Oct 312013

Originally, I had planned to take a shared taxi from Accra to Lomé, but when I found out my friend’s driver wouldn’t be doing anything during the day while he worked, I asked if he might be willing to drive me to the border…of course he would. He was paid by the day, so as long as we paid the gas he would be happy to. Certainly more comfortable than a couple of hours squished into a small space!

We got on the road just before 9am, and traffic really wasn’t all that bad.  We stopped around an hour in at a toll, and I snapped this picture of a street vendor working the toll plaza:


About 30 minutes before the border, we stopped at the bridge over the lower Volta river to get some pictures:


IMG_1045 Continue reading »

Oct 242013

Up pretty early to get a start ahead of what we were told was likely to be pretty heavy traffic out to the Cape Coast. Our plan was to see two forts/castles which had been major shipment points for slaves headed to the americas.  After around a 2.5 hour drive, we came to Elmina Castle, built by the Portuguese as a trading post in the late 1400s which later became a slave trading post.  The view from a short distance away:


After parking, we walked towards the castle.  A view of the fishing boats right outside the castle:


Inside the castle courtyard:


We had to wait about 10 minutes, but shortly a tour was given which lasted about 45 minutes and was very informative.  Highly recommend waiting for the tour if you come all this way.  View from atop the castle:

IMG_1007 Continue reading »

Oct 182013

Up nice and early to get to the airport well in advance of our flight. In most places, I don’t take airlines’ recommended check-in times too seriously, but in Africa I definitely do. Corrupt immigration officials are often looking for any excuse to “fine” you, and I didn’t want to take any chances.

One last word about the Novotel hotel, since I realised I haven’t mentioned the breakfast yet.  We had asked the night before and they told us it opened at 6am, but when we got down there around 6:45 it wasn’t yet open.  Turns out it was 7am on weekends, but the helpful staff member just told us to be seated and help ourselves – they were still bringing food but we were welcome to get started.  Very nice!  Lots of fruits, breads, cold cuts, etc, and made to order eggs – quite a decent breakfast spread.  More than enough to get fueled for the day.

Got to the airport roughly two hours before scheduled departure time, which turned out to be more than enough.  There was a bit of a line for check in, but approximately 15 minutes later we had checked one bag each, and were walking around the corner to immigration.  No questions at all from immigration, a quick stamp, and we were at security.   There was a small business lounge before security, and according to the Priority Pass app they would accept it…we decided to try.  No problem at all, and John was able to access with a Canadian AmEx card for some reason.  Unlimited booze in the lounge and a few tiny munchies, but more importantly an air-conditioned comfy place to wait for the flight.

30 minutes or so later, it was downstairs, through a quick security check, and time to walk out to the plane:


It wasn’t reassuring that this plane was parked right next to ours, LOL!



…and this ancient L1011 was parked just a short way away!

IMG_0951 Continue reading »

Oct 172013

So, up the next morning to try again.  Hopefully after nearly a 24 hour delay I would finally make it to Benin this time.  Unfortunately, I had only planned 36 hours in Benin, which was now reduced to basically one evening.  Kind of disappointing, but somethings things just don’t work out.  It’ll be an excuse to get back to Benin another time!

Down to the hotel lobby to check out after a good night’s sleep, and had a box of chocolates and an apology letter from Brussels Airlines waiting.  Better than a kick in the face I suppose!


Brussels had arranged a special bus for the passengers to the airport, but I wanted to get there a little earlier so just took the regular hotel shuttle.  No problems at all checking in, quickly through security, a little bit of caffeine at Starbucks, and soon I was in the lounge waiting for the flight.  Now, the flight being over two hours earlier today was nice because it would give me a bit of time in Benin, but bad because I almost felt bad sampling some of Belgium’s finest in the lounge.  The guilt lasted all of zero seconds, and it was time to sample!  A Leffe Bruin to start:


Followed by a delicious Hoegaarden:


There was a pain au chocolate or two as well, but I must have forgotten a picture.  Off to the gate shortly, and time to board.

Brussels Airlines special flight 1255
Brussels, Belgium (BRU) to Cotonou, Benin (COO) continuing onto Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
Depart 11:30, Arrive 17:10, Flight Time 6:40
Airbus A330-300, Registration OO-SFW, Manufactured 1994, Seat 3A (solo aisle)

I was excited to be back on this plane, because I really like the configuration…as long as I get one of the solo seats.  It’s kind of odd, because the solo business class seats are SO much better than the pairs….unless you’re traveling with someone I suppose.  A couple of cabin shots to show how the seats are staggered:

IMG_0915 Continue reading »

Oct 142013

I know there’s been lots of discussion of Lufthansa First on the internet before, so I’m not going to go into painful details here, but lots of folks still like to see meal pics, etc, so I figured I’d do a quick mainly pictures post.

This trip came about thanks to free changes thanks to United premier status, and opening up better and better options up until the day before…when I finally got this routing sorted. The goal was to fly either Lufthansa or Swiss first, and hopefully leave out of DCA which meant a connection or two. Final routing was DCA-ORD-FRA-BRU-COO with ORD-FRA scheduled on the Lufthansa 747-400 hopefully with the new product of flat bed AND seat. Unfortunately 12 hours before the flight, they switched back to the old configuration. Boo hiss – at least I’d have two seats to myself and a great Lufthansa meal.

United operated by Shuttle America flight 3482
Washington, National (DCA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 11:37, Arrive 12:30, Flight Time 1:53
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N649RW, Manufactured 2005, Seat 1A (aisle)

Nothing to say about this flight, it was on time, good crew, and that’s about it.  I know some people dislike United Express, but I actually like the ERJ-170s.

Spent a bit over an hour in the United First lounge in Chicago, where I was the only person in it for half the time.  As long as they keep serving Veuve I think it’s a decent product.  It’s not Lufthansa quality, but perfectly adequate.  Especially with the cocktail shrimp!

United Shrimp

Lufthansa flight 431
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 15:45, Arrive 07:00 next day, Flight Time 8:15
Boeing 747-400, Registration D-ABTF, Manufactured 1991, Seat 83H and K (aisle and window)

I was a bit nervous for this flight.  I tend not to like early transatlantic redeyes because they make it really hard to sleep.  Even though this was 4:45 pm  by my body clock, I had doubts I’d be able to fall asleep by 7p and get enough sleep to be functional and happy the next day.  I didn’t have to worry, because in the end I got almost 6 hours of solid, uninterrupted sleep.

Despite being the “old” hard product, Lufthansa first is fantastic as long as the crew keeps the heat down which this one did. A few pre-departure pics:

A rose at my seat…


The service cart parked in front of my seat.  They know where to keep the champers!


Continue reading »

Oct 132013

This is not going to be a photo-heavy post, mainly because there are so many reviews of United’s business/first class products out that that I think people are pretty tired of them. One thing I found lacking when planning this trip, however, were the ins and outs of Lagos airport. So, that’s where the focus will be.

First, a small note on the routing. When booking, Houston to DCA was not available for upgrade. Naturally, I started looking for options. That’s when I found out that (at least at the time) Lagos to San Francisco was LESS expensive than Lagos to DCA. Even when I added a one-way San Francisco to DC ticket onto it, it was only $100 more. I’m very close to Million Miler status with United, so the chance to add nearly 3,000 miles for only $100 sealed the day. Oh, and wait, Houston to San Francisco would be on an international 767 and San Francisco to Chicago would be on the 777 AND all upgrades will clear at time of booking. The $100 was a no brainer. Sure, it would mean an extra 12 hours en route home, but it was worth it!

LOS to DCA map


Plan was to get to the airport around 7pm for a 10:35pm flight, knowing the reputation Lagos has for being chaotic and things going wrong.  Well, that was the plan anyways.  We got a late start from the hotel, and then traffic was absolute hell.  One lesson learnt:  leaving Victoria Island during rush hour is a mess.  An absolute mess.  Took nearly two hours to get to the airport, and finally arrived around 8:30pm.  No big deal.  Said goodbye to John, and then it was into the madness that passed for check-in.

Found the queue for United Business/Star Gold,  and the whole check-in area looked like a hurricane had hit it.  Masses of people and bags everywhere, lines that weren’t really lines, and convincing the drone manning the area to let me into the business class line was work in and of itself.  Finally up to the counter, and ready to check in.  Agent was cold and unfriendly, but efficient, and check-in took maybe five minutes total.  Then, it was back through the masses of people to immigration and security.

There was a separate immigration line for business/priority, and it took maybe 10-15 minutes to get to the front of the queue.  Give the documents to one agent, he hands them to another agent, who directs you to a third agent, who finally wields the magical exit stamp.  Slow, incredibly inefficient, but stamped out of Nigeria without a single question.  Wow, that wasn’t bad at all.

Then, it was security.  No line at all (immigration seems to have done the job sorting people) and put everything through the scanner.  Walk through, and try and retrieve my bags.  Would have been easy, if the guy manning the other end of the x-ray machine hadn’t decided to pick up my iPad and start looking at it.  I asked him to give it back, to which his reply was “of course!  perhaps you can help me have a happy weekend?”  I was tired, hot, sweaty, and a bit cranky at this point, and just spat back at him “It’s MONDAY NIGHT.  It’s FAR TOO EARLY to be thinking about the weekend!” and snatched the iPad out of his hands and put it back in my bag.  It could have ended really badly, but fortunately he just gave a big laugh and said something like have a good trip.

Now, how to find the lounge.  There were no signs at all, but asked a friendly airport staff member walking by, and she pointed me up a staircase.  Finally found what passes for the United lounge, and…the air conditioning was broken.  Seriously?!  Next up, went down the hall to what I seem to remember was another Star Alliance labeled lounge, and they said no, no United flight allowed.  Um, ok.

Pull up the priority pass app, and find the lounge that is handling the Delta flight (sorry, forget the name) is a Priority Pass lounge.  Get there, and she tells me “no, no Priority Pass after 4pm.”  Ug, Seriously?  I must have made a really pathetic sweaty, tired, and cranky face at her, because she said “I will make an exception.” and let me in.  Hooray!  Finally things are looking up!  Freshen up at the sink, enjoy the AC, few bottles of water and one last Star beer, and it was time to head to the gate to board.

The gate…well it was security theatre that would put even TSA to shame.  Six or seven folks standing around checking boarding passes, checking bags by hand, and after I’d talked to three of them I’d had enough, and just sat down.  It was pretty clear I was supposed to talk to others, but nobody said anything.  It was a complete joke as far as security goes, since they had no orderly way of checking who’d they’d checked and who they hadn’t.  It would concern me if everyone hadn’t gone through a security check earlier.

Boarded right on time, and the flight was booked full in all classes.  Somehow, however, it seemed the ONE seat that would remain open was the one next to me.  This has happened to me more times than I can count recently, and clearly I’ve banked some major travel karma.  Several employees were also cleared into business at the last minute, so I’m guessing that lots of folks got stuck in the Victoria Island traffic mess and missed the flight.  We ended up leaving about 30-40 minutes late due to some sort of maintenance issue, but it wasn’t a big deal.  I had a long connection.

Across the aisle in row one, there were two women traveling together who were giving the purser an earful.  Seems they had booked an award ticket with United, and the only routing available was Johannesburg to Lagos on South African, connecting to this United flight to the States.  They were clearly not experienced international travelers, and transiting in Lagos was a recipe for disaster.  I wouldn’t recommend it to even a moderately experienced traveler based on my experience.  Anyways, seems they had been rounded up by some official types at the airport, told their transit without a visa was illegal, and there were going to be some very serious fines.  One of the ladies was walking with a cane, and said that airport security had demanded her gold watch as payment of the fine, and she was going to sue United for doing this to her.  She did eventually settle down after the purser brought her several glasses of Sprite (she was complaining she was going to go into a diabetic coma – maybe true, but she was being seriously dramatic) and was quiet the rest of the flight.  Lesson here:  don’t transit Lagos unless you have balls of steel!

United flight 143
Lagos, Nigeria (LOS) to Houston, George Bush (IAH)
Depart 22:35, Arrive 05:00 next day, Flight Time 12:25
Boeing 787-8, Registration N26906, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1D (aisle)

Not the friendliest crew I’ve ever had, but it was a solid flight.  Once again, I managed nine full hours of uninterrupted sleep after the meal.  I’m convinced now that there’s something about the 787 that makes sleeping so much easier.  I’ll definitely go out of my way to fly it on redeyes again!  One highlight from the crew, when I asked for hot fudge and “a couple cherries” on my sundae, this is what I ended up with:



Can’t complain too much about that!  Just like the flight to Lagos, I managed to eat, get nine hours of sleep, and still wake up in plenty of time for a small bite of breakfast.  Some cereal, fruit, and a cinnamon bun, and soon we had arrived in Houston.

Carrying my wooden carving back, I was unsure if it was something I had to declare.  Wood and things made out of wood are a bit of a grey area, so I decided to play it safe.  Last thing I wanted was to screw something up, get caught, and lose my Global Entry.  I went through the questions at the automated kiosk, and there was nothing to indicate I had to declare it.  Got a clean receipt from the machine, which meant I could walk right out, but when I handed it to the agent at the exit, I made sure to ask him “I have a carving made from wood wrapped up in this bag, do I need to declare that?”  He looked at me like I was from another planet, and just waved me through.

Off to the Terminal E United Club for a shower and several more glasses of water, and immediately felt great again.  Amazing what nine hours of solid sleep will do for you.  Off to Starbucks for some coffee, and soon it was time to board the connecting flight to San Francisco.

United flight 570
Houston, George Bush (IAH) to San Francisco, California (SFO)
Depart 9:35, Arrive 11:45, Flight Time 4:10
Boeing 767-300, Registration N669UA, Manufactured 1999, Seat 1D (aisle)

Two words:  GATE LICE.  I’ve never seen so many people crowding the priority boarding line looking to pounce the minute the agent opened the door.  I had what I consider to be the best seat on the plane, so I was in no great rush.  Boarded relatively early, and the lead flight attendant helped me find somewhere to store the carving safely after everyone had boarded.

One strange thing about this flight, the moving map on the monitor was clearly having issues:  I don’t think we were moving around THAT badly!

IAH to SFO map

Great and helpful crew, decent breakfast on the flight, and after a few episodes of Breaking Bad it was time to land already.  Arrival into San Francisco was almost 30 minutes early!  We parked at the domestic gates, and I walked around the terminal for nearly an hour before settling into the United Club for some more water and snacks before the flight.



Yes, I admit it, I have a mild addition to the Tillamook cheese they serve in the United Club.  Especially the pepperjack which they were out of today, boo hiss!  Don’t judge!

United flight 207
San Francisco, California (SFO) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 13:30, Arrive 19:39, Flight Time 4:09
Boeing 777-200, Registration N219UA, Manufactured 2000, Seat 7B (backward-facing aisle)

Turned out most of the crew on this flight was the same as my Houston to San Francisco flight.  I had to explain to several of them why I was taking such a bizarre routing, but as soon as they understood it was for more miles in addition to being nearly the same fare they understood.  Seems crazies who do such things are becoming common enough that the crews know about them.

No clue why I decided this was picture-worthy, but decided to snap a picture of the new 777 seating just for those who might not have seen it.  That goes to show just how interesting the little details of this flight weren’t!  Note the alternating frontwards/backwards seats.

United 777


Decent little lunch/snack that isn’t worth writing about, although the cookie was pretty tasty…to the point I asked for a second one.  Almost thirty minutes early into O’Hare, which gave me nearly an hour to kill in the United Club staying hydrated and trying to stay awake by this point.

United flight 1717
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 21:05, Arrive 23:51, Flight Time 1:46
Boeing 737-800, Registration N11206, Manufactured 2000, Seat 2E (aisle)

The last of several un-noteworthy flights.  The most noteworthy aspect of this flight is that I discovered BBQ Pop Chips in the snack basket.  I’ve never had them before, but I have to admit, they go rather well with the pre-mixed margaritas United serves on board.  I admit I had at least three bags, at which point I lost count.

Landed at DCA about 10 minutes late, and was home about 15 minutes later.  In the end, it was well worth doing it for the extra miles, especially since it was all in business class and almost all on widebodies which meant significantly more comfort.

I was home for just three days, before heading up to Provincetown, Mass. for my birthday and the long weekend, then home for two weeks before heading back to West Africa again….until the next post!

Oct 122013

Spent the first evening in Lagos just getting dinner and drinks out, before planning to crash to enjoy the just short of three full days I would have there. Of course, life had other plans. As we were at dinner, the friend I was visiting got paged by his client to deal with a major network issue, and I was able to go with. It’s always fascinating watching companies in crisis mode, but slightly less fascinating when it’s 2am and you need sleep. Fortunately, with the time change, it wasn’t so bad. It just resulted in a slightly later start on Saturday.

Unfortunately, the issue wasn’t fully resolved, resulting in him having to work the entire day on Saturday as well. Fortunately, his client didn’t have to work and invited me with him to a large Nigerian wedding. These are big affairs where pretty much anyone related in any way shape or form to the family is welcome, and it was a fascinating experience. I was actually called the “honoured white guest” by a couple people, and it was a great time. We only went to the reception, which I would say had somewhere approaching 1,000 people at it.

It was in a giant tent and catered with plenty of food and drink. To the point that when I asked for a red wine, I was brought an entire bottle. We asked for champagne, and you guessed it…and entire bottle again. We ended up staying about three to four hours, by which time my host and I were more than happy to say the least. A few pictures to tell the story:

IMG_0634 IMG_0648

Note the number of empty bottles…and I thought American weddings involved a lot of drinking!

IMG_0656 IMG_0641

Continue reading »

Oct 112013

So, yeah, this is a bit overdue, but things have been crazy with two trips to West Africa the last month, a trip to Provincetown, Mass. in between, and things being crazy at the office. Hopefully I’ll get these cranked out pretty quickly, since I have two trips to Hawaii and two more to San Jose, California coming up in the next month thanks to the United $10 mistake fare!

A couple of months ago, my good friend John (who’s written a guest blog here before on Air Canada) told me he’d be making two trips to West Africa for work in the coming months, and since I’d never been to any of the countries he was going to he suggested I come along. I didn’t have too much planned at the time, and it seemed like a good opportunity to get a bit of an inside view on the place, so I jumped at the chance. The first trip would be a long 5-day weekend trip to Lagos, Nigeria and the second trip would be Cotonou, Benin and Accra, Ghana for four days. I decided to extend the second trip while I was in the region, and planned stops in Togo, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Cote d’Ivoire as well. Soon, the time to go was near!

United flight 356
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Houston, George Bush (IAH)
Depart 15:17, Arrive 17:24, Flight Time 3:07
Boeing 757-200, Registration N523UA, Manufactured 1990, Seat 3E (aisle)

Not terribly much to say here – it was a standard domestic flight, a cheerful pre-merger United crew, despite the fact the aircraft was older than dirt. Arrived into Houston on time, and had a few hours to kill in the United Club. Boarding was delayed about 30 minutes for the flight to Lagos, but soon we were settled in and it was time to go.

United flight 142
Houston, George Bush (IAH) to Lagos, Nigeria (LOS)
Depart 20:15, Arrive 14:50 next day, Flight Time 12:35
Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, Registration N45905, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1D (aisle)

This was to be my first flight of any real length on the 787, and fortunately my three short 2-3 hour domestic flights had clued me in that row 1 was the place to be.  All seats in business class have the same pitch/legroom, but the footwells in row 1 and row 4 have double the space for your feet due to the way the seats are staggered.  It’s a good thing, because it was going to be a very long flight and I was planning to get lots of sleep.  The planned flight path:

IAH to LOS flight path

Continue reading »