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Thursday
Sep272012

Inbound Lounges London to Washington Dulles.

Inbound

 

United – Star Alliance Lounge

A couple of years ago when Heathrow was shuffling around airlines to different terminals, United and the rest of the Star Alliance moved over to Terminal 1. The United lounge used to be in Terminal 3 but when Terminal 5 was completed and British Airways moved to that facility the Star Alliance carriers got together and took over the old BA lounge in Terminal 1. They did a complete redesign and redecoration and made a rather nice space.  And because it’s all of the Star Alliance and not just United it’s actually a nice lounge to visit. Here is some information about it. Star Alliance Lounge London Heathrow.

As with all Terminals at Heathrow they make you walk the Shopping mall mile before you get to the lounge and after you get through security. It’s not that bad and I usually get a bottle of scotch to take home and some water for the plane. There is a huge difference in the friendliness at this lounge compared to the United club at Dulles. There is a nice desk with about three or four attendants welcoming everyone as they come in. They actually smile and try to help you. Once it’s been determined that your’re allowed access they point you in the right direction to the left of the podium.

This lounge is somewhat busy but you can usually find a seat farther back. They have a main area with the bar and food areas and places to sit to eat. You can go to a quiet area to the right of the food or you can go to the left where a TV is playing news and you can see outside. I usually head there and make camp then get a glass of wine and something to nibble on. The wines are standard wines and not too fancy nor too cheap. The food is influenced by Indian cuisine with some soups, curries, rice and sandwiches. You will also see bowls of fruit around. They also have plenty to read with a wide range of newspapers and magazines. There are also shower facilities in case you’re connecting and need to freshen up. Not the nicest but they work.

This lounge is perfectly fine, it’s much more modern and more lighted then the United Club at Dulles. The seats are in good order and the attendants while not necessarily friendly are not rude or abrasive which is a far cry from Dulles.

 

British Airways Terraces Lounge

After the fiasco that United has turned into after the merger with Continental (More about this in a future post) I decided it was time to use another carrier to the UK and what better choice than British Airways?  Because I have Sapphire status in the Oneworld alliance I’m able to use the BA Terraces or Galleries lounges when traveling on a Oneworld carrier on that same day. I can also use the business class check-in. We arrived at Terminal 5 from the Heathrow Express and found ourselves at the complete opposite end of the Terminal as to where we needed to go to check-in. Once we did check-in we were informed by the check-in agent that we had to go through fast track and then all the way to the other end of the terminal to take an escalator down to the “shopping mall”. Yet again you have to walk through the mall to get to the lounges. Once we found the main entrance to the south end lounges we asked someone which one we should use. They have the Concord Room (BA First Class only) the first class galleries lounge for BA and Oneworld first class customer along with BA’s gold members and then the regular Galleries and Terraces lounges for all us other common folk. Now I say this jokingly because the Galleries and Terraces lounges are absolutely amazing. I can’t wait to get the chance to try the Concord room this coming October trip. We were directed to the Terraces lounge. I was happy for that because it was completely open and very bright with natural light from looking out at the tarmac.

Once we were allowed in by a smiling attendant we turned left to the wall of windows were we could watch the planes take off. You could turn right and go watch the people in the concourse but we like the planes better. The place is huge and fairly well visited as it was hard to find a seat. We got one right next to the window and proceeded to settle in. It was now time to snoop around. They had an island bar pretty much like the one at Dulles only with a much better selection of wines. On either side of the island bar about twenty meters there were bars with hard alcohol and nibbles. These also carried the red wines and soft drinks. If you wanted coffee they had a whole wall set up on a far side of the lounge especially for that, you could have just about any kind of coffee Starbucks could brew up for you, if you knew how to make it. Self-serve.

Now when we checked in I saw some islands with food on them almost right behind the check-in area. So once we got settled naturally I had to go take a look. They had all kinds of cold food. A wonderful blue cheese, salmon, salads and such. They also had a soup bar with three different kinds of soup and then another island with hot food. Curries, pasta and sauces, baked potatoes with all the fixings. You were not going to go home hungry. My travel companion went even further into the other side of the lounge and told me that they had even better wines selection over there.

The Terraces lounge has showers and private single bathrooms. You very rarely see that now-a-days. They also had plenty of reading material, British newspapers and magazines were in the majority. I also loved the open and very bright siting areas. They had attendants running around always keeping everything fresh and clean and full. The attendants where friendly and courteous without being over intrusive.

Both lounges are actually very usable and nice places to get away from the craziness of the airport main areas. I will still give the British Airways lounges the win when it comes to comparing the two.  BA really went out of their way to make a special space for their important passengers. The attention to detail is amazing and you really do feel a little bit special. The Star Alliance just feels a little bit too generic and almost like an afterthought when compared.

 

Next up, what went wrong with United after the merger.

 

Wednesday
Sep122012

A tale of two Lounges and wow what a difference.

A tale of two Lounges and wow what a difference.

 

Recently I decided to use British Airways for a work trip I had scheduled for August. Normally I’m a United kind of guy but with the difficulties they’ve had with the merger with Continental I decided to skip them completely for this trip. All I’ve heard from my daily reading has pointed to a very downgraded experience now on United. Anyway, my work will foot the bill for Premium Economy if the international flight is more than three hours long and British Airways have a true Economy Plus product whereas United only offers a few more inches of leg room. Because I have status on OneWorld I would also get to use the British Airways lounges, in this case the Terraces lounges both at Washington Dulles and at London Heathrow.  This will be a review/comparing  these lounges with the United lounges.

 

Outbound

BA lounge- IAD

 I arrive at the entrance to the Terraces lounge in the new and nice terminal B at Washington Dulles after an uneventful check-in. Because I’m Sapphire in the OneWorld alliance I am allowed to use the business class check-in and priority security line, which makes it very easy and takes very little time to get to the lounge. You first have to take an elevator up to a little waiting area where there are a couple of smiling attendants offering to help. Once I’m sorted, I’m invited in. At all times the attendant was smiling and friendly.

The first thing I noticed as I walked through was the long floor- to-ceiling glassed-in wall overlooking the general concourse. You could see everyone coming into terminal B from this vantage point. The first 100 meters or so wasn’t very deep but you could walk by chairs overlooking the concourse until you got to a spot where it opened up. I proceeded to scoop up a seat that had just become vacant with a grand view for people watching as they shopped and ate down stairs.

Once I settled in I decided to have a look around. There is a main room that was located right behind my chair. In it was a rather longish island in the middle with all kinds of white wines to select from. It has bar stools on either side with plenty of room to get around it and it had a selection of glassware for your wine, water and juices that were located in a chilled area in the middle of the island. On either side of that on the walls were areas that housed the hard booze and some real food. There were finger sandwiches, soups, chips, fruit, cheeses and cracker along with desserts that I didn’t notice because they don’t usually interest me. They also had a nice full coffee bar. There were two servers/attendants working non-stop to makes sure it looked perfect and everything was clean and well presented. If you had been flying business class or first you would be invited to eat a full meal in the back dining area. The food looked quite good and would allow you to go straight to sleep on the plane and not have to stay up for dinner on such a short flight. It’s only 6 and ½ hours to London from Washington and some people like to sleep the whole way.  I stayed in my comfy chair for about an hour and a half trying the different wines before it was time to board the plane. All in all a very, very pleasant experience.

 

United Lounge-IAD

Check-in for a united flight is normally very uneventful which is the way I like it. Like getting to the BA lounges you will be taking a train to your terminal, United operates out of the ratty old “temporary” C terminal:  A far cry from the new B terminal BA flies out of. The United lounge is almost all the way to the end of the C concourse. You will need to turn left once the concourse gets near the end and opens up. Once inside you will see a rather large desk with three to four lounge attendants guarding the entrance to make sure no one who is not supposed to be there gets in. Some of my friends call them the lounge dragons. They act exactly like a dragon who is trying to protect their gold behind them.  Some say they’ve seen smoke coming out of their nostrils.

Once you’ve approached them with your boarding pass and your gold card you might be lucky to get a grunt of acknowledgment. They look over everything and begrudgingly will let you in if the rules say so. The experience checking in at this lounge compared to the BA one is night and day when it comes to friendliness and service.

Once inside you will notice a drabness that permeates the whole Lounge. It’s dark with worn seating. And it’s busy, busy, busy. Once you find a seat, if you can find a seat and get settled in, start looking around. Whereas BA’s lounge offers you a choice of pour-your-own refreshments, in the United lounge you have to go to the bar if you want anything stronger than a glass of water. The bar is staffed with more dragons, people who would rather be anywhere else but there at that moment serving YOU. Or that’s how it feels anyway. You also have a choice of the house booze for free (recent development, they used to charge) or you can pay and get something worth drinking. Mind you ten dollars for a smallish glass of wine is not my idea of a bargain. I will say that at least you have the choice to do this at the United lounge whereas in the BA you get the wine they put out, which in my opinion wasn’t particularly good and certainly not as good as they serve in London.  

On the food side, I wouldn’t even bother.  United puts out some wrapped cheeses made of god knows what with wrapped crackers. There might be some fruit, there might not. I think I’ve seen crudite once or twice.  That’s about it. Don’t expect and sandwiches or any such thing so if you’re hungry and want to sleep on the plane when it takes off you need to stop at one of the places to eat in C concourse or eat at home (I say, eat at home. Food at the C concourse isn’t that good)

Conclusion, the British Airways Terraces lounge beats the United club in all aspects, from cleanliness and pleasant atmosphere to good food and free drinks.  The people who work these clubs make all the difference in the word. BA has gone out of their way to hire nice pleasant people where it looks like United did the exact opposite.

Next post,  Lounges from London to Washington.

 

Wednesday
Apr182012

Avios, Some Good Ways To Use Those Miles.

I’ve  written here before about how British Airways has recently devalued their loyalty program by changing key benefits in the new Avios program to their favor, not their customers. This is all old news now and some of my friends out there who do what AwardsBooker does have found some ways around the devaluations. Here are just a few recently-published insider insights:

The first is to use your Avios miles for travel in the US and central America  on American Airlines. This is especially good value if you’re only going a short distance.  Every other awards program in the US charges 25,000 miles for a coach trip no matter how far you go.  So a trip on US Airways from Washington to Charlotte will cost you 25,000 miles and about $2.50 in taxes. Now if you used Avios for a similar trip, because they do it by distance, it would almost be half the miles and the same amount in taxes. Now this is not the way I prefer to use miles as I like to get the most bang for the buck but in international first and business class but for families out there that need to get children off to see grandma this can be a great value.

We’ve also found out that British Airways is partners with Aer Lingus and that the fuel surcharges on Aer Lingus’s flights are significantly less than flying BA. You can go from Boston to Shannon/Dublin for 25,000 in coach or 50,000 in business with about $120 in taxes and fees, much less then the $600 BA would charge you. Now to put this in perspective, it’s often very hard to find business class award seats during the summer months to Europe. Aer Lingus has pretty good availability with service from the US to Ireland . I’ve recommended this route to a relative recently who wants to take his wife away to Europe but only had 100,000 Avios miles. Using British Airways would be expensive in coach in both points and taxes.  He didn’t have enough for business class, even if you could find it, so he was stuck until we found this little gem of a deal.

If you’re lucky enough to live in Brazil, it seems that the regulations there don’t allow airlines to add fuel surcharges to ticket prices.  If your trip begins in Brazil, you’ll only need the Avios points and about $30 in taxes to fly British Airways or Iberia to Europe.  Start the same trip in Europe and you’ll be on the hook for more than $600 in taxes and fuel surcharges.   All we need now is for the credit card companies to start extending their generous sign up bonuses to consumers in South America.

These opportunities and loopholes come and go all the time.  Here at AwardsBooker.com we stay on top of them so you don’t have to.  Call or email us next time you’re using miles to book award travel. 

Wednesday
Mar072012

Hong Kong hotels, ouch that’s expensive!

I don’t normally talk about getting hotel deals on this site. I’m here to help you get the most bang for your buck using miles or points flying premium cabins to fun destinations on free tickets. I figured for this I would make the exception because the hotels are part of the trip to the destination.

A room for the way back was the easy part. I just poked around a little bit to see what was out there. A friend of mine who knows the city recommended where the couple should stay. The first deal I found was actually on the British Airways website. I clicked on the hotels button and did a search for the beginning of the trip and for the end. The search for the end brought up a good hotel for $127 per night, it’s located on Hong Kong island. I looked at other sites including the hotel’s website and the lowest I could find it for was $280 per night. I’m not sure what was going on at the British Airways website but I got that night for my clients without even thinking twice. So now we had one night out of the way.

On the trip out we still needed to put them somewhere. They had some Priority Club points so we looked for something where we could use those. I found a Holiday Inn that was on the mainland and looked ok. The couple were 5,000 points short of what they needed for the room but Priority Club will let you use points and cash so for $40 plus points they could get the room. Not bad considering how expensive hotels are in downtown Hong Kong. We got the room and then the travelers decided that they didn’t want it so we canceled the reservation and a funny thing happened. When you pay with cash and points the priority club doesn’t give you a refund of your cash, they just give you the points that you purchased. So now the couple had more points for us to work with.  Priority Club covers Holiday Inn, Intercontinental and other some other hotel brands so we took a look at those options too.  Now with cash and points they’re going to be at the Intercontinental – a $650-a-night hotel – for only about $150 plus points.

And that, folks, is how you do it.   Haven’t got the time to do all this yourself when you make an award reservation?  Give us a call!

Thursday
Mar012012

The sun always rises in the East.

Here is my next posting after having a brief hiatus while in South America

 

So now I had the married couple, who are enthusiastic and regular travelers, to get to Sydney. They wanted to arrive a little bit earlier than the others so that they could get things taken care of like the apartment and groceries and such. And they wanted to stay a little bit longer to enjoy Australia as a couple. One of them had gotten the British Airways Visa card back when it was offering 100,000 miles for $750 of spend on it in three months. It also had a free companion ticket that was achieved after you spent $30,000 in year which was done by using it for normal business expenses. So now we have about 140,000 British Airways miles and a free companion ticket to work with. The other person had set up an account with BA and had transferred 100,000 American Express points over to their British Airways account. They then created a household account that would let them combine their points for award travel. So now they had a total of 240,000 miles. Well on their way to Sydney going through London on British Airways using miles.

And then Avios happened. British Airways merged its frequent flyer program with Iberia, the spanish airline.  This devalued British Airways points even farther then they already had been. What once would have been about 340,000 miles to do now went up the 420,000. Mind you I am talking about a first class ticket but still that’s a big devaluation. Add to this the very high fuel surcharges to be paid in cash to British Airways – even when you book free flights - plus Britain’s very high travel taxes and it’s almost a no-go proposition.

Then the creative thinking starting happening.

The couple also had some American miles that could be used. Originally I tried to make award reservations to Sydney by way of Singapore. This is the way almost everyone goes when travelling from London to Sydney and it is notoriously hard to get on frequent flyer tickets. I looked and looked and there was no availability on the dates that were needed. I also figured out that it would take 330,000 Avios miles and the couple at this point only had 240,000.  We could get it up there by transferring some miles from their Starwood points but that would only get them to 300,000. Still 30,000 short. I then did some research and realized that since we were going to use American miles to get from Asia to Sydney that it didn’t matter what asian city we went through, it would cost the same amount of miles. So now I could choose from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Bangkok. I had to use British Airways to get to the asian city to make the two for one certificate work, you can’t use it on other OneWorld airlines.  Once I found first class award space on British Airways to Hong Kong I was ready to start the search from Hong Kong to Sydney.

I did a quick search and couldn’t find anything direct going from Hong Kong to Sydney and was starting to get discouraged. During my research I realized that there was plenty of award space going from Bangkok to Sydney on Qantas in first class. I also realized that I could get from Hong Kong to Bangkok fairly easily. So I pieced together the itinerary of Hong Kong to Bangkok on Cathay Pacific and then Bangkok to Sydney on Qantas. All in first class except the first Hong Kong to Bangkok flight which only offers business class but it’s the new business class so it’s like most other airlines’ international first class. I ended up booking the Hong Kong to Sydney flights with a night stopover in each direction. Since the awards are  two separate tickets I needed to give some leeway in case of late flights and cancellations. This was fine as the couple wanted to see a little bit of Hong Kong Anyway. They’ll have lunch in London, dinner in Hong Kong and a 3-day first class experience.

I don’t normally make award reservations for hotels but since there were two nights nested in the trip I gave it a try.  Next posting, how to get a great hotel deal using points and a little cash.