Friday, October 2, 2015

A Trip Report: All Nippon Airways (ANA), Houston to Singapore via Tokyo (August 2015)

Trip Report: All Nippon Airways (ANA) 
Houston to Singapore via Tokyo
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

According to the Hudson Group, international travel has increased from 2014 to 2015 with now 67% of travelers taking an international leisure trip.  49% of travelers will spend more to travel to a dream destination (see graphic below).  This increase in travel is being reflected at Houston Intercontinental Airport (IAH), which has seen an upswing in terms of the number of international carriers that have started service from the airport.  In the last 5 years, two of the three Gulf Airlines – Emirates and Qatar – have started service from IAH while Air New Zealand recently announced direct service from Houston to Auckland.  Asian carriers have also been adding or increasing their service from Houston, including both EVA Airways from Taiwan and ANA from Japan.  On June 12, 2015 ANA launched their service from Houston Intercontinental to Tokyo Narita and became the first connection between Japan and Texas (later on, Japan Airlines announced service between Dallas and Tokyo Narita).  

As a Star Alliance partner, ANA’s connection to Houston seems obvious with IAH being the hub for Star Alliance partner United.  Through this connection, ANA can connect to South America and beyond through their partnership and alliance with United (see attached graphic from ANA).  The inbound flight departs Tokyo at 11:15am and arrives Houston at 9:30am, while the outbound flight departs Houston at 11:20am and arrives Tokyo at 3:20pm (the next day).  The flight time is very convenient to make connections on both sides.  The flight time on the inbound is about 11.5 hours while the outbound is 13 hours (favorable tailwinds on the inbound decrease the flight time). 

To promote the launch of the route, ANA held a sale of their flights out of Houston to select destinations.  Online, I was able to book a flight from Houston to Singapore via Tokyo.  While Tokyo layovers are not included, you can schedule you flights for a Tokyo layover for an added cost.  Booking the flight online was very easy and efficient as you can book your flight, select seat assignments, select your meal, and even see what movies will be playing while on board.  While the website was efficient, what was not efficient and took a long time was trying to speak to someone on the phone.  I had a question regarding m ticket so I called the 1800 number and I was on hold for over 1.5 hours just to speak to someone; it was an extremely long and inefficient process.  I also tried to contact ANA using social media, specifically Twitter, as I have had success using this method in the past with other airlines and hotels.  Unfortunately, this process did not work with ANA as I did not receive a response from them.  I had heard great things about ANA’s customer service but my experience in trying to contact ANA made me worry a bit about what to expect on board. 

24-hours prior to our departure, I was able to check-in online and confirm my seat assignment.  I received my second boarding pass but needed to go to the counter to receive my first boarding pass.  I arrived at IAH airport at 9:30am for the 11:15am flight and there was no one in line at the counter so getting my boarding pass and checking in bags was very quick.  ANA allows 2 checked-in bags of 23 kg each as well as a hand carry.  We received our boarding pass, went through security and proceeded to our gate.  Our gate was in the D terminal and there is not a lot to do in terms of eating, drinking, or shopping.  Luckily D terminal is connected to C and E terminals and they have more options available.   Boarding time and departure time were pushed back due to late arrival of aircraft – another thing that surprised me given the reputation of the airline for punctuality.  Boarding commenced and we boarded the plane. 

ANA uses a Boeing 777-300ER for their flight and features a four class configuration with 8 First Class open suites, 52 flat bed Business Class seats, 24 Premium Economy Class seats, and 180 standard Economy seats.   The premium economy and economy class are laid out in a 2-4-2 layout and the seats have a shell design – this means that the seats do not recline but rather move forward to provide more room.  Given this design, the seat pitch between the seats is very generous and comfortable – I am 6’1 and I had plenty of legroom to sit and stretch out.  While there is a lot of legroom, seats are not wide but are decent airplane standard.  For the 4 seats, the airline has put together two two-seaters so the 4 seats are not tightly packed and have room in between the seats. 

Each seat contained a complimentary pillow, blanket, and headsets.  No amenity kits are provided (some aspects, including toothbrushes can be requested but these are only distributed on a limited-basis).  The seats themselves were comfortable enough with a decent amount of cushion – I have been on airlines with more cushion and airlines with less cushion, this was a decent amount.  The seat had an adjustable headrest as well as a footstool.  In front, there was a personal TV screen which could be controlled through either touch screen or remote.  Underneath the TV was a USB plug and port and below that was the cup holder and tray.  Given the narrowness of the seat, the tray table was also narrower than what I have seen on other airlines but sufficient enough to hold what needed to be held.  The PTV was an older model and was not the ipad or tablet looking screen and thus was a bit smaller in size and technical capability.  In terms of selection, there was a good amount of movies available, especially new releases.  There were not a lot of TV shows, and the shows that were present only had an episode or two.  While better than some and not as good as others, there was enough selection to keep you entertained for entire flight time.  The good thing about the PTV is that it was available as soon as the door closed, while on the ground, so you can start accessing the entertainment as soon as possible.

After about an hour into flight, the in-flight service started with drinks and snacks.  The snack was rice crackers, and these were available throughout the flight.  After drinks, the meal service started.  If you had ordered a special meal, those were delivered first.  In terms of the regular meal, ANA provides two options: a Japanese option or a Western option.  The meal descriptions are available on the PTV from the beginning of the flight and the flight attendants pass around picture menu of the options to provide you with more information.  I had ordered a special meal, and this meal was confirmed at check-in, once boarded, and again when the meal was presented.  Overall, the food was average.  It wasn’t the best tasting or plentiful airline food I have tasted, but I have tasted worse so overall the food had decent flavors and a decent portion size.  After the lunch service concluded, the window shades were lowered so people could relax and rest.  If passengers got hungry or thirsty, there were light snacks and drinks available in the galleys.  The light snacks included mini chocolates, bananas, and rice crackers.  In the middle of the flight, a light snack was given (a sandwich) and then prior to landing breakfast was served.  

We landed in Tokyo, and after a 3-hour layover, boarded our next flight.  Our next flight was a 7-hour flight from Tokyo-Narita to Singapore on board ANA's 787 Dreamliner.  Experiencing both the 777 and the 787, I noticed some major differences between the two.  One differene was the seat pitch, which was narrower on the 787.  On the 777, I had plenty of legroom to stretch out and my knees never hit the seat in front of me.  On the 787, there was limited room to stretch out and my knees hit the seat in front of me.  While this was definitely a negative, there were some positives flying aboard the 787.  The 787 was definitely a more modern plane and thus it had more modern amenities, including a tablet-like PTV.  The PTV also included newer movies that were not available on the 777 - all the new movies that were available on the 787 later migrated on the 777,  As both planes had mood lighting and decent service, these were the only differences I saw in flying on both planes.    

For our return trip, we had a similar experience with flying the 787 from Singapore to Tokyo (this time Haneda) and then the 777 from Tokyo to Houston.  Since we had to switch planes in Tokyo, I decided to take the opportunity to explore the city.  ANA does not have a “See Tokyo” or “free layover” package so I just booked a multi-city ticket with a stopover in Tokyo.  It costs a bit more but it was worth it to get to experience Tokyo.

Overall, flying aboard ANA was a nice and pleasant experience.  The airline provided a good service and good plane, with plenty of legroom, nice service, and decent food.  Would I fly ANA again?  I think the mark of a great airline is when you have options; you go out of your way to fly them again whereas a good airline is one that is not your first choice but a good choice.  In my opinion, ANA is a good airline; it is an airline that provides a good service in a nice plane but I would not go out of my way to fly the airline.  In comparing ANA to some of its regional and global competitors, I believe it holds its own but still has room for growth.  

created by leading travel retailer Hudson Group (Hudson News, Hudson Booksellers, Hudson stores)

ANA Business Class Amenity Kit

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Stay Report: InterContinental Bangkok (September 2015)

Stay Report: InterContinental Bangkok
for pictures and additional comments on this hotel, visit my tripadvisor page

When looking for a hotel in Bangkok, there are many great options to choose from.  I choose the InterContinental Hotel for its location as the hotel is centrally located within downtown Bangkok, and has easy access to malls, restaurants, and transportation.

Complimentary transportation to and from the airport is not provided, so you can either take the train, taxi, or car; the hotel has connections to all three.  The hotel is connected to a walkway which connects the train station to the various restaurants and shops within the downtown district.  Along this walkway are signs that lead you to the InterContinental exit, and from that exit you walk down the stairs to the entrance to the hotel.  From this entrance, there is a small shop and then you walk up to the stairs to the grand lobby of the hotel.  The lobby of the hotel contains the check-in desks in front and elevators to the right.  The left is a sitting area plus the large breakfast area.  There are also some small stairs which lead you down to the bar and lounge area.  Overall the lobby is very open and grand.  I headed to the check-in desks where check-in was quick and efficient and I the key to my room.  

The room was located on the 17th floor and the room was very nice and spacious.  Upon entering the room, on the left had side was the closet while on the right was the bathroom.  As with the room, the bathroom was also spacious and contained both a shower and a tub as well as a sink.  There were lots of bathroom toiletries provided by Agraria, a line I am not a fan of.  That was a small negative about the bathroom, while another negative was that the bathroom was made out of marble so there was a lot of noise echo.  

As you proceeded further into the room, on the left hand side was the TV stand and a long shelf along the wall which led to the desk, which was located next to the window.  While the window was nice, it wasn’t a great view of the city but at least the window let in natural light.  Underneath the TV were drawers, some of which were filled with the minibar and coffee information, while others were empty.  Across from the TV, on the other side of the room, were the two beds.  The beds were very large and very comfortable, and there were night stands on either side of the beds.  The only negative about the room was that, despite the spacious room, there wasn’t a lot of space between the beds.  In my opinion, there could have been more space given between the beds. 
InterContinental hotels are full-service so they have many amenities.  Wifi at the hotel was complimentary and was decent speed.  There was a rooftop pool, with a bar, that was a good size and had amazing views of the city.  There was also a fitness center near the pool deck which was very large and had a good selection of fitness equipment.  The service next to the pool was also extremely good. 

Generally the service at the hotel was fantastic, and this is what made the hotel really stand out.  One example of great service is the complimentary fruit plate which was left in our room every day.  Also, the concierge service was also really good.  We used the concierge a couple of times, and the service was fantastic and offered great information and contact.  A good concierge is a great asset and can be really helpful, especially in a country where you may not know the language.

Another great aspect of the hotel was the breakfast selection.  Breakfast was complimentary and the buffet offered was vast.  The hotel had guests from all over the world, so the breakfast buffet was trying to accommodate different preferences so there were Chinese, American, Middle Eastern, and Thai options available.  It provided a lot of options for breakfast and was really delicious.   

Overall, I had one of the best stays at a hotel at the InterContinental Bangkok.  The hotel provided a big and comfortable room, with excellent service, and in a central location with walking access to many shops, restaurants, and transportation.  I would definitely recommend this hotel as a great place to stay in Bangkok.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Trip Report: Frontier Airlines, Atlanta to New Orleans (July 2015)

A Trip Report: Flying Frontier Airlines (July 2015)

I was looking to fly from Atlanta to New Orleans and originally had looked at Delta and Southwest, as those were the carriers I knew that flew that route.  The average price on both carriers for a one-way flight ranged from $160-$200.  I then went to online travel sites and did a search and that is when I discovered that Frontier Airlines also flies the route – at a much lower cost.  Even booking two days before,  a one-way flight on a Sunday costs $99 (including taxes) which is extremely inexpensive, so I investigated why it was so inexpensive – Frontier is an ultra LCC.  This is flying on the new Frontier

I had previously flown Frontier about 10 years ago through their Denver hub and that is when they were more of a standard carrier; flying on them now, things are a little different as an ultra LCC.  In this model, everything is considered extra and has a charge associated with it.  A carry-on that will fit in the overhead compartment – a charge; a checked-bag – a charge; choosing your own seat – a charge; drinks and food on board – a charge.  The only items that are not charged are a carryon bag that can fit underneath the seat, and a glass of water on board.  While all the ‘extra charges’ may be obnoxious to some, to others it may be the best deal because you only pay for what you need.  For me, it was a good deal given my travel time and needs.

I was flying one-way from Atlanta to New Orleans and was looking for a decent airline that provided a decent service at a reasonable price.   When I looked online, the fare for Frontier was $99 (including taxes). If I wanted to choose a seat, that would cost $5 extra ($10 if I did it at check-in).  I could also choose a seat with extra legroom, and that would cost $12 extra ($20 if I did it at check-in).  If I wanted to bring a bigger carryon and stow it in the overhead, that was a charge of $35 (more if I did at check-in, even more if it was gate-checked).  If I wanted to check a bag, that was a charge of $20 (more if I did at check-in, even more if I did it at the counter).  This is something which surprised me – the checked bag was $15 less than the charge for the carryon.  I guess this means less carryon luggage so faster boarding – just seemed interesting to me.   If I wanted to add all of these items into the price, then the Frontier fare would be comparable to what the other carriers would be charging; however, I did not need any of that stuff so I did not choose that option and my fare was $99.  I booked my ticket and received my confirmation.

24-hours prior to boarding I received an email reminding me to check-in.  Frontier strongly encourages online check-in and printing boarding passes at home – with no check-in luggage and only carryon, printing everything at home meant going directly to security.   I did not pay for a seat when I booked my ticket, nor did I pay for a seat when I checked-in so after check-in and when the boarding pass was ready, that is when I found out my seat number.  Frontier flies all Airbus planes and usually in a 3-3 layout, so if you do not pay for the seat and play the lottery you could end up with a window, middle or aisle.  I was lucky and got an aisle, but it was all the way in the back of the plane.  For some of my family, who prefer an aisle and want to sit closer to the plane we paid the $5 to reserve the seat.  Also, if you do not want to be separated from your group you need to pay.

Boarding pass in hand and with only a carryon (a laptop bag) I went past the airline counters and went directly to security.  This is the only negative I see with Frontier – they do NOT participate in TSA pre-check so if you are part of that (or of Global Entry) then you cannot avail yourself of this option while flying Frontier. TSA pre-check saves so much time so I am not sure why they do not partake, since it would be a benefit to their customers who choose to pay for it.  Since they do not participate in TSA precheck, you have to wait in the long security lines (and they are long at ATL).  The departure time was scheduled for 7:05pm but that is not what is printed on the boarding pass – what is printed are the timings the boarding starts and the time the door closes (which is 15 minutes prior to departure).  This is to ensure an on-time or early departure. 

This new process seemed to have worked as we boarded early, and we were able to push back from the gate early.  In regards to the on-board service, Frontier has talked about ‘reinventing the on-board experience’ which meant slim-line seats, less cushion, already pre-reclined seats that could not be adjusted, less leg room, and other cost-cutting measures.  I am not sure how far into the implementation of this ‘reinvention’ they are in because the plane we flew did not have the new seats.  Rather, this plane had the older green, leather seats which are wide, can be reclined, have some padding, and have a lot of legroom (I am 6ft and I had enough legroom so where my knees were NOT hitting the seat in front of me – whereas on other carriers my knees have been squashed by the seat in front of me).   The older seat was comfortable and decent for the duration of the flight. 
The older plane also had the personal IFE which can provide live DirectTV for a fee.  From my understanding Frontier is discontinuing this service in the ‘reinvention’.  The fee to access the TV is $5 and you can swipe your card to access the TV – the flight path map can be viewed for free.  The screens are fine for a longer-haul journey, but they are small (tiny in fact) and the controls for the system are on the armrest so you can accidentally hit the controls when you are resting your arm (which I did many times).

What was part of the ‘new’ Frontier was the service on board – as it’s a paid service so if you would like food or drink, you have to pay.  The prices vary from $1.99 for a soft drink to higher for other drinks and snacks.  They will provide a glass of water for free.   I had brought my own drink and food at the airport so I did not buy anything on board – this is the biggest instance where some are complaining about Frontier.  I have been on longer flights – about 2.5 hours – on mainline carriers where for that long duration you only get one free drink and that is it, and for that they charge a lot.  I do not mind brining my own drink if I am getting a lower fare – and that is what Frontier offers.

Overall, given the short duration and the low fare it was a really good flight that left on time and arrived early!  Given Frontier is moving to the ultra LCC model, I was expecting a lot worse so maybe that is why my expectations were exceeded.  If you know what to expect, then you can get a decent flight on a very inexpensive fare.   

Based on this experience, would I book Frontier again?  If the fare was low and my travel needs were the same then definitely yes.  The $99 fare was extremely low given that Southwest and Delta were charging between $160-$260 for the same route and time.  Given that and given the travel time and my travel needs, Frontier was the best option.  My family has booked future flights on the same route, and sometimes we have booked Frontier while other times we have booked Southwest.  Sometimes Frontier provided the best fare while other times their fare was comparable to Southwest, but Southwest provided additional services (free luggage and free changing of travel plans) which Frontier does not so based on those extra and our travel needs, we made the decision.  Hope this review helps you in your decision making. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

A Trip Report: Turkish Airlines, Houston to Zurich via Istanbul (May 2015)

                    A Trip Report: Turkish Airlines (May 2015)
                              comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

In the last couple of years, Turkish Airlines has been winning a lot of awards for their service and product.  They seem to be doing this while still providing a competitive rate, so I was curious to experience the service myself.  After flying both Business as well as Economy class, I am not sure why the airline won all the awards -- while the product is decent and I have definitely experienced worst, I have also experienced better.

I was flying from the U.S. to Switzerland and Turkish Airlines was providing a very good deal from Houston to Zurich via Istanbul.  For another family member, we had previously booked a Turkish Airlines flight through a travel agent and it was difficult to manage the booking on the Turkish Airlines website, so this time we decided to book directly through Turkish Airlines website.  The website does provide good deals and options pre-booking and during booking, but it is not good post booking or managing the booking.  Seat assignments, for example must be confirmed by calling the airline - however if you book too far in advance than the airplane has not been confirmed for your flight so you are not able to book your seat.  There were other instances like this which does not make the site very user-friendly (as opposed to Qatar and other airlines which are more user-friendly).  

Another thing that you cannot do from this site - and I found this with other Star Alliance partners such as Ethiopian - is that they do not provide connections with Star Alliance partners such as United.  If wanted to book a United flight connecting to a Turkish flight, I am not able to do that on Turkish.  I would either have to book separate tickets or use a third party (the same thing for Ethiopian flights).  If you are in an Alliance, shouldn't you be able to book one ticket on multiple partners?  Oneworld and Skyteam do not seem to have this issue as you can book multiple partners through each site.

I got to experience both Business as well as Economy class on Turkish.  My original ticket was in Economy class but you are able to upgrade to Business Class at the counter, if space is available.  NOTE: if you are travelling on more than one sector, the upgrade is only valid on the first sector.  We were travelling from Houston to Istanbul and then from Istanbul to Zurich so the upgrade was only applicable from Houston to Istanbul.  In Houston, Turkish partners with Star Alliance member so you have access to the United Club; in Istanbul we would be back to economy so would not have access to the lounge.  Given all this, is it worth to upgrade?  That really depends on what you value.

We were flying on a Boeing 777 and the Business class is laid out in a 2-2-2 section.  The positive is that the seats do turn into completely lie-flat beds and there is a massage button to help ease the long flight.  They also do feed you a lot in Business class, with many courses and their advertised ‘Chef on Board’.  The food was good, not great, but good and they did provide a lot of it.  One thing to note was that the flight attendants never explained what any of the dishes were and, when asked, could not provide the answer as to what was being served.  Every time I asked for an explanation of the dish they had to run back to the galley to get the answer.   That was a negative in my opinion.  Other negatives were that the service in Business wasn't that good, there is very little privacy between you and your seatmate, and the beds are not that comfortable.  Additionally, the amenity kit in Business is the same one that was received in Economy.  Finally, the IFE is wider in Business class but they have less selection (overall the selection wasn’t that good, but it was worse in Business Class).  Given we were fed well and were able to rest, we did not feel as tired when we landed in Istanbul at 12 hours so in that aspect it was worth it, but given the lack of service and the other negatives we decided not to upgrade on the return flight (more about that later).

Just a note about the Club at IAH: Turkish does not have its own club so it partners with fellow Star Alliance member United and uses the United Club. The United Club is nice but the Club it is nowhere near the Turkish gate.  Turkish departs out of D gates and the closest Club location is in E gates – about a 15 minute fast walk or a 20 minute slow walk.  As it is a United Club, there are no announcements of the Turkish flight so you have to guess and estimate the time. 

We transferred in Istanbul to our flight to Zurich.  Istanbul airport is nice, but very crowded and very long – there are long walks between gates and when transferring from one gate to another.  Additionally you have to go through security even when transferring as well as go through a boarding pass check.  Given the immense crowds, seating space is a commodity especially since the gates are only announced about an 1.5 hour prior to the flight. 

The flight from Istanbul to Zurich was on an Airbus A320 with a 3-3 seat layout.  The seat pitch on the flight was very generous providing plenty of legroom.  There were no personal IFE and only the flight route was shown on the overhead screens.  The service on the plane was decent with a meal and drinks being provided; however given the 3.5 hour flight time some sort of entertainment - either personal or on the screen above) would have been better.

The return flight from Zurich to Istanbul was on the same type of aircraft and the service was the same (which was decent).  Transferring in Istanbul was a bit chaotic, especially for the flights to the U.S.  The plane was not parked at the gate so we had to take a bus to the plane.  It was a full flight with over 300+ passengers but the waiting area was so small and compact, with only 6 chairs and no food/beverage services.  Prior to the waiting area, you had to go through 3 security checkpoints so it was becoming very crowded, very quickly.  Given the crowded situation, Turkish opened the gate early and we were allowed to board earlier than scheduled.

The flight from Istanbul to Houston was operated by a Boeing 777 and this time we were in economy.  The seat pitch was extremely tight – there was barely any room to sit no matter what your height was.  The seats were also uncomfortable and so it made for a very uncomfortable 12+ hour flight.  The service included a meal upon takeoff, tea, distribution of amenity kit (which was the exact same one we received in Business Class on the departure trip) as well as a meal upon landing.  In addition, there were snacks and drinks available in the galley.  The service was decent, the only problem I had was that 30 minutes after take-off three bathrooms on one side of the plane ran out of soap.  I am not sure whether soap was not filled initially or too many people used it, but instead of refilling the soap or apologizing for that, the attendants’ response was ‘just use another one’.  It was this lackluster response that was indicative of their service throughout all the flights we took, and it was this lackluster response which did not make the flight enjoyable.  The seats did have a person IFE as well as USB port to charge your electronics.  The IFE in economy had a better selection of movies than business class, but the selection was not as up to date nor as vast as other airlines (including the US, Emirates, etc.).   The movie selection was enough to pass 12 hours but not enough to come back to the airline.

In the end, I neither had a positive nor negative experience on Turkish.  Everything was basic but there was not enough to make me want to repeat my travel with Turkish, and that is the sad point.  I have had experiences on other airlines that were decent but one thing stood out – either the service or the planes or the efficiency – which made me want to try them again, or not.  This was not the case with Turkish.  They keep stating they are winning all these awards, and after flying with them, I am trying to figure out why

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Trip Report: Swiss International Airlines, Geneva to Zurich (May 2015)

    A Trip Report: Swiss International Airlines (May 2015)
                         comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

Travelling around Switzerland is very easy and convenient given how well connected and smooth the trains, trams, and other public transportation run.  Given this convenience, it is difficult to see why a passenger would fly across Switzerland, until they experience Swiss International Airlines’ great service and free chocolates!
We were visiting Switzerland and had traveled from Zurich to Geneva via train.  This journey took 2.5 hours and it was very convenient to go from the downtown Zurich to downtown Geneva.   On the return, we decided to fly and we choose this option for a couple of reasons: 1) We wanted to try out Swiss as we had heard good things about the airline; 2) the price for the ticket was relatively comparable and included luggage; and 3) we were arriving late night and then heading out via plane early the next morning so going via train would have cost an extra journey.  Overall, the return journey only took about 30 minutes of actual flight time. 

I had booked my trip through an online site as purchasing directly through Swiss – for an internal flight – would have incurred a currency conversion fee whereas the online site was booked in my home currency.  The flight price included luggage – a bag of 23kg – but did not include seat assignments as pre-selected seat assignments came with a cost.  Not-preselecting seats is a gamble as sometimes the plane is empty or you are assigned the exit seat, while other times the plane is completely full and the only remaining seats are the ones in the middle in the back of the plane.

24-hours prior to my departure I was able to check-in online and receive my seat assignment.  Online there were plenty of seats to choose from as the flight did not look that full so we were able to select the seats we wanted (at no cost).  When we arrived at the Geneva airport, we presented our already printed boarding passes and passport to the desk and everything was done in less than 5 minutes.  As we had planned for a longer time, we had more time to explore Geneva Airport.

The airport is divided into pre-security and post-security.  There is free wifi (as is the case around the country, you receive the wifi code via SMS/text message so you need a text enabled phone to receive the code) and the wifi was pretty good.  There is no map of the airport but talking to the airport personnel, they informed me that there were more options pre-security than post.   Pre-security has a coffee shop (with sandwiches and pastries); a bookstore; a make your own salad; some shops; as well as a an area with about 4 restaurants and plenty of spaces to sit.  There is even a place to sit outside and see views of the runway.  The restaurants available provide a varied selection from fast food to sit down and near the seating they have screens with up-to-date flight information. 

Going through the security was also quick and took less than 15 minutes.  Post-security are the duty free shops, a coffee shop, a chocolate shop, sandwich shops, as well as bookstores and other standard airport stores.  While the availability is there, there was definitely more variety pre-security.  The airport has large windows that face the taxi and runway so you do a lot of plane-spotting.  You cannot take pictures as the windows have tiny dots on them that inhibit picture taking.

Our flight was in the evening and promptly on time we boarded.  Boarding was completed relatively easily as there only 30 passengers total (so each passenger had a row to themselves).   The seats of the Airbus plane were comfortable leather seats and the legroom was decent for a small flight – the legroom would be tight for a long-haul flight but decent for a short-haul flight.   As soon as we reached cruising altitude, we were served a bottle of water (standard size, which was nice) as well as swiss chocolates.  Originally two were given per passengers but if more were requested you could take as much as you want.  Both the chocolates and free water were a welcome addition, on any flight but especially on such a short flight.  The plane did not have individual IFE’s but rather had overhead screens which showed the progression of the flight.  We landed in Zurich on time and proceeded to receive our luggage, which also came rather quickly. 

If I was to compare the rail versus plane journey, they both took about the same amount of time if you factor in security and other time for the airport.  Another thing to consider that if you purchased the Swiss pass (which includes rail journeys), and still had some journeys remaining then the plane was an additional cost.  Both provided a comfortable seat and a pleasant journey so which one is better – it really depends on your destination and where you would like to final destination to be.  If you want to be closer to downtown without having the extra train connection between the airport and the city, then I would suggest the train.  If you want to be closer to the airport without having to transfer at the main rail station, then I would suggest the plane.  We wanted to be closer to the airport (as we had an early morning flight the next day) and did not want to transfer so for us the plane ride was nice and pleasant.  Definitely worth a trip on Swiss!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Trip Report: Copa Airlines, Orlando to Panama (January 2015)

A Trip Report: Copa Airlines (January 2015)
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

I have flown Copa Airlines twice – once in 2010 and again more recently in December 2014.  In between there have been some differences between the flights but the basic concept remains: Copa charges a lot less than its competitors so for a lower price you get a lower quality product. The question is – is the lower quality product worth it, especially on long-haul vs short-haul?  Hopefully my review will help you with that.

The two times I booked my flights it was never through the Copa website; it was always through a third-party website (orbitz or expedia).  That is because either their website never worked all the time, sometimes I would get ‘system down’ messages, while other times the airline did not match with their alliance partners on their website.  After I had booked my travel on another site, I always went to Copa to ensure my information was correct and there I could change my seats and add my FF#’s but again sometimes the site worked and sometimes it did not.

The first time I flew Copa was in December 2010 from Washington, D.C. to Buenos Aires via Panama City and all segments were flown by Copa.  The first segment, from IAD to PTY, was a 5-hour flight on an older Boeing 737 (looked like a Continental Airlines hand-me-down).  A meal was served but there was no in-flight entertainment so while it was a not a great flight, it was decent for a short-haul.  The second flight was a much longer 8-hour flight from PTY to EZE flown again on an older plane that did not have a lot of leg room, a meal served, and no in-flight entertainment.  I was not overly impressed with the planes, the seat quality (which were poor), the meal quality, nor with the in-flight service.  Nothing was bad, but nothing was good either but could I really complain?  Copa beat out their competitors in terms of price by at least $200 so for a lower price how much can you expect?!  A decent plane with decent service and a low price is what Copa offered and delivered on that.  The only bad thing was that I could not earn any FF miles – Copa was a mileage earner with Continental and at that time Continental was part of SkyTeam but Copa itself was not part of SkyTeam so you could not earn miles on any SkyTeam member.

Things were a bit the same but a little different when I flew Copa again in December 2014 from Houston to Panama City via Orlando.  Copa does not fly directly to Houston, which to me is strange because they have a large Latin-American population, but I guess the Houston to PTY route was reserved for Continental and now for United.  The route that was most cost-efficient, again by at least $150 compared to their competitors, was IAH to MCO via United connecting to Copa to fly MCO to PTY.  As Copa is now a member of Star Alliance, they can partner with Star Alliance members for easy connections as well as mileage accrual. 

From IAH to MCO, I flew on a new United Boeing 737 with updated seats and interior lighting; there were no IFE’s but the plane was decent.  From MCO to PTY, I flew on a new Copa Boeing 737 that had new seats, interior Boeing lighting, as well as personal IFE (free to use).  The odd thing was the United and Copa plane were the exact same plane with the only difference that Copa had installed IFE’s (they are in the process of installing them so some planes have them and some do not).  This 3-hour Copa flight was a lot better than the flight I took in 2010 mainly because of the seat quality – the new seats were more comfortable and definitely more bearable to sit on.  The addition of the IFE was a nice touch – the IFE was not very extensive but was sufficient for a 3-5 hour flight as it had about 10 TV show episodes as well as about 4 movies (updated movies as well).  The airline passed out free headphones to all passengers so that they could use the IFE.  The also had a USB port to help with charging electronic devices.  A light meal service was provided and again the in-flight service was decent with a definite improvement in the quality of service from 4 years prior.

The return was the complete opposite as from PTY to MCO it was an older Copa plane that did not have any IFE or other entertainment in the plane.  A light meal was served and service was decent once in the air (we sat in the plane on the ground for about 2 hours before we took off; the captain made the announcement only after an hour of waiting).  Even though it was an older plane, the seats were comfortable enough for the 3 hour flight.  From MCO to IAH, I flew on an updated United plane with updated seats and IFE (that you had to pay for).  The seat pitch was rather tight so the 1hr 40min flight felt longer (and the service was on the lower side of average with the flight attendants barely caring). 

Overall, there is a definite marked improvement of Copa Airlines from 2010 to 2014.  The product is being updated and, more importantly, the service is being updated to a better quality.  The hub of Copa is Tocumen International Airport which is located about 30 minutes outside of the city center – and this has also had an upgrade within the last 4 years with better services for the passengers (more improvements are still needed).  The improvements are welcomed but overall the planes, the seat comfort, and the service are great for short-haul but I am not sure they are good or comfortable for anything long-haul.  With Copa, you get a basic service for a basic price.