Category: Uncategorized

So what’s been happening?!

Sorry, it’s been a while with no update…  Far longer than I intended!

Since my last post I’ve had a flight on BA 777-300 WT+, which I’ve reviewed here before.  And this flight had nothing new to add, other than the route Rio London is now operated by BA’s World Fleet, rather than mixed.

I also had an economy flight on a 777-200, which had not yet had the cabin update.  This was a 4 class plane, which still feature BA’s old first class.  . I was quite intrigued to see, but unfortunately didn’t get the chance to take a peak.  There is only one single economy cabin in the back section of the plane here.  It seems BA are often running the 4 class 772 now on the Rio route, perhaps due to a turn down in demand.  It was always a 773 throughout 2014 and most of 15. Interestingly they have kept the 4 class, as back in 2012-13 the route was operated by a 3 class 772, so there must be a demand for first.. But I’d definitely be disappointed if I booked first and found a non-refurbished 772 with the old cabin…  But more details in another post!

Most recently I had an AA flight from Rio to Boston via Miami.  I was flying the long haul segment on AA’s newly refurbished 777-200, with the forwards backwards business, main cabin extra and standard economy.  For both ways we were flying MCE.  The second leg MIA to BOS was in a newly refurbished A320, also in MCE.  On the return it was a 757, and for a while business back to Rio… But more on that later!

Coming up are just a few domestic flights on Brazil on Azul and TAM.  Two of these are on an ATR-72, a plane I’ve never flown on before!  It’s been a while since I’ve been on a turbo prop and I’m actually quite excited!

In the distant future is my first A380 flight, and that I am very much looking forward to!

The two business classes of Iberia, and upcoming trips

So this post has taken me a while to write!

Over Christmas I travelled back to the UK via Madrid on Iberia.  I’ve already reviewed the new Iberia business class on the A330 in the past, and up until 24 hours before I was due to travel I was expecting an A340-300 with Iberia’s old business class.

However, after I checked in I received an email advising me of a seat change, and suddenly I was on the new business class on an A340-600.  It looks like the plane was swapped for the larger 346 due to a cancelled flight the day before (rather oddly, it seems the plane turned back to Madrid while over the coast of Africa).

The 346 has a slightly larger business class cabin than the A330, but the layout is exactly the same – the 1-2-1 with alternating window/aisle seats on the sides, and alternating middle seats with a gap and together.  The flight was very similar to my previous experiences, with a comfortable seat and bed, and an unremarkable crew overall.

My return flight I was oddly more interested in, as this was still on an A340-300, featuring their 2-2-2 angled flight seats.  Boarding was quick at Madrid, and thankfully I had kept an empty seat next to me, making it an overall far more pleasant experience.  There is little privacy between the two seats, and the privacy screen is nothing more than a gesture.

The seat was comfortable as a seat, although the angled flat bed wasn’t the most comfortable ever.  The foot rest at the end made it slightly too short for me.  The massage function worked well though, and unlike on Qatar it was not going to also massage the passenger next to me!

The TV screen was something out of the 90s for sure – you had time to press the button and go and get a coffee while waiting for the next screen!  That was when it was working – for the first hour of the flight it was doing nothing, but the crew did apologise.

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In fact, the crew on this flight was excellent.  I was greeted by name numerous times, and the cabin manager came round several times checking everything was alright with my flight.

I neglected to take pictures of the menu this flight, but I had a steak.  It counted as just about edible, but was quite sinuous and definitely overcooked.  I have always found the food on Iberia to be a bit below that of British Airways, and this was no exception.  However the wine, sherry and brandy selection was decent.   I do like being able to start my meal with a fino and end with a PX and brandy de jerez.

The washbag now has the L’Occitan products inside, rather than in a separate bag like it was on previous flights.  It’s a decent selection, and I appreciate the good quality hand cream and lip balm.

Overall, it was a better flight than I was expecting – being a day flight I wasn’t planning on sleeping that much, and the seat was very comfortable for lounging in with a very adjustable footrest.  In fact I probably preferred the lounging position to that of the new seat, which just has the fixed ottoman/footrest.

The connecting flight was on a BA 767, which still has the older Club Europe product.  I chose the middle aisle seat, as this has a blocked off mini seat in the middle with a tray for extra room.  On the 767 there is no blocked off seat on the edge, with a 2-2-2 seating layout, but literally 2 seats on the edge, with the 2.5 in the middle.  There’s also a little more legroom than the economy cabin, unlike the newer Club Europe on the A32x planes where they just have the blocked off middle seat.  The reason I selected the flight operated by the 767 was that I have had a plane swap a couple of times in the past to an international configured 767, with lay flat beds – always nice for a 630am flight even if it is just for 2 hours.

If flying on a A340-300, the economy product is a let down, with no individual screens, with drop down screens in the cabin for a shared movie experience…  The seats themselves are fine though, in a 2-4-2 layout with acceptable leg room.  I’d still rather take the BA 777 though.  Speaking on the BA777, I have a return flight in economy coming up next week, which will be my first economy flight on BA in 4 years.  As always I’ll be hopeful for an upgrade to the far more comfortable premium economy (which is still showing plenty of availability for a paid upgrade at least).  On the way back I managed to get an exit row seat, so I think I’ll leave the upgrade and experience an economy flight for a change as I won’t be sleeping really and will just occupy my time with movies and my favourite pass-time of chatting with the crew!  I also secured two bottles of whisky from the online Highlife shop for delivery – a Dalmore 15yo for £25 and the Dewar’s Signature for £45 – both great buys and two very nice whiskies to tide me through until the end of the Rio project in September!

Also coming up is a first class flight on the A380 to Hong Kong which I am very much looking forward to!  However that is still 9 months away…     I used my airmiles and BA Companion voucher to secure two returns for a little over 180k miles.  Currently I’m scheduled on the return in business however, but I’m hoping to be able to change and upgrade to first if availability comes up.

In the middle I have a return flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo on Cathay Pacific and Dragon Air – I was tempted to book the Business Class on Cathay, but on reviews it looks like the regional business class product isn’t really worth the effort.  It’s only a 4 hour flight, and it seems like the regional business class is just a premium economy.  The question now is the return – to head back to Hong Kong and take the A380, or I could try and take a different flight from Tokyo on a 787 to experience both airplanes for the first time.  However by all accounts the A380 would be a more comfortable flight with a more spacious cabin and better food.  I wasn’t aware when I booked that you can return from a different city with a companion voucher.  Having said that, the Hong Kong flight is better times in my opinion (midnight till 5am, instead of 1pm to 3pm!).

The ProAir TAM / Lufthansa First + others lounge at GIG Terminal 2

Well… hospital waiting room is the primary thought.

There is plentiful wine and drinks at least, token food, and the most sterile atmosphere I’ve ever seen I think!  The wine is drinkable…  But the environment itself is just so sterile.  Exposed concrete walls, seats with their springs gone…  I used to say the ProAir lounge in T1 used by BA/Iberia wasn’t great.  In comparison it is fantastic!

Not got much else to say!   

   
Lufthansa business uses the other lounge at T1…  I’m not sure what that is like!  The second lounge also welcomes Priority Pass, but I think it was accepted in this lounge too.

A tale of two Qatar Airways

So last weekend we went off for a trip to Buenos Aires.  I booked the flights with Avios points from BA, and at the time of booking the only flights available were via Qatar Aiways via São Paulo in Business Class.

Although it might seem like a bit of a waste of Avios (30k each return for a less than 3 hour flight), it was an easy opportunity to check out Qatar’s (older) business class product on their 777, and also a nice way to go on my weekend holiday.  Indeed, there weren’t any stand out cheap flights, or direct flight options available that were well timed for me anyway, so going via SP GRU wasn’t adding any inconvenience either.

We arrived at São Paulo’s international airport, GRU, flying a quick TAM flight from Rio Santos Dumont with around 2.5 hours to spare before the flight.

Check in was quick, with a single desk processing Business Class passengers (given the short flight, with SP being just a brief stop over on the flight from Doha to Buenos Aires), I’m guessing they don’t get many Business Class passengers generally.   Passengers have a choice of three lounge options at GRU, which I’ll talk about in another post.

We boarded around 45 minutes before departure, and I was greeted by name as the plane door, and escorted to my seat by a crew member, who stood attentively by to take my jacket, assist me putting away my bag, and getting me a welcome drink.  My first thought was ‘wow, I wasn’t expecting such attentive service in business class’.

Shortly after sitting, I was served the champagne, a non vintage Jaquart.  I didn’t know this at the time, as the menus had not been distributed so I asked what the champagne was to be told ‘it’s a brut sir’.  Perfectly correct, but not exactly the question I was asking:)

Around ten minutes later the menus were distributed, and a few minutes after that the crew came round to take the orders.  This time there was no being greeted by name, just ‘sir’.  However, the service was efficient and friendly.  The wine choice was also taken at this time.

Here’s the flight’s menu, and large wine selection:

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I selected the butternut squash pasta for my main, and it was ok, but nothing particularly special.  I paired this with the chardonnay, the Bouchard Père e Fils.

The same can be said for the desserts, ok but nothing that special!  One of the wines wasn’t available, as I tried to order the Gewurztraminer to go with the desserts, but they only had the Riesling available as a slightly sweet wine.

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The service however was excellent, quite comparable with some of the previous First Class experiences I have had.

But, it was over fairly quickly, with a flight time of only two and a half hours.  We did have time to finish up with a digestif of an XO Cognac, which was very pleasant indeed.  I was quite impressed to see an XO available in business class.

After the first flight I thought I definitely want to try Qatar again, and was thinking of going out of my way to be able to fly on their A380 or A350 flights.

But… as the title says, this is a tale of two Qatar Airways.  The return flight from EZE to GRU was almost like flying a different airline.

Gone was the personal greeting when boarding, or indeed any greeting at all other than being pointed down the aisle.  Gone was anyone to take my jacket, or even to bring a drink – indeed after around 5 minutes, I had to flag down a member of the crew as she was walking by to ask for a drink and to get my jacket hung up.

I didn’t at first notice the menus were actually already in the magazine holder area of the seat, but when the crew came to take orders and showed annoyance at the passengers on the row in front not having looked yet, I managed to at least look before getting told off myself!

When she did arrive to take my order, pleasantries were not the order of the day, and she seemed somewhat taken aback by my answer to ‘what do you want for dinner’ was ‘good evening, how are you this evening’, prompting a slight break of the strict school teacher with a break out of a smile and a ‘very well sir’.  I neglected to take any pictures at this point, as my phone had died and it seemed the USB port wasn’t working to charge it.  However, I selected another pasta dish, this time in a tomato sauce.  I think it was perhaps a little better than the way out.  The wine list was exactly the same, and this time I paired with the Errazurriz carmenere.

After the main, the crew arrived and collected my plate, then proceeded to take the cutlery, napkin and fold away my table for me.  Now I didn’t actually want dessert as I wanted to try and get an hour’s sleep before we landed, but I wasn’t ever offered.  My partner on the other hand did want, and had to ask if dessert was being served before getting his table re-set.

There was no offer of further wine or a digestif.

I haven’t talked about the plane and the hard product yet.  The 777 has a 2-2-2 arrangement, and the seats are comfortable and spacious.  However, I did find the bed position to be quite a bit off lie flat I thought, with a reasonable angle at the top of the body still.  The massage function was interesting, in as much as you know when your seat partner turned it on!  I could feel it quite significantly in my seat when my partner’s massage function was turned on – not that much of a problem if you know the person, but I could imagine it being awkward asking a stranger to turn it off, as it could be a little annoying.  The seat has a fold down foot rest at the end, which I found to be a little bit on the short side for my 6ft, and when folded up the end of the seat I thought was then a bit uncomfortable due to the bulge from the foot rest being there. So an average hard product overall for me – I’m curious how it will compare to the Iberia 2-2-2 on the A340 which I’ll be flying next month.  Both have a fully flat bed.  Due to a plane swap, I’ve got the A340 instead of the A330 with it’s newer 1-2-1.  Obviously, normally, you wouldn’t ever expect Iberia’s service to be even comparable to Qatar though, would you?  I have had one stand out service though once, made by one fantastic crew member.

But back to Qatar…  Really, the two experiences couldn’t be more polarised.  One I can say the service was the best I have ever experienced in Business, the other is close to the worst I have ever experienced.

Where does that leave me?  Would I go out of my way to fly Qatar again?  Having read the reviews of their A380 with the onboard bar, and still desperately wanting to try flying on an A350, I think I would definitely give them another go.  However, would I go several hours out of my way to fly via Doha, for instance to route from Brazil back to London?  Probably not right now.  Of the three big Middle Eastern airlines, Qatar being in One World is a big plus for me, being able to earn tier points and Avios for my BAEC account.

There is a flight from Rio to Buenos Aires on Emirates – I’d love to try that to experience Emirate’s service, although again it is operated by a 777 with the old business class, that I believe still doesn’t even have lie flat beds, although it does have First class.  This was my first choice for this trip, but the timings didn’t quite work out for me this time, and the price in business was still rather high for the dates.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’ll have the time to do it before I end up leaving Rio!

 

A second stay in the Sofitel New York

So a year ago I posted a message saying I stayed in the Presidential Suite at the Sofitel NYC, and promised a follow up.  I never did…

But this time I went back, and stayed in one of their Executive Suites with a balcony and a lovely view of New York.  Certainly not the crazy size of the Presidential Suite, but it was extremely comfortable, with a good sized living area, bedroom and a small balcony.

I find the location great on 44th street, a short walk up to Central Park and 59th, or a short walk down to 34th St and the Empire State for example.  It’s also easy to get to by metro, you can get the E directly and a short walk from JFK, and the closest stop is just on the corner of 42 and 6.

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So the room this time had a good sized living area with a double sofa bed and chair, an office desk and chair, and as you can see a small balcony.  Although not on the front with views of the Empire State, there’s still a nice view of midtown.  

The bedroom was a very good size, with decent cupboard space.  I always love the Sofitel bed!  And this time it seemed like a super King to me.  Every time I stay at a Sofitel I feel better rested than any night at home.  

Off the bedroom there’s a short corridor to the bathroom, with a good sized deep bath and a great shower. They also provide very nice Hermes toiletries.

Two stays, and I will definitely be staying there in the future.  Being an Accor Platinum, there are only two options in New York, and although I haven’t tried the Novotel yet, in this case the Sofitel was actually cheaper!  I always try to stay in a Sofitel when I can for the bed though!

A weekend in New York with TAM

So last Thursday I saw some very cheap fares to New York from Rio on TAM.  And it was a three day weekend in Rio.  So why not have a weekend in New York!

I’d actually been looking on and off for the previous week, and there were some flights on American for a good price, but not direct and coming back at a bad time for me to make work on Tuesday!  But the flight prices for the direct flight on TAM, which offered the best times for me to leave after work and be back in time on Monday morning, where always too high.  But on Thursday, they came down to under £250 per person, so I jumped in and booked.

This was going to be my first long haul flight on TAM, and I was looking forward to trying it.  TAM operate a 767-300 from Rio to New York, as opposed to a 777 from São Paulo normally.  For me, the 2-3-2 seating is more comfortable, with 18″ width, and supposedly a 32″ pitch.  The business also has a 2-2-2 fully lie flat product, unlike the 777 2-3-2 angled flat.

When I came to seat selection, slightly less happy on the outbound!  The only two seats I could get (not quite) together where the middle 2 seats on the very back row, one on each aisle.  Fortunately, when we boarded the middle passenger never arrived, giving us the row of three seats to ourselves.  For the return, we secured two middle seats on row 14, the third row of the economy cabin.

Our outbound flight was due to leave at 23:30, but was delayed around one hour.

Sitting on the back row, I did notice the crew rest area seats, the two window seats on each side of the last row, looked a fairly nice premium economy product, with a big recline and foot rest.  Whether they ever sell these seats, I don’t know.  They do have a Comfort+ seat, which is the front row of economy basically, and a premium rate for the exit row seats.

Now I did think I took some photos… but it seems something went wrong, as I can’t find them at all!

The entertainment system was fairly intuitive, and had a decent movie selection, including one I really wanted to see – Inside Out!  Normally I travel with my own headphones, but they very recently developed an issue so I left them at home this time.  Unfortunately the included headphones were absolutely awful!  I went through three pairs to find one with both ears working.  Very cheap, and barely loud enough to be heard over the noise of the plane.

Being the back row, the seat recline wasn’t perfect, not quite as much as on the return flight.  However, having the whole row meant we could spread out a bit.

The service itself was fairly decent for an overnight flight.  One thing that impressed me was having real metal cutlery and glasswear in economy.  They also serve wine from the bottle, rather than mini bottles.  The wine was nothing special, but drinkable.  The food also had no options left, but the chicken dish was edible as well.   I had no problems getting my glass refilled, as they did three drinks services, before, during and after the meal.  I also got a couple of more small glasses later on by walking the very short distance to the galley behind me!

The return flight, also a night flight, was very similar.  It left New York at 18:30 on time, and arrived 15 minutes early.  Good job, as GIG was chaos at immigration with 3 planes arriving at once!  Both crews were friendly, the service ok, and overall a comfortable economy flight that was definitely ahead of my experience on my recent Air France A330 in comfort and entertainment system.  AF probably have the edge of food and wine quality (they do have champagne, even if it isn’t great!).

Two redeye overnights, a busy weekend seeing New York and some friends, then straight back to work. A very fun impromptu weekend!

I will definitely fly TAM again, but end on a note of warning.  Despite being a fully paid discount economy ticket, the ticket came through with booking class ‘O’.  American Airlines pay miles on this class, but it seems BA do not.  I had credited my Executive Club again, expecting to get something, and was very disappointed to not get anything.  However, I have some hope that the O class seems to be know fro the 1st October according to the AA website.  Before the 1st, O didn’t seem to exist, and got no credit on AA either.  Now it does…  I’ve contacted BA, so will wait and see.

I have had a mixed experience getting miles from TAM on domestic flights.  I’ve had expensive fares get a booking code that earns nothing, and dirt cheap fares getting a booking code that gave me full fare economy tier points.  The code you get booking the fare price really does seem to vary!

 

Travelling and staying in São Paulo and the Maksoud Plaza

So after the trip to Oktoberfest, we caught the free bus transfer back to Navagantes for a TAM flight to São Paulo CGH.

CGH is the central airport in São Paulo, as opposed to the international GRU airport located further out.  I’d always try and fly to CGH if you can when flying domestically in Brazil.

The TAM flight was an A320, with no premium seating, and the older style TAM seats.  This gives a tight 30cm leg room.  TAM are part of One World, and had priority check in (which took longer than the normal), and priority boarding, for One World elites.  For a one hour flight, service was friendly, with a water/soft drinks service provided and a snack.  No alcohol service though, but this doesn’t exist on internal flights in Brazil in my experience.

Exiting through CGH is quick and easy, although I did have a bag to collect.  It is worth noting that all Brazilian domestic flights have a very tight 5kg limit on hand baggage, and if you have to go to the check in desks they frequently ask to weigh your luggage.  In this case, I already had 5kg in another bag – of beer!  You can carry liquids on board of domestic flights up to 1l in volume per container and 70% alcohol max.

Taxis on arrival at CGH are plentiful, although there is a taxi monopoly, and Uber cannot come to the airport to pick you up from the pick up zone, and due to attacks on drivers are scared of coming here now.  SP taxis are a bit more than Rio taxis I have found, but the journey to our hotel, just off Paulisa, was quite only R$35.

Although I didn’t realise when I booked, our hotel, the Maksoud Plaza, is quite famous in São Paulo.  Certainly the design of the building stands out with a fantastic atrium filling the inside of the hotel.  It is perhaps a bit ‘brutal’ in some of the architecture, but definitely eye catching.   

 Unfortunately, less fantastic was the long queue for check in, with no priority desk for Accor Le Club Gold or Platinum members.  The Maksoud Plaza seems to be in some sort of limbo in status… It doesn’t have any Accor branding, even on its own website.  But it shows up in Accors list of properties, and it’s own booking page takes you to Accor to book.  The front desk did not know about Platinum benefits such as a free drink at the bar, and had to ring to check with management after which is was a discussion before finally agreeing.  And no room upgrade was offered, and I was told no rooms were available, despite a check on the internet revealing the next higher category of room being available for the full duration of the stay.  However, the service after when I complained has been excellent.

Having said that, the room itself was fine – I had booked a King Corner room.  It was an ok size, with a work desk, a couple of armchair style seats, and a couple of more office desk chairs.  The furniture looked dated, not that it was old, it just was old fashioned.     

   
And the bathroom even more so, with a combined shower/bath that looked positively from the 80s.  Again, I don’t think it was, but it just was old fashioned.  The own branded toiletries were quite nice though.   

 The best thing about the hotel was the bar, Frank’s – quite simply one of the best hotel bars I’ve been in.  Styled like an american cocktail bar, it reminded me of the American Bar at the Savoy.  The service was top notch and the drinks very tasty and reasonably priced.  There was live jazz music every night (piano, double bass, sax etc) while we were there.

I also checked out the pool and gym area, which was quite well equipped, with a smallish pool.  The pool was fine, but very very very shallow at one end!

For those who might need it, the hotel also has a helipad, which has limited free use for people staying in the suites.

São Paulo has a good metro service, with the closest station just a short 5 minute walk from the hotel.  Tickets are R$3.50 per journey, including any connections.  The hotel also had it’s own cabs lined up (official taxis still, but a higher class of car and a slightly higher meter rate).

On leaving, on Sunday’s Avenida Paulista is shut to cars and turns in to a giant pedestrian street – it’s really nice, and feels very European to me, with lots of musicians, street artists etc up and down.  This does mean the taxi journey back to the airport was more complicated however!  It still only took 30 minutes, but the first 15 were doing what would be 2 or 3 minutes if the road were open.

TAM’s check in at CGH is a much nicer experience than GOL’s at GIG, and took only a few minutes.  We were also able to move on to the next departing flight, instead of our booked on that was still 2 hours away (we left plenty of time in case of bad traffic).  This meant us having to go quickly after check in to catch our flight, that was departing only 30 minutes later, and I missed the change to review the HSBC Premier lounge at CGH – every time I have missed this so far!  Of course, getting home earlier rather than waiting in a basic airport lounge is a good thing!  I just want the change to one day use this benefit of my card!!   There used to be an Amex Centurion lounge as well, but I didn’t get the chance to see if it was still there or not, as we didn’t walk by it on the way to our gate.

As luck would have it, our flight scheduled for 1825 was then delayed, and in the end I think it actually left only a couple of minutes before the 19:00 flight…  However, we were booked on the 1955 in the end, so still arrived in Rio one hour earlier.

This flight was operated by an A319, and had TAM’s newer slimline seats.  This gives an extra 1 or 2 cm of legroom, as the seat pocket is now removed and the seat is just a lot thiner at the base than before.  To sit in I noticed no difference in the comfort, but the little bit of extra leg room is appreciated.  

Again, there was a basic drinks service of water, soft drinks and coffee.  However the last rows of the service didn’t really have chance to get anything, as the plane was only ten minutes from landing as they went to serve and had to stop service!

Overall, a great stay in SP, reviewed in detail at britexpatinrio.com.  I would defintely use the Maksoud again, as it was such excellent value for money – an excellently located 5* for less than £50 a night in Brazil’s largest city!  Even the suites were available for £125 at the time of writing.  This is of course in a large part due to the exchange rate, and if things keep going it will get even cheaper.