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, January 13, 2011

Who Knew Hainan?

Two Weeks in China and Vietnam

Getting to Beijing

Planning a 16-day trip to China and Vietnam over the Christmas holidays, My wife and I were determined to make all the arrangements ourselves, just as we always did B.C. (before children). Our kids, ages 7 and 12, are good travelers, but their tastes in vacation places gravitate to tropical environs with white sandy beaches and warm pools. They don't yet enjoy exploring new places unless those key features (beaches and pools) are among the rewards.

We placated them two years ago by going to Tahiti (beautiful and relaxing, but boring to the adventurous soul). So this year we aimed for a return to China, with a trip south to Vietnam built in, a much more interesting sojourn to us adults.

Beijing, we know from experience, can be brutally cold in December, but we wanted to give our daughter, adopted from China, a first opportunity to see the capital of her native land. Besides, the frigid weather of Beijing in winter puts downward pressure on hotel prices and, we hoped, air fares.

So I took the lead on finding a Business Class fare from Raleigh to Beijing that we could live with. I almost wrote "reasonable" Business Class fare, but those are as dead as the dodo.

The search began with a look through the usual portals (Orbitz, Expedia, etc.) as well as the direct airline sites. Contacts were made with discount travel agents, frequent flyer award brokers, and consolidators; I frankly expected to find a good deal with one.

But nothing worked with broker and consolidator deals within the dates we could live with going and returning. Maybe it was due to the time of year or starting from RDU.

I ended up back at Orbitz where an intriguing connection showed up between Raleigh and Biejing using American Airlines RDU/SEA and Hainan Airlines from Seattle to Beijing. The price was $3400 per ticket all-in round trip in First Class on AA to/from SEA and Business Class both ways SEA/PEK.

We cringed at the price (times four people), but decided we could live with it to avoid the torture of Sardine Class across the vast Pacific.

But Hainan Airlines? Who ever heard of Hainan Airlines?

I knew Hainan Province is an island in the far south between China and Vietnam and that it's considered to be the Hawaii of the People's Republic, but I didn't know the airline of the same name. After making some inquiries, however, I found that Hainan Airlines is one of those up-and-coming Chinese carriers that is growing by leaps and bounds and wants to carve out a niche for itself.

Thus we booked Hainan and American. Right away I was pleased with the choice when the airline's reservation folks cooperated in giving us good seats together in advance.

I'll save the description of the AA flights from Raleigh to Chicago to Seattle, our overnight at a Doubletree near the airport, and our morning of fun walking around the Seattle waterfront (Pike Place Fish Market, etc.) for another post and skip right to our initial impressions of Hainan from Seattle to Beijing:

It was altogether a fine experience in every way, superlative in some ways and average in others, but nothing at all occurred that marred the flight for any of us. These days that's a remarkable commendation for any airline's overseas service.

For our 1:20 PM departure we arrived extra early at Sea-Tac at 11:00 AM, partly out of curiosity to see what Hainan would do. The usual dedicated Business Class check-in counter took care of us promptly, including invitations to the lounge near our gate, and they didn't give us any grief about our carryon luggage.

You see, we never check our bags unless forced to, not even for a weeks-long international trip like this one. But we pack smartly, and our luggage will fit into any airline overhead. We also carry only one piece per person except for me (I take a small second bag with essential documents and electronics). Hainan gave us carryon tags for each piece of luggage.

The General Manager-North America for Hainan Airlines, Mr. Joel Chusid, cruised the check-in counters, and he courteously introduced himself to us. Mr. Chusid was solititous of our experience and gave me his card, encouraging me to contact him if there was anything we needed, even from China.

He also informed me that Hainan Airlines provides courtesy limousine service for Business Class customers from the Beijing Capital Airport to their hotel, and again from the hotel back to airport when returning. Mr. Chusid said that the service requires 24 hours notice, so it was already too late to enjoy the free ride upon arrival to PEK, but he admonished me to contact the Hainan Airlines office in Beijing to line up the limo back to the airport when we returned on January 1.

We'd already lined up a driver to pick us up (a trusted friend we had used before, Joe, and who drives for many people we know), and we couldn't have canceled quickly, so it made little difference at that point, though it would have saved us about $30. Still, I was impressed that Hainan offers the complimentary service.

Boarding and lounge passes in hand, we survived the security screen with no trouble and took the underground train to the S concourse, arriving at 11:35 AM. Because of the circuitous underground journey, I had no idea where the S concourse was relative to the main terminal.

There we cooled our jets and enjoyed the pleasures of the BA Terraces Lounge. I took the opportunity to imbibe the excellent nonvintage brut Piper-Heidsieck Champagne on offer and toured the BA facilities. I was delighted to find them clean, quiet, and spacious. Showers were available, too.

Hainan provided fancy, high gloss brochures on its airline and its services, all the better to project and establish its rising image. The international route map inside indicates Hainan flies to two North American destinations (Seattle and Toronto), while it flies to five Russian cities, three in Western Europe, one in the Middle East, two in Africa, and three in Southeast Asia. Thirteen destinations outside China is a bit thin perhaps, but a good start.

Boarding began with Business Class at 12:40 PM, forty minutes before scheduled departure. The A330-200 aircraft is configured with two classes, business and coach. Two Business Class cabins are divided by a door and galley area; the front cabin houses rows 1-3, and the back cabin rows 4-7. The Business seats themselves are identical in both cabins.

Since 1973 I've flown in so many business and first classes on so many airlines that I have to consult my records to be sure of them all, and I tend to be rudely critical right away of the seats if I don't like them.

For instance, I don't care for the current American Airlines international Business Class seats. They look and feel crowded and claustrophobic because they are. AA's seats also extend out to a weird angle that is "flat" but not parallel to the floor, and in that position one feels pinned in. To make matters worse, it's difficult to get in and out of the AA seat if it's not on an aisle without stepping all over your neighbor.

By contrast, the Hainan Business Class seats are extremely roomy in every way. There is an abundance of room to move in and out of the seats, and they are comfortable in every position. They extend out to a true lie-flat position that is parallel to the floor and are wider than most Business Class seats I've experienced.

The entire Hainan Business Class cabin is spacious and inviting as well. We liked the look and feel of our surroundings as soon as we boarded and took our seats (4AB and 5AB). I was both relieved and delighted that the next 12 hours on board was going to be a pleasant experience even if the meal and beverage service turned out to be mediocre (which it wasn't).

After all, the difference between Sardine Class and Business Class is really the seat and the cabin. That's what you are paying all that extra money for: relief from pain. A modicum of good service helps, but if the seat and cabin are stressful, nothing can rescue the experience.

The Hainan Airlines folks did a superb job of designing a cabin and seats for their premium customers that is comfortable, relaxing, and open. I never felt close to our fellow travelers, though every Business seat was taken.

Our coats were taken and water or juice offered within minutes of boarding. Champagne and other alcohol is not allowed on the ground in Seattle, they said, but I still had the the taste of Piper-Heidsieck Champagne in my mouth from the BA lounge, so was not troubled by the wait.

OK, a few nits:

The very spacious overhead compartments over our seats were partially filled with flight attendant luggage. As we were traveling realtively light, I was able to make room for all our pieces, but it was irksome just the same. I suppose the habit of using the overhead space arose because most Business Class passengers check their big bags. Indeed, few seated in our cabin brought aboard luggage in number and size of ours.

The movie screens, though sizable, were not as crisp and clear as those I have become used to on other airlines. And the headphones were neither noise-canceling nor particularly high fidelity models. (These drawbacks were not noticed by our children, I might add.)

Because our section of Business Class was behind the main entry door (rows 4-7), coach passengers streamed past to find their seats in Sardine Class in the rear of the plane. This procedure was egalitarian but not particularly elegant, and I had to remind myself that China is a classless society.
There is much more to tell about this very good experience on Hainan Airlines, and a GREAT DEAL MORE about the places we visited over the remaining 15 days, including: Beijing (getting bamboozled by fake students in the hutongs); the Great Wall at Mutianyu; chaotic but intriguing Hanoi (visiting Ho Chi Minh's mummified remains and the bustling dog market on the same day) and HaLong Bay (a World Heritage site) in Vietnam; a cross-border, overnight train ride reminiscent of a spy novel in a Chinese "soft sleeper" from Hanoi to Nanning (China); visiting a restaurant that serves Chairman Mao's favorite foods in Yulin and drinking corn juice; another journey by Chinese train, albeit in daylight, Nanning to Guilin, during which we were regaled by hucksters; gorgeous Yangshuo (also a World Heritage site) and the Yangshuo Mountain Resort (spectacular!); Xingping and the trained fishing cormorants; and finally frigid Beijing again (10 degrees fahrenheit didn't stop the Night Market from flouishing with weird foods) before flying home on Hainan Airlines, retracing our steps through Seattle back to Raleigh. It will take many more posts to tell these tales.


Blogger Hampton Farmhouse said...


Really enjoy your writing.

Great Article on Hainan Airlines.
We operate a discount business travel site and would love to use them more.. We do thousands of trips to China every years.

Can I demail you direct

800 435 8776

1/21/2011 1:05 PM  
Anonymous Judy G said...

Can't wait for the next 'episodes'. Photo of family is wonderful! Hainan to South Africa ....that would be wonderful...RT HNL/ORTambo business was just under $6000!

Can't seem to remember my google account password :>)

1/21/2011 5:33 PM  
Blogger Portland via Japan said...

The China of today is ANYTHING but classless. In fact, the increasing division into classes is one of the biggest problems facing China today.

1/21/2011 7:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad you enjoyed the flight. Since you flew, there have been some changes. The food and bar menus were reprinted to reflect upgraded food and beverage choices. Amenity kits and lavatories are stocked with upscale branded items. Flight attendants now prepare the flat seats with luxurious cotton comforters sheets and pillows and offer complimentary "jumpsuit" pajamas as well. Sorry you flew us just before all these changes, but I'm glad you enjoyed the ride! Hope the limo service on the return worked out well. Joel Chusid

1/30/2011 4:00 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...


The flight and service were great! We would use Hainan again in a heartbeat, and we plan to when we return to China. Thank you very much for you advice about the limo. Yes, it worked out well coming home, as you will eventually read when I get to that part of the trip. Best regards, Will

1/30/2011 5:12 PM  

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