US: CLT-TRI (1-Feb-2014) by Bruce

View from the wing, sort of.

View from the wing, sort of.

Editor’s Note: First of all, I must thank Bruce for taking his only day off to do this for me! Secondly, my apologies for not keeping this blog active, but I’ve moved most of my writing to Traveling Wine Chick. I hope you will join me there.

When Beth mentioned that she was having some troubles getting her car transported and asked for someone help and drive it to INT or GSO, I looked at my calendar. Saturday was completely free. “Sure, I’m up for a little adventure,” I posted.

By Thursday night, we had a plan. By Friday morning, I had a plane ticket for CLT-TRI. By Friday afternoon, we had a hope that one of Beth’s friends to pick me up at the airport and take me to the car. We still didn’t know where the car was to go, so I checked the Amtrak schedule for INT-CLT and the Greyhound schedule for GSO-CLT. Both were options for a Saturday evening trip and both were much cheaper and much shorter than a one-way award ticket. By Saturday morning, it was confirmed that I could bring the car directly back to my house in Charlotte.

US Express CRJ200

US Express CRJ200

At 10:00, I parked my car at the Park ‘n’ Go. No luggage and my Pre-Check boarding pass in hand, I was through the TSA’s security at the D checkpoint in a few minutes. A quick stop for a latte at the Starbucks in the D concourse, I sat for the first time in one of CLT’s famed rocking chairs to drink it. I then started the hike to E23. Since the last time I was out here, the E gates go all the way up to 50 and there are a few external hard stands out there as well. CLT has reached its maximum gate capacity. On the plus side, there was plenty of seating, there was a free wifi and there were a few power outlets to be had.

Boarding started on time, with pre-boards (no takers). My Star Gold status allowed me to board with the Zone 1 folks. We boarded Bombardier’s most prolific products, the CRJ-200 via the aircraft’s own stairs. I had selected seat 5A (a window) which was strangely no charge (US Airways charges for “Choice seats”). No one took the seat next to me by the time the doors closed, as well the 5D and 5F were also open.

What legroom?

What legroom?

We pushed back from the gate on time and then taxied, with wheels up about 20 minutes later off Runway 18C, which is a head scratching distance across the airport from our gate. There was no beverage or snack service during the 25 minute flight and we landed uneventfully at TRI about 20 minutes ahead of schedule. As I did not have checked luggage or anything gate checked, I proceeded directly into the terminal.

TRI is a small airport with only a few gates and service to either Charlotte (on US) or Atlanta (on DL) or one of a few weekly Allegiant flights to Orlando. One bar air-side, a small business lounge, and a bar ground-side. Short-term parking for less than an hour is 50 cents.

BBQ at Smokey's in Wytheville, VA

BBQ at Smokey’s in Wytheville, VA

Beth’s friend was waiting and she drove us the short distance to Beth’s car. Key in, it started right up on the first try and I was off. An hour later, I stopped in Wytheville at Smokey’s BBQ for lunch (combo brisket and ribs with sweet tea). Then it was back on the road for about two hours to home.

Traffic was light for a mostly sunny Saturday afternoon. I was able to stick to 70 or 75mph despite the significant police presence.

Cost: 12,500 miles redeemed on United.com for CLT-TRI. US had wanted 25,000 miles plus a $105 “close-in booking” fee or $287. Delta wanted 40,000 miles (for a round trip I would never take – they don’t offer one-way award redemption) or $425. $33 to top off the car in Charlotte (it got about 20 mpg). Door to door, maybe 6 hours. And I got a new (very short) line on my flight memory.

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DL/CZ: CLT-ATL-LAX-CAN-KUL 23 Feb 2013 by Bruce

International Arrivals and China Immigration Hallway at Guangzhou, China airport

International Arrivals and China Immigration Hallway at Guangzhou, China airport

On Thursday, I was given the go ahead to travel to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and to be in the office on Tuesday. The customer specified that the travel budget including hotel was $4000. This left me rather short – searches on Delta, Air France and KLM were running over $5000. But a mixed itinerary brought it down to $2500: CLT-ATL-LAX on Delta, LAX-CAN-KUL on China Southern (CZ), KUL-PVG-JFK on China Eastern (MU) and JFK-CLT on Delta. Cheaper flights on Emirates or other carriers that are neither SkyTeam or  Star Alliance were closer to $2000. [It’s worth noting that I was having trouble finding this itinerary on my own, so I hired a Travel Messiah (TM) who was tremendously helpful.]

Friday afternoon, I was unable to check in on delta.com and nor was the TM. A call to Delta was similarly unhelpful – I was told that due to the number of segments, I had to check in at the airport. I was also unable to change my seat assignments for the CZ segments.

I arrived CLT on Saturday at 12:00, dropping my car at the Business Valet ($10/day instead of $7/day for long term lot). At the Delta ticket counter, the ticket agent (TA) had a few challenges getting me checked in, but managed to figure it out. A bag tag with four segments was printed and a Priority tag attached. My passport was reviewed. Four boarding passes (BPs) were printed as well, including an upgrade for the first short segment.

Boarding for CLT-ATL was called at 13:15 and I took seat 3D in F on this 737. Pre-departure drinks were offered and I took advantage of a gin and tonic. In the air, another drink service and the snack basket which had peanuts, pretzels and Biscoffs. Each passenger in F was thanked for their business by the flight attendant (FA). With my Gold status and an international itinerary, I was able to access the Delta Sky Club in ATL where I grabbed some snacks and power.

No upgrade on ATL-LAX, I had 10G on a 767. Bulkhead row. One drink service cart with buy-on-board was offered. Gogo In-flight Internet was not operational, several satellite channels on the in-flight entertainment (IFE) were not working and there was no power at the seat. I did not hear an apology or announcement. The flight had significant turbulence almost the entire time. Arrival at LAX was still 10 minutes early.

I was warned that the walk to the international terminal was a headache, but it’s really not so bad. From T4, you walk past T5 (American) to the terminal. It took a while to find the ticket counter for CZ, but there was no one waiting in the Sky Priority lane when I arrived. My BPs were reprinted and I was able to slightly change my seat assignment from 79D (the last row, aisle) to 74A. I was also given a VIP Pass for the lounge.

The CZ lounge was pretty decent with sandwiches, serve yourself drinks and free wireless. A shower was also available. I stayed for about an hour before heading to the flight.

At the gate, several rope lines were set up for passengers based on seat and deck. No status other than business and first had separate queues. Boarding for the 22:00 departure commenced at 20:30. Yes, 90 minutes to board the plane and we pushed back on time. From there, a 30-minute taxi around the airport and past runway 7R to take off on 25L. I could see a wingtip escort car for most of the taxi and while it’s hard to judge distances, I am sure that we missed one light post and one hangar by less than six feet.

The upper deck on this CZ A380 configuration is 2-4-2 with storage bins between the window seat and the window. A pillow, an amenity kit (toothpaste, eye mask, etc.) and a thick blanket was on the seat. There was a 7-inch IFE in the seatback with no power outlet. While the extra storage was nice, it meant that there was nothing to lean against. And with all but five or six of the seats taken, there was no opportunity to switch to an open row. 79D would have been an AWFUL seat – it’s the last row and not only has limited recline, it is immediately next to the galley and lavatory area so there is constant foot traffic.

Until this flight, my longest had been 11 hours on AMS-IAH. LAX-CAN is 15 hours. Extreme! With my Bose QC15s, it was at least quiet but I was still not able to sleep. After pushback, they dimmed the lights for a half hour. And then turned them back up for dinner service, leaving the lights on for about two hours. Then the lights were dimmed until two hours prior to arrival.

Two meal services (Dinner: tuna salad appetizer, steamed cod with white rice and sliced fruit. Breakfast: quiche with tater tots and a slice of ham, a croissant and sliced fruit) and a few water services, but mostly the FAs were hiding. Since I couldn’t sleep, I watched three or four movies, a few sitcoms and tried to read. An hour before departure, it was time for final cleanup and seatbacks restored to upright. A few videos describing the China immigration and transit process were shown and then a 10-minute “flight exercises” video. And then 40 minutes of… nothing. Boring as hell.

China immigration was pleasant and quick as I was a transit passenger. A quick review of my passport and onward boarding pass, I got a stamp and was directed to the China Southern lounge in Guangzhou where I entered at about 05:30 AM. There were a couple of cold snacks that looked stale and a self-service fridge of drinks. Hot food started to arrive at around 06:30 which included meat buns, some sort of chicken in sauce and beef with wheat noodles. Aside from the time anachronism, it was pretty good. I left the lounge at 07:45 and made my way to the KUL departure gate.

The gate is a “commuter airline” set up with a large common area that smelled of cigarette smoke and eight gates. Boarding announcement in Chinese only, but I got the gist of it and had my “Economy Plus” boarding pass ready. A standing-room only bus took us to the hard stand where we made our way up the stairs into the three-class 737.

I saw no one in first class and of the 24 seats in Economy Plus, only three were occupied. A pillow and blanket were waiting and then the FA distributed small water bottles to us and then closed the curtains between the three sections. I had all three seats to myself and on the four-hour flight, I managed to sleep for an hour or so. Meal service was a chicken in sauce concoction with white rice and some sliced fruit. I wanted a drink at this point, and while the FA said they had gin, she did not have tonic. I stuck with water.

We arrived KUL on time. Baggage claim took about 15 minutes, but my Priority tagged suitcase was one of the first out for the Guangzhou flight. Immigration and Customs were extremely quick, even for foreign passport holders – ten minutes in queue and no visa is required for stays less than 90 days. Images of index fingerprints were taken.

Summary: From leaving home at 11:30 AM ET on Saturday to arriving at the hotel at 14:00 Malaysia time (13 hours ahead) on Monday (I lost Sunday crossing the International Date Line) makes for a very long trip, especially when you can’t sleep on the plane. Delta: Only a B due to the very high fare they offered and the broken IFE. China Southern: A- for nice lounges and on-board meals plus I appreciated the E+ upgrade.

Effective 1 March 2013, Delta has changed redemption for most economy fare classes on most partner airlines. Even though I’m flying 21309 miles, I will only earn 16709 MQM’s. Some fare classes earn zero! Serious bummer.

I’m sorry for the extended length of the TR, but this is the first time that I have ever flown a four-segment/three-country itinerary! The return on Wednesday, March 6 will be KUL-PVG-JFK-CLT and I will write upon my return.

Total Trip Cost: $ 2,529.40
Actual Airfare: $ 1,933.00
Actual Miles Flown: 21309 (http://www.gcmap.com/mapui?P=CLT-ATL-LAX-CAN-KUL-PVG-JFK-CLT&MS=wls&MP=r&DU=mi)
Yield: $ 0.091 per mile (0.116 per MQM)
Taxes & Fees: $ 596.40, 23.58% of ticket price