United Global First Trip Report

United Global First, the name United has given to its international first class product. This should not be confused with United First or Business First – neither of which are the same as Global First.  I have no earthly idea why United decided to make their cabin naming convention so confusing.

Upon learning that I had to make a last minute trip to Hong Kong, I looked for the best way to upgrade to either business or first class.  With some last minute maneuvering, I ended up going for first class – using 160k miles –  with one segment on United Global First service. (More trip reports later on Asiana and Air China).

I started my journey with United in San Francisco after a lovely July 4th.  I arrived at the airport 2 and 1/2 hours before my flight – I wanted to experience the SFO United Global First Lounge and have time to take plenty of photos.  Well, it turned out that arriving early was my saving grace. So this is not only a trip report, but a cautionary tale!

When I arrived SFO I went to the global first check-in counter. There was another guest checking in, so someone from the business check-in helped me.  I told the agent my itinerary and asked to check one bag.  I got my boarding passes and from there, I headed straight through security and into the International Terminal.  I made a quick stop to exchange some money and then went to the lounge.

While checking in at the lounge, I noticed that my bag tag receipt only showed my bag checked to Seoul, South Korea, my layover city.  The lounge only had one agent and she was helping two people, so I went to the gate.  At the gate, I explained the situation to an agent.  She become very argumentative and said that it’s not normal practice for United to check bags through on other airlines.   This totally surprised me because I do it all the time on other Star Alliance carriers.   She then told me that since I hadn’t shown the original agent a printed out itinerary, there’s no way he could have known to check the bag through.  Again, this seemed odd since he managed to print the boarding card for my connecting flight. Frustrated, I asked to speak with a supervisor.
I tried explaining to the supervisor that it would be very hard with a 2-hour layover to collect my bag in Seoul, re-check it, and pass through security again. The supervisor wasn’t sympathetic and didn’t really seem to want to help.  The supervisor told me that this has been occurring frequently since the United-Continental merger and subsequent computer system switch over.

Now, I realize that I should have checked the bag-tag at check-in and I take responsibility for not verifying it…what really bothers me, and where I take issue is all the arguments from the agents.  Had I been flying first class on any other international airline, there would have been no arguments – they would have said “we’re sorry, let’s see how we can fix it.”  This should be the response for all customers, not just first class…but given how awful typical airline customer service is with most US Airlines, I would at least expect a little above and beyond service for Global First customers.

After some further argument – and I literally do mean argument at this point – another agent came over offered to help the supervisor fix the problem.  The other agent, not the supervisor, was able to track down the bag, have someone from baggage bring it up and was able to re-tag it.  It took about 1 hour in all to get the bag re-tagged, but it got done.  I thanked the agent immensely who had stepped in to help. So here’s the cautionary tale – always check your bag tag.  As a travel veteran, I know this, and I usually check it, but for some reason, on this day, I didn’t.

Baggage crisis averted, I headed back to the lounge. In the lounge, I grabbed a quick drink and muffin and took some photos.  The lounge is very nice – it was actually pretty quite too.  I took lots of photos.
Having only flown United two other times in the last 5 years, I was not completely familiar with how boarding process would work but figured it would be similar to most other airlines. Well, it’s nothing like flying first on most international carriers. There was a Premier Access boarding lane and a non-Premier access boarding lane.  At boarding time, the agents called for not only first class, but all Premier access members and all members of the military in uniform.  A ton of people crowded the Premier Access lane – including me.  I have no issues at all with letting members of the Armed Services board first – it’s the least we can do for them…but I would have thought that first class would board before other Premier Access groups.  (Other boarding experiences: Lufthansa first class from ATL – I was met at the gate by a rep who escorted me onto the plane.  Lufthansa first class from FRA – I was escorted from the lounge to the plane.  Thai Air first class from BKK – I was escorted on a cart form the lounge to the plane after everyone else had boarded so there were no lines or other people to deal with.  Singapore Air first class from FRA – I was escorted from the lounge to the plane.)

Once on board a very friendly flight crew showed me to my seat.  The crew was particularly helpful and slightly sickeningly sweet.  I took my spot in seat 3G – a lie-flat suite next to the window.  The lie-flat suite is almost the exact same suite that US Air offers in its Envoy class. There are a few slight differences like the storage (US Air Envoy Suite offers more stowage space in the seat), the angle of the suites in the center is slightly different ( I think I like US Airs slightly better because they offer more privacy for people sitting next to each other in the center section) and the United seats had a massage function (US Air doesn’t offer that in their Envoy Suite.)  Otherwise, there was really no difference.

On my seat, there was a blanket, two pillows, headset and amenity kit.  The amenity kit, I was told by one of the flight attendants, had been upgraded recently. She laughed, and said, “it has a pen in it now.”  Then she went on to explain that it had Philosophy products and that was the true upgrade.   I had to wonder what the amenity kit had before if United considered Philosophy an upgrade.  I will have to ask Frequently Flying as he’s the expert on amenity kits!  I must say, I really did end up liking the Philosophy products because all but one item were unscented.

The crew offered drinks (OJ, water and champagne) and menus before takeoff.  Once in the air  we were offered warm nuts and a drink.  In addition, they passed out bottles of water and took lunch orders.  I asked if they had a list of ingredients I could look at because I’m allergic to tomatoes and wanted to find something I could eat.  They didn’t have such a list, but one flight attendant brought over pictures of the meals.  I picked the chicken and asked if they could leave the sauce off. They were happy to oblige. (I think this will be a topic for a future blog post.)

Lunch service included a hot appetizer, salad, soup, main course and dessert.  The hot appetizer – a tempura shrimp and some other small Asian dumpling – was pretty average.  You can judge for yourself form the photo.  I passed on the salad because it had tomatoes on it, but the soup – a mushroom soup – was very good. I could have had two soups.

My main course was a Osso Bucco style breast of chicken with mushroom ragout, broccolini and garlic polenta cake.  The mushroom ragout was on the side, as I requested, and since it looked very red, I decided not to eat it. No need to go into anaphylactic shock 30 some odd thousand feet above the Pacific! The chicken was still moist and tasty even without sauce.  I was very surprised. The mushrooms on the plate though were not so good and unfortunately the broccolini was rubbery.  The garlic polenta cake was good though.   Dessert was a selection of cheeses and ice cream.  Not my preference.

During the flight I was able to get some work done – there were outlets and USB ports which meant I could have more than one device charging and my laptop battery wasn’t dead after 6 hours!  I also watched some movies and TV shows on the entertainment system.  The movie choices were okay but the TV choices were a bit more limited.  I did discover that I actually like the Good Wife and will likely download more episodes now.

I did not sleep – I have a really, really hard time sleeping on 10-12 hour flights – even in lie-flat seats. And since we took off at around 11:30am, I wasn’t in a sleeping state of mind.

Before landing, there was a breakfast service (which actually felt like it should have been dinner service) but they offered herb scrambled eggs with hash browns and sausage and a few other options.  I had the eggs and they were pretty good.  They served breads and jams alongside the breakfasts and offered several juice choices.

The flight became exceptionally turbulent and immediately after the crew cleared breakfast, the captain ordered them to be seated.  They remained seated for the last 30 minutes of the flight and only very briefly were able to get up to do a seat-belt check and ensure the over-heads were closed before having to sit again for landing.  It was a really, really bumpy landing.

So, what did I think of my first experience with United Global First?  It was mixed.  Nothing special with the services on the ground – I could have been flying Southwest for all I knew.  The crew was extremely nice and those who specifically worked in first class were way beyond nice – occasionally it seemed a little fake – but ultimately they really made the flight enjoyable.  The seats are nice in the suites and the amenities are nice as well.  I would fly United Global First again. If I had a choice between United and Thai, Lufthansa, Singapore or Swiss who would I choose? I would choose any of those other carriers before choosing United.

My next trip report will be Seoul, South Korea and Asiana to Hong Kong.  How do you think that will stack up against United?

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