Assessing my options for a recent trip to Texas, I decided to give United Airlines a go for the first time. I’d flown United for internal flights within the United States before, but never internationally. For the most part, I was pleasantly surprised.
I took the UA99 service from Melbourne to Los Angeles, before connecting onwards to Texas on a domestic United flight. The flight was smooth and on time, which is always a good start.
United 787 Dreamliner
The 787-9 Dreamliner is a quality, modern aircraft which I have enjoyed flying on with numerous airlines. The aircraft claims to provide better passenger comfort for long-haul flights, and that claim is hard to argue with.
It is designed to offer a “calmer cabin experience”, a smoother ride, it has bigger windows than other aircraft and boasts cleaner cabin air.
United operates direct flights on the 787-9 Dreamliner from both Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Connections with partner airline Qantas are available for those flying from other Australian cities, but schedules can vary depending on the seasons.
Cabin & seats
United’s version of the 787-9 Dreamliner holds a total of 252 passengers across three classes – United Polaris Business Class (48 seats), United Economy Plus (88 seats) and United Economy (116 seats).
Business Class is in a 2-2-2 configuration, while both Economy Plus and standard Economy use a 3-3-3 configuration.
Economy Class provides an above-average seat pitch of a generous 81cm (32”), more than the 79cm (31”) Qantas provides in Economy on its A380 on the same routes.
However, United’s 787-9 Dreamliner offers a recline of only 7cm (3”), which barely registers if you want to have a lie down. The recline is half that of Virgin Australia’s Boeing 777 service, which also operates on the same routes and offers 15cm (6”) recline.
Seat width on United’s 787-9 Dreamliner varies from 41.4cm to 43.9cm (16.3” to 17.3”), United Economy Plus (pictured below) is not quite what other airlines would define as ‘Premium Economy’.
It provides an extra 7cm (3”) of legroom for a total of 88cm (35”), but only an extra 3cm (1”) of recline, making for a still poor total of 10cm (4”). All Economy Plus Seats have a width of 43.9cm (17.3”). Economy Plus also comes with priority boarding but is otherwise essentially the same product as standard Economy.
Prices for Economy Plus seats can change daily based on demand. I noticed prices anywhere from US$100 to $230 for an upgrade from my Economy seat in the lead up to my trip.
Food & drink
On my UA99 flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles, which had an 11.30 am departure, we were offered beverage service and a small packet of pretzels as a snack immediately after take-off was complete and we were up in the air. Non-alcoholic drinks and a range of beer and wine were available free of charge, but it’s worth noting that United charges extra for spirits.
Around one-and-a-half hours into the flight lunch was served, with two options of Moroccan Beef or Pumpkin Tortellini with Couscous Salad for those who had not pre-ordered special meals. I went for the Pumpkin Tortellini with Couscous Salad, which was also served with a bread roll. It was nothing amazing, but for Economy aeroplane food it was fine.
More beverage service was offered during lunch.
About half an hour after lunch was served, mini tubs of Salted Caramel ice cream were handed out by cabin crew for dessert, as well as another round of drinks service.
Bottles of water were also handed out and extra water was offered regularly throughout the flight – to the best level I have seen of any airline I have travelled within Economy.
About halfway through the flight, sandwiches were offered, with the options of ham and cheese or tomato relish and cheese. Both came coupled with a Tim Tam.
About one-and-a-half hours before landing in Los Angeles, breakfast service was provided with the options of fruit and yoghurt or scrambled eggs. I took the fruit and yoghurt, as well as a coffee.
I had no problems with the service at all, which I found to be friendly and helpful.
As mentioned above, I did like the fact cabin crew regularly came around offering water on the long flight. Food and drinks service overall was fast and efficient.
Blankets, pillows and basic headphones were ready and waiting upon boarding, as is standard with long-haul international flights.
The seat-back entertainment system was good, with a large range of American and international movies and television shows on offer including some new releases.
United also gives you the option to watch a range of movies and television shows on your own phone or tablet instead of the seat-back screen if you download the United app prior to your flight.
WiFi service was offered onboard my flight, with three options available for purchase at an additional cost.
One hour was US$9.99 or 1540 MileagePlus points, two hours was $14.99 or 2310 MileagePlus points and a full flight pass was $30.99 or 4780 MileagePlus points.
This was for only basic internet, with no video streaming support.
I did not need to use this service and thought the prices were a little steep regardless.
How to redeem points for this flight
United’s frequent flyer program, MileagePlus, is not easy to accumulate points within Australia, but there are other workarounds.
One-way flights from Sydney or Melbourne to Los Angeles or San Francisco start from 40,000 MileagePlus points plus around $115 in taxes and fees.
So what’s the workaround, for those of us without a sizeable MileagePlus balance?
United partners with Marriott Bonvoy, a popular program which points can be transferred to from American Express Membership Rewards. Marriott Bonvoy points transfer to MileagePlus at a rate of 3 to 1.1, with a bonus of 5,000 miles for every 60,000 points transferred.
So, if you had a stack of 95,455 Marriott Bonvoy points you could convert them to 40,000 MileagePlus points which would be enough for your one-way United flight.
A second option is redeeming 60,000 Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles for a one-way flight on United from Melbourne or Sydney to Los Angeles or San Francisco, given the two airlines are part of the Star Alliance network.
However, sometimes paying for these United flights with cash might be your best option, given they can go for less than $700 return from Sydney or Melbourne at quieter times of the year. If you do pay for the flights, sign up to MileagePlus and you can start building your points balance with the airline.
Alternatively, you can credit your miles to other Star Alliance partners like Singapore Airlines.
United does not operate its own lounges in Sydney or Melbourne, but those flying in Economy on United can access partner airline lounges if they hold Star Alliance Gold status or higher.
Would I fly United internationally again? Based on my recent experience, definitely.
The seats felt relatively roomy given the extra legroom as opposed to some other airlines, service was good and the food and drinks met my expectations.
I liked the frequent water refill service offered by the cabin crew throughout the flight and the 787-9 Dreamliner is a comfortable and relatively spacious plane to fly on for 13 or 14 hours across the Pacific Ocean.
What is great
- The extra legroom
- Onboard WiFi available
- The Boeing 787-9 for cabin comfort
- Entertainment system options
- Cheap sale prices on paid tickets
What is not great
- Lack of seat recline
- Expensive fees for wi-fi
- No menus provided
- Hard to earn MileagePlus points in Australia
* Supplementary images courtesy of United Airlines