Getting the Tickets
I decided to take a short break over the Eid holidays and try to see some more of South Asia. While I have long wanted to visit both the Maldives and Sri Lanka, I selected the destination (over other options) primarily on price. I think I got a great deal on Business Class tickets from Qatar Airways for about $1100. The short leg on Emirates between the two was just $223 for First Class, a small premium over the Economy fare.
I actually had some difficulty buying the Qatar Airways ticket. I found the fare on kayak.com, but you have to start from scratch on qatarairways.com to book the ticket. For whatever reason, Male and Colombo are not available destinations to be booked from Islamabad online. The website assumes you only want to go to Europe, North America, Africa, or the Middle East and nowhere on the Indian subcontinent. Since very few booking engines will sell tickets originating in Pakistan (cheapoair.com is one, but they charge a lot for their bookings) I decided to go to the Qatar Airways ticket office in Islamabad. I don't think I've ever purchased a ticket at a ticket office, so it was (potentially) a new experience. Unfortunately, the ticket office could only put me on the waitlist for one of the legs and said to check back with them in 24 hours. I believe there was just one seat left in the D fare bucket for the DOH-MLE flight. After two days of waiting I still hadn't cleared and decided to try another option - a travel agent. That worked immediately, confirmed D fare the whole way. I quickly canceled my reservation with Qatar Airways so I wouldn't have a double booking and I was all set.
Islamabad to Male
I woke up at 3am on October 2 and was out the door by 3:30. I arrived at the recently renamed Benazir Bhutto International Airport around 25 minutes later and proceeded to the Qatar Airways check-in desks. The terminal was very quiet at that hour. The Emirates flight was departing soon so the only passengers checking in were for the flight to Doha. I joined the Business Class line, but it took over 20 minutes to get my boarding passes. There were several people ahead of me, two who discovered they only had reservations and not tickets for the flight, despite this being the return leg of the journey. I heard them say their outbound receipts were in the Marriott Hotel when it was bombed so they had little to show the staff. After waiting at least 15 minutes with no movement in the line I tried switching to one of the open Economy Class desks. The agent, seeing I was in Business Class, asked me to follow him back to first desk. I’m not sure what he planned to do exactly as there was an agent occupying the computer there, but he was going to have me cut everyone in the Business Class line. I took my passport and ticket back and rejoined the back of the line. Several minutes later he appeared with my boarding passes, however. Since I was checking no luggage, I was all set. I did lose my pre-assigned window seat, but I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle to try getting it back.
Qatar Airways check-in desks.
A very empty terminal at 4am.
After that I proceed through immigration and security, and then took the escalator up to the sad departure hall. I went to the “CIP” lounge with my invitation and it was probably even sadder than the public area of the terminal. The lounge has no windows and is therefore incredibly dark; there is no wireless internet. There was some water and sodas available along with a few cookies. The leather seats were comfortable, but the lounge seemed rather pointless. At about 4:50am, boarding was announced for our flight at the one and only gate and the lounge completely emptied. All the Economy passengers had already boarded, so once we were bussed to the plane, it wasn’t too long before we were on our way.
Entrance to the CIP lounge.
The rest of the terminal.
Qatar Airways 399 (ISB
Aircraft: A330-200 (3-class configuration)
Loads: First – 0%, Business – 78%, Economy – ~60%
Scheduled Departure: 5:30am
Scheduled Arrival: 6:15am
Duration: 3h 45m
Upon entering the aircraft, we were greeted by flight attendants and pointed in the direction of our seats. After being seated, water (still & sparkling), orange juice, and milk were offered. I chose water. Milk seemed like an odd choice. There must have been an aircraft swap as First Class is not normally sold on this route, I don't believe. It would also explain why I didn’t keep my pre-assigned seat of 2A.
After a long taxi down the runway followed by a U-turn, we took off at 5:36am. We initially headed west before making a left turn, heading southwest for the coast while avoiding Afghan and Iranian airspace. Once we crossed over the Arabian Sea with made an immediate right turn and headed directly for Doha, crossing the UAE. We landed a bit early at 5:58am local time and taxied to remote stand (which is all Doha has).
At the beginning of the flight, cabin crew offered a choice of hot or cold towels and took breakfast orders. The menu was in a leather folder in our seat back pockets and read as follows:
fresh orange juice
season fresh fruit
breakfast plate of graviax salmon, fine herb boursin, plum tomato salsa
tomato and egg frittata
asparagus spears, creamy field mushroom, masala chicken burger
paneer and mushroom bhaji, moong dal rasmissa
corn and spinach cutlet with methi parantha
premium tea selection, hot chocolate
coffee – also including decaffeinated, espresso and cappuccino
I skipped the starters and just had the frittata. I didn’t take any pictures of the food as I find it a bit strange. The frittata was fine, but nothing too exciting. The masala chicken burger, though small, was very tasty and well-spiced. I had two warm croissants with butter and jam that were also very good. I had black coffee that tasted excellent, but then again, there is very little good coffee in Islamabad so anything other than Nescafe would have been wonderful! I found the cabin crew to be very attentive and came around to top off drinks and check on passengers throughout the flight.
While eating breakfast I enjoyed an episode of 30 Rock on my personal TV
screen fixed to the seat in front of me. The screen was plenty large with good resolution. The sound quality was very good though the headphones were quite heavy.
After that I decided to put my seat in the fully flat position and try to catch up on some sleep. Though angled, I found the seat to be quite comfortable. The 2-2-2 seating was good and the seat pitch was certainly adequate. When my seat was in the cradle position, my knees touched the seat in front of me, but I have long legs and didn’t find it a problem. My only real complaint is the pillow, which is no larger than ones I’ve used in Economy.
I probably got nearly two hours of sleep, so I felt pretty decent by the time we arrived in Doha. Shortly before landing I used the bathroom and was disappointed to find that it was no different from ones in Economy – no extras like cologne or moisturizer. In fact, there wasn’t even soap in the dispenser! I also found it strange that one of the passengers was allowed to remain sleeping with his seat in the cradle position during landing. The flight attendants didn’t try to wake him to adjust his seat.
Since there was no one in First Class, Business Class departed the aircraft first and we were soon off in our bus to the Premium Terminal. We first stopped at the regular terminal for any Doha-terminating passengers, but unfortunately no announcement was made on the bus so most of the passengers mistakenly started to disembark. Only one was actually ending his journey in Doha. Eleven were connecting to the non-stop flight to Dulles and one to Heathrow with an onward connection to the U.S. And then there was me to Male. At least 13 of the 14 Business Class passengers were Americans, most of whom were embassy staff along with a couple journalists and me. Upon arrival at the Premium Terminal the Dulles-bound passengers had their passports and boarding passes collected.
The Business Class lounge.
Simple buffet available.
Skipping the ground floor duty free shop I headed up the escalator and proceeded to the Business Class Lounge. The place was busy, but by no means crowded; find a seat was very easy. Breakfast was being served, but I decided to make use of the free wireless and have some coffee. It was brought to me by one of the roving waiters. Maybe an hour later at about 7:30am boarding was called for my flight. I used the bathroom, took some pictures, and then boarded the bus downstairs. After another long trip around the runway we arrived at our plane, which has the new livery. This time I had my desired window seat and after some switching by some other passengers I ended up with the seat next to me open.
Relatively empty cabin while boarding was still underway.
Qatar Airways (DOH-MLE)
Aircraft: A330-200 (2-class configuration)
Loads: Business – 92%, Economy – ~90%
Scheduled Departure: 8:20am
Scheduled Arrival: 3:10pm
Duration: 4h 50m
A very sandy Doha during climb out.
We sat on the ground for quite a while before leaving the stand and then had a very long taxi, finally taking off at 8:40am. The cabin crew offered the same pre-departure drinks, which I passed on and also both hot and cold towels. This time, menus were distributed by the flight attendants, but I was disappointed to find they would again be serving breakfast! I would have preferred lunch, particularly in light of the 3pm arrival. I just decided to have some more croissants, the blueberry yogurt, and a cappuccino (or two). The full menu read as follows:
fresh orange juice
seasonal fresh fruit
choice of entrées
creamy mushroom omelette
with grilled beef steak
mediterranean ratatouille and potato gratin
smoked salmon scrambled eggs
accompanied with grilled tomato
sautéed mushrooms, tomato and sweet corn
and roesti potato
fresh toast, croissant, muffin
premium tea selection, hot chocolate
coffee – your choice of regular, decaffeinated, espresso, cappuccino
It would be nice if the AVOD was turned on prior to take-off given the long time sitting on the ground. The screens on this aircraft were even larger than the last one. The live TV
function worked while over the Arabian Peninsula so I caught up on the latest headlines with BBC World. (There was no signal over Pakistan or the Indian Ocean.) I opted to watch the classic Murder on the Orient Express with Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Ingrid Bergman, and a host of other great actors. I had read the novel but never seen the film before, which was excellent, though I didn’t particularly care for the portrayal of Hercule Poirot.
During the movie, the cabin crew distributed landing cards for the Maldives. In addition to alcohol, pork products, weapons, and pornography, false idols for worship also banned from importation. Leave your false idols at home, everyone! After the movie was over I put my seat into the fully flat position and took a nap until we began our descent into Male. The seat may have had less of an angle than the previous one and was also plenty comfortable. The heavy blanket was also nice though the pillow was still pitiful. Thankfully I was able to snag an extra from the empty seat next to me.
When the captain announced we would soon be landing in the Maldives, the window shades flew open and everyone started staring and the turquoise water below as we passed over many atolls and islands during our approach. We landed one minute late at 3:11pm and then backtracked down the runway to park in front of the terminal.
We're getting close!
A nice resort
And another. The Maldives is famous for it's over-water bungalows.
I believe this man-made island, by far the country's largest now, is called Hulehulemale.
The only other large aircraft on the ground was a Eurofly A330 recently arrived from Milan via Colombo. Thankfully all its passengers had cleared immigration already so there were no lines. The immigration officials are quite slow, however, so it still took several minutes until I was in the baggage hall. Having brought only carry-ons, I headed straight to customs, which for me only consisted of putting my luggage through an x-ray machine.
The ramp at Male.
The terminal building.
Preparing for departure back to Milan.
The beautiful bird I arrived on.
Once outside – literally, it was very humid – I proceeded to desk 51 for the transfer to my resort. Unfortunately, there were five others on my flight going to the same resort (all flying coach) so I had to wait a good 20 minutes for them to clear customs and immigration first. There is a café serving basic sandwiches with fries as well as a souvenir shop and post office in this area. Once the three Bulgarians, seemingly the last people from the flight, arrived we walked to our boat for the 15-minute trip to the Embudu Village Resort. I would definitely recommend the place to budget travelers, a rare breed in the Maldives! My “superior room” was $91 USD per night including full board. The room was basic with air conditioning, a desk, and a small fridge. I did not see a single TV
on the island, though there were satellite dishes so maybe the over-water bungalows had TVs. The resort is very laidback and has great access to diving and snorkeling sites. It has its own dive school with fairly normal rates. Internet access was very expensive at $4 for 15 minutes and drinks were not included in the “full board.” Large bottles of water were $2 and beers were $4 – not outrageous.
Check-in area for air taxis to far flung resorts.
Male to Colombo
I woke up at 5:30am, had breakfast at 6:00, and was on the boat to the airport at 6:30. This boat was much slower than the previous one and it took closer to 45 minutes to reach the airport. I bought a few souvenirs, some postcards, and stamps before heading to check in. There were just two airlines with flights at the time: Emirates to Dubai via Colombo and then later Dubai directly as well as SriLankan to Colombo. The First Class line at Emirates was slow as the couple in front of me appeared to be having some difficulty. Once I got my boarding pass and lounge invitation I headed upstairs and quickly proceeded through immigration.
Check-in desks for Emirates
After a brief look around the terminal I went to the Finifenmaa Lounge used by a carriers. The lounge is nice for an airport this size, if a bit dark. It certainly doesn't feel particularly Maldivian. There were a bunch of non-alcoholic beverages on offer and some pitiful breakfast snacks, which I skipped. Since my laptop battery was dead I used one of the several computers they have set up to check my e-mail. A short while later it was announced that the Emirates flight was boarding and much of the lounge emptied to join the throng of people outside. There was a long queue for security that stretched up the stairs with no special line for premium cabin passengers. Once through boarding was already well underway so I headed straight out onto the tarmac and walked to the waiting aircraft. We did have to cut across the passengers from the recently arrived SriLankan flight, however.
Recently arrived from Colombo
Another beautiful bird!
At the aircraft door I was greeted and escorted to my enormous seat. From then on, I was always addressed by name throughout the flight. First Class was very full with only the seat next to me vacant. (Actually, I put my computer bag on the seat and one of the flight attendants even buckled it in before landing in Colombo!) Water, juice, and milk were offered. I requested a glass of champagne but was told I would have to wait until after take off, so I chose some apple juice. I was the proverbial kid in a candy store and started to play with all of the seat's features - AVOD, massage, etc.
My mini-bar has already been raided!
Console controlling all the seat functions.
Emirates 558 (MLE-CMB)
Aircraft: B777-300 (3-class configuration)
Loads: First - 92%, Business - 75%+, Economy - ?
Scheduled Departure: 9:00am
Scheduled Arrival: 10:55am
Shortly after take-off I decided to try out the fully-flat position of the seat. It was incredibly comfortable and fun to try out for at least a few minutes. Soon the flight attendants came around with menus and wine lists. Since the flight to Colombo is so short, the meal selection was minimal. The menu read as follows:
Cold Light Meal
which includes beetroot salmon, roasted black pepper pastrami, feta cheese with herbs and saffron couscous, served with bread and garnish
Espresso coffee mouse dome
a rich espresso flavoured mousse enrobed in smooth dark chocolate and served with a sweet raspberry coulis
Ceylon, China, Earl Grey, Camomile
The view from the fully-reclined position.
I picked at the meal which was very nicely presented but not particularly appetizing to me. I also had a couple pieces of bread and a glass champagne (Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon, Vintage 2000). While eating I watched an episode of My Name Is Earl. I suppose it's rather ironic to watch a show about "white trash" while sitting in First Class! Too soon thereafter we began our descent into Colombo. I paid a visit to the bathroom which was nice but did not feel particularly spacious. The best part was probably the cloth towels!
Champagne at last!
I've had seats smaller than this tray table.
My only quibble with the experience was my attempt to charge my laptop. The seat has a conveniently located outlet, but soon after I plugged in the cord, the power to the outlet turned off. I assume I tripped the circuit (the outlet for 1B did not work either) for trying to use too much power.
We had an on-time arrival in Colombo and quickly proceeded to our gate. I was the only passenger in First Class disembarking in Colombo and I'm not sure there were any from Business, so I was the first one of the plane by a mile. Immigration was very quiet at that time of day so I was through in a breeze. Just when I was reaching baggage claim I thought to myself - "I didn't check any bags. Oh no! My bag is still on the plane!!" The pleasant experience of First Class apparently made my lose my senses and forget my rolling suitcase in the overhead bin. Thankfully the immigration officer and security officers at the gate were very understanding and an Emirates rep fetched my bag for me after just a few minutes. I wasn't too panicked as I knew the plane was getting a fresh crew in Colombo and would be on the ground for a little while. I'm just glad it wasn't a bus gate!
A SriLankan narrow-body on the ramp in Colombo.
Looks like someone important just left!
Another SriLankan plane
The arrivals hall
Colombo to Islamabad
After a couple nice days in Colombo it was time to head back to Pakistan. I set my alarm for 6:00am and was in a taxi to the airport at 7. Bandaranaike International Airport is quite a ways out of town so took nearly a full hour to get there. Upon arrival, I passed through the baggage screening, walked the dark tunnel of sorts to the bright terminal, and proceeded to the check-in desks. Unfortunately, the entire crew arrived just before me and they each had a suitcase to check using the Business Class line. It went quickly of course as they didn’t boarding passes!
The nice view from the Hilton Colombo
Seen from my hotel window. For the president?
With my boarding pass and lounge invitation in handed I proceed to immigration where I they had everyone fill out Arrival Cards; I guess they were out of Departure Cards! I picked up some nice tea at the shops beyond immigration and then headed upstairs to explore the terminal, which is bright and modern, and quiet at that time of day. I proceeded to the Araliya Lounge, which was pretty sad. The leather chairs are nice but the food did not look appetizing. I had a Diet Coke and then left. Unfortunately my camera batteries were just about dead and Sri Lankan authorities are very serious about prohibiting photography at sensitive sites so I don’t have many pictures of the airport.
I decided to go back to the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf for something edible for breakfast. Right after my bagel arrived a Qatar Airways rep showed up (are they tracking me!?) and said it was time for boarding. It still was not even 9:00 so I took my time, stopping at the bank to convert my remaining rupees to dollars. At the gate I went through security and immediately boarded the aircraft, that is, after waiting in a long line on the jetbridge.
At the aircraft door I was greeted by a flight attendant (one I recognized from my Islamabad flight four days earlier!) and directed to my seat. Again, it was clear there had been an aircraft swap. I lost my pre-assigned seat (2A) as we were again on a 3-class aircraft with nary a soul in the First Class cabin. On the A330, the Business Class section is split in two with the forward cabin having just one row. It did have a very nice, quiet feel to it. Seats 10A and 10B were broken so there were just four of us in there. The flight attendants still used the First Class galley a lot, however, so there was quite a bit of traffic past our seats.
The deserted First Class cabin.
Qatar Airways 301 (CMB-DOH)
Aircraft: A330-300 (3-class configuration)
Loads: First - 0%, Business - ~80%+, Economy - ?
Scheduled Departure: 9:45am
Scheduled Arrival: 12:00pm
Unlike previous flights, champagne was offered in addition to water, juice, and milk. I thought perhaps it’s because Sri Lanka is not a predominantly Muslim country, but it was also offered on my flight to Islamabad so maybe it has more to do with the time of day. In any case, I opted for the champagne of course. Later, the cabin crew came around with towels and menus as usual. I was relieved to see I would be finally get served lunch on one of these flights! Flight attendants asked for our post-take-off drink orders and I chose the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, which I had a few glasses of - very nice.
We pushed back at 9:30am and were in the air by 9:45am. The airport is pretty quiet at that time of day so there was no line for departure. After take-off I put my seat in the cradle position and started watching the movie Baby Mama, which was highly amusing. Unlike my previous seats, the enormous video monitor popped out of the arm rest rather than being placed on the back of the seat in front of me. I much preferred this configuration as the angle of the screen can be adjusted, which is important if the seat is reclined.
Lunch was served soon after departure. The menu read as follows:
marinated prawns in mustard dill sauce
smoked salmon cream cheese roulade
thai beef salad with an array of garnishes
choice of entrées
grilled tenderloin steak
with mushroom sauce
glazed vegetables and lyonnaise potatoes
baked hammour fillet
with honey ginger sauce
roasted vegetables, spinach and potato roesti
traditional dish of lamb with island black pepper and coconut milk
dhal curry and steamed rice
blue berry cheese cake
assorted warm breads
premium tea selection, hot chocolate
coffee - your choice of regular, decaffeinated, espresso, cappuccino
I didn't find the hor d'ouevres that appetizing, but they looked nice enough. I opted for the lamb, which was flavorful but poorly presented in my opinion. It was served in a ceramic dish that was only marginally larger the aluminum trays in which economy meals are typically served. It would have been nicer on an actual plate. The dhal wasn't that great either, though I get excellent dhal on a daily basis in Pakistan, so my standards are now quite high! The "blue berry cheese cake" was not cheesecake and did not contain many blueberries. It was more like a layer cake - it was strange and not very tasty. I had a good cup of coffee afterwards that, unlike the meal, was served in a very stylish cup.
After the movie ended I intended to work on this trip report but the moment I opened my laptop my eyelids became very heavy so I opted for a nap instead. I put the seat in the fully reclined position, which is flat but 180 degrees. I had a very nice nap the rest of the way back to Doha. This time, I was allowed to leave my seat in a semi-reclined position during landing!
On approach to Doha
Luckily, we parked on the terminal side of the runway this time, so it was a relatively short bus trip to the Premium Terminal for my 9-hour layover. When my boarding pass was inspected upon entry to the terminal the QR
representative asked me to take a seat. Unfortunately, when he looked up my reservation he saw I was not eligible for a "stopover paid by carrier" (STPC), presumably since it was discount business (D fare). I didn't mind too much as the lounge is plenty comfortable and has wireless internet, which was all I needed really.
My home for the next 9 hours.
Some other services offered in the Premium Terminal.
The 9-hour layover actually went by pretty quickly and there were times when I had the ENTIRE lounge to myself! By 2pm, there were just 7 people in the lounge and then 6 of them boarded the mid-afternoon flight to Heathrow. From 4pm to 5pm I was the only passenger there. (The only flights at this hour are to other Gulf destinations meaning the premium passengers are technically in First rather than Business.) Later, the lounge got quite busy but not full, at least not before boarding was called around 8:30pm for my flight to Islamabad.
I really like the Business Class Lounge. I had three helpings of hummus and pita bread and availed myself of the open bar. I had a nice dinner though was annoyed I had to eat it in their dining area rather than at my seat by the window. The seating is very comfortable. The bathroom sinks are too modern by half and clearly confuse uninitiated passengers! The place is very quiet, though this is partially due to the lack of boarding announcements - which means QR
staff end up bugging people every once in a while to find out where they are going. The business center (which is located in the common area of the Premium Terminal) kindly loaned me an outlet converter.
So around 8:45pm I boarded an over-air conditioned bus to my A320. One of my fellow passengers had no fewer than 4 carry-on bags and required assistance from ground staff in both boarding in Doha and deplaning in Islamabad. Unlike the outbound flight, only three of the Business Class passengers were (obviously) American on this flight. The others were all of Pakistani origin (though could also have been American).
Towels and pre-departure drinks were distributed as usual and I again opted for the champagne, for its sedative effects more than anything else. Dinner menus were already in the seat back pockets, but I decided to pass I just wanted to get some sleep. In any case, the menu read as follows:
thai hot smoked salmon, spiced chicken pakora, salad of paneer and sweet pepper
classic cold arabic mezze
mushroom and coriander filled chicken
sumac and olive sauce, potato and almost crusted carrot
with aloo beans masala, steamed rice
okra and tomato bhaji, saffron pulao
traditional condiment selection
sweet mango chutney, mixed pickle, spring onions
green chillies, lemon wedges and papadoms
gulab jamun tart with orange mascarpone
assorted warm bread
premium tea selection, hot chocolate
coffee - your choice of regular, decaffeinated, espresso, cappuccino
Qatar Airways 398 (DOH-ISB
Aircraft: A320-200 (2-class configuration)
Registration: A7-??? (I didn't catch it!)
Loads: Business - 75%, Economy - ? (looked pretty full)
Scheduled Departure: 9:10pm
Scheduled Arrival: 3:45am +1
Immediately after take-off I requested a blank and reclined my seat as far as it would go. While it was by no means a lie-flat seat, the recline was far more generous than your typical short-haul premium cabin seat. Unfortunately, my legs and feet felt wedged in between my leg rest and the reclined seat of the person in front of me. It was still comfortable enough to sleep for the entire flight. Remarkably, I had four different Business Class seats on my four flights! QR
may want to work on their product consistency.
We landed at 3:35am time and taxied to a stand. The Business Class passengers were quickly loaded onto a separate bus whisked off to the terminal, which is a huge convenience given how slow immigration lines can be in Islamabad. I was first off the bus and through immigration in less than a minute. For whatever silly, bureaucratic reason, the immigration officer leaves a piece of scrap paper in your passport after having stamped it. The paper is to mark the page on which your passport has been stamped so that another official standing just a few feet away can make sure you properly cleared immigration before entering the baggage hall. I think this is done because the bathrooms are behind the immigration desks and people are allowed to use them before actually clearing immigration. Needless to say, not much thought went into the terminal's design!
So that was my trip. A longer trip would have been nice, but I'll take what I can get! It was still relaxing and great fun to fly in the premium cabins of a couple high quality airlines. I hope you enjoyed the report.