Sep 152012

…or, otherwise known as, the travel day where almost nothing went right, but in the end, most everything ended up ok.

But, I owe a bit of back story from the night before. Got to my hotel, which I’d chosen based on location (walkable to most major attractions in Fort-de-France for the morning) and on TripAdvisor reviews. I was staying at  l’Hôtel Impératrice, which was a very French-feeling small hotel with maybe 20 or so rooms.  I’d paid a little extra for the “chambre prestige” and was quite happy with it.  Plenty of space to walk around, and what looked like a nice balcony.

It was still pretty early, and again, based on TripAdvisor reviews, I decided to hit Lili’s Beach Bar, which was located in the next town over called Schœlcher, about a 10-15 euro and 15 minute taxi ride.  It was located in the Hôtel Batelière down on the beach, and was really more of a bar than a restaurant.  I’d gotten there about 8, and there were still plenty of people eating so it was fine.  By the time I finished at 9:30, however, it had gone full bar mode and as the reviews note was completely packed with people buying expensive drinks and “paying to be seen.”  Food was decent – not stellar, but pretty good.  Ended up having a conch pizza which was pretty tasty, along with a Planteur Rum Punch.  They were around 10 Euros per drink, but decently tasty.

Back to the hotel and crashed so I could get up and walk around a bit in the morning.  Got up in the morning, and went straight out onto my balcony to take in the view.  Not bad!

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Jul 112012

After landing and a very quick trip through immigration where I confused the officer (transit? how do you transit? oh, you’re going to the domestic/regional airport….what will you do here for 10 hours? Oh, fascinating.) I was through in less than 3 minutes thanks to the American escort. Talk about amazing service. I think I’m going to get some business cards with this website printed…if nothing else to share with immigration officers. It lends credibility to my “country collecting/visiting” story, and immediately defuses the tension when they see my 192 page passport.

Based on very strong recommendations on TripAdvisor, I’d booked my day with Serenity Vacations and Tours.  I was doubly sold when their transfer service promised “homemade rum punch.”  I mean, come on, how much better does it get?!  Immediately through immigration the very cheerful representative and driver met me, and we were set for the day.  Up front, the van was wonderful (at least six people could have fit in it comfortably), the rum punch was delicious and plentiful, and the local beer was also supplied.  Now, on to what we actually DID!

Landing was just before 2pm, so it was around 2:15 by the time we got going.  We did a short drive, and my guide was fantastic in answering all the little questions I had about St Lucia.  Questions about the demographics, economy, politics, you name it.  She knew her country well, and was thrilled to share the details.  I knew I was in great hands!   First, a view from the side of the road near the start of our drive:

Before doing any actual climbing, we stopped at the Tet Paul nature reserve, where I got a fantastic view of the Pitons….this is two small mountains known as Gros Piton and Ptit Piton.  Honestly, they’re almost the same size, and the easiest way to tell them apart is that Ptit Piton is more “pointy” shaped.  We did a short hike around Tet Paul, and got some great views of the Pitons:

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Jul 102012

So let’s see, as I mentioned earlier, this was it. In the dark of the night, I was about to cheat. I felt dirty. I snuck around before the sun rose…I went to see a mistress who had been sending me all sorts of love notes online…and finally I gave in to her seduction. She said she’d treat me better than my long-term lover did. She would lavish me with all sorts of goodies.

Now, in fairness, I’d been here before. But that time, I was in an unhappy relationship. Northwest was abusing me, forcing me to jam my knees into seatbacks and suffer the indignities of international economy. It was awful, and I was looking for something happier. I had a fling with United when she promised me something better. No incentive, just give me a try…you’ll have fun with me. That was around six years ago, and I sure have….to the point I’ve done 950,000 miles on her since then. However, she’s gotten a bit cranky since her evil relative came into the picture and all they do is argue. In front of me. It’s not pretty. I hate spending time around her when all she can do is complain about how bad her recently re-joined siamese twin is. It’s not pretty…at all. To top it off, I hate to admit it, but she’s falling apart.

Last time we went for a romp across the ocean, she was stuck in place. Couldn’t even recline. I’d paid big money for us to enjoy this trip together, and she was stuck in place unable to recline back for hours. It wasn’t enjoyable for either of us, and when I told daddy Smisek, he gave me a pitiful increase on my weekly allowance and said “don’t worry, I think this is a change you’ll like.”

Thus is was, I found myself at DCA at 4:45am ready to cheat on her. I felt dirty, but there it was…and here we go.

4:45am isn’t pretty. Honestly, I still don’t believe it exists. Especially because it required being away at 3:30am, a few espresso shots and a monster energy, a taxi conversation about recent developments in ethiopian politics, and…yeah, I’m boring you. Normally I like hard-copy boarding passes, but at 5am there was no way I was standing in line at the ticket counter to get one. Mobile pass flashed to the TSA nitwits, through the x-ray, no need to opt out today, and I was outside the Mistress’s Lair, I mean Admirals Club, five minutes before opening.

What waited inside? A smile. Yes, at 5am, a SMILE. Whoah…and donuts. United might have slung some yogurt at me if I was lucky, but these were honest to God sugar-filled chunks of 5am happiness. Top this off with awesome smiling staff, and I was in Heaven…until I got to the gate at 6am.

There, I was met with my worst fears. See, I’ve been to 116 countries, but there’s two cities in America I’m ashamed to admit never having been to: Miami, and New Orleans. New Orleans because my already-fragile liver is afraid of it, and Miami because, well…yeah. Getting to the gate, I noticed half the flight was already wearing sunglasses. Mind you, it was 5:20 am and we were inside DCA. That didn’t seem to matter to any of them. Gucci, Prada, tell me what you like…gate 22 at DCA never mind the gate lice! Boarding passes were printed by the ambivalent gate agent, and soon we’d boarded.

Seats? Well, they seemed a bit flimsy in “first” on this 737-800, but nothing terrible. Wide enough, good enough leg room, the standard (to me) United OJ or water offered. So far, just another day up front.

American Airlines flight 2185
Washington, National (DCA) to Miami (MIA)
Depart: 6:05 Arrive: 8:35 Flight Time 2:30
Boeing 737-800, Registration N904AN, Manufactured 1999
Seat 5E, First Class

So, honestly, there’s not much to say about the flight. I know, you expected rocket science, right? It was a standard domestic U.S. flight. A few notes: “breakfast” on American in this case meant a bowl of cereal, a banana, a plate full of blueberries, and some carb bombs…aka biscuit or bagel. Skipped on the bombs, had a bloody mary and enjoyed (dry) the fruit and cereal. As someone who normally skips breakfast it was a perfectly happy start to the day.

Flight itself was completely uneventful, and unfortunately I have very little to report. It was what I’d come to expect from similar flings, and honestly, while the variety was nice my socks weren’t knocked off. I’m definitely not leaving my regular partner for her any time soon because of this. We landed on time in Miami, and culture shock was about to set in!

I think I’m in Detroit, and having a flashback to the last time I had an affair. See, back then, my partner…let’s call her Northwest, used to make me take a train up and down to all parts of town to visit her. She couldn’t sit still, and we’d go to Detroit and zip back and forth on this little red train. It was fun, but soon grew old. Now, this new mistress was going to make me do the same…except in Miami. Zip, zip, zip, from one end of the long terminal to the other, and into her den of iniquity…yes, the “Admiral’s Club.”

Now, a few thoughts on this place, that are easier in numerical form:

1) The lady up front smiled at me. She genuinely cared. She wasn’t a dragon. She was really happy to see me.
2) There was no cheese. No crackers. Some rather sad cookies, but a decent espresso machine. That works for me.
3) Everyone was habla-ing the español. J’étais confusé. What IS this place. I think I got off in Havana by accident.
4) Oh, and why pray-tell is everyone still wearing sunglasses? Indoors? Is there something going on I wasn’t aware of?  My mama’s warned me about places like this.

Never mind, it was a quick stop for espresso, iPad recharging, and agua, and off to the gate. Boarding was quick, things were once-again friendly, and I was ensconced on the 757 where thanks to my learnings of FEBO (Front-Even, Back-Odd) I was near the back of the cabin. See, this chick doesn’t believe in serving her frequent clients first….she just cares where you live. On even-numbered days, she likes the ones up front. On odd-numbered days, she likes the ones in back. Being an odd-numbered day, I’d picked a seat in back so she’d get to me first. Wise choice!

American Airlines flight 2297
Miami (MIA) to St Lucia, Hewanorra Airport (UVF)
Depart: 10:15 Arrive 13:50 Flight time 3:35
Boeing 757-200, Registration N612AA, Manufactured 1989
Seat 5E, Business Class

Once again, I can’t say much on this flight. I had some sort of a chicken dish for lunch, which was tasty enough. I have to admit though….cookies for dessert? Come on, this isn’t grade school. I don’t do dessert often, so look for something tasty when I treat. A cookie just doesn’t cut it. For quasi-domestic though, it was exactly what I’d come to expect from my current partner so I can’t complain or be happy either way.

I did feel guilty, however, that in the galley I had a chat about my current partner with the mistresses employees. They were unaware that the mistress had made such a wide offer to all the guys who’d been hanging out with my current partner, and were extra-anxious to show how fun they were. Yes, this involved beverages….and I have to say…she keeps just as cheap of wine at home as the current. Can’t win or lose here!

Overall first impressions? Same, same…but different. Only noticeable difference is the mistress is noticeably happier these days, while Ms United the partner is quite grouchy in general. That could all change, but I’ll be giving them both a chance…two-timing through at least mid-2013 until I can make my mind up. After all, what’s the point of a mistress if you can’t string both of them along while you think you can get the best of both worlds?

Deplaning was quick, and walked down the stairs into the heat and humidity of St Lucia…country #117 visited. Inside the terminal, I was met with something United has never done for me. There was an agent with my name (and two others…I assume other Exec Platinums) on a board, who personally escorted us to the front of the immigration queue, thanked us for flying American, and made sure we were through in under 5 minutes. WOW! 100+ international flights with United, and they’ve never done that!

Jun 252012

A few months ago, in the midst of declaring bankruptcy and seeing the mess the United/Continental merger was causing, American decided to offer top-tier elite status to disgruntled United elites. Well, you didn’t really have to be disgruntled – I mean, I haven’t seen too many negatives myself, although I know many others have. A quick call, and I was American Executive Platinum through February 2013, with 8 systemwide upgrades good on any fare on top of it.

I mainly took them up on it because I doubted American would be around in another year, and who knows it might come in handy. Well, about a month ago they upped the ante: If you fly 55,000 qualifying miles (instead of the usual 100,000) by December 31 they will renew status (with 8 more systemwide upgrades) through February of 2014. Now…this is interesting. I already have 80,000 of my needed 100,000 United miles booked, and if I plan carefully another 55,000 on American should be possible.

To that end, I started looking at trips for July 4 where I could use American. With the 4th falling on a Wednesday it was a bit awkward, but since I had the Friday before off, by taking Monday/Tuesday off I could get a 6 day trip for the price of 2 leave days…a downright bargain!

So, I started exploring destinations that I’d always missed on United (either because they don’t fly there, or do in very convoluted ways) and where American was strong. I don’t plan for this status to last much more than 18 months so time to make the most of it. Generally, that meant exploring the Caribbean and South America.

First idea was the Bolivia-Peru-Ecuador trip I want to do soon, but that will take much more than six days, and with the dates less than a month away reasonable fares and systemwide upgrade seats were long gone. Plan two…caribbean. This is where I struck gold…I found a way to squeeze in six countries in six days by flying into St Lucia and out of Antigua. The route looks like this:

So the plan is to hit St Lucia, St Vincent, Grenada, Barbados, Dominica, and Antigua in six days.  There’s things to see, but I think for most of them one day will be plenty.  None of the flights are over 90 minutes, so most of my time will be spent exploring.  Anyone who has recommendations of things to see I’m all ears!

I don’t know why I feel like this is such an AAdventure…all domestic airlines are pretty much the same…right?  But, now I feel like I’m cheating on the United much like I originally felt like I was cheating on Northwest when I started flying United about seven years ago.  We’ll see if there’s any difference…and what the plusses and minuses are.

I still need about 21,000 miles on United and 37,000 on American and partners this year…anyone with fun (but short…vacation time is low) suggestions they’re more than welcome!

Mar 092012

Count stands at 109, and in May, I have a trip to get five more countries already booked.  Nepal, Bhutan, Seychelles, Sudan, and Bulgaria (strange combo, for sure) are already done.  That marks 114.

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