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United Airlines Boeing 737-800 Island Hopper Economy Class Review [HNL to PNI]

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Ryan Smith
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Ryan Smith

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Ryan completed his goal of visiting every country in the world in December of 2023 and now plans to let his wife choose their destinations. Over the years, he’s written about award travel for publicat...
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Airline: United Airlines
Aircraft: Boeing B737-800
Flight #: UA132
Route: Honolulu (HNL) to Pohnpei (PNI) in Micronesia
Date: September 6, 2023
Duration: 9hr 50min
Cabin and Layout: Economy; 150 seats in a 3-3 configuration
Seat: 14A (window)
Cost: 35,000 miles + $11.20

One of the most famous routes in aviation is the so-called “Island Hopper” that United Airlines runs from Honolulu to Guam with multiple stops along the way, including where I departed at Pohnpei, Micronesia. This route is also one of the best examples of using points and miles for maximum value. I flew this route in the opposite direction last year and used it again recently to position for a hard-to-reach island in the Pacific (Nauru).

There are some huge positives when flying this route, but there are definitely some drawbacks. Let’s look at what a flight on United’s Island Hopper is like.

Booking the United Airlines Island Hopper

Depending on the day of the week, United’s Island Hopper will stop at different islands between Honolulu and Guam (GUM). However, Majuro (MAJ) in the Marshall Islands and Pohnpei (PNI) in the Federated States of Micronesia are key fixtures in this route. Because United Airlines is the only airline running this route, you have a lack of options — and thus very high cash prices.

United Island Hopper
Image Credit: Redgeographics via Wikipedia

Here’s a monthly view of Honolulu to Pohnpei cash prices. That’s basically $100 per hour of flying in economy.

United Island Hopper HNL PNI average cash cost
A monthly view of cash prices on the HNL-PNI flight. Image Credit: United

I started in Los Angeles (LAX) and flew to Pohnpei (PNI) for 35,000 United miles plus $11.20 in taxes. That’s an incredible 3 cents of value per United mile — more than double the average value of United MileagePlus miles.

United Airlines Island Hopper Booking LAX PNI
My booking confirmation email.

Redeeming United miles here is definitely the better option for booking the Island Hopper. You can earn United miles from multiple credit cards or transfer points from Bilt Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, or Marriott Bonvoy.

Hot Tip:

When it’s time to pay the taxes and fees on award tickets, consider using your best travel credit card to earn extra points or a credit card with travel insurance. I paid my $11.20 taxes and fees with The Platinum Card® from American Express to earn 5x Membership Rewards points for flights booked directly with airlines or with AmexTravel.com (up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year, then 1x).

Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu (HNL)

Checking In

Despite checking in for my flights in Los Angeles the previous evening (and obtaining boarding passes all the way through), I went to the check-in kiosks for United at the Honolulu airport. I assumed someone wanted to check my passport before this international flight segment. Sure enough, the kiosks told me to see a person for document checks.

As it was 6:15 a.m., there wasn’t a line. I spent less than 5 minutes at check-in from start to finish, where I received a new seat assignment. I had chosen seats at the bulkhead using my United MileagePlus Premier Silver status, which permits choosing premium seats at check-in, but I was told these were reserved for crew. Thus, I moved to the only available window seat near the front of the plane: 14A.

Lounges

Flying in economy didn’t afford access to any airport lounges. My United Premier Silver status (a perk of my Marriott Bonvoy Titanium Elite status) also doesn’t provide access to the United Club. Honolulu has 2 Priority Pass lounges; The Plumeria Lounge was in the other terminal (for interisland flights), and the IASS Hawaii Lounge in my terminal only opened 5 minutes after our departure. Thus, I went to the waiting room for my flight.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI waiting lounge
The waiting room for our flight in Honolulu.

Boarding

I had to show my passport and boarding pass to get into the waiting room. A friendly employee checked the computer to see if I had checked in outside (showing my documents to an employee) or online. For those who’d only checked in online, further security questions and document checks were conducted at this point.

Our flight departed from gate D1 using a Boeing 737.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI plane at jetbridge
Our plane shortly before boarding began.

Boarding was timely and organized. Instead of boarding by groups, we boarded by row numbers, starting with business class and then filling the plane from back to front. The Honolulu to Majuro (first stop) segment was only half full, so we boarded quickly. As I was in the front third of the economy cabin, I was among the last passengers to board.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI boarding
Boarding in Honolulu.

The boarding process moved efficiently, with friendly employees greeting us at the airplane’s door and asking if passengers needed help locating their seats. The flight attendants also did a good job of organizing the overhead bins to leave space for passengers boarding at future stops. This would be critical later on, though I didn’t know that at this point.

On Board United’s B737 Island Hopper

United exclusively operates Boeing 737 aircraft on this route. You won’t have access to lie-flat seats in Polaris business class nor the latest amenities available on larger, more modern planes. Several of the runways along this route can’t handle larger aircraft, so you’ll always get a B737 here. These planes feature a single aisle and a 3-3 layout in economy.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI economy cabin
Seating was in a 3-3 configuration.

Economy Cabin and Seat

Seats provided a fair amount of comfort and padding. Despite this particular plane being 18 years old, the seats were obviously younger than that.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI seats
Seats looked clean and new.

Each seat had an adjustable headrest and standard armrests that went up and down.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI seat
My seat on arrival.

Each seat also had a blanket at boarding, wrapped in plastic.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI blanket
Each seat had a blanket wrapped in plastic.

Economy seats on this plane had 30 inches of pitch (space from one row to the row in front of it). It’s not spectacular, but my knees weren’t hitting the seat in front of me. That’s my minimum expectation. I’m 5 feet 10 inches tall, so this could be an issue for taller passengers.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI seat pitch
Spacing between seats was decent.

Each seat back had a tray table that released easily with a latch.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI tray table
The tray table opened with a simple latch.

The tray table easily held my 13-inch laptop. While the tray table should slide out a bit, mine was jammed and couldn’t move.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI tray table with laptop
The tray table held my 13-inch laptop well.

Under the seat, I had a 3-prong outlet for charging my phone during the flight.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI outlet under seat
There was an outlet under the seat.

Seats in the first and last rows of economy were blocked for crew use. Due to the length of the flight, the crew changes halfway through the trip. Plus, a mechanic or 2 always rides along. That’s why seats are blocked in economy (extra crew) and business class (extra pilots). The last row is also used for extra blankets and customs documents for the stops along the way.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI blocked seats last row
The last row was blocked for supplies and crew rest.

Food and Beverage

Snacks are served on the shorter segments of the Island Hopper (some are less than an hour). The Honolulu to Majuro section lasted over 5 hours, and we had meal service.

The options were “yes” and “no.” There was no option for the type of meal. The meal on this flight was a bagel and a cup of yogurt.

As always, I requested and triple confirmed (this is United, after all) a vegan meal. I reconfirmed at check-in that my meal was on board. When the flight attendants arrived, they handed me a meal with my name on it and VGML — the code for a vegan meal.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI wrong special meal
The delivery of my special meal, with a surprise waiting inside.

Along with the hot dish, it also had a fruit cup.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI meal service
Each passenger received a meal. The options were “yes” and “no.”

My meal clearly wasn’t vegan. In fact, it was more non-vegan than the standard meal for other passengers.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI wrong special meal open
This was labeled as a “vegan” meal, and that’s far from uncommon with United.

Sadly, United is atrociously bad at honoring special meal requests. I would say it leads all airlines in failing in this metric.

I thought it was an honest mistake and flagged down a flight attendant, saying someone else with a special meal had mine and I had theirs. Or so I thought. She informed me that this was the only special meal on board and it had come with my name on it. A passenger in row 10 had requested a special meal (low salt) and didn’t get anything at all.

I can’t fail to mention that I have sent multiple friendly emails to United saying I don’t want compensation but just want to help them improve their failures on special meals. I tried this for 2 or 3 years and then gave up after United seemed disinterested in the topic.

Bottom Line:

United repeatedly fails my special meal requests, so I always travel with snacks. If you request a special meal, plan for it not to happen and then be happily surprised if you actually get it.

Amenities

Despite this being an international flight, amenities were more like what you’d find on domestic flights — with 1 key item missing.

Entertainment

Rather than a full list of movies and TV shows that you could choose at will, the entertainment system had a selection of channels playing shows and movies. They started when they started — not when you began watching. Thus, you might miss part of a movie if you turn the channel on after it’s begun. This is similar to the live TV playing on United’s domestic flights.

“The Little Mermaid” was playing during our flight, and I noticed many people watching it. All programs included subtitles that we couldn’t turn off.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI entertainment with subtitles
All programs included subtitles.

Each armrest had a built-in control for the entertainment system.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI arm rest
Armrests had a recline button and a built-in remote.

This provided on/off buttons, access to the channel guide, and channel and volume controls.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI arm rest control
The TV control built into the armrest.

Flight attendants distributed earbuds before takeoff. The headphone jack was located at the end of the armrest.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI headphone jack
The headphone jack was at the end of the armrest.

Lavatory

Lavatories at the back of the plane were standard. The crew did a great job of keeping these clean throughout the flight.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI lavatory
The lavatory was standard and clean.

Wi-Fi

While United has made small improvements in its inflight Wi-Fi recently, no internet is available on the Island Hopper route. If you go to the coverage map on United’s website, you’ll see this footnote: “737 aircraft operating in Guam and Micronesia won’t have Wi-Fi.”

Thus, don’t expect Wi-Fi on this flight.

Service

We had 2 flight crews, changing after our stop at Bucholz Army Airfield on Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands (KWA). Both crews were friendly and helpful.

The first segment, from Honolulu to Majuro, was only half full, but the crew clearly knew that the plane would fill up in Majuro. Thus, they kept the overhead bins organized to make the boarding process smoother for those getting on in Majuro.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI economy cabin view from back
The cabin was clean and looked fresh after a retrofit.

The flight attendants were also friendly during boarding and meal service. It wasn’t their fault that catering messed up my meal, though they were apologetic anyway and offered extra snacks and drinks to compensate.

Flight attendants also passed through the aisle with water and drinks multiple times. They collected trash regularly and provided clear information about our stops, handing out documents for departing passengers and providing a good inflight experience.

Stops Along the Way

Part of the fun when flying United’s Island Hopper is the views and experiences at the islands along the way. I highly recommend you get a window seat.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI view of island from window
Looking out the window was fantastic.

If your plane stops at Bucholz Army Airfield–Kwajalein (KWA), you’ll be advised that taking pictures and videos is illegal. Otherwise, you can snap pictures of the landing and takeoff as well as the airports en route.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI connecting in MAJ
The Majuro (MAJ) airport during 1 of 2 stops before I got off.

We also got a wash, courtesy of a fire truck parked next to the taxiway in Majuro.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI plane wash at MAJ
We got washed by a fire truck on arrival in Majuro (Marshall Islands).

During each stop, a few things happened. First, we were told whether we could take pictures and whether we could get off the plane to walk around. Deplaning for a few photos was common before COVID-19 but is nearly impossible now.

Second, we were told to claim our luggage from the overhead bins. Once everyone took out their stuff, the ground crew passed through, inquiring about any items left in the bins. If no one claimed the left items, they were removed from the plane. During this process, the bathrooms were closed for cleaning.

United B737 800 Island Hopper HNL PNI inspection in MAJ
At each stop, we had an inspection.

Lastly, everyone was told to put bags back in the bins and return to their assigned seats before new passengers boarded, keeping the aisles clear to facilitate the process.

This process was repeated at every stop, along with the safety video, seat belt checks, and other items you expect with takeoff and landing.

Arrival at Pohnpei International Airport (PNI)

Roughly one-third of the passengers on the plane departed with me in Pohnpei. We received customs and immigration forms before landing, distributed by flight attendants.

After landing and a short taxi, we deplaned by a ramp that the ground crew had rolled up to the front door of the plane. There are no jet bridges at the airports between Honolulu and Guam; wherever you stop, you’ll descend a ramp and walk across the tarmac to the airport terminal.

The flight crew smiled and thanked us for flying with them. I chuckled every time they said, “Thanks for flying with us,” at the start and end of each segment along the way. There’s no other airline running this route, so I appreciated the irony of the statement.

Final Thoughts

The United Island Hopper is many things: an interesting piece of aviation, an excellent use of award miles, and a novel experience. However, it’s not the greatest flight when comparing apples-to-apples with other international flights. Other international flights offer more amenities on sleeker planes. And then there’s the fact United routinely messes up special meal requests, which you should understand if you need a special meal on your flight.

If you want to visit these islands, you lack other options to fly there. Being able to use miles to avoid price gouging is a great option.

Whatever your reason for considering the United Island Hopper, it is an interesting flight. I’ve done it twice to get where I wanted to go. Would I fly this route just for curiosity’s sake? No, but I know several people who have and enjoyed it.

For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, click here.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the United Island Hopper?

The so-called Island Hopper is a United Airlines route between Honolulu and Guam that stops at several island nations along the way. The exact stops vary, depending on the day. Countries served include Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.

What aircraft does United Airlines use for the Island Hopper?

United exclusively flies Boeing 737 aircraft on this route.

How many seats are on United's Boeing 737-800?

There are 3 possible layouts on United’s B737-800. In economy class, you’ll always find a 3-3 layout with 150 seats. All 3 layouts have 16 seats in a 2-2 layout in business class (United First). The differences are in Economy Plus, offering 42, 48, or 54 seats.

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About Ryan Smith

Ryan completed his goal of visiting every country in the world in December of 2023 and now plans to let his wife choose their destinations. Over the years, he’s written about award travel for publications including AwardWallet, The Points Guy, USA Today Blueprint, CNBC Select, Tripadvisor, and Forbes Advisor.

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