Sunday, March 31, 2013

JAL's marginal domestic improvements for elites

Few airlines exhibit vast chasmic differences between their international and domestic soft products.  Either they're consistently spot on or consistently lousy (aka United).  As I mentioned last year, Japan Airlines is a notable exception with domestic lounges that fade even in comparison to United Clubs.  I flew the CTS-HND route for the third time this past week, and was surprised to see some marginal enhancements to their service for elites:

1. CTS Sakura Lounge doubled in size
The CTS Sakura Lounge was the worst lounge I've ever been to until I visited the Nagoya lounge, which doesn't even offer WiFi.  I was surprised to see the recent additions, which included mood lighting with bar-styled seating.  Charging adapters for <iPhone 4S, Android devices, and most Japanese dumbphones were ample.  I was disappointed to see no enhancements in consumable offerings, and an utter lack of iPhone 5+ adapters was laughable.

Instead of just adding a room with enhanced fixtures, what JAL should have done was build a separate domestic first class lounge.  The CTS-HND segment is the busiest air route in the world, supporting a behemoth of business travelers, many who are oneworld Emeralds and first class passengers.

2. On-board greetings
Before takeoff, I was greeted by my last name and personally thanked by a flight attendant on the CTS-HND segment.  I figured that this was an isolated incident since no one else was greeted and it's never happened before.  But the same exact procedure happened on my return segment, which likely makes this an enhancement for elite flyers.  The flight attendant apparently had my name on the list.  This is a practice American Airlines performs for their Executive Platinums who aren't upgraded on a domestic flight as they're eligible to receive a complimentary snack and alcoholic beverage.  A personal greeting with JAL was welcoming, but it would have helped if it came with a free snack and beer, which is exclusive to the first class cabin.

3. HND Diamond Premier Lounges
The Diamond Premier Lounge is JAL's first class domestic lounge product, which is exclusive to their busiest hub at HND.  Upon landing at HND, I noticed on the airport map that there were now two Diamond Premier Lounges and two Sakura lounges.  Normally, JAL doesn't grant lounge access to arriving passengers, so I made an excuse to the lounge angels and was granted access.  The lone enhancement: seaweed and salmon onigiris, which is actually a decent addition since JAL lounges have virtually zero food.

Bottom line
Always good to see improvements, albeit marginal.  CTS dropped the ball on their golden opportunity to up their game with their lone lounge.  And JAL should offer more than just a personal greeting of appreciation for your business.  JAL domestic travel is still a pumpkin, though I'll take it over United on their best day.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Free 1-year Regus Businessworld Gold membership with lounge access

Regus is best known for their worldwide business lounges, which is a like an office away from your office.  They also operate lounges at select airports, and Regus Businessworld Gold membership gets you unlimited access to any of their 1,500 business lounges worldwide located in 600 cities.  They're currently offering 1-year complimentary Gold membership to Avis Preferred Service members, which is free to enroll in.  Simply register for Avis Preferred Service, then enter your Avis number at the Regus activation page.  Since Gold membership costs $49 per month, this is a $588 value for free!!

Regus business lounges typically offer business work spaces, WiFi, refreshments, and beverages.  Keep your expectations low for consumables as the token lounge in Sapporo, Japan only offers coffee and tea for free.  That's right, Coke and granola bars come at a premium.  So while these lounges fade in comparison to international airport lounges, you can't beat free.  Airport lounges are very limited, but include Amsterdam and Munich airports.  Here is a full list of their lounges.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

ICN to NRT with Korean Airlines Lounge

HND to GMP with Japan Airlines First Class Lounge
Park Hyatt Seoul
ICN to NRT with Korean Airlines Lounge

Incheon International Airport (ICN) is the largest airport in Korea and has been consistently ranked as the best airport on the face of the planet by numerous rating agencies.  As the primary hub for Asiana Airlines (Star Alliance) and national carrier Korean Airlines (Skyteam), ICN has limited oneworld routings restricted to flights to/fro oneworld hubs.  For my return trip, I flew on Japan Airlines from ICN-NRT because the timing worked out better than GMP-HND's morning flights.

Korean Airlines Lounge
Cathay Pacific is the only oneworld carrier that has a lounge at ICN, and I definitely wasn't looking forward to it based on the subpar quality of their NRT lounge.  Oddly enough, JAL directed me to the Korean Airlines (KAL) Lounge, which is typically reserved for premium Skyteam passengers.  Korean carriers are known for beefing up their lounge products, so I was looking forward to this one.

The KAL Lounge definitely had a western touch to it.  Cold foods included a salad bar, danishes, and cheeses.  Hot foods were pasta, fried shrimp, and grilled chicken.

Soft drinks and beer were the usual.  Where the lounge really felt short was with the meager premium alcohol selection, which was reminiscent of a U.S. carrier international lounge.

KAL copied American Airlines and United Airlines on this crap

The lounge had individual private bathrooms and shower rooms.  The seating capacity was good with a TV room and lounge sofas.

TV room
Individual restrooms

The lounge had one of the best terminal views with floor to ceiling windows, all facing the main terminal.

Cathay Pacific Lounge
30 minutes before departure, I decided to stop by the Cathay Pacific Lounge just to see what it was like.  To no surprise, it was pretty much in par with their NRT lounge.  In other words, I did feel relieved with my KAL Lounge invitation.

ICN-NRT on Japan Airlines
I was able to secure an emergency exit aisle seat at the time of booking for this 2-hour flight.  However, economy class is economy class, so nothing to boast about here.

"Special" seafood meal request
Nothing special about this super light meal
Once again, requesting a seafood meal in advance was a big mistake.  Based on my experience for the en route segment, I tried to cancel my request at the check-in desk, but was denied because it wasn't 24 hours in advance.  So you'll need that 24-hour cushion to either cancel or request a special meal.  The normal meal was a seafood donburi, which far surpassed my special meal of salmon sashimi over a half slice of bread.

Bottom line
The KAL Lounge is an average Asian carrier international lounge.  As a oneworld Emerald, I've become accustomed to first class lounge access, which evidently only exist at oneworld hubs.  So whereas it was a bummer not getting bumped to KAL's first class lounge, I was still happy to be thrown into their biz class lounge so that I could avoid the Cathay Pacific lounge.  And, at 10,000 award miles each way, this is one of the best AA redemption values.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Park Hyatt Seoul

HND to GMP with Japan Airlines First Class Lounge
Park Hyatt Seoul
ICN to NRT with Korean Airlines Lounge

Chase Hyatt credit card free nights
The Chase Hyatt credit card is best known for its generous sign-up bonus of 2 free nights at any Hyatt property worldwide, including flagship properties like the Park Hyatt in Tokyo and Sydney, which can regularly run for over $600 per night.  The card also offers an annual anniversary free night that can be used at category 4 properties, which typically includes mid-tier Hyatt Regency hotels.  Category 4 hotels rarely include flagship Park Hyatt properties, especially at bustling cities like Seoul.  However, the Park Hyatt Seoul is an exception and an excellent redemption value for this annual benefit.  Furthermore, the card grants you automatic Platinum status, which includes perks such as room upgrades, free WiFi, and late checkout.

Park Hyatt Seoul
The Park Hyatt Seoul is located at the busiest intersection in Seoul's financial district.  I entered the hotel at 9:45 am to check-in early and the 1st-floor bell boys already knew my first name when I told them my last name.  I was personally ushered to the lobby on the 25th floor, and our bags were taken to our room.  Upon check-in, I was given a complimentary upgrade to a deluxe room and free WiFi pursuant to my Platinum status perk.  What's interesting is that the lobby is located on the top floor and the rooms are on the 4th-23rd floors.  So after taking the elevator up to the check-in desk, I was then escorted down to my room on the 8th floor.

The 55-square-meter room was filled with electronic controls that powered the shades, dampers, and excessive lighting.  The floor-to-ceiling windows offered a nice view of the famed COEX building, which is the largest underground mall in Asia.

The bathroom had a small sauna and two shower head options.  The vanity kit was littered with useful amenities that were synonymous to the Tokyo Park Hyatt's.  I left the room at 10:15 am and returned at night to find a bundle of large seedless grapes and a personalized welcome card on the table.

The buffet breakfast is located on the 2nd floor.  It's hardly a deal at 40,000 Won (~$36.50 USD), but definitely worth the food and experience.  Upon getting seated, you're offered eggs cooked to your liking and your choice of beverages.  I opted for scrambled eggs diced with smoked salmon and freshly squeezed orange juice.


Smoked meats, fish, and cheese
Hot Korean breakfast items
Gelato for breakfast, anyone?
My personal favorite: fresh fruit smoothies blended to your liking.  I chose strawberries, oranges, and apples.  This breakfast was definitely a good start to the day, and could last you at least through the afternoon.  Unfortunately, this was also my last day in Seoul, so I'd spend the entire afternoon flying.

Bottom line
At $400 per night, this hotel is easily the best redemption value for a category 4 hotel whether using points or your credit card annual free night certificate.  It's one of the best hotels in Seoul at a prime location, and service is excellent, though somewhat inferior to the Tokyo Park Hyatt's unparalleled service.  Upon checkout, I was given a complimentary luxury taxi ride to the bus station at the Coex, which offers nonstop service to ICN every 20 minutes.  It's less than a kilometer away, but still a nice complimentary amenity.  And if you're a Diamond member, you'll be given a complimentary upgrade to a suite along with free breakfast buffet.

Next: ICN to NRT with Korean Airlines Lounge

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

American Express Business Gold Rewards Card with 75,000 point sign-up bonus through March 14th

American Express is known for offering a periodical 75,000 point sign-up bonus for their Business Gold Rewards Card, albeit for only 1 day at a time.  This time, the promo is good through March 14th, which gives you a little breathing room to decide if you can reach the required spending threshold of $10,000 within the first 4 months of membership.  As a reminder, here are the benefits of the card:

  • LIMITED TIME OFFER: Earn 75,000 Membership Rewards points when you spend $10,000 in the first 4 months of Card membership.
  • 3X points on airfare
  • 2x points on purchases in the U.S. for advertising in select media, gasoline at U.S. stand-alone gas stations, and shipping
  • 1X points on other purchases
  • Points are earned only on eligible purchases. Bonus points limitations apply.
  • $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $175
  • Introductory annual fee for Additional Gold Cards in the first year is $0; then, $50 for the first Additional Gold Card and no fee for other Additional Cards
  • Terms & Restrictions Apply.  Offer expires March 14, 2013.

If you feel like you can't reach the $10k spending mark, the 50k points Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card appears to still be available, which only requires $1k in spending within the first 3 months of membership.  In fact, Amex even allows you to apply for both cards and log 125k bonus sign-up points since one is a biz card and the other a personal card.  Amex's points program, Membership Rewards, recently received a valuation boost when one of their Star Alliance transfer partners, ANA, eliminated all fuel surcharges on award bookings with United Airlines and US Airways.  ANA has a lucrative distance-based award chart, especially for premium class travel.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

HND to GMP with Japan Airlines First Class Lounge

HND to GMP with Japan Airlines First Class Lounge
Park Hyatt Seoul
ICN to NRT with Korean Airlines Lounge

Visiting Seoul is a requirement for anyone residing in Japan for an extended period.  The city boasts a wealth of cheap food and siteseeing while being within 2 hours of Tokyo.  At only 10,000 American Airlines award miles each way for a flight between Japan and Korea, this is one of the best mileage redemption values as roundtrip fares regularly run in excess of $500 when connecting from cities such as Sapporo and Hiroshima.

I flew from CTS to HND and transferred from HND's domestic terminal to the international terminal via bus.  Even though JAL and ANA both run 17 flights per day between CTS and HND, HND is actually a painful international transfer point as their international terminal is poorly positioned from its domestic terminals.

HND Japan Airlines First Class Lounge

HND and NRT are the only two airports with JAL First Class lounges, which is a benefit afforded exclusively to Oneworld Emerald members and passengers flying on international first class with a Oneworld carrier.  What's perhaps most intriguing is that JAL doesn't even offer international first class service out of HND, so this lounge primarily serves customers flying in first with American Airlines and British Airways, which are the only two Oneworld carriers that offer first class service out of HND.

The lounge is much smaller than any of the three JAL first class lounges at NRT, which is to be expected as NRT serves a wealth of international first class traffic.

Food offerings were similar to those of the NRT lounges, though the HND lounge gets the edge for offering better sushi and fruits.

Cold food offerings

Hot food offerings and appetizers
Salmon, unagi, and sushi rolls

The lounge lacked NRT's best amenity: free massages.  But since HND doesn't handle as much international traffic as NRT, the lounge was definitely a quieter environment.

HND-GMP flight

Haneda to Gimpo is by far the best way to get between Tokyo and Seoul as both airports are located near the hearts of their respective cities, unlike NRT and ICN, which are over an hour away by bus.  I figured that it wasn't worth paying 20k award miles each way for a 2-hour flight in a recliner business class seat, especially since I already get airport amenities equivalent to that of a first class passenger.

My emergency exit aisle seat, always the best seat in economy

The 767 was definitely an older mock up version with no AVOD.  Armrests were even fitted with cigarette disposers, which is something I haven't seen since the 90s.  This isn't quite the hard product that you'd expect on an international JAL flight, albeit only for 2 hours.

Seafood meal selection surprise
Tuna mayonnaise and one slice of sashimi over bread, topped off with canned fruit

After seeing the meal offering, I was substantially relieved that I had taken advantage of the food in the first class lounge.  My seafood meal pre-selection couldn't have fed a toddler, and it was significantly less appetizing than the standard meal, which consisted of wasabi rice, salmon eggs, and authentic Japanese side items.

Bottom line

Always take advantage of the first class lounge when you're flying in economy.  JAL doesn't seem to like entertaining much on one of their shortest international segments.  Nevertheless, Japan-Korea is still an excellent mileage redemption value.  Oh, and the HND first class lounge only had an inkjet printer and not a laser one, which is something that spoiled first class passengers will loathe.

Next: Park Hyatt Seoul