How I chose to fly business class home in July

Let me start by making clear how grateful and privileged I am to have the opportunity to fly home in business class next month. Everything else that follows in this post is just an exploration of my thought process whether to fly in business class and, once I decided to, decided which airline and routing to fly. (And I’m going to go into serious aviation nerd mode, which maybe only Matt will appreciate fully. Sorry in advance!)

The rationale

I am not yet at a point in my life where buying transcontinental business class tickets is an affordable option. This is my first time buying a business class ticket out of pocket and I made the decision to do so using the following rationale and rationalizations.

Safety. While I know that air quality in an airplane is very high, I am still concerned about being in close quarters for up to a dozen hours with other people. Traveling in business class would put me in a less densely packed cabin and, with some airlines offering more cubicle-like seats, hopefully a greater degree of protection from fellow passengers.

Yes, I do realize that international flights have very light loads, but that doesn’t mean the flights I will travel on will have light loads. And, as I saw since booking, the airlines have rejiggered their schedules to consolidate passengers onto fewer flights. (When I booked, United was selling tickets for six flights from Tokyo Narita to their US hubs. Four weeks before departure, it is down to two flights and my booking has been changed two times.)

Benefit of solo travel. Unfortunately, Tawn will not join me on this flight. Since there is only one of us flying, the budgetary impact is half and it feels a bit easier to justify spending a bit more.

Random rationalizations. We haven’t flown in nearly a year and a half. I haven’t been back to see my family in even longer. I turned fifty last year and had wanted to treat myself to a business class flight. Airfares are a good bit lower than they historically have been so now is a good time to splurge. See? There are plenty of rationalizations to supplement my rationale!


“So convenient a thing to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.”

Benjamin Franklin


The process

Once I decided to fly business class, I searched for options using the following criteria:

Star Alliance. If I was going to be shelling money out of my own pocket for this experience, I want to make sure I earn miles. My mileage program of choice is with Aegean Airlines, a member of Star Alliance. This means that, given the limited number of airlines flying into Bangkok at this time, my choices were All-Nippon Airways + United (they operate a joint venture across the Pacific), EVA Air, Singapore Airlines, Asiana, Turkish, or Lufthansa Group (Lufthansa, Austrian, and Swiss).

Single ticket to my destination. I prefer to book directly through the airline’s website rather than through a third party. This way, if I have problems, the airline has the greatest incentive to fix them. EVA, Asiana and Singapore could only book me to their US destinations such as Los Angeles, San Francisco or Chicago. I would have to book the connecting leg to Kansas City myself. This was an unacceptable complication during this pandemic, when schedules and circumstances can change with little notice.

Flying in a cubicle-like business class. Some airlines use more open (and older) business class seating arrangements where the seats are in pairs arranged 2-2-2 with aisles in between. I actually quite like this way of flying, especially when traveling with Tawn. But in this pandemic era, I want to be in more individual, “cubicle” style seats where I don’t have to see, interact with, or step over a seat mate when getting into and out of my seat. Lufthansa, Turkish, and United operate some or all of their fleet with a 2-2-2 layout (or, in the case of Turkish on some planes, a 2-3-2 arrangement as pictured above!)

Maximizing flying time. This may seem crazy, but if I’m going to pay for the business class experience, I want to get the most time I can to enjoy it. And this isn’t just a value-for-money proposition but also a sleep proposition. If you are flying a shorter flight like Tokyo to Seattle (just about 8 hours) you won’t have as much time to rest as you would on a flight like Hong Kong to Chicago (about 11 hours). With lie-flat seats a norm in business class, I want to opportunity to get at least six solid hours of sleep, to help minimize jet lag. This means I wanted flights across the ocean at least 10 hours long.

Price. Despite my rationalizations, budget was still a consideration. There was more than a US$1,000 difference between the least expensive business class fares offered by the different airlines and the prices varied quite a bit between day, exact routing, and even when I searched. Most tickets were coming in around US$3,500 – $4,000, which was feeling a bit rich for my wallet. Finally, I found one that met my criteria for only US$2,098.


The result

After several weeks of comparing options, I settled on a ticket purchased from United Airlines, which includes multiple segments flown by All-Nippon Airways. United and ANA are joint-venture partners on their entire trans-Pacific flying plus many connecting routes. This “metal-neutral” arrangement means they are able to coordinate all aspects of flying, pricing, and selling and share the costs and revenues as if they were a single airline for those routes.

I liked this itinerary because it would feature United’s new Polaris business class seat from Tokyo to Newark and All Nippon’s slightly older business class seat from Chicago to Tokyo, which both are well reviewed and offer nice private cubicles. Additionally, the long trans-Pacific legs in both directions meant time to enjoy the meal service and entertainment, while also getting a solid six-plus hours of sleep in. I was also excited to fly through Tokyo Haneda on the return, an airport I have never visited.

Unfortunately, it turns out I forgot an important criterion when booking my flights:

Approval by Thai authorities. To enter Thailand now, you need the local Thai embassy to issue a COE (certificate of entry) and this includes flying only on currently approved inbound flights. All-Nippon was selling the flight from Tokyo Haneda to Bangkok but it was not yet on the Thai government’s list of approved flights. Sticking with this booking would mean taking the risk that Thai authorities would approve the flight at a later date. And, if they didn’t, I would have to change the schedule, with the chance of a penalty fee or fare increase. After the Thai embassy initially rejected my COE application, I contacted United to make a change in the return schedule. Thankfully, there was no cost to do this.


The recurring LAX change

United actively reviews and optimizes its schedule, sending regular emails notifying you of changes to your booking. Some of these are minor – a flight departs a few minutes earlier or later, or the flight now has a different number and is operated by a different United Express carrier.

But as the departure date grew closer, United started paring back its trans-Pacific flights. This is not a surprise as demand for international travel has remained much lower than for United States domestic travel, which has rebounded in the past few weeks as vaccination rates increase and infection rates plummet.

My first notification was that I had been rerouted through Los Angeles on my outbound trip, connecting to Kansas City by overflying to Chicago and then backtracking. This was not okay because it didn’t meet two of my criteria: the flight to Los Angeles comes in well shy of 10 hours and it is flown by aircraft with United’s older business class configuration, which features 2-2-2 seating. If I was going to fly, I was going to try out the new product.

Thankfully, a call to United reservations fixed that. With no charge, they put me on the Tokyo to Houston flight, a nice 12 hour, 10 minute flight on a Boeing 777-200 featuring the new Polaris business class. Plus, they could connect me from Houston to Kansas City nonstop.

A few weeks later, I received a second notification. The Houston flight was now cancelled and I was again routed through Los Angeles, although this time connecting to Kansas City through Denver instead of through Chicago. Los Angeles again?!

At this point, I thought that maybe I would have to accept my fate and just fly into Los Angeles. It is a nice enough airport. The United Club has an outdoor terrace with a view of the airplanes. But I wasn’t happy about not flying their new business class product. I went to the United website to see what other flights they were operating from Tokyo.

After a bit of research I realized that the flight to San Francisco was operated with the new business class product. Even though the flight is about a half-hour shorter than Los Angeles, I figured I would trade off a bit of eating or entertainment time, to enjoy the new Polaris product. Another call to United reservations fixed the booking.

So, three weeks before departure, this is what my itinerary looks like. We shall see whether United changes it again. Looking at the number of seats already selected for the flight to San Francisco, it looks like business class may be at least one-third full, so unlikely they will cancel that flight. What I find especially interesting, is that there hasn’t been any changes to the return booking. This makes me think that All Nippon is more disciplined (or less agile) in their approach to scheduling.

I’m excited about this itinerary. It will be a treat (and a privilege) to be able to try the business class products, to pamper myself a bit, and to hopefully be a bit more protected from the risk of falling ill while flying. I end up arriving two hours earlier into Kansas City, which I know will be appreciated by whoever picks me up from the airport! The chance to fly through San Francisco is a treat, too. It’s my hometown airport for the first 30+ years of my life, I haven’t been there in a few years. My only regret is that there isn’t enough time to visit anyone!

Thanks for indulging me as I gush about the experience. I realize it is nerdier than about 99.99% of the population will appreciate. But I’m looking forward to the trip and really am enjoying the planning aspect as much (maybe more) than the actual travel aspect.

Getaway in Pattaya

While Thailand has done very well in terms of keeping COVID-19 infections under control, the price of that has been a near-total shutdown of the Kingdom’s borders since earlier since year. Whereas I used to travel on a regular basis, this situation has left me itching for a change of scenery, so a few weekends ago, we took a long weekend trip to Pattaya.

Pattaya is a beach town in Chonburi province, about a two to three-hour drive southeast of Bangkok. Located on the eastern side of the Gulf of Thailand, Pattaya Pattaya became a sizable city during the United States’ war in Vietnam, when it became a popular destination for soldiers to take rest and relaxation breaks.

The city’s reputation has not always been so reputable: polluted water, underage sex available for purchase on the beach, and all sorts of sin on the famous “walking street” after the sun sets. That reputation was, of course, never the full story of Pattaya and the city has cleaned up much of its image in recent years. This was only the second time I have visited the city for any length of time and it was a chance to see a bit more of it.

We chose to stay at the Renaissance Resort & Spa, located about a 20-minute drive south of the city on a much quieter stretch of beach. The resort is fairly new and features a ten-story tower with ocean views and two three-story buildings that overlook the pools. One of those buildings has ground-floor rooms where you can plunge directly from your deck into the water.

The hotel is in fine shape and the staff is attentive and friendly, reminding me how much Thai culture is well-suited for the hospitality industry. It was also a reminder of how appreciative these employees were to have guests back in their hotel, as as much as seven percent of Thailand’s economy depends on tourism. Only recently has domestic tourism started to pick up and the borders are still closed to foreign tourists.

Sights to see

There are many things to see and do in and around Pattaya but many of them are quite touristy: the Pattaya Dolphinarium, the Cartoon Network Amazone water park, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, etc. We spent most of our time at the hotel, relaxing.

One thing we did enjoy was a visit to the Sanctuary of Truth. This privately-owned site is both a museum to wood-working skills and an artistic expression of the philosophy of love and goodness. Started as a passion project by a wealthy Thai businessman and his wife, it continues into perpetuity as the nature of this all-wood project is that it will forever need to be rebuilt.

From the outside, the structure looks like a Thai Buddhist temple. As you go on the guided tour, you begin to realize that it is a fanciful mish-mash of styles and symbolism from all the world’s religions and philosophies. An army of craftspeople, nearly all Burmese as few Thais still practice these wood-carving skills, chisel, carve and cut away at three types of wood, rebuilding the structure and refining the intricate details. It really is quite exquisite if a bit overwhelming!

What to eat

Sitting on the Gulf of Thailand and with a sizable local fishing fleet, seafood is a great option and Pattaya has opened many tasty and Instagram-friendly places to eat, see and be seen.

On the drive down, we stopped Chonburi town, to the north of Pattaya, and had lunch at Charin Nongmon. This family-run, open-air seafood restaurant has been around more than 40 years and continues to produce excellent food at reasonable prices.

They are best known for two crab-based treats: buu jaa and hoy jor. The buu jaa (shown to the left) is a crab cake – crab and pork combined with seasonings, placed in a crab shell and deep fried. The hoy jor, which the restaurant lays claim to originating, is a crab meat dumpling wrapped in delicate tofu skin and deep fried. All the dishes are excellent and these two are outstanding.

We had a sunset dinner at the Glass House. There are two locations and we chose the one on the south side of the city, close to our hotel. This highly-Instagrammable location offers an extensive menu of Thai food, heavy on the seafood, and some “international” items, too. The food is good and while not memorable, the location on the beach very much is.

Book ahead to get a table on the beach. If you arrive early, you will be quite exposed to the sun, but in the last half-hour before sunset, the weather is pleasant and you are just a few meters from the gentle waves lapping on the sand. As the strings of lights are illuminated and the sky turns all shades of pink and baby blue, you really will be charmed and feel very relaxed.

A few other places worth considering:

Rimpa Lapin is a more foreigner-friendly restaurant, terraced along a cliff with a commanding view of the sunset. Book ahead for a nice table. They also have a decent wine list.

For a more local flavor, visit Preecha Seafood or Jai Sang Ma not too far away in Sattahip.

Is it worth a visit?

A lot of tour groups visiting Thailand, include a stop in Pattaya. I presume it is because the city is close to Bangkok, offers a pretty beach and many tourist-accessible amenities. While I am not the biggest beach person, I feel like there are better options if you are visiting Thailand. If you are a Bangkok local and looking for a quick and easy gettaway, Pattaya is a convenient choice, especially if all you want to do it hole up in your hotel, relax and unwind.

Visiting Munich

In May 2019, we stopped for three nights in Munich en route to a holiday in Greece. Three nights seems about right for this city of 1.5 million. Below are some highlights from the visit. You are welcome to use my Google map, which has these spots and additional suggestions.

Some sixty percent of old Munich was destroyed by United States and Allied bombing in World War II. Unlike many cities, which rebuilt in a more modern style, the people of Munich decided to rebuild the city much as it had been. Thanks to this, the Aldstadt (old city) is charming and fun to explore. Thanks to a later decision (in the 1970s, I think) to pedestrianize many parts of the Aldstadt, it is also easy to explore.

I had heard about the beer gardens and, sure enough, they are everywhere. Many operate only when the weather is decent. Thankfully, Munich has some of Germany’s sunniest weather! The good news is, you are allowed in most cases to bring your own food so long as you buy your drinks from the operator of the beer garden. While I’m not a big beer drinker, something about being there makes a nice Heffeweissen the perfect drink on a sunny day. Tables are communal, which adds to the fun.

Most of what Americans know about German culture comes from Bavaria. This is especially true when it comes to food. It is generally a heavy, pork-oriented cuisine. That said, there are actually plenty of ways to eat lightly. Food is also reasonably priced, so you can eat well without breaking the bank. Some places we tried and enjoyed – additional recommendations in the Google Map.

Beim Sedlmyr – the real deal, a friendly and homey place to eat Bavarian food in the center of the Aldstadt.

Wirsthaus Zur Brez’n – this is a slightly more updated version of Bavarian food. Still recognizable as the original thing but with a bit more sophistication. The picture above came from our dinner at the Wirsthaus.

Cafe Glockenspiel – perched on the fifth floor overlooking the city hall and main square, this is a good place for brunch or lunch and it has a nice view of the rooftops and the top-of-the-hour playing of the mechanical glockenspiel in the clock tower across the square.

Viktualienmarkt – a daily food market and a square in the center of the Aldstadt, basically a farmer’s market with lots of local specialties ready to eat

You’ll notice that I haven’t included Munich’s most famous spot, the Hofbrauhaus, for which the song “In Munchen Stadt Ein Hofbrauhaus” was written. The guidebooks say it is good fun. Maybe so. I’d rather not deal with the madness.

There is some interesting shopping available in Munich. The Manufactum Warenhaus, pictured above, is a mash-up of Eddie Bauer, Restoration Hardware, Dean and Deluca and Williams Sonoma. You could easily spend an hour or more browsing and will probably buy something.

Next door is Dallmayr Delikatessenhaus, a grand food emporium that serves both fresh food and canned goods and confectionaries. Think the Bon Marche in Paris or Harrod’s Food Hall in London. Great place to buy some food for a picnic or a bar of Bavarian chocolate to take home.

Soda Munich is a great magazine and book store with unique and artsy magazines from around the world and coffee table and art books.

Roeckl makes leather accessories, especially famous for their driving gloves. Several locations throughout town.

There are many historic places to visit. One that is particularly over-the-top is the Munich Residenz, the former royal palace of the Wittelsbach monarchs of Bavaria. The dining hall is pictured above. Lots of gilt and gaudiness, an example of why monarchy collapsed under its own weight but still fascinating to see.

Munich has several good art museums and the BMW Welt is an automotive museum dedicated to the hometown marque.

As mentioned, Munich is Germany’s sunniest city and there is a very large and lovely English Gardens in town. There are plenty of places to stroll, bicycle, etc. but one thing worth checking is the surfing that takes place at a somewhat naturally formed continuous wave near the park’s entrance.

Logistics

Munich Airport is one of the most logical, clean and well-organized in the world. Trains to the city center run frequently and inexpensively. The main train station is called München Hauptbahnhof, a short walk from the Aldstadt.

You can get around the Aldstadt easily on foot. The transit system works easily and the ticket-selling machines are self-explanatory. You can also use Uber.

We stayed at the Mercure City Center hotel just a block from the Hauptbanhof and found it very convenient as most of the transit lines connect through there and much of the Aldstadt is a 10-minute walk away. There are also plenty of hotels inside the Aldstadt.

Hope you enjoy your trip to Munich. Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments.

Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Imagine a town fell asleep in the middle ages, only to wake up, unchanged, in the 1900s. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is the best-preserved medieval village in Germany and despite its large numbers of tourists, remains a charming and worthwhile destination. 

Located a three-hour train ride from Munich, about half-way to Frankfurt, Rothenburg ob der Tauber is well worth a visit. A German colleague suggested it and her words were echoed by travel writer Rick Steves, it is hopelessly touristy but incredibly charming. Here’s how we approached the visit and suggestions I would add based on our experience.

How to get there

If you are doing a driving trip across Germany, then by car is easy enough. Otherwise, you will have to take the Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national railroad. While the Germans seem to complain a lot about it, we found it easy-to-use, clean and punctual. From Munich, it takes about three hours and two connections, but this works smoothly.

Visit the ticket office at the Munich main train station and the helpful English-speaking agents will show you options and answer your questions. There is a discounted “Bavaria pass” that offers better train rates and they will offer this to you.

When you arrive in Rotthenburg (note there are multiple Rotthenburgs in Germany – you need to specify “ob der Tauber” which means “above the Tauber” river), there is a map showing the town and it is a five-minute walk up the gentle hill into the old city.

What to do and see

The old city is compact enough, that you could easily wander around. There is an information office in the main square that has maps and free guided tours are held several times a day in English and other languages.

My suggestion: download Rick Steves’ free Audio Europe app, which has many audio guides and a well-made hour-long guided tour of Rothenburg with clear directions.

St. Jakob’s Church is a beautiful structure, formerly Catholic and now Lutheran, you are able to explore the area around the main altar. Be sure to walk behind it, so you can see the additional details on the back side. Also, on the opposite end of the nave, climb the stairs and see the area behind the organ’s pipes. There is a second wooden temple there, which is exquisite in its detail. The entrance fee is modest.

The castle garden towards the western end of town is a quiet place, away from many of the tourists. You can enjoy some fantastic views of the surrounding countryside and appreciate why Rothenburg is so well-situated to defend against marauding hordes.

Walk the walls. A large section of the wall that surrounds the town can be accessed, with stairs located at each tower. You can walk along the sentry’s path, taking in impressive views of the town and peeking through the arrow slits to see the surrounding countryside and the newer section of the town. The section of the town along the walls is quieter and away from most of the tourists. You can safely wander about and explore.

Eating, shopping and sleeping

Restaurants in the town will be mostly touristy – there’s no getting around that. We found a quieter place on Havengasse called Gasthof zur Sonne (Guesthouse under the Sun) also marked at Hotel Sonne on Google Maps. It had nice service and a slightly more sophisticated lunch than the hearty Bavarian food around the corner at the places with menus in eight languages. That said, we did not eat anywhere else so cannot compare.

The main streets are chock-a-block with souvenir shops. We found that with a bit of exploring, there are shops offering interesting items that differ from what is found in other shops. Take some time to explore – Christmas ornaments are especially fitting here.

Should you stay or should you go? While this made a good day trip (left Munich at 7:30 am, back by 8:00 pm) it was a lot of train travel. If we could have spent a night in Rothenburg, that would have allowed us to enjoy the city later in the day once it had quieted down and early in the morning before all the tourists arrive.

2018 – a year in the air

As 2019 begins, I took a few minutes to look back and see how my travels for 2018 looked. As much as it felt like I was traveling a great deal, my actual number of flights was not much higher than last year and I flew fewer miles by far.

2018 travels 2

  • 2018: 54 flights flown – 76,263 miles
  • 2017: 52 flights flown – 94,240 miles
  • 2016: 59 flights flown – 92,234 miles

I had many more short flights to nearby destinations such as Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong and fewer long-distance flights: only one Europe trip this past year and no trips to Australia and New Zealand. 

My best flight experience last year included the free, unexpected upgrade on EVA Air from Toronto to Taipei. They moved Tawn and me from Premium Economy to Business Class and for such a long flight, it was greatly appreciated. 

Who knows what this year has in store. As much as I love to travel, it would be okay if the number of flights didn’t increase!


Thinking of Italy

Supposedly these two weeks, the last of 2018 and the first of 2019, are my holiday. Not one for just sleeping all day or lying on a beach, I’m spending a fair amount of time working on different personal projects, one of which is updating my blog and website.

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One of the areas I haven’t yet updated is about our trip to Italy this autumn.  The entry about Austria is finished but the entries about Italy still needs to be written. Let’s see if I can get that finished in the coming week.

Italy is such a fascinating place to visit. While there are plenty of more places I need to visit in Europe, it is my favorite thus far. Italy seems to strike the balance: it has much that is modern and sophisticated while maintaining some rough edges and lots of history. The people are warm and welcoming, distinct in their culture while happy to share it with you. The food is satisfying but not fussy. People seem to have a deep enjoyment of life.

We began our trip in Firenze (Florence) for two nights, visiting my cousin and his family. We then traveled south to the hillside of ancient Matera, stopping in Bari on the way to three nights in Ostuni in Puglia – the “heel” in the boot of Italy. The southern part of Italy makes for a nice contrast with the larger, more popular cities such as Firenze and Milano. (I haven’t been to Rome.) The south has most of the things I like about Italy but without many of the things I do not. In short, it is Italy without the onslaught of tourists!

Stay tuned for more details.

 

Barcelona review

As part of my trip to Europe last month, I spent a week in Barcelona. This was my second trip, both times for work, and this time I was able to see a bit more of the city. Coincidentally, a few friends have asked me for recommendations so I have taken the time to update my “Spain” page on my website.

Barcelona is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world and it is easy to see why. It is also easy to get a sense that the city is overrun with tourists: I saw many signs and graffiti decrying the infestation.

The good news is there are plenty of places to go in Barcelona to enjoy the city without falling into all the usual tourist traps. In fact, I would argue you could largely bypass the big attractions and still find the city utterly charming.

 

Back from holiday in Europe

Two weeks ago, I returned from an 18-day trip to Europe, a combination of work and relaxation. While I didn’t plan it to be this complicated, it ended up being a five country, eight city itinerary. In the coming days and weeks, I will write more details about the trip and update the pages on my website with restaurants and recommendations.

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London was a sneaky twenty-three hour layover I managed to build in unexpectedly. I didn’t have the opportunity to meet friends but did get a nice walk in along the River Thames on a blustery Autumn morning and once the sun emerged stopped by the Spitalfields Market for excellent shengjianbao.

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Barcelona was my second stop, a week to deliver training (a bit of a fudge to my previous role as technically I am not longer heading the leadership development organization at DKSH). This was my second trip to Barcelona and I had a bit more opportunity to explore than last time, when I traveled with my parents and husband. Lots of good food on this trip.

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Italy was a return some 17 years after my first visit. We went to Firenze to see my cousin and his family, Matera to see the mysterious and beautiful city of caves, and Ostuni to explore the charm of the Puglia region – the “heel” of Italy’s “boot”. This trip reminded me what the quality of life is so high in Italy: simple food, nice weather, beautiful views and friendly people.

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Vienna was a a first-time visit for me. I wasn’t sure what to expect and ended up charmed by the city. It is a bit of a set piece for some European imperial costume drama, at least as far as buildings go. This is a city and country I would like to explore further.

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Zurich was a return visit for work. In fact, I stopped into the city three times on this trip, enjoying the convenient train system to pop into the city during my layovers and then concluding with a two-night stay for work. This time I was able to explore a bit further and enjoyed some good food and friendly company.

This trip provided some neat random connections, running into people I had not expected to see and striking up conversations with strangers who happened to have connections with me in different random ways. It reminds me that this is a very small world and that traveling it helps us appreciate that which is different and that which is universal.

More coming soon.

 

My week in a Taipei love motel

I travel frequently for work. Sometimes, this leads to some exciting adventures and unexpected, delightful discoveries. Hidden treasures, if you will. This last trip to Taipei included an altogether un-delightful discovery: I had booked myself into a love motel.

For those of you not in the know, a love motel is a place where couples, married and otherwise, can book some private quality time. It seems such places are more common in Asia where multiple generations live together and you might not be able to find as much privacy.

This place, the Mulan Motel in Taipei, is located very close to my office. After some disappointing experiences at other nearby hotels, I searched on booking.com and found the Mulan. “Ah yes,” I thought, “I’ve passed by that several times. It looks quite decent.”

Sure enough, the photos and reviews on booking.com were quite positive and the price was reasonable – only about US$130 a night. So I booked it.

Being a price-sensitive traveller, always trying to save my company money, I took the train in from the airport and walked the 800 meters from the station to my hotel. My first clue that this was not your average hotel was the lack of a lobby. Instead, you descended a driveway into a subterranean car park. The only office was a larger-than-normal guard box.

I also noticed that all of the parking spaces had a curtain that could be pulled around the car. “Perhaps to keep the dust off?” I optimistically thought.

Taking the lift to my room, I noticed the interior was quite dark and gaudy. Clearly a different decorating scheme than a conventional hotel. Then I found my room and opened the door:

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The room was quite large, with high ceilings and ostentatious decorations. A large bed sat in the middle of the room, with a large television and speaker system across from it. The light did not get any brighter and mood music played automatically. The far wall was solid glass with a heavy black curtain blocking the view to the bathroom.

My first clue that this might not be a long-stay hotel was the lack of a closet in which to hang my clothes. The second clue were the condoms in a bowl by the side of the bed. “Well,” I thought, “maybe the expectations are a bit different in the Taiwanese culture?”

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The bathroom was almost as large as the bedroom with a deep bathtub and a glass shower. There were towels and the usual amenities but it all felt a little off. Everything was clean, though.

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Oddly, there were no windows. Or, rather, the windows were covered with a black plastic film that, I discovered the next morning, had exotic butterfly shapes cut out in them so the morning sun would stream through them in a not-quite-claustrophobic way.

The staff seemed to sense my confusion. They struggled to create a proper invoice for me – unlikely that any of their guests have asked for proof of payment! They were friendly, though, and directed me to the restaurant where a sorry set breakfast was available included in the price of my room.

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The only upside to this hotel was the location. It was a two-minute walk from Starbucks, a three-minute walk from the office, and a five-minute run from a beautiful park along the river, where I ran two mornings with a colleague.

Thankfully, my week at the love motel was only three nights. I ended up unharmed and unmolested and upon my return wrote a strongly worded review on booking.com that this hotel should not be listed there as it is appropriate for neither business travelers nor families.

 

Trip Report: Lufthansa Premium Economy

This is the first of two reports about premium economy experiences. For longer-haul flying, I am reaching a point where being crammed into economy is painful but business class is unaffordable. The compromise is to pay a bit extra for premium economy which is sometimes quite a good value. In this report, I cover a round trip between Bangkok and Lisbon (returning from Barcelona) on Lufthansa made in October 2016.

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The plane

Lufthansa adjusts the capacity on the Bangkok-Frankfurt route throughout the year to match demand, everything from a 509-seat Airbus A380 to a 251-seat Airbus A340-300, which was used both directions on my trip.

The Airbus A340 is a comfortable widebody plane but the type was introduced in 1991 so it is not the latest technology. The normal economy class configuration is 2-4-2.

The cabin

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The premium economy cabin, which is located between the business class and economy cabins, has only 28 seats, arranged 2-3-2.  These seats are 18″ wide and have between 38-39″ of pitch, the distance from one point on the seat to the same point on the next row.

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Leg room is quite reasonable although when the person in front of you reclines, you will still find it difficult to get out unless the person in the aisle seat gets up. There are plenty of storage spaces for items and there is a foot rest on the seat in front of you. Bulkhead seats instead have a leg rest that extends from the seat cushion.

One feature of these seats is that there are two armrests for each passenger so no fighting for personal space. This is a huge advantage over regular economy.

Large touch-screen monitors are available at each seat. The image is bright and the responsiveness of the system is good.

The seats are comfortable although a bit firm. After a few hours, I ended up sitting on my pillow to provide extra padding. Recline is quite deep but I still find it difficult to get any meaningful sleep. On the outbound flight, I probably slept about four hours total. On the return flight, less than two.

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As a comparison, here is a view of economy class mid-flight. You can see the premium economy cabins in the distance, separated only by fabric dividers hanging from the overhead bins. You will notice the monitors in economy are smaller and there is an extra seat in each row resulting in only 17″ width and narrower armrests.

The service

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Before departure, water or juice is served and menus are distributed. There is no advance meal booking beyond the usual dietary and religious meals. The selection consisted of two main courses. For these flights, each approximately 12 hours, there is a main meal and then a breakfast closer to arrival.

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After reaching cruising altitude, a drink service commenced. There was a wide selection of beverages and premium economy includes sparkling wine and a premium beer.

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The outbound dinner was a choice of pork Panaeng curry or pan-seared veal sausages with onion sauce, sauerkraut and mashed potato. I chose the latter. It came with an appetizer of coleslaw with smoked chicken breast and a dessert of apple strudel with vanilla sauce.

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Before landing in Frankfurt, a breakfast of cheddar cheese omelette with Lyonnaise potato, ratatouille and tomato with fresh fruit was served. There was no other choice.

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For the flight from Frankfurt back to Bangkok, we had a choice of beef goulash with carrot zucchini stew and potato leek mash (which I chose) or tomato mozzarella fiorelli with basil cream sauce and tomato concasse. The appetizer was a seasonal salad with pumpkin slices and Italian dressing. The dessert was mango pie with creme fraiche.

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Breakfast before landing in Bangkok was scrambled egg with cheddar cheese accompanied by diced chicken breast, Chinese vegetables (which seemed to be missing) and potato wedges with a dessert of vanilla curd cream with blueberries.

Overall, the food quality was good and the quantity was sufficient. The food is served on ceramic dishes with metal cutlery and glass stemware, which creates a nicer impression.

During the flight, light refreshments (sandwiches, fruits, pretzels, candy bars) were available for snacking.

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Shortly before landing, small chocolates were distributed throughout the cabin. Service from the flight attendants was friendly but efficient. It was notable that effort was made to complete the first meal service quickly, presumably so passengers could go to sleep as both flights are overnight.

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The inflight entertainment system worked well and has many options. By the return flight, I did feel like I was running out of things that piqued my interest. Thankfully, the seats have USB and power ports, so I was able to pull out my laptop and work and use my iPad to read and watch shows.

The system does have a nice maps feature that shows computer-generated views from the tail and the cockpit of the plane. This gives a perspective of what the outside world looks like although it is misleading because the above pictures of our final approach into Frankfurt shows daylight but it was in fact before sunrise.

The lounges

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Premium economy does not come with lounge access but as I have “gold” status with one of the Star Alliance carriers, I was eligible to use the lounge. In Bangkok, I was able to use the main THAI Airways lounge. Other lounges closed too early to use as the Lufthansa flight departs after midnight.

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In Frankfurt, I was able to use the Senator lounges, which are very modern, have a huge selection of food and drink, and offer showers for transiting passengers.

Overall

I particularly liked the 2-3-2 layout in the plane. The middle seat next to me with empty both ways, giving me even more space. The food was tasty and good quality. And the lounge in Frankfurt was truly refreshing. Connecting through Frankfurt is convenient and results in efficient travel times to Europe from Bangkok.

The seat cushions were a bit firm for my tastes (although I find this on a lot of planes), the selection of inflight entertainment was a bit uninspired and Frankfurt is not the most pleasant airport to connect through as it is drab and not particularly intuitive to navigate.

I managed to get an attractive price for this flight, only about US$ 1,400 round-trip. The usual premium economy price is closer to US$ 1,800. The extra space and increased comfort made the trip much less taxing and, for the money, was a good value. Lufthansa’s premium economy would be worth taking for future trips.