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.

 

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Flight Review: Jetstar Asia Airways – Singapore to Da Nang, Vietnam

Jetstar Airways is a Qantas owned low-cost carrier that operates in Australia and New Zealand. The Jetstar Group also includes Jetstar Asia Airways, based in Singapore; Jetstar Pacific Airways, based in Vietnam; and Jetstar Japan. Qantas owns only a minority interest in each of these Asia based carriers.

Jetstar Asia, the Singapore based entity, flies to 22 destinations in North and Southeast Asia with a fleet of 18 Airbus A320 aircraft. Since relocating to Singapore in 2014, I’ve flown on a number of these routes.

At the end of August, we travelled to Vietnam for a long weekend and to get there, we flew Jetstar Asia from Singapore to Da Nang. Below is a review of our flight and some general observations on Jetstar Asia

Jetstar Asia Airways 541
Singapore to Da Nang
Airbus A320
Thursday, 31 August 2017
Depart: 17:25
Arrive: 19:05
Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes

Booking

Like its US counterparts, Jetstar is a low-cost carrier that charges extra for everything from picking your own seat to checking luggage. Even water and light snacks cost extra. However, I find the rules and fees to be a bit less draconian than those on similar airlines in the US.

For example, Jetstar Asia allows carry-on baggage of 7kg (15 lbs) per passenger for free, without the limiting size restrictions that are all too common on US airlines.

When booking on Jetstar, you can choose from a number of “bundles” that offer increased carry-on weight allowances, checked baggage allowances, and pre-paid meal options. There are also bundles that allow you to earn Qantas loyalty points for your Jetstar flight. The bundle prices below were per flight.

bundles

I like to book the cheapest, non-bundle deal and then complain later about the luggage and fare limitations. However, in this case, as we planned to do a bit of shopping in Vietnam, we decided to pro-actively buy 15kgs of checked luggage for both the flight to Da Nang and the return flight back to Singapore. This ended up costing S$21 per flight, but there are a lot of other luggage options if you need to buy more.

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As we opted for the non-bundle fare, we would have had to pay extra if we wanted to pre-select our seats. There were three pre-paid seat options for our flight: S$6.00 for a “standard” seat; S$13.00 for an “upfront” seat; or S$30 for an “extra legroom” seat. These were per seat, per flight prices, so if you are travelling with a large group, these fees can really add up.

seat options

I hate paying to select my seat, so I didn’t do it on this flight. When I went to check-in online, we were automatically assigned two aisle seats in separate rows. Once on board, I was able to swap my aisle seat with the woman sitting next to Amy.

The booking process is a bit long as Jetstar tries to sell you a million different “extras”. One of those options is to join Club Jetstar.

Club Jetstar

Club Jetstar is offered for a one-time joining fee of S$50 and then an annual fee of S$49.36 per year, waived for the first year (this “waiver” is a joke since the joining fee is almost for the exact same amount). My guess is that the benefits of this program are minimal and would probably just result in a lot of spam emails from Jetstar. I decided to pass.

The booking process also includes the option to pre-pay for hot meals. Judging by the number of people who received pre-paid meals on our flight, this must provide a big revenue boost for Jetstar (these pre-paid meals were all served first).

Hot meal

There are also a few snack options that can be purchased along with a $10 in-flight voucher which can be had for S$9.50.

Meals and Snacks
Don’t miss the Tropical Pizza!

Flight

I sat in seat 19E, the middle seat on the right-hand side of the plane. The Airbus A320 has 30 rows of economy in a 3-3 configuration.

The seats on the flight were leather and aside from the “extra legroom” option, were all the same. There are no business class seats or premium seats.

Google Flights lists the legroom at 29”, or below average, and I found them to be cramped, especially when the person in front of me reclined his seat. The seats may not be as bad as Spirit – at 28” – but they’re pretty close. If you are especially tall and expect the plane to be full, or if you are booked on a longer flight (Jetstar flies plenty of longer routes using the A320), you may want to splurge on the “extra legroom” option.

On a bit of a side note, I am actually a fan – at least in theory – of pre-reclined seats. Anything that prevents the person in front of you from having control over your own comfort.  I just wish the airlines that did offer these – Spirit and Frontier – also offered decent legroom. Jetstar does not offer pre-reclined seats, but I found myself kind of wishing that they did during this flight – especially when the person in front of me fully reclined his seat all flight.

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Tight fit
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Leather seat

One of my biggest complaints about the seats was how thin they were. I could feel the knees of the person behind me digging into my lower back every time he changed position or bumped into my seat, which seemed to happen a lot. This was despite the fact that I didn’t recline my seat during the flight. If no one is behind you, the seats are just fine, but if you have someone tall behind you, expect to be jostled quite a bit.

The inflight Jetstar menu, like the options at booking, is extensive, but if you didn’t pre-order don’t expect all the options to be available when the flight attendants get to your seat. For example, we tried to order a sleeve of Pringles and a meal option, but they had run out of both by the time the flight attendants made it to our row. There was plenty of alcohol available however, and we ordered two beers for S$8.00 each.

The A320 has individual air vents which helped to keep the plane cool. There were also individual reading lights available above the seats.

 

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The actual flight to Da Nang was uneventful. We taxied in Singapore for about 20 minutes before a short-take off roll and a smooth ride out. The seat belt sign was turned off after about 10 minutes. On both of our flights, the pilots made no welcome announcements, and aside from asking the flight attendants to take their seats during a bit of turbulence on the way to Da Nang, there were no other pilot announcements.

I passed the time on the flight reading and listening to pre-downloaded podcasts. There was no Wi-Fi or in-seat power on the flight.

Unlike most US discount airlines, I’ve never had a problem with Jetstar’s on-time performance. Similarly, our flight touched down in Da Nang, Vietnam right on time. The total trip was just shy of 2 hours and 30 minutes. We deplaned directly onto the runway where a shuttle bus took us to immigration.

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Welcome to Vietnam

Summary

Jetstar Asia is a low-cost carrier with great access to Southeast Asia. Although the seats aren’t the most comfortable, the overall flight experience is generally pleasant. For short to mid-range flights, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again.

This was our flight path, courtesy of flightaware.

Flightaware

 

Singapore: A Week in Food

Food is an important part of Singapore’s identity. The city-state is home to not only a diverse mix of cultures and languages but also cuisines.

Before moving to Singapore, I knew little about the country’s rich culinary history. Even today, after living here for almost a year and a half, I remain woefully ignorant regarding the names and unique ingredients that make up many of my favorite dishes. My food choices are often based on recommendations from friends and my own rather arbitrary sampling.

Many of my favorite Singapore dishes are from hawker centers. These outdoor food courts offer a wide variety of food options at very reasonable prices. Over the last few days, I’ve tried to document a few of the meals I eat during any given week (at hawker centers or otherwise). I do not profess to be a food critic, or to even be an exceptionally picky eater, I just know what I like (most Singaporean cuisine) and more importantly, what I do not like (see pig liver and durian). But in general, I will try most things at least once.

The list below, in chronological order, represents a few food highlights from the last week. Hope you enjoy.

Monday lunch – Fried fish in a spicy tom yam soup with yee mee egg noodles.

Hot fish soups, in various forms, are popular dishes in Singapore. It can take a while to get used to eating hot soup in the blazing Singaporean heat. But for those willing to sweat a bit (or a lot), it can be well worth the effort. My favorite variant is a simple sliced fish soup bee hoon. This rice noodle soup contains a broth made with a small amount of milk and lightly cooked sliced white fish. In contrast, the soup below was made with fried white fish, egg noodles and a spicy, Thai influenced, tom yam broth.

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The fried fish was the best part

This is from a very small hawker center / coffee shop on Boon Tat street near the Telok Ayer MRT. The queue was long but well worth the wait. In Singapore, a long line generally means one of two things: either the food is very good; or the food is very cheap. It is rare to find both. At S$4.00, this dish was actually near the more expensive end of the spectrum. Very cheap hawker food can run for as little as S$2.50.

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The queue in front of the fish soup stall

Tuesday lunch – Chicken rice from one of my favorite hawker centers, Golden Shoe

This popular downtown hawker center is one of my go-to lunch options.  I particularly like this chicken rice stall on the second floor.

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There is always a long line at this chicken rice outlet

This is labeled boneless chicken rice, but it is still good to ask for no bones.  The juice from the chicken at this stall is unbeatable.

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My large portion was S$4.50. The rice is cooked in the chicken stock and the chicken is steamed (the other method, more palatable to some, is a roasted variant).  The black sauce on the side is a dark soya sauce. Next to it is a red chili sauce that adds a nice kick. Both are great complements to any chicken rice meal.

Wednesday  lunch – Indian food at Shenton House

With a population that is approximately 10% Indian, Singapore has no shortage of good Indian restaurants.  Hawker centers downtown are an especially good place to find quality Indian food at reasonable prices (Indian food is generally a bit more expensive than its Chinese and Malaysian counterparts). This Indian restaurant is located in Shenton House, a commercial high-rise building with a popular food center on the second floor.

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I opted to go for an à la carte option that was more expensive than some of the pre-set meals.

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You can’t go wrong with butter naan

I had butter naan, a cauliflower and green bean vegetable and a spicy chicken dish (not butter chicken).  It tasted great but at S$9.50, it was a bit pricey, especially when a nearby hawker center also offers high-quality Indian food at much better prices.  You may be paying a bit of a premium here to eat indoors.

Thursday lunch – Chicken and noodles from Chinatown

This was possibly my favorite meal of the week. The soya chicken was perfect – juicy and plump. The noodles were also great. I was with a large group of friends so we ordered a whole chicken.

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A whole chicken
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We each got our own side of noodles

The chicken went fast.

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Not much left

We got to the restaurant early to avoid the lunch rush.

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The queue was long when we left

My friends ordered in Chinese so I’m not sure what other foods are offered at the restaurant. However, I will definitely go back for the soya chicken. The meal was about S$6.00 per person, including drinks.

Sunday dinner – Crab Bee Hoon Soup

Amy and I went out to a famous Singapore crab restaurant, Mellben Seafood, which is about a 15 minute walk from our apartment.

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The wait was about an hour but we were rewarded with a delicious, although messy meal of the restaurant’s famous crab soup.

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Crab Bee Hoon soup – tastes like butter!

We also ordered a medium, salted egg crab (think deep fried goodness).

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Salted egg crab

It took a lot of work to get through this meal.

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We made a mess

By any measure, this was not cheap. Each crab came in at nearly S$70. However, it served as a satisfying conclusion to another great week of Singaporean food.