Jan 232015
 

I’m not right in the head. We’ve established that a long, long time ago. The one sensible thing I’ve done travel-wise lately is cancel my New Years crazy trip for the first time in 10+ years because I was simply too tired to go after several trips.

Of course “tired” lasted about two weeks, and I was all rebooked for about 5 weeks after I’d originally planned to go. Same general routing, same countries planned, everything should work out. Well, maybe.

First, the Eritreans. They don’t like giving out visas. As a matter of fact, I’m about to get on a plane and still don’t have one. Hopefully it’ll show up in time…if not, maybe I can convince them to deliver it to me on arrival. Or I’ll spend a night in an Eritrean holding cell.

Then, there’s those Houthis. You know, the ones who overran Sana’a this week and have basically overthrown the Yemeni government. Of course, after conferring with people on the ground I’m still going. The airport’s open after all, so why not?

Finally, United. I love United. More precisely, I love the stuff you can sometimes get away with on united.com. Flying back to DC from Eritrea the easy route would be one stop via Istanbul. Who would want to do that when you can also stop in Saudi Arabia, Lithuania, AND Kiev for no extra miles?! Plus, the Lithuania and Ukraine stops are nearly 24 hours so a chance to re-visit. Plus, my having “been to Ukraine” is mildly tainted. See, I was in Kiev once before…in 1989…when it was technically the Ukrainian SSR. So, this is a chance to legitimize what was country #5 for me…or it could be #179…depending how you want to count it.

The routing should be more or less fixed now:

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Rough Expected Outline:

I. DC to Lake Malawi in United First and South African Business
II. Malawi (country #172)
III. Lilongwe to Johannesburg, overnight in Sandton
IV. Johannesburg to Antananarivo, overnight in ‘Tana (country #173)
V. Andasibe Park and Lemurs!
VI. To Comoros via Mayotte on Air Madagascar, exploring Comoros (country #174)
VII. Comoros to Mombasa on East Africa Safari Air, Kenya, overnight Mombasa
VIII. Mombasa to Zanzibar on Fly540, overnight Zanzibar (country #175)
IX. Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam on ZanAir, overnight Dar
X. Dar to Uganda on Kenyan Airways in Business, overnight Entebbe (country #176)
XI. Entebbe to Istanbul on Turkish in Business, day in Istanbul
XII. Istanbul to Sana’a, Yemen on Turkish in Business (country #177)
XIII. Sana’a, Yemen – Horton Hears a Houthi!
XIV. Sana’a to Asmara, Eritrea on Yemenia in Business
XV. Asmara, Eritrea (country #178)
XVI. Asmara to Vilnius, Lithuania via Taif, Saudi Arabia on Turkish in Business
XVII. Vilnius, Lithuania
XVIII. Vilnius to Kiev, Ukraine, on SAS and LOT
XIX. Kiev, Ukraine
XX. Kiev to DC with Lufthansa EuroBusiness and United First

Sit back and fasten your seatbelts, this promises more drama than Fiji Airways and my escape from Lebanon combined!


Jan 162015
 

So now that I’ve done the real year in review, it’s time to explore what many people consider the best part of the United international experience. Given just how much below industry standards United’s food and drink generally are, people often wonder if it’s worth it. Lots of folks think the best part of the United international experience is the ice cream sundae cart.

Is it anything special? Absolutely not. But hey, who doesn’t like ice cream? So, I present, the 2014 United Airlines Ice Cream Year in Review!

January – Lisbon, Portugal to Newark. This was ice cream soup with a bit of caramel and a few drowning cherries. Really rather sad. The crew even stole all the stems from the cherries.

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February – Houston to Honolulu – this was an odd one. The ice cream was rock hard, but part of it was completely soupy. Caramel again.

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February – Honolulu to Washington Dulles – what’s that, caramel AGAIN? …and LOTS of caramel. Just three cherries again though (this must be the United standard) but perfectly lined up in a row:

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August – San Francisco to Honolulu – alert Jeff, we’re missing a cherry! Only two today, but for some reason I decided variety is the spice of life and switched to hot fudge instead.

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August – Honolulu to Washington Dulles. Whew. Back to three cherries and caramel. I was getting concerned.

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August – Washington Dulles to Paris – whoah, what’s this. Caramel AND chocolate…and only two cherries. Yet, much of the ice cream has no topping at all!

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August – Paris to San Francisco – swimming in a sea of caramel and chocolate is one lonely cherry. Apparently there’s a cherry shortage in Paris.

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August – San Francisco to Honolulu - just chocolate…and one cherry. The Shortage might be a San Francisco thing. Lots of chocolate, but very little ice cream.

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August – San Francisco to Honolulu – same flight, but I decided to experiment. I’ve never had the strawberry topping, so decided  to see what it was about. Apparently not about cherries, because there were none in sight.

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October – Tokyo to Singapore - whoah, what’s this ceramic thing? You can’t serve ice cream in that. Plus, what’s that white stuff…I don’t “do” whipped cream. Hmmm….pretty sure I still ate it ;)

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November – Frankfurt to Dulles – ice cream soup again…caramel and chocolate, but segregation was in full effect, plus the three neutered cherries.

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November – Newark to Tel Aviv – whoah, seriously? I struggle all year to get my three cherries I’m due on my sundaes and then you go all wild and give me 10? I mean come on…that’s a lot of caramel and cherries!

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December – Zurich to Newark – four cherries and caramel. I have a theory. It’s year-end. United bought too many cherries and is now desperately trying to get rid of them.

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December – Dulles to Amsterdam – well that was short-lived. Back to chocolate and only two cherries. So disappointing.

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December – Frankfurt to Dulles – if it’s December, it much be two cherries.

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2014 summary: I ate lots of ice cream. I got fat. It was anywhere from soupy to rock hard. I tend to switch from caramel to chocolate, but occasionally go wild and have some strawberries. What does it all mean? Who’s to say…there was the one-off intrusion of whipped cream, but fortunately the nuts stayed away. That would have been problems.

Asking for “cherries” yields three most often, and sometimes two. Once in a wild, they go nuts and throw the whole mess on there. It’s really hard to say.

Peace, love, and ice cream in 2015 to you…


Jan 112015
 

A year ago I had 42 countries to go, and that’s down to 25 now. I figured it was a good time to see how those plans did or did not come together, and what’s changed in the meantime. Down to just under 20 months until the target date of Iceland for Labour Day 2016 (early September.)

March: long weekend in Jamaica (155) – as planned! I think I had enough rum punch to last a lifetime!

late-April: week in Ecuador and Bolivia (156-157) – great trip, the Uyuni salt flats were stunning.

July: long dive weekend in St Kitts and Nevis (158) – fantastic diving trip

August: wasn’t planned at the start of the year, but I did a crazy milage run of DC to Andorra…via Hawaii in both directions! I’d planned to save Andorra for another time, but it was just too tempting! (159)

October: 8 south pacific countries (167)  – fantastic trip, and going into it I knew something was bound to go wrong…and it did. Despite two attempts I couldn’t make it to Tuvalu. Did manage Timor Leste, Nauru, PNG, Kiribati, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Samoa, however.

November:  wasn’t planned early in the year, and my Middle East plans at the beginning of the year were “Probably two trips, since I have Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. Who’s to say how I’ll get Syria.” Well, I had an amazing trip to Israel and Palestine over Thanksgiving then came back to DC for 48 hours before flying off to Beirut. Syria’s also out of the way, and that’s a story I’ll detail another time *wink* so that makes 171 down and 25 to go!

New Years 2014/2015: 6 countries of East Africa + Saudi, Eritrea, Yemen. Hope is to arrange a Saudi transit visa between Eritrea and Yemen (175) – unfortunately this didn’t happen. The good news it’s been re-planned now, and I should be at 179 with 17 to go in under a month.

For 2016, I’m planning to group those 17:

Belize: Dive trip planned with a buddy who returns from Afghanistan in Spring 2015.

Cuba: Havana Marathon in November.

Chad and Central African Republic: Planning to hit these around Labour Day with Ian. I guess we figure we didn’t get in enough trouble in Palestine so we’re going to have another crack at it!

Algeria/Mali/Mauritania: No plans on dates, but at some point in the year I’m sure I’ll get the itch to do this. Can probably be done in a week.

Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sierra Leone, The Gambia: Ebola-permitting planning this next New Years. That’ll bring me into 2016 with just five countries to go!  Three should be knocked off in an epic Tuvalu-Mongolia-Turkmenistan round-the-world coinciding with the Nadaam Festival in Mongolia, leaving just the Bahamas to go before Iceland in September!

So, other than country collecting, what did 2014 look like? A couple of trips to Hawaii and Chicago as usual. Vegas, Minnesota and North Carolina, but it was a very light year for domestic travel. Planning to do a bit more domestic in 2015 while I save up money (and leave time!) in order to plan the big assault on the remaining countries in late-2015/early-2016.

Last year I didn’t get around to doing a year in review until mid-March, so I’m already a bit ahead of last year!

In 2014, I logged a total of 142,377 miles in the air, which was my fifth highest total ever. In comparison:

2013: 171,863
2012: 139,197
2011: 134,823
2010: 106,046
2009: 136,612
2008: 147,092
2007: 153,691
2006: 161,596
2005: 128,713
2004: 105,301

When I wrote my 2013 year in review last March, I projected I’d end 2014 somewhere in the 130-140,000 range  so I was actually pretty close.  The year’s travel map:

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I also really like this view, which shows all the nonstop flights I took from DC:

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For those 142,377 miles I took 108 total flights for an average length of 1,328 miles. This is just one flight shy of 2013, but many miles short. My shortest flight was only 9 miles from Molokai, Hawaii to Kalaupapa, Hawaii (MKK-LUP) and back in a Piper PA-31 Chieftan where I got to ride in the co-pilot seat. It was also my shortest flight ever! The longest flight of the year goes to Washington Dulles to Tokyo at 6,753 miles in ANA first class. If you have to take a long flight might as well do it in style!

As far as aircraft go:

Airbus: 27 total – much less Airbus than 2013 when I flew 47 Airbus flights.
A319: 8
A320: 10
A321: 5
A330: 3
A340: 0
A380: 1

Boeing: 48 total  - similar to 2013
737: 26
747: 2
757: 2
767: 10
777: 8
787: 0
MD90: 0

Canadair CRJ – 3 total

DeHavilland – 6 total
Dash-6: 2
Dash-8: 4

Embraer – 11 total
E145: 2
E170: 1
E175: 7
E190: 1

Something new this year was lots of smaller planes – 7 total flights:

Piper Chieftan: 3
Cessna: 2
Saab: 2

For these 108 flights, 43 were in economy – more than twice as many as the year before!, 44 were in domestic first/business, 5 were in international first, and 16 were in international business class. Quite a step down in premium travel this year!

For the true first class flights, two were on United, with one each on Asiana, ANA, and Emirates. No Lufthansa first this year…I need to work on changing that!

On the country front, I managed to visit 38 countries, of which 22 were new to me, bringing my total to 171 countries visited.

I also flew a total of 38 airlines in 2014 of which 18 were new:

Air New Zealand (NZ), Air North (TL), Air Solomons (IE), Amaszonas (Z8), Asiana (OZ), Avianca (AV), Fiji Airlines (FJ),  Makani Kai, Mokulele (MW), Nauru Airlines (ON), Polynesian (PH), Qantas (QF), RwandAir (WB), Seaborne (BB), Sriwijaya (SJ), TAAG Angola (DN), Vueling (VY)

2013 also saw visits to 66 unique airports – 34 of which were new to me:

APW (Apia, Samoa), BCN (Barcelona, Spain), BEY (Beirut, Lebanon), BNE (Brisbane, Australia), CAB (Cabinda, Angola), CNS (Cairns, Australia), CUN (Cancun, Mexico), DIL (Dili, East Timor), DPS (Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia), DRW (Darwin, Australia), FGI (Fagaleii, Samoa), HIR (Honiara, Solomon Islands), INU (Nauru), LAD (Luanda, Angola), LPB (La Paz, Bolivia), LUP (Kalaupapa, Hawaii), MBJ (Montego Bay, Jamaica), MDE (Medellin, Colombia), MEL (Melbourne, Australia), MKK (Molokai, Hawaii), NAN (Nadi, Fiji), OGG (Maui, Hawaii), POM (Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea), PPG (Pago Pago, American Samoa), RAI (Praia, Cape Verde), SKB (St Kitts), SON (Santo Pekoa, Vanuatu), SUV (Suva, Fiji), TBU (Tonga), TLV (Tel Aviv, Israel), TMS (Sao Tome e Principe), TRW (Tarawa, Kiribati), UIO (Quito, Ecuador), UYU (Uyuni, Bolivia)

So…how was your 2014?


Jan 092015
 

Woke up nice and early, since I had a full morning or so to visit Beirut before my mid/late afternoon flight to Kuwait to catch up with the United nonstop to Washington…in order to get to work on time Monday morning! I was seriously excited about this flight, since ever since United added Dubai and Kuwait years ago, I still have yet to take either of these flights.

Rolled over in bed, kinda groggy, turned off airplane mode on my iPhone…and BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ a stream of messages came in. This isn’t unusual. I’m seven hours ahead of home, so lots can happen when I’m asleep. But, I worry when I start seeing alerts from TripIt and United…this can’t be bueno.

So…what’s about to follow. Anyone who’s read my blog for the last few years knows I very rarely have flight drama. I’m pretty lucky. Things rarely go wrong, and when they do things seem to only get better. Like my Dubai-Frankfurt-London that went mechanical so I ended up on the Emirates A380 in first nonstop to London. Like that. However, as you’ve seen in the last couple of months, my BFF Fiji Airways and I had some lovely times…and now, it’s time for Fiji Airways DBA United to join the party.

Kuwait to Washington…canceled. Wait, WHAT?!

Now, I know, why did I book Beirut-Kuwait-Washington? Main reason is I could clear an upgrade to business at the time of booking, but second reason is it’s a westbound redeye…which I love. I sleep on them fantastically, and when you land, it’s already afternoon in your departure time zone, so you’re ready to go. Oh, and a great friend of mine is currently working in Kuwait, so the five hour layover would allow us to have dinner…so what can go wrong?!

United…that’s what.

Seems the plane had gone mechanical out of Dulles five hours earlier, so they canceled the roundtrip. 2014 has been a very strange year for us that fly United. It feels like if you book a longhaul flight there’s at least a 25% chance it will cancel. I’m being mildly dramatic, but United has been almost that bad this year. That’s how I ended up with no flight home 18 hours in advance. I think I need a drink. Or coffee. Yes, definitely coffee. Off to Starbucks to get brain fuel. The view from Starbucks:

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So, I drank coffee, and planned my future on ExpertFlyer. The only chance to get me home in time for work Monday was to get to Dubai, and get on the Dubai to DC nonstop. Only problem is it had one business seat left, and there was a snowball’s chance in hell of it clearing as an upgrade. There was no way I was going to fly 14 hours on that flight in coach. Not happening. Other options wouldn’t get me in to much later Monday, so I resigned myself to working remotely….

So, let’s see what the options are then. I could wait another 24 hours…either in Kuwait…and risk no upgrade, or try and get somewhere in Europe where I can take an upgraded flight on Monday. Hmmm, Kuwait has the advantage that I’d still be able to get dinner with my friend, and would likely be able to have a very relaxing day in Kuwait. It has the downside that United might not actually delivery a replacement plane as promised, and I might be stuck on some horrid routing out of Kuwait via Frankfurt or something with a long coach segment. I couldn’t take the chance of two more days out of the option, so I decided it was time to “go west young man” asap. Ok, options sorted, time to call United.

Skype…what did we do before you? Got a surprisingly solid connection AND an agent who was willing to go the extra mile to help out. She tried everything. The only upgrade space from Europe to the US was from Amsterdam, and she couldn’t get me to Amsterdam.  Things were a right solid mess. Finally, I found something…Beirut-Istanbul-Frankfurt, overnight, Frankfurt-Amsterdam-DC….only downside was leaving Frankfurt at 6am, meaning barely 5 hours of sleep. Ugh. But wait, theres a problem…

I’m checked in on Kuwait Airways already from Beirut to Kurwait, and they can’t touch the ticket until I get off that flight. Ugh. Call Kuwait Airways…on 14 different numbers. In Kuwait. In the US. In Lebanon. In the UK. Every number I can find. Nobody can help me. Ugh. Website doesn’t allow you to un-do checkin. There seemed to be no way to get off the flight. But wait…”Rajesh” at the 15th number I tried had the cell phone number of the supposed Kuwait Airways manager at Beirut Airport! Seriously?! Don’t worry…talked to the person who answered for 1 minute before she hung up on me. Ugh.

Back to the drawing board.

Now, I need to give a HUGE congrats to United here. This agent spent over two hours on the phone with me trying to get things sorted. On a Skype connection that was often not great. She waited on hold (on my computer Skype) while I used my iPhone Skype to dial various Kuwait Airways numbers. She was an angel, patient, and genuinely just wanted to see me happy. Honestly, this one (long) interaction reminded me why I used to love flying United. If anyone has any idea of anything I can do to get her recognized, I’d appreciate it. Moving on…

The agent agreed to set everything up in my record, extensively note it, and I would head to the airport to get off of the Kuwait Airways flight. Since there’s no data roaming in Lebanon I’d have to pay $2.50 per minute roaming to call United and get the ticket reissued once I was off of the Kuwait Airways flight. At this point it was under two hours to the Turkish flight to Istanbul, the last westbound flight of the day, so I had no choice.

Off to the airport I go…

That’s where the next layer of drama hits…there’s a security line just to get into the airport…that’s 30-40 minutes or more deep. Fortunately the Turkish and Kuwaiti flights leave within 30 minutes of each other…but there’s two terminals, and I have no idea which one is in which. So, I head to the Kuwaiti one to get off the flight, and pray they will have a way to then get me to the Turkish one in time…inshallah.

1:15 before flight time, I finally reached the Kuwait Airways counter and they were astounded I didn’t want to be on their flight. “If I take you off this flight, you will be on your own, and we will not be responsible for anything else. Are you sure that is what you want?” YES YES, PLEASE! Finally, they get a supervisor…”oh, did you call me on the phone?” Seriously?! Did you think I was kidding?! Eventually they get me off the flight, and say “have a nice day.” Hah!

Call United…get put on hold…ugh…and that’s where a miracle happens. The Turkish check-in counter is right next to the Kuwait Airways one. I explain to the agent I have a reservation (and she can see it) and I’m on the phone with United now getting the ticket reissued. United answers, the record is documented as promised, yes, I am no longer checked in, please wait while I reissue the ticket…which takes 20 minutes.

My Turkish flight is now leaving in 50 minutes.

Finally, United tells me the ticket is reissued, Turkish agrees, and I have boarding passes. HOORAY! It cost me nearly $70 in roaming charges, but a small price to pay for solving the drama.

Things were good…until I got to immigration, where hundreds of Iraqis were in line in front of me, and the agents were processing them at the speed of molasses. I looked around for my friends from the day before, and fortunately spotted them in line. Allah is clearly looking out for me. They were quite excited to see me. I explained my emergency. I begged them to say something to all the Iraqis I’d be cutting in line in front of to make it ok. I was down to barely 30 minutes before departure and was desperate. I moved up in line…she said something to the people in line…they all started cheering and clapping. I have no idea what it was, but I thanked her profusely. Fortunately immigration gave me no trouble, and I was into the departures hall.

Don’t worry, all y’all will be invited to my Big Fat Baghdad Wedding.  ;-)

There was just something comical about a group of women in full abayas taking pictures of airport christmas trees:

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Small sprint to the gate where, shocker, 10 minutes prior to departure they still weren’t boarding. Go figure. We left a little late, but I managed to grab an aisle seat in the first row of coach, so life was looking grand.

Turkish Airways flight 825
Beirut, Lebanon (BEY) to Istanbul, Turkey (IST)
Depart 15:35, Arrive 17:35, Flight Time 2 hours
Airbus A321, Registration TC-JRS, Manufactured 2011, Seat 5D

The inflight magazine was full of healthy new year tips. Who knew I should get a hair transplant and have ivf to have a miracle baby? I better get right on that…

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I’m pretty sure my seatmate was dying of Ebola. Fortunately the middle seat was empty, but he curled up in a fetal position under a blanket in the window seat and started shaking violently. Ugh. He rang the flight attendant call button and asked for a doctor. He didn’t speak Turkish, and the flight attendants barely spoke English. Quote: “do you think you will die in the next one hour?” He answers no. “Ok, well there is no doctor. You will live until Istanbul.” Uhhh….yeah, I feel fantastic about this…

But hey, at least there’s Turkish’s best-in-industry economy catering:

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I ate it, mostly to distract myself from my scary seatmate, and hoped that I would live to Istanbul…which I fortunately did, using hand sanitizer every five minutes or so. I even ate the sketchy potato salad. I figured I was likely going to get Ebola anyways.

Security was a snap in Istanbul, short wait, and I headed off to the lounge for a bit of down time. Despite nearly doubling in size the lounge was still absolutely packed. I’m convinced you can get into the Turkish Airlines lounges if you have a pulse…there’s no other way to explain how constantly packed they are. Enjoyed some baklava and turkish coffee, and then it was time to continue westward.

Off to the gate for the Frankfurt flight, which was now showing completely sold out on ExpertFlyer. I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask if I could switch from my middle seat to a bulkhead…or an exit row…or anything. Nope, flights completely sold out. Ugh. Start talking to another guy who has his United 1K card out in the boarding area, and we talk about how packed the flight is. He’s in a middle seat in coach too, so we agree it’s going to be a pretty lousy flight. Time to board, and I’m in front of him in line…

BEEP BEEP BEEP when I scan the boarding pass. Agent punches on the computer….operational upgrade to business! SCORE! United had rebooked me on a full-Y fare, and I guess that plus Star Alliance Gold was enough to move me up on a sold out flight. Score! Unfortunately my new friend wasn’t as lucky…sorry Charlie.

Turkish Airways flight 1597
Istanbul, Turkey (IST) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 19:45, Arrive 21:55, Flight Time 3:10
Airbus A321, Registration TC-JSH, Manufactured 2013, Seat 3B

Typical Turkish welcome aboard orange juice:

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…and some turkish delight to go along with it:

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Appetizer plate, cheese, and dessert…this would be a full meal on many other airlines!

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Choice was fish or pasta, so I went with the pasta since fish on places scares me. It was pretty bland in a bit of butter/cheese/etc sauce, but I managed to eat a little of it. Not one of the better meals I’ve had on Turkish.

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Landed on time in Frankfurt, and Lufthansa was fully in the swing of Christmas:

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On the way home from my South Pacific part of the trip I’d stopped overnight in Frankfurt, and rather enjoyed the Le Meridien so I’d booked in there again. The check-in agent recognized me, and so I said “when you said you hoped to see me soon, I had no idea it would be THIS soon!” We both had a good laugh. This time I decided to take the junior suite in the historical wing which was nice, but had no temperature control at all…I opened the windows to cool things down, which seemed to do an adequate job. 10 minutes later, fruit and cheese and a bottle of wine showed up to the room. I like this hotel!

Now, to call United, and find a way home. It’s important to note it was 11p at this point, and I was on a 7a flight to Amsterdam currently with a 4 hour connection. That just wasn’t acceptable. We try every possible combination…he thinks he has me on Geneva…with an upgrade…which is funny because there are no seats to assign. It appeared they were overbooking it in business with the intent of upgrading some people in first. Yes please!

Unfortunately, he couldn’t get it to confirm, so it was back to the 7a to Amsterdam. Ugh. At this point, the wildcard came out: “as a loyal elite member you don’t deserve to be treated like this…let me see what I can do.” He put me on hold for nearly 30 minutes, checking back every few.

Before I knew it, he had me confirmed in a J seat on the nonstop Frankfurt to DC. Yeah, it was a middle seat, but it was three hours more sleep, and nonstop. I couldn’t thank him enough. The flight was J1 on expertflyer, so he’d managed to get me rebooked into the last business class seat on the plane. On a W fare with a global upgrade. This was to be the second time in 24 hours United agents went the extra mile for me. By the time I woke up the next morning I noticed it had somehow been switched from J to upgrade space, but whatever. I was on a nonstop!

…and yes, reflecting on this…maybe I should go for 1K next year…

Slept like a baby for a full 7 hours, Starbucks at the Frankfurt Hbf in the morning, and train to the airport. Straight through security and to the Lufthansa Senator lounge. My usual salami and cheese for breakfast, and soon it was time to board.

When I got to the gate, I asked the agent…I know two seats are open in first. If you upgrade anyone, or if there are any no-shows, could you please keep an eye out for a window or aisle seat for me? She was very happy to help…and after processing upgrades to first got me a window seat. Wow, fantastic service!

United Airlines flight 998
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 12:00, Arrive 15:05, Flight Time 9:05
Boeing 777, Registration N769UA, Manufactured 1995, Seat 9A

Today was a rare treat on United…Château Mouton Jeffschild…delicious!

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Wow…and TWO pieces of salmon. United must be feeling rich these days. The salad seemed higher quality than usual too…something must be up…

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…and the mushy veg and meat. In fairness, the steak was only cooked medium well today instead of hockey puck, so it was definitely a good day for United!

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…I’m addicted to these sweet crackers with the soft cheeses.

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Caramel, and cherries today. Just two cherries.

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…and that marked the end of 7 very intense weeks of traveling. Over 70,400 miles by air, 12 new countries, and a heck of a lot of exhaustion. So much that I canceled my annual New Years trip and stayed home for the first time in 12 years. Final travel map from two points of view:

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So, lessons from this trip? I had am amazing time, saw so many new places, and really got an insight into so many regions. I explored more of Australia’s big cities, tons of South Pacific islands from developed places with lots of resorts (Fiji) to smaller less populated places like Nauru and Kiribati. I dived and saw the 70% of the Earth covered by water in East Timor, Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Samoa. I got an insight into perhaps the world’s biggest conflict in Israel and Palestine. I saw an amazingly vibrant place in Lebanon which seems to be the epicentre of all the regional skirmishes going on…but faces it with one giant party…and don’t forget nights in Frankfurt, Zurich, Seoul, Narita…it truly was a blessed trip.

25 countries to go…beginning VERY soon….. Lake Malawi, Lemurs, Stone Cities, Jambiyas, Qat…and Puttin’ on the RIX!


Jan 062015
 

After the immigration ordeal, it was time to make my way to the hotel. Based on recommendations on FlyerTalk, I’d sorted a taxi with the hotel, and two hours later he was still waiting for me in the arrivals area. Or, at least I thought he was. He walked me outside, and introduced me to my real driver, who was waiting for me. The taxi was 37,000 LBP or approximately $24 one way, and it was a reasonably quick drive to the hotel.

I’d booked in at the Four Points Verdun in Beirut, who informed me I’d been upgraded to a junior suite upon arrival. Room was modern and comfortable, one of the nicer Four Points I’ve stayed in, with very friendly and helpful staff. It was also 2-for-1 happy hour in the hotel bar/lounge when I arrived, so couldn’t resist sampling the local craft beer. I got seriously addicted to these nuts!

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As I believe I mentioned earlier, Lebanon is one of the first places I’ve ever been that doesn’t allow foreign mobiles to data roam on its networks, so I had no clue until I got to my hotel that my tour company had canceled my tour to Baalbeck in the morning. Their reason? “There have been problems with ISIS in the area.” Uh, gee, great. Thanks to the wonderful ladies at the front desk I got a map of other possible options and she started calling around to see what might be bookable:

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After enjoying my 2-for-1 beers I checked in, and unfortunately all the tour companies claimed to be full the next day, so the only option was to hire a driver. She quickly sorted out a six hour hire the next day at a reasonable rate and pointed me in the direction of Ward El Cham, which she said was a great local restaurant near the hotel. It was maybe a five minute walk away, and when I arrived it was packed with locals smoking shisha and had a super lively atmosphere. I declined the shisha in favour of an Almaza which came with a bread basket and some tasty little munchies to start:

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Decided to start with grilled halloumi as an appetizer

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…and finished off with some delicious kebabs that the waiter recommended.

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I don’t remember the name of the desert he recommended, but I asked for something traditional. It was a sort of semi-soft cheese wrapped in crepes and filled with honey, ground pistachios, etc. Quite tasty!

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Got back to the hotel, and they’d brought up plates of fruit, nuts, and a bottle of wine. I have no idea if it was intentional or not, but the Jason Winery was a new one to me! If this was intentional I’m seriously impressed!

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After a long day of travel, I managed to crash for over eight solid hours. Unfortunately, I woke up seriously jetlagged and disoriented. The combo of “enough” sleep and being seven time zones “off”…no, wait. My body had no idea what time zone it should be in by this point – anyways – I basically woke up sluggish because I was just plain exhausted. I decided to check…just in case…if there was Starbucks in Lebanon…

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Ta-da…a 10 minute walk from the Four Points, and I was very happy. You can see from the photo just how exhausted I was at this point, lol. Just a coffee, and then it was back to the Four Points for a quick breakfast. Normally, I don’t do hotel breakfast, but at the Four Points the Platinum benefit is 250 points (worth $5 in my book) or free breakfast for two nights. Figuring I’d get at least $2.50 in value out of it, I took the breakfast. However, I decided to Starbucks in addition in order to have predictable levels of caffeination. Not a bad call. A good amount of hummus, pain au chocolate, and hair boiled eggs later, I was ready for the day!

My driver showed up right on time at 8am,  and it was time to negotiate. Yes, the agreed upon price was for six hours, but he was happy to work more time if I decided I needed it by the hour. Excellent. So, question number one: is Baalbeck really unsafe? He said normally he would be happy to drive it, but yes, two days ago there was some insurgent activity in the area and he wouldn’t recommend it. However, “I work for you today Sir, so wherever you want to go we will go.” Hmmm…maybe I should do Baalbeck after all…

I decided at this point to throw out a teaser. “So, I hear the highway to Damascus is also more or less safe.” “Oh yes Sir, that highway is just fine, Damascus is no problem. The Syrians all drive than road to fly out of Beirut airport.” Hmmm, this is interesting. We decided that while we planned out the day our next stop would be the ancient city of Byblos….with a bit of a long detour for some driving through the countryside to enjoy a bit of more rural Lebanon. We drove down a very busy highway, had a very fascinating coffee, ticked a box, and then were off to Byblos. Moving on…

Byblos was first settled somewhere between 8000 and 7000 BC (yes, approximately 10,000 years ago) and is said to have been the first city in ancient Phonecia. It is one of a few cities in the Middle East suggested as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, having been inhabited continuously for over 7,000 years. That’s a long time!

Guide helped me paid the entrance fee, and then left me to wander alone. There were good signs, and no touts offering to play guide, so I was on my own. First site was the crusader fort from the 12th Century AD:

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Continue reading »


Dec 302014
 

Soooo catching up. I landed from Israel (via Zurich and Newark) on Tuesday late afternoon. My productivity in the next 48 hours would be stunning. Two days of work. Several loads of laundry. Two hockey games (won both – woooo). Oh, and I had to plan the last part of this trip. Yes, this trip was so complex (five weeks in the south pacific, nearly a week in israel, then a few days in Lebanon) that I hadn’t even thought what I would do with my approximately 48 hours in Lebanon. Planning accomplished. It was exhausting 48 hours, but the end was in sight!

I had tried hard to stay on European/Middle Eastern time my 48 hours in DC, but 10pm hockey games have a way of derailing that. Especially since that means 12:30 to bed best case. However, I made a point to get up both days at 5am. My theory was better to run on less less than to be at a point where I would be groggy until early afternoon once I got to my destination. So, up at 5am, work from 6-3, and I was off to Dulles. I absolutely love the new Silver Line and how easy it makes it to do a straight shot from downtown DC to Dulles in 45 minutes plus a 15 minute bus ride.

Pre-check was a breeze, and soon I was enjoying a glass of Château le Jeff and some delicious Tillamook cheese in the United club with my favourite bartenders.

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So, why Amsterdam? It’s a fair question. First, it was the only routing where an upgrade would confirm with a systemwide upgrade at the time of booking. Secondly, the 18:30 departure gave me an extra hour over the other options. Third, it also meant I wouldn’t be sitting in Frankfurt for 6+ hours between flights. Oh, and fourth, I’d never flown the IAD-AMS route in all my years with United. Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

Time to board!

United flight 946
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Amsterdam, Netherlands (AMS)
Depart 18:30, Arrive 8:05 next morning, Flight Time 7:35
Boeing 767-300, Registration N647UA, Manufactured 1992, Seat 7H

Boarded, and had a really weird feeling….oh yeah, it’s seat 7H, the same seat I was in 48 hours prior flying from Zurich to Newark. Hahah, at least I knew what to expect in theory.

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So, what’s for teh nomz tonight?

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Expectations were low after the flight a couple of days ago, and hey, things couldn’t get any worse. When my flight attendant saw this:

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…at least a refill was offered. Refills on PDBs are always welcome – and a pleasant surprise when they happen. My seatmate was an interesting fellow who I chatted with for about five minutes during boarding, he was impressed with the approximately 50 words of Dutch I speak, and then we minded our own business for the rest of the flight. Can’t complain there!

Once in the air, service was quick, and it was time for more Château le Jeff and some split cashew parts:

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Now, I give United a hard time for this all the time, thinking how much can this really save to serve cashew pieces instead of whole cashews. Then, a few days ago, I was visiting the fam in Minnesota over Christmas, and finally found the perfect comparison:

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Yes, you see that right, Cashew Halves and Pieces are $3.50 a pound and Whole Cashews are $6.65 a pound. So, United is saving at least $3.15 a pound on Cashews. In fairness, Fleet Farm is a discount farm supply store and has pretty low nut prices in general, but I imagine in bulk United saves even more. So, at a minimum of $3.15 a pound in savings, lets assume they serve only two pounds per flight ($6.30) and they have approximately 250 flights a day with nut service ($1985) and 365 days a year that’s over $724,000. Wow, that’s not peanuts!

(See what I did there? Peanuts? Cashews)

Anyways, tastes the same, savings are real, blah blah, moving on…the salad was tasty, but yet another embarrassing appetizer. Seriously United, these are terrible…it can’t be that much more expensive to notch it up just a little. One little slice of tuna. Sheesh. What does that cost United, maybe a dollar? Give me a freaking McDonalds Cheeseburger, it’s the same price and I’d like it more!

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The short rib, however, was quite tasty, and worthy of finishing. I never get it…the vegetables on United are almost always pretty good, but that’s it. Who knows!

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Cheese plate #1 of 2. Seconds requested, and happily provided. This crew was a huge contrast to my Zurich-Newark crew 48 hours prior. They were cheerful, helpful, kept the refills flowing and gave a genuinely nice atmosphere. It really does prove that the crew can make all the difference.

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Tonight’s sundae choice was “hot fudge and cherries.” The cherry count was a less than generous two. ;)

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Landed in Amsterdam about 10 minutes early on the Polderbaan and after a 20+ minute taxi we were at the terminal. I had to enter the Schengen Area to fly to Germany anyways, so I figured I’d clear immigration and get Starbucks, forgetting that there was now a Starbucks in the departures area. Oh well! Gave me a chance to pass by the excellent airline/airplane memorabilia store:

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After Starbucks I went back through security, spent a little time in the lounge, and then it was finally time for my flight to Frankfurt.

Lufthansa flight 989
Amsterdam, Netherlands (AMS) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 10:50, Arrive 12:00, Flight Time 1:10
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIZS, Manufactured 2013, Seat 12C

Not much to say. Beverage service (had a Coke Light) and a small sandwich offered (which I skipped – sketchy airline sandwiches after the South Pacific just scare me) and we landed about 15 minutes behind schedule in Frankfurt due to late arrival of aircraft.

Of course, I had a hike from the A to B gates in Frankfurt PLUS passport control to contend with. Most of the folks in the queue looked “non-German” so I decided to use my decidedly awful German as an excuse to go past them and telling them I was in a hurry. Figuring they wouldn’t understand…and thinking they’d think I was saying something important…worked and saved me 10 plus minutes…then I got to the gate and…30 minute delay “for operational reasons.” LOL, ugh.

So, went up to the counter, and asked about the possiblility of an upgrade with a United Global Upgrade Cert. I knew the cabin was empty based on seatmap (they had 36 seats, only 4 showing taken on seatmap 15 min before departure) and the agent confirmed this. But here’s where things got really, really weird.

“I am so sorry, this flight is one of a select few flights moved to our new computer system as a pilot and only electronic upgrades are available. We did inform United of this.” So wait, you told United a few pilot flights would be in a new system with new upgrade procedures, and you update them in advance which ones those will be so they can do electronic instead of paper upgrades? I’m not buying this bro. Supervisor please.

Supervisor arrived, shifted from foot to foot uncomfortable, but stuck to the party line that United should have known better. Um, dude, no, I’m not buying it. You really think the communication between Star Alliance computer systems is that seamless? This is the partnership that has relied on paper certificates until 2014. Not. Buying. It. He insisted. So, I went for the Hail Mary.

“Fine, if the computer won’t let you do it with the paper certificate, maybe you can give an operational upgrade for operational reasons.” Nope…”only if the flight is oversold. If I press that button without oversell I can lose my job.” Ah German logic. Ugh. Coach it is for me.

Lufthansa flight 1306
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Beirut, Lebanon (BEY)
Depart 13:05, Arrive 17:55, Flight Time 3:50
Airbus A321, Registration D-AISP, Manufactured 2009, Seat 26C

So, fortunately the middle seat next to me was empty, and I had a few extra inches of legroom thanks to the exit row. So what was worse than business? Well, business was empty so I would have had a whole row. More crew attention, and maybe a slightly better meal. Other than that, this flight wasn’t too bad. Yes, this is an economy meal:

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Landed right on time, and made a beeline for immigration, where things got really strange, really fast. Waited about five minutes for an officer, and the exchange went something like this:

Him: “Why are you coming to Lebanon?”

Me: “Tourism”

Him: “How long are you staying?”

Me: “Four Days”

Him: “What will you see?”

Me: “Baalbek, Byblos, Beirut nightlife.”

Him: “Ok, you ever been to Palestine?” I hadn’t expected the question to be so blatant, and certainly wasn’t going to admit I was there three days ago AND came back to the US in between, lol, I don’t think the concept of mileage runs would have played well.

Me: “No I haven’t”

Him: “How about Israel?”

Me: “No, never.”

Him:  (looking at me) “I don’t believe you. You have lots of stamps. Who you work for? CIA? Mossad?”

At this point, I pretty much considered soiling myself, lol. Agent left the counter, and escorted me to a side room where I waited for about 20-30 minutes. I started going through my phone deleting photo albums, removing all evidence of travel to Israel, etc. After about 20-30 minutes an agent came in and continued. Same basic questions…why was I here, what was I doing, etc.

Then, we got down to “where do you work.” I showed him business cards, showed him other evidence, offered to show him access to work e-mail on my phone….he seemed annoyed. I got the impression he was annoyed at a trigger-happy initial investigator….he called my hotel to verify I had a reservation…and that was good. He actually apologized for the inconvenience, and told me to enjoy Lebanon.

Two hours later, it was time to leave the airport and start the last leg of the adventure!


Dec 232014
 

Thankfully, and this might be the only time I say this, my room at the Sheraton was nice and warm, because I woke up with a full-blown cold and it felt quite nice cuddled into the comforter. Unfortunately, that made it harder to get going in the morning. I really enjoyed this hotel, and definitely want to go back and spend a bit longer there, especially when not sick.

Walked the 10+ minutes to the train in the freezing cold, sniffling the whole way, and had an effortless trip to the airport. I remember being on the platform and thinking…I want to move here. Things just work so well in Switzerland, and every time I’m there I’m in a good mood. Random thoughts for the day…

Got to the airport, and let’s be honest, important first stop this early in the morning: Starbucks. The one thing I can do flawlessly in German in order Starbucks…but she insisted on speaking English back to me. Silly accents…especially because she clearly wasn’t a native German speaker either. So, I retaliated…in French. It’s an official language after all ;) It was a fun exchange, I got caffeine, and all was right with the world.

Oh, speaking of, I noted down the price…The Economist always publishes their Big Mac index, so I’ve started keeping a “Starbucks Index” since it conveys something slightly difference. McDonalds want’s to be a bit of a commodity while Starbucks’ niche in the market I feel is a bit more of a snob appeal. So that said, a grande drip goes for 5,20 francs at the Zurich airport, or $5.30 at current rates, making it the most expensive place to have Starbucks in the world. If anyone would like to contribute to my research project, feel free to send me the price of a grande drip (tax included) along with location and date. Thanks!

Oh…and I had a chocolate muffin, but we don’t need to talk about that. This was my second one of the week (remember, Frankfurt last week on the way back from the South Pacific) and it’s a horrible holiday influence. Oh, that and Christmas Blend Espresso…but on with the important stuff…I don’t really mean half this blog to be about Starbucks…

Security was a complete non-event and then it was off to the SWISS Senator Lounge. I had a bit of work to do, and full of chocolate muffin and caffeine I’m afraid I can’t discuss the food. Seating was plentiful, finding an outlet was easy, and there was plenty of water to hydrate before flying. For some reason the SWISS Senator Lounge feels so much more peaceful than Lufthansa, where it feels like it’s a giant crowded mess first thing in the morning.

On to the gate…

Upon boarding with my mobile boarding pass, I got the beep beep beep, because apparently I had to re-check-in in Zurich and get asked those oh-so-helpful “did you pack your bag?” “has your bag been with you?” “are there any electronics in it?” questions. I’m sorry, but after Israeli security it felt absolutely ridiculous. These agents (not these in particular, but in European airports in general who screen the US-carrier flights to the US) seem like barely-trained rent-a-cops who couldn’t spot a security risk if it jumped up and screamed it. Anyways….by this point most of the flight had boarded, but fortunately I found space for my admittedly-large carry-ons. On with the show!

United flight 993
Zürich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 10:20, Arrive 13:55, Flight Time 9:35
Boeing 767-300, Registration N642UA, Manufactured 1991, Seat 7H

Enjoying a glass of Jeff Perignon as a pre-departure beverage, it was time to explore what was to eat:

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My seatmate was rather chatty, but fortunately he was also rather interesting to chat with and after a few minutes of chatting (and drinking…we got refills) went back to his own business. Took off right on time, and it was time to enjoy the delights of United BusinessFirst. First. Hah. Sorry, moving on…

A glass of Château Haut-Jeffrois and some high class split-nuts:

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The garlic bread, as always, made up for any shortcomings. United’s insistence on weird fruit-cream dressings continues, but this passionfruit one was actually kind of interesting. That said, give me a creamy parmesan, or peppercorn, or ranch any time. I’m classy like that.

The appetizer? A tiny piece of salmon and one shrimp? Seriously, I’ve seen better seafood selections in a developing country fish market. Just sad. Normally, I would let this go under the category of “you get what you pay for” since the majority of United business class is often upgrades, but since this was a paid business class fare I’m going to let out the full snark.

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The tenderloin of beef. The veggies were ok. The beef…well, I’ve eaten lots of business class beef on united over the years, and I’ve come to expect it medium well or so. This poor beef, however, was beyond salvageable. It literally had to be sawed through with the knife, and even that was a Herculean effort. It was so tough it felt like chewing on cardboard.  I have low expectations on airline beef, but often choose it because it sounds better than the chicken….and I refuse to touch fish on planes. I’ve seen Airplane one too many times.

I did the unthinkable on United…and rang the flight attendant call button.

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Big mistake. After around five minutes a flight attendant finally came by, and her response: “what do you want?” I tried to be as nice as possible, and said “unfortunately this beef isn’t very good…would it be possible to get one of the other meals if there are any left?” Her response? “No. Everything is gone.” and she walked away. Sensing a battle I couldn’t win I admitted defeat. Fortunately, the flight attendant in the other aisle (these are the benefits of sitting in the middle) was generously refilling wine, so I was able to keep a level head and ignore the issue.

At least there was cheese:

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I didn’t dare pull my “if there is any left after everyone has had some” question on the cheese with this crew. I appreciated what I got and left it at that.

Today’s sundae was “caramel with cherries” and the cherry count was four. Another datapoint.

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Watched a few hours of tv on the iPad, napped a little, blah blah blah, and soon it was snack time.

Seriously…a half of wrap and some rather sad fruit? The wrap looked so lonely I’m pretty sure the crew stole 1/2 of each one and ate it and only gave the passengers half of a wrap…or something like that. It just looks way too awkward on the plate like that. Throw in the same chocolates that have been sitting on the snack cart the entire flight and you have a classy meal.

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Landed about five minutes ahead of schedule, turned on my phone and…flight to DC was canceled. Ok, no biggie, I’m sure there are backup options…pull up United.com to look at my reservation…I’d been rebooked for the next day at 6pm. Over 28 hours later. It was raining lightly at Newark, and of course the reason for cancelation was “weather.” Ugh. There was, fortunately, another flight headed to DCA in 50 minutes, but it was overbooked by four people.

Fortunately no problems with Global Entry, security only had about a five minute wait for pre-check, and I made a beeline for the United Club to get added to the standby list. The agent was super efficient and helpful, but of course with my luck, the flight was departing from Terminal A. Ran for the shuttle bus, fortunately little wait, and got to the gate right as boarding was starting.

After everyone appeared to have boarded, I very nicely asked the agent how many were boarded and if there was a chance I might make it. “Just wait and you’ll find out.” Um, ok. I seriously will never understand why when it takes no extra effort to be kind and helpful to someone some people make it their mission to be rude and nasty. Ugh. I was the only one on standby, so it shouldn’t have been a big deal.

Five minutes before departure time it was obvious there were missed connections, and she cleared me into a window seat. I asked if there were other open seats. “Be happy you’re on the flight.” and that was it. The takeaway I’d give United is…top elite passenger on a paid business class fare, you cancel their flight, and then an agent tells them they should just be happy to be downgraded and be on the flight. What sort of impression do you think that leaves with your customers?

I should know better…

United flight 5677, operated by ExpressJet
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 14:55, Arrive 16:06, Flight Time 1:11
Embraer ERJ-145, Registration N14570, Manufactured 2002, Seat 4D

Nothing to say about this flight. No drink service “due to the length of the flight” but at least I got to DC the same day instead of with a 24 hour delay. That shouldn’t be something to be happy for all things considered, but at this point it was.

The takeaway for me is – I’ve become the type of customer United seems to want. Paid business fares, not even using up all the upgrades I earn, requalifying on dollars basis…yet, they treat me poorly. It makes me reevaluate why I bother. The simple reason is, I live in the US, and still do a small to medium amount of domestic travel. If I joined another Star Alliance program, I’d get even fewer benefits, and zero transatlantic upgrades if I chose to use them. The service on United may be poor much of the time, but living in their hub at least I have options when things go wrong. As a non-elite I can pretty much guarantee I would have been screwed in Newark another 24 hours.

So, for now, I’ll continue to settle…and be happy in an abusive relationship.


Dec 222014
 

After a good dinner and sleep the night before I woke up with a nasty cold developing. Head congestion, runny nose, the works. Blech. The way I’d been running myself ragged the last 6-7 weeks it was hardly surprising, but after the mild cold I had just under two weeks prior in New Zealand to now get a full-blown one sucked. Oh well, the small price to be paid for an amazing time!

…and the view out my room at the Sheraton was amazing as well:

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Task number one was coffee. The Sheraton Executive Lounge had a nice breakfast spread, and after stuffing myself with several espressos, fruit, hummus, and cheese, I gave into the temptation of the beach:

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It was a lovely 70F/20C out, and there were shirtless runners everywhere and people playing in the ocean. Um, it’s a little cold for that I think, but hey, A for effort people! With the major head cold making me dizzy and hungover feeling I decided the best thing I could do before changing climate again was to walk off as much of the cold as possible. I took a 3 or so mile walk up and down the beach people watching and basking in the sun.

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Continue reading »


Dec 202014
 

After dinner at the Dancing Camel brewpub I headed back to my room to wind down since it was going to be another semi-early morning, especially because I had to change hotels. I’d had enough points for three nights at the Orchid Park Plaza and one night at the Sheraton, so would be changing for my last night before heading out to Jerusalem for our day tour. Unfortunately, the hotel had other ideas.

It started with loud noise in the room next to me. Then, I smelled cigarette smoke. The went on for 30+ minutes at 10pm, so I went to the front desk to complain. They said they’d look into it, but made it clear I was annoying them, and no, there were no other rooms. 30 minutes later it was still going, so I went down to complain again. They were more annoyed. Finally, they decided the best strategy was to get rid of me, so they offered me a smoking suite in the other tower. Told them I’d check it out first, because hey, one of the things I’m complaining about here is that people are smoking in the room next to me. Suite didn’t smell at all of smoke, and was a bit bigger and much quieter, so was worth the late night move.

Headed back to my original room to get my bags packed up, which took about 10 minutes, and was I was walking out a woman was walking out of the room next door. She screamed loudly at the people in the room “you still owe me 100 shekels” in Russian. Um, wait, there’s hookers in the room? Way to keep it classy Park Plaza! Fortunately, got to the new room and absolutely passed out, so no further drama.

Next day was another early morning fueled by canned coffee from the convenience store. Our tour left from the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem at 11am, so I had a bit of time to make my way there. Unfortunately, this still meant getting up early to switch hotels before heading to the train station to catch the train to Jerusalem. The bus would have been faster, but I figured the extra hour in order to have the train experience would be worth it. I was definitely right.

Got to the Sheraton around 7am, and they were almost as surly as the Park Plaza, until they realized I was an SPG Platinum Member at which point they perked up a bit. They “supposed” they could give me a room early, but it would only be a high floor standard renovated room instead of a junior suite. It was one night, and would be somewhere to put my bags, so I went with it. The room was nice and modern, and as soon as I dropped my bags I hopped a cab to the train station.

The train station was packed, with military everywhere. Being Sunday, I assume everyone was heading back to assignments from visiting friends/family over the weekend so the trains were packed. My train was absolutely packed with military, dozens of them in my car. At one point I felt something poking into my leg, and realized it was the barrel of the guy seated next to me’s gun.

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Upon getting off at Jerusalem, it definitely seemed like the entirety of the IDF was on my train:

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When I exited the station I realized I was still 5+ miles from the Jaffa Gate. Hmmm, expensive taxi or try and figure out the bus. Decided to try the bus. Got on google maps on my phone, it told me the right bus number, and it was easy to find and a piece of cake. It was a good public transit experience, and what did we do before we had google maps to plan such things?!

Got to Damascus Gate with an hour to spare, so while waiting on Ian decided to have a light late breakfast:

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We had booked our tour through Sandeman’s Tours, and they had two options. A three hour free tour, or a much longer 19 euro paid tour. I figured the free tour would be full of annoying cheap people, and Jerusalem had a ton to see, so we went with the paid tour. It was a great decision on our part. Our tour guide was Ryan, an American who’d moved to Israel over ten years ago and was outgoing, friendly, gregarious, and full of knowledge on Jerusalem. We were about 10 people in our group, and first task was the group photo:

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That’s Ryan in the lower right in front of Ian and I. First stop was the Armenian Quarter of the Old City, where there wasn’t terribly much to see. We stopped a few times to talk and get a bit of history, but other than that it was a pretty quick stop through this part of the Old City. Cool buildings as we walked:

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Continue reading »


Dec 192014
 

Was up at 5:30 the next morning to drink canned coffee from the grocery store (I wasn’t taking chances so made sure I had something) to head to Jerusalem to begin our daytrip. Ian had found a tour online with Green Olive Tours that would cover the major sites in Bethlehem and Ramallah. The tour left from Jerusalem, but there was an optional add-on from Tel Aviv which unfortunately had a pick up at 6:30 am. Ugh. No worries though, I was so jetlagged that my body was used to running on little sleep.

Fortunately the Tel Aviv pickup was only about a 10 minute walk from my hotel, and even at 6am it was light out, so had a nice brisk walk in the cold. It was just me and one other person from Tel Aviv, so we headed off early. Thanks to it being Shabaat there was very little traffic, and we were in Jerusalem over an hour before the tour was scheduled to leave. The schedule the Tel Aviv pickup at the same time each day, regardless of Shabaat, which makes little sense.

The meeting point in Jerusalem was the YMCA, which might be the nicest and largest YMCA I’ve ever seen. Had a nice coffee in their restaurant while waiting for Ian…and another coffee once he arrived. The YMCA was located right off Abraham Lincoln street – LOL!

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Soon our group was together, and we were ready to go. Our guide was excited for this trip, since he’d just recently gotten his permit allowing him to travel into Israeli territory. Previously, the tour would have to go pick him up in the West Bank and then start. Green Olive is a Palestinian company, so it was interesting to get another perspective on the situation.

On the way, he gave us a bit of background on Palestine and Modern Israel, and explained about Area A, Area B, and Area C.  Area A is full civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority, and makes up around 3% of the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem but including Bethlehem, and Ramallah which we were visiting as well as Jericho.  Area B is Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control and makes up another 25% or so of the West Bank. Area C is the balance of around 70% and is under full Israeli control.

Leaving Area C, we approached this ominous sign. Dangerous to my life? Oh Israel, you CLEARLY don’t know my travel history:

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First stop in Area A was the tomb of Yasser Arafat:

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Arafat’s Tomb:

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Ok, so it’s a bit awkward posing next to a tomb, but the tour guide and the guards encouraged me:

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