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United Award ticket trade-offs

Over the years I've accrued a good number of miles via United's MileagePlus program. But these days they are harder than ever to cash in for a comfortable seat from the West Coast to Europe. I'm in the process of trying to book my award miles to join a Rick Steves tour in 2018. But I'm facing a dilemma here. Which is the lesser of the two evils in making my flight selections to an entry European city?

Option A: Nonstop flight from SFO to Frankfurt on United Airlines. Pros: Easy to book, can select my seat in advance. Cons: spending 11+ hours on a United aircraft! I no longer fly United domestically due to non existent amenities (like in-flight entertainment that doesn't require the use of my own phone/iPad) and cramped seating.

Option B: Nonstop flight from SFO to Geneva on Swiss Air (or, alternatively, to Vienna on Austrian or Frankfurt on Lufthansa...). Pros: Better inflight service, leg room, and amenities than United. Cons: Cannot select seat more than 24 hours in advance of flight. And I absolutely need an aisle seat.

Which would you choose? Does anyone happen to know if United's trans-Atlantic flights are any better than their transcontinental ones (e.g., SFO-EWR) in terms of comfort and service? And does anyone happen to know if there are ways of selecting seats on Swiss, Austrian, or Lufthansa any sooner than 24 hours in advance? The current frequent flier forum boards all indicate that there is not!

Sorry for the long question and thanks in advance for your advice.

Posted by
7046 posts

When you say you "absolutely" need something, it's no longer a trade-off. It's a deal breaker.

I would pick Option B. But I don't care about getting a seat assignment early, and the other factors more than make up for it. If you have more legroom on one flight, isn't that better than less legroom on another no matter where that seat happens to be? Also, are you really indifferent about where you're landing? It could be either Frankfurt, Vienna, or Geneva?

Posted by
1079 posts

I have not flown these routes, but usually you can pay a fee to select your seats now.

Posted by
18836 posts

Look on Seatguru or Seatexpert. They will have all the amenities for the exact flight you are looking at, as well as pros and cons of various seats in the plane.

My last United flight overseas was a couple of years ago. It wasn't that bad, good actually, as it was not full and my aisle seat had the seat next to it open. Was dead of winter though.

Posted by
64 posts

Agnes, I'm wondering if others have been able to successfully book desired seats (whether they be aisles or windows) on any of these airlines upon check-in. If chances are good, then I would consider Option B.

And yes, it kind of doesn't matter which of the named city I fly into, since these are the hubs that United is routing through to get to the desired end point. I am currently considering the Adriatic tour.

Posted by
5318 posts

I no longer fly United domestically due to non existent amenities (like in-flight entertainment that doesn't require the use of my own phone/iPad) and cramped seating.

To where are you ultimately travelling? I’d be much more concerned about getting the most direct
flight routing.

What amenities are you looking for? Personally, I have not seen that much difference between United and the European airlines recently in terms of amenities and I have flown United, Lufthansa, Swiss, and Austrian in the last five years. What makes a difference to me is the route and how full the flight is (something you have no control over). I had a bad flight on Austrian mainly because I was seated next to a guy who was about 6 feet tall and 300 lbs. I had a great flight on my last United flight where the seat next to me was empty.

Every United international flight I have taken has had in-flight entertainment. My last United flight probably had 100 movies to choose from, Beer and wine are now free in international economy. You can select your seat in advance and pay extra for premium economy if you want extra leg room. What aircraft are you flying?

Posted by
2693 posts

It's pretty much what aircraft and configuration that makes or breaks it for me. Look at You should be able to find what aircraft each flight you are looking at is, but caution, they can change it on you. 11 hours is long no matter what, but only certain aircraft are capable of that time, so, comparing UA domestic with that is probably not apples to apples. I too am a UA frequent flyer and use the UA Visa to rack up miles. We have gotten to the point in our lives where economy plus or better is essential for the long (over 4 hours) flights. I too must have an aisle seat because of sciatica and need to keep a leg fully extended at times. Not being able to choose a seat would be a deal breaker for me despite better service, amenities, etc. And, because you are in Oakland you might want to check out Norweigan which flies 787's from OAK.

Posted by
5697 posts

Lori, we are flying on United miles next month SFO-CDG on United and back MUC-SFO on Lufthansa, with reserved seats both ways. United confirmation included the Lufthansa flight number (maybe hidden in "other information") and I booked the seats (free) on the Lufthansa website some time ago.

Posted by
25612 posts

With respect to seat selection:

In early March 2016 I booked a one-way ticket to Madrid for mid-May, traveling via Frankfurt. I booked on the United website using United miles. The flights were on Lufthansa. I have an email confirmation dated on that same day, showing my non-premium coach seats. I'm nearly certain I did not pay for early seat-selection on Lufthansa, though the airline's policy may have changed subsequently. (I did have to pay for early selection on KLM this year.)

I don't remember how I selected the seats, but it wasn't difficult. I think I started by using the confirmation number on the United website, but I may ultimately have needed to go to Lufthansa. Still, that March confirmation from United showed the Lufthansa seat numbers.

For what it's worth, I did not pay Virgin Atlantic's early-selection fee for my return from London this summer. I still ended up with an aisle seat. No guarantees, obviously. I'm pretty sure my United frequent flyer account shows a preference for aisle seats. Be sure yours is set up that way.

I haven't seen much difference in the comfort level of the regular-economy experience on the garden-variety carriers I've flown recently (which may or may not have included United). The SeatGuru comments on United's new 787s tend to be negative about the seating (9 across) and positive about the (perceived) improvement in pressurization and sound level.

Posted by
2451 posts

Lori, I have flown on United Mileage various times over the past several years. The difficulty has sometimes been limiting my travel to dates when Saver or SuperSaver was available, meaning using fewer miles to pay. I have often booked on United, but actually chosen flights on partner airlines such as Lufthansa, TAP, Turkish Air and others. Yes, on the United flights I could choose seats when booking, on partner airlines it was sometimes difficult and they sometimes had rules about not selecting seats until 24 hours before flight time. Sometimes I understood the problem was that United did not charge for advance seat selection, and the other airlines did, and they had not sealed an agreement about that. Maybe it has somewhat improved by now. I have usually wanted extra legroom on long flights, which I could buy on United. On other airlines I sometimes achieved that later on without paying anything extra. If you are considering the Adriatic Tour, you might consider especially Turkish Air, booking through the United Mileage Plus site. Turkish Air is very good, has non-stop flights from SFO to Istanbul, and then easy and short connections to both Ljubljana and Dubrovnik.

Posted by
1006 posts

Lori - I probably can be much help to your dilemma. I use my United Explorer card also for points (when I have enough). My issue is that I have to generally have three legs to my final destination. There is no easy way from Oklahoma to Europe. Not sure if I would like one long haul or 3 multiple ones. I just dislike the wait game at airports for my connecting flights. Our next RS trip is in April 2018 for 8 day Ireland and then 10 day Scotland. We are flying united Tulsa - Houston; then Houston to Newark, then to Shannon. Then Aer Lingus from Dublin to Edinbourgh. Then home Edin to Newark, Newark to Houston, then to Tulsa.
We also like the extra leg room on the overseas flights(we are tall!!) I usually don't pay the extra for 1-3 hr flights.

Good luck on your decision.

Posted by
1138 posts

Be aware that at least some of United's flights SFO-FRA are on the 777-300, and assuming you're flying in coach that means 10-across seating, even in Economy Plus, as United has decided to jam another seat into each row. This has also required them to narrow each aisle by an inch each, and both on FlyerTalk and SeatGuru people have complained of getting hit more often by passersby and carts when in aisle seats (as well as lots of complaints about the narrower seats.)

Posted by
496 posts

I have also flown United (mostly on Mileage Plus miles) to Europe annually for a decade. I did make it one time (out of about 9) on Saver First class for 57,500 miles ow but it was a last minute wait list. I now don't even try for the saver seats in anything other than coach-- it's not worth the headache and they are impossible to find with an original booking.
I have been able to book a seat in advance on Lufthansa as a previously posted. Flying out of Seattle my options are Air Canada via Toronto, Lufthansa via FRA or flying the entire way on United via ORD, EWR or IAD. I have determined the Luftansa is the best for the service. I have also had challenging experiences with United customer service so am now trying out Delta for the first time. I really want to like United but they have made it "difficult". I try to think of it only as safe passage to my "travels" and focus on how lucky I am to be able to have these experiences.

Posted by
64 posts

wow, this is the most helpful set of feedback ever! thanks to all for sharing your tips and experiences. i'm much better prepared now to make my selection.