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TPG Assistant Editor Matthew Zuzolo recently visited Hawaii as part of TPG’s summer intern trip to Maui. On his outbound flight, he flew United’s Economy Plus product from New York-JFK to Los Angeles (LAX) followed by a connection to Maui (OGG) on the carrier’s 737-800 in economy. For his return, he moved toward the nose of United’s 767-400 to fly in the carrier’s first class cabin from Honolulu (HNL) to Newark (EWR) — here’s his review.
Booking the Flight
This trip was my first on one of United’s long-haul planes in quite a long time, and after a pleasant Economy Plus flight to Los Angeles and a not-so-pleasant economy flight from LAX to Maui, I was eager to try out United’s first class and get a fully rounded sense of the carrier’s offerings. Booking just a few weeks before departure, I was lucky enough to get the very last first-class seat on this red-eye back to Newark from Hawaii’s hub in Honolulu.
Booked with cash, my one-way fare was $972.46, but with miles it would’ve run me either 40,000 miles + $5.60 or 90,000 miles + $5.60, depending on award availability. If you don’t have the 40,000 miles required for a one-way first-class flight, consider transferring points instantly from Ultimate Rewards earned with cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred. However, note that United rarely releases low-level first-class awards on this route, so you may need to redeem 90,000 miles, instead.
Though my one-way flight was certainly expensive, it actually wasn’t terrible given the last-minute nature of my booking. Round-trip prices on this route can vary depending on your travel dates, but generally range between $3,000-$4,000.
Honolulu International Airport (HNL)
I started my journey home from Maui (OGG) with a short intra-island flight to Honolulu International Airport (HNL) on Hawaiian Airlines (booked on the same ticket as my United flight), so I never actually checked in at HNL. However, I did have the chance to walk across the airport, which is pretty cool. Parts of HNL are open-air and include gardens and benches, allowing you to enjoy some Hawaiian sunshine — as long as it isn’t raining, like it was on the day of my trip. Nothing like dodging water coming from all directions as you make your way to your flight!
There’s a United Lounge at HNL, but I had to skip it, as my Hawaiian Airlines flight from Maui was delayed and I arrived at the gate just as my flight was boarding. If you have a layover at HNL between another Hawaiian island and the US mainland, know that it’s quite a long walk between gates and you’ll also have to stop for a minute or two at a US Department of Agriculture checkpoint to have your bags screened for Hawaiian fruit and produce, which are restricted in order to prevent the spread of fruit flies and diseases to mainland produce. If you really want to bring Hawaiian fruit back home, you’ll find pineapples for sale in a few of HNL’s post-security stores.
First-Class Cabin and Seat
When United 767-400ER is flown on international routes, its premium class is called BusinessFirst, but on domestic flights, United simply calls it “first class.” I was originally assigned to seat 8A — a window seat located in the very back of the cabin, beside a curtained seat reserved for crew — but before I even sat down, I was politely asked to switch to a different window seat, 4A, so a couple could sit together.
The 39 first class seats on this aircraft are arranged in a 2-1-2 configuration, and each flat-bed seat has 75 inches of pitch with 21 inches of width. I’m 6′ tall and found my seat quite comfortable, though not the most spacious premium-cabin seat I’ve ever encountered. The window seats are angled toward their respective sides of the plane, while the middle seats are angled toward the starboard side of the aircraft.
The plane’s economy-class cabin is arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration, with a total of 203 seats — 133 in standard economy and 70 in Economy Plus.
Each first-class seat has a reading light and comes with a pillow, blanket and amenity kit, as well as a couple of storage spaces. I like to spread out while traveling, so at-seat storage spaces are of particular value to me. There was a small cubby above my left shoulder that contained enough space for a book, tablet and or/small purse, in addition to storage for the in-flight literature and United-branded headphones, and a cupholder, power outlet and USB port.
There’s also a small compartment located between the monitor and foot-rest — big enough for a purse, some books, magazines or a thin laptop — and another small area beneath the foot-rest. Neither of these was large enough for my backpack, though; I prefer to keep this near me when I travel, but instead I had to store it in the overhead bin.
The on-demand entertainment system had a good selection of new and old movies, as well as TV shows, games and more (click here to check the offerings on your upcoming flight), but while I enjoyed having a big 15.4″ touchscreen, I was bothered by glare — even with my window-shade closed — while I was fully reclined. The screen can be controlled via a remote conveniently located to one side of the seat.
United provides a pair of not-great-quality headphones during the flight — even though they have a two-prong connection, you can still use your own headphones/earbuds on the flight.
Food and Service
Despite this flight being nine hours and 10 minutes, United doesn’t offer a full dinner service. Instead, each passenger is served the same “snack” tray. For my entrée, I was served some chowder with oyster crackers, a ham sandwich and a square of Creme Brûlée Godiva chocolate for dessert. The soup was tasty and not too salty, but the sandwich was pretty bland and mediocre — I would’ve preferred the hearty sliced-sirloin sandwich I had in Economy Plus on my outbound flight to Los Angeles earlier in the week.
After dinner, I spent some time watching a movie on the in-flight entertainment system and used United’s in-flight Wi-Fi to finish up some work before going to sleep. The internet signal was pretty good and worked well both times I tried to use it — for about an hour after leaving Honolulu and about an hour before arriving at Newark. It’ll run you about $16 for the entire flight, but in terms of performance and consistency, I feel it’s worth its price tag.
Though I worked or slept for most of my flight, during the few interactions I had with the flight crew, I found them friendly and accommodating. For instance, my flight attendant was happy to postpone my breakfast meal service for a few minutes while I finished up some work, and was then quite attentive when I was ready to eat. It was a stress-free way to enjoy this light meal (including a fluffy biscuit) and soon after, arrive.
I found United’s 767-400ER first-class seat to be comfortable for my entire flight. I usually have issues sleeping on planes, but I slept for a good portion of the flight and felt refreshed upon landing. I appreciated the quality of the entertainment and the Wi-Fi, and I was even happy to fly into Newark — even though it’s in New Jersey, I find EWR makes getting into New York City much easier than JFK or even LaGuardia.
The only thing I wish I had had was a full meal service. Even though this is technically a domestic route, it’s a very long flight. With more than nine hours in the air, there’s plenty of time to fit two full meals and a night’s sleep into one package.
United and Hawaiian are the only two airlines that offer nonstop flights between New York and Honolulu, but in my opinion, United’s 8:10pm departure is much more favorable and comfortable than Hawaiian’s 3:20pm departure (note that as of April 5 this flight will depart HNL at 2:50pm and arrive in Newark at 6:36am). For travelers looking for a comfortable flight between these cities, I’d look no further than United’s nonstop in first class — but bring snacks if you think you might go hungry.