For our recent trip to the US, we decided to check out American Airlines‘ nonstop service from Shanghai to Chicago, which they launched in April. Since moving here in 2002, we have primarily used Northwest Airlines‘ Shanghai-Tokyo-New York route, save for a couple legs on JAL and Air Canada, whose website is embarrassingly incompatible with Safari. American is now our airline of choice for flying home. Here are some notes on our travel experience:
- The round trip price for our Shanghai-Chicago-Miami itinerary was pretty standard, right around US$1,000. One Shanghai travel agent quoted a price that was about $100 cheaper, and then after we confirmed said something to effect of, “Um, yeah. That price I told you about earlier? Not happening.” So we went with another local travel agent who was lower than a few others we checked with. No bargain, but we’re not sure if there are any more bargains out there anymore. (Would you believe that a friend of ours flew from New York to Shanghai and back for $320 on a ticket she found on Yahoo! Travel back in 2002. We’ve never heard anything even close to it since.)
- We like not having to do stopovers in Tokyo. We actually like the Narita airport, but it’s just too close to Shanghai. On the way to the US, you really want to get the long portion of the flight over with as soon as possible, so flying to Tokyo feels like a false start. And on the way back to Shanghai, you just want to get home to your own bed as soon as possible. While Narita’s day rooms are nice, it’s simply not the same.
- If your first stop in the US is not your last stop, there are annoyances, too. Namely, customs. This can take a while. There are lines to wait in and questions to answer and sometimes body cavity searches to endure. You also have retrieve any checked luggage, have it scanned and examined and then recheck it for your next flight. Last Christmas, this “heightened security” caused us to miss a connecting flight in Detroit. This time, we packed light and carried on all of our luggage … and just made our connecting flight to Miami.
- American’s seats in economy class (for international flights) are nicer than others that we have experienced. They seem a little bigger and they have these leather-like head rests that are adjustable, hence tall-people friendly.
- We had requested emergency row seats for all of our flights — we are very responsible, good at following directions and uncommonly skilled at opening very large doors (don’t ask) … oh yeah, the extra leg room is pretty nice as, well — and our travel agent assured us that is what he booked. Indeed, our seats were technically in an emergency row … but in the middle section of the plane … the seats with no extra leg room. (It would be interesting to know what percentage of Shanghai travel agents have ever flown in a plane before.) We still got our extra leg room, by the way. The Shanghai-to-Chicago flight was curiously empty so we scored some bulkhead seats, and a very nice flight attendant in Chicago hooked us up with emergency row seats on the way back to Shanghai. It’s the closest thing you can get to first class without actually flying first class. Highly recommended (unless you happen to be on the same flight as us).
- No complimentary newspapers or magazines in coach class. “Budget cuts,” we were told. How much can newspapers cost? Anyway, plan accordingly.
- No free beer and wine, either. We think Northwest was the last to offer gratis alcoholic beverages, but they stopped doing so back in February. On American, you can buy drinks for $5, but their offerings are shite. So if you need help sleeping, better buy some Ambien.
- American Airlines flight attendants seem older than most, motherly in a way. As in life, some mothers are sweet and caring, and others are … um … not.
- One thing that has always bothered us about Northwest is their lack of individual entertainment consoles for each passenger in the main cabin. It’s 2006, guys — throw us a friggin’ bone. We don’t require a Virgin-Atlantic-esque bone, either — although that would be nice … looks like they have The Squid and the Whale and up to 35 (!) games — we just want a bone with a little meat on it. Keeping the random bone analogy going, American offers what amounts to a rawhide chew toy: Seatback TVs, but the programming leaves a lot to be desired — a dozen or so channels showing the usual mix of inexcusably bad movies, sitcoms we have never heard of and painfully vacuous travel shows cum advertorials. It’s not “on demand” viewing, either. If you miss the beginning of a movie, you need to wait until the current showing finishes and hope you catch the beginning the next go around. And there is not a single game to play while you are waiting, either.
- But if you have a laptop, none of that really matters, because American Airlines has DC power outlets (like the cigarette lighter ones in a car) under the seats. All you need to do is buy a DC to AC power inverter like this one and you can plug in your laptop, or any other gadget, and not worry about the battery going dead on the 14-hour flight. Pack a bunch of DVDs and you’re all set. (We finished off the second season of LOST. Is it wrong to watch a series about a plane crash on a plane? Anyway, here’s our LOST theory: It’s purgatory.)
- Food was OK, nothing special. Drinks, they give you the whole can — that’s always nice.
- No paper seat covers in the rest rooms. We thought that was weird. Be prepared to build a nest.
- Nothing to do with American Airlines, but Miami’s airport sucks. Avoid it if you can.
So, for Shanghaiist, thanks in large part to the fact that we can plug our computer in onboard and fly to somewhere beyond California direct from Shanghai, American Airlines it is for the foreseeable future (which may come to an end in 2007 if Continental launches Shanghai-to-Newark flights as planned … or if Virgin-Atlantic ever starts offering direct service from Shanghai to the US.)
Photo of one of the best inventions we’ve seen in a while taken at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport.