Thursday, June 2, 2016

Um, where's Qatar exactly, anyway.....??

Seriously people, I learned in telling friends and family about this mileage run I'd planned, that no one really knows where Qatar is.  The Qataris should pay me (or upgrade me, I'd take the upgrade) to fly there on a mileage run, and write about their city, like I'm doing anyway.  I mean it.  It could influence like...dozens of people....maybe.  For those still wondering, here you go:

So, what I really should have said, is "I'm going kinda near where Dubai is.  You know, the one with the tallest building in the world, and the indoor ski slope in the desert, and all the oil money." 

Every mileage run I set out to have a few new experiences of the frequent-flyer type.  New cities, airlines, airports, and the like, as well as sometimes revisiting old favorites.  It keeps things interesting, and there's a never-ending list of 'firsts' you can have when you're hopping around the world at 500mph.  Last weekend I accomplished all of the above, and have some 36,000 miles to go with it.  

This run was my first time to the Middle East, and it was overall a pretty good introduction.  The run was a mix of American and Qatar (finally learned how to say it correctly, if the voiceover on the safety video is correct), made up of 4 segments- LAX-LHR-DOH and return.  On top of it all, I added standard Arabic to the list of languages I've learned to say 'thank you' in, a tradition I have before going to a new country.  I figure if I'm only in town for a day or less, that's probably one of the more useful things I can sort out.

So, thank you, gracias, grazie, merci, danke, tak, xie-xie, arigato, obrigado, terima kasih, and of course shukraan for reading.

The trip started off extremely well, with a few hours at the Qantas 1st lounge at LAX, thanks to the new TBIT connector that lets OneWorld elites traveling abroad access the MUCH better lounges at TBIT before their flights.  I've reviewed this lounge last year [here] on our way to Peru on LAN.  Short story- it was great then, and it's still great now, especially earlier in the day before Qantas and BA start filling the terminal up.

Next....the obligatory upgrade list drama.  For background, I've only missed clearing two systemwide upgrades in my mileage running history.  One was the nonstop LAX-LHR a few years ago, the other was the dreaded 18 hour DFW-HKG outbound.

On this trip, it looked like history was set to repeat itself, and I was agonizing over rolling the dice and not trying to stop over in Dallas to take the connecting flight, that tends to be much easier to upgrade on.  Even a few days out, it was showing sold out in business class.  There were many calls to the EXP desk comprising of begging and scheming, and continuous obsessive checking and re-checking of the seat count on ExpertFlyer.  There was also plenty of rationalizing- it's what you sign up for when you buy a dirt-cheap economy ticket and hope for the upgrade.

So, when the time came, I boarded and took my MCE seat.  I was okay with it, I really was (the free-flowing champagne in the lounge helped with this), I was getting settled in, meeting the nice guy sandwiched into the middle seat next to me, when one of my (awesome, fearless, and ever-capable) mileage running buddies starts yelling my name from seat 18G, and waiving his phone to show the coveted check-mark now next to my name on the upgrade list!

Best. Battlefield. Upgrade. Ever.

I don't think I ever even got my actual boarding pass, since the FA who had it just pointed from the other aisle of the plane and yelled "4J" at me as I scrambled to figure out what was going on. Long story short, 16J -> 4J.  All the winning...and the PDBs.

On arrival, we had a long layover in London before our onwards flight to Doha.  All I'll say about this is the following:  1) I have a massive love-hate relationship with Heathrow- I love many of the lounges, and the array of possible connections, but I kinda hate just about everything else.  Connections between the terminals, if even possible given their policies, are simply rage-inducing.  Because WHO DESIGNS AN AIRPORT WITH THE RUNWAYS TO THE INSIDE OF THE TERMINALS?  WHO DOES THAT?!?!?

For clarity on the above- when you fly with Qatar, despite being in the Oneworld alliance, you get banished to Terminal 4, which will hereinafter be known as the 'Reject Terminal of Despair.'  It's the Skyteam gates, which should tell you just about all you need to know.  The Reject Terminal of Despair is located pretty much in a different timezone from the others, making connections lengthy.  An additional rage-inducing fact is that, Oneworld membership not withstanding, Qatar has taken it upon themselves to banish Oneworld elites from their actual good lounges, in clear violation of the policy that the other airlines all follow.  I have lots of feelings about this.  It will come up again later in this entry.  I apologize in advance. 

Since they have to provide some lounge access, Qatar gives you an 'invite' to the Skyteam lounge.  It is both ridiculous, and disappointing.  I didn't even really take pictures of the Skyteam lounge, I just wasn't feeling it.  If I wanted to fly Skyteam, I'd move to Atlanta or something.  Interestingly....this will not be the most depressing lounge story of this trip report...just wait for it...

On the flip side, there is one shining ray of hope in this situation, which is that for some inexplicable reason, Malaysia Air is also stuck in the Reject Terminal of Despair.  Say what you want about their recent bad luck, but this is an airline that maintains top level customer service, and plays nicely by the Oneworld rules.  They operate a lovely set of lounges (business and first sides) in LHR T4, and our stop by there was definitely the highlight of the layover.  One unfortunate caveat though, is that they only open 3hrs prior to their departure times, so they're closed for several hours in the middle of the day.

So. Much. Better. 

Up next, we hopped on our "short" 7 hour flight down to Doha.  It was my first Qatar flight, and it was...fine, I suppose.  It was a fairly packed flight on an older A330, but nothing particularly bad for economy.  I slept most of the way, and woke up in time to take some shots of the long approach over the desert.

We landed on time into Doha, immigration was easy enough (you do have to pay a $25 visa on arrival), and we were out and into an Uber car in less than 45 minutes.  One odd thing about Uber here, is that every single car we got in was a Honda Accord.  Every single one.

We were staying at the Marriott Marquis, which is well placed right downtown.  However, 'Downtown Doha' isn't big at all.  All the hotels are situated within reasonable walking distance (though no one really walked).  The city makes a pretty decent impression- it's clean, modern, safe, and the architecture is very impressive.  More than anything, though, it's a business city, and there's very little else.  This, combined with being in an Islamic culture that hampers nightlife, makes it an easy stopover, but not a place you would need days on end to sight see around.

When asking what to do in the city, there were really two (maybe three) things that anyone told us about: the Museum of Islamic Art (worth the trip, very beautiful), and the Souq Waqif (so many spices, so many birds).

To make it all even more efficient, these two attractions are across the street from each other, connected by a tunnel under the main road that passes along the coastline at 'The Pearl,' which is a giant clam shell sculpture with, you guessed it, a pearl in it (I suppose if you wanted to stretch things, you could call this a 4th attraction).

Also, we were repeatedly told we should "Really go to Dubai."  "Did we have time to go to Dubai?"  "Had we been to Dubai?"  For some reason the answer, "No, because Emirates isn't in the Oneworld Alliance." wasn't satisfying to anyone.  

 The one other thing the concierge told us to do was to walk along the Corniche, (the '3rd thing') which is a long greenbelt park that stretches along the water from the museum, to downtown.  We did some of this by default going to the Museum, because it's right there, and you can't help it.  It does offer some great photo opps back across the water to the skyline, and would have been a great walk, if it hadn't been all of 106 degrees that day.  This area also gives you some views of what's left of Doha's heritage as a fishing port- a marina filled with wooden boats, most of which now seem to be in the tourist trade taking people out for harbor tours.

The Marriott was very comfortable and modern, and the service was impeccable, both at check in and in the lounge.  We had breakfast on arrival, and later went back for happy hour, which offered plenty of food and a few hours of hosted bar.  The pool and spa areas were also a great addition to the trip, especially after over 18 flight hours to get there.

After a nap, and a visit to the Museum, I decided to take the rest of the stopover to head out into the city, and see what the nightlife (if any) was like.  Our return flight wasn't until 3:30 am (!!), and my internal clock was insisting it was about 2 in the afternoon.  It's one of my rules of mileage running- obey your original timezone, or suffer the consequences.

One thing to know about Doha, as well as similar parts of the world, is that when you're looking for a drink, you have to head to one of the foreign-owned hotels.  I was prepared for this, so I took a walk to the Sheraton, which is located on the water, about a 20 minute walk from the Marriott.  (Did I mention nobody really walks in the city??  Yeah, well, except me apparently.)

What I was not prepared for, and still am not sure what all I'd do about it if I go back, is that in order to get into the hotel bars if you're not a current guest, they want to see your passport.  Your actual passport.  I do not take my passport out when bar hopping (I use the term lightly) in foreign cities at night, I just don't.  However, I had my regular ID on me, and after much admonishing about 'next time,' they did let me in.  I'll just leave this bit of info there, what you do with it the next time you find yourself in Doha and in need of a Carlsberg on draft (or whatever) is your choice.

Though, I will say that one of the more memorable experiences of this trip was definitely witnessing an all male (of course) Qatari cover band do a rousing rendition of "Royals" in a faux-Irish pub on the ground floor of the Doha 

I eventually wandered back to the Marriott in time for one last drink at "Glo," which is the cocktail bar in the lobby, before heading up to pack up and set out back to the airport.  We didn't arrive too early, because we knew in advance the absolute hypocrisy we were about to encounter when we tried to get any amount of service on account of our Oneworld status with Qatar.

(I warned above there would be more about here it is)

Qatar is well aware that as a member of the Oneworld alliance, they're obligated to provide first and business class lounge services to Oneworld Emerald and Saphire members, respectively.  This is something they most definitely do NOT want to do, reserving any and all actual privileges only to customers in premium classes.  Sorry, but that's not how it works.  The other airlines, yes, even the good ones, like Cathay and JAL, deal with the occasional economy traveling Oneworld heathen, because membership benefits them and their own elites when traveling abroad.  They, likewise, do not allow 1st class check in to Oneworld Emerald, which they are supposed to do.

It's all more of a you know what to Oneworld as their actual premium lounges in DOH are by all accounts some of the best in the world, on any airline.  They're also huge, and for the most part empty.   

To circumvent these rules, they just half-heartedly (not even that much really...more like quarter-heartedly) made an additional fake "priority" check in desk for Oneworld elites, and an even more fake set of "first and business class lounges" for the sole purpose of giving Oneworld elites a place to go, without having to actually provide them with the level of service that's required.  It's bad, like really really really wish it was even half as nice as a standard domestic Admiral's Club.  I swear to the deity of your choice, the food was 3 kinds of soggy sandwiches, there was one bottle of white wine, and I'm pretty sure at least some of the walls were temporary.  These lounges shall hereinafter be known as the 'Twin Lounges of Infinite Sadness."

Let me just give you a few alternate options to do with your time instead of waiting in the Twin Lounges of Infinite Sadness:

-Walk the entire Corniche in aforementioned 106 degree heat.
-Go back and see if that cover band takes requests.  No Free bird.
-Just have your Accord-driving Uber guy make random right turns around the city for awhile.
-Put on some mall-walking shoes, and see how many steps it is across the departures terminal it is.
-Take a variety of selfies with the stuffed bear sculpture in the middle of the terminal.  Change clothes mid-way if you have time. (Or for that matter, a change of clothes)

In other words, do literally anything else.  **Rant officially over**

 Now that I'm off that soapbox, the flight back up to LHR was actually quite pleasant, given that it was in economy.  It was their a380, and we got seats on the upper deck, which has a small economy section behind the much larger first and business class sections (as well as the bar area).  It was quiet, and not entirely full, so I ended up with a a window row of two seats to myself (the upper deck is a 2-4-2 config).  Plus, the plane is so massive, it handles any turbulence well, and I was able to sleep most of the 6 hour flight.  Here, I actually had some Emerald service, if only in the form of extra greetings from the FAs and Purser, and being asked what breakfast I'd like ahead of the rest of the cabin.  It was reminiscent of flying on CX- doesn't cost them anything, but makes you feel better.

What was unique about this route was that it was a true 'sunrise' flight- hitting altitude just in time for the first light to show up on the horizon.  It was the counterpart to those US transcons heading west at the end of the day, where you're chasing daylight.

We landed in LHR a full hour early, and transferred terminals, this time out of the Reject Terminal of Despair, headed for T3.  T3 houses the Flagship Lounge for AA, but also quite a nice BA Galleries 1st lounge, which is impressive in offerings given that it's more or less a satellite lounge counterpart to their actual lounges at T5.  Champagne from the gold bar for everyone!  Yes, it was 9 am, what's your point?

Then as it always does, it was time to roll on out, board the last flight and head back home.  I cleared the upgrade at 24 hours out, and as it always is on the  777-300, had a relaxing flight home to eat, catch up on sleep, and think over the events of the last 48 hours or so.

It was another memorable trip, and despite some lounge envy, was a great experience.  I'd definitely take the opportunity to go to Doha again.  It's a beautiful, safe, very modern city that definitely feels like nowhere I've been before.  The Qatari heritage is apparent everywhere, even among the high rises, malls, and manicured strips of parkland.  Plus, I can't say no to 18,000 qualifying miles, can I??

 I'd like to end this trip report with sharing Qatar Airways promo video.  You see, after watching it multiple times (it plays before each and every TV show or movie you select on their IFE, as well as before the safety video) I realized what it depicts is what well crafted mileage season feels like:  adventure, freedom, and luxury extras, all mixed in with a feeling that flying 8,000 miles in a day, going across the Pacific just for dinner, or connecting in a series of foreign airports without stopping, is somehow comfortingly predictable and easy.  Also, and possibly more importantly, that the urge to hop from New York, to Paris, to Doha, and then Shanghai is perfectly normal, and not, as some of my friends have implied, an un-diagnosed mental disorder....

[Click for Video] 

Where do I want to go??  Well, dinner with a view at the Intercontinental HK sounds pretty good.  Who's in?

Until the next departure, fly safe.


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