Around the World for Christmas Flight Report

I wanted to head back to Canada to attend some personal matters around Christmas time. I didn't want to be away for too long, but going to the other side of the world for a short period of time isn't the best thing either. I designed this round-the-world (RTW) trip to use up points on 2 airline programs across different alliances. Having heard Thai would receive its A380 earlier in the year, I tried to slot TG in somehow. This also meant a stop in Bangkok, a place I wanted to visit again but delayed over and over again due to political instability and the odd bout of violence in the past few years.

I had accumulated a fair amount of mileage on my UA account thanks to ultra-cheap fares to Europe on Qatar Airways. Hard to believe their discount fares earned full mileage, and I was a little sad to see Qatar part their ways with United. At a rock-bottom 32,500 miles for a one-way from Hong Kong to North America, I was very surprised they allowed a longer transatlantic routing. UA's online search engine is among the best I've used. It is very user-friendly and quickly brings up a maze of options on a wide range of carriers and routes. From Bangkok to Toronto heading west, stopover options included London, Copenhagen, Paris, Frankfurt, and even Addis Ababa. Heading east, I could transit through China or Japan, sometimes with even a 2nd stop in the US. Star Alliance seems to have far more reward availability than oneworld.

I eventually picked transitting through Frankfurt, as the taxes were cheaper than London and the airport was more manageable to use, and I could do a bit of sightseeing in the old town during the day. I had visited Frankfurt before, with the last visit being 2010. However, the weather was not so good that time and it was only for the morning, so I wanted to go back for a more thorough look. There were also ample connections to Toronto as Air Canada ran 2 flights a day while Lufthansa had 1 more, so in case my flight got cancelled, I would not be stranded over Christmas. Look at how cheap the taxes were as well!

This entire itinerary revolved around Thai's new A380 service from Bangkok to Frankfurt. The overnight flight would land in Frankfurt just before sunrise, and I would then connect to another Star Alliance flight to Toronto. Although UA's engine makes it very easy to book everything online, the search results did not permit me to book a long transit, or an afternoon flight out of Frankfurt. Instead, it kept on prompting me to book the morning flight, but I had no intention to spend only a few hours waiting at the airport. Knowing the afternoon flight had reward availability after a separate search for just that sector, I called up Mileage Plus reservations and got everything done in a jiffy, albeit with a manual processing fee. My 11-hour stop in Frankfurt was all set.

Technically, Mileage Plus does not allow any stopovers for a one-way redemption booking. I could only do a long transit. This meant I could not start in Hong Kong, spend a few days in Bangkok, then transit in Frankfurt bound for Toronto. I needed to pay my own way to get to Bangkok from Hong Kong. This sector proved to be problematic. More on that later.

My return flight from Toronto to Hong Kong to finish my RTW trip would be far more simpler, redeeming a nonstop on Cathay Pacific's new 777 Business Class using one of my oneworld mileage accounts. The cheapest redemption for CX J from North America to Asia would be American Airlines at 55,000 miles, followed by British Airways Avios at 70,000 points. CX's Asia Miles was the most expensive. I had missed out on snatching a redemption seat about 3 months before departure when it was availabile, so I used my Marco Polo membership powers to set up a waitlist, which would pre-empt me to get ready to redeem using my AA account if availability were to appear later. For this, I converted my Starwood hotel points 1:1 to AA, with an additional 5000 point bonus for redeeming 25k hotel points or more.

December came around, and just as I lost hope and prepared to cancel my Star Alliance redemption and Bangkok hotel, Cathay released a seat in Business Class for my flight one weekend. Excited, I called up AA reservations in the US to snatch that seat, only to be told they could not see anything. Annoyed, I noticed my CX waitlist also didn't clear, but BA's engine did show availability. A subsequent call to the Marco Polo hotline also proved successful - there was indeed a seat.

Bewildered, I called AA again, only to end in failure once more. Within a day, the seat disappeared on BA's search engine. Frustrated, I called up Marco Polo again and asked why CX and BA would show a seat but not AA. I was told that each program gets an allocation of CX redemption seats, which means not all airline partners would see the same seat. At this point, if something were to open up, I would be willing to pay an extra 15,000 points to redeem out of my BA account, but didn't have quite enough to hit 70,000 yet so would need to pay to buy a few thousand points.

Surprise came in the second week of December. Another seat opened up, and my waitlist cleared. I tried to negotiate with Marco Polo to hold that seat to let AA snatch it up, but that didn't work. However, the AA agent was able to find a seat this time, and I was confirmed. I had to pay a manual booking fee since AA didn't allow non-BA/Iberia bookings on its website, but at HKD 622, the surcharges were far lower than what BA or Asia Miles charged so I was quite happy in the end. The optimal situation materialized, and my Bangkok-Toronto-Hong Kong trip costed a mere 87,500 miles.

The last leg I had to book was a paid flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok. I tried to redeem something with my Avios but CX did not release any seats, and RJ had nothing either. I struggled between a number of smaller competitors on this busy 5th-freedom route. Kenya Airways and Ethiopian came out the cheapest, but I was a bit worried about their reliability. Royal Jordanian seemed marginally better so in the end I booked with them for an expensive HKD 1770 fare but with full accrual eligibility. In the end, CX released a few J seats afterwards at a very affordable 15k Avios. However, I accepted my fate with RJ.

Blue Line

Leg 1. Hong Kong - Bangkok, Royal Jordanian

Royal Jordanian is one of not many airlines that are stationed in Terminal 2. Check-in was smooth as there weren't that many passengers and I never arrive within the stated times anyway. By the time I got there, I think most of the plane have already checked in.

Tonight's flight was full, much to my surprise. The plane looked pretty good with PTVs at every seat. However, they never bothered to turn on the IFE, so all I got was the moving map for the entire 2.5 hour trip. Wonder why they couldn't just switch it on? I wanted to watch a movie and it wasn't sleeping time anyway.

Despite the short flight, the amenities received were pretty complete, down to the wet napkin.

I have a special preference for Airbus jets as the 2-4-2 configuration makes window seat passengers easier to get to the aisle. I didn't feel too trapped in here.

The apple dessert tasted quite good, although the portion wasn't too big for a dinner.

Bangkok's weather was good and we came in smoothly past the city into the Gulf of Thailand and then a 180-degree turn back. The huge moon followed us and lit up the night sky.

This was my first visit to the "new" international airport, but it did not impress me. The walk to immigration was very long, the washrooms were dirty, and there was more than 1 immigration hall apparently. All this led to a bit of confusion and quite some time to process. Not surprised they don't fare among the top on global rankings.

My sightseeing began on the next day.

More in my Bangkok gallery - click the photo below :

Blue Line

Leg 2. Bangkok - Frankfurt, Thai

With an overnight flight to Frankfurt ahead, I initially thought of checking out during the morning, then come back in the evening to pick up my luggage and then head to the airport. Worried I would not be able to sleep as usual in Economy Class, and thanks to my elite account with Accor, I decided to pay an extra night (it was cheap anyway) so I could shower and take a nap after sightseeing, then leisurely leave for the airport in the late evening.

With my big suitcase full of winter and summer clothes for this round-the-world trip, I opted to take a taxi to the airport. The hotel hailed one for me, and I encountered one of very few cases where the driver did not turn on the meter. We initially negotiated an all-in fare of around 400 baht, which was about the same as what I paid coming into the city on metre. Upon arriving at the first toll gate, the driver asked me for money, at which I reminded him of the all-in fare. He paid, then said 450 baht. A bit annoyed as I knew he understood I said all-in previously, but not about to blow my head over less than USD 2, I told him in a very assertive and disenchanted tone fine, and reminded him once again it's all-in, since another toll plaza lay ahead.

Bangkok's international airport is new, and looks quite sleek. There weren't long lines at the Thai counters and soon my bags were on their way and I would not see them until I got to Toronto.

I slowly made my way through security and immigration. Once air-side, it was an insanely long walk without any automated assistance to the gates. Apparently, they wanted you to browse through their whole duty-free shop. I wonder how older or disabled passengers would fare because even a young guy like me felt tired after all that walking.

The waiting lounges are downstairs from the main corridor, where passengers can use their boarding pass to enter. Once inside, they are trapped in there until they could board the aircraft. There were no crowds so I sat outside and patiently waited for boarding.

The A380 uses a special gate with many branches. The walkways look sleek and modern in the night-time lighting.

I sat at the front of the Economy section on the lower deck.

This was my 3rd flight on the A380, but 1st time on Thai. They only started using the A380 for this route days earlier.

Loading was extremely light today. I had entire empty rows in front of and behind me. I had all 3 seats to myself - my own synthetic Business Class bed!

With light loading, I was promptly served with a delicious dinner. It was well past midnight already though.

Thai's A380 has an enormous Economy Class that occupies the entire lower deck and a section at the rear of the upper deck. I had hoped to secure an upper deck Economy seat, but with such a light loading, I was content to sit at the nose of the plane downstairs.

Following the meal, I made my way through the Economy section to the rear staircase. The upper deck Economy section was closed today.

Being such a major tourist destination on its own, Thai should try harder to secure passengers to stop in Bangkok while doing the kangaroo route.

The crew noticed my curiosity of their new plane and offered to let me up to First and Business Class upon arrival in Frankfurt. We landed before sunrise and thanks to the light loading, got some decent sleep. First Class is spacious although the suites are still a few notches below the best out there. The seats were not private enough, but there was a nice meeting area right at the nose section for some socializing. Qantas' A380 also had a similar lounge but that section was for Business Class instead.

Behind First is a large Business Class section. Some of the middle seats were more private than First.

I was quite happy with the service, and the pro-active offer to let me see the upper deck upon landing. Still a few hours to go before sunrise, I went to the lounge to do some surfing and trip planning for the day. My connection break was 11.5 hours long.

I covered the historic centre and part of the new financial district comfortably during my day trip. The weather was better than I had expected. It did not rain, and some blue did come out with a few rays of sunshine. I didn't need my heaviest winter jacket yet.

More in my Frankfurt gallery - click the photo below :

Blue Line

Leg 3. Frankfurt - Toronto, Air Canada

Frankfurt's airport is conveniently linked to the historic city centre by train. At less than 15 minutes and with only 2 terminals, it is a far better airport to transit than Heathrow. I got my boarding pass already printed in Bangkok and luggage checked all the way to Toronto, so I skipped the check-in counters and headed straight for the gate. My passport would get its 3rd stamp on this leg.

I was lucky to spot this Iran Air jet that was about to push back.

Jugding by these new automatic gates, boarding will soon be even more automated, saving manpower and salaries.

Having flown Air Canada a lot over the years, I've seen some really stupid things with this airline. It has been a while since my last flight with them and I was a bit shocked and amused that stupidity continues to grapple this company. All passengers flying with them had to find an agent at the gate for a secondary ID check, where the agent (not an immigration officer) would verify your identity and ask you why you are heading to Canada. Then they mark down who they talked to. I don't see what authority they have to stop people from flying if all the documents were in order.

This agent did not sit in a counter, which caused a lot of confusion since people were directed to a makeshift counter near the boarding gate. The intercom was constantly blaring out names, presumably to do this ID check, all the way to the boarding process.

The weirdest part was they also checked your passport to verify your identification when you board. Why a secondary check was needed still baffles me. I was a bit jealous of the seemless boarding nearby at Royal Air Maroc.

This was one of my most painful flights. Economy Class was full, and right off the bat, there was a shortage of overhead compartment space for all the hand luggage. One gentleman near me decided to put his suitcase right in the aisle, which irked the flight attendants repeatedly. A few angry exchanges later, another flight attendant came by and found space up above many rows down.

Many of the passengers were transiting from India, and ordered special meals. It took a while for the crew to keep up with the luggage problem already, then having to cope with a long meal service. The food was decent though.

Air Canada's in-flight entertainment system looks sleek and is easy to operate. But they actually provided very little choice. Being a full flight, it was hard to sleep already, but with inadequate entertainment and a laptop battery that can only last 2.5 hours, this 8-hour transatlantic hop would be painful.

What a world of a difference compared to flying an empty jet from Bangkok. I think the Air Canada crews probably dread serving Frankfurt!

My heavy winter clothes came in handy in Toronto. There was snow on the ground and it was cold.

The supermarkets seem to be more well-stocked than ever! The amount of choice is slowly approaching American supermarket standards!

Cost of living in Toronto is fairly low by international standards. Welcome to suburbia.

Blue Line

Leg 4. Toronto - Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific

This final leg of my round-the-world journey is the longest, at over 15 hours. But since I was sitting in the new Business Class, I anticipated a painless journey with good food and good sleep in a good seat. The seat was more spacious than the previous herringbone configuration, and seemed a bit more private. However, I didn't like the head facing the aisle, where passing passengers can easily interrupt a good night's sleep. I'd rather swap and sleep on the window side of the seat. For the positives, I liked the USB charging port and the connector for Apple products to play on the PTV, in addition to the electric outlet so my laptop could continue running all the way to descent.

I fell asleep soon after we took off, and for good reason. The flight left Toronto at 1:25am. I skipped the dinner service and by the time I got up, the snack menu had also finished. They offered me a beef noodle instead, which was delicious.

Yet another agnes b bag for my amenity kit collection. It contained the typical creams, toothpaste, socks, earplugs, and the like.

I flipped through the various reading materials, including the exceptionally thick duty-free catalogue. I was most interested in the maps.

The duvet is very comfortable and thick, just like what I would get at a decent hotel.

The IFE options were extensive. The phone interface is more high-tech.

Next time I fly this route, I think I need to redeem a Business Class ticket again. I can't imagine spending 15 hours out back with the plebians.