Trip Report Prelude — Cathay & British Airways First Class, Philippines and Macau, a Presidential Suite, and the Fat Duck Restaurant

I recently returned from Asia, an American Airliens First Class Oneworld award.  This is just a bit of background before I begin sharing some of the details of my travels.

When the KVS Availability Tool introduced Cathay Pacific award availability (really just an interface with the Cathay website) it seemed like a good time to start searching Cathay award availability.  And with the economic downturn and fewer first class tickets being sold, Cathay first was pretty widely available. 

I’ve long been more of a  Star Alliance guy, I have plenty of American Airlinesmiles but haven’t flown much Oneworld.  So this would be my first time in Cathay First.  And with the Oneworld distance-based awards, you can fly pretty much any routing you wish (the longer it is, the more miles they charge) as long as you don’t exceed 16 segments on the award.  To qualify to use such an award you need at least two airlines other than American on the award.  So I thought it might be a good idea to try British Airways First Class as well, something I’d also never done – I’ve flown BA business before, but never splurged on first.

So I started poking around and saw plenty of Cathay first class award space departing both JFK and Toronto.  By the time I narrowed down my dates, Toronto was the only option, since I wanted to depart over a weekend and Cathay seemed at the time to be releasing first class seats out of JFK only mid-week.

And flying back to Toronto made sense if I did a round-the-world trip flying out across the Pacific, back across the Atlantic, I could fly back through Heathrow and while American doesn’t permit you to redeem transatlantic flights between the US and London on British Airways, you can redeem BA flights between London and Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

So there I had the basics of a plan.

Cathay first class Toronto – Hong Kong.  Then where else to go?  I’d never been to the Philippines and of course Cathay offers first class on the short Hong Kong – Manila segments.  It’s certainly an inexpensive destination, plus a first-time experience, and I could get out and about in the Philippines as well.

Then what to pair on?  Back to Hong Kong, I’ve been a tremendous number of times, but never visited Macau.  So why not.  And then there was good availability on Cathay Hong Kong – London.  I had been batting around a London trip anyway and while a round-the-world oneworld award would run 180,000 miles in first class compared to 135,000 for a straight Asia roundtrip, the incremental 45,000 miles would save me from making a separate transatlantic crossing so seemed worthwhile. 

Then back London – Toronto on British Airways in first class.  Great!

Availability was no problem when I wanted to fly, and I started planning the trip. 

For the Philippines I grabbed a couple nights in Manila at the Intercontinental.  I had wanted to stay at the Peninsula, but the Intercontinental was just too good a deal. Using the Friends and Family rate, booking an Executive Suite was less than $200.  And as a Royal Ambassador, the hotel provides a 2 room category upgrades — not capped — which meant that they confirmed me in the Presidential Suite.  The hotel provides complimentary internet to Royal Ambassadors and they have a lovely club lounge.  All for under $200.  I just couldn’t justify staying anywhere else.

For a bit of beach time we booked separate Philippine Airlines flights to Cebu, it’s not the most exotic or remote destination in the world but boy is it inexpensive.  And I did discover that while the service and facilities in the Philippines is not the most polished in Asia, it’s certainly among the friendliest and most genuine.

I discovered Turbojet, which offers ferry transfers to Macau pre-immigration, and you can even through-check your bags on several airlines all the way to Macau.  Easy easy connection from the Hong Kong airport.

The Westin Macau is right on the beach, less than an inexpensive 10 minute cab ride to the strip (and the hotel has a complimentary shuttle).  I admit I’m a slave to status, they provided me with a lovely suite, internet, and breakfast. Still, if I had made the switch to Hyatt – which is the program offering the absolute most value these days — the brand new Grand Hyatt right in the middle of the action is truly impressive.  I did have perhaps the best pork I’ve ever eaten down the beach…

Back through London, I’ve pretty much decided that staying in any major European city it is a must for me to have a club lounge and burn points so I booked The Waldorf.  And I scored a booking at The Fat Duck Restaurantso I’ll have an extensive report on that, to follow on my visit two years ago at El Bulli.

Now, the return home was quite complicated.  My First Class British Airways plans were nearly foiled three times. 

* BA stopped servicing Toronto with 3-cabin equipment in the Winter.  So my flight went 2-class. 

* They brought back First Class the day after we were originally to fly, so we switched dates.

* Then they dropped First Class from that flight but happened to bring it back the day before (our original travel date) … so switched again.

* Then the British Airways cabin crew announced a strike during our travel dates.  I’ve already discussed my backup plans, those included a cancellable award ticket on United, but fortunately the BA flight actually went… albeit with ‘reduced service’ to say the least.

The real adventure though began with flying up to Toronto. We were on separate tickets.  I could have included the flights to and from Toronto on the award, but that would have meant connecting from DC on the way to Toronto and I preferred a non-stop.  With a desire for maximum flexibility on the tickets I booked awards.

But the travel date approached.. and I know that separate tickets on a trip like this is never a good idea when connecting same-day.. and weather was looking bloody awful.  I mean bloody awful.  It was supposed to rain sideways, major gusts of wind beyond the tolerance of many aircraft, and at the very least the likelihood of Dulles being reduced to a single runway.

A delay I could handle, we had a plenty long connection time.  But a cancellation I’d be hosed without really any backup flights possible that would get me to Toronto in time.  (There had been one when I originally booked but that was no longer on the schedule.)

So I thought, I’d love to bounce ideas off someone.  I’m pretty good at figuring these things out but two minds are always better than one.  So I decided to plunk down my $25 and test out CrankyConcierge.  I’ll report on that experience as well.

So all this is a preview of things to come…

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 Milepoint.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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  1. Can’t wait for the full report!

    > And I did discover that while the service and facilities in the Philippines is not the most polished in Asia, it’s certainly among the friendliest and most genuine.

    Agree 100%. It is a very underrated destination. Not to take anything away from Thailand but if you ask me, it should be the one deserving of the Land of Smiles designation, especially with what’s going on in Bangkok right now.

  2. What beaches did you visit in Cebu? Based on my experiences Cebu does not have the best beaches – there are many other (and more remote) great beach locations.

    I absolutely love the Philippines and will be there in 2 weeks 😉

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