A couple weeks ago, I flew from ORD to Brussels in United’s not-long-for-this-world Polaris First class (formerly Global First), and I had ample time to spend in the much-hyped Polaris lounge before my flight. Both of these have been reviewed (and photographed) extensively, so I’m just going to jot down some random thoughts and impressions.
First, the Polaris lounge… it’s nice, but not as mind-blowing as I was expecting. I’m not sure what I was hoping for, honestly. The way the Polaris lounge glistens in all the photos of it that I have seen, I guess I was expecting to be gobsmacked by pristine marble fixtures like I was walking into the Qatar Airways first class lounge in Doha. While it’s prettier than a United Club, it’s not that much prettier (assuming you’re talking about one of the new United Clubs). What sets the lounge apart, in my opinion, are the bathrooms and shower suites (I didn’t have a chance to check out the day beds). Most of the time, the bathroom in a United Club looks like the aftermath of an outtake from Donald Trump’s Russian golden shower video, so I appreciated the individual toilet cabanas on offer here. The bathrooms are all lined up in long hallway, though, so if every one is occupied, it can be awkward trying to find a place to wait for one to become available. There were also staff members cleaning up after almost every use, which was an impressive level of service.
I had around four hours to spend in the lounge before my flight, so I decided to kill some time by taking a shower. I was able to book a shower suite without having to wait, and I can honestly say that this was one of the best showers I have ever had. If I were awarding it a medal, I would definitely give it the gold. Truly, it was a golden shower. What made it so nice? First, the shower suite is huge – bigger than most hotel bathrooms, in fact. Plus, the shower has an angled shower head and a vertical (rainforest) shower head, and you can run both of them at the same time for maximum water coverage.
Feeling refreshed, I went back to the lounge to get some food. That’s the other thing that sets the lounge apart, although the food I had wasn’t actually that good. If you eat meat, however, your experience is likely to be much better than mine. There were a couple off-menu options for vegetarians in the sit-down dining area, although only one of the buffet offerings was vegan-friendly. There’s also better alcohol at the bar – I had a glass of Auchentoshan 12-year whisky, which isn’t one you see very often (especially for free).
Overall, it’s a very nice lounge, although I’m going to say something potentially sacrilegious… I think I might prefer the new Delta Sky Club in Seattle. There are a couple reasons for this: first, the food was better. Again, this probably has more to do with my dietary particularities, but I found a wider variety of food to eat, and it was higher quality too. The bathrooms aren’t as nice as Polaris’s toilet cabanas, but the stalls do have walls that extend down to the floor and doors that close without a gap, so you can still do your business in relative isolation. The Sky Club also has a more open and airy ambiance, owing to the fact that it’s two stories high and has floor-to-ceiling windows. I didn’t check out the shower facilities there, and I’m willing to bet that they aren’t as nice as the United ones… so I guess between the day beds and golden showers, Polaris has the edge if you’re waiting out a long layover. Maybe it’s a tie between the two.
One big downside to the Polaris lounge is that it’s not big enough. When I got to the airport (around 2PM on a Monday), it wasn’t that crowded, but by around 4, it was PACKED. Literally every seat was taken, including the chairs opposite the check-in desk that no one ever sits in, and others were milling around waiting for someone to get up. People were lining up to get their names on a list for the sit-down dining, and the buffet area was frequently running out of plates, forks, etc. It’s weird, since the access policies are pretty restrictive, but I guess enough people are flying United or Star Alliance business class out of O’hare for it to fill up.
Onto the flight, then, which was outstanding. So many people rag on United Global First that you’d be forgiven for confusing it with a Megabus or something. I can’t remember where I read it, but one blog even used redemptions on United Global First as the prime example of a dumb use of miles (as in, no idiot would waste their miles on United Global First). My expectations weren’t super high going in, although I felt like I got a decent return on my 70k Aeroplan miles, since that’s what United would charge for partner business class awards. Maybe I’d feel differently if Aeroplan charged more (like United charging 110k miles for partner first class), but 70k is a decent deal even for business class nowadays, so it seemed like a relative bargain for first (albeit on United).
About the Global First seat – no, it isn’t going to win any design awards. It’s not blingy at all; in fact, it’s so self consciously drab that I’m kind of amazed it could be from the same company that just came out with the Polaris cabin (which, say what you want about the seat, looks fantastic). Also, it’s not super private, although with only eight seats in the first class cabin, I never felt very exposed either. Those are the two major downsides – the seat is ugly, and it’s fairly open. On the flip side, the seat is goddamn comfortable – way better than any other long-haul seat I’ve been in, and this is after a decade+ of butts wearing out the cushioning before I got my shot. It also has an insane amount of storage, including a gigantic compartment that’s big enough for one of those giant teddy bears you win at the carnival. The TV is fine – it’s on the small size and kind of dated-looking compared to modern first class cabins that have 20+” screens, but it got the job done for me. United’s inflight entertainment selection is really good too.
Service on the flight was exceptional. I understand these international flights can be hit-or-miss, although this one was definitely a hit. There were two flight attendants plus a purser serving the first class cabin, and they were all super nice. Service was proactive throughout the flight, including offering turndown service for each passenger. (This isn’t something I was expecting, but I didn’t turn it down.)
The food was good too – I had a vegan meal that was some sort of green curry dish with vegetables – AKA something that’s really hard to screw up. I don’t know why other airlines don’t realize this when doing veggie meals – instead of some concoction with a slimy portobello mushroom that has been frozen and reheated a dozen times, just do something Asian or Indian with vegetables and call it a day. The food on United was a pleasant surprise compared to Delta One, which was honestly terrible. If you’ll recall, they served me an appetizer of cold cooked vegetables and then a main course of those same cooked vegetables warmed up. GROSS. And since United doesn’t really differentiate the food in first and business class anymore, I assume that any vegetarians in business had it just as good as me.
The only downside was that turbulence cut off the meal service right as they were getting ready to bring out dessert, and by the time it let up an hour or so later, most everyone had already gone to sleep, so they didn’t bother. They did put all the dessert stuff on a cart in the galley later in the flight, which was a bonus, since I couldn’t sleep.
If I had any nitpicks about the flight, it would be the tiny bathroom. (Jeez, what is it with me and bathrooms today?) This is something United has remedied on the 777-300, but on the -200, there’s one bathroom for the first class cabin, and it’s even smaller than a normal bathroom. Other than that, though, I can’t really fault United for anything about the flight. I know I kind of started at the bottom in terms of experiencing long haul first class, but if anything it makes me excited to experience whatever else is out there… and next year, I’m moving up literally one single rung by flying British Airways first class. Someday, Lufthansa!