Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Trip planning: Hong Kong and Singapore on Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, The Mira Hong Kong and Mandarin Orchard

I returned from Singapore via Hong Kong on May 1st, 2011. My experience with Cathay Pacific and its affiliate, Dragonair, was hit-and-miss, but I love Hong Kong and Singapore a lot, especially both their outstanding airports. Since Singapore Airlines is always pricey, and low-cost carriers sells fast, chances are I may fly with Cathay Pacific again.

This trip was not meant to be frugal because I was there to attend a meeting, which lasted for a week, and I already saved some money for this trip. By the time I was about to plan this itinerary, I was still based in Shanghai, going to school and writing for an expat magazine. This was my first job. My monthly salary at that time was 3,000 Chinese Yuan or around $466 U.S. dollar. The costs of the trip will be partly covered by my school, but in order to get the most out of this experience, I had to save as much as humanly possible.

When the details of the meeting and the schedule got finalized, it was around mid-March. I only have about a month and a half to plan for this trip. Popular low-cost airlines such as AirAsia and JetStar were no longer a feasible option because cheap fare had sold out several months, if not a year ago. I shopped around a little on many websites, including Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, as well as airline websites, and found that my options were pretty straightforward for this simple round trip between Shanghai and Singapore:

1. Fly coach on Singapore Airlines (SQ). SQ operates this route with Boeing 777-200ER and has several departure slots from Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG).

2. Fly coach on China Eastern (MU). MU had bought out Shanghai Airlines (FM) earlier this year. There's the possibility of flying on either MU's old A300 or a FM's equipment.

3. Fly coach on Cathay Pacific (CX) and Dragonair (KA), with a connection in Hong Kong. CX and KA operates PVG (SHA) to HKG with many different types of aircraft, including A330, A320 and Boeing 777-300. For HKG to SIN, CX offers the choice of A330 and Boeing 777-300.

Now it seems that burning 20,000 United MileagePlus miles would have been the way to go. But I didn't pull the trigger because I want to save these miles for another trip I am planning. I am not sure where to go but Guam or Jakarta are on the list now.

Since I only have a little miles banked with Korean Air (KE). I didn't want to redeem them and, at this time, China Eastern is not a full-fledged SkyTeam member yet, though they will eventually join the alliance in June 2011. I used to have terrible experience flying on China Eastern. Onboard one of their A320s, the cabin pressure on this SHA-CAN flight was not adjusted to a comfortable level and my ears hurt like they were about to drop off. That was in December 2009. I searched for their fare and it was not attractive at all. 3,600 Chinese Yuan in their ancient A300? No, I decided to stay away from them.

I have not traveled on any Oneworld airlines before, hence, zero mileage. With redemption out of the picture, I bought the ticket with Cathay Pacific for 2,959 Chinese Yuan, including taxes and fees. I signed up for Asia Miles, only later to find my fare class did not qualify for any mile.

Soon, I hit another, much bigger, problem. The transaction simply did not go through. I got an email from Cathay's e-Service saying they were unable to issue my ticket because of a "technical glitch".

I was very concerned. This meant that my bank account had been debited while I got nothing confirmed. The email from Cathay failed to provide me with any useful reference, like reservation number, order number and so forth.

So I called the e-Service center. The number they listed on the website is always busy. I was put of hold for ages while listening to their theme song, Feel, by Robbie Williams. I tried to call with two different phones, one for English service, the other for Mandarin, just to pick the one that would talk to me first.

Finally, after a horrendously long hold, longer than any other hold I had ever experienced in my life, I got through the English service. I described my issue with the agent and she said that since I cannot give her any reference, she could not locate my information in their system. I asked her to give me a callback after she talks to my bank first, she said she could not do that for me.

So I had to contact my bank, which help me locate a transaction number. Again, I called Cathay and I was put on hold, same background music. Thirty minutes later, I was on the verge of going crazy with Robbie Williams when I was finally connected to an agent who was able to locate my information with the transaction number. I was worried that the fare on my canceled booking may not be honored now, for fare fluctuates all the time. Fortunately, this agent rebooked me on the same flights with the same fare. By the end of the day, I didn't know whether I was happy with them or not.

The next day, I wrote a complaint to Cathay Pacific and I got an auto-reply. It reads:

This is to confirm that we have received your e-mail. We will look into
the matter and revert our findings to you as soon as possible.

I was worried that my complaint will not get anywhere and the issue of long holding at their call center will not be addressed. But anyways, I had a confirmed flight schedule now. I have two stop-overs in Hong Kong. For the outbound leg, I have 23 hours in Hong Kong so I need to book a hotel. And for the return, I have 8 hours. The inbound flight from SIN arrives at midnight, so I might as well just spend the night wandering around the city for some street food in Kowloon.

For five nights in Singapore, I didn't need to worry about accommodations. The host of the meeting booked me in Mandarin Orchard, located in the middle of the city.

So for that night in Hong Kong, I spotted a deal for The Mira Hong Kong three days before departure and I jumped at it. This hotel used to me the old Hotel Miramar, but they renovated it and it's now a Design Hotels hotel. I booked a studio room for $180, which came with complimentary Internet! A last minute three-day advance booking plus Easter Sunday deal secured!

I have heard a lot about this hotel. On the night of its reopening, they invited Katy Perry to sing at the party. And I had never stayed in a Design Hotels property before. So I thought it would be very interesting to try out this relatively new, chic place.


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