From San Francisco to Taipei, United Surprises With a Terrific Economy Plus Flight
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As 2017 was drawing to a close, I wasn't planning on booking another trip for January, but in December I saw flights on United from my home in Los Angeles to Taipei via San Francisco for only $402, and I couldn't help myself. I had ended 2017 earning United Premier Platinum Status and the prospect of starting the new year by earning so many Premier Qualifying Miles for so little spend was irresistible. Plus, Taipei positioned me to further explore Asia.
Booking & Check-In
Searching Google Flights, the LAX - SFO - TPE itinerary was easily bookable on United, but I had an abundance of Chase Ultimate Rewards points and as a holder of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, I could book that $402 ticket for 26,790 points while still earning PQMs and Premier Qualifying Dollars (PQDs) on United. Once Chase sent my confirmation number, I added the reservation to my United profile and was able to manage all aspects of the trip through United's website and app.
At a scheduled 14+ hours, this is one of the longest flights operated by a US carrier. So I was very glad to take my new Premier Platinum status for a spin and guarantee myself a window seat in Economy Plus, since Premier Platinum allows complimentary access to Economy Plus at booking.
Check-in was as easy as it always is on United's app, and my boarding passes loaded effortlessly. I was offered an upgrade to Business for $2,029, which I declined. I started my morning at LAX and looked forward to a leisurely two-hour layover at SFO where I could have lunch at the American Express Centurion Lounge (a favorite free perk of The Platinum Card® from American Express).
Nature had other plans for me, as fog at SFO forced a ground stop and we sat on a LAX taxiway for over two hours. The Taipei-bound flight was still scheduled to leave on time — would it do so without me? The next SFO-TPE flight wasn't until 24 hours later. The flight from Los Angeles took off and for about an hour my Taiwan plans and I both were up in the air.
Just as I landed at SFO, I got a notification that the Taipei flight was leaving 40 minutes late. I'd never been so happy for a delayed flight. I left my gate at Terminal 3 at 1:55pm and arrived at my International Terminal gate at 2:05, as the monitor said in all caps FINAL BOARDING.
The Boeing 777-300ER that would get me to TPE was waiting.
Boarding & Seat
I showed my boarding pass to the wordless gate agent, who glanced at my passport before mumbling, "Go ahead." I must have looked harried because the flight attendant at the aircraft door greeted me warmly, saying I could slow down and had plenty of time. Indeed, several more transfer passengers were behind me.
After struggling to find space in the overhead bin — I was late, after all, but I could have boarded early thanks to my status — I was in my seat by 2:10 and despite the flight being mostly full, I still had an empty middle seat next to me.
Economy Plus is not a separate cabin on United, but a group of normal coach seats with more legroom. The seats are arranged in the same 3-4-3 layout as regular coach.
Sitting down in my Economy Plus seat wasn't just a relief because of my rescued travel plans — this was a very comfortable seat with good legroom. Despite the 3-4-3 arrangement, this was the most pleasant Economy (or Economy Plus) seat I've had on United, and on any airline without a separate premium economy cabin. The seat was well-padded, I could cross my legs, and use a laptop without having to contort into odd positions.
United's SFO-TPE route started in 2014 on the Boeing 777-200ER and moved to the bigger 777-300ER (the airline's newest aircraft) in August 2017. That upgrade is great for folks in Polaris, United's new business class which the -200 model doesn't have yet, but the 102 Economy Plus seats with 34 inches of legroom (compared to 204 Economy seats with 31 inches) are fine.
The configuration of the under-seat space isn't quite as pleasant, with the anchors for the seats in front not matching the seating positions in back. My small backpack happened to fit just fine, but if three people had larger bags and wanted to keep their stuff separate, it could be an issue.
There were two in-seat power plugs and unlike many United aircraft, they face towards you, so no more having to fumble to find them under your seat. The In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) screen has a USB outlet and the touchscreen system functioned well, with maps and suitable entertainment offerings. Even more offerings were available via United's Private Screening, a system that lets you connect to the plane's Wi-Fi network and watch on your phone, tablet or laptop. The screen did not tilt, but I found the viewing angle okay.
What I did not find was how to control the light or call for a flight attendant. There were no switches overhead and no options on the Main Menu. I've flown on hundreds of planes and went to college and couldn't figure it out. My neighbor couldn't figure it out either and finally a flight attendant showed us a dark spot under the screen that when tapped, brought up a menu. I consider it a safety issue not to have a light and call button easily accessible. Plus, it's embarrassing to have to ask.
The door was closed at 2:17 and the aircraft pushed back at 2:22. The flight was scheduled to depart at 1:40.
Wheels were up at 2:44, when an overhead bin opened, spilling a bag on to the woman in the row in front of me. The crew attended to her quickly and there were no more such disruptions.
After cruising altitude was reached about 25 minutes later, it was easy to connect to Wi-Fi, which cost $29.99 or 4,620 miles for the entire flight. Speeds were too slow to download podcasts, but good enough to keep in touch via e-mail and Facebook.
The aircraft is furnished with pairs of lavatories in the front, middle and rear of the Economy cabin. Lavs were well-lit and offered changing tables.
The service was surprisingly pleasant. I'd flown across the Pacific on United several times to and from Los Angeles, and I've found San Francisco crews consistently more professional. The purser, Fernando, was sincere and polite and the communication from the captain was excellent.
Food & Beverage
40 minutes after takeoff, I was offered lunch, a choice of "General Tao" (perhaps a relative of General Tso?) chicken with vegetables and rice or stir-fry vegetables and noodles. I opted for the chicken, which was much more pleasant-looking than the foil wrapping suggested. Six pieces of heavily breaded chicken were hot and rather flavorful, with a hint of spice. I ate them all. They were joined by hot and overcooked tiny broccoli and carrots and white rice that was bland but somehow cooked perfectly. While hardly gourmet, I've had worse at Chinese buffets in food courts.
The accompaniments were also quite good: a mix of grains with apple, raisin and cinnamon, along with baby greens — all fresh and fine, though I could have used some dressing. The boring, dense white roll added nothing. Overall, I'd give the meal a B-, and grading on a curve for United Economy, an A-.
10 minutes later came drinks. Select wine and beer was complimentary but I also received a Tito's vodka without charge.
20 minutes later I was served a mango sorbet and bottled water. I missed the vanilla ice cream I'd had on previous flights, but this was fine. All was collected 15 minutes later.
It was another 4.5 hours later when a snack came: a turkey sandwich and pretzels with a packet of a dozen plain M&M's, followed by more drinks. The sandwich was okay, but with only one slice of turkey and one slice of swiss cheese, not very filling. Fortunately I found more sandwiches and M&M's in the galley.
Several hours later, about 90 minutes before landing, came breakfast food advertised as a light snack, namely a choice of omelette or pancakes with chicken sausage. This was an odd choice considering it was 2:40 am in San Francisco and 6:40pm in Taipei. But I had no complaints about the quality. I chose the omelette and I was shocked by how good it was.
I have never liked an airplane omelette until this one. Flavored with pepper jack cheese and spinach, it was not just airplane-good, it was legit-good — hot, layered and peppery. I ate every bite. The accompanied potatoes tasted like they had just been roasted and the fruit cup was cold, fresh and ripe. I don't know how they did it but aside from the sausage (which was tough, more like a thicker Slim Jim), this was an actual good breakfast. I just don't know why they were serving it at almost 7pm.
The tray was cleared quickly and we had a super-smooth touchdown in Taipei at 8:12pm local time. We arrived to the gate at 8:18 (28 minutes later than originally scheduled) and I was off the plane five minutes later.
Considering my prior experience with United on trans-Pacific flights, I was not expecting much. Even if I had had high expectations, this would have exceeded most of them.
This was a terrific flight. The seat was the most comfortable I've had in United Economy, the crew was engaged and professional, the food was rather good and the plane handled like a dream. Maybe I need fly through San Francisco more often?