Review: Qantas Economy and Business Class Cairns to Sydney to Melbourne

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

After disembarking the Spirit of Freedom after four insanely great days of diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea, we accompanied several of our fellow passengers to a bar in Cairns for lunch and a few drinks.  Many of the crew members of the boat met us there for a great summer afternoon.  When it was time to head to the airport, several of us split a cab for the short ride.  I’d booked my dad in business class for these two segments, while I bit the bullet and agreed to ride back in economy.  Upon check-in, the very nice Qantas check-in agent proactively changed my seat assignment to an exit-row aisle seat when she saw how tall I was – this was a very nice touch and a great way to start the trip down to Melbourne.

After passing through security, we spent some time in the Qantas Club before it was time to board for the flight.  Despite Cairns being a regional airport at best, the club was extremely well equipped and certainly much nicer than pretty much any other domestic lounge run by a carrier in the US.

Cairns to Melbourne via Sydney on Qantas

Cairns to Melbourne via Sydney on Qantas

Qantas (QF) 927
Cairns (CNS) – Sydney (SYD)
Aircraft:  Boeing 737-800
Seat:  14D (Economy Class)
Monday, January 6
4:15 PM – 8:15PM
Duration:  3:00

My dad took his seat in 1D in business class, and I kept going back to the second row of exit row seats.  The plane was a fairly new B737-800 with nice, leather seats and an in-seat IFE system.  Since I did have an exit row seat, I had tons of legroom — this was much appreciated, though even the standard seat pitch didn’t look all that bad.

Plenty of legroom in the Exit Row!

Plenty of legroom in the Exit Row!

Nice in-seat IFE on this Qantas B737-800

Nice in-seat IFE on this Qantas B737-800

Service on the flight was pretty fantastic.  We had a light snack on-board that consisted of a decent sandwich — the flight attendant from business class even brought me back some ice cream and a drink from business class at the request of my dad — a nice touch for sure.  I watched a movie on the IFE, and before I knew it, we were on final approach into Sydney.  This was one of the easier flights in economy that I’d experienced, and it was certainly a better experience than my flights on Virgin Australia a few days before.

We were scheduled to have a couple of hours in Sydney before our connecting flight departed for Melbourne, but it was delayed for about an hour.  No worries — we just headed to the Qantas Club in the domestic terminal to kill some time.  Once again, it was very well-appointed and provided a wonderful respite from the somewhat vacant domestic terminal at that hour.

Boarding for the short hop over to Melbourne began about 45 minutes behind schedule as the flight was awaiting a connecting crew.

Qantas (QF) 497
Sydney (SYD) – Melbourne (MEL)
Aircraft:  Boeing 767-300
Seat:  4E (Business Class)
Monday, January 6
10:05 PM – 11:40PM
Duration:  1:35

Since my dad enjoyed business class on the much longer between Cairns and Sydney, he offered  his seat in business class to me for the shorter flight to Melbourne.  I gladly accepted his offer, and was pretty thrilled to ride up front on this domestic version of the Qantas B767-300.   The domestic version of this aircraft is situated with 30 business class seats — five rows of six seats.  It’s a regional business class setup, with a larger, reclining seat.  It wasn’t up to the standards of the regional business class product I flew last year on Cathay Pacific, but the seat was certainly better than your typical domestic first class seat in the States.  Though I didn’t use it, the IFE on the B767-300 was via pre-loaded iPads.  Each of these IFE systems were loaded with a ton of entertainment — movies, TV shows, music, etc.  I do prefer in-seat IFE systems, but this system wasn’t that bad — especially considering there was a slot in the seat where you can hang the iPad, making it a de-facto seat-back IFE system.

The empty Business Class cabin on the Qantas B767-300

The empty Business Class cabin on the Qantas B767-300

The IFE system on the Qantas B767-300 -- an iPad

The IFE system on the Qantas B767-300 — an iPad

The business class cabin on this evening flight was practically empty.  In fact, there was only one other passenger in the business class cabin with me, and that person was seated up in row 1.   There were two flight attendants working the business class cabin, so it came as no surprise that the service on-board was pretty phenomenal.  The flight attendant was young and attractive, and actually sat with me for quite some time giving me some recommendations for things to do in Melbourne.

Thought the flight was listed as an hour and thirty-five minutes, in reality it was no more than a fifty-five minute flight, wheels-up to wheels-down.  Despite this short flight time, there was still a legit meal service.  The dish was a couscous salad with sliced,  chipotle pork, with lime.  It was very light, refreshing, and pretty delicious — a perfect snack for a short, late night flight.

Pork and couscous salad

Pork and couscous salad

The flight was over too quick, but after the end of a long day I was pretty good and ready to be in Melbourne.

This short little hop was a pretty ridiculously good flight, albeit a short one.  I was quite happy with the domestic business class service provided by Qantas — and the economy flight was pretty impressive too.

How I booked it…

Domestically in Australia, there are three major players:  Qantas, Virgin Australia, and JetStar.  This left me with several options.  Since Qantas is partners with both American and British Airways, I could easily redeem those miles for travel should the flight be expensive.  For short-haul flights, British Airways Avios would work best, as it features a distance-based award chart that can be very advantageous — especially on flights under 651 miles.  For the Cairns to Melbourne segment, I decided to use miles for a flight on Qantas.  At the time, I had very modest balances of both British Airways Avios and American Airlines miles.  I ultimately wanted to fly the both of us in business class, but unfortunately there was only one seat in business left on the Cairns to Sydney segment.   The cheapest way to do this flight in business was with American miles, as it only ran 17,500 miles for this one-way flight in business class.

17,500 miles for a one-way in business class "Wholly Within" Australia

17,500 miles for a one-way in business class “Wholly Within” Australia

Australia one of the "Wholly Within" listed countries

Australia one of the “Wholly Within” listed countries

I then used British Airways Avios for another ticket on the same flights, but in economy.  This came to 14,500 Avios due to the distance of Cairns – Sydney – Melbourne clocking in at two segments (10,000 + 4,500 avios).  See this post for a background in the distance-based British Airway Avios program.

Avios Redemption Chart Courtesy:  British Airways

Avios Redemption Chart
Courtesy: British Airways

 

Review: Spirit of Freedom Live-Aboard Dive Trip

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Spirit of Freedom

Spirit of Freedom

Spirit of Freedom

We were greeted in Lizard Island by Captain Tony and the Spirit of Freedom crew.  After a short walk to the northern beach, we boarded a dinghy in crystal clear water and motored off to the mothership!  After a thorough introduction and safety presentation, we were shown our rooms.  Since it was all that was available at the time we booked, my dad and I shared a quad room with four bunks and a bathroom.  It was exactly what we expected, and all we needed during the trip.

The Boat

The boat itself is basically a three-story yacht configured to make it a diving vessel.  As such, there’s 1/3 of a deck fully dedicated to SCUBA diving operations — equipment setup, tank filling, storage, etc.  Inside from the dive deck is kitchen and dining room where we enjoyed the wonderful meals aboard Spirit of Freedom.   Further forward on the same deck is the main lounge on the boat, which featured a huge sofa, a bar, and television – it was really a great place to relax between dives.  Six of the cabins were located a deck lower, and a few were on the top deck, just forward of the good-sized sun-deck and aft of the bridge.

The Diving

Spirit of Freedom certainly delivered on the promise of world-class diving.  Over the four days, we enjoyed no less than fifteen dives!  Yes, 15!

On the day of arrival, we enjoyed two afternoon dives on Ribbon Reef number 9 on the Great Barrier Reef.  These dives featured incredible corals and marine life, including a school of barracuda and a large hammerhead shark!

Disclaimer:  The below diving pictures from this trip were compiled by the guests and crew of this dive trip on the Spirit of Freedom from 02 January to 06 January, 2014 — I unfortunately did not take these pictures
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School of Barracuda at Ribbon Reef #9

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Hammerhead on the GBR

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Incredibly clear water makes divers 50m away visible

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The Spirit of Freedom from below

Overnight, we steamed over a hundred miles out into the Coral Sea to Osprey Reef – an atoll basically in the middle of nowhere — certainly not a commonly dived part of the world.  The water here was so clear, it was breathtaking.  Visibility was upwards of 200 feet, and was some of the clearest water I’ve experienced anywhere — including the notoriously crystal clear freshwater of the Florida Springs.

We dived five times on the second day of the trip.  The first two dives were on the North Horn.  The second dive was a shark feeding dive, where a box of bait was essentially lowered on to the reef in the middle of about 30-40 sharks.

A feeding frenzy ensued.  And it was awesome.

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

That afternoon, we took in two more dives on Osprey Reef, including “Secret Caves” and “Admiralty” – both dives were complete with a network of tunnels and caves, which were some of my favorite dives of the trip.  After dinner, we enjoyed a night dive of Admiralty, and it was purely spectacular.

The next day, we steamed South to Shark Reef, where we saw an abundance of Silvertip Sharks an unbelievably clear water.  Later in the day, we dove Vema Reef and then returned to the southern tip of Osprey Reef for the final dive of the day at “Rapid Horn” which was probably the best dive of the entire trip due to the impressive wall, abundant sea life, and sheer number of large sharks.  The final day was spent at Bouganville Reef for a fourth day of spectacular diving.  That final day, diving ended a bit early so we could cruise back to Cairns, where we disembarked on the morning of January 6th.

Food

The food was outstanding.  It was far better than I expected, and was frankly better than almost any cruise I’ve ever been on.  The presentation and taste of every meal was top-notch.  Every day, we were woken up at 6:30am for a light breakfast before our first dive.  This was usually a continental affair featuring cereals, muffins, yogurts,  juices and coffee.  We then proceeded to do our first dive of the day.  Upon finishing the first dive, we returned to the dive boat with the aroma of a freshly cooked breakfast greeting us as we walked inside.  This was a hot breakfast of pancakes, bacon, sausage, eggs, and a variety of other goodies.  Lunch was usually quite elaborate, and featured a wide range of cuisines throughout the trip.  Dinner was alway a treat, as the staff served us course by course with some delicious meals ranging from beef tenderloin to chicken to a wonderful fish dish.  The final night of the trip was highlighted by an on-deck barbecue with chicken, steak, sausage, and kangaroo, along with delicious sides — it was just amazing having the meal on deck in the middle of the Coral Sea.  There was PLENTY to eat, and all the food was just first-rate.

The Crew

Simply fantastic.  They bent over backwards for us all week.  The trip director, Nic led an amazing lot of dives, and provided excellent dive briefings before every dive, and summaries of the day every evening.  Hostess Jill and the team really couldn’t do enough for us all week — everything we needed was taken care of.  The crew was really as good as it gets!

Spirit of Freedom Crew

Spirit of Freedom Crew

Overall

I really can’t say enough about our time on the Spirit of Freedom.  It was a SCUBA diver’s dream — plain and simple.

The diving was some of the best in the world.   The vessel was a world-class live aboard ship.  The crew couldn’t have been any better.  The food was borderline gourmet.  Everything exceeded our wildest expectations.  We really viewed this as THE highlight of our entire Australia experience.  I really couldn’t have thought up a better way to spend some great quality time with my dad than this.

Though the Spirit of Freedom is priced a bit higher than some of its competitors, I can say that you get what you pay for.  Pricing information can be found on the Spirit of Freedom website, here.  I highly recommend this trip to all divers — it’s certainly a bucket list-type trip!

How I Booked it…

No points or miles here!  I sent in a reservation request on the website and finalized the details via e-mail with the Spirit of Freedom staff…

Spirit of Freedom Website

An Evening in Cairns and a Flight to Lizard Island, AU

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

An Evening in Cairns

Upon arrival from Brisbane, we collected our luggage at baggage claim, and took a short taxi ride to the Holiday Inn Cairns.  We checked in and went to the room, which featured a great view of the beach and the Pacific Ocean.

After freshening up, we proceeded to walk around the town of Cairns.  The pier and marina were beautiful at sunset.  Cairns is one of the common jumping off points for tours of the Great Barrier Reef — and that too was the reason we were there.  Cairns is situated on the border of the Daintree Rainforest and the sea, so the vistas are pretty stunning.   The downtown area of Cairns was highlighted by the Cairns Esplanade Swimming Lagoon — a freshwater, man-made beach where everyone was swimming at this time due to several of the beaches close to town being somewhat uninhabited due “Stinger Season” — meaning there were box jellyfish offshore — amongst the most venomous creatures in the world.

We strolled around the marina and the Esplanade and eventually had dinner at Cafe Thailand, a Thai place right near the Cairns Esplanade.  Dinner was tasty, but the service was pretty slow.  One of the creepy things about dinner was the abundance of bats, known as the “flying foxes” that reside in a tree in central Cairns.  Every evening, the bats fly throughout Cairns around sunset — it was pretty unnerving coming from someone who isn’t all that comfortable with bats.  After dinner and dodging bats, we headed back to the Holiday Inn for some sleep.

Flying from Cairns to Lizard Island on Hinterland Aviation

We were in Cairns to start our four night dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea aboard the Spirit of Freedom — a live-aboard dive boat based out of Cairns.  We selected the four-night Coral Sea itinerary.  This particular itinerary started in Lizard Island — an island in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef — and ended four days later in Cairns.  Included in the trip was a low-level flight from Cairns to Lizard Island — and it was pretty cool.

The Spirit of Freedom representatives picked us up from the Holiday Inn in the early morning of January 2nd and delivered us to the general aviation terminal at Cairns International Airport.  The main operator here is Hinterland Aviation — a small, regional and charter airline with operations in northeast Queensland.  The Spirit of Freedom chartered two flights to take the twenty-two passengers on the hour-long flight from Cairns to Lizard Island.  Our luggage was checked at the bus — and the next time we saw the bags would be on the boat.  We were all weighed in the terminal to ensure proper weight and balance.  After a fifteen minute wait, we were escorted down to the Tarmac to board our Cessna Grand Caravan.  Our plane held ten to twelve passengers and the captain.

Hinterland Aviation Cessna Grand Caravan

Hinterland Aviation Cessna Grand Caravan

We taxied along the runway with great views of the Jetstar 787 and Korean Air 747-400.  We took off to the South and immediately turned east and then north, above the Rhapsody of the Seas — the cruise ship we’d watched departing Sydney several days before.

The flight was about as scenic as it gets as we hugged the Queensland coast — rich with rainforest vegetation.  We then went off shore across the clear water of the Great Barrier Reef.  Eventually, we landed at a small airport on Lizard Island — smack dab in the middle of the GBR.  Upon approach to the island, we saw the Spirit of Freedom – our 122-foot home for the next four nights!

 

 

Review: Virgin Australia Economy Class Sydney to Brisbane to Cairns

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

We awoke after a long night out for New Year’s Eve in Sydney to finish packing for our flights to Cairns.  After checking out from the Sheraton on the Park, we took a cab through a sleepy downtown Sydney out to Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport for about AUD $35.   Check-in was relatively uneventful despite the morning rush at the terminal.  The check-in agent advised that we check our bags since they were deemed to be a “borderline” size for a carry-on.  We used these bags as carry-ons for our entire trip over on United, but went ahead and followed the gate agent’s advice anyway since we were each allowed a free bag with our “saver” fare.

Virgin Australia:  SYD-BNE-CNS

Virgin Australia: SYD-BNE-CNS

We proceeded through security and grabbed a bite for breakfast in the food court of the domestic terminal T2.  I made a few phone calls to wish folks on the East Coast of the USA a Happy New Year, and by that time boarding had commenced.  Virgin Australia boards its planes from the front and rear.  Due to our seat assignments behind the wing, we boarded through the rear set of air stairs, while the front rows boarded through the front door using the jet bridge.  Our plane was in the “old” livery, as the side of the plane still read “Virgin Blue” — the former name of the Aussie incarnation of the Virgin brand.  The airline was re-branded in 2011, and it joined then “V Australia” and “Pacific Blue” to form what is now “Virgin Australia.”

Our ride from Sydney to Brisbane -- in the old Virgin Blue livery

Our ride from Sydney to Brisbane — in the old Virgin Blue livery

Boarding the SYD-BNE flight

Boarding the SYD-BNE flight

Virgin Australia (VA) 939
Sydney (SYD) – Brisbane (BNE)
Aircraft:  Boeing 737-800
Seat:  25A
Wednesday, January 1
12:00 PM – 12:30PM
Duration:  1:30

We settled into our seats – the window and aisle seats in row 25 (A and C), hoping that the middle seat did not fill up.  We got lucky, as the door closed shortly thereafter with a relatively light load.  The cabin was clean with hints of purple hues in the bulkhead partitions.  Unfortunately, I found the legroom to be lacking, as I had some very limited pitch to fit my 6’4″ frame.  Luckily, this would only be a short flight.

Legroom (or lack thereof) on a Virgin Australia B737-800

Legroom (or lack thereof) on a Virgin Australia B737-800

There was an in-flight entertainment (IFE) screen at each seat, but upon arriving to my seat, it indicated that the satellite was temporarily down.  I hoped that this was simply because we were still at the gate.  Unfortunately, the IFE was inoperable the entire flight with the exception of a moving map display.  That was pretty disappointing.

The IFE system was down for both flights

The IFE system was down for both flights

We taxied for quite some time before taking off from Sydney.  As we climbed out,  we were blessed with magnificent views of Sydney Harbour and downtown on a beautiful New Years Day.

Shortly after takeoff, a basic drink service commenced.  This was a very standard beverage service, similar to what you’d find on a domestic flight in the US.  I spent the majority of the time on the flight looking out the window at the foreign (to me) Australian coast.   Before I knew it, we were descending into Brisbane where we landed on-time.

We were set to have about a 70 minute connection in Brisbane, but when we went to our gate for the flight to Cairns, it was clear that things were not on-time.   This allowed for us to have a more relaxed lunch in the food court of the terminal.

The delay was extended four different times until we finally were called for boarding around 3pm – about 80 minutes behind schedule.

Virgin Australia (VA) 785
Brisbane (BNE) – Cairns (CNS)
Aircraft:  Boeing 737-800
Seat:  23A
Wednesday, January 1
1:40 PM – 4:00 PM
Duration:  2:20

Once again, we boarded the rear of the aircraft via air stairs.  This airplane; however, was in the new Virigin Australia livery — a much fresher look that’s constitutes the majority of the Virgin Australia fleet.

Our BNE-CNS ride -- another VA B737-800, but this time in the new livery

Our BNE-CNS ride — another VA B737-800, but this time in the new livery

This flight to Cairns was pretty much identical to the earlier flight to Brisbane – only an hour or so longer.  There were a couple of basic drink services from friendly flight attendants — again, nothing out of the ordinary.  The IFE screen was once again dysfunctional, which was again disappointing.  The pitch in the economy cabin was pretty bad — just as it was on the first flight.  Once again, the highlight of the flight was the view, as we had a great view of some portions of the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest as we flew into Cairns in Northeast Australia.  We made up some time from the delay, and arrived about an hour later than scheduled despite the initial 1:20 delay.

Overall, my experience on Virgin Australia was pretty comparable to a domestic flight on a legacy airline in the states.  There was nothing really special about the experience, to be honest.  The legroom was pretty bad, but that’s the case with most airlines in economy these days.  The price was right, as were the flight times, and those were the ultimate drivers in choosing these flights.  Though there was nothing really wrong with the flights, I do think the domestic Virgin Australia experience is a notch below that of the often raved about Virgin America in the US.

How I booked it…

As previously mentioned, I booked these flights with cash from the Virgin Australia website.

Fifteen Days in Australia – Introduction

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Introduction

NYE Sydney Harbor

NYE Sydney Harbor

It started in March of 2013 when I friend and I were speculatively looking for availability to Australia in first class on United’s website.  Then, lo and behold, we found copious amounts of Global First Class award space on Christmas Day to Sydney.  Though there were no seats on the return flights, those were just unnecessary details…. I just wanted to get to Australia.  And I wanted to be in Sydney over New Years.

Mission accomplished.

After a series of changes, substitutions, and intense planning, this trip of a lifetime was finally fully booked by the end of October.  My trip for one had morphed into a trip for two, but I couldn’t have been any more happy to spend my miles on this travel companion — I mean, when would I have another chance to take my dad to Australia?

That’s right — I was taking my dad to Australia for a trip of a lifetime — a trip that I never thought he’d agree to take.  It’s funny how first class tickets change one’s opinion of taking a fifteen hour flight.

During the next few weeks, this series of posts will detail the fifteen memorable days that we spent together down under, including:

  • United Global First Class from Los Angeles to Sydney
  • Five days in Sydney
  • New Years’ Eve on Sydney Harbor
  • Virgin Australia Sydney to Brisbane to Cairns
  • A day in Cairns
  • Four days diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea on the Spirit of Freedom live-aboard dive boat
  • Qantas Business Class Cairns to Sydney to Melbourne
  • Three days in Melbourne
  • The Park Hyatt, Melbourne
  • United Global First Class from Sydney to San Francisco

Enjoy this sneak peak…