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With more and more airlines flying to China, and award tickets to New Zealand still hard to find, TPG Special Correspondent John Walton reveals one of his favorite uses of redeeming Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles: Flying Air New Zealand from Shanghai to Auckland. (All photos are by the author).
It’s common knowledge among the points-and-miles crowd that Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles aren’t particularly valuable. How about if I told you that you could fly for twelve hours in one of the world’s best business-class products to bucket list hotspot New Zealand for just 40,000 miles each way?
Air New Zealand regularly releases award tickets on its Shanghai-Auckland flights, which are absolutely bookable with Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles — and with more flights than ever from the US to Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG) combined with the upgrade of the three-day transit-without-visa program to a whopping six days, it can be a wonderful way to get to and from New Zealand.
And now for the slightly complicated bit. Air New Zealand only really opens up award space at the beginning of the booking window, usually between 300 and 330 days in advance — in my experience availability drops off a couple of months after opening as the dates are snapped up. If you can lock in your dates that early and find availability, you can grab a round-trip Business Premier flight from any of Air NZ’s Asian destinations for just 80,000 Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles — a real bargain. Adding a little to the difficulty factor, Virgin Atlantic will only book these as round-trip flights. If you’re planning to pay cash, tickets for the same flight from Shanghai to Auckland start at about $2,335 for a one-way trip in Air New Zealand’s Business Premier cabin.
My tactic for finding availability this way is to use my Skype Unlimited World subscription to call up the friendly, 24-hour Air New Zealand call center, ask for the dates where there is I bucket award space, then call Virgin Atlantic and give them those dates. You can also use ExpertFlyer or other fare bucket-revealing software.
Virgin Atlantic then has to request the tickets in a non-live transaction that usually takes somewhere between two and 24 hours in my experience, then you’ll need to call back to actually make the booking — this is definitely something to try when you’re not on the road with a shifty Internet connection.
I recommend first securing a ticket for the outbound flight with a dummy return date the next day or something, then changing the return date once availability opens up. There’s a small change fee — I’ve been charged between £25 and $50 depending on whether I was paying with a US or UK Flying Club account — but it’s worth it to nail down your outbound date in advance.
Airport and Lounge
The best thing about Shanghai Pudong Airport (PVG) is that the Shanghai maglev train runs through it — although the city-side maglev station is basically in the middle of nowhere, it’s still faster than taking the roads during rush hour.
The passenger experience at PVG from start to end is pretty dire, with unruly and unmanaged queues, a slow customs process — no priority lines here — a very average set of terminal facilities and an Air China lounge about which the best thing is that there are private nap rooms with beds and their own air conditioners where you can shut yourself away from the rest of it.
In the Air China lounge, the food looks like a recipe for gastroenteritis, the wine is so off-brand that it’s un-Googleable, and the Wi-Fi isn’t particularly useful given that it’s in China and most Western services are blocked — the speed is so bad that VPNs choke on it anyway.
There is a (legit, non-sketchy) massage place in the same area as the Air China lounge, though, and whiling away the time with a foot rub or neck massage is a big improvement on the lounge. This is definitely an airport where you want to arrive as late as possible.
Cabin and Seat
My first impression of Air New Zealand’s Business Premier product: Wow. Air New Zealand really went out of its way to create a gorgeous cabin flooded with fuchsia LED-lighting that hits the matte-effect plastic of the seats and feels wonderfully space-age.
The 787-9 Dreamliner’s Business Premier cabin features a 1-1-1 seat configuration. With the middle seats pointing to port, most solo travelers will want to snag an A seat to maximize overhead space and minimize traffic going past them during the flight. I’d also recommend seat 3A, 4A or 5A in the middle of the cabin to avoid noise from the galley and restrooms up front as well as the premium economy bassinet row a few rows back.
Air New Zealand has kept the Virgin Atlantic inward-facing herringbone seats it’s used since the last cabin refresh. This is an excellent seat for Air NZ’s long-haul routes, although some people dislike the fact that the seat flips over so you then have to lie on the special mattress foam surface rather than just reclining to a flat position and sleeping on the seat cushions.
The downside for this 787 implementation of the seat, though, is that it is a real squeeze around the shoulders. If you’ve flown the Virgin Atlantic A340-600 and 747-400, you already know that the Airbus seats are just 22 inches wide. These 787 seats are just as narrow, so just a heads-up if you’re broad across the shoulders or built for comfort rather than speed.
Amenities and In-flight Entertainment
Stylish but basic is how I’d describe Air New Zealand’s amenity kit. It’s a pouch in that recycled faux-wool that we’ve seen a lot recently, with a couple of tubes of moisturizer and lip balm, ear plugs and an eye mask. The best part is the socks, which rotate in style and can be quite funky. However, if you need anything more than the basics, it’s firmly a BYO airline.
Air New Zealand has one of the best in-flight entertainment catalogues in the sky, with a big focus on Kiwi discovery as well as the usual international fare. You’ll be well rewarded if you dig a little deeper than last month’s blockbuster films.
Its off-brand noise-cancelling headphones could use some attention, though, and the Panasonic system wasn’t very stable either. I managed to crash it several times during the flight, and I wasn’t the only one.
If you’re bringing your own electronics, there’s a universal AC power outlet for your use as well as a USB socket, both of which worked well — the USB socket wasn’t one of the low-power versions and actually charged my iPhone 6S Plus.
Food and Beverage
If Air New Zealand loves highlighting Kiwi TV and movies, it adores showcasing the country’s superlative wine varieties even more. On this flight, there were three white wines (a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, a Chardonnay and a Riesling), two red wines (a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet-Merlot blend), the very drinkable Quartz Reef New Zealand fizz (which is also served on the ground) and a decent Charles Heidsieck Champagne. The crew delighted in showing off their wines, so don’t be hesitant about asking to taste a few during the flight.
I also really enjoyed Air New Zealand’s food. The prosciutto with shaved figs was delicious — a really well-thought chilled starter. Afterwards, the harissa Moroccan chicken burger was surprisingly elegant — thank goodness for the large napkin!
The cherry tart wasn’t too sweet so the ice cream went very well with it.
With the friendly cabin crew pushing the New Zealand cheeses, I figured it would be churlish to resist!
Breakfast is always a weird meal on the plane, but the banana coconut hot cakes were just divine.
The fruit and yogurt were lovely as well — no crunchy, underripe melon here!
Overall, I’d give Air New Zealand a solid A+ for food and beverage on this overnight flight.
The bonus factor on this Air New Zealand flight is the lower cabin altitude, large windows and a quieter cabin. It’s always hard to quantify the effects of this kind of benefit, but I felt like I actually slept better and woke up more refreshed than I had on the same flight using a 777 in previous years. It might sound weird, but my nose also didn’t feel as dry — I tend to bring a little bottle of saline spray when I fly in case my nose and sinuses dry out, but that didn’t happen on this flight. Your experience may vary of course, but I really found the Dreamliner’s overall ambience a plus on this trip.
For an overnight flight, Air New Zealand’s seat, cabin and service are hard to beat, especially for the price if you can lock yourself in ahead of time as I described above. Having to start at Shanghai Pudong (PVG) was the only real downside of this flight, but with the bright lights, inexpensive luxury hotels and six-day visa-free policies of Shanghai, it ends up being a real hidden gem.
Have you flown Air New Zealand’s Dreamliner yet? What was your experience like?
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