A Quick Jaunt to Southern India: Etihad First Class and a Park Hyatt Chennai Suite (Introduction)

I recently spent four nights in Chennai, India flying Eithad first class (business for the regional flight) and staying in a suite at the Park Hyatt there.

On the surface it may seem strange to fly to India for just four nights on leisure, as well as to choose to travel to Chennai as a tourist. But it made sense to me for several reasons.

  • I have way too many miles. With large balances in both US Airways Dividend Miles and American AAdvantage, my points stash will become even more concentrated. Despite three international first class award trips in 2013, I end the year with more points than I began. So my willingness – and even eagerness – to spend points is high.
  • Though I’ve been to India, I’ve never visited Southern India. Chennai is the third largest city in the country and would be new to me. I didn’t suspect I wanted to stay there long, just get a feel for the city. I don’t claim to ‘understand’ a place after just a few days, but I have far better context having seen it than not. And I’m interested in Southern Indian food.
  • I had a few days where it would be convenient to spend abroad – not enough to do multiple destinations, or several flights, but enough for efficient connections and a single city.
  • Award space on Etihad, for which I can use American Airlines miles, is really really good (especially when booked far in advance, and especially from my home airport of Washington Dulles – but also last minute and from other gateways like New York JFK and soon-to-be Los Angeles and Dallas though less good in Chicago and Toronto markets which don’t have first class).
  • The Chennai property is the cheapest Park Hyatt in the world. Room rates when I booked were under US$100 per night. Their spa runs about US$40 per treatment hour.

All in all it seemed a reasonable way to spend six days, two days in transit and four on the ground.

Booking a few months out, I wasn’t sure I wanted to make this trip but it would be fully cancellable. Airline schedules lined up perfectly. And I could confirm a suite at booking at the Park Hyatt. Overall it looked like it would make a great, albeit short, trip.

To find award availability I used the KVS Tool, but what it does it search the Etihad website for space. American AAdvantage has access to the exact same space that Etihad offers to its own members, or at least there’s only been one time where I couldn’t find a match between the two and that’s about a year ago for first class on an Abu Dhabi – London segment and I think that had to do with aircraft swaps and American not seeing that the aircraft had three classes of service (American saw business class available on the flight).

Then, of course, since American doesn’t show Etihad award space online I had to call, for which there’s no booking fee as an Executive Platinum.

Since I would be making a simple roundtrip, I was permitted to use Washington Dulles as a stopover on the return portion of my trip (American permits stopovers on one-way partner awards only at the ‘North American gateway city’, the city where you first arrive at or depart from in North America) and add an additional first class award flight for use later which of course permits free date changes.

One nice feature of Etihad first (and business!) class is that they offer free car service on departure and arrival. Reserving this is even a feature on the front page of the Etihad website.

I set up an airport pickup from home in DC. Though I was entitled to it on arrival in Chennai, I preferred to have the Park Hyatt handle my pickup (which was also free for a suite guest) since they would know I was coming and be prepared for a seamless arrival, in fact to escort me straight up to the suite and handle paperwork there, something that as a no cost option was desirable after ~ 24 hours of flying.

Locally car service is provided by Empire CLS who rang to confirm my Sunday evening pickup on Friday morning. The driver tuned up 17 min early. And I was shortly on my way…

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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Sounds like a great trip, can’t wait to read next installments. So in 2013 did you fly 100k miles to requalify for EXP and also these award flights?

  2. You said “I have way too many miles. With large balances in both US Airways Dividend Miles and American AAdvantage”

    Well, you and I are poles apart on this one. I can never have too many miles as I travel for pleasure with family (party of five. No, I am not kidding. I said party of five). For me it is a constant struggle to get enough miles and I envy all those and I am soooo jealous for people like you. Oh well, at least someone is having fun.

  3. @Silver springer – yes I requalified for Executive Platinum (on both miles and segments, and without the aid of credit card-generated qualifying miles) with American, I also flew revenue miles on other carriers, and I took separate award trips to the Maldives, Bali, and India (and also returned from an award trip to Europe).

  4. @caveman I am spending for 2 and not 5. Unquestionably point burn would be faster if redeeming for a larger group. My estimation of ‘too many’ is that (1) I am ending the year with more miles than I started the year and (2) I am less diversified with the AA/US merger.

  5. The ultimate first world problem; too many miles accumulated and now I must take a vacation. I want to sign up for this type of problem.

  6. We had to transit through Chennai a few weeks ago enroute from Bangalore to Colombo on Spicejet. I’m surprised you would choose India for a quick jaunt given the cost and pita factor of getting the visa. In Brisbane we had to visit the consulate in person, otherwise you have to mail your passport to a consulate. At least Sri Lanka has online visas.

  7. Looking forward to the rest of your report Gary, particularly how Etihad First compares with other fine international first class cabins. Also would welcome any advice for couples flying in Etihad First, including which seats to seek.

    And happy new year!

  8. Gary…you may not be aware that there are several followers of yours in India including in Southern India. I know that the last thing you want to do on a holiday is to do a catch up with the frequent flier community…but I can’t help asking this. It’s not every other day that Gary lands up in India and I would have loved to catch up with you ! I live in Bangalore but would have gladly made the trip to Chennai. It’s not far.

  9. Looking forward to read your trip report Gary! I’ve found Chennai to be less overwhelming than Bombay and New Delhi — but from reading this post, it seems to me you were given the VIP treatment all the way with the limo pickups and suite upgrade!

  10. Gary, I was waiting to see if anyone else would bust your chops about the semantics in … “The Chennai property is the cheapest Park Hyatt in the world”. Hearkening back to a lecture I got from my PhD uncle – “Cheap” is a measure of “Quality”; whereas “Least Expensive” is an economic measure of “Cost”. The Chennai Hyatt looks good in pictures, so I’m guessing you mean “Least Expensive”. Nevertheless, I do agree that $100 a night is pretty cheap… er uh … inexpensive.

  11. I’m actually looking forward to flying EY to SYD in March. Even though it’s an economy class, still better than most I hope lol

  12. @Tara, The cost and pita factor for foreigners to get a US visa far exceeds anything that we encounter for getting a visa to other countries. So, that should not be a deterrent to travel to a destination.

    The pita factor went up quite a few notches after the Mumbai terrorist attacks in which our own David Headley was a key player.

  13. Gary, do you ever find that the free one way tag ons have to go unused?

    I went to London over Thanksgiving, and booked a year ago. So I had very little time to use my free one way on the return, and had to cancel my 2 LAX-LIH one ways in F. I needed the time at home. Luckily, my free one-ways on the outbound were great (LIH-LAX) – it’s just the ones on the return that are tricky (due to the one year limit on the ticket).

  14. Wish you had informed us in advance over the blog. Being a Chennai native, I would have been happy to come up with some insider recommendations. Hope you had a good trip!

  15. Can’t wait to hear your food reviews. A friend in NYC who’s originally from Bombay (Gujarati family) refuses to go with me to any Indian restaurant unless it’s South Indian. Most Indian regional food she can make at home and make better. However, South Indian food is too difficult for her. The dosa bread is especially labor intensive.

    Don’t keep us hanging!

  16. What is the max distance within which Etihad will provide a chauffeur? Will they offer the service at LAX?

  17. @Carol – distances vary by airport, e.g. New York JFK is 60 miles and Chicago is 70 miles (although you can pay for distance beyond the limit). It’s hard to imagine that they won’t offer it for LAX but with service 6 months off they do not publish it yet (although perhaps they would still take a booking if you are reserved on the flight)


    You could also, of course, include an AA SAN-LAX flight in your itinerary using AA miles at no extra mileage cost.

  18. @beachfan sure a one-way add-on flight could go unused but you can push it out a year from the date of ticket issue and change dates at will as long as there’s award space. I figure it’s better to pick a flight you’re most likely to use than the “most valuable” flight you can book, you might frequently fly to Florida and should book that for instance rather than a premium JFK-LAX ticket.

  19. Gary,

    Even I am planning to go via first to India from IAH in 2014.I will use AA miles(have tons of them) to do it i.e. IAH-ORD-AUH-HYD/BLR so is this an allowable route for AA gateway restrictions.

    Also curious how many miles and how much in taxes did it cost for your trip.


  20. @Uday it’s an allowable route, ORD/YYZ as I note in my post only have business class… JFK/IAD/DFW/LAX will offer you first… I paid 180k miles roundtrip, taxes were less than $80

  21. Thanks Gary..Appreciate the response so it basically uses the same mileage redemption as AA business 67.5k and first 90k but taxes are pretty cheap will look at this option for next year..thx again..

  22. @Gary, although Etihad AUH-LAX F was available daily, LAX-SAN was not available within 24 hours of my arrival.

    Simply as a point of information, initially I had this booked AUH-LAX//LAX-OGG. I went thru 3 rounds with AA and hours on the phone, being assured this was a legitimate ticket, with a ticketing supervisor documenting my record. In the end, AA refused to ticket, saying 2 awards would be required. Very frustrating.

  23. @Carol – do you have status with AA these days? Not strictly required, but it helps, you can ask them to try to get you LAX-SAN space released “to complete itinerary” although this is most frequently successful close to arrival.

    One of the frustrating things about American AAdvantage partner awards is their published fare rule — the primary overwater carrier has to have a published fare between your origin and destination in order to book it as a single award. Etihad doesn’t publish a fare from Abu Dhabi to Maui, so they won’t let you book that as one award.

  24. @Gary, lifetime plat.

    Supervisor who documented record said she checked and found fare from AUH-OGG.

    Supposedly ticket was disallowed because Hawaii is a different award zone than domestic USA.

    This is the 2nd time I’ve run into a similar issue where AA doesn’t stand behind employees who have spent hours with me researching the award and assured me it was valid. This particular dialogue stretched over a month. It’s really frustrating that no matter what the passenger is told, in the end AA reserves the right to do as it pleases.

  25. I get the concept of stopover, but I’m confused, since you went r/t from DC, how is DC considered a stopover?

  26. @Carol, Hawaii is a different award zone for the AA-only chart but that doesn’t matter, (1) it’s just “North America” for the partner award chart which is what you’re using, and (2) even if it was a different chart these are one-way awards anyway.. you would just pay the “Middle East – Hawaii” price for the one-way return.

    There’s no separate Hawaii here —

    I looked up AUH-OGG and there are fares… but not EY-published fares.

    In any case I agree with you, American’s award rules are opaque at best and they should issue tickets on anything they take a credit card on (accept payment on).

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