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Grapes, Glaciers, Geysers, and a Giant Buddha: NZ, HKG, and NRT in VA J, QF F, & DL J

Grapes, Glaciers, Geysers, and a Giant Buddha: NZ, HKG, and NRT in VA J, QF F, & DL J


Old Jun 9, 13, 8:47 pm
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Grapes, Glaciers, Geysers, and a Giant Buddha: NZ, HKG, and NRT in VA J, QF F, & DL J

Grapes, Glaciers, Geysers, and a Giant Buddha: New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Narita in DL domestic F, VA J, NZ domestic Y, QF J, QF F, and DL J

This trip report details my 2013 summer vacation to New Zealand and Hong Kong (plus 26 hours in Narita). I redeemed SkyMiles and AAdvantage miles to travel with VA, DL, and QF and paid cash for some tickets on NZ. This post is the index for the trip report
  1. How we got here
  2. DL domestic F OMA-MSP-LAX
  3. VX Loft LAX and VA Business LAX-BNE
  4. NZ Koru Club Lounge BNE and BNE-WLG with VA
  5. Wellington and Interislander Ferry to Picton
  6. The drive from Picton to Nelson and grapes
  7. Nelson to Reefton: Hiking Six Mile Creek Track and Driving in the Dark
  8. Murray Creek Track and drive to Glacier Country
  9. Hiking Fox Glacier
  10. Driving from Franz Josef Glacier to Queenstown, Hilton Queenstown
  11. More to come!

Last edited by mtkeller; Feb 15, 14 at 1:38 pm
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Old Jun 9, 13, 8:49 pm
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Part 1: How we got here

1) How we got here

(If you have no interest in reading about the process I went through in using my SkyMiles for this trip, just jump to part 2.)

From autumn 2010 through summer 2012, I had the opportunity to work in London on a research fellowship immediately after completing my PhD. I'd never had much of a travel bug before taking that position, but since, I've become miles/points obsessed as a way to provide great travel opportunities for myself. In December 2011, I used miles to go to Australia for a conference in Melbourne and then spent a couple of weeks avoiding the dreary British winter. When planning that trip, I had toyed with doing a week in Oz and a week in NZ, but I quickly realized that would do neither country justice. Since I had a number of Aussie and Kiwi mates in London from playing tag rugby (Oztag), I wanted to be sure to explore both countries in a suitable manner. As an academic, I have a lot of flexibility about the length of vacations, as long as they're taken during the (northern) summer months. Thus, once I knew I'd be at the University of Nebraska for 2012–13, I started dreaming about using my SkyMiles for a trip to NZ in their autumn. I also had recently acquired a pile of AAdvantage miles through Citi card bonuses and figured AKL-SYD-HKG in J for the trans-Tasman sector and F on the A380 from SYD to HKG would be a brilliant use of 45K AAdvantage miles.

The initial booking happened in August 2012. The first plan was to time everything around the limited summer dates when KE isn't blacked out by DL, since I had enjoyed flying FRA-ICN-MEL with KE and had a hankering to catch a ride on their A380, which I'd missed out on when they delayed its introduction to FRA. This was during the dark period in which DL.dumb did not show KE inventory, KE flights had moderate fuel surcharges collected (~$200 each way US-Australasia), and VA flights incurred hefty surcharges ($350 each way US-Australasia), so I figured it was worth a try to go via ICN to AKL. I found space from OMA to LAX via SLC in a mix of F and Y. (One segment was enhanced elite availability in Y, which was fun to get the agent to figure out.) A bit of agent roulette got me seats in J on KE LAX-ICN-AKL with an overnight in ICN. I added this to a NRT-ATL (low business on the upper deck of the updated 747) that I had on hold from the website and ATL-OMA (with an overnight "SkyRest™" in ATL as Thomas Hudson on the DL forum here has christened them). Things started getting interesting when I wanted to actually get from Hong Kong to Tokyo. DL, of course, had no space at the low level in either class of service. ExpertFlyer showed space on several HKG-PVG flights operated by MU and then there was space 36 hours later on PVG-NRT with DL to connect to the NRT-ATL. The agent needed to try four MU flights before one actually came back with the space confirmed.

Once we had found all of the segments I wanted, it was time to pull the lever on Deltamatic and see what Jeff Robertson's pricing engine came up with. I lost the first pull, as it came up at 230K. At least the agent was competent enough to notice that it was breaking the outbound fare in ICN and charging me 110K for ICN-AKL. I needed to go somewhere (Really, I did! Not standard HUACA.), so I asked the agent to leave things on hold. Called back later that day and kept getting the 230K. Well, first it was something like 350K, but the agent pulled the lever again and got back to 230K. This time I dug in my heels and cited the exact KE fare whose routing should allow transiting ICN on the way to AKL. Agent would…not…budge. Kept throwing MPM at me. Decided to cut my losses and call back on a weekday. However, later that night I was looking at things online and realized that the hold date had been adjusted to the point where my hold was going to expire in a matter of hours instead of days. I clicked DL.dumb's "Redeem" button to pull the lever again and found that it priced at 135K (correct…75K outbound plus 60K return) plus…over $700 in taxes and fees (fuel surcharges). I knew that the YQ/YR was way too high, but I figured I'd rather get the mileage right at the outset and later appeal the surcharges, so I ticketed.

A couple weeks later, I'd completed my move to Nebraska and decided it was time to call DL to get some money back. Frontline agent started reading me the description of all the taxes and fees, so I had to explain that I had examined them all myself and had no issues with anything other than the YQ/YR that had been collected. The agent tried throwing some international origination surcharge nonsense at me, at which point I had to remind her that the trip was starting in the US. She decided to try a supervisor, and that supervisor gave me some line about operating carriers determining surcharges. I explained that I understood that, but since on the return most of my flights were on DL, there should not be so much collected. She couldn't tell which flights were triggering what charges, but she did agree that the amount seemed high. Thus, she called SkyMiles Support. That agent readily agreed that something didn't look right and called tariff assist to audit things. Apparently actual customers cannot speak to tariff assist, so this lovely agent kept coming back on the line to update me. Eventually they agreed that something was wrong. (It appears that the DL YQ/YR for HKG-OMA had been assessed rather than just the MU charges for HKG-PVG.) Their procedure is to refer things to the operating carriers to confirm the proper charges. They promised to get back to me when KE and MU responded. A week later, I got a call informing me that KE had confirmed their charges quickly but MU was being slow. A week after that, when I was just preparing to call in and try to check on things (hard when you don't have actual contact information for the people working on your case), the lovely SkyMiles support agent called me back and informed me that I was right and owed nearly $300 back. This was promptly refunded to my credit card.

Booking the QF flights with my AAdvantage miles was trivial, as it was after QF inventory started showing on AA.com.

The trip still had a few kinks I wanted to work out. Obviously the SkyRest™ in ATL was undesirable, there was one segment outbound in domestic Y, and I really wanted to get four nights in HKG so that I could use an AXON award at the Conrad. A couple weeks after the surcharge mess was sorted, I noticed that low J opened up for HKG-NRT on the day after I was scheduled to leave HKG on MU. Again, we had more pricing weirdness. The agent kept telling me I owed more miles. I asked how that could be, since I was taking fewer flights and a more direct routing. Eventually she figured out that it was the outbound that was costing more and acknowledged that made no sense when I was not changing it. She did get a bit huffy but decided to do things as an even exchange. I realized later that meant she wasn't having the taxes/fees recalculated, so the MU YQ/YR and PRC taxes were still on there. Tired of fighting these things over the phone, I sent in a message via web form. The next morning, I had a reissued ticket with a modest refund, as now I owed Japanese taxes because I had a stopover there instead of a connection at NRT.

Fast forward to later in the fall, and DL stops collecting YQ on VA flights. I also had started amassing enough Chase Ultimate Rewards points that I could fly KE F on the A380 rather than slumming it in J, so I figured maybe I could try out VA on this trip. I quickly pieced together OMA-MSP-LAX in low F and LAX-BNE in VA J on DL.dumb with a perfect connection time at LAX. I suspected there would be space on BNE-WLG based on the VA Velocity site, but DL.dumb won't show trans-Tasman inventory, so I had to call to check. I got an excellent agent (Chisholm/HIBRES, unsurprisingly) who quickly confirmed the space, was impressed with how prepared I was, and reissued the ticket for me. My taxes and fees are now down to $130.73 (from a start of $712.90), and I have a much smoother itinerary, no longer requiring leaving OMA at 0600 or an overnight in SEL. The only remaining issue was that blasted SkyRest™ in ATL. A couple of weeks before departure, DL opened some low Y (again, expanded PM inventory) to eradicate the SkyRest™. I figured it would be an easy upgrade for me, but I decided to keep an eye out for low F.

I booked a couple of domestic NZ flights (all Y) to help me get around the islands after consulting with a Kiwi friend of mine who had moved back to Wellington from London. Thus, my final flight list was:

BNE-WLG in VA Premium Economy (Initially ticketed as business, but they subsequently decided to only offer Premium Economy on trans-Tasman flights. It appears that one can not actually redeem SkyMiles for the forward cabin on these flights any more. No big loss, as it's below even EuroBiz.)
AKL-SYD-HKG in QF J trans-Tasman and F on the A380 to HKG
HKG-NRT in DL J (777)
NRT-ATL in DL J (744)
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Old Jun 9, 13, 10:13 pm
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I love a good "in the trenches" story of getting an award to work. I've helped friends/family book Skymiles to Australia, but haven't done it myself, so looking forward to this report!
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Old Jun 9, 13, 10:28 pm
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Part 2: DL domestic F OMA-MSP-LAX

2) DL domestic F OMA-MSP-LAX

Since my flight out of OMA didn't leave until 1655, I had a leisurely Monday at home to begin my holiday. I had a small bit of packing left to do, and my cat could tell I was leaving, so she wanted to alternately mope and cuddle with me. Right before I had to leave, I gave her a new toy: a catnip stick. She got pretty excited about it, as you can see from the picture.

I drove to OMA and found the Budget parking lot, for which I had a coupon that made parking for about 3.5 weeks cheaper than taking the OmaLink shuttle. The parking shuttle turned up shortly, and I headed to the terminal to drop my bags. Unsurprisingly, the DL ground staff at OMA saw I had a flight to Australia and started asking me about my electronic visa. I explained that WLG is the capital of New Zealand, and thus no visa was required. A bit of looking confirmed this, so they happily accepted my bag and sent me on my way. I was pretty early, so I settled in at one of the landside work cubicles to start writing this TR. About 1615, I decided I should probably clear security. As is typical for the 1700-ish departures, TSA was undermanned at the A pier at OMA. DL typically puts out flights to DTW, ATL, and MSP in quick succession around that time, and there's usually an AA flight going somewhere, too. They steadfastly refuse to use the WTMD no matter how long the queue gets, it seems, but they did open two X-ray machines. Eventually I made it through security. Since boarding was due to commence soon, I just stood a bit away from gate A3. When they called for preboarding, a couple of kettles said "We're zone 1, so we should get up now." I didn't have the heart to point out that they'd have to wait while PREM and SKY boarded.

Delta Air Lines 1224
Omaha (OMA) – Minneapolis/St. Paul (MSP)
Monday, 13 May 2013
Depart: 1655
Arrive: 1806
Duration: 1hr24min
Aircraft: Airbus A320
Seat: 1B (First Class)

Despite it being in the 80s in Nebraska, I was carrying a jacket with me, since it was autumn with temps in the 50s where I was going. This was promptly hung by the ATL-based crew. I was asked about a pre-departure beverage and asked for a Woodford Reserve Bourbon neat, as I always do. When the FA brought it to me, I realized this was going to be a good flight, even if it was short, as she brought me a double.

The doors closed right on time at 1655, and after an excruciatingly long taxi (not all bad, as I did have a lot of bourbon to drink) while waiting on a DCI takeoff and some UAX arrivals, we were airborne from runway 14R at 1713. The snack basket was soon passed, and I selected Sun Chips and Walker's shortbread. With another Woodford, of course. The flight was rather uneventful, with another pass of the snack basket netting a Snickers. Having a lot of flying ahead of me, I stuck with water after my post-departure Woodford. One of the FAs passed out further bottles of Dasani prior to landing, which was appreciated. About the only excitement was when, as we were landing, a stray bottle of water left on the galley counter jumped out at me. I stopped it with my foot and proceeded to drink it. We were on the ground at 1803 and quickly taxied to gate C5 at MSP, arriving at 1809.

I knew that my domestic flight to LAX would likely be leaving from Concourse F or G, and the monitors confirmed F12, so even though I prefer the SkyClub on Concourse C, I headed to the Deltafied FnG SkyClub. I knew that I could get in by virtue of my AmEx Platinum, but I wanted to test if I'd be allowed in based purely on the fact that I was flying international J on VA that day. I had no issues, but the check-in agent did ask me to have my documents checked around the corner. I knew that it had been done in OMA, but I didn't have the DOCS-OK stamp and didn't want a hassle boarding for LAX, so I went to check with Brenda. She pulled the visa thing again, because she didn't even know what WLG stood for. After a bit of checking in her computer, she confirmed that I knew what I was talking about and stamped me as OK. I didn't have a lot of time in the lounge, and that was fine, as it's a typical SkyClub.

I got some crackers and hummus and some water to ensure I remained hydrated. The lounge was pretty full with an impending slightly delayed flight to AMS, but it wasn't as crowded as it could have been. Before long, I saw that my flight was boarding and headed for the gate.

Delta Air Lines 2321
Minneapolis/St. Paul (MSP) – Los Angeles (LAX)
Monday, 13 May 2013
Depart: 1930
Arrive: 2132
Duration: 4hr2min
Aircraft: Boeing 767-300
Seat: 1C (First Class)

Delta's 767-300s are well-known to not be much of an upgrade in first class. With 2-2-2 seating (vs. 2-3-2 in economy) and pitch not much better than economy, there are a number of elites who'd prefer an exit row in economy if they can't have row 1 in first class. Fortunately, I wasn't up front by virtue of an upgrade, so I had selected seat 1C weeks before and wouldn't have to worry about someone reclining into my space the whole flight. (I had the misfortune of a seat outside row 1 on DTW-LAX one time, and I couldn't even open my MacBook Pro to get some work done.)

Boarding was well underway by the time I got to gate F12, so I used the SkyPriority lane to jump the queue. I decided to stick with water for my PDB, but did get a cup of ice, which was nice, as it was pretty warm on board.

Dinner orders were taken prior to departure following the FEBO procedure that may or may not actually be DL policy. The doors closed at 1932, and we pushed back shortly thereafter. As we taxied to runway 12R behind a couple of DL 757s, the FAs played the safety video, which began with Richard Anderson's welcome. Thankfully, the FAs, intentionally or not, played that message with the sound off, but it was working for the safety demo. We were airborne at 1954.

I had intended to get a head start on this TR or do some reading on my iPad, but I wound up with a neighbor who wanted to chat. I normally don't like talking to strangers on planes, but this wasn't bad actually. Coincidentally, we had both come in from OMA on the same flight. She was a Gold Medallion who had not been upgraded for the short flight and she was astounded to be up front on MSP-LAX. I had been monitoring the rate at which the cabin was filling and noticed that there was RU upgrade inventory remaining after the Gold Medallion window, so there's a good chance that some Silver Medallions made it up front, too.

The dinner options were a barbecue chicken or cheese manicotti. I opted for the chicken, which was edible if not impressive. The flight attendants passed the bread basket rather late in the meal. They made a point of announcing after departure that they were a cabin crew of five. I don't fly the 763 that often, so I wonder if they were short of the usual number of staff and that's why service was slower than even usual.

We touched down at LAX early at 2105 and then made our way to gate 69A at Terminal 6, where the seat belt sign was turned off at 2120. Then began the adventure of changing to T3 to catch my VA flight to BNE. It was a nice night and I was facing 14 hours on a plane, so I decided to walk. I'd done a T6 to T2 (DL but then spent time in the AS Boardroom to AF) transfer before and had studied the map, so figured this shouldn't be too awful. Well, it wasn't, but they clearly do not intend for people to do this on foot based on the signage. I entered the parking deck outside the AA security checkpoint and started seeing sights saying Terminal 3 with an arrow pointing down. Then there was another later that had a double-headed arrow pointing both up and down. I never figured out exactly what those were supposed to mean but knew that if I got across the parking deck, T3 shouldn't be far away. When I got to T3, that's when the real trip began!
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Old Jun 9, 13, 10:46 pm
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Props on the Woodford
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Old Jun 9, 13, 10:50 pm
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Part 3: VX Loft LAX and VA Business LAX-BNE

3) VX Loft LAX and VA Business LAX-BNE

Given the late hour and the fact that the VA flight to SYD would be departing soon, there was no waiting for check-in at the VA desks. DL's on-line checkin, agents at OMA, and SkyClub agents at MSP were not able to produce VA boarding passes, so I had to go to the desk. There I presented evidence of onward travel from New Zealand and was issued with boarding passes for my two VA flights and an invitation to the VX lounge. They were all placed into a purple boarding pass folder and then I was on my way to the TSA checkpoint.

They didn't seem to have any separate lines open for business class passengers, but the wait was still short since it was basically just the VA flight to BNE and a VX redeye to the east coast that had passengers clearing security.

I had my lounge invite and at least an hour before boarding would begin, but what I did not have is clear directions clear directions to the VX Loft. I seemed to be looking in all the wrong places for signs, as I had a lot of trouble finding one. Eventually I did find a set of stairs that clearly would lead up to the Loft and followed them. I was welcomed to the lounge and told that they would alert us to boarding. I always feel very self-conscious taking pictures in a lounge, so I don't have any great ones. Mainly I was trying to stay awake and find a spot that wasn't too hot, as it was a bit stuffy in the lounge. I stuck to drinking water (The tended bar did appear to have a nice selection.) and had a few nibbles (seared tuna with greens, sushi, and dessert).

They also had fruit and cheese plates and some cold cuts. A bit after 2300, an agent came around to let BNE-bound passengers know that our flight was boarding. I headed down to the gate and boarded through the business class line.

Virgin Australia 8
Los Angeles (LAX) – Brisbane (BNE)
Monday, 13 May 2013
Depart: 2355
Arrive: 0700 (+2)
Duration: 14hr5min
Aircraft: Boeing 777-300ER
Seat: 5K (Business Class)

Finally, the real fun could begin! This would be my longest flight ever, and one that I had been looking forward to for months. (The first of three such highly-anticipated flights on this trip.) I had been monitoring seat maps for VA flights for about 10 days leading up to my flight and had noticed a pattern in the opening of seats in the coveted row 5. For those unfamiliar, row 5 is the ultimate mini-cabin. The 33 flat bed business class seats are arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration for rows 1 through 3, 2-3-0 (giving up space to a closet and lav) in row 4, a stand-up bar area at door 2L, and then row 5 (also 2-3-2). There are extra curtains so that you can close off each of the three sections of the row into a very private area. To reserve it in advance, you typically need to be a celebrity, have Platinum status in VA's Velocity Frequent Flyer program, or pay a big premium. However, they throw that all out the window a couple of days prior to departure, and I managed to snag 5K using the DL mobile app.

I'd hoped to have an empty seat next to me so I could go photo crazy for the TR, but it was not meant to be. I was seated next to an ATL-based GE employee who travels to Australia for work at least once a month. She was an old pro when it came to VA business class, so she had already asked our FA, Sean, to get her a set of pajamas. Soon he also brought us amenity kits (separate kits for men and for women) and champagne (juice and water were also available). I also put in a request for PJs so I could change before departure. Sean asked what size, and I told him I had no idea. He suggested medium, which I was pretty skeptical of. I'm six feet tall and 220 lbs, so I don't wear medium anything. I'd also read some other trip reports suggesting that the VA PJs tended to run small. Well, Sean brought me medium and I went to try them on and they fit wonderfully. Loose enough to be comfortable and the trousers were the right length. I'd hate to see what they offer in an XL! Sean also explained everything about the seat (all seats have fold-up AVOD screens in the armrest), the provided noise-cancelling headphones, and the location of the three business-class lavatories (including one at the front that is for ladies only).

(I didn't take photos on board of the amenity kit or PJs on board. I'll take some soon and add them.)

Menus were waiting for us at our seats, including a card for our breakfast orders. The menu read as follows:


Your choice of warmed artisan breads.

• Chorizo, spring vegetable and borlotti bean soup
• Idaho smoked rainbow trout with horseradish potato salad, tomato, capers and spring onions
• Buffalo mozzarella, marinated Mediterranean vegetables, basil and aged balsamic vinaigrette

Main courses
• Lamb cutlets with lemon and oregano potatoes, Greek salad, marinated get and cavolo nero
• Braised corn-fed chicken with spring broth of speck, petit pops, cannellini beans and tarragon
• Alaskan halibut fillet with steamed potato, snow peas, peperonata and basil
• Green vegetable curry with steamed jasmine rice, Thai basil and coriander

Cheese selection
• Farmstead Cheddar, Vermont, USA
• Cambanzola blue, Germany
• Camembert, France
• Cheese accompanied by dried apricots, pecans, and flat bread crackers

• Textural chocolate cake with crème anglaise and fresh raspberries
• Haagen Dazs - Vanilla ice cream
• Haagen Dazs - Chocolate ice cream

Refreshments on request

• A selection of finger sandwiches - egg mayonnaise; chicken and cranberry; or beef and mustard.
• Bratwurst sausage hot dog with onion relish, green peppercorn mustard and baby rocket


• Orange juice or seasonal fruit smoothie

• Cornflakes or Weet-Bix

• Apple crumble muffin
• Warm croissant or bread roll served with a selection of preserves or Vegemite

• Seasonal fruit selection served on its own or with natural or fruit yoghurt

Main selection
• Spinach and herb omelette with pork chipolata, bacon, watercress, tomato and chili relish
• Raisin French toast with vanilla berries, mascarpone and mint
• Bircher muesli with poached cherries, toasted almond, coconut and Greek yoghurt

The wine list read as follows:

• Lanson Gold Label Brut 2002 Vintage Reims, France

White wine
• Barwick Estates White Label Pemberton (Western Australia) - 2012 Sauvignon Blanc Semillon
• RockBare Hahndorf (South Australia) - 'Mojo' 2011 Sauvignon Blanc
• Lark Hill Canberra District (New South Wales) - 2011 Chardonnay

Red wine
• Scotchmans Hill Swan Bay Bellarine Peninsula (Victoria) - 2011 Pinot Noir
• Tempus Two Copper Series Adelaide Hills (South Australia) - 2010 Tempranillo
• Chapel Hill Parson's Nose McLaren Vale (South Australia) - 2010 Shiraz

Dessert wine (Please ask your cabin crew for the selection on board today)
• Bimbadgen Estate Riverina (New South Wales) - 2006 Botrytis Semillon
• De Bortoli Noble One Riverina (New South Wales) - 2008 Botrytis Semillon
• Junioper Estate Margaret River (Western Australia) - 2009 Cane Cut Riesling

Fortified wine (Please ask your cabin crew for the selection on board today)
• Stanton & Killeeen Rutherglen (North East Victoria) - 2003 Vintage Fortified
• Morris Wines Rutherglen (North East Victoria) - Classic Tawny
• Chambers Rosewood Muscadelle Rutherglen (North East Victoria) - NV Tokay

I selected the mozzarella with vegetables for my starter and the lamb cutlets for my main. Sean asked for a second choice on the main, in case the lamb was too popular, and I chose the halibut. We'll cover breakfast when we get to that stage of the flight. My notes are a bit sketchy for this flight, but I seem to recall that my champagne was topped up prior to departure. We had a short wait to take off, and as soon as the seat belt sign was turned off, the crew sprung into action, with their first action being to stock the stand-up bar between rows 4 and 5. We were offered drinks with warmed nuts, and I opted for more champagne.

Dinner was then served at a leisurely pace, and not once did a cart make an appearance (even for dessert). The bread basket contained multigrain, white, and garlic bread. I had the multigrain and drank the tempranillo with the meal.

First Sean set the table. No tray involved, everything brought out and placed. Note the Sydney Opera House salt & pepper shakers. I thought about absconding with them but figured it would have been noticed.

The starter was really nicely put together. The vegetables included artichoke hearts, zucchini, basil, and sun-dried tomatoes

I did get my lamb cutlets for the main. They were cooked nicely, although a bit underseasoned. Nothing that a sprinkle of salt couldn't solve, however.

Lamb cutlets by mitchkeller, on Flickr

No cheese for me. I went straight for the cake for my dessert:

I was enjoying the tempranillo and Sean kept refilling it, so I didn't bother looking at the dessert and fortified wine selection. This is one time I do like having a cart brought around, as I'm more likely to ask for some port if there's a dessert cart and it's proactively offered.

After dinner and dessert, I finished watching Lincoln and had a glass of Baileys (self-fetched from the bar at one stage, since I was already up) and then settled in for bed.

The seat is quite comfortable for lounging. The duvet, while not as good as DL's in my opinion, is comfortable. It's also worth noting that VA's seats have a nice feature to cover that annoying metal "foot rest" piece that a lot of J seats have. They bring out a padded piece that covers it and is attached by velcro. It's distributed right after take-off and collected just before landing. Sadly, I don't have any pictures of it, just me being comfy.

VA offers a mattress pad for their business class seats, which the FAs generally do as part of turndown service. Since my neighbor had already done her seat, I decided not to bother a flight attendant to do mine and sort of figured it out on my own. For anyone who wants to do it themselves, the part with the elastic goes at the foot end and the other end has a pocket that slips over the headrest.

I did manage to get a shot of my neighbor's seat after she got up in the morning.

With my bed all set up (and the privacy screen between 5H and 5K extended), I settled in for a nice long sleep. The 0700 arrival into BNE meant an early wake-up for Australia-bound passengers, but 0700 in BNE is 0900 in WLG, so I figured getting up a couple hours before arrival to have breakfast would be perfect for me. The group across the aisle had drawn the curtain around their seats and the curtains across the ends of the aisle at row 5 were also drawn. I decided to leave the curtain that would have totally closed off 5H and 5K open, since I didn't want to get too intimate with my neighbor. I also appreciated the starry sky effect on the ceiling, most of which would have been lost with the closed curtain.

The seat offered a comfortable night of rest, and after about six hours, I woke up. Sean came by soon afterward, so I requested a mug of hot chocolate before breakfast. Before long, he also had my breakfast ready for me.

VA Breakfast by mitchkeller, on Flickr

The juice, bakery item, fruit, and tea (I skipped cereal.) came out on a tray, followed shortly by the omelette. Nothing remarkable, but a good way to start the day.

Not too long after (and before I could finish watching Skyfall), we were informed of our imminent arrival into BNE a few minutes ahead of schedule. We touched down at 0646 and seemed to be close to the terminal. However, I quickly realized that all of the aircraft there were VA, QF, and JQ, so that was the domestic terminal. We had a couple of kilometers to taxi before we reached the international terminal, where we parked amongst a variety of international aircraft operated by SQ, EK, QF, and others. We were still at the gate prior to our scheduled 0700 arrival.

All-in-all, it was a really good flight. The crew were youthful and friendly. The seat was a great bed, and it's not too hard to get out of a window seat if you need to even when your neighbor has his/her seat in bed mode. The privacy of row 5 is great, but the regular cabin looked fine. Although not spectacular, the food was quite tasty and well-presented. On a flight with different timing, I would have happily explored the wine list to a greater extent. Even if the situation were reversed and DL J seats were readily available and VA ones were hard to find as awards, I'd still strongly suggest seeking out a ride with VA. I'm already scheming for another trip with them to burn my latest accumulation of SkyMiles before another devaluation.

Next up: The NZ Koru Club Lounge at BNE and VA Premium Economy to WLG.

Last edited by mtkeller; Feb 8, 14 at 10:41 pm
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Old Jun 9, 13, 10:51 pm
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OK, that's all I've got for tonight. The next segments should be easier to write, as there are several before I have another long-haul flight to write about. Thanks for reading!
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Old Jun 9, 13, 10:57 pm
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alaways first class .. cool
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Old Jun 9, 13, 11:23 pm
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very nice!
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Old Jun 10, 13, 5:01 pm
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Originally Posted by mtkeller View Post
I managed to snag 5K using the DL mobile app.
You the man!

Awesome tip!
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Old Jun 23, 13, 2:56 pm
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So much for getting to this quickly. I'm moving to Lexington, VA in August, and so I had to go look at houses and then put in an offer on a house, etc., etc., etc. Since we're really close on being under contract now, I think I can safely resume this project. Setting to work right now, in fact.
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Old Jun 23, 13, 3:40 pm
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Part 4: NZ Koru Club Lounge BNE and BNE-WLG with VA

4) NZ Koru Club Lounge BNE and BNE-WLG with VA

I was one of the few international transit passengers inbound from LAX, so clearing Australian transit security was a breeze (although a bit of a walk from our arrival gate). I asked for a freedom baggie for the liquids from my VA amenity kit, which was quickly offered. Forgot to put the toothpaste in it, but they didn't notice/care.

After a long flight there is nothing, and I mean nothing, that I want more than a shower. Since it wasn't clear if I needed a lounge invite to get into the Koru Club Lounge at BNE, I headed to the transfer desk once I got to the departures level. The desk agent there said that since my BP indicated I was "gold", I should have no issue. I get to the NZ lounge and the dragon there pulls out a microprint chart about the myriad ways that someone can get into the lounge while flying VA. Since the flight does not offer business class and I don't have VA status, she said I needed a lounge invite. She did let me leave my bags while I walked back to the transfer desk. A lounge invitation was promptly issued, and I headed to the shower.

The shower rooms here were a bit dodgy to put it mildly. The shower was decent with tile walls and a glass door:

However, there was a floor drain not only in the shower cubicle but also in the floor outside the shower. I was glad that I'd put everything up out of the way, as there was a lot of water that made it out of the shower even with a good door. It was so bad that I felt obligated to wring out the shower mat before putting it in the soiled linens bin. There was also not a toilet in the shower room, which I always find frustrating. The furniture was also really high end, as evidenced by the use of a white plastic patio chair.

Style notwithstanding, the shower was refreshing and did not feature the sauna-like atmosphere that I so despise in the otherwise well-appointed showers in the AF lounges at CDG.

Feeling awake and refreshed, I figured it was worth exploring the breakfast options even though I'd had a full one not that much before. I've mislaid my notes from this part of the journey, so my apologies for not having better information on the spread. It was pretty standard non-American lounge fare. As you can see, I had some scrambled eggs, a couple of nice pastries, and some bacon with OJ:

They also had yoghurt, cereals, and fruit. The self-serve bar was also stocked with a variety of NZ wines and other options that have totally escaped me at the moment. The wifi was reliable and fast enough for my purposes, so I caught up on email and before long it was time to head to the gate. Being a short-haul flight compared to most of the international service at BNE, it was a fairly long walk to the gate, and I got there about five minutes before boarding commenced. Passengers in Premium Economy and VA/partner elites were invited to board first, and so I headed down the jetway.

Virgin Australia 66
Brisbane (BNE) – Wellington (WLG)
Wednesday, 15 May 2013
Depart: 0850
Arrive: 1510
Duration: 3hr20min
Aircraft: Boeing 737-800
Seat: 1A (Premium Economy Class)

I really don't understand why VA maintains a separate 738 subfleet for trans-Tasman operations that retains a premium economy cabin rather than doing 2-2 business seating as they have for their domestic flights. Perhaps because their partner NZ generally doesn't even offer a full business project? Anyway, this is a step down from the oft-maligned EuroBiz offered by AF, BA, LH, etc. The seats are basically the same (tray table folds down from middle seat and center armrests move in a bit), but the legroom has absolutely zero enhancement over standard Y. The bulkhead seats on these birds are tight, so I'd take row 2 if you can get it.

The FAs were great, however. I was welcomed personally by name and there was an NZ arrival card, newspaper, and bottle of water waiting for me at my seat. (Easy for them to do since I was the only passenger in premium economy on this flight.) I was content with any paper, but some of the Kiwi passengers who asked about newspapers during boarding (apparently Y pax can have them, too) were disappointed that only The Australian was available.

There is no coat closet, so my coat was not hung. I was asked about further beverages, but was content with water for the time being. During lulls in boarding, I was informed that all food and beverage would be complimentary for me on the flight, but it would be whatever was offered for sale in economy. I could also use a Dig-e-player for free. I believe the standard charge is AU$10 or AU$15. For those interested, these devices come with two headphone jacks so you can watch something with a companion.

We took off more or less on time, and the FAs pretty quickly were up to offer the Dig-e-players. I took one and managed to find a couple of things to watch, but the selection is very limited. I probably would have made better use of my entertainment time by just using my iPad.

After electronics were distributed, the meal service began. The flight's timing is a bit awkward, since it departs before 0900 Queensland time but arrives in New Zealand well after lunch NZ time. The flight offered breakfast, and I opted for the crepes with berries and sauce, fresh fruit, a muffin, and some juice.

It was edible, but that's about all I can say for it. I guess it kept me from needing to find lunch until I was scheduled to meet up with my friend in Wellington. Certainly not something I'd be eager to pay for if seated in Y, but given restrictions on bringing food into NZ, I might do it rather than grab something in the airport and then wind up having things I can't bring in if there are leftovers.

Before long, we began our approach into WLG. I quickly realized that I had selected the wrong side of the aircraft (and not for the last time on this trip). The great views of the South Island as we flew over the Cook Strait were all on the right-hand side. Not that the views on the left were awful, but it's basically Wellington and suburbs with a bit of nice coastline and hills. In talking to my friend, she said that most approaches from Oz come in, overshoot the airport, and then turn back to the west to land. Thus, it seems like grabbing a seat on the right-hand side will be preferable if flying from Oz to WLG.
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Old Jun 23, 13, 4:29 pm
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Part 5: Wellington and Interislander Ferry to Picton

5) Wellington and Interislander Ferry to Picton

Like any traveller to a country with strict quarantine requirements should do, I'd done my homework on what New Zealand's requirements were. I had carefully scrubbed my hiking boots to ensure that they wouldn't be a problem and had no food with me. Since I declared my boots, I was sent to the inspection station. They took a good look at them and were happy with the cleaning job I'd done, so they quickly sent me on my way. However, I flew into WLG at a really bad time of year, as they were in the midst of a two-week period of random screenings. Thus, when I prepared to leave, I was stopped by two staffers from customs who said they were going to do a thorough screening involving removing everything from my bag. (I'm confident the screening was random, as it appears that what they do is once a search team is done, they go back and grab the next person who's leaving.)

I didn't have a choice in the matter, obviously, so I was eager to help them get through things as quickly as they could. Every single thing came out of my bag, and small things that had been crammed into shoes or boots for space reasons were also removed. We discovered that I hadn't even thought of checking the soles of my trainers, and there was a small spot of what I imagine was goose dung on them. The younger staff member (who appeared to be a trainee of sorts) took them away to wash them. Since I jog exclusively on sidewalk trails in Lincoln, I didn't think there'd be anything on the shoes to worry about. However, apparently even having been 10 yards away from geese and ducks is close enough to waterfowl that I should also have ticked the box on the form for having been around animals other than domestic dogs/cats. The staff members were incredibly friendly throughout the whole process and viewed it as educational and not punitive. (I'm sure if I'd been trying to smuggle in something verboten things would have gotten more serious.) I can't imagine that visitors to the US get treated anywhere near as nicely as these Kiwis treated me, and I made sure to tell them how pleased I was with the process overall.

My customs inspection completed, I headed out to find an ATM and a taxi to my accommodation. I maintain a UK bank account with MetroBank from my time living in London purely for travel use. MetroBank charges no foreign transaction fees and offers great exchange rates, so I find that transferring a few USD to GBP and then using my MetroBank ATM card gives me the best access to local currency in small quantities. I quickly acquired some NZ$20 notes and headed out to find a taxi. Given how long it had been since I started this journey, I was just looking forward to divesting myself of my bags and stretching my legs. A taxi to the Richmond Guest House (a few minutes from the CBD on foot) ran about NZ$35.

After checking in (and being offered a local map), I confirmed the location of the nearest Telecom shop and set off to get a SIM for my Verizon iPhone 5. One of the great things about the Verizon iPhone 5 is that it's SIM-unlocked, so I just walked into Telecom and about 45 minutes later, I was out the door with a full-functional (at least on 3G) mobile phone. (The length of time was caused by short-staffing. Once I actually got a staff member, it went quickly.) A pre-paid package with 500MB of data, unlimited texting, and something like 100 minutes of voice calls was NZ$19. (I forget if I paid anything for the SIM. If I did, it was not much.) Once my phone was functioning, I texted my friend to arrange to meet up for drinks and dinner. Turns out I was just a couple blocks from her office and she was nearing the end of the workday, so I walked over and met her there. It'd been about 10 months since I'd seen my friend, and we'd both since relocated to our home countries, so it was great to catch up over a couple glasses of NZ Sauv Blanc and then a meal of Indian food. She gave me a couple of tips on what to see during my day in Wellington and walked back with me to my accommodation before heading home for the night. I found having something like this to look forward to upon arrival was a great jet lag antidote and didn't start crashing until around 2130.

The next day was my only real time in Wellington. If planning the trip again, I'd probably add one more day, although I got to see and do most everything I wanted to. I started the day with breakfast at the guest house. I was greeted by the proprietor John, who'd been away when I checked in the afternoon before. He immediately said "So you're the other American!" I admitted to being American and said that must make me the "other" one if there were others. Shortly afterward the other Americans arrived. It was a father and son doing a bit of travelling between the son finishing university and starting law school. When we got to exchanging the typical "Where are you from?" bits, we had a tremendous small world moment. The father and son were from Roanoke, VA, and the son had just graduated from Roanoke College. In the fall, he'll be entering law school at Washington & Lee University, where I'll be joining the mathematics faculty!

After breakfast I headed out to the Museum of Wellington City & Sea, which is located in the former headquarters of the Wellington Harbour Board. It had also been recently rated as one of the top 50 museums in the world by The Times (of London). It's a nice museum with free admission, and I was there for several hours. It's located across the street from this building, that I found more attractive for photographic purposes.

Wharf Offices by mitchkeller, on Flickr

I then headed up to the Parliament Building for a tour. Unfortunately, my timing was a bit sub-par, as I was on the first tour of the day that would not be allowed into the debating chamber. This was budget day in NZ, so at 1400 the House of Representatives would assemble for the Government to present its budget for the next year. (Australia's budget day was just days before, so I'd read about it on the flight across the ditch.) Any day that the House is sitting, they convene at 1400, from what I understood, so take a morning tour if you want to see the debating chamber. It was an interesting tour and a chance to learn about NZ's unicameral parliament. I mentioned to the guide after the tour that I live in the only US state with a unicameral legislature, which she inadvertently first identified as North Dakota (coincidentally, my home state) but then corrected to Nebraska. She mentioned how Nebraska had actually picked up the idea of a unicameral legislature from the Australian state of Queensland. Even though we didn't get into the debating chamber, we did get to see the PM, ministers, and Mr Speaker processing to the debating chamber.

After Parliament, I grabbed a quick bit to eat near the railway station and then headed to Te Papa, NZ's national museum. I was incredibly lucky, as Te Papa is open late on Thursdays. Thus, I got there about an hour before the museum would normally be closing but had several hours to explore. Te Papa is a great museum, and I easily could have gone back for a couple more hours on another day if I'd had them. It's a good way to learn about the history of the settlement of NZ first by the Maori and then by Europeans as well as the native birdlife and unique geological situation in which New Zealand finds itself. The building in which it is located is also very impressive architecturally. Sadly, I don't seem to have any photographs of the interior to share. After Te Papa, I grabbed a quick dinner and then headed back to crash before setting off early for the South Island the next morning.

I woke up early and made sure my bags were all packed before finding John for a quick breakfast. He called a taxi for me, since the Interislander Ferry Terminal is not really walkable from anywhere you might be staying. You're supposed to be checked in 45 minutes prior to departure, so my 0815 sailing meant getting there quite early. I don't really understand why foot passengers need to be checked in so early, but perhaps it has to do with getting the bags on board. I'd made use of passenger ferries before, but this was my first time on a ferry that carried vehicles in addition to people. I found myself a seat at the front of the ferry to have the best view on the 3hr25min journey across the Cook Strait to Picton. The seat had ample leg room and space for carry-on items.

I'd had my fill at breakfast, but there was plenty to buy on board in the cafe and food court if you wanted a fresh scone (The settlers in NZ seem to all be of the variety who have that word rhyme with gone, whereas in the UK I found plenty of Brits who pronounced it like most Americans with a long o.) or fish and chips. The journey was very smooth, and we pulled in a few minutes early at Picton. I enjoyed visiting with an immigrant from South Africa who'd lived in NZ for many years in a small town on the North Island working as a high school teacher. She's now retired and was on her way to a meeting of individuals interested in stopping the government's use of a particular poison to eradicate the invasive population of Australian brush-tail possums.

The ferry journey was a nice way to get from one island to the other, even if it does take a while. The views are great the whole time, as the route is anything but straight because of small islands or rock outcroppings that must be avoided. Disembarking at Picton takes a while, so I had a walk around outside and discovered that in addition to people, cars, and mail, the Interislander Ferry also carries cattle.

My checked bags eventually appeared on the belt, and then it was a short walk to the Hertz office to pick up my rental car. Gold service is great in cases like this, as the staff member had my Mazda 3 pulled up right in front of the office. A quick look at my driving license and I was on my way.

Next up: Driving from Picton to Nelson and wine tasting in Nelson.
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Old Jun 25, 13, 8:38 am
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Great TR so far, really enjoying it. Especially looking forward to the next part as I did the same thing in 2001 on an 18 month RTW. NZ is a great place. Please post soon!!
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Old Jun 25, 13, 7:40 pm
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Excellent TR, looking forward to the next part.
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