Tag Archives: United Airlines

All Mixed Up

I’m intrigued by Aeroplan – in general, it offers a user-friendly way to search for Star Alliance awards, and business class awards to Europe are 45,000 miles each way. That’s a favorable comparison to United, which charges 57,500 miles for their own flights and 70,000 miles for partner flights. The problem I keep running into with Aeroplan is only seeing availability for goddamned mixed cabin awards that no rational person would ever spend miles on. I realize this problem isn’t specific to Aeroplan, since they’re just reporting availability from across the Star Alliance network. It’s just as bad when searching availability on United, and although you sometimes have the option to exclude mixed cabin awards from showing up in the list of flights for a specific date, you can’t view an availability calendar that has been filtered to get rid of mixed cabin awards. That means that you have to sift through date after date of available flights to find a single cabin award – and if you live in San Francisco, you may never find it.

Hey wait a second, here’s something funny. I went over to Aeroplan to pick a random date in order to find a representative example of how annoying mixed cabin awards can be, and I found this:

sas

SAS partner availability in business class?! I’m definitely filing this away for future consideration. SAS’s new business class cabin looks super nice, although everything I’ve heard suggests that SAS almost never releases partner award space. I also have a soft spot for SAS, since I love their livery… even though the one time I flew them, I was on a plane that looked like it had been in service since the 1980s.

This image doesn’t totally do the livery justice, since my favorite thing about it is the “misty morning gray” color scheme. Especially when it’s contrasted against an airfield full of nondescript white European planes.

 

SAS new business class seat

Okay, back to my irritation over mixed cabin awards…

Here’s a good one: 45,000 miles for a 1 hour flight in “business” (which on an intra-Europe flight means a coach seat with the middle seat blocked off and maybe a meal) and a 12 hour transatlantic flight in Economy. What a deal!

mixedcabin1

This is my favorite: an itinerary that shuttles you all over Europe on short hops (again in “business”) before plopping you into the economy section of a long haul flight. I’d maybe splash out 45,000 miles for this award if it had a few more connections, but as it is, it seems a little too efficient.

mixedcabin2

To be honest, I don’t really care about all this anymore, since all I can think about is booking a business class award on SAS. Petty annoyances will just have to make way for my genuine interest.

Requisite question designed to spur a flurry of responses in the comments section: How much did it suck the last time YOU flew a mixed cabin award?

Lounge Life (Part 1)

Aside from a trip to the Admirals Club when I was in high school, I had never been to an airline lounge before this year. What a year of firsts! My current lounge credentials are obtained through credit cards: Priority pass lounges and American Admirals Club access through the Citi Prestige and Delta Sky Club and Centurion lounge access (plus a redundant and guestless Priority Pass membership) through the Amex platinum. I also get two United Club visits per year via the annual free passes that are included with the Mileage Plus Explorer card. You want reviews? I know you do. Every travel blog reviews stuff – I even found a review for a fucking bag of snack mix the other day. Conclusion: if you want readers, you gotta review. So here you go.

Overall, I think lounges are funny, in that (at least in the US, and I haven’t visited any of the fancy international lounges yet), their only value is determined relative to the rest of the airport. Most lounges would make shitty hotel lobbies, for instance. Pretty much any mid-level hotel will have nicer seating and furnishings in its lobby than you’ll find in the average airport lounge, but given that waiting out a 2-hour delay in a crowded terminal is a soul-suckingly awful experience, even a shitty hotel lobby is preferable. Therefore, I’m not reviewing a random Admirals club as it compares to the Emirates first class lounge in Dubai. Instead, my ratings are based on the following criteria, each worth ten points: furnishings, cookies, other non-cookie snacks, alcohol, views, bathrooms, outlets, and other amenities.

Alaska Airlines Board Room, SEA
Furnishing
s: worn down and could use a refresh, but overall comfortable for waiting out a layover. 6/10
Cookies: cinnamon animal crackers. Will do in a pinch, but disappointing. 2/10
Snacks: pancake printer is nice for the novelty, but it prints fairly rubbery pancakes. Maybe it needs new toner (AKA dough). Salads always look gross. Haven’t tried the soup, because I’m not generally a soup fan, AND WHY DO LOUNGES ALWAYS SERVE SOUP? 4/10
Alcohol: actually I haven’t had any alcohol here, but you get good beer and cocktails for free, so I’ll give this one a high score. 9/10
Views: great tarmac views, although you only see Alaska’s planes, so it gets a little repetitive after a while. 7/10
Bathrooms: clean, fairly private. Didn’t smell like piss the few times I’ve used it. 8/10
Outlets: most seats have outlets available. Why every lounge isn’t just a sea of power strips is beyond me, but whatever. 10/10
Other amenities: nothing really jumps out at me here. I’ll give it a few points for having a good division between the quiet area downstairs and the party atmosphere upstairs. 3/10
Final score: 49/80

I couldn’t find any pictures of the United Club at SFO, so you get this graphic instead. The United Club SFO is not this nice, so don’t get excited.

United Club, SFO (International Gates)
Furnishings:
worn down and could use a refresh, but overall comfortable for waiting out a layover. (Yes, I copied and pasted this from the last one. It’s a pretty universal description of most lounges.) 6/10
Cookies: some weird brownie crunch stuff. Not bad, but still lower-tier. 4/10
Snacks: Good hummus, and I like that there are Skittles. Don’t Skittles seem like the kind of food that kids eat? It’s fun watching all these distinguished looking business people chomp down on some Skittles, reminding them of the childhood they lost and will never get back. This gets a high score for that alone. 7/10
Alcohol: Piss beer for free, everything else you pay for. Don’t insult me with your Coors Light, United. $600 per year for a membership and you can’t even give me Sam Adams? Fuck you. 1/10
Views: some good angles, but heavily obscured by its position in the terminal. 5/10
Bathrooms: Didn’t use, but this lounge gets really crowded, so I’m skeptical. 6/10
Outlets: One section has good access, the other doesn’t. 6/10
Other amenities: The lobby of this lounge is really nice. In fact, the first time I went to this lounge, I was really excited for what I’d find simply due to how nice the lobby is. The resulting disappointment could either be viewed as a positive or a negative. 4/10
Final score: 39/80

Unlike the United Club banner, this actually is the Admirals Club at SFO.

Admirals Club, SFO (International Gates)
Furnishings:
 Newer than the other two, but surprisingly worn given that it was refreshed recently. Looks like it gets a lot of use, even though it was pretty empty while I was there.  7/10
Cookies: Excellent chocolate chip cookies. Not “artisanal” or anything fancy, but a good, utilitarian cookie can really hit the spot. 9/10
Snacks: Not great once you’re done with the cookie. Yogurt pretzels and dry fruit mix abound, and the food for purchase is way worse than what’s out in the concourse. Also, the dried fruit has a really high banana chips to everything else ratio – personally, I hate banana chips and adjusted the score accordingly, but you may want to take this into account. 7/10
Alcohol: Same deal as United. 1/10
Views: Very nice, and a good amount of window seating, too. Although you mostly look out at United planes (ironically), you can still catch the big boys taxiing by. I saw an Emirates A380, which was pretty impressive next to a bunch of 737s and the like. 8/10
Bathrooms: Pretty decent, but Terminal 2 at SFO has strangely clean bathrooms, so it isn’t a huge benefit. 6/10
Outlets: Good overall access. 8/10
Other amenities: From an ambience perspective, I like this lounge. They tried to do something different with the fake trees and the circular layout in the middle, so it doesn’t feel as generic as some of the other lounges. Especially given some reviews I’ve read of other Admirals Clubs, I have a feeling this is one of the nicer ones around. 7/10
Final score: 53/80

Stay tuned for more lounge reviews in part two of this gripping post!

Requisite question designed to spur a flurry of responses in the comments section: What’s YOUR least favorite lounge in the US?

American Horror Story (Part 2)

I wanted to add a few additional thoughts on American Airlines, especially given some criticism I encountered from the imaginary blog readers in my head.

1 – As you may have read in my post on premium cabins, I almost never fly first class. When I do, it’s a special treat, not a matter of course. So, I really do have a lot of experience with economy class seats, which is why I feel qualified to say that American Airlines seats are absolutely terrible. Just to provide a point of contrast, I recently flew United’s revamped A320 to and from Seattle, and the new seat design is clean and efficient, if not particularly impressive in any one area. They have an additional literature pocket where the IFE would go (since short haul planes don’t need IFE, and United offers direct-to-device entertainment), and the seats make great use of thin-line padding so that the seat feels comparatively roomy, even in the non-Economy Plus rows. A couple weeks ago, I was on Southwest to and from Salt Lake City, and their new seats are similar – thin, stiff (supportive) padding, reasonable leg room, and a generic, unremarkable economy experience. And let’s be clear: the point of economy is to be as painless as possible. No one is going to step off an economy class flight and rave about how amazing the seat was – the best economy can hope for is for a passenger to not be miserable during the flight. Most domestic economy classes accomplish this, while some add some nice touches, like Virgin’s on-demand food and drink options or Alaska’s Inuit-themed decorations.

2 – Apparently, I was way off base in talking about how old the American seats were. See, I sent a complaint to American Airlines about the terrible seats, since I really was annoyed at how terrible the flight was. I even asked for a refund on my Main Cabin Extra purchase, since, due to the aircraft swap, my row wasn’t even in Main Cabin extra anymore. To American’s credit, they responded quickly and positively, which I can’t say about too many other airline customer service departments. However, they did add that the seats are “relatively new” (relative to what?) and that they’re made with “high quality leather and wool fabrics.” Remember what I said yesterday about it maybe being worse that American chose these seats on purpose? Well.

3 – Customer service also cited “literally thousands of hours of research” that went into the design of the new seats, and I don’t doubt it, given the complexities of designing anything that goes on a plane. What sticks out, though, is how anyone could look at the final product that resulted from these thousands of hours and somehow think it represented a competitive product.

Good thing a photographer was there in the lab to document the moment the new seats were conceived after a 737 fucked an old couch behind a dumpster.

Luckily for passengers, there is a newer version of the 737 interior that American is rolling out (at the same time that it is retiring those MD-80s I was ragging on yesterday). The problem is figuring out which version is on which route. Given the wide disparity in quality (assuming that the new interior represents a step up, which – from photos at least – it seems to), I’m still going to hold off flying American on anything but the A321T that they run from SFO to NYC. Maybe I’ll check back in five more years to see where they’re at.

Thoughts on Premium Cabins

The thing about reviews is that most reviewers almost have too much experience for their experiences to be relevant to people like me who just don’t have enough time off to try every product in the sky. I realize that the point of most reviews is to be as in-depth as possible precisely because people who take a once-in-a-lifetime vacation in first class want to make sure they aren’t wasting their money (or miles). Still, some of the “bad” reviews I read make me laugh, given that they really don’t sound that bad to me.

I really have very little experience with first class – the first time I sat up front is when I had food poisoning and upgraded to AirTran’s first class because it was only $100 and I thought that sitting in Economy while trying not to barfpoop would just be too miserable. For anyone who never got that opportunity before AirTran disappeared, my review is that the seat is wider and they give you a snack. Definitely worth $100 given the circumstances, but not exactly “premium.” I’ve also flown Virgin America first class a few times, since their same-day upgrades used to be really cheap. I think I paid $150 to upgrade BOS to SFO (almost 7 hours in a headwind), and that flight was probably awesome. I say “probably” because I took too many sleeping pills while waiting at the gate, and I barely remember the flight. I was so zonked that, despite sitting in 1A, I was the very last person off the plane.

My wife and I flew “business class” on Norwegian from OAK to OSL last summer, which is more or less premium economy on most carriers. My review of that flight is that the seat is wider and they give you a snack. (I’m being snarky, but Norwegian is actually one of my favorite airlines, and that flight was amazing. Seeing the Hudson Bay and Greenland during the midnight sun from the Dreamliner’s oversized window was incredible. I’ve flown Norwegian both long haul and short haul, and their planes are spotless, their staff is always friendly, and Gardamoen airport in Oslo has the best candy selection of any airport I’ve ever been to. However, their planes are painted to look like dog penises, which is odd.)

That’s a plane in the photo, not a Samoyed getting excited.

Other times I’ve been in first class were just on short legs, so nothing to write home about. I flew Alaska Airlines first class from SEA to SFO a few months ago on one of those $50 upgrades I bought myself as a treat. My review of that flight is that the seat is wider and they give you a snack. (A quick aside – a friend of mine had asked if I could bring back some of Alaska’s bloody mary mix, since it’s supposedly really good. I hate bloody marys so I wouldn’t know. Anyway, I asked the flight attendant for some, and she very politely declined, explaining that it comes in a big carton, not individual bottles. But, after the flight as I was deplaning, she poured some into a lidded cup for me. I thought that was really nice, and it makes me like Alaska Airlines just because a flight attendant has never been that nice to me before. Once I got off the jetbridge, I stood over the garbage can right by the gate and decanted the cup of bloody mary mix into an empty Aquafina bottle… I can’t even imagine what the other passengers on the plane thought I was doing as the saw this upon deplaning.)

Alaska is going to run this plane on their new Seattle to Tulsa route just to fuck with little kids.

Okay, so anyway, back to my original point about reviews… I’m taking a trip to New York in a few months, and I used 50,000 United miles to book it in first class. Normally I wouldn’t waste the miles, but SFO – EWR on United is on their fancy “premium service” trans-con 757, so I thought it would be worth it. This will definitely be the nicest hard product I’ve ever flown, and I’m pretty excited. Plus, 50,000 miles for a $1200 ticket is over 2 cents per mile, which isn’t bad for a domestic redemption… especially when I don’t have a spare $1200 sitting around (or even really a spare $400 for economy).

Once I booked the flight, I excitedly looked up reviews of United’s trans-con premium service, ready to read how mind-blowingly amazing it is… and most reviews aren’t very positive. The gist of them is that the seat is nice enough, the food is meh, and the service is blah. Picky picky. First of all, I’m vegan, so I won’t be able to eat the food anyway. Second of all, I have a lot of social anxiety and don’t enjoy when people go out of their way to talk to me, so I don’t really care if the service is aloof. Maybe I should ask them for some extra bloody mary mix as a sort of controlled experiment. One review I read even criticized United’s snack bar, saying something to the effect of “hopefully you like Milano cookies and pretzels.” My response when reading this was to say, “Yes, I do like Milano cookies, and you’re telling me that there’s a snack bar where I can get Milano cookies whenever I want?” Different expectations indeed. (I realize Milano cookies aren’t vegan. I should have said I’m mostly vegan – don’t tell PETA.) My only concern about this flight now is that I booked a window seat, and if the person on the aisle goes to sleep, he’s going to be annoyed with me crawling over him every half hour to get Milano cookies.

I don’t really plan to review travel products on this blog, but I’m sure I’ll talk at length about how great United’s trans-con service is, since it will have been the first and only time I’ve been on a flat bed seat on a plane. This is like the Emirates shower suite for me, seriously.

Requisite question designed to spur a flurry of responses in the comments section: Do YOU like Milano cookies, and do you know what flavors United offers?