Recently, my wife and I took a trip to Japan to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. Because we have two toddlers (who were NOT coming with us), we wanted to travel in luxury and make it something very special.
Besides being an AvGeek, I also happen to be very savvy with airline miles and hotel points. While that’s not a topic AirlineReporter focuses on (there are lots of great sites out there that do), I booked all of our flights using United miles that I’ve collected through various means.
On the outbound, I booked us DEN-SFO-NRT, with the SFO-NRT segment operated by the 747-400 (the bulk of United’s 747s operate out of SFO to Asia, with a handful of 747 flights also based out of Chicago O’Hare). I could have booked us on United’s direct flight from Denver, operated by a Dreamliner, but United’s 787 fleet doesn’t feature a first class cabin (which United calls “Global First”). Also, I really wanted to check out the United Global First Lounge in San Francisco.
Full disclosure: on our last big trip without the kids, we flew Lufthansa First Class and got to visit the Lufthansa First Class Terminal. Both were so good, I think it ruined us for any future flights. As much as I love United, I didn’t have great expectations. Here’s the shocker/spoiler: our United experience was really good.
From Denver to San Francisco, we were booked in United Economy Plus (for some reason, finding reward availability in domestic first is extra tough). The flight was uneventful, operated by a 737-900ER which was less than a year old.
Upon exiting the aircraft, I was startled to see a United agent standing right inside the jet bridge holding a sign with my name. She introduced herself and said she was there to escort us to our next flight (which wasn’t for 3 1/2 hours). She then handed us SFO “Visitor” badges and walked us down the stairs to the tarmac. Waiting for us was a brand-new Mercedes SUV — classy.
As we were driving to the international terminal, the agent explained to us that this is a new service for United Global First passengers, especially those with tight connections. Despite our long connection, they wanted us to experience the service.
We drove past regional jets and some domestic narrow-bodies before rounding the corner to the good stuff. It was a beautiful day in San Francisco, and we got fantastic views of 777s, 747s, and a few 787 Dreamliners. My wife was less excited about the view, but she didn’t mind the Benz.
Once to the terminal, the agent escorted us up to the United Global First Lounge. Available only for those passengers traveling in three-cabin first class, it was by far the nicest United lounge I have been in. There was plenty of comfortable seating, good food, and a wide variety of adult beverages.
Soon, it was time to board our flight to Tokyo Narita. After a quick walk from the lounge, we were at the zoo that was our gate. United boards by groups, with Global First passengers in Group 1. Unfortunately, there are a ton of other people in Group 1, including all BusinessFirst passengers (52 seats), and all United Platinum, 1K, and Global Services elites. So, it felt like 1/3 of the plane boarded in Group 1.
If you’re going to have an international first class product, you need to differentiate it in every way you can; allowing the 12 passengers to board first would have been a nice gesture.
On board, I was thrilled to be sitting in seat 1A on a 747. Sort of the AvGeek “holy grail.”Seat 1A is cool because you can see out the front of the plane given the curvature of the fuselage. My wife was not a fan (in opposite seat 1K) because the sensation, while being seated askew, was a little motion sickness-inducing.
I was impressed with the hard product for United Global First. The fully-flat bed with lots of storage, along with a large in-flight-entertainment screen (and selection) was great; United is competitive with other carriers in this instance.
Sure, there’s no onboard shower like Emirates has on their A380s, but I found the seat pod to be very nice. That said, the first class restrooms really need some work; they were no different than economy restrooms.
The soft product exceeded my expectations. That said, I wasn’t expecting much. The amenity kit provided was very nice, along with the large pillows and comfy duvet. No pajamas are offered by United, however (although my return flight on EVA provided them to business passengers).
The food and service were mostly acceptable. Dinner was actual quite nice; well-plated, good variety, and very edible. Breakfast, on the other hand, was pretty nasty.
United’s menu has a large wine list (at least 15 listed), but unfortunately, they only seem to cater (or open) about four options per flight. When asking for one of the “unavailable” wines, the flight attendant was pretty rude about it. Here’s a hint, United: either cater all the wine that is listed, reduce the length of the list, or print custom menus for each flight. Having to play the “do you have this?” game is unacceptable in international first class.
Also, while the dinner options and execution were good, the liquor list was laughable. Your only option for scotch, for example, is exactly what you get in coach – Dewer’s White Label. As a scotch fan, this is embarrassing for United.
So, was flying United Global First worth the additional cost in miles, and the connection in San Francisco? Maybe. I’m glad I did it once, especially given that the additional cost in miles was negligible compared to business class. The seat was private and comfortable, and the ground services at SFO were really spectacular. That being said, I’ve heard the Global First catering described as the “BusinessFirst menu + soup.” Given the choice again, I would have flown in BusinessFirst on the direct Dreamliner flight.
While nothing has been officially said, it is likely that United will phase out Global First. Their new United 787-8 and 787-9 Dreamliners do not feature it, as Continental did not have an international first class product. I can see the benefit of keeping a first class product on high-yield business traveler routes (such as SFO-NRT), but I think it will become more of a niche product.