Saturday, September 26, 2015

It's that time again...again....

AA heritage at the Air and Space Museum in DCA (on a layover, of course)

** disclaimer- posted unedited from Miami under time constraints.  Be kind.**

Is it really 2015?  Have I been doing this for over 5 years?  It both seems ridiculous, and like it’s been even longer.  

Today marks the first day of the ‘real’ 2015 ‘mileage season’ for me, if you don’t count that little jaunt over (around? down?) to Hong Kong this spring.  Today’s flight out of LAX is headed to Miami, and from there my traveling companions and I hop the 777-300ER that we all love so much for a relatively quick flight down to Sao Paulo, Brazil.  We’ll have a 2 day one night stay, and then take the return flight up to Miami again, and stop in JFK on our way back.  You know… like everyone does. 

The upgrades have cleared for both the long hauls, and I’ve got a plan to do a flight change to get the last segment taken care of as well, so all is good so far. 

I wanted to take a few minutes before I get distracted by the in-flight movie or views of the southern transcon route to do my traditional ‘start of mileage season’ rundown.  I almost forgot (read-ran out of time) but, what are 5 hour morning flights for?

This year, due to some fluctuating work travel plans, I’ve booked two long hauls- Sao Paulo, and back to Jakarta- as well as a couple cheap domestic flights that were too good to pass up.  This year’s been full of travel so far, but much has been domestic and relatively close to home in comparison with my average, so I’m having to manufacture a decent amount.  I don’t mind the adventure, though. 
2015 Flightpaths.  As I always say- 'yes, really.'

The Sao Paulo trip will be my first visit to Brazil (and I’m now the proud owner of a shiny new ten year Brazilian visa thank-you-very-much).  We’re scheduled to meet some of my work contacts upon landing and spend some time with them getting shown the city.  I’ve been waiting for a deal to GRU to come up for a few years, so I’m excited to finally be on my way. 

This trip also has a nice long stopover in Miami, so we can check out the newly opened Centurion Lounge in Terminal D (new lounge smell…yes, I’m tempted to say it), as well as some time in JFK on the way back. (Spoiler alert, it's fantastic, though crowded)

I’m also lucky (crazy?) enough to have been doing this long enough to have met quite a few other long haul mileage running friends.  I’ve met them online through flyertalk, by chance in airports, and even gotten some of my ‘real life’ friends hooked on this ‘game.’  The upshot of all of this, is that I rarely mileage run alone.
Chance meeting with other mileage runners (and their Flyertalk-tagged bags) in CGK, all en route to Tokyo for the day! There are dozens of us out there I tell you, dozens!! ;)  

Dinner at Nobu at the HKG Intercontinental with strangers who are now all best friends!
What’s really great about meeting other mileage runners, is that they’re uniformly intriguing.  They are on average, highly educated, self sufficient, of course well traveled, and come from all walks of life.  Mileage running is probably the only ‘pass time’ where a normal weekend could be meeting a bunch of strangers from around the US for the first time in the Toronto airport, flying with them to Hong Kong, going out to Nobu at the Intercontinental, and then ending up having a beer in someone’s hotel room from a 7-11 at 2am (local time), after the bar at the Ritz closed for the night.  And… it’s considered completely normal behavior to everyone in the group. 
Cheers to Mileage Running buddies - They're the only ones who will go on 3 hours sleep to be there when the new lounge opens at 6am, talk on and on about planes with you for 5 hours until your flight, and consider it all to have been time well spent. 
Now, I know entries in a travel blog are supposed to be ‘entertaining’ or ‘enlightening,’ or at least funny or something.  However, I have learned from experience that consistently my most read entries are the dry, ‘mileage math’ so, someone likes them.  And in accordance with that… here’s some more!

Besides, I’m convinced ‘Universal on American’ is turning in to basically the golf channel with some re-runs of Fallon, so what better do I have to do? (RIP 30 Rock, I miss you)

This weekend’s trip nets around 14,000 miles, and my tour of Asia is worth roughly 21,000.  The combined cents per mile ‘CPM’ of the deals works out to just shy of $0.04, which is pretty decent.  Plus, when you add in the REAL steals of this year- two $81 ROUND TRIP tickets to Chicago from LAX, it drags it down even further.  As usual, this year’s totals put me solidly in the realm of ‘even money,’ if not ‘making money,’ on the trips. 

As I’ve rambled on about earlier [SEE] miles and EXP benefits can be thought of as a unique kind of currency, the exchange rate of which depends, not on market forces, but on what you spend them on.  Overall, I’ve given them a $0.02 price tag, but the truth is if you’re spending them on run of the mill domestic tickets, without being too selective of what you redeem for, you’re probably more likely to be getting $0.015 or even a bit (or a lot) worse. However, if you’re creative, and take the time to redeem them for first class, business class, or better yet, international first or business, you can pull down some seriously fantastic ‘conversion rates.’ 

Case in point, our trip to Peru this spring.  [more on that here] We spent 60k each, plus a nominal tax amount.  We were able to book business class tickets non-stop from LAX to Lima on the 787-900 with LAN.  These tickets would have cost an average of $5000 if paying cash.  Doing the quick math, this is a whopping 8 cent per mile redemption!  I’ve had similar redemption rates to Europe, especially when taking Airberlin’s business class to avoid those outrageous ‘fuel surcharges.’ So, if you do a mix of big ‘aspirational’ award trips with your everyday hopping around the US, and redeeming for Y to F upgrades, which always seem to come out to $0.02 on the nose, 2 cpm is a fair valuation, in my opinion.  

All of this, of course, is to be taken with a grain of salt as the overriding truth is that miles are a currency, and like any modern currency, they’re subject to depreciation.  Airlines will always be upping the amount of miles to redeem seats, and condensing the amount of seats available.  So, the logical plan is to spend as you earn, and if you’re lucky enough to be able to plan ahead, get things booked well in advance as this will ‘lock in’ the ‘price’ for you.  Then you can sit back, relax, and brag to your friends about the awesome deal you got on that ‘life changing’ trip, until their eyes glaze over, and they change the subject to the weather, the traffic, or something having recently caught on fire that they need to attend to immediately.

So…. What has all of this got us?  To summarize: 

-It’s mileage season again, and the sky’s the limit as usual for the bizarre routings and adventure. 

-Appreciate and cherish other people willing to indulge in above-described bizarre routings and adventure with you.

-Miles can be worth more than you think, especially if you have a hankering to explore Inca ruins, or to bike down the ‘runway’ at Tempelhof park.

-Oh, and 7-11s are open 24 hours in Hong Kong.  That might be the most important lesson of them all.

Happy flying,

~Cruising Altitude
Good night, skies. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Inca Flightpath, part II

Quinoa fields and glacier-capped Andes on the plains above the Sacred Valley

As promised, here's the 'trip report' half to this mileage burn trip.  For the nuts and bolts of booking it, check out the post [HERE.]

By the time our departure finally rolled around I'll admit I was really, really excited for this trip.  It had been a hectic start to the year for us, and for a while I was convinced this was going to be one of those times I'd be utilizing the EXP mileage ticket 'get out of jail free' card, and re-depositing my miles.  However, I really, really didn't want to.  And, as it turns out, I didn't have to!

So.... here's the report:

First stop, of course, was LAX to catch our LAN Dreamliner flight down to Lima.  This alone was plenty reason to go, but I also hadn't had the chance to fly out of Tom Bradley Int'l Terminal since they've gotten further along in the renovation.  I'm always just watching it from 'afar' in T-4.

For OW elites, the renovation has meant some highly improved lounge choices, as well as just enjoying that 'new terminal smell.'

(Completely random note- if you walk into a brand new Centurion Lounge, say, in DFW the first week they open, and make that same joke about a 'new club smell,' they will fix you with a glare, and say very seriously, 'No.  That is our 'signature scent.'  I'm not kidding.  I love you AmEx (mostly) but please...)

Annnnyhow.... OW lounges, right.  So, there are two reasonable choices.  First is the Oneworld Business class lounge, which is highly rated, large, and even has a faux fireplace in the middle with seating around it.  It has decent food, drinks and seating.  I really meant to go check it out, I really really did.
"Official"  Pic of the Oneworld Bis lounge at TBIT

But then, all of a sudden.... I didn't.

Because, just a couple months before this trip, Qantas opened a new 1st class lounge at TBIT.  So, that happened.  What also happened, was that due to the new lounge(s), I wanted to take my time at the airport before the flight.  Like, a lot of time.  Our flight was at 1:30pm, LAN's check in opens at 9:15.  We were there at 9:05.  Yes, Mrs. CruisingAltitude would have thought I was nuts, but she's got a decent sense of humor about me, and enjoys a good lounge as much as anyone.


Point of order, though- the sign said they opened at 9:15.  They did not open at 9:15.  They did not open at 9:20, or 9:30.  It was closer to 9:50 before the counters opened, and the Mrs. had to withstand my mounting annoyance at waiting in line while there was a perfectly good lounge just RIGHT past security.  This mainly took the form of repeatedly pointing to the well staffed, and prompt JL counter next door, and grumbling about how we 'would already be having a mimosa if we were on the Tokyo flight.'

But, eventually, we did get checked in and on our way.  Now, the lounge- the one complaint I've read about it is that it can get loud and crowded at times.  The acoustics, admittedly, could be better as it is essentially one large room, and at one side features an open kitchen.  I could see the issue when in the evenings Qantas loads up a couple a380s with a decent amount of premium passengers, as well as the OW Emeralds.  Luckily for us, though, the LAN flight is hours before this rush, and we were just about the only ones there at the start.  Like, seating for 200, and it's us and one other person.  Echos, crickets, it was magical.
Beautiful and....

....empty Qantas 1st Lounge.

The bar area & espresso bar

The layout offers lots of seating arrangements, a couple TV lounge areas, work space, and a full serve complimentary restaurant menu with seating.  It's very 'First Class.'  There's also a large bar, and several self serve bars throughout the space with wine, water, and soft drinks.  If I'm nit picking, I'd say the only drawback here is that the substantive food options are limited to the menu, so there's no buffet to grab something at on a shorter visit.  That said, the service was great, and with just us eating, was super prompt.  We arrived in time to start with breakfast, and then later before heading out, tried their lunch menu as well.  Both were great, though, I'd say the lunch/dinner menu is more memorable.

5 o'clock in airports everywhere

The carpacchio and the calamari were particularly good, as was the semifreddo that the great waitress demanded we try on the way out!  (And I mean demanded, as in 'you have to have it, yes you have to, it's great....don't worry, I'm sure your plane will wait for you to have some dessert' kind of demanded)  I'll also give a nod to the espresso bar.  It was a treat to be able to order a real 'flat white' Aussie style.  Haven't had one of those since we were in Sydney several years ago.
Lemon & Black Pepper Calamari- We didn't even order this, it came by mistake, but we sure ate it!


Dessert- the photo got a little blurry, as we were scrambling to make it to pre-boarding! 

White wine & sparkling water

The reds...

One tiny other complaint, that they can't do anything about, is that there are no windows that overlook the gates or runways, so no planespotting.  This looks to be true of both lounges for OW elites in this terminal, and it's a bit of a shame as the one thing that would make the great amenities and service even better would be enjoying them while watching some of the big birds that leave from TBIT roll the runway.

But, regardless, we had a great time, and then headed off to catch our flight.  As discussed in the last post, we were trying out a new 787-900 that LAN just took delivery of.  Yes... new plane smell...

The -900 configuration features 30 'premium business' seats, all forward of the 2L door, which was also the boarding door at LAX.  I do love 'turning left, not right' on a long haul.   The cabin layout is 2-2-2, so the window seats don't have direct aisle access.  In theory, this can be annoying if you don't know the person sitting next to you.  However, I found the new LAN J seats to be extremely spacious, and it was easy to get up and into the aisle, even with the lie-flat bed next to you fully extended.  This is because, unlike the 'angle lie flat' seats still installed on most AA 777-200s, the bed is very low, and can easily be stepped over.  This is probably my favorite cabin layout to travel in with a companion.  You can talk easily since there's no big privacy divider, but you definitely feel like you have personal space.  The pictures really don't do justice to how nice the seats were.

This is also combined with the fun of the dreamliner- the windows, of which each J seat has 3- are huge, and dim via a button, rather than a pull down screen.  The seats are fully wired, with USB as well as DC plugs, and the recline function worked without any glitches.  The cabin is also well insulated, making the engine noise quieter, even on take off.  Through the flight, the plane handled turbulence well and I was able to get some good hours of sleep after the dinner service.

So- hard product: 8/9 out of 10.  Top marks.  Now, a bit about the 'soft product.'

Overall, it was a nice flight.  I especially liked the personal greeting by the purser when we got to our seats.  ('En ingles?') He was attentive, offered a PDB (I went with the champagne, of course, which was Roederer estate, and very nice).  They also came by at gave use Ferragamo amenity kits that came with standard items- lotion, pen, etc, as well as a pillowcase, which I hadn't seen before.  They do give you upgraded headphones, which was nice, but they weren't Bose like AA offers and I could tell the difference.

The food, which was lunch, and then a slightly confusing breakfast-ish meal prior to landing (at 11:50 pm??), was okay.  Maybe on par with AA's usual international fare, but not like what you would expect from a carrier like JL or CX.  I did find that once the main service was over, the crew wasn't as attentive as some.  I'm not the type to ring the call button (which was probably what I should have done) but I found myself going up to the galley a few times to ask for more water, drink, etc.  On that, one thing that did annoy me a little was that they kept the curtain closed to the galley, and snapped down, so that to use the lavatory, you had to shove/crawl your way though.  I assumed it was for cabin lighting, but still... awkward.  Some of the FA's also clearly weren't as comfortable with English as the Purser, but I was on a LAN Peru flight, so that's as much my issue as theirs.  As it turned out, this was just the start of our education in how little of our rudimentary Spanish from High School had stuck with us, and how Peru is NOT a resort town in Cabo, language-wise.
In flight meal- I had the scallops.  Not bad, but a little fishy.  

In Flight Dessert

The IFE was okay, definitely better if you're a 'movie' person, as the TV options were a little slim.  I think Mrs. CruisingAltitude approved, though as she got through the better part of 4 movies while I ate and slept.

Overall, I'd give the soft product a 6ish out of 10.  Highlights were the drinks and 'breakfast.'  There were things I'd change, especially since they've invested in such a stellar hard product with the 787.  A few little things would bring the whole experience up to a really elite business/first one.

When we landed it was late, so after getting through customs, we made our way to the Wyndham hotel that's at the airport.  It wasn't the fanciest, but was the only one that we could walk to from the terminal, and the rooms were upgraded and clean.

The next morning we checked back in to catch our short flight up to Cusco.  The flight is about an hour on a a319 on LAN.  No 1st/bis class, so we were in the main cabin.  No complaints for such a short flight.  The real intrigue of this flight is that while Lima is essentially at sea level, the Cusco airport is at a whopping 11,000 ft.  As a result, this flight path goes up to cruise, and then only has to come about half way back down.  You fly over the Andes, and then land into the valley that Cusco is in.  It's worth getting a window seat for this one!

For what to see and do in the Sacred Valley, have a look at Part III!