31 January 2013

Tokyo without the Dreamliner

I had planned this trip a few months ago, once I had seen the announced schedule for United's Dreamliner deployment.  Even after there was a subsequent announcement about delayed deployment, the Los Angeles-Tokyo route still was on schedule.  And up to two days before my departure, the Dreamliner was still flying (the route had officially started a couple of weeks earlier as planned).  But like it or not, the Dreamliners were grounded the day before my departure to Tokyo.  Since the whole point of routing through LAX was to fly the Dreamliner, I called up United Global Services and they easily moved me to the non-stop flights between SFO-NRT.  I had also checked for upgrades to First (they were available) and asked to upgrade.  Normally, the only way to upgrade with my fare code is to use miles and a copy.  But since I was "inconvenienced", they let me upgrade using my Global Premier Upgrades.

The plane turned out to be very full.   There were several people who had also planned to be on the LA flight (the flight status showed there was no replacement plane out of LAX).  There were at least 4 flight attendants sitting with me in First.  We left a little late, but arrived in Tokyo close to the scheduled time.    The flight service was nice and they had the new turn down service, so sleeping was pretty easy to do after lunch and watching "The Campaign".

There was no line at immigration, so the landing formalities did not take very long.  I exited Customs, made the left turn to the ATM machines for some cash, and then headed straight down the escalators.  My choice this time for transfer to my hotel was the Keisei Skyliner and then the JR Yamanote line to Shinjuku Station.  It is possible to take the Narita Express to Shinjuku Station via Tokyo station, but the Skyliner plus local train is a little cheaper and maybe a little faster, depending upon the timing.  The only advantage the Narita Express train offers is that you don't run into potentially crowded trains.  Since it was mid-afternoon, I didn't think crowding would be too bad (it wasn't). At Shinjuku Station, there is a shuttle bus to the Tokyo Hilton, but I didn't remember exactly where it stops, so I just walked it (underground).

The Hilton granted my paid upgrade request to a Tower Suite, so I had a very nice space for my stay, including a nice view of Mt. Fuji.

Surprisingly small bathroom

The days were surprisingly clear during my stay

The Executive Lounge is very nice at the Tokyo Hilton.  There is usually a nice variety of food offerings.  The only drawback is that it can get crowded in the evening.

This was going to be a short stay, and I had a few things I wanted to do.  These included shopping for a unique retirement gift (I failed), dining at a highly-rated restaurant (I succeeded), spend some time at a Japanese onsen (traditional hot springs bathhouse, one located in Tokyo -- also succeeded), and find baby Japanese peaches to take home (also succeeded).  I also tried to get into an exhibit I heard about at the last minute, called Spaceball. It's a sphere where you stand on a platform inside and they project a movie around you for 10 minutes.  Unfortunately I was not able to get in and that was its last week in Tokyo.  If it was that popular, I'm sure it will be back.

My dinner at Pierre Gagnaire at the ANA Intercontinental was very nice.

Oysters and scallops

Duck foie gras with ice cream

Cheese course
Dessert Part 1
Dessert Part 2

Dessert Part 3

The baby peaches were kind of a big goal for me.  I have had them at The Bazaar in Beverly Hills and at the Tapas Molecular Bar in Tokyo. After searching on the Internet, the only place I could find them was a mail order shop in Tokyo.  I looked at many food stores in Tokyo with no luck.  My massage therapist in Tokyo helped me out and called the shop up (since they probably only spoke Japanese) and arranged for an order (one jar) to be delivered to my hotel.  They actually delivered the next day while I was out.  The hotel paid them and charged the cost to my room, so it all worked out very smoothly.

My return trip to the airport used the same conveyances I used to get to the hotel, except I took the Hilton shuttle bus (leaves every 20 minutes) to Shinjuku Station.  I took the Yamanote line to Ueno Station where I walked across the street to the Keisei Skyliner station.  At the airport, the formalities were quickly done, especially with the First Class security line and no immigration line.  It gave me a bit more time to shop duty free and then grab a snack in the First Class lounge before boarding my flight.

The flight home was okay.  The crew did not offer turn down service and the flight was very fast (the route was almost straight across the Pacific instead of heading northeast towards Alaska.  It was also fairly bumpy a good part of the way.  But we arrived early and Global Entry got me through immigration quickly (even though I had to deal with a new software interface on the kiosks).

03 January 2013

Singapore and Singapore Airlines First Class

This was another of those trips where I burned miles instead of earned them.  But this was a special opportunity.  Earlier this year, Singapore Airlines did a reservations system upgrade over one weekend.  During that upgrade, their award seats, including First Class and Suites, were made available to Star Alliance partners (which is often very difficult or impossible to get.  I had heard about it and jumped in for a chance to fly in First on Singapore Airlines.  I hunted around a bit, and for the time period I had available, I could only come up with a round-trip from SFO to Singapore (via Hong Kong).  When I booked this, the scheduled planes were the newer 777-300ER aircraft, and that was good enough for me.  But several weeks later, Singapore announced they were going to use the A-380 plane temporarily on the route.  The timing would be that I would ride on one on my return flight -- so through no additional effort, I was able to get a flight to experience the Singapore Air First Suite.

In some respects, I like the Singapore Air schedule to Singapore better than United's.  Since it's a late departure, I don't have to take a day off just to fly out.  And it gets in at a decent hour (around noon local time) instead of midnight.  And the return is a late afternoon departure with an early evening arrival.  The outbound works well for adjusting to Singapore time.  But the return is not well-timed to be adjusted to Pacific time because you're kind of ready to sleep after departure, but you should be staying awake because it's really a day-long trip to arrive in the evening on the West Coast.

I arrived for my SFO departure with enough time to enjoy the Singapore Air Lounge experience, which I had not had the opportunity in many years.  It was comparable to the United International First Class Lounge in terms of ambiance, but has slightly better food.

When departure time approached, I started the long trek to the other end of the gate area for boarding.  First and Business Class enter the gate are from the upper level and then take the escalator down to the airplane.  It is the same gate that all the A-380 planes use when at SFO.

Singapore Air's First and Business Class seats are the widest that I have experienced.  The First Class seats convert to beds, while the Business Class seats just recline to be flat-beds (more later on this).

 I requested champagne for my pre-departure beverage.  They brought the bottle by to show me that it was Dom Perignon 2003.  There really is a difference in the taste of expensive champagne.  They served warm nuts -- a mixture of chocolate-dusted walnuts, pecans, and macadamia nuts.
 On the 777 planes, there are only two rows of First Class seats, arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration.  The TV screen is very large and there i a lot to choose from the entertainment system.
Unlike the pods on United's aircraft, you are allowed to store carry-on items underneath the footrest/shelf.  This is handy since there is no overhead storage in this section.

Because this was a late-night departure, the initial meal service is called a light supper.  Nevertheless, I could "book the cook" as Singapore calls special-order meals, which I did.  The menu selections looked fine (there was a roast turkey dinner), but the special-order lobster thermador was too good to pass up.

Iberico jamon bellota, walnuts and figs with bleu cheese

Twice-cooked chicken soup

Lobster Thermador
Fruit for dessert

After dinner, I changed into my supplied Givenchy-designed pajamas (more like sleep pants and a long-sleeve knit top).  The lavatories are not huge (like the LH A-380 ones), but they are roomy enough to make changing easier.  They took my clothes to hang up in a closet and I headed towards my made-up bed.
The seat turns into a bed when the seat back is folded down and opened up to a padded surface.  They place a cover over that and provide a small duvet.  While this seems clever, there are disadvantages.  Because of the way the seat is constructed to do this, the seat itself does not recline back very much.  In my opinion, it doesn't recline enough.  It is restricted by how close it can come to the front footrest and still allow for the movable footrest to rise up and fill the gap.  The other disadvantage is that the bed doesn't build upon the seat cushion padding to make the mattress.  So, for me, the bed itself was firmer than I would normally like and expect.  On the other hand, it is much wider than any other bed on a plane, and it is truly flat.  In addition, I found the cabin temperature to be perfect for sleeping.  Most of the time, I eventually get too hot, but the temperature on this flight was kept cool and comfortable, so I did sleep pretty well overall.

Prior to landing, they offered an Asian breakfast or made-to-order eggs -- I went for the eggs.  I changed and then we were on the ground.  Unfortunately, they do not fly directly to Singapore, so we stopped in Hong Kong for a couple of hours.  The same plane would continue the trip, but everyone had to disembark, go through security and then re-board at the appropriate time.  I hung out at the Singapore Air Silver Kris Lounge located right across from the departure gate.  The First Class section of the Lounge was at the far end, it was just a different section to sit in.  The food and drinks were located in the other part of the lounge.

After passing through immigration and collecting my luggage, I looked for the Coach station.  I planned to start out my stay with one night at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel.  They provide free half-hourly service to the hotel.  I was soon on my way to the hotel.

The Marina bay Sands Hotel is an amazing structure to look at.  It consists of three hotel towers topped by a Skydeck.  If you are not staying at the hotel or dining at the restaurant on the Skydeck, you have to pay to go up there.  As a hotel guest, you are permitted access for free and can use the amazing infinity pool.  Additionally, if you are in a Club Room, the Club Lounge area is also on the Skydeck (providing breakfast, afternoon tea service, and a generous evening pre-dinner service of cocktails and hot and cold food).

Club Room

Club Room bathroom

Room view of the new gardens by the Bay

The Club Lounge area

Afternoon tea
A few evening canapes and champagne

The Infinity Pool from the Adult section
Panorama view from the pool
 I also made advance reservation s to dine at Waku Ghin. a restaurant in the Marina Bay Sands complex.  Dinner is served at chef's counters in a few private rooms.

Sea urchin and caviar
Waygu beef
Cooking tomato sauce and fregola pasta

 During my stay, I also visited the new Gardens by the Bay.  This was designed to educate  and demonstrate the variety and  value of plants and how they can be integrated into a "green" system.  The expansive area includes two conservatories ("Cloud" and "Flower" domes) and "Supertrees" with an aerial walkway (all attractions have a fee, although you can walk the grounds and outdoor gardens for free).

The nice thing about the conservatories is that they are cooler and drier than the outside environment.  It's a nice break from the heat and humidity to be inside them.  The Cloud Dome is definitely the more dramatic, with a large mountaintop from which a waterfall drops and within which you can walk inside and down to explore various exhibits.

I also visited the ArtScience Museum, the lotus-flower-looking building located on the other side of the hotel from the Gardens by the Bay.  They have been advertising a "Lego as Art" exhibit which I thought would be interesting to see.  They were nice enough to let us take pictures in this exhibit.

Since my departure from Singapore was in the late afternoon, I could take public transportation to the airport.  It took almost an hour, which was a little longer than the estimates give, but it only costs S$1.78.  Once I arrive at Changi Airport, I headed for Terminal 3.  I wandered around for a bit looking for a special check-in area for First Class.  I thought I had read somewhere that there was a special room for checking in.  Eventually, I just asked someone and they directed me to the regular counters.  Once I checked-in, I cleared immigration and then headed for the Lounge.  Upon arrival at the SilverKris Lounge, I was escorted through three "layers" the the club -- the Business Class section, the First Class section and then the section called "The Private Room."  It reminded me a little of the Lufthansa First Class Terminal:  It was quiet, empty, and nicely appointed.  There was a dining section of tables where food could be ordered from a menu (I had the poached Boston Lobster).
The Private Room

The Private Room Dining Area

It was almost as nice experience as the Lufthansa First Class Terminal.  The shower room is not quite like the bathtub with jets, and there is no car to the airplane.  But the staff were very attentive and helpful.

There are 12 First Suites on the Singapore Air A-380.  They are located in the nose of the airplane on the first deck.  There is a wide stairway at the front that leads up to the mostly business class seats.
Stairs to Business Class

My First Suite

The Suites are the most enclosed cubicles that I have seen on an airplane.  But they are not totally enclosed.  The top is still open (the oxygen masks still have to be able to drop down).  The blinds that come down for the shades on the aisle are partially mesh.  And the doors that slide together are not really pocket doors.  When you pull the frame across, a vinyl fabric is pulled across to provide the privacy feeling.   I really didn't need to use the shades and door as on this segment, I was the only passenger in the First Suites.

The first flight segment, from Singapore to Hong Kong, is about 3+ hours.  But it is the right time to serve a full dinner, which is what they offered.
It wasn't worth it after dinner to have them pull down the bed (it drops down from the panel behind the seatback).  This is where the lack of recline was very noticeable, as the seatbacks functioned much like they did on the 777 plane.
Upon arrival in Hong Kong, I was met at the plane door by an Singapore Air representative.  She said she would walk me through security and then to the Lounge.  Security was not crowded and quick and we then traveled to some very familiar territory (sort of).  The departure gate for the A-380 is closer to the United Lounges than the Singapore Air Lounge, so I was admitted to the United First Class Lounge (which I never had the opportunity to use before).  The representative would return in about 20 minutes to take me back to the plane for boarding.

The lounge was very nice, and empty except for me.  There was a menu from which I could order, but I was still very full from dinner on the plane.
When the representative returned, I was escorted directly to the front of the boarding line.  Pre-boarding had just started and First Class was next.  For this segment, there would be 4 other passengers in the First Suites section.

It was the exact same plane and I had the same seat assignment.  As I settled in, I had more champagne and some warmed nuts (chocolate walnuts and cashews this time).  I had "booked the cook" again for Lobster Thermador, but I would not be ready to eat after take-off.  I requested after they took the rest of my order if I could postpone eating until after I took a little nap.  So once the seat belt sign was turned off, I went back to change and they turned down my bed.
The bed felt exactly the same as the 777 bed on the way out.  It was firm, but comfortable enough for some decent sleep.  As I would be arriving in the early evening in 11 hours, I decided I would only take a couple of naps and not sleep all the way through the flight.  This was a little hard to do as the cabin was dark for all of the flight.

It was a relatively fast flight, as we were about 40 minutes early.  But it was a bumpier flight than I had expected.  For some portions, we bounced around significantly   That surprised me given the size of the airplane, so it must have been pretty rough by any standard.

Flying in the First Suite on the return was a nice way to end the trip. I enjoyed the experience and the stellar service, but I did feel a little closed in, even though the space inside the suite was roomy enough, especially with the extra-wide seats.  There was a small hanging closet accessible outside each suite for coats and clothing, but not much storage inside the Suite except for on the floor and some small compartments.  Perhaps the open design that other airlines use, like Lufthansa, feels more comfortable to me (albeit less private).  I also prefer a softer bed, so the seats that go flat or the separate mattresses like Lufthansa has on the upgraded 747 planes, work better for sleeping.

I know, based on how most people travel, I'm being picky.  But then why spend all the miles to sample the different products if you can't compare and contrast :-)