Vietnam, Cambodia, Macau and Hong Kong Trip Report: Introduction, Positioning and the Hilton New York JFK


Last month I spent some time in Vietnam, Cambodia, Macau, and Hong King. It was a fantastic trip that encompassed:

  • Cathay Pacific long haul first class
  • My first Dragonair flight
  • Vietnam Airlines between Danang and Siem Reap
  • Fantastic food, from my favorite Pho in Saigon to a Michelin 2* and 3* restaurant in Hong Kong
  • Park Hyatt Saigon and Siem Reap, Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, Hyatt Regency Danang, Sheraton Macau, and the Hilton JFK
  • Macau over Chinese New Year and my first visit to Angkor Wat

And I owe it all to American mistakenly putting out the word that partner award tickets were all going to incur fuel surcharges.

Booking process

Back in August American seemed to confirm just that when they were mistakenly adding them to Malaysia Airlines awards. (They sent a confusing memo meant to explain how they were going to close a loophole on certain revenue tickets, and their social media team misunderstood what was up.)

It turns out to have been a system glitch. Thank goodness.

But before the fuel surcharges spread I figured I’d burn some American miles to get in under the wire and save some real money.

I got to work on tickets. When I do my own award searches my calendar is usually pretty constrained, I’m working around lots of obligations, and finding time for a two week trip to Asia is hard.

When I’ve got flexibility I like the award calendar and ability to search a whole month at a time that the pay service Award Nexus gives me. But for searching routes over a day or two, I use the pay software KVS Tool. It only provides access to information that is available online already, but provides a really convenient and efficient way to access that information.

Knowing I wanted to fly to Asia, using American miles, in first class that meant I was looking for space on Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines. And far in advance Cathay seats are easier to get. I was searching 5 months out and had no problem coming up with New York JFK – Hong Kong seats roundtrip, and adding connecting flights to and from DC on American Eagle.

I decided to go to Vietnam and added Hong Kong – Ho Chi Minh City as the destination. And I decided to come back from Siem Reap, Cambodia since I had never visited there. Dragonair just started service there, and only offers a business class cabin one day a week — which matched up well with my dates.

My award ticket cost 160,000 miles per person plus $65.60 in taxes — 135,000 roundtrip US to Southeast Asia, and an extra 25,000 miles because I made a stopover in Hong Kong on the return (so had to pay extra for the short Siem Reap – Hong Kong flight, not a fantastic use of miles, but worth it to me for a new product, not paying cash, and to try their business class short haul service).

Outline of the trip

I bought my tickets on Vietnam Airlines, Ho Chi Minh City – Danang – Siem Reap and booked my hotels. Here’s what I would up with:

  • Washington National – New York JFK, American Eagle first class
  • Hilton JFK (1 night)
  • New York JFK – Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific first class
  • Hong Kong – Ho Chi Minh City, Cathay Pacific business class
  • Park Hyatt Saigon (1 night)
  • Ho Chi Minh City – Danang, Vietnam Airlines
  • Hyatt Regency Danang, 4 nights
  • Danang – Siem Reap, Vietnam Airlines
  • Park Hyatt Siem Reap, 3 nights
  • Siem Reap – Hong Kong, Dragonair business class
  • Hong Kong – Macau, Turbojet Ferry
  • Sheraton Macau, 2 nights
  • Macau – Hong Kong, Turbojet Ferry
  • Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, 2 nights
  • Hong Kong – New York JFK, Cathay Pacific first class
  • New York JFK – Washington National, American Eagle first class

Positing Flight: Washington National – New York JFK on American Eagle

Most airports are reasonably deserted on Saturday afternoons. All of the end of week business travel home is finished, everyone’s already at their weekend destinations, and virtually no one has started to come home yet. Saturday flights are cheap and award space plentiful (Tuesdays and Wednesdays are often the same), unless the airline in question is operating fewer flights to compensate.

Washington National airport was suitably deserted.

It was a two week trip, and I checked a bag. I haven’t checked a bag in quite some time, I almost felt strange doing it. I walked up to the first class line, there were two people ahead of me. It probably would have been faster to use one of the available kiosks and then the staff behind the counter would have just handed me the luggage tags and sent me on my way.

National airport is strange in that you check your bags, get them tagged, and them walk them over yourself to the TSA for screening. I don’t recall using a somewhat similar procedure anywhere other than the Tom Bradley terminal at LAX.

Then I proceed down to the security checkpoint, which was equally deserted and upstairs to the American Airlines Admirals Club. I sat for a few minutes, my favorite bartender wasn’t there so I skipped having a bloody mary, and I proceeded to the gate.

As always seems to happen to me with Eagle flights, between the time I left the lounge and made it to the gate the flight showed a delay (and I’m not leaving the lounge that early either, usually just after scheduled boarding time). Surely they could have updated the flight time earlier than they did.

We wound up about an hour behind schedule, but I wasn’t worried about it, I was going to be overnighting in New York. I don’t much like the idea of connecting in New York without a buffer before a long haul international flight. Something terrible could happen, like a misconnection with no available space in first class on alternate flights.

I hung out for a bit in the food court seating area just before the gate, and soon enough our inbound aircraft arrived.

It was first class on a regional jet up to New York. Which is to say it’s first class in name only. But it’s a short flight, and better than coach. And it’s not any extra miles considering I was already on a first class award. (I am grateful for the upgrades to first class on New York flights during peak times during the weak when ground holds can be far longer than the actual flight time.)

A quick flight, a glass of water, and some answered emails later we were on the ground at JFK.

By the time I managed to walk from the far end of the terminal where American’s Eagle gates are, all the way to baggage claim, it was only about 10 minutes before bags started coming out and I was on my way to the hotel.

JFK Overnight – Always Choose the Hilton New York JFK

JFK airport has a terrible setup for hotel pickups. You have to take the Airtran, the same system that transfers you (outside of security) between terminals and which is itself a bit of a walk, to a stop where shuttles are permitted to pick you up. Fortunately hotels can drop you back off directly at the correct terminal when you’re leaving JFK.

My hotel for the night was going to be the Hilton. Cost issues aside, for an airport hotel you want first the hotel attached to / inside the airport if one exits, and if none then the hotel that’s been most recently renovated.

Right now that means the Hilton JFK which I’ve reviewed before.

Prior to that hotels’ renovation and re-brand, the choice was the Sheraton JFK. And before that the Hilton Garden Inn as best JFK hotel (I haven’t stayed there since July 2007).

The overnight cost me 40,000 Hilton HHonors points. The hotel was asking $269++ when I stayed there so I was more than happy to redeem for a free night.

The hotel has an unimpressive lounge but because of my flight delay I wouldn’t be visiting it this evening. I checked in, got my room key, and headed straight upstairs. I was asleep before 10pm.

When the lounge is closed on weekends, as it has been in the past during my stays, they’ve provided a coupon for appetizers in the restaurant.

They also always give a gift bag to elites, an apple, some trail mix, a granola bar and a bottle of water. I’ll take it.

I got up in the morning and could have visited the lounge for breakfast. Instead I decided to wait for the lounge at the airport and the flight, figuring the offerings there would be better.

I did want some coffee though, and got some one my way out of the hotel at the coffee stand in the lobby.

I believe every airport hotel should have one — you’re often leaving quite early in the morning, and a to go cup from there rather than in-room coffee can be a wonderful luxury.

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, 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. Looking forward to this trip report. I will be in Siem Reap and Hong Kong for my honeymoon in July, and have previously visited Hong Kong, Saigon, and Phu Quoc. Interested in your unique perspectives on things. Mike

  2. Gary – Care to share the names of the 3* restaurants in HK a bit early? Just curious to see which you ended up at since I tried one myself on my trip there in Nov.

  3. Thanks Gary! I went to Lung King Heen and it was pretty damn amazing. Have you had a chance to check it out yet?

  4. Pretty sure Amber and Bo Innovation have 2 Michelin stars, not 3. Caprice, Lung King Heen, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo are the only 4 HK restaurants to have 3 Michelin stars.

  5. Wow, what a sterile American itinerary. I’m sitting in Ho Chi Minh right now at a great local hotel for 50 bucks a night including breakfast. A complete waste to stay at the park hyatt here

  6. @Tyler — name of the HCMC hotel, please — have a visit planned in December and have booked the Park Hyatt Saigon via Virtuoso.

  7. Hi David G.,

    This time we are at the Silverland-Tan Hai Long hotel. Last time I stayed at the Grand Silverland. Both have been great value and you can’t beat the location. I booked both on Agoda.

  8. @Tyler – I’ve stayed at hostels in prime locations in HCMC for a quarter of the price you paid. I could just as easily argue that your itinerary is the one that is “sterile.” Everyone is different.

  9. Gary, but IF you did misconnect, they still must accommodate you in F, right? Maybe on another carrier if maintenance, maybe the next day on the same carrier if weather?

  10. Jonathan,

    You completely missed my point. Sterile refers to only staying in luxury American brand hotels in a country where there are plentiful local, wonderful, cheap hotels.

  11. Please give AS MANY DETAILS about Siam Reap as possible! Don’t forget to include your reasoning for choosing the Park Hyatt instead of Le Meridien, which I believe is closer to Angkor Wat. Include descriptions of what the city is like, please! This is on my Go-To list and I want as much info as possible!!!

  12. Gary I think you have posted a photo more than once, the one on the tarmac.
    This is shaping up to be another great TR from you anyhow!

  13. @Carberrie, Angkor Wat is close regardless. I had a guide and driver which is really inexpensive. The Park Hyatt has a fantastic downtown location, so great for walking across the street to restaurants and whatnot. Plus I was just really curious about the hotel. I’ll do something on sightseeing around the temples for sure.

  14. @Michael – depends. I wouldn’t expect accommodation in first class on another airline unless there was award space on that airline and American could re-ticket. In all likelihood I would be accommodated on Cathay Pacific in the highest class of service available.

  15. Looking forward to reading the rest of this. Our family of 6 did 2 weeks in Vietnam in 2012 (HCMC, Can Tho, DaNang, Hoi An, Hanoi, Tam Coc) and another 2 weeks in Vietnam in 2013 (HCMC, Phu Quoc, DaNang, Hoi An, Hanoi, Halong Bay). We stayed at the Hyatt Regency DaNang both times for 3 nights (our only repeat…we loved that place!). We “roughed it” probably more than you did…highest end hotel was HR DaNang, but will be good to go through your itinerary vicariously.

    We have Hong Kong coming up in April on our way to Guam.

  16. @choi – It would have been fewer Avios, and fuel surcharges on the route are low, but at the time on the day this was ticketed I was expecting American to begin adding fuel surcharges to all partner awards. And with (a) a 7 figure American balance, and (b) a 7 figure US Airways balance that had the potential to become AA miles, at the margin I was looking to burn American miles rather than transferring in flexible Chase or American Express points to BA.

  17. @Gary – I see in an earlier comment that you have a driver & guide. How did you go about getting a guide? I’m just curious for future travel to countries where I don’t speak the local language (e.g. anywhere but Europe 🙂 ) Thank you!!

  18. Gary – If you only have time for one, Bo Innovation or Amber? I’m not sure if you were planning to do larger write up but I have a trip to HKG next week and I still need to decide which one. Thanks.

  19. @tim – I will write them both. Both restaurants were outstanding and very different. To me, Amber was the sort of top notch restaurant that could be anywhere in the world. Fantastic and worth it, but if I had to choose one I would do Bo Innovation. I’ve had plenty of molecular gastronomy experiences but this was my first *Chinese* molecular gastronomy. I did lunch, ~$100pp for an 8 course meal.

  20. Gary, you booked 10 flights total. How many of them were included in the 160,000 A miles you redeemed? Did you spend cash for the rest or redeem other points?

  21. @Ken DCA-JFK-HKG-SGN // REP-HKG // HKG-JFK-DCA were 160k. I paid cash for SGN-DAD-REP on Vietnam Airlines.

  22. @Gary – You can have that many segments on a RT award? I thought with an AA award you could go RT from the US to HK via CX and that’s it, no stopovers or open jaws for the international segments. Did you have more than 24 hours in HKG? If so, how did you also do HKG-SGN.

  23. @Ken – you can definitely have an open jaw on an award. I did > 24 hours in Hong Kong on the way back. That’s why it was 160k instead of 135k (I was paying for a separate REP-HKG flight)

  24. @Gary – I wish they allowed stopovers like UA does. I have a trip to SE Asia via EU on the old 120k Biz award this summer for 3 weeks. I’m AA rich though, so perhaps an Explorer award might work. Won’t be able to travel till next summer as we’re also doing Ireland for 3 weeks before the ATW trip.

  25. Quiet and cheap flights might be the norm on domestics (esp in US), but I often find longhaul flights can be MORE expensive at the weekend as folk try to get away on holiday!

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