Around the World with US Airways Miles

A week from today, I will be embarking on another around the world adventure — this time it will include a stop at one of my favorite places in the World — Munich during Oktoberfest.  The Oktoberfest trip is one that I’ve taken the past four years, so it was a no-brainer to book a fifth straight year at the Weisn.

I will be joining ten other friends in Munich for four days, and at least two days at the tents of Oktoberfest — the world’s largest festival.  We also plan to attend a Bayern Munich match, the famed Hofbrauhaus, and some other various sites in and around Munich.  Last year I was able to experience the closing of Oktoberfest, and it was definitely worth the effort to stay for it on Sunday night, so we will be enjoying the closing ceremonies once again from the Hacker Pschorr tent.

The 2013 Closing Ceremony at the Hacker-Pschorr Tent at Oktoberfest

The 2013 Closing Ceremony at the Hacker-Pschorr Tent at Oktoberfest

When planning this trip last year, I wanted to take advantage of a stash of US Airways miles that I had on hand, as I was uncertain of how the impending US Airways / American merger would affect the very favorable US Airways award chart.  As such, I decided to stretch the value of my miles as far as possible.  I also want to try several Star Alliance first class partners while I could, since one could no longer book US Airways on Star Alliance partners after March 31, 2014.

In order to squeeze that extra value out of my award, I decided to book a trip from the US to North Asia… yes, North Asia. Continue Reading →

Meeting the AA Executive Platinum Status Challenge… In One Month!

I previously wrote about the details of the Executive Platinum Status Challenge with American Airlines for which I recently signed up.  Well, I didn’t just blindly agree to the challenge — earning 25,000 elite qualifying points (EQP) in three months is no small feat, after all!

Before I even asked for the challenge, I carefully planned out the least expensive way for me to accomplish this challenge.  My two limiting factors in this endeavor were both time and money.  I had a very busy fall already with trips planned to Europe, Asia, and South America to go along with a wedding, a bachelor party, a weekend with the parents, a trip to Auburn for a football game, and a trip to Vegas for the BAcon Boarding Area blogger conference.  Adding to that, pretty much all of my vacation time has been either used or earmarked for the trips mentioned above.  This left me only three weekends between September and mid-November that I could use to hit this challenge. Continue Reading →

Elite Status Challenges with American Airlines

Airlines – particularly legacy US carriers — value their elite passengers.  These passengers are widely viewed by the airlines to be some of their most profitable passengers, and as such, those passengers are extended numerous perks such as priority boarding, free checked bags, and first class upgrades.  For quite some time, most airlines offer published and un-published opportunities for elite passengers of its competitors called status matches or status challenges. The basic premise of a status match is that an elite member of Airline A would request and be granted equal status with Airline B once their elite credentials were verified.  A status challenge is where an elite member of Airline A is granted equal status with Airline B provided that the member flies X amount of miles/points/segments in Y amount of time (months).Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 9.06.54 PM

What is an American Airlines Status Challenge?

American Airlines currently offers varying levels of status challenge opportunities for elite passengers of rival carriers –  primarily United and Delta, though YMMV with other carriers.  There are currently three levels of status challenges: Continue Reading →

Review: United Global First Class Sydney to San Francisco

Fifteen Days in Australia

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

We awoke at the Park Hyatt Melbourne after our last night in Australia, and grabbed a cab to the Melbourne Airport.  We were to pick up our United ticket back to the States in Sydney, so we booked a one-way flight from Melbourne to Sydney on Qantas.  In order to avoid a misconnection, we allowed ourselves a 3.5 hour layover in Sydney, which ultimately proved to be plenty of time.  After having breakfast in the Melbourne Airport food court, we proceeded to the gate to ride our Qantas B767-300 for a short, hour-long flight to Sydney to start out our long, 28-hour day of traveling.

Our flights home:  MEL-SYD-SFO-DCA / SFO-CLT-TPA

Our flights home: MEL-SYD-SFO-DCA / SFO-CLT-TPA

We were luckily able to snag a couple bulkhead seats, so this flight wasn’t bad at all — chalk it up as another good experience with Qantas, similar to what we experienced a few days before.

Our B767-300 for MEL-SYD

Our B767-300 for MEL-SYD

We arrived in the domestic terminal 2 at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport, but we needed to get to Terminal 1 for our international flight on United to San Francisco.  Qantas operates a shuttle between the domestic and international terminals for their international connecting passengers, but they allowed us to access the shuttle with our Untied boarding passes, so that was nice.

After driving the tarmac past some behemoth airplanes, the shuttle dropped us off at a point where we had to go either to the transfer security checkpoint, or to the check-in counters.  We went to the United check-in counters, but they were not yet open as it was a tad more than three hours before our scheduled flight time.  Though we had boarding passes on our phone, we wanted paper boarding passes and lounge passes, so we waited about five minutes before we saw a United representative.  Though they weren’t open yet, she saw were Global First Class passengers, so she went ahead and produced our boarding passes and sent us on our way.

Singapore Airlines First Class Lounge

After going through security, we proceeded to the Star Alliance section of the terminal.  Though we had lounge invites for the Air New Zealand Lounge, I figured we’d give the Singapore First Class Lounge a shot since according to the Star Alliance Lounge Access Policy, we should be granted access.

We were, in fact, granted access to the Singapore Airlines First Class Lounge without issue, and were informed that it had just undergone a refurbishment.  It was completely empty when we arrived, so we took two seats overlooking the tarmac and several gates.

The View from our perch in the Singapore First Class Lounge at Sydney

The View from our perch in the Singapore First Class Lounge at Sydney

We enjoyed a few drinks, and  a fantastic Thai Red Coconut curry lunch in the lounge.  We really enjoyed this lounge, and appreciated the personal service we had during our two hours there, as there was a waiter who kept our drinks and plates full.  Though there were ultimately a few other patrons in the lounge, we felt like we had the place to ourselves, making for a very relaxing layover prior to our loooooong flight back to the States.  Oh, and the bathroom had one of the more ridiculous signs I’ve seen…

Best signage ever in the Singapore First Class Lounge Restroom!

Best signage ever in the Singapore First Class Lounge Restroom!  Thanks for the advice, SQ!

We left the lounge a little after the published boarding time only to find hoards of people by the gate.  Shockingly, boarding had yet to commence, so we popped up into the Air  New Zealand Business Lounge.  And what an insane asylum it was!  This was a massive lounge that was quite crowded and very loud.  After checking it out for ten minutes, we’d seen enough — we were so glad that we opted to spend time in the Singapore First Class Lounge instead (though I loved the hot dog cart in the ANZ lounge)!  By the time we got back to the gate, boarding was well underway.

United Airlines (UA) 870
Sydney (SYD) – San Francisco (SFO)
Aircraft:  Boeing 747-400
Seat:  1A (Global First Class)
Thursday, January 9
4:20PM – 10:50AM
Duration:  13:30

We boarded through door 1L, hung a left, and were seated in the same two seats that we had on our outbound flights a few weeks prior:  seats 1A and 1K in Global First Class on board a United B747-400.  Again, I can’t say enough about the awesomeness of these seats.  They’re somewhat private, they have a ton of storage, there is no foot traffic, and they’re very spacious.  Overall, it’s an extremely comfortable seat in which to spend 13+ hours, and is great for pairs traveling together.

Seat 1A in Global First Class on the United B747-400

Seat 1A in Global First Class on the United B747-400

Plenty of Room in 1A

Plenty of Room in 1A

Once we took our seats, the friendly flight attendant fulfilled our pre-departure beverage requests and brought us our amenity kits, which I really do like.  We pushed back pretty close to on-time and taxied out past another United B747-400 that was running an extra segment due to a cancellation the day before.  We taxied all the way to the end of runway 34R and took an extra-long take-off roll before turning north.  The view of Sydney out my window was fantastic!

Dinner service began about 30 minutes after takeoff.  The appetizer was some sort of a pork won-ton, and was actually quite good.  The soup was a cream of asparagus, and it was probably the highlight of the dinner.  The salad was pretty standard — fresh and tasty.  Due to both of our awful entrees on our outbound flight LAX-SYD, I decided to play it safe and order the pasta.  The Pasta dish on this flight was a butternut squash ravioli.  It was relatively tasty, though dominated by the sauce.  The traditional ice cream sundae topped off this slightly improved meal.

At the end of the day, the dinner service was a bit better than our outbound flight, but it still just doesn’t compete with other airlines’ food in international first class that I’ve experienced.  You shouldn’t have to go with a “safe” choice when flying international first class.

After dinner, I had a few more drinks and watched another movie.  I started getting sleepy, so I went to change into something more comfortable.  When I came back to my seat, it was made into a bed.  Once again, I slept wonderfully on this flight.  I find the Global First Class seat on United to be great for sleeping, as it provides plenty of room for even me to stretch out (I’m 6’4″)!!

Dusk somewhere over the Pacific

Dusk somewhere over the Pacific

Seat 1A in United Global First Class in bed mode, and made up with a blue duvet

Seat 1A in United Global First Class in bed mode, and topped with a blue mattress pad

I awoke about 90 minutes outside of San Francisco and the flight attendant promptly brought me the breakfast menu.  I elected to try the eggs with hollandaise sauce.  The whole breakfast was served on one tray — the fruit, yogurt, croissant, eggs, and sausage.  Everything was pretty decent, though the eggs tasted like they were cooked 12 hours prior — and they looked like plastic.  It still wasn’t a terrible breakfast, though I do prefer my eggs to be freshly cooked, and these were most certainly not.

Big breakfast -- and interesting eggs!

Big breakfast — and interesting eggs!

Service throughout this flight was perfectly adequate, but nothing overly memorable or special.  The flight attendants were friendly enough and provided solid service.  When I needed something, it was taken care of quickly, but not necessarily with a smile.  Though it was good, I found the service to be better on our outbound flight from LAX.

Upon landing, I breezed through Global Entry and took a quick shower in the United Arrivals Lounge at SFO — a most welcome freshen-up after the long day of flying.  After that, my dad and I parted ways as he went off to catch his US Airways first class flight back home to Tampa via Charlotte and I went to catch my non-stop United flight to Washington-National airport in first class.

This was a non-eventful, domestic first class flight, and I slept through the entire flight!  I arrived in DC ahead of schedule, ending one of the most memorable few weeks of my life — and a trip with my dad that I’ll remember forever.

Bottom Line

United’s Global First Class is a very comfortable way to get to and from Australia.  The catering is what sets this product from being anywhere near first-rate in the industry.  Catering would qualify as okay to decent for business class, but it’s certainly not first class catering.  At the end of the day, the thing I value the most in a first class seat is the comfort of the seat, and I really do find this seat truly comfortable.  Though it lacks the privacy of some other airlines’ first class seats, it’s certainly a good way to cross the Pacific.

How I booked it…

As mentioned in my previous post, I booked this trip for my dad and I using United miles.  United charged 80,000 miles each way (160,000 miles round trip) for each of us.  Note:  As of March 2014, United no longer flies the Boeing 747-400 on its Australia routes.  Instead, the airline operates a three-class Boeing 777-200 on both its LAX-SYD and SFO-SYD routes.  The B777-200 has four fewer Global First Class seats than the B747-400, so I expect it to be somewhat more difficult to find first class award space on United flights to Australia.  Starting in late 2014, United will operate their brand new, two-class B787-9 Dreamliner on nonstop flights from LAX to Melbourne.  This flight will only offer BusinessFirst class, similar to what I experienced on my flights on the B787-8 Dreamliner from Denver to Tokyo SeattleSeattle to Tokyo, and Tokyo to Denver.

Review: United Global First Class Los Angeles to Sydney

Fifteen Days in Australia

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

United Airlines (UA) 839
Los Angeles (LAX) – Sydney (SYD)
Aircraft:  Boeing 747-400
Seat:  1A (Global First Class)
Wednesday, December 25
10:05PM – 7:50AM (+2 days)
Duration:  14:45

Our B747-400 at the gate in LAX

Our B747-400 at the gate in LAX

After a bit more than an hour in the lounge, we were escorted to the gate by a United agent from the Global First Class Lounge to a separate air bridge, where we entered the Boeing 747-400 from the first door.  I selected seats for my dad and I in the first row — at the very tip of the nose of the 747.  These seats were absolutely fantastic since there was virtually no foot traffic by us.  Since it is in the nose, these seats were close enough to each other to have a conversation, yet far enough apart to where we could each enjoy our private space.  They were also separated from the rest of the first class cabin, so it really did feel like our own little mini-cabin.  I would highly recommend row 1 when flying solo, or with a companion in United Global First Class on the B747-400. The seat itself is very spacious and extremely comfortable.  In an upright position, one has an immense amount of personal space.  There is also a ton of storage all over the suite.  There is a good-sized In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) screen which has an impressive collection of movies, TV shows, music, and games.  I really enjoy United’s movie selection and find it to be one of the better IFE systems out there.

Shortly after boarding, the lead flight attendant, Doug introduced himself to us and brought us a pre-departure beverage and amenity kit.  The amenity kit for Global First Class is very nice, as it includes basically anything one would need during a flight.  My favorite part about the amenity kit is the actual case — it’s functional and re-usable, as I still use it to this day as an overnight kit.  Anyway, Doug and his crew took great care of us throughout the flight — the service was pretty outstanding all around on this particular flight. I oriented myself with my seat / suite, and started a movie, as I’d planned to watch a movie, have dinner and go immediately to bed.  Our departure was delayed for about 30 minutes as the crew confirmed the weight and balance of the aircraft. We finally pushed back around 10:35PM.  After taxiing for about a minute, the plane came to a stop.  Minutes later, the captain announced that they were having a mechanical difficulty, so we returned to the gate. This process would repeat itself two more times.

By 1AM, I was pretty convinced that they were going to cancel the flight due to mechanical issues.  Fortunately, we finally pushed back and taxied out to the runway for an actual departure at around 1:15am, about three hours late after three separate delays.   Our arrival time into Sydney was updated to around 10:20am local time on December 27th. Takeoff from LAX was pretty cool, as you could really feel the power of the 747 in the very front of the aircraft.  My dad particularly enjoyed this flight since it was his first time flying the Queen of the Skies — the Boeing 747.

As soon as we reached cruising altitude, the cabin crew began dinner service at around 2AM Pacific time — about 5AM eastern time.  At this point, it was so late, I wasn’t even sure I was hungry, but went ahead and ordered anyway.  I ordered the coconut shrimp and spring roll for a warm appetizer, and this was relatively tasty.  The tomato soup was piping hot, and went great with the warm garlic bread and pretzel rolls.  For my entrée, I ordered the tamale stuffed chicken.  This dish could have been quite good if it was pulled off properly.  Unfortunately, my dish was given the heavy hand with the salt and spice, resulting in a dish that was so salty and spicy that it was barely even edible.  This was pretty disappointing, as I’d heard good things about this particular dish.  My dad ordered the beef ribs for his entrée, and he was similarly disappointed by a very tough and borderline inedible dish.  Luckily, the ice cream sundae somewhat salvaged the meal.   Overall, we found the dinner service to frankly not be up to standards for an international first class product.

After dinner,  I finished up my second movie and went to go change into more comfortable clothes to sleep in.  As I went to the lavatory to change, Doug offered to turn down my bed, which I found to be a nice touch.  I returned to my seat with the bed turned down and padded with a duvet and two over-sized pillows.  I slept wonderfully in this seat — it was probably one of the best nights of sleep I’ve had on a plane, as I was out cold for a good nine or ten hours.

Long Flight!

Long Flight!

I awoke about 90 minutes prior to arrival in Sydney.  Doug came by check on my sleep and to inquire as to whether I wanted breakfast.  After I changed back into my travel clothes, Doug delivered a continental breakfast of scones, croissants, yogurt, and fruit.  While not overly memorable, it was tasty enough.  After breakfast, we prepared for arrival into Sydney, and talked to Doug for a bit — again, the crew was fantastic and very friendly. Final approach and landing in Sydney was beautiful.  The weather was perfect, and I had a wonderful view of Sydney Harbor as we approached Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport.  We ultimately arrived three hours late, at around 10:20am on a beautiful summer morning.  We were handed fast track passes for immigration, and ultimately got through customs and immigration in about 20 minutes.

Bottom Line

United’s Global First Class is a very comfortable way to fly across the Pacific.  The seat and cabin are far superior to the BusinessFirst offering on the same aircraft.  The service on the flight was very good — excellent by United standards.  Sadly, the catering — the food, wine, and drink selection was a disappointment.  The catering was worse than my previous experiences in United BusinessFirst, and is nowhere near competitive with other airlines’ first class offerings that I have experienced.   At the end of the day, we flew first class in order to be as comfortable as possible on the long flight to Australia, and United Global First Class certainly delivered in that aspect, as we arrived in Sydney well rested after a very comfortable flight.

How I booked it…

As mentioned in my previous post, I booked this trip for my dad and I using United miles.  United charged 80,000 miles each way (160,000 miles round trip) for each of us. Note:  As of March 2014, United no longer flies the Boeing 747-400 on its Australia routes.  Instead, the airline operates a three-class Boeing 777-200 on both its LAX-SYD and San Francisco (SFO)-SYD routes.  The B777-200 has four fewer Global First Class seats than the B747-400, so I expect it to be somewhat more difficult to find first class award space on United flights to Australia.  Starting in late 2014, United will operate their brand new, two-class B787-9 Dreamliner on nonstop flights from LAX to Melbourne.  This flight will only offer BusinessFirst class, similar to what I experienced on my flights on the B787-8 Dreamliner from Denver to Tokyo Seattle, Seattle to Tokyo, and Tokyo to Denver.

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