The only mistake I made after arriving at the San Jose airport for a five-hour flight to Honolulu on Southwest Airlines was not buying food to take on board.

I knew Southwest, a low-cost carrier that began flying between California and Hawaii in 2019, only serves light snacks. And I learned the hard way that policy also applies when crossing the Pacific.

An airplane with a paint job of a native Hawaiian woman flies above the Waikiki area of O'ahu
With decades of service to the islands, Hawaiian Airlines has earned many loyal fans - but is it the best option for a flight to paradise? © Courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines

“For those up here in first class, we’ll be serving steak and lobster,” Rocco, the lead flight attendant, announced over the PA. “For dessert, we have a delicious key lime pie.”

People in economy class, he added, would be served Spam and M&Ms. On this single-class-of-service airline, everyone realized he was joking. The galleys contained no food.

The smart passengers laughed along as they pulled bags full of sandwiches and munchies from under their seats. To the rest of us, flight attendants distributed modest snack packs containing crackers, cheddar cheese spread, pretzels and a bag of “island fruit” chews.

After that limited offering, and with no further food for sale, some slabs of Spam actually sounded good. It was going to be a long five-hour trek. 

Crackers, cheese spread, pretzels and fruit chews are all that is served for Southwest flight to Hawaii lasting five hours or more.
With no food for sale on Southwest Airlines flights between the U.S. Mainland and Hawaii, passengers who don’t bring their own food are stuck with only a snack pack © Jay Jones / Lonely Planet

Competition heating up

Southwest has legions of loyal customers who willingly forego assigned seats in exchange for the friendly, efficient service, low prices and perks such as two free checked bags per person. But as it increases the number of flights between the West Coast and Hawaii, Southwest is facing formidable competition from Hawaiian, another airline boasting a cadre of faithful fans and a decades-long history of linking America’s 50th state with the Lower 48.

In an effort to make their fares more attractive to budget-minded fliers, Hawaiian introduced “Main Cabin Basic” last October. Tickets cost $120 less per person, round-trip, than regular “Main Cabin.”

To compare the two airlines, I flew Southwest to Honolulu, returning a few days later on Hawaiian. When you’re trying to decide which ticket to buy, there’s much more to consider than just price.

Passengers sit in their assigned seats before take-off at San Diego's Lindburgh Field Airport in San Diego, California
Southwest and Hawaiian have similar seat sizes and inclines, and both have ample room for tray tables © Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images

Your seats and tray tables

As far as seats go, it’s pretty much a toss-up. Southwest flies newer Boeing 737-800s that, according to SeatGuru, have 17-inch-wide seats with a pitch of 32 to 33 inches and adjustable headrests.

Hawaiian’s Airbus A330-200s provide seat widths of 16.5 to 18 inches in economy, with a 31-inch pitch. On both airlines, there’s enough room for even a heavyset guy like me to lower the tray table.

Hawaiian’s “Basic” service customers aren’t assigned seats until they arrive at the airport and friends or families traveling together may not get seats beside one another. “Basic” passengers are also the last to board, by which time finding space in the overhead bins may be a challenge.

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Using old-fashioned ramps that are exposed to the elements, passengers board a Southwest Airlines flight in a remote area of Honolulu’s Inouye International Airport.
Using old-fashioned ramps that are exposed to the elements, passengers board a Southwest Airlines flight in a remote area of Honolulu’s Inouye International Airport © Jay Jones / Lonely Planet

Interminable terminals

Upon landing in Honolulu, I was hungry, so I first sought out a stall selling food. That was a bit of a hike since Southwest uses Gates G7 through G10 in a remote part of Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. In a throwback to a much-earlier era, there are no jetways at these gates; passengers deplane and board using ramps exposed to the weather.

One plus for Southwest: their inter-island flights – they serve the four most-visited islands: O‘ahu, Maui, Hawai‘i and Kauai – all depart from those same gates in Terminal G. In contrast, transferring from mainland to inter-island flights on Hawaiian necessitates either a long walk or a ride on the airport’s Wiki Wiki shuttle bus.

It was raining as I waited to get on an inter-island flight on Southwest. Over the PA, a gate agent announced that they didn’t have any umbrellas, but that they could provide plastic bags for anyone wanting to keep a purse or camera from getting wet. By the time I walked across the tarmac to the plane, it was only sprinkling, but had it been a downpour, I would have been soaked.

A look at a light hot meal on board a Hawaiian Airlines flight
A modest teriyaki chicken sandwich and a bag of potato chips passes for a “hot” dinner in economy aboard a transpacific flight on Hawaiian Airlines © Jay Jones / Lonely Planet

Hawaiian food service not much better

My Hawaiian flight to Las Vegas was uneventful, although a change of planes in Honolulu meant we departed and arrived 90 minutes late. The complimentary hot meal, a feature regularly touted by the airline, consisted of a meager, bland teriyaki chicken sandwich with a packet of potato chips.

Prior to that dinner service, flight attendants came through the cabin with carts full of snacks and bottled water, all for sale. I should have stocked up.

About an hour before landing, we were served a free glass of rum punch, along with two cookies.

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View of Diamond Head crater located on Oahu, Hawaii from airplane after takeoff
No matter which airline you choose, a trip to Hawaii can be among the most memorable destinations you'll ever experience © Superfluous02 / Getty Images

The bottom line: Price

How much can you expect to pay for flights to and from Hawaii on these airlines? That depends on how flexible you’re willing to be on travel dates, particularly on Southwest.

Both airlines’ websites have month-by-month fare calendars that compare prices by date. I priced nonstop flights between San Jose and Honolulu for April 2020, and found roundtrip rates on Southwest as low as $332. On Hawaiian, the cheapest was $556.

Of course, prices often change from day to day. One advantage Southwest offers is the ability to change to a lower-priced ticket – if you find one – without paying the typical fee. Your savings are then “banked” for one year for use on another flight.

If you save a few dollars, avoid my goof – spend it on some food to take on board.

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