Asia, the Long Way

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by FlyerChrisK, Apr 6, 2012.  |  Print Topic

  1. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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    For those who may have caught my trip report to Australia and New Zealand using a "discounted" Aeroplan business class award in December, I booked a second business class Star Alliance award with Aeroplan in December during the business class for the price of coach "glitch." Coupled with the Aeroplan transfer promotion, the award cost 50k Membership Rewards points (all from my Amex Platinum signup bonus) in addition to taxes and fees.

    When I booked my trip to Sydney and Auckland, I transfered 76k Membership Rewards points to Aeroplan. At the time, Aeroplan was offering a 25k mile bonus if 100k miles were transfered from a single program. I went ahead and transfered an additional 24k points to Aeroplan, waited a few days for the points to post, and then transfered an additional 26k points to Aeroplan. Fortunately for me the booking glitch lasted while I waited for my bonus points to post, allowing me to book this Asia 1 business class award (normally 125k miles) for 75k Aeroplan miles which I obtained by transferring 50k Membership Rewards points to Aeroplan.

    From credit card signups, promotions, and actual flying, I've wound up with globs of frequent flier miles and I want to make the most of them. Since I was on a United revenue ticket for my trip to Europe in January, I did not make use of my US Airways Grand Slam-obtained Dividend Miles as I had originally planned to. Since US Airways places Thailand and Singapore into its "South/Central Asia" award category (and thereby requiring 160k miles instead of 120k for first class), planning a trip there using Dividend Miles instead would not be as efficient.

    Since this trip was booked roughly three months in advance, scarce award availability on other transatlantic flights and fuel surcharges from Aeroplan on Lufthansa-operated segments led me to pick my routing via Copenhagen and Berlin on United. As I have never been to Denmark and last visited Berlin in 2005, both stops were reasonable concessions to make.

    A further constraint of award travel are the routing rules imposed by the airlines. IATA-set maximum permitted mileage (MPM) figures between city pairs can be used to validate revenue ticket routings. The MPM for EWR-TYO is 12511 miles via the Atlantic and 8084 miles via the Pacific.

    On a similar vein, MPM's can be used to validate award tickets with some carriers. United permits the MPM to be exceeded by 15%. Aeroplan permits a (comparatively) meager 5% overage. Since this is an Aeroplan award ticket, these rules gave me 13136 miles to work with in each direction for travel via the Atlantic (practically speaking, this means "via Europe" both ways due to distance restrictions and the Star Alliance route structure). I made the most of it on my outbound leg (at 12979 miles) and comparatively less on my inbound leg (at 10666 miles).

    Given these constraints, I arrived at my trip itinerary: Newark to Copenhagen to Zurich to Bangkok to Tokyo to Istanbul to Berlin to Newark. Aeroplan permits two stopovers (a stop over 24 hours) in addition to the destination itself; I stopped in Zurich, Bangkok, and Tokyo. I had extended layovers in Copenhagen, Istanbul, and Berlin.

    The Map
     
  2. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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    United BusinessFirst Newark to Copenhagen

    When I was booking my trip in December, I was squeezed by two factors: Limited advanced business class award availability and increasing swaths of fuel surcharges on many Star Alliance carriers for Aeroplan awards. For the outbound leg, the former was a larger problem than the latter, as I wound up scouring every United, Swiss, Singapore (before the good new days of occasional JFK-FRA J award availability), and, yes, even US Airways-operated transatlantic city pair for award availability. Even as the search dritfted towards fuel surcharge-imposing carriers, Lufthansa and Air Canada, my options were limited.

    While it was not perfect, I came across UA 122 from Newark to Copenhagen, operated by a premerger Continental 757-200. I wasn't particularly thrilled by its 5:30PM departure at the time of booking, but it was a lie-flat, fuel surcharge-free seat across the Atlantic on the day I wanted to fly. United announced earlier this week that the route would be cut in September.

    Three months later on the day before departure, I glanced at my email around 6PM and thought "I should remember to check-in soon" and pulled up my Aeroplan itinerary to be reminded of the departure time. It's somewhat fortunate I did think to check-in, as I would have probably not considered leaving my office until the plane was already taxiing. Somehow, I had thought my flight was around 8:30 or even 9PM.

    Therein lies the problem with this flight and many transatlantic flights for that matter in my book: It's too early if you're loosely sync'd to the eastern time zone. For our particular flight, FlightAware says it arrived at 7:17 CEST or 1:17AM EST. Ordinarily, I'd consider going to bed around 1 or 2AM EST, not waking up for a full day in Europe.

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    Having written enough of my first world problems in flight scheduling, it's time to discuss the flight itself.

    United 122
    Newark (EWR) to Copenhagen (CPH)
    Friday, March 23rd
    Depart: 5:49PM
    Arrive: 7:17AM
    Duration: 7 hours, 28 minutes
    Aircraft: 757-224 (N14121)
    Seat: 3B (Business Class)

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    With departure comes the flight show.

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    The English menu read as follows:

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    The amenity kits are styled in the premerger, Continental package.

    I had ordered an Asian vegetarian meal in advance of this flight. When the purser came around for meal orders, she had already checked what had been loaded aboard. I chose the Indian curry over selecting something from the menu.

    Due to a bit of turbulence slowing things down, our meal service ran about two hours from departure, just prior to us starting our transatlantic track. In retrospect, the meal service during my first class experience on United p.s. in December felt like an eternity despite having a better flight attendant to passenger ratio. United's three-cabin 757-200's used for p.s. have a single flight attendant for a first class cabin of 12 passengers; Continental's two-cabin 757-200's used for mostly transatlantic BusinessFirst service have a single flight attendant for a cabin of 15 passengers (after discounting a seat used for crew rest purposes).

    I awoke off the coast of Denmark to the start of our breakfast service.

    This trip and its sampling of international business classes brought me newfound appreciation for the value of a good seat. Overall, this seat seemed a bit cramped compared to premerger United lie-flat seats on United's 747, 767, and "select" 777's and I'm not abnormally tall.

    Arrival services in Copenhagen were a bit disappointing as unlike many other BusinessFirst-serviced cities, United has not made arrangements for showers or day rooms for arriving passengers in Copenhagen. With at least one widebody ahead of us, passport control took roughly twenty five minutes, from which I made my bleary eyed way into the city to explore before my flight to Zurich.

    (Due to forum limitations with my current silver status, I'm limited to 5 images per post. The rest are posted with my blog entry.)
     
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  3. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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    With an hour and a half to kill before my flight, I popped into the SAS Lounge at Copenhagen Airport. As a Star Gold member, I was admitted to the Scandinavian lounge area rather than the Business Class lounge. While I did have access to the Servisair and Novis Lounges at the airport with my Priority Pass card (from having an American Express Platinum card), the lounge was nice and the Internet connection fast so I had no reason to justify lounge hopping.

    The Scandinavian lounge is on the upper level, primarily overlooking the Business lounge.

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    The upper level has a few seating areas. One overlooks the concourse and looks into the lounge itself.

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    Another seating area spanned back to have landside views.

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    The middle area had a small area for snacks (salads, pita components, drinks, desserts) and a fireplace.

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    The gate for my Swiss flight was a bit removed from the central part of the terminal (where the SAS lounge was), so I left a bit early only to discover that our inbound aircraft was late.

    Swiss 1273
    Copenhagen (CPH) to Zürich (ZRH)
    Saturday, March 24th
    Depart: 8:15PM
    Arrive: 9:33PM
    Duration: 1 hour, 18 minutes
    Aircraft: A321-111 (HB-IOF)
    Seat: 6F (Business Class)

    The flight was rather empty with 3 business class passengers (for 6 rows of seats) and a mostly empty economy cabin.

    For a coach-style seat, the legroom was quite good.

    Even for a short, intra-European hop, the flight came with a meal. I had ordered a vegetarian meal and with the sparse cabin, I didn't get a look at what the other passengers were served:

    The chickpea, pepper, cucumber, hummus, and lime dish had a short life as the best airline meal I've ever had. (The title was seized by the dinner service on LX180, Zürich to Bangkok, two days later.)

    (Due to forum limitations, the full set of photos are on my blog.)
     
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  4. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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    For my stay in Zürich, I chose the Holiday Inn Express near the airport. The S-Bahn into the city was a short five minute walk from the hotel, so I was minimally inconvenienced.

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  5. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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    Zürich Airport has a terrific aircraft observation deck prior to the main security checkpoints. (Since it seems the emergency exits for it dump out onto the tarmac, the area has its own screening checkpoint.) As I had some time to kill and I preferred to look at planes rather than my laptop inside of the Senator lounge, I spent a bit of time there.

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    A number of the benches are marked with major cities and their distances from Zürich, including my next destination, Bangkok.

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    The Swiss Senator Lounge in Zürich was no different than the Lufthansa Senator Lounges I've seen, with the exception that chocolates were substituted for pretzels.

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  6. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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    Swiss 180
    Zürich (ZRH) to Bangkok (BKK)
    Tuesday, March 26th
    Depart: 10:45PM
    Arrive: 2:40PM
    Duration: 10 hours, 55 minutes
    Aircraft: A340-313X (HB-JMG)
    Seat: 10A (Business Class)

    Swiss Business Class is configured in a staggered configuration, giving some seats direct window and aisle access. I chose 10A over the wing.

    Unlike every other airline I've experienced to date, Swiss provides a card with instructions on how to use the seat.

    The seat was superb in all aspects except for its underseat storage as my laptop bag could not be stuffed sufficiently into the opening in front of me to satisfy the cabin crew for takeoff/landing purposes.

    The amenity kit was nothing extraordinary.

    The menu read as follows:

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    I had ordered a vegetarian meal in advance, which featured the artichoke ravioli on the main menu.

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    Dinner ended while we were north of Turkey, over the Black Sea. I finished watching my movie and went to bed, enjoying the two meter long bed.

    I woke up about an hour outside of Bangkok to have breakfast of a croissant, some yogurt, and juice. (Considering the time change, this wound up being my lunch.)

    Overall, I was astounded by the quality of the Swiss business class product, from seat, to cabin crew, to food served.
     
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  7. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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    For my night in Bangkok, I chose the Aloft in Sukhumvit.

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    Overall, my room felt like a cookie-cutter replica of my previous Aloft stay last summer.
     
  8. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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    For my hop to Tokyo, I selected the Thai-operated redeye.

    Having relaxed in the Thai business class lounge until 45 minutes before departure, I decided to head to my gate. Boarding didn't start until around 25 minutes before departure, leaving me standing around the gate wondering how they could manage to board an entire 744 in 25 minutes when United can't seem to board an A320 in 35 minutes. Nonetheless, we managed to depart miraculously on-time.

    Thai 640
    Bangkok (BKK) to Tokyo (NRT)
    Thursday, March 28th
    Depart: 10:10PM
    Arrive: 6:20AM
    Duration: 6 hours, 10 minutes
    Aircraft: 747-4D7 (HS-TGK)
    Seat: 12A (Business Class)

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    This flight is a surprisingly short flight, until one studies a map.

    Bangkok to Tokyo is a 2889 mile direct flight. For comparison, San Francisco to New York is 2586 miles and Los Angeles to New York is 2475 miles. While American and United serve a midnight snack (normally a chicken sandwich or a fruit and cheese plate) on their Flagship and p.s. routes respectively, Thai offers two meals on this flight.

    The menu read as follows:

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    Due to the short flight time, I chose to skip the dinner and focus on sleep instead. Breakfast service started about two hours before landing.

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  9. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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    For my stay in Tokyo, I chose to stay at the airport. While the first part of my plan (checking in early to freshen up) did not go quite as expected, it was convenient for the second half of my plan: Being able to get to the airport at a leisurely pace for my late morning departure.

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    As a Hilton HHonors gold member, I was given a voucher for a complimentary breakfast at their restaurant. The buffet was a vast collection of Japanese and Western dishes, but I chose to not take photos as it was rather busy and I didn't feel like explaining what I was up to.
     
  10. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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    Because of my short redeye into Tokyo, I actually wound up going to bed early and somehow managed to wake up after sleeping about 8 hours. This left me with a few hours to kill in my hotel room, eating breakfast at my hotel, and then finally a few more hours to kill at the airport.

    Star Alliance carriers share much of the check-in space at the south wing of Terminal 1. I arrived at the terminal a bit before the three hours prior to departure mark and saw that Turkish was assigned to the same check-in area as Air China. After a highly choreographed changeover, check-in opened and I was advised to relax in the United Club until my flight began boarding.

    For once, I found a United Club offering a fare different than cheese, crackers, and trail mix.

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    The lounge was nearly empty while I was there.

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    The Tulip lives.

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  11. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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    I left the United lounge shortly before the revised, scheduled boarding time. The flight status TVs throughout the lounge had out of order signs next to them (despite being on) that didn't exactly inspire my confidence. Our departure was a bit further delayed, giving me a moment to snap a few pictures of the plane and take a quick walk to the end of the pier before boarding commenced.

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    Poor business class award availability for this flight notwithstanding, the cabin was quite empty: 15 of the 28 seats were occupied.

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    Turkish 51
    Tokyo (NRT) to Istanbul (IST)
    Friday, March 30th
    Depart: 12:28PM
    Arrive: 6:51PM
    Duration: 12 hours, 23 minutes
    Aircraft: 777-3F2ER (TC-JJL)
    Seat: 2B (Business Class)

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  12. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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  13. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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    After the meal, the flight attendants closed the window shades and turned on the mood lighting for our long flight across Asia.

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    About two hours out from Istanbul, we had a second meal service.

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    Overall, I was impressed by the Turkish Airlines business class product's superb soft product, but I felt the seat left a bit to be desired.

    New planes with new interiors goes a long way at providing a compelling hard product. When I took this trip in late March, the 777-300ER I was on was about 13 months old; in comparison, the Thai 747-400 I took to Tokyo was about 21 years old. That said, as a hard product person, the question I had for myself was "who would put up with a middle seat in paid business class in this day and age?" It's a question I ask myself every time I see the legacy United's "new" 8 abreast business class product on its 747's and 777's. (I shudder to contemplate United's old business class product for long-haul travel, even if I enjoy their p.s. service domestically.) In comparison, Air New Zealand fits 26-28 lie-flat business class seats, each with direct aisle access, on its 777's in the same space that Turkish Airlines uses to fit 28 angled lie-flat business class seats, consisting of 8 window seats and 4 middle seats without direct aisle access.
     
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  14. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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    After paying for my visa and entering Turkey, I located the Turkish Airlines Hotel Desk. For passengers connecting in Istanbul, Turkish Airlines offers a choice of either a hotel room or a guided tour of Istanbul, coordinating both offers from the "Hotel Desk." (Its name is not completely intuitive to its purpose for those looking to take the city tour.)

    Since I was interested in taking the city tour the next day, I had made my own hotel arrangements, selecting the Holiday Inn. While it is billed as an airport hotel (and it offers a shuttle), it is about 6 miles from the airport itself.

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  15. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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    Since Turkish Airlines was only offering the extended city tour, I had to cut out of the city tour a bit early. Despite my best efforts to arrive at the airport with minimal time to spare, I still had time to visit the Turkish Airlines business class/Star Alliance Gold lounge.

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    From the time I booked this award (in December) until departure, Aeroplan was firmly convinced that I was flying on an Airbus A320 series aircraft. A few weeks before the trip, the then Continental.com website began reporting that Turkish Airlines was operating an Airbus A340 between Istanbul and Berlin, even while Aeroplan (and Turkish Airlines!) were showing an A321 loaded on the schedule.

    I didn't get my hopes up. Once I arrived at the gate, I was informed that the inbound aircraft was late, so I found a seat for myself somewhat removed from the windows. When the gate agents began the mad boarding scramble, I looked out the windows and noticed two engines hanging off the left wing: Continental.com was right.

    Turkish 1723
    Istanbul (IST) to Berlin-Tegel (TXL)
    Saturday, March 31st
    Duration: 2 hours, 50 minutes
    Aircraft: A340-311 (TC-JDJ)
    Seat: 2B (Business Class)

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    Our flight included dinner. Normally, I stash my menu in my bag and photograph it off the plane with (hopefully) better lighting. This time, I left it under my screen and a flight attendant took it back as he was walking through the cabin.

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  16. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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    My flight from Istanbul was delayed, so I wasn't on the ground in Germany past customs until about 9PM, hardly enough time to go into Berlin, catch some sleep at my hotel, and make my flight 12 hours later, so sadly, I chose to go straight to my hotel.

    This left me wandering around Berlin Tegel Airport, looking for the hotel shuttle stand. I made a loop around the concourse having found none. I checked the hotel website again and realized I had to arrange the shuttle in advance, so I went out to the cab stand instead, finding a driver very excited to practice a few lines of English with an American.

    The room had two halves with a moving partition (hence the two beds pictured).

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  17. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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  18. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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    United BusinessFirst Berlin to Newark

    Traditionally, Continental operated the Newark-Berlin route with a mix of 757-200's and 767-200's. Today, United was using a 767-224ER.

    United 97
    Berlin Tegel (TXL) to Newark (EWR)
    Sunday, April 1st
    Depart: 9:35AM
    Arrive: 12:40PM
    Duration: 9 hours, 5 minutes
    Aircraft: 767-224ER (N67158)
    Seat: 4B (Business Class)

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    The 767-200's of Continental are still using the old BusinessFirst recliner style seats (rather than the full lie-flats of the 757-200's and 777-200's):

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    The menu read as follows:

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  19. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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    Lately, United has been acting as if "bread" were a course unto itself for its premium cabins, so I must do the same.

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    I had ordered a vegetarian meal, but the flight attendant taking meal orders offered the on-menu cheese lasagna as well.

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    Shortly before landing, we were offered another snack service.

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    While this was a comfortable 9 hour daytime flight, I would have personally put up with the inconvenience of a connection in order to pick up a lie-flat seat for the overnight transatlantic flight.
     
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  20. aptraveler

    aptraveler Gold Member

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    Thanks for your detailed and somewhat brief travel report, I enjoyed reading this trip to Asia, the long way. Great pictures too FlyerChrisK, well done! So, where to next? ;)
     
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  21. FlyerChrisK

    FlyerChrisK Silver Member

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    I'll be posting May's trip to Manila (a revenue trip for a net airfare cost of about $300 that wound up with a nontrivial component in UA three-cabin F) up here shortly.
     

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