Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Tahiti Trip Planning:
Recession? What Recession? We Don't Have No Stinking Recession! (At Least Not in December.)

Earlier this year—quite a bit earlier in fact, like eleven months ago—my wife and I agreed it was time to see Vietnam. We also wanted to make a swing just north into Guangxi Province in southern China while in that part of the world. Our daughter was born in Guangxi Province only about 60 miles north of the border with Vietnam, and she is now five years old. It's about time to take her back for the first of what we hope will be several return visits to her homeland over her childhood.

Our kids' school calendar Christmas break in 2008 is particularly long, and so we planned a 16-day trip that would have covered much of Vietnam and still had several days in China before flying home. However, as the details of our itinerary came together, and we added up the cost of getting there for our family of four, the total bill shot up into the stratosphere--well over $20,000! This was after working hard to get multiple quotes for air and ground to Southeast Asia and China from experienced consolidators and agents known for obtaining client value.

This sticker shock occurred during the early summer, months before the current worldwide economic troubles began. After agonizing over whether to grit our teeth and commit to such high costs, we made a difficult decision around July 4 that it was just too much, and we abandoned our vacation plans to Vietnam and China. We are especially disappointed not to take our daughter back home, and we hope to make a China-only trip within 24 months instead.

This marks a first for me: I have never in my life given up on such a trip due to cost because I've always managed to find a reasonable bargain through sheer perseverance. But that approach didn't work this time; I looked for six months (January-June) for cheaper alternatives without success.

We were deflated, but still wanted to go somewhere warm and sunny and exotic for Christmas. I next looked at nearer, familiar destinations, such as Belize (we very much like Belize). No dice. December airfares and accommodation prices were sky-high during the summer. Same with other Caribbean vacation spots. In some cases only First Class seats were available for sale.

Of course this was still prior to the crash of September and the ensuing meltdown. I noticed recently that at least one airline, American, listed Belize City as a good option for finding frequent flyer coach seats in December—yet you couldn't even BUY one during the summer! Guess bookings are off now—too late for us to take advantage of the slowdown.

We could not have predicted the earthquake in the markets that would lower vacation travel costs over the holidays to many places. Not knowing what was coming, I kept looking for a warm, sunny vacation spot for December without success. Every seat to everywhere was expensive, and every hotel sold out or offering only a few remaining suites at through-the-roof prices.

Shortly afterwards, Ruth noticed a squib in the Washington Post about a special offer from Air Tahiti Nui to Tahiti from Los Angeles: a family special deal of 6 nights in Tahiti for a few thousand dollars, airfare included. We'd always wanted to see French Polynesia (who doesn't?), so I called and emailed the airline. I figured it was a good starting point for a discussion.

Soon several travel agents referred by Air tahiti Nui contacted me, and a new round of travel research began. Anybody who has looked into going to Tahiti and its nearby tropical islands of Moorea and Bora Bora quickly learns that the place to be is at a resort with those gorgeous overwater bungalows ones sees pictured in Tahiti travel ads. Talk about paradise!

Unfortunately, the "special" 6-night package didn't offer any such accommodation, and in some cases the hotel package wasn't even on a beach. Most of the ones included were in or near Papeete, the international port of entry on the island of Tahiti, which is not one of the "paradise" destination islands.

The more informed French Polynesian traveler takes a fast ferry from Papeete to Moorea, or a short flight, or takes a slightly longer flight to Bora Bora, where the REAL paradise resorts are located. And naturally those resorts are pricey—VERY pricey.

Well, it IS high season and Christmas time, when every kid in North America (and, presumably, in Europe) is out of school for some weeks, and when their parents have long holidays from work. I didn't mind that the better resorts on Moorea and Bora Bora were more expensive. It was still cheaper than the prices we were quoted for Vietnam and China earlier in the year (though the collapse of the economy may have changed that by now—I haven't checked back to see).

Long story short, I settled on an Air Tahiti Nui-approved travel agency, Goway, based in Toronto, and developed what seemed like a great rapport with Goway agent Ryan Kennedy, and pretty soon we had put together a plan for 11 nights at the Moorea Pearl Resort.

I began to squirm, though, when I was quoted Air Tahiti Nui's very high fares in coach, and I learned that not a single one of the 6 First Class or 24 Business Class seats was available on either segment (LAX/Papeete or return). By the time we totted up all the air fares and resort and transfer costs, the number had surpassed $10,000—frankly more than I wanted to spend. Did we really want to go to Tahiti that badly?

More research ensued, and also the markets blew up in the meantime. I committed to the trip, but only paid a deposit, hoping for better air fares and cheaper accommodations. However, the more I read about and researched Tahiti, the more I came to realize that French Polynesia and Air Tahiti Nui (which has something close to a monopoly in the markets it serves) are as close to recession-proof as one can imagine. Despite free-fall cancellations to other holiday and vacation destinations, Tahiti hardly seems to have noticed that trillions of dollars of value have been shredded in the world's financial markets.

As further confirmation, I checked again this week with some knowledgeable insiders at Air Tahiti Nui, and their premium cabins (First and Business) remain fully booked. There is little chance that I can buy a premium cabin seat on either segment, even at the last minute. Even more surprising is the fact that Air Tahiti Nui has few or no coach seats left on most of their December flights, either.

Meanwhile, as we all know, most other international carriers are drastically discounting their Business Class fares, especially over the Atlantic.

Resort accommodations on Morea and Bora Bora are reported to be in short supply over Christmas as well. In hindsight, despite the high cost, it appears that we were very lucky to have snagged overwater bungalows at a fancy resort over the holiday period in December.

Thus we have decided that, all things considered, this trip does represent good value for money, even if the figure is high, and I paid for the trip in full last week. We are anticipating our tropical isle jaunt with great glee.

To my happy surprise, I easily found four AAdvantage award seats to and from LAX to connect with Air Tahiti Nui, with a 2-day layover in Los Angeles to boot. I plan to give my kids a brief intro to southern California.

While in L.A., we will be staying at the Hilton Garden Inn-LAX/El Segundo, one of my favorite hotels in the country. The property is almost always fully booked, so I had planned to use Hilton points, but was surprised to get a super rate of just $109/night.

All is not roses for me, though. I freely admit that my greatest anxiety in putting this trip together is having to endure an 8-9 hour flight from Los Angeles to Papeete in coach. I don't do well any more in economy cabins on long international flights, and this one is about 2 hours longer than I can usually endure in a claustrophobic, cramped coach seat.

But since there are no premium seats to be had, I will have to grin and bear it. To allay my fears, I've done my homework on what to expect aboard Air Tahiti Nui in economy. Next week I will be reporting on my findings in their "Moana" class (the coach cabin). Unlike my experiences on U.S. carriers in their generally crummy international coach cabins, it appears that Air Tahiti Nui has a refreshingly different product offering.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

OpenSkies Experience, Continued

Last week I wrote enthusiastic first impressions of my recent flights JFK/AMS and AMS/JFK on OpenSkies, the new British Airways subsidiary flying now between New York and both Paris (Orly) and Amsterdam (Schiphol). This week I intended to go into some depth about the experience, but my fellow travel writer, David Rowell, who flew with me across to Amsterdam, covered just about everything one could ever want to know about OpenSkies in three columns totaling 10,000 words!

I agree with much of David's opinions regarding the experience. Rather than reprise much of what he wrote, I point interested readers to David's in-depth columns. They are self-explanatory and can be found at these URLs:

Did you read all ten thousand words? Are you back now?

I hope so. Just let me say that while generally I agree with much of David's narrative descriptions and critiques, there are issues he covers that I'd like to enhance or contrast to my own experience on OpenSkies:

Service in General (to borrow David's phrase)

David Rowell rightly points out that he and I were traveling with a small group of travel writers and accompanied by VP-Distribution and eCommerce, Chris Vukelich, effectively the number two OpenSkies executive after Managing Director, Dale Moss (we also met with Dale in a Schiphol VIP conference room upon arrival in Amsterdam).

Which is to say, we were hardly flying incognito on the OpenSkies inaugural New York to Amsterdam flight. It could not have been lost on the cabin staff that they should be providing their best service.

As David mentioned, the JFK/AMS plane wasn't full, and in fact was very lightly loaded. I agree with him that under these circumstances the experience should have been, in his words, "the absolute best that one would ever encounter."

Yet the service was not perfect. It was good, even very good, but it had some rough edges.

1. No one took David's jacket.

They did take my coat in BIZ outbound, but I had to forcibly give it to the male FA and ask that he hang it. Once asked, he did so nicely.

On the return in PREM+ no less than three FAs asked for my coat within five minutes of boarding. Interesting to me, they took it forward and hung it in the BIZ cabin. They also brought it to me just after landing at JFK. (I wonder if they would have done that on a full flight; I was the sole passenger occupying the rear 20 seat compartment).

But why was the jacket service inconsistent? Even on domestic first class legs in the USA, it's routine for cabin staff to take and hang jackets upon arrival on board. Certainly in a $3600 international business class compartment I would expect that service for every passenger. The fact that they missed anybody is unacceptable.

2. David was not offered Champagne on boarding.

In contrast, I was twice offered a glass of Champagne before the door closed in BIZ outbound. Weirdly, David was sitting in the bulkhead row just across from me. How could they have missed him?

I was also offered Champagne in PREM+ on the return. But again, the PREM+ cabin had about 5-6 passengers for its 40 seats, and it's impossible to know whether the 2 FAs in the back would have been able to serve all 40 had the cabin been full.

Overall, I repeat what I asked above: How could anyone in either cabin have been missed being offered boarding Champagne? This has long been SOP on international flights in business and first.

3. No one brought David an amenity kit.

Though I had to ask twice—the second time insistently—I did get the tiny and modest OpenSkies amenity kit in BIZ outbound, but not until the door was about to close.

I wanted the booties especially, but also used the ear plugs and eyeshades. They served me well.

But why wasn't the kit offered to everyone right away? It's one of the first things people want to do: Take off shoes and put on the booties to be comfortable.

On the return in PREM+ I was offered the little kit (sufficient for my needs) almost as soon as I sat down on boarding. Once again, however, I wonder if it would come so promptly on a full flight.

4. David didn't think the food was particularly good.

I apparently liked it less even than David Rowell, as I pointed out in last week's post. I was surprised that some people praised the cuisine, but then "one man's meat," and all that.

As I said last week, I’ve learned not to expect much from even Emirates or Singapore in First Class. Usually cold plates of uncooked food taste best at altitude. That was true with the smoked salmon in PREM+ (the appetizer) on my return.

David also mentioned not being offered dessert. He didn't miss anything, but he certainly should have been asked.

5. The entertainment units failed to inspire David, and he didn't like the flight attendants collecting them so early before landing (55 minutes prior).

I agree with David on all counts here, including how much I missed the moving map. (I remember being miffed on EOS for the same reason.) Self-contained entertainment units are necessarily devoid of a live connection to computer-driven moving maps, but some airlines using such units broadcast the moving map on the airplane's bulkhead or flip-down screens. OpenSkies had no such built-in system.

I, too, was infuriated at the FAs for taking the entertainment units well in advance of reaching the respective destinations on both flights. It would seem they’ve been trained to get them while the aircraft is still well out over international waters!

The units I tried outbound were faulty. A similar (but larger) unit I rented on Amtrak two years ago worked better (and had better movies). I wasn’t much impressed with the one on OpenSkies. My first unit didn’t work well (skipped, hung), so they replaced it. Second one worked well for a few hours, then glitched out. I didn’t even bother to take one when offered homebound.

6. David had the misfortune to be prohibited from wrapping a blanket around his legs for "safety reasons" during takeoff.

I guess the cabin staff failed to notice that I had a blanket around my legs during takeoff.

Anyway, why would they care? On the thousands of flights I've experienced during four decades of getting on airplanes, no one has ever stopped me from using a blanket during takeoff.

7. OpenSkies doesn't interline bags, and this caused David grief.

Since I am obsessive about not checking bags, their policy is not a problem for me. However, a large percentage of fliers do check their bags, and I can understand why this would be a big negative for them. You have to collect your bag off the luggage carousel after each flight and then re-check it, a big waste of time.

Nonetheless, interlined bags are the ones most frequently lost or mishandled (delayed), one reason I don't like to check mine, ever.


Overall, and despite my carping above about some service failures, there are more OpenSkies positives than negatives in my view. Here are the two positives I will especially remember:

  • OpenSkies flies 757 airplanes with only 64 seats on board, and this makes them quick and easy to get on and off (think: Southwest-quick).
  • PREM+, the so-called premium economy, is extremely comfortable--more comfortable than BIZ, in my opinion. As long as PREM+ fares remain as low as they now are, it's a great bargain. I highly recommend booking and flying OpenSkies PREM+ to or from Amsterdam or Paris.

And one negative:

  • I agree with David Rowell's comments on OpenSkies BIZ class: "[It}is no better than other business classes on other airlines, and massively inferior to some airlines (albeit airlines that don't operate non-stop services on the two routes served by EC)."
I sincerely hope that OpenSkies is successful—meaning profitable! I believe, as I said last week, that their PREM+ cabin is the future of overseas business travel. If you try OpenSkies PREM+, you'll see why I feel so strongly about it.