Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Trip Report: United Airlines, International (Caribbean - Dec 2016)

Trip Report: United Airlines, International (Caribbean)
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

I have not flown a mainline US carrier international in over 10 years.  The reason is that their on-board products do not compare as highly as their international competitors.  For most international carriers, personal TV screens, USB ports, free luggage, and basic meals in economy are standard on most international flights.  This has not been the case for US carriers so I had avoided them.  Recently, US carriers had been upgrading their products so I recently decided to give United a try on an international destination – from New Orleans to Punta Cana via Houston.  Navigating United’s website and mobile app were very easy.  I was able to book the flights, manage the booking, select seats, pay for bags and seats, and check-in seamlessly. 

The first flight was from New Orleans to Houston.  United operates many flights a day on this route and uses a variety of aircraft – Airbus, Boeing, or Embraer.  Our flight was scheduled to depart at 7:25am and arrive into Houston at 8:46am, even though the flight time is 45 minutes.  This flight was operated by a Boeing 737-800.  United does not charge for seat allocation, so you can choose your own seat in Main Economy; United does charge for Economy Plus seating which includes extra legroom.  The layout of the 737-800 is 3-3 and usually the seat pitch is decent, but this was an older plane so the seat pitch was tight.  The seat is basic with no USB ports nor PTV’s.  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.  On planes with no PTV, United offers free, limited entertainment through the United app; 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.  It was an average flight given the short distance.

We initially had 1-hour in Houston until our next flight departed to Punta Cana.  Unfortunately, due to ground traffic congestion at Houston we sat in the plane for most of that time so that by the time we landed, it was already time to board our next flight.  Luckily, our next gate was right next door but this did mean that we had limited time to purchase any food or beverage in Houston.

Boarding was extremely chaotic and disorganized on this flight.  When I had checked-in online, I had selected seats for myself and my family.  When we arrive into Houston, our seats had been reassigned so I had to go to the gate agent to get our seats back (they said it was because of an equipment change).  Because of the delay, we were not able to board until Group 5 which is the last group. When they started to board this group, they made everyone gate-check their carryon bag stating there was no longer any room on board the aircraft; no-one had a choice as the gate-check was ‘mandatory’.  When we went on board and went to our seat, there were actually plenty of empty spaces in the overhead compartments so there was no need to gate check any bags.

The plane that flew from Houston to Punta Cana was the exact same plane that we just flew from New Orleans to Houston – an older Boeing 737-800.  The seat pitch was really tight, the plane looked really old, and the only difference was each seat had PTV in them.  As boarding was chaotic, and the flight attendants just told people to ‘sit anywhere’ we departed late.  The on-board service was terrible as the flight attendants only did the basic duties.  The flight time was 4hr30 minutes and on this flight, there was food for purchase and drinks were served twice; once at the beginning and then once in the
middle of the flight.  Each time, only a small glass was provided (not even a can, even when asked).  The PTVs had live TV and movies available, but this needed to be paid for at a cost of $5.99 per screen (which was outrageous).  About 1 hour prior to landing, the flight attendant came by to distribute immigration forms, but it took so long that by the time she finished handing out the cards it was time to land and she said “you have to stow your tray tables; I know everyone is still completing their forms but you can do that later”.  The entire flight was poor service, poor management, and a bad international flight on United.  We finally landed in Punta Cana and we deplaned via stairs.  As soon as most of the passengers had deplaned from the front of the plane, the rear door was opened for passengers to deplane via the rear (again, an example of poor management).

Given this, I was not looking forward to my return flight on United.  We were better prepared as this time we had downloaded movies and other shows to pass around the time.  Given the seat discomfort and tight pitch, and the length of the flight, we had chosen to pay for Economy Plus seats with extra legroom.  The flight from Punta Cana to Houston was 4hr45min and was operated by a 737-800, but this time it was a ‘Next-Gen’ plane which meant it was newer.  On the newer plane, the seat pitch and seat comfort in Main Economy was better.  Each seat had a PTV, which needed to be paid to access, and there were no USB ports.  Service on-board was similar, with free drinks and pretzels and buy on-board food, but the crew on this leg was a lot friendlier and nicer.  It was definitely a better experience on the return.

We had 2 hours to transit in Houston until our next flight to New Orleans, but most of this time was spent in clearing security at the airport.  The flight from Houston to New Orleans was operated by an Airbus A320/321 which had a decent seat pitch and decent seat comfort.  The seat was slimline and had not PTVs, instead the back of the seat had a pocket with the airline magazine, sick bag, and wifi information.  You could access the limited, free entertainment through the United app.  Service on-board for the short 50-minute flight was drinks and pretzels.  Overall, it was a decent short flight.

It was my first time experiencing United internationally, and given everything I experienced I am hesitant to try them on a long-haul flight.  The lack of amenities they provide to passengers, the difference in service depending on airplane and crew, and overall lack of comfort does not make me want to choose United.  If I compare United to their international competitors, they provide better service, more amenities, and newer planes at the same or reduced costs – so I do not see the incentive in flying with United.   

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Stay Report: Melia Caribe Tropical (Punta Cana, DR - December 2016)

Stay Report: Melia Caribe Tropical (Punta Cana, DR)
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

My family and I recently traveled to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.  We were staying there for the holidays and decided to try the all-inclusive Melia Caribe Tropical.  The hotel is operated by the Melia Hotels International, based out of Spain.  They operate a variety of hotels throughout the world, mostly resorts catering to large groups and holiday-makers.  This was my first time staying at a Melia property and my first time at an all-inclusive so I was not sure what to expect.  Here are my impressions.

Overall:  Overall the property is very large and has a lot to offer with a variety of restaurants included.  The hotel has various levels - there is the main level for all guests; there is a separate level called 'The Level' which is adults-only and has its own pool, restaurant, and rooms; and then there is ClubMelia which has its own perks.  We stayed in the general area which also had its own pool, restaurants, and rooms.   

The pool was large enough that it never felt crowded and both chairs and towels were always available.  The chairs were on a first come basis, and many people got there in the morning and put their towel down to claim their chair for the entire day.  The property also included access to the beach - access to beach included beach chairs of which there were plenty.  The Level/Club guests had their own access to the beach with their own chairs.  The beach was nice, some parts had a bit too much seaweed but overall it was a nice beach with plenty of access.  The rooms are spacious and each come with a balcony, a nice perk.  The service definitely needs improvement though.  

Rooms: The rooms were spacious and comfortable enough.  We had two rooms and each room was laid out the same.  As you entered, there was a closet on your right - the closet contained shelves and hangers and it had a safe.  On the left was the full-size bathroom with a toilet, a bidet, a wide sink, a standing shower, and blow dryer.  As you came inside the room, on left were the two beds with a nightstand in the middle and on the opposite side was a stand with drawers underneath and a TV and coffee/tea maker on top.  The drawers underneath contained a fridge which was stocked with free water, soft drinks, and beer.  Further along in the room was a sitting area with two chairs on one side a lounge - this lounge was big enough for a kid or small person to sleep in.  Beyond that was the balcony with two chairs.  

The beds were comfortable but they were definitely not the double beds as advertised - I
would say they were a Twin XL and only one person could fit on them.  The only issues with the room was the service - the beds were made up but the amenities in the room nor in the bathroom were replenished.  Also, the service came at various hours, sometimes at 5p and sometimes at 8am.  It was on request that items would be restocked.

Food:  The hotel is an all-inclusive so all food and drink are included in the hotel price.  The hotel offers a range of restaurants from buffet to Mediterranean, Dominican, and Mexican.  Overall, the quality of food is average - its not gourmet but decent enough.  There is enough variety to please most palates. We ate at the Level restaurant one night and it was similar food but just presented in a better fashion.  Drinks were also complimentary including soft drinks, beer, and house wine.  Overall, the variety of food and drinks included was more than I was expecting

Entertainment:  There is a variety of entertainment available at the hotel.  They have a casino, a kids park, pools, gym, and the beach.  They also have a nightly dance show which is very interesting and got better each night.  

The hotel also offers a gym and spa.  The gym was smaller than I expected - it could fit 10-20 people max - but it had the basic equipment for a nice workout.  A lot of guests choose to run/walk around the large property as that also provided some good exercise.  The hotel did offer aerobic classes - both in the gym and the pool.    

The hotel also has free wifi throughout the property.  This is definitely a nice perk as you are connected throughout your trip.  The wifi was stronger near the longer (for picture posts) but was decent enough speed at the pool and beach area for basic email and connections.  

Service: This is an area where the hotel is definitely lacking.  There was chaos at check-in but we finally managed to check-in.  Even though I had already checked-in online, I still had to go through the process all over again so the online checkin was worthless.  We had asked for one king-size bed room and one with 2 beds, but that was not available so we asked for two rooms close to each other.  Our check-in attendant did not know the layout of the hotel and gave us rooms and opposite ends of the building so we had to go back and adjust our rooms and tell them which rooms we wanted.  The hotel operates trains to get from the main lobby to the beach/pool and room area.  There are 3 different lines and the trains are supposed to run every 10-15 minutes.  We one time waited for over 20 minutes for a train and nothing showed up.  The train system definitely needs to be worked on as it currently does not work.

As I said earlier, the service for the rooms also needed improvement. The attendants came a variety of hours and were good at replenishing the fridge, but only replenished the tea and bathroom amenities when requested. 

Checkout was equally as chaotic and there were some very rude attendants who were arguing with the guests.  They definitely need to fix their check-in and check-out procedures.  There was one positive aspect to the service - Alber Batista, from Guest Services, called to find out who our stay was and when I let him know of the issues, he apologized and provided extra assistance and compensation.  He also followed up the next day to ensure everything was ok, which was especially appreciated.

Conclusion:  Overall, it was an average stay.  Positives included the large-size of the property so there was plenty of room at the pool and beach; the all-inclusive covered a lot more food and drink than I expected; and there was enough to do at the property not to get bored for at least 5 days.  The negatives were the service at check-in, check-out, and room attendants