Thursday, April 27, 2017

Stay Report: InterContinental Dar Al Hijra, Madinah (April 2017)

Stay Report: InterContinental Dar Al Hijra, Madinah
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

In my previous trips to Madinah, I had stayed at the Hilton which was located very close to the religious area but the rooms were not good and looked like they had not been updated since 1990.  Because of this, I looked for other hotels and found the Intercontinental – there are two InterCons located in Madinah; one was right next to the religious area while the other was a bit further away.  The reviews for the one next to the religious area were not good so we decided to pick the one that was a bit further away considering previous guests had given it high marks.
From the outside the hotel looked decent enough but on the inside the hotel looked older and had a really small lobby.  As you entered into the hotel, on the left was the concierge desk and straight ahead was the check-in desk.  Further towards the left was a seating area for both the lobby and small café.  Next to the café was the business center and further down were escalators which led to the second floor dining room.  As with the hotel in Makkah, this hotel was also booked as part of a tour package but I had emailed the hotel and was able to locate my reservation and add my IHG number.  For this reason, when I checked in I was greeted as an IHG member, given a welcome letter, and there was fruit and sweets located in the room.  Even though I had emailed the hotel about the reservation, it was a very long and complicated checkin process.  There were two staff behind the desk but neither seemed to a) know what was going on and b) neither seemed to have a good grasp of English which further delayed the process.  I finally checked in and received my keys to the room.  The elevators were located behind the checkin desks, but there were only two small elevators and it took a long time to get a free elevator.
Our room was located on the second floor, at the end of the hallway. The room itself was big in size, but had the same old décor and look as the hotel.  The room was shaped like an L, with long straight side that leads into the main room.  As you entered into the room, there was a small entryway which contained a table; on top of this table was the complimentary fruit and sweets.  The entryway led to a long hallway on the right hand side, which eventually led to the bedroom.  In the middle of the hallway, on the right hand side was the bathroom while on the left was the window which faced out onto the street.  The bathroom was a decent size and contained a sink, a toilet, a bidet and shower.  The shower was big but the sink area was compressed.  Further down the hallway was the bedroom area.
As were three individuals, the room contained three single beds.  As you entered into tone bed area, on the right was the closet and storage shelves.  The closet contained a safe, the ironing board and iron, while the shelves contained the mini bar and complimentary water.  Right next to the closet was the first bed – and there was not a lot of room between the bed and the closet.  On the other side of the bed was a nightstand which separated the first and second bed.  Next to the second bed was the third bed – and again there was little room between the two beds.  On the other side of the third bed was another window.  The beds were comfortable enough to provide a decent nights sleep.  Across from the beds, against the wall, was a desk, a TV on top of a set of drawers, and two chairs with a table in the middle.  The décor of the hotel and all of the amenities in the room looked old; the hotel phone looked old and sometimes did not work and there were a lack of plugs and no USB ports available. 
Amenities in the hotel included a business center, free WiFi, a restaurant, a café, and
concierge services.  The business center was a computer and a printer in a room; however, most times the door was locked so you needed to request the concierge to come and open the door.  There was free WiFi available in the room, but it was spotty and the login terminal sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t.  When it did work, the speeds were decent, but trying to get the WiFi to connect was a bit difficult.  As an IHG member, I received two complimentary drinks from the café.  I was going to order additional items, but again language and communication barriers prevented me from completing this task.  Breakfast was included with our room and this was available in the morning in the restaurant.  The restaurant was also decorated in the old décor and on the first day the breakfast had an odd layout which made it difficult to walk around – had there been more guests it would have been impossible to walk around.  Luckily the layout got better on the second day, but it still was not the best layout.  The selection available in Madinah was not as nice as Makkah and both the selection, freshness, and taste were average. 
As with the hotel in Makkah, the Madinah hotel had poor service and poor communication skills. The poor service started at checkin where they could not understand the information, it was right on the screen but they were mixing everything up.  The poor service continued when we tried to contact the front desk regarding an issue.  It took almost 30mins and at the end no one understood a single item.  Same thing happened when I wanted to request a late checkout; when I first approached the desk, the attendants English was not good and so just said “wait for manager”.  I had to come back when another attendant was there who did speak English.  It was extremely difficult to communicate with the staff for any issue.
Overall, it was a disappointing stay at the Intercontinental Madinah. The hotel was located farther away from all the other hotels so it was a longer walk to get the religious area.  Once you got the hotel, the service was poor and the hotel looked old.  In the end, there was nothing positive about the hotel.  There are other hotels which are closer to the religious area, so I would suggest to stay there; at least there is one positive aspect then.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Stay Report: InterContinental Dar Al Tawhid, Makkah (April 2017)

Stay Report: InterContinental Dar Al Tawhid, Makkah
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

I was going back of Makkah for the third time and was looking for a hotel that could accommodate three people in one room and one that was close.  I had previously stayed at the Hilton Makkah, which was nice but only accommodated two persons per room, and the Hilton Makkah Towers, which accommodated three people but was not updated and has since been torn down.  I had heard good things about the Intercontinental, and after previous good experience with the brand in other countries decided to book the Intercontinental Makkah Dar Al Tawhid.

The hotel is conveniently located near the religious area and provides clear access to the King Fahad gate number 74.  The location of the hotel is one of the best attributes, as it is still central while not being crowded.  The main entrance to the hotel is on the street, which faces away from the Kaa’ba, while there is a second entrance that leads directly to that area.  The rooms either face the main entrance side or the Kaa’ba side, and there is a price difference between the two rooms.  You enter the hotel through the main entrance, and you can either go downstairs to access the religious area or you go upstairs to access reception.

I had booked the hotel as part of a package through a travel agent, so I was unable to add my IHG number prior to the reservation.  For this instance, I was not greeted as a loyalty member.  I added the number at that time, but still no additional perks were received at the hotel (the hotel had poor customer service all around so I don’t think it would have mattered even if I was able to add my number prior to the reservation).  Checkin was extremely slow, inefficient, and chaotic.  There are about 5 people working behind the desks but there are no real lines and no order; whomever can push to the front and get the persons attention will be checked in.  It was nowhere near the level of a 5-star hotel.  When I checked in, I reminded them that we were three individuals so an additional bed was needed in the room; the front desk said they would alert housekeeping.  I received my key and went to my room.  As I said before, the hotel was split into two sections – those who had the religious view went to elevators A-G and those on the street side when to elevators K-N.  There were plenty of elevators available, another positive aspect of the hotel, but you had to punch your floor number into the keypad and it would direct you to which elevator to use.   This aspect was not explained and many guests had not used these types of elevators so there was a lot of confusion and lot of people getting off on the wrong floor.
Our room was located on the 5th floor.  The hallways and entryways to the rooms were very large – which indicated this was an older hotel (from my understanding, it is somewhat older and has only been moderately updated as the Saudi government has told the hotel it will be demolished; all hotels will be built across the street as they expand the religious portion).  The room itself was large in terms of size, and also looked like it had been moderately updated.  
As you entered the room, you entered into a long hallway which led into the room.  As you walked down the hallway, on the left hand side was the bathroom and then further down the closet.  The bathroom contained a sink, a toilet, a bidet, and a shower.  The bathroom was a decent size, but both the water pressure and temperature were inconsistent; sometimes they were great while others it wasn’t good.  The closet hallway contained two open closets, each wide and the first closet had the iron and ironing board while the second closet contained the safe plus slippers.  There was also supposed to be a robe in there, but that wasn’t provided until the next day.  The hallway ended as you entered the room.
The room itself was quite large and comfortably fit the three single beds.  As you entered in the room, on your left against the wall were two chairs with a table in the middle.  The two chairs faced the bed, which was against the other wall.  Next to the bed was a nightstand and next to that was the other single bed.  There was then a lot of space in between the second bed and the window, and this is where the rollaway was put (once it arrived as it took multiple calls and requests for the bed to arrive).  The beds themselves were decent and provided a comfortable nights rest.  Across from the beds, against the other wall, was the luggage holder with drawers on the bottom, the TV stand with the TV on top and drawers on the bottom, and then the desk.  It was a very long table so it provided some good storage, but there was a definite lack of power outlets and power ports in both the room and in the closet (it was difficult to find two plugs to plug both your device and the iron in at the same time).  What the room did have was a console on the nightstand which electronically controlled the lights and windowshades.  Through this console you could close both the lights and the shades without ever getting up from the bed.  You could also control whether the prayer speaker was on, as you could pipe in the call to prayer and the prayer directly into your room.  Our window faced the street so it wasn’t a great view, but it did allow for some people watching which was nice.
Amenities in the hotel included restaurants that served breakfast, lunch and dinner; a
café that served coffee and light sandwiches; a business center, a spa, a kids room, club lounge, and free WiFi in the room.  Our room came with breakfast so I was able to try the restaurant, as well as other amenities including the free WiFi and the café.  The breakfast served was very good and broad in terms of the food options.  In every country, the breakfast buffet at the InterCon has always been good and here it was also the case with fresh pancakes, eggs, waffles, cheese, salad, bread, and other options available to be served.  The breakfast came with complimentary juices and tea/coffee; any other service needed to be paid for.  On our last day we tried the café, specifically the light sandwich.  We had ordered the croissant sandwich with cheese which basically was a large croissant with a small amount of cheese; definitely not worth the price paid for the sandwich.  The free in room WiFi was nice and provided a decent speed.  There was no mention of a restriction regarding the number of devices, but after connecting 5 devices we were told we had reached our number when trying to connect the 6th device. 
While the room was decent and so was the WiFi, what was lacking was the customer service.  There was no customer service in the hotel at all.  The service was subpar, it took forever to request something and then it took a long time for the requests to be fulfilled, and there were definite communication issues as very few individuals spoke or understood basic English.  We had a plumbing problem and we had been requesting all day for the problem to be fixed, and since morning they had been saying “ok we will take care of it” and did nothing.  By the evening, I went to go talk to the manager at the front desk.  When I went to the front desk, I was told to wait and after waiting for about 25 minutes I was told the manager has requested that I go upstairs and dial a direct extension from my room.  I did that but there was no answer at the extension so I had to go back downstairs to talk to someone, and that’s when the manager’s assistant came to talk to me; he had been behind the desk the entire time.  When I talked to him about the poor service, his explanation was “we are completely full right now and that is why you are getting poor service”.  To me, a hotel should be able to function efficiently and effectively whether you have three guests or three hundred; if you cannot handle the guests then either don’t work here or don’t have these many guests.  I have heard this explanation before and to me it seems like an excuse for poor service and poor management.

Overall, while the location of the hotel and the breakfast are nice the abysmal customer service really left a negative impression of the hotel.  The poor service started at check-in and continued through checkout.  Positives included good location, nice breakfast, decent WiFi, and large rooms.  Negatives included abysmal customer service, lack of communication with guests, and lack of clarity.

Trip Report: Qatar Airways, Abu Dhabi to Lahore via Doha (April 2017)

Trip Report: Qatar Airways, Abu Dhabi to Lahore 
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

In the past five years I had flown almost every major Gulf airline, but there was one airline which I had flown a long time ago and wanted to revisit Qatar Airways.  It had been almost one decade since I had flown with Qatar, and the last flight was long-haul from Washington to South Asia.  At this time, my experience on board was not good and the airport was extremely small.  Qatar has invested a lot in both its airport and airline, so I wanted to try Qatar Airways again to see what improvements had been made.
Instead of long-haul, this time my flight on Qatar would be two short-haul flights.  The first flight from Abu Dhabi to Doha was scheduled to take one hour, while the second flight from Doha to South Asia was scheduled to take 3.5 hours. Qatar had been promoting a Doha stopover, and even offered free transit visas if your itinerary qualified.  For this reason, I decided to take the morning flight out of Abu Dhabi and the evening flight out of Doha thus giving me 8-hours in Doha to look around.  Booking the itinerary through the website was very convenient, and I while booking was able to add FF numbers, select seats, and request special meals.  Even after booking it was very easy to manage the booking either through the website or through the app.
Trying to access the free transit visa, on the other hand, was not very easy.  Once you have booked your itinerary, you submit your information online and it tells you whether the free visa has been granted.  The problem is that there is no one who can answer any questions about which itinerary qualifies, and if you are rejected why the rejection took place.  There is an email associated with the visa page, but numerous emails to them went unrealized (still waiting for a reply 1.5months later).  I tried calling Qatar Airways reservation and talking to the onboard airline crew, both of whom provided incorrect information.  Also, no one at the airport has any answers because they all say that everything regarding the free transit visa is online.  Other friends and family that have taken Qatar Airways long-haul and had a problem say that the ground staff in Doha and the reservation staff on the phone are not helpful nor customer friendly; I experienced the same.
My first flight was scheduled to take off from Abu Dhabi at 11:30am, and after an hour flight time was scheduled to land in Doha at 11:40am.  I was able to check into my flight 24hours prior, and this could be done on the website or through the app.  The boarding pass could either be downloaded, emailed, or saved to your phone as mobile boarding pass.  The app was very convenient as it stored boarding passes, gate information, seat numbers, and even baggage tags associated with the reservation.  We got to the airport about 2.5hours prior to departure and it seems that the checkin staff were just getting started.  There were two agents open, but they were extremely slow and it took a long time.  Even though we were flying economy, there was no one in the Business class checkin line so we went there to checkin our bags and receive our boarding pass.  Bags checked and boarding passes received we proceeded to the gate.
The boarding pass stated boarding was scheduled to start at 10:30am so around that time we proceeded to the gate.  When we got to the gate, the inbound aircraft had not arrived yet (the inbound is scheduled to arrive into Abu Dhabi at 10:30a, giving them one hour to turn the plane around).  The plane arrived, passengers deplaned, and then it took the ground staff a while to get the plane ready for outbound flight.
The operating aircraft was an Airbus A320 in a 3-3 layout.  The plane looked very new and had updated seats.  The seat comfort was decent, the leg pitch also good, but the seat width was narrow.  Another issue with the seat was the location of the box for the in flight system – the box was located underneath the seat but took up a lot of space and thus cut into the legroom.  The seat came with a lot of amenities including an adjustable headrest, an adjustable shell seat, PTV screens behind every seat, USB ports, headphone jacks, a power socket below and a tray table above.  There was also a main pocket which contained the airline magazine, duty free magazine, sickness bag and safety card.  The main pocket was not that big and was pretty stuffed with all the materials, so it was difficult to take out the various contents.  There was also a smaller pocket available to hold items such as phone and glasses –this was a nice concept and something I have not seen on other planes.  The plane was generally full and even though we boarded mostly on time, we had a delayed pushback.  For both of my flights with Qatar, there was a rush to board the plane but then no rush to close the door and pushback; each time we spent a lot of time sitting at the gate waiting for the plane to close its doors and pushback.  The PTV system was on as soon as you boarded, so most passengers did not notice the delay.  As soon as the doors closed, refreshing wipes were distributed and the safety video shown.
Given the short duration of the flight, I did not expect must in flight service but as soon as we reached cruising altitude the attendants came by to offer a snack and a drink.  The hot snack was a box with a baked puff dough snack filled with either chicken or veggies, a muffin, and water.  Orange juice was also provided along with this service.  Even though it was a short flight, the attendants completed handing out the snack quickly – and then they disappeared.  I had experienced this the last time I flew with Qatar; the attendants only appear in the aisle if there is a service otherwise you never see a flight attendant.  Same thing for the rest of the flight; after the garbage was collected the flight attendants were not seen again.  We landed in Doha, taxied to the gate, and then deplaned.  I was told to go through transfers to get my transfer visa, but that turned out to be incorrect as I had to go through the regular process in arrivals.  It was extremely chaotic and inefficient process of going through immigration and customs in Doha.
My next flight departed Doha at 8:30p, with a boarding time at 7:30p. After touring Doha, we arrived at the airport around 6:30p to allow some time to look around the airport.  Overall, the airport has more shopping and fewer food options than one would normally think; also all the food options are concentrated in the middle with few to none located near the gates.  The boarding gate did not open until 7:30p, and that is when boarding passes were checked and we were told to wait in the secure area.  The aircraft was already there and boarding started around 8p.
The operating aircraft was a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, but a small one.  There were three sections of plane, one business class, one standard economy section and then another small economy section.  The seats were laid out in a 3-3-3 fashion and both the seat comfort and width were similar to the earlier plane.  The pitch was a bit tighter on this plane as compared to the Airbus.  The passenger load was extremely light, almost everyone in the first section had three seats to themselves.  As the load was light, we had boarded before time but again we sat at the boarding gate.  Due to paperwork, we sat in the plane at the gate until almost 9p – almost 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time.  While at the gate, the attendants distributed refreshing towels, water, headphones, and showed the safety video. 
The flight time was 3hr 30min and after takeoff the in flight service started which consisted of dinner.  Usually special meals are delivered first but for this flight no special meals were delivered.  I had ordered a special meal but when I told that to the attendant they didn’t seem to know what I was talking about.  I had ordered a veggie option and the choice for dinner was either chicken or lamb, but they did have some veggie options available.  Had it been a full flight, I am not sure all veggie options would have been sufficient.  The food quantity was small and the quality was average.  Drinks were served with the meal, and then tea and coffee were served when the trays were being cleared. After that, again the attendants disappeared for the rest of the flight.  If you needed something, you had to go back to the alley.  Many times people had pushed the call button but no attendant ever came.  We had pushed it many times to request a blanket – each seat came with a pillow but no blanket – but no one responded to the call.  It was only during the clearing of the meal trays that we finally got our blanket; almost twenty minutes later.  Even when I went to the back to get something, the attendants acted as if they were being disturbed and that no one should come back there.
To pass away the time, you could either read the airline magazine or watch the entertainment system.  The system itself was average – there were new Hollywood movies but a poor and limited selection of other movies.  The TV selection was equally as poor and limited all around – it was an extremely light selection and the selection was the same for both flights.

Overall, it was a disappointing flight with Qatar.  I expected, after 10 years, to see some change in the onboard product but after ten years they were still offering the same thing.  Below average service, average on board product, and average seat comfort.  They say you get what you pay for, and ticket prices are usually cheaper versus the other Gulf airlines; so you pay less and you get less.  For me, I would rather pay a bit more to get a bit more.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Trip Report: Saudia, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Abu Dhabi to Jeddah (April 2017)

Trip Report: Saudia Airlines, Abu Dhabi to Jeddah 
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

We were travelling to Saudi Arabia for a religious pilgrimage.  From Abu Dhabi, we have a choice to take either Etihad or Saudia.  I have previously flown with Etihad and find their service to be extremely bad and their staff rude; so I decided to fly on Saudia.  The last time I flew Saudia was in 2007, and then the service was decent but the planes needed to be upgraded. Since then, Saudia has invested in upgrading their fleet so I decided to try them out.  Since Saudia is part of SkyTeam, I also get SkyTeam miles with Delta (another perk).  

Our flight from Abu Dhabi to Jeddah was scheduled to take off at 11:50a.  After the reservations been booked, I tried to go online and manage the reservation but could not.  I had booked the flight through a travel agent, but for other airlines this had never been a problem.  I called the reservation number to manage my booking, including adding frequent flyer numbers, requesting special meals, and seat assignments.  I had downloaded the Saudia app but even through that I could not manage my booking.  The day before my flight I went online to checkin – online checkin is only available in some markets – and when checking in I could change seats and review my booking. 

Even though we had checked in, we were still told to be at the airport 3hrs early.  We arrived to the airport two hours early and there was no one in line so checkin and luggage tagging was very quick.  We received our printed boarding pass and went to spend some time before the flight.

The flight was scheduled to take off at 11:50am and boarding scheduled to start at 10:40am, but when we arrive at the gate around 10:30a the inbound aircraft had not arrived yet.  The aircraft arrived around 11am and it took a while before the plane was ready to be boarded which resulted to a delayed start.  The operating aircraft is an Airbus A321in a 3-3 layout.  The boarding process started and we boarded the plane.  The first three rows were in 2-2 business class layout followed by economy class.  When I checked in, I was able to select seats in front of the plane.  While the outside of the plane looked decent, the inside of the plane indicated it was an older plane.  There are positive and negative aspects of older planes – the positive being bigger seat width and seat pitch while the negative include less amenities such as USB ports and PTVs.

As this was an older plane, the seats were large and comfortable with a good seat pitch.  There were no USB port nor any PTVs, the only feature of the seat was channel and volume control in the side of the armrest (some of which worked, some didn’t).  The passengers boarded and we deplaned behind schedule – as in before Saudia never seemed to be focused on ontime departure.  As soon as all passengers had boarded, refreshing wipes were passed out.  A safety video was screened on the overhead screens (some of which came down, others didn’t).

The scheduled flight time is 3hr10min but the actual flight time is around 2.5hrs.  We reached cruising altitude, but even after that the flight attendants took another 30-45mins before the service started.  They first started by delivering the special meals, but it took them another 20-30mins before the regular service started.  The service included a meal and drink service.  The meal included a choice between chicken and fish with rice.  The meals were substantial in amount but were average in taste.  After the meal both tea and coffee were offered.

Once the meal trays were cleared, there was really nothing to do to pass the time.  The entertainment on board including the airline magazine as well as some programs shown on the overhead screen.  The shows included lots of commercial and only 10mins of Mr.Bean; however it was difficult to hear thru program as the channel system stopped working many times.  After a bit more time, we descended into Jeddah.  We landed and taxied to our parking spot – Jeddah does not have any jetbridges so every passengers deplaned via stairs and buses. 

Overall, it was an average flight with Saudia.  I had not seen any changes in the last ten years, as both then and now both the aircraft and service were decent; nothing spectacular and everything right above basic.  From others who have taken the Boeing 777, those planes have good seat pitches, USB ports and PTVs so I am a bit torn as whether to take Saudia longhaul – they have good specials and prices but their service can be average.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Stay Report: Sheraton North Houston at IAH Airport

Stay Report: Sheraton North Houston at IAH Airport
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

I have stayed at many places near Houston Bush Airport (IAH) and some places have been better than others.  Most places have been away from the airport, but I was looking for something that was closer so decided to try the Sheraton Houston Airport North.  I had also choose Sheraton because of the following benefit: most Sheratons allow a 4p checkout for SPG members.

There are many hotels near Houston Bush Airport, some of them are farther away while others are on the main airport road; the Sheraton is on the main airport road.  From the outside, the hotel looks big but not new.  There is plenty of free parking situated around the hotel.  I had pulled up to the lobby and went in to check in.

As you enter the hotel, on the right are the checkin desks while to the left are the
meeting rooms as well coffee shop.  Straight ahead are both the restaurant and bar.  I proceeded to the checkin desks and checked in; this is where one issue happened as I had to request the late checkout but it very difficult to get and the checkin staff was not very helpful.  I checked in, got my key and proceeded to the 8th floor to my room.

There are 4 elevators located in the hotel and they quickly came each time we called the elevator.  The hotel is somewhat large and so that makes the hallways leading to the room very long.   We had to go down one hallway completely and then half the other hallway before we got to our room.  The room was located on the front side so it overlooked the front entrance and main airport road.  Even though the airport was close by, you could only hear the airplane noise in the parking lot and not in the rooms.

Our room was at the beginning of the second hallway – there was the initial hallway outside the elevator and that lead to the second hallway.  The room was a standard Sheraton room with two double beds.  As you opened the door, you entered into the hallway in which the closet were on the right and the bathroom on the left.  The bathroom was standard with a sink, a tub and a toilet and was a decent size.  The closet was also decent and came with a safe, an iron, and ironing board.  As you entered further into the room, on the left were the two double beds and on the right was the chest with TV on top.  Next to the chest was the desk which lead to the window, and there was also an armchair next to the window.  The beds themselves were decent, Sheraton style beds and provided a comfortable enough sleep.  While the room did not look modern, it looked like the fixtures had been updated.  There was a USB port adapter on the desk, but there were a lack of plugs in the room. 

The hotel is full service meaning they have a lot of amenities including a restaurant, a
bar, fitness center, a pool, free WiFi, conference rooms, and free parking.  Due to the short stay I was only able to try the free WiFi, which was decent but sometime slowed a bit.  The fitness center looked really nice and big, and the bar was definitely packed the night I was there.  The pool look underutilized and it seemed that there was a large outdoor space with a small pool.

Overall, it was an average stay at the Sheraton Houston Airport North.  While proximity to the airport was a convenience, the hotel did not impress me enough to make me want to stay there again.  There are other options at a lower cost that provide either the same or more standard of service, and with better service.