Feb 282013
 

Not too many details on this part of the trip, so I’ll keep it pretty simple.

We took a late evening taxi to Skopje airport after dinner and coffee, and arrived around 7pm, in plenty of time for our 8:45pm flight to Istanbul where we were planning to overnight. Check-in was quick and efficient, as was passport control and security. The airport was small, but quite modern, and overall quite efficient. There was a shared lounge which we were allowed to use as United Star Alliance Gold members, complete with plenty of beer and wine, and some small snacks – mainly cookies and crackers. Nothing impressive, but it had wifi, drinks, and was quiet so it did the job.

Drama started (see drama cafe reference in previous post) when we got to the gate. We were paged to the podium, and informed that our seats were being changed. We had exit row aisle seats across from each other, and were moved forward a few rows to an aisle and middle. No, there was nothing they could or would do about it, nor would they tell us why. GRRRR. It worked out in the end when after lots of prodding the agent managed to find us a full row in row 21 with the middle seat empty. All’s well that ends well!

Turkish flight 1006
Skopje, FYR Macedonia (SKP) to Istanbuk, Turkey (IST)
Depart 20:45, Arrive 23:05, Flight Time 1:20
Airbus A319, Registration TC-JLV, Manufactured 2011, Seat 21C

Flight was probably 95% full, but since we were proactive we ended up with one of the few empty middle seats in between us. There was a cold snack which was mostly edible, and drinks were free even in economy with one catch – you could have beer, but could not choose what kind. We ended up with one Heineken and one Efes – go figure! Other than that, flight was perfectly on time, and no drama whatsoever.

The same cannot be said for passport control in Istanbul where we’d have a very short overnight. Visa on arrival is available for US citizens, but my friend was traveling on a South African passport which is supposed to receive a free visa on arrival. Catch is, there’s only (apparently) one immigration desk in the whole airport that can issue this, and it’s not really marked. We spent over an hour getting through passport control, complete with a planeful of very rude Ukrainians shoving and pushing in line. There’s something deeply satisfying where when you deny someone the chance to sneak in front of you, and they curse you out in Russian thinking you don’t understand, when you can curse them even stronger right back. Score Jason 1, International Relations 0. Mr Gorbachev may have, in the infamaous words of the Gipper “torn down that wall” but I did my best to put it right back up ūüėČ

Waited another 30 minutes for the aiport hotel shuttle, and it was almost 1am by the time we got to the hotel. With a 620am flight, I was beginning to wonder why we’d even bothered for just over three hours of sleep. The Istanbul Airport Radisson Blu? Well, check-in was efficient, the room was an inferno around 25C in temp, but the beds were ok and we were exhausted so we got three good hours of sleep along with a shower. For that alone, it was worth it.

Off to the airport, check-in and immigration took all of five minutes, leaving us time for Heaven. I mean Starbucks. Same difference – good strong espresso was exactly what I needed, and combined with some turkish coffee in the Turkish Airlines lounge I was ready to go. Oh, about that lounge…in this direction it was not terribly full at all, and they had a huge breakfast spread out! This has to be one of the best business class lounges in the world, at least as far as food goes.

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Boarding was right on time, and business and star gold passengers got their own bus to the plane. ¬†Can’t complain about that! ¬†The load today was only about 50%, so there was plenty of room to spread out.

Lufthansa flight 1775
Istanbuk, Turkey (IST) to Munich, Germany (MUC()
Depart 6:20, Arrive 8:05, Flight Time 2:45
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIPH, Manufactured 1989, Seat 12C

Not too much to say – light breakfast served, crew was efficient, and there was plenty of room to spread out. ¬†As far as Lufthansa economy goes, it was a pretty good day. ¬†Except…we were held on the ground in Istanbul for over an hour due to fog in Munich, which I understand is very common at this time of year. ¬†We were looking at a 15 minute connection in Munich at best…this was going to be interesting. ¬†For some reason, it seems every time I connect through Munich I run into this issue.

We made up a bit of time in flight, and we landed 22 minutes before our flight to Newark was bound to leave. ¬†Fortunately, we were already “outside Schengen” for passport control, so that was one less line to deal with. ¬†We actually managed to get a real gate too, so a quick dash through security, and we made it with just minutes to spare.

United flight 969
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 9:20, Arrive 12:45, Flight Time 9:25
Boeing 767-300, Registration N651UA, Manufactured 1992, Seat 6H

This was a former-United three class 767, with a rather surly crew. ¬†There were several empty seats in Business class, and when we moved from window seats to centre seats we got admonished, even though we’d asked one of the flight attendants if it was ok. ¬†Other than that, things were fine – meal was pretty typical for these days, crew was not very friendly and below average, but the comfortable seats allowed us to catch up on sleep so that’s good.

My friend was leaving in Newark, so it was through Global Entry quickly (we actually arrived Terminal B of Newark Рis that common these days?  It was a first for me) and a tram to terminal A for my connecting flight to DC.

United Express (operated by ExpressJet) flight 4372
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 14:37, Arrive 15:47, Flight Time 1:10
Embraer ERJ-145, Registration N12160, Manufactured 2004, Seat 12A

Only 8 people on this flight – the lightest load I’ve seen on a DC-Newark flight ever. ¬†Not sure the reason – it was mid-afternoon on a Monday, but I wasn’t complaining. ¬†We were almost 20 minutes early on arrival.

Overall it was a great trip. ¬†Nowhere near long enough, but when I’m presented to join a friend on a trip to see new countries I’m never going to turn it down! ¬†I feel like we really maximized our time there, and I’d love to return now and see more of the smaller towns and countryside in the region. ¬†I still have to get to Macedonia, Bosnia, and Serbia in the region so I definitely have an incentive now to go back for an extended trip!

Feb 262013
 

We arrived at our hotel, the Holiday Inn Skopje, where the front desk agent was a step back in time 20 years to a time when the concept of customer service in this corner of the world just didn’t exist. He got us our room, but that was about it. Upgrade? Forget about it. Benefits as a platinum member? Forget about it. Help finding places to eat, etc? Yeah, you get the picture.

That said, the room was clean, cool, and comfortable so there’s really nothing to complain about, especially since our rate of around 100 euro was completely reasonable. We headed out for a walk, and the first stop was coffee. We found a small coffeeshop on Alexander the Great / Macedonia Square and got some espressos and eventually a few local beers to get us moving again before dinner.

Wandering to dinner, we walked past the National Theatre, which was nicely lit:

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For dinner, we decided to try Old City House which received quite good reviews on TripAdvisor. When we got there, they informed us they were full, but there was a nice room downstairs we could eat in…problem was, we were the ONLY people in this room. ¬†While we ate they sat two more tables so it was a little less odd. ¬†Food was solid, good salads and grilled meats, but nothing overly memorable. ¬†It did the trick though.

The next morning, we decided to just wander the city. ¬†The one thing that struck us about Skopje was all the statues. ¬†Everywhere. ¬†This is just a sampling of all the statue pics we took – it’ll give you a little idea of just how plentiful they are. ¬†I haven’t been able to figure out what’s behind this, but if anyone has an idea I’d love to know!

We’ll start with one from the #WTF or #QDF gallery. ¬†Is this some sort of abortion statement or something?

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Feb 142013
 

Got to our hotel, the Swiss Diamond Hotel Pristina, and check-in was a breeze. Hotel was quite nice, staff were friendly, and the room was quite nicely furnished as well. Overall, very impressed!  The front desk staff pointed us to some major areas to walk and where we might find a bar serving drinks, and overall were quite helpful.  Just a few thoughts on the hotel:

Breakfast was included and was quite comprehensive.  Set up in what looked to be a ballroom or conference room, there were several stations including eggs to order, all sorts of breads and pastries, cold meats and cheese, salads, hot meats, you name it.  Quite a good breakfast, and included in the rate.  The only downside was trying to get coffee, as it was quite hold to find servers.  Overall though, it was quite good.

Our room also had a balcony overlooking the city, with a pretty cool view:

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Feb 122013
 

So, it was October. It was getting cold in Washington DC. A friend from NY I’ve been trying to hang out recently messaged me that he’d be in Germany for work, and would have a free long weekend. I was about 10,000 miles short of hitting 100,000 on United for the year…I started to play around. Things got ugly. Naturally, DC and NY are so far apart that you can’t manage the trip up I-95 to visit each other because you travel so much that you should meet in Europe…right?

He told me to pick anywhere in Europe I hadn’t been yet. New countries are getting difficult to come by for me in Europe, especially taking into account the friend travels on a South African passport and wouldn’t have time to get visas. Kosovo? They seem to be nice to just about anyone who is nice to them…but can I count it as a country? More than half of UN members recognize them, and I justified it as “even if I can’t…I can count it as Serbia which I haven’t been to!”

Then…I found out MYR Macedonia was next door, an easy train or bus ride away, and as long as you had a valid Schengen Visa, you were in. Score! Two countries…done! Now, how to milk this for 10,000 miles. United had some great B/Z fares to Istanbul, and I had one Systemwide Upgrade left for the year, so the choice was easy. Book Z one direction, and the direction that had confirmable upgrade space…book B. It would get me just over the top…100,606 elite miles for the year! DONE!

I’m going to break this report into roughly three parts:

1) Washington to Pristina, Kosovo on United, Lufthansa, and Turkish
2) Evening and Day in Pristina, and travel to Skopje, FYR Macedonia
3) Evening and Day in Skopje, Macedonia
4) Skopje, FYR Macedonia to Washington on Turkish, Lufthansa, and United

With that said, time to get off and running on part one!

United Express (Operated by ExpressJet) flight 4129
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Newark, NJ (EWR)
Depart 14:36, Arrive 15:49, Flight Time 1:13
Embraer ERJ-145, Registration N11551, Manufactured 2000, Seat 12A

Check-in at DCA was completely uneventful, there wasn’t a single person in line to get groped by the TSA, and I think I was metrorail to Presidents Club…I mean United Club…in 10 minutes tops. ¬†This is how an airport should function. ¬†I think one of the best things to come from this merger is that it reminded me how much I love DCA. ¬†I’d grown resigned to the fact I could go nonstop to just about anywhere from Dulles on United, and had just gotten in the habit. ¬†No more…I’ll even risk Newark connections to Europe now to leave from DCA – it’s just that much superior.

A few bricks of pre-packaged pepperjack cheese, a few glasses of Two Buck Jeff (aka Chateau le Plonk) red wine, and it was time to board. ¬†The club was empty this afternoon, and I had amusing conversations with both of the folks working this afternoon – both who came up to me, sat down, and just started chatting. ¬†The ex-United agent telling me all the stupid things Continental was doing to ruin United, and the ex-Continental agent, well, you guessed it, complaining about all things United. ¬†It was lighthearted, not really complaining, and since I’d met both of them several times it was nice to hear their perspectives on what was working and what wasn’t. ¬†It seems one of the biggest issue is United cabbing crews back and forth from National to Dulles when irrops happen, causing enormous delays. ¬†Hopefully that’s in the past now.

Can’t say anything about this flight. ¬†Took off on time, landed on time, had the solo seat in the exit row, and life was good. ¬†Only complaint is the usual about Newark…landing in Terminal A and having to take the shuttle bus to Terminal C. ¬†Even that wasn’t too bad. ¬†Hit up the central United Club, more pepperjack, more Chateau le Jeff, and lots of news watching. ¬†Sandy was about to strike the east coast, and it was really interesting sitting at the bar listening to folks from up and down the coast discuss what they thought would happen.

Got to the gate about 45 minutes prior to departure, and they were just about to board. ¬†First one on the plane, and based on the seatmap it was a very light load today, so it really wouldn’t matter.

United flight 956
Newark, NJ (EWR) to Geneva, Switzerland (GVA)
Depart 17:40, Arrive 7:25, Flight Time 7:45
Boeing 767-300 Registration N674UA, Manufactured 2010, Seat 6L

Originally I had picked seat 2D on this plane, but there were several empty seats in business, including 6K and 6L by the window. ¬†I asked the flight attendant about it, and she went to check with someone, and then told me I could have it…so I moved. ¬†A few minutes later, the purser stormed up to me and demanded to know who gave me permission to sit there. ¬†“These are OUR seats – you can’t sit here.” ¬†Well ok then…but your colleague told me I could. ¬†I could see her arguing with the other crew in the galley, and eventually came back, apologized, and told me it was ok. ¬†Very random…but fortunately the tension was diffused pretty quickly and service was great the rest of the flight. ¬†Very random!

This plane was a former United “domestic” 767, which had recently been converted for international service. ¬†Standard old Continental interior, which was very comfortable having two seats to myself. ¬†Easy to sleep in as I learnt earlier in the year on the way to India, and that held true again. ¬†I always hate 5pm transatlantic departures, because they leave me wondering if I’ll be able to sleep since we arrive at like 2am body clock time in Europe. ¬†This was a good flight, and I was out cold after dinner and wine.

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Feb 112013
 

Managed to save a few of the menus from the recent trip, which are posted below with most of the details.  Unfortunately on the other flights there either were no menus, or the crew snatched them back at the end preventing me from writing down the details.  Enjoy!

Lufthansa Flight 1323
Tunis, Tunisia (TUN) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 13:40, Arrive 16:25, Flight Time 2:45
Business Class – Seat 2F

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Hors d’oeuvre – Smoked Salmon stuffed with Cheese Mousse, marinated grilled Zucchini, Carrots and Eggplant, Lemon, Olive

Entrees:

  • Beef Filet, turned Potatoes, Asparagus in Butter, red Pepper
  • Shrimps, Calamari, Djerbien Rice, green Pepper, Tomato Sauce

Cheese and Dessert:

  • Cheese Plate
  • Chocolate and Lemon Mousse Tart with Kiwi

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Feb 072013
 

Was up early the next morning, and had the hotel arrange a taxi to Yangon airport. Driver easily agreed on $10 or 800 Kyat, which seemed to be the going rate. I’m sure I could have knocked a dollar or two off, but… check-in was quick and easy, and soon I was waiting for immigration. Took maybe five minutes total to clear immigration, and soon I was in the contract lounge that Thai uses in Yangon.

Now, here, I have to make a confession. I’d gotten going too early to get caffeine or breakfast, so I had to survive on what I found in the lounge. Hey, don’t judge, but sometimes a breakfast of Pringles and Diet Coke is just what you need. My mother would be mortified. WiFi in the lounge was just fast enough to do e-mail, but that’s honestly about it. Managed to kill the hour or so I had before the flight, and from there it was maybe a two minute walk to the gate.

Thai flight 304
Yangon, Myanmar (RGN) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 9:50, Arrive 11:45, Flight Time 1:25
Airbus A330-300, Registration HS-TED, Manufactured 1994, Seat 24A

Flight was maybe 2/3 full in business, and I moved from my centre seat to the last row where the pair of seats next to the window was available. Space and a view! Nothing too remarkable about this flight – the typical friendly Thai service, a small snack that I just picked at (but way more than you’d see on a similar flight in North America) and we landed right on time.

I had a bit over an hour to kill before heading to the next flight, so headed to the Thai business lounge, where much Diet Coke was consumed, along with a fair amount of dim sim – especially BBQ pork buns – YUM! Internet was nice and speedy, and I managed to Skype several calls and get a few things sorted, so it was time will used.

Thai flight 407
Bangkok, Thailand (BKK) to Singapore (SIN)
Depart 13:50, Arrive 17:10, Flight Time 2:20
Airbus A330-300, Registration HS-TET, Manufactured 2010, Seat 15E

In contrast to the last two Thai A330 flights I’d been on to Myanmar, this one was the “new” configuration. Thai has multiple configurations for their A330s, and the other one had had business class seats that were definitely showing their age. Way more room than economy, but none of the modern bells and whistles one has come to expect in business class. This plane, in contrast, had personal tvs, power ports, and went much closer to flat. It may have actually gone flat, but being a daytime flight I didn’t test it.

The flight was completely full in business, and there was again a small meal (complete with menus) and the drink cart came through offering beer and wine several times. Fantastic for a regional flight!

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