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Comparing United Polaris First and Business Class

Dec. 07, 2016
9 min read
Comparing United Polaris First and Business Class
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Last week, United launched its much-anticipated Polaris product, with refreshed service in the former BusinessFirst and Global First cabins, along with a phenomenal new lounge at Chicago O'Hare. Eventually, most Polaris flights will offer a brand-new modified 1-2-1 business-class seat — at the same time, United will begin retiring its first-class cabin, which is now only available on the 747 (and will be retired by 2018) as well as select 777-200s and 767-300s.

Since there is still an opportunity to book and fly United Polaris first, I wanted to explore the differences between these two cabins — especially when it comes to the in-flight service. Perks include a more comprehensive amenity kit, additional menu items and access to the Global First Lounge (where available). But is first class worth the added expense? I'll dig in to United's two premium-cabin products, from booking to in-flight service, to find out.

Fares and Award Availability

As I mentioned, United only offers Polaris first on three aircraft: the Boeing 747-400, select 767-300s and one variant of the 777-200. United is only selling first-class seats on a handful of its remaining routes for the next few months, though some (like San Francisco to Hong Kong) have a three-class 747 assigned through the end of the schedule in October 2017.

The challenge here is that first class is so much more expensive than business. We're talking roughly three times the price, which is crazy considering that the experience only differs ever so slightly.

For example, below is a comparison of first and business-class fares for Newark to Frankfurt, which is one of United's more popular premium routes. Note that these are the least expensive flights (in both cabins) that I could find.

I wasn't able to find award availability to Frankfurt, but there were a few dates with award space to Paris. Generally (on this route), dates with first-class availability also have space in the business-class cabin, and with a difference of 22,500 miles, business is likely the way to go.

Using United's Expert Mode, it's easy to see that there are also many more business-class award seats available on this particular route — at least nine, vs. four open award seats in the first-class cabin.

Another popular premium route is San Francisco to Hong Kong. At just under $16,000 round-trip, United's first-class cabin is astronomically priced. Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines actually charge less for first class, and you'll have a far better premium experience when flying those carriers, instead.

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Here's a fare comparison for United Polaris first (left) vs. business (right) on the SFO-HKG route:

While paying for first class on a United-operated flight doesn't make a whole lot of sense, redeeming for award travel can be quite a bargain. The airline charges 80,000 miles for a one-way first-class ticket to Asia — the same amount required for travel to Europe. There's more award availability in first than there is in business, too, and considering you'll need just 10,000 more miles for first class over biz, the splurge here can definitely make sense.

As for earning miles, all passengers now earn based on the cost of the ticket — so if you spend more, you'll earn more, but at the exact same rate. So a $10,000 business-class ticket will earn the same number of miles as a $10,000 first-class ticket, but as full-fare tickets earn more elite-qualifying miles, you may actually come out ahead mileage-wise by booking business over first.

Check-In and Lounge

In the past, it's been possible to check in for Global First at the Global Services area at select airports, including Newark. Global Services agents are better equipped to assist with flight changes, complicated checked baggage routings (including connections to other carriers) and anything else that might come up. However, it appears that the Global Services area is off limits to non-GS customers following the launch of Polaris — there are now dedicated Polaris lanes at United hubs and some international airports instead.

Polaris check-in at Chicago O'Hare.
Polaris check-in at Chicago O'Hare.

On the lounge front, meanwhile, there's only one Polaris Lounge currently open, at Chicago O'Hare. It's exceptional, but Polaris business and first-class passengers both receive the same great service there, and there aren't any additional amenities or privileges for first-class flyers.

Expert bartenders will fix you a custom cocktail at the Polaris Lounge.
Expert bartenders will fix you a custom cocktail at the Polaris Lounge.

While they're still open, Polaris first passengers (and one guest) can access Global First lounges in San Francisco, Washington, D.C, Hong Kong, London and Tokyo. These lounges offer improved food and beverage, and they're often much less crowded than the regular United Clubs at those locations, however the experience doesn't come close to matching what you'll get at the new Polaris Lounge.

Cabin and Seat

The biggest difference between business and first comes into play with the "hard product" — the seat you'll have on the plane. First-class seats are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration on the 777, 1-1-1 on the 767 and 1-1 or 1-2-1 on the 747 (depending on your row). Both seats lie completely flat, and you'll have the same mattress pad, pillows and blankets in both cabins.

Two center first-class seats on the 747.
Two center first-class seats on the 747.

By comparison, the business-class cabins are twice as dense, with 2-4-2 seats on the 777, 2-2-2 on the 767 and 2-4-2 on the lower deck of the 747 (with 2-2 up top). Other cabin amenities (overhead storage on the 777 and lavatories, for example) are identical though.

Business class is a very tight squeeze on United's 747.
Business class is a very tight squeeze on United's 747.

The first-class seat also offers additional privacy and much more storage — though business-class seats on the upper deck have large storage compartments under the window.

Window storage on the upper deck of the 747.
Window storage on the upper deck of the 747.

However, given the first-class fares, you'll could book one business-class seat and the seat next to you — just to have somewhere to store your belongings — and still have thousands of dollars left over. You could also book a seat in business class and leave all of your gear at home, buy an entire new wardrobe, smartphone and laptop at your destination, and still have money to spare. First class is that much more expensive.

In-Flight Service

United has completely overhauled its food and beverage service, with nearly 50 new appetizers, almost 100 entrees and hundreds of new snacks and beverage options. However, the menus are almost identical in business and first class — check out the menus for Chicago to Shanghai, for example.

United Polaris First Review
The menu in United Polaris first.

Passengers in both cabins can partake in a wine flight, including a tasting of three reds or three whites (or both). Business and first-class customers both receive nuts, but first-class passengers also get a small skewer (below).

United Polaris First Review
United Polaris first wine flight and appetizer skewer.

First-class passengers also receive an additional appetizer course — a small bowl of soup.

United Polaris First Review
United Polaris first butternut squash soup.

The first-class service is also a bit more customized, and speedy. In first class, for example, I began the meal shortly after departure. In business class, however, my appetizer and salad — delivered on one tray at the same time — didn't arrive until two hours into the flight. This will improve as flight attendants become more familiar with the new service, but that's a very long time to wait for the main meal to begin.

United Polaris Business Review
United Polaris business appetizer and salad.

First-class passengers receive "turn-down service," but I found this to be more inconvenient than anything. The flight attendant didn't seem thrilled when I made the request, and I had to stand around waiting while she set up the bed.

United Polaris First Review
United Polaris first turn-down service.

Business-class passengers have all the same bedding, even down to the amazing gel pillows — the only difference is that you need to set down the mattress pad yourself.

Other Amenities

One way United differentiates the service is with its redesigned amenity kits. First-class passengers get larger kits, with the following additional amenities:

  • Cowshed moisturizer, eye balm, mouthwash, a glasses wipe, hand sanitizer (four packets vs. two in the business-class kit)
The Polaris first amenity kit (left) vs. business class (right).
The Polaris first amenity kit (left) vs. business class (right).

Passengers in both cabins also get pajamas (available upon request) on any flights longer than 12 hours.

Both business and first-class passengers can request pajamas.
Both business and first-class passengers can request pajamas.

Bottom Line

I was given the opportunity to upgrade from business to first on my return flight. The cost? $989.

I could see paying a couple hundred dollars to upgrade on a flight to Asia, perhaps, but even $500 is too much in my opinion. If you were to book first class over business on a flight to Hong Kong, you'd be spending an additional $10,000 round-trip for the privilege. Considering the relatively minor incremental benefits you'd receive, it's simply impossible to justify the added expense — especially once United launches the new business-class seat.

Have you flown United Polaris? Tell us about your experience, below.