This flight was a positioning flight for a quick Reward Flying round the world trip that set a record for changes made, before departure and during, which by all indications have ticket agents at United, American, Singapore and Alaska shaking their collective heads.
The original intent for this trip goes back to the summer of 2016. Cape Town was the destination. I preface all of this with my objective is to fly different carriers and aircraft, preferably ones not previously experienced, over the actual destination. Sure, seeing the world is part of the Reward Flying fun but it's not 'let's go to this place' that's the driving force. It's also reasonable and completely understandable many readers will find the next few paragraphs ridiculous at best. The perils of Reward Flying.
Some routes that were considered and even booked:
ANA 777 ORD-NRT-PEK in business, with the coveted 5A assigned, for 75K UA points simply to catch:
SQ A380 Suites (who doesn't want to fly the Suites?!) which is readily available from PEK (or PVG), then SQ B777 BC to CPT which ultimately was changed to their A350. This idea was ticketed but cancelled due to its high cost and endless string of 16,554 miles worth of flights without a break. And a $100 stopover in Singapore was out of the question because the continuation to Cape Town wasn't available the next day. Total was about 160K points and around $400 in fees back before Krisflyer devalued.
Another way to CPT was VS A330/B787 using 95K Delta points. While I never booked this, Virgin Atlantic later on cancelled the A330 ORD-LHR route, plus I wasn't excited about the A330 Upper Class experience as well as back to back overnights sandwiched by a 12 hour layover at LHR. While the Virgin LHR Clubhouse might be nice, not for 12 hours. Taking the tube to London didn't interest me either, been there done that scenario.
Coming back I booked Cathay Pacific B777 BC / B777 FC, JNB-HKG-ORD using the best deal in reward point redemptions, 70K Alaska points. But I cancelled this as I found an interesting route to get back from Cape Town as well as having previously experienced Cathay's wonderful first class product and not having success with Etihad Guest trying to book South African Airways CPT-JNB on their gas guzzling A340 (which can be purchased for $250 business class but then again they are in dire financial troubles), not to mention it's over 14,000 miles to Chicago. Going with this round trip UA/SQ/CX routing was around 230K points and about $500.00 in fees plus points or dollars to Johannesburg. I found better, or did I?
This was the best deal, created back in the day when you could build a UA itinerary with less than 24 hour layovers and fly up to 4 legs to get to your destination on a one-way ticket. So it was UA 777 Global First to Rome, Lufthansa to Munich with almost 24 hours there, then a mid day LH flight to London connecting to an Ethiopian A350 flight to Addis Ababa then an Ethiopian 787 to Cape Town for only 80K UA points. Sadly it's no longer possible to do anything remotely like this.
The return was business class on Qatar B787 to Doha, Qatar A380 to LHR, AA 777-300 to MIA and AA 767 to ORD. Seeing that Qatar A350 has my highest rated flight so far, experiencing the B787 and A380 was very much anticipated, even though it shorted the stay one day from the Cathay itinerary.
The trip was set. One night in Munich, three nights in Cape Town and one night in London. Plenty of new aircraft to review and only 155K points in total. It had ET's new A350, two 787 flights on different carriers, an A380 flight along with the elusive American Airlines reward on their flagship 777-300 seat 3A mini-cabin and first class on United. Impossible to do better for less.
Then things started to fall apart.
First Qatar changed the CPT-Doha flight to a 777. Not interested. But I was able to change that to JNB-DOH on a 787. Then they changed this to a 777 and changed back the CPT-DOH flight to a 787. Qatar is as bad as me! So I changed back, except my original day to return wasn't available anymore, I had to book a day earlier with a 21 hour layover in Doha, during Ramadan, lessening the appeal of this trip and making me wonder if this was really worth it because if counting, now it was a 2 night Cape Town trip.
Early this year American had a 767 engine blow on departure and they revised the aircraft schedule flying to/from Chicago and Miami. The 767 downgraded to a 737 and on top of that, the 777-300 from London went to a 777-200 without the new Super Diamond seats showing on the seat map. But they made amends as maybe the only award seat for the year from LHR to ORD was made available on the day I wanted to fly and it was on their 787 instead of the 767! Booked and determined to fly as I've had 4 prior American 787 flights get changed to different aircraft. Incredibly, come May 28 it wasn't to be.
Then the big one. Ethiopian changed their schedule and cancelled the Cape Town flight for the day I was flying. My choices were to have a full day/overnight in Addis Ababa and take the 787 flight the next day or hang out in the airport for a later flight through JNB and get into Cape Town at midnight. None of these were appealing for what was originally a 4 day stay in Cape Town, now with the return moved up a day, would be a 1 1/2 day stay or less. 12,775 flying miles is a long way to go for 36 hours in town. UA allowed a free cancel which I did. No other good options were available to Cape Town at the time. Sure I could have held out and waited for something to open, but it would have most likely been a South African older A330 or A340 and that wasn't appealing.
So my quest for new aircraft, carriers and destinations was becoming a nightmare. Then it got worse, by my own doing.
Having a week to travel and focusing on my American 787 flight, what do I do? Minus the bad press I wanted to fly British Airways B787 in the first class cabin. I found an interesting route from ORD to DEL. It was first class on their 747 and B787 which left on Tuesday. That might be fun, but I HATE the $550 surcharge which is actually pretty reasonable given it's only 80K points, but New Delhi wasn't at the top of my destination's list . Then I found a Virgin Atlantic 787 from DEL back to LHR to catch the American flight home. Interesting. I wanted to fly Virgin Atlantic and had some points from Delta to burn. Booked. Downside, now I had 2 flights that had $150 cancellation fees. Mistake #1.
A couple months before departure British Airways SFO-LHR on their A380 became available in first class. Ancient 747 vs. A380? Changed. Now I have to get to San Fran. I booked a Virgin America flight from ORD to LAX and LAX to SFO for 18K AMEX pay with points and I get AS frequent flyer miles back. Steal, but not-refundable. Mistake #2 and Mistake #3.
All set. I was taking an overnight layover in LHR to visit a friend. Flying to DEL and spending 2 nights and a day in New Delhi at the Marriott AeroCity. The plan was to take a 1/2 day tour of Delhi for $65 in an air conditioned car because it's rather hot in New Delhi this time of year. Then return to London and to avoid the silly British departure tax go to Amsterdam for a day at no extra cost. Just add on KLM to the Virgin flight, Delta was happy to do this and add on a British Airways flight to the American 787 flight the night before which American was happy to do, no extra charge and lower taxes. (This move backfired as well.) Paid the change fee for the AA ticket and was done. Perfect. Excited. This will be great.
Then things really got messed up.
I went to book the 4 hour Delhi tour and instead of $65 it was $180. Bait and switch! Not interested. I looked at the weather, average highs 100 degrees (turns out it was 112 degrees on my arrival). Walking around sightseeing in 100 degree heat, well my enthusiasm is waning. Too stubborn to fork over the cancel / redeposit fees, I changed to stay an extra day in London with Alaska's generous layover policy and will fly into Delhi on BA, stay at the Holiday Inn Express without leaving the airport and return on VS the next day. Silly but doable and all in the name of Reward Flying. Plus I got the IHG hotel for $89 using points from one of their sales. Better than $500 for 2 nights at the Marriott with the silly 25% hotel tax. And no $45 visa for India to boot! But London is no bargain basement place to stay either.
Then I screwed up, again.
A week before departure I got onto Alaska's website and typed in SFO-DEL Nothing. Typed LAX-DEL and up pops, for a departure one day later, Japan Airlines first class to NRT and the next day NRT to DEL on a 787 with the Apex seat (been there and not a big fan) but it was a daytime flight. Enticingly it was only 70K points and $45 instead of British Airways' 80K and $550. Same route, get 10K points and $500 back. British Airways first vs. Japan Airlines first?? Instead of London expensive hotels stay at the Hilton NRT for 20,000 points. I can visit some friends in California for a day, all I have to do is get off Virgin America in LAX. Done. Mistake #4.
Now instead of a trip to Cape Town or visiting London/Delhi, I'm headed to California and flying around the world to get home. What was I thinking??? But at least I get to visit the town of Narita for a few hours and have a full day in Amsterdam, until it rained in Japan and British Airways had an IT meltdown. And from Los Angeles to Chicago I did not step outside in the fresh air except to catch a bus at Narita to the Hilton and back. Total cost for the trip? Well let's just say the original UA/SQ/CX plan wasn't so bad afterall. And in the end I'm so glad I didn't take Virgin Atlantic to Cape Town (spoiler alert) as the $150 cancel fee was a bargain and I'm still not going to fly American's 787 which is why I did all of this in the first place.
Silver lining, I had probably the my best first class flight ever on Japan Airlines. But first, another first...
Virgin America, in a previous life I've flown from Chicago to Los Angeles a million times. Where were you then VX!!!!
The day started with the Virgin America app notifying me of a 30 minute delay. Fine, it took the rush out of getting out of the house before 6AM. I was at the airport in plenty of time.
The line for security was as long as the check-in line.
VX does not have a lounge at ORD. It was a rainy morning in Chicago.
Today's flight would be on Virgin America's newest A320, N365 airbnb force one. Boarding was late due to the gate being occupied by the prior VX departure to San Francisco. That flight was available to me when I booked the ORD-LAX-SFO flight. I didn't take the direct ORD-SFO because it left an hour earlier and since I didn't need to be in San Francisco until 6PM for my 7:30 BA flight, why not take the connection? I'd get an extra hour sleep and more FF points. No brainer right? Another decision that backfired. Had I taken the direct, any change of plans would have to have been out of San Francisco and not LA. Nothing was available out of SFO.
Is this your first time on a Virgin America plane? Me too. Cool mood lighting, except it wasn't the best for photos.
I believe the Virgin first class seats have the most pitch of any domestic airline.
This is the distance between the back of seat 2C and the translucent partition separating first from economy.
It may not be lie flat, but for domestic routes pretty awesome.
I could barely touch the back of row 1.
Time to go.
Notice that intersection in the photo. The two bridges and winding road past the bridges is part of the O'Hare expansion project. See the traffic back up. They have been working on this road and intersection for at least 6 years and still have not completed the project.
Time for breakfast. Unlike other domestic carriers that start serving lunch at 9:30AM, Virgin America serves until 10AM. This is good.
As fliers I am sure you will agree with me that coffee is typically pretty bad on airplanes. It's either been burned, has been sitting in a pot for hours or imported that tinny taste from the pot. Regardless it's not very good.
Thumbs up to Virgin America, the coffee was actually very good. Smooth and not bitter at all. Served out of a thermos.
As fliers part 2, I am sure you will agree with me that breakfast, at least egg dishes, are pretty bad on airplanes. Partly because the finished product doesn't really come from a real egg, more like some processed liquid from a box.
The poached egg dish intrigued me. Personally I like runny poached eggs. Could they actually do that? Why not find out.
Every airplane breakfast (and most other meals) have a bowl of fruit. The guava-mint syrup made this bowl pretty good, though doesn't sugar make anything better?
Ok croissant and I missed getting a clean photo of the airplane salt shaker!
The chipotle horseradish cream sauce doesn't do the dish any favors from a presentation viewpoint.
And the verdict?
While the dish was tasty it was not very warm, maybe the secret to having runny poached egg yolks. Nonetheless Michelin 3 star compared to recent American Airlines breakfasts.
Time for some entertainment.
The monitor is stored in the armrest.
Touchscreen with a bevy of choices.
Including live TV.
Seat to seat chat.
Easy to find all the options.
A decent airshow as well.
They also have an instruction card for everything else.
USB port to charge your phone is on one side of the seat with standard 110V plug on the other.
Seat controls that are really difficult to get a good photo of!
It's still winter in some parts of the west.
Carrier: Virgin America
Date: May 2017
Flight #: VX321
Aircraft: A320 #N365VA
Configuration: 8F / W12 / Y126
On Time: No
Reward Flying Rating: 6.8 out of 10 ✈
Cabin/Seats Rating: 9 out of 10 ✈
Amenity/Food rating: 6 out of 10 ✈
IFE rating: 6 out of 10 ✈
Flight Attendant rating: 6 out of 10 ✈
Aircraft rating: 7 out of 10 ✈
This was a great domestic flight in first class. Leaps and bounds above recent American Airlines flights between these two cities. And while it's been awhile since I've flown United to LA, I doubt they could be any better. Plus the flight was only $400 and with AMEX pay with points qualified as an insider fare so the total was only 18,000 points after the 50% rebate which is sadly going away soon. Saver rewards, IF available are typically at least 25K points. Plus I'll get back 4,000 or so AS points for the trip.
Maybe the highlight of the trip. West coast readers know what I'm talking about....