A frequent traveller with Virgin and the One World Alliance, with American Airlines, I had always been curious about what life was like on some of the other carriers. Having tried Thai F in January (on short a HKG-BKK trip) I looked into an interesting miles redemption option offered by BMI (formerly British Midland).  BMI, which is part of the Star Alliance, offers a miles plus money option, which allows you to co-pay and redeem half the miles you normally would need, meaning a 100,000 mile flight in First Class, would cost you just 50,000 miles and £340, plus tax. There’s nothing else quite like it for frequent flyers that I know of, so I decided to join Diamond Club, BMI’s frequent flyer scheme and see if I could quickly ramp up enough points to redeem for a First Class flight on Singapore Airlines (SQ), reputedly the best in the world.

Early in 2008 I signed up for BMI’s American Express card, which, at the time, was offering 25,000 miles to new customers. Then, during the year, I signed up for every BMI survey and promotion I could find, as well as notching up a couple of cheap economy Star Alliance flights, earning an additional 25,000 miles in the process. Just by using the credit card you rack up 2 points per £ spent and with some amazing online shopping promotions, offering additional miles per £ spent, totting up the remainder of the points wasn’t too difficult.  By the usual mileage earning standards this was pretty easy going.

Earning the miles is one thing, but actually booking the ticket is something else entirely.  If you’re planning on trying this yourself I would highly recommend you also sign up for ANA’s Mileage Club. Also a member of Star Alliance, ANA actually lets you check the availability of reward seats with other airlines online within the network, so that when you call BMI to redeem your miles you’ll already know what’s available and when, nevertheless, First availability is scarce, especially when you’re not booking it from the airline with which you are a member, so you’ll really have to search to find what you want and be really flexible about when your trip may be.

The scarcity of the seats makes the ANA tool critical. As you’ll have no status with BMI, like me, when you call them you’ll get put through to their crappy oursourced membership hotline, who, unlike the folks on the premium account lines, aren’t too keen to help you find available flights. So, sign up to ANA (it’s free), check which flights are open, then call BMI and specify exactly what you want, right down to the flight number.  When I needed to change my travel plans for Asia-Sydney (originally with Malaysian Airlines) this Christmas, because of the debacle at Bankok airport, I checked ANA at the very last minute to see if Singapore Airlines had availability to Sydney, they did. I called BMI, early on a Sunday morning (another good tip), ten minutes and £500 (ish) later it was done.

Last week I got my first taste of SQ/F on the first leg, a 5,500 mile trip from Hong Kong to Sydney, via Singapore.

Now, since last year SQ have been rolling out their new First Class cabin across the fleet, all the new 777ER aircraft and A380s feature brand-new First Class products, but they are near impossible to book with miles (believe me I tried) so I had to settle for the 747 Skybed product which is being phased out with the aircraft itself.  Nevertheless it was quite an experience.

Singapore Airlines First Class (747)

As far as the cabin is concerned SQ’s First Class has 12 seats, 2 less than BA and Quantas, with an unusual single seat (1B) situated, on its own, right at in the very nose of the plane. Unlike some of the new ‘suite’ styled products, which tend to be enclosed, each seat is relatively open, making flying a more social and interactive experience, which some people seem to prefer.

Singapore Airlines First Class (747)

Where other airlines opt for an ottoman or footrest opposite the main seat, SQ’s chair extends fully without the need for one. Sadly this is one of the more disappointing features in the design; with nothing to put your feet on you end up either putting your feet up on the television, or opting to recline, which raises the leg rest – neither of which are ideal if you’re eating or working.

Singapore Airlines First Class (747)

HKG-SIN I started in 2A, but, when the IFE system failed I switched over to 1B, which must be the most private of the last generation of First Class products (ie not suites). With no-one left, right or forward of you, the feeling is of total privacy, like you’re the only one in the cabin, which funnily enough, on the SIN-SYD leg of the journey, I was.

Singapore Airlines First Class (747)

Despite being on your own, you’re still easily accessible by the crew, who are able to recharge your glass and reclaim your plates without climbing over someone else  or squeeze through a narrow opening, something the designers overlooked in some other cabin designs (I’m thinking BA’s new Club World in particular).

Singapore Airlines First Class (747)

SQ’s newer cabins will undoubtedly be even better, but what the 747 cabin lacked in high-tech and mod-cons, it truly made up for in charm and service. From the moment I stepped aboard I was treated exceptionally well, plied with vintage Champagne and treated to a 5 course gourmet meal, incredible given the relatively short flight time of the first leg.

Singapore Airlines First Class (747)

Singapore Airlines First Class (747)

As I’ve mentioned in the past, nothing compares to the service you get with the Asian airlines, Thai and Cathay knock the socks off British Airways and American, even Virgin, but Singapore probably takes the biscuit.  Probably slightly biased by the fact I was their only passenger from Singapore to Sydney, the service was extraordinary.  The cabin crew were extremely attentive, keeping me stocked up on Champagne en route to Singapore and waking me just before landing with a cup of coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice as we approached Sydney.

The one surprising thing, perhaps, about the entire SQ package, was the lounge at Changi.  With a 2 1/2 hour stopover and plane change in Singapore I had the chance to check out the First Class lounge, in terminal 3.

Singapore Airlines First Class Lounge

Compared to my experience in the air this was sorely lacking. There was a good restaurant and reasonable bar, but the service was off and everything seemed just a little dated. It reminded me of and American Airlines lounge, which is no compliment. This was mirrored in Hong Kong, where the windowless room cried out for the Virgin treatment, anything to brighten it up a bit, make it fun.

The lounge aside, Singapore Airlines have got one of the most important things right: making it feel like First Class, not just look it.  Where others more recently have focussed on seats or lighting, menu design or gimmicks, SQ delivers with genuinely amazing service: you really feel like a First Class passenger in the way you’re treated, how the whole experience is put together. Sometimes it’s the simple things that are the hardest to get right, and SQ have nailed that First Class vibe.

First Lounge

First Class Lounge

First Class Lounge

First Class Lounge

First Class Lounge

First Lounge

Concorde Room

Concorde Room

Concorde Room

Concorde Room

Concorde Room

Everywhere Magazine

October 7, 2008

My Article in Everywhere

Now, sadly, on a sabbatical, Everywhere magazine recently published my Virgin vs BA post from a while back.  You can read it on their website here.

Everywhere is published by 80/20 Media, a crowdsourced publishing business. The idea is simple: you create the magazine. Sourced from hundreds of world travellers, but edited professionally by the 80/20 crew, Everywhere harnesses the truly independent viewpoint, an unbiased and unique perspective, through the eyes of the traveller themselves.  It’s a little rough around the edges, as you’d expect, but that only adds to the magazine’s charm.

I’m sad that Everywhere may not return, but I think this model can work, it’s especially compelling when you think of the dire state of some of the in flight magazines. BA’s Highlife, is the one exception I can think of, but most are dull, doing little to inspire, convert or sell the reader on whatever their agenda.  I’d love to see Virgin try the 80/20 model for an in flight mag. Currently their best publication, iFly, is limited to Gold Card members, and is sent in the post, rather than being available on board. It’s time someone did something remarkable with their in flight mag, as far as I’m concerned the only way is up.

Cathay Pacific has always been highly regarded for its incredible in-flight service, but up until 2007 their cabins had begun to lag behind.

A redesign, phased through ’08 has seen a dramatic change to their First product – a change, perhaps most visible in the cabin geography. Cathay have removed 5 First Class seats, moving to just 9 (the lowest of any 747-grade first class, that I know of). What’s left is a truly private, incredibly comfortable and exceedingly luxurious personal suite.

Cathay First Class Cabin

Each ‘Suite’, furnished with its own Orchid, wardrobe (I kid you not), soft pillows, Washkit and custom Shanhai Tang PJ’s is designed without compromise. Another ingenious design feature of note is the omission of overhead bins, as these have been incorporated into the suite, leaving a vertically spacious and airy cabin. As you are ushered into your own personal space, the incredible sense of privacy is the thing that hits you first. Sitting back in your chair, which is some 81 inches long (perfect for us 6+footers), you can’t help but think that you’re the only one on the flight, all but one seat is a window, and all are 80% enclosed, keeping you focussed on what’s important to you: sleep, work, a movie or a delicious dinner and drinks service.

Cathay Seat

Suite 2K

When it comes to bedtime, the typical turn-down service is provided, only once I was tucked in did I realise that this was the first time ever on a plane that I was unable to touch my toes to the end of the bed.

All tucked in

Cathay’s attention to detail is particularly apparent in the bathroom, which is the largest and best appointed I’ve ever seen on a commercial airline. Not only did it have plenty of room, two windows, a porcelain bowl-style sink, it also had a full-length mirror, incredible.

2 windows in the huge bathroom

If you manage to defer your attention from the excellent design for long enough you may just get around to enjoying the food and service, for which Cathay has been perennially celebrated. On both times I’ve flown Cathay First I’ve enjoyed the best food I’ve ever had on an airline. The In Flight Entertainment isn’t bad either, with a wide-range of on-demand programming and a huge LCD screen to watch it on.

Lamb Chops

Let’s not forget that all this is after having spent several wonderful hours in one of Cathay’s award winning lounges. The John Pawson designed Wing and Pier lounges at HKG are some of the best I’ve ever seen: expect typical Pawson-esque minimalist luxury, combined with Chinese hospitality – an excellent kids’ games room, dining room, private washrooms and long bar.

Haven

The saddest thing (as so often is the case) about this luxury is that it’s so impossibly out of reach. Both of my trips were on miles, and, with long haul First Class tickets on CX costing $8k+ it seems they’ve scaled the price along with the upgrade to the experience. If you do, however, manage to rack up a substantial (140k LHR – HKG) tranche of miles with a Oneworld partner I can think of no better way of spending them than on a trip to Hong Kong with Cathay. You won’t regret it.

Tablet Plus

July 27, 2008

New York

Tablet Hotels, the fantastic hotel booking site which specialises in small, mostly independent, luxury hotels, recently launched an excellent member’s programme called Tablet Plus.

For just $195, you get the following, at over 200 participating hotels:

• Complimentary upgrade at check-in (subject to availability) and best available rate at the time of booking.

You will also receive any three of the following amenities as selected by each property:

• Complimentary continental breakfast for two
• Guaranteed 4pm check-out
• One complimentary glass of champagne or one cocktail, per guest, upon arrival
• Spa voucher worth $50 US
• Complimentary airport transfer
• Complimentary internet access (only for hotels that do not already offer this free to all guests)
• Complimentary gym access for two for the length of your stay

I recently signed up, and have used my status twice now, for my last two trips to NYC, at the Tribecca Grand and my fave NY hotel: The Hotel on Rivington (the pic is from one of their Corner King rooms). They even upgraded my colleague, which was a nice touch.

Even if you only use it 3 times a year the room upgrade easily pays for itself, the late check-out and free internet access bonus’ are the icing on the cake.

What’s In Your Bag?

June 4, 2008

Always looking to downsize the kit I travel with, I recently deconstructed the ingredients of my ‘Hand Luggage Only’ armoury. Here they are:

Travel Kit Redux

Click through to Flickr and rollover for more details.

Airline Lounges : In Pictures

SFO

Virgin Clubhouse : SFO

American Airlines First Class Lounge

American Airlines Flagship Lounge : JFK

Cathay Pacific First Class Lounge, Heathrow

Cathay Pacific Lounge : LHR

Long Bar, The Wing

Cathay Pacific Wing Lounge : HKG

Thai Royal First Lounge

Thai Royal First Lounge : BKK

Jo'Burg Clubhouse

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse : JNB

BA First Class Lounge (T1) Heathrow

British Airways First Lounge : LHR

Clubhouse

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse : LHR

If you frequently travel through Heathrow and want to beat the Immigration queues when you arrive then sign up for IRIS on your next outbound.  It’s an eye-scanning technology that effectively replaces the Immigration officer and passport check, by scanning your iris and checking the data stored on their database.  It only takes 5 minutes to sign up, and once you’re in the system you’ll clear immigration in no time on your return leg, you don’t even need to rummage through your bag for your passport.  It’s all a bit ‘Minority Report’, but if you can get past the THX1138ness of it all it’ll radically transform your arrival, as you skip past the queues and collect your bags in a matter of minutes.

Travel Tip: Perfume

April 17, 2008

One of my favourite, but slightly weird, travel tips is to buy new aftershave or perfume at the airport before you go on holiday, and using it exclusively whilst you are away.  Smell is the most memorable of all the senses and, when revisited, can be a powerful reminder of your vacation. Here’s a more scientific view. Go on, try it next time you’re away.

Dopplr is a simple web application that helps you keep track of friends and colleagues, wherever they are in the world. I travel to San Francisco about 10 times a year, and Dopplr lets me know who’s going to be in town when I’m there: listing all my friends who live there, as well as people who are visiting at that time – useful, eh. Not only that, but it also allows your connections to share their tips for the city – cool coffee shop, best place for free wifi etc, making it super-useful for checking out the places that you won’t find in guidebooks.

Check it out and add me as a friend.

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