Review: United First Class from Beijing to Washington, DC plus Air China First Class Lounge and BGS Premier Lounge Beijing Terminal 3
This is part 11 of a multi-part series detailing my trip to Hong Kong and Cambodia, flying First Class and attempting to stay within a $350 budget for ALL expenses (although, I went slightly over budget). If you haven’t read the first 10 parts yet, please check them out:
Part Four: Cathay Pacific 777 First Class Review
Part Eight: An Amazing Tour of the Angkor Temples
Part Nine: Hotel Review: Le Meridien, Siem Reap
After wandering around Beijing for several hours, I decided to return to the airport for a shower in the Air China First Class Lounge and maybe some food before the long flight back to the US. I had decided to return direct to Washington, DC since I had to be at work in DC on Tuesday morning. My flight was planned to depart Beijing at 6:25pm on Monday evening and because of the International Date Line, I would arrive into Washington-Dulles on Monday evening around 7pm.
After taking the Airport Express back to Terminal 3, I picked up my carry-on roller bag and proceeded to the check-in area, which was on the upper level, just above the train and bag storage. Terminal 3 in Beijing is new, very modern looking, and very large.
I easily found the United counter by looking at the directory and going to aisle D. There was no line at the counter, just a few people checking in with the economy agents. I went to the First/Business class lane, and was immediately helped. After showing my passport, the agent presented me with my boarding pass and gave me directions to the First Class Lounge.
Customs was quick, and there was a very short wait to get through security, which was more invasive than other airports I have been through. All electronics must be removed from your bags, including noise canceling headphones, and other items I wouldn’t have suspected as problematic seemed to create issues for the security agents. I had placed all of my small liquid containers in a clear plastic ziplock bag for ease on this trip. I had brought some sunscreen in small pouches (like baby food pouches) that were in the ziplock. Security couldn’t figure out what they were, and kept asking me–finally they went to their supervisor and I guess they got the ok–I could keep my sunscreen. The other odd thing they fixated on was a pen that I had been given on my previous Air China flight. It looked like a normal pen to me, with crystal like plastic pieces decorating the pen’s round upper tube. The security guys kept shaking the pen, watching the plastic crystals move and looking at me like I was trying to get something past them in this free pen. After a few minutes, I got to also keep my pen.
Air China First Class Lounge
I made my way to the Air China First Class Lounge after quickly browsing through the duty free shops. I still had some Yuan left (about $5 worth) so I purchased some Chinese cookies.
The lounge entrance was well marked with signs. It was on the upper level of the terminal, so I opted to take the escalator up to the entrance. There was a gentleman at the door, but I am not sure what his purpose was–he didn’t greet me or assist me in any way. A security guard perhaps?
Immediately inside the lounge was the front desk and they asked for my boarding pass, which I presented to them. Once the woman scanned it and nodded she didn’t say anything else, so I asked about the showers. I was told that the First Class Lounge did not have any showers and that I would have to go to the Business Class Lounge. I found this slightly odd and inconvenient, but I decided to look around this lounge and postpone the shower until later.
The lounge had several seating areas and had lots of light and nice views of the runways and ramp areas. In the center of the main seating area, the lounge had a tea room with stools/tables carved from trees. When I first arrived there was no attendant, but later I tried some of the various teas.
There were several different food options in the lounge, including both Chinese and some Western options.
Drink choices included soft drinks, wine, juices, and an average selection of beer/liquor.
I tried some of the food, which was ok overall. The dumplings and sauces were definitely the highlight. After grazing for about 30 minutes, I decided to check out the wifi–which was agonizingly slow and like all internet in China heavily controlled. In this case you had to go to a machine and scan your passport before you were given a wifi code/password. When I finally got online, I looked for other lounge options in terminal 3 since I still wanted a shower.
The Air China Business Class lounge was available to me as well, but the reviews didn’t look good–especially for the showers which were described as “dirty” and “dark.”
Luckily, I had another choice thanks to my Priority Pass membership, which comes as an included benefit of my Citi Prestige Card. I like the Citi Prestige Card because it offers a nice sign up bonus of 50,000 points after spending $3,000 in purchases in the first 3 months, has good earning rates of 3x points on all air travel and hotel purchases, 2x points on any dining or entertainment purchases, and 1x point on everything else. It also offers a $100 Global Entry credit, and a $250 air travel credit per year. It provides lounge access at American Airlines Admiral’s Club Lounges and also the Priority Pass membership which gives me access to hundreds more lounges across the globe.
The annual fee is $450, and it is not waived the first year. But if you only sign up for the bonus and the air travel and Global Entry credits you are already well surpassing the cost of the annual fee. The air travel credits reset annually, so if you hold the card for only one year and only pay one annual fee you get $500 in air travel credits plus a one-time $100 Global Entry credit, plus the value of the miles which can be redeemed for $800 in travel on American Airlines–or transferred to several different travel partners. Quite honestly, this card is a really great value, despite the high initial fee!
But I digress…
BGS Premier Lounge, Beijing Terminal 3
Because I had a Priority Pass membership, I was able to access the BGS Premier Lounge, which got overall good reviews and had showers. It was on the other side of the terminal, but after a 10 minute walk, I was at the entrance.
I presented by Priority Pass membership card at the front desk and was welcomed into the lounge. I requested a shower and was directed to the bathroom, which also had a shower in the back. Although this probably isn’t the ideal arrangement, the bathroom was very clean with an attendant cleaning after each use. The shower area was private and had clean towels in plastic, and a variety of amenities.
After my shower I checked out the rest of the lounge. While the lounge was smaller than the Air China lounge, it had plenty of seating, although the way the seats were arranged gave a cramped feeling.
The food selections were mostly Chinese, and the lounge also had a noodle bar.
I didn’t spend too much time in the lounge because it did feel cramped compared to the Air China lounge–but the shower was nice. Since I had already eaten at the other lounge, I didn’t try any of the food. The lounge looked nice overall, and the Priority Pass membership is nice because it does provide other options, especially when you are not flying First or Business class and do not have access to an airline’s dedicated lounge.
I only had about another hour before my flight started to board, so I went back to the Air China lounge to relax a bit and have some tea.
United First Class: Flight 808, PEK-IAD
I was one of the first to board the 777 via the dedicated First and Business class ramp which connected to the front door of the aircraft. There was a flight attendant standing at the door to greet me and direct me to my seat. Without any fanfare we welcomed me onboard and pointed to my seat, not much different then if I was flying economy.
As I got settled in my seat I looked around the cabin. United has a total of 8 seats in First Class on their International 777s, in a 1-2-1 configuration. They are semi-enclosed lie flat seats.
The seat had a good sized entertainment screen that was fixed in place. Also at my seat were a pair of slippers, a pillow, and a blanket.
After about 10 minutes, an attendant came by to offer me a pre-departure drink. I asked what wine was available and was told that all they had was “ground wine.” My face probably conveyed my confusion, because the attendant explained that they did not open up the good wine until they were airborne. “Ground wine” was the individual sized plastic bottles of swill they serve for free in economy (although up until recently, United was charging $7 for these on all international routes). I opted for water. It was served to me in a plastic cup. Classy, United, classy.
While I was sipping my water, another attendant came by to hand out the amenity kit and the menu. The First class amenity kit is is a large dark brown zippered leather-looking bag with a cardboard cover–a cool picture of an original United DC-3–and contains earplugs, an eye mask, toothpaste, toothbrush, pen, a pair of socks, and some other miscellaneous items. The lotions were Cowshed brand products out of the UK.
The menu included choices for dinner, drinks, and breakfast in both English and Chinese–and a lot of white space. The last page of the menu had some info on Cowshed and the United First Class experience. Notably there were no specifics on the wines/champagnes available.
We departed on time and shortly after we reached cruise altitude an attendant came to take my dinner order and offer drinks. Now that we were airborne I asked what wines were available and I was told that they would look–so the wines were not listed in the menu and the crew didn’t appear to actually know what was on board. It seemed like it was just a random selection of bottles that they opened depending on whether a passenger wanted red or white wine. Finally, I was presented with 2 choices and actually got the wine in a glass this time!
Dinner was unremarkable. I opted to try the warm appetizer beef skewer, which was like shoe leather. Next came the salad.
For my main course I tried the Beijing Style Beef. Considering we were literally flying out of Beijing I would have thought it would have been a little more authentic–it just tasted like dry mystery-meat in rice. It really didn’t taste like it was freshly prepared in any way. I think I have had microwave meals that tasted better.
After dinner I mentioned to the flight attendant that I was going to get some sleep and skip desert. I was hoping that this hint would be enough for them to offer to make my bed, as promised in the menu describing the turndown service. I was wrong. I decided to just make the bed myself. In all fairness the attendants were still clearing desert dishes from the other First Class passengers.
The bed was comfortable enough, but definitely narrow–not much more room than a normal business class seat. The bigger issue that I quickly realized sitting in seat 1A was that there was no curtain separating the cabin from the kitchen/flight attendant area. The lights were kept on in this area throughout the flight, and my seat looked directly into this area. Not ideal–curtains would go a long way to making this a more comfortable experience.
Despite the bright light and sometimes noise, I was able to get some decent sleep. When I woke up a new crew had taken over, and I found them a bit more accommodating. I asked for the cheese plate and most of the cheeses were pretty tasty.
I watched a movie and nibbled on cheese, then decided to lay down again.
About 2 hours prior to arrival into DC, breakfast was served. It was not great. The omelet was rubbery and didn’t taste like eggs–at least the croissant and fruit was edible.
We landed uneventfully at Dulles, about 30 minutes early. I de-planed, quickly cleared customs thanks to Global Entry, and was out of the airport 30 mins after touchdown. Not bad at all.
Overall the flight was fine, just not worthy of being compared to most other international first class products. I knew that I had to temper my expectations for United’s First Class product, especially after flying the first leg of this trip in Cathay Pacific’s much superior First Class. Even with my tempered expectations, United didn’t meet them. In fact, flying United’s first class product was less impressive than flying other International carriers’ business class products (like Swiss or ANA, for example). While the first class seat and cabin is certainly a step up from United’s Business class (which has a 2-4-2 configuration forcing people to be squeezed in to middle seats like sardines) I wouldn’t necessarily pay a significant premium for the experience.
In this case I redeemed 80,000 United miles for the one-way trip. I think that was overpriced for what I got, but the schedule worked out and I got back to DC on time for work on Tuesday.
My next post–the final post in this series–will wrap-up the full trip and talk about some of the lessons I learned from this whirlwind journey!
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