Monday, September 19, 2016

A Trip Report: United Airlines, Domestic (Aug/Sep 2016)

A Trip Report: United Airlines, Domestic (Aug/Sep 2016)
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

It has been a while since I have flown a ‘mainline’ U.S. carrier and the reason is that in previous years both their service and products not good.  The carriers had not upgraded their products, and their customer service was not service at all.  The carriers realized they needed to focus on their products, and so in recent years the big 3 – United, Delta, and American Airlines – have been focusing on providing better service by upgrading their on-board products and their service.  Delta has been focusing on Delta +, American has been adding new planes and new service, and United released Polaris.  Given these upgrades, I decided to try out United upgraded economy product from New Orleans to Houston. 

In previous cases, I have booked my international ticket from Houston and have booked a separate domestic ticket – and usually I have booked Southwest for my flights from Houston to New Orleans.  I usually choose Southwest over United for a couple of reasons – more economical fares, better consistency in terms of service and product available, and two free bags of checked luggage.  This time I decided to fly on United for a couple of reasons.  The first reason is stated above – they had been advertising a new product and enhanced service so I wanted to try that one.  The second reason is that I was connecting to an international flight and it is always better to have all the flights on one ticket – for baggage and flight connectivity.  The third reason is that Southwest flies in and out of Hobby Airport, while United and international flights go out of Intercontinental and to get from one airport to the other costs about $30-45 one way and takes about an 30-45minutes (without traffic) so it takes a lot of planning and luck to ensure you make your connecting flight. 

United has many flights throughout the day from New Orleans to Houston.  Some of the flights are operated by Airbus or Boeing jets, while others are operated by regional jets.  My first flight was in the afternoon and was scheduled to depart New Orleans at 12:35p and arrive into Houston at 1:48pm. This flight was operated by a Boeing 737-800.  United does not charge for seat allocation, so you can choose your own seat; however, they do charge to upgrade to Economy Plus which allows you earlier boarding and more legroom.  I had chosen an aisle seat in Main Economy.  Boarding started a bit later than usual, but the taxi time in New Orleans is very short so the plane took off generally on time.

The layout of the 737-800 is 3-3 and the seat pitch is average.  The flight times is 45 minutes, and for that flight time both the seat comfort and seat pitch were fine.  This plane had come from Chicago to New Orleans, which is a 2hr 20 min flight, and I am not sure the seat pitch and comfortable would have been good for that long flight time.  The seat is a basic seat as there are no USB ports nor PTV’s available.  In the seat back pocket is the airline magazine, the safety card, and a brochure on how to access the wifi and the free entertainment.   United does provide limited free entertainment through the United app, and again for the short domestic flights the limited choices of TV programs are fine.  You can purchase additional options, including movies, at a cost.  Once we reached cruising altitude, the attendants came by to offer drinks and pretzels.  By the time the attendants had concluded their drink service, it was time to collect the trash as we were descending into Houston. 

For my return, I had booked a late afternoon flight which departed Houston at 5pm and was operated by an Airbus 319.  I had cleared customs and immigration and so went to the United counter to see if I could get on an earlier flight; that is one of the plus points of having so many frequencies during the day is that you have a lot of options and can sometimes get on an earlier flight (depending on availability).  I was able to get on an earlier flight that departed Houston at 3:50pm and scheduled to arrive New Orleans at 5:03pm.  This flight was operated by an Embraer RJ-175, and when I had previously been on Regional Jets they were usually small, cramped, and a bit uncomfortable.  When we boarded this flight, the aircraft looked new, the seats were comfortable, and the legroom was pretty decent.  The attendant had announced that this was a new aircraft and was part of United’s ‘fleet renewal’ in which they were updating and modernizing their fleet; this included new regional jets which were roomier and more modern than previous versions. 

The service on this flight was similar to the outbound flight – wifi was available (for a fee) or free entertainment was available through the United app; drinks and pretzels were available after take-off; and overall it was a nice, short flight.  Overall, I was impressed with the new United.  They have invested a lot in their product and it shows, from the updated planes to the updated on-board service.  Given this, I would not hesitate to take United either short-haul or medium-haul domestic.   

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Trip Report: Lufthansa (Deutsche Lufthansa AG), Aug/Sept 2016

A Trip Report: Lufthansa (Deutsche Lufthansa AG)
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

I was traveling from New Orleans to South Africa, and through a travel website, I was able to book travel on Star Alliance partners from New Orleans to Houston, Houston to Frankfurt, and Frankfurt to South Africa.  The Houston to Frankfurt leg was operated by Lufthansa, one of the five founding members of Star Alliance.  I have always wanted to try Lufthansa but I was never able to due to cost or scheduling.  Recently, Lufthansa has been increasing their American presence by adding additional routes and frequencies to existing routes.  They have also been advertising a lot of sale fares, and both of these combined allowed me to try Lufthansa from Houston to Frankfurt.

Lufthansa, known formally as Deutsche Lufthansa AG, is the largest German airline and one of the largest airlines in Europe (when combined with its many partners and subsidiaries).  The sector I was flying, from Houston to Frankfurt, is operated by an Airbus A380.  In addition to economy, Lufthansa also offers Premium Economy on certain sectors and includes access priority boarding, bigger seats, improved meals served on china, bigger PTV screens, and an amenity kit.  I had compared the economy vs premium economy, and while the additional legroom and bigger seats were tempting, it wasn’t tempting enough for me given the price difference so I stayed in economy – you also have the opportunity to upgrade at the airport and again on-board the aircraft, based on availability.  The one-way price to upgrade from Houston to Frankfurt was about $250 at the airport, and the price was higher on-board from Frankfurt to Houston.

As I was combining Star Alliance partners, I had booked my trip through a travel website.  I was able to manage my booking on the Lufthansa website, which was easy to use and navigate.  On the website I was able to select a special meal, see the upcoming IFE, as well as preselect a seat.  Lufthansa does charge to preselect a seat, about $30USD for each sector – Qantas and Singapore charge around $50 while South African charges $17 per sector (they have longer sectors though).  This charge is to preselect any seat, exit row seats are an extra costs.  I had no preselected my seat on the outbound, and was stuck in a middle seat for almost 9 hours so for the return I paid the extra fee to secure an aisle seat.  This was the only additional fee that was incurred, as for flights to and from the U.S. Lufthansa allows for a free carryon plus one free checked bag up to 23kg.
Since I was connecting to my flight, I did not experience the Lufthansa check-in process.  When I had arrived at the gate for my 3:55pm flight, the airplane was already at the gate.  The attendants came about an hour prior to departure, and soon afterwards boarding started.  Boarding was supposed to be by seat number, but it was extremely chaotic and nobody could understand the boarding system.  Lufthansa has different layouts for their A380, and this layout had business class, premium class, and then two sections of economy class on the lower deck; my return flight had a different layout and feel (more on that below).  While the décor and overall feel of the plane felt nice, the plane felt a bit older.  The seat pitch was average, not too tight but not too much legroom either.  The seat width was also average, not too tight but not too much room either and the seat was generally comfortable. 

The seats were already in a somewhat pre-recline so this offered some additional legroom, but this layout did not work when the seat in front of you reclined back, as they reclined almost in your lap.  The recline also limited the use of the tray table plus the PTV, both of which were at the back of the seat.  The PTV was a smaller screen and it looked a bit older, so it was hard to see sometimes, especially when the light hit it or when the seat in front of you was reclined.  The entertainment selection was decent, not brand new but not too old.  They did have a variety of movies and TV shows, and while not expansive as Emirates, it was enough to keep you occupied for the 8+hr flight. 

Each seat contained a blanket and pillow, and in the seat pocket were the airline magazine, the duty free magazine, as well as a pair of headphones.  The most annoying and badly constructed aspect of the design was the location of the control and USB ports.  On the right armrest, where most people would rest their arm or lean throughout the flights, that is where the entertainment controls are.  You can control the entertainment either through touchscreen, and it was pretty responsive, or through the controls – the only problem is that if you seatmate leaned on the controls then the screen would respond to that.  It was especially a pain when the seatmate was sleeping and leaning on your armrest and you wanted to change something, or turn on the light.  The USB ports was located underneath the control – yep to access the USB ports to you had to lift up the armrest, plug in your USB, and then put the arm rest down.  It was very inconvenient, and again a pain when your seatmate was sleeping and leaning on the armrest.  I am not sure who approved this design, but it is definitely a flaw!

Service on-board the outbound flight was very minimal – about an hour after departure drinks and crackers were distributed followed by dinner.  I had ordered a special meal, and those were delivered first followed by the regular meal which was an option of either chicken or beef.   After the meal, additional drinks plus coffee and tea were served.  After the meal trays were cleared, the lights were dimmed so people could rest.  Drinks and glasses, as well as some crackers were available in the galleys for passengers, and the attendants came by with water but it was a bit infrequent.  About an hour prior to landing, the lights were turned on and a light breakfast plus coffee/tea were served.  Overall, it was an average flight – the entertainment selection was not expansive but enough to cover the flight time; the seats were decent enough for the flight time, and the service was basic (better than others, not as good as others). 

For the return flight, the A380 was also used but the layout was different.  In this layout, the lower deck had
premium economy section followed by three regular economy sections.  All first and business class sections were on the upper deck. The flight departed at 10am and arrived into Houston at 1:50pm, again with a flight time of 10hr50min.  The feel and look of this A380 was newer, and the seats felt more comfortable.   Similarities to the outbound flight included an average entertainment section, small PTVs, and USB and remote locations which were inconvenient.  The on-board service included lunch after take-off and a dinner before landing.  The service on the return flight was a lot better, as the attendants were constantly in the aisle offering water or checking on passengers.  Also, midway through the flight they came by to offer granola bars snacks.  These snacks, as well as crackers, fruit and drinks, were also available in the galley.  I am not sure if there difference in level of service was based on the crew or the fact that it was a day flight – whatever the reason I appreciated the better attention to service.

We landed on time and taxied to the gate, deplaned, and went through customs and immigration.  The plane itself got ready for its 4pm flight back to Frankfurt.  Overall, it was an average experience flying with Lufthansa.  Some aspects were ok – the A380, the decent entertainment options, availability of USB ports, and decent legroom –while other aspects were bad – location of USB ports, old PTVs, inconsistent service.  In the end, I would fly Lufthansa again but they would not be my first choice.  I had gone out of the way to book this trip to experience Lufthansa, and based on the experience I received I would not go out of the way again – I would only book again if the price and schedule were convenient.    

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Trip Report: South African Airways, International + Domestic

A Trip Report: South African Airways (Aug/Sep 2016)
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

South African Airways (SAA) is the flagship airline of South Africa, but it is known well beyond Africa.  Since 2006, the airline is part of the Star Alliance network and operates direct flights in the U.S. from New York or Washington, D.C. to Johannesburg.  Reading up on SAA’s history, I was intrigued to try them out.  During apartheid, the airline was put on restriction from certain countries but has worked on rebranding its image.  Since that time, SAA has become well-known in the U.S. as one of the only African airlines to fly directly, allowing for easy connections and transportation to and from the countries.  Lately, South African has been in the news for the financial woes but this made me more intrigued to fly the airline.  I was able to fly SAA a part of a Star Alliance connection flight from America to South Africa.  I flew United from New Orleans to Houston, Lufthansa from Houston to Frankfurt, and then was able to pick up SAA to fly from Frankfurt to Johannesburg (the same route happened on the reverse as well).

I had booked the trip through a travel website (since I was connecting on various airlines)
so when I received my SAA confirmation, I went to the website manage my booking.  The website itself is easy to manage, but how you manage your booking depends on your flight booking.  My booking on SAA was done as a Lufthansa code-share, so I was not able to fully manage my booking.  I was able to update my contact information and frequent flyer number; however, I was not able to add a special meal or other such services.  I knew someone who had also booked a flight on SAA to fly from DC to New York to Johannesburg and then direct back to DC, and had booked it through a travel website but their flights were booked as SAA codeshares so she had more options to manage her booking.
While I was unable to preselect a seat on the outbound, my friend had the option to preselect a seat for a fee ($17 each way) or select a seat for free at check-in 24-hours prior to flight time.  For my seat selection, I could choose my seats 24-hours prior to my flight time or a seat would be provided to me at the airport.  No matter which way you booked, or how the flight was coded, it just seemed better to call the reservation line to confirm all the booking details.  I had downloaded the SAA app as well as through that app I was access all the features such as manage booking and flight status.

My flight was scheduled to take off from Frankfurt at 8:45pm and, after at 10h40m flight, was scheduled to land in Johannesburg at 7:25am.  I had received my boarding pass when I check in New Orleans, but I had a long layover in Frankfurt so I had left the airport.  When I returned, I went to the SAA check-in counter to reconfirm my boarding pass, reconfirm my seat, and ensure my luggage had been transferred.  The check-in desks open 3 hours prior to the flight, so after waiting in line for a bit I spoke to someone who confirmed all my details and I went to the boarding area.  For long-haul flights, SAA utilizes the Airbus A340-600.  Our plane had arrived that morning from Johannesburg (review of that flight later on) and was towed to the gate about an hour prior to departure.   Boarding commenced around 8pm, and since the load was light we were on-board fairly quickly.  There was no method to the boarding process, they just opened up the gates and people went through at their leisure. 

The plane itself looked fairly old, from the old PTV screens to the old seat layout.  The seats were in a 2-4-2 layout, and were already pre-reclined.  The seat pitch was also very nice and comfortable, so this plus the pre-recline provided a log of legroom for the seat.  The entire plane was divided into 4 sections, with the first section dedicated to the Business Class and the last three sections dedicated to economy class.  Given the light load, most passengers in the front section had at least 2 seats to themselves.  Each seat
came with its own PTV, which was very small, out of date, and was not very responsive.  The seats did not have any USB ports or other charging mechanisms.  While the seats and legroom were comfortable, the plane was definitely showing its age with the PTV, the AC control, and other airplane features.  While boarding was being completed, the attendant came around and handed out serviettes as well as amenity kits.  The amenity kits contained standard items – socks, eyeshades, and toothbrush – but it was a nice gesture.  Each seat contained a blanket and a pillow, and in the seat pockets were headphones, the airline magazine, plus the duty free magazine. 

About an hour after take-off, the service cart came down the aisle and drinks plus crackers were served.  After drinks, dinner was served.  I had ordered a special meal so those were delivered first, but the options for the main meal were chicken, beef, or vegetarian option.  It was nice that SAA provided so many options to cater to various dietary types.  The vegetarian meal that I had on-board was actually one of the best airline meals ever – it was extremely tasty.  Additional drinks were served along with dinner.  Tea and coffee were served after dinner, and water was given out when the trays were being cleared.  Afterwards, the lights were dimmed so that passengers could get some rest.

For those passengers who were awake, the PTV offered some movie and TV selections.   The choices were limited, the movies were about 1 year old, the screens were sometimes not responsive, and the screen was small; however, at least the option was available.  Water was available in the galleys, but no additional snacks were provided in the flight.  About an hour prior to landing, the lights came on and breakfast was served.  Again, with breakfast drinks were served as well as tea and coffee.  The food for both the dinner and breakfast were decent and substantial enough to fill you up.  We landed generally on time and taxied to the gate. 

My return flight, from Johannesburg to Frankfurt, as well as my friend’s flight from New York to Johannesburg followed the same general pattern.  The aircraft type, the older feel of the plane, the limited movie and TV selection, and the food options were all similar to my flight.  My friend’s return flight from Johannesburg to Washington, D.C., was operated by a newer A340-600.  The newer plane had the same PTVs with a similar limited selection, a tighter seat pitch, USB ports available, and the seats weren’t as comfortable as the older planes.  Overall, flying an older plane with SAA had its benefits and drawbacks.  The benefits were the bigger seat pitch which allowed more legroom, and that is important on a long-haul flight.  The negatives were the older PTVs, the older seats, the lack of USB ports, and the limited entertainment section.

I also had an opportunity to experience SAA domestically, from Johannesburg to Durban. I was originally scheduled to fly Mango Airlines, but I changed to an earlier flight operated by SAA to experience them domestically.  The flight was a short 40-minute flight and was operated by an Airbus A320 with a 3-3 seat layout. This newer plane had pre-reclined seats and had a nice seat pitch.  There were no PTVs or USB ports, but there were overhead screens which showed variety programs and newspapers were available at the check-in counter.  Even though it was a short-flight, drinks and a sandwich/snack were served; I have only seen this type of full service on a short flight on Middle East carriers before.  It was a pleasant short flight.

Based on my two international and one domestic flights, I would fly SAA again for short and medium-haul flights.  The seat comfort, pitch, and on-board service seemed perfect for a short to medium haul flight; however, based on this criteria I am not sure I would choose them for a long-haul flight.  While I enjoy the generous seat pitch, I would prefer USB ports and a better entertainment selection. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

A Trip Report: Flying LCC's in South Africa - Mango Airlines and

Flying LCC's in South Africa:  
Mango Airlines & (Aug/Sep 2016)
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

Fly low cost has it perks and challenges, but low-cost carriers are so wide spread and now cover destinations that the main carriers do not serve (or have leased out this route to their LCC partner).   When flying domestically within South Africa, the majority of the flights were operated by low-cost carriers.  There are two dominant LCCs in South Africa – Mango Airlines and  Mango Airlines is the low cost arm of South African Airways, while is part of ComAir which is a part of British Airways.  We were flying between Johannesburg and Cape Town, and between Johannesburg and Durban and on both sectors the most convenient, and cost effective option, were on low-cost carriers.  I wanted to try both options so we choose the following: Mango for Johannesburg to Cape Town; for Cape Town to Johannesburg; and Mango for Johannesburg to Durban and return.

My experience with LCCs is that it’s better to book earlier in order to get the cheapest fare, as usually prices continue to increase from there.  Because I am based in the U.S., I used a U.S. based travel website to book the flights.  I used this method for 1) to ensure that my credit card was charged in US dollars, thus eliminating any international transaction fee and any currency conversion fee; and 2) booking through this method also allowed me to pair Mango on the outbound and on the return all on one ticket.  I used the same method to book the Johannesburg to Durban flight, even though both sectors by operated by Mango.  I have previously done this when booking international travel, and usually this works out fine in terms of price and convenience – but it did not work this time in terms of price.  In the time between flight booking and flight departure Mango had many sale fares.  The price for my Durban flight dropped at least three times, but because I had booked through a third party I had no recourse in terms accessing the sale fares.  Another issue I came across is that as Mango is a low-cost arm of South African, so the flights can either be booked directly through Mango or as South African Airways operated by Mango Airlines.  My flights were booked as the later, so any changes or modifications that needed to be made were done by South African rather than through Mango. 

Both Mango and Kulula operated a similar low-cost model.  This meant that they both offered lower fares than their competitors, both charged for pre-assigned seats (free seat selection was available at check-in 24-hours prior to your departure), and both offered a basic on-board service with buy on-board options.  They also both operated the same aircraft, Boeing 737-800s.  What was different about these low-cost carriers was that included in your ticket was a small carryon plus 20kg of checked baggage.  Most low-cost carriers usually charge for checked baggage, so the fact that these were included was a nice bonus (and even though my luggage was below the allowance, the attendants were not that strict about the luggage adherence).  Despite the similarities, each airline offered a unique flight experience; some good, some bad.

Our first flight was with Mango Airlines from Johannesburg to Cape Town, with a flight time of 1hr 45mins.  We checked into our flight 24-hrs prior and were able to pre-select our seats at no cost.  There were a lot of choices and we were able to get two aisles in rows 3 and 4.  Even though it was a domestic flight and you only needed to be there 1 hour before departure, we were extra cautious and arrived 2 hours early.  There was no one in the check-in line and we were able to easily and quickly drop our bags off and head through security to our gate.  Boarding started 30 minutes prior to departure, and Mango used both the forward and rear doors to board – those seated in the back boarded through the back door via the stairs while those in the front boarded via the jetbridge.  This allowed for faster boarding ensured all passengers were boarded and ready to go in time for our scheduled departure.

On board, Mango offered a very nice product.  The color scheme made the plane looked new and fresh, and the plane was relatively clean so it provided a good first impression.  The seats were very comfortable – they were slim-line seats but had enough cushion to provide a decent seat for the flight.  The seats were also pre-reclined which allowed for great legroom; in fact the legroom was one of the best I have ever experienced on any airline.  I am tall (6’1) and the leg room was definitely enough for me – I had room to spare even. 

As it is a low-cost carrier, the on-board service was sparse.  Mango operates a buy on-board product, so if you wanted anything from water to food it had to be purchased.  Snacks and drinks were always available, while food availability was dependent on the flight time.   To pass the flight time, the airline did show some variety programs (prank shows) on the overhead screens, had their airline magazine available in the pocket, and offered free newspapers at the check-in counter.  Other than this, it was up to you to provide your own entertainment.  Wifi was available at a charge, but I did not try it out.  Overall, Mango provided a decent low-cost experience.  They offered inexpensive fares and for that low fare you got a decent product with comfortable seats and above average legroom.  It was a pleasant experience on-board Mango. 

On our return trip, we decided to try from Cape Town to Johannesburg.  The flight time was again 1hr 45minutes, and 24-hrs prior we checked in and selected our seats at no-cost.  We arrived at the airport early and again there was no line so it was quick and easy to drop off our bags and head through security.  The scheduled time for boarding and the flight came and went, but we were in line with no announcement from the airline.  There were other flights that were delayed and taking off at the same time, and apparently the airline cannot operate two flights at the same time (or that are how it appeared); because only after sending off that flight did they start the boarding process for our flight.  The airplane was parked at a remote stand, so we boarded the buses at
the time our flight was supposed to take off.   The buses took us to the remote stand where we boarded our flight.  On-board, the plane was dirty and the seats were worn out.  The slim-line seats had little to no padding and made it a very uncomfortable flight.  Even though the seats were pre-reclined, there was no legroom at all in between the seats; my knees were literally hitting the seat in front of me.  It was an extremely uncomfortable and tight seat.  The on-board service was similar to that of Mango’s in that they had a buy on-board product, they showed some variety programs (again, prank shows), you could read the airline’s magazine (if you could find it), or you could get the free newspaper at the check-in counter.  Overall, it was not a pleasant experience with given the uncomfortable and tight seats.  Also, the plane was dirty and the seats looked worn out.

I was able to experience Mango Airlines again from Durban to Johannesburg (I was also supposed to take it from Johannesburg to Durban, but I changed my flight to experience South African Airways domestic product – and the review of that flight can be found under South African Airways).  This flight was only 45 minutes but the experience, and the seat quality and pitch, were the same as my earlier flight on Mango.  Overall, it was a pleasant experience. 

In the end, flying two different LCC's in South Africa was very interesting.  Both carriers are associated with legacy carriers, something that you do not see very often, and both include free checked luggage and free newspapers as part of their offerings.  Despite these similarities, their on-board products are very different.  Flying on-board Mango does not feel like a LCC as they provide comfortable seats and ample legroom, but they only offer buy on-board so this reminds you of their LCC model.  Flying on-board and you feel like you are flying the 'stereo-typical LCC' with cramped and uncomfortable seats.  Both offer low-fares and are mostly serving the domestic South African market, so whichever you take - happy flying :)

Friday, September 9, 2016

A Stay Report: InterContinental Johannesburg Sandton Towers

A Stay Report: 
InterContinental Johannesburg Sandton Towers
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

When I was looking for a hotel in Johannesburg, I was looking for a hotel that was close to public transportation and was within walking distance to services and restaurants.  The InterContinental Sandton Towers, located in the Sandton area, covered all these bases.  It was close to the Sandton Gautrain station - both walking distance and had shuttle access - and it was connected to the Sandton mall with restaurant and other services.  Based on my previous experience with InterContinental in other countries, I decided to book this hotel.   I had booked two stays in the hotel - both stays were for 3 days, but the first stay was done by regular payment while the second was done using points. 

The hotel is located in the Sandton area and is connected to the Sandton Mall and the Sandton Convention Center.   From the airport, you can take the train to the Sandton station and either walk through the mall or request a shuttle to pick you up.  You can also arrange transportation through the hotel for a fee.  Prior to my arrival, I communicated with the hotel regarding airport transfers and communicating with them to arrange transport very easy and convenient.  The first time I arranged transport, the hotel messed up and no arrangements were made.  I then spoke with the Manager so the second time the transportation was there and everything went smoothly.

The hotel is located in a posh area and from the outside looks very nice.  You enter the hotel into a large lobby.  The hotel is laid out in a triangle, with rooms on 3 sides and an open lobby atrium.  While this makes the lobby and the hotel feel bigger, it also allows noise to travel.  On the first floor were the check-in desk, the concierge desk, the porter, and the restaurant/bar.  Even though there were 4 check-in desks, service was not always available.  Overall, service at the hotel was lackluster – it was there, but at a minimum.  The concierge desk was also next to the check-in desk, but it was only staffed sometimes – and when it was not staffed the other agents were not that willing to provide information.

As I said, I had two stays at the hotel.  The first stay was not on the club level, while the second stay was.  Both rooms were laid out in a similar fashion with the only difference being size; the club level room was bigger and more spacious but it provided the same amenities as the non-club room.  As you entered both rooms, there was a hallway that led you into the main room.  In the main area, along the wall was a stand that held the fridge/minibar on the bottom and the tea and coffee station on top.  Next to that was corner desk that went along both walls.  The desk also contained a ledger next to the coffee stand on which the fruit plate plus water and glasses were available.  Above the ledger was the TV, and below the TV was a console with a variety of AV plugs.  In the non-club room, this was the only place a plug adapter could be placed; in the club room this was the only place that had a USB port.  Both room had a lack of plugs and USB ports available.  We had a room with two beds and the beds were located across from the TV and next to each bed was a night stand.  The non-club room did not have a lot of space so the two beds were pushed next to each other resulting in one big bed (these could be pushed somewhat apart).  As the club room had more space, the beds were evenly apart and looked like two separate beds.  The beds themselves were very comfortable and provided a nice and comfortable rest. 

In both rooms, the closet/storage was inside the bathroom.  As you entered into the bathroom, you entered into the closet area which had drawers on the bottom and hangers up top.  There was also a stand with storage on the bottom and a safe on top in the closet.  Further into the bathroom were a sink, a shower, a tub, and a toilet behind a separate door.  The bathroom was very big and spacious, and had a lot of storage space and shelves on either side of the sink and in the closet.

The hotel was a full-service hotel so in addition to the restaurant on the first floor, the hotel also contained a gym and a small pool on the mezzanine floor, a business center on the 27th floor and a club lounge.  The business center was basically one computer and a printer in part of the club lounge; and the club lounge was divided into two sections.  One section had the computer and chairs while the other section had the food for both breakfast and drinks.  The section with the food only had 6 tables, which was fine during the weekday but got really busy for drinks on the weekend.  The breakfast was the same for both the restaurant downstairs and the club lounge upstairs.  The gym was very big and offered a wide variety of equipment for a really good workout.  The pool was somewhat small, given the large size of the hotel, but most guests just went out to suntan rather than to swim.  The hotel also provided direct access to the mall and convention center, through a door on the 10th floor.

Overall, it was a nice stay at the InterContinental; however, it was not as good as some of the other InterConintental's I have stayed out.  Some of the positives include comfortable beds, comfortable rooms, nice service on the club level, and great location.  Some of the negatives included lack of plugs, lack of USB ports, and somewhat lackluster general customer service (although the General Manager, Mr. Chandresh Sigh was very good and very responsive)

Thursday, September 8, 2016

A Stay Report: Hilton Cape Town City Center

A Stay Report: Hilton Cape Town City Center 
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

We were going to be in Cape Town for a little while, so I was looking for a hotel that was in the middle of everything.  From the name itself, the Hilton Cape Town City Center seemed to be in the middle of the city and it looked like it was within walking distance to several sights, services, and restaurants.  Hilton's are generally very nice, and they had a sale where I could use points + cash so decided to give them a try.

Prior to my arrival, I communicated with the hotel regarding airport transfers.  The hotel does not provide a shuttle, but connects passengers to Hertz Corporation for airport transfers.  Trying to communicate with the hotel and Hertz to arrange this was extremely difficult and the hotel did not respond nor communicate very well.  This interaction made me feel a bit hesitant about the customer service at the hotel, but I continued on with my reservation and made other transportation plans to the hotel.

I was able to check into the hotel 24-hours prior to my arrival thanks to the HiltonHHonors app, and through this app I selected my room.  The room selection for the bed type that I wanted – two beds – was limited and so I selected the room on the first floor all the way at end of the hallway.  Since I had done everything on-line, when I got to the hotel I just needed to pick up the key and the hotel attendant explained the hotel amenities and services.

The hotel is located at the edge of city district, where the city and the Bo-Kaap district meet.  The Bo-Kaap is a mainly Cape Malay and Muslim neighborhood, and the hotel has a very strong Middle Eastern feel to it – from the decorations, to the fragrance, to the hookah-type lounge (the hotel is undergoing renovations and I was informed that it is moving away from the Middle Eastern feel to a more ‘European/Chinese/Western’ type flare).  The hotel has a great location as it is within walking distance of many attractions – the Bo-Kaap neighborhood, the city center, and many restaurants and amenities.  The hotel also provides a limited shuttle to the V&A Waterfront, which runs every 2 hours there and back.  We took the shuttle once, and it was not a good experience as the service from the hotel seemed uncoordinated and a bit chaotic.  The driver was also very rude so we decided not to use this service anymore (the transportation system at the hotel needed improving).

The main entrance to the hotel is located on the corner of the street, and as its undergoing renovations things are not where they usually are.  As you enter inside the hotel, there is the concierge desk on your left hand side.  The concierge, especially at night, was very helpful in providing information and details of the city.  On the right hand side was a construction wall as the main restaurant was being renovated.  Behind the concierge desk was the sitting area and straight ahead was the check-in area.  In between the check-in area and the lounge was a chocolate store (which I never saw open) and a stairway that led upstairs to the restaurant that specialized in Indian food (and since the main restaurant was undergoing renovations, this is where breakfast, lunch, and dinner were being served).  The elevators were located across from the check-in area, near the construction wall which went from one end of the lobby to the next.
The hotel had about 6 floors, with the lobby on the ground floor and other amenities on the mezzanine floor.  The mezzanine floor contained the business center, the club lounge, the gym, some meeting rooms, access to the pool, and the hotel lounge.  The business center was small – with two computers – but was decent.  To access the gym, you went through the hotel lounge, and went next to the pool to the gym.  The gym was a decent size and provided a good workout.  The hotel also had free wifi, and did not limit the number of devices or the speed; this was a nice perk

The rooms themselves were very large and updated.  You entered the room in the hallway, with closets and the tea set-up along the right-hand wall.  The closets contained a safe, an ironing board with iron, as well as plenty of storage space.  As you entered into the room, there were two beds along the right-hand wall with a nightstand in between the beds.  Along the left-hand wall was a TV inside the wall, a faux-fireplace underneath the TV and a desk plus chair.  There was a window along the connecting wall that faced out onto the street and provided some nice views.  The beds themselves were very comfortable and big enough for one person.  The room was very spacious and provided enough room – you did not feel cramped at all. 

The bathroom was next to the beds; however, there was not a lot of privacy between the bedroom and the bathroom.  Yes there was a door, but the door was opaque so you could still see shadows and it did not come all the way to the top which allowed noise to travel into the bedroom.  Also, on either side of the door were glass panels which had some designs on them but basically allowed you to see directly into the bathroom.  The panels also did not completely go to the wall, and thus allowed for noise to come come to the bedroom.  While a nice design, the bathroom was not practically designed for privacy.  The bathroom itself was very large and contained a sink, a tub, a shower, and a toilet. 

Overall, the hotel was very nice and comfortable.  The hotel provided a nice spacious room, with free wifi, and was in a good location that enabled you to be within a 5-10 walking distance to many activities.  The concierge at the hotel, especially at night, was also very helpful in terms of providing information regarding the city.  What did not work were the bathroom layout as well as the transportation.  As the hotel is undergoing some renovations and transitions, this is taking an impact on its service – some aspects were up to the Hilton standards while others aspects needed work.  

A Stay Report: Protea Hotel Durban Edward

A Stay Report: Protea Hotel, Durban Edward
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Over 2 years ago, Marriott bought the African hotel chain Protea Hotels as a way to expand into the African market.  As I was travelling to South Africa, I wanted to experience Protea and their partnership with Marriott.  I had booked the Protea Hotel Edward in Durban as it was on the beach thoroughfare and was in walking distance to many attractions.  The price for the hotel was relatively inexpensive, a bit higher than Fairfield but lower than Courtyard, and was the same price as the Hilton Durban – I am not sure if this meant the Protea was overvalued or the Hilton was undervalued. 

I had arranged my own transport to the hotel – the hotel does offer shuttle service, but for a cost and through my research the costs were higher than other transportation methods so I had arranged my own.  Other amenities the hotel offers include a business center (with one computer and a printer), a restaurant, a souvenir shop, and free wifi.  The wifi was basic but was decent service and good enough for one night.

Overall, the hotel looked like it had been built a while ago.  While it did not look bad, it did not look modern nor updated.  As you entered, on the right side was a small check-in area while on the left was a small porter/concierge stand.  There was a desk in the middle that served as a roundabout, as to the left was the restaurant, straight was the elevators and stairs, and then straight and on the right was the business center, the store, and access to the back entrance of the hotel.  The design and décor of the interior of the hotel made the hotel look older and a bit dated.  Check-in was quick and I received my keys and took the (small) elevator to the 5th floor to my room. 

The rooms themselves were very large and spacious, but felt and look old and dated.  As you entered, along the left side of the wall were the closets and tea set.  The closets contained storage, as well as a safe and an ironing board.  The iron had to be requested from the front desk.  On the right side was the bathroom.  The bathroom was very spacious and roomy, but was very bare.  The bathroom contained a sick, a toilet and shower and the sink had the bathroom amenities, but they were off to the side – the whole look was very bare.

The room itself was very big but the decorations and the feel of the room felt old and dated.  The room contained green carpet, which made the room look dated.  As you entered into the room, on the left wall was the TV with a luggage stand underneath and next to that was a desk with a chair.  Next to the desk, across the wall, were two large balcony’s which looked onto the beach and provided some nice views (the balcony doors were hidden behind large curtains that belonged to the 80’s).  The bed was on the other side of the wall and it was a large queen size bed.  On other side of the bed were nightstands and those, plus the bed frame were an older style and did not look modern. The bed itself was not very comfortable and did not feel new.  The bedding on top of the bed were nice and new, and in line with Marriott’s new bedding (the bed itself was not part of Marriott’s new bedding). 

Overall, the hotel was an interesting combination.  The hotel did not feel like a Marriott at all, and the hotel felt dated and definitely needed an upgrade.  While the rooms were spacious and the provided a average night’s sleep, I am not sure I would pick this hotel if I was staying here longer than one night.