Oct 122017
 


Alarm went off around 7am, and as usual the first thing I did was turn off Airplane Mode. The flood of notifications started: email, facebook, instagram, twitter…and United. Hmmm, that’s unusual. Must be that it was time to check in for my flight tonight from Washington Dulles to Detroit for my NEXUS renewal interview.

Nope. Almost 22 hours before the flight was scheduled to depart, United canceled it for “weather.” Um, there’s no weather in or predicted for either Washington DC or Detroit – what gives? I can only guess that the hurricane was stranding planes all over the place, and of course because it was weather…tough luck.

Called and got an agent who told me she could get me out the next morning…at 6am…via Chicago…with a 40 minute connection. Um, that’s not going to work, and I have to get to the airport here in Helsinki. I’ll touch base when I have more time – but please protect me on that 6am and note that I still have the right to cancel. Great agent, and she was happy to do that.

Quick breakfast at the Radisson Blu as it was included with my rate, and I was super impressed. Huge buffet spread with lots of tasty options, and the only downside is that the breakfast room was absolutely packed. The checkin agent the day before did say they were booked to capacity, and it was a Monday, so that probably explains a lot of it. That said, I’m definitely staying here again my next stop in Helsinki.

It had been about a year since I was last in Helsinki, and since then trains from the main station had started running to the airport. Quick walk across the square, easy to buy a ticket from a vending machine, and only had to wait about five minutes for the train to depart. This makes this hotel combo absolutely priceless going forward. Plus…a great beer restaurant right around the corner!

Arrived at the airport in plenty of time, and the station was quite a hike from the terminal. Given I’d be spending the whole day on planes that was just fine with me, and quickly found the SAS check-in area and got my boarding pass. Of course, the most important place in the terminal was in the other terminal: Starbucks. Got my venti americano, and all was right in the world. Now, off to the gate.

Back to the other terminal (about a five minute walk) up the escalator, and surprised to find absolutely no security queue at all. I was through in 2-3 minutes, and even had 15 minutes for the lounge. The SAS Lounge was right by the security area, and since I had just had breakfast and coffee, I just wanted somewhere to charge my devices for a short bit and sit down. Headed to the gate about 40 minutes before boarding – which was a waste – because the plane only arrived about 30 minutes before departure, and we started boarding maybe 15 minutes before departure.

SAS flight 707
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to Stockholm, Sweden (ARN)
Depart 11:15, Arrive 11:15, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-600, Registration LN-RCW, Manufactured 1999, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 98,640
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,475,617

Does that mean we’ll depart late? No. Despite an absolutely packed flight, departure was still right on time. No matter how much you like airlines in the United States, one thing that is horrible is the refugee exodus that happens during boarding. People bringing on everything they own. Maybe I’m being a snob because I get to board first and bring slightly more than I “should” but if you’re in group 8 or 9….be realistic! You know you’re going to have to check that giant Sampsonite!

Rant over, time to fly. Only 45 minutes in the air, but they still served a small snack…which was much tastier than expected! I never figured out if Seat 2A was technically “business class” or “economy plus” but didn’t matter to me in the end. I got a drink, the middle seat was empty, and I was happy.

Off the plane right on time, and first job was to try and find a transfer desk and get my Icelandair boarding passes since it was a separate ticket. I had considered a flight in Finnair which would have left me 1:45 to connect (aka more sleep) but decided not to risk it. Looks like I could have, but end of the day, risks like that aren’t usually worth it. Finally found an SAS transfer counter, where the sole agent was busy dealing with a very unhappy passenger who had missed the only flight of the day to her destination for some reason.

Eventually, she got around to helping me, and apparently Icelandair is a bit of a pain because she looked like I was seriously annoying her. I probably shouldn’t have asked her (after getting boarding passes) if there was still a Starbucks in the terminal, because I got an annoyed “no, it closed. The only one is outside.” Ok fine…could you maybe point me to the lounge? “Well i *guess* you can use that one” – pointing to the elevators right across from the desk.

Up to the SAS lounge which had cool barcode scanners for admission. Also, where my Icelandair boarding pass didn’t seem to work. The agent in charge seemed puzzled if I should get in or not, and asked for a frequent flier card. I gave her my United Star Gold card (despite them having nothing to do with Icelandair), and she scanned that and it didn’t work either. She was sure I should be let in, but couldn’t figure out how to do it, so eventually decided research was more work than it was worth and just manually let me in.

Not much to say about the lounge…good spread of food and drink, huge and plenty of seating, and ample places to plug in and charge the laptop. Other than that, it was a pretty average lounge, although it did have pretty good tarmac views.

Headed to the gate about 40 minutes before departure, and it was a relatively short five minute walk from the lounge. I knew the flight was very full, but the gate area was packed, and there were at least 20 wheelchairs waiting to board. Lots of American passports showing, and this was clearly the Sweden to America geriatric express.

Icelandair flight 307
Stockholm, Sweden (ARN) to Reykjavik, Iceland (KEF)
Depart 14:20, Arrive 15:30, Flight Time: 3:10
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISP, Manufactured 1997, Seat 4A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 99,977
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,476,594

Fortunately, business “Saga” class was only about half full today, which let me move to a window seat and keep the seat next to me empty in the 2-1-2 config. I’ve posted quite a lot how I hate climbing over people or having them climb over me, so it’s always nice when I can get a window seat and still avoid this. Of course, the internet wasn’t working on this plane, so that was a big negative to the flight.

Menus were passed out as we waited for everyone to board:

Wine list was included:

Service on this relatively short flight started out with a beverage and nut service. The nuts came in a chinese takeout container, and were sugar coated almonds. Strange, but points for originality.

I had preordered my meal online, but it wasn’t catered. In addition to the internet not working, my already low impression of Icelandair was even going lower. First the internet wasn’t working, and now my meal wasn’t loaded. Two strikes. That said, the fishy entree was pretty tasty.

Short connection of about 50 minutes in Reykjavik, and when I tried to stop in the lounge (which is on the Schengen side before immigration) I was told there was no time, I had to go straight through immigration to the gate…so I did.



You can guess what this meant. 30 minutes of waiting in the gate area to board my connecting flight. My memory of this wait is of an extremely obnoxious guy and his mother waiting to board. He was bitching up a storm that nobody in Iceland could manage to charter him a plane to fly him home, and they had to pay $2,500 for one first class ticket and the other person had to sit in coach. Making him even more of a jerk in my mind, was that he made his mother sit in coach while he sat in business class. After three weeks away, ugh, welcome back to the ugly side of America.

Icelandair flight 645
Reykjavik, Iceland (KEF) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 16:50, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time: 6:20
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISW, Manufactured 1997, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 102,776
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,479,753

This flight was already looking up…and like a flight to the US…with plastic glasses of sparkling wine offered pre-departure…different aircraft, but this one also didn’t have working internet. I was beginning to wonder if Icelandair was paying their bills:

Once again, they hadn’t loaded my pre-ordered meal, but the menu looked relatively tasty:

No almonds in a takeout container this time, but the “famous” Icelandair carmelcorn:

I went with the veal main, which was very United-esque in taste and poor plating. The herring starter with deviled egg was tasty….but stay tuned…

Landed on time, exhausted, and since my United flight to Detroit was canceled I figured I might as well spend the night at home and save money. My hotel in Detroit was kind enough to waive the late cancelation fee, so it was off to Uber and a fantastic night in my own bed. Since my NEXUS interview wasn’t until 12:30 the next day, that still left me plenty of time in the morning to make my way to Detroit.

When I got home, I had a look at Delta, and noticed the morning flight to Detroit had a bunch of empty seats, so opted to ask United for a refund and decided to risk going to Detroit standby. Fortunately, when I woke up, the flight was still very open and I had no trouble at all getting on it.

Unfortunately, the minute I stepped into the Delta Skyclub, I knew I’d made a very, very poor decision eating fish and deviled eggs on a plane the previous day. Nausea and all the other food-borne illness side effects rapidly just set in, and I just prayed I would make it through the flight…

Delta flight 2359
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Detroit, Michigan (DTW)
Depart 7:30, Arrive 9:03, Flight Time: 1:33
Airbus A319, Registration N316NB, Manufactured 2000, Seat 24C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 103,182
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,480,159

Hey, at least I got an aisle seat so that’s a positive! I can’t say no to a Diet Coke and Biscoff, even if I was seriously nauseous.

By the time we landed I was full on majorly nauseous. Head was spinning when walking, and overall just felt sick. If it wasn’t for the fact my NEXUS (and thus Global Entry and PreCheck) was expiring in three days, I would have turned around and gone home and tried to reschedule. Lesson learned: don’t leave things to the last minute.

Was originally planning to Uber to my appointment and ask the Uber to wait, but for some reason that felt logistically difficult so I decided to see if I could get a rental from Hertz. No problem, great rate, much cheaper than a roundtrip Uber, and I was set. Off to the shuttle to the Hertz lot, fantastic agent brought me into her office as a Platinum member, and asked if a Volvo would be ok today. Sweet upgrade, although I was feeling too nauseous to even care.

By this point, I should have heeded all the warning signs from the universe: canceled United flight, food-borne illness, but no, I didn’t and proceeded with the interview, which started off perfectly fine. The Canadian agents processed me in under a minute, then it was on to the American agent, who seemed not in the best of moods. First comment to his colleague: “hey…Martha…look at this! You ever seen someone who’s been to so many countries…ut oh, Cuba? We have a problem”

Without going into details, the agent seemed completely unaware of the changes a couple years prior towards US policy to Cuba and refused to approve my renewal. I was told “if you find any documents that support your case, please fax them.” Ugh. Yet, he still took my fingerprints and biometrics. Odd.

Back to the airport, drop off the car, and off to the Delta Skyclub where I sat as a nauseous mess for a couple hours until it was time to board my flight.

Delta flight 1144
Detroit, Michigan (DTW) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:35, Arrive 17:10, Flight Time: 1:35
Airbus A319, Registration N316NB, Manufactured 2000, Seat 15D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 103,588
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,480,565

Fortunately, I got an aisle seat again, and the flight passed without any major excitement. Quite an overly-eventful end to what had been a fantastic 3+ week trip.

Just to finish the story, about two weeks later, after faxing my explanation of how my Cuba trip was “legal” under the new US policy, along with a citation of the policy….someone approved my NEXUS renewal in the system and two minutes later…revoked my status. I read this as “I didn’t have grounds to deny the renewal, but in my authority as a border agent I revoked it later.”

The case is currently with my US Senator who is following up, along with the CBP Trusted Traveler Ombudsman. Per the letter of the regulations I followed them exactly, and backed that up in writing when requested. We’ll see where this goes, but in the meantime (and $85 later) at least I have TSA PreCheck for the time being….

We’ll see how my first non-Global Entry immigration experience goes in two weeks on my next work trip…

Jul 142017
 

After a relaxing breakfast, we still had a bit of time so walked around the city a bit before I headed to the airport. I wanted to see if on a Monday things would be a bit busier, but even at 11am the city felt like a bit of a ghost town. Several readers have commented that there’s not a huge population, it’s not well-known outside Portuguese tourists, but I think most of it was the fact that the tourists who DO come don’t spend a bunch of time in the city – except maybe mealtimes which explained why dinner reservations were needed.

Ian’s flight was a bit later in the afternoon, so he dropped me at the airport before going to wander around the city some more. How can you feel unsafe when the airport is named after Pope John Paul the Second?

Pope says: safe travels and boa viagem!

Checked in, headed to the lounge, and very quickly realized that I had gotten to the airport way, way too early. I had received a notification when I woke up my flight was delayed by 45 minutes until 4pm, so I had arrived about 1:30 hoping to enjoy the lounge. Unfortunately, lounge was rather depressing. Essentially nothing to eat save some cookies and crackers, but a decently stocked fridge full of beverages.

About an hour before my flight I was bored, and since Azores Airlines only has two A310s it was pretty easy to track them online. One, scheduled to operated my flight, was sitting coming from Lisbon and the other was sitting in Ponta Delgada. The one that was already there was scheduled to operate the later 5pm flight to Boston for some reason (it had its engines open so probably maintenance?) and mine was coming from Lisbon. The only problem was…according to every site I could track it on, it was still in Lisbon…2.5 hours away….an hour before my flight. Azores Airlines own site said it wouldn’t be Lisbon until 4:30….or 3:30 local.

I checked with the agent in the lounge, who insisted I must be wrong. The flight is on time. I asked her if she could check with someone. “No, I do not need to. It is on time.” Uhhh….I may have started stirring the pot, letting my fellow passengers know that our plane was still in Lisbon, so there was no way we were leaving at 3:15 pm…

Finally, at about 3:30pm a supervisor came to the lounge and singled out me and two other passengers. Yes, the plane was still in Lisbon (duh) and won’t be here for quite some time. He had proactively rebooked me and the other two passengers on the 5pm flight. There were only three seats left, so everyone else was left to wait and hope. How we had been chosen, I’m not quite sure. I was on a full fare paid ticket, so maybe that helped, or maybe he’d seen me inciting revolution in the lounge and wanted to get rid of me.

Then, of course, just after he left, our new flight the 5pm was hit with a 90 minute delay. Now we would be leaving at 6:30pm. That meant arrival at about 8:20pm. Fortunately, the 90 minute delay (which turned out to be due to a connection from Praia, Cape Verde with 80 connecting passengers) held, and we were underway.

Azores Airlines flight 281
Ponta Delgada, Azores, Portugal (PDL) to Boston, Massachusetts (BOS)
Depart 17:00, Arrive 18:50, Flight Time: 5:50
Airbus A310-300, Registration CS-TGU, Manufactured 1991, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 65,805
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,442,782

Fortunately we had a bus gate (as are all gates in Ponta Delgada) so I got an up close and personal shot with my first ever A310:

As soon as I boarded, I got this notice from Air Azores:

My original flight had canceled. All 150+ people booked on it would be stranded in Ponta Delgada overnight, and both flights to Boston the next day were already booked completely full. I’ve never been happier that I paid the extra to be in business class!

Unfortunately, I forgot to get a pic of the seats. Thanks to Flyertalk user Carfield this is what they look like:

Far from the best business class seats across the Atlantic – they might be the worst – but with all their flights being under five hours it really was a pretty decent product. They were nice to lounge in, and very comfortable, and the price was certainly good. I knew roughly was I was getting going into it, so was very pleased with the product.

Pre-dinner drinks and ziplock-bagged mixed nuts were served:

“Meat or fish” were the option. FAR from the most appetizing looking meal I’ve ever gotten, and it was all Saran wrapped…to seal in freshness? I did find it odd that whenever I asked for sparkling water, she would bring me a fresh bottle and glass each time.

Didn’t look much better with the shrink wrap off. The beef did, however, taste much better than it looked.

Flight passed quickly, and we circled Boston a bit before landing, due to what the pilot called “very big rain.”

With less than 40 minutes to clear customs and change terminals I had kissed my connection goodbye, but upon landing my flight had been delayed…by over three hours….to 12:40am! Blessing in disguise!

Rushed over to the other terminal and got to the gate, and in the meantime the flight was hit with a further delay, now departing at 1:55am. By that time, I would have been up almost 24 hours plus the time to get home to DC, and best case I would be in bed by 4:30am. There was absolutely no way I was going to work the next day on 2-3 hours of sleep, so decided to throw in the towel and find an agent and asked to be rebooked the next day.

Unfortunately, my experience with JetBlue agents left a lot to be desired. They were all rather surly and curt, and seemed completely disinterested in helping. I finally after trying two or three found one who agreed to rebook me the next day, given my flight was delayed by over four hours. Yes, the hotel would be at my own expense, I get it.

Left the airport to get my Uber, and found out that the Uber waiting area is about a three minute walk outside from the terminal. Only problem was, those heavy rains that the pilot told us about. It was a torrential downpour, and even the short sprint to the uber got me absolutely soaking wet.

My hotel, the Le Meridien Cambridge also left a lot to be desired. The gentleman working the front desk had the personality of a 1980s Soviet hotel worker, and when I told him the AC in my room sounded like a plane taking off “we have no other rooms. Anyways, they are all like that.” Geez. I was hungry at this point, so decided to call room service. Guess who I got on the phone? Yup, grumpy front desk guy also takes room service orders. “No, you can’t have wine. Not after 10pm.” Sigh. Fine.

I went down to the bar, in hopes I might talk the bartender into a glass to take up to my room. Let me just say, he was the warmest most helpful person I encountered, and was the only reason I didn’t demand my points back. The sandwich I got from room service was also terrible, and  sleeping with a jumbo jet going wasn’t terribly helpful. In retrospect, I should have taken the 2am delayed flight. Oh, wait, no I shouldn’t have….because after all that they ended up canceling it just before 1am. UGH!

Surely when I got back to the airport, the next day would be better. It couldn’t be much worse. Except for the world’s largest emotional support animal in the gate area.

The gate agent was wonderful, and I may have flirted a bit, but he did manage to not only get me an aisle seat, but got me one in the second row. Score.

JetBlue flight 1155
Boston, Massachusetts (BOS) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 13:25, Arrive 15:00, Flight Time: 1:35
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration N298JB, Manufactured 2009, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 66,204
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,443,181

Score…except for the fact the dog was across the aisle from me, and as soon as it lay down it rested its head on my feet. Ok, that’s cute I guess…and the owner was good looking and apologized for the dog doing that….at which point he fed it what looked like three benedryl. I didn’t think that was good for dogs…

Then, I was really excited. Seemed there was one seat empty on the plane…and it was right by me. But right before the door closed, it was not to be. A rather large lady who I’d estimate in the neighbourhood of 400 pounds came onto the plane huffing and puffing with two giant bags of fast food. Of course she was seated next to me, and tried to put the armrest up as she sat down. I very politely told her I preferred it down and was met with “well how am I supposed to sit down then!” Fortunately, the great flight attendant was right there, and told her “ma’am, the armrest must be down for takeoff. You can take a later flight if that would be more comfortable.”

I won’t go into more details, but it was an extremely unpleasant flight. Ok, one more detail…the guy across the aisle got a beer, and put some in a cup….for the dog to drink. See, all my fears of coach ARE well-founded!

Another great trip in the books, look for another one soon…

Aug 172016
 

You knew this post would be coming at some point. It’s the question I get the most often when I tell people I’m about to finish visiting every country in the world in just two weeks. Inevitably, they ask “what’s next?” It’s actually a pretty easy question to answer. Two things immediately pop to mind: first, I want to spend a little more time at home. There’s things I want to get done that I haven’t with so much traveling, so at least in the short term that will be nice. Plus, I have a few work trips to Zagreb and Bangkok coming up later this year, so that will close out 2016 more or less.

Second thing I want to do is go back to places I really enjoyed and spend more time diving a little more in depth. Some ideas that are already brewing:

Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia: I’ve already tacked this on after Iceland since it was the same price on Icelandair to fly to Europe with a stop in Iceland as it was to fly just to Iceland. Lithuania and Latvia I only got very short overnights in my first time, so this time I’ll take a full day in each to walk the old towns and take in the cities. It should be nice weather in September as well! After that, I’m off to Ukraine. You could debate if I really visited Ukraine at all, since when I was there it was 1989 and it was the Ukrainian SSR. So, I’m going back now to remove any doubt…plus I’ve been really curious to take the Chernobyl tour. I remember being a kid when the reactor blew and worried the whole world was going to die from radiation.

Syria, Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia: I’d like to visit all four of these more in-depth once it becomes feasible. Saudi Arabia because of a very difficult to get tourist visa, same with Sudan. Yemen and Syria will have to wait until things quiet down a bit.

Finland: I want to take a full week in the summer and go north of Helsinki and maybe do a road trip. Some camping, hanging out in lake country. Just a quiet laid back trip.

Namibia: I only got to see a tiny fraction of the country, and I really want to see more. From sand dunes to the Skeleton Coast to Swakopmund, I’d like to spend more time there.

Palau: When I went the first time in 2011 I wasn’t certified for SCUBA yet, and what I saw snorkeling was mind-blowing. I want to go back now, go deeper, and see more of the country! I guess you could add Belize and Bonaire to this last as well – three places I really want to go dive!

Russia: Probably more medium term goal, but I want to take 3+ weeks and do the Trans-Siberian. Take the train from Helsinki to St Petersburg, high speed down to Moscow, and then the Trans-Siberian to Mongolia. I’d like to break it up along the way as well, and maybe stop and see some smaller towns and more of rural Russia. A couple of years will give me a chance to strengthen my Russian more so I can really maximize the trip.

Being a bit of a list maker, there are two more goals I’m toying with:

All 50 States: I’ve visited 42 of the 50 states, and I’ve grouped the 8 remaining into either 4 or 5 trips. Suggestions and locals to show me around would be welcome in all of them:

  • First, I want to fly to Atlanta, rent a car, and do a loop covering Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. New Orleans is the only must-do on this list, so I’d love any other recommendations people have. Definitely a 2017 trip.
  • New Mexico is also on this list. I have friends there, so will probably take a 3-4 day weekend and do some hiking and relaxing at some point in 2017
  • Iowa – yes, I grew up in Minnesota for 15 years and never made it to Iowa, despite being a less than two hour drive from home. I’m thinking it might be fun to fly to Minneapolis, visit family, and then drive down for a college football game either this fall or next. Any Iowa readers want to join me?
  • South Dakota – as above, somewhat embarrassed, although it’s a longer drive from Minneapolis. Definitely going to do Mount Rushmore. I’ll likely fly there for a weekend at some point. Any other must-sees while I’m there?
  • Last but not least will be Oklahoma. Haven’t given much thought to this one, so any suggestions welcome! I’d like to finish all the states in 2017.

So, after visiting all 50 states, the only other immediate list is my list of 215 Independent Places. This is 19 places beyond the list of 196 countries that I think are independent enough I really should visit them as well. So far, I’ve visited 11 of the 19 already (Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Guernsey, Jersey, Isle of Man, Transnistria, Turkish Cyprus, Aruba, Curacao, Cayman Islands) leaving 8 to go:

  • Nagorno-Karabach – internationally-recognized as part of Azerbaijan, although the government of Azerbaijan hasn’t exercised any control in the region for over 20 years. Almost entirely filled with ethnic Armenians it’s in western Azerbaijan and accessibly only from Armenia and uses the Armenian Dram as currency. They do issue their own visas/visitors permits though.
  • Abkhazia – an autonomous republic of Georgia according to the international community it lies between Georgia and Russia, and as recognized as independent by Russia and a handful of over smaller states. Russia is also cooperating with the Abkhazia military forces, so obviously the only way in is really from Russia.
  • South Ossetia – almost identical to the situation in Abkhazia, also sitting between Georgia and Russia. Should be able to make one trip from these two.
  • Western Sahara, also known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Annexed by Morocco from Mauritania in 1976, it has been largely administered by Morocco ever since. They want independence, and have been recognized by nearly 30 countries. Should be easy to do flying in from Morocco.
  • Niue – self-governing, but in “free association” with New Zealand. Sort of similar to Puerto Rico and the United States, except there’s no independence movement. Population has dropped in the past couple of decades from about 6,000 to 1,000 with most people fleeing for Australia or New Zealand. The major problem? Only one flight a week, and it often gets canceled.
  • Tokelau – three atolls that are a territory of New Zealand, with only about 1,200 people total. Unfortunately, there’s no airport, so boats are the only way to get there. There are occasional seaplane flights from Samoa too, which is good because you need to get a Tokelau entry permit from Samoa before going!
  • Cook Islands – like Niue, a self-governing democracy in free association with New Zealand. Plenty of flights from New Zealand, and resorts as well. Rarotonga has lots of resorts and a nice lagoon. Will need to combine with Niue and Tokelau to make a very interesting trip.
  • Somalia – so I’ve technically been before, but to the northern part known as Somaliland, which has its own currency and government and is quite safe. Mogadishu is separately administered, so it’s on my list to get to eventually. Definitely doable, but will be tricky…

That should keep me plenty of busy for a while! What does everyone else have planned?

Jun 252013
 

I was dropped on the head as a child, that’s pretty clear. I do things most sane people wouldn’t dream of doing. So, when I found out I had four days free over the upcoming holiday, I started looking for new countries to visit to add to my tally of 136 so far. Problem is, most of them are now too far away to consider for a four day weekend.

Backup plan…let’s see how many miles I can earn towards million miler. As a bonus, let’s see how many 787 segments I can theoretically fly now that it’s back in the air.  A few days of planning, and insanity was born.

The final plan is:

Day 1:  Washington DC, National (DCA) to Chicago (ORD) to Houston (IAH) to San Francisco (SFO) to Los Angeles (LAX) with ORD-IAH on the 787

Day 2:  Redeye flight LAX back to Houston on the 787, continuing on the 787 to Chicago, then to Newark (EWR) and finally Panama (PTY) and sleep in a real bed

Day 3:  Morning flight from Panama to Washington, Dulles (IAD) then on to Houston on a 767, back to LAX, and finally ending up in San Francisco for a very short 6 hour night.

Day 4:  San Francisco to LAX early morning, then on to Houston on the 787, and finally home to DCA.

Final routing, assuming nothing goes wrong, and it almost certainly will:

DCA-ORD-IAH-SFO-LAX

LAX-IAH-ORD-EWR-PTY

PTY-IAD-IAH-LAX-SFO

SFO-LAX-IAH-DCA

mrmap

I’m pretty sure I’m not going to survive this. By the numbers:

1 redeye
2 countries
3 showers…hopefully
4 flights on the 787
5 widebodies
7 United Clubs (if I can figure out a way to access on domestic days)
8 airports
8 different aircraft types
15 segments
85 hours
16,624 miles flown

So far 14 of 15 segments confirmed in first/business class, with one pending what will hopefully be an easy 1K upgrade on a 757 on July 4th. Time will tell though.

I’ll definitely make a point to pack my Bro Tank in order to offend as many “properly” dressed FlyerTalkers as possible on this most ‘Merican of all holidays.

bro

Stay tuned…I’m pretty sure this adventure is going to have more twists and turns than gumby at a limbo convention!

May 312013
 

I’d been watching this flight for a few weeks leading up to it, and was incredibly disappointed it would be an old 747-400 on the day I needed to fly.  Not only that, but when I booked the only seats left in business were middle seats.  Mildly disappointing…I know….#firstworldproblems but still.  Since the flight was F6 and I didn’t see needing all my United systemwide upgrades, I decided to take the chance and have one printed for use on this flight.  Then, 48 hours before the flight, it was changed…to the new 747-800 and I had an aisle seat in the middle.  Score!  I began to question if I really wanted to upgrade, but of course, the chance to be spoilt won out!

When I got to Dulles, it was still F6, and upon checkin at the first class counter about 3 hours before flight time the upgrade was instantly confirmed.  Score!

IMG_6162

First stop was the United First lounge for some snacks.  For once, I didn’t get trouble getting in being on Lufthansa and they let me in…only questioning why I’d want to use their lounge instead.  That said, it was time for a couple glasses of champers, and some of the delicious United First lounge shrimp cocktail!

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Feb 072013
 

Was up early the next morning, and had the hotel arrange a taxi to Yangon airport. Driver easily agreed on $10 or 800 Kyat, which seemed to be the going rate. I’m sure I could have knocked a dollar or two off, but… check-in was quick and easy, and soon I was waiting for immigration. Took maybe five minutes total to clear immigration, and soon I was in the contract lounge that Thai uses in Yangon.

Now, here, I have to make a confession. I’d gotten going too early to get caffeine or breakfast, so I had to survive on what I found in the lounge. Hey, don’t judge, but sometimes a breakfast of Pringles and Diet Coke is just what you need. My mother would be mortified. WiFi in the lounge was just fast enough to do e-mail, but that’s honestly about it. Managed to kill the hour or so I had before the flight, and from there it was maybe a two minute walk to the gate.

Thai flight 304
Yangon, Myanmar (RGN) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 9:50, Arrive 11:45, Flight Time 1:25
Airbus A330-300, Registration HS-TED, Manufactured 1994, Seat 24A

Flight was maybe 2/3 full in business, and I moved from my centre seat to the last row where the pair of seats next to the window was available. Space and a view! Nothing too remarkable about this flight – the typical friendly Thai service, a small snack that I just picked at (but way more than you’d see on a similar flight in North America) and we landed right on time.

I had a bit over an hour to kill before heading to the next flight, so headed to the Thai business lounge, where much Diet Coke was consumed, along with a fair amount of dim sim – especially BBQ pork buns – YUM! Internet was nice and speedy, and I managed to Skype several calls and get a few things sorted, so it was time will used.

Thai flight 407
Bangkok, Thailand (BKK) to Singapore (SIN)
Depart 13:50, Arrive 17:10, Flight Time 2:20
Airbus A330-300, Registration HS-TET, Manufactured 2010, Seat 15E

In contrast to the last two Thai A330 flights I’d been on to Myanmar, this one was the “new” configuration. Thai has multiple configurations for their A330s, and the other one had had business class seats that were definitely showing their age. Way more room than economy, but none of the modern bells and whistles one has come to expect in business class. This plane, in contrast, had personal tvs, power ports, and went much closer to flat. It may have actually gone flat, but being a daytime flight I didn’t test it.

The flight was completely full in business, and there was again a small meal (complete with menus) and the drink cart came through offering beer and wine several times. Fantastic for a regional flight!

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Sep 162012
 

I’d arranged with my taxi driver the night before who dropped me off at the Hilton to pick me up in the morning at 5am for my 7am flight, despite the Caribbean Airlines people assuring me the night before when I’d tried to check in that I “had” to be there no later than 5am – hmmm, yeah, I’ve heard that story before.   The day’s drama began when I tried to take the elevator to the lobby to check out.  See, the Hilton Port-of-Spain is built into a hill, and you actually check in on the top floor…all the floors are down from there, and I was a good 6-7 floors below the lobby.  Press the button for the elevator…nothing.  Press again.  Nothing.  Used the house phone next to the elevator to call the front desk, yes, they would send someone.  It took “someone” (who turned out to be the night manager) three calls to come, and finally he arrived with a maintenance guy who showed me just down the hall to the service elevator so I could get going.  They had no idea what the malfunction was.  Checked out, and finally on my way around 5:15 am for the 30 minute drive to the airport.

Check-in line was empty when I got there about 5:45, and I was plenty early.  For some reason row 1 (the exit row, aka legroom) was still “blocked” so I was told to ask at the gate.  There’s no exit immigration in Trinidad, so I decided to grab a quick coffee before hitting security, which had no line.  Still got to the gate more than 45 minutes in advance, yes, row one was open, and I could even have  seat next to me open.  Score!

Caribbean Airlines Flight 300
Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago (POS) to Caracas, Venezuela (CCS)
Depart 7:00, Arrive 8:15, Flight Time 1:45
ATR-72, Registration 9Y-TTA, Manufactured 2011, Seat 1A

The irony of being on this flight is that almost exactly a year prior, I’d flown this exact same flight the only other time I’d been to Caracas – quite a funny coincidence I was now using it at the last minute to fly around hurricane drama.  The last time they’d “informed” me when I arrived in Caracas that oops, my luggage was still back in Trinidad, so this time I insisted on wheeling it to the gate myself and gate-checking it.  Hopefully this would solve the problem.  Plane loaded up, maybe five free seats total including the one next to me, and we were off.  There was a small snack box offered, but it looked far less than appetizing so I settled for a glass of water and an uneventful flight.

When we were about 10-15 minutes out from landing, it started to get really bumpy.  Prop planes aren’t fun on the best of days, but the modern ones really aren’t too bad.  We were getting blown side to side quite a bit, and there was some serious chop, which got worse the closer to landing we got.  It doesn’t help that the runway in Caracas runs parallel to the water, and the approach is low over a very residential area.  What looked to be less than 50 feet off the ground the pilot gunned the engines, and it was obvious we were starting to climb again.  After about 5 minutes, he came on to let us know the wind was too bad and he didn’t feel able to land safely.  We’d wait ten minutes and try again.

Circle around, and on approach, the same very windy, very bumpy conditions.  Pilot came on to tell us that “air traffic control” had told us that the winds had died down significantly and it was ok to land now.  We didn’t even make it as close this time, and we could see the start of the runway, but at around 100 feet off the ground the engines were gunned again, and we started to climb.

Captain came on again after a few minutes, and was obviously quite peeved with the airport.  The winds clearly hadn’t died down, and it was pretty clear he was unhappy he’d had to try a rather scary and unsafe approach again.  There would be no third try, we were off to our alternate at Curacao…where, after I asked the flight attendant, it was confirmed there was no Caribbean Airlines operation, so we’d just sit in the plane for an hour or two and wait for winds to die down.  There goes my connection!  ARGH!

That lasted all of about 3-4 minutes.  Unfortunately, the pilot was now “more confident” about the landing in Caracas than he was about going to Curacao with our remaining fuel.  Um, when your pilot says something like “of the possible options at this stage, the safest appears to be a landing in Caracas.  I will ask the flight attendant to demonstrate the brace position” that’s when you get more than a little nervous.  The “all the possible options” part seriously had me thinking he was considering ditching at sea, though, I’m sure that wasn’t an option.  So, the brace position was demonstrated, we were told that after the flight attendant announced “BRACE BRACE” over the speaker we were to do it.  The bad part is that she clearly didn’t speak Spanish, and the vast majority of the passengers appeared to not speak English, so the other passengers were having to translate.  It was more than a little tense.

The approach seemed to be a little bit smoother this time, but we were still pretty all over the place, getting bumped around and blown side to side on the way in.  Around 100-200 feet off the ground, the BRACE BRACE command was given, and head between the knees time it was.  I have no idea how tall people would manage that anywhere other than the first row…and yes, that was my first thought.  We slammed into the ground pretty hard…..but made it.  I think it seriously took me at least ten minutes to stop shaking after we taxied in.  It was definitely the scariest landing I’ve ever had by far.

Now, the question was, would I have a bag, and would I make the connection?  I’d only had 1:40 originally, and now with the three approaches that was down to 55 minutes.  Fortunately, the American agents in Trinidad had been at the counter rebooking people who hadn’t learnt of the cancelation in advance, so I managed to get them to print out and check me in for my Caracas to Dallas flight.  Hopefully that would help!  Bag showed up after a couple of minutes, and it was a quick walk/dash into the terminal.  I found no English-speaking staff, but there was a sign for “international connections” so I decided to give it a try.  Walking past the immigration counters, there was a desk for transfers…but nobody working it!

There was a security checkpoint that appeared to lead back into the departures area, so I showed my boarding pass to the military security guy and attempted to explain to him in Spanish what I was doing.  Found out the couple in front of me had been trying to explain to him for 15 minutes with no luck, however, they didn’t have boarding passes.  My explanation seemed good enough for him after he paged through every page of my passport looking at stamps, and he let me through.  Once through security I was indeed in the departures area…but the American flight to Dallas wasn’t on the monitors!

Found the AAdmirals Club, and it was just a technology glitch.  Was pointed to the right gate where boarding still hadn’t started.  Score, it looked like everything would work out well after all!

American Airlines Flight 2108
Caracas, Venezuela (CCS) to Dallas (DFW)
Depart 9:55, Arrive 15:00, Flight Time 5:05
Boeing 757, Registration N656AA, Manufactured 1991, Seat 1E

Pretty uneventful flight.  The only two interesting things were my seatmate and the breakfast.  The seatmate was unusual because she hadn’t been seated two seconds before she was paging the flight attendant with the call button and asking for a Baileys.  She spoke no English at all, but the flight attendant did understand “Baileys por favor.”   I had to translate for her on the ground that there was no Baileys on the plane, so she wanted white wine.  Flight attendant got that for her, and she was happy.   Less than 10 minutes into the flight she was pressing the button again “white wine!” followed 10 minutes later by “mas!”  Hahahah the flight attendants didn’t know whether to be amused or annoyed at her, but after somewhere around 5-6 pressings of the call button she passed out and slept the remainder of the flight.

The breakfast wasn’t interesting per se, just different than you normally see on American, so I thought I’d post a picture.

Immigration in Dallas was a breeze, took the AirTrain over to the C terminal, and they were just getting ready to board the flight to Washington.

American Airlines Flight 2442
Dallas (DFW) to Washington National (DCA)
Depart  16:55, Arrive 20:35, Flight Time 2:40
Boeing 737-800, Registration N813NN, Manufactured 2009, Seat 4E

Nothing at all unusual about this flight.  Standard mid-con dinner service, decent crew, and kept entertained using GoGo Internet.  Although things aren’t perfect on American, I can’t remember why I ever bothered with United.  Yes, the international nonstops out of Dulles Airport were nice, but the combination of often surly staff, old planes with no WiFi, and frequent delays have me questioning it.  I’m close enough to million miler that I’ll make sure I get that and requalify for 1K this year, but after that, it might be time to do some rethinking!

Jun 092012
 

This is going to be a short one…it seems when I get to the end of big trips that I get less motivated to write. Of course, some of that has to do with familiarity. Normally, my trips end with a transatlantic on United, and I’ve done so many of these by now that it’s just routine and I don’t feel compelled to take many notes or pictures. This one isn’t much different, but there will be some upcoming! I’ve accepted American’s challenge, so will likely be trying lots of new airlines in 2012 and 2013, so there will be a bit of excitement!

Up early in the morning, and no coffee in the room means I stumbled through check-out, no trouble at all, used most of my remaining cash to pay down the room, and was off to the airport no problem at all. My already good impression of Bulgaria was reinforced, and soon was at check-in.

Check-in was not too friendly, but no biggie. Checked all the way through to IAD, bags checked, and was off to security. Line was a bit long with no premium line, but still was through in under 15 minutes. Maybe I’m too laid-back lately, but 15 minutes seemed reasonable to me.

Stopped in the lounge that Lufthansa sent me to, and it was adequate. It had an awesome espresso machine, diet coke, and comfy chairs. Not too much else I could want! Waited until 30 minutes before the flight, then walked the 3-4 minutes to the gate.

Lufthansa Flight 1707
Sofia, Bulgaria (SOF) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Departure 7:15, Arrival 8:15, Flight Time: 2:00
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIPR, Manufactured 1990
Seat 3F

Got to the gate, and the queue to board was down the hall, and over 50 people deep. Grrr! There was no marked line, so being early, hyper-caffeinated by this point (did I mention the awesome espresso machine?), I just walked to the front trying hard to ignore the stares….and the one person who DID say something I just responded to in Russian. I figure nobody likes the Russians in Bulgaria, so it was safe 😉 Gate agent apologised for no separate line, beeped me in, and boarding was quick.

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Apr 282012
 

So, here’s where I admit I lied a bit.  What to do on a rainy Sunday in DC?  Honestly….we didn’t do a great job of this!  Once we saw it was raining, getting out of bed before we had to was difficult, and we just barely made it into DC in time for the planned 11:30 brunch with a friend.  Did I mention it was pouring?  The oddest part of the whole thing, was the encounter with a local DC crazy that went like this:

Crazy:  “Hello, you speak Russian?  I Russian?”

Me:  “Yes, actually I do”

Crazy:  (switching to Russian)  “Good!  I have DVDs to sell!  Pretty naked ladies!  Copies but very good.  You want to buy?”

Me:  “Um, no, thanks”  (walks away, leaves metro station)

Crazy:  (follows us to bus stop)  “You no like hot naked ladies?  I need to buy train ticket to Baltimore.  Sell DVDs.  No want to buy?”

Now, at this point we probably should have just kissed and convinced him that no, we really weren’t looking for hot naked ladies, but the amusement was just too much!  Got on the bus, made it to brunch…which was awesome.  Commissary is one of my favourite brunch places in DC.  The huevos rancheros are awesome, and don’t get me started on the blueberry pancakes.  The only downside is that from around 11:00 to 1:30 on weekends the wait is usually 30 minutes minimum, often longer.  It’s definitely worth it though.

After a very very long lunch, we headed back to the Library of Congress in an attempt to visit the reading room and check out a book and see the mural on the rotunda.  No luck – closed Sundays!  Wet and frustrated, we got back on the metro, and headed to the Smithsonian to check out the American History Museum.  It was pretty fun – although quite a disorganized mess.  We did see all the First Ladies’ dresses – including Michelle’s, along with some other interesting exhibits about the Civil War, Thomas Jefferson’s slave baby mamas, etc.  It was a good way to spend a few rainy hours while trying to stay a bit dry.  Below from an exhibit on US money, which will only be funny to Canadians:

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Apr 272012
 

We tried to get an earlier start to the second day of touring the city, but it just didn’t happen.  Met some friends for coffee and a light brunch at Northside Social in Arlington.  This place is pretty well known now by those in the Ballston to Clarendon corridor, but it’s a great local coffeeshop and place for light meals.  Plus, in the evening, it’s a fun wine bar with great outside seating during the summer.  I was worried when it opened it would be a bit too hipster, but it strikes a great balance, and is really lots of fun:  great food and drinks, fun atmosphere, and great location.

After that, it was off to DC for our first pre-booked tour.  We were off to the Library of Congress for their tour.  Offered every hour on the half hour, I didn’t expect this to be nearly as cool as it was.  However, I think it was one of our highlights of the entire weekend.  Our guide (Clark) was excellent, the building is probably the coolest sight I’ve ever seen in DC, and it was an overall fantastic experience.  We took the 11:30 tour on a Saturday, and showed up at 11:28 with no problems at all.  No booking in advance, and it was a great tour.  I’ll post a few pics here:

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