Saudia Business Class Trip Report: Award Availability (Delta Miles!) is Amazing, But Should You Fly It?

I’ve written about how easy it is to find award availability on Saudia using Delta miles. I’ve even walked through making a booking on Saudia live, in front of hundreds of people.

There’s a reasonable question that comes up, objection even, Saudia? What is that like to fly?

A co-worker flew Saudia on miles — the fruits of her signup bonus for an American Express Platinum card and a small amount of additional spending — and I asked her to share her experience. The trip was to Lahore, Pakistan to visit her family — departing from New York, and returning to Washington DC. She prefers to remain anonymous, but she provided a great trip report that I think is a fascinating window into an airline that isn’t frequently written about. We’ll call her my Pakistani Correspondent or P.C. for short.

Probably the biggest challenge in putting together the award is Saudia’s non-daily schedules. Their flying bounces back and forth between the US and Riyadh and Jeddah, and from each of those cities to many destinations. Most days there are 7 or more award seats available between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Award availability isn’t the problem. It’s that the flight to Jeddah may arrive on a day when the flight to your final destination leaves from Riyadh, or vice versa. So we made her trip work by leaving out of New York, and she found a sub-$80 ticket to get there that she purchased separately.

At Washington National she tried to through check her bag all the way to Lahore, but the American Airlines agent had difficulty doing it because of the length of the trip, and long layover in Saudi Arabia. It was a legal layover, mind you — transit without visa is permitted for up to 18 hours. She wouldn’t have been eligible for a transit visa however as an unaccompanied female.

[Visa Information – Transit] Saudi Arabia (SA)

[Information For Normal Passports]
TWOV (Transit Without Visa):
Visa required, except for Holders of onward tickets for a max.
transit [[TIRULES/R32]] time of 18 hours when inbound flight is
operated by Saudi Arabian Airlines; or
Visa required, except for Holders of onward tickets for a max.
transit [[TIRULES/R32]] time of 8 hours when inbound flight is
not operated by Saudi Arabian Airlines.
– Only one transit stop-over in Saudi Arabia is permitted.
– Except when flying on Saudi Arabian Airlines, where a
second transit point is permitted.
Warning:
– Visitors holding passports containing any Israeli visa or
stamp could be refused entry.

In the attempt to through check the bag on separate tickets, the agent forgot to charge her for the checked bag (she has no airline status and was not on a business class ticket for this leg).

I now turn it over to P.C. to report on her lounge-hopping at JFK prior to her Saudia flight, and then her journey to Jeddah:

The Oasis lounge had an open bar so it was definitely my favorite. However, all the food there was cold, there was no butter for bagels, and the place was a zoo during lunch time. Eventually, someone was kind enough to let me know that there was designated space to “safely store” my luggage, which perhaps was a tripping hazard lying in the middle of the sitting area.

Next up, was the KAL lounge, which was definitely my least favorite. It was quiet and had a lot more space but there hardly any food besides some newton figs and Milano cookies.

Either way, it was time to finally board my first business class!

Boarding was a breeze, and the 777-300ER was brand new and shiny. First up was a Ferragamo goodie bag waiting in my chair! The socks kept slipping off but everything else was quite useful.

Next up: several women changed into long drapes! I had the bulkhead seat in the cabin. An Italian lady sat next to me who was flying over to do evening makeup for a princess. We had tons of legroom.

The Saudi fashion magazine that I was flipping through was a sharp contrast to the conservative clientele in business class.

All the air hostesses are foreign (Saudi women are not allowed) but spoke fluent Arabic. Generally, I found the service to be very rushed and a little haphazard. The cabin was full.

Most of the other foreign passengers were connecting onward to Asia. As soon as people started settling in, they got hot towels, dates (with no plates or napkins), and shot glasses of delicious mint tea right away.

I didn’t really know where to put the date pit so I just held it in my hand till someone came to get it. We eventually had the Islamic prayer and took off.

The seat was roomy but a bit too high even after I adjusted it, resulting in my legs (I’m 5.4) hanging most of the time. The seat folded in to a perfect (Gary: angled) flat bed with lots of options for adjustments.

Sadly, I didn’t get the oulet to work (unless I am mildly incompetent, and didn’t figure out how to). I tried my Ipod USB, my laptop USB, and all my electronic chargers but no dice with any of the outlets.

Generally, entertainment was sufficient with lots of new movies, interactive games, tons of music and they had new episodes from Parks and Rec and Modern Family. However, there were tons of bleeps in most songs, and the words “pork dumpling” and “bacon” were censored (including in children’s cartoons).

Saudia is a dry airline, but we did get tons of rounds of chilled carrot juice, mocha latte, and passion fruit juice, usually way before the food came out.

Here are the menus from the flight:

Dinner was the first meal served. I got the shrimp starter which was perfectly cooked, and butternut squash for soup but was sad to know they didn’t have any crackers or bread sticks. They just had pita bread that came with the starter dish.

For the main dish, I opted for the grilled beef fillet, which was delicious.

But the raspberry tart for dessert was even better, and Arabia coffee was fresh and strong. Food coma overtook the caffeine booster, and the seats unfolded to a flat bad so I didn’t wake up till it was time to land (missed any further flight service).

Stay tuned for the rest of P.C.’s report, because the lounges in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are… interesting


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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  1. Actually, the agent was right not to charge her for the bags. Under IATA 302, the MSC’s (Most Significant Carrier’s) baggage fees apply.

    Although she had 2 sep. tickets, once she tried to through-check the baggage, the system would yield to the MSC baggage rules by default. I have done this a couple of times when I had no status, CO-SQ.

  2. great idea Gary. Gives an interesting perspective for sure on an airline most of us will not fly!!

  3. I love the guest post! Do you think the main reason there is a lot of award availability for Saudia is because not many people who are in the miles/points game use Saudia?

  4. Interesting post and am really looking forward to the rest of the report as i am flying with Saudia in December.

    P.C mentioned that she flew 777-300ER and first class was upstairs. I thought 777 had no upstairs.

  5. @Joey they fly huge birds, I think routes aren’t really established purely for business/profit reasons, DC seems to be a route flown for political reasons for instance. Huge business cabins, they don’t sell out.

  6. @The Weekly Flyer – the point is to give you the information necessary to formulate an answer not to tell you what to do. You’ve got your own answer based on data that very much IS in the post! 🙂

  7. The restriction on having an Israeli stamp on my passport pretty much sums up my opinion of travelling to Saudi Arabia, not on my bucket list ever….Kind of difficult to understand this in 2013.

  8. @ Gary – If my origin is SFO and using Delta Skypesos on Saudia, do I have to buy a separate ticket from SFO-IAD?

  9. JohnnieD, Israel did not give us an option…they stamped a piece of paper and put it in our passports. Great post, btw. Food looks delicious.

  10. @Wanderingentrepreneur – either she meant up front, or she was thinking of a 747, by the time in the trip she wrote this she was certainly tired… 🙂

  11. I will never fly Saudia until Saudia Arabia gives women equal rights. I’ve been to 75+ countries but never to one with restrictions on women such as Saudia Arabia.

  12. +1000 EdDoc99

    A backward society that encourages the treatment of women as objects not human beings. It is 2013 AD not 2013 BC you filthy Islamists !

    And that rule that refuses entry to foreigners who visit Israel…. I go wherever I want; it is none of their damn business for all I care.

    Not a chance I will ever fly that corrupt airline or visit that cesspool !

  13. @Jason, do you even know what islamist is? I could care less about what you call the saudis and the saudi society but i am a muslima and i do take exception to the language you have used.

  14. Looks like a great airline experience, but the fact that it is a dry airline is kind of a deal breaker for a long flight. If I’m flying J I like to get my moneys worth in drinks. I’d be totally fine doing a short haul flight though dry

  15. @EdDoc99 – spare us your self-righteous rant about how Saudi Arabia treats women. I’ve for a better idea – how about you stop destroying the planet with carbon emissions due to your gratuitous travel to “75+ countries.”

  16. @Mark – There are only 5 things that i need to do to be considered a fundamentalist. Belief in God and prophet Muhammad (pbuh), pray 5 times a day, fast for 30 days every year, charity and pilgrimage to Mecca. I do those 5 things and i am a fundamentalist. Obviously your definition of Islamist and fundamentalist is very different than mine or of a practicing muslim. There is nothing wrong with being a fundamentalist. Radicalism is another issue and is deploreable in any religion, culture. We also confuse political disputes/isses with religion as well which is not appropriate.

    @Ron – So true. Lets see if Jason and Russ can go to Cuba on a US passport and come back and see what happens.

    @MRK – This is a travel blog and its better we keep it that way. There are lots of avenues out there for political rants.

  17. I believe the plane I flew that day was a 777 with no first (Saudia does have a few planes with this feature). I had the front most seats, right behind the cockpit door 🙂

  18. I’m a bit disturbed to read some seemingly uninformed comments about Saudi Arabia – but I’m not surprised. The anti-arab propaganda machine is pretty strong in the USA. While most people in both countries condemn extremists (myself included) and both the US and KSA each have their share of extremist/terrorist troublemakers, the reality on the ground is a bit different.

    My passport in 2004 was and still is full of stamps from Ben Gurion Airport in Israel (where I have done a lot of business). When I applied in 2004 for my first Saudi visa (for my first business project there), I sent my visa application (with “Jewish” in the “religion” box) to the KSA embassy in DC along with my US passport, and got the passport back 2-days later by FedEx with my 5-year multiple entry visa. I’ve since been to Saudi Arabia many times, and nobody has ever given me any issue regarding my religion or where I’ve been. Visiting Israel or being Jewish is clearly not their concern. Further, the stories of Arabian Hospitality are true: the Saudis that I know (from drivers to members of the royal family) treat me like a genuine honored guest, and I try to do the same for them when they visit the US – but they set the bar very high. One more example: my Saudi attorney in Riyadh is a Saudi woman (who works in a large law firm in Riyadh), and she does a terrific job helping me in negotiations and navigating the Saudi bureaucracy. With regard to women’s rights, the KSA is making rapid changes for the better, which I have had the privilege to observe first hand over the last decade. Women can be very well educated both in and out of KSA, and now work in many jobs and professions both in the KSA public and private sectors.

    Now my grievance: how come when I buy/fly “I” business class on Saudia non-stop from JFK to RUH do I get zilch miles of any kind on my Delta Frequent Flyer account (I’m Diamond w/Delta)? Makes NO sense!

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