Magic at the Magic Castle Hotel

There most certainly was champagne on the Qantas flight to LA. Unfortunately not Taittinger but Duval-Leroy Brut. A new one for me, and enjoyable. Qantas Business class was at the usual standard, the crew were excellent (to great but that’s another story), we enjoyed the offerings of Qantas business. So much so that the missus is seriously considering the US$2000 to upgrade the return. All of this is something that I might save for another story. Instead what about the magic

We landed at LAX pretty wrecked despite the almost flat Skybeds, after immigration and battling shuttle buses we had a hire car as booked, and 1 suitcase too small. Europcar decided against the free upgrade, no doubt because they handed the booking off to Advantage. I didn’t notice, or care, because I was more stunned about the immigration officer being unable to get a single name correct as per our passports. It has been entertaining to call each other by our US CBP names.

We set off towards our hotel in Hollywood. The new Android phone had google maps talking at me with an accent, speaking in yards and miles, and with me saying righty tighty ¬†or lefty loosey for every turn. It works. An hour later, oil wells and the missus thinking I’m being good for only sticking to 40, we arrived at the Magic Castle Hotel at about 9 am. After announcing myself at reception hoping to ask to store some suitcases, I was astounded to be told that the room will be ready in about an hour and then invited to enjoy the complimentary breakfast.

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That is a reflection of the Magic Castle Hotel. Free breakfast for all guest, complimentary multi mix drink machine, free snacks and 24/7 heated swimming pool. The breakfast also includes vegemite, a reflection of the large number of guests from the antipodes. The staff are excellent and didn’t seem to want tips. Parking is reasonable at $13 a night. The rooms are clean and tidy and they all have a kitchen. the hotel used to be apartments in a former life, this is reflected in the space of the rooms and the feel of the complex.

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Location is conveniently 1 street from Hollywood Boulevard, and it was an easy drive over to Burbank, Santa Monica, Beverley Hills and Griffith Park.

Overall, the Magic Castle Hotel was the perfect way to acclimatise to the time zone with a 2 night and 3 day stay. It’s no Waldorf Astoria, who has that kind of coin anyway, but it gets the job done. Highly recommend.

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New Brisbane International Lounge

Currently sitting in the new Brisbane Qantas lounge at the International airport and I’m not sure if it’s good or bad. It’s crowded in the morning, the internet upstairs is slow (hence the limited pictures) and the available lounge area seems to be smaller. But there is an upstairs area and the openness is definitely a step up from the previous first class room.

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The level of service has also improved, especially for those using the business lounge. There are made to order small plates, eggs benedict and egg and bacon muffin for breakfast, with wait service into the lounge. There are also the usual range of buffet options.

Seating clearly caters to individuals or couples. We has some trouble finding space for the 5 in our group. Finding space is also a bit confusing, some people were escorted to seating, whereas we had to fend for ourselves. The escorted people didn’t otherwise appear to have special service as would be expected for chairman’s lounge types.

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That’s points to the downgrade in service, without a separate first room there is no obvious champagne available in the lounge, rumour says it may be offered to the special people. Instead only Australian bubbly is on offer to the hoi polloi. This is a downgrade for the ordinary Platinum Qantas member. As a cost cutting measure this might work well.

Overall an improved lounge with some downgrades for those who fly a lot, but don’t fly enough. Anyway, there is real champagne available on the plane and boarding is calling.

Foreign Currency – Best Price guaranteed

The best exchange rate is always the holy grail of anyone travelling beyond the wide brown plains of Australia. As a person with hundreds of flights between Adelaide and Sydney I don’t often have to think about exchanging the little Aussie battler. But on the rare occasion that I get to leave Australia I search hard for the best exchange rate possible. Cash and minimal fees is my the preference. Low fees means I avoid cash passports, the big four banks and just about all credit cards – these all have poor exchange rates and at least 3 or 4 percent in fees. or the dreaded spread. The spread is the difference between the price they’ll sell and buy foreign currency. A spread of 5 to 10 cents in the dollar is at least 6% profit to the person selling you the funny money from overseas.

Perhaps a bit of background to all these terms. The Mid market rate is basically the middle of the buying and selling market for currencies. This is the number they tell us on the news every night. At the moment the mid market rate for Oz$ (AUD) to US$ (USD) is US$0.7466 for every Oz$. But no one will sell you a USD at that rate. If we look at NAB they’ll only give me US$0.71 for A$1, that’s the sell rate. But I need US$0.7752 to buy A$1, the buy rate. That’s how they make money on currency exchange, they keep 6.5 US cents for every dollar they turn over.

The Citibank Plus debit card is amazing when it comes to avoiding fees. It is fee free for all overseas transactions AND Citibank have great exchange rates. Generally within 0.5 cents of the mid market rate. The one potential problem of Citibank plus, besides the difficulty of actually signing up, is the risk of currency movements. The exchange rate is based on when you make a purchase or withdraw money from the ATM. My normal approach is to hedge against exchange rate changes by getting cash money. If the Aussie dollar gets worst then I use the cash, otherwise I can still use Citibank when overseas.

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Traditionally, I used UAExchange in Adelaide. They’ve given me excellent rates for a long time – getting very close to the Citibank Plus debit card. But for the last 2 years Travel Money Oz have come out as the dark horse in the field. Why? Because they have a price beat guarantee. You have to ask for a better rate, you have to spend 10 minutes checking the other exchange places. It’s worth the effort. They have had the best prices for Euro, Malaysian Ringit, Sing$, Korean Won and most recently US$. They were less than 1 cent within the mid market rate for US$!! The old school competitive exchange places in Adelaide simply refused to compete, instead they wanted to stick to a 6 cent spread. Travel Money Oz most definitely does have the best rates – guaranteed. Just make sure you ask for a better rate. Ask and you shall receive…

Not so boring, but rather plane

I seem to be doing the more interesting flying recently. This time a quick trip to South Korea to share the news from Australia and New Zealand. Singapore airlines turned out to be the best option flying Sydney to Incheon and return to Adelaide. Especially nice was the price which wasn’t too bad for a last minute booking. Made better because the price was $200 less when booking using Safari. Strange but all other web browsers and even a travel agent couldn’t find the price I got.

One downside is my lack of airline recognition in the Singapore world. Fortunately Citibank are still giving me Priority Pass with 2 free lounge visits per year. The 2 hour transit in Singas allowed enough time to pop into a lounge. SQ8 was departing from terminal 3. I decided to try out the SATS Premium Lounge, as I’d previously been to the Dnata lounge in terminal 3. 


As far as lounge goes it was pretty basic. The food options average but filling, mainly catering to suit the tastes of Asian clientele. I’d probably use the dnata lounge in future. But SATS lounge does have showers, which are a blessing for freshening up before a 2:25 am departure. I long shower, quick snack and it’s time to get on a plane. 

 

Boring maybe; uncomfortable definitely not

A very quick note about one of the best tools for the frequent flyer: Expert Flyer. It manages to pay for itself every year, even with a US$100 subscription fee. We managed to get 4 upgrades a few years ago. I constantly use it to find award availability and also seat availability.

Today that last feature paid off – seat alerts. I’m jetting away with Singapore Airlines next week. At the time of booking there were only middle seats available, down the back next to the toilet (or something like that). So I set up a seat alert for all the good seats and today the email came through. Now I have a nice comfy aisle seat up the front.

A quick update. Love the special flying tools. 

 

 

Storms, Delays, Seats and Tweaks

This week's flight home turned into a mini adventure. The first part of the adventure happen early in the week when I realised that I had selected any seat at all. Luckily I was able to get into a aisle seat in row 8, on the Qantas 737. It was completely shocking that a flight booked in May 2016 did not have a seat selected. These situations always create the droll joke about not knowing the plane went back that far. The seat didn't matter as I had an external meeting to attend before the flight. The agenda was short enough to give confidence the meeting would end early.

Friday arrived with the day getting off to a good start. The morning meeting was quick and efficient. The afternoon meeting was on time and the lunch was pretty good as well. The first hint of trouble was when the Chair opted for an early start as there were storms due for Sydney. Storms and Sydney are danger words for anyone getting on a plane. The sky was looking ominous through the window. We powered through the agenda to get out of the meeting in enough time to make the walk to the central station just before the rain started.

Sydney airport had actually closed by the time I made it to the Qantas Business Lounge to check in. The front desk person dropped a couple of hints along the lines of "If you want to get home tonight, I can move you to an early flight". I wasn't going to argue with that logic. Not least because even with a free hotel for the night courtesy of Qantas, I had no clean clothes left! They moved me to QF765 but in window seat in row 11. I don't like window seats that much, especially over the wing.

The new flight was due to leave in about 30 minutes, but with the airport closed it was a matter of settling in for a drink, snack and an easy view of the flight info boards. Then this happened:

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Just a little bit delayed

Delayed until almost my original flight time. I quick trip to the front desk of the lounge saw me moving to the 18:15 departure, QF763. The good news there was an aisle seat, in Row 28. ūüėÜ Take the good with the bad I guess. This was the time to settle in to wait for the flight. The timing meant it was pointless to switch further, even if this third flight was bound to be delayed.

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Row 28: Yes the plane really does go back that far

As is my way, I got on early to secure overhead space. I settled in to watch proceedings. A comfortable flight was on the cards when a young kid turned up to sit in the middle; his parents in the row behind. After about 80% were onboard the situation got messy. A young lady turned up, made a fuss about offering the young kid the window seat. Then she asked if I'd might swapping with her partner in 18C so they can sit together. This is a challenging and confusing moment.

Pros: Excellent seat swap etiquette, never ask anyone to move back in the plane. Cons:  Overhead locker space? Movie already back to previous spot. Seat buddy in 18B?

In the end I rewarded the good seat swap etiquette. Thus I stood up, lost my overhead space and played musical dances with other passengers while explaining that I'd kindly offered to swap (so they need to get out of the way). I was literally the last passenger standing when I got to 18C to find a "rather large gentleman" in the middle seat. Ok, he was massive, his arms took one-third of my seat.

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We're an hour late, they want all passengers to sit down so they can shut the door - and I'm like No way in hell am I going to suffer that for 2 hours. I done it before, that larger passenger (mostly muscle by the looks) needs to buy himself 2 seats. Fortunately, I had been watching the seat map on Expertflyer. I knew 4D was available, I could see it was available. I just followed the crew member who had helped me move to the front of the plane. Explained that I'm not sitting in 18C and they told me to just sit there (4D). In fact, I was told - "Just sit down, sir!" I was more than happy to get off and wait for another flight.

Luckily they let me self upgrade to a seat where my back wasn't going to be crunched.

Whether the Weather

The big news over night is Tornados, Cyclones, Hail and Thunder hitting South Australia and Adelaide yesterday. It was pretty wild stuff by the look of it. A small part of me was sad to have missed it, having lived through a pretty big cyclone in Cairns as well as numerous Brisbane summer storms. But it was pretty big stuff, The Adelaide Advertiser has a decent set of pictures, so I’d rather not down play the seriousness. I particularly love the dude out surfing, something that a few people did during the cyclone in Cairns as well. When the swell’s up… Read More

Back with Virgin Australia

I had the chance to get back with Virgin Australia this week. Perhaps fitting to end my Qantas year with flights on Virgin Oz. I was approaching this event with some trepidation, as my year with Velocity ended in August. I’d already had the dreaded account review dropping me to Silver Velocity a couple of weeks ago. The reasons for this drop are many and varied – I don’t think Virgin’s on board experience is that special to justify maintaining Platinum or even Gold. That’s a double edged sword as the less you fly with them the less the status matters. Qantas status was looking hard to get this year, but ended up¬†10% over the target. Regularly changing Velocity levels gets more benefits than just keeping the same level. Seriously, yes Virgin don’t reward the loyal flyers. I guess that is why it’s called the golden handcuffs, they know they have you locked in. Anyway, having kept the Qantas status for the year, it was only fitting to end the year on a free Virgin Australia trip from a credit card.

¬†As it turned out one of my gripes with Virgin Oz turned into a blessing. It takes them upto a month after the end of the member year to review your new status level. Consequently, they add an extra month to the expiry of your fancy card. I did waste a bit of time at a broken check in kiosk on the assumption that I couldn’t use the lounge, but soon decided to push my luck. I was welcomed with open arms for lounge check in. Yay! Shame about the¬†7 minute wait¬†for coffee. Seven very long minutes at 5:15 am. After the coffee, I was able to look around a bit and noticed that they had finished the lounge expansion. This explained why the area to the right of the lounge entry was looking a bit different. The outside of the new lounge is¬†pretty funky with timber features. Funky conservative? Is that a style?

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On the inside it’s really just a long area that adds a fair bit of much needed seating. Empty seating on Monday morning, but one delayed flight and that will soon be full. A good number of single seats, there seems to be a large number of single travellers in lounges. I don’t know, people just shooting off to work for the week. ūüėČ

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Maybe 30 extra seats

The line was too much to be bothered with a second coffee, even at that time of the morning. Perhaps there’s been some staff changes or perhaps the wait at the broken check in kiosk got me. Either way I wandered down to Gate 14 safe in the knowledge¬†that I could use priority boarding 1 more time. ¬†The flight was packed, pretty much. I got into my row 7 seat and waited. The seat buddy came along soon enough, nice guy. It took him a bit of time to realise that I was half standing up because I knew there was someone else sitting with us. No doubt he is telling his friends about the strange guy who was half standing up for no reason.

There was only one of the regulars on the flight. That was a bit of a shock. This is a guy I first met in 2010, in Row 24 on a Tiger Airways flight from Sydney to Adelaide, on a Thursday night. What are the odds of randomly taking a Tiger flight and being seated next to another bloke who is also doing Adelaide to Sydney fly in, fly out? Pretty bloody rare, I think. I tipped him the usual nod and a wink, in 6 years I reckon we’ve spoken about 127 words to each other, most of those were on the Tiger flight. Basically we’re both in our routine, no need to say much.

The extra seat buddy arrived soon enough so that I could sit down and enjoy the overhead baggage locker Tetris. I’ve started a draft post on overhead baggage so won’t get into too much detail, the greatest puzzle is why there is always one¬†person who puts their small computer satchel flat in the overhead, instead of standing it up.

Once our row was all settled I fired up the Virgin Entertainment App to find a movie to watch. Virgin Australia definitely have the best domestic in flight entertainment. Why? Because it’s consistent. I can start a movie on a 90 minute flight and know that I’ll get to finish it on the return in 3 days. (again the subject of a draft blog) We had an amazing tail wind and landed 90 minutes after scheduled departure – that’s pretty much unprecedented for Adelaide to Sydney. Of course, arriving early did mean a 10 to 15 minute wait on ground for another plane to get out of our gate. The plane doors opened pretty much on time.

Soon enough I was on the train, on the way to work but wondering if the expiry date on the Gold card was “on the date”, or “the day after the date”. The next flight is exactly on the listed¬†expiry date. We’ll have to see. Next week it’s flying on Singapore, a Virgin Australia partner, as an honest, salt of the earth silver.

I been back from Bali, too

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks since¬†I made it back from Bali safe and sound. I arrived back into Adelaide at about 6 am Saturday morning with a 1 day turn around to get some sleep and see the family before a conference started on Sunday. This time I had a fair bit of work to do at the conference between one thing and another. Plus trying to learn something from the speakers.

The flight back from Bali was rather a different experience to the flight up. We had the rare opportunity of an on tarmac boarding experience, no doubt related to being a small airplane and not orange either. Walking on the tarmac and being so close to landing planes is pretty exciting for an aviation fan. Yes, while waiting to get on my Jetstar flight that AirAsia flight landed and turned off the runway right behind us.

Bali airport has a good range of amenities to use before¬†your flight – eateries, bars and such. I opted for a second tier lounge courtesy of the¬†Priority Pass membership that comes free with a¬†Credit Cards. This membership includes 2 free lounge visits a year that I rarely get to use, so this was a great opportunity to cash in. The lounge was actually very good, with a ¬†balcony area, basic hot and cold food, beer wine and spirits, plenty of power outlets (need adapter) and a nice enough shower. I only called it second tier because they didn’t have BinTang! ūüėģ ūüėÜ ¬†They didn’t offer toiletries for the shower, just a towel; this is pretty normal so make sure you have soap and toothpaste.

After a few beers to relax for the flight, I took a stroll around Bali airport with a plan to arrive early to the gate. Our flight was departing from Gate 6A, and that “A” bit seemed a bit unusual.¬†Sure enough I arrived at Gate 6 to find a big airplane that was going to¬†Melbourne, there was no obvious 6A.

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Gate 6A – bus gate

Almost exactly as I noticed the sign pointing to the gate an announcement was made telling us to go downstairs for Gate 6A. After a short walk I was in the basement ready to board the bus that would take us to the plane. I made the second bus, once at the aircraft boarding took about 15 minutes. There was at least another bus load to get on as we waited for a while before more people joined us. The flight was rather full.

Once on board there was a rather interesting experience to find someone sitting in my seat. There was a bit of a discussion on this point including some confusion about seat numbers, or letters to be more precise. “B”/”C”. “What someone sits there in the middle?” Turns out the guy was my seat buddy in the middle seat. There was genuine shock to learn that he was the person who was going to be sitting in that middle seat.

It was also interesting that a crew member came over pretty quickly to see what was happening. The seat buddy was travelling with a bit of a group, with dad in the “A” seat and mum a few rows in front. I later wondered if they were the reason for the wait on the tarmac, it was an interesting flight. Dad and son did not leave their seats at all during the 5 hour flight. At one stage I even got up for about 10 minutes to give them a chance at a toilet break. Nada!

They also left the reading lights on for the entire flight, even while sleeping.¬†Leaving reading lights on during an overnight flight is pretty disruptive. The poor lady in the row behind with two young children certainly had a few problems. Other than being a bit strange, my seat mates didn’t bother me. They could be excused as new flyers who just don’t have on board experience. It takes a bit of time to experience the annoying things to learn not to do them to others. Feet tapers and seat grabbers are totally annoying. This week the guy in the seat behind not only had to grab the seat to get up, but also just randomly grabbed my seat about 4 times during a 90 minute flight, perhaps he had worms or something. People tapping their feet along to music send reverberations through the entire seat. Needless to say I take extra care to not tap my feet nor grab the seat in front.

Regardless of all the little things soon enough a flight is over. So it was with the return from Bali. Again no complaints about the Jetstar service or meals. Being a night flight there was no indulging beyond the included meal, masaman beef curry. After arriving back in Adelaide immigration and baggage claim was painless. I was back on the ground, at home and a week off from flying to attend the conference.

‘Cause I been to Bali too

It wasn’t on Qantas flight 20, but Jetstar flight 127. Transport prices have also changed a bit since Redgum released that song in 1984. They paid $20 to ride in the back of a truck to Kuta. (According to the Reserve Bank of Australia that would be worth $58 today) A private pick up to Sanur set me back $32, and that was expensive! Of course,¬†a ride in the back of a truck would’ve been more fun.

The Jetstar flight does deserve some comment. I thought it was going to be badly crowded with no leg room and DVTs randomly attacking everyone on board; not to mention smashed people randomly punching on – it’s Jetstar flying to Bali! Turns out things were not that bad, the flight wasn’t that packed with a number of spare seats all around. Comfort was also¬†helped by a last minute decision to stump up $33 for an exit row seat. Even better that the middle seat remained empty for the flight.

The decision to move from row 20 was made when I noticed that both of the other seats were full. It was a bit of a strange one as there were a couple of other¬†rows behind row 20 that had 3 empty seats. We’re probably getting into that strange human behaviour of trying to get to the front of the bus at all cost. Certainly on a domestic flight in Australia with no checked luggage the front of the plane saves time – It takes about 20 minutes for everyone to get off a single aisle aircraft. (think 737, A320)

Everything changes if you have checked luggage, you need to wait for that to come out! Case in point was waiting for at least 20 minutes at the baggage carousel on arrival into Bali. That nice lady from row 1 was still there after my bag was delivered. That sort of waiting time, after arriving at baggage claim, can be pretty common at Australian domestic airports. An empty middle seat will beat any benefit of quick disembarkation if you have to wait for luggage. The couple in my original row certainly seemed to enjoy my decision to move, perhaps I should’ve asked them for a donation towards the exit row fee. ¬†lol.

Overall the flight to Bali wasn’t as bad as expected. The seat buddy was a really good guy, and also the first person Ive seen get on a plane with only a woolies green shopping bag full of stuff. The crew were friendly, helpful and professional. The meal came out after about an hour or so – Beef Teriyaki – it was quite decent for airline food. Also a little tub of ice cream to finish off, and the coffee arrived just in time to “partner” with the ice cream. Still an A320 for 5 hours from Adelaide to Bali isn’t that much fun.

The flight was booked with the Plus Bundle that Jetstar sell. This bundle comes with 20kg luggage, free standard seat selection, a meal and qantas points. All of those items can be purchased separately, except for the Qantas points. Running the numbers, the ¬†bundle was $70 for items that separately cost ¬†about $58. That means I paid $12 for 7800¬†Qantas points, which is a pretty good price – $0.0015 per point. Of course, as a Qantas platinum I do get 100% bonus on¬†points, but even $0.003 per point is a pretty good price. I skipped the “convenience fee”, really a fancy name for a credit card fee, by using a Jetstar Mastercard. I also found out that Jetstar give a 10% discount for on-board purchases with this card. I had to get a beer mid flight, as the thimble of water and the coffee that comes with the meal just didn’t cut it.

Certainly entertainment is needed for this flight, as even with all the formalities of service there is plenty of empty time. I read a book most of the way, with a quick switch to iPad during the meal. Time passed and we were landing in Bali in the late evening, it was a long walk to the long wait for luggage, but soon enough I was other side checking about 1000 signs to find my driver. And now you can’t impress me, ’cause…