Here at Point Hacks, we often focus on using frequent flyer points to travel in style. But finding reward seats at the pointy end isn’t without its challenges. And the reality is, on any given flight, far more passengers make the journey in Economy than at the pointy end. So we thought it time to give United Boeing 787 Economy a try.
Of course, United Airlines is now Virgin Australia’s key partner in the United States. (The other is Hawaiian Airlines). As for using points, United releases stacks and stacks of Economy reward seats to Velocity. In fact, a one-way flight from Sydney to Los Angeles requires just 44,800 Velocity Points – plus AU$116.88 in taxes and fees.
With Economy reward seats plentiful and the cash co-pay minimal, a trip to the USA needn’t be a big hit to the hip pocket. And if you’re travelling as a family, those cash savings can go a long way to making a big adventure an affordable one too.
Here’s what to expect as a Velocity member when travelling to Los Angeles with United Airlines – whether you’re merely spending points, or have Velocity status too.
Check-in, checked baggage and boarding
When travelling to the US, you’ll save yourself time by checking in online. And here’s another money-saving tip. While United often charges extra for ‘preferred’ Economy seats on Boeing 787 flights (and most others), once check-in opens, these are free to snap up.
I notice there’s a vacant row of ‘preferred‘ seats – now available at no charge – and use the United app to grab one. Nobody else has the same idea, and I end up with the entire row to myself. Not a bad move for a 13-hour flight.
Thanks to my Velocity Platinum status, the time-saving Premier Access line is ready and waiting at check-in. There’s fortunately no wait, and I’m on my way in moments. The same privilege is also open to Velocity Gold and Beyond, United Premier Silver (and above) and Star Alliance Gold frequent flyers.
In United Economy, the usual baggage allowance is quite tight at just 1 x 23kg bag. Some frequent flyers can bring an extra bag – but only United’s own frequent flyers can pack a heavier bag. For Velocity Gold, Velocity Platinum and Star Alliance Gold, the total allowance is 2 x 23kg. For United’s own members, the allowance varies by tier – see here for the full details.
Regardless of status, there’s no fast-track security or passport control in Sydney when flying Economy. But with SmartGates on departure and almost every security lane in use when I come through, the formalities take 10 minutes at most.
For boarding, most elite frequent flyers (including Velocity Gold and Platinum) are assigned to group one. That gives a head start on settling in for the journey ahead. And on full flights, it makes it much easier to find space in the overhead lockers closest to your seat.
Lounge options in Sydney
A ticket in United Boeing 787 Economy doesn’t include airport lounge access. But again, this is where a shiny frequent flyer card can come in handy. Or perhaps, an airport lounge membership or the right credit card.
Here are five lounge options that may be available when flying United from Sydney, depending on your circumstances.
- Singapore Airlines SilverKris Business Class Lounge: Open to Velocity Gold, Platinum and Beyond frequent flyers, United Premier Gold (and above) and Star Alliance Gold cardholders. Also available for United Club and Air Canada Maple Leaf Club (Worldwide) members (+1 guest, for all of the above).
- Air New Zealand International Lounge: Access rules mirror that of Singapore Airlines’ lounge, except that Velocity members can’t use their Velocity status for entry here.
- American Express Centurion Lounge: Two complimentary visits per year with the Amex Velocity Platinum Card, Amex Explorer and other selected cards. Unlimited visits per year (+2 guests) for Amex Platinum Card, Platinum Business Card, Corporate Platinum Card and Centurion Card Members. Some US-issued cards have different guest entitlements.
- Plaza Premium Lounge: Unlimited entry for Amex Platinum Card, Business Platinum Card, Corporate Platinum Card and Centurion Card Members. Also open to members of third-party programs including Priority Pass.
- The House: Available to members of Priority Pass and other participating lounge programs.
I decide to call on my Velocity card once again and spend my pre-flight time in Singapore Airlines’ lounge. There’s a reasonable spread of hot food for breakfast – and just what I’m looking for: barista-made coffee.
That said, it’s a shame that Velocity Platinum members can’t access Singapore Airlines’ First Class Lounge in Sydney to mirror the competition. After all, Qantas Platinum members flying Sydney-Los Angeles on Qantas or American Airlines can access the airport’s salubrious Qantas International First Lounge. With Velocity on United, the lounge for Platinum is no better than it is for Gold. Yet compared to Velocity Gold, Velocity Platinum requires twice as much flying to reach and retain…
United Boeing 787 Economy seating
Aboard United’s Boeing 787s, Economy comes in a standard 3-3-3 layout. On United, there are three different seating experiences in Economy – although the inflight service is the same regardless of your Economy seat number.
Economy Plus is United’s name for extra legroom – and not where I’m sitting today. Then, there are ‘preferred’ seats in addition to standard Economy seats. There’s absolutely no difference between preferred and standard, except for location. But because ‘preferred’ seats attract an extra charge until the very last moment, the chances are high that most people will choose a seat much earlier and stick to it. Translation: here, you have a better shot at having nobody beside you.
I do that last-minute swap to 45F in a ‘preferred’ zone. It’s an aisle seat in the centre group where I’ll spend the 13.5-hour journey. In terms of design, the seat is relatively standard for long-haul Economy. We’re talking a standard fold-down tray table, adjustable headrest and a seatback TV.
For a little added comfort, and in a pleasing move for Economy, United provides a neck pillow at every seat. You can keep your gadgets recharged via a USB-A port just below your personal TV.
For AC power, United provides two outlets between every three seats. But the location of these makes the middle seat even less desirable. Rather than being directly between the chairs, these outlets are both positioned under the middle seat. In fact, right where the middle passenger’s legs would be.
Out of curiosity, I move myself to the middle and plug in. I find that every 30 minutes or so, my legs accidentally bump the charging port and dislodge the charger. It’s not a great design or location for a shared amenity like this.
Power outlets aside, on the broader comfort factor, the seat ticks the boxes. But when it comes down to sleep, it’s always a combination of the seat and your fellow passengers that determine your level of success. On this flight, it isn’t to be.
Even with three seats to sleep across, I manage barely an hour of rest. I can’t say that having children constantly running up and down the aisle screaming at the top of their lungs is particularly helpful here. Or the fact that one family migrates to the vacant extra legroom row in front, in the middle of the night, to turn on all the reading lights and host story time for their kids.
Sadly, the children enjoying the parents’ book narration aren’t the screamers. And with both happening at once, not even an eye mask and high-end noise-cancelling headphones can save me this time.
I notice that another passenger does manage to get some shuteye by sleeping across seats. But during his doze, his legs slip and stick out right across the aisle. A queue forms, as though waiting for a boom gate to raise. As the traffic jam worsens, somebody pays the toll and tickles the gentleman’s feet. The boom gate retracts, and peak hour ends.
United Boeing 787 Economy food and beverage
This United Boeing 787 Economy journey provides enough time for two meals plus a snack in between. There’s lunch after take-off, sandwich rolls around the halfway point and breakfast ahead of our morning arrival into Los Angeles.
But first comes the snack and drink cart as the journey gets underway. There’s a little bag of Australian Piranha chips and a choice of beverage. Most options are complimentary including beer and wine, although spirits attract a charge (US$9-10 per nip). The nondescript ‘white wine’ is drinkable enough.
As for lunch, there’s a choice between ‘chicken or pasta’, with no further elaboration. I choose the former and it’s quite decent, if not a little smaller than some Economy meal portions I’ve received when flying long-haul on other airlines. There’s also a bread roll with butter, a side salad and a Tim Tam to finish.
Around six hours later, I’m a little peckish again. And I realise, it’s approaching what would be dinner time in Sydney. Looking for an excuse to stretch my legs, I wander back to the galley. The friendly crew rustle up some nibbles, including a bread roll with chicken and some packaged bites. It seems I could have waited – the same chicken rolls are served soon after in the cabin. But I don’t mind the head start.
Soon enough, it’s breakfast time. Joining a fruit salad and muffin is an omelette with a sausage, spinach and baked beans. As far as Economy food goes, it’s quite okay.
United Boeing 787 Economy service and entertainment
On the service front, I’m pleasantly surprised by United Boeing 787 Economy. The crew I encounter are generally more friendly and approachable than I’d been expecting on a flight ‘down the back’. Especially so for a US carrier. Okay, there’s one flight attendant who doesn’t seem to smile once on the entire trip. But she otherwise gets her job done, and you never know what’s going on inside somebody else’s head. I hope she enjoys a nice rest once she’s back home.
I’m often hesitant to pop my head into the galley, figuring I’m intruding on somebody else’s workspace. But when I wander in search of snacks, the crew I encounter seem happy to have a visitor. I guess, when you’re hanging out in the aircraft equivalent of a storeroom for hours on end, a little conversation helps pass the time for everyone.
That said, it’d be helpful if the crew had a little more presence in the cabin. I don’t want to be ‘that guy’ complaining about screaming children repeatedly running laps. But after all, this is a shared, confined space – not a playground. If anything, I’m surprised the crew don’t seem bothered by the self-upgraders to Economy Plus for storytime.
Given I can’t really sleep, kicking back with a movie sure is tempting. But I’m torn – I’ll be away for a couple of weeks on this trip and have plenty to do to prepare. In the end, I multitask by putting on a movie in the background, and a classic at that: The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Productivity combined with an occasional chuckle – what’s not to like?
Speaking of getting things done, inflight messaging over Wi-Fi is complimentary. Full web access costs US$2.99 for one hour, US$7.99 for two hours (why, United, when you could buy two one-hour passes for less?), or US$23.99 for the full flight. I grab a flight pass and it’s a good buy. That is, aside from a dropout of several hours around the halfway point.
Whether you have Velocity status or not, it’s worth keeping United in mind for US trips. And if you’re spending Velocity Points, there are pleasingly no ‘carrier charges’ on these reward bookings either. By using 44,800 of those Velocity Points for this one-way journey, there’s just AU$116.88 to pay on the side in taxes and fees.
Certainly, the US can be an expensive destination. Especially with taxes charged on top of most listed prices – not to mention tipping and currency conversion. But by being smart with your points, you can save some serious coin on the journey itself to help balance things out.
In my book, it’s not hard to earn 44,800 Velocity Points. In fact, you could pocket an easy 90,000 Velocity Points (converted from 180,000 ANZ Rewards Points at a 2:1 rate) as an eligible new ANZ Rewards Black customer. Just apply, be approved and meet ANZ’s minimum spend requirement for its latest offer. Of course, that’s enough points for a return trip to the United States from a single credit card application. Just pay the very modest taxes and fees in dollars and you could be jetting to North America in no time.
As for the flight that gets you there, keep your expectations modest. This is Economy, after all. But on the whole, United’s Boeing 787 Economy experience is better than I was anticipating. The modern aircraft and mood-lit cabin go far in setting the scene for a generally pleasant trip. Even if the children on my flight have other ideas…
You’ll do well to also pack an eye mask and your best pair of headphones. After all, you never know whether your flight will also coincide with playtime over the Pacific.
Photography by Chris Chamberlin, who travelled using Velocity Points provided courtesy of Velocity Frequent Flyer.
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