United First Class: Worth the Cost?

by Brian on December 6, 2012

in Airline Reviews, Tips, United Airlines

Flying over Point Reyes National Seashore near San Francisco

For Thanksgiving, I headed out to Portland, Oregon to visit family. Being the busiest travel holiday of the year, I knew my airline ticket would be pricey flying Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after. When I went to book one month out, the difference in price between the economy class and first class fare was only $300 from Baltimore Washington International (BWI) to Portland (PDX). Although not a minimal difference, it was low enough that I sprang for the premium fare. My outbound routing was BWI to PDX with a connection at Chicago O’Hare (ORD). The return trip from PDX to BWI was through San Francisco (SFO). Was it worth the extra money for United First?

Yes, it was worth the money when I consider the extra service perks and significant MileagePlus elite qualifying bonus and frequent flier mile bonus I received for only $300 additional. From a service perspective, all flights were United’s standard domestic first class product. This includes Premier Access for check-in and security screening, as well as group one boarding via the Premier Access lane at the gate. The seats are fairly comfortable blue leather in a 2-2 configuration on the narrow body aircraft. The original United planes have overhead monitors, while the former Continental domestic single aisle fleet have in-seat TVs with DirectTV.

Onboard my short flight from BWI to ORD at 5:40 a.m. (A319 aircraft), the service was light and included drinks and a small warm cinnamon scone. From ORD to PDX (A320 aircraft), breakfast was served. The food options were corn flakes or cheesy eggs. I opted for the eggs, which were okay.

On the return, the service from PDX to SFO (A320 aircraft) included drinks and snacks (choice of chips, banana, or mini Toblerone chocolates). My final leg from SFO to BWI (Boeing 757 aircraft) was a longer transcontinental flight and featured a more extensive dinner meal service with two dedicated flight attendants for the first class cabin. The in-flight service began with warm nuts and drinks after takeoff. Following drinks, the dinner options were pasta with cherry tomatoes or green peppercorn filet. I chose the filet, which was good and fairly tender for airplane steak. It was served with a cold shrimp ceviche, salad, and warm roll. The two flight attendants we very diligent and kept the malbec flowing (Trapiche from Argentina). Missing from the meal service were a warm towel and a linen tray table cover, which used to be standard. Perhaps United has cut them to save money. For dessert, ice cream sundaes were served.

United Domestic First Class Dinner Service

Breakdown of Miles Earned for the Trip

Although the in-flight service was enhanced over the standard coach option, which was definitely more comfortable, the additional elite qualifying miles and bonus award miles made the extra $300 well worth it. United has a description of fare class frequent flier mile and elite qualifying mile bonuses on its website. Here’s the breakdown of what I earned on my trip:

  • Base miles: 5,367
  • Bonus miles for booking class A (75 percent bonus): 4,023 (that is a lot of extra miles for only $300)
  • MileagePlus Premier Silver 25 percent bonus: 1,340
  • Total miles earned: 10,730
  • Total elite qualifying miles with 50 percent bonus for booking class A: 8,049 (this was key to helping me reach Premier Gold status for 2013)

TripBadger Recommendation

My experience booking United first over coach was an exception, as I am normally a price sensitive traveler who books the cheapest fare. The allure of more comfort and substantially enhanced elite and frequent flier mile accrual ability made the $300 well worth the extra cost. On future flights, you will find me happy in United Economy Plus behind the first class curtain unless I find another deal like this one or receive a rare complimentary domestic first class upgrade.

If you are looking for tickets and find economy class seems overpriced, check to see how much more the price is for first class. It might be marginally different in cost, but well worth it for the additional comfort, and more importantly, for the lucrative frequent flier and elite qualifying mile bonuses.


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