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During his recent round-the-world trip, TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen took a few regional flights within Asia. Here’s how he scored a good-value award on Cathay Pacific, and his review of the service in economy from Bangkok to Hong Kong.
One of the loose ends in my big itinerary traveling around the world was how to get back to Hong Kong so I could catch my continuing award itinerary to Europe and finally to the US as I flew around the world.
I spent about two and a half weeks traipsing through the rest of Southeast Asia, including Bali, Myanmar and Laos, and I had to get back from Luang Prabang to Hong Kong to connect to my award itinerary – though I planned to spend the weekend in Hong Kong before resuming my travel. I didn’t realize, however, how limited my options were for getting back to Hong Kong until I started looking into airfares from Luang Prabang.
Connecting in Bangkok
While the city is becoming a major tourist destination in the region, there are still very few flight options, and travelers are stuck transiting through Vientiane, Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Hanoi from what I could find. Unfortunately, the transit options through Vietnam required an overnight stay (and thus a visa), and connecting from Vientiane or Chiang Mai to Hong Kong required yet another stop. So it seemed like my best option was to try to catch a cheap flight from Luang Prabang to Bangkok and continue on from there.
Most of the reasonably priced flights from Bangkok to Hong Kong on the day I needed to travel were in the morning, but the earliest flight I could get from Luang Prabang to Bangkok landed at about 2:45 pm. The best connection I could hope for was a Cathay Pacific flight that departed at 4:10 pm. I’d be cutting it close, but Cathay has an interline agreement with some Bangkok Airways flights, and I figured I could check my bags all the way through to avoid revisiting customs and immigration and having to check in again during my layover (that is, if things at the airport worked as they should, which I had my doubts about).
My other option would have been to catch a much later flight and get into Hong Kong past 11 pm – too late to meet friends for dinner as I had planned.
Avios to the Rescue
The other concern, however, was that the connecting Cathay flight I wanted was pricing out at a whopping $678, even for economy! That was way too much money for me to shell out on a connection (and almost as much as my first class ticket has been on the same route on Emirates in November), so I started looking into other options.
My first thought was to log into my Executive Club account on BritishAirways.com and check award availability on the day I was traveling. The site pulled up a ton of flights on partners including SriLankan, Royal Jordanian and, luckily, Cathay Pacific, including the exact flight I wanted.
The award ticket priced out at 7,500 Avios + $46 thanks to BA’s distance-based awards – a value of about 8.4 cents per point. But with the Avios + cash options, I found I could use as few as 2,500 Avios along with a higher cash co-pay of $111. So for an extra $65, I was saving 5,000 Avios, a rate of 1.3 cents per Avios. I was willing to pay a little extra cash to save Avios at that rate, and it brought my redemption value (2,500 Avios accounting for $567 in airfare) up to a whopping 22.7 cents per point!
This is just another example of how maximizing BA’s distance-based awards can reap hugely valuable benefits. Granted, this flight was pretty overpriced considering airfares average about $200-$300 on this route, but it was the best option I had and one I was willing to pay for at that rate.
At the airport in Luang Prabang, the Bangkok Airways check-in rep was able to check my bag all the way through to Hong Kong, but couldn’t check me in or give me a boarding pass for the Cathay flight, which I would have to do in Bangkok.
When I arrived in Bangkok, I checked the gate information for my new flight and walked pretty much the entire length of the airport to my new terminal, where I found the transit check-in counters of various airlines on the same level as the gates, but before the gate area and lounges started.
No one else was in line at Cathay, so I stepped right up to the counter, was given a bulkhead aisle seat, and had my boarding pass in hand within a matter of minutes.
My flight was aboard a regional A330, configured with two classes. It’s a big dual-aisle plane, but it was only about 40% full, so boarding went quickly and I had no one sitting next to me.
The economy cabins have 267 seats configured in a 2 x 4 x 2 arrangement with Cathay’s new shell recline economy seats installed. Each seat is 17.5 inches wide and has 32 inches of pitch, and “reclines” 6 inches. However, this isn’t your normal seat recline where the seatback swings back. Instead, it reclines somewhat, but the softer part of the seat slides down in the shell and the seat cushion extends out, so it’s more like slumping. This is good for fellow passengers because your knees don’t get banged or your laptop screen crunched if the person in front of you reclines too fast.
However, it basically amounts to hunching in your seat, so I’m not sure I find it any more comfortable than a traditional plane seat. It was comfortable enough for a quick flight, though, and I had extra legroom thanks to being in the bulkhead, so I was content.
Each economy seat has its own video on-demand in-flight entertainment system with a 9-inch touchscreen (there ‘s also a handheld console). There are a couple dozen channels of movies, television shows, music and games. I watched some Game of Thrones on my flight. Flight attendants handed out headsets at the beginning of the flight.
The flight is just over 2 hours long, though because of traffic at Bangkok and Hong Kong, it’s budgeted closer to 3 hours. It took off about 4:10 pm and arrived in Hong Kong just before 8 pm local time, so there was a quick dinner meal service onboard about half an hour into the flight.
The choices were some sort of steamed fish, and a chicken curry dish with veggies, steamed rice, melon and a Kit Kat bar for dessert. I had a few bites, but the chicken didn’t seem cooked all the way through, so I left most of it (I stowed the Kit Kat for later).
Dinner service concluded pretty quickly – as I mentioned, it was not a full flight – and I settled back to enjoy another episode of GOT and an absolutely spectacular sunset on the descent before we landed.
We got in at the same time as a United 747 arrived from the US, so I tried to book it as fast as possible to immigration and managed to avoid a huge line. My bag took just a couple more minutes to arrive at the carousel, and I was on my way to the Airport Express train and the city. It took me about an hour from when we hit the ground to arrive at my hotel – not bad for a huge city like Hong Kong!
Given the limited options for getting from Luang Prabang to Hong Kong and my tight scheduling, I was actually a little stressed about this leg of my trip, but everything worked out perfectly and I had no issues with my flights whatsoever.
It was also a huge relief to be able to use my British Airways Avios to save hundreds of dollars and keep my travel affordable. (I have a bunch stockpiled thanks to carrying the British Airways Visa as well as the Sapphire Preferred and Ink Plus, both of which earn Ultimate Rewards points that transfer instantly to BA at a 1:1 ratio.)
If I had to do it again, I might reevaluate the order in which I visited the various destinations on my trip to ease my transit. However, I was happy to get the chance to experience Cathay Pacific’s regional economy service. The cabin was really comfortable, the crew were professional, courteous and diligent, and the flight experience itself was relaxing and pleasant.