The Long Journey Home, Part 1: The Difficulty of Using AA miles to Australia and MEL-SYD Qantas Business

Qantas Flt. 454 Melbourne to Sydney
B737 Business Class
Sched. Dep. 5:30PM Actual Dep. 5:37PM
Sched. Arr. 6:55PM Actual Arr. 7:06PM

I have never made so many changes to a flight as I did for my return from Australia, taking full advantage of American’s rule that award ticket changes are free so long as you don’t change the origin and destination.  But it is so hard to get an award using American miles to Australia in a premium cabin, due to their limited routing rules (no routing through Asia) and the few seats Qantas releases – and I still wound up with a sub-optimal routing home.  Although American has just announced the addition of a new flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, it replaces a Qantas flight (which will now be out of San Francisco), meaning the net number of increased award seats is going to be very low.  Routing through Hawaii has been a good option in the past, but that just got much harder as well, as American just announced you will no longer be able to redeem miles for flights on Hawaiian between Hawaii and the mainland, slashing the options available (and making my return flight no longer an option).

When I first booked my trip, my routing was Melbourne to Sydney on Qantas, Sydney to Honolulu on Hawaiian, and Honolulu to Seattle to Washington National on Alaska, all in Business class, with an overnight in Seattle. A week or so later, the Qantas flight from Sydney to Honolulu opened up – which, unlike Hawaiian, offers lie-flat seating in business class. Even better, a few days after that, Honolulu to Dallas opened up on American, which also has lie-flat seating, and would eliminate the overnight.
A few weeks after that, a Hawaiian award seat opened up 2 days later on SYD-HNL in business. I figured two extra days in Australia was worth the change from Qantas to Hawaiian. So I booked SYD-HNL-LAX on Hawaiian, then LAX-ORD-DCA on American. An extra flight, but no overnight layover. The layover in Honolulu was an annoying length, though, 5.5 hours. Too long for an airport like Honolulu, too short to do much in Hawaii. Honolulu to Vegas on Hawaiian opened up, connecting from Las Vegas to DC on US Airways. This would give me 12 hours in Hawaii, and wouldn’t require overnighting anywhere. Although LAS was an odd place to stop, it has the benefit of an Amex Centurion Lounge I could try! Finally, I realized that my Sydney connection time of 65 minutes was a bit too close for comfort, since I had to change terminals (a few kilometers apart) and airlines, and read mixed things about whether I’d have to get my bag.

I set up alerts on ExpertFlyer and also compulsively checked for better options to open up – either minimizing travel time or getting lie-flat seats on at least one of the longer segments. For the last 2 weeks, I started looking at using United miles, but the only decent option that was available was Melbourne-Bangkok-Shanghai-Washington on Thai and United First Class, but that would actually mean longer travel time – leaving Melbourne earlier and arriving in Dulles later. Part of that was because, though I had lots of flights, the path of those flights was pretty efficient.

With my journey set, it was time to leave Melbourne.  The Skybus offers a free pickup from city hotels, bringing you to Southern Cross Station to get the bus to the airport. You have to arrange for it in advance, though, so I decided it would be easier for me to just get on the free tram outside the hotel and take it down Collins Street to the station. The tram was surprisingly crowded for midafternoon, but it was a Friday afternoon so folks must have been leaving work early. It’s a bit of a walk from the tram stop to the coach terminal, but pretty easy. Buses are pretty much constantly filling up and going, and one was waiting. All told, I left my hotel at 2:35 and my bus left Southern Cross at 3:00. The bus reached its final stop, the Qantas Domestic Terminal, at 3:25. Pretty quick.

There are tons of machines at the Qantas check-in for checking-in and printing bag tags. The bag drop is even automated, so you can go through without talking to an agent at all. Given the complexity of my itinerary, though, I waited for an agent. I was there at a shift change, so it took a few minutes, but I got to the podium, where the agent commented, “Wow, you’ve got a lot of flights ahead of you.” Yup. First he said he could only check me in as far as Honolulu, but then he realized he couldn’t even do that. But my bags were tagged all the way through to DC (though I knew I’d have to pick them up in Honolulu). I’m not sure if it was because of the dates involved, or the number of connections, but there were actually two separate bag tags – one for my first 3 flights, and another for my US Airways flight to Washington. He had to check with his colleague as to what I had to do when I reached Sydney, which made me a little nervous. But she said I should just take the shuttle bus from the Qantas domestic terminal to the international terminal, and check-in with Hawaiian there; my luggage would be automatically transferred. I was starting to reconsider not putting a bathing suit and flipflops in my carry-on…

Qantas Business Class Lounge, MEL

Qantas Business Class Lounge, MEL

The lounge situation at Qantas’ Melbourne Domestic Terminal is quite different than Cairns. First, you walk into the Qantas Club, which is absolutely massive. There’s a shop in the lounge, and probably about 300 people were milling around the various seating and dining areas. I was directed to keep walking through, though, into the Business Lounge, separated from the Qantas Club. It was a lot smaller, and a lot less hectic, but still really busy on a Friday afternoon, and almost everyone was an Australian businessperson. I had to hunt for a seat. For food options, there was soup, a variety of cold salads, chicken salad sandwiches, and some desserts. Unlike the Qantas Club, there was a full staffed bar, in addition to self-pour soft drink and wine. I had a little nosh, but the highlight was the fruit tart. Although I’m pretty sure no one would have cared if I’d snapped a few pictures, I didn’t want to risk another unpleasant situation, as one unnecessary confrontation was more than enough on vacation. So I only have a few surreptitious photos of my own plates, taken on my phone.20150313_154000

Food, Qantas Business Class Lounge MEL

Food, Qantas Business Class Lounge MEL

I had about 90 minutes in the lounge and it got a little less busy over that time. I still hadn’t been able to find anywhere to plug in, though, and the display in the lounge said it was a 9 minute walk to the gate, so I headed out a little early and meandered over to the gate. It was quite a walk, and though Qantas had a ton of flights arriving in and out of the terminal, and fairly low ceilings, it didn’t have the harried feeling of a crowded terminal in the States. I found a seat next to an outlet by my gate, and parked for about fifteen minutes.

One thing that is like the States, though, is that people started forming lines to board as soon as the arriving passengers had disembarked. There was a bit of a delay in boarding- about 15 minutes. The way the queues had formed, there was no way for Business Class to board prior to elite passengers, since I was probably the 30th person on the elite/Business line (and there are only 12 business seats). Surprisingly, the flight just started boarding all at once, from both the elite and regular line at the same time, with no reference to zones or anything, so it was a bit chaotic. (My American seatmate thought he was clever and commented when I boarded, “I bet we’re the only ones in First Class, and they sat us next to each other.” The cabin ended up with 9 of 12 seats taken.)

How do you say "gate lice" in Australian?

How do you say “gate lice” in Australian?

Melbourne to Sydney is a pretty short, slightly over an hour flight, served by 4 airlines. On a Friday afternoon, Qantas has flights running on a shuttle-like every 15 minute schedule. (It’s an 8.5 hour drive despite the short flying time.) The 737 was the exact same as the plane I’d flown from Cairns to Melbourne, with a similarly friendly and present Customer Service Manager working the front cabin. Just before we pushed back from the gate, she offered apple juice or water.

Once airborne, I was surprised to hear that the flight was a dinner flight in coach. Apparently, there was a catering snafu, and there was a dinner service in coach, but only an afternoon refreshment service in business, with choices of a cheese box, lamb salad, or French onion soup. The CS Manager also said she would be happy to provide us with one of the coach meals, which were a “Spanish Paella salad” or chicken and mashed potatoes. Since I wasn’t going to have a shortage of food between the Melbourne lounge, the Sydney lounge, and my Honolulu flight, I was fine with the snack. The soup was served out of a thermos, and didn’t look great, so I went with the lamb salad. I’ve never had lamb salad before, but it was pretty good: orzo, mint, feta, and thinly sliced lamb in a vinaigrette. In all honesty, between the salad, the sourdough bread, and the indeterminate fruit but good cheesecake, the “afternoon refreshment” was probably more than enough calorically for a dinner. The gluttony of premium cabin travel has its downsides.

SYD-MEL Afternoon Snack, Qantas Business

SYD-MEL Afternoon Snack, Qantas Business

The dropdown entertainment screens showed a mix of news and documentary-type programs. About halfway through the flight, the Captain announced we were being held by Sydney air traffic control. Uh-oh. We ended up only landing about 10 minutes late, though.

Arriving in Sydney

Arriving in Sydney

I’m glad I had switched to the earlier flight from Melbourne, as I don’t think I would’ve made it with the shorter connection, since I felt rushed as is with a scheduled 2 ½ hour connection. Upon disembarking at the Qantas domestic terminal, I headed to the gate for international transfers. At Sydney, the international and domestic terminals are on completely opposite sides of the runways/tarmac. There’s a free landside-ish bus that Qantas runs to the international terminal every 10 minutes in the morning, and every 20 minutes in the afternoon and evening. The bus left 10 minutes later, and it reached the international terminal in another 10 minutes, where the journey continued.



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