Aug 232016
 

So, this is it. In just about a week I will board an IcelandAir flight and takeoff for Reykjavik, Iceland. Iceland will be my 196th, and final country in the world to visit!

Of course, that would be far too easy after the logistics of planning the first 195 countries! As a brief history, what led up to this point:

First off, the journey has covered approximately 2.4 million miles to this point and a total of 157 airlines. When mapped, it looks something like this:

welt479061471981708

As of 1988, I had visited five countries: The US, Canada, Mexico, the UK, and the Soviet Union.

By 2000, that list had only increased to 11, taking in France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and South Africa.

From there, things started going faster:

2002: 16 countries, including first trip to Asia
2003: 23 countries, including first trip to Central America (Costa Rica)
2004: 31 countries, including Australia
2005: 34 countries, including being part of the first group of Americans to visiting North Korea in decades
2006: 41 countries, including lots of South America
2007: 55 countries, including a big trip around the Middle East
2008: 65 countries
2009: 72 countries, including most of Europe and Southeast Asia complete
2010: 81 countries, includiong Afghanistan
2011: 102 countries, including my first RTW trip
2012: 130 countries, with about half of the new ones in Africa
2013: 149 countries, including several trips to Africa and Central Asia
2014: 171 countries, notably Syria, Nauru, and Angola
2015: 185 countries, finally visiting Yemen, CAR, Chad, and Eritrea
2016: 195 plus one to go….Iceland!

The question I get all the time is, “when did you really start doing this?” I guess I was in casual traveler mode, going to new places when convenient from around 2002-2010. By 2005 I’d decided that one day I would go everywhere, which is why I jumped on North Korea when the chance was there, since it was unclear how long they might allow Americans in. 2010 was when things really started picking up, and I added 20+ new countries per year.

Of course, I don’t do anything the easy way. First off, I opened my trip up to family, friends, and coworkers, and will be going to Iceland with around 40 people to share the final country experience.

Then, because IcelandAir essentially costs the same to fly to Iceland or to Europe with a stop in Iceland, I had to add something on. But, I had no idea what…so because tickets were selling quickly I booked into London after Iceland and back a week later from Helsinki. But, what to do in between?

First thought was “let’s do an epic train adventure!” But…I’d rather save that for London to Singapore by train some day when I have time…so what else. Then it hit me. My previous trips to Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine were incredibly brief, so let’s spend a few days there. Perfect!

So, the trip was set, and the route:

kefmap

Trip report will be split into roughly these parts:

1. Washington to Reykjavik with Iceland Air, arrival in country #196
2. Reykjavik City Tour and Final Country Celebration
3. Blue Lagoon and the Reykjanes Peninsula
4. The Golden Circle Tour
5. Other Iceland Musings and Reykjavik to London with Iceland Air
6. Overnight in London, London to Riga with Air Baltic
7. Day in Riga and Riga to Vilnius with Air Baltic
8. Day in Vilnius and Vilnius to Kiev with Ukraine Intl Airlines
9. Exploring Kiev
10. Chernobyl Tour
11. Kiev to Helsinki with Ukraine Intl Airlines
12. Day in Helsinki, and Helsinki to Washington with Iceland Air

I can’t believe the end is finally in sight, but here it comes! Thanks to all who have virtually joined the travels along the way, as well as those who have actually joined me for some of the trips…it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun and rewarding without you!


Aug 172016
 

You knew this post would be coming at some point. It’s the question I get the most often when I tell people I’m about to finish visiting every country in the world in just two weeks. Inevitably, they ask “what’s next?” It’s actually a pretty easy question to answer. Two things immediately pop to mind: first, I want to spend a little more time at home. There’s things I want to get done that I haven’t with so much traveling, so at least in the short term that will be nice. Plus, I have a few work trips to Zagreb and Bangkok coming up later this year, so that will close out 2016 more or less.

Second thing I want to do is go back to places I really enjoyed and spend more time diving a little more in depth. Some ideas that are already brewing:

Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia: I’ve already tacked this on after Iceland since it was the same price on Icelandair to fly to Europe with a stop in Iceland as it was to fly just to Iceland. Lithuania and Latvia I only got very short overnights in my first time, so this time I’ll take a full day in each to walk the old towns and take in the cities. It should be nice weather in September as well! After that, I’m off to Ukraine. You could debate if I really visited Ukraine at all, since when I was there it was 1989 and it was the Ukrainian SSR. So, I’m going back now to remove any doubt…plus I’ve been really curious to take the Chernobyl tour. I remember being a kid when the reactor blew and worried the whole world was going to die from radiation.

Syria, Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia: I’d like to visit all four of these more in-depth once it becomes feasible. Saudi Arabia because of a very difficult to get tourist visa, same with Sudan. Yemen and Syria will have to wait until things quiet down a bit.

Finland: I want to take a full week in the summer and go north of Helsinki and maybe do a road trip. Some camping, hanging out in lake country. Just a quiet laid back trip.

Namibia: I only got to see a tiny fraction of the country, and I really want to see more. From sand dunes to the Skeleton Coast to Swakopmund, I’d like to spend more time there.

Palau: When I went the first time in 2011 I wasn’t certified for SCUBA yet, and what I saw snorkeling was mind-blowing. I want to go back now, go deeper, and see more of the country! I guess you could add Belize and Bonaire to this last as well – three places I really want to go dive!

Russia: Probably more medium term goal, but I want to take 3+ weeks and do the Trans-Siberian. Take the train from Helsinki to St Petersburg, high speed down to Moscow, and then the Trans-Siberian to Mongolia. I’d like to break it up along the way as well, and maybe stop and see some smaller towns and more of rural Russia. A couple of years will give me a chance to strengthen my Russian more so I can really maximize the trip.

Being a bit of a list maker, there are two more goals I’m toying with:

All 50 States: I’ve visited 42 of the 50 states, and I’ve grouped the 8 remaining into either 4 or 5 trips. Suggestions and locals to show me around would be welcome in all of them:

  • First, I want to fly to Atlanta, rent a car, and do a loop covering Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. New Orleans is the only must-do on this list, so I’d love any other recommendations people have. Definitely a 2017 trip.
  • New Mexico is also on this list. I have friends there, so will probably take a 3-4 day weekend and do some hiking and relaxing at some point in 2017
  • Iowa – yes, I grew up in Minnesota for 15 years and never made it to Iowa, despite being a less than two hour drive from home. I’m thinking it might be fun to fly to Minneapolis, visit family, and then drive down for a college football game either this fall or next. Any Iowa readers want to join me?
  • South Dakota – as above, somewhat embarrassed, although it’s a longer drive from Minneapolis. Definitely going to do Mount Rushmore. I’ll likely fly there for a weekend at some point. Any other must-sees while I’m there?
  • Last but not least will be Oklahoma. Haven’t given much thought to this one, so any suggestions welcome! I’d like to finish all the states in 2017.

So, after visiting all 50 states, the only other immediate list is my list of 215 Independent Places. This is 19 places beyond the list of 196 countries that I think are independent enough I really should visit them as well. So far, I’ve visited 11 of the 19 already (Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Guernsey, Jersey, Isle of Man, Transnistria, Turkish Cyprus, Aruba, Curacao, Cayman Islands) leaving 8 to go:

  • Nagorno-Karabach – internationally-recognized as part of Azerbaijan, although the government of Azerbaijan hasn’t exercised any control in the region for over 20 years. Almost entirely filled with ethnic Armenians it’s in western Azerbaijan and accessibly only from Armenia and uses the Armenian Dram as currency. They do issue their own visas/visitors permits though.
  • Abkhazia – an autonomous republic of Georgia according to the international community it lies between Georgia and Russia, and as recognized as independent by Russia and a handful of over smaller states. Russia is also cooperating with the Abkhazia military forces, so obviously the only way in is really from Russia.
  • South Ossetia – almost identical to the situation in Abkhazia, also sitting between Georgia and Russia. Should be able to make one trip from these two.
  • Western Sahara, also known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Annexed by Morocco from Mauritania in 1976, it has been largely administered by Morocco ever since. They want independence, and have been recognized by nearly 30 countries. Should be easy to do flying in from Morocco.
  • Niue – self-governing, but in “free association” with New Zealand. Sort of similar to Puerto Rico and the United States, except there’s no independence movement. Population has dropped in the past couple of decades from about 6,000 to 1,000 with most people fleeing for Australia or New Zealand. The major problem? Only one flight a week, and it often gets canceled.
  • Tokelau – three atolls that are a territory of New Zealand, with only about 1,200 people total. Unfortunately, there’s no airport, so boats are the only way to get there. There are occasional seaplane flights from Samoa too, which is good because you need to get a Tokelau entry permit from Samoa before going!
  • Cook Islands – like Niue, a self-governing democracy in free association with New Zealand. Plenty of flights from New Zealand, and resorts as well. Rarotonga has lots of resorts and a nice lagoon. Will need to combine with Niue and Tokelau to make a very interesting trip.
  • Somalia – so I’ve technically been before, but to the northern part known as Somaliland, which has its own currency and government and is quite safe. Mogadishu is separately administered, so it’s on my list to get to eventually. Definitely doable, but will be tricky…

That should keep me plenty of busy for a while! What does everyone else have planned?


Aug 162016
 

With 195 of the 196 countries in the world visited now, I’d like to think I’ve learned at least a little bit about different places. Sure, some of these trips have been less than 24 hours and I’ve only scratched the surface of the country, but even in a short time it’s easy to discover that lots of the misconceptions you might have had about a country before visiting just don’t stand up. So, in no particular order, 14 common misconceptions I’ve recently discovered in my quest to visit every country:

10. Iranians hate Americans. The media in the United States repeats it constantly, and Iran’s government certainly doesn’t do much to dispel this notion. However, it’s hard to wander the streets of Iran for five minutes without someone coming up to you, asking where you’re from, and often inviting you back to their home for tea. I found Iranians to be some of the warmest and most hospitable people I met anywhere in the world, and they’re genuinely curious about how things really are in the United States. Sure, our governments and politicians can be pretty easy to hate on both sides…but on an individual level the vast majority of Iranian people will welcome you with open arms.

IMG_1275

9. Africa is full of disease and hunger. Usually when I tell people who haven’t visited Africa about an upcoming trip, their first questions revolve around what shots/medications I had to get, and how will I find enough safe food to eat. Sure, there are tropical and other diseases that are much more common in Africa (malaria, dengue, even HIV), but that doesn’t mean that walking down the street you’re going to drop dead. Regarding food, yes, there’s not a McDonalds on every corner, but you would be surprised how many places you see KFC! There are, of course, lots of hungry people in Africa, but there are lots of hungry people in the United States as well. …and like Iran, the number of times people insisted I come back to their home and join them for a meal was amazing. People may not always have much, but you’re a guest and they’re happy to share it with you.

IMG_0972

8. People in China are pushy and rude. While it’s true that overall Chinese culture isn’t the same as the west when it comes to queueing this is changing to some degree in larger cities. When people start pushing (such as boarding a plane) it’s not an attempt to be rude, but simply doing what one needs to to not get trampled in a society that views that as a norm. There’s no rudeness intended at all, and firmly holding your ground will be respected.

sb2004-206-hong kong

7. The Australian Diet Consists of Blooming Onions, Fosters, and Vegemite. In several trips to Australia I’ve never once seen a blooming onion, and all the Australians I know confirm it’s an American invention. As for Fosters, it’s incredibly uncommon and nobody drinks the stuff. Victoria Bitter (VB) is much more the stereotypical beverage and a higher quality beer costs up to $30 for a six pack thanks to taxes. Unfortunately, the vegemite part is true…and is definitely an acquired taste no matter how thinly you spread it and how much butter you use.

…but you can also get kangaroo and crocodile pizza:

IMG_0338

6. Argentina is Nothing but Cowboys, Steaks, and Evita. While it’s true all three play a huge part making up the Argentine identity, there’s so much more to the country. You can’t deny that modern Argentine politics was largely shaped by Peron and Evita, and you’ll find some of the most mouth-watering steaks in the world, but you’ll also find a vibrant international city in Buenos Aires and amazing skiing in the south and west. Oh, and don’t forget the amazing waterfalls at Iguazu and the Casa Rosada at night:

IMG_3292

5. You Can Get By Everywhere in English. While this is more true than it’s ever been, it’s still not universal. In most major world cities you will have no trouble in English (and in most European capitals the quality of English will be astounding) but there are still places where English is extremely limited. In Europe, Spain and Portugal are exceptions, and especially in Brazil you will find almost no english spoken outside the most touristic of places. Similar in China – get off the few major sites and international hotels, and limited to no English. Plus, if you want to see smaller towns you’ll find English much less common. This also goes for Russia and Central Asia outside capital cities. That’s not to say don’t go – most people will be happy to help, and do their best to communicate with you despite the language gap.

4. South Africa is rife with crime. Yes, South Africa is no stranger to both petty and violent crime. Yes, the stories of carjackings and people being robbed at gunpoint on the street are true. However, the same things happen in major American urban centres if you venture into the wrong neighbourhoods at the wrong time of time. Keep to well-trafficked areas, and use the “women, children, and old people rule” and you’ll be fine. The rule means simply if women, old people, and children are out strolling in the area, chances are things are just fine.

Cape Town sunset:

IMG_6875

3. Nigeria is nothing but Investment Scams, Corruption, and Oil Money. Is there corruption in Nigeria? Absolutely, but there’s also amazing beaches and some of the most amazingly warm people in Africa. One day I was sitting on a deserted beach just outside central Lagos, and the next partying at the craziest wedding I’ve ever been to. I found Nigerians to be some of the most fun-loving and happiest people I met in Africa…and they want you to join in the fun! I highly recommend to anyone who has a Nigerian friend they know in the US – try and get yourself an invite and see the real country. It’s an amazing place!

Very festive Nigerian wedding…the theme was obviously pink:

IMG_0657

2. Japan is all Pokemon, Anime, and Cat Cafes. Sure, all three of those things are very modern Japan, and all originated there and have become global phenomenons. At the same time, however, Japan is still a deeply traditional society with traditions and a history that goes back thousands of years. While Western society is certainly very at home in downtown Tokyo (as attested to by Starbucks everywhere), just turn the corner and you’ll find a temple that goes back hundreds of years that young and old alike still visit and respect. I found nowhere in the world where modern and traditional manage to exist side by side quite like in Japan.

IMG_2564

IMG_2589

1. The Gulf States are Largely a Vast Desert Full of Camels and People that Despise Western Culture. So, first off, yes, there’s a lot of desert in the Arabian peninsula. It gets extremely hot and dry, and yes, there’s a lot of camels – outside the cities at least. Speaking of the cities, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and especially Qatar and the UAE and littered with enourmous shopping malls full of western brands. Dubai has dozens of Starbucks, Caribou, Tim Hortons, Costa and every other coffee shop known to western man. …and all of them are packed with local men sitting for hours and talking over coffee. Like with Japan, Western culture and convenience have been imported and customized for local tastes. Infrastructure and convenience wise the gulf states are some of the most modern places on earth which in some part is owed to the fact that in many of them (especially Qatar and the UAE) over 75% of the population is expatriates!

IMG_1870

IMG_1786

So that’s my list of 10 of my bigger surprises – what has surprised you about places you went? What did you discover that you didn’t expect?


Aug 142016
 

The best part about The Wing lounge was that I could watch the boarding gate while sipping champagne, and as soon as they announced boarding I could just stroll downstairs and to the front of the line. Nice view of our plane:

IMG_2510

There were a few agents milling around, and as soon as I told one “first class” she escorted me straight to the front of the line and the jetway.

Cathay Pacific flight 846
Hong Kong (HKG) to New York, John F Kennedy (JFK)
Depart 18:45, Arrive 22:40, Flight Time: 15:55
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration B-KPL, Manufactured 2009, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 136,159
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,325,296

I was looking forward to an amazing flight this time, having gotten some tips from frequent Cathay fliers. My previous experience was Hong Kong to London, and while I thought it was a great flight, I didn’t think it was amazing. After 195 countries, I still have things to learn…and the reason I felt the service wasn’t “amazing” before is because part of their amazing service is not disturbing you if you don’t want to. However, use the call button, and they are more than happy to help. Today’s crew provided a warm welcome, and showed me to my seat:

IMG_2511

Welcome about glass of Krug was poured:

IMG_2515

Tuna amuse bouche while boarding was taking place and Krug was being enjoyed:

IMG_2516

Krug with a view:

IMG_2518

IMG_2521

Today’s menu:

IMG_2524

IMG_2525

IMG_2526

IMG_2527

Shortly after takeoff the sun was already setting, and more Krug was offered with mixed nuts. This is a small area for improvement, as almonds and cashews aren’t really an inspired choice. I think Lufthansa’s macadamia nuts may win in this category:

IMG_2528

Table was set, Tom Cruise was pouty, and caviar was served:

IMG_2529

Caviar close-up, complete with the mother of pearl spoon. It’s a toss-up who does the best caviar service, but Cathay is definitely one of the best!

IMG_2531

The cauliflower cream soup was pretty bland, and just had a few bites:

IMG_2535

Breaking all my rules had the salad with prawns, and ate them. I figure if anyone can serve non lethal shellfish on a plane it’s Cathay. It was good, but as with the soup rather bland.

IMG_2536

The pork chop was enormous, and the veg flavourful and quite tasty:

IMG_2537

Cheese course was solid, but I have to give the nod to Lufthansa here…if only for the variety of crackers and a few more cheese options:

IMG_2539

At this point, absolutely stuffed, I declined desert and had the bed made up. I didn’t want to sleep for too long so that I could hopefully fall asleep again shortly after landing at 1030p in New York. Still slept 6-7 hours, and woke up with about five hours left in flight. Now, about that dessert I skipped…time for tea and dessert with another movie:

IMG_2540

IMG_2542

About two hours prior to landing seemed like a good time for breakfast. Nice fruit plate, croissants and muffins, and some fresh squeezed orange juice to start things off:

IMG_2544

I had heard rumours this was possible, and the flight attendant seemed a bit confused when I asked for it…but hello scrambled eggs topped with caviar, bacon, sausages, and mushrooms:

IMG_2546

…of course, caviar and scrambled eggs wouldn’t be complete without a glass of krug!

IMG_2547

Overall, an amazing Cathay experience – I couldn’t have asked for much more! Super friendly crew, very comfortable seat, and when I mentioned the cabin was slightly warm they were happy to turn it down a bit. I would have to say with this experience Cathay is right up there with Lufthansa, Singapore, and ANA as my favourite airlines in the world to fly in first!

No drama at all with immigration thanks to Global Entry, and hailing an Uber at JFK was also really easy. Short ride to the hotel for the night.

Change of plans meant I had to head straight to DC from New York instead of going on to Toronto as originally planned. This meant an overnight in New York, or taking a 1am regional train. It was an easy choice, and I stayed at the Sheraton Hong Kong….I mean Sheraton LaGuardia East…in beautiful downtown Flushing…named for being a bit of a toilet…

Uber to LaGuardia in the morning where I had breakfast in the AmEx Centurion Lounge first. Glass of Veuve Cliquot and some eggs benedict while doing some plane watching:

IMG_2550

I haven’t seen a plane this yellow since Hughes Air West in the 1980s!

IMG_2553

Proof I was back in ‘Murica….is it wrong I was hoping it would spontaneously combust?

IMG_2593

Caught the shuttle bus over to the old Marine Terminal for my next flight.

Delta flight 2713, Operated by Shuttle America
New York, LaGuardia (LGA) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 12:00, Arrive 13:22, Flight Time: 1:22
Embraer E-170, Registration N872RW, Manufactured 2006, Seat 5A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 136,373
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,325,510

Can’t say too much for being in coach, but hey, 40-50 minutes max flight time in economy comfort with a free firefly and orange juice and snack can’t be beat! Only downside was no Biscoff catered today:

IMG_2609

On approach to DCA…welcome home!

IMG_2835

Overall a fantastic trip, and couldn’t have asked for a better set of flights to end my penultimate country tour with. Now there’s only one more to go with Iceland coming up just over two weeks away!


Aug 122016
 

Had to wake up way too early to head to the airport to make my way home, but the good news is the KLIA Ekspres train was right across the street, and from the previous two days I knew it was completely reliable. Unfortunately, Starbucks wasn’t open at this early hour, so I had to make my way to the airport only semi-alert. Fortunately, the train routine was easy, and I made it to Cathay Pacific check-in hardly an hour after rolling out of bed. Not bad at all considering the airport was nearly 40 miles from the hotel!

My flight was leaving from the satellite terminal, but before grabbing the train there, I made the most important stop of the morning. I might be next in line to rule North Korea, apparently:

IMG_2480

Headed next to the Malaysia Airlines lounge to get some breakfast. I hadn’t been here in 10 years, and back then it was because I was flying LA to KL to Sydney on Malaysia first awards on their 747s. These were a great use of Northwest Airlines miles back in the day, and Malaysia did first class right. One of the first airlines to offer individual pods in first, and the Golden Lounge in KL was amazing, complete with a dining lounge, sleeping lounge, and water features.

Unfortunately, as part of their restructuring they have almost completely eliminated first class, and the lounge has suffered massively as a result. Only the seating area remains, and the dining room and all other nice amenities are gone. The lounge is maybe a third of the size it used to be. On the upside, it was arctic cold to the point I had to put a hoodie on to be comfortable, but it’s sad to even consider this a first class lounge any more.

Bit of cold breakfast to start:

IMG_2481

Best part of the lounge was a make your own nasi lemak station…mmmmm!

IMG_2482

Headed to the gate after just 20 minutes in the lounge (like I said, trying to maximize sleep) and our One World liveried Cathay A340 was waiting for us:

IMG_2483

Boarding began just five minutes after I arrived at the gate, and we were set to go!

Cathay Pacific flight 720
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL) to Hong Kong (HKG)
Depart 8:55, Arrive 13:05, Flight Time: 4:10
Airbus A340-300, Registration B-HXG, Manufactured 1998, Seat 16K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 128,087
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,317,224

There were only four empty seats in business today, and amazingly two of them were on either side of me. This was a good thing, because there were several small children in business and they weren’t the quietest creatures. I was lucky to have a seat in the K side of the plane, because the seats are arranged in a 1-1-1 layout, and the K seats have their own aisle, with the other two rows sharing an aisle. With three of the K seats empty, this side of business was much quieter.

I love the concept, and layout, but these seats were super narrow! Fine for a short flight, but my shoulders actually both touched the walls of the seat it was so narrow. Great for a regional flight, but would be super uncomfortable for anything longer!

IMG_2485

On a positive note about the narrow seat they were so narrow that when extended the reading light doubles as a microphone:

IMG_2488

Today’s breakfast menu:

IMG_2491

IMG_2492

Safety video entertained me…in case of overwater evacuation, stuff your baby into the inflatable pod and throw it out the window:

IMG_2494

After takeoff, a mimosa to get things started off:

IMG_2495

Next up was a fairly tasty fruit plate as a first course:

IMG_2496

I went with the Malaysian Stir Fried chicken for breakfast, and it was delicious. The croissant and jam were also quite good. …and yes, I did set a terrible example by having more mimosas for breakfast!

IMG_2497

On approach to Hong Kong:

IMG_2498

Overall, a very pleasant flight. The seats were awesome for regional, but anything overnight or more than 6-8 hours would be seriously uncomfortable for a larger person. As usual, Cathay service was amazing too, and overall another excellent experience.

Arrived in Hong Kong a few minutes ahead of schedule, where apparently it’s wife cake season…happy wife, happy life!

IMG_2499

Grabbed another Starbucks to try and stay awake, and then made a beeline for the Pier lounge. I’d learned on previous trips it was worth the extra walk compared to the Wing lounge, and even though it was much more crowded than a previous visit, it still felt quiet and relaxing. I caught up on a couple of hours of work, before heading to the dining area for a late lunch. Rosé and seared tuna to start:

IMG_2500

IMG_2502

The Pier menu:

IMG_2503

Dandan noodles, aka crack noodles. I could eat multiple bowls of these if allowed….delicious:

IMG_2504

…finished off with sticky toffee pudding…mmmmm!

IMG_2507

Spent about four hours total in the lounge including a nice long relaxing (and useless, do to the warm temps and high humidity in the Hong Kong airport) shower, and soon it was time to head towards my gate for the flight to New York. 80 minutes pre-flight they still hadn’t posted the gate, but knowing that London, Europe, and US flights tend to leave from closer in gates, I decided to start the long walk back to The Wing lounge in hopes of being closer. Sure enough, five minutes after leaving the Pier they confirmed Gate 2 and so I had time for one last glass of bubbles in the sweltering hot Wing lounge before boarding the onward flight to New York…


Aug 112016
 

Ended up sleeping in a bit…so much that I actually missed breakfast in the Le Meridien lounge. That was no problem, however, because in KL Sentral Station just across the street there was a…you guessed it…Starbucks which did a great job of fueling me.

Grabbed a super inexpensive Uber and headed over to the Petronas Twin Towers…and got there just as the sky was about to open up and dump rain:

oz2004-063-kl petronas twin towers

Wandered the mall a bit as the rain let up, and then grabbed another Uber X out to the Batu Caves. The Ubers were so inexpensive in KL that I didn’t mind asking the driver to wait 30-60 minutes while I explored, and he was more than happy to do so. The roundtrip plus nearly 40 minutes of waiting time was still less than $30. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any pictures I was really happy with, so I’m going to recycle some from a trip about ten years ago. The long staircase up to the caves:

oz2004-068-kl batu caves

The one thing that struck me in the ten years since I’d been there was the complete absence of the monkeys. The place used to be crawling with wild monkeys:

oz2004-072-kl batu caves monkey

To the point they would sell you bananas to feed the little guys, who were not in the least afraid of humans:

oz2004-103-kl batu caves jason monkey

After getting back to the hotel with Uber, I head to pack up for my trip to Penang. On my original itinerary (as booked when I left the US) I had planned an overnight in Penang in case I misconnected. I didn’t want to miss the start of my ticket home. However, I found out that all the flights to Penang were out and back, so wasn’t too worried. Plus, with the originally planned detour to Australia, and now detour to Mumbai, I really didn’t have time for this.

Fortunately, I booked a two night stay in KL, and on the full day it would be easy to fly up to Penang and then turn almost right around. Packed a small daybag with essentials like passport, phone charger, etc, and caught the KLIA Ekspres back to the airport. Security was super quick, and the domestic gates are a short walk away…through the duty free shops of course. I’m not sure I understand the point of duty free shops for a domestic concourse, but it is what it is.

First stop was the domestic Malaysian lounge, which was a sad, sad place. A small buffet that looked like the food had been sitting there for hours, and several kids running around loudly screeching. I opted instead to walk around the rather small (but long) concourse plane and people spotting. At least the view of our plane for Penang from the lounge was fantastic:

IMG_2450

No spitting in the drinking fountain!

IMG_2452

At the end of the terminal two 747s were parked. Malaysia has been “hunting” for the owners of these abandoned planes since December, 2015! SWIFT Air claimed to own them, but apparently Malaysia doesn’t believe them, and now 8 or more months later, they still sit. I mean really, how do you forget you own a 747?

IMG_2453

Back towards our gate, the thunderstorms were rolling in, and things were looking ugly for an on-time departure.

IMG_2454

Torrential rain, thunder, and lightening started shortly thereafter. Of course, neither rain, nor snow, nor other mysterious circumstances shall stop Malaysia Airlines, so we boarded and pushed back right on time!

Malaysia Airways flight 1152
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL) to Penang, Malaysia (PEN)
Depart 16:20, Arrive 17:20, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-800, Registration 9M-MSG, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,311
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,315,448

Flight was completely full in both classes, but fantastic flight attendant in business offered a pre-departure of anything you’d like. Including nice warm Diet Coke…

IMG_2458

After a super turbulent climb out there was even a meal on the short flight! It wasn’t anything special, but those bread rolls were super addictive!

IMG_2459

Landed in Penang right on time, and went straight to the gate agent to ask about changing my reservation. My flight back to KL was scheduled about 3.5 hours later, and was the turnaround of the next flight. He was super helpful, could see me checked in on the next flight, and was happy to move me to the one leaving in 40 minutes…but did remind me that there wasn’t a meal catered for me, haha! Score, I could arrive back to KL three hours earlier and get more sleep before my early flight!

The domestic departures hall in Penang:

IMG_2467

Our gate today B1 was apparently a fragrance and cosmetic wonderland:

IMG_2469

There was a crew change in Penang, so unfortunately didn’t get to go back with the same wonderful crew.

Malaysia Airways flight 1155
Penang, Malaysia (PEN) to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL)
Depart 17:55, Arrive 18:55, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-800, Registration 9M-MSG, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,512
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,315,649

Who needs a catered meal when right next to your gate there’s a Starbucks! I like Penang Airport already!

IMG_2470

Even better, there were only two passengers in business class on the return flight so I had an empty seat next to me:

IMG_2471

With that, there’s not much to tell. Super uneventful flight, and I even made it back to the Le Meridien with ten minutes to spare before happy hour ended in the lounge. Even better, the super friendly agents kept the lounge going an extra thirty minutes since there were so many people still around. I have to give high marks to the lounge staff, they really made this hotel extra welcoming.

Everything had worked out well with the side trip to Penang, and now the trip was coming to an end. Next morning, early morning flight to Hong Kong with Cathay followed by a long lounge break and flight to JFK in first…


Aug 102016
 

Grabbed an Uber from the W Hotel to BKK in order to catch my onward flight to Kuala Lumpur. So, why Kuala Lumpur? Mainly because I had gotten an incredible fare out of Penang, Malaysia back to Toronto which meant I would need to visit KL for a night on my way to Penang to start the new ticket. Malaysian check-in at Bangkok was super efficient, and there was no line for passport control or security. Soon I was in the main terminal where I love this piece of Thai art:

IMG_2433

Malaysian uses a contract lounge by Louis Tavern, with several cardboard cutout agents greeting me for my visit. Yee haw VietJet!

IMG_2434

The lounge was…unimpressive. Plenty of things to drink, and a bare few nibbles. It’s my one complaint about the lounges in general (including the Thai lounges) at this airport and that is that it’s hard to get anything substantial to eat from them if you’re hungry. Having recently had breakfast I wasn’t interested, but if I was there wasn’t much other than a few snack foods in the lounge. The lounge was nicely cooled but also rather small with most of the seats taken. Plenty of power outlets, but after 15 minutes of listening to two obese Australian gentlemen bragging about their…conquests…in Bangkok I decided to head to the gate early.

I remember when these routes in SouthEast Asia were operated by widebodies as recently as ten years ago. Unfortunately, these days 737s do lots of the heavy lifting. Our bird for the short flight was already at the gate being catered when I arrived:

IMG_2435

Boarding was as orderly as possible in Bangkok, and the flight was completely full with every seat taken.

Malaysia Airways flight 789
Bangkok, Thailand (BKK) to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL)
Depart 14:15, Arrive 17:25, Flight Time: 2:10
Boeing 737-800, Registration 9M-MLM, Manufactured 2011, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,110
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,315,247

Pre-departure of water or juice was offered, and as soon as we were up in the air appetizers were delivered. The salad was amazing (anyone know what it is?) and garlic bread is always a winner with me. The big downside, Malaysian no longer serves alcohol on “regional” flights. Come on, how cheap can you guys get?

IMG_2437

Green curry chicken as a main…it was relatively tasty:

IMG_2438

Other than that, how much can you really say about a 90 minute flight on a 737? Reasonably tasty meal, no alcohol, but crew were happy to provide water and drink refills whenever requested. Overall, a solid experience. We landed in KL right on time, and fortunately in the main terminal so there was no need to wait for the train to take us to immigration. Unfortunately, when we arrived at immigration it was absolutely slammed. Talking to some others, they had been in the queue for over THREE HOURS. Even the business class/diplomat/CIP line was long, and I ended up waiting more than 30 minutes to clear.

After clearing, it was off to the KLIA Ekspres train for the 30 minute ride into the city. I had purchased my tickets through their iPhone app earlier, and with this got a 10% discount. The discount was even higher at 20% if you paid with a MasterCard. Scanned the QR code from the app on the turnstiles, and voila…nice and easy. Definitely recommend this method for anyone visiting KL. After a short ride we were at KL Sentral station, and it was a short walk across the street to the Le Meridien hotel. The Le Meridien and Hilton hotels share an entrance, and are essentially joined on the ground level. I had stayed at the Hilton before, but decided on the Le Meridien this trip.

Front desk checked me in, and told me I’d been upgraded to a newly renovated room on the top floor….going up…

IMG_2439

It was cocktail hour by the time I arrived, so I headed down to the club lounge. There was a huge buffet spread as well as complimentary drinks. More than enough food to make a dinner, and I ended up staying for a couple of hours until they closed it. I was tired from a few long days of travel, so not much in the mood to head out. Plus, it was pouring rain, so going outside really wasn’t an option. The first of several snack plates:

IMG_2441

View of KL from the lounge:

IMG_2443

View of KL from my room:

IMG_2444

With that I called it a rather early night. I wanted to get out and explore in the morning before going to Penang, so rested up and took it easy. It was also arctic cold in my room, and soon I settled in for a long hibernation…


Aug 092016
 

Up early, enjoyed a bit of breakfast (and of course some Starbucks) and checked out of the hotel. The St Regis Mumbai was absolutely fantastic, went above and beyond for me as a platinum member. However, when checking out, like at many hotels, they asked if I wanted to be billed in my card’s home currency (US Dollars) or Indian Rupees. I replied rupees, and received a receipt showing the same. However, the charge posted in US dollars, with an exchange rate nearly 7% off from the market rate. This has taken a chain of 22 emails to correct, and has marred my impression of this property. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but correcting something so easy shouldn’t take such effort. Sure, it was only about $35 on the exchange loss, but it’s also the principle. Now, waiting to see if they’ll comp some Starpoints for the annoyance of 22 emails…

Decided to take Uber Black to the airport, and the nearly 40 minute drive was very comfortable with a friendly driver and was less than $8. Definitely recommended as a way to get to the airport. Fortunately, traffic wasn’t awful and made it to the airport ahead of plan. Picked up my boarding pass from Jet Airways and headed to immigration where things got…interesting.

Upon not being able to find my visa, the immigration agent asked how they had let me in the country. I explained that on previous trips I was told I didn’t need to show the visa because it is in the computer, and how upon showing a digital copy this time I was allowed in. I also mentioned that I will of course carry the physical visa on future trips just in case it is required. He wasn’t going to have any of this, and escorted me to the supervisor’s room, who was equally incredulous, and told me there was no way they could stamp me out of India without seeing the physical visa.

Eventually, I asked: “ok, so you won’t let me out of India because I don’t have the visa, and without leaving India, there’s no way I’ll ever be able to physically produce the visa. So…I assume you’ll be granting me a permanent resident visa since you’ll refusing to ever let me leave the country?” This seemed to confuse them even further as the mental gymnastics became more and more difficult. They couldn’t make logical sense of what they should do next…so eventually relented and told me to make sure to have the visa next time!

That sorted, I had time to stop by the lounge very briefly for a bit of planespotting and a glass of wine. The lounge was rather nice, and had waiter service at the tables. They were probably some of the friendliest lounge waiters I’ve ever encountered too and seemed very disappointed when I declined a refill of the already generous pour of wine:

IMG_2411

Off to the gate, where the crew was just arriving 30 minutes before departure. Looked like we would depart slightly late…

Jet Airways flight 60
Mumbai, India (BOM) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 18:50, Flight Time: 4:30
Boeing 737-800, Registration VT-JGV, Manufactured 2007, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 125,356
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,314,493

I had actually purchased the last seat in business, and coach was full as well. It would be a very packed flight to Bangkok. Printed menu for the flight:

IMG_2414

IMG_2415

IMG_2416

No pre-departure beverages were offered, but nuts in perhaps the most festive bowl I’ve ever seen in 737 business class and wine were offered shortly after takeoff:

IMG_2418

The salad was quite unusual with beans and onions in it, but rather tasty. Nice mini salt and pepper shakers too:

IMG_2421

IMG_2422

Went with the Murgh main (since we got the lunch menu) and it was extremely tasty, and served with plentiful sides:

IMG_2423

Cheese plate was decent, but I really wonder what the point of that sad little piece of lettuce is:

IMG_2424

Finally an orange yogurt mousse for desert, which was very tasty:

IMG_2425

Other than that, a nice uneventful flight. There was hourly water service after lunch, and flight attendants were happy to help whenever asked. Overall, it left me with a good impression of Jet Airways as a very solid choice for a short regional flight. It’s too bad they don’t do much longhaul any more, as it looks like they would likely offer a competitive product based on this short flight.

Relatively short walk to immigration upon arrival in Bangkok, and decided to use the AOT taxi service to get to the hotel. I hadn’t been to Bangkok in over 5 years until this past year, and now this was my fifth time this year. It’s funny how things seem to go in cycles! No traffic at all, and arrived at the W Bangkok in a bit under 30 minutes. I had had several good stays here earlier in the year, and was looking forward to this one. No upgrade this time because they were full, and when I arrived in the room it was extremely warm:

IMG_2427

While the room cooled down, I headed out to meet a friend for a delicious dinner of extra spicy pad thai:

IMG_2429

…finished with even tastier mango and sticky rice:

IMG_2430

Unfortunately, when I got back to the room it was still 23.8 degrees, and wouldn’t cool further. I went to the front desk and asked to be moved, and was informed they were completely sold out at that would not be possible. They did send maintenance to the room to look, but they informed me it was working just fine. Based on the fact that all my previous rooms in this hotel had been much cooler, that couldn’t be the case. It was 23.2 by the time I woke up – barely cool enough for sleeping – so clearly something was wrong.

At least I had the amazing breakfast buffet to look forward to. On all my previous stays the breakfast room had been empty to maybe 50% full, but for some reason this time the place was absolutely packed, with most of the guests speaking Mandarin. It appeared there was a large group/package tour staying in the hotel, and it was not a group of frequent international travelers. Witnessed people using hands to pick from the buffet, children running around, and one man spitting on the floor in the middle of the buffet area. I pointed it out to the staff, who in the usual Thai fashion smiled and said they would see what they could do…but nothing was done.

Added to this, the quality of the buffet was also down significantly in just the past few months. Very limited fresh fruit (which had been plentiful before) and a reduced variety of dishes overall. Not sure if this was due to the large package group picking things over, or the hotel actually cutting back, but it was a major disappointment when I used to consider this the world’s best breakfast buffet. Oh well, things change… I’m not sure if I’ll choose the W again my next trip, as Bangkok has so many fantastic hotels that I don’t see any reason to stay in one that is disappointing in any way.

…that was easily fixed by grabbing Starbucks next door with some work colleaguers, where apparently asking my name is more difficult than just writing the Under Armour logo on my cup to identify me:

IMG_2432

After coffee my all too short stop in Bangkok was over, and it was time to head on to Malaysia to begin the trek home…


Aug 072016
 

Since I hadn’t heard anything from Etihad four hours before my flight, I called to check the status of my car transfer. Since the booking was made less than 24 hours before flight, I was advise they couldn’t guarantee the car, but would see what they could do. When I called at 9am, they assured me that yes, the transfer was scheduled and would be there at 10am. 10am came and went. 10:15 came and went. At 10:30 I gave up and called an Uber to the airport.

Arrived in the first class check-in area, and first thing I asked was what had happened with the transfer…she made some phone calls, and “yes, the car came to get you…at 6am.” Um, seriously? You sent a car for me eight hours before the flight? First off, it’s not true because they would never send a car that early, and second, why did they then tell me 10a when I called? Complete confusion on the part of Etihad, and makes three for three the amount of times they failed to show up to take me to the airport as promised. Completely unreliable.

Anyways, moving onto check-in, the agent starts paging through my passport. “Where’s your visa?” I have a ten year multi-entry India visa, in another passport. The agent presses on “but I need to see it.” Now, time for a bit of background. A few trips ago, in Delhi, the agent told me “why are you showing me that? I can see your visa in the computer, there’s no need to bring it and show it every time.” So, I haven’t My last three trips to India, no questions at all on the visa. But, this agent wouldn’t budge. To the point she had supervisors calling the Indian Embassy. They were standing firm. No visa, no checkin, no flight.

So, I asked her “if I’m transiting, I don’t need a visa. If I buy an immediate ticket out of India will you check me in.” Her: “no, because we know you will attempt to stay in India.” But yes, I will attempt, and if they tell me no, I’ll go right back out on the connecting flight. I even bought a one-way on Air India from Mumbai to Colombo, departing three hours after arriving in Mumbai. She wouldn’t budge. “Ok, I will go to Colombo, not try and go to immigration, and will sort out the visa from there.” Exasperated, she finally gave up, and agreed to check me in.

This had wasted nearly two hours of time, which meant I only had 15 minutes to enjoy and check out the new Etihad First lounge. I will say, this is the one part of the Etihad ground experience that was amazing. I had a perfectly lovely former flight attendant dedicated to helping me out, and she saw to it that I got some champagne, pronto:

IMG_2345

Bar/lounge area of the Etihad First lounge:

IMG_2346

I shared my check-in experience with her, along with my poor experiences with the limo service and in flight service where they frequently run out of food options. She was very pleasant and genuine, and it was nice to finally be able to experience a bit of actual service with a human touch on Etihad. Of course, there was also a huge downside to a lounge. There was a group of about 10 Etihad staff having a rather loud meeting in the lounge – seems an extremely weird place to be having a meeting but it appeared to be some kind of training. Mid-day was a rather quiet time in the lounge so maybe it was the best time if they had to do it, but still just seemed a bit…unclassy.

Rather long walk to my gate, the very last one in the terminal, and soon it was time to forget all the stress and enjoy the A380 experience. Of course, I was asked to show the visa again at the gate, but showing the connecting ticket was just fine for them. The boarding area was an absolute madhouse, and boarding had already begun when I reached the gate. The agent was fantastic when he saw I was in first, and actually escorted me down the long jetway, actually pushing other passengers waiting in a long line in the jetway aside so I could go past.

Etihad flight 204
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH) to Mumbai, India (BOM)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 19:20, Flight Time: 3:40
Airbus A380, Registration A6-APE, Manufactured 2015, Seat 3K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 123,471
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,312,608

Very nice welcome aboard with champagne, dates and arabic coffee:

IMG_2348

Forget the stress of the whole limo/check-in drama with Etihad, and enjoy relaxing in the A380 apartment:

IMG_2349

Unfortunately I didn’t have all this space for a 14 hour flight to Melbourne as planned, but 2.5 hours to Mumbai would have to do:

IMG_2352

Full menu for the short flight:

IMG_2353

IMG_2354

IMG_2355

Our captain today was SMOKIN’ hot!

IMG_2357

Shortly after take off cashews, mixed nuts, olives, and more champagne:

IMG_2363

IMG_2364

Arabic mezze to start…relatively tasty:

IMG_2365

By this point, the WiFi was also up and running, and I sent some emails back home to see if I could at least get a scan of my visa. Thankfully, less than 30 minutes later, a friend had found the passport for me and taken a shot of the visa, so at least I had photographic proof of the visa, if not the actual visa. Oh, and if you think I’m bad with all the photos, the guy in the apartment across the aisle had a go-pro set up to record his entire experience, lol:

IMG_2366

Since it was so good the last time I’d had it, I got the biryani for a main and the in-flight chef insisted on making me a salad to go with it. Delicious once again:

IMG_2368

Fortunately, this time, they didn’t run out of cheese, although the selection was quite on the disappointing side:

IMG_2370

Couldn’t resist a bit of ice cream and arabic sweets…were also super tasty. Not sure what flavour the ice cream was, but tasted a bit like speculaas and was super tasty:

IMG_2371

Panoramic shot of the suite:

IMG_2373

Unfortunately the flight went by all too quicky and we landed in a very stormy and rainy Mumbai as the sun was setting. See, when I woke up and decided going to Mumbai sounded like fun I’d forgotten to do any research and had arrived in the middle of monsoon season! Our A380 from the gate upon arrival:

IMG_2374

Headed down to immigration where the business class line was pretty short, and handed him my passport…and waited. Eventually, he asked, where is your visa? I told him I have a 10 year visa in another passport, and no I don’t have it with me, it should be in your computer. He seemed completely confused…either Mumbai does things differently or something has changed. So, I offered him my phone with the picture of the visa, oh piece of cake, that’s plenty, here you go, welcome to India!

IMG_2375

Even a bigger surprise, when I left the airport, the Etihad drivers were all there…but none for me. So I asked one of them if there were any other drivers…he asked my name and I told him. “OH! FIRST CLASS!” were his next words and he called another driver who was apparently waiting right outside for me. Apparently, not only did Etihad get the transfer right this time, but first class gets better cars or something. Was a very nice ride of maybe 30 minutes in spacious air conditioned comfort and soon we were arriving at the St Regis Mumbai. Before this trip I’d never stayed at a St Regis before, and now this was to be my second time in a week…and a huge surprise awaited me with a giant two bedroom suite. The living/dining area:

IMG_2377

Full kitchen as well:

IMG_2378

Another shot of the living/dining room area:

IMG_2379

At first I was worried when I saw I’d been given a room with two beds:

IMG_2380

…but at least it has a nice bathroom:

IMG_2381

IMG_2382

…but wait, there’s a second bedroom as well!

IMG_2383

IMG_2384

…with its own bathroom:

IMG_2385

IMG_2386

IMG_2387

Got a fantastic night of sleep, and enjoyed the view from my room in the morning:

IMG_2396

IMG_2401

Headed down to breakfast first, and it was a huge buffet, but the place was absolutely packed. There were probably 200+ people eating, and the place felt like an absolute madhouse. There were also lots of large families with children running around, not what I would have expected at a St Regis. Had a small bit to eat, and then found out…just next door…was Starbucks! I decided to get my caffeine there before continuing on with my day.

Managed a good day of work, which was good because spending much time outside didn’t really appear to be an option since it was torrential downpours pretty much all day…then the rain would stop, sun would come out and bake in the humidity….just in time for another downpour. I did get out for a bit of a walk as well in between storms, but other than work it was a pretty uneventful day.

Oh, and on top of work, I did manage to decide what I felt like doing next…heading to Bangkok!

Back to the St Regis, and up to the top floor bar where they supposedly had a happy hour for platinum and suite guests. There was a snack menu, as well as anything you wanted to drink. I decided to go with the pan fried dumplings and some Indian red wine which wasn’t bad:

IMG_2402

…this may have been repeated a few times. The weirdest part was when I left, then told me I had to sign. Ok, fine, and then they brought me a bill….for nearly 9,000 rupees – or nearly $150! I was assured I didn’t have to pay it, they just needed the bill for “internal bookkeeping.” Ok, fine by me. Who knew a few glasses of wine and three small appetizers could cost so much….more than the room even! With that it was off to bed, because I had to get up relatively early to continue on to Bangkok the next day!


Aug 042016
 

The Almaty airport has to go down as one of the worst major airports in the world. First, you scan your bags, and then proceed to the check-in area. Etihad staff were quite nice, and when I asked if the flight was full in business class today, they couldn’t understand. Switching into Russian he said “oh no, there are only two passengers, but economy is very very overbooked, so it will be full.” Great, just my luck, 14 people getting for free what I paid extra for. Oh well!

Through passport control and security, and into departures. Departures is one large hall with one lounge, a few cafes and smoking lounges, and a large duty free shop. At least I was able to get some caffeine duty free while I waited:

IMG_2100

I’m quite amazed that for such a modern city with such so many high end luxury malls, Starbucks, and tons of international brands, the airport is so poor. In the business lounge, you get two drink coupons…but not valid on alcoholic drinks! Only coffee, tea, juice, and water…and only two of them. Probably the poorest excuse for a business class lounge I’ve seen at a major international airport. Only Abidjan was almost as bad. To its credit, it did have reasonable AC which almost kept it cool…and compared to the departures hall that was very welcome.

Walked over to where my bus was boarding from (since everything here is a bus gate) and there were only like 50 people waiting….and then, looking over to security, it was obvious what had happened. There was a group of 100+ Indians clearing connecting security. It was a large sports team that was coming from Uzbekistan and just connecting, which explained why the flight was so oversold. On the bus to the plane, we passed the very unfortunately named SCAT Airlines:

IMG_2314

Etihad flight 297
Almaty, Kazakhstan (ALA) to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH)
Depart 17:20, Arrive 20:25, Flight Time: 5:05
Airbus A319, Registration A6-EIE, Manufactured 2003, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 122,245
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,311,382

It was easy to determine which plane we would be on, as Etihad only has one A319 with business class. Fortunately, it was on time, and we boarded right on schedule. Pre-departure beverages were offered, and champagne was no problem:

IMG_2319

Printed menus:

IMG_2320

IMG_2321

The mezze starter was rather tasty, and great presentation for a narrowbody flight:

IMG_2322

The lamb tikka was delicious, and went quite well with a glass of wine:

IMG_2323

Chocolate cheesecake dessert was nothing special, but went well with red wine:

IMG_2324

The flight took a very roundabout route, presumably to avoid Afghan airspace:

IMG_2325

Not terribly much to say about the flight. Five hours is a bit long on an A319, but Etihad gives plenty of legroom, way more than US carriers do on a narrowbody. Only one of the free upgraders was a bit obnoxious, constantly putting his bare feet up on the armrest of the woman in front of him. Oddly enough, despite banging her arms with his bare feet repeatedly, she didn’t seem to mind at all.

No line at immigration which was nice, so it was off to the Etihad Chauffeur service to get a drive to the hotel. No wait at all, unlike my last time, and was in the car and off instantly. About 20 minutes later, checked into the Aloft Abu Dhabi. I had stayed there a couple months prior, and been really impressed for an Aloft. This time, wasn’t as good. The staff seemed a bit overworked and puzzled, and not quite sure how to do their jobs. They were incredibly nice, but it was just a little bit off. As an example, previous visit they had offered two complimentary drink coupons. This time, it was one. When I asked for a second, she said, “oh, well, I guess that is ok.”

At least they upgraded me to a larger room, same type as previously, and the AC operated on arctic:

IMG_2328

IMG_2329

Typical functional Aloft washroom, but plenty spacious:

IMG_2330

Nice selection of little cakes was waiting in the room:

IMG_2331

Decided to head upstairs to the top floor sports bar and enjoy my free drink coupons. Apparently, they were about to show games from the European Football championship and the floors were covered with tacky green fake grass and there were flags everywhere. Did enjoy a couple of beers, and then headed back to call it a night just as all the football fans were beginning to show up.

Woke up, went downstairs, and enjoyed their rather large buffet. It’s no St. Regis, but for an Aloft it was rather amazing. I’ve been rather impressed overall with Aloft properties – they’re at a lower price point, but not as old and run down as many Four Points. I’d be happy to stay in one again.

IMG_2334

Elevator up to the room encouraged me to take a selfie, and always one to listen to elevators, I complied:

IMG_2336

This is when disaster struck in the form of a notification from TripIt. Apparently my flight from Abu Dhabi to Melbourne had been delayed. Opened up Etihad’s website to look…and it was delayed seven hours! Instead of a 5pm arrival into Melbourne in time to do a planned dinner and evening with friends, I would be arriving at midnight! Did lots of frantic research for the next couple hours using Etihad’s website along with FlightRadar24, FlightAware, and a few other tools to map out Etihad’s fleet of A380s. Fortunately there are only eight of them, so it was easy to tell where they were coming/going from.

Etihad flies the A380 to New York JFK, London, Mumbai, Sydney, and Melbourne. I was able to trace the delay to one of the A380s going mechanical in Melbourne, and being out of service for over 48 hours. They seemed to be trying to run all flights with just seven planes, which meant JFK was delayed as well…by 14 hours! Apparently JFK and Melbourne worked best, because the other routes were still operating on time. I waited a couple hours to confirm the two A380s that COULD help me leave near on time did leave (to London and Mumbai) and once they had, it was set. My delay officially meant the point of my going to Melbourne was moot and while I considered still going, it just wasn’t going to be worth it.

So, I did what I’ve never done before: canceled all my onward flights, and decided to throw caution to the wind and live in the moment.

Called the front desk and extended my room for one more night since it looked like I wouldn’t make it out. Then, it was time to start thinking where to go next. But first, caffeine would be needed. Headed off to Yas Island Mall, where Jerab got some Starbucks:

IMG_2337

Now, all together please, say YAAAAAAAS!

IMG_2339

Back to the hotel after a couple hours and started to sort out a plan. I really wanted to try the A380 apartments again, and it looked like I could do that if I headed to Mumbai the next day. So, why not! Decided to book a ticket to Mumbai and go to India for a few days…from there, who knew where the rest of the trip would lead me!

Headed back up to the sports bar planning to get a burger or something for dinner, but was promptly refused entry for wearing shorts. Sports Bar apparently means classy in Dubai, so back to the room to put on some trousers and headed up. I began to wish very quickly that I hadn’t. The place was filled with smoke and eastern european women that I had a hard time telling if they were expatriates, flight attendants, or what. I was like some trashy eastern european nightclub in there…and so bad I couldn’t even stay for a beer there was so much smoke.

This is where Aloft continued to lose me. Apparently, room service also isn’t a thing at this property. You can get something from the takeout cafe and have it brought to your room for a small charge, but you actually have to go down and pay for it yourself…then they will bring it up for you if you want. Overall, it was beginning to feel much more like the budget experience I expected and less like a nice relaxing stay…next morning it was up, and hopefully my car would show up to take me to the airport…