Everything you need to know about United Polaris business class
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Believe it or not, it’s already been five years since United first introduced the Polaris business class product. However, the airline’s approach to rolling out the new product has been a long-running saga.
While American Airlines quietly began opening new lounges and retrofitting existing planes without much fanfare, United seemed to initially be investing more heavily in marketing than actually getting the new product into service.
Long before the first Polaris lounge opened or the first plane to feature new Polaris seats completed a single flight, billboards and TV ads were popping up all over the country, promising a re-imagined flying experience. In reality, for the first couple of years, many passengers who booked expensive tickets marketed as “Polaris” still ended up flying in older seats.
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Thankfully, United has come a long way since those early days, taking delivery of new aircraft equipped with the sleek Polaris cabin and retrofitting dozens more — even during the pandemic.
However, the disconnect between expectation and reality created confusion around the Polaris brand and what it actually entails. While all of United’s international business-class seats are now branded as Polaris, not all long-haul flights offer the complete experience quite yet, including the new seats and lounges.
Hopefully, this guide will help clear this up and serve as the definitive guide on where to find and what to expect in United’s full Polaris business class. We’ll also cover some tips on how you can book these swanky flights.
Note, due to United’s approach with this roll-out, the information below is constantly changing. We’ll do our best to update this guide as additional planes are retrofitted and new routes are added.
For more information on the Polaris experience, you can check out the following TPG reviews:
- 777-300ER Polaris Newark (EWR) to Tokyo (NRT)
- 777-200 Polaris Washington D.C. (IAD) to Frankfurt (FRA)
- 787-9 Polaris Johannesburg (JNB) to Newark (EWR)
- 787-10 Polaris San Francisco (SFO) to Newark (EWR)
- 767 Polaris Newark (EWR) to London (LHR)
Aircraft and routes
While the Polaris soft product (food, service, amenities) rolled out a little early, the full experience, including the redesigned modern seats, launched in early 2017 when United took delivery of its first Boeing 777-300ER.
United has since taken delivery of all 22 of the 777-300ERs (also referred to as “77Ws”) that it had on order. Along with the airline’s 13 new 787-10s (out of 14 on order) and 12 787-8s, these are the only planes in the fleet where you’re absolutely guaranteed to get the new Polaris seats.
United also retrofitted all internationally-equipped Boeing 777-200ERs, though it won’t be installing the new seats on its domestic-configured 777-200s, which typically fly within the mainland U.S., and select flights to Hawaii and Guam.
The mid-sized 787-9 is the only Dreamliner type with a mix of new and old seats. So far, 15 of the carrier’s 38 787-9s have the new seats. The rest should be completed by summer 2022.
As for the 767s, 33 of the 38 Boeing 767-300s also have the new cabins, with some configured in a premium-heavy “high-J” layout featuring a whopping 16-row Polaris cabin with 46 seats. None of United’s 16 Boeing 767-400s sport the new cabins, though many are still parked in long-term storage due to the pandemic anyway. So, overall, the majority of United’s widebody fleet now offers the much-improved business-class product.
United’s widebody planes are intended to operate long-haul international routes (think trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic flights and longer flights to South America). However, you can currently find them on several domestic routes, mostly to Hawaii.
The “high-J” 767s are used for United’s new transcontinental flights between New York- JFK and Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO). You can also consistently find the 787-10 on flights from Newark (EWR) to LAX and SFO. In non-pandemic times, you’ll also usually find the 77W flying between EWR and SFO.
How to check if your flight will have true Polaris seats
With United’s retrofit program nearing the finish line, chances are your long-haul international business class flight will feature the superior Polaris seats. Still, it’s a good idea to research your flights before booking to minimize the odds of any disappointing surprises.
The easiest way to see if your flight will offer the true Polaris seats is by checking the seat map. Polaris cabins will always have either have a 1-2-1 or 1-1-1 configuration. United’s older configurations always had two seats on the sides. On the seat map, you’ll notice that seats alternate between facing forward and facing the aisle.
Meanwhile, here’s what the seat map looks like of a non-retrofitted 787-9:
If you know the registration of the aircraft operating your flight, you can also check with the third-party Mainline Fleet Tracking tool. United used to offer a Polaris tracker for fleet and lounge updates but is no longer updating it.
Cabin layout and seat selection
While the core design elements of the Polaris cabin are identical across the fleet, there are minor variations between different aircraft types due to sizing constraints. We’ll start by discussing the 777s, which make up the bulk of the Polaris fleet.
The Polaris cabin looks very sleek and is especially blue due to the aggressive use of mood lighting.
United’s 777-300ERs feature 60 Polaris seats in a customized 1-2-1 configuration, with 28 seats in the front cabin and 32 in the rear.
Meanwhile, the retrofitted 777-200s feature 50 of the same seats, with 32 in the forward cabin and 18 in the rear. At 22 inches wide, SeatGuru says that the seats on the 772 are one inch narrower than the 77W, but when a TPG staffer flew a 772 retrofitted with Polaris seats, they said it felt the same as the 77W. Both configurations offer 78 inches of pitch.
Seat selection also follows a similar pattern for both 777 variants. Solo travelers will prefer an odd-numbered window seat (A or L). These seats are closer to the window and offer much more privacy than the even row window seats, as you can see below (the odd-numbered seats are in the front and back, while the even-numbered row is in the middle).
If you’re traveling by yourself, we actually recommend shooting for a bulkhead window seat (1A, 1L, 9A or 9L), since you’ll have more room for your feet and won’t be staring at the head of the person in front of you.
If those are taken, the other odd-numbered window seats should be your next plan of attack, though be aware that 7A and 7L on both the 772 and 77W lack a window. The same holds for 12A and 12L on the 772 and 16A and 16L on the 77W.
Couples traveling together should pick seats D and G in an odd-numbered row (shown below), so they’ll be able to communicate during the flight.
Regardless of whether you’re alone or with a friend/family member, seats D and G in even-numbered rows are worth avoiding, as they don’t provide any privacy, nor do they have any window views to make up for it.
You should also aim to avoid sitting in the front or back of the forward cabin or the front of the second Polaris cabin since these seats are right next to the galleys, lavatories and walk-up bar.
The 787-10 has all 44 of its Polaris seats spread across 11 rows in a single cabin. While the seats are slightly narrower at 20.6 inches, the same principles hold true for seat selection. Solo travelers should opt for an odd-numbered window seat, while couples traveling together should pick a center D/F pair in an odd-numbered row.
United’s 787-8s and 787-9s have even narrower seats, measuring 20.5 inches. Everything else is basically the same — again, with odd-numbered window seats being the best for solo travelers — but Polaris is split between a large main cabin and a more intimate mini-cabin behind the second set of exit doors.
The retrofitted 767s are a much simpler story. They feature either 30 or 46 Polaris seats laid out in a 1-1-1 configuration. Due to the smaller fuselage of the 767, the Polaris seats here are 24 inches wide and have 75 inches of pitch.
The 16-row, 46-seat cabin is good news for award travelers, as it means more business-class seats (and therefore hopefully more award space), but expect service to be slow with that many passengers. Seat selection on the 767 follows the same guidelines as the 777s.
Window seats (A and L) in odd-numbered rows are the best choice for all passengers, as there’s no way to sit next to someone you’re traveling within this 1-1-1 layout. After that, our next choice would be a slightly less private even-numbered window seat, followed by a seat in the center section.
A lot of thought went into designing these seats, which include storage cabinets, side tables, and personal lamps. Each seat also features a 16-inch in-flight entertainment screen.
It wasn’t just United’s aging fleet that was in desperate need of a facelift, and part of Polaris includes bringing the ground experience up to modern-day standards. This included opening nine new Polaris lounges around the globe.
So far, the first five have opened in Chicago (ORD), Newark (EWR), San Francisco (SFO), Houston (IAH) and Los Angeles (LAX). The Polaris lounges have been a huge step up from the carrier’s tired old United Clubs and Global First lounges. Each Polaris lounge features an open and airy design, restaurant-quality a la carte dining, and an aviation-themed cocktail menu.
The airline had plans to open Polaris lounges in four more locations, including United’s hub at Washington Dulles (IAD) and three international locations: London (LHR), Hong Kong (HKG) and Tokyo (NRT). However, these plans were put on pause due to the pandemic.
Another difference with the new Polaris lounges is their stricter access requirements. Elite members with Star Alliance Gold designation on their boarding passes don’t get automatic access when flying economy (as they would with regular United Clubs). These lounges are restricted to passengers traveling in international Star Alliance business or first class.
How to book
United is a Star Alliance member, so several different programs make booking United awards easy. These include United’s own MileagePlus program, Air Canada’s affiliated Aeroplan program, Avianca LifeMiles and Singapore’s KrisFlyer program. Since you’ll find Polaris primarily on long-haul flights to Europe, Asia and South America, we’ll focus on those destinations.
United MileagePlus miles are relatively easy to earn, both from cobranded cards like the United Explorer Card and by transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points at a 1:1 ratio if you have a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. Although the program no longer has an award chart, you can still book Polaris seats at reasonable rates when there’s saver space available.
If you manage to find a saver-level seat, expect to pay at least 80,000 MileagePlus miles each way to Asia or about 60,000 miles to Europe.
However, with variable pricing, it can sometimes be much worse.
The other major problem is that dynamic pricing generally reduces the amount of saver-level award space available. If United doesn’t have any saver inventory, you won’t be able to book these flights using partner programs.
However, if you do find saver business-class award space (I fare class on United, just like all other Star Alliance carriers), you should be able to book it with any of the below programs.
Avianca LifeMiles has risen from obscurity to rapidly become one of the most popular ways to book Star Alliance awards. Between frequent sales on purchased miles and two major transfer partners (American Express Membership Rewards and Capital One), it’s easier than ever before to top up your LifeMiles balance.
If you’re looking to fly United’s 787-10 on a transcontinental route, it’s cheaper to book through Avianca than United. You’ll pay only 25,000 miles, as Avianca doesn’t add a surcharge for transcontinental flights. Longer flights are attractively priced as well, with one-way Polaris awards costing the following amounts:
- U.S. to Europe: 63,000 miles
- U.S. to North Asia: 75,000 miles
- U.S. to South Asia: 78,000 miles
- U.S. to Australia & New Zealand: 80,000 miles
While LifeMiles did recently announce changes to partner award rates within the U.S., these didn’t extend to Polaris, so if you can find I class availability with United, Avianca should be able to book it.
Aeroplan is another great option for booking United award tickets. You can transfer points from American Express Membership Rewards and Capital One if you have a card like The Platinum Card® from American Express or Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card.
The program uses a hybrid award chart factoring in both the distance you fly and the departure and arrival regions. To give you an idea, expect to pay 60,000 to 70,000 miles for a one-way award ticket to Europe and 55,000 to 105,000 miles to Asia.
Aeroplan should have access to the same saver award inventory as United, and you can book directly on their website. While there are no fuel surcharges, you’ll need to pay a CA$39 ($29) per-person partner booking fee plus taxes.
While Singapore’s KrisFlyer program has undergone some devaluations in recent years, one positive change has been the ability to book Star Alliance partner awards online without having to call. KrisFlyer points are also incredibly easy to earn because they are a 1:1 transfer partner of all three major transferable points currencies: Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards. (It also partners with Capital One, though at a relatively poor 2:1 transfer ratio.) Here are the one-way cost for Polaris award tickets booked through Singapore:
- U.S. to Europe: 72,000 miles
- U.S. to Asia: 105,500 – 115,000 miles (depending on final destination)
- U.S. to Australia and New Zealand: 130,000 miles
- U.S. to South America: 57,500 miles
While these costs are relatively higher than United and Aeroplan, especially for trips to Europe and Asia, the ability to mix and match your transferable points (by transferring some Ultimate Rewards and some ThankYou points, for example) is a nice option to have. And thankfully, there are no fuel surcharges when you redeem KrisFlyer miles for United-operated flights, so expect to pay less than $10 in taxes.
Although it took a while, most long-haul international United flights now feature the airline’s top-notch Polaris business-class pods. This product is undeniably a huge step up from the one it replaced.
United’s switch to dynamic award pricing has made it harder to book Polaris awards through the MileagePlus program. Luckily, though, there are plenty of other programs that you can use to book these flights with your hard-earned points and miles easily.
Additional reporting by Zach Honig and Ethan Steinberg.
Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.
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