Sep 282017
 

Fortunately, there was no line at all at immigration tonight, and I was through in just a few minutes. I had pre-arranged a driver with my hotel (always a great idea in Delhi given the general chaos that is the arrivals area) and soon we were on the way to the car. Hit the 1000 degrees and 1000 percent humidity outside and wilted as usual, as we fought our way through the crowds to the parked car:

Took about 15-20 minutes to get to the hotel, and went with my usual choice the ITC Maurya. I’ve stayed here probably a dozen times, and it’s always a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, upon entering the lobby the entire thing was under construction. This in itself wouldn’t be a problem, but the new check-in area was apparently two tables by the elevators where a couple of agents were struggling with a queue of over twenty people.

I asked the bellman nicely if they could do priority checkin for Platinum members, and was met with a negative, as they tended to more than a dozen members of an Air France crew all checking out and having to settle the cash advances the hotel had given them. I get why airline contracts are helpful to hotels, but given their significantly discounted rates, and knowing there was construction, you would think there was something they could have done for a platinum guest so I didn’t have to wait over 20 minutes to check in. Very bad first impression.

Once I was checked in, it was a huge rush, here’s your key, ok thanks bye, someone will show you to your room. Ugh. Got to the room, and it was super hot and stuffy. Turned on the air conditioning, and even after running for five minutes it sounded like a jet engine. While waiting to see if it would cool/quiet down, I decided to at least get a shower.

Apparently, this shower was made for much smaller people….

The maintenance condition of this room was appalling.

Called to the front desk to ask for a new room, and they told me “wait a bit longer, it takes time.” Um, it sounds like a jet engine no matter how cold it gets. I want a new room.” “We will see what we can do.” Decided not to wait, went to the front “desk,” to the front of the line and asked for the manager. Shockingly, there was no manager available, but a lady directing traffic in the lobby (not sure her actual job, seemed like a concierge or something) took note of the problem, asked me to have a seat while she sorted it.

In fairness, 10 minutes later I had a room that was much better, but combined with the long checkin and changing rooms I’d lost an hour of sleep. Not a huge deal, but considering I was already going to get around six hours best case, I was pretty upset to have lost an hour.

I feel bad leaving such a negative review of this property, because on all previous stays it really was rather lovely and I enjoyed the stay overall. However, this time, they really dropped the ball.

Anyways, I slept reasonably well, and the next morning, of course, my pre-arranged transfer to the airport wasn’t ready and it took nearly 30 minutes even after I confirmed it the night before AND with a call right when I woke up. Overall, a super disappointing experience.



Got to the airport, nobody in line at the Uzbekistan Airways checkin area, and the agents seemed genuinely annoyed that I cared what seat they put me in. They were even more annoyed when I cared what seat I was on on my connecting flight. Oh well, given both flights were full I was very glad I persisted and got the seats I wanted, since there seemed to be no way to assign them in advance, despite numerous calls and emails to all their global offices.

Since I was cutting it close, I opted to skip the lounge today (nothing to write home about in Delhi) and grab some Starbucks to wake me up. Best part of Delhi Airport is the Starbucks in the gate area…complete with heavily armed guard. Hands off my coffee!

Sitting in the gate area, just 20 minutes prior to departure, there were only like 15 people in the entire gate area. Worried I had missed the flight, I asked the gate agent, and she informed me there were only 22 people from Delhi, but the plane would be full from Amritsar. Wow.

Boarding was 10 minutes prior to scheduled departure, but no problem when there’s only 22 people to board!

Uzbekistan Airways flight 422
Delhi, India (DEL) to Amritsar, India (ATQ)
Depart 8:50, Arrive 10:00, Flight Time: 1:10
Boeing 767-300, Registration UK67006, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 95,942
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,472,919

First row centre bulkhead. Flight attendant saw me take this pic, and very sternly wagged her finger at me. Apparently, Uzbekistan Airways still has an incredibly strict no photos policy. How very….quaint.

Didn’t stop me from snapping a few ones on the down low. Plane was in a 2-1-2 config.

As soon as we were 10 minutes in the air, “snack” and water or juice was offered. Normally I would have steered way clear of the cheese sandwich, but couldn’t really resist it with ketchup?!

About 30 minutes prior to landing, the pilot asked the flight attendants to be seated, because we were like to encounter some turbulence. What followed was without a doubt the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced in flight – especially in a widebody – we were thrown from side to side, several sharp drops in altitude, audible screams from the few people on board, and I was honestly making headlines in my head “22 whole passengers killed on 767 jumbo jet in monsoon.”

But, just like that, we were maybe 2-3 minutes from landing, and it was all smooth again. Literally terrifying. As soon as we landed, it was a bit more clear. There was a torrential downpour in Amritsar, and the monsoon was clearly in full effect.

Boarding was via stairs, and I have to admit, it was kind of entertaining watching 200+ completely soaked people stagger aboard. Well over 90% of the passengers were Sikhs, and I’ve heard Uzbekistan Airways does quite a business connecting this flight to their flight to Manchester. If today’s load was any indicator, they do quite well. Seemed to be a lot of families with small children who had gone home to visit relatives, now returning after the end of summer break.

Even with the monsoon and full plane, we were boarded on time, and ready to go. I admit I was terrified how bad the turbulence would be on climb out.

Uzbekistan Airways flight 422
Amritsar, India (ATQ) to Tashkent, Uzbekistan (TAS)
Depart 10:55, Arrive 13:00, Flight Time: 2:35
Boeing 767-300, Registration UK67006, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 96,669
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,473,646

Fortunately, the turbulence, while still pretty heavy, was nowhere near as bad, and well within “ugh” limits, and we were clear of it less than 10 minutes after takeoff. That means it’s time to eat!

Dish of peanuts, “meat”, some veg, bread (on a plate), and some sort of potato or cabbage salad in heavy mayo. Wasn’t really the best meal, but I wasn’t all that hungry anyways, so picked at the parts that were interesting and that was plenty. It was a relatively short flight, so not a huge deal. Kudos to them for at least offering a hot meal on such a short flight.

After deplaning, there was an agent yelling “connections” and then repeating in Russian. She asked me (in Russian) connection? Yes? Where to? I asked her why she asked in Russian and not English, and she said “because you don’t look Indian.” Hah, I guess that’s something?



Apparently, I was the only person connecting in business class today, which seemed kind of odd. I’m not sure where all the Sikhs were going in that case, unless the plane continued straight on to Birmingham and they just went through security and then right back on. Which is entirely possible.

That meant, even with security and the time before boarding the next flight, I would have over five hours to kill in the Uzbekistan Airways lounge. At this point, my cell phone still hadn’t gotten data service, and I was worried it was going to be a very, very long five hours. This was confirmed when I found out that the wifi in the lounge was down.

There were a few power outlets around the lounge so that was good at least, and it was rather spacious and a reasonably cool temperature…especially since I found an AC unit near the wall to sit by.

Quite spacious:

Snacks. I wasn’t thrilled at first, but the small meat-stuffed pastries were kind of addicting, especially after popping them in the microwave for a bit. Yes, there was a microwave in the lounge.

Chatted with the agents a little bit, who were the same ones who had been handling transit earlier. After chatting a bit, it was clear the other reason they spoke Russian with me – they were far more comfortable in it than they were in English. She tried English once to ask about my tattoos, but got flustered quite quickly and switched back to Russian – after which point we had several nice small chats over the next five hours.

The lounge remained empty the entire time, except this fashionista who came in about an hour before I left, wearing  a dress from the 2017 Trump/Putin Prison Collection. She was also fond of the little meat pies.

With about an hour to go, I decided to ask what I might have to drink instead of Fanta. Oh, there’s wine…white or red? Both were from the “Georgian Patio” winery, and had the high endorsement of “wine for restaurants.” Hmmm, yup, tasted about as good as you’d expect. I had a second glass to make sure, however. Science.

Boarding was pretty much on time, and our plane was at a remote stand. The minute I took my phone out of my pocket to try and get a picture of it, I was met with a chorus of NYET! from the several armed police “guarding” the plane. Ugh, ok. I have to say the 787 looked supremely sexy in the green, yellow, and blue of Uzbekistan Airways at sunset, however. You’ll have to take my word for it.

Uzbekistan Airways flight 601
Tashkent, Uzbekistan (TAS) to Moscow, Domodedevo, Russia (DME)
Depart 19:00, Arrive 21:15, Flight Time: 4:15
Boeing 787-8, Registration UK78701, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 98,391
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,475,368

I did, during pre departure beverages, manage to snap a shot of the seats on the 787. Not bad. Not sure I would want these all the way to New York from Tashkent, but they were pretty comfortable, and the nice divider in the middle prevented them from being footsie seats.

Sneak peak across the aisle:

…and the other side.

Laminated menus!

Wow, now that’s what I call a meal. Just kidding…this is just the appetizers. Seriously! The red wine on board was marginally better. We had multiple kinds of bread on a plate. Upgrade from peanuts to cashews this flight. A nice little cucumber/tomato/cheese salad. Cheese plate. Meat plate. Fish plate. Whew.

I went with the beet stroganoff for a main, which was pretty tasty….I mean, it wasn’t gourmet cuisine, but overall I liked the regional flair to the meal, and nobody is going to go hungry on this flight. I fear how much they must serve all the way to New York!

I was pretty full, but kept the plates that could reasonably be considered desert to munch on with a bit more wine while I watched some movies:

Overall, I have to say Uzbekistan Airways exceeded my expectations. I had set them really low, but they exceeded them by leaps and bounds. I mean, the next cheapest option was $700 more…AND a redeye, but it was nonstop and avoided the six hours in Tashkent.

I chose Uzbekistan to save money, to save sleep, and for the novelty factor, and they definitely hit a home run with these flights. They have a way to go to be a serious international competitor, but for the price they were a fantastic option and I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again.

Now, it’s time to take a break for a few days from flying, and take some trains!

Aug 092016
 

Up early, enjoyed a bit of breakfast (and of course some Starbucks) and checked out of the hotel. The St Regis Mumbai was absolutely fantastic, went above and beyond for me as a platinum member. However, when checking out, like at many hotels, they asked if I wanted to be billed in my card’s home currency (US Dollars) or Indian Rupees. I replied rupees, and received a receipt showing the same. However, the charge posted in US dollars, with an exchange rate nearly 7% off from the market rate. This has taken a chain of 22 emails to correct, and has marred my impression of this property. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but correcting something so easy shouldn’t take such effort. Sure, it was only about $35 on the exchange loss, but it’s also the principle. Now, waiting to see if they’ll comp some Starpoints for the annoyance of 22 emails…

Decided to take Uber Black to the airport, and the nearly 40 minute drive was very comfortable with a friendly driver and was less than $8. Definitely recommended as a way to get to the airport. Fortunately, traffic wasn’t awful and made it to the airport ahead of plan. Picked up my boarding pass from Jet Airways and headed to immigration where things got…interesting.

Upon not being able to find my visa, the immigration agent asked how they had let me in the country. I explained that on previous trips I was told I didn’t need to show the visa because it is in the computer, and how upon showing a digital copy this time I was allowed in. I also mentioned that I will of course carry the physical visa on future trips just in case it is required. He wasn’t going to have any of this, and escorted me to the supervisor’s room, who was equally incredulous, and told me there was no way they could stamp me out of India without seeing the physical visa.

Eventually, I asked: “ok, so you won’t let me out of India because I don’t have the visa, and without leaving India, there’s no way I’ll ever be able to physically produce the visa. So…I assume you’ll be granting me a permanent resident visa since you’ll refusing to ever let me leave the country?” This seemed to confuse them even further as the mental gymnastics became more and more difficult. They couldn’t make logical sense of what they should do next…so eventually relented and told me to make sure to have the visa next time!

That sorted, I had time to stop by the lounge very briefly for a bit of planespotting and a glass of wine. The lounge was rather nice, and had waiter service at the tables. They were probably some of the friendliest lounge waiters I’ve ever encountered too and seemed very disappointed when I declined a refill of the already generous pour of wine:

IMG_2411

Off to the gate, where the crew was just arriving 30 minutes before departure. Looked like we would depart slightly late…

Jet Airways flight 60
Mumbai, India (BOM) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 18:50, Flight Time: 4:30
Boeing 737-800, Registration VT-JGV, Manufactured 2007, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 125,356
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,314,493

I had actually purchased the last seat in business, and coach was full as well. It would be a very packed flight to Bangkok. Printed menu for the flight:

IMG_2414

IMG_2415

IMG_2416

No pre-departure beverages were offered, but nuts in perhaps the most festive bowl I’ve ever seen in 737 business class and wine were offered shortly after takeoff:

IMG_2418

The salad was quite unusual with beans and onions in it, but rather tasty. Nice mini salt and pepper shakers too:

IMG_2421

IMG_2422

Went with the Murgh main (since we got the lunch menu) and it was extremely tasty, and served with plentiful sides:

IMG_2423

Cheese plate was decent, but I really wonder what the point of that sad little piece of lettuce is:

IMG_2424

Finally an orange yogurt mousse for desert, which was very tasty:

IMG_2425

Other than that, a nice uneventful flight. There was hourly water service after lunch, and flight attendants were happy to help whenever asked. Overall, it left me with a good impression of Jet Airways as a very solid choice for a short regional flight. It’s too bad they don’t do much longhaul any more, as it looks like they would likely offer a competitive product based on this short flight.

Relatively short walk to immigration upon arrival in Bangkok, and decided to use the AOT taxi service to get to the hotel. I hadn’t been to Bangkok in over 5 years until this past year, and now this was my fifth time this year. It’s funny how things seem to go in cycles! No traffic at all, and arrived at the W Bangkok in a bit under 30 minutes. I had had several good stays here earlier in the year, and was looking forward to this one. No upgrade this time because they were full, and when I arrived in the room it was extremely warm:

IMG_2427

While the room cooled down, I headed out to meet a friend for a delicious dinner of extra spicy pad thai:

IMG_2429

…finished with even tastier mango and sticky rice:

IMG_2430

Unfortunately, when I got back to the room it was still 23.8 degrees, and wouldn’t cool further. I went to the front desk and asked to be moved, and was informed they were completely sold out at that would not be possible. They did send maintenance to the room to look, but they informed me it was working just fine. Based on the fact that all my previous rooms in this hotel had been much cooler, that couldn’t be the case. It was 23.2 by the time I woke up – barely cool enough for sleeping – so clearly something was wrong.

At least I had the amazing breakfast buffet to look forward to. On all my previous stays the breakfast room had been empty to maybe 50% full, but for some reason this time the place was absolutely packed, with most of the guests speaking Mandarin. It appeared there was a large group/package tour staying in the hotel, and it was not a group of frequent international travelers. Witnessed people using hands to pick from the buffet, children running around, and one man spitting on the floor in the middle of the buffet area. I pointed it out to the staff, who in the usual Thai fashion smiled and said they would see what they could do…but nothing was done.

Added to this, the quality of the buffet was also down significantly in just the past few months. Very limited fresh fruit (which had been plentiful before) and a reduced variety of dishes overall. Not sure if this was due to the large package group picking things over, or the hotel actually cutting back, but it was a major disappointment when I used to consider this the world’s best breakfast buffet. Oh well, things change… I’m not sure if I’ll choose the W again my next trip, as Bangkok has so many fantastic hotels that I don’t see any reason to stay in one that is disappointing in any way.

…that was easily fixed by grabbing Starbucks next door with some work colleaguers, where apparently asking my name is more difficult than just writing the Under Armour logo on my cup to identify me:

IMG_2432

After coffee my all too short stop in Bangkok was over, and it was time to head on to Malaysia to begin the trek home…

Aug 072016
 

Since I hadn’t heard anything from Etihad four hours before my flight, I called to check the status of my car transfer. Since the booking was made less than 24 hours before flight, I was advise they couldn’t guarantee the car, but would see what they could do. When I called at 9am, they assured me that yes, the transfer was scheduled and would be there at 10am. 10am came and went. 10:15 came and went. At 10:30 I gave up and called an Uber to the airport.

Arrived in the first class check-in area, and first thing I asked was what had happened with the transfer…she made some phone calls, and “yes, the car came to get you…at 6am.” Um, seriously? You sent a car for me eight hours before the flight? First off, it’s not true because they would never send a car that early, and second, why did they then tell me 10a when I called? Complete confusion on the part of Etihad, and makes three for three the amount of times they failed to show up to take me to the airport as promised. Completely unreliable.

Anyways, moving onto check-in, the agent starts paging through my passport. “Where’s your visa?” I have a ten year multi-entry India visa, in another passport. The agent presses on “but I need to see it.” Now, time for a bit of background. A few trips ago, in Delhi, the agent told me “why are you showing me that? I can see your visa in the computer, there’s no need to bring it and show it every time.” So, I haven’t My last three trips to India, no questions at all on the visa. But, this agent wouldn’t budge. To the point she had supervisors calling the Indian Embassy. They were standing firm. No visa, no checkin, no flight.

So, I asked her “if I’m transiting, I don’t need a visa. If I buy an immediate ticket out of India will you check me in.” Her: “no, because we know you will attempt to stay in India.” But yes, I will attempt, and if they tell me no, I’ll go right back out on the connecting flight. I even bought a one-way on Air India from Mumbai to Colombo, departing three hours after arriving in Mumbai. She wouldn’t budge. “Ok, I will go to Colombo, not try and go to immigration, and will sort out the visa from there.” Exasperated, she finally gave up, and agreed to check me in.

This had wasted nearly two hours of time, which meant I only had 15 minutes to enjoy and check out the new Etihad First lounge. I will say, this is the one part of the Etihad ground experience that was amazing. I had a perfectly lovely former flight attendant dedicated to helping me out, and she saw to it that I got some champagne, pronto:

IMG_2345

Bar/lounge area of the Etihad First lounge:

IMG_2346

I shared my check-in experience with her, along with my poor experiences with the limo service and in flight service where they frequently run out of food options. She was very pleasant and genuine, and it was nice to finally be able to experience a bit of actual service with a human touch on Etihad. Of course, there was also a huge downside to a lounge. There was a group of about 10 Etihad staff having a rather loud meeting in the lounge – seems an extremely weird place to be having a meeting but it appeared to be some kind of training. Mid-day was a rather quiet time in the lounge so maybe it was the best time if they had to do it, but still just seemed a bit…unclassy.

Rather long walk to my gate, the very last one in the terminal, and soon it was time to forget all the stress and enjoy the A380 experience. Of course, I was asked to show the visa again at the gate, but showing the connecting ticket was just fine for them. The boarding area was an absolute madhouse, and boarding had already begun when I reached the gate. The agent was fantastic when he saw I was in first, and actually escorted me down the long jetway, actually pushing other passengers waiting in a long line in the jetway aside so I could go past.

Etihad flight 204
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH) to Mumbai, India (BOM)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 19:20, Flight Time: 3:40
Airbus A380, Registration A6-APE, Manufactured 2015, Seat 3K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 123,471
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,312,608

Very nice welcome aboard with champagne, dates and arabic coffee:

IMG_2348

Forget the stress of the whole limo/check-in drama with Etihad, and enjoy relaxing in the A380 apartment:

IMG_2349

Unfortunately I didn’t have all this space for a 14 hour flight to Melbourne as planned, but 2.5 hours to Mumbai would have to do:

IMG_2352

Full menu for the short flight:

IMG_2353

IMG_2354

IMG_2355

Our captain today was SMOKIN’ hot!

IMG_2357

Shortly after take off cashews, mixed nuts, olives, and more champagne:

IMG_2363

IMG_2364

Arabic mezze to start…relatively tasty:

IMG_2365

By this point, the WiFi was also up and running, and I sent some emails back home to see if I could at least get a scan of my visa. Thankfully, less than 30 minutes later, a friend had found the passport for me and taken a shot of the visa, so at least I had photographic proof of the visa, if not the actual visa. Oh, and if you think I’m bad with all the photos, the guy in the apartment across the aisle had a go-pro set up to record his entire experience, lol:

IMG_2366

Since it was so good the last time I’d had it, I got the biryani for a main and the in-flight chef insisted on making me a salad to go with it. Delicious once again:

IMG_2368

Fortunately, this time, they didn’t run out of cheese, although the selection was quite on the disappointing side:

IMG_2370

Couldn’t resist a bit of ice cream and arabic sweets…were also super tasty. Not sure what flavour the ice cream was, but tasted a bit like speculaas and was super tasty:

IMG_2371

Panoramic shot of the suite:

IMG_2373

Unfortunately the flight went by all too quicky and we landed in a very stormy and rainy Mumbai as the sun was setting. See, when I woke up and decided going to Mumbai sounded like fun I’d forgotten to do any research and had arrived in the middle of monsoon season! Our A380 from the gate upon arrival:

IMG_2374

Headed down to immigration where the business class line was pretty short, and handed him my passport…and waited. Eventually, he asked, where is your visa? I told him I have a 10 year visa in another passport, and no I don’t have it with me, it should be in your computer. He seemed completely confused…either Mumbai does things differently or something has changed. So, I offered him my phone with the picture of the visa, oh piece of cake, that’s plenty, here you go, welcome to India!

IMG_2375

Even a bigger surprise, when I left the airport, the Etihad drivers were all there…but none for me. So I asked one of them if there were any other drivers…he asked my name and I told him. “OH! FIRST CLASS!” were his next words and he called another driver who was apparently waiting right outside for me. Apparently, not only did Etihad get the transfer right this time, but first class gets better cars or something. Was a very nice ride of maybe 30 minutes in spacious air conditioned comfort and soon we were arriving at the St Regis Mumbai. Before this trip I’d never stayed at a St Regis before, and now this was to be my second time in a week…and a huge surprise awaited me with a giant two bedroom suite. The living/dining area:

IMG_2377

Full kitchen as well:

IMG_2378

Another shot of the living/dining room area:

IMG_2379

At first I was worried when I saw I’d been given a room with two beds:

IMG_2380

…but at least it has a nice bathroom:

IMG_2381

IMG_2382

…but wait, there’s a second bedroom as well!

IMG_2383

IMG_2384

…with its own bathroom:

IMG_2385

IMG_2386

IMG_2387

Got a fantastic night of sleep, and enjoyed the view from my room in the morning:

IMG_2396

IMG_2401

Headed down to breakfast first, and it was a huge buffet, but the place was absolutely packed. There were probably 200+ people eating, and the place felt like an absolute madhouse. There were also lots of large families with children running around, not what I would have expected at a St Regis. Had a small bit to eat, and then found out…just next door…was Starbucks! I decided to get my caffeine there before continuing on with my day.

Managed a good day of work, which was good because spending much time outside didn’t really appear to be an option since it was torrential downpours pretty much all day…then the rain would stop, sun would come out and bake in the humidity….just in time for another downpour. I did get out for a bit of a walk as well in between storms, but other than work it was a pretty uneventful day.

Oh, and on top of work, I did manage to decide what I felt like doing next…heading to Bangkok!

Back to the St Regis, and up to the top floor bar where they supposedly had a happy hour for platinum and suite guests. There was a snack menu, as well as anything you wanted to drink. I decided to go with the pan fried dumplings and some Indian red wine which wasn’t bad:

IMG_2402

…this may have been repeated a few times. The weirdest part was when I left, then told me I had to sign. Ok, fine, and then they brought me a bill….for nearly 9,000 rupees – or nearly $150! I was assured I didn’t have to pay it, they just needed the bill for “internal bookkeeping.” Ok, fine by me. Who knew a few glasses of wine and three small appetizers could cost so much….more than the room even! With that it was off to bed, because I had to get up relatively early to continue on to Bangkok the next day!

Feb 082016
 

When I found out I was headed to Bangkok for work, I had a bit of a dilemma. Ever since United stopped serving Bangkok, there are very few good options to get there with a United ticket. You can fly to Hong Kong and connect to from there, but that means the 747s or 777s, with their awful seating. I mean, seriously, who doesn’t have all-aisle access seating. Plus, this option was significantly more expensive than fares we were getting on Korean and Air China…which were non-starters since I still had lots of elite qualifying dollars to earn with just a month left in 2015.

Eventually, I remembered there were super cheap business fares to India, and found an Air Canada option via Toronto with United flight numbers, meaning United would ticket it. Combine this with a cheapish Delhi to Bangkok ticket, and I was in business. On the way back, the flights that worked best timewise out of India ended up being on Austrian to Vienna and on to Zurich, with a connection to United there. Tickets sorted, premier qualifying dollars in the bag, it was time for a few new experiences – Air Canada longhaul, on a 787 nonetheless, and Austrian longhaul.

Slept in a bit the day of the flight, then headed to DCA. The Air Canada agents at DCA are pretty terrible. I think they might be outsourced, but they really have no clue about Star Alliance benefits, there’s no lounge at all – nor is there a restaurant voucher/credit – and it’s overall a pretty miserable operation. Since I was on two separate tickets, she didn’t want to check me in without a visa for India. I showed her one on an expired passport, and she refused to accept that as valid, even though it’s just fine with India. Then, I showed her an expired visa in a current passport, and not seeing the date she was good with that. Seriously WTF.

Fortunately, the A Gates at DCA have a couple new restaurant options with iPad ordering, which is pretty slick. Had a small lunch, and soon it was time for the short flight up to Toronto.

Air Canada flight 7615, Operated by Sky Regional
Washington, National (DCA) to Toronto, Ontario (YYZ)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 14:15, Flight Time: 1:25
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration C-FEJL, Manufactured 2005, Seat 1A

I had been incredibly busy leading up to this trip, and hadn’t had any time to give thoughts to seats. By the time I did, the only seat left in business was 1A. Decent because you don’t have anyone reclining into you, but pretty poor from a legroom perspective. Whatever, it’s a short flight, so wasn’t a big deal. No pre-departure beverages offered, but a great view of the Pentagon on a clear day right after takeoff:

IMG_5034

Small cheese plate and nuts were offered as a snack with wine…and refills. Not bad service for a flight that was just over an hour!

IMG_5036

Toronto is a bit strange when making a US to International connection. In order to get to international departures, you still need to visit an immigration agent, but a different agent than if you were intending to enter Canada. Not sure what the point of this check is, since you’re merely in transit, but they do it. Satisfied I wasn’t up to no good, they let me into the international area, and the Salon Feuille d’érable – or Maple Leaf Lounge. Quite a good spread of food was out, so I had some tasty ravioli and the obligatory ceasar. I love the little maple leaf swizzle sticks:

IMG_5038

A few weeks after I had booked, my friend John in Ottawa (who has guest blogged here before) found out he had to go to Tokyo for work. Being a complete dork and majorly short on miles to requalify with Air Canada, he opted to join me all the way to Bangkok, continuing on from there to Tokyo the long way. Talk about a super out of the way routing! While I enjoyed my ceasar, he indulged his obsession with the Maple Leaf Lounge cookies, and we got a bit of work done. There were several other options on the buffet, and I was pretty impressed with the amount of food that was set out. You’d never see hot options like this in a United or American club, not to mention all the fresh side dishes. You’re lucky to get hummus and some cheese cubes.

What a great coincidence, however, that we even had to leave on the same days and could end up on the same flights. Fortunately, his upgrade even cleared at the gate and on top of that, the last open seat was the one across the aisle from us. The travel gods were definitely smiling on us!

Air Canada flight 70
Toronto, Ontario (YYZ) to Delhi, India (DEL)
Depart 20:35, Arrive 20:55 next day, Flight Time: 13:50
Boeing 787-9, Registration C-FNOH, Manufactured 2015, Seat 4A

Brand spanking new 787-9, delivered barely a month prior, which still had that new plane smell. Welcome aboard screen:

IMG_5042

Water AND sparkling water, along with a basic but nice amenity kit:

IMG_5043

The crew was super friendly, while at the same time being very professional and addressing people by name. What’s for dinner tonight? Sorry for the slightly blurry pics…must have been one too many ceasars:

IMG_5044

IMG_5045

Goofy “we’re finally flying together” selfie:

IMG_5046

Air Canada’s super-progressive safety video. I think the translation is: “Hey honey, let’s see if that guy in Row 8 is on Grindr!” It looks like their only préoccupation is with each other… 😉

IMG_5055

Some horrible movie I watched. Looks like Air Canada has joined United and American in the cut-price split cashew camp:

IMG_5062

Mixed greens, bread on a plate, and super tasty tuna starter. Quite possibly the best starter I’ve ever had from a North American airline.

IMG_5066

I generally avoid fish on planes, but John had the sablefish. Based on the presentation, I’m pretty glad I skipped it:

IMG_5067

My chicken murgh was even less appetizing looking, but fortunately tasted much better than it looked. Note the sad, empty wine glass:

IMG_5068

Mini cheese and fruit plate…needed more cheese:

IMG_5070

Pre-packaged ice cream for dessert? Sad panda…definitely a let-down from the United sundae.

IMG_5071

John went with the chocolate fondant, which was definitely the better option:

IMG_5072

At this point, I passed out for nearly nine glorious hours. With all the work leading up to this trip I was running super short on sleep, so was great to just be able to pass out. This also marked my third 787 redeye, and third one where I slept more than nine hours. There must be something to the lower cabin altitude and higher humidity on the 787, because I sleep as well on them as I do at home, and better than on any other plane. Plus, Air Canada did a great job keeping the cabin temperature reasonable, which made sleeping much easier.

Normally transatlantics aren’t long enough that I’m hungry for breakfast, but in this case decided to give it a  go. The muffin was dry and I skipped it after one bite, as was the fruit unfortunately. However, the cottage cheese with the omelette was super tasty, especially with the red pepper relish. Not normally a big fan of eggs on planes, but it was a tasty combo!

IMG_5073

Landed in Delhi late evening, and transit was pretty simple. We had to wait maybe 30 minutes for the Air Canada representative to come to the transit counter, and they were confused and not expecting us because we were on different tickets into and out of Delhi. Eventually, they figured it out, and transfer security was a breeze. This was like the fifth time I had done it this year, so I’m sure knowing what to expect made the whole process a bit easier as well.

Off to the ITC Green lounge, with some tasty Indian nibbles, Diet Pepsi, and WiFi to catch up on email. A couple hours later, we headed down to the boarding gate. I had forgotten there was a Starbucks there, or I would have gone much earlier. Normally I’m the one whose name gets messed up, but when John said his name the very eager barrista said “OH! Like John Cena!” I guess he’s a wrestling fan…

IMG_5075

Our flight was about 30 minutes late for the ever dubious “operational reasons” but soon it was time to board. Bid John Cena a temporary farewell, as he was off to fend for himself amidst the cattle in back. Fortunately, I expected to be a bit more comfortable…

Thai Airways flight 316
Delhi, India (DEL) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 00:15, Arrive 5:40, Flight Time: 3:55
Boeing 777-200, Registration HS-TKA, Manufactured 1998, Seat 12E

Nice welcome-aboard glass of tea:

IMG_5076

Unfortunately, it was not to be as comfortable as planned, since I was stuck in a middle seat. Thai 777s not only do not go flat in the seats, but they have middle seats as well. Gross. I was seated next to a guy with a Chinese passport who kept hacking up phlegm the entire flight, and didn’t speak enough English to understand when I asked him to cover his mouth. Even acting it out didn’t seem to help. Fortunately, he knew the expression JOHNNY WALKER DOUBLE and after 5 or 6 of those he passed out. Doesn’t change the fact that about 36 hours after landing in Bangkok I came down with a cold. Want to guess who’s responsible?

At least there was Veuve to make things a bit better:

IMG_5077

Menu was simple, but looked tasty:

IMG_5078

The salad and shrimp were pretty meh, but hey, can’t complain when you’re flying India to Thailand and get multiple servings of garlic bread, and Veuve refills!

IMG_5080

The chicken red curry was ok, but nothing special:

IMG_5081

The raspberry marscapone cake was also pretty underwhelming, but again, the Veuve helped:

IMG_5082

Landed in Bangkok about 30 minutes behind schedule. I wished John good luck with his connecting flight to Tokyo. I couldn’t imagine having another flight after this as it had already been nearly 24 hours in transit and I was absolutely wiped out. Not in the mood to deal with taxis or the Skytrain today, I opted for an AOT car to take me to my hotel. Up next was a super busy week of work events before heading home. I’ll do another review of the flights back home in another post, as well as one on the hotels I stayed at.

Nov 192015
 

Took the MRT to Hong Kong airport, and went absolutely without a hitch. Tried to check in at the Kowloon station checkin desk, but the Air India counter was like 20 people deep, and no special lines for Star Gold or business class. Got to the airport, and things were a bit better. The agent was a bit confused – seems nobody flies to Delhi just to connect to a United flight to Newark. I’m…special. She didn’t give me any grief about my carryons, however, I asked her for blank luggage/nametags since I know Indian security likes to have something to stamp. She thought this was the oddest request she’d ever heard, but after checking my onward ticket to Newark she was ok with it.

Long line about 20 minutes for security, and another 20 minutes for immigration. Not sure if this is normal or not, but was rather surprised there were no business class lines or anything. Still had time for one more Starbucks before heading to the United Club for a pre-flight glass of wine and 15 minutes of relaxation. Got to the gate, where boarding was just beginning on time.

Air India flight 317
Hong Kong, SAR (HKG) to Delhi, India (DEL)
Depart 18:05, Arrive 21:10, Flight Time: 5:35
Boeing 787-8 Registration VT-ANE, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 97,462
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,136,068

First impression of this Air India 787 which was less than two years old, RATTY! Seems they have the same-ish hard product as Turkish A330 I’d flown to Istanbul earlier in this trip, complete with the “footsy” benches for your feet. I can just see trying to sleep in this seat setup and playing footsy with your neighbour. How hard would it have been to put a little divider in the middle of the bench?

IMG_2187

Seats were in some of the worst repair I’ve ever seen for a two year old plane. Just look at the footrest area:

IMG_2188

Welcome aboard drink, choice of hot or cold towel, but only juice or water to drink:

IMG_2189

For a five hour flight, the menu sounded pretty tasty:

IMG_2190

The horrors…not only were the nuts not warm, they were served in a bag! Good thing Korean Air Princess wasn’t on this flight!

IMG_2191

In case you are wondering what “Dry Snax” are, this is it. Crunchy and tasty, but I pretty much just picked out the cashews:

IMG_2192

The meal was served all on one tray, which was extremely packed. The bread was even left in its foil to stay warm a bit longer. I have to admit, the main course was seriously tasty, and the dessert was pretty good too. Some sort of cake with cherries in it. There were two choices of main, and I believe this was a lamb curry:

IMG_2194

Flight was very uneventful. Crew was friendly and helpful, quick with drink refills when asked, and always pleasant. They seemed almost offended I wasn’t staying in India, despite over a dozen trips in the past, including two weeks earlier this year. This crew was from Mumbai, and told me I really did have to check it out next time as it’s “much better” than Delhi or Chennai!

Landed, and had a long walk in the hot and humid terminal to the transit desk…where things got real. Real crazy. Fortunately, I had packed my patience for India, and when I was told to “go sit down, we will find someone from United to assist you” decided not to. Standing at the desk, reminding them every five minutes, and using the words “global services” I managed to get someone from United to come to the transit desk…nearly 45 minutes after landing! Had I just gone to sit down and wait, I’m sure it would have been over an hour….

When the agent did arrive, she was super friendly and helpful. First, she had to let me know some bad news. The flight “might” be delayed because it had come in with a non-functional WiFi and entertainment system. Ugh. I tried asking really nicely since it looked like there might be three or four empty seats if she could try and put me in any set of two with an empty next to it. She promised to try her best.

This is where it got much better…she insisted on escorting me from the transit desk, through transit security, through some back “employees only” corridors, up a secret elevator, and directly into the lounge. I only had 20 minutes, but she came back to get me at the end of those 20 minutes, and escorted me to the gate! Best service ever! To top it off, she’d managed to secure seats 10A and 10B for me, with a promise of nobody next to me. It’s amazing how far patience and being nice can get you sometimes! Unfortunately, there would be no WiFi or entertainment of any sort on the flight….

United flight 83
Delhi, India (DEL) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 23:35, Arrive 05:15, Flight Time: 15:10
Boeing 777-200, Registration N27015, Manufactured 2000, Seat 10A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 104,786
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,143,392

Boarded to a crew that looked incredibly grouchy, but the menu looked…interesting…

IMG_2195

IMG_2196

IMG_2197

Warm nuts were served, but warm to the point they’d lost their crunch. I passed after just a few. There was also another packaged Indian snack, which I wasn’t overly fond of:

IMG_2199

Looks like the appetizer has been upgraded…two shrimps. I took it for the picture, but still refuse to eat shrimp on a plane after getting food poisoning from it on two different occasions:

IMG_2200

Unusual indian-style salad of missed vegetables in a dressing. It was tasty, and made for a very nice change from the rather bland salads United usual offers:

IMG_2201

The lamb biryani was, quite simply, the best main course I’ve ever had on United. Just spicy enough, served with tasty raita, and I admit I ate every bite of it and considered asking if they had another. I’ve never done that before!

IMG_2202

Even the cheese selection was better than usual, and yes, I did ask for two in this case:

IMG_2203

Strangely, the only choice for the ice cream was caramel, and there were no cherries. Boo! This flight might get dinged in my 2015 sundae year in review…

IMG_2204

Slept nearly nine straight hours, which is great for me on a plane. There is something about late night westbound redeyes that not only helps me sleep really well, but helps me arrive feeling super refreshed. I guess sleep is easier because it’s 1 or 2am local time when I try and sleep, but landing, despite it being 5/6a local time it’s after noon to the body clock. I learned this when I was doing Dakar-Washington frequently, and actually don’t mind redeyes as long as they are long enough…and westbound!

Breakfast was ok…but as usual the fruit was dry. I had the omelette, the corn croquette was also pretty tasty, and the grilled veg. I left most of the carbs aside, though:

IMG_2205

Immigration via Global Entry was a snap, and was to the lounge less than 15 minutes after landing. There was a 30+ minute wait for a shower, so of course I went next door to Starbucks to inhale a quad iced espresso on ice before taking one of the best showers of my life. There’s nothing like a nice warm shower after spending 20+ hours on planes! The good news, is I checked my email while waiting, and there was already a proactive email from United apologizing for the broken entertainment system, and offering a $200 travel voucher.

Unfortunately, my connection was out of the A gates, so it was out in the cool drizzle to shuttle over to the A terminal, where I got there just as we were boarding.

United flight 3522 (operated by Shuttle America)
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 06:50, Arrive 08:18, Flight Time: 2:28
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N647RW, Manufactured 2005, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 105,505
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,145,345

Extremely unremarkable flight. The flight attendant was attentive with frequent water refills, watched some tv on the iPad. There was a breakfast offered, but I skipped it since they were somehow one short, and I wasn’t really hungry since I’d just eaten. I really would have only taken it for photography purposes anyways…

Nice view on approach to Chicago:

IMG_2207

Had to hop over to the F Concourse for my connection, first time I’ve ever been there at O’Hare. Am I right it’s pretty much just for the ERJ-145s? Nice new lounge there, however, even if it was extremely packed. Good view of Barbie Jet Central:

IMG_2209

United flight 3259 (operated by ExpressJet)
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Ottawa, Ontario (YOW)
Depart 10:47, Arrive 13:36, Flight Time: 1:49
Embraer ERJ-145, Registration N13903, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 106,160
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,144,000

Nothing at all to say about this flight. Standard E145 flight, one pass on drinks, then then we were descending. I’ve never been on one of these planes for a flight over two hours, but can see how it would be a total nightmare.

Immigration was a bit of a pain at Ottawa – first time I’d ever been through without Nexus in over five years. Questioning was pretty extensive, and given that (a) I’d lost my NEXUS card during my last visit and (b) I was only there to change planes flying back to the US because “it’s cheaper to fly international out of Canada….yup…I got sent to secondary inspection. Ugh!

Fortunately, a quick show of my printouts, an explanation, and I was in and out in under five minutes. At least as far as secondary goes it was painless. Quick trip up to the Nexus office to retrieve my lost card, and still had time to get lunch with a friend.

It was a gorgeous day in Ottawa, about 22C and sunny, and perfect for a small lunch and beers on the patio:

IMG_2212

Just to show again how sunny and gorgeous it was, one more sunny selfie in front of TD Place:

IMG_2215

Immigration back at the airport was painless, and I had 20 minutes or so before boarding, so grabbed a beer at the one restaurant inside the US Departures area. The guy sitting next to me was in a sling, and had just had rotator cuff surgery two weeks prior, so we commiserated a bit. I let him know I was up to 100% already after just four months, so hopefully left him feeling a bit hopeful!

United flight 5946 (operated by ExpressJet)
Ottawa, Ontario (YOW) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 17:15, Arrive 18:42, Flight Time: 1:27
Embraer ERJ-145, Registration N12175, Manufactured 2004, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 106,489
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,144,329

Plane go up. Consume Diet Coke. Plane go down. Arrive right on time. Connecting flight was just two gates over in the A concourse, so I had time to enjoy some of Oscar’s finest hummus and cheese cubes in the packed A Concourse United Club while waiting.

United flight 4312 (operated by ExpressJet)
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 19:43, Arrive 21:04, Flight Time: 1:21
Embraer ERJ-145, Registration N14573, Manufactured 2002, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 106,688
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,144,528

One last flight, another E145. Yes, you know how it goes: plane go up, consume Diet Coke, plane go down. 40 minutes start to finish…and with that the end of another epic trip! I promised myself I’d get this trip report done before leaving on my next trip…and…done with ONE HOUR to spare! Stay tuned..up next: Algeria, Cuba, and the Bahamas!

Sep 142015
 

Woke up nice and early, and grabbed some Starbucks with the friend I stayed with before heading to the airport to start the long route to India. I’d checked in the day before when I arrived at YOW, and the agent questioned “why are you going Ottawa-Chicago-Newark instead of direct to Newark?” While I appreciated her effort to put me on the nonstop, it would have shorted me qualifying miles, and I would have been in coach as opposed to two flights in “first.” Plus, my friend was working that day, so no real reason to hang around the city.

Grabbed some Tim Hortons at the airport (mmm Timbits) and soon we boarded right on time.

United Express operated by Skywest flight 6384
Ottawa, Ontario (YOW) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 10:24, Arrive 11:29, Flight Time: 2:05
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N117SY, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2A

Pretty typical United Express flight, except that United Express now serves the delicious caramel macchiato biscotti that I love. Mmmmm! Breakfast of champions? Well, combined with Tim Hortons and Starbucks it is!

IMG_0960

Landing in Chicago was right on time, and I had planned to make the most of my 3+ hour layover. My friend Matt picked me up at the airport, and immediately carted me away for what he billed as an authentic Chicago experience right near the airport. We went to Paradise Pup for hotdogs, where I did a pretty good job of clogging my arteries before a long flight. At least it was super tasty!

IMG_0964

Since we still had time, he carted me to Shoeless Joe’s bar just down the street because they had the 10% Not Your Father’s Rootbeer on tap. Unfortunately it was a little flat, but still delicious. Was awesome catching up during the layover, and I was really feeling like I was making the most of every minute on this trip so far. This also explains why it’s taken me so long to get this trip report started! Mmmm, high alcohol root beer….

IMG_0965

Catching up…

IMG_0967

Back to O’Hare approximately 75 minutes before the flight, through TSA precheck in under five minutes, and headed straight to the gate, where there was an “emotional support animal” loudly barking at anyone who got near it. Great!

IMG_0973

Flight was delayed about 30 minutes due to an “unspecified maintenance issue, but we assure you it’s nothing to cause concern” and that’s when we spotted HIM. The “changes you’ll like in Chief.” Herr Smisek. At least there is some justice in the world, because he ended up (according to a source on the flight) in a middle seat in regular economy. #WhosJeffedNow 😉

United Airlines flight 1165
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 15:00, Arrive 18:20, Flight Time: 2:20
Boeing 757-200, Registration N14107, Manufactured 1994, Seat 1E

Decided to get the trip rolling by having a glass of wine…and of course more biscotti! But no, this was the afternoon snack basket, so I had to “suffer” through the brownie brittle, which was also pretty darn good:

IMG_0976

The funniest part of this flight was the couple seated behind me, who asked the flight attendant “I don’t know why when we are in first class you let the military thugs and someone called ‘Global Services’ board first?” Flight attendant tried to explain Global Services as “those people who fly the most number of flights with us” but was clearly wrong. I decided to help her out and tell her in general it’s people who spend $50,000 or more on United tickets in a given year, although the exact criteria are unknown. The couple’s response? “Oh, I guess stupid people should board before people who pay for first class.” *smacks head*

Layover in Newark was uneventful, grabbed a shower, water, caught up on email, and just generally relaxed before heading for the chaos that is boarding for any flight to India:

IMG_0986

Had switched from 8E (middle) to 8B since united.com showed that even after nonrevs there should be 6 empty seats. Confirmed with gate agent, and he was happy to leave 8A open for me. Score!

United Airlines flight 82
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Delhi, India (DEL)
Depart 21:55, Arrive 21:30, Flight Time: 14:05
Boeing 777-22, Registration N37018, Manufactured 2002, Seat 8A

As soon as the door closed, I moved over to 8A, and a minute later someone came and plopped down in 8B. “Sorry, I didn’t like my other seat.” I might have been a bit of a jerk, but told him “the gate agent had blocked this seat” and he pushed back with “well, my other seat is no good.” Knowing he was a nonrev, I paged over the flight attendant, who was happy to ask him to move elsewhere. Maybe I was a bit of a princess, but as someone who flew nonrev for 15+ years I was always taught not to inconvenience paying customers. Anyways, I had two seats, and the flight was off to a great start.

What will Jeff feed us today? Here’s the answers:

IMG_0987

IMG_0988

IMG_0989

IMG_0990

Pre-departure bubbles…notice I’m still in 8B for the moment!

IMG_0991

The half-nuts with a glass of the (now extinct) Château le Jeff. May it RIP:

IMG_0996

Pretzel roll, mit plate:

IMG_0998

As skimpy as a single chicken skewer looks for an international appetizer, at least it was relatively tasty. I don’t think any other airline would dare serve a single cold chicken kebab as a starter, however!

IMG_1002

Super un-exciting salad. At least it had two sundried tomatoes and two olives?

IMG_1003

The “rack of lamb” which was way overcooked. I don’t think I even finished half of it.

IMG_1004

The cheese was ever poorer quality than average, but that didn’t stop me from asking for a second serving. Unfortunately “it’s all gone.” Mmm hmmm, of course it is.

IMG_1005

Today “hot fudge and cherries” was met with three cherries, which seems to pretty much be average for most of my United flights 😉

IMG_1006

At this point, I crashed for just short of 7 hours, waking up just in time to watch a few episodes of Scandal before breakfast was trotted out. Since I was awake I agreed to try it out, and unfortunately it was a pretty big miss. The fruit had zero flavour, the eggs scared me after one bite, but at least the cheesy potatoes were tasty 😉 I can’t for the life of me figure out why they serve breakfast at 8p local, but it is what it is!

IMG_1007

Landed about 10 minutes ahead of schedule, immigration took nearly 45 minutes due to almost no agents on duty, but had no trouble with my ten year visa in an expired passport. When I was finally through, my driver from the ITC Maurya was waiting to whisk me off to what would hopefully be bed.

Unfortunately, the ITC Maurya seemed to have the same problem as Indian immigration tonight, and despite five people working on my reservation together it took them nearly 20 minutes to check me in for some unknown reason. I’m a huge fan of ITC hotels in India, and I’m going to chalk this one up to just having some junior people on duty this night. Once I did get to my room it was a nice upgraded junior suite with great AC, a half bottle of wine waiting for me, and an apology note for my recent experiences at the ITC Chennai during dry days. The bottle of wine was compliments and apologies for the inconvenience. It had been nearly two months since I returned from Chennai, and was impressed with the communication!

Only managed four hours of sleep, but considering I’d only been awake for three hours since the seven on the plane I considered that pretty darn good. Now, at the farthest point of the trip, it was time to start the REAL adventure! (Don’t ask why I went via Ottawa and Delhi…you already know it has to do with a great fare 😉

Jul 282015
 

The flight from Chennai to Frankfurt leaves very late at night / early in the morning, so after a full day of worked headed back to the hotel to pack, have some dinner, and generally take it easy. The one thing I definitely didn’t want to do is fall asleep. Generally, I have really good luck sleeping on westbound redeyes, and I hoped this would continue. Since they leave late at night you’re tired enough to fall asleep, and then assuming the flight is long enough, when you wake up even though it might be 5-7am local time, it’s afternoon for your body clock, so you’re well-rested. I hoped to get lucky again!

Before heading to the airport around 11pm, I did one last check of the seatmaps online and discovered two cool things. There were still about six to eight seats open on my first flight, so I decided to switch to the fifth row in hopes of keeping an empty seat next to me. More importantly, on the second flight, they had substituted an aircraft with the old configuration…meaning the old first class seats upstairs were available as business class! It let me select one, and I hoped it would hold!

Check-in was remarkably easy, and the lines for immigration and security were reasonably short as well. Security wasn’t quite sure how to deal with my arm being in a sling, so decided to do the typical Indian thing and make it as much of an absolute bureaucratic nightmare as it could be. Go through metal detector, get metal detected again by hand. Have the sling swabbed for explosives. Write the details of my passport in three separate ledgers along with the time and details, etc etc, but finally I was free to try and find the lounge.

The lounge tonight was the Travel Club Lounge, which is also a Priority Pass lounge. I wondered why Lufthansa didn’t use the Air India lounge since they’re both Star Alliance, but one peek inside it looked pretty grim. The Travel Club Lounge was absolutely packed to the point it was hard to find a seat (and impossible to find an outlet) but it was cool enough. The Malaysia Airlines flight began boarding soon after I arrived, so that helped the lounge empty out just enough to be reasonable.

There was a buffet that everyone seemed to be avoiding, but the bar was quite popular. Most everyone was drinking scotch on the rocks, and going back for serving upon serving, but the strangest thing was the lounge had absolutely no wine at all – sparkling or non. I settled for a few last bottles of Kingfisher, before heading to the gate. Fifteen minutes before scheduled boarding it was already approaching chaos in the gate area, so I decided to use the sling to my advantage and fight for priority boarding. Unfortunately, I had more than a little competition tonight:

IMG_9534

After being told by one agent that I was “not disabled enough” another agent very kindly escorted me to the front of the boarding zone, and let me board first. Points to her! …well, not exactly first, but somewhere in the middle of the 50+ wheelchair scrum:

IMG_9536

The agent who had checked me in greeted me at the door to the plane, and with a big smile said “you look like you need to be comfortable, I managed to reserve the seat next to you” – wow, this was going to be a good flight…I hoped!

Lufthansa flight 759
Chennai, India (MAA) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 01:50, Arrive 8:30, Flight Time: 10:10
Airbus A340-300, Registration D-AIGY, Manufactured 2000, Seat 5D

Flight attendants were great, and hurried right over when they saw the shoulder, and were more than happy to help lift my bags into the overhead for me…and bring me a glass of wine!

IMG_9537

Two seats to myself, it promised to be a good flight…

IMG_9538

With a very late night departure I was curious what the menu would be, and as I suspected it was a snack followed by breakfast before arrival…it didn’t look too appetizing once again, and I suspected Lufthansa has contracted catering out to either IAMS or Purina lately…

IMG_9539IMG_9540

…but hey, I had two seats, and the wine and cashews arrived moments after takeoff. This crew was clearly going to let us get as much sleep as possible:

IMG_9541

The Fancy Feast chicken and Linguini tasted about as good as it looked, and I ate the chicken and peppers and that was all. Oh, and the dessert of course…and the poor pretzel roll which didn’t even get its own plate:

IMG_9543

…at least the sleep-aid was in plentiful refill:

IMG_9544

Fell asleep shortly after dinner, and managed to sleep almost eight straight hours. I will continue to love westbound redeyes, it was fantastic!

…which is more than I can say for the breakfast. The fruit was dry and sad, and I could only manage a couple of bites of the egg. At least the muesli was pretty tasty.

IMG_9545

So overall, the seat was below average, but I’ll give it above average because I had two. The crew was great and helpful, and very friendly, and the food was some of the worst I’ve ever had on Lufthansa. But, at the end of the day, on a flight like this I want somewhere comfortable to sleep and don’t expect a flying restaurant, so give me cool, quiet, and comfortable with adequate space and wine, and I’m pretty darn happy. Overall, it was a good flight.

Landed, through immigration, and off to Starbucks for my usual triple iced espresso. But, then back through immigration, to the lounge for a shower, and some breakfast. Hey, it’s afternoon somewhere!

IMG_9556

Wasn’t a long layover, but fortunately the gate was only two down from the lounge, so managed to linger a bit longer. The boarding area was just as chaotic as the flight from India, mainly because all of the Africa and India flights connect to this one…and I think half of Africa and India was on this plane. Again, I used the sling to push my way to the front, and was soon on board. It took me several years of travel in the developing world to get used to doing it, but I’m finally comfortable doing as everyone else does and pushing to make sure that I don’t get trampled and taken advantage of.

Lufthansa flight 758
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 13:25, Flight Time: 8:40
Boeing 747-400, Registration D-ABVM, Manufactured 1998, Seat 83H

Got upstairs, and SCORE! It was the old configuration, and I’d scored a first class seat. Even better, only four people were smart enough to move upstairs, so the cabin was only half full!

IMG_9558

…business class service, but hey, with one flight attendant for four people it was a pretty sweet deal!

IMG_9559

I wasn’t going to complain at all!

IMG_9560

…even the menu looked almost promising!

IMG_9561

More bubbles after takeoff, and the now-familiar cashews in a bag:

IMG_9563

The duck starter was actually pretty tasty, despite the tiny portion:

IMG_9564

But oh dear, the tenderloin of beef and braised beef cheek. Catering by Purina strikes again, and I ended up sending it back mostly uneaten. I think this is the last time I give Lufthansa a chance to cook beef in business class. It just doesn’t work.

IMG_9565

The cheese and dessert more than made up for it, however, and I might have had two servings of cheese 😉

IMG_9566

…and after a few glasses of wine crawled out of the seat, and onto the adjoining bed, and crashed for several very comfortable hours.

IMG_9568

The pre-arrival chicken stew and salad was kinda odd, but it came with pretzel and riesling, so wasn’t all bad. I have to say, on previous trips I’ve been very happy with Lufthansa catering, but this trip was one hot mess after another. To the point I’ll probably eat before flying Lufthansa business next time, and just enjoy some cheese and dessert along with a bit of wine.

IMG_9571

Landed just slightly behind schedule at Washington Dulles, and the trip was over. No checked baggage, so into an Uber and home barely 30 minutes after landing thanks to Global Entry. Despite the disappointing food the amount of space I had on both flights was amazing, and it was a great flight experience thanks to the crews!

Jul 272015
 

I was in India for a total of 12 days, but between work, recovering from jetlag, etc, I really only had two days to do any sightseeing. I spent one afternoon going around Chennai seeing temples and such, and the other I just relaxed around the hotel, being absolutely exhausted from long work days. A few sites/thoughts from the time not spent at the client site…

Decided the easiest way to see a fair number of sites in a short time was to give Uber a try. Was a piece of cake and worked flawlessly, and the driver ended up waiting at each site since it was easier than driving around looking for more fares. Our first stop was the Parthasarathy Temple. Parthasarathy is an eighth century temple dedicated to Krishna and the name Parthasarathy, in Sanskrit means the ‘charioteer of Arjuna’ referring to Krishna’s role as a charioteer to Arjuna in the epic story Mahabaratha. The coolest part of the temple are all the orante and colourful carvings that made up the structure:

IMG_9276

…and we ran into our first random cow at the temple, just hanging out.

IMG_9279

Small temple in a moat next to the main temple:

IMG_9280

Our Uber was still waiting for us, and we set off next for Kapaleeswarar Temple. Kapaleeswarar is a temple to the Hindu god Shiva, and was built in the seventh century, although the current buildings are thought to date to the 1600s or so. According to Wikipedia “The temple has numerous shrines, with those of Kapaleeshwarar and Karpagambal being the most prominent…The temple’s name is derived from the words kapalam (head) and eeshwarar an alias of Shiva. According to the Puranas, during the meeting of Brahma and Shiva at top of Mount Kailash Brahma failed to show the due respect to Shiva. Due to this, Shiva plucked of one of Brahma’s heads (kapalams). In an act of penance, Brahma came down to the site of Mylapore and installed a Lingam to please Shiva.”

The 120 foot gopuram (entrance gate) was built around 1906, so many parts of the structure are actually quite a bit newer:

IMG_9284

Near the temple were all kinds of shops selling fruits, silver, gold, and trinkets:

IMG_9286

…as well as another small temple in a moat

IMG_9287

We wandered the streets near the temples a bit longer, before we couldn’t take the 105F heat any longer and headed back to the hotel. Some other random sites from the two weeks. Random reminder in a restroom:

IMG_9344

…I couldn’t tell if a “red dot sale” was a clever play on words, or…

IMG_9357

Who doesn’t want to shop at Jesus Fine Arts?

IMG_9368

…or for that matter, perhaps you’re Hindu and prefer Ganesh Electronics?

IMG_9392

…the mix of old and new, ancient and modern, is one of the things that makes India so fascinating, combined with the chaotic pace of things.

IMG_9420

…when you only have one helmet…and forget about seatbelts…

IMG_9511

Unfortunately, I didn’t get all that many pictures. It was pretty much nonstop work, and when it wasn’t work it was preparing from work, being exhausted from work, or being exhausted from being only four weeks post-rotator cuff surgery. All things considered, the trip went quite well, and had it been my first trip to India I might have made more of an effort to get out and explore a bit more, but it was my seventh trip and second to Chennai, so being injured the motivation was a bit less.

Next up, and finally, the flight back to DC on Lufthansa.

Jul 242015
 

I was in Chennai a total of 12 nights, and because I was getting a bit behind on requalifying for Starwood Platinum status this year, I figured I’d use the opportunity (especially weekends) to do a bit of hotel hopping. I usually end up with a few throwaway stays at local DC properties every year to requalify, and at around $75 each it adds up. So, I figured I’d deal with a bit of inconvenience in Chennai in order to save myself that cash.

There are five SPG properties in Chennai, and the closest to my client was the Aloft. Now, I read that it’s perfectly nice, clean, etc, but it would only save me about 20 minutes on the drive and I’d really prefer a full service option. I knew the ITC Grand Chola was the nicest of the options, and it was a tossup between the Le Meridien and the Westin. I probably should have tried all three, but ended up doing just the ITC and the Westin. The stay pattern was 1 night Westin, 4 nights ITC, 1 night Westin, 1 night ITC, 1 night Westin, 4 nights ITC. I did it this way because the first night was a weekend, so changing mid-day was easy. Then, I gave myself four days to settle in, before a few mid-week and weekend changes and finally the last several at the ITC so I could do any needed laundry/etc.

Three of the changes were on weekends, so were very easy to do, but three were on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings. My pattern was to get up early, grab a quick breakfast, change hotels (they’re a 10 minute drive apart), check in if possible, then head to the client. Big credit to both hotels, all three mornings they let me check in approximately 7/7:15am for the day. They were absolutely fantastic on this front.

I’ll compare the two properties on six metrics: room, transportation, lounge, restaurants/food, service, platinum benefits, and finally value for price.

Room: all three times I stayed at the Westin I was given a room on the executive floor. They were standard sized rooms, and as far as I could tell the amenities weren’t upgraded. The air conditioning worked well, the rooms were all very clean, and they had everything that was needed and expected. Additionally, they always stopped by a few times a day offering more bottles of water, as well as turn-down service.

At the ITC Grand Chola, my first two stays I was upgraded to a Towers room. The room was huge, probably about 550 square feet total. It had a huge washroom, with separate shower and toilet cubicles. There was also a standalone tub, as well as drawers and changing area. The AC actually got frigid, and perhaps the coolest part was that everything from lights to AC to TV was controlled by an in-room iPad. On my third stay, I asked about a suite upgrade. They said it would likely be possible, but I would have to pay the rather significant difference in the luxury tax. Luxury tax is assessed on the rack rate of the room, and because of this they usually don’t do suite upgrades. After reminding them that my corporate rate had luxury tax waived they agreed and upgraded me to a rather huge suite. I’ll let the pics do the talking, but I’d estimate it was 800-900 square feet minimum. It made for a very comfortable four nights!

Clear edge in room goes to the ITC Grand Chola.

View from the executive floor at the Westin:

IMG_9336

IMG_9338

IMG_9339

Suite at the ITC Grand Chola:

IMG_9447

IMG_9449

IMG_9451

IMG_9453

Transportation: I only used transportation from the ITC Grand Chola twice, and that was the hotel car to the Westin and later to the airport. It was slightly overpriced, but plenty comfortable. The nice thing about the Westin was that my corporate rate had free airport transfers included. The pick up at the airport on my arrival was perfect, and they had cold towels and water waiting in the car which was much appreciated in the Chennai humidity. For my later stays, they arranged to pick me up at the ITC Grand Chola instead, and at the end of the stay transfer me to the ITC Grand Chola. Quite nice of them considering the rate specifies airport transfers and not just “transfers”. Other than that, I had a driver to my client, and used Uber for personal transit which also worked equally well from both hotels.

Clear edge on transportation to the Westin.

Lounge: So, my complaint on the lounges isn’t the fault of the hotels. Tamil Nadu state where Chennai is located was in the middle of local elections, and thus declared a number of “dry days” where alcohol couldn’t be served. At one point, it was three days in a row. To the credit of the lounges, they still offered snacks and non-alcoholic drinks.

The Westin had a proper lounge on the executive floor that was open from 1830-2130 every day, and the drinks flowed freely. Very freely. Many of the residents were in the hotel for weeks at a time, and had bonded, and it was expat drinking hour every night in the lounge. Mixed drinks, wine, beer, you name it, and plentiful snacks to the point you could easily make a meal out of them….and if you stayed until 2130 you probably would!

The lounge at the ITC was located in the lobby of the hotel, and available to all Towers and ITC One guests. Not sure what ITC One is, but being in the towers I got to use it. They had four hot snacks and a few cold snacks which rotated (seemed to be the same menu every monday, same every tuesday, etc), as well as plenty of free-flowing drinks and super friendly staff. The happy hour was shorter – only 1800-2000, but they got really generous the last 15 minutes and I ended up with 2-3 drinks sitting around several times.

I would have to declare the lounges a tie – both had plentiful snacks and drinks as well as super friendly staff.

IMG_9269

Restaurants/Food: At the Westin I had breakfast every day, as well as room service dinner one night. The breakfast was plentiful, with lots of breads and danishes, some fruit and other options, as well as eggs, pancakes, etc cooked to order. There was also proper American bacon, which they would cook well done and crispy upon request. There were also several warm Indian options as well. The coffee was also good, with espresso drinks also on offer. I had a sandwich from room service one night which was good and reasonably-priced, and delivered quickly and warm. One nice thing to note, the Westin is also a short walk to the Phoenix Marketcity Mall, which has several good food options including Nandos, California Pizza Kitchen, Hard Rock Cafe, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts should you get sick of hotel fare.

The breakfast at the ITC Grand Chola was simply amazing. Eggs made to order, tons of breads, pastries, etc, and an amazing assortment of fresh fruit every day. There was also a full Indian options hot bar, etc. By my second day they had my coffee preferences down, and I didn’t even have to ask and a double espresso would show up within two minutes of sitting down. There were also six to seven restaurants, but most evenings I was too tired to bother. Plus, they were a bit high priced, although delicious. I had dinner one night at their north Indian restaurant Peshwari, and it was a set menu for one and absolutely delicious. Pics below. I also ate in their cafe several times, which had really good sandwiches for both breakfast and lunch. It was also slightly overpriced, but made an easier light meal than the sitdown restaurants.

Slight edge goes to the ITC for a slightly better breakfast, and tons of great restaurant options.

Westin Breakfast:

IMG_9356

Breakfast/buffet restaurant from above at the ITC:

IMG_9262

Dinner at Peshwari at the ITC Grand Chola:

IMG_9267

IMG_9268

Amazing fruit for breakfast at the ITC Grand Chola:

IMG_9472

Service/Common Areas: Can’t say enough here about both properties, because service was uniformly fantastic. Staff would remember you after one interaction, and upon returning after hotel hopping I was warming welcome back. I was doing PT for the shoulder surgery throughout the stay, and requested an umbrella from the concierge to help with exercises. Both hotels remembered, and brought me one on my second stay without asking. People genuinely seemed to love their jobs and care that you enjoyed your stay.

Both hotels win here in a big way.

Lobby in the Grand Chola:

IMG_9256

Group of eye surgeons having a conference at the hotel taking a group pic, lol:

IMG_9497

Poolside at the ITC Grand Chola:

IMG_9461

IMG_9484

Platinum benefits: At the Westin, got an upgrade to the executive floor, lounge access, happy hour, and a coupon for a free drink (beer or wine) via either room service or in the restaurants and bars. I chose a glass of wine sent to my room both stays, and the third there was no love because it was a “dry day.” At the ITC, I was upgraded to a Towers Room twice, and the third time to a huge suite. This included lounge access.

Slightly edge in this category to the ITC, only because I was consistently upgraded to a larger room.

Welcome flowers and sweets in the suite at the ITC Grand Chola:

IMG_9470

IMG_9474

Value for Price: Both hotels were the exact same price with my corporate rate. Since I rated the ITC Grand Chola higher in most categories, I’d consider it an excellent value for price. For the Westin, I’d still call it a very good value for price.

Hope these are helpful!

Jun 012012
 

This post is just plain full of travel and plane geekery – feel free to skip if you don’t want to see what to expect on some slightly less common airlines. Paro to Male is only 3,070 kilometers as the crow flies (about 1,910 miles) but that would be too easy…and expecting two relatively out of the way places to be connected by such a straight line would be way too much to ask for…so, roundabout routing it was, involving no less than three tickets and four flights. I wasn’t really thinking ahead that in this part of the world, there’s no such thing as an easy transit, and almost got myself in trouble.

Despite my early flight, the hotel insisted that breakfast would be served. Breakfast is included, and they were going to make sure I had it. They suggested 5am, and when I went to the restaurant the overnight front desk guy was working, and happy to make me anything I wanted. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, so boiled eggs, coffee, toast, and a bit of fruit it was! Then off for the short ride to the airport where I arrived just before 6am…way too early for a 7am flight out of this tiny airport! After killing time waiting (check-in, immigration, and security took maybe 10 minutes total) we were waiting…and then I realised why I wasn’t able to book business class on this segment: it was operated by an ATR! I’d read so much about Druk Air carefully selecting A319s because they were about the only plane that could navigate the tricky mountain approach into Bhutan…and now I was going to try and fly out on a prop plane? Time to start hoping that karma I earned paid off!

Continue reading »