Tim Foolery

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Monthly Archives: January 2018

Thai Airways Royal First Class (BKK-MUC)

After a bit of a delay boarding and a rather lovely yet awkward push through 250 other passengers waiting to board, we were finally at the Door 1L for our 9,249 km (5,474 mile) and 11.5 hour journey from Bangkok to Munich.  The Royal First cabin on Thai Airway’s Boeing 747 is configured in a staggered 1-2-1 layout. I say, staggered because the first row only has two seats due to the curvature of the plane.  There are three window seats on each side and two rows of two center seats – allowing for 10 passengers in the front of the plane.  There are 14 Royal Silk (Business Class) seats directly behind the Royal First cabin, plus another 26 seats on the upper deck. I would have much preferred to be seated in the small upper deck, but first is on the main deck.

We opted to sit in Seats 3E and 3F – the last two seats in first, in the middle section.  The seats Thai uses in First on both their A380 and B747 service are the same, all forward facing lie-flat seats.  The seats aren’t angled away from each other, so if you are traveling with someone, you can still talk to them relatively easily.

A view from 3F – Love the pointy end of the cabin.

The reverse view from 3F – big drop off from the First Class to Business Class, eh?

As I reach my seat, 3F, the Stew approached, welcoming me aboard and asking what I wanted to drink. He was very rushed and very agitated. My gut is that the delay was frustrating him, he knew he had to get a multi-course meal out and get people to bed quickly.  He was trying to be efficient.  I ordered champagne.

As we arrived at our seat, we were greeted with a signature Thai Orchid, some chocolates and a rather rushed Stew.

I continue to get situated – taking out my noise-cancelling headphones, my tablet, a USB Cable to ensure that my phone was fully charged for the photos I knew I’d be taking.  The champagne was delivered and the Stew comes back asking what I wanted for my meal.  Mind you, I hadn’t sat down at that point – I was still unpacking, rearranging, etc.  I let him know I hadn’t looked yet and needed a few minutes.  He slammed his hand down on the seat in front of me and stormed off.  So strange.

My refreshments while we board – Champagne, still water with my Rimowa Amenity Kit.

The champagne being served was a 2006 Dom Perignon – it flowed throughout the flight.

I get settled, enjoy my chocolates and some champagne and the Stew comes back to ask about my dinner selection (it had been about 45 seconds since his last visit). I told him I hadn’t decided and that I didn’t even have a menu yet. He proceeds to pull one out of the area where the magazines and safety cards are stored…then he stands there while I look at it.  He asks again about my selection.  Good god man, give me a second.  He walks off in a huff again.

Plenty of legroom and a huge IFE Screen.

I figure if I don’t have an answer for him on his next visit I’ll probably be escorted off the flight — yes, all this is happening while passengers in business and economy are still boarding.  I tell him I’ll take the Thai Curry with Beef Satay.  “It is too spicy for you, you’ll hate it. I suggest you choose something else.”  Ok, so just a few hours ago I was at Nahm sweating my ass off because of an extremely spicy Prawn Curry, but I was very confident that this dish wouldn’t be anywhere near that spiciness. I again, requested this dish.  His response was priceless: “Fine, but if you don’t like it, you can’t change your selection.”  Now if that isn’t First Class service, I don’t know what is.

The door closes about 25 minutes after we boarded, so the Thai Airways folks did a great job in getting all the passengers on board and settled.  We had a short taxi to the runway, but a very long and bumpy take off roll.  The plane sounded like it was rattling from every screw, bolt, door and cabinet.  It was so loud (and unsettling is not the right word, but something just felt off), so much the passengers I could see all gave each other a concerned look and tightened up their seat belts.

We were in the air and once we crossed 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) the cabin crew jumped into service. Starting with the beverage service and accompanying nuts.  Everything seemed quite rushed – but at this point it was already past 01h30, so people wanted to get some sleep and I’m sure the stews are getting yelled at if they don’t get service done quickly.  We weren’t in any hurry ourselves, I was fine staying up all night and experiencing the wonder that was Thai Royal First class.

Champagne and nuts to kick off the meal – this should be the service everyday, everywhere, don’t you think?

After the drink orders were taken, I grabbed my Thai Royal First pajamas and went to the lavatory.  The lav on the the B747 was quite tight, nothing at all like the large and luxurious Thai A380.  You almost had to be a contortionist to change in that tiny bathroom – but luckily a couple glasses of Dom made me a little more flexible and I managed to change without any of my clothes touching the bathroom surfaces.

No refills on the nuts were offered – we were obviously on a quick an efficient service tonight.  The caviar service came next and I absolutely loved the caviar service last time I flew Thai.  This time, the caviar cart was not wheeled around, but we were asked what accouterments we wanted and the fully plated version came out.  We were also given our own individual jar of caviar this time, while previously we  given individual scoops of caviar – so you could adjust your portion accordingly.  Keep it coming!  The crew didn’t include the vodka pairing with the caviar tonight though – quite disappointing.

Caviar – prepped and ready.

Mike and I taking a break from the movie we were watching to pose for photos during caviar service.

I’m changed and ready for my dinner. First stop, caviar!

Caviar was served in individual jars this time.

After we finished our caviar – immediately after I mean, with almost no delay or hesitation, we were given a salad course. I think.

Salad?

Then another salad course.  The second with Brussels sprouts, carrots and nuts and greens.  A perfectly respectable second salad of the flight.

Salad?

A mild lime flavored sorbet to cleanse our palettes before moving on to the entree.  We were still moving along at quite a clip here too, not a moment was wasted between final bite of one course and the delivering of the next.

The intermezzo sorbet did a good job as a palette cleanser. The lime flavor wasn’t overpowering, but just right.

Next up was the Thai curry that was going to be way too hot for me – and when that happened, I’d be stuck without a meal for the flight…or so the Stew told me.  He did a great job of setting the table, especially considering there were so many condiments that came with my curry and satay.  I will say the curry was very good, it had the mildest of kicks too it too, but this of course had nothing on Nahm. I ate every single bite of this curry – I did have to shoo the Stew away a couple times as he tried to clear my tray table while I was taking a break from the hurried pace of our meal.  I’d totally order this next time I fly Thai.

The traditional Thai curry was very good and served with all the condiments one would need!

After dinner was cleared, I looked for the Stew working my aisle. I needed his help making my bed, but he was no where to be found.  I found his counterpart working the other aisle (she was back in business class chatting with some colleagues and passengers).  She quickly came up and made my bed without hesitation.  She was so much nicer and more professional.  I wish I had sat in her aisle.

It doesn’t look all the comfortable, but it’s a great bed as you fly to Germany.

I crawled into bed and prepared for sleep.  I was pretty full, so sleep didn’t come all that quickly to me and the First Class Cabin on Thai (and many other airlines too) is like a sweat lodge – the heat is just cranked up. Farther back in the plane it is much cooler, but it was so hot up front that you didn’t need all the blankets they provided.

I ended up sleeping off and on for about 5 hours of this flight.  I was too full and too warm to get a great night’s sleep.  I got up about 60 minutes before we landed (I asked the Stews not to wake me for breakfast – I’m not really a breakfast guy and I was pretty full still when I woke up) and popped into the lav to change and brush my teeth before everyone else started getting cleaned up before landing.

As we came in for a landing the old B747 shook and shimmied, just like it did on take off.  Closet and lav doors popped open and overhead bins dropped down.  We landed smoothly and taxied to our gate.  As we deplaned we were given the customary Thai orchid and like the A380 flight, the Stews held back the Business Class (and Economy) passengers until all the First Class Passengers had deplaned.  That is such an elitist move by the airlines, but I absolutely love it.

Flying Thai Royal First was one of the most anticipated parts of this trip.  I utterly adored my experience on the A380 and since I love the B747 itself, I thought I’d be equally wowed.  I did enjoy the flight, the food, the hard product (except for the doors and bins that kept popping open), but the service was dismal at best.  I know people fly for different reasons and it can be quite annoying when you want to sleep and the cabin crew are banging around serving a meal late into the night, but we felt rushed and couldn’t fully enjoy the experience.  Yes, I’m sure I could have been more proactive and told the Stew to slow down and attempted to enjoy the process more, but I didn’t.

I would definitely fly Thai Royal First again – and I’d love to experience their A380 service again -even if it costs more United miles than the first time I flew it.  The daytime flight out of FRA to BKK I think is the way to go – long enough flight to really experience the journey and early enough in the day you aren’t rushed by people trying to get some sleep.

Have you flown Thai Airways Royal First?  Which experience (A380 or B747) was more inline with yours?

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Westin Peachtree Plaza

I needed to be in Atlanta for a few days in early December and decided staying at the Westin Peachtree Plaza because 1) It was near where my travel companion was staying – he’s a Marriott guy and 2) The Fitness Center had Peloton Bikes. I knew I’d be staying at a Starwood Property as I needed the nights to keep my SPG Platinum Status and the rates for all hotels in the area were basically the same, so the Peloton really sealed the deal.

A couple days before my arrival I received a welcome email from a member of guest services as the hotel asking if I needed anything, so I asked to be assigned to the guest room with the Peloton. I figured if I had a bike in the room, I’d be more likely to work out than if I had to go to the gym.  The response came quickly that they couldn’t confirm me into that room now, but would note my reservation and try to get me into that room upon arrival.

I arrived late in the afternoon on Sunday and after a very long wait at the Platinum check-in desk, I was greeted by a woman working reception.  She had a big, bold and bright smile and was in great spirits.  She, like many Starwood folks working the front desk (at least that I’ve come across) see your Platinum Status and hurry through the check-in process.  I always assume they think that since you stay 50+ nights you don’t really care to hear all the details of the hotel, and in general that is right.  I just want to hear where the Lounge is, how to get to the elevators and hopefully that I’ve been upgraded to a suite.  She told me I was indeed upgraded to the “Westin Fitness Room, with Bike.”  I was ecstatic – with the bike in the room, I would definitely work out!

I hurried to the room.  The Westin Peachtree Plaza is huge.  There are nearly 1,100 rooms across more than 70 floors.  The main elevator bank confused me at first, as the signs to which set of elevators would get you to your room wasn’t clear.  I eventually made it to my room and discovered there was indeed a bike, but it wasn’t the Peloton.  It was just a regular exercise bike – no metrics, no screen, just a bike.  Frustrating.

That’s no Peloton!

The room itself was perfectly acceptable.  There was ample space, even with the bike and the other fitness equipment that I didn’t feel closed in or claustrophobic.  Other than the additional equipment, the room was a pretty standard Westin room with a king bed, an adequately sized desk and adjacent TV.

My room – king bed, Reebok exercise bike and other miscellaneous equipment.

My own little fitness studio in my room.

View from the fitness center.

The bathroom was a bit dated, but the biggest problem was the toilet stopped working on my first night.  I returned from dinner on Sunday and flushed the toilet, the water flushed, but never refilled.  I flushed again.  Nothing.  By this time it was about 23h00 and I figured I’d just deal with it in the morning.  I woke up at 05h00 and headed down to the gym, but first called the front desk to let them know about my toilet issue.  Honestly, I figured I’d be told that maintenance would be by later in the day and to use the public toilets as needed.  No such luck, fortunately.  Maintenance came up immediately and spent about 75 minutes working on my broken bathroom – most of that time I was at the gym, so it was only the most minor of inconveniences.  The guys said that a valve broke on the toilet making it so the tank couldn’t properly fill.

The small, yet adequate bathroom…and a broken toilet.

On my first night, I stopped by the fitness center before heading out to dinner and I found the hotel did indeed have Peloton bikes – two of them in fact. Only one was working.  I stopped by the front desk to let them know that the equipment wasn’t working, and was told that it would be fixed before I return from dinner.  Perfect.

Two Peloton bikes in the hotel gym. Too bad only one worked at any given time.

The morning of the toilet break, I hit the gym and took a live Peloton class.  Only one of the bikes were working and I hopped on it right as another guest walked in and wanted to ride too.  She was frustrated (rightfully so) and surprisingly, asked me if I would use a different exercise bike, so she could take a class.  Ballsy of her for sure, but I told her I’d be done with my class in 45 minutes and she could ride then.  Hmmm.

Before leaving for my meetings that morning, I stopped by the front desk, reminding them of the Peloton issues.  I was assured that they would be fixed.  They never were – each day I visited only one bike would work.  The working bike would actually alternate by day, so I think someone went down to fix the bike, but ended up turning off the subscription to the other bike.  Each morning I managed to JUST beat another rider to the bike.  I was proud that this early bird got the bike.

The hotel was hosting some conference which meant the bars and restaurants were utterly packed with people.  It took forever and a day to get a drink.  The bartenders and servers were very apologetic, but I think they were just understaffed, which was a bit disappointing.  The good news though, I only had a glass of wine each night, no more, because I couldn’t stand the wait!  The Westin and Starwood helped me make more healthy decisions without even knowing it.

The Sundial Restaurant and Bar was really disappointing.  I stopped by the bar on my first night, as dinner wasn’t as filling as I had hoped.  I wanted to grab a beer and some bar snacks.  The servers here was pretty young and seemed either very poorly trained or poorly supervised.  The bar was pretty empty, but it took two visits of my server to actually bring me a menu, then when she handed it to me, she stood there staring until I selected my beer.  10 minutes later she returned with my drink, and I asked about changing some of the toppings on the pizzas they offered.  She said I couldn’t make any changes (not even adding an ingredient from another pizza to the one I wanted).  I decided to stick with the beer and then order room service.  She eventually came back and said that she “had done the chef a favor,” so he’d make my special order pizza.  Uh, gross?  The pizza arrived and it was disgusting – the sauce had so much garlic I could barely eat it..and interestingly enough, there was so little sauce, it was like eating a saltine cracker.  I had a slice then called it a night.

The pizza and service at the Sundial Bar was abysmal.

So, all in all, my stay wasn’t without hiccups. It is a huge hotel – the fourth tallest in the Western Hemisphere – and the issues were all pretty minor and easily fixed.  That being said, there were many little issues that just compounded on each other.  I would return to this hotel, if I needed to be in that general area in the future.  I’d rather have a hotel in walking distance to my ultimate destination.

When was the last time you had a broken toilet at your hotel?  How about the Peloton bikes – are they ever working perfectly at a Westin (remember the issues at the Westin Seattle)?

The Sights of Stockholm

I didn’t have much time to spend in Stockholm so I put together a list of things that I just had to see before I boarded my return flight home.  The first thing on the list was the Vasa Museum, which I wrote about recently.  I had also heard many good things about the ABBA Museum, but I’m not a huge ABBA Fan (perish the thought, I know) and the museum entry was quite steep – I just couldn’t pull the trigger.

Interestingly enough, Stockholm was dramatically warmer than Chicago the week I visited.  Chicago was -40C (-40F) when I left and Stockholm was 5C (41F), which was downright balmy!  By my second day in Stockholm the temperature had dropped closer to freezing and a bit of snow dropped overnight.  Despite the weather change it was still quite comfortable and didn’t impact my plans at all.

My visit list included a walk around Gamla Stan – or old town Stockholm – and while there I visited the Royal Palace and Museum and the Nobel Museum (which was undergoing some reconstruction work).  In addition to these main attractions, I wanted to get a better feel for the City – see the architecture and learn more about the people and history of the City.  This last goal required me to just wander around the City, turning down streets that looked interesting, popping into bars and restaurants that had an appeal and chatting it up with the locals.

The view of Gamla Stan from my hotel room…before the snow came in.

Old Stockholm. Despite being a bleak and dreary January day, the colors of these buildings and boats just popped.

The Nordiska Museum is dedicated to the cultural history and ethnography of Sweden. A truly stunning piece of architecture.

The Royal Guard – all buttoned up and warm. Unlike the Beefeaters, he was very friendly and we chatted for a bit.

The canons standing guard at the Royal Palace Museum with a fresh blanket of snow from the previous night.

My appetizer of herring with a potato, cheese and crackers.

Proper Swedish Meatballs with mashed potatoes and lingonberries. What trip to Sweden would be complete without eating your weight in the delicious meatballs.

I will usually check out TripAdvisor and see if there are any places that hadn’t made my list, but should have – or to check out the self-guided walking tours offered on the TripAdvisor App.  There was an interesting one for Stockholm – a tour of the various art pieces found in the Stockholm Subway Stations. Yes, I used my three-day transit pass to schlep between stations to checkout the modern and classical installations.  At a couple stations, locals asked me what I was photographing – so I told them about the self-guided tour I was on, and talked to them about the object I was there to see.  It was a really unique way to explore the art of the City.  At each stop, I also made sure to go above ground and at least take a walk around a block or two to see where I was and what the neighborhood was like.

Station Art depicting the devastation of the natural environment.

Ancient statuary adorned one of the Subway Station Art Stops.

Portuguese tiling surprised me at one of the stations. Beautiful, but completely unexpected.

The people of Stockholm were very welcoming and anytime I had a question (if I had gotten myself lost or needed a recommendation, for example). Even when I was just walking around the City, I didn’t hear Swedish being spoken – only English – which was a little disappointing.  On the flight the announcements were only in English and not Swedish.  I understand that everyone (or nearly) in Stockholm speaks English, but I was hoping to hear some of their native tongue.

What was the thing you just loved about Stockholm?  What did I miss on my visit?  Am I nuts for going to Sweden in January?

The Vasa Museum – Stockholm

The one recommendation that EVERYONE I talked to about Stockholm gave me was to visit the Vasa Museum.  The Vasa was a Swedish warship built in the early 1600s.  It actually sank on its maiden voyage after sailing a bit more than a kilometer.  Some items of value (cannons and other weaponry) were salvaged later in the 17th century, but the ship was basically forgotten until the middle of the 20th century.  It was raised in 1961 and housed in a temporary location until it moved to its permanent home in 1981.  The Vasa museum is dedicated to the history of the ship, the salvage efforts and the period in which it was constructed.  

I decided to visit the Vasa Museum my first day in Stockholm and I figured I’d spent about 90 minutes exploring the museum, maybe grab lunch at the museum cafe and then head on out to make headway on my to do list.  That plan fell apart pretty quickly, once I arrived at the museum.  I was enthralled!

I was utterly surprised at how interesting the museum actually was.  The Vasa was so much more grand than I was expecting.  While you can’t actually go on the ship itself, you can walk around it getting amazing views of the craftsmanship.  The brackish water really preserved the ship – 400 years underwater and the boat looks amazing.  The museum worked with craftsmen to repair parts of the ship that were damaged while it was submerged or during the recovery process.

The aft section of the Vasa – enormous in scale and history.

The intricate carvings transfixed me.

While you couldn’t tour the boat itself, the museum did have a ton of interactive exhibits where you could see what life would be like on board.

A sampling of the ornate carvings that adorned ships of this era.

I ended up spending nearly four hours exploring the Vasa Museum.  I did also grab some Swedish meatballs and a beer.  I’ve recommended this museum to others, with the simple comment that you’ll need more time than you initially think and everyone tells me that the did indeed spend hours longer there than they anticipated.  Who knew a 400 year old boat that sank immediately upon completion would be so fascinating?

Swedish Meatballs, Potatoes and Pickles at the Vasa Museum. Really great for Museum Food!

Have you been to the Vasa Museum?  How much time did you spend there?  The meatballs were pretty tasty too, weren’t they?

Is Hotel Status Worth Chasing?

Hotel status is an interesting animal for me. On one hand, I really dig the suite upgrades and the additional points earned for stays, but on the other, the upgrades are so infrequent, why worry about them? I’m Platinum with Starwood and Marriott (their not-so-recent merger allows for a status match between programs). I earn this status by staying 50 nights a year at SPG Properties (plus the nights/stays credited because of the co-branded credit cards). I do struggle maintaining this status because sometimes my work travel doesn’t afford me the opportunity to stay at an SPG Property.

Prince de Galles Macassar Suite – Upgraded because of my SPG Platinum Status

Does Platinum Status even matter any more?

Friends have commented on how Marriott isn’t all that generous with their Platinum members – negligible upgrades being the biggest issue. What minimums do I expect from a hotel program? I expect high speed internet for at least three devices (I need my phone, tablet and laptop all connected…and if I’m traveling with anyone else, we need at least four devices connected), I would like access to a club lounge with bottles of water and some snacks and cocktails (even grocery store wine is an acceptable amenity). I don’t care about breakfast, complimentary parking, or discounts at the on-property restaurants. A room free of feathered linens and located away from the elevator is also high on my list.

In reality, I can get all my hotel needs met with a mid-tier (Gold with SPG, Marriott and Hilton) status. I get access to upgrades (that rarely materialize even with Platinum status), I get free internet and I get access to the club lounges. I get this status without running on the Hotel Stay/Night hamster wheel.

The American Express Platinum card offers Gold Status with both Hilton and Starwood. United offers Gold Status at Marriott for flyers who maintain Gold or higher status with MileagePlus. I’ve got all the major programs covered, why should I push for Platinum Status? Should I just find the best rate at the best hotel and use whatever savings I’m getting to pay for a nicer room when I really need it.

Since the Marriott and SPG loyalty programs will likely be combining in 2019 and I have confidence that it will look more like Marriott Rewards than SPG, I’m changing my hotel strategy – Find a hotel with a good rating, great rate, close to everywhere I want/need to be and call it good. I hope it feels freeing that I don’t feel obligated to stay at a property I’m just not digging because I need the Stay/Night credit (I’m looking at you, Westin Arlington, VA).

What is your hotel strategy for 2018 and beyond? If you are a Marriott fan, tell me how your luck has been with your upgrades and elite recognition.