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Ten reasons why first or business class is (and isn't really) "worth it"

Posted by George Hobica on Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Recently on Twitter, one of my 365,000 followers responded to this article about getting a better seat when you fly. True enough, he was tweeting from a first class seat on @AmericanAir for which he paid the economy class fare of $124 plus a $90 upgrade. But another Tweep chirped in; "I mean, is it really that luxurious to have a foot of extra space for $90 extra?"

We went back and forth a bit, but I think he wasn't quite convinced that yes, it is worth it. His final word? "I guess subjective value is a thing after all."

So I got to thinking: what besides "a foot of extra space" does first class (and I'm talking just domestic U.S. travel) get you? Let's get this out right away: for me, it has nothing to do with "status"—although for some, that's the main draw.

1. Yes, more leg room. But that's not really it. You can get more legroom in "economy plus" or "main cabin extra" or whatever your airline calls those extra legroom economy class seats. Or you can fly JetBlue, where the economy seats have a few extra inches. And even with the extra legroom, unless you're seating at the bulkhead you still have to climb over your seatmate if you're in the window seat (unless you're on a plane like American's 777-300ER where all business and first class seats have aisle access).

2. Then there's the meal. OK, airline food is airline food, but lately it's been getting a lot better. There are imaginative fresh salads, ice cream sundaes and fresh baked cookies on American, for example. Delta is working with New York-based restaurateur Danny Myers to improve its offerings in business/first. But the meal isn't it either. You could bring your own food on board from your favorite deli or gourmet shop and eat better.

3. Free booze. Some people love this, but that's not it either. You shouldn't drink when you fly anyway, because it's dehydrating.

4. More privacy. This is important, at least to me. There are fewer people in first class. Seating is two by two. Seats are wider so there's no fighting for the armrest. There's no chance of ending in the middle seat. And of course, if you're lucky enough to have a seat by yourself, such as on American's new A312T in first class you're in airline heaven. Bottom line: It's just less crowded.

5. Padded seats. Now we're really getting somewhere. And this is the main reason why I pay for first class, either heavily discounted non-refundable first or business fares, with mile upgrades, or last minute upgrade offers when checking in online. As I explained to @Clint7981, when you reach a certain age (Clint looks like he's 20 by the way), your poor tired bones, muscles and posterior aren't as padded or limber as they once were. First/business seats, unlike those rock-hard new, fuel-saving "slimline" seats in economy, still have lots of padding. They remind me of the seats in those Lockheed Constellations and DC-7's I used to fly as a kid. (Yes, I'm that old.)

6. Easier access to the lavs. When you gotta go,you gotta go. Sometimes the line at the back of the plane to use the lavs can be five deep. Not so in first/business.

7. Nicer flight attendants. I'm not saying that economy class flight attendants aren't nice; many are. But they're a lot nicer in first or business. It just makes traveling more pleasant when someone addresses you by name and smiles a lot.

8. Priority boarding and TSA lines. You can get some of these perks with airline-branded credit cards and by paying a bit extra on an economy fare, true. And some people argue that it's not worth getting on board early.

9. No fighting for overhead bin space. There's generally plenty for everyone. And if somehow there isn't, the nice flight attendants will put your stuff in the forward closet. No "gate checking."

10. Power ports. On some older planes, only first or business class seats have them at all seats. A must if you're planning to work (or play) inflight and you need juice.

Some will remain unconvinced. As my mother used to say, "We all get there at the same time." But mom, bless her soul, never flew in first.

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

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How to get a better seat the next time you fly

Posted by George Hobica on Friday, January 31, 2014

Everyone gripes about economy-class air travel, and sometimes with good reason. But here are ten strategies to fly in a bit more comfort.

1. Don't fall for the "only premium economy seats are available" ploy.

So you booked a fare on American, Delta, United or some other airline that has economy as well as "premium" economy seating, and when you go to choose a seat, the website is telling you that only the more expensive premium economy seats are available? This doesn't mean that you won't eventually get a seat assignment or a seat (if you get involuntarily bumped, that's another story, but it rarely happens). Don't cough up the extra money for a premium seat. If in fact all the "cheap" seats are taken, you'll get a premium economy seat when you check in. You can also try calling the airline directly to see if they'll give you a seat assignment.

2. Watch for (and ask for) cheap last-minute upgrades to business and first class.

The best seats on the plane, clearly, are in business and/or first class, but they sometimes cost many times what an economy seat goes for. For example, I frequently fly the L.A.-NYC route, where you can still (amazingly) find seats for $129 each way in coach. But business class costs $2,200 or more. However, I've been offered last-minute upgrades (when checking in online at home, at the airport kiosk, or even at the gate) for as little as $250 on top of the $129 fare, a huge savings. If you're not offered a discounted upgrade, it doesn't hurt to ask when you check in.

3. Don't assume that business and first-class fares cost 10 times the economy-class price.

They don't always. There are often non-refundable business- and first-class fares going for relatively little more than economy and often for the same price as refundable coach fares. Recently I flew from New York JFK to Boston in first class on American for $140 each way, when economy class (or cattle class) on the Delta Shuttle was charging $400 from LaGuardia. I flew L.A. to Fort Lauderdale on a connection through Atlanta on Delta for $349 one-way in first class, not a huge premium over the economy-class fare, which is sometimes $200 each way on that route. Both these deals were non-refundable, but still.

4. Consult seatguru.com to pick a better seat.

You can see seat maps for almost all airlines and aircraft types here. All seats are not created equal, and Seat Guru will tell you which plane types, airlines and seats might have more legroom or be otherwise more desirable.

5. Get maximum legroom in economy class by flying JetBlue (if it goes where you're going).

Other airlines (TWA, American) have experimented unsuccessfully with giving every seat in economy class extra legroom, but only JetBlue seems to have made a go of it. JetBlue's A320/A321 aircraft seat rows are spaced at least 33-34 inches apart in coach compared to 31-32 inches on some airlines, and JetBlue's "even more space" seats range from 37 to 41 inches apart, according to Seat Guru.

6. Use your frequent-flier miles to upgrade rather than on an inexpensive economy-class fare.

Everyone complains about economy class, but it's pretty easy to buy your way out with miles. I never use miles for economy-class travel. Instead, I upgrade the cheapest economy-class fare to business or first using 15,000 miles each way on American and United. What is better value: Spending 25,000 points on a $250 coach fare, or 15,000 miles upgrading a $139 coach fare to a $2,500 business-class fare? By the way, I earn those miles by applying for airline-affiliated credit cards with those 40,000 (or more) bonus mile offers, and by never buying anything online without checking the bonus mile offers on the airlines' shopping malls.

7. Fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday.

Fewer people travel on those days, so there's a bit more chance the middle seat will be open.

8. Fly on a newer plane.

Even if a plane with that "new plane smell" won't give you more legroom, at least it will have better in-flight entertainment, better power port options and other benefits. It's worth changing your plans to fly on a plane like American's just-launched A321 rather than its old 767 aircraft .

9. If you fly on United frequently, consider the Economy Plus annual subscription.

For $499 per year, you get unlimited domestic upgrades to United's extra-legroom seating as long as a seat is available when you book. For $200 more, you get global access to Economy Plus.

10. Sometimes you just have to pay for an advance seat assignment on some airlines.

It's certainly not ideal, but if you're flying on an airline like British Airways, which only lets economy-class passengers request specific seat assignments 24 or fewer hours before departure, it really does pay to pay up for a seat assignment. You'll find that most of your fellow passengers have done this and you'll get stuck with the worst seats on the plane if you don't follow suit. On a recent trip from Hong Kong to London on a British Airways A380 in economy, my traveling companion and I paid for the two-by-two "twin" seats at the emergency exit with no one in front of us. The extra privacy and access made the 13-hour trip just barely bearable.

Above image via Shutterstock

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

The Fine Print: Virgin America's New Visa Signature Card

Posted by George Hobica on Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Virgin America media folks sent me an email today touting the new Virgin America credit cards. One thing caught my eye: get the "premium" version and there are no change or cancellation fees on non-refundable tickets. Of course, when you read the fine print, it doesn't sound quite as revolutionary. The basic card is well-priced at $49 per year annual fee and gives you 10,000 bonus miles with just a $1000 spend in the first 90 days; but the premium card costs $149 per year and gives you 15,000 bonus miles for the same spend, plus up to 15,000 "status" points. But when you read the premium card's somewhat confusing fine print (see below), it gets less exciting.

This clarification to an earlier edit of this post, provided by Virgin's PR, makes things clearer I hope.

For changes to non-refundable tickets:

When a guest makes a change to a non-refundable fare, the guest is required to pay the change fee (currently $100) plus any difference in fare.

For our new premium cardholders, the change fee will be waived - the cardholder will only need to pay any difference in fare.

For cancellations of non-refundable tickets:

When a guest cancels, the cancel fee is deducted [from] the total balance and then the remaining balance (if any) is credited to a travel bank credit which is valid for 12 months from the date of cancellation.

For our new premium cardholders, the cancel fee will be waived, therefore the full value of the ticket will be credited as a travel bank credit which is valid for 12 months from the date of cancellation.

Essentially, the premium card waives ever charging (change) or applying (cancel) the change cancel fee for any reservations originally paid with the card and that include the cardholder in the reservation, but otherwise the original fare rules apply in so much that a) any difference in fare still applies for changes or b) the original fare paid is credited to travel bank for cancellations.

Confused? I am still, sort of. It would have been great if holders of this card could cancel their non-refundable fares and just get a credit back to their credit cards, and that would make it truly revolutionary.

And frequent flyer tickets are still subject to rebooking or re-deposit fees. And speaking of how to really avoid change/cancel fees, read this.

The Fine Print

Flight Change/Cancel Fee Waiver. (Premium Cardholders only)

Premium Cardholders are eligible to receive waived change or cancel fees (as published at virginamerica.com) when purchasing non-refundable fares on Virgin America-operated flights. To receive the waived change or cancel fee benefit, you must include your Elevate account number in your reservation and use your Premium Card to purchase your ticket(s) directly from Virgin America. Your Credit Card Account must be in open and not in default at the time of making a change or cancellation to an existing reservation. The waived change or cancel fee benefit is only available on paid Virgin America marketed and operated flights; codeshare flights with a Virgin America flight number but operated by another airline are not eligible. The waived change or cancel fee benefit is not valid for Reward Travel, where the published Elevate redeposit fee will apply for cancellations.

When changing a reservation, you will be responsible for paying for any difference in fare in accordance with the original purchased fare rules. Premium cardholders must remain a named passenger on the reservation and include their Elevate account number in order to receive the waived change or cancel fee benefit. When changing or cancelling a reservation, any remaining funds will be credited to your Travel Bank account for future travel on Virgin America. The travel credit is valid within 12 months from the date of change or cancellation. To make a change or cancellation to an existing reservation, you must call the Virgin America Contact Center at 1.877.FLY.VIRGIN (877.359.8474) from the United States and Canada, 001.877.359.8474 from Mexico, or +1.650.762.7005 from other countries prior to your scheduled flight departure time. If you call from the United States, you may access a complimentary telecommunications relay service by dialing 711.

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

New Steps in American Airlines & US Airways Merger

Posted by George Hobica on Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The first steps in the gradual integration of American Airlines and US Airways have been announced. These are just baby steps. Eventually, the two airlines’ frequent flyer programs will be combined, and your miles will be merged. (If past mergers are any indication, you may even be given a little mileage bonus to provide both membership numbers, so look out for that). And you’ll also see membership rules “aligned” in coming months, since the two programs are quite different (US Airways, for example, charges $25 to $50 to redeem miles (unless you’re a elite member), a policy we hope that will not survive the merger.

So here’s what to expect as of today:

AAdvantage and Dividend Miles members can earn and redeem miles when traveling across either airline’s network. All travel on eligible tickets on both airlines will count toward qualification for elite status in the customer’s program of choice.

Elite members of each airline can enjoy select reciprocal benefits of both the AAdvantage and Dividend Miles programs, including First and Business Class check-in, priority security and priority boarding, complimentary access to Preferred Seats, priority baggage delivery, and checked bags at no charge, consistent with the current baggage policies for each carrier.

Members of the American Admirals Club or US Airways Club will have reciprocal club benefits, providing them access to the 35 Admirals Clubs and 19 US Airways Clubs. In addition, American AAdvantage Citi Executive cardholders will have access to US Airways Clubs.

Airport and Web check-in time frames will be aligned for both US Airways and American.

Boarding announcements will align to accommodate elites of both carriers.

Airport ticket counters and gates at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport are now co-located.

From what we hear, American’s IT department will be leading the software integration, and as the airline that invented Sabre and many other IT innovations, we expect they won’t have the same computer glitches that United experienced in swallowing up Continental, or that US Airways had in merging with America West.

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Strategies to get a refund on a non-refundable airfare

Posted by George Hobica on Thursday, January 2, 2014

Non-refundable airfares are much cheaper than refundable ones, but if you cancel or change your flight, you'll pay a hefty fee. But there are some loopholes and workarounds.

If you are booking an airfare in the United States, U.S. Department of Transportation regulations require that, as long as you've booked a non-refundable ticket 7 days ahead of your flight, you're entitled to hold your reservation and the fare and change or cancel your reservation within 24 hours of booking, without paying a cancellation fee (typically $200 on the remaining large "network" carriers for a domestic fare, but much more (up to $450 for some international fares), a bit less on other airlines, as this chart shows.

You can either cancel the reservation entirely, or change it, within the 24-hour window. If you change it however, a fare difference may apply, but there is no change penalty. This applies not just to U.S.-based airlines, but any airline selling airfares in the U.S.

You still have to pay for the airfare, and then get a refund without penalty, except that American Airlines is a bit different in that it allows you to hold your seat and the fare for 24 hours without paying for it. On American, you should NOT pay for the fare, but merely choose the 24-hour hold option without payment. If you pay for the fare rather than holding it, you will be hit with a change/cancel fee on American! Also, American sells fare "add-ons" starting at $68 round-trip that allow you to change your flight for free at any time, and the add-on includes a checked bag round-trip and priority boarding. Something to consider.

Southwest Airlines lets you change or cancel a fare within the 24 hour window without penalty, but it also allows you to change or cancel a reservation anytime before flight time and get a credit for the full amount of your fare, applicable to future travel within a year of the original reservation. You will have to pay any applicable fare increase, however.

Alaska Airlines now allows free changes/cancels if made at least 60 days prior to travel.

Allegiant Airlines is a bit more specific, stating in its rules that you may cancel as long as your scheduled flight is at least 168 hours (24 x 7) away at time of booking.

In order to take advantage of the 24-hour cancel or change rule, it's best to book directly with airlines, either online or by phone, rather than through third-party websites.

And it goes without saying that you can cancel a fully refundable ticket anytime and get a refund, although if you change rather than cancel there may be a fare difference if the fare has changed.

Frequent Flyer Award Tickets, Too?

Does this apply to frequent flyer tickets? I've been able to cancel frequent flyer reservations within 24 hours of booking, and get all fees refunded and miles re-instated without penalty, most recently on British Airways, however the DOT rules are unclear on this, and US Airways clearly states that the 24-hour cancel rule does not apply to frequent flyer tickets.

Other Ways to Get a Refund

One more thing: many people don't realize that in airline contracts of carriage, there's a rule (often called Rule 260) about "involuntary refunds." Basically it states that if the airline refuses to carry you for any reason, or if your flight is delayed more than a specifed amount of time (121 minutes or greater on AA for example) or the flight is canceled, you can apply for a full refund, even on a non-refundable ticket. Here, for example, is Hawaiian Airlines' Rule 260. United calls their rule on this something else, which you can see by wading through their contract of carriage.

So let's say you buy a fare you no longer can use and the DOT 24-hour rule doesn't apply. You can avoid the change/cancel fee is if your flight is canceled or severely delayed. It may or may not be worth your time to show up for your flight and pray it's canceled or significantly delayed (you do have to check in for the flight).

The Schedule Change Loophole

And you can also get a refund if there's a significant schedule change before your departure (let's say they change you from a 9 a.m. departure to a 6 a.m., or your new flight requires a much longer layover or an overnight stay, or even from a nonstop to a connecting flight). Here, for example, are the rules on this from American Airlines (this info is provided for travel agents, but applies no matter how the fare is booked). The airline may not notify you of a qualifying schedule change, so if you've purchased a non-refundable fare that you would like to refund, be sure to check the flight schedule to see if it has changed in any way and if it has, call the airline and request a refund, explaining that the schedule no longer works for you (obviously, a change of just a few minutes won't qualify).

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Is frequent flyer status everything it used to be?

Posted by George Hobica on Thursday, January 2, 2014

Is it getting less worthwhile, or at least harder, to attain “status” in airline frequent flyer programs?

These things make me wonder:

1. The days of buying a $200 round-trip mileage-run cross-country trip to get 5,000 miles aren’t what they used to be. Delta and United, starting in 2014, have added minimum spend requirements in order to get status. Delta requires a $2,500 spend to get the lowest “silver medallion” status in addition to 25,000 miles flown up to $12,500 and 125,000 miles to get the highest “diamond” status. United requires spending between $2,500 and $10,000 plus miles. Miles alone no longer cut it. American will probably follow suit eventually if they haven’t by the time you read this.

2. Airlines are selling last-minute first and business class upgrades for ridiculously cheap. That means that some “status flyers” who hang around the gate hoping for upgrades may be more disappointed than ever. American is even now allowing anyone to bid for upgrades.

3. Some new planes have fewer first and business class seats than the models they’re replacing. So there’s less availability.

4. More flyers have status than ever before, thanks to status matches. And US Air even lets you buy your way in with their “Buy up to Preferred” program (presumably your USAir status will transfer over to American when the merger is complete).

5. Some of the perks of “status,” like early boarding and free checked bags, anyone can get with an airline credit card like the United Explorer Card.

I’ve never had status of any kind with an airline, even though I fly thousands of miles each year. That’s partly because I’m not “loyal”—as the founder of Airfarewatchdog, I’d never spend $200 or $300 more to fly on a particular airline just to get the miles or points. That’s just daft. Last year I flew on every domestic airline except Allegiant, whichever was cheaper. Many of those flights I bought or upgraded with miles rather than cash. I have excellent credit, and every time there’s a 40,000- or 100,000 mile-bonus offer when you get a new credit card, I sign up, then a cancel the card after a year (usually, I’m eligible for the same offer a couple of years later). And, of course, as a travel writer I often travel on “comp” tickets that don’t earn miles or status.

I’m also pretty good at finding really cheap paid first class tickets, which are popping up more and more lately, and which are part of the reason why I wonder why attaining status is what it used to be.

Consider: in December I was able to buy first class on Delta from L.A. to Ft. Lauderdale for $349 one-way. On the return, I flew American in first nonstop from Miami to L.A. for $495 one-way.

Fewer first and business seats to begin with

American’s spiffy new A319 planes are great. They’re replacing those old MD-80’s (AA has 190 of them at last count). The 80’s have (or had) 16 first class seats. The A319s? Just eight. Since most people flying in first or business are either frequent flyer upgrades, airline employees, or otherwise freeloaders, I’m sure American figured “Hey, why not reduce the number of premium seats and actually sell them. And if we can’t sell them for the ‘list price’ then we’ll take whatever the market will bear.’” Makes perfect business sense.

And those super new cabins on the transcon flights on AA, Delta and United with the lie flat business and first seats? They sure are comfy, but guess what: they take up much more room than the old seats, which merely reclined. So there are fewer of them fleet-wide. I’ll bet you’ll be paying for those more often than getting “status” upgrades.

Cheap last minute upgrade offers

It used to be that I’d get last minute upgrade offers on the trans-con flights that were tempting but just barely. Such as a $700 upgrade from my cheap economy class seat on the United JFK-LAX service to business class, one-way. But recently I was offered a $250 upgrade from economy to business on American on a $189 one-way JFK-LAX fare. Did I buy it? You bet. Did that mean that someone hoping for a free upgrade didn’t get it? Yep.

Cheaper purchased first class and business class

As long as you’re willing to buy a non-refundable fare, you can sometimes get confirmed business and first for just twice the price of a cramped economy class seat. Recently I needed to fly from New York to Boston last minute, and fares on the shuttles from LaGuardia were something like $400 one-way. Then I saw a non-refundable first class fare from JFK on AA for $140 one-way. Naturally, I bought it. Airlines are realizing that not everyone is going to pay ten times the economy class fare for a standard first class seat (we’re not all movie stars, trust fund babies, or hedge fund moguls).

In short, airlines are managing their first and business class cabins more intelligently. Gone are the days when they’re willing to give away the very product that costs them the most to provide. They’d much rather limit inventory, and at least get something for those seats. And often that “something” is much more in line with what the product is actually worth.

Above image via Shutterstock

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Get bonus frequent flyer miles when shopping online!

Posted by George Hobica on Friday, December 13, 2013

In addition to making frequent flyer miles harder to spend, airlines are expiring miles, if there's no activity in your account, faster than ever.

But one easy and painless way to make sure there's activity in your account is to do some online shopping using the airlines' "shopping malls." Even if you merely buy a 99-cent iTune you'll keep your miles safe for at least another year. And in addition, if you're buying a big ticket item, such as a computer, you can add some serious miles to your account.

For example if United offers an extra mile for every dollar spent with the Apple Store, one of their shopping partners and you buy a $2500 iMac computer, you get 2500 miles. That's a huge bonus. And there are often bonus offers on top of the bonus miles. United might offer an additional 2,000 miles if you spend over a certain amount.

Generally, these online shopping partners offer at least one mile per dollar spent, but sometimes they award 10 miles or more. And if you use your airline affiliated credit card, you get an extra mile, but the credit card miles pale in comparison to the shopping miles you can earn.

Scores of well known retailers participate in these airline malls, including Crate and Barrel, Best Buy, The Container Store, Dell Computer, Drugstore.com, Sears, Target, and Walmart, to name but a few.

Keep in mind that although the airline shopping sites listed below work with many of the same retailers, American might be offering 4 miles with a particular retailer while Delta could be offering just half that, so you've got to shop around while you're shopping around.

Links to airline shopping malls:

Airtran

American

British Airways

Delta (Delta SkyMiles, for now, no longer expire, but you can still earn miles this way)

Hawaiian Airlines

JetBlue (miles don't expire but you can still earn miles)

Southwest Airlines

Spirit Airlines

United

US Airways

Virgin America

And you may also find these shopping sites useful:

Marriott Rewards

Amtrak

Above image via Shutterstock

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Strategies for flying during winter (or any iffy weather season)

Posted by George Hobica on Monday, November 25, 2013

If you have to take connecting flights, connect through warmer weather, less snow-storm affected hubs like Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, Phoenix, Charlotte, Houston vs. Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, Newark.


Consider travel insurance. If there are any seasons that make sense to buy it, it’s during snow storm and hurricane season.



If your flight is canceled and you’re on the outbound portion of your trip, you can request a full refund of the fare paid, even on a non-refundable ticket. There’s no requirement to take a “futile” trip (i.e., you missed the wedding). Google the airline’s contract of carriage for the rules.

 

Ask to be put on another airline’s flight if it will get you there quicker. Some airlines such as Alaska have provisions for this in their contracts of carriage. Even those that do not often put delayed passengers on their competition’s flights.

 

If taking a cruise, always plan to get to the port a day ahead of sailing. In winter, I recommend TWO days ahead.



If your flight is canceled, try to get as close to where you’re head as possible if you can’t get all the way there. If your JFK to LA flight is canceled, see if the airline will fly you to Las Vegas, for example. From there you can hop on Southwest or rent a car to LA.

Hartsfield Atlanta, stormy windsock, Alaska Airlines, flight status board, docked cruise, Las Vegas images via Shutterstock

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Hurry Up and Wait: A Layover Guide to 20 of the Busiest Airports on the Planet

Posted by George Hobica on Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Still bellyaching about layovers? You won't get any sympathy from us, especially when connecting through these busy airports in major cities across the globe. There's bound to be more than a barren hangar in a cornfield, so buck up and enjoy the downtime.

Atlanta (ATL)

Short (1-4 hours): Nap - or just kick back in privacy – with free wireless and DIRECTV at Minute Suites ($34/hr, Concourse B). Fuel up on smart grub and great cocktails at One Flew South (Concourse E).

Long (4 hours or more): Take MARTA to the Arts District Station ($2.50, 25 min) to the High Museum of Art or go on a long walk in Piedmont Park, Atlanta's giant front lawn.

Very long (overnight): Ride the free SkyTrain one stop to SpringHill Suites (from $169), check-in, drop bags. Take MARTA to Midtown ($2.50, 20 min), dinner one block east at Hugh Acheson's very good Empire State South.

More info: Check out Airfare Watchdog's ATL insider guide.

 

 

Beijing (PEK)

Short (1-4 hours): Walk (10 min from Terminal 3) to the five-star Langham Place hotel for a decent meal and some civilized chill time; to stay behind security lines, buy your way into the serviceable BGS Lounges ($35, Terminals 2 & 3, post-security) and take a load off.

Long (4 hours or more): Do you qualify for the 72-hr visa waiver? Take the Airport Express train ($4, 20-25 min) to Dongzhimen, transfer to the circular Line 2 Subway ($0.30, one trip around, 40 min). Exit at Qianmen for Tian'anmen Square and the Forbidden City; Jishuitan for a stroll around the lakes of Houhai. (Note: Avoid the trains at rush hour.)

Very long (overnight): Splurge on a stay at the Opposite House (from $411, 10 min. walk from Dongzhimen), one of Beijing's best hotels. Have the concierge set up a guided tour of the 798 Art Zone, or grab a cab for craft beers at the popular Great Leap Brewing or the new and noteworthy Slow Boat Brewery.

More info: Check out Tripadvisor's guide to Beijing.

 

 

London-Heathrow (LHR)

Short (1-4 hours): The No. 1 Traveller Lounge ($48 Terminal 3, post-security) features the usual lounge amenities, plus spa treatments and beds for an upcharge. More economical are the Servisair lounges ($29, Terminals 1 & 3 post-security). Stuck in Terminal 5? Grab a spot at Gordon Ramsay's Plane Food and grub out on dry-aged steak and chips.

Long (4 hours or more): With less than six hours, leaving the airport can be a risk, but if you're feeling bold, the Heathrow Express ($55 RT, 15 min) takes you to Paddington, where you're an easy walk to the Italian Gardens / Long Water area of Hyde Park. Before heading back, hit the park's lovely Lido Café at the Serpentine.

Very long (overnight): Don't waste a night in London at an airport hotel; check into the Paddington-adjacent Hotel Indigo (from $259) and spend the rest of your day exploring Central London via the Tube. In the morning, you're just a block or two from the Heathrow Express – the first trip back leaves at 5:10am Monday-Saturday, 6:25am Sundays.

More info: Check out Tripadvisor's guide to London.

 

 

Tokyo-Narita (NRT)

Short (1-4 hours): It's Japan. Your mission is to eat everything in sight. In Terminal 1, it's sushi at Kyotatsu, katsu (cutlets) and curry at Williams, ramen at Kagetsu Arashi and Japanese Italian food (it's kind of awesome) at Spaghetti Goemon. In Terminal 2, it's takoyaki – octopus pancakes – at Tako-Bon, affordable and fresh sushi at Gansozushi and tonkatsu at Inaba Wako.

Long (4 hours or more): Tokyo may be far away, but the Narita Express (53 minutes to Tokyo Station) is very reliable – not to worry. To see a lot in a short time without worrying about getting lost, ride the Yamanote circular line (1 hour each way) through Central Tokyo. Buy a Suica & N'EX pass at the airport station for $59 – includes round-trip fare and a $15 yen credit for subways and local trains.

Very long (overnight): Take the Narita Express to Tokyo Station. Depending on your budget, check into the Hotel Ryumeikan (from $175) or the Four Seasons Marunouchi (from $500) – both best in class and very close to the trains. From here, the shops and world-class restaurants of Marunouchi, the Imperial Palace grounds, the classic chic of Ginza and the famous Tsukiji Fish Market are all within walking distance.

More info: Check out Tripadvisor's guide to Tokyo.

 

 

Chicago-O'Hare (ORD)

Short (1-4 hours): Snag samples at Vosges Chocolate (Terminals 1, 3, 5), sip Goose Island beers at the bar – and eat Rick Bayless' special brand of Mexican street food, too – at Tortas Frontera (Terminals 1, 3, 5). For wine in a civilized setting, Beaudevin (Terminal 10 and Bubbles Wine Bar (Terminal 3) do the trick nicely, while beer lovers should hit the Berghoff Café a famed local spot with a solid draft menu.

Long (4 hours or more): If you need to grab some serious down time, you're in luck – walk across the street (from Terminals 1-3) to the Hilton Athletic Club, which offers day passes for $20, featuring access to their full fitness center, pool, sauna, Jacuzzi and relaxation area. Reward yourself for a workout well done with a tub of deliciousness from Garrett Popcorn (Terminals 1 or 3).

Very long (overnight): Check into the Hilton O'Hare (from $199, walk from Terminals 1-3), then ride the CTA Blue Line ($2.25, 25 min) to Logan Square, have dinner across street at Telegraph Wine Bar or Longman and Eagle. A few stops more brings you to Wicker Park (hop off at Damen), a walkable and lively neighborhood with some great hangouts, like Big Star, a cool bar and taco joint in an old gas station one block south.

More info: Check out Airfare Watchdog's ORD insider guide.

 

Los Angeles (LAX)

Short (1-4 hours): Dig the retro vibe at the iconic Encounter bar and restaurant, located a short walk from all terminals – they serve straight through from 11-9, every day. The new international terminal is a great place to get stuck – try food that LA locals love at 800 Degrees, ink.sack and Umami Burger.

Long (4 hours or more): With the terminals less than four miles from the nearest beach, there's no excuse to not grab a cab and go. If you have time for just one, make it Venice Beach, obviously ($25, 15 min). Start at the pier and walk up the famed boardwalk; snag an outdoor table at Venice Ale House.

Very long (overnight): Forget airport hotels. Take a mini-vacation. Hop a cab ($25, 10-15 min) to Manhattan Beach and check into the charming Shade Hotel (from $279). Walk to the pier, check out the beach path and eat at restaurants that draw diners from all over Los Angeles, like Fishing with Dynamite, M.B. Post, and Little Sister.

More info: Check out Airfare Watchdog's LAX insider guide.

 

Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG)

Short (1-4 hours): Hop into the massage chairs (or, if they've room, on a table) for a full work-up at the Be Relax Spa (multiple locations). Then move on to either Laduree for macarons (Terminal 1, 2A, E, F), luxe grocer Hediard (Terminal 2F) for their famous fruit jelly candies or La Maison du Chocolat (2E, F) for, well, you know.

Long (4 hours or more): The CDGVAL light rail system (free) connects all terminals to the RER B train ($13, 35 min. to Paris Nord). An hour after clearing customs, you can be climbing up Montmartre. Also touristy, but tastier: Catch the Roissybus from the terminals to Opera ($14, 50 min) and work your way through the food hall (Men's Store, Level 1) at Galeries Lafayette.

Very long (overnight): Frequent TGV trains link the airport to Disneyland Paris (from $23, 12 min) – hop off at the Marne le Vallee-Chessy station for the short walk to both park gates, Disney Village and the park hotels. To be close to your next flight, the Sheraton Paris Airport is located right above the train station, back at Terminal 2 (from $260). Note: They also offer day rates.

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Paris.

 

Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW)

Short (1-4 hours): Bliss out in the yoga studio (Gate D40), stroll the sculpture garden (outside Terminal D) or unwind with other in-the-know travelers at M Lounge, the all-day spot at the Grand Hyatt hotel (above Terminal D). For a memorable meal, dine like Texans do at Cajun seafood legend Pappadeaux (Terminal A), or its Southwestern cousin, Pappasito's Cantina (Terminal A).

Long (4 hours or more): The cities are far and cabs are pricey; better to hang closer to the airport. Get yourself an Express Massage (25 minutes, $85) at the world-class spa inside the resort-like Four Seasons Las Colinas, just 15 minutes from the airport via cab ($20). Once booked in, you've got unlimited access to steam, sauna, whirlpool and a spa guest-only pool.

Very long (overnight): Rent a car and head for Fort Worth, an historic city known for architecture old (The Stockyards) and new (Tadao Ando's serene Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth). Of course, Dallas is no slouch – come here with an appetite: From succulent brisket at Pecan Lodge in the lively Farmers Market to the Dr. Pepper Braised Short Ribs at Fearing's, nobody goes hungry.

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Dallas

 

Jakarta (CGK)

Short (1-4 hours): Fuel up at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf or Starbucks (Terminal 2) and take a walk around, stop for traditional souvenirs at Batik Keris (Terminal 2) along the way. If you're in Terminal 1, grab a bite at the excellent Food Cetera food court, a hawker center-style affair featuring cuisine from all over Asia. Need a lounge? Pura Indah will fit the bill nicely ($32, Terminal 2).

Long (4 hours or more): Even if you've got a half-day to spare, leaving the airport area is unwise. Traffic and road conditions are simply too unpredictable. Instead, play a round of golf ($60 for non-members) at the terminal-adjacent Cengakareng Golf Club, or do the spa thing at the pleasant and very affordable FM7 Resort, located at the airport entrance and accessible via hourly shuttles.

Very long (overnight): Jakarta's a gold mine of great hotels at good prices. The Mandarin Oriental, considered the best in town by many, has rates that can be sky high, until they're not – say, for example, $180/night. Check in, then arrange for a car to take you on a personalized tour to spots like Old Town for the popular night market and cocktails at Café Batavia, a legendary colonial relic.

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Jakarta.

 

Dubai (DXB)

Short (1-4 hours): Grab a day room at the Dubai International Hotel ($43, 1 hr, $128, 4 hrs, Terminals 1&3) for a shower, a nap and a trip to the pool, gym, steam, sauna and Jacuzzi. (The hotel also sells very affordable passes to the fitness facility as well – pool access is included.) Refuel at Pulp Juice Bar (T3) and go people watching in the terminal, or book into one of the Marhaba lounges ($45, multiple locations) for some more chill time in the company of free wireless, food and other perks.

Long (4 hours or more): With town ten minutes from the terminal stations of the Dubai Metro (fares from $0.50), getting out is a must. Hop off at the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, which has its own Metro station. Ride up to the 124th floor for the At The Top Observation deck (from $32, reservations recommended). Downstairs, you'll find the world's largest choreographed fountains and gigantic Dubai Mall, boasting Bloomingdale's, Galeries Lafayette, and Marks & Spencer department stores.

Very long (overnight): With more time, still do the Burj Khalifa / Dubai Mall thing, but then ride the Metro back to Al Fahidi for a self-guided tour of the historic Bastakiya Quarter, a charming pocket in a sea of stark modernity. Restaurants in Dubai are legendary – book in at the overwater Pierchic, an seafood spot at the Madinat Jumeirah hotel. (They have a $50 prix-fixe lunch, too.) Of course, you could do worse than a meal at one of the iconic Burj al Arab hotel's many restaurants – they may be expensive, but it sure beats paying to sleep over.

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Dubai.

 

Frankfurt (FRA)

Short (1-4 hours): See the planes go by – and get your fill of fresh air at the Visitors' Terrace at Terminal 2 ($6.75), play the slots at the airport's own casino (Terminal 1) or have a proper modern German meal – and do some proper German drinking -- at deutsch (Terminal 1). Massage-wise, you want the Be Relax spas (multiple locations); get your hair did at Trondle (Terminal 1).

Long (4 hours or more): Depending on the time of year you visit, tours of both the airport and out into town are available and can include everything from a visit to the airport fire department to a river cruise and a stop at the city's popular Christmas market (learn more at frankfurt-airport.com).

Very long (overnight): Explore the Main River with Primus Cruises (they'll take you up towards the Rhine as well, where you can see castles), then hit the bricks and explore the city center's mix of old and new architecture. Get tickets to whatever's on at the Alte Oper, then spend the night at the very cool Arte-Hotel Robert Mayer (from $79).

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Frankfurt.

 

 

Hong Kong (HKG)

Short (1-4 hours): Watch a movie on the world's only in-airport IMAX theater (Terminal 2), play a round on the on-site Nine Eagles Golf Course (from $45, 9 holes) and taste incredible soup dumplings at Tan Xia (T2). Or, take a shower, a nap or just hang out with food and free wireless at the swank, 24-hr Plaza Premium lounges (from $50, multiple locations).

Long (4 hours or more): A cab's about $15, the trip 15 minutes and a park ticket – which you can buy at the airport – is $58. Why not head to Disneyland? No? Fine – the Airport Express train can have you on Hong Kong Island in no time at all ($23 RT, 24 minutes). From here, you're steps from the Star Ferry docks – take a cheap harbor cruise ($0.25) to Tsim Sha Tsui and back.

Very long (overnight): Take the Airport Express to Kowloon and overnight at the best-value Hotel Icon (gorgeous harbor-view rooms from $249) or continue on to Hong Kong Island and bunk at the stylish new Hotel Indigo. Take the tram to Victoria Peak, grab some dim sum, ride the Star Ferry.

Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Hong Kong.

 

Denver (DEN)

Short (1-4 hours): Self-guide your way through the artwork and sculpture that's part of the Art at DIA program, or buy your way into the branded airline lounges – the usual steep fees apply. Or, save your money for beer – Front Range microbrewery New Belgium reps it on Concourses A and B. Fat Tire, anyone?

Long (4 hours or more): The almost-airport-adjacent Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge – a former chemical weapons production site that's now home to bison, white-tailed deer, bald eagles and prairie dogs – is a terrific place to kill some time; ideally, rent a car and drive the wildlife viewing route, but you can also cab it (approx. $45, 20 min) to the visitor's center, at the beginning of the refuge's rather vast trail network.

Very long (overnight):  If daylight is on your side and weather conditions permit, rent a car for the drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park. Otherwise, get a cab to Boulder. Once there, you'll be able to walk to everything, from beers at Avery Brewing to fine dining at Frasca to coffee at Boxcar to a brisk hike up to the iconic Flatirons on the Chautauqua Trail. Stay at the historic Boulderado (from $229) or the quaint Foot of the Mountain Motel, located (of course!) at the foot of the mountain (from $65).

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Denver.

 

Bangkok (BKK)

Short (1-4 hours): It's hidden away on Level 1 near the taxi ranks, but the Magic Food Point food court is home to some of the airport's best food – think authentic Thai dishes for a buck or two. On Concourse F, Bangkok's beloved Mister Donut has a cheerful outlet. Eat up, then retire to Louis' Tavern CIP Lounge, with six locations in the terminal. The lounge ($32) and day rooms ($77, 4 hours) are both pleasant places to wait out your wait.

Long (4 hours or more): With the LINK train connecting city and airport in 15 minutes for $5, you're almost obligated. At Makkasan and Phaya Thai stations, you're directly linked to local transit (MRT, BTS), which take you to, say, Silom, or the piers on the Chao Phraya. First, though, two essentials: Get a Thai massage – Divana, with three BTS-convenient locations, is a great bet – then eat lots of Thai food. (Pro tip: Here, they just call it food.)

Very long (overnight): Sample Thailand's legendary service without breaking the bank at the luxurious, Lumpini Park and BTS station-adjacent Sukhothai (from $197), or check into the smaller but equally beautiful Ariyasom Villa (from $156), a gem of a boutique property just around the corner from the BTS Phloen Chit station. Both make a great base of operations for a city highlights tour, whether you go it alone or have the hotel make arrangements. 

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Bangkok.

 

Singapore Changi (SIN)

Short (1-4 hours): How unlike other airports is Changi? Well, there's a pool, for starters, and $11 gets you in – Jacuzzi, showers, the works (Terminal 1). There are free rest zones with reclining loungers throughout the airport. A butterfly garden (Terminal 3). Multiple free movie theaters.   There's great food, too, everywhere (Prima Taste is a great intro to Singapore's intriguing cuisine, T3).

Long (4 hours or more): Changi and Singapore Airlines offer the Free Singapore Tours, which leave Terminals 2 & 3 throughout the day and last two hours. You'll need to register at least one hour before the next departure. For a more hands-on adventure, grab a cab to nearby Changi Village, a laidback spot on the water with a popular hawker centre that's at its best around dinner ($15, 5-10 min). 

Very long (overnight): The network of unique conservatories that comprise the city's new Gardens by the Bay is beyond worth the $22 entry fee; the collection of plant life from around the world is nothing short of stunning, as is the presentation. Ride the MRT to Bayfront Station ($2.20, 40 min). Stay over at the Marina Bay Sands urban resort next door, renowned for its rooftop infinity pool, shopping center, casino and world-class dining (from $380).

More info: Check out our list of reasons to love Singapore.

 

New York-JFK (JFK)

Short (1-4 hours): Your experience at JFK varies widely depending on the terminal. There's little reason to travel between them, however, seeing as most everything is behind security. Short answer: Hang tight. If you're at Terminal 8, head to Vino Volo (two locations) and start sampling wines by the glass; Terminal 4, get in line at Shake Shack for some of New York's best burgers. Terminal 5 is among the best places to wait out a wait, featuring a wide array of solid, non-chain restaurants like La Vie, a postage stamp-sized bistro and Deep Blue Sushi, which reels in pescophiles.

Long (4 hours or more): Manhattan and back can be done in four hours – it's a risk, but it can be done. You won't see much, though. Opt instead for a mini-adventure to Rockaway Beach, on the mend after taking a beating and a half in 2012's Hurricane Sandy. Home to the city's only legal surfing beach and a terrific spot for a walk at any time of year, you can be here fairly quickly, thanks to the fast, free AirTrain connection to Howard Beach and the A Train, which you take just two stops to Beach 90th Street ($2.75, 20 min, transfer at Broad Channel off-peak.)

Very long (overnight): Heard the one about Brooklyn? It's all true. Take the AirTrain ($5) to the Howard Beach station of the A Train; ride ($2.50, 30 min) to Hoyt-Schermerhorn, which puts you within a block or so of the nifty Nu Hotel (from $189), on the edge of the brownstone-fabulous Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, and Brooklyn Heights neighborhoods. Stroll down Court Street and end up at Prime Meats for one of the city's best dinners; also make sure to walk down to the waterfront, where the fast-developing Brooklyn Bridge Park is a striking example of adaptive re-use.

More info: Check out Airfare Watchdog's JFK insider guide.

 

San Francisco (SFO)

Short (1-4 hours): Go for chinese food at Fung Lum or Harbor Village, sushi at Ebisu, or burgers at Lori's Diner, all in the food court (pre-security) at the International Terminal. Walk it off with a tour of the airport's public art collection, alongside an array of fascinating rotating exhibitions, all curated by the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Long (4 hours or more): BART trains serve the airport (International Terminal); go for a ride to Embarcadero ($5.15, 30 min.) and crawl your way through the Ferry Building, a working terminal and one of the best public market halls in the country. For a more cutting-edge crawl, hop off the BART at 24th Street for new wave Jewish deli food at Wise & Sons and some of the country's most interesting ice creams at Humphry Slocombe.

Very long (overnight): Besides eating, take a sunset ride on one of the commuter ferries to Sausalito or Tiburon and back; overnight at the smart Hotel Vitale (from $256), just across the street from the ferries. If you want to be near the airport in the morning, the charming Inn at Oyster Point faces a marina, is linked directly to a waterfront trail and offers rates from $129 and a free shuttle for the 10 minute ride back to your terminal.

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to San Francisco.

 

Las Vegas (LAS)

Short (1-4 hours): Tour the exhibits at the Cannon Aviation Museum (Baggage Claim, Terminal 1), then kick back with a beverage at one of the in-terminal video poker machines. (Don’t expect to win much, but hey, beats losing at slots.) Want some more personal space? Buy a pass for The Club at LAS ($35, Terminals 1 & 3). Two words: Free drinks.

Long (4 hours or more): Take a taxi to Bellagio ($16, 10 min), still one of the Strip's most appealing resorts. Check out the Conservatory, the iconic Dale Chihuly lobby installation, watch the fountains dance. After, hop the free monorail to Aria for cocktails at civilized Sage or great pies at the new Five50 Pizza Bar.

Very long (overnight): Cab it ($16, 10 min) over to the Cosmopolitan (from $180) and book a Terrace Studio or higher, kick back and enjoy the view of the Bellagio fountains or City Center (there are no bad views here, only good ones and better ones) from your private balcony. Have one of the city's best pizzas delivered from the in-house "secret" pizza joint and eat it in your tub.

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Las Vegas.

 

Charlotte (CLT)

Short (1-4 hours): Free wireless, outlets and rocking chairs in the Atrium area of the terminal – where all concourses converge – are the ultimate free chill-out spot; also here is a giant US Airways Club, which you can book in advance for $29 or $50 on the spot. Or, take that money and spend it on wine (North Carolina only) at Yadkin Valley Wine Bar, or BBQ at Brookwood Farms.

Long (4 hours or more): The US National Whitewater Center is a short cab ride ($26, 20 min) away, $5 gets you parking and free access to 20 miles of trails along the Catawba River and a ringside seat to all kinds of action. Prefer the indoors? Taxi over  ($26, 15 min) to TEN Park Lanes, a fab bowling alley serving good drinks gourmet southern eats all day, everyday.

Very long (overnight): Uptown is a $25 flat fee cab ride from the airport. Nosh your way through the growing 7th Street Public Market, open every day, check out the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art or the central campus of the Mint Museum, a temple to craft and design. For dinner, hit Dandelion Market, a dark pub that's actually a cool American tapas bar. Overnight at the great-value Hyatt House (from $101).

More info: Read AirfareWatchdog's list of 10 reasons we love CLT.

 

Phoenix (PHX)

Short (1-4 hours): Terminal 4 is good food central, packed with great local names like La Grande Orange and Barrio Cafe (D gates), Cartel Coffee (C gates), Modern Burger (A gates) and, for those stuck in other terminals, the pre-security Chelsea's Kitchen, a Phoenix favorite. (Try the short rib tacos.) Need to chill? This is a US Airways hub, so their club (A gates) is a decent bet. Book online for $29 or buy a pass for $50 at the front desk.

Long (4 hours or more): Ride the SkyTrain from T4 (shuttle bus serves T2 & T3 for now) to the 44th Street stop (Free, 5 min). Transfer to the Metro Rail ($2, 20 min), visit the Phoenix Art Museum (McDowell Road) & Heard Museum (Encanto Ave.). Hungry? It's only a couple more stops (Campbell Ave.) to the city's best sandwiches at Pane Bianco, then kick back in civilized surroundings at Lux Coffeebar next door.

Very long (overnight): Check into the scene-y Hotel Palomar (from $249), part of a new downtown entertainment complex not far from the airport. Cab it ($25, 10 min) or take Metro Rail ($2, 15 min, exit the train at Washington/Central.) Stay close with dinner at Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails, the hotel restaurant – locals love it too – or take a short walk to Nobuo at Teeter House, a lively izakaya from a James Beard Award winner.

More info: Check out TripAdvisor's guide to Phoenix.

High Museum, Forbidden City, Italian Garden, Tsukiji Fish Market, Chicago O'Hare, Venice Beach,
Galeries Lafayette, Ft Worth Stockyards, Jakarta Old Town, Burj Khalifa, Alte Oper, Kowloon, Rocky Mountain Arsenal, tuk tuk, Singapore Gardens, Brooklyn Heights, Ferry Building, Bellagio fountains, Phoenix skyline images via Shutterstock

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Hotel Hopping in Hong Kong

Posted by George Hobica on Monday, November 18, 2013

By George Hobica

Hong Kong has some of the best hotels in the world. The two Shangri-La properties, the Four Seasons, the Mandarin Oriental—all are among the finest anywhere when it comes to room quality, amenities and service. Recently, I spent a week staying in a wide range of the city's hotels (this was my third visit over a 20 year period) and like many of you I started my selections using TripAdvisor. I was here for a family function and "vacation" (as if a travel writer ever really takes one of those).

So here are my impressions, with TripAdvisor rankings and what my stays cost in U.S. dollars. Since I've stayed in hundreds of hotels in my 25-year career as a travel writer, my comments are naturally filtered through that experience, and yours may differ. By the way, on previous visits I've always stayed in Kowloon. This time, I chose all but one of the hotels (ironically, the only one that I'd stay in on my next visit) on Hong Kong Island.


The Holiday Inn Express, Causeway Bay

Nightly rate: $168

TripAdvisor rank: 130 (out of 548)


This was the cheapest of the lot. One of three Holiday Inn Expresses in the city, the 282-room Causeway Bay is the best located, although I'd recommend the newer, much better and less expensive Soho location (TripAdvisor rank 56), which I toured but didn't stay in. Indeed, the Causeway Bay property is all about location, in the heart of the popular Times Square area, near shopping and steps from the subway. A tiny room, no drawers to stash clothes you'll be living out of your suitcases. Free wifi, but sluggish at times. A great location to be sure, but the rooms were tired. There's no fitness room, however an adequate set breakfast is included in rates. Definitely a case of getting what you pay for.

                                                           


Hotel Indigo

Nightly rate: $260

TripAdvisor rank: 17


Just opened six months ago, this stylish (some say the decor is "quirky" but in a good way) boutique property on Hong Kong Island, for $100 more per night than the Holiday Inn, had a lot going for it. The rooms are a decent size, the king-size bed was comfortable. Excellent lighting, including enough light to read in bed (a rarity these days) and enough plugs for electronics by the desk and ergonomic chair with a task light, but the slow wifi was a pain. A small but serviceable gym, and a sleek roof-top pool and bar. But what is up with the trend with frosted-glass-enclosed bathrooms and toilets, something I've seen on a few cruise ships lately as well? My room had a great shower, but the sink was in the room itself and I really prefer a solid wood door rather than a thin pane of glass. Only one glitch during my stay, but potentially a serious one: I was expecting an important call from the U.S. to my room, but the front desk/operator never picked up (the incoming call just rang and rang because it was check-out time and they were busy, but a poor service experience can ruin a trip). The location is great, just a short walk to the subway. All in all, I'd say this was the second best value of the five hotels I bunked in, but service could improve.

The Mercer Hotel

Nightly rate: $459

TripAdvisor rank: 37


My two-night stay here was a disappointment and way overpriced for what it offered. It's in an older white-brick building and most of the rooms are "suites"—but that’s an abuse of the term. My room on the top floor was no larger than the one at the Indigo, but was divided by a large glass window with a shade. Again, the bathroom/toilet was behind a glass door (not even frosted!) with a pull down shade that got in the way when I opened the door. Absolutely ridiculous, even if you're staying by yourself. I had trouble getting the finicky wifi to work (turns out it doesn't recognize Firefox, but I had to go down to the front desk to find that out). Typical poor bedside reading lights. The reception was hardly what I'd call friendly and professional. True, there's a free mini bar with some Cokes and a couple of beers and a "kitchen" with a sink and microwave, but it's barely useful. A terrible value all around.

The Icon

Nightly rate: $232 (non-refundable advance purchase rate)

TripAdvisor rank: 3


My new favorite hotel in Hong Kong. Huge gym (probably the best in the city). Free minibar. Large rooms, even the cheapest ones, 80 percent with those iconic views of the harbor and the island. Ultra-fast free wifi. Excellent lights for bedtime reading (one of my pet peeves about hotels is that too many think people don’t read in bed anymore). Six (!) pillow options, unheard of in a hotel at this price range. (I travel with my own super-soft down pillow, but staying at the Icon that's not necessary since they've got me covered). Solid wooden doors in the excellent bathrooms (hello Mercer and Indigo!). Arrivals/departures lounge to hang out in between check in/out and flights. Herman Miller task chairs and adjustable desk lamp. Two notable restaurants worth checking out even if you don't stay here (The open-kitchen Market has the best buffet in the city). The only downside, for some, is that it's in Kowloon ($10 cab ride to the island, and a bit of walk to the subway). But if this hotel were on the island it would cost twice as much.


The Upper House

Nightly rate: $745

TripAdvisor rank: 1


And then there's The Upper House. At over $700 a night, I wasn't about to spend more than a night here, but I didn't really need to linger in order to get the idea. Tripadvisor rates this as the No. 1 hotel in Hong Kong for good reason. Some reviewers say it's the best urban hotel in the world; I wouldn't argue with that. I've stayed in Four Seasons all around the world, but this is of an even higher pedigree. From the moment you approach the front door to the moment you leave (perhaps, as in my case, in a complimentary chauffeured car to my next hotel), it's a peerless experience. It's not just the quality of the sleek decor and rooms (huge, with amazing views and stunning bathrooms), all of which are on high floors; but the service and the atmosphere. When we approached the building, we were immediately pounced upon by a stylishly-dressed young man who seemed to be have been waiting just for this moment; inside we were greeted by an equally stylish young woman who we'd see throughout our brief stay (we later learned that she was Kristina Snaith, "Assistant Director of Guest Experience", a title I’d never come across. Her role seemed more akin to the lady of the house at a luxurious villa than a hotel employee). Anyway, it was, as others on TripAdvisor have noted, like staying in a private home rather than a mere hotel, and it made a marked contrast to the perfunctory reception I received at the Mercer.

What I learned

This was the first time that I'd stayed in so many hotels in such a short time period (some "vacation," right?), and the first that I made all of my selections based on TripAdvisor reviews. And one thing I will say: there was probably no need to read the reviews at all, so closely did the mere rankings correspond to my own experience. Next time I'll just choose from among the top 20 and I’ll be all set.

Note: All prices are what I paid per night including tax and service, refundable rates (except where noted) on Tingo.com in early late October 2013 for stays early to mid November 2013. Rates will vary subject to availability.

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

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