Mega Trip #1: Awards in Qatar Airways First Class & Virgin Atlantic Upper Class

Now that the “guess where I’m going?” contest is complete, I guess it’s time to reveal the three big trips I’m taking. Let’s start with the one I’m taking in a couple of weeks, over my spring break.

I’ve always been fascinated by Qatar Airways, mainly because they’re one of the few top notch airlines that have truly unattainable premium cabin seats for award passengers… or so I thought. They advertise themselves as “the world’s 5-star airline,” so how could I not be hooked? While Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Swiss, Lufthansa, British Airways, Emirates, etc., all have top notch cabins and are highly regarded, up until now their premium cabins have been fairly attainable. Perhaps adding to the mystique is that there’s no practical way to search Qatar Airways award availability online. Besides, other than Lufthansa, Qatar Airways is the only other airline I know of that drives their first class passengers on the tarmac in luxury sports cars to the plane.

Now, there were two trends I noticed late last year that prompted this trip. First of all, there were rumors of Qatar Airways eliminating their first class product entirely (which has been confirmed in the meantime). As of now they don’t offer a first class product to the US, but rather only to a few European gateways. Furthermore, there were constant rumors of British Midland’s Diamond Club program being merged into Lufthansa’s Miles & More program, which would have meant a huge devaluation in the value of Diamond Club miles.

I had always noticed Qatar Airways listed as one of British Midland’s partners for award redemptions. And at 80,000 miles roundtrip in first class between Europe and Doha, it sounded like quite a deal. Like many, I had assumed that even though they’re listed as a partner, first class awards are next to impossible. I mean, they must be, because I don’t remember the last trip report I read about Qatar Airways where someone talks about redeeming miles for first class.

So one day in late December I mustered up the courage to call up Diamond Club. I say “mustered up the courage” for a few reasons. First of all, they only have a UK phone number, and my computer’s mic was broken, so I had to find a landline. More importantly, though, British Midland has one of the worst outsourced call centers out there, and that’s if you can even get through. In the past, I simply got a busy signal 90% of the time.

So then I did call Diamond Club, and sheepishly asked about Qatar Airways first class award availability between London and Doha. I fully expected to be laughed at, maybe with the agent throwing in something along the lines of “and did you want a seat on the next space shuttle to the moon too?”

But that’s not the response I got. Instead, after putting me on hold for a few minutes, I was told “not a problem, did you want the flight at 8AM, 11AM, or 8:30PM?” I simply responded with “whichever is available,” to which the agent responded with “they’re all available in first class, sir.” I was firmly convinced that the agent saw the availability for a revenue ticket, but hadn’t actually “requested” the award space yet. So after a bit of back and forth I figured “what the heck, I’ll play his game.” With no plans to actually take the trip, I still decided to try and ticket the reservation, just to make sure it would actually go through. After all, it would be an incredibly valuable data point, and at the end of the day, their reasonable change fee wasn’t much of a deterrent. Sure enough, for the return, he gave me three options as well, exactly on my preferred date. Literally every flight that day had availability.

Three days, 80,000 miles, and $388USD in taxes/fees later I had an e-ticket receipt for Qatar Airways first class in my inbox that I really didn’t know what to do with.

Well, the rest is history. I wasn’t going go turn down the opportunity to fly Qatar Airways first class before it disappears, let alone experience their premium terminal. Even though I’ve heard Doha is a bit of a dump, seeing a new country in a new region for two days sounded like fun as well.

The next challenge proved to be figuring out how to get to London. There were so many options: British Airways, US Airways’ new Envoy product, Air New Zealand, Lufthansa via Germany, etc. In the end I decided on Virgin Atlantic, an airline I haven’t flown yet.

Like any smart consumer, I booked my tickets on Virgin Atlantic not via Virgin Atlantic directly or even Continental, but rather via All Nippon Airways (a transfer partner of Membership Rewards and SPG). Based on the award availability I found on virginatlantic.com, I decided to fly from San Francisco to London on the outbound, since it’s one of the longer transatlantic flights out there, and San Francisco is one of only two airports in the US with a “Clubhouse” lounge. I hate transatlantic flights leaving from the east coast because they don’t allow for any proper sleep, so I was happy to fly from the west coast. For the return, I decided to fly from London to New York JFK on Virgin Atlantic, since for a daytime flight I really couldn’t care less how long it is. Total cost? 68,000 miles (since ANA has a distance based award chart and the roundtrip distance of this ticket is just under 9,000 miles).

The next challenge proved to be hotels. I had one night in London each way and three nights in Doha that I needed to book a room for. I started with Doha, where I initially booked all three nights at the Grand Hyatt using points. 15,000 points per night was a bit steep, but the revenue rate was pretty high too. Eventually I decided to look at the possibility of using some of my “Sweet Dilemma” nights from Priority Club’s recent promotion for the InterContinental Doha. I was hesitant, since after reading many reviews, the InterContinental Doha doesn’t give Royal Ambassador members club access, so I’d likely be stuck paying for internet and quite a bit in food, bottled water, etc. Well, sure enough I searched for “Sweet Dilemma” space, and not only did they have rooms available, but they were offering club rooms available using the promotional nights! So I’ll get a club suite using my promotional nights, which is an unbeatable deal.

Then it came time to book hotels in London. My first layover was 22 hours, while my second one was a bit shorter, not to mention I wanted to arrive way early at Heathrow to experience the Clubhouse. So after a lot of back-and-forth, I decided on the Hotel Indigo Paddington in London for my first stay. I redeemed a “Sweet Dilemma” night for the stay, which booked right into one of their larger, executive rooms. The hotel is right next to Paddington Station, which is less than 20 minutes from Heathrow. Yes, the Heathrow Express is crazy expensive, though I did manage to find a 50% off code, which made it a bit more reasonable. This would allow me to see London for a few hours, and best of all, the hotel offers free wireless internet (where the heck else do you get that in London?).

Then for the return I decided to book the Crowne Plaza London Heathrow for under $100USD all-in for the night. I couldn’t bring myself to book one of the $50/night Holiday Inn hotels, which looked awful.

So, how did I do? 😉

Now that I have my new, compact camera, expect very in-depth reviews of Virgin Atlantic, Qatar Airways, the city of Doha, the Hotel Indigo London Paddington, the InterContinental Doha, and the Crowne Plaza London Heathrow.

And I’m sad to say, this is the least exciting of my three trips… so stay tuned!

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this Qatar Airways commercial:

If anyone has any tips for Doha, I’d love to hear them.

Comments

  1. I’ve been to Doha twice – I highly recommend going to Souq Waqif and the Gold Souq. They’re not far away, but walking in Doha is a bit scary. Basically I recommend negotiating the fare when you get in cabs and just cabbing around.

    Dune bashing in an SUV is vry fun.

    The malls are gigantic and surreal. Villagio is the newest and greatest.

    The Visa situation for Americans may have changed since I was last there (May 2008) – they were doing Visas in the airport upon landing, but were rumbling about requiring advance Visas as retribution for the US’s immigration hassles.

  2. Check out the Islamic museum of art in Doha. Was recently built and has fascinating stuff on display. Plus it’s on the beautiful corniche where I suggest you take a trip on dhow(?) boat to see the harbor. Have fun.

  3. On your comment about Qatar and LH being the only airlines that offer transfer service in a limousine, I know Turkish does too (in fact, I’ll get to experience it on Memorial day weekend) thanks to some F availability! The rest of your trip sounds awesome!

  4. Best thing to do in Doha = leave.

    The Intercontinental is a nice hotel though, but Doha as a town is very much a wannabe Dubai. You go to a couple malls, see the desert and then its “what now?”.

    I visited Qatar a few years ago as part of a delegation hosted by the Qatari Government and they tried desperately to keep us entertained. A farm in the desert and a wonderful banquet where we were introduced to the (live at the time) goat they were about to slaughter for us were the highlights. Not exactly a party town.

  5. Sounds like an interesting trip with, with a couple new products to explore. Looking forward to the trip reports as well.

  6. Wow I’m impressed – love the tip about SFO-LHR-JFK via Ana. Nice touch squeezing in Sfo and then using a return to JFK to keep it just under the 9,000 flown miles distance to avoid the jump in mileage req’d (68k to 85k) – very nice.

  7. Lucky, I think QR are eliminating First Class from some of their aircraft, but I didn’t think it was being removed completely? I thought they were keeping it for some of their European and Far Eastern routes?

    As for Virgin Upper Class, I was so underwhelmed by my recent trip that I’m finding it difficult to complete my trip report.

  8. Great great trip! Friends and family at Carlson hotels are $79ai for heathrow radisson in case u wanna extra dough

  9. Ben, it’s pretty ridiculous, but I’ll actually be staying at the Indigo Paddington at the very end of March for a couple nights. I swear I’m not (excessively) following you…

  10. Thanks for all the feedback and suggestions, folks!

    @ Matt — Can you clarify what you mean when you say walking in Doha is a bit “scary?” Is it dangerous, uncomfortable, or something else? I want to make sure I’m prepared.

    @ Matt — I’m actually referring to being driven on the tarmac. Turkish drives you into the city, though doesn’t drive you from the lounge to the plane in a sports car (though you do get a golf cart).

    @ Jimgotkp — That only applies on paid, full fare tickets, unfortunately.

    @ Baggageinhall — Hah, sadly I haven’t heard great things about Virgin either, though I definitely want to try them. As far as I know Qatar will be eliminating first class on all their routes in the near future, though I may be wrong.

    @ Skitten — The code is HXJBA5.

    @ Sam — I booked the A340-600 due to the smaller first class cabins

    @ Rob — Hah!

  11. When the other poster said Doha was scary for pedestrians, I think he meant that Doha, like Dubai, is filled with fast-driving cars and few of the pro-pedestrian policies you’re probably used to…

  12. I’ve only been to Kuwait and Bahrain and both were pre-2001. Back then it was “different” because security people carried automatic weapons/machine guns/etc. which is different from the US. Also from your picture you obviously won’t blend into the local crowd so everyone will know you aren’t Arabic. It also is unusual to see women wearing Abayah. You don’t want to stare but sometimes it is hard not to.

    I had no problems and most people were friendly. On one trip I was there during Ramadan and it was suggested to me to avoid going out at night since things get a bit wilder on the streets.

    Taxis in Bahrain were the most annoying problem. They all had meters but none would use them so you had to discuss a price prior to getting into one.

    If you aren’t sure about going somewhere ask the hotel and they will let you know the dos and don’ts. You’ve traveled enough where I assume you probably have a good sense of what to do or don’t.

  13. I know Doha isn’t Dubai but my wife spent a couple days alone in Dubai this past summer, and had no problems whatsoever as a 20-something white female. I can’t imagine Doha is that much different…

  14. Doha is no different from Dubai in that sense. It’s scary to walk around only, as someone noted above, because of the cars wizzing by. It’s not a bad place at all to walk around for 2 days, assuming they haven’t overthrown the government by then 🙂

  15. I should’ve added that I think you should skip Doha altogether and fly the extra hour down to Muscat, Oman, and stay at the world’s best Intercontinental (Al Bustan…)

  16. re: walking.

    You’ll find very few crosswalks – just a lot of jaywalking and hoping cars are kind. It’s probably still worthwhile to walk from the gold souq to souq waqif.

    Gene, Rich, and Jared are correct about what I meant. With regards to everything else, Doha is very safe for westerners.

  17. I highly recommend the desert safari – way better than what you’ll see in Dubai.

    It’s where the Ocean meets the desert. Spectacular.

    Also there is a huge US army base there, which in itself, is a sight to behold. (in the middle of the desert). You may pass it on your way to the safari

  18. We flew Swiss 1st class JFK>ZHR>JFk last May and enjoyed their chauffered Mercedes Benz limo service from the 1st Class lounge to our flights to and from Italy.

  19. Thanks much for the Heathrow Express code! My wife is going there on my miles soon (*grumble grumble*) so I booked her ticket for 1/2 price. You rock, LC.

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