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Premium-cabin awards seats are notoriously difficult to find flying across the Pacific from Sydney to the US, but I lucked out and was able to book a Polaris seat on United. Pros: lie-flat seats, my low expectations and actually being available. Cons: old seats and average food and service.
It’s notoriously difficult to find available premium-cabin awards on routes between the US and Australia. Thankfully, on a recent trip to the continent, my schedule was somewhat flexible, and, having kept tabs on the United Award inventory, I noticed decent availability three to seven days out. I jumped at the chance and nabbed a seat on a Dreamliner, which made for a comfortable 14-hour flight home.
I monitored award availability across Delta, American, United and a few other frequent-flyer programs, and the only one that had Saver availability during my dates was United, for 80,000 MileagePlus miles. I noticed flights from Sydney (SYD) to Seattle (SEA) started to open up seven days before departure, with availability disappearing about three days out. The long-haul segment that was generally open was on a 787 from SYD to Los Angeles (LAX), while United’s other long-haul to the West Coast, from SYD to San Francisco (SFO), was generally pretty full.
The long-haul inventory from SYD to LAX that was available on United.com was not showing up on Avianca’s LifeMiles, Singapore Airline’s KrisFlyer or Aeroplan award searches, which meant I had to use United miles.
I ended up booking a crazy routing, intending to confirm myself on the long-haul in business class and hopefully make a same-day change (a perk of United Gold status) onto the nonstop from LAX to SEA, in economy if need be.
I consider the 80,000 United miles I burned to be a good value, not only because cash tickets cost $3,000 to $5,000 on this route, but also because award availability is so sparse from SYD to the USA. I put the $91 of taxes and fees on my Platinum Card from American Express, which earned me a total of 455 Membership Rewards points, thanks to the card’s 5x bonus category on airfare purchases.
Check-in and Lounge
I was able to check-in with just a few clicks on the United app. While I was checking in, I didn’t see any options to same-day change onto the nonstop flight from LAX to SEA, so I decided to message United on Twitter to see if they could help. (I’ve found Twitter is an easy and cost-efficient way to get airline service while abroad.) A helpful agent confirmed me on United 5608 from LAX to SEA, shortening my journey by about nine hours!
They were even able to add me to the upgrade list, which was later confirmed. One thing to note is that when booking mixed-cabin award flights operated by United, passengers are eligible to have segments in the lower class of service waitlisted for upgrades. These usually clear ahead of complimentary upgrades for elites as well!
At the airport, I swung by the United counter to grab an Express Path slip that allowed premium-cabin and elite passengers to pass through an expedited security lane.
After clearing security, I made my way to the Singapore Airlines SilverKris Lounge, in Terminal C near where most Star Alliance flights depart.
The lounge had a large selection of hot and cold food. At breakfast, there was fresh fruit, salads, eggs, bacon, bread, cold cuts, noodles and Asian veggies.
The steamed dumplings were particularly good.
There was a wide variety of self-service drinks and a fully stocked bar.
I saw plenty of open seats of various types, including couches, single seats, tables and private work pods.
Showers were also available, though I didn’t have time for one. Overall, the lounge was really comfortable, and I was somewhat disappointed I didn’t have more time to spend there. While not a “destination” lounge by any means, it had all the amenities you could want from a business-class lounge. Singapore Airlines never disappoints!
I arrived at the gate around 8:45am, well before the 9:15am boarding close, though it seemed like most of the plane had already boarded. There was one final passport check to enter the boarding area, and the agents only checked boarding passes when passengers were entering the gate.
Cabin and Seat
Upon boarding, I took a right to the rear of the small business class cabin. There are a total of 48 business-class seats on this plane, with five rows in the forward cabin (pictured below) and three rows in the rear. (TPG editor-at-large Zach Honig reviewed this plane in depth last year.) Seats in biz are arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration.
I chose 7B, as it was the last aisle seat available in the smaller business cabin when I booked.
The seats were stocked with a mattress cover, pillow, blanket and amenity kit.
It was pretty comfortable in lie-flat position, though the foot cubby is tight. Bulkhead seats in Row 1 and Row 5 have larger footwells.
Seat controls are found on the left and are pretty self-explanatory.
There’s a small storage space with an international charging outlet, USB port and headphone jack toward the back of the seat.
The seats themselves are reasonably comfortable, but it is disappointing that United chose to install a relatively old product on such a new plane. (And they won’t be getting retrofitted anytime soon, either.) The seats have little to no privacy and minimal storage, and it was a nuisance to hop over someone to get out of a window seat in business class.
Food and Beverage
Service began with a choice of welcome beverages. I went with the sparkling wine, which frankly tasted like the cheap stuff. I asked the FA what they were serving, since it wasn’t listed on the menu when she said she would check, but she got caught up in her other work. There was no cool glass or piece of chocolate like with the initial Polaris service.
I never actually received a menu either, but my seatmate was kind enough to share hers.
Soon after, the purser came by to introduce himself and tell us about the flight. Our estimated flying time was around 13 hours. He was professional and friendly throughout the flight.
About 20 minutes after a smooth, on-time takeoff from Sydney, the FAs came around to take drink and dinner orders. I went with a Bloody Mary and ordered the hapuka fish with risotto. The Bloody was slightly spicy and served with a mix of warmed, salty cashews and almonds. Note that there were no pickled veggies from the Bloody Mary cart days.
Next came the starters, of which the smoked salmon was your average grocery-store-deli stuff. The endive salad, on the other hand, was particularly good. It was cool, crisp and crunchy with the pepitas, and the mix of bitter endives with sweet pumpkin pieces was pleasant. The FAs came around with a breadbasket that included garlic bread, seeded bread rolls, and brown bread rolls. The garlic bread was rich, toasted, warm and amazing as usual.
Next came the main course, which was … pretty awful. Neither the fish nor the risotto were seasoned at all, and both were lukewarm. The fish felt rubbery, but at least it didn’t taste too fishy. The risotto had absolutely no flavor at all. The only good thing I could say about this main course was that it was a large portion and the side veggies were edible.
Next came the dessert cart, which I was happy to see hadn’t been cut — yet! They offered a few different types of cupcakes, tarts, pavlova and ice cream sundaes.
I went with vanilla ice cream smothered in chocolate sauce and almonds. It’s always fun to eat ice cream on a plane, though the actual ice cream was pretty icy on this flight.
Snacks were available toward the front of both business-class cabins throughout the night. There was an assortment of fruit, cookies, chips, popcorn and leftover dessert from the dinner service that flyers could grab at will, along with water bottles in the galley.
About 90 minutes before we landed at LAX, the FAs came around for the breakfast service. I went with the omelet instead of the fruit and cereal. It was slightly cheesy, and the tomato-pepper ragout added some flavor to the eggs. It was served with a side of fruit, yogurt and a choice of pastries. I drank it down with a glass of orange juice and cup of ginger tea. The highlight of the meal, though, was the outrageously delicious chocolate-toffee-covered macadamia nuts in pink packaging, which seemed like a random thing to be served with breakfast — but I’m not complaining because they were fantastic.
Overall, dinner was bad while breakfast was satisfactory. I never expect to be blown away by the catering from United, so I can’t say I was surprised. I do think taking out the Bloody Mary carts and wine carts also took a lot of the fun out of the Polaris experience. I hope the dessert cart isn’t next on the chopping block. The service from the FAs was good, considering I was flying United. They were definitely more reactive than proactive, but were happy to refill my drinks or personalize as requested.
Each amenity kit was stocked with all of the essentials. I found the tin box ugly and less useful after the flight when compared to the previous Saks Fifth Avenue kit.
I love Cowshed toiletries, and think it’s a cool partnership that United has. The pillow mist that used to be part of the Cowshed amenities is no longer.
I only used the lavatories once during the flight, but they were clean and spacious. They were stocked with the same Cowshed toiletries.
There was no mention of pajamas or the old cooling pillow, though I thought they might still be available on flights over 12 hours, so I asked for one. Luckily, they were still around if you asked. It seems weird and not well-intentioned that they aren’t on the menu, though.
The Saks Fifth Avenue bedding on the seat was especially comfortable, but don’t expect the FAs to make your bed!
The pajamas were soft and comfortable, I’ll definitely be wearing them again at home. They only come in two sizes, S/M and L/XL.
The in-flight entertainment screen measures 15.4 inches and had a large amount of both TV and movie content, with a mix of new flicks like “Black Panther” along with old classics like “The Blue Brothers.”
The controller was cool because you could have the flight map up on the remote while you had other content going on the screen.
The headphones provided were the standard ones on most United international business-class flights. They offer a degree of noise canceling and had decent sound quality.
All in all, I was pretty happy with this flight across the Pacific Ocean. Yeah, the food wasn’t great, and the service was average by international standards, but I don’t have the same expectations from United as I do from Emirates or Singapore Airlines. In addition, United opens up some premium-cabin award availability on this route, which I have rarely seen on Delta or American. Would I pay for this flight out of pocket, or choose to fly this route again on a paid business trip? Definitely not. But I would be happy to redeem another 80,000 United MileagePlus miles for 14 hours in a lie-flat seat.
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