Review: United Polaris Lounge (Chicago O'Hare)
TO THE POINT: United's new Polaris Lounge is easily the best US carrier-operated lounge in the world. The pros: open, yet private seating, luxury finishes, and everything's included, from speciality cocktails to high-end food. The cons: access is limited, but that ultimately improves the experience for Polaris guests.
By now you're almost certainly familiar with United's new Polaris business class — and, quite possibly, the airline's first Polaris Lounge at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. I had a chance to tour the lounge earlier this week, then I visited as a paying passenger (on a Polaris first award ticket) yesterday morning.
I actually happened to be the very first Polaris Lounge guest, which hadn't been my intention — I simply arrived early hoping to snap a few pictures without any passengers. Unfortunately, there went my anonymity (as you can see from the large group of employees applauding me at 7:15am on opening day).
As a result, I had United executives and other employees congratulating me for being the "first guest" throughout the four or so hours I was there. But, given that it was the lounge's first day, all of the guests seemed to be getting quite a bit of attention. It'll be interesting to return in a few months to see how the experience has changed, given that the initial excitement will have worn off by that point.
Location and Access
United is planning to open a total of nine Polaris Lounges around the world. Chicago's lounge opened yesterday, and Houston, Newark and San Francisco's lounges should be open by the middle of 2017. Dulles and Los Angeles will follow later in 2017, and Hong Kong, London and Tokyo should open by the end of 2017, but may not be available until early 2018.
The Chicago lounge is a bit of a hike from the main gate area — which should help cut down on traffic, and also give you an opportunity to get a bit of exercise before your long-haul flight. After checking in at O'Hare's Terminal 1, you'll walk underground to the "C" gates.
Make a left turn and walk toward gate C18, where you'll see the entrance to the Polaris Lounge.
The lounge is open from 7:15am until 9:00pm seven days a week. Polaris Lounges are only accessible to business and first-class passengers flying United Polaris or business or first class on Star Alliance partners. United Club members, Star Alliance Gold Members, Global Services members, etc., can only get in if they're flying business or first class.
After scanning your boarding pass, you'll enter the main reception area. There's a lot of marble. (I discussed the lounge entrance and light fixture in more detail in this week's preview post, so check that out for more info.)
Just past the entrance is a bank of three customer service desks — the far right is for Global Services passengers, while anyone can use the other two. The agents there use a paging system for passenger queues, so you don't need to wait around until it's your turn — you can relax in the lounge instead, as you'll get a page when it's time to go up to the desk.
During the preview I was told that the agents can assist with both same-day travel and future (already booked) reservations. I asked for assistance with reissuing a ticket (that didn't require any changes), but the agent wasn't able to do that. Then I asked to make changes to an award and she wasn't able to assist there either, so it really just seems like they're there to help with issues related to your current flight.
Just past the customer service desks are a dozen or so private unisex restrooms.
Each restroom has a toilet and sink, so you won't have to deal with bumping into anyone else (or their luggage), as you would in a communal restroom.
Then, just past the restroom hall is the first section of the lounge, which consists of semi-private "cubicle" seats with slide-out tables.
I spent the first hour or so in this cubicle and I found it to be very comfortable. You're still exposed to the rest of the lounge, but it sure beats the cramped seating you'll find in most United Clubs.
There's half-booth seating along the wall as well, which could be a good option if you're traveling with someone else or all of the pods are full.
Next up is the bar area, where you'll find a dozen or so bar chairs and additional booth-style seats along the wall.
There's more of both style of seats on the other side of the bar as well.
Then, next to the buffet, you'll find a couple tables, each with four chairs — good for groups, perhaps.
Since access is fairly limited, you shouldn't have an issue finding the seating style you prefer. During the four hours I was in the lounge there were at most a couple dozen passengers, but given that the lounge had just opened, many Polaris customers may not have been aware that they could visit.
While some United Clubs have showers, they're far more luxurious in the Polaris Lounge. Even the waiting area (below) is a huge improvement. You can reserve a shower or a relaxation area at the reception desk — of course, given how empty the lounge was on the first morning, there wasn't a wait for either.
The Polaris Lounge offers four relaxation areas, each with a chaise lounge, a Saks pillow and blanket, an eye mask, slippers, a "pillow spray" and a chocolate.
I spent a few minutes resting here and found it to be quite comfortable. The attendant even proactively brought over a carafe of water in case I got thirsty during my short nap.
While light will bleed in from the hallway, you can adjust the brightness in the room itself — below is what it looks like with the lights turned off. There's also a "white noise" machine that helps drown out any ambient noise.
The shower suites are located just around the corner. The hallway really demonstrates United's attention to detail here — check out the fiber-optic Polaris-themed ceiling!
The shower suites are very nice, with heated floors, high-end finishes and the nicest towels I've ever used. The shower water pressure was very good as well.
There's also a toilet and sink.
The toilet paper even has the Polaris logo stamped on. I'm assuming the attendants add this stamp when they clean the shower suite.
You also get slippers and a loofah.
And there are a selection of other amenities to choose from, including a shaving kit, a hair net, toothbrush and toothpaste, and deodorant.
The amenities are stored at the check-in area, so be sure to make your request before you head to the shower.
Finally, there's free Wi-Fi available. Really, really good free Wi-Fi. It's probably fast enough that all of the passengers in Terminal 1 could share the connection and still experience solid speeds.
Food and Beverage
You'll have plenty to eat on board your Polaris flight (as you'll see in my review later today), but there are also a variety of dining options in the lounge.
Hot items will normally go here — unfortunately the lounge's kitchen was still awaiting health department approval when I visited yesterday morning, so hot items weren't available yet. If you visit today you should be able to try them, though.
There were a selection of cold breakfast items on hand, including smoked fish and accompaniments (below).
And fresh breads, including bagels, muffins and scones.
The other station had a modest selection of sliced fruit and berries.
And a couple types of salads — the crumbled egg makes this a breakfast salad, I suppose.
Fruit juice, sodas and water are available as well, and you can order other drinks from the attendants or the bar.
I landed on a bagel (toasted using the provided toasters) with lox, cream cheese, cold egg and pickled cucumbers — sounds like a strange mix, I know, but it was delicious. The "green juice" I had was very good as well.
There's also coffee, water and tea around the corner.
Most of your drinking will probably take place at the bar. You can either order your drinks yourself or place an order with one of the roving attendants.
As I mentioned in the preview, top Polaris customers will be invited to select their own bottles of wine that'll be stored in wine lockers next to the bar. This is an invitation-only program, and while it's not clear just how pricey of a bottle you can order, United will be picking up the tab. As a guideline, it sounds like this will be offered to passengers who fly Polaris from Chicago at least once a month. The other lounges will have wine lockers as well.
The bar also offers beers by the bottle and on tap, a large variety of wines and a small, but high-end selection of spirits.
I ordered the lounge's signature drink, the North American Airplane, which the bartender expertly whipped up in a minute or so.
The drink was delicious — here's the recipe:
- 0.75 ounce Makers 46
- 0.75 ounce Aperol
- 0.75 ounce Amaro Nonino vermouth
- 0.75 ounce lemon juice
The drink is topped off with a paper airplane cut out from a map, which is clipped onto the side of the glass (I kept mine until it fell off a few hours later).
I love United's Polaris Lounge concept — most of the United Clubs are underwhelming at best and if the airline was to step up its business-class game (which it has), a network of high-end airport lounges was a must. And, fortunately, the Chicago Polaris Lounge lives up to the hype. I easily prefer it to any of the Amex Centurion Lounges I've visited (which are excellent as well), and if you happen to have access, I'd definitely add in an hour or two to hang out, grab a bite and use the incredible Wi-Fi.
All that said, the Polaris Lounge is still a work in progress. Only one has opened so far — at Chicago O'Hare's Terminal 1 — and some perks aren't yet available, including the restaurant-style a-la-carte dining we've been hearing about. I'm very impressed so far, though, and with more improvements on the way, United will soon be operating a network of truly world-class business-class lounges.
Have you visited United's Polaris Lounge?
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