Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Trip Report: EVA Airways flight 31 New York JFK to Taipei in Royal Laurel Business Class

(also includes EVA Air 30 Taipei to New York, the return flight. Both are Boeing 777s)

  • Krug
  • full pajamas
  • espresso (and staff who are willing to make it)
  • Rimowa amenity kits
  • dual jetways for calm boarding
  • access to Lufthansa Senator lounge in New York
  • two large lounges in taipei with full hot buffets, showers, and toto washlets
  • friendly and attentive staff
  • wi-fi
  • as of Nov 2017, you can use Global Entry to enter Taiwan at TPE

  • very long flight — over 15 hours

  • they keep the cabin very warm
  • no gaspers (personal air vents)
  • XL pajamas are still too small
  • lands at 5am in Taipei, first train to the city is at 6:12


How I did it

160,000 United Miles (topped off with a Chase Sapphire transfer) per person, round trip. Details are here. While the trip was mostly Japan, we really wanted to spend more time in Taipei so this worked out well. Our flights from Taiwan to and from Japan we just paid for with cash.



While i still get sad every time i think about missing our Hello Kitty jet last year due to an equipment swap, the experience on board their non-kitty 777 was so good we were eager to fly them again. Because they don’t have first class on board, they don’t have any reason to “hold back” on amenities to differentiate First from Business.

This is definitely the best Business Class I’ve ever experienced. The only thing that comes close is Korean Air’s 747-8 upstairs and that’s largely due to the intimate feeling of the small upstairs cabin and their Apex suite seats. EVA's staff are friendly, efficient, and helpful.

Both flights are timed quite well for minimizing jet lag, the New York-bound one especially so – its first meal service ends around 10pm New York time so you can easily to sleep on-board when you’d be sleeping in New York, then have breakfast at 7am just prior to landing in NYC. The Taipei-bound flight leaves at 1:40am. Our anti-jetlag fasting schedule for that flight is here.


Boarding and Lounge

Departing JFK, you use Lufthansa's Senator Lounge. It's decent. Departing Taipei, you have your choice of two lounges, both are top-notch. Both have full buffets with multiple hot offerings, full bars, showers, TOTO Washlets, fast Wi-fi.

When it's time to board, the jetway uses both doors so you have a lot more privacy and space during the pre-departure time.

in New York, you have access to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge

JFK Lufthansa Senator Lounge

JFK Lufthansa Senator Lounge

JFK Lufthansa Senator Lounge

JFK Lufthansa Senator Lounge

JFK Lufthansa Senator Lounge

JFK Lufthansa Senator Lounge

JFK Lufthansa Senator Lounge

Dual jetway boarding


The flight was very similar to our Houston – Taipei flight last year – everything was generally perfect from start to finish. I managed to sleep 9 hours, so with the two meal services I actually didn't have much downtime at all despite this being such a long flight.

A couple of things:
  • They do bring out warm bread, so wait for that before trying to eat the cold goose liver terrine (cold terrine is nasty – I'm saying that loudly while looking at you, Korean Airlines). 
  • Their blanket is so thick and comfortable but they keep the cabin really warm so it's unusable
  • The front lav on the left side has a pull-down bench to help change into your pajamas
  • I'm 185cm and 100kg (6'1, 220 pounds) and the pajama top definitely didn't fit me. The bottoms were fine, though. I knew this would be the case from our previous flight, so I brought my own pajama top in my carry-on. Given how hot it is, you'll want to change into something you can sweat in.
  • Given the timing of the flights, it's probably best to avoid the snack menu (aka "Leisure Delights") and just eat the two scheduled meal services if you want to help avoid jet lag
  • The Taipei airport has both coin lockers and a baggage storage service in the main terminal, so it's easy to hop onto the MRT train into the city for some quick Fuhang soy milk, some Niu Ro Man soup, Din Tai Fung, or a Hujiao Bing and back to the airport to continue on to other destinations.

Reverse herringbone seating

Thick, heavy pillow and headphones
Seat controls
Rimowa amenity kit and pre-departure champagne

Business Class bathrooms have fresh orchids
...and lemongrass-scented products plus a stash of extra toothbrushes and towelettes.


Meal Service

Service starts with an amuse bouche (ex-JFK)
Service starts with an amuse bouche (ex-Taipei)

Followed by a cold plate (ex-JFK)
Followed by a cold plate (ex-Taipei)
Beet soup (ex-Taipei). I love borscht and I hated this soup. Bland.

Chinese Main dish (ex-JFK) Sesame chicken
Chinese main dish (ex-Taipei) Kung Pao chicken

Fruit and chocolate almond truffle cake (ex-JFK)
Fruit and cheese cart (ex-Taipei)
Fruit and cheese cart (ex-Taipei)
Chinese Breakfast: Congee with all the trimmings (ex-Taipei)

Royal Laurel Breakfast (ex-JFK) Shao Bing with beef and egg
Breakfast fruit (both flights)

After the meal service, the cabin is dimmed with this starry night look...



Menu (click to enlarge)

Food, ex-JFK
Food, ex-JFK
Food, ex-Taipei

Food, ex-Taipei

rest are beverages

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Japanese Suica Card + new iPhones = Japan Points Galore!

I've been debating getting an iPhone 8 before our next Japan trip, but was sorta on the fence. On one hand, I'd like to wait for the X, but on the other hand, I'd love to play with the 8's support for an AppleWallet version of the Japanese Suica card. (for the iPhone 7, only models sold in Japan supported Suica; with the 8, all iPhones worldwide do).

Since Suica transit payment card was launched over a decade ago, it's become the standard payment method for nearly all vending machines in the country, and many businesses have added support for their customers to pay at the register with it. Further, any shop within a train station has to accept Suica for payment, and huge numbers of stores in Japan are located within train stations.

all iPhone 8 models support mobile Suica

Add money instantly with your Apple Pay credit cards!

So aside from my train nerdery, why does this matter? Because with this new system, visitors can reload their mobile Suica with any ApplePay credit card. (In the past, visitors could only use cash).

Ergo, this means that every subway trip, vending machine beverage, and purchase from a convenience store now codes as travel on my Chase Sapphire Reserve, and that means:

3 points on anything I buy with my Suica

Furthermore, with this Chase ApplePay promotion, my first $1500 in Suica spending will yield 4 points per dollar (Not sure if I'll come anywhere near that, so effectively all of my spending will be at 4x!)

4x points!

Another exciting thing about this new feature is that I can instantly top up my card when it's getting low. I don't have to go find a machine, make sure I have enough cash, wait in line (gotta LOVE the first of the month in Tokyo when every single machine in the city has a massive queue), reload my card, and then get back on my way.


So how do you do it?

In short: lay your phone on top of your Suica and it will "ingest" your card to your Apple Wallet. The plastic card is deactivated in the process. That ¥500 you paid when you first bought your Suica is kindly refunded onto your mobile Suica as part of the ingest process.

The iPhone 8 can ingest Suica card to the Apple Wallet

There are some great step-by-step guides out there already, so I'll just link you to them rather than re-invent that wheel here. One quick tip from me before you begin: if your Japanese is a little rusty, remember that Google Translate works on screen captures.



Change.  One of my first thoughts was, "Wait, but Suica is how I used to get rid of all my coins! No more feeding 3 dozen coins into the machine to top my card off and lighten my wallet?!" According to this blog, there are now smart-phone savvy Suica machines where you can use cash to top-up a mobile Suica, but from the looks of the pictures and the video, there aren't any coin slots on them. I guess I'll have to report back if mobile Suica means I end up with fewer coins and/or if there are coin-accepting top off machines.

New phone/Reinstalls. Since your physical card is now dead, be careful when you do anything that resets your Apple Wallet (i.e., new phone, full reinstall). Make sure you set iTunes to make encrypted backups, so your Suica can be restored by an iTunes sync. Also, make sure you go back and set your phone's region to Japan before you do any upgrades or restores so the Apple Wallet can actually "see" the mobile Suica.

This is Suica ONLY. Official document say that other regions' IC cards (e.g., Kitaca, ICOCA) won't work.

No refilling your card at night. Suica's web payment system goes down for maintenance every night, just like the trains. You have to wait until 4 a.m. to reload with ApplePay. (This is more of a concern when you're in a different time zone topping off before you begin your journey).


Other useful links

Friday, October 20, 2017

fasting to fight jetlag on our upcoming trip

I've written before about the science behind timed fasting to help your body adjust to a new timezone. We've done this on every long-haul flight since we learned about it, and our own "anecdata" is that it helps significantly.

We're heading to Tokyo soon (via Taipei, which is one hour behind Japan), so we'll start eating our meals by the Tokyo clock while we're still here at home in New York. Research suggests doing this helps your body adjust to the new timezone much quicker. In practice, this often means a 10+ hour stretch of daytime fasting. While that's annoying, it's absolutely worth it to me if it means not wasting two days in Tokyo to grogginess and sleepless nights.

Our flight leaves New York at 1:30am on Tuesday and arrives at 5:15am on Wednesday, so here's the plan:
  • Monday 9am NYC (10pm Tokyo)
    Eat big breakfast first when we wake up in NYC (aka eat "late dinner" Tokyo)

    Then fast for 9 hours

  • Monday 6pm NYC (7am Tokyo)
    Eat early dinner in NYC (aka "breakfast" in Tokyo)
  • Monday 11pm NYC (Noon Tokyo)
    Eat a midnight snack in NYC (aka "Lunch" in Tokyo)
  • Tuesday 4am NYC (5pm Tokyo)
    Eat first meal service aboard the plane (aka "early Dinner" in Tokyo)
    Then sleep on the plane as long as we can.

    Theoretically we should stay up five more hours until TYO bedtime, but that won't leave us enough time to get a full night's sleep before we land.
  • Wednesday, 6am Tokyo Time (aka 5pm NYC) If possible, eat breakfast after getting off the plane (i.e., 13 hour fast)
    Try to stay up until at least 10pm Tokyo time.
I also plan on using melatonin the first few nights to help with the changeover. If you're a melatonin fan, make sure you bring it with you since it's not legal over the counter in many places, including Japan.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

What, if any, Japan Rail Pass should I get?

It's quite common for visitors to Japan to buy a Japan Rail Pass before they go. It can save you money if your trip is involves lots of rail travel. I've purchased a pass for two of our previous trips, but decided not to on this coming one.

While JR is the biggest railway conglomerate in Japan, there are many private railways that compete with/compliment JR. The Japan Rail Pass works only on JR trains; for lines run by other companies, you'll have to buy a normal ticket like everyone else. The Rail Pass is also valid for travel on JR's urban railways like Tokyo's Yamanote line (you have to use a staffed entrance and show your pass), but not on the subways.

The typical sales pitch of the pass is, "It costs less than one round trip between Tokyo and Osaka". For an Economy Class, 7-Day pass, this is true. But if it's a longer pass, or you spring for the Green Car Business Class pass, the math isn't so simple.

Here's a few thoughts before you try to "do the math" on whether or not a pass is worth it.


1. People often buy more rail pass than they need

Tourists often want to use their pass on the Narita Express from the airport into Tokyo, so they activate their pass when they land and then spend 3 days seeing the sights in Tokyo and not using the pass much. But if you avoid that trap, you can activate the pass when you're ready to do long-haul travel and "waste" fewer days.

Narita Airport actually has two competing express trains: JR's Narita Express (a.k.a. N'ex) and Keisei Skyliner. Their platforms and ticket counters are right next to each other in Terminal 1. The Skyliner is actually faster than N'ex (41 minutes to Ueno vs N'ex's 61 minutes to Tokyo Station), plus it has more frequent service in the evenings.

(FYI one Japanse yen is worth slightly less than a US penny, so generally just divide ¥ prices by 100)

You can buy a discount Skyliner ticket online (link) before you go to Japan (¥2200 one way, ¥4300 round-trip). You have to take your receipt code and your passport to the counter and they hand you your actual ticket. One other nice add-on Keisei offers is a Tokyo-wide Subway pass: for ¥600 extra, you get a 24 Hour pass good anywhere on the Tokyo Metro and Toei private lines. ¥1000 will get you a 48 hour pass, and ¥1300 will get you a 72 hour pass. While these passes won't work on the Yamanote, Chuo, and other popular urban JR lines, there's almost always a reasonable subway alternative to these.

So for $48 you've got your ride to AND from the airport paid for, as well as 3 full days of unlimited subway rides around Tokyo for sightseeing. This should give you some flexibility in thinking about getting a Pass.
(Yes, I know there are cheaper options from the airport. But given that even a frugal vacation easily costs $15 per waking hour once you total up the airfare, lodging, food and incidentals, it seems ridiculous to waste 2 hours of precious vacation time to save a couple bucks.)

Keisei Skyliner
not intimidating in the least!

2. I sure wish they had the "ride 5 days within one month" option like Eurail Pass

But if they had that, I wouldn't be here blogging about this! Japan Rail Passes are available in 7, 14, and 21-day denominations. All are available in Economy or Green Class (i.e., Business Class). Now that you've thought about your airport transportation options, you might be able to structure your trip so you can buy a shorter pass.

A bit of math:
  • Economy class 21 day pass is $521 (i.e.,  $24 per day). A 14 day pass is $407 ($29/day), 7 days is $253 ($36/day). 
  • In Green class those numbers are $34, $39, and $48/day.
  • FYI, Gran Class, a true First Class experience on newer lines, is not available to pass users, and there is no means to "upgrade" to it from the seat your pass gets you


3. If you're only going to be traveling in one region, consider a regional pass. 

You can also buy much cheaper regional passes that might suit your needs more than a Japan-wide pass. Some options are here.


4. The normal fare isn't that expensive

Yes, the bullet trains (aka Shinkansen) are fast. So fast that most Americans don't quite grasp that the 2 hour and 30 minute trip from Tokyo to Osaka covers the same distance as Los Angeles to Phoenix (or for an East Coast example, New York to Portland, Maine). Considering what your options to get from LA to Phoenix would cost and how long they'd take, the $126 Shinkansen fare feels pretty, uh, fair, no?

You can use the Hyperdia website (which has options for searching with and without a rail pass) to look at exact times and prices for specific trips



5. Sometimes, you should just fly

I love trains. A lot. And I love the Shinkansen more than any other train in the world. But once you've sailed past Mt. Fuji at 300 kph while eating a self-heating bento box and drinking a nice Otokoyama cup sake, you've checked off most of the "Bullet Train Experience" from the bucket list; spending 8 hours on a train, even in Green or Grand Class, gets boring.

Intra-Japan flights can be quite cheap if you fly on a Low Cost Carrier (LCC) like Peach or Vanilla, with a few caveats:
  • There's no First Class on LCCs
  • Even if you fly a national carrier like ANA and book First, there's no priority line at security
  • Airplanes have abysmal on-time performance compared to the Shinkansen
  • Remember to factor the cost of getting to/from the airport into your pricing comparison
  • Remember to tack on two+ hours of time for getting to/from the airport to any fly vs. train time comparison.
I had to go from Fukuoka to Sapporo, a distance of 2338 kilometers (think San Diego to Vancouver, BC) and yes, it's an engineering feat that the Japanese rail system can make that trip in 13 hours. But I'd rather fly and be there in 5-ish hours door-to-door.


6. You can't sit with us!

Unfortunately Japan Rail Pass holders are barred from riding the fastest bullet trains (e.g., Nozomi, Mizuho). For example, on the Tokyo – Osaka run, the Nozomi is about 25 minutes faster than the Pass-friendly train. For long-distance trips, using the pass can add hours to your journey. This is especially important if you're using Google Maps to track train times, it assumes you're riding Nozomi.

If I'm on a fast train, I care a lot less about comfort. Only when the trip crests 3 hours do I start wishing I had the comforts of the Green car. So yes, for many trips, I'd say Economy on Nozomi is better than Green car on the slower Hikari.

Remember that the Japan Rail pass is only available to foreigners, so if you have (or make) any Japanese friends you'd like to travel with, I can promise you they'll silently roll their eyes when you tell them they have to take the slow train.
I mean, fellow New Yorkers, try to imagine your friend is visiting and wants you to go with them somewhere in the city but their tourist MTA card won't let them on any express subway trains? Or for you non-New Yorkers, imagine a visiting friend rented a car for their trip that wasn't allowed use the freeway, just surface streets. No big deal for a short trip, but for a long one, you'd roll your eyes loudly and you know it.  
Beyond the speed, riding Nozomi/Mizuho trains have a few other perks. Because so many visitors to Japan get the pass, the Nozomi/Mizuho trains have a lot fewer foreign tourists (i.e., Shinkansen novices) and are therefore less chaotic than the others. Also, since so many Japanese people use the Ta-Q-Bin courier service to move their bags when they travel, the Nozomi is refreshingly devoid of European backpackers trying in vain to shove a 60 kilo backpack into the overhead rack.

So who is on the train with you? Well, your train mates are likely to be a bunch of salarymen on their way back from a business trip. They're obnoxiously entertaining in their own way until they pass out from their 4th Sapporo tallboy.


7. Fewer lines to stand in

Seat reservations are free with a pass, but you still have to go to stand in line at a JR office and do it in person. When you purchase a ticket, you can skip the line and do everything from a machine. I should point out here that I highly recommend bringing several cards with you to the machine – we found that in some machines, ONLY our Barclays-issued cards (e.g., our JetBlue and Arrival+ cards) would work because in kiosks they can operate in Chip+PIN mode.
Note: that's just my own "anecdata" on the topic of cards in kiosks. I don't really care if your Chase FartyPoints™ card "worked just fine" this one time back in 2011 in an old Keihan Railways machine in Kyoto. I'm just saying if you've EVER traveled abroad with a credit card, you know all about the "card roulette" you have to do now and then, so bring a few to choose from if you're going to try and use a JR train ticketing machine. And if you have a Barclays card, don't leave it in your sock drawer back in the US. 

These yellow ones at least warn you!

Card roulette anyone?

TIP: When reserving a seat with your rail pass, filling this form out while you wait can speed things up


In conclusion…

Well you're probably more confused now than you were before you started reading, but, hey, there's nothing more Japanese than being completely OCD about planning out your travel, so think of it as "getting into the local mindset" 😁 But seriously, think through your trip a bit before just blindly buying a pass that covers the entire duration of your visit – there might be faster and cheaper options if you plan a little bit.


Other useful links