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Back in December, Garuda launched a limited-time 90% mileage discount on awards and I was able to book a round-trip first-class ticket for a fraction of the normal price. The Pros: suite-style seats, delicious cuisine and friendly service. The Cons: a tough flight schedule on the return.
While Garuda Indonesia operates flights throughout Asia, its intercontinental reach is still limited to just London Heathrow (LHR) and Amsterdam (AMS). It also plans to operate its first US route this year, but that hasn’t happened yet. Garuda has made huge strides in recent years toward becoming a major international carrier, including updating its fleet, bringing its safety record up to international standards and joining the SkyTeam alliance. With the 10 777-300ERs it got new from Boeing, the airline also introduced new international first- and business-class products that got aviation enthusiasts drooling. So, when it announced a 90% discount on award tickets back in December 2016, I jumped at the chance to redeem miles for a first class flight from Europe to Asia. Here’s how I did it and what the flight experience was like.
That 90% sale had the points blogosphere buzzing: a round-trip ticket in Garuda first class would cost only a tantalizing 38,000 miles. But would-be buyers faced several hurdles, some of which seemed insurmountable. As with many deals like this, it seemed too good to be true, and when people encountered these issues, most of them just gave up. But I had some time on my hands and was able to book not one but two award tickets that took advantage of the deal. That’s not to brag — it’s simply to say if something similar comes up, follow my advice and you should be able to score a cheap award, too.
1. Positioning problems. First of all, Garuda doesn’t fly to the US yet, so you would have to position elsewhere, like London or Amsterdam. That wasn’t a big deal for me because I was planning to be in Europe at some point anyway on an unused award ticket so I could get myself there, no problem.
2. Account registration woes. Next, you had to be able to register for a Garuda Miles account. But the carrier’s sign-up page didn’t seem to be letting people from the US do this because you couldn’t select a city for your address and thus couldn’t complete the registration process.
Luckily, there was a workaround where I could select a country like Indonesia or the UK, where the cities would load, so I could then complete the registration process. Once my account was set up, I was able to go into my profile and change my country to the US, then select my state and city from the drop-down menus. Note that his worked for me in Safari but not Firefox. You’ll also notice that the system seems to have forgotten what you entered already, as my city still wasn’t listed. The only problem this presented at that point, though, was to limit how easy it was for me to log into my account, but it didn’t seem to have any other ill effects or prevent me from opening a frequent flyer account with the airline so I could book a promo award.
The other alternative was trying to register for an account on the phone with the airline’s customer service, but that was going to be a bigger pain, as you’ll see below.
3. Hold on! The next challenge was actually finding award space and placing it on hold. These discounted awards were not bookable online, so in order to find and reserve one, you had to ring the airline’s call center in Jakarta and wait on hold — but if you were on hold for longer than two minutes, the system would automatically hang up on you. While that was initially frustrating, I think it ended up working in my favor since the system didn’t prioritize customers who had been on hold a long time and I think a lot of people gave up at this step.
In any case, I got through after about 40 minutes of calling and calling, and talked with a very friendly, helpful agent. I had found regular saver Garuda award space on the routes from London and Amsterdam to Jakarta (CGK) by searching on Delta.com, but it didn’t match up to the promotional award space available to agents to book at the discounted mileage amounts.
That said, he found seats on a few different days in March on the outbound as well as on the return to Amsterdam, saying he could place the awards on hold for a week, which I asked him to do. So that’s another thing to note — you don’t have to book awards immediately but can place them on hold. Just double-check the time zone in which the hold will expire so you don’t lose a held award by mistake.
4. How to pay? Now came the next set of problems. This all happened on December 23, 2016. I figured a week would be enough time to transfer points from my Citi ThankYou Rewards account — I rack them up with the Citi Premier Card and the Citi Prestige Card — since it reportedly takes about two days for them to hit your account. But the agent informed me that in order to pay the taxes and fees on the ticket, I would have to come to the office in Jakarta since they did not accept US credit cards. It seemed like I’d hit a roadblock. I didn’t want to take these awards away from someone else who would be able to complete their transaction, but I thought I could at least take a day or two to see if there were any other solutions at hand. I tried calling Garuda’s US customer service line and that agent also told me I would have to physically visit Garuda’s Jakarta office to complete the transaction because the US office couldn’t do it.
Another impasse. But a little more internet research revealed that Garuda’s Amsterdam office could indeed process payments using US credit cards and also book the awards. However, because of the Christmas holidays, the office would be closed until Tuesday, December 27. Even if I got in touch with them and transferred my Citi ThankYou points at that time, it would be cutting it awfully close. Thankfully, I also found out I could simply buy the miles necessary at that point, assuming I got through and they could book these special awards for me.
5. Calling Amsterdam. I bided my time and enjoyed the holidays with my family. Then, on the 27th, I called the office in Amsterdam and got through to an agent. I have to say, she was also really helpful and could see the awards on hold, telling me she could process the payment with my US credit card but that I didn’t have miles in my account. I didn’t want to take the chance that my Citi points wouldn’t transfer soon enough, or that they might transfer and (because of time differences the Amsterdam office) be closed and my award hold would lapse, so I asked if she could process a mileage purchase to cover the cost of the award, just in case.
The agent said that would be possible but that she would have to email me authorization forms to print and fill out with my contact information, credit card information and the exact amounts of money, in euros, that she would give me. I asked how much it would be and the price seemed right, so we went ahead with the plan. The 19,000 miles I needed for each of the two awards ended up costing me 371 euros (~$397 at the time) plus taxes and fees. My grand total for both flights ended up being 1,117 euros, or just about $1,200. Not bad for an itinerary that would normally cost around $6,000 — and I wasn’t out any Citi ThankYou points either.
6. The final stretch. As soon as the agent emailed me the forms, I printed them, filled them out and emailed them back to her. The next morning, her time, I got two email confirmations for my two award tickets. I had done it! Now for the one mistake I made. I hadn’t realized that only some of Garuda’s flights from Jakarta to Amsterdam made a stop in Singapore (SIN). On some days, they just fly nonstop. Well, I ended up on a flight that made the stop, and it ended up being a fairly grueling itinerary. The flight from Jakarta left at 9:50pm and arrived in Singapore at about midnight, then re-departed at around 2:20am. First-class passengers are escorted to the lounge in Singapore to wait out the layover, and I could barely stay awake. If you can, I’d highly suggest booking the nonstops that operate on Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. With my awards booked, all that remained was to look forward to my flights. Here’s how the one from Amsterdam (AMS) to Jakarta (CGK) went, with a couple of notes from the return.
Check-In and Lounge
When I’d put my awards on hold, the agent told me I wouldn’t be entitled to first-class ground services due to the fare bucket of my ticket. I asked what that meant, and he said I couldn’t use the lounge and wouldn’t get limousine service or a first-class assistant on the ground in either Amsterdam or Jakarta. I was sort of annoyed by that — after all, if the airline was offering first-class tickets, so why make me feel like a second-class citizen? On the other hand, getting to and from Amsterdam Schiphol (AMS) is really easy, I was only transiting through Jakarta and I have Priority Pass lounge access thanks to both my Chase Sapphire Reserve Card and Citi Prestige, so I didn’t really think this was a huge loss.
A day before my flight, though, I got an email asking if I wanted to request limousine service in either Jakarta or Amsterdam. It priced out ground service in Amsterdam, including a first-class assistant and lounge access at 300 euros (~$356) per passenger — no, thank you! It also asked if I needed chauffeur service in Jakarta (which would be complimentary), whether I had any food allergies and if I had a preference of pajama size. I didn’t bother replying because I wouldn’t be using the ground services anyway and figured there would be a choice of pajamas later. I had a feeling I’d be able to visit a lounge in Amsterdam as well.
The following day, I got to the airport in plenty of time and walked right up to the counter for Garuda first-class passengers. The agent there was waiting for me and knew me by name, as the other two traveling in first class on my flight had already checked in. She handed over my boarding pass as well as a pass to the KLM Crown Lounge — so much for limiting my lounge access! — but did not escort me from there, not that I minded.
I won’t do a whole review of the KLM Lounge here; it’s a decent but not amazing option. Mainly, it’s just big and has a lot of different seating options with armchairs and side tables.
There’s a café-style area as well as a few different snack buffets with wine, spirits and on-tap Heineken. The Wi-Fi was okay, but not especially fast.
I wanted to be among the first to board so I could take photos so I headed to the gate early, where I found that three seats had been reserved for the three first-class passengers.
When I sat down in one of them, a gate agent came over to verify that I was indeed a first-class passenger and then kept coming over to check on me until boarding started.
She kept having to shoo other passengers away from the two seats I wasn’t using, even though I told her it didn’t matter to me if other people sat there. Before general boarding commenced, she came back over and asked if I’d like to board first or last. I said first, so she took me to the plane right then and there as the other passengers all looked on.
Cabin and Seat
I was the first passenger — first class or otherwise — to board the plane, so I had the cabin all to myself for a few minutes. As I walked on with the gate agent, I was greeted by name by three of the first-class cabin attendants and asked if I would prefer Champagne or juice. I requested some water and Champagne and was given a choice of Billecart-Salmon 2006 Vintage Brut or Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé. I opted for the vintage, and while they went to get my drinks, I took a few shots of the cabin.
There are just eight suite-style seats in the first-class cabin, which are arranged in two rows in a 1-2-1 configuration.
Each has a chair that can be manipulated into various lounging positions or to a fully lie-flat position for a bed.
The seats also have closing doors that you can shut for privacy when you want to work or sleep. These were a bit clunky at times, requiring you to unlatch them and pull with all your might to get them to close.
There was also a panel next to the front door of each suite that held a small closet where you could hang up your clothes if you wanted to change into the complimentary pajamas, which were handed out.
The four seats along the sides of the cabin were fantastic for solo travelers since they were so private. Those in the middle were great for couples, though you could also put up a privacy divider between them if you are traveling alone.
Unlike Singapore’s Suites, you can’t make the center seats into a double bed, though.
Each seat is 22 inches wide and has a total pitch of 82 inches, so they’re among the longest in the skies at the moment.
I was in 2A, one of the side seats, and had chosen the second row because it would be farther from the lavatory and galley — the cabin behind me was just a couple of rows of business class, so there wouldn’t be any foot traffic passing by.
Along the wall were a few different storage compartments. The one closest to the seat itself held a small bottle of Evian, noise-cancelling headphones and a sort of cubby where I could stick my laptop. It also held the remote for the in-flight entertainment system and had a USB port, where I plugged in my phone.
Next to that was a touchscreen with the seat controls. There were four pre-set positions, including one for takeoff and landing, one for dining, one for relaxing and one for the lie-flat mode for sleeping. There was also a mode where you could adjust the individual seat components like the seat-back, the bottom cushion and the leg rest to your desired configuration. The touchscreen also controlled the reading light next to the head of the seat — not the overhead light — and had a button for the seat’s massage function.
The end of the seat-side storage is another small cubby where there’s a universal power port. On top of that, I found a selection of newspapers and magazines as well as an amenity kit waiting for me.
The next wooden panel held the oversize in-flight dining table. The ottoman of the seat doubled as a second chair, complete with seat belt, in case you want to have someone join you for a meal. I thought the seat was quite comfortable, with leather armrests, a headrest and fabric cushions. I also thought the small square and cylindrical pillows placed on it were a nice touch and made it feel a little cozier.
One other element I really liked was the cabin ceiling, lit up with constellations when lights were dimmed for rest.
Speaking of which, when I wanted to go to sleep, I told the flight attendants and headed to the lavatory. When I got back to my seat, they had made up the bed, complete with a mattress pad, a brown duvet and another larger pillow in addition to the two already there.
I thought the bed and the bedding were both extremely comfortable. The mattress pad was firm but had just enough give, while the duvet was soft and lightweight. The cabin got a little warm during my flight as well, but there’s an individual vent next to the reading light, so I could turn that up to cool off the seat.
I got several hours of uninterrupted sleep and woke up feeling refreshed and well rested, which is probably the most sought-after yet elusive experience an airline can provide.
One downside in the first-class cabin is the severe lack of overhead space — there are bins only over the center seats, but not along the sides. While that makes the cabin feel much more open and airy, it has the negative effect of not allowing for enough storage space for all the passengers. On my outbound flight, it wasn’t an issue since there were only three of us. However, in the full cabin on my return, about half the passengers were out of luck, and I had to give my suitcase to the crew to store somewhere else on the plane — that said, I could ask them to retrieve it at any point and it was waiting for me as soon as we were ready to deplane.
The other shortcoming I found was that there was just a single first-class lavatory. On my first flight, this wasn’t a problem, but on the return, where the first-class cabin was full, I ended up using one of the business-class lavs most of the time because the first-class one was occupied.
As I mentioned, first-class passengers were provided with noise-cancelling headphones. Each seat also had its own wall-mounted 23.5-inch touchscreen monitor for in-flight entertainment.
It’s a little funny that they’re touchscreens, since they’re too far away from the seat to really make that a useful feature. Still, if the handheld remote acts up, it’s good to have a backup.
The selection of new releases and other movies was pretty good. There were also plenty of older films and a lot of choices from various Asian countries.
The TV selection was also decent, and included prime-time shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Gotham. Meanwhile, you could also use the system to check the progress of the flight and even peruse the dining menu and wine list.
The other technological plus to flying first class on Garuda is that the Wi-Fi is free. None of the flight attendants had mentioned it when welcoming me aboard or offering me any refreshments, but when I asked about it, one of them wrote out an access code for me. Logging onto the system allowed me to use it for free on all my devices. It wasn’t the fastest but it was decent for airplane Wi-Fi and let me have a much more productive flight.
Now for the soft amenities. After I boarded and had taken my photos, I settled into the seat to play around with its features. As I did so, Rose, the flight attendant who would be looking after me most often, came by with a glass of Champagne, a little plate of macadamia nuts and a hot towel.
She came back a moment later with a pair of slippers in hand and asked if I’d like to give her my shoes and change into them. I said yes and took off my sneakers, which she placed in individual shoe covers and into the seat placard where the hanger was.
A few minutes later, she was back with a pair of pajamas for me. She explained that because we were in Amsterdam, they didn’t have all the sizes available, but the airline had pre-stocked a large men’s set for me. I figured that would be fine and they did fit okay, but on the way back, I actually replied to the airline’s pre-flight email and requested an extra-large set, which was a bit looser.
Though plain, the pajamas were comfortable thanks to the lightweight fabric. Men were given black ones and the ladies got taupe — it was essentially a set of pants with an elastic waistband and a long-sleeved V-neck top. When I was ready to change, Rose hung them up in the lavatory for me and they were waiting there when I walked in.
The amenity kit was already at the seat when I boarded and came beautifully presented in a black box that included Spanish Agua de Loewe face and body lotion, Acca Kappa lip balm, a wooden toothbrush and hairbrush, an eye mask and earplugs.
At the end of the flight, Rose came by and asked if I would like her to pack up the amenity kit, slippers and pajamas in a nice black gift bag, but I declined since I didn’t want to schlep them around Asia for two weeks and I could keep the ones from my return flight if I wanted to then.
I think it’s important to mention here just how delightful the crew were. There were four of them total who I interacted with in the cabin, including Rose, two other flight attendants and the onboard chef. All of them remained gracious and friendly throughout the flight, and always greeted me with a smile. My water glass never went empty and they brought me extra bottles before I went to bed for the middle portion of the flight. Whenever I finished a course, my dishes were cleared at once. As I mentioned, Rose hung my pajamas for me in the lavatory and then put my clothes into the seat closet for me — she also made sure to freshen up the lavatory before I went in there. It was like having my own private staff and they couldn’t have been nicer. The service reminded me of a mix between the polish of the Singapore Airlines crews and the warmth of the crew members on Thai Airways. It was the perfect combination.
Food and Beverage
This was another area in which the first-class service excelled. In first class, Garuda has an onboard chef on call to cook passengers’ choices from the menu whenever they like.
About 30 minutes into the flight, the attendants came by to serve the amuse-bouche, a signature caviar course including crème fraîche and blinis, and krupuk fish crackers as an alternative. I had mine with the rosé Champagne.
Shortly after, the chef, Jojo, came over to introduce himself and offer suggestions for the menu and wine selections. He walked me through the menu and I made my choices for the entire flight, including the first (main) meal and the pre-landing breakfast, though he said I could change my mind when I woke up. When we finished, he said dinner service would start about an hour later.
I thought the timing was interesting. That would make dinnertime on the flight about 6:00pm Amsterdam time and about 1:00am Jakarta time. Depending how long it took, that should have left plenty of time for sleep and then a late breakfast before landing in Jakarta at around 11:00am the following morning. I had some work to get done anyway, so it suited me.
I mentioned the Champagne choices already, which were nice but not over the top. I thought the white wine selection was quite good too, though a bit monotonous. There were two Chardonnays, one French and the other Australian, both from well-known producers — the French was a 2011 Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru En Virondot from Domaine Marc Morey in Burgundy, while the Australian was Vasse Felix’s famous Filius Chardonnay, the 2015 vintage. The third white on offer was a French Sauvignon Blanc, Henri Bourgeois Les Baronnes 2015 Sancerre.
For reds, there were also three choices. The first was a 2009 Château Durfort-Vivens from the Margaux appellation in Bordeaux. The second was a 2008 Monte Vibiano from L’Andrea, and the final choice was a Shiraz-Grenache blend from Glaetzer Wallace in Australia’s Barossa region.
The dessert wines were a 1998 Château Coutet Premier Cru Sauternes and Dow’s Fine Ruby Port. The other spirits included Eisen Daiginjo Eshiro sake, and a selection of whiskeys like Chivas Regal 18-Year, Glenfiddich 18-Year as well as Grey Goose and Gordon’s London Dry Gin. The two beers available were Heineken and Bintang, one Dutch and one Indonesian, appropriately enough for this flight.
The airline’s signature beverage menus, however, are probably its tea and coffee “experiences.” The Tea Experience is a choice of 11 teas, including a single-estate Darjeeling and a smoky Lapsang souchong, as well as a 99% oxidized purple oolong from Sumatra. Indonesia is famous for its coffee, so it’s no surprise the airline takes pride in its selection, which included Lintong from Sumatra and Toraja from Sulawesi.
Dinner service was a multi-course extravaganza that started with a choice of four appetizers:
- Vegetable salad with poached prawns in a turmeric-vinegar dressing.
- Smoked trout with salsa verde, wasabi potato salad and a pea-tomato salad.
- Coriander-cured salmon with salmon roe and lemongrass panna cotta.
- Surabaya-style tahu tek with spicy peanut sauce, cucumber and tomato.
I opted for both the smoked trout and the salmon — since Jojo recommended both — and paired them with the Chassagne-Montrachet, which was a nice, savory start to the meal.
Next came the soup course. Though there was green pea soup with mascarpone cream, I ordered the Soto ayam Madura Indonesian soup with chicken broth, tomato, chili sambal and a quail egg instead. It was sort of bland, so I didn’t eat that much of it.
For the main course, these were the options:
- Grilled lamb cutlets with gulai sauce, turmeric rice, green beans and eggplant.
- Grilled beef tenderloin with pink pepper sauce, potato gratin and sautéed asparagus and mushrooms.
- Oven-roasted herb chicken with thyme jus, roseval potatoes and sautéed mushrooms and carrots.
- Pan-fried sea bass with lemon hollandaise, potatoes boulangère and a tomato-onion tartlet.
- Smoked and roasted duck with red currant jus, duck sausage, roasted pear and pumpkin puree.
I chose the lamb cutlets for something hearty but not too heavy, and drank the Margaux with it.
Next came a cheese course, which I skipped — it featured Cashel Blue cheese, Farmhouse Brie, and Thomas Hoe red. For dessert, I opted for the warm apple pie with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream over the chocolate-vanilla cake with strawberry coulis.
There was a small menu of items if you got peckish between meals that included an Indonesian satay platter, a spinach-tuna wrap, lamb stew quiche, a selection of petits fours, fresh-cut fruit and tortilla chips with cheese sauce and tomato salsa… aka nachos!
I was stuffed after that huge dinner, though, so I waited until the breakfast service, which began with fresh fruit, yogurt and cereal.
That was followed by a choice of main courses, including:
- Turmeric rice with marinated fried chicken, cucumber salad, spicy fried tempeh, corn fritters and chili sambal.
- Bircher muesli with apricot-apple granola.
- Poffertjes with chocolate sauce and raspberries.
- Made-to-order eggs.
Among the sides were seared cherry tomatoes, roasted field mushrooms, baked beans, chicken sausage, roasted potatoes, sautéed asparagus and turkey bacon.
Between meals, there were snacks available, including noodle soup, fresh fruit, chips, chocolate bars, health bars and mixed nuts.
Upon arrival, I was met by two airline representatives who were going to escort me through customs and immigration, only I told them I was connecting from Jakarta to Ho Chi Minh City, so they escorted me to the Garuda lounge instead — not the first-class lounge, but just the general business-class lounge, though they did install me in a private room by myself with a few chairs and its own TV.
I was able to take a quick shower and get some emails out before I was walked to my continuing flight to Ho Chi Minh City. It was a pretty easy way to pass the layover.
Notes on the Return Trip
I think it’s worth a quick note about the return because the experience held the same familiar hallmarks, but the timing made the flight quite different. Because of my travel plans, I actually had to fly from Singapore to Jakarta to pick up my flight back to SIN and then on to Amsterdam — boy, would it have been easier to just hop the final leg from Singapore, but unfortunately, I couldn’t do that. What I did do was buy a cheap one-way flight on Garuda from Singapore to Jakarta in order to reconnect there.
The day before my return, I got another email from Garuda informing me about ground services and asking about dietary restrictions and pajama sizes. I replied with information about my connection — and that I wanted XL pajamas this time! — and, sure enough, when I deplaned in Jakarta, a perfectly groomed young lady from first-class services was waiting for me along with a male cohort to take my luggage.
This time, instead of the business-class lounge, we went right past reception and down an escalator into the smaller and much prettier first-class lounge. I was shown to my own little private booth — essentially it was an enclosed lounge chair with its own TV — and was handed off to the head lounge attendant, who brought me a bottle of water and a scented towel, before preparing the shower suite since I’d asked to use it. After my shower, I ordered a snack and a glass of wine, and by then it was time for me to board.
Though the cabin was much fuller this time — six out of eight seats were taken and the other two were filled in Singapore — we went through the same service routine, including pre-flight beverages, slipper service and amenity kits. I was disappointed to see that they planned to serve a light meal on the 90-minute flight to Singapore and then just offer snacks and a single full meal service in the morning before we landed. I wanted to hold off on eating until the second flight in order to try to acclimate to the time in Europe as soon as possible, and once I explained that to the crew, they knew exactly what I wanted and just came by to make sure my water and Champagne were full.
When we landed in Singapore, all passengers had to deplane, and those in first class were driven in golf carts to the Dnata Lounge. If you have a Priority Pass membership, head to the SATS Premier Lounge I’d visited earlier that day instead — it’s much nicer and newer and the food was a lot better. However, I was only there to pass the time, so I did a little work, watched a show on my iPad and then it was time to re-board and depart for Amsterdam, right on time at 2:20am. I ate my meal about an hour after takeoff, watched a movie and slept for about seven hours before breakfast. While the flight times and meal schedule ended up working for me, it was, in the end, a very, very long day, so if you plan on taking this itinerary with the stop in Singapore, just prepare yourself.
Although the timing of my return was less than ideal, I had a pretty fantastic time flying Garuda first class. I was thrilled to take advantage of the 90% discount and the opportunity it afforded me to learn more about booking awards with Garuda. The flight experience itself was excellent and the crew and ground staff were phenomenal — friendly and warm without being overly solicitous. The food was delicious, especially the Indonesian options, and the wine selection was impressive. Not only that, but everything went like clockwork, from the pre-flight formalities to the airport experience and service on the plane. Hopefully the airline will get approval to begin flights to the US in the coming year so that it will be yet another great option for traveling to Asia from the US, and one that I’d recommend to others in a heartbeat.
Have you ever flown in first class on Garuda Indonesia? Tell us about your experience, below.
All photos by the author.
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