

United allows for one stopover and two open jaws on round-trip award flights, so you can book a round-trip award and utilize your stopover at one of the five scheduled stops between Honolulu and Guam. By ticketing a round-trip flight and utilizing your stopover, you can book the hopper in two segments as part of a larger multi-city itinerary.

Given the complexity of the routing, I suggest that you search for each segment individually and confirm that your desired flights have saver availability first. It also helps to provide the agent the exact flights that adhere to the award ticket rules. You should also ask the agent to waive the $25 call center fee in this case.

When else are you going to see Saipan? Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The Itinerary

This strategy only works if one of the Micronesian Islands that UA 154 lands at is your stopover. Your options are Majuro (MAJ), Kwajalein (KWA), Kosrae (KSA), Pohnpei (PNI) or Truk (TKK).

Your destination must be a different island than your stopover, such as Guam (GUM), Saipan (SPN), Palau (ROR) or Rota Island (ROP). You can open-jaw from your destination to another nearby island to include an additional island at little cost. Lastly, keep in mind that the booking must be done as three segments in a multi-city itinerary. For example, a valid routing looks like this:

1. US city to Micronesian Island (e.g., PNI) on UA 154 route

2. Same Micronesian Island to next Pacific island (e.g., GUM) 

3. Next Pacific island (e.g., SPN) to any US or Canadian city (not limited to origin)

You’d purchase a flight from island two to island three separately. For example, a GUM-SPN flight can be bought for $100. You can also cut out the open jaw to the third island to save money on the extra flight.

My Exact Routing

I’m planning to travel SFO-PNI, PNI-ROR, SPN-JFK. I used 12,500 United miles for a separate flight from ROR-SPN.

This then breaks down to SFO-HNL (full-day layover), HNL-PNI (leaves next morning on UA 154); PNI-GUM (full-day layover), GUM-ROR; SPN-NRT (full-day layover), NRT-JFK.

As you can see, it’s possible to add in a few 24-hour layovers in various cities on the way. In addition to the three islands I get to visit, I also have a day each in Honolulu, Guam and Tokyo.

Sitting in the Comfy Seats

Although it’s rare to find business saver awards, this type of routing certainly improves your chances of nabbing one. United MileagePlus premier members could receive a complimentary premier upgrade on the second leg of the trip. (That is, from the first Micronesian island to Guam and possibly on to an additional destination like ROR.) This is because most of the passengers on the plane from HNL will be going all the way to GUM and there will most certainly be either no space on one of the legs, or a business-class passenger will get off before your stop.

United won’t refill the business cabin with passengers from HNL (who typically book all of the legs as a single segment), but rather from intermediate islands (like the one you board at). The new United website also makes it possible to combine saver economy and business awards. So, feasibly you could spend an extra 30,000 miles to get business (or first) class back from GUM to the US, like GUM-NRT-JFK, with the latter segment possibly being on ANA.

Sydney Australia opera house featured shutterstock 162042473
Add a stop in Sydney for 30,000 extra miles. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Extend Your Trip to Down Under

For 15,000 more miles, you can add on another island or any North Asian destination. For example, you could search SFO-TKK, TKK-ROR, NRT-JFK (70,000 miles). Then, for 15,000 miles, book an ROR-NRT flight — 85,000 miles total.

But this becomes even more powerful if you instead use 30,000 miles to nest a round-trip flight within the original Island Hopper booking. Now you have another stopover and more open jaws to work with. Going with the previous example, you need to fill the ROR-NRT segment. To do that, you can make Tahiti (PPT) your destination and Auckland (AKL) or Sydney (SYD) your stopover. Again, this needs to be booked as three separate segments on a multi-city award ticket (you’ll definitely need to call in order to book this one). It would look something like this:

ROR-AKL (stopover)

AKL-PPT (destination)

PPT-NRT (open jaw)

On your ROR-AKL segment, you can have a full day in SYD. Then you have any amount of time in AKL, afterward flying Air New Zealand to PPT. On the return, you can have a day in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, or one of several other Asian cities. Not bad for 70,000 to 100,000 United miles!

Bottom Line

Use your stopover at one of the islands on the UA 154 flight. Then you should be able to construct this trip without issue — just be prepared to walk through your complicated routing step by step when you call in to book. Enjoy island hopping!

Have you ever flown on the Island Hopper? Share your experience in the comments!

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