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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here: Citi Prestige
I’ll be honest — I was dreading this flight. For the first time in over a decade, I found myself without elite status on United, and therefore in regular economy on a long-haul flight. The aircraft was also a newly configured United Polaris 777-300ER, and while the carrier has made a big deal about its dreamy Polaris experience in business class, it very casually crammed another seat across in economy. But I had to get home, and this was the cheapest and most efficient option, so here we go.
I had a monthlong trip lined up to visit Jordan and Israel, and came across a pretty good fare on United from Chicago (ORD) to Amman (AMM) with a return trip from Tel Aviv (TLV) for $764, even though I also had to book a separate flight from AMM to TLV. I was using points for the purchase, and with the Citi Prestige devaluation looming, I decided to cash those in at 1.33 cents per point while I still could. The price tag was a respectable 57,442 Citi ThankYou points that would earn me 11,081 very important lifetime flight miles but contribute only 2,760 redeemable miles to my account — remember when you actually used to get miles from flying?
While the hoopla about Polaris is deserved, United also downgraded the experience for the 80% of its passengers flying in economy. Like several other airlines, United went from a 3-3-3 configuration to a 3-43, jamming another seat in the middle section while adding Saks 5th Avenue bedding for Polaris customers.
Since I was unwilling to put $25,000 of spend on my United MileagePlus Explorer Card again to skirt United’s Premier Qualifying Dollars (PQD) requirement, my 50,000+ Premier Qualifying miles (PQMs) went to waste last year. I’m just 50,000 miles short of million miler status and its lifetime Premier Gold benefits, but it appears I’ll crawl across the finish line as a simple MileagePlus Member — for the first time since I joined the program in 2004.
Check-In and Lounge
When I arrived in Israel after a short flight from Jordan, I was surprised to not see an excess of security at TLV, however this was not the case when I departed. Before even entering the airport, my bags were screened and I was questioned. I was then allowed to enter the terminal, which had a modern and relaxed feel to it.
I took my place in the regular economy line, which was pretty short. I noticed an intense level of security just before the check-in counter, so I put my camera away until I was through. What followed was the most thorough level of questioning I’ve ever received. I was asked about all my activities while I was in Israel, including where I went and with whom. Every time the agent asked for someone’s name, she seemed to press a button, presumably to record my response — and she wanted to know all the names of everyone I was with. She then asked where I came from. When I said Jordan, she wanted to know all my activities there and the names of everyone I was with. I found it odd that no one had asked for that information when I’d entered Israel, but now that I was leaving, they were suddenly very interested. It took a few minutes, but I answered all of her questions and made my way to the check-in desk and to security. TLV airport was clean, spread out, pretty and well run, a reflection of the city itself.
Priority Pass, which I have as a perk of my Citi Prestige Card, has proven to be a savior during my stint as a non-elite. In Terminal 3, there are two Dan Lounges that are part of this network. Inside, the lounge is long and narrow.
Though there were a lot of people, I didn’t have any issues with seating. The floor-to-ceiling windows offered great views of the tarmac. As far as food and refreshments, there wasn’t a main course but the side dishes of salad, hummus, cheese and crackers, couscous, tahini, eggplant, yogurt and soup were enough to fill me up.
Soda, juice, water, beer, wine and a coffee maker were available self-serve at both ends of the lounge.
There were no shower facilities, but the Wi-Fi was fast, as you can see from the speed test results, below.
For me, the highlight of the lounge was the friendly staff. For example, when I asked an attendant what the soup was, he said he only knew the word in Hebrew — 10 minutes later, when I was enjoying my food, he found me and said, “Legumes. It’s… French,” in broken English with a big smile. (Beans and chick peas, for the record, as my seat neighbor explained.)
If you find yourself here without lounge access, the center of the terminal had a fountain and looked like a nice place to hang out — just don’t drink the water, which someone must have done at some point if they felt the need to put up a sign about it.
I got to the gate early so I could be among the first to board and get some photos of the empty cabin, however the final security check wouldn’t allow me to pre-board — I was allowed to board with Global Services but the plane wasn’t ready and we had to wait a few minutes in the jet bridge. The passengers in front of me joked with one of their colleagues that his seat, which was toward the back of the business-class cabin, was actually in economy, teasing him with details of how awful the experience would be. Everyone got a good laugh while I cried on the inside.
Cabin and Seat
I quickly made my way through the Polaris cabin so I wouldn’t be consumed by jealousy, arriving in economy to find the new 3-4-3 configuration. My first impression was that there were a LOT of seats. This was going to be crowded.
The very rear section was made up of all regular economy, except for the exit row. The cabin was new, clean and fresh, but, again, I was taken aback by how many seats there were.
Economy Plus seats were also arranged in the 3-4-3 configuration, but the seat pitch was 34 inches with a 4-inch recline, while standard economy seats had 31 inches of pitch with a 3-inch recline. According to SeatGuru, all were 17 inches wide.
After snapping my pictures, it was time to settle into my lowly standard economy seat for the next 12 hours. As I got situated, I was surprised to find that my seat wasn’t that bad. The legroom was actually okay. I even double-checked to make sure I wasn’t somehow seated in Economy Plus. It wasn’t roomy by any means, but my knees weren’t pressed into the seat in front of me and I could even cross my legs.
I’m 5’10” and 160 lbs but if there had been any narrowing of the seat width made to cram in that tenth seat across, I didn’t notice it.
Next to me was an older Israeli couple. Joseph, who sat in the middle, was friendly and chatty — the type of interaction I don’t tend to get with other flyers. Even though his English wasn’t great and my Hebrew was non-existent, I still made a new friend. Soon after take off, Joseph offered me an apricot. I looked at it for a moment, debating whether or not I should try to explain the trouble his stash of fruit would cause him at customs, but his English was too limited. I had gotten “hello” and “cheers” down in Hebrew, but my handle on the language wasn’t advanced enough for “Department of Agriculture violation.” I decided my best option was to help him eat all the apricots to avoid the issue altogether, so I smiled and accepted.
Food and Beverage
The meal option was chicken or beef, and I chose chicken, which was plain and slightly overcooked, along with pasta and red sauce. The mushroom and veggies were good, but there was nothing exciting about the pasta salad. The roll was room temperature and not fresh.
Dessert consisted of a spoonful of chocolate pudding in a small plastic cup. While the presentation was definitely lacking, the pudding itself was tasty enough and came with a small bottle of water. The highlight of the meal? Another apricot from Joseph. He’d gotten the Kosher meal and wasn’t at all impressed.
I slept through the mid-flight snack, but found sandwiches stacked in the galley — a choice of cucumber or turkey with an olive spread. I took one of each but didn’t get past one bite of either. The candy bars were fine (that’s pretty hard to screw up, isn’t it?) while I had another apricot courtesy of my new friend.
For breakfast, there was a choice of egg blintzes, a crepe with sweet cheese, which the flight attendant seemed a bit tired of repeating by the time she got to me. I took the safe bet with eggs, which came with spinach and potatoes and didn’t disappoint. The fruit and yogurt was also refreshing. I was then left with a bagel that was pretty standard but didn’t come with any spread. I suppose I could have made a bagel sandwich or dipped it in yogurt, but I enjoyed the rest of my meal on its own and had the cold, dry, stale bagel by itself.
United has caught up to the international standard when it comes to in-flight entertainment. The large touch screen was responsive and offered 183 movies with 10 in HD, although I wasn’t really able to notice a difference on the 10-inch screen. There were 83 TV programs, each with multiple episodes, as well as 17 podcasts to choose from.
Flightpath 2D was interactive so you could zoom in and out and view the flight path from several angles.
Kids won’t run out of options either with 12 movies, nine TV programs and five games just for them. I was also a fan of the relaxation menu, which offered the Headspace app for meditation, and some nice, soothing, instrumental music I fell asleep to.
I must say I’ve been pretty unimpressed with United’s Wi-Fi. I tried it once soon after take off and again mid-flight, but it didn’t work either time. The United Private Screening on its app did work though, with 122 movies, although there was plenty of overlap with the IFE system. Note that the outlets are now located across from your seat instead of underneath it, meaning you could actually see it as you plugged in instead of fumbling for it blindly beneath your seat.
This was the view of the cabin from my seat as we finished breakfast and prepared for landing.
Despite departing about an hour and 15 minutes late due to a load balance issue, we arrived at Newark three minutes ahead of schedule. As we got ready to deplane, Joseph turned to me, smiled and said, “Please come back to Israel.” I definitely will. And taking United’s new Boeing 777-300ER configuration — even in regular economy — isn’t a terrible way to do it. The flight wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as I was expecting it to be — in fact, I would almost say I was pleasantly surprised by this flight. Almost.
All photos by the author.
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