Category Archives: Trip reports

Via Istanbul: Turkish Airlines Lounge Istanbul

After arriving in IST from KUL I was pretty excited and rearing to check out the (allegedly) best business class lounge in the world.

As it turned out, though, it took quite some time to clear security – even the dedicated priority line for business class passengers took some time to clear. Eventually, I’d finally made it to the promised land.

Lounge Istanbul entrance

The reports were true. The lounge is sprawling, and it offers a really unique stopover experience.

Architecture

I particularly liked the architecture, which manages to give the lounge a distinctively Turkish taste.

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Lounge Istanbul

Lounge Istanbul carts

Lounge Istanbul centrepiece

The facilities ranged from a baggage deposit area near the entrance (which was totally full so we ended up not being able to use it)…

Lounge Istanbul baggage area

Entertainment

…to a myriad of entertainment options…

Lounge Istanbul billiards table
Billiards table

Lounge Istanbul TV wall
TV wall with wireless headsets

Lounge Istanbul cinema
Cinema with popcorn machine

Lounge Istanbul console gaming
Console gaming stations (I believe this was the PS4)

Lounge Istanbul RC cars
Remote control racing

Lounge Istanbul golf simulator
Golf simulator

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Children’s play area

Food

…to about a bazillion options for filling your stomach.

Lounge Istanbul salad bar
Salad bar

Lounge Istanbul sesame bagels
Turkish sesame bagels

Lounge Istanbul butter
Fancy butter

Lounge Istanbul fruits
The healthful dessert option

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The less healthful dessert option

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Turkish desserts

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From the bakery

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Hot food, freshly prepared

Beverages

Plenty of options for quenching your thirst, too.

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The non-alcoholic variety

Lounge Istanbul alcoholic drinks
The alcoholic variety

Lounge Istanbul tea station
One of many tea stations

Lounge Istanbul tea selection
Offering a wide range of selections of tea

Conclusion

All in all, I would say that Turkish Airlines’s Lounge Istanbul really does live up to its reputation. If there’s anything I’d complain about, it’s that WiFi speeds were nearly unusable while I was there – I guess there were just too many people logged into their network. I only really had about an hour there each time I passed through Istanbul, so I didn’t actually get to try most of the things on offer, but even sampling what I did and visually taking everything in was an experience in itself.

I probably wouldn’t deliberately go out of the way to visit it again anytime soon, but if I happened to be flying in that direction? I might just try to make it happen…


Louis believes he caught the premium travel bug after attaining KrisFlyer Elite Gold and occasionally being upgraded while shuttling between the UK, Singapore and Japan (in economy class). These travels have led to a wonderful marriage, as well as a burning desire to maximise his frequency of travel in business class or better.

He travels with a gryphon plush toy, Griffles, which often stands in for him in vacation photos. Griffles continues to amuse (and confuse) air stewardesses, hotel staff and just about everybody else, all around the world.

A US Open Virgin Experience

Singapore Airlines SilverKris Lounge, Singapore
Singapore Airlines Business Class SIN-BKK
Thai Airways First Class Lounge & Spa, BKK
Thai Airways First Class BKK-HND
Getting from HND to NRT
ANA First Class Lounge, NRT
ANA First Class NRT-ORD
United Club ORD
United Economy ORD-EWR
Visiting the US Open
Sheraton New York Times Square
Hilton New York Midtown
Wingtips Lounge JFK & Delta to DC
Exploring Washington DC
Element New York Times Square West
Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, JFK
Singapore Airlines Suites JFK-FRA
Lufthansa Senator Lounge FRA
Singapore Airlines Suites FRA-SIN


Attending the US Open was always a dream of mine ever since I started playing tennis religiously about 10 years ago. I had only seen a smattering of live events- an ATP 250 in Sao Paulo and the WTA Women’s Tour Finals in Singapore. And with greatest respect to both those events, they’re nowhere in the same league as a Grand Slam.

If the US Open is on your horizon at some point in the future, here’s a little guide I hope you find useful. Even if you’re not that into tennis, do read on for the full review of the SPG Luxury Suite (which I did a little teaser on earlier)

The Tickets and Logistics

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DO. NOT. BUY. TICKETS. IN. ADVANCE. Let me say that again. Do not buy tickets in advance.

Unless you’re going for the super prime courtside seats (which will cost you upwards of $400-500 USD easily) on Arthur Ashe, there is no need to rush onto the website and book the minute sales launch. If all you’re interested in is a grounds pass, or a non-courtside seat in Armstrong or Ashe, there is no need to buy beforehand.

I learned this the hard way. Having shelled out $85 for a grounds pass, I found them selling for $10-15 on the morning of the event itself on Stubhub. I did manage to take advantage of it in the end, snagging a ticket for the semi finals at $16 when the cheapest seats offered on the official site were upwards of $90. Looking back though, I could have saved so much more money by not being kan cheong.

Take public transport. There’s no reason to drive in New York anyway, and an Uber to Flushing from Manhattan would cost about $30+.

The 7 train will get you to Mets-Willets Point Station, after which it’s about a 6-7 minute walk to the entrance gates. A single ride costs $2.75, although you can buy an unlimited use 7 day metrocard for $31.

Don’t bring a bag. Trust me, it’s not worth the hassle. There are two queues to go in- one is the express queue for those without bags, the other is the regular queue. The regular queue sometimes trailed back halfway to the station.

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Wear cargo pants and put all your sunscreen (no aerosols) water and other barang barang inside.

The Tennis

There are really two stadiums of note- Armstrong and Ashe. Ashe is the much larger of the two and is where you’ll find the big names playing. Not that you don’t get big names on Armstrong (or Grandstand for the first week), but you can bet players like Djokovic, Nadal et al will almost always be on Ashe.

Here are a few takeaways-

Your view will vary: As awesome as the atmosphere on Ashe is, it’s still one heck of a big stadium.

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This means that if you’re going for the cheapest tickets (upper promenade), you can forget about any other views than this-

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Fortunately, on Ashe at least it’s pretty much free seating within your own section, so it doesn’t really matter which seat per se you choose. You can move to the front of your section if you see empty seats (of course you move when the rightful owners of those seats come around) and improve your view somewhat.

I much prefer Armstrong because even seated at the back of the stadium yields very good views.  This shot was taken from the rear of Armstrong.

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You don’t really need courtside seats in Armstrong. Even sitting in the front part of the second tier yields great views. Like this matchup between Isner and Nishikori. Look at that height difference! (didn’t help him though)

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So there really isn’t a “bad” seat in Armstrong that would stop you from getting a great view of the proceedings.

Rain or shine at Ashe: Ashe has a roof, so the matches go on rain or shine. The roof closes in just over 5 minutes. Armstrong is being demolished this year to build a new facility with a roof which will be ready by 2018.

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AMEX cardholders get a free radio: AMEX is one of the title sponsors of the US Open, and they’re making the most of it. Flash your AMEX card and get a free radio which lets you tune into the TV commentary, which can help add to the overall experience.

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Protip: although there’s a booth near the entrance where everyone crowds, there’s no need to do so.  There are numerous AMEX booths around the grounds with these available. They will swipe your magnetic strip to verify your card, so be sure to activate it before you leave for the States.

The smaller courts have good stuff too: Yes, all the big names are on Ashe, Armstrong and Grandstand, but if you’re willing to go to one of the smaller outer courts you’ll be rewarded with much better views. You might see some of the up and coming juniors here- Monfils and Djokovic once battled on one of these courts about 10 years ago…

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I mean where else can you get courtside views like this?

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Don’t discount the side attractions: It’s kind of like Disneyland where everyone high tails it to Space Mountain and ignores the Country Bear Jamboree.

Yes you’re there to see the tennis but there are other things worth exploring too inbetween matches- like the AMEX Hospitality Pavilion. You can assess the top floor lounge if you’ve got an AMEX card (despite the lounge moniker it’s just a place to sit, you’re paying for all F&B)

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Or you can hang out downstairs and watch some matches on the big screen.

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And if you come at the right time you can hit some balls on the only fan-accessible court on the grounds.

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The Dining

You might be pleasantly surprised to know the US Open isn’t just hot dog stands and bland, forgettable fast food. In fact, there are many gourmet options available, some of them from the biggest names in the NY food scene. At the 2016 US Open you’d be able to pick from names such as David Chang (of Momofuku fame), Pat LaFrieda and Iron Chef Morimoto.

Some highlights include-

Fuku Spicy Fried Chicken Bacon Ranch Sandwich (Fuku) – exclusive to the US Open: Habanero-brined, spicy fried chicken thigh on a Martin’s potato roll, topped with applewood smoked bacon, Fuku ranch, and pickles.

Soom Sandwich (Soomsoom): Mesclun greens topped with a refreshing mix of diced cucumbers and tomatoes, red & white cabbage salads and four fresh falafel balls, served with a side of creamy tahini.

Korean Tacos (Korilla BBQ): Three locally-sourced corn tortillas with choice of bulgogi (marinated ribeye), caramelized kimchi and queso fresco; braised ginger sesame chicken topped with kimchi slaw and nori; or slow roasted pork with pineapple kimchi salsa and cilantro.

Mexican Style Street Corn (Angry Taco): Flavorful corn on the cob dressed with mayonnaise, chipotle puree, and lime juice.

Lobster Roll (BLT Fish Shack): Mouthwatering lobster with coleslaw, garnished with lemon and served on a New England roll.

Prosciutto Panini (Wine Bar Food): Prosciutto sandwich with vine ripened tomato, mozzarella di bufala, and fresh basil.

Nutella Dessert Pizza (Neopolitan Express): Italian imported Nutella and sliced almonds, lightly dusted with powdered sugar.

I’m a sucker for Momofuku (although an outing to their ramen place turned out to be very disappointing), so I made a beeline for the pop up fuku store.

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The queues can sometimes be crazy, but if you go in the middle of a big match or outside the 12-2pm lunch window there’s virtually no queue.

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I had the spicy fried chicken sandwich.

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Now, Americans in general are probably the biggest whimps when it comes to spice. When launching this item David Chang was quoted as saying

I want people who don’t eat spicy food to say, ‘That’s f-ing spicy but I’ll eat it and pay the price later,'”

The flavour of the chicken was great, but it was less spicy than Mcdonald’s garlic chilly. The fries had a seaweed spice dusting on them and were great too. Total damage= $15-16. Yes, it’s expensive to pay for a burger, but I comforted myself knowing it at least counts as a celebrity chef meal. Even if it was mass produced. And under a heat lamp. And wasn’t spicy.

On day two I tried Korilla BBQ’s korean beef bowl.

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This one is probably even less photogenic but the flavours were great. It comes with thinly sliced marinated rib-eye steak, caramelized kimchi, bean sprouts, fire-roasted corn and garlic spinach, topped with the brand’s signature sauces, like an aioli made with chipotle and gochujang. Damage= $15

There are of course more formal sit down joints if you’re willing to pay. But paying more doesn’t mean better quality- here’s a very mediocre club sandwich.

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Avoid the Food Village during 12-2pm. It’s just insane. Outside these hours, waits can be as short as 2-3 minutes. Or splurge a bit and go to one of the sit down places with table service, although price is not necessarily an indicator of quality at the US Open.

The US Open Luxury Suite

As I mentioned before, I shelled out 50,000 Starpoints to redeem 2 tickets to the SPG Luxury Suite via SPG Moments. Last year these babies were going for 25,000 Starpoints so I was a bit peeved I’d have to pay double, but the whole point of SPG Moments is to get access to experiences you normally couldn’t buy with money (tickets to luxury suites would usually start at upwards of a thousand dollars).

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Starwood occupies Suite 137/138 in Arthur Ashe. This suite can take 40 people in total, although I think in actuality we had closer to 30.

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We had two hosts and they were both awesome. They kept ensuring everyone had a full glass and made everyone on the balcony seating area rotate every 30 mins or so, meaning that even if you didn’t grab a good seat early on you could rotate to one.

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Goodie bags were distributed.  Above you’ll see an SPG cap, SPG bottle, sunglasses, a few postcards, an iPhone cover, a gift card for some juice sponsor, lip balm and a doggy tennis ball toy (apparently the USTA forbids all sponsors from distributing actual tennis collaterals like real tennis balls, how odd).

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You could supplement your bag with whatever additional collaterals you wanted thanks to a few strategically placed bowls.

At the welcome counter you could pick up an AMEX radio plus a program guide

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There were also other thoughtful touches like a charging area for phones.

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There’s also a wet bar with an assortment of alcoholic drinks.

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The bar selection is a major let down though. They only have reds, whites, beer and one cocktail- the official US Open Honey Deuce. It’s not a bad drink as such (1 12 ounces grey goose vodka, 2 ounces lemonade, 12 ounce premium raspberry-flavored liqueur, frozen honeydew melon ball), but come on, bring out the bubbles!

Food was in abundance throughout the suite. There was a central display of popcorn and nuts

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Chips and dip

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As well as a more substantial buffet. Unfortunately, by the time the crowd cleared enough to snap photos there was some significant damage done to the offerings. I could hear David Attenborough’s voice in my head

Too late to the kill, the weakest males in the pack must settle for scraps and the salad bar.

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Fortunately there were other offerings too. Here’s the salad and frut

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Plus an entire salmon (replaced twice) and a whole tray of butter poached lobster rolls

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And they had these addictive as crack cookies. I gained 2 kg on the trip.

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I took my carefully assembled plate out to the balcony when I suddenly remembered there was a tennis game going on.

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The view from the balcony is pretty good. The players face away from the suite when resting during the changeover though. The men’s match that evening was Djokovic vs Edmund, which was never really going any other way than a Djokovic win. So obvious was the result that by the start of the third set a group of rowdy locals had moved inside the suite to watch the NFL instead.

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So that’s my US Open experience! I’m bummed Nadal didn’t go all the way, although the realist in me knows it’s probably all downhill for him from here.

The US Open has this hotline fans can text to express any concerns about security, F&B, scheduling or transportation. I texted in my most pressing one.

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He then went on to lose in the 5th set.

Can’t have it all, I guess.

The Long Way to New York: Singapore Airlines SilverKris Lounge

Singapore Airlines SilverKris Lounge, Singapore
Singapore Airlines Business Class SIN-BKK
Thai Airways First Class Lounge & Spa, BKK
Thai Airways First Class BKK-HND
Getting from HND to NRT
ANA First Class Lounge, NRT
ANA First Class NRT-ORD
United Club ORD
United Economy ORD-EWR
Visiting the US Open
Sheraton New York Times Square
Hilton New York Midtown
Wingtips Lounge JFK & Delta to DC
Exploring Washington DC
Element New York Times Square West
Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, JFK
Singapore Airlines Suites JFK-FRA
Lufthansa Senator Lounge FRA
Singapore Airlines Suites FRA-SIN


A quick reminder that it’s not too late to participate in the ANA First Class PJ giveaway- 2 pairs to be won! Check out the link here


My taxi pulled up to the first door of Terminal 2 and as I unloaded my bags, I felt the same tinge of excitement I get when I’m about to have  an amazing journey. New York and the US Open beckoned, but as always getting there would be the highlight of my trip.

If you read my New York gameplan, you’ll remember that through the miracle of Lifemiles I managed to book this mixed First and Business class itinerary-

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SIN-BKK-HND-NRT-ORD

The first leg of the trip was Singapore Airlines Business Class to Bangkok, from where I’d catch a Thai Airways First Class flight to Haneda. From Haneda I’d lug my bags to Narita and take a First Class ANA flight to Chicago. I’d then enjoy the unrivaled luxury of United’s Economy product from Chicago to Newark (United used to let Star Gold members access Economy Plus seating, not anymore sadly)

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The check-in staff said she could check my bag all the way through to ORD. I was surprised to hear this, because everything I’d read told me that I’d need to collect my bags at HND and take a bus to NRT. But the baggage tag printed out correctly with ORD on it, and I assumed the system could do no wrong.

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I was just about to leave the counter when she said “Oh! Sorry” and confirmed that I was right- I would only be able to check my bag to HND. She then printed out a new tag with HND on it. I can only imagine what would have happened if she tried to use the original tag. This shows why it’s really important to do your research beforehand, especially if your itinerary involves changing airports.

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I think I’ve pretty much memorized the layout of Terminals 2 and 3 by now. Normally I head up the escalator and turn left to the crummy mediocrity of the Krisflyer Gold lounge. But today I’d be enjoying the relative superiority of the SilverKris lounge instead.

I knew that although I was connecting to an F flight downstream, SQ’s lounge access rules are based on class of departure so I wouldn’t get access to the First Class section of the Silver Kris lounge. I was however hoping that the lounge dragons wouldn’t know. But SQ has some of the best trained lounge dragons in the business, so no dice. I was duly shown to the Business Class section.

Singapore Airlines will eventually upgrade its lounges in Singapore to match the new “home” concept that is already deployed in other lounges like LHR, MNL and SYD.

Image result for singapore airlines home concept lounge

 

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Until then, however, the lounges in its home base (I’m referring in particular to T2) will continue to be the weak link in SQ’s lounge network. They’re not bad, by any means. They’re perfectly ok places to spend maybe 40-50 mins. But anything beyond that and you’re liable to want to leave. The seating is not particularly conducive to work, the lighting can’t decide if it wants to be bright or dim and there’s just really not a whole lot to keep you there. In contrast, I absolutely loved SQ’s new SilverKris lounge in LHR. I thought it was bright and cheerful, and I really digged the whole living room vibe.

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It was time to inspect the buffet.

The buffet spread at the T2 Business Class section was a mix of Western, Chinese and Indian items.

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There is also a selection of breakfast cereals, because nothing says vacation like cereal at 5pm.

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There was also the usual salad and fruit bar

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And a limited number of non-meat Japanese options. I can say I have never seen a single person taking these, and yet here they are at every buffet.

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A rotating heatcase of neglected pastries and spring rolls provided as much social commentary as it did nutrition.

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On the drinks side- SQ has taken to do these pop up booths in the lounge. Although some people may think it’s a cynical attempt to monetize by giving advertisers exposure to their top customers, I don’t really mind. Singleton whiskey was on display today, with free tastings available

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The previous two times I visited, Charles Heidsieck champagne was on offer. Today it was Tattinger.

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On the non-alcoholic side, the fridge has your usual assortment of drinks. I think I mentioned before that the water bottles have been downsized from 500ml to 250ml. Although it’s amusing that SQ’s bean counters are working overtime, it doesn’t really make a difference given that Changi’s screen at the gate setup doesn’t allow you to bring water from the lounge onboard.

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The rest of the lounge is functional, if unspectacular. There are reading materials

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Computers with printing facilities

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And an abundance of dimly lit seating

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Without any compelling reason to stay, I left the lounge early to head for my Bangkok flight.