Regional Workhorse: A Review of United’s 737-900ER Business Class From Newark to Cancun
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Recently, I needed to make my way to Cancun, Mexico, for work. (Tough life, I know.) While fares are sometimes impossibly low, that wasn’t the case on this trip, since I happened to be traveling during spring break. There weren’t any reasonable redemption options, either, which meant it was time to fire up Google Flights and see what I could get.
Given that I can make it from my apartment in Manhattan to Newark (EWR) in about 20 minutes without traffic, that’s usually my go-to for an early-morning departure. And if a nonstop is what I’m after, that often means flying United. As with many of the airline’s leisure routes, most of United’s Cancun (CUN) routes are operated by the Boeing 737-900ER, and the Newark nonstops were no exception — so that’s the plane I flew.
While award availability can be decent on this route — both in economy and business class — that wasn’t the case during spring break. As a result, there weren’t any award seats available, but if saver space had been open, I could have booked this flight for 17,500 MileagePlus miles in economy or 30,000 in business class, plus about $35 in taxes.
My options ended up being economy, for $267, or business class, for $494. As a Premier 1K, I would have been entitled to a complimentary upgrade, but the cabin was filling up quickly a couple of weeks before departure. Given that we wanted the review, we decided to purchase a one-way fare in business class, United’s international premium cabin, branded as “first class” within the US.
When I checked in via the app, it seemed that the flight was overbooked — not a surprise given that it was spring break. I was invited to place a bid to give up my seat and presented with alternative flight options. I still needed to arrive the same day and fly the 737-900ER for this review, so I selected the highest set amount — $1,000 — and picked an alternate connecting flight in Houston (IAH).
I decided to pull up that connecting flight before I confirmed my offer and noticed that the inventory didn’t change at all — in other words, even though I selected that Houston routing as my backup, United didn’t seem to hold space on the flight. The gate agent didn’t actually end up needing any volunteers at boarding, but had my offer been accepted, I may have had to withdraw it if that Houston connection ended up being full.
I was more than happy to have more time in Mexico, though, and since I traveled on a paid ticket, I wasn’t walking away empty-handed. In total, I was awarded 4,796 miles, worth about $67, based on TPG’s valuations, in addition to the elite credits.
We also paid with The Platinum Card® from American Express, earning 5x points on airfare (booked directly with the airline or via Amex Travel on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year), for a total of 2,470 Membership Rewards points, worth approximately $49, based on TPG’s valuations.
I usually head straight to Level 3 at Newark, the designated check-in area for Premier members and premium-cabin flyers, but the driver headed straight to Level 2, which is always more chaotic. Not a problem on the day I flew, though, given that I had checked in through the app and only had carry-on bags.
From there, it was a short walk to security — TSA PreCheck was hopping, but I still managed to get through in seven minutes, including a secondary bag check, since I neglected to take out my laptop and iPad.
I didn’t have much time to spare, so I walked straight over to the correct pier at Newark’s Terminal C, which seemed especially busy as well, with far more leisure travelers than I’m used to seeing ahead of midweek flights.
There were a few refreshed dining options right around the gate, including Daily, which tweaks its menu every day.
Since I was traveling to Mexico, I was eligible for United Club access with my business-class ticket, though I would have also been eligible via my United MileagePlus Club card and Star Alliance Gold status.
I visited United’s only permanent lounge at Terminal C, which happened to be just across the hall from my gate.
While the airline’s Newark lounges are desperately in need of an overhaul, it was early enough in the day that I didn’t have any trouble finding a seat.
I even managed to get one of the few available workstations, which offered a bit more privacy and made it easier to focus.
The airline was serving breakfast during my visit. It consisted of fresh fruit, yogurt, pastries and bagels and cream cheese.
A few minutes before boarding, I headed across the way to my gate to see if the airline did in fact need volunteers.
As it turns out, there were enough seats to go around, and boarding began right on time.
Cabin and Seat
United’s 737-900ERs offer a total of 20 recliner seats up front — again, branded as “United Business” on this regional international flight.
Seats are spread between five rows and arranged in a 2-2 configuration.
I landed on 3F, a starboard window seat in the third row.
While I would have preferred having direct aisle access, I was looking forward to the coastal views during our approach to Cancun.
The first thing I noticed was that I had landed an aircraft that didn’t have any seatback entertainment. Some of United’s 737-900ERs have 100-plus channels of DirecTV at each seat, but the newer ones don’t.
There was a decent amount of legroom, though, and my neighbor didn’t have a bag to store underneath, so I was able to tuck my backpack between our seats.
United also offers universal power outlets at every seat — a must, especially on planes that don’t have seatback TV.
Amenities and IFE
All of United’s mainline aircraft now offer streaming entertainment, which is available free of charge via a handy link on the homepage of the airline’s refreshed mobile app — assuming you’re logged in and on board, at least.
I counted a whopping 108 movies, including a mix of older films and new releases.
The picture quality was decent, and content loaded right away.
I decided to stream on my iPhone, but you could use a tablet or laptop.
I actually ended up watching downloaded Netflix content on my iPad Pro, since I wasn’t sure what to expect on board.
There was Wi-Fi available, with reasonable pricing: $9.99 for the entire four-hour flight. United’s 737 fleet only offers Wi-Fi over the continental US, but since we flew over Texas before turning south for Cancun, I was able to browse for almost the entire flight.
The Wi-Fi was usable but sluggish, especially considering it was the speedier Viasat Ka-band variant.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
The service began promptly, but it was … abrupt. Moments after taking my seat, a flight attendant looked at me from three rows up in the galley and shouted across the then-empty cabin, “Can I get ya a drink?” I was caught off guard, so I ordered an Old Fashioned. And it wasn’t even 9 in the morning. Moments later, I wished I had asked for a cup of water instead, but I still managed to be a good sport and finish my cocktail.
The full service began 40 minutes after takeoff — that’s when I got my water. My neighbor asked for Champagne, though, and the flight attendant said he was out, explaining that he’d only been given one bottle.
Just five minutes later, breakfast was served — our pick of huevos rancheros or an apple soufflé.
The eggs and sauce were actually a bit dry, and the beans were way overcooked, but the cornbread base added a lot of flavor, making for a pretty decent entree overall.
The fruit salad was underwhelming, with pineapple that wasn’t quite ripe. I didn’t eat much, since I figured I’d have plenty of delicious pineapple to munch on once we landed in Mexico.
The flight attendant also came around with a breadbasket, offering biscuits or cinnamon rolls. United’s cinnamon rolls are always a highlight, so I got one “for the picture.” (Yes, yes, I ate most of it, too.)
Later in the flight, I pressed the call button to ask for a cup of coffee — the flight attendant arrived at my seat in five seconds to take my order.
Shouting across the cabin to take my drink order during boarding felt … let’s say informal, but the service was good all in all. Food and drinks were served quickly enough, and the flight attendant passed through the cabin to check on passengers and responded to the call button almost immediately when I asked for coffee before landing. That’s the best you can hope for on a US domestic or regional flight.
This was an entirely adequate flight on United’s 737-900ER. While I would have preferred seatback entertainment, I came prepared with a fully loaded iPad and the latest United app, which gave me free access to over 100 movies and TV shows.
Oh, and if you happen to be flying to Cancun, do your best to grab a window seat on the right side — a warm welcome awaits from the city’s famed hotel row.
All photos by the author.
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