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For Thanksgiving, you can go see your family — or you can spot a great fare to Europe and invite yourself over for Thanksgiving dinner with your expat friends who live on the French Riviera. So when I saw a sale fare from my home in Los Angeles (LAX) to Nice (NCE) for only $412 round-trip in November, I jumped on it.
The flights were sold by United but flown by partner airlines in Star Alliance, outbound on Lufthansa and back home on Swiss. The first leg took me from Los Angeles to Munich, a flight I’d enjoyed a great deal when I visited the same friends a year before. But that time I got upgraded to Business; would I still be comfortable for 11 hours in Economy?
I charged the fare to my United MileagePlus Explorer Card, which earned me 2x miles. Normally I would charge it to a card with a bigger bonus, like 5x on The Platinum Card from American Express, but I was trying to spend enough on the card to waive the Premier Qualifying Dollars (PQD) requirement for Premier status.
As the year progressed, I racked up a lot of mileage on United and realized that this France trip could put me over the top in qualifying for Premier Platinum status. But just when I was ready to do a Happy Status Dance, I noticed something: according to the reservation, I would accrue no Premier Qualifying Miles on the outbound flights operated by Lufthansa — a loss of nearly 6,500 PQMs.
I thought it was reasonable to assume that a ticket booked on United with a United ticket number would credit mileage on United, but it turned out that it wasn’t the case. I hadn’t checked the fare class, and sure enough, flying on K class on Lufthansa is ineligible for PQM, PQD or PQS (qualifying segments.) This was spelled out plainly on my e-ticket itinerary and receipt, but I hadn’t looked. If I had done so, I would have had 24 hours to try to change it for free to flights that were eligible for accrual. Lesson learned.
Check-in and Airport
Though the booking was done on United, everything regarding the flight was handled by Lufthansa. United’s e-ticket provided the Lufthansa booking locator and I entered it on Lufthansa’s Android mobile app. It was now attached to my Lufthansa Miles And More profile, and I was able to manage all aspects of my reservation. I was not given a seat assignment, and I didn’t want to spend 11 hours in a middle seat so I was eager to check in ASAP. 28 hours before flight time, I gave it a whirl and was happy to see that not only could I check in, but I was seated in an aisle with no one next to me. Hopefully it would stay that way. The app kept me up to date with notifications of gate number, boarding and more. It worked great.
I also saw TSA PreCheck on the boarding pass. Unfortunately, there is no PreCheck at the Bradley terminal in LAX, so I went through Terminal 4 and took the connector. Looking out from the window above the concourse, I was surprised to see very short lines at security. Still, I was glad to risk the walk for PreCheck privileges and a quicker route to lounges.
My Gold status got me my first visit to the Star Alliance Lounge. I loved the outdoor terrace bar and some rare fresh air before travel (“fresh” being a relative term at LAX). The lounge is so comfortable and food so plentiful, I almost hoped my flight would be delayed. Almost.
I arrived to the gate at 4:25 for my 5:15 flight. The gate was nothing special, though the views of the aircraft as the sun set were pretty swell and the Wi-Fi was free.
Our A340-600, a 2004 build with the German registration D-AIHK and named after the city of Mainz, was waiting at the gate. At 247 feet, the A340-600 is the longest Airbus ever made, longer than even the giant A380. When it debuted in the early 2000s it was the longest plane in the world, a title it would lose only to the 747-8 a decade later.
Last time I took this flight, I got a surprise upgrade to Business. I asked the gate agent if that was possible this time, and she said yes — but not for free. I could upgrade to Premium Economy for $335 and to Business for over $1,000. I declined.
At 4:35, an agent asked for Business and First passengers to line up, then came PA announcements to line up by seat section. Two agents held up cards with row numbers and passengers snaked their way behind each one.
At 4:50, boarding began with pre-board, followed by First, Business and Hon Circle members. A couple minutes later, Economy boarding began. I took out my phone with my boarding pass and was reminded of the “Priority Boarding” emblazoned on it. As my line rounded a corner, I showed it to the agent shepherding our line. She seemed surprised I was in that line but there had been no sign or announcement for Star Alliance Gold or general Priority Boarding. She escorted me out of the line and directly to the boarding pass scanner, saving me about 30 seconds. So much for Priority.
I found my seat and easily loaded my carry-on into the roomy overhead bin as German pop music played all around.
Cabin and Seat
Economy seating on this Airbus 340-600 is in a 2-4-2 configuration, with over 200 seats in the cabin. This is a very long plane, but did not feel cramped or claustrophobic. In fact, it almost felt airy, and not just new but contemporary.
My seat was on the aisle of the middle-four section and indeed I had no one next to me. That proved especially helpful because the legroom is not great. The seat padding was firm and made it difficult to settle in. The headrest was fully adjustable and the recline was more than I expected — great for when I leaned back, but leaving very little knee room when the passenger in front of me reclined.
Seats were supplied with a pillow and plastic-wrapped blanket. The seat back also had a hard plastic compartment that fit only the magazine, safety card and such. Below I found a short net pocket for personal items, a retractable cup holder and coat hook. In-seat power outlets are supplied between seats and USB power is integrated into the IFE.
At 5:06 came the door close announcement — like all announcements, first in German, then in English — and we pushed back at 5:12, with wheels up at 5:36 for our scheduled 5:15 departure.
The IFE system was excellent, with a bright and clear screen that swiveled for optimal viewing. I also liked that it takes no navigation to get to the light and attendant call button, and that when the screen was turned off, it didn’t turn itself on during announcements — big pet peeves of mine on other systems.
The screen was touch-screen only and very responsive. The offerings were also great: Movies (129 titles from many nations including some fairly contemporary “Latest Releases”), audio books and podcasts, three channels of live TV (CNN International, Euronews and Sport24) and 14 “Well-Being” programs of meditation and yoga.
WiFi availability kicked in around 5:45, with a pretty reasonable 17 Euros for the full flight.
I was hoping for a better deal with Boingo (I have a free account courtesy of The Platinum Card from American Express). but the rates here were $.23/minute — about $135 for the entire flight!
Lavatories were located downstairs — yep, about seven steps down. Five lavs surrounded a small hallway and I was impressed with the lav design — roomy, with a large counter and a baby changing table.
Food and Beverage
30 minutes after takeoff, flight attendants served pretzels (Germany!) and complimentary beverages. I opted for a Shiraz, served in a plastic cup. 20 minutes later, I was given a hot towelette and all were collected ten minutes later.
25 minutes later, dinner was served, with a choice of pasta or turkey. I chose the turkey and received a mini Thanksgiving dinner (two days early) with compact metal flatware.
It was hardly a horn of plenty: three oval slices of turkey breast in gravy. It did not feel like a dinner meat or portion, more like heated processed lunch meat. The green beans were also hot but very overcooked, flavorless and fibrous. The stuffing was piping hot and a bit dry, though it would not have felt out of place at Grandma’s table.
Sides included a small mixed greens with fat-free ranch dressing (very simple but very fresh and crispy), two Pepperidge Farm wheat crackers, a half ounce of Tillamook Monterey Jack cheese and a white roll with sesame seeds (fresh and fine). Dessert was a small square of chocolate baked good (cake? brownie?) with a dense layer of frosting — rich and sweet, it was nothing special but hard not to eat it all.
Overall, this was better than average coach-class dinner, but still room for improvement.
Two minutes after my dinner arrived, drinks were offered and I went with a plastic cup of Syrah — not bad. Refills were offered (and accepted) 10 minutes after. and all was collected within 15 minutes.
It would be several hours until the next meal, but trays of water and juice were continually offered and small packaged snacks and drinks were available in the galley at all times.
Breakfast was an omelette and sides, served with plastic utensils. The plain omelette was spongy and powdery, possibly from a mix. Six tater tots of various crispness were so-so, but the cooked half-tomato hiding under the omelette was excellent, as was the small fruit cup. The multigrain roll served with butter and jam was airy and dry. The tray was collected quickly.
An hour later, we started our approach and wheels were down at 1:35 local time. We were at the gate at 1:42, two minutes behind our scheduled arrival, followed by a smooth deplaning.
Our aircraft at home in Munich.
It’s always a good sign on an 11-hour flight when you’re surprised it’s almost over. A quiet and sturdy ride helps, as does the service and decent food.
Like every flight I’ve had on Lufthansa, they run a tidy ship. The flight attendants are professional and always on the job — it seemed like more than five of them were there. Maybe they benefited from having a less-than-full flight, but they were still very busy bees and never a bother. I appreciated being undisturbed yet never unattended.
The boarding process could benefit from such efficiency and attention. And the stiffness of the seat took a bit of a toll, especially the lack of padding on the bottom. I also know I can’t count every time on being lucky enough to have an empty seat next to me. Still, I would take this flight again, especially at this price. Even though I didn’t accrue the mileage I was hoping for, Lufthansa, as usual, went the distance.
Know before you go.
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