Delta A320 had new storage bins and overhead utilities

I experienced a mildly space-age overhead bin situation this past weekend on a flight home on Delta.

I had booked economy seats home on Delta #1106 and we boarded as usual (zone 1 due to our Skymiles Credit Card). I knew we would have overhead bin space because we were getting on earlier than many others. When I got onboard, however, I quickly noticed a) there was more overhead bin space and b) the overhead fan, light, and attendant button looked a bit different.

The lighting working similarly to a Boeing 787 Dreamliner (smoothly transitioning off and on) and the place where there would normally be old-looking light switches and whatnot was replaced by something that looked brand new. In fact, there was one other major upgrade: when we reached cruising altitude, it told us when the Wi-Fi was available!

The only downside was this contraption was less centered for the three seats on each side so the aisle seat passenger will be reaching over the middle seat passenger to turn on/off lights and fans. My guess is no one will make a huge stink due to increased overhead bin space.

Pretty interesting, right?

Review: Qantas First on an A380 Part 3 – Return from Sydney

As mentioned in my previous post I was able to reserve Qantas First on an A380 again for the return trip to the US. I’ll outline the major differences with this experience here but won’t go into as much detail.

The Lounge

While Qantas does have a First Class lounge in LAX, their “home” Lounge of Sydney is way better. It has all the same amenities (sit-down meal service, various buffets for coffee, pastries, fruits, drinks, etc.) but includes a much nicer view as well as a spa!

First off, it was very quick to get through check-in and pass security. There was a very short security line for “express” passengers (which included first class folks) and so I was through in a bit under 10 minutes. From there, I followed signs to the lounge.

The entryway is just beautiful – some amazing plants planted into a wall curve. The lounge is incredibly spacious and overlooks the main A380 gates – I saw Emirates, British Airways, and Qantas parked there while I ate some breakfast. Also, the check-in area for the lounge has one of those cool flippy signs for all the flights (It was annoying, however, that it showed repeats of flights as codeshares, so one flight would pop up as 5-7 different ones, taking up space).

Probably the most significant thing I did at the lounge was have a free 20-minute massage. There was a side area that mostly quiets any of the noise from the lounge (with some to be desired) but they do an effective job of making it feel special and comfortable. There are some various options to choose from and I’m sure they are all enjoyable. I was called the day before to book my massage because I was in Qantas First but I read reports that if you have access to the lounge in general you can walk up and see if there are any slots left.

Here are some other views of the lounge including meeting rooms, a business area (with computers and printers) and a children’s area.

Otherwise, while onboard I was treated the same way I had been treated 10 days prior: all the flight attendants introduced themselves; I had great meals and a comfy bed; free pajamas and all the other amenities I could need for my 14 hour journey home. I highly recommend Qantas First in either direction over the Pacific, but hope you can get the spa sometime!

Review: Qantas First Class on an A380 Part 2 – The seat and the service

After our lovely time waiting in the Qantas first class lounge at LAX we walked over to our gate for boarding. It took about five minutes to get there and we saw a new piece of technology they are using for the boarding process: some kind of entryway where your photo was taken and your boarding pass scanned before you go onto the jetway to the plane. It seemed very new but maybe was a more efficient way of getting everyone onto the plane? I’m not sure and it was a bit of a blur because I was so excited to get into our seats.

Speaking of which, once we got passed the electronic gates we saw three doorways with various jetways to the plane. We took the proper one for our first class seats and within 60 seconds were greeted by very friendly flight attendants who directed us to our seats.

Courtesy of Seatguru.com.

This is the first time I’ve flown with my wife in premium seats where we weren’t sitting next to each other. It’s not for lack of trying – the Qantas first class seat on the A380 doesn’t even have the option. Whereas most first class wide-bodies have seats in a 1-2-1 pattern, these are big enough to be 1-1-1. I tried to place us near each other in 4K and 4F but we still couldn’t see each other unless we craned our necks! So, as a compromise, I came over to her pod for some take-off champagne and our dinner later on.

Now on to some specifics about the seat: it’s huge. The chair you get is quite wide (according to SeatGuru it’s 22 inches, but it feels like more). The space you get is also massive – enough that the seat itself swivels into two different positions (one for take-off/landing and one for cruising). There is a foot rest that is usable by a second person to sit with you at any time (I imagine it’s used mostly for meals). Two storage lockers are located next to you under the fixed tray area (one contains your over-ear headphones – not noise cancelling, unfortunately). There are two remote controls – one is for the seat (moving it, putting lights on/off, even a massage setting!) and one is for the screen you have to watch shows/movies or even communicate with others!

Now, onto the main meal. Since the flight was scheduled to leave in the evening (around 8pm, although we were delayed by about 30 minutes) we were served dinner. The menu had some great options, all chosen by Neil Perry, some famous Australian chef. As mentioned before, my wife and I opted to eat together so the flight attendants set up our dinner table together in her pod. Over the course of about 45 minutes we were served our various courses, enjoying all points of the meal. While I had forgotten to sign her up for a gluten-free meal, the attendants took something from the business class menu and offered it to her instead (she still said it was tasty). Overall, a very tasty and convenient method of eating over the ocean!

 

There were a variety of snacks offered throughout the flight as well. In fact, there is a lounge on the plane with some refreshments! Yes, that’s right: if you take the staircase (!) up to the second floor, there is a small seating area with a TV as well as a counter filled with some snacks and drinks to grab whenever you want. I believe this was exclusive to the 14 first class passengers, so very awesome!

Before landing, we were offered a breakfast meal, which was also quite tasty. My eggs were cooked to order and I got to choose a variety of veggies as sides. For this meal, we chose to eat separately because one of us might have still been sleeping when the other chose to eat.

The bed, the pajamas, and the amenity kit: all great, although the amenity kit could use some more pizzazz. Since the flight was about 14 hours long, I wanted to make sure I back-loaded my sleep so I would wake up more refreshed in Sydney at 6am. I asked the flight attendants to set up my bed a little bit later than many others and went to change in the bathroom (quick note: they were larger bathrooms than in economy, which is nice, and contained a lot of amenities, including disposable razors and shaving cream, of which I took 3 to use during the rest of my trip).

The pajamas we were given are some of the best I’ve experienced! So comfy, and they come with a drawstring as well as pockets. They are thicker than the Qantas business class ones we received last year on the Dreamliner and were very good to sleep in. When I returned from changing, my bed was made. There was a great mat put on the turned-down seat which made it very soft and comfortable to sleep on. The duvet and blanket were enough to keep me warm (but not overly so, as has happened on previous flights). And, the pillow let my head sink right into it with no trouble. Finally, the amenity kit contained a high-quality eye mask, not simply one of those that rests on your head made of cloth, but something more like this. And I used the toothbrush/toothpaste before getting some needed sleep (7 hours worth!).

Overall, the seat and service were incredible. If I had to make any recommendations, it would be to upgrade the headphones to noise-cancelling versions, and put some nicer toothbrushes in the amenity kit. Otherwise, my wife and I had a great time on the Qantas A380 and I look forward to experiencing it again on the ride home!

Review: Qantas First Class on an A380 Part 1 – Check-in and the Lounge

I’ve read so many times how difficult it is to get award tickets to Australia and New Zealand yet, for some reason, I found myself returning to the sun-burnt country for the second time for less than a few hundred dollars round-trip. Last year my wife and I got to fly on Qantas’ new Dreamliner business class and really enjoyed it. While the pajamas we received don’t make it into my regular rotation, I still remember the trip with fondness.

Here is an example of what I’m talking about.

This time around, though, I was even more lucky. My wife and I knew we wanted to go somewhere far again this winter break so I began looking at our options. While I was trying to find something good to other parts of the world I was lucky enough to see the light purple pop up with Qantas first class award availability right when my winter break began – so we jumped on it.

For the low low price of 110,000 AAdvantage miles + $40.10 in taxes per person, we had a flight down under that would be incredibly comfortable. We booked a first class flight from LAX->SYD and then tacked on a free flight from Sydney to Gold Coast about 13 hours after landing.

Fast forward to the day of travel. We had to position ourselves in Los Angeles so we took a JetBlue flight out to get there (we love the comfy seats, the unlimited snacks, and the fact that we get 50% off all in-flight purchases with our JetBlue credit card). We brought our rental car back to the airport and then went to check in.

While there was a moderate line for the economy passengers, there was only one person in front of us so it took a minute or two for us to bring our bags up front. We discovered – much to our excitement – that our bags would be checked up until our final destination of Gold Coast (we would just have to pick them up in Sydney airport and bring them to the Domestic Baggage Transfer area).

Once through security, we went into one of my favorite places during international travel: the lounge. Qantas has a first class lounge (also accessible to other One World premium customers) with many amenities: plenty of space to sit and read, magazines and newspapers for you to take, a full bar, bathrooms/showers, and table service for a variety of meal options.

 

We sat down to have a relaxing meal with the 45 minutes we had before the flight (even though, of course, we would also eat on the plane). It’s important to remember that these lounges are basically miniature all-inclusive resorts; we could order whatever we wanted in whatever amounts. We kept it light but tasty and had some drinks to boot. My wife even liked my dessert so much she ordered one for herself when we found out our flight was delayed by about 20 minutes.

While waiting for our food to arrive I decided to avail myself of the shower facilities. It was easy enough to walk over to the receptionist desk and have someone show me to an open room. It was very clean and had all the resources I might need. The water pressure was great, the soap, shampoo, and conditioner was nice (although scented, which some may not appreciate).

The lounge staff announced when our flight was going to depart and updated us when the delay occurred. Overall, we had a great and relaxing experience at the Qantas First Class lounge at LAX. If you are departing from there anytime soon, make sure to give yourself an hour to enjoy the heck out of it!

Review: Hyatt Centric Fishman’s Wharf San Francisco

My wife and I spent one night at the Hyatt Centric Fishman’s Wharf in San Francisco before a wedding this past weekend and were pleasantly surprised. We booked the hotel on points and had two options to choose from:

I easily chose the King Bed since it meant more space in the room itself. Overall, the room was great – the bed was comfortable, there was enough space for us to put all of our luggage, have space for seating, a bathtub large enough to lie in, and more. There were many connections for charging both USB and regular powered devices as well. I would like to give special kudos to the staff who let us stay past our check-out time when we needed some extra time.

The location was also excellent: within walking distance of the wharf, Ghirardelli square, and more. It was a great stay, even if it it was short. See some photos below (we arrived late at night, which is why the pictures are dark).

 

Plaza Premium Temporary Lounge in Toronto leaves something to be desired

On the way home from Toronto on Monday I was ready to spend some relaxing time in the Plaza Premium Lounge in Terminal 1 of the Toronto Pearson Airport. My wife, sister, and brother were all with me and we would get some free food, drinks, and nice bathrooms to tide over the hour we had to wait for the plane. Unfortunately, we were greeted by this banner upon getting through customs on our way to the lounge.

Apparently the lounge is going through renovation and so we were only able to get access to a temporary lounge using the Priority Pass Select membership granted to us by the Citi Prestige card that my wife and I hold.

The lounge is located essentially in what should be the regular seating area between gates F55 and F57. Instead, they have put up some partitions, placed some higher-quality chairs, and set up a buffet with some food. There were more limited selections than usual but the food was tasty. They also had a variety of drinks, although a smaller variety than normal. The one major gripe that my family and I had was the the power ports on the chairs were taped over and disconnected from any kind of power source.

We spent about 45 minutes waiting in the lounge and enjoying the food and drink. It was definitely better than paying for food and the chairs had nicer cushions, but this is not the kind of lounge I am used to at this point in my travel career. I hope they complete renovations quickly so that the next visit we have to Toronto has a better lounge for us to access.

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.