Near Yellow Mountain

Friday, November 20, 2015

Around the World One Hundred Times - Part Two

A few days ago I was settling into my latest circumnavigation. Now I am in the last thirty-six hours. All transit now except for a fifteen hour mini visit in Hawaii. This trip will be the fastest I have ever gone around the globe. Although I will have been away from home eight days; I will actually have gone around the world in six days since I started in Charlotte spent two days in LA and then turned east and stopped in Chicago and Frankfurt on my way to Bangkok. I left LA five days ago and have spent 30 hours in flight since then. My total air time over the eight days will be about 54 hours. Total actual miles just under 21,000. Total frequent flyer miles just under 100,000 with bonuses.  My average trip is 12 days – I have never had one last more than 18 days. The logic of a 12 day trip is two working weeks with only one weekend away from home.

Yesterday and today I was on the Shinkansen (Japanese “bullet” train) to Osaka for a meeting and dinner and back to Tokyo. I rarely fly inside Japan – I love the bullet train.

The best flight of the trip was the ten plus hour flight from Frankfurt to Bangkok on Thai Airways. Thai’s first class is still real first class from Dom Perignon and caviar at the beginning of the meal to the Johnnie Walker Blue at the end.  The amenity kit is a mini Rimowa case not some “pleather” schlock served up by the US airlines.  The crew seemed to like their jobs which made for a pleasant experience from beginning to end. Actually the service started before I boarded when a uniformed Thai agent met my United flight in Frankfurt and escorted me to the lounge Thai uses. After I landed in Bangkok I got the same treatment. Are all the niceties necessary?  Of course not, but some things in your life should be special and I decided a long time ago, for me, flying is one of those things. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to have a true first class experience flying a US carrier. The US airlines for the most part have dropped any semblance of true service and moved to a “Greyhound bus in the sky” model. How do I know the Thai flight was the best when I still have four flights to go? Trust me I know – my remaining flights are on United. United’s first class isn’t terrible – the seats are pretty good now and the entertainment is almost world class but most of the flight attendants do not appear to enjoy what they do – to put it as kindly as I can. I will cross the two million mile barrier of actual flight miles on United on my way home so I know of what I speak.

Thai Airway First Class

Twenty years ago when I began flying to Asia and experimented with non US carriers, I quickly learned that flying Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, Thai, Swiss and ANA were the better way to go on long hauls. The difference between the best foreign carriers and the best US offering is greater now than it was then. The Star Alliance and OneWorld based RTW tickets have enabled me to experience the best carriers and make gratuitous stopovers all under the well-worn guise of “saving money”. When you are spending over $10,000 a ticket no money is being saved but the idea sounds good to bean counters. Since I work for myself now, I am spending my own money and I continue to fly first on international trips. I am a “spoiled traveler” who often stays in $400 a night hotel rooms but washes underwear and workout clothes in the sink to avoid hotel laundry charges. “Value” is in the eye of the beholder.

I have spent much of my adult life on airplanes but I never “rode in the front” until I was thirty years old. I liked it enough that I began to study how to “hack” the airlines rules without breaking any laws. Once I started flying internationally, I spent time reading about how to get the most for spending the least. I also picked the brains of experienced travelers like my seatmate who told me about RTW tickets. Most people that use RTW tickets miss a key point. The ticket is mileage based with enough miles to go about 1.5 times around the world but ends once you return to the city where you started. If you go around the world but land near your starting point you can buy a cheap connector ticket to “home base” and continue to use the ticket to fly thousands more miles. Early in my RTW days, I wrote the tickets starting in Charlotte, NC but would fly back to Atlanta and connect back to Charlotte on a separate ticket. To continue using the ticket I would fly back to Atlanta and then I could fly to the west coast (or even Hawaii on one occasion), back to Buffalo to see relatives and then to Charlotte to finally end the ticket. I almost always go 1.25 around the world on one ticket. There are rules about how many total stops – I think it is 14 now but that gives you a pretty long travel leash.

Since 2000 I have started all my RTWs in Japan. I lived in Japan then but have lived in China and the US the past ten years. Even still due to an anomaly in the Star Alliance pricing model it is still cheaper to buy tickets in Japan in Yen than in USD no matter what the Yen/$ exchange rate is. Japan is not famous for bargains but this is one.

On night five of this trip, I had dinner with a friend in a sushi restaurant off the beaten path in Tokyo. The place was a 25 minute cab ride from my hotel. My friend, well aware that I enjoy “local things”, took me to a place that doesn’t see many non-Japanese customers. Clearly most of the patrons knew each other. In central Tokyo, a gaijin (foreigner) doesn’t get a second look but in this place I think anyone from outside the neighborhood would have been noteworthy and seeing a gaijin was kind of like a bald eagle sighting. The meal ended with a brief chat with the owner and some of the customers who were extremely tolerant of my limited linguistic ability – another reason why I love Japan. For the most part I avoid western food when I am in Asia. I love to eat local wherever I am so the RTW ticket has broadened my food “world view”. The only dish I ever rejected was in Sichuan province China. I would not eat “cat in a pig’s stomach”. My host laughed and said “we won’t eat it either but wanted to see if you would”.

Time to board a flight to Honolulu.