It’s cliché to call the start of a new year bittersweet, but this typically trite sentiment should ring true for many higher flyers.  There’s nothing quite like the sting of seeing all zeroes when you check your airline and hotel accounts after New Year’s Day… but that doesn’t have to be all bad!  If you’ve been on a single loyalty hamster wheel treadmill for too long, there’s no better time than in January to start anew somewhere else.  The potential of elite status on American Airlines — in spite of all of the devaluing cuts to it — had long intrigued me.  When a series of attractive oneworld fares materialized later in the winter, I had to take, ahem, AAdvantage!

This adventure was by far my most ambitious trip for The Higher Flyer.  With a mid-week afternoon departure from Washington, DC (on the day then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired, no less) and a return home 120 hours later that weekend, this itinerary was shaping up to be a rather fast slog around the world.  It would cover just under 18,000 miles (so not exactly a circumnavigation of the planet, which has a circumference of 24,901 miles), six cities and seven flights, and only two nights in real beds.  The jet lag would be brutal…

BUT!

The benefits of doing this were too good to turn down.  Call me crazy, but not only would I immediately qualify for Gold status on American, but I’d earn roughly half of the required qualifying miles (~38,000 out of 50,000) and more than the required qualifying dollars (~$6,500 out of $6,000) for Platinum.  That’s not a bad place to be in before St. Patrick’s Day, and the accommodations getting me there would be mostly top-notch.

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British Airways Club World is…not bad.

Admittedly, the first longhaul leg of the trip wasn’t excellent — Club World on a rather tired British Airways 777 from Toronto to London — but it was far better than what any of its (many) critics have written about it elsewhere.  The touted improvements to BA’s premium products were definitely noticed and appreciated… especially by the couple seated nearby.  For better or for worse, they clearly loved the revamped beverage offerings!

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London called!

After a quick day stop in London, it was time to continue eastward to Seoul on Finnair with a long-ish connection in Helsinki.  Fortunately I got to twice sample Finnair’s flagship A350s, including on an intra-European leg.  Truly, there’s no better way to fly within Europe than in a reverse herringbone seat on a state-of-the-art aircraft.  The lounge on arrival was quite nice too, although all of the famous saunas were sadly booked up during my stay.

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A Finnair A350, painted in a special, Marimekko-inspired livery
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A glimpse at Finnair’s excellent business class hard product

After some of my best flights in business class ever, I landed in Seoul and checked in to the Park Hyatt, eager to spend some time on terra firma and explore a new city.

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Urban yet zen vibes at the Park Hyatt Seoul
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An impressive juxtaposition

The morning alarm came much too soon — by this point, it was already Saturday — but there were planes to catch!  Amazingly, I would end Saturday back in the United States but not quite home again.  In between the day’s start and finish was a Japan Airlines regional business class flight from Seoul to Narita, the whole afternoon to wander the streets of Tokyo and then the evening to enjoy a first class lounge, and then finally a redeye in JAL’s premier first class from Haneda to San Francisco.  Because of the International Date Line, the plane left at 10:40 PM on March 17th and landed at 1:10 PM… also on March 17th.  Time is crazy!

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Walking in to JAL’s stunning first class lounge at Tokyo Haneda
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Not the flashiest seat but a most excellent first class offering

Checking in at the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco on the 17th was surreal given the time change.  In effect, I experienced St. Patrick’s Day twice, complete with two sunrises (once in Seoul, then again over the Pacific) and sunsets (once in Tokyo, then again in San Francisco) and two of everything else that typically falls in between, including two nights of sleep too (one on the plane, and then one in the hotel).  Nevertheless, the Palace Hotel was a welcome rest stop.

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Not as visually striking as the Park Hyatt Seoul, but definitely a welcome sight

And then, after all that, it was finally time to go home via Alaska Airlines… albeit on a legacy Virgin America plane.  On the date of departure, Virgin still had its own operating license and thus was still treated as its own, non-Alaskan entity; that distinction entitled premium passengers access to the excellent Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, among a few other perks.  The merger was completed in the months since, and lounge privileges were ended in the process, but the product continues to fly for the time being.  It’ll be a while before Alaska gets around to retrofitting the entire Virgin fleet with its updated domestic first class product…

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What you can’t see is how far these can recline…and how much dirt is caught in the leather

When it was all said and done, the final routing looked like:

AAround the (one)world in 80 hours map
From Washington National (DCA) to Toronto Pearson (YYZ), and then from Toronto Pearson (YYZ) to Seoul Incheon (ICN) via London Heathrow (LHR) and Helsinki Vantaa (HEL) with a day stop in London and an overnight in Korea.  Then from Seoul Incheon (ICN) to San Francisco (SFO) with a day stop and airport transfer in Tokyo (NRT to HND), and then an overnight in San Francisco.  Finally, from San Francisco (SFO) back home to Washington Dulles (IAD).  Oof!

And all of that cost:

  • $1,691 to fly YYZ-LHR-HEL-ICN
  • $2,250 to fly ICN-NRT/HND-SFO (a bargain for one of the best first class products in the world!)
  • $599 to fly SFO-IAD

The two hotel nights were decently expensive at:

  • ~$380 (₩435,000) for the night at the Park Hyatt Seoul
  • $360 for the night at the Palace Hotel San Francisco

This trip report includes 10 reviews and two complementary entries:

  • British Airways Club World (Business Class), Boeing 777-200, YYZ-LHR
  • Finnair Business Class, Airbus A350-900, LHR-HEL-ICN
  • Finnair Business Class Lounge (Non-Schengen Zone), Helsinki (HEL)
  • Park Hyatt Seoul, South Korea
  • Japan Airlines Business Class (Shorthaul), Boeing 737-800, ICN-NRT
  • Japan Airlines First Class, Boeing 777-300ER, HND-SFO
  • The Palace Hotel, San Francisco, California
  • Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, San Francisco (SFO)
  • Alaska Airlines First Class (Legacy Virgin America), Airbus A320, SFO-IADPlus…
  • A thorough explanation of the mileage earnings and status implications of this itinerary.  Hopefully this article answers the question:  how did you qualify for status on a single itinerary?
  • A collection of photos from London, Seoul, Tokyo, and San Francisco.  Consider this post proof that I had time to get out and explore…if only for a little bit!

Thanks always for reading and supporting The Higher Flyer.