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Award tickets to Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific can be among the hardest to find. There aren’t a ton of airlines flying nonstop between North America and down under, and during peak travel times, these flights are usually packed and business and first class seats cost a small fortune and are rarely released as award seats.
However, this January I noticed that United was releasing a good number of business and first class award seats on their San Francisco and Los Angeles to Sydney/Melbourne routes, so I used 140,000 US Airways miles and booked a roundtrip first class award. My outbound would have me departing from Los Angeles to Sydney on a United 747-400 in GlobalFirst and continuing on the tag flight to Melbourne aboard the same plane after a quick layover.
On March 31 US Airways will leave Star Alliance and join Oneworld – one of the key steps towards integrating Dividend Miles into American AAdvantage. With the merger there will be positives and negatives – on the plus side I look forward to being able to use Dividend Miles for one-way awards and more flexible change rules (right now you cannot change an award after you take the first segment, which can greatly inhibit the flexibility of awards).
On the negative side, Oneworld has fewer airline partners and for certain regions of travel awards will become much harder to redeem – for example Australia. Right now, you can redeem awards to the South Pacific on multiple partners via Asia or United and Air New Zealand non-stop. With Oneworld you can only redeem on Qantas and Hawaiian and AA does not allow Australia awards to route via Asia at the same mileage rates as non-stop or direct flights on Qantas and Hawaiian. The bad thing here is that Qantas awards are very scarce and routing via Hawaii often entails overnight layovers.
So, I wanted to take advantage of US Airways current Star Alliance membership to head down under – especially since its only 80,000 miles for coach/110,000 business/ 140,000 first class roundtrip and they often sell miles at 1.1 cents a pop, like this past December’s share bonus where I was able to rack up 100,000 miles for $1,100. If you don’t buy miles, you can transfer Starwood points to US Airways at the rate of 20,000 SPG -> 25,000 US Airways (you can find out more about SPG’s transfer partners here, and the SPG Amex is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 25,000 points for spending $5,000 in the first 6 months if you need to boost your account).
Using United miles, you’d need 40,000 miles each way for economy/ 60,000 business and 80,000 first. United is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards if you have one of Chase’s premium cards – the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus or Ink Bold and points transfer to your MileagePlus account instantly. United is also a Starwood transfer partner, but at a dismal ratio of 20,000 Starpoints = 10,000 United miles.
Aeroplan, the mileage program of Air Canada, charges 80,000 miles roundtrip for economy, 160,000 for business and a whopping 220,000 miles roundtrip for first class, so it’s not the cheapest option. However, Aeroplan is a transfer partner of both American Express Membership Rewards (the points program of cards like the Premier Rewards Gold and the Platinum Card) and Starwood Preferred Guest (at the 20,000 SPG to 25,000 Aeroplan ratio).
Not My First United First Class Rodeo
I’ve flown United first (to Rio de Janeiro) and business internationally (to Dublin) and transcontinental from LAX-JFK and my experience has always been comfortable, but nothing amazing. However, this time I’d be flying on the 747, which is my favorite aircraft of all time, simply for its sheer size (kinda like me) and upper deck. However, the first class cabin sits in the nose of the plane on the lower level, but I was able to snag seat 1K, which is where the nose of the plane actually curves.
The United 747-400 has the following seating layout:
The GlobalFirst cabin has 12 seats total. The first two rows have two seats each along the fuselage, and then rows 3 and 4 have four seats each in a 1 x 2 x 1 combination. The middle seats are angled slightly towards each other (good for traveling couples), and while there is a degree of privacy, I’d rather not sit in them unless traveling with someone I know.
The seats have a standard pitch of about 6’6″ each when reclined to their fully horizontal position, but I found them to be a little bit longer than that because I was able to stretch out fully and I am 6’7″. They are only 22″ wide (compare that to 36″ in Cathay Pacific First Class on their 747!), and upright they are like armchairs with a thick armrest on the aisle, little cubbies to store things along the wall and under the footwell, a power outlet, and a personal TV screen with on-demand entertainment. There’s nothing really screening these from the aisle and I think overall they’re essentially a modern day business class lie-flat seat. However, they’re still much roomier than business class on the same aircraft, which is crammed in a 2 x 4 x 2 layout and only 20″ wide).
Not the most up-to-date first class seat, but comfortable nonetheless.
Non-First Class Ground Experience
I arrived at LAX about 90 minutes before departure and I was checking a bag so I went to an agent, who somewhat rebuffed me and just told me to use the kiosk. Normally I use kiosks, but since I was checking a bag and wanted to change my frequent flyer number (I always change it on award tickets – you never know when they may actually award miles), I wanted a human to assist.
Since I was flying GlobalFirst and there was no line, I thought that wasn’t a big ask. The agent got somewhat huffy but hopped behind the counter, took my passport and started clicking madly on the kiosk – at which point I told her I’d just do it because I wanted to confirm my seats, change my frequent flyer program, etc. However, she got errors and had to manually check me in anyway because the visa wasn’t attached to my reservation.
To go to Australia you need to apply for an E-visa in advance and pay about $20 before leaving the country, which I did and it is supposed to automatically be attached to your passport/reservation. However, there was an issue with mine and they had to call Australia to get it all figured out. Luckily it was fine and after about 10 minutes I had my boarding pass and I headed to the TSA Pre-check, which was thankfully empty.
The United Lounge at LAX
Once through the lounge I headed to the GlobalFirst lounge, which is past the regular United lounge, somewhat hidden on the second level above the McDonald’s.
The check-in agent did not advise me to go to the first lounge and I wonder how much long they’ll keep the lounge open now that United no longer offers 3 cabin first class on transcontinental flights.
The lounge is basic with sandwiches, wine and self serve bar. I had a couple beers to help tire me out for the 10:20 pm departure to SYD and before long I was headed to the gate to board.
On the 747 there are two boarding points – business and first via door 1 and economy through a second jetbridge, which makes for a much less crowded boarding.
Upon getting settled in 1K the purser introduced himself and ran through the basic flight details while delivering the menu. Sparkling wine was offered – though I saw that they have special champagnes including Henriot, Nicolas Feuillatte and Philipponnat, but none were apparently being poured on my flight – and also a commemorative tin LAX amenity kit, in addition to the regular kit, which is quite substantial.
As a 747 nut I prefer the upper deck of the 747, but the cone ain’t so bad! Some may find the curved nose to be claustrophobic, but I like 1A and K and they’d even be decent for a traveling couple. To me, it felt more private than the rest of the cabin and they’re the furthest away from the galley. One of the things I really like about these seats is that there is a ton of storage, including a very deep well in the left armrest that basically goes to the floor and can easily hold your laptop/a small purse and Bose headphones (I recommend bringing them since United’s headphones are poor quality).
I had eaten dinner in Los Angeles, so I opted to pass on dinner right away and after about 90 minutes and a couple drinks in, I changed into shorts and a t-shirt (United does not offer PJs) I reclined the bed and put the mattress pad and slipped into a deep sleep. The comforter is really soft and the lie-flat bed was nearly 6’8” so I could stretch out very comfortably.
It was pitch black when I woke up and when I flipped on the TV it said that only 4:15 was left in the flight- sweet! I had slept for almost 8 hours non-stop.
I was hungry at that point so I asked for my entrée, which they had kept aside for me. I went with the chicken, which was edible, but not memorable. After which I went back to bed for 2 more hours and then woke up for breakfast.
The menu also featured a starter of a cheese and piquillo pepper spring roll, red rock seafood bisque and a green salad. The main course options were:
-Beef tenderloin in asiago broth with brown butter gnocchi and green asparagus
–Spice-rubbed breast of chicken with mustard-barbecue sauce, steamed rice, mixed vegetables and pickled cabbage
– Amazon cod filet with mixed vegetable ratatouille
– Tri-color ravioli with cherry tomato sauce and herbed butternut squash with parmesan
For dessert there was a cheese selection and ice cream sundaes while throughout the middle of the flight there were light snacks available including assorted sandwiches. The menu was very similar to what you’d expect on a BusinessFirst transcontinental flight.
The wine list wasn’t terribly impressive, but included both US and Old World selections like Wente Vineyards and Benziger Family Vineyards chardonnays, Domaine Faiveley Clos Rochette Mercurey from Burgundy, Dry Creek Vineyard Cabernet and Chateau Greysac Medoc.
I generally do not like airline breakfasts, but this one was pretty good – with a cheddar omelette, ham, yogurt, spinach frittata and fruit. The other choices included a chilled deli selection and just plain cold cereal with a banana.
Get Your Disco On
During the night I woke up and noticed that there was a unique 80’s-style lamp, which the purser informed me he brings on all of his long-haul flights to provide ambient lighting for his first class passengers. It didn’t bother me and I thought it was kind of funny, but I may have had a different opinion if I was seated next to it or paid $20,000 for my ticket. However, it was somewhat useful to have light in the cabin without it being intrusive. My Instagram post seems to indicate that most people thought it was incredibly tacky, but feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!
Service was very attentive with the flight crew genuinely interested in getting anything I needed – during the first 90 minutes of flight my champagne glass was never empty, which is rare when flying US carriers.
What was also interesting is that my 747 was one that had been retrofitted with WiFi, so I was able to check in from over the Pacific and catch up on things from the work day while still on my flight. It was expensive at $16.99, but worth it for peace of mind and worked once we were about 30 minutes out after takeoff and pretty much up until we landed in Sydney.
While the experience isn’t as fancy as foreign carriers that provide caviar and nice champagne in first class, it was comfortable and allowed me to land in Sydney fully rested and ready to seize the day. To me, sleeping 11 out of 14.5 hours on a flight is more valuable than having a couple scoops of caviar (though it’s always nice when you can have your caviar & rest and eat it too!).
Transit in Sydney a Breeze, Thanks to the Singapore Airlines First Class Lounge
When flying LAX-SYD-MEL you stay airside and do your immigration in Melbourne. You need to get off the plane for security reasons, so you go through airport security at the transit terminal and then first class passengers can use the Singapore Airlines Kris Lounge or the Air New Zealand business class lounge. I was the only person in the Singapore lounge and had my own attendant making me Veuve Clicquot mimosas.
For the hour-and-ten-minute SYD-MEL I had seat 2K, which I personally did not like as much as 1K, because it seems more exposed.
But it was fine and I had some Cava and enjoyed looking out the window at the beautiful sky.
Arrival in Melbourne a piece of cake even though I couldn’t use Smartgate, because I was using my old passport with no-chip, but I got through in no time at all and was on my way into the city ready for my time in Australia to begin.
To Sum it Up: A Perfectly Enjoyable Experience
Overall, my experience flying United GlobalFirst down under was comfortable and a good option since United opens up more award space on tight routes to the South Pacific than other carriers. You shouldn’t be expected to be wowed by cuisine or a fancy suite, but if you’re focused on good departure/arrival times and can score award availability, you really cannot beat flying roundtrip in first class to Australia for less than $2,000! I wouldn’t pay United’s exorbitant price to fly in business/first (I’d certainly go for Qantas or Virgin Australia), but from a mileage redemption perspective United is pretty hard to beat!