Skip to content

United's making a big change, with 7 implications, to its newest long-haul market

Feb. 15, 2022
7 min read
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

United’s got five new flagship international destinations coming this summer — but one route is especially unique.

Specifically, the airline is planning to connect its Newark (EWR) hub with Ponta Delgada (PDL) in the Portuguese island territory of the Azores beginning on May 13. And at 2,576 miles, United will fly its fuel-efficient Boeing 737 MAX 8 for the six-hour flight — and not a wide-body jet with lie-flat Polaris business-class pods that'd you'd typically find on a transatlantic route.

Instead, the 737 MAX 8 is outfitted with 166 seats, split between 16 domestic first-class recliners, 54 extra-legroom Economy Plus seats and 96 standard coach ones.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

When it first put the route on sale in October 2021, the airline originally marketed the forward cabin as Polaris. Then, it stopped selling the recliner seats entirely.

Now, the cabin is back on sale, but it's instead being marketed as Premium Plus, which is the carrier's term for its international premium economy product, a spokesperson confirmed to TPG.

Though it might appear like a simple change on the surface, the move has some big implications for those seated upfront.

Want more airline-specific news? Sign up for TPG’s free biweekly Aviation newsletter!

No Lounge access

United's Premium Plus fares do not include any lounge access.

The airline offers discounted United Club access for travelers booked in these seats on select long-haul flights, but this isn't always a great deal for anyone paying a premium for the bigger seats.

Sign up for our daily newsletter
(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

It especially stings for the few passengers who previously bought tickets when United was marketing the cabin as Polaris. That's because they'll no longer be admitted to the business-class-only Polaris Lounge in Newark (and in connecting points along their journey).

Instead of restaurant-style a la carte meals with top-notch drinks, Premium Plus flyers headed to the Azores will either need to wait at the gate or pay an additional fee to use the much less premium United Club in Newark (assuming that one-day passes are even available for sale on your travel date).

Of course, United could include a carve-out for lounge access for its Premium Plus flyers headed to the Azores, but we haven't heard anything yet.

More limited onboard amenities

Long-haul Polaris passengers receive a bunch of goodies on their flights. This includes a well-stocked amenity kit, along with a Saks Fifth Avenue-branded duvet, plush pillow and gel support pillow.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Meanwhile, Premium Plus gets a downsized amenity kit, a flimsier pillow and a Saks-branded day blanket.

If you're paying extra to fly in style to Ponta Delgada, you may want to bring a neck pillow, as you won't receive the full long-haul business-class amenity collection.

A dining downgrade

Premium Plus offers a better dining experience than coach, but a downgraded one compared to Polaris.

While your meal will be served on "real" china and flatware, the options are limited. Expect a smaller selection of wines and spirits, and the portion sizes, as well as the appetizer and dessert options, will be pared down.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Of course, the difference in the dining options will vary by flight, and it'll depend on whether United brings back more of its pre-pandemic offerings in the coming months.

Pricing is more affordable

While the onboard experience will reflect that of premium economy, so too will the pricing.

When the flight was first announced back in October 2021, a round-trip in Polaris was going for well over $3,000. On some peak dates, that could climb as high as $5,000 (or more).

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Now, the cheapest round-trip fares for Premium Plus are available for as low as $1,250 round-trip.

In fact, taking a look at the flexible search calendar on United's website shows that only a handful of flights are priced at more than $2,000 for the round-trip in Premium Plus.

Upgrades will be cheaper

There's some good news for those looking to upgrade to the forward cabin. By marketing the forward cabin as Premium Plus, upgrades will be more affordable.

For Premier Platinum and 1K members looking to use PlusPoints (United's upgrade currency), you'll now need to redeem 20 of them for the one-way bump. Meanwhile, upgrades to Polaris business on long-haul flights cost either 40 or 80 PlusPoints, depending on which economy fare class you originally purchased.

Additionally, those redeeming MIleagePlus miles for the upgrade to Premium Plus will enjoy discounted rates (and no cash co-pays) relative to Polaris. You can find the full table of rates on United's upgrade calculator here.

Good luck with award space

United first rolled out Premium Plus fares back in 2018, and it still hasn't figured out a logical pricing algorithm for award seats in the cabin.

Oftentimes, you'll find Polaris — which offers a much better experience — priced significantly lower than Premium Plus.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

One-way awards for the Ponta Delgada flight start at 58,900 MileagePlus miles in premium economy — just 1,100 fewer miles than a saver award previously cost in Polaris. The rates climb to as high as nearly 150,000 miles for the one-way flight.

Furthermore, if you're planning to book an award to Ponta Delgada, you'll now need to redeem MileagePlus miles. The other Star Alliance loyalty programs, including Air Canada Aeroplan and Singapore KrisFlyer, don't have access to premium economy awards on United.

Connecting in coach

This one is simple.

When you book a connecting itinerary that involves an international premium economy segment, you'll be seated in the economy cabin for the domestic portion of your itinerary.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

So, for those traveling with United to the Azores, beware that your connection will be in economy, even if you're splurging for the forward cabin on the longer segment from Newark.

What's not changing

While United is now marketing the forward cabin as Premium Plus on the new Ponta Delgada flight, the airline isn't tweaking anything about the "hard" product.

The Boeing 737 MAX 8 features United’s new signature domestic interior with seat-back entertainment, Bluetooth connectivity and larger overhead bins and other improvements.

The 16 domestic first-class recliners are arranged in a 2-2 configuration, with large entertainment screens, generous recline and an oversized tray table as well as a cocktail tray.

Interestingly, United's move to market the forward cabin as Premium Plus matches Delta's playbook when it flies Boeing 757-200s outfitted with domestic first-class recliners to close-in leisure destinations, such as the route between Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) and Reykjavik (KEF).

(When Delta sells connecting itineraries on these routes, it books flyers into the Comfort+ cabin on domestic segments.)

Bottom line

United's gearing up for an exciting summer with a slew of new routes and long-haul destinations.

But as the airline gets ready for its flight to the Azores, it's making an interesting move in how it sells the premium cabin.

Instead of marketing it as a long-haul Polaris business class — like it did when the route first went on sale in October 2021 — it's now getting the Premium Plus designation.

The good news is that the airline is bringing down fares to match the product downgrade, but these tickets won't include lounge access, as well as a slew of other onboard amenities.

Ultimately, it's likely the right move for United, since it'd be quite misleading to charge $3,000 or more for a Polaris seat, only to get onboard the 737 MAX 8 and find a domestic first-class recliner ready to take you on the six-hour journey to the Azores.

Featured image by (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

TPG featured card

Best luxury travel rewards card
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

5X points
5XEarn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year.
5XEarn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.

Intro offer

Earn 80,000 Points
Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership.

Annual Fee

$695

Recommended Credit

670-850
Excellent/Good
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

Sometimes it's worth a large investment to reap the benefits of a great credit card. That's exactly the case with the Amex Platinum card. In exchange for the annual fee, you'll unlock access to the Amex Membership Rewards program that let you access airline and hotel transfer partners, along with new lifestyle and travel credits. This card is also incredibly rewarding for travel purchases, helping you rack up a ton of Membership Rewards points for your next award trip.

Pros

  • The current welcome offer on this card is quite lucrative. TPG values it at $1,600.
  • This card comes with a long list of benefits, including access to Centurion Lounges, complimentary elite status with Hilton and Marriott, at least $500 in assorted annual statement credits and so much more. (Enrollment required for select benefits.)
  • The Amex Platinum comes with access to a premium concierge service that can help you with everything from booking hard-to-get reservations to finding destination guides to help you plan out your next getaway.

Cons

  • The high annual fee is only worth it if you’re taking full advantage of the card’s benefits. Seldom travelers may not get enough value to warrant the cost.
  • Outside of the current welcome bonus, you’re only earning higher rewards on specific airfare and hotel purchases, so it’s not a great card for other spending categories.
  • The annual airline fee statement credit can be complicated to take advantage of compared to the broader travel credits offered by competing premium cards.
  • Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership. Apply and select your preferred metal Card design: classic Platinum Card®, Platinum x Kehinde Wiley, or Platinum x Julie Mehretu.
  • Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year and earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.
  • Get $200 back in statement credits each year on prepaid Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection bookings, which requires a minimum two-night stay, through American Express Travel when you pay with your Platinum Card®.
  • $240 Digital Entertainment Credit: Get up to $20 back each month on eligible purchases made with your Platinum Card® on one or more of the following: Audible, Disney+, The Disney Bundle, ESPN+, Hulu, Peacock, SiriusXM, and The New York Times. Enrollment required.
  • $155 Walmart+ Credit: Cover the cost of a $12.95 monthly Walmart+ membership with a statement credit after you pay for Walmart+ each month with your Platinum Card. Cost includes $12.95 plus applicable local sales tax. Plus Ups are excluded.
  • American Express has expanded The Centurion® Network to include 40+ Centurion Lounge and Studio locations worldwide. There are even more places your Platinum Card® can get you complimentary entry and exclusive perks.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one select qualifying airline.
  • $200 Uber Cash: Enjoy Uber VIP status and up to $200 in Uber savings on rides or eats orders in the US annually. Uber Cash and Uber VIP status is available to Basic Card Member only.
  • Get up to $300 back per calendar year on the Equinox+ digital fitness app, or eligible Equinox club memberships when you pay with your Platinum Card. Enrollment required. Learn more.
  • Breeze through security with CLEAR® lanes available at 100+ airports, stadiums, and entertainment venues and get up to $189 back per calendar year on your membership when you use your Card. Learn more.
  • $695 annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Apply for The Platinum Card® from American Express
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best luxury travel rewards card
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

5XEarn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year.
5XEarn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership.

    Earn 80,000 Points
  • Annual Fee

    $695
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

Sometimes it's worth a large investment to reap the benefits of a great credit card. That's exactly the case with the Amex Platinum card. In exchange for the annual fee, you'll unlock access to the Amex Membership Rewards program that let you access airline and hotel transfer partners, along with new lifestyle and travel credits. This card is also incredibly rewarding for travel purchases, helping you rack up a ton of Membership Rewards points for your next award trip.

Pros

  • The current welcome offer on this card is quite lucrative. TPG values it at $1,600.
  • This card comes with a long list of benefits, including access to Centurion Lounges, complimentary elite status with Hilton and Marriott, at least $500 in assorted annual statement credits and so much more. (Enrollment required for select benefits.)
  • The Amex Platinum comes with access to a premium concierge service that can help you with everything from booking hard-to-get reservations to finding destination guides to help you plan out your next getaway.

Cons

  • The high annual fee is only worth it if you’re taking full advantage of the card’s benefits. Seldom travelers may not get enough value to warrant the cost.
  • Outside of the current welcome bonus, you’re only earning higher rewards on specific airfare and hotel purchases, so it’s not a great card for other spending categories.
  • The annual airline fee statement credit can be complicated to take advantage of compared to the broader travel credits offered by competing premium cards.
  • Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership. Apply and select your preferred metal Card design: classic Platinum Card®, Platinum x Kehinde Wiley, or Platinum x Julie Mehretu.
  • Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year and earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.
  • Get $200 back in statement credits each year on prepaid Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection bookings, which requires a minimum two-night stay, through American Express Travel when you pay with your Platinum Card®.
  • $240 Digital Entertainment Credit: Get up to $20 back each month on eligible purchases made with your Platinum Card® on one or more of the following: Audible, Disney+, The Disney Bundle, ESPN+, Hulu, Peacock, SiriusXM, and The New York Times. Enrollment required.
  • $155 Walmart+ Credit: Cover the cost of a $12.95 monthly Walmart+ membership with a statement credit after you pay for Walmart+ each month with your Platinum Card. Cost includes $12.95 plus applicable local sales tax. Plus Ups are excluded.
  • American Express has expanded The Centurion® Network to include 40+ Centurion Lounge and Studio locations worldwide. There are even more places your Platinum Card® can get you complimentary entry and exclusive perks.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one select qualifying airline.
  • $200 Uber Cash: Enjoy Uber VIP status and up to $200 in Uber savings on rides or eats orders in the US annually. Uber Cash and Uber VIP status is available to Basic Card Member only.
  • Get up to $300 back per calendar year on the Equinox+ digital fitness app, or eligible Equinox club memberships when you pay with your Platinum Card. Enrollment required. Learn more.
  • Breeze through security with CLEAR® lanes available at 100+ airports, stadiums, and entertainment venues and get up to $189 back per calendar year on your membership when you use your Card. Learn more.
  • $695 annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees