Tag Archives: airlines

Via Istanbul (Not Constantinople): A trip planned around promotional rates

TLDR version: you can access some really remarkable deals if you keep your eye out for them, but it takes some effort to monitor, some luck for the deals to coincide with what you actually want to do, and possibly some sacrifices in terms of convenience in order to fully utilise them. It’s great if you find that enjoying the journey is part of the joy of vacations (I’d suggest bookmarking this FlyerTalk forum and checking it from time to time); but if not, it’s probably better to stick to using miles to get to where you want to as quickly and comfortably as possible.

While playing the miles game is probably the main focus of travel hacking, promotional rates for air travel and hotel fares pop up every now and then, and if you are able to capitalise on them you might find yourself positioned to enjoy (relatively) affordable rates for premium travel.

I was lucky enough to make use of three such deals on a recent trip of mine, and for me it really helped to make the voyage even more enjoyable (and memorable).

Highlights of itinerary

(Reviews coming up – will add links after they’ve posted!)

Planning process

I’d been intending to revisit the UK and had actually already redeemed SQ award tickets for the trip when I spotted this amazing offer for KUL-MAN on Turkish business class – I’d previously bookmarked this forum on FlyerTalk in the hope that something usable would crop up, and this effort was finally paying off.

Having been intrigued for some time by what some (like Aaron) have deemed as the best business class lounge in the world, I jumped at this opportunity to secure business class return tickets at less than S$1,900 per person.

turkish istanbul business lounge

Along the way, there came the amazing (and short-lived) offer allowing 2-night Conrad stays for the price of 1. I immediately cancelled my 4n booking for the (very nice) Hilton London Bankside and made two bookings (under two different guests) for the Conrad London St. James instead.

conrad london st james

The original plan had been to stay 1n at the Conrad and 4 at the (much more affordable) Hilton using the Citi Prestige 4th night free benefit, but once again the siren song of promotional rates proved irresistible to me.

The final offer that came my way was a relatively minor one, but (for me) it was still a new experience that I wouldn’t have tried without the promotional rate. I had booked advance train tickets from York to London, and a week before the day of travel I received an email offering an upgrade to first class at £15 per person.

Virgin Trains first class

First class rail tickets are not something I’d usually bother with (2 hours in a standard carriage is hardly an ordeal), but since I’d never tried it before, I figured… why not?

Filling the gaps

Unfortunately, it wasn’t totally smooth-sailing. Since some cancellations were made, there were some (relatively minor) penalties involved. The biggest hiccup for me, however, was with regard to the addition of the initial journey from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.

I had (foolishly?) booked the cheapest available return tickets on Singapore Air for the SIN-KUL route, guess-timating the time required for transit (I’d budgeted 3h to be on the safe side). These were the non-refundable tickets, with no changes permitted, and of course, as luck would have it, that later came back to haunt me.

As it turned out, the KUL-IST flight out of Kuala Lumpur was rescheduled and I was suddenly left with a 12h stopover at KUL, with no way to change the SIN-KUL flight other than to forfeit the existing booking altogether.

I ended up biting the bullet and enduring the 12h stopover, and that resulted in an ordeal involving waking earlier than necessary, some time spent exploring a rather uninteresting airport, a grumpy wife, and a much longer journey than initially planned for.

turkish business lie flat
(Image from Turkish Airlines website)

Thankfully, the comfortable full-flat seats on the KUL-IST leg of the journey allowed for some recuperation along the way!

Evaluation

The biggest savings this trip was probably from the Turkish airlines promotional fare. A return business class saver redemption for SIN-MAN on Singapore Airlines costs 136,000 miles and S$817 (slightly more if flying to London instead) in additional surcharges. Valuating each mile at 2¢ each (a rather conservative value), that puts my personal price for the ticket at about S$3,500. Even factoring in the cancellation fees and additional price of the SIN-KUL ticket, I consider the ~$2,100 spent on airfare to be a steal for what I got.

The Conrad offer, even with two nights free, did result in me paying more than initially planned – but given the superior location and convenience of not having to switch hotels, it was still an experience I relished. As for the first class train experience, I found it surprisingly enjoyable – I wouldn’t mind doing it again, though I wouldn’t be particularly upset if I never received the offer again.

All in all, as a travel geek I found myself enjoying the journey as much (if not more) as the destination this trip, and am glad to have been able to make good use of (at least) one promotional fare in my lifetime!


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.

Exploring Thai’s latest A350 cabin products

Thai is a confusing airline when it comes to business class because they have so many different seat types across their fleet.

The majority of Thai’s widebody fleet (B747, A330, A340, B772, B773) still has their old business class angled flat product. This is, quite frankly, an awful product to be on for any long haul flight. Angled flat products might have been ok a decade ago, but the gold standard for long haul business class is now full flat 1-2-1. Full flat 2-2-2 is already pushing it, but angled flat 2-2-2….Thai’s fleet renewal can’t come fast enough

Image result for thai business class old

Image result for thai business class 747

Thai’s A380 aircraft have 1-2-1 full flat seats. I’ve not flown these personally but a friend who has says they’re generally comfortable enough. If you’re travelling by yourself, avoid the honeymoon 2 seats in the centre like the plague because there’s very little privacy from your seatmate. I’m not totally won over by the cabin from an aesthetics point of view though.

Image result for thai a380 business class

Image result for thai business class

Thai’s B787s have 2-2-2 full flat seats (they’re similar to the ones United Airlines uses in Business Class- see my review of that seat here). I don’t fancy any configuration that doesn’t have all aisle access (because both the aisle passenger and window passenger at the side are inconvenienced by each other), but it sure beats angled flat.

photo: AusBT

Image result for thai b787 business class

And that brings us to TG’s newest aircraft, the A350. I’m personally very excited about the A350 and am looking forward to flying SQ’s version to Manchester and Houston next year. Thai’s A350 has a 1-2-1 full flat configuration, but I much prefer this to their A380s as I find the finishes more classy (less faux wood and plastic, more privacy for the seats at the side). This is a seat I’d gladly take on any long haul flight.

Thai Airways A350 business class cabin

Thai is currently bedding in their A350s by running them on short haul routes. When they first received the aircraft back in Sept it was common to find the A350s plying routes as short as Bangkok-Chang Mai and Bangkok-Phuket (where one aircraft promptly went on a euphemistically named “runway excursion“). You’d be a fairly lucky man to land a long haul J seat on a 90 minute flight.

Thai has gradually started deploying the A350 on progressively longer routes, as seen below.

Route Departure Arrival Day Flight
Bangkok – Rome 00.01 05.55 SUN, MON, WED, FRI TG944
Rome – Bangkok 13.30 06.05 SUN, MON, WED, FRI TG945
Bangkok – Milan 00.35 07.10 TUE, THU, SAT TG940
Milan – Bangkok 13.05 05.55 TUE, THU, SAT TG941
Bangkok – Singapore 08.00 12.25 Everyday TG403
16.35 19.55 Everyday TG404
Singapore – Bangkok 12.25 13.45 Everyday TG409
21.00 22.20 Everyday TG410

They are still operating the A350 on the relatively short haul SIN-BKK route. I believe that’s in order to give pilots international flying experience with the A350 as the route has sufficient business traffic to warrant the deployment of a widebody premium cabin.  I don’t think this is by any means a permanent arrangement, however, so when I saw on Lifemiles that TG award space from BKK-SIN was wide open, I didn’t think twice about booking it.

I ended up booking the award through Krisflyer for 20,000 miles and $30.40 of taxes (SQ J would have cost 17,000 and $104. Fewer miles, but more cash…) to get home from Bangkok. Having flown the oldest of the old from SIN-BKK, it was now time to try the newest of the new…


My flight was scheduled to depart at 4.30pm. After checking in at BKK and clearing immigration (Thai now has a special lane near Row A for premium cabin travellers that gives dedicated security and immigration clearance), I made a beeline for the Royal Orchid Spa, reserved for Thai J and F customers. I’ve done a detailed review of the first class section of the spa during The Long Way to New York trip report, but this time I’d be doing the business class section.

First and Business class passengers get access to the same spa in BKK. The main difference is the type of treatment they receive. Thai’s airport spa offers business class passengers a 30 minute treatment and first class passengers a 60 minute treatment. As a reminder, here are the options

Touch of Silk (Full Body Oil Massage – 60 minutes for First Class only)

Start your journey with a relaxing Touch of Silk, full-body oil massage. Performed with the unique ‘Thai touch’, this massage will help to prepare your body for your onward flight by increasing blood circulation as well as relieving muscular tension and helping to provide necessary hydration for your skin. On completion of your Touch of Silk massage, you will be left with an overall sense of well-being and total relaxation.

Royal Thai Massage (Full Body Massage – 60 minutes for First Class only)

Thai massage is perceived as one of the most precious of Thai traditional therapies. Royal Thai Massage helps to stimulate blood circulation, reduces edema caused by travelling and reduces body fatigue. With its unique acupressure techniques, expertly applied to your body, you will find your mind relaxed and muscles relieved, following the stress of your journey.

Neck & Shoulder Massage (30 minutes)

The Neck & Shoulder Massage is a great way to relieve stress which has built up from the rigors of everyday life from working long hours at your computer. Using specific techniques the therapist will work to loosen tight muscles around the neck and shoulders whilst simultaneously assessing how much tension is held in the body and how best to release it. You will board your flight feeling more relaxed and a little lighter around the shoulders.

Foot Massage (30 minutes)

Let’s help prepare you for your onward journey, by taking the weight off your feet and giving them a relaxing massage, which they truly deserve. Foot massage is a well-known relaxation therapy to help take care of tired feet. The gentle touch of the therapists hands and the deeper pressure from their fingers, create a sense of overall relaxation and will help to stimulate your vital organs.

As a J passenger, my options were shoulders or foot. I opted for foot.

The business class spa treatments take place in small semi private cubicles (First Class has their own treatment room- you can see how those look here). Here’s mine.

The treatment actually lasted closer to 20 minutes than 30. But it was just as good as any other foot massage you’d find on the streets of BKK. I can’t really say I’m a connoisseur of foot massages though. I’m the kind of whimp who always says “softer”.

After the treatment you’re ushered back to the waiting area and served tea.

There are some light refreshments laid out in the waiting area but it’s really nothing worth hanging around for. It’s mostly prepackaged snacks and pastries.

Craving real food, I left the spa and walked across the hallway to the business class lounge. By this time there was less than 10 minutes till boarding started so I had to make a very quick pass through.

There are numerous buffet spreads set up within the lounge, but there’s only one central hot food area with maybe 4 or 5 hot items.

The selection was somewhat limited, and TG really isn’t doing legendary Thai food any justice at all. I had a plate of very anemic pad thai (yes, yes, I know pad thai isn’t really pure Thai) and a pork cake, the contents of which I prefer not to know. I mean, how hard would it be for Thai to do a really kickass menu of Thai classics?

There are several satellite buffet displays set up elsewhere in the lounge with coffee, light snacks, fruit and cakes.

I chowed down for 5 minutes and started the walk towards gate G2. The signs said the walking time was 12-15 minutes, but because of my superior physique I did the walk in 6  minutes (form an orderly queue, ladies)

Boarding was just about to start when I reached the gate. I love the design of the A350. The plane is so cool it looks like it’s wearing sunglasses.

When boarding started, I bounded down the jetway to try and snap as many photos as possible before the place got crowded (I had fun reading Lucky’s tips on writing trip reports, and how you need to accept that you’re going to be seen as a bit of a weirdo for running down the jetway just so you can get photos of an empty cabin)

First impressions of the cabin were great. This seat, to me, is a much improved version of its A380 offering. The A380 seat has some very unfortunate design elements like the copious use of plastic and Barney-esque purple upholstery. The A350’s theme is more wood and dark purple, which at least evokes fewer comparisons with everyone’s favourite dinosaur.

You can do a virtual tour of the cabin here if you’re so inclined. Here’s what the seats in the centre look like (if you’re travelling solo and unable to get one of the seats at the side, this should be your next best bet)

The seats at the side, as expected, offer the best privacy. There are two types of seats at the side- those with the table separating the seat from the aisle and those with the seat closer to the aisle. Obviously the former is preferable in terms of privacy.

I know some people have misgivings about seats in this configuration because they’re worried about the amount of foot space they’ll have. I’m pleased to report that Thai’s seat has an ample amount of space for feet in its cubby hole. Either that or I have very small feet. And you know what they say about men with small feet, ladies…

Thai is using the newfangled touchscreen IFE system. I’m still unconvinced about the actual utility of having a touch screen, because in practice (1) it hangs a lot and (2) it increases the chances of accidentally brushing the screen and exiting whatever you’re watching.

Thai’s earphones are nose cancelling but look and feel very flimsy. Definitely not in the same league as SQ’s Phitek or ANA’s Sony-branded sets.

Each seat has 2x USB ports for charging. It’s a minor annoyance, really, but due to the setup of the seat and positioning of the side table, if you’re plugging in a USB cable and resting your device on the side table, you’re going to get tangled up when exiting the seat. It’s a small issue, again, but just goes to show how far some intelligent user experience design can go. It wouldn’t have been very difficult to put the USB charging ports on the table, or in an otherwise unobstructed place.

Even the A350 lights are cool. They’re behind clear glass and are activated by a small button over your head.

The crew came around to serve pre-departure drinks. A general point about the TG crew is that they were competent but not really personable. It’s not a criticism unique to TG, I realise that on regional flights SQ crew are more functional than friendly, but don’t expect any additional touches like being addressed by name or small talk. I certainly didn’t feel any warmth from this crew.

All drinks in TG J were served in these really tiny glasses. If you were uncharitable you could call this a cost saving initiative, as those glasses couldn’t have held more than 100ml of champagne. FYI, the champagne on offer was Duval Leroy. It’s not terrible, but not exactly what I’d call an aspirational brand either.

Having had a bit too much champagne before takeoff, a visit to the loo was in order. The A350’s loos have all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a 21st century aircraft. Automatic taps are an expected feature by now…

But I was particularly pleased by the no-touch bins. Just wave your hand over it and it opens up.

The next feature I want on my aircraft is no touch door opening, because the hypochondriac in me hates washing my hands then having to touch the door latch to get out.

TG has Borghese toiletries in the loo for its regional flights.

Pushback was delayed by about 20 minutes, but the captain finally got on the PA and announced the flight details and timings.

We were stuck in a bit of a queue to take off, but I spotted this relic of the TG fleet…

We got airborne before long and were treated to some really nice sunset views  

Linner was served after takeoff. Here’s the food and drinks menu.

I was a bit surprised there was no Western option on this flight, given that most carriers practice having both an Asian and a Western choice on this route. That said, all 3 Asian options sounded equally good.

I wasn’t too impressed by the quality of the meal. It seemed more like an economy class meal plated on business class plates. SQ’s regional catering is definitely superior to TG’s, given that you can order pretty much whatever you want from the BTC menu.

That said, there was a very nice chocolate mousse that came with the meal. The crew came by to serve almonds with the post take off drinks, almost as if by afterthought.

After the meal I tried to test out the bed function of the seat. The seat goes full flat, but as I’ve said before I’m weird in a way that I prefer adjusting the seat to 160-170 degrees because I find a 180 degree sleeping angle a bit uncomfortable on the lower back

This was just a short haul flight so I can’t say whether the long haul experience is any different- I would have liked to get a mattress pad plus a bigger blanket, but the base seat in itself was comfortable enough for a quick nap. My main concern about the seat is that it’s quite firm. Some people may prefer a firmer bed however.

My overall feelings on the Thai A350 product is that it’s definitely a solid enough hard product, one I’d not hesitate to select on a long haul route. Can it compare to top tier airlines like ANA, SQ and EVA? No way. But this is an important step forward for TG and hopefully they’ll be able to raise their soft product to match it as well.

Reflections on Garuda’s 90% promotion and my visit to Garuda’s offices

Years from now, when we look back at Garuda’s 90% off award tickets promo, we’ll still be arguing about just what it was that Garuda wanted to achieve with this.

The most convincing theory I can conjure is that Garuda management intended from the start that this would be a publicity stunt. Garuda’s got great new First and Business Class products, but you’d be hard pressed to find any trip reports about them online (especially First Class, but here’s one!).

Who are the people most likely to write trip reports? People like me. Who is the most likely to jump through all sorts of hoops to get fire sale award prices? Ditto.

So by launching a limited time, too-good-to-be-true promotion, Garuda found a way of converting saver award seats (which would otherwise have flown out empty) into one heck of an interweb buzz. Overnight they got tons of coverage on sites like Flyertalk and Boarding Area, and it’s safe to say a lot of people who didn’t know about Garuda Indonesia before are now talking about it. People will fly on their premium cabin products and write trip reports with photos, and before long these will propagate themselves throughout the web, boosting the awareness and image of Garuda.

There are of course many other theories out there- some speculate that it was an ill thought through promotion that got out of hand, others that Garuda wanted to make a bit more money from Citibank and needed to encourage mileage transfers.

The promotion ended up being pulled early, which led others to speculate that Garuda intended to do this all along- get people to transfer their Citibank points over so Gaurda would earn some revenue, then pull the promotion before the transfer went through. In the end Garuda promised to honor all award tickets issued before they pulled the promo, which put to bed some of those theories. But object lesson here- nothing is confirmed until your ticket is issued.

Whatever you believe, I think we can all agree that it was an amazing promotion and we are unlikely to see anything like it for a long, long time. Which brings me to my experience of trying to get onboard with this promotion.

Someone on the comments in the original Garuda post said something to the tune of  “I’m not sure anyone with a full time job could have jumped through the various hoops.” And he’s definitely right. Because over the past few days I’ve spent easily 3+ hours on the phone with various people from Citibank and Garuda trying to get my transferred points to post, having to explain the same story again and again. This is in addition to the time I spent researching different routes and physically going down to the ticketing office to get the ticket issued (fortunately I’m on leave this week).

Image result for garuda indonesia business class

But it’s finally done, and I now hold a confirmed reservation in Garuda J from Bali to Narita. It’s not the F award I was so coveting, but hey, win some, lose some. And 12,600 miles  + S$162 for a return business class ticket is not to be sniffed at.


The day the promotion was announced I jumped on the phone with Garuda. After a 40 minute session of pricing out different routes and cabins, I finally concluded that an F award wasn’t realistic (only AMS and LHR are serviced with F, and only midweek departures were available, and I couldn’t justify paying the surcharges for what would have to be a very short trip).

So I settled for a J award. I transferred my Citibank Thank You points to Garuda on 23rd December. The T&C say that points transfers can take up to 14 days, but they just say that to cover themselves. In reality transfers mostly go through in 2-3 business days.

At least, that’s what I told myself.

On Monday 26th December I was already seeing people posting about successful points transfers. Still my account had nothing. That’s when a sinking feeling started forming in my stomach as I realised it could be because my Citibank name had a hyphen in my pinyin name, but my Garuda account did not (because their system doesn’t support it).

Why oh why did my parents want me to be unique, I thought to myself as I picked up the phone to start the first of many calls to Citibank and Garuda. Citibank told me they didn’t do any sort of verification on their side, and it was all up to Garuda to accept or reject the transfer. Gaurda told me they couldn’t see any transfer yet but they’d monitor it.

On the 27th, still no points. I called Garuda again, explained the issue with the name, and was told that I’d need to check with Citibank to see if they could change the name on their side. Citibank told me I’d need to check with Garuda.

On the 28th, the points were nowhere to be seen. I called Garuda and this time was asked to call their Jakarta office for “escalation”. Garuda customer service opened a file for me and asked me to send an email with all the details. I sent it in.

On the 29th, I got a call from Gaurda saying they had no evidence of Citibank ever making a transfer. I called Citibank, conferenced Garuda in and got them to talk to each other. They told me I’d get an update later that day.

Later that day I received an update from Citibank saying that Gaurda miles would post more slowly if the Garuda account was “new” versus if it was one with prior activity. I have no idea why this might be the case but anecdotally I had heard a few people on FT talking about that. They said they’d chase it up.

Finally, I awoke on a blissful Friday morning and saw that the points were in. Never before have I been so happy to see 13,000 miles in my account. A big shout out to Natalie from Citibank for being so persistent with the follow up.


And so it was time to journey down to Middle Earth.

Garuda’s offices are on the 12th floor of United Square in Thomson.

Image result for united square

Because it’s the last working day of the year, they were on a half day and I had to get there before 1pm to close it out.

The place was deserted when I got in at around 1130 am, with only a handful of customers who clearly weren’t redeeming award tickets. I had this strange idea in my head that the whole Garuda office would be full of fellow travel hackers and we could make this our own little meetup.

Instead there were a grand total of two people there. One gentleman who had come down to ask about his luggage allowance, and one gentleman who had journeyed all the way down to buy some Garuda merchandise (I’m not kidding. He was trying on different sizes of the Garuda Liverpool FC jersey)

I explored the office while I waited. There was a display dedicated to their new 77W aircraft and cabin products

And some other Garuda tchotchkes. Incredible how Garuda went from deathtrap to world’s youngest fleet in the space of half a decade. I’m sure there’s going to be a HBS case on this before long.

They were also advertising Garuda vacation packages to Bali. They have very naughtily excluded airline surcharges from their price quote (which isn’t allowed, as per SG laws) but I’ll let it slide.

It was a slow business day, as evidenced from my queue number.

And finally it was my turn, and 15 minutes later I had my Garuda ticket in my hand. I read reports that you needed to have your physical membership card, but I wasn’t even asked to show my digital one. I received an email confirmation while I was still at the office that my ticket was now issued.

So I’m going to be reviewing Garuda’s J product over the May Day long weekend. I will need to position myself to Bali to catch the flight, and very honestly if I weren’t in the hobby of writing reviews of different airline products I might not have gone through all that trouble. The positioning ticket + taxes on the award is costing me $360 out of pocket, and that’s not taking into account my hotel in Tokyo.

But as Jeriel reminds me, I should be taking advantage of my flexibility to travel on short notice. He was having as much of a milegasm as I was about this promotion and would have very much liked to up and go to Amsterdam, but with a wife and kid in tow the equation becomes much more difficult.

Today is the last day for ticketing those amazing 90% off tickets. To everyone who got one, congrats! I’ll expect those of you travelling in F to be churning out trip reports. To those who missed out, take heart. Deals come and go all the time. Such is the nature of the hobby we do. I personally can’t wait to see what sort of deals 2017 has in store!