Sunday, April 24, 2011

Award Airline Travel: Scam or…Scam?

I’m currently on hour 42 of my “free” flight back to Hanoi. I still have roughly 20 more hours to go until I’m back in my apartment, but only 2 more until I’m in HCMC where I’ll spend the night.

There’s nothing much to say about my 60-hour trip from Honolulu to Hanoi, unless one wants to focus on various frustrations that come from poor service on airlines, at immigration, in airport hotels, etc. I just passed through Hong Kong International Airport, which to me was the worst international airport I passed through on this trip.

Part of this was due to the Regal Airport Hotel where I stayed. It was an enormous hassle to go through customs—imagine how long it takes for a line with 120 people to be served by only 2 customs officers—just so I could take advantage of a day room facility. And the check-in area of the hotel, which was run by what appeared to be a gang of teenagers, was very inefficient—another 10-15 minutes spent waiting for them to confirm my reservation and enter my information on their computer. The room itself was comfortable and spacious, but not at all worth the $156 I spent on it (shockingly, the cheapest option at Hong Kong’s airport, and much more expensive than day rooms in Singapore and Tokyo).

Granted, the room was spacious and comfortable...

And the bathroom was nicely appointed and all shiny and clean...

And the view from the window was quite nice (or would have been if there hadn't been so much haze)...but it really wasn't worth what I paid.

Like at the day room at the airport in Bangkok, I was awakened early (after almost a day and a half without sleep) — this time by a too-eager maid who had no idea I was still in my room and asleep. It would have been nice to log on to the Internet from my room at some point, but that would have cost me an additional $17. To top it off, checking out was just as slow as checking in.

Were my frequent flier miles worth my $1500 ticket savings? Yes and no. I ended up spending quite a bit on airport day rooms and on airport food and drink—including the $5 bottle of tea that I bought at a kiosk right outside my boarding gate in Hong Kong, which was promptly confiscated five minutes later upon boarding. (Seriously, what the hell is up with that?) Also, it’s hard to justify wasting more than 100 hours of my life on a round-trip flight between Hanoi and Honolulu. Somehow, I still have enough miles to take two more free flights between Asia and the U.S. I’m either going to have to find some other way to use those miles, or I’ll have to hope that the airlines will find a much better way to make award travel less of a nightmare.

I do know this: if the only choice I have to use my award miles is to spend 2 1/2 days and pass through five different countries to travel what would take less than 20 hours on a normal ticket, I’m not going to do it. And I would highly recommend that others don’t do what I’ve done, even if the savings are substantial. I’m fairly sure that my expenses just in the airports I passed through on this trip cost upwards of $500. I didn’t have to spend that much on day rooms, of course, but then is going sleepless for two and a half days on a single trip worth it?

My next international trip will be sometime in June, when I move to Japan. I’ll see if I can use my frequent flier miles for the trip. If I can’t get a direct flight from Hanoi to Tokyo with United Airline’s Award Travel program, I won’t use the miles and will make immediate plans to cancel that credit card. The option of “free” flights is obviously nice, but it seems rarely worth it in the end.

Postscript: I can’t even express my relief upon arriving in HCMC. Not only did the city, on the short ride from the airport to my hotel, feel more relaxed (so did the flight from Hong Kong, where suddenly most of the passengers were traveling in bare feet, often propped up on the armrests of the seats in front of them), but interacting with the super friendly taxi driver and hotel staff was a kind of revelation…or a re-run of past revelations. Aside from the terrible traffic, increased population density, and the occasional pushy person, I love HCMC.

I liked Kim Yen a lot and will stay there again if I have an overnight in HCMC.

I stayed the night at Kim Yen Hotel, which is only 4 km from the airport, and after 4 hours of sleep—I had no idea what time it was when I woke up; at 2:15 a.m. I thought I might be late preparing for my late morning checkout—I wandered through the streets of Phu Nhuan looking for morning com va ca phe. I couldn’t find anything to suit my tastes at 6 a.m., so I went with a two egg and mixed-everything-else sandwich (20,000 dong / $0.96) and a coffee (10,000 dong / $0.48) from a small restaurant in front of my hotel. It was heavenly.

Why are you looking at me like that? I just want to show the world what great sandwiches you make...

And why are YOU looking at me like that? Did you see me photographing the sandwich cart guys up the street or something?

Talk about inviting! Look at that beautiful, cheap, oversized glass mug of ca phe sua da.

This might look like a boring place to eat a breakfast sandwich and drink coffee in Saigon, but at 6 in the morning, with the city at its near-quietest and near-coolest, this was a little piece of heaven for me. (By the way, that's not me at the table. I'm behind the camera lens with half a sandwich stuffed in my mouth and the rim of my coffee glass wedged between my lips.)

Kim Yen Hotel is at 126 Nguyen Trong Tuyen Street, 15th Ward, Phu Nhuan District. Tel: (84) 8-3997-7005/6/7/8. Fax: (84) 8-3997-7010. Email: Web:

Back at the airport, where I had to deal with all kinds of line-challenged travelers, I got through things easier than expected. I had a suitcase weighing about 20 kilograms more than the allowable limit, and while I was ready to pay as much as $75 (I had to pay that much once before, though for an international flight), they only charged me $36. Good to know. It helped, I think, that I spoke Vietnamese to the airport staff. The women—who delayed my payment by getting the phone number of a German tourist about 65 years old — all said I was handsome, to which I said, "No, I’m ugly, I'm not handsome at all," at which point they cackled together and then wrote down the amount I was to pay. I have no idea if they gave me a flirtation discount, but I certainly tried.

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  1. Hi Sapuche! Thanks for your friend request on Foodbuzz! Wow! It's a lot of fun and interesting post here. And I saw you made lots of Japanese dishes on Foodbuzz too! Looking forward to your posts. I love Vietnamese food and it's going to be fun reading your post.

  2. Hi Nami: Thanks for accepting, and also for taking the time to leave a comment! I'm checking your site often these days to see which Japanese recipes I can make in Vietnam, and also for when I move to Japan! Arigatou!

  3. Nice photos -- and food for thought on travel and frequent flier miles!