Monday, November 10, 2014

Let's Do That Again....

Yes, this picture I took of 'AA through the years' at ORD hangs in my office.  Don't judge....
As it's the opening week of my Mileage Season, I'm obliged to honor my tradition of posting the layout of my travel plans on the way to 100k and EXP status for 'One More Year.'  This will be the fourth time I've said 'One More Year,' for those keeping track at home.

I thought last year's mega-mileage runs would cure me of this hobby.  I mean, booking yourself 48 solid flight hours over a long weekend should logically deter a reasonable person from wanting to get back on a plane for the foreseeable future.  But, as has been made clear, mileage runners aren't reasonable people.  At least not about this.

Honestly, even with the jetlag, the hours in economy seating, warmed-over food, Chinese smog in Shanghai, and questionable connections in snowstorms, I had a blast.  I met new people, saw things and places I didn't even know I was looking for, and learned to navigate cities and airports as foreign as they come.

So, in four short days, I'm off on the first of this year's two long-haul runs.... and I can't wait.  

I think 'Donkey' said it best...

As any mileage runner who's in it for the status level knows, the adventure can be a by-product of the goal of reaching 25, 50, or 100k miles.  So, for those wondering where the mileage runs are this year, and why, here's an overview of this season's itineraries-

This season is comprised of two long weekends headed West over the Pacific from Dallas to various destinations in Asia.  Weekend one is the longer of the two, coming in at around 22,600 elite qualifying miles, with a flight path from LAX-DFW on the red eye to meet up with a mid-morning nonstop to Hong Kong.  I then have a night at an airport hotel, before heading out the next morning from HKG to Jakarta, Indonesia.  There's about 8 hours on the ground there, enough time to go relax a little at a close-by Sheraton resort (on points, of course), before an overnight flight to Tokyo Narita.  Then about twelve hours of daylight time there to go into the city and see a few things, before hopping on the return NRT-DFW-LAX trip back home again.  Simple, right? 

The flights look like this:
via Great Circle Mapper.  Sidenote- the circumference of the Earth is only slightly longer than this run.

What's fun about this run is that it allows some time on the ground in each city, but not so much that the time changes start to get disruptive.  I don't have any specific plans of where to go during the stopovers, so I can relax, or not.  Secondly, I'm really looking forward to getting back to the NRT airport lounge.  Last season I had a great layover there including a nice massage, shower, and some fantastic food and drink.  Plus, the premiere lounge in HKG, 'The Wing,' is constantly in the running for the best airport lounge in the OneWorld system.

As for the other bits of intrigue about this run- the outbound is on AA's 777-300er, which I've previously reviewed.  It's AA's biggest and shiniest plane, at least in the forward cabins. If you're lucky enough for an upgrade to clear, is a fantastic way to sleep away a 16+ hr trans-pacific flight.  The inter-asia flights are on Cathay Pacific and JAL, both of whom offer fantastic service, even in economy.  The longer leg on JAL up to Tokyo is being flown on a large plane, and reports from other mileage runners are coming back that it's nearly empty, letting passengers spread out and take rows to themselves- the economy traveler's 'lie-flat suite.'

The second weekend is a simpler riff on the first.  It's a two night trip to Hong Kong, with time for a stay at the Sheraton in the city.  I'll hopefully have just finished qualifying for SPG Platinum status by then, so hoping for lounge access and a nice upgrade.  No actual appointments, so free to stay on my original timezone if I choose.  The flight path originates in ORD, so I found some milesaver award positioning flights to accommodate.  All in all, the flights look like this:

Also, for comparison's sake, here's the links to previous years' posts on this topic can be found here:
2013 (Johannesburg, ZA and Shanghai)
2012 (Four times to Boston and back)
2009 (NYC and Boston) (yes, my first entry!)

Since I always see people who are curious about mileage running, or deciding whether it's worth it, or if they're finding good deals, asking about it I'll lay out the nuts and bolts of the 'mileage math' for these runs.  They were similar in price, both sub-5 cents per mile ("cpm"), and as I had a $400 voucher from last year when I took a flight change at AA's request, I was able to get a combined 3.5 cpm for the 40,504 elite-qualifying miles these trips will net me.  (yes, that number's even a palindrome, has to be good luck!)  With the status-based doubling for redeemable miles I'm earning 81,008 at 1.7cpm to put towards future travel or upgrades.  Even without the voucher, most people would consider these flights decent mileage runs for status.

'Congratulations, your mileage runs come with a free first class trip to Urubamba, Peru!'
As an example of what this many miles can get you, I took the miles I earned last year and booked myself and Mrs. CruisingAltitude on LAN's 1st class flights to Lima, Peru and onwards to Cusco to go to the Sacred Valley next year at a rate of 60,000 miles per ticket round trip.

Paying cash for these would start at around $4,000.  So, in this example those 60,000 miles earned at 1.7cpm means the ticket 'cost' just over $1,000.  Even this is over-priced as the mileage runs were also a way to gain all the benefits of Executive Platinum status, which on their own far outweigh the cash spent on the tickets.  In a sense, the trip to Peru is a fun side effect of making status.

I booked us at the Tambo Del Inka Resort in Urubamba.  Rumored to be one of the most beautiful SPG properties in the system.  Also one of the best of this level for cash & points redemptions, making stays here start at $110 per night + points.
Indoor/Outdoor pool and spa at Tambo Del Inka.  The resort also features its own train station on the line to Machu Picchu.
Okay....I've probably lost 90% of readers at this point.  For the 10% of you who still care, there's more rambling on this subject on [this post] from last year.  Good luck.

At this point in my mileage running career, I keep wavering between being a little sheepish about it all, and wanting to share my adventures.  One thing that constantly surprises me is how many people actually want to learn about it, even if only to comment on how ridiculous it is.  As mileage season generally lines up with the holidays and time spent with family (most of whom we have to fly to see), I usually end up recounting the latest set of adventures on these visits.  There was enough discussion of it last year after I got back from my JNB  and PVG runs that the first holiday toast (not given by me) was aptly concluded with:

 "....And my flight to be with you all tonight cost me $500 round trip, but it came with about 3 new sweaters."

Sounds like a decent deal to me.

Until the next flight,


Saturday, November 8, 2014

One World, Three Days, Part III- The Road Home....

LHR T-3 Lounge.  Showered, fed & ready to board my flight home.
As I've said in my previous posts, the majority of my fellow mileage runners were only on the ground in Jo'Burg for a brisk 18 hours before flying back home.  After returning from the Lion Park, we said our goodbyes, and I turned in for the night at the Hilton.  And by 'night,' I mean a 2 hour nap before dinner, followed by a few more hours of sleep and waking up at 4 am to watch rugby, the local news...and more rugby.  I almost sorta know some of the rules at this point.  But, do not ask me about them...

This 10 hour time change side-effect would be all well and good on a mileage run usually.  Honestly, it's just one more part of the insanity that can make it an adventure.  Case in point my trip to Hong Kong this year- I've considered skipping the hotel night entirely since it'll be the middle of my 'day' and just seeing the sights at night, then heading back to sleep it off on the 16 hour flight home.  No muss, no fuss, no jetlag.

However, in the case of Jo'Burg, I'd combined a few business meetings with the trip, and so needed to be on my game at 10 am to meet some industry folks, and then on to a second meeting in the afternoon.  Won't lie, that was a little rough.  If I'm tempted to do this again, I'll probably limit it to one meeting... or none.   Still, the meetings went well, and the second colleague kindly took me back to JNB to catch my outbound flight.  Or so I thought.

As previously posted, I didn't realize until I got to the check-in line that my passport was still safely locked up in my room at the Hilton back in Sandton.  Low point of the trip.  Suffice to say I got really familiar with the Gautrain.

To end the suspense, yes, I did get back to the airport in time, passport in hand.  I have to give another nod to the service at the Hilton Sandton here.  They had it ready and waiting for me at the front desk to get me on my way in plenty of time.

As also previously discussed, upon arrival I learned of an equipment change from one BA 747 to another, which removed several rows of economy, one of them the unlimited legroom exit row I was seated in.  But as very occasionally happens in the twisted world of mileage running, my annoyance...surprise...anger, or whatever it was at that point, was eventually assuaged by a surprise status-based upgrade to a 'World Traveler Plus" seat instead.  While not to be equated with a true upgrade to business class or better, 'WT+' on this plane is somewhat like AA's 737 domestic F service, less as much personal attention, but with an added little footrest.  Soft product gets a little better as well- there's a menu, and your food comes in real glasses and on plates, rather than the 'microwave meal' trays served in back.   At that point in the weekend, that was all I needed to forgive BA, and to get a little sleep on the trip back across the continent to LHR. 
WT+ Seat

Little amenity kit

See, AA??  They still do make these.  Get yourselves together & stock them again.
In retrospect, while getting the hotel for the night seemed like a way to soften the journey, I'm not so sure.  The prospect of getting right back on another flight after only one day on the ground sounds painful, but so is encountering the 10 hour time change for just one day.  One of the good things about an ultra long haul run, like this, or an around the world itinerary, is that your body never really has to conceptualize what you're doing.  For the most part, you're just on planes and in lounges, and you can doze off whenever your brain decides it's 'night.'  Not to say it's not fun to get out and see the destination you just took 2 days flying to get to, but in my humble opinion, one day and a few adventures may be enough- sleep it off on the flight home.

Speaking of sleeping it off, fast forward to the second segment of my return trip- my first chance to experience the new business class on AA's 777-300ER that they keep advertizing.  My review- I give it about an 8 out of 10.  It definitely puts any of AA's other hard product to shame.  And considering that the previous configuration on the 777-200 was 2-3-2 angle lie flat where the middle seat of the '3' section is basically trapped unless they're the type to wake up their neighbor and get them to sit back up, or are prepared to do a flying leap over them to get to the restroom (guilty)... the shaming is immense. 
777-200 business class.  These are due for retrofit in the next year or two, thankfully.
In comparison- here's a panoramic of the 77W J cabin.  Yeah, no more needs to be said.
The '77W' business class cabin is 52 seats deep, with a 1-2-1 all aisle access configuration.  The seats are truly lie-flat, and come with an adjustable large-ish screen TV, with a decent range of entertainment, and Bose headphones.  As a side-note, this summer I managed to get both myself and Mrs. CruisingAltitude seats on this plane from DFW-LHR on our way to Rome, and it got rave reviews from her as well. 

PLENTY of space to stretch out and sleep!

Good sized screen, but low resolution.

Bose, slippers & menu
My only complaints about the service is that the seats could use personal air vents, because I always end up way too hot since the air doesn't circulate well, and that they need to suck it up and put at least one more FA on these routes.  52 is way to many passengers to really give personal service to with their current staffing.  Soft product was fine.  After all my flights, I enjoyed my meal, but then really just wanted to sleep, which I did.  I think I passed out for a solid 7-8 hours, which was most of the flight time from LHR to DFW. 
Seat and entertainment controls.  That's a light, not an air vent.

1st course

Second course- fillet.

Pre-landing snack.  Okay, pizza on the 'Flagship' service....Really, AA??
Upon arrival in DFW, I had a bit of time, so I stopped in at the AmEx Centurion Lounge for a last meal before boarding the final flight back to LAX.  I'm sure I've said it before, but this lounge is definitely worth a visit if you get the chance.  It features a decent buffet, open bar with great options including designer craft cocktails, and a 10-deep complimentary wine list (not just free well drinks and 2 wine choices like the Admiral's Club), and free massages, facials, and manicures (if you can get a slot that works for your layover).  The only downside, and what keeps me retaining my AC membership, is that the agents there obviously don't work for the airline, so they're no help with seat issues, re-booking, or the like.

Lunch...dinner, maybe depending on what timezone you choose.  Way better than in-flight.
So.  That's really that, then.  The final flight was a quick & easy one back to LAX.  Having had a decent amount of sleep on the way back, I drove home thinking '22.6k miles done, and I feel like I could turn around and do it again!'  Which, though probably a delirious result of all that time in low-oxygen environments, was a good attitude as I had booked myself for a second run 3 weeks later that took me to Shanghai, Tokyo, and back in a weekend.  Oh, and it started in Chicago, so I had to get there first.

I suppose that normal people are right to consider 'extreme' mileage running like this to be insane.  But to that I say- Have you ever flown to Africa just to feed a giraffe, and pet a lion cub? 

Yeah, didn't think so.... :)

One more giraffe...for good luck.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sunrise to Sunset....

Coast to coast, sunrise to sunset. 

(yes, I’ll get back to finishing up the final part of my JNB run shortly, but more current things are on my mind this week.)

Like most things on this page, this story begins with an upgrade.  Not just any upgrade, but a hard-won JFK-LAX business class seat that was ‘oversold by one,’ whatever that means, an hour prior to departure.  No clue how it worked out, but short story is my EXP status and connecting passenger clout somehow did the impossible (after much dismissive head shaking by the AC agents at YYZ and JFK, as well as my first ask to the gate agents). 

When I got called to re-check, it went something like this:

"I'm [CruisingAltitude], you called me up?"

"Yes, your upgrade went through, is a window okay?"

"As I'm guessing it's the one and only available, it's my new favorite seat." 

[Gate agent laughs and hands over my new boarding pass]

So here, I am, seat 10F on the 321 service to LAX, pre-departure beverage (“PDB”) and all.  This week has been a typical work travel week, with flights to Toronto via JFK both ways.  Yes, as many people have asked, American does fly to YYZ nonstop from LAX.  But…. Since when have nonstop flights been a mileage runner’s priority?? Plus, it was a late-scheduled flight, making non-stops costly.  And double plus- any AA traveler will tell you, the best (even despite my nit-picking below) domestic product hands-down is AA’s ‘flagship’ service on the 321-Transcon.  It features lie-flat seats in both F and J, and if you miss the upgrade (likely, due to high business and VIP travel on this route) there’s decent MCE availability with in-seat entertainment in all Y seats as well. 
I certainly feel welcome... 

As a side-note however, I won’t drop my allegiance to Boeing products.  There’s something about the flight profile of the Airbus planes that has less finesse.  The pitch changes on climb out are abrupt, and the fuselage seems to flex and rattle a little more than the Boeing jets.  Maybe it’s just us, but both myself and Mrs. CruisingAltitude noticed some differences this year since we spent a decent amount of time on various Airbus products this summer in Europe.  Could be that AirBerlin just needs to better secure their glassware in the forward galley…. It was like a china shop in an earthquake up there.  

Additionally, I’ve heard a thing or two about the newly delivered Airbus jets not holding up to service well in the AA fleet- broken seats, tray tables, and the like.  To add to that, my handset for my IFE never worked on this flight, didn’t connect on my outbound, and the entire system froze up in my last hour, refusing to play anything at all.  Maybe it was as mixed on its feelings about “Veep” as I am.
Yeah, so about that new high tech IFE...
Also, in my opinion, AA could do significantly more to improve the ‘soft product’ on these flights to match the impressive seating- the food ranges from ok to ‘I’ll just grab something in the terminal,’ and the drinks are fine.  Nothing worth writing home about, no matter how much AA *cough US* wants to show us their new dishes and flatware.  If it’s going to be called ‘Flagship Service,’ they should go the whole distance.  I mean, I'm not expecting a Michelin star here, it is at the end of the day airplane food, but there's some other airlines out there that do a pretty impressive job of it, even in economy. 

New plates, basic fare.

Aaaannnyhow…. Back to the trip at hand.  This week included flights to Toronto’s Pearson Int’l via JFK, a rental from National at T-3, two nights at the Westin Prince at York Mills, and one night at the Four-Points Toronto Airport.  Oh yeah, and I did some work in downtown Toronto, but you don’t want to hear about that.

This was my first trip to Toronto, and at the outset I was excited to see a new city.  However, due to some unbelievably big convention or such in town, every hotel- Starwood, Hilton, and Club Carlson cold only offer me a $500/night basic room at the Radisson…try taking that back to accounting.  Long story short, I ended up booking out of town at the Westin Prince.  It seemed like a decent option- helps me get to my 25 Starwood check-in goal for the year, and looked to only be a 20 min drive from where I needed to be. 

WRONG….so wrong.

I’ve learned my lesson.  In LA I say you have a choice between being 30 minutes early, or 10 minutes late.  I now know that in Toronto, you have a choice between being an hour early…. And being royally friggin’ screwed.  Traffic there is bad.  So, so bad.  For anyone reading this who knows LA, it’s the equivalent of taking the traffic from the 405 and re-routing it to Hawthorne Ave.  I’m not kidding.  The pouring rain didn’t help either.  In short, me, my Sonata (it was a late pick-up and I wasn't about to navigate a Yukon around a city) from National, that I never had the chance to test for power, and the GPS that refused to let me take any expressways and I got super well acquainted.  At least the mileage was low and the XM was active.
3 Hours a day of this.  I got beat to downtown by a guy on a bicycle wearing a poncho.
Really, the GPS had a sense of humor.  When I returned the thing at YYZ and they asked how it ‘worked out for me’ it was all I could to not to say ‘just great, I had a lovely hour long tour of the ‘hood on the way here just now.’ 

On one of my quick calls home on my international minutes, Mrs. CruisingAltitude stopped me mid-rant with, “you do realize we’ve been talking for 10 minutes, and all I’ve heard about Toronto is traffic?”  Sums it up.

The Westin Prince, aside from the location, was fine.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to stay there again, but I’ve had worse.  No upgrade as a SPG Gold, got stuck on the 4th floor, not much of a view.  The room was decently modern, as were the common areas.  No big complaints.  Had a pretty nice meal at the sushi restaurant next door- always a good choice when traveling alone on business. 

The last night I stayed out at the Four Points YYZ.  Of course nothing fancy, but I slept well.  Their shuttle runs every 30 minutes to the terminals, and the service and price point were right on.  I’d stay there again when I need an airport hotel. 

All in all, it was a productive trip, made much more comfortable by clearing 4/4 of my upgrades – both directions on the 321-T to and from JFK, and my Eagle flights onward to YYZ.  Sidenote- I really don’t mind the little cabin on the E75, props to AE for continuing to order jets with a first class.  Gives me faith with all the other benefits being eroded slowly but surely by the merger.  Plus, both directions it was half empty and I had my own 1st class row. 

One thing they can't take away, thankfully, are the views.  Tonight's been a treat start to finish, from a beautiful dusk light on take off from JFK, to the red and blues of that 'chasing daylight' flightpath on the way back West.  Cameras never do it justice, but I always have to try.   
Goodbye NYC
Chasing Daylight
Well, that’s all for the night.  Flight 181 just made the turn to sequence for decent into LAX, and they’re about to serve my sparkling water and lemon (nice touch, by the way).  As always, it’s been a journey. 

Until the next one, in a few days’ time,

Fly Safe,


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Oneworld, three days part II: Second Red-eye, Roaring Good Time...

Is this the way to the premium check in counter??
[Part I of this trip report here: The one where I crossed an ocean for a drink with a lampshade]

Now about that second 11 hour redeye....

It wasn't all that bad, at least in retrospect, but let me be real here for a second.  I'll admit a lot of mileage runners like to brag about how easy all this is, how flying to Hong Kong and back in two days is no big deal, and how they 'love to fly' and on and on.  In fact, I believe an exact quote I heard regarding someone's same day turn around going LAX-JNB was 'easy peasy lemon squeezy.' But the reality is, in that moment 4 hours in with 7 to go on a non-upgradable flight, when it's about 3am in your home time-zone, with the screaming baby, and the drink service over, you do have brushes with insanity.

You might start to rationalize the timeframe:
 '7 hours left, I can do that, it's like JFK to LAX, I've done that tons of times.  Well, and then two more hours, but that's just like an onward connection to Seattle.  No big deal, Seattle's so close...'

Or, instead, if you're a rewards-focused type, your monologue might go:
 '4 hours at 500mph, that's 2000 more qualifying miles, only 3500 left...I can feel my account growing by the minute.'

Or you start really looking for the analogies:
 'It's like only half a workday left, and a drive home in somewhat moderate LA traffic.."

This is also about the time you start wondering if you should get up and move around, and if maybe no one would notice if you started doing lunges down the aisle.  Hint: they will, but you may not care at this point. This is when my 'game face' changes to my 'deal with it' face, and I'm vaguely aware that in my oversized sweatshirt complete with hood, yoga pants and tall socks I probably look like a trendily vagrant teenager.

But, still, it wasn't all that bad.... I love to fly ;)

Besides, BA serves free alcohol in economy, and for some bizarre reason, has an entire season of Portlandia on their (fairly decrepit) IFE.  The two go well together.

One additional drawback to the timing of this flight is that you bisect the African continent- at night, and thereby see nothing.  However, there's no way around it on the current flight schedules.  BA flies 3 (huge) planes within 2 hours of each other on this route pretty much 'nose to tail.'  This is, yes a LOT of seats.  Yet somehow, just about every single one was filled.  I also heard rumor that this is a big cargo route, and so on more empty flights, the passengers and their revenue are somewhat of an afterthought in BA's bottom line.

Back to the flight though.  Dinner was... airplane food.  I took a picture, but it's not all that exciting.  Not that I was even that hungry after almost six hours in the Galleries Lounge.  I did manage to get about 6-7 hours of sleep, though I woke up every few for some reason or another.  Still, upon arrival in JNB, the mileage run adrenaline hadn't worn all the way off yet.  Plus, 'the mileage running crew' was finally all in one place, and we could head out for a one-day adventure before most everyone went right back on flights up to LHR 18 hours later.

First stop- Sandton, ZA since a couple of us had hotel rooms booked.  Johannesburg's accessibility got an upgrade in the construction for the last World Cup, and so there's a fast (and well-policed) train that leaves from JNB and goes direct to Sandton with only a few stops.  It's about a $24 round trip, and tickets can be bought with either cash or credit at the stations.  From the station in Sandton, you can walk to several of the area hotels (though I wouldn't recommend it at night) or the hotels also have shuttles you can call for.  
The 'Gautrain' at the JNB stop.

The train goes almost express from the airport stop to Sandton, so it's impossible to get lost.  As an added benefit, you get a good look at the lay of the land, including a few tightly-packed townships along the way.  The train goes underground in Sandton, and consequently you have to take switchback escalators up several stories to get to the ground level. 

From the train-Township in the background
I had a night on $60 cash & points at the Hilton, and I'd definitely stay there again.  As a Gold, I was upgraded to a nice two room suite with a decent view.  Check in was quick and professional, and the property was well appointed.  No complaints.  The staff even took a few of my companions to the spa to take showers and use the facilities even though they weren't on my reservation.  However....I did hear rumor from one of them that the laundry in the spa may not be up to standard, so I'd take a lesson from The Guide, and always know where your towel is. (I noticed no unusual lack of housekeeping in my room, so it may have been an isolated occurrence)

Bedroom Hilton Sandton- Nice amenities, quiet and comfortable.  6 TV channels, 3 of them soccer, 2 rugby.
Beautiful Southern Sky- Sandton, ZA

(Note to Club Carlson elites as well- the 'Raddison Blu Gautrian' also looked quite nice, and is directly across the street from the train, so no shuttle connection is necessary)

Since we had a group, I'd emailed with the hotel ahead of time, and had arranged for a driver to take us out to the Lion Park for a few hours.  The price was reasonable, especially in a group and included our tickets to the park and entrance to the lion cub area.  No, it wasn't a week at Kruger, but for an outing on a same day turn mid mileage run, it wasn't half bad.  If you want, these tours can also be arranged with pick up right from the airport, if you don't have a hotel reservation.  There are various excursions like this from similar companies with different attractions- museums, city, animals, etc.     

Now comes the excuse to put up a bunch of pictures of animals (you knew it was coming).  The tour of the Lion Park starts with a drive through fields filled with antelope, zebras, giraffes, and various other non-carnivorous animals I can't remember all the names of.  You get up close, and sometimes have to wait for herds to cross in front of the van. 

Now, on to the LIONS...which is what this run was all about, right?  Well, that, and 22.5k EQMs...  The lion part of the park includes several enclosures with adult lions wandering around (roll those car windows up, they are NOT shy).  We got there just after feeding time, and they were still chewing on what looked like some tasty half goats or sheep.  Served rare, of course.

 The park also is home to quite a few 'white lions,' like this little guy...
Last stop on the tour is a more typical 'zoo-like' area where you're free to get out and roam around and see more animals in enclosures.  This is also where they take you to go pet (and take selfies with) somewhat domesticated lion cubs.  Yes, it's all very touristy and whatnot, but like I said- same day turn mileage run activity.  I'll take it.

One thing these photos of sleeping cubs doesn't show is that when they wake up, they're not as docile as they seem, nor are their teeth at all small.  I had the memorable experience of having one decide to growl, grab on to my sleeve, and not let go.  Even better was one of the handlers coming over, nonchalantly swatting the offender on the nose, prying her off and shrugging, saying 'yeah, we're working on her with that.'  No big deal.... 
Siiimba.... (couldn't help myself)

Your correspondent & a new friend at the Lion Park


The whole crew- So much fun traveling with everyone!

Up next- the road home, complete with a missing passport, some surprise upgrades, business class on the 77W, and the realization that in some cases the same day turn may be the easier option.**


At least Giraffe thinks I'm funny...

**Theory yet to be scientifically tested.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Oneworld, Three Days Part I: The One Where I Crossed an Ocean For a Drink With a Lampshade...

777-300ER, parked at T3 in LHR
It occurs to me, as I book the first flight of the 2014 mileage season, that I have some considerable (daunting, even) catching up to do around here.  As I’ve written, 2013 closed with some epic mileage runs and lasting memories.  Despite some close calls with bad weather and serious jetlag, all went well.  However, I’ve neglected my trip reports, badly.  So, while I (probably futilely) sit and wait for AA to match the UA and DL fare deal to Hong Kong for this fall again, I’ll do my best to remedy that. Bear with me though, as 38,000 miles across 4 continents is going to take more than one chapter.  Some information may overlap with other entries already posted, but I’ll do my best.  

In the interest of keeping things relevant, I'll note that this run is likely to be available this year again for somewhere around the 5cpm range.  Recently, it was available on BA metal out of LAX, and I'd expect the AA metal version to come up in the fall.  Also interesting, for those willing to go a few more CPM in the name of comfort, is a WT+ fare in the low $2000 all in on BA planes that is upgradable on Avios to Club World.  I've seen these fares for scattered dates throughout the fall and winter.  This trip in their lie-flat a380 cabin would be a wonderfully comfortable 22k mileage run!

So, here we go....

They say when writing to ‘begin at the beginning, go on until you get to the end, and then stop.’  Let’s call the beginning of this story my arrival at LAX to start the journey, as all the plotting, agonizing, and rationalizing has already been posted here before.  See? and See?  

Though this flight was transatlantic, it was operated by American on the new 777-300ER and so departed from LAX Terminal 4, rather than the newly renovated Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT, if you’re the acronym-loving type).  

As an EXP/ Oneworld Emerald, even flying economy I had access to the American Airlines Flagship Lounge, which is co-located with the Admiral’s Club.  This trip was my first time in the FL side of the T4 AC.  It’s significantly smaller than the main side, but also has much better offerings: Open (self serve) bar with decent choices in both beer/wine and the harder stuff (yes 3 white tequilas, as previously highlighted), buffet sufficient enough to make a light meal- chicken, salad, rice, pasta, small desserts, etc., and bottled drinks and water (great to grab and take with you for the flight).  The lounge does have access to showers, but they’re shared with the AC, and in my opinion, the view is somewhat lacking in comparison to the AC side.  In particular, this evening I crossed back over to get some great shots of the sunset to the West.  

The food.

The Drinks
Now, a note about the plane.  It’s my favorite plane of all the planes.  The 777-300ER is American’s new long-haul aircraft, and is geared well toward the current trends in bookings.  It comes with 4 classes of service- First, Business, Main Cabin Extra, and Economy.  Now, I’ll qualify my love letter here with the admission that if I wasn’t EXP or PLT with American, this might not be my favorite plane of all the planes.  The main cabin seats are tight- 10 across in a 3-4-3 configuration, which, even on this widebody jet is cramped.  Honestly, if I didn't have status to get a Main Cabin Extra seat, I'd probably fly a codeshare on a different carrier.  Main Cabin Extra is 9 across in a 3-3-3 configuration with some extra legroom, making it a decent choice.  It also has a whopping 52 business class seats with all-aisle access and fully flat beds, making it the best business class product in the fleet, and just 8 First class open suites up front.

10 Across in 'Sardine Class'
For the 12 hour outbound LAX-LHR, I had seat 18F, which is a MCE aisle seat.  I’m not all that tall, so I found the legroom to be sufficient.  Though, they could take a lesson from the Qantas a380 product and put in a footrest.  The seat width also would have been fine, but the person who boarded late and took the middle seat next to me took up a bit more space, and I found myself on multiple occasions during the flight a little more up close and personal with her...and her coat,….than I would have liked.  On the positive side, each seat has personal screens with a decent amount of IFE, enough to get through dinner and put you to sleep.  As for seat-tips, go for row 16, which has even more legroom due to being an exit/bulkhead row.  The only downside here is the lack of under-seat storage.  

Speaking of dinner, mine was a standard chicken-something meal.  Not terrible, but not memorable either.  A note on MCE service- they do serve you first in that cabin (in my case, just in time to get knocked around by some decent chop while trying to not spill my airplane wine), but there was no printed menu or upgraded choices like is offered in BA WT+ or QF premium economy.  You’re just basically getting a bigger seat, closer to the pointy end of the plane.      

Now, let me back up for a moment here and give a nod to the amazing group I ended up traveling with for this weekend.  Since this trip was such a monster deal, and simply netted so friggin' many miles, quite a few mileage runners signed up, so we decided to meet up along the way.  We started all over the US- 4 of us from LAX, and others from JFK, DFW, IAH, etc.  Due to the number of AA and BA flights that run on this routing, we weren’t all on the same exact flights, but kept meeting up with more and more of us at various points until we were all in one place finally in JNB.  It made the trip even better to be traveling with this group.  I don’t think I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet such a diverse, interesting and capable group of people on such a unique basis.  If you get the chance, don’t pass it up.   

The flight passed as well as any 12 hour flight does, no big complaints.  We taxiied to Heathrow’s Terminal 3, where American’s gates are located.  It then takes a hike, a bus, a train, and another hike to make the transfer and get to the (much anticipated) T5 Galleries First lounge.  It might have been the low travel season, a well-timed bus arrival, and definitely having access to the fast track lanes for customs/security as a OW Emerald, but it actually only took about 30 minutes point to point. 

The lounge itself is well worth planning a layover for.  There are actually 3 premium lounges in T5- Business class “Terraces” (Paid J cabin ticket holders, OW Sapphire), First Class “Galleries” (F cabin tickets, OW Emerald) and the Concorde Room (First class international...various high rollers…the Queen, probably...).  All have access to shower facilities, food, and drink.  

Once you complete the trek from T3 and find the lounges in the first place, watch out for the lounge dragons on the way in.  They do strictly enforce the entrance and one guest only policies.  I’ve gotten away with several guests at some ACs state-side, “this is my Mother...Sister...Brother in Law...BFF...etc.” Don’t even try it here, they scan your boarding pass and note who’s with you. Once you get by them, though, you’re next greeted by a couple of horses with lampshades on their heads.  They’ve apparently been hanging around the 5 or so self-serve bars a little too long, but I just flew across the Atlantic for no reason, so I’m not about to judge.

My new friend.  I will call him AArnold.
This lounge is one of those reasons your clothes always shrink a size by the end of a trip.  There’s food everywhere, including a complimentary made to order menu, and an entire section of the dessert bar dedicated just to scones.  

Yes, you heard me- just scones. 

As if that wasn’t enough, a walk through, on your way to, say, check out the open-air terrace that overlooks a row of a380s, you’ll also find a couple gold-rimmed champagne bars full of Taittinger on ice. 

Make that 2 sizes of clothes-shrinkage.  

Okay, okay, clothes shrinkage, and if you’re doing really well, inspiration to take a selfie with one of those lampshade horses on the way out.

Self-Serve Bar(s) Note- The ginger ale is addictive.
My brave new traveling friends and I took over some prime real estate in this frequent flyer promised land, and spent some time getting to know each other a little better.  Oh, one thing this lounge could use more of is power outlets.  But, never fear, mileage runners come prepared.  Yes, we did also have a contingency plan for evacuating the room quietly if having a power strip, plugged into another power strip, plugged into a converter, with about 6 devices on it were to blow out the lounge fuses.  Spoiler alert- no electrical circuits were harmed in the making of this mileage run.  

Voltage abuse

All too soon though, we were showered, (well) fed, (over) indulged, and ready to board the next 11 hour flight from LHR-JNB.  At this point, I have a vague (there was also 18yr scotch at the bar) memory of the group of us realizing we missed the start of pre-boarding (the horror), somewhat inelegantly charging through a duty-free shop as a shortcut to the gate, and plunging through the several hundred passengers waiting, to reach the priority lane and ensure our all-important overhead space rights.  Maybe not my smoothest airport moment, but I’ve done worse.  A lot worse. But, that’s a story for another post…

Up next: The trials of a second redeye 11 hour flight in economy, navigating Jo’burg, and lions...lots and lots of lions.


No, I will not make a 'long face' joke...I won't....