Apr 282012

So, here’s where I admit I lied a bit.  What to do on a rainy Sunday in DC?  Honestly….we didn’t do a great job of this!  Once we saw it was raining, getting out of bed before we had to was difficult, and we just barely made it into DC in time for the planned 11:30 brunch with a friend.  Did I mention it was pouring?  The oddest part of the whole thing, was the encounter with a local DC crazy that went like this:

Crazy:  “Hello, you speak Russian?  I Russian?”

Me:  “Yes, actually I do”

Crazy:  (switching to Russian)  “Good!  I have DVDs to sell!  Pretty naked ladies!  Copies but very good.  You want to buy?”

Me:  “Um, no, thanks”  (walks away, leaves metro station)

Crazy:  (follows us to bus stop)  “You no like hot naked ladies?  I need to buy train ticket to Baltimore.  Sell DVDs.  No want to buy?”

Now, at this point we probably should have just kissed and convinced him that no, we really weren’t looking for hot naked ladies, but the amusement was just too much!  Got on the bus, made it to brunch…which was awesome.  Commissary is one of my favourite brunch places in DC.  The huevos rancheros are awesome, and don’t get me started on the blueberry pancakes.  The only downside is that from around 11:00 to 1:30 on weekends the wait is usually 30 minutes minimum, often longer.  It’s definitely worth it though.

After a very very long lunch, we headed back to the Library of Congress in an attempt to visit the reading room and check out a book and see the mural on the rotunda.  No luck – closed Sundays!  Wet and frustrated, we got back on the metro, and headed to the Smithsonian to check out the American History Museum.  It was pretty fun – although quite a disorganized mess.  We did see all the First Ladies’ dresses – including Michelle’s, along with some other interesting exhibits about the Civil War, Thomas Jefferson’s slave baby mamas, etc.  It was a good way to spend a few rainy hours while trying to stay a bit dry.  Below from an exhibit on US money, which will only be funny to Canadians:

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Apr 272012

We tried to get an earlier start to the second day of touring the city, but it just didn’t happen.  Met some friends for coffee and a light brunch at Northside Social in Arlington.  This place is pretty well known now by those in the Ballston to Clarendon corridor, but it’s a great local coffeeshop and place for light meals.  Plus, in the evening, it’s a fun wine bar with great outside seating during the summer.  I was worried when it opened it would be a bit too hipster, but it strikes a great balance, and is really lots of fun:  great food and drinks, fun atmosphere, and great location.

After that, it was off to DC for our first pre-booked tour.  We were off to the Library of Congress for their tour.  Offered every hour on the half hour, I didn’t expect this to be nearly as cool as it was.  However, I think it was one of our highlights of the entire weekend.  Our guide (Clark) was excellent, the building is probably the coolest sight I’ve ever seen in DC, and it was an overall fantastic experience.  We took the 11:30 tour on a Saturday, and showed up at 11:28 with no problems at all.  No booking in advance, and it was a great tour.  I’ll post a few pics here:

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Apr 252012

Wait, don’t I live in Washington, DC?  Well, not really…but right next to it.  So, it feels a bit strange to be making this post…but after having company in town this weekend, I really rediscovered the amazing area I live in.  I have to say that Washington is one of my top 10 cities in the world as far as the number of options on offer to the tourist or local, and the best part is, the vast majority of it is absolutely free.  On that note, I figured I’d offer a few tourist tips from our weekend of exploring:

1)  The Grand Walk – We started this at the Foggy Bottom Metro Station, and walked all the way to the US Capitol.  While there’s not anything in particular to recommend this, what I liked is that it offers a view of “official DC” at its finest.  You start at 23rd and H streets, and on the way down H/Pennsylvania/etc you pass by the George Washington University Campus, the World Bank, the White House, the Embassy of Canada, before you finally get to the Capitol.  Awesome!

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Apr 092012

So with my country count now at 109, it’s getting a bit more difficult to “collect” multiple countries in the same trip.  When I found out that I’d have  a chance to visit a friend in the Seychelles this spring, I started, of course, looking at creative ways to get there.

One thing I’ve learned the last couple years is that roundtrip fares are rarely the best way to go somewhere if you’re looking to maximize the number of countries you visit.  Fares from the US tend to be expensive, and often you can string together several one-way fares at a much better deal – especially if you want to travel in the pointy end of the plane.

To that end, I found an amazing fare that would allow me to hit south asia on the way, and visit Nepal and Bhutan.  Of course, that got me wondering if I could stop by the other country in the region I still need to visit – Maldives – and I found a way to make it happen.  Of course, on the way from Maldives to Seychelles, I wanted to see if I could transit elsewhere in the Indian Ocean – and sure enough it looks like Mauritius is a possibility!

Now, leaving Seychelles was easier…and even better when I found a “hidden” fare to north america that was milage-based, and allowed stops in Sudan and Bulgaria on the way back for just a few airport surcharges…great deal!  Now, I don’t get to leave the plane in Sudan…but by the rules of the game I can count it for now, with the hopes of returning for a real visit soon.  That will make 7 new countries in just under two weeks, and bring me to 116 on the count.  How is everyone else doing?

Apr 042012

As most of you probably know, United and Continental officially merged for all purposes a few weeks back – and there’s been more than a little drama since.  Everyone’s talking about insane drama with bitter flight crews, gate agents, computer foul-ups, missed upgrades, and the list goes on and on.  The short of it is, nobody seems terribly happy with what’s happened post-merger.

Fortunately, my experience in the last month has been different, so I thought I’d share 10 things I’ve found positive about the merger in the last month:

1)  The 1K line – lots of people have been complaining about long hold times, angry agents, etc.  But, I’ve found little to no hold time, agents are very friendly as long as you’re understanding that they’re on a learning curve with the new computer systems, and pretty much business as usual.  So far, this is a wash.

2)  Crews – in fairness, I have yet to fly mainline since the merger.  I’ve been doing lots of commuting on ERJs (mainly ExpressJet) and the crews have been fabulous.  Friendly, understanding, and kind.  No gripe at all here, and 1A on the ERJ-145 might as well be first class with its legroom for a 1 hour flight.

3)  Smisek – everyone is complaining about his smug and insincere welcome videos.  Again, I haven’t noticed, because I’ve been flying express where his mug isn’t omnipresent.  I guess that’s one good thing about ERJs!

4)  Seating – again, when there’s no first class on the plane, there’s nothing to get upset about.  I’ve been routinely booking less than a week out, and almost always get my preferred seat!

5)  Airfares – absolutely no complaint.  For the bookings I’ve made in the last couple months they’ve been completely in-line with my expectations, and I even picked up a couple of amazing last-minute eSavers.  Can’t complain here at all!

6)  Reward Tickets – again, no complaints.  I’ve booked a couple of last-minute award tickets, and found availability to be at least as good if not better than before the merger.  I’ll reserve judgement, but still no complaints.

7)  Upgrades – I will reserve judgement here.  I have a couple of B fares booked to Europe and Asia, both of which appear empty but the upgrade won’t clear.  If they do eventually I’ll chalk it up to the desire to be profitable – which I like as a stockholder.  However, the ability to not confirm any upgrades in advance is a definite minus of the new combined programme.

8] Compensation – this is one area I’ve seen a major decline.  I had a flight yesterday that was many hours late, and so far, have yet to hear from United with any sort of apology or compensation.   The old United would have proactively e-mailed and offered something.

9)  Destinations – who are we kidding – this is a major win.  Combining United and Coninental has probably doubled our available destinations, and I don’t think anyone would complain about this one.  I know it’s been a major plus for me so far.

10)  Catering – despite only flying ERJs since the merger, there’s been a major decline here.  No snacks at all, two of my last 4 segments they haven’t loaded ice OR alcohol on the plane…it just seems disorganized and like “it’s short so why should we care.”  That might be the case, but I know lots of folks pay $500+ one way for these segments, so that will leave a very bitter taste.

As someone who usually does lots of transoceanic, but lately has been doing lots of very high fare cross-border fares that’s my take on the last month.  Would love to hear from others!