Sunday, February 23, 2014

Double Weddings Holiday: Quick Introduction and DFW to LHR


Barely a month after our Maldives adventure, it was time again for a ton of flying. We had to fly back to Malaysia since both my brother and Lydia's brother were getting married. Our flights back to Asia were the return portion of our ex-CMB business class fare that we had purchased to get ourselves back to the US from the Maldives.

The flying we would be doing over the holidays
We were scheduled to leave Austin to Dallas around 4pm to connect to our flight to London. During that morning, we saw reports of ice/snow in Dallas and sure enough a bunch of the morning flights were either cancelled and delayed. I kept an eye on our flight and despite showing a on-time departure earlier during the day, the flight was finally delayed around noon by an hour giving us only 5 minutes to connect to our London flight which would have been impossible. I immediately got on the phone to try to get on something earlier but all flights to Dallas were booked solid. While the agent looked for other options, I mentally calculated that there was still time to make the drive to Dallas instead of flying. The agent was glad to make the changes to our ticket to start in Dallas and refund the ticket and I quickly booked a one way rental from Austin to Dallas.

The drive itself to Dallas was nerve wrecking as we weren't sure if we were going to make it on time. After picking up the one way rental from Austin airport, the first hour was uneventful. We eventually hit it bad stretch of traffic on I35 and we wasted about thirty minutes before being able to get on the access road and avoid the traffic. We eventually made it to the Hertz car return at DFW about an hour prior to departure and thankfully a kind Hertz employee drove us directly to the terminal in the rental instead of us having to take the shuttle. He earned a nice tip and we thankfully were able to check-in and drop off our luggage.

After a huge sigh of relief, we had enough time to swing by the Amex Centurion lounge for a much needed pee and shower before a glass of wine to calm the nerves. We would normally just take a later flight and not deal with the stress but we had two weddings to attend and missing his first flight would just be a big mess.

Thankfully, there were no other surprises or delays for the rest of the trip. We were happy to be back on board American's brand new 777. We were slightly disgusted to find that the cleaning folks did a bad job when we found empty bottles from probably the previous flight still around in our seats. Yuck!

Left over bottle
I was also pleasantly happy to find out that we were going to have the same excellent crew that we had on our first 77W LHR-DFW flight. Most of the attendants were in the holiday mood by dressing up in Christmas ties and one even had an elf hat on.

We were slightly delayed due to having to wait for a couple more passengers but we were still going to arrive on time since the flight time was going to be super short ~8 hours only to London. An hour or so after we were in the air, dinner was served. Dinner was pretty good for business class standards. I enjoyed the moist chicken breast and the potato corn cake that accompanied it was really good as well.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Thanksgiving 2013 in Maldives: Heading back to Austin


The main objective for our short stay in Manchester was to do the Manchester United Old Trafford tour. The tour itself was okay but Old Trafford itself ended up being slightly disappointing since it didn't have the jaw dropping affect one would have if they visited say a football stadium like the LA Colliseum. Christmas atmosphere was in full swing and we visited a couple of the markets after doing the tour.

Since we didn't have a complimentary chauffeur for the next segment, we instead took the train to the airport which was pretty easy since our hotel was located next to the train station. Check-in was a breeze in the business class line and we were in the British Airways lounge that American Airlines uses in Manchester soon after. We were still full from the breakfast at the hotel so I just grab a coffee while waiting for our flight.

BA Lounge
I was initially pretty apprehensive and worried to be flying a narrow body 757 on our flight from Manchester to Chicago. As soon as we got settled in, I tested out the seats and found it to be surprisingly comfy. The seats were not lie flat but being a day flight, it was looking to not be a great deal. A cheery attendant came around with pre-departure champagne and water and it looks like it was going to be a great flight until the captain came on the PA and there was some mechanical problem with plane they were still trying to fix.

AA 757 Business Class Cabin
The attendant kept drinks flowing and brought out snacks during the delay. The flight kept getting delayed every 30 minutes until the captain finally decided to cancel the flight about two and half hours after our scheduled departure. I immediately got on my iphone looking for options but things didn't look good since all of American's Manchester flights and their morning bank from London had already left.

We had to re-clear immigration, collect our bags and head back to the check-in counters to find out how we were getting home. When waiting for our bags, I saw the most hideous customer service by one of the flight attendants. A passenger had accidentally took her jacket which she manage to track down in the luggage area. She demanded her jacket back but couldn't even be bothered to bring the passenger back their own jacket or to help them with it. She took the jacket and just walked away. If that happened to me, I would have just kept hold of the attendant's jacket until she returned mine.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Thanksgiving 2013 in Maldives: Male to Manchester via Colombo and Abu Dhabi


    It's always sad to leave the Maldives. Thankfully, there was no screw up on our departure arrangements unlike for our arrival. We were granted late checkout till 4pm and was going to take the last seaplane of the day that left the Conrad about 5pm arriving in Male around the same time (Male is one hour behind the Conrad).

    Our Sri Lankan flight to Colombo was scheduled to depart 10.30pm so we had a couple of hours to kill in Male. We decided on the easy and cheap option to just hang out in the new air-conditioned food court that had a coffee and Thai place and the only Burger King in Maldives instead of paying to stay in the Conrad Lounge or hop over to Male itself during this time.

    It was during this time that I almost lost a bag no thanks to my own fault. I forgot to pick up one of the bags when the seaplane staff returned the bags in the terminal only realizing a couple of hours later. By then it was almost 7.30pm and the seaplane counter and office was closed. I was lucky that there was still staff from the seaplane company around. Even though they were about to leave for the day, they made the extra effort to track down the bag and return it. Losing that bag would have sucked and I was grateful the staff was so helpful.

    Since we were flying in economy and there was no Priority Pass lounges in the international terminal in Male, we just hung out at another coffee place in the departure lounge waiting for our flight to Colombo. Thirty minutes before departure we proceeded to the departure gate but there was no signs that boarding was going to start soon. We waited and sure enough boarding didn't begin even past the scheduled departure time. There were no announcements or more information of the delay which was not too helpful. The plane eventually did arrive in Male and boarding begun about an hour and a half later.

    This would be our first time flying Sri Lankan despite the delay and hiccups pre-departure, things got much better on the plane. We were warmly welcomed by the crew on board the aircraft. The load was rather light on our flight today especially on the back of the A340 we were taking today. A rather delicious and spicy warm meal was served even on the short 1.5 hour flight. The meal was way better than the cold plate served on Emirates on the same route.

    The good part of the initial delay was that our layover in Colombo was going to be much shorter . By the time cleared immigration, collected our bags and re-checked in for our Etihad flight, we only had about an hour before our flight to Abu Dhabi which was just enough time to grab a shower and a drink in the contract lounge used by Etihad.

    Eithad operates a narrow body A320 on the four hour or so flight from Colombo to Abu Dhabi. A flat bed would be nice for this awkwardly timed 5ish in the morning flight. The leg room itself was great and even though the seats weren't lie flat, I managed to find a comfortable position and get some sleep after the late supper/early breakfast served after take off.

    Sunday, February 9, 2014

    Thanksgiving 2013 in Maldives: Conrad Maldives


    As mentioned in the previous post, we were shocked to find out our seaplane transfer to the Conrad was scheduled to be at 2pm instead of the earliest possible transfer as requested. We were even more pissed off to find out that there were indeed a bunch of other guests getting transferred earlier in the morning when we managed to sneak a peek at the guest list the Conrad rep was holding on to. There was nothing the Conrad rep could do at this point, since the seaplane office was now closed and he promised to call us in the morning if they managed to get us on an earlier flight.

    I did not sleep well that night due to both jet lag and the worry that might waste a day in Male instead of enjoying ourselves on the beach at the Conrad. I even called the Conrad on my cell phone hoping that talking to a manager might quickly resolve the problem. The manager I spoke to knew of the situation and promised to call in the morning once the "transportation" manager got in. Thankfully the situation was resolved when we got a call around 7 that morning that they managed to get us on a 9 am transfer to the Conrad. This start to the holidays definitely left a bad taste. For a luxury resort, I'd expect them to proactively catch mistakes like this. There was also no apology or service recovery when we got to the resort but we did get a couple of thousand Hilton points after filing a complaint once we got back to Austin. Very disappointing indeed!

    Lydia enjoying a massage in the Conrad Seaplane Lounge

    The rest of the stay went much better especially since we have somewhat low expectations and Maldives is just a happy place for us that it would take a lot to get us unhappy. Sandy white beach and crystal clear water = heaven for us!

    Welcome Drink
    Since we already covered the Conrad Maldives before, I'll focus on the differences during this trip (previous review here). We decided it was not worth the money to upgrade from a standard beach villa to a water villa since we wanted to be close to the house reef and would rather spend the upgrade money in the spa or diving.

    Welcome Amenity
    The main highlight for this stay (especially for me) was definitely the diving. After recently getting certified and training in murky lake water in Austin, this was heaven. Lydia was also certified as part of the plan for the trip but she got pregnant after that so no diving for her. I ended up doing dives everyday we were there except for the no-dive day that day before we left. The dives were in the morning after breakfast and we would be back after two dives by around lunch time. I also did a whole day dive trip where it was a 3 tank dive and also looking for whalesharks. We got so lucky that we saw a whaleshark on three different occasion and by the third time, all of us were too tired to even go in the water. One of the best dives was the only one night dive I did where there was much more sea life coming out - we saw a lobster nest of like twenty lobsters but best of all was turning off our lights during our safety stop and seeing bio-luminescence plankton all around us. Felt like an astronaut surrounded by stars!

    I have to also add that the dive center was certainly top notch. It ended up being ~$100USD per dive (I brought my own scuba gear) which was not that expensive considering the small groups we were in, the amazing guides and dive sites, tips included and the luxurious diving dhoni we were on.

    Highlight video of the diving:

    The rest of the time I was not diving, we would spend lazing by the beach and snorkeling by the house reef. We didn't get as lucky this time round as to see a whale shark by the house reef but we did manage to see some dolphins and a couple of sharks.

    As usual, we would end the day at the daily complimentary happy hour at Vilu enjoying a cold one. The happy hour seem much more busy and packed and the last time we visited to the two servers looked overwhelmed most of the time keeping up with the drink orders.

    Lydia also enjoyed the spa a couple of of times during this trip when I was out diving to make up for missing out on the diving. The spa at the Conrad Maldives continues to be one of the best we've been to.

    We already have plans to return again during Christmas this year thanks to a pre-devaluation Hilton Honors points booking. I can't wait to go diving again and this time with Lydia. We just have not figured out what to do with the baby by then :P

    Saturday, February 8, 2014

    Thanksgiving 2013 in Maldives: Bangkok to Male via Singapore


        A ground staff and a buggy was waiting for us as soon as we got off the plane to take us through security and to the First Class lounge. The lounge was rather packed when we got there which was not surprisingly given most of Thai's European flights arrives around the same time. Thankfully, there was still an empty "living room" available for us.

        While waiting for our spa appointment time, we caught up on email and ordered a light breakfast of pork and fish rice soup. We made our own way to the spa lounge when no one came to escort us when it was our appointment time. I went with the hour long oil massage while Lydia had the shoulder massage since couldn't do the oil massage since she was pregnant. The massage and the shower was relaxing and still one of the best ways to spend a layover.

        Food in the lounge
        We got peckish again after the massage and ordered several more items of the menu when we got back to the lounge while enjoying the San Francisco 49ers demolish the New York Giants on TV. Overall this has to be one of the best lounges in the world but the service this time round was lackluster compared the the last time we were there. The servers just stood around at the bar talking to themselves and I had to step out of the living room and grab their attention every time we needed something.

        There was also no escort or buggy service to our flight to Singapore. We later found out the escort/buggy was only offered for passengers connecting to a first class flight. Worst still, we were provided the wrong gate information by the front desk agent so we had to make a long trek across the terminal to our gate. Things didn't get any better when we found out we had a bus gate. We were sweaty and hot by the time we got onto the plane.

        The plane was not much better as we got an ancient A330 for our flight to Singapore. The seats were dated and there was no AVOD on the plane. Lydia ended up sleeping for most of the flight and only waking up for a couple of bites of the duck rice served for lunch while I ended watching a surprisingly interesting documentary on tea.

        Tuesday, February 4, 2014

        Thanksgiving 2013 in Maldives: Rome to Bangkok


            It wasn't fun lugging all the luggage from the hotel to the Termini station and to the airport but I guess saving a couple of Euros when taking the Leonardo Express instead of taking a cab was money worth saving. Check-in was a breeze with no one in line and our boarding passes already printed ahead of time.

            Thai Check-in Area
            Thai uses the Alitalia Giotto Lounge and I was surprised that it was rather decent for a business class lounge. Internet was fast and there were plenty of seating when we were there and we managed to find a quiet corner with a pair of slumber chairs to relax in. We skipped the meager snacks and wine but we couldn't say no to the handmade espresso macchiato and latte.

            I also paid a visit to the next door "le Anforce" VIP lounge thanks to my Priority Pass card. The lounge offerings very pretty much similar to the Alitalia lounge next door but I preferred the more modern feel of the Alitalia lounge.

            Boarding was announced in the lounge and it was slightly chaotic to maneuver past people to board through the first class/premium line. It was the same agent from check-in who scanned our boarding passes and she made a point to inform us that she's confirmed that our bags were loaded on the plane. Nice touch!

            Thai 747 taking us to Bangkok
            We were the first on board and after quickly settling in, the attendants serving us today came around with the usual round of newspapers, magazines and pre-departure beverages (Dom for me of course!).

            Pajamas and amenity kits were also provided and this was the only slight disappointment of the flight. The medium sized pants were too small for Lydia (being a couple of months pregnant) and she wanted a large pair and keep the medium sized top. The attendant wasn't sure if she should do so and had to check with the pursuer and she was only allowed to keep parts of the "mismatch" pajamas instead of offering the two complete sets to her. The pursuer also never came by to said hi at all during the flight and had a hands off approach to the service which was so different than our last Thai first class flight. Luckily the two attendants who served us during the flight were great.

            Sunday, February 2, 2014

            Thanksgiving 2013 in Maldives: Rome Layover


                We were determined to make the most of our short stay in Rome even with the slight delay on arrival due to dealing the luggage and the jetlag kicking in. After checking in and dropping of our bags at the Best Western Hotel Universo, we headed back to the nearby Termini station and took the metro to the Trevi Fountain. I visited Rome and the Trevi fountain during the day years ago and without Lydia and the fountain looked much more beautiful than I remembered especially this time with Lydia and with the lights turned on at night and less of a crowd than during the day.

                We then made our way to the Spanish Steps which we didn't spend much too time since it wasn't too interesting. We headed back to the Termini station and made a detour at one of the many McDonald's around the area for a late dinner/snack. We ordered a ciabatta type sandwich that I assumed was unique to Italy and it was pretty disappointing. The fries also came out soggy and we both agreed this was probably the worst McD we've tried.

                We got up bright and early next the day to again maximize our time in Rome and hopefully beat most of the lines. The day started of with the mandatory espresso and croissant at one of the many espresso bars nearby the hotel. There's one thing I love about Rome is the endless supply of amazing espresso.

                The main objective of the day was the Vatican and St Peter's Basilica. The sun was only coming out when we got there and I was happy to get some pretty good pictures of the Basilica and the square.

                Thanksgiving 2013 in Maldives: Frankfurt Layover & Frankfurt to Rome


                    We had about a five hour layover in Frankfurt which was just the right amount of time to make use of the "Porsche experience" that's offered to Lufthansa First Class or Honor Circle members. For ~99 Euro,  we had a Porsche for 3 hours/150 km. 99 Euros might seem pretty steep for a 3 hour car rental but it included the insurance and fuel as well and it was like a once in the lifetime experience for us.

                    There were no lines at both immigration and Avis counter so we were in the car a quick 20 minutes after we landed. We were slightly disappointed to be getting the less sexy Porsche Panamera instead of the 911 but we didn't want to waste time arguing for one (more reason to fly through Frankfurt again in the future to try the 911!). We sat in the car for a good fifteen minutes getting used to the car but for the most part trying to switch the navigation controls/GPS from German to English. Thankfully my iPhone had data roaming but so we gave up in the end and relied on maps from coming the iPhone.

                    We did some research prior to the trip and read about the Avis' recommended routes available here. We had decided to try the Weinheim to Rüsselsheim route since it looked like there were a couple of straight portions on the Autobahn and views of Auerbach Castle. I was somewhat nervous initially driving the car since it would not have been fun if we were to have gotten into an accident but we were eventually driving up to speeds of 220+ km/hour once we were on the Autobahn. It was so much fun! The Porsche handled and accelerated so smoothly and it felt safe even going at such high speeds.

                    The problem with all the fun of driving at such high speeds was that we used up the 150km quota rather quickly. It only took us slightly less than 45 minutes to reach the half way mark at the city of Bensheim where we caught glimpses of the Auerbach Castle from a far. We got out of the car for a couple of minutes to stretch our legs and get from fresh air before making our way back to the First Class Terminal.

                    We returned the Porsche at the First Class Terminal only about one and a half hour after taking it out and wished we had more kilometers to drive the car although we were slightly tired by this point anyway. Ah, the pleasures of departing Frankfurt as a first class passenger - someone to pick up the car and we were past security, enjoying a relaxing bath with a glass of champagne five minutes later. 

                    This was our fourth time visiting the First Class Terminal and I'll say again that it has not gotten old (previous reviews here, here and here). After refreshing ourselves with a much needed shower, we helped ourselves to a late lunch. In addition to the usual wide selection of buffet and ala carte items, they were running a "Born to be Wild" theme meals which featured wild game like pheasant. I tried the pheasant and risotto which was really good and worth of any fine dining restaurant.