Dec 232011

So, everyone knows United and Continental are merging.  I know, shocker.  The logo is continental, the frequent flier program is continental, the way they value fliers by fare paid is continental…essentially isn’t continental with the United name and economy plus…as well as First Class on a few international planes.  Personally, I have high hopes this will be an improvement for me personally, but that’s a story for another post.  For those of you coming from either United or Continental, I wanted to highlight six tricks I think everyone needs to know.

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Dec 222011

I’m going to go off on a new tangent here – this is my first post not specifically as a trip report but a bit of advice from my years of travel.  I’ve been traveling now for roughly 35 years, well before there were airline alliances, before frequent flier miles existed in any meaningful way, etc.  I flew as a standby brat for years, on the whims of empty seats, and once I’d spent years flying in first class for “free” I knew I didn’t want to go back.  The key was elite status – which seemed impossible at first, but in the end, it really wasn’t.

However, I quickly learned, that even when most people amass a large amount of miles – be it from flying, credit card offers, or other means, all too often they spend so many more than they need to to get something.  There’s nothing wrong with it – sometimes you need something very specific.  A given date, a given flight, a given gift for a friend – and you pay what you have to.  But, when you can be even just a little bit flexible…you can really stretch your dollar or frequent flier mile so much farther.

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Dec 212011

So as I mentioned after well over 15-17 miles of walking the previous day – I still had Sunday to explore Buenos Aires.  I definitely wasn’t up for much more walking, so the plan was to explore the metro system and some other parts of the city.  I especially (being a transit geek) wanted to see the A line of the metro that dates back nearly 100 years and still has the original wooden cars!  This is going to be mostly a picture post, with a few comments.  Also, I’m going to merge this post with my post from the following Thursday.  It was also a holiday, so I spent both these days doing low-key sightseeing.

Decided the first thing I wanted to do was see the Palermo neighbourhood, mostly because I’d heard great things.  It was also the home of the Botanical Gardens and Zoo which I wandered.  A couple of pics, including a Yerba Mate bush:

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Dec 172011

I was originally going to make this one post on sightseeing, but then going through pictures I realized just how much I’d seen on Saturday alone and decided to split this into a few different posts.  The cool thing about Buenos Aires to me was what a walkable city it was.  Wide avenues, lots of sidewalks, and tons of cool and unique things to see along the way.

First stop out of the hotel was the memorial to those killed in the Islas Malvinas / Falkland Islands war.  It’s proof the great sense of irony the Argentines have that they placed this directly across the street from the English Clock Tower which was a gift from England around World War I.  The two monuments now stand facing each other, as if to say “this isn’t over yet.”

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Dec 162011

So up front, I need to make a confession.  Working late most nights, and then heading to work out, I stuck close to the hotel for food.  Thus, there’s only going to be two restaurant reviews because the other nights were either nothing special, or quick grab and go.  But that said, I did eat at each of these places three times because the food was solid!

Found this place my first night there, and it was just a 5 minute walk from the hotel.  Sat at the bar/grill, and the guy working the bar/grill was amazing.  I ended up eating here three times, and it was absolutely delicious every time.  In DC, I’m happy to get my steak “nearly perfect” one out of every three times.  That said, every time I ate here the steak was 110% absolutely perfect.  The best steaks I’ve ever had, and for those that know the quality of DC steakhouses, that’s saying a lot.  I went with the “Bife de Lomo” and the “Bife de Chorizo” and they were all absolutely amazing.  Also had the marinated garlic, which was a great starter.  I’m going to shut up and let the pictures do the talking, because I can’t stop drooling.

One other note….the “Ensalada Mixta” was pretty awesome too, and provided just enough fibre to down these massive hunks of beef.  Absolutely.  Awesome.  Oh, and each night I washed the whole thing down with 1/2 bottle of the Norton Malbec which for the price was passable, and finished off with a bowl of Dulce de Leche ice-cream.  Would you believe I actually returned from this trip five pounds lighter?

El Establo Parrilla

The marinated “ajo”  (garlic):

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Dec 152011

I chose to spend the night in Panama instead of a 7 hour redeye down to Buenos Aires on a 737 – and it was definitely the right call.  For some reason, my life seems to be revolving around Panamá in late 2011.  Went there in September as part of the giant around the world trip, and was my first visit.  Just over a month later, I went there on a milage run.  Now, I was overnighting there in order to save the company lots of cash.  Funny how these things work out.

Anyways, for the overnight I chose the same hotel I’d stayed at the past two trips, despite the fact it was in excess of our allowed travel budget.  I decided I’d rather pay the difference out of the per diem and stay at a hotel I knew I liked and would be comfortable in rather than risk something new on a short over night.  It was definitely a good call from my perspective.

Le Meridien, Panama City

The last two times here, we discovered the hotel car to the airport was only $3 more than the shady taxis at the airport, so we’d used that.  This time, I decided to call ahead and see if the same rates applied from the airport.  Yes they did, and they’d meet me in baggage claim.  Sweet!  Uneventful drive to the hotel in yet another Panamanian  downpour.  Driver was reasonably good, not reckless, spoke good English, and no complaints at all.  Well worth the extra 10%.

Check-in was quick, and just like the last to trips was upgraded to a “Gold Suite” – actually to the exact same room I’d had the previous trip.  No complaints there.  When checking in, I made a point of asking the hours of the executive lounge, because I planned a couple glasses of wine before dinner.  No problem, she told me the hours, etc.

Headed to the gym for a quick workout, and have to say it was quite disappointing.  Bare minimum hotel gym with 3 or 4 cardio machines and just about as little in the way of weights.  I managed to get in a (barely) adequate workout, but I guess I can’t complain too much.  I just hoped a higher-end hotel like this would have a better gym.  I’ll give it adequate at best.

Showered up, and went to the lounge…which was locked.  Went to the front desk and…surprise…it’s closed today.  Huh?!  On a Monday?  “You can drink at bar.”  Ok…went to bar, had a glass of wine, then decided to make sure at the desk:  “what is included at the bar?”   “You have drink.”  I decided this was getting nowhere, so I switched to my rather poor spanish and didn’t get much farther.  “If you want drinks, you have drinks.”  “Can I have food?”  “Yes you can have food.”   “Do I have to pay for food?”  “Yes, you have to pay for food.”

Ok, this was productive, lol.  Ended up sitting at the bar nearly two hours doing work on my laptop, and had three glasses of wine, and was never presented a bill…so I guess it’s whatever you want to drink?  Never did figure that out, but never did get billed either.  By this point the downpour still had not let up, so I decided it was a room service night.

Ordered a burger and ice cream from room service, which came with the incredibly low tab of around $15 and was tasty…no complaints.  It was quick, good quality, and all-in-all great value for room service.

On the room, it was great with an absolutely huge bathroom.  Based on my last two stays this was why I came back here, and as usual wasn’t disappointed.

The lounge was open again the next morning for a light breakfast, which was just enough to get moving.  Despite being empty, however, like my previous stays service in the lounge was quite slow.  I’m not sure how much is a factor of only one person working, and how much is a factor of them just being casual, but every time I’ve been in this lounge it’s been pretty empty yet service has still been incredibly slow.

Then…the checkout drama.  I feel I need to explain.  The last two stays, a couple days after checkout, my AmEx was hit for a charge of just over $2 for a room service Snickers I’d never touched.  First time, fine, accident.  Second time exact same thing?  I got the feeling they were operating a scam.  Not sure the reason (maybe because of my loud complaints the last two times) but this time…no Snickers charge so far.  Whew.  Overall, this will still be my #1 choice should I end up back in Panamá.

Park Tower, Buenos Aires

I was debating between this hotel and the hotel I’d stayed at my previous trip – the Sheraton Libertador.  Actually the debate was if I should hotel hop every night to get a 500 point SPG platinum bonus.  Then, SPG offered a triple points promo for longer stays, and my decision was made.  Our local office advised against this hotel, saying it was in a boring area, somewhat dangerous, and there were just much nicer choices.  Well, we’d see.  A few thoughts…

The Room

Was informed that for a 10 night stay there were no suites available, but they’d upgraded me to an “executive corner deluxe” which was actually as big as the junior suites on the second to top floor.  I have to say, if this wasn’t a suite, you sure could have fooled me.  It was bigger than many junior suites I’ve seen in other hotels, and the layout was very perfect  I have to give the room (and upgrade) a 9 out of 10 minimum…almost a 10.  The only thing (as you can see below) are the extremely strange paintings in the sitting area!  Lots of Luxury Collection hotels feel too “grandma/old lady” for me, but this one was actually quite a good balance.

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Dec 132011

As I mentioned earlier, I’m going to split this trip report up in a more thematic fashion instead of doing it chronologically.  It was a long trip, so I suspect the day by day could put some people to sleep of boredom!  Right, on to the flights!

I’d initially booked United non-stop in both directions to Buenos Aires, but when the travel folks came up with an option that was 1/3 the fare on COPA…I couldn’t say no out of corporate responsibility.  Plus, it still earned miles/EQM with United Continental so I couldn’t really complain.  Best part of all, but splitting things wisely I could completely avoid redeyes which I attempt to avoid whenever possible.  I sleep well on planes…but why should you if you don’t have to!

Once I agreed to the COPA fare, travel attempted to wisely book me with a 10-11 hour layover on the outbound in Panama and a 737 redeye to Buenos Aires.  Oh H-to-the-E-L-L no!  If I’m taking the low-cost option to save money, I’m going to at least overnight in Panama and take two back-to-back daytime flights that I can work on and be well-rested when I arrive.  The approving authorities on-board, it was booked, and off we go.

Arrived at Dulles, and this is where mild trouble began.  Checked in and checked bags no worries, and then asked which lounge they used since they’re in the A/B terminal where United/Continental isn’t.  “um, the only lounge is United in the other terminal – you can’t have everything when you get a free upgrade!”  Excuse me, this is a paid business fare…”Oh, well, you can go to the other terminal if you want a lounge.  I’m sure United will let you in.”  Major customer service fail, but felt like the United I know.  Assume all your passengers are upgraders so you don’t have to provide much service.  Bummer.  I killed time at my second home (aka Starbucks) instead, and boarded more or less on time.

COPA Airlines flight 357
Washington Dulles (IAD) to Panama City, Panama (PTY)
Depart 9:32, Arrive 14:22, Flight Time 4:50
Seat 3E
Registration HP-1713CMP, Manufactured 2010

This was a completely full flight, and boarding was completely surprisingly quickly.  My expectations were low (remember, low cost option involving 6,000 miles one-way on 737s) and thus I was pleasantly surprised.  I don’t really remember much of the lunch on this flight – which is to say it was neither good nor bad.  Entertained myself by doing prep work on the laptop, and everything was pretty solid if unremarkable.  Sometimes, that’s the best kind of flight….until you get to baggage claim and only one of your two bags arrives.  Of course, the other one shows that it arrived…but no sign of it.  Someone else likely walked off with it.  Grrrrrrreat!

COPA Airlines flight 279
Panama City, Panama (PTY) to Buenos Aires, Argentina (EZE)
Depart 11:06, Arrive 20:16, Flight Time 7:10
Seat 2E
Registration HP-1713CMP, Manufactured 2010

After a good lay-in it was time to head back to PTY for the onward flight to Argentina.  Check-in was pretty swift, bags re-checked, and PTY security was quick as usual.  Only note – they don’t permit scissors with small blades like the TSA does.  Just an FYI…  we boarded the flight…and then waited.  Seemed the volcano in Chile was acting up, and since this flight was at the very very edge of the 737 range they opted to wait to ensure we wouldn’t divert somewhere embarrassing.  Then, they took 6 folks off for weight limitations.  Then another 12.  Then another 14….then 22.  All in all, they removed nearly 50 passengers (and most luggage) from the flight and we eventually left two hours late.  Not the best start to this trip!

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Dec 112011

It’s been a while since my last post, and that’s been due to quite a bit of travel. All-too-quick trip to Minnesota over Thanksgiving, and then just got back from possibly the worst (yeah…right) business trip ever – two weeks in Buenos Aires. Nobody really wants to be traveling between Thanksgiving and Christmas. There’s just too much to get done with shopping, holiday parties, and end of the year tasks in the office. But, if you have to get sent somewhere in December I’m pretty sure there’s no place better than Buenos Aires. Sunny, warm, great food, great people…yeah, it was definitely a hardship trip!

I’m also in the midst of planning an epic new years trip that will – if all goes well – even top the last two new years in Iraq and Afghanistan. It should be if all goes well a whirlwind two week trip that manages to get another 7 countries visited and should bring my total count up to 107. My goal is 125 by the end of 2012 so hopefully I can get there! This will put a good dent in things.

Since the Argentina trip was nearly two weeks, I think it would be better to break the posts up by theme. Nobody really wants to hear the day-to-day of going to the office and doing work, so I think I’ll skip that part. I’ll break things up into four sections:

I. Roundtrip flights Washington Dulles to Buenos Aires via Panama City on COPA Airlines
II. Hotel Reviews – Le Meridian Panama City and Park Tower Buenos Aires – SPG Luxury Collection
III. Restaurant Reviews
IV. Touring and Sightseeing

One quick teaser pic – the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires