Monday, July 31, 2017

Trip Report: JetBlue, New Orleans to Boston, New Orleans to New York (July 2017)

Trip Report: jetblue, New Orleans to Boston & New York
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

Ever since JetBlue first introduced service in 1998, it operated a bit differently.  It was one of the first carriers to introduce free live TV, one of the first carriers to provide free quality snacks, and one of the fist carriers to provide all leather seats.  Since its inception, JetBlue has made some changes to its operation to increase revenue but has maintained some of the perks that first adhered customers to their brand.  One change that has been beneficial to customers are the interline agreements JetBlue has with many international airlines.  JetBlue has partnerships with a variety of international airlines which allow you to book flights all on one ticket, which allows easy transfer of luggage.   Even better, JetBlue follows that carrier’s baggage policy.  JetBlue charges for checked baggage, but if the interline carrier offers free luggage then so will JetBlue on that ticket.  I have used JetBlue on interline many times and find the service very convenient.

In the month of July, I was going to be travelling twice on JetBlue through interline services – first from New Orleans to Boston connecting to Aer Lingus and second from New Orleans to New York and then connecting to Etihad Airways.  Each jetBlue flight was booked as a partner flight operated by jetBlue, so with this information I called JetBlue reservations to obtain my jetBlue confirmation number, preselect my seat, and to add my ff number.  JetBlue allows you to preselect your seat for free, or you can purchase an extra legroom seat. 

New Orleans to Boston:  This flight was scheduled to depart New Orleans at 11:51a and arrive into Boston at 4:14p for a scheduled flight time of 3hr28min.  I had signed up for flight alerts, which turned out to be very useful as I got notice that the flight was now delayed by an hour.  The inbound plane arrived a little after 12pm, and the airline tried to push a quick turnaround but we ended up pushing back on the delayed schedule.  Boarding was fine as it happened in groups, and the group numbers were enforced, and those who boarded last were still able to find overhead bin space.

On board the Airbus A320, the leather seats were laid in a 3-3 and the legroom on the plane was extremely gracious.  I am a tall person (6'1) and there was room between my legs and the seat in front of me - and this is standard economy as you could pay for 'even more space' seats with additional legroom.  Very generous legroom.  The leather seat was generally comfortable and was good for the 3+hour flight.  Behind each seat was an individual PTV, and the control was in the armrest on your right.  The PTV provided free live TV, which very nice, as well as certain free movies.  The only negative was the small screen of the PTV (it seems the screens on the plane have not been updated since jetBlue's inception) and the location of the control - every time the passenger next to me put their arm down on the shared armrest they would hit the controls and change the button.  This was frustrating.

jetBlue is also generous in their on-board service.  The attendants first came around to offer their snack boxes which are available for purchase, and afterwards they came back with the free snacks.  jetBlue offers a variety of free snacks including Terra Chips, cookies, pretzels, cheez-its, and popcorn chips.  You can take as many as you want, and there are more snacks available in the rear throughout the plane.  The attendants also came by to serve complimentary drinks as well.  Overall,the service on the flight was very good and the on board amenities were generous.  

My flight to New York was very similar.  It was also operated by an Airbus A320 in a 3-3 seat layout and each seat also had older PTVs which screened free live tv and free movies.  The legroom on the seats were again very generous – I had more than enough legroom in my seat.  Complimentary snacks and drinks were also served on the 2.5hr flight.  Both flights also had complimentary wifi or FlyFi which allowed free access to the internet while flying.  This enabled you to access your emails and social media while in the air.  Another perk of flying with jetBlue.

Overall, flying is a positive experience.  The seats are generally comfortable and provide really good legroom.  The onboard service of complimentary snacks, complimentary TV, and complimentary wifi are very nice perks.  The only negatives of flying with jetBlue are 1) you have to pay for your luggage and 2) if you are transferring in New York there is no transfer between terminals so you have to exit one terminal to switch to another – it’s a pain and while not all together in jetBlue’s control, it does affect the overall passenger experience.

Trip Report: Aer Lingus, Boston to Dublin (July 2017)

Trip Report: Aer Lingus, Boston to Dublin
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

As part of my European trip, I was going to spend time in Dublin.  When looking to travel between the U.S. and Europe, flying to Dublin has proved to be one of the low cost options.  There are many airlines that fly between US and Dublin, but Aer Lingus was offering some of the best rates – and since I want to try new airlines – I booked with Aer Lingus. 

My original flight path was from New Orleans to Boston on JetBlue, Boston to Dublin on Aer Lingus, Dublin to Chicago on Aer Lingus, and then Chicago to New Orleans on United (I later had to change the return due to work so instead of Aer Lingus came back on American Airlines - check out that blog post here).  Everything was booked through Aer Lingus as they have a lot of partnerships and codeshares with various airlines.  It was extremely easy to book and navigate through the Aer Lingus site.  On the site you can see which option best fits you, and if another day has a cheaper option.  After selecting the flights, you can then choose other options for the flight.  Free checked baggage was included in my ticket, along with free seat selection.  Aer Lingus provides complimentary meals, or you can upgrade your emails for a price.  You can also add lounge access, hotels, and car rental at the time of booking.  Overall, it was easy to manage the flights and manage the options.

Aer Lingus also partners with many airlines so within one ticket you are able to seamlessly transfer between airlines.  For my ticket, I had partnered with jetBlue as they were my first carrier I was unable to check-in to my flight.  I was told I had to receive the boarding passes from the Aer Lingus counter in Boston.  In Boston, Aer Lingus has a number of flights to and from both Dublin and Shannon.  My flight was scheduled to depart at 9:20pm and around 8p the staff started making announcements requesting anyone who had connections, or those who had printed their boarding passes at home, to come and verify and collect their boarding passes.  They also made announcements that boarding, which was scheduled to start at 8:30p, was now going to be delayed.  Even though we started to board late, and it was a generally full flight, boarding was efficient and we were able to push back within 5-10 minutes of the departure time.

The aircraft on this route was an Airbus A330-300 which can seat over 287 in economy in a
2-4-2 layout.  The legroom was pretty decent on the plane, as long as the person in front of you did not recline.  If they did not recline, then the legroom was pretty good; however, if they did decline then the legroom cut down dramatically.  I was seated in an aisle on the 2-seat section on the other side of the cabin in the first economy section – there were two economy sections and one business class section.  Once boarding finished, there was an empty 4-seat available behind me so I moved there.  As I said, even though we boarded late, boarding was quick and we pushed back generally on time.  The flight attendants were on hand to greet passengers, and when it was time to screen the safety video they came around to ensure everyone was awake and paying attention to the video (almost like you were back in school). 

The flight time was scheduled at 5hr30min so it is not a long flight.  The seats are generally comfortable, although there is not that much padding so you feel the stiffness by the 5th hour.  The headrests are adjustable, and as I said before the legroom was decent.  Each seat had a blanket, a pillow, and a headset waiting for the passengers.  In the seatpocket were the safety card, throw-up bag, airline magazine, and another magazine which doubled both as the duty free shop as well as the buy on-board snack shop. Each seat did have individual PTV’s, which were small but seemed updated.  No USB ports were available and I could not find plug outlets beneath the seat.  Even though the screens were touchscreen, they were not very sensitive and it took a while to respond – it was easier to maneuver with remote.  The remote was located in the armrest, as were the headphone jacks.  The remote also contained the buttons for the light and call button.  Selection in the PTVs was definitely limited, especially in the TV section.  While there was a decent selection of movies, and this selectin would be enough to get through the short flight, there were not enough selection of TV programs available to get through the entire flight.  It was also sometimes hard to see the screen.

Our scheduled departure time was 9:20p and we pushed back generally on-time and then had a decent taxi to the runway before taking off about 9:45pm.  There was going to be a beverage service, then meal service, then tea and coffee, and then duty free.  Most other transatlantic flights, especially night flights, tend to start the service very quickly so that it can be quickly finished and passengers can get the most amount of rest.  I am not sure whether it was because of turbulence, or this is how they operate, but the service did not commence until at least an hour after take-off, so around 10:45p/11p.  As the cabin lights were dimmed, and the crew were taking some time, most passengers were asleep.  

Around 11p, the crew turned on the cabin lights to begin their service.  The first service was a full beverage cart in which some drinks were complimentary while others needed to be paid for.  A packet of pretzels were served along with the drink.  Afterwards, the meal service commenced but it was not right after – it took some time after the drink service for the meal service to begin.  I had ordered a special meal so mine was brought out prior to everyone else’s – the choices in the main cabin were either beef pot pie or chicken with veggies.  Along with the entrĂ©e, the meal tray contained bread, salad, and water.  My meal tray also contained fruit for dessert, while others had ice cream.  The portion size of the meals was tiny, but to be fair the airline had promoted it as a “half-dinner’.  You could upgrade to a full dinner for a charge before the flight.  Afterwards, tea and coffee were served. 

After the meal trays were cleared, the cabin lights remained on for a long time as the
crew was preparing for the duty free.  Again, as compared to other transatlantic flights, this was the most time I had seen the cabin lights on in a flight.  The lights remained on for almost 2.5hrs – which is long considering it was only a 5hr flight (with strong tailwinds the flight time became shorter).  After duty free, the cabin lights were dimmed but we only had 2 hours left of the flight.  About an hour later, flight attendants came by (in the dark) and handed out boxes which contained a light breakfast.  The box contained a small orange juice and a muffin.  No other drink service was provided along with the breakfast – although water and other drinks were available in the galley.

The cabin lights were switched on when we were starting out decent into Dublin.  The cabin was prepared for landing and we landed into Dublin about 30 minutes ahead of schedule, and then had a quick taxi to the gate.  Immigration and customs was quick –it took about 10 minutes- and I was out the airport and on the bus less than an hour after landing.

Overall, it was an interesting flight with Aer Lingus.  The timing of the service was still a bit odd and did not allow for maximum sleep, which is what most passengers want on an overnight transatlantic flight.  Given the short flight time, the airline flights a nice service – decent seats, nice legroom, a PTV, free checked baggage, and a light meal.  Also, the airline is very good at connections both within Ireland and with other airline partners and this is very convenient.  Given all this, would I fly them again?  While they would not be my first choice, if I found a good deal (and they usually have them from the US NE coast) then I would not hesitate to fly them again.

Trip Report: American Airlines - Dublin, Ireland to New Orleans via Charlotte (July 2017)

Trip Report: American Airlines
Dublin to New Orleans via Charlotte
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

I was originally scheduled to fly from Dublin back to America on Aer Lingus, but due to work constraints I had to come back early so I booked a rewards flight on American Airlines from Dublin to New Orleans via Charlotte.  It had been almost 4 years since I had flown American Airlines domestically, and almost 20 years since I flew them internationally; so I was looking forward to the flight to see what improvements, if any, the airline has made. 

My flight was scheduled to depart Charlotte at 9:55am, arrive into Charlotte at 1:10p and then depart for New Orleans at 2:35p.  The short connection time was fine because all immigration is done at the pre-clearance center in Dublin airport, so I would be connecting through Charlotte as if I was connecting to a domestic flight.  Booking a flight on American Airlines was relatively easy, and I was able to manage my booking including seat selection and meal selection.  On the website, I was also able to sign up for flight notifications as well.  24-hours prior to my flight, I was able to check-in online for my flight and receive my boarding pass. 

Due to the pre-clearance, it is recommended that the passenger arrives at the airport 3-hours prior to departure to ensure enough time to complete all the security and immigration procedures.  I had arrived about 2.5hours prior to departure, and the check-in desks were relatively empty.  American Airlines operates many flights from Dublin, including to New York, Charlotte, and Chicago and many of those flights were operating at the same time.  Despite the concurrent flights, check-in was a breeze and I received my boarding pass as well as checked luggage.  American Airlines provides one free checked baggage as part of their international flights.

Boarding time for the 9:55am departure was listed as 9:05a and boarding started on time by group numbers.  Prior to boarding, American had made an announcement offering to book your hand carry – free of charge – to your final destination to save overhead bin space.  The operating aircraft was an Airbus A330 in a 2-4-2 seat configuration.  I was in the first economy section in an aisle seat on the 4-seater.  Each seat contained a blanket and a pillow, and the legroom of the seat was very good (until the person in front of you reclined).  The seat width was also generally spacious and provided enough room for you to comfortably sit.  The seat comfort was not that good, especially for the longer flights and this created an issue towards the later part of the flight.  The back of each seat contained a personal PTV screen but the screens were older looking, not like the ipad-style that many airlines now have.  The screens were touchscreen but were not sensitive at all and sometimes it took a long time for the system to recognize your response.  The entertainment options were decent – not great but not bad either; the movie selection was definitely better than the TV selection.  Headphone jack was located in your armrest, and so was the USB port.  Have the USB port on the side of the armrest was a bit uncomfortable as the phone was placed in the seat-pocket in front of you but the wire was next to your seat – you had to move the phone each time the person next to you wanted to get out of their seat.

After takeoff the crew distributed headphones to passengers and then started their drink service.  First drinks (American offered full cans) and pretzels were served followed by a light meal.  The meal servings on American are smaller than other airlines but it was decent enough for a light meal.  Afterwards, coffee and tea were served along with dessert – which was ice cream.  Later on in the flight, snacks were handed out which was a mini sandwich.  Prior to landing, a small breakfast box was served.  In other airlines, they put out drinks and snacks in the galley for passengers to help themselves in case they get hungry or thirsty in between service.  American only had water out available, and that too in the last galley which was blocked by attendants; so each time you wanted water or something else you had to ask an attendant. 

Service on the plane was…interesting.  All of the attendants were older in age, and most of them acted as if it was a chore to do the job.  Some of the attendants were a bit rude, others seemed that their only job was security, while others barely cracked smile.  It was definitely not service with a smile.  Generally the flight was smooth, but the seatbelt sign was on the entire time so every time you got up to use the lavatory or to walk around, a flight attendant would come and tell you – not in a polite way – to go back to your seat.  How can passengers sit in one spot for 8hrs? 

We landed in Charlotte on time and it was a quick transfer to my next flight, which was an A319 in a 3-3 seat layout.  Again, the legroom was very nice and the width was decent, but the seat comfort was a bit poor.  There were no PTVs on this flight as the seatback in front of you had a holder where you could place your laptop and watch tvs or movies streamed through the American app.  On this, the attendants’ service was better and friendlier. 

Overall, it was an interesting flight with American Airlines.  Some aspects of the experience exceeded my expectations – the legroom on the plane, the availability of USB ports, and the decent entertainment selection – however other aspects did not meet expectations – service of the crew stands out as an area where there needs improvement.  Given all this, would I take American again internationally – most likely not.  I would much rather pay a higher price for a better quality product and usually with a nicer crew.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Stay Report: Hyatt Regency, Savannah (July 2017)

Stay Report: Hyatt Regency, Savannah
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

We were traveling to Savannah and wanted a nice hotel near the waterfront in downtown.  The night before we were going to be there, the Hyatt had award room available with two double beds so I booked that.  The hotel itself is located right on the waterfront, and right in the middle of downtown thus making it easily accessible and walkable to many of the downtown sites and attractions.  From the outside, the hotel looks a bit old and thus first impressions of the hotel are not good.

The entrance to the hotel is on one of the main streets, and the back of the hotel faces and has an entrance to the waterfront.  Parking is available at the hotel, but only valet parking.  From the street, you walk up a ramp and you enter into the huge lobby.  The lobby is an open atrium with large windows thus making the lobby look and feel very large, open, and grand. 

As you enter into the lobby, on the right is the restaurant and coffee bar, straight ahead is the sitting area, and to your left are the check in desks and elevators.  We arrived at the hotel at 4:30p, and even though checkin time is at 4pm our room was still not ready.  Overall checkin was not very efficient as no details regarding the hotel were given.  The lobby had complimentary water so we drank that and relaxed in the sitting area looking outside the windows which overlooked the river.  Half an hour later, I went back to a more experience checkin attendant who gave us a room instantly.  We received our key and took our room to the 6th floor.

The elevators are glass elevators which allow you to look out into the open atrium as you go up to your room.  The rooms are located on either side of the atrium, and thus can either have an atrium view, the street view, or the riverfront view.  We were on the side with the street view.  The rooms themselves were nicely updated and spacious.

As you entered into the room, on the left was the closet area with a closet on one side and cabinet on the other which contained the mini fridge and safe. The closet contained an iron and ironing board.  As you passed through this area you entered into the bathroom, which was a decent size and contained a sink, shower, and toilet along with standard Hyatt toiletries.  As you entered into the room, on left had side along the wall was a chest of drawers with a TV on top and storage on the bottom. Next to the TV was a desk with chairs on both sides; however, there was not enough room between the TV and the desk to fit both chairs so it was a bit tight.  On the other side were the two beds which were a good size and very comfortable.  In between the beds was a nightstand with a lamp, and lamp contained power outlets.  In fact, there were power outlets available throughout the room which was very welcome.

Other amenities in the hotel included a sun deck, a garden deck, an indoor pool, a gym, and free WiFi. As we were only there for one day, I only got to try the free WiFi which was only fast enough for email but not for streaming videos.  The TV was technically a ‘smart’ TV Andy could choose to watch Netflix or YouTube; we tried to watch both but the speed was so slow that nothing would load.  The pool deck and the garden deck were both nice, and the indoor gym was very large.

Overall, it was a nice stay at the Hyatt.  It was a nice, updated hotel that is conveniently located.  The only downside would be the slow WiFi but other than that, a nice hotel.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Stay Report: DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel & Suites Houston by the Galleria (July 2017)

Stay Report: DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel & Suites Houston by the Galleria (updated)
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

I have been to the Galleria area in Houston many times and have tried many hotels in the area (see previous blog post) - some good, while others not so much.  I like to try new hotels, but also sometimes try and revisit hotels I have previously stayed at that I enjoyed.  One such hotel was the DoubleTree by Hilton Houston Galleria.  I had previously stayed here in September 2014 and at that time we were upgraded to a suite which was extremely spacious and very comfortable.  I found a really good deal so decided to try the hotel again.  Below are my reviews from 2014 and the updates from July 2017

It was extreme chaos when we checked in. This hotel is located near the Galleria so one would expect they should be able to handle crowds - no! The lines were long and the check-in process was very cumbersome. When we finally got to the front, there was no greeting, no apologies for the wait, nothing - and no smile on any of their faces (there were 3 people working in the lobby checking in guests, and none of them were smiling). The check-in was taking a really long time, and no explanation was given, so I asked 'is everything ok'. The attendant replied 'I am looking for a room' and went back to staring at the screen. No customer service at this hotel. When we finally finished, no cookies were given; I had to ask for the cookies even though they are supposed to be given upon check-in

Update: the hotel has undergone renovations so the lobby looks and feels brighter and bigger now.  The lobby contained the business center (two computers with free printing), a bar, and plenty of lounge spaces.  There were still only 3 check-in desks, which seemed a bit small, but check-in went smoothly.  We were greeted as Hilton Honors members, given complimentary cookies, and given the keys to our room.  The attendant did not provide any additional information about the hotel, which was a bit surprising.

All the rooms at this DoubleTree are Suites so the room was very spacious and clean, and the beds were very comfortable.   As you enter, on the left hand side is a galley kitchen, which is a bit outdated but provides a very large fridge.  There is a counter that is connected from the kitchen to the main sitting area, which also has a round table with 4 chairs.  Next to that a sofa-bed/couch with a coffee table in front of a chest with drawers on the bottom and a TV stand on top. Next to the TV stand in the door to the bedroom.  As you enter in the bedroom, you face one of the 2 beds.  If you turn to your right, you go through the open closet (with a safe and iron and ironing board) to go into the bathroom.  In between the two beds was a night stand and in front of the beds was another chest with drawers on the bottom and TV on top.  There was also a desk in the room.  Overall, the furniture was outdated and so was the carpeting, but the beds were spacious and comfortable.

Update: as with other parts of the hotel, the rooms have received an upgrade.  The basic
layout of the suite remains the same, but the furnishings and decor have been updated.  As you entered this suite, on left was the kitchen with a full-size fridge, stove, microwave, sink, and counter space which held the coffee maker.  The kitchen was enclosed and on the other side of the wall was the sitting room.  This room contained a dining table (with 4 chairs), a chest with drawers on the bottom and a TV on top, a desk, and a sofa with a table in front.  The sofa turned into a sofabed.  In the next room were the two beds (which were large and comfortable), a nightstand in the middle (which contained lamps that had plugs on them) and again a chest with drawers on the bottom and TV on top.  Behind the bedroom was an open area which contained the closet (with iron and ironing board), the safe, and storage space.  There was also a decent size bathroom with a sink, toilet, tub, and amenities including shampoo, and hairdryer.  Each of the chest with TVs had a side panel on them to connect other devices to the TV.   

Parking - there are two parking options, self park or valet - there is a charge for both. We choose the self-park because we have a big car, but given the location (near the Galleria in Houston) you would assume there would be ample parking; nope. There is only a 3-level car garage with the first-level reserved for valet, leaving only 2-levels for self-park and these two levels were ALWAYS full. Parking here was a pain, inconvenient, and definitely not worth the money. 

Update: this is an area where there were no changes and it was still a pain. The hotel still charges for parking, and on the weekend - where there are many meetings and parties - the parking lot gets very full very quickly.  It is fine on other nights, but they really need to figure this out to make the hotel really great.

The gym here is small and needs to be remodeled. The gym is located on the 3rd floor, right next to other rooms; it looks as if they took out one room and replaced it with the gym. The gym had 4 treadmills, bikes, weights, and exercise balls so that was good; but the location and layout was extremely tight and uncomfortable.

Update: again an area where there seems to be no change.  The gym still has decent equipment but the location is not good.  There is also an outdoor pool which was very popular with guests.

you have to pay for wi-fi. In today's time, this is just unacceptable to have your guest pay for wi-fi. Its complimentary at Hampton Inn and other Hilton properties, so why not here!

Update: Hilton provides complimentary wifi to its members.  The free wifi was good and provided fast speeds for checking email and for watching videos (on youtube, did not try other streaming sites).

Overall, the location of the hotel, the comfortable beds, and spaciousness of the suites were the only positive.  The inefficient staff, the lack of parking availability (especially when its paid parking and when there are large groups) and no wifi were the negatives.

Update: there have definitely been some improvements to the hotel.  The hotel has been renovated and now the hotel looks more modern and fresh.  The service at the hotel has also gotten better.  The spacious rooms remained the same, but the interiors and the bedding have been updated to provide a nice and relaxing room.  The parking and the gym situation both need to be updated - and the elevators need to be faster.  We spent a lot of time waiting, with other guests, for the elevator.  The improvements the hotel has made turned the decent hotel into a good hotel, but there are still other improvements that need to be made to go from a good to a great hotel.