Everyone by now should be aware of what’s going on in Qatar and the broader region. I’m going to stay far, far away from any political commentary and talk about what this blog vertically integrated e-commerce media conglomerate is focused on- the travel implications.
As you may remember, I need to get from DAR to DOH for my RTW trip. I had identified that it was cheaper to fly DAR-DOH-DXB instead of directly from DAR-DOH.
At first I was thinking of throwing away my DOH-DXB ticket, but then realised that DOH-DXB was booked as First Class, as that’s the level above Economy on inter-gulf flights. That was fantastic, as it meant I would get a chance to review the Al Safwa First Class lounge in Doha. It also meant that I got to spend my weekend in Dubai instead of Doha.
As you can guess, the current flight restrictions have wrecked that plan, with Qatar Airways banned from flying over or landing in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt.
I quickly worked out an alternate routing from DOH-DXB that involved transiting in Muscat and taking MCT-DXB via Oman Air. My understanding is that Qatar is working to rebook affected flyers to DXB/AUH via KWI or MCT. With this in mind I called up QR to see if they’d rebook my proposed routing for me.
Now, Qatar Airways’ official policy regarding the current situation is that rebookings for flights affected by this disruption can be done within 72 hours of flight departure. I say “official”, because it seems from what I’m reading online that this is a classic case of YMMV. But this is also a classic case of the benefits of HUCA (hang up, call again).
Case in point- I called up the Doha office at the 72 hour mark and got a CSO who insisted on rebooking me on DAR-MCT-DXB, entirely on Oman Air. This made no sense at all to me- wouldn’t QR rather keep the revenue they were earning on my DAR-DOH-MCT legs at least? Why would they want to do the whole flight on a different carrier? But she insisted there was nothing else she could do, and to top it all off the flight she proposed left from DAR one day later than I originally intended. I hung up.
I called again and got a CSO who was perfectly ok with the routing I proposed, but said that they were not able to book this for me until 24 hours before departure. 72 hours is already cutting it way close but 24? I asked about the 72 hour policy and he said that where rebooking was happening via other Middle East airlines, the policy was 24 hours as they’d seen airlines like Etihad/Emirates cancelling bookings that were done by Qatar.
I called again (a day later) and got an extremely cheerful CSO who listened to my proposed flights, said “no problem sir” and after a 5 minute hold told me it was done. I got the e-ticket shortly after hanging up. The whole call took less than my wait time.
Why would I do such a long layover in Doha? Counter-intuitive as it sounds, it’s so I can get a better rest. I could easily have connected to a QR flight that departed DOH just after midnight, done a 5 hour layover in MCT (at 330am no less) and reached Dubai around 9am, but that would leave me knackered (plus, a 5 hour layover in MCT is no joke).
My new arrangement allows me to spend the night not in a transit hotel, but in the QR First Class lounge. That’s right, one of the cool features of the Al Safwa lounge is that it has sleeping rooms. Not darkened areas with recliner seats, but proper, hotel-style private rooms with beds and an attached bathroom.
No reservations for the rooms are allowed, they’re allocated on a first come first serve basis
Rooms are only available if you have >4 hours till your flight leaves
A maximum of 6 hours use is allowed, beyond which QAR 450 is payable for another 6 hours
Only bottled water is allowed in the sleeping rooms.
All of which suits me just fine. The only beverage I’d take to bed is champagne, and now that it’s Ramadan the QR lounges in Doha are dry anyway…
So assuming I make it to the lounge around midnight, I can do a 6 hour stay and wake up to grab breakfast, take photos and then head on over to catch my flight to MCT. And I save one night of hotel expenses.
The other interesting development, aviation-wise, is that QR is now operating a different kind of A320 on the DAR-DOH route. Qatar used to operate the version that had your standard regional business class recliner seats, which aren’t great for a flight that’s decidedly medium-haul.
But because of the blockade, QR1348 now needs to take a longer route from DAR-DOH, adding about 90 minutes to a flight blocked at 5h 50 mins. You can see the diverted route here:
I don’t know if it’s an aircraft range issue or just QR wanting to redeploy narrowbody aircraft it can’t use on intra-gulf routes anymore, but the A320 on this route has been switched to the version that has full flat seats in business class.
This is the same aircraft that normally plys intra-gulf roots and which premium cabin is sold as first class, but because of the current restrictions is getting redeployed elsewhere (sidenote: it does seem like such a waste of resources that QR would normally deploy a flat-bed seat aircraft on routes that are 2 hours or less)
I’m not thrilled about a 4 hour layover in Muscat, but at least I’ll get to review the Oman Air lounge in Muscat and try their 737 regional business class. Hopefully their lounge is decent enough to get some solid work done.
It’s amazing if you sit back and think about our supposedly connected world. By denying Qatar air links and passage with its neighbours, what should have been a no-nonsense 1h flight between DOH and DXB stretches to almost 5 hours including transit. And involves flying in the “wrong” direction between each destination.
No one has any idea how long this will last, but it’s sure to have an impact on your travels if you’re heading to the region anytime soon. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail and we’ll see a restoration of something approaching normality soon.
In the meantime, if you’ve got a QR itinerary that’s been affected by what’s going on, it’s good to call up customer service with alternative routes already in mind. And if the first CSO tells you no, don’t take that for a final answer. Keep trying until you find a CSO who can accommodate you.
It may surprise you to know that neither travel hacking nor womanizing is The Milelion’s primary occupation. Although he excels at both. Oh no. By day, The Milelion is a mild-mannered management consultant (careful not to transpose the u and l) and works tirelessly to realise synergies, optimise efficiency and produce 300 slide decks for great justice.
But once in a while, work takes you to an interesting place or two. Or three. Or 15, in this case. We’ve got a recurring engagement that requires us to make several site visits to locations around the world. You might remember me writing about this last year in the 2016 edition of The Milelion’s RTW trip.
Well, it’s that time of year again! This year’s engagement requires travel to
Dar Es Salaam
Now, the average person might look at such a routing and feel somewhat intimidated. I, on the other hand, feel something approximating arousal.
Planning the 2017 RTW trip
My default choice for RTW tickets would usually be Star Alliance, but given the spread of cities this year I’ve decided to go with One World instead.
It’s strange in a way, because Oneworld is the smallest airline alliance, yet it offered me much better options than either Star Alliance or Skyteam for where I needed to be.
American Airlines covers US domestic routes plus connections to Europe, BA and Iberia can cover the UK and Spain, Qatar can connect me to both Delhi and Dar Es Salaam from Doha. It’s true that OneWorld connectivity is non-existent in India and Africa, but I’ll buy cheap budget flights for India and do a surface sector with Ethiopian Airlines for the intra-Africa legs.
So that’s exactly what I’m doing this time round. When I priced my OneWorld RTW business fare from Singapore, I was getting a quotation of S$15,945. The same itinerary starting from Tokyo? S$9,457 (to put things in perspective, my fare last year was just over S$20,000- but then again last year I did 5 continents and this year I’m doing 3. Even after you factor in surface legs and what not, I’m still coming out way ahead)
To top things off, starting from Tokyo means that when my trip is over I’ll have a spare one way business class Singapore-Tokyo ticket that I can use any time within the RTW ticket validity (up to 1 year). If I want to, I could change it to any other city in Japan for US$125.
It’s terrible. It’s full of bugs and sometimes hangs, requiring you to start from a previously saved point. It sometimes disallows 4 hour connections on the grounds of not meeting MCTs. It allows illegal routings. The most frustrating feature of it is that every time you change your routing (eg add a new city, remove an existing city) the system changes all your previous flight choices to the default ones. So if I’m flying A–>B–>C–>D–>A and I add E in between D and A, all my flight choices for A–>B–>C–>D will disappear. This FT thread documents a host of other frustrations with the engine.
I bought a type of OneWorld RTW ticket called “Explorer” which isn’t limited by miles travelled but rather segments. It allows you a maximum of 16 segments including surface segments (those where you find your own way between two airports), and the pricing is ultimately a combination of fare class, number of segments, airports visited (some have higher surcharges) and number of continents visited.
As with all RTW tickets it’s all about rule, rules, rules. You can read the full rules here, but to summarise the key points-
In general, you need to start and end in the same country, though not necessarily the same city. There are explicit exceptions (eg you can start in Malaysia and end in Singapore because same same)
You can only cross the Pacific and Atlantic oceans once
Your trip must be a minimum of 10 days and a maximum of 12 months
You can backtrack within a continent (Zurich to London when moving West to East) but not between continents (Delhi to London when moving West to East)
It also appears that the OW booking engine lacks an online payment function (or at least it didn’t let me pay online). After you confirm your flights and click book, you are given a PNR and instructions to contact the American Airlines office in the city your trip begins in to make payment.
Even making payment was a challenge- I called up American Airlines in Tokyo, only to get bounced to the office in Dallas, only to be told that the RTW desk kept different hours and wasn’t open right now.
When I got through to the RTW desk, I was told that they had to reprice the booking and give me an American Airlines PNR (the RTW engine defaults to booking your trip with the carrier of your first flight segment, in my case Japan Airlines, which is why AA couldn’t recognise the PNR), which required a further 24 hours.
I called back after 24 hours and found the pricing desk had priced in USD, meaning they’d only accept USD-denominated cards and “you have to be an elite member to use an international credit card” (add that to the list of perks!), meaning they had to reprice it again in SGD.
And after I submitted my payment details they sent me an email telling me that one of my segments had violated some rule or other but wasn’t flagged by the online booking engine. Apparently, you cannot stop in the Middle East on the way to Asia, if you’re starting in Africa. I dunno. So I swapped that to a surface leg and they repriced it (this, incidentally, was what lowered the overall fare by S$2K. Since I was no longer “visiting” the Middle East (no stopover there from the OW POV)
But finally, it was done.
11 flights, all in business class, for S$9,457.40. I think that’s pretty good value, all things considered.
No RTW ticket is perfect, and there are always going to be gaps in your alliance’s coverage, or ridiculous layover timings that make it impractical to use. Therefore it’s expected that you’ll have to plug some gaps with one-way tickets. Once you factor in the additional flights plus the connections, the final route looks something like this
I’ve basically added
A one way ticket to NRT to position myself to start the trip
A round trip ticket between MAD and BCN (why can’t I use Iberia as part of the RTW ticket? To do so would be to have 5 stopovers in Europe, more than the 4 permitted)
A one way ticket on Ethiopian to get from ACC to DAR
A one way ticket on Qatar from DAR to DOH because Oneworld didn’t let me stop over in the Middle East en route to India
A series of budget flights within India, where Oneworld has no coverage
All these additional flights added ~S$4-5K to the total cost.
One of the comments I’ve received is that it’d be nice if this website expanded its focus beyond just SQ or Star Alliance carriers. And with the recent Krisflyer devaluation, those seeking to jump ship to Cathay might be interested in knowing what sort of Oneworld partner awards they can look forward to redeeming.
Well there’ll be plenty of that now, because on this trip I’m going to review…
Early reviews of the seat look very promising, and I’m looking forward to trying the famous satay course that MH serves (supposed to be way better than SQ’s anyway) as well as their flagship lounge in KLIA (for which I elected for a 3 hour layover instead of a 50 minute one).
Malaysia Airline’s recent troubles have forced it to sell its premium cabin at deep discounts, especially for flights not originating in KUL (they need to try and attract as much ex-Malaysia business as they can). Securing a one way business class ticket for S$913 was already a fantastic deal, although, when MAS goes on sale you can fly return business to Tokyo for S$1,070…
Japan Airlines B77W Business Class (NRT-LAX)
Ever since 1-2-1 became the industry standard for business class, 2-2-2 configurations have become indicative of an airline that (1) urgently needs fleet upgrading or (2) has willingly settled for a lesser product. Until the Apex Suite was designed.
These seats are 2-2-2/ 2-3-2 configured but because of the slightly staggered design, each seat gets direct aisle access. It also means that the window seats in this configuration are among the most lucrative, given the high degree of privacy + direct access to the aisle.
I’ve never flown JAL before so I’ll be quite keen to see how the product (food especially!) compares to ANA, which I’ve reviewed many times. Perhaps they’ll have muskmelon…
American Airlines B772 Business Class (JFK-LHR)
Believe it or not, but I actually deliberately took a connection in JFK instead of flying direct from BOS to LHR just so I could avoid BA. BA’s business class product, by all review accounts, is simply bad.
BA has gone for a 2-4-2 config (I know this section is supposed to be about AA and I’ll get to them in a sec) in business class (Club World, as they call it) which means really narrow seats plus everyone having to step over someone/be stepped over at some point in the flight.
On the other hand, American Airlines is retrofitting its 772 aircraft with this new full flat business class seat (the old aircraft had angled flat seats) that has all aisle access
It’s an interesting layout because some seats face forward and others backwards in a diamond formation. But I like the high walls and if nothing else, I’m going to try one of those ice cream sundaes and see how it compares to United’s. I know that service on US airlines can be hit or miss, but I’d take a solid hard product with a substandard soft one over a substandard hard product.
Even better, American operates an Arrivals lounge in LHR. (I don’t know why SQ is so opposed to the whole Arrivals lounge concept- it’s a real plus for business travellers. How hard would it be to open the Silverkris lounge for those arriving in the morning who need a shower and a quick bite?). The AA arrivals lounge operates from 5am to 330pm and looks like it has everything
Champagne bar? For a 6am arrival? Where do I sign?
Ethiopian Airlines, of course, isn’t part of Oneworld. But in the absence of any Oneworld connectivity in Africa, I need to figure out how to get from Accra to Dar Es Salaam, and Ethiopia seems to be somewhere in the middle.
For us in Singapore, airlines probably don’t get much more exotic than Ethiopian. But in fact, Ethiopian has a range of pretty solid business class products across their fleet.
Here’s their A350
And their 787 (it looks angled flat but it’s full flat)
It’s certainly not market-leading, but I think they deserve a lot more credit than they’re given. I mean, Emirates doesn’t even have lie flat seats in business in any aircraft except the A380!
Perhaps you may never have the opportunity to fly Ethiopian Airlines (although they do a fifth freedom flight between SIN and BKK where you can try out their lie flat product), but hopefully this will give you an idea of what service, food and product you can expect if that day ever comes.
Unfortunately I’m not going to have a chance to review this new business class
The QSuite, as it’s called, only launches in June on the Doha London route before being retrofitted to the rest of the QR fleet. I won’t lie, I thought of really convoluted routings that would place me on a LHR-DOH flight in June, but I just couldn’t make it work.
The lounge in Doha is supposed to be excellent, with 2 full service restaurants, an F1 racing simulator, multiple PS consoles and a spa (that is, unfortunately, not free. Or cheap. 30 minute treatments start at US$110). Too bad I’ll be in Qatar during Ramadan, because that means no booze in the lounge (aircraft booze, however, is still ok).
In addition to these headliners there’ll also be a scattering of domestic US, intra-Europe narrowbody aircraft. I don’t expect those too be too exciting, but reviews will follow nonetheless. Oh, and I’m tentatively scheduled to fly on CX’s new regional business class too, but I’ve just transferred a bunch of Asiamiles into my account and am considering switching to a flight with First Class just so I can use my miles to upgrade myself.
Singapore is number one in a lot of things. Unfortunately, that also includes cost of living. The good folks at the EIU have been telling us as much for a long while now.
Even more unfortunately, it seems that airfares are not immune from the high cost environment we have here either- the relative wealth in Singapore means that airlines consider it to be a “premium” market. Therefore, you don’t see very good fare deals in premium cabins originating from Singapore.
As much as we talk about redeeming miles and never having to pay for premium cabin travel, there are some times where you simply can’t get your awards to clear and may want to consider looking at revenue fares. What then?
Starting your journey from outside Singapore
If flying from Singapore in premium cabins is too expensive, why not position ourselves elsewhere to start our trip? There are certain cities that are well-known for cheap premium cabin fares.
Qatar Airways, for example, is known to offer great fare deals for flights originating from Cairo and Colombo.
Some examples of recent great fare deals from Cairo include (all fares round trip)
US$1,150 Cairo to New York in Qatar Business Class
US$1,070 Cairo to Los Angeles in Qatar Business Class
US$1,150 Cairo to Bangkok in Qatar Business Class
US$2,660 Cairo to Sydney in Qatar Business Class
And from Colombo (all fares round trip)
US$4,700 Colombo to Los Angeles in Etihad and BA First Class (+ 1 leg in Sri Lankan Business)
US$1,105 Colombo to Boston in Qatar Business Class
US$600 Colombo to Casablanca in Qatar Business Class
I realise that for most Singaporeans it’s difficult to position yourself to Cairo (especially since SQ has terminated its Cairo route for quite a while now). Colombo is somewhat more do-able (~4 hours flight) especially if you’re going onwards to Europe or the East Coast of the US, but are there any closer starting points if you’re in Singapore (and headed in the opposite direction, say Australia?)
Flying from Bangkok and KL
If you’re not able to position yourself to Colombo or Cairo to take advantage of premium cabin deals deals (I don’t know about you but I’d sure as heck buy a cheap ticket to Colombo to get to Boston in business class for $1.1K…), then consider 2 of our neighbour cities, Bangkok and KL.
Bangkok and KL are easily accessible by budget airlines. I am not saying that you will definitely find better deals ex-BK/ex-KUL than ex-SIN. What I am saying is that if you’re paying out of pocket for premium cabins and have the time, you could potentially save a lot of money by buying a cheap budget flight to Bangkok or KL and starting from there.
Let’s look at some examples for round trip business class travel to key destinations in the USA, Europe and Australia.
A few caveats about the above analysis-
(1) I simply plugged in two random dates and looked at the prices for flights originating from Singapore, Bangkok and KL respectively. There may be other dates on which the fare differential is higher/lower.
(2) It is obviously not possible to do an apples to apples comparison as we are not comparing the same flights and the premium cabin product among airlines can differ dramatically. That said, I did remove budget carriers like Jetstar and Scoot from this analysis because although they do have a business class product, it’s certainly not in the same league as a full service carrier.
(4) Do remember that when you’re flying out of KUL/BKK the 1 stop in flight effectively becomes 2 stops, since you need to fly SIN-KUL/BKK-Stopover-Destination.
Observation 1: Cheap premium cabin fares from Singapore are possible if you don’t mind long layovers
My first observation is that it is still possible to get some good fares out of Singapore (i.e. no positioning needed) provided you are willing to do a long-ish layover. This means you will fly on one ticket the whole way and no separate budget ticket needs to be bought.
For example, It is possible to fly SIN-HAN-FRA on Vietnam Airlines business class for S$2.8K, if you’re willing to do a 5 hour layover in Hanoi. Vietnam Airlines may not be a world class airline, but you’ll get to fly on their newest cabin product on the 787 from HAN-FRA, which is a reverse herringbone product that could give SQ business a run for its money. At S$2.8K this is much cheaper than the S$6.6K SQ wants for a direct flight. Heck, it’s cheaper than flying SQ premium economy (S$3.5K- and they wonder why they can’t fill the cabin…)
Similarly, if you’re willing to fly China Eastern and take a 10 hour (!) layover in Shanghai (get out and enjoy the city) then you can fly from SIN-PVG-SFO for S$4K, less than half the price of flying direct. For PVG-SFO you’ll be flying on China Eastern’s 777-300 aircraft. I don’t know about you, but this cabin seating arrangement looks pretty decent to me…
And if you want to go from Singapore to Melbourne and are ok with a 3.5 hour layover in KUL, you can buy a S$2.6K ticket with Malaysia Airlines that will first send you to KL on an unmemorable MAS flight, then onwards to Melbourne on Malaysia Airlines’ new business class on their A330. This is another excellent looking full flat product where the majority of seats (but not all) boast full aisle access. Have a read of a trip report here.
Observation 2: Positioning yourself to BKK/KL can also yield some attractive deals
If you’re not keen on a long layover, it is possible to position yourself to BKK/KL via a budget flight and do a non-stop flight onwards to your final destination. But be warned- budget airlines are unlikely to offer through check-in and this means you may, in a worst case scenario, need to budget time to clear immigration and collect your bags before checking in for your onward flight. All that takes time.
For example, Singapore to Frankfurt direct on SQ will set you back S$6.6K, but flying from Bangkok will cost S$5.2K. TG operates the A380 from BKK-FRA, where you can enjoy the 1-2-1 full flat Thai Business Class. I think Thai’s business class product is inferior to SQ’s, but it’s still a full flat and all aisle arrangement (plus, you’ll get to use the Royal Orchid Spa in Bangkok). I think that’s worth saving S$1.4K, provided you can arrange a quick transit in Bangkok.
Similarly, KL to LHR costs S$3,871 direct on Malaysia Airlines (versus S$5,839 on SQ). This is the only route where MAS operates its A380s, and although the business class product here has very little privacy, it’s still a full flat bed.
Observation 3: Positioning + 1 stop can yield some very good deals
You can get to Melbourne in business class for S$2,146 or S$2,245 with Royal Brunei and Thai Airways respectively if you fly out of KL.
Royal Brunei operates its 787 on the route to Melbourne and, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the business class cabin looks pretty good too. You will have a 5.5 hour layover in Bandar Seri Begawan. I’ve never been there but I think it’s safe to say it isn’t exactly the entertainment capital of the world. Also, Royal Brunei is a dry airline, so be warned. You won’t be popping bottles in the aisles. Here’s a trip report if you’re curious.
The Thai option seems better in the sense that the layover is only 2 hours. So you’ll find your own way to KL, then go KUL-BKK-MEL for a total flight time of 11 hours (+ 2 hour layover). Sure you’ll need to budget in some time for transit but it’s not that much worse than flying from SIN direct. And S$2.2K for round trip business class is a good deal in my book. Thai operates a 777-300 on this route with a similar product to that on the A380.
Sydney can also be reached from KL and BKK for roughly the same price with 1 stop as well.
I think there’s something to be said here about the comfort vs time trade off. Your leave is precious, and I can understand why people would rather take a 10 hour direct flight in economy than spend 20 hours with connections and layovers. If you’re the sort of person for whom the destination is the point, by all means book economy and enjoy more time on the ground.
I guess I’m weird that way in that the getting there is the highlight of my trip. And if you take it from the point of view that you’re getting an additional stopover in another city while travelling in a better cabin class and paying less, then the equation certainly changes. For example, even if I were ultimately heading to San Francisco, I could certainly make a case for a 10 hour stopover in Shanghai just to take in some sights and food en route (I think the difficulty comes in when the layover is neither here nor there. 5 hours in Hanoi, for example, is a bit too short to do anything meaningful in the city but too long to just wait in the airport)
Are there any other closeby cities to Singapore with good options for premium cabin revenue fares?