Far past Hawaii, in the western reaches of the Pacific Ocean, United Airlines flies Boeing 737s between small airports on tiny islands. The flights hop from isle to isle, each emerging from vast warm aquamarine waters. This service, a legacy of World War II aftermath, is known affectionately as the Island Hopper.
Micronesia is a vast expanse of tiny tropical islands sparsely dotting the western and central Pacific. The nations that comprise Micronesia are in the top 10 least visited countries in the world. They are hidden gems off the beaten track, and are surprisingly easy to get to using the Island Hopper. Deserted white sand beaches, vibrant coral reefs, and lost ancient cities await the intrepid travelers who make the long journey.
You can easily use credit card points or frequent flyer miles to visit.
After World War II, the United States administered the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia until they became independent nations. United inherited airplane routes from Continental Micronesia, which began serving the islands in 1968.
The Island Hopper is one of the most aspirational flights in the world for aviation fans. United’s service, inherited from Continental Micronesia during the United-Continental merger, makes five stops in the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia:
- Majuro (MAJ),
- Kwajalein (KWA)
- Kosrae (KSA)
- Pohnpei (PNI)
- Chuuk (TKK)
The flights are a lifeline to many of the islands, providing the only reliable connection to the outside world.
My mom lived in the Marshall Islands in the late 1960s, and she flew the ’Hopper in it’s very first year of operation. I grew up hearing captivating tales from her time in the Pacific, and my house was filled with intricate handmade handicrafts. I’ve long been fascinated by this route and the islands even before I became an avgeek.
I wanted to visit this alluring place of my mother’s childhood. And, of course, I wanted to use miles to do it.
Booking the Island Hopper with Points and Miles
United’s Island Hopper is expensive, but it’s very easy to find space using points and miles. Pretty much every major transferrable travel rewards credit card — Chase Sapphire Preferred and Reserve, American Express Platinum and Gold, Citi ThankYou Premier and Capital One Venture — provides points that can be used to book Island Hopper flights.
My island hopper flight is part of an incredible 12-stop itinerary. Get ready for it: DCA-SFO-HNL-MAJ-KWA-KSA-PNI-TKK-GUM-ROR-ICN-SEA-IAD.
I had a tough time deciding which islands to visit. If time weren’t an issue I would have visited all of them.
In the end, I settled on Majuro, Pohnpei, and Koror.
Summary of the Islands
Majuro (MAJ): My mother was a peace corps volunteer in the Marshall Islands, so that was why I selected Majuro (MAJ). I will also travel by boat to nearby Arno atoll, since Majuro atoll is more urbanized, so I will also travel by boat to nearby Arno atoll to escape the more crowded urban center.
Kwajalein (KWA): Also in the Marshall Islands, Kwajalein is an active US military base, so only members of the armed forces are allowed to disembark at this stop. Some flights from Majuro to Kosrae skip Kwajalein.
Kosrae (KSA): While Kosrae looks like an incredible paradise, the ’Hopper sometime skips the island and instead goes directly from Kwajalein to Pohnpei.
Those looking to do the “complete” Island Hopper must check that their itinerary stops in all islands. Many do not.
Pohnpei (PNI): Home to Nan Madol, Pohnpei a UNESCO world heritage site that features archaeological ruins of an abandoned city. This could be dubbed “the Venice of the Pacific.”
Chuuk (TKK): One of the best places in the world for wreck diving, as many ships and planes crashed into Chuuk lagoon during World War II.
Guam (GUM): This U.S. territory, is the largest island in Micronesia. It’s also the terminus of the official island hopper route. I am just making a connection here to Palau.
Palau (ROR): Another diving mecca. The most famous attraction here is Jellyfish Lake, where until recently you could swim in a freshwater lake with millions of stingless jellyfish. However, the jellyfish have mostly disappeared, and tourists were prohibited from visiting the lake for over a year. The rest of Palau’s diving still looks amazing but what’s happened at Jellyfish Lake is a shame.
From Palau, I will fly back to DC, with a long enough layover in Seoul to quickly check out a the city for the first time. My Palau to Seoul to Seattle flights are booked on Star Alliance partner Asiana, and I continue on United to Washington Dulles.
Booking the Island Hopper
Given that United is the only operator, United MileagePlus is the easiest way to book an award. A round-trip mileage award from the mainland costs 70,000 miles economy, 160,000 miles business class, round-trip. Jumping off from Honolulu, the Island Hopper costs 55,000 miles in economy, and 90,000 miles in first class, at the Saver level.
Paying outright for my flights would have cost $2,500 in economy. This otherwise pricy trip makes for a very good use of miles, at 3.5 cents per mile.
Award availability varies by class of service and individual segment. In business, availability seems ok for some legs and almost nonexistent on others. For example, business on the HNL-MAJ segment is available on over one-third of dates in February. On the other hand, no business class seats are available on the PNI-TKK segment that same month.
In economy, Saver seats are available almost every single day.
The economy award chart above is showing days from Hawaii to Majuro with availability for nine people! That’s a remarkable abundance of saver seats on just about any route, no less one that United operates exclusively.
How about flying yourself and eight loved ones to the Marshall Islands for Valentine’s Day?
With current availability, finding award seats between the continental U.S. and Hawaii may be harder than for the actual island hopper itself.
Note: Not All Guam Flights Are Island Hopper Flights
When selecting a flight to Guam, you need to check if you are on the nonstop flight or the island hopper. The island hopper is flight number UA154 westbound and UA155 eastbound.
Similarly, if you book a flight to Majuro, check that you are on the nonstop flight if you want to get there sooner. Otherwise, you could accidentally get routed HNL-GUM and then take the eastward island hopper flight, which will add a lot of time — 29.5 hours instead of just over 5!
Stopovers and open jaws
United MileagePlus allows one stopover (called an excursionist perk) and one open jaw on a round trip itinerary. So you could fly a round trip from the continental US to Majuro and book an Excursionist Perk flight to Pohnpei, for example.
United’s multi-city tool makes it easy to add an excursionist stop or op
en jaw to the island hopper. In my case, I have one stopover (MAJ) and one open jaw (arriving in PNI, departing from ROR), all in economy.
The DCA-MAJ segment is costs 35,000 miles, the ROR-IAD segment is 35,000 miles, and the MAJ-PNI segment is 0 miles because of the United excursionist perk.
Booking individual segments
In my trip, I wanted more than one stopover. I wanted to fly round-trip from Washington DC, stopping in Majuro, Pohnpei, and Koror, Palau. Palau isn’t part of the official island hopper, but United flies there from its Guam hub. Therefore, I had to book a separate segment from PNI-ROR to complete my itinerary.
For short-haul segments under 800 miles in Oceania, United charges 8,000 miles in economy. Segments over 800 miles cost 12,500 miles. Here is PNI-TKK in February. As you can see, availability in economy is outstanding. For business, not a single day has saver awards available.
Also, there are no taxes on award flights within the Federated States of Micronesia. When was the last time you paid for a flight with just miles and no taxes or fees?
For flights over 800 miles in Oceania, United charges 12,500 in economy and 20,000 for the mythical unicorn business saver award.
Booking with Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
I didn’t have enough United miles for another booking, so I used Singapore KrisFlyer miles to book Pohnpei (PNI) to Palau (ROR). This flight would cost 12,500 United or Singapore miles.
So I went to Singapore’s website to book PNI-ROR.
Singapore’s website initially mispriced the award at 45,000 miles.
After I clicked on “45,000 miles,” the price reverted to 12,500 miles and SPD 150.80. These are the correct taxes, and almost all of it is the Palau Pristine Paradise Environmental Entrance Fee.
When I went to pay, none of my credit cards were accepted.
I called the Singapore Airlines phone booking center. The conversation went like this:
Me: “Hello, I’d like to book a saver economy award from Pohnpei to Palau. Your website won’t accept any of my credit cards, possibly because it initially misprices the award. May I book this over the phone and not pay the phone booking fee?”
Agent: “No problem. That will cost 12,500 miles and SPD 240.”
Me: Those aren’t the correct taxes. It should be around $150. Your website correctly charges the taxes and fees, it just won’t accept my payment. Could you please check?”
Agent: “I will have to check with the manager. Can you please call back tomorrow? I have placed a reservation on hold for you and emailed your confirmation number to you.”
First, I tried hanging up and calling again a few times. But I got the same response each time, but somehow every time I would call, the taxes would be too high, but different. One agent quoted me $197. Another $223. Another agent $240. I mean, the exchange rate causes a little fluctuation, but not that much!
I also now have the Singapore Airlines phone hold music stuck in my head.
The problem resolved itself a few days later when a manager correctly calculated taxes and fees and charged me over the phone. One of the issues was that agents were charging a fuel surcharge on the award, but Singapore shouldn’t do that on United tickets.
All the agents I spoke with at Singapore though, regardless of pricing issues, were very courteous and actually seemed interested in helping me, which I can’t say the same about many other airlines.
Another interesting note is that Singapore classifies Micronesia as “North Asia 2” under KrisFlyer, whereas United considers these regions to be “Oceania.” A coach flight from China to Micronesia will cost 17,500 United miles, but just 12,500 Singapore miles.
Upshot – An Incredible Value!
United’s Island Hopper is a fascinating route and fairly straightforward to book using miles. Availability is outstanding in economy class and terrible for business unless booking many months out.
I’m beyond excited to fly this route, and I will be sure to keep you guys updated about my trip! Stay tuned!