Friday, February 24, 2017

Around the World in 80 Hours Part 4: Hello Hong Kong, My Old Friend

On approach after a 15 hr flight
The story so far:
And now, the next chapter:
A 'short' 15 hour flight, 7 hours of sleep, some TV re-runs, 3 meals & great service by the flight crew later...We made it to Hong Kong! Since this flight touches down at 8am local time, and our onward flight to Kuala Lumpur doesn't leave for another 12 hours, we spent the day in the city (well about half of it.)  Luckily for us there’s a reasonably price luggage storage facility at the airport, and a fast train into town. 

Let me just take a moment here to say that it did take all 4 of us frequent flyers to collectively sort out where all we needed to go to take care of the luggage, get a shower, and catch the train.  Plus, we'd all been there before.  This is to say that HKG airport is big, and if you're not as familiar with the domestic terminal, its easy to get turned around.  First off, there’s no arrivals lounge available for Oneworld emeralds unless you’re on CX in Business or First.  However, there is a Priority Pass lounge past immigration between terminals one and two, in ‘the tunnel.’  It's a basic Plaza Premium lounge, not nearly up to par with Cathay's real lounges on the departures side, but for this brand of lounge it was sufficient for a quick stop.  It's also close…ish…to where the luggage storage is. 

Just so you know, if you’re looking for the storage place, follow signs for “left luggage.” Yes, this will be slightly hilarious to the jetlagged.  “Left luggage….not right luggage….get it??”  Come on, that’s funny…right?  The prices are pretty reasonable, about US $8 for our 5 hours for each bag, and the process was easy.  They take cards and you pay when you pick up your things.  Totally worth it not to have to drag a rollaboard each around the city.

Airport Express
Anyhow…. We did eventually make it to the airport express train.  I’ve said again and again in other posts how much I appreciate how accessible Hong Kong is from the airport.  It’s nearly impossible to get lost, and only takes 20 minutes.  We bought round trip tickets to Hong Kong (Central) station to save a few bucks.

Dim Sum Square
Upon landing, none of us exactly had a firm plan of what we wanted to get up to in the city, so we just played it by ear.  As tends to be the case with mileage running, leaving yourself open to new experiences and suggestions is the name of the game.  We had an impromptu meetup with yet another traveler doing a short trip to HKG.  On her good suggestion, we had lunch at Dim Sum Square, and a drink at Cottage off the Island Line MTR.  You always know you're in the right place when as you leave, there's a line out the door and down the street.
We'll take one of each.  Um, maybe two.
Dim Sum Square
 After that, and a little walking around the city on our way back to Central station, we headed back to HKG early to have some lounge time. This is about the point at which I’m willing to admit that this whole circling the world thing puts you in line for some punishing jet lag.  Since we didn’t get a day room at a hotel while we had our 12 hour layover, we essentially pulled an all-nighter as far as our internal clocks were concerned.

Hong Kong Central
I’ve often mentioned how it’s best to try to stay on your home timezone, more or less.  However, this run just isn’t making that entirely possible.  I’m anticipating some long naps on the upcoming flights as we circle back around through Sri Lanka and Doha.  Granted, probably not the best nap on the first flight, which is an economy award ticket on Malaysia, but I’m sure I’ll survive.  

If you’re going to travel around the world in a weekend, you might as well not sleep it away!

Read Next: Lounging Like There's No Tomorrow

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Around the World in 80 Hours Parts 2 and 3: Over an ocean and past the Arctic...

Part 2: We're Off!  
First step- AA Priority Check in at LAX
Welcome to the first mileage run of 2017!  The good news: everyone I’m traveling with cleared their upgrades into business class!! This makes a huge difference, in case you weren’t aware.  In short, it’s the difference between sleeping sitting up in a dining room chair, or tucked into a bed.  You choose.  Really, go on, choose. 
Anyhow, here we are. All happy and headed to Hong Kong.  Which is good, because I just heard we’re in for the full 15 hr flight, so we must not have a fast tailwind tonight.  Still though, only taking 15 hours to cross the Pacific is pretty darn impressive.
Which brings me to an important point – possibly the most important point of the weekend.  This world is small, extremely so.  In the time it’s about to take me to get a good nights’ sleep and have breakfast, I’ll cross an ocean that once took travelers months.  And I’m doing it without much, if any effort, on account of the massive GE turbine engines powering this 777-300. 

Which is all to say, I love this crazy hobby.  I'm even managing to love this extra long taxi time at LAX courtesy of the massive overbooking of flights and gates that the AA/US merger has made us accustomed to.  (But don't even get me started on the painful arrival delays because there's never a gate when you need one) What it also has allowed though, is the passing out of pajamas and the taking of pre-orders for dinner.  This, I’m actually a fan of.  Give that it's now well past 1am here, anything that speeds up the meal service and gets us to sleep faster is good.  

What’s a new experience though, is that we’ve apparently become victim of a rare “wind shift” that’s added an extra 30 minutes of taxi time to our take off while we roll down to the other end of the runway for an eastward departure.  I suppose I should just call myself lucky that we’re getting to experience an over-city takeoff, right?  Right.  

Ground delay aside, this flight is showing promise.  They've stocked mattress pads in business class, and haven't gotten rid of the spicy Asian salad dressing on the first course.  So far, so good!

Wheels up (finally), lets' go!

Part 3: Halfway there....Somewhere over the Pacific.

So, 8 hours in, 7 to go.  I’ve gotten some decent sleep, but a few more hours wouldn’t hurt.  You know you mileage run a lot when you get excited about 3 new episodes of Big Bang Theory on the IFE.  Just so you know, there’s 3 new episodes! 

This is the first time I’ve taken this flight to Hong Kong that leaves around midnight, instead of the afternoon flight.  On the one hand it seems like it should make perfect sense and wipe out jetlag naturally- you leave late at night, and arrive in the morning.  Simple, right?  Well….not quite, as evidenced by the fact that I’m putting together this post smack in the middle of the flightpath.  Somehow…don’t ask me how, my body remembers that it’s actually 9am in Los Angeles.

Mattress pad, blankie, all tucked in for the 'night'.
No one ever said mileage running was easy on the body and mind, and I'm not about to start now.  Tylenol PM, a snack, and let’s see if I can get a nap before landing.  I’ve got to be as human as possible for our layover.  As I’ve hinted at in the past…many times, I love Hong Kong and I’m looking forward to a few hours in the city, as well as some time lounge hopping at the airport before heading down to KUL. 

I suppose I should back up for a minute and report that the international lounge scene at LAX was great as always.  Qantas’ lounge is still the best in town, especially since the Admiral’s Club is currently under renovation and so they lack much space.  Hopefully, if the JFK Flagship Lounge is anything to go by, the pain and crowding may eventually be worth it.

Current offerings at the Flagship Lounge (self-serve)
So anyhow, a good time was had, and it was a great meetup place to collect the mileage running party together.  This weekend we’ve got two of us from LAX, one from DCA, and one from PHX.  Yes, by the way, in this world you’re known by your airport code.  Because I said of right now, 35,000 ft over Mongolia (or something).  

It looks like we've got a great group for this trip.  Some I've 'run with' and some not.  It seems like just about everyone who's anyone in the mileage running community is headed East this weekend or next, getting a jump on 2018's qualification & probably burning some of their last expiring Systemwide Upgrades in style. 
Pork belly salad at the Qantas First lounge.  As I'll talk about later, apparently this month is all about pork at QF.
Back to the Qantas lounge though, I had a new experience this visit- We closed the place down.  I learned they actually have last call, and then 20 minutes later turn the lights up to kick everyone out, club-style.  Rude.  However, we had a midnight flight to catch, so I suppose they're excused.  At least we made the most of the time....and the free food!

Next up: A day in Hong Kong.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Around the World in Eighty Hours Part 1: In the Clear!

Note: I had fun on my last trip trying to keep posts going as the journey progressed, so I'm going to do my best to try that again, foreign internet issues notwithstanding.  I'm calling this trip "Around the World in 80 Hours" because...why not? I think it's going to take me closer to 94 hours to actually get all the way back home again, but that just lacks a certain ring.  Artistic license, right?

Part 1:

As it turns out, flying around the world takes a fair amount of planning.  Who knew?  All in all, the weekend is made up of six flights, on four separate itineraries, on 4 different Oneworld airlines.  Though technically this isn't the most flights I've packed into one mileage run - that award goes to 2015's Tokyo-Jakarta-Malaysia trip, this is definitely the most logistically complex because there are so many different itineraries to keep track of, as well as different mileage earnings and seating and upgrade rules. 

The good news is that my upgrade on AA to Hong Kong just cleared, so I only have two segments in the 'back of the bus,' one being a 4hr flight from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur on Cathay, and the other being a connecting award flight on Malaysian Air from Kuala Lumpur to Colombo.  I actually have had good experiences in coach with both of these airlines in the past, so I'm not dreading it too much.  They're both airlines that offer service that exceeds US standards, and okay yes, MH did loose a couple 777s awhile ago, but that could happen to anyone.  Forgive and forget, right?  As long as they give you lounge access.

As I said, the most important part of all that is that MY UPGRADE ALREADY CLEARED going to Hong Kong.  It's a 15 hour flight on one of AA's best planes, so I was really crossing fingers and doing the upgrade dance (patent pending) for this one. 

This is a big upgrade over the 'back' for 15 hours.
I'll probably do a brief guide to upgrades here, or at Altitude Consulting soon, but the short story about getting an upgrade on a long haul flight on AA is that you're most always waitlisted, sometimes for months and it goes right up to the moment you board before you really know if it'll work out.  There's a lot of strategy, and possibly voodoo, that goes into divining what's likely to clear, but really it's hard to predict with any kind of certainty. 

Luckily though, this flight is fairly new, whereas the DFW-HKG flight has been around much longer.  So the loads are still on the light side for this popular route, and there's more competition for paying business class customers with Cathay Pacific, who flies several flights out of LAX daily. 

This is all just a rambling set up to paint you a picture of just exactly how my Valentine's Day evening went.  I had an alert set from ExpertFlyer that would text me if upgrade space became available.  Doing this is hit and miss, since the program has a delay and whatnot, but it's generally worth giving a shot to try and confirm in advance.. 

So anyhow, Mrs. CruisingAltitude and I are enjoying a low key dinner at home, mostly just watching 12 month old BabyFlyer throw her food onto the ground tiny piece by tiny piece while laughing about it, when my phone pings.  Mrs. CrusingAltitude picks it up, looks confused, and hands it over.  Sure enough, it's THE alert.  So I leap up (seriously, I almost never move that fast) shouting that I have to call AA, and start tapping in the EXP line's number from memory.

Meanwhile, Mrs. CrusingAltitude, sensing the panic and feeling the need to assist, tries to help by pulling up my itinerary....and poor BabyFlyer just freezes midway through launching another steamed carrot off her plate to try and sort out what the heck is going on, and whether she should laugh or cry about it.

So, basically, just another night in the CruisingAltitude house. 

But, the upgrade cleared thanks to a great AAgent on the phone!  16c --> 12A, yes and thank you!  That's one more seat assignment I can stop worrying about.  This is a relief, because mileage runs under the 'new system' have plenty to worry about.

Flying an itinerary like this with so many foreign airlines, codeshares, and separate segments makes getting the finer details sorted out start to feel like one of those riddle-turned-math questions from the 6th grade: "If Jimmy uses Amex points at a 1200:1000 ratio to buy Avios with British Airways for a restricted economy Malaysian Air flight, can he get an advance seat assignment in the exit row, and who does he need to call for it?"

The answer there: 1- Yes, maybe.  2- Call everyone & pay 40 MYR for it, which is about $9.   These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night.  I know you're jealous.

The truth is, though, that mileage runners take a kind of perverse pleasure in just these complexities, and sorting out how to best utilize the airlines, alliances, and hotel rules to their advantage.  That, along with planning out exactly how many extra hours to devote to airport lounge time, what hotels have the best elite treatment, how many tiny bottles of Woodford Reserve SHOULD be catered to each flight, and much more. 

These are the kinds of details that make any sane traveler throw up their hands and proclaim the entire industry makes no sense, is out to get them, and charges too much while they're at it.  Maybe they're right, but my only point is..... upgrade ALREADY CLEARED!!!


Up next: Around the World In 80 Hours Part 2- Over the Ocean and Past the Arctic

Monday, February 13, 2017

The World Citizen's Dilemma....

Fair warning: This post is more of an opinion piece than is my usual style in this space, but it's becoming more apparent to me of late that 'not talking about' current events because not everyone agrees with you has its own consequences.  Therefore, I took a solemn oath to myself that I would do that a little less.  If you'd rather skip this, feel free.  The next post will be up shortly & have plenty of rambling thoughts about airplanes in it.

I'm just shy of a week until my first international trip of the year.  As I wrote about HERE, I'm very excited about this one.  It's probably the most complex trip I've ever booked, and takes me completely around the world via Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Sri Lanka, and Doha.  It's arguably the piece de resistance of my mileage running career....thus far.

A preview of what will be my final descent on Monday- Approach into LAX

While I'm really looking forward to this adventure and have been planning the details and logistics of it for months, I have to admit I can't shake a sense of concern as I get packed.  It's not so much that I don't think that all will be fine, but there's a lingering disappointment with the current state of our reputation abroad. 

I've made my fare share of jokes about buying some Air Canada bag tags to avoid awkward conversations about politics abroad, or what choice phrases I'd now need to learn in a combination of Mandarin, Tamil, and standard Arabic, but joking aside, there are actual potential issues to be discussed.

Formally, this site is not an opinion piece unless we're talking about my long-winded opinions on airport lounge d├ęcor, or tray table etiquette.  It is however, at it's most basic level, a how-to guide on getting the most out of travel in any number of ways.  Like any good guide, it also needs to be honest and cover relevant topics, and I'm posting this commentary with that sentiment in mind.  

First stop of the upcoming run- HKG!
It's intrinsic in travel that as you roam around the world you'll encounter new places, people, and ways of thinking.  This is really the entire point of the journey, miles and points aside. In the past I've found myself having all manner of discussions with strangers turned short-term friends about their lives, their homes, their families....and much more. 

This all makes the current state of affairs in the US somewhat worrisome as I contemplate circumnavigating the Earth this weekend.  I'm heading to extremely foreign lands (if, in fact, we consider the term 'foreign' to be subject to gradation) and it can't be ignored that from the airport agents, to people you may encounter on a train or at a restaurant, when you're someplace you've never been before you are subject to, and on occasion at the mercy of, the understanding and acceptance of locals. 

No reason for this one, it's just a pretty distraction amidst all this serious talk.
This is really all prelude to saying that anyone who travels, whether they realize it or not, are dependent upon, and directly either helped, or encumbered by their society's image in the world.  Statements and actions by those with authority have consequences for you, whether you agree with them or not.  When you step off the jetbridge you are a representative of your country, your state, and your hometown and you should expect to be treated with the level of respect that your country extends to others.  It was already hard enough to be a 'perfect stranger' when hopping continents, and now it has potentially become even more so.

This is not to say that I'm really much more concerned for my physical safety or the logistics of my trip, per se.  Mileage running already requires a fair amount of thoughtful planning with an eye toward security, and the ability to navigate places safely that you've never been before.  What I am bemoaning at a basic level is a considerable step back from the sense of 'world citizenship' ......let alone the possibility of increased screening and suspicion at airports.

When viewed from above, this world is smaller than you realize, and other people and cultures are more intertwined and accessible than many will admit, if we choose to keep the freedom of travel and adventure as a basic human right as it has been through history, and still should be.   

TBIT Pavilion- LA's gateway to the World
Anyhow, now that I've said what's been rattling around in my mind I can look forward to this trip, which I really am thrilled about!  I'm traveling with some friends I've taken amazing adventures with in prior years, and am looking forward to making some new friends on the road.  As I've said many times, the people with whom I share this strange hobby have on many occasions turned out to be uniquely fun, adventurous, and independent travelers. 

In travel as in life, the people, as well as the destinations, make the journey worth taking.  This is something that I hope we all keep in mind each time we put our passport in our bag, and set off in search of new experiences.

Travel safely, travel well,


PS: I'm hoping to stay connected enough this weekend to do 'live updates' as we go 'around the world in 80 hours.'  I hope you'll follow along!