Is It Worth Upgrading Hawaiian Airlines Inter-Island Flights?

Filed Under: Advice, Hawaiian

The short answer is no, but with a few caveats. I flew Hawaiian Airlines with my boyfriend recently from Honolulu to Kahului on Maui. When we checked in online, we were offered an upgrade to first class for $50 per person.

We were both planning to check a bag, and neither of us have status on Hawaiian. The airline lists a checked bag fee of $25, but if you join HawaiianMiles, their frequent flyer program, a checked bag costs only $15.

The upgrade to first included a free checked bag. So essentially I was paying a $35 premium per person to upgrade, and it comes with a few other benefits, like lounge access and priority check-in and boarding.

Inter-island flights are super frequent, which made me think they’d be a lot like the Delta and American shuttles between DC, New York and Boston. So I kind of thought I’d show up at the airport and be at the gate a few minutes later.

Apparently Honolulu Airport in the early afternoon is not a place where anything happens quickly. When I got there I half expected to see a giraffe, because it was a total zoo. An airport employee told me big crowds were typical for this time of day.

Honolulu International Airport
Honolulu International Airport: crowded!
Pretty much wall to wall people

There were self-serve kiosks for printing bag tags and boarding passes. There was also a dedicated (but still super long) line for first class check-in. Regardless of whether you checked in via kiosk or the agent at the first class desk, you had to bring your own tagged bag to a big holding area that did not look very organized. First class bags did get a special, brightly-colored tag marked “priority.” More on that later.

After dropping off our bags and saying a brief prayer that they would make it to Maui, we waited in the longest PreCheck line I’ve ever experienced, at about 25 minutes (I know, I’ve been pretty lucky).

Lesson learned: the next time I’m traveling from Honolulu to another island, either pick an off-peak time of day, or consider swimming.

After clearing security, we made our way to the Premier Club, which was a total bust.

At the gate, I was first to board. The seats in first were very nice. The color of the seats and the stitching were unique. It all appeared to be clean and relatively new. Leg room was good too, comparable to other domestic first class products.

Hawaiian Airlines first class leg room

Sadly, there were no pre-departure beverages. Once we were airborne we were offered a drink, but of course there’s no time for refills on a 25-minute flight. Flight attendants distributed the same trail mix to first and coach passengers. And that was the extent of the service.

At least there were beautiful views on takeoff (and throughout the flight)!

At Kahului Airport, my bag came out fairly quickly. My boyfriend’s, on the other hand, did not. We waited until all the bags from the flight were unloaded, and still nothing. This is a bit odd since we dropped off our bags at the same time and in the same place.

We went to the Hawaiian baggage desk, and they told us there was another flight from Honolulu arriving in 45 minutes. If it wasn’t on that flight, we’d fill out a claim form (and perhaps get to see how Chase’s baggage delay protection works in practice, since the flight was purchased on my boyfriend’s Chase Sapphire Reserve card).

The agent at the desk said that Hawaiian does not track bags, so it was anybody’s guess where the bag was at this point. Super. (To her credit, she was very nice, which must be so hard when you’re dealing with frustrated people all day.)

Thankfully, to our great relief, the bag was on the next flight. Even though we checked in 75 minutes before departure, the bag somehow didn’t make it on our flight to Maui. And remember those priority tags? Pretty sure they’re meaningless.

On the return flight, I stuck with economy. I paid the $15 to check my bag (my boyfriend did not check his this time, choosing instead to never let it out of his sight). Since Hawaiian uses 717s on inter-island flights, which have 2×3 seating, you still have a great chance of either a window or aisle seat in economy. For the 45-minute flight, it was perfectly comfortable.

Hawaiian Airlines Boeing 717 economy class
Adorably tiny tray table in economy
Passion orange guava juice is available in both first class and economy.

Bottom line

For such short flights, you can save a few bucks and just fly economy. The only circumstances under which I would actually recommend paying 50 bucks to upgrade yourself are if you:

  • Need to check more than one bag, in which case the price premium almost evens itself out (first class comes with two free checked bags);
  • Have a lot of time to kill at the airport and don’t have Priority Pass or other lounge access (as I mentioned previously, the Premier Club isn’t good, but at least it has free wifi);
  • Highly value the marginal additional comfort; or
  • Hate money but think setting it on fire is too messy
  1. I had a Delta agent explain to me once that priority tagged bags are the last to be loaded onto the aircraft so that they can be the first to come off. So if some bags have to come off due to weight issues, the priority bags are the first to come off…

  2. “Hate money but think setting it on fire is too messy”

    Exactly. Wayyyyy too short of a flight to upgrade.

  3. I don’t fly enough to “upgrade” so I end up buying premium tickets outright.
    For short flights, I don’t get the premium tickets for the flight, I get them for the expedited services on the ground; priority check in, bag handling, fast lanes. When travelling a series of short connecting flights; those perks made the difference of catching a connecting flight with just under an hour layover versus missing it. Getting on the plane first is okay, but getting off the plane first is priceless, to me.
    The only airline I have status with is Emirates, which isn’t a part of any of the big three alliances, therefore it carries over in a manner that is of little good for me.

  4. To clarify when you said the lounge was “a bust,” Hawaiian has the worst lounges in the world. They shouldn’t even be called lounges – they’re just holding pens with POG juice. Most folks don’t pay for first interisland – it’s either a continuation of a first/business ticket a Hawaiian elite upgrade or staff travel. Once in a blue moon you’ll have a high roller who thinks he’s special and will upgrade for the sake of doing so (as I did once for a friend so we could sit together = lose money). I’m surprised you only got one drink though. Did you ask for a refill? Every time I flew first I was offered a refill up until the gear came down – I always felt FAs think it’s the only benefit to sitting up front so they try to make it worth your while.

  5. Welcome to Hawaii!

    Interisland flights are considered to be no different that a bus ride over water. Your experience in F is what most travelers experience, despite what the $50 upgrade fee suggests.

  6. I generally travel with luggage, so I pay the extra $50.

    While the intra-island flights don’t provide much miles in terms of credit to a FF program, they do provide however substantial Status Credits for Velocity Frequent Flyer (Australia) considering the cheap cost of the economy ticket, along with the $50 upgrade – it’s a no-brainer for me.

  7. Kaoru: Although I am sure that is true for Delta and probably several other carriers, it seems inconceivable that even on the hottest, most humid Hawaiian day – with a cabin full of heavyweight wrestlers and a hold stuffed to the load line with bags – that a 717 would be weight restricted for a 25-minute, 101-nm flight. It seems far more likely that there were simply more bags than could fit than the aircraft would be overweight.

  8. If you are arriving in Honolulu on another airline and changing to Hawaiian, do you have to go through the security line again?

  9. They have real JETs and Good pilots so their the ones to fly in Gale Force winds like I DID !!! Only 30K points left .


  10. HNL was such a zoo for you because your Maui flight left near the time most of Hawaiian’s long range flights leave for the west coast. If you want to avoid the crowds leave mid morning or after 5 pm. On a weekday you can take an early a.m. flight and it will be busy, but mostly with frequent flyers who are commuting between islands for work related reasons. Early a.m. flights on the weekend are amateur hour. Hope you enjoyed your stay in the aloha state!

  11. Having lived in Hawaii for 25 years, yes, as others pointed out, it’s our local bus system. Plus it moves a few million jet-lagged and disoriented unfrequent flyer visitors every year. Thus, the self-service check-in at HNL is an awful experience. And the machines force baggage fees if you’re even a pound overweight.

    When the other interisland carrier finally went bankrupt, it was a bit of a crisis. Hawaiian was flying 767s interisland for a while…

  12. Lol no one’s watching when you’re weighing bags so I always lift the top handle up so it reads lighter but it looks to someone else like I’m just placing the bag on the scale. The HA customer service agents are so useless and rude anyway. HA is only good once you get onboard. On the ground, they’re only nice to tourists. Locals can suck teeth.

  13. Hawaiian is one of those airlines that you want to love, but in practice it’s a mess. This experience was similar to the $1,000-plus “international business-class” (aka domestic first-class flight I had on Hawaiian about a year and a half ago between Honolulu and Pago Pago, American Samoa. My bags, which had the priority bag, were the absolute last bags to arrive on the baggage claim belt in Pago Pago, nearly an hour after landing. Because there is only twice-a-week commercial service to American Samoa, the flights are very full. Samoans bring back lots of bags. It was a complete mess. As for the service, sure it was OK and more extensive than the service on your short flight, but I honestly don’t think Hawaiian lives up to the romanticism of its name and brand.

  14. Not really sure why there’s a beverage service on a 25 minute flight. I realize it’s expected and would seem odd without but, after climb and descent, there’s so little time. What’s the point or am I a stick-in-the-mud?

  15. “Not really sure why there’s a beverage service on a 25 minute flight. I realize it’s expected and would seem odd without but, after climb and descent, there’s so little time. What’s the point or am I a stick-in-the-mud?”

    It isn’t a full one in Y – just Pog, water and maybe coffee. In F, it is part of the service. Remember the environment HA operates in – it is warm and can be muggy. The airplane boarding process is quite similar. As such, a refreshment makes sense.

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