Sunday, December 11, 2011

Singapore Airlines and Air China now bookable on Continental's award booking engine

I was looking around Continental's website today trying to figure out whether there's still Saver award ticketa going back to Asia this month. I am not expecting any surprise. The best I was hoping to get was a coach seat on Asiana or All Nippon Airways. But my search yielded something really interesting:

It turns out that Continental's award search engine can now show availability in Singapore Airlines and Air China!

I did some dummy search and this picture shows how amazing the routings are from San Francisco to Shanghai:

SQ 1 and SQ 832 will be worth every mile spent!

And search SFO to SIN, SQ's A380 shows bookable.

Search NRT to FRA, you will find NH's 787 also shows availability.

Well, I hope the merged United will keep this great feature.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

ANA to give away 50 original baggage tags to lucky winners

In an email to ANA Mileage Club members today, the airline has offered their members to participate in their sweepstake for a chance to win an ANA original baggage tag.

To qualify, you must be a member of their frequent flyer program first. You can register in a couple of minutes. Once you completed this easy and free enrollment, click here, enter your membership number and PIN, then post your idea about their "Inspiration of Japan" service, which is coming to San Francisco on December 6, 2011.

Asiana Airlines joined disaster relief effort in Bangkok

According to an update on their Facebook page, Asiana Airlines has sent 2000 boxes of drinking water, 1000 boxes of ramen, 1000 boxes of blanket, and other necessities to those who have been affected by the flooding in Bangkok, Thailand. 

The recent flood has not only taken a toll in the city, it has also disrupted normal flight operations in Bangkok's second largest airport, Don Muang airport (DMK), which is used as a domestic airport, was hit hard. Bangkok's major international gateway, Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK), has not been affected yet, reported by The Washington Post.

Major carriers in Asia, such as Asiana Airlines, Korean Air Line, Malaysia Airlines and Cathay Pacific, have reported no large-scale cancellation or disruption. Thai Airways has released their policies regarding reservation, rescheduling and refund. United Airlines has issued travel waivers to passengers to Bangkok.

I was in Bangkok in July. It is a beautiful city and I had a great time walking around Suvarnabhumi Airport and checking out Thai Airways and Singapore Airlines' lounges. Detailed reports on this trip coming soon.

My fingers crossed for those affected by flood in Thailand.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Hotel review: The Mira Hong Kong

I arrived in Hong Kong on Easter Sunday in 2011 on Dragonair! It was a great flight, as you can read about it in my previous review. From Hong Kong, I will proceed to Singapore to attend a meeting. The flight with Cathay Pacific was scheduled at noon of the next day. So, finally, I was in Hong Kong, the pearl of the Orient, the jewel of Asia, for the very first time. I had about 23 hours to explore the city.

A little hazy out there.
While I was still planning for this trip, I put more thoughts into booking the hotel than the flights. I was not looking for a hostel, or a cheap hotel located in places that are a little bit "off". I wanted to find a place that could give me: 

1. Easy access to attractions in the city.
2. Good facility and services so that the hotel itself wouldn't become the reason I hate this city
3. And, last but not least, I wanted it to be a bang for my buck.

In terms of easy access to attractions, I was looking for hotels within reasonable walking range from MTR. It would be better if the hotel was near Tsim Sha Tsui, but InterContinental was quite expensive at the time. I actually had the option of living for free in a double deluxe room in Marriott Sky City. However, it was way off and so, I saved the option for the next time.

I had heard about other people talking about the horrible things they had experienced in hotels/hostels in Hong Kong, like rats, cockroaches, creepy people, tiny room and so forth. One of my close friends mentioned the infamous Chungking Mansions. He dared me to give it a shot at the "best" but I decided to save the "best" for the next time.

Inside Chungking Mansions. A lot of things are going on at the same time there.
I always feel it's best to save something and not do it so that I will have a good reason to return to the place. And so, for my first visit, I was surprised by myself that I was willing to spend some extra money for a better hotel.

After searching various booking engines and hotel websites, I narrowed down to two options:

a. City Garden Hotel
b. The Mira Hong Kong

Both hotels were offering decent three-day advance booking deal for the Easter weekend. The cheapest room, called Deluxe Room, in City Garden Hotel cost about $150 U.S. dollar per night for the night I wanted, and the cheapest in The Mira Hong Kong, known as Studio, was a little over $180 U.S. dollar.

Both deals were great, and both came with free Internet access and Wifi, which was fabulous. Furthermore, City Garden Hotel offered free breakfast, while The Mira is a boutique hotel and a member of Design Hotel.

So, for me, I was a very tough call. I looked at the reviews and pictures, I watched videos and I read history of both properties. I ran the pros and cons list again and again just to help me decide whether or not to spend an extra 30 bucks.

It was an extremely intense night. Long story short, I pulled the trigger and booked a night at The Mira because it's closer to many key attractions, and, it was on sale. A Studio normally costs over $210 per night, and can go up to over $250 sometimes.

In the end, as it turned out, I think I made the right move. I wanted to see as many attractions in one day as possible. And The Mira Hong Kong itself is a gorgeous attraction.

When I asked a volunteer for direction to The Mira at the information desk of Hong Kong Tourism Board, she gasped and said:"Wow! It's a nice hotel!"

And, indeed, it is.

Lobby area at night.
Lobby area during the day.
The hotel, formerly Hotel Miramar, reopened in 2009 after a renovation, is chic, sleek and modern. The décor looks very class. The lobby area is quite dark, compared to most of the hotels, but it was not a problem. In fact, I found this kind of darkness very classy.

Very comfortable, queen-sized bed
The Studio room is very small. Actually, a lot smaller than I had expected. However, I was well-aware of the fact that I was in Hong Kong and since I was traveling alone and didn't have a lot of luggage, the size of the room was not a major concern. The size of the bed was quite big.

The major drawback of the Studio is the bathroom. There is not enough space to fit in a bathtub. So only shower is provided. But again, the shower room is well-equipped. Along with the traditional shower head, it comes with a rain forest shower head.

Shower room
The size and the shower room may be a little disappointing. I felt that maybe larger, more pricey rooms and suites will be superb. So I decided to call room service and ask them what kind of loyalty membership program they have. As I was looking for a phone, I found a cell phone instead. Calling the hotel front desk is free, but if you call a local number, say, a restaurant, standard charges apply. It's a nice idea. Guests, especially those who are transiting, can carry the phone all over Hong Kong during their stay and don't have to worry about hefty roaming fees from using their own cell phone.

So I called the front desk, the staff told me that they don't have a loyalty program yet. Their only airline partner, up to that day, was Finnair.

Well, what can I say, they portrait themselves as an upscale boutique hotel. They are one-of-a-kind. Maybe a loyalty program is not needed.

Internet inside the room is very stable and fast. The room is also equipped with tons of high-tech gadgets.

Inside the mini-bar, there were an array of non-alcoholic, such as tea and coffee, and many miniature alcoholic drinks. There were also a few bags of Doritos and some chips. Bottled water is free and so I put them in the fridge and take them out later when I walked around the city.

I set out to explore in the city for most of the afternoon, evening and the night. When I came back, I had a warm, nice shower and went to bed. The bed, duvet and the pillows were very comfortable. I had a dreamless night.

I checked out early the next morning and kept my bags at the concierge, so that I can spend the morning walking around without the burden of my backpack. I found the city very interesting and worth visiting multiple times in future.

The Mira Hong Kong
To wrap up my impression of The Mira Hong Kong, I think it's a great hotel and I would definitely recommend it to people to give it a try. Next time, I would probably stay in one of their larger rooms. If you feeling size of the Studio is not a big issue, paying under $200 after tax for a chic boutique hotel with great staff, central location that gives you easy access to just anywhere, super modern, clean and awesome ambiance is totally worth it.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

United Airlines open house: Family Day 2011

Earlier this month, I mentioned that I would attend the 6th annual United Family Day Open House in San Francisco. It turns out to be a great event! 

United and Continental parked four planes, one A320 in new United livery, another United A320 retro-jet, a Continental Boeing 737-900ER retro-jet and a Boeing 777-200 in the tulip livery. They also had a Boeing 747-400 in new livery making a low pass fly-by during the open house.

Here are some pictures:

The plane pull took place at about 1:30 p.m. and a group of Flyertalkers pulled this A320.

ANA departing for Narita
Retro-jets were the stars!

United 747 fly-by! Wooooooosh! And there it goes! Too fast and I wasn't able to zoom in!

Beautiful day!
In 2012, United and Continental will become one company!

The military also flew some of their front-line fighter jets to the show. There was the Blue Angels' F/A-18s, Fat Albert, and a couple of F-15s. 

These are the killers!

So damn cool.
And the Blue Angels!

Ready for the Fleet Week!
And the Army brought their work horse, UH-60 Black Hawk.

Beautiful baby
And the tulip color. Not much days left for this design.

A beauty
Later in the after noon, I checked out their engine testing facility.

For those who weren't able to make it this year, let me tell you, it's a plane freak's "wet dream" comes true. So, look sharp, when registration on opens up again next September! 

Again, I was able to make it, thanks to the generosity from United Airlines to the frequent flyer community. I hope this event gets better each year.

ANA to introduce “Inspiration of Japan” on San Francisco - Narita (Tokyo) route

This Tuesday, I attended the ANA "Inspiration of Japan" open house at San Jose City Hall, also known as, The Rotunda.
"Inspiration of Japan" Open House
The event was aimed to showcase ANA's new cabin products, named "Inspiration of Japan". This new service brand is based on three concepts "Innovative", "Original" and "Modern Japan" and will be launched on San Francisco - Narita route on December 6, 2011.

Opened to ANA Mileage Club members on Tuesday morning, I arrived early with membership card in hand and, as promised, received ANA amenity goods and a mini tote bag. Sweet!

All the good stuff!
My brand-new ANA Mileage Club card also gave me an entry to the drawing of free roundtrip ticket to Tokyo. But I have not heard from them yet. So that means I didn't win.

The economy cabin features new fixed-back shell seats, which won't recline into the passenger behind. Thus, legroom will be a little more spacious than their current economy cabin. And I found it's close to Economy Plus. IFE and other gadgets look somewhat similar to the current Singapore Airlines product, with in-seat power, USB port, iPod connector, cup-holder, footrest and a nice big 10.6" touch panel monitor.

Business class features staggered layout on their newly-designed Boeing 777-300ER, which makes sure each seat has aisle access.

Full flat seat capable of fine adjustment!
The seat is designed to maximize personal space and provide great privacy. Sliding table is 150 percent larger than before. The LCD touch panel screen is huge.

First class completely blew my mind.

ANA First Square
This is indeed a masterpiece that marries aviation comfort with Japanese culture. The ingenuity can be seen in the design of storage space.

Many little storage cabinets for personal belongings.
This is such an amazing product! On ANA's own website, they have created a virtual tour.

According to a staff at the open house, United and ANA have started to share revenue through a joint venture. Members of the both airlines can choose to earn and credit base miles and bonus miles in each other's program!

ANA has been one of my favorite airlines. I had the best airline food ever on their Osaka Kansai to Shanghai flight in July, 2011. A staff there told me that ANA actually cooks the rice up in the air. 

"We don't just heat it up in the microwave", he said. "We are the only one figured out how to cook that right mid-air."

He mentioned that ANA is considering adding a daily service between San Jose and Narita.
"With many high-tech companies in south bay and peninsula, we see a stronger growth potential for passengers from these areas than San Francisco", he said.

The San Jose - Narita route will possibly be operated with their new Boeing 787. 

"Inspiration of Japan" is a work of art, and it makes me wonder: Who is not tempted to fly with ANA?

Shanghai to Hong Kong in Dragonair's economy class

Flight: KA 859 (CX 6737)
Route: SHA - HKG
Aircraft: Airbus Industrie 330
Date: Apr. 24, 2011
Class of service: Economy
Fare: Q
Check-in at Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport, Terminal 1.

It was a flight scheduled at noon. I arrived at the terminal well in advance and received a NotiFly SMS while waiting in the line. It's Cathay Pacific's flight notification service. However, I later found that it does not provide updated flight information, such as delay or cancellation. (At least, not in my case.) 

I am not a member of Marco Polo Club. In fact, this was my virgin flight on a Oneworld carrier. So everything was a wild adventure. I have heard a lot of good things about Dragonair and Cathay Pacific, even for their coach product. And Dragonair was awarded by SkyTrak as the best regional airline. That's why I still have very high expectation, though the booking experience was sub-par at best.

Nearby, ANA and Japan Airlines were also checking in passengers. When it was my turn, I was ushered to a counter that checks business passengers. Great. First thing I asked was whether this flight is overbooked. Yes. KA 859 was on this Sunday, but, unfortunately, this is the only KA flight out of SHA and I had a hotel booked in Hong Kong. I told the agent to go ahead to assign a window seat for me. I ended up in 46A.

The A330 that took me to Hong Kong.
I walked around the departure level. Terminal 1 was a very old facility. It's not among one of the gleaming airports you would normally see today in Asia. In it's prime time, United 747-400 was still in grey livery. Now, Terminal 1 only serve a few international routes to Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong. The rest of the facility was taken over by a local budget carrier.

It's not a facility designed for plane-spotters. Actually, it's the most photo-unfriendly airport I had had the displeasure of visiting. Lounges looked old and unappealing from the outside. There was not enough outlets for laptops and Wifi coverage is pathetic. I couldn't check my email prior to departure.

Once settled into the cabin, it was another world. Dragonair's flight attendant on this flight caught my attention. They are so gorgeous! I couldn't take my eyes (and mind, until today) off them. Their uniform is such an elegant masterpiece. I was greeted with smile, good eye contact and professional service. A flight attendant helped me with carry-on luggage.

Visibility was not great. Smog is a problem in China.
We pushed back on time, after JAL 82 to Haneda. I noticed a lot of Japanese business travelers on that flight. One reason maybe both SHA and HND are located closer to city center and, thus, give businessperson faster access to hotel/conference.

JAL Boeing 777-200 looks much cleaner than my KA bird.
Once airborne, the sky cleared up. Anyone who had been in China for awhile could tell you the same story about smog. Clear blue sky at low altitude is not guaranteed. Smog sometimes could go from bad and then straight to worse, for no obvious reason, and wouldn't clear up for a week.

En route to HKG!
Shanghai to Hong Kong and Beijing to Hong Kong are the equivalent of San Francisco and Los Angeles to JFK in terms of the importance of the route itself. Dragonair didn't named the service between these city pairs Premium Service but these two routes they operate feature new products introduced earlier this spring. And I was fortunate enough to be an early bird to try this product.
Menu for economy class. Two selections offered for entrée.

I ordered Chicken in Burgundy Sauce, Potatoes and Vegetable, then began to check the seat. It is somewhat worn. The IFE is old and the screen is small and has no anti-glare. Videos are not on-demand. Selections are okay and I am not very picky about movies in general, and the flight itself was too short for any movie. So I didn't bother watching anything. Legroom is about average.

Chicken in Burgundy Sauce, Potatoes and Vegetable
I was a part-time food critic for a publication in Shanghai at that time. So I consider myself a quasi-professional when it comes to food. In terms of airline food, this dish was not the most creative. Presentation was, well, just okay. Anyways, it still looked appetizing to me. I have seen those horrible turkey sandwich served on Continental/United flights before and, considering the fact that this was served on a two-hour flight without additional charge, I wouldn't complain. For this particular dish, before even tasting it, I would give a base score of 3.5 out of 5.

The main course was actually not bad. I finished them all. Chicken was nicely marinated and very juicy. Veggie tasted a little mild but the potato was cooked perfectly, crunchy on the outside and tender inside.

Very cute wine cup.
Time to wash everything down with some white wine. And finish it off with a dessert. Dragonair's solution is Haagen-Dazs ice cream.

No need to scream for ice-cream!
Financially, this ice cream service in coach class works favorably for Dragonair. It has actually become one of their killing public relations advantage against competitors who do not offer ice cream. Since Haagen-Dazs is among some of the over-priced western brands in China, rumor has it that there are people in Shanghai and Beijing dying to fly with Dragonair just to get a chance to enjoy a free ice cream at 30,000 feet! The same thing would cost RMB 78, or roughly $10, at sea level in a 7-Eleven in Shanghai. If KA's fare is competitive, people will fly KA for their service.

A nice, warm Easter Sunday down below in Hong Kong.
Approaching was uneventful. Announcements were made in three languages, or, to be more exact, two languages, English and Mandarin, and a dialect of Mandarin, Cantonese. I especially love the Cantonese version. Those Hong Kong flight attendants use phrases different from Mandarin to describe a similar thing. For example, aircraft is "hang-gi" (航機) , instead of "fei-ji" (飛機).

Finally, I arrived in Hong Kong!

Nathan Road, near MTR Tsim Sha Tsui Station.

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