The Park Hyatt Maldives: Three days in paradise

I did nothing. I did absolutely nothing, and it was everything that I thought it could be.” – Peter Gibbons, Office Space.

Amy and I spent three relaxing nights at the Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa this past March. The nightly rate at the hotel can exceed $1,000 – before accounting for food, drink and transportation costs. To afford what would otherwise be a prohibitively expensive vacation, we used our two free nights from the Hyatt credit card and redeemed a third night using points.

To get to the Maldives we flew non-stop from Singapore to Malé International Airport, a flight that is about 4.5 hours long. We stayed overnight at a small hotel on the same island as the airport and then took a small turbo-prop flight to Kooddoo Domestic Airport in the morning.

Our morning flight on Maldivian Airlines was booked by the hotel and stopped at another island on the way down. We were fortunate to fly during the day so we could marvel at the endless string of coral islands and turquoise blue waters outside the window.

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View from the plane
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After landing at the Kooddoo airport – really just a runway with a small building attached – we were met by representatives from the hotel. From there we took a short van ride to a waiting speed boat. The boat to the Hyatt property took another 30 minutes.

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View as we arrived at the Park Hyatt

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Entrance to the Park Hyatt Maldives
Needless to say, the Park Hyatt is not an easy place to get to, especially if you’re coming from the US. I took a photo of our location on google maps when we reached the hotel and it looked like this:

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In the middle of the middle of nowhere
The Hyatt property is gorgeous. The whole island only takes a few minutes to walk around and features just 50 guest villas.

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White sand beaches and turquoise water. This was the view outside our villa

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The water was unbelievably clear
There are 36 villas on land – each with it’s own beach access and 14 villas over the ocean. The ocean villas are far more expensive and kind of seemed like a novelty thing. I was perfectly happy – even happier – with our land villa.

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Walkway to the ocean villas
The land villas ring the island and each one has its own access to the beach. They are also incredibly private, something that the ocean villas lack.

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Path to our villa
The villa had two showers – one indoor and one outdoor, and a nice patio to read and contemplate the stars at night from.

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Hallway leading to the outdoor shower
There are several restaurants on the property along with a nice pool, gym and spa.

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View of the pool and main dining area from the bar

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Park Hyatt pool
There is also a more public beach area with lounge chairs set up.

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So what did we do in the Maldives? Well, not much. We went snorkeling outside our villa – the marine life was incredible – spent a few hours on a boat fishing one day, and mostly sat around reading, eating and talking.

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We spotted this shark in the water when we were leaving
There are lots of activities you can book but they come with a steep price tag. Even with our free hotel nights, the trip was still expensive. The inter-island flight on Maldivian Airlines costs $520 per person (payable to the hotel), and none of the meals at the hotel are included in the stay – even the water at the restaurants wasn’t free, an absurd price gouge in my opinion.

All that being said, the Maldives, and the Hyatt property in particular, are beautiful and well worth a visit. Just look at this sunset.

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Gorgeous sunset from the beach

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Us on the beach

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Amy making the most of the trip
 

 

 

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Flight Review: Korean Air Business Class 777 – Washington DC to Seoul Incheon

Unlike a lot of airlines these days, Korean Air offers great business and first class award availability at reasonable redemption rates. Further, the airline’s updated website makes award booking – a process that used to be incredibly arduous – easy. Coming back to Singapore after the holiday’s, I decided to take advantage of the generous award availability on Korean Air and book myself in business class. The trip included a very long flight from Washington DC to Seoul and then a shorter, but still irritatingly long flight from Seoul to Singapore.

Fortunately, the longer flight included Korean Air’s new business class suites product. Unfortunately, the second leg of the trip had Korean Air’s older business class hard product.

Booking

I booked my one way business class ticket from Washington DC to Singapore using just 75,000 Miles + $34. I had about 40,000 SkyPass miles in my Korean Air account from prior flights on the airline, and I was able to transfer the remaining 35,000 miles instantly from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account. This is one of the best Chase partners and one of the reasons the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card is so valuable.

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I consider 75,000 miles to be an incredible bargain, especially when paid tickets in regular economy on this flight can cost upwards of $1,000. Meanwhile, my exact ticket was selling for over $4,000. This was my itinerary:

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Flight 1 of 2
Korean Air KE094
Washington Dulles (IAD) to Seoul Incheon (ICN)
Boeing 777-300ER
Tuesday, 2 January 2018
Duration: 14 hours 42 minutes

I had selected a window seat near the back right of the business class compartment. If you are flying on a Korean Air 777, you can tell if you have the new or old business class product based on the seat layout. The new business class product is in a 2-2-2 layout, as shown here:

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New business class product layout 2-2-2

The layout for the old business class product is in a 2-3-2 setup as shown here:

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Old business class product layout 2-3-2

It’s worth noting that the difference between the two business class products is fairly substantial. The new suites feel more spacious and more comfortable then the old ones, and if you book the window seat, far more private.

Boarding

The flight was delayed about an hour as the incoming flight from Korea was late. Once boarding began, the process was fairly efficient. The business class section was only about a third full. As mentioned above, I had selected window seat 11J.

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Seat 11J
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With the tray table down

The new business class product has staggered window and aisle seats. This makes the window seat even more private – it kind of feels like a mini suite. These seats are great for solo travelers. Also, there is a separate walkway to the aisle for each window seat, that way you don’t have to deal with your neighbor when getting up to use the restroom. A remote controlled partition can also be raised after takeoff for additional privacy. You can see how the seats work a bit better from this Korean Air website picture:

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Prestige Suites

For comparison purposes, here are the old business class seats – which were on my second flight from Seoul to Singapore:

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Old business class product on my second flight

An electronic control to the left of the seat made it easy to quickly convert the seat into a bed without having to get up – something I appreciate.

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Seat controls
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The seat reclines into 180-degree fully flat bed

Unfortunately, the bed setting was not nearly as comfortable as the bed setting on my recent Singapore Air flight.

The entertainment monitor was large and placed directly in front of the seat. It was operated by a touch screen remote.

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Back to the Future
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Touch screen remote

The seat had lots of leg room and a ledge to rest your feet on.

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Lots of legroom

The seat also included lots of storage space and a large arm rest to store glasses on.

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Pre-departure drink and peanuts

The seat also included a multi-purpose outlet and a separate USB port.

Amenities

Once boarding was complete, the flight attendants stopped by to welcome each business class passenger onboard. Amenity kits were passed out and kids received a separate gift. The amenity kits included some nice items including a good quality eye mask, toothbrush, lip balm and face cream. For what it’s worth, the products were from Davi. There was also a hair brush and a shoe horn. Hooray!

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Korean Air amenity kit

Apparently the 2018 winter olympics will be held in Korea, as the branding was everywhere and each movie / TV show opened with an advertisement for the games. You can see the Olympics branding on the bottom right of the amenity kit bag.

Waiting at the seat upon boarding was a large blanket in plastic wrap, disposable slippers, and an incredibly small pillow. I appreciate the warm blanket but the small pillow made it difficult to sleep. I ended up taking a few pillows from some of the empty business class seats around me.

Take-off

We pushed back from the gate around 1:00pm, a little over an hour late. We had a long-takeoff roll and then the seat belt sign was turned off only a few minutes later. It was a cloudless day in Virginia and there were some good views of the cold ground below as we ascended.

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Clear day
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Leaving the cold

Shortly after takeoff, an announcement was made in Korean and then an American voice came on the intercom. He said he was the pilot and welcomed us onboard. He informed us of our flight time to Korea at 14 hours and 11 minutes. The second leg of my trip – Seoul to Singapore – included a British pilot as well. I wonder how that works in the cockpit language wise – do they all speak English during the flight, or does everyone speak Korean?

Entertainment

The entertainment options on the flight were the biggest disappointment of the trip. There were about 33 Hollywood “hit” movies and a few “classic” movies. There were a lot of movies I hadn’t heard of before and only a few that seemed worth watching. The classic movies included such timeless fare as Moulin Rouge and Back to the Future. The TV options were even more sparse, a few American sitcoms – Friends and the Big Bang Theory – with only two episodes each.

Even more surprisingly, there were only 3 Korean-language movies.

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Paltry Korean movie selection

I ended up watching every TV comedy option available – which only took about an hour and a half. After that I watched a few movies, the best of which was The Big Sick and the worst was the clunker Home Again – a painfully slow movie with no chemistry between the lively Reese Witherspoon and her not-at-all believable love interest.

Great entertainment options can make a long flight pass much faster. Unfortunately, I found the entertainment options on Korean Air to be extremely wanting, especially for business class on a 14-plus hour flight. Is it too much to ask for a few full seasons of popular TV shows à la Netflix? This seems to be standard practice on United long haul flights now, even in economy. It’s never a good thing when United Airlines makes you look bad.

The one other thing that bothered me about the entertainment was the arbitrary censorship of certain movies. For example, the Big Sick was edited for content and all swear words – including the word goddamn – were beeped. Apparently the general public can’t handle that kind of salty language. Who knows what other content was removed from the movie as well.

Food

Shortly after takeoff, a flight attendant came by to take each passenger’s lunch and dinner order. I was informed that dinner would be served 30 minutes before landing in Seoul, which seemed to be cutting it really close – but it actually ended up being 3 hours before landing. I ordered a glass of champagne and Bibimbap for lunch. For dinner I ordered the beef bulgogi. The menus read as follows:

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Drinks menu
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Lunch menu
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Dinner menu

The lunch started with a small seared scallop in sauce.

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Seared scallop

Then a bit of duck and salad.

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Duck

After that the main course was served.

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Korean Bibimbap

I wasn’t a huge fan of the cold Bibimbap but that’s probably more of a personal taste thing.

For dinner I had the beef bulgogi which I normally really like. Unfortunately, I found the bulgogi on this flight to be really chewy, drenched in sauce, and not all that flavorful. The rice was also a bit mushy and oddly unappetizing. I didn’t eat much of either.

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Beef bulgogi

I skipped out on the dessert and the cheese tray which was wheeled around on a cart after lunch. I had some of the seasonal fresh fruit which was definitely not in-season or fresh.

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Fruit

Overall the service was good but the food left something to be desired.

Other observations

For about 13 hours of the 14 hour flight we hit almost no turbulence. I can’t remember ever being on such a smooth flight for that length of time. Unfortunately the last hour was a bit bumpy, but nothing too crazy.

Despite being in a fully flat bed, I did not sleep particularly well on the flight. As is common on larger airplanes, it was not possible to control your surrounding temperature as there were no air vents above the seat. I went from freezing cold to burning hot and then back again during the course of the flight. Although the blanket was large and warm, the pillows were insubstantial and not very comfortable.

The entertainment options also included a standard flight tracker and two outside cameras that could be monitored during the trip. I ended up watching the landing at Incheon via the front camera.

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View as we approached Incheon Airport through the front camera

There were also some nice views out the window as we approached Seoul.

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Our flight route took us almost directly over the North Pole, then down through Russia and China and then around North Korea.

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Flight path via the onboard tracker

Here is the flight time and path from FlightAware:

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FlightAware

As you can see, the flight ended up being just 18 minutes shy of 15 hours.

One last point to note, Incheon Airport is not a good place to transit if you have a short layover before your next flight. The security line – which all transiting passengers are required to go through – is a huge mess with passengers from all incoming flights ushered into one of two lines.

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First line – not even sure what this was for

I’ve waited in one of these lines for almost an hour before. The line when I arrived this time was even longer. Fortunately, as my flight to Singapore was supposed to be leaving in only a few minutes, I was permitted, with some pleading, to skip most of the security line. In my experience the airports in Japan and Hong Kong are much better at handling transiting passengers as they have more security checkpoints.

Summary

I found my business class seat to be reasonably comfortable with lots of room and privacy, and in my opinion that’s the most important criteria for judging a business class product. Further, for a mere 75,000 miles and $34, this itinerary was a veritable steal.

 

Flight Review: Singapore Airlines A380 Business Class – New York to Singapore (SQ25)

After four weeks of vacation – a week spent in Europe and three weeks in the U.S. – it was time for me to return to Singapore. When booking my return trip, I searched for a conveniently timed itinerary that would get me back to Singapore late Saturday night or early Sunday morning. That way I would have at least one full day to recover – mentally and physically – before I had to return to work on Monday.

Booking

In the past, I’ve generally flown from Washington DC to Singapore on United, ANA or Korean Air. These routes involve connections in either Hong Kong, Tokyo or Seoul, or more recently, California. On this trip, I was interested in trying something different, so I also considered flights that flew east through Europe and the Middle East.

After searching for itineraries on Kayak and Google Flights, I decided to book a premium economy seat on Singapore Airlines out of New York City’s JFK. The flight included a short stop in Frankfurt, Germany. It wasn’t the cheapest itinerary, or the most convenient – after all we were staying in Washington DC – but it gave me the chance to test out one of Singapore Airline’s new premium economy seats, and it was a good excuse to spend a day or two in New York City. Also, at “just” 22 hours, it’s one of the shortest itineraries from the East Coast to Singapore. I was also excited to earn 110% mileage accrual in my KrisFlyer account, or 10,487 miles.

This was my itinerary:
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The premium economy seat also had one major benefit, it allowed me to upgrade to business class using points, subject to availability. Immediately after booking my seat, I logged into my KrisFlyer account and selected Manage Booking. I was in luck as there were Standard upgrade awards available for 70,000 KrisFlyer miles (the Saver award from the East Coast is 47,000 miles – but there was no availability). I didn’t hesitate in spending the 70,000 miles. The upgrade from economy, even “premium” economy, to business class is a world of difference. It not only means superior service and food, but most importantly, a fully flat bed.  That makes a big difference when you’re confined to a plane for 22 hours (or 26 hours, as the case would be for me). Importantly, when upgrading on Singapore Airlines, you still earn the miles for your original itinerary. So even though I upgraded to business class, I still earned the 10,487 miles from my original premium economy ticket (which helped me to requalify for KrisFlyer Elite Silver Status).

Here was my upgrade confirmation:

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And my upgraded itinerary:

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Getting to the Airport

After spending the day exploring NYC, I headed to the airport from the Lower East Side at around 5:00pm (the flight wasn’t departing until 8:55pm but I didn’t know what traffic would be like).  I had a lot of luggage, so I ended up taking a shockingly expensive Uber ride to JFK:

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There was bad traffic (of course) but we managed to get to the airport in under an hour – not too terrible for a Friday afternoon. However, the quality of the airport, and the hassle of getting to JFK from Manhattan, will definitely make me think twice before I go out of my way to book a flight from NYC in the future (even if it’s in business class).

Check-In, Swiss Lounge, and Boarding

I arrived at the airport with over three hours to go before departure. Luckily, the check-in counter was open and there was virtually no one in line.

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I checked two bags and received my boarding pass in a matter of minutes (just one boarding pass was issued, as the same plane continues on to Singapore from Frankfurt). I was instructed at the check-in counter that I could use the Swiss Lounge on the other side of security. The airline attendant also helpfully pointed out that I could either go through the TSA pre-check security line (I was newly enrolled) or I could use the Business / First class security line, which is subject to the normal security indignities (i.e. shoes off and laptops out).

The Business / First class security line was shorter, so I chose that line. It only took about 10 minutes to get through security, which I consider pretty good for a New York City airport.

After security, I headed to the Swiss Lounge, which I found disappointing. The drink options were okay, but the food selection was limited.

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There was an okay self-service bar
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Salad bar at the Swiss Lounge

This was the entirety of the hot food selection:

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Only three options

Annoyingly, there were almost no power outlets in the lounge, except in one designated high-top bar area. It seems hard to believe that a modern business class lounge wouldn’t have power outlets at every seat.

After enjoying a gin and tonic and some food at the lounge, I decided to walk around the terminal a bit before boarding. After about thirty minutes, I headed to gate A7 for boarding.

Boarding and Business Class

There are separate lines for Singapore Suites (First Class), Business Class, Premium Economy and Economy.

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View of the Singapore Airlines A380 at boarding

By the time I reached the gate, boarding was well under way, so I simply approached the Business Class line and, after a quick scan of my ticket, headed onto the plane. There was a separate jet bridge for Business Class passengers that went directly to the second level of the plane.

The Singapore Airlines A380-800 business class takes up the whole second floor of the jumbo jet (the largest passenger plane in the skies). The business class seats are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, so each seat has direct aisle access. I had selected seat 24K, a window (and aisle) seat on the right side of the plane. A lot of travelers prefer the bulkhead seats on Singapore Airlines business class, as those seats offer a bit more leg room and a full bench for you to rest your feet on during the flight (as opposed to a more narrow foot rest in the standard business class seat). However, when I was selecting my seat, the only available bulkhead seat was in the very back of the plane. As I prefer not to be in the back of the plane, I decided to stick with a normal business class seat closer to the front. I was not disappointed, as I found the foot rest and seat to be more than adequate (even for someone who is slightly over 6 feet tall).

Here is the view of the business class cabin upon boarding.

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They had a weird, orange mood light going on as boarding continued.

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When I arrived at my seat, there was a large pillow waiting for me, and a pair of noise cancelling headphones.  As you can see, the seats are very wide.

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Business class foot rest

The seats were nice but maybe a bit dated. The entertainment system was definitely on the older side, although perfectly functional. On the left armrest were basic seat controls and a remote for the TV.

 

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Helpfully, the remote control also showed the expected time to the next destination. I used this function several times throughout the flight to check on our flight status.

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There were lots of new release movies and popular Hollywood films loaded into the entertainment system. There were also several TV shows that had full seasons available (e.g. Big Little Lies, Friends, and Game of Thrones – just to name a few).

One thing I found interesting about the Singapore Airlines’ business class seat is just how much storage space there is. There are two huge compartments between the seat and the window, and then plenty of storage space under the seat in front, and even a small storage compartment beside the television.

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Storage space in front of the seat

There is also a charging bay to the right of the entertainment monitor.

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It’s worth pointing out that there is a slight design flaw in the window business class seat, as a narrow gap exists between the seat and the side storage compartment. This gap is just big enough to lose a phone or magazine in, but not big enough to reach one’s hand into. Also, the seat runs all the way to the ground, so there’s no way to access the gap from under the seat. I realized just how inconvenient this was when I accidentally knocked my phone into the gap. After almost 20 minutes of futilely trying to retrieve it, I finally gave up and asked a flight attendant to help. Losing stuff between the seat and the window must be a common occurrence, because the flight attendant didn’t hesitate, he immediately grabbed a long metal pole (it’s possible it’s kept onboard just for this purpose) and came to my seat to help. After about 5 minutes of fishing between the seat and the window with the metal pole, he was able to retrieve the phone.

About 20 minutes after boarding, we pushed back from the gate. The captain then came on the PA to let us know that there were quite a few planes ahead of us, so we would be delayed by about a half hour.

There was a pre-wrapped blanket waiting in the storage space behind the seat. This was a good quality blanket that kept me warm throughout the flight. Upon boarding, I found the plane to be extremely cold, so I immediately unwrapped my blanket and settled in.

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As we taxied, it became apparent that we were going nowhere fast. I made it through almost three-quarters of a movie before the captain came back on to announce that there were “50 to 70 planes ahead of us” and that we had burned through quite a bit of fuel taxing. He said we needed to return to the gate to refuel, but due to congestion on the taxiway, it would take some time to turn around.

Our 8:55pm departure eventually became a 1:05am departure. Luckily, I managed to fall asleep while we were refueling at the gate, and I didn’t wake up until we were in the air over Canada.

The Flight

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I woke up just as the flight attendants were walking through the cabin with dessert. I had missed my pre-ordered shrimp and scallop dinner, and I no longer really felt like eating it. Instead, I had a scoop of Sticky Fig & Honeycomb Ice Cream with Cinnamon Peanuts.

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It was a bit too sweet for me, at least in my just-having-waken state. After eating my ice cream, I checked out the bathroom which was stocked with a few amenities (note that Singapore Airlines does not give out amenity kits in business class).

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There were also toothbrushes and shaving kits.

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The sink was operated with a modern sensor, which I find much nicer than the old push button sink faucets.

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I ended up watching a few episodes of Game of Thrones (they had the entire sixth season) and after a small continental breakfast, it was time to prepare for landing.

We touched down smoothly in Frankfurt at 2:46pm (a little over four hours late) and everyone disembarked. Business class passengers continuing on to Singapore were invited to use the Lufthansa business lounge near the gate. I was a bit disoriented when I got off the plane, and in my effort to find the business class lounge, I ended up walking to the complete opposite side of the terminal, before realizing my mistake and turning around.

I ultimately found the lounge, which was spacious but with limited food options. I ended up eating a banana and some soup. As we were in Germany, there were also sausage and beer choices:

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German sausage
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Beer on tap

After spending a bit of time in the lounge, it was time to re-board for the “long” portion of the flight. After already spending 12 hours on the plane due to the initial delay, I was not really looking forward to another 13 hours of flying, but at least I was in business class. . .

As we boarded the plane, we were given a fancy Singapore Airlines luggage tag and a note apologizing for the delay in New York.

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I found the crew on the second leg of the flight to be more attentive than the original crew. As I took my seat on the second leg of the trip, I was immediately offered a welcome drink – something that the New York City crew never offered. I asked for a glass of champagne and a water. The champagne was a Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve, and tasted pretty good to me.

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We had a great view of the plane’s reflection as we taxied in Frankfurt.

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It also served as a good reminder that there was another floor of passengers below us (something you forget when you’re actually on the flight).

Taxing was fast in Frankfurt, and after a long take-off roll, we were on our way.

After takeoff – the meal service began. I had pre-ordered the suckling pig, which I found okay, although I really enjoyed the green vegetables that came with the meal.

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After eating, I made my seat into a bed (a short video plays in business class after boarding – which shows you how to turn the seat into a bed, or you can ask a flight attendant for assistance). The bed is made by pulling down the seat back – similar to the backseat of a station wagon.

The bed includes a built-in mattress that I found quite comfortable. The one bad thing about the Singapore Airlines business class seat is that you can’t easily go from bed mode to seat mode. Doing so requires you to stand up and clear everything from the seat before changing its position. Unlike new business class products, you can’t simply push one button and move from seat mode to bed mode.

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Singapore Airlines business class bed

The place for your head is not huge, but with the pillows I found it okay.

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I ended up spending most of the second flight in bed mode. You can also eat from the bed position, although it’s a bit tricky.

On the second flight, I watched Drive with Ryan Gosling. A movie I’ve seen before but still really enjoy. I then watched several more episodes of Game of Thrones and, in between, got a bit of sleep.

For breakfast, I had pre-ordered a wanton noodle soup. I’m not sure if I was just really hungry or what, but this was one of the best meals I’ve ever had on a plane.

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The noodles and wantons were delicious and the broth was piping hot and well flavored. It got me excited to be back in Singapore! Shortly after finishing breakfast, it was time to prepare for landing. We finally touched down in Singapore at 10:46am (about four hours late).

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Summary

Even in business class, this was a long and tiring trip. I feel sorry for anyone who had to suffer through in economy – although I’ve been there before. Overall, the food and service were good, the seat (and bed) was comfortable and there were plenty of entertainment options. It was definitely 70,000 KrisFlyer miles well spent.

Japan Revisited – Ten Years On

I first visited Japan ten years ago as part of a study abroad program at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan. I went with a good friend from school and, after five weeks of pseudo-study, we booked tickets on the Japan rail pass and explored the country from Tokyo to Nagasaki.

In those pre-iPhone days and before TripAdvisor had fully caught on, our itinerary was based less on concrete travel plans and must-do activities, and more on WWII nuclear destruction: which is to say we visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki because, well, they are Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and because we didn’t quite know where else to go.

In Hiroshima, we explored the peace memorial, walked the city’s hallowed grounds – watching the eternal Flame of Peace burn – and then, unsure of what to do next, boarded the Shinkansen and headed south to Nagasaki – where we did largely the same things.

After Nagasaki, we travelled north to Tokyo. That massive, thriving and urgently vibrant megatropolis that is the heart of Japan. There, we wandered the city’s chaotic streets, got lost in its incomprehensible subway, ate whale meat and other non-traditional “food”, and toured the famous fish market – watching the tuna auction at 4:00am.

I loved everything about Japan. I loved how there were multiple vending machines on every corner and back alley in the country – offering everything from beer to umbrellas. In Nagoya, I loved how the streets and subways were immaculately clean – even though it was virtually impossible to find an actual garbage can. I loved, of course, how good the food was – even 7 Eleven had excellent Onigiri; and I loved watching the nonsensical Japanese television, which seemed like a strange, non-english cross between Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and a Snuggie infomercial.

That trip, now a decade on, seems at times like it happened ages ago, and at times like it could have ended just the other day.

I was 21.

All that is to say, it had been a long time since I was in Japan, and I was ready to go back. This time, despite my protests, there would be no atomic site visits, instead, as detailed in the coming posts, our week-long itinerary (this time with my wife) was split out as follows:

  • Three days in Tokyo;
  • one day in the Mount Fuji area; and
  • three days divided between Kyoto and Osaka.

***************

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Japan, 2006

Flight Review: United Airlines Flight 1 from San Francisco to Singapore

In January, United Airlines announced that it would begin operating non-stop service between San Francisco and Singapore. The flight commenced service on June 1st and is operated by a stretch 787 Dreamliner.

The new service holds several distinctions:

  1. It is the longest route operated by a Dreamliner (just shy of 16 hours); and
  2. It is the only non-stop flight currently operating between Singapore and the U.S.

The second distinction will not last long, as Singapore Airlines recently announced plans to begin operating the same route starting this October. That flight will be operated using a new Airbus A350.

As soon as I read about the new non-stop service between the U.S. and Singapore, I was eager to book my ticket. So when I found a reasonably priced flight that coincided with my trip back home this summer, I booked it.

My itinerary, originating in New York City, was as follows:

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The ticketed travel time was 26 hours and 15 minutes. That is longer than I would normally like, but isn’t yet in the realm of the ridiculous.

Newark To San Francisco

My flight out of Newark was delayed because a maintenance worker was still on the plane when we began taxiing out to the runway (I wish I was making that up). As he apparently had no desire to travel to California with us, we had to go back to the gate so he could get off.

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Maintenance worker fixing an overhead compartment

Due to “paper work requirements” once we returned to the gate, our ten minute delay turned into a 70 minute wait. I won’t review that flight in detail here, but I will note that it was nice to cross the country in a wide-body 777, as opposed to a single aisle 737 or the equivalent Airbus A320 (which seems to be the norm these days). Not only did the 777 have United’s full range of entertainment options (an onboard TV for each seat), but the double aisle plane also provided far more space to stretch and walk around in. It was also nice to be able to track the flight progress in real time, via the onboard flight map.

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Our flight was nearly 6 hours long, and I used the time to catch up on a few movies:

  1. Sisters – with Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. This was pretty disappointing
  2. The Night Before – with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen. This was okay but didn’t possess the same gut-splitting humor as similar Seth Rogen fare.
  3. Love and Air Sex – I thought this bitter sweet (and fairly raunchy) comedy was the best of the lot. It didn’t receive great reviews, but I would recommend checking it out.

Once we landed in San Francisco, I used my American Express Platinum card to get into the Centurion Lounge where I ate dinner and rested before the 16 hours flight to Singapore.

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Entrance to the American Express Centurion Lounge at SFO
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Free dinner buffet at the Centurion Lounge

San Francisco to Singapore

The non-stop flight from San Francisco to Singapore is United’s flagship route, and has accordingly been designated UA Flight 1.

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Flight 1 to Singapore, departing at 10:55

The flight to Singapore was scheduled to depart at 10:55pm, which was nearly 2:00am on the East Coast, so I was exhausted when it was finally time to board. However, I was reluctant to actually get on the plane until the last minute, as I did not want to spend any more time onboard than was absolutely necessary.

I went down to the gate to snap a few pictures as the boarding process was getting under way.

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Starting to board UA flight 1

Due to the reflection from the boarding area, I wasn’t able to take a decent picture of the plane. The picture below will have to suffice.

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The United 787-9 getting ready to depart

After snapping the above pictures, I headed to a nearby shop to do some last minute (American) shopping – I bought chewing gum – which isn’t sold in Singapore. I waited until I heard a last call announcement for the flight, and then headed back to the gate to board.

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Monitor just before you get on the plane – in case you are in the wrong place?

I was in the back of the plane for this flight. United offers three classes of service on the flight: Business, Premium Economy, and Economy. It would have cost roughly US$200 to upgrade from Economy to Premium Economy, but it didn’t really seem worth the price given the benefits are a bit underwhelming – a few more inches of leg room and your seats are closer to the middle of the plane.

I was also eager to see what United’s 787 Economy seating was like. To my surprise, I found the seats to be comfortable and the leg room to be more than adequate.

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Large entertainment monitor and sufficient leg room

The entertainment monitors were also large and easy to operate.

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They included a USB port which is a big improvement over old economy seats.

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The Economy and Premium Economy sections are in a 3-3-3 seating arrangement. As is my preference, I had pre-selected an aisle seat in the middle section. This is my favorite long-haul economy seat, as it provides for aisle access and, when sleeping, gives the person in the middle seat a second option for getting out to use the bathroom – that way it isn’t a given that you will be woken up if that person needs to get out (and can’t gracefully climb over you).

Once onboard the plane, I fell asleep almost immediately. I woke up when we began our long take-off roll. After reaching cruising altitude, I took a sleeping pill and slept through dinner. In total, I slept for a little over eight hours.

After waking up, I turned on the entertainment monitor to see our real-time flight progress. Unfortunately, this was the only update I received. . .

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I’m not sure if the flight progress was turned off or if it simply wasn’t working. I checked multiple times throughout the trip but with no luck. I would be curious to know if other people on the same flight have had this issue.

One of my biggest pet peeves with the flight was the complete lack of communication from the pilots. By my count, they made exactly zero announcements during the flight (granted I did sleep for about half the trip). Even when we went through a period of pretty bad turbulence, there wasn’t a single word from the cockpit – just an announcement from the chief flight attendant instructing the other attendants to take their jump seats. Maybe I’m speculating here, but could the turned off flight-tracker and pilot silence be related. . .

On a lighter note, I really enjoy the bathrooms on the Dreamliner, especially the contactless sink and toilet handle. These are a huge improvement over traditional airplane bathrooms.

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Contactless sink
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Just wave your hand to flush the toilet

I also enjoy the larger windows on the 787.

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And the higher ceiling

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Lots of overhead room

The food, on the other hand, was not very good (huge understatement). Actually, I had the noodles for breakfast, and they were completely inedible.

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Is this supposed to be breakfast?

 

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Up close with the United noodle breakfast dish – do not eat this!

Summary

Although the food was disgusting and the on-board flight tracker did not work, I actually found United’s Economy class on the 787-9 to exceed my expectations. The seats were reasonably comfortable and the leg room was far more than I expected (two factors which I think are more important than the food). In addition, the entertainment options were good, and the monitor was large and easy to operate – plus it included a USB port.

Although this flight may not always make sense for me (given that my family and friends primarily live on the East Coast), United’s Flight 1 offers a great new option for travelers who need to go between the U.S. and South East Asia.

After disembarking, I looked up our flight path via FlightAware. This was the route we took:Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 11.01.55 AM.png

 

 

 

Trip Report: Singapore to Washington DC (Flight 3: Toronto to Washington DC)

Flight 3 – Economy:

  • Toronto Canada to Washington DC (Dulles)
  • Bombardier CRJ-200
  • Operated by Air Canada Express – Air Georgian

Despite sleeping for a considerable portion of the Tokyo to Toronto flight, I was exhausted and not feeling well when we finally disembarked from the 11+ hour flight. I was hoping to get some rest and a quick bite to eat before boarding our last flight to Washington D.C.

However, reaching our final gate proved more difficult than I expected. Passengers connecting through Toronto to the U.S., go through U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Toronto. That meant that as soon as we disembarked in Toronto, we were shepherded into the U.S. Customs line. This had one big advantage, in that we were able to use the downtime between flights to clear immigration – which ultimately saved us time when we reached Washington D.C.

That being said, the process of clearing U.S. Customs in Toronto was slow and painful (especially after 20 hours of travel already). To start, there were three separate screening processes that we had to complete. The first was a general security line which crept along at the usual glacial pace of such lines. After finally clearing security, we were herded into a new room that separated passengers based on some unknown criteria. Certain passengers were allowed to quickly pass through this room, while we were told to queue at an Air Canada counter to discuss our itinerary.

When it was our turn in line, we presented our boarding passes and were informed that we should return to the same line we had just exited. I was baffled by the process but in no mood to question what was going on. After a short wait, we were allowed to use one of the U.S. Customs, self-serve kiosks to submit our declaration forms. I assume these automated machines are designed to expedite the immigration process. But in my experience this has not been the case.

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Automated passport control kiosks at Toronto Pearson International Airport
After scanning our passports and taking the mandatory unflattering picture, we received our “receipt” and were directed into the last and longest line.

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This line was slow!
For much of the time we were in the above line, it was serviced by exactly one Customs officer. There were long stretches of time where the line simply did not move. The middle aged lady who was manning the Customs booth should be commended for her thoroughness – she seemed to be grilling every passenger in minute detail – but it really held up the line.

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Empty U.S. Customs booths
Luckily, after about 30 minutes of waiting, a second official was activated by the powers that be. In contrast to the first, this guy new the score – get through as many passengers as quickly as possible, with little to no fuss. He simply collected the Customs receipts and let everyone pass. He probably let in 20 passengers for every one the original Customs officer let in.

After clearing the line ourselves, we were free to head to our gate. Unfortunately, our flight was delayed by about 45 minutes. After a second delay, we were able to board the small Bombardier aircraft – we were relegated to an old portion of the terminal that let passengers walk directly onto the runway (although we had a covered walkway).

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Our aircraft after landing at Dulles
I usually do not like flying on smaller planes. But this final leg of our trip, at just 1 hour in length, was incredibly smooth. There was little to note about the flight. There was just one flight attendant who was friendly and attentive. As we flew into Dulles, and not DCA, we were not privy to any great views of Washington D.C. There were some nice views of Virginia though.

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Virginia from the sky
After landing in Washington D.C., it was a relief to avoid U.S. Customs and instead go directly to baggage claim. It was a long trip and I was exhausted, but I was also glad to be home.

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Obligatory picture of the White House taken the next morning

Trip Report: Singapore to Washington DC (Flight 2: Tokyo to Toronto)

Flight 2 – Business Class:

  • Tokyo Narita to Toronto Canada
  • Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner
  • Operated by Air Canada

After disembarking from our ANA flight, we went through a short security line at Narita airport and then headed directly to the ANA lounge. After showing our onward boarding passes, we entered the lounge for some rest and food.

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Entrance to the ANA lounge at Tokyo, Narita
The lounge was relatively empty when we entered, but it quickly filled up. There were light food options and a decent choice of alcohol, including Japanese beer on tap. My favorite part of the ANA lounge was the small noodle bar where you could order ready made dishes. I had the Ramen noodles which were pretty good.

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The noodle chef hard at work
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Ramen noodles
The lounge we visited also had a nice viewing area where we could watch planes landing and taking off.

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Bar area to sit and watch the planes
While we were there, we spotted this Star Wars themed plane taxing for take-off.

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About 20 minutes before our Air Canada flight was due to start boarding, we headed to our gate. The Boeing 787-900 Dreamliner we were on had three classes of service: business, premium economy and economy. We boarded and found our seats in the business class compartment.

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Business class
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Air Canada has a modern, reverse herringbone setup on the 787 that allows each passenger direct aisle access. Upon boarding, the seats were pre-stocked with a basic amenity kit, slippers, a warm blanket, a pillow and a bottle of water.After takeoff, the flight attendants passed out noise cancelling headphones which I used throughout the flight.


After I drank a glass of sparkling wine my cold began to get worse and I felt increasingly sick throughout the flight.  As a result, I wasn’t able to fully enjoy the primary benefit of business class: kicking back with your legs up and a cold glass of champagne, while contemplating ones own sense of superiority (a feeling enhanced with the knowledge that the untold masses are suffering in the back of the plane with overcrowded bathrooms, zero leg room, and crying babies). Instead I was just thankful that I had a warm place to spread out and rest during the long flight.

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A drink and warm cashews
My dinner on board the plane was good, but I didn’t eat very much. IMG_5811.jpg

Seafood entree


Similar to the ANA flight, the entertainment options onboard the flight were underwhelming. Although I enjoyed the large, modern touchscreen, I wish Air Canada would invest in a few more movie and TV options. I ended up watching Mrs. Doubtfire (a classic) and How to Be Single (not too bad). The entertainment system came with a cool little mini control / viewing iPad that you could also watch TV and movies on.  I did not really use this during the flight.

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Individual entertainment system
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The flight actually went by fairly quickly, as I was able to sleep for several hours. In almost no time, the flight attendants were coming around with breakfast and we were preparing to land in Toronto.

For the novice long-haul business class traveller, especially one using points, there is always that conflict and tension between getting a good night’s rest and staying awake as long as possible so one can partake, and “maximize”, all that business class has to offer (good alcohol, decent gourmet food, better entertainment systems, one’s own smug sense of superiority (as discussed above), etc.). As I was not feeling well, I was happy to be in business class so I could sleep in relative comfort. I think if I had been sitting in the back of the plane, the trip would have been near unbearable.

In the next blog post I will write about the Toronto airport, U.S. immigration (in Canada) and our return to lowly economy for the last leg of our trip to Washington D.C.