Lounge Trip Reports

The Longest Flight in the World: United Polaris Lounge IAH Review

United's new Polaris lounges are such a dramatic improvement from the old United Clubs that it beggars belief we put up with mediocrity for so long.

The Longest Flight in the World: Introduction
SQ22 Inaugural Gate Party
Singapore Airlines A350-900 ULR Business Class SIN-EWR
AMEX Centurion Lounge IAH
United Polaris Lounge IAH
ANA B77W Business Class IAH-NRT
ANA B787-9 Business Class NRT-SIN


United Clubs, especially within the US, have never been what you’d call “worth getting to the airport early for”. They’re reliably underwhelming, with the bare basics of what you’d need from a lounge: charging ports, lots of seating, serviceable Wi-Fi and a food selection that is the textbook definition of “continental breakfast”.

Generic snapshots of a United Club

That’s why everyone was so shocked when United took the wraps off its first Polaris lounge in Chicago in 2016. Gorgeous interior design, private showers, complimentary alcohol, daybeds, sit-down dining, extensive buffet spreads…could this really be a United Airlines lounge?

United Polaris Lounge ORD
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It’s taken a while, but more Polaris lounges have finally opened, and as of today you’ll find lounges in ORD, IAH, EWR and SFO, with an additional lounge scheduled to open this fall at LAX. The international rollout will see the Polaris concept debut at HKG, LHR and NRT.

I’ve flown the Polaris cabin product before, but have never actually been to a Polaris lounge on account of their persistent construction delays. So I was understandably excited about my visit to the Houston Polaris lounge, which I could access by virtue of my ANA Business Class ticket (Star Gold members in economy will not be permitted access).

International carriers like SQ and NH depart from Terminal D, but the Polaris lounge is actually in Terminal E. It’s not particularly difficult to get from D to E, but it’s worth noting nonetheless as you’ll need to budget some time to get to your gate. The lounge operates from 5.30 am to 10.30 pm daily.

Houston Terminal Map

The Polaris lounge is next to Gate E12, and isn’t difficult to spot. Look out for the Polaris standee and the frosted glass.

Polaris Lounge IAH Exterior

Go through the double doors and admire the shiny Polaris logo.

Polaris Lounge IAH Exterior

And you’ll be in the reception area. Note the lights on the ceiling that are meant to mimic the Ursa Minor constellation. The staff scanned my boarding pass and directed me to the elevator, which takes you up one story to the Polaris lounge proper.

Polaris Lounge IAH Reception

The lift opens up to the 4th floor, somewhere in the middle of the Polaris lounge. I thought this would be a natural place to put the customer service desk, but rather the first thing that greets you is a blank feature wall.

Polaris Lounge IAH Entrance Area

Interestingly, the Houston Polaris lounge is actually the smallest Polaris lounge to date. PR describes it as a “boutique” offering, with 191 seats (compared to, say, 440 at their SFO outlet).

“We specifically designed this United Polaris lounge location to feel like a boutique hotel, with dedicated spaces for relaxation, refreshing and dining and we’re confident that our Houston customers and those connecting through this award-winning airport will enjoy a best-in-class lounge experience.”

-Mark Krolick, United VP of Marketing

Boutique can be a euphemism for “cramped”, but fortunately the lounge was fairly empty when I got there at 9 a.m. It could be the case that the lounge gets really crowded in the evenings when most Star Alliance flights depart, however.

Polaris Lounge IAH Seating
Polaris Lounge IAH Seating
Polaris Lounge IAH Seating
Polaris Lounge IAH Seating

First impressions of the lounge were great- I really liked the abundance of natural light the lounge had, as well as the mixture of communal seating, individual seating and work pods. The finishings and interior design of the Polaris lounge are a world apart from the drab and dreary United Clubs.

Polaris Lounge IAH

The lounge also had great views of the tarmac. I hope you like spotting United aircraft.

View from Polaris IAH lounge
View from Polaris IAH lounge

I wasn’t a fan of the F&B offerings in the Centurion Lounge, so the first place I headed for was the dining room. Sit down dining is one of the highlights of the Polaris experience, and to United’s credit, it’s a feature that other airlines normally only offer in First Class lounges, if at all. Apart from the American Airlines Flagship Lounge, I can’t think of any other airlines that offer sit down dining for Business Class passengers.

Polaris lounge IAH Dining Room

There are 14 tables for 28 people, and the menu was displayed proudly at the entrance.

Polaris Lounge IAH dining menu
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The dining room was almost empty when I arrived, and I was seated by a very pleasant greeter in no time. She gave me a menu and asked if she could bring any drinks while I read it.

Polaris Lounge IAH dining menu

I really wanted to try the Polaris Burger, but it’s a lunch-only item and lunch starts at 11 a.m. My flight was scheduled to depart at 11:30 a.m, so I had to make do with the breakfast items.

I ordered the Texan hash skillet and the English muffin duo, which were ready within 10 minutes.

Polaris Dining Room

The Texan hash skillet is supposed to be a highlight of the lounge, and it did not disappoint- crispy potatoes, ripe avocado, just the right amount of sour cream, moist pulled pork and a side of salsa.

Texan hash skillet

The English muffin duo was equally good. Warm toasted muffins with butter, one side with smoked paprika egg, the other with tomatoes and avocado.

English muffin duo

So pleased was I with the offerings that I went for the french toast too, which I paired with a glass of Piper Heidsieck champagne. It came together with a Polaris coaster- they’re really trying to get the brand out there.

Polaris Dining Room

The French Toast came with peach compote and candied pecans, as well as a small side of fruit.

French toast

The service in the dining room was fantastic, with drinks regularly refilled and plates cleared quickly. It’d be interesting to see how they’d cope with a full house, but that’s something perhaps passengers on SQ51 can update me about.

My take on the Polaris lounge dining experience? Excellent. The food was prepared quickly, the quality was great and I’m still struggling to take in the fact that United Airlines served me a decent meal in their lounge.

A word about tipping- as you know, it’s customary in the US to tip for almost every service interaction, but it’s not expected in the Polaris lounge. People are free to leave tips if they so wish, but no one’s going to chase after you if you choose not to do so. In any case, the lounge sees so many international visitors, many of whom come from countries where tipping isn’t the norm.

If you need a quicker bite than the dining room can whip up, you’re welcome to explore the adjacent buffet area.

IAH Polaris lounge breakfast buffet
IAH Polaris lounge breakfast buffet

“Buffet” and “United Club” were historically a bad pairing, but it should be quite clear by now that the Polaris lounge is a very different beast.

IAH Polaris lounge breakfast buffet

Here’s what was on offer for breakfast. The spread was pretty comprehensive, with cold cuts, fruit, pastries, smoothies, oats and enchiladas on offer. Cynics may say it’s just a better-presented United Club offering, but there were definitely more hot items than the usual United Club buffet.

IAH Polaris lounge breakfast buffet- cold cuts
IAH Polaris lounge breakfast buffet- pastries
IAH Polaris lounge breakfast buffet- fruit
IAH Polaris lounge breakfast buffet- fresh fruit smoothies

IAH Polaris lounge breakfast buffet- steel cut oats

IAH Polaris lounge breakfast buffet- enchiladas
IAH Polaris lounge breakfast buffet- biscuits and spreads

Scattered throughout the lounge are a couple more beverage stations, which have small bottles of water that you can grab and go.

Polaris lounge IAH refreshment station

I took a brief walk around the rest of the lounge. There’s a very lovely full service bar, complete with a fancy coffee machine. The bartender was friendly and topped up my champagne without asking. And no, he didn’t hover around waiting for a tip, as some bartenders do in the States.

Polaris lounge IAH bar
Polaris lounge IAH bar

There was a long drinks list available, including 7 different red wines and 4 whites. For bubbles, you could opt for a Riondo prosecco or the Piper-Heidsieck brut that I enjoyed with breakfast.

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I found the individual productivity pods to be great spaces for getting work done. Each had a dedicated power outlet and 2 USB ports (although these are scattered around the lounge, so you’ll never really be short of options).

Polaris Lounge IAH productivity pods
Polaris Lounge IAH productivity pods

The Wi-Fi in the lounge was blazing fast, by the way. I was able to upload all my photos to the cloud in no time flat.

If you want to shower or rest, the Polaris lounge has you covered too. There’s a total of 6 shower suites available.

Entrance to rest and shower area

None of the suites were ready when I arrived, however, which was surprising given how empty the lounge was and does make me wonder how they’d cope with the evening rush. The apologetic attendant asked for 15 minutes to prepare one, but the actual wait time was closer to 10.

Polaris IAH lounge shower suite

Cowshed toiletries are standard across United aircraft, amenities kits and lounges.

Polaris IAH lounge shower suite

I’d been given an accessible shower, which meant no physical separation between shower and rest of the toilet. The shower curtain helps a bit, but you’re still going to get the whole room wet.

Polaris IAH lounge shower suite

There was both a regular shower and rain shower available.

Polaris IAH lounge shower suite

United is bigging up its partnership with Saks Fifth Avenue. On Polaris flights you now get Saks blankets and bedsheets, and on the ground you get Saks towels. My bum can tell the difference.

Polaris lounge IAH towels

There are only two rest suites available in the lounge, but neither was occupied when I visited.

Polaris lounge IAH rest area

Don’t expect full sized beds here, this isn’t the Al Safwa First Class lounge, after all. Instead, you get a day bed with a Saks Fifth Avenue pillow. A blanket is available on request, and each table had a piece of Ghirardelli chocolate and a bottle of water, which I thought was a nice touch.

Polaris lounge IAH rest area
Polaris lounge IAH rest area

Conclusion

I loved the overall experience of the Polaris lounge in Houston. I’m even going to say I prefer it over the Singapore Airlines Business Class SilverKris lounge in Changi Airport T3. Perhaps it’s the excellent sit-down dining, or the fact that the lounge just has a lot of natural light and doesn’t feel as claustrophobic as the SilverKris lounge. Whatever the case, the Polaris lounge and cabin product has given United a firm foundation to compete with other carriers.

Even United can’t screw this up, right?

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Right?


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Apart from the American Airlines Flagship Lounge, I can’t think of any other airlines that offer sit down dining for Business Class passengers….

Air Canada in Canada
Virgin – clubhouses in LHR, JFK, LAX (and I am sure others as well)

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[…] As Seattle is an Alaska hub, your lounge options there are rather limited, especially as a Star Alliance passenger. As of now, there is only a small United Club in Seattle for Star Alliance passengers and United Club lounges are not exactly the best lounges in the world, especially if you compare them to United’s latest Polaris offerings.  […]