Wondering why retired people with no job waiting for them back home would experience jet leg, let me go on record and dispel a myth. Despite not having any schedule other than deciding what and when to eat, sleep and leave the house, our body’s natural rhythm known as “the body clock” doesn’t care nor understand you were laid off almost five years ago and chose an experimental overseas early retirement. Having returned from our excruciatingly long North American jaunt that totaled just over 34 hours and landed us in our living room just under two full days after leaving, I learned that losing an entire day due to time differences and trans-continental flights catches up to you no matter how much you sleep on the planes. Attempting a return to my rather “anal” routine, it took until the third morning until I finally felt rested. Which leads me into my segment on our choice to spend almost a thousand extra bucks for “premium economy”. Throughout this post, I’ll include pictures showing what you get for your extra money on Cathay Pacific Airlines.
Having returned to Chiang Mai during the off-peak months when the rainy season blues are in full swing, I noticed my first post after a two month layoff garnered little fanfare compared to my historical numbers despite having somehow picked up dozens of new followers even without posting any new content. Realizing I’m not the interactive type, this doesn’t surprise me but I’d like to at least feel like somebody besides me gives a crap (or even enjoys) my style of slightly off beat cynical yet realistically optimistic expat tales, so instead of spending all the gloomy days in the coffee shop playing Words with Friends and pretending to practice speaking Thai, I’ll put off the morning walks on non-workout days and focus on getting more content out there. Thankfully, I did go to a gym once in both Edmonton and Calgary which is ambitious for a “vacation” so hitting the weights again was easier than returning from our recent springtime escape from the Chiang Mai Burning Season.
Returning to the reverse culture shock issue briefly, I’ll add that joining a gym in the suburbs of a mid-sized Thai city brings better opportunities for making like-minded western friends and even makes me feel young. Devoid of most “hard bodies” and other meatheads that always invade your space to show how much stronger they are than you, we see mostly regulars in their 50’s and older and even have an 84-year-old that’s more fit than 90% of the fatties we saw back in North America. Mostly married to Thai wives that rarely interact with westerners due to the unspoken but understood social contract that ensures they’re taken care of financially, it’s as much a social affair as a workout and we enjoy that. But let’s talk about the topic at hand. Back in 2009, we chose Cathay Pacific for our first trip to Thailand and found them to be professional, relatively economical and bearable for a 12 hour journey in economy.
Fast forwarding, times changed drastically and a host of upstart Chinese airlines serving an upcoming middle class in the world’s largest potential tourism market put a huge strain on Cathy’s business model. Primarily relying on insanely expensive first and business class flyers taking long haul flights for their profits, economic woes put enormous pressure on Cathay as companies no longer splurge and mainland Chinese business people flock to lower cost discount airlines based in China. (Hong Kong is Cathay’s home base). Needing to increase lower fare travelers led Cathy to follow the trend and add a “Premium Economy” class to their pricing tier. Not usually a fan of paying more for a seat in economy that’s a half-inch bigger with a smidgen more leg room and offers a paltry “perk” or two like an extra drink or unlimited bags of pretzels, American airlines no doubt pioneered the art of charging more so people can feel special. Having researched Air Canada’s long hail premium economy service from Hong Kong to Vancouver on our first trip back home 18 months ago, it made no economic sense whatsoever.
But unlike our first trip where we stayed in Hong Kong a few days to break up the long travel time, this time we planned a multi city jaunt that included seeing my parents in New York as well as Diane’s family in Alberta, Canada so after initially heading right into the economy screen, I went for broke (well, an extra 900 bucks anyway) and pulled up the premium economy choices. Aware it’s easy enough to pull up any number of You Tube videos or other personal reviews of premium economy service, I’ll throw in my disclaimer. Not exactly the easiest location to fly home from, living three air hours or more inland from any Asian port city often means adding lots of extra connection time to the journey. Everyone experiences things differently so while this post is hopefully informative and maybe slightly entertaining, your opinion might be totally different from mine.
Thankfully, Chiang Mai’s gained enough notoriety (and Chinese tourists) to call for non stop service from gateway cities like Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing which all offer long haul connections to North America. While you can fly to one of five west coast cities via those connections, there’s only two airlines that fly non stop from Hong Kong to New York. And given that one of them is United, that immediately narrows it down to one. If you’re American and choose a U.S. based airline for any international travel other than Canada, you either haven’t done your research about what long haul flights should be like or you’re stuck in some Trump world of misguided patriotism.
Initial searches of premium economy for long haul showed that Cathy Pacific ranks about third or fourth behind the world’s best full service airlines like Singapore Air, Qutar Airways and Emirates according to most consumer reviews. Given that none of the others fly east from Asia and our short-term future travel plans probably won’t take us to Europe via the Middle East, our observations are probably best suited for expats living from points west of India on the Asian continent. Even better, should you happen to live in Chiang Mai (or be thinking about it) and have travel needs that include New York City, Vancouver and the mountain provinces of Canada in one trip, Cathay Pacific’s multi city premium economy option that includes the leg from Chiang Mai to Hong Kong on Cathy Dragon (formerly Dragonair) is perfect for you. First off, let’s mention the itinerary.
Needing to travel from Vancouver to Alberta, the last time we went back home in 2016 (from Penang), we chose Air Canada due to their available connections from Vancouver to Calgary and Edmonton. But while they share alliances with some airlines out here, the Asian based companies offer no incentive for booking the first leg from wherever you live to Hong Kong through Air Canada, which means instead you have to pay thousands of dollars for a flight that’s available for less on discount airlines like Air Asia. So for Canadians in Thailand with relatives in New York and Canada, that option is dumb. Instead, try a multi city option with Cathay Pacific. (Sadly, we still had to book another multi city trip on Westjet from Vancouver to Edmonton and back again from Calgary because driving is way too long).
Also Unfortunate for us, Cathay flies three daily non stops from Hong Kong to New York and one where you stop for refueling and a cabin crew change in Vancouver. As the only USA bound flight given the “privilege” of a transit through Canada without U.S. customs “pre-clearance”, however, Cathay only allowed a multi city connection using this flight. Initially, I thought it was because it’s not possible to book long lags between flights on one itinerary as a “layover” but then realized that’s an asinine American rule designed to make passengers spend more. On a side note, I experienced my first episode of white privilege on the 90 minute Vancouver stop when they sent me to one empty line for a secondary security check while almost every other passenger on the predominantly Asian flight (including Diane) got sent to a longer line and was heavily screened. It was obviously justifiable because Chinese terrorism is such as a major problem in Trumpmerica.
On the bright side, Cathay lets passengers get on and off in Vancouver or just travel the North American leg so we booked a combination that included the stopover flight to New York (CX 888), another flight from New York back to Vancouver seven days later (CX 889), and a third one from Vancouver to Hong Kong three weeks after that (CX 889 again) all on one itinerary. Also included in our five flight multi-city segment itinerary were connecting flights on Cathay Dragon from Hong Kong to Chiang Mai and back. Noting there’s no premium economy available on the Cathy feeder airline formerly known as Dragonair, the website tells you this and so deciding if the entire cost is worth it comes down to personal choice. Given that it’s a short two and a half hour flight and there’s only two rows of business class on the Dragonair flight, it was both practical and cost-effective to check the bags all the way through to JFK in Chiang Mai. And if you book the CNX/HKG route separately, you’ll see they want about $400 more for the “business class option” which is nuts.
Normally avoiding sharing specific financial details of our lives for obvious privacy reasons in a dangerous scam filled blogosphere. it would seem incomplete to write this post without including the price tag for comparative purposes. On the days we flew, this itinerary came to $4,951 USD once converted. Noting that flight itineraries are always priced in the currency of the originating flight, we kind of got screwed because the U.S. dollar dropped 20% versus the Thai Baht since last summer and we use a U.S. Dollar “no foreign transaction fee” credit card (as all expats should) to pay for airline tickets. Naturally, the dollar recovered almost all of its loss after The Fed raised interest rates last month. But given a total of 17,804 air miles over five flights and two airlines on one itinerary and adding in the comfort of better sleep and premium amenities, $3.59 per air mile flown seemed worth it to me.
If you’re still reading, you probably want to know how we felt about our premium economy experience so here’s some of the specifics along with my own opinions. First off, although they know they’re being clobbered with their bread and butter being reduced in a world where physical presence is less important to high-end business people, it’s obvious that Cathay Pacific still cares more about the élite flyer. Reviewing the schematic diagram of the Boeing 777-300 ER they use for the HKG/JFK route, they waste literally half the entire plane on business class “pods”. Not that we’d know, but I’ve always visualized long haul business class seats as being large, plush and fully reclined. Having reconfigured their planes extensively since we first flew with them, they’ve come up with an ergonomically advantageous business class with seats that they angle sideways to squeeze in as many customers as possible.
Devoting 59 seats and 26 to rows to business and first class and another 38 seats to premium economy, Cathay Pacific uses 34% of all seats for high-end fares and take up almost half the entire plane. Oddly enough, they sell out almost every economy seat on all their Hong Kong to North America flights 365 days a year but we counted as much as half the business class cabin empty on all three long haul legs. Upgrading to business class costs a few thousand more per person so while I couldn’t even sneak a quick test of one of the unoccupied seats, I’d have to be much snobbier (or wealthier) to pay for that based on looks alone.
Thankfully, Cathay’s premium economy class is more suited for average middle class travelers like us whose careers didn’t include perks to far away places in luxurious cabins. As the only premium economy brand with a dedicated bathroom and separate cabin, it feels more “premium” than Air Canada where you walk back dozens of rows if you need to pee and ride shotgun with the poor schleps in economy class. As for United, a visit to TripAdvisor’s review of the JFK/HKG flight reveals that 14,983 out of over 28,000 travelers (more than half) rated it average, poor or terrible. Configured as four rows of window/aisle with two seats (instead of three), four side by side middle seats and one row of four bulkhead seats (also in the center,) the cabin itself felt private and cozy but the comfort level depends on where you sit. Unlike Diane, who took a good degree of convincing why we needed to pay for premium economy, seat selection on long haul flights for me is up there with choosing the right dentist and buying a good car so I spent extensive time searching for videos, reviews and blogs of those who’ve flown this leg before.
Finally deciding on seats 34A and 34C for two of the three long haul legs, I deemed the last row in the small cabin on the left side as a mostly good seat because you get an entire overhead compartment, recline at will without disturbing anyone, have extra room for crap behind the seat due to the cabin divider and aren’t disturbed by anyone passing by except the flight attendants. Visiting the bathroom is the big negative. Using the premium cabin as means of transit involves stepping over and usually tripping on the passengers in the bulkhead row. Option two is go behind the curtain on both sides and do the same to the economy class passengers. Since it’s a red-eye, they turn all the cabin lights off after the meal and the individual seat light is so high and bright, most Asians would never turn it on because it’s highly disturbing.
Already unable to get the left side seats on the day we bought the tickets despite the seven month advance purchase, we settled for the right side on the trip back. Considered a trade-off, the toilet run is easier but look carefully at the above diagram and you’ll notice they place the row further back to fit the bathroom which means you’re actually sitting in the economy cabin and they tweak the curtain on an angle to make you feel private. And since the meals come from the cheap seats, the curtain stays open during the meal service and about an hour after. As for the seats themselves, they’re a bit wider and more comfy and recline just enough to tease you into thinking a full stretch is possible.
Equipped with retractable foot rests and small secondary foot rests on the seat in front of you, one would think it’s better but I found almost every possible seat position either too long, too short or one step away from the perfectly comfortable rest I’d hoped for. But I almost guarantee you’ll sleep a bit better. Winding up surprised each time I looked at my watch and found I’d slept so many hours, I barely had any time for in flight entertainment so don’t ask me about that. Food trays stow inside like the bulkhead rows and they use the slight extra space between seats for an extra bit of cup space. Compartments on the seat cushion in front are as tight as economy but there is a small extra space for storing phones or small items and there’s a charger that’s impossible to reach if you’re short and in the reclined position so I made sure to be at 100% before boarding.
One nice feature is advance boarding for premium economy after the rich folks and since there’s only 38 seats, the line isn’t usually too long. But because everyone boards the plane in front of business class, only the one percenters in first class get any time for getting situated because the always resentful economy crowd comes barreling through the narrow aisles immediately after the last premium economy passenger boards which was about thirty-two seconds after we got to our seats. Other premium perks are quickly disbursed before take off and include a hot towel, a glass of red wine or champagne and a small amenity kit with eye patch, ear plugs, and miniscule non brand toothpaste and toothbrush. The biggest improvement since the old days for me was the large “noise cancelling headphones” which actually are amazingly silencing for sleep but there’s no longer an opportunity to watch any video using your own headphones as they changed the jack to some stupid three prong configuration. For me, the headphones get very bulky, hot and uncomfortable after a while but most of the 48 western movies available all sucked anyway and we’d already seen the few really good ones. Preferring my Spotify playlist with over 8,000 songs, I discovered they only show HD quality in the élite seats so don’t expect much more in that category.
So while my write-up might not sound like some of the rave reviews I saw on the internet, I’d say it was well worth it for the better sleep and two seat configuration alone. Advertising the food as an upgrade from economy, this is probably a stretch because from the from the right side seats I noticed they were eating the same Canadian striploin in the bulkhead row of economy as we were. Serving dinner at 3 AM to New York and 4:30 AM on the way back followed by breakfast about an hour before landing, the steak option was enjoyable and surprisingly filling but as expected, quality declines significantly on the JFK/YVR leg since the food comes out of New York and American airline food is usually akin to prison slop when compared to the rest of the modern world. Probably the first time we’ve ever had real silverware and paper napkins on a flight, that’s nice touch and the croissants and Haggen Dazs ice cream finish off a good meal. And don’t get excited; the food pictures below are from the layover in Hong Kong.
Not really needing anything else other than what I’ve described since they time every leg to fly in almost total darkness, the friendliness and professionalism of the Hong Kong and Vancouver based staff was above average and not so much for the JFK based staff but thankfully they get off in Vancouver. And the only time passengers were annoying was on the way home because one-third of the passengers were New Yorkers making the complete journey to Hong Kong. Unlike in Asia where everyone understands and follows basic rules of flying like how and when to board without eighteen announcements, Americans do whatever they like and the economy folks disturbed us many times by using the bathroom reserved for my more expensive ticket. And without ridiculous U.S Airspace rules prohibiting “congregation in and around the galleys and cabins”, the New York kids ran back and forth between the two cabins until I told one little brat to stop and received a nasty look from his father.
Yeah, we’ll take Asia for now. Cheers and happy flying.
Comments, criticism and compliments are always encouraged.