Sunday, November 17, 2013

4th July Getaway: Taipei to Austin


It did take us a while to locate Eva's lounges since it was our first time flying through Taipei. Eva operates a number a number of business class lounges in Taipei and we opted for the Infinity Lounge despite Ben's somewhat negative comments' on this recent visit. I guess it is a matter of personal preference but we actually liked the retro/cool look of the lounge.

First up on priorities was a how shower before a transpacific flight. The shower was stocked with pretty good amenities and more importantly a toilet (which some showers like the Krisflyer lounge does not have). I managed to squeeze in a couple of espressos paired with delicious Movenpick ice-cream after the shower to make sure I stayed a wake for the next couple of hours into the flight. It was already midnight by now mind you. There was also an extensive selection of local snacks.

Boarding was already underway when we got to the departure gate and thankfully there was no line in the priority lane to board the plane. Once we got settled in, the flight attendants come around with pre-departure drinks. I obviously went with the champagne knowing it was Dom. I guess it's business class when the attendants don't come around with the bottle and pour the champagne in front of you.

4th July Getaway: Macau to Taipei


You can get to most of the attractions in Macau using the free bus rides and heading to the airport from the Conrad wasn’t an exception. We had a wait a little in the lobby for the shuttle to show up but A short ride later we were at the airport with no lines at all at the Eva counters. It did take a while for the check-in agent to properly issue our boarding passes and tagged our bags all the way to Austin. I’m guessing she’s never tagged luggage on a four segment trip?

Eva uses the only contract lounge in Macau which was overall pretty crappy and left like it came from the 80s. The carpet was old and the furnishing was dated. There was a selection of questionable hot food which I just skipped. 

I was initially disappointed that we couldn’t get award seats on the Airbus A330 flight that was supposed to leave an hour or so earlier since we would have more time to explore the lounges in Taipei and I’d pick a widebody aircraft over a narrow body MD90 any day.. This turned out to be another blessing in surprise when that flight was delayed and our flight left even earlier. 

There were only 3 passengers in business class on this flight with Lydia and I taking the right side of the aircraft and the other passenger the left side. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

4th July Getaway: Conrad Macau


Prior to arrival, the Conrad Macau had reached out and confirmed an update and my perks at the hotel as a Diamond member. The same Guest Relations Manager was present during our arrival and assisted with the check-in process. She also personally escorted us to the room and showed us the many features of the room before leaving us with her name card and reminding us to just call if we needed anything during our stay.  She did keep her part of the offer when she made sure we got both types of the Conrad Macau rubber ducky in spite of several hiccups that Lydia was determined to collect. Major kudos!

The suite we were upgraded to was definitely one of the nicest rooms we’ve stayed in before. It was HUGE and very nicely furnished. I’ll just let the pictures do the talking.

When we got back to the room that night, there was a turndown service with bottle water provided bedside and a gift of a teddy bear.

One of my initial disappointments was finding out that there was not an executive lounge in the hotel. This in fact turned out to be a blessing in disguise since I actually preferred the perks that replaced the lounge was in fact better. This included free breakfast either in the main restaurant or room service. Despite the large selection of food available in the main restaurant, nothing beats breakfast brought up to your room after you’ve just worked out in the gym.

Dim Sum

Main Restaurant

Room Service
We were also provided tea during the afternoons which included a large selection of pastries. Despite the large selections, the pastries itself were just bleh that we didn’t go for it during the second day we were day. 

4th July Getaway: Penang to Macau (via Hong Kong)


A friend was kind enough to drop us at the airport even with the super early morning Penang to Kuala Lumpur flight. With Malaysia Airlines just recently joining Oneworld and thanks to my British Airways Silver Status (complimentary of the demise of BMI), check in was a breeze. The Malaysia Airlines lounge in Penang (which we’ve visited before) was closed for renovations and we were instead provided invitations to the Plaza Premium Lounge that was only recently opened after the Penang airport upgrade.

I was having a really bad wisdom tooth infection at this point of the trip so I sadly skipped the nasi lemak and instead had some decent porridge for breakfast. The lounge itself was nothing spectacular but met all the requirements of a decent lounge. It had adequate seating, decent food, free Wifi and even a shower. 

The 45 minute hop down to Kuala Lumpur was nothing too interesting with the flight attendants doing a round of drinks. In transit in Kuala Lumpur, we were caught up in a line trying to go through immigration formalities. Similar to my last experience ages ago flying through Kuala Lumpur on trips back to college at USC. It was frustrating that there were no automated passport check gates for Malaysian passport holders to speed things up.

Colorful 737 seats
We did have time to quickly swing by the Malaysia Airlines Business Class Lounge in the Satellite terminal. Overall, we were overly impressed with the lounge considering the lounge was supposed to be Malaysia Airline’s flagship lounge. The lounge was huge with plenty of seating but it was still hard to find a place to sit. There was a bar but it wasn’t staffed in the morning we were there so I’m not sure what alcohol was available. There was a reasonable selection of food for breakfast but I personally preferred the food down south in Singapore Airlines Krisflyer Lounge.

I was pretty excited to try out Malaysia Airline’s Airbus A380 albeit in economy class. I had prebooked us on the bulkhead seats on the upper deck. The leg room was great but I did felt kinda squished with the door protruding outwards. This was not a big deal on the three plus hour flight to Hong Kong but would have sucked if I was stuck in this seat on a long haul flight to say London.

Brunch was served shortly after take-off and the food was rather good for coach. There was even ice-cream for dessert! 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

American Express Centurion Lounge Dallas

We've been to some pretty outstanding airline lounges like the Lufthansa First Class Terminal In Frankfurt and Emirates First Class Lounge in Dubai. It's not surprising that there's no lounge in the US that makes that list until now at least. We just visited the American Express Centurion Lounge in Dallas Fort Worth airport and in short, it's one of our favorite lounges so far and I would head to the airport early for it. To put it in perspective, it beats any offering in the US and even ranks ahead of Malaysia Airlines business class lounge in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore Airlines business class lounge in Singapore.

The lounge which is located close to gate D16 just opened a week or so ago and is complimentary to American Express Centurion or Platinum card holders with up to two guest. Other American Express card holders get to pay $50 to enter the lounge. That might seem steep but I would pay for it for the facilities on offer especially if I have a long enough layover.

We visited the lounge early in the morning and the breakfast buffet beats anything that's available in the US currently. Gourmet breakfast tacos from celebrity chef Dean Fearing with a cappuccino and mimosa anyone? There's no crummy muffins and stale bagels or carrot sticks here.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

4th July Getaway: Koh Samui to Penang


Ko Samui Airport has got to be one of the most unique airports.  Most of the airport is open air, i.e. no air conditioning but the great design that keeps reminding you that you're on vacation makes up for the heat. There's also a strip mall landside for some last minute souvenir shopping, massages and Thai food. We weren't particularly hungry but since we still had an hour or so till departure and we were "out massaged", we killed time enjoying a last Pad Thai and fresh coconut water.

After passing through security, we found out that our flight was delayed for 45 minutes. The wait wasn't fun without air-conditioning but thankfully we found lounge that accepted Priority Pass. There were a couple of snacks and even some ala carte options like Pad Thai and noodles. I enjoyed a couple of beers but more importantly we were in the comfort of an air-conditioned room. We would have headed straight here if we had known about the lounge.

4th July Getaway: Conrad Koh Samui


We arrived at the Conrad about ten in the morning after an hour or so drive from Chaweng beach by Mr Samui. We were welcomed at the Conrad with cold drinks and towels but it did take longer than usual to complete check-in since the room wasn't ready which was not unexpected since we were trying to check-in early.

Once the room was ready, we were driven to our assigned villa of 312 by two of the front desk agents in a buggy. The two of them then explained the many features of the room and our Diamond Hilton Honors amenities which includes free breakfast, discount and bonus points to the spa and a couple of free drinks vouchers.

We were definitely WOWed by the room.  The room was larger than our apartment in Austin with the bathroom larger than our bedroom back home! The highlight of the room was definitely the view from the balcony and the private pool that was large enough to even do some laps. The only slight disappointment was the crappy coffee machine that came with the room - no Nespresso machine here.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

4th July Getaway: KC Beach Club Koh Samui


Thanks to recommendations from the Conrad Koh Samui flyertalk thread, we had made transfer arrangements with "Mr Samui" for our entire stay in Koh Samui. This included the ride from the airport to KC Beach Club, KC Beach Club to the Conrad and Conrad to the airport. Taxi prices are overpriced Koh Samui thanks to the taxi mafia so would recommend everyone else to do the same.

Mr Samui had no problems finding the KC Beach Club even though the hotel just recently opened and was somewhat tucked in a corner making it hard to find from the main street. It would not surprise me if we would have gotten lost in a mafia taxi.

Porters were on hand to help us with our luggage and we were welcomed with some welcome drinks before the check-in formalities. Unfortunately our room was only going to be available in a couple of hours so we headed out for a Thai lunch/snack at a nearby restaurant. We were hot, sweaty and tired by the time we got back and thankfully the room was now ready.

The room itself was clean and modern which was not surprising since the hotel was relatively new. The only complain I have is that there seems to be more style than substance and quality. For example, they squeezed a jacuzzi into the bathroom making the bathroom somewhat tight. The furnishings also seem on the cheap side and I wonder how long it will last through wear and tear.

The main reason on why we decided to stay at the KC Beach Club was its location in the main tourist area of Chaweng beach and its poolside parties. The parties by the pool wasn't all too wild (no college spring break here) and it was fun for us to sit by the pool, enjoying the sun, sipping a drink/cocktail while people watching and listening to some house music. There is also a second pool closer to the rooms if you prefer something quieter but I would not recommend KC Beach and Chaweng if you want a "get away from everyone" vacation.

Monday, September 23, 2013

4th July Getaway: Singapore to Koh Samui


After the ultra long haul 18 hour flight, the shower at the terminal 3 Silverkris lounge sure felt good. Even though we just had "breakfast" on the plane a couple of hours ago, I couldn't resist helping myself to the local cuisine from the extensive buffet in the lounge.

We had to make our way to terminal two for our flight to Bangkok with the flight already boarding by the time we got to our gate. Our flight to Bangkok was operated by an Airbus A330 equipped with the one of the best regional business class seats IMHO. The steward came around with a selection of juices and water prior to departure and he was happy to open a bottle of champagne when requested.

A330 business class cabin
After departure breakfast was served and I had Book-the-Cook the Nasi Lemak which I found out last Christmas was one of the best Nasi Lemak I've ever had. It was equally as good this time round and the champagne definitely paired well with the spicy sambal.  Lydia instead Book-the-Cook the chicken porridge meal and it did take a while to get her food served. The flight attendant did apologize citing that they were having issues finding a bowl to serve the porridge in.

Since it was only a 2 hour flight, it was frustrating not being able to finish Zero Dark Thirty with the IFE shutoff in preparation for landing right as the special forces were about the storm Osama's compound. Blah! Really wish SQ would follow other airlines like Emirates and allow IFE from gate-to-gate.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

4th July Getaway: Newark to Singapore


Since we were on separate tickets for the Newark to Bangkok via Singapore flights, we had to re-checkin the luggage and obtain our boarding passes at the SQ counters in Newark. It wasn't a big deal since there were no lines at the check-in counter. It did take a while longer than I would have wished to get through the security lines with only one line present with no premium lines to cut through.

Instead of proceeding to the SAS lounge that Singapore Airlines uses in Newark, we headed first to the Lufthansa Senator lounge that was just next door thanks to my StarGold status. The lounge was tiny and we only spent like a couple of minutes in there since it was stuffy due to what looked my air- conditioning problems. The Lufthansa lounge did have better food and drinks selection if compared to the SAS lounge.

Food selection in the Lufthansa Lounge
The air-condition situation wasn't much better in the SAS lounge but thankfully the lounge was a tiny bit larger which helped the air circulation. The lounge was pretty packed with passengers from the SAS and Swiss flights sharing the lounge and we had a hard time finding a place to sit. In the future, I would not arrive early just for the lounge.

SAS Lounge

There were snacks like sandwiches, cheeses and chips on offer but overall nothing too exciting. I did some wine tasting on the wines on offer and also had several shots of espresso that helped me stay awake. About an hour before the departure for the Singapore flight, there was a buffet of several hot items like chicken and noodles that were compliment of Singapore Airlines. I assume this was meant for passengers on SQ21 but there wasn't like there was anyone checking boarding passes.

With only roughly a hundred passengers on the flight, it was a quick boarding process. After checking our boarding passes, the gate agents were offering sweets and chocolates which I thought was a nice touch.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

4th July Getaway: Getting to EWR


Prices out of Austin to Newark were ridiculously over priced ($300-$400 one way) since we waited until the last minutes to book flights. They were cheaper options to La Guardia and JFK but the hassle of transferring airports before a 18 hour flight to Singapore didn't sound too appealing. We lucked out when there were ~$150 tickets an hour drive away in San Antonio to Philadelphia Train Station via Newark. We would obviously dump the train segment and just get off in Newark and even with a one way car rental to San Antonio, we would come out ahead.

It was an easy hour drive to San Antonio airport and with no lines in the premium security line, we were in the tiny United Club in no time. The lounge looked "refreshed" and new and I still don't know if it was recently renovated. The only amenity lacking were restrooms in the lounge.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Caught the SCUBA bug!

As some of you guys already know, Lydia and I love the beach and ocean - especially considering how many times we've been to the Maldives! We've just never been bothered to get certified for scuba since we already have so much fun just snorkeling seeing different fishes and even mantas and a whale shark and furthermore, the thought of "studying" during a holiday was just a turn off.

Well, snorkeling ain't cutting it anymore and we just finished our Padi Open Water Course here in Austin last week. We're now certified divers! The main motivation for doing the course now was that we're going back to Conrad Maldives in November (more details on that when we actually get to go) and we definitely want to see more of the ocean through diving.

Lydia did a wonderful job in finding an excellent dive shop (Scubaland Austin) and we had an excellent instructor, James. No question about diving or equipment was too much for both Scubaland and James. Would definitely recommend them for anyone wanting to get certified.

The Open Water Course consisted reading a book, doing some quizzes and watching a DVD before two weekends with James. The first weekend going over theory in classroom and in Scubaland's pool going over basic diving skills like safety, mask and regulator clearing and buoyancy. The second weekend was the open water section which was just diving and some skills tests similar to those learned in the pool.

We did our open water dives in Reville Peak Ranch which was a old quarry about an hour from Austin. There wasn't much to see in the quarry/lake itself with just some rocks and small fishes but the dives were more about getting control of the buoyancy. Both of us floated up uncontrollable a couple of times on the first dive but we both did improve much better on the later dives.

Reville Peak Ranch

It wasn't cheap and was probably excessive but we both just bought our own scuba gear. We figured it would be a good idea since we would be paying for rental anyway and we would be more comfortable in our own gear.

Part of our scuba "stash"
We were surprised that are our some fun places to scuba around Texas like the Comal river, various scuba parks with sunken cars, ships and other wrecks and the Flower Gardens in the Gulf of Mexico. We just go back from Lake Travis today and the visibility was just horrible but we were still happy to be in the water to work on our buoyancy.

View from the water. That's 50 feet of water missing from Lake Travis

We're looking forward to more scuba/diving adventures! We're off San Francisco on a semi-mileage run this weekend and already have plans to go diving in Monterey. The weekend after, we'll be doing our PADI Advanced Open Water Course. There will be definitely plenty of diving around Texas before that big trip to the Maldives in November....

4th July Getaway: Introduction


It was a crazy last couple of weeks with 15 hour days at work while we try to get a product out the door. Thankfully the product did get shipped and I was able to enjoy a much deserved one plus week vacation during the 4th of July hoildays. We needed to go somewhere!

One of the main motivation of the trip was to get on the currently the longest flight that was served by Singapore Airlines on their New York to Singapore route by their Airbus A345 aircraft. This was the aircraft that I first flew when I started flying for work, albeit in economy class, and what got me hooked on this hobby. Singapore Airlines decided recently that they were going to stop flying this all business class  ~18 hour flight in November since I assume it wasn't making money and I wanted a last hoorah before they ended the flight.

SQ Business Class
The vacation itself would be in Koh Samui. Since I had an expiring Hilton free night voucher compliments of the Citi Hilton Honors Reserve card, we used it at the Conrad Koh Samui. It was a great value since one night here would have costs close to $1000! For the rest of the stay in Koh Samui, we opted for the KC Beach Club since it seem fun to be in a "party hotel" and it was right smack in the action in Chaweng.

After a quick stop back at home in Penang to check on things, we made a detour in Macau on the way back to Austin since we heard great things on how the Conrad Macau treats Hilton Honors Diamond members. To make the stop even more enticing, I found a good fare from Penang to Hong Kong via Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia Airlines with the brand new A380 flying us on  the Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong sector.

Our Suite at the Conrad Macau
The highlight of the final segment on the trip would be flying Eva Air. Eva Air just joined Star Alliance and we were excited to try out their business class cabin - yummy Asian food that comes with Dom Perignon! 

Hope you guys enjoy the trip report!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Memorial Weekend in Philadelphia: Philly to Austin on American Airlines


This would be my first time flying on American in a long time. I usually stick to United since I have Premier Gold status but tickets on United were priced double on the day we needed - no choice there. I was actually looking forward to trying out American since I've been mulling to switch over to American/Oneworld since I've been hearing good things about them and with Malaysian Airlines joining Oneworld, it would be more convenient to fly home to Malaysia on Oneworld than on Star Alliance.

Check-in and security was a breeze thanks to gifted British Airways Silver/Oneworld Sapphire status due to the status match that British Airways provided to BMI frequent flyers when they bought/dissolved BMI.

The only lounge available to Oneworld passengers at Philadelphia was the British Airways lounge. The lounge was definitely not shabby especially comparing other domestic lounges like the United club. The drinks selection was rather extensive with a couple of white and red wine to try from. There were also some snacks like chips, wraps and sandwiches.

Interesting vending machine in the gents. Tampons and condoms? Really?
I was able to select premium seats in coach for free online when making my booking on the American Airlines website (assume this was thanks to my Oneworld status?). The leg room in the premium seats on the 737 taking us to Dallas was similar to United's economy plus. There were movies and short clips being shown on the overhead monitors but I wasn't paying attention thanks to the availability of Wifi on this flight. 

We had an hour or so layover in Dallas and instead of heading to the Admirals club, we opted for some overpriced so so Chinese food at the airport. I was pleasantly surprised on how nice Dallas airport was. Did it recently just get renovated?

MD80 in DFW
Our last flight on this trip was a short 45 minute Dallas to Austin on a MD80. I've heard many complains/rants on this aircraft but we actually really liked it. The overhead bins were large enough to fit our rollaboards and the 2-3 seating in coach meant Lydia and I were seating together and had both window and aisle access. The short flight itself was uneventful except that I was pleasantly surprised that the crew did manage to do round of drinks even on this short flight where as United just does a water run on the equivalent Houston/Austin flights. 

Our first flight on American in coach was definitely pleasant. Loved the Wifi and the MD80 and I'm definitely of switching on business to American next year. If someone from American is reading this, I wouldn't mind a status match to help that decision.