In early September 2016, I flew on an open-jaw ticket with United from Minneapolis to Sydney via San Francisco, and Sydney to Detroit via San Francisco and Houston.
Bought with cash for only $554 USD in Economy Class, I prepared myself for many hours of uncomfortable seats, but was lucky enough to get upgraded to Business Class on my first Transpacific leg (who said flirting with the check-in agent never works?!) and Premium Economy on the way back (due to my United Gold status).
Update: in late September 2019, United announced they would upgrade their Sydney – San Francisco route to a Boeing 777-300ER with their latest Business Class product from 3 December until 27 March 2019.
Research and Booking
There are three main options for redeeming through United and its Star Alliance partners. The pricing is the same for Sydney – Los Angeles/San Francisco/Houston and Melbourne – Los Angeles/San Francisco (the latter commences 29 October 2019). A one-way Business Class ticket between will cost you US$103 in taxes and:
- 80,000 Avianca LifeMiles
- 130,000 Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles
- Dynamic pricing with United MileagePlus miles
When I did a search on the united.com website, the only availability for the whole next year that I could find was during the next week (shown by dots in the second image below):
Other frequent flyer redemption options on this route
The United States is one of the most popular routes for travellers from Australia to redeem frequent flyer points. However, it is also one of the hardest routes to find Business Class or First Class award availability due to high demand. We’ve written about this in regards to Qantas, Virgin Australia and American Airlines flights to the US.
There is only one other direct flight between Sydney and San Francisco:
- Qantas restarted this service in December 2015 (the Boeing 747 took off immediately after my flight)
As you can see from the map below, there are a number of non-direct options to San Francisco. Obviously, those with stops in the Pacific or North America will be quicker than journeys routing through Asia.
If you want to stick to Star Alliance, you can fly:
- United via Los Angeles or Houston(similarly limited availability, but same 787 Dreamliner product)
- Singapore Airlines via Singapore (this A350 flight starting late October is a great-value redemption, but you need to book premium cabins through KrisFlyer)
- Asiana via Seoul (good availability; costs 10,000 MileagePlus miles more, but $100 USD cheaper in taxes)
- ANA via Tokyo Narita (good availability)
- Air Canada via Vancouver
- Air China via Beijing
- Air New Zealand via Auckland (very limited availability)
Other non-Star Alliance options are:
- Qantas/American Airlines via Los Angeles
- Virgin Australia/Delta via Los Angeles
- Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong
- Japan Airlines via Tokyo Haneda
- Hawaiian Airlines via Honolulu
- Fiji Airways via Nadi (seasonal)
- Korean Air via Seoul (which I will be reviewing First Class in January 2017; A380 from Sydney to Seoul, and then new 747 to SFO)
Emirates and Etihad also fly to San Francisco from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, respectively, but journey times from Sydney going west are huge.
Aircraft and schedule
The daily UA 863 service departs San Francisco at 10:55pm and arrives in Sydney at 7:50am (+2 days), blocked at 14 hours 55 minutes flying time.
The daily return UA 870 service leaves Sydney at 11:30am and arrives in San Francisco at 7:10am on the same day, blocked at 13 hours 40 minutes.
It is flown by a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, replacing those terribly old planes United used to use for their Transpacific flights.
Much smaller than an Airbus A380, for example, they feature 48 flat-bed Business Class seats arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration, 88 Premium Economy (or ‘Economy Plus’) seats with 35″ pitch (which I flew on the return leg) and 116 Economy seats with 32″ pitch, both in a 3-3-3 configuration.
The 787 has nifty, large dimming windows and a quite airy cabin. The advantage of having electronic windows is that on the return leg to San Francisco, the cabin crew forcefully dimmed the cabin, meaning we would adjust to US time earlier without some rouge passengers letting sunlight in. Makes me happy:
Business Class cabin and seating
Here are a few pictures of the cabin and the seat:
I got a pretty good five-hour sleep halfway through the flight, just after passing the Hawaiian Islands, although there was quite a lot of turbulence.
I’m 5’10” and found the length of the bed ample for my height:
Whilst the bed wasn’t very cushy, the blanket was soft and cosy. I requested a second pillow, which they were happy to give to me.
Economy Class cabin and seating
These pictures are off the Premium Economy cabin, which looked very similar to the Economy cabin, except there was an extra 3″ of space between the seats. The cabin was half-full in both directions.
Inflight entertainment and wifi
The IFE featured a good array of movies and TV shows, but it was frustrating when one of the movies went back to the start when I resumed watching after sleeping.
As the flight to Australia is during the night, I didn’t take advantage of the $15-20 USD charge for unlimited wifi; I planned on doing that on the way back, but the wifi wasn’t working, which I found strange for a new plane.
Food and Drink
You can browse the full food and drink menu here (recommended as I chose all vegetarian options for my flight):
We were offered champagne or mimosa as a pre-departure beverage (very classy in a plastic cup):
About 45 minutes after take-off, we were given warm nuts and I chose an Irish coffee:
My appetizer was a soggy and cold chickpea salad (rating 3/10):
Then I had a rich Italian salad with olives, sundried tomatoes, cos lettuce, Parmesan and croutons (solid 7/10):
My main was ravioli at perfect temperature (9/10), accompanied by a smooth Zinfandel:
Then came a good cheese selection, with white cheddar, pungent orange Brie and bleu cheese (6/10):
I feel like I was the only passenger who actually took advantage of the dessert cart, enjoying a decadent ice cream sundae with caramel sauce, Oreo crumble and whipped cream (9/10):
Finished off with a digestif:
Overnight snacks were a hummus and pepper jack cheese sandwich and Tim Tams.
Breakfast consisted of an uninspiring cheese and potato omelette with fruit, yoghurt and a delicious cinnamon roll (which saved the meal to give it a 5/10):
Lounge access in San Francisco
There are three Star Alliance lounges in the International Terminal at San Francisco: the United Club, a Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer Lounge (since closed to make way for a larger United Club) and an EVA Air Lounge.
Technically, Business Class passengers on departing Star Alliance flights should be able to access all of the lounges, but the late-night departure meant the EVA Lounge was closed and the KrisFlyer Lounge was only open to Air New Zealand passengers. I tried to wave both my United Gold and Turkish Airlines Gold cards and I still wasn’t let in.
Note that all terminals are connected at SFO, so if you are transferring onto a domestic flight, you can still access the larger United Club at the International Terminal rather than the more crowded, smaller United Clubs throughout the other terminals.
At this lounge, I had enjoyed a pre-flight Rich southern vegetarian chili, bland American cheeses and crackers, a delicious roasted fennel and beet salad, and cookies. There were bananas, apples and oranges everywhere.
There was no barista, but the bar was well-attended:
And there was a list of complimentary alcoholic beverages:
During my two visits here, the lounge seating area around the far corner of the bar was by far the quietest area I found:
Our other Transpacific flight reviews
When you’re given an upgrade for free, you can’t really complain too much.
But from the point of view of someone redeeming miles for this flight, I would recommend looking at other options first, even if they aren’t direct flights.
United’s customer service tends to be outdated and unpolished, but generally warm, and this flight was no exception.
The flat beds on the 787 Dreamliners are a huge improvement on the previous Transpacific offerings, but it baffles me as to why they didn’t go for direct-aisle access for all passengers on this new plane.
The food service was here and there, but filling, and the comfortability of the bed was impressive, so I’ll give them that.
If a direct flight to San Francisco is something that is important to you, and there are no seats on the Qantas flight, then this is your only other option, and it is average at best.
If you do have a little more time, perhaps consider flying with another airline through Los Angeles, Fiji, Hawaii or New Zealand; and if you have even more time and want better service, a routing through Asia might be the ideal option for you.