Not-So-Premium Economy: A Review of United’s Premium Plus Cabin From Newark to Hong Kong
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Excellent fare, larger seat with more personal space, much-improved IFE, substantial meals with liquor included, Saks Fifth Avenue pillow and blanket, full Polaris amenity kit.
Poor service, no menus, overcooked food, useless leg rest, lavatories shared with coach.
Some two years after introducing its Polaris business-class product on international flights — you know, the “real” Polaris, with the new 1-2-1 seats — United Airlines has launched Premium Plus, a true premium-economy product now available on select long-haul international routes.
Naturally, I wanted to review one of the first flights, so I booked a ticket on United’s longest Premium Plus flight to date, from Newark (EWR) to Hong Kong (HKG) on March 31, the day after the airline’s long-awaited launch.
Unfortunately, Premium Plus awards were absurdly overpriced, at 120,000 miles each way, so I booked a paid ticket, instead. In fact, the lowest Premium Plus award I could find on this route came in at 79,000 miles each way, some 4,000 miles more than a saver business-class award on the same flight. Obviously you’ll want to redeem fewer miles and fly in Polaris in this case.
Cash fares were reasonable, though — for $1,322, I scored a Premium Plus seat on the outbound, and a “W” economy fare back to Newark, which I confirmed in Polaris using a Premier 1K Global Premier Upgrade (GPU) right away. As a result, I’ll earn elite-qualifying credits and redeemable miles as follows, with the Premium Plus segment earning 150% Premier-Qualifying Miles, plus 1.5 Premier Qualifying Segments.
I arrived at Newark about two hours before departure, and asked my Lyft to drop me off at Level 3, home to United’s speedier Premier Access check-in, which is available to all Premium Plus customers.
After a quick visit to the kiosk, I headed down one level to the TSA PreCheck area, and I was through in just under five minutes.
Unfortunately Premium Plus passengers don’t get access to United’s fantastic Polaris Lounge — in fact, lounge access isn’t included at all, though I was presented with an offer to purchase a one-time United Club pass at a discounted rate of $42, marked down from the usual $59. Even with the discount, I don’t think it’s worth it, though.
While I could have accessed the United Club for free thanks to my Star Alliance Gold status, I opted to walk around and explore for a few minutes, including a quick look at United’s unique “Miles Shop” in Terminal C.
My flight was departing from C121, my favorite part of Terminal C, since it’s a bit airier than the rest of the piers.
I had arrived just in time for lunch, so I decided to visit the terminal’s “invite-only” restaurant, Classified, located at the back of Saison.
There wasn’t anyone waiting to greet Classified guests, so I wandered back there myself — after making a reservation through the dedicated website, of course.
The restaurant was completely empty — just how I like it!
Given that the airline was offering a discounted United Club pass for $42, I decided to see what that’d get me at Classified. I started with a tuna tartare appetizer, which was flavorful, but a bit over-chilled, as if the fish had just come out of a refrigerator.
Next, I had another appetizer — the crab cake — which was delicious as always.
After my 20% discount, thanks to the United Explorer Card, I actually had enough left over to tip 22%, bringing my total to $41.84. Although the tuna would have been even more appealing if it hadn’t been quite so cold, there’s no question that I made out far better by spending that $42 at a restaurant rather than the United Club…
…and I had a fantastic view of my 777-300ER to Hong Kong, plus free super-fast Wi-Fi, courtesy of the Polaris Lounge just on the other side of the wall.
Finally, all Classified guests get a parting gift of boxed chocolates — now destination-themed, though they’re not nearly as delicious as the Jacques Torres treats they used to serve.
After lunch, I walked the few feet over to gate 121, where our HKG crew was just lining up to board.
Even if I hadn’t visited Classified, waiting at the gate wouldn’t have been bad at all, given the various workstations (complete with USB and universal power outlets) available throughout the terminal now.
Boarding was slated for 2:25pm — after a short 10-minute delay, we were on our way.
Cabin and Seat
On the 777-300ER, United’s Premium Plus cabin occupies rows 20 through 22, just between business class and coach.
Naturally, you’ll want to avoid seats E and F — the six center seats in the middle section — unless you’re traveling as a family of four.
Most seats have large 13.3-inch touchscreen displays, with HD resolution — they really look great, overall.
Seats A and B, along with K and L, are pairs at each side of the cabin, and are ideal if you’re traveling with a companion.
I had heard good things about legroom at the bulkhead, so I grabbed 20L, a window seat on the starboard side.
Row 20 did in fact offer a ton of extra legroom, and turned out to be a great pick, even though there wasn’t any floor storage during taxi, takeoff and landing.
That inconvenience was easily worth the tradeoff for extra legroom, though — there was plenty in my row, making it easy to get in and out from the window without my neighbor needing to budge.
Storage was incredibly limited, however — aside from the literature pocket above, all I had was a small compartment to the side of the seat.
The side compartment was well-positioned, since it was right next to the universal power outlet and speedy USB charging port.
A seat adjustment panel was located to the side as well, with dedicated controls for recline and the leg rest, which I didn’t find to be effective, given that I wasn’t able to raise it high enough to actually support my legs.
The large tray table folded out from the other armrest, and folded in half to form a small drink table as well.
I was also thrilled to see that dedicated air vents were available, making it easy to cool down in an otherwise warm cabin.
Unfortunately, the Premium Plus cabin doesn’t have its own lavatory — instead, two lavs are shared with the large Economy Plus section, but there was never much of a wait during my flight, given that there were dozens of empty seats behind. I might avoid sitting in row 22, though, since that’s where flyers tend to queue up for the lavs.
Amenities and IFE
I was a bit surprised to see some familiar Saks Fifth Avenue amenities, including the lighter Polaris blanket and the “little” pillow United removed from business class almost two years ago.
We also got full-size Polaris amenity kits — the older version with the tin, complete with a Polaris-branded eye mask, along with earplugs, socks, a dental kit, various creams, tissues and a pen. (Note: a dedicated Premium Plus amenity kit is on the way.)
Since row 20 is against the bulkhead, my IFE display folded out from the center console, and couldn’t be used during taxi, takeoff and landing.
While United advertises the seat-back screens as being “up to 13.3 inches” in Premium Plus, bulkhead rows have smaller displays — since they need to be small enough to fold away, they measure roughly 11.5 inches, instead.
The movie selection was robust, with more than 200 films, including classics and a large variety of new releases.
While some shows just have an episode or two, United offers a bunch in its “box sets” section, where you’ll find entire seasons available to watch on-demand.
United also offers a unique feature called “From the flight deck,” which — in theory, at least — lets you listen in on air traffic control communications. It’s up to the pilots to enable it, though, and unfortunately they must have decided to keep it off for this flight.
The detailed moving map was fully functional, though, and made it easy to follow along with the flight.
All of the programming began with a Bonvoy ad, believe it or not — the same one that aired during the Super Bowl — but you could skip ahead easily enough.
You can select content using the touchscreen, or the simple wired remote.
The airline also provided headphones, but they’re the same crappy sets available in business class, and the connector on mine was broken, even though it was delivered wrapped in plastic. Fortunately, I was able to use my own noise-canceling set, instead.
Wi-Fi was available from the moment we boarded, and rates were reasonable, especially given the length of the flight.
Performance was hardly outstanding, but I was able to text, send and receive emails, work on TPG content and more with only a slight delay.
Overall, the Wi-Fi worked decently well, despite the dismal speed test. In fact, I wrote most of this review during the flight without too much frustration, including uploading almost all of the photos you see here — which is certainly more than I’d been able to do with Panasonic Wi-Fi in the past. It did cut out for about three hours as we approached the North Pole, however, which is to expected given the lack of satellite coverage there.
Food and Beverage
United apparently told flight attendants that they can offer a pre-departure water service in Premium Plus if time permits — and time definitely seemed to permit on this flight, though we were never offered a drink.
About 50 minutes after takeoff, the flight attendants came through for the first time. Wine, beer and alcoholic beverages are included, so I asked for a Scotch and sparkling water to start. I was served still water, instead, with both drinks presented in blue plastic cups.
About 40 minutes later — roughly an hour and 20 minutes after takeoff — the crew came through with the main meal, starting with another round of drinks. I asked if there were any other Scotch options, since I had seen Glenfarclas listed on the sample menu. The flight attendant looked for a second, saw a bourbon and handed me that.
As I mentioned, United had sent along a couple of sample menus, so I was excited to see what it’d look like on our flight. Unfortunately the flight attendants weren’t aware that we were supposed to get menus, and later weren’t able to find them, so we were simply presented with a choice of “chicken or pasta.”
While the presentation didn’t quite match what you’d get in Polaris, the dishware was very similar. The entree was served with the foil attached, however, which I thought was a bit tacky — it’d be easy enough to remove foil for 24 passengers. The roll wasn’t heated up, either, and the cookie — the same available in business class — was stale.
The spinach, watermelon and feta salad was fresh and light, though, and the chicken dish was flavorful, even though the meat itself was way overcooked.
My tray was collected after 30 or so minutes, and a flight attendant came through offering small bottles of water and lemon sorbet about 10 minutes later, before making the rounds to offer coffee and tea 10 minutes after that. Had I known there’d be sorbet on the way, I would have saved my cookie for later.
Then, roughly halfway through the flight — when many passengers were sleeping — the lights were turned on for a snack service. Everyone was offered the same gross turkey and cheese sandwich served in economy, along with our pick of items from the snack basket. Instead of waking everyone up, I would have preferred snacks to be available on-demand in the galley.
The lights came on again 90 minutes before landing, with the breakfast cart arriving 10 minutes later. Without menus to reference, we were told the options were an omelet or cereal — again, the entree was presented in foil.
The entree turned out to be scrambled eggs instead — the exact same dish I had in United’s regional business class to Cancun (CUN) last month. It was decently flavorful thanks to the corn bread base, but the eggs and beans were very dried out — even the tomato sauce on top seemed dry, if that makes any sense.
The Chobani yogurt and fresh fruit were definitely the highlight there. Oddly, there were packets of butter and jam on the tray as well, but there wasn’t any bread served with this meal.
Trays were collected promptly after the meal, with the flight attendant offering up a big smile, a warm “thank you for flying United!” and wishing me a good stay in Hong Kong.
April Fools! Can you imagine?! Let me share a few more of our interactions, so you can get a feel for what the experience was really like…
United calls its new product Premium Plus, but there wasn't anything premium about the service, with the crew simply treating the forward three rows as an extension of the economy cabin. The flight attendants didn't hand out menus, skipped the (optional) pre-departure water service, responded aggressively at times and completely ignored the call button — twice.
We got off to a bad start right away. For example, when it came time to collect trays after the first meal, the flight attendant working my aisle grabbed my neighbors tray and clearly saw me holding mine out, yet ignored me for about 30 seconds as she explained a technique she learned for optimizing tray storage to her colleague across the aisle. She then, finally, extended her hand to grab mine, looking very grumpy as she did it.
Later in the flight, the same flight attendant came through with cups of water. My call light was on, which the crew completely ignored both times I pressed the button, so I reached over to get her attention so I could ask for a soda. She was offering water, though, and gruffly barked “yes or no” — as in, are you taking a cup of water, because that’s what we’ve got.
Finally, before landing, the crew didn’t come through to collect cups, and my neighbor’s would have spilled everywhere if he hadn’t caught it in time. Another crew member shouted from the aisle to lower the in-flight entertainment display, rather than coming over to tell us politely — if she’d done that, she probably would have noticed the water sitting out, too.
The flight attendants weren’t aggressive with every interaction, but there certainly wasn’t anything premium about the service we received in Premium Plus — absolutely nothing at all. The service situation was redeemed only slightly because one flight attendant who worked my aisle a couple times smiled and seemed to be well-intentioned, though the rest of my interactions were neutral at best.
While the product could certainly evolve over time, for now, Premium Plus is a hodgepodge of business class and coach — the seats are closer to what you’ll find in economy, of course, with limited recline and personal space, while some amenities overlap with biz, such as the Saks Fifth Avenue pillow and blanket, select dishware and the full Polaris amenity kit.
Considering I often need to hit the ground running, what’s most important to me at this point is sleep, and I didn’t get much in Premium Plus, despite the long flight duration. I just had such a hard time getting comfortable — the seat didn’t recline enough, the leg rest was a joke and the pillow was too small to provide much support.
The crew also made a big commotion with the brief snack service halfway through the flight, not long after I finally fell asleep — a period when snacks would otherwise be available on-demand in business class. The AutoSleep app, which uses data from my Apple Watch, will give you an idea of just how much I struggled to catch some shut-eye, despite being absolutely exhausted after a busy weekend at home:
Ultimately, the cabin you choose will likely come down to price — for an extra couple hundred dollars on United’s longest flights, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a seat in Premium Plus, but I certainly wouldn’t want to waste one of my precious Global Premier Upgrades for a seat here, especially when it could land me a lie-flat bed on another flight.
Going forward, if an upgrade isn’t available to confirm at booking, my strategy will likely be to purchase a seat in Premium Plus then apply a GPU to waitlist for biz. Premium Plus customers are prioritized above all regular economy fares — even sky-high “Y” — so I’ll have the best shot at scoring an upgrade, either during the days leading up to departure or at the gate. Worst case, I’ll have a larger recliner to look forward to on a long international flight, even if United doesn’t offer the premium service to match.
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