DCA-DFW-SJC/SFO-HKG-SFO/SFO-DFW-DCA FEB 2019:
dissecting a 'miles run'
There are too many layers to this airborne onion to examine every one. Bottom line, however, is that this was a “miles run.” This is the red-flag phrase that exposes those who have turned flying into a sort of hobby. Guilty.
Roughly speaking, a friend alerted us to a San Francisco-Hong Kong roundtrip on Cathay Pacific in Premium Economy. At around $800, it was less than we might pay for Cathay’s regular economy, Washington to Hong Kong roundtrip. So, even though this was to be a very brief trip – just a couple full days in Hong Kong – the “miles run” aspect was worth it. First, I received 19,396 miles for the trip. Actual miles would’ve been 13,800, but Premium Economy translates to a more generous calculation. Second, with the only prior 2019 trip being a DC-Tampa roundtrip for Mom’s birthday, this trip brought me within 2,500 “Elite Qualifying Miles” and $52 “Elite Qualifying Dollars” of securing the lowliest elite status with American Airlines for 2020. (For Gold, that’s $3,000 and 25,000 miles.) Why bother shooting for any elite status? Primarily, my bank of “500-mile upgrades,” while not particularly valuable, is worthless without status. Without status, the upgrades can only be applied to full-fare coach tickets. I don’t know that I’ve ever purchased a full-fare coach ticket. Third, flying is a hobby. People throw their resources into all sorts of things that may not have an obvious benefit, whether that’s buying expensive kitchen gear, maintaining elaborate gardens, collecting everything from guns to guitars, what have you. My hobby is flying. Not travel, necessarily, but flying. Getting to spend a couple days in Hong Kong is priceless, but so is getting to sample Cathay Pacific’s Premium Economy.
PEOPLE THROW THEIR RESOURCES INTO
ALL SORTS OF THINGS
THAT MAY NOT HAVE AN OBVIOUS BENEFIT
So, how was the trip?
Before we could even board the CX A350 in San Francisco, we needed to get ourselves to California. For both the husband and me, we had enough miles to spend 100,000 for two domestic first-class tickets on American. Considering that 50,000 miles may be the cost for a domestic first-class ticket to get from D.C. to, say, Chicago or Charlotte, or as far as a transcontinental flight, I’ll take the transcon! A great miles value.
The obvious routing was a midday departure to SFO via Chicago. But Chicago in February? Considering that missing our Cathay flight would essentially mean we were SOL, depending on a mid-winter connection in Chicago made me unusually anxious. So, instead, I picked the Dallas connection that departed at 6-something a.m., heading to San Jose. Our travel pal, already in the Bay Area, not only offered to pick us up when we arrived in San Jose, but he also grabbed a nearby hotel room on points, giving us a space to collect ourselves ahead of the long haul to Hong Kong, about 12 hours hence. A great pal, indeed!
I’m going to let photos do most of the reporting from here onward….
Something about every journey beginning with a single step.... In this case, up well before dawn for a 6 a.m. departure, DCA-DFW, it began with a Lyft to the airport and groggy disorientation. Welcome to the Admirals Club and my sunshiny morning face!
The morning cabin is sometimes a moody blue, sometimes just bright. But there you have the newer AA domestic first-class seat, along with seat-back entertainment. Newer as it may be, these seat still boast all the metal and plastic toggles I've come to associate with American. Notice the one between the two seats in front of us? Crank that to lower a little table. Or, crank the toggles at your knees to free these elaborate cocktail wings that look like something straight out of 'Transformers.' That brings us to the orange juice. But it's not just juice; it is a Pre-Departure Beverage (PDB). This offering – or lack thereof – is widely used by frequent fliers as a test of crew quality. Woe unto the cabin attendant who skips a blogger's PDB! Then, below us, gorgeously lit D.C. greets the day. Off we go!
Having slept through the entirety of the roughly three hours from Washington to Dallas/Fort Worth, I was thrilled to get breakfast on this second morning flight. With a tight connection, Admirals Club vittles weren't an option, even with avocado toast on offer. (Something, I'll admit, I've never actually tried. Cuz butter!) You'll notice the hot towel. It's a flimsy little thing, but I'll never say no to giving my face and hands a hot, damp once-over. You may further notice that, while you couldn't describe my marriage as 'May-December,' we are a 'Mimosa-Bloody Mary' sort of couple. And while the breakfast was dandy, where American really shines is its biscuits. *Homer drool* Also, I'm addicted to carbs, so there's that.
And another thing! What happened to the seat-back screen?? Not this time around. The husband is complementing his bloody Mary with American's abundant 'stream to your own device' content.
The green hills signal we're nearly at San Jose. Fernando' s face signals that he uses moisturizer. He's a hard read. My face signals that I may be looking for a new hobby. Then again, that cloud view through two windows to myself...? I will never tire of these breathtaking scenes in the sky. I am happy right where I am, thank you very much.
This is the aforementioned interlude of about a dozen hours. We arrived on a beautiful San Jose morning around 11 a.m. Our pal picked us up and off we went to an airport hotel. After a nap and a shower, we grabbed dinner at Elephant Bar with our pal, and his San Jose-based sister and brother-in-law. They generously picked up the tab! The family made their good-byes, and we three headed to the car-rental return at SFO ahead of our midnight-ish departure to Hong Kong.
The nighttime SFO Admirals Club was as empty as DCA's at dawn this particular February Sunday. So were the Cathay Pacific check-in counters. Notably, we get into the Admirals Club with the husband's AAdvantage Citi Executive card, not CX Premium Economy. As for check-in, PE passengers get to use a preferred line. But our lowly AA Gold status (oneworld ruby) would put us in a 'better' line. When there aren't any lines, no one seemed to care about any of this, aside from CX staff.
I need to make special mention of Viola Frey's World Civilization' hanging over our departure gate. I seem Trump, which made the piece somewhat foreboding. Perhaps that's the point. Regardless, I always appreciate an airport's investment in art.
And while this gate area seems calm in this photo, within 20 minutes it was a bit chaotic. But being midnight, the throngs were subdued. It was sort of like a zombie movie, but not the ravenous high-energy sort of zombies, but the lethargic, just milling about sort.
We're seated! First impressions weren't bad, judging by the look on my face. The slightly-larger-than-economy chair came with a great pillow. The blanket might've been nice, but I never opened it. The cabin wasn't hot, but I generally want to be as cold as reasonably possible to sleep. And PDB in real glass! Seems that's a hit-or-miss offering among airlines offering long-haul premium economy. This trip is also my only Airbus 350 experience at the time of writing. The cabin felt similar to Boeing's 787. Overall, this seat offered plenty of space. Still, started to feel a little cramped around Hour 12 of 14. It's also my impression that my regular Western carriers – American and British Airways – are happy to greet passengers in the galley, fully expecting people to want to stretch their legs, or pop in and ask for a beer or whatever. My experience with Asian carriers – Thai Airways and Cathay Pacific – is that the cabin crew very much prefers you stay put. 'You want something? Ring your little bell and we'll be right there. But DO NOT move about the cabin unless you absolutely must.' Casual and amiable versus crisp and attentive...?
According to the menus we received shortly after boarding, my very late-night supper was 'Stir fried prawns, XO sauce, mixed vegetables and egg fried rice,' hold the Oxford comma. For Fernando, 'Grilled US beef tenderloin with caramelized onion sauce, mash potatoes and green beans with red pepper.' The little square just north of the main? 'Grilled herb chicken with cabbage and carrot salad.' I enjoyed my prawns more than he his steak. There was a linguine dish on offer, but it included pine nuts, which now leave a horrible metallic taste in my mouth. I was hoping for a Sauvignon Blanc, as listed in the menu, but the crew couldn't find it. The white they did have on the trolley was Karlu Karlu Chardonnay Semillon. I'm usually not a Chardonnay fan, but this one I liked. The crew efficiently wheeled through some Häagen-Dazs afterward, but I was ready to sleep. After a nap, I caught up on 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.' The other shot of IFE screens isn't meant to illustrate the entertainment, but rather the seat pitch. The aisle passenger in front kept her seat essentially upright, while the dude in the window seat went full recline just as soon as it was allowed.
How do you know we've been flying for about a dozen hours? We're taking in a gorgeous sunrise near Taiwan. Also, Fernando's 'spokesmodel' veneer is beginning to fade. And, of course, breakfast! Bacon and eggs are obvious enough. I opted for "Stir fried vermicelli, chicken, preserved green mustard and choy sum." If you're hoping for a vegetarian breakfast option, better pre-order. Pasta will always make me happy. A passable croissant will make me happier! Add a little jar of Bonne Maman and I'm in heaven. Snacks were also available, but we never asked for 'em: "Cup noodles * assorted snacks * Mozzarella and pesto folded pizza" Didn't happen to see anyone else request 'em, either.
Landing in HKG, I had to say good-bye and thank you to the beautiful A350 that carried us to the other side of Earth. Then, off to see some Hong Kong! We could easily walk to Victoria Harbor's ferry port from our hotel, Ibis Hong Kong Central and Sheung Wan. Near the port, I stopped to appreciate this small memorial to 'comfort women,' sexual slaves of World War II. The iconic Peninsula hotel was not far from where we arrived on the harbor, on the Kowloon side, decked out in New Year lanterns. Back in Central, we hopped a double-decker electric bus and headed to a starting point for one of the urban hikes, allowing for some wonderful views of downtown HKG – Hey, Five Guys! – and then looking down on the skyline, as well as over to the crazy giant seahorse topiary at Ocean Park. The descent was even more exhausting than the ascent (largely because most of the ascent was in a taxi we caught after getting as far as the bus would take us), but it rewarded us with Lee Tung Avenue at the bottom. This glitzy, artificial shopping spot is hardly what you come to Hong Kong for. Still, I'll go anywhere for my favorite Pizza Express, which doesn't exist in the US. In that sense, LTP did not satisfy Hong Kong cravings, but did satisfy my globalist appetite. Plus, more pigs!
Nighttime Hong Kong was easily as engaging as anything we saw in the daytime. The light shows were just a taste. First, there was the ICC Sound and Light Show. The light is carried solely on the International Commerce Centre tower. You want the music? Download the app! We caught this from our room at the Ibis on the first night. For the second night, we crossed the harbor again to catch the nightly 'Symphony of Lights.' The crowds might've been thicker than usual, considering China was still celebrating the New Year and plenty of folks were traveling to celebrate. And celebrations don't get much more 'wow' than this. (Click the pics for movie clips!)
So, beneath yet another smiling New Year pig, queued passengers were stopped and questioned by security just before entering the jetway. Didn't seem to slow things down. Just more time for me to enjoy looking at our awaiting 777!
Being a 'miles run' and not a vacation, after a couple nights it was time to head home. While we took advantage of the incredibly efficient and affordable Airport Express train when we arrived, our return to the airport was by taxi. This gave us more time to enjoy the American Express Centurion lounge, courtesy of our travel pal's magic Amex card. What makes a glass of gratis Champagne all the sweeter? Views of planes, obvs! Boarding was a bit more involved than in San Francisco. U.S.-bound flights get an extra layer of security.
Settling into this Boeing 777 for the 12-or-so hours to San Francisco, I was surprised the seat seemed wider than its A350 counterpart. SeatGuru advised 19.5 inches of width on the 777, vs 20 on the A350. But hips don't lie, and this 777 seat was definitely more comfortable. Ample legroom on both, but only this flight included a stinky bare foot across the aisle. First round of drinks in plastic.
Lunch for me was a very bland 'roasted vegetables fusilli and cheese sauce.' The starter in the corner is 'smoked duck breast and couscous salad.' For Fernando, 'braised beef chuck, green beans, tomato, edamame and carrot pearl couscous.' Then we all screamed for ice cream. We each had the 'stir fried beef in satay sauce, mixed vegetables and steamed jasmine rice' for dinner. The sweet stuff is melon on the left, caramel custard on the right. Again, this was plenty, so neither of us sampled the 'snacks': cup noodles * assorted snacks * beef slider with cheese.
Throw in a couple of movies, and – boom – we were landing in San Francisco. Our travel pal was departing immediately. He has far more confidence in scheduling. He also has much higher status with American Airlines, meaning he has access to more options in a pinch. I, on the the other hand, planned as though we might face an eight-hour delay arriving in SFO, possibly be rerouted by a typhoon, or sit quarantined on the tarmac due to a resurgence of avian flu. Accordingly, I'd reserved a spot out by the airport for us to spend the night. After all, I could surprise the husband with dinner downtown, since it was Valentine's Day. That also afforded us a chance to see some San Francisco-based friends. All that went without a hitch. The next day, however, the weather was not so cooperative, laughing loudly at our chances of an on-time departure.
Back in the Admirals Lounge that had been so empty ahead of our departure to Hong Kong, the place was now full to the brim. We should've recognized that as a warning of weather playing havoc with SFO flights. It may have looked like a pretty day, but those odd rainclouds were apparently no so pretty from above. We were also distracted by our attempt to move into first on our DFW-DCA flight, which we were denied when booking. But, thanks to the Seat Alerts app, I knew there was space. So did the friendly counter agent in the lounge. "I don't know why they didn't give you these seats to begin with!" Neither do I, Sister. And thank you!
Arriving at our gate, we were still hopeful we could make our Dallas connection. But the news kept changing. Little delays got longer and longer. By the time we departed, our missed connection was a foregone conclusion. I spent time in the air online, getting us a room at DFW and booking a connecting flight the next day. Thank you, inflight WiFi and Hotels.com award nights! Despite the headache, I was still happy. After all, the leg from SFO to DFW was my first encounter with an American Airlines 787.
We may have been late, but what a beautiful plane! Even the uncooperative weather was nonetheless beautiful. The crew got us underway immediately, but didn't forget the PDB! Since we were missing our connection anyway, I wish this flight could've been longer. The only challenge was avoiding eye contact with the forward-facing passenger immediately across from my rear-facing seat. Awkward.... Though I really did enjoy this flight, I can tell by the selfie that I'm starting to drag. The miles run is starting to take its toll.
Let's start with some warm nuts! As well as a nice white and some water. Then, bring on the cheeseburger. I feel certain it's a California thing, but lettuce from the source is incredible. A bucket of nothing but that butter lettuce would've been fantastic. But the menu read 'chesse burger' and that's what I ate. And thank you, Sir Kensington, for your precious little box of catsup, mayonnaise, and mustard.
After landing, I knew I needed one more shirt for the final leg home. I'd calculated my wardrobe with precision, so I wasn't prepared for another day of travel. Thanks airport Johnson & Murphy! And, as mentioned, I was able to cash in a free Hotels.com night at the DFW Hyatt Regency – not to be confused with the DFW Grand Hyatt! The latter is connected to the terminal. To reach the former, we followed a seasoned information-desk guy's advice and skipped the shuttle, instead making a long trek on foot through a parking garage. We rewarded ourselves with drinks and flatbread in 'ACES Lobby Bar' before crashing for the evening ahead of our newly scheduled 8am departure to DCA.
And there it is! The last plane for the last leg, DFW-DCA. The outstanding flight attendant made that last leg all the better by sensing my carbohydrate addiction. A biscuit AND a cinnamon roll? Don't mind if I do! Breaking Bad, breaking bread...? Pick your poison. Mine goes best with butter.