Dec 192015
 

Unfortunately as you read in the last entry, Cubana was having a bit of a problem with its Ilyushin 96s, so they would not be flying them between Madrid and Havana today. As excited as the offered alternative of 13+ hours in charter economy (read: economy with even less legroom than normal) was, I decided to see who else could get me there. Avianca had a flight on their new 787 that left at the same time as the Cubana flight, and with two stops in Cali and Bogota (and a short overnight in Bogota) would get me there at noon the next day. It meant I would lose a morning of touring in Havana, but in the end be much more comfortable. Plus, I admit I was swayed by the chance to not only fly my first ever Europe to South America flight, but to do it on a slightly unusual route like Madrid to Cali.

The nice thing about the departure time is it allowed me to have a leisurely morning in Madrid, enjoy some coffee and a short walk before taking the bus to the airport to save a bit of money. It was a bright and sunny day in Madrid, but fairly cold…but the sun won out and it was nice for strolling around. At check-in, there was a good deal of confusion…could they issue my boarding passes all the way to Havana, or not? Do I need a visa for Havana, or not. Apparently, this isn’t a very common connection – especially via Cali and not the nonstop to Bogotá. That flight, however, was thousands more due to being nearly sold out in business. In contrast,  my 787 to Cali with continuing flight number to Bogotá only had two people in business. Score!

I had forgotten to ask about the lounge, but after taking the train out to the far gates and checking, Avianca did indeed use the Iberia lounge instead of the contract lounge which looked to be packed with Emirates and Qatar passengers and not nearly as nice. The Iberia lounge, by contrast, was rather nice and offered a substantial pre-flight snack and lots of places for charging the computer:

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After catching up on a few things, it was time to walk over to the gate where my ride to Cali was getting ready to board:

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Boarding was a mad rush to the plane, with no respect for queues or boarding business class first. It was every man, woman, and child for themselves, pushing towards the boarding pass scanner and onto the jetway. Fortunately, in the last several years of travel I’ve learned to put politeness aside in these situations and fend for myself.

Avianca flight 15
Madrid, Spain (MAD) to Cali, Colombia (CLO)
Depart 15:25, Arrive 19:56, Flight Time: 10:31
Boeing 787-8, Registration N781AV, Manufactured 2014, Seat 5K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 119,829
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,158,723

Somehow my flight had gone from two people in business class to eleven in the two hours since I’d checked in. Not a problem, and from a service point of view it probably helped because it prevented the crew from just throwing things at two people and then disappearing. I was told no moving seats until the door was closed because there still might be more passengers. Where does Avianca get all these last minute business class passengers on such a new route? Regardless, after closing I moved back to 5K to “hide” a bit in the back of the cabin, which was much quieter since almost all the other passengers were in the first three rows. Welcome aboard champagne and nuts in my original seat of 3A:

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Tumi amenity kit. Definitely saving this one for use on future trips. Great storage:

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Today’s menu to Cali. One small note, English was pretty much non-existent with this crew, but on a flight from Spain to Colombia I expected that:

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Somewhat strange combo for a starter, but the cheese was super tasty, and…hey…cheese for a starter! Mmmm!

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Meal service was all on one tray, and the chicken was quite juicy, which surprised me:

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Delicious desert:

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After the meal, the crew disappeared and I crashed for about three hours of sleep. The cabin was completely darkened, and the crew used the override on the windows to prevent them from being opened. Not sure if this is a positive or negative of the 787, where you often have no control over daylight because the crew can override the mechanical windows. But, I got a good nap, it just made it really hard to adjust having 9 hours of the flight completely in darkness.

Before arrival, a rather tasty quiche-like snack was served, but the grilled mushrooms served with it were foul. Unfortunately, the fruit was also quite dry and lacked any flavour. Not the best snack.

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Immigration was pretty simple, but it was clear Cali wasn’t designed to handle large numbers of international arrivals. There was a long hallway to immigration, and at the end of the hallway three counters. Despite being in business, there were a good 50 people in line in front of me, from a previous Avianca arrival from Miami. It was pretty quick, however, and a bit entertaining. The immigration guy spoke very rapid Spanish despite being asked to slow down, and finally I relented and asked if we could speak English please. “No! Español Señor!” Ugh, lol. I eventually answered all his questions, which wasn’t easy, because he also couldn’t understand for the life of him why I wasn’t on the nonstop flight to Bogotá once I told him I was in transit. Anyways, that solved, it was out into baggage claim and then…to the curbside.

There were no directions to domestic transfers, so this was going to take a bit of searching. Eventually I found the check-in area, which was several times bigger than the international area. Cali is clearly a domestic airport that just happens to handle a few international flights as well. The bigger problem is the domestic check-in area was all open air, and it was extremely hot and humid in Cali. I was rapidly getting gross after having been on a 10 hour flight and now sweating in the humidity. Eventually, after going to like five counters I confirmed that yes, since I had my boarding pass, I could go straight to the gate.

Problem was, the gates were unmarked, and there was a lot of construction going on. …and nobody had thought to, you know, maybe put some signs pointing to where the gates were. They turned out to be down an unmarked makeshift hallway, where I finally found security and eventually the domestic terminal. I also found…air conditioning! Whew!

The Avianca lounge was upstairs, and had quite a sad looking set of snacks, which the passengers were attacking like hungry vultures. I normally avoid scary looking sandwiches at all costs, but I figured dozens of Colombians couldn’t be wrong so decided to take one for the team and give it a try. Washed down with a glass of wine it was actually reasonable.

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Our flight kept fluctuating from two hours late, to fifteen minutes late, back to an hour late on the monitors. Seems there had been weather in Bogotá all day and flights were backed up. I asked about getting on the flights before mine, but there was no telling when they would leave either, so no, I couldn’t go on an earlier flight…which might actually end up leaving later.

Then, ten minutes before my original flight time…it suddenly became on-time. I rushed to the gate, where everyone was already on board, and was pretty much the last one on before closing the door. My seatmate was nice and slowly explained that the four flights to Bogotá were all in the same area, and when it became clear 10 minutes before that mine would suddenly be the first to leave, everyone from the other flights stormed the gate and switched. Fortunately, my original seat was still in tact.

Avianca flight 15
Cali, Colombia (CLO) to Bogotá, Colombia (BOG)
Depart 22:15, Arrive 23:16, Flight Time: 1:01
Airbus A320, Registration N862AV, Manufactured 2011, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 120,003
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,158,897

Lots of people seem to complain in different online forums about people who put their feet on the bulkhead. You’ll be glad to know Avianca is looking out for you:

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Flight was short, barely 30-40 minutes in the air, and the crew remained seated the entire flight due to turbulence. Arrivals were easy, and there was actually quite a long walk to get to the arrivals area. After asking around a bit, I found where the hotel shuttles were supposed to arrive, so I went there…where I was pretty much the only person standing around, and hoped that the “every 30 minutes” Aloft shuttle would actually show up.

After 20 minutes, if eventually did, and it was a short ride to the Aloft Bogotá airport for my four hour nap. I’ve always avoided Alofts and Four Points, but I have no clue why. Almost universally abroad I have good experiences at them, and this one was no exception. Friendly welcome, clean (if simple) facilities, comfortable, and english-speaking staff. Plus, they’d left a small welcome gift in my room…complete with a handwritten English welcome. It’s the little touches like this that leave a positive impression:

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Great four hour nap/sleep, and then checked out the breakfast, which was apparently included for all guests…and included quite the nice spread along with an eggs-to-order station and fresh squeezed orange juice…impressive! …not to mention 100% Colombian Coffee…Juan Valdez would be impressed!

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Caught the shuttle back to the airport, check-in was easy and it was no problem getting my boarding pass. They were much more familiar with the requirements for Cuba here, and it was then off to immigration and security. Only problem was, the line was super long due to all the departures to the U.S. and looked like it would be 30+ minutes. Managed to sneak my way into the “crew and diplomats” line with a Delta crew, no problem, and even had 15 minutes to spend in the Avianca lounge before heading to my bus gate to board.

Avianca flight 254
Bogotá, Colombia (BOG) to Havana, Cuba (HAV)
Depart 8:42, Arrive 12:20, Flight Time: 3:38
Airbus A319, Registration N741AV, Manufactured 2015, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 121,303
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,160,270

Took quite a while to eventually board, but soon everyone was on board. While we waited for the economy folks to board, orange juice or water were offered, along with the same nuts:

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Today’s route to Havana, 1379 miles to go:

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A rather reasonable omelette and fruit were offered, but the melon and strawberries were again sad and devoid of flavour. I’m not sure what the little orange fruits were, but they were sweet and tart and delicious.

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Flight was quick and uneventful, and immigration was a complete non-event. I didn’t even have to ask, but the agent winked and said he didn’t need to stamp my passport, and that was it. I was in Cuba, and ready to begin my adventure!

Dec 172015
 

My driver from the previous day showed up right on time as promised, and it was quite a short ride to the airport. We had already negotiated the price, so I knew exactly how much cash to save (plus a tip) to ensure I wouldn’t have any (relatively useless) Algerian Dinars left over. The arrivals area a couple days earlier had seemed rather small, so upon arrival I was surprised to see just how big the check-in area was, with over 50 different counters and three halls:

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Immigration was pretty simple, and security was a bit longer, mainly because there were a ton of Chinese construction workers in front of me who spoke neither the French or English to be able to communicate with the screeners. Of course, they also had belts on, phones in their pockets, etc etc, so the whole thing took way longer than it should. Once through, there was also a strange manual check on the other side. This may have been a shake-down for the Chinese (because he was making them empty their pockets) but we had a good chat in French (his brother lives in Montreal it seems) and off I went to the Air Algerie lounge, where I was greeted by:

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The lounge was actually quite spacious, rather empty, with big comfy faux leather chairs:

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The food selection was poor, but at least there was Coke Zero. One bite of each pastry since they were completely dry, but it was good to know that even though I wasn’t flying them, Air Algerie is always caring for me!

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However, while in the lounge, drama ensued. I got an e-mail from Cubana that my “flight had been modified, due to the IL-96 out of repair. You are rebooked on 767 flight instead in economy class.”

Hell. To. The. No.

Checking more details, Cubana had chartered a 767 from some German tour operator, with 29 inch seat pitch, so instead of being comfy in business class, they expected I would be fine sitting not only in economy, but in a super cramped economy for 11+ hours with my knees in my chest. Not happening. I started making some plans, and knew it would be drama. Unfortunately, it was time to bord.

Boarded right on time for what appeared to be (at least in coach) a relatively full flight.

Iberia flight 3305
Algiers, Algeria (ALG) to Madrid, Spain (MAD)
Depart 14:05, Arrive 15:35, Flight Time: 1:30
Airbus A319, Registration EC-HKO, Manufactured 2000, Seat 4D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 114,729
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,153,562

 

Coach looked pretty full, but in the four rows of business there were only three people, so I was able to move over to a window for takeoff. My first time (I’m pretty sure) on Iberia, and like many places in Spain there was no English spoke. Thankfully I understand the words for pasta and wine. Well, pasta wasn’t really necessary, since it was only being used to tell me my only choice was pasta and would I like it. My meal came sealed in saran wrap…for my protection?

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Flight was incredibly…average. Usual EuroBusiness flight, and a piece of cake. Immigration was also simple, and I headed off to find the express bus to Madrid, which supposedly would drop me just a couple of blocks from my hotel. It was easy to find, super cheap at five euros, and after a maybe 30 minute ride I was dropped off for my short walk. No rain, much nicer than Algeria!

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Passing the Monumento a los Caidos por España on the walk, a monument to all those who have given their lives for Spain over more than two centuries:

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So, got to my hotel, and here’s where the drama would start. The check-in person at the Westin Palace was rather cold, but informed me she had oh so generously upgraded me to a “renovated” room and I “should be happy with that, because you pay a discounted rate, no?” Ok, so the room was nice enough when I got to it…except the suitcase in the middle of the room. I called down to have them remove it…but then noticed the bathroom hadn’t been cleaned either.

Went to the front desk, threw a small fit, and told them I’d like a better room, especially one that was clean and didn’t have other peoples’ belongings in it. I’m going for coffee, and when I get back, please have me in a new room and have my bags moved. I went to Starbucks down the street for some coffee to wake up, where the barista decided my name sounded like Juan and wrote that on the cup. Hah.

Back to the hotel, got the keys to my new room just a few doors down, and all seemed good. My bags had been moved and I was at least mildly happy. Did some work for a couple hours, then went to hang up my clothes…only to find out this room also had clothes already hanging in the closet. Ugh. Do these people every check their rooms? It was a complete disaster. This time, the clothes was removed, and the fight was out of me, so I retired to the hotel bar to enjoy the “complimentary 2-for-1 drink” for platinum members. That’s right no free drink, but if you buy one you can get a second one. How…generous?

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While I enjoyed my two glasses of wine, I was frantically looking for alternatives on my laptop. Finally found one that was a reasonable price, Avianca via Cali and Bogota on the 787 to Havana. Unfortunately instead of a 9p arrival it would be a noon arrival the next day, but figured that might not be too bad. Sure, I’d miss 2-3 hours of touring in the morning, but I figured the overnight hotel in Bogota might be nicer than whatever I’d get in Havana, so I booked it…praying Cubana would let me cancel.

Went out for a walk after the drink, and headed to the Mercado San Miguel to get some dinner and drinks…and people watch!

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Wandered around the various market stalls, and finally found one that had some reasonable (and cheap) house wine! Had a couple of glasses, chatted with some interesting Australian tourists, and then hung out with a group of guys from Quebec for a bit before decided it was time to wander the market a bit more and find something to eat.

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Found a stall selling wagyu beef burgers, and they did look pretty good. Again, English wasn’t a strong suit, so when asked how I wanted it cooked, I dragged out my useful Argentinian Spanish and told them “medio – a punto.” He seemed to understand….

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but, apparently in Madrid, that means, kill it, and while it’s still mooing, serve it to me:

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That said, it was delicious, and I didn’t get food poisoning, so life was awesome! While eating I also got the email back from Cubana that they were happy to do a refund and a few seconds later I got the notice from Amex that it posted. Talk about efficient…even United can’t manage that. So say what you will about unreliable aircraft, at least Cubana delivered on the customer recovery front!

More wine with the Quebecers, and we were eventually joined by a group of Swiss women whose husbands had disappeared to “somewhere” and much wine was consumed. I did, however, find my way back to my hotel before midnight, which is practically child’s play in Spain. I also managed to take a non-blurry picture:

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Off to bed for a good night’s sleep, because it was time for Cuba in the morning!

Sep 252014
 

After dropping off Pépé I headed straight for security, since this time I’d managed to get Vueling to deliver my boarding pass to my phone. Security was a piece of cake, and soon I’d made it through and eventually found my way to the Priority Pass lounge. Signs were very poor, and I couldn’t seem to figure out I needed to take the escalator upstairs.

At this point, I was starving. I hadn’t eaten any real food since breakfast, and it was now late afternoon. I probably should have grabbed something in Llívia, but wasn’t really thinking. I was praying for some food in the lounge. Um, no.  here were a couple of stale looking sandwiches, cheese and crackers, and peanuts. But there was beer. Local beer. Which kinda made up for it. Beer on an empty stomach is good, right?

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About 30 minutes before boarding I headed to the gate, and there was already a line 100 deep forming to board. Ugh, the indignity of flying low cost carriers. Eventually an announcement was made…in spanish only…to split into two lines…one for the first 15 or so rows, and the other for the last 15. Everyone looked confused…because most of them were french. Translated for a few nice old ladies, and managed to skip ahead in line a bit. It was a mess.

Vueling flight 8244
Barcelona, Spain (BCN) to Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 17:00, Arrive 18:50, Flight Time 1:50
Airbus A320, Registration EC-MBF, Manufactured 2008, Seat 14D

Flight was about 95% full, but fortunately the E and F seats in my row were empty…or were they. Two 20-something french guys moved into them from the row behind…but I wasn’t going to argue about it.

The flight attendant came around to do her safety briefing…asking first if we spoke Catalan or Spanish. Si. The two french guys gave her a blank look. She asks again “do you speak english?” Another blank stare. She tries to tell them in English that they must move, because you must speak Catalan, Spanish, or English to sit in the exit row. They looked at her like she was an alien.

At this point, the door was closed, and it was delaying the flight. None of the crew, it appeared, spoke french. So, in order to get the flight moving…and maaaaaybe because I wanted the whole row to myself. I translated…explaining to them. They wanted me to tell the flight attendants a long story about how they knew what to do, they could handle it, etc. I started telling them….and the flight attendant raises her voice. YOU. GO. TO. YOUR. OTHER. SEAT. NOW. OR. WE. WILL. TAKE. YOU. OFF. THE. FLIGHT.

Reluctantly, they finally moved, and we were under way.

About 15 minutes into the flight, as the crew was starting the drink service, I went to the washroom.  I came back to find them in the E and F seats again.  I told them the flight attendant was not going to be happy…and they just gave me a shhhhh!

Well, they came around with buy on board, and the fireworks started.

The flight attendant tried once again to tell them they couldn’t sit there. It ended with the two of them up in her face, and two other flight attendants’ faces, in the aisle, just shy of yelling at them. “Why can’t we sit there? Is it because we’re french? Why don’t you speak french when you fly to france” No translating needed, they weren’t even listening at all. Finally the flight attendant threatened to “have the pilot land the plane” and one of the french guys called her a “racist spanish pig” and took a swing at her.

Out came the zip ties. In a first after 2,000,000 miles of flying, I had to help a flight attendant hold down a passenger while his hands were zip-tied behind his back.

Oh, and he still didn’t get to sit in the exit row…and I got my pringles and beer comped 😉

Upon landing, we taxied past Concorde:

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The Gendarmes met the flight, and I had to walk with them to an office and give a statement. Only took about 10 minutes, and I was pretty pleased with myself that my french was adequate for giving an official statement. Let’s just hope they don’t call me back for a court appearance or something. That would absolutely suck 😉

Took CDGVal to the RER station, and ended up waiting nearly 15 minutes for a train.  Straight shot to Châtelet, and then roughly a 10 minute walk to my hotel.  I was pretty tired by this point after driving nearly 8 hours through Spain and France, but was determined to enjoy my night.  Headed to Les Philosophes for dinner, where I had no problem scoring a table for one. It was nearly 9pm by this point so they were out of lots of things, but the restaurant was packed. Ended up having a nice chat with a couple from Québec on their honeymoon at the next table over.

But first, red wine and bread. I still don’t understand why red wine in France is always colder than anywhere else in the world.

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…and an amazing onion soup, with onions from their own garden.

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…and perhaps the simplest, yet most amazing, steak tartare I’ve ever had.

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Unfortunately they were out of the apple tart dessert I wanted, but this chocolate mousse was absolutely terrible and went terribly with my wine 😉

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Now, it was nearly 11pm, and the smart thing to do with a 10am flight would have been to go to bed.  I wasn’t smart.

Went back to the hotel, made a few phone calls, and a little bit after midnight, I was thinking “it’s only noon in Hawaii…if I go to bed now, I’ll never sleep in Hawaii. Let’s go for a walk.” So, I started walking.

Past the Pompidou, the Jardins de Luxembourg, up the Champs Elysée to the Arc de Triomphe.  Back down Ave. Kléber to Trocadéro, over the Pont D’Iéna, and to the Eiffel Tower.  It was an amazing stroll, Paris by moonlight, and absolutely magical. I’ve been to Paris probably 50 times, but this was a whole new side of Paris, and I loved it! Walked back along the left bank, and finally got back to my hotel around 5am…this was not going to end well…but it was 5pm…an appropriate nap time in Hawaii.

So, I aid down in my hotel for a 1 hour nap:

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Alarm woke me up fortunately, quick shower, and I was out the door…the long trip to Hawaii was about to begin…again!

Sep 222014
 

Plan was to wake up early in order to have a nice casual drive to Barcelona. However, jetlag was starting to catch up to me, and I just couldn’t do it. Finally made it up around 9am, and headed down to the hotel restaurant for a quick breakfast. Hard boiled eggs, baguettes with Nutella, and some good strong coffee. What’s not to love? The very nice dining room of the Casa Canut:

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After breakfast, I wanted to mail a few postcards, so wandered the town trying to find the local post office to mail them. I’d purchased postcards and stamps the night before and wrote the out over breakfast. The walk was a nice wake-up, and I got another good view of the ferris wheel in daylight:

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Then, it was time to drive. Checked out of the hotel around 10:30, and the doorman brought Pépé the Smart Car around for me.  First stop was Llívia, a small Spanish enclave completely surrounded by France. The route highlighted on the map below is the route I took into Andorra from Spain. I was planning to go out the east side on the yellow road you see, and head down the E9 highway to Llívia. This border of Andorra was supposed to be much, much more mountainous, and a very scenic drive.

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Total travel time was forecast at one hour and 13 minutes, so I was expecting 1:30 to 2 hours with stops along the way for photos:

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Leaving Andorra la Vella, some amazing views:

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Sep 182014
 

After fueling up at Starbucks…

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…it was time to find terminal 3 at CDG. I made my way to the CDGVal train, which was pretty self explanatory, and then there was the maybe 200 meter walk to T3. It seemed kind of silly, but I’m used to the C-terminal train at Dulles which also involves a long walk to the terminal, so I’m used to strangely planned train systems.

What I’m not used to is airport terminals that feel like a warehouse. Or bus terminal. Some place that not only doesn’t have first class facilities, but no lounges whatsoever. It was a terrifying place. I started to break out in a cold sweat. What’s this…a line…and there’s no way to cut to the front of it. What’s worse, after 20 minutes standing in it, I was still stuck in the line!  Dear God, I take back every thing I’ve said about how being elite on United no longer is what it used to be…it was traumatizing.  30 minutes later, I was at the front of the line…and based how slowly the line moved I expected the Spanish Inquisition (see what I did there?) before I could check in.

J’ai déja enregistré et j’ai besoin seulement de mon carte d’embarquement….” (looks at passport, tap tap tap, clunk clunk clunk) and out comes my boarding pass. That’s it.  15 seconds. I waited in line for 30 minutes for a 15 second transaction. Dear Vueling: YOU NEED KIOSKS. KTHXBYE LOVE YOU.

I still had about an hour until my flight, so find a little store selling bottled water…it was reasonably priced and I decided to head for security. Took all of 5 minutes to get through, and the waiting area on the other side was just a large collection of seats for 5 or 6 “gates” which were really just doors to busses since T3 has no jetbridges.

Bus to the plane at departure time, and we finally left about 20 minutes late. I’d paid an extra 10 euro to sit in the exit row, which at 6’3 is more than worth it. I shared the row with two very lovely ladies from Kansas who were going on a Mediterranean cruise.  They spent the next 90 minutes telling me all the fascinating things they’d discovered in their few days in Paris. I did lots of smiling and nodding and pretending to be fascinated 😉

Vueling flight 8243
Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Barcelona, Spain (BCN)
Depart 9:50, Arrive 11:35, Flight Time 1:45
Airbus A320, Registration EC-JSY, Manufactured 2006, Seat 14D

So, what was it like to fly a low cost carrier?  Well, not that bad.

I had legroom.  Chatty, but nice row-mates.  I got a Coke Light…it cost me like 3 euro, but I got one.  We were only 30 minutes late, so all in all, I can’t really complain too much.  The best part was the exit row briefing…you had to speak and understand either Catalan or English to be allowed to sit there.  I got briefed in Spanish, which I was super proud of being able to pass well enough in, and the nice ladies from Kansas got briefed in English.  All went well.

Then…it was off through Barcelona to find my car.  I have a confession here.  I can’t drive a manual transmission.  About 100 countries ago I said I’d learn.  I still haven’t.

My options?  A Mercedes E Class at 199 Euro a day (for two days…ouch!) or a Smart Car for about 50 Euro a day.  You can guess what I chose.  The rental agent spoke basic english, and combined with my basic Spanish we got the song and dance done…including the “are you SURE you don’t want extra insurance?”  Yes.  “Oh, and one last thing…se llama Pépé.”  Yes, my car had a name according to the rental agent.

Introducing…Pépé:

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Now, it’s important to remember.  I’m not a small guy.  I’m 6’3 and north of 200 pounds.  There was enough room in this car for me and my one tiny bag, but that’s about all.  I was welcomed with this hangtag in the car:

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She’s winking at me…there’s something she knows I don’t.  Oh, wait, it’s how to drive this thing!  Wait, I have to shift even though it’s an automatic?  Yes, there’s no clutch, but still the shift from 1st to 2nd up to 5th etc was a manual shift.  Once I kinda got the hang of that…I was off.  Fortunately it took a long time to get out of the car park, which gave me lots of practice.  Programmed Google Maps on my iPhone to read me directions to Andorra…and I was off to brave the highways of Spain!

The first hour was a bit of a hot mess.  I made several wrong turns, forgot to shift, got stuck doing 80 kph on the highway, it was a wreck.  But eventually after 90 minutes or so I was getting the hang of it.  Just in time to pull into a rest stop and refuel.  I needed caffeine and calories.  See, isn’t Pépé gorgeous in the sunlight?  It was about 85F and a gorgeous day.

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Continue reading »

Aug 092014
 

Earlier this year, United published, either by mistake or not – it’s not entirely clear – a $1500 all-inclusive business class fare for the summer from a handful of U.S. cities to a handful of European cities.  There were somewhere around 100 possible combinations.  Unfortunately, Washington was not one of them.

This was probably a good thing, because my leave time for 2014 is already all committed, due to my upcoming four weeks in the South Pacific in November, and two plus weeks in East Africa over new years.

But wait…Baltimore is on the list…now that’s tempting…even for a three day weekend.  But it was $1500 for any combination…Baltimore felt lame when perhaps I could do it from the west coast.  Yup, I found San Diego…but that meant getting to San Diego…and if I’m going to go all the way to San Diego, I wonder if….YES once again United seems to want to FORCE me to go to Hawaii.  Honolulu to Paris, business class in August, $1500.  In contrast, the lowest coach fare at the time was about $1650.  This is an absolute bargain.

Alas, I didn’t have the leave.  Didn’t stop me from looking how I could conserve days, and when I could do it.  Wait, I need to be in Las Vegas for a bachelor party late-August.  Las Vegas is on the way back to DC from Hawaii.  That was already planned Wednesday through Friday, so I just needed a way to get Monday-Tuesday off.  I trimmed a couple days off my South Pacific trip…and it was set.

Now…to justify the cost of flying to Hawaii.  Ok, Hawaii-Paris would earn 25,000 more miles than DC-Paris, so that justifies $400 of the fare to Hawaii.  My ticket to Vegas was going to be $1200 for a P fare, so suddenly $1600 is justified.  Buying DC-Honolulu and upgrading with a regional upgrade, done.  One way Honoulu-Vegas on a P fare…done.  Vegas to DC on a P fare…done.  It was all too perfect.

Unfortunately, to guarantee the upgrade, I had to fly DCA-Cleveland-LA-Honolulu.  Ugh.  Leaving at 6am.  Double ugh.  Oh well.  But then, there was a schedule change.  I whined to United I wasn’t comfortable with a 30 minute connection in Cleveland now.  I found upgrade space on DCA-San Francisco-Honolulu leaving at 8:30 – 2.5 hours later – and connecting to the same Honolulu flight.  I begged.  They relented.  It was getting too awesome.  Simply too awesome.

The routing was set:

map

You may have noticed Barcelona in there.  See, I decided that 48 hours in Paris in August might get boring since the city clears out a bit.  Plus, I’ve been to Paris literally dozens of times.  So, I did what any good country collector would…set out to find the last country in Europe I haven’t been to:  Andorra.  Only way really to get there is to drive from Barcelona and Toulouse.  Barcelona had better flight connections…plus, the only automatic transmission rental car I could get was a Smart Car.  The chance to drive, my 6’3 self in a smart car, through the Pyrenees was way too much to pass up.  I booked it.

Then, looking at a map of Andorra, I noticed something super fun.

See this?

Llivia

Thats Llívia, Spain, a little tiny Spanish enclave not connected to Spain, but completely surrounded by France.  To a geography nerd like me this is perhaps the coolest thing ever.  Then, I thought…wait, I’m going to enter Andorra from Spain…I could exit out the other side of Andorra into France, and then drive to Llívia, back into Spain!

llivia2

But of course, this isn’t nerdy enough.  So, I’ll get to Andorra, and spend the night.  Next morning, drive into France, then back into Spain at Llívia, and have coffee…or whatever one does late morning in Spain.  Then, I’ll drive for a very short way BACK into France at Bourg-Madame and have a nice lunch.  Maybe a Croque Madame in Bourg-Madame…then back to Spain and Barcelona Airport, where I will fly to Paris for the night.  Before flying back to Hawaii.

llivia3

So, are you lost yet?  So far we’ve done:

Day 1:  DCA-San Francisco-Hawaii – Overnight Honolulu

Day 2:  Day in Honolulu, and Honolulu-DC redeye

Day 3:  All day in DC where I hope to have brunch with friends, play some hockey, before the redeye DC-Paris

Day 4:  Paris-Barcelona, drive in my little Smart Car to Andorra

Day 5:  Drive Andorra to France to Llívia, Spain for coffee, to Bourg-Madame, France for lunch, to Barcelona, Spain for a flight to Paris, France where I’ll spend the night, get a great meal hopefully and maybe some drinks with friends.

Whew.  Because next up is:

Day 6:  Paris-San Francisco-Honolulu, and dinner in Honolulu

Day 7:  Honolulu-San Francisco-Vegas

Day 8-9-10:  Vegas.  What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Day 11:  Vegas-Houston-DC

I’m already tired, and the trip hasn’t started.  If I pack strategically, I can take a suitcase to Honolulu on Day 1, with everything I’ll need in Vegas, and leave it there to be picked up on Day 6.  Of course, if I forget anything, I have 10 hours (random) in DC on Day 3 to pick up anything I forgot…plus pack a weekend bag for Paris and Andorra, lol

This is crazy.  I’m insane.  But you’re going to read it…admit it…  😉