First Look: United Global First Class Chicago to Munich

Good afternoon from Munich!

After four days here in Munich, I’ve finally acquired some wifi good enough for a post at the Le Meridien Munich.  I put together some initial thoughts on the flight, but a full review is forthcoming.

I  arrived in Munich last Thursday on United flight 952 from Chicago on a three-class B777-200 in United Global First Class.  I did enjoy the flight – especially the seat – but it certainly had its shortcomings, as expected.

The seat was pretty fantastic, once again. I find it to have plenty of leg room and shoulder room, and it is really conducive to a comfortable night’s rest. I found myself awoken from maybe the deepest sleep I’ve had aboard an airplane.   This was the most important factor in the trip, since I wanted to arrive in Europe well rested and ready to take on Oktoberfest!IMG_8636

The service was good. Not great, not poor, but perfectly fine and good.  All requests were taken in a quick and friendly manner, though not overly personable or memorable.

The catering was not first-class caliber, but at least it was edible unlike my last two trips in United GlobalFirst, LAX-SYD and SYD-SFO.  The entree featured a beef tenderloin, which was okay.  The gnocchi was decent, but the asparagus was pretty bad.IMG_8671

At the end of the day, I didn’t go hungry, so the meal was enough for me, but it was of the quality of an international first class product.  Overall, I really enjoy flying from Chicago to Europe since the two extra hours allow for a much more relaxed flight with more time to get some rest after a leisurely dinner service. Flights from the east coast to Europe are typically way too short for my liking.

I got some decent rest, which is the name of the game for me when flying to Europe, so I was mostly happy with the flight, as it’s really hard to complain when traveling across the Atlantic in first class!

Points, Planes and Passports Officially Joins Prior2Boarding and BoardingArea!

First of all, I apologize for the lack of posts the last few weeks — they’ve been quite hectic, and the blog has been in transition mode.

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 8.42.46 PMScreen Shot 2014-09-03 at 8.43.04 PM

A few months ago, I joined Prior2Boarding — a collection of top travel blogs and sister-site of the uber-popular BoardingArea community of travel blogs.  This past Tuesday, the techie wizards out in Colorado at BoardingArea successfully migrated my blog to the BoardingArea servers, so you’ll see a few minor changes to my blog, including a banner header with links to the other Prior2Boarding blogs.  I encourage you to check them out, as they all feature a wealth of information on everything related to travel, points and miles.

For those who haven’t read my blog yet, here’s a brief introduction… 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: Qantas Economy and Business Class Cairns to Sydney to Melbourne

Fifteen Days in Australia

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

After disembarking the Spirit of Freedom after four insanely great days of diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea, we accompanied several of our fellow passengers to a bar in Cairns for lunch and a few drinks.  Many of the crew members of the boat met us there for a great summer afternoon.  When it was time to head to the airport, several of us split a cab for the short ride.  I’d booked my dad in business class for these two segments, while I bit the bullet and agreed to ride back in economy.  Upon check-in, the very nice Qantas check-in agent proactively changed my seat assignment to an exit-row aisle seat when she saw how tall I was – this was a very nice touch and a great way to start the trip down to Melbourne.

After passing through security, we spent some time in the Qantas Club before it was time to board for the flight.  Despite Cairns being a regional airport at best, the club was extremely well equipped and certainly much nicer than pretty much any other domestic lounge run by a carrier in the US.

Cairns to Melbourne via Sydney on Qantas

Cairns to Melbourne via Sydney on Qantas

Qantas (QF) 927
Cairns (CNS) – Sydney (SYD)
Aircraft:  Boeing 737-800
Seat:  14D (Economy Class)
Monday, January 6
4:15 PM – 8:15PM
Duration:  3:00

My dad took his seat in 1D in business class, and I kept going back to the second row of exit row seats.  The plane was a fairly new B737-800 with nice, leather seats and an in-seat IFE system.  Since I did have an exit row seat, I had tons of legroom — this was much appreciated, though even the standard seat pitch didn’t look all that bad.

Plenty of legroom in the Exit Row!

Plenty of legroom in the Exit Row!

Nice in-seat IFE on this Qantas B737-800

Nice in-seat IFE on this Qantas B737-800

Service on the flight was pretty fantastic.  We had a light snack on-board that consisted of a decent sandwich — the flight attendant from business class even brought me back some ice cream and a drink from business class at the request of my dad — a nice touch for sure.  I watched a movie on the IFE, and before I knew it, we were on final approach into Sydney.  This was one of the easier flights in economy that I’d experienced, and it was certainly a better experience than my flights on Virgin Australia a few days before.

We were scheduled to have a couple of hours in Sydney before our connecting flight departed for Melbourne, but it was delayed for about an hour.  No worries — we just headed to the Qantas Club in the domestic terminal to kill some time.  Once again, it was very well-appointed and provided a wonderful respite from the somewhat vacant domestic terminal at that hour.

Boarding for the short hop over to Melbourne began about 45 minutes behind schedule as the flight was awaiting a connecting crew.

Qantas (QF) 497
Sydney (SYD) – Melbourne (MEL)
Aircraft:  Boeing 767-300
Seat:  4E (Business Class)
Monday, January 6
10:05 PM – 11:40PM
Duration:  1:35

Since my dad enjoyed business class on the much longer between Cairns and Sydney, he offered  his seat in business class to me for the shorter flight to Melbourne.  I gladly accepted his offer, and was pretty thrilled to ride up front on this domestic version of the Qantas B767-300.   The domestic version of this aircraft is situated with 30 business class seats — five rows of six seats.  It’s a regional business class setup, with a larger, reclining seat.  It wasn’t up to the standards of the regional business class product I flew last year on Cathay Pacific, but the seat was certainly better than your typical domestic first class seat in the States.  Though I didn’t use it, the IFE on the B767-300 was via pre-loaded iPads.  Each of these IFE systems were loaded with a ton of entertainment — movies, TV shows, music, etc.  I do prefer in-seat IFE systems, but this system wasn’t that bad — especially considering there was a slot in the seat where you can hang the iPad, making it a de-facto seat-back IFE system.

The empty Business Class cabin on the Qantas B767-300

The empty Business Class cabin on the Qantas B767-300

The IFE system on the Qantas B767-300 -- an iPad

The IFE system on the Qantas B767-300 — an iPad

The business class cabin on this evening flight was practically empty.  In fact, there was only one other passenger in the business class cabin with me, and that person was seated up in row 1.   There were two flight attendants working the business class cabin, so it came as no surprise that the service on-board was pretty phenomenal.  The flight attendant was young and attractive, and actually sat with me for quite some time giving me some recommendations for things to do in Melbourne.

Thought the flight was listed as an hour and thirty-five minutes, in reality it was no more than a fifty-five minute flight, wheels-up to wheels-down.  Despite this short flight time, there was still a legit meal service.  The dish was a couscous salad with sliced,  chipotle pork, with lime.  It was very light, refreshing, and pretty delicious — a perfect snack for a short, late night flight.

Pork and couscous salad

Pork and couscous salad

The flight was over too quick, but after the end of a long day I was pretty good and ready to be in Melbourne.

This short little hop was a pretty ridiculously good flight, albeit a short one.  I was quite happy with the domestic business class service provided by Qantas — and the economy flight was pretty impressive too.

How I booked it…

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.  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

 

An Evening in Cairns and a Flight to Lizard Island, AU

Fifteen Days in Australia

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

An Evening in Cairns

Upon arrival from Brisbane, we collected our luggage at baggage claim, and took a short taxi ride to the Holiday Inn Cairns.  We checked in and went to the room, which featured a great view of the beach and the Pacific Ocean.

After freshening up, we proceeded to walk around the town of Cairns.  The pier and marina were beautiful at sunset.  Cairns is one of the common jumping off points for tours of the Great Barrier Reef — and that too was the reason we were there.  Cairns is situated on the border of the Daintree Rainforest and the sea, so the vistas are pretty stunning.   The downtown area of Cairns was highlighted by the Cairns Esplanade Swimming Lagoon — a freshwater, man-made beach where everyone was swimming at this time due to several of the beaches close to town being somewhat uninhabited due “Stinger Season” — meaning there were box jellyfish offshore — amongst the most venomous creatures in the world.

We strolled around the marina and the Esplanade and eventually had dinner at Cafe Thailand, a Thai place right near the Cairns Esplanade.  Dinner was tasty, but the service was pretty slow.  One of the creepy things about dinner was the abundance of bats, known as the “flying foxes” that reside in a tree in central Cairns.  Every evening, the bats fly throughout Cairns around sunset — it was pretty unnerving coming from someone who isn’t all that comfortable with bats.  After dinner and dodging bats, we headed back to the Holiday Inn for some sleep.

Flying from Cairns to Lizard Island on Hinterland Aviation

We were in Cairns to start our four night dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea aboard the Spirit of Freedom — a live-aboard dive boat based out of Cairns.  We selected the four-night Coral Sea itinerary.  This particular itinerary started in Lizard Island — an island in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef — and ended four days later in Cairns.  Included in the trip was a low-level flight from Cairns to Lizard Island — and it was pretty cool.

The Spirit of Freedom representatives picked us up from the Holiday Inn in the early morning of January 2nd and delivered us to the general aviation terminal at Cairns International Airport.  The main operator here is Hinterland Aviation — a small, regional and charter airline with operations in northeast Queensland.  The Spirit of Freedom chartered two flights to take the twenty-two passengers on the hour-long flight from Cairns to Lizard Island.  Our luggage was checked at the bus — and the next time we saw the bags would be on the boat.  We were all weighed in the terminal to ensure proper weight and balance.  After a fifteen minute wait, we were escorted down to the Tarmac to board our Cessna Grand Caravan.  Our plane held ten to twelve passengers and the captain.

Hinterland Aviation Cessna Grand Caravan

Hinterland Aviation Cessna Grand Caravan

We taxied along the runway with great views of the Jetstar 787 and Korean Air 747-400.  We took off to the South and immediately turned east and then north, above the Rhapsody of the Seas — the cruise ship we’d watched departing Sydney several days before.

The flight was about as scenic as it gets as we hugged the Queensland coast — rich with rainforest vegetation.  We then went off shore across the clear water of the Great Barrier Reef.  Eventually, we landed at a small airport on Lizard Island — smack dab in the middle of the GBR.  Upon approach to the island, we saw the Spirit of Freedom – our 122-foot home for the next four nights!

 

 

Review: Virgin Australia Economy Class Sydney to Brisbane to Cairns

Fifteen Days in Australia

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

We awoke after a long night out for New Year’s Eve in Sydney to finish packing for our flights to Cairns.  After checking out from the Sheraton on the Park, we took a cab through a sleepy downtown Sydney out to Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport for about AUD $35.   Check-in was relatively uneventful despite the morning rush at the terminal.  The check-in agent advised that we check our bags since they were deemed to be a “borderline” size for a carry-on.  We used these bags as carry-ons for our entire trip over on United, but went ahead and followed the gate agent’s advice anyway since we were each allowed a free bag with our “saver” fare.

Virgin Australia:  SYD-BNE-CNS

Virgin Australia: SYD-BNE-CNS

We proceeded through security and grabbed a bite for breakfast in the food court of the domestic terminal T2.  I made a few phone calls to wish folks on the East Coast of the USA a Happy New Year, and by that time boarding had commenced.  Virgin Australia boards its planes from the front and rear.  Due to our seat assignments behind the wing, we boarded through the rear set of air stairs, while the front rows boarded through the front door using the jet bridge.  Our plane was in the “old” livery, as the side of the plane still read “Virgin Blue” — the former name of the Aussie incarnation of the Virgin brand.  The airline was re-branded in 2011, and it joined then “V Australia” and “Pacific Blue” to form what is now “Virgin Australia.”

Our ride from Sydney to Brisbane -- in the old Virgin Blue livery

Our ride from Sydney to Brisbane — in the old Virgin Blue livery

Boarding the SYD-BNE flight

Boarding the SYD-BNE flight

Virgin Australia (VA) 939
Sydney (SYD) – Brisbane (BNE)
Aircraft:  Boeing 737-800
Seat:  25A
Wednesday, January 1
12:00 PM – 12:30PM
Duration:  1:30

We settled into our seats – the window and aisle seats in row 25 (A and C), hoping that the middle seat did not fill up.  We got lucky, as the door closed shortly thereafter with a relatively light load.  The cabin was clean with hints of purple hues in the bulkhead partitions.  Unfortunately, I found the legroom to be lacking, as I had some very limited pitch to fit my 6’4″ frame.  Luckily, this would only be a short flight.

Legroom (or lack thereof) on a Virgin Australia B737-800

Legroom (or lack thereof) on a Virgin Australia B737-800

There was an in-flight entertainment (IFE) screen at each seat, but upon arriving to my seat, it indicated that the satellite was temporarily down.  I hoped that this was simply because we were still at the gate.  Unfortunately, the IFE was inoperable the entire flight with the exception of a moving map display.  That was pretty disappointing.

The IFE system was down for both flights

The IFE system was down for both flights

We taxied for quite some time before taking off from Sydney.  As we climbed out,  we were blessed with magnificent views of Sydney Harbour and downtown on a beautiful New Years Day.

Shortly after takeoff, a basic drink service commenced.  This was a very standard beverage service, similar to what you’d find on a domestic flight in the US.  I spent the majority of the time on the flight looking out the window at the foreign (to me) Australian coast.   Before I knew it, we were descending into Brisbane where we landed on-time.

We were set to have about a 70 minute connection in Brisbane, but when we went to our gate for the flight to Cairns, it was clear that things were not on-time.   This allowed for us to have a more relaxed lunch in the food court of the terminal.

The delay was extended four different times until we finally were called for boarding around 3pm – about 80 minutes behind schedule.

Virgin Australia (VA) 785
Brisbane (BNE) – Cairns (CNS)
Aircraft:  Boeing 737-800
Seat:  23A
Wednesday, January 1
1:40 PM – 4:00 PM
Duration:  2:20

Once again, we boarded the rear of the aircraft via air stairs.  This airplane; however, was in the new Virigin Australia livery — a much fresher look that’s constitutes the majority of the Virgin Australia fleet.

Our BNE-CNS ride -- another VA B737-800, but this time in the new livery

Our BNE-CNS ride — another VA B737-800, but this time in the new livery

This flight to Cairns was pretty much identical to the earlier flight to Brisbane – only an hour or so longer.  There were a couple of basic drink services from friendly flight attendants — again, nothing out of the ordinary.  The IFE screen was once again dysfunctional, which was again disappointing.  The pitch in the economy cabin was pretty bad — just as it was on the first flight.  Once again, the highlight of the flight was the view, as we had a great view of some portions of the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest as we flew into Cairns in Northeast Australia.  We made up some time from the delay, and arrived about an hour later than scheduled despite the initial 1:20 delay.

Overall, my experience on Virgin Australia was pretty comparable to a domestic flight on a legacy airline in the states.  There was nothing really special about the experience, to be honest.  The legroom was pretty bad, but that’s the case with most airlines in economy these days.  The price was right, as were the flight times, and those were the ultimate drivers in choosing these flights.  Though there was nothing really wrong with the flights, I do think the domestic Virgin Australia experience is a notch below that of the often raved about Virgin America in the US.

How I booked it…

As previously mentioned, I booked these flights with cash from the Virgin Australia website.

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.

Fifteen Days in Australia – Introduction

Fifteen Days in Australia

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

Introduction

NYE Sydney Harbor

NYE Sydney Harbor

It started in March of 2013 when I friend and I were speculatively looking for availability to Australia in first class on United’s website.  Then, lo and behold, we found copious amounts of Global First Class award space on Christmas Day to Sydney.  Though there were no seats on the return flights, those were just unnecessary details…. I just wanted to get to Australia.  And I wanted to be in Sydney over New Years.

Mission accomplished.

After a series of changes, substitutions, and intense planning, this trip of a lifetime was finally fully booked by the end of October.  My trip for one had morphed into a trip for two, but I couldn’t have been any more happy to spend my miles on this travel companion — I mean, when would I have another chance to take my dad to Australia?

That’s right — I was taking my dad to Australia for a trip of a lifetime — a trip that I never thought he’d agree to take.  It’s funny how first class tickets change one’s opinion of taking a fifteen hour flight.

During the next few weeks, this series of posts will detail the fifteen memorable days that we spent together down under, including:

  • United Global First Class from Los Angeles to Sydney
  • Five days in Sydney
  • New Years’ Eve on Sydney Harbor
  • Virgin Australia Sydney to Brisbane to Cairns
  • A day in Cairns
  • Four days diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea on the Spirit of Freedom live-aboard dive boat
  • Qantas Business Class Cairns to Sydney to Melbourne
  • Three days in Melbourne
  • The Park Hyatt, Melbourne
  • United Global First Class from Sydney to San Francisco

Enjoy this sneak peak…

Labor Day Weekend in Rio: Getting There, Getting Around, and General Impressions

In honor of the ongoing 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, I’ve decided to publish some previously un-published blog entries that I already had written about my trip there last September.  I’m not going to change anything since these were my thoughts immediately upon returning from Rio.   Also included are some pictures from the soccer futbol game I attended at the famed Maracana Stadium.


 

For previous installments from this trip, please see the links below:

Introduction
Ten Things I Did in Rio
Revew:  JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro

An entry from a previous stop in Rio:  

Eight hours in Rio de Janeiro


Getting there and Getting around

As previously mentioned, a group of friends and I booked this trip down to Rio due to an extremely low price that was offered by United last February for Rio flights leaving Orlando. This forced me into a pretty crazy routing, as I flew all over the place to and from Rio. Getting down there, I flew Washington to Orlando to Houston to Rio. And on the way back, I flew Rio to Houston to Denver to Orlando to Washington. Yeah — that’s a lot of flying. But hey, I got mad miles for it, and I slept most of the time, so it wasn’t all that bad!

My routing:  US Airways in Red; United in Blue

My routing: DCA-MCO-IAH-GIG// GIG-IAH-DEN-MCO-DCA; US Airways in Red; United in Blue

The flights were nothing terrible, and nothing great to speak of. Since my long flights were in economy class, I don’t find those particularly interesting, so I’ll hold off on a full-fledged flight review.  I did get a very roomy first row of economy plus behind BusinessFirst on United’s B777-200 (two-class, pre-merger Continental configuration).  This was great because it featured even more leg room than the standard Economy Plus, and there was only a bulkhead in front of me — not another seat.

Getting to and from the Beaches from GIG

Ground Transportation to and from the beaches (Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, and Barra)

We arrived at Rio de Janeiro’s Galieleo International Airport around 9:30am and proceeded directly through immigration and customs. Since this was not my first time in Brazil, I already had obtained a Brazil Visa, which is necessary for entrance to the country for US citizens. We pre-arranged a shuttle to our hotels through shuttlerio.com. This cost 20 real per person, each way, and it a pretty good deal. Considering the Real Onibus is 13 real per person each way to the beaches, the extra 7 real is definitely worth it since the shuttle takes a much more direct path to the beach with fewer stops. The shuttle took a little less than an hour to get to the JW Marriott on Copacabana, while the bus can take 90 minutes to two hours at times.

For detailed information on taking the Real Onibus to or from GIG to the beaches, see this post:  Eight Hours in Rio de Janeiro.

Our trip back to the airport took well over two hours on the Real Onibus from Copacabana, so be sure to allot plenty of time.  In fact, be sure to allot plenty of time no matter which mode of transportation you choose — the traffic in Rio is horrendous.

During the next three days, I did a whole bunch of different activities. From lounging on Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches to visiting Cristo Redentor to attending a Botafogo soccer game at the famed Marancana Stadium – I had a packed three days.

Transportation along the beaches

The three major beaches in Rio are Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon (from north to south).  While Ipanema and Leblon are connected, there’s a mountain between Copacabana and Ipanema, so transit is needed.  There are a series of public buses that run every 5-10 minutes from multiple stops along all beaches, so that’s the cheapest and easiest way to get from one spot to another.  Since I was with a group, we found it easier to just take a cab to meet different parts of our group at Ipanema.  Split three ways, the cab was quick and cheap.

 Seeing the sights (Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain)

There are various tour operators that can arrange a trip for you to either of these landmarks.  Since we had a group, we hired a guide who took us everywhere in a minibus — it was really fantastic, and I highly recommend you look into that route just for convenience sake.  Otherwise, you can easily take a cab to Sugarloaf Mountain.  Cabbing to Christ the Redeemer could be a little more complicated.  You can either cab to the base of the mountain and take a tramway up, or you can cab all the way to the top.  You can likely negotiate a round trip rate for the cabbie to wait for you up top, but I imagine it would be a tad pricey.

General Impressions

Admittedly, I was a bit apprehensive about my trip to Rio, simply because of Brazil’s somewhat negative reputation due to the violence in Rio and other large cities.  After spending four days there, I am happy to report that at no point did I feel in danger in any way, shape, or form.  Granted, you need to be aware as you do in any large city, but from my experience, the danger of Rio did not apply.  Now, do keep in mind that I stuck to the upper end beach communities of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon during my time, there – it wasn’t like I was roaming favelas at 3am.  Still, most tourists – especially from the US – focus their time on those beach communities anyway.

One big takeaway from the time I spent there was the terrible, terrible traffic.  It took two hours to get from the beach to the airport, and traffic in general was gridlock – especially during anytime close to traditional rush hours.

The single most attractive quality of Rio – its location on the ocean and along the mountains are it’s single biggest challenge.  Due to these geographical restrictions, infrastructure is pretty poor in Rio.  I honestly cannot imagine how they will successfully rectify their infrastructure and improve it enough to successfully host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.  I imagine the city will come to a literal stand-still for those 16 days.  Rio may survive next summer’s FIFA World Cup, simply because the event will be spread throughout 12 different cities in Brazil, and only 5-6 games will actually be held in Rio.

Despite these infrastructure deficiencies, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Rio.  It is one of the most beautiful cities I have  visited anywhere in the World.  I am completely looking forward to returning sometime soon… will I be there for the World Cup next summer?  There’s a very good chance!

Review: Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


After a wonderful breakfast at the Bunratty Meadows Bed & Breakfast, we dropped our car off at the Budget Rental Car center at the Shannon Airport after topping off the tank at a nearby gas station.  An Avis and Budget shuttle took us to the terminal, where we proceeded to Aer Lingus Business Class check-in.  At this point, I revealed to my girlfriend that we were actually flying business class home.  The entire trip, she was under the impression that we were flying economy back across the pond, since I kept that little detail to myself.

Check-in for business class actually seemed like it took a little longer than regular economy check-in, but we were in no hurry.  After check-in, we proceeded through security and on to the pre-clearance inspection station for the United States Customs and Border Control.  Shannon is one of the only airports in Europe (other than Dublin) to offer pre-clearance into the United States.  Since one goes through US immigration and customs in Shannon, you don’t have to go through the long immigration queues upon arrival back in the States.  Pre-clearance required us to undergo an additional security screening before getting in line for immigration and customs.  After immigration, there were two Global Entry kiosks where my girlfriend and I went ahead and put in our details to avoid the lines.  The only difference between Global Entry in Shannon and in the US is that in Shannon the customs agent asked me for my checked bag bar code, he scanned it, and then had me verify the picture of my bag on the computer.  I knew that this type of security was used, but this was the first time I actually saw it in action.

After zipping through Global Entry, we made our way to the Rineanna Suite — the business class lounge for Aer Lingus passengers at Shannon.  The lounge was nothing special, and actually quite barren with no exterior views.  It did; however, have canned Guinness — one of which I drank as a farewell to Ireland.  After fifteen minutes in the lounge, our flight to Boston was called for boarding.

Aer Lingus (EI) 135
Shannon (SNN) – Boston (BOS)
Aircraft:  Boeing 757-200
Seat:  2C
Sunday, May 18
11:40AM – 1:25PM
Duration:  6:45

We boarded our Aer Lingus B757-200 and turned left to take our seats in row 2, seats A and C.  The 757 is a newly acquired aircraft for Aer Lingus, as three of these airplanes were acquired from Air Contractors to facilitate year round service from Shannon to Boston and New York, as well as adding year round service between Dublin and Toronto.  The flight is actually operated by Air Contractors, but everything was branded as Aer Lingus.  I’m not really sure who the crew actually belonged to!  Since the 757 features a newly installed interior, the business cabin does not feature the same seats that are on Aer Lingus’s A330 fleet.

The business cabin on the Aer Lingus 757 consists of 12 seats — three rows of four seats in a 2X2 configuration.  The seat itself is pretty basic.  There is one basic control to control the recline (up or down), as it reclines into an angled lie-flat seat.  It does NOT lie completely 180-degrees flat.  The leg rest needs to be extended manually in order to get the seat into a bed-like state, which I found odd.  Another oddity is the location of the TV — it seems much lower than on other aircraft, but I suppose it worked fine.  Overall, the seat was perfectly fine for lounging for 5-6 hours, but I don’t think I would have had the most comfortable sleep in it — it was simply not wide enough for me, and the angle was pretty severe when in “lie-flat” mode.

One we settled into our seats, the flight attendant offered us a pre-departure glass of champagne, which we gladly accepted.  She then distributed basic amenity kits and menus.  We pushed back on-time and took off from a rainy Shannon Airport, and ascended to the West over the green fields of Ireland.  Once we hit 10,000 feet, the in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems were booted up, and I browsed the movie selections.  The selections were pretty decent with a good range of recent movies to classics.   I put on the movie Troy just prior to the start of lunch service.

To commence lunch service, I was brought a mediocre blended Scotch (Teachers) along with a selection of canapés from a cart.  None was particularly memorable, but they included goat cheese on toast, a mushroom pate, and antipasti.  The canapés were followed by the appetizer and salad.  I chose the smoked chicken appetizer instead of the seafood plate, and it was basically sliced deli chicken, which paired reasonably well with the accompanying plum chutney.  The salad was fresh enough, but didn’t really feature much lettuce.  For the entrée, we had a choice of a fillet steak, chicken stuffed with blue cheese, sea bass, or penne with tomato and basil sauce.   I ordered the fillet, and my girlfriend ordered the pasta, but we switched since the pasta appeared to be more pesto-based instead of basil.  The pasta was pretty tasty, though I forgot to take a picture of it.  I felt bad for my girlfriend because the steak was pretty awful — it was very dry and chewy.  However, the au gratin potatoes were fantastic.  I enjoyed a chocolate marble cake for dessert while my girlfriend enjoyed a cheese plate.  Overall, the catering for lunch was mediocre at best.  I’d heard some really good things about Aer Lingus catering, but this particular offering wasn’t all that impressive at all.

After lunch, I finished up my movie and pulled out the laptop to load up some pictures from the trip.  That took longer than I expected, because when I finished with that, the flight attendant was coming around again for afternoon tea service.  She brought out a cart filled with various open-faced sandwiches and some scones.  I wasn’t too hungry, so I opted for a scone and some tea.  Afternoon tea was a nice touch — I did enjoy it even though our flight was so short it seemed like lunch service had just ended.

Indeed, we were running ahead of schedule.  As afternoon tea was wrapping up, we had already started our descent into Boston.  Annoyingly, the IFE was shut off about thirty minutes before landing, so we just sat and commiserated how our vacation was coming to an end.  We arrived into Boston over an hour ahead of time, at 12:15 after what was only a five-hour and 35 minute transatlantic flight.  I’ve seriously had longer flights to California from the East Coast.

We pulled into our gate in Terminal A at Boston’s Logan International Airport and were at baggage claim in no time since we’d already pre-cleared immigration and customs.  Our bags were the first ones off the conveyor, so we were able to quickly make our way to Terminal C for our short US Airways flight back home to Washington-National Airport later that afternoon.  And just like that, our trip was over.

Overall, Aer Lingus was decent enough.  I was somewhat disappointed in the seat on the 757, as well as the catering.  The seat simply doesn’t compete with other business Transatlantic products out there, but it’s certainly much better than a domestic first class seat.  The flight attendant in the business cabin was not the warmest character, but she provided adequate service.  Whatever the case, it was perfectly comfortable for a daytime flight across the Atlantic, and it beats economy ANY day of the week!  I consider Aer Lingus business class to be an incredible value if obtained with British Airways Avios (which I did) — so the price was right!

How I booked it…

As I just mentioned, I booked this flight using British Airways Avios.  Since Shannon AND Dublin to Boston is less than 3,000 miles, it falls into an advantageous category on British Airways’ award chart where it only costs 25,000 Avios for a one-way business class ticket (or only 12,500 Avios for economy!)   To put that in perspective, 25,000 miles for business class is LESS than most airlines charge for a one-way economy class ticket to Europe.  It really is the best value for miles across the Atlantic out there — but more on that in a future post!