A Week in the Gulf: QR J, EK J, Qatar, Oman, and the UAE
- Introduction, Planning, and Booking
- Qatar Airways JFK Check-in and British Airways Galleries Lounge Review
- Qatar Airways A350 Business Class JFK-DOH
I’ve always been fascinated by the Middle East and, in particular, the Persian Gulf region. The rich history and culture and delicious food aside, I’ve had a phenomenal experience each time I’ve visited. While many people are put off by the Vegas-on-steroids vibe of some of the more developed cities in the Gulf, I personally love it and find the unique juxtapositions of traditional heritage with modern advancements to be quite interesting. I had a blast in the Gulf my last time there in early 2016, and I was eager to return. I had some time in late May-early June and, though it was scorching in the Middle East, I figured why not?
I realized about halfway through planning for/booking this trip that I would be there during Ramadan. While there are exceptions, in even the largest and most cosmopolitan areas of the Gulf during Ramadan, most bars are closed, many points of interest are more or less shut down during the day, and drinking and eating in public are illegal during daylight. While I balked at this for a minute, I ultimately decided not to cancel my trip. Not to be overly contemplative, but one of the great things about travel is of course being able to have unique and — though I cringe at using this word — “authentic” experiences; I figured that being in the Middle East during Ramadan, if nothing else, would qualify as such an experience. I’ll have a separate post discussing my experiences as a non-Muslim visitor during Ramadan, along with some tips for those looking to travel to the Persian Gulf during the holy month, but for now I’ll just say that I’m very glad I went.
I decided in the end on visiting Doha, Qatar; Muscat and Nizwa in Oman; and Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, in that order. With the exception of Nizwa, I had been to all of these places before, so I felt less of the pressure to see/do everything that a first-time visitor might and instead got to focus on things that I wanted to do and experience.
Having flown both Emirates and Etihad in first class previously, I was curious to see how Qatar Airways compared in its premium cabin. Akbar Al-Baker, the CEO of Qatar Airways, has (in)famously said that QR’s business class is so good they don’t need first class, so I used AA miles to book business class on the A350 from New York JFK to Doha to try their best (at the time) business class product on their newest aircraft type, on one of their more premium routes. Granted it’s not first class on the A380, but given that their A380 first class product is only available on a few limited routes, I thought trying their “flagship” business product would be a good litmus test of their overall premium experience.
On the way back, I used Alaska miles to book Emirates business class on the A380. The current administration’s (now-repealed, at least out of the UAE) electronics ban did shape my planning: I didn’t want to shy away from the ME3 carriers because of the ban and was willing to accept not having a computer for over 12 hours. In addition, I also wanted to be able to review how carriers are handling the ban. Emirates, notably, was one of the first to announce a workaround by allowing passengers to check their electronics at the gate (several other carriers have since followed suit) and by allowing premium cabin passengers to borrow a tablet. Regrettably, I completely forgot that the tablet loan was an option and it was never mentioned to me by any Emirates staff either at the airport or on board, so I wasn’t able to review that aspect of the experience. I will, however, discuss the electronics check and pick-up process in Dubai and on arrival in New York.
To get from Doha to Muscat, I decided to use BA Avios for a cheap coach ticket. I had flirted with the idea of doing the flight in regional “first” class to be able to experience the much-praised Al-Safwa lounge, but ultimately decided against it. Realizing later that Qatar doesn’t serve alcohol in its lounges during Ramadan, I was happy with my decision.
Finally, my Muscat to Dubai flight in business class was booked as the first leg of my Emirates award. To travel between Muscat and Nizwa and between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, I picked up cheap rental cars at the airport.
In total, I had one night in Doha, two nights in Muscat, one night in Abu Dhabi, and two nights in Dubai. I ended up booking two nights in Airbnbs, one night at a Hyatt in Muscat, and two nights in different SPG properties in the UAE. Having come back from a couple great Airbnb stays during my Europe trip, I was curious to see if I could replicate those experiences in the Gulf, where my M.O. of making friends over a drink at a bar would be a bit more difficult to accomplish. I opted for an Airbnb hosted by two young professionals in Doha, and an Airbnb for my first night in Oman hosted by a South African expat. For my second night in Muscat, I decided to try the Grand Hyatt Muscat, the only Hyatt property in Oman.
My rationale for choosing properties in the UAE was simple: I just picked the cheapest SPG/Hyatt option in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. While Hyatt and SPG have plenty of options in both cities, most of the higher-end properties have been reviewed quite extensively. The more economical options, on the other hand, are rarely discussed, and I wanted to see how they compared. In Abu Dhabi, the cheapest option was the Aloft Abu Dhabi, which is located near the exhibition center but a bit removed from the Corniche and many of the points of interest. In Dubai, there are a whopping 23 SPG properties; the cheapest was the Le Meridien Fairway near the airport.
Because of a flight cancellation/schedule change, I decided to spend my last night in Dubai in the Emirates Business Class lounge at DXB instead of springing for a hotel. As a result of lower fuel prices and subsequent cost-cutting efforts, (and, of course, the electronics ban), Emirates has been cutting capacity to the US. Previously, they operated four daily flights from Dubai to JFK, and I was originally booked on EK 207, departing Dubai at 3 PM. My original plan was to head to the airport in the morning to be able to spend some time in the lounge at DXB, which is supposedly one of the better business class lounges out there. Unfortunately, the flight I was booked on was temporarily cut for the month of June (it has been reinstated for June 30th-onwards).
With only two nonstop morning departures remaining (I didn’t want to fly through Milan on the 9:45 AM flight), I chose the later flight at 8:30 AM and decided to save on a hotel room and spend the evening before my flight in the lounge.
My Qatar Airways flight from New York to Doha was booked as an AAdvantage award for 70,000 miles and a couple dollars in taxes and fees.
Doha to Muscat on Qatar Airways in coach was booked for 4500 BA Avios + $36. Fares on this short route typically run between $200-300 in coach; when I booked, Qatar was selling seats for $293, while Oman Air (not bookable with Avios) had fares for $216, so I got a pretty decent cpp value here.
Muscat to Dubai to New York, with a stopover in Dubai, was booked as an Alaska MileagePlan award for 82,500 Alaska miles + $107.
I did one night in Doha and one night in Muscat at Airbnbs. My second night in Muscat was at the Grand Hyatt Muscat, which I booked as an award for 15,000 Hyatt points. Given that the cheapest paid rates at the time were $125 pre-tax, I didn’t get a great value for my points, but at the time I was (Hyatt) points-rich and didn’t want to spend more cash.
Rates in the summer and especially during Ramadan are incredibly low in much of the Gulf. For my night in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, I booked advance nonrefundable rates at the Aloft Abu Dhabi and Le Meridien Fairway Dubai. The Aloft Abu Dhabi was $53 with tax, while the Le Meridien Fairway was $52 with tax.
This trip was a fairly quick hop but was thoroughly enjoyable, as it was to one of my favorite regions in the world. I had never been to the Gulf during the summer or during Ramadan, so I was curious to see how that affected each city and its pace of life. Excitingly, I got to try some products that were new to me and review a couple SPG properties in the UAE that may be relevant to more budget-conscious travelers.