As I hinted at a bit last week, I just finished up a quick trip to Sao Paulo. I did this to sample Korean Air’s 777-300ER first class product between Los Angeles and Sao Paulo, which I find to be one of the coolest “fifth freedom” routes there is. The flight was great — not quite as amazing as the Korean Air A380 first class flight I took from Seoul Incheon to Los Angeles a few weeks prior, but excellent nonetheless.
But the primary motivation for taking this trip was to finally sample TAM’s first class product.
TAM is an airline that I’ve always wanted to try in first class, though prior to February I don’t think I’d ever seen TAM offer even a single longhaul first class award seat to partner airlines.
Then in February, for whatever reason, TAM opened up a ton of first class award space. Overnight TAM went from not releasing any first class award space to releasing virtually every available first class seat into award inventory.
I couldn’t turn down the opportunity, so redeemed 62,500 American AAdvantage miles to fly TAM first class from Sao Paulo to New York, and then Cathay Pacific first class from New York to Vancouver, which is a route I’ve reviewed in the past.
While I’ll have a full trip report soon, here are my initial thoughts on the experience:
TAM first class lounge Sao Paulo
TAM has a dedicated first class check-in room located to the left of all their other check-in counters. Printing a boarding pass only takes about a minute so it’s ultimately style over substance, but it is nice to be removed a bit from the hectic terminal.
I was hoping there would be an escort service through security and immigration, though unfortunately there wasn’t.
Once through security I quickly found the TAM first class lounge, which is by far the nicest lounge at Sao Paulo Airport. I mean, it’s quite possibly the only part of the airport that isn’t actively miserable.
It’s a small lounge but beautifully decorated, and very much felt like a living room. I was the only passenger there, and the service was attentive.
The food options are lacking, but the little food they did have looked tasty.
It’s worth noting that while there was no escort through security and immigration, there was an escort from the lounge to the gate, which was a nice feature since we literally bypassed all the lines at the gate and I was brought directly onboard.
So while this lounge doesn’t compare to the Air France First Class Lounge Paris, Emirates A380 First Class Lounge in Dubai, Thai Airways First Class Lounge in Bangkok, or Lufthansa First Class Terminal in Frankfurt, it might as well be heaven on earth for Sao Paulo Airport.
Not sure how I’ll ever go back to the GOL Smiles Lounge again. 😉
TAM 777-300ER first class cabin Sao Paulo to New York
TAM’s new 777-300ER first class product is sexy.
The cabin consists of only four seats in a 1-2-1 configuration, so along with China Southern’s A330 first class, it’s the smallest first class cabin I’ve flown in. While there are privacy shields, it’s not the most private or spacious cabin, but I just think aesthetically it’s stunning.
And I especially don’t mind the lack of privacy when I have the whole first class cabin to myself, as I did on this flight. In the over three million miles I’ve flown, this is only the fifth flight where I’ve had the cabin all to myself.
TAM 777-300ER first class food Sao Paulo to New York
I took the daytime flight from Sao Paulo to New York, so they served breakfast after takeoff and lunch before landing. The food was good — not amazing, but definitely above average.
The breakfast service began with fruit and yogurt.
And was followed by a meat and cheese plate.
And then for the main course I had a scrambled egg crepe which was literally drenched in cheese sauce.
Then the dinner service started with an amuse bouche.
That was followed by a salad and appetizer selection served from a cart.
Then for the main course I had beef.
Then there was a cheese course.
And lastly dessert.
I loved the glassware, and in particular the champagne flutes. The only issue is that while they were beautiful, they weren’t especially practical.
The first seven hours of the flight were really smooth, and then out of nowhere we hit some clear air turbulence during the second meal service. I would have called it moderate turbulence, though the captain came on the PA and said it was severe turbulence. Don’t think that’s accurate, but who am I to question him? Anyway, both of my glasses fell over and laptop landed on the floor, so that was kinda fun.
TAM 777-300ER first class service Sao Paulo to New York
The two flight attendants working first class were friendly. My expectations of service on a South American airline are different than on an Asian airline, for example. Now, there are huge differences between service cultures even within those regions, but I do think on the whole that service is totally different in South America than Asia.
The crew wasn’t overly attentive, but they smiled, were charming, and always served me efficiently. When I pushed the call button they always appeared within a few seconds. And in a way I’m kind of happy they weren’t overly attentive, since it tends to get pretty awkward if you’re the only passenger in first class and have a really attentive flight attendant.
Anyway, the service was much better than my last trip on LAN, where my food was quite literally thrown at me.
TAM 777-300ER first class amenities Sao Paulo to New York
TAM had very nice pajamas, slippers, and two amenity kits (one consisted of Rituals toiletries, and the other of a toothbrush and toothpaste).
Bottom line on TAM first class
I was pleasantly surprised by TAM first class. In terms of the soft product they’re not quite to the level of Asiana, Emirates, Etihad, Korean, Lufthansa, etc. But for travel to South America I think they’re pretty tough to beat, especially given how much availability they release.
I’d definitely like to fly them again soon, and next time make sure that I book their chauffeur service in time.
How to redeem miles for TAM first class
TAM is in the unique position of transitioning from Star Alliance to OneWorld on March 31, 2014. So as of a week from today, you’ll no longer be able to redeem Star Alliance miles for travel on TAM.
If you do want to lock in a Star Alliance award on TAM in the next week, your best options are as follows:
Air Canada Aeroplan – 67,500 miles one-way
If you have American Express Membership Rewards points, Aeroplan is going to be your best option. Transfers are instant, and you should be able to book most itineraries on aeroplan.com, though the website often struggles with complex routings.
ANA Mileage Club – 100,000 miles round-trip from Miami, 120,000 round-trip from New York
ANA has a distance-based award chart, so you’ll pay a bit more for awards to New York than Miami. They are also a transfer partner of American Express, and I’d typically say this is a great value. However, the transfers can take several days to process, so unless you have ANA miles already I wouldn’t consider this as a “safe” option.
United MileagePlus – 70,000 miles one-way
With United’s new award chart most partner awards are more expensive than a similar route on United metal. South America is an exception, however, and partner awards are priced identically to those on United.
This is a great use of Chase Ultimate Rewards points, especially considering that United has generous routing rules, so there’s a lot of potential flexibility.
Once TAM leaves the Star Alliance and joins OneWorld, the best options will be as follows:
American AAdvantage – 62,500 miles one-way
There is great value to be had here, particularly if you’re looking at only connecting in Sao Paulo. American has a strong route network in South America, in particular with their partner LAN, but award space between North America and the South America hubs has been extremely limited otherwise.
British Airways Avios – 75,000 Avios one-way
British Airways has a distance based award chart, and charges 75,000 Avios for a first class ticket for a flight from the US to Sao Paulo. It’s worth noting that since TAM doesn’t impose any fuel surcharges, British Airways won’t either.
US Airways Dividend Miles – 125,000 round-trip
US Airways may actually be the best program to use if you’ll be traveling later in the year. US Airways miles are easy to procure, and while this isn’t one of the “sweet spots” on their award chart, it’s worth keeping in mind that US Airways and TAM are both leaving Star Alliance and joining OneWorld on the same date.
This means that in the event of schedule changes, it is going to be more difficult for Star Alliance airlines to rebook you, as they will most likely no longer have access to TAM space after March 30th. US Airways, on the other hand, will potentially have more flexibility, as part of their transition to OneWorld.