Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tokyo/Vietnam July 2011 - Cathay Pacific 712 First Class (BKK - HKG)

***This post is part 22 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

This was my first time ever in international first class, and something I had been looking forward to since I started collecting frequent flyer miles back in 2007. I was extremely grateful to have my first experience be on Cathay Pacific no less... to say I was excited would be a huge understatement!

Since Air Asia did not interline my checked baggage with Cathay Pacific, I had to go through immigrations to pick it up at the carousel. But with an almost 5-hour layover in BKK, I figured it would be nice to explore landside for a bit, recheck-in at the Cathay Pacific counter, and still have plenty of time to visit the lounges and relax. I visited Thailand in 2008, so I was relatively familiar with Suvarnabhumi Airport. Arrivals were on level 2, and you can take a very convenient inclined escalator (along with luggage carts) up to level 4 departures. In between, the level 3 mezzanine has a wide variety of restaurants and fast food joints catering to just about every taste.

Escalators from arrivals level 2 to departures level 4

Level 3 mezzanine

After about half an hour wandering around landside, I decided to check-in for my flight. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the Cathay Pacific counters, it was completely empty! I finally found an employee at the end of the row typing at a computer and asked her when check-in started for CX 712, to which she responded 3 hours before departure. That meant sitting on the benches for another hour or so listening to my iPod :(

Empty Cathay Pacific counters

Finally, at exactly the 3-hour mark, the employees filed out and I went to stand in line behind a very chic-looking couple with their Louis Vuitton luggage. I, on the other hand, was dressed in a t-shirt and hiking pants, backpack slung over my shoulder, and felt like a complete slob. But to be honest, after a 2-week jaunt through Vietnam, the most important thing at that point was comfort. The lady behind the counter was very courteous (despite my dress), and handed me my boarding passes all the way through to SFO, along with lounge invitations for both BKK and HKG. She also gave me an additional printed pass for the fast track security and immigration line that was separate from the normal security checkpoints.

As I approached the guard at the priority security line entrance, I swear he gave me the dirtiest look ever... I was kind of taken aback, and before I even got to him, he barked out "where is your priority line pass?!" Not saying a word, I handed him the pass and he proceeded to look intensely at it, flipping it back and forth, still with a scowl on his face. Not exactly sure what his problem was, but I'm guessing he suspected I was trying to sneak into the "special" line or something. After that, it was a breeze... security and customs literally took less than 5 minutes and I was airside.

There was a large sign immediately past customs that pointed you in the direction to all the different lounges at the airport. Unfortunately, the signage after that sort of disappeared and I wandered around Concourse G for awhile before I finally asked an employee and was directed down to Level 3 where all the lounges were. And yes, I did notice later on as I was going through my pictures that it actually does says "Airlines Lounge on 3rd Floor" on the original sign :)

Plenty of shopping and displays airside

Concourse G

Cathay Pacific operates 2 lounges at BKK, both of which service first and business class passengers together. The Concourse D lounge is a bit smaller, but I kind of preferred this one because it was a lot less crowded and very quiet. Food was sparse, consisting of some mini-hors d'oeuvres, hot dim sum, fruits, snacks, and small desserts. There were some bottom to mid-shelf alcohol for self-service, in addition to plenty of soft drinks and juices. The Concourse G lounge was very similar, just quite a bit larger, with somewhat better views of the tarmac. Food was identical, and both lounges also had WiFi and business centers with computers for passengers' use.

Concourse D lounge entrance

Food and drink offerings 

Concourse G lounge entrance

Identical food offerings as the Concourse D lounge

As the departure time got closer, it got a lot more crowded, and there were barely any seats left. Strangely, there was no announcement for the departing flight until extremely late, and most passengers had already left the lounge by then. When I got to the gate, they were doing last call and I was one of the last people on the plane.

Rushing to the gate

Cathay Pacific 712
Boeing 747-400
Bangkok (BKK) - Hong Kong (HKG)
Monday July 18, 2011
Departure: 4:05 PM (scheduled) / 4:10 PM (actual)
Arrival: 7:55 PM (scheduled) / 7:47 PM (actual)
Duration: 2h 50m (scheduled) / 2h 37m (actual)
Seat: 2K (First)

I had to smile a little when I boarded the plane and turned left for the first time ever. It really is a beautiful cabin, and extremely private. I took my seat at 2K and was greeted by name and offered a glass of Champagne Amour De Deutz Brut 2002, which I happily accepted. As I looked around, I started to realized it was a strange sensation to finally be sitting in the Cathay Pacific first class suite. I had read dozens of reviews over the past few years, so I was intimately familiar with every little detail surrounding me, yet everything was also new and exciting... I felt oddly conflicted.

Champagne Amour De Deutz Brut 2002

Views after takeoff

The seat, as expected, was extremely comfortable and almost too wide. And despite having been introduced in 2007, it still looks and feels very new. There was plenty of storage space all over the suite, from your own private coat closet next to the entertainment screen to the cubby holes next to your seat to the storage area under the ottoman.

There were no pajamas or amenity kits for this short flight to Hong Kong, and the food and beverage selection were slightly different from the usual long-haul international first, but I had absolutely no complaints about any of those things. Shortly after takeoff, I took a quick trip to the first class restroom and snapped a few pictures.

Menus were handed out prior to departure and the meal service began soon after takeoff. I'm not really sure how the orders are usually taken, but I noticed that I was skipped over at first, with almost all the other passengers' orders taken before the flight attendant came around to me... and this was a completely full cabin in first class. Luckily, my main course choice was still available! The table was pulled out and white cloth laid over.

The avocado, prawn, scallop, and salmon appetizer was absolutely delicious... I think I almost licked the plate clean. For the main, I decided on the Chinese option with stir fried lamb loin and choy sum. Both were very good, and the lamb was especially tender. This was paired with the Chateau Branaire-Ducru 2004... now I'm no wine connoisseur by any means, but from what I could tell, it was pretty tasty :) And for dessert, the warm rhubarb frangipane cake with vanilla sauce was a perfect way to end the meal. Afterwards, I had some jasmine tea along with pralines.

The mood lighting was turned on, and with my stomach full, I decided to recline the seat a bit and try out the Studio CX entertainment system and 17" screen. There were literally hundreds of Asian and Western film and television show options, plenty of new releases as well as older selections. I decided to watch a few episodes of How I Met Your Mother and Family Guy since there wasn't a lot of flight time left anyways.

Service was great, but I didn't feel like it was spectacular by any means. The 3 flight attendants in first class were all pleasant and very courteous, but I didn't feel like they were particularly warm or friendly. After the meal service ended, I hardly saw any of them come out of the galley to ask if passengers needed drinks or anything else. So while I would say the service was excellent, it didn't seem like it was above and beyond anything else I've ever experienced. Now granted, I've only experienced domestic first class and international business... but to be perfectly honest, I didn't feel a significant difference compared to those either.

The plane started it's descent into Hong Kong, and I noticed it was already dark outside. Landing was perfectly smooth, and immediately after the seat belt lights had been turned off, the flight attendants drew the curtain between business class and allowed us to deplane first. Sadly, my first experience in international first class was quickly coming to an end. But I was hardly feeling down, since I had a number of lounge visits and a true international first class flight to San Francisco still ahead of me!

Goodbye 2K!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Tokyo/Vietnam July 2011 - Thai Air Asia 3721 Economy Class (SGN - BKK)

***This post is part 21 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

When I was booking this positioning flight from Saigon to Bangkok, I had to chuckle a little when I realized I was going to travel on perhaps the lowest of the ultra-low cost carriers in order to catch a flight on one of the best first class offerings in the world. Slightly ironic I suppose :)

I arrived at Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN) via taxi early in the morning for the 9:45 AM departure. Lines at the Air Asia counter were already fairly long, with mostly Western backpackers ahead of me. One of the pains of dealing with ultra-low cost carriers are the endless add-on fees that you end up paying if you don't plan ahead. Literally everything costs extra aside from your actual seat on the plane. Unfortunately, a few ladies in front of me didn't realize this and had to pay an arm and a leg to get their multiple bags checked in. Things got fairly ugly as their conversation with the agent became heated and the agent proceeded to direct them to another counter and started to completely ignore them.

Fortunately I didn't have any issues as I prepaid for my checked bag online and it was far below the weight limit. Customs was a bit of a pain since I seem to always choose the line with the grumpiest officer. He gave a bunch of rowdy students in front of me a hard time, but luckily I was spared any questioning. Security was a breeze and soon I was at the gate waiting for our A320.

Thai Air Asia 3721
Airbus A320-200
Ho Chi Minh City (SGN) - Bangkok (BKK)
Monday July 18, 2011
Departure: 9:45 AM (scheduled)
Arrival: 11:10 AM (scheduled)
Duration: 1h 25m (scheduled)
Seat: 25D (Economy)

Boarding was actually fairly orderly, with row numbers called and most people lining up. Once on the plane, I think most male passengers' attention immediately turned to the young female flight attendants, or shall I say flying models. It's hard not to laugh at the absurdity of it all because it's quite blatant that every single one of them were selected mainly for their appearance. If this were in the United States, I think Air Asia would probably be facing a massive class action lawsuit from flight attendants who were fired the moment they turned 30, or from those who weren't even considered for the job because of how they looked.

The seats were comfortable, pitch was bearable for the short flight, and service was quick and efficient. I didn't bother ordering any food or drinks since I would be eating at the lounge when I arrived in Bangkok. But their menu was kind of comical as it was hawking all sorts of interesting stuff, from instant ramen to candy bars to t-shirts and hats. One other thing I noticed about Air Asia was the massive amounts of advertisements plastered all over the interior of the plane. This was literally a flying billboard in the sky. The funny thing was that all the advertisements were for Air Asia itself, specifically it's travel insurance add-on and it's new hotel and vacation booking features online.

Advertisements galore

Other than that, this was an extremely uneventful flight. Landing into Suvarnabhumi was a bit rough, but nothing out of the ordinary. Flying with ultra-low cost carriers always makes me smile, not because they're particularly pleasant, but because of how ridiculously hilarious some of the situations their business model can lead to. It's definitely a different breed of air travel, but with the proper caution and preparation, it can definitely be a very cheap and entertaining way to fly. With Air Asia checked off my list, I'll have to move on to RyanAir soon... I've heard great things about them ;)

Arrival at Suvarnabhumi Airport