Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Big USA Pilgrimage: Airline Choices or Why I heart Qantas

I get plenty of comments on this blog (when I actually find the time to post) from Americans who have recently moved to Australia for work purposes as well as other young American women, like me, who have fallen head over heals for their own Handsome Australians and have decided to settle in Australia. In either case, we all need/want to travel back to the USA at some stage. Some of us will do it often, some of us will do it rarely, but it will be done. In this post, I thought I'd outline my thoughts on the airline choice we make for the Australia-USA journey. I'd love for this to be a conversation where everyone shares their opinions and thoughts regarding the various airlines in the comments section. We can all learn something from one another right?

Here it is: We ALWAYS fly Qantas. This isn't meant to be an advert for Qantas, but over time they've proven to be the airline that best meets our requirements. Having lived in Australia for 10 years, Qantas, United, and Air New Zealand were originally the only choices we had to choose from regarding our travel to the USA. From Melbourne, United stops in Sydney before heading to LAX or SFO. Air New Zealand takes you from Melbourne to Auckland before continuing to LAX. Qantas takes you directly from Melbourne to LAX non-stop. Need I say more?

Before I had children, I didn't mind stopping in NZ or Sydney, but since I've had kids I've learned that the most direct and quickest route is the best choice. The fewer times you have to get on and off a plane, the fewer times you have to shift luggage, the fewer times you have to resettle a restless child--frankly, the better. Qantas isn't always the cheapest choice, they may be a few hundred dollars more than the competition at times, but during these long trips I'd pay far more than that for the sanity I gain through only having the one direct flight. (Obviously from other parts of Australia your choices will be different and in many cases, better).

In the past few years, the route between Australia and the USA has been deregulated allowing for more competition. New airlines have come into the market that weren't flying these routes 10 years ago. Delta, V Australia, and Jet Star are among the airlines that now offer services to different parts of the USA. As we only travel to the USA once a year and are heavily invested in the Qantas frequent flyer program, we have yet to try any of the other airlines. Some of you may have traveled with the other airlines and have valuable insights about them. Feel free to chime in with your experiences in the comments section. =)

So, the obvious reason why we fly Qantas is the ability to fly direct, but there are other things I like about the experiences we've had. Qantas offers an excellent on board entertainment system that makes traveling with children a lot more enjoyable. Each seat in Economy class (because that's where we fly!) comes equipped with a TV screen in the seat back in front of you. Your arm rest holds the remote control and at your finger tips are hours of "on demand" TV shows, movies and games. There is a plethora of child friendly content and the kids can pick and choose what they want to watch or play. (This has recently become even easier on the new A380s as the entire system is operated by a touch screen--so easy even my 3 year old can do it on his own). I love it! I don't have to carry a portable DVD player or lug a laptop. The kids don't have to argue over who gets to watch what--we all decide our own destinies! It's fantastic.

Qantas still offers a meal service and a 'kid's meal' option. I always book the children a 'kid's meal' and generally ring Qantas to confirm ahead of time because we've been caught out a few times. Their kid's meals are very kid friendly and offer a selection of items on the tray both hot and cold, sweet and savoury. This is something you take for granted and then one day you fly Jet Star and you realise how good you had it on Qantas...more about that another day.

Generally, there is a kid's activity pack that gets passed out at the start of the journey and my kids always seem to get at least 45 minutes of joy out of these. These packs are ideal for bridging the gap between take off and when the entertainment system is up and running (on the 747s anyway, the new A380s let you start watching videos before you even take off--hooray!). If you don't get handed one, be sure to ask for it. Once the initial excitement wears off, we tuck them away and revisit them later in our journey.

Qantas staff have been, in our experience, polite and helpful. I find the Melbourne ground staff to be really, really friendly. The flight attendants on board are generally nice and good with our kids and have given us extra help when we require it. The happiness and good will seems to end in LA though as the staff that work the counters and gates in LA seem to be missing the laid back and friendly Aussie spirit, and are more in keeping with the sometimes rough and unpredictable city in which they work. I have found that even the sternest of encounters can be softened by a smile from my son, so I keep him nearby to charm these tough LA gatekeepers. Hey, whatever works right?

The benefits of sticking with Qantas has meant that we've been able to take advantage of their frequent flyer program. Since we know we'll be making a USA trip each year, we've set ourselves up with credit cards that earn Qantas points and we take advantage of other opportunities like Woolworth's Everyday Rewards program, that allow us to collect more frequent flyer points. We are all members of the Qantas frequent flyer program--including the kids. We enrolled them when they were 2 years old and we had to start paying for their seats. This means we all earn points each time we fly with Qantas and their program allows you to transfer points between family members. So, all of these things add up and we get a couple of free tickets every second year or so. When you are looking at airfares for 4, every little bit helps!

There you have it, the many reasons why we choose Qantas for our USA trips. Again, I am not trying to intentionally promote the airline, bur rather outline the reasons why it's proven to be a sensible choice for our family. Would love to hear what everyone else thinks! Let the comments begin!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Big USA Pilgrimage

The time rolls around each year when the Handsome Australian and I prepare ourselves and the little people for our pilgrimage to the USA. Since I've been living in Australia (for the better part of 10 years) I've averaged about 1 trip to the USA each year. In the beginning, our trips generally lasted for 2 to 3 weeks. The Handsome Australian and I both had busy work schedules and this was pretty much the maximum amount of time we could afford to take off in one hit. Packing for those trips was easy as we typically traveled over the Christmas period and we confidently loaded our bags with jeans and jumpers and off we went.

Now that we've had two children, our trips to the USA have become a completely different endeavour, as you might imagine. Firstly, we've changed the time of year that we travel. While being with my family during Christmas would be lovely, we've found that airfares to the USA are nearly double during the Christmas period. Airports are crowded and the weather can be uncooperative. Who wants to be stuck in an airport with over-tired toddlers after a 14 hr flight waiting for 6 hours because your connection has been delayed or canceled? Certainly not I. We've found some of the best fares to be had are generally during the North American Spring and Fall. Typically February, March and April are good travel months as well as October and early November.

We've chosen to travel during March/April for the past four years. This has meant we've spent Easter with my family each time. Since we are unable to be in the USA for Christmas, it's been lovely to share another significant holiday and its traditions with my family. Our children look forward to the colouring of eggs, the big Easter egg hunt and all the play time they get with their many American cousins. It's a tradition and while I'd love my kids to have the opportunity to spend Christmas with their cousins as well, I appreciate that life as an expat has its limitations. Many times this lifestyle requires compromise and thinking outside the box. So instead of being homesick and sad about missing Christmas, we've endeavoured to create a new set of customs that fit our schedule and don't bust our budget.

How long do we normally visit for now? What do we pack? Stay tuned for a new series of posts where I will endeavour to share what I've learned over the years about making this big journey. Thanks for stopping by!