I’m just back from Malaysia where I added a few days to the front end of the Thanksgiving holiday.
Outbound was in Cathay Pacific first class, return in Korean Airlines first class. I stayed at the Grand Hyatt and at the Intercontinental in Kuala Lumpur, suites in each, and at Starwood’s The Andaman in Langkawi in a seaview suite. The bulk of the room nights were on points, the transpacific flights were on points, and I thought I’d share my observations from booking to enjoyment of the trip.
I write occasional trip reports for several reasons.
- They’re a great opportunity to share how I put my mileage hobby into practice. Plenty of readers have told me that one of the most useful things that I do is write about my thinking processes — how I go about redeeming awards, thinking about tradeoffs, putting the miles and points lessons into practice. Using real world personal examples can be the best way to do that.
- To show some of the possibilities for using miles and points, some folks have told me that the reports inspire them to earn more points and make their own aspirational trips. And they put my money where my mouth is with respect to the value of miles and points and what’s possible. These trips aren’t for everyone, either based on personal preferences (what you value in travel) or circumstances (many families with young children for instance will travel very differently than I will).
- Not than I’m an expert on any of the particular things that I’m doing, but I spend a good bit of time researching my own travel plans, so I can pass along some distilled advice on what to expect, how to navigate, or what to do or not to do (based on my own idiosyncratic preferences) on a given trip.
- Because reviews in pictures and prose can be useful resources to some folks considering specific hotel properties or deciding between different airline products.
- And ultimately because it’s my own personal blog, and as I’ve done for the past decade I’m sharing my own experiences.
So hopefully you’ll enjoy reading, coming with me on my recent Thanksgiving travels, and I’ll be able to offer some advice, some insights, or even share some mistakes that you can laugh at along the way.
Here’s what I have in mind for this year’s Thanksgiving trip.
- Introduction: Constructing — and Re-constructing — the Award Trip
- American Eagle DC – New York and the New Nicest JFK Airport Hotel, the Hilton
- Cathay Pacific First Class, JFK – Hong Kong
- The Wing lounge in Hong Kong and Cathay Pacific Business Class Hong Kong – Kuala Lumpur
- Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur
- Malaysia Airlines Business Class, Kuala Lumpur – Langkawi
- The Andaman Langkawi
- Malaysia Airlines Business Class, Langkawi – Kuala Lumpur
- Intercontinental Kuala Lumpur
- Things to See and Do in Kuala Lumpur
- Korean Airlines First Class, Kuala Lumpur – Seoul and the Korean Airlines First Class Lounge Seoul
- Korean Airlines First Class, Seoul – Washington Dulles
I find that Thanksgiving is a great time to travel internationally. Adding a few days onto the trip works well, too. The days leading up to Thanksgiving are pretty dead in the office as people begin leaving town for the holidays. But most importantly try getting any work done that involves making progress on projects with anyone outside the office?
Last Thanksgiving I went to Thailand for a mistake rate (cash and points awards available for all room types) at the Conrad Bangkok and to check out the newly-opened Conrad Koh Samui Resort. The Thanksgiving before that it was Mumbai (I wanted to have Thanksgiving dinner with Indians). And the Thanksgiving prior to that was Paris, for the Prince de Galles 52 euro per night (90% discount) mistake rate.
This year it was going to be Malaysia, albeit just a brief visit. For all of my travels in Asia, I’d never been to Malaysia. And I’ve been meaning to go since The Andaman resort joined Starwood, and one of my favorite hotel G.M.s moved over there to run the place.
I started planning the trip by looking for first class award availability on Cathay Pacific. As recently as four years ago Cathay Pacific awards were almost non-existent in first class, and then come 2009 there was a thawing .. initially just on their Toronto flight and usually on Tuesdays, but then space opened up across the board. I’m not sure what happened exactly except that there was certainly a drop in premium cabin travel during the Great Recession, and selling award seats including to members of partner airline programs does generate incremental revenue. As a result I’ve flown Cathay first class many times over the past three years.
For a few moments I considered taking a different approach for the award tickets, after all how exciting is it to try the same first class product — and even the same flight — over and over again? And don’t I owe a little bit more variety to my faithful readers?
But the product is really good. I love the seat especially, it’s one of the most comfortable I’ve ever slept in. It’s wide enough for two people to sit down next to each other. The ottoman turns into a buddy seat (with seatbelt) and the flight attendants install a table extender so that two people can sit across from each other and dine as though in a restaurant. And with plenty of advance booking it’s easy enough to get that connections wind up lining up perfectly. (I find that when the schedule loads most gateways have first class award space, that space is still pretty good six months out; closer in is harder but a week out there’s more and then a couple of days before departure pretty much most of the empty seats in a given cabin become bookable as awards — that makes the awards pretty changeable as well.)
What I set up was quite simple: Washington National – New York JFK – Hong Kong – Kuala Lumpur / Kuala Lumpur – Hong Kong – New York JFK (stopover) – Los Angeles.
I was adding a free stopover to an American Airlines partner award in New York. I booked a New York – Los Angeles segment in American’s 3-class Flagship first class that I was going to use later (likely changing the date for a time I’d need it). Then I would have purchased my flight from New York back home to DC.
A funny thing happened between the time I booked the award and when I was actually scheduled to travel, though. Cathay Pacific cancelled one of their New York – Hong Kong flights. The one that I was using for my award. In both directions. They rebooked me onto their one-stop direct in both cases, the one that makes a stop in Vancouver. That cut down my connection in New York on the outbound, which I was going to be a bit nervous about (too much of a delay on American Eagle coming into New York airspace and I could misconnect for the start of my trip). And gave me a really long connection on the return — plus I didn’t relish that Vancouver stop, arriving off of an overnight flight from Hong Kong, sitting around a holding pen for an hour, and then taking another redeye to New York. It meant I would have four flights in each direction as well, something I try to avoid especially on a short trip.
I managed to re-book myself onto the morning JFK – Hong Kong flight, I still decided to fly up to New York the night before and just spend the night at an airport hotel. That way I would start the trip fresh and have only one connection in a day. And I knew I wouldn’t miss the Cathay flight because of delays into New York.
For the return though there was nothing especially desirable open. I could double connect after arriving in San Francisco if I’d wanted to. The Vancouver option sounded better than two domestic flights on American. And I wasn’t going to have any luck getting American to get Cathay to open up revenue inventory to accommodate me on a different flight when I already had Cathay first class on the flight that most closely approximated my original times, the only difference being that this one was ‘direct’ rather than ‘non-stop.’
So I decided to keep my Cathay Pacific outbound, and do something a bit different for the return.
It was two months out from travel that I decided to look at alternatives and I noticed that Korean Airlines had first class award space coming back Kuala Lumpur – Seoul – New York JFK (on the Airbus A380) or Kuala Lumpur – Seoul – Washington Dulles (on the 777). Arriving home the Sunday after Thanksgiving. That’s great, I could try a new product (albeit one not generally as well-regarded as Cathay) and get either a one-stop (back to DC) or an A380. I thought quite a bit about which option to choose, and ultimately decided to forego the A380 and just arrive directly back home in DC. The idea of an extra stop, clearing immigration in New York, then changing terminals and re-clearing security on the Sunday after Thanksgiving just didn’t really appeal.
So I verified the Korean award space, transferred points over from Chase Ultimate Rewards, and got the tickets issued. (Redeeming awards on Korean is a bit of a strange process, involving scanners and fax machines.)
I booked my outbound airport hotel at the Hilton, having previously tried the Hilton Garden Inn (at the time the best option near JFK, sadly) and more recently the Sheraton (disappointing, but again at the time the best JFK option). I booked myself into the brand new Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur for one night on arrival in Malaysia, and the Intercontinental on the back end for two nights because of a super-cheap rate and the ability to pre-confirm an upgrade. And I booked the Andaman. And the trip was pretty much set…