Note on the nomenclature: I use the
term adventure hat here to distinguish it from a fashionable hat,
like a porkpie, beanie, fedora, Panama, gimme cap or the like, since
a fashionable hat it is not.
You really need a hat when you travel, to keep off the sun. Consequently, you need one with a large enough brim to do some good. Here I’m going to go out on a limb a bit and actually recommend one, since I’ve had such a good experience in the relatively short time I’ve traveled with it. Allow me to introduce to you, The Airflow Tilley Hat. Made by our friends in Canada, this hat has been excellent at being a travel hat wherever I’ve taken it, but I will let you know now, this hat is not cheap, not at all. However, and once again I’ve not completely surveyed the field, but the list of features of the Airflow makes me strongly suspect that they’ll not be present in lesser hats. Here we go: it floats, it’s light and folds up and can live in a packed bag or backpack, it’s washable (indeed, you are encouraged to wash it), it has a lifetime guarantee, and best of all, it has an almost hidden pocket in the inner crown that you can put your ID, credit card, some foldable money, etc. I absolutely love having this pocket when at the beach, because you can leave your wallet at home. Just don’t go out to dinner and forget that all your money is in your hat, like I did once.
I will remember 2018 as the year I
started to hit my stride with miles and points. I’m counting here the
award flights I booked along with the trips I took, since I learned a
bunch of stuff while traveling.
January—no travel. I noticed that AA miles were going cheap, so I started opening some cards to accumulate those for an aspirational redemption to South Africa on Qatar. It took longer than I expected, mostly because of the obtuseness and intransigence of Barclay’s, but late in the year I finally got the 300k I needed and found decent award availability in February-March 2019. Qsuites here we come! Opening these cards shut me out of the new Chase Business Ink, though, because of 5/24.
In February, I started the month out
right with a ten day trip to Colombia. This was a cash fare I found
in fall of 2017 with a roundtrip price of $385.00 AUS-BOG. As it
turned out, this was the cheapest fare I’d ever find to South America
in 2018. Although I loved Colombia, I tried to do too much on this
trip, flying to three different cities. Lesson: flying takes a lot
longer than you think, even if it’s a short flight.
Also in February, spent a week in Puerto Escondido for a movement retreat. Used three different Mexican airlines to try to save on the fare, and it ended up backfiring on me when VOLARIS cancelled my flight ten days before travel and then refused to do anything about it. Lesson: sometimes it’s better to bite the bullet and pay a little extra. And don’t fly on Volaris. Puerto is a fantastic location.
March: Spent five days in Tulum,
Mexico. Used points to book this SWA flight after discovering they
fly direct from SAT to CUN. Good to know for future travel; if
memory serves, it’s possible to fly to Cuba from CUN. Otherwise, the
Mayan Riviera no longer holds any magic for me, having gotten
impossibly touristy. In cards, opened up Chase Hyatt card for an
aspirational redemption at the Andaz Tokyo.
April/May: This was the month for my
longest trip of the year, my first and second first class flights,
and some good to great travel redemptions. In late 2017, I used 190k
Chase points to book a Korean first class roundtrip award flight from
Dallas-Hanoi. I also booked a week long excursion from Hanoi to
Sydney on Thai first class, spending 80k Chase points for the
roundtrip. This also included two overnights in Bangkok, which was an
interesting place to have a 2:00 am dinner. Fascinating destinations,
excellent food. Chase is no longer a transfer option for Korean, so
I’m glad I got in on that before the window closed.
No travel in June or July, used the hot San Antonio summer weather to go to the pool and work on my skin color. But then the travel blogosphere went crazy over the Iberia “buy 10 flights and get 90k Avios” promo, and I decided to give it a shot and it actually worked, so I booked two roundtrip business class tickets on Iberia for 2019’s trip to Spain and Portugal. Yeah, I know it’s Iberia and I don’t expect a lot. Less than $600 total for a roundtrip business flight to Europe is an interesting win in my book. Also booked business class roundtrips on KLM to Portugal and Italy for next May, using another Amex discounted points transfer and some Air France miles left over from a paid business class flight in 2017. Hate those AF surcharges on award flights!
August: Spent two weeks traveling in Colombia with girlfriend. This was my first realization that Mexico City, as bad as that airport is, is going to be my gateway to South America, because United is completely uncompetitive out of Houston. Since there’s three carriers flying direct from SAT-MEX, the prices do tend to be lower, and Aeromexico is at least bearable for short(ish) flights. Opened a Morgan Stanley investment account but didn’t fund it, solely to get the MS Amex platinum card, which worked perfectly. Amex has a large number of platinum cards, and there’s no reason you can’t get each one of them. While booking hotels in Japan, I noticed Avianca Hotels was having a five hour sale, and some of the points awards for nights in Kyoto and Tokyo were staggeringly high. Took advantage of this and ended up with an extra 105k LifeMiles. This was just a couple of weeks after I booked a three week trip to Asia next summer, using a simultaneous LifeMiles sale on points and discount on the LM award chart to get a roundtrip in Asiana F from LAX-ICN. Added some Citi ThankYou points to make the deal sweeter.
With September and early October came
the two week trip to Japan. Of the award redemptions I’ve made, I
think this one is the best and it’s still replicable. 93K Amex
points for a roundtrip ANA flight in F, IAH-NRT, is simply amazing.
Thoroughly enjoyed the food, drink and service aboard one of the top
airlines in the world. Speaking of amazing, loved the Tokyo Andaz, so
much so that paying cash for a couple of nights extra seemed like
actually not a bad way to splurge.
In November, paid cash for a ten day
trip to Peru. Upgraded on Aeromexico through their interesting
bidding system. J class on Aeromexico is nothing to write home about,
but at least you get the extra space. Peru is one of the top food
destinations, and I found out why. Also had a positive encounter with
the Peruvian private healthcare system when I sprained my ankle.
December: another trip to Colombia to
visit girlfriend, this time a week in and around Medellin, which is
one of the more interesting cities in which you can find yourself.
Wandered into a Michelin-starred restaurant and after being seated
without a reservation, was treated to an outrageous thirteen course
meal with wine pairings for two, all for less than $250.00 US,
including tip. The two free tours we took were amazingly
informative, and the small towns around Medellin are well worth
visiting. At the end of December, flew to Puerto Escondido for a
month long stay in January.
Well, that was my 2018 in travel. Looking forward, I’m thinking that 2019 will be more about accumulating miles and points rather than spending them, although I’m coming around to the idea of using the Chase travel portal to book those stupid positioning flights from SAT-IAH, since UA has foreclosed on any other options, like awards booked through Avianca LifeMiles. As was the case this year, I’ll be using my Amex Blue for Business to pay for taxes, since I’m getting 2X points for every purchase, which more than makes up for the 1.85% processing fee. I have two free SPG (now, Marriott) award nights with the two SPG cards I opened, so I’m going to explore that. I’m also going to try to keep the travel schedule for 2020 a bit more open, the better to take advantage of sudden mistake fares or interesting promotions that may come up; I had to pass up a few in 2018 since the travel schedule was so full. Also, I have a strong feeling that I’ll be going back to Europe in 2020, maybe several times, and not just for travel.
Because “into each life, a little
rain must fall,” it’s necessary for us travelers to consider the
possibility that the weather won’t always be ideal in the places we
are traveling. Hence, the necessity of having a raincoat with us,
preferably at all times. Also, since traveling light is really the
way to go, especially if you’re going to be moving around a lot, the
lightest, smallest and at the same time the most durable raincoat is
going to be the most fit for the purpose here. Please understand,
this is not a gear review in the strict sense; I do not test various
models and recommend the best ones, nor do I receive anything from
anybody for letting readers know what I’m using. There may, in fact,
be better versions of the gear I have, but that would be up to the
readers to seek these out, for which there are many gear reviews on
the innertubes. I do suggest, however, that you at least begin with
the backpacking producers of gear, because their products tend to be
extremely lightweight and durable, if more expensive than others.
This is especially true for the rain jacket category, where you are
likely to experience some sticker shock at the prices.
The one I chose in this case was the
Outdoor Research model, found on sale at my local REI. Still quite
expensive, and in a somewhat odd color, it almost immediately proved
its worth on my first morning in Hanoi, which was quite rainy and I
needed to go out and search for a travel adapter for my electronics
(which I forgot to bring, oops). At any rate, it folds up into the
pictured square and is light and easy to just leave in my travel bag
so that I don’t forget to bring it. It has a small brim to keep off
the rain and several pockets to put things in. When paired with a
small umbrella, it is an excellent solution to a rainy day. It’s
really not fun to carry around things that you won’t use, but the
tradeoff is that you have the security of dealing with any weather
situation. A good rule of thumb for travel gear is “omissions that
seem small at home, become large out on the road.” So, get
yourself a good quality rain jacket and enjoy the peace of mind
knowing that you are ready.
Cold, Confusing, Crowded: Why I Hate the Mexico City Airport
It’s unfortunate that MEX is my gateway to South America, because it’s one of the worst airports I’ve ever experienced. This is due to a combination of factors, the first one being the fact that there’s no sanitized area for transit passengers, causing everyone to have to go through immigration upon arrival. This requirement caused me to miss my connecting flight to Puerto Escondido earlier this year, because a major international airport couldn’t handle a normal influx of arriving passengers and it took over two hours to clear immigration (yes, you read that right: a two hour layover wasn’t enough to catch a connecting flight). Oh, and there’s that stupid immigration card that Mexico requires for anyone leaving Mexico, even if you’ve just been in the airport for an hour. They are slowly slowly getting a little more up on the electronic arrival thing that I have with Global Entry, but it’s still a huge, unnecessary pain in the butt to transit, and now that they’ve canceled the new airport, it’s only going to get worse. Also, again even if you’re transiting, you need to collect your bags and go through security yet one more time.
Second, this is one of the most confusing airports ever. There are two terminals, and you’d think that one would be for domestic flights and one for international, but nooooooo. Aeromexico essentially occupies Terminal 2, and a mix of international and national airlines take up space in the older and even more baffling Terminal 1. I’ve navigated a bunch of airports in my life, and this one is by far the craziest. There are multiple levels of gates and gates with 3 or 4 letters (e.g.,75a, 75b, 75c, 75d) and that’s not even the half of it. There’s a tram that goes from one terminal to the other, but it takes 10 or 12 minutes, which can really make a difference when you’re short on time. The place is also so inadequate in facilities that many times you end up taking a bus out to the plane, which makes things a bit more inefficient.
Third, there’s no heat in this airport. No, I’m not kidding, and I’m actually not sure if that is 100% true, but another passenger told me this, and it sure does fit, because the last two times I’ve landed there, it’s been chilly or outright cold outside, and there is just as obviously no heat going on inside the airport. It’s a bizarre experience to see all the passengers and airline employees walking around bundled up like hobos under a bridge in a blizzard.
With MEX, I feel like every good experience I have is just a fleeting bonus, because when things go wrong, it can be horrendous and with an increasing number of flights straining the airports facilities, it’s inevitable that lousy experiences will increase. I personally find IAH to be a perfectly adequate airport, but unfortunately UA has pretty much shit all over it by using it as a fortress hub (UA’s pricing to South America is wildly expensive, and they are, shall we say, quite miserly with award flights). Just a longwinded way of saying I’m pretty much stuck with Mexico City for now. On the other hand, there are a fuckton of half-decent lounges in MEX, some of which are well worth spending a few hours in, and at least one which is open twenty four hours—see my review of the Grand Lounge Elite, Terminal 2. This does not obtain in IAH, since my go-to, the Centurion lounge, closes at nine p.m.
I had an excellent experience in this
Priority Pass lounge.
*some of the best espresso and granola I’ve ever had in an airport
*a fuckton of staff, really eager to serve patrons
*free massage, nail treatment (I didn’t partake), golf cart ride to gate
*didn’t seem overcrowded, even in prime morning hours
*eggs made to order
*windows allowing viewing of planes
*OPEN TWENTY FOUR HOURS!
*out of the way location (down the ramp at Gate 75, you’ll figure it out)
*relatively small number of cold buffet items
*I would’ve liked a banana to go with the terrific granola
*no flight status screen (ask at the front desk)
After my experience with the bizarre Amex Centurion lounge in Terminal 2 of MEX (where you have to pay for food) I started going to the Aeromexico Salon Premier, which is a pretty decent lounge, considering how many people seem to have access to it; it’s like most Centurion lounges in the US, which is to say overcrowded most of the time, and unlike them, since the food and drinks aren’t even close to US Centurions.
The other day, I happened to land at around 3 a.m with very little sleep and a seven hour layover and Salon Premier was closed. I checked the Priority Pass app and discovered that there was a Grand Lounge Elite (lounges in MEX are a little over the top with names) that was open twenty four hours, so I wandered over there. I guess the reason that there were so few people during my stay there was partly due to the hour and partly the out of the way location, unless of course you’re flying out of Gate 75, in which case it’s outstanding, being about 50 feet away. Anyhow, I had very little expectations when I entered the place, and was expecting to be thrown out after 3 hours, since that’s what the PP app said your visit is limited to. The very nice guy at reception informed me of the deadline and then said we’d have to just add another PP visit when the three hours was up, which turned out to be fine with me.
Once in, I was assisted by one of the staff, who, to my surprise, suggested I take the best seat in the house, since it was in a cubicle with a massage chair. Yes, please! I also got to spend some time getting a free foot massage, which was fun. The food and drink were more than adequate and a cut above what you get in the Salon Premier, most especially my 3rd and 4th shots of espresso and the best granola I’ve ever gotten in an airport (no fucking raisins! yes!) As is typical of lounges in MEX, there’s a made to order menu, and I liked the scrambled eggs with a touch of refried beans and cheese. Since my gate was adjacent to the lounge, I didn’t get to try perhaps the most spectacular benefit, a golf cart ride to my gate, but that will probably be in the future, given how much I end up transiting through MEX, and how much hiking you normally do in this odd airport.
I originally thought that I’d go back to Salon Premier when it opened that later that morning, but after the experience I had in this lounge, there was no reason to do that. I think Grand Lounge Elite has become my go-to lounge in MEX, at least in Terminal 2. Here’s hoping that too many people don’t find out about it.
Peru is justly known for its food culture and it didn’t disappoint on this trip. Meat, (including alpaca), seafood, fresh and unusual vegetables and amazing chocolate are abundant. Peruanos like Chinese fried rice (chufa) and Japanese sushi.
Peruvians are somewhat less outgoing and friendly than, say, Colombians. Saying good morning on the street or in the elevator produces some looking down and mumbling. Not unfriendly, mind you, but just a little more reserved.
It was surprisingly difficult to find good coffee, considering the country is a not insignificant producer. The coffee culture really hasn’t gotten a good foothold here. On the other hand, the Starbucks of South America, Juan Valdez, is here with a vengeance.
The local beer, Cusquena, came in three varieties and was quite good, on a par if not better than Club Colombia.
The country’s infrastructure and apparent wealth appears to put it between Chile on the high end and Colombia/Ecuador on the low end. We expected to see lots of scooters and motorcycles in Lima, but there were very few. Upon inquiry, it seems that costs of required insurance (!) are very high for these vehicles, and of course, the fact that insurance is required is a sign of greater development. Costs of food and lodging were in line with this theory.
We liked staying in the Barranco district of Lima for its quirky art and bohemian atmosphere. On the other hand, Miraflores seemed a bit generic and ordinary. Lima itself is a nice, non-touristy capital, but I don’t think more than two or three days here is justified, since there seem to be many more fascinating places to visit, starting with
Cusco is an amazingly beautiful place high in the Andes. Although quite touristy, its relatively easy to go beneath the veneer and find authentic experiences. We visited the Precolombian Art Museum and had the place practically to ourselves. There are more places in this area which beg to be visited; wished we had more time to explore.
Macchu Pichu: you should probably plan on staying at least one night in Aguas Calientes (the town below Macchu Pichu) because a day trip from Cusco is quite long and tiring. Also, hitting the sights early is recommended before the crowds arrive at midday. We didn’t have time to hike the Inka Trail, and also the weather in November can be iffy. Not willing to risk rainy nights in a tent.
Since I sprained my ankle on the last day in Lima, I got to experience the Peruvian private healthcare system, and it was quite good. I deliberately chose one of the more expensive clinics, thinking it would be faster and curious about the costs, and as it turned out, the care and efficiency were very good, for much cheaper than it would have been in the US. The doctor, who spoke English, actually put a bandage on my ankle herself, something that wouldn’t have happened in the US either. All in all, a mind-expanding experience.
We were accosted by a taxi driver on our first full day in Lima, and ended up taking a day long tour with him the next day. This also gave us a local contact when we needed a taxi to the airport or recommendations for medical clinics. A very good practice in the right place.
Coca leaves. These were distributed at the hotel in Cusco, to be drank in tea or chewed in the mouth (it’s not necessary to eat them). They produce a numbing sensation in the mouth and a slight feeling of alertness similar to caffeine. Highly interesting to realize that these are technically or actually illegal in most countries, even though the use of the unprocessed ones is completely harmless. Producing cocaine from these leaves involves an extensive and complex protocol, so it seems silly to ban an otherwise harmless substance.
Currency: Peruvian sol. Approximate exchange rate at time of travel: 3 soles/ 1 USD.
When I started collecting miles and points, I had no idea that there were so many interesting ways to get flights in business class or higher or accumulate points and it’s taken awhile to get up to speed, but recent events have highlighted some of the more novel promotions that occasionally come up, and illustrate the value of paying attention (and having a flexible schedule to travel, of course). Here’s the story:
The first one came up about two months ago, when Iberia unveiled an almost unbelievable promotion involving getting 9k Iberia Avios for each flight purchased (but not necessarily flown!). It’s this last bit that set the points’n miles blogosphere on fire, since you could buy some cheap inter-Spain flights for $19-$38 or so, and max out the promo at 90,000 Avios (with some restrictions). With Iberia assuring us (see what I did there?) that we didn’t need to actually fly the flights booked, I took a bit of a chance and scooped up my
90k Avios. Well, last week I booked a MEX-MAD roundtrip in Iberia Business class for next October…total $335.00+$260.00 in taxes/fees. Around $600
for roundtrip biz class to Europe is a pretty damn good win in my book. I mean, it’s Iberia, not Air France, but it’s a lie-flat seat across the pond, and I’ll be exploring Portugal as a potential landing spot. I gotta wonder what some dim bulb over at Iberia was thinking, since this is completely crazy. What’s going to happen to all those unoccupied seats, I wonder?
The second promo was supposed to last for five hours, but ended early, I
assume after an amazing response. Here it involved booking hotel rooms through Avianca’s LifeMiles for 5X Lifemiles, which is run by Rocketmiles, a site I previously had no experience with, although you can be damn sure I’ll be paying attention to it in the future. (Here, I have to also confess that I haven’t really given to LifeMiles either until recently, when they had a simultaneous
sale on buying miles and redeeming them on some Asia destinations and I took advantage of that to book a cheap trip to Asia on Asiana F from LAX next summer). This just so happened to be on the eve of my Japan trip, and I was needing to book a couple of nights, so I jumped on the LifeMiles Hotels website and found some pretty amazing redemptions, like 45k miles for a $600 hotel room for two nights. Upshot was I spent about $1400 for five nights in Japanese hotels and collected 105k LifeMiles for that. Even factoring
in that these weren’t my choice of places to stay, and some were a bit overpriced on the website compared to say, hotels.com, it’s still pretty nuts to think I essentially bought 105k LifeMiles at a cheap price and got 5 nights in hotel rooms for free. (LifeMiles regularly go on sale, and you can sometimes get them as cheap as 1.3 cents per mile but not cheaper). Anyway, since I just booked my Asia trip with 144k LifeMiles roundtrip in Asiana F, I’m happy with this result. I’m sure these miles will take me somewhere fun…
Japan, we know, is a country unique in all the world. The historic isolation, the ancient culture, and the modern technological achievements make this country one of the most interesting you can experience, and of course, you’re urged to visit at least once. These factors mean that there’s a huge amount of quirkiness/contradiction here, starting with
Japanese fastidiousness. It’s a real thing, from the taking off of shoes, the covering of everything and I do mean everything in plastic (towels in plastic!), to the elaborate bidets embedded in the toilets, and the money trays wherever you pay.
We saw very few pets in Tokyo, a few more in Kyoto, and more in Takayama. Still, compared to the US, Mexico or South American countries, the number seemed absurdly low. Is this related to the fastidiousness? I mean, pets are…messy.
It almost goes without saying that the train system in Japan has no equal. Riding the Shinkansen (bullet train) is an amazing experience to a USian. Likewise, the transit system in Tokyo is the most extensive I’ve ever seen, and it probably needs to be, given the size of the city. This meant that vehicular traffic was vastly less than you’d expect if you’re used to that in Mexico City, Bogota, or Southern California. Saw a decent amount of people riding bicycles wherever we went.
Lots and lots of old people working in Japan, from driving taxis to serving food to just about any service job you can think of. Is this because there’s less age discrimination in Japan, or has it to do with the aging of the population (Japan is the most rapidly aging society on Earth, thanks to a longstanding declining birthrate and practically no immigration) or something else?
It’s expensive! Japan is one of the most expensive places in the world to travel in. Oh sure, you’ll get people online and other places telling you it’s cheap, but, oh so sorry, I have to call bullshit on that. These claims are invariably followed by suggestions on how you can eat or stay cheaply (y’know, like get instant ramen from the 7-11 or the like) which doesn’t change the reality that the place is just damn expensive. I’ve never visited a place where money disappears as fast as Japan.
The fact that Japan is one of the, if not the, most developed countries in the world doesn’t negate the fact that there’s a huge amount of well-preserved natural landscapes and breathtakingly beautiful places. Highly recommend the train from Nagoya to Takayama.
Food is of exceptionally high quality. Feel free to just pop in to some random place and you’ll get at least decent, if not excellent food. Just don’t expect a dry napkin; you’ll receive a little wet one wrapped in plastic.
Weirdly, there’s still smoking allowed in some restaurants and bars. We were a bit taken aback when someone just lit up in a restaurant. Funny how you can get used to something, or a lack of it, so quickly. At any rate, it seemed strange. On the plus side, ventilation was normally good enough not to have to breathe fumes.
Not an exaggeration to say that this is the most polite, well-ordered society on Earth. Youf can leave your bag just about anywhere and it’ll be there when you get back. People don’t cross against the light at intersections. You hear “arigato gosaimashte” (thank you very much) so often it’s like breathing. In traffic, everybody knows the rules, everybody follows the rules, and everything moves smoothly. Downside to this: Japanese people are quite indirect in their expressions. The fact that someone is saying “hai” (yes) to you multiple times doesn’t mean they agree with you, it just means they hear what you said.
Some English is spoken and understood, at least in the bigger or more touristy areas.
Japanese people don’t seem to wear sunglasses hardly at all. No idea why this is.
The way they dispose of their trash is still somewhat of a mystery to me. Of course, there’s a distinct lack of litter anywhere you go, but it’s also quite difficult to find a trash receptacle.
Japan still makes a lot of goods, most of it interesting and high quality. Get your shopping hat on, but don’t expect souvenirs to be cheap (see #6, above). I brought home a yukata (summer kimono).
Exchange rate at time of travel: 113JPY-1USD.
Coins-cash: yes, still a big thing here. There’s actually a 500 yen coin, which equates to about $4.00US. On the other hand, they need to retire the one yen coin; it’s silly. Get used to carrying around a lot of coins. Lots of credit card acceptance, but lots of cash-only places too.
Somewhat as expected, the elaborate toilets/bidets in Japan proved to be entertaining and…useful.
Try to take in the authentic Japanese hotel experience at least once by staying at a ryokan. You’ll sleep on a futon on the floor, there’ll be yukata (summer kimonos/robes) provided, and usually there’s an onsen (Japanese bath) to soak in. It’s fun!
Synopses of the places we stayed: Tokyo: cosmopolitan first stop, crazy numbers of people, quintessential urban Japan. Kyoto: temples, tombs and shrines, oh my! Geisha capital, rent a kimono. Takayama: feel the ancient culture, experience beautiful nature, eat the Hida beef.
I just booked a two week trip for two to Portugal and Italy next May and June. I thought I would use this opportunity to explain how accumulating transferable points from credit cards can help you book discounted flight awards with airlines. In this case, we are flying KLM (which, by the by, is owned by Air France) from IAH to Lisbon via Amsterdam, in business class. I’ve taken a KLM biz flight previously and was mightily impressed with it, so I’m confident that the experience will be a superior one (superior, at least, to flying with the US3). The reason I jumped at this particular redemption was that American Express, as it sometimes does, was offering a 25% bonus transfer to Air France (Air France’s website is where you go to search for flight awards and book them). As it happens, I also had 16k miles from the paid biz class flight I took to Vienna and Prague a couple of years ago, so I was able to use those as well, which was a good thing since AF miles expire after 3 years. Air France has recently revamped its awards, so it’s not easy to find decent award space any more, but booking far in advance usually will produce some decent awards. Also, one needs to be aware that the surcharges on AF awards are not cheap; in this case, $500 per roundtrip. I suppose you really do have to believe in the value of traveling in premier classes to jump through all these hoops and then pay an extra $1000 on top, just to fly biz class to Europe. I ended up spending 220k Amex points to book these two award tickets, which I think is a reasonable redemption, given that there’s no positioning to the East coast. Because of how flexible they are, I tend to gravitate towards accumulating Chase Ultimate Rewards points and Amex Member Rewards points. The corollary to this is that you should pay attention when these transferable points go “on sale,” so you can leverage them further. My upcoming trip to Japan was my first experience in transferring points that carried a bonus, so in this case I got a roundtrip first class flight on ANA from Houston to Tokyo for a very reasonable 93,000 Amex points.
To accumulate transferable points, again, the two best are Chase and Amex. Amex is easier to earn because of their multitude of cards and the ease of getting them. However, be aware that most Amex cards have a lifetime rule, meaning that once you get a signup bonus, you’re prohibited from getting it again. On the other hand, Chase has gotten to be quite restrictive in approving cards, and they have the much-talked about 5/24 rule, which means that if you’ve opened or closed more than 5 cards in 24 months, they won’t approve you for another one (this typically doesn’t apply to business cards).
Having just flown F on Korean Air, I had great anticipation of experiencing Thai’s product and sure enough, there were significant differences between the two. I got to fly the venerable 747, which turned out to be both good and bad, depending on which seat configuration was utilized.
The Hard Product
I’m not sure how much longer Thai is going to have the 747, which guzzles fuel at at rate inconsistent with today’s newer planes. At present, there are two configurations; one which reflects the age of the aircraft and a more modern one with a more conventional seat. I got to fly both. There’s no way to soft-pedal this: the older, dated version is simply inferior in every aspect—seat size, privacy (essentially none), and entertainment options. Even the toilet is so-so.
On the other hand, the newer seat is certainly more than adequate, although I’d put it a notch lower than the KA Kosmo Suite, not just because of the lack of privacy doors but also the size of the seat was just a bit smaller. Other than that, pretty standard stuff in terms of a lie flat seat. Probably four other people were in F along with me on both legs. But see my post on the condition of some of the older planes in Thai’s fleet.
The Soft Product
This is where Thai Airways aspires to be one of the top airlines, and they are trying hard. Dom Perignon champagne and caviar are served in longhaul F; I had the best steak I’ve ever had on an airplane. At the end of your flight, three of the flight attendants come over to your seat, kneel and ask you how the service was. They seemed sincere. Ground service on landing in BKK picks you up in a special van and whisks you to a special expedited security screening area, before anyone else gets off the plane. You get an hour massage in the first class lounge in Bangkok, which was completely replenishing for me since I had spent the previous 24 hours without sleep. Special note: Thai Airways utilizes the Air New Zealand lounge for its F ticket holders in SYD; don’t fall for this. Thai is a Star Alliance member, and an F ticket entitles you to access Singapore’s SilverKris first class lounge, a far superior place to spend your time in the Sydney airport. On the other hand, transiting in BKK gives you access to Thai’s Royal First section of their lounge, which is, as F class lounges should be, roomy (I had an entire room to myself, with a big screen tv and a computer), and ultra-quiet. Lounge staff escorts you to the gate at the last possible moment to board. The business class section, where I stayed on my second layover in BKK, was crowded and not nearly as impressive. Then again, there should be a discernible difference between J and F, don’t you think?
Verdict: Wildly uneven hard product, excellent soft product and ground experience. Excellent use of points for a fascinating, superior experience.