United vs. Qantas Business Class to Down Under

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My wife and I recently enjoyed a great trip to New Zealand.  To get there we flew United Polaris Business Class.  For our return we flew Qantas Business Class.  Which was better?  I compared their comfort, food, and service.  I was surprised by the conclusion…

Introduction

Saver level business class awards between the U.S. and Australia or New Zealand are notoriously hard to find — especially in our winter / their summer.  But thanks to a United award sale (or mistake) offered last April, I was able to book United business class to to New Zealand for me and my wife for only 60,000 miles each. I had flown United Polaris Business class recently and found it to be good but hardly amazing (see my review here).  Still, I knew it would be plenty good enough to carry us comfortably to this bucket-list destination!

I had originally booked our return flights via the same United deal, but then Qantas surprisingly made their business class seats wide open between Australia and the United States in June.  In order to sample Qantas’ business class, I cancelled the United return and booked us from Sydney to Dallas for 80,000 American Airlines miles each (I could have booked the flight with only 55,000 Alaska miles per person instead but I have many more AA miles and by booking with AA miles I was able to later add on an AA flight from Dallas to my home airport, Detroit, for no extra cost).  Award availability never opened up between New Zealand and Sydney for our return and so I paid directly for that flight.

Here are the basic details of each long-haul flight:

  • Outbound: United 777 from San Francisco to Auckland.  ~13hrs.
  • Return: Qantas 787 from Sydney to Dallas. ~15 hrs.

Both business class cabins were in a 1-2-1 configuration (one seat along the window, then an aisle, then two seats in the middle, then an aisle, and then one seat along the other window).  On both flights my wife and I sat side by side in the middle.  On our Qantas flight our original seats didn’t work — they wouldn’t recline at all.  We were quickly moved to another two seats, though, so I didn’t hold this issue against them.

Comfort: Seat & Sleep (Winner: United)

When flying long haul business class, the physical seat is the single most important factor.  The best seats are comfortable for both sitting and sleeping, and they provide good privacy.  United’s Polaris business class won this category by a mile.  United’s seat is soft enough to be comfortable for sitting and sleeping.  And while the seat doesn’t have a privacy door (a feature that is found in some business class flights on other carriers), the seat’s curved shell provides a decent amount of privacy.  Meanwhile, I found Qantas’ seat uncomfortable for both sitting and sleeping, and privacy was non-existent.

Both carriers provided pajamas, mattress padding, blankets, and pillows.  Qantas’ mattress padding fit tight around the seat like a fitted sheet whereas United’s simply lay on top loose.  Meanwhile, United provided slippers whereas Qantas did not (and yes, I asked the flight attendant).  This last point was a big fail for Qantas in my mind.  It would be easy to provide slippers upon request and, to me, they make a big difference.  On long flights like these, it’s necessary to take off shoes to be comfortable, but with Qantas it was annoying having to put my shoes back on each time I got up to use the bathroom or visit the galley for snacks.  Yes, I could have brought my own slippers on board, but I had made the mistake of assuming Qantas would offer them.

United’s reverse herringbone seat. I found it to be comfortable for both sitting and sleeping. Even though there is no privacy door, the curved shell behind the seat provides a decent amount of privacy. For those sitting in the middle row, a divider can be raised to hide the person in the seat next to you.
That’s me pretending to be sleeping on the United flight. United provides two pillows: a regular one and a small memory foam pillow (which I love!). My head is resting on the memory foam pillow in this picture. If you imagine the seat divider raised up (which it was when I really slept), you can see how private the sleeping experience can be.
Qantas’ seat offered plenty of legroom, but I found it uncomfortable for both sitting and sleeping. And, as you can see, the seat doesn’t offer any privacy.
One small advantage for Qantas: the seat pad was like a fitted sheet and so it fit snuggly around the seat. Unfortunately it wasn’t nearly enough to make the Qantas seat as comfortable as United’s seat.

Service (Tie)

To to right, above, a Qantas flight attendant appears to be attending to a passenger as we boarded the flight

On both flights service was somewhere between good and very good.  On the United flight, the flight attendant on my side of the aisle was outstanding, but service was just average on my wife’s side.  One remarkable thing on both aisles was how quickly the United flight attendants removed trash.  That was awesome and was not remotely the case with Qantas.

On the Qantas flight, service seemed to be more even on both sides of the aisle: good but not remarkable.  The one remarkable thing that happened was that when I got up to make my bed, a flight attendant (the same one shown above) rushed over to do it for me while I changed to pajamas in the bathroom.  That was pretty cool and it reminded me of service found more commonly on the best Asian and Middle Eastern carriers.  Unfortunately, my wife was left to make her bed herself and so I can’t give Qantas too many accolades for this.

Both carriers failed to inform passengers that the mid-flight snack was available in the galley.  I knew this from past experience, but my wife did not.  In both cases the menus made it sound like there would be mid-flight food service and many passengers likely assumed that they would bring food to their seats, but they did not.  On the United flight, the food was on my side of the galley and so my wife didn’t even see it when going to the bathroom.  I can’t understand why they don’t print this information on the food menus or at least make announcements about it.

Food (Winner: Qantas)

Qantas’ food offerings were better than United’s.  United’s food was perfectly good though.  In fact, the short rib I had for dinner was very good.  But with Qantas, our dinners were outstanding.

Qantas Dinner & Mid-Flight Snack Menu. Qantas served dinner in courses.
Qantas breakfast menu. At the start of the flight we were asked to check the boxes for everything we wanted for breakfast.
Qantas’ salad course. After a small amuse-bouche (not pictured), salad and bread were presented.
Qantas’ appetizer course. This was a menu substitution: gnocchi and prawns. It was very good.
Qantas’ dinner course. I ordered the barramundi (fish). It was so delicious that if I had this at a local restaurant I would definitely return to order it again.  The dessert course came next (not pictured).
Qantas breakfast. It was good enough, but hardly amazing.  The coffee that came with breakfast was bitter.  Fortunately, before breakfast was served I asked for French Press coffee and that was great.
United’s menu. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of my dinner (all courses were served at once). I thought the beef short rib was excellent.
United’s breakfast. It was just okay.
United’s mid-flight snack options.

In-Flight Entertainment (Winner: United?)

Watching Lord of the Rings on the United flight

Both flights offered medium-sized screens and a decent selection of TV shows and movies.  I believe that United had a larger selection, though, and that’s why I gave them the nod here.  I watched the first two Lord of the Rings movies and the beginning of the third on the United flight.  I expected to watch the rest of the third movie and maybe some Hobbit movies on the return, but they weren’t available on Qantas.  That alone doesn’t prove that United had a better selection though, so I added a question mark to their win.

Overall (Winner United)

To me, comfort is the number one most important factor on long haul flights, and on that score the race wasn’t even close.  United’s seats and extras (slippers & memory foam pillow) made the United flight far more comfortable than the Qantas flight.  More importantly, my wife and I both slept reasonably well on the United flight, but slept only in fits and starts on the Qantas flight.

This wasn’t the result I expected.  I had heard good things about Qantas in the past and so I expected to prefer Qantas.  With the exception of the food, though, my Qantas experience was average.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to avoid flying them in the future, but unless they introduce new and better seats, I’ll pick another carrier if all else is equal.

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Faika

Thanks that was very informative. I recently flew Qantas Dreamliner Business Sydney to Johannesburg and wouldn’t choose them again. Agree the seat was not very comfortable and the service forgettable, tho the food was good. I am not sure how much of my discomfort related to the aircraft itself—I think the Dreamliner is overrated-and how much due to Qantas overall. As an Australian I expected better and was disappointed.

Liz

Air New Zealand is best.

Andre Hellstrom

Well, THAT’S an old seating for you. Horrendous in my opinion. But AZ’s crews are great.

Gary

You are lucky you had a Qantas A330. The “business” class on 737s is absolutely abysmal… and an embarrassment.

Apart from the A330s and 787s there is no real business class on their aircraft.

Thanks for the review.

Australia has no idea on how to provide any real service… not in their culture I’m afraid.

Stay safe and keep the blue side up.

Gary

I forgot to mention, the A380s have the decent business class pods as well.

WBeasly

You have to be kidding . Not in our culture . What planet are you from . I have travelled to the states many times and will only fly Qantas . The US airlines are backward . We flew first class to Anchorage and the seats were on a par to Qantas business class and that is being generous .It has also been voted the world’s safest airline .

Gary

Hi there buddy, yes I agree Business class going overseas on Qantas invariably means getting an A330, 787 or A380 all of which have the comfortable individual pods.
As I said, the domestic market is a joke… and not just Qantas; Virgin being just as bad. Travelling 5 hours between BNE and PER in a “sardine can” 737 is not a fun experience in economy and their so called “Business class” is just simple larger chairs with a limited pre prepared menu and mainstream “entertainment”.
I dread to see how the Qantas design team will stuff up the A321s when they start to arrive. They have a blank canvas and should have space to impress; I cynically doubt it. Stay safe.

Andre Hellstrom

Only American Airlines has First Class, plus the Anchorage route must’ve been a domestic connection, not to be compared with international (just like you can’t compare a domestic and international QF together). United has ‘pods’ on pretty much all its long haul fleet. Not saying US airlines are better, I’m just stating the facts.

Andre Hellstrom

Well, not many airlines’ B737 will have lie flat seats. So to compare a 787 to a 737 is like comparing a Fiat to a Mercedes. A 737 will fly at the most 5 hours, a 787 mostly flies 10-17.5 hours!

robertw

I flew Polaris the first time in Sept from Newark to Capetown. The outbound flight had the old seat config so I did a yoga move to climb over my wife and not wake her up. It worked! Credit to Apple FItness. The flight was so smooth on the outbound I could not believe it. 15 hours of smooth air. The food is terrible of course. I am not picky BTW. The service? disgraceful and lazy. I ordered the mid-flight snack pastrami on a roll. It came cold wrapped in plastic without a plate. The FA said oh Ill heat it up. No worries. No plate. The crew disappeared for most of the flight. But I got 7-8 hours sleep and a smooth flight so I was happy. We got the PJs because we asked. Nobody else did I think because they didn’t know. On the return flight they had no menus. A printed paper they showed you when they walked around. LOL. The same terrible food and service. I can only imagine what they got in coach. Again I got 7+ hours of sleep in the better seat config. I have never seen crews like this. And the cabin was full but they were not overworked at all. The flight got me there and the seat/bed was comfortable. I remember years ago when they said what a great product this would be. The Newark Polaris lounge was nice. Packed. I was able to get a table because I got there hours early. Otherwise, table service was full.

Gerard

Using week-before award availability, I flew Qantas business class on their updated A380s between LAX and SYD this past December. I had the option to pick between AA and Qantas, so decided on Qantas because award availability is rarer and they were flying the A380 on the route. Interestingly, I wasn’t much-impressed with the hot food (the cheeses and alcohol were good). Your menu looks far better than mine. That said, catering is likely better out of their home of Australia as with your flight rather than out of the USA.

Kevin W

This may have been mentioned already, I did not read all of the comments: The UA menu says “available between meals”, not “midflight service”. Anytime from end of 1st service until beginning of last, an FA should have fulfilled your request. Did this not happen?

mark

In the United pic, you kind of look deranged, no?

whocares

are the pajamas 100% cotton though? Or are they made of plastic (poly)?

David

Love the Qantas pic because you can tell you got some fun in the sun!

DSK

I love it! Here dear, I will put on eyeshades and pretend to sleep and you take a picture of me pretending to sleep that I can include in my blog. What a wonderful wife!

Lee

Greg, thanks for the insights. And, thanks to the readers for their comments. Tremendous help.

Ella

I’ve flown Polaris twice recently. Denver to London in September, the food and drink were very good, and the service beat Qsuites and BA first. Then I flew it long haul in October, to Joburg. Our menu was announced as “chicken, beef or chili”, service was so-so with none in the center portion of the long flight. All I can say is that they got me there, I got some sleep and I do like United pjs. Glad your trip was better.

YoniPDX

That was an amazing sale.

I almost re-booked our cancelled Covid trip (5 weeks fall 2020 PVG-HKG-NAN-NZ-AU). Took forever to build that trip with Biz award space.

But was gun-shy with NZ/AU uber strict COVID rules – heard horror storries from Kiwis and Aussies tourist while a trip in the UK just weeks before the 60K biz-saver sale.

We instead booked Polaris SFO-SIN-MNL we are taking my dear MIL home to the RP for retirement-it will be her first experience in lie flat seats – soo happy we can do this for her.

Even using Amex Plat FHR credits for Shangri-la Boracay and Shangri-la the Fort in Manila.

So our Fiji-NZ-AU bucketlist trip will have to wait.

We too did originally have a tight connection at SFO but UA had a slight schedule change so I moved our flight up a few hours (free). So now we can do dinner in Polaris lounge ‐ they have amazing burgers – I also like a hot shower before a red-eye flight I sleep better – we will have 15± hours of darkness on this flight.

Oldporkchops

Hi Greg, Thank you for this honest review. United’s menu stated they offer fleece-lined slippers and pyjamas. Did you get pyjamas on your seat? I like to know if they actually stock Polaris with them, since they claim to offer it. Thanks.

Nun

Did QF not even provide socks to pull over your own?

Oldporkchops

Got it. Thanks for confirming. So it looks like Polaris isn’t as bad as what some people make it out to be. Appreciate your honest review. Happy travels.

robertw

Read my review for Newark to Capetown. Very little effort from United on 15 hour flight.

YoniPDX

Did you get a drink menu photo for Polaris – haven’t seen any for post-COVID – can you add it to the review thanks!

Are they still serving thw 12 year single malt?

Dave

That QF seat reminds me of Lufthansa’s Business class seat – uncomfortable, exposed, zero privacy. The Polaris seat doesn’t even need a door; the design of the hard seat shell provides ample privacy. Plus, it’s really great for sleeping, especially with the Sak’s 5th Avenue duvet and the cooling gel pillow.

The quality of the food (short rib) is always dependent upon the flight kitchen catering the flight. On United, It’s great out of Washington Dulles, Frankfurt, Boston and London. I’ve had bad beef out of Chicago and Newark. Sometimes, it just comes down to that specific piece of meat. It’s not a restaurant, it’s just plane food, right?

Last edited 23 days ago by Dave
Sam

@Greg- I have so many miles from all currencies but home airport is JAX. So, I always have to get a positioning flight from JAX or back to JAX. Do you call AA after you book the long leg with AA Miles to see if they add the segment to or from your next destination back to JAX? Also, what other currencies allow for adding another leg to or from the gateway to your home city once the long leg is booked with miles? Thanks!

Sam

Thanks! Do you know if booking with Aeroplan miles on Etihad from IAD to Abu Dhabi would allow later to add JAX to IAD segment? Or could this be booked via multi city?

Woody

I have flown Polaris several times to or from Europe.

I love the seat for comfort and flexibility. My best setting is in the Lounge Chair position. I loved the Short Ribs!!!!

I wish I could find a Saver Business Class to Australia.

Last edited 23 days ago by Woody
Miamiorbust

Did you use lounges before (or after) each flight? Would be interested in your impression of each space, which is an important consideration for me. I’ll eat a significant meal before flying and enjoy a nice shower. And while this sounds like it was a leisure trip for you, for people traveling for work lounge services for rebooking connections is a huge consideration. Overall, I agree with your conclusion on qantas. Nice but not exceptional. I simply don’t trust United with 13 hrs of my life. Experience is so inconsistent. And I like food. UA seems to have a deeply seated disdain for edible food and respectable wine.

Basil

I’m surprise that you liked the United short rib. I found it utterly disgusting and fatty. For what these tickets cost in Polaris class, I think that United really needs to up their food. The midflight snack is a joke. Basically it’s chips and a sandwich that’s all bun plus one slice of turkey with one slice of cheese.

Basil

I had the short rib on SFO-SIN Thanksgiving night. Was disappointed that they didn’t offer a Thanksgiving meal (had one many years back on Singair on reverse flight on Thanksgiving). Service was not great on the UA flight, either. I suspect that the least senior FA’s get stuck flying 17 hours on Thanksgiving. I think that flight is so long that there needs to be a real meal mid-flight. Anyway, I want to thank you for your review as seat comfort matters most and since Qantas charges much more for their flight (when paying cash) I’ll stick to UA for business trips. Cheers!

robertw

They gave me a cold small roll with pastrami wrapped in plastic. No plate. Hilarious on a 15 hour flight.

Ron

I appreciate the evaluations, but in this day and age its all about availability, and there is little to none for a “reasonable” mileage price. My spouse has a milestone birthday in September, so have been looking for int’l business class seats for two in Sept/Oct for months and there is nothing available to go anywhere across an ocean for less than 150k points one way per person (so 600k total), and most destinations are 300k- ridiculous. Must confess, I’m looking at US based programs due to excellent cancellation policies and avoiding orphaning points, but this lack of availability is making collecting points and miles moot.

Amit

Greg has a good reply to this, but overall I agree. It’s such a pain nowadays to find good awards that’s actually meet your needs. There are always flash sales or mistake sales available, but not necessarily to your destination during the time you want, and for multiple people. If you don’t care where you want to go, and are super flexible, then you’ll make out.
I have booked first class award fares to South Africa and australia/New Zealand multiple times over the last 2-3 years and have had to cancel them each time due to work and of course the pandemic (first trip was in July 2020). Some of those were very reasonable and the time frame I needed. Booking for this year was very challenging. I was unable to find the specific first class seats I wanted despite using multiple award finding tools, and eventually settled for business class tickets.

I wasn’t tracking the 60k Point reward sale that Greg mentioned, but I was able to get business class seats on United from ny to Australia with layover in taipei for 90k each and return in business through a Fiji layover with Alaska for 55k each. And I got very lucky with the Fiji airways business class. Their business class seats are impossible to find usually between us and Fiji, especially two.

Origami

So…you booked multiple first class flights to 2 different continents during the pandemic. Then this year you’ve booked business class to Australia with a layover. And you had options for first class that you didn’t want. Sounds like you found plenty of award tickets.

Yes, flexibility is key; it’s been that way for years. If you plan extremely far ahead, it’s possible to get good awards; you can get lucky for the exact dates to the exact place close-in. But it’s been a while since you could just jump online and find plenty of seats to anyplace you could possibly want to go whenever you look…if that was ever the case.

Last edited 23 days ago by Origami
robertw

When you see something good, book it. I find a good to great low-level United award usually once a year or two. Delta right now is pure misery BTW.

LarryInNYC

I literally picked one date in your period of interest (10/3) and one route (JFK->CDG) and used point.me to find:

  • Finnair metal with AA miles for 57.5k plus $12.00. (One only)
  • BA metal with AA or Alaska miles for 57.5k, plus enormous co-pay.
  • BA metal with Cathay miles for 61k plus $298
  • Swiss metal on Lifemiles for 62k plus $13 with the intra-European connection in economy.
  • Swiss plus SAS metal with United miles for 70k plus $47.
  • LOT Polish metal with Aeroplan miles for 70k plus $74.
  • Air France non-stop for 72k plus $204.

That’s one search on one day, and one route. It doesn’t seem that there’s really a dearth of availability.

robertw

Excellent comment Larry.

robertw

There are plenty of awards out there. You have to work it. If you are active looking you will find something.

JohnB

Bingo! You are exactly right. You have to be constantly searching for what you want. Constantly. While there is lots of benefit to being open to destination, but if your dates and destination are set, then you need to be prepared to do the work.

robertw

It can be frustrating. But I can say I have done far better with United in the past 5 yrs vs Delta. Delta has been a total killer for me. American Air awards on their metal a little easier for me vs United on the routes I fly.

JohnB

Delta in the last few year has been better to use on last minute domestic awards.

Stookey

The value of a truly comfortable seat is hard to Qanta-fy…

Basil

For the win