I’ve always looked in envy at the travelers sitting in those luxurious lay-flat seats on trans-Atlantic flights. United Polaris Business Class. How fancy does that sound?! I couldn’t imagine how nice it would it be to actually be able to sleep on a long flight. Although I had never been offered an upgrade, I always figured the magic number would be ~$750 in order for me to spring for one.
I fly for work trips occasionally, so combined with my personal trips, I’ve reached Silver status with United. Silver status isn’t high – it’s one step above no status at all – but it does come with some perks. I also have the United MileagePlus Explorer card. I say this to give context to my history as a United customer and perhaps give more clarity to why I was offered a (paid) upgrade.
At the end of May I took a trip to Italy from Houston. I flew IAH – IAD – FCO, so my international leg was an ~8 1/2 hour flight. It was paid for entirely in miles, costing 100,000 miles roundtrip (which seems to be about the norm on United for transatlantic flight purchases). I had sort-of figured that paying in miles instead of money would reduce or eliminate my chances of being offered an upgrade but clearly that wasn’t true. Maybe purchasing with miles made me more likely to be offered an upgrade, or maybe having Silver status while being a cardholder helped more. Maybe it was a combination. Who knows.
After checking in on the app, I was offered an upgrade to “United Polaris Business Class” for ~$830-ish. Business class… what’s that? Is it first class? Is this the mythical lay flat seats? There was only one seat remaining, so I quickly pulled up Google. Frankly, United’s website doesn’t clear much up, but all the other posts I found indicated that I would get the lay-flat seat. On a bit of a whim, I upgraded.
I kept waiting for them to tell me the peons can’t sit in the first-class cabins. I waited for them to laugh at me during check-in, or someone to make a rude comment while I waited in the “Boarding Group 1” line, but nothing happened. Was this real?!
Well, my boarding pass said it was! In this blog post, I’ll break down the seats & amenities, meal service, comfort, and wrap up with general comments and impressions.
Smiling flight attendants greeted me as I boarded the plane. They showed me to my seat and I obviously nerded out and immediately took a bunch of pictures. Look at this! Two blankets… two pillows… slippers, a toiletry kit, over-the-ear headphones…. fantastic!
It was a liiiiiitle bit more cramped than I was expecting. I didn’t think I would be so close to my neighbor… I guess I was expecting some kind of separating wall, or something…. but the actual seats were quite roomy and we had ample leg room.
One thing that surprised me though: about half the seats face backwards. Some people don’t like feeling this way, so be mindful of that when you go to book.
The above picture shows the middle row. These seats are backwards facing and the middle two seats have very little spacial isolation. If you’re sitting next to someone you don’t know, it could potentially be uncomfortable. Something that isn’t clear from the seat map is that there is a little wall separating the rows, so you aren’t sitting toe-to-toe with other airplane guests. The rows are just a bit close within themselves.
When I looked closer, the provided amenities were pretty nice. United provided us a more traditional fluffy pillow and a memory foam pillow, slip on slippers, two blankets (including a Saks quilted blanket), and a convenient toiletry kit.
The toiletry kit included an eye mask, ear plugs, socks, toothbrush & toothpaste, chapstick, hand cream, face cream, and a facial cleansing wipe. I thought this kit was pretty legit – honestly, it covers almost everything I think you need to survive long-haul flights. The quilted blanket really added to the feeling of comfort and decadence.
Never once on the flight did I think “I really wish I had…”. United did a good job of providing everything I could have needed. I only had to break into my carry on to pull out a hairbrush!
United Polaris Business Class Meal Service
I was most curious what the meal service in the first class cabins would be like. European carriers often give more than enough food but their American counterparts definitely skimp in comparison.
They certainly didn’t skimp on meal service in Polaris Business Class – honestly, at some points, I had to ask for less food!
You’re provided with a menu upon boarding. It outlines the various meal options throughout all the meal services of the flight as well as what alcoholic beverages are available.
Traditional liquors like whiskey, vodka, and rum were available along with the listed wine and champagne selections.
Upon boarding I was given a delicious glass of champagne, which was definitely a good start. Alcohol was theoretically unlimited, but I think one important component of avoiding jet lag is also avoiding alcohol, so I chose not to indulge too much.
Shortly after take off we were provided with warmed nuts and a hot hand towel, and a little after that they took our orders. Turns out you only have to order the main entree because everything else in the other services is automatically provided!
Every meal is served on a nice tray with legit plates, bowls, and silverware. It doesn’t feel disposable or temporary but rather a bit elegant, which was a nice touch.
Dinner & Dessert
Dinner isn’t a complete meal in Polaris without a starter! Here is what our starter looked like:
On my flight the starter included an Asian salad, pretzel roll, and lemon grass shrimp. I was a little nervous about this: seafood on a flight seems taboo and I usually don’t like shrimp unless it’s fried and smothered in some kind of sauce.
Well, let me tell you, this was delicious. The salad was fresh, light, and crunchy and the shrimp had fantastic flavor without any of the token fishiness. Without a doubt, this is something I would order in a restaurant again.
This meal would have been the end of the first meal in Economy, but Polaris had more in store for us. I opted for the short rib with veggies and grits.
Y’all, this was SO GOOD. I used my bread to sop up the extra sauce. I felt like I was surrounded by fancy people otherwise I probably would have licked the plate. Have you ever thought meal service on an airplace was delicious?! I’ve had good meals before, but between the starter and the entree, I was impressed.
They gave us some time to digest and enjoy the seatback entertainment, but dessert service followed shortly thereafter. The flight attendants wheeled around an entire dessert cart and asked us to make selections off of it.
The selections including a sundae bar and small bites included a turtle bar, an apple tart, and a cheesecake. There was also a cheese plate!
I opted for a small caramel and fudge sundae with a turtle bar.
So. Much. Food.
Thankfully, the flight attendants let us nap off our feast and gave us 5 or so hours of food-free flying. About an hour before landing they served us our breakfast.
Breakfast included a southwestern omelet, fresh fruit, either a croissant or a cinnamon roll, and yogurt. I don’t like yogurt so I chose not to take that food.
This meal was the most bland of all of them. The fruit tasted fresh and the cinnamon roll was pretty good, but the omelet (and especially the potatoes) were so bland. I doused it in salt and pepper to make it more palatable but it didn’t help much.
Comfort in Polaris Business Class
Comfort is the main reason to upgrade to a first class cabin. The toiletry kit, the food, and the drinks are all nice, but I wanted first class primarily for the lay-flat beds.
After they gave us a Thanksgiving-sized feast I took my seat completely flat and settled in. I put on the eye mask provided by United and tried to fall asleep. The seats aren’t wide enough to really lay on your back or stomach super comfortably but they are more than wide enough for laying on your side. I felt myself fall asleep and I remember having deep, vivid dreams. When I woke, I remember thinking there was no way I was asleep for longer than half an hour. I checked my watch and was pleasantly surprised to discover I had been out for three hours! Three TOTAL hours of sleep on a plane always felt like a pipe dream, let alone three hours consecutively, so I was pleasantly surprised. I allowed myself to fall back asleep and awoke two or so hours later.
Y’all. 5 hours of sleep. 5 hours of quality sleep. There are some work nights I don’t even get five hours of sleep. I think I would have been able to sleep longer but our flight was almost over! The crew was prepping the cabin for breakfast service so I knew we were about an hour and a half away from our initial descent.
Clearly United Polaris Business Class is comfortable for sleeping, but how does it stack up when you’re awake?
I really enjoyed being able to recline my seat as much as I like without disturbing another passenger. I also really enjoyed being able to elevate a footrest. Long-haul United flights specifically end up hurting my knees for some reason so having the footrest eliminated all of this discomfort.
United provided us with over-the-ear headphones which made the seatback entertainment more comfortable. The movie selections were great and up to date and I was able to watch a few movies that only just recently left theaters. We had a remote to control our screens which was really convenient.
My only complaint on comfort… the space provided is not efficient. There was no good place to store my carry-on so I had to put it overhead. I wanted a place to be able to dump my pillows and blankets when they weren’t in use and that didn’t exist, either. In the picture above it looks like my pillow was stored below the screen but that didn’t last long. That little cavern is meant for the seat to extend in to so it’s not a a storage spot at all. Anything stored in that nook is shaken loose with just the slightest turbulence.
United, if you end up reading this, some mesh netting to store our linens or maybe a bottle holder by the magazine rack would help so much. Because we didn’t have seat back pockets, I struggled with finding a place to set my headphones, ear plugs, phone, and other small but frequently used items. This was frustrating and it seems like a really simple fix.
I really enjoyed my experience in United Polaris Business Class. I definitely want to fly international first-class again, but I’m not sure I would pay ~$800 for it again. It was definitely comfortable but maybe not worth 2-3x the value of an economy ticket.
Have you ever flown international first class? What were your thoughts? Comment below!