I woke up at 5:15am, checked out of the Holiday Inn Express and headed to the Metro. My original plan had been to take a taxi to Seoul Station, and take the Airport Express train from there. But I realized that getting a taxi at the HIX would not be easy, and that the subway ride to Seoul Station wasn’t that bad.
At 5:45am, the trains aren’t super frequent, so I had a bit of waiting for both of my trains, but I was at Seoul Station by 6:10am. There are two different trains to Incheon (and Gimpo) from Seoul Station. There is the “All stops,” which takes about an hour and works basically like the rest of the metro system and costs about $4, and the “Express,” which only stops at the two airports, and costs about $8 for a 45 minute ride. Valuewise, the All Stops might be the better option, but since I was already feeling I was leaving too late, I aimed for the Express train. The downside is that the Express train runs far less frequently, about every 30 minutes, making me nervous about making the connection. (Although, I could always have taken the next All Stops train.)
For some reason, getting from the Metro at Seoul Station to the Airport Express (“AREX”) involves about 18 escalators and stairways, and some very not intuitive signage. For the AREX, it appears you have to buy your ticket from a live person at a counter. There was no line, though, and I got my ticket (with seat assignment) with 7 minutes to spare. Down the elevator, I was on the train, which was not very crowded and very silent at 6:25am.
Although served by many airlines, flights from Seoul to Taipei aren’t very cheap, and were running about $200 for the 2.5 hour flight when I was booking. I booked right before British Airways instituted its latest devaluation for partner business class travel, though, so I figured it was a good use of my Avios, since the route is served as a Fifth Freedom route by Cathay Pacific. (At the time, I was going to be flying home on JAL, so I figured it would give me a chance to try a different airline. Plans change!) Taipei is actually a focus city for Hong Kong-based Cathay, with flights to not only Hong Kong, but also Seoul and four cities in Japan.
The walk from the train station to the terminal at ICN was not terrible, and Cathay had separate check-in desks for its Taipei and Hong Kong flights. The agent asked to see proof of my onward travel from Taipei, which thankfully I had – though she gave the printout no more than a cursory glance. From there, it was onward to a long but well-paced security line, where oddly my bag was searched due to my umbrella, which the agent actually opened up. Then to immigration, then to a train to the satellite terminal used by most foreign airlines. All told, about 50 minutes from the train to the gate.
I had planned to do some shopping with the leftover won I had. What I didn’t know, though, was that the shops in the satellite terminal are all closed for remodeling for 3 months, replaced by a small temporary duty free, which is basically just makeup, clothes, booze, and liquor. Blargh. I figured I’d just exchange my Won for Taiwanese Dollars in Taipei. So then it was onto the Cathay lounge.
I had heard the Cathay lounge was nothing special, and had planned to use my Priority Pass to enter the Asiana lounge, but I forgot the card. The Cathay lounge wasn’t so bad, though. There was ample seating, relaxing music, and it was very clean. The food spread was underwhelming, though, with instant ramen, dim sum, corn soup, salad, fruit, bread, cereal, and mini croissants. They also had some nuts, pretzels, and tortilla chips I imagine are out all day. I knew I’d have food on the plane, but I still needed a little something in my stomach, plus two cups of coffee.
With about 20 minutes til boarding, I used the beautiful and clean restroom, and then figured I’d make one last swing through the temporary duty free. Fifty dollars in won later, I have lucky nephews.
I got to the gate about 5 minutes after scheduled boarding time, only to see that boarding time had been pushed back 10 minutes, so perfect time. Interesting to note, the flight was marketed as a flight to Hong Kong as well “via” Taipei (perhaps that’s how the Fifth Freedom works). There were separate doors both at the gate and at the jet bridge for Business Class, and I was soon on board and the only one in the very large business class cabin for a good 10 minutes before a second passenger arrived.
I’ve only flown Cathay once before, on a slightly longer flight from Hong Kong to Penang, on Cathay’s old “coffin” style business class. This 777-300 was configured with Cathay’s new regional business class, in a 2-3-2 arrangement. The seats are unlike any I’ve been on before, a motorized seat that reclines into the hard shell, so that there is no loss of legroom when the person in front of you reclines. The grey tweed fabric was fairly stylish, and the seat was fairly comfortable, with a large fold-out tray, a standard personal TV, and USB and power ports.
True to its reputation, the service was excellent, from the moment I walked in the door, I was taken care of. The Service Manager greeted me, and introduced me to a flight attendant to walk me to my seat. Everyone called me by name. The FA took my coat, and I was offered a blanket for the first of three times. (I finally said yes.) Despite there being only three passengers in the 50-seat cabin, the FAs came around with a full tray of pre-departure drinks (apple juice, water, orange juice), multiple times, followed by hot towels, and a Taiwanese arrival card. (Three more passengers arrived at the last minute.)
We were delayed a bit on the ground, and one of the Flight Attendants distributed menus. Once in the air, the Service Manager came around to personally welcome each passenger on board – apologizing for disturbing my reading, and then the FA came to take breakfast orders. (There were two FAs working the cabin, one in each aisle.) The breakfast options were an omelet with chicken sausage or a beef noodle dish. I’m sure the beef noodles were delicious, but I definitely wanted a breakfast meal.
Trays were brought out with place settings, a fruit bowl, and yogurt, followed by a basket with rolls, croissants, and banana muffins. I went with a muffin which was quite good. Then the main dish came out – nothing particularly amazing, though breakfast on planes rarely is. The omelet was nice and cheesy, but the potatoes were flavorless. Service stayed phenomenal throughout, with the purser walking up and down the aisles, while the two FAs constantly refilled water glasses and offered seconds from the bread basket. Just after the FA asked if I wanted a second coffee, we hit some turbulence. Despite the shakiness, she came over to apologize and say she would bring my coffee once the plane settled. As soon as the fasten seatbelt sign went off, she did, with a “Thank you for waiting.” And after that, I went to sleep, only to wake up to hear the initial descent announcement, watching an episode of American Dad on the IFE as the flight wound up.
Although a short flight, I felt more cared for and in greater luxury than my long-haul Asiana business flight.
Cathay has its own section of the arrival/transit area of Terminal 1 at TPE, and there were dozens of Cathay staff around, directing passengers every which way. I was through immigration on a fairly quickly moving line, before waiting a bit for my suitcase. TPE is the opposite of landing at Incheon. Whereas Incheon has dozens of sim card vendors, tour providers, transportation booths, and restaurants just outside customs, Taipei has none of that. There are three sim card vendors before immigration, where I should have stopped, but didn’t, whoops. I also didn’t see any ATMs. But I did find my way to the bus station, where I easily bought a bus ticket that would take me directly to my hotel. There are dozens of bus routes, run by different companies, and the buses don’t really seem full – as with the KAL bus in Seoul. But I only had to wait ten minutes, and then I was one of three passengers for the drive into the city. The bus wasn’t as nice as the KAL bus, but was still clean and fine, with each stop announced in Mandarin and English. Given the one hour time difference from Seoul, I would have a whole afternoon once in town to explore.
Well, it turned out that day was not my best travel day, as I had a series of mix-ups that were atypical on my part (non-major). Apparently, I had bought a ticket for a non-express bus, which went through the city of Taouyan before even getting on the highway to Taipei. So what was supposed to be a 55 minute trip was a 90 minute one. I had even written down the number of a different bus that did not stop directly at the hotel. Turns out a third bus was actually the one I should have taken. Oh, well. Onward to two days in Taipei.