Alaska Airlines Basic Economy SEA-LAX Review

My ex-boyfriend lives in Los Angeles. We dated for 3 years, nearly two years of it long distance, but ultimately he got a great job in LA and after my last startup failed, I landed in an outer exurb of the Puget Sound area (it’s not very exciting, but at least the rent is cheap). We concluded that the relationship wasn’t going to work with us living in different cities, but we’re still friends. And when it’s rainy and gloomy in the Pacific Northwest, it’s awesome to have a friend in sunny LA to visit!

We figured out dates that would work, and I set about finding tickets. My usual stack rank in payment method is as follows:

  • Expiring airline credits
  • Airline miles already held in a loyalty program
  • Airline gift cards or non-expiring credits
  • Transferable points with cash value
  • As a last resort, actual cash
What’s the worst currency to pay for a flight? Actual cash!

In this case, I had some expiring airline credits with Alaska Airlines worth about half of the cost of a ticket. I also had some non-expiring “My Wallet” funds with Alaska Airlines which I could use to pay the balance.

It wouldn’t have been a good deal to use these if I was paying a higher fare, but Alaska actually had the best fare to LAX at exactly the time I wanted. The fare was $121.29. This is definitely on the high side for SEA-LAX, but it was right at the beginning of the Spring Break travel period and booked only 2 weeks in advance, so this was pretty much the best I was going to get.

Only one problem: The $121.29 fare was an Alaska Airlines “Saver Fare.” This is a punishment fare, similar to Basic Economy on other airlines, and comes with the usual draconian restrictions. No changes allowed at all, not even for a fee. No refunds under any circumstances. If you miss your flight, you lose all your money. And you board last, even when it slows down the boarding process, just to kick you in the teeth a little harder. I booked it anyway, because paying $30 more would only get me the following:

  • Ability to make same-day changes, based on availability, for a $50 fee.
  • Ability to get a refund or change the ticket prior to the day of departure, for a $125 fee (a fee higher than the price of the ticket).
  • Boarding next-to-last instead of last. Whoop-de-doo.
  • Seat selection in the entire airplane, not just a few rows in the back of the airplane.

I carry the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Visa card, so I can check a bag for free. Alaska has a 20 minute baggage service guarantee so I pretty much always do this rather than carrying a bag on; my bag is usually out on the carousel by the time I get to baggage claim. If it isn’t, I score an easy 2,500 extra miles (and I did on this trip), so there’s no real downside. When booking a basic economy fare, this helps to avoid some of the annoyance of bringing a carry-on bag only to have to check it at the gate because there isn’t any room on board.

I was able to select a seat, although there was only one aisle seat available, and it was in the third to the last row of the plane. Yes, you literally sit “in the back of the bus” if you buy an Alaska basic economy fare. They do sell more basic economy tickets than there are available basic economy assigned seats, so if you don’t pick a seat, they’ll assign you a middle seat somewhere else on the plane at check-in (or, if you’re really lucky, a window or aisle).

The Flight

Alaska Airlines is one of my favorite airlines to fly because their service is almost always friendly and punctual, their baggage service is excellent (my bags always show up and do so fast), and their social media team is really, really good. Unlike most airlines, Alaska’s social media team has the ability to handle almost anything a telephone reservations agent can, so I can just DM them @Alaskaair and I usually have my question answered within a few minutes. There is some limited free Internet onboard (which I’m able to make the most of) and there is also power at every seat. Given my past good experiences I’m pretty surprised how “off” this flight was, making my basic economy experience even worse.

The flight was about an hour late to depart, and there was no explanation as to why. An aircraft finally showed up, and we eventually boarded an ex-Virgin America Airbus. Alaska crews and ex-Virgin America crews provide a very different experience; Alaska crews usually stand in the doorway and individually welcome everyone on board, while ex-Virgin America crews are more subtle with their service delivery. As a Basic Economy passenger, I was in the group that boarded last. Fortunately this was a very large group, consisting of roughly half the plane. Unfortunately, this was super inefficient because everyone was scattered throughout the plane, trying to stow luggage and sit in middle seats when people who had paid higher fares had already settled into the window and aisle seats. The process was an absolute disaster slowing down our departure even more on an already delayed flight.

Notice anything missing?

Making matters worse, when I got to my seat, the recline button was broken. I notified a flight attendant who nodded and disappeared for awhile (ex-Virgin crews really are different; an Alaska crew would have apologized, explained what they were going to do, and then gone to work on it). However, the ex-Virgin flight attendant did, in fact, follow through; it’s just a different service delivery culture. She returned to my seat shortly before departure and said “The mechanics aren’t going to be able to make it here to get your seat fixed, sorry about that. Can I offer you 2,000 miles or a $50 voucher for the inconvenience?” Sure, $50 voucher please. To my surprise, two of them showed up in my Alaska Airlines account, so between that and the miles, Alaska pretty much comped my flight.

Wrap-Up

Basic Economy (or Saver Fares) on Alaska Airlines is, in my view, terrible as implemented. On the surface, competitors that Alaska is copying are doing the same thing. Anecdotally, however, they seem to be selling far fewer of these fares (when I flew Delta Basic Economy, there were only a small handful of passengers boarding at the end). Having so many Basic Economy passengers slows down the boarding process for everyone flying Alaska, and reverses the excellent customer experience that was historically Alaska’s primary differentiator (now Alaska may be applying harsh, mean-spirited policies to a greater percentage of its passengers than its competitors, making them seem worse by comparison).

How did this happen? Alaska pretty much took their lowest fares and made them all Saver Fares, but the restrictions don’t really move the needle for most of their customers. All that Basic Economy really seems to have accomplished at Alaska is forcing their most loyal business customers to buy more expensive tickets in order to receive their status benefits, along with slowing down the boarding process for everyone. And this is expensive: Southwest can board a similar sized jet in just over half the time, which allows them to use the aircraft for an extra short-haul flight per day. Given that, Basic Economy is probably costing Alaska much more than the business they were otherwise losing to Spirit and United’s basic economy fares.

Would I book another Alaska Basic Economy Punishment Saver Fare? Sure, if it was the cheapest (and I’ll probably do it at least twice more, because I have some more expiring vouchers to spend). However, all else being equal, I’d book away from one of these fares to Southwest if the schedule worked and the price was the same. I have already done so for two subsequent trips.

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.

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!

Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport Priority Pass Lounge Review

The Shenzhen airport was opened in 2013, and is much more comfortable than most airports in China. The Beijing and Shanghai airports don’t have a lot of amenities, but Shenzhen has the majority of the stuff you’d expect an airport to have, along with far more luxury shopping than you’d need any airport to have (seriously, who buys luxury stuff in an airport?). I figured I’d try my luck with finding a Priority Pass lounge. The airport is really huge and the Priority Pass app wasn’t at all clear as to where the lounge was. Since the directions and signage weren’t good, I just went to the biggest, fanciest lounge I could see. It looked really nice and very fancy and I totally didn’t get in. However, someone from that lounge (Shenzhen Airlines) was kind enough to walk me up to the Priority Pass lounge.

I’ll give away the plot: this lounge was below average, even for a typical Chinese airport lounge.

airport snacks, shenzhen

The selection was as unattractive as the presentation

shenzhen airport priority pass lounge

Lounge chairs jammed tight in a corralled-off part of the airport

Probably the most interesting thing in the Priority Pass lounge was the massage chairs. Unlike the general passenger area of the Seoul airport, these chairs in the Shenzhen Priority Pass lounge weren’t free, but you could pay for them with WeChat:

pay for massage chair sign

USB-equipped massage chairs at your service… for a fee

pay for lounge chair with wechat

Want a massage after your long flight? It’ll cost you, and you’ll need a Chinese bank account

Is this a nicer place than the rest of the airport to wait for your next flight? Well, it depends. Do you enjoy crowds? Would you like to overhear loud phone conversations in multiple dialects of Chinese? And how about a warm beer and some Chinese packaged snacks to go with the experience? Well, this Priority Pass lounge may be for you.

Otherwise, give it a pass. Starbucks is nicer, and if you paid a $550 annual fee for access to this lounge, you could have instead bought the entire flight that brought me to it and a coffee and still come out ahead.

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

me in Cathay first

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

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

The Economics – In A Nutshell

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

 

Wrap-Up

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

British Airways – Cape Town to Durban In Economy Class

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

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

BA operated by comair 737-800

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

airline meal picture

Spinach ravioli with feta, with apple pie accompaniment

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

Bottom line

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

Points I redeemed

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

$99 Beijing Flights – With A Dangerous Catch

A startup called Airmule has recently made a big splash by offering $99 flights to Beijing. Obviously there’s a catch. The catch in this case is that you have to give up one of your checked bags (they appear to book you on carriers that allow two checked bags), and your other checked bag is a courier shipment. So, sharing economy, right? Seems like a perfect opportunity for a startup to move fast and break things. Most people don’t check two bags anyway so why not leverage this opportunity to make shipments of up to 50 pounds at low cost, with the fastest delivery possible?

Plus, you really have to love the founders of this company. I mean, as a startup founder myself, I’m rooting for them. One is a hardcore gamer, the other is a former backup dancer for Gucci Mane, and the third loves beer more than you do. I’m not making this up–this is what they say about themselves on their Web page:

Airmule cofounder photos

These guys totally have you covered.

So, despite the obviously strong qualifications in air cargo handling and logistics possessed by the founding team, the reason why I’d personally pass on this is that there’s a really big catch–one so serious it could potentially make you the star of an episode of “Locked Up Abroad.”

When you pass through Customs–particularly Customs in Beijing–you are personally responsible for everything that you bring into the country with very few exceptions. One of those exceptions is to be the authorized representative of a “common carrier.” These are companies like FedEx, UPS, or DHL, or the airlines themselves. Common carriers are considered by governments to be transportation carriers only. They aren’t held responsible for the contents of the shipments they carry; full responsibility lies with the people sending and receiving the shipment.

If you’re acting as an air courier, you may not have any of those protections. You could be fully liable for what you carry through Customs. So, that suitcase of apparel you’re supposedly carrying for a fashion show? If it’s loaded with heroin, that’s on you, and the penalty for that in China is death (no ifs, ands or buts). The suitcase full of baby formula? If you didn’t know that it’s illegal to bring it into China, it doesn’t matter: the massive fine is all yours if you get caught.

Airmule takes a bunch of reassuring-sounding security measures. For example, they participate in a TSA inspection program which verifies that shipments are safe for air transportation. You do too–by letting the TSA inspect your bag when you check it in (although in all fairness, there are some additional security measures cargo companies comply with, and Airmule says they do this). Airmule claims that they inspect shipments as well, and I think they probably do. However, while this provides reasonable assurance that whatever you’re carrying won’t cause the plane to crash, it doesn’t provide as strong an assurance that what you’re carrying is actually legal to carry into the country where you’re carrying it.

I reached out to Airmule to ask them to clarify who is liable for shipments. Just like the Airmule FAQ, I got an answer that sounded reassuring while skirting the question:

Evasive asnwer from Rory

This answer wasn’t reassuring.

So, I pressed for a clearer answer, and got one that is, to me, as clear as mud. I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions:

Rory Is Evasive

I think this is a roundabout way of saying “No”

I lived in Beijing for 3 years, so know that there’s a legitimate demand for this sort of thing. There are a lot of goods that are imported into China through Customs gray areas: they can’t be imported commercially, but they can be imported in personal quantities. One example is certain food items. You’re allowed to hand carry quantities of foodstuffs that are in line with personal consumption or gift-giving, even if importers aren’t allowed to bring in these goods. Similarly, you can bring in bottles of alcoholic beverages that aren’t available in China using your personal Customs allowance. And baby formula is another popular item. You can bring in a limited quantity (the regulation is fuzzy and seems to currently be “as many cans as you can convince Customs is yours”) of foreign-made baby formula for personal use. Every time I left the country, I’d be deluged with orders from new mothers in my office–this is a very popular item given ongoing scandals about tainted milk powder sold in China.

Other stuff is less gray area and more considered to be smuggling. For example, Apple products cost about 40% more in mainland China than they do abroad, so they’re popular items to smuggle in luggage. Even something as innocuous as books could be a really major problem in China. Books and literature are closely controlled in mainland China. That suitcase full of Chinese-language books you’re carrying might actually be hardcore prohibited political speech that could get you in a huge amount of trouble. How good is your Chinese?

And then, there’s the issue of drugs. All you need to do is watch “Border Security” to see all of the inventive ways that drugs can be concealed. If the courier company you’re working with doesn’t figure out that the shipment you’re carrying is actually drugs, but border guards do, your cheap vacation could turn into the last flight of your life. China doesn’t mess around–drugs equal the death penalty and given their history of the Opium War, being a foreigner will get you zero slack. In fact, you’ll get less than a Chinese person would.

Being able to fly for steep discounts as an air courier isn’t a new thing. This is something that has been around for decades. It just hasn’t gotten very popular, because usually you’re going to places where express courier services aren’t able to operate easily (such as Burkina Faso). And there are all kinds of shipments, to all kinds of locations, where hand carrying an item makes the most sense–whether it’s transplant organs, life-saving medicines that require refrigeration, aircraft parts, or other critical shipments that just need to be delivered by the fastest route possible.

I really don’t want to come off as sounding unsupportive of startups, or of this team. I really love innovations that will help people travel and see the world for less. I am the founder of a dating startup myself (one where we’ve had to make some really tough decisions about the trade-offs between usability and security for our users–we have gotten it right so far, but I know it’s only a matter of time before we have a bad day). That being said, there is a massive amount of risk that 20 year old backpackers may be accepting in order to score a cheap holiday, and they probably don’t know that they’re undertaking this risk. As an air courier, you are–in a literal sense–putting your life in the hands of a courier company, and trusting your life and freedom with the integrity of whatever you are carrying for them. Take this seriously, check out the shipment yourself, ask lots of questions, watch a ton of episodes of “Border Security” to find out how inventive smugglers can be, and if you aren’t 100% sure…

…just walk away. A cheap ticket isn’t worth it.

UPDATE

One of the co-founders of Airmule isn’t happy with this article and disputes the facts as I described them. Since the facts about his service came from his own tweets and email I’m not sure where the dispute is, exactly, but I’m happy to correct the record if anything I have written is factually incorrect.

Rory Felton email

Here’s the email I got from Airmule answering my questions

Rory had the following to say on Twitter:

Notwithstanding the tone of the response–which is arguably justified if the facts are wrong–I have offered Rory and Airmule (and will offer the entire air courier industry) an opportunity to respond to any facts that I got wrong. Thus far, this hasn’t happened. Since calling me “unprofessional” and “lame” doesn’t really help to correct the record should any facts be in dispute, I do hope we can have a facts based conversation going forward.

EPILOGUE

Airmule ultimately didn’t dispute any of the facts in this blog post. In fact, their Terms of Service explicitly places full Customs liability with the person carrying the suitcase (many thanks to the helpful reader who pointed this out). NOTE: Airmule has stealth-edited their Terms of Service, the original is here.

Rory also claimed that the Terms of Service was out of date. I’ll leave this to the interpretation of the reader:

another lie

I’m not sure how to read this, but….

Would I personally do this? Not on my life! The risk is definitely not worth it.

Act Fast: More ANA Award Tickets To Asia

Booking good economy class tickets to Asia is always difficult. One of the biggest reasons for this is that many flights arrive poorly timed for onward connections to other destinations in Asia, meaning that you get stuck with long connections and forced overnights. When you’re flying in Seat 31B, you just want to get there as quickly as possible.

It’s always good to see a new Asia route with both good award availability and good timings for onward flights, and ANA is starting one on October 29th. They’ll be adding a third daily flight from LAX to Tokyo (Narita), which leaves LAX at 10:20am and arrives in Tokyo at 3:20PM. This is early enough in the day to allow for same-day onward connections from Tokyo to many destinations in China, southeast Asia, and even India. The timings aren’t really great for origination and departure traffic in Tokyo so this flight really seems geared toward carrying connecting passengers.

ANA promotional route map with connecting destinations

ANA offers a solid economy class product including a pillow, blanket and even a pen to fill out your Customs forms. The food is edible and ANA flies newer aircraft. I’d gladly choose them in economy class over most other airlines with service to Asia (Asiana does, however, remain a cut above).

You can book award tickets on this new ANA flight using StarAlliance miles (the most popular are United, Aeroplan, Singapore and ANA’s own program). It’s likely that cash pricing will be very competitive, since this opens up a whole lot of Asian cities to additional competition from LAX, so always compare the price of paid flights to award tickets. If you want to use miles, act fast – this new flight has opened up a lot of award availability to Asia, and it will not last.