12 Things to Know Before Flying the United Island Hopper

Sep 3, 2017

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There’s perhaps no more fascinating route — particularly operated by a US-flagged airline — than United Airlines’ Island Hopper. Flying from Honolulu (HNL) to Majuro (MAJ) to Kwajalein (KWA) to Kosrae (KSA) to Pohnpei (PNI) to Chuuk (TKK) to Guam (GUM), or the reverse, these flights provide a critical lifeline to otherwise unserved islands in the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, for many of us who are aviation geeks, it’s a bucket list item.

However, there are some peculiarities about this flight that makes it different from almost all others. Here’s what you should know to prepare yourself for the experience, based on a recent Island Hopper run my wife Katie and I made. Tomorrow, we’ll post about the best seats on the 737-800 that serves the islands, so check back with TPG for part two.

1. Bring food with you

There’s very limited food served onboard. On our run from GUM through MAJ, a light breakfast (muffin, cantaloupe and melon) was served on the first segment (GUM-TKK) and a single 100-calorie packet of almonds served as a snack from KSA-KWA. On our return from MAJ to GUM, almonds are served from KWA-KSA and a sandwich served on the last leg from TKK-GUM.

The flight attendants mentioned that many passengers ask for more food, even if they have to pay for it. Unfortunately, there’s none stocked for them to sell — likely due to weight limits. So, make sure to bring food with you when you originally board. Or, if you’re not getting passport stamps along the way (see below), bring some cash to take advantage of the snack bars inside the airport waiting areas.

1. United Island Hopper breakfast from GUM-TKK
The small breakfast that has to take you most of the way through the eastbound trip.

2. No power in much of economy

While first class and economy seats through row 21 have US power plugs between seats, there’s no power in much of the economy cabin. If you want to power your cell phone or other electronics, make sure you’ve got a power bank.

3. You can deplane at each stop — except Kwajalein

While the announcements might not be clear about this, you’re able to disembark at each stop along the way. The one exception is Kwajalein (KWA), as it’s an active US military base. To get off the plane there, you’re going to need military orders. But, at each of the other stops, you can get off and stretch your legs, use the bathroom or grab snacks from a food stand in the boarding area. Just make sure to take all of your belongings with you.

3. United Island Hopper waiting area and snack bar
Each stop has a small waiting area for originating and transit passengers and a small snack bar on this side of security.

4. You can get a passport stamp at each stop — except Kwajalein

If you don’t mind taking up some space in your passport, you can deplane and get a passport stamp at each island along the route. The ground crew at each airport seemed prepared for the question each time we asked, and we were pointed to the immigration area. At the counter, we smiled and told the agent know that we weren’t entering but hoped to get a passport stamp anyways. We had no issues at any of the stops.

Since we didn’t do the MAJ-HNL leg (or reverse), we weren’t able to test if getting a stamp in MAJ was possible in transit. However, the airport staff assured me that it’s possible. Since this is where the four on-board pilots switch roles, there should be plenty of time.

5. If you stay on board, gather your belongings at each stop

There’s a security sweep at each stop. If there are unclaimed bags, they are removed from the plane. If you have a large carry-on bag, you’re going to want to put it in the overhead bin near you. Otherwise, you’ll have to retrieve it from wherever you left it to avoid it being hauled off, which happened at one of our stops.

5. United Island Hopper unclaimed bag being removed
Last call for a carry-on bag before it was hauled off for not being claimed.

6. The flight attendants have a long shift

Although there are potential changes underway, the same flight attendants fly the entire flight from GUM to HNL (or reverse). The flight attendants I talked with noted that it takes 17 hours from when they arrive for duty at one side to clearing through customs at the end of the shift. In between, they have to handle six boardings and six deplanings, with on-plane security checks at each stop while managing the remaining on-board passengers. So, make sure to cut them some slack.

7. You can select different seats for each leg

When you select your seat anytime from booking to 24 hours out, you can select which seat you want to sit in for the entire trip. However, beginning at check-in, you can select individual seats for each segment. This is a great option if a good window seat isn’t available for every leg, but you can reserve it for some legs. Or, if you want get the luxury of 2-4 inches more of legroom — but can’t splurge for it for all legs — you can pick a Economy Plus seat for certain legs. One benefit (or annoyance) of selecting separate seats: you get a separate boarding pass for each segment when you check-in at the airport.

7. United Island Hopper select seats by segment - Economy Plus kiosk purchase
At the kiosk at the airport, there were still Economy Plus seats available for sale.

8. Prepare to be disconnected

There’s no Wi-Fi on-board, no Wi-Fi at the stops along the way (unless you want to buy an expensive pass) and you’ll likely not have any cell phone signal anywhere along the way. I didn’t have Google Project Fi cell connection from departing GUM to arriving back in GUM six days later. So, sit back, enjoy the views and enjoy the experience being disconnected for a day. You can always upload photos to social media once you land.

9. Don’t worry when you see fire trucks

Due to the short runways at many stops, the pilots have to hit the brakes pretty hard. As a precaution, the fire trucks are out near the runway to meet each flight. They’ll typically follow the aircraft to the parking bay. Don’t be alarmed when you see this; there’s nothing wrong. Speaking with one pilot who has flown this route for 24 years, he said that the fire trucks have never been necessary, but the crew will use a fan at some stops to cool the brakes.

9. United Island Hopper fire trucks
You’ll get used to seeing fire trucks on the runway.

10. Prepare to see the same ~60 minutes of a few movies

There’s free in-seat entertainment options available. However, there’s only a few English-language channels and each plays a movie. The IFE is reset at each stop, so the movies start over at each stop. There are no individual controls for the IFE. Instead, everyone watching the same movie watches the same feed. So, you’re going to end up seeing the same movie segments over and over on the short hops from MAJ to GUM (or reverse). If you hold down the brightness control option on the armrest, you can shut off the screen to avoid the Groundhog Day of movies.

11. Put your camera away when at Kwajalein (KWA)

One of the stops along the route, Kwajalein, is an active US military base. On our eastbound flights, the flight attendants briefly mentioned no photos were allowed on the ground. On the westbound flights, it was announced multiple times that no photos were allowed on approach, on the ground or at takeoff from Kwajalein. Even if the announcements aren’t clear, it’s probably best to put the camera away sooner rather than later.

United Island Hopper pretty views
Kwajalein is interesting, but there are plenty of other islands to photograph.

12. The route slightly differs depending on the day of the week

One pilot I chatted with mentioned he knew my type: the AvGeek that loves the Island Hopper. He mentioned he had a group of AvGeeks that boarded in Honolulu together for the experience. But, they were confused when their flight departed Kwajalein for Pohnpei without stopping in Kosrae. Sure enough, they had booked the once-weekly option that skipped Kosrae. They were bummed to miss out on the experience of stopping at each island. If you want the full experience, don’t make the same mistake. Check the stops carefully before booking.

If you have the chance, I definitely recommend flying on the United Island Hopper. This is an awesome experience on such a unique route. And, if you have the time, it’s even better if you can book the trip as an award ticket with an Excursionist stopover to get to check out one or two of the amazing islands along the way.

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