Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Cruising In Asia: Getting to Tokyo - Southwest, Sheraton LAX, and JAL First Class LAX to Narita

Intro and Planning
Getting to Tokyo - Southwest, Sheraton LAX, and JAL First Class LAX to Narita
Shinjuku and Beyond - Park Hyatt Tokyo, Shinkansen, and Kitty Chan?!
I'm On a Boat! - Sun Princess Yokohama to Hong Kong
Hong Kong - Grand Hyatt, 10 McDonalds, and More Hello Kitty!
Getting Home - Cathay Pacific First Class Hong Kong to San Francisco

Finally time to start our trip! Waiting until the day of the trip to start packing was probably not the best of ideas, but our 10pm flight and taking an extra day off from work paid off. By 6pm we were off to SFO for the first leg of the trip.

Because we were using British Airways miles (75,000 per person), and Oneworld does not have any carriers that fly First Class from SFO to Tokyo, we had to fly out of LAX. Not wanting to risk any possible delays or missed connections, we planned to fly out the night before and spend the night near LAX.

Although there were numerous airlines that fly between SFO and LAX, we ended up choosing Southwest, not because the fare was any cheaper, but because we would each be checking 2 bags and even with co-branded credit cards, we would have only had 1 bag free per person on Delta or United. I had not been on a Southwest flight for some time and thought I would invest the $25 in early bird check-in to ensure I had a good boarding position. Leading up to the day of the flight it seemed like a really good idea and the checking in at 1pm the day of the flight and still having a Group A boarding pass was nice indeed. However, our flight was due to leave at 9:55pm. By 9:15, we were literally the only people sitting by the gate waiting. It did turn out that the plane was delayed and other passengers were spread out in surrounding gates, but in the end, there were a total of 17 passengers boarding the flight (meaning there were more rows than passengers).

I was unfortunately too tired to take any pictures, but then again there was not much to show. I was at least pleased with the amount of leg room, being 6ft tall and definitely not slim, I did not feel entirely squished like I do on most other carriers. We were on our way and within about 45 minutes of takeoff, it was already time to prepare for landing.

By the time we collected our bags, it was nearly midnight and it had been a busy day. We set out to find our hotel shuttle over to the Sheraton LAX Gateway. After arriving at the pickup station, we quickly realized how much of a mess this was going to be. Dozens of shuttles were fighting to get in and out of the tiny space allocated for them. It was a good 20 minutes before we finally found ours. After 10 minutes of navigating an absolute maze of traffic, we finally left the airport, and 2 minutes later we were at the hotel entrance.

We were very ready to get to our room and get to bed. Unfortunately, we quickly realized that was not going to happen. Moments after entering we witnessed several things. An angry flight crew that had arrived only to find their reservation had not been processed correctly and there were not enough rooms left for all of them, a woman slumped on a couch in the middle of the lobby surrounded by a number of hotel staff, and an ambulance rolling up to the entrance right behind us. Twenty minutes later, we finally had our room keys (which didn't work and had I had to go back down) and were into the room. After showering and making a mess of the room with our luggage, I again forgot to take pictures! The room was basic but clean and the bed was definitely comfortable. For the 3,000 SPG points we paid (normally 7,000), we were quite pleased and it served its purpose. We were emailed at least twice leading up to the stay asking if we wanted to upgrade to a club room or suite for $30-$70. Considering we were in after midnight and out at 10am, it did not seem worth while.

The next morning, after a little bit of repacking, we were off to the airport. This went much more smoothly than the night before. Just as we stepped outside, the shuttled pulled up and within 5 minutes we were at the international terminal.

The dedicated first class check-in was completely empty and the agent was exceptionally friendly and did not ask if we were in fact flying first class (I have a feeling she would have helped us even if we were not anyhow). Our baggage got the typical priority tags, but I was surprised and amused by the extra tags they placed on our carry on luggage for us.


The JAL website mentions that First Class passengers have access to the Oneworld Lounge and the LAX International Lounge, but the desk agents provide you with a little map that leads the way to the Oneworld Lounge. We had not had breakfast yet and it seemed easiest to follow the map. The desk agents at the lounge quickly pointed us towards the First Class side. The lounge is relatively small, but it was relatively empty when we arrived around 11am.

 Hot Food
 Cold Food
Latte and Cookies!

After an hour or so we thought we would walk around the terminal and head towards the gate. We were a bit surprised how little there is to see beyond security in the international terminal. We headed over to the gate and I tried to grab a picture of the plane, but the window and the gate were oddly placed I could only get a portion of it.

 JAL 777

It turned out that the flight was delayed about 40 minutes due to headwinds and a late arrival. Before the boarding process started, gate staff were going around the seating area in a seemingly random order checking passports and boarding passes to avoid delay at the gate. When boarding did start, they started 3 lines, apparently using the same 3 signs that were setup by the check-in desks. I thought the line for First Class was exceptionally long, but soon realized that almost everyone was JMB Diamond or Oneworld Elite. They quickly turned right at the jet way to head towards Business Class, while we went left which was dedicated to First Class. Seven of 8 seats were taken, but there was so much space, no one got in each others way.

Because we were traveling together, we chose seats 1D and 1G in the center so we could sit by each other. With the divider wall lowered, it was definitely very easy to see and talk with each other throughout the flight. It was exceptionally difficult to get a shot of the seats without standing in someone elses seat, I have borrowed a shot from the JAL  to give you an idea of the layout.

Though I am no fan of the Camera, I seem to be in all the pictures!
Taken from the opposite seat.

Before takeoff, the cabin attendants came around and provided everyone with their JAL Pajamas. They don't ask for your size, but they only have Small, Medium, and Large. I did not bother trying on the pants, but I humored my wife in trying the jacket. Clearly, that was not going to work. I did however enjoy the slippers and stowed my shoes under the ottoman. 

 Pajama Sack
First Class Menu

We quickly settled in and started reading through the menu. For dinner there was a choice of a Japanese set menu or a western menu. Having seen pictures of how nicely the Japanese dishes were served, we both decided we would be going for the Japanese menu.

Shortly after takeoff the cabin attendants came around and offered champagne and rice cracker snacks. Having heard good things about the Salon champagne served on JAL, I thought I would definitely have to give it a try. Not having the most discerning of palates or being a particular fan of champagne, all I can say was that it was "good". I did however ask to try the Isojiman Junmai Daiginjo Sake, and that was seriously awesome. I liked it enough I tried to find out where to buy it, but found it was more than $100 for a 750ml bottle and quickly gave up on that! We were also offered another somewhat odd plate of snacks consisting of a skewer of zucchini and meat, a stuffed mushroom, and some melon.

Salon Champagne
 Rice Crackers / Snacks
 More Snacks!

Dinner started with some interesting appetizers that did not appear to be on the menu anywhere. Followed by an interesting dish of vegetables in Jelly. The appetizers consisting of six individual dishes is served in a multi-tiered box with a different dish to hold each item. Everything was very well presented and nicely prepared, but we were not completely prepared for some of the very unique flavors we would encounter. I enjoyed all of the dishes, but had to help my wife finish a few that were just a little too different for her taste (including the Jellyfish with Orange Vinegar Sauce, front and center.)  After eating two servings of a few of the items, I had nearly forgotten that there was a main dish still to come. This included "Braised Black Pork with Welsh Onion, Soybean Milk Miso Sauce,  Seasoned Rice with Sea-bream & Lotus Root, and Japanese Clear Soup with Steamed "Yuba" Mousse. At this point I thought I would try the other sake on hand, Hiroki. This was much stronger and a bit harsher than the Isojiman. Finally the meal came to an end with the "Japanese Sweet" which was a rice paste ball with "Sweet Beans" inside.

Japanese Appetizers
Summer Vegetables in Japanese Jelly
Appetizer Box
 Tsubo / Shiizakana / Mukouzuke
Main Dish
Japanese Sweet

After dinner, we were provided with his and hers amenity kits. They both contain Shiseido brand products, but the men's comes in a slightly larger canvas bag, while the women's kit comes in a smoother black cosmetics pouch. Unfortunately I seem to be missing that picture! As people were now beginning to settle in for the night (even though it was only about 5pm), I caught a glimpse of one of the other First Class passengers doing something I seem to always, and oddly enough only, see in premium cabins. Take off your shoes and put your feet (usually bare) onto the seat or tray table! At least in First Class we can expect that these are wiped down each flight, right...?

 Men's Amenity Kit

Bare foot on the table!

Now it was time to settle in ourselves and check out the IFE system. By this point the cabin attendant also noticed that I was more interested in trying the Japanese alcohol than the western options. Having tried both of the sake offerings, she suggested that I try the "Shochu". I am not a big fan of the drink, somewhat similar to Vodka, but I figured that if they offered it on board it must be good. I learned my lesson there! Luckily there was another option on the menu that I was interested in trying, the "Royal Blue Tea." The tea is very floral smelling, but the flavor was not. It was very refreshing and the novelty of having tea served from a wine bottle and poured in a wine glass was also adding to the enjoyment.

The IFE options were relatively limited and not the easiest to navigate. After having a hard time finding something to watch in English, I switched over to a Japanese movie "Detective in the Bar." About half way through my wife was asking me a question to I took of my headphones and was looking her direction when she stops mid sentence and asks "What are you watching!!" I look back at my screen and to my surprise the movie is now in the middle of a relatively graphic "adult" scene, that went on for quite a while. I should have expected no less from a Japanese Crime-Drama-Comedy about a private detective investigating the murder of a drag queen with the help of his nerdy companion that also knows Kung Fu.

Royal Blue Tea

By now my seat had been converted into a bed with the help of a Tempurpedic mattress pad, Tempur pillow, and a nice down comforter. The seat certainly turns into a very nice sized bed, and was pretty comfortable. Unfortunately, I have a hard time sleeping on planes in general, and I definitely prefer a cold sleeping environment. As I hard heard in other reviews, JAL likes to keep its cabin temperature quite high. I was quickly much too hot to be able to use the blanket and only managed about 30 minutes of sleep throughout the flight. Luckily, this turned out to be the fastest flight I have ever been on to from the West Coast, and had a total flying time of less than 10 hours. 

About two hours out from Narita, the cabin started to wake up and light started to pour in. The cabin attendants were already coming around taking orders for breakfast. Being that it was almost 4pm local time, that seemed a bit odd. During dinner, all of the other passengers in the cabin, all of whom were Japanese, had opted for the western meal. For breakfast though, most of them went with the Japanese option of steamed fish. One passenger however was not satisfied and also had a plate of curry with his breakfast. Lots of odors wafting about the cabin, it was a bit surreal. Feeling less adventurous by now, we both went for the western option of French cinnamon souffle with fresh fruit and bacon, assorted breads, and a yogurt panna cotta with orange zest.


Shortly after breakfast, we prepared for the final descent and were taxing to the gate before we knew it. By now I was definitely tired. Luckily we made it through customs in just a few minutes, had our bags, and were off to find our train.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Cruising in Asia: Intro and Planning

Intro and Planning
Getting to Tokyo - Southwest, Sheraton LAX, and JAL First Class LAX to Narita
Shinjuku and Beyond - Park Hyatt Tokyo, Shinkansen, and Kitty Chan?!
I'm On a Boat! - Sun Princess Yokohama to Hong Kong
Hong Kong - Grand Hyatt, 10 McDonalds, and More Hello Kitty!
Getting Home - Cathay Pacific First Class Hong Kong to San Francisco

Around February of 2013, we had just received the dates for my wife's summer break schedule. With my work being relatively flexible with vacation time and her having nearly 5 weeks between teaching sessions, we had a fairly large window. We just had to figure out where to go.
We already had a number of places on our travel checklist, so we started with the primary focus of cruising. Considering there are only so many cruises sailing in any one month, it didn't take us too long to narrow it down to a few options. When we started searching for matching award tickets to get to and from the cruise it quickly narrowed down much further. In the end our trip was based around a 7 night cruise from Tokyo (Yokohama) - to Hong Kong. More on that booking process in an earlier post.

With the anchor of our trip in place it was time for flights. Our goal initially was to locate business class tickets for the two flights. We had on hand 150,000 AA miles (from 2x CitiCard 75k offers). 100,000 British Airways miles (transferred from Marriott as a gift), and 50,000 Amex MR points (Mercedes Bendz Platinum 50k offer). After a bit of looking at award charts. I realized it would cost us 100,000 BA miles for two one way Business Class tickets on JAL from SFO to Tokyo (HND) and another 110,000 for Cathay Pacific Business Class from Hong Kong back to SFO. Unfortunately (or not..) I could not get the dates to line up quite right. So I expanded my search a little further and found that we could instead transfer 50K from Amex to BA and spend 150,000 miles on two one way First Class tickets on JAL, but we would have to fly from LAX to Tokyo (NRT). I also found that the difference between Cathay business and first would only be 25,000 more miles, I could not resist. And so, for the first time ever, we would get to fly international first class, not once, but twice on two highly acclaimed airlines and products.

With our flights booked, we now had a few gaps to fill in. We had to get to Los Angeles for our flight to Tokyo, and we needed hotels for LA, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. At this point, we are less than 3 months from the trip, and I have only maybe enough points for 1 night in any hotel program. Looking at cash rates for our dates, I was aghast at the $300+ per night for standard rooms and knew I would need another approach here.

After quite a bit of research and some procrastination, I applied for 2 new cards. The Chase Sapphire Preferred (40,000 points) and the Barclay's Arrival Mastercard ($440 Cash Back on Travel). I had both cards within two weeks and thanks to some reimbursable work expenses had both of the spending requirements done within another week. My plan was to use 28,000 Chase points to transfer to Hyatt (leaving me with ~37,000 in my account), to book 1 night at the Intercontinental Yokohama for ~$110 (very cheap, but poor reviews) and 2 nights in a club room at the Hyatt Regency TST in Hong Kong (36,000 Hyatt points).

We still needed a room in LA for 1 night before the Tokyo flight, and I was very happy to find that my pitiful 3000 SPG points would be enough to book a room at the Four Points LAX. That is, it was enough until that same night the hotel bumped its rate to 7000 points at nearly the exact moment I tried to book it (more on that here). Thanks to some pleasant customer service agents, the extra points were deposited in my account and I was booked!

Now with less than 2 months to go, everything seemed to be in order, but I was not 100% satisfied. We only had 1 night in Tokyo before getting on a ship and sailing away, and I was still paying cash for the hotel night. This is where I made things complicated, and drove my wife a bit crazy!

I had been reading about the Hyatt Diamond challenge and the Hyatt Card from Chase. I knew that I wouldn't be able to stay 12 nights in 60 days to keep the status, but I knew if I got instant Diamond, I could get 2 nights in a suite at any Hyatt hotel from the card. Having Platinum status with IHG (from the chase card and from IC Ambassador membership the year before), they let me start my Diamond Challenge immediately. Within hours, my status was live and I applied for the chase card. 7 days later, I had the card in the mail, bought a few things (maybe a gift card or two) and met the $1000 spend requirement in a few days. Less than a week later, the suite nights showed up in my account and I used them to book 2 nights in a suite at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, and switched our Tokyo stay to 1 night at the Park Hyatt for 22k points.

Whew its over... right? To make it more complicated, I had been checking availability tirelessly on JAL for an earlier flight. Less than 9 days to departure, finally, two seats opened up 2 days earlier. I quickly canceled the original flights (paying ~$50 in fees on and rebooked the new flights. Anticipating this move, I had booked with Southwest for our SFO>LAX flight so there was no added cost there. The stay at the Four Points had to be changed, but I wasn't able to online so I just canceled it. The 7000 points posted immediately back to my account. I went to book again and found that the Sheraton and Westin LAX were also 7000 points. Having heard better reviews, I switched to the Sheraton on our new date. But now we had 2 more nights to fill in Tokyo!

I quickly transferred the remaining Chase UR points to Hyatt and changed the Grand Hyatt suite nights to regular nights at 22,000 points per night (I was short 700 points and bought 1000 for $24 from Hyatt). I kept the 1 night at the Park Hyatt, and added on two nights in a Park Suite King with the Chase Certificates.

Not able to leave good enough alone, I took advantage of the $440 cash back from the Barclay card and booked two Japan Rail East Passes. This covered our Narita Express train ride to Shinjuku as well as Shinkansen tickets to Niigata and back where we would visit my host family from many years prior. For good measure, I also made use of AA routing rules to add on two additional flights for no extra charge. SFO>LAX and LAX>MIA in 3 cabin first class. We may or may not get to use these, but now we get to start planning again!

In the end, our trip would look like this:

SFO>LAX Southwest ($138)
Sheraton Gateway LAX (7000 SPG)
LAX>NRT JAL First Class (150,000 BA + $640 Taxes)
Park Hyatt Tokyo (Park King 22,000GP + Park Suite 2x Suite Award)
7 Nights Sun Princess 
Grand Hyatt Hong Kong (Executive Harbor View 2x 22,000GP)
HKG>SFO Cathay Pacific First Class (135,000 AA + $126 Taxes)
SFO>LAX>MIA American Airlines Flagship First (FREE)