Wednesday, January 29, 2014

American Airlines World Elite MasterCard with 100,000 mile sign-up bonus

It's been a while since we've seen such a beefy sign-up bonus, and Citicards is taking the helm with this one.  The AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard will net you 100k miles, which is good enough for 2 roundtrip economy flights from North America to Japan during the low season, 4 roundtrip economy flights within the continental U.S., or 1 roundtrip business class flight from North America to Japan.  The catch, of course, being that the spending threshold of $10,000 within the 3 months of card membership is unreachable for most.  An annual fee of $450 also won't be too appealing to the majority, though this will be the only card that offers Admiral's Club AND US Airways Club membership after the Amex Platinum card is stripped of those benefits effective in March.  The annual fee is also mitigated by the $200 statement credit (at least for the first year).

https://creditcards.citicards.com/usc/Travel/AA/2013/q3/Exec/GA/default.htm?BT_TX=1&ProspectID=8289431BF5BC49478648B92A43DF07A8


Amongst the bennies:
  • Apply now, get the card and earn 100,000 AAdvantage bonus miles after making $10,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of cardmembership. Also, earn up to $200 in statement credits — earn $1 in statement credits for each $1 spent on purchases within the first 12 months of cardmembership.
  • Elevate the way you travel with these luxury benefits: Admirals Club membership (a membership value of up to $475)
  • Earn 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles after spending $40,000 in purchases each calendar year
  • No foreign transaction fees on purchases
  • Earn two AAdvantage miles per $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases, including US Airways codeshare flights booked on aa.com
  • Priority Boarding, security screening, and check-in line
  • 25% savings on eligible in-flight purchases
  • Your first eligible checked bag is free
  • SmartChip technology
  • Expert Concierge Service
  • $450 Annual Fee
If you can meet the spending threshold, then this card is a no-brainer.  If you fly AA often enough or frequent terminals with an Admirals Clubs or US Airways Clubs, then this card should also be the way to go since the annual fee is cheaper than buying an annual club membership pass.  It could also serve as a good way for bottom feeders to get started with AA since it'll provide Priority Access, which includes priority boarding, security screening, and check-in line.  Or if you fancy 100k miles, then go for it.

Friday, January 10, 2014

2013 Grand Finale: American Airlines biz NRT-LAX

2013 Grand Finale lineup

Eva Airlines economy class CTS-TPE-HKG
Cathay Pacific biz HKG-TPE
Japan Airlines economy class TPE-NRT
American Airlines biz NRT-LAX

With systemwide upgrades (SWU) expiring in February, it's time to use it or lose it.  And there's nothing like burning SWUs on heavily discounted $800 transpacific tickets.  This where the true value of Executive Platinum status is, as buying an upgrade will cost you 25k miles + $350 copay each way.


NRT Japan Airlines first class lounge

After landing into terminal 2's satellite terminal, I headed towards the JAL first class lounge for lunch.  This lounge never gets old with premium food and beverage spreads and free massages.  But the best thing about the satellite terminal's lounge is the quietness as there were but 2 other passengers in the 150+ seat lounge.  This has always been the case as the vast majority of oneworld international flights depart from the main terminal, so the passengers saturate the first class lounges in the main terminal.


Food selections are identical to those offered in the main terminal.  The dining area is more exclusive in this lounge, though they disallow the removal of food from the area.  While JAL's biz lounges excel in quality, their first class lounges could use a lift as they fade in comparison to heavyweights Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific's first class ground products.


AA biz NRT-LAX

Since this was Christmas, my SWU cleared weeks before departure.  However, the cabin was surprisingly filled to capacity.  What's interesting is that the day before departure, the seat maps were still mostly empty, so it's almost as an influx of travelers decided last-minute.

Same ol' angled lieflat seats

As usual, I preordered the Japanese meal set online as it far exceeds the inflight menu options, which are prone to running dry in full flights.

Appetizer

Main course

I was hoping for a sushi appetizer, which is what they offered in the past.  But the bento offerings were more complete.  For a U.S. carrier, the meal was acceptable: better than United but incomparable to the Asian heavyweight carriers.  After eating, I went to sleep for most of the flight.


LAX AA Flagship Lounge

First class lounges in the U.S. are never anything to bark over, but when you're this tired after a transpacific flight, it's a warm welcoming.  For my full review of AA's LAX Flagship Lounge, see my previous post.


Bottom line

AA has been definitely behind the game on their transpacific product.  Although their new business class product is amongst the best in the world, AA keeps focusing their best resources on transatlantic and South American flights, thus ignoring their Asian footprint entirely.  Still, no upgrade is easier to score for international travel than on AA flights, and the worst seat in biz will always be eons better than the best seat in economy.  Thus concludes 2013.  Happy New Year!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Japan Airlines economy class TPE-NRT

2013 Grand Finale lineup

Eva Airlines economy class CTS-TPE-HKG
Cathay Pacific biz HKG-TPE
Japan Airlines economy class TPE-NRT
American Airlines biz NRT-LAX

After 5 days in Taiwan, it was time to head back to California.  But in order to make use of my systemwide upgrades with American Airlines, I would need to connect in NRT before heading home, which is acceptable since NRT is a fine airport with good lounges.  TPE-NRT is a highly competitive route operated by a wealth of legacy carriers amongst the three alliances, including JAL, ANA, Cathay Pacific, Eva, China Airlines, Delta, and a few discount carriers.  Since I was flying onward with AA, I opted for JAL due to their joint business venture with AA.  In the past, thru-checking bags and accessing AA or JAL itineraries has been a seamless process for both carriers.  To book an award flight, I looked no further than British Airways Avios points, which specialize in short-haul flights at amazing redemption rates.  For only 10,000 Avios and a nominal fuel surcharge, I was able to book TPE-NRT with JAL in economy class.


TPE Legend VIP Lounge (formerly JAL Sakura Lounge)

JAL closed their Sakura Lounge out of TPE last September, so it has since been "replaced" in its identical location and, apparently, decor with the Legend VIP Lounge.  I was hoping to get access to the Cathay Pacific lounge, but CX flights are ironically all operated out of terminal 1 whereas JAL operates out of terminal 2.  Evidently, oneworld avoids terminal consolidation at this non-hub airport.


The lounge was nearly completely empty, and it looks like this lounge is designed specifically for JAL passengers.  Food offerings were minimal, consisting of onigiris and light snacks.


I can't say I was expecting much out of this lounge.  Carriers have proven that their ground products don't excel in non-hub locations, and this lounge wasn't about to make an exception.  You definitely don't feel like a VIP in this lounge, which sure isn't legendary (no pun intended).  After grabbing a couple of cups of OJ and onigiris, I headed to the gate for boarding.


JAL economy class TPE-NRT

I was able to secure an emergency exit seat near the time of booking for this flight, so I knew my legs wouldn't be hurting.  As a 2 1/2 hour flight, there's not much to complain about it to begin with, but it never hurts to get extra legroom.  However, the row behind me was empty, so I opted for that one instead since exit row seat armrests do not recline as they include tray tables.

Mt. Fuji and Niijima Island
After eating a small meal, I lied down and dozed off until landing.


Bottom line

Don't expect much from lounge products at non-hub locations.  Unless you're in need of a cheap bite or a drink, the terminal may have more to offer.  As good as the carrier is, economy class will always be economy, but I'll readily save 10k Avios not to fly in a recliner biz seat for 2 1/2 hours.

Next: American Airlines biz NRT-LAX

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

2013 Grand Finale: Cathay Pacific biz HKG-TPE

2013 Grand Finale lineup

Eva Airlines economy class CTS-TPE-HKG
Cathay Pacific biz HKG-TPE
Japan Airlines economy class TPE-NRT
American Airlines biz NRT-LAX

HKG is consistently ranked as one of the busiest and best airports in the world.  As the world's busiest airport in terms of cargo traffic, HKG is a key economic hub, connecting mainland China to the corners of the earth.  So it's no surprise that Cathay Pacific, with HKG as its fortress hub, hauls more cargo than any other airline on the planet.  Aside from cargo, Cathay Pacific (CX) is a 5-star carrier offering arguably the best business class hard product in the world and amongst the best in-flight and ground services.

As a oneworld Emerald member with American Airlines, I am afforded access to oneworld first class lounges whenever flying on a oneworld carrier such as CX.  For a short-haul 1 1/2 hour flight between HKG-TPE, I didn't deem it necessary to book in biz, so I opted for economy class using my British Airways Avios points.  This route is a great value for only 4,500 Avios points each way, and Cathay Pacific offers daily widebody flights by the hour.


The Wing - Cathay Pacific first class lounge

CX's first class lounge, dubbed as The Wing, underwent an overhaul refurbishment that was completed in February 2013 and is now souped out as one of the top lounges in the world.  I arrived at the airport 3 hours before my flight for the sole purpose of seeing if this lounge lives up to its name.  Upon entering the lounge, which is located just left after clearing immigrations, I headed towards the Haven, which is a full-service restaurant staffed by Hong Kong's iconic Peninsula Hotel.  With an a la carte menu offering entrees such as prime rib and sea bass, I opted for the fish, which was to die for.


Within the Haven is also a buffet bar offering salads, hot foods, sushi, and a generous spread of desserts.  While waiting on my sea bass, I collected my fair share of sushi and readied my desserts.


There's always room for this
After a fulfilling meal, I headed to the famed cabanas to rest and clean up.  The cabanas are private individual rooms offering luxurious showers, spa tubs, and sofabeds.  In essence, it's like a hotel room before your flight.

Shower
Bathe
Sleep
I did everything that I could do: bathe, shower, get online, and nap.  With 45 minutes before my flight, I grabbed a Sapphire and tonic, an ice cream, and a pair chocolates before heading to the gate for some late boarding courtesy of an unbelievable lounge.


Cathay Pacific business class HKG-TPE

Yes, I did use BA Avios miles to book on a partner carrier.  And yes, it was in economy class.  So yes, I was upgraded at the gate while boarding in the priority line for no apparent reason, but I suspect that it had to do with my oneworld Emerald status and a couple of empty seats in biz.  But perhaps the biggest surprise is that this 4-class B777-300 was outfitted with CX's new reverse herringbone biz seats, which is ranked as the top in the world.  Don't know why CX would bother operating their flagship plane on a 1 1/2 hour second-tier route, but I'll take it.


Aside from being essentially a flatbed suite, the seat itself offers forward thrust in non-reclined position, which is unique for flatbed seats.  This is primarily useful when you want to sit with your feet on the footrest, which is difficult with other carriers such as United and Thai Airways flatbed biz seats unless you're Yao Ming.


One of the compromises that carriers often deal with for biz seats is storage space, which is usually sacrificed for seating and AVOD space.  But CX implements no compromise on storage capacity, with unique compartments for your noise-cancelling headset, laptop, smartphone, and even shoes.  This makes a substantial difference particularly for short-haul flights as you can avoid accessing overhead storage entirely.


Rightfully so, the flight attendants were on the run from the get-go 'til landing, taking orders and handing out food offerings.  I opted for the sablefish (aka butterfish).  Though unappetizing from the appearance, the meat itself was cooked to perfection.


Bottom line

As we began our decent into TPE, I couldn't help but hope for this flight to avoid TPE entirely and go all the way back to SFO.  CX offers the best biz product in the world, and it seems like such a waste for a 1 1/2 hour flight, although most transpacific flights do offer the same product.  I still find it unbelievable how CX would upgrade award elite passengers from partner carriers using partner miles as most legacy carriers don't upgrade their own elite award passengers at all, especially for international travel.  As it turns out, one of my shortest flights would be one of my best, and the CX first class lounge is perhaps one of the best lounges in Asia, completely destroying the JAL first class lounge in NRT.  What a homerun for a 500-mile flight.

Next: Japan Airlines economy class TPE-NRT

Monday, January 6, 2014

Capital One Venture card with 50,000 miles (~$500) sign-up bonus

For a limited time, Capital One has more than doubled the sign-up bonus on their flagship Venture card from the standard 20k to 50k!  $3,000 spending threshold within the first 3 months of card membership is required, which should be doable for most of you.  From Vikings to Alec Baldwin, you've all seen their corny commercials.  Nonetheless, this card does live up to its name with 2 miles per dollar spent (~2% cashback) and Capital One's signature no foreign exchange transaction fees.

https://application.capitalone.com/icoreapp/jsp/application.faces?s=0012744022000XXCO31XX1ZZZZZZZZXXZBAN01ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ&IARC=BAN&external_id=WWW_VC_BNUSCD_VT_GEN_VD5_5V_3X2B4_BAN2

Similarly to the Barclays Arrival card, Capital One miles are actually not frequent flyer currency, but monetary currency where 1 mile = 1 cent when redeemed for travel purchases.  So this 50k bonus equates to a $500 credit towards any purchase towards flight, hotel, car rental, cruise, etc., making this card generally immune to frequent flyer point devaluations that we have witnessed repeatedly through the years.  Redemptions with this card also won't affect your ability to earn elite qualifying miles/points since your travel purchases are revenue fares, unlike award bookings.

Among the other benefits of this card:
-Visa Signature Concierge
-Visa Signature purchase protection
-Annual fee waived for the first year ($59 value)



Be wary that Capital One is known to do a hard pull on your credit from all 3 credit bureaus, which could have a noticeable effect on your credit score.  Other than that, this simple card is the way to go, and the sign-up bonus is currently one of the most generous given the spending threshold.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

2013 Grand Finale: Eva Airlines economy class CTS-TPE-HKG

2013 Grand Finale lineup

Eva Airlines economy class CTS-TPE-HKG
Cathay Pacific biz HKG-TPE
Japan Airlines economy class TPE-NRT
American Airlines biz NRT-LAX

As the final frontier of 2013, I embarked on an intra-Asia holiday trip before heading home for Christmas.  With Eva Airlines miles on the verge of expiring, it was the perfect opportunity to use it or lose it, and what better destination in North Asia than HKG?

CTS international terminal

Eva Airlines operates one flight per day during the winter from CTS-TPE.  As Hokkaido is a popular destination for Taiwanese tourists, the A330 is often full of leisure travelers who flood the economy class check-in desk and security line.  Fortunately, as a Star Alliance Gold member with Turkish Airlines, I was able to bypass the long check-in and boarding lines.  Since Eva just joined Star Alliance last July, their system is far from being fully integrated, and there's always the fear that *G benefits aren't properly implemented, which was the case when I flew last November.  Fortunately for this time around, lounge access was no problem in both CTS and TPE, which would prove important with a 2 1/2 hour layover.

1,500 yen in food credit or a subpar lounge?  Depends on whether you had lunch or not.

Since the CTS Royal Lounge is a joke acknowledged even by Eva, you're given the option of either lounge access or 1,500 yen (~$15 USD) in food credit at the food court.  Without a full lunch, I opted for food credit since I can't value this lounge access at 1,500 yen.

Just your average food court selection in Japan: filling but nothing more



Hello Kitty plane

As it would suggest, Taiwanese people think of Japan as the sole home of Hello Kitty such to the extent that one of their flag carriers soups up their planes flying to Japan with the iconic cat.  Even the food items resemble the pink feline.


Nothing like getting an emergency exit seat, but economy will always be economy no matter the carrier or the seat.


A 4 1/2 hour intra-Asia flight is the upper limit where your miseries are yet to set in from a small seat.  But you'll never be able to complain about a mileage redemption flight baring a crash landing.

TPE Eva Airlines biz lounge

As by far the largest airport in Taiwan, TPE is a Skyteam and *A hub.  The airport specializes in duty free stores galore and, of course, Hello Kitty decor.  I headed directly to the Eva biz lounge upon landing for some dinner.


The lounge had what you'd expect out of international hub lounge in Asia: hot buffet food items, ample seating, and a premium alcohol selection.


Although not spectacular, the lounge is acceptable and the food is sufficient.  The best treat is the generous ice cream selection, which most lounges skimp out on or avoid all together.  In comparison, the lounge is equivalent to the Thai Airways lounge: one step ahead of the Korean Airlines lounge and one below the JAL and ANA hub lounges.

As Messi and Kobe would point out in their Turkish Airlines commercial, "Ice cream?" "Si."


Bottom line

Eva Airlines offers a respectable intra-Asian product with a sufficient international hub lounge.  Whereas a lounge shower would have been a good amenity, the lounge is slightly above average, which plain outright destroys any U.S. lounge.  Getting lounge access is important before economy class flights, but not so much for premium class travel as the in-flight experience and food are far better than the ground selection.

Next: Cathay Pacific biz HKG-TPE
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