Review: United Global First Class Los Angeles to Sydney

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

United Airlines (UA) 839
Los Angeles (LAX) – Sydney (SYD)
Aircraft:  Boeing 747-400
Seat:  1A (Global First Class)
Wednesday, December 25
10:05PM – 7:50AM (+2 days)
Duration:  14:45

Our B747-400 at the gate in LAX

Our B747-400 at the gate in LAX

After a bit more than an hour in the lounge, we were escorted to the gate by a United agent from the Global First Class Lounge to a separate air bridge, where we entered the Boeing 747-400 from the first door.  I selected seats for my dad and I in the first row — at the very tip of the nose of the 747.  These seats were absolutely fantastic since there was virtually no foot traffic by us.  Since it is in the nose, these seats were close enough to each other to have a conversation, yet far enough apart to where we could each enjoy our private space.  They were also separated from the rest of the first class cabin, so it really did feel like our own little mini-cabin.  I would highly recommend row 1 when flying solo, or with a companion in United Global First Class on the B747-400. The seat itself is very spacious and extremely comfortable.  In an upright position, one has an immense amount of personal space.  There is also a ton of storage all over the suite.  There is a good-sized In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) screen which has an impressive collection of movies, TV shows, music, and games.  I really enjoy United’s movie selection and find it to be one of the better IFE systems out there.

Shortly after boarding, the lead flight attendant, Doug introduced himself to us and brought us a pre-departure beverage and amenity kit.  The amenity kit for Global First Class is very nice, as it includes basically anything one would need during a flight.  My favorite part about the amenity kit is the actual case — it’s functional and re-usable, as I still use it to this day as an overnight kit.  Anyway, Doug and his crew took great care of us throughout the flight — the service was pretty outstanding all around on this particular flight. I oriented myself with my seat / suite, and started a movie, as I’d planned to watch a movie, have dinner and go immediately to bed.  Our departure was delayed for about 30 minutes as the crew confirmed the weight and balance of the aircraft. We finally pushed back around 10:35PM.  After taxiing for about a minute, the plane came to a stop.  Minutes later, the captain announced that they were having a mechanical difficulty, so we returned to the gate. This process would repeat itself two more times.

By 1AM, I was pretty convinced that they were going to cancel the flight due to mechanical issues.  Fortunately, we finally pushed back and taxied out to the runway for an actual departure at around 1:15am, about three hours late after three separate delays.   Our arrival time into Sydney was updated to around 10:20am local time on December 27th. Takeoff from LAX was pretty cool, as you could really feel the power of the 747 in the very front of the aircraft.  My dad particularly enjoyed this flight since it was his first time flying the Queen of the Skies — the Boeing 747.

As soon as we reached cruising altitude, the cabin crew began dinner service at around 2AM Pacific time — about 5AM eastern time.  At this point, it was so late, I wasn’t even sure I was hungry, but went ahead and ordered anyway.  I ordered the coconut shrimp and spring roll for a warm appetizer, and this was relatively tasty.  The tomato soup was piping hot, and went great with the warm garlic bread and pretzel rolls.  For my entrée, I ordered the tamale stuffed chicken.  This dish could have been quite good if it was pulled off properly.  Unfortunately, my dish was given the heavy hand with the salt and spice, resulting in a dish that was so salty and spicy that it was barely even edible.  This was pretty disappointing, as I’d heard good things about this particular dish.  My dad ordered the beef ribs for his entrée, and he was similarly disappointed by a very tough and borderline inedible dish.  Luckily, the ice cream sundae somewhat salvaged the meal.   Overall, we found the dinner service to frankly not be up to standards for an international first class product.

After dinner,  I finished up my second movie and went to go change into more comfortable clothes to sleep in.  As I went to the lavatory to change, Doug offered to turn down my bed, which I found to be a nice touch.  I returned to my seat with the bed turned down and padded with a duvet and two over-sized pillows.  I slept wonderfully in this seat — it was probably one of the best nights of sleep I’ve had on a plane, as I was out cold for a good nine or ten hours.

Long Flight!

Long Flight!

I awoke about 90 minutes prior to arrival in Sydney.  Doug came by check on my sleep and to inquire as to whether I wanted breakfast.  After I changed back into my travel clothes, Doug delivered a continental breakfast of scones, croissants, yogurt, and fruit.  While not overly memorable, it was tasty enough.  After breakfast, we prepared for arrival into Sydney, and talked to Doug for a bit — again, the crew was fantastic and very friendly. Final approach and landing in Sydney was beautiful.  The weather was perfect, and I had a wonderful view of Sydney Harbor as we approached Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport.  We ultimately arrived three hours late, at around 10:20am on a beautiful summer morning.  We were handed fast track passes for immigration, and ultimately got through customs and immigration in about 20 minutes.

Bottom Line

United’s Global First Class is a very comfortable way to fly across the Pacific.  The seat and cabin are far superior to the BusinessFirst offering on the same aircraft.  The service on the flight was very good — excellent by United standards.  Sadly, the catering — the food, wine, and drink selection was a disappointment.  The catering was worse than my previous experiences in United BusinessFirst, and is nowhere near competitive with other airlines’ first class offerings that I have experienced.   At the end of the day, we flew first class in order to be as comfortable as possible on the long flight to Australia, and United Global First Class certainly delivered in that aspect, as we arrived in Sydney well rested after a very comfortable flight.

How I booked it…

As mentioned in my previous post, I booked this trip for my dad and I using United miles.  United charged 80,000 miles each way (160,000 miles round trip) for each of us. Note:  As of March 2014, United no longer flies the Boeing 747-400 on its Australia routes.  Instead, the airline operates a three-class Boeing 777-200 on both its LAX-SYD and San Francisco (SFO)-SYD routes.  The B777-200 has four fewer Global First Class seats than the B747-400, so I expect it to be somewhat more difficult to find first class award space on United flights to Australia.  Starting in late 2014, United will operate their brand new, two-class B787-9 Dreamliner on nonstop flights from LAX to Melbourne.  This flight will only offer BusinessFirst class, similar to what I experienced on my flights on the B787-8 Dreamliner from Denver to Tokyo Seattle, Seattle to Tokyo, and Tokyo to Denver.

Fifteen Days in Australia – Planning

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Planning

Putting a two-week vacation to Australia is no small feat.  Doing so almost purely using frequent flyer miles for ones’ flights can be even more difficult, as finding award availability to Australia over New Years is a very, very tall order.  Nonetheless, I managed to throw together a memorable 15-day trip to Australia during in which almost all of the transportation and some of the hotels were paid for with miles.  Here’s how I planned everything…

International Flights

As previously mentioned, I speculatively reserved two Global First Class seats on United for a Christmas Day flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD) since I’d always wanted to go to Australia.  Since I was fortunate enough to have a relatively large stash of United miles along with 1K status with United, I always kept my miles tied up in speculative awards since it ultimately costs nothing for a United passenger with at least Platinum status to refund or change these awards.

United Global First Class Suite - from United Airlines

United Global First Class Suite – from United Airlines

For months I tossed around the idea of spending New Years Eve in Sydney to friends, and it never seemed to really stick.  During a trip back home last September, I casually mentioned the idea of heading to Australia to my dad.  I never thought he’d accept the offer since he’s always maintained that he would never spend that amount of time on an airplane.  However, it seems the offer of first class seats to Australia dramatically changed the situation.  After conferring with my mom, my dad enthusiastically accepted my offer — and just like that, the serious planning for Australia began. At that time, I had two one-way trips to Sydney in United Global First Class booked.   I had them both originating in Tampa since I planned to be there for the Christmas holiday.  Since neither United nor one of its Star Alliance partners offered a nonstop flight from Tampa to Los Angeles, we were forced to take a layover somewhere.  Due to favorable flight times and the availability of first class award space, we decided to transit through Washington-Dulles (IAD) en route to LAX.

The Original 2 one-way awards on United.  80,000 miles each.

The Original 2 one-way awards on United:  TPA-IAD-LAX-SYD (80,000 miles each)

I had about 60,000 miles left in my United account, and I had a speculative round-trip award booked to Rio de Janeiro for the World Cup.  Since I’d already been to Brazil three times in 2013 alone (including here and here), I happily canceled my trip to the World Cup in favor of finding the two of us a way home from Australia!  It basically came down to the following decision:  Take my dad on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Australia OR Go to the World Cup in Brazil (and subsequently visit Brazil for the 4th time in 14 months). For me, the decision was easy:  we were going to Australia! Once I had the 100,000 miles from my World Cup trip refunded to my account, I started to look for a return routing back to the United States.  Ideally, I wanted a first class award. Sadly, there were no non-stop routings from Australia back to the United States available at any time during January 2014, so I was forced to come up with a backup plan and transit home via Asia.  On United’s website, the award search engine will not give you every combination of flights available when you search something like Sydney to Washington DC.  Instead, you need to break the flight up into smaller segments.  By doing this, I was able to find the following routing in first class on Thai, Air China, and United:

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Original Return:  SYD-BKK-PEK-NRT-SFO (Thai First / Thai Business / Air China First / United First)

I found the above individual segments available, but the United Award booking engine would not piece this itinerary together, as it frequently struggles with putting together multi-segment award itineraries.  In order to book this award, I dialed up the United Premier 1K phone line and had the friendly agent convert my one-way awards to Australia into round-trip awards that included the return home above. Before I hung up the phone with the United agent, I mentioned how I wished that there was award space available on one of the non-stop United flights from Sydney back to the States since I knew my dad would not be too excited about the prospect of spending 40-some hours on our flights home.  The agent then offered to put in a wait list request for first class award space on both the Sydney routes to the States (Los Angeles and San Francisco). Not thinking much of it, I agreed and then ticketed my award with the crazy routing. Not two hours later, I received an e-mail from Untied indicating that my wait list request had cleared for my preferred date for the Sydney to San Francisco (SFO) segment!

My Wait list confirmation email!

My Wait list confirmation email!

I immediately called United back, and sure enough — they opened non-stop first class space from Sydney to San Francisco!  I easily tacked on a non-stop flight from SFO to Washington-National (DCA) for myself, and a flight back from SFO to Tampa via Charlotte on US Airways for my dad.

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Return flights:  SYD-SFO-DCA (blue is my flight from SFO on United); SYD-SFO-CLT-TPA (red is my dad’s flights from SFO on US Airways)

Just like that, we had ourselves flights to and from Australia!

Finally had the long flights booked!

Total Cost:  160,000 miles each X 2 = 320,000 United miles (United Global First Class)

Total cost:  160,000 miles each X 2 = 320,000 United miles

What to do in Australia?

With the tough part taken care of, I then started to talk to my dad about what, exactly he wanted to do while we were in Australia.  One thing I was adamant about was spending New Years Even in Sydney, as I wanted to see the celebration on Sydney Harbor.  As such, I’d reserved a room at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney for five nights, departing on New Years Day. The number one thing my dad wanted to do on this trip was to dive the Great Barrier Reef.  My dad and I were certified SCUBA diving together when I was twelve years old, and have always enjoyed going on dive trips together — and Australia would basically be the epitome of all our dive trips!  I knew that the Cairns / Port Douglas area was the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, so I started looking at options.  With the exception of a few day trips to the GBR, many of the diving options were multi-day live-aboard dive trips.  I broached this idea to my dad, and he was once again VERY enthusiastic about this.  I researched the various live-aboard dive boats that leave from Cairns, and based on reviews and descriptions, we decided to take a very highly recommended, four-day dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea aboard the Spirit of Freedom.  Though it was one of the pricier options, we figured that it would be well worth the cost for such a “bucket-list” experience.  After a few e-mails back and forth to the folks at Spirit of Freedom, we were all set to depart Cairns on 02 January and return on 06 January.

Red = 4-day GBR and Coral Sea itinerary *Map from Spirit of Freedom

Red = 4-day GBR and Coral Sea itinerary
*Map from Spirit of Freedom

That left us three days until our return flight back to the States from Sydney.  I broached a couple of ideas to my dad including a trip to the Outback or spending a few days in Melbourne.  After asking around, he told me he wanted to do Melbourne — so that was the plan!

Domestic Flights

With the details planned out of what we wanted to do in Australia planned, I then turned to flights.  Domestically in Australia, there are three major players:  Qantas, Virgin Australia, and JetStar.  This left me with several options.  Since Qantas is partners with both American and British Airways, I could easily redeem those miles for travel should the flight be expensive.  For short-haul flights, British Airways Avios would work best, as it features a distance-based award chart that can be very advantageous — especially on flights under 651 miles.  At the same time, both Virgin Australia and JetStar are relatively low-cost airlines that sell somewhat cheap and reasonable flights domestically in Australia. I weighed my options for a couple of days and decided to buy our flight from Sydney to Cairns (via Brisbane) on New Years Day from on Virgin Australia.  Though it wasn’t cheap (around $240 per person), it was the only choice with a reasonable departure time (10am).  The mileage option would have required a 6am flight on New Years Day — no thank you. For the Cairns to Melbourne segment, I decided to use miles for a flight on Qantas.  At the time, I had very modest balances of both British Airways Avios and American Airlines miles.  I ultimately wanted to fly the both of us in business class, but unfortunately there was only one seat in business left on the Cairns to Sydney segment.   The cheapest way to do this flight in business was with American miles, as it only ran 17,500 miles for this one-way flight in business class.

17,500 miles for a one-way in business class "Wholly Within" Australia

17,500 miles for a one-way in business class “Wholly Within” Australia

Australia one of the "Wholly Within" listed countries

Australia one of the “Wholly Within” listed countries

I then used British Airways Avios for another ticket on the same flights, but in economy.  This came to 14,500 Avios due to the distance of Cairns – Sydney – Melbourne clocking in at two segments (10,000 + 4,500 avios).  See this post for a background in the distance-based British Airway Avios program.

Avios Redemption Chart Courtesy:  British Airways

Avios Redemption Chart
Courtesy: British Airways

Our last flight of the trip required a positioning flight from Melbourne back to Sydney.  I checked the option of award space on the Melbourne to Sydney tag-on flight that’s operated by United, but there was no award space available on that AT ALL.  The good thing about this flight is that Qantas runs hourly non-stops on the route, and as such, the prices are pretty reasonable.  We ended up just booking the flight in cash for less than $100 per person.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 8.59.06 PM

Domestic Australia Flights — Purple: Virgin Australia; Red: Qantas; Cyan: Spirit of Freedom positioning flight via Hinterland Aviation

Total cost:  17,500 American Miles + 14,500 BA Avios + ~$680.

Hotels

As previously mentioned, I was able to get a very nice rate at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney over New Years.   With its central Sydney location, it was perfect for getting around the city.  I use the phrase “very nice rate” lightly — as it was still pricey — just not nearly as obscene as the pricing at other properties in Sydney over New Years. We also found a pretty cheap rate at the Holiday Inn Cairns for our one and only night there before our dive trip. We agonized for a bit over our hotel selection in Melbourne.  We were torn between the Grand Hyatt and the Park Hyatt properties, but ultimately decided to stay at the Park Hyatt due mostly to the fact that some of my most amazing hotel stays up to that point had been at Park Hyatt properties (Tokyo, Dubai, and Zurich).  I used Hyatt points for two of the nights and we paid for the last night at this property.

Park Hyatt Melbourne

Park Hyatt Melbourne

The End Result

Booked with miles / points:

  • Domestic flights in United First Class from TPA-IAD-LAX
  • International flight in United Global First Class from LAX-SYD
  • Domestic flights in Qantas Business and Economy Class from CNS-SYD-MEL
  • 2 nights at the Park Hyatt Melbourne
  • International flight in United Global First Class from SYD-SFO
  • Domestic flight in United First Class from SFO-DCA and in US Airways First Class from SFO-CLT-TPA

Booked with cash

  • 5 nights at the Sheraton on the Park, Sydney
  • Domestic flights in Virgin Australia Economy Class from SYD-BNE-CNS
  • 1 night at the Holiday Inn, Cairns
  • 4 nights Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea dive trip on the Spirit of Freedom
  • 1 night at the Park Hyatt Melbourne
  • Domestic flight in Qantas Economy Class fromMEL-SYD

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    The End Result!

 

Fifteen Days in Australia – Introduction

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Introduction

NYE Sydney Harbor

NYE Sydney Harbor

It started in March of 2013 when I friend and I were speculatively looking for availability to Australia in first class on United’s website.  Then, lo and behold, we found copious amounts of Global First Class award space on Christmas Day to Sydney.  Though there were no seats on the return flights, those were just unnecessary details…. I just wanted to get to Australia.  And I wanted to be in Sydney over New Years.

Mission accomplished.

After a series of changes, substitutions, and intense planning, this trip of a lifetime was finally fully booked by the end of October.  My trip for one had morphed into a trip for two, but I couldn’t have been any more happy to spend my miles on this travel companion — I mean, when would I have another chance to take my dad to Australia?

That’s right — I was taking my dad to Australia for a trip of a lifetime — a trip that I never thought he’d agree to take.  It’s funny how first class tickets change one’s opinion of taking a fifteen hour flight.

During the next few weeks, this series of posts will detail the fifteen memorable days that we spent together down under, including:

  • United Global First Class from Los Angeles to Sydney
  • Five days in Sydney
  • New Years’ Eve on Sydney Harbor
  • Virgin Australia Sydney to Brisbane to Cairns
  • A day in Cairns
  • Four days diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea on the Spirit of Freedom live-aboard dive boat
  • Qantas Business Class Cairns to Sydney to Melbourne
  • Three days in Melbourne
  • The Park Hyatt, Melbourne
  • United Global First Class from Sydney to San Francisco

Enjoy this sneak peak…