Nonstop from Newark to Cape Town on United's most exciting inaugural to date
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Sunday marked a huge milestone for United Airlines and the carrier's top-notch route-planning team. As of this weekend, United is offering seasonal nonstop service between Newark and Cape Town, South Africa, trimming hours off the usual journey.
But don't just take my word for it — few nonstops offer such a tremendous time savings, as evidenced by a comparison with the many one-stop itineraries you can book.
Most connecting journeys require a stop in Europe and are operated by aircraft far less efficient than the Dreamliner, adding considerably to your carbon footprint. Here's United's nonstop, compared with a few common New York-Cape Town routings:
A Johannesburg (JNB) connection via South African is the next best option, though even the most efficient Europe routing — a connection in Paris (CDG) via Air France — adds more than 3,000 miles and 12 hours to the round-trip journey. It's easy to see why this particular launch is so significant, for United and U.S.-based travelers, as well.
Celebrating the inaugural
My dad and I both booked round-trip economy tickets from Newark (EWR) to Cape Town (CPT) in the W fare class for $2,252, then a generous Global Services friend with expiring PlusPoints waitlisted us for business class and United cleared the upgrade, so I could cover the inaugural. We paid with The Platinum Card® from American Express, earning 11,260 Membership Rewards points worth $225, based on TPG's valuations, thanks to the card's 5x points on airfare booked directly with the airline or through Amex Travel.
The celebration began about an hour before boarding at Newark's Terminal C. Passengers, employees and invited guests gathered at Gate 101 for food, drinks and a predeparture celebration.
My dad and I had a lot of fun chatting with other flyers and took advantage of the numerous photo ops around the gate.
The event kicked off with traditional South African song and dance.
Then, Yoliswa Rose Mvebe, of the South African delegation, joined Jill Kaplan, United's president of New Jersey and New York, for welcome remarks.
There was an inaugural cake, of course.
And there was a selection of wine and plenty of South African treats.
All of the festivities took place within view of our 787-9 Dreamliner.
And the celebrations continued the moment we stepped on board, where I found a number of frequent flyers, including Global Services members Jason DiVenere and Tom Stuker, who recently passed his previous 20 million-mile record.
We even had a TPG reunion in the rear business cabin! Former TPG news editor Jessica Puckett covered the flight for Conde Nast Traveler.
The crew really got into the spirit, too! Capt. Roy, a South African native, brought biltong for all of the business-class passengers.
Meanwhile, United's vice president of network planning, Patrick Quayle, served ice cream sundaes.
And First Officer Sue brought custom cookies all the way from LA.
Experiencing United's 787-9 biz
United will soon be retrofitting its Dreamliners to offer the new Polaris business-class seat plus a Premium Plus cabin, but a refreshed plane wasn't ready in time for our inaugural flight.
The 2-2-2 configuration worked out just fine here, since I was traveling with my dad. Though I normally prefer the center seats in Row 6 (D and E) since there's a larger footwell at the bulkhead and direct aisle access, it was slim pickings with a full cabin. I wanted to have a window seat to capture the arrival, as well, so we ended up with 4A and 4B.
But I completely forgot Row 4 is missing a window! You definitely want to sit anywhere else if you're hoping for a clear view from United's 787-9.
The airline will always offer pajamas on this route, but there was a special set on hand for the inaugural.
My dad and I quickly changed into our PJs and settled in with sparkling wine.
Dinner was served shortly after takeoff. The meal consisted of the usual Polaris fare, along with a couple of South African wines.
The meal was fine, but there wasn't anything special for the inaugural, just the usual mix of items you'd expect on an ex-Newark United flight.
I really enjoyed my salmon entree, though. It was cooked well, and the Thai curry sauce added a ton of flavor.
Most of all, I was amazed at how much time we'd save compared to my recent journey to Cape Town, with a daylong connection in Frankfurt (FRA). It's incredible to be able to fly nonstop between the U.S. and CPT.
How to book yourself a seat
United's cash and award rates have largely remained unchanged since immediately after launch, though individual flight availability has obviously shifted a bit. The least expensive fare I've found from Newark is $923 round-trip, though certain dates can exceed $2,000 in coach.
Business class can be very expensive as well, though there are a few dates with far more reasonable fares.
And what about redemptions? While most economy seats are priced at 70,000 MileagePlus miles or higher, worth $910, based on TPG's valuations, there are a number of flights with saver availability, which means you can book a one-way journey for just 40,000 miles, worth $520.
The same can't be said for business-class awards -- one-way flights from Newark to Cape Town start at 223,000 miles, worth $2,899, and go all the way up to 302,500 miles, worth $3,933, though I did find one date with availability in the other direction for just 72,500 miles in biz, worth $943, and there are a number of dates with 162,500-mile ($2,113) awards.
Currently, United's Cape Town service runs through March 27, 2020, though the carrier plans to extend its EWR-CPT service through next year — perhaps with an earlier start date and greater frequency, too.