- United Island Hopper Trip Notes Part 2: It’s Time To Hop!
- United Island Hopper Trip Notes Part 3: Koror, Palau
- United Island Hopper Trip Notes Part 4: Tokyo, Japan And Back Home In ANA First Class
After writing these trip notes I sent them to AJK for his thoughts. He’s added some annotations in the red italics.
Ever since I read about the Continental Island Hopper some 10 years ago I’ve wanted to experience it. It flies on a “milk run.” In a bygone era a plane would fly from say LA to NYC with several stops before getting to the destination:
Continental Micronesia launched the island hopper nearly 50 years ago, and aside from some changes in the airports, it’s pretty much the same milk run that existed in the 1960s:
Into the 90s:
And the 2000s:
And somehow after the merger, Jeff Smisek hasn’t yet axed the Guam hub that the hopper feeds into, though United’s employees in Guam are nervous that they will be next on the chopping block.
If you’re not an aviation geek with a love of flying there’s no way I can explain the appeal of this flight. [AJK: And trust me, I’ve tried. “So then we went to Guam, but first we stopped on these five islands.” “Five islands? How long did you stay on each?” “Oh, about 30 mins.” “30 minutes?! So, why did you stop?” If it has to be explained, no explanation will do!]. And while my better half puts up with most of my mishigas, the island hopper is admittedly well beyond my normal levels of craziness.
So I went to the DDF Adventure DO thread and sought out a traveling buddy. Others have done the same and it worked out well, so I figured it was worth seeing if anyone else had the island hopper on their bucket list. And sure enough there were several other
crazy interested folks. In the end the timing didn’t work out for most guys, but DDF member AJK committed to making the trip happen and it was off to the planning stages. You know you’re about to embark on something crazy when the only traveling companion you can find is someone who flew for 36 hours to Brazil and never left the airport.
More people than ever have heard of the island hopper as United featured it last month in their pre-flight video:
The westbound Honolulu to Guam flight operates on Monday and Friday via Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Truk. It also operates on Wednesday, but skips Kosrae.
As I didn’t want to be away from home for a Shabbos the only option was to fly to Honolulu on a Sunday and then fly the hopper on Monday morning. Astute readers got the reference from the end of this post.
It wouldn’t be possible to check out any of the island hopper cities and still make it home for Shabbos on the next hopper flight. And Guam isn’t known for being a tourist mecca either.
However, United flies from their Guam hub to several islands, like Yap and Palau. It’s actually been 10 years since I booked a ticket to Koror, Palau. When I was heavily invested in thousands of Wendy’s cup. Those points allowed me to find the most remote parts of Continental’s route and book them, even though I didn’t ever wind up in Palau 😉 That fun lasted all the way until 2013 and I’m still working off all of my United vouchers courtesy of Airtran…
Of course when I booked the Palau flight I looked up pictures of the country. And I knew from those stunning images that one day I’d have to make it there, one way or another:
Trying to find a week that had business or first class award availability for more than a dozen flight segments was extremely challenging. But I’m never one to back down to a challenge and eventually we had this itinerary booked on miles:
UA1040 CLE-EWR 6:04am-7:31am, 73G First
1:39 connection in Newark
UA15 EWR-HNL 9:10am-2:15pm, 764 Business
1 night in Honolulu, time on ground 17:10
UA154 HNL-MAJ 7:25am-10:35am+1, 738 Business
0:45 connection in Majuro
UA154 MAJ-KWA 11:20am-12:20pm, 738 Business
0:39 connection in Kwajalein
UA154 KWA-KSA 12:59pm-1:12pm, 738 Business
0:35 connection in Kosrae
UA154 KSA-PNI 1:47pm-2:50pm, 738 Business
0:41 connection in Pohnpei
UA154 PNI-TKK 3:31pm-3:43pm, 738 Business
0:37 connection in Chuuk
UA154 TKK-GUM 4:20pm-5:55pm, 738 Business
0:50 connection in Guam
UA193 GUM-ROR 6:45pm-7:55pm, 738 Business
1 night in Palau, time on ground 29:50
UA158 ROR-GUM 1:45am-4:45am, 73G Coach
2:45 connection in Guam
UA165 GUM-FUK 7:30am-10:50am, 73G Business
2:20 connection in Fukuoka
NH2144 FUK-NRT 1:10pm-3:00pm, 73G Coach
2:10 connection in Tokyo
NH1012, NRT-ORD, 5:10pm-2:45pm, 77W First
5:00 connection in Chicago
UA1037 ORD-CLE 7:45pm-10:03pm, 738 First
OK, fine. I do admit that’s an insane amount of travel compacted into just 5 days. Over 20K flown miles! Nor would it come cheap. The first section of the flights to Honolulu set us back 30K Singapore miles in lie-flat business class. The island hopper section from Honolulu all the way until Palau was 100K miles in business class, which was actually a standard award as there wasn’t a single saver business class award on the island hopper on a Monday for the entire year. I can’t remember ever using a standard award previously, but that’s what it took for this trip. And the final section from Palau to Cleveland in ANA First Class would run a whopping 110K miles.
Luckily after several HUCAs I was able to get a United.com callback agent to delete the extra connection in Fukuoka and open up award space directly from Guam to Tokyo, that would give us some 7.5 hours to try to explore Tokyo. Another callback agent was able to create the saver award space I needed on a late Chicago-Cleveland flight that would give us the time to grab some grub from Shallot’s or Milt’s on the way home. It’s all in how you phrase the question 😉
In an ideal world the trip would have taken place a couple weeks earlier or later. A couple weeks earlier and we would have been able to see Tokyo’s famous cherry blossoms and been well ahead of Palau’s rainy season. A couple weeks later and we would have been able to go to a Sumo tournament which is held over a two-week period in Tokyo every January, May, and September.
We did debate just flying in coach on the island hopper. [AJK: OK, it was me trying to convince Dan coach wouldn’t be so bad.] Coach fares to Palau are exorbitantly expensive but a hidden city fare from Honolulu to Manila via the island hopper and Palau was surprisingly inexpensive. Ultimately I nixed it as I wasn’t particularly keen on sitting in coach for 18 hours and it would be risky if the island hopper to Guam was delayed. We might have been reaccommodated on the nonstop to Manila if that happened. [AJK: A spot-on premonition as you’ll see later!]
Days before the flight AJK texted me excitedly while I was at a Cavs game with my better half that 2 first class saver award seats opened on a JAL flight from Tokyo to Chicago. The JAL flight would mean a 90 minute connection in Tokyo on a separate ticket on an airline from another alliance. American only charges 62.5K miles in first class from Japan to the USA versus 110K on United, so at first glance it was a no-brainer. However United was also throwing in the flights from Palau to Tokyo at that 110K rate, so that would mean having to shell out 12.5K United miles in coach or 25K miles in business to get to Tokyo. Ultimately we nixed the JAL option as well because we were nervous about misconnecting, wanted to check out Tokyo, and wanted to try out ANA Squares First Class.
We debated for about 5 minutes whether to bring bread with deli meats and vacuum-sealed shnitzel but decided to bring along travel meals from Pomegranate. [AJK: This time it was me telling Dan that I’d rather sit in coach for 20K miles than fly to Palau with only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Thankfully, he saw reason and relented.] We regretted that decision for exactly zero seconds. Pomegranate’s food is just ridiculously fantastic. It’s like being able to bring along a 5 star kosher restaurant to the most remote parts of the world.
Finally it was time for the big day. I left home at 4:30am Sunday morning. It would be days before I got a good night’s sleep.
I’m not usually one to save boarding passes, but I made sure to get an extra copy of all my boarding passes for this trip. The time I saved all my boarding passes was for a mileage run I did in 2006 that earned some 120,000 miles.
Welcome to CLE, JetBlue!
After an uneventful flight from Cleveland-Newark we taxied past an El Al 777:
Then it was off to the United Club to daven and meet up with AJK.
The club had the new food setup. Didn’t do much for me, but at least the corn flakes were parve:
I brought along Rafi and Talia’s favorite stuffed animals to photograph on my travels around the world. I sent the pictures back to the kids throughout the trip and they loved it!
“Da” and “Nordy” relaxing in the United Club in Newark:
While davening in the club AJK texted me that he was running late and may not make it on time. And then I turned around in the club and there he was. Always a heart-stopper that guy. [AJK: LOL. What good is an *Adventure* DO without a bit of suspense and heart-stopping action?]
United flies 767-400s from Newark and Washington DC nonstop to Honolulu with lie-flat seats in business class. United charges 40K miles, but you can book it with Singapore miles for just 30K. And you can transfer AMEX, Chase, Citi, or Starwood points to Singapore. Plus Singapore only charges $20 for a date change or $30 for a cancellation and they have no close-in booking fees. [AJK: Hour for hour this flight is a massive bargain. With a blocked flight time of 11 hours, this 30K one-way redemption comes out to be 2,700 miles per hour in lie-flat business. As a point of comparison, a flight from Newark to London in essentially the same exact seat costs more than triple, at 8,200 miles per hour.]
United 767-400 business class:
The 767-400 business class seat is from the pre-merger Continental fleet. It’s narrower and not as long as the seat from the pre-merger Continental 777-200 business class that operates on routes like Newark-Tel Aviv.
Both aircraft have small footwells except in the bulkhead. Alas the bulkheads were already full, so small footwells for us:
AJK and I had row 6 while Da and Nordy took row 7:
I wasn’t surprised that our kosher meals didn’t make it onboard. United is very hit or miss when it comes to loading the kosher meals on their Hawaii flights. The flight attendant even claimed that they no longer offered kosher meals on Hawaii routes, though that’s contradicted by United.com.
Not that it mattered. United compensated me with 10,000 miles for not having the meal. And they were more than happy to warm up the Pomegranate meals we brought onboard and those meals were a whole lot better than whatever kosher airline meal they would have served us. [AJK: And, of course, when I sought similar compensation, United told me they don’t offer Kosher meals on this particular *international* flight, you know, the international flight between New Jersey and Hawaii. Can’t make this stuff up, folks.]
I had some lip-smacking good boneless spare ribs served with popcorn cauliflower and garlic mashed potatoes. The portion of meat is a little smaller than I recall in the past, but overall it’s still a very large meal:
AJK got his ribs served with a side of grilled asparagus and basmati rice. [AJK: Simply can’t go wrong with POM’s boneless spare ribs. I’ve had ‘em a dozen times, from Kauai to New Zealand to Bali, and they never disappoint]:
United business class to Hawaii is nothing to write home about if you’ve ever flown on an international premium class flight, but it was such a weird feeling making the trip without my kids. It made me wonder what I ever found to be a hassle about traveling before kids.
There are no whiskies worth drinking even in first class on United, but we did finish off their supply of Amaretto. Mixed with Ginger Ale it’s a girly but delicious drink.
The flight did indeed have WiFi. It wasn’t fast, but it did the trick for most of the time. It’s not cheap at $16.99, but for an 11 hour flight it’s worth the price.
Finally Honolulu came into sight:
United 767-400 after landing in Honolulu
My 4 year old Rafi has been on 83 flights in his life and has a comprehensive knowledge of airplanes. He has yet to go on a double-decker and is constantly asking when I’m going to take him on an A380 or 747.
For now though, he was thrilled to skype with me once we landed and to see Da and Nordy posing with a 767:
The plan was to rent a car and rush up to the North Shore for some jetskiing near the Banzai Pipeline. My wife and I had done that on our honeymoon some 6 years ago and it was fantastic.
Alas, the forecast was not cooperating and was calling for heavy rain, so the Jetski rental place was already closing down for the day. Though it sure did seem odd to us as it was completely sunny without a threatening cloud in the sky.
I used a $30 Daily Getaway coupon at Avis and we drove off in a Camaro convertible to go checkin to the Westin Moana Surfrider. [AJK: You have never rented a car until you’ve rented a car with Dan. As an Avis Chairman, they had already upgraded Dan from a standard to a Cadillac CTS, but because the weather was beautiful, Dan asked for a convertible. The representative immediately offered the Camaro, but was absolutely ashamed that “though this car has been cleaned, it has not been prepared to the ‘Chairman standard,’ and I am sincerely sorry about that Mr. Eleff.” Unreal.]
It was 2:30pm on Sunday, so we would have to figure out what to do with the rest of the day quickly.
We were traveling with 14 Pomegranate meals. Normally I would just freeze them and put them in a regular suitcase as things stay frozen in the belly of the plane. However this trip would have too much downtime so AJK brought along ice packs and his Polar Bear Cooler, which is truly an awesome bag. [AJK: This bag is highly recommended. We’ve had stuff remain frozen on a scorching hot tarmac in Dubai for 18 hours without a hiccup. What I’ll do for POM’s boneless spare ribs in Abu Dhabi, eh?] We put it in a freezer when we could, but it did a great job making sure everything stayed frozen. And its perfectly durable to be checked in.
Alas, the Westin did not make it easy to get the bag into one of their freezers. In the past my wife and I had a much larger suitcase full of frozen food that they froze without issue, so I didn’t even think of calling to make sure they would be able to do it for this trip. There was a solid hour while various employees pushed back (liability issues, etc) until AJK took over and decided to stop being Mr. Nice Guy and somehow that unlocked all the doors. Maybe any problems I encounter when traveling only occur when I smile too much? [AJK: Step 1) be assertive, Step 2) “may I speak with your manager?” Step 3) … Step 4) Profit.]
As a Starwood Platinum they upgraded us to an oceanfront room:
With our daylight hours dwindling, we decided to drive to Hanauma Bay for some snorkeling. Hanauma Bay is overcrowded, has beat up coral, and you need to watch a video on the preserve beforehand, but it’s close to Waikiki and it has a ton of sealife. My first time snorkeling was at Hanauma Bay in 2006 when I went to Hawaii for the first time on a Northwest $87 airfare+hotel glitch. On that 48 hour trip we hiked Diamond Head, hiked to Manoa Falls, paid our respects at Pearl Harbor, snorkeled, and drove all around the island.
I fell in love with snorkeling back then, though I’ve been spoiled by incredible snorkeling in Kauai, Maui, and the Maldives since then.
By the time we sat through the Hanauma Bay video presentation it was 4:30. And although I checked that the park was open until 6, we learned that the snorkel rental office closes at 4:45. Bummer.
So we hopped back into the convertible and decided to make the most of it by just driving along the beautiful coastline until perhaps Kailua, before checking out the stunning H3 road.
Kailua brought back memories of the awesome kayak trip Mimi and I took during our 4 week honeymoon around 4 Hawaiian islands. We had a kayak tied on top of our convertible, drove off to the launching point, and kayaked to a sandbar in middle of the ocean where we had a picnic. Oahu gets a bad rap because the outer islands are much less touristy and much more beautiful. But Oahu has plenty to offer as long as you get out of Honolulu. The problem is that most people never do leave Honolulu.
So we started driving and we got out around the corner at Lanai lookout:
AJK snapping away:
After getting back into the convertible at about 6pm the skies darkened and the rain started pouring. Clearly this was not our day. [AJK: Though I still don’t understand why we couldn’t jetski from 3:00 PM to 7:00 PM. Sissies.] We did learn something interesting though. As long as you’re driving, you won’t get even a drop of rain on you in the front seats of a convertible. But as soon as we stopped we really got drenched so we stopped to a 7-Eleven to put up the roof. AJK picked up a Reese’s Peanut Butter Bar for himself and some chips for me. There aren’t many times in my life when I’ve felt deprived by only eating cholov yisroel products, but this was one of them 😉
There wasn’t much point driving around the island in the heavy downpour, so we went back to the hotel.
Pomegranate offers their travel meals in microwave or oven packaging. We didn’t know which meals we would want when, so we just had them all in oven packaging. They taste far superior in the oven and that way they can heat them up on the plane.
But that meant attempting to get the Westin to heat up 2 of our meals. AJK’s law background once again came in handy here as he assured them that there would be no liability risks of them heating up our meals…[AJK: Step 1) Speak with confidence, Step 2) Feign superior knowledge, Step 3) …, Step 4) Profit.]
The instructions say to defrost the meal and warm for 20 minutes. These meals were rock solid, so we had them heat them up for an hour, which came out to be perfect. If the meals aren’t hot to the touch then they need to be cooked longer.
So we took a stroll around the property.
Westin Moana Surfrider:
Then we walked down Kalakaua Ave, the main drag in Waikiki. It never ceases to amaze me how many Japanese tourists there are in Honolulu, though I guess it makes sense given that I came from further away than they did. It is odd going to Pearl Harbor and being heavily outnumbered by Japanese tourists. The Japanese buses and trolleys going down Kalakaua Ave are a sight to see. For some reason they haven’t yet discovered the other Hawaiian islands en-masse. Go figure.
Random fountain on Kalakaua Ave:
After an hour we went back to claim our meals. AJK went up to the room to grab some cutlery so I put down my camera bag on a nearby table, got the meals, walked back to the table.
And the camera bag was gone.
The table was a whole 10 feet away from where I got the meals and somehow someone had managed to swipe the bag and with it all of the pictures I took that day.
I felt the bottom of my stomach just fall out.
Frantically I ran to the front and to the back of the hotel, but everything is wide open. I asked the Maitre D’ if there was video surveillance but they claimed there was not in the area where I was.
And then a minute later the Maitre D’ came running over to me saying that a waiter had my bag. I was beyond grateful and didn’t even care to ask what exactly had happened.
After several deep breaths I was back into island mode and ready to dig into an awesome Chicken Marsala dinner topped off with incredible sautéed onion mashed potatoes:
AJK had a Southwestern Chicken Cutlet with mushroom rice. The cloest thing I can compare it to is the Steak au poivre that Le Marais makes so well. Peppercorn encrusted fried chicken that was just ridiculously good [AJK: Another must-get item from POM]:
With a full stomach, all of my queasiness of the thought of losing my mirrorless camera and the pictures had gone away. We went back up to the room and turned in for a short night’s sleep. We had a flight to catch at 7:20am in the morning on a tour of the Pacific islands all the way to Palau.
Had we known what was going to happen the next day we may have skipped the room and headed straight to the airport for the red-eye flight back to Newark.
To be continued…