Friday, September 30, 2016

Lounge Destinations: The Red Suite....


One of the best parts of a Mileage Run, or any well planned trip, can be free access to some of the impressive and luxurious Oneworld lounges.  In terms of lounge quality, Oneworld is king amongst the airline alliances.  From the Qantas offerings in SYD, to Galleries in LHR, to Cathay's spread of lounges in HKG, it really pays to be a Oneworld elite when traveling abroad.  I've been known to book 6 hour layovers, just to enjoy the lounges. 

For reference, the basic Oneworld lounge access policies are:

Further, you can generally have access to an airline's lounge when flying same day with them in a premium cabin.  Logic dictates here, so a business class ticket = business lounge access, and a first class ticket = first class lounge access.

There are also certain lounge pass memberships, and credit cards with lounges as a benefit, like Priority Pass, and Lounge Club, but neither of these apply to the JAL lounges, and I'll cover them in other posts.

This summer, I got the chance to try a new OW First Class lounge, courtesy of a run to Hong Kong and AA's new Tokyo Haenda to LAX nonstop flight.  My return ticket took me from HKG, to HND, and then back to LAX on the new 787 Dreamliner.  All my upgrades cleared, so I was already having a great trip. 
My ride for the journey home

Seat 6L- Very quiet and private

It was my first stop in HND, which is the smaller of the two main Tokyo airports.  I didn't have time to go into the city this time, even though it's closer than when you fly into Narita.  I was fine with this, because my layover turned out to be even better than expected.

I should say at the start that the lounges in Tokyo generally are right up there with the best in the world.  JAL's customer service and attention to detail make a layover at one of their lounges worth the wait.  Both of their lounges in Tokyo offer full buffet spreads, beer, wine, sake, and a full self-serve bar, as well as relaxing extras like nice shower rooms, complimentary massage service, and massage chairs.  Plus, the made to order sushi bar in NRT is worth a visit.

There are both First and Business class lounges at HND, and the First Class lounge recently underwent a stunning renovation.  Most importantly, as well as providing ample seating in the main parts of the lounge, space for work, and views of airport ops, they've gone above and beyond in adding a more intimate set of rooms to explore called "The Red Suite." 

The Red Suite is every aviation enthusiast's dream, and takes you back to the days of elegant travel.  At every angle, the décor and mood is impeccable.  From the vintage desk, complete with typewriter and model aircraft, to the complimentary shoe shine service, it makes every layover seem too short. 

Feel free to settle into one of the silky leather chairs in the suite, and reflect on the journey so far.

Hours were from 7:00 to about 23:00, I believe.  
You can pour yourself a crystal glass of chilled sake or champagne from the minimalist bar inside the Suite, and spend some time taking in the historical photos of JAL's past, peruse the walls of charts, or even challenge a travel companion to a round of chess in the game room before heading out to your flight. 
Get there with enough time for a game, maybe two.

Loser has to forfeit the aisle seat on the next flight.

If you look long enough, you just might be able to chart your way home....or to Sydney and back.

No detail has been overlooked, and with this re-vamp, JAL has set a new standard in lounge décor, not just for its own service, but for any airline offering a premium experience.  While it is not the biggest lounge in the system, any true travel lover won't be in a hurry to get to their next jet bridge too quickly.

Travel Well,


Thursday, September 15, 2016

Ten Tips for Family Travel....

Oh, the places you'll go!  BabyFlyer takes in a morning view of a 737 at LAX.

Since BabyFlyer has been out and about quite a bit this summer, we've learned to approach flying at a whole new 'level.'  Overall, it's been great, and we've started to get into the groove of traveling as a family.  Since I've been asked many times for advice on this topic, I feel like this entry is overdue.  Hope it's helpful.

1) Don't panic.

Seriously.  Travel with infants seems daunting as a rule.  I've had many, many people visibly shudder when they think about having to take a baby on even a short flight.  However, it's just like any other challenge in learning how to be a parent- it can be accomplished with the right preparation, practice, and most importantly - attitude. 

2) Leave it at the counter.

As a rule, you don't need much in the airport or on the plane.  Take advantage of most airlines' generous baby gear checking policy.  In the new world of ever increasing baggage fees, you can still check a stroller and a car seat for free!  What's even better- you can put other bulky items in the car seat bag or stroller bag, also for free.  Think diapers, bulky toys, etc.  We've found that on average, even with layovers in our itineraries, we don't need the stroller or car seat in the airport while our baby is still small enough to be comfortably worn in a sling or carrier.  The times we tried taking the stroller with us, it ended up just being used as a luggage cart, while we carried the baby anyway!  So, ditch the extra gear at the counter, and travel light.   
Her "Airport Shirt."

3) Change is good.

Most people pack well for the baby on flights, but may forget about themselves.  Put it this way- if baby really needs an emergency change of clothes mid flight, you just might need one as well.  Throw at least an extra shirt in your carry-on. 

Be prepared for at least one in-flight diaper change on an average flight.  There are fold down changers on every plane, but not necessarily in each restroom.  Ask a flight attendant if in doubt.  As everyone knows, there's not much room in there, so just bring what you need- not the whole diaper bag.  There are also many products with this in mind- a table liner that has pockets for the essentials.

4) Timing is Everything.

When possible, try to plan flights not only around your baby's schedule, but also yours.  Think about the logistics of the day and don't set yourself up for failure.  The overnight flight might sound appealing because baby may get some sleep- but you won't!  Being overtired yourself, or stressed running through an airport on a short layover, can be as bad or worse than a tired baby.

5) Take the pressure off.

Babies' ears can be bothered by the change in pressure in the cabin during take off and decent, especially on older planes where the pressurization systems may not be as calibrated.  Feeding them, or offering a pacifier, will help them adjust and prevent the pressure from turning into pain.  Sucking and/or drinking will also help them relax during what is usually the loudest part of the flight. 

6) Seat selection.

Seat choice is overall a matter of personal preference, but here are a few hacks and guidelines to keep in mind when traveling with a child, especially a lap infant. 

First off, I should say that as a matter of safety, if you can purchase a seat for your infant and install a car seat on the plane for them, it's preferable to do this.  It's also generally more comfortable to have a place to put the baby down, and if you're traveling with a partner, results in a row to yourselves.  However, it goes without saying that air travel is expensive, and the ability to have your baby fly for free (or nearly free) for the first two years can't be overlooked, and many times makes the difference between being to afford the trip or not. 

That said, here are some things to think about when flying with a lap infant:

-Aisle or window?  In general, it's nice to be on the aisle in case you need to get up more than usual- to walk, soothe, or head to the bathroom for a diaper change.  However, if you're planning on feeding baby in flight and want more privacy, the window may be best, especially if you're traveling with a partner who can take the seat next to you.   

-Upgrades?  If you can manage it, whether by cash, miles, or status, moving to a bigger or extra legroom seat can make a big difference in you comfort level.  Keep in mind though that lap infants, and people traveling with children are not allowed in the emergency exit rows for safety reasons, so main cabin extra/premium economy or bulkhead seats are your best options in economy.  If you can move to first or business class, that's even better. 
Mom, I don't think I have enough legroom! - BabyFlyer tries out her first AA Flagship Suite.
-Flying in 1st?  Yes, babies are allowed in upper classes, and you have every right to sit with them there.  Fellow premium travelers generally are fine with, and even complimentary of, a baby traveling with attentive parent(s).  No one expects babies to be silent the whole flight, but it's a good idea to plan ahead and have age appropriate toys and activities to use throughout the flight- small interesting toys, even new toys just for the trip are great.

-Seat choice hacks?  A few last notes- If you're flying international on a wide-body plane, most airlines offer 'bassinet' rows in economy, which are non-exit bulkhead seats with fold down bassinets in front of them.  Calling ahead, and/or asking at the check in counter and gate may get you assigned one of these.  After takeoff, the flight attendant will provide a bassinet so you have a place for baby to sleep.  It's baby's first 'lie-flat seat!'  Also, if you're flying in the US as a party of 3 - 2 adults and a lap infant- find a row that's empty and have the adults book the aisle and window seats, leaving the middle empty.  On some airlines this automatically 'infant blocks' that seat, meaning it will be one of the last filled on the plane.  If it's a completely full flight at boarding, and the seat does get assigned, I promise you won't have a hard time switching with that person for the aisle or window.

7) Stay active.

As motioned above, bringing a good selection of (space-efficient, quiet) toys is important.  With older kids, new toys to be given throughout the flight to keep things interesting can be a hit.  Boredom is the #1 cause of fussiness, generally more even than tiredness, since on average, babies sleep well on planes.  It's the wakeful and playful times that require the planning for.  Also, think about packing a few snacks for them (if they're eating yet), and you too!

8) Get the gear.

You really don't need to invest in too many extras to travel with a baby.  A well packed diaper bag and some kind of carrier you probably already have will get you by just fine if you're a once or twice a year traveler.  However, if you're going to be making it a habit to head to the airport or the car rental on a regular basis, here are some things we've found particularly useful:

A light, simple car seat.  And I mean LIGHT and simple.  The Cosco Scenera NEXT Convertible Car Seat (Otto) (see below) is the current choice for travel.  It makes a good second car seat as it's reasonably priced, and only weighs in at just over 9lbs!  It's FAA approved, if you do end up bringing it on the plane, and installs fairly easily in rental cars (or, you know, taxi vans in Mexico).  I suggest practicing installing it a few times first at home, just so you're comfortable. 
Speaking of car seats, think about getting a fairly sturdy padded, car seat cover for checking the seat.  These will check for free, along with a stroller.

People also swear by the car seat rollers or straps that attach your car seat to your rollaboard bag.  These work great if you're planning on checking the car seat at the gate (get a light 'gate check' bag for this to keep it clean), or if you're going to be taking the car seat on board.  You can use the rolling seat as an efficient stroller going through the airport.

As mentioned above, babywearing is a great idea to get through an airport.  Keeps your hands free, and baby close.  Look for carriers that don't have metal (like the ergo baby, or a wrap) and you shouldn't even have to take them out of the carrier when you go through security, depending on the country.  In Mexico we had to take her out, but in pre-check in the US, she gets to stay put.

If your baby uses a pacifier, the last thing you want is for it to fall on the floor of an airplane.  It will be dirty at best, and rolled off several rows away never to return at worst.  We suggest getting a clip/leash like THIS one.  Also useful, are pacifier 'pouches' for storage on the go, and wipes in case it does hit the ground.  You can also use the wipes to clean the 'touch surfaces' of your seat on the plane when you board. 

9) Make the most of the layover.

There may be times when it makes the most sense to power through and take a longer nonstop flight, but it also may be more expensive, or impractical.  Layovers can be a great way to break up a trip, and give time to get organized for the next segment.  If you've been on the fence about getting a lounge membership, this might be the time to go ahead a do so.  Lounges in the US provide comfortable spaces to hang out in a quieter setting, food and drinks, family bathrooms, and some even have kids' rooms with toys, computer games, etc. 

10) Make (good) memories. 

Travel with babies doesn't have to be all worry and stress.  A well planned itinerary leaves time for fun too!  Airlines generally are glad to see their youngest flyers, and are in the process of reviving traditional welcome gifts- many have 'wings' to hand out, and American offers a "Junior Aviator Logbook" that gets filled out by the flight crew.  Many international airlines offer activity books, or other mementos for kids on their flights.  In the 'above and beyond' category - if you find yourself taking a flight with Etihad or Gulf Air, they have debuted onboard 'flight nanny' services to help parents keep their kids happy in flight.  Yes, this is really a thing. 
You can ask for the Jr. Logbooks on AA flights.  Only some planes have them, so you may need to ask more than once, but it makes a fun memento for kids to look back and see where all they've been.  
We're all generally so busy these days, that a travel day can be some of the longest time you might spend as a family without the usual distractions.  A little patience and planning ahead go a long way toward making it a memorable experience.  Enjoy it!

Travel well & enjoy the journey,


Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Inca Flightpath, part III....

(Note: the first part of this was written from my first Alaska Air 1st flight (award, not counter upgrade) in awhile, going LAX-SEA.  It’s typical so far- I’ve managed to get awkwardly asked if we’re here ‘as an American upgrade’…what?  Since when would that be a thing?  Plus I’ve spilled half a glass of chardonnay on my laptop…and the flight’s still young.  Wish me luck.)

The first two parts of this trip report can be found

[HERE] “The why and the how of booking this trip” and;

[HERE] “The what and the ….who?? Of a trip to Peru”

I decided to finish up this post now since I’ve been getting a lot of questions (comments, complaints) lately from friends that they can’t use their AA miles ‘for anything.’  While I understand (and fully agree) that redemptions can be difficult, and likely aren’t the best option if you have a strict itinerary you need on a short timeframe, there are still plenty of memorable experiences that can be had using AA miles.  This trip is a prime example.  If you’re able to plan well in advance, and approach it with an open ended sense of adventure, I promise there’s plenty you can use those miles for.  But, if you really don’t believe me, feel free to donate them right here…I’m happy to take them off your hands. ;)
What you can get with those miles- A seat in front of the wing down to Lima

This entry is the story of the trip once we touched down in Cusco.  First off, I should say that, despite repeated assurances from doctors, I was very very nervous about the altitude and its potential health effects on Mrs. Cruisingaltitude, as we were newly expecting BabyFlyer at the time.  Spoiler alert- all was fine, and it was probably me who noticed the thin air most when I decided that the Andes was a great place to start a swimming regimen, on account of all the pisco sours, Inca corn, buffet breakfasts & the alluring pool at Tambo. 

This is not to say that we didn’t both feel a little out of breath here and there, but overall it didn’t slow us down.  I do think staying in Urubmaba helped, bringing the altitude down to an ‘easy’ 9000ft. 

My two cents on the sacred valley- it is what you want it to be.  It has as many historic sites as you could visit, plenty of hiking, and amazing vistas wherever you look.  However, it’s also a great place to kick back, take a deep breath, and enjoy some rest and good food.  I suggest splitting the difference and doing a little of both.

The drive into the Sacred Valley- Quinoa fields and the Andes

We spent 4 nights in the valley, one of which was an all day trip to Machu Picchu.  This trip is worth it, if you haven’t been, it would be travel blasphemy to go to the sacred valley and not make the trek out there.  However, it does take at least a full day, and will likely be the most crowded part of the trip.  From someone who likes to go ‘places no one wants to be, at times no one wants to go there,’ I just felt a warning was in order.  It’s also the part of the trip where you feel the most nickel and dimed, from the train tickets, to the site tickets, to little things here and there.  Still though, you should go.  Take ‘that picture’ and put it on the holiday card.

Take "that picture," put it on the holiday card.

Getting there requires a train ticket from either the station at Tambo Del Inka, or from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, which is at the base of the mountain.  We ended up not taking the one at Tambo Del Inka because it only stops once per day, in the morning with an evening return.  From Aguas Calientes, there is a shuttle that drives up to Machu Picchu if you’re not in the mood to hike up the hill (it looked like quite a hike).

My one tip here to avoid some of the crowds, is to forgo the hype of being there early in the morning.  Unless you’re set on (and have tickets to) the hike to Huayna Picchu, or want to take your time to do the Sun Gate walk, you really don’t need all day.  Plus, arriving in the afternoon means you arrive as everyone else is leaving.  Honestly, the lighting later in the day makes the shadows even more dramatic (and can I just mention again how later in the day you might actually get pictures without approximately 354563 other tourists photobombing you??).

We were able to take our time, and feel at some points like we were the only ones there.  It also cuts way back on the time you’ll spend waiting in lines to take the shuttle to and from Aguas Calientes. 
The remainder of the days we did one sight, and gave ourselves the remainder of the day to rest and enjoy the resort.  If you’re looking for a resort-style vacation, over say hiking the Inca trail, then I can’t recommend this itinerary enough.  What’s even better is that after doing the Machu Picchu day, these side trips will feel like a fantastic deal.  You can buy a several day pass to many of the local sites for around $15 USD, thanks to the strong dollar to Sol conversion.  Further, if you get smart about it, and walk a few blocks from the hotel (leave the front gate, make a right) to the gas station in town, you can hire a taxi driver for a fraction of what Tambo will quote you.  Even without bargaining (which was expected) we were able to get a driver to take us for several hours, all included, to see the Maras salt flats, and other sites, from between $25 and $35, all in.  We’re pretty sure even at that rate we were getting hussled by local standards, but we thought it was a great deal, so everybody was happy.
Maras Salt Pools- Don't miss this one.  Also, don't get tricked by the guy trying to get the tourists to taste the water because it "tastes like ice cream."  It does not taste like ice cream.

Day trips around the valley are a great deal, and more relaxing than the crowds at Agua Calientes and Machu Picchu.


One more thing while I’m on the topic of great deals- the one part of the Machu Picchu excursion which was a steal was dinner in Aguas Calientes, which is the town at the base of the mountain.  It’s along the river, and has quite a few modern restaurants as well as some hotels, a natural hot spring you can hike to, and a large amount of stores and shops selling local wares as well as the general tourist purchases- shirts, stuffed alpacas, and the like.  I’d recommend grabbing a meal before heading back to Tambo.  We had a wonderful dinner at a restaurant overlooking the river for about $35, all inclusive.  You could easily give yourself a night in Aguas Calientes after visiting Machu Picchu to break up that part of the trip and have more time to explore the area.
River view from dinner after hiking Machu Picchu

I also have to stop and give a plug here to the main restaurant at Tambo.  Usually, the in-house place, besides risking being formulaic, would be a ridiculous mark up over heading out.  Here, however, due to the SPG Platinum discount, it really wasn’t to high, and the food was authentic and very nice.  We ended up eating there several times.   We also had the breakfast daily as a Platinum benefit, and it was extremely good.  Strangely enough, I had the best Congee I've ever that Peru.  

The main dining room at Tambo Del Inka- We had several wonderful dinners by the fireplace.

I also recommend having Tambo make you reservations at the other places in town in advance if you want to check them out.  The night before we left, we decided to give Qanela a try for some authentic local food.  The staff was very friendly, and the food was solid. 

What I’ll never forget though, was that the kitchen appeared to be in a different part of the building altogether, and the one (hilarious, very enthusiastic) waiter who spoke decent English and so was serving us and the other table sent over from Tambo, had to literally (yes, using this word in its correct application) run back and forth to get each dish.  We tried so, so hard not to laugh (too much), and he definitely earned a tip.

 What’s more, half way through dinner, the power went out entirely.  This was one of those moments where you get reminded that, despite the Dreamliner flights, and the 5 star resort service, you are in fact, in a foreign country.  Honestly, it’s needed some times.  After about 20 minutes, during which the (out of breath, flashlight-carrying) waiter hurried even faster to bring candles to the tables, the lights came back on.  He then shouted that they could now ‘make all the pisco sours!!’ ….and the dining room erupted into cheers.  What’s life without these moments, right?  I’d do it all again.
Fava bean appetizer with Maras salt


Peru is also one of the places that really brings home how very little I actually learned in my college Spanish courses.  Mexico makes me feel like I know something, because I can ask where the bathroom is and order a beer.  This is mostly because the staff at resorts in Cabo and Puerto Vallarta don’t need you to speak Spanish at all really.  In Peru, not so much.  I’d recommend brushing up on a couple things- most importantly, remind yourself how to count to 10, and then by 10s to 100.  This is how you’ll know what to pay the Taxi driver. 
A sacred valley 'traffic jam'.  Yes, that's actually 4 donkeys.

Also on the topic of money, Peru is one of the countries where it is almost impossible to exchange currency in cash unless the bills you’re exchanging are mint-perfect.  Even a tiny tear along the edge will be cause for rejection.  Go to the bank before you leave if you’re going to travel with US currency and try to get new bills.  I’ve also had this issue recently in Malaysia.  It’s both ridiculous and frustrating going around a foreign airport trying to get someone to take your money!
This was the 'damage' for which this bill was rejected...

To wrap up the report on what really was a fantastic experience all around, I’ll just give my $0.02 on the return trip.  Firstly, make sure you head back to CUZ early enough that if you get in a little traffic, you won’t be stressing.  Secondly, and in opposition to the first bit of advice, don’t bother getting to CUZ early, because the airport is crowded, disorganized, and there’s no lounges or good places to wait.  So really, good luck with all that.  I suppose if you had your planning together, a day in the city would be a good end to the trip, and better timing than doing it on the way out, because you'll have gotten used to the altitude at 9000ft, and the move to Cuzco's 11,500 won't feel as big.
I thought it was raining in was....

Our connection in LIM was late at night, but the lounges (there are 2, both contract lounges accessible by Priority Pass) were 24 hours.  The one we ended up in was fairly crowded until later, but had food, a bar etc.  I must have been tired though, because while I was exploring the lounge, I found a room with several massage chairs, and some loungers.  I was appreciating the touch when confusion set in- it seemed to be raining inside the club!?!?!  Yeah…. As it turns out, that room was actually open air, and I just couldn’t tell at night.  Couldn’t even blame jetlag, and I’m embarrassed it took me a significant amount of time to realize what was going on.  It was clearly time to head to the gate. 
The flight back was lovely, if not too short given how nice the plane was.  We arrived in good spirits & rested.  I'd do this trip again anytime, and may, as the availability is still wide open on LAN.  It was a fully enjoyable trip by all accounts, and definitely a good use of the miles and points.  Besides, it gives me one more check mark on all those lists of "places to see before you die" that Machu Picchu is always part of.  You could do a whole lot worse!
Travel well & fly safely,
Oh Tambo....I miss you already.