Wednesday, 24 February 2016

With record profits, Qantas gives back to passengers with new lounge and free domestic wifi

Profits up, and buyback offer
Qantas has been through a few years of horror, even going cap-in-hand to government for a loan guarantee.  After a program of rather drastic cost cutting and staff retrenchments which even saw them remove the little sprig of flowers from the toilet vases on domestic flights, Qantas has returned to profit. Partly helped by the plunge in international fuel prices, Qantas recorded a 234% profit climb this half year to $688 million., The company's share price has roughly tripled since a low in 2014 and the present day, (Damn! I wish I had invested in December 2013).

Instead of a dividend for shareholders, it is offering $500million worth of share buy-backs, which should push up the price of existing shares.

The major performer has been the international division, which has raised profit about 360%.

So what does this mean for Qantas customers?
Well it almost certainly doesn't mean any cut in fares. What it does mean is a bit of spending on infrastructure by Qantas, and that will start with a new Club Lounge in London.
Secondly, it means some added amenity for domestic passengers, with the provision of free, yes, apparently free wifi on domestic flights care of the new satellites launched care of the National Broadband Network.

New Heathrow Club Lounge
It will be in Terminal three with a capacity of roughly 230 people, but won't be open until early 2017 - so a year away. You can expect a development of the same look and feel as seen in the new Singapore, Hong Kong, LA and Perth lounges.

Qantas rendering of the new Heathrow Terminal 3 split level Qantas Club.

It will be the usual Neil Perry/Rockpool curated cocktails, menu and dining experience with the usual business, children and bathroom/shower facilities.

All the usual suspects (Qantas Club members, Business and First passengers, Platinum and Gold Qantas Frequent Flyers, and eligible passengers travelling on a partner airline with a QF code. No One World status passengers are mentioned - but it would be strange if they were excluded as this is not true of any other Qantas lounge.

Free Domestic WiFi - at last!
This has been an annoying omission from the Qantas domestic product. Qantas are partnering with ViaSat and using the NBN network to provide 737 aircraft retrofitted with wi-fi equipment, with eventual rollout to the fleet of A330's and B737's. Again this we are a year away from the intended first installation. The promise is to have 'download speeds in the air similar to what they're used to on the ground' according to CEO Alan Joyce. I will believe that when I experience it!

The press release also promises that this will:
 '. . . open up a lot of potential to improve in-flight entertainment . . .'
 - which is suitably vague. The release also promises that Qantas is:
 ' . . . examining options for high-speed wi-fi across its international and regional fleet.' 
I hope they are, otherwise their product will be hopelessly behind Qantas's American, middle east airlines and other competitors.

Oh - and did I mention that it will be free? Forgive my cynicism, but I bet it will be like some hotel chains - free for slow speed or a limited download, and paid, for higher speeds, or higher downloads. I welcome being proved wrong.

Fun Fact - ViaSat is the company that American Airlines is ditching Gogo for (lawsuit was pending), to supply satellite wi-fi.

2Pax Wisdom
Good to see Qantas move into profit, and the slash and burn approach to staffing and passenger amenities stop. The new lounge at Heathrow will give a great One World option over the unremarkable BA lounge, and will add to the choice of American Airlines or Cathay Pacific lounges. Wi-fi - thank goodness and about time. Looks like we might get NBN in the air before I get it at my house in Sydney!

Monday, 22 February 2016

I was a 787 virgin. And now I've taken the whole 9. Is it a dream - liner?

Our trip: Sydney to London via Saigon, return. Side trips to Newquay and Tromsø via Oslo
Vietnam Airlines VN51 
Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon (SGN) – London Heathrow (LHR)
Monday, December 07, 2015 
Depart: 01:05 
Arrive: 07:40 - adjusted to 10:41
Duration: 13h 35m 
Aircraft: Boeing 787-9 
Seat: 3D (Business Class)

Vietnam Airlines 787-9 Dreamliner test flight. Image courtesy

This was a trip of firsts - or the deflowering of a virgin - whichever way you would like to think of it.

Boarding and Departure
Boarding was through the forward door, just forward of the business class cabin, economy boarded through the door at the back of the business class cabin.  It meant that we didn't get hordes of economy passengers traversing the cabin to board.

This time I was prepared for Vietnamese efficiency, and the lack of pre-emptive service - but actually, the crew on this flight - as would be demonstrated later - had the patience of saints. Our plan for this flight was - get on, quick drink, change into our old Virgin Australia PJ's (Vietnam Airlines doesn't offer them - pity, I would have liked a little áo dài to relax in), go to sleep for as long as possible, wake and have breakfast. This plan had to be rapidly adapted as you shall see.

Seat and Amenity
Part of my reason for deciding on Vietnam Airlines, was the plane. I had never flown on a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, and this was almost a brand new plane. And, I have never experienced 'reverse herringbone' seats. The advantage reputedly being that every business class seat gets direct aisle access. Not in a British Airways business class sense - where you have to face your neighbour, and step over their feet when they are reclined, but in a - 'here's the seat, there's the aisle, and I'm right next to it with nothing to climb over' sense.

Vietnam Airlines 787-9 seatmap. Check it out.
Not 8 across (Economy) not 7 across (Premium Economy), just 4 across with direct aisle access

My inner airline nerd had been following the story of these planes and interiors for a few months, so I was eager to try, as well as appreciating the great deal Vietnam Airlines was offering for business class.  Boy was I ready to board by the time it was getting close to 12:30am, after vamping in the hotel and the barely adequate Vietnam Airlines lounge for the last 8 hours.

The 787-9 reverse herringbone middle seats (3D and 3G) on Vietnam Airlines. 
The armrest is retractable, and there is a terribly useful little triangular storage unit at seat level beside it,
lus a recess for headphones and a water bottle on the right.

Does this photo make the business class pods look a bit close together? Well they were. Pitch is 42". They feel very tightly spaced.

There are a couple of problems with the seat: If you have a travelling companion, then unless you bring the whole seat forward (which you can do) then it is quite hard to converse, or enjoy the company of your partner. In recline, the seats are comfortable to sleep on, but that foot hole is pretty tight especially if you sleep on your side as I do. I wasn't too bothered by it on this flight - probably too tired - but my partner found it annoying.

Animated safety video - no live demonstration. Screens flip out about 90º to face your seat.
You can see that our plan to start with a glass of champagne was going well.

Safety Video while taxing to our runway. Shortly to be experienced as deja-vu.
About 45 minutes into the flight, just as meal service had begun, there was some sudden rushing about by flight attendants. Never a good sign. Then two appeals for any doctors or medical staff to identify themselves. Really not a good sign. More staff rushing about. A little over an hour into the flight, the captain announced we were returning back to Saigon due to a medical emergency. Oh well - quick change back out of my PJ's, while I ignored the temptation that Ben at onemileatatime has succumbed to before.

Another glass of mystery champagne - although - I think it was the below, but on the other hand, I never saw the bottle.

Champagne - in the menu listed as Heidseck 'Monopole' - but I never saw the
bottle on any of the Vietnam Airlines flights, so who knows.
Crew suspended food service, and with brusque efficiency readied the plane for landing.

We got back to Tan Son Nhat International Airport in about an hour and were held on the plane for a while as the stricken passenger was removed. Cabin staff were pretty amazing at making it all work smoothly.

We eventually de-planed, without much information about when or how long, or what would happen. We returned to the lounge, and resigned ourselves to our fate. In these situations, it's either going to be quick - fast refuel and off again, or it's going to take a while and then crew will run out of operational hours and we would probably all end up at hotels for the night, or endlessly wait at the airport while a new crew was assembled.

Fortunately - although seemingly interminable, the wait was around an hour before we were re-boarding the plane. A concerned passenger asked if the stricken passenger was OK? The senior female flight attendant replied with Asian efficiency, that she didn't know and since the passenger was no longer on the flight, was no concern of hers. Writing it now, it sounds a little heartless, but at the time, it was more about focussing on the here-and-now needs of the passengers, rather than looking back.

So another first - I have experienced lots of minor mishaps on aircraft: severe turbulence; a 'go-round' aborted landing that had the passenger next to me willing her entire estate to me; and a nervous flyer who left me with permanent scars from her nails digging into my hand at the anxiety of landing; and even a diversion to the middle of nowhere in China due to bad weather, with all Chinese passengers threatening mutiny, but this was my first return due to medical emergency on an intercontinental flight.

After the previous leg of out trip, I knew not to expect pre-emptive service, but to ask for what I needed, and it would be given warmly and graciously. Given I slept off and on for the rest of the flight, my demands were not great. Another bottle of water, and a Bloody Mary with breakfast were may major requests.

I changed again into my PJ's and went straight to bed as soon after take-off as possible, but, you can see the supper selection below.

The supper menu looked suitably light, but I passed on it in favour of sleep.

I was hungry by the morning, and about 2.5 hours out of Heathrow, the breakfast service began. Pho is one of my favourite dishes in the world - so that's what I ordered, and it was delicious, but not outstanding.

With a flight out of Vietnam, you are probably safe ordering anything Vietnamese,
or, due to their period of colonialism, anything French.

Given the need for sleep - we faced a busy day on our arrival in London - other than viewing the flight map, I only watched more episodes of 'House of Cards' series 3 on my iPad. The video selection looked pretty much the same as our 777 flight from Sydney to Saigon - so not much selection, and not much I wanted to see. I did like the map though.

The cocktails listed in the menu looked interesting, but I stuck with champagne before sleep - water while attempting to sleep, and a Bloody Mary with breakfast. Oh come on! The sun is over the yard-arm somewhere in the world.

The signature drinks did look tempting. Sorry about this cobbled together image from two photos on my iphone.

Obviously, our landing and flight time had been much affected by the medical emergency. Our estimated arrival time was adjusted from 07:40 to 10:41am, and we only completed one turn of a holding pattern before landing, a little after the estimated time. Our London hosts - being the son of a BOAC pilot, was already onto our flight delay by the time we contacted him.

Our route from Saigon to London. Our arrival was delayed by 3 hours,
almost exactly the time taken by the medical emergency.
2PAX wisdom
There were a lot of firsts on this flight: First Medical emergency turn-back, first flight on a 787, first experience of reverse herringbone. Some I would repeat, and others not-so-much.

Its hard to be fair with a flight experience like this. The delay made me tired and a bit cranky, and that was on top of already being tired and cranky due to waiting for 8 hours from our hotel checkout time, even though we spent most of it in the lap of luxury in the Club at the Asiana.

I liked the reverse herringbone, although I think the configuration they have used here makes it a bit tight. For instance, if you have your seat in any kind of recline mode, then the base of the seat moves forward, and if you want to get out of your seat - you have very little 'knee room' to swivel if you know what I mean. The 787 is quieter than a 777, but not as quiet as the A380, which is still my all time favourite aircraft to travel on.

The 787-9 joins the A380 as the two aircraft that I don't end up feeling a bit groggy and headachy on and that's a blessing. I suspect that its due to the higher cabin pressure and humidity.

Service, food and beverage were all average to good and given the medical emergency, the flight crew were wonderful.

Would I travel on this aircraft again? Yes, especially if it was at this price. Is the service on Vietnam Airlines as good as Malaysian or Qantas, or Virgin business class - no, but then you pay twice the price.

More stories from this trip

I didn't think I was a secret amenity pack hoarder with a problem until I opened my Amenity Pack Storage Facility.

Yes, it's tragic, but I do have an amenity bag storage area in my bathroom. I don't keep every one, you understand. Some I leave on planes, or in hotels. Prizes will be given if you can name all the airlines these bags come from.
One of the nice parts of flying towards the front of the plane is the amenity packs the airlines give you. It's like a gift-with-purchase - you think you are getting something for free, but in fact you have paid a very high price for not very much.

Still its always nice to receive them, with the strange expectation that there will be some surprise, when in fact the contents are invariably the same: socks, eyeshades, moisturiser, earplugs, a comb/brush you will never use, a toothbrush and paste, which you will, and lip balm. Ok, I think that just about sums it up. Oh, once I got hand sanitiser which I now think should be an essential. Another time I got a sticker to put in an obvious place that said 'Wake me up for Duty Free' - as if!

Usually the moisturiser, toothpaste and lip-balm are from some cosmetics company you have never heard of, or are so niche, that no one else has, unless you read those little paragraphs under pictures in  product spreads in groovy magazines like Monocle, or Wallpaper, or high priced financial publications like the Australian Financial Review's 'Life and Leisure' pull out.

A famous 'Parfums' brand or micro-niche?
Still you can see this is well worn, to the point of its faux suede actually disintegrating.

The products also seem to be packaged for a race of very small people. You go to use the moisturiser, and find there is so little, that you can only moisturise half your face. Or - as I discovered, a regular sized lip balm, but that only had about a quarter of the 'stick' that you get when you pay actual cash money for the product.

My point is, I seem to have developed a bit of a problem. I have become an amenity pack hoarder.

You see when I get home after a trip, I usually empty out the packs, and store what is useful - the moisturiser, the toothbrushes, the lip balm. I either use them in my normal life (the lip balm) or use them when I travel (the toothpaste). I used to hold on to the things I don't even need - but after finding that I had a drawer full of fold up brush/comb thingies still in their plastic bags, I decided that they needed to go to a better home: bulk recycling.

But for some reason I find it really difficult to let go of the actual bags.

A few chargers and plug adaptors. I also have one which contains Apple product rechargers
and every-country-in-the-world power plugs.
Now unlike the comb/brush thingies, the bags do actually have some uses. Some can be used as overflow wet packs for other travel. Some to house annoying electronics ephemera. Some you can give to small children, who value them like fairy talismans, but that still leaves me with a cupboard full.

Maybe I should have a garage/yard sale of them? People have paid money for stranger things.

What is the collective noun for a group of amenity packs?

A Hostess? A flight? A left turn?

Did I mention that there is a prize for the best collective noun, and the best suggested use?

Thursday, 18 February 2016

What should an airport lounge be all about? Vietnam Airlines Lounge - Saigon

What should an airport lounge be all about?
The best airport lounges are havens from reality. Little cocoons that allow you to work, or relax, or chill, or just cope with your own anxiety about travel.

For me, they act like the curtain raiser for the trip. A kind of non-space before you are transported to a holiday, or a meeting, or to rejoin family or loved ones.

Sometimes they are luxurious (Qantas - I'm still waiting for my invitation into the first class international lounge in Sydney!). Sometimes exclusive like the Qantas Chairman's Lounge and the Virgin Australia equivalent.

Sometimes they are barely adequate.

Tough competition
Vietnam Airlines lounge at Tan Son Nhat International Airport, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) sits fairly and squarely on the adequate side. Sorry about using that swear word. It is relatively comfortable, wasn't overcrowded when we were there, and it will keep you fed, watered and toileted as required.

I am willing to concede that my view may be influenced by the circumstances of my visit to this lounge. Our first visit was at about 11pm at night, having spent the last 6 or so hours in the loving embrace of the Intercontinental Asian Saigon's Club Lounge, and staff. Our next meeting was the same morning at about 3am. I just wanted to get on my way to my first northern hemisphere Christmas

I was definitely tired, and arguably emotional, and really just wanted to get on a plane and go to sleep. Assessment of the lounge was not uppermost in my mind.

Not good, not really bad, just adequate. We ended up spending far too long here.

I wasn't going to review this lounge, so I only took a couple of not very good shots. There are two great things about this lounge. It has fantastic views of the tarmac, and our plane was parked at one of the two very close airbridges.

Here is an overhead shot which I have borrowed from
I hope he doesn't mind but it gives you a better idea of the scale and layout.
The food selection looks pretty downmarket, but given the time of night - I didn't sample anything. Good selection of beers, and a red and a white wine, no sparkling, - oh and a bunch of pre-packaged stuff that was unmemorable but in the potato chip/wasabi covered chick peas style. Staff tidied and renewed the food offering, and were perfectly pleasant, but we had just been coddled by the staff at the Asiana, so they had a lot to live up to.

Bathrooms, tired but clean.

Look - I won't go on. Suffice it to say - this is adequate. You wouldn't build a trip around it and you wouldn't want to get stuck here for too long, but its fine . . . better than some . . . not as good as many . . . .

Can we board yet?

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Intercontinental Asiana - Staff attention make it a little gem in Saigon

Club Room at the Intercontinental Asiana Saigon - towards the bathroom

We stayed at the Intercontinental Asiana Saigon for one night on our way to London.

This is just a teaser. We had a longer 5 night stay on our return. I'll post a full review later.

Club room - towards the window, showing easy chair.

A layover of 9 hours is not something I look forward to - especially in a not great airport lounge - but its the price you pay for low business class airfares. Instead we decided to break our trip, get a good nights sleep, relax by the pool, check-out late, and then wait at the hotel in comfort until we trundled off to the airport at about 10pm the next day for our 1am departure for London.

Now, there are some truly great hotels in Asia - in Singapore and Bangkok especially, but until now, I had not associated Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City) as one of these. The Asiana has changed that opinion.

From the moment we got into our transfer car at the airport (Mercedes E class USD67 one way) until we were deposited back at the airport about 36 hours later the next day, I couldn't fault the service.

I'm a member of the Intercontinental Ambassadors Club, which costs USD200 a year, but has some great benefits including:
  • Guaranteed room upgrade 
  • Fresh fruit on arrival 
  • In-room mineral water
  • Welcome gift
  • Single room rate for double occupancy
  • Extended check-out until 4pm
  • Dedicated Ambassador check-in area
  • Complimentary pay-TV film per stay (with conditions)
  • Complimentary newspaper, delivered daily
  • Instant check-out 
  • Complimentary weekend night certificate (with conditions)
  • Elite status in IHG® Rewards Club and 5,000 points
  • Redeem points for rewards, including free nights
On the room upgrade and club access alone - this membership nearly paid for itself in one night. Here is the welcome letter:
Welcome letter, and we took advantage of almost all of the perks,
but the most important part was the lounge club access.

We were booked into a Superior Deluxe room, and the hotel upgraded us to the club floor, which meant we could stay in the club from our late checkout time through until our departure for the airport about 10pm the next day.

Bathroom from the corridor, towards the bedroom.
Bath to the right, shower and toilet to the left.
From the bathroom - shower to left, and door and wardrobe
across the corridor on the right.
Toto toilet, at what I think of as Asian squat height,
rather than european sit height.
Wish most toilets were at this height.
Too much information?

Our flight from Sydney arrived around 4:45pm in Saigon, which to us - still on Sydney time - was about 8:45pm.  By the time we had checked in at the club, made it to our room had our suitcases delivered and unpacked our overnight cases, it was time to return to the club for a few drinks and snacks, and a very warm welcome from the club staff.

The General Manager James Young dropped by and introduced himself - in fact he spoke to everyone in the club. This was a lovely touch. You can see why he's in hospitality - easy conversation, and a charming way of extracting himself to complete his rounds.

To celebrate our holiday, we stayed too late, drank too much, and then poured ourselves into the lift for the one floor transport to our room. Straight to bed for us. Tired but very happy.

Hotel room desks are often my bête noire - glass desks you can't use a computer mouse on,
chairs that do not support you properly for hours of work.
This setup avoided both those sins. And we go yellow orchids as well!

We surfaced about 9:30am to make breakfast before it finished at 10:30. We headed for the club lounge and consumed some fruit salad, cooked eggs to order, and flat white espressos.  We took our time, and the staff gave us more than fair warning that the buffet was about to close.

The rest of the day we took pretty quietly.  We went for a walk down the main drag (Dong Khoi) to the hotel we stayed at the last time we were in Saigon, 11 years ago - the Hotel Majestic, right on the river.

We also dropped into the ground level foyer of Saigon's newest five star hotel The Reverie. The concierge even helped us locate a couple of lacquer ware shops - even walking us to the first one, he asked us where we were staying, and then good naturedly said next time we should stay at his hotel.

The downstairs foyer demonstrating the restrained palette, and minimalist style of the rococo The Reverie.
That's what you get when you put too many Italian designers in one hotel!
Our afternoon was spent by the pool - enjoying the heat, the sun and the cocktails until about 3pm when we needed to sort ourselves out for check-out.

Water, sun lounge, cold towel, drinks, snacks and sun block. Perfect.

Back up in the club, the staff were aware we had a very late flight, so they set us up in a virtual private room, and fed us afternoon tea, followed by evening drinks and snacks. They were very attentive while we read, watched, and I caught up with a bit of work. Staff would pop by to check on our drinks, and then have a bit of a chat. Plenty of staff with plenty of time. At about 7:30pm the official drinks service was over, and the food was cleared, but one of the staff popped in and told us not to worry. We should just ask if we needed anything.

Afternoon tea in the club. mini bagels, prawn rolls, scones, strawberry tarts,
opera cake and chocolates, while we whiled away the afternoon.

Our own Christmas tree in our private little den in the club lounge
while waiting for our departure to the airport.

Well even with all that hospitality, food and drink, 6 hours of waiting between check out and when the hotel car was ready to take us to the airport, is a long time. A little after 10pm, they very professionally transferred us and our luggage, and took us to the airport, where of course there was a long wait for security before we reached another airport lounge. More about the Vietnam Airlines lounge later, and our unexpected 2nd visit the same morning.

View to the rest of the club lounge from our little nook.
We were sad to leave this oasis of a hotel, but excited to be on our way to see friends and relatives, and for me to have my first northern hemisphere Christmas. We weren't that sad really, as we knew we would be back in about 4 weeks to spend 5 more nights at the Asiana Saigon. In a way we were relieved - knowing that it was the right urban resort to chill out in on our way back to Sydney.

Saigon has changed in the 11 years since we last visited. New hotels, new skyscrapers and a superior level of hospitality expertise in this new - yet very old country.

Next stop London - well nearly. . .

More stories from this trip

Monday, 15 February 2016

CUBA - go now before they start direct USA to Cuba flights that will wreck the whole reason to go there

Gran Teatro de La Habana - a little hazy from the condensation in my camera lens

I went to Cuba in 2011.  (cue reason to post some photographs!) I partly went because there were rumours then that the Obama administration would re-open diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Cuba's infamous cars from the 1950's. Held together with a combination of wire, chewing gum and enthusiasm.
Hire one with the driver for a half day and tool around like you were in Happy Days.

Five years later and the ice has been broken. First up was the suspension of a swag of sanctions a year ago, and now,  in the next week or so, it looks like the USA and Cuba will sign air agreements to enable to first commercial direct flights between the two countries.

Heroes of the revolution - Can you name them?

It's not like its been totally isolated before, but it was difficult for USA citizens to make the trip. They had to do it via charter flights under some broad conditions ('educational purposes'), or travel via third country. Under the new arrangements you still have to fit into a category of travel, but the definitions are soooo wide, its hard to see who would be prohibited.

Gran Teatro de La Habana - the ballroom, which can double as an
extended foyer - beautiful, but falling apart.
For years Cuba has welcomed flights from other countries including Mexico, the EU, United Kingdom, and Canada - just not the USA. From AP:
The agreement allows 20 regular daily U.S. flights to Havana, in addition to the current 10-15 charter flights a day. The rest would be to other Cuban airports, most of which have far less demand than the capital. 
Apparently United and American were first off the cab rank to apply - but it is expected that competition might be stiff.

The thing is - much as I love the USA, it is the very isolation of Cuba from the influence of the United States that has made it such a desirable place to visit.

A street in Havana - full of live, full of decay, but no advertising.
Here's an example: there is no advertising in the street. None. No fast food signs.

If you do see signage, it will be a political poster or slogan - usually faded by years of sunlight, or a simple name of a hotel or shop. That's it. No advertising on bus shelters, or the sides of public transport. No billboards. No advertisements on the backs of shop receipts

A Havana mansion subdivided into rooms. There is a housing shortage in Havana.
Romanticising poverty is both a dangerous game, and a great temptation, so I hope I am correctly traversing the tightrope here. Cuba is full of life, and full of people full to the brim with life. It's boisterous, lived on the street, colourful, sensuous, confronting, joyful and wonderful. It's also immensely poor, falling apart, broken, probably corrupt, under resourced, and a little desperate.
I worry however that once those direct USA flight start, slowly the bad things of the west will creep in. Sure people will invest in infrastructure, and all the glorious buildings that have been preserved in their falling apart state will be restored. The downside will be the demolition of others, and the erection of anonymous business buildings that could be from anywhere. Havana will be blitzed by all the international brands, from the high to the low, from Louis Vuiton to KFC. It will become another 3rd world country in the grips of colonialism - for a 2nd time.

Gran Teatro de La Habana - the national dance company rehearsing - mesmerising.

Or maybe it won't.

Whichever way - go visit now, while it is still Cuba, where live music feels like its everywhere. While the romance of century old buildings - crumbling - can still be seen.

Hotel infrastructure is pretty dire in somewhere like Cienfuegos.
This was the best room in the best hotel in town. Please note swan towel art.
You get a lot of towel art in Cuba.
Visit the decorative arts museum - a house abandoned by its Jewish owners, together with its donated collection  curated by what feels like the Country Women's Association. No guard rails around exhibits, no guards falling asleep in chairs - only fervent advocates ready to explain the provenance of every object - in Spanish. You don't understand Spanish - no problem, they will gesticulate and mime until you get the meaning.

Feed on the generosity of spirit you will find in Cuba.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Airport Hotel Transfers – a luxury that is worth it

I don't remember any motorcycle helmets the last time I was in Vietnam - somewhere around 2005.
Wardrobes, chickens and families of 8 all on the same motorcycle - yes, but helmets - no.

Maybe its age, or maybe its income, but these days, I prefer riding in a pre-booked transfer from the Airport to my hotel.

Arrival Charm
I used to think the scrambling for the taxi, or in my backpacker days, the shuttle bus, or even public transport was part of the charm of arriving in a foreign country. It usually meant you had to change your money, attempt to translate some foreign language signage to locate your pick-up point, and try to communicate your arrival address, all of which required varying degrees of charm.

Emergency holiday shortening
Then one year, the father of my partner Mickaeli was ill and facing a major operation. We had booked our holiday to Thailand months before and now wanted to reduce its original 2 weeks down to one so we would be back in Sydney for his hospital stay. Our accommodation costs were suddenly halved, as was our time away. We decided we wanted to make all transport aspects of the trip as efficient and painless as possible. No time wasting arranging land transport, or wrangling luggage. We wanted every minute of this relaxing calm to count before the emotional storm of the major operation when we returned to Sydney.

We upped the standard of our hotel accommodation, and arranged private car transfers at every stage. There was also a practical aspect to this - our arrival in Bangkok was going to be extremely late, so the frequency of the usual transfer options was going to be reduced and we would probably be tired and possibly emotional.

Motorcycles, non functioning water features, parks

Love a man, at an airport, with a sign, with my name on it
Yes, we discovered the joys of arriving to be met by someone with your name on a sign - or these days your name on an ipad. Possibly makes us wankers.

On our recent trip to Vietnam - we used the Intercontinental Asiana hotel's transfer limousine. The man with the sign took our luggage - well most of it (we did have 6 pieces!) and guided us into the pick-up area, after phoning our driver. A black Mercedes S series, with cold towels, cold water, wifi and treats available arrived. Our luggage was carefully loaded, and the number of pieces confirmed with us, before we departed the airport. Our driver checked that music, seats and air conditioning were to our liking and gave us an estimate of our time to the hotel. We sat in the back noting the changes in the Saigon skyline over the 12 years since we had last been in Ho Chi Minh City, inbetween checking our emails, messages, facebook and instagram accounts, and assuring our nearest and dearest that we had arrived safely.

Definitely in Asia now - motorcycles, and electricity wires.

Final Words
Pre-booked private Airport to Hotel transfers, either using the hotel or another ground service make for a soft landing in a foreign land. Sure they are expensive, although sometimes not that much more expensive, but in my book, they are often worth it. Its a pity that good public transport options are not available in as many airports as they should be.

I also have a suspicion that using the hotels service, gets you treated better at your hotel, but more about that in the next post

Hotel limousine very ably negotiating Saigon traffic

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Qantas refurbishes 737-800 and installs the worlds smallest airline toilet cubicles

Did a quick weekend dash to Adelaide to celebrate my mothers 91st birthday.

Qantas refurbished 737-800
I flew Qantas both directions. One way in a regular 737 - the workhorse of Qantas's domestic fleet, and the return in one of their planes with an upgraded interior.

These upgrades to the 37 fleet were announced in late July 2015. They have 67 aircraft to upgrade, and at that point were promising it would happen within 12 months - so they have a little over 6 mths to complete the transformation.
New seat covers - quilted body, and leather(ette?) headrest

I was impressed with the new 'quilted' seat coverings, business class barriers, and deeper overhead lockers that encourage you to place your case sideways.
Refreshed cabin of 787-800 with new overhead lights and air vents,
and deeper overhead lockers. Still those drop-down screens, but straps to
hang your tablet from, and wifi entertainment streaming.
From Qantas publicity:
'Economy has evolved with our next-generation Boeing 737-800 aircraft.
Economy customers will experience the new Marc Newson styled seat with 30" pitch, 5" recline and 17.2" seat width.'
Surprisingly, they have managed to maintain 30' pitch in economy despite adding another row of 6 seats (economy goes form 156 to 162  plus 12 business). I think they gained the space from the back galley and the thinner toilets if these seat plans are to be believed.

The top seat map is the new 737-800 with 30 rows. See how thin the toilets are
and how the line of galley storage behind the toilets has disappeared.
Interestingly there is one less crew jump seat as well.

'Slimline' toilets are really, really slim.
The shock was when visiting the toilets. I think these are the thinnest toilets I have ever used on an aircraft. They have reduced the size, by removing the ledge that usually runs along one side, and having the hand basin jut into the 'standing' space in front of the toilet proper. Presuming the plans above are to scale - you can see the difference in size, and the lack of the side ledge.

I'm a kind of mid-size person, with broad shoulders, and I could not turn around without bumping into some part of this new 'slimline' room.

On the upside, the new business class looks great, as do the new class dividers.

Sorry about the lack of focus - but new diamond patterned
Business Class dividers, and new maroon coloured seats
I didn't get a chance to use Q-Streaming, as I had my own entertainment (2nd to last episode of Series 1 of The Leftovers).

Final Word
Go before you board if you want to avoid toilet claustrophobia.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Vietnam Airlines - Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Hey, that A330 is a 777!

Our trip: Sydney to London via Saigon, return. Side trips to Newquay and Tromsø via Oslo
Vietnam Airlines VN772 
Sydney (SYD) – Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon (SGN) 
Monday, December 07, 2015 
Depart: 12:00 
Arrive: 15:55 
Duration: 8h 22m 
Aircraft: Boeing 777-200ER 
Seat: 3H (Business Class)

If you remember from previous posts - this was the first leg of my first northern hemisphere Christmas. We had decided to trade cost for comfort, and opted for Vietnam Airlines business class for $4379, rather than paying an additional $2000 for the next most competitive airline.

The upside was the cost, and the chance to fly on VN's new 787-9's. The downside was that two legs would be with outdated product on A320's and we would have a 9 hour layover in Saigon on the way to London.  We turned our 9 hour layover into 36 hour flop and drop by spending a night at the Intercontinental Asiana in Saigon. Actually we spent a bit longer than that, but more about that later.

Plane Switch - A330 to 777
After doing a bunch of research back in April, it took until early August to book the airfares. This is partly because we have busy lives outside of travel, but also because the Vietnam Airlines 787-9 flights had commenced and that made me more comfortable about knowing we would be travelling on a new fresh product rather than VN's badly reviewed 777 business class product.

Sydney to Saigon (HCMC) Seats 2K and 2H in the 777-800, not the A330!

We were also expecting angled lie flat seats on the A330. This was not to be. Like a house brand replacing a name brand, or Coles to Aldi, or David Jones to Myers, or Barney's to Century 21, we went from A330 with angled lie flat seats to 777's with their old fashioned recliner seats. No one died, but another flight attendant lost a wing in hostie heaven.

I actually didn't even notice the substitution until I looked at the safety card. This was a daytime flight, so who needs a bed, even angled lie flat?

Boarding and Departure
We boarded through a separate Business Class entrance - and made our way to our seats, and had our coats taken by the flight attendant. They circulated with water, juice and champagne - as always I took the bubbles and the cold towel. We settled ourselves in, and noted that Mum and daughter (in hooker heels) were seated 2 rows directly in front of us.

We got away just after scheduled departure of 11:50 at about midday.

Pillow, blanket and cloth recliner seat in business class on VN 777

Seat and Amenity Pack
The Amenity Kit, branded Chopard was distributed soon after boarding, and contained:

Brush, Toothpaste and brush, lip balm, earplugs, socks, eyeshades,
moisturiser, signs to 'wake me up for duty free' (as if!) and contents card.
You also got, what we call 'Toilet Slippers' - which is what the Japanese have to go to the toilet in their stockinged feet, once shoes have been removed. I think these are very civilised. It means you can lounge about in your flight socks, and don your slippers when tooling around the cabin and bathrooms. Given the untidiness of other passengers in airplane bathrooms (do you wipe out the handbasin after use?) - I think slippers are a sanitary essential.

It's hard to tell if this is culture, or training, but service was rarely anticipatory. You needed to ask for things. If you asked, you got, efficiently, and with a smile. Once I got used to that - service was pretty seamless. Let me illustrate this. The menu contained no details of wines available. When the flight attendant was taking  meal orders she asked what drink I wanted before dinner, and what wine I wanted during dinner - red or white? However when I asked what they had available (during service), I was promptly shown all available (2 reds and 2 whites, and one champagne) - all done with a smile. It felt that it was more about Vietnamese directness, rather than a lack of skill at service. The same was true when needing a refill, not offered voluntarily, but swiftly despatched when requested.

Lunch Menu - I missed the 'Assorted instant noodles on request' at the bottom

You would not take a Vietnam Airlines flight for the gourmet food. On the other hand, you ain't going to go hungry either. Vietnamese and European options were provided, and served on a tray. Desert cart to end the meal. Lunch was offered about 2 hours into the flight at roughly 2pm Sydney time. I ordered the grilled prawn and panfried chicken - with as you can see, a Bloody Mary.
Amuse Bouche - minus one of them, but with Bloody Mary.

The entrée - as we Australians would call it,
or starter, soup and salad as those in the USA would say.
Asparagus cream soup, salad, and prawn and jellyfish with chilli and cucumber.
Sorry - no shot of the chicken. It wasn't that memorable. I did however have some cheese and fruit, but avoided the other sweet temptations on the cart. Since my intention was to have a bit of a post lunch nap, and then maybe a movie, I eschewed coffee, and instead had some cognac. Again - Vietnam airlines, not so keen on publishing the brand, and I never saw the bottle. It was the perfect pre nap drink though.

Cheese and fruit - moved from metal cutlery to plastic for this course.
Why? Don't ask me.

The screen was 'in-arm', so you had to do a bit of a dance, or at least deploy the tray table and pop-up screen in the right order - otherwise glassware would be damaged!

Entertainment options were pretty limited, but we knew this from scouting the Vietnam Airlines website prior to boarding. I tend to travel armed with an ipad full of options, so this was no biggie.

The options on the website are the same as they were for movies since March 2015 - but actually there were some newer options. On searching the system, they had Inside Out - the animated movie about children controlling their emotions - something I wanted to see - and maybe some skills I needed to learn! The in-arm screen was small, but clear, and so I enjoyed my cognac and movie.

Entertainment screen with Inside Out information,
with cognac, and 'toilet' slippers bottom left.

about 4 hours later (6pm Sydney time) and about 2 hours before landing in Ho Chi Minh City (at approx 4:30pm), we were offered a 'Refreshment' - which was really a light dinner. Sorry about my shakes with the menu card.

Sorry about the shake on this shot. Too much champagne?
I chose the Barbecued Pork, and another glass of champagne. Perfectly acceptable, but nothing special. That applies to the meal and the champagne.

Out landing was nothing special until we got out of the terminal, where that 35ºC heat was hinted at. We were soon through immigration and collecting our huge quantity of luggage (2 bags each), and looking for our hotel car driver. I love a man with a sign with our names on it in an airport.

Our driver navigating Saigon traffic. Note the overflow cases in the front seat.
You try packing for Vietnam and Norway in the same trip!

I love Asia.

Its been more than 12 years since we last visited Vietnam and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). It was good to be back, especially in the comfort of a black Mercedes limousine, with cool water, cool towels, and cool tunes playing on the stereo, as we acclimatised to sensational Saigon.

Nothing says 'Asia' like a giant father Christmas in the middle of Saigon.
Don't tell that guy on the motorbike that he can't phone and drive at the same time
Next stop - Intercontinental Asiana for one night before our onward journey to London on a brand new 787-9.

More stories from this trip