Monthly Archives: December 2017

California Dreamin’: Virgin Airlines First Class SAN-SFO


Exiting San Diego

After the dust settled at the end of Comic-Con, we needed to reposition ourselves to San Francisco to catch our A350 flight home. Back during trip planning, we’d already decided that we would be flying out of San Diego to avoid traffic – it also made more sense since we really just wanted to get to SFO airport.

By the time we’d confirmed our Comic-Con badges and started making arrangements for the flight out, though, we’d found that first class (really equivalent to our regional business class, but that’s US domestic flight labels for you) was selling for just US$19 more than coach for the flight we wanted. If that isn’t a good excuse reason to go for first class, I don’t know what is.

Virgin is generally a rather interesting brand (I’d taken one of their trains in London previously), with the American airline advertising stuff like in-flight Netflix streaming and curated Spotify mood lists based on the route you’re flying (how very millennial). They also feature funky things like all-white seating and mood lighting. Here’s what they look like without mood lighting:


(Image from Virgin America website)

Unfortunately, the days are numbered for this hip and happening hardware (oh hey, alliteration) – Virgin is currently in the midst of merging with (being absorbed by, more like) Alaska, and word is that the existing VX hardware will be axed along with this merger.

“With 50 percent more premium seats being introduced to the Airbus fleet, elite loyalty members will enjoy the most generous complimentary upgrades in the industry,” says Sangita Woerner, Alaska Airlines’ VP of marketing…

Wow, cramming more seats in the first class cabin definitely sounds like an enhancement, said nobody ever. I mean, just take a look at Alaska’s First Class cabin:


(Image from Alaska Airlines website)

While not terrible, it’s definitely more cramped and less… interesting. It’s a sure shame to see that VX hardware go away.

So, how did it feel flying on the VX product? Here’s a quick review of the <90min experience.

The VX Experience

Premium domestic/regional travel is usually nothing to get excited over, but Virgin America’s first class cabin contains a total of just 8 seats laid out in a 2-2 configuration. I can’t say the purple mood lighting really made a big impact on my experience, but it certainly made it feel… different.

It wasn’t the case that the cabin was just extremely small, either – seat pitch was very generous at a healthy 55″  (translation – with the seat belt on, I could fully extend my legs and still have space to spare in front of me).

I’m clearly not the only one enjoying this generous legroom, I thought, as I creepily stealthily took a picture of the other half of the first class cabin.

No meals were served on this super short flight (that’s only for flights above 2h), but I did get to order some sparkling wine (Le Grand Courtâge, I believe).

The in-flight entertainment system was pretty comprehensive, though the screen (the type that swings out from the arm of the seat) is rather on the small side – more typical of other regional business flights I’ve taken – I imagine I would still be sufficiently entertained on a cross-continent journey.

Conclusion

All in all, I was really impressed by the level of comfort afforded by the first class seat – perhaps because it was such a short flight, there wasn’t really all that much to focus on. I’ve never expected to enjoy flying US domestic, but Virgin Airlines managed to make me do just that. It’s too bad that it won’t be staying around for much longer – if you happen to be moving around in the States in early 2018, it might be worth trying to see if you can catch this experience before it’s gone forever, especially if you are able to get tickets cheaply.

For what it’s worth, Alaska Airlines’s Mileage Plan can be used for redemption on VX, though I think the number of miles required seems rather excessive for first class redemptions (e.g. 25,000 miles for the same SAN-SFO flight I’d taken).

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The Comic-Con Experience


Overview

I’d mentioned before that planning to get to Comic-Con was a bit of a nightmare, especially as a first-timer. Not only are there many processes you’ll need to get familiar with (such as signing up for a Member ID and the waiting room system for purchasing of badges), you would have missed out on the Returning Registration phase that is available for attendees from the previous year.

This site estimates the odds of scoring a badge at 6.11%. If you’re going with other people (or have others helping you with purchasing badges), this is likely an under-estimate since each person is allowed to buy badges for up to three people. Still, it’s very possible to end up with nothing for your efforts.

This post won’t deal with how to register for Comic-Con – the specific details are likely to change with time, so I’d suggest just sticking with the official Comic-Con badge FAQ page and probably registering for a Member ID (free!) so you’ll be notified when the next round of registrations are starting. This post will instead explore what you can get out of this experience.

(An additional note – this time round, Open Registration for Comic-Con 2018 happened at the end of November 2017, about four months earlier than it used to. On the plus side, it makes trip planning somewhat easier in the future. On the other hand, if you’re interested in doing Comic-Con, you’ll probably be looking at 2019 at the earliest…)

Inside Comic-Con

The official Comic-Con programme has events scheduled over the span of five days – preview night (Wed), and full-day programmes on Thu-Sun. Preview night starts at about 6pm and mainly allows early access to the Exhibitor’s Hall, with some smaller programmes thrown in as well. The Sunday programme ends earlier as well (5pm) and the ‘best stuff’ is usually scheduled for the middle two days (Friday and Saturday).

As it turns out, we didn’t manage to get badges for those two days.

Much of the hype for Comic-Con comes from being present at early/exclusive announcements/previews by major studios for big franchises such as The Avengers. These high-profile events typically happen at Hall H, which has a separate queue of its own and often involves waiting for hours (even overnight) to secure a pass to be used for entry.

One example of this exclusive content would be the Marvel presentation, where an exclusive trailer for Avengers: Infinity War was screened. While it ended up being leaked online anyway, it’s a massive treat for fans given that the official trailer was only released four months down the road…

If waiting in massive lines isn’t quite your thing, other opportunities to wait in (shorter) lines exist within the convention centre.

Exhibit Hall

At 460,000 square feet (occupying Halls A-G of the convention centre), or about seven football/soccer fields, the Exhibit Hall is a prominent centrepiece of Comic-Con. As suggested by the name, the hall is filled with exhibits and booths by companies and individuals alike.

The big players are well-represented, and you can see signs of their branding pretty much everywhere you go.

The larger companies typically give out freebies, show trailers, offer interactive experiences, and (of course) sell merchandise.

There are also smaller areas dedicated to individuals to show their wares.

Offering various novelties such as superheroes / movie characters illustrated as cats…

Comic characters in the style of Dr Seuss…

And monster heads from the Dungeons & Dragons universe. A trophy for your living room, anyone?

Smaller-scale Events

Other than the massive events and programmes occurring at the larger venues such as Hall H, a wide range of programmes (often previews or panels featuring the creative team or cast of shows) are scheduled over the four main days of Comic-Con. If you’re attending, you’d probably want to browse the programme and identify the events you’d like to go to.

They’re not all publicity events for upcoming shows – as an convention catering to a community of fans, there are plenty of events tied to older properties as well, such as this panel comprising the creative team an cast for Batman: The Animated Series (in line with its 25th anniversary).

Outside Comic-Con

There’s plenty of stuff to be done outside the convention centre (i.e. without the need for Comic-Con badges), which is great news if you didn’t manage to get badges every day of the programme. Just across the railway tracks there’s Petco Park, which has booths serving free food such as free ice cream from the Lich King’s Ice Cream Citadel (promoting Blizzard’s Warcraft – more specifically, the Hearthstone digital card game).

We also checked out The Netflix Experience, which had some exhibits tied to The Defenders, Stranger Things 2, and an upcoming movie called Bright. I’ve no idea if it’ll be any good, but the world premise (modern setting with stock fantasy races like elves and orcs living alongside humans) sounds interesting.

Westworld: The Experience was probably the hottest event of 2017, but since that involved queues of six hours or longer (reportedly even overnight) I never did get to try it.

Blade Runner 2049 Experience

The one experience that I enjoyed most was the the Blade Runner 2049 Experience. I’m not really a big fan of the original movie, so I wasn’t expecting much of this, but was impressed by how well done it was. We’d opted for the VR experience, which included an extra 5min VR segment where you took part in a futuristic (flying) car chase before the VR headgear was removed, the doors opened and suddenly you found yourself in the movie’s dystopian futuristic version of Los Angeles.

When entering the experience area, some of us were immediately asked by a policeman (one of the actors) to get ourselves scanned to check if we were replicants (the android antagonists of the movie). I was one of those singled out (racial profiling, I tell you).

I thought that the experience made rather clever use of RFID – at registration we keyed in our details that was loaded to an RFID wristband that was given to us. To get scanned, you just tap the wristband on the sensor at the right and wait for the scanning sequence to complete.

As it turned out, I was a replicant and was promptly ordered to do a number of jumping jacks (I suppose that killing or arresting said replicants, while making more sense in the movie universe, would probably make for a less pleasant fan experience).

Another way the RFID wristband was used was to redeem a free T-shirt (yay free swag)! The T-shirt size was one of the details keyed in at registration, and after scanning your wristband at a designated vending machine, your name flashes on the screens and a T-shirt is dispensed.

 

The actors did their part to build a rather believable atmosphere, with details such as this friendly lady beckoning tourists while leaning on a taxi cab.

Sometimes actors would interact directly with guests, but other times they would just interact among themselves, essentially putting on a show for observers to watch, like this bunch of customers chatting with a bartender.

Wait a minute, is that the same policeman (who’d made me get scanned) chatting up the friendly lady?

When you feel that you’ve had enough of the main experience, you could proceed to the bar, proudly sponsored by Johnnie Walker.

The final use of the RFID wristband – scan for a sampler of three whisky shots (served in test tubes) and some ramen (not that great). I assume that if you’d admitted to being under 18 at registration, you won’t get access to the alcohol.

Cosplay

I’ve never been a fan of cosplay, but I felt like it seemed like something that had to be done while at Comic-Con. Purchasing a $10 horse mask off Amazon, I proceeded to slap on some of my existing clothing, make creative use of a black marker, and transform myself into Bojack Horseman.

I lasted all of 5 minutes walking through the halls of the convention centre before giving up and tearing off the mask. As it turns out, visibility out of the horse mask is remarkably poor (the nostrils acted as eye-holes), and having a latex layer covering most of your face is actually remarkably uncomfortable.

I now have a greater level of respect for people who go all out with their costumes, like this Megatron I’d spotted in the convention centre…

Kids got into the action too – I spotted a fair number of miniature superheroes and Star Wars costumes.

Star Wars was definitely one of the more common themes, with some creative use of pets as co-pilots, or modifications to create a rapping stormtrooper.

Cosplayers tend to be rather friendly (I imagine they’re only happy to be photographed) – as I was walking past this guy playing Chef (from South Park), he suddenly exclaimed something to the tune of “Oh my God it’s Jessica Rabbit! I had such a crush on you when I was a kid…” and proceeded to get a picture with the other cosplayer (playing Jessica from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?).

My favourite costume was probably this rendition of lobster-eating Batman (from The LEGO Batman Movie), who I’d randomly walked past while exploring the city.

Conclusion

I’m glad to have done Comic-Con, though it’s probably not something I’m likely to repeat. While I did get to have plenty of unique experiences that I wouldn’t usually get a chance to, the crowds were often really unpleasant to deal with, as were the multi-hour lines. Comic-Con has been growing in scale more recently with the rise in popularity of the fantasy, science fiction and superhero genres, and I suspect the situation with the crowds and lines will only get worse.

Knowing all this, if the idea of going to Comic-Con still intrigues you, perhaps it’s time to start making plans for Comic-Con 2019!

Hotel Review: Hilton San Diego Airport Harbor Island Hotel


San Diego accommodation during Comic-Con

If you ever intend to visit San Diego in the month of July, you should probably keep in mind that the (central) city of San Diego as most people know it effectively ceases to exist during the weekend of Comic-Con.

Instead, it morphs into world where giant banners for fantastic worlds are displayed prominently everywhere…

Where the Walking Dead roam…

Where crowds spontaneously form to catch random T-shirts being thrown out of office buildings…

And where even the police get in on the cosplay action.

And in this alternate version of San Diego, accommodation becomes a truly scarce commodity. Hotels typically lock up the bulk of their inventory, put it on the market at exorbitant rates, or do a mix of both.

The official way to get accommodation for Comic-Con is to source for the blocked inventory via the official Comic-Con webpage and look for what’s available. Prices aren’t great, cancellation restrictions may apply, and the inventory is released in different batches – it’s all rather complicated (you can search online for guides on how to do all this), and is really annoying if you’re the type who likes to have everything planned out well in advance.

Without hoping for too much, I decided to try my luck searching on the Hilton MVP website (a year in advance) and found the Hilton San Diego Airport Harbor Island Hotel had rooms available at a rather low price (I’d paid less than US$700 for 4 nights, including taxes). This availability disappeared within days, so I suspect that I had managed to catch it before they had got round to blocking inventory.

Given that this was a cancellable rate (low risk) and would alleviate a lot of uncertainty from trip planning, I proceeded to lock it in as quickly as I could. I would have loved to combine this with a Prestige 4th night free booking, but availability had disappeared by the time I got round to attempting it.

Property

The hotel is conveniently located near the airport and a mere 15-minute drive (with minimal traffic) to the San Diego Convention Center. It’s not that conveniently located for walking around to explore the city, but in a place where Uber is plentiful and rather affordable, I’d say it’s pretty well-located.

During Comic-Con, it also benefited from a free shuttle bus serving three hotels (including two Marriott properties) on the Harbor Island stretch. Since the route didn’t serve that many hotels, it got us to our destinations relatively quickly.

Harbor Island is pretty much a long strip of reclaimed land, so the hotel is technically a seaside one.

The property is full of quirky designs – for instance, the building itself has a rather unique trefoil shape, although the way the rooms are designed, you don’t notice the weird curves that much when you’re inside.

The property operates a shuttle bus to and from the airport, though during peak Comic-Con periods you’ll need to request a pickup instead of relying on the schedule. When you finally get to the hotel, you proceed to check in at yet another example of their quirky design – three individual check-in booths.


(Image from Hilton San Diego Airport website)

We were upgraded to a harbor view room, though from what I understand it’s pretty much the same as the basic room, just with a better view.

The Room

It’s a rather unexciting thing to say, but I rather enjoy staying at chain hotels due to their predictability. Though there are (many) exceptions, I find comfort in knowing there will be a certain level of cleanliness and comfort that may not be present in a (though probably cheaper) Airbnb booking, for instance.

I am happy to report, then, that this was not an exception – the bedding was indeed predictably clean and comfortable. More examples of the quirky design aesthetic in the bedside lamps.

There’s the standard arm chair, work desk, flatscreen TV (just off the picture to the left). The room’s not huge, but there’s plenty of space to walk around.

The working desk is a little on the small side, but should suffice for most purposes (happily, not much work was done during my stay).

A rather standard coffee machine, with non-complimentary water. (Really? $4 for bottled water?)

Just a single sink in the bathroom, but with plenty of counter space around the Peter Thomas Roth amenities provided.

There’s a bathtub, but it’s rather shallow and so it didn’t really seem all that great an experience to soak in it.

I rather enjoyed the fact that the rooms come with a little balcony to sit at.

The view wasn’t fantastic, but it was good enough.

Breakfast

As a Hilton Gold/Diamond member, you get access to complimentary continental breakfast here, with the option to upgrade to hot food for an extra charge. I found the continental spread to be more than adequate, with a good range of pastries and desserts to choose from.

I particularly enjoyed the free flow of berries.

The view of the marina is pretty good, too.



(Image from Hilton San Diego Airport website)

Facilities

As usual, I totally forgot to check out the facilities at the hotel, though the website confirms that there’s a pool and a gym on the property…


(Image from Hilton San Diego Airport website)


(Image from Hilton San Diego Airport website)

But really, who has time for exercise when you’re busy shuttling to the Gaslamp district for Comic-Con?

Conclusion

The Hilton San Diego Airport Harbor Island Hotel is situated near the airport (obviously) as well as central San Diego. It’s well-located for sight-seeing as well as conferences/conventions/business. Though nothing luxurious, the property’s well-maintained and offers a good quality of comfort and cleanliness.  I thought it was a great place to stay over Comic-Con.

Hotel Review: Hampton Inn & Suites Merced


The Hampton brand

I quite enjoy visiting the States, but one thing I don’t enjoy so much is the relatively poor Hilton elite recognition you get in the country – the upgrade rate seems poorer, and properties really limit you to continental complimentary breakfasts (no hot food). I know that’s what’s in the T&C, but given that I’ve previously really enjoyed making use of Hilton Gold/Diamond status around Asia, I’ve found little love even as a Diamond member in America.

Strangely enough, I found greater value in patronising the budget end of the the Hilton family. There’s still no significant elite recognition to speak of, but at the price range it’s not really expected like in pricier full-service properties. The Hampton brand tends to offer a rather decent (and reliable) standard of accommodation that won’t break the bank either, usually costing about US$100-150 per night (especially if booked via the Hilton MVP portal).

It’s especially useful when doing a road trip – when all you really need is pretty much the ability to drive up to the property and rest for the night, you don’t really miss executive lounge access all that much.

Parking

After leaving Yosemite, we headed towards Hampton Inn & Suites Merced, possibly the nearest Hilton property (depending on which direction you exit the valley). This review is based on that visit, though I think it’s safe to say that one US Hampton property is pretty much the same as any other.


(Image from Hampton Merced website)

One of the elite benefits that Hamptons offer is dedicated parking lots for Diamond members. It’s a benefit that the FlyerTalk folk seem to enjoy, though the Hamptons I’d stayed at didn’t ask for my vehicle number at check-in, so I’m not sure what’s to prevent non-Diamonds from taking those lots. In practice, I’m pretty sure it’s not policed.

Still, there’s something to be said about the glorious feeling of pulling into a premium parking space that’s reserved just for the deserving, the crème de la crème, the people who know how to type accents and sound fancy. Never mind that just about everyone else can do it too. Never mind that these special parking spaces typically save you a mere couple of minutes walking to the lobby. No, you can drive up to any Hampton and get yourself a Diamond Elite Parking space because you deserve it. From the very moment you step out of your vehicle, you’re aware that you’re an Elite.

Checking In

And then you snap back to reality, because at the end of the day, a Hampton property is pretty much a budget hotel. There’s a small check in area, usually manned by one or two agents. As a Gold/Diamond member, you’re entitled to “250 Hilton Honors Bonus Points per stay or choice of snack and non-alcoholic beverage”. I’ve got my preferences set to gain the bonus points, but I was usually still asked to take some freebies anyway (I usually opted to take free chocolate bars).


(Image from Hampton Merced website)

Just behind the check-in area is a ‘suite shop’, where you can get various snacks and travel items like single-use laundry detergent. The items aren’t dirt cheap, but they’re pretty affordable. Since it’s quite possible for there not to be a grocery store nearby, these shops could prove to be rather convenient.

The Room

The Hampton rooms tend to be rather basic (and possibly rather dated), but also clean and comfortable, which is what really matters after hours of driving on the road.

The same goes for the toilet/shower area – clean and well maintained.

It’s a good thing it was clean, since they placed the coffee machine in that very room – a rather unusual choice of location, but I suppose it helps to save space.

Full sliding shower doors for the shower area…

Lots of space on the counter around the sink, along with the Neutrogena-branded toiletries.

Breakfast

Another Hampton feature – free breakfast with every room; no need for status. I particularly enjoy the waffle machines.

Some basic fruit and salad (the former is pretty convenient for grab and go).

There’ll be some hot food served as well – the meal we saw at Merced was actually one of the better ones, comprising bagel toppers (bagels with melted cheese and bacon) and fried potatoes.

Some bread and pastries…

…and cereal, if that’s what you prefer.

All in all, the breakfast wasn’t really something I looked forward to having, but it served its purpose.

Facilities

I didn’t actually use it at Merced, but Hamptons come equipped with a business center (with an iMacs and a laser printer). Pretty useful for printing stuff, actually – came in pretty handy when I later wanted a hard copy of the Comic-Con programme for easier reference.

Other places I didn’t even notice during my stay – a gym and a swimming pool. Man, this place actually had everything!


(Image from Hampton Merced website)


(Image from Hampton Merced website)

Conclusion

All in all, I find Hampton to be a perfectly decent budget brand within the US Hilton portfolio. The property in Merced is pretty representative of the chain – it’s nothing luxurious, but does offer reliable quality at a relatively low price range, while continuing to chalk up points and stays/nights if you’re a Hilton member. Many are located in rural areas, so they’re probably best used for road trips, where you’re unlikely to spend too much time at the hotel anyway.