An easy weekday upgrade: A review of United Business on the A320 from Puerto Vallarta to Denver
As a Premier 1K elite with United Airlines, I used to enjoy frequent premium cabin upgrades. But this year, I haven't had the same upgrade karma — from January to July, just two of my 24 eligible United flights received Complimentary Premier Upgrades (CPUs).
So when my upgrade on a recent flight back home from a trip to Mexico cleared 96 hours before departure, I was curious to see if United could deliver a noticeably better experience in business class than in coach on an aging, ex-Ted (a low-cost United subsidiary that operated from 2004 to 2009) Airbus A320.
Here's what the experience was like.
United has regularly scheduled service from Puerto Vallarta's Licenciado Gustavo Díaz Ordaz International Airport (PVR) to Denver International Airport (DEN), Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and Chicago's O'Hare International Airport (ORD).
Unless you're traveling on the Newark flight, you're almost guaranteed to be on an A320 traveling on United in or out of Puerto Vallarta.
Regardless of which Puerto Vallarta flight you choose, the flights are all scheduled similarly: Leave the U.S. for Mexico in the morning and return from Mexico back to the U.S. in the afternoon. I traveled on an afternoon return flight from Mexico to the United States.
With flights scheduled this way, crews have long days, so you might find the service on the return flights from Mexico to be a bit lackluster compared to the flights out of the United States.
Passengers can select from three fares on these flights, including the one I was on to Denver: basic economy, economy and United Business.
United basic economy fares from Puerto Vallarta to Denver start at $186.15 one-way at the moment, but with the various restrictions in this booking class, including no upgrades and reduced MileagePlus Premier credit, I paid an extra $40 to book a standard economy seat.
With my 1K status, I earned 129 Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) and 1,419 MileagePlus miles, worth $17.17 at TPG's valuations.
Regular economy class fares start at just over $230 one-way from Puerto Vallarta to Denver right now, while one-way business-class fares start at around $490.
If you want to redeem United MileagePlus miles, one-way awards will set you back at least 11,700 miles or 30,000 miles in economy or business class, respectively, plus $78.05 in taxes and fees. Keep in mind that United Premier members aren't eligible for Complimentary Premier Upgrades (CPUs) unless you have a cobranded United credit card with an annual fee.
As mentioned, my CPU to business class automatically cleared 96 hours before the flight.
On this flight, there were two empty seats in business class after all Premier members and non-revenue United employees received upgrades, which was a tremendous rarity traveling this year.
Related: What is United Airlines elite status worth?
When I arrived in Puerto Vallarta on my inbound flight from the United States, I was impressed with the airport's efficiency. My departure was no different.
Crossing the street from where my Uber let me out, there was no check-in line at United's counters, which was a pleasant surprise since United has about half-dozen afternoon departures from PVR.
While there was a Premier Access lane, there wasn't a special queue for United Premier 1K, Polaris business class or Global Services customers. I checked my bag moments before United's 60-minute cutoff on international flights. If there had been a line, I could have been in trouble.
Since there's no passport control upon your departure (other than a passport check by the gate agent), both domestic and international passengers pass through a body temperature screening area before clearing the same security checkpoint. There was no priority lane, and the security hall was rather hectic, with flustered security officers ushering passengers around quickly. Passengers are asked to take out their liquids and remove laptops.
When I took out my second laptop before pushing my luggage through the screening machine, I got an energetic "apúrate" — or "hurry up" — from the security officer.
After clearing security, all passengers weave through a duty-free store before entering the main terminal. I followed signs for the VIP International lounge, which was a five-minute walk from the duty-free store.
Unfortunately, United doesn't have a lounge, and Star Alliance Gold customers and United business-class passengers also are left lounge-less. But there are three Priority Pass lounges. The VIP International lounge was conveniently located steps from my departure gate.
Despite a renovated lounge, the food options were limited, and there weren't many open seats. Quite a few passengers had abandoned their phones in remote corners of the lounge to charge them up since power outlets weren't conveniently located at each seat. With just a few tinted windows, the entire space felt a bit cramped.
However, the lesser-known downstairs area of the lounge was nearly empty. This space didn't have an elevator to access it, but it was remarkably quiet and clean. This part of the lounge featured showers (which were closed), sofas, armchairs, high-top tables and cleaner bathrooms than the main level.
About 10 minutes before the scheduled boarding time of my flight, I received a text message from United that boarding was ready to begin. When preboarding was announced for Premier 1K members, I was the only passenger who went toward the gate and was the first person on board.
The gate agent checked my arrival passport stamp, and, unlike some passengers, I wasn't given a secondary security screening.
Cabin and seat
United business class on the Airbus A320 has 12 seats arranged in three rows of a 2-2 configuration. These seats have a standard 19 inches of width with 6 inches of recline, but the real highlight was the generous 39 inches of pitch. Being just shy of 6 feet tall, those extra inches meant that I could stretch out properly.
A divider between rows 3 and 7 separates business class from the economy cabin, which has 138 seats: 42 in Economy Plus and 96 in coach.
With the tray table extended from the armrest, I could easily fit my 16-inch laptop. There was also a small stand for a phone built into the tray table.
While the plane featured the latest version of United's short-haul business-class seats, United's entire Airbus fleet lacks seatback entertainment. After connecting to the United Wi-Fi network, you can stream entertainment to your personal device. (More on personal device entertainment later.) There were two power outlets per row between seats in the United Business and Economy Plus sections. That means that business class passengers each had their own power outlets, while the three passengers in the Economy Plus rows had to negotiate between two outlets.
Despite being worn, the overhead bins were spacious enough to accommodate everyone's luggage, though only 74 of the 150 seats were occupied.
The flight attendants offered an alcohol sanitizing wipe to each passenger who stepped on board.
For my journey to Denver, I selected seat 1F. The bulkhead seats don't have under-seat storage, but since I was working on the flight, it was more important to ensure that a seat in front of me wouldn't recline and potentially damage my laptop.
With such an empty flight, passengers began to play musical chairs by self-upgrading themselves to Economy Plus, the economy class seats with around 3 inches of extra legroom located close to the front of the plane. The flight attendants put a quick end to it by announcing that they'd be happy to process an upgrade charge to Economy Plus for any interested passengers. Economy Plus seats cost an additional $79 to $99. United Premier Silver members have access to complimentary Economy Plus seats at check-in, while Premier Gold and higher members can reserve Economy Plus seats at the time of booking, free of charge.
Related: Flight review: United’s A320 in Economy Plus from New York to Denver
Amenities and Inflight Entertainment
Since this wasn't a premium transcontinental flight, there weren't any amenity kits or paper menus. Blankets were available upon request, though they were nowhere near as comfortable as the luxe Saks Fifth Avenue duvets found on Polaris flights (Polaris business class is United's long-haul international business class).
As mentioned, there's no seatback entertainment on United's Airbus fleet, though streaming entertainment through the United app worked seamlessly on my flight. I counted an impressive 194 available movies through the United app including recent releases like, "King Richard" and "Top Gun: Maverick." On the TV front, there were some fan favorites like "Grey's Anatomy" and "The Big Bang Theory."
Once in the air and after connecting to the Wi-Fi, passengers are directed to unitedwifi.com, where they can activate free inflight messaging (like iMessage and WhatsApp). Full-flight Wi-Fi was also available for purchase for $10 — or $8 for MileagePlus members. There was also an option to pay for Wi-Fi using miles, but you should avoid that option if you want to maximize your hard-earned MileagePlus miles.
When I used to travel to Mexico before the pandemic, United's planes would lose Wi-Fi connection south of the U.S. border, but on this flight, Wi-Fi was available (other than when we hit some bumps midflight) from takeoff to touchdown. I couldn't run a speed test, but the upload and download speeds were fast enough to run internet searches and send emails.
United business-class passengers have access to a single designated lavatory behind the flight deck. Unlike the seats, it hadn't been updated. The fluorescent lighting and wallpaper brought back 1980s office vibes. The sink also wasn't touchless, which felt quite out-of-date in a COVID-19 era.
Food and beverage
The flight crew offered a predeparture beverage service in plastic cups. Passengers were given the choice of water or orange juice.
Since my upgrade cleared several days before the flight, I could preorder my meal on the United app. I had tried the underwhelming zatar chicken with orzo on another flight, so I decided to go with the Impossible meatless meatballs with broccoli and couscous.
The flight attendant came through the cabin to take meal orders from passengers who hadn't preordered and confirmed my preordered entree. Shortly after takeoff, passengers were offered a beverage in sturdy glass cups. Before long, lunch was served.
Lunch was presented with a cup of ripe fruit, which tasted as good as it looked, particularly the juicy watermelon. Just below the fruit cup was a cold wheat roll served on a shared saucer with the dessert — what United calls the pie in the sky. My seatmate, who didn't know that the other baked item on the saucer was dessert, inadvertently took an unwelcome bite out of the pie in the sky between the fruit and main course.
While the overcooked broccoli was more mush than green, I enjoyed the meatless meatballs. They had a slightly gamey flavor, which was complemented by the chewy, pearl-sized couscous. I wouldn't hesitate to order this entree again.
The flight attendant was quick to retrieve my tray when I finished my meal, which I appreciated since it let me get back to work quickly.
Related: Best burgers in the sky: We compared inflight hamburgers to see which was the tastiest
I wasn't expecting Qatar Airways QSuite-caliber service on this flight — which was good, because the service was nothing special.
The flight attendants spent an hour conversing loudly, which seemed to disturb some of the other passengers. Then, our flight attendant remained seated in the galley for the rest of the flight.
At one point, I asked him for a drink refill, which he promptly provided.
For the flight crew, it was the middle of a long day. The purser was on his second of three flights for the day: Denver to Puerto Vallarta, Puerto Vallarta to Denver, then Denver to Madison, Wisconsin's Dane County Regional Airport (MSN).
The crew seemed hard at work and disinterested in the passengers, which was understandable. Still, I found it odd that the crew didn't acknowledge my Premier 1K status, which is a standard feature on premium-cabin United flights.
In my book, United Business offered two things I couldn't get in coach: a larger seat and a hot lunch. There weren't any special Mexican touches to make you feel like you were in for a treat specific to this route, but that was to be expected.
The zippy $8 Wi-Fi and generous movie selection were the best parts of United's A320 service, both of which can be enjoyed in both economy and business class.
So while I was happy to have the complimentary upgrade, due to the lack of a lounge for business-class passengers in Puerto Vallarta and lackluster inflight service, I wouldn't spend more than $75 or $100 to upgrade to United Business in the future — much less the $493 starting price for a one-way fare on this route.
Judging that the business-class cabin was full of upgraded Premier members and non-revenue standby passengers, it seems like I'm not the only person to think paying for United Business outright isn't worth it on a route like this.