Coach With a Kid: Flying United's 787 in Economy Plus Between Washington, D.C. and Paris
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Families look at air travel through a different lens than, say, honeymooners or single travelers. With that in mind, TPG Family is making a point to address flights from a child-friendly point of view because families may care more about kid's meals, bassinets and family-friendly movies than caviar and what type of Champagne is served predeparture (though I'm always more than down for a glass of Champagne).
Recently, my 12-year-old daughter and I set out from Washington, D.C. (IAD), to Paris (CDG) to experience Paris in the winter (which we highly recommend). On the outbound, we flew on a United 787-9, and on the way back we were on a 787-8 -- both are Dreamliners, for the non-AvGeeks among us. The differences between the two are minimal on United in economy and Economy Plus, so I'll review the flights together to give an overall flavor.
I have learned the hard way to book nonstop flights if you're flying in winter, if at all possible, to minimize weather disruptions. A few years ago, a half inch of snow basically shut down London Heathrow (LHR) and stranded me there en route to Paris. So while the $556 nonstop flight on United.com wasn't the cheapest option, it was the safest for a trip in January. I could have chosen basic economy on the same flight for $473, but as a United MileagePlus Silver, I knew I had access to two Economy Plus seats at check-in if they were available on a regular economy ticket. Considering that Economy Plus was selling for an additional $146 each way per person, and that the flights weren't full, my selection of a standard economy ticket paid off in the form of extra legroom both out and back.
As a United Silver, I could have checked a bag even in basic economy, but travelers without status (or a United credit card) are limited to one carry-on if they go the basic economy route. (Here's a guide for surviving United's basic economy, if you go that route.)
While I know The Platinum Card® from American Express pays 5x on airline purchases (when booked directly with the airline or via Amex Travel; up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year), I decided to instead use my Chase Sapphire Reserve because of its more comprehensive flight-delay benefits. I earned 3,318 Ultimate Rewards points at 3 points per dollar on the airfare in addition to 3,094 United miles (x2) on this trip.
Once I had booked the flight, I was able to select my daughter's child's meal.
Ground Experience: Washington-Dulles
Check-in at Dulles airport was a breeze, which was surprising to me given that the US government was shut down at the time. We had our bags checked in and were through security in 20 minutes flat, which was impressive on the Friday of a holiday weekend.
I have a Priority Pass membership through our Chase Sapphire Reserve card, and with time to spare we decided to check out our lounge options. Our flight departed from Gate C2, not close to any of the standalone lounges. But since we had time, we headed toward the Turkish Airways lounge, which is the best option at Dulles. However, for the first time, we were turned away because of overcrowding. If you do gain entry to the Turkish Lounge, be aware that it's a good 10-to-15-minute commute to the C gates
Fortunately, a new Priority Pass option has arrived in the form of Chef Geoff's restaurant near Gate C14. Priority Pass members get a $28-per-person allowance toward food and drink. As you might expect, it was packed, since it was the only Priority Pass space actually accepting customers at that moment.
While I enjoyed the food at Chef Geoff's, I wouldn't recommend using it as a lounge unless you've got at least an hour to spare. The restaurant is new to Priority Pass, and I don't think their staffing levels have caught up to the demand. When I asked about a children's menu, the waitress replied, all in one breath, "chickenstripsquesadillasgrilledcheese." Well, OK, then. We ended up sharing a burger and some roasted Brussels sprouts along with an order of homemade doughnuts for dessert. You just can't go wrong with homemade doughnuts.
Here's my beef with the Priority Pass restaurant and lounge model for families: Most airport restaurants, including Chef Geoff's, don't have restrooms in the actual restaurant but share them with the rest of the airport terminal. While I might feel OK letting an older kid go to the bathroom on her own in an enclosed restaurant, there's no way I'm sending her eight gates down the road to go potty. So if you're a solo parent, you've got to pack up your entire party if any of your kids get the urge.
Ground Experience: Paris-Charles de Gaulle
The check-in experience at CDG is different from any in the States and could catch you off guard if you aren't prepared. After checking our bags, we breezed through passport control and into the terminal. We found it odd that no one screened our carry-ons or had us walk through any sort of metal detector. We entered a large duty-free shopping area, noticed many dining options and gained access to the lounges from this area.
As is true at many international airports, at CDG you finish security procedures only as you get closer to the gate. In our case, we departed from Gate 41 (all United flights leave from Terminal 1), and the security screening consisted of two lanes for gates 40 to 48. The process took almost 20 minutes, which seemed long considering the small number of gates served. The other thing to note is that the liquids ban applied from this point forward -- in other words, don't go buying your large bottle of water before you get to the actual gate.
Once we got to the actual gate area, the seating area was both limited and crowded. The service options consisted of one small takeout restaurant and two convenience stores.
Priority Pass members get access to the Star Alliance Lounge in Terminal 1 at CDG. The lounge had a complete breakfast buffet (we were there at 10am) including both scrambled and hard-boiled eggs, pancakes, potatoes, charcuterie and, of course, a copious selection of French cheeses and pastries. Kid-friendly options also included yogurt and cereal. Adults had access to an open bar including a tasty Bordeaux. My daughter went back twice for the mini muffins stuffed with apples, berries or caramel.
I would rate the lounge highly, except for two aspects: One, the seating area was absolutely packed, to the point where a stranger asked to sit in the empty chair at my table, not realizing my daughter was getting her breakfast. They do have a patio open seasonally that might help with seating, but I imagine that more people would be using the lounge in season. And two, the restroom lacked any sort of changing table, so your baby will have to be changed on the cold tile floor.
Both flights left on time and boarded in an orderly fashion. Families with kids under 2 were allowed to preboard between business class and Group 1. United typically permits early boarding of young families -- it varies whether it's for those with kids 2 and under or under 2, but it is helpful for the car seat and stroller crew. With Economy Plus seats and my United Silver status, we were boarded in Group 2 (of five).
Cabin and Seat
All of United's Dreamliners feature a 3-3-3 configuration in coach, which is standard for the aircraft. Seats measure 17.5 inches wide and offer 32 inches of pitch in economy and 35 inches in Economy Plus. In both cases we were lucky enough to have a full row to ourselves. With the seat between us, it felt palatial for coach. My daughter sat cross-legged for most of the flight, and I had a ton of legroom.
Granted, I'm only 5 feet, 1 inch, but taller passengers looked comfy as well.
The thin cushioning on the leather seats concerned me at first, but it turned out to be just fine for eight and a half hours. I especially liked the firm adjustment options on the headrest when I was sitting in the aisle, as I could lean sideways without it bending. We raised the extra armrests and were able to spread out comfortably. The provided pillow and blanket were industrial but serviceable. I ended up using our pillows to make an extended footrest.
I won't try to tell you the experience was as good as a lie-flat (or even a Skycouch), but on the afternoon flight home I really didn't miss the bigger seat. On the overnight to Paris? Well, there's just no substitute for a lie-flat if you want to sleep.
The economy cabin had four lavatories, two at the end of Economy Plus and two at the rear of the plane. You might want to prepare your child for something if they go in there solo: Both my daughter and I had the, ahem, Dyson-like experience of the toilet flushing entirely of its own volition. I don't know if the flush is just really easy to accidentally trigger or how it happened, but it caught me by surprise. I can only imagine how a young kid might react.
The lavatories had changing tables, but I had trouble working out how you'd shoehorn both yourself and a toddler to into the tight space. They'd be fine for an infant, though.
Amenities and IFE
Let's cut to the chase. The most important thing for kids on planes is keeping them entertained. So, how were United's options for kids? Plentiful.
In a word, it was impressive for a domestic carrier and an economy product. The 10-inch screens featured 17 children's movies and 16 children's TV series for our flight, though selections change monthly. My tween especially appreciated that the selections included shows like "Andi Mack" and the "Teen Titans Go!" movie, as IFEs sometimes forget that kids get older than 6 before they are adults. For the younger crowd, there was plenty of Mickey Mouse and Disney Junior favorites such as "Vampirina." They even sprinkled old-school "Scooby-Doo" and "The Jetsons" into the mix for those of us who grew up with Hanna-Barbera.
Each IFE system featured a USB charging port, and each row had two standard power outlets between the seats. The rubber-tipped earbuds provided worked fine for both of us. (I think the rubber-tipped style is easier for many younger kids to use.) The IFE utilized single-prong headphones, so you could easily use your own.
One particularly nice feature was the ability to set parental controls. Since all the movies I saw were presented in their raw form, that could come in handy. My 12-year-old alternated between reading on her Kindle, dropping in on the "Incredibles," and binge-watching the box set of "Friends" Season 9.
Food and Beverage
For my daughter, here's where the experience fell short. At 12, she's not enthused by adult airline meals and wouldn't have eaten either the Thai-style coconut curried chicken or the sweet and sour chicken I ate. I don't think the pasta or vegetarian options would have done any better. Who are we kidding, though: Are any of us enthused by coach airline meals on domestic airlines?
So I decided to try the kids' meal. It didn't fare any better and was identical on both legs: rubbery chicken nuggets with boiled veggies on one leg and potato wedges on the other. At least she got applesauce and a cookie with her meal. The only redeeming feature was the cup of ice cream served to everyone about a half hour after dinner. Do note that you need to request child's meals at least 24 hours before your flight -- simply booking a kid does not mean a child's meal will be loaded.
My gut feeling is that the kid's meal might work better for kids 10 and under, but it definitely didn't work for this tween.
Both of us thought the breakfast snack was lacking. I ended up giving her the yogurt from my plate, since she hadn't eaten much of the dinner.
The snack she got on the return flight was so sad I couldn't bring myself to photograph it. I'm guessing you've seen low-end cold cuts and American cheese product on something akin to Wonder Bread. That would have been a step up from the gummy mess she got.
The flight attendants were friendly and seemed to enjoy chatting with my daughter. The children's meal came before all of the other meals, and the delivering flight attendant served her by name. They also came through the cabin offering bottles of water twice during each flight.
One flight attendant in particular went out of her way to offer my daughter one of the adult snacks upon seeing that she hadn't touched the Wonder Bread mess. She ate every bite of the pesto turkey panini that was offered.
Outside of a stellar business-class redemption, Economy Plus will be my go-to from now on for return trips over the Pond. It's usually affordable, and United's hard product more than did the trick. Those extra inches of leg space made a huge difference in comfort. And, the copious entertainment options made the hours breeze by for both my daughter and me.
However, the food was a big miss, so be sure to pack your own if you want to be sure your kids don't get hangry. And be sure to consider the restroom challenges, both in the lounges and up in the air, so that you're prepared when the need strikes.
All photos by Dia Adams for The Points Guy.