The Polaris concept was first announced by United Airlines in 2016, representing the US airline’s attempt to revamp its premium cabin experience and bring it in line with the progress that other airlines around the world have made. As part of the transformation, we’d see a revolutionized Polaris business class with direct aisle access, improved service, and premium catering and bedding, as well as swanky new Polaris Lounges to bring the ground experience up a notch.
The United Polaris Lounge Chicago was the first location to open in December 2016. Having heard many great things about it since then, I was eagerly looking forward to my maiden visit ahead of my SAS business class flight to Stockholm.
The lounge is located in Terminal 1 of O’Hare Airport. You’ll find it after making your way across the long walkway and taking the escalators up a level.
Polaris Lounges have a rather unique set of rules for access. You’ll have access to this location if you’re departing Chicago in international business class or First Class on a Star Alliance carrier (excluding flights to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean).
You’ll also have access if you flew, or are about to fly, business class with United on the same day and are connecting through Chicago (note that this doesn’t apply to other Star Alliance carriers).
Meanwhile, Star Alliance Gold members travelling in economy class and United Club membership holders don’t get access. Instead, they’re invited to access the various United Club lounges at O’Hare.
This means that if you’re flying with Air India, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana, Austrian, Avianca, Copa, Ethiopian, EVA Air, LOT, Lufthansa, SAS, Swiss, or Turkish in business class, you’ll get access to the Polaris Lounge, even though those flights may depart from different terminals. Indeed, as I almost learned the hard way, you’ll want to leave plenty of time to catch your flight!
Upon entering the lounge, you encounter a large room illuminated by a “starry night”-inspired chandelier. The front desk is to your right, while a small sitting area lies directly ahead.
Once you’re all checked in, you turn right to proceed into the lounge. You’re greeted with a wide corridor full of seating areas, leading the way to the bar and restaurant further in the back of the lounge. Right away, you notice the design elements of marble, steel, and upholstery in the traditional United palette of blue and grey, and you can tell that this lounge is leagues ahead of the usual drab-looking United Club setup.
Let’s go for a quick tour of the premises, and then I’ll tell you about how I spent my four-hour stay in the lounge (yes, I had deliberately scheduled extra time to fully experience it, and yes it was well worth it!)
The initial corridor offers two different types of seating. There’s a row of dining tables against the wall, and you can choose between sitting against the booths or in the chairs. This is a nice place to sit if you’re eating something from the nearby buffet, although of course the Dining Room further into the lounge is where the real premium dining takes place.
Then there’s the first of many banks of individual seating “pods”. These little nooks are designed to cater to every need an individual traveller may have – each pod has a wealth of features, including a light, USB charging ports, power outlets, a large surface space, a pull-out work table, a coat hook, and an extremely comfortable chair.
It’s the perfect setting to get some last-minute work done before your flight with a cup of coffee in hand, and indeed, most of the individual pods were occupied by the time I arrived.
I did manage to secure one of the pods at the corner of this cluster, though, and I set up shop here before going to explore the rest of the lounge.
Finally, on the wall closer to the entrance in this part of the lounge, there’s a small self-serve drinks spread with coffee, tea, water (flavoured and regular), and a few types of homemade iced teas.
Walking deeper into the lounge, you come upon the gorgeous bar area, together with some additional seating to the side.
Then the lounge turns a corner to the left, where you’ll find some more dining tables and individual pods as well. Unlike the rows of seating pods near the entrance, these ones are grouped in smaller clusters of four pods each.
Also in this area is a few sets of more “traditional” lounge seating, with leather upholstered chairs interspersed with a few side tables. These seats in particular boast some breathtaking views of the O’Hare tarmac, and I paused here as the sun was setting to grab a few shots.
Further yet into the lounge, you arrive at the Dining Room, where the à la carte dining takes place. Food is served here all day, but the Dining Room tends to get quite busy during peak hours, and you might be forced to wait quite a while for the table, as I found out later on in my time in the lounge.
Around the back of the Dining Room is some more standard seating, together with another small countertop for self-serve drinks and light snacks.
Back to the initial corridor now, where a separate area branches off to the right-hand side just before you arrive at the bar. Here, you’ll find the buffet spread, as well as the doorway to the shower suites and daybeds.
The buffet spread isn’t extensive, but that’s reasonable since many lounge patrons would be taking their meals in the Dining Room anyway. I chose not to partake in the buffet and save room for the à la carte dinner instead, but the buffet items looked like they were prepared to a very high quality. The jambalaya in particular was very tempting!
I especially liked how the main dishes were divided into small portions and served in tiny “frying pans”.
Overall, the buffet looks to be a great option if you’re in a hurry, or if you simply aren’t hungry enough for a sit-down meal. However, the Polaris Lounge à la carte dining is something in which United has invested heavily, so I think you should make use of it whenever you have the opportunity.
Then, beyond the buffet, you have the shower suites and daybeds. The Polaris logo is displayed prominently on the glass door.
There’s an attendant that takes care of this part of the lounge, and when I asked her if I could check out the facilities to take some pictures, she was more than happy to show me around.
Let me just take this opportunity to mention how nice all the staff members in the lounge were, from start to finish. I’ve been in many lounges around the world where the staff seemed to find the concept of taking pictures and reviewing airport lounges to be the most incomprehensible thing in the world, but there was no hint of that here – the staff routinely beamed when they saw me doing my camera work, conveying the fact that they genuinely hoped I was enjoying the lounge.
Let’s begin with the shower suites, which are spacious and visually appealing. In keeping with the bedding you’ll find in United’s Polaris business class, the towels here are made by Saks Fifth Avenue and are refreshed after every use.
The shower even has a small bench to sit on, which is one of my favourite shower features ever. I didn’t need a shower, but I almost wanted to take one just for the sake of it!
Then it’s over to the daybeds, which are accessible via another doorway. There are four daybeds in total, each tucked away in its own enclosed (but not fully enclosed) nook.
Daybed occupants are given a Saks Fifth Avenue pillow and some light amenities to help them relax. The lighting is controlled with a series of automatic switches.
Lastly, the lounge’s restrooms are located right after the main foyer, adjacent to a few concierge desks that are available to help with any ticketing issues.
The Polaris Lounge operates individual all-gender restrooms, which seems to be the trend these days with new airport lounges. It’s certainly a much nicer setup than having public restrooms, that’s for sure – especially when they get refreshed so frequently by the hard-working Polaris Lounge staff.
Most of the artwork on the walls was Chicago-themed and designed in a way that fit the overall contemporary aesthetic of the lounge.
After exploring every inch of the lounge in detail and feeling very impressed by what I saw, I sat down in my pod to get some work done. With the privacy of the individual pod, USB and power ports positioned conveniently at my side, and caffeinated beverages located mere steps away, I had everything I needed to be productive.
Unfortunately, finishing up my blog article took a little more time than expected, so whilst I had originally wanted to spend some time at the bar, I skipped that and made straight for the Dining Room instead. It was around 7pm at this point, so I figured I had plenty of time until my SAS business class flight departed at 9:05pm.
But to my dismay, I was told that the Dining Room was full at the moment and I’d have to wait for a table. There was one guy who was both the server and the host, and he took down my name and told me he’d let me know when there’s a table available.
When the clock struck 7:30pm and I still hadn’t been called, I went back to the Dining Room to see what was up. I was informed by the apologetic server that no tables were free at the moment, but that I’d be able to sit down face-to-face with another lounge guest who was travelling solo if both he and I agreed to do so.
After obtaining the other guest’s consent, I took my seat opposite him, and we made some small talk. He was a native Chicagoan, I came from Toronto, he was headed to Dublin, I was on my way to Oktoberfest, and so on and so forth.
As I looked to place my order, my opposite number polished off his glass of wine and departed, bringing this pleasant (if a little awkward) encounter to a swift end.
The Dining Room menu is divided into breakfast, which is served from 7:15am to 10:30am, and lunch & dinner, which is served for the rest of the day.
You can order as many items as you like, and the portions are pretty reasonable. I ordered the soup du jour (a black bean chili), the tuna tataki appetizer, and the burger by Blue Door Kitchen, a local Chicago eatery.
I really wanted to try the buttermilk fried chicken as well, but I decided to stick with those three items first and see if I had any room left, which turned out to be a wise decision (I didn’t).
My meal started off with a glass of the Malbec to drink. I didn’t get a picture of the drinks menu, but there’s a huge variety of wines, beers, spirits, and cocktails for you to choose from.
The server was an industrious guy, but he was taking care of roughly 10 tables all by himself, and so the service wasn’t great. I waited quite a while for my soup to arrive, and I was starting to get a little antsy about the time, especially since I had to make my way over to Terminal 5 to board my departing flight.
When it finally arrived, the soup was delicious. The same was true of the seared tuna tataki, and although its portion size left me wanting more, I must say its plating and presentation was top-notch.
Then came time for the burger, which I found to be extremely tasty, and I wolfed it down out of a combination of hunger and time pressure.
By the time I finished my meal, it was 8:15pm and my SAS flight was going to start boarding in 20 minutes in an entirely separate terminal, and it dawned on me that I’d better go immediately. Bottoms-up on my Malbec, and I was out of there, bringing my memorable and satisfying stay in the Chicago Polaris Lounge to an end.
I wish I could say it was a smooth jaunt over to Terminal 5, but after walking 10 minutes through the endless hallways of Terminal 1 to catch the airside transfer bus, I was horrified to discover that the bus only runs until 8pm! My only option was therefore to sprint back through the walkways, exit Terminal 1, take the landside transit bus over to Terminal 5, and go through security all over again. And I had 10 minutes until boarding began.
Needless to say, I ran and ran and ran, eventually somehow making it to the Terminal 5 security queue with enough time left to beg everyone to let me go first. In the end, I arrived at the boarding gate with a few minutes to spare, but I had to face the ignominy of stepping onboard SAS’s elegant business class cabin completely drenched in sweat. Oh well, you live and you learn…
I enjoyed my time in the United Polaris Lounge Chicago a lot – maybe even a little too much, given how close I came to missing my flight as a result of my extended stay. I found myself impressed left and right by all the lounge’s features, such as the highly ergonomic seating options, the gorgeous bar, the premium amenities in the showers and rest areas, and the revolutionary à la carte dining concept (although the service flow could certainly be improved).
Whereas in the past I’ve always dreaded having a layover in the US, I’m happy to say that the Polaris Lounge takes the North American lounge experience to a whole new level, and I’m now eagerly hoping to try out the other Polaris Lounge locations sooner rather than later. Well done, United!