I surprised my family of four by booking them roundtrip business class tickets to Italy for Christmas using US Airways miles. It is very difficult to find four flatbed business class award seats to Europe during peak Christmas travel time. With a bit of flexibility, I was lucky to snag a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt on the outbound and the United flight below on the inbound. I previously reviewed Lufthansa’s 747-8 business class, so I will skip ahead to the flight home.
United has recently increased their award chart prices to most regions. Flying Star Alliance partners in a premium cabin usually costs thousands of miles more than flying United itself. Those that want to conserve United miles (or Chase Ultimate Rewards) should take note of this trip report, as your mileage balance stretches further flying United metal.
How was the seat? Is United BusinessFirst a truly flat bed product? Was the service (and food) to the standards of other Star Alliance business carriers? Is the Star Alliance business lounge in London a decent place to kill a few hours?
The Star Alliance lounge in London-Heathrow occupies a fairly large area, but it’s a pretty tired space.
After transiting security, we were helped by a stone-faced agent and directed to the main area. There were tons of seating options, but many of the upholstered chairs were in rough shape. The lounge filled up quickly but was nearly deserted when we finally left for our flight given the late departure.
The drink selection was ample, but the food choices left a lot to be desired. I passed on the dubious-looking chicken wings and baked potato bar.
According to the terminal signs, our gate was a 15-20 minute walk from the lounge. With a little over an hour before departure (3:15 p.m.), we made our way to the gate just as boarding was being announced.
The adjacent gate had a TAM 777-3ooER parked for the night, and I remarked to my family how hard it was to find premium cabin award seats on TAM flights. Luckily, I was able to snag a seat to Brazil when TAM miraculously opened up tons of first class space last week!
After snapping a few photos, I headed down the long jet bridge to our awaiting aircraft.
London-Heathrow (LHR) – Washington-Dulles (IAD)
Depart: 4:20 PM on December 28, 2013
Arrive: 7:40 PM same day
Aircraft: Boeing 777-200 (772)
Seat: 7J (Business Class)
We passed through the Global First cabin making our way to BusinessFirst [Scott: I really dislike United's premium cabin names.] The Global First seats did not appear much different than BusinessFirstt, other than having direct aisle access and a bit more privacy.
The BusinessFirst cabin was nearly empty when we boarded, giving me time to snap a few photos of the seats.
The cabin is configured in a 2 x 4 x 2 arrangement. I wanted to avoid the row of four seats at all costs, so I booked myself and my sister in a pair of seats while my parents occupied the other pair in the same row. We wouldn’t be able to converse with each other unless cutting through the galley, but it wasn’t an issue.
Upon first impression, the seat was quite comfortable. I normally don’t like flying business class and sharing a common aisle with a window seat, but I was with my sister. Grabbing a pair of these seats would be perfect for couples or traveling companions.
There was a small ottoman below the decent-sized TV screen, but I couldn’t reach it from the fully upright position. The foot space was more than on my Lufthansa flight, but much less than Turkish’s seat. There was also a space to store shoes or a small laptop bag below the ottoman.
The seat controls were basic and intuitive. The in-flight entertainment remote was also easy to manuever, but it would often take a hard mash of the buttons to function properly.
At my seat was also a set of fairly ordinary set of headphones and an amenity kit with all of the usual components.
Shortly before take off, the flight attendants made their rounds with trays of orange juice, water, and champagne. I went with water.
As a quick aside, our flight attendants could not have been nicer and more sincere. They were always smiling and joking around with the cabin. It was surprising given other United reports I’ve read, but it was certainly a welcome surprise!
After collecting our empty plastic cups, we pushed back on time and had an uneventful taxi and take off. About thirty minutes into the air, menus and hot towels were distributed.
We started off with beverages and warm nuts. My sister hated the mix, so I was excited to polish off her portion.
After drinks we were served the prawn appetizer and salad. Both were fine.
For the main course I had the salmon while my sister chose the chicken. She said hers was a bit tough. Again, my entree was decent but nothing stood out.
For dessert I nibbled on some fruit and cheese because I was so stuffed. I encouraged my sister to go all out for the sundae (which is prepared at your seat). Who doesn’t love a good sundae?
The meal service was very efficient which is all you can ask for on a transatlantic flight. Everyone was served at their own pace, and I was never waiting impatiently for the next course.
After polishing off dessert, I reclined to the lounge position and began watching some movies. United had a pretty solid IFE selection, and I opted for “Blue Jasmine.”
Unfortunately, twenty minutes into the film the entire plane’s in-flight entertainment crashed. The flight attendants tried several times to reboot it, but it took well over an hour to fix. Luckily, the flight attendants had a great sense of humor about it. One walked by us and said “I know sitting next to your sibling can be brutally unbearable, we’ll be sure to fix this promptly!”
To pass the time, I read a bit and then decided to grab a few hours of sleep. As Scott noted on his United flight from London to Los Angeles, the bed does go to the fully flat position, and the pillow/blanket combination is comfortable enough.
Those taller than 6’3″ will likely have their feet right against the plastic end, but I didn’t encounter this issue given my average height.
I grabbed about three hours of sleep before being woken up for the snack service. I was still stuffed from dinner, but my sister had the chicken wrap that she said was pretty good. I stretched my legs and found the sparse snack basket available in the galley for business class passengers.
Before I knew it, we were descending towards Washington. Landing was equally uneventful, and soon enough we were in the infamous Dulles moon rovers headed towards immigration. I breezed through with Global Entry, but my sister didn’t have to wait more than 20 minutes given the late arrival of the flight.
Seat: The seat is comfortable for lounging with plenty of leg room. I couldn’t reach the ottoman from the upright position, and I’m 6’0″. SeatGuru warns that proximity to the galley might be bothersome, but we never experienced the loud dishware clanking normally associated with these seats.
Food: It was basic and edible, I will say that. European carriers, Swiss comes to mind, simply do food better, and Turkish blows United clear out of the water, but no one is flying United BusinessFirst for the food, anyways.
Service: I had an excellent crew, especially given my expectations. They were polite, friendly, and had a sense of humor my family enjoyed. Most had English accents and were likely based in London. They were also active on drink refills.
Bed: The bed does go fully flat but is more conducive for side sleepers. Anyone above 6’3″ is going to feel cramped when their feet get too close to the plastic end. I thought the pillow (especially) and blanket were pretty comfortable.
In Flight Entertainment: A good amount of movie selections, but I hardly got to enjoy them given the malfunctioning system.
Recommendation: United BusinessFirst is a serviceable business class product. I flew it home from London because I wanted to treat my family and try it out. The recent United devaluation and the award chart prices to Europe relative to other regions have actually altered my travel preferences.
I don’t think it’s worth the mileage premium to fly to Europe in business class from the East Coast. The flight is too short, so you’re probably only getting a small amount of sleep in either scenario. If you are taking a longer flight, especially to the West Coast, then it might make sense.
[Scott: I disagree. I would want business class between Europe and the East Coast too, but I respect Bill's position because I think reasonable minds can differ. Whether or not to fly a premium product for more miles is a very individual decision.]
I would rather conserve my miles for business class trips to Africa, Asia or the Middle East.
For those that must fly a premium cabin to Europe, I think the spread in United miles (57.5k vs. 70k oneway) is too much to justify flying another carrier, schedule being equal.
If using another currency like Aeroplan miles, I would of course want to fly Brussels Airlines instead of United. The cost is the same, but the service, food, and seat will likely be better.
I’m still bullish on United miles overall. They’re fantastic for economy awards. They’re also reasonable for United Business awards, and I consider United Business to be a very comfortable bed with solid food and entertainment options.
And I love the ease of earning United miles. There are a lot of options to get United miles. There are United co-branded credit cards. There are also cards that earn Ultimate Rewards like the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus, and Ink Bold that allow 1:1 transfers of their Ultimate Rewards to United miles.