Review: Shorthaul business class VIE -> CAI (with a lounge)

When my wife and I arrived in Vienna after our overnight Austrian Airlines flight from JFK we had a two-hour layover in the airport on our way to Cairo. We decided to spend it in the lounge, eating some snack food and taking a rest before our next leg. The airport was pretty quiet since it was early on in the day and the lounge was not that full. It had a host of amenities: food, drinks, magazines, and included a special area to rest. The chairs were pitched backwards with a noise machine going on in order to make sure occupants could rest. We took full advantage for the hour or so we were there.

The flight was pretty remarkable for a few reasons. Firstly, it was the traditional European business class wherein there were no larger seats but the middle seat was left empty for the two of us to have extra space. We were also given preferential treatment for meals and drinks. The plane, however, lacked in-flight entertainment options. They did give free wi-fi, however.

The food was adequate, mostly – definitely not as good as our international flight. And the seat was large enough but not much bigger than a traditional US carrier would provide. This business-class leg definitely did not feel the same.

It was a pleasant and short flight during which I ate and slept in preparation for a whirlwind tour of Cairo that was about to take place. It got us from point A to point B in moderate style, indeed.

Spring Break Review: Austrian Airlines Business class JFK -> VIE

Over Spring Break my wife and I had the opportunity to visit a small bit of Cairo, Egypt as well as spend a wonderful week in South Africa. In order to make sure that our time spent was of the highest quality I took it upon myself to make sure we had business-class seats on our flights so we could arrive rested and make the most of our time spent. Over the next few posts I will detail some of the time we spent on these flights, in lounges, and just in general in transit from April 7 – 18.

At the time I had just received bonuses from meeting minimum spending requirements for the American Expression Business Gold card, earning us around 80,000 Membership Rewards points. Additionally, we had something like 50,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points in our account, so I transferred them all to Aeroplan, knowing that I would only need 75,000 points each for a one-way business class flight from the US to South Africa.

I was able to find the following flights which – while not direct – still gave us a good view of some business class products and allowed us a nine hour layover to explore Cairo (something we have been meaning to do for some time).

Our first two flights were on Austrian Airlines, a subsidiary of Lufthansa, and an airline I had never flown before. I had done research to know that not only was their business class fully lie-flat and a comfortable product, but their dining service is one of the best in the world. We were not disappointed.

After going through security and finding our gate, we were greeted with signs for priority boarding and found our seats on the plane. They were nicely prepared with comfortable blankets, pillows, amenity kits, and headphones. There was plenty of space in the seat for my feat under the seat in front of me and the in-flight entertainment system was fully operational. Finally, there were plenty of places to plug in and charge my electronics.

Before we pushed back from the gate we were asked what food we wanted from the menu which, while simple, was robust in its taste. The chef came around himself (in his wonderful hat and clothing) to ask us what our choices were. One of the interesting choices Austrian Airlines has made is to bring around some of the menu choices on trays for you to simply choose from instead of bringing each dish out individually. It was an interesting way of ordering our food – it reminded me of dessert service years ago at the Philadelphia restaurant Le Bec Fin. Even after a brief sleep on the lie-flat bed, the breakfast service was quite tasty (although not as elaborate).

The last two comments I will make about this flight were that the bed was quite comfortable and completely lie-flat. There was a small pad they put down and the blanket was warm enough for us to sleep. There was definitely enough space for my arms. My feet were a little packed together – but I just thought of it as sleeping in a mummy-style sleeping bag and I was fine. I got about 4-5 hours of sleep and was pleasantly woken up for breakfast (they asked in advance). I checked my IFE screen before landing to see where our next flight was departing from (a very nice service, if I do say so myself).

Electronics Travel Ban

It’s been a week since Royal Jordanian Airlines let the cat out of the bag: both the US and the UK have officially announced bans on certain types of electronics on flights arriving in the United States.

The US Department of Homeland Security has banned electronics in carry-on luggage that are “larger than a cell phone/smart phone” and gave a list of examples. The UK ban restricts based on size of the device itself, as seen in this screenshot from the BBC’s website:

Devices subject to cabin baggage ban

While I understand the need for security on airplanes, this ban seems a bit odd to me, as it does for a few frequent flier bloggers out there.

  1. Since the US and UK share intelligence information like this, shouldn’t the ban match airport-for-airport or at least country-for-country? Instead, there is a lot of divergence, as you can see in this map below. Map of affected countries
  2. If the threat is so imminent, why were airlines given 96 hours to comply? Shouldn’t the ban go into effect immediately, as a similar ban of carry-on luggage occurred immediately after a terror attack on Christmas 2009 – when I boarded a flight to the US the week after I was not allowed any carry-on luggage at all.
  3. If the Department of Homeland Security was truly serious about this they would ban all flights into the US. It is quite easy for someone to take a one-stop flight from Istanbul and arrive without having these restrictions.

Airlines are dealing with this in interesting ways. Some are offering “gate-checking” of electronics. Others are making funny ad campaigns about what you can do with 12 hours without electronics (which is not even true because many of those have in-flight entertainment).

But, really, the explanation that has been given so far is substandard. This ban seems to be unnecessary and ill-timed. We need more allies out there in the world, not fewer. I hope this ban does not last indefinitely.

A new version of the travel ban?

I read this morning that a rogue tweet from Royal Jordanian airlines let spill the beans of a potential new version of a travel ban on Muslim nations. After only a few hours other media was also reporting on this and it spread like wildfire.

Apparently, what is happening is much bigger than one airline changing its policies. According to The Points Guy, the TSA has sent a circular to airlines from 13 nations requiring them to disallow any electronic devices outside of cell phones and health-related necessities. It seems that the days of doing work on a laptop or watching a movie on an iPad are over for people coming to the US from these locations (as of yet not released, of course).

This all comes on the heels of 45’s new travel ban being blocked by multiple judges, including one from Hawaii. Perhaps this is the next step in a method of reducing the likelihood that folks will want to come in from other countries?

ICYMI: Singapore Airlines has a very different devaluation scheduled for March 23

On March 1 I received an email entitled, “Important Changes to Flight Redemption.” In brief, it explained that Singapore Airlines will be changing their award chart for their own flights in some very important ways:

  • They are removing the 15% discount on flight redemptions.
  • They are reducing/removing many fuel and insurance charges from flight redemptions.

This is one of the more interesting devaluations as it actually might help some people get better deals at times. This has been reviewed several times already but is still worth noting. They even give an example of how this will affect long-haul flights in business- and economy-class:

This could be very major except there is a pretty big method of getting around it: use their Star Alliance award chart that hasn’t actually changed at all. Essentially, you can still use Singapore Airlines miles to book tickets that include both their own planes and others within the Alliance, at which point you will be using the other award chart that can be more lucrative at times.

It just means a bit more thought needs to go into using SA miles, but since they already have great redemption value, it’s not a huge change in my opinion.

Review: Hyatt at the Bellevue Philadelphia

Last weekend my wife and I had the opportunity to stay at the Hyatt at the Bellevue in Philadelphia, an historic hotel in Center City that dates back to its original luxury in 1904. It opened decades ago as a lavish set of rooms used by 15 presidents and famous people of all sorts. After some hard times and changes in ownership, it has been well-renovated and currently has over 700 guest rooms and 55 suites, and has access to a world-renowned exercise facility called the Sporting Club.

If you want to stay at this hotel you can either spend upwards of $300 per night or you can do what we did: transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points and redeem for 15,000 points per night, earning over 2 cents/point (a great award value according to the Points Guy).

The room was quite spacious, with a very comfortable bed, well-sized bathroom (although a slightly smaller bathtub than we are used to), with a small mini-fridge, tea/coffee making materials, and even came with an air filter. It turns out we were given a hypo-allergenic room without even asking for it. It was very well received.

Because of the hypo-allergenic nature of the room, the bathroom was also filled with non-scented, high-quality toiletries. My wife was so excited that we didn’t have to worry about strange smells affecting her asthma!

The odd thing about the hotel is that there is a large courtyard/atrium area in the middle that some of the rooms face. It gives the sense of having an outside-facing room, without the actual outside-facing window. Also, it meant that we did not look over the city, unfortunately. I imagine you could spend more money and have a nicer view.

Our stay was overall quite pleasant with one notable exception: the temperature in our room was incredibly cold when we went to sleep and it took about an hour to resolve the issue. For some reason our heater was not pushing out warmer air, so we asked for extra blankets. It turned out that even though there are hundreds of rooms at the hotel, due to two weddings they were completely full and had no extra blankets. When we finally realized it was the heater at fault, the engineer came and fixed the situation within 10 minutes, and then we were able to get to sleep. As they were very professional, the next morning the woman at the front desk told me that they were crediting 10,000 points back to my account (essentially giving us around $200 back). I am glad she offered without being prompted – that is a very classy institution.

In summary, we are definitely going to return to this hotel when we have another opportunity. It was very comfortable, centrally located, and had very kind employees, despite the heat/blanket issue.




Review: Virgin America flight from SFO->JFK

It was my first time flying Virgin America and I must say I was mostly underwhelmed. After attending the CPM Conference at San Francisco Airport (SFO) I decided to take an afternoon flight back to New York – Virgin America offered me the best deal, despite the fact that I did have to pay to check my luggage.

The plane was small – only an Airbus A320, with two rows of domestic first class (meaning: reclining, larger chairs) and a whole bunch of economy. There were a few seats in “Main Cabin Select” class, but those were extra money and I didn’t want to pay for that.

The main gripe I had was the in-flight entertainment was expensive if you wanted on-demand video. For a TV show, it cost $3 and for a movie, it was $8. Luckily, they happened to have a live TV option and so I watched two movies back-and-forth within commercial breaks (I can’t remember the last time I did that). They also had a place outside the gate where you could buy headphones.

Also, even though they have a cool system for ordering drinks and food, they did not have any kind of free, complementary snack! Even a small package of peanuts would do, but no – everything costs money. It wasn’t the most expensive thing in the world, but principles are principles.

The small, funny experience I had on the flight was during that time when the plane is still on an incline but the cabin crew has started their service. I was walking behind a flight attendant bringing up the drinks cart and helped her push it up the hill. She offered to even buy me a beer as a thank you later on but I declined. Apparently, she spoke to another flight attendant about me too. I guess they don’t get much kindness on airplanes.

It was a relatively short transcontinental flight – 4 hours, 45 minutes – and it gave me a lot of time to reflect on the conference I had just attended. I don’t think I’ll go out of my way to fly Virgin America in the future, but the flight attendants were kind and attentive and if I had status, maybe it’d be nicer.