United Global First Class Lounges – Washington-Dulles and Los Angeles

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

TPA-IAD

I awoke on Christmas morning anticipating one of my longest travel days of the year.   My mom dropped my dad and I off at Tampa International Airport where we boarded our first flight of the day, a two-hour flight from Tampa to Washington-Dulles.  We were seated in first class on a B737-800.  The flight was quite nice and went by pretty fast.  There was not a full breakfast service, but scones were served.  I watched some SportsCenter and took a nap, waking up just before we landed at Dulles.

Long couple days of flying!  TPA-IAD-LAX-SYD

Long couple days of flying! TPA-IAD-LAX-SYD

5 hours at Washington-Dulles (IAD)

Due to award availability, we were forced to spend a five-hour layover at Dulles.  Because of this glut of free time, we headed over to Terminal B to spend some time in the Lufthansa Senator Lounge.  Since we had a same day international first class ticket, we had access to the lounge (I also have access as a Star Alliance Gold member).  This lounge is without a doubt the nicest Star Alliance lounge at Dulles Airport, and is one of the better lounges in the US.  We had a couple of drinks and lunch in the lounge,  as Lufthansa has a decent spread that features four hot items and a variety of cold sandwiches and salads.  After a couple of hours, we decided to try out the United Global First Class Lounge.

Food offering in Global First Class Lounge IAD

Food offering in Global First Class Lounge IAD

Upon checking into the Global First Class Lounge, the lounge agent informed us that we didn’t have access to the lounge since our International flight was out of LAX, and not IAD.  I questioned this logic, since that’s not what the United lounge access policy says, so the lounge agent begrudgingly allowed us access to the lounge, but really acted like she was doing us some sort of favor.   This rubbed us the wrong way since we were, after all flying in global first class out of LAX later that day, and were in first class on IAD-LAX later that afternoon.  The lounge itself was completely empty, as my dad and I were the only two people in the lounge.  There was a small food spread, which didn’t look all that appetizing.  We did help ourselves to the open bar for a drink though. The lounge agent requested us to leave the lounge at 2pm since it was the end of her shift.  We found this strange, but we did so anyway and went next door to the regular United Club.  Upon checking into this United Club, the lounge agents here were rather bewildered as to why we weren’t using the Global First Class Lounge.  We explained to them the hassle we were given upon entering the Global First Lounge, and that really upset the lounge agent who offered to escort us back to the lounge and have a word with the agent there.  Since at that point we only had twenty or so minutes until boarding time, we declined, as we just didn’t want there to be a scene since this United employee was pretty bothered that we had been given a hard time.  United just really needs to figure this out and preach more consistency on the education and/or enforcement of policies by their employees.  This whole experience really did leave a sour taste in mouth to start our long day of travel with the airline.

IAD-LAX

Finally, it was boarding time for our flight to LAX.  We were seated in seats 2A and 2C for this flight.  I enjoyed a pretty decent diner of pasta, and then watched a few Anthony Bourdain videos on Sydney and Melbourne before dozing off for a nap.  I must have been really tired since I didn’t wake up until the flight attendant was preparing the cabin for arrival into Los Angeles.  This was actually a very nice transcontinental flight — things were improving!

Dinner on IAD-LAX

Dinner on IAD-LAX

LAX Global First Class Lounge

We only had about two hours at LAX before our long flight to Sydney, so we headed straight to the Global First Class Lounge and were greeted by an extremely friendly lounge agent.   The offerings at the LAX Global First Class Lounge are far superior to that of Washington-Dulles.  Apart from a full bar, there were several warm appetizers and snacks.  We were also provided a limited menu from which we could order a small meal.  We each ordered some udon noodles, which were brought out to us after about ten minutes.  They were delicious, and proved to be a great little snack since unbeknownst to us, it would be more than a couple of hours before we ate again.

Overall, the LAX Global First Class Lounge was far superior to that of IAD.  The employees at the LAX lounge were friendly, accommodating, and provided great service — the complete opposite of our experience at Dulles.  The physical facility, while not amazing was much better than the Global First Class Lounge at Dulles.    At the end of the day, I feel that United needs to vastly improve its consistency.  While lack of consistency is a major weakness throughout the United brand at the present time, it was never more painfully obvious than it was given our two experiences at two of United’s “premier” lounges. Next:  United Global First Class Los Angeles to Sydney

2014 Mid-Year Travel Report

Where has the time gone?

I can’t believe that six months ago, I’d already rung in the New Year in Sydney, Australia — it seems like yesterday!

As the mid-point of the year has now come and gone, I figured it was that time of the year to compile my travel statistics for the year thus far.  Though I’ve taken a couple wonderful trips, my rate of travel lags FAR behind my pace in 2013.  This is due a number of reasons:

  • This year, I’ve focused on burning the tons of miles that I accumulated from flying over 150,000 miles in 2013
  • This year, I’ve taken a few very long trips instead of a dozen quick trips and weekend getaways
  • This year, I’m no longer taking trips “just because” due to the new Premium Qualifying Dollar requirement instituted by United.  This reduced the incentive for me to look for and fly cheap tickets for random weekends to various places, since status is no longer calculated solely by the distance one flies — there’s a dollar spent aspect to it now.

Despite a large reduction in distance traveled, I’ve still had an incredible traveling year thus far in 2014…

My trips thus far have included:

  • The last Two-thirds of my trip to Australia in January
  • A trip to see the family in Tampa in February
  • A work trip to New Orleans in April
  • 2.5 weeks in Europe for a 12-night cruise and 4 days in Ireland in May
  • A weekend in New York in June

2014 Mid-Year Travel Statistics

It appears that so far, I have:

  • flown 21 flights to 19 airports
  • flown 26,417 miles
  • visited 5 countries (3 new:  Australia, Italy, Greece)
  • visited 4 continents (1 new:  Australia)
  • Crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice and the Pacific Ocean once
  • flown 9 airlines (5 new:  Virgin America, Qantas, Hinterland Aviation, Ryanair, AerArann Islands)

    Flights thru 01 July 2014 (future flights in white)

    Flights thru 01 July 2014 (future flights in white)

For comparison’s sake, by this point in 2013, my year-to-date travel looked like this:

  • 49 flights to 28 airports
  • 94,176 miles flown
  • 7 countries (6 new:  Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Turkey, UAE, Japan)
  • Crossed the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean Twice

    Travel from January - June 2013

    Travel from January – June 2013

The Quest for United Airlines Premier Status

As previously mentioned, United’s addition of the Premium Qualifying Dollars criteria to the Premier Qualification process almost entirely diminished all incentive I had to seek out low fares for weekend trips that would accumulate miles.  I simply haven’t done that at all this year, and as such, it’s evident that I haven’t even tried to re-qualify for Premier 1K.   In addition to this, most of my vacation time this year has been taken up by two very long trips (Australia and Europe), so I just don’t have the time off to take long weekends frequently.  Sadly, I haven’t really gotten to enjoy my United Premier 1K status, simply because they’ve taken away much of the incentive to actually fly United.  I’m not sure that’s the point of a loyalty program.

United Premier Qualifying Stats YTD in 2014

United Premier Qualifying Stats YTD in 2014

Yup, that’s only 5 flights for 4,264 miles and $954 spent.

By contrast, at this point last year, I was here:

2013 United Premier Qualifying Status as of 01 July 2013

United Premier Qualifying Status as of 01 July 2013

That’s 42 flights for 85,387 miles — just a slight increase over this years’ totals, huh?  By this point last year, I’d already qualified for Premier Platinum status (75,000 miles) and was well on my way to Premier 1K (100,000 miles), which I achieved in August.

Though I may not be a high-value customer for United, that is still quite a bit of business they are losing from me.  Then again, the fact that I’ve been burning miles instead of paying and earning them has a major hand in my lack of Premier qualification – I simply haven’t been paying for flights this year.

The Rest of 2014…

I do have quite a bit of travel planned for the rest of the year.  The biggest trip is another mileage redemption — an around the world trip in October to Munich for Oktoberfest, Bangkok, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Tokyo in first class.  This trip was booked using most of my balance of US Airways miles.  The rest of my planned trips this year are largely paid trips, as my mileage accounts are now pretty much decimated!

Future travel in 2014 (projected)

  • Charleston, SC for a Bachelor Party in August
  • Auburn, AL for the Arkansas @ Auburn football game over Labor Day Weekend
  • Las Vegas for BAcon (Boarding Area’s Blogger Conference) in September
  • Munich for Oktoberfest
  • Bangkok, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Tokyo after Oktoberfest
  • Weekend trip to Iguazu falls in Brazil and Argentina in November

With these trips, my total travel for 2014 is projected to be:

  • 41 flights to 35 airports
  • 67,208 miles flown
  • 13 countries visited (3 new:  Australia, Italy, Greece)
  • 5 continents visited (1 new:  Australia)
  • Crossing the Atlantic Ocean three times and the Pacific Ocean twice
  • Flights on 17 airlines (8 new:  Virgin Australia, Qantas, Hinterland Aviation, Ryanair, AerArann Islands, JetBlue, China Eastern, ANA)

    Projected 2014 Total Travel

    Projected 2014 Total Travel

Again, for comparison’s sake, here were my year-end statistics for 2013:

  • 89 flights to 37 airports
  • 151,864 miles flown
  • 7 countries (6 new:  Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Turkey, UAE, Japan)
  • Crossed the Atlantic Ocean four times and Pacific Ocean three times
  • Flights on ten airlines (3 new:  TAM, LAN, Cathay Pacific)
2013 Travel

2013 Travel

Though it looks like a major decrease in distance traveled this year, I’m certainly making up for it by taking long trips to some incredible destinations.  In fact, I’ve spent more time away from home this year than I did at this point last year, meaning I’ve spent much more time at these destinations instead of flying to the a destination, so that’s a good thing!  After all, the destination is what travel is all about… right?

 

 

Fifteen Days in Australia – Planning

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Planning

Putting a two-week vacation to Australia is no small feat.  Doing so almost purely using frequent flyer miles for ones’ flights can be even more difficult, as finding award availability to Australia over New Years is a very, very tall order.  Nonetheless, I managed to throw together a memorable 15-day trip to Australia during in which almost all of the transportation and some of the hotels were paid for with miles.  Here’s how I planned everything…

International Flights

As previously mentioned, I speculatively reserved two Global First Class seats on United for a Christmas Day flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD) since I’d always wanted to go to Australia.  Since I was fortunate enough to have a relatively large stash of United miles along with 1K status with United, I always kept my miles tied up in speculative awards since it ultimately costs nothing for a United passenger with at least Platinum status to refund or change these awards.

United Global First Class Suite - from United Airlines

United Global First Class Suite – from United Airlines

For months I tossed around the idea of spending New Years Eve in Sydney to friends, and it never seemed to really stick.  During a trip back home last September, I casually mentioned the idea of heading to Australia to my dad.  I never thought he’d accept the offer since he’s always maintained that he would never spend that amount of time on an airplane.  However, it seems the offer of first class seats to Australia dramatically changed the situation.  After conferring with my mom, my dad enthusiastically accepted my offer — and just like that, the serious planning for Australia began. At that time, I had two one-way trips to Sydney in United Global First Class booked.   I had them both originating in Tampa since I planned to be there for the Christmas holiday.  Since neither United nor one of its Star Alliance partners offered a nonstop flight from Tampa to Los Angeles, we were forced to take a layover somewhere.  Due to favorable flight times and the availability of first class award space, we decided to transit through Washington-Dulles (IAD) en route to LAX.

The Original 2 one-way awards on United.  80,000 miles each.

The Original 2 one-way awards on United:  TPA-IAD-LAX-SYD (80,000 miles each)

I had about 60,000 miles left in my United account, and I had a speculative round-trip award booked to Rio de Janeiro for the World Cup.  Since I’d already been to Brazil three times in 2013 alone (including here and here), I happily canceled my trip to the World Cup in favor of finding the two of us a way home from Australia!  It basically came down to the following decision:  Take my dad on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Australia OR Go to the World Cup in Brazil (and subsequently visit Brazil for the 4th time in 14 months). For me, the decision was easy:  we were going to Australia! Once I had the 100,000 miles from my World Cup trip refunded to my account, I started to look for a return routing back to the United States.  Ideally, I wanted a first class award. Sadly, there were no non-stop routings from Australia back to the United States available at any time during January 2014, so I was forced to come up with a backup plan and transit home via Asia.  On United’s website, the award search engine will not give you every combination of flights available when you search something like Sydney to Washington DC.  Instead, you need to break the flight up into smaller segments.  By doing this, I was able to find the following routing in first class on Thai, Air China, and United:

sdf

Original Return:  SYD-BKK-PEK-NRT-SFO (Thai First / Thai Business / Air China First / United First)

I found the above individual segments available, but the United Award booking engine would not piece this itinerary together, as it frequently struggles with putting together multi-segment award itineraries.  In order to book this award, I dialed up the United Premier 1K phone line and had the friendly agent convert my one-way awards to Australia into round-trip awards that included the return home above. Before I hung up the phone with the United agent, I mentioned how I wished that there was award space available on one of the non-stop United flights from Sydney back to the States since I knew my dad would not be too excited about the prospect of spending 40-some hours on our flights home.  The agent then offered to put in a wait list request for first class award space on both the Sydney routes to the States (Los Angeles and San Francisco). Not thinking much of it, I agreed and then ticketed my award with the crazy routing. Not two hours later, I received an e-mail from Untied indicating that my wait list request had cleared for my preferred date for the Sydney to San Francisco (SFO) segment!

My Wait list confirmation email!

My Wait list confirmation email!

I immediately called United back, and sure enough — they opened non-stop first class space from Sydney to San Francisco!  I easily tacked on a non-stop flight from SFO to Washington-National (DCA) for myself, and a flight back from SFO to Tampa via Charlotte on US Airways for my dad.

dfg

Return flights:  SYD-SFO-DCA (blue is my flight from SFO on United); SYD-SFO-CLT-TPA (red is my dad’s flights from SFO on US Airways)

Just like that, we had ourselves flights to and from Australia!

Finally had the long flights booked!

Total Cost:  160,000 miles each X 2 = 320,000 United miles (United Global First Class)

Total cost:  160,000 miles each X 2 = 320,000 United miles

What to do in Australia?

With the tough part taken care of, I then started to talk to my dad about what, exactly he wanted to do while we were in Australia.  One thing I was adamant about was spending New Years Even in Sydney, as I wanted to see the celebration on Sydney Harbor.  As such, I’d reserved a room at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney for five nights, departing on New Years Day. The number one thing my dad wanted to do on this trip was to dive the Great Barrier Reef.  My dad and I were certified SCUBA diving together when I was twelve years old, and have always enjoyed going on dive trips together — and Australia would basically be the epitome of all our dive trips!  I knew that the Cairns / Port Douglas area was the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, so I started looking at options.  With the exception of a few day trips to the GBR, many of the diving options were multi-day live-aboard dive trips.  I broached this idea to my dad, and he was once again VERY enthusiastic about this.  I researched the various live-aboard dive boats that leave from Cairns, and based on reviews and descriptions, we decided to take a very highly recommended, four-day dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea aboard the Spirit of Freedom.  Though it was one of the pricier options, we figured that it would be well worth the cost for such a “bucket-list” experience.  After a few e-mails back and forth to the folks at Spirit of Freedom, we were all set to depart Cairns on 02 January and return on 06 January.

Red = 4-day GBR and Coral Sea itinerary *Map from Spirit of Freedom

Red = 4-day GBR and Coral Sea itinerary
*Map from Spirit of Freedom

That left us three days until our return flight back to the States from Sydney.  I broached a couple of ideas to my dad including a trip to the Outback or spending a few days in Melbourne.  After asking around, he told me he wanted to do Melbourne — so that was the plan!

Domestic Flights

With the details planned out of what we wanted to do in Australia planned, I then turned to flights.  Domestically in Australia, there are three major players:  Qantas, Virgin Australia, and JetStar.  This left me with several options.  Since Qantas is partners with both American and British Airways, I could easily redeem those miles for travel should the flight be expensive.  For short-haul flights, British Airways Avios would work best, as it features a distance-based award chart that can be very advantageous — especially on flights under 651 miles.  At the same time, both Virgin Australia and JetStar are relatively low-cost airlines that sell somewhat cheap and reasonable flights domestically in Australia. I weighed my options for a couple of days and decided to buy our flight from Sydney to Cairns (via Brisbane) on New Years Day from on Virgin Australia.  Though it wasn’t cheap (around $240 per person), it was the only choice with a reasonable departure time (10am).  The mileage option would have required a 6am flight on New Years Day — no thank you. For the Cairns to Melbourne segment, I decided to use miles for a flight on Qantas.  At the time, I had very modest balances of both British Airways Avios and American Airlines miles.  I ultimately wanted to fly the both of us in business class, but unfortunately there was only one seat in business left on the Cairns to Sydney segment.   The cheapest way to do this flight in business was with American miles, as it only ran 17,500 miles for this one-way flight in business class.

17,500 miles for a one-way in business class "Wholly Within" Australia

17,500 miles for a one-way in business class “Wholly Within” Australia

Australia one of the "Wholly Within" listed countries

Australia one of the “Wholly Within” listed countries

I then used British Airways Avios for another ticket on the same flights, but in economy.  This came to 14,500 Avios due to the distance of Cairns – Sydney – Melbourne clocking in at two segments (10,000 + 4,500 avios).  See this post for a background in the distance-based British Airway Avios program.

Avios Redemption Chart Courtesy:  British Airways

Avios Redemption Chart
Courtesy: British Airways

Our last flight of the trip required a positioning flight from Melbourne back to Sydney.  I checked the option of award space on the Melbourne to Sydney tag-on flight that’s operated by United, but there was no award space available on that AT ALL.  The good thing about this flight is that Qantas runs hourly non-stops on the route, and as such, the prices are pretty reasonable.  We ended up just booking the flight in cash for less than $100 per person.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 8.59.06 PM

Domestic Australia Flights — Purple: Virgin Australia; Red: Qantas; Cyan: Spirit of Freedom positioning flight via Hinterland Aviation

Total cost:  17,500 American Miles + 14,500 BA Avios + ~$680.

Hotels

As previously mentioned, I was able to get a very nice rate at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney over New Years.   With its central Sydney location, it was perfect for getting around the city.  I use the phrase “very nice rate” lightly — as it was still pricey — just not nearly as obscene as the pricing at other properties in Sydney over New Years. We also found a pretty cheap rate at the Holiday Inn Cairns for our one and only night there before our dive trip. We agonized for a bit over our hotel selection in Melbourne.  We were torn between the Grand Hyatt and the Park Hyatt properties, but ultimately decided to stay at the Park Hyatt due mostly to the fact that some of my most amazing hotel stays up to that point had been at Park Hyatt properties (Tokyo, Dubai, and Zurich).  I used Hyatt points for two of the nights and we paid for the last night at this property.

Park Hyatt Melbourne

Park Hyatt Melbourne

The End Result

Booked with miles / points:

  • Domestic flights in United First Class from TPA-IAD-LAX
  • International flight in United Global First Class from LAX-SYD
  • Domestic flights in Qantas Business and Economy Class from CNS-SYD-MEL
  • 2 nights at the Park Hyatt Melbourne
  • International flight in United Global First Class from SYD-SFO
  • Domestic flight in United First Class from SFO-DCA and in US Airways First Class from SFO-CLT-TPA

Booked with cash

  • 5 nights at the Sheraton on the Park, Sydney
  • Domestic flights in Virgin Australia Economy Class from SYD-BNE-CNS
  • 1 night at the Holiday Inn, Cairns
  • 4 nights Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea dive trip on the Spirit of Freedom
  • 1 night at the Park Hyatt Melbourne
  • Domestic flight in Qantas Economy Class fromMEL-SYD

    sdf

    The End Result!