Saturday, June 28, 2014

China Airlines Brand New 777-300ER Interiors Revealed

From Now News in Taiwan, renderings for China Airlines' brand new Boeing 777-300ER aircraft interiors have leaked. A China Airlines website dedicated to the new design apparently went public prior to the scheduled release date. While the site has since been pulled, renderings and full descriptions were quickly copied down by observant readers. 

Although it is difficult to say for certain if the pictures actually represent the final product, they do look quite professional and polished. Many of the details in the article also match previously reported features of the new design.

In recent years, the other major Taiwanese carrier, EVA Air, has made significant improvements to their hard product in addition to taking the major step of joining Star Alliance. This created a brand new lie-flat business class award redemption option across the Pacific and beyond. EVA Air's Royal Laurel Class, based on the ubiquitous Cirrus Reverse Herringbone layout, arguably remains one of the best business class seats in the industry.

Not to be left behind, China Airlines has finally decided to overhaul their outdated interiors, starting with their soon-to-be-delivered Boeing 777-300ERs. The first three aircraft are scheduled to commence scheduled flights in September of this year. In total, ten 777-300ERs will arrive by 2016, replacing a rapidly aging fleet of 747-400s.

Not surprisingly, China Airlines has decided to completely forego their first class offering, opting to follow EVA Air instead with a lie-flat business class, premium economy class, and standard economy class. Even less surprisingly, their brand new business class will feature the B/E Aerospace Reverse Herringbone design with slight modifications.

China Airlines new business class

The business class cabin will have a total of 40 lie-flat beds in a dark-blue color scheme and wood panel accents. A brand new Panasonic eX3 AVOD system will showcase 18-inch screens, the largest among Taiwanese carriers, and even the remote control will feature a 4.1-inch multi-touch display. Other amenities include fully-adjustable headrests, storage closets, power outlets, USB inputs, and noise-canceling headphones.

Business class lie-flat bed

AVOD system and storage

One slight modification from the EVA Air and Cathay Pacific designs can be seen in the removal of the side storage cabinets to create a more spacious feel for passengers. While the cabinets were well thought-out and useful, I did find that it required passengers to twist uncomfortably to the side to access. China Airlines' version places the seat and AVOD controls, as well as additional storage space, at arm level within easy reach. The reduced obstruction will also better facilitate conversation between couples seated in the center aisle.

Business class passengers will have access to the VIP Sky Lounge, featuring magazines, self-service alcohol, refreshments, and snacks in a comfortable and social environment.

Business class Sky Lounge

The 777-300ERs will introduce China Airlines' foray into the growing premium economy sector. Upon first inspection, the seats appear to be better than EVA Air's offering, with a fixed-back, forward reclining design that will prevent intrusion into the rear passenger's personal space. While Cathay Pacific used a similar design in their economy cabin with disastrous results, I believe these seats are more akin to true business class seats, and look far more comfortable. Details about width and pitch have yet to be revealed.

Additional features in premium economy include larger dining tables, front tray tables with cup and bottle holders, coat hooks, personal reading lights, USB and power outlets, and a large 12.1-inch multi-touch AVOD screen.

China Airlines new premium economy class

Fixed-back forward reclining seats

While no renderings of standard economy class were included, one interesting tidbit was the announcement of the Family Couch, which will allow the middle two armrests to fold up completely and an extra set of three leg rests to prop up horizontally, forming a fully flat bed of sorts for families. This idea is not new, as Air New Zealand pioneered the unique configuration years ago on their Economy Skycouch.

According to the article, China Airlines plans to introduce ten rows of their Family Couch in the economy cabin, for a total of 30 seats (I'm guessing only the center aisle). In addition, the seats will feature a specially designed harness for safety. Pillows, blankets, and even a mattress pad will be provided for extra comfort.

China Airlines Family Couch in economy class

Of course, the big question is what this all means for award redemptions through Delta Skymiles. Round-trip travel from the U.S. to Taipei costs 70,000 miles in economy and 140,000 miles in business. Delta imposes mild fuel surcharges on China Airlines, and they tend to run about $350 for a round-trip award ticket.

China Airlines award space is searchable on its own website even if you are not a Dynasty Flyer member, and availability should match what Delta agents can see, as long as the booking classes are correct (X for economy, O for business).

Unfortunately, Delta does not display China Airlines award space on its website, so the only booking option via Skymiles is to phone in. Air France's Flying Blue website is supposed to display China Airlines award availability, but it does not appear to be working right now. Another paid option, ExpertFlyer, only displays economy award space for China Airlines.

Oddly enough, after speaking to multiple Delta Skymiles agents, not one award seat in any class from October all the way through the end of the schedule could be found. Intra-Asia routes came up empty as well. A few hours later, I called in again and seemed to get an agent who knew what she was doing. This time, plenty of award space in both economy and business showed up. On certain days, there were even three or four business class seats available. So as the old saying goes... hang up and call again!

If you want to preemptively book a seat on the new 777-300ERs, China Airlines has initial plans to fly them on regional routes to Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh City beginning in September 2014. The aircraft will then be deployed across the Pacific to Los Angeles in December, with continued expansion to New York City in February 2015.

Flight schedules featuring the new 777-300ERs have already been loaded, so an award search on China Airlines' website can quickly determine if you will get the new product. Of course, last-minute aircraft swaps are always a possibility, so keep your fingers crossed. The current route map can be found here.

China Airlines award search showing the new 777-300ER

Available business class award seats

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Getting To Christmas Island And Cocos Islands On Points

I recently met up with Stefan from Rapid Travel Chai for dinner. While we were talking about unusual travel destinations and far-flung islands around the world, he mentioned the possibility of booking a trip to Christmas Island (XCH) and Cocos Islands (CCK) later this year. Now, I had heard of Christmas Island before, but I didn't know much about it and what there was to do there.

Stefan wanted to see the annual red crab migration on Christmas Island, which sounded intriguing. The more I read and researched, the more they seemed like fascinating places to visit. Both islands are territories of Australia, despite their proximity to Indonesia, but getting there is not easy, since only one scheduled flight currently exists. This flight, operated by Virgin Australia, originates in Perth and terminates in Cocos Islands, with a quick layover in Christmas Island along the way. It then returns to Perth on the same route:

Perth to Christmas Island and Cocos Islands

The Perth to Christmas Island leg clocks in at exactly 4 hours (return is 3 hours 35 minutes), while the short hop from Christmas Island to Cocos Islands takes 1 hour 35 minutes. In between, there is a 45-minute layover. Of course, it makes sense to stop for a few days in Christmas Island if you are already taking the time to travel this far!

Virgin Australia typically operates an Embraer E-190 aircraft three times weekly (Tue/Fri/Sat) from Perth to Christmas Island and onward to Cocos Islands. It then makes the return journey on the same day. A fourth service to Christmas Island without the continuing leg operates on Thursdays using a Boeing 737-800.

The million dollar question, of course, is can this be booked using points? And if so, which partner, if any, offers the best value? To satisfy my curiosity, I decided to examine a number of different options for booking domestic award tickets from Perth to Christmas Island and Cocos Islands.

Virgin Australia
Naturally, I turned to Virgin Australia first to evaluate its award offerings on this route. Virgin Australia has two distance-based award charts, and the applicable one can be seen here:

Virgin Australia award chart

The upside here is that whether you are traveling to Christmas Island or Cocos Islands, the one-way cost in economy is exactly the same: 16,900 Velocity points plus taxes and fees. The downside, however, is that Virgin Australia doesn't allow stopovers on award redemptions, so you are forced to book each leg separately if you want to visit Christmas Island for a few days along the way:

Velocity points needed for Perth to Christmas Island

Velocity points needed for Perth to Cocos Islands (with no stopover)

Velocity points needed for Christmas Island to Cocos Islands

Therefore, if you wanted to book PER→XCH→CCK→PER, the overall cost would be 44,700 Velocity points plus very reasonable taxes and fees, which you can even use Velocity points to pay for. Virgin Australia is a 1:1 transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, but despite the 25% bonus when transferring 20,000-point increments, this redemption is a bit steep (35,760 SPG points needed).

Virgin Atlantic
Let us look at Virgin Atlantic instead, which is a partner airline of Virgin Australia. Unfortunately, Virgin Atlantic does not publish an online award chart for domestic Australia travel, so I had to call in to ask for the miles needed. After a brief hold, the agent returned and offered the following cost for each segment:
  • PER → XCH:  20,000 Flying Club miles
  • XCH → CCK:  15,000 Flying Club miles
Note that these are for one-way redemptions, and since the agent said I had to book each segment separately, that meant the complete itinerary would cost a whopping 70,000 Flying Club miles total! Even if the agent was mistaken and I could book the Cocos Islands to Perth return as one award, the cost would still exceed Virgin Australia.

While Virgin Atlantic tacks on fuel surcharges to international award redemptions, domestic Australia flights are exempt, and taxes and fees appear to be similar to Virgin Australia. Miles transfer partners include American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and also Starwood Preferred Guest, all at a 1:1 ratio. Membership Rewards runs frequent transfer bonuses, while SPG offers a 25% bonus when transferring 20,000-point increments.

Virgin America
Next, I looked at Virgin America's redemption options. Using their handy partner redemption pricing tool, I found out that a round-trip award ticket from Christmas Island to Cocos Islands is 9,000 Elevate points. Virgin America charges more than half the round-trip cost for a one-way award ticket, and in this case, it came out to 5,500 Elevate points.

Elevate points needed for Christmas Island to Cocos Islands (round-trip)

For some reason, the Perth to Christmas Island route was not showing up in the tool, so I called the Elevate program for clarification. After some confusion and a long hold, the agent returned and informed me that the Perth to Christmas Island leg would cost 16,000 Elevate points round-trip, or 9,500 points one-way.

Like Virgin Atlantic, each leg had to be booked separately, so the total cost for the itinerary came out to 25,000 Elevate points. While this seems quite a bit lower than both previous options, it's important to note that Elevate points are typically worth more, and the only major partner, Membership Rewards, transfers in at a 2:1 ratio, meaning a total of 50,000 Membership Rewards points would be required to book this trip.

Delta Airlines
Delta Airlines is also a Virgin Australia partner, and they even allow a stopover and an open jaw on round-trip award tickets. However, at 60,000 SkyMiles, the cost for an award within the Southwest Pacific region is much too high.

Singapore Airlines
Singapore Airlines is a transfer partner of all three major flexible currencies, so it is quite easy to earn KrisFlyer miles. Taking a look at Singapore Airline's Virgin Australia award chart, I noticed that traveling within the Australia 3 region, which includes Perth, Christmas Island, and Cocos Islands, only costs 30,000 KrisFlyer miles round-trip in economy:

KrisFlyer award chart for Virgin Australia flights

Best of all, Singapore Airlines even allows a stopover and open jaw on round-trip domestic Australia award redemptions! Thus, a PER→XCH→CCK→PER itinerary would only cost 30,000 KrisFlyer miles plus extremely reasonable taxes and fees. This is by far the best option to redeem miles for travel to Christmas Island and Cocos Islands.

After evaluating the five award redemption options above, it is fairly clear that transferring Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest points into the KrisFlyer program to redeem for domestic Virgin Australia flights to Christmas Island and Cocos Islands is the best way to go.

One major aspect I did not analyze was award redemptions to Christmas Island and Cocos Islands directly from North America. In this case, using Delta SkyMiles would make the most sense, since they allow you to fly, for example, from Los Angeles all the way to Cocos Islands on Virgin Australia for only 100,000 miles in economy or 160,000 miles in business class.

Delta only allows one stopover and one open jaw on round-trip award tickets, so you would have to plan your itinerary wisely, especially if you want to visit multiple destinations in Australia. You could also use KrisFlyer miles to book a separate domestic Australia award ticket, which would provide an additional stopover and open jaw.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Australia September 2013 - Qantas Airways 1851 Economy Class (CNS → AYQ)

***This post is part 17 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

On the day prior to leaving Cairns, I reserved a seat for the FNQ Airport Shuttle through Travellers Oasis. While the discounted pickup service from the airport was only $5 AUD, the return journey was the standard $12 AUD. With my flight scheduled to depart at 7:30 am, I was asked to wait at the front of the hostel by 5:30 am to ensure we had plenty of cushion.

Typically, shuttles make their rounds throughout the city, picking up passengers from multiple hotels and hostels before heading to the airport. However, just like the pickup service four days earlier, I ended up being the sole passenger. In the end, it took less than 15 minutes to get from the hostel to the Domestic Terminal check-in counters. Needless to say, I had more than enough time to spare.

Cairns Airport

It was still dark outside and not yet 6:00 am, so I wasn't terribly surprised to see the entire check-in area deserted. After printing out my boarding pass at a self-service kiosk, I carried my large backpack over to one of the agents manning the bag drop stations, where it was tagged to Ayers Rock and sent on its way. I then made my way over to the security checkpoint, where a short line and friendly (or perhaps sleepy) officers allowed me to get through in less than five minutes.

Self-service check-in kiosks

Bag drop and service counters

Empty hall

Security checkpoint

Once airside, I was greeted with a more lively atmosphere. There were plenty of souvenir shops, quick-service restaurants, and people milling about. I picked up some gifts, and then bought myself a greasy breakfast from Hungry Jacks (the Australian Burger King).

With so much time to spare, I was hoping there would be complimentary WiFi throughout the terminal, like almost all the other airports I had visited so far in Australia. That was not the case, however, and I soon found myself pulling out a credit card to pay $3.65 AUD for an hour of wireless internet access.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Australia September 2013 - Day Trips To The Great Barrier Reef & Daintree National Park

***This post is part 16 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

I booked local tours directly through Travellers Oasis for my first and second full days in Cairns. While I would have loved to explore Daintree National Park and Cape Tribulation independently, the lack of public transportation and relatively prohibitive cost of renting my own car nixed that idea.

I reserved the first day for the Great Barrier Reef cruise. There were a number of operators to choose from, and I settled on Down Under Cruise & Dive, which came highly recommended by Helen at the hostel. At $159 AUD plus a $10 AUD discount, the cost was slightly cheaper than another option I was considering, Passions of Paradise, but either way, it wasn't going to be a budget tour.

The hostel offered free shuttle rides to Cairns Marlin Marina, and we arrived at 7:30 am. I proceeded into the Reef Fleet Terminal for check-in formalities. Once the reservation was confirmed and my boarding ticket was issued, I spent some time walking around the marina before heading to our vessel.

Reef Fleet Terminal

Down Under Cruise & Dive check-in

Marina boardwalk

Walking to the boat

Down Under Cruise & Dive operates a large, modern, and extremely fast vessel called the Osprey V. It is, in fact, probably the fastest option to get out to the Great Barrier Reef, which is a great thing, since less time on the boat means more time snorkeling and diving.

With two floors, a large forward sundeck, and convenient aft stairs to enter the water, the Osprey V is really the perfect base from which to spend a day on the reef. The boat can accommodate up to 120 passengers, but I don't believe there were more than 100 people on board the day I went.

After we settled into the air-conditioned seating area on the lower floor, welcome announcements and safety instructions were made. Guests were then asked to go to the aft deck to pick up their snorkeling gear and pay for extras such as wetsuits and diving equipment. We were also assigned cubbies to store our belongings for the day.

Osprey V


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Australia September 2013 - Travellers Oasis Backpackers Hostel & Exploring Cairns & Kuranda

***This post is part 15 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Travellers Oasis Backpackers Hostel has out-of-this-world TripAdvisor reviews. Rarely do you ever see such universal praise for any property, let alone a hostel with shared dorms and bathrooms. I was skeptical, but I went ahead and booked a bed in a triple share dorm on their website for only $27 AUD plus a $2 credit card service fee.

I was dropped off by the FNQ airport shuttle just before noon, which was a good thing since the reception shuts down for a siesta between the hours of 12:00 and 4:00 pm. A super friendly front desk attendant by the name of Helen greeted me and apologized as there were two other guests ahead of me. Luckily there was free WiFi and a number of computers for guest use in the lobby while I waited.

Travellers Oasis Backpackers Hostel

Reception entrance

Many guests book local tours directly with the hostel since they don't tack on any surcharges, and the front desk attendants are just so damn nice and helpful. In fact, I would say out of all the hotels, hostels, and lodges I stayed at throughout Australia, the staff here were hands down the friendliest.

When it was my turn to check in, Helen guided me through the features of the hostel, and then proceeded to answer all my questions regarding several tours I was interested in, despite the fact that she should have been on her noon break already. She even took me on a quick tour of the property and showed me to my room afterwards.

A couple of things about the hostel: There is a $10 key deposit. Every Monday is barbecue night and Thursday is pizza night. Both events are held at Tropic Days Backpackers Hostel, a sister property several blocks away. Travellers Oasis runs a free shuttle to drop off and pick up guests. I would strongly recommend the barbecue, where for $12 AUD, you can try all the kangaroo, emu, and alligator your stomach can handle (the emu was especially delicious). Plus, it's a fun and lively atmosphere to meet other travelers from all over the world.

Free shuttle

Stairs up to my room

One of the great things about Travellers Oasis is the lack of bunk beds in most dorm rooms. To me, this makes a huge difference in comfort when staying at a hostel. There is nothing worse than getting woken up in the middle of the night when your bunkmate returns to the room in a drunken stupor, stumbling into bed while shaking the frame like an earthquake.

When I entered, the two other beds were already occupied, so I settled into the third. The room was super clean for a hostel and the sheets looked positively pristine. There were individual safes for guests under each bed, which was a very thoughtful feature. While there was an air conditioning unit (Cairns is quite hot and humid), it was coin-operated and cost $1 AUD for 3 hours.

Triple share dorm

My bed

Room #6

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Westin Lagunamar Ocean Resort Villas & Spa, Cancún

All last week, I was in the Mayan Riviera for a college friend's wedding. Following the ceremony, a small group of us took a few extra days to explore the Yucatán Peninsula, and then continued on to Cancún for the last night of our trip.

I booked our one-night stay at the Westin Lagunamar Ocean Resort Villas & Spa several months ago, and I was able to secure an amazing deal through Starwood Preferred Guest's Best Rate Guarantee. While a quick search on Kayak showed rates for a standard Studio Villa were going for $149/night, I noticed that Orbitz was offering the same room for only $95/night.

I had no idea if this was a mistake or not, but I went ahead and submitted a Best Rate Guarantee claim. The great thing about SPG is that they don't require you to pre-book rooms on their website prior to submitting a claim, so there is really zero risk involved.

The response was a resounding no, as the agent claimed Orbitz's rate was only for 2 guests, while the SPG rate allowed 4 guests without any extra charges. Her assessment was incorrect, however, and I responded with an email detailing my search on Orbitz, which showed a total of 4 guests at the $95 rate.

Finally, after escalating the claim to a supervisor, my new booking was approved along with a 10% discount below Orbitz's already ridiculous rate. The total cost was only $86.06/night for a Studio Villa, accommodating 4 adults per room.

Upon arriving at the Westin Lagunamar property, we were directed by security to the south wing, which has a separate, smaller check-in lobby. I reconfirmed the Best Rate Guarantee with the friendly front desk attendant, but was told that unfortunately, one of our two rooms was not yet ready.

I was more than willing to wait, however, since he also informed me that the room he gave us was an upgraded One-Bedroom Villa! In addition, the rooms were adjacent and connected, which was absolutely perfect for our large group. WiFi was complimentary throughout the property, even for non-elites.

Studio Villa
After receiving the card keys to Studio Villa 1323, which was already prepared, we headed up to the room. An expansive 400 square feet of space greeted us, and I was particularly impressed with the contemporary decor and how up to date everything looked. Although the queen-sized Westin Heavenly Bed was very comfortable, the sleeper sofa mattress was on the thin side, and sagged towards the center.

Studio Villa

Westen Heavenly Bed

Sleeper sofa

37-inch TV, DVD player, and cabinetry

Two-guest dinette

Monday, June 2, 2014

Ik Kil And The Cenotes Of The Yucatán

Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula once contained a massive coral reef that became exposed to the atmosphere when sea levels sunk during the last ice age. As acidic rain began slowly dissolving the porous coral limestone, a vast network of caves formed, stretching thousands of miles across the peninsula.

Once sea levels rose, the cave system was flooded, with portions collapsing and sinkholes forming above ground. The water table of the Yucatán still contains seawater at sea level, but a layer of freshwater now floats above it, with the depth gradient dependent on how far inland you travel.

Collapsed sinkholes, known as cenotes, eventually filled with water and became access points to the flooded maze of underground caverns. Today, there are more than 30,000 cenotes all over the Yucatán Peninsula, some appearing as nothing more than small lagoons, and others featuring immense gaping orifices measuring hundreds of feet in depth and width.

One of the most beautiful and well-known cenotes in the area, Ik Kil, is located just ten minutes down the road from Chichen Itza. Due to this proximity and well-developed infrastructure on site (hotel, restaurant, gift shop, lockers, changing rooms), Ik Kil can get very crowded during the day. It remains, however, simply stunning to see in person:

Ik Kil cenote

The enormous sinkhole measures some 200 feet across, and the surface of the water is 85 feet below ground level. The depth of Ik Kil is a staggering 130 feet, so timid swimmers might want to consider wearing a life jacket while taking a dip.

Guests are able to descend to water level via a stone staircase carved into the walls, and two platforms on the way down provide breathtaking views of the entire cenote. One of the most interesting features of Ik Kil are the lengthy vines that extend from lush vegetation at ground level all the way down to the water.

Descending the stone staircase