Review: Cathay Pacific First Class Vancouver->New York

I recently had a very quick but wonderful experience in Cathay Pacific‘s first class seat. What some don’t realize is that there are airlines out there that fly something called a “Fifth Freedom” route, meaning they start and end in a country other than from where they hail. Cathay Pacific’s home base is Hong Kong and they fly a beautiful 777-300ER plane from there all the way to Vancouver, and then continue with the same plane to New York’s JFK airport a few hours later. I was lucky enough to score a seat on that flight using British Airways miles that were going to expire soon after that = a great redemption value.

So let’s start by looking at the lounge in Vancouver Airport. Even though it is not a hug of the airline, Cathay Pacific still has a lounge in the airport that they run, so it has a host of amenities. While not as big as their lounge in Hong Kong, it still sports a Noodle Bar, plenty of seating, free wifi, places to work, and ample space to spread out.

The food options were pretty spectacular for such a short flight, too. The Noodle Bar offered free hot dishes made-to-order (so I asked for a beef burger – it was done quite tastily). Their buffet has a few other tasty options and in the refrigerators are all kinds of cold drinks and desserts.

Finally, the lounge has a few bathroom/shower rooms for you to use before the overnight flight. Of course, I took advantage of one, and enjoyed getting physically ready for a short overnight nap.

The flight was getting ready for boarding when I arrived a few minutes in advance. Luckily, despite some snow that day there were no delays. I had a wonderful view of the plane from the gate area.

And then I was inside. The seat is one of the best first class seats in the world! It has so much legroom, arm room, and places for storage. The 777 first class cabin is a bit odd with a 1-1-1 arrangement, so the seat that I chose was opposite the a small wall from the middle seats. For this reason it is not the most ideal cabin if flying with a partner – you would generally not see them! That being said, there were also electrical outlets of various types and the in-flight entertainment system was usual on the ground.

They also passed out an amenity kit (different for binary gender-options) and gave me some pajamas. While I don’t have them pictured here, just know that the pants are currently my favorite: they have an elastic waistband as well as pockets and are made with a wonderful cotton fabric.

The food on board was quite tasty. Despite the fact that it was less than a five-hour flight I still had the option of receiving two meals. I opted for just the one since I wanted to get some sleep and didn’t want an upset stomach upon coming home. But the menu had a good variety of options and I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I’ll end this post by saying that Cathay Pacific First Class is a sight to behold and I hope I get the opportunity to take it again someday, albeit for a larger amount of time.

Review: Amtrak Cascades from Seattle to Vancouver

I have a third cousin who lives in Vancouver who I hadn’t seen in years when I went on my trip to Alaska and Seattle so instead of flying home from SeaTac I decided to seek out another flight on a wonderful airline from British Columbia, instead. While I will write the review of that flight later on, I want to focus on my train ride from Seattle’s King Street Station to Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station. Amtrak offers its twice daily Cascades service with a four hour ride with customs completed on board.

The first thing to note about taking this train is that, unlike on the Northeast Corridor, your ticket is not the only thing you need to board the train; there are reserved seats. My train was scheduled to leave at 7:45am so I assumed that I would get as good a seat as any if I arrived 15 minutes earlier. Unfortunately, that wasn’t true. I waited in a small line when I arrived and was given an inside seat because I was later than I should have been. The lesson here is: get there early if you want to look out the window.

When the train came up to the track the first thing I noticed was its size: a tall, double-decker train, but with only three carriages: Car A, Car B, and the Dining/Viewing car. I guess this makes sense as it is not so much of a commuter train.

I arrived at my seat (an aisle, unfortunately) and quickly noted my surroundings. The width of the seat is similar to that of the Northeast Corridor but the legroom is significantly larger. It was quite comfortable for the four-hour ride. I had great lighting above for the book I was reading and had I wanted to use the tray table, it went all the way down to where I wanted it. Finally, there was a small lever to pitch my seat-back a few degrees for added comfort.

 

One of the more interesting things that I noticed on the ride was how many restrooms there were. On the bottom floor of the double-decker car wasn’t more seating: it was luggage storage and places to “do your business.” There were five bathrooms in each seating car. While they were not as spacious as those on the Northeast Corridor, they still fit the bill. Sometimes people were making louder phone calls down in the area in front of the luggage storage place but otherwise it was mostly empty.

The viewing deck / dining car was also quite wonderful. Towards the front of the train there was plenty of seating if you wanted to eat something, talk a bit, and look out the window.

Finally, when we were close to the Canadian border the conductor got over the PA system and announced that for about 10 minutes there would be no movement from seats allowed (i.e. no bathroom usage) and those who were in the dining or viewing car would have to stay where they were for a customs check. Conductors came through the cabin and checked passports briefly to make sure everyone was ready to get across the border. It was really was quick and painless.

Once we arrived at the train station in Vancouver we exited the train and had to wait in a brief line for customs officials on the Canadian side to ask us questions about our travel and what we were doing visiting Canada. It took a few minutes to get through and then I got picked up by my cousin for a great 10 hours visit!

I hope to get back to Vancouver when it’s a bit less snowy – apparently it was covered for the first time in ages. Maybe next time I’ll get to stay over!

 

Review: Delta First-class service from JFK->SEA

Two weeks ago I left for a weeklong vacation in Alaska, Seattle, and Vancouver. The reason I settled on these destinations had mostly to do with my desire to visit some family, see the Aurora Borealis, and because there was a cheap deal on award tickets in “first class” on Delta. I’ll explain the quotation marks in a minute.

BOOKING

Many folks in the frequent flyer community know that Delta miles are worth less than their competitors because they use what’s called “dynamic pricing.” Essentially, that means they can charge whatever they want for their services. Whereas other companies like American and United have award charts that they stick to, Delta has none. So, when I saw a deal to fly cross-country (through Seattle to Alaska) in first class for only 55,000 Delta miles, I jumped on it. I had speculatively accrued 65,000 on a recent sign-up with the Delta Gold Skymiles American Express card and decided to use them on this trip. While I am only reviewing the flight from JFK to Seattle, know that the Alaska leg was also comfy (although not lie-flat).

LOUNGE ACCESS (OR NOT)

When I arrived at JFK International airport at 6:15am I was hoping check-in would go quickly, security as well, and then I’d sit in a lounge waiting to board. While my class of service made check-in a breeze and my TSA Pre-check status helped me through the lines faster, lounge access was something else entirely. Even though I had purchased a “first class” ticket, I would only be allowed into the Delta SkyClub if a) I was a holder of their Platinum card, or b) I was flying to LAX/SFO. Since I was flying to lowly Seattle I didn’t get my free breakfast. It was sad.

ON THE PLANE

I had done my research in advance on SeatGuru and determined that seat 1B was my best bet to get some sleep in their lie-flat cabin of the Boeing 757 I was taking that morning. Apparently, according to various reviews, all except the front row of seats have very little space for your feet, leaving your feeling cramped the entire time you are lying down. Because I was in the front row, there was none of that limitation.

I boarded the plane first and found a comfortable seat with a small pillow and blanket as well as the noise-cancelling (not really) headphones I would use to watch a movie later in the flight.

I was given some pretty tasty breakfast of eggs and potatoes as well as some drinks and snacks. At any time I could have gotten up to get some extra fruit, beverage, chips, or cookies. It was great to have those options.

I did also get some sleep on the plane, despite the fact that there was no mattress pad. The chair leaned back to become lie-flat and the extra space for my feet was definitely necessary (they were pretty much upright and against the wall). I slept for maybe 3 hours of the flight and finished by reading a book that I was enjoying. All-in-all, it was a great flight.

 

Review: The Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Fairbanks

I recently went on a trip to Alaska. While it was only for a few days and I didn’t see as much of the aurora as I had wanted to, I still had a great time. One of the best parts of it for me was the Alaska Railroad – the 356 mile stretch between Anchorage and Fairbanks, to be specific. It is an 11.5 hour ride starting at 8:30am in Anchorage and well worth it.

The train itself is diesel-powered and quite smooth. There were four carriages behind two locomotives with a bistro car and dining car in between. A full menu was offered with simple snacks in the bistro (with table seating for those who wanted it) as well as sit-down means in the dining car. The menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner was extensive enough to be worth it. Plus, the novelty of eating on a moving locomotive was pretty well worth it. I only had the pot roast for dinner but it was quite tasty. And, the fact that you are put in “festive seating” with whomever makes up four people in your party adds an element of surprise fun.

My trip started at the train depot in Anchorage at 7:30am when they told us to arrive. I had printed out my confirmation in advance but didn’t realize until around 8am that I had to convert that to an actual ticket at a will-call window. I’m glad I did otherwise they would not have let me on the train. That being said, all seats were reserved anyway and I had luckily put in for a window seat months ago. That means I had beautiful views of the surrounding trees, mountains, and sun.

And these are just some of the photos I took towards the morning. Unfortunately, there was no official “viewing car” because, apparently, in the winter it can freeze over and break the windows. I loved the photos I took of the sun creeping up behind the enormous mountain ranges. I honestly forget what these ranges are called (probably “Alaska range” or something like that) but I do know they were super pretty.

I sat next to a random gentleman who grew up in Atlanta, Georgia but was living in Dallas, Texas currently. We struck up a conversation quickly because he was so personable he bought me an iced tea from the bistro! It was quite nice. Except for some meals and a nap along the way, we chatted almost the entire way to Fairbanks. Can you imagine about 10 hours of conversation – we talked about everything. It was quite fun.

Eventually, we got a glimpse at some other natural wonders as the sun rose (but only a little bit as we were near the Arctic circle – so cool!). We saw some clouds covering Denali (a.k.a. the mountain formally known as McKinley) and I got a few shots of the train going over a bridge and the train turning around a corner.

Throughout all of this the conductors were sharing information about the mountains, the valleys, the rivers, the towns, and all the population in between. It was quite interesting to hear that in between major stops people who lived out there were able to flag down the train for free rides to/from wherever they wanted. Apparently that was a deal brokered years ago because the Alaska Railroad is the only way to get there/back (i.e. there are no roads).

This wouldn’t be a review without me talking about comfort, however. The seat was quite comfortable and had a lever for pitching back during my nap. The only major criticism is that there was no tray table – this would have been useful for people (like me) who bring their own food in order to save on cash. Additionally, while there were power ports here and there, they were not at every seat. The conductors did point out that they had USB-specific power ports in each car, which was a nice offering, but there could have been more charging capacity.

The bathrooms were quite clean and efficient. They had running water and enough toilet paper and paper towels to last the entire trip. And across from each of them was a setting of brochures and things to help us learn more about our surroundings and get ready for our time in Fairbanks or Anchorage (or Denali, in between).

One of the other nice things was that we could stand between cars in order to take some photos without the glare of the windows. That was important at certain times of day when you wanted that perfect photo of the outdoors but couldn’t get it without that stupid fluorescent light showing up in the window.

When we finally got to Fairbanks the train stopped at the depot and there were masses of buses there to pick up groups of passengers on trips. I was able to call ahead to reserve a cab and take myself right to my AirBnB.

All in all, it was a great train ride. I highly recommend spending the money to do it.

 

Review: Cathay Pacific Economy

Despite common misconceptions I still fly economy sometimes, especially if I don’t have any miles to spend or availability is low. For my return trip from Australia (more posts of the actual trip later) I opted to take the same company home that I would eventually be flying in business class: Cathay Pacific. As we were in Cairns I tried to find as close to a direct flight as I could to Hong Kong, not expecting much. As it turns out there are enough people who want to fly between the cities that a large plane goes back and forth every day.

So, bright and early I got in a cab and arrived at the airport a few minutes later. I got through customs fairly quickly and was able to access the Reef Lounge nearby my gate due to my Priority Pass membership. It was a pretty full lounge for a small city, including a bunch of different breakfast options (fruit, pastries, cereals, etc.) as well as a lot of comfortable chairs, newspapers, and two very clean bathrooms. It was really nice to sit there and wait since our flight was delayed a few times. It made it easier to wait.

 

The airplane itself was large and comfortable: an Airbus A330 with plenty of seats. It only has business class and economy (I don’t remember if it was premium economy so I can’t speak to it). The seat was quite pleasant with plenty of legroom (way more than the standard US-based airline) and there was a good-sized in-flight entertainment system (IFE). It had a USB port on the bottom with which I charged my phone and what looked like an S-Video port (I wonder if anyone uses those, really). One of the newer amenities in planes like these is a cup-holder that pops down from the seat tray instead of taking down the whole thing – it was useful when I just wanted to store something small.

    

I was pleasantly surprised (although I shouldn’t have been) that on a seven hour flight we would be receiving not one – but two – meals: a light breakfast and a heftier lunch. As you can see from the menu there were not a wide variety of options but it is a lot more than US-base carriers are offering on similar routes. The food was quite tasty and the offerings were plentiful I imagine if I asked for more of something I probably would have been given it.

 

Cathay Pacific is a world-renowned airline and I’m glad I got a chance to fly it. In fact, I’ll shortly be reviewing my experience in their business class and in a few weeks I’ll get to take the first-class product on the fifth-freedom route from Vancouver to JFK!e

Review: Qantas Dreamliner (787) Business Class LAX->MEL

It certainly has been a while since my last post. I guess planning a last-minute trip to Australia while finishing up end-of-year teaching projects can be quite busy. Well, I’m back to share some anecdotes of our recent trip down unda’ and I wanted to start with our amazing experience on Qantas new Dreamliner business class seats.

Announced in December 2016, we were lucky to get the flights we got – leaving LAX on December 23, just eight days after the Dreamliner began flying on the route and in the middle of holiday travel season. We used 70k American Airlines miles each for the one-way flight, with some dollars spent on the taxes. Considering that flight should be in the thousands of dollars, I figured it was an amazing deal so we jumped on it.

We began our trip in the Oneworld Business lounge at LAX – accessible to all business class passengers flying on alliance metal. For that reason it was a truly enormous lounge – three large rooms with an extra area for kids in a more enclosed space. The buffet had many options to choose from and even a small taco stand, offering some tasty gluten-free tortillas for my wife. Finally, the showers available were also quite nice, with all provisions offered. It was nice to be able to get refreshed before our 15 hour flight. If you can ever access this lounge, I strongly recommend it.

 

About 45 minutes before our flight left we walked over to the gate where, unfortunately, they were running late. According to FlightAware.com, we were officially delayed by over an hour. Apparently this flight is regularly delayed, so potential flyers: be ready to wait at the gate (or in a lounge) for a bit longer than you expect.


The hard product itself, however, was incredible. It was an updated version of Qantas’ A330 seat, using the Vantage XL seat, commonly seen in SAS flights. It was miles above what has been in their 747 or A380 planes before, as there is significantly more privacy, space at the seat, and has all aisle-access (as opposed t0 the 2-2-2 seating on their A380).

As you can see from the photos there was plenty of room for my legs, to store my things, and to plug in any and all electronic devices. I strongly appreciate having a direct USB plug these days and I was happy that Qantas obliged. There was also the nice touch of the IFE system having my seat number listed brightly.

Once in-flight service began we were provided with a menu for our meals as well as a set of new Qantas pajamas (or a “sleep suit” as the flight attendant said) which proved quite comfortable and will be added to my rotation at home as well. The amenity kit had a lot of good provisions that we used during flight as well as coupons for in-flight purchases. I really appreciated the earplugs and socks and took good advantage of them.

Meal service began shortly after takeoff and while not as elaborate as some other airlines we’ve flown (Austrian Airlines in particular) it was quite tasty. We had any drinks we wanted and could order multiple servings of food if we wanted. I was sleeping during most of the flight, otherwise I would have taken a photo of the snacks area in the galley, which consisted of various drinks (alcoholic and non), chips, candy bars, and fruit.

When it did come time to sleep I set up my seat in lie-flat position and had plenty of room for my feet in the space allocated. This is one of the important things for me with a business class seat since I have size 12 feet. There was no squishing at all and I was able to lie completely back with my feet face up without difficulty. While there was no pad for the seat itself, the blanket was very comfortable and I was not too hot while sleeping. The pajamas were quite comfy.

One of the novelties for me in the new Dreamliner plane is how the windows tint instead of being closed physically. It was quite incredible how little light shown through during our flight once the windows were tinted. There is a little button below the window itself that provides various gradations of coverage. As you can see below it looks tinted slightly blue when it is sunny outside at the middle level but when totally “covered” barely any lights comes through.

I am incredibly glad to have had this new experience and can’t wait to fly Qantas again in the future (as long as I can get the flights!). If you have a chance to book and take it yourself I strongly recommend it, especially if it’s the new longest flight in the world!

I HAVE to tell you about my mattress tale

It was over four years ago, specifically August 28, 2013, when my wife and I made our first major >$1,000 joint purchase: a new mattress. It was a Simmons Beautyrest Comforpedic and boy was it an incredible buy. For 99% of the time we have had the mattress we just sink into it and feel like we are on a bed flying in the clouds. It was easy to sleep on, we didn’t affect each other that much while moving around, and it was a pretty good deal, to boot.

Then, all of a sudden about 3 weeks ago both our backs began to hurt. There was also a slight pain in my neck. We were seriously concerned that our 10-year investment was going to be cut short and we would have to spend so much money on a new one.

Enter: my persistence. I spent overall probably an hour on the phone with Macy’s customer service, Simmons’ customer service, and then actually visiting a Macy’s only to discover that while we did not buy the “Worry no more” insurance from Macy’s, they were indeed liable to cover a defective mattress if….

…a “Mattress Inspector” deemed our mattress “abnormal.” Did you know there was such a job? My wife was at home and saw him use a ruler, some string, and some other tools as he did, indeed, state that our mattress should be replaced. I was happily greeted by this email the next day:

The next bit was the only concerning part: they said that I would be issued a refund to my store credit card. Since I didn’t want to have that money hanging in limbo for a long time (I was not about to go on a shopping spree at Macy’s) I called and found out that I could, indeed, get the money credited directly to my bank account. Apparently, there is some policy that if the transaction is over three years old you can give them your debit card number for refunds. Amazing!

So, in the end, we had four years of an amazing mattress with about a month of super-crappy-sleeping nights. We’re going to be buying a new mattress shortly and can’t wait to try it out!