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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