Desert to Desert Tour 2016

It’s 2 in the morning back home in Phoenix, and jet lag has taken its toll. The great news, though, is we returned home safe from another amazing trip, all taken on points. This multi-post trip report will review in detail a number of airlines’ products flying to, from, and within the Middle East, as well as a number of hotels in Dubai and Washington, DC.

We had a pretty amazing trip, and looking back, it doesn’t seem real. All in all, we burned 424,000 miles and points across programs to receive roundtrip first and business class flights, 8 nights in five star hotels, and countless meals. And, because of the airlines we chose, taxes were less than $200 per person for all the flying! As your travel advisor, I’m happy to impart on the best strategies for your points and miles during your travels. Let’s get started!

 

Part 1: Phoenix Sky Harbor Lounge Crawl

As many of you know, I have a fair number of credit cards that offer me a number of benefits. One recent addition is the Citi Prestige card, which so far has already paid off its steep $495 annual fee in under a month. One of my favorite benefits is using the card to gain access to American Airlines Admirals Club lounges when flying American (plus free entry for up to two guests), as well as Priority Pass Select membership, which grants free entry for up to two guests as well (the only credit card to have the guest benefit).

Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX) has three major terminals, Terminal 2, Terminal 3, and Terminal 4. Terminal 2 is where Boutique Air, Spirit, and United fly out of currently, and does feature a United Club. Terminal 3 is mostly closed, but does have Delta flying out of it now- this will change when the modernization project is completed sometime in the next year. Terminal 4 is a sprawling terminal, home to Southwest and American Airlines, as well as a number of international departures.

Armed with a Priority Pass membership and a Citi Prestige card, you can really do some damage in Terminal 4 in terms of lounges on a long layover- 4 total lounges. Since we were anxious to start our trip, my trusty travel companion/girlfriend and I decided to head to the airport a bit early and do a “lounge crawl.”

First up was The Club at PHX. There’s a number of ways to access the club, including Priority Pass membership, Lounge Club membership, paying $35, or flying British Airways Club World on their once-a-day flight to London Heathrow. It’s worth noting that the lounge is closed to only British Airways passengers in the afternoon, and have upgraded food options for those passengers.

If you’re a drinker, the Club at PHX is your lounge in T4. Every liquor is included, unlike the Admirals Clubs a short walk away. We started off with a beer and a glass of Cava, which incidentally would be the cheapest bubbly we’d have this trip.

If you’re trying to drink local, try some of the Four Peaks beers they have in bottles, including Kiltlifter, a favorite of mine. Liquor is also plentiful:

The lounge is definitely dated, especially compared to other lounges in T4, but gets the job done. Food could be better- they have a few flavors of popcorn, potato chips, some granola bars, and few fruit selections.

After a few drinks, we decided to head out and try some of American’s lounges.  PHX is unique in that they have two very recently renovated lounges, and one older lounge.

First, the newly-remodeled A7-A9 Admirals Club, which opened up last month. This is my new favorite lounge in Phoenix, mostly because it solves a large pet peeve of mine- self-serve sodas. I love tipping the bartender as much as the next guy, but to me I’d rather interact with him/her for just alcoholic beverages. As you can see, this lounge has a Coca Cola Freestyle machine, which greatly expands the number of options you have for non-alcoholic drinks as well. For businessmen, there’s a conference room.

The color-scheme seems to fit the new branding of American Airlines, too.  As of now, this is the only lounge of its type in the USA (there’s another in Sao Paulo, Brazil). After a few more drinks, we decided to journey to our final destination.

The B5-B7 American lounge is definitely more “blue” than the last, mostly due to the fact that it was refurbished right at the end of its ownership by US Airways. The merger happened shortly during/after its refurbishment, and it opened in early 2014. It’s definitely on the small side, but features similar food, beverages (minus the Freestyle machine), and a “modern” design. Seemed to miss taking photos this time around, but we didn’t stay long. Soon, it was time for boarding our flight to DCA.

Part II: First Class PHX-DCA on an American A320

The Flight:

Miles Used: Part of 67,500 mile one-way award to Doha (per person)

Cash Cost: ~$500 for this leg

Miles Earned Through: American Airlines Credit Card bonus and American Airlines flying

We arrived at gate B28 right as we were suppose to begin boarding, but unfortunately the flight was delayed.  The plane had returned from an international destination, and customs had yet to clear the plane.  About 15 minutes after our scheduled boarding time, we officially began our trip.  First class boards first, and we took advantage.

We were seated in 1A and 1C on this retrofitted US Airways aircraft.  You can tell just by the color-scheme on board, and the hastily-pasted American logos over the old US Airways ones on the bulkhead wall in front of you.

Pre-departure beverages were served, and we waited patiently for departure.  The seats themselves are some of my favorites- old, but nice and wide for a restful nap.

Once airborne, service began.

Chicken with Mushroom Risotto

I do like the plating of American first class meals- elegant enough to feel as if they care.  I opted for the Chicken with Mushroom Risotto, which was excellent.  It came with a side of hummus and a salad, as well as warm pretzel bread.

Laura tried out the Green Chile Tamale, which was also very good.  Dishes were followed up with Strawberry Ice Cream.

After that, we settled into Kung Fu Panda 3 and waited for the flight to be over.  Soon enough, we had landed in Washington, DC’s Reagan International Airport, a bit late as you can see from the map.

Map courtesy of FlightAware.com

DCA is surprisingly close to the center of the city- you fly right by the Washington Monument on final approach.  A quick car ride into the city and we were ready to check out the Intercontinental The Willard, Washington DC.

Part III: Intercontinental The Willard, Washington, D.C.

Points Used: 50,000 IHG Points

Earned through: Credit card bonus

Per-Night Rate: ~$400

History

The Willard is one of the closest hotels to the White House, and is actually where the term “lobbyist” came from. President Grant would smoke his cigars in the lobby because his wife didn’t like him smoking in the White House, and many special interest groups would come to bother him for favors there, knowing where he was- in the “lobby” of the Willard. Every president since Abraham Lincoln has stayed at the Willard, and they have a cool museum off the Peacock Alley corridor showing off some artifacts, including Lincoln’s room bill before his second inauguration (it’s expensive, even in today’s dollars!).

Check-In

We checked in around 11:30 PM after our flight from Phoenix, so there was obviously no wait at check-in. Two front desk clerks were working the night shift that night, and couldn’t have been nicer, explaining the history of the hotel. We received our room keys for a Deluxe King room and headed upstairs.

Status Benefits

While I am Spire Elite with IHG (received through earning 75,000 points through their large credit card offer), I wasn’t expecting much in terms of benefits. For one, the status doesn’t really get you much to begin with- it’s probably the worst top-tier status out there. However, IHG has a very, very stupid rule not to honor benefits on award stays.  Personally, I think it’s a very good way to dissuade someone from giving a hotel brand loyalty. Even if I’m staying for free, presumably I’ve worked hard to earn those points, and want to be treated just the same as I have when I’m paying for a stay.

In addition, Intercontinental has a separate loyalty program called the Ambassador’s program, which grants you exclusive benefits when you stay at Intercontinental hotels.  This program has very, very good top-tier benefits, but again, they usually don’t offer status benefits on award stays.

For this stay, we received the room we booked, plus free internet and a daily newspaper.

The Room

The room was surprisingly spacious for a historic, downtown Washington, DC hotel.  Maybe I was expecting a New York City-sized room. There were lots of touches in the room that made it feel as if you were staying in a historic hotel, without making the furniture seem old. Think flourished frames on the mirrors, and nice tiling in the bathroom. A very large 47-inch flat screen sat right in front of the King bed, and the room had a nice bedside plug bay that could charge all of my electronics. Nice!

Our view overlooked K Street (where all the lobbying firms are situated), and the entrance of the JW Marriott.  Overall, the location of the hotel can’t be beat.  You are steps from the White House, Washington Monument, and the rest of the sites that Washington offers.

The Hotel

As mentioned, it’s a very historic hotel.  As such, it’s very strangely laid out, fitting itself around existing buildings to connect through on both Pennsylvania Avenue and K Street. As such, Peacock Alley exists, where high tea is served each afternoon.  Essentially a very, very fancy hallway, it’s a unique feature of the hotel.  Meeting rooms line the hall leading to the lobby.

The lobby itself has an amazing ceiling, with 48 states and a number of US territories’ state seals frescoed on the plaster.  The front desk can give you a nice map of the ceiling to help find your home state, but if you’re from Alaska or Hawaii, give up- it’s not on there.

For restaurants, there are a number of options.  Breakfast is served at the Café du Parc, which is a nice sidewalk French restaurant also serving lunch and dinner.  There’s a grill and seafood restaurant, Occidental Grill & Seafood, that offers lunch and dinner as well.  One of the most historic establishments in the city is the Round Robin Bar, which has been open since 1850 and is the second oldest bar in the city.  Mark Twain and Walt Whitman used to drink here, so it’s legit.  We popped in for a second just to check out the digs, and it’s very, very cool, with the bar in the center of the room and stools surrounding it.

There’s also the Red Door Spa, and a 24-hour fitness center, but we didn’t have time to check them out.

Check Out

Check out was easy, but keep in mind that if you have a lot of bags, as we did, you’ll probably want the bellman’s help.  The hotel is positioned up a few steps from the street, with rotating doors that could make it awkward if you’re trying to wrangle all your belongings through them.

Part IV: Etihad Business Class Lounge IAD

Arrival

We arrived a bit early for check-in, so we hung out in the amazingly-designed terminal at Dulles. Seriously, it’s one of the longest and most beautiful rooms I’ve ever been inside. This is to be expected from an architect like Eero Saarinen, who designed the St. Louis Arch and one of the greatest architects of our time.

Finally, check-in began.  We were each checking two bags, so we were happy to have the free baggage this trip.  I wanted to bring my clubs to play some golf in Dubai, or I would’ve attempted to avoid checking anything.

Then, we made our way through security, and onto the airport train for several stops. The whole area was very modern.

After we disembarked, we took a hard left into the terminal, and saw our future: the Etihad Airways First/Business Lounge.

The Etihad Lounge Experience

This is the main reason why we flew out of IAD vs. another airport. At the time of booking, this was the only dedicated Etihad lounge in the US (a newer lounge has since opened up out of JFK). Etihad flies a 787 out of Dulles, instead of the A380 out of JFK. Nevertheless, the next few hours in this lounge were an amazing experience.

We checked in with no problems, and were some of the first to enter for that evening. There’s only one flight a day for Etihad, and I believe Saudia’s passengers get to use the lounge for their departure earlier in the day. We found our seats after nabbing some Arabic coffee and dates. We ended up staying in the dedicated dining area the entire time we were in the lounge.

First, we were asked what we would like to drink. Of course, we requested glasses of champagne, plus some sparkling water.

The champagne served in the lounge is different than the one on board.  Here, they had both Louis Roederer and Taittinger. We tried both, and preferred the Taittinger.


After drinks, we were handed menus. Yes, we were handed menus in an airport lounge.  The menu featured three courses.  

I chose the arabic mezze as my starter, which was self-serve at the buffet (yes, there’s a buffet as well). Laura chose the butternut squash soup. We also had some spicy pea and lentil samosas. Everything was excellent and beautifully presented.

Butternut Squash Soup

Samosas
Arabic Mezze

Next, we had our main course. I chose the chicken, while Laura chose the scallops.  Laura said they were some of the best scallops she’s ever had. My chicken was moist, tender, and again amazingly plated.Chicken

Scallops

Finally, for dessert, we had a cannoli and a slice of flourless chocolate cake.


Cannoli
After that, we sat and caught up with friends online before departing for our flight. We were still having a few pre-flight drinks when one of the lounge attendants approached us and said, “We’ve begun boarding, but no hurry at all. When you’re ready, please make your way through our dedicated door at the end of the lounge.”

Yes, this lounge had its own boarding gate. This was an amazing perk, and made for a stress-free pre-boarding process. It set up nicely what we were about to experience for the next 12 1/2 hours on board Etihad’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner!

Part V: Etihad 787 Business Studio IAD-AUH

Flight

Etihad Airways IAD-AUH

Cost: 67,500 American Miles + $25 in taxes

Estimated Cash Cost: $9,000 per ticket

Boarding

After exiting the lounge through our private boarding gate, we turned left and walked down the jet bridge to our plane. Boarding happens through one door on Etihad’s 787 Dreamliner, unlike the A380 and other wide-bodies that you may have traveled on. 787s have the ability to be entered through a grand bar entrance, but Etihad elected to have you enter through the galley. We hung a right to business class (left is more business class seats, then the First Class Apartments), and found our seats. And, boy what seats they were.

Laura standing next to her seat

The new Etihad Business Studio seats are essentially first class seats on any other airline. Fully-lie flat (6 feet, 8 inches long), with lots of personal storage and direct aisle access, this seat is amazing. An 18.5 inch flatscreen allows you to watch hundreds of movies and TV shows on board (all free, of course), as well as various mini-games.

The TV Welcomes Us On Board

Onboard

The Seat, As You Find It Upon Boarding

Since we were traveling together, we selected the middle two seats, so we could sit next to one another. Other seats against the windows are singles. Overall, it felt as if we had our own private cabin at times, especially since we were at the very back of business class, with no one behind us. Our seats faced forward, but the ones directly in front of us faced backward. Keep that in mind when you’re booking if you’re prone to motion sickness.

We took our seats, and our amazing flight attendants came by to welcome us with more Arabic coffee and dates. Then, blankets and menus were passed out. I found my amenity kit, designed with LUXE City Guides, in my storage bin on the right of my seat. Each amenity kit is different, with a different city in mind. I received Abu Dhabi, while Laura received Hong Kong. Inside were city guides for our respective cities, Scaramouche + Fandango skincare products, a toothbrush, eyeshade, and socks to make us comfortable for our flight.

It’s very easy to control your seat, from yet another touchscreen within reach.  It has lumbar adjustments, massage features, as well as dozens of other settings. You can also adjust the lights from here, of which there are several depending on your activity (dining, eating, sleeping).

Clearly, I Had a Lovely Flight

Finally, newspapers and champagne were distributed. A short takeoff roll, and we were underway. As they say, it was “showtime.” Etihad has a “Dine Anytime” concept, where you can eat your pre-selected meal at any point on the flight. I think it’s a great idea, especially given how stuffed you might be after eating in the lounge. We elected to eat right away, though, to help us sleep.

The Menus…

The Main Meal
Beverage List Page I
Beverage List Page II
Dessert Wines

I didn’t get a good picture of the liquors on board, but they’re all name-brand (though not “top, top shelf,” like they would have in First Class).

For dinner, I went with the Arabic Mezze and the Grilled Poussin, while Laura went with the Pea Soup and the Roast Cod Fillet. But first, we were offered an apertif and some warm nuts, so Chivas it was! After that, I paired my meal with a Merlot blend from France.

Scotch
Arabic Mezze
Poussin
Pea Soup
Grilled Cod

My Arabic mezze was delicious, but unfortunately, my poussin (which is a tiny chicken) was too dry. The polenta that came with it, however, more than made up for the shortcoming. It was amazing. Laura enjoyed all of her dishes.

Oh, did I mention I was watching the new Star Wars during this entire meal? Because I was.

Finally, dessert. I went with the crispy chocolate roulade, and Laura with the Rhubarb pie. Both incredible, and mine happened to photograph very well.

Chocolate Dessert

I didn’t quite care for the French dessert wine. No matter, the flight attendant was happy to switch it out for a port wine.

After all this decadence, it was time to sleep. I was able to sleep for about 6 hours, which is an eternity on a plane. There was some heavy turbulence that didn’t make it the most restful sleep ever, but that’s not Etihad’s fault.

When I woke up, I was somewhere over Spain, still about 6 hours out from Abu Dhabi. I decided to try out the “All Day” menu with some Greek Yoghurt and a Kale and Kiwi Smoothie. I wish I had the recipe for the kale smoothie, so refreshing.

Breakfast

After another few hours, Laura woke up and we decided to have lunch. We both had the steak sandwich, which is sort-of famous on the internet among frequent flyers. It didn’t disappoint.

Steak Sandwich

Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and we arrived in Abu Dhabi safe and sound.

Part VI: Etihad Business Lounge T3 Abu Dhabi

The Airport

Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH) is the home airport to Etihad. Currently building the new midfield terminal (which looks absolutely gigantic), Etihad is making due with slightly older (but not really that old) facilities in the meantime.

Tranfers at Abu Dhabi are easy. If you have your boarding pass, just proceed directly to the gate. If you’re missing your onward boarding pass, there’s a transfer desk. No need to clear customs or security, so short layovers are a possibility here.

We made our way to T3, where the current First and Business Lounge is for Etihad customers. A dedicated first class lounge is being constructed, but isn’t quite ready yet. Presumably, that one will have a private space just for travelers in Etihad’s 3-room Residence.

Chandelier near the Entrance to Etihad’s T3 Lounge

Check-in was easy into the lounge, and first impressions upon entering were “this place is massive.” There were at least three buffet areas, two full bar areas, an impressive spa complex, and a barber shop.

If you’re traveling in first class, one shave is free in the barber shop (it’s also free for both business and first in Etihad’s Arrivals Lounge). If you’re traveling in Business, a 15-minute spa treatment is complimentary at the Six Senses Spa.

Entrance to Six Senses Spa

There’s a menu detailing what treatments are complementary. If you want a longer experience, you can pay. We both elected for a facial, something I’ve never done. It was nice after a long flight, for sure.

Six Senses Spa Menu

Also in the Six Senses Spa area were showers that one could use for free. However, given our limited time, we skipped them.

Seating Area

Instead, we decided to keep snacking. I wasn’t feeling particularly great after our flight, due to what became a pretty nasty head cold. But, we still managed to fit in a glass of champagne, and a few bites of sushi.

Sushi at the Etihad Business Class Lounge

Our time in the lounge was too short- I wish we had another hour to check more of the facilities out. But instead, we made our way to the boarding gate for our flight to Doha.

Part VII: Etihad Business Class AUH-DOH

After our lounge visit, we took off on an Etihad Airbus A320 from Abu Dhabi to Doha, a quick 45 minute flight in business class.

Boarding

We waited at the chaotic bus gate (a casualty of the new terminal being built- there’s not enough room in the current airport for all of Etihad’s planes!) for boarding to begin. First, we needed to get a stamp on our ticket confirming our passports are good to go for the short international flight. We also witnessed a man nearly knocked out by Etihad’s heavy boarding sign. It wasn’t his fault, but the Etihad employee was quick to ask, “What did you do?” Someone would’ve been sued if this were the USA.

Gate 39

We were told to wait as business class passengers for the last bus, as it would be a bit less crowded. Even the buses are nice on Etihad.

Etihad Bus

 

Boarding is via stairway, which I enjoy. It’s fun seeing how large these birds actually are from the ground. We found our seats in 2A and 2C (the first row for Etihad) and settled in.

I found the seats to be similar to Virgin America’s first class product, with a great “cradle” for napping. It’s not lie-flat, but it’s perfectly comfortable, especially for a 45-minute trip.

We started out with some champagne and some of the UAE’s delicious mint lemonade. It’s everywhere, and quite refreshing.

Once airborne, I was surprised to learn that we’d be getting any meal at all. And, we even received one item that was warm. On a 45-minute flight! American Airlines doesn’t even give you a meal under 2:30 minutes, or after 8 p.m.

We had a delicious meat pastry (not pictured), a beef sandwich (top left), a delicious Arabic mezze pastry (top right), and two desserts (bottom two).

We were happy, especially after trying out their red wine blend.

And, as soon as it had begun, we made our decent into Doha, a new country for both of us.

Part VIII: Ritz-Carlton Sharq Village

Upon arrival in Doha, we made our way to the Ritz-Carlton Sharq Village for our two-night stay. From check-in to check-out, it was an amazing experience.

Price:

Prices start around $250 a night, but we used 40,000 Marriott Rewards points per night for this stay, received through a sign up offer with the Chase Marriott credit card.

Airport Pick Up

I did something rare this trip, and arranged for the hotel to pick us up from Doha’s airport. While normally this is a luxurious expense, the Ritz-Carlton Sharq Village is a quick ride from the airport- prices each way were only $30. An Uber would have been cheaper, but in the end I was happy with my choice. An Audi A6 and two hotel employees escorted us from the terminal to the car, and somehow managed to fit all of our bags into the car.

Arrival

There are two Ritz-Carltons in Doha, one in the “West Bay” and another here at the Sharq Village. We chose Sharq Village for several reasons- it’s closer to the airport, seemed to be in a better location in the city, and looked more “authentic.”

We were greeted warmly by the bell service attendants and escorted to the check-in desk, past a fountain of rose petals.

The lobby is very Middle Easternly appointed. Lots of rugs, marble, and chandeliers. Unlike other properties we saw this trip, it’s very tastefully done. Opulent, but not unwelcoming.

Check-in was a breeze, but we did not receive any room upgrades, due to the hotel being fully committed during our stay. All rooms have balconies, but ours didn’t really have a view to speak of. It overlooked one of the many courtyards of the property. What I love about the Sharq Village is each room is located in a separate building of about 8 rooms. Each building has two stories, and an inner courtyard with trees, rock gardens, and sitting areas making for an amazing environment. Each room is 517 square feet, so quite sizable.

The Inner Courtyard

Inside our room was a canopy king bed, and lots of appointments that made you feel as if you really were in the Middle East. I find that many of the hotels in this region of the world are very modern, but ultimately something you could find in any major city. The Sharq Village made you feel as if you were staying over at Aladdin’s palace.

Our Room, Complete with King Bed
Pretty Lights

Later in our stay, we had a chance to try out the pool complex. There are two main pools on the property, and a shaded wading pool next to one of them. The first pool, closest to the main building, is beautiful, with palm trees symmetrically piercing the middle of it.

The second pool was our favorite. It had a waterfall, a swim-up bar, and views of the emerging Doha skyline. It also was right on the beach. The dome featured the pool’s hot tub.

The beach was nice and calm, and made for a nice morning walk.

I had a chance to try out the gym facilities as well, which were modeled after old fisherman quarters. The gym had all of the required elements, and is co-ed.  There’s also a separate female gym. The spa, free to guests, featured a steam room and sauna, as well as a private hot tub.

Overall, our stay was incredible. Not surprising, considering what the Ritz-Carlton brand is known for. While my first stay at a Ritz-Carlton was four years ago, and wasn’t overly impressive (the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong, for those wondering), this one has me hankering for another stay.

Part IX: Doha

We had two days to explore Doha, and thankfully, my good friend from graduate school AZ is a local, and was able to show us around.

Fighting jet-lag, our first night was spent on the town. We stopped by the Doha Hilton to have a drink at Trader Sam’s, the original located in the Beverly Hilton. Mai Tai’s were delicious.

That’s my Mai Tai

Next, we went around “The Pearl,” which is still partially under construction. Much in the style of Dubai’s “The Palm,” the Pearl is all reclaimed land, and from the air looks like a pearl inside an oyster. Yachts naturally park here, because people have yachts in Doha. The city’s major high-end stores are also located in The Pearl.  We returned during the day on Saturday to check it out and take some photos.

The Pearl, still partially under construction

Back on our night tour, AZ showed us some “local” spots, including late-night food.  Very cheap, and very delicious.  If you’re a fan of fresh-baked bread, this is your part of the world.  The most delicious tea, made from cloves and cardamon, followed.

We definitely would have never found this place

At about 3:30 AM, we returned to our hotel. The next day, we woke up and headed to the Pearl for lunch. And what a lunch it was- the shawarma plate was gigantic, and Laura’s lamb leg was equally impressive.

Next, we headed to the Museum of Islamic Art, a building designed by I.M. Pei and is a stunner, located pretty close to the Sharq Village and across the water from downtown Doha.

The Building
We arrived at the Perfect Time of Day for Photos
Inner Lobby
View from Coffee
Courtyard

The museum is completely free.  This is nice, because it’s by far the best museum for Islamic Art in the world, covering art from Spain to China.

Necklace
Vase
Dagger

After a few hours there, we walked over to the Souq, which had been redesigned to look older. We loved it! Lots of local wares to peruse, and lots of restaurants, though we did not partake.

Souq
Souq

The next stop was dinner, so we decided to head over to the W Hotel downtown and see if we could find some food.  Not a lot of options in our price range, so we walked over to the mall and had some local food court options.  Not bad, for a mall.  We ended our night walking through the very gaudy Sheraton, which was built in 1979 and was the tallest building in Doha for a long time.  Seriously, photos of this place from when it was built showed nothing around it, and now there’s a beaming city of skyscrapers.

Atrium of the Sheraton
Just some local art
Chandeliers? We got chandeliers.

The final day of our trip was marked with another delicious meal with AZ, at one of his favorite Lebanese places near the Pearl.

Quite the spread
Plus, tea

Then, we grabbed our bags and headed to the airport, for our first class experience aboard Qatar Airways.

Part X: Qatar Airways First Class DOH-DXB

First class on Qatar Airways from Doha is an experience.  From their first class check-in, to their first class lounge, to the flight itself, check out my review of the good (and, surprisingly, the bad) below!

Check In

Check in for Qatar Airways First is handled through Row 1.  As you drive up to the terminal, you’ll be greeted by several bellmen that will help you with your things to the check-in area.

Check-In Area for Qatar First Class

Everything feels brand new. That’s because the airport is less than 3 years old.

First Class Entrance

The entire area has a “larger than life” feeling.  It’s impossible to be unimpressed with the level of service and the grandeur of your surroundings when traveling through the airport.  It feels like how one should be treated when defying God’s will, traveling through a metal tube in the sky.  It’s an impressive act, and your experience should reflect that.

Seating for Check-In

There are more first class check-in desks than could possibly be flying through Doha at this time. That said, I think Doha overbuilt the airport, with an eye on future traffic. We were escorted to the check-in desk and offered dates and coffee as we sat down.  Yes, checking in, you’ll have a chance to rest after that long walk from the curb to here.

More Seating

With boarding passes in hand, we made our way to customs.  First class passengers have a private area to clear such formalities, so as the only first class passengers in sight, it took less than a minute. A direct escalator took you to the reason for our first class splurging- the Al Safwa Lounge.

Only One Way To Go

The Al Safwa Lounge

The Al Safwa Lounge is only open to first class passengers on Qatar Airways and oneworld Sapphire members traveling in first class on another oneworld airline.  That’s it.  So, given the opportunity, we thought it was a worthy splurge of 18,000 Avios miles each to fly a one-hour flight.  We made sure to get to the airport plenty early to make it all worth it.

Entrance to Al Safwa Lounge

The ceilings are impressively high throughout the lounge. Some reviews of the lounge say that it feels a bit cold, and I understand that feeling.  The lounge feels empty, because it is. Soon, though, more Qatar flights will be landing here and it will feel a bit more filled out.  My impression? Impressed. The design of this place is incredible. While not technically a first class terminal, it has the size of one.

Entry Hall

There are play areas for kids, museum exhibits from the Islamic Art museum, and more as you enter.

Exhibits

The area we spent the majority of our time in was, of course, the bar.  And why wouldn’t you? It’s beautiful.

Bar at Al Safwa Lounge

They have all the top shelf favorites here.  Patron Margaritas, glasses Johnny Walker Blue, all free.  They won’t display it, but you can even ask for Krug as your champagne choice. We did.

KRUUUUUUG

We had never had a bottle before, and while delicious, can’t help but laugh at the price.  By the end, we actually ended up switching to my favorite champagne, Billecart-Salmon. Though, I do admit, I made sure to have more than a few glasses of Krug.

Cheese Plate

We were stuffed from lunch, but ordered some cheese plates and a dessert to try.  The menu did have steak and other items, all complimentary of course.

Looking Out from the Restaurant

We didn’t want to leave, but we decided to take our scheduled flight out.  We said goodbye to Edwin our excellent bartender and head to the gate.

Qatar First Class Doha-Dubai

We stepped on board, and I had forgotten why we chose this specific flight- it was an A330! AKA, a wide-body aircraft for an hour flight, complete with lie-flat beds.

Beautiful Cabin

I was ecstatic.

See?

Waters were available at our seat, and our cabin crew came around to distribute menus and ask for our drink orders.

Menu Cover
Menu Page 1
Menu Page 2

Also, our cabin crew gave us Fast Track passes, but annoyingly, we weren’t able to use them upon arrival.

Fast Track Pass

Our meal was absolutely delicious.  I’m so impressed they were able to serve a full business class cabin a decent selection, with hot food items, on an hour flight.

Overall, we were very impressed with Qatar’s check-in and in-flight service.  It was when we landed in Dubai that things went amiss.

Arrival in Dubai

First, and this is really beyond Qatar’s control, customs was a mess.  Fast Track was closed, so we were stuck in a 1.5 hour line to enter the United Arab Emirates.  Our flight landed at 9 PM, and we weren’t through customs until 10:30 PM. We had to search through the terminal for our bags, and found three of them, but one of mine was missing.

Normally, one would go to the airline’s dedicated baggage office to report a missing bag.  They record all the necessary details, and you’re on your way.  Not in Dubai.  There’s one office for everyone.  This makes for a long wait, and even for business and first class passengers, who get first dibs on the baggage agents.

Our agent was wholly incompetent.  After taking down all the information that would be required to file a report, she said that I actually needed to go to Qatar’s airport offices.  Her directions were awful, and we ended up wandering the airport (with my golf clubs in tow) for over 30 minutes.  Finally, sweating, we found the offices, but of course, they couldn’t help us much, because we weren’t suppose to be there.  We were sent down to another office, where after another 15 minute wait, a porter walked me back through the baggage area, looking for something that obviously wasn’t there.  After confirmation that my bag was indeed lost, I was led back to the first office I was in.  Flabbergasted, I found my first agent and demanded she file a report.  By this time, it was one in the morning- I wasn’t too happy.  Thinking my bag was gone forever, I finally got a report filed, and we left the airport in a huff.

Keep this in mind- despite being a first class passenger, neither the airline I flew (Qatar) or my mileage program (British Airways) took any responsibility for this mishap or offered any sort of compensation to make things right. It’s unfortunate that such an amazing experience had to be marred by a very ugly one. It happens when you travel, but reiterates my usual advice: don’t check a bag!

Part XI: Conrad Dubai

Let me just start out by saying that the Conrad Dubai was one of the best hotel experiences I’ve ever had. Read why below!

Check In

After a disastrous experience at Dubai International, I was ready to find my room. I already knew I was upgraded to an executive floor, thanks to Hilton’s amazing app. It allowed me 24 hours beforehand to see what upgrade I would be offered, and to even choose the exact room I want. This can come in handy, especially if you’ve done your research on what the hotel has on offer.

I received a letter thanking me as a Diamond member, with a detailed list of benefits. As I had a meeting at 9AM the next morning, the hotel was able to press two shirts for free in about 5 hours, which is incredible service.

This stay was booked all on Hilton points, and with their 5th night free benefit.  While I would miss my hard-earned Hilton points, this stay ended up being completely worth the expense.

Beautiful Soaring Lobby

The Room

The room, a corner deluxe room on the 44th floor (an executive floor), was gigantic.  Two queen beds, with a marble bathroom and a “peek-a-boo” window, which I thought was a nice touch.

Beds at the Conrad Dubai

The view was also great.  The corner room allowed for a great vista over the ubiquitous Sheikh Zayed Road, when the haze cleared.  We could even see the Burj Al Arab.

Entry Hall

There is tons of storage in this room, with a walk-through closet on the way to the bathroom.  I got some work done thanks to their desk, which had very nice pens I might add.

Location

The Conrad Dubai is very conveniently located. Two stops north of Dubai Mall on the Metro, the station for the DIFC is right out front of the lobby. So, if you need to get anywhere in the city close to the Metro, you can utilize this feature. I used it frequently, saving me a lot over taxi fares.

Next door is the Fairmont Dubai, which I didn’t have a chance to walk into. Down the road is a Sheraton, a Four Points by Sheraton, and a Crowne Plaza.

Service

First, the service was 5-star.  The concierge and bell team made finding my bag a breeze. I honestly thought it was gone forever, and the concierge desk managed to track it down in less than 24 hours. I can’t praise them enough.  They also assisted me in getting last-minute tea reservations at the Burj Al Arab (more on that in a later post).

Executive Lounge, Conrad Dubai

As a Diamond member, I received breakfast daily in the Executive Lounge on the 28th floor. 4 out of 5 days I took breakfast there, because the spread was so large and service impeccable. Many international options for food- Asian noodles and dumplings, English Breakfast, American options, and lots of fresh-baked breads. The last day I tried out Ballaro, their main dining restaurant.  The spread for breakfast here was larger, but I preferred the options in the Executive Lounge (plus, service was better).

Afternoon Tea in the Executive Lounge of the Conrad Dubai

In the executive Lounge, you could also have afternoon tea, complete with a chocolate fountain.  And, later on in the evening, a cocktail hour (more like 4 hours) was held.  If you happen to stay here, you can make a meal of the options. Bite-sized morsels of filet, pizza, and more await, plus free liquor, Coronas, and Heinekens. All told, the executive lounge probably saved me upwards of $250 over my 5-night stay, given the drink prices in Dubai.

Other Facilities

I had a chance to check out the spa (sorry, no pictures), and it was incredibly designed. Lots of low-light over blue tiles, and a massive hot tub with recliners in the actual tub. My favorites, the steam room and sauna, were there as well. The gym went unused during my stay, but looked quite nice. I was so busy over this trip, I didn’t get a chance to use the pool, but it was sprawling and very tastefully done.

Pool at the Conrad Dubai

Conclusion

Overall, the Conrad Dubai is an excellent use of 220,000 Hilton HHonors points. Under no circumstances would I hesitate to stay here again, which is incredible given the options in Dubai.

Part XII: Exploring Dubai

I spent over a week in Dubai this trip, which allowed me to really explore the city!

Dubai is a fascinating city. It has its critics, but my opinion is what Sheikh Mohammed has done in a span of 20-ish years is incredible. We may never see something like this again in our lifetime. I wanted to explore as much ridiculousness as possible while I was in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, so my friend Evan (who arrived shortly after we did in Dubai) and I rented a car for a few days. It made getting around a lot easier, and definitely added to our trip. A note- all the hotels we stayed at did not charge us for parking, which was a surprise and a nice perk.

Camelicious Dubai

Our first stop in Dubai was the Camelicious Camel Milk production facility, one stop on Laura’s MBA program. Overall, pretty interesting tour of how they produce camel milk- and it’s surprisingly delicious.

The Els Club, Dubai

Once Evan arrived, we made our way to the Els Club. Normally, this golf club would cost over $250 to play, but because we both had our Citi Prestige cards, we were able to book on Golf Switch for free. Another amazing perk from credit cards, but unfortunately, one that was cut in 2017. The Els Club was in impeccable shape- and in case you’re wondering, they do serve beer on the course.

The Els Club, Dubai

High Tea at the Burj Al Arab

A definite splurge, at $150 a person, tea at the Burj Al Arab is a must. We booked for 5 PM, which seemed a bit late for tea, but it ended up being a 4-hour experience, replacing dinner that night. Reservations weren’t available for the top-floor tea service, so we opted for the lobby instead. I actually preferred it over the top floor, because I believe the lobby to be the star attraction at this hotel. With over 8 courses, including champagne, I was dizzy from all the caffeine I ingested.

Every Course at the Burj, in Collage Form
Champagne to Start.
A Little Pick-Me-Up of Gold and Cappuccino Mid-Meal
The Damage
Your View from Tea

Armani Hotel and Spa

Since I am a travel agent, I wanted to check out a few properties that I wasn’t staying at, out of curiosity. The Armani Hotel graciously hosted me for an hour tour of their property. At over $700 a night most nights, it’s certainly a splurge. The design won’t be for everyone, but I thought there’s enough personalization here that it may be a fun expense to stay in the world’s tallest building on a two night layover.

King Bed in a Deluxe Room at the Armani Hotel, Dubai

The Pool, Shaped Perfectly around the Burj Khalifa

Abu Dhabi

Evan and I had a lot of fun at the mosque in Abu Dhabi, as well as Ferrari World. He even splurged for the opportunity to drive a Ferrari on the highways of Abu Dhabi (I rode along). With the world’s fastest roller coaster, killer electric go-carts, and a theme park that is practically empty, it’s worth the price of admission. We also had lunch at the Roller Coaster Restaurant in Yas Mall, where your food arrives on swirling, twirling, and flipping rails.

 
Ladies…

Irish Village

We happened to be in Dubai over St. Patrick’s Day, and payed a visit to the Irish Village. Very close to the Park Hyatt Dubai, it was a convenient night out. Plus, with all the Irish ex-pats, it felt like we were celebrating in Ireland.

Not Shown: Drunk Irish People

Ski Dubai

Probably the most fun thing we did all trip, and that’s saying something. Ski Dubai is an engineering marvel, and quite a lot of fun for two hours. The skiing is actually great, and the quick Poma lifts make getting back up the short run very convenient.

Just Sub-Zero next to the Persian Gulf. Don’t Ask Us About our Carbon Footprint

Desert Tour

We took a “dune bashing tour” across the sand dunes of Sharjah to reach a Bedouin camp for a dinner. While very touristy, it allows you to check off a number of things on your “Middle Eastern” list, like…

Beautiful Vistas
Riding a Camel
Holding a Falcon
Eating a Bedouin Style Meal
Wearing the Traditional Garb

Dubai Mall

The Dubai Mall is quite a sight. We visited the Burj Khalifa first, the world’s tallest building, which ultimately is pretty expensive for yet another view. Keep in mind, the price to visit the highest observation deck is over $150- not worth it, in my opinion.

Next, we visited the Dubai Aquarium, which is very well done. Lots of exhibits for an Aquarium inside a mall, and we were able to meet Carlos, an otter, for only $30 extra.

Inside the mall is also a Sega theme park, with a very compact and intense spinning Wild Mouse roller coaster. For $8, it’s worth it for roller coaster fans like me.

The Aquarium’s Tube
OTTERS

Atlantis

Like it’s brother property in the Bahamas, the Atlantis is a busy water park attached to an ultra-luxurious beach resort. The difference in Dubai is that Atlantis is located on The Palm, a man-made stretch of sand, connected to the rest of the city by monorail. Having been to Atlantis in the Bahamas before, I enjoyed the Dubai version a lot more. For one, the crowds are better, both in volume and in clientele. The slides are also better- you have the classic “Shark Tank” slide, but also the world’s largest slide, the Aquaconda. It’s actually so large, that two racing tube slides can fit within it, and still have room for riders itself. We had an amazing day there.

Atlantis, from the Monorail Station

Conclusion

Overall, Dubai was quite a trip. Expenses can add up, but if you have points and miles, it can be an affordable destination. Having the right credit card, like the Citi Prestige card, can give you a lot of benefits, too. I loved Dubai!

Part XIII: Park Hyatt Dubai

After my five-night stay at the Conrad Dubai, I went hotel hopping with my friend Evan for a few nights! First up, the Park Hyatt Dubai.

The Stay

The Park Hyatt Dubai was on my list from the beginning of trip planning.  At only 20,000 Hyatt points a night, or 10,000 points plus $125 for Cash and Points awards, it’s a pretty good value for the rates they typically charge per night.


Chandelier at Check-In

Located close to the airport on Dubai Creek, the resort is gigantic- only 5 rooms tall, but sprawling. The lobby is technically on the third floor, so you may need to take an elevator down at check-in.  Ours happened to be on the 4th floor.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a lot of time to check out the property, but did take a walk around to check out the gorgeous pool- it reminded me of the pool at the Ritz-Carlton Sharq Village, actually.

Park Hyatt Dubai Pool

The room was beautifully appointed, and did a good job of feeling modern but comfortable. The bathroom was huge, and I really liked the tub and shower area.

Bathtub at the Park Hyatt Dubai

We received two double beds at check-in, from a front desk agent “on loan” from the Park Hyatt Hamburg. That’s the thing with Dubai hotels- you’ll never know where your check-in agent is from!

Beds at the Park Hyatt Dubai

Overall, the resort had plenty to do- it’s across the street from the golf course, which has a putt-putt golf course modeled after the “real” course.  It’s also nearby a marina, so there are opportunities for water excursions as well. As I’m just a Platinum member with Hyatt, no free breakfast to review, unfortunately.  We spent most of our time at the Irish Village’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration, so didn’t try out dinner or any of the restaurants at the hotel.

Part XIV: Intercontinental Dubai- Marina

Now here’s a hotel I’d return to- the Intercontinental Dubai- Marina! Ultra-modern, in a great location.

The Stay

Evan used his points for this hotel- each of us had a ton due to our 80,000 point IHG credit card bonus, as well as our Spire Elite status. He went ahead while I took care of some sightseeing, and had some trouble at check-in.  They comped him breakfast and upgraded him as an apology.  Check out the view-

View of the Pool
View of Yachts

We had one of the coolest view I’ve ever had at a hotel.  The pool at the hotel is amazing- an infinity pool right on the Dubai Marina. Yachts can pull up directly to the mall across the way, adding to the view.

The room is ultra-modern, with lots of open glass walling the bathroom that can be completely shut off for privacy.  Reading my other reviews, you can see that’s a very huge theme in Dubai.

Bathroom

Our room was a mess by the time I thought about taking pictures, so just believe me when I say that there were two beds, and you could control everything from a panel on the wall next to your pillow- including the thermostat, which I thought was a nice touch.

Lobby

As I found the Dubai Marina to be “happening” at night, if that’s your prerogative on vacation, this is the place to be. If you wanted a quiet hotel room, I would rethink staying here.

Part XV: Royal Jordanian Business Class Dubai-Amman-Chicago

The Flights

We began the flight in the Dubai International Business Class Lounge.  No photos this early in the morning, but I was very happy with the surroundings and the breakfast spread as we snacked before our flight.

We arrived at the gate around the time boarding was to begin, but unfortunately the boarding was a bit delayed.  With our quick one-hour connection in Amman, I was a bit worried, but we made it out on time. We boarded our A320 to Amman, a quick 3 1/2 hour flight.  Overall, I loved the product on this flight, which was similar to Etihad’s (and Virgin America’s). Catering was also good on this flight- though I’m not too big of a fan of the “buffet-style” serving that Royal Jordanian employs. It does allow you to see what you’ll be eating (and make a different choice if need be), but the tin foil it comes out of isn’t good presentation.

A very nice breakfast of yogurt and some breads, along with some juice rounded out our meals.  I passed out for a bit, and by the end of my nap, we were in Jordanian airspace.

Next, we had our longhaul business class flight from Amman, Jordan to Chicago, Illinois, on Royal Jordanian’s 787 Dreamliner.

The Flight

After clearing Jordanian security, we made our way to our gate. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to check out the Royal Crown lounge, which looked nice from the pictures.  Jordan’s airport is pretty new, so lots of high ceilings, if a bit industrial looking from the exposed concrete.

We loaded up into the Dreamliner, and took our seats at the back of the very small business class cabin (there’s no first class on this one).

Royal Jordanian 787 Dreamliner

Featuring lie-flat beds, I was a fan of the hard product on this flight.  Not as luxurious as Etihad’s Business Studio, but still great for a longhaul.

The flight got underway, and while the service was fine, it wasn’t incredible. Etihad made sure that you were comfortable at all phases of the flight, while RJ seemed to have two set meals, with some snacks mid-flight at the buffet in the front of the cabin, and then fend for yourself in the in-between times.


I went with the chicken for my main dish, wish I regrettably didn’t get a picture of.

Appetizers on Royal Jordanian

We were at the end of a very long few days of travel, so we passed out for most of this flight.  I will say that the entertainment options were lacking on RJ- I watched all the episodes of Fresh Prince that they had, and then was bored most of the rest of the flight (when I was awake).  I would say less than 20 movies, and not premium options at that.

Part XVI: American Airlines First Class Chicago-Phoenix

The Flight

After some time in the Admiral’s Club lounge in Chicago, we made our way to the plane. This flight, departing 5 minutes after 8, doesn’t have a full meal service because American doesn’t serve meals past 8 PM.  There’s just a “snack.” I’m sure that’s why they schedule it 5 minutes past 8…

Anyway, we slept for 3/4ths of the flight, and woke up to have some nuts, sparkling water, and some salami.  We weren’t very hungry, so no complaints.

This one is short, because we were so exhausted from the traveling.  But, not a bad flight, and it got us home on time, safe and sound.

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