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Polls, planes, and queues

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaWhile I languish in an airport immigration flash mob, our readers pick winners – and losers – in our annual poll. But who let the kids out? See our growing 2017 Poll WINNERS' ALBUM.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Cathay Pacific's New Niki DC3 - Winners of our 2017 Best in Travel Poll

Cathay's 'New Niki' longs for those swashbuckling DC3 open sky days/ photo: Vijay Verghese

THERE used to be a time when airports smelled of adventure, of aviation fumes, cologne and coffee. As a kid I recall flying in assorted tin cans, juddering twin-prop Dakotas, grand four-engine Vickers Viscounts and darting F27 Fokker Friendships. It was an innocent time when a six-year-old kid could race off the plane directly into the arms of his parents waiting in a cordoned off section of the tarmac, chased by panicked stewardesses entrusted with fleet-footed wards. There were no security checks save for the one my father undertook at every departure to remove all comics from my handbag. Comics would ruin my English, he said.

Airports are a different beast altogether now, large, impersonal, formal, unfriendly, and plastered with ‘do not’ signs. It’s a wonder anyone succeeds in getting through. Sometimes you have a distinct feeling you may have arrived at Calcutta station at peak hour with the endless press of bodies and a remarkable absence of ordered lines. This was the scene at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport mid-July 2017, a nonchalant demonstration of how the place can accommodate as many people as you wish to throw at it. Immigration throngs spilled back into the travellator hall as did the ‘queues’ from the Priority Lane.

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I tried to get into the Priority Lane waving my APEC card only to discover just about everyone was a priority passenger of some sort, holding up cards officiously stamped by various airlines. It mattered not a jot in the scrum. Tall elegant Thai ladies dressed in gold suits attended to their ‘Thailand Elite’ guests, pushing them into the melee near a sign that read: “Exceptional Prestige experience”.

Oddly, Suvarnabhumi’s Premium Lanes do not employ a single snake queue – as in New Delhi, Hong Kong, Shanghai and just about everywhere – offering visitors instead the ‘amazing’ and rather egalitarian experience of pushing and wheedling their way to the front however best they can. Of the eight immigration counters, four were manned. Rule No.1 – never stand in a curving line. It always spells trouble. People sidestep to peer ahead if their line is becalmed, creating that giveaway curve. Straight lines, even if longer, are always faster.

{Tall Thai ladies dressed in gold suits attended to their ‘Thailand Elite’ guests, pushing them into the melee near a sign that read: “Exceptional Prestige experience”

Suvarnabhumi is not on our readers’ list of the World’s Top 10 Airports following our May/June Best in Travel Poll, an annual exercise since 2004. But Samui Airport is, proving that small can be beautiful, especially if accompanied by Hawaiian trolley car transfers and breezy informal surrounds. Despite the upgrade tinkering and construction uproar, Singapore’s Changi Airport took the top honours here as it invariably does.

I recently met up with my old friend the Douglas DC3 – New Niki as she is called – reverentially parked outside Cathay City near Hong Kong Airport, looking longingly at the skies. The first Niki has wandered off while Betsy, the original Cathay Pacific workhorse sold off in 1955 was discovered flying cargo and mail in Australia in the mid-eighties and repurchased and restored, since then suspended mid-flight at the Hong Kong Science Museum. Today CX might even serve you premium crafted Betsy beer.

But it was Singapore Airlines that stole the show with a clean win across all three airline categories – Best Airline Worldwide, Best Business Class and Best Cabin Service – demonstrating that soft focus smiling women in sarongs paired with large leather seats is a winning combination.

In the end it is people who make the brands not logos. Hotels and airlines displaying the most friendly teeth and the busiest feet, were the ones readers picked, from classics like gilt-edged baroque The Peninsula Hong Kong, and the Doric column heritage icon The Fullerton Hotel Singapore, to luxe beachfront spa escape St Regis Bali, get-back-in-shape spa haven Banyan Tree Phuket, and family favourite Grand Hyatt Bali with its five swimming pools. Indeed Bali is back this year as the favoured Leisure Destination in Asia while Hong Kong was top choice for Meetings.

Millennials got into the act causing some turbulence in their wake, prying out new favourites and upsetting some old chuggers. As one hotelier mentioned, an eyebrow arched, “I don’t get the fuss over millennials. After all we were all young once.” True, but we didn’t have the Internet. We had Superman and Richie Rich comics – or some of us did.

Interestingly, while younger millennials were patently brand disloyal and hopped about beds faster than the Energiser Bunny, older millennials hitting 35 years or so tended to opt for ‘aspirational’ brands very similar to those selected by older luxury travellers. A cautionary tale for whippersnappers: we all mellow with age and become fussy peripatetics, or discriminating travellers, as hotels politely term us. We need large tactile light switches, rain shower toggles that are easily fathomed, firm beds – as we can’t launch ourselves from soft sink-in mattresses – and scrambled eggs that are not overdone omelettes.

There were major upsets. Jetstar Asia dethroned boudoir-red AirAsia - heretofore the undisputed kind of Asian budget airlines – with a wafer-thin lead to bag No.1 in our 2017 poll for the first time. One of the swing factors was business travellers on the Singapore-Hong Kong route where value and punctuality earned big points. AirAsia’s size too now brings in both kudos and brickbats. It is the price of success. In Bali, the wondrous, simple, and vigorously unfussy Chedi Club Tanah Gajah Ubud, a confection of just a few private villas afloat in a sea of green rice paddy, sailed up as the Best Boutique Hotel in Asia.

As in previous years, there were no nomination fees, voter inducements, or gala dinners with arm-twisting over must-sponsor tables. This is a free and fair market research exercise that cannot be bought, and products are ranked out of an unlimited universe.

Travellers said in our secondary continuing poll, that there is “too much emphasis on bookings and not enough on product insights”, while “fake or paid reviews” and a disinclination to trust online photographs, create further hurdles in making selections. This may be so but asked to pick a single product in each category, they did so unerringly, following voting patterns broadly similar to past years but with subtle differences. This is itself remarkable as the online voting population changes each year by demographics, age, and travel experience. It is a testament to winners, some who have graced our TOP 25 Lists for several years, as they indeed exemplify the Best in Travel. Do give them a test drive.

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