From the Sideline: New York Giants vs. New York Jets on Christmas Eve

Everything was setup perfectly for the type of showdown that you wish every football game could be.

It was the two same-city rivals, who only meet each other in the regular season once every four years.  They share the same stadium, alternating home games from week to week.  And, although, the Jets were officially the home team, the stadium was heavily flooded with Giants blue.  The weather was sunny and unseasonably warm and everyone was more than happy that they could leave and have, at least, the next two days off from work, instead of treking to the office as they normally would after a typical Sunday afternoon game.  Most importantly, however, the game actually meant something:  The winner would go on to play the next week in an attempt to win their division, while the loser’s season would be, effectively, over.  It was all or nothing.

I was lucky enough to be on the sidelines before kickoff.   And, also lucky for me, the New York Giants prevailed 29 to 14, in a matchup that was worthy of twice the already-inflated ticket price.

DSC_0112

DSC_0019

DSC_0224

DSC_0027

DSC_0042

DSC_0108

DSC_0106 - Version 2

DSC_0181

There are many more pics that can be seen in my Flickr set for this game…

Quick Review: United Airlines International First Class Suites Service (Now United GlobalFirst)

Note as of January 2014:  This review was originally written before the full integration of products after the United/Continental merger.   This service is now known as “United GlobalFirst”, which, as of this time, is served out of the pre-merger United SFO, LA, Chicago and Washington hubs.   The hard service (seats, entertainment, etc.) has not changed since that time, but the menu an on-board service has been updated (slightly for the better, IMO).

Unlike some of my comprehensive reviews of Business and First Class airline travel, this one will be relatively quick.   Quite frankly, there isn’t too much to write home about, anyway.

For this installment, I take a look at United’s latest international first class product, marketed as the United First Class Suites.  It’s important to point out that this is the international first class services from the pre-merger United Airlines – this is NOT a review of (pre-United merger) Continental Airlines’s BusinessFirst service (you can read my review of the upgraded Continental BusinessFirst seat here, if you’d like.   It should be noted that the new United Airlines will maintain a mix of two-cabin and three-cabin services, including the seats that I review today, as well as the new-ish Continental BusinessFirst product and the fairly-new United International Business product.

This review happens to be my first experience in United First Class on an international route.  Despite that fact that I live a few miles from the “new” United’s hub at Newark, I actually have limited experience flying United over the years.  This is, in fact, only my third premium class trip on United and, to date, I have to say that I’m not overly impressed.

My route on this trip was from Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport (PVG) to Los Angeles International (LAX).   The PVG-LAX route was flown on a Boeing 777-200, configured in three classes.  The first class cabin seats a total of 8 people in a two-row, 1-2-1 configuration. The adjacent business class configuration on this flight seats 40 people in a bizarre 2-4-2 forward facing/read-racing configuration – pretty much guaranteeing annoying bathroom break disturbances for every single business class passenger throughout the flight.

The single star in this service is, without a doubt, the First Class Suite.  It is a very large, comfortable seat that provides ample room for storage, making for a comfortable flight, whether sleeping, eating of lounging.

No, it’s not the most luxurious looking suite on the market today, but it is comfortable.   Each seat is slightly angled, which helps a bit with privacy issues if you’re sitting in the middle aisle – as you can see, there are no dividers between the seat next to you.   One small annoyance is the addition of a shoulder seat belt (in addition to a lap belt) in this configuration.  The shoulder belt can be uncomfortable, to say the least.

In this suite, stowage is no challenge, as there are a number of different compartments to place all of your goodies, including a huge bin located on the aisle side of the seat:

The console next to the seat provides seat controls, headphone jacks, USB charger connects, a power port and a remote control:

Legroom is quite large, even for all 6 foot 4 inches of me, although the television is relatively small compared to some of the other comparable first class products on the market (Emirates, Singapore, TAM, etc.):

My 11.5 hour flight to LAX departed at 8:25pm, so I certainly did get a chance to catch some sleep and have to say that I’ve slept as good as I ever had on a long-haul flight.  It is certainly a comfortable space.

Unfortunately, however, the service was less than first-class.  I found the food to be mediocre, at best, the selection to be limited and the preparation to be less-than-spectacular.  Don’t get me wrong, the quality of food beats anything in Economy any day, but for a $12,000 ticket, I typically expect more.  The service include:

…a sloppily presented tomato soup:

An overcooked steak:

A miniature appetizer:

A poorly-presented and tasteless pasta:

Again – I’m not expecting Michelin three star-quality food, but, at a minimum, you would think that United’s First Class service would match Continental’s BusinessFirst Serve, which is a pure business-class product.  Excellent First Class seat aside, it does not.  In fact, I find that Continental’s transcontinental domestic first class service often provides better meals.

Flight crew service on the trip was friendly and just attentive enough.  I didn’t see them much at all after dinner, but they were there in an instant when I needed something.

Upon arrival at LAX, I was greeted with further disappointment:  While United does maintain a very comfortable dedicated First Class Lounge, there are no showers in any United Club facilities.  Thankfully, however, the First Class Lounge offered a variety of food, beverages and super-friendly staff.

The Quick Conclusion

All in all, the flight was comfortable and it got me across the Pacific without much incident. But the large seat aside, I find it difficult to pay the premium for United’s First Class versus, say, Continental’s BusinessFirst service.  I have subsequently encountered several times where seats on the direct PVG-EWR Continental route had no BusinessFirst availability and, instead of choosing United First Class, chose to add another few hours to my trip by flying Emirates back home via Dubai.

National Day 2011: Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and Beijing, China

I am always amazed by the variety of impressions that I hear from foreigners who have visited Tiananmen Square. My friend recently called a winter day’s visit “creepy”, while another said that it was an “uncomfortable place”, given the atrocities that occurred in June of 1989.   On the other hand, others find it fascinating and few hours exploring the adjacent Forbidden City is is a must-do on any tourist’s agenda.  Due to the Chinese government’s (fairly successful) effort to surpress the recent history of the place, most Chinese citizens are oblivious to what occurred there over twenty years ago and, on National Day, especially, the area is filled with endless signs of loyalty and patriotism.

October 1 is the day that China celebrates the formation of the People’s Republic of China, dating back to 1949.   It is also the start of one of two Golden Weeks in the PRC, marking a week of vacation for Chinese nationals.   On National Day, thousands of Chinese flock to Beijing, Forbidden City and Tiananmen Squire, happily posing for photos, waving Chinese flags and celebrating amongst the red lantern-decorated public spaces.

National Day 2011 - Beijing

National Day 2011 - Beijing

National Day 2011 - Beijing

National Day 2011 - Beijing

National Day 2011 - Beijing

National Day 2011 - Beijing

National Day 2011 - Beijing

National Day 2011 - Beijing

National Day 2011 - Beijing

National Day 2011 - Beijing

More photos can be seen in my Flickr photo set.

Cool Hotels: Kapama Karula, South Africa

In my ongoing series, I highlight cool and interesting hotels that I’ve encountered throughout the world.

There’s something that I didn’t realize until I was just a few minutes away from arriving at Kapama Karula:  it would really be the place where I would stay for the next five days – as in there, literally, wouldn’t be anywhere else for me go to in the five days that I would be at the Kapama Private Game Reserve in northwestern South Africa.   The hotel is located a 20 minute drive from the gates of the reserve and, once your in, you won’t be going anywhere without being escorted by a shotgun-wielding escort.   This makes skipping out to the local pub or corner store a bit difficult.

Luckily this luxury “camp” is first class all the way.  And while there are several other lodges located within the Kapama Reserve, this is the most private and exclusive.  At the time that I was there, the entire facility consisted of only seven tents.  They have since added five luxury suites.  This means that you will get to know your campmates and staff quite well, since you’ll be spending 6 hours on safari with them each day, in addition to one communal dinner each evening.  This, however, makes for a very interesting time, as South Africa tends to attract people from every other corner of the earth.

The private tents are climate controlled and include king-size beds, dual vanaties, soaking tubs and a beautiful outdoor shower (which might welcome from monkey visitors from time to time).    Located on the banks of the Klaserie River, you can sometimes hear the roar of male lions at night and witness a variety of different game come very close to the edge of the camp.

(You can click on any photo to see a larger version on Flickr)

IMG_0028

IMG_0030

IMG_0029

The common facilities are equally as beautiful, including a beautiful dining room, several sitting areas, a wonderful bar and and lap pool.

IMG_0036

IMG_0116

IMG_0115

IMG_0114

IMG_0118

IMG_0119

IMG_0120

IMG_0122

All in all, the Kapama Karula experience is the first class all the way.  The food is superb and abundant, the staff is friendly and the game reserve, itself, is filled withe everything you’d expect to see in a top-notch South African game reserve.

As mid-season rates approach 6000 ZAR per double room per night (as of this writing, about US$740/nt, before tax and gratuity), it may not exactly be roughing it in the bush, but it’s certainly worth every penny.

A full set of photos from my Kapama experience can be viewed in my Flickr photo set.

Review: TAM Airlines First Class, JFK to Sao Paulo

As I continue to experience many different international business and first class products around the world, I’ll continue to document them, as I’ve do many times over the years.  It’s been a while since I’ve written a review, however, as I’ve spent most of the last year and a half flying internationally on Continental Airlines since they completed their BusinessFirst flat bed retrofit on all of their 777 and 757 international flights.    Nonetheless, there are times where Continental can’t get me to where I’m going and I have to try a different carrier.   This was recently the case on my latest trip to Sao Paulo from my home base in New York City.   Not surprisingly, Continental’s EWR-GRU (Sao Paulo) flights were sold out in BusinessFirst, which is not at all unusual – there simply aren’t enough direct flight between these two markets to keep up with the demand, particularly as Brazil continues to solidify its place in the world as a global business power.   Rather than connecting and extending my travel time, however, I decided to try TAM’s First Class service between JFK and GRU, which currently runs twice a day.

If you are not familiar with TAM, it is Brazil and Latin America’s largest airline, headquartered in Sao Paulo and linking Brazil to about 70 international and domestic destinations.  The JFK-GRU flights are run on Airbus A330s using a 3 cabin (First/Business/Economy) configuration.  The flying time in both directions is just less than ten hours, which is offered as a morning departure from JFK (arriving at 10:30pm in GRU), as well as an a evening overnight flight (arriving in GRU at 6:40am).  The return from GRU to JFK departs at either 8:45am or 10:30pm.  So, on either leg, you have your choice of spending the day on the plane or sleeping overnight.  Given Sao Paulo’s advantage of being only an hour ahead of NYC, the overnight flight is quite handy when you’re doing business, as you can sacrifice little personal time in the air, while arriving in Sao Paulo or NYC fresh and without the slightest bit of jetlag.

Now, onto the flight experience…

The first thing I must stress is that TAM’s emphasis is on the highest quality of service for it’s First Class passengers.  In fact, I would say that the level of personal service rivals any of the other carries that I have flows – and I should note that I’ve flown First Class suites for, both, Emirates and Singapore Airlines, which are among the best.

The only real complaint I have starts at the beginning of my journey, when I was picked up by TAM’s complimentary chauffeured limo service.  It appears that TAM outsources their limo service in NYC to a Portuguese or Brazilian-owned car service, which resulted in a voice mail being left for me in Portuguese on the day prior to the flight.   I guess, with a last name like “Uriarte”, they may have assumed that I could speak Portuguese, but that certainly isn’t the case. This resulted in me having to call the car service three times before finally speaking to someone who could confirm my pickup time. In the future, the airline should try to inform the car service of the nationality of the passenger to avoid such hassles.  It’s a minor detail, but it would save some trouble.  Nonetheless, the car was on time and I was whisked off to the airport – or so I thought.  As my car reached the Holland Tunnel, the driver fell into queue with the massive line of cars that were waiting to pay to the toll, while every other black car and limo flew threw the toll using the EZ-Pass automated toll system that most of us who live and work in the area rely heavily on.  I confirmed with the driver that the limo company does NOT use EZ-Pass and we would have to wait in the cash lines to pay, which took approximately 20 minutes.  This was particularly annoying and a wast of my time.   TAM passengers who are going to JFK over any river crossing that requires a toll should keep this in mind.

Upon arriving at JFK, I was greeted directly at the curb by a TAM representative, which was a nice touch.  They immediately took my passport and luggage at the curb and brought me to their dedicated First Class checkin desk.  The checkin from curb to printing of the boarding pass took less than five minutes.  The gentleman who met me at my car then escorted me through the terminal to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, which is TAM’s partner airline lounge at JFK.   He told me that he would return 40 minutes prior to departure to escort me through security.  (I won’t review the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK – there are plenty of reviews out there.  Overall, however, it’s an enjoyable full-service lounge with full meals and showers for those who need it.)  Forty minutes before the flight was to depart, the TAM representative returned to retrieve myself and two other First Class passengers.  He proceeded to escort us through Fast Pass security (no waiting in line required) and then directly to the gate.  At the gate, we waited briefly, and then were escorted onto the plane about ten minutes prior to all other passengers – even pre-boarding and Business Class passengers.  All in all, this level of personal attention was tremendous and made the pre-flight experience completely stress free.

On board, the First Class cabin is one of the smallest sized premium cabins that I’ve flown in, with just four First Class “suites’ in a 1-2-1 configuration.   You can see a the full views of the cabin from front to back and side to side here:

The seats themselves are extremely wide and comfortable and I don’t believe my iPhone photos do them justice.   For a 6 foot, 3 inch-tall, 225 pound guy like me, with extra-broad shoulders, I’ve even been cramped in some of the largest First and Business Class seats.  This wasn’t the case with the TAM First Class product.   Both length and width are very generous and I had not felt cramped at anytime during both of my overnight flights.   As you can see, the seat offers lots of room to relax:

The newest versions of the suite are outfitted with a massive 27-inch LCD television:

The IFE system is filled with a variety of American, Brazilian and Portuguese entertainment.  Honestly, I was a bit disappointed with the variety of American programs, but a 10-hour overnight flight meant that I wasn’t going to be watching many movies, anyway.   The seat offeres several multi-national power ports (no international or EmPower adapter required), as well as USB charging ports for your phones and iPods.  Overall, stowage at the actual seat is surprisingly limited, particularly compared with other First Class products, but I didn’t find this to be too big of a deal.

The seat reclines into a full lie-flat bed, which has a custom-fitted sheet, comfortable duvet and two pillows (yes, TWO – I don’t think I’ve seen this before and I quite welcome it!).  The flight attendants happily and quickly make your bed in just a minute or two while you are off changing into your TAM-provided pajamas.  Cabin lighting uses warm, colorful LED lights, which is wonderfully relaxing.  In addition, an amenity kit is given, although in quite a different fashion then I’ve ever seen in the past:  The cabin crew comes to your seat with an “amenity trolley”, which allows you to choose exactly what you’d like in your kit.  At first, I was surprised at the cheap-looking zip-up pastic pouches that were provided as part of the kit, particularly given some of the lavish kits that I’ve seen from other carriers (such as Emirate’s First Class leather dopp kit).  However, I later realized that the bags were TSA-approved toiletry bags, which could be re-used for future flights.  This was quite a nice and practical touch, particularly for frequent travelers, like myself.

The service portion of the flight was excellent, particularly as there are two crew members dedicated to the cabin (2:1 passenger-to-cabin crew ratio!).   There are few nice touches and some nice attention to detail.  To begin, they provide pre-flight fresh food as you are sipping your cocktail and waiting to take off:

This is quite a nice change to the typical warm nuts.  They also feature some really nice, unique cups and stemware, as well as premium cocktails and champagnes prior to liftoff:

In addition, the china and cutlery that is used is full size, just like you’d use at home.   I am often amazed at the miniature-sized plates that are used by most airlines, where food is crammed onto the plate, overflowing onto your tray every time you try to cut your chicken with your miniature knife and fork.  That’s not the case here.

The menu that is provided has a number of great choices and the physical menu itself is a beautifully-printed book, which is more along the lines of an in-flight magazine.  The wine selection is varied and top-notch, feature wines from Portugal, United States, France and Australia:

This evening’s dinner selection:

The food itself was well-prepared and was reasonable in size – just enough for what I needed before retiring on my overnight flight:

Upon arrival in GRU, our flight was positioned away from the terminal, which meant that we would need to take a bus to the terminal – always my worst nightmare after arriving from a long, overnight flight!   However, to my surprise, First Class passengers where whisked off the plane with a local representative and escorted to a private van.  The van took us to a door that led directly to passport control.  I left the van and was successfully through passport control in a matter of thirty seconds – probably minutes before the bus containing the rest of our fellow passengers even left the tarmac!   Again, this is a level of service that is, indeed, top-notch.

On the Return Flight:  GRU to JFK

My return flight departed Sao Paulo at around 10:30pm, but I arrived at the airport at 6:30 due my meeting ending a bit early.  I had been up at 5am that morning and was quite exhausted, so I was really looking forward to getting to the lounge as soon as possible, changing out of my suit and taking a shower before departing.  I checked into TAM’s dedicated First Class checkin area, which, again, only took two minutes before I was on my way to security.  I inquired about shower facilities to the lady at the checkin counter and she confirmed that there were showers in the dedicated First Class lounge.   After passing through security, I made my way to the lounge and was greeted by a representative who knew that I wanted a shower  (the check-in representative downstairs had called ahead and notified her).   The lounge rep also asked if I preferred to board the flight prior to everyone else boarding, or last minute, right before takeoff (I chose the former – another nice touch on TAM’s part).   The shower was excellent, although the shower room was quite cramped, particularly since I was opening my suitcase.   The First Class loung itself was small, but had more than enough room for the passengers that were there.  There was a selection of light bites and ultra-premium liquors (Jonny Walker Blue, Chivas 18, etc.).

Unfortunately, at a time when I was quite exhausted, there weren’t really any truly comfortable seats to lounge in – they should really re-evaluate the seating in that facility.  Nonetheless, a quick cat nap and we were ready to go.    A representative came to find me and escorted me to the gate and, again, allowed me to board ahead of any other passengers.

The return flight itself was pretty much the same as the inbound flight – comfortable and smooth.  However, I was surprised to see that I was apparently on an older A330, as it had a significantly smaller television:

This was a bit comical, given that the First Class suite is so large that it makes you fee like you are miles away from the screen.  Otherwise, the seat and all other aspects of the hard product were exactly the same.   Thankfully, I was about to go right to sleep, so I didn’t need to use the screen at all, but I’d suspect that it’s a real eye strainer if you’re stuck watching it on a 10-hour flight.  TAM should really look into retrofitting the 27-inch LCD on all of their aircraft.

Side note:  You can see just how big the seat is.  In the above photo, I am comfortably stretched-out with plenty of room to spare.  Remember:  I’m 6 feet, 3 inches tall…

Upon arriving at JFK, First Class passengers were allowed to exit the plane first.  As a bit of a game, I looked at my watch and started timing how quickly I could be off the plan and into my TAM-provided chauffeured car, particularly since I didn’t have any checked luggage  (I am also enrolled in the US State Department’s Global Entry program so I do not have to wait in line at passport control. Instead, I scan my passport at a kiosk and just go.).  As suspected, I was out of customs in record speed – just 5 minutes from jetway to the main terminal!  I figured that I’d be ready to head home, until I hit another snag with the same TAM-contracted car service that brought me to the airport:   When I left customs, my driver was still 20 minutes away.  I had asked one of the other drivers to call the car service office for me and he explained that they were not expecting our flight to come in 15 minutes early, so the driver was running behind.   This, of course, was infuriating, particularly after an overnight flight.  One would suspect that the airline-provided car service would be checking arrival times more carefully.  So there I sat, next to my bag, waiting 20 minutes for my car to arrive.  So much for being the first passenger off the plane!

Summary

All in all, I find the TAM’s First Class service to be excellent and I would, without a doubt, choose to fly it again.   The quality of their hard product is very good.  While it may not be at the super-luxury level of Emirate’s First Class Suite or Singapore Airlines A380 suites, the seat offers generous space and is extremely comfortable.   The 27-inch LCD screen – should you not be stuck on an older plane! – is gorgeous.  Most importantly, a big guy like myself can get a great night’s sleep in these seats.

While flying to Sao Paulo, you will probably find better wine and, maybe, a bit better food in Lufthansa, Emirates and Singapore’s first class services, but the service aspect of the TAM experience is best-in-the-industry.  Every detail is taken to ensure warm and attentive personal service.  TAM makes you feel like a VIP and takes all the stress out of pre-boarding and post-flight activities.  The staff is friendly, polished and knows how to handle just about any customer request – kudos to TAM and whatever training programs they have in place.  The combination of good training, coupled with the overall warm and welcoming Brazilian attitude really makes you feel special.

Now if they can only work out the issues with their chauffeured car service…  🙂

Shanghai’s French Concession: In the Rain

One of my favorite sections of Shanghai, the French Concession neighborhood, is a bit of an oasis in the sea of modern, cramped high rises that now makes up nearly all of the city. It’s low-rise buildings and twisted alleyways hide galleries, unique merchants and relaxing cafes. A few modern shopping malls have managed to pop up here and there, but they pale in comparison to the glitzy, ultra-luxe structures that that now populate other areas, such as Xintiandi, and don’t do much to intrude on the neighborhood’s charm.

The area was once controlled by the French, as the name implies, and has remained largely unchanged in the decades since it was turned over to the Chinese government.  Through the years, it has served as a hub for people of many national origins, including French, British, American and Russian and also served as the center for Catholic activity in Shanghai.    Seemingly unlike the rest of the city, the government has imposed numerous development restrictions on the area in order to maintain it’s uniqueness and character.

In the rain, the crowds are scant and the area is still very much enjoyable.  Some of the shops occupy the entire ground floors of buildings, while others are slightly bigger than a few large closets’ worth of space.  At night, you can find a number of interesting bars and restaurants ranging from local haunts to expat hangouts.

In an area that is meant for strolling, the rain can be an annoyance but, in this case, I think it just adds to the character of the neighborhood.

Rainy French Concession:  Shanghai

Rainy French Concession:  Shanghai

Rainy French Concession:  Shanghai

Rainy French Concession:  Shanghai

Rainy French Concession:  Shanghai

Rainy French Concession:  Shanghai