For my recent flights to and from Istanbul, I had the great good fortune to book Mileage Plus Saver Award tickets in United Global First and Turkish Business Class. Deets below for the voyage there (I’ll post separately about the trip back), but short story is that it was a delight. It’s going to be awfully difficult to go back to coach for my next trip… Better start saving my miles again…
SFO: United Global First Lounge
Arrived at SFO and made my way to the First Class Premier Access line to check in. I nearly got into the line for Business Class – quelle horreur! There was no one manning the First Class ticket counter – but the next available agent waved me over and I was quickly provided with my boarding pass.
Security line was short, so no idea if I got “special” treatment, but was through quickly and then hurried my way to the United International First Class Lounge. Was greeted warmly by the lady at the counter – she had some trouble scanning my boarding pass, so reprinted both of them to ensure I’d have no problems boarding.
Took the elevator downstairs to the club and settled into a comfy chair by the window – had a great view of a 747 pulling up to the adjacent gate.
Helped myself to some Ruinart champagne (which I thought was delicious), selections from the sushi tray and water. The place was mostly quiet and not very full – which is frankly the best part of all. Just being able to wait for my flight in peace was as good as the free champagne.
Of course, some nimrod who showed up a bit after me and sat down right behind me, proceeded to have a video call on his iPad – using the external speaker. Seriously, WTF is wrong with people? Who does that? And of course the conversation was along the lines of “Oh, I just wanted to see if this works. Can you hear me? Ok, I guess it works. I can hear you. I can see you. Can you see me? OK, it’s working. Just checking. OK.” Jeezus… The call was short at least – though I affixed him with my best “are-you-fucking-kidding-me?” raised eyebrow once he’d hung up.
SFO-LHR: United Global First
My flight was called and I headed back up, where another agent asked if I’d like to wait for the other passengers in the lounge and she’d escort us down. I was fine on my own – plus, having read that overhead storage is at a premium in the first class cabin of a 747, I wanted to be sure I had somewhere to stow my bag (due to the curvature at the nose of the plane, the first two seats – one of which was mine – have no overhead bin and the second two have smaller-than-usual bins).
I was the second to board. Greeted warmly at the door by the purser (it was a British crew, apparently – at least all the folks in my section were British) and advised I knew where my seat was – I was probably grinning like an idiot. Then I turned left – LEFT! – to get to my seat for the next 10 hours, seat #1A (a.k.a. the Pimp Seat).
I was greeted next by the first class cabin attendant who introduced herself and saw my bag. “Oh, how about we put that right down here? As long as it’s on its side it’ll fit just fine.” indicating the small closet in the center aisle. During my extensive (some might say obsessive) research into flying up front with United, I’d heard that this closet was sometimes the source for friction between crew and passengers, with crew sometimes insisting it’s reserved for their bags. Anyway, that was certainly not the case on this flight.
The FA was extremely personable – chatting me up about my travels and sharing my enthusiasm for snagging seat 1A. She was happy to take my photo, as I luxuriated in my fancy seat pod. In fact, as the cabin filled up, there was a bit of a party atmosphere. The fellow in 2K heard me talking about Istanbul and asked about my plans, lady in 3A had some advice, too. I suppose the PDBs (pre-departure beverages, for those of you unfamiliar with the lingo up in front…) of champagne were helping to get things started right.
My seat was a delight. Comfy, roomy, three windows, tons of space to store my backpack, computer, etc., electrical outlets, a decent size TV screen, pillows and a blanket. Really just fantastic.
Purser came round again after we’d taken off, introduced himself to me, asked me some questions about my travel plans (we shared a wink when he asked why I’d chosen Tel Aviv as a destination…), took my order for dinner and asked if I wanted “turn down service” when I was ready to sleep.
Got a serving of traditional warm nuts (heh), more champagne and then dinner began a bit later. Some not-as-hot-as-they-should’ve’been apps, a quite tasty crab bisque, an OK salad and a steak that was decent-sized and serviceable. Ice cream served for dessert. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was certainly fine, generously served and accompanied with some very nice red wine – which was refilled on the regular (I actually waved away a third helping – I know, right?).
I didn’t actually use the AVOD system, so no opinion pro or con on it. I did attempt to us the onboard wifi. This was a big disappointment. First of all, despite riding up front, I still had to purchase access for $17 – way to nickel-and-dime your “premier” passengers, United. But even worse was that it was mostly non-functional for the duration of the flight. I think I had a total of maybe 20-30 minutes of online access with incredibly slow speed. A lousy experience overall. And still no response from United re. my request for a refund.
I was hoping to get a decent amount of sleep on the 10+ hour flight to LHR, so I popped an Ambien and put my seat into the flat-bed position. The turn-down “service” was really just being provided with an extra sleeping cushion to go on top of the “bed” – it wasn’t a service per se. The seat, once in the flat position, was not nearly a comfortable bed as it was a seat. It was certainly long enough, but felt a bit narrow and cramped. Plus the various contours that made it such a nice place to sit made it less so for lying in. N.B.: I AM NOT COMPLAINING! Only observing. The amount of space and comfort I had was vastly superior to any other flying experience I’ve had, including a couple of stints in overseas business class.
Anyway, I probably got about five hours of fitful sleep – certainly better than I’ve done in the past back in Economy Plus…
I know other airlines are reputed to have better service and food up front. But you know what? I was perfectly delighted with my Global First experience. Sure, the wifi didn’t work, but the spacious and comfortable seat was a pleasure. And frankly, the best part of first class is that everything is easier – uncrowded and relaxing waiting areas, no pushing and shoving to get onto the jetway, plenty of both space and privacy at one’s seat. Taking a ten-hour flight and having it be stress-free is just great. What a difference from the usual madhouse in coach.
Layover LHR: Star Alliance, Singapore Silver Kris and SAS Lounges
I had a ten hour layover at LHR (this was the big drawback of my itinerary – but considering I got first class Saver Award for this leg, it seemed a fair trade-off), so I headed for the Star Alliance lounge.
Now, here’s where I’m gonna be a little nitpicky. My award travel was booked in Global First on United – that is I “paid” for a first class ticket with my miles. But my connecting flight from LHR to IST was in business class, because Turkish Airlines doesn’t actually offer first class – business class is their highest class of service. So, since I was departing LHR in business class, I was only allowed access to the business class Star Alliance lounge, not first class. It’s not that big of a deal – in fact from what I’ve read, it’s not much different than the business class lounge other than it’s a bit less populated. But it still kinda chapped my hide.
Anyhoo, I was able to take a shower right away. What a pleasure! Very nice shower rooms, with plenty of room to tidy up and all.
Once done, I headed to the lounge (this was around noon local time) proper and helped myself to some pretty tasty sandwiches. I think there was some soup and maybe one other hot dish and maybe some sweets? Nothing to write home about, but certainly a decent and well-stocked assortment. I set up camp in the “business” area, grabbing a desk and logging into my office remotely. Spent the next several hours working, wifi AOK. This lounge stayed pretty crowded all day – it wasn’t pandemonium, but it wasn’t exactly an oasis of tranquility.
Around 6PM, I schlepped over to Terminal 3 (I’d been in T1), eventually (and not easily) finding the bus to transport me. LHR confusing as ever to get around – it’s not a very pleasant or easy airport to navigate.
Once at T3, most of the lounges all lined up and down a corridor of the center of the terminal. I decided to try Singapore first.
Very nice! Smallish space, but with high ceilings and windows overlooking a couple of gates – made for a much better atmosphere than Star Alliance. Not very many folks there – another plus. Helped myself to some amazingly tasty veg curry and rice and ordered a glass of wine from the bar. Décor not very fancy, but this was a really great place to hang out. Had another glass of wine, some more tasty food – a creamy, mild chicken curry – and enjoyed the twilight view of the airport.
Final stop was at the SAS Lounge. Large, occupying two floors. Food was cheese, bread, yogurt, cold cuts (I think?) plus some self-serve wine and beer. The place looked like it was done up in IKEA – which is perfectly fine. But the place hasn’t been updated in years and had a rather threadbare and kind of dingy feel. Plus, at this point I’d been hanging out for nearly nine hours, so I was impatient to get on my flight to IST.
My next flight was scheduled for around 10:30PM. And they do a weird (and annoying) thing at LHR, apparently – gate info for flights isn’t posted until the flight is open for boarding. But the fellow at the SAS Lounge desk gave me my gate info ahead of time, so I headed down there about 9:30.
Found the gate – nary a passenger there, but staff was ready, so I proceeded to the boarding area and had a seat. “Hmm, I guess it’ll be an empty flight, what with the late hour and all.”
WELL. In about 15 minutes, every seat at the gate was taken and there were mobs of people and luggage everywhere. Then, they made an announcement that they were NOT ready to begin boarding and everyone should remain seated – this was taken as a cue for every single person to rush the doors to the jetway (which were closed and locked).
All I can say is, thank FSM that they pre-boarded business class (apparently Turkish can be a little blasé about this nicety). I literally had to elbow my way through the crowds to get to the front – and the gate agent gave me a look as he said “Business class only.” Yeah, that includes me, bud… Lemme on.
LHR-IST: Turkish Airlines Business Class
The equipment was a rather elderly A320. Business class fairly roomy, but with tired seats with manual seat adjustment – they were comfortable though and it was late, so totally fine.
This was a VERY strange flight – though as I’d find out on my other flights with Turkish to and from TLV, pretty much par for the course. First of all, despite the usual announcements about seats upright, tray tables locked, etc., the flight crew did literally nothing to enforce any of these. The two horrible spoiled teenagers (I know – redundant) across from me (BTW, I don’t think anyone under 18 should be permitted to fly in business or first. Or maybe even under 40…) were fully reclined, foot rests out, monitors out of their stowed position throughout taxi, takeoff and landing. Not an eye was batted (except by me, obv).
Now, keep in mind, by the time we were in the air, it was well-after 11PM. I know Turkish is especially well-reputed for their food – and I figured what with the late hour and all, we’d get a nice late snack. Which we did – some cold sliced chicken, smoked fish and some salad and dessert. But then after that, a hot entrée was served! By the onboard chef! I think I had lamb skewers? Remember, I’d been en route for about 24 hours at this point, so my recollection is hazy. But I ate it all – and it was very tasty. But it still seemed weird… Good weird – but weird.
It was kind of nice getting to Ataturk Airport at 530AM – place was empty and passport control was a breeze (especially compared to the throngs I’d find when I returned in two weeks).
My suitcase was literally the first one off the conveyor belt at the luggage carousel (those “PRIORITY“ stickers really work!). Breezed on out to the main concourse, saw my name on the car service placard and I was shortly on my way into Istanbul. After 30 hours en route, I must say, I felt in relatively good shape – amazing how all those perks and comforts make for such a pleasant journey!