Jun 052018
 


Time for another throwback post, this time back to 2008 when I was alerted to a mistake fare that Lufthansa had published. The fare was meant to be for DC to Helsinki, but when publishing it in the list of permissible connecting cities they accidentally put the code for Johannesburg. This meant that for a “normal” sale business fare to Helsinki you could add in several more miles earned plus have the chance for a 12 hour stop in Johannesburg! Back in the younger days when I flew more just for the adventure this sounded like a wild deal. I was sold!

Of course, I had nearly 14 hours in Frankfurt on the way to Johannesburg, and that just wouldn’t do at all. At this point I was at only 63 countries visited, so I started looking if there was a sidetrip from Frankfurt that I could pull off within 14 hours. Noticing the frequent flights from Frankfurt to Zurich, I decided that pulling off Liechtenstein would be possible, so a quick booking and I was set to try it!

Fast forward to the flights were relatively uneventful, so few details. Fortunately I was into Frankfurt on time and had no trouble making my connecting on SWISS. Fortunately, since they were both on separate tickets it could have been trouble. This was also in the dates before inflight WiFi, so it’s not like I could just log on and cancel the SWISS ticket if we were going to be late.

Fortunately, no problems.

United flight ???
Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart approx 17:30 Arrive: approx 7:00 next day, flight time: approx 8 hours
Boeing 767-300, Registration N657UA, Manufactured 1993, Seat 6K

SWISS flight 1071
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 10:20, Arrive: 11:20, flight time: 1 hour
Airbus A319, Registration HB-IPY, Manufactured 1996, Seat 10F

Landed right on time in Zurich, and I had exactly 7.5 hours between flights to go see Liechtenstein. Down to the train station in the airport, and a first class ticket to the Swiss town of Sargans purchased. It was just over an hour to Sargans, where upon arrival I bought a connecting bus ticket to take me the rest of the five miles or so into Vaduz, Liechtenstein.

First impressions, a bank with some very modernist architecture:

More walking, and I was really impressed by just how green everything was:

This was around the time it seemed like every city had to have statues that represented the city, painted a bunch of different ways. DC had its donkeys and elephants, Berlin had its bears, and apparently Liechtenstein has its….cows.

…again just how green it was. But brrr, it was mid-August and everyone was still in jackets.

Herzlich willkommen!

Small tourist train running around Vaduz:

After walking around for around three to four hours, I decided to walk back to Switzerland, you know, as one does. There haven’t been a whole lot of international borders I’ve crossed by walking!

Old wooden bridge between Vaduz and Switzerland:

Apparently, the local graffiti artists are less fond of Switzerland:

…and walking back into Liechtenstein one more time for good measure:

…and back into Switzerland. How many different border signs can I find!

…just one more, I swear!

Caught the bus on the Swiss side back to the train station, and back to the airport in plenty of time to relax in the lounge for a bit before flying back to Frankfurt. Very productive stopover!

SWISS flight 1076
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 18:55, Arrive: 20:00, flight time: 1:05
Airbus A319, Registration HB-IPS, Manufactured 1997, Seat 36A

No need to clear immigration since at this time Switzerland wasn’t in an immigration union with the Schengen countries, so got to stay in the international area the whole time, and plenty of time for a stop by the lounge on the way to the plane. Best part of the flight down to Joburg? I was so exhaused from sleeping on the plane the night before and walking around all day that I passed out. Plus, this was the old 747-400 configuration with 4D, the solo seat in the nose that people used to call the “Captain’s Chair” because it was in the middle of the deck.

Lufthansa flight 572
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 22:35 Arrive: 8:50 next day, flight time: 10:15
Boeing 747-400, Registration D-ABTF, Manufactured 1991, Seat 4D

This was also in the days before the Gautrain, so I had to hope a shared bus taxi into the city, which dropped me right at Nelson Mandela Square. Looks just the same as it does now 10 years later! I had a great lunch Al Fresco while walking off the jetlag as much as possible before heading back to the airport to fly right back to Frankfurt!

Most awkward part about flying back to Frankfurt? It was the same plane I had come in on in the morning, and I had exactly the same seat heading back! Third straight night sleeping on a plane, and fortunately the seat was still form-fit to me so I quickly passed out and slept just about the entire way to Frankfurt. Three nights in a row on planes will do that!

Lufthansa flight 573
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 18:55 Arrive: 5:25 next day, flight time: 10:30
Boeing 747-400, Registration D-ABTF, Manufactured 1991, Seat 4D

Lufthansa flight 3102
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Helsinki, Finland (HEL)
Depart 9:35 Arrive: 12:55, flight time: 2:20
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIQW, Manufactured 2000, Seat 4C

Spent the first day in Helsinki walking off jetlag and playing tourist a bit, and then it was time to head to Estonia for a night. I’d never been on a helicopter before, so it seemed the way to go!

Loading the baggage….much easier than a plane!

Excited to be boarding my first helicopter. Back in 2005 Copterline had a crash on this route killing all 20+ aboard, but I wasn’t nervous for some reason….I’m not sure why, but…

Copterline flight 140
Helsinki, Finland (EFHE) to Tallinn, Estonia (EECL)
Depart 17:00 Arrive: 17:20, flight time: 20 minutes
Augusta Westland 139 Helicopter, Registration OH-HCR, Manufactured ?, Seat 2A

Look at those views! We passed over the Tallink Ferry, which would be our ride back to Helsinki the next day:

After landing at Tallinn City Hall Heliport:

One last evening picture…back when it was cool to have holes in your jeans, I know…

Took the more direct route home, not via South Africa, and really did make the most of a five day weekend! Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, South Africa, Finland, Estonia…any trip where you have more countries than days is pretty successful!

Lufthansa flight 3103
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 13:40 Arrive: 15:10, flight time: 2:30
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIQW, Manufactured 2000, Seat 2F

Great surprise….an operational upgrade at the gate to first class for the last segment back to DC. What a great way to end what was a fantastic trip!

United flight 933
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 17:00 Arrive: 19:44, flight time: 8:44
Boeing 777-200, Registration N768UA, Manufactured 1995, Seat 1A

Hopefully these throwback posts make an interesting read – I’d love to see how some of these places have changed with time – share your stories!

May 182018
 


After a nice rest, and waking up with Starbucks at Geneva Airport, it was time to find the SWISS First Lounge. I’d done some online searching, and people on Flyertalk generally seemed pretty unhappy with priority security at GVA as well as the lounge. I decided to leave myself about 90 minutes of lounge time to make my own assessment.

Premium security was pretty quick, and waited maybe five minutes in line. Super efficient. The lounge wasn’t very hard to find, and when I offered my F boarding pass from Frankfurt to Johannesburg the agent directed me through the magic door on the left to the F lounge. Now, maybe it’s not the biggest most impressive lounge in the world…but I had the entire place all to myself! How can you not like that?

I liked the decor – not at all crowded, but not a big fan of the chairs. Just found them a little awkward to sit in and the cushions a little too big and firm. I know, first world problems. Did I mention I had the whole place to myself for the entire 90 minutes?

Plus, the buffet had a really nice cheese setup!

Oh, and macarons! I didn’t try any of the other sweets, but one of the downsides of an empty lounge is you know the food isn’t turning over often and isn’t really the freshest.

The macarons weren’t the freshest, but didn’t stop me from sampling a few while I waited…

After a perfectly nice stay in the lounge (only complaint? it was too warm, but that’s just my personal pet peeve almost everywhere in Europe) it was off to the gates. Boarding was delayed about 15 minutes, but we had a great few of other planes and the mountains in the background while we waited. It’s really hard not to like Switzerland…

Boarding was a complete scrum, but despite boarding 15 minutes late we pushed back only five minutes late. Not too bad at all for a completely full flight…except for the other seat in my row! One empty seat on the plane, and it’s next to me once again. Definitely having some good luck on this trip so far.

Lufthansa flight 1223
Geneva, Switzerland (GVA) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 17:55, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time: 1:15
Airbus A319, Registration D-AILL, Manufactured 1997, Seat 4F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 29,921
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,549,983

Did I mention it was a gorgeous day and we had an amazing view of Lake Geneva, the mountains, and the airport as we did a 180 right after takeoff?

Yes, 55 minute flight and they served a rather substantial snack. As someone who loves sour cherries, and cheese…esp cheese with fig compote…it was definitely a great snack…and I had to try really hard not to ruin my appetite for the upcoming stop at the Lufthansa First Lounge and flight.

Landed right on time and…we ended up at a remote stand. I saw the driver next to the plane, and he didn’t have any names, but I hoped…and yup, he was there for me! I’ll never complain about a remote stand when I have my own driver!

Given the driver could only take me to the main airport and not the First Class Terminal (boo!) I opted for the B terminal, knowing that would also eventually guarantee me a ride to my plane which was departing from the Z gates. It would be a semi-short visit to the lounge today, so I headed straight to the dining room for some Schnitzel and champagne! Layovers are so trying when you get served a dinner like this…

…and I think Lufthansa must seriously be stalking one of my social media accounts. As I was eating, the lounge attendant came up to me and said “Herr Mayfield, I thought you might want a duck?” Haha, I’m not sure if I find it creepy or thoughtful….who am I kidding, definitely thoughtful!

After a quick shower, I settled in to watch a little tv until the flight…given the programming, a drink was definitely in order. With over 100+ different scotches/whiskeys to try, it’s going to require many more trips through Frankfurt to make a dent in Lufthansa’s offerings!

Off to the plane we go…Porsche tonight.

Rain or not, there’s always something magical pulling up next to the plane in a Porsche and walking aboard like you’re a VIP. No matter how many times I do it, it never gets old!

Only two passengers tonight, which was a bit strange as I’ve found this in the past to be one of the hardest routes for business to first upgrades. Chatted a bit with the other passenger, as well as the flight attendant serving first, and everyone agreed it was an unusually light load. Not going to complain, though!

Lufthansa flight 572
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 22:05, Arrive 8:30 next day, Flight Time: 10:25
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYH, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 35,301
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,555,363

Let’s see, what’s for dinner tonight…I mean, not that I need dinner after the lounge

One thing I like about the length of the Johannesburg flight is it’s long enough to get a good sleep in…and

Like the transfer, it never gets old. Welcome aboard macadamia nuts, champagne, and a simple rose…

I’ll start off by apologizing for the dark pics…I find it much harder with the iPhone taking pictures in a dark cabin. Any tips are, of course, very welcome! Amuse bouche of salmon, creme, and some fig spread….wasn’t a huge fan.

Starters from left to right….the asian beef was super tasty, and just the right combo of flavours and textures. The goat cheese with bell pepper and olive was alright but nothing special. I generally avoid shellfish on planes (except maybe lobster!) but the scallop was surprisingly tasty, and perfectly cooked.

Sad was uninspired, and very surprisingly for Lufthansa several of the leaves were wilted and browning. Unusual for Lufthansa (and the crew) to miss something like this.

As the other passenger chose to sleep, the question wasn’t “do you want” caviar, but “how much do you want” – decided to start with a quarter of the tin, which was already a pretty generous portion!

…followed by another quarter of the tin. I may have a problem.

Very rarely do I do the fist option on planes, but when it’s monkfish I cant resist. I was cooked really well, and lighter than a beef dish would have been. Overall it was really tasty and a good choice.

Oh Lufthansa with your amazing cheese cart and sweet biscuits…there are not words enough to describe how fond of you I am!

Raspberry and yogurt cake with pistachio ice cream…not only was the presentation amazing, it tasted fantastic. Plus, I love pistachio ice cream, so it was extra amazing!

…and as is my custom with overnight Lufthansa first flights a couple of pralines and some Johnny Walker Blue to nod off.

Crew kept the cabin nice and cold at my request (after making sure the other passenger didn’t mind) and I crashed….hard. So hard that my request to not wake me up should I be sleeping had to be honoured, and I was woken up 15 minutes from landing after a solid 7+ hours of sleep. Probably one of the best in-flight sleeps I’ve every had, and a wonderful end to another great flight.

Now, time to hope the immigration line isn’t too long, and spend a couple of days resting and recovering before getting down to work!

May 142017
 

After a quick coffee and beer, we headed down to the Aeroexpress train. It had already been a really long day and I was tired, so decided to spring the extra $10 or so for the business class car, and it turned out there were only 3 people in the whole car. Sure, it’s only like a 30 minute ride, but it was nice to be able to relax and enjoy it.

I had made the mistake of wearing shorts since it was over 70F when we left Abkhazia, but in Moscow it was 35F and freezing cold. After a short metro transfer, we had a 10 minute or so walk to our hotel, the St. Regis, and it was definitely a frigid walk. I’m still amazing not a single babushka came up to me and chastised me for being poorly dressed for the weather!

Check-in was quick and polite, and since both rooms had been booked under my name they were good enough to upgrade both of us to very nice one bedroom suites – can’t complain about that at all! Doing 200+ nights with Starwood last year is definitely paying off with much nicer upgrades than I’m used to receiving. Unfortunately it was going to just be a relatively short overnight and we wouldn’t really have time to enjoy the room, but it was nice nonetheless.

After dropping bags and putting on warmer clothes, we headed out for a walk. First, the obligatory Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral shot – something about the grey cloudy weather gave the perfect mood to the square:

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We wandered around trying to find a shop Ian knew that sold wonderfully kitschy Putin and Russia souvenirs, but apparently they’d gone out of business in the last year. We headed back to the GUM department store for some fantastic pistachio ice cream, and deciding we were hungry decided to check out Stolovaya #57 – a cafeteria in the department store modeled after an old school Soviet cafeteria…except with much better variety of food!

Vegetable salad with beetroot, peas, carrots….fresh fruit, stuffed bell pepper, and a chicken cutlet with mushroom sauce. Delicious and filling…and very authentically Russian…all this for under $10.

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After eating we wandered through the grocery store in GUM, and in the alcohol section they were selling Kalashnikov brand vodka….complete in a plastic kalashnikov bottle….only in Russia!

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After dinner, we headed to a small bar I’d been told about, not terribly far from Red Square, called Rules Taproom. A friend had told me they had one of the best craft beer menus in the world, but that we should expect to feel “tragically old and uncool.” We definitely brought the average age up by quite a bit, but at least we didn’t look too out of place with the extremely tattooed and hipster crowd. Plus, an amazing taplist and great taps!  A hockey trophy, brass knuckles, a grenade, a wrench, and lots of other cool stuff. Can’t wait to go back!

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Back to the hotel and bed by a reasonable hour, because we wanted to be sure to be able to hit the St. Regis’ amazing breakfast buffet before heading to the airport. Flight was at 9am, and it can take up to an hour to get to the airport, so with a 630a opening time for the buffet we knew we would be cutting it close.

Great night of sleep, at the buffet right when it opened, and it was worth the wait! Smoked salmon and whitefish, caviar, blue cheese, pain au chocolate, and fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. With a pot of tea, of course!

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Took nearly an hour for our Uber to get to the airport, but was definitely the quickest option. We did make it with plenty of time, but unfortunately I lost Ian at immigration, because his gates were at a different checkpoint, and clogged with loads of Central Asians who they were taking forever to process. I, however, made it through quite quickly and even had five minutes to stop in the SWISS lounge for some water and snack. Unfortunately, none of the shops sold more Putin magnets.

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Fortunately, the lounge was only a two minute walk from my gate, so nice and easy for boarding which was right on time.

SWISS flight 1325
Moscow, Domodedovo (DME) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 9:05, Arrive 11:40, Flight Time: 4:35
Airbus A320, Registration HB-IJS, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,522
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,413,399

Something about the welcome screens on SWISS always makes me feel relaxed and multicultural…a good feeling in this increasingly isolationist and polarized world:

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Pushback…the wonderfully kitschy lime green S7 livery and a Ural Airlines plane:

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Great view of the parked planes including a couple of Tupolevs on takeoff. Those S7 planes really stand out!

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Not a bad breakfast for a relatively short regional flight! Delicious Muesli, reasonable omelette, perfectly buttery and flaky croissant (unlike the ones usually served on US domestic flights which are more like glorified crescent rolls), some fresh fruit and cheese. I decided to make it a champagne brunch, and the fantastic crew insisted I have a second class…and pushed it on the guy across the aisle too. “If you waste the rest of the bottle, it will be a real pity!” Who can argue with that logic!

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Touchdown in a very snowy Zurich…yes, this is late April!

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Headed through immigration, and decided while I was at it to leave the secured area. As usual when dealing with Swiss border guards, they asked me a million questions, acting as if I was the most suspicious character they’d ever met. All Schengen/Swiss border controls are NOT equal – despite the intent. Why would you fly Zurich to Frankfurt? Why not just fly Moscow to Frankfurt? Why are you in Europe so much? Why do you spend so much time in Russia recently? Why is there a stamp from Somalia in your passport, on and on for nearly 15 minutes.

Headed to Starbucks for the most expensive Starbucks in the world (nearly $8 for an Americano – I think the only place more expensive might be Copenhagen…although even that might not compete these days.) On that note, any readers interested in adding to my database of Starbucks prices around the world hit me up. I track the price of a grande drip coffee (with tax) if you have a chance to look at your local shop.

After heading back through security, I headed to the SWISS lounge, where it was time for a local beer and a snack:

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One more local beer, and some Gummibärchen….because…it was still snowing and my Lufthansa flight was delayed nearly two hours:

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Finally, nearly two hours late, our flight was ready for boarding, so I headed off to the gate, where our Lufthansa plane was just pulling in….looks like we’ll be almost 2.5 hours late in the end! How un-German!

Lufthansa flight 1191
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 14:40, Arrive 15:45, Flight Time: 1:05
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIPY, Manufactured 1991, Seat 6F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,699
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,413,576

On the taxi out, I noticed lots of sleet and ice forming on the window:

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We were at the end of the runway, turning onto the active runway to take off, when I also noticed lots of ice/sleet/slush accumulating on the wings. Visions of Air Florida started dancing through my head, and I decided to start ringing the flight attendant call button frantically – probably 10 times in 10 seconds or so. I still don’t know if it was me, or a sensor in the cockpit, but the pilot turned off the active runway and announced to us we would need to deice before taking off due to snow moving in as we taxied out. Quite a scary moment!

Once airborne, despite the 50 minute flight time, a small snack was served. Scary sandwich, some fresh fruit, chocolate, and a glass of white wine. Skipped the sandwich, but the rest was quite tasty and impressive service for a short flight. This probably wasn’t Lufthansa’s best effort with the delay and all, but overall I still was left with a better impression that I usually am in the US. I think the attitude and composure of the crew went a long way towards helping.

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Landed in Frankfurt much later than expected, but fortunately was staying at the airport Sheraton. I was met by the general manager at check-in, who let me know that they’d followed up on my previous disappointing stay, and found a room that was extra cool with great air conditioning. I found out later they had blocked the room on both sides of me as well as above and below, and turned the air up full blast in those. A bit unnecessary, but the effort and CRM was super welcome. I’ll definitely be staying at this property again.

Headed out to Naiv, my favourite craft beer bar in the area, and enjoyed some delicious beer-braised bacon-wrapped dates:

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Along with a reasonably tasty German imperial IPA or three:

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With that, it was a quick ride back to the hotel for a bit of sleep. I wanted to make sure to be up early to enjoy what I hoped would be another amazing experience in the Lufthansa first class terminal!

Apr 232016
 

Had to head to Cape Town for work, and debated taking Qatar for the service (and crediting to American) but in the end decided the chance to earn some Star credit was too good to pass up. After that, if came down to who to fly: South African? Lufthansa? Maybe try something new and take SWISS? Decided to go with SWISS because, if I was going to spend the day in Europe I wanted to do it in Zürich, plus, United had upgrade space available on the flight to London, so it was a no-brainer!

Quick check-in at the first class counter at Dulles airport, no wait at TSA PreCheck, and was quickly off to the United First lounge, despite my flight leaving from the D gates. My usual glass of bubbles along with some shrimp cocktail and salmon:

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Caught up on work emails, and then the long trek down to the D gates. I don’t think I’ve ever departed Dulles transatlantic from the D gates before in dozens of flights, so I guess I should count myself lucky!

United Airlines flight 918
Washington, DC Dulles (IAD) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 19:35, Arrive 06:50 next day, Flight Time: 7:15
Boeing 777-200, Registration N798UA, Manufactured 1998, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 34,668
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,224,193

What’s this…not just welcome aboard bubbles offered, but anything you want to drink? Wow, United, careful, someone might start to think you’re a real international carrier…wait, the plastic glasses dispel that notion!

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Fun new historical postcard amenity kits. This is my fave of the kits lately, because the case actually makes a fantastic toiletries bag. I have a few of them now, so hopefully they last a while!

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Sunset departure from Dulles:

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So what’s to eat tonight?

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Takeoff was on time, and now it’s time to eat…excellent!

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Château le Jeff 2016 and warmed split cashews…groovy!

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Garlic bread…this flight is off to a good start!

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Shrimp tempura and corn…that sort of thing ain’t my bag, baby!

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I love mushrooms. I love leeks. I did NOT love this mushroom and leek soup. Two bites and gave up. Fortunately, the Château le Jeff was in plentiful supply tonight, as was the garlic bread!

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The salad was…unmemorable.

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BRING ME ZEE PORK CHOP! As usual, it was solid…the stuffing thing is pretty tasty, and broccoli pretty much is my favourite veg, sooo…

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Pre-plated cheese, but it was delicious with some sweet biscuits. For once I was stuffed, and didn’t ask for seconds.

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Ice cream “with hot fudge and cherries” only yielded two cherries tonight. Below average.

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I passed on the offer of more drinks as a nightcap…

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Slept four solid hours, which for a six hour flight is excellent for me. Was super happy with it, plus, if I needed it, I would have all day to nap. The usual super long walk to immigration at Heathrow, followed by the equally long walk back to the remote terminal for the United First lounge. Skipped the shower, and opted for breakfast since I’d slept through it on the plane. If I was going to be in London, at least I was going to order some bacon rolls and a buck’s fizz, even if it wasn’t on the menu. Not a problem at all, and the lounge was happy to prepare:

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Super long back to the other pier for my SWISS flight on to Zurich, but it felt good walking after being on the plane.

SWISS flight 317
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 08:50, Arrive 11:40, Flight Time: 1:50
Airbus A320, Registration HB-JLR, Manufactured 2012, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 35,159
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,224,684

Flight was only about half full in “business” so I switched to the window seat and had a whole row to myself. Very solid breakfast for a short flight, complete with Coke Light. Wasn’t terribly hungry after lounge breakfast, so pretty much just nibbled at it:

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Got to Zurich, and was definitely ready to crash. Quick train ride, and I was at my favourite hotel, the Sheraton Zurich. Checked in, crawled in bed, and was out for a good 4+ hours of sleep. Felt much better after that, so went out for a good hour-long walk to the city centre before heading back to the hotel to do a bit of work. Headed to the hotel bar for happy hour, since a drink and snack was included for platinum members. Decided to get a little fuel for the trip back to the airport:

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I was already checked in, so headed straight to immigration, where I had a little bit of drama with the immigration officer, who refused to accept my documents despite the fact I’ve entered Switzerland on the same passport multiple times. Finally, he agreed to let me through, but the whole experience was odd…anyways, headed to the brand new SWISS pier lounge, and had a nice cooked to order light dinner of rosti, pork, and gummi bears!

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Only had a little time in the lounge to catch up on emails and such, before boarding my onward flight.

SWISS flight 288
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 22:45, Arrive 10:25 next day, Flight Time: 10:40
Airbus A340-300, Registration HB-JMO, Manufactured 1997, Seat 10A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 40,370
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,229,895

Tonight’s menu features cuisine from the Canton of Baselland:

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The smoked trout and char starter was interesting…first time I’ve ever had a lavender-honey sauce:

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Grilled John Dory for a main, which was excellent…and the pretzel roll made it even better. I’m warming to this whole fish on planes thing!

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Basic, but tasty dessert…I’d already had the cheese, so was pleased:

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One final glass of wine and a chocolate before bed:

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Slept nearly seven wonderful hours, and woke up just as the flight attendant was bringing breakfast. Meats, cheeses, and muesli with rhubarb? I was in heaven…I love rhubarb!

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Immigration was a hot mess in Johannesburg, as we had landed behind several other flights – at least an hour wait if not more. Fortunately was able to jump to the head of the queue, where I got a very strange agent who decided to look carefully at every stamp in my passport before asking where my visa was. Ugh, dude, I don’t need a visa…calls over his equally clueless supervisor. Finally, they agree, ok, you don’t need a visa, stamp stamp, welcome. The whole experience, again, was very odd.

Off to the domestic side of the terminal, quick stop in the South African lounge for a Coke Light, and just as quickly it was time to board. Unfortunately we were at a bus gate this morning, but it was on time and efficient, so really can’t complain!

South African flight 333
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Cape Town, South Africa (CPT)
Depart 12:10, Arrive 14:15, Flight Time: 2:05
Airbus A340-600, Registration ZS-SNG, Manufactured 2003, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 41,160
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,230,685

It was a treat being on a widebody for a short domestic flight, and we had a super friendly crew today. They were pretty much forcing drinks on people, and I decided to go with the vegetarian snack…which came “sealed in freshness” hahah:

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It didn’t look any more appetizing once the plastic came off. I refuse to touch anything with mayonnaise on a plane, so gave everything but the water and wine a miss. I tried the fruit, but as usual dry and flavourless, sooooo…..

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After a quick flight we landed in Cape Town right on time, where we actually had a jetbridge, quick domestic arrival, and it was time to get to work! My driver that I had pre-arranged from the Westin was waiting for me, so it was a nice quick and comfortable transfer to my home for the next week.

Feb 092016
 

After a very productive week of meetings, it was time to head back to the airport for the long trek back to DC. Of all the trips I’ve made to Thailand this was the first time I’d ever gone transatlantic, and this trip I was going transatlantic in both directions. Unexpected bonus of this was an early morning arrival in Bangkok (as opposed to the usual midnight) and a late afternoon departure, as opposed to the oh-dark-thirty.

Check-in was nice and easy at Thai’s Royal Silk area, and even the toilets were friendly:

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Since I had a long way to go until sleep – still another 8+ hours, I grabbed a Starbucks at the airport before exploring Thai’s rather sad excuse for a lounge. The main lounge was extremely crowded, very few power outlets, and the snacks were also pretty dire. Overall, it was way below the quality I remembered, and I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come. I actually left the lounge early to wander the airport I was so bored in there – even the internet was pretty slow.

At least there was a wat near my gate?

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Boarding was a few minutes late, and then like all flights to India it was a mad rush to the door. I’ve gotten pretty good at holding my own, definitely a trait I’ve learned from my travels in India, China, and Africa. If you don’t look out for yourself in a crowd, nobody else is going to! Once safely aboard, it was a nice empty (maybe 50% full) business class cabin tonight, unlike the flight over. Not only was I spared sitting next to Typhoid Mary again, but I had a whole row of three seats to myself in business!

Thai Airways flight 315
Bangkok, Thailand (BKK) to Delhi, India (DEL)
Depart 20:00, Arrive 23:00, Flight Time: 4:30
Boeing 777-200, Registration HS-TKF, Manufactured 2000, Seat 14D

All three seats…just for me and my bags!

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Side view of the two window seats…unfortunately all the window pairs were full, but for a night flight it didn’t really matter.

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Unlike the flight over, pre-departure bubbles were offer. Leads me to believe it was a customs issue that they wouldn’t open them in Delhi.

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Tonight’s dinner menu:

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a few almons and spring rolls to start – not on the menu – guess it was a change:

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Salmon and crab salad to start, along with a regular green salad and garlic bread…not bad, but not impressive either:

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The chicken penang curry…pretty good, but again nothing to write home about:

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Mini desserts and fruit…I’m not sure what’s with Thai’s fascination of serving everything (curry, desserts, fruits) in little cupcake tins:

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Stayed up this flight and caught up on a bit of work and tv, and arrival into Delhi was right on time. Immigration and transit security were a piece of cake this time, and the Austrian staff were expecting me. Austrian uses the same lounge United does, which was absolutely packed. There are something like 10+ lounges at Delhi for like 20 gates, yet they always all manage to be packed. I haven’t been able to figure out the logic behind it. I tried to go to the Lufthansa lounge, but it was too full ,and they weren’t letting Star Golds in. Finally found a seat in the United/Austrian one, and at least I found a magical snack:

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Boarding was right on time for my first longhaul flight on Austrian.

Austrian flight 34
Delhi, India (DEL) to Vienna, Austria (VIE)
Depart 02:15, Arrive 05:55, Flight Time: 8:10
Boeing 767-300ER, Registration OE-LAX, Manufactured 1992, Seat 3K

Tonight’s dinner menu. I didn’t get a picture of the breakfast menu, which was a card you filled out, along with if you wanted to be woken up for it. I decided to get as much sleep as possible, knowing there were plenty of options for food in the airport upon arrival.

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Tonight’s route of fight. I love westbound redeyes – by the time you depart you’re usually rather tired from the late hour, but when you arrive at 5-8a local time it’s usually around noon where you came from so your body feels rested and ready to go..

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Mixed nuts for a starter. I was pleased that despite being a 2am flight, a reasonably full meal was being served.

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“Potpourri of Salmon” starter…rather tasty:

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Chicken breast starter main. Extremely bland and unimaginative, but at the same time not bad. It just sort of…was. I’m more wondering how I got this picture at such an extreme angle!

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Passionfruit cheesecake and cheese. The cheese was delicious, but there wasn’t nearly enough of it. You can guess what happened when I asked for a second helping…yep…of course there was no more. Seriously, why is cheese the one thing they seem to never have extra of?

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On the positive side, after this relatively small dinner I passed out for a solid six hours, waking up only on final approach to Vienna. The crew had done a great job of serving breakfast to those who wanted it without waking those of us who wanted to sleep. Generally, for me, seat comfort and ability to sleep is the most important thing on longhaul flights, and in this regard Austrian did a great job. I was worried they would keep the cabin super hot as Lufthansa and Swiss tend to do, but no such problems this flight.

Landed right on time, though there was a bit of a line at immigration and at security, which didn’t leave much if any time for the lounge. No big deal – the next flight was a short one and I figured I would doze on it anyways.

Austrian flight 561
Vienna, Austria (VIE) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 07:10, Arrive 08:40, Flight Time: 1:30
Airbus A320, Registration OE-LBQ, Manufactured 1999, Seat 4A

Fantastic view of sunrise after takeoff. Although they were crummy EuroBusiness seats, at least I had the whole row again.

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Rather strange breakfast panini, yogurt, and fruit. I pecked at it, but wasn’t worth more than a few bites.

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Landed in Zurich right on time, stayed in the Schengen Area of the airport to enjoy the Swiss lounge, and had a nice shower as well as a pretzel roll and a bit of cheese. The showers were actually a bit difficult to find, as they are in the business class part of the lounge and not the Senator side. Not a problem, however, and once found they were basic but solid. One note is that while the Senator side of the lounge was very crowded, the business class side was relatively empty.

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Walking to the gate, the airport was already ready for Christmas:

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Stopped to get one last Starbucks before boarding, at what is one of the most expensive Starbucks in the world. At seven francs for a venti Americano the only countries I recall being more expensive is Denmark. Hong Kong runs a close third, however. If anyone wants to help contribute to my Starbucks Index, feel free to send me the price of a Grande Drip/Filter Coffee in your city including tax.

Despite telling them my name was François to try and make things easier, they still managed to stuff it up. Should have gone with something German, but that would have just confused them since I didn’t speak German.

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Boarding for United was the usual cattle call, and every seat in business was taken today.

United flight 53
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 11:35, Arrive 15:15, Flight Time: 9:40
Boeing 767-400, Registration N77066, Manufactured 2002, Seat 1D

Oscar Cliquot, 2014, verre plastique:

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Today’s menu:

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Cashews from Oscar’s Split Cashew Farm:

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…but hey, garlic bread, with plentiful replenishments. Yay!

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Yes, this is an appetizer. One shrimp and small piece of salmon, hidden amongst greenery:

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What WAS I thinking ordering the beef…

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I’ve seen shoe leather that was less tough. Lesson learned today: never again with the beef on United. Never again.

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Cheese was an improvement, mainly because they had plenty of the sweet biscuits I like with it:

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Sundae, with caramel and cherries. The usual three when asked for “cherries.”

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Napped a little bit, watched lots of tv, and all in all generic United transatlantic daytime flight. The arrival snack was a very nice change, with a decent serving of fruit that was still juicy, meat, and cheeses. Probably one of the better pre-arrival United snacks I’ve had. Much better than those super sad tea sandwiches they serve out of London. I really wish they’d do something about the rather sad and cheap chocolates for a sweet, however.

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Another trip in the books, next up, I’ll write a bit about the hotels in Bangkok.

Dec 232014
 

Thankfully, and this might be the only time I say this, my room at the Sheraton was nice and warm, because I woke up with a full-blown cold and it felt quite nice cuddled into the comforter. Unfortunately, that made it harder to get going in the morning. I really enjoyed this hotel, and definitely want to go back and spend a bit longer there, especially when not sick.

Walked the 10+ minutes to the train in the freezing cold, sniffling the whole way, and had an effortless trip to the airport. I remember being on the platform and thinking…I want to move here. Things just work so well in Switzerland, and every time I’m there I’m in a good mood. Random thoughts for the day…

Got to the airport, and let’s be honest, important first stop this early in the morning: Starbucks. The one thing I can do flawlessly in German in order Starbucks…but she insisted on speaking English back to me. Silly accents…especially because she clearly wasn’t a native German speaker either. So, I retaliated…in French. It’s an official language after all 😉 It was a fun exchange, I got caffeine, and all was right with the world.

Oh, speaking of, I noted down the price…The Economist always publishes their Big Mac index, so I’ve started keeping a “Starbucks Index” since it conveys something slightly difference. McDonalds want’s to be a bit of a commodity while Starbucks’ niche in the market I feel is a bit more of a snob appeal. So that said, a grande drip goes for 5,20 francs at the Zurich airport, or $5.30 at current rates, making it the most expensive place to have Starbucks in the world. If anyone would like to contribute to my research project, feel free to send me the price of a grande drip (tax included) along with location and date. Thanks!

Oh…and I had a chocolate muffin, but we don’t need to talk about that. This was my second one of the week (remember, Frankfurt last week on the way back from the South Pacific) and it’s a horrible holiday influence. Oh, that and Christmas Blend Espresso…but on with the important stuff…I don’t really mean half this blog to be about Starbucks…

Security was a complete non-event and then it was off to the SWISS Senator Lounge. I had a bit of work to do, and full of chocolate muffin and caffeine I’m afraid I can’t discuss the food. Seating was plentiful, finding an outlet was easy, and there was plenty of water to hydrate before flying. For some reason the SWISS Senator Lounge feels so much more peaceful than Lufthansa, where it feels like it’s a giant crowded mess first thing in the morning.

On to the gate…

Upon boarding with my mobile boarding pass, I got the beep beep beep, because apparently I had to re-check-in in Zurich and get asked those oh-so-helpful “did you pack your bag?” “has your bag been with you?” “are there any electronics in it?” questions. I’m sorry, but after Israeli security it felt absolutely ridiculous. These agents (not these in particular, but in European airports in general who screen the US-carrier flights to the US) seem like barely-trained rent-a-cops who couldn’t spot a security risk if it jumped up and screamed it. Anyways….by this point most of the flight had boarded, but fortunately I found space for my admittedly-large carry-ons. On with the show!

United flight 993
Zürich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 10:20, Arrive 13:55, Flight Time 9:35
Boeing 767-300, Registration N642UA, Manufactured 1991, Seat 7H

Enjoying a glass of Jeff Perignon as a pre-departure beverage, it was time to explore what was to eat:

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My seatmate was rather chatty, but fortunately he was also rather interesting to chat with and after a few minutes of chatting (and drinking…we got refills) went back to his own business. Took off right on time, and it was time to enjoy the delights of United BusinessFirst. First. Hah. Sorry, moving on…

A glass of Château Haut-Jeffrois and some high class split-nuts:

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The garlic bread, as always, made up for any shortcomings. United’s insistence on weird fruit-cream dressings continues, but this passionfruit one was actually kind of interesting. That said, give me a creamy parmesan, or peppercorn, or ranch any time. I’m classy like that.

The appetizer? A tiny piece of salmon and one shrimp? Seriously, I’ve seen better seafood selections in a developing country fish market. Just sad. Normally, I would let this go under the category of “you get what you pay for” since the majority of United business class is often upgrades, but since this was a paid business class fare I’m going to let out the full snark.

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The tenderloin of beef. The veggies were ok. The beef…well, I’ve eaten lots of business class beef on united over the years, and I’ve come to expect it medium well or so. This poor beef, however, was beyond salvageable. It literally had to be sawed through with the knife, and even that was a Herculean effort. It was so tough it felt like chewing on cardboard.  I have low expectations on airline beef, but often choose it because it sounds better than the chicken….and I refuse to touch fish on planes. I’ve seen Airplane one too many times.

I did the unthinkable on United…and rang the flight attendant call button.

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Big mistake. After around five minutes a flight attendant finally came by, and her response: “what do you want?” I tried to be as nice as possible, and said “unfortunately this beef isn’t very good…would it be possible to get one of the other meals if there are any left?” Her response? “No. Everything is gone.” and she walked away. Sensing a battle I couldn’t win I admitted defeat. Fortunately, the flight attendant in the other aisle (these are the benefits of sitting in the middle) was generously refilling wine, so I was able to keep a level head and ignore the issue.

At least there was cheese:

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I didn’t dare pull my “if there is any left after everyone has had some” question on the cheese with this crew. I appreciated what I got and left it at that.

Today’s sundae was “caramel with cherries” and the cherry count was four. Another datapoint.

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Watched a few hours of tv on the iPad, napped a little, blah blah blah, and soon it was snack time.

Seriously…a half of wrap and some rather sad fruit? The wrap looked so lonely I’m pretty sure the crew stole 1/2 of each one and ate it and only gave the passengers half of a wrap…or something like that. It just looks way too awkward on the plate like that. Throw in the same chocolates that have been sitting on the snack cart the entire flight and you have a classy meal.

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Landed about five minutes ahead of schedule, turned on my phone and…flight to DC was canceled. Ok, no biggie, I’m sure there are backup options…pull up United.com to look at my reservation…I’d been rebooked for the next day at 6pm. Over 28 hours later. It was raining lightly at Newark, and of course the reason for cancelation was “weather.” Ugh. There was, fortunately, another flight headed to DCA in 50 minutes, but it was overbooked by four people.

Fortunately no problems with Global Entry, security only had about a five minute wait for pre-check, and I made a beeline for the United Club to get added to the standby list. The agent was super efficient and helpful, but of course with my luck, the flight was departing from Terminal A. Ran for the shuttle bus, fortunately little wait, and got to the gate right as boarding was starting.

After everyone appeared to have boarded, I very nicely asked the agent how many were boarded and if there was a chance I might make it. “Just wait and you’ll find out.” Um, ok. I seriously will never understand why when it takes no extra effort to be kind and helpful to someone some people make it their mission to be rude and nasty. Ugh. I was the only one on standby, so it shouldn’t have been a big deal.

Five minutes before departure time it was obvious there were missed connections, and she cleared me into a window seat. I asked if there were other open seats. “Be happy you’re on the flight.” and that was it. The takeaway I’d give United is…top elite passenger on a paid business class fare, you cancel their flight, and then an agent tells them they should just be happy to be downgraded and be on the flight. What sort of impression do you think that leaves with your customers?

I should know better…

United flight 5677, operated by ExpressJet
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 14:55, Arrive 16:06, Flight Time 1:11
Embraer ERJ-145, Registration N14570, Manufactured 2002, Seat 4D

Nothing to say about this flight. No drink service “due to the length of the flight” but at least I got to DC the same day instead of with a 24 hour delay. That shouldn’t be something to be happy for all things considered, but at this point it was.

The takeaway for me is – I’ve become the type of customer United seems to want. Paid business fares, not even using up all the upgrades I earn, requalifying on dollars basis…yet, they treat me poorly. It makes me reevaluate why I bother. The simple reason is, I live in the US, and still do a small to medium amount of domestic travel. If I joined another Star Alliance program, I’d get even fewer benefits, and zero transatlantic upgrades if I chose to use them. The service on United may be poor much of the time, but living in their hub at least I have options when things go wrong. As a non-elite I can pretty much guarantee I would have been screwed in Newark another 24 hours.

So, for now, I’ll continue to settle…and be happy in an abusive relationship.

Dec 222014
 

After a good dinner and sleep the night before I woke up with a nasty cold developing. Head congestion, runny nose, the works. Blech. The way I’d been running myself ragged the last 6-7 weeks it was hardly surprising, but after the mild cold I had just under two weeks prior in New Zealand to now get a full-blown one sucked. Oh well, the small price to be paid for an amazing time!

…and the view out my room at the Sheraton was amazing as well:

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Task number one was coffee. The Sheraton Executive Lounge had a nice breakfast spread, and after stuffing myself with several espressos, fruit, hummus, and cheese, I gave into the temptation of the beach:

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It was a lovely 70F/20C out, and there were shirtless runners everywhere and people playing in the ocean. Um, it’s a little cold for that I think, but hey, A for effort people! With the major head cold making me dizzy and hungover feeling I decided the best thing I could do before changing climate again was to walk off as much of the cold as possible. I took a 3 or so mile walk up and down the beach people watching and basking in the sun.

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