Top notch with a twist: A review of United 777-300ER in Polaris business class from Newark to Tokyo
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Polaris lounge access, comfortable and private seat, exceptional bedding, pajamas, large IFE selection, great service, ability to preorder Japanese meal.
So-so food at the Polaris lounge, moldy fruit salad, no beverage menu, limited sake supply.
As a very frequent United flyer, I’ve had plenty of chances to travel in the carrier’s new (and old) Polaris business class on every aircraft type in the carrier’s fleet. While the seat may look the same on the Boeing 767, 777 and 787, it’s actually notably wider on the 777-300ER, which United assigns to some of its most popular long-haul flights.
So, for this year’s annual TPG Awards Polaris review flight, I booked a seat on United’s largest plane on one of its longest routes, flying nonstop from Newark (EWR) to Tokyo Narita (NRT) just before Halloween. It also happened to fit in very nicely as the starting point for a group trip to Japan.
Given that there was upgrade availability for Global Services members on the date my friend and I needed to fly, I booked a round-trip economy fare for $967 and confirmed an upgrade right away. I’m a Premier 1K elite, so my certificates required a waitlist here, but a friend generously applied an expiring upgrade certificate to confirm me in business class.
I paid with my Chase Sapphire Reserve for trip delay coverage and to earn 3x points per dollar — for a total of 2,901 Ultimate Rewards points, worth $58 based on TPG’s valuations — but beginning Jan. 1, 2020, I’ll be booking paid flights with the Platinum Card® from American Express, since that card will offer similar coverage, plus 5x points on flights booked directly with an airline or via Amex Travel.
I could have also booked using United miles, but, following the recent removal of the carrier’s award charts, you can expect to redeem a significant number of miles — I’m seeing one-way flights for 175,000 miles on most dates. A limited number of dates may be available for as few as 70,000 miles plus $5.60, though.
Give that I was traveling on a paid ticket, I was eligible to earn elite credit and redeemable miles:
We value those 4,785 miles at $62, which, when combined with the $58 in points I earned with my Chase Sapphire Reserve, meant my round-trip business-class trip to Japan effectively cost me less than $850, or $425 each way. Score!
With our scheduled 11:05 a.m. departure time, I wanted to be sure to arrive a couple of hours early so we had enough time to explore United’s outstanding Polaris lounge.
Most United flights depart from Newark’s Terminal C, with Level 3 offering check-in areas exclusively for premium passengers and elites. There are dozens of agents and kiosks throughout the floor, so you shouldn’t have any trouble getting through in just a minute or two.
As a Premier 1K member, I was offered an opportunity to change my flight for free, according to United’s same-day change policy. But moving to a new flight would have meant losing my upgrade — United previously kept upgrades intact, but that’s no longer the case.
Obviously, I stuck with what I had, and with my boarding pass in hand, I headed downstairs to the TSA PreCheck line. The new Clear checkpoint had yet to open, but we still managed to get through in just a few minutes.
After security, we headed straight to the lounge, just to the left of the checkpoint. (I reviewed the lounge in great detail here, but given that the experience can differ a bit depending on what time of day you visit, I’ll run through some of the highlights again.)
The lounge was almost entirely empty around 9 a.m. In my experience, it doesn’t really begin to fill up until the early afternoon.
There was loads of seating to choose from in multiple rooms.
The buffet dining area was deserted, too.
As was the bar, but we had another destination in mind: the dining room, for a la carte grub.
Arguably, the best Polaris lounge perk is the dining room, which offers waiter service and a reasonably robust menu, with different dishes for breakfast and lunch/dinner.
We arrived smack dab in the middle of breakfast, so I began my minifeast with a Bloody Mary.
First, I tried the pomegranate parfait. I liked the flavor, but the granola was a bit soggy, as if the whole dish had been premade and refrigerated.
From there, my table ordered a few more dishes, starting with the sweet potato hash (with pancetta) and a pork belly BLT. Both tasted fine, but the quality was more in line with what you might find in a diner rather than a fancy hotel breakfast.
We also had the bacon maple beignets, which were absolutely fantastic.
I was stuffed by that point, but my friend also ordered the cinnamon apple French toast, which he really seemed to enjoy.
Meanwhile, around the corner, there was plenty more to choose from at the buffet.
The staff wasn’t really keeping up with the hot dishes, though.
It was surprising to see them like this given how empty the lounge was and that there wasn’t anyone else at the buffet.
I was also able to get some work done while I ate, thanks to the speedy Wi-Fi.
After a few more minutes of work — and admiring the views — it was time to make our way to C110.
While it certainly felt more crowded than the lounge, the rest of the terminal was noticeably quieter than I’m used to. I guess midmorning is a decent time to fly!
All of the restaurants had seating available, and you didn’t need to push through giant boarding queues just to get to your gate.
Newark has also been working to renovate its bathrooms. It’s much-needed for sure, and I was happy to see that they added a temporary “pop-up” restroom near our gate.
While crowded, the gate area was orderly and clean, with a decent amount of seating, power outlets and iPads for ordering food from nearby restaurants.
And with that, it was time to board N2644U, our 2-year-old Boeing 777-300ER.
Cabin and Seat
United’s extended 777s feature a whopping 60 business-class seats spread between two cabins and arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, with direct aisle access for all.
I’ve gone back and forth on this a bit, but lately I prefer the slightly smaller forward cabin, which has the added benefit of limited traffic during boarding, as long as passengers enter through Door 2.
Since I was traveling in a group, a friend and I chose seats 1D and 1G, side by side in the very first row.
Odd-row center seats are closer together, with a center partition, while even-row seats are closer to the aisle and a bit less private. Similarly, odd-row window seats offer more privacy, since there’s more distance from the aisle there.
I also like that bulkhead seats have a wider footwell, though I haven’t found the space to be too constrained in other rows.
In-seat storage was fairly limited: There was a compartment underneath the footwell, which could be used to store shoes or a small bag, along with an enclosed storage area just above the side table.
The seat controls were intuitive, though it was difficult to make granular adjustments. I usually slide the wheel toward bed mode and make tweaks from there.
I found the seat to be comfortable both upright and in bed mode, especially after adding the optional mattress pad.
There was decent privacy, too, thanks to the seat position. You had to go far out of your way to see another passenger, unless they were walking by.
Speaking of walking by, there was a fair amount of traffic during the flight. Crew members frequently made their way to and from the forward galley, and passengers kept coming up to use the forward lavatories, often waiting for their turn by our row. I didn’t notice it much later in the flight, though.
Amenities and IFE
Polaris flyers get a ton of stuff: multiple pillows, two blankets and an amenity kit, not to mention the optional goodies you have to know to ask for (or read about in the menu).
United’s bedding is the best I’ve had in business class, too — the pillow is large and fantastic, and the Saks Fifth Avenue duvet is comfortable but not too heavy, so you don’t overheat as you sleep.
The amenity kit is top-notch, too, especially now that Sunday Riley’s on board with face cream, hand cream and lip balm.
United offers pajamas on its longer flights, too, though they aren’t nearly as nice as they used to be. I did get lucky on the return flight from Japan — the crew had the old pajamas on hand.
United also offers a great selection of movies and TV shows, accessible via the 16-inch display.
You can control the TV directly on the monitor or via the wired remote.
Each seat also has a universal power outlet, along with two USB charging ports: one above the side table and a second to the side of the TV.
The video quality is fine but not especially sharp.
Worse yet, the viewing angles are terrible. This is how dark scenes look if you’re trying to watch from bed.
United offers Panasonic Wi-Fi on its 777-300ERs, which certainly works better than it used to. I was able to stay connected for much of the flight, though my speed-test attempts were not a success.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
This crew seemed especially proactive. I was offered a drink immediately after boarding. I requested a glass of Champagne.
A flight attendant also handed over a menu for the flight. The drink menu wasn’t available, though, and the crew didn’t seem entirely sure what was on board, so it ended up being a guessing game throughout the journey to Japan.
The drink cart made its first pass about 30 minutes after takeoff, and I requested a glass of sparkling water and sake, which was served with nuts.
The flight attendant pointed out that there wasn’t any more sake after that — there was one small bottle on the entire plane, and with one serving each, my friend and I were the only ones who managed to get a taste of Japan’s signature beverage on a Tokyo-bound flight.
Japanese meals were in very short supply as well, but we had placed our order in advance — you can select a Japanese meal at least 24 hours prior to departure on your reservation page on United.com. My appetizer spread arrived just under an hour after takeoff.
Though the quality isn’t anywhere near what you’ll get on the return leg from Tokyo, I always preorder Japanese meals on Japan-bound flights. It’s just fun to try so many little dishes.
All of the appetizers were served chilled. The tuna and shrimp were the highlight for me.
The entree came 15 minutes later and consisted of baked salmon with egg, both of which were flavorful.
It also came with a bowl of rice and miso soup.
Finally, about 40 minutes after that, it was time for dessert. I decided to be indulgent and went with a sundae with strawberries, cherries and hot fudge. It was just as delicious as it looked!
Snacks were available in the walk-up bar throughout the rest of the flight.
There was a mix of leftover desserts, along with chips and crackers.
You could also order warm snacks from the crew, including grilled cheese with tomato soup, which my friend enjoyed — several times.
I wasn’t quite hungry yet, so I pressed the call button — which was answered immediately — and requested a Diet Coke.
Then, about 90 minutes before landing, it was time for the arrival meal. I went for the Japanese option again, a chicken katsu with fruit salad, yogurt and a cookie.
I started eating the fruit salad before noticing mold on a blueberry. It had actually grown to the point that it was stuck to the watermelon, so I imagine this fruit salad had been prepared far in advance of our flight. I pointed it out to a flight attendant, who took it away and offered me a travel voucher on the spot.
I asked the flight attendant if any other passengers had moldy fruit, and she insisted that I was the only one. My friend’s blueberries were also moldy, though.
While United’s seat and bedding are top-notch, it was the friendly crew that made this a great flight, despite the significant catering hiccups. The only real service shortcoming was when it came to the drinks — without a menu card available, it would have been helpful if the flight attendants could have told us what was actually on board.
I did really appreciate how proactive the flight attendant was following the moldy fruit incident, too. She used her iPhone to issue compensation to both of us on the spot. I got a $300 travel voucher, as a Premier 1K member, while my friend got $200 as a “general” MileagePlus member. It felt odd for us to get different amounts, given that we were both equally grossed out, but he was more than happy to take the 200 bucks.
This could have been a truly spectacular flight. Catering issues aside, it was easily one of the best I’ve had on United. I love the carrier’s amenities and bedding, the entertainment selection was great, and I was happy to have scored a Japanese meal. There’s no excuse for serving moldy food, though, and the airline really needs to invest more in its Polaris lounge catering — the quality has definitely slipped since launch.
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