It’s the holiday season in the Bay Area again, which means that things are quiet around here. Quieter than Thanksgiving, because the people that haven’t returned home for Christmas are out vacationing elsewhere. A couple of friends kindly invited me to dinner on Christmas Eve, thereby saving me from an evening of solitude, but otherwise everyone else has gone (including my other half, who has fled nine time zones away). I took a walk around the Dish — a six kilometer running track on the Stanford campus that passes by a radio telescope — and it was the most deserted I’ve ever seen it. Interestingly, there were an unusually large number of solo walkers, like me, out to clear their heads in the crisp winter air. It’s been the perfect time to reflect on the year that’s been, and to start planning for the year ahead.
One of the things I realized is that I haven’t written on this blog for a long time. All year, in fact. There hasn’t been a good reason for this, other than what I can only chalk up to a lack of motivation. Motivation strikes at the most random times, though.
America might be the only country in the world which does not require private companies to give employees annual leave (or paid time off, as they call it here). This includes national holidays — it’s perfectly legal for a company to give employees no leave and require them to work on Christmas Day. Companies don’t do this, of course, but the result is a patchwork of company policies. Some give 10 days, some give 25. Some companies give more leave to employees who have been with them longer. Apparently Facebook gives 21 days, which is a strange number. It was explained to me that when the company was being formed, the advice was that “3 weeks” is the industry standard for leave, which the people in charge at the time interpreted as 21 days, rather than 15 business days. The legality of giving no leave at all has led to the globally unique policy of some companies choosing to give “unlimited” leave — something that Netflix pioneered. This policy lets employees take as much leave as they want (and still get paid for that time off). This is subject to the caveat that the employee still has to be able to perform their job adequately. The notion is, at first blush, highly attractive to employees as it theoretically permits them a lot of flexibility to take leave whenever it makes sense. If there’s a slow period at the end of the year, you can take more time off instead of twiddling your thumbs because you ran out of leave earlier in the year.
However, it’s not all altruistic. For one, companies with unlimited leave do not have to track or accrue leave. If you had an entitlement to 20 days of leave, and only took 15 days, then typically those 5 days would rollover to the following year, or you would be paid out for those days. Of course, there’s no rollover concept when an unlimited leave policy is in play, so not only is it one less thing for the HR department to track, but the company doesn’t have an accrued liability sitting on books. More curious, however, is the innate cultural aversion that more than a few Americans seem to have to taking leave. It’s something that helps an unlimited policy to work… in the company’s favor.
On one end of the spectrum, you have European-style leave where 30 days is the norm and everyone is pens down for the whole month of August. America is on the other end of the spectrum. From my anecdotal experience, it’s common for people not to take their allotted leave, and when people do go away, it’s usually for no more than a week. People occasionally take two weeks off. Three weeks is almost unheard of. I have always thought that Australia strikes a happy and reasonable balance: 20 days, with a standard business shutdown during the Christmas-New Year period that allows people to take 3 full weeks off. Although it’s not always possible, that is the balance that I try to maintain. December is the financial year end in America so while things sometimes get quieter, more often than not there’s actually a flurry of activity as people try to close deals by December 31. There generally aren’t company-wide shutdowns between Christmas and New Year, and people do actually do work in between (myself included, this year).
The other thing is that the line between work and vacation is completely blurred these days. While I think it’s important to unplug from time to time (and there’s no better way to do that than going to a place without net access), it’s also quite stressful returning from a week or two away to an inbox with over a thousand emails waiting and trying to play catchup as the emails continue to flow in. (Perhaps even nominally more stressful than not taking the leave in the first place!) As a result, I normally use spare hours — time in transit or a quiet moment at night — to read through emails and respond to the easy ones. Happily, as is the norm in Silicon Valley, most of my internal clients prefer to communicate via email instead of the phone, so things are generally capable of being handled remotely even with a volatile travel schedule. I just came back from a trip to Brazil where I spent a few hours working out of the offices of one of our law firms — it was raining in São Paulo, I had been on the go for too many days in the row, and I didn’t feel like sightseeing that day. I cleared out a good number of emails while a never-ending stream of waitstaff plied me with baskets of warm pão de queijo. When my host came to pick me up, I actually felt quite good. I realize that I took a break from my vacation to do some work and felt good about it and maybe that’s a bit perverse, but hey. Whatever works, right?
Anyway, on to the main reason for this post. If you know me, you know I like traveling and I like flying. It doesn’t cost a lot, due to the great American pre-occupation with trying to get people to sign up to new credit cards. The biggest constraint is time, and so I’ve adapted to taking short, but intense trips throughout the year. I like my job, but it is certainly not a 40 hour a week job (actually, I can’t remember ever working a 40-hour 5-day week). The world is a huge place, and if I only confined myself to taking one overseas trip a year, I’m not seeing very much of it. I guess the dining analogy is that I prefer the 12 bite-sized course tasting menu over the two pound tomahawk steak. I took stock of where I’ve been this year on a map:
That’s 150,000 miles of flying, 54 segments, 30 airports, and 13 countries (including 4 new ones). I used to write a post whenever I finished a major trip, but for some reason I stopped doing that. So, in lieu of that, and while I still have my random burst of motivation, here is a rundown of a couple of the fancy parts of the trips I’ve been on this year that have been funded primarily by credit card sign up bonuses and the exploitation of promotions.
Returning Home from Home, the Long Way (Jan)
Sydney to San Francisco, via Dubai and London
Flights in late December and early January between San Francisco and Sydney are ridiculously expensive. United has a monopoly over the only non-stop route between the two cities, and you can forget about trying to redeem a flight on miles. This leads me to finding rather… roundabout ways to get from point A to point B. The routing in January was Sydney – Dubai – London – Los Angeles – San Francisco. I normally would head back via Asia, which is relatively shorter, but when I found award availability in the first class cabin of Qantas’ flagship route, QF1, I jumped on it. QF1 is also known as the kangaroo route because it connects Mother England with its former colony with one hop in Dubai. QF1 is flown by an A380. Quick notes:
Qantas A380 – First Class, Seat 2A – QF1 (SYD-DXB-LHR)
- Chauffeur Service: Qantas offers complimentary chauffeur service within a 40km radius of the airport. I didn’t use this service as my parents dropped me off at the airport instead.
- Lounge: The QF first class lounge is up there with the best of them. It’s spacious, bright and has a beautiful view of the runways, the CBD skyline rising in the distance, and a front row seat to aircraft pulling up to the gates underneath. First class passengers get a complimentary massage treatment, which I took advantage of. Sit down meals are made to order, and the food is great. All OneWorld Emeralds get access, regardless of class of travel (but those traveling in First get first dibs on massage appointments).
- Cabin: The SYD-LHR route is heavily trafficked, and the cabin was almost full.
- Seat: While not an enclosed suite, my window seat was angled towards the window and was quite private. Seats are in a 1-1-1 configuration. The center and starboard seats share an aisle, so the port side seats are slightly more private. The seat is unlike any other first class product I’ve seen — oddly asymmetrical like a reverse herringbone configuration more typical of some business class seats — but it was fine.
- Food: The food is Qantas’ stand out offering. Qantas offers a tasting menu and despite the dampening effect that high altitude has on taste buds, each dish was full of flavor. The food was better than any other airline I’ve traveled with – including Etihad, which packs a chef along with its regular cabin crew, and all the airlines that offer caviar and expensive champagne. The footrest has a seat belt so a companion can join you at your table for meals.
- Service: Typically Aussie – casual but professional. I wasn’t given much attention — the crew seemed to be more chatty with other passengers — or made to feel particularly special in the way that Asian airlines seem to do so well. Still, better than any of the American airlines.
- Toilets: There is nothing particularly noteworthy about the toilets in this cabin.
- Bed: If you’re flying first for the first time, remember that you should always ask for turn down service (where a flight attendant will prepare your seat for sleeping). While you may be tempted to do it yourself, you’ll be missing out on a mattress pad that the flight attendant will bring along to pad the seat. The Qantas seat is super comfortable to sleep in.
- Amenity Kit: A nice SK-II kit, although the zipper design is terrible.
- Overall: Definitely in the top tier of first class cabins in the world. While lacking some of the bells and whistles other airlines, Qantas does the essentials very well. Now if I could just nab a seat on the LAX-SYD route…
To get back from London, I booked a flight on one of American Airlines’ new 777-300s. The business class cabins in the new 777s is a world apart from the old cabins.
Around the World in a Weekend (Apr)
Tokyo via Frankfurt
Airline miles are a terrible long-term investment. They don’t make interest, and they get eaten away by inflation when airlines raise redemption rates. Hence the motto, “earn and burn”. Earning is important, but using those points is arguably even more important.
When United announced it would be nearly doubling the price of some of its awards early this year, it was time to burn some miles. The routing rules for United awards are somewhat quirky, and a shorter route is not necessarily cheaper. It has for a long time been possible to fly to Asia via Europe for the same number of miles as a direct flight to Asia. Why would you want to do this? For me, I wanted to try Lufthansa’s first class experience – it’s probably the best out of all the European carriers. Lufthansa operates three different first class cabin configurations. A small number of 747-400s and Airbuses have “old first class”. The newer 747-8s have “new first class”, as do the A380s. The A380s are slightly different in that they have separate urinals in the lavatories. A number of 747-400s have a completely different configuration – each seat comes with a separate bed. I found a route, SEA-FRA-NRT, that would allow me to experience both the new first class, and the variant with the bed. As a bonus, since I would be transiting through FRA, I would have the chance to go through the famous Lufthansa First Class Terminal.
Lufthansa A330-300 – First Class, Seat 2K – LH491 (SEA-FRA)
- Lounge: Lufthansa shares a lounge with other carriers in Seattle, but they provide ground services. Someone turns up when your flight is ready to board and escorts you to the gate. That’s a nice touch.
- Cabin: The cabin configuration was new first class. Four out of eight seats were occupied (each window seat).
- Seat: While not an enclosed suite, the seat looks swanky – simple, clean, but attractive. Like the reception area of a big law firm. Seats are in a 1-2-1 configuration. A fresh rose adorns each seat back (a Lufthansa trademark), and the flight attendant even asked if I wanted to take it with me when I left (I politely declined).
- Food: Pretty solid. The caviar service “with traditional accompaniments” is always a welcome novelty.
- Service: Quite friendly. The purser dropped by for a quick chat, and the flight attendants had some personality to them – they were not just going through the motions.
- Toilets: I don’t recall anything particularly noteworthy about the toilets.
- Bed: Since half the cabin was empty, the flight attendant made up the empty seat 2G next to me as a bed. “So you can have a living room and bedroom,” he quipped. (Not quite like Etihad’s Residence cabin, which actually has a separate enclosed bedroom, living/dining room and bathroom.) The bed was relatively comfortable.
- Amenity Kit: Nothing particularly noteworthy. They used to have nice Rimowa cases, but no longer.
- Overall: Very solid first class product and playing in the same league as Qantas.
FRA – Lufthansa First Class Terminal (Lounge)
The Lufthansa First Class Terminal is called a terminal rather than a lounge because it’s a completely separate building with its own check-in facility and boarding “gate.” Given this fact, even though I was only transiting through Frankfurt, upon landing I needed to clear immigration, exit the main terminal, and walk over to the FCT.
At the reception area, my passport was taken from me and I was ushered through security and into the main lounge. “We’ll get you checked in. Just relax inside and I’ll come and find you with your boarding pass.”
The Lufthansa FCT is outrageous. It has a bar with a lot of drinks. A lot. The drinks menu has 4 pages of different types of whiskey alone. It has a water bar with a lot of bottled water. A lot. About 30-40 different types. It has a candy bar with dozens of different types in meter-high jars. It has a cigar room, with a humidor full of different cigars. The cigar menu includes descriptions such as, “Not to be recommended for [the] newcomer,” and “A real good smoke.” The cigar room has its own bar. It has shower rooms with bathtubs, featuring the famous Lufthansa rubber ducky that you can take home with you. It has a buffet area with buzzsaws for slicing ham. It has à la carte dining. It has private nap rooms with dimming lights, pillows and blankets. It has a seating area that’s well supplied with snacks and servers who continually ensure you always have a drink in hand. All these things kept me occupied for hours.
When it was time to leave, I was escorted downstairs where an immigration official stamped my passport (it all felt very informal) and then deposited in a car for transfer directly to the aircraft. I rode in a Mercedes, but Porsches form part of the fleet too. I was driven to the foot of the waiting 747. Boarding was by jetbridge, so we needed to take an elevator up from the tarmac to the bridge. I took my driver up on her offer to snap some photos of me in front of the plane. She escorted me to the plane door and handed me off to the cabin crew.
Lufthansa B747-400 – First Class, Seats 82H & 84H – LH740 (FRA-KIX-NRT)
- Cabin: The first class cabin takes up the whole upper deck of the 747. There are eight seats and, as luck would have it, I was the only passenger traveling in the cabin that day. That meant I got a lot of attention from the two flight attendants staffed on the cabin. I initially had the rearmost starboard seat, but it was quickly but empathetically “suggested” that I would be more comfortable with a seat closer to the middle of the cabin. The galley was directly behind me, so I moved away from the noise that comes from the galley, but I suspect the flight attendants wanted to be able to more relaxed and noisy in the back without bothering me.
- Seat: This is probably my favorite F cabin configuration out of any aircraft I have flown (though I am sure Etihad’s First Apartments are better). It’s a very open cabin and not very private, but as I had the whole thing to myself, it was amazing.
- Food: Being on a flight to Japan meant that there was a Western and Japanese menu on offer. That of course meant that they needed to cater for both meal variants, even though I was the only person in the cabin. When meal time came, the flight attendant didn’t even bother asking me what I wanted to eat. “I’ll bring everything out and you can decide what you want,” and sure enough, she rolled out a cart with all the appetizers on it! I basically had access to unlimited caviar. “Would you like some bread? Here, have the bread basket.” I was almost full by the time it was time for mains, but she once again came back with a cart laden with food. She looked genuinely disappointed when I mentioned that I was stuffed and couldn’t fit much more in. “I’ll leave the cart here if you change your mind,” she said as she parked the cart at the neighboring seat. And then she came back with dessert and a pot of green tea, and I was completely done.
- Service: I was primarily served by an older flight attendant. She was quite friendly in a grandmotherly sort of way, and she did her best to overfeed me.
- Toilets: Again, nothing particularly remarkable (other than I had several all to myself).
- Bed: Hands down the most comfortable bed in the sky (again, with the probable exception of Etihad). A window is at head level, so you can drift off to sleep looking out. Cabin temperature was perhaps a little too high, given that the blanket is pretty thick.
- Amenity Kit: Same as the previous flight, but as it was near Easter time, I was given a medium-sized chocolate bunny as an additional gift.
- Overall: My favorite flight of the year, no question. Given the choice, I’d pick Lufthansa’s 747-400 over the A380 and 747-8.
Simona & Uli’s Wedding (Jun)
Lake Como and Sagno
In late 2013, AA was running a promotion that allowed members without status to qualify for top tier status by flying 30k miles in 90 days. I think it was intended to be a targeted offer, but it accidentally was made available to everyone. After a little bit of gentle persuasion, I managed to convince my better half to go for it and she ended up qualifying. We used the systemwide upgrades that AA gives its Executive Platinum members to book a business class flight to Milan, where we then rented a car to drive up to Lake Como.
This wedding was unique in that it was being held in two countries. Guests were bussed across the border to Switzerland for the ceremony and a post-ceremony lunch. The reception was then held in the town of Lenno on the shores of Lake Como. Beautiful wedding, but the first couple days in Italy were a bit of a blur for me (the jet lag really kicked my ass).
Six Weeks in Ireland (Jul – Aug)
Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Austria
Work opened up a new office in Dublin this year, so I went to Ireland for six weeks on a business trip to help set up some legal stuff for it. I actually didn’t know it at the time I made the booking, but AA was running a summer promotion on paid business class fares to Europe (25k bonus miles), so I ended up accruing over 50k miles from that one roundtrip ticket.
Dublin was a great experience (and there are so many U.S. tech companies there!). It was incredibly tiring, but rewarding. Long hours at work, but I had weekends to myself and took every opportunity to travel. About 4pm on one Friday, I found myself booking a 6pm train up to Belfast, two award nights at the Radisson Blu Belfast (holders of the Club Carlson credit card get one free night which each award booking), and a “Game of Thrones” bus tour that visited various locations where the TV series was shot along the Antrim Coast. My impromptu trip also unintentionally coincided with the 12 July parades, where the unionists march around all the towns in the face of the nationalists — an event which has been volatile in the past (something which I only learned after the fact).
Another weekend, I flew to Scotland and stayed with a friend who showed me around Glasgow and Edinburgh.
My parents also took the opportunity to fly in from Sydney to visit. They basically dumped their bags off at my apartment and went traveling around Europe. We spent a couple weekends traveling together — a car trip through various parts of the rest of Ireland (Galway, Cliffs of Moher, Cork, various castles, etc.), a random trip to Longyearbyen (see below), and a relaxing visit to Austria, where we had the opportunity to stay at the newly opened Park Hyatt Vienna.
Park Hyatt Vienna – Park Suite
Construction for the Park Hyatt Vienna had only been completed two months before we arrived, and it was situated in a building that used to be a bank. It was a gorgeous building, and one of its unique features was that they had built the pool underground in what used to be the old bank vault. The floor of the pool had been with lined with gilded tiles, which alluded to the gold bars that might have been stored there in times past. I had gained top tier Hyatt status as a result of a status match challenge earlier in the year. (Meeting the challenge required me to do my first mattress run, which involved making a trip up to Sacramento one Friday night…) One of the benefits of that status was a free upgrade to a suite and free breakfasts. The suite was very well built, and was a great place to chill out in between the sightseeing. Breakfasts were in what used to be the cashier’s hall – a beautiful space with a soaring ceiling and stately decorations.
The Park Hyatt is very centrally located and only about a hundred meters from the nearest U-Bahn station.
Three Weekends in Hong Kong (Sep, Oct, Nov)
Hong Kong and Macau
AA opened a new DFW-HKG route serviced by their new 777-300s and were selling flights originating from SFO very cheaply at the start of the year (sub-$700). Given that SFO-DFW is pretty much the opposite direction to HKG, you have a route that makes for good mileage run material. When you combined this with the ability to use systemwide upgrades, you suddenly had a whole bunch of mileage runners trying to get in on the deal. On one of my flights, the upgrade list was 50 people deep! Susanne followed me for the first run, and we actually made into a proper holiday, staying in Hong Kong for three nights — one at the Conrad Hong Kong, and two at a friends’ place. (I admit that I may be starting to lose perspective as to what constitutes a “proper holiday.”)
We took a daytrip to Macau. I hadn’t been to Macau for almost 10 years, and I was astounded at how much it had grown as a gaming hub. The statistics show that it does much more gambling turnover than Vegas, and you just need to talk through the Venetian Macau to understand why. The Venetian is at least 4x the size of its Vegas counterpart, and the gaming floor was still packed — despite it being the middle of the afternoon and the table limits being eye-wateringly high.
Back in Hong Kong, we missed the Occupy Central protests by about 5 days (the Conrad is in Admiralty, one of the main protest sites), but on my second run there, my friend took me to the Central and Mong Kok sites. We also had the opportunity to have yum cha at Tim Ho Wan — famous for being perhaps the most affordable single Michelin starred restaurant in the world (three of us had a very full meal for only US$15 per person).
And, of course, traveling through HKG also means the opportunity to use Cathay Pacific’s The Wing lounge.
HKG – Cathay Pacific “The Wing” Lounge
Situated to the immediate left when you clear immigration, the first thing you see when you enter The Wing is a bar with several bottles of champagne on ice, and a row of glasses. There is a full bar at the back of the lounge, or you can take a seat wait for a server to come around for your drinks order. The dining area offers pretty good à la carte dining and a pretty decent buffet spread. However, for me the standout feature of The Wing is the cabanas – private rooms that offer a daybed, a shower with three nozzles (an overhead rain shower, a detachable shower head, and a waterfall shower), a large bathtub, and a workspace. All tastefully and cleanly designed. Easily the nicest “shower facility” out of all the airport lounges in the world.
I also took trips to Longyearbyen, Brazil and Peru but I have run out of time for writing.