United Airlines Back Home: “Burn Avios, Burn” Cathay Pacific First Class and Amazing Conrad Suites

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We had arrived early on our flight from Hong Kong. Which is great as far as it goes — but I had rather planned for the opposite. Since I was on a British Airways-issued award, I was using Cathay Pacific flights only. Adding in flights on another carrier (such as American Airlines from Chicago back to DC) would either mean going with their more expensive distance-based award chart or booking another separate one-way award. So the ticket began in New York and terminated in Chicago. I was on my way to and from the start and end of the ticket.

Traveling on separate tickets, and indeed on another alliance (I was booked home on United), I wanted a long-ish layover. Since a delayed Cathay Pacific flight wouldn’t be something I could pin on United. And a long delay at immigration wouldn’t be United’s problem, either.

We were scheduled for a 12:40pm arrival and I booked the 4:05p United flight to DCA. That meant three and a half hours almost at O’Hare, but it was insurance. And it seemed like a great idea at the time because it was Thanksgiving weekend, even, and though it was the Saturday there was a very real chance that if I misconnected there wouldn’t be easily available seats on later flights. But when we arrived over an hour early I was none too pleased with the prospect of a long layover.

Immigration was a very short walk away, the last time I was at O’Hare for an international arrival it was on Asiana and a very long walk along a barren corridor with low ceilings and dirty white walls with the first adornment being a picture of the President. This was far more pleasant. And there was virtually no line, not a single question even asked by the authorities (I never like those interactions though there’s no reason I’d be a flag for them). Baggage off quickly, walk straight through customs, and the whole process was done by around 11:40am.

Nearly four and a half hours before my connecting flight. So I walked up to the United ticket counter on the right just past customs, though the employee standing guard tried to prevent me from doing so. He pointed me to where you drop off your bags to be re-checked, insisted I just do that. I said I need to change my flight. He said “you know there’s a charge for that.” And I just smiled, he was blocking me with his body even from getting into the line (though nobody was even in the line and agents were free) so I said excuse me and maneuvered around him.

The agent cheerily put us on the 1pm flight. There was a waitlist to get onto the flight but we popped to the top because of status so she cleared us right in. First class was full so we lost our upgrades but getting home three hours was well worth it. Two economy plus seats, a middle and a window, we ours and we were on our way to the train over to the United terminal. The security lines were atrocious. The premium line wasn’t especially long but it was slow moving, and with nearly everyone ahead of us carrying strollers and car seats the entire process nearly ground to a halt. I actually began to get a little bit nervous about the time, but that didn’t stop me from opting out of the nude-o-scope. Finally making it through I bought a bottle of water and walked up to the gate where boarding was already in process. There was nothing whatsoever eventful about the short flight back to DC, we landed on time, bags were among the first to come off the belt, and we caught a cab back home.

It was a great trip. Cathay Pacific is a great airline in first class. The ground service could be spruced up a bit. The food is far from outstanding. And I think I prefer the outgoing Singapore flight attendants over the good service that Cathay provides but that you have to call on when desired, Cathay’s service standard is to hold back and not disturb you rather than anticipate your needs. I felt a bit lazy booking Cathay, it’s not a new product or exotic at all, but it sure gets the job done and availability is generally good (at least as far as airlines offering only six first class seats goes!). I’m looking forward to my next Cathay first class trip in two months’ time!

The Conrad in Bangkok is a good solid hotel, I picked it because of the glitch that allowed me to book a special suite on a discounted award stay. It wouldn’t be my top choice otherwise, but only because Bangkok is a city with such a splendid array of fantastic properties. I had intended to try the still new-ish St. Regis but that will have to wait for another trip.

The Conrad in Koh Samui was special and one of the very best redemptions in the Hilton HHonors portfolio. It won’t appeal to everyone because it isn’t a property for meandering about, your focus is going to be on your room and you’ll be driven everywhere you want to go whenever you want to go somewhere. But the base-level room is a standalone ocean villa with private pool, there’s no such thing as a bad room here that I could tell, and it’s an outstanding return on points. Everything on property is pricey by Thai standards, but it was great to at least have complimentary breakfast as a Diamond (not to mention 20% off at the spa). I expect it will take them a few more months to get everything fully synched up service-wise but the service was good and friendly and I Was more than happy, it’s a place that I Will return to and burn points at again, even though it likely means I’ll be in a one-bedroom villa rather than the spectacular two-bedroom redemption that I lucked into on this trip.

All in all, a lovely Thanksgiving and better than doing the domestic travels that are so common over the holidays, last year we did India (“Thanksgiving dinner with Indians!”) and the year before Paris. I don’t much like Turkey anyway..

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. Quote: “I don’t much like Turkey anyway”

    Thanks for providing a case-in-point for why capitalization is important–I think you’re trying to say you don’t like white meat, but instead you’re saying you don’t like Istanbul 🙂

  2. Great report, sad that it’s finished. We have a trip to Bali JFK-HKG-DPS and back on CX First/Business class coming up and you’re not helping the time pass faster :p

  3. @James actually I think you rather prove the point that context is more important than capitalization, even looking for grammatical snark you knew exactly what I meant 😉

  4. Actually I had to do a double-take because you had just mentioned two other geographical destinations in the previous sentence. So the context isn’t enough and you should change it.

  5. By the way, Cathay just opened their new lounge at SFO. I used it on my way to HKG the other day and it was quite nice with a solid food spread and noodle station. No separate First Class and not the LH FCT by any means, but quite enjoyable and showers as well.

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