Hi there! It’s Dan, the lucky guy who won the TravelSkills contest for two free round trip United BusinessFirst tickets to Xi’an, China. I just returned from the trip! This was my first time to China and first time in BusinessFirst on the 787 so I have a lot to share.
I traveled a few days after United’s new business class, Polaris, was announced so it was fun comparing and contrasting what they have planned versus what the reality is now. Here’s a quick summary of my observations about the trip:
- This was my first time on United’s 787-8 and it was great! The large shade-less windows, quieter cabin, and higher humidity really does make a noticeable difference in both the flight and post-flight jet lag experience. I felt more rested once I arrived and didn’t deal with significant jet lag on either end of the trip.
- The flight crew on our outbound SFO – XIY was probably the best I’ve had in my adult life. They made our trip so much fun and those 13 hours just zipped by.
- Towards the end of our flight to Xi’an, I was surprised to see that the BusinessFirst lavatories weren’t cleaned/serviced at all throughout the flight. That said, this is about the only critical comment I could make about the overall service.
- Lounge access in Xi’an leaves much to be desired and I was completely underwhelmed.
- On the return leg, I found the ground staff in Xi’an to be very pleasant but there was a definite language barrier. Although ultimately successful, getting baggage checked through to Chicago took about 20 minutes and six desk agents.
[Currently, United fares between SFO and Xi’an are as low as $586 roundtrip in economy, and $2,960 in business class. On the Dreamliner flight, there were 36 BusinessFirst seats, 70 in Economy Plus and 113 in economy. See SeatGuru for United’s 787-8 Dreamliner]
United’s New Service to Xi’an: “Good morning sir, where are you traveling today…”
Although I was unable to fly on the first flight to Xi’an, United let me join in on the inaugural festivities at SFO on May 8. There was palpable energy around the gate but I also couldn’t help but notice the dozens of both Chinese and western passengers who seemed unaware of what the hullabaloo was all about. Nonetheless, the food, music, and live Terracotta warriors were a nice touch.
I originally assumed United launched the route because of strong industry/business ties in Xi’an but learned it’s actually being tested for the leisure market. I found this interesting since most people I’ve encountered can’t place this city on a map. Here’s where it is!
On my departure day in early June, I arrived at SFO a bit early to check out the new United Club in Terminal 3, Concourse E, which I had yet to visit. Despite several international departures leaving around the same time as Xi’an, check-in was smooth and seamless. When handing over my passport, the agent asked, “Good morning sir, where are you traveling today?” I said, “Hi there, I am going to Xi’an” and she responded, “oh wooooow” — like generally surprised. Maybe this was her first day working the Xi’an flight but I found it kind of funny. It took about 10 minutes to check-in and get through security and I was on my way to the United Club.
Since I won two tickets, I invited my best friend to go with me. She was flying in from Chicago, so we met up near the domestic gates and and headed to the United Club there for a celebratory drink. The desk agent was pleasant but quickly informed us that we also had access to the club in the international terminal. I said, “don’t worry, we’ll be going there too.”
The club was packed and almost every seat was taken. Nonetheless, I love the upgrades underway at various United Clubs (especially Heathrow’s) and appreciate the update at SFO.
After our prosecco we made our way to the international terminal and grabbed some snacks and another glass of bubbles at the United Club there while we waited for boarding to begin.
At 12:45 pm we headed down to gate 96 and arrived just as priority boarding was being called. Agents scanned boarding passes checked our visas and we walked right on to 1A and 1B (I was in HOG HEAVEN since this was my first international flight being in 1A, which is usually Global First).
I’ve flown BusinessFirst on the 747, 777, and the 757 p.s. configurations but this my first time on the 787. I found the seat to be basically the same as the P.S. configuration but the noticeable differences are in other cabin features. The windows are much larger than any other aircraft and have that awesome tinting feature. The overhead bin space is quite large as well. Overall, I loved the feel of the forward cabin because once you board it’s very mellow as no other passengers are coming through.
I can say without a doubt that on this flight we had the most energetic and pleasant group of flight attendants I’ve ever flown with. The service manager came by shortly after each passenger was settled and warmly welcomed each of us individually. He asked us why were were traveling to Xi’an and encouraged us to ask if he could make our trip more comfortable. The standard amenity kits were distributed shortly after that, which are nice to have on long flights but not anything to write home about.
Once we got settled, my new favorite flight attendant of all time, Momo, greeted us with champagne. She really made our flight. It felt like we were close friends and she was having us over for drinks and dinner at her house. She was super attentive but not overwhelmingly so. About 45 minutes after takeoff I realized that my earbuds were stuck in the seat. I kid you not, she literally got on the floor in her dress and stuck half of her body under the seat as she fiddled to get them out. The other FAs were friendly and personable as well. I learned from them that 787 crew are mostly former Continental FAs, which I thought was interesting. Many of my experiences in BusinessFirst with mainline United crew paled in comparison to this.
Overall, the service on the flight was efficient and pleasant! The main meal service was pretty standard and consistent with my other BusinessFirst experiences.
Dinner service wrapped about two hours into the flight at which point I reclined and caught some shut-eye. I did notice how much quieter these planes seem to be than other United aircraft.
I slept for a bit and woke just in time for the mid-flight snack service, which was a nice way to break up the 13-hour journey.
After a couple movies we were about 90 minutes from Xi’an and the final meal service began, which was pretty standard.
We landed in Xian right on time and taxied straight to the gate. We said our goodbyes to the lovely crew and proceeded through immigration to baggage claim and out to ground transportation, all of which took about 15 minutes. The airport felt pretty deserted.
Xian as a Destination:
We spent a total of four full days in Xi’an, which felt like enough time. (We also spent a few days in Beijing.) You can definitely tell that Xian is not as popular for westerners/Americans as other Chinese cities might be because we were probably asked by at least 100 different locals to pose in photos with them. You don’t see many Americans cruising around town (I think we saw four the entire time) so I guess we were exotic. English was not widely spoken in our experience, which yielded some interesting communication barriers but made the trip more fun!
It seems like most tourists come in for one or two days just to see the Terracotta Warriors and although that was definitely an amazing site to see, there is much more to Xi’an.
An acquaintance of ours owns the Xi’an Brewery, which along with Lost Plate Food Tours, was coincidentally featured in United’s Hemisphere magazine a few months ago in March. We checked out both and LOVED them.
RETURNING: XIY – SFO: “Your ear… I need to see your left ear… Turn to your right…”
The day of our departure we arrived at the airport nearly three hours early due to the post-traumatic stress I experienced the day before when we missed our flight from Beijing to Xi’an. I haven’t missed a flight in almost 10 years so the scar was REALLY fresh that day! ☺
Despite spending about 20 minutes getting my friend’s bagged checked through to Chicago, check-in was straightforward and only one person was in the premium line when we arrived.
Next stop, immigration… After standing in front of the immigration officer for a solid five minutes with nothing but silence, he asked me to turn to my right so he could “see my ear.” I thought I misunderstood him (again, the language barrier), and asked “pardon?” He responded with, “your ear. I need to see your left ear. Please turn to your right.” I complied and he stamped my documents waived me through. It was VERY odd but I didn’t ask questions and proceeded through security without any trouble.
My only real disappointment with the overall experience on our return is with the lounge in Xi’an. This is not a United lounge, but instead a SBC-VIP lounge that serves several different airlines. The airport is shiny and new but the lounge kind of feels like your grandma’s living room. There are oversized chairs and doilies everywhere. The food and beverage selection was poor and they were constantly running out of things.
We were told twice by the lounge agent that our flight was boarding at a different time than it was so we ended up showing up a bit late and missing Group 1.
Despite boarding with Group 3, it all went fairly fast and we were through the second round of US security and in our seats, 1K and 1L, in no time. Although not the same as the outbound flight, we were warmly welcomed by the crew and the inflight service manager. Flight attendants distributed the new Team USA version amenity kits, which I thought was cute.
Despite the updated amenity kits, the safety video was the old version rather than the new, Team USA version. I also noticed that the Hemispheres magazine was the May version even though we were well into June. Minor inconsistencies but inconsistencies nonetheless.
Overall, the service on this flight was professional and pleasant. I think we were spoiled by the crew on the outbound so although I felt disappointed at the time, I realize that it was still very nice.
We landed in SF about 10 minutes early, deplaned, and passed through immigration quickly. The whole process took about 20 minutes from the time we stepped off the plane until I walked out to grab my Uber. I expected immigration and baggage claim to be a mess given the multiple international arrivals coming in at the same time but it was surprisingly easy.
Overall, both flights were pretty seamless. The outbound experience was amazing because of our fantastic crew but the return flight was just fine. I am super excited for Polaris to launch so we can all see how United steps up their game.
Thanks, Dan, for an excellent Trip Report! And thanks United for providing this opportunity for one of our readers to experience what it’s like to attend an inaugural event and be one of the first passengers on a brand new flight to an exotic city. And thanks to all the readers who participated in this fun contest– check out some of the best entries in this post.
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