Flight Review: Cathay Pacific First Class
This is an installment in my March 2012 Asia Trip Series which includes: A Birthday Present To Myself: Business Class on the World's Longest Flight for $2.50, Help Me Plan My Asia Trip Starting With Singapore, Flight Review: Singapore Airlines All Business Class Flight From Newark To Singapore, Hotel Review: Intercontinental Singapore, Video Trip Report: Singapore, Hotel Review: Le Meridien Bangkok Avantec Suite, Video Trip Report: Bangkok, Hotel Review: Le Meridien Angkor, Video Trip Report: Siem Reap, Hotel Review: Intercontinental Phnom Penh, Video Trip Report: Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, Hotel Review: W Hong Kong.
Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines are among the best commercial airlines in the world. They are known for service and comfort - especially in premium cabins. That's why I was eager to try out Cathay Pacific First Class on my recent return home from Asia. This redemption is one of the best uses of miles, in my opinion, especially in the pre-Avios British Airways days (when I booked my ticket), so it was a double whammy - extreme comfort for almost no cash outlay.
I used pre-Avios British Airways miles for this trip, which only cost me 75,000 miles for Phnom Penh - Hong Kong (business class on Dragon Air) and Hong Kong - JFK on Cathay Pacific in First Class. Using the new Avios calculator, this trip would have cost me 120,000 miles one-way (15,000 for business Phnom Penh-Hong Kong and 105,000 for first class HKG-JFK). So while not as good a value, you could still get a lot out of your Avios this way since these tickets regularly go for around $7,000 one-way!
Other ways to redeem for Cathay Pacific First Class are to use American Airlines miles 67,500 miles one way and Alaska Airlines 140,000 miles roundtrip (Alaska is a 1:1 transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest and you get a 5,000 mile bonus for 20,000 SPG points transferred, so you'd only need to transfer 115,000 points to get the 140,000 needed for a First class roundtrip).
Hong Kong is a great city for public transit, with frequent and clean mass transit service. The Airport Express links the airport with Kowloon where the W and Ritz-Carlton are located, and I didn't even have to leave the hotel since the metro station is connected to the shopping complex where the W Hong Kong is located. The great thing is, you can get your boarding passes and check your bags right there in the metro station so you're all set when you get to the airport. The only issue I had was a communication one with the check-in agent. I wanted to get the same seats for both my flight segments (my flight actually went Hong Kong-Vancouver, had an hour stop, and then continued onto New York JFK). He did not understand, and there seemed to be nothing I could do to make him understand, so I ended up with seat 1K at the very front for my first segment (score!) but one of the middle seats fro the Vancouver-New York flight. Not the end of the world, but a little annoying, especially since my same seat was indeed available on both segments.
My other big problem came, however, in the security line at the airport. I brought along my wheelie Tumi rollerboard, which I've taken as my carry on everywhere and never had a problem. Until now. The security lady escorted me back to the Cathay check-in desk where the man behind the counter agreed the size was 100% compliant, but he then made me weigh it and said it was over the measly 7kg (15 pound) limit, so I had to check it. I thought that was ridiculous, especially since I would have an overhead bin entirely to myself in First Class, but there was nothing I could say to get them to let me take it onboard with me, so I had to grab a few things out of it then check it and deal with the loss of the control and wish my bag a safe journey.
Then it was back to the security line, customs and emigration, where I was surprised to find there was no dedicated line for premium passengers. This is where I think Cathay could stand out for their premium customers, especially since security and immigration lines at Hong Kong can be lengthy. So overall, the trip started out with fairly mediocre on-the-ground service, but at least that would all change in the sky.
After that frustrating experience it was time for a glass of champagne at the First Class lounge...or so I thought. When I got to The Wing lounge, it turns out the First Class section was closed for renovations, so instead there was just a partitioned off area of the main business class lounge, which was empty. I was a little disappointed, but the service was good, they kept refilling my glass, and the snacks were tasty, though I saved my appetite for the flight since I wanted to experience the onboard cuisine.
Segment 1: Onboard
Though boarding was pretty chaotic, once I got into the First Class cabin, all my aggravation melted away and I settled in for a fantastic experience. The seat was cushy and huge. I actually switched from 1K to 1A so a mother and daughter could sit next to each other, and the flight crew thanked me about 10 times.
The crew was actually the best part of it since they were diligent, friendly, engaging and smart, but not overly doting. One of the flight attendants also asked me if I'd like to join the airline's Marco Polo Club, which is a higher tier than their normal Asia Miles loyalty program and normally costs $50 to join. Since I was flying in first class, I could join for free, and would have privileges like priority boarding and the ability to redeem miles for lounge passes and extra legroom seats (nothing I'll likely take advantage of, but I can't say no to free airline freebies!).
Though the flight took off after midnight and it was well into the night before meal service started, I stayed up just to experience the cuisine. It was pretty fancy - especially compared with US carriers, with dishes like smoked salmon and caviar, and a main of sea bass with assorted Asian veggies. The Asian options on both of my flights were light and good, so I was happy.
I watched a movie, then changed into my ultra-comfortable Shanghai Tang cotton pajamas that I received as part of my amenities kit (which also included Zegna products and this great-smelling Acca Kappa sandalwood facial mist that smells like Old Spice but in a good way) and fell asleep almost the entire rest of the flight. The seat was huge and made a very comfortable bed, even for tall me, so I only had time for a quick fruit plate and to change back into my clothes before we landed in Vancouver.
Though the purser had originally told me that First Class passengers were allowed to wait in the lounge during the 90-minute stopover in Vancouver, it turns out when that all the in-transit passengers just had to wait in a holding area at the gate so as not to go through customs and immigration. There wasn't a separate business or first class area, so everyone was just sort of hunkered down in the gate area, which wasn't horrible, but I was starving and the vending machine was broken--I know, not a big deal for an hour wait - but at least there was some bottled water that we could take. Then it was time to get back on the plane.
Segment 2: Onboard Vancouver to JFK
I hadn't been looking forward to the second segment, especially since I had to change seats, but after that first flight, I knew it would be another great experience and I had another really good meal of fresh fish and vegetables--again, I always go for the Asian meal choices on Asian carriers, they're so much better!--and the silver lining was I was actually given another amenity kit and another set of Shanghai Tang pajamas.
Though the flight times are odd - you depart at midnight, land at about 9pm in Vancouver, and then get to New York at 7 in the morning, essentially taking two back-to-back red-eyes - my flight experience, the service, the seat-bed and the food was so good that when we got to New York first thing in the morning, I was ready to hit the ground running and had a great first day. The jet lag hit the second day, but still, when I arrived, I felt fine and was productive all day long, so that was totally worth it.
I would still say this is one of the best redemptions I've gotten - for 75,000 old BA miles and $200 in taxes for the one way redemption, I basically got a $15,000 ticket Even though you'd have to use about 120,000 Avios (105,000 Avios) and pay about the same in taxes and fees, it's still a great use of miles, and a good way to experience one of the best products in the sky. I can't compare it to Singapore Airlines first class since I haven't taken it (yet!), but Cathay definitely beats the new British Airways first class, which I enjoy greatly. The trouble with flying such great first class products is that it makes anything in business or coach that much more unenjoyable! Oh well, it's good to have such #firstclassproblems I suppose.