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Tim Foolery

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UAL 896 HKG-ORD (BusinessFirst)

When I purchased these tickets, I knew I wanted to use my friend’s GPU (Global Premium Upgrades), so I purchased some slightly higher priced coach tickets (technically 50% more expensive than the cheap, non-upgradable tickets).  Our outbound upgrade cleared almost immediately, but hours before our return flight we were still in coach.  It would have been quite a frustrating turn of events to pay extra for an upgradable seat, but not actually get upgraded.  Our upgrade cleared, but not until we got on the high speed train to the airport – cutting it a little close for comfort.

After we left the SilverKris Lounge, we headed off to our departure gate (Gate 65). Once we arrived, I looked around the boarding area and I felt like I was on a flight to Canada: everyone was neatly lined up, boarding pass and passport in hand, not at all like the traditional mayhem that a gate area in an Asian airport usually is.

We boarded through door 2L and turned right for our BusinessFirst Seats.  These weren’t the (relatively) great BusinessFirst Seats we had on the way to Hong Kong, our seats for the return were in the middle section, not only that, but the middle two seats of the middle section.  If I wanted to use the lavatory, I had to either crawl over one or two people.  No carrier can rightfully say they have a quality business class product if they don’t offer aisle access to every seat on the plane.

Flight: United Airlines 896 (BusinessFirst)
Aircraft: Boeing 777-200
Seat: 9 D&G
Departure: 11h10 (13h10)
Arrival: 11h45 (11h31)

Luckily EAD and I were able to sit next to each other, and share our misery.  I am pretty sure I’d rather be in this middle middle BusinessFirst seat than an aisle in coach, but as I sat for 15-ish hours wondering if I should wake the guy up next to me, so I could go to the lavatory, I wasn’t sure.

As usual, I started my on-board consumption with some champagne.  This time, I asked for champagne and the stew corrected me, saying they were serving sparkling wine only – guess I can’t win, can I?  I had two glasses of their mediocre sparkling (but hell, a mediocre sparkling is better than no sparkling at all).

Sparkling Wine in a Plastic Glass is better than nothing, I guess.

Sparkling Wine in a Plastic Glass is better than nothing, I guess.

After the door closed, we had a quick taxi to the runway and a fast take-off roll.  We were airborne shortly after the door closed and we were on our way back home.  I was pretty tired at this point – I guess a 4 day trip to Hong Kong can do that to you.  I was looking forward to eating, then curling up and sleeping for a few hours.

The menu was new on this return flight, compared to our original outbound.  I opted for the dried out chicken breast, which, when coupled with the sauce it was served with along with a big drink of wine, it was perfectly acceptable.  I did have a cheese course as well as an ice cream sundae – which was paired with a United Port.

The meal service was completed within about 2.5 hours after the door closed and I was really exhausted at this point.  I decided to stay up and watch a documentary called “Rich Hill”, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.  This film was really good and depressing.  After the film, I flipped on some Big Bang Theory and closed my eyes.  I then proceeded to sleep off and on for the next 8 hours.  I woke up, after missing the great mid-flight dirty dishwater soup (that I seriously enjoyed on the previous flight).  I killed the rest of the flight by watching some bad TV and debating on doing some work or studying French – neither of which I did.

It still surprises me that the 15 or so hour flights can go by so quickly.  I wouldn’t like doing this every week, but once or twice a year it is perfectly acceptable.  While I do think doing this trip in BusinessFirst is better than coach (here or here), I’ve done both and both are survivable, as long as you come prepared.  Bring lots of things to entertain yourself – movies and TV shows on your laptop/tablet, a book or two, plus hours and hours of music.  You’ll do just fine.

Have you taken this flight to Hong Kong before? How do you survive the two-thirds of a full day in the air?

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UAL 895 ORD-HKG (BusinessFirst)

Our flight to Hong Kong left early afternoon, so I was up early to pack and sit in on a couple of conference calls before we left for the airport.  I hate checking a bag, especially for such a short trip and moreso when we have to hit the ground running, so I packed my 21″ roller, leaving plenty of room to bring back my new tux.  We called for an UberX about 10h30 to take us to ORD where we planned on having a Bloody Mary (or two) then we’d stroll over to board the flight.

Late Wednesday morning in January is not a very busy time at ORD – we flew through Pre-Check and headed straight to my favorite United Club in Terminal 1 – near B14.  This is the second newest United Club at ORD and can be quite empty depending on when you are there (the lounge near B4 is always packed when I show up).  We head to the bar and order a couple Bloody Mary’s and talk a bit about what our goals are in Hong Kong — this is a common theme for me – planning the trip while en route to the destination.

United Club Bloodies

United Club Bloodies

Around 12h30 we headed off to the C concourse – arriving at the gate a few minutes before boarding began.  Like my other flights to China and various destinations in Asia, the line formed early, but people began pushing their way to the front.  The line wasn’t moving but other passengers had to get to the head of the queue.  One of my biggest frustrations with China.  We boarded though door 2L and turned left for the mini BusinessFirst cabin. This mini-cabin features 2 rows and 16 seats – while the main BusinessFirst cabin is a right turn from door 2L and contains 3 rows with 24 lay flat BusinessFirst seats.

Flight: United Airlines 895
Aircraft: Boeing 777-200
Seat: 7 A&B
Departure: 13h20 (13h22)
Arrival: 19h20 (19h01)

Shortly after we sat down, the folks across the aisle from us, arrived and started moving all the luggage around in the overhead bins — which frustrated me.  You don’t have to have your bags immediately over your head – and if you MUST, then you should board early.

We were served by a lovely middle aged stew who, even before we were settled in our seat, offered us our choice of beverage – of course, I opted for the sparkling wine.  She called in champagne – not so much, but there was no point in correcting her.  I continued to ask for sparkling wine throughout the flight, and she’d subtly correct me by saying “champagne” when she refilled my glass.  As long as the booze keeps flowing, she can call it whatever she wants.

"Champagne" in a plastic cup en route to Hong Kong.

“Champagne” in a plastic cup en route to Hong Kong.

Our friendly stew begins to pass out the BusinessFirst amenity kits.  I was surprised when I found out they were still using the commemorative tins featuring several United destinations.  I received NRT and EAD picked up DXB.  The amenity kit itself featured the standard components – eye mask, lip balm, hand lotions, socks – all mid-level quality, but a hell of a lot better than you get in coach (which is nothing).

United BusinessFirst Amenity Kit

United BusinessFirst Amenity Kit

We pulled back from the gate and I finished my second class of sparkling wine and our friendly stew picked up our (plastic) glassware.  After a quick taxi to the runway and no queuing, we were airborne. As we pass 10,000 feet, our stew brings us hot nuts and another glass of sparkling wine — this time, in an actual glass.

For lunch, I opted to have the Kung Pao Chicken, which was surprisingly bland and flavorless.  I don’t have high expectations for United food, but this was very disappointing.  EAD had the pork chop. When he asked the stew for guidance on the meal, she was extremely enthusiastic about how “fine” the pork chop was.  She wholeheartedly called it “fine”.  He should have known better, but he ordered it. It looked pretty good, but he needed a power saw to cut the meat.  Eating this pork chop is like eating celery – you burn more calories by eating it (sawing through it) than you gain by consuming it.

Bland Kung Pao Chicken

Bland Kung Pao Chicken

Leathery Pork Chop

Leathery Pork Chop

I decided to continue to gorge myself on mediocre food by having a cheese plate and an ice cream sundae.  I paired these desserts with a couple glasses of port.  There is only one port option on the flight and it is a syrupy sweet port that reminds me a lot of NyQuil — which isn’t all that bad if you have another 13 hours onboard to kill.

Cheese Course and Port

Cheese Course and Port

Lunch was finished by around 15h30 – two hours into the flight.  I then settled in to explore the IFE (In-Flight Entertainment) – which had a decent selection of films and TV shows.  My biggest pet peeve with the TV shows was that they mostly had just a single episode of some shows – I’d a few episodes to keep me entertained before moving off to another program.

I (over) loaded my tablets with TV shows for the flight too — I watched just a few hours of what I brought, then put on my eye mask and turned my seat into a bed.  The seat and bed are pretty comfortable (better than the angled flat seat on Lufthansa, but not as good as First in Thai or Business on Asiana).  My one major complaint about the bed is that it is so narrow. I’m not a big guy (width), but I felt a bit claustrophobic while trying to sleep – it was pretty tough to turn over too.

I slept off and on for a few hours of the flight. About half way through the flight, I was awake and was served a mid-flight snack of Chinese Noodle Soup…which was fantastic.  It looked like (and I called it) Dirty Dishwater Soup – but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I spent another few hours of off and on sleep and TV.  We watched the sunset twice on the flight too.  About 90 minutes from Hong Kong we were served breakfast — which I had a croissant and some cereal with milk.

We landed in Hong Kong about 20 minutes early.  The airport was quite deserted compared to what I was expecting, but that meant we made it through customs and immigration without a single moment delayed by standing in line.  We stopped off in the Arrivals hall to get some cash then hopped in an old red taxi and headed straight into Kowloon to visit our tailor.

It always surprises me how time passes on these super long haul flights.  Granted, being in BusinessFirst is a nice bonus, but I’ve done this same trip to Shanghai in EconomyPlus and it wasn’t all that torturous either.  Sometimes I feel the flight to LA from Chicago is more arduous than a flight to Europe or Asia.  Maybe because the destination excites me more than a domestic trip.  Do you have the same feelings as I do, or are you utterly miserable being on a plane for 16 hours?

Earn More United Miles with MileagePlus X

Last November United MileagePlus rolled out MileagePlus X to a select test group of users.  MileagePlus X is a new way to earn miles while shopping and is now available to everyone. We’re all familiar with the use of online shopping portal (you log into to the shopping portal, then click over to your intended shopping website, complete your purchase and earn extra points), this is just like an in-person version of this…theoretically.  Here’s how it works.

  • Download the App (available for iOS and Android)
  • Sign into the App to setup your account and to see what stores are offering bonus points in your area
  • Go to the store and shop as normal
  • During checkout, launch the App and enter the grand total of your purchase
  • Hand your smartphone to the cashier to scan or manually enter in a bar code
  • Points post automatically

So how does this really work?  Basically, at the time of checkout you are purchasing a gift card for the exact amount of your purchase.  I love the idea of free point, but I do have a few concerns.  Since you are essentially making a purchase via a gift card, how are returns handled – I assume if you’d return an item purchased this way, you’d get your money credited back on another gift card — may not be ideal.  What about the additional consumer protections you get from certain credit cards (extended warranty, price match, extended returns and loss replacement)?  My guess is that you are out of luck here.

I’d suggest only using this for items that you wouldn’t return – like at restaurants, movies or services like spa treatments, etc.

I’ll give this a go and see if it makes sense for me and I’ll report back once I have some more data points.  Learn more about it here, on the official site.

Are you excited about this new earning opportunity or do you think it is just another way for United to focus on things that aren’t its core business?  I’m concerned that with all these new ways to earn miles, we’ll see another change in the award redemption chart (more miles needed for travel).

Park Hyatt Zurich

The final stop on our Thanksgiving trip was Zurich.  We arrived a bit later than we intended, thanks to the helpful people at Sixt Car Rental.  We drove straight to the Park Hyatt, where we’d be spending our last night.  I had never stayed in a Park Hyatt before and was very much looking forward to seeing what this property had to offer.

As discussed earlier in this post, we booked this hotel by transferring Chase Ultimate Reward Points to my Hyatt Gold Passport account.  30,000 Ultimate Reward Points was pretty steep, but using these points saved us about $750 – that’s about a 2.46 cents per point, which in my book is a pretty good rate of return.

We snaked our way through Zurich to Beethovenstrasse, which is just across the river (5 minute walk) to Bahnhoffstrasse with great shopping.  We valeted our rental car and handed off our luggage to the bellman.  We had many shopping bags that we picked up from our stops in Paris, Beaune and Bern — all of which needed to be packed into our already overloaded luggage for our return flight the next day.

We approached the front desk and were greeted by a woman who was more interested in her internet activity than checking us in.  She asked if we had stayed at the hotel before and if we were familiar with the property – to which we responded no.  I was expecting her to tell us about the restaurant, the bar, the gym, the wifi and anything else pertinent.  She did not.  She told us if we needed anything just let her know.  She scanned our passports and escorted us to our room.  She was nearly silent as we walked to our room on the third floor.

She opened our room and escorted us in.  At this point she provided us so much detail on the room.  She showed us the bed, the windows, the closet, the min-bar, the safe, the bath tub, the shower, the WC, the coffee station.  She showed us how to access the wifi, how to use the phone and told us that in a few minutes the butler service will be by.  It was nice to have the in-room service, but the details were a little excruciating.  She was very well prepared and once we got to the room she was very warm and lovely.

Park Hyatt Zurich - Standard Room - View from our 3rd floor window

Park Hyatt Zurich – Standard Room – View from our 3rd floor window

About 5 minutes after she left both the valets with the luggage and the butler service arrived.  The wrong luggage was delivered but a lovely fruit platter was delivered.  The luggage snafu was fixed within 15 minutes with heartfelt apologies from the valets.

Fruit Platter

Fruit Platter

The room was quite large, even for two guests.  We had a nice little sitting area, for one, near the window and a large desk with a glass top (making the area seem bigger and airy than it really was) – there was even a little vanity area with a mirror so you could apply makeup and occupy the bathroom.

Park Hyatt Zurich - Standard Room - Seating Area

Park Hyatt Zurich – Standard Room – Seating Area

Park Hyatt Zurich - Standard Room - Large Desk

Park Hyatt Zurich – Standard Room – Large Desk

Park Hyatt Zurich - Standard Room - Vanity

Park Hyatt Zurich – Standard Room – Vanity

The king sized bed was very comfortable and much to my surprise, the room had ample electrical outlets near the bed.  One of my hotel pet peeves was not found here – that’s a major win.  One thing I didn’t like was the sliding panels that separate the bathroom from the main part of the room.  These panels, which I see more and more now, and I just loathe them, are to allow extra light into bath and lets you watch the TV while in the bathtub.  This is nice in theory, but I prefer more privacy for the bathroom than these panels provide.

Park Hyatt Zurich - Standard Room

Park Hyatt Zurich – Standard Room

Park Hyatt Zurich - Sliding Panels - God I hate these

Park Hyatt Zurich – Sliding Panels – God I hate these

Park Hyatt Zurich - Standard Room - View from the Bath

Park Hyatt Zurich – Standard Room – View from the Bath

Park Hyatt Zurich - Standard Room - Separate Shower

Park Hyatt Zurich – Standard Room – Separate Shower

We headed downstairs to begin our quick self-guided tour of the City and stopped off at the concierge desk asking for help for dinner reservations.  We had a list of 5 different restaurants – all traditional Swiss, ranging from very high end to middle of the road.  The gentleman who was working the concierge desk was a bit short with us – he seemed frustrated that we were looking to book dinner reservations only a few hours out on a Friday night.  After about 15 minutes of discussion with him, I realized he wasn’t frustrated with us, it was more of a language issue (we were communicating in English, not German).  After realizing this, I was much more understanding.   None of the restaurants we wanted to visit were available the night in question.  The concierge recommended another authentic Swiss restaurant a few miles away- around the lake from hotel.  He warned us it would be a 15-25 minute taxi ride.  More on that restaurant later.

The next morning, we were up early as we had to head to airport, drop off our rental car and return home.  We had mostly packed the night before.  We had slept pretty well as the room was quite quiet and the bed was one of the more comfortable ones on this trip.  I hopped in the shower, which as you saw above, was a separate shower and not a shower-tub combo.  The water pressure was great, as was the temperature — but that shouldn’t be surprising, I guess, since we were showering at 06h00 on a Saturday morning.  The bath products were by Laura Tonatto, which I will admit, I was not familiar with.  They were perfectly fine – not worth seeking out or even taking home, in my opinion.  I’m sure others love it though.  It got the job done.  We did not eat breakfast in the hotel – it was available for an extra charge and those who read this blog regularly, know I’m not really a breakfast guy, so unless there is an unlimited Bloody Mary or Mimosa Bar, I’m perfectly content grabbing an orange juice and a croissant and heading out the door.

Many hotels have a “signature scent”, a smell that when you walk in, you know you are in that brand of hotel. Both the Westin and the W have such a scent.  I’ve noticed it less frequently at the Peninsula and Waldorf though.  The scent at the Park Hyatt Zurich was a bit off putting.  I don’t know if it is the same at all Park Hyatts or just in Zurich, but it had citrus floral notes coupled with a bit of cat pee.  Honestly, when we got home Saturday night, and I had to clean the litter box, the smell reminded me a bit of the Park Hyatt.  It wasn’t a pleasant smell, but it brought back the memories of our trip.  This smell wasn’t in the rooms or even in the lobby, it was just on the guest room floors (it was on 3 of the floors, as I stopped off on different floors to see if it was just a 3rd floor issue or a consistent issue — it was consistent).

So, after only staying one night, would I return to the Park Hyatt Zurich?  Let me start off by saying (again) that Switzerland is expensive.  Even the lower end hotels were over $300USD/night.  This is a great City to use miles/points to get a free stay.  Nothing about the Park Hyatt wowwed me.  It was in a great location, the service was a bit above average (but below my expectations — although, my expectations were set in a complete vacuum, so I blame myself, not the hotel).  The room was nice, the bed comfortable and the water temp/pressure great — all things that are critical to me — plus there were ample outlets near the bed!  If I had 30,000 points/night to spend in Zurich, I would probably stay here again.  It isn’t a slam dunk return for me, but I’d see what other options were available, but I wouldn’t hesitate in returning.

This isn’t a winning endorsement, I know, but all-in-all, I was pleased with my stay and with my miles/points redemption.

Have you stayed at the Park Hyatt Zurich before? What did you think?  How was the service?  Did you notice an odd “signature scent” – or was it just me?

Miles/Points Credit Cards and High Annual Fees

I’ve said it before, I’m not really into the Credit Card Sign-Up game (you know, churning credit cards just to get the bonus miles then cancelling them before the annual fee is due).  Some people have a set schedule and sign up for cards every 91 days, meet the spend then cancel and start it all over again.  I will, however, sign up for a Credit Card if here is a huge bonus — like 75,000 – 100,000 miles/point bonus.

In January 2013, American Express offered a 100,000 point sign-up bonus for their Platinum Card.  I signed up.  In January 2014, Citibank offered 100,000 American AAdvantage Miles for signing up with their Citi AAdvantage World Elite card.  I’ve found that I get pretty good benefits from the American Express Platinum Card ($200 annual airline credit, access to Fine Hotels and Resorts, Starwood Preferred Guest Gold Status — although I already have that based on stays — Complimentary Boingo WiFi, AmEx Offers and access to the Delta Lounge — which I’ve used just once).  This card has  $450 annual fee – which I think is totally worth it for me considering all the benefits.

The Citi AAdvantage World Elite card has an annual fee of $450 as well. The benefits to me of this card is really only that it offers access to the American Airlines Admirals Club.  I only use the Admirals Club in Nashville, so it’s not a huge benefit.  I really signed up for this card just for the 100,000 miles.

I mention this because it is time for the annual fees again.  I’m keeping my American Express Platinum Card for at least another year and at that point I’ll reevaluate.  I can’t really rationalize paying $450 to keep a card that offers me no real benefits other than access to a lounge (that I used 4 times in 2014 — I could buy day passes for $50 each).   I’ve got a huge credit limit on the World Elite Card too – so canceling the card could impact my credit score (reducing total credit increases your credit utilization percentage).

So what’s my plan?  I’m going to keep the AmEx Platinum, but I’m going to call Citi and see if they will offer me a bonus for keeping the card for another year.  Best case scenario – they’ll waive the fee and offer me a mileage bonus.  Do I think that’ll happen: Nope. Hopefully I’ll get something.  I’ll report back on my results once they are in.

Do you have any experience with Citibank and asking for a retention bonus?