We’re off !

Our driver arrived five minute early, I do love efficiency, and at 3.00 am we had the fastest drive ever to the airport, which was just over twenty minutes instead of the normal 45 minutes.
Check-in went smoothly and our bags checked through to Rome. We were given vouchers for a hotel near Dubai airport, Le Meridian.
We had been told that Sydney airport didn’t open until 4.00 am, but it actually opens at 3.00 am, but emigration & security didn’t open until 4.00 am so we had to hang around for about fifteen minutes.

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I’ve never seen Sydney airport so quiet.

Once in the emigration line we inserted our passports to a scanner and stood while our photograph was taken, and I suppose compared to the passport. The whole process took about thirty seconds, and we had existed Australia.
Next stop was security – due to my pacemaker I couldn’t pass through the normal X-ray machine, but was asked to stand in a see-through box with my arms up and I was checked out. I was told that this security system did not allow any forms of ‘waves’ to pass through the body so was safe for pacemakers.

A five minute walk had us at the entrance to Emirates Business Class Lounge – a beautiful spotless waiting area with a large choice of food and drink. I had some very nice coffee, fruit and juice, which was all that I wanted, and of course a glass of Moet Champaign. After all, one doesn’t want to waste the opportunity of a glass of Moet even at 4.00 am!

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The call to board was made around 40 minutes before take-off, not a problem as the aircraft was not full, and we had to use the lift to go down to the boarding level.
Maureen had a window seat and my seat was behind. The layout is such that the business class seats are not behind each other, but staggered. My seat was behind Maureen’s stowage areas, which was also where my TV screen was located and my footrest area. This allows each seat to be converted in to a flatbed if the passenger wishes to sleep. Before we had taken off the cabin crew were offering mattresses for those who wished to sleep once we had reached cruising altitude.

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The area to the left of my screen was the rear of Maureen’s seat, which was next to her window.

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The above picture was taken from my seat, showing that I was not next to the window. The unit to the right of the picture is the rear of Maureen’s seat.
Once at cruising altitude the crew came around to take our breakfast orders.

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 I chose the granola with vanilla yoghurt & pomegranate seeds.

As I write this on my laptop (universal power sockets located at each seat) we have been flying for 4.5 hours and we are still over Australia.

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The sun is chasing us as we fly north west over Australia.

Breakfast went well, after which we all settled down to watch films, read or sleep.

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I couldn’t help but watch The Magnificent Seven, just one more time.

Maureen & I had our window blinds ‘open’ to watch the passing scenery as we flew over Australia. I found it strange that all through the fourteen-hour flight many passengers, a little further back from where we were sitting, never opened their window blinds throughout the flight, and just sat in the dark.

DSC08395rQuite often Maureen prefers to watch the pasting view rather than watch TV.

The toilets were in the rear of the upper business class section, so when visiting the facilities and walking through the darkened area, I found it slightly depressing that so many were sitting in the dark when it was full daylight.

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The one happy area after the darkened section was the bar. It was never crowded, with just six to ten people sitting or standing around chatting. I had a lengthy conversation with the Chinese barman (he took this photograph), who had worked for Emirates for over three years. He was interesting and in my opinion an asset to the airline.

DSC08407rLater back at our seats it was lunchtime.

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I forgot to photograph the first course and decided to have cheese instead of something sweet.

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After floating in the air for just over fourteen hours we approached Dubai.

Although I enjoyed the overall experience of flying business class in an AB 380, I think I prefer business class in a B787, which is much smaller, and for me, a more personal experience. Flying in a B787 allows the cabin staff to be attentive to each individual passenger that one can be addressed by name, without interrogating a iPad before speaking.
On our flight, there were seventy-six business class seats in our section, so is it any wonder we hardly saw a cabin crew member other than rushing back and forth with trays of food.
The B 787 has twenty-two business class seats and even with far less staff they managed to build a small personal relationship with each passenger. If you would like something in between the AB 380 and the smaller B787 try the B777/ER business class with forty-two seats. Having experienced both the B787 and the B777/ER I enjoyed both, and the largest toilet I’d ever seen, after flying with over fifty different airlines, the B777 wins hands down.

On arrival in Dubai I could not fault Emirates Airlines for the efficiency of their operation. We had been given fast track cards that saw us through immigration very quickly.

Our main suitcases had been tagged all the way to Rome, so we didn’t have to worry about baggage on arrival. Once through the normal procedure we were shown where to go for our chauffeured car to the Le Meridian Hotel for our overnight stay. The driver was waiting, and we were quickly on our way to the hotel. At the hotel, where we were guided through a dedicated Emirates check-in area.
As one staff member checked us in another offered us vouchers for lunch, dinner and breakfast. We didn’t require lunch having eaten during our flight.
We followed a porter to our room in a special section of the hotel for transit Emirates passengers.

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DSC08416rThe two above pictures show our room.

Our onward flight was scheduled to depart the following day at 9.10 am.

DSC08418rInside the Dubliner – Guinness :-o)

Later we had a look around the hotel and a complete area was set aside for assorted styles of restaurants from an Irish pub (called the Dubliner), to Thai, Middle Eastern and other types of food. Clutching our dinner voucher, we wondered through each area and were shown special menus that listed various dishes for transit passengers.
The only thing that we paid for was my beer, Guinness of course, in the Dubliner, chilled, thick and tasty and Italian beer in the outside restaurant that we picked for our evening meal. Soft drinks for Maureen were included in the voucher. The burning heat of the day had passed by the time we sat down and the warm breeze added to the enjoyment as evening turned in to night. With such a wide choice of food it was funny that we both chose a New Zealand steak and salad.

DSC08419rFor breakfast, before being taken to the departure area for the next leg of our journey, we had a large choice of food.

Flying North for the Winter – part two

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Once the decision had been made to join the Majestic Princess in Rome, and to sail back to Singapore, the next thought was how to get to Rome and home from Singapore.

I checked various airlines that we have used in the past, and considered the cost via each one, but as one gets older one wants that little bit of ease and comfort.

The cost to fly in to Asia, and then over night, and fly daylight to Rome was higher than I expected, so I looked at flying direct from Sydney to the Middle East and then on to Europe.

Taking in to account the passenger comments on Skytrax I fancied Emirates Airline, AB 380, even though we haven’t flown with this airline before. The price was ‘right’ for a multi-stop ticket, and we would be able to break the journey.

From Sydney to Dubai, to connect with the Dubai to Rome flight, is a fourteen hours and fifteen minutes flight from Sydney. We had the choice of two take off times, 6.00 am or 9.10 pm. We do enjoy day time flying, which allows us to enjoy the whole experience rather than sleeping through much of the transit over Australia.

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We picked the 6.00 am flight, which would require us to leave home at 3.00 am  . . .

The advantage of flying business class with Emirates is that they offered us a chauffeured car that would pick us up at 3.00 am and have us checking in around 4.00 am, this sounded fine with us.

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Once we have checked-in we will be escorted to the Emirates business class lounge at Sydney airport. Although they code share on many flights with Qantas they do have their own Business / First class lounge, which is in addition to Qantas’ own lounges.

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EKsyd15-1024x768Champaign breakfast and scrabbled eggs?

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AB 380 business class seats on Emirates Airlines – plenty of stowage space and leg room, and it folds flat to make a bed if this is required.

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If we get tired of sitting (14 hours . . )
we can visit the bar at the rear of the business class section.

Menu for breakfast & lunch  on our outbound flight from Sydney to Dubai.

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Inflight dining.

2500 TV and radio channels to help pass the time. I have hopes of trying to write, but being a film buff I’ll check the films first  . . . .then maybe update the novel.

On arrival in Dubai we will be picked up and taken to a hotel (I believe it is Le Meridien) for an overnight stay. Our connection is 9.10 am the following day to Rome. A much shorter flight at 6 hours 15 minutes.

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The cost of the hotel and transport is included in the airline ticket.

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I might get the chance of a swim.

On arrival in Rome we will be met by another chauffeured car to take us to our hotel in Civitavecchia, which is the port for Rome. The drive is about 45 minutes.

We are looking forward to the whole experience.

The homeward leg starts in Singapore, after a two night stop over.

Emirates Airlines do not fly Singapore to Sydney, but they do have a code share arrangement with Qantas, so we will fly overnight from Singapore to Sydney with an Emirates flight number on the QF 82, which is an AB 300-300.

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Qantas do not fly day time flights from Singapore to Sydney, so we didn’t have any choice but to accept the night flight.

Qantas don’t offer a chauffeured car for their business class passengers flying to / from Asia, which will mean that we will make our own way to Singapore airport, and from Sydney airport to home. This will not be a problem, but the difference in service was noticeable. Emirates Airline fly Singapore to Melbourne with their own aircraft, and if we lived in Melbourne, Emirates would have offered the chauffeured car, even though we are ‘short-haul’ from Asia.

The Emirates business class lounge in Singapore has recently be refurbished (it took six months) and reopened in April of this year. I assume that we can use this lounge with an Emirates ticket flying on a Qantas aircraft – we’ll see.

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256550_nuw-4ow4XLnFzDlS-FfwhcNZ7qONOIPq2kKQt8xN3hY   Emirates lounge – two pics above.

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Qantas Singapore lounge – two pics above – we’ll be spoilt for choice.

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Qantas business class seats on the Singapore to Sydney sector.

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Business class seating area on Qantas AB 300/300

All of the above photographs have been downloaded from the net from both Emirates and Qantas web sites.

I will be commenting on how close reality the advertised services are, and how each airline matches, exceeds or fails, to reach my expectations.

 

 

 

 

 

A parsimonious virgin, and a generous Arabian oryx

For the last twelve years my wife and I have hoarded our frequent flyer points by doing our best to only use airlines in the same ‘group’ as Virgin AtlanticVirgin_Atlantic_Airways_Logo
In May of 2014 Virgin Atlantic stopped flying to / from Australia. Our aim was to have enough points to ‘buy’ a business class round trip ticket from Sydney to Hong Kong, but the points would be valid on their partner airlines, which included Virgin Australia.new-virginaustralia-logo
Earlier this year we had notice from Virgin Atlantic that our points would be void at the end of July unless we generated some activity. Between my wife and I we had just over 142,000 points, too many to ignore.
After thinking about how to use the points we decided that we would like to visit Broome in North West Australia, a place my wife has had on her ‘bucket’ list for some time.
I checked Virgin Australia frequent flyer system to find out how many points it would cost us to fly business class to Perth. The required number of points one way was 36,500 – so we would need 146,000 points in total, which would require us to buy an additional 4000 points from Virgin Atlantic.
As a member of the Virgin Atlantic frequent Flying Club this would not be difficult. I made a note of the times and flights that we would like to use, because I knew that I would have to go through Virgin Atlantic in the UK to book tickets on any partner airline, which included Virgin Australia – not a problem I thought as Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia where in the same ‘camp’.
I rang Virgin Atlantic UK and spoke to a very helpful staff member, and told him that I would like to book two business class seats from Sydney to Perth. He asked me to hold while he checked the seven pages of regulations for Virgin Australia frequent flyer seats. Eventually he came back on line and told me that Virgin Australia didn’t allow frequent flyer business class tickets for short haul flights. Sydney to Perth is about five and a half hours, which is just short of flying from London to Kuwait (six hours), or New York to Panama City (five and a half hours), so I asked what was long haul for this airline, Sydney to Abu Dhabi (thirteen hours fifty five minutes) or Brisbane to Los Angeles (thirteen hours, ten minutes), was the reply.
I ended the call to London and my wife and I discussed flying economy – which we decided to do.
A day or so later I rang Virgin Atlantic again in the UK and was asked by the computer to hold, while I listened to their adverts. I hung up after six minutes – holding on during peak phone times is not fun. In fact I spent the next three hours trying to get past a computer telling me how important I was . . . on the eighth time of trying I spoke to a real person.
I explained my request for two economy tickets to Perth and gave the flight numbers and dates – he told me that the cost in points was 40,000 each and the only available flight from Sydney was the VA 551, which departed at 7.15 am, requiring a check in around 5.15 am, which for us meant leaving home at 4.15 am (we live 45 minutes from the airport), so setting our alarm for about 3.45 am.
The only available return flight for frequent flyer points purchases from Perth for Sydney was the 5.30 am, VA 552, which would require a check-in of around 3.30 am, because we would have bags to check-in, so was it worth paying for a hotel room if we flew from Broome the previous afternoon?
At our age – 72 & 73 – the thought of very early morning starts has lost its appeal. After saving for twelve years I now wonder if it was all worthwhile being a loyal frequent flyer supporter of the Virgin group of airline companies – I don’t think so.
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Now for a much more positive comment – in the last three or four years my wife and I managed to collect 60,000 points with Qatar Airways  296px-Qatar_Airways_Logo.svgand we wished to use them to fly from Dubai to Kuala Lumpur.
I rang Qatar Airways Privilege Club number in Doha (their head office) and spoke to a very helpful lady who booked our tickets over the phone for business class from Doha to Kuala Lumpur, and when I corrected her that we wanted to fly from Dubai via Doha to our destination, she apologised because they didn’t have any business class seats from Dubai to Doha, so she would book us First Class for the one hour flight to catch the Doha to Kuala Lumpur business class flight. Now that was customer service for two people who were using points and not cash – now which airline would you use again?
For the record our flight departs Dubai at 6.30 pm local time, a sixty minute flight, and our onward flight departs at 8.05 pm local time Doha – all very civilised – and the flight time is seven hours twenty five minutes (short haul?). What a pleasure to deal with a company that honours in the sprit as well as the word, of why people collect Qatar Airways frequent flyer points.
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I post about our experiences to warn others that, in my opinion, collecting points for ‘free’ flights is not worth the effort with a virgin.

Bend the knees around the luggage.

Berlin to Prague.

All to soon we had to leave Berlin for Prague – again by train, and again I booked first class seats over the internet, via the German booking system, but on Czech rail – I had no end of trouble trying to book on the Czech system.

Only after I had paid for the tickets, via the German system, did I realise that Czech rail had a higher travelling class than First Class, called Business Class!
Who in their right mind would offer a business class service higher than first class? Let’s just say that Czech Rail First Class was not as comfortable as the Frankfurt to Berlin trip, and I am being polite.

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The 8.46 am train from platform one at Berlin’s mainline station was a huge change from the German rail first class service.

We had four seats in a compartment for six, that required us to use the corridor to change our minds. Czech-train-1stThe six-seater compartment wouldn’t have been too bad, if there had only been the four of us. Unfortunately the remaining two seats were also occupied.
With our four large suitcases – we struggled to put two suitcases on the overhead racking system – the red bags in the pictures below. We held some of our hand baggage on our knees, because the available floor space was required for our remaining suitcases, plus one of the third couple’s suitcases, so once this was completed we were unable to move our legs or feet. This was not going to make for a comfortable  five-hour journey. I hate to think what it was like in economy, because every First Class and economy class compartment was packed with holidaymakers.DSC01144c

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Unlike the French TVG trains and the German ICE trains, which have special stowage areas for suitcase and bags (see picture left) our Czech train only had the overhead netted area, which is usually only for hand baggage. Plus the Czech train was a corridor / compartment train, compared to the German open plan layout.

After we left Berlin, and settled down (after a fashion) for the journey, we, like many others, moved our suitcases in to the corridor, which caused problems for people passing along to the buffet car. The corridor, being packed with suitcases, haversacks, cardboard boxes etc discouraged people from using the buffet car, because people didn’t fancy an obstacle course to get to the buffet and then have to retrace their steps carrying food and drink.

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To be fair the Czech train was very well maintained, clean and without the large volume of baggage, the journey would have been very pleasant.

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Couldn’t knock the scenery

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Had to try for a picture of Usti nad Labem – what a town with a history. It is positioned just inside the Czech border and has changed hands so many times. It was sacked by the Swedes (they were a long way from home), later it was handed over to Austria, then handed back to Czechoslovakia, and later taken over by Germany in 1938 at the Munich agreement in an attempt of ‘Pace in our time’ – better know by the Czechs as the ‘Munich Betrayal’. Usti nad Labem was (is) part of the Sudetenland.

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Neville Chamberlain, in September 1938, arriving at a London airport waving his ‘Peace in our time’ Munich agreement, which required the Sudetenland to be handed over to Germany. The Czechs refer to it as the Munich betrayal.   

While stretching my legs (more like just standing still) in the corridor I noticed the next compartment was the Business Class compartment, with just four seats and plenty of room. Only after the occupiers of this compartment left the train, about three quarters of the way through the journey, did we spread out and take advantage of the extra space. You live an learn.

Our hotel reception area was a welcome sight after our journey, and very different. The giant fish tank was real, it was not a photograph.

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Enjoy the journey – with a credit card

Asia has a number of major hubs to Europe – Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and recently with the growth of the Chinese airlines, various Chinese cities such as Shanghai & Guangzhou (old name being Canton).

When checking which transit hub to use to buy your business class ticket consider the economy of the country where the hub is located.

Singapore – an advanced economy, which means airline tickets are expensive.
Bangkok – a very good hub, because of the competition due to the large number airlines using Bangkok airport.
Hong Kong – again an advance economy and expensive to Europe, and the economy tickets from Australia to Hong Kong are more expensive than economy tickets to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok.

Over the years I have bought airline tickets over the internet to fly with Thai Airways in Baht, Malaysian Airlines in Ringgits, Qatar Airlines in Sri Lankan rupees, Air Asia in Singapore dollars, Laos Air in USD, KLM & Iberia in Euros and they were all cheaper than travel agents or the Australian office of the airline that I wanted to use. To purchase the tickets I used a Visa card and they charge a 3% currency conversion fee, but the overall cost has always been cheaper.

A number of times we used Kuala Lumpur as a ‘hub’ to another Asian port i.e Colombo, in Sri Lanka. After doing dummy bookings from various origins such as Seam Reap, Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Rangoon, Manila etc I found Colombo to be the cheapest place to purchase business class tickets to Europe, using a quality airline.

Flying from Sydney via Kuala Lumpur to Colombo can be completed in one go, but it would be tiring and take about twelve to thirteen hours. We normally stop over for one night in a hotel near KL airport. The following day, after breakfast, we fly late morning, arriving in Colombo in time for lunch (you fly back in time from KL to Colombo). All very civilised.
Place that my wife and I have stayed during transit stops.

http://www.rumahputih.com/ -a bed and breakfast, run and owned by a Brit married to a Malaysian lady.

http://www.samasamahotels.com/ – right on the airport.
This hotel has two entrances, one is from the transit lounge, you do not enter Malaysia, and the other entrance after you have cleared customs & immigration.

http://www.theyouniqhotel.com/ – free transport to / from airport about ten minutes drive. Not to the same level as the other hotels, but clean and convenient.

http://pullmankualalumpur.com/ – we arrived in KL around 2.00 pm so had time to go in to town via the Express train system ($12 one way). Airline schedule from Sydney has changed and the arrival time is now 8.30 pm, too late to make it worth while to sleep in the city for an overnight transit stop.

We stayed a single night in Colombo after clearing customs and immigration – no visa fee to worry about because we were still in transit, and staying less than 36 hours.
http://www.paradisebeachsrilanka.com/ – about twenty minutes from the airport – hotel will arrange transport. Stayed here twice.
http://www.camelot.lk/ – not far from the Paradise Beach, same arrangements for airport transport.

Our favourite hotel in Sri Lanka is the Mount Lavinia Hotel
http://www.mountlaviniahotel.com/ but this hotel is too far for a single overnight, but a great place to stay for a few nights. The main picture at the top of this blog shows the hotel’s beach at Mount Lavinia.

The following day we leave the hotel at 6.30 am for a light breakfast in the business class lounge. Our flight departs at 9.15 am to the sound of corks popping for our Champagne breakfast.

The cost from Sydney to Europe can be anything from $5000 (via Manila) to $8000 with Qantas (via Dubai or Singapore) – for a combi ticket from Sydney, it would cost around $4000 to $4500 via an Asian port, and you do not get a break at the transit stop, but just keep on flying and this sector is usually a night flight, which means you sleep most of the way and miss out on the business class experience.

DIY – including all airfares and hotel costs, just under $3000 for a combi ticket. We do not like flying at night so we build our trips around daylight flights, and sleep in hotels, all prices are Australian dollars.

For my wife and I, the journey is part of the holiday, so flying business class part of the way is a holiday.