Monday, October 31, 2011

Aurora Hunting: Exploring Tromso


The light rain did not stop us from exploring Tromso. Tromso's a pretty small and cozy town with almost everything reachable on foot if you stay in the town center. There's really nothing much to do except exploring the number of churches and buildings while taking in the beautiful (albeit wet and cloudy for us) scenery. In the summer months, the hiking in the nearby mountains and hills should be pretty good also.

Catholic Church

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Aurora Hunting: The Hunt


Tromso is touted as one of the best places to catch the Aurora or Northern Lights due to it's location within the aurora belt. To catch the Aurora, you would have to be outside the city itself as it is generally too bright to see it from the city due to the city lights. There are many tour or guide services that would drive you out of the city to locations that have a good chance of catching the aurora. The guide service typically range from 700 Nok to 1500 Nok depending on what's included. If you want to go on the cheap, I reckon that renting a car would be an option but you would need to know where to go.

We had made reservations with Ivar from Natur I Nord before we flew to Norway to go on an Aurora excursion on our first night (still had a second night to try just in case we weren't successful) in Tromso. The main reason for picking Ivar was that he was one of cheapest options at 700 Nok but at the same time had receive good reviews on tripadvisor. The excursion was scheduled for 7pm but he called us at about 5pm to inform us that the tour is cancelled since the weather was just horrible with rain and overcast skies making it quite impossible to see the lights. We were extremely disappointed but at the same time, appreciative that Ivar was very professional made the effort to call (this was to my Malaysian cell phone mind you) and cancel the tour.

The weather was still sucky the next day but we headed to the tourist information office to see if there were any other guides that would still try to catch the lights later at night even though the weather might not be favorable. We had flew all the way to Tromso so we figured we might as well risk it in spite of horrible odds of seeing the lights. We ended going with Francisco from Artic Guide Service for 850 Nok per person.

The weather in Tromso continued to be horrible the rest of the day so we had to drive 2.5 hours all the way to the Finnish border where the weather was some what better. When we got to the Finnish border there was some light rain and overcast skies but with some occasional openings. We waited for about 20 minutes with hot chocolate and cookies but the lights never came. They decided to try a different area on the way back to Tromso but the weather was much worse. In hindsight, we should have just waited for the lights back at the Finnish border. Oh well....

At the Finnish border
We would definitely recommend Artic Guide Service for anyone intending to go on a Aurora excursion. Their service is very professional with two drivers accompanying us, just the right amount of commentary on Tromso & background on the aurora and a genuine interest in making sure you have the most chance to catch the lights. We were pleasantly surprised when Francisco was deeply apologetic that we did not get to see the lights and offered us a refund stating that it was their fault for not staying longer at the Finnish border. That's some service..

At the end of the day, we were extremely on a failed hunt and were left with just enjoying the Aurora from pictures in our hotel room.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Aurora Hunting: Oslo to Tromso on SAS


We headed back to the airport using the airport express train. Although relatively expensive if compared to other airport transportation options in Europe, it was really convenient. There was plenty of space for luggage, had power points for laptops and the seats were comfortable. We were at the airport 20 minutes after leaving the main train station in Oslo.

Oslo Train Station

Arriving at Oslo Airport

Monday, October 24, 2011

Aurora Hunting: Exploring Oslo - The Hotels


We spent two nights in Oslo. Hotels as with everything else in Oslo is EXPENSIVE. A room at a decent hotel would cost about $200-$300 USD per night. We ended up splitting the two nights with the first night at the cheaper Radisson Blu Plaza thanks to a friends & family rate and the second night at the Doubletree to get a stay count to eventually get a free night as part of Hilton's Q4 Promo.

Radisson Blu Plaza
The Radisson is conveniently located 5 minutes by the main train station. This is the train station that you arrive in if you take the express from the airport. Check-in was prompt and efficient but we were not offered any upgrades as a Club Carlson Silver member. I didn't pursue the upgrade as I was using a friends & family rate and wanted to keep a low profile.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Rant: Recling seats in Economy Class

There has been much debate on flyertalk and blogs as to whether reclining seats in economy class is a right or not. I usually try to be courteous about this and will only fully recline when it's sleep time. On low cost airlines like Air Asia where the seat pitch is horrible, I tend to not recline and it is usually not a big deal since the flights are relatively short anyway.

I ran into a not so pleasant encounter on the seat recline issue on my recent Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Kuala Lumpur. This was a red eye flight leaving Doha at 8pm arriving in Kuala Lumpur at 7am. I was already somewhat tired from the long day and right after take-off, quickly fully reclined my seats right even before the seat belt signs going off. The guy behind me quickly tapped my shoulder and I assume he was just bothered I was reclining before I could. After the seat belt signs went off, I reclined again and he once again tapped my shoulders. I looked behind asking what his problem is and he said my reclined seat was hitting his knees.

Now this really annoyed the hell out of me. The seat pitch was Qatar Airways was a comfortable 34" and one of the most comfortable economy class seats I've been on. Would have understand if this was on United or Air Asia but Qatar... come on.. The guy wasn't even that tall (guessing he's around by height ~5 ft 10ish) so I couldn't understand what the big deal was. Yes, the seats might have touched his knees but with "clever" seating, he should be able to manage. He also had the seat next to him empty.

Needless to say, I just left my seat in recline and didn't feel his knees at all. What would you guys have done?

Aurora Hunting: Exploring Oslo - The Attractions


It was still bright and sunny when we were done with the hotel check-in and a quick shower at about 4pm. Despite being somewhat tired from the flight, it was time to head out and explore the city. We just walked and walked while enjoying the great weather and beautiful architecture. We made our way from our hotel near the main train station all the way to the water front area of Aker Brygge.

City Hall
Walls of Akershus Fortress
Nobel Peace Center
Akker Byggre
Boats at Aker Brygge

National Theater
Parliament Building

Monday, October 17, 2011

Aurora Hunting: Getting to Oslo


We had flew in to Kuala Lumpur on Air Asia and took the bus shuttle from the LCCT to KLIA. For the benefit for others who might go cheap like us, the shuttle costs 2.50 ringgit a person and is available on the outer traffic lanes of the airport right outside arrivals. A taxi transfer instead would have cost 15-20 ringgit but we didn't check.

After flying first and business class on our last few holidays, I kinda forgot how it felt like to fly economy.  As we arrive at KLIA, we were greeted by a long queue of passengers already waiting in line to check-in. Like everyone else we got in line and then at that point appreciated flying in business or first class. It took about 30 minutes before we got to the check-in counter where thankfully it was only a couple more minutes until our boarding passes were provided and bags tagged all the way to Oslo. Calvin tried to see if there were cash upgrades available but the check-in agent said they didn't do that kind of thing. Oh well..
Long Check-in Line
We made a short stop at the plaza premium lounge thanks to Calvin's priority pass card where I had a shower and some snacks before we headed to the departure gate. 

Aurora Hunting: Introduction


We were already traveling too much and had exceeded our travel budget for this year. It took 3-4 days of research and deliberation before deciding that a fare of ~$450USD from Kuala Lumpur to Oslo via Doha was too good of a deal to say no to. Qatar Airways was just launching flights to Oslo and as part of the launch promotion was offering fares of ~$400-500USD from their Far East destinations like Singapore, Bangkok, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. Sure, it would have been great if this was a business class fare but heck, you can't even get to London from Kuala Lumpur on Air Asia for that price.

Since we already took one too many days off this year and with another trip to Australia in December, we were limited in the number of days we could go. Lydia had to tell her boss that this was a surprise anniversary trip and I had to negotiate with mine that I would be having my laptop and working remotely to make this trip happen. Why can’t we have better jobs that allowed us to travel guilt free whenever we wanted but I digress. Our trip consisted of only 4 nights in Norway with a purposely planned long layover in Doha to visit the city since we’ve never been to Doha before. We eventually splitthe 4 nights in Norway with the first 2 nights in Oslo and the other 2 in the northern town of Tromso after recommendation from mwinger Naim with the hope of catching the Aurora or Northern Lights.

The journey itself wasn't too exciting since it was going to be in economy and we were actually apprehensive about it since we had no status on Qatar. Oh the horror of not having business class line check-in, priority boarding and lounge usage. Since the Qatar flights originated in Kuala Lumpur, we had to get down from Penang. Flights on Malaysia Airlines direct to KLIA would have costs us 3 times more than our eventual Air Asia flights to the Low Cost Terminal. The slight annoyance with the Air Asia was having to transfer to KLIA via a crummy 2.50 ringgit 20 minute bus transfer. The flights on Qatar were all operated by A330 aircraft on all 4 legs so can't compare the hardware on their other aircraft.

Our flight details:
  • Penang - Kuala Lumpur LCCT on Air Asia
  • Kuala Lumpur - Doha - Oslo on Qatar Airways with a good 2.5 hour layover in Doha.
  • Flights to and from Tromso were on SAS.
  • Oslo - Doha - Kuala Lumpur on Qatar Airways with a 18 hour layover in Doha.
  • Kuala Lumpur - Penang on Air Air Asia

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Review: Genji Japanese Restaurant, Hilton Petaling Jaya

At our recent stay at the Hilton Petaling Jaya, we decided to have lunch at the on-site Japanese restaurant after hearing some good things about from our friends.  It was about 1.30pm when we got there so the restaurant was pretty empty.

The restaurant was having a tempura promotion so I decided to have the “tempura set meal” where as lydia had one of their bento meals. Needless to say, the tempura set meal consisted of tempura inspired dishes. In included a salad, tempura sushi roll, assorted tempura, rice cake, miso soup and tempura bananas and ice-cream for dessert. The food itself was pretty good but wasn't out of the ordinary or mind blowing. By the time I finished the huge tempura sushi roll, I was actually already pretty full which might have made my judgements of the other dishes a bit off.

Tempura Salad

Tempura Sushi Roll


Review: Hilton Petaling Jaya

This is one of the oldest Hilton’s in Malaysia but also one of the cheapest which makes a good mattress run hotel. The hotel was still undergoing much needed renovations when we visited. Our rooms were still the old rooms and yea, it’s about time they got a makeover. The carpets were old and dirty and what about the tiny television. The thing we disliked most about the rooms were the soft beds.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Review: Doubletree Hilton Hotel Kuala Lumpur

The Doubletree is Hilton’s latest addition in Malaysia opening in 2010. The hotel is located in the city with a metro station located a 5 minute walk across the street which gives easy access to the rest of the city. A cab ride to either the Petronas twin tower or the Bukit Bintang shopping area should cost you between 10-15 ringgit and take about 15 minutes depending on the traffic.

The hotel is located within the Intermark Building with check-in on the 2nd floor. We arrived at ~9 am before the official check-in time of 2pm but were allowed to check-in. Check-in was prompt and we were given our room keys and a chocolate chip cookie which I only later found time to be a "standard offering" for Doubletree hotels. There was no mention of any upgrades by the trainee that was helping me and I had to verify that we were indeed given upgrades to executive rooms as a Hilton Honors Gold member after she passed us the keys.

Reception Area

Complimentary Chocolate Chip Cookie

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Almaty Adventure: Conclusion


We headed back to Penang the next day on Air Asia. As with most of our Air Asia flights, there's nothing much to say except for that it got us there safely and on time. One tip though that we'd like to share is that if you have a flight leaving Hong Kong around 7.45-8.15pm, try to seat on the right side of the plane. This is around the time that the fireworks show goes off at nearby Disneyland and "should" be a great sight from the air. Too bad we were seated on the left side on the plane this time and was left with just views of the "colors of the fireworks".

In summary, this was another trip to remember. I never thought it was possible to hop through Hong Kong, Seoul, Frankfurt, Almaty and Bangkok in less than 2 weeks. Definitely would not would want to do it in coach though. Visiting Almaty was definitely an eye-opener. Don't listen to Borat and come see Kazakhstan for yourself. We definitely want to go back to the region another time and spend more of the time outdoors doing hiking and camping.

We had tried to stay in hotels that were part of the Accor chain during this trip. The Accor experience continues to be hit and miss. We loved the stays in Hong Kong but hated the stay in the Grand Ambassador in Seoul. We vow to never return to that hotel again. 

At the risk of sounding snobbish, this second time in First Class did loose some of the "wow factor" but regardless, it was still a great experience. Asiana is now one of our favorite airlines and we would recommend them over in Lufthansa and Thai.Our personal rank list of our experience is now as follows:

  • Favorite Ground Experience - Continues to the be Lufthansa First Class Terminal in Frankfurt.
  • Favorite In-Flight Service - Continues to be the service we receive from Lufthansa. Sure the hard product might be a tad old but the attendants continue to be warm and friendly.
  • Favorite In-Flight Meals - Asiana wins hands on here. The amount and quality of food was simply amazing. If only they had better champagnes though.
  • Favorite In-Flight Seats - Didn't get to try any new seats or cabins on this trip so this remains to be the Turkish First Class seats on the 77W.
  • Favorite Hotel Stay of the trip -  The World Hotel Saltanat in Almaty. What amazing service to organize the nice birthday surprise.
  • Most memorable experience on this trip - Gotta be the visit to Bo Innovation. What fun and interesting food - Dim Sum will never be the same for us ever again.

For those who are interested, some costs of this trip:
  • *A Flights - US Dividend Miles - 40K miles/person. Yes, this is a North Asia to North Asia redemption. Taxes and fees associated with the booking was ~$200 USD/person.
  • The Air Asia flights from/to Penang and Hong Kong ended up being ~$300 a per person.
  • The tours we took in Almaty totaled ~$650 USD for the both of us.

Almaty Adventure: 2nd Hong Kong Layover with review of Novotel Citygate Hotel


We arrived into Hong Kong around 10pm and our flight back home to Penang will not be until 7.30 pm the next day. Instead of staying in town, we decided to just stay at the nearby Novotel Citygate Hotel which we had stayed before on our trip to Russia. Since the price for a regular room was relatively high at close to $180 USD a night, we decided to use our free night that comes with the Accor Advantage Plus program. On top of that, we paid a top up of $50 USD for an upgrade to an executive room since it comes with free internet and breakfast which covered the $50 USD.

The hotel provides a free shuttle from the airport and the trip took a relatively long 30 minutes including wait time for the shuttle. Upon check-in at the main lobby, we were informed that we should check-in on the executive floor. The check-in experience at the executive floor could have been better as we were made to stand while waiting for the lounge attendant to process the check-in. She should have invited us to sit down and maybe served us some drinks while we waited.

We were happy to find out that we had been upgraded to one of their suites due to my Aclub Gold status. As I have complained about multiple times on the Aclub program, upgrades at Novotel is not a standard perk and even then, it's hit and miss on the Pullman, Sofitel and MGallery where upgrades are supposed to be an official Aclub Gold perk.

The room was definitely a nice room and huge for Hong Kong's standard. The room was laid out in an interesting "long" rectangular way instead of the usual square box. The room also comes with huge windows that gave really good views of the surrounding hills and lights.

Work Desk


Thursday, October 6, 2011

Almaty Adventure: BKK - HKG on Thai First Class


On arrival in Bangkok, we were the first passengers of the plane where a ground staff was waiting for us (had a clipboard with our names on it) and proceeded to drive us in the buggy to the escalators that would bring us to the departure floor. The buggy ride was much appreciated as we had parked in one of the furthest gates.

After passing through security, we were escorted to the First Class lounge where upon arrival, we requested for the complimentary massage. Thai provides a 30 minute shoulder or foot massage for business class passengers and an hour long oil massage for first class passengers. The lounge attendant made a phone call to Spa Lounge to verify that there were slots open before escorting over the short walk across the hallway to the Spa.

I opted for a dip on the jacuzzi before the massage. Even though it was a nice dip, it did seem to cut down the massage time so I would recommend skipping the jacuzzi if you don't need the dip. The service was a bit off this time as I wasn't given the choice of what oils to use.


Monday, October 3, 2011

FRA - BKK on Thai First Class with Lufthansa FCL visit


We heard those dreaded words when checking in for our flight to Bangkok - "I'm sorry sir. There was an aircraft swap and it's the older plane today". We were as some flyertalkers called it, just TGed! Thai operates 2 types of 747 one with a relatively new first class cabin and an ancient (and I'm not exaggerating when I say ancient) first class cabin. We were truly disappointed but I tried to console myself that "at least" I get to try the older plane and blog about it. Yea right.

We declined the escort by the ground agents  through immigration and to the Senator Lounge that Thai uses for it's First Class Passengers as we wanted to do some shopping and head to the First Class Lounge in Terminal B since we had a same day Lufthansa First Class boarding pass from our flight from Almaty. The First Class lounges are only open to Lufthansa First Class and Honor Circle passengers. Other first class Star Alliance passengers are relegated to the Senator Lounges which are also open to Star Gold passengers.

It took us a good 15 minute walk through the mess in Frankfurt to get to First Class Lounge in Terminal B. First impression of the lounge was that it looks ALMOST identical to the First Class Terminal. We were shocked at how quiet the lounge was - we might have been the only 2 passengers in the lounge when we arrived but eventually a couple more passengers arrived later on.


747 from the lounge