I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Farewell Diamond Club

Long time since I wrote a blog entry about anything, let alone flying. But after the phone calls I made this morning, I feel compelled to write a pointless farewell lament, addressing the void about the soon-to-be-departed Diamond Club, FlyBMI's extraordinary frequent flyer scheme.

I discovered the frequent flyer game in 2006, when Yahoo! first sent me away in business class, to Taipei. I was hooked immediately, and soon enough subsequent events in my life gave me both the impetus and opportunity to exploit my new hobby to the fullest. I went around the world in comfort, spunking all my savings at the time on a marvellous (and well blogged) trip to Sydney, Singapore, Dubai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Auckland, Perth, New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Gibraltar, and Vancouver (though not in that order, duh). I discovered FlyerTalk and mostly lurked around the forums absorbing information like a sponge. Pretty soon I learnt that, for a UK resident, the BMI Diamond Club scheme was where the real action was.

Here's the deal. BMI were a member of Star Alliance, making a massive network of airlines and destinations available to spend miles on. Better yet, Diamond Club allowed one-way redemptions, unlike most other airlines. And better better yet yet, they had an extraordinarily generous scheme whereby you could pay just half the number of miles, and top it up with cash (and, certainly in comparison with paying for the same flights, the cash amount was pretty small). And, fuck me, triple better triple yet, you were allowed a stopover en route so long as you didn't backtrack or go too far out of the way. Individually these things are great benefits, but together ... wow.

I took out an affinity credit card with MBNA and started putting basically all my spending through it (all, that is, that didn't go through my BA credit card; for a while I was running with two programmes). I would sometimes buy miles, sometimes take out a new credit or charge card to get a bonus boost. Occasionally I even flew with a Star Alliance carrier for money, and credited real flown miles to my account. A rare occurrence for sure! And overall, somehow, I managed to roll with a balance that let me go to Australia roughly once a year since 2009. In business class. For less than a grand return.

A grand is a lot of money to spend and I don't do it lightly, but my bro and family live in Australia and it's important to me to see them when I can. It's also important to me to fly in business class 'cos I'm addicted, and for value for money this couldn't be beat: almost every time I went, a restricted (no changes, no cancellations) economy fare would have cost me pretty much the same amount of money. Paying for flexible business class would have cost somewhere between £3000 and £6000 each trip! And that just for a straight return, direct, no stopovers...

I flew with Air New Zealand via LA and Auckland. I flew with Asiana via Seoul. I flew with Thai via Bangkok several times. I got to fly Turkish Airlines and their fantastic 77W aircraft. I got to spend a shitload of time staring at timetables, maps, redemption charts, and reviews of business class products. I started outside of the UK to save money (it was cheaper to buy a single to Helsinki and stay overnight than to start in London, thanks to the UK's Air Passenger Duty on long-haul business class travel). Basically I got to be a proper comfort/luxury geek, and I fucking love(d) it.

But, oh, heavy sigh. BMI have been bought by BA. Not that I don't like BA, I do, I really do - but BA are a member of a different alliance: oneworld (ironically the alliance I first went round the world with, who got me properly addicted). Diamond Club's benefits will all disappear, I'm sure of it. I don't want it to end but it is, so I'm treating myself. My final redemption was made this morning.

Diamond Club as we know it dies on April 20th. I had to act pretty fast. Some recent gambling wins and a surprise tax rebate meant I could afford to treat myself and I decided to pull the trigger. My priorities were: fly business class with Star Alliance airlines I'd not tried before; do a lot of flying; get at least one new passport stamp; go somewhere nice (a distant last priority). And after an Easter weekend when I am basically housebound, kept inside by a mixture of illness, rail engineering works, and shitty weather, I'm pretty sure that what I've ended up with does the trick LIKE A BOSS.

  • Brussels to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) via a technical stop in Milan, with Ethiopian Airlines.
  • Just under 4 hours in Addis Ababa airport, presumably in the Ethiopian Airlines "cloud nine" lounge.
  • Addis Ababa to Zanzibar (Tanzania) via a technical stop in Dar Es Salaam.
  • 4 nights in Zanzibar, including my birthday.
  • Zanzibar to Addis Ababa via Dar Es Salaam.
  • Another 3 hours in Addis Ababa airport.
  • Addis Ababa to Frankfurt via a technical stop in Khartoum (Sudan), with Lufthansa.
  • 9 hours in Frankfurt, for a side-trip to Mainz or Wiesbaden.
  • Frankfurt to London, with Lufthansa.

I've never been to Africa; Gibraltar's the closest I ever got. My own criteria for "have I visited a country?" is based entirely on whether I've been landside; airside at airports doesn't count. So, sadly, this trip is only guaranteed to add one new country to my list: Tanzania. I hope to nip outside in Addis Ababa briefly for breakfast on the way out (you can buy a visa on arrival) to make it two. The Khartoum stop is only for fuel/technical reasons, no-one will get on or off much less get beyond immigration. Never mind, eh?

I have flown Lufthansa, but not in business class and not their A330-300 plane (which has something approximating "real" long-haul business class seats, as far as I can tell). I've never flown Ethiopian Airlines. Reviews of both are mixed: in the realms of luxury travel, neither are top notch, and they won't compare with other carriers I've been fortunate enough to fly (BA, Qantas, Air New Zealand, Thai) either in the air or on the ground. But I don't expect either of them to be terrible either, and in particular it looks like I could be lucky with the food. Which is good, because Ethiopian food is awesome.

This is a crazy trip. Insane. I have to get to Brussels (either a separate flight or Eurostar), then take 5 flights which will feel like 9 thanks to the stops. Both flights between Ethiopia and Europe are overnight. The prospect of travelling solo to East Africa is filling me with epic trepidation. The hop between Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar is only 45 miles! And rather than come straight home, I've deliberately engineered a stupid and no doubt exhausting side trip to somewhere fairly random in Germany, just for the sake of flying Lufthansa and, well, why come straight home...? The logistics of the whole trip are ridiculous.

I can't fucking wait.