Opportunity knocked. And, this time, I answered the door.
There have been plenty of times where I’ve seen a great travel deal but realized I couldn’t squeeze one more trip into my calendar. There have even been a few times where I went ahead and booked something (mistake fare to Dubai in coach, for example), only to cancel in the days leading up to the trip. Sometimes it was a scheduling issue, other times for family illness, once because of a terrorist attack, and sometimes just for the common sense of not wanting to leave my wife with both kids while I toured the world she’d love to see as well. This trip to Sydney fell into none of these categories.
This will be a shorter trip report series and I hope to be able to complete it quickly to stay up-to-date on other things.
When American and Qantas announced their joint venture last year and started rolling out service to Sydney, a bunch of premium cabin award seats popped up on Qantas. In the frequent travel world, that’s our black swan, something that you hear stories about but have never actually seen. There were lots of seats, 2 seats in Business and First on many flights.
The real draw here for me (other than, you know, seeing Sydney for the first time) was the ability to book a First Class seat on Qantas. I’d heard about it, seen pictures, and was eager to try it out. There have been rumors that Qantas might start restricting award seats in their First Class cabin to their own elite members, which might mean I would never get to try the product out. I couldn’t resist when I found some dates that fit my travel schedule. I had tons of work travel in the first half of the year, and yet this week stayed open on my schedule. The sheer volume of work travel should have been enough to make me cancel the trip, but I didn’t.
I couldn’t convince Michelle to take a short trip to Qantas without the kids and couldn’t find 4 seats, so I booked the shortest trip I could. Heading to Sydney I’d fly from my home airport of Washington-Dulles, connect in DFW and end up in SFO later that evening. I’d have a few hours to kill before hopping on QF 74 in business class, arriving in Sydney the following morning. Since I didn’t figure to be taking this trip again anytime soon, I decided to book business class in one direction and first in the other so I had the chance to try out both products.
In the days when my daughter used to cry every time I left on a trip, I probably wouldn’t have been able to leave. But, the kids said a quick goodbye to me and I was on my way. It was a long first day, with an 11am flight from home and my flight not taking off in SFO until almost midnight PST. Along the way I got a chance to catch up with a friend and meet his kids as they were getting home from a European trip. Michael had helped out with some suggestions for my Sydney trip, including the Bridge Climb (wow, more on that later) so it was good to catch up for a few minutes before clearing security at the international terminal.
If you’re planning a trip to Australia, you’ll need a visa of sorts. It’s a pretty easy process for most US citizens that only requires a simple form and a payment of AUD20 (or about $15), both of which can be take care of online.
Once the process was completed for me I was never asked to present the information during my immigration clearance. So, the process of linking the visa to my passport seemed to happen without a hitch.
Since I had extra time I did some lounge hopping, as there are many choices available to departing first class passengers:
British Airways Terraces/First Lounge
This lounge is in the main concourse area. You’ll find the entrance on the right-hand side of the concourse about halfway down.
I took the elevator downstairs to find that they had just closed. One of the veteran British Airways employees offered to show me around quickly so I had a chance to see what I missed (hint: not much).
There’s a separate room for first class passengers that seats about 20 people. It’s all standard seating with a dedicated attendant and small buffet.
The rest of the lounge was open space with fairly run of the mill lounge chairs. There were a few couches spread out and a dedicated buffet. There were two small vestibules with tables and chairs. But, for the most part, it was one big room. They do have showers available. It’s a simple lounge and certainly better than hanging out in the terminal. But, it pales in comparison to some other BA lounges in the US like the one at IAD.
Cathay Pacific First and Business Class Lounge
To access this lounge you need to take a sharp left when you clear security. Head up the escalator and then down a really long hallway to the left. There was a cutout of a Cathay Pacific flight attendant off in the distance like some kind of desert mirage.
Upon entering the lounge there’s a dozen or so seats and a small business center. A quick right-hand turn takes you into the dining room. There was a reasonable selection of both food and drink, though as a diehard Yankees fan I wasn’t a huge fan of the sparkling wine.
The real treat here is the noodle bar where they make items to order. I had a bowl of the wonton noodles with pork & shrimp. It came out piping hot, a tasty decent-sized portion. I planned to sleep once I boarded the flight as opposed to eating the late dinner they serve. The bowl of noodles was a good evening snack, exactly what I needed.
After eating I settled into the far corner of the lounge past the dining room, where there are lounge chairs arranged with some dividers for relative privacy. After finishing up some work I asked for a shower key to freshen up before boarding (I’d already been traveling for over 12 hours at this point).
As it got later in the evening and closer to Cathay’s Hong Kong departure time, the attendants had opened up the other side of the lounge to accommodate more arriving passengers. They handed me a shower key and directed me to that side. On the way, I walked past a second buffet that had a slightly different spread of food.
There was also a room full of some interesting pod chairs. I don’t think you’d be able to fit a very big laptop on the small side table, but they were comfortable. There was plenty of power to plug into in the pods.
The shower room was impeccably clean and well-lit. This might sound like a given, but I’ve seen some not so great showers in airport lounges (JFK AA Flagship lounge, for example). There’s just something about a run-down shower room that gives me pause.
The shower room had a rain shower head and long bench to pack/un-pack belongings. This would definitely be a welcome spot hopping off a long international flight.
Air France/KLM Lounge
I was a little surprised to find that this was the lounge Qantas actually partners with at SFO. Given that there are 3 lounges operated by fellow oneworld carriers (JAL has a lounge that didn’t open until right when my flight was boarding), it strikes me as odd that none of those lounges could work out an agreement with Qantas.
There was a sign on the door of the Air France lounge announcing they were undergoing renovations, which may have been why I was underwhelmed by the lounge.
The initial room I entered was long and narrow with a couple dozen café chairs with small tables. There were a few empty seats but the area was still a bit loud given that it wasn’t a large space. There were a couple of small rooms off to the side and a small coffee area near the back of the room.
Had I not used the restroom in the lounge I might have completely missed the small dining room behind the coffee bar. This room was completely full. There was a small buffet as well with sandwiches, crudité and cheese. There was a self-service bar and a refrigerator with cold drinks. Don’t expect top-shelf, lap of luxury food and beverage here. It’s all free and there’s plenty available, but even I wouldn’t rate Kirkland brand (Costco) bottled water as premium.
If this was the only lounge I had access to at SFO, I’d seriously consider going to eat in one of the restaurants. The terminal wasn’t overly full even though there were plenty of departures. A lounge is supposed to be a quiet place to get away from the craziness of a busy terminal. The Air France lounge in it’s current format is most definitely not that.
So, Which Lounge is Best?
This was my first international departure (well, other than Canada) out of SFO. Given how big SFO is, I had imagined the lounge quality would be much better than it was. I would imagine it may be on the other side, where the Star Alliance carriers call home. As it was, I’d say that the British Airways lounge at IAD is much better than the SFO version. The Air France lounge was just not my cup of tea.
The Cathay lounge was the standout of the bunch. It was lightly populated while I was there, definitely a plus. The staff were attentive and the noodle bar was awesome. On its own, not an overly opulent lounge experience. When viewed against the other lounges I went to, it takes the prize. Just skip the others I reviewed and go hang out in the Cathay lounge.