The Southwest Airlines ticket counter agent at Midway International Airport in Chicago saw the "HNL" airport code on my baggage tag and smiled.
“Ooooh, you’re my first one to Hawaii.’’ She waved the tag at the agent next to her. “Look, Honolulu.’’
No new Southwest destination has generated as much buzz in the airline’s 48-year history as its flights to Hawaii, which began March 17 with nonstop service from California.
A month after the flights debuted with fanfare including hula dancers and free leis, USA TODAY bought a Southwest ticket to Honolulu to test travelers’ newest option to the tropical paradise.
Would the Hawaii flights be different than other Southwest flights, besides being longer than most? Would it be, as some critics sneer, miserable to fly to Hawaii on a lowly Boeing 737 instead of a wide-body jet, especially without assigned seats? Would passengers be famished after the five-hour-plus flight from California given Southwest’s snacks-only food service?
Getting to California on Southwest
The last-minute tickets for a trip last week weren’t as cheap as Southwest’s teaser introductory fares or some of those nabbed by my seatmates, but at $644 round trip, it was more than reasonable during spring break thanks to the new competition.
My Southwest journey to Honolulu from Chicago took three flights, a plane change and 13 hours, compared with a (much pricier) 9 1/2 hour nonstop flight on United.
There’s no easy way to get to Hawaii on Southwest from Chicago or most cities outside the West Coast given the airline’s initial focus on nonstop flights from California. (And forget about booking a return ticket without an overnight stay in California.)
The routing: Chicago-St. Louis-Oakland-Honolulu. The Chicago-St. Louis leg was 45 minutes, followed by four hours from St. Louis to Oakland.
By the time I arrived at Oakland International Airport for Southwest’s 5:45 p.m. departure to Honolulu, I’d already taken the equivalent of an Oakland-Hawaii flight. Along the way, I’d devoured the turkey club sandwich I bought at Midway plus Southwest’s free pretzels, Oreos and Fritos, two cups of tea with a few essential oil drops (a seatmate worried I’d get sick from all the travel) and a can of Diet Dr. Pepper.
And I had another 5 hours to go.
Southwest Flight 1935 from Oakland to Honolulu
Southwest’s flights to Hawaii operate out of Gates 4 and 6 in Terminal 1 instead of the airline’s usual home in Terminal 2 in Oakland, which leads to a long walk to the gate whether you’re connecting from another Southwest flight or coming from the ticket counter. I checked one bag for free.
Gate scene: The typical zoo, with travelers lining up earlier than necessary and a snaking line of families in the family boarding line, aka the airline's flights to and from Orlando. What’s not typical: travelers snapping selfies in front of the departure board flashing Honolulu. The gate announcements have a little Hawaiian flavor: “Aloha and welcome. Make your way to Gate 6 for Southwest Flight 1935. Mahalo.”
Boarding: I checked in for my Southwest flights exactly 24 hours before departure and was thrilled to get a high boarding priority for the Oakland-Honolulu flight. (The airline famously doesn't assign seats. Seating is first come, first served.) It was good enough to score seat 16D, an aisle seat in the emergency exit row. Travelers who don’t like their boarding position can purchase upgraded boarding at the gate when available. The price was $40 per person the day of my flight.
Aside from the flight attendant wearing a plumeria flower hair clip, nothing suggested this would be anything but an ordinary Southwest flight. One of the announcements stood out and suggested a possible party atmosphere on some flights to Hawaii, where the airline sells a coconut rum drink and Hawaiian beer in addition to its regular beverage menu. “Let’s drink and enjoy, but don’t over imbibe. Remember there are children on board.’’
Before takeoff, one of the pilots on the Boeing 737-800 welcomed passengers with his own Hawaiian flair.
“In five hours and one minute we’re going to have you in Honolulu,’’ he said. “Aloha.’’
What does Southwest serve on flights to Hawaii?
In-flight food: Less than an hour into the flight, Southwest flight attendants handed out the airline’s new snack pack, offered only on Hawaii flights.
“Sit back and snack. Because we [heart] you,’’ the package says.
Inside: Wheat Thins, a tiny container of white cheddar cheese spread, Southwest’s signature pretzels, Welch’s fruit snacks, a few Tic Tacs and a wet wipe. The airline has touted the snack pack and a Milano cookie handed out before landing as a more generous offering for the longer Hawaii flights. But I felt like the free snacks were more plentiful on the shorter but still lengthy St. Louis-Oakland flight earlier that day. On that flight, passengers had their pick of Fritos, Oreos and Ritz cheese crackers and were free to take as many as they wanted when flight attendants passed by with the snack basket.
Bottom line: the Hawaii snack pack is not going to win any in-flight food awards or substitute for a meal so passengers should eat before their flight or bring food aboard.
One preflight option in Oakland, admittedly a splurge: pay $45 for unlimited food and drinks at the Escape lounge near Southwest’s Hawaii gates. I had free access through my credit card and filled up on salami, hummus, vegetables and couscous.
Southwest’s coconut rum and pineapple orange juice cocktail, which cost $7, is a nice tropical touch, and the Kona Longboard Island Lager is popular. The couple in front of me ordered a few rounds.
“I’ll start a tab and then we can settle up at the end,’’ the flight attendant told them after their second order.
In-flight entertainment: Southwest passengers flying to Hawaii, as on all Southwest flights, won’t be bored or go broke buying in-flight movies. Southwest offers free movies (passengers watch on their own devices with their own headphones), select TV series including “Chopped’’ and “Fixer Upper’’ and live TV from Dish.
I watched two movies, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,’’ a Judd Apatow rom-com set in Hawaii starring Kristen Bell, Jason Segel, Mila Kunis and Russell Brand added for the Hawaii launch, and “Molly’s Game.’’
I also bought in-flight Wi-Fi for $8 for the day, and it was surprisingly more reliable than usual. (You can’t stream though.) Another perk: free instant messaging through apps including iMessage and WhatsApp.
Comfort: Southwest touts the relatively generous legroom on its 175-seat Boeing 737-800s and I never felt squished on the packed plane. Flying to Hawaii for five hours on one of the airline’s 737s is no different than flying coast to coast on the airline, a regular occurrence for me when Southwest offered nonstop flights between Phoenix and Providence, Rhode Island, Boston and Hartford, Connecticut. The Hawaii flights aren’t even Southwest’s longest flightsthat title goes to Newark-Oakland. Travelers who can’t imagine spending five hours on a Southwest flight don’t know the airline or are used to flying in a premium cabin.
Note that Southwest isn’t the only carrier flying 737s to Hawaii from California. Alaska Airlines does and United Airlines was using the new 737 Max 9 before those planes were grounded.
Arrival in Hawaii: Our flight landed in Hawaii just before 8:30 p.m. local time, which was 1:30 a.m. Chicago time. There is no jet bridge connecting the plane to the terminalso passengers deplane down a ramp and stroll across the tarmac to the terminal. I imagine it’s a lovely introduction to Hawaii if you arrive during the day, but it was dark when we landed. Southwest flights are located in a remote area of the airport so there was a trek to baggage claim via shuttle and the bags were very slow to arrive, the only downers during a 13-hour travel day.
Hawaiian Airlines from Honolulu to Phoenix: Free meal, rum punch and pay-per-view movies
To see how Southwest’s Hawaii flights stack up against those on the hometown airline, we flew Hawaiian Airlines back to the mainland on an Airbus A330 wide-body jet.
I had to be in Phoenix for Easter so I booked Hawaiian Airlines’ 6-hour nonstop flight from Honolulu to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, an 11 a.m. departure that arrives in Phoenix at 8 p.m. local time. I often recommend Hawaiian to first-time Hawaii visitors, even when it costs more, because it feels like vacation as soon as you board. My kids still talk about the guava juice they serve.
Hawaiian Flight 35 from Honolulu to Phoenix departed from Gate C1, a long walk or free shuttle ride from check in. I paid $30 at the skycap check in for one bag.
Gate scene: The sprawling gate area was packed with most seats filled, but it was less of a zoo than on the Southwest flight, in part because Hawaiian assigns seats.
Boarding: The boarding process was less personal than I remember, with recorded messages calling groups to board. I was in Group 5, the last group to board. There was plenty of overhead bin space for my carry on. I was in seat 25H, an aisle seat with one seatmate on the two-aisle plane with a 2-4-2 seat layout in economy. I selected the seat when I bought the ticket and didn’t have to pay a nasty seat selection fee.
The Hawaii touches were everywhere: a fuschia flower stamped on my boarding pass, Hawaiian shirts on the flight attendants and seat-back screens giving passengers a virtual tour of the islands during the safety briefing.
“When you’re here with us, you’re in Hawaii,’’ the narrator says.
In-flight food: Here’s where Hawaiian really stands out from Southwest and other competitors. The airline still serves free meals in economy class to the astonishment of many passengers long used to paying for food or bringing their own. One Hawaiian passenger told me she hadn’t had a free meal on a plane since the 1980s.
About 90 minutes into the flight, after a snack cart selling treats including $3 Snickers bars and $4 Pringles passed by, Hawaiian flight attendants delivered warm chicken pesto sandwiches from Pau Hana Café and a bag of Hawaiian-brand sweet maui onion potato chips. They called it a “light meal.’’ I called it a tasty money saver. Sandwiches sold from a stand near the departure gate were going for nearly $10.
The airline followed up with a complimentary chocolate covered macadamia nut and, before landing, a free glass of rum punch and Pau Hana snack mix.
In-flight entertainment: Here’s where Hawaiian falls short compared with Southwest and other competitors. It’s not the lineup of movies (“A Star is Born’’ and “Bohemian Rhapsody’’ are on the list) or TV shows (you catch the first season of Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’’), it’s the cost.
In an era of an increasing amount of free entertainment on major U.S. airlines, Hawaiian still charges for movies on most flights. I paid $7.99 to watch Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?’’ Movies are free on Hawaiian’s flights from Boston and New York to Hawaii, its longest flights from the mainland.
Another shortfall: Hawaiian doesn’t offer in-flight internet service. Six hours might be the longest daytime digital detox I’ve had since the advent of Wi-Fi, but I survived.
Comfort: Unlike Southwest, Hawaiian offers a variety of seating options on its Hawaii flights depending on your travel style and budget. On the 278-seat A330, there are 18 lie-flat seats in First Class and 68 “Extra Comfort’’ seats with five extra inches of legroom and priority boarding. The going rate for each when I booked my $329 one-way economy class ticket: $1,500 for first class and $409 for Extra Comfort. Not exactly in the work budget.
After I bought my ticket, I was repeatedly offered, via email, the chance to bid on an upgrade to first class. Travelers pick the price and are notified if the bid is successful 48 hours before departure. I put in a few hundred dollars, as a test, and Hawaiian’s meter showing the probability of acceptance swung left to "poor.''
The good news for passengers like me stuck in the back of the plane: Hawaiian doesn’t make you squeeze into its seats. It touts a 31 inch seat pitch, a common measure of legroom, on the plane I was on, versus 32 inches on Southwest. Discounter Spirit Airline’s typical seat pitch, by comparison, is 28 inches. As on Southwest, I wasn’t stretched out, to be sure, and my seatmate was plenty close, but I wasn’t uncomfortable or counting the minutes until the flight was over.
So who wins in a Southwest Airlines vs. Hawaiian Airlines battle?
It comes down to money. If the prices are similar, I’d go with Hawaiian for a more unique experience and unmatchable introduction to Hawaii for newbies.
And I don’t just mean the ticket price. Don’t forget to include baggage fees when adding up the costs of a Hawaiian flight. (Southwest allows two free checked bags per passenger.) A family of four checking one bag apiece on Hawaiian would pay an extra $240 round trip, or $560 round trip with two bags apiece. That could buy a lot of mai tais and macadamia nuts, or put a dent in the cost of a luau.
If Southwest prevails on price (its next major sale is in early June), book it without hesitation, even with a layover or two. Hate the thought of boarding such a long flight without seat assignments? Fork over $25 a seat, each way, for the airline’s EarlyBird boarding.
Clara Goodman, 25, and her husband, Van, flew Southwest from Phoenix to Honolulu via Oakland last week for a last hurrah before she starts school to become a physician assistant. They scored two round trip tickets for $550 when Southwest put the Hawaii flights on sale in early March. Both had flown Southwest previously and were pleasantly surprised by the snack pack but overall found the new Hawaii flights to be more generic than they were expecting, no different than a Phoenix-Baltimore flight they had been on. But they weren’t complaining. As Clara said, “When all is said and done, it’s just a plane ride and it’s cheap, so who cares, really?”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Southwest Airlines to Hawaii: How does it stack up?