Friday, July 29, 2011

Tokyo/Vietnam July 2011 - Japan Airlines 751 Economy Class (NRT - HAN)

***This post is part 5 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I wanted to avoid the Tokyo Metro on my way to NRT. Despite finally getting slightly comfortable with finding my way through the maze of tracks and transfers, I didn't want any last minute snags that would cause a repeat of my adventure to the airport at the beginning of this journey.

I booked the Airport Limo Bus for $37 from my hotel, which sounded a little steep, but since NRT is about an hour and a half outside of central Tokyo, it really wasn't bad at all. Pickup was directly in front of the hotel, and we continued on to three other pickup points before going on our way. The bus was quite comfortable, and another plus is the Tokyo scenery you get to see along the way.

Once at NRT, I noticed that Japan Airlines had a number of self check-in kiosks which I tried to use, but since I had applied for a Vietnam visa on arrival and didn't have it with me, an agent eventually directed me to the counter where the lady had to ask a supervisor how to deal with my situation, and then proceeded to made copies of my passport and visa approval form.

I made my way through security (love security checks at Asian airports - extremely fast and courteous) and grabbed a bite to eat upstairs at the food court. I must say, NRT seemed a bit bleak when it came to shopping and eating, especially compared to the newer mega-airports all over Asia. A quick tram ride over to Terminal 2 and I arrived at Gate 81 to wait for my flight to Hanoi.

Japan Airline 751
Boeing 767-300
Tokyo Narita (NRT) - Hanoi (HAN)
Monday July 4, 2011
Departure: 5:55 PM (scheduled) / 5:53 PM (actual)
Arrival: 9:40 PM (scheduled) / 9:29 PM (actual)
Duration: 5h 45m (scheduled) / 5h 36m (actual)
Seat: 18C (Economy)

The seats on our 767-300 were a bit more dated than my previous flight, but overall, the interior looked extremely well-maintained. There was AVOD at every seat, which surprised me a little considering the flight was a relatively short 5 1/2 hours. Initially I had an aisle seat on the left side of the plane, but by the time boarding had ended, the window seat next to me at 18A remained empty, so I quickly moved over to snap some pictures along the way. Typically I like to choose aisle seats for any flight over two hours since I have a tendency to drink a lot of water on the plane, resulting in... well, you know.

Takeoff was uneventful. There was quite a bit of turbulence leaving NRT, but seatbelt lights were turned off about 20 minutes out. Drinks and meal service started shortly after that. Dinner consisted of a simple Japanese-style beef bowl with a side of wasabi-seasoned cold noodles. A separate dish contained small appetizers such as fish cake, pickled radish and steamed egg. Dessert was a Haagen Dazs vanilla ice cream.

While the taste was not as great as the previous JL flight from SFO, this was definitely good and filling enough for a flight of this duration. Green tea was offered after the meal. For some reason, I just enjoy Japanese green tea a lot more than other types... maybe the deep flavor makes me think it's healthier for some illogical reason.

After the sun had set, I decided to explore the AVOD system. Choices were rather limited, but one movie was all anyone could really fit in on this flight anyways. There were a couple of newer Hollywood movies, and I decided to watch the Disney animated film "Tangled" since it was short and probably didn't require a lot of concentration. By the time the movie ended, I still had about two hours of flight time left, but with a quick nap, and I awoke to the start of our descent into Hanoi.

There was no trouble with landing today (thankfully), but once inside the arrivals area, I quickly realized I was in trouble. As I mentioned above, I had a Vietnam visa on arrival approval form, but I didn't know exactly what to expect once I got there. Well, first, I stood with my form in the foreign passport holders line, waiting for entry. A security officer noticed that I was holding the approval form and asked me if I had a visa already. I shook my head, and he casually pointed for me to go back around the corner.

I looked around and saw a small visa office with glass windows. I first stood in a line with number of other Westerners. I asked if this is where I get the visa on arrival. Someone said yes, but I needed to hand over my approval form and my passport first at another window on the other side of the office. The whole thing was just strange and a little confusing since there were no clear signs as to where to go or what to do. In any case, I went over and gave them my passport and forms (along with a passport photo), and then went back to stand in line.

At that point, my heart suddenly sank as I realized I needed to pay the visa on arrival fee of $25 in US dollars - no Vietnamese dongs, no credit cards. I quickly looked around and saw no currency exchange booths, and all I had in my pocket were Japanese yens that I had hoped I could exchange once I arrived. Freaking out a little, I started to ask people in line if they had any dollars I could borrow. Most looked at me as if I were insane, but the lady in front of me was nice enough to suggest that I ask the officers inside first if there were any other methods of payment, and if not, she would help out.

It was then that I suddenly realized that I still had a reserve of US dollars hidden on my carry-on backpack. I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I looked and saw the stash of bills folded up. Sometimes when traveling, I lose track of these important things... I will definitely have to be more on top of rules and regulations next time.

Finally, I located my checked luggage and saw my hotel driver the moment I stepped into the arrivals hall. We headed out into the heat and humidity of Hanoi - even at 10:00 pm - and needless to say, it was a bit of a culture shock to go from the well-organized and seamless Narita to the literal cluster%@#* that was Noi Bai International. Taxi cab peddlers approached at every step practically grabbing at your luggage directing you to their car. Luckily, my driver shooed them away and soon we were out of the airport for the 40 minute drive into town.

US Airways Premier World MasterCard 40,000 Bonus Miles

This is the best bonus offer I've seen so far from US Airways and Barclays. 40,000 Dividend Miles after your first use, in addition to 10,000 miles after the first anniversary of your account opening (and every anniversary after that). As with all US Airways promotions, you can also earn another 10,000 miles based on balance transfers within the first 30 days. This is typically not worth it though because of the fees associated with them.

Barclays rarely waives the annual fee for the first year, but this bonus offer actually does just that, saving you an additional $89. You'll earn 2 miles for every $1 spent on US Airways purchases, and 1 mile for every $1 spent elsewhere.

This card is actually quite packed with benefits, including the following:
  • Earn 10,000 miles towards Dividend Miles Preferred status (after $25,000 in spend within one year of account opening)
  • Up to two $99 companion tickets annually (minimum fare purchase of $250 required)
  • Preferred check-in
  • Preferred Zone 2 boarding
  • One complimentary US Airways Club day pass annually
  • Discount on annual US Airways Club membership
Primary cardmembers will also receive a 5,000 mile discount on all eligible award redemptions. So a domestic award within the U.S. will only cost 20,000 Dividend Miles instead of 25,000. Note that this is only for award flights operated by US Airways or US Airways Express.

And finally, Barclays has a bad habit of automatically approving you for a downgraded card with lesser benefits when you apply for their Premier World MasterCard. For example, you apply for the Premier World MasterCard expecting to receive a 40,000 mile bonus, but what you actually receive in the mail is their World MasterCard or Platinum MasterCard with a much lower bonus and benefits. In the terms and conditions for this offer, however, it seems they have specified that both the Premier World MasterCard and the Platinum MasterCard will receive the 40,000 mile bonus. No word on the World MasterCard, so proceed at your own risk.

Monday, July 25, 2011

3,000 SPG Points For 3 Minutes Of Your Time

I hit the first year anniversary on my Starwood Preferred Guest American Express this month, and unfortunately that meant the $65 annual fee showed up as expected on my statement. As I've mentioned in a previous post, the SPG AMEX is one of my go-to cards, and its points are extremely valuable as well as versatile.

Typically, I only apply for credit cards that have the first year annual fee waived (as in this case), and I always cancel the account prior to hitting the first anniversary. However, I really just like this card too much to let it go... hence I ponied up the $65 without much hesitation.

But before giving up too easily, I decided to give American Express a quick call to ask if there was any way to waive or reduce the annual fee, since I was "contemplating canceling the card". At the same time, I told them I use this card all the time and I really enjoy the benefits, so anything they could do to "ease the pain" of the annual fee would be greatly appreciated. Without even a second thought, the customer service representative said that while there was no way she could waive the annual fee, she could give me 3,000 SPG points as a goodwill gesture for keeping the card. I wasn't about to push my luck, so I quickly thanked her and accepted the offer. Within three days, the points posted to my SPG account.

Not bad for a three minute phone call! If your annual fee for the SPG AMEX recently hit, I'd definitely suggest giving them a call to see what they can do for you. Anecdotal evidence on Flyertalk suggests most people received at least 3,000 points just for keeping their account open. (A word of caution though, do not call prior to your annual fee showing up on your statement - I tried calling a number of times before that, and no dice each time)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tokyo/Vietnam July 2011 - Exploring Tokyo

***This post is part 4 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Tokyo is a metropolis of more than 13 million people spread out over 23 special wards and 39 municipalities. To attempt to explore the city in three days is generally considered an act of sheer folly. But try I did, and perhaps I didn't even get to scratch the surface, but at the very least, I was able to polish it a bit and get a better look.

The first thing one notices about Tokyo is probably its ubiquitous metro system. Just about every other block has a station, and once inside, you can whisk yourself away to virtually every corner of the city. It's clean, efficient, and timed down to the exact minute. One interesting fact is that there are almost no trash cans at all in or near the metro (or even around the city for that matter) due to the Sarin gas terrorist attacks in 1995. However, the entire system is spotless. The Japanese people just learned to carry their trash until they reach their office or home. Pretty amazing.

That's the upside. The downside? If you are visiting Tokyo for the first time, you will get lost - guaranteed. This is due to a number of reasons, the first being there are just so many different lines, with many being operated by different companies. Hence, buying a ticket on one may not get you on the others. You can, however, buy a reloadable Suica card that is accepted on almost all routes. Also, some lines seem to have announcements translated to English, yet others don't. Most confusing of all, not all metro maps are made equal... some maps don't show all the stations for certain lines, which makes life a living hell when you're trying to find your way around. The picture below gives you an idea of the tangled web that is the Tokyo metro system:


JR Line in Harajuku

During the planning stages, I knew I wanted to keep my time in Tokyo relatively free so that I could just hang out with my friend strolling through quiet neighborhoods of Harajuku, trying out a number of hole-in-the-wall restaurants, or window shopping in Shinjuku and Shibuya. But I had also identified a couple of sites I definitely wanted to see - first of which was the Tsukiji Fish Market. 

Unfortunately, I read that the famous early morning auction in the market has been closed to tourists indefinitely due to the recent earthquake, and I was sad to learn that that was indeed the case when I arrived. But more important was my mission to try some of the freshest, best-tasting sushi I've ever had. And that I definitely accomplished :) 

 Fish market to the left, start of the restaurant wait line on the right

The two most famous sushi restaurants in the fish market - Daiwa Sushi and Sushidai - are right next to each other. Keep in mind, however, when I say "restaurant", I mean a tiny, narrow corridor with one sushi bar capable of seating maybe 12 people at most. This was the case with Sushidai. We arrived at the restaurant at 11 am, and didn't get seated until 2 pm, so that should give you an idea of the wait. The general idea is to get there as early as possible... obviously advice that was not heeded by us!

But the sushi... OMG the sushi. It's hard to describe something that tastes so good, unlike any sushi I've ever tasted in the States. Even the uni (sea urchin), which I usually despise, had none of the pungent ocean taste that is associated with it. Instead, it was creamy, buttery, and so delicious. And I truly doubt I will ever have a better piece of toro (fatty tuna) in my life. There are only 2 sets that you can order on the menu - the large and small. The larger omakase set cost approximately $50 USD, which was quite reasonable given the quality.

On the outside looking into Sushidai

  Maguro, uni, mackeral, toro

It's amazing to me how crowded Tokyo is, yet everything flows like clockwork here. Rules are always obeyed... which leads to some very surreal situations. You can have maybe 30 people waiting to cross a tiny, one-lane alley with no cars in sight, yet not one single person will step onto the pavement to cross before the light turns green. And I don't even think I heard one car horn the entire time I was there. There is probably no better example of how smoothly Tokyo runs than the famous "busiest crosswalk in the world" in Shibuya. Somehow, it just works.

Shopping district in Ginza

Remember this orderly street before reading about Hanoi :)

Cool Prada building in Harajuku

One of the "smaller" skyscrapers in Shinjuku

Probably my favorite place in Tokyo that I visited was the Meiji Shrine. Built in 1920 in commemoration of Emporer Meiji, it is an oasis in the middle of the concrete jungle. Once you enter, the calm envelops you, and you just want to sit under the canopy of trees and enjoy the beautiful wooden structures surrounding you. I could have stayed there an entire day.

Hand-washing station before entering

You can buy a wood placard and write down your prayers

There was a wedding procession that day

On my last day there, my flight departed at 5:55 pm, so that gave me pretty much a full day to explore the city some more. I decided to visit the Tokyo Tower to get in some nice shots, and then on to Zojoji Temple, where the graves of six Tokugawa shoguns are housed. The tower itself is nothing special... modeled directly after the Eiffel Tower, it has a dubious paint scheme, and unfortunately, the observation deck was closed due to the earthquake. But I've heard there are much better viewing platforms elsewhere in the city anyways.

Tip of the antenna still damaged from the earthquake

Zojoji Temple prayer flags

I definitely want to return to Japan sometime in the near future to do a more in-depth tour of the country. It's an absolutely beautiful place and I can only imagine what all the sights outside of Tokyo are like. I'll leave you with one more shot of the best tempura I've ever had. It's dipped in sea salt so as to not ruin the crunchiness of the batter. Also with grilled mushrooms and soba in duck soup.

Get Airline Tickets With Reduced Federal Taxes?

As of midnight today, the Federal Aviation Administration has been partially shut down due to Congressional failure to pass an extension of the agency's operating authority. Partisan bickering over labor provisions and air services subsidies to rural communities are the main reasons for the deadlock, and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight.

What this means for us consumers is as of half an hour ago, the FAA is no longer able to collect portions of the federal taxes charged on airline tickets. About half of the taxes goes to a trust fund that pays for FAA programs and employees (including the excise tax, international arrival/departure tax, and the flight segment tax). This is the half that the government can no longer collect. The other half goes towards airport and security fees that will continue to be charged.

According to the Virgin America FAQ regarding the federal tax situation found here, the following is the breakdown of which taxes are still being charged and which are no longer being collected:

Which taxes have expired – and which ones still exist?

  • The federal taxes that will temporarily expire at 12:01am Pacific time on July 23, 2011 are:
    • The 7.5% tax that applies to domestic transportation (as well the 7.5% tax on the sale of frequent flyer miles)
    • The $3.70 domestic segment tax
    • The $16.30 international arrival/departure tax

  • The federal taxes still in place:
    • Commercial Fuel Tax
    • PFCs (tax code XF)
    • September 11 Passenger Security Fee (tax code AY)
    • APHIS passenger inspection fee (tax code XA)
    • APHIS aircraft inspection fee (tax code XA)
    • Customs passenger inspection fee (tax code YC)
    • Immigration passenger inspection fee (tax code XY)

The issue gets a little more complicated, however. What isn't clear is whether or not people who purchased tickets earlier paying full federal taxes will now be owed a refund if they fly during this period of time. And what's more, if you purchase a ticket now and don't pay a portion of the federal taxes, no one knows for sure if you will then owe that amount when the time comes for you to fly - assuming the dispute is resolved and the compromise bill is passed beforehand. Since federal taxes are based on your date of travel, this becomes a big question mark. The IRS will need to issue a guidance soon to clarify all of this.

But for now, I'm seeing reductions in airlines fares all around, starting with an email from Virgin America urging us to "Grab a seat with fewer federal taxes for a limited time only." United Airlines also appears to have stopped charging portions of the federal tax. Other itineraries I've been keeping track of have dropped $20-$60. Beware though, because unless there is a guarantee from the airline, which seems to be the case with Virgin America's promotion, there is no promise you won't be required to pay the taxes at a later date.

Finally, what's also interesting in the list above is that it states the 7.5% federal tax on the sale of frequent flyer miles has also been suspended. I'm not aware of any big promotions right now like the US Airways 100% bonus on purchased miles that just ended last month, but if anyone knows of any other promotion going on, it might be a good time to buy.

(EDIT: Unfortunately, it looks like all good things must come to an end. Most airlines have already adjusted their prices upwards to offset the savings from the eliminated federal taxes. As of midnight 7/24/2011, only Virgin America and Alaska Airlines are still offering reduced fares, but I don't expect these to last very much longer either.)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Tokyo/Vietnam July 2011 - Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku Hotel

***This post is part 3 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Let me just preface this by saying that hotel rooms in Japan are small. Unless you're willing to pay an arm and a leg for a high-end property, be prepared for a hole-in-the-wall room. However, with that out of the way, I have to say that the Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku Hotel is a very good hotel for the price it charges. I paid $99/night for a single, which consists of a full-sized bed that pretty much takes up the entire room. Very simple decor, nice flat-screen TV, and a bathroom that serves it's purpose... what else could you ask for in this expensive area of Tokyo? :)

Lobby area

The best part about this hotel is it's location. And I believe it's a combination of this reason and the overall value that the Sunroute is ranked #3 on TripAdvisor for Shibuya hotels (despite it's actual location in Shinjuku). It is a five minute walk from the massive Shinjuku Station, which has access to a number of different subway lines that extend throughout Tokyo. There are tons of restaurants and shopping opportunities nearby; the convenience cannot be overstated. A nice-looking restaurant is on-site, but with so many good eats in and around the city, I couldn't justify spending my time there.

Fairly quiet street outside the hotel

The only downside I can say about the Sunroute is that there was no WiFi offered in the room. WiFi was only available in and around the business center on the second floor, and would cut off every so often. There were four computers in the center for guest use.

The reception desk workers were very friendly and helpful whenever I had a question about places to go. They were all fairly proficient in English.

Before checking out, I decided I didn't want to lug my bags through the subway system again, especially not to Narita. So I booked a seat on the Airport Limo Bus with the hotel, with the total cost coming to $37 USD... a lot more than taking the subway, but worth it in my opinion given the comfort and ease.

The Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku Hotel is a great value for Tokyo and is situated in a very convenient location. I would definitely recommend this hotel for anyone headed there. Although perhaps next time, I'll take advantage of the two free nights offered with the Hyatt Chase Visa Signature and stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo :)