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I’ve been into travel, flights, and miles for quite a long time, but I just collected and spent airline miles in my own silo for years. This meant I traveled cheaper and more frequently than most of my friends and family members, but I didn’t have the “aha” moment that I could travel much farther and much more comfortably using miles until much later. It took some inspiration and encouragement from the miles and points community for the realization to kick in that miles could truly unlock the world.
I didn’t have any realistic dreams of going to a private island or flying around-the-world in lie flat seats when I got my first Continental Airlines OnePass credit card a decade or so ago. I thought that sort of thing was just for top executives from big companies, oil millionaires, and other folks from an income bracket I would never touch. I wasn’t sad or mad I couldn’t travel like that, it just didn’t exist to me as an option.
Then, things changed. I saw that you could do more earning than with just one rewards card, and with more miles come more opportunities. You can redeem them not just for a 25,000 mile domestic round trip coach ticket, but if you save up a bit more you can redeem them for virtually any destination and any class of service you desire. I saw that “regular” folks really do this, and that they won’t kick you out of the fancy seats just because you don’t know exactly the right way to eat caviar or have no clue what vintage champagne it is they are pouring for you (trust me, I’ve first-hand-tested both theories).
My husband and I took our first international business class flight just 2.5 years ago, and the world has been a bit smaller ever sense.
As you may know if you have hung around here for a while, my husband isn’t a small guy, nor is he a natural born traveler. He didn’t fly for years before I met him, choosing instead sometimes to even drive thousands of miles to attend required work events in other states rather than get on an airplane. It took lots of baby steps to get him where he is today, and one of the key factors in getting him on a flight that is longer than a few hours is to make sure it is comfortable for him. This rules out coach for long-haul trips. I can sit in coach if I want to fly solo, but he would rather stay home than fly long distances in a small seat. That’s just the reality of our situation, and a fair compromise I think.
So, when the idea of a 40th birthday trip around the world popped up, there was no question the majority of the flying had to be in the fancy seats. You can read an overview of the trip and how we paid for the flights with airline miles here. Now that you know a bit more about the background of the trip, here are some highlights from the first half of our business class flights around the world using airline miles, as well as other posts in this series.
United BusinessFirst 777-200 from Houston – Amsterdam:
We have flown many times on United BusinessFirst flights over the past couple of years, more than in any other premium cabin by far. This means that the seats, service, and food were not novel to us, but they were adequate as usual. I actually think the United BusinessFirst seat is actually pretty decent for sleeping (especially ones from the old Continental planes rather than the old United planes), which is priority #1 for me on overnight flights.
The food and service can be a bit hit or miss on United operated flights, but things on this flight were totally fine. The food was edible and served not too long after take-off.
Since this nonstop flight leaves Houston at 3:40PM, it is a little hard to immediately switch into sleep-gear anyway, so having some time to eat dinner and watch a movie or two was welcome. I prefer departures to Europe that are a bit later, preferably around 6:30PM so that I am more likely to fall asleep relatively quickly after dinner service, but we made the most of our 9 hour+ flight by relaxing and resting as much as possible before landing the next morning in Amsterdam.
United BusinessFirst flights are absolutely amazing if you have only flown coach, but once you fly a few different foreign carriers will notice the food, service, and amenities aren’t as top notch as other options. Luckily for us, we still are very happy on a United business class flight, and I’m sure will continue to fly on many of them since we live in Houston and United now charges fewer miles for their own operated business class flights than partners.
Turkish Business Class A321 from Amsterdam – Istanbul:
After two pretty full days in Amsterdam, we boarded a 3.5 hour Turkish Airlines flight with a 6:15PM departure for Istanbul. This was a business class flight, but it was more in the realm of what you would expect on a domestic first class flight in the US than a fancy international business class flight, due to the short duration. There are no fancy lie-flat seats on this plane, but there were pillows and blankets waiting for us at our seats.
Three things stood out on this flight. First, the crew served Josh and addressed him in conversation either exclusively when they could, but always before me. It was very clear that we were not in Kansas anymore, and I was there very much secondary to my husband. This wasn’t a huge deal to me in this context, but it was quite noticeable.
The second thing that stood out was that the food and drinks were really pretty good – very good for a relatively short flight! There was even an on-board chef! Since this flight was at dinner time, we enjoyed all the courses and were happy to just keep eating through much of the flight.
I’m not a big drinker, but I loved all the delicious fruity juices we had to pick between – I had probably one of each!
As for the food, not only was it pretty tasty, but it just kept coming! There was more than enough food for a 3.5 hour flight.
The final thing that I distinctly remember from this flight was the smell on the plane. The air in the plane stung in my nose the whole time like the whole thing needed a good bath. After I got off the flight, I’m pretty sure I needed one, too. Still, for a shortish flight, I couldn’t argue one bit with the quality of the meal service.
Turkish Airlines Business Class Lounge in Istanbul:
We were legitimately tired and ready for bed when we landed in Istanbul at 10:45PM, but we had a few hours to kill before our overnight flight from Istanbul to Male. I remember having a very hard time figuring out the Istanbul airport and finding our way to the lounge. We did eventually find the lounge, and it was indeed massive, and also quite a long walk from where we started in the airport.
There were plenty of places to sit in various nooks and crannies around the massive and ornate lounge.
We were there late at night, so I didn’t find the food options particularly amazing as many stations were closed or closing (though certainly much more varied than most lounges in the US), but the amenities like a driving range, some race cars, and the sheer enormity of the place absolutely stuck with me. If I’m being totally honest, the thing I remember the most about that lounge was feeling lost and confused. That could well be due to the amount of travel we had done and the time of day (or night), but I really felt a bit lost during our few hours at the airport in Istanbul.
Turkish Business Class A-330 from Istanbul to Male:
We were more than ready to board our overnight flight to Male by the time 1AM rolled around, but it was not the smoothest process, and the flight was delayed a bit for reasons that were never well communicated. The boarding process was the most chaotic process I have been a part of. Ever. There were tons of people, there was pushing, there was lying, there were fake status cards being shown trying to board earlier, there was cutting, some yelling, and it was insane and unpleasant.
We were relieved to ultimately get on-board and get settled in our seats (aka beds) for the night.
My notes indicate that the seats were pretty stiff for sleeping, but that they were at least long enough, even for Josh, to stretch out. We were given Porsche amenity kits.
On the flight they served both dinner (at 2AM!) and then breakfast, though I passed on both so can’t comment on either. I was tired and did my best to sleep through as much of the 8 hour flight as possible. There was internet for purchase that I passed on as well. This flight (thankfully) did not have the same smell as the previous Turkish flight, but my notes do indicate the bathrooms weren’t the cleanest and the floors were exceptionally sticky – hurray for the slippers they provided.
I don’t remember much about this flight other than how thankful I was to be able to lay down and get some sleep, and that was exactly the point. I would certainly fly Turkish Airlines business class again.
Landing and Lounging in Male:
After the overnight flight from Istanbul, we landed in Male and had to clear customs. This was pretty simple with a short line as we were some of the first off the plane, and had “Fast Track” access due to arriving in business class. Your bags must be screened, and note that due to Islamic laws you cannot bring alcohol (among other things) into the country. You will be able to buy alcohol from the resorts, but forget about smuggling your own in to save cash.
Once through customs we met up with a representative from the Park Hyatt who would then assist us with the rest of the process to catch the Maldivian Air flight to Kooddoo. He took my bag and led us outside to the air conditioned lounge where we would wait for our next flight. The Park Hyatt made all of the flight reservations for this part of the journey (at a stinging cost of around $500/pp), and we didn’t know when we would be flying until we arrived and found our from our Park Hyatt rep.
This was the worst part of the journey to the other side of the world. I don’t remember the specifics now, but I remember there was a several hour gap between our arrival and our departure from Male. We were tired, we were dirty, we were cranky, and we were just ready to be there. Sitting in the modest lounge for a few hours with very limited internet in dirty clothes wasn’t the highlight. My husband even started to flip to the “darkside” of saying this all just too much and isn’t worth it. Flying in business class makes everything much easier, but it will not eliminate that wall you eventually hit during long periods of travel. I told him (and myself) to just be tough and wait it out, that it would totally be worth it….in a few hours.
The lounge had some soft drinks, juices, and very limited food offerings. The food looked pretty scary to me, and when something new was brought out it was like a pack of vultures would head in and swoop it up. Still, it was very nice to have an air conditioned place to wait for a few hours. A few hours that went by very slowly…
Eventually it was time to board our flight, and I believe that we were getting anxious as boarding time neared as our Park Hyatt rep who said he would return to get us for boarding either didn’t, or cut it closer than we were comfortable with. In no way did we want to miss our flight, so we headed out of the lounge on our own around the time he appeared. As luck would have it, we did not have a nonstop flight to Kooddoo, but instead we had to make a stop on another island on the way there. That wasn’t great news since it added to the travel time, but at least it was time to get closer to paradise.
As was typical by me at this point, I passed out on the flight, woke briefly upon a bumpy landing on the other island, and then passed out again. I did manage to snap this picture of the atolls we were flying over (potentially while sleeping).
Finally we landed at Kooddoo, but we weren’t there yet. We still had to take a golf cart and then wait a while for a 30 minute boat transfer to the Park Hyatt. But, our flying half-way-around-the-world was done. Business class seats were the only thing that made is tolerable for my husband, and even I was 100% wiped out by this point in the journey. I am sure coach wouldn’t have killed us, but we might have killed each other after that period of time in a confined space.
As tired and cranky as I remember us being in Male, that all was wiped away the moment we boarded the boat to the Park Hyatt in Kooddoo. This is not a “smile for the camera” face, this is a legit happy smile, even after all that travel. Paradise almost within sight, a cold towel, and some cool water to drink, was all we needed to shift back into vacation mode.
You Can Do it Too:
We aren’t special in being able to pull this off. We just saved up miles, primarily thanks to rewards earning credit cards. I am beyond grateful that earning miles via cards like the Ink Plus® Business Card, Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, and even the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card (though try to get a 50k offer in your United account) make this sort of travel possible from time to time for 99%-ers.
I am not going to be traveling this far, or burning that many miles on a regular basis, but for this trip every single one of those miles was well spent. Stay tuned for details of our time in Amsterdam and The Maldives.
Editorial Note: The opinions expressed here are mine and not provided, reviewed, by any bank, card issuer, or other company unless otherwise stated.