Returning to Molokai Starts With My First Flight in the United Polaris Seat (A Cranky Travelogue)

Hawaiian, Mokulele, Trip Reports, United

When I first visited Molokai back in 2017, I wanted to return almost immediately, but I knew it would take awhile. Unlike most family vacation spots, Molokai was my place to escape, and it’s not often I get to go on vacation alone. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was feeling burnt out. There’s always a lot going on with work and the pandemic, but I decided it was a good time to go back to Molokai and clear my head. The trip came together quickly, and it wasn’t a long one. It was, however, a good one despite the closed businesses and pandemic restrictions still in full force.

I started writing, and then I just kept writing… and writing. It got long enough that I’ve decided to publish this as a Cranky Travelogue instead of a simple trip report. Here is the plan:

The catalyst for this adventure was actually… United Airlines. When things got too hectic, I’d been self-soothing by browsing flights to and vacation rentals in places I wanted to go all around the world. I wasn’t planning on booking, but it was a nice escape. Then, on a Friday, I came across an award seat on United’s 767-300ER with the big Polaris business class cabin flying from LAX to Kahului just four days later on Tuesday. I had Air Canada Aeroplan miles sitting around, and it’s only 25,000 of those to book that flight which is a great deal. Since Aeroplan still has free cancellations, I just grabbed it. If it came together, great. If not, well, it was fun to think about it.

My wife was fine with the break, and the rest of the trip came together nicely. I booked a roundtrip from Maui to Molokai on Mokulele using Chase points for the equivalent of about $170. Then I booked a Hawaiian return from Kahului straight into Long Beach for about $280 worth of Chase points. I had no trouble finding a car, and I booked a stay at the Hotel Moloka’i, the only hotel on the island.

I’ll talk about all that in later chapters, but today I’ll focus on the United Polaris seat since I hadn’t flown in it before. In short, the seat is great. But before I could try it out, I had get my ducks in a row with Hawai’i entry requirements. I started with United’s built-in Travel-Ready Center.

The Travel-Ready Center didn’t pull up for me right away, but eventually something synced and it gave me a full list of what I’d need to do to be able to fly. I liked the format, but the content was somewhat underwhelming for this particular flight. Unfortunately, United has no special relationships in LA for Hawai’i testing, so I couldn’t schedule a test or do anything like that in the app unlike in other cities. It just gave instructions to go to the state’s website, and that’s what I knew to do anyway from my previous October trip.

I set up my Safe Travels trip on the state’s website, made a quick appointment to get a COVID test from Walgreens (because Walgreens is free), and by Sunday afternoon I had my results uploaded to the portal. Monday I filled out the health questionnaire on the website and checked in for my flight on the app. It turns out, I screwed the whole Safe Travels thing up, but I’ll get to that problem in a later chapter.

Since my flight home would bring me to Long Beach, I took Metro up to LAX. Including the 20 minute walk to the train from my house, it took about an hour and a quarter to get to the airport all-in including two trains and a bus. The TSA Precheck line was busy, but it moved quickly. That was different from the long, slow-moving line that awaited me at the gate.

United is one of the airlines that has a precheck program for the Hawai’i COVID test. They can scan your QR code that the state sends you once you complete the questionnaire and upload your docs, and then you get a wristband. With the wristband, you can just walk right through when you land.

The line to get that was about a dozen people deep, and it did not move quickly. They were already boarding, but I wasn’t concerned that they’d leave without me. Eventually I got to the front, got my wristband, and hopped on the “new for United” (read: only 20 year-old) 767 which was looking rather elegant in the new livery.

May 18, 2021
United 417 Lv Los Angeles 830a Arr Kahului 1122a
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 72A, Runway 25R, Depart 10m Late
Kahului (OGG): Gate 39, Runway 2, Arrive 14m Late
N674UA (msn 29242), Boeing 767-322ER, 2019 Blue Globe colors, 75% Full
Seat 3A, First Class/Polaris seat
Flight Time 5h36m

Did I mention that I really like the Polaris seats? There are several types of seat arrangements in Polaris, and I’m a big fan of the windows in the odd-numbered rows. In those, you’re in true window seat which is really private. Here was mine in row three.

The staggered nature of the seats means that in even-numbered rows, you’re closer to the aisle at a slight angle away from the window. Even that seemed pretty private, but you don’t really get much window space whereas I had three all to myself. The center seats were also private, and people who prefer aisle to window should enjoy it.

There was a pillow and blanket at my seat along with a wipe. The screen is big, and it’s a touchscreen but there’s also a remote on the side if you’re reclined and can’t reach the screen. There’s a small cubbyhole below the screen which is great for a phone. Even better… there’s a USB charging port right there, so I just left my phone there the whole flight.

We pushed back late due to alley traffic, according to the captain. While we waited, I scrolled through the entertainment options. I started to feel a little nostalgic when I saw this.

Yes, on the remote, it still shows channel 9. Unfortunately it didn’t seem to be working. I kept hearing weird electronic noises, and after a few minutes, I gave up. I moved on to the first of three movies as we started to go to the runway.

We were airborne into the May gray, but it wasn’t that thick so we were above it quickly. The pilots turned off the seatbelt sign before we even reached altitude, and it stayed off the entire time despite some light bumps on occasion. I always appreciate that.

I had a chance to look around a little more. I really couldn’t see my neighbor at all, which was great.

Despite the niceness of the seat itself, I did find some things that didn’t seem up to snuff. First, there is a small strip that connects the seat to the side panel, and it was filthy. It looks specifically designed to capture nastiness.

Also, the seats may have looked new, but the airplane could have used a little more love. For example, you can see the chipping here.

If this is the biggest complaint I have, then I’d say this is a winner.

This wasn’t technically a Polaris flight since it’s not a long-haul trip, and service was presumably at a much lesser level. The flight attendants came through with a meal. It was covered with tin foil, but when I pulled it off, I see I had chosen the, uh, discs(?) of egg-like substance and sausages. (The other choice was french toast.) The eggs were awful, but the sausage was pretty good. I just had a little blueberry yogurt to top it off, and then I was done until I snacked on the biscotti later.

The tray table is excellent. It’s sturdy, and it comes out from under the screen in front of you. I had to go to the bathroom, and I was able to push the tray forward and get out with ease without disturbing the tray.

Once the food was collected, I decided to recline my seat into a bed to test it out, and I found it quite comfy. There’s more room in the footwell than I figured there’d be but it’s not exactly roomy. The bed doesn’t feel too narrow. I have trouble sleeping on airplanes, but I think I dozed ever-so-briefly. Then again, it could have just been the bad movie where Joel McHale likes to have sex with his wife a lot — yes, that’s kind of the plot — that lulled me to sleep.

Other than regular passes for drinks, that was the extent of the service… except for passing out the Hawaiian agriculture forms. At one point about halfway, I asked a passing flight attendant the most important question… what happened to the Halfway to Hawai’i game? I thought United had brought that back. She said she didn’t know, but she’d ask the purser. I told her it was too late since we had passed the midpoint, but she said we could still guess when it was. Good point. I never heard another word about it, so I guess the game is gone. That’s really too bad.

During my second bad movie — this one I should have known was bad because it had two characters played by the same actor, in this case Drew Barrymore — my ears started hurting from the mask. This is when I had my genius moment.

Oh man, once I looped those around the headphones, my life got significantly better.

I took a stroll. The premium economy section had a few empty seats, but Economy Plus had a lot. I assume all the people who were willing to pay for extra legroom were just in premium economy. It’s not sold as a separate cabin on this route.

I finally gave up trying to find new good movies, so I went with a guaranteed winner, Say Anything, for my final feature. I had forgotten what a great movie that was, and yes, I had Peter Gabriel in my head for the rest of the day.

We had taken a northerly route to avoid the jetstream headwinds, and as we approached Maui, the pilots told the flight attendants to clean up early and buckle up. The tradewinds were howling and it was expected to be bumpy, as is often the case there. It didn’t get bumpy until we were under 10,000 feet, but even then it wasn’t much.

We went fairly far south, past Kihei and Wailea (above) and made our turn near Molokini (below).

Now that sugar cane is no longer grown, the island’s isthmus looks a whole lot different than it used to.

We landed and parked at the very last gate in the terminal where I had a great view of all the different tails.

I said goodbye and was greeted by a very, very long line of people waiting to clear into the state with their Safe Travel QR codes. Now, remember, I had been pre-cleared, so I just started walking along the side with everyone else. This is when someone stopped me and explained that I had messed it all up. But for that story, you’ll have to wait until the next chapter.

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15 comments on “Returning to Molokai Starts With My First Flight in the United Polaris Seat (A Cranky Travelogue)

  1. Brett, did you get over to the abandoned Sheraton on the west end of the island? It’s creepy but the site is gorgeous.

  2. CF,
    This is good, eagerly awaiting the next chapter and the tale of the COVID pre-check gone wrong!

      1. SEAN – Well, yeah, but I had plenty of time so it wasn’t horrible. My cousin lives on Maui currently, so I had planned for lunch with her there anyway. Still, not fun.

    1. Bobber – My wife and I both agree that these are good things. I’ll be taking the kids to see my parents later this month, and she gets a week to herself.

  3. A private lie-flat seat with three windows of your very own? Sounds like your idea of airliner heaven!

    1. Amen to that! Very jealous after reading this post.

      Only thing missing would be a cat on the lap and a drink in hand, and it would be like sitting in the easy chair at home, but with a better view.

  4. Agreed that Polaris is a nice seat.

    Good pointing out the Walgreens trick for pre-travel testing. Used that on the madcap adventure I mentioned on Twitter. Safe Travels seemed to work properly for us, though we had to key in four (!) trips and, well, we’ll see if we connect successfully in HNL the morning after tomorrow at the end of the last one. The questionnaire reminder did show up way early every single time. The ground experience was annoying but only moderately confusing.

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