The Basics of Airline Alliances

There are three main airline alliances in the world: Star Alliance, SkyTeam, and oneworld. Why are airline alliances important? Most practically, they’re useful for 1) earning miles; 2) redeeming miles; and 3) offering reciprocal benefits.

1) Earning Miles
Essentially all airlines have their own frequent flyer programs, but miles are usually only worth something if you surpass certain minimum thresholds in a single program. For example, it’s not worthwhile to have 5k miles across 5 different programs (unless you like magazines), but 25k miles in 1 program can usually get you a free flight. How do you deal with this if you fly lots of different airlines?

This is where airline alliances come in. If I fly on British Airways, I don’t have to credit my miles to British Airways Avios–I can instead credit my miles to American Airlines since both are oneworld partners. This means that I can focus on earning miles in one specific program, which makes it easier to reach the minimum thresholds necessary for good redemptions. This also applies to earning miles for status and not just redemption. So your flights within an alliance can all be credited to one airline to help you reach that next tier of airline status on a single airline.

Note that airlines often have airline partners outside their alliances. One notable case of this is Alaska Airlines. Alaska Airlines isn’t a member of any of the three major alliances, but you can often think of them as a oneworld airline since they partner with so many of the oneworld airlines. For example, you can credit Alaska flights to American Airlines and vice versa.

One thing that often takes people by surprise is that mileage earning isn’t consistent across partners. In the past, you earned miles on the legacy US carriers based on miles flown (this has now changed to be based on dollars spent on the major three). For most airline partners, you generally earn a percentage of the miles flown based on your fare class, and many of the cheapest fare classes offer only 25% (or even 0%) miles. So oftentimes it’s worth checking how many miles you’d earn if you credited a flight to a certain partner based on your fare class, but this is getting into a more advanced topic for another post.

2) Redeeming Miles
Want to go to Bangkok but only have American miles? While American Airlines doesn’t serve Bangkok as a destination, their partners do, so you can still redeem American Airlines miles on their partner airlines to get to Bangkok (in this case, your likely options would be Cathay Pacific through Hong Kong or Japan Airlines through Tokyo).

This is probably the best part of airline alliances. If you could only redeem your miles on that airline (which is true of some programs!), then you’d be severely limited on where your miles could take you. But thanks to airline alliances, your miles can take you anywhere the alliance flies (which is essentially any major destination for the three largest alliances).

Again, one thing to keep in mind is that airlines often have partners outside of their alliance. For example, Hawaiian Airlines isn’t a member of any of the major alliances, but they partner with American and United, so you can redeem your American or United miles on certain Hawaiian flights.

3) Reciprocal Benefits
Airline alliance members also generally offer reciprocal benefits to frequent flyers who have status on a partner airline. These benefits are things like dedicated check-in lines, priority boarding, free checked bags, and lounge access.

Lounge access is a favorite of mine and is particularly relevant for international itineraries. For oneworld airlines, if you have oneworld Emerald status (the highest frequent flyer status across oneworld airlines), then you have access to any oneworld First Class lounge on international itineraries. This gets you access to awesome lounges like the Cathay Pacific First Class Pier lounge in Hong Kong or the Qantas First Class lounge in Sydney, even if you’re flying on an economy class ticket.

Note that each airline has different qualification criteria for their own levels of elite status, and those different levels correspond to different levels of alliance elite status. And each alliance has different benefits for different levels of alliance elite status (e.g. Star Alliance Gold, the highest level of status in Star Alliance, doesn’t offer First Class lounge access).

This is just a primer on why airline alliances are practically important for travelers, but if you fly relatively frequently, especially internationally, then it might be worthwhile to concentrate your flying within one specific alliance to reap some of these benefits.

Here are the three main alliances and their members:

Star Alliance: Adria, Aegean, Air Canada, Air China, Air India, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana, Austrian, Avianca, Brussels, Copa, Croatia Airlines, EgyptAir, Ethiopian, EVA, LOT, Lufthansa, SAS, Shenzhen, Singapore, South African, Swiss, TAP Portugal, Thai, Turkish, and United

SkyTeam: Aeroflot, Aerolineas Argentinas, Aeromexico, Air Europa, Air France, Alitalia, China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern, Czech, Delta, Garuda Indonesia, Kenya, KLM, Korean, Middle East, Saudia, TAROM, Vietnam, and Xiamen

oneworld: Air Berlin, American, British, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, JAL, LATAM, Malaysia, Qantas, Qatar, Royal Jordanian, Sri Lankan, and S7

Lounge Review: Cathay Pacific Lounge Bangkok Airport (BKK) Renovated

Cathay Pacific renovated their lounge at BKK recently, and I have to say that this new lounge is a MASSIVE improvement over their old lounge. Their old lounge was tiny and crowded and had bad food options, and this renovated lounge is just so much better. It’s very similar in decor and feeling to their renovated Pier lounge at HKG, and I was such a fan of that lounge that it’s no surprise that I loved this lounge as well.

The Cathay lounge is located near the G gates, and the entrance is relatively understated.

Entrance to the lounge

Entrance to the lounge

The lounge is quite long with a variety of seating areas, a cafe-type area, and a noodle bar. To the right is where most of the lounge seating is located. There are a variety of seating options and configurations, and all of the furniture is quite comfortable and functional. There are also outlets everywhere (they’re located in the desks if you don’t see other ones), which is such a great thing to have in a lounge.

Seating area

Seating area

More seating with loungers overlooking the apron

More seating with loungers overlooking the apron

Looking down the lounge

Looking down the lounge

Computer stations

Computer stations

More seating, including the semi-private green chairs

More seating, including the semi-private green chairs

I enjoyed sitting in the loungers which face the windows so you can do some airplane spotting, as well as the semi-private green chairs which are great for getting work done.

Apron views

Apron views

The right-hand side also includes a full-service bar. I’m not a big alcohol drinker, so it’s great that Cathay offers a couple of non-alcoholic cocktails, including their signature Cathay Delight! So tasty.

Full bar

Full bar

Bar menu

Bar menu

Right in front of the entrance to the lounge (so in the middle of it lengthwise) is a cafe-type area with some standing tables, some bar seating, and a variety of lighter foods on offer. There are salads (lettuce, papaya, bean, and fruit), some snacks (mashed potatoes and some sort of macaroni), fresh fruit (including rambutan!), yogurt, sandwiches, cookies, and desserts (creme caramel and pandan cake). I love that they have rambutan on offer (even though I don’t actually like rambutan that much), as I just think it’s so great when lounges can offer local, seasonal fruits rather than just the same old melon selection. The creme caramel and pandan cake were also delicious, although I have a major sweet tooth.

Cafe food area

Cafe food area

Salads

Salads

Fresh fruit and small snacks

Fresh fruit and small snacks

Desserts, yogurt, drinks

Desserts, yogurt, drinks

Sandwiches and cookies

Sandwiches and cookies

Finally, at the other end of the lounge (or the area to the left as you enter) is the noodle bar. The noodle bar has tons of seating with both booths of varying sizes as well as some communal tables. They have the typical dan dan mien that you expect from Cathay Pacific, but they also have pad thai on the menu as well as some dim sum. I also LOVE the fact that they have a separate vegetarian menu.

Noodle bar seating

Noodle bar seating

Communal tables and booths

Communal tables and booths

Noodle bar

Noodle bar

Noodle bar menu

Noodle bar menu

I sampled the veggie pad thai, the sago dumplings, and the mushroom noodle soup. The veggie pad thai unfortunately tasted ketchup-y and lacked the wok hei (wok breath) that makes pad thai so great, but at least they had the full selection of pad thai accompaniments (peanuts, limes, sugar, chili flakes, vinegar with chilis, etc.) so you can adjust the flavoring. The sago dumplings were absolutely delicious, though, and the mushroom noodle soup was decent as well. The portions are on the smaller side, so don’t feel shy about ordering multiple portions! I saw a table of two guys put down about 10 dishes between the two of them.

Veggie pad thai and sago dumplings

Veggie pad thai and sago dumplings

I must sound like a total Cathay Pacific fanboy given how much I’ve raved about their renovated Pier lounges at HKG (both the business class and first class lounges), but I just think Cathay Pacific has done such a good job with their rebranding and lounge redesigns. This lounge is no different. I love the design, and the lounges just feel so cozy and have such solid amenities. If I have any criticisms, the wifi is a bit slow, the lounge can get a bit crowded, and the cushions in the booths have this weird thing where they’re not attached in the backs so if you sit forward too far the cushion comes up. But this is an awesome, awesome lounge, and one of my favorite non-hub airline lounges that I’ve visited.

Lounge Review: Oman Air Lounge Bangkok Airport (BKK)

I accessed the Oman Air lounge at Bangkok airport (BKK) via Priority Pass. This lounge is located in the E concourse, so it’s convenient for oneworld flights (which all depart from the E, F, or G gates).

Directions to all of the lounges once you pass security and immigration

Directions to all of the lounges once you pass security and immigration

Entrance to the Oman Air lounge

Entrance to the Oman Air lounge

Upon entering, I was immediately impressed by the decor of lounge. A lot of Priority Pass-accessible lounges can be a bit sad-looking, but this was nice and bright. The lounge has an appealing blue and gold color scheme, and there a variety of interesting decorations.

It’s not a huge lounge, but there’s a lot of seating packed in. To the right is a room full of seating with comfortable couches and chairs. To the back of this room are two recliners, and you can draw a curtain for some privacy.

Main seating area to the right

Main seating area to the right

One of the recliners with some privacy

One of the recliners with some privacy

Fruit display

Fruit display

The other room has more seating as well as the rest of the lounge’s amenities. The drink options were extensive, featuring Arabic coffee and dates as well as lots of different liquors and wines (including champagne). The fridge below had your usual assortment of sodas, beers, and water, but there was also Milo!

More seating and computers

More seating and computers

Coffee (including Arabic coffee)

Coffee (including Arabic coffee)

Dates

Dates

Alcohol selection

Alcohol selection

Refrigerated beverages

Refrigerated beverages

The food options are slightly less impressive, but still pretty decent for a Priority Pass-accessible lounge. There was dried fruit, mixed nuts, ingredients to make a salad, pickles and olives, canapes, sandwiches, breads, fruits, cupcakes, and a variety of hot foods. The hot food options when I visited included biryani, samosas, chicken puffs, chicken kebabs, and penne. The food that I sampled (a samosa, some fruit, and a cupcake) were all fine.

Canapes

Canapes

Breads and fruit

Breads and fruit

Hot food items

Hot food items

Wifi in the lounge was decently fast (3.79 Mbps down; 1.95 Mbps up), and there were some outlets available. There’s also a work table available with outlets, as well as a shower room that looked clean.

Work table

Work table

Shower room

Shower room

Please don't wash your feet in the bathroom sink

Please don’t wash your feet in the bathroom sink

If you’re using Priority Pass at BKK, I think that the Oman Air lounge is a better option than the Louis Tavern lounges, although not superior enough to make the trek to the E gates if your flight is leaving out of an A gate, for example. It was a super comfortable place to sit, it wasn’t very crowded, the wifi was fast, and the basics are all provided. Overall, quite a good Priority Pass-accessible lounge.

Flight Review: Japan Airlines (JAL) First Class CGK to NRT Boeing 777-300ER

This was my second flight on Japan Airlines first class. You can read a review of my first flight in JAL first here.

I was welcomed warmly on board. I’ve heard other people criticize JAL for having flight attendants who don’t have a great command of English, but English proficiency was high across the board for this crew. Four of the eight first class seats were occupied on this flight, and there were two other Asian people who don’t speak Japanese on this flight (or at least they preferred to converse with the flight attendants in English instead of Japanese).

I really like the first class cabin on JAL. I think it’s classy (except for the carpet), and the hard product is great. The seat is super wide and comfortable, the screen for the in-flight entertainment is large, and there’s lots of storage space for the seat (your bag can go underneath the foot rest/ottoman, and there are a number of side compartments for storage of smaller items like a laptop or glasses case). It’s also easy to look out the windows (unlike, say, the ANA First Square product).

JAL First Class seat 2K

JAL First Class seat 2K

Looking forward into 1K

Looking forward into 1K

IFE screen and foot area

IFE screen and foot area

IFE, seat controls, and side storage

IFE, seat controls, and side storage

More storage and power outlet

More storage and power outlet

Privacy divider up

Privacy divider up

There was an amenity kit waiting for me at my seat. This was different from the one that I had received on my prior flight flying from NRT to LAX, and I asked the flight attendant if the kits had recently changed. She told me that they hadn’t, and it turns out that JAL has different amenity kits for inbound vs outbound flights. I was also offered pajamas, a pre-departure beverage, a blanket, a menu, and a small set of Shiseido amenities for men.

Inbound first class male amenity kit

Inbound first class male amenity kit

Menu

Menu

Menu

Menu

Drink menu

Drink menu

Drink menu

Drink menu

Drink menu

Drink menu

Drink menu

Drink menu

Drink menu

Drink menu

I don’t really understand why they build airplanes without personal air vents. The cabin got super warm during taxiing and takeoff, but they corrected the cabin temperature and kept it much cooler for this flight than my previous JAL flight. I went to sleep immediately after takeoff on this flight, and I was able to sleep much better on this flight because the cabin was cooler.

I find the JAL bed to be quite comfortable. The seat is wide, so the sleeping space doesn’t feel constricted, and they have a thick mattress pad on top (you can choose between the “hard” side and the “soft” side for the mattress pad, although I’m not sure how much difference there is between the two functionally).

Made bed

Made bed

The crew on this flight was amazing. They were extremely attentive and friendly, and there was great attention to detail. For example, they would rearrange your slippers for you when you’re sleeping so that when you wake up, you can slip them on more easily. They also unwrapped the pajamas in front of you, and they were meticulous about the amount of time the tea was steeped for. I almost felt bad for sleeping through so much of the service because this crew was so great!

The flight from CGK to NRT is blocked for about 7.5 hours, which really isn’t that long for a red-eye flight, especially if you want to eat anything. I asked a flight attendant to wake me up 1.5 hours prior to landing so I could try out some of the food. For my meal service, I started off with the caviar. The caviar presentation is maybe not as elaborate as on other carriers, but it was quite tasty, and the spoon was actually made of mother of pearl and wasn’t just shiny plastic. JAL takes their food very seriously.

Caviar service

Caviar service

Up next I had the fruit plate. Although I’m not a huge fan of dragonfruit, it was surprisingly decent.

Fruit plate

Fruit plate

For my main course, I had the pancakes. They weren’t quite like American pancakes, and they were a tad dry, but they were delicious when eaten with the cream sauce they were served with.

Pancakes

Pancakes

As accompaniments, there was a marinated vegetable salad, yogurt, bread, and green tea jelly. Perhaps not the traditional assortment of Western breakfast accompaniments, but I enjoyed the green tea jelly.

Gelatin dessert

Marinated vegetables, green tea jelly dessert, yogurt

Soon after finishing my meal, we began the descent into NRT. The flight was scheduled to land at 6:35am, and we landed a bit early. One thing to keep in mind is that the JAL lounges at Narita airport don’t open until 7:30am! I found it super strange that they have flights that arrive about an hour before the lounge even opens (e.g. most carriers will make sure that their lounges stay open through the last departure, so you’d think that the lounges would open for the first arrival).

Saying goodbye to plane

Saying goodbye to plane at NRT

Overall, this was a great (if short) flight. The service on this segment was incredible, the food was solid, and the hard product is great. Definitely a great way to fly within Asia!

Lounge Review: Pura Indah Lounge Jakarta Airport (CGK)

It took me about an hour to get to the airport from the Grand Hyatt by taxi. I was flying JAL out of CGK, and at check-in, I was told that JAL uses the Pura Indah lounge.

Entrance to the lounge

Entrance to the lounge

There were a lot of different lounges at the airport, including a Citibank lounge. I didn’t realize that Citibank has its own lounges, but I also remembered seeing tons of Citibank advertising and deals at Plaza Indonesia, the mall connected to the Grand Hyatt. It seemed that many of the lounges in the international area of the terminal I was in (Terminal 2D) were accessible via Priority Pass, including this lounge that JAL (and many other airlines) uses.

The lounge has separate first and business class sections, but first class is just a room that’s less crowded. There was tons of seating and not that many people using the first class side.

Lounge seating

Lounge seating

Japanese newspapers for JAL passengers

Japanese newspapers for JAL passengers

In terms of food, there were a number of sweet options like cakes, pastries, fried bananas, and desserts wrapped in banana leaf, but savory options were limited to some chicken curry puffs, penne with eggplant, and soups. I thought the fried bananas were pretty tasty, but I’m a fat kid at heart and a sucker for most fried and/or sweet things.

The food options overall looked a little sad. It’s still a better food selection that you’d get at many US domestic lounges (although that seems to be changing), but because there weren’t that many passengers on the first class side, the food turnover was slow. So it was a bit unclear how long some of the food had been sitting there.

Drinks and refrigerated foods

Drinks and refrigerated foods

Sandwiches

Sandwiches

Pastries

Pastries

Soups

Soups

Fried bananas and banana leafs

Fried bananas and banana leaf desserts

More hot food

Hot savory food (chicken curry puff and eggplant penne)

The wifi in the lounge was quite slow, and there weren’t enough power outlets in the lounge, so it’s not a great place to sit and do work. There is a shower in the bathroom that looked reasonably clean, but I didn’t see any towels, so you might have to ask for those. But it didn’t seem like the shower got a ton of use.

Shower

Shower

Overall, this lounge is disappointing for a lounge at the airport of a major Asian city, but it’s better than waiting in the terminal. It’s also nice that it’s accessible via Priority Pass.

Hotel Review: Grand Hyatt Jakarta

For my relatively brief stay in Jakarta, I decided to redeem points for the Grand Hyatt Jakarta. Since it was a category 3 Hyatt property, it cost 12,000 points per night. Chain hotels in Jakarta are ridiculously pricey given how inexpensive other things in Jakarta are, as rates were over $300 USD per night, so I felt like I got a good redemption value by using points.

To get to the Hyatt, I took a Bluebird taxi from the airport. Everyone I talked to told me to only take Bluebird (or Silverbird) taxis, and you can tell that it’s the queue for the Bluebird taxis because there will actually be people waiting for those taxis. Don’t trust the people hanging around the Bluebird line unless they have a Bluebird shirt, as there are lots of touts trying to get you to take other taxis.

The taxi to the Grand Hyatt was 155k IDR, which included the toll and airport surcharge. Upon driving up to the hotel, there was a security check for the car (I believe they were using a mirror to look underneath the car), and there’s a baggage and metal detector for all people to enter the hotel.

The lobby of the hotel is quite nice and impressive. The service at the check-in counter was extremely friendly, and I was offered free breakfast, even though I wasn’t strictly entitled to that via status.

Lobby

Lobby

The room that I received was enormous. Not a suite, but a huge room that seemed well though out. There were plenty of outlets by the bed, the outlets were universal, the TV was on a swivel stand, and the furnishings were nice. I felt that it was a pretty nice Category 3 hotel (and it was a huge steal before when it was still a Cat 2!).

Bed

Bed

Furniture

Furniture

Minibar

Minibar

The bathroom was also a nice size. It didn’t have a Japanese toilet, but there was a bidet function.

Bathroom

Bathroom

Shower

Shower

The room also featured a nice view of the adjacent monument, which was also where there was a car-free walking street on the Sunday that I was there.

View from my room

View from my room

Other amenities available

Other amenities available

I didn’t use the gym during my stay, but it was a sizable space with a fair amount of equipment. One thing that I always appreciate about a gym is when there are free barbells and not just a Smith machine.

Gym

Gym

Gym

Gym

Gym

Gym

Gym

Gym

I had breakfast at the club lounge one day that I was there. The breakfast at the club was not as mobbed as I would have thought, and it featured pastries, juices, dairy beverages (including soy milk), whole fruit (including salak or snakeskin fruit), Asian breakfast foods like fried rice and noodles, congee, made-to-order eggs, breads, cheeses, and salads. It was a decent spread, but nothing special by Asian luxury hotel standards.

Club

Club

Lounge breakfast

Lounge breakfast

Refrigerated items

Refrigerated items

Cold cuts and yogurts

Cold cuts and yogurts

Breakfast

Breakfast

Breakfast

Hot items for breakfast

I had breakfast in the normal restaurant on another day, and the restaurant featured a more extensive buffet. I tried to take pictures, but I was told to stop because taking pictures of the food was apparently a security hazard for the hotel :/

One notable incident about my stay was that there was actually a fire at the hotel. The lobby was filled with smoke, the hotel was evacuated, and we weren’t allowed back into the hotel for several hours. Apparently there was a fire in one of the restaurant kitchens.

This hotel is connected to the Plaza Indonesia mall, which is a nice luxury mall. There’s an entrance to the mall within the lobby, which is convenient when it’s hot out. There’s also the Keraton at the Plaza hotel connected on the other side of the mall, which is a Category 5 SPG property.

Overall, I thought that this was a pretty decent Category 3 Hyatt hotel. Service at the hotel was good, my room was spacious and nicely furnished, and the hotel offers pretty decent amenities. Given how expensive cash rates can sometimes be, a points redemption can be a worthwhile option to consider.

Flight Review: Lion Air Economy Class B737 SIN to CGK

To get from Singapore to Jakarta, I flew Lion Air, which is an Indonesian low-cost carrier. Traveling around Southeast Asia can be super affordable thanks to all of these low-cost carriers (e.g. AirAsia, Jetstar), although you often have to be cognizant of fees.

It’s a little misleading for me to title the post “Lion Air Economy Class”, since Lion Air only has economy class on most of its planes. You can pay for extras like priority boarding or exit row seats, but most of the planes are all just one class. That being said, when I checked in, I was proactively offered an exit row seat, even though I hadn’t paid for one. Not sure what I did to merit that, but I certainly wasn’t complaining. (I also didn’t have to present my credit card that I used to purchase the flight, even though I was warned that I would have to).

Singapore’s Changi airport does security at the gate, and my gate area was shared with a beautiful Singapore Airlines A380. I longingly reminisced about my flights in Singapore Suites, but I instead was going to be boarding a Lion Air Boeing 737-900ER.

Unfortunately not my ride for the day :(

Unfortunately not my ride for the day :(

My main impressions of the flight were how empty everything was. There wasn’t a line at gate security, and the flight was maybe only 1/3 full. The plane itself was very no frills with no amenities to speak of. There’s no in-flight entertainment, no overhead screens, and no power outlets.

Lion Air B737 cabin

Lion Air B737 cabin

The pitch is pretty darn tight for the normal seats (SeatGuru says 29 inches), but it’s bearable for relatively short flights within the region. Then again, I’m only 5’9″, so taller people might feel differently!

Tight pitch!

Tight pitch!

As stated before, I was seated in the exit row, and a flight attendant came over to do an exit row briefing. I’ve sat in the exit row many, many times in my life, but I still try to pay attention during these briefings. This time, however, the flight attendant did the briefing in Bahasa, which I guess makes sense, but I didn’t understand a word.

Extra room in the exit row

Extra room in the exit row

On these flights, there are no complimentary snacks or drinks (unlike, say, on Bangkok Airways), but they have a variety of snacks and drinks available for purchase.

One aspect of this flight that I particularly enjoyed was the following sign in the bathroom. Just goes to show how unintuitive so many things are! We just think they’re “intuitive” because we’ve been well conditioned, but there are so many things we take for granted.

Don't squat on the toilet seat

Don’t squat on the toilet seat

We landed at a remote stand in Jakarta, which wasn’t super pleasant because the buses to take us to the terminal weren’t air conditioned. Once we got dropped off at the terminal, though, it was pretty confusing because there weren’t adequate signs or directions to go to immigration.

One last noteworthy part of this segment of the trip was that there were people at baggage claim who were checking people’s bag tags. Like once you retrieved your bag from the carousel, you had to produce your corresponding bag tag and show it to someone before you left the baggage claim area. Just something to keep in mind if you’re flying into CGK.

Overall, I happily fly low-cost carriers like Lion Air when the price is right. Yes, it’s no frills and the seats are tight, but those things don’t matter as much for short flights. It also helps that you can still get lounge access via things like Priority Pass to make the travel experience a bit more enjoyable.

Practical Money Advice and Tips When Traveling in a Foreign Country

Some practical advice and tips around money when traveling abroad:

Tip #1: Wait until you get to the country before getting any local currency. You generally shouldn’t exchange money at home before you leave for your trip because your home bank will almost certainly offer a worse exchange rate than what you’d get if you had waited until you got to your destination.

Tip #2: Get your local currency from ATMs. Unless for some reason you need lots of local currency in cash and can’t withdraw that much from the ATM due to daily limits (e.g. you need to pre-pay an apartment rental in cash upon arrival or something), you should just withdraw money from an ATM to get local currency. Your bank will generally give you the prevailing exchange rate for the day, while currency exchange counters take a fee (even if they advertise as no fee, their fee is taken through giving you a worse exchange rate). Caveat #1: Most places most people will go will have ATMs; not all places do. But if you’re going to one of those places, you probably don’t need any of my advice.

Tip #3: Use a bank that doesn’t charge you any fees to withdraw money abroad (and ideally one that refunds all ATM fees). One popular choice is Charles Schwab (which is currently offering a $100 incentive for new members). Tip #2 doesn’t make sense if your bank charges you $5 per withdrawal in addition to paying whatever ATM fee that’s charged. Getting ATM fees rebated is particularly helpful in places that charge exorbitant ATM fees (Siem Reap, I’m looking at you).

Tip #4: If for some reason you’re too lazy to use a bank that doesn’t charge fees for foreign withdrawals and rebate ATM fees, check if your bank partners with other banks to see if you can withdraw money fee-free. For example, Bank of America is part of a global ATM alliance with banks like Barclays and Scotiabank, so they don’t charge a $5 non-BofA ATM usage fee (although they still charge a foreign transaction fee of 3%). But really, you should use Charles Schwab.

Tip #5: Get a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. There are so many cards that offer this perk nowadays. I’m partial to Discover and Mastercard, as I feel like they have better exchange rates (based on a very limited sample size).

Tip #6: Get a debit card that has a chip. Almost all credit cards issued in the US nowadays should have a chip, but they’re almost all only enabled for chip and signature. This means that you sometimes can’t use these credit cards in automated machines that request a PIN (e.g. train ticket machines in Europe). But your debit card has a PIN, and if it also has a chip, then you can use it when you must have a chip and PIN card.

Tip #7: Never pay in your home currency aka always pay in the local currency aka decline dynamic currency conversion. When you pay for things by credit card in a foreign country, you’ll sometimes be offered the choice to pay in your home currency or the local currency. Always choose the local currency. If you do the math, you’ll see that the amount they’re charging in your home currency is based off a terrible exchange rate, and even if you choose to pay in your home currency, your credit card still might charge you a foreign transaction fee. I can’t think of any reason why you would want to pay in your home currency (so tell me if there is one! I’m genuinely curious).

Tip #8: To get rid of your local currency at the end of your trip, go to a place that accepts credit cards and say that you want to pay part in cash and the rest on credit. For example, if you need to settle a hotel bill or you have one last dinner, you can often pay part by cash and part by credit card. This lets you get rid of all of your leftover local currency–including coins!

Have any favorite tips or advice on dealing with money in a foreign country?

Flight Review: Emirates Airlines First Class A380 DXB to SIN (EK 354)

On my second Emirates first class flight on this trip from Dubai to Singapore, I was the only passenger in first class. This flight departed at around 3am, and we were delayed a bit due to congestion. Funny how 3am is a congested time at DXB! Only in the Middle East.

Boarding an A380 to Singapore

Boarding an A380 to Singapore

Based on the first interaction, I could immediately tell that Sarah, the flight attendant serving the first class cabin, was awesome. She was super bubbly and nice, and she was really attentive. I wanted to go to sleep immediately, so I almost felt bad that I wasn’t giving her anything to do.

I told her that I wanted lots of water, the cabin temperature lowered, and to be woken up 1 hour and 45 minutes prior to landing so I could take a shower and have a meal. She set up a bed in another suite and delivered my requested water.

Asked for lots of water

Asked for lots of water and that is what I received

I slept soundly for a couple of hours, and I didn’t overheat thanks to the lowered cabin temperature. I was woken up exactly 1 hour and 45 minutes prior to departure. After waking up, I showered, which is such a great (if excessive) amenity. I felt super refreshed and was able to hit the ground running in Singapore thanks to my onboard shower.

Post-shower snack

Post-shower snack

For this flight, I had pre-ordered a vegetarian oriental special meal (VOML). Even though I was the only passenger and I had pre-ordered a special meal, Sarah told me that the entire menu was catered as well, so she guilted me into trying the vegetarian pad thai from the menu as well as my special meal.

Menu for this flight

Menu for this flight

Ready for my meal

Ready for my meal

It’s hard to see, but I enjoyed the pain au chocolat that was in the bread basket.

Breakfast bread basket

Bread basket

The vegetarian pad thai, on the other hand, was not very good. It just tasted salty and a little bit spicy, kinda like a bad chow mein. Not at all like what pad thai should taste like.

Veggie pad thai

Veggie pad thai

My VOML was actually pretty decent. It was vegetarian dim sum, although it looked a lot like meat to me. There were some stir-fried noodles, sticky rice in a banana leaf, and shu mai.

Vegetarian oriental meal (VOML)

Vegetarian oriental meal (VOML)

Finally, I had a fruit plate for dessert.

Fruit plate

Fruit plate

This crew was generally much more detail oriented than other Emirates crews I’ve had in the past. They did things like tidy up my seat while I was in the bathroom, which I’ve generally found to be more common on Asian carriers (e.g. Singapore, Cathay Pacific, ANA) than other ones. Easily the best Emirates crew I’ve had.

ICE IFE system

IFE system and a warm towel

First class seat

First class seat

Empty first class cabin

Empty first class cabin

Overall, this was a great flight. People sometimes criticize Middle Eastern carriers for having service that lacks personality and attention to detail, but Sarah on this flight was amazing, and she provided service that could rival the service I’ve received on any other airline. I just wish I were awake for more of the flight to experience more of the service!

Lounge Review: Emirates Business Class Lounge Dubai (DXB) Concourse A

On this trip, I also decided to check out the business class lounge at Dubai. The quick summary is that the business class lounge is like a slightly-less nice version of the first class lounge. It offers nearly identical amenities, but just a little less nice.

Entrance to the business class lounge

Entrance to the business class lounge

Spa next to the business class lounge

Spa next to the business class lounge

The layout of the business class lounge is very similar to the first class lounge, perhaps because they’re on top of each other. The lounge is also essentially mirrored on each side so you don’t have to walk across the entire lounge to find a shower, for example (although I wonder whether people naturally head left or right once they enter?)

Map of half of the business class lounge

Map of half of the business class lounge

Directions in the business class lounge

Directions in the business class lounge

Hallway

Hallway

The business center has cubicles in it, instead of being open air like the first class lounge. I imagine that the cubicles are helpful for some privacy since the business class lounge was considerably busier than the first class lounge.

Business center

Business center

Area next to the bar

Area next to the bar

The business class lounge buffet has slightly fewer food options than the first class lounge, but it’s still quite extensive, and many of the food choices are the same. There’s unfortunately no made-to-order menu, though.

Salads

Salads

Pastries and fruits

Pastries and fruits

Alcohol selection

Alcohol selection

Hot items at buffet

Hot items at buffet

Hot dogs?

Hot dogs?

There’s also a kids room in the business class lounge. One example of being slightly less nice is that the kids room in the business class lounge had a PS3 to play, while the kids room in the first class lounge had a PS4 (I didn’t even realize this was a thing, which shows you how behind the times I am).

Kids room

Kids room

Video games

Video games

More kids room

More kids room

There’s no dedicated relaxation room in the business class lounge, but there are reclining chairs scattered throughout the lounge with blankets on them.

Relaxation chairs

Relaxation chairs

One thing that I appreciated about the business class lounge were that there seemed to be lots of hidden seating areas. So you might be able to find a small, cozier section to have to yourself.

Seating areas

Seating areas

Business class lounge decor

Business class lounge decor

Gluten free pastries

Gluten free pastries

Semi-private relaxation chairs

Semi-private relaxation chairs

Lots of seating

Lots of seating

If you go to the far ends of the lounges, you can go downstairs to the “quiet lounge” areas where there are donuts. I don’t think that many people make it that far as the lounge attendant working in that area seemed quite surprised to see me there.

Another seating section

Another seating section

Coffee and ice cream

Coffee and ice cream

Other buffet items

Other buffet items

Such a large lounge

Such a large lounge

Overall, the business class lounge is just like a slightly less nice version of the first class lounge. The lounge offers all of the amenities you might expect from a business class lounge, and there’s plenty of space and seating, even though there are more passengers. If you’re looking for a quiet place, I’d say try going to the far ends of the lounge, since the lounge is so big that most people probably don’t explore the whole thing.