How the Gulf political crisis impacted my travel plans

How the Gulf political crisis impacted my travel plans

I’ve been a loyal Oneworld flier for the last ten years and keep my status and miles with the British Airways Executive Club. However, I love testing new products – soft and hard, and have pretty much hit all the best Oneworld ones (with the exception of Qantas First Class).

My status year will lapse early October, and by then I’ll have re-qualified for BAEC Gold (with hundreds of tier points to spare). So my hands were less restricted when it came to booking a flight home to the States in August. My plan was to fly to New York (JFK), spend a couple days with some East Coast-based friends, then do a surface sector home to San Francisco (SFO) on JetBlue’s Mint premium product.  A week and one big Perso-Hindu-American wedding later, I’d fly back to the Gulf directly out of San Francisco.

Previously on “Flying Gulf Carriers”…

Last year I used American Airlines points to fly from Doha to Sydney via Abu Dhabi in Business Class on Etihad Airways. That was a memorable flight only in that the airline adn product were new to me. The service was lackluster, the food wasn’t very good and I didn’t care for their on-board lounge, which I felt was claustrophobic. The seat was rather hard and overly upright in the landing and takeoff position. It wasn’t great for lounging, which is what I spend most of my time doing on planes.

Etihad’s pricing out of Doha is not very good, which always fascinated me given that its competing with Emirates and Qatar Airways! The carrier has also scaled-back its flights to San Francisco from daily to 3x weekly (and just yesterday announced they’d be cancelling their SFO service all together in October). Thus, I wasn’t keen on flying with them again.

Finally, Emirates First!

Emirates, on the other hand, does have good – sorry, did* – have good priceson certain routes for tickets originating in Doha. I found a cheap Business Class fare going into New York and out of San Francisco. And – much to my delight – they had award space open in First Class on the ultra long-haul SFO-DXB sector. I pushed some American Express points to my Emirates Skywards account to upgrade, and selected seat 1A. This was my 30th birthday present to myself and I was unbelievably stoked about it.

I am going to the UK to visit friends and relatives in early July, so I used American Express points to book a second Emirates ticket for the return from London Heathrow to Doha (in this case via Dubai). The outbound is through Frankfurt on Qatar (Business) and British (Economy) because I try to avoid the higher Avios and taxes of flying a premium product direct into the UK when my schedule allows for it.

Snatching Loss from the Jaws of Victory

A few days after I left Doha for Tokyo, the Gulf political crisis began. All flights from the UAE to Qatar were suspended. Emirates sent me cancellation notifications for both tickets. I called them up – luckily the hold time wasn’t long at all, given the circumstances – and chatted with a friendly agent about my options. Long story short: there were none. The Emirates staff insisted that I fly through Muscat with 3, 5, 7+ hour layovers, which is – as you can imagine – a non-starter.

I requested a refund for the LHR-DXB-DOH trip, and they made clear that the revenue Business ticket – the August US trip – was being held in case flights resumed by then. They asked me not to request a refund and to wait – clearly, they didn’t want to lose the much-needed revenue.

As much as it pained me to lose that Emirates First seat, I wasn’t prepared to risk having to book a last-minute, expensive ticket home in the event things were not sorted by then. So I requested a refund for the ticket and started examining my other options.

World’s Best Carrier to the Rescue

When I’m flying from London to Doha, I typically like to take Qatar’s 21.30 redeye flight because it gives me the maximum amount of time on the ground in London and an early arrival into Doha (in time for work). There is a 21.55 flight, but its arrival times coincide with an increase of traffic, so its less than ideal. These days, QR2 is always operated by an A350-900 (A359) or A380-800, which sport their second-best Business Class seat (after the upcoming Qsuite). Luckily, there was award space on the 9th. Booked and done!

Now, I just had to deal with the August trip to the US. Given that we’re well into the summer, prices and routes to the States are not very good. In this case I’d typically turn to Cathay Pacific, but when I was booking they were still trying to route people through Dubai on the return sector, connecting to a Qatar flight from DXB-DOH (Cathay fly twice daily to Dubai, and codeshare on Qatar Airways’ direct 2x daily DOH-HKG services). Given that the flights had been suspended this would have been just as risky as keeping that shell Emirates ticket.

For what it’s worth, if Cathay had given the option to fly back to Doha directly from Hong Kong on the return sector as well, I’d have booked immediately, despite having to take more leave because of the longer travel time. Such is my faith in Cathay Pacific.

I checked Qatar Airways’ site and found a much cheaper return ticket to New York in Business Class. I looked at a multi-city ticket, going into JFK and coming back from Los Angeles, but the price shot up. This meant I would have to fly back to New York after San Francisco, but it was a small price to pay given that I’d still arrive on a Friday morning at JFK, and I could take the A359 flight in both directions (Qatar also runs a daily 777-300ER on the New York route). On the return, we’d land early in the morning, just in time for work, so no extra leave was necessary. I booked the return flight to JFK, then bought a Business ticket on American Airlines A321T at their low “competing-with-JetBlue-Mint” price for the SFO-JFK sector. Those planes feature international-grade First and Business Class cabins, as well a spacious Economy one.

In the end, my routing looks like this:

Early July London Trip
BA905 FRA-LHR A320

August US Trip
QR703 DOH-JFK A3509
B6 615 JFK-SFO A321
QR704 JFK-DOH A359

Though I’m bummed about the Emirates tickets, I hope to test them out later this year or in 2018. Qatar is a great option and the flights are direct, so I’m grateful for that – and I’m still very excited to test JetBlue’s Mint product from JFK to SFO. Stay tuned!

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