Korea/China: Part 1 – Getting There

But before I get to Macau, let’s talk about the journey itself.


The original plan was to visit my dad in Seoul over Thanksgiving.

I’m one of those people who really hates connections on flights.  I just want to get there, dammit.  Fortunately, I live in Chicago, which enjoys plenty of non-stop flights all over the world, including Seoul.  Unfortunately, I didn’t want to pay the premium for the non-stop to Seoul.  (That bit of cheapness ended up saving us zilch, as I’ll explain below.)  The cheapest flight to Seoul over Thanksgiving was on Cathay Pacific, with a stop in Hong Kong.  So the question became: how long of a layover do I want?

Once upon a time, I was one of those blessed people who could sleep just about anywhere, including economy class on airplanes.  Then I turned 30, and that just ENDED.  Now I need a nice, flat bed and sheets and pillows and comfort.  One of the flight options was to arrive in Hong Kong in the evening and depart for Seoul the following morning.  That option would allow me to sleep in a proper bed and get a good night’s sleep before arriving in Seoul.  Also, we would adjust to the time difference by staying awake during the whole 14 hour flight and collapse in Hong Kong in an airport hotel.  The difference between the non-stop flight and this flight was still (barely) large enough that one night in a hotel was worth it.

A bit of research on hotels near the Hong Kong airport indicated that it would be cheaper to stay in the city than near the airport.  So I thought: “Okay, we’ll have a taste of Hong Kong one night before heading out to see Dad.  Won’t that be a nice bonus, mini-trip?”

Around the same time, we decided to extend the trip from just over Thanksgiving weekend to the following week.  So now we had 9 or 10 days to play with.  Why not end the trip with a 3-day stay in Hong Kong?  I priced out the airfare with a stopover in Hong Kong on the way back and the price came down a little.  Excellent.  I booked the airfare, leaving on Thanksgiving and returning 9 days later on Saturday (so that we could recover from the travel on Sunday).  We would spend 5 days in Seoul with my father and 3 days in Hong Kong for just the two of us.  I also had some British Airways points sitting around, so I booked business class flights between Seoul and Hong Kong for a little taste of luxury.

That meant that we didn’t need to squeeze in a mini-trip to Hong Kong at the beginning.  So I went back to the idea of just crashing in a hotel near the airport… until I noticed that hotels in Macau were so much cheaper!

I knew nothing about Macau.  NOTHING.  I just thought it would be fun to add another city to this trip.  So without really considering the logistics of getting from the airport to Macau — and back in time for our 7am flight to Seoul — I booked a non-refundable hotel room in Macau.

That was a mistake.

I then did some research on how to get from Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) to Macau.  To my dismay, I found that the only way to get from HKIA to Macau was by ferry.  And there were no direct ferries from Macau to HKIA in time for our 7am flight.  I also failed to consider that we’d want to explore Macau a bit that night — what happened to my brilliant idea of adjusting to the time difference by falling asleep upon arrival?!?!

Lucky break #1: Cathay changed the time for our Seoul flight from 7am to 9:30am.  Which meant that we could take the first ferry from Macau to HKIA in the morning.  Phew!  (Of course, that assumed that the ferry was on time and that there were no weather delays, because the timing of that connection was TIGHT.  As in, we had about 10 minutes to spare.  A tight connection to a flight in a foreign country to another foreign country where neither of us speak the languages and I have no status on the airline?  No problem!)

So we decided to try to sleep on the plane to HKIA, stay up all night in Macau (using the hotel room as a place to store our luggage and shower), sleep on the plane to Seoul, spend that first afternoon with my dad, and then crash that night.  That way, we’d adjust to the time difference one day later.

Yeah, there are no holes in this plan.  Did I mention that I don’t sleep well on planes?  Or that the connection between the ferry and the airport was uncomfortably tight?

One last note: we also decided to pay for “extra-leg room” economy seats on the flights to and from Hong Kong.  Chris is 6 foot, 3 inches and most of that height is in his legs.  Economy for 14 hours with normal leg room for Chris is just not a good idea.  Cathay lets passengers buy access to bulkhead seats, which would give Chris oodles of leg room.  So our “cheap” airfare ended up costing another $100 per person, per leg (total: $400).  Plus the hotel room in Macau.  Plus anything we spent in Macau.  So yes, it would have been cheaper to fly the direct flight.  But less fun!

FLIGHT #1: ORD-HKG.  Cathay Pacific 807, Economy Premium Economy

Thanksgiving morning, we wake up and we’re ready to go.  Kinda.  I think we packed that morning.  We gave ourselves plenty of time to get to O’Hare using public transportation, since we knew the buses and trains were running less frequently on a holiday schedule.

Lucky break #2: pretty much as we arrive at our bus stop, a bus is pulling up.

Lucky break #3: pretty much as soon as we get off the bus to transfer to the train, a train to O’Hare pulls in.

We gave ourselves an hour to get O’Hare and we got there in about 40 minutes.  Brilliant.

We had checked into our flight on-line, but I wanted to re-check-in at the ticket counter to ask about upgrades.  Cathay Pacific offers four classes of seating on its flights between Chicago and Hong Kong: Economy, Premium Economy, Business, and First.  Business and First were pipe-dreams.  Even getting upgraded to Premium Economy was a LONG SHOT: Cathay is also known for not giving those away, even when there’s room.  But I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask and given that we arrived at O’Hare early and the length of the flight, it would be worth trying for.

Lucky break #4: I was prepared to spend a little extra for Premium Economy, but we got upgraded for free!  Woo hoo!  Apparently as a Thanksgiving treat, each ticket agent was authorized to upgrade 2 passengers.  Fantastic.

Economy is arranged in rows of 3-3-3 seating.  Premium Economy is arranged in rows of 2-4-2.  I was hoping we’d have 2 seats to ourselves, but we were put in the middle 4.  Chris had the aisle, I was stuck in the middle.  But since this was a free upgrade, I wasn’t going to complain!  Also, the seats are wide enough that I didn’t really notice the other person sitting next to me.

Chris had never been on a flight this long.  I hadn’t been on a flight this long as an adult.  (I went to Korea once as a child, in 1986, and I’m pretty sure I slept through most of it.)  He read a book, watched a movie, and got some sleep.  I binged through a whole TV series (Broadchurch, series 1 — EXCELLENT!), did a bit of cross-stitching, and slept very little.  Food was fine, wine was surprisingly decent, and the seats were pretty comfy.  We were both pleasantly surprised by how much recline the seats offered and I really liked the footrest.  When we go back to Hong Kong, we are definitely going to pay for Premium Economy — it’s worth it.

One bit of geekery fun: since I watched Broadchurch on my iPad, I used the in-flight entertainment system as a map to keep track of the flight’s progress.  The flight goes over the North Pole, so we kept an eye on the various destinations in Canada, particularly Qikiqtarjuaq.  Qikiqtarjuaq is a destination/episode of the British radio sitcom “Cabin Pressure” and we had good fun quoting the show to each other as we neared (and passed) it.

We arrived in Hong Kong pretty much on time… which was a little disappointing.  Given our fabulous run of luck, I was hoping we’d arrive early enough to catch the 8:15pm ferry from HKIA to Macau.  Alas, we had to wait for the next ferry, at 9:30pm.

In retrospect, it’s probably for the best that our good luck ended at that point.  If we had caught that earlier ferry, I might have been tempted to push my luck even further and gamble in Macau!


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