ironmanjt

Jun 072019
 


One of my earliest memories of wanting to travel and explore the world was being fascinated with all the currencies of the world. Growing up in a smallish town in the American midwest we saw lots of Canadian currency and especially Canadian coins…and that was exotic.

I remember then seeing Japanese coins – some with the centre hollowed out, and thinking they were the coolest thing ever. I think when the Euro was launched I was more sad for the disappearance of national currencies than I was when the Schengen Zone meant the virtual disappearance of individual passport stamps (still unique for each country, but only barely so.)

So, once I started traveling, I took a particular interest in the finance and currency aspect – not just because my undergraduate degree was in international finance (maybe a question of which was the causal factor for which) and learning to manage foreign exchange on my trips in the most expeditious and beneficial way.

My earliest trip was to the Soviet Union, and I remember carrying hundreds of dollars in travelers checks, and having to figure out how to exchange them at official Soviet exchange bureaus. For my first few trips, mainly to Europe, travelers checks were still the way to go (do they even still exist?!) but gradually, over time, I’ve come up with a list of tips and tricks that may help other travelers get the best from your foreign exchange experience. So, here are my six tips!

Banknotes of Iraq

Tip 1: Never use airport exchange booths to get foreign currency

So, I know it’s tempting. You’re at the airport, wondering how you’re going to get cash to hit the ground running when you arrive in a foreign country. You see a both across from the gate where you can exchange currency, and decide this will help you be more prepared when you land.

The problem? They’re going to charge you 5-20% for the service, often in the form of a commission of 1-3% plus a really terrible exchange rate called the buy/sell rate which can have a gap of 5-15% – that’s profit that goes straight to the exchange operator!

Ok, so maybe it’s just better in advance to go to your local bank and withdraw some foreign currency. While this is often a better strategy, it’s still likely to set you back a minimum of 5-10% to do it this way.

So what’s the answer? Use your ATM/debit card in an cash machine upon arrival. 98% of the foreign airports I’ve arrived at have ATMs and work with my card. The benefit of this is that you get the exact rate being published, sometimes with a small up-charge from your bank. A tip for Americans: use a credit union! Most credit unions charge only 1-2% at most for foreign ATM withdrawals. Does’t 1-2% sound much better than 5-20%?

There’s one time I’ve used my bank in advance, and that was to get Australian Dollars for a trip to Tuvalu where I wouldn’t pass through Australia first. Why? Because there’s not a single ATM on Tuvalu, and banks aren’t great about exchanging foreign currency.

Other places you may consider getting currency in advance are some African countries where the ATMs may not work on arrival. In these countries it’s definitely best to bring some cash with you in advance, which leads me to the next tip…

Old Banknotes of Zimbabwe – Ten TRILLION Dollars!

Tip 2: Always carry a small stash of small US Dollar and Euro bills

Why US Dollars and Euros? Because there’s pretty much no country on this blue marble of ours where you can’t exchange them…and often if you’re desperate you can just spend them outright.

Especially in Africa, almost everyone involved in any sort of commerce (think taxi drivers on arrival) know the exchange rate of their currency to the Dollar and Euro, and will almost always accept them if you get in a bind.

Now, I’m not advocating being that ugly tourist who thinks you can spend US Dollars and Euros in every country, but when you get in a bit of a bind because the ATM doesn’t work on arrival…it’s a great back-up plan!

Why US Dollars AND Euros? Because some places like one much more than the other. In Cuba, you’ll get a terrible exchange rate for Dollars, but a much better one for Europe. Same with the majority of Africa.

If you’re headed to the South Pacific, it’s not a bad plan to have some Australian Dollars as well – they’re often even easier to exchange than US Dollars.

Remember: small notes are important! Lots of $1 and $5 bills and €5 and €10 euro notes will get you out of lots of binds. New/crisp notes preferred! However, if you have major expenses (like paying tour operators) they may prefer large notes…ALWAYS make sure these are the latest edition of the bill – especially for US$100 bills!

Transnistria Ruble Banknotes

Tip 3: Use a credit card whenever you can

When you’re spending cash abroad, the trick is having the right amount so you don’t get killed on the exchange rate in both directions. You can’t redeposit foreign currency in the ATM, so you’ll have to use a less advantageous method to get it back to a more usable currency…meaning the 5-20% hit we talked about above.

You can avoid all this by taking out minimal cash for smaller transactions and using your credit card for anything substantial. Credit cards almost always get the exact market rate, costing you nothing in foreign exchange fees!

In the US, there are a ton of credit cards that have zero foreign exchange fee, meaning you get the exact market rate on every transaction. Some US credit cards still have fees of 1-3% on foreign charges, but that’s still better than taking out cash most of the time. Try to get a card with no fee and you’ll have the best possible world. My personal favourites are the Chase Sapphire Reserve and American Express Platinum Card. (I receive no commission from these links.)

Belarus Ruble Banknotes

Tip 4: Use the last of your currency towards your hotel bill

This is one of my personal favourite tips, and one that few people seem to practice. So ok, you got stuck with a bit more cash than you thought you’d need, and it looks like you’ll take a big hit converting it back to your home currency.

First, figure out how much you need to get you to your transport, be it the airport, train station (don’t forget to leave some for snacks!), or even a bus. Then, figure out if you want to save some notes as souvenirs (so you can make cool collages like in this post) and then…figure out what’s left.

When you check out of your hotel, tell them you want to pay part in cash (getting rid of your leftover so you don’t pay a fee on it) and then pay the rest with credit card. You’ve just used up your excess currency at no additional cost to you while still leaving just enough for transport out and souvenirs! Wait…transport out?!

Pakistani Rupee Banknotes

Tip 5: Use ride-sharing apps like Uber and Careem for local transportation

Ok, so I know this one is a little controversial. Some people think these big companies are putting the little guy out of business and taking advantage of drivers. Not looking for a philosophical debate, but these apps do have a lot of advantages in saving you money.

First, as mentioned above, since they’re linked to your credit card they’re a great way to get to the airport/bus/train without having to save too much foreign currency to ensure you can cover your ride. Just open the app, and your ride out of the country is covered!

It’s also great for local transport, because not using cash minimizes the chance taxi drivers will take advantage of you – either through the “so sorry, no change” scam or trying to slip you counterfeit bills as change. Taxis are notorious for taking advantage of confused visitors, so Uber helps ensure you have a driver who’s vetted for safety…and a dispute mechanism should something go wrong!

They’re also great when you first arrive the country, since there’s no need to get cash in advance to pay your taxi from the airport. You can just call the ride share with the app and focus on finding a cash machine to get cash when you get to your lodging.

South Sudan Pound Banknotes

Tip 6: Familiarize yourself with the currency in advance

Yeah, I know this sounds super obvious, but you’d be amazed how many times I’ve arrived somewhere and seen foreign visitors trying to figure out the currency situation. A few of my favourite examples:

Zimbabwe is notoriously tricky. In the past, the hardest part was figuring out if prices were in the billions or trillions of dollars. Now, it’s managing the tricky balance between using US Dollars and Zimbabwe Bond Notes (which are virtually useless).

This brings me to the point of black market/unofficial exchange rates. When you draw down money from the ATM like I suggested above you’ll only get the official exchange rate. There are some countries where the rate on the black market is significantly better, meaning if you exchange cash on the street you’ll get a much better rate than you “officially” get.

Now, I’m not (necessarily) advocating this: it’s usually the case because it’s illegal to do, and doing so has the potential to get you in a lot of trouble or even arrested. My main point here is to note than in some places you’ll get 10-20% more exchanging on the street or even 100%+ more in some situations. The difference, however, is often tied to the risk of doing so, so be very aware. My main point here is to highlight that these black market / unofficial / parallel exchange rates do exist and you should be aware.

Other things to be aware of? Countries who don’t have their own currency and use the currency of another country – usually US Dollars (Ecuador, Panama), Euros (Kosovo), or Australian Dollars (Tuvalu).

Also: some countries have runaway inflation, so keep up to date on the current rates to avoid getting cheated. I like xe.com for checking live rates – I find them extremely accurate and a great source of up-to-date information.

Republic of Somaliland Banknotes

So those are six of my favourite tips for saving a bit of money when traveling and being smart managing your foreign exchange. Any tips that I missed that you’ve found really helpful?

Jun 022019
 

One of the greatest things about travel is getting yourself into unfamiliar and new situations and the thrill you feel when you overcome challenges and discover new experiences. Getting out there, pushing yourself, and going beyond your comfort zone can be a fantastic experience, but it’s not without risks.

Novice international travellers often ask me the same questions when I’m going somewhere they’ve heard about on the news: “aren’t you afraid to go there?” or maybe “I heard they don’t like us there.” Sometimes it’s “I would never go there, it’s too dangerous.” – Statements often based on little more than what they’ve seen on the tv.

Those of us who’ve visited places known/thought to be a bit less safe and secure know they can often be some of the most rewarding travel experiences, but only if you’ve done your proper research! That isn’t to say that you should be afraid and not go to these places, but to do so without being properly prepared would be foolish.

I made it to every country without having a single major security incident (well, except the local “bad guys” who torched a bunch of police cars in Pakistan to block the highway…) but a few incidents have happened in the last year which highlighted to me that maybe I’ve let my guard down a little too much, and not followed my own advice.

This, combined with a friend recently going missing in a country with serious security concerns made me think this would be a good time to remind readers of some good tips you should always keep in mind when traveling, especially to less safe and secure places.

Tip 1: Always tell someone where you’re going

I mean this seems obvious, right? Even when you run to the store to pick up some milk you usually tell your partner, kids, etc. that you’re going to the store. But it’s surprising how easily we forget this one when we’re traveling.

Especially those of us who are single and not always great at “planning” our trips forget to let someone know where exactly we’re going. Maybe it’s because we think they’ll think we’re bragging, or maybe we think they won’t know where it is so won’t be interested anyways, or maybe we just don’t stop to think.

Simply letting someone know where you’ll be going (country, cities, hotels, sites, etc.) can come in really handy if you go missing and need to be tracked down. Knowing is half the battle…

Tip 2: Make sure your contact knows when to expect you back

Sort of the obvious follow up to the first tip, but it’s important that your contact person know not only where you’re going, but when they can expect you back. Nobody wants to be alerting the police, government, family and friends until they’re relatively certain that something is up.

This applies not to just the trip (“I’m going to Afghanistan for a week”) but also to riskier parts of the trip. Maybe the capital is secure, but you’re taking a trip out to the countryside to see something? Tell someone what time you expect to be back – make sure to account for inevitable delays in some countries when doing this. “Should be back in 4-6 hours, but could be 12 with traffic so wouldn’t worry until then.”

It would also be helpful to tell them who to call and when. This is something I should have done recently traveling in a border region where I was detained for nearly 12 hours. Fortunately, they let me keep my phone and I did send messages to people….but had they taken my phone…

Tip 3: Travel with a trusted guide

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve showed up somewhere, unable to find a guide in advance, and trusted who the hotel found for me. High-end hotels with international clientel are usually pretty good sources for trustworthy guides, but there’s no guarantee.

Better still, talk to your friends who’ve been where you’re considering going. Ask who they used for a guide. Did they trust them? Did they feel the person was safe and had a good understanding of the local situation? If they were driving, how was the driving? It’s a luxury, but was the car in good repair? (Or reasonable repair depending on destination…)

…and when you get back, share! There’s nothing like first-hand experience to know who you should trust in less secure places, and we owe it to each other to share our experiences. One small caveat: many of these guides are barely eking out a living in these places. Make sure to step back and look at the situation rationally before trashing a guide online.

Tip 4: Leave contact information – hotels, cell, etc

So, let’s assume something does go wrong. You don’t come back when you said you would. Nobody could get ahold of you. You’re not responding on social media. What now?

In the case of my friend who recently went missing, the biggest challenge has been not knowing who to contact. If we had the phone number of their guide or driver, that would be an amazing place to start. Not using a guide or driver? Share the phone number for the hotels where you plan to be.

Maybe you’ve booked a tour? Share the phone number for the tour company with someone back home. The point is pretty simple: in the off chance that something does go wrong, knowing not just where and when you were but also how to get in touch with someone who may be able to help you is priceless.

Also: it doesn’t hurt to register in advance with your country’s Foreign Office / State Department / etc. Letting them know where you are is important if things go south fast: these are the people you’ll likely rely on for evacuation if things get bad quickly, so make sure they can reach you!

Tip 5: Split up your finances

Somehow, I made it to every country without a financial incident worse than getting cheated out of $5 or so by a taxi driver in the days before Uber seemed to be everywhere. 196 countries, and never had any money lost or stolen.

That all changed in an instant last year when I went out for a run in Stockholm, stopped for coffee afterwards, and somewhere between the coffeeshop and hotel I lost my wallet.

The streets were pretty empty, so I’m pretty positive it fell out of my running shorts (maybe at the coffeeshop, maybe walking) as opposed to being pickpocketed, but the end result was the same: I had no money, no credit cards, no anything.

Fortunately, I was at a big work conference, and coworkers were able to spot me cash for a few days, and AmEx was then able to wire me lots of cash to pay my bills before leaving. Had I been traveling alone, who knows what I would have done? I guess I could still have hunkered down hungry until AmEx got me some cash, but it would have been much less comfortable.

So, do yourself a favour: leave some cash and a couple of credit cards in your hotel safe. That way, if things do go missing, you at least have some backup. This is especially important if you’re going to be going to busy or crowded places like a market or public transit where pickpockets like to operate.

This is also helpful if you’re crossing rural areas where opportunistic “checkpoints” operate and try and shake you down. They may find some of your cash and cards, but if you split it up your chances of leaving with at least some of it are much better.

Tip 6: Check your social media

This is one I never really thought much about until recently, and I suspect you’ve probably not thought too much about it either unless it’s happened to you.

However, now that the US and some other countries have begun requiring visa applicants to list their social media accounts on visa applications you should probably have a look at your social media and see what’s on there that might get you declined. You don’t even have to have “done” something wrong to run afoul of this one – it’s all about perception.

In my case, I was entering a sensitive region and when the authorities stopped us at the border they asked us to have a seat for a while. Turns out, what was going on out of sight was a combing of my social media accounts and what they found they didn’t like. No, I’m not a journalist, spy, or other sort of troublemaker, but when they find out you’ve done graduate research in “sanctions theory” …well…if you’re a country under sanctions you might decide you don’t want this person visiting! Makes no difference I’ve never worked in this area professionally, it’s all about perception.

So, do yourself a favour if you travel a lot: have a look at your social media and have a good think how it might appear to others. This will also be helpful advice if you’re applying for jobs…

Tip 7: The women, children, and old people rule

I’ve heard this one quite a lot, but whenever I share it with even well-traveled friends I’m amazed how many of them haven’t heard it.

The reason it’s called the “woman, children, and old people rule” is really quite simple. If you’re in a location known to have security issues, and something doesn’t feel quite right, have a look around.

Do you see women in the streets? Children? How about old people and senior citizens? They’re usually the first to disappear from the streets when security goes south: partly because they’ve seen enough to know when to get out of the way, and partly because these are populations who know well enough to shelter when there’s possible violence brewing.

The opposite, however, does not hold true. Just because you see women, children, and old people in the street is no guarantee of safety. However, if you don’t see them, but you see plenty of what are known as “fighting-aged males” – getting the hell out of there is often good advice.

Tip 8: Take primary responsibility for your own safety and security

Fortunately, this might be the only one that gets easier the longer you’ve been traveling, but you have primary responsibility for your own safety and security: don’t assume it’s someone else’s job to take care of you!

The reason I say this is the one that might get easier is that one of the biggest mistakes people make in this regard is getting intoxicated and having a little too much fun. Sure, this is a great way to let you relax and meet new people, but it’s also a way to lower inhibitions and make you much more inclined to taking risks…or in an extreme case, end up unconscious and the victim of crime or violence.

This also goes hand in hand with taking responsibility for your physical safety when it comes to health. Are you entering a malaria zone? Make sure you’re taking prophylactics if your doctor recommends it. Make sure you get all your jabs or vaccinations in advance to protect yourself from everything from Yellow Fever to Typhoid…nobody wants to catch these nasty diseases.

This also includes sexual health. If you’re putting yourself in intimate situations with other people (who, let’s face it, you’ll likely never see again) it’s your responsibility to look out for yourself. Knowledge is power, and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…if there even is a cure. In this vein, if you’re not familiar with it, make sure to educate yourself on Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) if you’re the type who likes to get extra friendly with locals or other travellers. HIV is highly preventable now if you’re informed and prepared.

Tip 9: Do your research

One of the greatest things about the internet is the amount of information that is out there that you can use to inform your travels. Just be careful, however, that you vet your sources. Don’t just go running into the middle of a war zone because one fringe blogger told you that it was safe and ok to do that. Use a bit of common sense!

There are so many good sources of safety and security information out there. Start with your government’s foreign office / state department site. These tend to be extremely on the conservative side, but they do a good job of laying out all the risks of traveling to a given location. I personally use these as a starting point, and then supplement with additional more nuanced information.

One of my favourite sites for places that are in a state of conflict is Live Map. It does a great job of aggregating news sources and showing you all the safety incidents in a country over the previous weeks – all displayed nicely on a map. It’s also great for countries with active conflicts where the “safety line” might change dramatically from day to day. They have especially awesome maps of Ukraine, Syria, Libya…and even Washington, D.C.

Tip 10: Travel during the day, be awake and alert

This one is pretty easy to follow, but we’re all guilty of breaking it. Maybe you’re behind schedule and trying to make up time. Maybe you found a bus/train/flight in the middle of the night that was super cheap, or maybe you’re just a night owl.

The end result is the same: crime tends to occur much more regularly at night when the criminals have the element of surprise and a much higher prospect of escape. No matter how vigilant you are, it’s always riskier being out on the roads at night.

Another downside of travel at night is drivers who are often not alert – both your own and the other guy on the road. That’s not to mention drunk drivers. I’ve had several situations lately with a driver late at night who was practically falling asleep at the wheel and I definitely shouldn’t have been in their car.

So, those are ten tips you can use on all of your travels to increase your chances of returning home safely in one piece with all your belongings! My goal with this post is definitely not to scare you away from traveling – get out there and enjoy these amazing and vibrant places. Equipped with this knowledge you’ll not only enjoy your trip more, you’ll be safer while doing it!

What did I miss? Other great advice for fellow travelers?


May 312019
 


Well after I had already committed to going to Florida for the ultramarathon in the Keys, I had a work commitment come up which would require me to be in Brazil the next day. Problem was: the drive from Key West to Miami is 3-4 hours on a good day, and I would need to be in Sao Paulo by 9am for meetings.

The problem is: most flights from the states arrive after 9am, making it near impossible to get a full day in upon arrival. I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I found out there was a flight nonstop from Fort Lauderdale to Campinas (about 100km northwest of Sao Paulo) on Azul which arrived at 05:00. Even with the long 1.5 hour taxi to Sao Paulo, it would work out.

To top things off, it appears that Azul is partners with United, so I could even earn some miles. Oh, and did I mention it was like 1/3 the price of United, American, and Delta and had nice seats? This was looking like a win all around!

Unfortunately, this report will be mostly about Azul…and in comparison, the nonstop flight home on United. We worked most days until 8 or 9pm, leaving me only time to check out a couple of local craft beer places and see how the scene was shaping up in Brazil…but then again you knew I’d make an hour in the evening for that…right?

So, right. I was able to check-in on Azul’s app (Portuguese only – the English version doesn’t allow check-in) but when I got to TSA (no pre-Check with Azul) the boarding pass wouldn’t scan from Apple Wallet, so I had to go back to the counter and get a paper one. Not the end of the world.

End of the world, however, is the disaster known as Terminal 3 in Fort Lauderdale. No lounges at all, and Azul doesn’t give food and beverage credits either. Fortunately, one of the restaurants does give a credit with Priority Pass, but it was a 15 minute walk from the gate. Was good for a couple glasses of wine, and I got to the gate where it was just getting time to board. Better hurry, or I’ll get stuck on Spirit!

First impressions of the seat and cabin ambiance on Azul were really positive:

right, so on with the flight!

Azul flight 8705
Fort Lauderdale, Florida (FLL) to Campinas/Sao Paulo, Brazil (VCP)
Depart 19:30, Arrive: 05:00, flight time: 8:30
Airbus A330-200, Registration PR-AIT, Manufactured 2003, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 39,622
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,732,210

Couple of early observations: no clue why Azul uses such odd flight numbers. Most airlines use lower numbers for premium/international routes, but Azul seems to use very high flight numbers. No clue why. Also, there are only four really “good” seats in each cabin, as they’re the ones offset from the aisle by the armrest. The other seats aren’t bad, but four of them are extra good!

Pre departure champagne in a proper glass with a folded napkin even…unfortunately it was a tiny bit warm:

I was very curious what kind of menu Azul would offer, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. Full multi-course meal with lots of options:

The cabin was, unfortunately, extremely warm on the ground, but the air vents delivered just enough breeze that it wasn’t miserable. Fortunately, Azul’s website is quite helpful when you have a problem! It did cool down to about 75F in flight which was still warm, but not awful.

Right before takeoff, and after the pre-departure champagne, individual chocolates were offered:

First couple of hours in flight we were treated to an absolutely stunning sunset:

Amenity kit was at the seat, and while it contained the basics it was nothing worth keeping:

Soon after takeoff beverages were offered, along with a dried fruit and nut mix. Definitely something different.

I know lots of frequent fliers complain when the appetizer and main course get served together, but I thought it worked out fine. With the super early arrival lots of people wanted to get to sleep as soon as possible, so it worked out well. I thought the plating was pretty nice too…and I loved the little salt and pepper shakers:

Both cheese and an ice cream sundae were offered. Above average.

We must have had good winds, because we arrived in Campinas nearly 45 minutes early. The airport was an absolutely ghost town, and other than passengers coming off our flight it seemed there wasn’t a soul in the airport. I know it’s a relatively new and empty airport, but seems like they have lots of growth in mind!

Through immigration and to the transportation area in under 10 minutes, and my Uber showed up less than five minutes later. He complained about the length of the drive to Sao Paulo (seems Sao Paulo and Campinas are different Uber bases) but eventually agreed to take the trip when I told him I was happy to wait for another driver. Then he asked for an extra 100 Reais for gas….ok maybe 50….and when I again said I was happy to just wait…he decided he’d rather take me.

Wasn’t a great Uber experience, and I felt like he was on the verge of falling asleep several times, so I made the best of it with my terrible Portuguese trying to keep him awake and chatting. Best part was, I made it to my hotel by 06:30, giving me time for a solid 90 minute nap before heading to meetings. Winning all around!

Busy few days of meetings, but did manage to find a couple of craft beer places for an hour in the evening. First find was “TapTap” which was a little hole in the wall place on a street corner, but they did have several really good local taps, and the special treat of getting eaten alive by mosquitos while you enjoyed your beer. I’m still itching a week later!

Second find, which was much more North American or European style was Bar Ambar which was a bit further away, and located near a BrewDog of all things! Had I had another night I definitely would have checked that out as well.

Of course I made it to Starbucks as well, and of course my name was butchered as usual:

This Uber driver really has his hustle going on:

Fun and unique sculpture/art in the lobby of the hotel where my event was being held:

Just like that three days flew by, and it was time to head to the airport to fly home. Unfortunately, there was a major accident and it took over 2.5 hours to get to the airport…enough I actually worried I would miss my flight. I did arrive 90 minutes before departure, and thanks to short lines for security and immigration even made it to the lounge for 15 minutes before heading to the gate.

United flight 860
Sao Paulo, Brazil (GRU) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 21:20, Arrive: 06:10, flight time: 9:50
Boeing 767-300, Registration N663UA, Manufactured 1993, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 44,339
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,736,927

I think I have the absolute worst luck with United’s 767s this year. This is maybe ten flights in a row where I’ve gotten the old configuration instead of getting a new Polaris aircraft. It wouldn’t be so remarkable except over half the fleet is reconfigured now, so you’d think I’d have better luck. Oh well, at least it’s not bad if I get the solo “D” seat in the middle:

The usual PDB – sparkling plonk and water:

What’s for dinner tonight:

The usual warm nuts and a glass of wine to start:

Dinner was decent, but unremarkable. The best part of the flight was that I slept nearly seven straight hours, only waking up slightly before landing. I don’t know what it is, but every time I fly north from South America I end up sleeping like a baby. Must be some combo of time zones and being exhausted from a good vacation or work.

…and with that, four back to back trips were over and I was looking forward to almost four weeks at home before heading out on vacation. I’m going to make sure to enjoy the next three weeks remaining, because after that it’s a crazy-looking schedule:

Late June/Early June: two weeks round-the-world with short stops in London, Paris, Tunis, six nights in Australia, and two each in Bangkok and Singapore. Looking forward to a few things from this trip such as Emirates and Qantas first class, first time on the Acela train, first time business premier on the Eurostar, TunisAir A330 business class, Thai first class, and two long flights with EVA Airways and Hello Kitty service!

Then I have three weeks in Switzerland for work in July/August, followed by back to back work trips to South Africa and India. Hoping to tack a few days onto the South Africa trip to visit some favourite old haunts as well, and maybe even get up to Zim for a few days.

…but for now. Rest…and I’ll try and write some more random travel musings before heading out in a few weeks as well!

May 302019
 


Yes, to answer that question I know you must be thinking, I did make it to every country in the world before I made it to the Florida Keys. I also haven’t been to New Orleans, Austin, or New Mexico yet. These are things I definitely need to fix in the short run.

So my friend Jen who’s also an ultrarunner turned me onto the Keys 100 race, and I was determined to have my first go at 100 miles. Unfortunately, as it has done so often lately, work conspired against me, and there was no way I would be able to make the cutoff time despite pretty decent training. Fortunately, there was a 50 mile option that just ran from Marathon Key to Key West which had a super generous cutoff and I was planning to do.

Unfortunately, I got sick shortly before the race, and had to drop out, which turned out to be the right call given the heat and humidity I clearly wasn’t prepared for. That just means I can go back next year now prepared to run the full 100! Right, so you really want to hear about the trip…

Thanks to the 24 hour change policy I was able to bump my departure from 09:30 to around 13:00, which gave me just enough extra sleep that I felt human after two transatlantics in 10 days, and it was off to Florida.

I won’t bore you with the details of domestic flights on United, but they were predictably meh. More or less on time, however, and exactly what I expected, so overall I can’t complain.

Met my friend John who came down to support me for the race, and after waiting an unreasonable amount of time to pick up my car as an Avis President’s Club member, finally got this one which clearly had barely gone through the carwash. Gross.

Also took another 20 minutes to get out of the lot, but that was more a customer problem than an Avis problem. With that, we were off!

Driving 50+ miles when tired probably wasn’t a stellar call, but made it to Key Largo in one piece completely ready to crash. This was my first time in the Keys, and I was determined to make the most of it…and that combined with being jetlagged and time zone confused kept me up a bit later than I should have. So, as one does, we walked around outside a bit, got lost, and ended up with a few drinks at Skarkey’s Pub. Delicious craft beer selection…

Next morning the sun was shining, and the view from our room wasn’t bad at all…and there was a Starbucks less than 10 minutes walk away. Life was absolutely grand!

Few plans the day before the race, so we drove back up to Homestead to go to the Robert is Here Fruit Stand which John mentioned was definitely worth seeing. I had a delicious Jackfruit and coconut milkshake which was to die for, and the wildlife in the “petting zoo” was pretty cool too.

Next it was down to Marathon for lunch at M.E.A.T. Eatery and Taproom which had an absolutely delicious burger! Total dive (and was even on Diners, Dives, and Drive Ins) but absolutely delicious!

On the way back up to Key Largo, we couldn’t resist stopping at the Florida Keys Brewing Company for a set of tasters which was pretty delicious!

Back to the hotel in Key Largo the night before the race, nice sunset over the marina…

After dropping from the race I still figured I could support my friend Jen, but first decided we had to lunch in Marathon at the Island Fish Company and Tiki Bar…delicious conch fritters and deadly tropical frozen drinks.

Spent the rest of the afternoon following Jen…nearly 50 miles into the race and she was still looking amazing!

We got to Key West just before sunset, and in time to get a sunset pic at the southernmost point in the continental U.S.A….

We found an amazing little bar filled with kitch called Glitchcraft which was absolutely amazing. Great craft beer selection, and even better staff. John actually came back the next night where they were hosting a huge watch party for the final episode of Game of Thrones. Super cool place!

I’ve never met a cutout where I could take a corny pic that I didn’t like…

Brunch the next day at Blue Heaven… lethal bellinis and delicious lobster Benedict. Well worth the wait…plus they had a pony I could ride!

Plus, they had a cat who literally couldn’t be bothered. This is the life…

We decided to play tourist for a little bit, and stopped by the Little White House which was President Truman’s getaway from Washington, but was also used by several other presidents.

Of course, no trip to Key West would be complete without margaritas…

…and the iconic picture at Mile 0 of Route 1…which runs right up through home in Arlington Virginia as well, and I used to live on!

The question still needs to be answered: why did the chicken cross the road?

Last morning in paradise…picture on the beach at our hotel…the Casa Marina by Waldorf Astoria. Nice enough property, but I have to admit the rooms were sadly in need of renovation, especially given the prices. I can’t say I would choose it again all things considered. That said, the location was fantastic.

I wanted to buy this painting…unfortunately it was a little out of my price range at $12,000…even though they did offer to ship it for free….

Neat sign…had the store been open that morning I probably would have picked it up…

Driving up to Fort Lauderdale, we passed the first Starbucks from Key West…80 miles in. This sign is terrifying!

One final lunch in the keys at the Key Largo Conch House where I had some delicious conch tacos. A fitting end to an amazing rest between three hectic work trips. Anything else would have been too much, but it was just enough relaxation with an amazing friend that made it work.

So yeah, I’ll be back next year to run the full 100 Miles, wiser at what it will take to succeed. With that, we were at the Fort Lauderdale Airport, and it was time to catch my flight down to Brazil to get back to work!

May 282019
 


So, if you saw my post yesterday, you’ll have seen that I had a work trip to Paris, home for one day for an important event, then had to turn right back around to go to Germany. In an ideal world I would have either stayed in Europe, or stayed home longer, but sometimes these matters are just out of your control.

The other downside: when I booked the Germany trip it looked like Paris was going to be a full month earlier, so I’d have lots of time at home, so I agreed to a one-stop routing to save a bunch of money. Unfortunately, this meant leaving home at 11am instead of 5pm like the nonstop to Frankfurt would, so this was going to be a much less than ideal trip. I could really have used those extra six hour at home.

See, at the time, United/Lufthansa had a killer fare from NYC-Frankfurt that was like 1/3 the fare out of DC. So, even with adding a one-way ticket to JFK and a one-way ticket back from EWR, the overall fare would still be less than half. Had I known I’d have so little time between trips, I would have splurged on the nonstop. By the time the Paris trip moved, however, the price difference was more than 300%, so I was stuck with it. Oh well, make the best of it!

Delta flight 5957 operated by Republic Airlines
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to New York, Kennedy (JFK)
Depart 11:00, Arrive: 12:18, flight time: 1:18
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N206JQ, Manufactured 2008, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 26,399
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,718,987

…and make the most of my time I did, so much that I arrived DCA at 10:20. was through CLEAR/PreCheck in less than two minutes and still at the gate 5-10 minutes before boarding. I don’t usually like cutting it close and like to relax in the lounge a bit, but hey, I’ve been in the DCA SkyClub somewhere around 1,000,000 times, so the precious extra minutes at home were well worth it.

Not much to say about this one, standard short hop up to New York. The most surprising part was no wait for a landing slot at JFK (thank you Saturday morning traffic) and would actually be arriving over 25 minutes early today. Also the shortest flight time I can ever remember at 32 minutes.

With nearly five hours to kill at JFK (the only flight that left “enough” time between my separate tickets without anxiety, I decided to make up for my lounge negligence at DCA and visit every lounge I was entitled to at JFK, starting with the SkyClub right after landing.

Food was uninspiring today, but they had real honest-to-God Champagne. Cheese cubes and hummus were as normal, but the chicken strips were awful pressed/processed with fatty and dark streaks running through them. Revolting. I’ll spare you the close-up shot, but rest-assured I didn’t have a bite.

After these adventures in dining, it was time to make my way outside security in Terminal 2 and attempt to find the AirTrain to Terminal 1. Down the escalator, across the street, through a parking lot, up another elevator, and finally the train platform. Seriously, between JFK and LGA I’m not sure which is a bigger embarrassment. That said, I made it just fine on the first try and it gave me practice for my next upcoming JFK flight in a few weeks.

Security in Terminal 1 was the biggest shitshow I’ve ever encountered in the US, with no CLEAR line and no clear PreCheck line either. I asked the agent at the front about PreCheck and “I just yell to the other agent that you got it” – I asked about laptops out, shoes off, etc and was met with a nasty response. When I went through, my laptops caused problems, and the next agent snapped at me that I “should know better.” It was the last straw, and I asked for a supervisor.

“You can talk to me.” No apology, no “I’m sorry that happened” but after calmly explaining the severe attitude from the agents he just said “The one that looks like Dora the Explorer? I need you to identify her so she can be punished.” Seriously, this is what is “keeping us safe” these days? Now, I find TSA agents 99.99% of the time to be great and professional, but this entire crew at JFK was a nightmare. Is this the norm at Terminal 1? I ask because I’ll be back in a few weeks…

Up to the Lufthansa lounge, where I spotted the steed that I will take in a few weeks….the ex-Singapore A330 recently acquired by Evelop! which is operating for Norwegian on the JFK-London daytime flight. I might be crazy for trying this, but I’m kind of looking forward to it. Great views from the lounge, and a tasty array of nibbles…

The lounge was so nice I didn’t want to leave, and had amazing people-watching on top of it (including the Chinese guy with a sequinned sweatshirt that said BITCH PLEASE! in huge letters) but I vowed to try all the lounges I could…so traipsed off to the Korean Air lounge which I could access via PriorityPass.

I should have fled when I saw the elevator was out of service. Lugged my Rimowa up the stairs, and was met by a surly agent who was clearly over it. Seriously, I know New York attitude, but the airport staff (non-Lufthansa and Delta: they were lovely) were just miserable.

Also, this was the best snacks on offer. I should have once again passed…but drank the water, few sips of the wine and a fig newton, and I was off to the gate.

When I got to the gate, thanks to my need to check out the Korean Air lounge, boarding was already underway and I was concerned I might have trouble finding room for my bag due to the huge number of people queued up in front of me. I forgot, however, that the A380 is simply massive even in business class, and there would be plenty of room.

Lufthansa flight 401
New York, Kennedy (JFK) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 16:10 Arrive: 06:05, flight time: 7:55
Airbus A3800-800, Registration D-AIMJ, Manufactured 2012, Seat 22D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 30,255
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,722,843

Remember when I foreshadowed yesterday about how nice the last row of business class was in the Polaris 777 as long as there was nobody with an infant in the bulkhead? Well, karma paid me a major visit today…and I had a second passenger in the seat next to me today who seemed incredibly interested in my pre-departure beverage:

Now, in fairness, with the exception of takeoff and landing he did sleep 80% of the flight and was pretty much an angel the rest of the time, so it didn’t work out too badly, except mom was constantly working to keep him busy. Fortunately, with a 4pm departure I had no interest in sleep anyways, so it all worked out just fine.

Meal service was actually one of the better ones I’ve had on Lufthansa lately. Their business class meals can be a little on the unusual side, but they’re usually tasty. This one was more-or-less pretty mainstream, and the crew was absolutely fantastic. Once they found out I spoke some German, even though English was obviously easier, they made a huge effort to speak slowly and clearly in German to let me practice. Major points for that. Plus, the food was really good too:

Other than that, the flight was excellent. I skipped the breakfast since I wanted to head straight to bed upon landing. We arrived nearly 40 minutes early around 05:30 and I was in bed and asleep in the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport by 06:00 for a solid six hours of sleep. So much nicer this way than trying to sleep on the plane, and since it’s still on East Coast time it was very easy to fall asleep.

Woke up at noon, did a little work, and then off to catch my train to Saarbrücken for work. Unfortunately, there were no direct trains this late in the day so I would have to change in Mannheim. Unfortunately, the train to Mannheim was nearly 20 minutes late, meaning I missed my connection and had to wait another hour – making me late to dinner. D-Bahn is no Swiss train system these days – that’s for sure.

I treated myself to some Apfelwein and Pringles to enjoy the delay a little more…

Not too much to say about Saarbrücken since it was three very intense days of working with clients, but fortunately very productive. Stayed at the Mercure hotel this time which was more than adequate, and very well-located in the middle of the city. Close to Starbucks, and walkable to lots of places to eat and drink.

I had been completely unsuccessful on previous trips finding any craft beer at all, but this time found Stube 8 which at least had a couple. Not a great selection, but hey it’s a start!

Enjoyed a nice dinner with clients at Zum Stiefel as well, and got to have some traditional heavy Saarlandische food. I had to try the Saarländische Versuchung (the Saarland Temptation) and got a little bit each of three things: a “gefillder” which is basically a potato dumpling with liver sausage filling and sauerkraut, a green “hoorische” (a green dumpling) and a large meatball which I’m still not sure of…heavy, but delicious!

After successful meetings we ended just in time that I could catch a direct ICE back to Frankfurt. Unfortunately, a person was on the tracks between Mannheim and Frankfurt, and we ended up delayed on the train by nearly an hour. Worst service I’ve ever had in ICE first class, however, and never once did I see the train attendant – would have been nice to have a beer!

Arrived in Frankfurt early evening, however, with just enough time to head out to my favourite little craft beer joint for dinner. Naïv is a great little place, and this time they had several fantastic drafts and cans. Either my German was getting better or the staff’s English worse, because I managed to keep the whole thing in German this time without them switching to English. Dinner was two tasty sausages and a delicious brownie with ice cream. Oh, there may also have been a few beers….

Up somewhat early for breakfast at the airport (I sometimes feel like I live in Flughafen Frankfurt, and it’s amazing!) – my usual Iced American and Bretzelsnack…mmmm…so good! Stopped by the Senator Lounge only briefly and then strait to boarding. I needed to max out sleep this morning so little time for the lounge today.

I was pretty excited for this flight – my first time ever on the 787-10 – which was even more awesome because it had “real” Polaris 1-2-1 seating installed and I had managed to get my favourite seat – 1L – way in advance.

United flight 961
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 11:20, Arrive: 13:50, flight time: 8:30
Boeing 787-10, Registration N12006, Manufactured 2019, Seat 1L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 34,125
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,726,713

Pre-departure sparking wine delivered, and temperature sensor reporting a reasonable 71F today…at least we wouldn’t be roasted during boarding.

Mixed nuts and wine to start, while Paul judges from afar….

Meal was pretty standard Polaris fare, and nearly the identical menu I had from Paris the week before. I was glad to see the delicious pork and apricot terrine was back, and I went with the fish again as well. This is starting to be a habit! The cheese wasn’t quite as good as from Paris, but much better than from the US, and they actually had butterscotch today! YUM!

Mid-flight snack…I’m addicted to the little cakes and overly chewy macarons. Meanwhile, the Great British Bakeoff was providing some very suspicious looking bakes….and Paul was quick to glare!

Pre-arrival was the same meal options as from Paris, and since I won once with the mozzarella salad and “Hamburger Wellington” I decided to give it another go. The cheese was weirdly peppered with all the pepper on one cheese ball, but other than that it was quite tasty again.

On approach to Newark…not sure which airport this is. Approach into Newark was super, super bumpy today, with our 787 being tossed about pretty seriously.

Immigration was a breeze, though I find it annoying that more and more arrivals into Newark arrive at Terminal B these days necessitating a transfer over to terminal A or C for connection. Fortunately my connection was from Terminal C today, and I was curious if I could get into the Polaris Lounge since my arrival was on a different ticket. Yup, no problem since they were both United, and they even let me bring my Starbucks in. The Newark crew had never heard of the Mescal Paper Airplane, so I got to share that with them…though they were still suspicious of it.

Off to the gate to fly to DCA, and once more short segment to go.

United flight 3434, operated by Republic Airlines
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington, DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:45, Arrive: 17:03, flight time: 1:18
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N864RW, Manufactured 2006, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 34,324
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,726,912

How much can you say about a 40 minute flight from Newark to DCA. We were delayed about 30 minutes by a flat tire (seriously) but other than that we still arrived exactly on time. Very good luck today considering how the weather was. Super, super bumpy on the takeoff just as the approach had been.

…and with that two of my four back to back trips were done. Unfortunately didn’t get home until 6pm which meant a very short night to do laundry and repack since my flight the next morning was 8:30am. UGH. Fortunately managed a same-day-change to an 11:00am via Newark, so at least I would salvage a LITTLE more sleep….

May 262019
 


So, you’ve probably noticed I haven’t posted anything in a good long time. The main reason for that is…I spent nearly two straight months at home without a single trip….and it was amazing! I’m about to pay for it however, with three back-to-back work trips and a mini vacation all in the span of 18 days. Then it will be a month at home, before a two week vacation to Australia, 20 days in Switzerland for work, and back to back South Africa and India trips in the early fall.

Tired yet? I know I am…and I hadn’t even left! Actually, I’m back already. Normally, when I go to fun places like Paris I try and tack on a few extra days to enjoy the city, but with so many places to be these were all quick in and out trips…so the majority you’ll get is going to be plane reviews…which I know plenty of you enjoy! So, with that, off we go!

In another unusual twist for me, the flights to Paris would be nonstop in both directions. Normally, I would route through either Toronto or Newark to guarantee a 1-2-1 product, but due to the way fares and timing worked, I had to go nonstop…which worked out in the end because apparently United has been working on reconfiguring their 777-200s with Global First faster than I thought…and I got a Polaris 777-200 both ways! So, on to the flights:

United flight 915
Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD) to Paris, Charles de Gaulle, France (CDG)
Depart 17:20, Arrive: 06:55, flight time: 7:35
Boeing 777-200, Registration N216UA, Manufactured 2000, Seat 1L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 22,325
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,714,913

Yes, you saw that correctly. Only 22,325 miles to date in early May. As I noted above, the year has been off to a super slow start, which has been just fine with me! That’s about to drastically change, however.

Also, this flight confirmed for me that I love the Polaris seat – especially when I can get one of the odd-numbered single seats on the window. Thank God for the super strong air pumping from the vents, because this plane was a furnace. See the little cube circled below? It’s a temperature monitoring device I picked up on Amazon and love! Most of this flight was 77-78F with humidity in the 8-9% zone. Eek! I bought it so I could monitor planes and hotel rooms to see if I was (a) really crazy or (b) legitimate in being warm.

So, on the meal…..the PDBs came in real glassware with a generous pour, the sommelier featured wine goes for $8.75 a bottle per google, but I got the super tasty spicy chicken, so overall it was a pretty good meal!

I chose not to sleep on this flight given it was landing at 12:55am Washington flight, and I didn’t have to go straight to work. So I was treated to daybreak over Paris:

Got to my hotel, crashed for a delightful five hour nap, and then headed to the office for my only meeting of the day from 3-6pm. The next two days were jam-packed with meetings as well, but I did manage to get some fun in. Couple of great craft beer places to recommend that I was surprised to find in Paris: La Fine Mousse, Hoppy Corner, and La Robe et La Mousse – two of which were owned by the same people.

Of course, there was also plenty of time for a delicious hotel breakfast the way only France can do with fresh squeezed orange juice, pain au chocolates, fresh crunchy bread with nutella, amazing coffee, and a freshly made omelette. Oh, and I may have spent more than one night having wine and croque madames while people watching from a cafe…as one does in Paris!

United flight 914
Paris, Charles de Gaulle, France (CDG) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 12:25, Arrive: 14:50, flight time: 8:25
Boeing 777-200, Registration N223UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 15L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 26,186
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,718,774

All too soon, it was time to head back to DC. I had one night in the states because I had an event I couldn’t miss before turning straight around and flying to Germany. Not the most efficient thing ever, but some things take priority.

At least it was a gorgeous day to fly, and I got the 1-2-1 Polaris seating on the 777 again…which was a good thing because had it been the 2-4-2 dormitory class plane I might have completely lost it…. I decided to try row 15 this time, because it was one of the good odd-row window seats, and I heard it can be quiet in the back of the cabin as long as there are no infants in the bulkhead of premium economy behind you. There weren’t, and it was a great seat! That said, foreshadowing…

Meal was the usual from United, though I have to say the catering was a notch up from what I’ve come to expect from the downgraded Polaris catering lately. It was actually much tastier than usual, and I quite enjoyed it. Chicken on the way over, now fish on the way back….yes, this is my attempt at being BP-healthy after years of unhealthy plane and restaurant food. Thank God I’m super active or I’d probably have keeled over by now!

Not too much time to catch up on tv on the iPad this trip, because I had to write up the meetings before turning right around to do another set. I hate working on planes because it’s my relaxation time and tv time (since I don’t have a tv at home) but couldn’t be avoided this trip. Oh well, you can’t win them all.

Pre-arrival….”hamburger wellington” are you kidding me? I had to order it just because it was weird…and actually was quite tasty. The tomato and mozzarella salad was also pretty good. Sometimes it’s good to try something different… Prue, however, is definitely not sure about it.

About 2.5 hours before landing, over Newfoundland, there was a call for a doctor on board. A passenger had fainted and was having trouble breathing. I could just see us diverting after I’d made this ridiculous detour home for one event, but fortunately the passenger was alright and made it to Dulles where the paramedics were waiting for us.

That concludes the super quick trip to Paris. Stay tuned: tomorrow we turn right back around and head to Germany!

Mar 192019
 


Despite this trip being nearly three weeks long, it was over in a heartbeat. I guess that’s what happens when a trip is split up into several distinct “chunks” involving work and fun, before you know it…it’s over.

After sleeping in and enjoying one more leisurely morning in Moscow, it was time to head to the airport to start the long trek home. Since I had plenty of time I opted to take the metro across town and connect to the Aeroexpress train to Domodedovo. Looks like it was my lucky day, as I had the entire train to myself!

Through immigration no problem (I admit only slight concern due to our “weird” border crossing up by Kirkenes and Murmansk) and off to the lounge. I had lots of time, so I decided to head to the Lufthansa lounge. Got a big “nyet” from the provodnitsa, despite my protestations that it was Star Alliance policy that Star Alliance Gold members on a business class ticket get access to all business lounges, she said Swiss lounge only! I knew better than to argue with a surly provodnitsa!

Off to the Swiss lounge, where it was a very sad array of snacks, beer…and soft drinks. That was it. I had a bit of cash left, and with no exchange posts or plans to return to Russia soon I decided to head to a cafe and see what I could find. Mini bottle of wine and…a champagne flute…and a piece of apple pie. When the lounge isn’t to your standards, make your own lounge!

Soon, it was time to board our non-full flight which was delayed 45 minutes, and head westward!

SWISS flight 1337
Moscow, Domodedovo (DME) to Geneva, Switzerland (GVA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive: 17:55, flight time: 3:55
Airbus A220-100, Registration HB-JBB, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 14,373
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,706,961

Once again, seating is 2 on the left and 3 on the right on this aircraft, which means on the left side in “business” you have an empty next to you, but on the right side only the middle between two people is blocked. Flight wasn’t full, but I enjoyed my seat 1A. Did some plane-spotting on the taxi. First time I’ve ever heard of “Iraero” – looks like they bought some of the old Transaero 777s.

Izhavia Yak-42….now I want to come back just to fly this! Apparently they are headquartered in Izhevsk which is home to the Kalashnikov museum. Seriously, sign me up!

Looks very cold and snowy below on departure from Moscow…

I didn’t expect much of a meal on such a small plane, and was trying to figure out what to do when I landed…except Swiss had a surprise for me. Some mixed nuts/crackers to start…a choice of appetizers…choice of mains…AND choice of desserts. Seriously, on a regional flight on a small plane that seats less than 100?!

Went with the fondue starter, because I figured there was no way that could be any good on a plane. Surprise, it was actually fantastic and delicious. Who would have expected that on a plane!

Then, because the flight attendant recommended it, I went with the veal main course, which was also absolutely delicious.

To finish it off, what was described as a “crumble” and was also amazing. Could have used a little ice cream, but who am I kidding. On such a small plane on such a short flight this meal was absolutely amazing…and as good as many airlines do on much, much longer flights. VERY nicely done, Swiss! Also, let’s not forget, the crew was absolutely amazing, and once they figured out I spoke enough French and German to practice, they mixed it up every time they came around to keep it fun. Seriously one of my best flights in ages – amazing!

Descent into Geneva was much sooner than expected, and despite departing over 45 minutes late we actually landed five minutes early! Holy winds, Batman. Plus, getting in on time allowed us to see the Alps as we landed. Absolutely gorgeous!

Easy arrival, quick train into the city, and checked into my hotel. Chose it for location right next to the train station, and the Hôtel Suisse, Genève met my expectations as conveniently located ,clean, and comfortable. For a three star hotel in a great location with super friendly staff, I highly recommend it if it fits your needs. Plus, look at the view out my window…I knew I’d like this place!

Since I’d already had dinner, and my body clock thought 7pm was the new 9pm, I just wanted a couple of delicious local beers and bed. Au Coin Mousse had been closed for summer holidays on my previous trip, so I was excited to see it open this time. Lots of amazing very local small batch craft beers – I was super happy!

After a super long sleep-in, of course on the way back to the train station I stopped at Starbucks for one last four cheese toastie. Mmmm….

Gasp….what happened to Swiss law and order. My train to the airport was defaced…but colourful!

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the Swiss lounge in Geneva, which is plenty nice, is that between the Newark and Dulles flights it was packed with loud, obnoxious Americans, most porting surly teenagers. It’s funny that it only takes a few weeks away to make something I normally see on a daily basis seem out of place.

United flight 975
Geneva, Switzerland (GVA) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 11:40, Arrive: 15:10, flight time: 9:30
Boeing 767-300, Registration N669UA, Manufactured 1999, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 18,464
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,711,052

So, not too much to say…another completely mediocre United business class flight. I keep hoping I’m going to get one of the 767s with new Polaris seats since more than 50% of them are finally done, but every time I seem to get one of the old ones like clockwork. I will say, however, the food was generally better than average. A few thoughts:

The starter was two rather sad slices of “smoked” salmon and some quinoa salad. Completely forgettable, and in line with the two prawn appetizer. Seriously United, is this the best you can do? The salad, however, was way better than average, so overall, I’ll call the appetizer a wash.

I ordered the shortrib, which I figured would at least be predictable since they’ve been serving it for going on six decades now. However, this flight, apparently the usual neon brown sauce that makes it sort of sweet and BBQ like was totally absent…and it was meh at best.

Cheese course from Europe….better than cheese from the US as always. It’s not because they don’t have good cheese in the US, I suspect United is just too cheap to pay for it. SAD! At least the ice cream was delicious as always!

Giving credit where credit is due, the pre-landing deli plate was tasty. Nice variety of meats, cheeses, and pickles. Overall, nice and light-ish and just what I wanted before landing.

United business class is certainly nothing to write home about, but the seats are adequate (as long as you’re not stuck in snuggle class in the 2-4-2 777 or the “two side” of 2-1-2 business class) and the meals are solid. Wouldn’t be my first choice, but the convenience of nonstop sure can’t be beat!

I thought I’d only be home for three weeks until my next trip, but due to some work drama llama it now looks like nearly nine weeks! What will I do with myself?!

Fortunately, options to Dubai and Berlin in the meantime are already presenting themselves…stay tuned!

Mar 172019
 


Our first several days in Moscow we had seen lots of new sites quite a bit more off the tourist trail, so for the last day and a half we decided to do some of the more traditional touristy things that we had both enjoyed on previous trips. After getting a late start we headed out for a walk, but got distracted when we were both hungry and saw a cool looking craft beer place that looked somewhat promising. Delicious sausages and even better beer – a nice find!

Back into the super-crowded, but somehow always orderly, metro to head down to Red Square. Even food delivery services use the metro in Moscow!

First stop was the GUM department store for one of their delicious pistachio ice cream cones. This has been a tradition on all my trips to Moscow, and a long stop like this wouldn’t have been complete without it!

Like Kirkenes earlier in the trip, GUM seemed to also be in the throes of Chinese New Year with cherry blossoms and Chinese signs everywhere:

GUM on Red Square…since 1893!

A stop in the food store. I love going to grocery stores around the world and getting a sense for how people shop. Now, of course normal Muscovites don’t do their daily shopping at GUM (except maybe some of the higher-up apparatchiks at the Kremlin?) but if you do, plenty of $500+ champagne to choose from!

Or, if vodka is more your think, there’s Oil Brand Vodka….sold in little mini oil drums. A bargain at only $60 per 700ml can!

There were little caviar coolers all over the store, and every time I got near one a very eager sales clerk would dash over to try and help me. Based on the behaviour, I’m pretty sure the caviar sales are on commission. After a few attempts I finally let one of them give me a caviar lecture just so I could get a decent pic!

An ice skating rink had been set up in the middle of Red Square, and I was really wishing I had my skates (and it wasn’t freezing) so I could have a short skate on Red Square. Next year!

The Kremlin in the late afternoon sun.

Saint Basil’s Cathedral – one of those must-take pics in Moscow.

Now, unless you’ve spent a lot of time in Moscow this is an inside joke that probably won’t make sense, but in all my visits I always giggle that in GUM in addition to the public toilets (which you still have to pay for) there’s this sign for a “Historic Toilet.” I decided this was the time to finally see what it was all about!

Price was 100 rubles (about $1.50) instead of the 50 for the regular toilets, and it was certainly much nicer in side. Can’t imagine this is historic from communist days – this must precede the Revolution.

Some shopping for kitschy souvenirs…couldn’t decide between the Putin riding a bear t-shirt and the Trump/Putin “We Love Russia” t-shirt.

There was also this Caviar Russian Big Mac t-shirt….I’m lovin’ it!

One last photo op with Lenin in the metro on the way back to the hotel.

We decided to check out one more KHL night on our last night there, and this time ended up right at centre ice, first row of seats!

The horse mascot was…unusual.

Pre-game lined up for the national anthem. Is this a thing in all countries? I know it is in the US and Canada.

Managed to get a good video of the national anthem. Say what you will, but it’s definitely powerful and patriotic.

…and the game was off. Absolutely terrible seats. Definitely not worth the $15. Total sarcasm.

If the horse wasn’t strange enough, the dancing CSKA star was pretty amazing! Packed stands tonight – probably because it was a Friday game – and the cheerleaders were feeding off the crowd energy!

I figured after two games, I had to pick up a souvenir from a great vacation!

After a great six days in Moscow, it was time to start the trek home, and the end of a fantastic trip. But still one more post coming up…headed home…with an overnight in Geneva.

Mar 152019
 


As regular readers will know, I’ve been to Moscow many times going back all the way to 1988 when it was still the capital of the USSR. When I went back for the first time post-Soviet Union about 10 years ago, it was hard to believe it was the same country…but in some ways it still was. The familiar sites were still there: Red Square, the Kremlin, St. Basil’s, GUM, etc, but all the western stores and hotels made it feel the same…just more globalized.

In the years since then, I’ve traveled all around Moscow, seeing all the major sites many times. This trip, we really wanted to take the advantage of having a long period and explore some of the more out of the way and less usual site, starting with the Central Air Force Museum way out in Monino.

Now, saying “way out” is a bit relative, given the museum is only 40km east of Moscow, but it’s nowhere near a metro or train station, so this means either multiple bus and tram connections or taking a taxi. I checked Yandex and it was only about 1200 rubles (less than $20) so we opted for convenience. Unfortunately, the traffic was brutal that morning and it took us nearly two hours to get to the museum!

The Central Air Force Museum in Monino is absolutely huge, with over 170 aircraft on display, some indoors in two large hangers, and many outdoors. There are also over 100 engines and other aircraft related memorabilia on display. It was an absolute airplane geek’s paradise.

Few words if you’re considering it: the staff speak absolutely no english at all (though I’m guessing if you speak no Russian they can do the basics like toilet, go here, etc) but that said, they were some of the nicest, friendliest, and most helpful people I’ve ever encountered at a tourist venue in Russia. More on that as I go along.

After purchasing our tickets, the first stop was the hanger with older WWI and WWII aircraft. Upon entering, the ticket taker very helpfully explained the layout of the museum to us, and gave us all the details about the layout of the museum. She clearly loved her job, and slowed down her speech speaking very clearly so we could understand every word. I was impressed – it’s not common that non-English speakers in Russia make an attempt to make it easier on tourists, and she gave a super positive first impression!

An Ilyushin 10M from World War II – 1944. The displays (mostly in Russian only, although some had English as well) not only had details on the plane, but on the types of missions they flew, and often about Hero Pilots who had flown them. Really cool!

After spending about 45 minutes wandering the two large indoor hangers, it was outside and maybe a 200 meter walk until we got to the outdoor part of the museum. Sure, it was a little cold, maybe about -15C and super windy, but how bad could/would it be. Wrong thing to question…

After walking the first part of the outdoor section, there was another non-climate controlled hanger with some larger pieces. Like this “Volga Stratospheric Balloon Car.”

Back outside, and an Aeroflot Mi-2 Helicopter:

Myasischev M-17 Stratophera – aka what happens when you forget to de-ice the plane before takeoff…mainly took this photo because I loved the look of the plane with huge sheets of ice hanging off the wings.

Posing in front of a Tupolev Tu-144 aka Concordeski…it was cool to see this given I had just seen another one in Germany the month before. 17 were built in total, two suffered fatal crashes, and only five every saw passenger service. At this point I was absolutely freezing, and it was “take hands out of pockets for two seconds, snap quick pick, and move on.”

Mi-12 Heavy Transport Helicopter…one of the most unique looking aircraft on display :

After walking around outside and freezing (dozens of more photos I didn’t share here) it was time to head inside and check what I expected would be a very dangerous giftshop. But first, I had to take a flight…

Fortunately, the gift shop wasn’t too dangerous, although the proprietor was quite a character. She was extremely chatty, impressed by Americans who spoke Russian, and wanted to make sure she showed us every possible thing in the gift shop, as well as telling us all about upcoming special events at the museum. She even encouraged us to come back in the summer when we might enjoy it even more!

Overall, a super cool experience, and if you’re an aviation geek at all I recommend it very highly!

That night, out for more delicious Georgian food. Starting with a jug of house wine…which apparently is poured into a bowl for drinking! Chug, chug, chug!

Khatchapuri again, this one being way more delicious than the previous restaurant.

We decided to branch out for after-dinner drinks, and found another pretty cool pub. Craft Republic was kind of in the basement of a building, but they had a Pac-Man machine, awesome beer list, and even some Cypress Hill blasting from the speakers!

The next day, it was off to Bunker 42 to see where the Soviet Missile Command would retreat to if Moscow was under nuclear attack in the Cold War days. I’ve been to Canada’s version, the Diefenbunker, but figured the Soviet one being right in the middle of Moscow would be super cool. But first, you walk down 16 flights of stairs to get to the depth which engineers calculated could withstand a direct hit from the earliest nuclear weapons:

At the bottom, through a metal-clad corridor into the bunker itself:

Guard-post at the entrance to the bunker complex:

The Anteroom to Stalin’s personal chambers in the bunker. I was cracking up at all the mannequins:

Da. Comrade Stalin is right upstairs:

Oh, hey Joseph! Ironically, Stalin never even ended up visiting the bunker, as its construction wasn’t complete until after he died. Oh well!

Meeting room for officials in case of nuclear attack. The room was only used one time, however, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A mock-up of the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb…although our guide assured us it was real…

Missile command center…we even got to press the button and then watch a simulation film of missiles screaming towards the US…it was the ONLY time on the tour we weren’t allowed to take pictures…supposedly the consoles were the original ones, although the electronics were not.

After the launch room, we were told to go down the next corridor while the guide closed the doors behind us. Of course, he locked the door, turned out all the lights, and the red lighting came on while air raid sirens blasted. It was a pretty cool thing to see!

Standing outside the Bunker.

We ran into the metro right at rush hour, where it was packed…yet orderly in that way that people looking out for everyone else is. In DC, the metro is a disorderly mess with people stopping at the bottom of escalators, cutting each other off, and generally having no communal motivation at all. There’s a reason why it’s at capacity at a much lower point than Moscow, Tokyo, etc…

Next up our last few days in Moscow!

Mar 152019
 


Woke up, took a look out the window and the sky looked so much bluer today…quick look at the weather app and yup, high pressure and low temps. Around -20 today. Brrrr…but beautiful!

We were ready with the credit cards for breakfast this time, and after some food to fortify it was out to take advantage of the clear skies for just a few more photos before heading to the airport.

On the side of a building near the hotel…Murmansk, hero city!

The large square right outside our hotel still had some festive holiday display out…despite it being February already.

I had to, of course, have a seat on the big sparkly throne! Snow King of Murmansk!

Anyone who’s spent much time in Vegas will totally understand why I had to have this pic with Kitty Glitter 😀

After packing up we called a Yandex Taxi and off to the airport it was. Murmansk airport definitely wasn’t big, this being most of the boarding area. Pretty basic. The lounge was up the stairs, and it was also…extremely basic.

The waiting room for the bus to our flight (no jetways here) was a tiny little basement room that was very Soviet in feel and appearance. It just made it all the more awesome in my eyes. Boarding was right on time, and it was off to the bus!

Aeroflot flight 1321
Murmansk, Russia (MMK) to Moscow, Sheremetyevo (SVO)
Depart 13:10, Arrive: 15:30, flight time: 2:20
Airbus A320, Registration VP-BFG, Manufactured 2017, Seat 7D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 11,711
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,704,299

Absolutely terrified of the horrors that would await me in economy class, my worst fears were confirmed when this dude sat down across the aisle, and started blowing up his inflatable…face rest? Seriously? This is a thing?

Oh look, a two hour flight and they give us food. A+ for the tasty tea, and honestly for such a short flight….a choice of sandwiches (I went cheese) with fruit and sweet was pretty respectful. Points to Aeroflot for a very solid experience. We also had a super friendly crew who loved letting the non-Russians practice their Russian.

Landed right on time at Sheremetyevo, and it was off to the Aeroexpress Train to the city. We had just missed one, so plenty of time to check out the caviar vending machines. Only in Moscow!

Still a bit of time, so I grabbed some Starbucks to wake up. Mr. Trump, is that you?!

Train into the city, checked in at our hotel the Hilton Leningradskaya, then it was almost time to head out again for an awesome cultural experience. While waiting for the tour of the Icebreaker Lenin the day before, we got the idea to check if maybe there would be a hockey game while we were in Moscow. Sure enough, CSKA the Red Army team was playing, and we were able to get awesome and cheap tickets.

When in Moscow to see hockey, you have to have a hot dog and beer…which the saleslady made sure to tell us you could NOT bring to your seat and had to eat there. Well that’s unique!

I mean, a Russian Oil company (RosNeft) blimp flying around the rink to set the mood just made it awesome!

We were seated next to this very colourful superfan…yeah, first row seats for like $15. Absolutely awful!

Faceoffs in the corner were literally right in front of us:

Walked the concourses between periods, and couldn’t resist a picture in front of the CSKA fan banner:

One more faceoff…I think CSKA was up like 4-0 at this point…not a surprise since they were on top of the league with a record of something like 45-10.

We left shortly before the game ended, having had a great time, and one quick shot of the arena from outside. Yup, it’s Moscow and still looks cold…despite being only around -5 here compared to the -20 in Murmansk.

We walked back to the Metro, but then realized how many changes it would take to get where we wanted to go, so yup, called an Uber to take us to the cool craft beer pub we’d found a couple years back. Rule Taproom. Amazing tap list with a super cool atmosphere. Even if we were probably the oldest people there by ten years.

Out of order, but we also had delicious Georgian food…or maybe this was the second day, it sort of blurred together. Delicious Khachapuri with bacon, cheese, and egg. Soooo…good….

With that, off to bed. So much more Moscow to explore! Despite having been here several times, there’s always more to see!