Tips for Booking Award Flights to Hawaii
Rewards Credit Cards


I book award tickets for people every day, and you’d probably be surprised by the ones I have the most trouble with and enjoy doing the least. No, it’s not the family of four that wants to travel to Asia. For that matter, it’s not even the family of four that wants to travel to Europe during peak summer time. Instead, it’s awards to Hawaii.

Hawaii is one of those interesting markets when it comes to airfare and awards on a few levels. For one, not all first class products to Hawaii are created anywhere near equal. Second, despite huge premiums for upgrading, the first class products to Hawaii are often no better than first class within the lower 48. Third, the airlines really like to protect award space to Hawaii during any sort of a peak time, making an award very difficult, and requiring us to get creative. Lastly, Hawaii flights don’t follow regular award availability patterns.

Let’s tackle each of the above topics individually. First of all, not all first class products to Hawaii are created equal. By that I mean that the quality of the first class product offered varies so greatly, even more so than the service difference between a US airline and an Asian airline when traveling to Asia.

United, for example, offers virtually “standard” domestic first class service to Hawaii. They operate domestically configured planes to Hawaii, meaning you just have normal domestic first class seats, even on a flight like Chicago to Honolulu, which is further than Chicago to London.


On the other end of the spectrum you have American, Continental, and Delta. It’s important to keep track of the aircraft type that they operate on routes to Hawaii, given the drastic quality difference. For example, American flies internationally configured 767s out of both Chicago and Dallas to Hawaii, while most of the rest of their flights are on domestically configured aircraft. Continental offers internationally configured aircraft out of both Newark and Houston to Hawaii, while the rest of their flights are operated by domestically configured aircraft. Delta offers internationally configured aircraft from Atlanta to Hawaii, while the majority of their other flights are domestically configured.  What that means is that if you select these carriers’ internationally configured aircraft, you’re not only getting a much more comfortable seat, but also better entertainment, enhanced catering, and hopefully better service.


While this doesn’t directly relate to awards, the point is simple – your experience on a United redeye from Honolulu to Chicago, featuring domestic first class seats, will be a world apart from an American redeye on the route, which will allow you to at least arrive fairly well rested in a slanted flat bed. Drawing from that, an upgrade or award is worth a whole lot more on American than on United for that route, given the difference in the product.

Now let’s talk about how to actually get into first class on flights to Hawaii. It’s shocking to me how much co-pays have gone up overall to Hawaii, especially in cases where the product isn’t all that much better. It used to be that upgrading to first class to Hawaii wasn’t much more expensive than upgrading any other domestic flight, but that’s not the case anymore. Take United, for example. Upgrading a cheap ticket to Hawaii costs 27,500 miles each way, plus a $125 co-pay, which is incredibly expensive for just domestic first class. At the same time, they offer unlimited domestic upgrades for elite members, so this is a case where elite status can be incredibly valuable. For example, Los Angeles to Maui is one of the easiest upgrades in United’s system, in my experience, and it’s not unusual for all elites and their companions to clear upgrades, and for there to even be empty seats after that.


Most other airlines have even heftier co-pays and don’t offer elites complimentary upgrades.

Anyway, instead of going through each airline’s system, here are a few tips for maximizing awards to Hawaii:

If you want a good first class product, book 11 months out

On one hand this is a good suggestion for an award to just about anywhere, but it’s especially true for Hawaii. The reason I say that is because in other markets it’s common for airlines to release a lot of space close to departure, but I don’t notice that as much to Hawaii. If you can plan your Hawaii vacations 11 months out and want the most comfortable product possible, book far in advance.

Want to get there with miles? Check out the Best Travel Credit Card Offers

Consider buying an upgrade day-of instead of booking first class

One request I often get from people is for business/first class award seats on the nonstop Continental flight from Newark to Honolulu. The fact is, it’s one of the toughest flights to secure low level premium cabin award seats on, and elites don’t get complimentary upgrades. First class often doesn’t go out full, so my suggestion would be to book coach and then try to buy an upgrade day of departure. This is a 10 hour flight, and Continental sells upgrades for anywhere between $250 and $400, which is quite a good deal for a flight of that length. As you might expect, Tuesdays and Wednesdays will generally give you the best change of being able to buy-up, since those are the slower days for travel to Hawaii. The day before your flight just go to the airline’s website and take a look if they’re still selling first class seats. If they’re selling quite a few, there’s a good chance they’ll be offering upgrades for cash. Many airlines have similar policies.

Look at revenue fares

For whatever reason, for most people Hawaii is the perfect destination for using miles. If they can get “free” tickets to Hawaii for their trip every other year, they’re happy. While I always say “a good mileage redemption is one which makes you happy,” don’t by default only look at award tickets to Hawaii. There are often cheap revenue fares to Hawaii, sometimes even as low as $300 roundtrip from the west coast. If you can travel during the off-season you’ll not only save on airfare, but also on hotels and avoid the crowds a bit.

Take advantage of stopovers and open jaws to lower the cost of award tickets to Hawaii

Back in March I wrote an article about maximizing the value of stopovers on award tickets. One method I described was that American lets you have stopovers at their North American gateways. So say you’re booking a one-way business class award ticket from London to Chicago on American using 50,000 AAdvantage miles. You could add on a “free” segment from Chicago to Honolulu on American for months later at no additional cost. That takes care of your one-way ticket to Hawaii, so now you would only have to worry about the return. Going back to Europe anytime soon? If so, just book another award from the US to Europe, and add the segment from Honolulu to Chicago at no additional cost. So for 100,000 miles you’re looking at a roundtrip first class ticket to Hawaii and a roundtrip business class ticket from Europe. Similarly, United allows two open jaws on roundtrip award tickets, so you could also build in a one way to Hawaii and it doesn't even have to be from an international gateway. It won't be entirely free, since unlike American, United has a separate award chart for Hawaii, but it's not many more miles than just the roundtrip.

Consider getting an Alaska Airlines credit card for the $99 companion certificate

Update: Unfortunately, as of 8/1/12, Alaska Airlines Companion Certificates are not valid for First Class

I think this is the best kept secret for reasonably priced first class airfare to Hawaii. Alaska Airline’s Signature Visa credit card comes with a $99 companion certificate annually, which can be used for a companion on any kind of ticket, including first class fares. Alaska’s first class fares to Hawaii are quite reasonable, often around $1,000, so for around $1,100 you could have two first class tickets to Hawaii (and both passengers even earn miles!). Given that first class awards to Hawaii are typically 75,000-80,000 miles per person, and assuming you value miles at around 1.5 cents each, you’re saving quite a bit compared to the $1,200 per ticket “value” of a first class award ticket, assuming you can find availability (which is a big “if”).

Anyway, those are a few of my best tips. While I’m usually able to find award tickets to Hawaii for clients, I’d say I’m able to convince more than half of them to go the route of getting the Alaska Airlines credit card so they can save their miles for their next adventure.


Update: After the British Airways award chart changes in November 2011, British Airways Avios can be a good deal for American Airlines coach awards to Hawaii: just 25,000 Avios and about $25 in fees per roundtrip ticket.

You can get up to 100,000 British Airways Avios (50,000 of them after your first purchase) if you're approved for the British Airways Visa during the annual promotion; the rest of the year, you can get 50,000 Avios as the sign-up bonus.


Use the Hawaiian Airlines 50% Off Companion Pass

If Hawaiian offers the most convenient route and you're willing to fly coach, consider getting the Hawaiian Airlines Card with 35,000 Bonus Miles  + a one-time 50% off companion discount for roundtrip coach travel.





Best first class award for a couple 

[Update: new certificates issued 8/1/12 and later are only good for coach]

Alaska Airlines

Get the Alaska Airline’s Signature Visa credit card: Annual $99 companion certificate 

Best first class award if traveling from and back to Europe

American Airlines

Book a one-way first class award for 50K miles from Europe to an AA N. A. gateway, e.g. ORD, then use it as your stopover to add on a flight to HNL months later. Make a similar one-way award booking to return to Europe via ORD or other gateway city.

Most comfortable First Class award seats

American: 767-300, Business Class seats recline 180 degrees, seat width 18.5 in.


Delta: A330-300, First Class seats recline 176 degrees, seat width 20.5 in.



United: 767-400, Biz-First seats recline 156 degrees, seat width 21 in.

Or, fly United PS service to SFO, then find a 777-200 with First Class Suites


70K miles using British Airways AA partner redemption



Book award 11 months out; or

SkyMiles members can upgrade when purchasing package from Delta Vacations


Book award 11 months out; or book a flight less likely to be full (Tue/Wed travel ideal). Try to buy an upgrade the day of travel for $250-400


Best chance for free upgrade as a top-tier elite

United Airlines

Easiest routes to clear an upgrade:



Related Posts

Flat Bed Seats to Hawaii: United First Class NYC-HNL for 50,000 Miles

Best United Miles Bonus Offers Available Now

How to Book a Business Class Award Ticket to Hawaii

Maximizing the Value of Your Award Ticket with Stopovers and Open Jaws

How to Fly Hawaiian from NYC to Hawaii Using AAdvantage Miles

Need Award Booking Help? Our fee is as low as $75 per ticket if you book your hotel through us.

If you enjoyed this, join 100,000+ readers: please follow TravelSort on Twitter or  like us on Facebook to be alerted to new posts. 

Become a TravelSort Client and Book Your Hotel with Virtuoso or Four Seasons Preferred VIP Amenities!

  • |
  • Print
    print |
Related Articles
Picture?type=large Scott M. commented 29 Jun 2011

You mention the ease of getting UDU on UA for LAX-OGG.  What about SFO-OGG?

Picture?type=large Brad W. commented 29 Jun 2011


Nice post.  Does Alaska operate its own flights to Hawaii (and if so, from what airports)?  What is its first class product like in your experience?

Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 29 Jun 2011

@ Scott -- Typically upgrades out of SFO are a bit tougher than upgrades out of LAX because SFO is a much more elite heavy airport, not to mention SFO has a lot more connecting traffic. LAX seems to have more leisure "origin and destination" traffic (meaning passengers aren't connecting from anywhere, but are instead starting in LA and ending in Hawaii), which seems to translate to fewer elites. Upgrades have actually gotten easier to Hawaii since United made in ridiculously expensive to upgrade with miles, which is good for elites.

That being said, while San Francisco to Maui probably isn't as easy as Los Angeles to Maui, it's still a fairly easy upgrade. I'd say most elites will clear if not traveling during peak times.

Good luck!

Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 29 Jun 2011

@ Brad -- Alaska flies to Hawaii from Seattle, Portland, Anchorage, San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento, and Bellingham (yes, quite a few airports). They have standard domestic first class seats with decent catering (featuring an appetizer, main course, and dessert) and individual entertainment systems. So it's probably pretty average when it comes to quality, though the deal can't be beat.

User_avatar_default Kevin F. commented 14 Jul 2011



Great information on Hawaiian flights, especially the explaining the first class products disparity! 


Quick question, I'm considering an AA or CO award redemption for first class to Hawaii and was wondering, how does Hawaiian Air compare to these and would it be a good choice as well or should I stick with AA/CO?

Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 14 Jul 2011

@ Kevin -- Thanks! Hawaiian's first class product is a bit of a hybrid. It's better than standard domestic first class, though not as good as international business class. So if you can get one of the American or Continental planes with international business class seats, I'd go with those. Otherwise I'd go with Hawaiian.

User_avatar_default Kevin F. commented 14 Jul 2011


Along with the BA redemption miles on AA, I'm getting 52500 one way from DFW-HNL.  Any tips on getting 70k miles roundtrip with BA miles?

Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 14 Jul 2011

@ Kevin -- It should cost you 70,000 miles roundtrip in business class. You might want to give their call center a ring if it's not pricing at that, since it's two cabin first class on the route.

User_avatar_default Kevin F. commented 08 Aug 2011



First off, thanks for everything you do from your blog to these articles, they really help out the rest of us a lot! 

Secondly, I've decided to book a first class trip with US Dividend miles on CO.  With that said, I want to make sure I book on an international product to Hawaii, but the CO award website only says the flights are on a 767, but there's no indication it's got the lie-flat seats or on a 767-400.  Where would I be able to confirm that it's lie-flat so I don't make a big mistake of booking the wrong product?  Thanks in advance for your help!

Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 08 Aug 2011

@ Kevin -- Continental doesn't operate any flights to Hawaii with lie flat seats. Both the 767-400 and 767-200 aircraft they operate to Hawaii feature international business class recliner seats, which are among the best seats to Hawaii. So while they're not lie flat, they're much better than the domestic first class seats many airlines operate to Hawaii. Just be sure that you're flying Continental and not United.

Picture?type=large Josh W. commented 17 Aug 2011


That's an awesome post.

I have a family of four and we're hoping to get 1st class award flights from WAS to HNL on AA for christmas 2012.  With your knowledge, I'll be shooting for a connection in DFW or ORD to get the better internationally configured plane.

I do have a question though.  What do you think my chances are of getting 4 1st class seats at the mileage saver rate if I book 330 days out?  Any tips? On getting these?

The reason I ask, is that I currently have 80k in miles and my wife has 80k in miles.  I'm also hoping to get in on another AAdvantage credit card promo before booking to boost my account another 75k miles.  At a minimum, I think we're looking at atleast two separate reservations.  If the reduced rates are unavailable, I need to come up with a plan b.

Thanks for any thoughts, ~josh


Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 17 Aug 2011

@ Josh -- If you're looking at traveling over Christmas that will be really tough. Two seats should be doable, but four will be tough. I'd say be ready to be very flexible and book 330 days out. Fortunately you have plenty of time to still plan it. Good luck!

Picture?type=large Dustin J. commented 18 Sep 2011

Hi Ben,

I just looked into the BA award on American from MIA to HNL and for first class, I can't find 70K miles using British Airways AA partner redemption because AA classifies the trip as First only and not Business, so the award redemption is 3x instead of 2x the base number of miles.  Am I doing something wrong?


Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 18 Sep 2011

@ Dustin -- Nowadays unfortunately they do charge the three cabin first class price for awards to Hawaii in American first class.

Picture?type=large Prachya P. commented 09 Dec 2011

Ben, from what you said it means that AA allow stop over on a one-way award? I also have a question about routing but can't find your article about mpm anymore. On AA, I booked BKK-HKG-HND/NRT-ORD-SEA in J on CX/JL (can't find F availability), (just 15 hrs in TYO) the system does not allow that routing so I have to just end at ORD. AA just say that to Asia you have to route through Pacific but does not have rule about mpm right?

Leave a Comment
Hotel Rewards Credit Cards
Get Free Email Blog Updates
Popular Articles
  This ANA First Class 777 Review for a New York JFK to Tokyo Narita flight is part of a new trip report including Tokyo luxury hotels, restaurants and sushi bars. Having previously enjoyed JAL First Class, we were looking...
  This British Airways First Class 747 Review is one of my several reviews of British Airways First Class; see all posts tagged British Airways, or for other airline first class and business class reviews, see my Airline Reviews. Since...
  This Japan Airlines (JAL) 777-300ER Business Class Sky Suite Review is from our recent trip to Japan, including ANA First Class, JAL Business Class review, and Tokyo luxury hotel reviews and Kyoto luxury hotel reviews. For previous posts in...
  Persistence often pays off, including for award tickets. I book many AAdvantage awards for Award Booking clients, because even though Alaska miles are often less expensive, have the advantage of allowing a stopover on a one way award, and...
  A 50K CitiBusiness AAdvantage Bonus Offer without the usual 24 month restriction is available, via Reddit, and I've updated my Best Travel Credit Cards page with this offer. Normally Citi cards have language stating that the bonus is not...
Can you transfer AAdvantage miles into AMEX Membership Rewards points or Chase Ultimate Rewards points? Reader Michael writes "I have a lot of American Airlines miles from a Citi AAdvantage card, is there a way to transfer those points to...
  There's a 50K Korean Air Skypass Visa Business card targeted bonus offer, which I received in the mail recently. The issuer is US Bank, so if you've already taken advantage of other attractive offers from Chase, AMEX and Citi,...
  The AMEX Business Platinum will add new benefits, 5X points on flights and prepaid hotels booked with AMEX Travel, effective March 30, 2017, per Flyertalk. This is better news than for the personal AMEX Platinum, which will raise its...
  It's possible to buy AMEX Membership Rewards points, in conjunction with a points transfer. This post will discuss how to buy Membership Rewards points, how much it costs, whom you can transfer points to, and when it's likely to...
I'm rethinking my AMEX Business Platinum. While I'd assumed I was going to cancel it later this year, after collecting the $200 in airline incidental credit, I'm sure now that I'll keep it at least another year. Why? It's well...