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.