In Prague, you hear it a lot: the beer is cheaper than the water. The many-spired capital of the Czech Republic is still proudly the world leader in beer consumption per capita and still, in 2019, one of the best values in Europe, still a walkable world of cobblestones and ghost stories beneath the scattering of Lime scooters.
A 1,000Kč note ($1 = ~23Kč) will carry you through a day or more of UNESCO riches: across the anchoring Charles Bridge, pictured above; to the open-air astronomical clock, clung to like a mosquito lamp by tourists each afternoon; inside the walls of Europe’s largest castle; and into cafes stewing goulash and sloshing Pilsner Urquell into big round glasses. Deeper adventures reveal small-batch pilsners tapped in the crooks of the Karlín neighborhood and a hefty Vietnamese population in Little Saigon. Deeper pockets grant nights in Malá Strana’s Mandarin Oriental (from €385/night), maybe the best hotel in the city.
A thousand new Prague adventures are now a flight from New York City by way of United’s new non-stop service from Newark Liberty (EWR). Every day through October 4, 2019, UA 188 is scheduled to depart Newark (EWR) at 6:05pm ET and arrive in Prague (PRG) at 8:25am local time (+1). UA 187 is scheduled to depart Prague (PRG) at 10:10am local time and arrive in Newark (EWR) at 1:30pm ET.
I was invited to join a media ensemble aboard the inaugural offering of UA 188, and so on Thursday, June 6, 2019, I set off from Brooklyn for shiny Terminal C at EWR with Polaris and Prague on my mind.
Here’s the new route as I found it:
The flight over: UA 188 (EWR-PRG) on June 6, 2019
Getting to Newark Liberty (EWR) from Manhattan/Brooklyn
I wrote about this trip, about 1.5 hours from the Fort Greene neighborhood in Brooklyn, in my write-up of United’s EWR-NCL route. A more concise version was featured here. In sum, there are plenty of ways to get to EWR from the city. I like to take the A/C train to Penn Station and hop on a Northeast Corridor or North Jersey Coast Line train to the airport stop where the AirTrain picks up.
Takeaway: An easy enough trip and not really at issue in this post.
The AirTrain pulled into Terminal C at 3:07pm, and three minutes later I was checked in and ticketed. Use of the airy Premier Access level (up the stairs instead of down) is granted to Polaris Business flyers, and so as a Polaris Business flyer I had a particularly breezy time checking in on this Thursday afternoon. A level below, the Economy level also appeared to be churning out ticketed passengers efficiently.
Security, meanwhile, ran me 25 minutes without TSA PreCheck privileges, which I am temporarily traveling without ahead of my appointment to renew them/Global Entry. At this time, there is no security expedition for Polaris flyers, though that may change.
Takeaway: United’s Terminal C is in my experience a pleasant setting for a departure.
The Polaris lounge
The investment United has made in EWR’s Terminal C is paying off. I’d previously toured the lounge when it opened, but this was my first visit as a departing Polaris flyer. My goodness.
After security, you enter the Polaris lounge on the righthand, tarmac-facing side just steps before Gate 121, from which the flight to Prague will depart. Make use of the buffet and if there’s time the a la carte dining room. If you like Aperol, do not miss the Paper Plane (pictured below).
The lounge is available 4:30am to 10:30pm to:
- United Polaris First class flyers
- United Polaris Business class flyers
- Star Alliance long-haul first class flyers
- Star Alliance long-haul business class flyers
Takeaway: Read this story for a fuller picture of the 27,000-square-foot space, and build time into your trip through EWR to enjoy it.
The gate and inaugural ribbon-cutting
As the June 6 departure officially opened non-stop service to Prague, Gate 121 was draped in pomp-pomp pageantry to mark the occasion. There was Czech wine and Pilsner Urquell, and beside that hot trays of kielbasa wrapped in flaky pastry plus spicy mustard and spicy chips. United brass on hand included Jill Kaplan (President, New York/New Jersey), who took one of at least two sets of giant gold scissors to a ceremonial United-blue ribbon around 4:30pm.
Takeaway: There won’t always be Pilsner Urquell at the gate. Gate 121 is less than a five-minute walk from the main security checkpoint in Terminal C and under a minute from the Polaris lounge.
Boarding and departure (6:05pm) from Newark
As it will be every day, UA 188 was scheduled to depart at 6:05pm ET. A seat in Polaris Business includes Group 1 boarding privileges. I showed my boarding pass to the gate agent a few minutes past 5pm and was sitting beneath plastic-wrapped blankets, comforters and “cooling gel” pillows by 5:15pm ET. Cross-check came at 5:52pm, but then a bout of early evening congestion landed us behind 19 other departing planes. We were in the air by 6:45pm.
Takeaway: It’s nice to board as a Polaris Business flyer. Awaiting our delayed departure, I finished a good episode of Bob’s Burgers beneath a blanket I would keep on my bed.
On United’s newer, Polaris-seat-equipped 767-300ERs, the seats up front are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration. My seat, 8A, was a window seat on the left side of the plane. Facing the aisle, I wasn’t able to see out the window without contorting myself, but in 7A in front of me, for example, there was no such issue. If you like to look out of plane windows, I suggest consulting SeatGuru or the United website for a seat map before selecting your seat.
To the left, above the little table, there was an outlet, a USB port and a reading light plus a two-pronged jack for the provided over-ear headphones. Cozying up the place were a pillow and blanket and then another pillow and blanket—the grey blanket from Saxs Fifth Avenue, and the blue, Polaris-branded pillow full of “cooling gel.” The whole set, but especially the last two items, were extremely comfortable.
When brought fully flat, the seat was roomy at 6’3″ and even wider (20.6″) than I expected it to be with the exception of the foot area, which I found a little constricting. Overall, it’s a great and spacious place to spend about eight hours. If you have any hope of sleeping on an evening flight of length, you’ll be in good shape.
Takeaway: Really a wonderful seat. I also enjoyed access to the Sunday Riley refreshing spray, Garment Groom spot cleanser, and hand lotion in the bathrooms (and soap in the bathroom on the left Polaris Business bathroom; there was hand sanitizer instead of soap in the other Polaris Business bathroom for some reason).
The amenity kit waiting at my seat was packaged in a limited-edition tin that I cannot imagine ever using again. Fortunately, it’s being phased out, and the sleek, dark-grey-bagged kit scheduled to replace it may already be in service. The new kits will be stocked with Sunday Riley products plus kit mainstays like ear plugs, eyemask and socks. A partnership with non-profit Clean the World ensures that unused products left aboard United flights will be recycled. See more on what to expect here.
Takeaway: The kit you can expect going forward looks like a good one.
Upon (pre-)boarding the nearly empty plane, service began with the standard offering: champagne, orange juice and water. Stacey, a smiling man of impossible agelessness (he was quite a bit older than he looked, he let me know) took over from there. The warmth and attentiveness that landed him on this inaugural flight were on display from his first appearance through the moment I walked off the plane. Shirley was quite possibly the best flight attendant I have ever flown with.
Takeaway: Hope for Stacey.
Things kicked off with United’s new Spider-Man safety video. Here’s the offering that followed:
- 212 movies, including A Quiet Place, Eighth Grade, Free Solo, On the Waterfront, The Wolf of Wall Street, and five Mission: Impossible movies
- 137 “short programs,” including Big Little Lies, Bob’s Burgers, Chopped, Game of Thrones (season 7 episodes 1-7), Muppet Babies, Ratatouille, The Office, The Shop
- 11 podcasts (in “Audio”), including 10 Gimlet programs (Reply All, Hidden Forces…) and something called Unchained
- 12 “Audio mixes,” including “80s,” “Alternative,” “Chill,” “Jazz,” and “Rock”
- A “Kids” section that parses out kid-friendly content from the above
- Also: a “Relaxation” section (not shelved under “Entertainment”) filled with beach-sound scenes, Bob Ross videos, and guided meditations from Headspace
Wi-Fi, meanwhile, is available for purchase in all classes. United uses Panasonic tech on its 767-300ERs, as detailed here. Go to unitedwifi.com to pull up the login/payment prompt if it doesn’t show automatically.
Takeaway: It’s a strong offering, especially viewed on Polaris’s 16″ screens.
Food and drink
In Polaris, you have the option to reject the multi-course meal structure and be served your appetizer, entree and dessert all at once. This is called “Express Dining.” Wide awake at 6pm ET, I placed my food order the normal way. After a round of salted nuts, I ordered off this menu:
For my first course, both listed menu items were brought out: the “Chilled appetizer” of smoked duck, farro salad with dried cranberries, brined carrots, and whole-grain mustard, plus a salad with mozzarella and grape tomatoes. The salad was mostly just a salad, but the duck and farro salad were really nice.
For my entree, served with various breads around 8:15pm ET: “Cacio e Pepe ravioli” with parmesan cream sauce, roasted red and yellow tomatoes, garlic spinach, and more parmesan. This was also very good. That said I heard that the “Ginseng chicken bowl” (ginseng lemongrass chicken broth, grilled chicken, chicken and lemongrass potstickers, carrots, celery, and green onion) was exceptional so I’ll likely do that next time.
For dessert: an ice cream sundae, customized when the sundae cart came rolling by my seat at 8:42pm ET. It was good, but I got strawberry topping, which was a little too sweet. The caramel topping, which I got on the flight back, is much better.
For breakfast, served at 1:17am ET (or 7:17am in Prague): “Rustic omelet” with provolone, roasted pepper, onion, and chicken sausage. There was so much cheese on this thing. This was a good omelet. Another nice touch was the basket of warm cinnamon rolls that Stacey brought around during breakfast service. My roll was no Cinnabon, but it was soft and really tasty.
Takeaway: I genuinely enjoyed the food I was served on flight 188. It’s about as good as in-air food gets.
Arrival in Prague
We landed in Prague on a beautiful sunny morning at 8:21am local time (2:21am ET), finalizing a flight time under eight hours. A water cannon salute awaited us (more the right side of the plane) on the tarmac, and on the jet bridge to Václav Havel Airport Prague (PRG) my media group found a small delegation waiting to scoop our weary bodies into photos for the United website or something like that. Not ten minutes later, we were through a no-wait passport control and baggage claim (I carried on) awaiting pick-up.
Takeaway: PRG is an easy airport to navigate, and just 30 minutes from the geographical center of Prague.
The flight back: UA 187 (PRG-EWR) on June 11, 2019
(As distinguished from the flight over.)
Getting to and navigating Václav Havel Airport Prague (PRG)
Since 2012, Prague’s international airport has worn the name of Václav Havel, who was the nation’s first post-Velvet Revolution president. PRG’s small size makes it manageable. It’s about a half-hour from the city center by taxi or bus (there’s no metro or rail connection). The airport’s helpful transport guide calls buses 100 and 119 the speediest of the group. In my case, door-to-door transport by shuttle had been arranged at an earlier stage by JayWay.
At the airport, after check-in, is passport control, where Polaris Business flyers are permitted to hop in the fast track line. There were no significant waits to be found on June 11, and less than five minutes after I’d slowed into the line I held again my passport, smashed with fresh ink, and was released into the sea of duty-free shops separating passport control and my departing gate. Security, which immediately seemed to be missing, was later administered at the entrance to glass-enclosed Gate A4.
Takeaway: Arrange transport through your hotel, or take a bus. Arrival two hours before the flight should be more than enough, but make sure to account for gateside security time on your wanders around the terminal.
There’s no United lounge at PRG, and nothing like the spectacular Polaris lounge at EWR. Instead, upper-class passengers are granted access to the following lounges in Terminal 1:
- MasterCard Lounge
- Menzies Aviation Lounge
I spent about 15 minutes in the MasterCard Lounge, a simple space stocked with pretzels and chips, beer, wine, tables overlooking the tarmac, and showers. The highlight for me was the wall map constructed of small lightbulbs that lit up the destination cities of flights currently boarding, delayed, etc. There was no key or indication of how to use the map, so that’s merely my estimation.
Takeaway: Nothing special, but lounge access all the same.
Unless otherwise noted, UA 187 departs out of Terminal 1, Gate A4.
Takeaway: Once inside the walled-in gate area, there was discussion around whether this gate-specific model of security was more efficient and/or just less good than what we see in U.S. airports. Opinions aside, consider that substantial food is not available inside (there are vending machines) and so a run for a goulash will require another pass through security on the way back in.
Boarding and departure (10:10am) from Prague
UA 187 was scheduled to depart at 10:10am local time. Inside the gate area we were told that our incoming 767-300ER had been held in New York due to weather and that we’d be boarding a half-hour or so later than scheduled. That turned out to be a little optimistic, and Group 1 was invited to board around 10:35am. We were in the air at 11:07am.
Takeaway: Inclement weather in New York delayed our departure, which gave me time to finish my book before takeoff. Weather happens.
My flight back, again in Polaris Business class, was aboard an older 767-300ER not yet equipped with the Polaris seat. The seats up front on the return were configured in a 2-1-2 pattern with the middle (the 1) seats offering the most privacy, plus access to service from passing FAs on both sides. All lie 180º flat.
At 20.6″ wide and 6’3″, my seat was of the same dimensions as the one I flew to Prague in, though it felt a touch narrower. The material was a slight downgrade, which is more a comment on how comfortable the Polaris seat is than an inditement of this one. As I did in my Polaris seat on the earlier leg, I had an outlet, a USB port and a plastic-wrapped set of on-ear headphones, plus the same mountain of plush bedding (including the Saxs Fifth Avenue blanket and “cooling gel” pillow). I popped up twice to stoke bloodflow by walking the aisle in my provided slippers (ask for them). The rest of the time I spent beneath the Saxs blanket, comfortable and content.
Takeaway: The Polaris lie-flat seat is unquestionably better, but United’s other business class seat, while it still exists, is more than comfortable enough. At the time of this posting, roughly half of United’s 767-300ERs carry Polaris seating. By 2020, the entire fleet will have them. You can compare the two versions of the plane here.
Stacey was nowhere to be found, having returned already to Newark on the inaugural PRG-EWR flight on June 7. In his place on UA 187, left aisle, was Bryce, who introduced himself with a smile. He did his job admirably.
Takeaway: The crew working the EWR-PRG route, in both directions, was stellar.
My screen was smaller on this leg (15″ instead of 16″), but the entertainment offering was the same as it had been on the flight to Prague. I watched another episode of Bob’s Burgers when it came time to eat, and at several points I considered watching Free Solo for the second time in a month. Between bursts of work I also threw on Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Takeaway: The United international entertainment offering is really strong right now.
Food and drink
On this flight, we were served an initial three-course meal about an hour in and later, before landing, a smaller second meal. The menu:
With the welcome service, I had for my first course: the “Chilled appetizer” of buffalo mozzarella, Kalamata olive, tomato, basil, and balsamic glaze, plus a salad with fennel and orange. Simple, and solid.
For my entree: “Roman-style semolina gnocchi” with porcini mushroom and tomato ragout, cardoncelli mushrooms, tomatoes, and mozzarella. This wasn’t bad, but it was the weakest of the meals I had on either leg of the trip.
For dessert: another ice cream sundae from the cart.
For my arrival meal, served at 5:50pm ET: an off-menu vegetarian chili that seemed to replace the listed “Beef stew.” Good riddance, beef stew, as the chili was delicious. I asked for a second helping.
Takeaway: On this trip, United’s Polaris dining service, and the service in its entirety, was exceptional.
Arrival in Newark
We touched down in Newark at 6:58pm ET. Prague, once again, was a wonderful time. A few photos from my time in the city are below.
Takeaway: Prague, I will be back.
For more on United’s new EWR-PRG and PRG-EWR routes, visit united.com.
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