Cathay Pacific: what free miles can give you

24 March 11

| Flying High To China |

Cathay Pacific Business Class sleeping

Notes from the Green Travel Guru’s flight log…. The secret to getting the most from your frequent flier miles is not only accumulating them in the fastest ways, it’s also spending them well. I want to reap the greatest value … and, boy, am I.

Remember my First Principle of Frequent Flying? Never redeem your miles for an award worth less than two cents a mile. Like squandering 25,000 perfectly good miles for a ticket that can be had for only US$250, gaining only a penny a mile. Instead, go for, say, five cents or more a mile—for example, by paying 50,000 miles for a US$2,500 Business Class round-trip between San Francisco or L.A. and New York.

Unconvinced? I wish you were with me right now. Moments ago, I stepped through an uncrowded Business and First Class jetway and into a spotlessly clean long-haul 777-300 Cathay Pacific plane. I’m about to enjoy an extraordinary experience that puts the glamour back into air travel.

And all for free.

Business Class—L.A. to Hong Kong—15 Hours

Herringbone array of Cathay Pacific Business Class

Business Class: herringbone seating

A round-trip Business Class ticket between Los Angeles and Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong-based carrier that’s one of the five or six best in the world, costs about US$6,000, if purchased well in advance. You can get that same pricey round trip ticket for 110,000 American Airlines miles … because of both carriers’ affiliation in the OneWorld alliance. Or you can do what I did—get a one-way ticket for 55,000 miles. In other words, I redeemed my miles for six cents each, definitely a good deal. (U.S. East Coast or Midwestern passengers get an even better payback. That 55,000 miles includes a First or Business Class ticket on American to Cathay’s Los Angeles or San Francisco gateway.)

This is not my first trip in Cathay Pacific’s Business Class cabin, but if you haven’t had the experience, you’ve got something of a surprise in store. The 67 seats, which turn into all-important flat beds, do not sit perpendicular to the cabin walls, as you would expect, but are arranged at an angle (or herringbone pattern) opening onto the two aisles. Cathay has a good reason for this arrangement. If Business Class seats are installed at right angles to the cabin walls, window seat passengers have to crawl awkwardly over their seatmate when his or her seat is pushed back for sleep. With Cathay’s herringbone layout, every seat opens directly onto the aisle, and nobody gets trapped in a seat.

Cathay Pacific Business Class menu

Business Class menu: delivers what it promises

For dinner on my 15-hour flight to Asia, the Business Class flight attendants serve western entrees like rack of lamb and Chinese specialties like sauteed fish with sa cha sauce and jasmine rice. Delicious sandwiches and soups are available at any time in the coming hours, followed by breakfast with various omelets or Chinese dim sum an hour before landing. The meals have the finesse and flavor you’d find at a fine restaurant, not the typical in-flight meals (in Business or First Class) which are described glowingly on the menu card but taste—well—like airline food.

Following the flight’s first meal, some diehards plug in their laptops and get to work. Most of us watch a movie on our 15-inch individual screen or push the seat back into a 32-by-78 inch bed in its 180-degree flat position, curl up under our down comforter and fall asleep …  until it’s time to eat again.

Cathay Pacific Business Class Lounge - Hong Kong

HK Business Class Lounge: added comfort, no charge

Do any of my fellow pampered Business Class travelers have complaints? Yes. The seats are a tad narrow for larger passengers, and the high fixed partitions between the seats not only offer privacy, they make some passengers feel claustrophobic. (These unfortunates obviously don’t fly coach very often.) Nonetheless, Cathay Pacific listened. I’ve since learned they went back to the drawing board, and are now reconfiguring the Business Class cabins on long-haul Boeing 777s and Airbus A330-300s with wider seats and partitions that can be raised and lowered during flight. Two friends flying together can chat away, while those of us traveling on our own can raise the partition and have complete privacy.

The Business Class experience does not end when you land in Hong Kong. At Cathay’s light and airy Business Class lounge, you can find a private workstation, enjoy a drink at the bar or a hot Western or Chinese meal, or freshen up in your own private shower room. All at no extra charge.

Best of all, I arrive feeling remarkably refreshed. Practically undaunted by all those hours in the air and multiple times zones.

First Class—Hong Kong to Los Angeles—12 Hours

On my return trip, I splurged. I’ve earned plenty of miles, so I redeemed 67,500 for a one-way, US$7,800 First Class ticket from Hong Kong. That’s netting me value of more than 11 cents per mile, but most importantly, I’m about to savor the flight of a lifetime. At the Hong Kong airport, the First Class Wing lounge offers all the conveniences of the Business Class lounge, and then some, like cabana rooms where I can take a shower, raid the free, fully stocked mini-bar or take a nap, complete with wake-up service before my flight.

But it’s the onboard experience that I’m really looking forward to—in the First Class cabin, hidden from mere Business Class by that tantalizing curtain.

Cathay Pacific First Class seating

Cathay Pacific First Class: private suite in the sky

Now, I get a real eye opener: the First Class cabin has only six seats, each one a private suite in the sky, with more space than I can ever use, and two flight attendants to serve the half-dozen of us full time. I can dine at any hour, and in whatever order I want. I notice the galley is no larger than the typical space on a 777, yet the meals are top notch. I thoroughly enjoy cooked-to-order prime beef tenderloin for dinner, then freshly scrambled, free-range eggs with bacon for breakfast. When I want to sleep, a flight attendant turns my cushy seat into an 36-by-81 inch bed at the push of a button, covers it with a down pad for even greater luxury, and then makes the bed with a down comforter and several pillows.

Throughout the long flight, the flight attendants are always on call but manage to stay fresh and smiling. They sure don’t look like they’re working a long-haul flight. How do they do it? A hidden door near the galley gives me the answer: they get to sleep in comfort, too. The door opens onto a steep stairway that leads to the crew’s sleeping own quarters: two flat beds and two leather-clad, reclining seats with extendable footrests. Imagine that.

How do my fellow travelers in the First Class cabin fare during the 12 hours in the air? One guy sleeps the whole time except to be awakened for the two main meals. Another watches movies continuously before dozing off mid-way through the flight. One young couple, however, really has the right idea. After dining at their separate seats, I watch as the flight attendants turn his seat into a bed, where she soon joins him. Cuddled up at 30,000 feet in the air, they sleep entwined as the jet speeds on to Los Angeles. It is really quite a lovely scene.

As for me, I mentally pinch myself, snuggling more deeply into the down. Still not quite believing I can get such a travel experience from a frequent flyer program.

But I did … and so can you, if only you spend your miles the right way.

Editor’s Note: Cathay Pacific is making a wide range of improvements in the environmental performance of its aircraft and ground activities. It has boosted fuel efficiency by 20% across its fleet since 1998 and has significantly reduced noise, waste and water use in its operations. It offers passengers the option of offsetting their flight carbon emissions through its FLY greener program.

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