Vietnam, Cambodia, Macau and Hong Kong Trip Report: Introduction, Positioning and the Hilton New York JFK

Index:

Last month I spent some time in Vietnam, Cambodia, Macau, and Hong King. It was a fantastic trip that encompassed:

  • Cathay Pacific long haul first class
  • My first Dragonair flight
  • Vietnam Airlines between Danang and Siem Reap
  • Fantastic food, from my favorite Pho in Saigon to a Michelin 2* and 3* restaurant in Hong Kong
  • Park Hyatt Saigon and Siem Reap, Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, Hyatt Regency Danang, Sheraton Macau, and the Hilton JFK
  • Macau over Chinese New Year and my first visit to Angkor Wat

And I owe it all to American mistakenly putting out the word that partner award tickets were all going to incur fuel surcharges.

Booking process

Back in August American seemed to confirm just that when they were mistakenly adding them to Malaysia Airlines awards. (They sent a confusing memo meant to explain how they were going to close a loophole on certain revenue tickets, and their social media team misunderstood what was up.)

It turns out to have been a system glitch. Thank goodness.

But before the fuel surcharges spread I figured I’d burn some American miles to get in under the wire and save some real money.

I got to work on tickets. When I do my own award searches my calendar is usually pretty constrained, I’m working around lots of obligations, and finding time for a two week trip to Asia is hard.

When I’ve got flexibility I like the award calendar and ability to search a whole month at a time that the pay service Award Nexus gives me. But for searching routes over a day or two, I use the pay software KVS Tool. It only provides access to information that is available online already, but provides a really convenient and efficient way to access that information.

Knowing I wanted to fly to Asia, using American miles, in first class that meant I was looking for space on Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines. And far in advance Cathay seats are easier to get. I was searching 5 months out and had no problem coming up with New York JFK – Hong Kong seats roundtrip, and adding connecting flights to and from DC on American Eagle.

I decided to go to Vietnam and added Hong Kong – Ho Chi Minh City as the destination. And I decided to come back from Siem Reap, Cambodia since I had never visited there. Dragonair just started service there, and only offers a business class cabin one day a week — which matched up well with my dates.

My award ticket cost 160,000 miles per person plus $65.60 in taxes — 135,000 roundtrip US to Southeast Asia, and an extra 25,000 miles because I made a stopover in Hong Kong on the return (so had to pay extra for the short Siem Reap – Hong Kong flight, not a fantastic use of miles, but worth it to me for a new product, not paying cash, and to try their business class short haul service).

Outline of the trip

I bought my tickets on Vietnam Airlines, Ho Chi Minh City – Danang – Siem Reap and booked my hotels. Here’s what I would up with:

  • Washington National – New York JFK, American Eagle first class
  • Hilton JFK (1 night)
  • New York JFK – Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific first class
  • Hong Kong – Ho Chi Minh City, Cathay Pacific business class
  • Park Hyatt Saigon (1 night)
  • Ho Chi Minh City – Danang, Vietnam Airlines
  • Hyatt Regency Danang, 4 nights
  • Danang – Siem Reap, Vietnam Airlines
  • Park Hyatt Siem Reap, 3 nights
  • Siem Reap – Hong Kong, Dragonair business class
  • Hong Kong – Macau, Turbojet Ferry
  • Sheraton Macau, 2 nights
  • Macau – Hong Kong, Turbojet Ferry
  • Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, 2 nights
  • Hong Kong – New York JFK, Cathay Pacific first class
  • New York JFK – Washington National, American Eagle first class

Positing Flight: Washington National – New York JFK on American Eagle

Most airports are reasonably deserted on Saturday afternoons. All of the end of week business travel home is finished, everyone’s already at their weekend destinations, and virtually no one has started to come home yet. Saturday flights are cheap and award space plentiful (Tuesdays and Wednesdays are often the same), unless the airline in question is operating fewer flights to compensate.

Washington National airport was suitably deserted.

It was a two week trip, and I checked a bag. I haven’t checked a bag in quite some time, I almost felt strange doing it. I walked up to the first class line, there were two people ahead of me. It probably would have been faster to use one of the available kiosks and then the staff behind the counter would have just handed me the luggage tags and sent me on my way.

National airport is strange in that you check your bags, get them tagged, and them walk them over yourself to the TSA for screening. I don’t recall using a somewhat similar procedure anywhere other than the Tom Bradley terminal at LAX.

Then I proceed down to the security checkpoint, which was equally deserted and upstairs to the American Airlines Admirals Club. I sat for a few minutes, my favorite bartender wasn’t there so I skipped having a bloody mary, and I proceeded to the gate.

As always seems to happen to me with Eagle flights, between the time I left the lounge and made it to the gate the flight showed a delay (and I’m not leaving the lounge that early either, usually just after scheduled boarding time). Surely they could have updated the flight time earlier than they did.

We wound up about an hour behind schedule, but I wasn’t worried about it, I was going to be overnighting in New York. I don’t much like the idea of connecting in New York without a buffer before a long haul international flight. Something terrible could happen, like a misconnection with no available space in first class on alternate flights.

I hung out for a bit in the food court seating area just before the gate, and soon enough our inbound aircraft arrived.

It was first class on a regional jet up to New York. Which is to say it’s first class in name only. But it’s a short flight, and better than coach. And it’s not any extra miles considering I was already on a first class award. (I am grateful for the upgrades to first class on New York flights during peak times during the weak when ground holds can be far longer than the actual flight time.)

A quick flight, a glass of water, and some answered emails later we were on the ground at JFK.

By the time I managed to walk from the far end of the terminal where American’s Eagle gates are, all the way to baggage claim, it was only about 10 minutes before bags started coming out and I was on my way to the hotel.

JFK Overnight – Always Choose the Hilton New York JFK

JFK airport has a terrible setup for hotel pickups. You have to take the Airtran, the same system that transfers you (outside of security) between terminals and which is itself a bit of a walk, to a stop where shuttles are permitted to pick you up. Fortunately hotels can drop you back off directly at the correct terminal when you’re leaving JFK.

My hotel for the night was going to be the Hilton. Cost issues aside, for an airport hotel you want first the hotel attached to / inside the airport if one exits, and if none then the hotel that’s been most recently renovated.

Right now that means the Hilton JFK which I’ve reviewed before.

Prior to that hotels’ renovation and re-brand, the choice was the Sheraton JFK. And before that the Hilton Garden Inn as best JFK hotel (I haven’t stayed there since July 2007).

The overnight cost me 40,000 Hilton HHonors points. The hotel was asking $269++ when I stayed there so I was more than happy to redeem for a free night.

The hotel has an unimpressive lounge but because of my flight delay I wouldn’t be visiting it this evening. I checked in, got my room key, and headed straight upstairs. I was asleep before 10pm.

When the lounge is closed on weekends, as it has been in the past during my stays, they’ve provided a coupon for appetizers in the restaurant.

They also always give a gift bag to elites, an apple, some trail mix, a granola bar and a bottle of water. I’ll take it.

I got up in the morning and could have visited the lounge for breakfast. Instead I decided to wait for the lounge at the airport and the flight, figuring the offerings there would be better.

I did want some coffee though, and got some one my way out of the hotel at the coffee stand in the lobby.

I believe every airport hotel should have one — you’re often leaving quite early in the morning, and a to go cup from there rather than in-room coffee can be a wonderful luxury.


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  5. I realize this comment is fairly late here, but I couldn’t figure out where else to ask you.

    Have you done any research on Hue & Hoi An in central Vietnam, or considered going there?

    I passed very briefly on my trip last year, and they both seemed like they had a lot to offer, culturally and cuisine-wise. Seeing as how these seem to be the two things we both look for in travelling, I thought you might have some recommendations? I’m thinking of a future trip around there, and perhaps through the highlands west/south-west of there.