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SFO-NRT-BKK My First Experience in United International Business Class

I guess it’s been about four years since I first started traveling extensively for work. I’ve been a United 1K for most of that time, and that makes sense as I’m at about 400,000 lifetime miles. However, most of those miles have been earned on domestic routes! In fact, before this past trip, I had never flown internationally on United. Read on to find out about my first SWU / International Business Class experience with United!

So I booked my round trip to Bangkok (BKK) through Tokyo Narita (NRT) with United. I then booked all my personal / work flights out of BKK. The outbound segment was a W fare, and the return booked as a Q. I used two SWUs to attempt to upgrade all 4 segments. I actually booked the ticket with only 5 day advance notice, due to some work related scheduling issues. I considered routing through SEA on the way to Tokyo in order to give my upgrades a better chance of clearing (less elite passengers in Seattle), but United isn’t using the new 180 degree flat seats on the SEA-NRT route yet…. and I want those! So i took my chances with the non-stop SFO-NRT route. I was also flying on a Wednesday, which is a bit less elite heavy than the routes at the beginning / end of the week. My NRT-BKK route cleared about 48 hours in advance, and my SFO-NRT segment cleared shortly after that. NICE!


I immediately fell in love with the seats. I know that it’s not really a “suite” like in United International First Class (and even those don’t compare to the suites on some other carriers!), but it really did feel like my own personal cocoon, rather than the typical domestic first / business seats that i’m used to. The on-demand entertainment is really fantastic too. My favorite part is that you can start the movie right when you sit down. You don’t need to wait until take-off. This is great because you can start the movie immediately, and by the time meal service is just about wrapped up, the movie is almost done as well. Then you can hit the sack and sleep for the rest of the flight. I changed into PJ pants when I boarded, and I found it quite easy to sleep in these chairs. They recline to be 180 degrees, completely flat. And back to that “personal cocoon” analogy, because the walls are so high where it reclines, you really feel like you have your own little bed, and you’re not staring at anyone else, even if you look left or right.

As for meal service, this was not outstanding. If you’re familiar with the meals on United’s P.S. JFK-LAX/SFO flights (in business class), it’s about in the same. I’m trying to figure out which is nicer, and I really think it’s a wash. I got some chicken and cous cous, and the presentation was not that fantastic. In fact, it looked a bit unappetizing :-). Luckily for me, the meal tasted much better than it looked!

As for controlling the in-flight entertainment, if you’re familiar with the controls on Virgin America, you’ll be familiar with this. It uses the exact same controller. And for the Geeks out there, I did see the system reboot, and I can confirm it runs on top of Linux :-) . Not sure why they chose Red Hat, but to each his own…

After watching a movie and eating my meal, I fell asleep for about 6 hours. I woke up in time for breakfast,  and soon after, we were landing in Tokyo. The service on the flight was nothing special. It wasn’t bad by any means. But if you’re familiar with United domestic flight attendants, then you’re familiar with international flight attendants. I’m very used to the fact that if I want a diet coke mid-flight, I just need to get up, walk to the galley, and ask them for one. This isn’t how it should be, but it’s how life on United (and most other domestic carriers) is. I can deal with it. As long as the seat / food is good, and they bring me my hot nuts, then I won’t complain.

I had 3 hours to kill in Tokyo before my flight to Bangkok. I found the RCC to be very enjoyable. Many people complain about it being overcrowded, and I would actually agree that it is pretty crowded. If that were my regular RCC, then I might be annoyed at the crowds. However, since i’m an SFO native (we have the best domestic RCC in the country, in my opinion), I found the crowds of the Tokyo RCC to be charming. I enjoyed seeing so many non-Americans in the RCC. Something about it just made me laugh. Their snacks were the typically weak RCC fare, but I decided to go make use of the showers. I was EXTREMELY impressed by these! They have a bit of a wait to use the showers so you give them your boarding pass, and they give you a beeper in exchange. When the shower is ready, your beeper goes off, and you get a laminated sign to stick on your shower door, letting people know the room is occupied. You also get an kit of shampoo, lotion, etc. The showers were extremely clean, there was a freshly sealed towel waiting for me, the water pressure was great, and the water temperature was hot. That’s all I need. So I showered up and got ready for my flight to Bangkok.

I was extremely impressed with the boarding procedure in Tokyo. In addition to running the same boarding process that United runs in the States, they also had agents going up and down the lines, making sure everyone was in the right place. It was very efficient, and within no time, I was on my way to Bangkok. I sat on the first floor to Tokyo, facing forward. On the flight to Bangkok, I sat on the second floor, facing backwards. I figured I would try both! Many people prefer the bottom floor on a 747, but I definitely preferred the top floor. The overhead bin space is much smaller so if you have a carryon bag, there’s an area you can put just to the right when you first come up the stairs. However, if you have a briefcase, there is some stowage on the sides of the plane. This is REALLY convenient, because on the first floor, all bags that would go “under the seat in front of you” with normal seats need to be stored overhead during takeoff and landing. This stowage area on the side means two less times during the flight that you need to get up and retrieve your bag. They passed out newspapers, mostly detailing that I would be landing in an are of political unrest, with all the Red Shirts in Thailand. Whoops! Maybe I should have watched the news before I booked that ticket ;).

I didn’t sleep on the NRT-BKK flight. This flight is only slightly longer than a transcontinental flight in the USA. I watched “Young Frankenstein”, played Tony Hawk on my iPhone, caught up on some podcasts, and prepared for a couple days in Bangkok, before heading to India. Those trip reports will all come soon…




Steve May 11, 2010 at 01:00 am

Hey Kevin,

Great write up, enjoyed reading it. I know you from macrumors.

What laptop are you traveling with on all your long flights? I travel often too, luggage/weight is always a concern especially on long flights … can’t go it alone with the iphone, nor the ipad yet.

Thank and Take Care! Steve

Steve, Thanks for the comment!

I will have many more posts coming in regard to the trip overseas. But since I’ve been back, i’ve been traveling non-stop domestically for business, and I haven’t had time to finish the posts about my trip! Don’t worry they’re coming, though. And there will be some good ones!

As for my work laptop, it’s funny that you should mention it, because I just got a new 15″ MacBook Pro last week. Before that, I wast traveling with an older 15″ non-unibody MacBook Pro. I was hoping to move to a 13″ machine, but Apple didn’t put the Core i5 / i7 chips in the 13″ line this time around, and I really needed a new machine, so I figured I would stick with the 15″ version. Plus, I got the high-res screen, and it’s really fantastic! So yeah I do try and keep the weight down, but nonetheless, I still travel with this computer.

As for an iPad, I haven’t bought one yet. I can see myself wasting LOTS of time playing games on it, but I don’t really see the need for it in my life, otherwise. This might be the first new Apple product that I didn’t jump and buy rev1. Looking forward to getting a new iPhone next month, though.

Thanks for reading / commenting!

Robert Nicholson May 29, 2010 at 01:00 am

Be careful spending any time in Asia changes you. I’ve spent a lot of time in Bangkok myself as it is where my wife is from. No report to Thailand is complete unless you talk about the food.

I wanted to move to 13″ too but like you I’m using 15″ i7 highres anti-glare

I prefer to fly Asian airlines to/from Asia and typically fly japan airlines.

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