As the year 2016 draws to a close, I thought I’d take this chance to look back on what was certainly the most insane year of travel ever for me. For the first time, I woke up somewhere outside the United States on New Years Day (Dharavandoo, Maldives, specifically), and from then on I was going somewhere almost every month, sometimes twice a month, both just for fun and as part of our quest to earn Alaska MVP Gold 75k status. I finally achieved this goal in October, somewhere over Arizona on an Alaska 737-800, on my way to Orlando (90,000 EQM’s… sometimes I can’t believe I actually did that). As we begin the new year, I’m a 13-year-old with top-tier airline status… I am crazy, am I not?
The ‘rush’ of earning elite status aside, this year took me to more exciting places than I ever thought possible. Easter Island, Rio, Vienna, Singapore, the Maldives, and even Dallas (four freaking times!) :). So many great memories were made this year, from watching the sun rise over the Moias on Easter Island, to staring up into the face of Christ the Redeemer in Rio, to flying in a seaplane for the first time, or flying just for the sake of earning miles.
On the news front, perhaps the biggest story of the year was the merger of Alaska Airlines and Virgin America, the saga of which is sure to continue into the new year. Other ‘big’ stories included the disaster of the Garuda Indonesia 90% off promotion, the #DramaAlert-worthy story of Qatar’s inaugural flight to Atlanta, American’s going revenue-based, American’s premium economy and new business class cabins, Delta’s announcement of premium economy, and the rollout of United’s new Polaris business class.
Below, I’ve compiled some of my favorite aspects of my travel this year, from best flight to best airline lounge. Some of these were real hard to decide… is a domestic coach flight with absolutely incredible service but no IFE and packaged snacks better than a flight with IFE, incredible food, and ‘only’ good service? in the end, it comes down to what I found most memorable.
Best Overall Flight: Alaska Airlines Economy Class Boston to San Diego
This was just a run-of-the-mill domestic flight in economy, though it turned out to be my favorite flight of the year. On the first mileage run I ever took, my family and I flew from San Diego to Boston on Alaska. As we didn’t have status then, there was no chance of getting upgraded, so we sat back in row 9 of coach and expected a perfectly normal flight. On the SAN-BOS flight, the flight attendants were super kind and attentive (particularly to my sister and I) and made three runs through the cabin with drinks. Take that American!
On the return flight (the return flight being on the next day, as this was a mileage run), we had the same crew as on the outbound flight. We got talking to one of the FA’s about mileage running and our pursuit of MVP Gold 75k status (they were certainly more positive about it than that FA I had on American once). After takeoff, the FA’s insisted on comping us buy-on-board meals. Fricking awesome!
But, overall, what made the flight memorable was that the cabin crew on this flight went out of their way to be friendly. And this isn’t Singapore Airlines service (where the FA’s are told to think of their flight as a performance)– the great thing about the service I’ve experienced on Alaska is that it is genuine, making you feel as if you were visiting someone’s home rather than sitting in row 9 of a 737-800 somewhere over Ohio.
Best Service: Alaska Airlines Economy Class Boston to San Diego
How often is it that FA’s give you free by-on-board food? Awesome.
Best Airline Seat: British Airways First Class London to Los Angeles
I’ve been fortunate enough to experience BA first on several occasions, on the 777 (twice), 747 (twice), and A380. BA’s first class is certainly one of the most stylish out there, with understated blue and greys and electronic window shades which change colors with the cabin mood lighting. BA’s first class product on the A380 is more spacious than that on the 777/747, with tons more additional space (given that the A380 is one fat airplane). BA’s seat is extremely well-padded, the seat controls are easy to use, and the whole demi-suite, as BA calls it, exudes a feeling od understated stylishness, from the patterning on the seats to the little reading lamp above your shoulder to the color-changing electric blinds. When reclined, the bed is quite spacious, and BA’s bedding is as good as something you’d find on the ground (though the day blanket they provide is pretty scratchy). The ottoman at your suite can be used as a seat so you can have dinner with someone, which is a really creative feature.
In the end, BA’s seat wins on spaciousness, stylishness, and comfort. BA’s was the only international first class product I flew this year, so it didn’t really have much competition for the best seat category, though I think BA’s first seat, while not being fully enclosed or covered in gold and mirrors (ahem, Emirates), is really solid, with a stylish, comfortable, and spacious seat.
Best Airplane Food: Japan Airlines Business Class San Diego to Tokyo
Japan Airlines has a reputation for having some of the best food in the sky. I was lucky enough the take my first flight on JAL last month, from San Diego to Tokyo. JAL offers both a western menu and a Japanese selection, with everything from steak to Japanese fish on offer. I think that flying a country’s flag carrier can be like experiencing just a tiny bit of that country (though flying business class is, of course, no substitute for actually leaving the airport and experiencing a country first hand), so I decided to experience a little slice of Japan and order the Japanese meal. I was not disappointed. The meal began with two small amouse bouches and a drink service, which was followed by an arrangement of small Japanese dishes. It was totally outside of my comfort zone, but that is in no way a bad thing. This course was served with a little plastic crane, a really nice touch, as well as a little bottle of soy sauce. While I didn’t know what some of the items were, all were very unique and extremely fresh, and a little bit of soy sauce made this first course great. This course was followed shortly afterward by the main course, consisting of fish with vegetables, rice, and miso soup. This course was much more conventional, though incredibly flavorful and high-quality: the fish was moist and flavorful, and the rice wasn’t dried out, as I somtimes find it to be on planes. The meal was finished by a little cup of pudding, which was simple yet good.
There was no second meal service on this flight, as there was a dine-on-demand menu. I actually like this option quite a bit, so those looking to sleep can rest without being woken up by a meal service two hours before landing, and can eat a little before going to sleep. Even if you don’t want to sleep, there is something to be said for being able to eat when you want to on a plane. It’s just cool.
For the second service I again ordered the Japanese option, consisting of (again) fish and rice, served with fruit and ice cream. The fish and rice were (again) moist, and the fruit was super fresh, something that’s hard to achieve on an airplane. And it’s hard to go wrong with ice cream.
JAL’s catering is simply top-notch. While I didn’t try any of their western options, the Japanese meals were simply incredible. All of the food was moist (its easy for certain foods, especially the rise and fish which make up a lot of the Japanese meals, to dry out in the pressurized cabin air) and flavorful, as well as brilliantly presented. JAL deserves an A+ when it comes to food.
Best Airline Lounge: American Airlines Admirals Club London Heathrow
While BA’s Concorde Room is my sentimental favorite, the Admirals Club at LHR wins because of its unexpected awesomeness. In my experience, Admirals Clubs have never exactly been world class, so I wasn’t expecting the Admirals Club in Heathrow’s Terminal 3 to be something really special. However, I was more than pleasantly surprised: the lounge was spacious and super modern, with huge windows that looked out on to the tarmac.
There was a great variety of seating, power plugs everywhere, and (most importantly of all) plenty of quiet places to relax. The nearby British Airways lounge was really overcrowded, so the peaceful emptiness of the Admirals Club was much appreciated.
Additionally, the lounge’s food selection was super great, far better than that at the BA lounge (where the only hot food was soup). At the Admirals Club, hot dishes (including some really great pasta), soup, excellent salad, chips, and enough jelly beans to feed the whole of the nation of Guyana were on offer. However, perhaps best of all, the lounge featured a make-your-own-burger bar (this was only there on one of my two visits, so I’m not sure how frequently this is a thing, though the manager seemed to know about it, suggesting it is there with some frequency). Make your own burger, while taking pictures of airplanes? Awesome!
Best Contract/Independent/Non-Airline Lounge: American Express Centurion Lounge Dallas
American Express has done something truly innovative by getting into the lounge business, something no other credit card company had done before, despite the fact that many credit cards (including American Express cards) come with access to airline or contract lounges. Centurion Lounges are, on the whole, big, spacious, and well designed, with plenty of windows and excellent food. While last year I did visit two other AmEx-operated lounges (the Centurion Lounge Miami and the Centurion Studio Seattle), my favorite remains the one in Dallas. The Seattle Studio was perfectly nice, though the lounge was fairly small and cramped, which meant getting a seat in the lounge fairly difficult. The Centurion Lounge in Miami was great as well, with incredible tarmac views, though I don’t know if I can really comment on it fully given that I had only slept for three hours the night before and was half asleep during my visit.
The Dallas lounge is great because it is big, with plenty of seats, and has an incredible food selection. Chicken drumsticks, enchiladas, tortilla chips, sauerkraut, taquitos, and, of course, fresh chocolate-chip cookies were among the things on offer during my three visits to the lounge. If you want a relaxing place to hang out and have a really epic meal, then the Centurion Lounge DFW is a great place to do just that.
Lastly, here are some travel related statistics that might be of interest to you guys:
Shortest Flight: Male to Furaveri Island, operated by a De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter Seaplane
Longest Flight: San Diego to Tokyo Narita, operated by a Japan Airlines 787-8 Dreamliner
Biggest Aircraft Flown: Airbus A380
Smallest Aircraft Flown: De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter
Most flown aircraft: Boeing 737
Most flown airline: American
New Airlines Flown: Maldivian Air Taxi, Oman Air, Japan Airlines, TAM/LAN/LATAM, Austrian, SilkAir, Singapore
New Aircraft Flown: Boeing 787 Dreamliner (Both -8 and -9) De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter, Fokker F-100
New Countries Visited: Singapore, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Chile, Trump’s America
Countries visited: Maldives, Singapore, Oman, the UAE, Brazil, Chile, the United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, Japan
Total Miles Flown: 95,791
Happy new year, and here’s to a great 2017!