Along the way, I flew on some of the world’s best airlines and shared my thoughts on the ground and in the air. The cash cost for the airfare alone would have been well more than $17,000. Using miles and points, however, I knocked the cost down to around $500. Learn how to travel like I do with PointsAway: The Definitive Guide To Free Flights & Nights.
In the mental map of the American not-so-world traveler, Sydney and Hong Kong might not seem close, exactly, but certainly closer than, say, Los Angeles and Fiji. When traveling via Bangkok, however, the trip from Sydney to Hong Kong ends up being about 200 miles longer. That meant spending 9 hours and 20 minutes on the first leg of the trip, then another 2 hours and 45 minutes completing the journey after a layover of a few hours in Bangkok.
I was in for a full day of flying, but that meant an excellent opportunity to test Thai Airways Business Class on both a long-haul and a short-haul flight.
United’s Best Award Route
One of the best values for United miles is on a route not serviced by United at all. Tucked away in the airline’s award chart is a truly outstanding deal for flights like from Australia or New Zealand to South Asia, which includes Hong Kong and Macau, but not China at large. Business Class flights cost just 30,000 miles.
Compare that to the 57,500 miles required per Business Class seat from the US to Europe, or the 65,000 miles United would charge to go from Los Angeles to Fiji on a flight of similar length, and it becomes clear that this is a tremendous bargain.
United’s award rules are also extraordinarily flexible in this region. In my initial itinerary, I planned not to go directly from Sydney to Hong Kong via Bangkok, but to instead fly from Sydney to Bangkok to Phuket, spend a night in Phuket, then continue on from Phuket back through Bangkok on to Hong Kong. Believe it or not, the exact same 25,000 miles would’ve covered that award flight!
Stops of less than 24 hours en route don’t count as a stopover, making them fair game on even one-way awards like this one, and United’s booking engine somehow decided it had no issue with a totally illogical “connection” in Phuket. I was sad to lose this extra night when my schedule shifted on the back end of the trip, but it proved just how flexible United’s award options can be if you get creative.
Cutting It Close
If my train from Sydney had been delayed by a few more minutes, this flight might not have happened at all.
I spent too long packing up in the morning after waking up too late, and ended up misjudging how long it would take to get back to the airport. By the time I checked in, the flight was set to close bag checking in just a few minutes. Despite this, I still had time to make it to the gate without making a mad dash thanks to one of the oft-forgotten perks of a Business Class ticket.
Many airlines, including Thai, have made arrangements providing their Business and First Class customers with access not only to priority screening but to priority customs, as well.
I skipped past dozens of people in line to have my passport stamped, saving at least 20 minutes or so that made the difference between easily making it to the gate and wondering whether the plane would be taxiing away by the time I got there. Along with expedited baggage, which ensures your checked bags are among the first to appear on the carousel at your destination, this is an incredibly handy perk that I’ve learned to value almost as much as lounge access. My ticket came with free entry to Air New Zealand’s lounge in Sydney, but due to my late arrival, I skipped it in favor of boarding right away.
I was really excited about this flight because it would be my first on a 747 in a long, long time. My best guess is my last 747 flight was when I was about 8 years old. I’d marveled at the idea of a plane having a second floor cabin and wondered what it must be like to fly up there. On this flight, I’d finally have the chance to find out.
Thai places their First Class 747 seats on the lower level at the very front of the plane, followed by a few rows of Business Class. The upper deck, however, is all Business Class, and I made sure to select a seat up there during booking. With just a few steps, I finally had a chance to inspect the upper deck of a 747 up-close, after so many years.
Of course, there’s not a lot of magic to it – it’s just another cabin, after all – but that didn’t mean flying upstairs didn’t come with any perks. The upper deck has its own flight crew and lavatories, plus it seemed like a somewhat quieter ride.
Speaking of the crew, it’s worth noting Thai’s unique uniform policies. Female flight attendants are required to wear traditional Thai dresses while on board until just prior to landing, when they’re allowed to change back into more standardized purple flight suits. Male attendants change into a different jacket while in the skies, though their change in wardrobe is much less dramatic.
Though this may seem like an odd or outdated policy, the use of traditional dress helps accentuate the airline’s commitment to a high level of service. A bow from a flight attendant in formal dress ware upon boarding strikes a much different impression than a casual, “Hi!” from someone in a polo shirt, and makes the flight experience feel more special.
Nuts & Bolts
There were 28 upper deck seats on this flight, roughly a dozen of which were occupied. The seats themselves were colorful and comfortable, each equipped with a pillow and a set of noise-canceling headphones.
The seat-back entertainment centers featured large, high-definition displays and an easy to use interface.
A healthy number of movies, TV and music options were available. During the flight, I watched a couple movies without any of the hitches I’d run into on LAN a few days prior.
Along with a standard universal power outlet, the seat also featured two USB plugs. Having one is a nice touch; having two is genuinely very useful. For example, I could charge my phone through one and play a game on my iPad without worrying about draining its battery at the same time.
The seat had a range of position options available, notably including both upper and lower lumbar options and a massage feature. This did little more than move the lumbar into and out of position, but was still nice to test out from time to time.
Riding upstairs, we had access to large bins on each side of the cabin that were missing downstairs. This extra cargo space was handy, as I could keep my backpack nearby instead of in the overhead compartment:
Food & Drinks
Before takeoff, one of the crew members came around offering juice, champagne or water. I’m not going to pretend to be qualified to review champagne, but I liked this one quite a bit. A few minutes after takeoff, another round of drinks was offered along with some mixed nuts. Thereafter, menus were distributed:
Given the length of the flight, there’d be two meals served on this flight, with a large meal upfront followed up with a lighter one closer to landing. The first meal started with a beef kebab followed by smoked salmon and seared scallops, then a salad and a choice of either lamb, pork, chicken or fish as a main course. I went with the lamb loin, which came with mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables.
The beef skewers weren’t so great:
The salmon and scallops were, on the other hand, as was the garlic bread offered with it:
I also appreciated how individual salt and pepper shakers were offered as opposed to tearaway packs of each. The main course was compact but tasty. The lamb was very tender, and the wine-based sauce was a great topping. The potatoes were a bit bland, but nothing a bit of salt didn’t fix:
After the meal, yet another plate arrived, this time with some assorted fruits and cheeses. The brie was the best part of this course:
Finally, dessert came around: a cheesecake topped with berries. It was quite good, but would have been much better if it had come with a little more fruit to top it:
I was really impressed by this meal service, given it was composed of no less than six courses, that everything was served at a good temperature and that each course was at minimum okay if not very good.
We continued over Australia for an exceptionally long time, winding our way north and west over Darwin before heading on over the ocean:
I kicked back to watch some movies for a while and enjoyed the substantial leg room. A little recess in the bottom of the seat in front of me gave my toes a little cubby area, allowing for a greater level of recline that would have otherwise been possible:
After a while, I took a look at the Borghese amenity kit I’d been provided with prior to takeoff:
Inside were an array of useful items: a brush and comb, an eye mask, earplugs, toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, lip balm, lotion and a pair of socks.
I only took advantage of a few of these in-flight, but it made for a nice goodie bag useful later in the trip.
Later on in the flight, the second meal was offered: a very good combination of udon noodles and chicken that I enjoyed even more than the main course of the first meal. Shortly thereafter, we were on the ground in Bangkok.
On To Hong Kong
The connection in Bangkok required going back through security and spending a bit of time at Thai’s Royal Silk business class lounge, which was on the whole unremarkable. Then, it was back in the air on a Thai A330 for the last few hours of the day’s journey. This cabin had 36 Business Class seats and was nearly full. The seat was visually identical to the one on the previous flight, though didn’t recline nearly as far as on the more spacious 747, as made clear by the different seat controller:
Another meal was offered on this flight, though I was remiss in taking notes and pictures. I remember shrimp and scallops being offered again along with roasted duck-wrapped asparagus. The main course was a roasted chicken with a chili topping of some sort. It was fine, but something a little spicier would have been nice. By this point, I was more interested in getting to Hong Kong than anything else. Compared to the 9 hour flight that preceded it, these final 3 hours seemed to go by in a flash.
I deplaned and made my way down to baggage claim. I waited…and waited…and waited. The carousel stopped circling, and my bag had yet to appear. From behind me, I heard a woman say, “Excuse me.” She held up a paper with my name on it and asked, “Are you this person?” I said I was and she asked if I had forgotten something on my flight. I couldn’t think of anything right away, so she added, “…like an electronic item.”
“My iPad!” I’d left it in the pocket in front of my seat. She confirmed that they’d found it, and asked for my passport to verify my identity. It turns out, they’d pulled my bag from the carousel to ensure I wouldn’t leave before they found me to return it!
I really appreciated Thai’s staff going the extra mile to ensure my iPad made it back to me. Feeling thankful, I made my way to Hong Kong’s Airport Express train line and set my sights on Kowloon Station.
I’d have no hesitations about flying with Thai again, especially given what an exceptional deal it is to do so from Australia to South Asia using United miles. The level of treatment I received over such a great distance and two different flights was outstanding for just 30,000 miles. Had I been able to build in that overnight stop in Phuket, it would’ve simply made the deal all the richer.
In total, I parted with 30,000 United miles and $151.70 for this pair of flights, compared to a cash cost of $2,906.20 for the same flight, making this one of the best values of the whole trip.