I recently traveled between Chicago and Melbourne, with a layover in Los Angeles. On the way there, I traveled in “cattle class” economy, but on the long-haul leg home, I sprung for Polaris. Was it worth it?
I usually fly economy. Give me a window seat and my phone or laptop so I can listen to music, read books, get some work done, or just rest my eyes, and I’m good. But, I also normally don’t fly long-haul flights.
When I considered international travel in the past, I figured “that is the time when I will splurge!”. Domestic flights just don’t seem worth it to me, but my Transpacific flight wasn’t so tiny. The Chicago–LA leg was about 4 hours, but LA–Melbourne was about 15 (16 on the way there, 14 on the return). For four times as much flying time, was the cost worth it? I found out on the way home.I wouldn’t consider myself a “normal” business- or first-class passenger. I’ve got somewhat large visible tattoos, usually travel in leggings and a sweater or tshirt, and while I do own my own business, I’m not exactly the corporate-looking type. As ridiculous as it sounds, I’ve always had this mental block that I am not “fancy” enough for first class.
|Want to jump straight to the good stuff?|
|Overall||Was it worth it?|
Food was one of the biggest (and most Instagram-worthy) differences.
Economy between LA and Chicago had your standard drink service and small snacks (I had the savory snack mix on the way there and a caramel stroopwafel on the way home). But, long-haul flights mean that you need a little more fuel than snacks.
With a 2h30 layover and no need to grab my luggage, I had plenty of time to grab a snack… and a drink?
|Henry:||hurrah for having your bags forwarded! don’t get too smashed while you wait in LAX then|
|Michael:||that’s bad advice. don’t you know getting smashed is a great way to avoid jet lag?|
|Henry:||you need to be juuuuuuust the right level of smashed for international long haul long haul sans booze ought to be outlawed. I’m sure there’s an argument to be made that it’s inhumane.|
|Stephy:||I’ll hire you as the lawyer|
|Henry:||red-eyes simply call for a breakfast gin: problem solved|
Dreamliner Economy Meals
I wish I’d thought to take photos of these meals along the way, but truth be told, they weren’t very photogenic.
For the main entree, we had the choice of chicken, pasta, or a vegetarian meal. The pasta sounded good, but since I was in one of the near-back rows, they were all gone by the time I placed my order. Details were very light on the veggie meal, but I thought I’d give it a try.
I was served “Mixed VEG Chana Saag Tarka DAL Cumin Basmati Rice” (weird capitalization is copied from United’s label on the foil cover). I love Indian food, so this was a fine choice by me. While not very pretty-looking, my meal was well-balanced: basmati rice to fill me up, spinach and chickpeas in a spiced sauce, and some more veggies on the other side. The main entree was also served with a mixed greens salad and bread roll.
Healthy Gypsy Traveller has some pretty comparable photos of her vegetarian meal: a bit mushy, no vibrant colors, but it was food and it didn’t taste bad.
your attorney still advises the breakfast bloody mary
After the meal, we had a choice of coffee, orange juice, or wine. I had some red wine in a little cup. It was free, and I figured it might help me fall asleep. It did! I dozed a little and missed dessert, but my seat neighbors and I all got up around the same time to brush our teeth and get ready for more rest. They grabbed an extra dessert for me while I was in the lav: mango sorbet.
About 6 hours later, we were served small turkey sandwiches. They were tiny, served on dinner rolls about the size of a fist, but I felt perfectly sated. At this point, I hadn’t even dug into my snacks from home; I was just eating the airplane food.
After another 6 hours (think these meals are timed?), we had breakfast: small pancakes with fruit compote, fruit salad, Greek yogurt cake (essentially, a moist muffin), and raspberry yogurt. The texture was a bit lacking on the pancakes, but I do always love fresh fruit.
The breakfast meal was served pretty close to our landing time and I still had my leftover snacks! With their nuts and grains, I didn’t want to go through the hassle of declaring them. I snacked a bit, downed a Thai chili KIND bar, and ended up offering my honey mustard one to a woman in the row behind me.
If I did it again
I wouldn’t bother with snacks, but I’d still eat that sandwich on my layover. The flight food wasn’t anything to write home about, but I never went hungry.
I’m also glad that I brought a large water bottle with me so that I could easily stay hydrated on the flight without bugging my seatmates to get up too often.
From the moment I got situated, Polaris was an experience. Any time I was offered something, I figured, “why not?” and gave it a try.
Pre-Flight and Appetizers
I was offered a pre-flight drink and received a glass of champagne with a little truffle. The glasses are weird; they have an indentation so that they can stand up on the specialty tray.
For the main entree, we had 4 choices:
Lamb au jus, Boulangère potatoes, seasonal vegetables
Saffron rice pilaf, lentils cooked with a hint of cumin seeds, cilantro, and tomato, spiced Indian-style spinach
Red pepper sauce, beans, yellow squash, zucchini
Tomato vegetable sauce, kale, toasted quinoa
After dinner, we were served an assortment of cheeses, crackers, grapes, and a glass of port. The port was fantastic; a nice, sweet contrast to the savory cheeses.
We also had our choice of desserts, served on a tiered tray. Pictured here are the pistachio mousse cup (raspberry also available), some sort of coffee layered cake, and chocolate ice cream with a raspberry gel inside. According to my flight attendant, the mousse cups are new to United, and they were my favorite of the choices.
Eggs with Hollandaise on an English muffin, fresh fruit salad? My kind of breakfast! The fruit salad also had a sprig of mint, as a cute touch. The eggs were served with ham (not bad, but nothing remarkable) and sautéed spinach with half of a tomato.
There were plenty of snacks available between courses! I had some coffee and Bailey’s, a chicken salad cucumber sandwich, Tim Tams, Anzac biscuits, and Cadbury dairy milk. I also saw baskets of fresh fruit, the remaining desserts from the dessert trays, and chips. After breakfast, we were also served a small packet of additional truffles.
Amenities & Services
…There are amenities? Jokes aside, my flight attendants were perfectly pleasant, didn’t wake anyone up to ask about food, and were sweet about filling up my water bottle when I didn’t want to bother my seat neighbors. If you were hungry or thirsty during the flight, they didn’t mind handing out leftover snacks from the galley.
If you’re going to be using your tech devices on a Dreamliner, there are 2 outlets for the 3 seats in an economy row. The placement is awkward; I couldn’t get to the shared one between me and the guy next to me easily during the flight, and I didn’t want to wake him, so I switched between devices to conserve battery power and charged my phone from the back-of-the-seat USB port. The power was low; my battery would go down while using my device, even when plugged in, but over time (while sleeping), I did manage to get back up to 100% and (mostly) keep it that way.
A small, light blanket and pillow were also provided; between the pillow and my own inflatable neck pillow, I was able to get cozy against the window.
Once again, an experience. Everything from the warm hand towels to the linens was meant to make you feel pampered.
Bedding & Linens
United partnered with Saks Fifth Avenue for its bedding, and I have to say, I loved the duvet and cooling pillow. You’re given a standard pillow by default but can also request the memory foam pillow if you’re a warm sleeper. Do it!
Photos below courtesy of United.
I took my pajamas home. The material is a little thin, but the pants have pockets (women will understand my excitement). I’m about 5’10” and pretty broad. The pants were a good length on me; the shirt was comfortable and had some room to spare. According to an inner tag on the shirt, the material is 100% cotton and was furnished by Buzz Products; not a surprise, since they also curate the products on Quantas, Delta, and other airlines.
The amenity kits from Polaris came stocked with refreshing products from Cowshed Spa, part of Soho House & Co. There were full-size Cowshed products in the lavatories: a cleanser, toner, and lotion. My latest tattoo was very thankful for the easy access to more moisture.
Socks, Cowshed beauty products, a comb, toothbrush, toothpaste, flosser, peppermints, tissues, sanitizer, and a “do not disturb” sticker. Not pictured: a pen from the middle of the amenity kit (ballpoint; didn’t work) and an ergonomic padded eye mask (it was an eye mask; nothing out of the ordinary).
One nice treat? You can save yourself a little more carry-on room by not having to bring some of the basics. The amenity kits provided enough goodies to get you presentable (hair and teeth brushed, breath fresh) and relaxed.
Seat Size Comparison
The LA–Melbourne flight was on a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, with 1″ more pitch (legroom) than domestic seats on my domestic flight. For comparison, I flew a Boeing 757-300 between Chicago and LA. SeatGuru is my favorite tool for gathering the specs of your flight’s seats, so let’s see how these planes stack up:
Seat Sizes Per Aircraft
Chicago to LA: Boeing 757-300
|First||38||20.75||24 recliner seats with 6.0 recline|
|Economy Plus||35||17.2||57 standard seats with 5.0 recline|
|Economy||31||17.2||132 standard seats with 3.0 recline|
LA to Melbourne: Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner
|Polaris||78||22||48 flat bed seats with 180 degrees recline|
|Economy Plus||35||17.3||88 standard seats with 4.0 recline|
|Economy||32||17.3||116 standard seats with 3.0 recline|
Economy vs. Economy Plus didn’t seem like enough of a difference for me to warrant the cost, and I really didn’t need first class for a 4-hour flight.
Despite the very similar Economy sizes, I was much more comfortable on my Dreamliner flight than the 757. Having friendly seat neighbors (a very low-maintenance couple who raised the armrests for better sprawling) definitely helped! I’m broad-shouldered and can feel cramped if a seat neighbor is the same (or likes to really spread out). On both economy flights, I picked a window seat; that gave me a little more room to get comfortable.
I managed to sleep on the long-haul, though not for very long at a time. I wasn’t a complete zombie by the time I landed, which I’ll take as a win.
This part wasn’t the true Polaris experience. United has new direct-aisle-access seats with increased privacy, but my plane did not have (and won’t get) those seat upgrades; this was just the “soft product” version of Polaris.
On the 787-9, there are individual controls to adjust the angle or designated profiles for sitting up and laying down. The flight attendants recommended just using the presets, as the individual controls were fussy. While working on my laptop and watching movies, I adjusted my seat to be something like a stretched-out recliner chair. For sleeping, I preferred a very slight incline on the bed.
I sleep on my stomach, and with my legs straight and arms resting just above my head, I juuuuust fit on the bed. Sitting in one of the front-row seats would have provided a larger foot well, which (while not longer) could have allowed me to get a bit more comfortable. Personal space feels much more open while sitting up; when the seats are reclined, the shoulder area (really, upper-torso area) is narrowed. Depending on how you sleep, this could get cramped.
I had an aisle seat, and despite my offers to retract my seat so he could pass more easily, my seat neighbor found it easier to just step over the extended bed when I was stretched out. If your neighbor is not the same way, you’ll run into a slight annoyance: the seats are slow to adjust between profiles. There wasn’t much privacy between the seats and we had a shared surface for drinks/snacks (or in my seatmate’s case, books and eyeglasses). The new Polaris seats have this all figured out, with much better privacy and aisle access, but that is currently only available on 777-300 flights.
One thing that got in the way? Additional bedding. Even though this is reduced from the original Polaris plans debuting earlier in 2017, I found myself with too many things in the way once my bed was extended. I needed the foot well for my feet, and since I used the gel pillow and just one blanket while sleeping, I had an additional pillow and blanket to stash. My messenger bag (with laptop, a book, etc.) took up most of the bottom well’s space, so switching from laying-down to sitting-up usually meant making sure that nothing was getting caught underneath the seat.
You’d think that with the pricetag, Polaris would also come with free internet access. Wifi for the flight was a little over $20 for a satellite connection, and of course, streaming services were blocked. However, I also couldn’t access non-intense services such as Discord for text-based chat (likely because it also allows voice chat). Though I found my way around this, it was an unnecessary hassle, as was having to transfer the wifi connection from one device to another. If you want to switch devices, you must log into your MileagePlus account. Only one connection can be active at a time, so my laptop was unconnected when my phone was connected, and vice versa. To switch to another device, you have to log in and click a button. If you have strong passwords but don’t use a password manager to take care of them, have fun typing something unwieldy over and over again.
I had a hard time getting connected on the way home and was even charged twice, but United refunded my dupe charge without a delay.
Airport staff was grumpy, but all airline crew I encountered were great. My Polaris flight attendants, though, were stellar; one of them was inspired by my remote business, as she had a designer sister who was unhappy with her work and needed a change. We had some great, meaningful conversations and I did not feel like “just a passenger” on the flight.
I’d be remiss to gloss over the trouble that others have had lately on United flights. Frankly, I lucked out. The most eventful thing on any of my flights was a band of toddlers with some parents who let them run wild, to the dismay of the flight crew. Is the airline perfect? No. But is every experience a hell ride? Nope.
Was it worth it?
Polaris is a big step up from United’s previous offerings! The price to upgrade seats is a bit steep (just north of $1k USD between MEL and LAX), but if you can offset that with credit card miles, it won’t sting so much.
Let’s be honest: I could get a much fancier meal and bedding for a thousand dollars. In fact, I’d think myself a little nuts for spending that much money on either.
I really, really waffled about the upgrade. I didn’t plan on it and was literally deciding a few hours before the flight. Rob encouraged me to treat myself, and just before checking out of our Airbnb and grabbing a ride to the airport, I upgraded.
Upgrading boarding classes is not a magical trick to make your travel perfect.
I still didn’t sleep very much, I didn’t get hungry on the economy version, and I was still running through LAX after the Polaris flight to catch my layover like everyone else (but more on that later). You’re still in a metal box in the air for long hours at a time, breathing the same air, hearing the same somehow-hyperactive-despite-zero-sleep kids scuttling about in the other classes. Being in a fancier seat doesn’t take any of that away.
But, I did feel more refreshed. I was in a better mood, looked a little more polished thanks to some of the amenities (hello, cleanser and toner!), and my body was very thankful to not be as cramped (bye, lower back pain!). Polaris felt like an experience, not just a run-of-the-mill flight.
I still don’t think I’d bother upgrading classes for a domestic or short flight, but for long-haul? I’ll have to get over those “not fancy enough” feels and earn some more miles, because I’d do it again.