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If you want to get from Colombia to Japan, which are not connected by direct flights, the obvious choice would be to go the quickest route, connecting through the US or Canada or even Mexico. But I’m an aviation geek, and I often fly for the pleasure of trying out new aircraft and routes. So you know where this is going.
I was looking for a way to get from Bogotá El Dorado International Airport (BOG) to Tokyo, ideally in business class using United MileagePlus miles. And that’s how I ended up on an Avianca flight from BOG to Barcelona (BCN). The aviation geek in me, or maybe the aguardiente I had at my friend’s wedding in Colombia, took over during the booking process and made the executive decision to connect in Europe, taking the long way. What’s 3,000 extra miles after all? Only five more hours, in a Boeing 787. And I was going to be in business class, so no hardship there.
I booked about 48 hours from departure and had quite a few options: Star Alliance was good about releasing last-minute award inventory.
From Colombia, I decided to take the long way and connected at London Heathrow (LHR) to Tokyo Haneda (HND). The main reason was so I could avoid the narrow-body jets favored by Copa, United and Air Canada around the Americas and instead enjoy lie-flat seats on two Star Alliance carriers, Avianca and ANA, neither of which I’d flown with before.
Once I was booked and ticketed, I went onto the Avianca site to choose my seat. I plugged in my booking reference and only saw the LHR to HND leg of my reservation. I called the United 1K desk to see what was going on. They said the Avianca leg from BOG to LHR had not ticketed and there was no availability left on the flight. I went back to United and suggested a new routing from BOG to Tokyo Narita (NRT) via Barcelona (BCN) and Brussels (BRU) — a 28-hour trip. The other option at this point was to connect at Toronto Pearson (YYZ) and Chicago O’Hare (ORD) on a mixed cabin 26-hour flight. Lesson learned: Always make sure your award ticket actually tickets on all carriers.
I used 85,000 United miles on this itinerary, which were hard to part with, but seemed reasonable considering I was going more than halfway around the world in business class. Since there were no United segments (United blocks space for elites and United MileagePlus Card Explorer cardholders) on this itinerary, I could have conceivably booked this trip using other Star Alliance mileage programs. The same trip would have cost 82,500 Avianca LifeMiles or 108,000 Singapore Krisflyer miles. I preferred to use my United miles since they were already sitting in my account and were less flexible than Chase Ultimate Rewards points, Citi ThankYou points and American Express Membership Rewards points.
Check-in and Lounge
I checked in on Avianca’s website (one perk was that you can choose seats on Star Alliance partner flights as well) and didn’t have time to print my boarding pass at the hotel, but it was easy enough to retrieve at a self-service kiosk at the airport. I noticed my seat on the ANA flight had changed from 7K to 7D but at this point couldn’t change my seat with any of the partner flights. I also couldn’t find a priority lane at BOG, but security was quick and painless on this Sunday night.
After security and past the duty free shops you’ll find the Avianca Diamond Elite Lounge. The attendant who validated boarding passes and directed guests up the elevator initially said I couldn’t enter, after looking at my boarding pass. That was weird, since the lounge is reserved for those flying in business class on Avianca and Avianca Elites. She relented after I protested that I was indeed an Avianca business class passenger, and grudgingly let me in. Star Alliance Gold members not flying Avianca business can use the VIP Lounge instead.
The lounge was divided into three main sections. The middle was supposed to be a rest area, though it didn’t seem too peaceful with the TV blaring.
The buffet consisted of sandwiches with a vegetarian option, which I appreciated. There was also a salad bar along with a cooler full of juices, beer and soda.
There was also an uninspiring self-service bar with wine, liquor, a coffee machine and a variety of teas.
The main thing I didn’t like about the lounge was the open concept, which meant sound traveled from the concourse and duty free shops, along with the Katy Perry tunes that played below.
When I arrived at the gate around 8:25pm, I overheard a conversation with the agent who mentioned the flight would begin boarding closer to 9:00pm. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a pop-up American Express Lounge so I checked it out. I presented my American Express Platinum card and was granted entry.
They had similar offerings to those of the Avianca lounge, in a much smaller setting (and less Katy Perry).
It was an enclosed area next to the gate with capacity for about 20 people.
You could clearly hear the gate agents from the lounge, so when pre-boarding began I headed back over to the gate. Avianca boards in groups by letter, with business class passengers, Star Alliance Gold and Avianca Elites boarding in group A.
As we approached the plane on the jetway, there was a line building up to enter the aircraft. It was raining hard and water trickled down the aircraft into a puddle right where the jet bridge met the plane. We waited about 10 minutes until a cleaner showed up with a mop and we were on our way.
Seat and Cabin
The business class cabin felt modern and spacious.
Business class was separated into two sections — a front section with five rows and the rear mini-cabin with two rows. Seats were configured in a 1-2-1 reverse herringbone configuration. There were a total of 28 seats in business class and 222 in economy.
I was seated in 3K and the two seats next to me were wide open. The cabin was probably about 40% full.
The seat itself was really comfortable in all positions and had access to the window shade dimmer without getting out of your seat. I really liked that there was plenty of storage on both sides of the seat. I was able to put my shoes in the compartment on the left-hand side.
And my wallet, phone and camera in the compartment on the right-hand side.
There was a table on the right hand side near the window, along with seat controls, the IFE remote, an international plug, USB port, light and seat controls. I found the color scheme drab and the red paneling tacky, while on brand. The seat in a fully flat position was really comfortable and had room to spare for someone my height, 5 foot 10 inches.
Due to the weather and boarding issues, we departed about an hour late.
On each seat there was a pillow and blanket wrapped in plastic. The pillow was plush and sizable, and the blanket soft as well, comparable to the Saks Fifth Avenue blanket in United Polaris.
Shortly after boarding, the flight attendants came out with amenity kits and shoe bags. The TUMI amenity kit consisted of all the basics including hand lotion, lip balm, dental kit, socks, eye mask and ear plugs.
The bathroom wasn’t stocked with any toiletries, unlike some other business class experiences, though it did offer L’Occitane hand cream. It wasn’t the cleanest airplane bathroom I’ve been in.
There was no Wi-Fi on this flight, but the in-flight entertainment screen was a respectable 16 inches and popped out of the seat back with a silver button. The amount and quality of content was average, including a selection of about 25 movies, along with a small range of TV shows like Friends, VEEP and House of Cards.
Audio content and maps were also available through the system. The user interface was intuitive and could be controlled via touch or remote.
Headphones were located inside of the small cabinet to the right of the seat. They were somewhat noise-canceling, but irritated my ears after a while. The amenity kit provided covers for the earphones which was thoughtful.
There was a small panel missing below the screen on my seat with a few wires hanging out which was a bit of an eye sore, but everything functioned well.
Food and Beverage
About ten minutes after settling into my seat, the friendly flight attendants came by with a selection of welcome drinks. There was a choice of water, sparkling wine, orange juice and coconut lemonade, which was smooth, creamy, slightly tart and served with a small plate of salted peanuts and cashews.
Shortly thereafter, flight attendants came around with menus. Like many transatlantic flights from the US, dinner was served after takeoff and breakfast served before landing. When we hit cruising altitude, the FAs promptly came out with drink carts and hot towels.
For the aperitif, I went with the Undurruga sparkling wine from Chile. I liked it so much that I ordered a few bottles from Wine.com through the MileagePlus Shopping site and earned 4x points.
One glaring omission on the drink menu was the lack of gin.
The FAs then zoomed by with a lentil soup in a tiny espresso mug which was presented nicely, but was very salty.
For the main course, the FAs didn’t take orders ahead of time but instead came out with a cart loaded with trays, which felt like an economy dinner service. There were four options for the main course: chicken, beef, fish or salad.
I opted for the grilled tilapia with carrots and rice which I can summarize as disappointing. The fish had absolutely no seasoning and was dry. It was served with a ceviche that tasted like boiled shrimp covered in ketchup. The FAs came around with a basket of warm bread rolls, which definitely tasted a few days old.
Since I was still feeling peckish, I asked the FAs if I could have the vegetarian salad, which they were happy to provide. It consisted of lettuce, small mozzarella balls, sun-dried tomatoes, hearts of palm and corn. It was the highlight of the service, especially as I washed it down with another glass of sparkling wine.
After my salad plate was cleared, the dessert cart rolled by. There were strawberry ice cream sundaes, chocolate toffee cake and fruits on offer. I went with the toffee cake which was presented nicely, but sweet to the point where you couldn’t taste anything but sugar. I accompanied this with a glass of the full-bodied Malbec.
Dinner was underwhelming, though the wine offerings were a pleasant surprise. The entire dinner service was complete about two and a half hours into this 10-hour flight.
Before trying to catch some sleep, I took a walk around the plane into the economy cabin which was arranged in a 3-3-3 configuration — standard for a 787 economy cabin.
After sleeping for about six hours, I woke up to the sound of FAs getting ready for breakfast. I went with the omelette which was doused in hogao (a Colombian pico de gallo) and dotted with the same mozzarella balls from my salad. It was served on a tray with a small fruit plate and a selection of rolls, croissants or cinnamon rolls which were warm, but still didn’t taste very fresh. The hogao was slightly spicy and seeped a garlicky, tomato flavor into the omelette. I enjoyed this meal a lot more than dinner.
Toward the end of the flight, the flight attendant came by with a small box of Colombian coffee and a piece of artisanal Colombian dark chocolate as a parting gift, which was a very elegant touch. The chocolate was from a small-batch producer called Lok and was absolutely incredible.
Avianca’s business class cabin was modern, the seats were comfortable and there was plenty of storage. The flight attendants were attentive but the soft product could be improved, specifically the food options out of the hub in Bogotá. Nonetheless, Avianca had a solid offering which I would be happy to fly again.
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