Crossroads of the Pacific
Honolulu's extensive harborfront and ample resources made it a natural shipping and military hub between North America, Asia, Australia, and the various Pacific island groups. The Polynesian ancestors of today's Native population were the first wave of immigration, but there have been many others from every direction - Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, European / American, and more. As a result, today's Hawaii is a multicultural mix unlike anywhere else, with amazing choice and innovation in art, food, media, and culture. Add the islands' natural beauty and tourism development, and you have ample reason for travelers to come.
From Honolulu westward, there are a substantial number of choices for direct flights:
- To Japan, Hawaiian Air reaches Tokyo-Haneda, Tokyo-Narita, and Osaka-Kansai daily, and Sapporo 3 times per week. United runs to Tokyo-Narita daily. United's Star Alliance partner ANA-All Nippon has two daily nonstops to Tokyo-Narita, and a daily run to Tokyo-Haneda. Japan Airlines has three daily nonstops to Tokyo-Narita. China Airlines has a daily nonstop to Tokyo-Narita (continuing on to Taipei). Korean Air has a nonstop to Tokyo-Narita that continues on to Seoul. Budget carrier Air Asia X flies nonstop to Osaka-Kansai four times per week (continuing on to Kuala Lumpur). Another budget carrier, Scoot, also flies four-per-week to Osaka (continuing on to Singapore). Finally, Delta runs twice a day to Tokyo-Narita, and daily to Osaka-Kansai, Fukuoka, and Nagoya.
- To Korea, Hawaiian Air (daily), Korean Air (1 daily nonstop & 1 daily flight via Tokyo), Korean Air's low-cost subsidiary Jin Air (5/week), and Asiana (5/week) all fly to Seoul-Incheon.
- To Taiwan, China Airlines has a daily one-stop to Taipei (via Tokyo) as well as two weekly nonstops.
- To Guam and the Marianas, United has a daily nonstop service to GUM (as well as the famous island-hopping service through Micronesia)
- To Manila, Philippine Airlines flies nonstop 3 times per week.
- To Malaysia, Air Asia X offers 4 weekly flights to Kuala Lumpur via Osaka.
- To Singapore, Scoot runs 4 weekly flights via Osaka.
- To Beijing, nonstops can be had on Hawaiian Air (3 per week) and Air China (3 per week)
- To Shanghai-Pudong, China Eastern flies nonstop 6 times per week.
Connecting opportunities exist at all the major Asian hubs above to reach nearly any point in East or Southeast Asia as well as deep within China on a one-stop basis.
Within the islands, Hawaiian Air flies the Boeing 717 jetliner on the trunk routes to Hilo, Kona, Kahului, and Lihue on a shuttle basis. Its subsidiary, Ohana, flies the ATR turboprop to Molokai and Lanai, as well as supplementing jet services. Southwest Airlines is expected to begin some level of inter-island service in 2019 to provide some competition to Hawaiian.
Mokulele Airlines is the third-level carrier in the state, flying 9-seat Caravan turboprops to smaller airports on Molokai, Maui, and the Big Island.
Arriving passengers from international flights from the B, C, and G gates are directed onto buses to the central Customs facility; from the D, E, and F gates directly attached to the terminal, there is a moving walkway.
Passport control is handled at a middle level of the building, and then passengers descend to ground level to pick up bags and go through any necessary Customs clearance. On the ground level just past Customs there are baggage and ticketing check-in counters.
For connecting flights on Hawaiian Air, their gates are up and to the left; for Mokulele propeller-craft services, catch a bus to the Terminal 3. All other carriers are directly upstairs in Terminal 2.
Time to clear immigration and claim bags varies with how many flights are arriving; morning arrivals can take as long as an hour-and-a-half according to the CPB, while afternoon arrivals usually clear in around 20 minutes. HNL is installing automated kiosks for machine-readable passports and this should help cut wait times (as it has in Dallas and other cities). You may also want to sign your family up for the Global Entry program - this gets you all the benefits of the domestic PreCheck security lines but also expedited handling at U.S. Customs.
Navigating the Airport
For an airport that really isn't all that big, there sure is a lot of walking involved.
Travelers coming in from other islands on Mokulele Airlines will arrive at Terminal 3 on the far western end of the complex. Terminal 1 is for the short hops on Hawaiian Airlines (or its partner, Ohana). The long-haul international flights dock at Terminal 2.
An important thing to remember is that all the Terminal 2 gates are "common-use", meaning any flight could be assigned to any gate. While United tends to get the G gates and Delta the E gates, "it all depends" day to day, so be sure to check the monitors on your day of flying.
- Passengers coming in on Mokulele Airlines need to pick up their luggage in Terminal 3, walk outside to a shuttle bus, and take that either to Terminal 1 (if connecting on Hawaiian) or Terminal 2 (for all other airlines), where they'll have to check in and drop bags with their overseas airline - as well as go through agricultural inspection and security screening. Figure on needing at least 90 minutes (probably 120) to connect as buses, airline desks, and TSA lines can't be easily predicted.
- Hawaiian Air passengers will already be in Terminal 1, with bags checked through and in the secure zone.
Passengers from Oahu check in either at Terminal 1 (Hawaiian Air) or the Terminal 2 for all other carriers.
Inside the secure zone you may walk anywhere - all three concourses, plus the Inter-Island Terminal. There is an agricultural inspection checkpoint between the Inter-Island Terminal and the concourses, but it takes only a minute (and if you aren't carrying a bag, you're waved through).
Easier than walking, however, is the Wiki Wiki Shuttle that runs on a roadway above the terminals. If you are in Terminal 1 and connecting to the G gates - especially - go up to the third floor and take the bus; it will save you almost 20 minutes of walking. The bus also makes intermediate stops.
What is really unusual - and that will make mainland travelers unsure if they've made a mistake - is that the walkways from Terminal 2 out to the C and G concourses are not just open-air, but have a roadway running alongside for the Wiki Wiki buses as well as other airport vehicles.
The view of the ramp can't be beat, but I wouldn't want to get caught in a rainstorm trying to dash to my flight...
In 2018-2020, Hawaiian Airlines will be extending the A gates into where the old Commuter Terminal used to be, and will run international flights from there as well. This should help the crowding situation when multiple overseas flights converge...
Family-friendly amenities and hidden gems
Another unexpected but charming difference between HNL and mainland airports is the pair of open-air gardens inside the secure zone; the bigger one set between the E concourse and the food court of Terminal 2, and the smaller between Terminal 1 and the C concourse. There are staircases leading down from the gate level - garden paths and plenty of seating on the ground; birds and wildlife to watch. It's a favorite for airport staff and a unique space where kids can unwind in nature.
The gardens make up for the lack of any kids' play equipment in the airport...
The far ends of the three concourses have sweeping views of airport activity (there's a military airbase to the west, and hangars directly across the runway) - the G gates used to be called the "Diamond Head concourse" for its great position looking over its namesake mountain and the skyscrapers over Waikiki. There's a third floor - empty save for a United Club and offices - that you can easily get to for space away from crowds and an even better view.
Native artwork and cultural items are spread throughout the complex, some small and some taking up entire walls. Often there will be well-written explanations of how items were used and what their significance is - great teaching opportunities that also keep kids' interest.
Terminal 1 - as the newest part of the secure area - has functional and relatively clean restrooms, though lacking in space to manage personal baggage.
The older concourses off Terminal 2 are showing their age, and the restrooms are literally something out of the 1960's. While they are ADA-compliant, they aren't at all big enough to handle the kind of traffic they get - ESPECIALLY for the women's facilities, and they're not very well maintained. Best to be proactive at HNL - if you don't see a line, it's time to try to go - rather than having to wait and panic before your flight boards...
There are family restrooms near Gate E6 on the central concourse and Gate A15 in Terminal 1 - none out on the C or G concourses or in the central Terminal 2 area.
Food and Shopping
There is remarkably little breadth of selection for both food and merchandise at HNL, and the same outlets get repeated several times across the facility. If you like Starbucks or Burger King, or want to shop at a duty-free outlet for luxury goods, you're in luck.
There is a small food court in the central part of Terminal 2, plus a small cluster at the entry of the central E concourse. Outside of that the food offerings are scattered, but very few options out on the C and G concourses.
Likewise, most of the retail is clustered along the corridor running through Terminal 2, with more shops in the central E concourse and only newsstands on C and G.
There is one bookstore and a couple newsstands with children's materials. Most gift shops have candy, toys, and island souvenirs that kids would appreciate.
Nowhere to pick up supplies like bread, lunchmeat, and salads for a picnic lunch on the plane, however, the Lahaina Chicken & Pizza near Gate E2 has a good buffet. There are several sushi and Asian-food bistros that could also work. The Hawaii Market (several locations) has packaged Hawaiian snacks - mostly intended as gifts, but we all know we'll be tucking into one of those boxes of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts...
There are several flower shops and places to pick up bulk lots of fruit; while it's understandable to get one last taste or sniff of the islands before leaving - and fresh Hawaiian fruit is an excellent gift in Asia - but really as a family traveler do you have room or strength to carry a case of pineapples? And a fresh-flower lei will have wilted and gotten messy by the time you reach Japan or China. Plus, you'll have to declare them at Customs on arrival; no way to disguise that big box...
The "Flight Deck" shops, especially the big one at the entrance to the G concourse, have a nice assortment of model aircraft and aviation-related gifts, both for collectors as well as for kids' play.
There is no free WiFi at HNL; ShakaNet charges $6.95 per hour, or use your phone's data plan.
Small workstation clusters are available near gates A15, A19, B5, E3, and F2.
Some areas where there used to be phone banks (mostly in Terminal 2) have been converted to charging stations, but out on the concourses outlets are few and far between.
Honolulu is getting a light-rail system together and the airport is supposed to be connected on it, but that is still years off. There are local and express buses available.
Our "Transpacific Pioneers" article on Inter-Island Airways (predecessor to Hawaiian Airlines)