Recently, my wife and I took a trip to Japan to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. Â 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. Â While that’s not a topic AirlineReporter focuses on (there are lots of great sitesÂ out there that do), I booked all of ourÂ 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 basedÂ out of Chicago O’Hare). Â 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”). Â 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. Â Both were so good, I think it ruined us for any future flights. Â As much as I love United, I didn’t have great expectations. Â 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 rewardÂ availability in domestic first is extra tough). Â 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. Â She introduced herself and said she was there to escort us to our next flight (which wasn’t for 3 1/2 hours). Â She then handed us SFO “Visitor” badges and walked us down the stairs to the tarmac. Â Waiting for us was a brand-new Mercedes SUV — classy.
As we were driving to the international terminal, the agent explainedÂ to us that this is a new service for United Global First passengers, especially those with tight connections. Â 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. Â It was a beautiful day in San Francisco, and we got fantastic views of 777s, 747s, and a few 787 Dreamliners. Â 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. Â Available only for those passengers traveling in three-cabin first class, it was by far the nicest United lounge I have been in. Â 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â That said, the first class restrooms really need some work; they were no different than economy restrooms.
The soft product exceeded my expectations. Â That said, I wasn’t expecting much. Â The amenity kit provided was very nice, along with the large pillows and comfy duvet. Â 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. Â Dinner was actual quite nice; well-plated, good variety, and very edible. Â 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. Â When asking for one of the “unavailable” wines, the flight attendant was pretty rude about it. Â Here’s a hint, United: Â either cater all the wine that is listed, reduce the length of the list, or print custom menus for each flight. Â Having to play the “do you haveÂ this?”Â game is unacceptable in international first class.
Also, while the dinner options and execution were good, the liquor list was laughable. Â Your only option for scotch, for example, is exactly what you get in coach – Dewer’s White Label. Â 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? Â Maybe. Â I’m glad I did it once, especially given that the additional cost in miles was negligible compared to business class. Â The seat was private and comfortable, and the ground services at SFO were really spectacular. Â That being said, I’ve heard the Global First catering described as the “BusinessFirst menu + soup.” Â 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. Â Their new United 787-8 and 787-9 Dreamliners do not feature it, as Continental did not have an international first class product. Â 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.