Like a lot of other people, I am working from home these days. I’m not leaving home, in fact, kept quarantined by the coronavirus that has upended our lives. Also like a lot of other people, I think about the day when we will be able to travel again.
While we’re all cooped up, it’s a good time to look back at some outstanding flights from my last decade of travel as an inspiration for future flights. Look at them as a reminder that crossing oceans in an airship, easily and cheaply, is still one of the most amazing feats humans have achieved — and that we will be able to do it again, without a second thought.
My first Dreamliner
One of the major innovations of the last decade in air travel was the introduction of the Boeing 787. Full of technological innovations, like windows dimmed electronically without physical shades, and with a healthier cabin air and pressure, it rapidly became a passenger favorite and a staple of long-haul flights.
The first one to serve my city, New York, was the Aeromexico Dreamliner that began flying between JFK and Mexico City in 2013. Like a good aviation geek, I booked myself on one of the first flights to MEX, and loved the 787 instantly. The passenger experience is just worlds better, at least in the same class of service, than on comparable earlier jets like the 767. Coach class on Aeromexico was a pleasure to fly, too. I’m looking forward to being on one of those pretty Mexican Dreamliners again as soon as possible.
The best inflight entertainment is often the one you can find out of your window. That is especially true for westbound daytime flights from the Persian Gulf or Northern Italy, where you have amazing mountain ranges just to the north of your route.
On a flight from Kuwait to New York I was taking for a TPG review in 2017, I saw one of the most awe-inspiring things I’ve ever beheld from an airplane: Mount Ararat, the volcano where legend has it that Noah’s Ark was stranded. I did not spot the Ark from the air, but the sight of the mountain and Little Ararat to its right was unmistakable even without checking the inflight map. “Ararat!”, I exclaimed aloud, to no one — I was pretty much alone in the first-class cabin of the Kuwait Airways 777.
As for the actual review, Kuwait Airways was and still is the weirdest first-class I’ve ever flown. The seat was fantastic, but the service definitely not. Maybe I won’t especially want to fly out of the Gulf region on Kuwait Airways itself, but whatever airline I’m on, I will be sitting on the right side and glued to the window.
A Philippine surprise
While Kuwait Airways very much did not woo me, an airline that did and that I would gladly fly again in the post-COVID age is Philippine Airlines.
When I flew the Manila-JFK nonstop in business class on the Airbus A350 back in 2018, I wasn’t expecting much. I had read about Philippine Airlines’ subpar service and seats. What I found instead was a gem: a pristine airplane, a top-notch business cabin and a warm, attentive crew that truly made the experience stand out.
Maybe I should not have been surprised. A few days earlier, Philippine Airlines had knocked it out of the park on my first flight with them, a regional connection from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Manila aboard a gleaming Airbus A321Neo. Its business class sported the exact same seats American Airlines puts on its A321s used for transcon U.S. flights, but the service was far better than on the average AA flight. The view of thunderstorm clouds over Borneo was great, too.
Lest you think that TPG staffers aren’t happy unless they fly at the pointy end of the plane, let me bring up another airline and flight that I want to do again: Korean Air’s coach class on the Airbus A380, from Seoul to New York. Many Asian airlines are renowned for superior service even in economy, and Korean has consistently delivered for me in that area. Every time I’ve flown with them, I’ve got personalized greetings at my seat acknowledging my elite status with alliance partner Delta, for example.
Then the food comes out, and it’s seriously good, even in coach.
These spicy cold noodles served on that A380 flight rank to this day as the best meal I recall having had in coach. I would have given it high marks even in first class.
It was also my first time on the A380, an airplane we at TPG love; it’s also The Points’ Guy’s own personal favorite jet. The coronavirus has grounded many A380s; they are giant airplanes made to carry lots of people very far, which is exactly what we should not be doing now. Here’s to their return!
Biz class done right
Asian airlines also offer some of the best business-class experiences. One of them is Taiwan’s EVA Air, a great redemption for U.S.-based flyers who collect United Airlines miles. In 2017, TPG used 80,000 United miles for a one-way flight from Seattle to Taipei on an EVA 777, which I reviewed and recommend heartily. (Another TPG reviewer said pretty much the same thing.) You might want to look now at United’s award prices for future flights on EVA, with the obvious caveat that no one knows when it will be OK to take those flights.
But rest assured that once you’re aboard an EVA jet in biz, you’ll be treated really well. The reverse-herringbone seats are the same you’ll see on many other airlines, but the service and attention to detail are not.
See below for an example from that review flight: Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame vintage Champagne, a simple but flawlessly executed prosciutto and shrimp appetizer and an elegant napkin holder reprising the dragonfly motif of the tablecloth.
JetBlue’s Mint ftw
When it comes to U.S. transcon flights, we have a clear favorite: JetBlue’s Mint, back-to-back winner of the TPG Award for best premium class across the U.S.
This year, it looks like any transcon domestic flights I may do will be with my airline of choice, Delta, which has extended my companion-fare certificates until the end of the year due to the COVID situation. (I have certs from both the Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card and Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card.)
But I have a soft spot for Mint, especially if i’m traveling alone and can get the famed single, enclosed suite, the best seat across the country by far. It’s relatively cheap when paying with cash, and it looks like this. I know I’ll be found in Mint soon again.
Well done, Canadians!
Should you splurge for business class across the Atlantic to celebrate the return of travel? Should you save your miles and go economy? It’s no longer a binary dilemma nowadays, thanks to the introduction of true premium economy classes, sitting right between lie-flat seats and coach. My favorite among the ones I’ve tried is a bit of an outlier for U.S flyers, but a worthy option for people who live near a Westjet hub.
It’s the Canadian airline’s Premium offering, a straightforward and relatively affordable proposal: You get a seat equivalent to domestic first class, an exclusive cabin, efficient and friendly service plus better food than coach. In theory it’s what every premium economy experience should be, but that’s not always the case. On a recent flight to London, Westjet did it very well instead. I would gladly fly with them again.
The pride of Africa
Kenya Airways began serving the United States in late 2018 with a nonstop flight from Nairobi to JFK. While the airline calls itself “the Pride of Africa,” its biz class isn’t top-notch; aisle access isn’t available for all seats, and food and beverage is middling at best. Our review reflects those factors.
But I’d still love to get on that flight again. Why? Next time, I want to fly it with my wife, which means a 2-2-2 seat layout won’t be a nuisance at all. Kenya Airways is also in the SkyTeam alliance, so earning and spending Delta miles is easy.
Plus, it’s what’s at the end of that very long haul from New York that makes it attractive. Your reward for spending 13 hours on a plane is arriving in a country of great beauty; there’s a safari in our future, and Kenya is one of the best places to go on one.
Not that you’d need to even leave Nairobi to find extraordinary wildlife scenes. There’s a national park right outside of town, where you can see wild lions hunt gazelles. It’s one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had as a photographer.
New York from a helicopter
While not exactly an airplane flight, this is one I’m definitely going to repeat: Seeing New York from the air on a FlyNYON helicopter.
I can’t wait to see my city, now eerily quiet, bustling again. Up in a helicopter, you don’t hear the noise of New York — the traffic, the sirens — but you do see the constant movement of people and cars that defines the city for so many.
Venice by train
All right, this is not a flight. But it’s a trip I’m yearning to repeat once traveling is possible again.
If you’re visiting Northern Italy, reserve a couple of days for a lesser-known but spectacular way of seeing Venice. Try to arrive by train from Milan, a quick and comfortable journey taking you right into the city (you can’t drive into Venice, but the train station is within walking distance of St. Mark’s Square.)
Take a seat on the left side, and you’ll be looking out of the window at the Alps rising on the northern horizon. Do this in winter for maximum effect: the mountains will be covered in dazzling snow, and at the end of your journey you’ll find a city that is even more magical than in the summer — as well as less crowded.
Don’t despair if you get a foggy day, not an infrequent occurrence during Northern Italian winters. Venice in the fog defies description; you’ll think you are in another world.
Which, after all, is exactly why we travel.
All photos by the author except where noted.