I Just Booked My Cheapest Ever Flight To China

I lived in Beijing for 3 years, so have a lot of friends and former colleagues there. And with a bit of extra time in my schedule, I decided to consider taking a week to catch up with my former life in Beijing. Spring isn’t the best time to visit, because there are often dust storms, but it’s also not a terrible time to visit because it isn’t too hot there yet.

Naturally, I default to using miles and points for trips rather than cash, so I went ahead and put a decent itinerary with American Airlines on hold. However, I really don’t enjoy flying them. The cabin configuration in economy class is more or less intentionally miserable. Also, if you book inside of 21 days with AAdvantage points, you have to pay a close-in booking fee. I could avoid that by using Alaska points, but Alaska points are so valuable for other flights that I really hate to burn them on American flights at the same redemption rate.

So, I decided to check cash fares. I like using Momondo, which often uncovers cheap fares. However, I wasn’t really prepared for just how cheap the lowest fare (by more than $200) was: $479. Of course, this wasn’t a nonstop flight on a well-known airline. It wasn’t even a one-stop flight on a well-known airline. It was a two stop flight with a forced overnight on the virtually unpronounceable Xiamen Air.

Xiamen airlines plane

Of course, a forced overnight wasn’t really a great deal if I had to pay for hotels along the way. China is a surprisingly expensive destination and hotels would cost me a minimum of about $50 overnight.

However, Xiamen competes with Hainan Airlines, who provides free transit hotels for people who get stuck with a forced overnight in Beijing. I thought there was a possibility that Xiamen provided transit hotels, which would make the all-in pricing competitive (and help to justify the two-connection, 29 hour itinerary required to fly them to Beijing), so I called their customer service number.

The first time I called their customer service number, I sat on hold for a long time, and was abruptly informed by a recording that “we are busy at this time, please call again later.” The call then disconnected! I called again, and a very patient agent answered all of my questions.

She was able to see the same fare as me, but not with the same routing. Instead, the routing would have had me leaving Fuzhou in the late morning and I wouldn’t have gotten to Beijing until the following afternoon (two calendar days, mind you, after leaving Seattle). On the way back, I’d leave Beijing late, arrive in Xiamen really late, and then fly out super early in the morning the following day to catch my flight in Shenzhen. This itinerary (and similar ones) was also available on the Chase portal, which would have allowed me to spend just over 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points for this itinerary at 1.5 cents per point.

However, I kept searching around online travel agencies and finally found a somewhat better itinerary on the worst of them: CheapOAir. I really hate using this agency, because they don’t honor the standard 24 hour cancellation policy the airlines do (even if you made a booking 5 minutes ago in error, they still charge a $75 “agency fee” to change or cancel it). However, they are independent of Expedia and Priceline (the two companies that own the largest online travel agencies), and they negotiate with airlines directly. This means that they can get access to inventory that other travel sites don’t have. And in this case, their inventory–for the same price–gave me a much more reasonable (but still terrible) itinerary.

I had a lot of questions for the agent. She explained that the free transit hotel applied with the following conditions:

  • Xiamen flights only, no codeshares
  • 6-24 hour layover at Xiamen hub of Fuzhou, Shenzhen or Xiamen
  • Can be requested only upon arrival at Xiamen airport, no advance booking
  • Not applicable for class of service G, O, X, Z, E

 

However, she also stated that flights laying over in Shenzhen or Fuzhou would qualify. That being said, she wasn’t sure whether a hotel could be provided in Fuzhou on the itinerary she was contemplating if I changed to it in Shenzhen, because it would be considered a domestic flight.

xiamen airlines transit hotel policy

Is a transit hotel included? We’ll see.

The ticket I bought is for the absolute cheapest economy class fare. It’s an “S” fare, which is so cheap that no mileage credit is awarded for it in any program. It’s so cheap that the paid fare was about the same as the fuel surcharge would have been if I had redeemed Delta miles for this flight. Basically, it’s so cheap that there’s no conceivable way that Xiamen Air is making money, even if they flew me there in a jumpseat attached to the airplane toilet door and fed me gruel with sawdust and only water to drink.

Nevertheless, this ticket, on paper, qualifies for a transit hotel. I can’t wait to see whether I actually get it, or if I do, what it’s really like (I have stayed in some really awful hotels in China–will I become reacquainted with Zhang the Cockroach?). But at only $479, there are enough savings built into the itinerary that I can spring for a hotel along the way if I need to do so (if Xiamen Air is anything like China Eastern, I am pretty well assured that nothing promised–especially with as weak a promise as Xiamen Air provides–will actually be delivered). I did put the airfare on my Chase Sapphire Reserve, so there’s a possibility I could try to claim trip interruption insurance if Xiamen Air strands me (although this situation seems pretty clearly not covered, there are stories of people having success with questionable claims).

Oh, and seating? I could select from any middle seat I wanted. This will be a true Seat 31B itinerary. I’m taking off May 5th. Stay tuned!

Meeting Jonathan On St. Helena

The world’s oldest living land animal is a Seychelles giant tortoise named Jonathan. He is estimated to be about 186 years old, and he lives at the governor’s residence on St. Helena.

St. Helena governor's residence

The governor’s residence is beautifully maintained in Victorian style.

St. Helena queen's china

Tea is served on the Queen’s china. However, excellent local St. Helena coffee is also on offer.

While it’s possible to stop by and look at Jonathan and his friends (there are six tortoises in total) at any time, guided tours of the governor’s residence are offered once a week. You can either take a full tour or visit the library, which is well stocked with the sort of books that you would expect a territorial governor’s residence to have. The books date back hundreds of years but are primarily focused on the flora and fauna of the area, scientific discoveries, economics and politics (I read a book about the British West African Currency Board which operated in the 1950s) and even a collection of “Who’s Who” bound volumes.

governor's library, st. helena

The governor’s library is a pleasant place to spend an afternoon with a book about 1950s West African economics.

I called too late to get the full tour, but was able to visit the library. This is less expensive (costing 5 pounds) and I was still able to see most of the rooms in the governor’s residence; the primary difference between the library visit and the full tour is that you can’t go upstairs if you are on the library visit, there isn’t a formal guided tour, and you are served tea (on the Queen’s logo china) but not lunch.

Also on offer is local St. Helena coffee. It’s some of the best and most expensive coffee in the world, so I was happy to have that. It was, of course, excellent. The staff was friendly and accommodating and my cup was never empty.

Books and coffee cups

Coffee, tea, or economics?

When it became time for the library to close, I asked whether I could meet Jonathan. I expected that the staff would point out which one he was, and I’d be directed to the viewing area opposite. However, I was delighted to be allowed out onto the field directly with the tortoises for a little while so I could meet Jonathan up close and personally.

Jonathan the tortoise

Jonathan, the world’s oldest living land animal.

I’m not a spiritual person, but I could truly feel how old he is, how much he has seen, and the wisdom behind his piercing stare (clouded by cataracts though it was). He looked at me while chewing on the tall grass, and we didn’t need to have a conversation because there was nothing he could learn from me. I was the equivalent of a teenager beside a septugenarian. Maybe he spoke to me; I am not sure. I don’t speak tortoise.

Me with Jonathan

I feel less old when I look at this picture.

I heard the staff at the governor’s mansion calling to me from across the field. The front gate was being closed soon, so it was time for me to end my visit, and could I please be sure the enclosure was secure when I left? Of course I could, and gladly did.

passport stamp

The St. Helena exit stamp honors Jonathan.

Jonathan, along with the wirebird (which is native to St. Helena) holds a truly special place in the hearts of “Saints” (as residents are called) and the culture of the island. Many of the arts and crafts available for sale feature the tortoise, and he is even honored on the St. Helena exit stamp (the wirebird is on the entry stamp). I’m not sure whether Jonathan is aware he is so famous. Or that he would even care if he knew. After all, his life has spanned three of our generations. Of what use is fame when humans are so fleeting?

If you go to St. Helena, do visit the governor’s mansion. Read a book (or three) in the library. And enjoy the coffee and tea. But don’t miss the opportunity to spend some time with Jonathan!

Airlink Economy Class: Johannesburg to St. Helena

I was pretty sure my flight was at 1:15 in the afternoon. Sure enough that, from memory, I arranged with the front desk to take me to the airport at the appropriate time to make an afternoon flight. However, I’d asked for breakfast to be served early — around 6:00AM, since I missed dinner and knew I’d be up early due to jet lag.

At 3:00am, I woke up with the nagging feeling that something was wrong. I hadn’t actually checked my flight time, and I was operating from my fuzzy memory based on an entirely incorrect time zone. So I pulled out the paperwork and sure enough, my flight was at 9:00am. It *arrived* at 1:15 in the afternoon. It’s a good thing that I was planning to be up early. I set an alarm for 5:30AM and was in the lobby by 6:00AM.

Outlook Lodge breakfast area

The Outlook Lodge not only got me an early shuttle to the airport, but even made breakfast for me early.

Now, the general manager of the Outlook Lodge at OR Tambo International Airport is probably one of the best hotel general managers I’ve ever met. When I let him know there was a problem, there was absolutely no scolding me. He just immediately sprang into action and solved the problem, asking a driver to come in early to get me to the airport on time. And since I had asked for breakfast early, he even made sure that I had something to eat beforehand. I paid $26 per night for this hotel and I don’t think I have gotten better value anywhere else in the world, ever.

The driver dropped me off at the airport and I went to check in for my flight. The check-in agent could have worked for any US airline, being officious about weighing my bag and making me pointlessly move items around between the bags (the 3kg was going on the plane anyway, so there was absolutely no sense in this). This was also my first introduction to how many hoops that St. Helena authorities make the airline jump through. First, there was a thorough visa check. St. Helena’s visa policy is apparently now the same as the United Kingdom (it used to be more lax) but in the airline’s visa information database, they actually reference the visa policy of Ascension Island (a St. Helena possession) which only allows US and UK passport holders visa-free. But in any event, I had a US passport, so the check-in agent finally relented on the visa issue. None was actually required. The next hurdle involved travel insurance. I didn’t see anywhere that this was required, but it is. Fortunately I have a policy that offers global coverage and I had printed it out (assuming I’d possibly need it for South African authorities).

Clearly frustrated in her inability to trip me up, the check-in agent printed out my boarding passes and handed them to me. Looking directly at me, she said “Gate A30, boarding time 8:15.” I thought this was early for a 9:00am flight, but knew that the aircraft was a regional jet so thought it was possible that it would be at a remote stand which would explain the early boarding time. Taking note of the time, I saw that I had time to visit a lounge so I headed to the surprisingly excellent Shangololo Lounge. It’s brand new, very nicely decorated, had a selection of typical South African breakfast dishes along with a coffee machine (which is what I wanted), and was available to visit with my Priority Pass. While I chafe at paying $450 a year for my Chase Sapphire Reserve, I really do get a lot of mileage out of the Priority Pass and often end up eating in lounges for “free” when I would otherwise grab a snack in the airport.

shangololo lounge photo

The Shangololo Lounge has a smart, modern, and distinctively African design.

airlink bus gate

Don’t miss the bus for your Airlink flight! Get to the gate early.

At 8:10, I left the lounge and headed to my gate. I was right – the gate was a bus gate, and the aircraft was at a remote stand. Airlink had begun boarding at 8:15am sharp, and they were checking passports and travel insurance policies again at the gate. Obviously, there must be a massive fine involved for transporting people without proper insurance. After checking my documents once again, I was scanned through. I boarded the bus, and we waited and waited and waited and waited. Eventually the agent came on board looking for two people. They weren’t there. We waited a couple of minutes, and eventually a very frustrated gate agent boarded. There were two people missing, but they’d checked luggage, and now their bags would have to be offloaded. The gate agent wanted the flight out on time, and that wasn’t going to happen. She openly hated working the flight and all of its attendant hassles, especially the superfluous documentation checks.

My bag, as expected, was gate checked. There was no way it would fit in the overhead bin (despite meeting the published bag dimensions) which is why I’d offered to check it at the counter. Obviously the airline wouldn’t do that, because it would actually have made sense. The gate agent, to her credit, pulled me aside to gate check my bag before I carried it up the stairs–she knew it wouldn’t fit. Finally, I was on board. My economy class seat was surprisingly comfortable for a regional jet, and given that it was the appropriate width and nicely padded, it was actually more comfortable than many 737s.

We ended up waiting awhile longer – apparently as soon as the bus pulled away, the two late passengers showed up, looking appropriately sheepish and clearly fresh from a tongue-lashing. The annoyed gate agent apparently decided that shuttling them over to the flight would be faster than offloading their bags and doing all the paperwork so good news for them, they managed to make the one flight of the week. Bad news for us, though, we’d lost our take-off slot so the pilot announced we were on a short ground hold. However, this time, “short” actually meant that. We were making our way to the runway almost as soon as he finished the announcement. A few hours later, after being served a chicken salad sandwich for breakfast, we were landing in Windhoek, Namibia.

This flight is very unusual because it requires a technical stop in Windhoek, Namibia for fuel. Aircraft are required to have enough fuel to divert to another airport in the event the destination airport is unavailable. St. Helena can’t accept aircraft larger than an Embraer E75, and even these can have trouble landing due to the extreme cross-wind weather conditions at the airport. The aircraft that Airlink uses has enough range to safely divert if necessary, but only at slightly above 70% passenger load (meaning they can only sell 70 seats per flight) and only if the tanks are topped off in Namibia so there’s enough fuel to divert to either Ascension Island or Walvis Bay. What’s more, there aren’t any aircraft mechanics living on St. Helena (with only one flight a week, no locals have yet taken up the profession), so the airline has to bring a mechanic along on the flight. It started to become clear why the flight cost nearly $1,200 roundtrip: this was an extremely expensive flight for the airline to operate.

technical stop in windhoek

Tanks full to the brim during a technical stop in Windhoek. Enough fuel is needed to return to Walvis Bay. Air Namibia aircraft in the background.

Back up in the air, the flight crew came through again and served lunch. Yes, two full meals plus four beverage services on a 6 hour economy class flight! I chatted with the crew for a moment and learned that they do a turn at St. Helena and fly all the way back to Johannesburg the same day. It’s a 15 hour day. While this isn’t a longer work day than, say, a New York to Hong Kong flight, it’s arguably a lot more work getting two flights and three (and scheduled to be four) segments out the door. The crew gets one day for rest, and then they’re back to work the following day.

Airlink meal

Second meal on Airlink flight. This was more substantial than the sandwich served earlier.

We began our descent a few hours later. I had moved from my original seat to an empty window seat in the row across from me, and was delighted to have a first view of the island. My first thought was “how in the hell are we going to land on that?!” The island is the top of an undersea volcano, with craggy jagged peaks and sheer cliffs dramatically rising out of the ocean. But then we were looping around the island, turning around in the other direction, and with a more rapid descent than usual we had a very firm touchdown. Some of the folks seemed jarred by the firm landing, but I’d expected it. Crosswind conditions are nothing to mess with; pilots want to get the flight on the ground as quickly and safely as possible with comfort a secondary consideration (firm landings can also be safe landings–the pilot didn’t necessarily mess up if you really feel it).

The St. Helena authorities have clearly been extensively trained and they’re doing everything by the book. The immigration agent asked me a lot of questions about where I was staying that were difficult to answer because I didn’t have a formal reservation from a booking agency, but rather had just arranged private accommodations through the tourist office. I eventually dug up the name of the person I’d worked with at the tourist office and the immigration agent was satisfied I wouldn’t be homeless. I also told the immigration agent I was leaving on the next flight, and she stamped me in until … the next flight. That’s it! Technically I could have stayed for 6 months with no visa, but why give someone even a day longer than needed? They might extend their trip and spend more money! Something I was happier to see was proper and extensive attention paid to biological quarantine procedures. St. Helena has one of the last populations of bees that hasn’t been subject to colony collapse and biosecurity is extremely important on the island. After Customs scanned my bags and found them free of guns or whatever they were looking for, I was officially cleared and was on the island.

Wrap-Up

Overall, this flight is in a way very usual (be prepared for all of the regular airline hassles) and also very unusual (extensive documentation requirements, multiple meal services and a technical stop). I found it surprisingly comfortable for a regional jet and it felt safely and professionally operated. While it’s disappointing that I couldn’t book the flight with miles and had to pay cash, it’s understandable that it’s so expensive. Even given the very high airfare, the government of St. Helena still subsidizes the flight. Despite operating only once a week, the flight is a massive improvement versus the previous boat, which operated just once every 3 weeks, and took 5 days from Cape Town.

 

Cathay Pacific First Class – SFO-HKG December 2017 (with Alaska connection)

Probably the last review you’d ever expect to read on Seat 31B is a review of Cathay Pacific first class. However, for the trip I booked to South Africa and St. Helena, the deal was just too good to pass up. I wrote more about how I found and booked the flight here.

Sea-Tac Airport was far less busy than I expected on the day after Christmas. My first flight on the itinerary was with Alaska Airlines so I checked in with them. Although I brought two bags with me, I only checked one of them because I wanted to change into a fresh pair of clothes in Hong Kong. The Alaska Airlines agent was able to check my bag all the way through to Johannesburg. This is an improvement versus when I flew Alaska and Cathay Pacific last year via Vancouver, when the Alaska agent could only check my bag as far as Vancouver and I had to claim and re-check the bag with Cathay there.

One thing I didn’t notice until I was at the security lane was that for some reason, my known traveler number hadn’t made it onto the reservation. I reserved over the phone and the agent didn’t ask for it, and I guess they didn’t automatically pull from my Alaska file like my reservations normally do. I could have gone back to straighten it out, but the premium lane was actually shorter at Sea-Tac than the precheck lane. I had to argue a bit with the agent that first class passengers are, in fact, entitled to use the premium lane (she turned me away without even looking at my ticket) but when I pressed the issue she let me through.

Alaska Airlines – Seattle Lounge And First Class

My flight was departing from the north satellite so I went to the Alaska lounge, where the agent turned me away, so I again pressed the issue. I had paid for first class, and I was flying in first class. However, when I originally booked, the itinerary was mixed cabin because there was no first class award space on the Alaska flight. Alaska waitlisted me for a first class upgrade (because I had paid for first class), and I had a high position on the upgrade list because I’d technically already paid for first class. So, two days before departure, I was upgraded to first class for the Alaska leg, but because this showed as an *upgrade* versus paid first class, the agent denied me lounge access.

Now, all of this makes complete sense using airline logic, but it didn’t actually make *common* sense. I paid for a first class fare, had a Priority Pass besides, was flying in first class, and I wasn’t allowed access to the lounge because of a technicality. I politely asked the agent whether this made sense, explaining that I’d paid for a first class fare and was flying in first class, and he finally relented and let me into the lounge. I am glad that Alaska gives front-line staff some discretion in stuff like this because kicking me out would have made no logical sense whatsoever even if I wasn’t technically “entitled.”

Picture of Alaska 737

My ride to SFO

The Alaska lounge in the north satellite is simple, functional and crowded. It is designed to be a temporary facility until Alaska builds a new lounge there in a few years. I could see why the front desk agent was so protective of the limited space. I had a bowl of soup in the lounge (Alaska is famous for its soups) and drank some refreshing cucumber water, and before too long it was time for my Alaska flight to San Francisco. Onboard, the flight attendant was senior, professional, and super friendly. Like most of the staff at Alaska it was clear she loved her job and took pride in her work. The catering onboard was the horribly named “protein plate” which is actually a Mediterranean style tapas dish. It was nice and the Bloody Mary I had along with it was properly stiff.

SFO Arrival And Cathay Pacific Lounge

My Alaska flight arrived in Terminal 2 at SFO, and Cathay Pacific departs from the international terminal. This transfer requires leaving the secure area of the airport, taking a train, and re-clearing security. The whole thing takes forever, it’s clunky and terrible, and I really hope Alaska improves the experience if they expect to effectively use SFO as a hub airport. As in Seattle, I was initially denied access to the premium lane until I pointed out that I was flying in first class. I think the reason for this is that premium cabin passengers mostly have precheck now, so they don’t use the premium lane anymore (where regular TSA security procedures apply). So the lane is primarily used by wheelchair passengers. It’s a relatively rare case where someone flying in a premium cabin actually wants to use the premium lane, so agents working these lanes are used to just denying people, probably 99% of whom don’t belong there. And I don’t look the part of someone flying in a premium cabin.

SFO yoga room

If you can’t get into the lounge, at least there’s a yoga room at SFO!

I cleared security quickly (despite the standard TSA procedures, it was much faster than the precheck lane) and headed to the Cathay Pacific lounge. The agent looked me up and down, and it was clear she also didn’t think I belonged there, but she politely asked to see my ticket. I showed it to her, and she then asked to see my return itinerary from South Africa. I had this printed out as well. After some frowning and scowling and typing, and without saying a word, she handed me new boarding passes on Cathay Pacific stock. “Are we all set?” I asked, and she said “yes.”

The Cathay lounge at San Francisco has two sides, with buffets on each side (a selection of cheap unappetizing Chinese dishes on one side, and equally cheap unappetizing Western snacks on the other), seating, and a ramen bar (which is actually pretty good, with soup made to order). With 4 hours until my flight (which became 5 hours because my flight was delayed), I figured a light snack made sense, so I had some vegetarian ramen noodles (the only non-fish option) and apple juice. I then decided that it would make sense to take a shower, so asked at the front desk. They traded my boarding pass for a key. However, when I went into the shower room, there weren’t any towels, so after tracking someone down (which was surprisingly hard) I eventually found someone to get me a towel. This shower room was at least stocked with a full selection of amenities, so I was able to shave after my shower.

cathay lounge SFO seating area

So sterile. The whole place feels like “you don’t belong here”

After taking a shower I was able to get my boarding pass back from the staff, and waited in the lounge until the flight was announced. I ignored the snacks which didn’t look at all appetizing.

gross food in cathay lounge

I don’t get why people rave about this. It’s cheap food like you get at a Chinese buffet.

So yeah. Was it a better place to spend time than the gate area? Sure. Is it worth all the fawning reviews that Cathay Pacific lounges get? Probably not. Sure, it was nice, but it was a basic lounge.

On Board – Cathay Pacific First Class

It was a long walk from the lounge to the gate. It took some work to get through the crowded gate area to the premium cabin line, but–somewhat to my surprise–nobody tried to stop me from entering it. Instead, the gate agent scanned my boarding pass and said “first door on the left, please” and she even smiled. On board, the flight attendant showed me to my seat (1A), which was immediately adjacent to the door. First class cabins on Cathay Pacific don’t have overhead bins; instead, you put your bag into a compartment that is part of the seat. Unfortunately these are a smaller size than most overhead bins so it took some work to fit my bag inside the compartment. The flight attendant watched me struggle with it but didn’t offer any assistance, and I finally managed with considerable effort to wedge my bag inside.

Cathay first class seat guest chair

Not the seat. It’s the *extra* seat.

The first class seat itself was enormous. It’s so big it comes with an extra seat. It’s nicely laid out, with fresh flowers. However, the inflight entertainment system is old. It comes with a remote control and the response time is sluggish. Also, although there is seat power, it kept switching itself off when I tried to charge my phone (this was an issue in Cathay business class as well). And to my surprise, there was no onboard WiFi.

Once we were up in the air, the flight attendants almost immediately took our dinner orders. I am allergic to some types of fish so generally avoid fish dishes unless I can control exactly what is in them. Unfortunately this narrowed my selections to Western dishes only and meant that I had to skip part of the meal, because Cathay Pacific seems to put fish in almost everything. The starter (champagne and caviar) was out, but I don’t like caviar and I can’t drink much wine (sulfite allergy) so would have skipped it anyway. I asked if I could have the Chinese pickled vegetables instead that were offered with the Chinese meal, but she was unable to accommodate this.

I did have most of the rest of the dishes and they were good. The starter was a butternut squash soup served with a bread basket.

Butternut squash soup with bread basket

Butternut squash soup with bread basket

Steak with roasted baby vegetables

Steak with roasted baby vegetables

There were only two non-fish options for the main, and one of them (mushroom ravioli) that I definitely didn’t want, so I let the flight attendant know as soon as possible that I wanted the steak and *only* the steak. Fortunately she was able to accommodate this request. Unlike the last steak I had in Cathay Pacific first class (which was tough and stringy), this one was very good. It was served medium as I requested, was accompanied by a side of roasted vegetables, and was tender and cooked to perfection.

Bread pudding

The bread pudding was excellent.

For dessert, I had bread pudding and vanilla ice cream, which was also excellent. I also requested a dram of Scotch whisky. The only single malt on offer was (if I remember right) a Glenmorangie 12, which was acceptable but not exceptional. The most expensive (but not the best) Scotch whisky on the menu was Johnny Walker Blue. The flight attendant asked if I’d like it “on the rocks.” My reply was “of course not!”

After dinner I was stuffed, and I was tired from it being late. I changed into the pair of complimentary pajamas (which are designed by a company called PYE and are supposedly expensive but I think they’re awkward to wear – they have a bunch of buttons) and while I did that, the flight attendant prepared my seat. The seat lies fully flat, and when you’re ready to sleep, the flight attendants set it up for you with a mattress pad so it turns into a bed. A lot of bloggers rave about this and say that it’s as comfortable as their bed at home, etc. I’m assuming that Cathay must have comped them the flight because while it’s OK and certainly beats flying in coach, it’s not *that* comfortable. It’s like lying on a padded bench that has a Costco mattress pad on top of it. Not one of those super fancy memory foam ones, but the cheap kind. The bedding is nice; it’s a duvet. The pillow, however, was surprisingly small.

Me in Cathay first.

The cat’s pajamas? Best thing since sliced bread? Meh. Nice, but no longer exceptional.

I woke up about 8 hours later, but it was much too early to be up and about. I watched a movie (Dunkirk) since I couldn’t sleep. It was easy to see why–despite one of my good friends working on the special effects–the movie was a box office bomb. There was no Hollywood happy ending. People want a happy ending. This movie was depressing and exhausting but that was good because I needed some extra sleep, so I passed out for another couple of hours. I walked up to the galley and asked the flight attendant to turn the bed into a seat, which she did. Breakfast came about an hour before landing, as I requested; it was scrambled eggs (freshly prepared onboard), fruit, toast (when is the last time you had that on an airplane?) and some other things. They didn’t have brewed coffee, only espresso, but I found this out when I got the “black coffee” I ordered (it was knock-you-on-your-ass strong espresso). IHOP gives you more for $7 but the quality of everything was good and I didn’t feel like I was still hungry afterwards.

Cathay first breakfast

Cathay fresh cooks your breakfast on the plane.

Upon arrival in Hong Kong, the immigration wait was very short (I got right through) and I visited the Cathay Pacific arrivals lounge. The front desk agent was friendly, quick and efficient. I wanted to shower and change clothes. There’s usually a wait to get a shower, but because I was there first, I was able to get right in. The shower room had a towel this time, but no razor and shaving cream. I fortunately had my bag with me so dug these out, and after my shower I got into a fresh change of clothes. If you have a long layover in the arrivals lounge Cathay Pacific will store your bag for you, so I pulled everything heavy out of my backpack (including electronics, etc.) and put them into the bag with the pajamas from the flight. The front desk agent put the bag in storage, handing me a claim check, and notified me that, if I’d rather check it now, I could check in my bag upstairs onward to Johannesburg if I wanted. I had some more coffee, juice and a breakfast pastry in the lounge and as it got close to 9:00am (bank opening time), I made my way upstairs. It was fast and easy to check my bag onward to Johannesburg and I went out into Hong Kong to buy some UK pounds, do some shopping, and have a business dinner. However, when I checked in my bag, the agent had to take all of the same information about my return flight as the lounge agent in San Francisco had. The first agent must have entered it incorrectly and it was annoying having to provide all of the same information again.

hong kong computer market

There are few things I love more than a Hong Kong computer market!

Cathay Pacific – The Wing First Class Lounge

I arrived back at the airport about 3 hours before my flight, retrieved my stuff from the arrivals lounge with no issues, and got right through security and immigration. This was in the regular line, not any sort of premium or VIP line. Hong Kong is just that efficient–the airport is exceptionally well-run. I headed to The Wing, which is the Cathay Pacific first class lounge. I had been in this lounge before (last year on my flight back from Myanmar) but on the business class side. When I arrived I was suddenly surrounded by lounge attendants who approached me immediately in a very polite but firm way (they were almost running). Then they looked at my ticket and welcomed me into the lounge.

The first class side is virtually identical to the business class side of the lounge, except that there isn’t a noodle bar and it’s less crowded. It’s honestly nothing special at all. The only thing special about it is who is there. I am pretty sure I saw Elon Musk, but I followed “Hollywood rules” which are that you never engage someone famous, you only respond if they engage you. And guy-who-was-possibly-Elon didn’t engage me so I will never know for sure if that’s who it was.

I took a shower–the first class shower suites are slightly fancier than normal, with a special chute you can stick shirts through to be ironed. They magically get ironed and hung back up in the closet. And the room is slightly larger than the business class lounge. Other than that–I honestly couldn’t believe this: there wasn’t a razor and shaving cream! Cathay Pacific has started doing the same cheapskate thing that the Ramada Inn does, where they don’t stock things in the room and you have to go ask for them at the front desk. Except what am I going to do, walk out there dripping wet with a towel wrapped around me? Or get dressed, go out, ask for the thing I want, and then go back and shave? Instead, I went without shaving, which is exactly what Cathay wanted. I am sure they might have saved up to 75 cents. Oh, and those foot massages everyone raves about? Those aren’t in the first class lounge either. They’re in an entirely different business class lounge. Also, the Scotch whisky served in the first class lounge is blended. And it was offered “on the rocks.” I swear I am not making this up.

There are no pictures here because I didn’t want to make other people in the lounge feel uncomfortable by taking them–but you can find plenty of other pictures online and it was really nothing special. The service isn’t better. The catering isn’t better. The alcohol isn’t higher quality. You don’t even get shower amenities without asking for them. I think the only real reason to sit in a first class Cathay Pacific lounge is if you’re famous and don’t want to be around ordinary people. And just like the SFO lounge, it was just totally sterile and lifeless.

My connecting flight onward to Johannesburg was in business class because Cathay Pacific doesn’t operate a first class cabin anymore on that route. I’m going to leave off here because that was the end of the “first class” experience and write another review of the business class flight.

Cathay First? Meh.

You have probably picked up by now that I’m not giddily raving about the experience like most bloggers do. Sure, it was nice, and definitely beat sitting in the back, and it was still a pretty good value for the 70,000 miles and $70 or so that I spent. However, if I’d paid cash for this flight, it would have cost almost $25,000. This is about 4 times what a paid business class fare would have cost. It was more than 10 times what a premium economy class ticket would have cost. Was it worth that much? Not even close! The service and attention to detail simply wasn’t there. For that much money, I expect at least the level of amenities that I can get at a Holiday Inn Express without having to fight for them. I expect some Chinese pickled vegetables if I want them (come on, Cathay, this is a pretty common Chinese snack and it’s certainly not expensive). I expect a proper, fine, 18 year old Islay Scotch whisky on the beverage menu–or something equally special–and I certainly don’t expect to have it offered to me “on the rocks.” I mean, who does that?

I also expect at least the level of care and attention that I get in first class on an Alaska flight, where a single flight attendant is looking after up to 16 passengers versus the two flight attendants looking after 6 passengers on a Cathay flight. The crew on the flight was professional, but when I wanted water, I had to go looking for them. After the third time I walked to the galley and asked for a bottle of water, you’d think they’d have figured out where I was keeping my water bottle and made sure I always had a full one (I drink a lot of water on planes because of the dry air). I mean, China Eastern literally did a better job of keeping me hydrated in economy class. They came around with water, I didn’t even have to go ask for it.

Wrap-up

So, should you fly Cathay Pacific in first class? On the Alaska award chart, it can still make sense. It’s only incrementally more expensive than business class, so if it’s available, go for it! However, on the American, Avios or Asia Miles award chart, or *especially* if you’re paying cash, it’s just silly. First class is slightly better than business class in some respects, but actually worse in others (I’ll take a fancy lounge with a noodle bar and foot massages over a stuffy lounge with bad whisky and Elon Musk in it, and I’ll take an overhead bin that can fit my bag over having to manhandle my bag into a tight space). And I expect at least the level of beverage service that I’d get in economy class. Ultimately, these are all “first world problems” but when you’re paying as much for a flight as most cars cost, it’s completely reasonable to expect an exceptional experience. And I just didn’t get that.

 

Planning And Preparing To Visit St. Helena

I’ll admit it: advance planning and preparation isn’t always my strong suit. A lot of the time when I travel, I like to book at the last minute and figure things out when I get there. St. Helena is not a destination where you can really get away with doing this so if you are planning to visit, planning and preparing in advance is essential.

Part of this is because St. Helena Island is one of the most remote places in the world. It’s slightly less remote than it used to be because there is now one flight a week, on a plane with 70 seats for sale (this is a tough flight to book, but I wrote instructions here). So, presuming you’re starting from South Africa, you can get there in a day.

Nevertheless, you can’t just show up and hope it’ll all work out. Really, you can’t. The population is only 4,255 people and while they do have some tourism infrastructure, it is limited and not fully developed. What is there is, of course, civilized (St. Helena is part of the UK after all), but you can’t just breeze into town and expect to be able to rent a car and find a hotel easily. In fact, the wrong assumptions can get you deported.

Have A Visa If You Need One

st helena passport stamp

You will be stamped in for exactly the length of your visit–no longer!

Numerous places on the Internet state that anyone can enter St. Helena for a period of up to 180 days without a visa. This is totally wrong. St. Helena has changed its visa policy with the initiation of flights. It mirrors the visa requirements for the United Kingdom except that South Africans, unlike when visiting the main part of the UK, do not need a visa.

In addition, St. Helena has Airlink (the airline) enforce this and given that the policies are different for St. Helena and Ascension island, sometimes the check-in agents will claim that only US and UK passports are allowed. Given that I had to remind the Airlink check-in agent that my passport was in fact a US passport, I decided not to argue the point any further.

Also, note that you won’t get 180 days automatically. You’ll be stamped in for only the exact number of days that you can prove that you have accommodations. My passport was stamped in for only a week, because my departure was then. I initially thought that this was pretty unfriendly because I’d be committing an immigration violation with no way to avoid it if the flight was delayed through no fault of my own. However, the tourist office explained that an extension would in fact be granted in such a circumstance. I still think that the policy limits flexibility (I wouldn’t have been able to extend my stay if I had wanted to do so), but these are the rules as they currently stand.

Round Trip Tickets Are Required

Obviously, because of the immigration policy above, you’re required to book (and show proof of) a round-trip ticket. It’s not possible to book a one way ticket, have an indeterminate visit, and then buy your return ticket on the island when you decide you want to leave. Again, this is just not a travel destination that allows for much spontaneity or flexibility. You need to make a specific plan and you’ll have to stick to it.

Travel Insurance Is Required

Travel insurance in the amount of GBP 1,000,000 is required to visit the island and the airline checks this before you’re allowed to board a flight. Fortunately the airline missed that the insurance was in USD rather than GBP, and fortunately St. Helena immigration officials also let that slide (technically, they could have deported me). Most visitors on my flight didn’t know that they had to provide proof of insurance and were scrambling to show it at the airport. This is checked when your boarding passes are issued, again before boarding the plane, and once more when clearing St. Helena immigration. They are really serious about this but they don’t sell insurance at the airport either.

You Need A Place To Stay

You aren’t allowed to enter St. Helena without accommodations already secured. They still do things very much the old fashioned way on the island. Accommodations aren’t listed on Web booking platforms like airbnb or booking.com, and for the most part, you can’t pay with a credit card either. Instead, you need to book through the St. Helena Tourism office.

This doesn’t happen instantly. The way it works is you email the tourist office (don’t call, because it costs a minimum of $1.50 per minute), then they call everyone on the island who rents rooms to see if any are available, and they’ll get back to you with a list of what’s available. This might be an extremely short list. When I reached out, there were only two options available, both relatively top end for the island. It took a few more days to sort things out and I only had the accommodations finalized the day before I arrived.

What I didn’t realize until I got there was just how high stakes having accommodations is. While the St. Helena tourism office does come to the airport to meet every flight, and presumably they can try to assist you last-minute, you’ll actually be turned around and sent home by immigration authorities if there isn’t anywhere for you to stay on the island. I normally travel pretty casually, making things up as I go and figuring things out when I get there. That’s just fine in most places (and often gets you great last-minute deals) but it 100% doesn’t work in St. Helena.

 

St. Helena bungalow

I stayed in this tidy bungalow for GBP 60 per night

The upshot? The place where I stayed was perfectly lovely! It was a “self catering cottage” which meant a house with a kitchen. The place was spotless but didn’t come with maid service. A couple of hotels are also available in Jamestown, but at much higher prices than the properties you can rent. These, however, come with amenities such as a restaurant and bar, and maid service is provided.

Book A Car In Advance

old rental car

Old, dented, manual transmission, but I was happy to have it!

If you’re wanting to explore the island, you’ll need a car… or be prepared to spend a lot on taxis. Since I hadn’t really booked in advance, the tourist office couldn’t arrange a car for me because none were available. The owner of my home was fortunately willing to drive me to the house (at an extra charge), and it turned out she knew someone who knew someone who had a car. It showed up a day later with a handshake and no paperwork (I didn’t even know I was paying GBP 12 daily until the end), so everything ultimately worked out and I was able to tour the island. However, it very well might not have worked out! I just got lucky, because a vehicle that was out of service when I originally tried to book was able to be returned to service, and my host just happened to know this.

There are no brand name rental car companies on the island. The companies are all family owned. None of them take credit cards, so your credit card insurance doesn’t apply either. Fortunately all of the companies include local insurance with your car rental, and the deductible is fairly low with a small out-of-pocket expense for damages (under GBP 100).

It’s worth noting that rental cars are equipped with manual transmissions and they have right-hand drive (which doesn’t matter much, because most roads on St. Helena are one lane, but your points of reference will all be different if you’re used to driving left-hand drive vehicles).

Print Out Everything

Mobile phones are still a relatively new and very expensive luxury on St. Helena, so immigration officials aren’t very used to navigating smartphones yet. Also, there isn’t any roaming data signal and there is no free WiFi in the airport, so your phone will be completely useless anyway (unless you have downloaded all of your documents). I saw a lot of folks fumbling with phones that weren’t working well and it was obviously uncomfortable for everyone involved. Print out all of your documentation proving your bona fides: your itinerary, housing arrangements, and travel insurance. Immigration authorities in St. Helena are friendly, but very thorough, and you can expect they will check this.

Bring Cash (In GBP)

St. Helena is almost entirely a cash economy, but there are no ATMs on the island. Let me repeat: There are no ATMs on the island. Yes, I know it’s 2018, but there is only one bank and it’s best avoided because it is both extremely archaic and extremely expensive to deal with. If you need money, they can only give you a cash advance from your credit card with a massive fee, plus the massive fee your bank charges on top of it. They will also change US dollars, euros or South African rand at poor rates.

uk pounds cash

The solution is to bring UK pounds with you, in cash. Where do you get those? I bought mine at HSBC on a layover in Hong Kong on the way to St. Helena where good rates are available. You can get them in South Africa at rates that aren’t as good as in Hong Kong or the UK, but better than on St. Helena.

You will need enough cash for everything you plan to do on the island. The number of places that take credit cards can be counted on one hand, and they all levy a stiff surcharge for accepting them.

While you can pay for things with UK pounds on the island, you’ll generally get your change in St. Helena pounds. These are worthless (except as souvenirs) as soon as you leave the island so you have to change them into UK pounds before you leave. The Bank of St. Helena will do this, but charges a 2% fee for changing your pounds into… well, pounds. However, St. Helena people are very friendly, so if you tell them you’re leaving the island and ask for change in UK pounds, they’ll try to accommodate your request if they can.

Don’t Miss Your Flight

“Don’t miss the boat” has turned into “don’t miss your flight.” There is only one flight a week, so when you’re visiting St. Helena, it’s really important that you don’t miss your flight. Two of the passengers for our flight showed up late, in fact, and nearly missed the flight. It’s easier to miss the flight than you might think. It leaves from a bus gate all the way at the far end of Johannesburg airport, about a 10 minute walk from any of the airport lounges. Because the gate is a bus gate, they just load everyone on the bus exactly when boarding starts. So if you aren’t there at the boarding time listed on your ticket, you actually missed the flight.

The two late passengers didn’t know it was a bus gate and figured that the start of boarding time wouldn’t be the end of boarding time, because it never is. Only because it would have taken the gate agent longer to offload their bags than to send the bus back to pick up the wayward passengers were they accommodated. If they’d showed up 3 minutes later, the result would have been the opposite.

Bring Supplies–But Mind The Quarantine

There are a handful of stores on the island and they do carry a basic selection of groceries and consumer goods. However, nearly every food item for sale on St. Helena (with the exception of some local fish, produce, eggs, bread, meat and coffee) is imported and therefore extremely expensive due to the very high cost of freight. I also don’t want to overstate how many local goods are actually available; I didn’t see a single egg for sale the whole time I was there, and bread is only available a couple of times each week. Many of the goods sold originate from the UK which means they are shipped first from there to South Africa, and then onward to St. Helena. Given my experience visiting similarly remote parts of Alaska, I knew that it was probably a good idea to maximize my baggage allowance and bring as many groceries with me as possible.

This turned out to be a very good decision, keeping in mind the baggage limitations. This is important: The baggage allowance on flights to South Africa is 23kg, but it’s 20kg within South Africa and from South Africa to St. Helena. I brought a large check-in bag and loaded it to exactly 20kg, then put all the heaviest things into my carry-on bag which was not weighed. If your bag is overweight, this will backfire because airline fees are very high for overweight baggage.

What did I bring? Stuff that I thought would be difficult or expensive to find there, could survive an 11,000 mile trip, and could clear St. Helena’s strict quarantine (canned and packaged food is OK, nearly everything else is out). The quarantine is really very important to follow because it protects the unique biodiversity on the island–the most important forbidden item is honey, but you should declare everything you have and let the authorities take whatever they want (I invited them to inspect my stuff and they were fine with all of it). Among the things I brought were tortillas, refried beans, Parmesan cheese, rice milk, breakfast supplies like pancake mix and oatmeal and granola bars, snacks, Tabasco sauce, taco sauce, real Vermont maple syrup… you’d be surprised how much you can fit in 20 kilos if you buy stuff that is not in heavy packaging. This saved me a bundle, easily more than $100. Was it a little more hassle dealing with a checked bag? Yes, but for $100, I really didn’t mind the hassle. I was mostly right on the items that would be hard to find there, but the variety of goods available was a little better than I was expecting. It was also totally worth it when I got to enjoy a stack of delicious pancakes on the patio.

View from the patio

A taste of home is a lot sweeter when it comes with this view!

Obviously, I didn’t use up everything I brought with me, so I just left the extra for the next visitors. I mean, how much of a treat is it to show up on St. Helena and find Snoqualmie Falls Lodge pancake mix in the cupboard and pure maple syrup in the refrigerator? A pretty big one for me, and the homeowner (Mrs. George) seemed to think it would be a nice surprise for them too.

If you don’t buy groceries to bring with you, at least bring your own booze. Max out the Customs allowance. It’s very expensive on St. Helena so if you want to enjoy a cocktail, you will be glad you brought it with you!

Wrap-Up

St. Helena is a wonderful holiday destination, but getting there requires considerably more planning and preparation than most destinations. The economy there is frozen in an era before ATMs and credit cards, and it is also expensive once you arrive. While St. Helena is not a budget travel destination, you can still save a lot of money on unnecessary expenses through advance planning.

Adventures With LifeMiles: South African Airways and United Business Class

Having secured my outbound flight to South Africa, I needed to figure out how to get back. My first choice was using Avianca LifeMiles because I don’t trust the program, had a substantial mileage balance, and the program doesn’t levy fuel surcharges (which are substantial over such a long distance using other programs). I was starting with 69,000 Avianca LifeMiles. 60,000 of these came from an Avianca Vuela credit card signup (so I got them for free), and the remainder came from a combination of flights credited to the program and credit card spend. Now, LifeMiles is one of the least trustworthy programs of all airlines. This is not a program you want to keep a lot of miles in, and especially not for long. Behind the scenes, LifeMiles is the spun-off (but captive) program of a financially shaky Colombian airline in the midst of a bruising management battle. They have frequently devalued points, sometimes with no notice. In fact, in between the time I booked this trip and flew (just 3 weeks later), there was another program devaluation.

Making matters worse, it’s often very difficult to redeem LifeMiles. You’ll see blogs say stuff like “it isn’t for the faint of heart” (often while trying to sell you a credit card or even worse, purchased miles), but that doesn’t actually mean anything. Here’s what redeeming LifeMiles is like in practice: The Web site suffers from frequent technical issues, so it’s often not possible to book flights that show as available. And when it does, you’re negotiating with Colombians which is like negotiating for anything else in Latin America–patience and Spanish-language ability are both a big help. Unlike with other airlines, calling in won’t help you here: telephone agents just use the Web site for you (and charge you a fee to do it) so if you can’t book it on the Web site, you can’t book it over the phone. So, although I definitely wanted to burn LifeMiles if possible, I was willing to use other miles if it wasn’t possible. As long as I was willing to return January 16th or later, there was plenty of availability in economy class using multiple programs so I was confident in attempting to book with LifeMiles given that I had more than one backup plan.

One recent change in the LifeMiles program is that they now allow mixed cabin bookings, and they also discount a business class itinerary based on the economy class legs involved. This is actually positive because most programs charge you the full business class price if even one leg is in business class. I am not entirely sure how the pricing works, but one example is it was only ~51,000 LifeMiles for a mixed cabin itinerary departing from Johannesburg to Frankfurt in economy class, connecting onward to a United flight in business class to San Francisco. I don’t really understand the logic here because if you took a flight from Europe to the US in business class it’s 63,000 points, but it’s cheaper for a longer journey if you have a leg from Europe in business class on a mixed cabin itinerary. I kept playing with the site and eventually found an itinerary that would get me back to Seattle if I was willing to fly an overnight segment in economy class, connect in Europe, and then connect again in Chicago. It wasn’t ideal but the price was right so I went ahead and attempted to book it.

Not an itinerary I was excited about–except for the price.

Naturally, the Web site choked and failed. Who knows why. It doesn’t matter. I got all the way to the end and it bombed out. This happens often. I called in, and they suggested I try again. No dice. So, I found out from the telephone agent that there is a backdoor procedure you can use with LifeMiles to book. You start by emailing support@lifemiles.com with the itinerary you want, and an explanation that you can’t book it online due to technical errors. It helps if you have screen shots of the itinerary and pricing. The LifeMiles support center will email you back a day or so later and ask for a scan of your passport. I sent them a picture. They’ll then forward it to a really friendly guy in Medellin, Colombia. A day or two later, he’ll call you up and ask if you if you still want to book. Best of all, he works directly in the reservations system, and has access to StarNet, so he can book any StarAlliance inventory that is available to partners. This is very different than you’ll normally see on the LifeMiles site, where certain partners (such as South African Airways) appear to be blocked.

He confirmed with me the itinerary I was attempting to book, but it wasn’t actually available any longer. In between the time that I had originally looked and the time that I worked through the email procedures, the inventory had disappeared. However, while we were talking, I was searching (on the United Web site, which still isn’t perfect but does a better job of showing StarAlliance inventory) and I found a better itinerary. It was business class from Johannesburg to London on South African Airways, then from London to Chicago in business class on United, and finally from Chicago to Seattle in economy class.

Still not perfect, but much better than before.

He saw the itinerary as bookable but it wasn’t appearing on the LifeMiles Web site, so here’s the craziest part: we negotiated the price! It’s 75,000 LifeMiles for an itinerary that is entirely in business class. However, since there was a leg in economy class, he agreed to discount the itinerary to 72,000 LifeMiles. This seems like around the right price based on what the site was displaying for similar itineraries, but it’s clear he just manually priced the itinerary and had the ability to charge any price that made sense. Since I had only 69,000 points, he collected $99 for the 3,000 additional points along with the roughly $101 in taxes and $25 booking fee. A couple of days later, I got an itinerary in Spanish that had a ticket number, so I called in to United and South African Airways to pick seats. I still didn’t believe that I actually had a ticket until my boarding passes printed out in Johannesburg and made sure I had two backup plans in the bag. However, the backup plans weren’t needed: the ticket was actually there.

The Economics – In A Nutshell

  • My primary objective was to return in mid-January in a premium cabin on at least one long leg (preferably the Africa-Europe overnight leg), using LifeMiles, and minimizing out of pocket cost. I was successfully able to achieve this objective at an attractive redemption value.
  • Some flexibility was needed. I compromised on airlines and didn’t focus on “aspirational” products. That is all academic when you’re traveling to or from a popular destination like South Africa in the austral summer and a good redemption is–first and foremost–one that gets you on a plane for free. A ticket in hand is worth far more than a dream and a points balance. Would I rather have flown back in Cathay Pacific first class? Sure, but it wasn’t available at all, and can’t be booked with LifeMiles anyway.
  • Neither United nor South African Airways operate the best business class cabins in the world–not even close. However, they do offer lie flat seats on long flights, operated safely and professionally. And this is 90% of what you’re going for when you book in a premium cabin. The other 10% is the trimmings.
  • I needed to be able to think on my feet. LifeMiles is a Latin American program run by people in Colombia and a patient, friendly and flexible approach to business will get you farther than having rigorous American or European expectations.

 

I still didn’t get amazing value for these miles, at least the way I value them. I don’t look at this as a $4,000 ticket (or a 5.5 cent per mile redemption), even though that’s what the flight would have cost in cash. Why? I wouldn’t ever have bought that flight. Instead, I look at this as a $650 ticket, because a roundtrip ticket to South Africa on my dates in economy class would have cost about $1,300 (for a decent logical routing; the cheapest terrible routing through China would have been about $1,000).

Out of pocket, I saved about $425 in cash. That’s 0.6 cents per mile. However, I got most of these miles for free, and the opportunity cost was … well, what, exactly? Another devaluation? More failed redemption headaches? Also, there is value in a business class seat, it’s just not the price the airline charges for it. Is that closer to the 1.7 cents per mile that LifeMiles charges during mileage sales? Probably. This comes in at $1,224, or around double the price of an economy class seat. For an amount of premium cabin flying that pushes 10,000 miles, that’s a pretty fair price.

Wrap-Up

I generally feel pretty good about being able to use LifeMiles for anything at all before they suddenly devalue, so I felt very good about the value I was able to achieve for them in this case. Sure, this wasn’t the world’s most “aspirational” redemption. However, nothing in this market is given the number of points I had.

How I Booked The Industry’s Best “Sweet Spot” Award Flight

There were two specific types of points I wanted to use for my South Africa trip: Avianca LifeMiles and Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. I had an uncomfortably high Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan balance, and there is an astonishingly good award on their chart. It’s only 70,000 points from the US to Johannesburg on Cathay Pacific in first and business class (first class to Hong Kong and business class onward to Johannesburg). The cost is 62,500 points if you can find space the whole way in business class.

The economy class fare? 50,000 points. And it’s 55,000 points in premium economy (which, to me, is an absolute no-brainer given how much better this is than economy class). So it’s only 15,000 more points to go first class than it is to go in premium economy class. Don’t get me wrong, Cathay Pacific has a pretty decent economy class (although it’s cramped at 10 across), but first and business class are a lot nicer. It’s hard for me to sleep well in economy class so I feel trashed the first day of the trip, but if I have a lie flat bed, I can arrive refreshed and ready to go. There is real value in what is effectively an additional vacation day.

This price is one of those “almost too good to be true” and also “too good to last” sweet spots on the Alaska award chart. It is widely considered to be the best “sweet spot” award in the airline industry. These existed for a couple of years with American Airlines awards too (where it was significantly cheaper to book American Airlines awards with Alaska Mileage Plan points than it was to book with American AAdvantage points), but eventually their larger partner realized what was going on and dropped the hammer. Alaska is getting too big to keep “flying under the radar” so I expect that fairly soon, the award chart will devalue. This has already happened with Emirates and American so it is bound to happen with Cathay Pacific as well. So, not only is the pricing a really good deal, it’s a deal that I don’t think is likely to last.

What do you do with exceptionally good award chart sweet spots that aren’t likely to last? It’s not an automatic “book them!” but for a 20k mile differential, I think getting an extra day out of the trip is absolutely worth it. A lie flat seat allows your arrival day in South Africa not to be one where you arrive stiff and sore, completely disoriented, after having spent 27+ hours in the air. I don’t want to trivialize 20k miles – you can do two roundtrips from Seattle to San Francisco for that on the Alaska award chart. But the value of what I can get out of 20k miles is about $480, at the 2.4 cents per mile I can usually squeeze out of Alaska miles. Remember how I value miles: not in terms of the cash price of a premium cabin award, but in terms of what I would have spent in cash on a flight.

The hardest part of booking this award is finding availability. It is almost never there. In fact, award tickets to South Africa on Cathay Pacific are practically a unicorn. This is a tough route even in economy class. However, when I went to look, there were two seats open from Hong Kong to Johannesburg in business class on December 28th. When you’re booking to South Africa in the austral summer, this is one of the hardest award tickets to get and it was staring at me in the face. The only thing I needed to do was find a flight to Hong Kong on December 26th (necessary given the timing) that could connect up with it. I didn’t expect that I’d be able to find anything, but I started searching availability from Cathay Pacific’s gateways on the West Coast. These are Vancouver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I could go in business class on the 25th and Alaska Airlines does allow stopovers in Hong Kong, but I’d miss Christmas with my family which was a non-starter. From Los Angeles, there was a flight, but it got into Hong Kong after the Johannesburg flight left. And then, I saw it: a single first class seat available from San Francisco to Hong Kong. Nothing was available in business class, but first class was potentially available.

I say potentially because Alaska Airlines has access to a more limited set of award inventory than Cathay Pacific’s Oneworld partners. I use British Airways’ site to search for availability and while Alaska pretty much never has access to inventory when British Airways lacks it, British Airways can have access to inventory that isn’t available to Alaska Airlines. It’s not unusual to see 4 seats available to British Airways members while Alaska may have only one or two seats available. However, I called up Alaska, and they were able to see the seats I found along with an Alaska flight from Seattle to connect up with it. I booked immediately.

me in Cathay first

It’s a rare occasion indeed that you’ll find me here.

It’s worth pointing out that British Airways also had an option available in premium economy. But this cost 60,000 points and $478 in taxes and fuel surcharges. There is also a very long layover in London, and I’d be there in December. I considered this option to be a non-starter. Had I been able to find BA inventory in economy class, it would have cost me $288 out of pocket and 50k miles.

The Economics – In A Nutshell

  • The #1 rule for getting the best award is “book the award that is actually available.” Ignore theoretical numbers on an award chart: live inventory is what really counts. I had a specific time frame when I wanted to fly and there was award availability with no fuel surcharges in first/business class, but not in economy class.
  • There was a premium cabin “sweet spot” on the award chart that aligned with award inventory. This very rarely happens, so when it does, it’s worth strongly considering.
  • Corollary: This is a very hard “sweet spot” to actually book and it is one that is likely to disappear soon. Availability is exceptionally rare. So this merits even more strong consideration.
  • No fuel surcharges apply when redeeming Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles on Cathay Pacific versus other programs.
  • I had a higher mileage balance in the Alaska program than I was comfortable maintaining.

 

Wrap-Up

For me, it was a no-brainer to book this. Why? I won’t overlook travel in premium cabins even though I normally conserve my miles, and I don’t feel comfortable concentrating too many miles in a single program. Even though it’s awfully expensive to spend so many miles, I think this was an award worth spending the miles to get.

How And Why I Booked A Round-The-World Trip In Premium Cabins

Yes, you’re still reading Seat 31B. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I mostly write about travel to unconventional places via unconventional routes, and about squeezing the maximum value out of your points (in terms of money you would have actually spent). You’re a lot more likely to read a review of an economy class flight to Ecuador on the worst seat in a regional jet here than you are to read about Cathay Pacific First Class.

And yet, the latter is exactly what I booked as part of the round-the-world trip I just completed. I’ll be writing a lot about South Africa and St. Helena over the next week or so but the elephant in the room is the long-haul flights. They were all booked in premium cabins and this is fairly uncharacteristic for me so I figured I’d write a post about why I spent my miles this way, and why in this specific case I think it made sense for me, given my personal situation and the opportunities I had. I will also write two “deep dive” articles about the mechanics and economics of booking these flights.

A whooooole lotta flights

The Flights

Getting to St. Helena requires starting from Johannesburg (you can also buy tickets to and from Cape Town, but these currently connect through Johannesburg). It’s a really unique flight in a lot of ways, the operations and marketing are very strange, and that’s an entire article in and of itself but these tickets are only sold ex-South Africa. The largest number of international flights into South Africa (by far) land in Johannesburg, although there are also international flights to Durban and Cape Town. I ultimately decided to book the outbound to St. Helena from Johannesburg and return to Cape Town, both because it was cheaper and because I wanted to visit Cape Town.

So, this meant that I had to get to Johannesburg, one of the most difficult destinations in the world to reach using miles and points. And making matters worse, I had decided almost at the last minute that I was going to take the trip. This is because unexpectedly, due to a threatened lawsuit, business in my company ground to a halt. This wasn’t something that was going to be resolved quickly. The tech industry more or less shuts down from the middle of December through the middle of January (people take off for Christmas and then it’s CES, so nobody really gets back to work until the 15th). So, I found out a week before Christmas that I was going to have about 3 weeks free. I booked everything starting just 8 days beforehand.

Of course, this wasn’t easy. At all. I was looking to fly over the holidays (or “festive season” as they call it in South Africa and St. Helena) when flights are absolutely packed. However, you can sometimes score last minute seats, especially when you only need a single seat. This is because airlines will give away unsold seats to frequent fliers at the last minute, and they will also generally return last minute cancelled seats to inventory.

You don’t always have to book award flights 330 days in advance

The conventional wisdom when it comes to booking award travel is that you need to start 330 days in advance when the booking calendar opens. Like most conventional wisdom there is some truth to it, but it isn’t the only truth. The reality in the current state of the industry is that revenue management systems at many airlines regularly evaluate seat inventory and make seats available to frequent fliers based on anticipated revenue load.

This means that, with many airlines, you have multiple opportunities to score an award seat. Consider a flight where five business class seats were made available for awards. The airline might initially make two seats available 330 days in advance. However, they might open up another two seats 20 days before departure (allowing the seat to be booked, but allowing themselves to collect a close-in booking fee). Another seat might open up 3 days before departure if it has remained unsold, with the final seat made available on the day of departure. People also sometimes need to cancel their flights at the last minute. There is an influenza epidemic this winter. Someone else’s flu misery might be your travel opportunity, because most airlines will put award seats that were cancelled up for grabs.

This is what saved me. I was able to book the whole thing using the mileage currencies I wanted thanks to last-minute inventory becoming available. What was available to book? A mix of the world’s most aspirational and least aspirational first and business class products. In the end, it cost me under $300 in cash to literally travel all the way around the world, in premium cabins, on all but one leg of my journey. If I’d paid cash, this would have cost over $30,000. And if I’d bought a discounted business class fare, it would still have cost me about $7,000.

Why I Booked In Premium Cabins

I normally fly in economy class and look for “sweet spots” on award charts to travel the maximum distance and squeeze the maximum value out of the fewest number of points. However, I consider Africa to be a “sour spot” destination in economy class. Depending on the award program you use, it can cost 50,000 points in economy class for a one-way trip to Africa. And South Africa is really far away. From Seattle, it’s 14,237 miles when routing via Asia.

Meanwhile, the price in a premium cabin to Africa is–depending on the program you are using–almost the same cost as a trip to Europe or Asia. It’s about twice as far, making the value of a lie-flat seat considerably more valuable; however, unlike in economy class, this doesn’t actually cost any (or much) more. It takes a solid 27 hours (or more) of flying to get to South Africa, so this is one of the few places in the world where the upgrade is truly worth the extra miles.

Wrap-Up

I was able to book my trip during absolutely peak travel periods, to one of the most difficult to book award travel destinations, and do it all without paying fuel surcharges. And I was able to redeem the points that are, in practice, the most difficult to redeem for this destination and the most at risk of devaluing. The way that I was able to accomplish this was by being flexible and using multiple points currencies. Award travel booking is part art and part science. I think this was a great redemption, and an amazing trip!

British Airways – Cape Town to Durban In Economy Class

One of the most unique parts of the British Airways operation is in South Africa. BA operates long haul flights from London to Cape Town and Johannesburg. However, they also have a branded domestic operation within South Africa (operating in all major cities) and a regional operation between South Africa and other destinations in southern Africa (Mauritius, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). The flights are competitively priced versus South African Airways, although fares are usually a bit higher than low cost carriers (including Kulula, its affiliated carrier). And they operate a nonstop route between Cape Town and Durban, which is a route I wanted to take. Better yet, the flight was competitively priced versus the low cost carriers (I was able to book a sale fare) and even better than that, I was able to book the trip using my Chase Ultimate Rewards points.

“But wait a minute,” you might be saying. “That’s cabotage!” And yes, it would be, except that BA actually operates via a franchisee in South Africa. The operating carrier is Comair. There is a decal on the front of the plane (which is easy to miss) that indicates this and the flight attendants announce “operated by Comair” when stating the flight number, but most people would have no idea that they’re not flying with British Airways. The branding, marketing, frequent flier program, uniforms, Web site and even the inflight magazine are all BA. In fact, the only thing that would tip you off that it’s not quite BA is the fact that in South Africa, BA remains a full service carrier.

BA operated by comair 737-800

You’d never guess that this British Airways aircraft is actually operated by Comair

While BA sells domestic European fares that don’t include a carry-on bag, and BA has also cut meal service on its intra-Europe flights, Comair has maintained British Airways as a full-service carrier. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case; maybe it’s because they want to differentiate the product from their own low-cost carrier Kulula, or maybe it’s because they want to be competitive with South African Airways (which is also a full-service carrier). It’s also possible that the franchise agreement dictates the services they’re required to offer. Nevertheless, the service is differentiated in a good way.

I boarded late, so didn’t get good pictures of the aircraft cabin. However, there are a few things that were interesting. The first is that the “Club” cabin is different than both US first class carriers and domestic European carriers. The seats have slightly more pitch than economy class. They are slightly wider as well. This means there are 5 seats across in “Club” class (3×2), versus 6 across (3×3) in economy class. On a US domestic carrier, first class would be 2×2 and on British Airways in Europe, “Business” class would be 3×3, but with the middle seat blocked out. I think that this configuration is interesting; it’s more like a premium economy class than a business class, but with a wider and more comfortable seat.

My seat was in economy class. Like the rest of the British Airways operation, you have to pay for seat selection until check-in. I wasn’t able to check in using the mobile app, so ended up checking in online late via the BA Web site. This meant that the only two available seats were the very back row (right up against the toilet) or a middle seat in the front. Since I am on the road I didn’t have (or have access to) a printer. However, that’s OK; British Airways lets you compete the check-in procedure online (so you can select a seat) and then print out a boarding pass at the airport.

When I got to the Cape Town airport to check in, I asked whether any better seats were available. There was an “exit row” available. However, the seat maps with BA are really strange about what is considered an exit row. The very last row of the plane–the one where all the seats back up against the toilets and don’t recline–is considered an “exit row,” because it’s close to the rear exit. However, this comes with none of the benefits. In my case, I was given a seat in the row in *front* of the exit row, which isn’t actually an exit row at all, and which doesn’t recline. However, a non-reclining seat near the front beats a non-reclining seat right next to the toilets, so I was happy to move.

Since I carry the Chase Sapphire Reserve, I have a Priority Pass. I had enough time to visit a lounge and this granted me access to the Bidvest Premier Lounge. Although the lounge is a contract lounge in Cape Town, it’s actually really nice. There was an excellent lunch spread with both hot and cold dishes, a great beverage selection, and the lounge wasn’t crowded. There are even showers available for domestic flights (although they are temporarily not available in Cape Town due to government restrictions on water usage–Cape Town is suffering from the worst drought in 100 years). There is also a large table upstairs with power outlets and good, fast WiFi so you can get some work done. While I’m not sure any lounge is worth going to the airport early, it’s a great place to kill time if you do arrive early. The main part of the Cape Town terminal is great for Africa, but the gate areas can get very crowded because there is limited seating.

The aircraft was an older 737-800, originally delivered in 2002. It’s very much due for both a deep cleaning (there was set-in grime) and a cabin refresh; European BA cabins look a lot nicer but they also have been refitted with newer slimline seats while this aircraft has not been. The flight was almost completely full and only two hours long but the flight attendants still managed to get out a beverage service, a hot lunch, and a second beverage service.

airline meal picture

Spinach ravioli with feta, with apple pie accompaniment

One really annoying thing about flying to or within South Africa is the electronics rules. Held over from the early 2000s, airlines are absolutely zealous about allowing no use of portable electronics at all for completely unreasonable lengths of time. I was using my tablet and listening to headphones, and the flight attendant came by, scolded me, and made me turn everything off the moment we started descending. It’d be great to see South African aviation authorities retire these outdated and antiquated rules like most of the rest of the world has done.

Bottom line

While I don’t think it’s worth paying extra to fly British Airways in South Africa, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again. They got me to my destination safely, on time, with my bags, and I wasn’t hungry when I landed. And I got miles in my preferred frequent flier program (Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan)

Points I redeemed

The trip would have cost $78.39 in cash, but I redeemed 5,226 Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Yes, I realize that this was only 1.5 cents per point in value. However, this was far better value than the 7,500 Avios (plus $42 in taxes and fuel surcharges) the flight would otherwise have cost. In addition to this, I will receive 500 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles for the flight (it’d only qualify for 125 Avios or American Airlines points because of the fare class I bought, but Alaska has a 500 mile minimum credit per flight). Although I might theoretically get some better value by preserving optionality for a future flight, this is a flight I wanted to take right now, it’s cash I didn’t want to spend right now, and it was available at the real price (not some arbitrarily higher price as is often the case) on the Chase portal. So to me, this was a no-brainer.

Ringing In The New Year In St. Helena

The island of Saint Helena is one of the most remote places in the world. Until two months ago, the only way you could visit the remote British territory was by private vessel or by taking the Royal Mail ship RMS St. Helena. It’s a very long journey across the stormy South Atlantic, taking 5 days each direction. The nearest mainland is Namibia, over 1,200 miles away.

map of st. helena

A tiny island in the middle of nowhere.

Two months ago, an airport finally opened in St. Helena, the world’s newest commercial airport (airport code HLE). It took 12 years to build from the time it was originally approved, because of the challenging terrain. The airport was spectacularly expensive costing over $400 million (around $100,000 per resident of St. Helena). Making matters worse, after the airport opened, authorities figured out that the aircraft type for which it was built couldn’t safely land due to wind shear. The largest aircraft that can land is a regional jet, and these can’t be fully loaded.

St. Helena airport runway

This isn’t the plane I’ll be flying to St. Helena, because qualification tests for this aircraft type failed.

This throws a monkey wrench into the already dubious plans for the airport to create a tourism industry on St. Helena. Because of the high operating costs, flights there are crazy expensive. I’m flying roughly the distance of a roundtrip from Seattle to New York (a trip I can easily buy for $400) and my ticket cost a cool $1,175 in points. Additionally, there is only one flight a week, meaning once the plane leaves, you’re stuck on the island for a week. But that’s OK, once you’re there, you can make satellite phone calls for $1.60 per minute.

JNB-HLE-WDH-CPT map

The most expensive flight I’ve ever bought

Naturally, this is the best place I could think of to ring in the New Year so I’d like to invite my readers to join me. I’m leaving from Johannesburg to St. Helena on December 30, 2017 and returning January 6, 2017. It’s normally very hard to get to Johannesburg on points, but not if you book last minute–I was able to use my Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan points to score a first class ticket on Cathay Pacific (an unusual thing for me to do but also a no-brainer; it’s 50k points in economy class and 70k in first class). The easiest way to buy tickets onward to St. Helena is on the United Web site (even though the flight is operated by Airlink, a South African Airways regional affiliate). Right now, the cheapest tickets are $1,264. Because the airport code HLE is new and isn’t loaded in most travel agency computer systems, it’s surprisingly hard to book tickets to this destination.

Note that there is only one flight per week, on Saturdays, so the shortest period of time you can spend on the island is one week. I don’t expect anyone to actually show up, but if you do, I’ll buy you a drink! 🙂

Are you joining me for New Year’s Eve in St. Helena?