This is the first post in a five-part series covering the Island Hopper written by Dave Schaverien, a guest contributor to Pointsnerd. You can follow Dave on Instagram at @davidschav
The Island Hopper
Part 1 – The Flight
United Airlines flight 154/155, better known as the Island Hopper is a flight between Honolulu and Guam, stopping at a series of remote Pacific Islands. The specific stops depend on which day of the week you travel, but the “full” Island Hopper flies twice per week, departing Honolulu (HNL) at 7:25am local time making stops at Majuro (MAJ), Kwajalein (KWA), Kosrae (KSA), Pohnpei (PNI) and Chuuk (TKK) before arriving in Guam (GUM) approximately 14.5 hours later at 5:55pm local time the following day. The same flight also operates in the reverse direction. This first part of the series chronicles my journey on the Island Hopper and provides some FAQs towards the end of the article in case you are also considering taking this flight.
I took the westbound Island Hopper departing Honolulu on January 24th, 2020, and I flew as far as Pohnpei. The Island Hopper is popular with travel and aviation enthusiasts for several reasons, including the uniqueness of the route, the amazing views you get from the plane, and gaining a window into how life operates in some of the most remote corners of the globe.
I paid for this flight with 55,000 United Miles, plus C$29.40 in taxes and fees. Considering this flight regularly sells for over C$2,400, this is a fantastic redemption, and a great use of the excursionist perk in the United program. In the final article of this series, I’ll be covering several ways in which you can redeem your points and miles to fly the Island Hopper. I paid cash for my flights to and from Honolulu, which totalled approximately C$450.
My flight contained an interesting mix of Marshallese and Micronesians commuting home to visit friends and relatives, US Army personnel and contractors, and a small handful of travel and aviation enthusiasts like myself.
This flight is truly a lifeline to the remote islands it serves. In order to make it function efficiently, there are a few peculiarities. You will see an off duty set of pilots sitting in seats 1A and 1B, who are there to pilot the latter legs of the flight. There is also a mechanic sitting in seat 7C to address any issues which may come up during the flight. These precautions are taken because if things go wrong, there is no easy way to redeploy a crew to remote islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and few hotels big enough to house 120 passengers at short notice.
Prior to takeoff, the plane executed a 270 degree turn onto the runway. At the time this seemed very strange, but it became apparent why later in the day. None of the airports on these islands have the equipment to push a plane back from the gate, and so the 270 degree turn was a test to make sure everything was functioning well.
Takeoff from Honolulu offered wonderful views of downtown, Waikiki and the entire island of Oahu. The first leg from Honolulu to Majuro was the longest sector of the flight, and a great chance to catch up on sleep. Just over four hours later, we had crossed the international date line, and were arriving in Majuro.
Majuro is a circular atoll no more than 30 metres wide throughout most of the island. The views on the landing were scenic and spectacular. The landing passes over the most picturesque part of the island and avoids some of the not so scenic areas.
At all stops except Kwajalein, it is possible for transiting passengers to deplane and take a walk around. If you deplane, you must take all your belongings with you. There is a security sweep of the plane where each passenger is asked to identify their baggage, and any unidentified pieces are removed. Majuro is one of the more pleasant stops, and the only one with functioning, reliable wifi.
The Marshall Islands and Micronesia run on “Island time”, which means that things happen when they happen, and nobody is in much of a rush. This flight certainly does not run on Island time. You can tell everything is organized, and every member of the crew does their part to make sure the flight stays on time. United doesn’t want their crew to time-out somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.
After the brief stop in Majuro, the plane continued to Kwajalein. The entire atoll of Kwajalein is a US military base. The approach was also spectacular, until the ugly military installations became visible. This was easily the most popular stop of the trip, as around half the plane departed. The most unusual sight in Kwajalein were the palm trees, which had been lashed so hard by the wind that they all faced in one direction.
Contrary to what I had heard from other sources, there were no warnings about taking photos or videos during the stop, and nobody seemed to care that I did. I’m sure the US Army won’t mind their secrets being revealed from the photos above and below.
Kwajalein was our final stop in the Marshall Islands. The next stop of Kosrae is part of the Federated States of Micronesia, and I took a different seat on the other side of the plane for this sector. The scenery in Micronesia is very different to the Marshall Islands. The islands of Micronesia are very green, wet, and have much of a jungle or rainforest feel to them in contrast with the tropical atolls of the Marshall Islands.
The runways in Kosrae, and the next stop of Pohnpei were both extremely short. For this reason, these were amongst the roughest landings of my life, and the captain slammed on the brakes immediately after landing. Kosrae seemed to be the smallest stop of the entire journey, with very few people waiting outside the airport and very little sign of activity on the island visible from the airport. Kosrae is also home to (perhaps) the world’s smallest and most crowded terminal waiting area. There was a place to line up for boarding, but it was more of a scrum than a line.
The next stop, and the final one of the day for me was Pohnpei. Pohnpei looked a lot like Kosrae from the air, very green, wet and mountainous. Disembarking in Pohnpei really made me appreciate how much of a lifeline this flight is for these remote islands. I was just about the only person on the flight who did not check a cooler full of types of food freely available in Honolulu, which no doubt would be rare in Pohnpei. There must have been 30-40 coolers unloaded onto the baggage belt at Pohnpei. The airport was also an amazing hive of activity as the residents came to greet their friends and relatives who they haven’t seen for months.
Overall, I had a fantastic experience taking the Island Hopper. This is one of the most unique flights in the world, and something few people get to experience. Having said that, there are some drawbacks. It is a very long day, and 14 hours in a 737 is not the most comfortable flight even with the opportunity to stop and stretch your legs every few hours. If you want the experience, then I would recommend doing it. However, if your style of travel is more about reaching a destination and relaxing, then maybe this trip isn’t for you.
Westbound or Eastbound?
I recommend Westbound. Unless it is significantly delayed, the Westbound flight will land and takeoff from every island during the day. On the Eastbound flight, a relatively short delay means you will land in Majuro in the dark. The Eastbound flight also terminates with an extremely antisocial arrival time of 3am in Honolulu, whereas the Westbound flight terminates in Guam around 6pm.
Fly the full Island Hopper, or skip the smaller islands?
If you’re the type of person who is taking this flight, then you’re probably doing it for the experience. So even though you might be wondering why you decided to make a stop at Kosrae or Kwajalein at the time, in hindsight you’ll probably be glad you did. Therefore, I recommend taking the full Island Hopper.
Sit on the left or right of the plane?
Some quick google searches will uncover many peoples’ opinion on this subject. I sat on the left side for most of the journey, and was very happy with my choice.
Stop at one of the islands, or continue straight through to Guam?
This is the hardest question to answer. While these destinations look spectacular from the air, the truth is that they are not easy destinations to travel to. There are very few tourists, hotels are not at the quality you would see in Hawaii or even Guam, and the only way around is through a shared taxi. Most food, amenities and experiences are quite expensive, and the countries themselves are not wealthy. You will unfortunately see things like stray dogs and trash on the streets.
On the other hand, these islands have incredible natural beauty, and such warm and friendly people who are genuinely curious about where you are from and why you are visiting their tiny island. Most people speak fluent English, and the islands are also extremely safe. If you have a real sense of adventure, and you know what to expect, then go for it. If you’re expecting luxury (or even mid range) travel experiences, then you should fly straight through to Guam.
Check a bag?
Definitely check your bag, even a carry-on size bag. Getting on and off the plane with your bag 5 times in a day is a bit of a pain. Much easier to check it in.
Where can I get a passport stamp?
The immigration officials at most stops seemed quite busy with incoming arrivals. Kosrae was definitely the best bet, and I also heard reports of people in Majuro going back behind the departure gate to outbound immigration to get a stamp there.
Now that we have covered the flight experience, I’ll take you on a journey to the island of Pohnpei, one of the states that make up the Federated States of Micronesia.