Delta, KLM, Virgin Atlantic: old line carriers I flew in business class on a recent trip to South Africa.  The over-the-moon kudos for business class service often go to Cathay and Singapore or to Qatar and Emirates.  Who sings the praises of premium cabins on the likes of Delta, KLM, and Virgin Atlantic?  Well, I guess I will laud them here because, to my surprise, the business class services on all three (mostly) met or exceeded my needs and expectations.

My itinerary was curiously convoluted because I traveled on a Delta award ticket:

Delta in domestic first class – RDU/DTW – CRJ900

Delta in Delta One class – DTW/AMS  – A330

KLM in World Business Class – AMS/JNB – 777-300

South African Airlink – JNB/SZK/JNB – ERJ135

Virgin Atlantic in Upper Class – JNB/LHR – 787

Virgin Atlantic in Upper Class – LHR/JFK – A340

Delta in domestic first class – JFK/RDU – CRJ900

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The Detroit gate for DL132 to Amsterdam; the Delta 747 at the adjacent gate is impressive but not our airplane

Odd though this routing appears, the connecting schedules worked out for me with minimal layovers at every airport, and—bonus—I was able to sample the carriers’ respective lounges at RDU, Detroit, Amsterdam, Johannesburg, London Heathrow, and JFK, about which I will separately report in a future post.

Though I am a TSA Pre and Global Entry member, my habit is to arrive at every airport two hours early, and that was more than sufficient at RDU to get to Detroit.  I made it through security in time to stand by on an earlier flight to DTW, which in turn allowed me to see if an earlier Delta flight DTW/AMS was available.  Delta has three daily Detroit-Amsterdam A330s at two hour intervals (4:00 PM, 6:00 PM, and 8:00 PM).  The Delta gate personnel were able to move me to the four o’clock departure (Delta 132) and even grabbed seat 2J for me (at my request), the most forward right hand side seat in the Delta One cabin in the Airbus A330.

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Seat 2J on DL132 DTW/AMS

Delta One customers boarded first, about the same time as passengers in need of assistance.  I was greeted with friendly enthusiasm by the crew and was immediately offered a nicely-chilled glass of Champagne.  I polished off a second flute before pushback.

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The comfortable Delta One cabin on DL132 affords lots of privacy

I was immediately struck by the similarity between the new Delta One cabin and the one I had recently experienced on a brand spanking new Qatar A350 in business class.  The Delta business seats angle in towards the windows, providing privacy (since you are not looking at your neighbor—a big deal for me), and the space is ample and quite comfortable.

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Big screens in the Delta One A330 cabin

Fiddling around with the IFE (in-flight entertainment) system, I liked the variety of movies offered and clarity of the screen.  Though the Delta flatscreen didn’t appear to be as big as the one on Qatar, it was perfectly adequate.

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Delta One headphones are comfortable but not noise-canceling like my Bose

Delta provided a comfortable set of headphones, but the phones were not noise-canceling.  I had brought my Bose phones, as usual, which I used throughout the flight.

Ditto for the KLM and Virgin flights—none of the three carriers on this trip had real noise-canceling headphones, which I thought was odd.  Bose or something like Bose headphones are now an expected standard in any premium cabins around the globe.

All three airlines offered power outlets at each business class seat for recharging smartphones and other electronics.

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The Delta One cabin on DL132 DTW/AMS

The meal service was not memorable, but it was filling and all I needed.  After watching a movie, I dozed off, and we landed early at AMS at 11:35 PM eastern, 5:35 AM local. It was a very easy and extremely comfortable flight with efficient, friendly service. These days that’s all I need or expect, and it opened my eyes to Delta’s commitment to a high quality premium international service with consistent follow-through.  It was a happy revelation to see Delta catching up to its competitors in premium services, finally, and Delta One is now on my radar screen for future trips.

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Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport map indicating my departure gate

Because I am compulsive about taking earlier flights whenever possible (why wait for a later flight to be delayed or canceled?), I had arrived two hours ahead of my original schedule and faced a four hour wait at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. However, it’s a great place for a long layover, and the time flew, especially while enjoying the KLM lounge.  Before I knew it, my KLM 777-300 flight to Johannesburg was ready to board.

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KLM World Business Class cabin on my 777-300 flight AMS/JNB

KLM’s “World Business Class” is not spectacular, but it met my every need.  Seats are 2-2-2 in business on their 777s, and I enjoyed the left side bulkhead aisle position (again, my preference).  The fellow in the adjacent window seat had plenty of room to get around or over my extended leg-rest without disturbing me, and the privacy panel between us was adequate.

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My World Business Class seat on KLM flight AMS/JNB

It was a fine and enjoyable flight on KLM to Johannesburg. The service went smoothly, with clockwork efficiency, as I expect from the Dutch.  The Champagne was ice cold and delicious, and the business class cabin crew was gracious and always trying to help.  It was a senior group of flight attendants (all appeared to be 50 or older).  The food service, as on the previous Delta flight, would not inspire a letter of praise to the EVP-Marketing, but it was plenty good.

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KLM 777-300 World Business Class cabin AMS/JNB; the flight was full in business.

This long eleven hour flight allowed me to sample two movies before falling asleep, after which I enjoyed a snack from the galley.  Every airline seems to leave out a goodly supply of nibbles on overseas legs, a great practice, in my opinion.  I chatted with the crew in the galleys fore and aft between naps and got a warm reception.  KLM FAs on my flight were comfortable in their own skins and expert in carrying out the duties of their profession, which made for a wonderfully relaxing experience. The human element is as important as spiffy cabins and fancy service in making or breaking a travel experience aboard an airplane.

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KLM’s headphones proclaim to be noise-canceling, but if so, the effect wasn’t much.  My Bose phones were far superior.

The KLM IFE was not as modern as the system in the Delta One cabin, nor was the selection of movies as broad or deep, but I was never bored.  Once again I had to use my own Bose noise-canceling headphones rather than the comfortable but technology-challenged pair provided by the airline, but I didn’t care.  I usually find my Bose are preferable no matter what carrier I am flying.  The flight attendants were dead honest in advising to use my own phones, saying the KLM product needed upgrading.

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KLM snack in World Business Class was delicious.

Seated near the 1L door, I was first off in Johannesburg, then through immigration and customs and checking in at the airport hotel within 30 minutes of gate arrival.  Overall, the KLM experience was exemplary, and I’d use it again.

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KLM World Business Class AMS/JNB looking forward during the flight.

Two weeks later I was back at Johannesburg’s O. R. Tambo Airport for my Virgin Atlantic flights to London Heathrow with an onward connection to JFK.  Check-in for Upper Class, Virgin’s business class product, was swift and efficient.  Tambo has no equivalent to a TSA Pre or London FastTrack lane, so business class customers are all thrown into the same long queues for immigration as everyone else.

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The immigration screen at Johannesburg where all passengers are equal in the queue.

The gate for VS602 JNB/LHR was at the far end of one wing of the airport.  Seats were spread along a narrow hallway harshly lit by florescent lights.  There were no windows.  The effect was claustrophobic and prison-like.

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The strange, claustrophobic gate used by Virgin at Johannesburg.

The Jetway boasted only a single arm to enter the 787 aircraft.  It was positioned at the 2L (second left) boarding door, which is the dividing line between Upper Class and Economy.  Gate staff could easily have boarded Upper Class first without disruption to early boarders.  Instead, Virgin’s boarding procedure ignored Upper Class customers in favor of people who needed extra boarding time.  It proved to be a nightmare of babies and cripples, and Upper Class passengers were not called for another 25 minutes. When I finally approached the boarding door, I was halted by a families with young children and their strollers clogging up the area.

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Virgin’s method of pre-boarding families with children congested the Jetway, making it impossible for Upper Class passengers to  reach the doorway.

I understand that every airline has its own policies about boarding, but I was unhappy with the long delay, which could easily have been avoided by allowing Upper Class passengers to go first.

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Upper Class cabin on Virgin Atlantic 787 JNB/LHR configured with seats facing the aisle, not the windows.

Once on board, things started looking up.  I was cheerfully escorted to my bulkhead seat on the left side (again, my choice), and a glass of Champagne was whisked to me.  Taking a sip, I was repulsed to discover that the Champagne was warm, not even a little bit cooled.  The flight attendants admitted none of the bottles had been chilled because the plane had been sitting all day unattended.

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My Upper Class seat on the forward port side of the Virgin 787 JNB/LHR

When I suggested that they shouldn’t have served it at all, the FAs apologized and took the glass away at my request.  Just before the doors closed for pushback, the senior flight attendant presented me with a mostly chilled glass of Champagne which they had taken from a bottle doused in ice water just for me.  I was impressed, and I enjoyed the bubbly all the way into the air.

At first I was not so impressed with the Virgin Upper Class seats.  To maximize capacity, Upper Class seats face the aisle, not the window. I bemoaned my lack of a sense of spatial privacy.  The seat arrangement seemed too close to other passengers.

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Virgin Upper Class seat configuration angles away from the windows and faces the aisle, reducing the sense of personal privacy.

The seats also seemed narrower than the Delta One and KLM World Business Class chairs.  Nonetheless, I began to relax and enjoy the cabin’s openness and the extremely nice flight attendants.

Testing out Virgin’s IFE on the brand new 787. I found technical problems with the screens which locked up the system.  Flight attendants rebooted the IFE for my seat, and the problem was corrected. Once again no noise-canceling headphones were provided, and I used my own Bose phones.  The selection of movies to pass the time was comparable to that on KLM.

The in-flight services, included the meals, were fine, and the personal touches by the many Upper Class FAs never ended.  I once again fell asleep after watching a movie, and later in the flight wandered the new aircraft to get a feel for it, m first on a 787.  I found the cabin crew everywhere to be upbeat and anxious to help, even back in coach, all of which made the experience pleasant and stress-free.  My complaints about the size and position of the seats dissipated as I ignored the surrounding passengers and slept well.

Heathrow’s Terminal 3 is undergoing massive renovation, and our inbound gate was unluckily as distant from my connecting (outbound) gate as could be.  after an interminable walk through the maze of construction, though, and after suffering through a long queue at the mid-terminal security screen, I found my gate and boarded another Virgin flight.  This was an A340 to JFK.

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The Upper Class compartment of Virgin Atlantic A340 London to JFK was configured exactly the same way as the 787 Johannesburg to London, that is, with passengers facing each other towards the aisle, which minimized privacy.

There’s little to say about the LHR/JFK flight, as it was almost a carbon copy of the JNB/LHR experience: different airplane but same seat (by choice); very helpful, cheerful, attentive FAs; great in-flight service of meals and beverages, punctuated by intermittent napping and chatting with the crew.

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Delta One cabin was the most comfortable and private of the three carriers, but all were quite good.

Thinking back on the Virgin experience, KLM’s business class was better in many ways: more space, more privacy, roomier seat, less claustrophobic. Delta One’s was superior in the same categories, especially seat comfort. Nonetheless, the in-flight services and general comfort level were about equal on all three carriers, and the cabin crews were universally excellent—the latter a measure of greater personal importance to me.

I opted for this tortuous itinerary because it was a cost-effective use of my Delta frequent flyer mileage to get to South Africa.  My expectations of business class on the three carriers was, well, low.  I wanted a comfortable ride in a prone position when I felt like sleeping for such a long journey.  Otherwise, the bar for good service was set low in my mind because my past experiences on Delta, KLM, and Virgin Atlantic in their premium cabins left bad memories.  I fled their services years ago to alternative airlines and never looked back.

This trip left me with positive feelings and changed my thinking.  Delta, KLM, and Virgin business classes are not in the same grand category as Cathay Pacific, but they all succeeded in achieving more than a modicum of satisfaction and—importantly—relief from the stress and pain of flying.  I plan to fly them all again in business.

I’ve noted before that I lived and worked in South Africa in 1991.  It didn’t take me long to come to love the land and its people. I’ve returned every year for twenty-five years since, sometimes several times a year.

It was there, a quarter century ago, that I first discovered the magnificent Kruger National Park, where self-drive safaris are the rule (see previous post here).  The internationally-renowned park is a treasure store of African flora and fauna, one of the planet’s most important conservation areas.  I just returned from another visit to Kruger, 12 days and nights.

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The lovely small airport at Skukuza, gateway to the Kruger Park, with regular air service to Johannesburg and other South African cities.

South Africa is going through tough times, with many observers worried about the degradation of infrastructure and services in the country.  I have wondered if the problems might spill into South Africa National Parks, which runs all the country’s parks, including the Kruger. Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe ruined the once-lovely Hwange National Park in that country, and I hoped that wouldn’t be repeated in South Africa.  My impression, based on the nearly two weeks I just spent in Kruger, is that so far that is not the case.

In 1991 Nelson Mandela had not been out of jail a year yet. The white minority government, which was struggling with massive unemployment, turned over power in 1994 to the moderate ANC (African National Congress) majority and the newly elected President Mandela. In May, 1996 the nation adopted a new constitution, just now being celebrated for 20 years in place.

The ANC’s once-brilliant leadership has aged and become staid and inflexible. Smart young political leaders have fewer opportunities for advancement than they once did. South Africa’s economy has stagnated, with endemic problems as deep as those that plagued the old pre-1994 regime.

On my recent visit to the Kruger Park I read South African newspapers every day (I bought them at the Skukuza Camp shop), and I listened to SAFM radio at 105.6 (the news and information arm of the SABC). It feels like things are unraveling in South Africa, thanks in part to the erosion of confidence in the current president, Jacob Zuma. He refuses to abide by the Constitutional Court (like our Supreme Court) ruling that he misused millions in state funds for personal projects and should repay the money.

There are other, more concrete, indicators.

South Africa’s sovereign credit rating is teetering on junk status, and the Rand-US dollar rate recently pierced the psychological 15:1 barrier.

Food prices are rising fast due to both a shattering long drought (SA agricultural production has plummeted) and the higher cost of importing food when paying in a weak currency.

Government has not made sufficient progress on the critical basics of job creation, housing, water, sanitation, electricity, and food.

I heard these facts from a respected SA financial analyst one recent morning on SAFM radio:

  • South Africa’s official reported unemployment rate just announced is 26.7%, more than a two percent rise over the last reported unemployment rate.
  • That’s the official rate reported. The financial analyst reckons that her data indicates that the real rate is well over 50% unemployment, a chilling figure.
  • She further stated that two out of every three young South Africans are unemployed because there are no jobs. She stated the obvious, that this is a devastating indicator.
  • Eskom, the power company, has forecast very little load shedding (power cuts, blackouts) this winter, unlike in recent years, meaning South Africans won’t wake up in the cold and the dark as they have previous winters. But the financial analyst warned that this seemingly good news is only because the important mining sector of the South African economy is so far down that Eskom has lost the mining companies’ normal gigantic power consumption. She said Eskom is just as poorly managed as ever.

On a personal note, I had my rental car washed at the Kruger Park’s Skukuza Camp gas station, and the 25 year old South African man who did the job begged me to adopt him and take him to the USA “so I can get a real job and make some money.” He was very serious, telling me that if I adopted him his father wouldn’t care as long as he sends back money because his dad has been out of work for more than ten years.

It was a distressing moment, and I could only offer advice on where to get a better job. I pointed him to the over-the-top luxury lodges like Londolozi and Mala Mala, which are just a stone’s throw away, because I know they pay well, not to mention the generous tips there.

Speaking of which, I tipped the man who washed my car 150 Rand, which is $10. He did a spectacular job. The man was stunned to receive such an amount.

Seems like a seismic shift may be imminent or already in motion in South Africa. National elections are coming soon, and Zuma may be replaced.

But 12 million voters out of 85 or so million registered voters may be disenfranchised because the voter registration law requires every voter to list his/her address. Twelve million people on the rolls have no address. They live in makeshift homes made from old cardboard boxes and scraps of wood and metal beside roads, under bridges, and so on, places that have no address. Informal settlements in South Africa on vacant land are as common as formal ones. They spring up overnight and last for years. People are born, live, and die there. Not one such settlement has an address. The courts and government are currently struggling with that issue, and people are angry.

In 1991 when I first came to South Africa, it wasn’t clear which black political party would win the support of the people. Extremist groups like the Pan Africanist Congress had worrisome slogans (the PAC’s was “One settler, one bullet”). The moderate ANC has ruled since, but without making discernible progress towards satisfying basic needs.

Since nobody’s lot has improved much, radical views are being heard again.  How, then, are these unsettling dynamics impacting the Kruger National Park?  So far, anyway, not much at all.

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The Kruger’s Rhino Protection Unit at work near Pretoriuskop Camp.

In twelve days I drove 1,823 miles in the Kruger—about 150 miles a day, all at 20-30 MPH—and visited more than a dozen public areas (camps, staffed picnic spots, etc.). Naturally many small, and some big, changes have occurred since 1991, such as the privatization of the Kruger’s quaint but antiquated food services 3 years ago. By and large, however, the park infrastructure remains in good shape.

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One of my Kruger accommodations, this one at Satara Camp; all were in excellent condition.

Camp housing continues to be well-maintained to the 1991 standard of excellence that is my mental benchmark. Kitchen utensils, dishes, and fridges have been kept up well, as have linens and towels. Rondavels are cleaned and scrubbed daily by the large camp housekeeping staffs, just like always.

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My accommodation’s kitchen/dining area at Satara Camp.

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Entrance to Kruger’s Lower Sabie camp showing good condition of roads and infrastructure.

Tarred and unpaved roads were looking bad a few years ago after record floods. Ditto for the major bridges over the Sabie, Olifants, Letaba, and Shingwedzi Rivers. The causeways over the Olifants and Shingwedzi Rivers, washed out by the floods, had never been replaced. Now repairs have been made, and even the most distant dirt roads are in great shape. All are easily passable by ordinary two-wheel drive cars, including through deep cuts in the many ravines that collect water after rains. There, massive new concrete fords are in place.

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The well-stocked Skukuza Camp store, the biggest in the Kruger Park.

The grocery stores are well-stocked, though inventory varies wildly by camp, just as it has always been so. One never knows what brand of beer may be available, but always at least some are. Same with all other foodstuffs. Only Coca-Cola products are ubiquitous in every camp store. Maybe Coke should take over the stocking of everything.

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The biltong (jerky) rack in the Pretoriuskop  Camp store evidences an dizzying array of product.

Filling stations at every camp always have gas and diesel, and they are staffed well, so there is no wait (no self-pumping of fuel in South Africa). Women generally run the stations, and they gladly clean front and rear windshields while the tank is filling. (I always tip them 10% over the fuel charge.)

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Satara Camp restaurant.

I’ve already mentioned the changes to Kruger restaurants and snack bars. They may lack the traditional food choices that I prefer over the pizza and Mexican entrees now found on camp restaurant menus, but there’s always plenty to eat on hand and lots of staff even for the busiest dining hour.

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Warthog skull mounts, complete with fearsome tusks, for sale at the Skukuza Camp store.

The swimming pools are being kept up well and appear to be clean. Certainly the water is clear and loaded with Chlorine. It’s fun to sit by the camp pool sipping a cold beverage and watch a herd of Impala graze just outside the fence a few feet away.

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I bought this Zulu-made basket at a Kruger camp store.

Best of all, the SANParks website works well and is easy to use. I used to have to call South Africa National Parks head office in Pretoria to book the Kruger. Later, SANParks farmed out some of that to private firms, and I developed a relationship with one based at Skukuza that was owned by a former Kruger Ranger’s family.

But now the SANParks website is so good that I can do everything I want and need myself without help, including the annual renewal of my Wild Card (covers daily conservation fees and entry fees to every South Africa National Park).

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Kudu bull near Kruger’s Skukuza Camp with magnificent spiral horns. The Kudu is the symbol of SANParks (South Africa National Parks).

Lastly, the rolling blackouts, which have become routine throughout the country, rarely impact the Kruger National Park. Even when the power went down at the Skukuza Airport on the day I arrived, for instance, the park itself, just 5 kilometers away, was not affected. I am told the government knows how important the Kruger is as an international symbol of South Africa and doesn’t want bad press from unhappy foreign tourists.

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African Wild Dogs cavort near Tshokwane in the Kruger.

For the moment, then, it seems as if the Kruger is safe from the general decline in the rest of the country’s quality of life. Which is good for the park and us tourists, but given the big problems facing South Africa, it means visitors increasingly live in a bubble when inside the park.

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The east end of a westbound Elephant in the Kruger National Park.

I first came to the Kruger National Park in South Africa in 1991 when I worked and lived in Johannesburg.  It was love at first sight for me, and soon I came almost every weekend and holiday while living in South Africa.  I quickly learned the safari ropes:  There are all gradations of African safaris, from lavish and outrageously costly to the simple drive-yourself model that characterizes the Kruger experience.  I sampled them all: luxury lodges in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve (adjacent to the Kruger), camping in Botswana’s Savuti and Okavango wildernesses, Etosha National Park in Namibia, Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls on the Zambian side, and recently a lodge-based safari in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti National Park.

Each experience was rich in its own way, but my goal is and has always been to see African animals in the wilderness. I see the same animals whether I am paying a lot or a little, and I need only a modicum of comfort: a roof, toilet and shower, a comfortable place to sleep.  I dearly love Champagne and TLC, but really, do I need those things in Africa?  I long ago decided not, and I found the Kruger is the ideal place to see African wildlife in a natural setting.

To enjoy the Kruger fully, one must be willing to drive oneself around in one’s own vehicle (I rent from Avis) and become at least minimally adept at knowing where to go and what to do. So here goes passing along what I’ve learned in a quarter century of DIY safari trips to the Kruger.

First, this rule of thumb:  No matter what kind of African safari you choose, and no matter in what country, there’s one word that applies to all safaris that you should know: “chance.”  Chance is universal to the experience, whether over-the-top expensive (it’s easy to find safaris that cost $2500 per day per person) or do-it-yourself (I pay less than $85/day in the Kruger).  Regardless of what you spend, you may or may not see all the African animals you’ve dreamed of when watching National Geographic specials.  In the end, it all boils down to luck.

(In South Africa there is one way to cheat chance if you are willing to pay two grand a day per person, and that is to book into one of the luxury lodges in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve right next to the Kruger. Places like Londolozi, Mala Mala, and Sabi Sabi will pamper you and almost guarantee you’ll see the “Big Five” because the Sabi Sands Game Reserve is a private concession area. For the money you are paying, they can afford to send out an army of trackers day and night to mark where the animals are, later taking you there for that phony “Aha!” moment.  To me, though, it feels like deluxe Disney.  It isn’t the wilderness.  It certainly isn’t a real “safari” when you are holed up in a fancy lodge the entire trip.)

It is true, however, that skill and experience play a large part in increasing your chances of seeing everything you want, including the “Big Five” African species that everyone wants to brag about: elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard, and rhino.  I’ve picked up a thing or two that can help your chances of seeing what you want when you come to the Kruger:

Most important is to set your expectations right.  Your luck (chance) of sighting animals will vary from day to day and from minute to minute. Africa, even the vaunted Serengeti Plain of Tanzania, is not a uniform land of open savanah where one can see for miles.  Quite the contrary, most of the many African wilderness areas I’ve seen are dotted with trees and bushes and/or tall grass that make viewing much beyond the roadway difficult or downright impossible.  That’s true even in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana. African animals are masters of staying out of sight.  Many times I have seen an entire herd of elephants suddenly walk out in front of me on the road and beside the road, and then, within a few minutes, vanish into the flora.  It is not that they are moving fast; it is just that animals appear and disappear quickly.  I might see a leopard running by the car for a couple of minutes and then watch it lope off into the bushes.  For me it was an exhilarating moment, but the next car that comes around the bend one minute later will have missed it entirely, and how do I explain that to its occupants? It’s just chance.

One obvious way to increase your chances is to cover more distance.  The more you drive the roads, the more your chances increase of catching some special, elusive experience like the African Wild Dogs I saw for half an hour this morning. In six days I have already driven 1,060 miles on this trip to the Kruger. The speed limit in the park is 50 KPH on paved roads (31 MPH) and 40 KPH on unpaved roads (25 MPH), so that’s a lot of hours driving. My reward is seeing a lot of game.

To cover distance, you have to know where you’re going, so first buy a mapbook at any Kruger Park store.  Two or three publishers have them available for 70-120 Rand ($5-9), and they are indispensable for knowing where you are and how to get places.  I prefer the Honeyguide Publications version, but the Tinker version is equally good.  I recommend the mapbooks with large format individual pages of each section of the Kruger rather than the cheaper, folding maps available.

African animals roam free in their natural habitat, of course.  Unlike animals in a zoo or private game park, they are not bunched together.  Don’t expect, therefore, to see vast herds reaching for the horizon, galloping before you at every turn. This isn’t a Hollywood movie; it’s the real world, and in reality, animals wander all over looking for food, water, and mates. Again, set your expectations accordingly. Some days you’ll probably be amazed at the numbers; other days, not.  It is chance.

It is often said that the southern camps in the Kruger (Satara, Orpen, Crocodile Bridge, Berg-en-Dal, Skukuza, Lower Sabie, and Pretoriuskop) have more open areas and often better game viewing.  I disagree about more open areas–open areas exist in all parts of the park–but agree that the south seems to have more animal concentrations that come close to the roads.  I have seen a great many animals around all the northern camps, with the sole exception of Mopani.  Mopani is the newest Kruger camp, built in the 1970s or 80s, and its infrastructure is built of gorgeous stone around a big lake created by a dam. Despite Mopani’s beauty, I have never seen much game close by.

Drive at or below the speed limit to increase your chances of seeing game. You’ll see more if you drive slowly. My average speed on Kruger roads is 33 KPH.

More pairs of eyes equals more sightings. It’s more difficult to catch sight of things when driving alone.

When driving with two or more persons, divide up the watch areas.  For instance, those sitting on the left side should keep watch left, and those on the right watch to the right. The front seat passenger should ideally help watch front and center so the driver can focus on keeping the car in the road.

Rent a car with good visibility, that is, one that sits high and has lots of windows; a van works exceptionally well, I’ve found.

Take out the headrests to improve 360 degree visibility.

Most predators (lions, leopards, wild dog, hyena, jackals, smaller cats) hunt at night, late afternoon, and early morning. They lay up during the day. So the best times to see meat-eaters is early morning and late afternoon.  Be prepared to get up early and stay out as long as the gates are open (see schedule).

There are exceptions: Cheetah are daytime hunters, and other predators will sometimes be about during cool, overcast days.

Game drives between about 9am and 3pm (varies by time of year and cloud cover) are often rich in prey animals, but rarely predators.

Where prey is plentiful, predators will often be near.  Where prey are few in number, don’t waste your time there.

Giraffe, hippo, rhino, elephant, and buffalo are usually not on the predator menu, so where they are to be found, normally there won’t be predators around.

There are exceptions: Lion and even hyena sometimes take buffalo, and any old, weak, and/or injured animal, no matter how large, will be killed and eaten.  Or scavenged if already dead or dying.

Normal prey animals are impala, kudu, waterbuck (though it has a distasteful musk gland), zebra, wildebeest, nyala, steenbok, scrub hare, warthog, vervet monkey, baboons, and all the other antelope species. Anywhere those are in number, look for predators.

Zebra, wildebeest, and impala often stick together for safety. Sometimes kudu, waterbuck, and other antelope mingle with them, too.  Where groups are prey animals are found together, the killers are often close by.

But they may not be! This is a general rule, but no guarantee that predators will always be close to their prey.

Consult the camp sightings boards for hints at where to find animals, especially predators, but keep in mind that all animals move all the time.  What was there at 6am will likely be long gone by 7am unless it’s lions on a big kill.  That could last for hours, or even days if  devouring a big animal like a buffalo.

Ask other tourists what they’ve seen and where.  This applies both at camps and on the road.  I often put a hand out to stop an oncoming car to ask what they’ve seen and where, and other people ask me the same.  Don’t be shy.

Take some time with animals to watch them, not just tearing about looking for lions.  I find elephant behavior endlessly fascinating.  Both single animals or in herds, the big guys always show me something.  Recently I watched an elephant repeatedly swipe a foot cleanly across a large mass of tough grass being held tight by its trunk, using the toenails like a scythe to clip the grass so it could be lifted and eaten. On my current trip (April-May, 2016) I got a video of an elephant surveying a large tree to find the best place to push it over and break it.  Once it had the tree down, the elephant galloped around to the top, now lying on the ground (formerly out of reach), to browse the most tender leaves and branches.

Once I observed a young leopard working hard to eat a big monitor lizard.  Must have been a tough meal to digest, but fun to watch.

Sitting by hyena dens is always rewarding, especially when the pups are newborn. They are real cute and inquisitive, like many youngsters, and they like to come up to the car and peer up.  They appear to be begging for a pat on the head, but even young hyena jaws could take a man’s hand off, so resist the urge.

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Sunrise over the South Africa-Mozambique border in the Kruger National Park a bit north and east of Lower Sabie Camp

There are probably more tips to share, but that’s a pretty good roundup.  If you follow them, you should have a very rewarding trip to the Kruger. I am there now and posting via a slow and awkward mobile hotspot by tethering my Samsung tablet to my Samsung smartphone.  Please therefore forgive any errors in this post, especially format problems.

After an 18 year absence from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, I visited all four countries a few months ago over a two week period with my family.  The sublime delight of their local cuisines was always a highlight of many trips I had made to those Southeast Asian destinations in the past.  To name a few: Hong Kong’s noodles, Singapore’s Indian district fish head curry, Malaysia’s Muslim staple char kuey teow (rice noodles) with prawns (never with pork), and Thailand’s incomparable red and green curries (with anything).

Just typing the names of these dishes makes my mouth water!  Eighteen years is far too long to be away from such scrumptious food.

Of course I welcomed the internationalization of food choices coming to my area that have made it easier to find all those and more in local restaurants specializing in SE Asian gastronomy.  Though I still don’t know where to find Malaysian char kuey teow (and still can’t pronounce it correctly) or fish head curry (the best in my book is served up at Muthu’s Curry House in Singapore), fine examples of Chinese noodle soups and delicious Thai curries are thankfully plentiful in the Research Triangle area.  I’d put up the delectable Duck Red Curry from the modest Thai House Restaurant in Raleigh against any I’ve enjoyed in Thailand, for instance.

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Our kids enthusiastically enjoying noodles prepared at a local noodle shops on Hong Kong island.  No Western food was on the menu, a refreshing discovery! 

While in Asia, we did tuck into some good eats, such as perfect noodles in Hong Kong and to-die-for Peking Duck at the chic (and expensive) Empire City Roasted Duck in the upscale Kowloon K-11 Mall.  But I was dismayed to find that the internationalization of cuisine has gone from West to East, not just from Asia to America!  It was actually a challenge to find really good native food in all four countries.

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McDonald’s in the Mongkok (Hong Kong) next to the freeway. Not an attractive streetscape, but patrons streamed in day and night anyway, chowing down on Western fast food.

In Hong Kong McDonald’s Restaurants seem to be serving the needs of the masses of busy people and their kids like never before.  We frequented McDonald’s to sate the hunger of our two kids and can attest that every store was doing a land-rush business, with customers across the demographic spectrum.  The breakfast menu is an East-meets-West hybrid, but definitely not Cantonese cuisine.  Not that I credit (or blame) McDonald’s for what seems to be a trend towards more international food choices, but except in outlying areas, we found traditional breakfast noodle shops harder to find than I recall.

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McDonald’s in the Mongkok area of Hong Kong was always busy, a 24/7 operation.

In multicultural Singapore it was always my experience that several Asian fares co-existed but did not collide.  If you wanted Indian food, one headed for the Indian district.  On this trip, time did not permit us a sojourn there to sip Tiger beer while eating fish head curry off a banana leaf with our fingers (the traditional method).

But we did have some almost tasty but mostly bland samplings of several Asian cultures at a Food Republic near our hotel. Food Republic is a chain of stand-alone food courts with common seating areas surrounded by fast-food-looking counters where orders are taken for whatever suits your fancy: Korean, Chinese, Indian, Thai, and so on.  And Chinese choices are many: traditional Dongbei, rice and noodles, hot pot, Szechuan, and so on.

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Food Republic in Singapore offered a wide variety of rather bland Asian dishes.  Not even the Szechuan food was something I’d go back for.

We tried a number of Food Republic dishes, and all were wholesome and good, but it just didn’t feel like real Singapore.  We could have been in any mall in America.

We passed through Malaysia from the bottom to the top of the peninsula aboard a train, but we grabbed what morsels we could at the Johor Bahru Central Station and in the train’s snack bar car.

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Johor Bahru (Malaysia) Central Train Station, spiffy and clean, but with rather Spartan food choices and no good local cuisine.

After recovering from the shock of modernity that is the Johor Bahru Central Station, I browsed through the stalls selling victuals that might work for breakfast.  Again I was disappointed to find just a few tasteless halal doughnuts amidst an even more tasteless array of Western-style breads and things made to look like pastries.

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Western-style breads and cakes for sale in a shop at the Johor Bahru Central Train Station.  There were some weird hybrid breads, but no purely Malaysian choices, and it all tasted like sawdust.

At the end of the station’s concourse sits an American fast food tradition: a bright, shiny KFC.  I couldn’t find traditional Malaysian fare on sale there, but the menu sure bragged about its Italian desserts!

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The KFC dessert menu board at the Johor Bahru Central Station. These don’t look like native Malaysian food choices to me.

On board the train that sped across the Malaysian peninsula, we were delighted to find a snack bar car.

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The snack bar car on the Malaysian cross-country train – modest, clean, but with an extremely limited food selection for a 14 hour trip, and they ran out of noodles long before reaching our destination.

While it wasn’t haute cuisine by any stretch of the imagination, our kids loved the cheap cup noodles, and the more Styrofoam plates of noodles heated in a microwave were even better by comparison.  It was still essentially fast food, though, and wasn’t going to win any prices at the state fair.

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Cup noodles on the Malaysian cross-country train were typical of those found worldwide.

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Microwaved pre-cooked noodles on the Malaysian train were edible, but not something to brag about.

A superb breakfast was included at our fabulous boutique hotel in Georgetown, on the Malaysian island of Penang, yet once again it was a Western-style assortment of breads and fruits. No local foods.

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Really delicious Western-style breakfast at our Georgetown hotel on Penang Island (Malaysia) 

En route to Thailand by ferry, we changed boats on the Malaysian island of Lantau.  There the ferry terminal is a very busy tourist crossroads, and I hoped to run into some local comestibles from a hole-in-the-wall place that would tickle my taste buds.  Instead, all we could find was a Lantau food court reminiscent of those sometimes seen at middle-sized American airports.

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The food court at the Lantau ferry terminal (Malaysia)

It was set up on the Food Republic model of central tables surrounded by various merchants selling Muslim, Chinese, Thai, Indian, and Malaysian food.  After sampling a smorgasbord of small dishes from several nationalities, I couldn’t decide which was more mediocre.

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Very average and unimaginative food court on Lantau Island (Malaysia) at the ferry terminal

Finally in Thailand on Koh Lipe Island, we were optimistic that the Thais took great pride in their native cuisine and could not possibly offer up a second-rate curry.

I was wrong.  Although we enjoyed some pretty good dishes over four days, none was outstanding.  We couldn’t understand it until we chatted up an American restaurateur married to a Thai fellow.  She was disgusted that all the Thai places on Koh Lipe had let their standards slip because they figured that international tourists couldn’t tell the difference, and tourists were anyway satisfied with non-Thai food.

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A pretty good Thai dish on Koh Lipe

Back on the mainland at Hat Yai central train station waiting hours for our overnight sleeper to Bangkok, we wiled away the time in the station restaurant.  The kind Thai owner had learned Western baking techniques and had delicious breads and pastries on offer.  But his Thai selections were not much better than average.  This was particularly surprising to me because Hat Yai is not a place tourists usually hang out, and I expected the memorable Thai food of my past visits.

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Quite the selection of Western-style foods and beverages at the Hat Yai (Thailand) central train station, but where are the Thai foods?

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Delicious western-style breads, cakes and buns and puddings in Hat Yai made by the Thai owner, but his native dishes were just okay.

En route to Bangkok that night on board the comfortable sleeper train, we were delighted to find a real dining car, and festively decorated for Christmas (it was the season, after all).

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The diner on the Hat Yai-Bangkok overnight train was festively decorated for Christmas.

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The rail diner menu on the Hat Yai-Bangkok overnight train.

The menu looked pretty good, and the actual plates were certainly better than on the Malaysian train.  Too bad the flavors were on par with the so-so Thai meals we had on Koh Lipe.

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The curry served in the diner aboard the train looks better in this photo than it tasted.  It was good, but not memorable.

The biggest letdown of all came in Bangkok itself where we tried a number of curries (red, green, massaman).  All were markedly better than the rail diner food or that on Koh Lipe, but none was a home run.   All the Thai restaurants had dual language Thai-English menus, which we expected from past experience, but we had to struggle to find the Thai selections.

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The Thai owner of the best Thai cafe we found in Bangkok brings hot tea for breakfast.  He baked his own bagels every morning.

One favorite small, locally-owned cafes happened to be directly across the street from our hotel, and its menu was a good representation of the trend: page 1 was American food (hamburgers, French fries); page 2 was Italian-American (pastas and such); page 3 was Mexican-American (Tacos, nachos—shocking!); page 4—at last—was Thai dishes, and not very many of them.  The Thai owner also served good bagels and cream cheese for breakfast!

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That’s a live Ronald McDonald in Bangkok, and he speaks Thai, of course.

Sure, we found some good local food, but not one traditional place was unforgettable. The dumbing down of the exquisite Asian cuisines that we have known and loved is well under way.  How long, I wonder, before real noodle shops and mom-and-pop curry cafes in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand will become anachronisms given to snarky comments by Millennials scurrying by while munching on trendy Chik-fil-A waffle fries, their native palates completely shot?

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Roasted scorpions on a  stick in Bangkok.  They had big spiders, too.  I didn’t eat either.

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Cafe cycle on Koh Lipe

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Cafe cycle chef whips up a Thai dish on Koh Lipe – maybe we should have tried it.

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Street food on Koh Lipe – authentic as it got

When I booked hotel accommodations for my family of four for a mad dash of college tours across America’s vast landscape over Spring Break (our son is a high school Junior), I did not intentionally select five different hotel brands, but that’s the way it worked out.

We were away more than five nights; however, thanks to relatives in the Los Angeles area and friends in New Hampshire who hosted us, I was able to limit our out-of-pocket costs to just five nights in hotels. It was a marathon run to one university and college after another, so exhausting that even our seventh grade daughter grew weary.  Given our breakneck pace trying to cover so much ground, we needed our hotels to give us shelter and peace for at least a few hours each night.  They all delivered.  Here’s how they stacked up.

ROOM RATES: AS EXPECTED

Five nights, five hotel groups: Springhill Suites (Marriott group); Holiday Inn (IHG); Hyatt Regency (Hyatt); Travelodge (Wyndham); and Embassy Suites (Hilton). I was frankly amazed that all proved very good places to stay by a number of standards, while the cost differentials matched up predictably to each brand and  location:

Springhill Suites (Marriott group), Hagerstown, MD – $127 (all room rates stated before taxes)

Holiday Inn (IHG), Middletown, NY – $94

Hyatt Regency (Hyatt), Cambridge, MA – $239

Travelodge (Wyndham), LAX Airport, CA – $119

Embassy Suites (Hilton), SFO Airport, CA – $171

All rates were the lowest I could find online testing several booking services and using a variety of possible discounts, such as AAA, AARP, etc.

PARKING: TO BE (FREE), OR NOT TO BE (FREE)

Parking was (still) free at the Springhill Suites, Holiday Inn, and the Travelodge LAX, though spots were scarce at the Travelodge.  The Hyatt Regency Cambridge charged $38/day for self-parking in an adjacent and very tight structured parking garage, a rate to be expected in such a major and densely-crowded urban environment as central Boston.

The big parking surprise was the Embassy Suites SFO, sited on the bay at Burlingame.  The property has the usual acres of surface lots surrounding the typical blocky hotel building, and it does not sit in a major urban area.  One has to squint to see the most distant lot, and many of the spaces were vacant.  Yet the Embassy wanted $22 per day to park and issued special mirror hangers to thwart cheaters, threatening to tow vehicles that were not so validated.  I managed to talk them out of my one night charge because we didn’t arrive to check in until 10:30 PM, and I had to turn the Hertz car in at SFO before eight o’clock the following morning.  So the staff took pity on me and comped the parking.

Though I appreciated the gesture, I had to beg and whine and chew my lip to avoid what is essentially an extra room rate charge, much like the a la carte pricing model the airlines have so well perfected.  The way of the future, I’m sure.  Maybe next time even the humble Holiday Inn in dinky Middeltown, NY will want a fin or a ten for overnight parking.

BREAKFAST: COMPLIMENTARY, BUT VARIED

The modest brands of Holiday Inn, Travelodge, and Springhill Suites all offered the same tired breakfast buffet we’ve become inured to; that is, bad coffee; sugary cereals and skim milk; penitentiary-quality muffins frozen for 6 months before being  served with freezer burns ice cold and tasteless; stale bread and bagel-shaped wannabees; tiny packets of grape jelly impossible to scour out; cook-your-own waffles and insipid corn syrup flavored vaguely suggestive of maple; and a few containers of pretty good yogurt swimming in melted ice.  Sometimes some institutional eggs and bad sausage links are also on display.  You know what I mean.  Gives me heartburn just describing it.

But my kids loved it every place we went, so who’s complaining?

The Embassy served up its usual cooked-to-order breakfast, which was very good, except that several hundred (no exaggeration) high school kids had beat me to the breakfast lines at 7:00 AM, forcing me to gobble what I could when finally I got my omelette before splitting for SFO to return the rental car to Hertz before the deadline.

Saving the best for last, the Hyatt Regency Cambridge had a magnificent breakfast buffet set out to the tune of some twenty-odd dollars per person, and our rate included the full buffet breakfast for four.  We pigged out because the choices were so many and so good: fresh-cooked eggs; mounds of applewood bacon and savory sausage; huge trays of fresh fruit; bottomless juice glasses; fresh-baked cakes, muffins, breads, and bagels; cold meats and cheeses; and any hot tea one could think of.  Unlike most hotel breakfasts, the Hyatt Regency Cambridge was memorable, made more so by the gracious and ever-helpful wait staff and attendants watching to instantly replenish any food item that was running low.  No patron was rushed, either.  We were encouraged to linger, which was easy to do since the Hyatt Cambridge restaurant is perfectly positioned for a grand view of crews out sculling on the Charles River with downtown Boston in the distance. The entire breakfast experience justified the higher Hyatt room rate in my mind.

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Hyatt Regency Cambridge iconic indoor glass elevators

 

ROOM APPEARANCE, COMFORT & AMENITIES

Once again the Hyatt Regency Cambridge was several steps above the rest in style and comfort.  Our room was not a suite, but was plenty large, amply commodious for four, with the Hyatt’s usual Frank Lloyd Wright-ish look about its decor and furnishings, which is ageless and in good taste.  I admit to a strong bias for Hyatt properties for that reason alone, though in this case we had chosen the location for its proximity to MIT, where we had a tour and info session lined up the next morning. I was happy that our seventeen year old son noticed the stylish modern touches and appreciated them.

Beyond that, of course the Hyatt had bath amenities far superior to the other four hotels, though, truth be told, even the Travelodge and Holiday Inn boasted much better soaps and other stuff nestled by the wash basin than my memory of the plebeian brand of accommodation joints they have always represented in my mind.

Towels in the five hotels were roughly equivalent and measured up well: big and thirsty.  Water pressure was good everywhere as well.  That can be a problem in some hotels, as we all know.  No vacillation of water temps, either, was experienced. Thus all the properties got high marks for decent showers.

The biggest eye-opener for me, in retrospect, was that all five hotels provided extremely comfortable beds that aided in a good night’s rest.  All five rooms were quiet, too, which I grant could have been luck–I have stayed in some pretty snazzy places, like the Waldorf, where noisy neighbors were a problem..

The HVAC systems in four of the rooms were not obtrusive and kept the temperature in a narrow range according to our settings, the sole exception being the Travelodge LAX.  There an archaic A/C window unit blasted sounds akin to a DC-3 taking off (for those who remember that far back).  The arrangement seemed a throwback to a 1960s notion of environmental comfort.

Lighting in hotel rooms has become a carp of some travel writers recently because hotel chains are dimming down their room interior illumination.  God knows why they would be so stupid and insensitive, but it is, I read, a growing trend.  Perhaps a dumbing down of hotel executives out of touch with the reality of what it means to actually be a guest has led to the dimming down of guest room lights.  I am happy to report none of the five hotel rooms we occupied suffered from this new phenomenon; all were sufficiently bright for our purposes.

STAFF: “PRACTICALLY PERFECT IN EVERY WAY” (WITH APOLOGIES TO MARY POPPINS)

No discernible contrast can be drawn among the staff qualities we encountered at any of the five properties.  Not that I expected the cheaper Holiday Inn front desk folks to be rude or stupid just because I paid the least amount to stay there, any more than I expected a haughty arrogance to be exuded among the staff at the Hyatt Regency Cambridge just because it’s the premier hotel nearest MIT.  All front desk, restaurant, and housekeeping employees we ran into were friendly, kind, genuinely interested in ensuring our stay was pleasant and enjoyable, and competent.  We liked all the people at every hotel, which amazes me as much as the uniform room comfort.

Some examples of going above and beyond:

The Springhill Suites front desk staff insisted that we take breakfast items with us on the road, even though we had already eaten our fill.

The Holiday Inn front desk clerk when we checked in late on a rainy night went out of her way to locate a luggage trolley for us that was inside and therefore dry.

The Hyatt Regency front desk clerk who checked me out adjusted several items off the bill on the basis of my word even though I didn’t have the written proof with me (my wife had taken that bag to the car already).

The Travelodge LAX courtesy bus driver insisted on following me to Hertz after I checked in to bring me back to the hotel to avoid a long walk or doubling back to the airport for a ride.  He gave me his number and instructed me to call once I had closed out my contract.  I did, and he was there to pick me on the street by the massive Hertz facility at LAX in 8 minutes.

The Embassy Suites front desk clerk who checked me in at 10:30 PM apologized for not having a bayview room available and deducted $50 from the room rate, which dropped it to $121.  He then gave us a room on a high floor (which Hilton now charges extra for) “so it will be quiet for you,” he said.  As mentioned above, I was able to negotiate off the parking charge as well, saving another $22 plus tax.

WRAPPING UP

The four of us did not anticipate how tough the college visit trips would be.  Our days started very early, sometimes at 5:00 AM, and often went until 11:00 PM.  It was altogether exhausting, mentally and physically.  We were all very glad that the five hotels provided us with just exactly what we needed each of the five nights: tranquility and comfort.  Each of the five very different hotels, operated by five competing hotel chains, met our expectations and often exceeded them.  How often does that happen?

Fortune has smiled on me twice in recent months, allowing me to sample a couple of the best long-haul business class cabins in the sky: Qatar Airways and Cathay Pacific Airways.  Both are superb alternatives to the premium classes offered by the Big Three U.S. carriers (United, Delta, and American, in case you need reminding).

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Why not compare Qatar or Cathay business class to the sharp end services of DL, UA, or AA? The better question is, Why bother?  I won’t trash our homegrown carriers for their premium offerings, but a number of foreign carriers, including Qatar and Cathay Pacific, offer international business and first class services far superior to what’s available on made-in-America airlines.

The word to describe Qatar and Cathay business class is “sublime.”  I will say up front (no pun intended) that it isn’t a matter of which is better because each has its merits.  But the services are not identical in every respect, making the differences worth noting.

Airlines and hub airports

Cathay serves 190 destinations from its mega-hub in Hong Kong, while Qatar serves over 150 places around the globe from its mega-hub in Doha.  The global reach of both, combined with a good connecting network to, and within, the USA, makes them competitive from the States to just about anywhere.

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One of the tastefully furnished and beautiful Cathay Pacific business class lounges

Both hub airports are eye-popping gorgeous, not to mention modern, sleek, and bright-shiny clean, the opposite of, say, dingy, shopworn JFK or ORD.  Added to which, Hong Kong and Doha airports boast big and spectacular home airline business class lounges with all the services, food, and drink one could ask for.

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One half of the stupendous Qatar Airways business class lounge at Doha Airport, so large that I could not get it all in one shot.  The upstairs restaurant in the distance is also part of the lounge.

I would be hard-pressed to say that either Cathay’s classy and luxurious business class lounges at HKG (four, or five if you count the Arrival Lounge) or Qatar’s single but mind-blowingly big business class lounge at DOH is better than the other. Both air carriers’ business class lounges offer five-star comestibles and libation, along with a full array of creature comforts and business accoutrements for ease of work.  Experiencing the home airport lounges of both airlines is unforgettable.

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Looking back from the photo above to see the other half of the Qatar business lounge in Doha.

Aircraft and time

I flew from Hong Kong to Chicago in Cathay’s business cabin on one of their standard 777-300 aircraft, about 15 hours.

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Cathay Pacific 777-300 being prepped at Hong Kong for the flight to Chicago.

On Qatar Airways I flew on a brand new A350 from Philly to Doha and back, about 12 hours going and 14 hours returning.

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Qatar Airways brand new A350 ready for boarding in Philadelphia

I also flew in business via Qatar A330s to and from Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania, but I will stick with the long-haul flights in this post.

All flights on both carriers were on time or early.  Okay, that has nothing to do with business class since one class doesn’t arrive sooner than another.  But what good is comfort and luxe if the basic operation stinks?  Qatar and Cathay pay close attention to schedule-keeping and therefore achieve consistently reliable operations, which makes a discussion of class merits relevant.

Cabin look and feel

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Cathay Pacific 777 business class privacy pods. The flight attendant reprimanded me for taking this photo. I appreciated the airline’s commitment to individual seclusion.

Cathay Pacific’s business class cabin is configured 1-2-1 in the Dilbert office cubicle style, which is to say, each business class unit is walled off from every other by tall partitions that emphasize privacy and solitude.  Looking down the cabin at the lines of tall panels, one cannot easily tell which seats are occupied.

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Cathay business class privacy pods

To me, the effect shouts: “Do not disturb!”—which isn’t a bad thing.  About midway to Chicago, though, I wondered if anyone would even notice should a passenger cocooned in a business class pod die.  I also felt occasionally claustrophobic amid the high walls and was glad to have access to a window seat.

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Cathay business class seats are ultra-comfortable and have a plethora of storage compartments, the one open here for shoes.

I guess you can tell that I am no fan of the complete isolation generated by the cube farm design, but as many of my trusted frequent flyers have impressed upon me, this type of private cabin configuration is exactly what the majority of business travelers want these days.  Thus Cathay is, as usual, ahead of the curve. I respect and applaud the airline emphatically responding to statistically valid data:  My nits are negated by market research.

Cathay’s 777s are equipped with the newest mood lighting of different color variations for encouraging sleep and easy transitions through multiple time zones.  The effect was not limited to business class, of course, but I perceived that the effect was somehow heightened within the walls of my cubicle and aided in sleeping.

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Qatar A350 business class cabin radiates full mood light when boarding in Philly

Qatar’s spit-polished brand new A350 on the Philadelphia-Doha is, with the Boeing 787, the newest airplane technology flying.  The interior looks and feels ultra-modern.  PHL/DOH is a morning departure that flies east into darkness to the Middle East half a day later.  The pink-orange mood lighting gave the cabin a sci-fi glow designed to begin the body’s transition to the abrupt time change.  The weird hues took a few minutes to adjust to, after which they seemed strangely normal.

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Qatar A350 business class seats have a lower profile than Cathay’s, making the cabin feel more open, but at a sacrifice to individual privacy.

The Qatar 1-2-1 business class cabin on its newest aircraft contrasts sharply with Cathay in the absence of the cube farm dividers around seats.  The medium high partitions give the fuselage cross-section a welcoming open sensation that appealed to me as I settled in, though research shows that I am in the minority.  Most business class patrons want the higher wall seats that Cathay uses.

Business class on the Qatar A350 is divided into two sections by a boarding door.  Between the sections is a kind of foyer with attractive low curving cabinets made to look like mahogany on which flowers and Champagne normally are placed.  The curves and low cabinet design combine with the low seat dividers to effect a mood of spaciousness to the overall business cabin.

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Qatar A350 mid-cabin cabinet in business class. Champagne and flutes are kept on the shelf throughout the flight. Note blue mood lighting for westbound flight from Doha to PHL.

The A350 (and the 787) are designed to feel more natural in flight, maintaining, for instance, higher levels of humidity than older planes.  I couldn’t discern the difference; I found both the Cathay 777 and the Qatar A350 to be equally comfortable.  I suspect being in the lap of luxury of business class on both flights had something to do with my sense of ease and well-being.

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One of the many small storage compartments in Qatar’s business class seats.

Both Cathay and Qatar business class seats are marvelously comfortable, with infinite seat and recline positions, including lie-flat, and with all kinds of storage compartments and lights and privacy panels.  Both have huge LCD screens fueled by muscular entertainment systems with more than 500 movies, TV, and other video choices.  Qatar and Cathay Pacific both provide their own brand of noise-canceling headphones to use as well.  I found the sets acceptable and comfortable enough not to dig out my own Bose headphones.  I admit to watching a bunch of movies that I’d missed as theatrical releases, such as Mr. Holmes and Bridge of Spies.  I have come to realize that on-demand entertainment airplane systems loaded with great content tied to a large hi-res screen and used with good noise-canceling headphones make the long hours fly by (pun intended).  That and sleep, of course, which the business class lie-flat seats are designed to ensure.

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The A350 has new-fangled window shades with two layers, one transluscent and the other the usual black-out, that operate electrically, like this one on Qatar.

Service on board

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The never-empty Champagne flutes on Cathay Pacific in business class. Thank you, Cathay!

Cathay Pacific and Qatar excel equally in top-notch in-flight service as soon as one steps off the jetway all the way to opening the doors at destination: a bottomless glass of welcome Champagne (real French bubbly, not the cheap swill served by some carriers) followed by endless gifts of pillows, blankets, menus, amenity kits, hot towels, cold towels, chocolate, food, more food, even more food, more drink, pajamas, and on and on—and all offered with a genuine smile and eagerness I have not seen among U.S. cabin crews in a very long time.

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Qatar offers two Champagne choices, even for boarding.

Taken together with the splendid integrated entertainment systems provided by both Qatar and Cathay, the on-board service was, well, as I said, sublime!  Overall, compared against forty-five years of experience on most global airlines’ very long routes in first, business, premium economy, and economy classes, I reconfirmed that I am better rested and much more alert leaving a long-haul business class experience than when flying in the back of the plane on ultra-long-haul flights, regardless of carrier.

Yes, again, please!

Flying business class on either Qatar or Cathay Pacific is an experience several pegs above the rest of the world’s pack of airlines, not just better than the U.S. carriers.  Whenever I can afford it, I’ll be doing it again on very long-haul flights.

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Business class on a Qatar A350 in Doha

 

Tolerable.  That’s the word to describe it.  Sometimes just barely tolerable, sometimes better than tolerable, but never sheer agony.  Emirates Airways’ nonstop flights between the U.S. and its huge Dubai hub are always more than twelve hours and can seem even longer if the boarding pass has the word “Economy” on it, as mine did. Of five recent legs aboard Emirates 777 and A380 planes, one was 15 hours in the air.  That can feel like a lifetime confined to a coach seat.

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Ten seats across (3-4-3) is the Emirates standard coach configuration on 777s and A380s

One version of Emirates A380 aircraft crams in 557 economy seats in a total of 88 rows, with a 3-4-3 (ten-across) configuration, some of which are just 17.5 inches wide.

But at least the fuselage of the A380 is wider than the shell of the ubiquitous Emirates 777 airplanes, also configured with ten seats across in sardine class. Somehow Emirates has squeezed in as many as 385 seats on their 777s, each one a hip-crunching 17 inches wide.

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Ten seats across on Emirates looks and feels crowded, here seen on an A380

That’s pretty darn narrow.  I’m not sure, but I think the legal standard for Kindergarten chair width in some school systems probably exceeds seventeen inches.

That was the worst of it: the tiny seats, both too narrow and too close to one’s neighbors. Had that been the beginning and end of the story, I could hardly describe the experiences of five flights in such circumstances as “tolerable.”

With that said up front, though, Emirates did a good job of mitigating the harsh reality of the dinky seats in many value-adding ways that soothed my ego and tended in the general direction of civilized comfort.  Altogether, Emirates’ balms to battle agony raised the experience to tolerable.

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Connections at Dubai airport between Emirates flights were easy and painless

Backing up a step, I took this dive into the deep end of Emirates’ class offerings because of the enticement of spending just $1100 (taxes included) to fly halfway around the world from Raleigh to Sri Lanka and back, with a free stopover in The Maldives.  I couldn’t resist the bargain and threw caution to the wind.  For such a pittance, I figured I could suck it up and endure the long flights in cattle class.

I was right, too.  The flying experiences didn’t give me nightmares or send me to the E.R.  Emirates’ partner JetBlue took me to Boston from RDU, where the connection to Dubai was a 777-300ER. From there another 777 took me to Male’ (Maldives), and later yet another 777 from Male’ to Colombo (Sri Lanka). Going home, a fourth Emirates 777 jetted from Colombo to Dubai.  The connection there was to an A380 to JFK, from whence JetBlue transported me to Raleigh.

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Emirates flight attendants in coach universally smile , and their attitudes towards us hapless economy passengers were always genuine and positive

So what moved the needle from horrible to tolerable on those five flights?  The many small Emirates spiffs that consistently rained down upon coach passengers on every flight:

  • I’ve already mentioned the seats were slightly—but noticeably—wider on the A380 than on the 777s. Ten seats across are too many, but better when the seat is a little wider
  • Despite the narrow confines of each seat, recline was pretty good for coach, possibly because the seats seemed designed and contoured better for the human body than coach seats of the past
  • In the same vein, seat pitch (distance between rows) was not claustrophobic, leaving room for seats to recline without terribly invading personal space
  • Hot towels were religiously handed out after boarding and just before landing
  • Big screens on 380s and most 777s made watching easier, more inviting
  • The ICE (Info, Communications, Entertainment) systems worked well (except on the Colombo to Dubai 777, which kept crashing)
  • Ditto for handheld ICE controls: Most worked well
  • ICE content was outstanding, with enormous variety of movies, TV programs, games, entertainment, and even live TV
  • Cheap non-noise-cancelling headset were free and worked okay, though definitely the weakest link in the ICE package; I brought my own Bose noise-cancelling, around-the-ear headphones
  • Menus were handed out on all flights in coach
  • A small but adequate amenity kit was provided on all flights in economy (eyeshade, toothbrush and paste, socks, but no earplugs); I cannot imagine getting a coach amenity kit from a U.S. carrier, ever
  • Pillows and blankets were provided for every coach seat
  • A well-designed, adjustable headrest made sleeping easier
  • Decent meals, some really good, others mediocre, though breakfasts were always pretty good
  • Mid-cabin snacks, fruit, water, booze, wine, beer, fruit juices, etc. out through entire flight for anyone to take in coach
  • Alcohol flowed at seats, too. All you had to do was ring the call button, though I did observe some drunks finally get cut off Colombo to Dubai
  • Emirates staffs plenty of FAs on duty at all times in economy, and they were always always friendly, responsive, willing to help with anything; I was happily surprised to see the consistently good attitude of cabin crews
  • Emirates flight attendants are like the United Nations of the skies: so many ethnic and cultural groups represented; on our last flight, the cabin crew came from 18 different countries and spoke 16 different languages
  • Special stuff for kids was handed out, and FAs were very helpful with bassinets for infants
  • Adequate lavs on 777s, though just 5 lavs in forward 3 sections of coach on 380 lower decks, and those were often full, creating lines. 3 on the 380 were on the pedestal deck, of which 2 were unusually roomy, while the 3rd was extremely tight (could not easily get in or out when opening door, as it barely cleared the toilet lid). Remaining 2 on main deck average size; nonetheless, I never had to wait more than 8 minutes for a lav
  • Lav cleaning by the cabin crew was frequent and adequate, especially considering the nonstop use
  • Emirates provided a meal voucher good for about $15 credit in many Dubai airport restaurants to help ease the pain of a long layover coming home
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Emirates meal voucher good for airport restaurants in Dubai given to economy passengers with long layovers

No, the spiffs couldn’t make up for the narrow seats, proving once again that air travel comfort is first and foremost about the seat.

Despite that unwavering reality, Emirates won me over with their multitude of small efforts to take the edge off the seat discomfort, combined with the positive, friendly attitudes of their flight attendants.  I came away knowing I could do it again for 15 hours in coach on Emirates without dread and probably will.

However, if Emirates introduced a premium economy product similar to Cathay Pacific’s, then I’d pay extra for it in a heartbeat.

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Dubai airport gate

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