Flight Review: United Airlines 787 Business Class from San Francisco (SFO) to Paris (CDG)

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This flight was the first part of a 2 segments round trip I took to France this past early spring. My initial plan was to use some leftover Aeroplan points and to take advantage of an award chart and availability that still remains fairly friendly in comparison to other airlines. I was also curious about United’s Polaris soft product that was being rolled out. I ended not using my Aeroplan points, in order to limit my losses resulting from my poor planning and impatience.

My whole trip’s overall experience was very pleasant and included:

Planning & Booking

It was an urgent 10 days visit triggered by family matters and had dates constrictions. By the time I committed to dates, my flying options were getting limited; but I still managed to get convenient flights at a fair cost. While I started my planning with Aeroplan, the “I-need-to-find-the-best-deal-possible” persona took over and made some changes. ANA award chart to Europe on partner airlines is quite possibly one of the best remaining bargain out there. For example: Round Trip Business Class, West Coast USA to Paris for 88K pts and $166.82 fees.

Map of Flights from Las Vegas to Paris
Map of planned flights from Las Vegas to Paris

The first step for planning a flight, is of course to find availability for your desired dates. I used a combination of United Airlines, Aeroplan and ANA flight search engines to narrow down my options. No business class award tickets were available on my starting date. My goal was to fly in premium economy on the way to Europe and in business class on the way back, because I knew I would be exhausted from the gruesome schedule of my stay in France. The final results turned out to be different than originally planned:

  • Economy – Las Vegas McCarran (LAS) to San Francisco International Airport (SFO)
  • Economy – San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport (CDG)
  • Business – Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport (CDG) to Toronto Pearson Airport (YYZ)
  • Business – Toronto Pearson Airport (YYZ) to Las Vegas McCarran (LAS)

Why on earth would a sane person use perfectly good Amex membership points on an economy flight to Europe? I have no reasonable answer for you. But heed me. I was simply experimenting.

I transferred 72,000 American Express Membership Rewards to ANA Mileage Club. The transfer took almost 3 days. Once transferred, I booked the award tickets on ANA website.

Once I received my confirmation number from ANA itinerary, I called ANA customer service to obtain confirmation numbers for United and Air Canada. A step that was unnecessary because the confirmation numbers were printed on the itinerary.

TIP: Make sure to get the confirmation numbers for the actual airlines you’ll be flying with and not just the confirmation number from the booking party. That will allow you to retrieve the flight details and assign seats, check-in, etc… directly on the airline sites.
More details here.

As I was reserving seats on United Airlines website, I was presented with a $169.00 option to upgrade to Economy Plus on my SFO-CDG leg. By using my American Express Platinum Card, the extra fee would be covered under the Airline Fee Credit benefit and refunded to my card. In addition, I would earn 5X membership rewards points (845 points).

On the day before departure another option came up: Upgrade the SFO-CDG leg to Business class for $829.00. Under that offer, the economy plus upgrade fee of $169.00 would be refunded by United. So the real price to upgrade from economy to business would be $660.00. Amex still applied the Airline Fee Reimbursement of $169.00, which made the actual final cost of this upgrade: $491.00! To sweeten the deal, I would earn 4,145 Amex point (But lose the earlier 845 points).

Summary of redemptions, costs and earned miles

  • 72,000 American Express Membership Rewards to ANA Mileage Club. (3 days transfer).
  • Used 71,500 ANA Mileage Club Points and paid $161.35 in fees. I charged the fees to my American Express Platinum card (Earned 5X points -> 807pts).
  • Upgraded to Business class for $660.00 (Earned 5X points -> 3,300pts)
  • $169 refunded under Amex benefits
  • 2792 Award miles from United revenue ticket

Final Tally

As I mentioned at the start of my post, the results were actually pretty good considering that my options were limited. One round trip business class ticket from West Coast to Paris for 71,500 points (~ $715.00) + $652.35. Total points earned: 6,899 (~ $68.99).

If you like to place a $ value on things, think of it as a business round trip ticket to Europe for around $1,298.36 (By giving value to points redemption). Paying cash for business would be around $4,000.00 at a minimum. Economy plus would be about $1,300.00.

Pre Flight

I’ll spare you the full details of my journey from Las Vegas (LAS) to San Francisco (SFO). Nothing interesting about the short flight aboard a crowded 737-800.

What may be of interest is to know how I maximized my Uber transportation to the airport. I used the United Mileage Plus X smartphone application to purchase a gift card with my Chase Sapphire Reserve. My Uber account is linked to my Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) loyalty program. Here are the results for my $28.48 ride:

  • 36 United Mileage points
  • 86 Chase Ultimate Rewards points
  • 14 Starwood points

At the Airport

In Las Vegas, United uses Terminal 3 for ticketing/check-in, but operates from D gate. After checking in my luggage using the self service kiosks, I simply handed out my luggage to a customer service representative who labeled it with a priority tag, due to my business class status from SFO to CDG. I then made my way to security before heading out to the D gates.

<<CLEAR PIC>>

I have used TripIt for years to keep track of my travels. Earlier this year, I upgraded to the Pro version and took advantage of a couple of promotions they had. A 4-month free Clear membership was one of the notable perks. Since it was my first time using my membership, I needed to finalize my enrollment. This was a quick 5 minutes task.

With my newly acquired Clear privileges and my TSA-Pre qualification, I was able to jump in front of everyone waiting to have their ID checked and breeze my way thru TSA screening.

Lounges

I usually visit the Amex Centurion Lounge while waiting for a flight out of Las Vegas McCarran airport. This time around, I spent some time in the United Club lounge in Terminal 1 so that I could write a short review for it.

<<UNITED CLUB LAS PIC>>

Once in San Francisco, I started with the Amex Centurion Lounge, which as usual was overcrowded.

American Express Centurion Lounge at San Francisco Airport
American Express Centurion Lounge at San Francisco Airport

So I moved on to the United Lounge. Guess what? It was also overcrowded. So much that I couldn’t really take any meaningful pictures for the purpose of a review nor could I really get a feel of the amenities. From what I experienced there, I can say with confidence that the lounge was far from spectacular.

Pre Boarding and Boarding

San Francisco Airport Departure Board
San Francisco Airport Departure Board

This will be a short account of the pre-boarding experience. I wasn’t able to document or take pictures because I had to go outside of the secured area in order to send out a letter to the IRS. Should you find yourself in the same predicament… there are no USPS mailboxes at SFO!

This is where the CLEAR membership came in very handy and you can hear read the full story on how CLEAR was more than a gimmick and quite a useful tool for the frequent and busy traveler.

By the time I arrived at the gate, boarding had started and being the eager documenter that I am, I rushed to the plane so that I could take pictures of the cabin as empty as possible.

The plane and the flight

Despite my unforgiving lateness in boarding the plane (I wasn’t 1st to board!), I managed to get to my seat while the cabin was still fairly empty. Maintenance crew was still aboard and as one of them was leaving, he offered to take a picture in my seat, which I thought was very thoughtful. I sat in 1A.

Polaris Business Class Seat 1A on United 787-8
Polaris Business Class Seat 1A on United 787-8

This dreamliner’s version doesn’t feature a first class cabin. The only premium option is the new Polaris Business class.

United 787-800 specs:

   Polaris Business Class Economy Plus Economy
Number of seats 36 70 113
Configuration 2-2-2 3-3-3 3-3-3
Seat Pitch  6’6″ (198cm) Lie flat 35″ (88 cm) 32″ (81 cm)
Seat Recline 180° 6″ (15 cm) 5″ (12 cm) 
Seat width 20.6″ (52.3 cm)  17.3″ (43.9 cm)   16.3” – 17.3″ (41.4 cm – 43.9 cm)

 

The seats were adorned with Saks Fifth Avenue bedding, which included 2 pillows, a blanket and a duvet.

United Airlines Business Class Polaris Seat

Shortly after seating down, a flight attendant came by to offer welcome drinks. I requested Champagne and water. It is served in plastic cups and a chocolate on the side. A nice gesture for business class on a US based airline.

United Polaris Business Class Welcome Drink
Champagne in a plastic cup. Drink it fast and you won’t taste the plastic.

While waiting, I couldn’t help but to take a picture of the “Queen of the skies” with a sense of sadness. United will retire her entirely this year.

United soon to retire Boeing 747
United soon to retire Boeing 747

Then more passengers boarded and settled into their seats, but the cabin never felt crowded because of the configuration of the cabin.

787-800 Polaris Business Class Cabin
787-800 Polaris Business Class Forward Cabin.

The business class cabin is separated near the middle by bathrooms and galleys, making it feel smaller and more intimate. I didn’t realize until much later that business class was much bigger, since I made a left entering and went to the forward section.

787 United Forward Business Class
787 United Forward Business Class

Shortly after everyone settled down, the purser visited each seat and introduced himself, while the rest of the crew attended to the other business passengers.

Seat and features

While the offering is nice, the sheer amount of bedding makes it a little bit harder to stow away and takes up some of the storage space. If you’re a business traveler with a briefcase, tote or backpack wanting to easily access your laptop and other work items, this poses a challenge. The flight entertainment screens are large and perfect distance.

United Polaris Business 787 Storage
Bedding cuts storage availability in half, but the the screens are high quality.

If you are seating in the front row, you can easily overcome that problem by placing the unused blankets and pillows above the flight entertainment screens, but would only be able to do so during the flight.

United 787 Business Front Row Storage
Option for storage on first row

The front row is also a better option as it offers more rectangle space for your feet on the aisle seats. Other seats have more limited “feet space”. All seats do have a tray in the upper part, a storage space at the bottom and a padded foot rest in the middle which becomes the bottom part of the bed when the seat is in lie flat mode.

Rectangle space in the front row seats, but only in aisle.

Seats 1A and 1L have a small angle against the “wall” due to the curvature of the aircraft.

Angle of the seat due to curvature
Angle of the seat due to curvature of the fuselage.
Seat 1 A - Angle and space
Seat 1 A – Angle and space.

There is plenty of leg room in a normal seating position

Leg room
Generous leg room.

My biggest grievance is the poor “ergonomics” and the usability. It starts with the remote control tucked away a little too far in the back of the middle armrest side panel and too low. Depending on which side you are and you’re either right or left handed, it can make it a little harder to reach, especially since your upper leg and trunk area will cover it. In addition, if your tray is open, it can get a lot harder.

Flight Entertainment Screen remote control
Flight Entertainment Screen remote control.

The worst offender was the side storage and the power/audio plugs. It is located very far behind the upper part of your seat, so if you need to reach out to plug/unplug any device or grab something, you need to be a contortionist.

You do have one USB port, international power plug and multi prong audio jacks. You also have a small storage area, with a drink holder cutout (Useless because so hard to reach around and grab).

Power and audio outlets
USB charging, 110v/220v international power outlet and audio plugs. Noise cancelling headsets.

There isn’t really an easy-to-reach small storage area in most seats, except for those by the windows, which feature a small “well” next to the armrest. It is big enough to place a smartphone or a kindle and some travel kleenex.

Armrest well
Small area to store items if you are in a window seat

I like the tray table as it gave me configuration options from using half of it or the full tray for dinner. It slides out from the center console and then unfolds into a full tray table. But as you see, the console separating you from your seat mate is not wide enough to accommodate a water and a drink for both people (Small complaint).

Tray table opening
Tray table opening from the center console/armrest. Limited space in the center console, so you need to share with your neighbor.
Tray table opening half way
Tray table opening half way. Cup holder cutout. Good option if you don’t want to be fully blocked.

In full mode, the tray table gives a great area for work or dining. You can easily have a laptop and paper notepad to the side.

Tray table full opening gives a good dining or work area
Tray table full opening gives a good dining or work area.

While not perfect in terms of access, the positioning of the seat controls were easy to understand and use.

Seat control options
Seat control options

Also, the aircraft could probably use a little detailing once in a while.

Dirty shade controls
Dirty shade controls

And here are a couple of additional views of the seats.

Middle Seats Configurations
Middle Seats Configurations
Another view of the upper part of the seats
Another view of the upper part of the seats

Let’s address the elephant in the room. Where are the pictures of the lie flat bed configuration? I violated the cardinal sin of premium class airline reviews by not including them. I was going to take pictures once we landed, so that it would be in daylight and without anyone in the pictures. As we were taxiing in Paris, I realized that I miscalculated my timing to catch my train and that I would not have time to snap the photos.

For that, I humbly apologize and request your forgiveness for such an abhorrent mistake.

<<IMAGE FROM UNITED>>

Amenity kit and others

Nice little amenity kit.
Slippers upon request

Don’t forget to request slippers. It makes the walks to bathroom a lot more pleasant and convenient!

Optional slippers
Slippers upon request

Noise cancelling headset
Wifi was really bad

Service

I was pleased with the efficient service. It wasn’t anything that would make you go “whoaa”. It was a strong offering for a US based airline in business class. The flight attendant was effective, attentive and pleasant. She had a nice personality and knew her job well. Purser was equally congenial. They were very kind and accommodating with my frenetic picture taking pace.

There isn’t much more that I can write about the overall service and it should be viewed as much as a good thing as a bad thing. It fulfilled my expectations no less, no more.

Drinks and food

Before departure, our flight attendant took our order for dinner. She asked us what our first choice for entree would be and what our second choice would also be. Seating in 1A, I wasn’t too concerned about not getting my preferred meal. I chose the fish (Don’t try to rationalize why I would choose reheated fish on a airplane – I’m adventurous).

She also inquired about our preferences for breakfast, and wether we wanted to be awaken upon arrival. I always get a chuckle out of that question.

Once we were in the air, hot towels made their way around the cabin as well as drinks. Then the setup for dinner called for trays to be pulled out and the flight attendant provided a blue table apron.

United Polaris Wine & Champagne
United Polaris Wine & Champagne
United Polaris Drinks
United Polaris Drinks
United Polaris Menu
United Polaris Menu

Wines

Something that I really enjoyed, was for United to introduce the concept of “wine flight”. If you have had the opportunity to do wine tasting in the past, you will enjoy this. On this aircraft, you’re simply presented with a sample of each wine offered on the menu. Then you can choose which one you prefer with dinner.

I chose the red wine option, served in glasses (I know, I ordered fish, but frankly, I wasn’t in the mood for any of the white wine options).

  • Bouchard Pere & Fils 2014 Pinot Noir (~ $20.00 in stores)
  • Kir-Yianni 2014 Paranga Red Blend(~ $18.00 in stores)
  • Benzinger Family Winery 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (~ $17.00 in store)
Red wine flight and warm nuts
Red wine flight and warm nuts

Starters

The starter course consisted of:

  • Cheese crusted bread and regular bread
  • Butter and olive oil
  • Death start looking salt and pepper shakers
  • Soba noodles with salad
  • Smoked salmon (No hummus)
  • Silverware

The soba noodles were the highlight. The smoked salmon seemed to just be an odd choice for dinner.

Starter course on United Business Polaris
Starter course on United Business Polaris

Entree

I enjoyed the fish very much. It had the right combination of flakiness, density and taste. It was my first time trying Arapaima (Fresh water mild tasting and boneless fish from the Amazon river). The sauce was au point and so was the presentation. It was a bold choice for a business class offering, yet a rewarding one.

Delicious Arapaima fish entree with beurre blanc
Delicious Arapaima fish entree with beurre blanc

A cheese assortment, coupled with grapes and a glass of port sealed the deal before moving on to the sweets.

Cheese Assortment with grapes and crackers
Cheese Assortment with grapes and crackers

Dessert

United excels with their ice cream sundae station. Our flight attendant roamed the aisles with a dessert cart that gave the cabin plenty options to indulge a sweet tooth.

The main thing is of course, ice cream sundaes with choice of toppings, served table-side (more like tray-side).

Dessert cart with ice cream sundae toppings
Dessert cart with ice cream sundae toppings

Flight attendant volunteered to take a picture!

Enjoying the sundae
Enjoying a delicious caramel sundae

_____
TIP: When seating in premium cabins, try to seat in port side (left) front rows if food choices is important
______

 

Bedding

Was a little hard for me

 

once we la

What I liked about it:

  • Good configuration and very intimate if you travel with someone (Which I also don’t like, see below)
  • Split cabin makes it feel more exclusive
  • Spacious in front row
  • Lie flat seats
  • Nice bedding with bed padding and cooling gel pillow on request
  • Welcome drinks, wine tasting
  • Slippers on demand. Pajamas on 12+ hours flights

What I didn’t like:

  • Ergonomics for small storage and to harder to reach for remote
  • Too much bedding, not enough storage
  • Food could be hit or miss
  • Too intimate if you travel alone and a stranger is seated next to you
  • FA didn’t let me know about what is available
  • 2-2-2 configuration sucks when alone, especially when going to bathroom

How do you know that you’re traveling in luxury? When your seat has 4 hublots.

 

 

 

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