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,  blanket...hair….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....