North America to South Asia via the Atlantic: a Tale of First Class Seats, Suites, Spas, and Terminals

This post contains a bit of background to the trip report that I’m working on, sitting here in the Lufthansa First Class Terminal in Frankfurt.

It contains 4 long-haul Lufthansa First Class segments, a Singapore business class short-haul segment, Thai Airways in business and First Class, a lovely suite at the Intercontinental Bali Resort, the Westin Beijing, and much, much more.. plus lots of photos of lounges, food, and activities along the way and a bit about award booking techniques.

When thinking about whether this was worth a trip report, it first struck me “I’m not flying Singapore Airlines first class, there’s no Airbus A380 involved, what could be more pedestrian than what I’m about to write up?”

But I also thought, perhaps I can offer some specific suggestions of the hows and whys I chose to do certain things… so that others could either benefit from the experience or know what not to do to make their own trips better.

So here I go, it’s a long one but mostly because I’ve tried to impart enough detail that folks coming across this report might be able to find it useful, or to spark specific questions that I might be able to answer. Drop a reply here and I’ll see what I can do.

Prologue: Booking the Award Tickets

My wife had been telling me for some time that she wouldn’t take more than a long weekend away from home until she finished writing her book. We hadn’t been to Asia since July, and in December the end of the book was close enough in sight that she could commit to a couple of weeks’ vacation by March.

Each year when we vacation in Asia or the South Pacific we book time at a nice South Asian resort, and pair it with a brief stay in another city.

  • In 2005 we went to French Polynesia and to Sydney and Melbourne (Air Tahiti Nui First Class, Qantas First Class, Bora Bora Nui Resort).
  • In 2006 it was Tokyo, Bangkok, and Pattaya (ANA First Class, Thai First Class, Hilton Tokyo @ $3/night, Iintercontinental Bangkok Diplomatic Suite, and a lovely Deluxe Pavillion room at the Sheraton Pattaya)
  • In 2007, Khao Lak and Hong Kong (United “ps” First Class, United International First Class, Asiana First Class, the Ugandan Schillings mistake rate for the 2-bedroom Presidential Oceanfront villa at the Meridien Khao Lak and a lovely stay in the Towers section at the Sheraton Hong Kong)..

This time we agreed on Bali, but where else? I decided to start checking award availability, with a bit of an open mind on where else we’d go. The goal: two first class awards, preferably using United miles (as I didn’t expect my American miles to yield 2 Cathay Pacific First Class award seats easily).

Crossing the pacific in First Class has become a good bit harder using United miles recently, however.

ANA used to be easy with the Super Style first product, but the New Style has fewer seats and awards are very hard to come by outside of waitlisting using Diamond Club miles. I do see first class award seats open up occasionally days before departure, but otherwise have checked across an entire year from each US gateway and come away without spotting a single F award seat.

Singapore is actually not that tough a first class award to find, sticking especially to the old seats in the 747. But Singapore is notorious for almost (?) never opening up more than one award F seat at the time. Sometimes you can book a first class award and a business award on the same flight, and keep checking in hopes that an additional first seat will open up. My own preferred strategy would be try for two different flights (eg different North American gateways) and waiting for a second F seat to open up on either way – this way you’d double your chances. Sometimes, though, you just want to come up with a plan and stick with it, rather than playing a waiting game.

Meanwhile, Asiana seems to be blocked at times on StarNet. Those unfamiliar with Starnet blocking can search the term in the United Mileage Plus forum, but suffice to say that United will tell you that award seats being offered by one of their partners aren’t in fact available (and the unknowing agent will usually blame that partner airline, rather than realizing it’s United while won’t give you the seat). I’ve especially seen JFK-Seoul blocked, which is a shame because award availability isn’t otherwise bad for the route and it already has the new first class most of the time.

(And the thought of Thai’s two-cabin product across the Pacific doesn’t really appeal to me, if I can do better.)

Of course there are some United flights where First can be had quite easily. San Francisco-Osaka isn’t all that hard to get, and San Francisco-Nagoya will most days have several seats a day. That has to be the easiest United transpacific award to come by, actually. But I didn’t want to fly United, at least not without their new seat product (and once the new product is phased in, with fewer seats in the cabin, even it will be harder to get) let alone their improved soft product (whatever that may wind up ultimately being in practice).

But then I had a thought. Since we’re going all the way to Bali, and we’re based in DC, why not cross the Atlantic instead? DC-Frankfurt-Singapore-Bali is actually less than 50 miles longer than DC-Tokyo-Bangkok-Bali.

Off to check availability. The transatlantic flights would be easy, with first class usually easier to find than business and Lufthansa being rather generous at least from their US East Coast gateways. I knew the difficulty would be Europe – Asia, so that’s where I started. Checking out Heathrow-Bangkok and Frankfurt-Bangkok on Thai, I went a little bit crazy and found better than 50 flights with 2 “O” (first class award) seats available over about a month and a half. But I also knew that Thai long-haul premium class seats were perhaps the single most frequently blocked award through Starnet. For some reason, United just doesn’t want to pay Thai for these seats. A call to United found that of the 50+ flights I found availability on through the ANA website, a whopping zero were bookable by United!

Time to try a different tack. New phone call. “Please find me two first class awards between London, Frankfurt, Munich, or Zurich and Singapore or Bangkok. Start with the 15th of March, let’s check each day, and then stop when we find something.”

“On March 18th I have 2 first class seats from Frankfurt to Singapore on Lufthansa.”

“Great, thank you.” I’m sorta wishing they were 2 SQ seats, but at least this will bring us through the First Class Terminal.

“When would you like to return?”

“Let’s find something back from anywhere in Asia, starting 10 days later.”

I wait as this patient fellow keeps checking… and checking… and checking… I’m on the line for half an hour.

“I finally found something, Hong Kong to Frankfurt on April 9th.”

April 9th? There’s no way I can take three weeks away. Ok, I have an outbound that I like. I’ll hold the award and come back to the drawing board later.

“Would you like me to book it for you?”

“Well, I’m going to ask you to hold it. But I’d actually like my departure city to be Washington-Dulles. Can we find a flight from IAD that will connect to the FRA-SIN flight we’ve already found?”

“Ok let me check. We can do Dulles-Heathrow on United, and then Heathrow-Frankfurt on Lufthansa.”

“Nothing non-stop?”

“I’m sorry, nothing is available.”

“Ok, I’ll take the connection you suggest. Let’s find a connection for the return flight also (and I didn’t really care what it was, I just needed to be able to hold the award).”

He holds it at 120,000 miles, the price of North America to South Asia… via the Pacific. The correct price would be 140,000 miles but I won’t complain!

Hang up. A few minutes at the computer and I saw plenty of availability Dulles-Frankfurt non-stop, it just wasn’t being offered by the United rep.

And I found a bunch of flights back from Asia, all sorts of places we could return from (Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore). It was a bit out of the way, but mrs. gleff and I haven’t spent any time in Beijing.

I called back. “I have an award on hold and I’d like to make some changes. My record locator is….”

I asked about flying non-stop, Dulles-Frankfurt.

“I’m sorry, those flights aren’t available.”

“Even LH 419?”

“I don’t see that flight on my screen. I can check it, though. Oh, well, it looks like that’s available.”

Score. An agent willing to manual sell some segments. I’ve hit the jackpot.

“Can we add a flight to the end of my outbound, perhaps Singapore-Bali?”

“That’s available on Singapore, but it’s business class.” (Fine, I know there’s no 3-class offered on this shorthaul route.)

“Great. Let’s look at the return. Can we find anything back from Asia a bit earlier? Let’s have a look at Lufthansa back from Beijing to Frankfurt on March 27.”

“Sir, Lufthansa does not appear to fly that route on March 27.”

“Really? Are you sure LH 721 isn’t operating?”

“I don’t see that flight. Let me request it. Yes, yes, that’s available for two passengers in first class.”

“Great, how about Frankfurt-Dulles?”

“You’ll have to overnight in Frankfurt, but Lufthansa has a flight in first class the next day with availability.”

Ok, back to DC the long way, but to do otherwise would mean crossing two oceans and kick us into RTW award territory. Plus the Beijing-Dulles non-stop on UA wasn’t available anyway, and neither was Tokyo-Dulles. I’d have to double-connect at least if I were returning via the Pacific.

“Great. I see we now have an award with an open jaw, flying from Washington DC to Denpasar, and then flying from Beijing to Washington, DC. Can we see if it’s possible to get from Denpasar to Beijing on March 25?”

She explains that Thai Airways has a flight in Business Class to Bangkok, and connects to a two-cabin overnight flight to Beijing. Well, I like the once-daily Bangkok flight just fine. It leaves after 5pm, giving us a full extra day in Bali. But I don’t really feel like waiting 4+ hours for an uncomfortable Thai business class redeye that’s too short to sleep, and arriving in all likelihood too early to check-in to a hotel. So instead we decide to overnight in Bangkok and take the 11am to Beijing. And that Thai flight is 3-cabin, and first is available.

I put the flights on hold. They re-price it to 135,000 miles, which is curious as it’s still the wrong amount. But they found me flights I liked, and it was fewer miles than it was supposed to be. So who am I to complain?

When I finally called back to ticket, it was re-priced correctly at 140,000. Oh well, you win some, you win some.

Lessons:

  • Know the flights you want / that are available by checking the ANA frequent flyer website.
  • Successful awards may take more than one call. If you find flights you want, hold them (and be thankful you aren’t trying to use Delta Skymiles which no longer allows holds for awards booked by phone ). Then call back.
  • When a flight doesn’t show up as existing on the CSR’s screen, that’s a good hint that availability is being filtered by Starnet. It may take many, many calls to find an agent willing to do a manual sell, but that’s how you get the award to come back confirmed.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Very nice post, Gary. And your intuition that some of us might find the detail useful was spot on. I’ve seen some of this process described on Flyertalk, but the dialog was a helpful touch, since it give me an idea of what to ask for and how to ask for it. Thanks much.

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