I was only a bit surprised to find a wide range of choices available for award flights from New York to Northern Germany in mid-March. After all, it is the middle of winter and most spring break folks are headed to sun and surf or other more traditional destinations. We had our choice of the non-stop United flight to Hamburg or taking a connection in Frankfurt and flying in to Hannover. Given our initial destination of Hildesheim is much closer to Hannover, plus the better flight time (9pm departure rather than 5:30pm) I figured we’d take the extra travel time. Plus it meant I’d get to experience Singapore Air in their economy cabin, rounding out the full set (I did suites a couple months ago and business a year ago). So, thanks to some MileagePlus points I got us booked on JFK-FRA-HAJ with a reasonable layover in Frankfurt for breakfast and a shower in the Senator Lounge.
We got to JFK a bit early so that we could have dinner. We considered the options in the Swiss lounge in T4 and quickly decided to have a real dinner instead. There is a branch of The Palm in the terminal and, despite some previous bad experiences with other airport steakhouses, we gave it a go. Mostly because it was the only reasonable meal option there. And it was surprisingly good. It was helped by our waitress Victoria who was old-school NYC in a good way. But the food was also quite tasty. And by virtue of sitting there rather than in the lounge we got to see this guy and his sparkly backpack. All sorts of good happening there.
Once on board we were treated to the bonus of having the middle seat between us empty. We almost got lie-flat coach but I was slow to jump into the seat across the aisle. Yeah, loads were light. That was good because the space on board isn’t particularly generous down the back of the plane. There is a foot rest which mostly just got in my way, preventing me from extending my legs under the seat in front of me. And the seats are the articulating ones so the recline slides the bottom forward a bit. Reclining decreases legroom. Yuck.
On the plus side, economy class got amenity kits (socks & a toothbrush) and earplugs/eye mask were available on request from the flight attendants. Also, free drinks with the dinner service, though it was really only beer & wine. Liquor was available but not on the drink cart so the delay in having the FA go to the galley to get it made it a rather unappealing option. The meal was OK. Nothing special, really, either good or bad. I suppose that’s about all one can really hope for in coach these days.
On the plus side, Singapore has quite a selection of movies loaded up on their IFE systems. Most were relatively new releases but there were a few from the archives as well. It took three reboots for my IFE to actually work properly (others around me had similar troubles) but once it got working it was pretty good. The in-flight internet was not working, making me 0/2 on trying that product out with Singapore Air. I’m happy my plan was to sleep and not be working.
Oh, and just because I can, a laviator shot on board showing off my RouteHappy shirt.
Overall I’d say that the timing of the SQ flight was still better than the UA option I had. But seat comfort would have been better on United, especially vis a vis personal space since I can get EconomyPlus for free. The meal was maybe a smidgen better on Singapore Air but with the later departure that matters less. And United’s IFE selection is sufficient for my tastes, maybe even better if you like the classics more than current cinema. In premium cabins there are a many more reasons to favor Singapore Air over United. In economy I’m not so sure about that choice. Especially if you’ve got elite status.
Seems to me that, in the interest of being able to more easily find awards, having a listing of all the long-haul routes, by alliance and region, would be useful. And I haven’t ever found a good collection of them so I decided to start building one. Shocking, right??
I’m sure you’ll also be shocked to learn that I started with Star Alliance and the transatlantic (TATL) routes. I’m defining TATL in this context as between North America and Europe. I know there are more flights than just these but I’m going to have a series of posts in the coming days breaking it down and adding to the collection. And I had to start somewhere. So here it is.
There are, by my count,
172 173 route/carrier combinations across the North Atlantic Ocean operated by one of the thirteen Star Alliance members with at least one flight in the regions. Some are seasonal but, if you’re looking for seats, this is probably a good place to start.
Putting them all on a single map is actually pretty useless, other than just to show how massive the coverage footprint is:
To make it slightly more useful here’s a collection of maps split up by carrier. Still sortof sloppy in some cases, but better.
And, if you prefer the data in a less graphical format, it is also available in a table format here.
If you can see any I’ve missed let me know and I’ll update the tables.
Unique North American Gateways:
Unique European Gateways:
The partnership between Virgin America and Singapore Air has deepened with the announcement this week of frequent flyer reciprocity between the two programs. Members in both programs will be able to earn and redeem points for flights on the partner. Virgin America is celebrating by offering 500 free points to all their members. Mostly great news, really, though the devil is in the details.
For Virgin America’s Elevate members the earning rates for Singapore Air-operated flights are pretty meager:
Yes, I get that Elevate is a revenue-based program rather than a distance-based one so the 1:1 ratio doesn’t necessarily line up perfectly. But a 70% earning rate for paid Suites cabin travel is pretty darn low. A paid business class ticket from San Francisco to Singapore will net 4,220 points or roughly $100 in Elevate credit. That same flight will earn between 10,000 and 17,000 points when credited to a Star Alliance partner of Singapore Air; it is hard to value that at less than the $100 Elevate is offering and quite easy to do better than the $100 level.
Redeeming Elevate points for travel on Singapore Air is similarly challenging. A return trip in business class on SFO-SIN rings in at 95,000 points. Just over 22 round trip flights will net you enough points to redeem for one. That’s roughly double the rate required from most other Singapore Air partners.
For short-haul redemptions in SE Asia, however, the Elevate option may be a reasonable one. Singapore to Bangkok is only 6,000 points and $46 in taxes/fees for a return trip in economy; it is 13,000 in business. That’s roughly $200-350 worth of points and fees. The next closest I can find is 20,000 from ANA or 25,000 points from a host of other carriers for an economy class ticket. Redeeming Elevate points would be a win there, at least compared to the other programs. Or you can look at is as a paid business class SFO-SIN gets you a free economy onward to Bangkok at some later point. Not necessarily the best deal but not completely awful either. And with 136 new routes now available plenty of opportunity to suss out the deals. Just don’t expect a lot of premium cabin inventory to show up, especially on long-haul routes.
For Singapore Air’s KrisFlyer members earning on Virgin American-operated flights actually looks like a pretty good deal. The accrual rates are a minimum of 100% of the miles flown with a 50% bonus for C, D and J class tickets. No bonus for Main Cabin Select but that’s not too surprising. The redemption rates on Virgin America metal are a bit complex, and not particularly great (40K for transcon return in economy) but there is an option for Main Cabin Select redemption if you’re in to that. It is not clear what fare bucket the awards come out of so access to the seats may be limited.
Overall this is a solid partnership, especially for KrisFlyer members. And there are even a few gems in there for the Elevate members, too.
I woke up this past Sunday morning and was perusing my Twitter feed (you are following me there, right??) when I came across an interesting tweet from @MileValue. In short, he was frustrated at the apparent lack of award space from Sao Paulo to Europe. If the rumors are to be believed, it is simply impossible. And so he put out a challenge:
Given nothing better to do, I unleashed the power of my Star Alliance Award Search tool on the challenge. I loaded up all three routes and every day from February 15 through December 31, 2013. Then I went and got brunch and came back to check on the results. It seems that @MileValue was sortof correct. Looking through the results there were not a ton of dates with premium cabin seats available on the TAM-operated flights. Inventory was surprisingly wide open for GRU-Madrid between June 27 – August 1, but not much else. At that point I basically walked away from the project, knowing that there was some space but not a ton.
But today I’m sitting in a jury duty waiting room, desperately hoping to not be picked and I needed something to do so I’m looking over the data in more detail. Filtering for only flights offering business or first class (the initial challenge was any seat in any cabin) availability, looking at all carriers and all European gateways I came up with more than 350 options. And that’s even after excluding the phantom F inventory from Lufthansa. It turns out that perhaps we were asking the wrong question on Sunday.
Nearly 200 flights have first class inventory and more than 250 have business class (about 100 have both). Not every carrier is always available. Neither is every gateway. But there are a lot of dates available from May through December. TAM is only available from mid-May through July but other carriers have broader options. And TAM also has their Milan and Paris flights showing quite a few dates available. The raw(-ish) data is here.
If I limit the results only to economy class flights there are more than 600 route/date combinations with seats available. Milan, Paris and Madrid are, again, the most commonly available destinations but Barcelona, Munich, Zurich, Lisbon and even Porto show up somewhat regularly as available. Oh, and I’m not including the various options which involved transiting Buenos Aires, Mexico City or various North American gateways. Those would add a lot more flight options.
This is just a point in time snapshot of the inventory. I have no idea how much is still available today. And obviously this doesn’t mean that there is always a flight available when you are looking. Maybe getting that award will require an extra connection or moving a day or two for finding seats. But don’t be dissuaded by rumors of destinations supposedly impossible to get award seats into or out of. Turns out the seats are more available than you might think.
Anyone have another route or city they’re interested in seeing a compilation of data on? Turns out these aren’t all that hard to generate, though I do have to be a bit careful about the number of queries I’m running.
Adding on an extra segment from Hong Kong to Bangkok as part of our award trip to try the Singapore suites was basically free. Same points and more or less the same taxes. And when first class seats showed up on the new A380 from Thai Airways the decision to grab them was a no-brainer. I was very, very excited to see the different first class products and compare them. Plus, the stopover in Hong Kong didn’t completely suck.
Most of our time pre-flight was spent visiting Hong Kong rather than napping in Thai’s Royal First lounge in Hong Kong. Maybe that was a mistake, though I still think it was some of the best dim sum I’ve ever had, so not a horrible idea. We did shower in the lounge and enjoyed some snacks prior to the flight. There was also an option for menu service but I didn’t really look at the menu so I’m not sure how extensive the choices were. The first class side of the Thai lounge was a small step up from the business class side I’ve generally been on. More space and better booze, but not a dramatic difference like Thai has in Bangkok.
The Thai A380 First Class seat is not a suite with a sliding door, so in that regard it is a minor downgrade from Singapore Air or Emirates‘ offering. Other than that minor difference, however, I’m not so sure there is a lot to separate it. Still a ton of space – my bags still fit under the ottoman – and quite comfy. And it converts to a flat bed which I had quite a nice nap on. I would have absolutely no problem taking this seat on a long-haul trip and would expect to sleep quite well in it.
For passengers in the middle pair of eats the divider console is reasonably wide, making for a large space between the two. And there is a privacy screen which can slide up to the top of the seat edge if more separation is desired.
There is also a small lounge space just forward of the cabin, where Emirates has one of their lavs. There are a few seats – VERY firm cushions – and space to congregate and chat if desired. Not a lot of action there on the short flight we had but I can imagine it gets some use on the longer trips.
And on the other side up front is the lavatory. It is similar to the Emirates first class lav in terms of space – which is to say HUGE – but no shower and not nearly as ornate. There is a sitting area separate from the "business" section for changing, applying makeup and the like.
Also, it turns out that taking a photo of yourself in a mirror without looking completely deranged is harder than it should be.
I had initially tried to order the book-the-cook option for the flight. Turns out there were some issues with that on their website. LOTS of issues, actually, like it mostly didn’t work. Plus we were originating outside of Bangkok so the massive list of choices really was only 5 or 6. Still, we had a rather enjoyable meal on board. The food all tasted like I expected it to based on the descriptions and there were several choices of main courses to please most palettes.
I honestly wish I remember more about the meal but it was a few weeks ago now and I was already pretty much zonked by the time we got to that point in the trip.
The screen is huge. Absolutely tremendous. And they have a tail camera, available throughout the flight. I love that sort of thing.
Beyond that, the selections on the IFE are, as is oft my experience with Thai, limited and mediocre. They were better on this flight than I remember from my prior trips and better than my next flight was on an older configuration. Still, not a ton of choices. I’d be mildly bothered by that if I really cared about having a ton of movies to watch on a plane.
The A380 also included OnAir internet connectivity. Much like the prior flight on Singapore Air, however, it was not in service. I’m not sure if that was a one-off thing or if the systems generally aren’t active yet, but it was slightly disappointing to not be able to try it out.
The service was quite consistent with my other experiences on Thai, which is to say incredibly inconsistent. I know that my pre-flight service was somewhat limited because I was walking around the plane taking pictures and such. But even once I was belted in and we were flying the crew was a bit hit-or-miss. Not bad, really, in any way, but also just not really the "smooth as silk" which Thai suggests their product offers. It was nowhere near bad enough for me to suggest that others would be better to book away from the flights, but there were plenty of small inconsistencies which were unfortunate for a first class product.
The new A380s offer a significantly better hard product in first class than anything else Thai has flying today, with the possible exception of the Jet 77Ws on wet-lease, though I’m not sure even those are better. And their soft product is good enough that there’s no reason to not fly with them. Departures from Bangkok are better because of the spa, lounge and generally better ground handling, but even inbound flights to Bangkok get met by a golf cart and escorted to the premium immigration line. And there’s the little thing where award inventory on Thai is far easier to come by than many other carriers, even on the A380. In short, this isn’t the best product flying at all but it is very, very good and seems to be quite readily available in general. That makes it one of the better options out there to me.
As a small aside, the folks over at RouteHappy asked me to check out the other cabins on the plane as part of the trip, mostly because they were surprised by a rather negative review someone had for the business class cabin. I obviously didn’t get the service from coach or business class but I did get a bunch of photos of the seats.
Business class is a staggered seating option so theoretically 1-2-1 though much closer in seat size to 2-4-2. The seats didn’t look awful to me but I can see how the aisle seats would be a bit exposed to traffic in the aisles. The window seats looked a little tight and the middle pairs seem OK if you’re a couple traveling together but otherwise might be a bit too intimate.
In economy, beyond the awesome colors, the seats look pretty comfortable. Decent amount of pitch and if you can get that exit row upstairs in the back it should be quite quiet and plenty of space. Everyone gets the AVOD system so that’s a win, even if you’re in coach.
Flying up front is always a good thing. A flat bed is even better. Getting a double bed comfortable enough for two people to lay next to each other and still sleep well is simply ridiculous. Fortunately, Singapore Air offers such a setup on their A380 planes in "Suites" class and I finally got to experience it. As an added bonus the flight happened to be an inaugural of sorts – the first A380 from San Francisco to Asia (Hong Kong in this case) so we we treated to a few extra surprises as well.
Believe it or not, the Singapore SilverKris Lounge at SFO wasn’t our lounge of choice for this particular flight. It is nice enough and there is the advantage of hot food available there but this time, thanks to our first class tickets, we chose to spend the time prior to the flight in United Airlines’ GlobalFirst lounge instead. More space, similar booze and closer to the gate were the main reasons we went with the GFL. The fact that the SKL is so crowded with the larger plane that they block even their own elites from accessing it made me quite comfortable in that decision. We were one of only two parties in the GFL and quite enjoyed the time there.
In addition to the lounge time there was a bit of a party set up in honor of the inaugural flight. Singapore Air had a number of sales/marketing executives at the gate and a buffet spread set up with small sandwiches and desserts on offer. I also had the opportunity to speak with many of the execs there and talk about the plane, the route and their excitement in having the larger aircraft running the route. They did quite a nice job with that aspect of things, though obviously don’t expect that every time. It was quite entertaining when they all called my wife by name as we boarded, even though they hadn’t met her, only because of our prior conversations that evening.
Finally, as we boarded the flight we were given small gift boxes. As I settled in to my suite I opened it up to see what they were offering to commemorate the inaugural. The red and gold leather luggage tag is awesome. I’m a big fan!
Speaking of settling in to the seat, I have to say that this is probably the most personal space I’ve ever had on a plane, including Emirates‘ and Thai Airway’s A380 first class products. Simply ridiculous, really. There are extra pillows so you don’t feel too lost in the middle of the seat without an armrest close enough to lean on. It is that wide. No overhead bins, which can be a bit awkward, but my bags actually fit completely in the space under the ottoman in my suite. Really ridiculous amounts of room.
When we had finished dinner and were ready to sleep the flight attendants set our suites into bed mode. The double bed thing really is as incredible as the marketing makes it seem. The seat folds forward making the bed a bit high to climb into for sleeping but incredibly comfortable. And all those pillows, too.
One area where Singapore didn’t really splurge on their first class product is with the lavatories. Part of that is a space consideration given that they are on the lover level, not upstairs like Thai or Emirates has. It definitely reduces some of the fun which can be had. Not that they are bad, really, but just not particularly spacious or special in any way. Still all the usual amenities one would expect to find in the lav, but not incredibly special.
Overall I think that this was the nicest A380 F seat of the three I’ve now experienced. It isn’t trimmed in gold and wood veneer like the Emirates Suite but it is more spacious than what I remember from Emirates and much more subtly luxurious. Less flash, more substance.
I really don’t get the appeal of lobster covered in a cheese sauce. I love lobster and I love cheese sauce in certain circumstances but ne’er the two shall meet in my view. Alas, I was only choosing one of the two main meals we ordered and I lost on the Lobster Thermidor vote for the second meal. After tasting it I still think I’m right. The food was very, very good on board. Neither of us loved the lobster but it was exactly as advertised.
There were snacks available mid-flight in the galley and breakfast was quite good, too. I love when an airline can serve fresh eggs in-flight.
Overall the food was very, very good. Not the absolute best I’ve had on board and not quite to the same level of selection as Emirates offers, but still quite tasty and filling.
The screen is huge. It has to be given how far it is from the seat to the screen, but it is huge.
I’m also a fan of the content selection available. A good mix of new stuff (Pitch Perfect was a lot of fun) and classics available, plenty to keep me occupied throughout the flight when I wasn’t sleeping.
The plane was supposed to have the OnAir internet connectivity available, too. The hotspot was broadcasting but it wasn’t actually able to connect out to the internet. Eventually I asked the flight attendant about the situation and she profusely apologized for the service not being available. A bit disappointing as I was hoping to give it a try; I guess I’ll just have to make another trip with them one of these days.
Singapore Air is known for their service levels. My last flight with them had incredible flight attendants so I had pretty high expectations for this flight. I was not left wanting. Parts of the incredible service were a bit over-the-top. I’m not so sure that I needed four different people to escort me from the gate area to my seat, each one handing me off to another while calling me by name. At the same time, pretty much from the moment we entered the gate area until we left the plane everyone we interacted with was ridiculously good. Much like the seats it wasn’t flashy or in-your-face but subtly exquisite. I can see why they have the reputation they do.
I’ve now taken two flights on Singapore Air, one on the A345 from Newark to Singapore and this one. Both times the service was impeccable and the flight was very, very nice. As a customer on a budget who really will only ever up in those cabins on award redemptions I’m not entirely sure that they are worth going that much out of the way for – other premium cabin offerings I’ve been in are quite nice, too – but the overall experience still is rather special. Probably moreso since I know I won’t be doing it again, but still…
The ability to legitimately earn points in more than one program for a single flight is a rare one; when such an opportunity comes up it is nearly universally worth looking in to in more detail. And so today I’m taking a look at the promotion offered by Singapore Air running through the end of February 2013 allowing for passengers to double dip when flying on certain Virgin America flights as part of a codeshare itinerary via Los Angeles or San Francisco.
For US residents booked on a Virgin America-operated flight under the Singapore Air code it will be possible to collect both KrisFlyer points and Elevate points on the same flight. Because the Elevate program earning is based on spending but there is no direct spending with the codeshare flights the companies have come up with a fixed earning table to cover the eligible flights:
Registration is required for this promotion.
This isn’t the sort of promotion which will revolutionize your earning potential. It covers a very narrow set of flights (who is buying VX codeshares as add-ons to a SQ flight??) and a relatively short window of dates. Still, not the worst thing ever published. And it always is nice to have the ability to double dip from time to time.
Well, the bad news is that United Airlines has confirmed the new earning rates for premium cabin fares on many partner airlines. In posts today on FlyerTalk and MilePoint the company offered up an explanation and a full listing of the affected fare classes (which pretty much matches the list I had produced) and also an explanation. Apparently the old rates were a mistake:
In March 2012, when we migrated to a single system, we unintentionally increased PQM and PQS earnings for some of our partners to our former OnePass levels, instead of taking them to their intended MileagePlus levels.
While these higher earning levels remained in effect for the remainder of 2012, we are now reinstating the PQM/PQS earning rates for the following carriers and fare classes to 100% as of Jan. 1, 2013:
- Air New Zealand (NZ): A, B, C, D, E, J, O, U,Y, Z
- Asiana (OZ): A, B, C, D, F, J, Y, Z
- Croatia Airlines (OU): A, B, C, D, F, Y, Z
- Egyptair (MS): A, B, C, D, F, J, Y, Z
- LOT (LO): A, C, D, P, Z
- Singapore (SQ): A, C, D, F, J, P, R, S, Y, Z
- South African (SA): B, C, D, H, J, K, M, Q, S, Y, Z
- TAM (JJ): A, B, C, D, F, J , Y, Z
- TAP (TP): B, C, D, J, Y, Z
- THAI (TG): A, B, C, D, F, J, P, U, Y, Z
- Turkish (TK): C, D
I’m not entirely sure I buy that it was a mistake, particularly given how often they changed things around right when the initial announcement was made for the new program. Still, in a rather unprecedented move, the company has agreed to honor previously ticketed flights at the old earning rates:
We realize that some of you booked flights on these partners prior to Jan. 1 and were expecting the higher PQM/PQS earnings. In this particular case, given the circumstances, we will honor the higher rates regardless of your travel date. There are a few complexities involved with posting miles at the higher rates, so please bear with us. Specifically, if you booked your ticket through United, we will proactively adjust amounts after their initial posting (typically within a few days of when the original flight is credited). However, if you booked through someone other than United (like another airline or travel agency), you will have to contact the MileagePlus Service Center after your miles have initially posted in order to make the adjustment.
This will actually net me a few extra miles on my upcoming Bangkok-Haneda flight on Thai Airways so I’m pretty happy about that.
What I originally thought was just a “fixing” of an obviously overly generous set of elite status earning rules from United Airlines‘ MileagePlus program on partner South African Airways appears now to be a massive change in earning rates for the new year. More than 70 different fare classes across at least 9 partners are affected by these changes. And in every case it is the premium fares – first, business, premium economy and full-fare economy – which are seeing the elite earning rates cut. When the new rules came out for MileagePlus in 2012 there was a rather generous upgrade in earning rates for premium cabins on many partners. Apparently United has decided they were being too generous and they’ve now cut back significantly.
In addition to the previously identified cuts for South African noted here the following fare classes now all earn only 100% of the miles flown towards elite qualification, down generally from 150%:
- Thai Airways: J, P, U, Y, Z, A, B, C, D,F
- Singapore Air: R, S, Y, Z, A, C, D, F, J, P
- TAP Air Portugal: B, C, D, J, Y, Z
- TAM: A, C, D, F, J , Y, Z
- LOT: A, B, C, D, P, Y, Z
- Croatia Airlines: A, B, C, D, F, Y, Z
- Air New Zealand: A, B, C, D, E, J, O, U,Y, Z (now showing only 100% again)
- EgyptAir: A, B, C, D, F, J, Y, Z
- South African Airways: J, C, D, Z, Y, B, M, H K, S, Q
These changes came without notification from the carrier, either through traditional means or through the online communities they have employees participating in. Quite unfortunate at many levels.
Also add in:
- Avianca: C, D, J
- Asiana: A, B, C, D, F, J, Y, Z
It is no secret that Singapore Airlines has tried to divest themselves of their 49% ownership stake in Virgin Atlantic from time to time. Might they have found a willing suitor in Delta Airlines? That’s what is being reported in the London media this weekend. To make the transaction work Delta would purchase the 49% stake, the maximum permitted by non-European parties, and Air France/KLM would purchase an additional stake. The SkyTeam partners would then hold a majority of the shares giving them control of the company. For Sir Richard Branson, the airline’s founder and public face it would represent the first time since he started the carrier nearly 30 years ago that he would no longer be in charge.
The move is almost entirely focused on gaining access to Virgin’s slots at London‘s Heathrow airport. The consolidation of British Airways and bmi has changed the competitive landscape at Heathrow making it even more difficult for Virgin Atlantic to compete, particularly without local and regional feed to their operations. A SkyTeam takeover of the slots and routes could see major changes to the destinations served and operational style.
Two years ago Virgin Atlantic hired outside advisors to help them explore options. Two years ago Deutsche Bank was hired to help the carrier consider different scenarios. Delta was linked to the discussions at that time as well but nothing came from it. Perhaps this time around the outcome will be different. Given the recent rumblings that Virgin Atlantic is looking to join one of the major alliances (and my guess that SkyTeam is the best fit) it really isn’t all that hard to see how having the carrier merge into the other airlines rather than just be a partner would offer some competitive advantages.
Keep your eyes and ears open; this one could be interesting…