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Singapore Airlines offers perhaps the best known international first-class experience from the US to Asia, but as TPG Contributor John Walton explores today, not all cabins (or flights) are created equal.
I recently had the pleasure of spending an afternoon aboard what I feel is the best flight upon which you can spend your miles when departing the US. With easy mileage accrual, smashing Champagne and a delicious selection of food, I’d recommend Singapore Airlines’ SQ11 to anyone who wants to truly enjoy a roughly 12-hour flight. Read on to see what makes this particular flight so fantastic.
SQ11 from Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo (NRT) is one of Singapore Airlines’ two A380 flights out of the US, and you’ll only find Suites on the double-decker. New York-JFK has an A380 redeye flight to Frankfurt (FRA) — which TPG reviewed earlier this year — but all other Singapore Airlines flights are on Boeing 777-300ER aircraft, which feature the regular first-class product. It’s a decent seat, but it’s no Singapore Suite.
Compared with the JFK-FRA flight, LAX-NRT’s SQ11 is a day flight, departing Los Angeles at a very civilized 3:45pm during the summer months, but now leaving at 2:20pm Pacific Standard Time. Year-round, it gets into Tokyo-Narita just after 7pm, which is enough time to pass through immigration, take care of the usual Japan arrival tasks (change money for the world’s most bizarrely cash-using society, send luggage ahead via Kuroneko Yamato, hop on the hotel bus or go through the exchange process for the Japan Rail Pass and so on) and make it into Tokyo if needed.
Award Availability is Fairly Open with KrisFlyer Points
For anyone with a love for travel and a healthy balance of miles and points, it’s an easy decision to go for Singapore’s Suites over its business. SQ’s KrisFlyer program partners with all four of the major transferable loyalty programs — Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest.
Availability was reasonable when booking back in January for an October trip, with a half-dozen dates in mid-to-late October available for the LAX-NRT leg. Crossing my fingers and hoping it wouldn’t disappear during the 16 hours of intermittent refreshing that it took for my points to transfer in from Chase was the hardest part of the process.
The ultimate cost for about 12 hours in Suites, with the points discount for booking online, was 74,375 KrisFlyer miles + $184 — not much more than the current 50,000 + 5,000-point bonus for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.
A Decent Lounge, Stunning Food and Stellar In-Flight Service
When flying first class, I can count on one hand the airports where I’d like to spend a significant amount of time in a lounge — they’re all home hubs and none of them are in the US. Therefore, my expectations for the Star Alliance first-class lounge at LAX were fairly low, but it turned out to be a great lounge.
A quiet space with blazingly fast internet, a decent menu and some reasonable NV Champagne (the Perrier-Jouët extra-dosage was more elegant than the Mumm red label) was pleasant enough to recombobulate (and rehydrate) after the airside LAX experience in 100 degrees. However, neither food nor wine were of the caliber I was expecting on board, so I headed down to the boarding gate about 10 minutes prior to the announced boarding time, where I was welcomed to the exclusive Suites line and Suites boarding door.
Singapore Airlines’ Suites isn’t a new product — it was actually the debut superjumbo first class back in 2007 — so I won’t focus on the super-wide, highly comfortable, adjustable seat or the convertible bed that the crew is happy to make up for you in any spare Suite so you don’t have to disturb your stuff to take a nap. Suites is a great place to sit for nearly 12 hours in the air.
Yet key to why this flight is SQ’s best is in the food, wine and service, and it’s hard to think of a better-timed flight — with two full meals and hours to sit back and enjoy all three.
As ever, the Book the Cook option is a good choice to lock in your meal options (plural!). Singapore Airlines is very flexible with this: I booked the famous Lobster Thermidor for my main meal and the Beef Sukiyaki for my second, knowing that SQ always loads enough of the special Kyo-kaiseki Japanese meals, and that I could pick which of the main meal or second light meal Kyo-kaiseki was more appealing to my tastes (which generally swing away from oily or dark fish and toward seafood).
I could pick the time at which I wanted to have the hot meals and keep the main course from the main meal to have later. I also discovered that the crew are happy to keep a serving of caviar chilled from lunch and serve it later during the flight.
Elegant mouthfuls in the sakizuke course whetted my appetite. I’d never tried mountain yam before (it was delicious), the pumpkin jelly was delicate and flavorful and the calamari was tender and seasoned to perfection. I just loved the glass tableware too.
Inside the rock was the beautiful albacore sashimi of the mukouzuke course, lightly seared on the outside and served with a light salad with a fresh, mouthwatering citrus dressing. I also found the granite-replica tableware exquisite, with the rock cover opening up to reveal a deep blue glaze. It’s this attention to detail and quality that makes Singapore Airlines stand out from the pack.
The oshinogi course was absolutely delicious. It was immediately clear that I didn’t have the ability to bring the chilled buckwheat soba noodles to my mouth without getting the delicious sauce all over the napkin, but when the flight attendant saw the mess I’d made she brought me a fresh one. Look at how the blue glaze of the two dishes echoes the blue glaze of the previous and next courses — this is impressive service design.
The yakimono and gohan courses rounded out the savory part of the meal. The tender, flavourful beef didn’t overpower the delicate halibut in the yakimono course, while the crunchy fresh pickles (top center), which were intricately carved, were a delightful touch in the gohan course. I was also surprised by the delicious sea bream and nameko mushroom soup (top right), which was a wonderful palate cleanser.
I was fairly full by the time the final mizugashi course arrived, but the elegant and very Japanese chestnut cake had just the right amount of sweetness to round out the meal. An excellent decision by Singapore Airlines.
I ended up deciding on the Kyo-kaiseki for the main meal and the lobster for the second light meal. I wasn’t disappointed — this was incredibly elegant food, entertainment in its own right, and a significant reason to book this flight.
Fabulous Champagne Outshines Most of the Wine List
“Dom Pérignon or Krug, sir?” Those are five words to make any wine-lover smile, so 12 hours or so was more than enough time to thoroughly enjoy both. The slightly cheaper Dom (2004 vintage on my flight) is served in the US before takeoff because the US requires airlines to pay duty on alcohol served on the ground, and it was certainly delicious, but within seconds of the 10,000-foot bing, I was sipping on a cool glass of Krug.
Depending on your taste, the lighter Dom may be preferable during the Kyo-kaiseki meal, but the more robust Krug was perfect with the Lobster Thermidor. Of course, if you’re not certain which one you prefer, the crew are more than happy to pour both for an in-flight taste test.
Also an option to while away your nearly 12 hours: some wine tasting. In fairness, the red and white wine selection is impressive, but none of them are the quality of two of the world’s best Champagnes.
But as a wine aficionado, I tried a tasting flight of the three reds — from right to left, in ascending order of body: the 2009 Corton, a Côte de Beaune Pinot Noir from Louis Latour; the 2007 Pauillac, a Chateau Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande Bordeaux (a primarily Cabernet-Merlot blend); and the 2013 Clonakilla Shiraz from near Canberra in Australia. To give them the best chance of shining, I sampled them with the cheese plate.
Only the Clonakilla shone at altitude. The Pinot Noir still retained some of its fruit characteristics and wasn’t overly tannin-driven, and the Pichon Comtesse’s unusually Merlot-driven blend retained some of its mouthfeel. Yet even as a great lover of French wine, at the end of the tasting I was left with the unfortunate conclusion that a top-notch Argentinian Malbec or another blend would have been a better wine selection.
Singapore Airlines’ Crew Are Beyond First Class
For the majority of my flight, Leading Stewardess Miyuki was in charge of my side of the cabin. For Japanese flights — including the LAX-NRT leg —Singapore Airlines has a cadre of Japanese-speaking flight attendants, including Miyuki.
I’ve experienced a number of airlines’ overseas-based language-specific cabin crew who don’t always manage to strike the same tone of service as the rest of the team, but Miyuki was perhaps the best Singapore Airlines flight attendant I’ve ever encountered. She was knowledgeable about the wine on board, happy to chat about my plans in Japan and helpful with suggestions of potential additions to my trip that I hadn’t considered.
And the only time I had to use the call bell for a fresh cup of tea or a refill of Champagne was when Miyuki was on her break period.
With a stellar crew, wonderful Champagne, exciting food and a comfortable seat, it’s hard to think of a nicer way to fly to Japan.
Know before you go.
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