Air France Economy Class Review: SEA-CDG

Despite rushing to pack, I arrived at Sea-Tac Airport about 2 1/2 hours prior to departure. This was plenty of time to make my flight. Although I’d checked in online, there was no opportunity to enter my known traveler number so I didn’t have a Precheck boarding pass (fortunately, just having bought a one-way ticket 4 hours before an international flight, it didn’t have SSSS either). Having Precheck saves a lot of time in Seattle, but if there is a long queue for the check-in counter, it can take longer to get your boarding pass straightened out than it does to just go through the regular security line.

Happily, there was almost no line and I was cheerfully checked in by a SkyPriority agent. I appreciate that Air France has their SkyPriority agents take customers out of the regular queue when there are no SkyPriority passengers waiting; not all airlines do this. The agent hadn’t seen a NEXUS card before so initially entered the wrong number, but I gently corrected her and she was really nice about it (I’m used to airline employees insisting they’re right and going on power trips when they make a mistake, so I really appreciated the lack of ego).

Alaska Airlines Sea-Tac C Lounge

In pictures, this lounge looks really big, but it’s surprisingly small in real life

Armed with a TSA PRECHK boarding pass, I was ready to do battle with the Precheck line. Fortunately it was a total breeze. Nobody was waiting, and I got right through. Continuing my amazing streak of airport luck, I was able to get into the new Alaska Airlines Terminal C lounge with my Priority Pass. They initially tried to deny me access, but I mentioned that their sign automatically denying access wasn’t out, and they relented and let me in. The lounge has a smart design but I was surprised to find the furniture very dirty (it badly needs to be steam cleaned). The new lounge also looks a lot bigger in pictures than it is. The food selection was similar to that available in the older Terminal D lounge, except somewhat more limited. The pancake machine runs 24 hours (unlike in the other lounge) but there aren’t cheese cubes or vegetables (which the other lounge has). The planespotting opportunities were very good for the aviation geek, though; I not only saw the incoming Air France flight on the taxiway, but saw an incoming Prime Air flight as well. While lounges are very much an optional experience for me anyway, I won’t go out of my way to return to the “new” Alaska lounge if the “old” one is more convenient.

So far, so good, then. Flying Blue had advanced me the points to get on the flight in the first place, check-in was friendly, and I managed to talk my way into a lounge that was hard to get into. Although I have had some really great adventures on Air France (including a flight to South Africa in economy class and an “island hopper” adventure to Cayenne, French Guyana via Port au Prince, Guadeloupe, and Martinique) I haven’t flown Air France in a couple of years. My last flights with them were on an A380 out of LAX in their “old” economy class which was a pretty comfortable experience overall. In light of this I was excited to try their “new” economy class.

Remembering my recent trip to Beijing, I left the lounge 25 minutes before the boarding cut-off. I’m never eager to get to the gate earlier than necessary on long international flights, because checked bags are free so there is usually plenty of overhead bin space. The Terminal C lounge is right next to the airport subway, but you have to change trains twice in order to get from there to the south satellite (from which most international flights depart). The waiting time isn’t super long in between trains and you’re not on them for a long time, but it does add up and it took me a full 15 minutes to get to the gate. Fortunately there was no problem; Air France had just finished with premium cabin boarding and was beginning to board the economy class cabin (where I was in the last boarding group). An agent came by and checked my passport, and I was on board the tired old 777-200 operating our flight. The crew was a very senior French crew, and Parisian in demeanor. This is like a New York based senior crew with a US airline; somewhat abrupt, but also generally efficient. I was directed to my seat, in a row right behind a bassinet infant who wasn’t super happy to be on board. I stashed my luggage, and I was just getting ready to sit down when I spotted something amiss.

There was puke on my seat.

After my cleaning job, with seat cover added.

It had been mopped up by the previous occupant with napkins or something, but there was definitely leftover barf on the seat belt and seat. I didn’t sit down, but stood to the side and when the aisle was clear, I walked up to the galley explaining what happened, and asked for cleaning supplies. Of course, this isn’t actually what I expected to get–usually a flight crew will first verify that your story is true (totally was in this case, the barf was plainly visible) and will then find somewhere to reseat you–even an op-up if needed–taking the dirty seat out of service. Not this crew! I got exactly what I asked for–they expertly put together a vomit kit for me, and handed it to me. Well, all right then. I went back and scrubbed the seat (hoping there wasn’t norovirus involved, because there unfortunately weren’t any rubber gloves). A flight attendant shortly thereafter stopped by, checked my work, took the supplies back and gave me a cover for the seat (because at this point it was wet). I went up to the lavatory to thoroughly scrub my hands, and another flight attendant said “wait here a minute.” A couple of minutes later she returned with a business class amenity kit as a gift, which I think was a pretty nice gesture all things considered. This is probably more than I would have gotten on United, but the response on a Japanese carrier would have been one bordering on shock and horror accompanied by profuse apologies and more or less bending over backwards to find me somewhere else to sit. There is a happy medium somewhere, and that’s not what this was.

These seats are *tight*The good news is that when I went back, the middle seat next to my assigned seat had remained empty. So I just moved over and took that seat. Unfortunately, the “new” Air France economy class cabin is tight. It’s not quite as tight as Lufthansa, but unlike I have experienced on Lufthansa, the seat was heavily worn and uncomfortable. It was so hard my butt was numb 2,000 miles into a 5,000 mile flight (I’m a middle aged guy with an average build). The seat pitch also makes it really hard to work on a laptop (although there was seat power); I’m 5’7″ and there was only about an inch between me and the seat in front of me. Also, in the row where I was sitting, the seats were in a staggered configuration and there was an annoying support post in the middle of my legroom (although to be fair, this isn’t nearly as bad as the personal entertainment boxes that often steal your legroom in economy class).

 

I hadn’t eaten much lunch in the lounge (I just had some soup and salad) so I was ready for dinner, which I knew would be served onboard. My previous experiences with Air France involved surprisingly good economy class catering – I mean, it’s the national airline of France, so there would be good quality French cuisine, right? I also remember being fed a pretty large meal on my previous flights. Unfortunately, all of that has changed. There were two meal choices, chicken or pasta. I’m glad I got the chicken because the pasta was small and didn’t look filling. Still, the chicken was just pieces of chicken breast (not an entire chicken breast, more like half of one) in a white gravy. It was bland, and served with rice. Apart from that, there was a disgusting and inedible lentil salad, a piece of cheese, a tiny piece of coffee-flavored cream cake, and some unsweetened applesauce. I have seen more appealing high school cafeteria lunches, and Air France’s economy class catering is about on par with United. SkyTeam airline Xiamen Air had much better food catered out of Seattle, and Air France’s partner Delta does a much better job with catering as well. The one thing I will say for Air France is that they have a better selection of alcohol than either airline. You can still get brandy in economy class! It’s probably a usual complaint on planes to say “the food was lousy and there wasn’t enough” but that’s exactly what this was. Some crackers with spreadable cheese and a green salad would have rounded out the meal.

Air France economy class meal

It tasted how it looks

Breakfast served before landing was equally unmemorable. Instant coffee, a container of canned fruit, a container of orange juice, some plain yogurt, a bread roll and a sweet roll. The sweet roll was hot, but it tasted like one of those canned Pillsbury cinnamon rolls that you heat up in the oven–you know the overpoweringly sweet, chemical, plastic taste. Overall, my thoughts on the breakfast were “how American” and that pretty much sums it up. I’d totally have expected something like this if I were flying United in economy class. A croissant is apparently out of order on a French airline.

While there is (surprisingly) no inflight WiFi, Air France does have good quality inflight entertainment. Although the economy class seats aren’t very comfortable, they’re equipped with large new, LED displays with a full complement of inflight entertainment (a new computer system runs this and it’s really very good). This is one area where Air France is markedly better than United’s old 777-200s and their tiny seatback displays. Of course, I spent most of the time watching the “moving map” – my usual go-to entertainment on planes.

WRAP-UP

Air France planeOverall, would I fly Air France economy class again? For 25,000 miles (particularly ones that aren’t even in my account yet), to an expensive destination, at the last minute, sure! I’m always happy to take the last seat in the plane if it’s free. For money, though? I wouldn’t go out of my way to fly Air France versus other options from Seattle to Europe, and I certainly wouldn’t pay more. I think Delta wins overall here, and they still fly nonstop to Amsterdam. British Airways often has much better fares and they offer a very similar inflight product, service attitude, and connecting airport. Icelandair and Condor aren’t full service airlines, but are also generally a lot cheaper. Norwegian, an ultra low cost carrier, has ridiculously low fares. For a full service European carrier, Lufthansa has better (and more) food and the service, which while very efficient (in a very German way), is also surprisingly friendly. This is, however, balanced out by the very tight configuration in their economy class cabin, which is even more uncomfortable than Air France.

Near Disaster: Chase Ultimate Rewards And Flying Blue

I needed to take a last-minute business trip to Kiev. Cash fares were hovering over $900 one way for one-stop itineraries, so I started looking for opportunities to use points. When I book my own award travel, I optimize for the most efficient use of points and the stand-out value was 25,000 Ultimate Rewards points for an Air France flight. There was a long layover in Paris, but I really like Paris so the 9 hour layover was fine. It’s enough time to visit the Louvre and enjoy a coffee in a sidewalk cafe.

air france economy class seat

Unlike most airlines, Air France touts their economy class cabin. We’ll see if it lives up to the hype!

Unfortunately, the Flying Blue program is an absolute disaster right now. Air France/KLM just switched the chart from a fixed value redemption chart to variable redemptions (which, based on my analysis, is one of the biggest airline devaluations in history–most awards are up a minimum 30% and some are up 500%). It was a total fluke that the flight I wanted still cost 25,000 points, yielding 3.2 cents per point in value all-in (net of taxes/fees I had to pay out of pocket). This is very good redemption value on a ticket for which I would have paid real money. However, the devaluation comes on top of another negative change, removing the award calendar, which has driven call center volumes through the roof (because the only way to search for availability over a range of dates is to call now). Because of this, it can now take 2 hours to get through to an Air France representative.

Of course, my worst nightmare happened. Rather than posting immediately, after I transferred my Chase points, the points didn’t show up. I called Chase, who said that they transferred the points and it was Flying Blue’s fault. I called Flying Blue, and they said they hadn’t received the points so it was Chase’s fault. Both suggested I just wait. So I waited, and waited, and waited. I called to put the seats on hold so they wouldn’t disappear while I was waiting. Eventually I gave up and went to bed.

The following morning, the points still weren’t there. 4 hours before the flight, they still weren’t, so I called Flying Blue again. Fortunately, the friendly representative in the Mexico-based call center had a solution: “We are aware of this issue so we will advance you the points and your account will have a negative balance. When the points post from Chase, your balance will go back to zero.” She put me on hold, then came back a few minutes later to collect my credit card number. And just like that, I had a ticket to Kiev! I didn’t really believe that I did until I went to check in, and the computer spat out boarding passes.

So, certainly a stressful beginning to a trip, but a happy ending. I have no status with Flying Blue. I have never booked a ticket in their program. They don’t know I write this blog. They just thought on their feet and solved the problem by taking a risk (I could have been lying about transferring the points). And so instead of stranding me, which is totally what I expected, I’m now on the way to Kiev.

Summary

Chase is now reading a new telephone script when you call: “It can take from 1-7 days for your points to post after they are transferred.” After slowing down transfers to Korean Air and now Flying Blue, it appears Chase is trying to make Ultimate Rewards less valuable by making it impossible to redeem them for last-minute flights. This doesn’t appear to be a technical glitch; based on the policy change being communicated by their telephone agents, it seems to be deliberate. Also, there is nothing in writing on Chase’s Web sites to communicate the change, so people are going into this process with no idea that points transfers are no longer instantaneous.

Generally speaking, I like the Chase Ultimate Rewards program better than American Express Membership Rewards. However, the ability to have immediate use of transferred points is key. Award travel inventory is dynamic (a seat that is available now likely won’t be in a couple of days, particularly to a popular destination) and most of the value in keeping your points with a bank program instead of an airline program comes from the immediate ability to transfer and redeem points. There are fewer reasons to collect bank points instead of airline points if you aren’t able to easily redeem them for awards.

Airline points programs are rapidly losing credibility so it would be bad for consumers if banks to go the same direction and make points harder to redeem.

Xiamen Air Transit Hotel Disaster!

Xiamen Air offers some really cheap flights from Seattle to destinations in China and throughout Asia. The catch? You end up stuck overnight in Shenzhen, Xiamen or Fuzhou, China.

Not to worry, though, right? Xiamen Air provides a transit hotel. The details on their Web page are as follows:

Xiamen Airlines offers passengers transit accommodation services free of charge, when the tickets satisfying the following conditions apply:

1. All flights are carried by Xiamen Airlines. (code-sharing, chartered flights are not applicable);

2. Connection time of transit passengers is within 6 to 24 hours in Xiamen (G Class and Z Class are not applicable);

3. Must contain at least one international(regional) flight in the ticket;

4. The service contains only free hotel, passengers have to pay for meals and the other transportation fee.

The position of transfer counter:

Domestic Departure Hall on 2nd Floor, B11 counter or other check-in counter(no priority check-in counter)

Service consultation phone number: (0086-592)5739500 or (0086-592)95557

My tickets qualified. I called the US toll-free number to confirm, so it seemed like I was golden. And I have to admit, the room that was promised sure looked nice:

hotel room promised photo

Wow, what a nice hotel room. Would have been great to stay in it!

Now, if you have experience in mainland China, and with mainland Chinese airlines, you probably know where I’m headed with this. In China, this sort of thing is rarely easy to arrange in practice and also rarely works as advertised. While other airlines in other parts of the world might be expected to whisk you from your flight to a hotel room with a seamless transfer, Xiamen Air makes you figure out how to ask for the benefit when you arrive, and then they hit you with a couple of serious “gotchas.”

Gotcha #1: It’s Hard To Claim Your Room

When I arrived in Xiamen, and again in Shenzhen, I had to hunt around for the desk that could issue the voucher. In Xiamen, it’s a desk labeled “transfer services.” In Shenzhen, you have to go upstairs one floor from the baggage claim and find the ticket counter (where they sell tickets). This agent can take care of the hotel voucher. I’m not sure where to look in Fuzhou, but the guy who was sitting next to me on the flight to Shenzhen, and who continued onward to Fuzhou, emailed me and told me he couldn’t figure out how to get the room (or whether it was even possible) so he ended up sleeping in the airport overnight.

Gotcha #2: You Share A Room With A Random Stranger (Or Pay Extra)

When I arrived at the transfer counter for my room, some forlorn-looking guy was standing there waiting. “I guess we’re roommates,” he said. Um, maybe not. I insisted on escalating as far as possible, speaking to a supervisor, and showed screen shots from the Web page. It was no matter. The supervisor had heard it all before. She pointed to a laminated form and said “you must choose, either share a room (!) or pay 135 yuan (about $21) extra.”

How Xiamen Air tricks you

Oh, you thought you’d get your own room? What a strange Western idea.

This was discussed and explained in Xiamen but it was never discussed in Shenzhen (leading me to believe a different set of circumstances applied there). In Shenzhen, I arrived at the hotel, got my room, took a shower and was fast asleep when some random guy started trying to get into my room! Apparently the front desk had given him a key based on this crazy airline policy. The guy then tried to argue with me (in barely understandable English) that he was going to be my roommate etc. but I was having none of it. I shut the door, sent him back to the front desk and unplugged the phone. The hotel staff didn’t speak any English so I figured that would settle the matter (it did). It’s a good thing I’d locked the door with the chain from the inside! Otherwise, who knows what random stranger might have been trying to climb into bed with me.

Gotcha #3: Transportation Isn’t Always Included

In Shenzhen, the airport hotel has a shuttle that comes and picks you up at the airport, takes you to the hotel, and then returns you to the airport the following morning. You know, like you’d expect an airport hotel to do. In Xiamen, however, you have to take a local taxi to and from the hotel. However, this requires local currency, and the ATMs are all upstairs, and the airport closes down early, so you don’t have an easy way to get local currency for the taxi. Also, returning the next day, it’s hard to get a taxi on the street because the taxis have moved to using dispatch apps. This means you’ll need data service that works in China and an app called DiDi on your phone in order to get a taxi.

The Hotels

Both hotels were very local and Chinese. In Xiamen, it was the HMYL Hotel. It’s a basic Chinese business hotel on a leafy tree-lined street in central Xiamen. The room was typically Chinese with a hard twin bed, and was poorly soundproofed. Hotel staff was friendly but spoke no English.

In Shenzhen, the hotel was called the James Joyce Coffetel. I don’t know exactly what a coffetel is (coffin hotel? I wasn’t dead. Coffee hotel? No coffee in the room), but it had a room, and it was fine apart from being at the end of the airport runway (planes made the windows rattle starting around 6 in the morning) and being across the street from a giant noisy construction site. And, of course, apart from giving some random stranger a key to my room at 2am. They had a shuttle to and from the airport at least.

xiamen transit hotel

Tiny business hotel room with two beds in Xiamen. Should have been free, cost about $30 all-in.

shower picture

Large walk-in shower. This was nearly as big as the rest of the room.

trees in Xiamen picture

The Xiamen Air transit hotel is in a pleasant neighborhood with tree-lined streets.

 

I should probably point out that I lived in mainland China for 3 years and speak basic Chinese, but without that, I would probably have never ended up at either hotel.

James Joyce Coffeetel bed

The bed at the Shenzhen James Joyce Coffetel was more neatly made than this when I arrived, I put it back together for the picture

Extra bed picture

Second bed in a side bedroom. I didn’t sleep in this one. And the random guy who tried to come in at 2am didn’t either.

Shenzhen James Joyce Coffeetel view

Sweeping expansive view of … giant dusty construction site

Xiamen Air Staff Are Great, Despite It All

I have nothing bad to say about any of the employees I interacted with at Xiamen Air. Each and every one of them was kind, polite, and professional, and many went above and beyond for me (in Xiamen, a wonderful kind airline employee escorted me upstairs to the closed part of the airport so I could use the ATM, and then helped me get a taxi to the hotel without being ripped off). I think the airline puts them in a difficult situation of over-promising and under-delivering, and they’re all just making the best of it.

Wrap-Up

The Xiamen Air ground experience seems almost deliberately designed to strand Western travelers unfamiliar with navigating China and without a command of the Chinese language at the airport. Even with extensive China experience and the ability to speak basic Chinese (as long as I’m not trying to do it out of context or over the phone), I was thrown for a loop by the unadvertised shared room policy. It is understandable to do this when two people are traveling together on the same ticket, but hooking you up with a random stranger is absolutely insane. Unexpectedly giving someone a key to your room with no advance warning is even worse. And requiring foreigners to navigate the process of catching a taxi in Xiamen to and from the hotel (in Chinese) is an awful lot to ask.

If you’re prepared to pay extra and negotiate for your own room, and if you can speak Chinese and are familiar with how things operate in mainland China, you’ll probably manage (like I did) to muddle through. However, if you can’t speak Chinese, and you don’t have experience thinking on your feet in mainland China, you might find yourself sleeping in the airport instead.

Xiamen Air Economy Class Review – Seattle to Xiamen Via Shenzhen

Xiamen Air is one of the smaller mainland Chinese airlines. A member of SkyTeam, it codeshares a limited number of routes with Delta and is definitely a “little sister” when stacked up against the two other mainland Chinese SkyTeam airlines, China Eastern and China Southern. The airline mostly serves destinations in China, with a handful of international destinations (primarily in Asia). However, they do offer service to New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle along with Amsterdam, Sydney and Melbourne.

Here in Seattle, Xiamen’s flight hasn’t been doing well. Of the transpacific flights to and from Sea-Tac, it is reputed to consistently have the lowest overall load factor. Given that the service is one of the only nonstops from the West Coast to the tech hub of Shenzhen, I was very surprised to hear this. However, I haven’t gone out of my way to take the flight because the fares were relatively high, and I lived in China for 3 years so I haven’t really been in a hurry to go back there.

All of this changed when I got the opportunity to attend and speak at DEF CON China, which was–to the best of my knowledge–the first international hacker conference to be hosted in China. I’ve been doing some research into a technical area where I thought feedback from a Chinese audience would be useful, so couldn’t pass it up. Only one problem: I figured out that I’d be going only about 2 weeks beforehand. This was enough time to get a visa together, but it was pretty late to book a flight. So I ended up booking with Xiamen Air despite their terrible itinerary due to their low price.

The Itinerary

The itinerary was truly terrible. It’s like flying from Hong Kong to Seattle, but via Los Angeles and a forced overnight in San Francisco. Here’s what it looked like:

sea-szx-xnm-pek

Seattle to Beijing… via Shenzhen and Xiamen

Why would I subject myself to this? Because, dear reader, it was the cheapest way to get to Beijing: $479. This blog isn’t called Seat 31B for nothing!

Check-in In Seattle

cardboard cut-out of flight attendant

No mistaking this for anything other than Xiamen Air!

Xiamen Air’s check-in desk is all the way at the far end. Rather than being on the back wall, it backs up against the airport drive. I was a little confused but Xiamen anticipated this and there was a cardboard cut-out to help me find my way.

The check-in desk wasn’t crowded, even for economy class. Granted, I arrived at the airport 3 hours before departure, because I hadn’t paid for a seat assignment, online check-in isn’t supported, and Xiamen doesn’t participate in TSA Precheck (you will not get precheck even if you have a known traveler number). I knew I would need plenty of extra time at the airport. Still, I got through the economy class line in about 5 minutes, and was able to arrange an aisle seat with no problem at all.

One of my friends recently had luck talking his way into the precheck line with a NEXUS card, which I hold, so I figured I’d give it a try. I was unceremoniously bounced. Even though the airline I was flying didn’t participate in Precheck, it didn’t matter: I wasn’t given access. My guess is that the TSA agent at the other airport thought my friend’s NEXUS card was some sort of military identification instead of a trusted traveler card. After being kicked out of the Precheck line, it took over 45 minutes to get through the “regular” TSA security line. I’m not sure why airport security is always such a disaster in in the US and UK when it’s both faster and more thorough in China, but that’s an entirely separate discussion.

After I got into the airport, I went to the Alaska Airlines lounge and was granted entry (after a short wait when the agent called upstairs to make sure there was room) with my Priority Pass card. The planespotting was great, as it always is from the Alaska lounge. It was around lunchtime and I wasn’t sure what or how much they’d serve us on the plane, so I had some soup, salad and bread in the lounge.

Alaska Airlines planes

All the planes you want to spot, as long as they’re Alaska jets! (Virgin America merged with Alaska)

Finally, it was getting close to the boarding time. The flight left from the south satellite, so I took the airport subway. This took longer than I expected and I was the last person to board the plane, although I still boarded about 20 minutes early. I was surprised to discover that this was my seat:

Airline seat 54J

Seat 54J

If you spend a lot of time in economy class, you probably picked up on it: the armrests are immovable and the IFE swings out from the front. Why might this be?

Poor man's business class seat

Unlimited legroom!

Seat 54J, as it turns out, is one of the two best seats in economy class. Although it’s close to the toilets, I don’t have a sensitive sense of smell. And there is unlimited legroom on these seats because they are directly on the exit row. The window seat is terrible in this row because there isn’t actually a window and the exit door protrudes, meaning there is less leg room than usual seats. However, the aisle and middle seats had unlimited legroom. A pillow and blanket was provided on each seat, and there were plenty of spares if you wanted one:

Pillow and blanket

You could have as many of these as you wanted because the flight was lightly loaded

My seat mates were both tech people and that’s the industry I work in too, so it was easy conversation to Shenzhen–particularly because one of the guys had brought a bunch of miniature bottles of booze on board, and the flight attendants were happy to look the other way. One thing that differentiates Xiamen from other Chinese airlines: the inflight service was very friendly and extremely attentive. Actually, Xiamen Air service in economy class was on par with my last Cathay Pacific business class flight! They really get the small details and human kindnesses right from making sure you have enough water to noticing if you sneeze and bringing you a tissue.

another airplane meal

Italian garden vegetable lasagna with fresh German salad, rustic pretzel bread, French Village yogurt and New York style cheesecake

I was worried about going hungry on the flight but in the end we were stuffed, and the quality of the food catered in Seattle (more later on the food catered in Shenzhen) was very good for economy class. They fed us two full meals and brought two rounds of sandwiches midflight as well. While liquor wasn’t available (even for purchase), beer and wine flowed freely. To my delight, they had my favorite Chinese beer on board, Yanjing. It’s a local Beijing beer and I didn’t expect they’d actually have it, because Xiamen is in the southern part of China.

The time passed pretty quickly in between meals because Xiamen Air has free WiFi on board and I made good use of it. Of course, like most things involving the Internet in China, using it is complicated because you have to register for it in advance. You can’t register more than 30 days in advance, or less than two days in advance, and only the first 50 users who register can get the service. Also, your access code only works on one device, a different access code is issued per flight, and access codes aren’t available for all flights, even though WiFi service was present on all of the flights I took. Got all that? If you do, you’ll get an access code that grants you access to…

…the Chinese Internet. Which is very special. And which, after you agree not to post any “illegal speech,” mercilessly blocks every VPN you throw at it (I did find a way around the firewall, but I am also far more technical than the average user). This is just fine if you’re Chinese though, or if you’re happy with reading the Global Times and Xinhua News. A few Western services aren’t blocked, maybe? Anyway, I happily used Twitter and Facebook the whole way to Shenzhen.

xiamen air cabin turned into rainbows

I like rainbows

When we approached Shenzhen, the cabin lighting turned into a rainbow. We landed at a remote stand (which is fairly common in China) and were herded onto buses that took us to the terminal. Once inside the terminal, it got a little bit confusing.

There are different immigration procedures, staff, and locations for people who are transiting China without a visa versus people who have a Chinese visa. I had a visa and two of the Americans on the plane, thinking I must know what I was doing, followed me into the wrong line. I redirected them back out of the line and into the correct place, although to be fair, Xiamen Airlines staff were there doing the same thing.

Additionally, once you get through immigration (which was efficient as always in China, although ever more intrusive–this time they captured my fingerprints) there are two different sets of baggage procedures. If you are continuing onward to Xiamen, you don’t claim your bag in Shenzhen; it is checked through to Xiamen. However, a lot of people went to the baggage area in Shenzhen, only to discover that their bags weren’t there. They then had to be escorted back out of the baggage area, because it’s a Customs zone and exits out of the secured area of the airport.

I followed the correct signs which took me down a long corridor to be re-screened (this is normal, every country you enter wants you to pass their own security procedures). There was only one screening checkpoint open and everyone shared it (including the flight crew), but I was right at the front of the line because I’d apparently gotten through immigration faster than people transiting without a visa, and I’d also followed the signs correctly (it wasn’t super easy to figure out what to do, but my guesses in China are right more often than not). After re-screening I was back into the international transit area of Shenzhen Airport.

After an underwhelming lounge visit, I went to the boarding gate, which had changed to the exact gate we’d arrived at. I then re-boarded the same aircraft (with the same crew) for the short (300 mile) flight up to Xiamen.

Arrival in Xiamen was also complicated, because just like in Shenzhen, the baggage gets separated out into Customs vs. non-Customs zones. Xiamen Air sells the Shenzhen-Xiamen leg as a separate flight, so bags checked on that leg go into the domestic arrivals area of the airport. However, bags checked on the Seattle-Shenzhen-Xiamen leg go to the international arrivals area. It gets even more confusing because China Customs screens your carry-on baggage in Shenzhen, but they screen it again in Xiamen along with your checked bags.

Xiamen airport I <3 Xiamen sign

Pay attention to the sign this guy is holding. It’s your only clue.

It took a long time to get our bags, and then I was on to the next adventure: finding out whether the promised transit hotel would materialize. I certainly hoped so, because I was exhausted after two flights!

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.