Here’s a throw-back article I wrote back in 2017, as United Airlines was retiring their 747 airframe. It’s tangentially CX-related, and although I’m no PointsGuy, I think it does a pretty good job as a travelogue. And if nothing else, it’s a reminder that we used to be able to get out there and travel. Enjoy.
Earlier this year my partner and I took a trip. Okay well we take trips all the time. But this time we took on an experience.
With United Airlines retiring their fleet of 747s, I wanted the opportunity before it was gone to take a trip on the Queen of the Skies. So we booked a flight to Seoul, South Korea.
Now, normally an annual vacation overseas would center on an exotic port-of-call or historically significant or colorful locale. Seoul truly was all that and more, but this time around the journey, as they say, was even more important than the destination.
The goal was to fly “up top” as I’d been calling it all along. With United’s still-somewhat-new Polaris experience, they’d equipped their 747s with two premium cabins [ed. United has since done away with classes within Polaris and rolled all premium into one product]. There are 12 First Class seats up front in the cone of the plane on the main deck, and two Business Class areas: one directly behind First, and the entire top deck. Since the goal was the upper deck, we were surely going to fly Business Class in at least one direction. But the prices were so good (we flew on miles, because that’s what they’re there for) at only 50,000 miles for Business and 70,000 miles for First, that we decided one way on the upper deck would be good enough so as to allow the other flight in First. As it provided the most availability, we flew out upstairs, and back in First downstairs in Row 1 (partner in A, me in K).
Okay, now here’s the thing (and I’m still getting ribbed about this to this day): Keep in mind I simply wanted to fly on the upper deck, so destination wasn’t even that important to me. But the reason I did was a silly (it turned out) notion of what it would be like up there. I think I’d seen too many TV commercials. Right up to the morning we boarded in SFO (oh, here’s a tip when traveling on miles…unless your international destination can be reached directly from your home—Denver in our case—pay for the round-trip to your point of embarkation…they’re usually pretty cheap if it’s hub-to-hub, and you’ll be able to book as two separate, nested trips; one you pay for, the other using miles…this will ultimately allow you much more flexibility), I truly was expecting a lounge atmosphere up there. There’d be cocktails and people standing around socializing and networking about what they all do for a living. Real high-society elbow-rubbing. Talk about babe in the woods!
Well, anybody who’s ever flown upstairs on a 747 knows it’s definitely more comfortable, quiet, and naturally cool to be so high for taxi and take-off (the free pajamas United gives you in Polaris didn’t hurt). But of course up there it’s like anywhere else on the plane: They give us drinks, we take off, they feed us, they give us more drinks, people put down the shades, we all go to sleep and wake up when they bring around breakfast. I felt so silly but it was a luxurious ride and a good time nonetheless.
And Seoul was magnificent. We stayed (on points!) in a great hotel just a couple blocks from Gyeongbok Palace, walked that entire neighborhood (palaces, the Cheonggyecheon stream, Insa-dong, more palaces) and taxied a little farther (the Dongdaemun Design Center, Leeum/Samsung Museum of Art, oh and some palaces). The food was wonderful, the people were polite, albeit agitated—we were there during the election to replace their recently-impeached president, so there were a lot of outdoor marches and speeches.
All in two days on the ground. Yes, no kidding. Two. But remember: Seoul was just an attraction… The real trip was the journey.
The morning we were to fly out (by the way, the cab ride is a somewhat excruciating 45-or-so-minute trip…and each cab driver we had the whole weekend seemed to jerk and lurch as if pumping the gas pedal. Don’t know how the Koreans teach driving, but it was striking not only how nauseating it was, but also ubiquitous as a habit.), we checked the flight status: Only six of the dozen seats in First Class were taken. This would be luxurious!
Flying back First Class, we were invited to Incheon’s Super-Duper-Premier Lounge. Yes, they served Moët Imperial, and yes we were two of about six people in the lounge the entire time we waited for our flight. It only got better once we got on the plane. Naturally, by the time we sat down on the plane, they’d given the remaining non-rev seats up already, and as we were hanging out with the other passengers, sipping wine (Finally! That high-class onboard lounge atmosphere!), I couldn’t help but inquire of one of them, whose seat I knew had been up-for-grabs only a couple hours ago what the story was. Turns out they give those seats away to United employees when they’re traveling overseas. Seems to make sense, but it didn’t matter anyway. Our seats were so far forward that once we were airborne, we didn’t encounter a single soul the entire flight. Well, except for the flight attendants who were bringing us things. Luxury, indeed!
The partner, sitting in seat 1A on the port side of the plane was literally the first person on the craft to enter US airspace, even ahead of the pilots, if only by a split-second. We eased into SFO with plenty of time to spare before our return to Denver, a bit exhausted, but so glad we’d made the journey. Oh, by the way, the only thing special about the Arrivals Lounge is that they have showers. Another expectation brought into stark reality!
United has accelerated the retirement of their 747s (they were supposed to be around through 2018, but I’m not sure any more will be in service after the New Year [ed. they’re all gone now]), but there are still a few more places you can go to get the experience. I definitely recommend before they’re retired worldwide; they’re nearly 50 years old. Now bring on that A380 (don’t worry, the miles work on Lufthansa too).