Argentina – Tango, Waterfalls, and Malbec

On March 22nd of this year, American Airlines put into effect a new mileage award chart that had some pretty significant changes. I was still sitting on quite a few of their miles and thinking about where and when I could go. So, on March 20th, I booked a trip to a part of the world that was on my list to go to while it was still a pretty good value. Tomorrow, I will start the trip by flying round trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina. On the overnight trip down, I will fly first class for 62,500 miles and return in business class for 50,000 miles. By comparison, those trips now cost 85,000 and 57,500 miles, respectively, and would now be 30,000 miles more than when I booked. Very savvy move on my part, no doubt.

This will be a fairly quick trip as I will only be there for a week but have plans to get in a couple of stops in addition to the capital city of which I’ve heard many positive reviews. I haven’t packed yet, but suspect I will be going fairly light as the weather will be consistent and there will not be any formal occasions to worry about. Argentina is now coming into the spring season and weather looks like it will be in the mid-60’s to mid-70’s most days with a good chance of avoiding rain.

Voy a actualizar pronto de América del Sur!

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Big Disappointment with American Airlines

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned I was able to secure an AA flight with their new business configuration with four lie-flat seats per row giving everyone aisle access. Well, big disappointment on boarding as we were in their old 767 configuration with six seats across meaning that the window seats have to get past the aisle passenger to get up.

The middle and far side seats on this old 737-300 config

The middle and far side seats on this old 737-300 config

These are not lie-flat seats, but angled seats in full recline and they don’t have individual entertainment screens which AA tries to compensate for by giving business class passengers a personal tablet with the entertainment offerings, but look how that looks in practice..

Two tray tables, the tablet, and the power cord have to move. More complicated once the meal is served.

Two tray tables, the tablet, and the power cord have to move. Even more complicated when meal is served.

If the window passenger wants out during the flight, it is a major operation on the part of the aisle passenger.

As of the day before the flight, the seating chart still showed the new configuration with me sitting in 3A. No one could explain why there was a change of equipment and there was no notice. Luckily, the guys who had 3B actually prefers the window so we traded so I could be on the aisle. I would much rather be bothered by the window passenger getting out than feeling bad for bothering the aisle passenger multiple times on the flight.

Am I crying about first world problems? Yes, maybe. But, these seats sell for around $3,000 round trip so expecting what was promised is not unreasonable, in my opinion.

I will point out that the cabin staff were excellent and all operations ran on-time. It was just a lousy piece of equipment relative to what I bought.

Stuck in Barcelona – Thanks Lufthansa

My return travel plans have been changed by the Lufthansa pilot’s strike that has now entered its third day.  All flights from Barcelona to Frankfurt have been cancelled for the day and I have had no choice but to rebook for the next day.  Of course, this means another night of hotel and meals which I will have to work on being compensated for when I get home.

Pilotstrike

It will be interesting to see how Lufthansa reacts.  Typically, the European Union has some very defined protections for consumers in these situations and it is possible that I could be compensated up to 600 euros which would cover the expense, if not the inconvenience.  However, the language does make exceptions for strikes but I’m not sure if this relates to external strikes or internal ones.  I’m not sure why a problem with their own workforce would be exempted from the provisions.

I just wrote about the “protest culture” in Europe earlier this week and have posted about strikes in France previously.  On a few occasions this has had a minor impact on my plans, e.g. train strikes that require taking a different line or mode of transport, but I’ve never had a flight canceled.  But, this is not a completely unheard of thing in Europe.

I guess Barcelona is not the worst place in the world to have to spend an extra night.  I gave brief consideration to staying another couple of days in order to see Sunday’s El Clasico match between Real Madrid and Barca at the Camp Nou but I’m ready to get home to my family and a more normal routine.

Delta – What Most Travel Bloggers Get Wrong

If you spend some time looking at travel blogs around the web, you’ll find a common theme – Delta sucks.  Many of these bloggers are great experts on award travel, the points game, using credit cards to get miles, and how to find some of the best award seats and I have learned lots from many of them.  But, many of them seem to hate Delta.

But, what they really hate is Delta’s frequent flyer program.  They’ll tout the much greater availability of award flights on United or the upgrade certificates that American offers on trans-continental flights and they’ll tell you all the bad things about Delta SkyMiles – how the program keeps getting devalued, the lack of availability of low level award seats, the inability to book one way awards, and the broken Delta website search engine.  Many of these are valid points.  As a regular Delta flyer, there are some things that I think could be improved.

What they rarely talk about, however, is the quality of the flying experience.  At the end of the day, if you are a butt-in-seat traveler – and many of them are not – a frequent flyer program is only as good as the product you get to experience in the end.

For example, I recently used award miles to fly some long haul flights on United.  United is often touted as one of the best frequent flyer programs on the market, largely due to award availability and their Star Alliance membership.  My first flights occurred during the “polar vortex” and United simply froze up.  Seriously.  You could not even get in the queue on the telephone, their Twitter service offered to rebook me, for only part of my journey, five days hence, and my email to them got a response over a week later basically saying, “We hope it worked out for you.”  Yes, there was some bad weather, but United’s systems imploded.  If not for some local counter agents who were great to work with – and don’t actually work for United – I might have never gotten on with my trip.

Then, on my return flight to Chicago from Frankfurt, Germany, I experienced their 777 business class product that has the most cramped business class I could have imagined with eight seats across vs. the four that Delta puts on that same piece of equipment.  Four seats in the middle in business class…wow.  And, then there is the constant moan I hear from frequent flyers on United who, since the merger with Continental, have only experienced pain and suffering and a devaluing of their benefits.

So, while United miles may be great as to award availability, the actual experience may not be that great.  US Air, which recently merged with American, is also a Star Alliance member.  But, fly a few times on their airline and you will soon be cured of any desire to do in the future, especially if you have to go through one of their biggest hubs in Philadelphia.

Delta offers the best in-flight product and customer service of any of the “legacy” carriers in the U.S.  Perhaps my view is a bit skewed as a Diamond Medallion member, but it seems like Delta keeps winning the rankings of major domestic carriers as was recently reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Airline Rankings 2013

Airline Rankings 2013

Look at the chart and tell me how much you would want to fly on United week in and week out?

Delta recently introduced upgrade certificates on international flights to be more competitive with American’s offering.  They already have a better policy for redepositing award tickets as long as it is done more than 72 hours prior to travel.  They recently introduced a change to their Sky Club access that was almost universally panned by the blogger community but applauded by people like myself.  Again, there seems to be a vast gulf between the perceptions of those who travel primarily for award travel accrued by credit card spend and those of us who are on planes pretty much every week.

That’s what they get wrong.

United’s 777 Business Class – FRA – ORD – LEX

After the quick overnight in Frankfurt, it was time to finish up the trip with United in their newly configured Boeing 777-200 business class.  Of course, I was happy to be flying business class instead of economy for this nine hour flight but, overall, disappointed with this product offering.  Here are the pros and cons of this business seat.

What I didn’t like about the seat

  • First, they are crammed in with 8 seats per row in a 2-4-2 configuration.  I’ve never seen this kind of density in trans-continental business class.  They are able to offer 40 seats in this class, as a result, but with little privacy and difficult aisle access for windows and middle passengers.
  • Very little privacy and not much room.  There is a shared armrest but no seat back pouch or any other real area to store small items.  Luckily, the section was not very full and I was able to move to an aisle with and empty seat beside me.  If I had not been able to do that, it would have been a much worse experience.
  • The aisle seats feature armrests, on the aisle side, that are designed to move to different heights.  In both seats that I sat in, it was extremely difficult to get them to lock into place.  The first one would not lock at all and the second had to periodically slammed into position.  It sounds like a small thing but having a floating arm rest is not comfortable for nine hours.
  • The length of the seat in lie flat position was good, but very narrow.  It really almost impossible to turn onto your side in the lie flat position without being pretty ramrod straight.

What I did like about the seat

  • I’ve read other reviews that say that the seat is too short but I do not concur.  I’m 6′ 2″ and the seat was plenty long when in lie flat position.
  • The seat comfort was pretty good in most upright positions.
  • The AVOD system was very good.  The screen was beautiful and, I’d guess, about 17″ in size.  A good selection of options and a remote that was very responsive.

The food service on the flight was fine.  I didn’t particularly care for the main course options, but others may have loved them.  I also thought the flight attendants that I interacted with were great.  I’ve read many reviews in the past year about “surly” flight crews, but my experience on this flight was just the opposite.

Overall, it was disappointing compared to my usual experience with Delta who, by contrast, have only four seats across on their transcontinental 777 business class configuration.

After a 3 hours stop in Chicago, I finished my trip with a short one and a half hop down to LEX, arriving right on time despite another round of snow and freezing temps in both Chicago and Lexington.

Headed Home on Thai Air – PEN – BKK – FRA

I’ve never flown Thai Air before but had a short 2 hour flight this morning from Phnom Penh to Bangkok where I picked up my 12 hour flight to Frankfurt, Germany for overnight stay.  My seats were booked in their “Royal Silk” business class so was looking forward to their offering.

What I Liked about Thai

  • Service was very attentive and professional
  • The menu and wine list impressive if one is into high cuisine.  There was some stuff I tried that I didn’t particularly care for but it was all presented nicely.  For instance, the various appetizers and sides included foie de gras, salmon, shrimp, and various items that I do not recognize and did not particularly care for, to be honest.
  • I’m not a wine connoisseur but was impressed they were serving a 2004 Bordeaux as an option.
  • In Bangkok, they have a spa where they provide a complimentary massage pre-fight.  You can choose a neck and shoulders or foot massage.  I opted for the neck and shoulders which lasted about 20 minutes and was very good.
  • While I didn’t really partake of it, their food selection in their business lounge was pretty varied and had enough heft that one could make a meal of it.

What I Didn’t Like about Thai

  • Really only one thing, their business class seat.  I was on the Airbus 340-600 with an angled lie-flat seat.  It just wasn’t very comfortable in any position.  And, it was very noisy when changing positions as the person across the aisle seemed to do for most of the flight.

Hilton Garden Inn – Frankfurt, Germany

Upon arrival, I was very happy with my selection of the Hilton Garden Inn at the airport.  Since I’m only staying overnight for an 8:00 a.m. flight in the morning, I wanted something easy and reliable.  I did not even have to step outside as the hotel, and the adjacent Hilton, are connected to the terminals by walkways and are just by the rail link station.

Tomorrow morning, I finish the trip.

Getting Around: Vietnam Airlines

During my initial planning of the trip, I knew my arrival airport and departure airport but did not have a firm idea of my itinerary or how I would get around within Vietnam and Cambodia. I fancied the idea of taking trains, buses, and boats, but had to balance those ideas with the practicalities of how much ground I have to cover in a limited time.

Vietnam covers a lot of ground between Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south. Ultimately, I decided on flying between my major destinations as it was the most time efficient and the costs are very reasonable. I will be flying Vietnam Airlines for all my major transits:

  • Hanoi to Hoi An (via Da Nang airport)
  • Hoi An to Saigon
  • Saigon to Siem Reap

The only arrangement I have not made yet is Siem Reap down to Phnom Penh as I’m still holding out the idea that I might do that leg via boat on the Mekong River.

Vietnam Airlines is a SkyTeam member and I have the privileges of my Delta status in regards to seat selection, boarding priority, checked baggage (if I had any), and the like. Costs were also reasonable with my flight from Hanoi to Da Nang running $52 USD, Da Nang to Saigon $104 USD, and Saigon to Siem Reap being the most expensive at $187 USD. At prices like these, it did not make sense to use miles for award travel.