In August I took a last-minute, whirlwind solo getaway to Kona, Hawaii for a couple nights, using some of the best points and miles sweet spots to make it easy on the wallet. To start things off, I booked a one-way ticket using just 7,500 Turkish Airlines Miles & Smiles to fly a United economy itinerary between the mainland U.S. and Hawaii. This is one of the most phenomenal sweet spots out there, and part of the impetus for booking the trip was simply to see just how easy this is.
Turns out, it is plenty easy over the phone. At least it was. Turkish has been having some issues with ticketing Star Alliance partner awards, and I’m not sure if things are resolved yet. Once they are, you can totally book the same award for just as cheap!
Typically, I would not end up in the exit row on this award, as the exit row is technically United Economy Plus. However, there is a little “trick” you can pull when you’ve ticketed a partner award. I’m a United Premier Silver, and by calling United to add my MileagePlus number to the reservation instead of my Turkish Miles & Smiles number, I would receive all the benefits of being a United elite.
This includes being able to select Economy Plus seating at check-in, which is exactly what I did. The exit row was completely empty when I checked in, so I suddenly found myself flying United 737-900 exit row Economy Plus from San Francisco to Hawaii. Hello, extra legroom.
Connection at SFO and Boarding
The itinerary wasn’t just from San Francisco to Kona, however. I started my day at our local Arcata-Eureka airport, making the hop down to SFO. The layover wasn’t long, and I had to make my way from Concourse F to Concourse E. There wasn’t time to use my Prioirty Pass membership for lunch at Yankee Pier before boarding the flight to Kona from Gate 64. Would’ve been nice one last time before I canceled my Chase Sapphire Reserve.
Up until nearly the time of the departure, there didn’t appear to be anyone next to me. I routinely checked the seat map. However, the exit row completely filled just before boarding began. Too bad, as it would have made for an even more comfortable ride to Hawaii.
I’d made sure to grab a decent jacket for the trip, just in case it gets cold in the United 737-900 exit row. I’ve only flown exit row seating two or three other times. In one instance, the exit row got quite cold, and I regretted the seat choice.
There didn’t seem to be a large number of Premier members on this flight, at least based on the number of folks in Group 2 boarding. I like boarding early, but it is certainly not a perk I would pay for strictly for the satisfaction of stowing my carry-on with ease and getting to wait patiently as everyone else makes their way aboard.
United 737-900 Exit Row Seat
United 737-900 exit row seating is sold as Economy Plus, as it offers 3-4″ of additional pitch. However the seats do not recline. This makes the other Economy Plus seating a bit more appealing, especially for a longer flight.
Each seat had a blanket at it. This is solidly a daytime flight, so I suspected few people would want to sleep. But it’s also a nearly 5.5 haul to Hawaii. Also, if the exit row gets cold, it will be needed.
Even though I was headed to balmy Hawaii, I made sure I brought a decent jacket for the flight. The seat back pockets are a bit small, and the net of my seat back pocket had partially pulled out, resulting in a hole in the side and bottom. But it still managed to hold both my chargers.
One of the issues with booking a United 737-900 exit row window seat is the awkward arm rest. It more an elbow rest and a hand rest. There isn’t a true arm rest at the window, as this would interfere with operation of the door.
Our United 737-900 had seat-back screens. I ended up working and writing the bulk of the time, so I didn’t use it at all.
Taxiing and Departing SFO
It was an utterly lovely morning at San Francisco International. While I have gripes about the airport in operational terms (haze and fog wreak havoc), I can honestly say that I love spending time here. Every time. Terminal 3 and Terminal G are by far my favorite, as you can transfer between the two post-security and see all the United and Star Alliance partner aircraft.
But I didn’t have time for that this time around. But there were nice views out my window seat. An over-wing exit row seat obviously gives you that nice “wing view” at all times.
Unexpectedly, we ended up taxiing to runway 28L for takeoff, crossing the other runways. I’ve only taken off from here in wide-body aircraft. Most takeoffs happen from runways 1L and 1R under normal operations.
We ended up being held at the end of the runway, waiting for several planes to land. The total wait time was well over 15 minutes. I didn’t mind. It was cool to see the aircraft on approach.
Finally, we took off, banking to the west, which gave the right side of the plane lovely views of San Francisco in the distance.
United 737-900 Hawaii Flight Service
There isn’t much different about United’s service on their flights to Hawaii versus domestic service. There are a couple extra beverage options, including a Mai Tai and sparkling wine. I didn’t realize United doesn’t carry sparkling wine on all flights. I know Delta does, and it is one of my typical choices.
Since the flight departed before 9:44 AM, we were stocked with breakfast food. Illy coffee and a stroopwafel it was. The stroopwafel is the best in-flight snack offered by domestic airlines, in my opinion.
One unexpected item was the Hawaii Department of Agriculture form. You just fill this out before landing, declaring plant and animal products. I was completely unaware of this before this flight. But it makes sense, given the islands’ unique and sensitive ecology.
I opted not to order any food in flight, figuring I’d eat lunch soon after landing. United offered a second beverage service about 75 minutes before arrival.
As I ended up working for a bit, I did check out the WiFi options. The pricing is misleading. As we hit 10,000 feet, I opened my laptop to see what it would cost for a 5-hour flight. At first I thought this was the best bargain I’d ever seen in terms of internet pricing, other than free.
However, “full flight” is a bit misleading. You actually move out of internet range rather quickly. The note above is key. Once you’re over the wide expanse of the Pacific, the signal drops completely.
Arrival into Kona
My first glimpse of the Hawaiian Islands was surreal. It was crazy to finally be here, even for as short as the trip would be. There was just one issue: I’d picked the wrong side of the plane. The southern coast (what I assumed I was looking at) didn’t look like what I was expecting. And it certainly wasn’t as *big* as I expected the Big Island to be.
When we banked left, I realized my error: that was Maui. Should’ve had that flight tracker on. I was left staring at ocean instead of at the island for the rest of the descent and landing at KOA. Knowing the elevation of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, I knew we’d have to approach around one side or other of the island. Given that the typical approach is from the north, the left side of the plane is better if you want views of Hawaii as you descend.
Finally, we touched down at Kona airport!
I was initially surprised to see this JAL 767 sitting at KOA. I know there is a lot of Japanese tourism to Hawaii, but I had no idea that JAL flew nonstop to anywhere except Honolulu. This is one to keep in the back of my mind, as the KOA-NRT hop clocks in at just under 4,000 miles. Might be an interesting option using Avios if you want to combine Hawaii and Japan in a trip.
Goodbye, United 737-900. I couldn’t have asked for a better deal, flying a total of ~2,600 miles over 8 hours for just 7,500 Citi ThankYou points.
Kona airport is one of the most unique I’ve visited. It’s mostly open-air, with few enclosed shops. Most of these even had their doors completely open. There is enough roof structure to cover walkways and paths through the airport, in case it rains. I guess this is what’s possible when your weather is perfect all the time?
Now I’m off to enjoy that perfect weather for two short days! Glad they have that English translation. My Hawaiian vocabulary is near zero.
United 737-900 exit row is essentially what I expected it to be: the same 3-4″ of extra legroom as United’s Economy Plus seating, but with no recline. I was in the forward exit row, and there is another exit row behind. The rear over-wing exit row seats should recline. United doesn’t offer any other real perks in Economy Plus. The exit row window seat got a bit cool, but not to the level I was expecting.
The service and snacks were the standard I’ve come to expect flying United mainline: nothing special, aside from a delicious stroopwafel. No complaints, but nothing to write about.
The main takeaways from the experience for me are the fact that you can book this for just 7,500 Miles & Smiles and that you can add your MileagePlus number to enjoy all the perks of status on the reservation. That alone makes it a win.