Greetings and thanks for checking out my latest trip report! Last May, me and a few of my friends did a two-week trip
through six countries in Europe. This year, I was hoping to go back and do a similar trip (Iceland, Italy, Budapest), but the friend I was planning to go with took a new job over the winter, and therefore he couldn't take any real time off for at least another year. Shortly afterward, Bennett, one of my friends who came along to Europe, mentioned he was planning a trip to Asia to visit Jake, our friend who hosted us in London. After finishing up graduate school in London, Jake started working as a financial consultant in Shenzhen. I had never been to that part of the world, so I figured this was as good of an opportunity as any to go and check it out. We eventually settled on the following itinerary: Hong Kong/Shenzhen-Hanoi/Ha Long Bay-Phuket-Bangkok-Tokyo. My friends had a hankering to visit Mongolia, but after discussing it we agreed it was too expensive and too out of the way to visit this time around.
Flight-wise, I booked Cathay Pacific ORD-HKG for $650 and JAL BKK-NRT-ORD for $750. The return leg on JAL was multi-city/stopover itinerary, so I think it was a pretty good deal for two long flights like that. Whereas USA-Europe flights are super expensive if you book one-way, I was pleasantly surprised that the same didn't apply for USA-Asia. I'll include some details/pictures about the inter-Asia flights in the report below, but the main focus will be on the Cathay and JAL flights. (May 23-June 7)
We left Racine about 3 hours before my 3:30 PM flight. John and Bennett, my other two friends that were coming on the trip, were actually on the United ORD-HKG flight that left two hours before mine, and they drove down separately. Personally, I just couldn't pass up the chance to try Cathay Pacific.
The drive down to ORD took slightly longer than the usual hour due to the freeway construction going on in Wisconsin. My mom dropped me off outside of T5 with just under two hours to go until departure.
Cathay Pacific has small counter space at ORD, but there was only one person in line so the check-in process was a breeze. I hadn't departed from T5 at ORD in 9 years, and there were some noticeable changes from the renovations that were completed a few years back. I was a little disappointed to see that they had done away with the flags of various countries that lined the hallway leading to the security checkpoint, indicating the countries served from ORD. The security checkpoint looked like it could've been re-done better. Its somewhat of a small, cramped area, and it seems like things could really get backed up later in the day when it's busier. For some reason, the Cathay website wouldn't let me save my KTN after booking my reservation, so I wasn't able to get TSA Pre. In the end, it took about 20 minutes to get through security. The food court was also redone and now the dining options throughout the terminal are much improved. As a kid, I was always excited when we went to ORD to drop off family who was flying back to Poland...because that meant I'd get to have McDonald's! When you look back at it though, its sort of sad that used to be the best food option at T5 (food court was pre-security in those days).
I proceeded to walk down to the gate to check out the 773 for the flight to HKG. I was pleased to see that it was in the new Cathay Pacific livery.
At that point, there was still a bit of time to go until boarding so I decided to walk the length of the terminal and take in the various international traffic.
Lufthansa 748 pushing back to taxi over to T1.
It will be a sad day in the coming years when British Airways and KLM stop sending their 747s to ORD!
Aer Lingus A330 to DUB. Interestingly enough, Aer Lingus still operates out of T5 even though DUB has preclearance for US immigration and customs. Arriving passengers are escorted to a separate "domestic" baggage claim.
Before heading back to the gate I got a burger and fries, knowing full well that airplane food might not satisfy my hunger on such a long flight. When I returned to the gate area boarding was already in progress. My seat for this flight was 42A.
As I was getting settled into my seat the captain announced a flying time of 15 hours and 20 minutes. I had flown LAX-SYD which was a little over 13 hours, but this was a new record for me, and a part of me was dreading how long it was going to be. In fact, it's currently the longest nonstop flight from ORD (that honor will go to Air New Zealand AKL-ORD when it starts in late November). The food menus were also passed out before departure.
We pushed back from the gate on time and then taxied out to runway 10L. There wasn't much of a queue for departure so takeoff occurred without much delay and we got a good overview of T5 as we left the ground.
We made an immediate left turn and then continued our climb out in a northwesterly direction.
The initial in-flight service consisted of drinks/snacks. I got a cup of wine and coke, and a small pack of peanuts. There had been steady light turbulence since we took off, and eventually it picked up to the point that the flight attendants had to take their seats, thus delaying the meal service. It was a little surprising since we were flying through clear air and in such a big plane. At that point, something on the wing caught my attention. As we were climbing out of ORD I noticed what looked like some sort of flexible material hanging off the side edge of the flaperon. Initially, I didn't think much of it, but as we got farther from ORD it started to elongate, almost as if it was slipping out. The flaperon was working hard during the turbulence, and that only seemed to jar it loose further. As it got longer it started whipping around in the wind pretty good and I thought to myself - yep, this thing is going to fall off.
Sure enough, a little bit later I glanced back out through the window...annnd it was gone. Now, part of me figured this probably wasn't some critical piece of equipment that would lead to a catastrophe, but at the same time I'm not an airplane mechanic. After all, that was the first time I had ever seen something fall off of the plane in-flight!
I debated whether or not I should bring it up to anyone, but I decided to err on the side of caution. If you see something, say something, right? When the meal service resumed I told the flight attendant what had happened and showed her the picture I had taken. She smiled, thanked me, and said she would inform the captain. She didn't seem very concerned about it though, and the people sitting next to me found it more amusing than worrying.
As for the food, I went with the chicken, and it was a fine meal. Following the meal, there was another drink service and we also got a small cup of Haagen-Dazs ice cream for dessert.
Once lunch wrapped up, the cabin lights were turned off and most people closed their window shades. I turned my attention to the IFE, which was good. There was a nice mix of newer and older films. I watched Black Panther, and then once that finished I knocked back a few NyQuil pills and tried to get some sleep. That didn't go too well though, which is usually the case when I try to sleep on an airplane. I wouldn't say it was super cramped, but for whatever reason, I just can't get comfortable enough to fall asleep when I'm in a sitting position. Eventually, I was disturbed by the flight attendant that I had brought up the wing issue to, and she was back with one of the pilots. Now, this was around 4 hours after I had brought it up to her, so either she had forgotten about it or it was dismissed.
He took a look at the picture I had on my camera and then also glanced out through the window. He said the piece that fell off was sealant for the flaperon (kind of what I thought it was) and that it was no big deal, but he thanked me for pointing it out to them regardless. A few minutes later the flight attendant was back with a complimentary cup of champagne, the captain's way of saying "thanks."
I guess in the end that made it worth bringing up, right?
I gave up on trying to sleep and decided to watch another movie, Darkest Hour (good movie). About halfway through the flight dinner was served and I got the pork entree. Just like the first meal, it was good.
Throughout the flight, the flight attendants made regular trips through the aisle with water/juice and snacks (almonds, nuts, potato chips, apples). While we were over northeastern Russia I pulled up the window shade and was treated to some nice scenery (looked like there were some volcanoes down there?). I was actually a little disappointed because the flight history on FlightAware showed that this flight usually goes almost directly north from ORD and right over the Arctic, but that day we flew in more of a curved direction to the west and over the southern part of Alaska.
At this point, the flight really started to drag out and tiredness set in (it was the middle of the night back home). I started watching a third movie, Doctor Strange, but wasn't able to finish watching it before we started our descent. They put connecting flight information on the PTVs and I found it a little amusing that someone was traveling on to India - seems like they decided to take the long way from ORD!
It was a nice, clear evening in Hong Kong and we got a great view of the lit-up skyline during final approach.
We landed smoothly on runway 25R and from there it was a short taxi to the gate. With that, I was in Asia for the first time! I got one last look at our 777 after deplaning.
It was somewhat of a far walk from the gate to the customs checkpoint and baggage claim, with a tram ride in-between. My bag was already on the carousel by the time I arrived. I proceeded into the arrivals hall where Jake and my two other friends who had arrived earlier were waiting for me. We took a cab to the Hong Kong-China border crossing and were able to get there right before it closed for the night. From there, it was about a 15-minute walk to my friend's apartment. It may have been late in the evening, but I still sweat up quite a storm. That would be a theme for most of the trip - HOT and very HUMID!
In Shenzhen, I crashed at Jake's apartment while my other two friends booked a room at a nearby Jinjiang Inn hotel. This first stop on the trip was probably my most extreme experience ever in terms of dealing with culture shock and language barriers. For the most part, wherever we went there were no Westerners and nobody spoke any English. My friend Jake speaks Mandarin fairly well, but the second morning when we were without him it took us 30 minutes to successfully order our food at a McDonalds.
After two nights in Shenzhen, we took the train into Hong Kong where we'd spend the night before flying out to Vietnam the following day. The skyline was stunning and the view was even cooler from Victoria Peak! Unfortunately, the line for the tram was super long so we settled for taking a taxi in order to get up there before the sunset. Another thing I really liked about Hong Kong is the cultural mix of "East meets West." Oh, and the nightlife was prime also.
Our flight to Hanoi was on Jetstar Pacific. I wanted to try Vietnam Airlines, but a $50 ticket was just too good to pass up. There was some angst at the airport during check-in because it turned out Bennett's Vietnam visa was invalid. We all received ours via email, but for some reason an extra improper digit got added to his passport number. To be honest, I wasn't super optimistic at that point, but eventually he managed to get through to someone over there via the phone. Sure enough, when we arrived at HAN a representative from the visa office was waiting for us at the immigration checkpoint with the proper paperwork.
The flight was on-time, but otherwise, it was completely no-frills so there's not much else to say. I was impressed with the terminal at HKG though - very nicely done!
In Hanoi, we stayed at a hostel right in the Old Quarter. It was only 5$ per night, and the building was fairly nice and had a social vibe, but there was no air conditioning or warm water in the shower. Welcome to Asia, right? That night we explored the street food and also checked out a few bars.
The following morning had an early wake-up call as we were off to Ha Long Bay. It was a two-night trip organized by the hostel we stayed at. The accommodations consisted of cabanas on a private island right in the bay. Obviously, the scenery was stunning, and being with a group of fellow backpackers made it quite a fun time. Activities included a cruise throughout Ha Long Bay, biking, kayaking, beach volleyball and swimming on the beach, and of course there was boozing as well.
On our second day there we went on what was initially described to us as a "nice" hike...Well, it sort of turned into a death march.
At one point, I was legitimately starting to worry about heat stroke, and by the time we got to the top my entire clothes were completely drenched in sweat! At least the view from the top mostly made up for what we had to endure.
When we got back to Hanoi we stayed at the Apricot Hotel for one night before flying out to Thailand. I'm guessing there are not too many other travelers out there that have gone from a 5$ a night hostel one night to a five-star hotel the next! Given Vietnam's prices, it was actually quite a bargain, and it provided a much needed night of recuperation. That night we wandered around the Old Quarter some more and I also took a stroll down to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum at night, but its only open to visitors in the AM.
There are no nonstops from HAN to HKT, thus we had to fly through DMK. In addition to the hot, humid weather, another trend throughout Southeast Asia is that most of the airport terminals are quite immaculate, and the one at HAN was no exception.
Vietnam Airlines A350 at the gate with our AirAsia flight taxiing in behind it.
I purchased a "Value Pack" with my ticket and this included a checked bag and a meal. The meal wasn't the best though, and then we got served the exact same thing on the second flight (I couldn't stomach eating any of it).
I can see why DMK is sometimes called "Old Bangkok" as certain areas of it did seem somewhat dreary.
During our layover, a huge rainstorm hit the airport.
The flight down to HKT was my first ride on the A320neo, and it was actually pretty distinct in terms of how much quieter it flew.
We stayed in Patong, the hub of activity on the island. It was a short walk from our hostel to the beach and Bangla Road. On our second day, we rented motorbikes and drove around exploring the island, including driving up to the Big Buddha statue on top of the mountain. Initially, it was pretty hairy getting on the bike and becoming accustomed to it, especially since they drive on the left side of the road in Thailand and it was my first time having to do that! We had planned to check out the Phi Phi islands on our last day there, but that would've meant an early wake-up call to catch the ferry, and then it also would have been 4 hours of roundtrip travel time. We just weren't up for it after a couple long nights of partying, so we settled for a simple day of R&R on the beach.
Now, I was especially excited about the flight from HKT to BKK...because it was on a 747!!! There's A TON of daily flights between Phuket and Bangkok, but when I saw that Thai Airways operated that equipment on the route, the choice was clear. Oh, and it also only cost $40
(free checked luggage included). This would be my fourth time on the Queen of the Skies (all of those flights on the 744) and since they are steadily being phased out around the globe, I knew it would be a moment to savor.
I actually almost ended up not making it onto the plane in time. I don't know if I had a lapse in attention or what, but it seemed like they went from priority boarding to last call in a matter of minutes. I stopped outside of the jetway to take a picture of our aircraft, and then right after I stepped onboard the boarding door closed and we were on the move a few seconds later!
We even got served a free snack, which was a nice touch considering its a one hour flight. It also felt like the legroom was quite generous, though I'm not sure if it only seemed that way since my previous flights were on Jetstar and AirAsia. There was a lot of empty seats in the rows behind me.
After dropping our stuff off at the hostel we caught a tuk-tuk over to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. It was HUGE, by far the largest market I've ever been to. Next, we headed over to the observation deck at the top of the Baiyoke Sky Tower where we got some nice overviews of the of the city and then we also watched the sunset from up there.
In the evening we visited Khao San Road, a popular strip of bars which is famously described as "the centre of the backpacking universe". We capped off our night by popping into a few go-go bars, because why not, right?
We were only in Bangkok for that one night. Bennett and Jake had to head back and return to work, while John decided to tag along with me to Tokyo.
The flight from BKK to NRT wasn't until 11:30 PM, so that at least gave us the opportunity to sleep-in until check-out time. Bennett, John, and I were all on the same flight, while Jake had an afternoon flight from DMK. His foot/toe had been bothering him since he cut it while swimming in Ha Long Bay, and when he got back to Shenzhen he actually ended up spending some time in the hospital due to an infection that had set it! So it was probably for the better that he didn't continue with us to Japan after all! The three of us still had a whole day to kill, so we left our luggage at the hostel and went off to see some of the temples (Wat Phra Kaew & Wat Arun). It was only a twenty-minute walk from where we were staying, but it still ended up being pretty brutal trek due to the oppressive heat. Not to mention we had to wear long pants in order to visit these places.
We reconvened at the hostel later in the afternoon, grabbed our stuff, and set off for the airport. We hit some traffic on the way there, but we still arrived several hours before our scheduled departure time. The check-in hall at BKK is absolutely massive.
I felt pretty disgusting since I had sweat through all of my clothes while we were walking around Bangkok earlier in the day. Once we made it through security and got into the gates area, Bennett got me into the Air France-KLM lounge as one of his guests and I was able to take a much-needed shower. I didn't want to let the access go to waste so I also took advantage of the free food. Previously, the only other lounge I had ever been to was the Delta Sky Club at MKE. If I was constantly traveling for work and needed a quiet spot at the airport to get some work done then I would probably be keener to get lounge access, but right now it's not that important to me. On the other hand, Bennett frequents airport lounges and he said that particular one at BKK was one of the better ones he had been to.
I hung out in the lounge for a little longer while waiting for my phone to recharge, and then I set out to explore the rest of the airport. The terminal at BKK is superbly designed and quite pristine. Along with HKG, it's definitely one of the nicest airports I've ever been to. Unfortunately, the combination of darkness at that hour and glare from the lighting made it almost impossible to look out the windows and see what was going on outside. As it got closer to our flight's departure time, I started feeling more sleepy/tired. This was another special flight that I had been looking forward to because it was going to be my first time on a 787! I was sort of amazed that it had taken me this long to finally get on one.
My seat was 50A, and at each seat there was a pillow, blanket, and headphones. John actually ended up sitting next to me, and even though he's not a "plane guy" by any means, even he was impressed by how new and modern the cabin felt. I give JAL props for having a 2-4-2 configuration instead of nine seats across. It was kind of cool messing around with the electronic window shade tinting for the first time, but I still think the old-fashioned shade that you pull down with your hand does the job better.
We departed on-time and similar to the A320neo, the 787 flew noticeably quieter. Bottled water was passed out after takeoff and I think we may have also gotten some snack mix/potato chips, but I can't remember for sure. Frankly, I was pretty beat at that point, so instead of messing around with the IFE I popped some sleeping pills and attempted to pass out. I did try to pull up the moving map, but for some reason that along with the flight information wouldn't display. In the end, I really didn't end up getting much sleep at all. Turbulence started not that long after we took off and it lasted a couple of hours. I could see plenty of lightning flashes illuminate the darkness outside, so there must've been a fair bit of stormy weather en route. The bumps weren't super bad, but it was enough to keep me awake. Breakfast was served about 2-2 1/2 hours before landing. The meal was fine, but I think they could've done a better job timing-wise and served it more towards the end of the flight. It was somewhat of a rude awakening at that point to have all the lights come on when most people were still trying to sleep. I will say though, whatever brand of apple juice JAL has, its the best I've ever tasted!
Things smoothened and the skies were clear as we descended into NRT. Off in the distance in the photo below, you can see Mt. Fuji.
We landed smoothly on runway 34R and from there it was a bit of a long taxi to the gate. Following deplaning, John and I said our goodbyes to Bennett as he was off to catch his connecting flight to ORD. His itinerary seemed brutal and I was certainly glad that I wasn't about to get on another long, overnight flight. After clearing immigration and collecting our bags, John and I made our way down to the train platform where we caught the high-speed Skyliner into the city.
Upon arriving at the hostel, we were exhausted, so we paid the early check-in fee, rested up for a few hours, and then set out to explore the city. Some of the places we hit on that first day included the Sensō-ji temple and Yoyogi Park.
Not that it was much of a surprise, but Tokyo was a lot cleaner, newer, and more modern compared to some of the other places we had visited. Another plus was that we no longer had to endure steamy conditions as the temperature was much more comfortable. In terms of English proficiency over there, it was sort of hit or miss, but we were usually able to get by or figure things out one way or another. One thing I found interesting is that Tokyo doesn't seem to have much of a bar/pub scene. The only place we found that resembled this was Golden Gai, a network of narrow alleys with tiny bars, though a lot of them had cover charges for foreigners/tourists.
On the last day of the trip, we took in some Japanese baseball at the Tokyo Dome, home of the Yomiuri Giants. It was sort of a scramble trying to find tickets since the game was sold out (it was "free jersey night"). I go to several Milwaukee Brewers games each year so it was definitely an interesting experience given the more festive atmosphere.
With that, the nearly two weeks abroad had come to an end and it was time to head home.
It had been a little confusing trying to figure out the Tokyo metro/subway (we bought the wrong ticket multiple times), so instead of fussing with that we ordered an Uber to Keisei Ueno Station and from there we took the Skyliner to NRT.
We arrived at the airport about an hour and a half before our 10:50 AM departure time. We made our way upstairs to the check-in area and after entering my information at one of the kiosks I noticed that my seat had been changed. Upon further inspection, it turned out I was now seated in the premium economy cabin! When I went up to the counter to drop my bag off, the JAL agent informed me that I had to be moved because the economy cabin was full, and she apologized for this "inconvenience."
I'm still not sure how I managed to score that free upgrade. Did they just randomly bump me up in order to free up space in economy? Or did I lose my original selected seat because I was sort of late checking in? I know that in some cases if you don't have a seat assignment at check-in, they might place you in premium seating if economy is full. Regardless of what the reasoning was though, I wasn't going to complain!
Getting through security didn't take up much time and then after getting our passports stamped we walked down to the gate. Here's the 773 for our flight back to ORD.
Surprisingly, there were very few options in the gates area. I walked quite a ways but I only came across a few cafés. I spent the rest of the time before boarding doing a little more exploring. This JAL 789 at the gate next to ours was getting set to go to FRA.
Upon returning to the gate, boarding commenced shortly thereafter.
Below is a picture of my seat as well as the amenities and food menu that were provided.
Pushback was on-time and then we took off from runway 16R after a bit of a long taxi. Thankfully, I still managed to have a window seat despite the seat change, but the only downside was that the huge wing now obstructed most of the view.
Following departure the flight attendants came around and distributed hot towels, and shortly after that came the initial drink service along with some rice crackers. Based off of the menu the only difference food-wise between economy and premium economy was that we got free champagne. Once we reached our cruising altitude the captain made an announcement and provided us with some information about the flight. Compared to flights back home, this was also sort of hit or miss on the trip, because I'd say on half of the flights there was complete silence from the flight deck. I started watching The 15:17 To Paris and as I was about halfway through that lunch was served. The main course was good, but the three sides not so much. A cup of Haagen-Dazs ice cream was given out for dessert.
The turbulence picked up for a while and it got bad enough that the flight attendants had to take their seats for a bit. After finishing up the first movie, I watched the end of Doctor Strange since I wasn't able to finish it at the end of the flight to HKG. Once I was done with that it was nearly the midway point of the flight and it was starting to get dark outside, so I decided to try and get some sleep. In addition to the spacious seating, the fact that no one was sitting next to me gave me even more room to spread out! The premium economy seats reclined forward.
Two hours after dozing off the cabin lights came back on for the snack service. It consisted of a warm bread roll and a cup of udon noddles. The lights came on again a few hours later and the pre-arrival meal was served. At this point we were over the Northwestern US.
The meal was a teriyaki burger that you had to construct yourself. It also came with cream cheese sauce, something I wouldn't really ever think of putting on a burger, but it ended up tasting pretty good.
For the remainder of the flight I listened to music on my phone and looked out the window. Our descent took us past RFD and DPA and then we landed on runway 10C at ORD. We proceeded to taxi over to and park at a rather empty terminal 5.
When we got downstairs to the immigration checkpoint, it was completely empty aside from the passengers from our flight. The arrivals hall at terminal 5 can become somewhat of a madhouse later in the day, so I guess we must've lucked out being one of the first arrivals of the morning. Needless to say, it was a breeze getting through and it didn't take long for our bags to arrive either. My mom, who has plenty of experience picking up family coming from Poland, was actually twenty minutes late because she figured it would take us a while to exit the terminal. Once she did arrive, it was an hour drive back to Wisconsin to conclude the trip. I wouldn't be home for long though, because less than two weeks later I would be heading to Europe for another trip, this time with my family!
This is my 38th trip report and I hope you enjoyed reading it! Yes, I know it was a long one.
The trip was an awesome time and it was cool seeing a part of the world that I had yet to venture into. Thankfully, for the most part everything went off without a hitch. I could've done a trip like this by myself at any time, but obviously having a few close friends come along made it much more memorable and fun. The only downside was that it did seem a bit rushed at times. For example, I would have liked to visit the Phi Phi islands while we were in Phuket and the floating market in Bangkok. However, we wanted to visit as many places as we could in the time we had so we realized there would be a trade-off. I'd like to do one more trip to that part of the world sometime in the next few years and maybe visit Beijing, Shanghai, Cambodia, Singapore, and a few other spots.
In terms of the long-haul flights, I don't have any major complaints and I think the Asian airlines do a good job of taking care of their customers. The flight to HKG was quite long, but what are you going to do? Maybe a midnight departure would have been more ideal for falling asleep easier. Scoring the upgrade on the way back definitely made that journey more comfortable, so perhaps I will take a harder look at booking premium economy on some of these longer flights. It was also cool to finally fly on a 787, though I probably would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't felt like a zombie.
Will you watch the Cleveland Browns and the Detroit Lions on Sunday? Only if coach Eric Mangini resigned after a loss.