May 202015
 

After landing I grabbed a quick coffee from Starbucks and caught the Finnair bus downtown to the main Helsinki train station. It was quite a bit colder in Helsinki than Doha or Frankfurt (duh) and even with shorts and a hoodie it was a pretty brisk walk in the 10C temps to my hotel. At least it was sunny!

I was staying at the Hotel Kämp, where I’ve stayed on all my previous visits to Helsinki. They’re one of my favourite Starwood properties, and usually deliver the perfect balance of polite, formal service along with being non-stuffy. Unfortunately, today I had to wait over 10 minutes to check in, because a large group of Chinese tourists were arguing and all trying to guarantee rooms on the same floor. Ugh!

The wait was well worth it, however, because I ended up with a pretty sweet suite upgrade:

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It was just a large studio suite, but had a great view out onto the Espalande, which would have been nice had it stayed sunny more than 15 minutes, lol.

Spent the next couple of days with friends, touring around the city a bit and just hanging out. Plus, lots of sauna time…obligatory in Finland! Spent an afternoon at Suomenlinna, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was build in the mid 1700s as a protection from Russian invasion (pretty much a common theme whenever discussing the Finnish military). Unfortunately, the fort fell to the Russians in 1808, and Finland was occupied the next year.

Currently, the island has many year around inhabitants, as well as being crawling with tourists and daytrippers. Obligatory shot sitting on one of the cannons on the island:

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After a coffee, headed back into Helsinki for a quick snack at the Karl Fazer Cafe. Yum! Finns consume more coffee per capita than any other country, which probably explains why I feel so at home here:

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Time in Helsinki was much too short, and soon it was back to the airport for departure. The bus was on time and quick, and soon I was through immigration and security and into the Finnair lounge, which is divided into two parts. There’s a business class lounge, and there there’s a Premium Lounge for OneWorld Emerald and Sapphire members.

I got to use the premium lounge, which had a rather tasty spread:

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You have to love a lounge with pickled herring and salmon!

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…and of course champers!

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Delicious white chocolate mousse to finish it off:

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After a tasty lunch, it was time for the best part of the lounge…the sauna! The Finnair lounge is (probably) the only lounge in the world with an authentic sauna in it, and what better way to spend time before your flight than getting naked and sweaty with your fellow passengers. Of course, Finnair “encourages” the use of towels in the sauna, but that’s something no self-respecting Finn would ever do.

Just, um, make sure that the lock on your locker works before you lock your clothes in it and find after the sauna you can’t get them out. That might make for an awkward few minutes having to hunt down a staff member to unlock it…

Aaaaaannnyways, moving on to the gate, it was time to board!

Finnair flight 5
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to New York, Kennedy (JFK)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 15:50 Flight Time 8:40
Airbus A330-300, Registration OH-LTS, Manufactured 2009, Seat 2A

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Finnair uses the same seats that Brussels Airlines uses, meaning there are good seats, great seats, and not great seats. On the left side, the rows alternate with two not great seats (window has to climb over aisle to get out) with a row of great seat…one seat with two huge tables on either side. In the middle, all rows have two seats, but all have aisle access, so they’re ok. Then, on the far right, it’s all solo seats, which are also pretty good. So, avoid at all costs rows 1, 3, and 5 on the left side. They’re far inferior. I had 2A, so was all set!

Funky Finnish design pillow, amenity kit, and bubbles:

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Today’s menu:

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Champers, with strange snack mix of asparagus and soy sauce marinated fish…it was actually really tasty. This is also a good time to mention how much I love Finnair’s glassware!

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Salmon and potato salad with Finnish rye bread. Taste, but tiny portions:

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The lamb and red wine sauce with barley risotto, again, delicious!

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Cheese and ice cream for dessert. Unfortunately, the ice cream was super mushy. Boo!

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I may have had a second go at the cheese…

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Oh hai Iceland aka country #196…see you in just over a year finally!

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Dozed a bit and watched lots of tv on the flight, and soon it was time for a pre-landing snack. Smoked salmon and egg salad, with capers. Very light, but still tasty. The fruit, however, was even below United’s usual low standards. Everything else was super fresh and tasty (albeit small portions) but the fruit was just sad. I suppose the portions also explain why people aren’t America-sized!

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Dessert, a Finnish cinnamon bun. Not nearly as sweet as their American counterpart, and not slathered in cream cheese frosting, but you can actually taste the cinnamon…shocking!

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Landed at JFK about five minutes early, and after the gate agent came on the plane, she paged me asking me to identify myself at the door. Ut oh, this isn’t good. I was praying it meant they’d put me on the American nonstop from JFK to DCA which left one hour after hour arrival (thus making it technically an illegal connection) but no, she was there to be my escort! I’d booked a 3:10 JFK-LaGuardia transit, which I guess they thought was really tight, and so being in business class I got my own escort to immigration, through immigration, and to my onward transit. Absolutely stunning service by Finnair on arrival!

With Global Entry immigration was a breeze, and then it was off to find transit. I’d planned to take a taxi at around $40-50, but my escort convinced me to take the bus. For about $13 I wasn’t going to argue…but then found it it would be a 30 minute wait. I decided to do it anyways and save $30 or more, but was seriously having trouble figuring out when the bus left. It didn’t help that the ticket salesman spoke less English than anyone I’d encountered on this entire trip. Ugh! Anyways, the bus finally came, they crammed us in, and we were off to face the nightmare known as the Van Wyck Expressway at rush hour. Fortunately, it wasn’t too bad, and we made it to LaGuardia about 90 minutes before my 7pm flight. Security was a breeze with PreCheck, and just as I cleared it…I got a phone call.

My 7p shuttle to DCA was delayed until 7:40p now. Since it was about 5:40 at this point, I rushed over to the gate for the 6pm shuttle, which coincidentally was delayed until 6:45. “No, it’s full, you can’t standby” was the extremely rude reply I received. Then, I noticed the 5pm shuttle was still hanging around too…maybe I can get on that? “Go to the customer service counter. We’re closed here.” Ugh. Service.

With several other grouchy passengers I reluctantly headed to the customer service counter. We waited nearly 45 minutes, and then got the update. The 5pm wasn’t actually full at all, and if I didn’t mind sitting in economy I could get on it…when and if it left. It was around 6:30 at this point, so I asked about the 6pm. “It’s due to leave DC any moment, and yeah, plenty of seats on it…should leave here around 730p.” I figured I’d wait the extra 45 and be comfortable, and moved to the 6pm.

I waited it out in the AAdmirals Club. Not sure if I was technically allowed entry since I was connecting from Finnair business, but the agents just smiled and let me in. Two glasses of wine? To quote the bartender: “you look like you could use a double.” Hah!

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So, at the end of the day:

The 5pm shuttle left around 6:45, and I could have taken it on coach and gotten home 15 min earlier than expected.

The 6pm shuttle (with me) left at 8:00 and I was about one hour behind schedule.

The 7pm shuttle which I was initially booked on…ended up leaving around 9:30. I guess I made a pretty good call!

American Airlines flight 2145 (operated by US Airways)
New York, LaGuardia (LGA) to Washington, National (DCA)
Depart 18:00, Arrive 19:23 Flight Time 1:23 (2 hour delay)
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration N956UW, Manufactured 2008, Seat 2A

Plane go up, plane go down. Enough time for a “big boy glass” of wine, some biscotti, and about 30 minutes of Wifi enroute:

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On approach to DCA:

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…and with that, the trip was over. Felt like a long whirlwind trip to only check off one country, but with the extra time in Doha and Helsinki it was well worth it! It’ll likely be a few months before my next trip report, but you never know…

May 182015
 

Quick check out from the hotel, and used Uber to call a ride to the airport. In order to avoid having any leftover Qatari Rials I used the rest of the cash I had to pay down the hotel bill a bit and figured the ride would go on my card. The driver had a little trouble finding me at the W (he thought I was at the next hotel over) but once that was settled it was a quick ride to the airport. It turned out to be slightly more expensive than the cab to the hotel had been (by less than $2) so it was a good decision in order to minimize having cash leftover.

I was already checked in for my flight (they’d done it the night before in Asmara) so was able to skip check-in and go straight through to security. Qatar has a nicely sectioned off part of the check-in area for business and first passengers, complete with its own passport control and security. Since I already had my boarding pass I was able to get through immigration and then security in a total of maybe five minutes. Less than five minutes from curb to terminal is pretty impressive.

Of course, evil teddy was still waiting for me when I arrived:

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Having not had much lunch, I decided to have a “small” dinner at the sit down restaurant in the lounge. There’s a large buffet, and this menu to order from:

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I ordered the lamb tagine, and in the meantime I had a glass of Veuve Cliquot Rosé and some small salads from the buffet. Duck, crab and chicken salads. Quite tasty:

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The lamb arrived shortly, and was quite tasty:

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…and a couple of small cakes and pastries to finish it off:

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It was still nearly three hours until flight time, so I lounged around, caught up on a bit of blogging and enjoyed a bit more champagne. Soon, it was time to head to the gate where the big excitement was about to begin…a ride on the A350. View from the gate:

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Advert in the gate area:

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Boarded about 30 minutes prior to departure time, and was the first on board to get some pics.

Qatar Airways flight 69
Doha, Qatar (DOH) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 01:20, Arrive 06:55 Flight Time 6:35
Airbus A350-900, Registration A7-ALA, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2K

First thought on the cabin…the front few rows were pretty full, but only two people in the whole back cabin. Had I known it was an “open” cabin with no real bulkhead between the two sections, I definitely would have booked a seat further back, but that said, 2K was a great seat:

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Fancy new electronic signs with rotating text. Too bad the time was off by a few hours:

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Very few people were planning on eating, but for the sake of the review, who was I to say no. Amuse bouche of “mushroom and rice fritters with mild chili and garlic sauce” to start. Extremely bland, and just had a small taste:

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Next up was the roasted bell pepper and tomato soup with saffron and mint yoghurt with garlic croutons. Extremely tasty, I could have had a couple of bowls!

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The “classic Arabic mezze” appetizer which was described as “hummus, tabouleh and baba ghanoush served with arabic bread.” Again, extremely bland and only had a few small nibbles, except for the hummus which was pretty tasty.

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For a main, I went with the “chicken machboos with rice – golden fried onions and toasted nuts.” Now, the presentation needs some serious work because it looks like a cross between vomit and cat food, but it was extremely tasty!

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Then, disaster struck. I asked for the cheese plate and “I’m sorry, we’ve run out of those.” Wait, there’s 10 empty seats…how could you have run out of cheese? Do they not at least cater one for each passenger? She wouldn’t tell me what was up, so either the crew was hoarding it for themselves (unlikely), some passengers asked for multiples and got it (possible – lots of people seemed to be having cheese/dessert and wine then passing out), or they just don’t cater enough for all the passengers. Either way, extremely poor service.

So, I settled for the “Ladurée Plaisir Sucré” which was amazing. Described as “dacquoise cake with crushed hazelnuts, crispy praline, milk chocolate thin leaves, chocolate ganache, milk chocolate chantilly whipped cream.” It was amazing. I wanted another, but sleep won out…

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…and back went the seat, and I got a solid four hours of sleep. Unlike the 787, where I’ve had the best sleep I ever had on a plane multiple times, the A350 seemed like any other plane in this regard. The seat was plenty comfortable, but I didn’t wake up feeling hydrated and refreshed like I did on the 787. So that said, it was quite a nice flight, but stopped short of the “omg this is amazing and I have to fly this plane again” experience.

Like my other flights the crew was solid, and responded to the call button quickly and curteously, but made no effort to anticipate passenger needs. Maybe this is a European/Asian thing, but on Qatar they seem to wait until you ask for something to provide great service. Not bad, just different. However, if you’re the type who’s shy to use the call button, you might want to avoid Qatar.

Pic of our plane in the very early morning sun upon deplaning:

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First stop (without thinking) was outside immigration to Starbucks to get some coffee and attempt to come back to life. But, like I said, not thinking because I was planning to use the Z-Gates Senator lounge to grab a shower, which meant going back outside immigration. Not bright, but at least they didn’t question it. After a shower and catching up on emails, it was time to find Finnair. Unfortunately, they left from Terminal 2, which I can’t remember the last time I’ve used that in Frankfurt. Must have been way back in the NWA days when they flew there.

Took the train (outside Schengen still) to Terminal 2, cleared security, and found Terminal 2. Most flights from Terminal 2 area outside the Schengen, so upon arriving there I used the JAL lounge for another hour before trying to find the gate. The JAL lounge was nothing special, with the usual non-hub offerings of drinks, snacks, etc. It was a solid selection and reasonably comfortable, although there seemed to be an extreme lack of power outlets in the lounge. But hey, sushi and sake in Frankfurt. From Qatar, to Germany, to what felt like Japan, and onto Finland…it was becoming quite the multicultural day!

Finally found the way to it, and cleared immigration…which dumped you back outside security. Got a strange look from immigration, and he just crossed out my exit stamp instead of re-stamping me in. Ugh! I guess it makes sense, but had to re-clear security and then finally found the Finnair gate, which was of course a bus gate. Proletarian “all in one” bus mixed with economy and business, and soon it was time for the delights of European business class…standard coach seats with the middle blocked.

Finnair Airways flight 822
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Helsinki, Finland (HEL)
Depart 11:45, Arrive 15:10 Flight Time 2:25
Airbus A319, Registration OH-LVH, Manufactured 2000, Seat 3C

The seats may have sucked, but hey…amazing glassware and cute little airplane crackers:

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Proper menus:

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Tasty reindeer starter, relatively tasty chicken masala, and a really lame pre-packaged sweet for dessert. Overall, solid service and friendly crew, so can’t ask for too much more on a short inner-Europe flight:

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Landed in Helsinki right on time, arriving of course at a bus “gate” and was quickly bussed to the terminal to continue the adventure…

Apr 282015
 

So, I posted a couple months back about Eritrea. How I waited eight weeks and still didn’t have a visa, and then the day after I got home from the trip…the visa on arrival was approved. Initially, I thought I only had 30 days to use it, but then when I got the scanned copy I saw it was valid for three months…which was nice, because I really didn’t have the energy to turn right back around and head back to Africa.

Played around with routings for a bit, and then US Airways was merged into the American program, meaning I had plenty of miles to make things work. To top it off, I had to learn about OneWorld, and how to book OneWorld awards which was a new one for me. One cool thing is that business class with US Airways to North Africa/Middle East was only 100,000 miles return. What a bargain!

One small catch: US Airways doesn’t recognize that Eritrea exists. At all. They wouldn’t let you book a ticket to Asmara. So, I did the next best thing and looked for Doha. Why Doha? Because another learning experience I had is that BA awards are based on distance, and I could get roundtrip from Doha to Asmara with BA Avios for 30,000 miles in business…and those miles could easily be transfered from American Express Membership Rewards…which happened instantly.

So, getting to Doha would be easy…nonstop from DC/Dulles to Doha on Qatar Airways was available on the way I wanted, so that was all sorted and easy. But getting home, there was just nothing. I searched everything across the atlantic in a three day span…and still nothing. Then…I thought…what about Finnair, aren’t they in OneWorld? They are…and I found Helsinki to JFK on the last day that would work. Now, getting from Doha to Helsinki was the challenge…wait, isn’t Qatar flying the new A350 from Doha to Frankfurt? I’m sure it’s not available…wait…it is!

I absolutely love Helsinki, so sure, it’s longer than Doha-DC, but in exchange I get not only the A350 but also a couple of days in Helsinki in Spring. Not complaining at all!

So, I mailed the tour company back. “We do not know…It has been almost three months, they might be suspicious of such an old visa on arrival. We cannot guarantee your entrance.” Well, I have the printout, and that should get me on the plane, so let’s hope this all works out as it’s under a week away now. I’ll do my best to update in more or less real time (except Eritrea, since from what I understand internet is miserable there) but if not…be patient. I’m having shoulder surgery the day after I get back which is going to make one-handed typing for the next month very, very slow going!

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