Monthly Archives: January 2017
There are many Hilton properties in London, and though I’ve not actually stayed in many of them myself, the consensus (at least, on FlyerTalk) seems to be that Conrad London St. James, Hilton London Bankside, Hilton London Canary Wharf and Hilton London Tower Bridge all seem to be pretty well-regarded. With the fortuitous (and short-lived) Visa/Conrad promotion last year, I managed to net myself two free nights and stayed at the Conrad for a whopping five nights while in London, and found myself enjoying the stay immensely.
The Conrad London St. James is located along Broadway, pretty much opposite the St. James Park underground station. It’s also round the corner from Westminster Abbey, which is very much a central location, as far as London goes.
The building itself looks pretty unassuming, blending in with all the other mid-rises in the area. The fancy dropoff area (and signage) are the only clues for what the building actually is.
The hotel lobby has a very modern feel to it. This is perhaps due to the inclusion of modern art that I do not understand. Perhaps this sculpture represents the never-ending climb towards achieving and maintaining elite status?
Slightly away from the main lobby is a sculpture comprising toys and action figures from across the decades, including stuff from various Pixar movies to franchises like Transformers. A geeky tribute, indeed.
(Minutes after writing the above, I found out that the Conrad’s website has an Art Collection page that lists and explains the meaning behind several of its art pieces, including many pieces I hadn’t noticed, clearly proving my inability to appreciate art.)
I was assigned a King Deluxe room, which is just one step above the basic Superior Room. I got the sense that the property isn’t too generous with suite upgrades, though I didn’t try all that hard to get upgraded this time round.
(Image from Conrad London St. James website)
Anyway, I thought the room was more than adequate. It managed to feel sufficiently roomy, and was decked out with rather pleasant modern decor.
The king bed was sufficiently comfortable, and the desk was functional, I suppose. The inclusion of a media port for connecting devices (e.g. a laptop) to the TV was appreciated.
The minibar area was pretty well-stocked, though I can’t say I’m an expert since I don’t usually take anything other than the complimentary items, which included Nespresso coffee capsules and a fair number of tea bags.
The bathroom was adequately large, with clear sections for the toilet, bathtub, shower (not pictured) and sink area, all nicely laid out in marble.
The TV was interestingly embedded into a flat mirror-like surface; when switched off, it’s not immediately obvious that there is a television set. Functionally it doesn’t really make much of a difference, but it’s interesting to note the attempt at integrating/hiding the television set within the room.
The room came with the fairly typical complimentary fruit platter; I’m not too sure if this is targeted at elite guests or is standard issue.
Many Conrad properties come with complimentary stuffed toys – we were lucky enough to arrive quite shortly after the launch of their new Mascot, Monty (the bulldog). Monty is a rather large (and higher cost, I imagine) toy and only comes upon request.
We requested for one, of course, and got a complimentary plush bulldog delivered to our room.
The availability of plush toys gave us the chance to create various dioramas within the room.
Over the Christmas period, the hotel also delivered a special seasonal platter of chocolates to the room. A nice touch, I must say!
We had our breakfast at the hotel’s Blue Boar restaurant.
For hot food, they had the standard English breakfast items (eggs, bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, etc.). You could also order cooked eggs – they didn’t have a live station you could order from. Also on offer – fruits, salad, bread, cereals, juices… a pretty wide range of stuff to choose from.
FlyerTalk makes a big deal of the honey-roasted granola, which I must concede is pretty tasty. I believe it’s the same recipe as the one at the Hilton London Bankside.
All in all, a great place to stuff yourself with a proper English breakfast, fresh fruit, cereal, or all of the above. I was very much satisfied with the breakfast offerings.
I generally opt for the restaurant breakfast when able to since the lounge usually serves a more limited range of the same food, and it wasn’t any different at this property. Would suggest going for the restaurant breakfast unless you really would prefer the comparative privacy in the lounge, for some reason.
Other than breakfast, the lounge offered afternoon treats and evening canapés (with drinks). The space itself was quite well-designed – there aren’t actually that many seats available, but each segment is styled differently and gives each area a distinct feel, making the lounge feel larger than it really is.
There’s also a little meeting room that’s available for rental (first hour complimentary). Didn’t see any meetings going on in there during my stay, so I guess it’s not that popular an option. There were also showers available in the lounge, though I’m not too sure why anyone would choose to shower here instead of in their own room (in a really big hurry, I suppose?).
At one end of the lounge is a relatively interesting centrepiece…
…on the other side of which is where the action lies. The beverage offerings lie directly opposite.
Cheese and cold cut spreads were available every evening.
The specific hot food and desserts available differed daily, but generally I found them all to be rather enjoyable – it’s possible to substitute dinner with these, if you really want to.
Evening canapés (1)
Evening canapés (2)
Evening canapés (3)
I was exploring the city most afternoons, but got the chance to check out the tea time selections on Christmas day, when most of the city was closed anyway. Wasn’t that impressed with the savoury offerings, but the desserts were pretty good.
Assuming it’s like this every day, I think it’s a pretty good place to grab a bite, if you happen to be in the hotel in the afternoon.
All in all, I really enjoyed my stay here. You can get rooms here at about £240 per night without discount, although since properties like the Hilton London Bankside are available at 2/3 the price, I find it hard to justify paying the premium for this place. Still, if you’d like to pamper yourself, or are able to make a booking at a discounted rate, it’s definitely a great place to stay!
I’d planned to spend about half my trip up in Northern England, but ultimately I did want to swing by London during my trip to the UK, so I’d booked advance tickets from York to London – those are the non-changeable/refundable tickets that usually go on sale about 12-24 weeks before date of travel. I was lucky enough to snag them at £14 each, as opposed to the £80ish or so you might expect to pay if purchased on the spot. Even among advance tickets the pricing is rather variable – I’m guessing that prices are tiered according to how many advance tickets have already been sold on that particular train.
(I find that it’s pretty safe purchasing advance tickets for a mid-trip journey – I’d tried the same thing with my train from Manchester Airport but ended up buying on the spot anyway. Since plane arrival times are less certain, I think it might be better to stick to a flexible ticket for arrival connections.)
Anyhow, as mentioned in previously, a week before the day of travel I received an email offering me the chance to upgrade to first class for the cool price of £15. I’m not entirely sure how I got the offer – it seems that Virgin Trains East Coast has a First Class weekend upgrade offer, but since I was travelling on a weekday I guess it might just have been a routine targeted offer to up-sell unused inventory?
If so, it was pretty effective, since I decided to bite the bullet pretty quickly. £29 for a £140ish value experience? Sign me up! (Side note – I find train tickets hard to valuate precisely due to the many pricing tiers available, depending on how restrictive your fare is.)
Unfortunately, York station does not have a first class lounge, so I missed the chance to check out that perk associated with a first class train ticket. I could technically have gone into the one at London Kings Cross upon arrival, but at that point I was more interested in checking out the hotel. Don’t think I missed all that much, really – it seems similar enough to an airport lounge, but for a 2h journey on a roomy train it doesn’t really seem all that essential.
(Image from Virgin Trains East Coast website)
Since there weren’t any special facilities at the station, the approach to the train was pretty standard.
The first class carriages were nearer the front of the train, so there was actually more walking required to get there! Train carriages looks pretty much the same from the outside, so everything felt pretty normal up to this point…
…upon boarding the train, the differences became apparent.
For comparison, here’s a picture of the seats in standard class, below. The first class seats are wider, have more legroom and are upholstered in leather – relatively small differences, but the increase in comfort was noticeable. Similar to regional business class on a plane, I suppose?
(Image from Forbo Flooring Transport)
There wasn’t all that many people in the carriage, so we got a table (which usually seats four) to ourselves.
So with all that extra space, it was pretty easy getting comfortable for the journey ahead.
On top of all that, travelling in first class grants access to free onboard WiFi, which was actually pretty useful given that we cut through some less-developed areas with spotty mobile coverage, so WiFi provided a more stable internet connection throughout the entire journey.
One of the other perks of first class train travel is complimentary food and drinks. Apologies for the substandard pictures of the menu items – it’s probably easier to browse the offerings on the Virgin Trains East Coast website.
I had the lamb & vegetable stew which I thought was actually pretty good, but the serving size is pretty small so I consider it something in between a snack and a proper meal. Definitely not the multi-course offering you get on a plane.
Still, pretty tasty, and good enough to get by until (early) dinner.
I enjoyed my first class train experience, and would be willing to pay ~£15 again for another upgrade. However, any higher and I think it probably makes more sense to stick to the standard carriage – the extra money is probably better spent getting a proper meal before boarding the train, if possible.
Following my extremely pleasant stopover at Istanbul, the moment of truth had finally arrived.
I had booked my air tickets because I’d felt the promotional rates were simply too good to pass – somewhere along the way, though, I was alerted to the fact that the short-haul leg of my journey was likely to be in seats like these:
Image from The MileLion
They look nice enough, but they’re essentially reupholstered economy class seats with the middle seat blocked out as cup holders.
At the same time, I’d heard that the newer A321s (that I was flying) were supposed to look more like this…
…so I was immensely relieved to see that this was indeed the case upon boarding the plane. Phew!
The seat was comfortable enough – though nowhere as roomy as my previous long-haul leg of the journey, there was more than enough legroom to play with.
The new(-ish) safety video that OMAAT had blogged about was playing. I think it’s cute, but since most of the ‘magic’ was done with the use of camera tricks, I didn’t really find it all that impressive (or entertaining).
I was also relieved to find a personal screen folded away in the seat’s armrest. Though way smaller than its long-haul equivalent, I actually quite liked having the screen within touching reach – the interface is clearly optimised for touch controls, and it was somewhat cumbersome using the remote to control the larger screen (which was also positioned further away from the passenger).
Seat controls were not motorised – it’s the old type of controls where you hold the button and adjust the seat position by leaning/pushing as appropriate.
Which isn’t ideal, but I guess it still works.
There was no option to indicate your orders on this breakfast menu – I suppose on a short-haul flight, they don’t expect you to need to place your orders before going to sleep for hours.
The ‘flying chef‘ was (from my perspective) just helping the flight crew deliver food to the passengers – I’m quite curious about what exactly they do onboard other than this… I’m sure they’re supposed to be involved in food preparation, but what exactly can you do when you’re up on an aircraft?
I realise now that this is was my first encounter with “gözleme”, so it was here that my adventurous spirit prompted me to try the Turkish breakfast option that I ended up not liking. Why, then, had I not learnt my lesson on my flight back from IST to KUL? If I remember correctly, they had actually run out of eggs by the time they’d reached me, which was rather disappointing. Not something I’d expect to happen on business class!
Again, the flight was pretty much identical on the return leg, though I had dinner on the return journey instead of breakfast.
I wasn’t a fan of the fish on my previous flight, so I decided to get the beef instead.
I guess my expectations had been set pretty low, but for a short-haul flight I found it more than adequate – rather pleasant, actually! If you’re able to confirm that your aircraft is not in the old configuration, I’d say that the short-haul flights with these newer seats will not negatively impact your business class flying experience.
As it turned out, though, it took quite some time to clear security – even the dedicated priority line for business class passengers took some time to clear. Eventually, I’d finally made it to the promised land.
The reports were true. The lounge is sprawling, and it offers a really unique stopover experience.
I particularly liked the architecture, which manages to give the lounge a distinctively Turkish taste.
The facilities ranged from a baggage deposit area near the entrance (which was totally full so we ended up not being able to use it)…
…to a myriad of entertainment options…
…to about a bazillion options for filling your stomach.
Plenty of options for quenching your thirst, too.
All in all, I would say that Turkish Airlines’s Lounge Istanbul really does live up to its reputation. If there’s anything I’d complain about, it’s that WiFi speeds were nearly unusable while I was there – I guess there were just too many people logged into their network. I only really had about an hour there each time I passed through Istanbul, so I didn’t actually get to try most of the things on offer, but even sampling what I did and visually taking everything in was an experience in itself.
I probably wouldn’t deliberately go out of the way to visit it again anytime soon, but if I happened to be flying in that direction? I might just try to make it happen…
I’d mentioned in my previous post that, due to a combination of bad luck and sub-par planning, I had been idling at Kuala Lumpur International Airport for about 12h after having woken much earlier in the morning than I am usually used to. Despite improvements in recent years, KLIA is still not a particularly interesting place for a stopover (spoilt Singaporean that I am). Rather grumpy and tired, I was rather looking forward to finally getting some rest on the lie-flat business class seats on the Turkish Airlines A330 that would be bringing us into Istanbul.
(Image from Turkish Airlines website)
Upon boarding the plane, I was relieved to note that the seat looked reasonably comfortable and that the official publicity pictures were not, in fact, a pack of lies.
Being set up in the 2-2-2 configuration, there’s not that much privacy for the solo traveller, though it was perfectly fine for a party of two. The ottoman area in front of the seat allows for efficient storage with quick access (e.g. if you want to grab your tablets or computers). I was especially pleased with the amount of legroom available.
Slippers were provided, but they’re rather flimsy and typical hotel-style disposables; not really worth keeping. They had provided an initial set of Turkish-branded headsets at our seats, but later started distributing an alternative set of noise-cancelling Denon headphones that were noticeably superior in quality (and comfort), at the same time highlighting that they would be collecting back the new headsets before the end of the flight.
My guess is that they are still in the process of transition and were perhaps even still testing the new equipment, although since we weren’t asked about our experience at all, I guess they weren’t seeking customer opinion on the headsets.
Not too long after taking off, they also started asking passengers if we’d wanted bedding fitted onto our sheets. I thought it rather odd timing, given that we hadn’t eaten yet, but I suppose that’s just part of their workflow.
I didn’t think the extra layer made that much of a difference to comfort levels, but since I didn’t try sleeping without it on I guess I can’t really say for sure.
Amenity Kit, KUL-IST
I’m not really a big fan of amenity kits, so I’ll just quote the official description – the one I got flying to Istanbul was Cerruti-branded.
The Cerruti branded bag is a fashionable bag made of a specifically developed leather-like material to create the sense of nonchalant chic which is typical for Cerruti. The heritage of the house of Cerruti is in textile and fashion. The design of the bag is elegant and simple, with a front flap which adds sophistication. It’s in a perfect size for passengers to reuse the bag as toiletry bag or to store personal items when travelling. Inside the bag is a variety of comfort items including cosmetics from ‘Institut Karite’ range with a high concentration of shea butter to hydrate the skin both during and after the flight.
The Menu, KUL-IST
They soon passed menus out. We were served dinner and breakfast on our flight; the breakfast menu doubled as an order form, which I thought made a lot of sense.
There was a rather wide spread of alcohol to choose from, though since I know next to nothing when it comes to alcoholic beverages, I decided to just default to champagne, particularly since many frequent travellers seem to make a big deal out of it.
For the mains, there was a choice of a mix of grilled seafood, grilled beef or mushroom ravioli. I opted for the seafood.
While studying the menu, a stewardess came by dispensing a bowl of mixed nuts and a drink of choice (the previously mentioned champagne). I especially enjoyed the shelled pistachios in the mix. Wonder if there was any way to get a bunch of those alone?
The various courses were dispatched by trolley, which does help to give everything a more restaurant-y food; as does the onboard “flying chef”, though ours pretty much acted pretty much like the other stewardesses, when it came to meal service. Presumably she also does some sort of behind-the-scenes food preparation when not delivering dishes directly to our seats.
They also provided fake LED candles to help add to the atmosphere.
Which is all very well and good, I suppose, but as they say – the proof’s in the pudding. Or in this case, the food. Just how good is the food on Turkish Airlines business class? Was it to be as life-changing as they say it is?
Alas, it wasn’t so for me. I found the grilled fish to be tough and dry and actually rather unenjoyable. I don’t know if I was just unlucky, but I found that having the onboard cook didn’t really seem to do much for this meal experience.
After the meal was done and everything had been cleared, they started dimming the lights and I figured it was time to catch up on lost sleep. This part, I definitely enjoyed – no complaints from me!
A few hours later, breakfast was served.
Happily, I found the food much tastier this time round. Faith in the flying chef gimmick was restored somewhat. I guess eggs are harder to mess up than fish!
Amenity Kit, IST-KUL
The return flight was pretty much on the same hardware and everything, but I did get a different menu so I thought I’d just append some segments to the review.
The Jaguar branded bag comes in a quality high tech material symbolizing the “grace, pace and space” of Jaguar cars. The technical aspect of the pouch is also represented in the re-use value of it as a tablet case or document holder. Detailing adds a touch of luxurious practicality to the bag. For example, the size of the bag can be expanded by undoing the zipper so that passengers can carry more or larger items. The bag also contains inner pouches (a pencil case and soft drawstring pouch) so that the comfort items and cosmetics can be organized and packaged beautifully.
For dinner entrees, we got to choose from Potpourri of grilled seafood, Traditional “dolma” varieties or spicy chicken skewer. Mindful of my bad previous experience with grilled seafood, I opted for the spicy chicken skewer this time.
Dinner was a pleasant experience this time round – I suspect that fish is simply the harder dish to get right, especially up in the air. Breakfast, however, I enjoyed less.
This one I chalk up to taste, however – I wanted to try out the local breakfast option, but realised too late that a cheese and spinach wrap wasn’t really my kind of thing. Should probably have stuck with the eggs option.
All in all, I enjoyed the Turkish Airlines business class long-haul flight experience. The seats were comfortable and conducive for proper sleep and the food was pretty good (with the exception of the fish). The language barrier did pose some challenges to communication, though ultimately functional communication was still very much possible.
TLDR version: you can access some really remarkable deals if you keep your eye out for them, but it takes some effort to monitor, some luck for the deals to coincide with what you actually want to do, and possibly some sacrifices in terms of convenience in order to fully utilise them. It’s great if you find that enjoying the journey is part of the joy of vacations; but if not, it’s probably better to stick to using miles to get to where you want to as quickly and comfortably as possible.
While playing the miles game is probably the main focus of travel hacking, promotional rates for air travel and hotel fares pop up every now and then, and if you are able to capitalise on them you might find yourself positioned to enjoy (relatively) affordable rates for premium travel.
I was lucky enough to make use of three such deals on a recent trip of mine, and for me it really helped to make the voyage even more enjoyable (and memorable).
Highlights of itinerary
- KUL-IST (Turkish business class, 2 ways)
- Turkish Airlines Business Class Lounge
- IST-MAN (Turkish business class, 2 ways)
- York-London (first class train)
- Conrad London St. James (5n)
I’d been intending to revisit the UK and had actually already redeemed SQ award tickets for the trip when I spotted this amazing offer for KUL-MAN on Turkish business class – I’d previously bookmarked this forum on FlyerTalk in the hope that something usable would crop up, and so this effort was finally paying off.
Having been intrigued for some time by what some have deemed as the best business class lounge in the world, I jumped at this opportunity to secure business class return tickets at less than S$1,900 per person.
Along the way, there came the amazing (and short-lived) offer allowing 2-night Conrad stays for the price of 1. I immediately cancelled my 4n booking for the (very nice) Hilton London Bankside and made two bookings (under two different guests) for the Conrad London St. James instead.
The original plan had been to stay 1n at the Conrad and 4 at the (much more affordable) Hilton using the Citi Prestige 4th night free benefit, but once again the siren song of promotional rates proved irresistible to me.
The final offer that came my way was a relatively minor one, but (for me) it was still a new experience that I wouldn’t have tried without the promotional rate. I had booked advance train tickets from York to London, and a week before the day of travel I received an email offering an upgrade to first class at £15 per person.
First class rail tickets are not something I’d usually bother with (2 hours in a standard carriage is hardly an ordeal), but since I’d never tried it before, I figured… why not?
Filling the gaps
Unfortunately, it wasn’t totally smooth-sailing. Since some cancellations were made, there were some (relatively minor) penalties involved. The biggest hiccup for me, however, was with regard to the addition of the initial journey from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.
I had (foolishly?) booked the cheapest available return tickets on Singapore Air for the SIN-KUL route, guess-timating the time required for transit (I’d budgeted 3h to be on the safe side). These were the non-refundable tickets, with no changes permitted, and of course, as luck would have it, that later came back to haunt me.
As it turned out, the KUL-IST flight out of Kuala Lumpur was rescheduled and I was suddenly left with a 12h stopover at KUL, with no way to change the SIN-KUL flight other than to forfeit the existing booking altogether.
I ended up biting the bullet and enduring the 12h stopover, and that resulted in an ordeal involving waking earlier than necessary, some time spent exploring a rather uninteresting airport, a grumpy wife, and a much longer journey than initially planned for.
(Image from Turkish Airlines website)
Thankfully, the comfortable full-flat seats on the KUL-IST leg of the journey allowed for some recuperation along the way!
The biggest savings this trip was probably from the Turkish airlines promotional fare. A business class saver redemption for SIN-MAN on Singapore Airlines costs 136,000 miles and S$817 (slightly more if flying to London instead) in additional surcharges. Valuating each mile at 2¢ each (a rather conservative value), that puts my personal price for the ticket at about S$3,500. Even factoring in the cancellation fees and additional price of the SIN-KUL ticket, I consider the ~$2,100 spent on airfare to be a steal for what I got.
The Conrad offer, even with two nights free, did result in me paying more than initially planned – but given the superior location and convenience of not having to switch hotels, it was still an experience I relished. As for the first class train experience, I found it surprisingly enjoyable – I wouldn’t mind doing it again, though I wouldn’t be particularly upset if I never received the offer again.
All in all, as a travel geek I found myself enjoying the journey as much (if not more) as the destination this trip, and am glad to have been able to make good use of one promotional fare in my lifetime!
It’s generally been a good year, for which I’m really thankful. Here’re some areas I find myself really gaining momentum in this year…
I’d attempted to start blogging more regularly, and that worked for awhile, but eventually evolved into a greater focus on travel blogging, with some posts published on The MileLion. There was also that (short-lived) writing challenge I’d embarked on with some colleagues. I doubt I’ll ever become a master writer, but it’s nice to see myself working once more on a hobby I’d used to rather enjoy as a student.
Primarily because I managed to snag HHonors Diamond status for myself this year, but probably also because this vacation leave thing is rather new to me, I’ve been travelling a lot more this year. This will probably go down in the next few years as I lose the status and probably get saddled with more responsibilities, but I do rather enjoy the new experiences and chronicling them in blog format for future reminiscing.
This might be blind optimism on my part, but I think I’ve done pretty well at my job this year. It helps to have a great positive working environment, but based on feedback it does seem that I have made noticeable contributions to my unit this year. Hopefully, this is real and doesn’t stop this year!
All in all, it’s been a good 2016 (on a personal level – I’m aware that as far as global affairs go, it’s not been all that great). Here’s hoping that things don’t lose too much steam in 2017!