America’s Best AvGeek Flights: The United Island Hopper And Alaska Milk Run

There are many reasons I like to get on planes, including that I love to visit new places, I love to try new airlines, and I’m also just an aviation geek who loves being on planes. Regardless of where I’m going or what airplane I’m on, the wonder of flight is never lost on me. Aviation is an amazing thing.

As far as flights within the U.S. go, I think there are two routes in particular that only an aviation geek would ever voluntarily take from start to finish. I’m specifically talking about United’s island hopper and Alaska’s milk run. My goal is to fly on both of these in 2017. For those of you not familiar with either of them, I figured I’d cover the basics.

United’s Island Hopper

United operates daily nonstop flights between Honolulu and Guam, though for those a bit more adventurous, there’s another way to go, which isn’t quite as direct. United operates 3x weekly flights between Honolulu and Guam with five stops.

While the nonstop flight is operated by a 777 and takes under eight hours, this flight is operated by a 737 and takes nearly 15 hours. It makes stops in the Majuro Atoll, Kwajalein Atoll, Kosrae Island, Pohnpei, and Weno Island. Each stop is for only 35-45 minutes.

island-hopper

Obviously the flight is intended primarily for those looking to get off on one of those islands and to serve those local communities, though a few crazy people enjoy going all the way on this flight.

An economy award on this flight costs just 25,000 United miles. Unfortunately business class award space is rarely available at the saver level. Of course this flight isn’t about luxury, but rather about taking in the views of several small islands you might not ever otherwise visit.

united-award

Alaska’s Milk Run

Alaska operates several “milk runs.” This refers to  Alaska’s flights that connect small communities in Southeast Alaska. Historically it’s called the “milk run” because it would deliver important supplies to these communities, including milk.

For those in the lower 48, the most practical one of these flights to take is from Seattle to Juneau, as it operates via Ketchikan Wrangell, and Petersburg. Some of those flights are just 30 miles, and circle around glaciers.

alaska-milk-run

Or if you want to fly one exclusively within Alaska, you can fly from Anchorage to Ketchikan via Juneau, Petersburg, and Wrangell.

ktn-anc

All of these flights are a great deal using miles — you can redeem just 7,500-10,000 Alaska miles for a one-way ticket on these flights, and as an elite member you’re even eligible for a complimentary upgrade (though on this flight my top priority would be snagging a window seat). The flight from Anchorage to Ketchikan is typically operated by a Combi 737-400, though, meaning the front half of the plane is just a cargo hold. Meanwhile the Seattle to Juneau flight is typically operated by a 737 with first class.

as

as1

Bottom line

Taking these flights from start to finish is almost like taking a flightseeing trip, based on what I’ve seen. The views on both routes should be incredible, not to mention these are largely communities you wouldn’t otherwise be likely to visit.

With United it’s tough to do a stopover at one of the intermediate points, since it breaks the fare and also the flight only operates 3x per week. However, with Alaska you could do a stopover in one of those cities at no extra cost, though frankly accommodations are probably limited around a couple of those airports.

Have you done either the United island hopper or Alaska milk run? Anyone as intrigued by these flights as I am? Any other similar flights around the world that I’m missing?

About lucky

Ben Schlappig (aka Lucky) is a travel consultant, blogger, and avid points collector. He travels about 400,000 miles a year, primarily using miles and points to fund his first class experiences. He chronicles his adventures, along with industry news, here at One Mile At A Time.

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Comments

  1. I’ve been fascinated by the Island Hopper for years, please book it. And I’d encourage you to stop off somewhere, probably at MAJ.

    And please write the trip report about Laos and Cambodia 🙂

  2. I was once booked on the Alaska milk run from Juneau to Seattle — back in my MVP Gold days in 2000 when upgrades at booking were practically automatic. This was actually a totally free set of flights, compensation from being involuntarily bumped from a flight from SPS to SFO (that I ended up actually taking, but in coach).

    I was able to get the milk run switched, though — so only had one stop between Juneau and Seattle … and then onto Portland and finally SFO.

  3. I don’t see you in economy. That’s not an avgeek who is just excited to be on, in or near a plane. You love your first class and business class. Nothing wrong with those choices, just be sure why you are making them.

    Good info.

  4. i did the island hopper east bound from Guam few months ago. Halfway through, there was an issue with UA’s global computer system so we couldn’t get the weight and balance numbers. Because of the delay we ended up overflying Kwajelein stranding people that were suppose to get on and off there. I’d recommend doing the hopper West Bound from Honolulu because most of the flight is during the day. The flight East Bound we were chasing the sunset.

    Also another Island hopper to note is the one Air France runs from Miami to Cayenne French Guiana with intermediary stops in Port Au Prince, Pointe-à-Pitre, and Fort-de-France (FDF)

  5. This is very interesting. Thanks

    Would you be able to put together a list of other similar flights around the world? Maybe even start a new section 🙂

    -H.

  6. I’ve taken both of these. As a revenue ticket, you can book SFO-HNL-hopper-GUM-Japan-SFO for the same price as a simple round trip to Japan and have 23 hr layovers in HNL and GUM. The destination in Japan doesn’t have to be Tokyo.

    If I were to stopover on the hopper, I’d make it MAJ, which is a true atoll. KWA is the largest atoll in the world but it is a military base and you cannot stopover there, in fact you are not supposed to open the window blinds. The other islands are volcanic. Seeing the atolls from the air is an awesome experience.

    The Alaska milk run south from JNU stops at SIT (or at least it did when I took it) and I’d say that is the most interesting of the towns to stopover.

  7. I’ve done the island hopper and stayed for a few days in Pohnpei. It is a wonderful and beautiful place. I’d highly recommend it.

  8. I’ve done the UA island hopper – though note that on Wednesday – the flight skips KSA. It’s best to do the flight from HNL to GUM and not the other way around. If possible, try to get the first row of economy, as the mechanic sits in 7C starting in Majuro (to account for any issues). The mechanic was a riot and great to chat with for the 14+hour journey.

    While an extremely long day – it was an awesome trip! Some amazing views. Some views are better on the right vs. the left.

    Upgrades can be a bit hard on this route as inventory has to all be open for it to clear. Please row 1 and 2 are blocked for pilot crew rest (4 pilots rotating and cabin crew fly the entire duration), which further reduces the seats.

    There are some cool treats (fish jerky of some sort) you can pick up in Majuro at the little stand.

    Lastly – HNL to GUM fares are RIDICULOUS as there is no competition. Consider doing HNL to Tokyo, and overnighting in Guam, which should be a somewhat more reasonable fare in coach.

    Have a great trip!

  9. United’s Micronesia route has been in my mind all this year…I almost booked it but like you said stopping is harder in terms of fares. I just did a Fiji Airways from HNL to NAN stopping in Christmas Island, Kiribati last week (look up CXI airport. It’s…interesting) and that got UA’s route back in my mind.

    Do it Ben!

    And take me with you 😀

  10. @Rico, I’m on that HNL-CXI-NAN flight in a couple of weeks time. What side of the plane is it best to sit on (and can you switch seats between the two legs), and what were you able to do in CXI?

  11. I used United miles to book the following in June…..

    EWR-HNL(18 hours)-MAJ(2 days)-KWA-KSA-PNI(2 days)-TKK-GUM-ROR(3 days)-MNL(7 days)-EWR

    Would love to overlap with you!

  12. @Grumpy , unfortunately I didn’t stay in Kiribati. I was in a hurry to get to SYD by Christmas so stayed in NAN for a couple days. I was seating on port side and had amazing views as we approached CXI. Starboard seemed to be better for takeoff as one could have one last peak at the island. I would try to get different seats while checking in at HNL because flight attendants emphasized on remaining on your allocated seat for takeoff and landing.

  13. @Lucky, sorry am I misunderstanding something? You said SEA-JNU has first class, while ANC-KTN doesn’t, but that’s not what’s showing on your awards chart. Just curious because the milk run sounds awesome! Thanks for all your great posts!

  14. Happy New Year Lucky! I have taken the Island Hopper from GUM-HNL and HNL-GUM several times in my life. Was able to fly when Air Mike operated it with their 727s and then with the current 738s. On the west bound HNL-GUM we used to make a stop on Johnston Atoll before continuing to MAJ, but that was eliminated in the early 2000’s. You’re right, it’s a fascinating experience for any aviation geek out there. I have found flying HNL-GUM is easier than GUM-HNL as you’re flying with the sun west bound. I hope you get to document your experience one day on your blog. The experience will not disappoint you. Happy flying!

  15. I was fortunate enough to fly the old Air Micronesia island hoppers starting in the 70s through the 80s-90s.
    In fact we were on PNI Pohnpei on the 9/11 tragedy date. Spent 5 more days in paradise at the old Village Hotel- now gone like so many other good things from early Micronesia travels. I was a commercial photographer involved in the first program to attract tourists. “MORE ISLANDS THAN TOURISTS” and in those days it was true.. Wonderful memories and photos of a very special place. My favorite islands were Pohnpei and Kosrae. And do not forget the leg from Guam South to Yap and Palau- another new world on both islands..
    A great journey…

  16. You missed two stops! The “milk run” from Juneau to Anchorage includes stops in Yakutat and Cordova.
    Having lived in Alaska for 45+ years, I wouldn’t willingly take the milk run. The southeast milk run you can often find available as the lowest price mileage ticket. The best flight is from Cordova to Petersburg. My recollection from the last time I took this flight is that we reached 7,000 feet altitude before we started “down”.

  17. While working for the US Navy in Guam, I too have taken the cross-pacific island hopper, once via Air Mike (Air Micronesia) later on Continental. It was interesting and I liked it, but it is not a route to be repeated often. I took it from curiosity, interest and also to avoid the jam-packed HNL-GUM non-stop.

    According to US cabotage regulations, persons directly employed by U.S. government agencies are required to fly only US airlines within the US if it is at all possible. That makes the once a day flight from Guam (US territory) to Honolulu and vv, almost invariably filled. It is a long 8 hour flight in crowded coach. For many, that flight is followed by five hours on to LAX or ten to New York, or complicated variations to Washington. And yes, the fares were breath-taking.

    Thank heaven my employment did not catch me in that net. Any sane person able to do so, avoids the non-stop to/from Honolulu. Instead he/she flies 3.5 hours to Japan where 22 cities have non-stop flights to/from Japan/Guam. From Japan there are connections to many direct choices on the mainland US. There are also non-stop flights from Guam to Taipei, Manila and Seoul. In the Continental days there was a non-stop to Bali.

    The islands and atolls scattered across the Pacific are not examples of a tropical paradise. They are often most beautiful from the air. It is Majuro, if memory serves, that had a runway crowded on either side with gigantic bags of garbage (the size of wedding marquee tents) awaiting the once a year barge which picks them up to haul to some other unfortunate location.

    Please be aware that my experience(s) are more than 10 years out of date.

  18. I flew the HNL – GUM island route 30 years ago when it was operated by Continental. It was a 727 then. We stopped at all of the stops they do now except instead of KSA the Continental flight stopped at Johnston Island, a small atoll 700 miles or so from Hawaii, which at that time was a storage site for US chemical and perhaps nuclear weapons. You had to be military with orders to get off there.

    Most of the passengers were from the islands. It was a long time ago but I swear that some of them brought chickens and maybe small pigs onboard in cages. Not much difference really from dogs and other critters some Americans fly with today.

    This island hopper flight shows just how much the US is invested in the Pacific even though most Americans are totally ignorant of our interests and obligations there. After WWII, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau became independent sovereign nations in “free association” with the United States which became solely responsible for their defense and certain social services (air service I bet is one of these and the US government probably subsidises the flights). The Northern Marianas is a US Commonwealth. Guam, of course, is a US territory and the residents are US citizens. In the Iraq War Guam had the highest per capita casualty rate of any US state or territory. There are numerous other US territories, unincorporated territories and possessions in the Pacific Ocean. Look it up. Many will be surprised.

    Note to anyone planning on spending time on Guam or the Northern Marianas: brush up on your Japanese.

  19. @Billy has it right – I just checked some random dates in Sept ’17 and for a one way HNL-GUM it’s around 1300 in coach. Make it a multi-city tho (with 2 nights in GUM) that goes HNL-GUM-NRT and it’s about 650!

  20. Took the Caribbean island hopper on Air France to Cayenne a few years ago – definitely worth it. There are stops in Port au Prince, Guadaloupe and Martinique before finally arriving in French Guyana. It’s an incredible value when booked with Czech OK Bonus points ex-Miami (although also a good deal with Flying Blue points), and you absolutely cannot miss the European Space Agency’s spaceport in Korou.

  21. Awesome piece Ben, thanks for the info. This is something that I will do, it sure sounds like it would be fun!

  22. I first flew Seattle to Juneau on Alaska Airlines in September 1972.

    It’s good that some things don’t change.

  23. I too have flown the HNL-GUM island hopper with 4 days in MAJ this past May. Great experiences on the hopper, unfortunately the lens was out of alignment on my SLR and I ended up having to toss all the photos not taken with my iPhone – incredibly disappointing. It’s a long day of flying even from MAJ, I would recommend breaking it up at some point if you want to spend a day or two in MAJ, KSA, PNI, or TKK… although good luck finding any sort of luxury anything in any of those places… most of the restaurants in MAJ were highly suspect to this health inspector. That said I ate whatever I wanted and didn’t get sick, but the closest thing to luxury I saw was equivalent to a holiday inn or so. The Robert Reimers Resort has very nice beachfront bungalows, but the beach is on the atoll side and of limited use. The Marshall Islands resort is perfectly acceptable but again, not luxury. Both hotels will pick up and drop off from the airport for a small fee – worth it since cabs do not regularly go to the airport.

    The locals were all incredibly friendly, and we were able to tour the courthouse, parliament, coconut processing facility, and the highlight for me was visiting the diesel electric power plant for the atoll. Very much unlike in the US, a polite phone call admitted us to anything we asked and everyone was more than happy to oblige.

  24. I too took the island hopper in Feb of this year. (In fact, I crossed the Pacific from Shanghai to Phoenix entirely in narrow-body aircraft.) It’s worth doing at least once in your life, but I wouldn’t repeat it too often as it really is a very draining experience. The worst was probably watching the first 30 minutes of The Intern each time we took off…

    Contrary to what others may have said, the eastbound direction from Guam to HNL is just fine. All of it is in daylight except Majuro, where you’ll catch the last bit of sunset. I believe sunset times at those latitudes don’t differ much during the year.

    The biggest concern in my opinion, is not the direction of travel, but the unpredictability of so many segments on such a long ride. Fortunately I didn’t run into any mechanical problems like some of the earlier posters, but I did have to give up my chosen window seat on the last segment because a disabled passenger was blocking the aisle. Also, takeoff and landing direction vary so it’s hard to predict what you’ll see. For example, I didn’t see anything but water and the golf course at KWA because I was on the wrong side of the aircraft (even though I had specifically pre-selected different seats for each segment based on what I had read online). In hindsight, there wasn’t much I could have done in advance to prevent these problems. It could have been a lot worse had I gotten stranded on the islands.

    Overall though, still a experience I recommend, if only to do it once.

  25. Hey Lucky,

    UA island hopping is on my bucket list for years, while Alaska milk run is fresh to me.
    I’m thinking of make it real in Aug or Dec in 2017, hope I am lucky to get awardseats 😀

  26. This is timely, I only yesterday concluded I can’t afford to do the island hopper 🙂 Look forward to hearing about it. Also, can you make a note of what snacks are at the snack bar in MAJ, as this was the subject of conversation between me and my other half before concluding we can’t afford it! He was saying there’s no way likely to be anything veggie. I’m inclined to agree.

  27. I flew the west bound Pacific island hopper last August and the 738 ran into mechanical problems. Before taking off at KSA, we noticed water leak from overhead cabin above 7A. The mechanic sitting in 7C checked it out OK and the flight continued. However, after arriving at PNI, everybody was asked to deplane. After waiting for 2 hours in the terminal, the ground agent announced the plane could not go on and United would send another plane from Guam to pick us up, which caused a delay of 8 hours.

    What’s worse for me was that my itinerary was to connect to Palau in Guam, so I would miss my flight. I came up to the PNI ground agent for rebooking and was amazed how efficient she could reroute me to NRT from GUM the next day. I commended on her efficiency and she said “Well, I do this very often. It happens a lot.” The silver lining was that PNI was the only airport in this route that offered free Wi-Fi, and the speed was decent. T-Mobile users can make international roaming Wi-Fi calls for free!

  28. Australia, being sparse of population and generous in acreage (or hectarage, as we would say), has a number of turbo-prop-operated ‘milk runs’.

    Jacob Pfleger of Airline Reporter has reviewed two of these:
    – Airnorth’s (http://www.airnorth.com.au/) central Australian service on an Embraer E120 Brasilia (http://www.airlinereporter.com/2016/02/flying-airnorth-centre-run-brasilia/)
    – the Regional Express (REX: http://www.rex.com.au) outback Queensland run: SEVEN sectors on a SAAB 340 (http://www.airlinereporter.com/2016/12/true-aussie-milk-run/)

    I’ve only flown on a few sectors of these runs, but they provide a fascinating insight into the culture of outback Australia, and routinely offer superb views given the low flight altitudes and generally favourable weather. Just remember to bring some earplugs (and/or noise cancelling headphones . . .).

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