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Friday 24 July 2015

Business vs Economy – More bangs for your buck or a splurge too far?

When the national carrier of Malaysia invited me to the country, I knew I was onto something rather special. Malaysia is one of my favourite South-East Asian countries - I have visited it on a number of occasions (reviewed here, here and here) but this would be my first time in the Eastern part of country, and the opportunity to explore the huge island of Borneo.

The tropical paradise of Sarawak in Borneo, Eastern Malaysia

Borneo is towards the top of my list of the most exotic and distant places I can possibly imagine. It is the third largest island in the world (after Greenland and New Guinea), a real tropical paradise and a mere 2 hour 30 minute flight from Kuala Lumpur (KL). With daily direct flights from London Heathrow to KL averaging about 11 hours, it is not nearly as unreachable as it may sound. I will write more about Borneo and Sarawak in a later post.

This trip was also a great opportunity for me to experience Malaysia Airlines’ Business Class, a luxury I have only enjoyed a handful of times with different carriers. Flying Business Class entitles passengers access to the airline’s airport lounge, and that is where we headed soon after checking in. I never really understood people’s fixation with airport lounges, but I now I do – free flowing Champers!

It may sound odd to start drinking at 9am, but I am not one to resist Champagne at any time of the day. And of course I couldn’t. 

Malaysia Airlines Lounge at London Heathrow

Great choices of hot food at Malaysia Airlines Lounge, London Heathrow
Other Malaysia Airlines lounge temptations in addition to the open-bar included a delicious hot buffet with Nasi lemak (coconut rice, prawn sambal, peanuts, cucumber, dried anchovies - Malaysia’s national breakfast), chicken curry, beef satay, deep-fried curry puffs, banana fritters, the most wonderful Durian ice cream, and more.

Prawn Sambal and Champagne - my kind of breakfast!
Malaysian Curry Puffs
I have since then been lucky enough to fly Business Class with a major British airline (which shall remain nameless), and all I could find to eat was some M&S-style sandwiches and crisps, so Malaysia Airlines’ spread was in retrospect truly impressive.

Banana fritters and durian ice cream at Malaysia Airlines Lounge, London Heathrow
But it all comes at a cost. Flying Business Class with Malaysia Airlines will set you back around £3,000 between London and KL (which would buy a lot of Champagne!), with sale fares priced at just under £2,000. With Economy airfares ranging from £600 to £850, this is a significant increase. But these fares are not extortionate; they are in keeping with most international carriers flying to similar long-haul destinations.

Food in Business Class is generally better than what is offered in Economy (a given I guess) and Malaysia Airlines was no exception. On our way back from Borneo, we spent a couple of nights in KL and had the opportunity to visit Brahim’s Airline Catering facilities – they are the catering suppliers to Malaysia Airlines as well as other major airlines flying in the region.

As a caterer I find visits like this fascinating – the processes and care involved in producing thousands of meals a day (45,000 meals on average at Brahim’s) are endless and painstakingly laborious. You may not enjoy your airline meal at times, but rest assured, they are prepared with the utmost cleanliness and care.

My favourite station at the catering plant has got to be the satay area: those guys barbecue 20,000 satay skewers a day - what a job! The satay meat is marinated overnight in a mix of fresh shallots, turmeric, garlic, galangal and lemongrass, then skewered and hand-turned while being chargrilled over mangrove charcoal. I had a few of those skewers during our visit, they were divine!

We discovered in our visit to Brahim’s that business class meals were better than Economy’s not only for the quality of ingredients used and the choice of dishes but also because there were many fewer meals being prepared. Quality invariably suffers when large amounts of food are being made so Business class meals will by definition be afforded more care and attention.

And indeed my meals onboard Malaysia Airlines were a real upgrade compared with anything I have eaten in Economy. The airline offers the “Chef on Call” or the ability to reserve meals from dozens of options at the time of booking. Worth mentioning was my choice of Nasi Lemak with Prawn Sambal and Ikan Bilis – this was as delicious as any found in some of the top restaurants in Malaysia.

A real revelation though was Malaysia Airlines’ Satay Trolley (and this is where some of those 20,000 skewers end up every day) - how could I resist a few more helpings of beef, chicken and lamb skewers, but this time at 10,000 feet, washed down with glasses of Deutz Champagne? What a treat.

But what travellers are really paying for in Business class is the ability to lie down completely flat for most of their journey. The seats are considerably wider and so there are many fewer seats per row in comparison to Economy. And because it is more expensive, the likelihood of having a screaming infant sitting beside you is much reduced.

So would I actually pay £3,000 to fly business-class? I found it a totally different experience to flying economy, and of course hugely preferable. But I can’t help thinking about how many wonderful meals I could enjoy or superb hotel rooms I could stay in on a holiday if I put the extra £2,400 required for the upgrade towards the cost of the holiday instead of the flight. For a two-week holiday, that’s another £200 per person per day.

Wider seats, great entertainment and Satay trolley in Business Class at Malaysia Airlines A380

Personally, I think that Business class could be an option if it were a work trip the client was paying for, or if I could offset it as a business expense. Of course if I won the lottery and money were no object, I would be seriously tempted. Finally, if I am granted a long life and am fortunate enough to be well off and still travelling in my 70s, I might well be tempted to shell out rather than leave a hefty inheritance for the tax-man to help himself to.

Time for an upgrade?

How to fly business class without paying big bucks?

I have been thinking so hard about this since my Malaysia Airlines experience! There are a few options to consider if you want to have a chance of experiencing business class without shelling out too much of your own hard-earned cash. Try at your own peril!

Work for an airline…

One option is to work for an airline. Most of them offer huge discounts for tickets, meaning that it’s possible to fly business class for much less than the usual cost of an economy ticket. And you don’t have to be a pilot or air-steward/stewardess – airline companies need lawyers, accountants, IT experts, HR etc, so it might be more realistic than you think.

Marry an airline employee!

Another option is to marry an airline employee, because similar rights are extended to spouses and partners, although this often requires you to buy a standby ticket and there is no guarantee you will be able to board the flight of your choice. If you are already partnered, you may consider becoming a good pal to someone who works for an airline as employee benefits will most likely extend to friends as well as their own family.

Air miles?

Most major UK supermarkets will offer air miles as part of their loyalty card schemes so if you are a regular shopper you can put those benefits to good use.

In addition, flying with the same airline or group of airlines also offers the chance to accumulate air miles, which can be used for a free flight or to upgrade an economy ticket to business. 

Get a credit card that offers flying club miles

There are a number of credit cards that offer flying air miles, and will allow you to buy an upgrade using your miles. This is perhaps the simplest way for most if you remember (and are financially sound) to settle your balance at the end of every month. 

I would not like to endorse any available cards here, and please note that most credit cards offering this perk will have a hefty annual fee of around £150 per year, for more information, read this article from Money Supermarket - http://www.moneysupermarket.com/credit-cards/airline/

Frequent Flyers Club, flying solo on your birthday, dress to impress!

If there is a frequent flyers club for an airline you use a lot, join it, because staff do offer upgrades to loyal customers first if the flight is overbooked. Try to avoid flying when business travellers do – ie weekday mornings, so it is more likely there will be space in business. Travelling solo also increases your odds particularly if it is your birthday so make a song and dance about it at check-in. Airlines like to keep business and first class looking exclusive, so those dressed accordingly will be first in the queue.  

If all else fails, just grovel!

These days most people check in on-line and do not think to ask for an upgrade, so if you do, you might be lucky. I doubt it though.

After my experience flying Business Class with Malaysia Airlines I’m certainly motivated to try some of these options to get the chance of an upgrade, and watch this space to see how successful they are. Equally if you have your own experiences to share on business or first class travel or on getting upgrades, get in touch. 

About Malaysia Airlines
Malaysia Airlines is the only carrier to offer a twice-daily non-stop A380 full service link between the UK and Malaysia. UK passengers can also take advantage of frequent onward connections to destinations across Malaysia, Asia and Australasia. Economy class return flights from London Heathrow to Kuching via Kuala Lumpur International Airport start from £817. Business Class from £3167 (prices including taxes and charges). To book visit www.malaysiaairlines.com or call +44 (0) 871 4239 090

Tuesday 21 July 2015

Are you a cruiser? Find out here.

I must admit that cruising was never a holiday option I considered very seriously. My reservations perhaps resonate with many other would-be-cruisers:

Would I feel cooped up inside a boat? 
Aren’t cruising holidays for retired people?  
Will I get terribly seasick?
What am I going to do all day?
Won’t the food be awful?
Is cruising good value for money?

Celebrity Cruises and I collaborated in 2014 when I was asked to accompany their former executive chef John Suley to the International White Truffle Fair in Alba, Piedmont. We had a fantastic trip and I was genuinely impressed by the company’s attempt to bring some of the prized funghi onto their ships’ menu (Celebrity Cruises bid and won two lots at the Alba’s truffle auction for €5,000 and €10,000 each), you can read more about this here.

The Celebrity Eclipse - Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

So it was with great curiosity (and trepidation) that I accepted an invitation by Celebrity Cruises to come aboard one of their ships (Eclipse) for a 2-Night Taste of Modern Luxury Cruise from Southampton to Le Havre in France. I thought it was an opportunity not to be missed to put all those questions to the test.

X for Celebrity Cruises

Would I feel cooped up inside a boat?

While this is largely dependent on the type and size of ship you board, Celebrity Cruise’s Eclipse was anything but claustrophobic, in fact it was gargantuan.

The ship has 15 decks (floors) with the top being a lawned open-deck with a Sunset-Bar and large areas of green open space.

A London park? No, the top deck of the Celebrity Cruises Eclipse

My room was a standard en-suite, ocean view estate cabin. I would not describe it as luxurious, but it was nevertheless spacious, elegantly furnished and had a small veranda.

I was surprised by how well proportioned it was - I have stayed in much pokier rooms during my trips to Japan so I was pleased with my cabin.

Small but perfectly formed...

There were swimming pools, shops, a theatre, a huge library, art galleries and even a casino onboard the Eclipse. 

Vegas style casino at Eclipse
There was plenty of room despite the ship being sold out with 2,850 passengers, and I must admit, I hardly bumped into the same face twice during the trip.

With a number of specialty gourmet restaurants, from fine dining options like the Luminae (only accessible to those booking a suite), to the more family oriented places like the Oceanview Café (open from breakfast to late night-dining until 1am) where you will find stations serving up everything from sushi to pizza or French patisserie. There are enough options to keep you exploring the restaurants for a good week or so.

The sparkly Luminae Restaurant

Oceanview Cafe
Likewise, there are many bars – I counted at least ten spread over the 15 decks of the Eclipse. The bars are super-busy though, and for someone like me who with zilch bar presence, you may have to wait a while to get a drink at times. But this is perhaps a reflection of the style of trip that I was invited to – a two-night cruise where most guests stayed indoors, drinking and enjoying the ship’s amenities.

The busy Martini Bar

So returning to the original question – did I feel cooped up inside the Eclipse? No I didn’t, but this was mostly because of the ship’s size and the length of the trip. If the cruise were longer than 2 nights, I would have probably got out of the ship for shore excursions – this is after all one of the great advantages of cruising – the possibility of waking up at a different port city everyday.

Aren’t cruising holidays for retired people?  

A lot of my friends are now retired, so apologies if this sound a tad rude! While there were a great number of people in their 60s and 70s on board, the majority on my cruise ranged from 20-something couples to people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

It was also fascinating to observe my fellow cruisers. They were a mixed bunch, ranging from the clearly affluent to people who looked or sounded less so. So the idea that cruising is only for the elderly was in my experience a real misconception on the Celebrity Cruise Eclipse.

The Disco!

Will I get terribly seasick?

You probably won’t, but this again will depend on the type of ship you board – largely speaking, the bigger the boat, the more stable it is. 

On the Eclipse, the sea between Southampton and Le Havre was calm during those two days and this, coupled with the sheer size of the ship, meant that I hardly even noticed it was sailing. Every now and again, I would feel a slight dizziness, perhaps twice during an entire evening, much like having a glass of wine too many, which I probably did.

What am I going to do all day?

That was a real concern that luckily was short-lived – there were so many activities packed into those two days, I hardly managed to keep up.

One of the fun things I got to attend was a wine tasting with Oz Clarke, one of the two celebrities on board (Ben Fogle being the other).

I have attended zillions of wine tastings in my time but this one was very interesting – not so much for the choice of wines (in fact the ones we tasted were quite pedestrian) but it was Oz’s anecdotes, sense of humour and knowledge that really made it for me.

Oz Clarke was personable and friendly – he cuts through all the nonsense talk about winemaking. I remember well the four wines we tried and the stories behind them, thanks to his engaging approach.

The “Eclipse Today” paper delivered every morning, listed every single activity taking place on the ship that day – there were hundreds of activities including lawn games, art tours, a number of musical shows, cookery demos, you name it.

The Solarium swimming pool - no kids allowed here

Shops galore!
If you have a bit more energy to spare, the Eclipse has a huge fitness centre (where we spotted Ben Fogle strutting his stuff on the treadmill), with dance and yoga classes, and several massive swimming pools.

Ben Fogle on the far left!
If you book a cruise for more than 2-nights, I strongly recommend getting off the ship either for one of the organised excursions or on your own to explore the port town you dock at. There were a number of excursions on this trip including day trips to Paris with options of lunch on the River Seine or Eiffel Tower, and to nearby villages and towns. I didn’t get to do any of these unfortunately as there were so many other activities I wanted to attend onboard.

Views of Le Havre

Won’t the food be awful?

The Taste of Modern Luxury cruise I attended in May 2015 was a special trip as far as dining was concerned. Two of Britain’s most celebrated, Michelin-starred chefs, Adam Simmonds and Robert Thompson, were on board for a number of cookery demonstrations and to cook us dinner on the two nights of the cruise.

Cookery demonstration with Robert Thompson

The dinners were taking place at two of the ship’s specialty restaurants and were only available to those cruisers on Specialty Dining packages. I am not going to bore you with the details of each dinner as the chefs for the 2016 Taste of Modern Luxury Cruise will most likely be different and so will be the food, but the dinners prepared by these two chefs were exquisite – with tip top ingredients, faultless cooking and with great wine pairings.

Meeting Chef Adam Simmonds

Two dishes really stuck to my memory though, one being Adam Simmonds’ roasted loin of lamb with crisp belly, goat's curd and onion ash. This featured a beautifully succulent piece of meat (I am also getting a real fondness for crisp lamb belly which I am seeing more often in London’s menus), perfectly pink, it had wonderfully rich flavours and plenty of contrasting textures, a real winner.

The other dish, also by Adam Simmonds, was his confit fillet of trout served with a delicious veal tartare, smoked English asparagus and edible flowers. The trout had been cooked sous-vide, which gave it a wonderfully buttery texture. I loved this elegant surf and turf combination, and it was a first for me to try salmon and veal in the same dish.

The Oceanview Café was the ship’s main dining area, serving up breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as late snacks up to 1am. Here was where most cruisers on any dining package headed to whenever they wanted a bite to eat. More casual in style, the Oceanview Café was perhaps my favourite place on the ship.

Considering the food at the Oceanview Café was pre-cooked and served buffet style, it was mostly of a good standard. The pizza station was great, as were the French patisserie and ice cream stations.

I particularly remember the Paris Breast I got to try.  The choux pastry was well made, and there was a delicious peanut butter ice cream with salted caramel. Add a glass or two of bubbly and we had the perfect afternoon snack!

So food on cruise ships does not need to be awful – do your homework and make sure to book into a cruise liner that puts gastronomy at the forefront of what they offer. I genuinely feel that Celebrity Cruises strives to be one such company for those on its Specialty Dining packages.

Is cruising value for money?

Value for money is a very subjective concept, but personally I feel that cruising can be. The Oceanview stateroom I stayed at is priced at £359 per person, for an all-inclusive basic package. 

In addition to this basic package fee, there are some add-ons – the gratuity is a compulsory charge added to your bill at a rate of US$15 per day, which I felt was fair considering the excellent service onboard.

Some other non-compulsory add-ons include the 24-hour wifi package priced at US$109 plus VAT (I found this a complete waste of money as I hardly got any signal out of it during those two days). An optional extra I recommend is to upgrade the drinks from the very limited basic package to the premium at US$11.80 per day. There is also a Specialty Dining Package available to those wanting to upgrade and experience the more exclusive dining options available onboard. The price for this dining upgrade varies between ships and the number of restaurants available so please check this when booking.

Moonlight Sonata -  this is the Eclipse's main dining room, available to all guests

My Verdict.

There are two major aspects of cruising that really sell this type of holiday to me. 

I guess many of us have travelled to and explored a particular part of the world taking endless internal flights, buses and trains, stressing over check-ins, transfers and luggage. If this sounds familiar, then cruising is one option (at a price, of course) to take away all these worries. 

Secondly, the prospect of waking up at a different location every morning during a week or so of cruising is very appealing. How exciting to wake up in Genoa one morning, Naples or Palermo the next, then Venice!

This short, 2-night cruise helped me explore the concerns and misconceptions I had about cruising, which was a real eye-opener for me. I had a great time overall and met and got chatting to many young couples onboard, some of whom had been on as many as 7 cruises in the last few years.

Try it for yourself!

The next Taste of Modern Luxury Cruise will take place on the 8th to 10th May 2016 (2 nights). Prices for the basic all-inclusive packages vary from £269 to £389 per person for a 2-night stay.

For more details about the Taste of Modern Luxury Cruise or many of other Celebrity Cruises options, and to book, please visit their website: https://www.celebritycruises.co.uk/itinerary/ec02q008/20160508/2/0/cruisehotelandflight

Have you ever been on a cruise? Have you tried one of Celebrity Cruises trips? I would be grateful if you were to share your opinions below. Thanks!

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