Sunday, January 24, 2010

Grading A Short Trip To Hong Kong

Sherman Oaks, California

I spent five days in Hong Kong. Which travel services made the grade?

Singapore Airlines. There’s only so much that can be done in the economy cabin, but Singapore Airlines did it. The Boeing 777-200ER was clean, there were several hundred channels on the seat back video screen, and the food was excellent. The attentive flight attendants were unnaturally skinny, with their wrap-around sarong kebaya uniforms being unforgiving of any extra kilos. New rule of thumb: Order the hindu meals; they’re freshly made, tasty, and there’s no meat to become dry or tough. Grade: A

(Note: I paid about 300 additional dollars to fly Singapore, and it was worth it. The biggest problem with the U.S. air travel market is that consumers buy the cheapest online fare. Consequently, the U.S. carriers don’t invest in quality service; they spend their resources gaming the search engines to generate the lowest fares, then they hit you with extra fees at check-in and in the cabin. The nickel-and-diming leaves a bad taste in my mouth; I’d rather pay one higher fare (in this case, about $1,100) and know that everything is included. Needless to say, Singapore did not charge any extra fees for my meals or checked baggage.)

Southwest Airlines. The Southwest flights to and from San Francisco (where I transferred to the trans-Pacific flight) were like every other Southwest flights I had ever taken. The no-frills airline offers an incredibly consistent product, and, at $55 a flight, there’s no complaints. Grade: B. Always a B.

San Francisco International Airport. SFO is one of the country’s better airports, but that doesn’t make it world-class. The AirTrain is particularly disappointing. To ride between terminals, a passenger has to walk outside with luggage, be exposed to the often inhospitable weather and wait on a raised outdoor platform which can be accessed by homeless people and other undesireables. SFO is an awkward and uneven airport which, like the Bay Area itself, is better-than-average but ghastly overrated. Grade: B+, with grade inflation. B-, without.

Cosmo Hotel, Queen’s Road East, Hong Kong. I’m too old for hotels that want to be nightclubs. There was nothing wrong with the Cosmo Hotel per se. In fact, at $100 a night, it was a steal for a full-service hotel in the middle of one of the world’s most expensive cities. But the hotel is all about hipster design, and I’m over that. Grade: B

Hong Kong Tramways. Who wants safety? The Hong Kong trams are ancient double-decker trollies that can move you across the northern half of Hong Kong Island for 25¢. They’re slow, you can fall overboard and be run over, and, if you stick your head out the window at the wrong time, you’ll be decapitated by a trolly moving in the opposite direction. So don’t be an idiot, and you’ll enjoy one of the best perks of the city. Grade: B+

Octopus card. The Octopus card is a debit card, similar to London’s Oyster card, which you load up with money that can be used on public transport and at some stores. They’re incredibly convenient and will be more so if taxis accede to the system. Grade: A-

Hong Kong Airport Express. Hong Kong’s officials had a wild idea: Convince people to take public transport to the airport by making the ride a pleasant experience. To that end, the Airport Express is a true express; it has only three stops before the airport. The seats are padded and molded bullet train seats, not hard plastic subway seats. A train leaves every 12 minutes, and the journey takes less than half an hour. The best service is In-Town Check-In; at Hong Kong and Kowloon stations, you can receive your boarding pass, check your luggage and travel to the airport at your leisure. Grade: A

(Side note to city planners: If you want people to take the train to the airport, you need to build the train station in the airport. Not next to the airport. Certainly not near the airport. People want to walk out of the train and into the airport terminal itself, not wait for a shuttle bus. If you can’t do this, don’t bother wasting taxpayer money on an “airport” station, because everyone who can afford to will take a car or van and be dropped off curbside.)

Plaza Premium Arrival Lounge. The idea is that you can rent a small hotel room, sleep, shower, or hang out in a private lounge without leaving the Hong Kong airport. The execution is spotty: the food is banal, the internet is slow, the menu of services is confusing, and it’s overpriced at $59 for three hours. Still, in a climate as humid as southern China, you’ll want to shower before stepping onto a 12-hour midnight flight to North America. Grade: A for the concept; C+ for the reality

LAX. What is there to say that hasn’t been said before? LAX has become such a disgrace that comparing it to Hong Kong International Airport is like comparing the last kid picked for T-ball to Albert Pujols. Grade: Transferred to Special Ed track

The Parking Spot, Century Lot, Los Angeles. The guy in the car in front of me had some problem. I didn’t know what the problem was, and I didn’t care. All I cared about was that, instead of opening the exit gate and having the guy drive around the block, the Parking Spot operators refused to open the gate, forcing half a dozen cars to wait for more than ten minutes. Then we were all told to put it in reverse. I screamed and cursed, and the gate attendant let me exit without paying, saving $60. Lesson: sometimes volume works. Grade: D

Photo: Hong Kong is the center of Cantonese-language media so, as in Los Angeles and New York, it's common to walk past shoots. Here, a model poses between a passing tram (on the left) and a double-decker bus.

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Anonymous Malo-ji said...

I love the Hong Kong Airport Express for its convenience and speed.

BUT be sure you go to the bathroom before getting on as there are no toilets on the train.

If you load up on fluids (for a trans-Pac flight before leaving home) you may find yourself squirming about halfway to the airport.

9:59 AM  

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