Using ExpertFlyer helped get us Qantas First class AGAIN

I am the kind of person that likes to plan far in advance. Getting plane tickets for trips 5-8 months beforehand is not unlikely in my life, mostly because that’s when I seem to find the best deals. Either there is a sale of some kind of I have an insight due to my frequent-flyer blog reading. So, when I tell you that my wife and I booked our flights home from Australia one week before takeoff – please know that this is not who I normally am.

That being said, it’s not completely true. While we had booked our flight to Australia on Qantas First class, it was getting particularly hard to find the same kind of availability on the return for January 1. In fact, I had been searching for two months on a daily basis and I didn’t find anything. So, my wife and I gave in and decided two things:

  1. We would book the cheapest economy (oy) ticket home and just deal with it.
  2. We would set up flight alerts on ExpertFlyer and cancel the economy tickets (eating the fees) if we found something.

So, that’s what we did. I found a relatively inexpensive ticket home from Sydney on the morning of January 1 and booked it for the two of us:

Then, I set up flight alerts on ExpertFlyer for award tickets home. For those who don’t know what that service does: instead of spending my own time searching daily on all the websites for specific flights, it does the work for me! I just set up a bunch of queries and when one is available, it sends me an email. Here are some example searches I had running:

Then, the most amazing thing happened: not only did I receive notification of award availability, but it was still in Qantas First class!

I got this email while on the train from Gold Coast airport to Brisbane so I immediately closed the Netflix movie I was watching and went on AA.com to book it (I was using AA miles after all). It turned out while there were two seats available, one was direct Sydney->Los Angeles while the other was Sydney->Melbourne->Los Angeles. Well, after talking it over briefly with my wife, we booked it and later on cancelled the United flights (getting all the money back, incidentally). Since both flights arrive in LA around the same time, we then booked a return flight home to JFK together.

It’s amazing what a little patience, flexibility, and a great award search tool can do!

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: British Airways A380 First Class

Our next major flight was from Singapore to London on a British Airways A380 in First Class. As you can imagine I was quite looking forward to this in order to compare it to what we had during our Korean Air trip. It all began when we entered the airport – we got there three hours early (earlier than planned, but my wife suggested we do it to maximize our experience of the lounges!).

Upon arrival we were immediately welcomed at the British Airways check-in counters. The gentleman told us there was a special area for First Class passengers but since we were there already with no line, we might as well check in. We did, then went to go see what he was talking about. It was quite a luxurious sight to see – comfortable chairs/couches while you wait and free drinks!

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After being sent through a special exit to security we passed through in mere minutes. We then had an important choice to make: with our first class tickets (and Priority Pass to boot) we had access to three lounges (Qantas, British Airways, and SATS Premier) – which would we go to? Answer: we toured through them all first and then sat down in each for some time.

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We started off in the SATS Premier Lounge, where we eventually decided to eat our dinner. The food there looked more various than the other two lounges and so we had a nice chat over some tasty dishes. I had a beer and my wife had some wine, if I recall correctly.

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Then went to the British Airways Lounge to check it out as well. As mentioned before the food was not as exciting but there was the Concorde Lounge – an extra exclusive benefit of First Class passengers wherein they get table service in a quieter area. It required a passcode that the desk attendant informed us before we got to it.

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Finally, the Qantas Lounge: we decided to come here for dessert as they had the most various offerings. So much fruit to choose from and a very comfortable seating area. There were also numerous magazines to choose from.

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Since I had been touring around Singapore the entire day before our flight I wanted to make sure I was clean before getting onto the airplane. After our brief tour I decided that the Qantas Lounge had the nicest place to take a shower and so I just walked up and asked the attendant where to go. There was plenty of space in the bathroom, the shower water pressure was fantastic, and the soaps/shampoos were very usable.

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The gate and entrance to the plane were as expected: three different areas to enter based on seating class. We went to door A as we were in row 3 in the middle two seats.

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The seat itself is smaller in width than Korean Air and others but has more storage capacity on the side. We received an amenity kit similar to Korean Air as well as the pajamas we would wear for a majority of our overnight flight. Our flight attendant was very kind (with a British accent!) but not as attentive as on Korean Air. There was so much legroom (as usual in first class) and the in-flight entertainment was extensive and easily controlled from our handsets.

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I ate a quick meal before heading off to bed that consisted of a very tasty soup, ratatouille, and chocolate brownie dessert. The courses were served nicely with all attention to detail and I enjoyed it quite a lot.

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I spent most of the flight sleeping as it was an overnight experience. I had the flight attendant change the seat into its bed position while I put on my pajamas. They are very comfortable! My sleep was nice and uninterrupted. I set an alarm to wake up in time for some breakfast while watching a movie. It consisted of two courses: a cereal and toast course followed by some very yummy french toast.

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During flight we received a small note that we had access to “Fast Track,” a service that allows you to get through customs and immigration faster than the average customer. We followed all signs and directions and were able to exit quite quickly. It was then that my wife suggested we check out the Arrivals Lounge, something I’ve never done before. Essentially, it is a space for incoming travelers to relax while they wait for their next type of movement. We picked up our bags at baggage claim and headed straight for it.

It was a nice space that had loads of food and another Concorde Lounge for First Class passengers. We availed ourselves of the amenity this time and had table service of another round of breakfast foods at it was only 6:30am or so. What we did not know in advance was that there was a spa we could use as well! Granted, it was probably not on the caliber of what we experienced in Southeast Asia but it was free. Unfortunately, their earliest appointments were around 9am so we opted to go to our hotel instead.

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Overall, the experience was quite enjoyable, as expected. The service was wonderful but not up to what Korean Air offered us. We would definitely take this flight again, however!

How to get to Southeast Asia in style

This summer I am feeling a bit antsy since for the first time in 11 years I am not doing an enormous amount of travel. I usually travel internationally (to Israel and beyond, more or less) and this time am sticking close to home with small trips on the east coast and Chicago.

That being said, it doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to dream! I’ve been eyeing some tickets to Southeast Asia just to find out how many miles they would cost and what kind of planes they would be. I reviewed some of the first-class options two days ago that was mainly using Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Here, though, I’m going to talk about using American Airlines miles, which can often be a better use of your points.

The two important things you must know are:

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 7.46.44 AM1) American Airlines has a great partner award travel chart. As a member of the oneworld alliance, you have access to amazing airlines like Cathay Pacific, Qatar Airways, Malaysia Airlines, and more. Their chart shows that you can get from the US to Southeast Asia (known as Asia Regions 1 and 2 in this chart) for at most 67,500 miles one-way (in first class, no less). Sometimes you can even do it for 25,000 in economy.

2) You can’t easily search these flights on the American Airlines website. To better your search capacity, using British Airways Avios search tool (it sounds weird, but it’s true).

First, you must make sure you are a member of the British Airways Executive Club (sometimes there are sign-up bonuses but don’t let that make you hesitate).

Then, you can use their search tool to ostensibly find British Airways flights, when in fact you will find all the partner flights as well. For example, here is a search from New York to Singapore on February 26:Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 7.56.24 AM

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Or you could try using another airline on February 23:

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All these flights would be available for American Airlines mile-users. The one caveat to note, however, is that American Airlines only allows the fares listed above if traveling directly to that region. In the case of the British Airways and Qatar Airways flights, they are technically flying through an extra region to get to Singapore, so your flights would be broken up into two segments and priced accordingly.

In any case, it is important to note this method when you want to find these flights. It is hard to find them otherwise.

Coveted first class tickets

At the moment I am putting a lot of effort into finding first class award tickets on a variety of airlines for a trip we are taking over Winter Break. While I recognize that we could get to where we are going on economy I have desires that are anything but. I’ve found a lot of amazing options for more miles than we have on various airlines that I would love to take. All of these options are available on the new-ish Airbus A380 (an amazing double-decker plane).

The first airline I’ve seen on my searches is Malaysia Airlines – one I did not expect to find with such a nice-looking malaysia air first class a380interior. The first class seats are all aisle access (a requisite for a nice experience) and have a pod-like atmosphere, isolating yourself from the people around you. The in-flight entertainment (IFE) looks large and the seats are quite wide (26.1 inches) with plenty of length on their bed (87 inches).

I didn’t realize Malaysia Airlines had A380 planes but when I was searching I found that they fly from London->Kuala Lumpur twice daily on flights MH001 and MH003, returning on flights MH002 and MH004. Check out their timetable for yourself here.

 

Korean-Air-A380-first-class-pic-470Korean Air has also been a fascination of mine ever since I discovered they were a transfer partner for Chase Ultimate Rewards points. You can take 1,000 point chunks from your account and directly input them into your Korean Airlines account. While the redemptions can be exorbitant (142,500 for a one-way first class ticket from JFK->Bali) they have a lot of availability.

Their first class product is also in pod-styles with all aisle access with a divided that can go up or down in the middle two seats. Their seats are wider than on Malaysia Airlines at 26.5 inches but their bed is shorter at 79 inches long. They fly twice daily between JFK and Seoul on flights KE082 and KE 086 and return on KE081 and KE 085.

singapore air first class seatsThe créme-dela-créme to me, however, is the Singapore Airlines first class product. They are also designed in all aisle access fashion as small cubicles with doors that close on either side. The two seats in the middle can be purchased together and then share space as can be seen in this photo. The seats are very comfortable and have 35 inches of width with 81 inches of bed-length when closed. As you can see from the photo it does not feel like you are on a plane – it looks more like a fancy resting area in a lounge.

To top it all off, when it is converted to a bed for two in the middle, it looks like Singapore-Airlines-Airbus-A380-First-Class-Suite doublethe photo on the right. It looks quite cushy, although you are warned not to take advantage of the situation too much, especially since there is no roof to the cubicle and the flight attendants can easily see inside.

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I recognize that there are other major airlines out there with incredible first-class products but these are the ones I currently have access to and am pondering for various trips. I can’t wait to take advantage of the situation soon and flight on one of these bad boys!

The return trip in first class (Costa Rica adventures part 3)

IMG_3514With some advanced planning, my fiancée and I were able to return home from Costa Rica with two first-class tickets via Honduras. While our time in Honduras was enjoyable it was not enormously remarkable due to the fact that we flew on January 1st when most (if not all) businesses were closed. Our taxi driver was quite nice and brought us to a food court-like outdoor area with a few family-owned lunch places open. We had an amazing plate of fried fish, plantains, rice, and beans for only $5!
Screen Shot 2015-01-03 at 6.24.02 PMOur flights back were award tickets booked through the United website. Since there were no saver (read: cheaper) tickets available from United, we opted to get flights on Copa Airlines and Avianca Airlines, connecting in San Pedro Sula, Honduras (yes, it is the murder capital of the world, though not as dangerous as you would think in the center of the city). Since both airlines are within the Star Alliance, it was actually cheaper to book with them due to United’s partner award rule chart.

The first class product on Copa Airlines was quite an experience. We had access to the VIP lounge in the San Jose airport; we were treated to a simple snack/meal on the plane; and we were given blankets to keep ourselves warm. It was a short flight but very smooth with good service. There was, unfortunately, no non-meat option for the snack so my fiancée was a bit upset.

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The flight from San Pedro Sula, Honduras to JFK airport was of a higher quality for a longer flight. The seats were comfier, there was an in-flight entertainment system with many new release movies (as well as some older ones), and the food was plentiful. For this flight my fiancée made sure there was a non-meat option for her to eat (in this case fish). The service from the flight attendants was wonderful and we also received an amenities package in a TUMI case – quite fancy. From start to finish the experience was high quality.

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