It was getting to the end of August. Paris is an incredibly boring and sleepy place in the month of August. Nearly all the good restaurants close, most of the bars shut down until September, people flee for vacation, and the city just feels vacant. Still, I was sad to be leaving. I knew it would be months before I would have time to make it back to Paris, and it’s always hard to say goodbye to places that you love.
However, I had planned this circuitous route from Paris to New York extensively, and I was anxious to get airborne and on the way. As we neared CDG Terminal 1, excitement regarding the upcoming adventure overpowered my melancholy, and I was back in travel mode.
United Airlines and Qatar Airways were in the last weeks of their partnership agreement. As of September 14, 2012 United frequent fliers would no longer be able to use their Mileage Plus miles to make bookings on Qatar Airways (which at the time, could be booked with MP miles and integrated with Star Alliance carriers on complex awards). I had made my booking a few weeks before the deadline, but not without trouble.
Initially, I had wanted a roundtrip BCN-DOH-GYD-TBS(stopover)-IST-BEY [open jaw] CAI(Destination)-ZRH-BCN that would allow me to fly Qatar, spend a few days in Tbilisi, catch up with some friends for a night in Istanbul, then buy a revenue ticket to Beirut to meet my friend N who was flying over from Chicago, before we would continue on to Egypt to see the pyramids. I would then get on the CAI-ZRH-BCN portion to position myself for the Singapore Airlines flight to Brazil.
I succeeded in ticketing the above as desired. However, as the civil war in Syria continued to heat up, and I got travel advisory after travel advisory about Lebanon, I began to reconsider. Finally, I emailed an old professor who has been a combat correspondent for three decades. After consulting colleagues on the ground in Lebanon, she told me now would not be a good time to go to Beirut.
That was good enough for me. I talked to N, and we decided he would meet me in IST before we continued on to CAI. I figured it would be a cinch to call UA and simply delete the IST-BEY portion of my Europe to Middle East round trip award. This is when the problems began. First, QR had summarily yanked the availability on the BCN-DOH flight. UA suggested I just take a CDG-DOH flight. This was fine with me, since it would save me the $ for a positioning flight into BCN. Then, when I tried to delete the BEY leg, this left us with CDG-DOH-GYD-TBS-IST [open jaw] CAI-ZRH-BCN. Apparently this combination of double open jaws and the first half of the open jaw stopping in TBS did not compute. UA told me I would have to break the award up into 1-ways CDG-DOH-GYD-TBS and CAI-ZRH-BCN. I could also waste miles on the TBS-IST flight if I so desired, but flights weren’t expensive, so I opted to fly revenue. I never imagined REMOVING flights to make an itinerary shorter would have caused such an uproar, but so be it. It was all settled, and time to go.
As I mentioned, Qatar Airways uses T1 at CDG, they have dedicated First Class and Business Class check-in counters, and the CDG-DOH leg is operated by an Airbus A340-600 in a three class (Y,J,F) configuration.
There wasn’t much of a line to check-in for Business and I quickly had my boarding card and was able to verify which lounge QR uses in T1 (it’s the very, very lousy Air France lounge). Even though QR was a United partner at the time, and I was traveling on an award ticket with United Mileage Plus miles, I was not permitted to access the T1 Star Alliance lounge with my United Club Membership card, as I was not traveling on a Star Alliance itinerary. Oh the semantics.
Qatar is a first rate carrier in the air, and their ground handling in Doha is nearly without equal, however they REALLY need to improve their lounge situation at CDG. Their contract lounge is a dismal Air France offering that isn’t even up to the standards of a domestic United Club. I was traveling with miles, but if I had actually shelled out the 5,000+ that a Business or First Class fare commands on QR, I would expect something a little bit nicer.
There was almost nothing in the way of food and beverage offerings in the lounge. In the time since my travel on QR, they have agreed to join OneWorld, so it can be assumed that they will, or already have ended their association with the Air France lounge (and hopefully all things Air France as I must take every possible opportunity to note how much I despise that airline). Being a new OneWorld member, I would expect future QR flights ex-CDG to use the Cathay Pacific or the AA lounge, neither are world beaters, but certainly an improvement.
I got to the gate a bit early as is my custom, in order to take some pictures of the plane. The A340-600 is one of my favorite widebodies. There’s just something about 4-engined airliners. It’s no 747, but it’ll do. We boarded a bit late, but once on board everything was smooth. QR apparently goes to great lengths to protect their premium cabins. On this particular flight, I would venture a guess that we were at about 50% capacity. I’m not sure if anyone was in F as I didn’t try to peek past the curtain. I was very satisfied to have an empty seat next to me and nothing between me and six hours of peace and quiet but the take off roll.
Dinner was excellent, well above the traditional “business class” standard you would expect on most airlines. This was the first time I tried halloumi cheese, and it has since become a favorite. It is a cheese with a very high boiling point, so it can be grilled like a meat.
I couldn’t find anything particularly interesting on the IFE system, so I was content to watch the moving map and kick back and try to rest. Qatar provides all of it’s Business Class (as well as First Class) passengers with Pajamas. These gray PJ’s with an embroidered QR logo on the breast were very comfortable. In addition, we received amenity kits and a small pouch containing socks and an eye mask. The eye mask provided by QR is the best I have received on any airline in any class of service. It wraps all the way around, past just the edges of your eyes to provide more total darkness when in light environments. The QR eyemask I received on this flight now has a permanent home in my carry-on, and I use it frequently when I need to get sleep at odd hours.
While the business class seats on the QR Boeing 777 are true flat beds, the business class seats on the A330’s and A340’s are angled lie flats. [Many pictures of the seats and cabin at the end]. While normally I have trouble sleeping on angled lie flats, QR’s seats were great. I managed to doze off for most of the flight, and I came to perhaps 45 minutes outside of Doha, just as the sun was creeping up over the black horizon. Daytime came to the middle east rapidly, and in no time we were on our way down into the sandy environs of DOH.
As anyone who has transited DOH knows, there are no jetways. Thus every transfer is from an apron position. When we boarded in CDG we were all given color coded tags based on class of service, whether we were transiting Doha, etc… my maroon tags meant I was a transit passenger, and I was granted access to the Qatar Premium Terminal.
They herded us on to buses based by color groupings, and after what felt like 45 minutes, we finally pulled up in front of the premium terminal.
I went up the escalator and was directed to the right side of the terminal which is reserved for Business Class (First Class gets the other half). I told one of the greeters that I had a long layover and wanted to go into Doha for a bit. She told me that would not be a problem, and directed me to a cloakroom to store my carry-ons. Before heading into town, I wanted to shower, so I went to the back of the lounge and put my name on the list for a shower. It seemed there were only three showers for the entire lounge, which seemed like a ludicrously small #, given how crowded it was at that hour in the early morning.
Finally, my time came and I hopped in the shower. No matter which way I turned the knobs, I was unable to get anything other than scaldingly hot water to come out. Still, it was better than nothing. After rinsing off, I put on clothes more befitting my new climate.
With this change into linens complete, I went back down the escalator and asked one of the QR employees how I might get into Doha. Since there is no immigration facility for entering Qatar in the premium terminal (you can exit Qatar through private immigration into the terminal). They had to arrange for a bus to come and pick me up and take me to the main terminal. After waiting for 15 minutes or so, a bus was commandeered just for me and I was on my way to the main terminal, not exactly sure what my plan was.
I got there just ahead of a busload of fliers who seemed to be coming in from Southwest Asia, and I was through the queue in no time, with a new Doha entry stamp in my passport.
Prior to flying to Qatar, I had done some research, and picked out a good place to get breakfast. They weren’t scheduled to open for another 45 minutes or so, but it was sweltering, and I had nowhere else to go, so I withdrew some local currency, found a cab and asked him to bring me to Souq Waqif. When I got there it was totally deserted. It was so hot that I immediately began sweating when I got out of the cab, and my sunglasses started to fog up. I can’t imagine too many people outside of the middle east are used to highs of 106 F.
After a bunch of meandering and a lot of sweating, I managed to locate the restaurant. Even though they weren’t due to open for another 30 minutes or so (as per the internet), they seated me without question, and the place seemed to be half full. Perhaps the internet is not all knowing.
I availed myself of a good deal of water and had a pretty decent breakfast. It’s always amusing when you can see cultural differences come through immediately. More amusing when you see both the differences and the similarities. As I was sitting there eating, a Qatari couple came in. A rather obese guy in the full, flowing white robes, etc… and his wife in the black burka with nothing but an eye slit.
They sat down, and when the guy had decided what he wanted he simply put his hand in the air, and without looking beckoned for the waitress as if he were an ancient King calling for his servants to attend to him (difference). Later, when he and his wife had their multiple plates of food delivered, the wife whipped out her DSLR and started taking pictures of the various dishes, presumably so she could write about them later on her food blog (similarity). Never a dull moment out on the road…I did wonder how she managed to eat with fabric over her mouth though.
Once breakfast was done, I went in search of a cab. There were none to be found. I wandered in the heat for probably 20 or 30 minutes, occasionally stopping into a local business to ask which direction might be best. Finally, I happened upon a local bus depot and found a bunch of cabs sitting there. I grabbed the first available one, and asked him to bring me back to DOH.
Once there, I was dropped in front of the Premium Terminal, I went through their immigration check point, back out of Qatar and settled in for the rest of my layover. Below are a bunch of pictures of the truly excellent premium terminal:
There was wifi throughout the premium terminal, a number of bar area, tons and tons of seating room, a cigar lounge and an excellent dining area with an extensive buffet and (I believe) the ability order other items a la carte. This is truly one of the premier lounges out there and certainly the finest business class lounge I have ever had the privilege of swinging through. I was stranded there for an extraordinarily long time, but there are only so many ways to get from Paris to Tbilisi with miles, the things we do for travel…thanks MileagePlus!
Finally, after watching some middle aged contractors leave the lounge to board their flight to Iraq (with a mix relief that I wouldn’t be joining and envy that I wouldn’t be joining ), it was time to head back down the escalator and get on the bus to meet my flight to Tbilisi.
Since UA and QR have ended their partnership and BA (my OneWorld “home” airline) generally has lousy redemption rates on longhaul travel, I don’t know how long it will be before I swing through Doha again, but it was definitely a top notch experience. Anyone considering flying QR…two thumbs up, they are truly the world’s five star airline.
MORE CABIN AND SEAT PHOTOS