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.
Usually I’ll go with the steak option, since Continental always seemed to get it right. However, even though it was Newark catering I decided to go with the Chicken, which was actually pretty decent. I wasn’t all that hungry so just nibbled at things, and managed to pass out for five solid hours. Can’t complain at all about that!
Woke up about 20 minutes out of Geneva, just enough time to quickly brush teeth before landing. Immigration was very quick, but I had to go to the Swiss check-in counter to get my boarding pass since United was unable to issue it in DC or Newark. No problems…because this gave me a chance to visit Starbucks. Now, in Washington, I usually pay around $2.90 for an iced venti americano…my quick caffeine infusion of choice. However, here at GVA, it was 7 swiss francs – $7.45. Nearly three times the price. Yeah, moving on…I’m still trying to figure out what they thought my name was. I’m guessing Jason isn’t too common, despite the fact the entire transaction was in French…and I spelled it for her letter by letter. The employee clearly wasn’t a native French speaker either, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what she wrote. Jesam?
Caffeinated, I braved the security queue, which was typically Swiss-efficient, and had time to chill and recharge iDevices in the lounge for 15 minutes before heading to my gate to board.
Lufthansa Cityline flight 2381
Geneva, Switzerland (GVA) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 8:50, Arrive 10:05 Flight Time 1:15
Embraer ERJ-195, Registration D-AEBL, Manufactured 2012, Seat 3A
I was one of two passengers in business on this short flight, and we amazingly got a full light breakfast! Complete with a pre-packaged nuts service pre-meal! The cashews were delicious – I wish we saw them more often on US flights.
Although I only had an hour connection in Munich, it was an inner-Schengen flight, so there was no security and I had 30 minutes to visit the Lufthansa Senator Lounge. Nothing special, but I did get a little more fuel…I mean caffeine, before heading off for the slightly longer flight to Istanbul.
Lufthansa flight 1772
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Istanbul, Turkey (IST)
Depart 11:15, Arrive 14:55, Flight Time 2:40
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIPD, Manufactured 1989, Seat 3F
Right about now, most people are probably asking why I’m on my fourth flight when Turkish flies nonstop to Istanbul from Dulles, or United one-stop from Newark. There are two reasons: one, I needed the extra miles to requalify this year (hence the extra segments), and two…this was the route (Newark to Geneva) that had Z-class business space available. Oh the things we do to not sit in economy next year!
This flight was also very empty in business. They’d put 5 rows as business, but there were only three people total. Nice to have lots of space to stretch out!
Decent meal, but PLEASE don’t tell anyone I actually chose white wine for the first time in ages. I have a reputation to uphold! Red was just sounding too heavy at this point, and I wanted something a little more refreshing. Landed a few minutes early, and headed towards the Turkish lounge to await my friend…but wait…what’s that….a Starbucks! Yes! I was seriously fading by this point after four flights, and more rocket fuel was needed. 8 Turkish Lira later ($4.46) I was caffeinated, my friend’s flight had arrived from Frankfurt, and it was time to enjoy the rather packed lounge.
We managed to find a table with outlets nearby to sit at, and I went off in search of showers. They were all occupied, but the rather strange shower attendant kept winking at me and promising me he’d find me when one was ready. The whole thing was kinda creepy feeling, but after about 30 minutes one was free. A shower never felt so good after so much time in transit.
Had a few baklava and turkish delights with more espresso after the shower, and then we headed to the gate to wait. And wait. And wait. The flight was absolutely packed today, and fortunately we’d chosen aisle seats across the aisle from each other so we could at least lean away from the people in the middle seats.
Turkish flight 1019
Istanbul, Turkey (IST) to Pristina, Kosovo (PRN)
Depart 19:15, Arrive 19:50, Flight Time 1:35
Airbus A319, Registration TC-JLS, Manufactured 2011, Seat 11D
Not terribly much to say, but praise for Turkish. The crew wasn’t the most friendly, but they were efficient. They served a small meal, free beers (no, you can’t choose, Heineken for you and Efes for you!), all in a flight that was hardly an hour long. Plane was new, clean, and everything seemed to work so that’s really all you can hope for. This was a separate one-way ticket that we’d paid for, and it was roughly $125 one way, not too bad all things considered!
Upon landing, I decided to fire up Foursquare and checkin…don’t tell anyone that Foursquare still claims Pristina, Kosovo is in Serbia 😉
Immigration was a bit…interesting. No questions for me, even though the agent stamped right in between Somalia and South Sudan, but my South African friend got the third degree. Why are you here? What are you doing? How much money do you have? Where are you staying? Etc. Eventually, they let him through…but customs was waiting for us. Open all your bags, dig through them, surprise surprise…nothing interesting. It didn’t seem like the typical developing country shake-down for a bribe, they were just taking their jobs overly seriously it seemed.
Then…we had to figure out how to get into the city. There was no ATM machine at the airport, so we were limited to what we had on us. Unfortunately, I’d decided to change 50 Euro to Francs in Senegal a couple weeks prior, so I was down to 11 in my wallet. My friend, despite arriving from Germany, only had some small change. This was going to get interesting. Taxi quoted us 30 Euro, and quickly ran out of English to try and negotiate. Let’s try Russian…that quickly brought them down to 20, then five minutes later to 15.
I opened up my wallet, showed the driver the contents, and told him in Russian “I only have 10. You can take that or I will find someone who will.” He smiled, grabbed our bags, and we were off. Negotiations…successful. Part of this, I’m sure, is that he realised he was rapidly running out of potential clients, and should take what he could get while he could get it. Soon, we’d arrived at the Swiss Diamond Hotel, and the adventure was about to begin!