Black Rock, Ka'anapali Beach, Maui
It used to be that getting to Hawaii from the United States' West Coat required a major cash outlay. Even earlier this year, round-trip fares could consistently be well above $500 or $600.
No wonder most people perceive the 50th State mostly as a luxury or honeymoon destination: It takes the price of a dowry to go.
But this week, that's changed. Drastically.
What changed? This week, Virgin America began flying its new Hawaii flights, "The Pineapple Express," and in response, the consolidated monster airlines United and American had to contend something they thought they had merged their way out of: competition.
Rates are low at the moment because of a variety of sales—Virgin America's, designed to let people know the flights exist, and United's and American's, which unintentionally to show people how scared they are to find they're no longer the only big dogs in this game. But it's a sign that cheaper fares are coming on a regular basis.
Virgin America (and not Virgin Atlantic—that's a sister company that flies to Europe) now goes from SFO to Honolulu and starting Dec. 3, to Kahului, the biggest airport in Maui.
If it came to deciding which airline to pick for a flight to Hawaii, I just might choose Virgin America. Its rewards aren't as golden for frequent flyers, but the seat-back entertainment provides two dozen channels for free (American charges you to watch anything but a package of antique NBC shows from last season), Virgin has power outlets at seats—even in coach—and Wi-Fi.
Virgin is also awarding loyalty points to passengers who book an Airbnb in Hawaii instead of a regular hotel—a fact that has some in the Hawaiian hospitality industry on edge. Not that tourist business is scarce these days: Up until the end of summer, 4.3 million people flew there from the mainland this year compared with 4.1 million during the same period last year.
Fun side fact: Mashable recently reported on the special, eight-foot wing "sharklet" extensions that Virgin America is using on the A320s is uses on its Hawaii flights to improve its range and fuel efficiency. That may not be a reason to book Virgin over any other airline, but planespotters will find it fascinating.
All this means that when you plan your next Hawaii trip (or your first one), also have a look at flights going from San Francisco's SFO airport. Because Richard Branson's airline has decided to joust with the legacy carriers at that airport, prices may be substantially lower than what they are from Los Angeles' LAX, and they may mean a brief stop in San Francisco to catch the Virgin flight could save you money on a trip to the Aloha State.