May 262016
 

When I booked my Etihad transfer back to the airport, they sent me an email telling me they would pick me up at 8:30am. 2:15 before the flight, based on the fact I was in first and supposedly the lounge was nothing to write home about, was just right for me. Went to bed, woke up, went down to breakfast, and was reading my email when…

I saw that at 11pm the night before, they sent me another email telling me they would pick me up at 7:45am. This was at about 8:10am when I was eating breakfast…I ran over to the front desk, and yes, they’ve tried calling my room, the driver has been waiting since 7:45…and has just left. Way to change the transfer less than 12 hours before the flight Etihad, when normal people are sleeping, and to leave without me.

Fortunately I was able to get an Uber in about 10 minutes, and was to the airport for just over 45 Dirhams. But then, dropped off at the first class check-in area (the one thing that seems to be separated on the ground for first and business passengers) and was told “oh, no, we have closed the flight. You have been offloaded.” 1:58 before the flight. It seems US flights close for checkin two hours before the flight due to US Customs/Immigration pre-clearance. Why in the world had Etihad misled me with an email leading me to believe it was ok to be picked up 2:15 before my flight? UGH!

Fortunately, the agent made some phone calls, and was very clear when she told me “this is a one time exception – next time you cannot travel” – and yes, this is ground services for a first class that is trying to compete with the best in the world. So far, except for the hard product on the A380, they were falling way, WAY short in my book.

Fortunately, no wait for immigration or security, and I’d been warned I needed to head straight to US Pre-clearance, no time to spend in the general lounge. I still popped in for one minute to confirm there is still no separate first class lounge (seriously? you build apartments in the sky but can’t build a lounge for first class?) and headed to pre-clearance. There were still plenty of people in line, I was quickly processed through Global Entry, quick interview by the agent for customs purposes, and was through to the gate area.

Etihad does have a lounge after pre-clearance, and it was incredibly small and packed again since it was shared by business, first, and all their frequent flier elites. Yes, like London, it’s nice you have waiter service, but when you have 100 people in the lounge it kind of defeats the point. At least the AC was nice while we waited to board.

Like London, no priority boarding for First, just a scrum with all the elites and business class. It really seems to Etihad they think that first class just means a better seat. That’s nice and all, but it makes them far from competitive with other international first class…and this is coming from a guy whose biggest selling point at 6’4 is generally the seat!

Etihad flight 131
Abu Dhabi, UAE (AUH) to Washington, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 17:00, Flight Time: 14:15
Boeing 787-9, Registration A6-BLB, Manufactured 2015, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 86,282
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,275,807

Just as in London, once boarded, the whole experience changed. Sure, it wasn’t an apartment, but the 787 suite was still extremely nice!

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Being a morning flight, I thought it best to go slowly, and join the glass of champagne with a glass of orange juice. Once again, dates and arabic coffee were also offered.

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The menu looked surprisingly similar to the flight in from London in many ways, just a few different choices:

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Picture of Abu Dhabi after takeoff…the rear-facing seats were great for taking pics:

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Same mixed nuts, wasabi peas, and olives starter as out of London…but I didn’t mind. Beats the usual boring nuts!

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I decided to have a full lunch as I’d had a small breakfast, so the table was set:

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The amuse bouche…I’m honestly not sure what it was, but it tasted mildly fishy.

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The scallops appetizer. Rather small, but they were perfectly cooked so a nice light starter. The green apple was an interesting contrast in flavours, and I think it kind of overwhelmed the scallops. Not a fan of the pairing. Went nicely with champagne though ūüėČ

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Choice of breads, and butter and oil. Not sure the point of putting the little cover on the butter, but…

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Palate cleanser….mint ice…did its job…

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The onboard chef recommended the biryani, so I had to give it a try. I have to say it was absolutely delicious…great combination of spices, just enough saffron, cashews…super tasty. Also went nicely with the Malbec.

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You knew I wasn’t going to pass up the cheese. The green apples and “fruit paste” made another appearance, and added a great touch.

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In flight, love this shot of the curved 787 wing since I was seated “backwards” against the bright blue sky with the windows just slightly tinted:

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Instead of passing out, I couldn’t resist dessert…chocolate and vanilla ice cream. They seemed surprised that I would want more than one flavour. It was pretty tasty though!

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At this point, a glass of wine, and time to pass out for a nice five hour nap:

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Woke up, watched a little tv, and about 90 minutes ¬†before landing decided to give the steak sandwich one more try. I had asked them in advance to make sure they saved one, and I’m glad I did because it was much better than the flight in from London. I know some of the preparation on board is done by the chef, so there is slight variation from flight to flight. I have to say this one did an extremely nice job!

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I asked for another cheese plate to finish off my snack, but unfortunately there was no more left. It was suggested I try the pistachio cake, so I decided to go for it. I could only manage two bites though – it was way too incredibly sweet tasting and almost hurt my teeth:

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With this, the flight was over. Landed at the domestic gate, train to the main terminal, got to baggage claim and there were about two dozen drivers waiting…but not mine. Etihad had texted me his information…so I called. Despite the fact we landed 10 minutes late my driver was still 15 minutes away. Maybe I just got super unlucky with the ground experience, but I found Etihad failed on nearly every front.

On the ground, I couldn’t distinguish what I received from business class, and the wines and food served in the air were also no better than business class quality. The only thing I found “first class” about Etihad was the seats – which were some of the best first class of any airline in the world, and the service in the air (only) which was also definitely top notch international first class standard. I will give Etihad another try, but after two flights they would be way down my list for a true comprehensive first class experience.

Next up, in less than 48 hours, I’m off to countries #193 and #194 – Mali and Mauritania. After than, just two to go!!!

May 222016
 

Got to sleep in a slight bit since my flight wasn’t leaving until around noon, and I just hoped there wouldn’t be metro/RER drama this morning on my way to the airport. Stopped for a coffee then headed to the metro; quick transfer at Les Halles and caught an RER after just a few minutes. Unfortunately, the train was absolutely packed and was hotter than a sauna. Everyone was starting to drip sweat, and since I had extra time decided to get off at Gare du Nord and wait for the next train.

Next train was much cooler, and empty to the point I even got a seat, and from there it was a quick 30 or so minute ride to the airport. Quick walk back over to Terminal 2A, where there was a super long check-in queue for British Airways – even in the priority line. Seemed most passengers were connecting onwards to North America and had 1,400 suitcases each. Finally got to the front of the line, and got to have a bit of an argument with a check-in agent who insisted my rolling bag could not possibly fit in overhead bins. She insisted I check it.

I told her it does fit, agents don’t have a problem with it, and finally she gave in and said “fine, I’m working the gate too, we can ask the flight attendants!” With that, I headed off to a painless security queue and eventually made my way to the lounges…since the every-so-friendly check-in agent hadn’t told me which lounge to go to, when confronted with the choice of Cathay or American, well, I made the logical choice.

Since I’d only had coffee I was pretty hungry, so decided to see if there was anything interesting to eat….and OMG there it was…crack from Hong Kong. I was given a buzzer to await my crack dealer to arrive…

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Soon it buzzed, and crack in a bowl was delivered – DanDan Noodles. The glass of champagne almost didn’t happen since I encountered some kind of stopper I couldn’t figure out how to get off the bottle. Neither could the other two people who were trying. Fortunately, we were saved by a lounge attendant, and brunch was salvaged!

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Got to the gate just as they were about to begin boarding and of course nothing at all was said about my bag…which of course fit just fine in the overheads just as it had on the way in.

British Airways flight 309
Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 12:05, Arrive 12:25, Flight Time: 1:20
Airbus A319, Registration G-EUPS, Manufactured 2007, Seat 5F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 75,762
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,265,287

Super quick flight, but not too quick…and lived up to the challenge of managing two minis of champagne before landing. Another very impressive meal for such a short flight that hit the spot perfectly.

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Took the Heathrow Express into the city, and assuming that I would have Etihad chauffeur service I’d booked in at the Le Meridien Piccadilly. Unfortunately, Etihad decided my ticket was a connection despite the overnight, and thus not eligible for chauffeur service in London. Not a big deal at the end of the day…until I found out the Bakerloo line wasn’t running from Paddington to Piccadilly, meaning a transfer. Three trains to get to the hotel wasn’t bad in the middle of the day, but the next morning that wasn’t going to happen.

There was a line of eight people waiting to check in when I arrived at the hotel, so did something I rarely do which is go to the side of the counter dedicated for SPG Platinum check-in. No problem until the next in line was called, and I walked over to the agent. I got rudely shoved by a rather rotund American gentleman who was the next in the regular line and insisted “I was next!” I told the agent I was waiting for Platinum and his comment was “well I’m gold so f*** off.” What’s that thing about the ugly American again… Not wanting to waste time, I waited the two minutes.

It was 2:15 at this point, and I was told my room wasn’t ready. They had upgraded me to a junior suite, but it would be another 30 minutes before it was ready. I was told I could either leave my bags, or go wait in the lounge. Since it was only 30 minutes, I opted to wait in the lounge and the agent said she would call up when the room was ready.

An hour went by, and still no call. So I went down to the front desk, and “oh, yeah, it’s ready – sorry I forgot.” Ugh. I know the hotel can’t be blamed for the rude guy in the check-in line, but so far I wasn’t overly impressed. On the plus side, the junior suite was quite nice, and unusual for hotels in London the temperature was actually decently on the cool side.

I was starting to drag at this point, so walked around the corner to perhaps the poshest Starbucks I’ve even been in…which didn’t stop them from spelling my name wrong yet again:

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Spent the evening catching up with friends, including drinks, followed by dinner, followed by more drinks. The hotel did turn out do be in the perfect location for walking from place to place, and was definitely a good choice! Got a nice view of Piccadilly Circus at night on the walk back to the hotel:

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With that, my short stopover in London had come to a close and it was time to get some rest so I could enjoy the capstone of the trip – flying Etihad in Apartments and First Class to Washington via Abu Dhabi!

May 192016
 

Grabbed the Airport Express train to the airport, and went straight to Cathay Pacific check-in. This was to be my first experience with them, and I was looking forward to seeing if it lived up to the hype. Many people compare Cathay and Singapore as Asia’s premier airlines, so having flown Singapore a number of times I was curious to see if it was all true. I didn’t get any pictures of the check-in area, but it was very strange. Several stand-up desks that were like cocktail tables where you stand with your agent and check-in. It was kind of strange, but I assume it’s to make things feel more personal.

Security and passport control at Hong Kong are a bit of a pain, because there’s no priority line at all. I had several hours to kill so it wasn’t a big deal, but it’s still a pain to have to wait nearly 45 minutes for this when you’re in first class. So far, the ground experience wasn’t so hot – but that’s not Cathay’s fault, just a fact of life at HKG. The other fact of life I wasn’t overly looking forward to was getting to what is supposed to be the best lounge – Cathay’s recently refurbished “The Pier” lounge. The airport at HKG is shaped like a giant capital letter T, where you enter at the base of the T and the Pier is in the far upper right corner. There’s a train which runs out to the juncture of the T, but I opted to walk it to get in a slight bit of exercise before the flight.

Upon entering the agents warned me that my flight would be departing all the way from the entry of the terminal area, and that I would have to walk back because the train only runs one way. No big deal, and I appreciated the warning. I immediately sat down in the bar/lounge area which was nice and roomy, and almost felt like living room at home. Plenty of space, but the roaming bartenders/service people were nowhere to be found. If you wanted something to drink, you had to go up to the bar to get it yourself. Awkward. There was also a small room with some light snacks, but if you wanted something more substantial you had to go to the sit-down dining area. After working for about an hour, I was getting rather hungry since I skipped lunch and headed to the restaurant. Today’s menu:

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I opted for a glass of the rosé to get things started:

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First up, I went with the tuna appetizer. Very bland and flavourless…but a decent helping of protein. Nothing to get excited about.

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I was a bit torn on what to get for a main, but went with the Dandan Noodles because I were told they were a Cathay specialty…and like crack. Now, funny fact. I hate peanut butter…have ever since I was a kid. But, I love peanut butter sauces, peanut soup, peanut butter cookies…you get the drift. It just can’t be all gooey and stuck to bread I guess. That said…I wanted a second bowl of these noodles. They were absolutely amazing…and I almost ordered another bowl. I would have if not for the upcoming flight…

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The toffee pudding…also pretty bland, and very little toffee taste. I finished it, but probably shouldn’t have…

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After a nice dinner, I grabbed a shower. The shower rooms were nice – and quite functional – but far from the nicest I’ve seen. I think Singapore and Lufthansa do far nicer, but that said not the end of the world. They were plenty nice. I worked for a little bit longer, and then took the long slow stroll back to the gate, stopping on the way at “The Wing” lounge right next to my gate. Now, I’d been warned that all the Cathay lounges have some flaw or another. The Pier – too far and inconvenient. The Wing – open air, and loud. That said…it wasn’t my complaint with The Wing.

For a first class lounge, it felt like a zoo. A zoo with no power outlets. It was more crowded than many United Clubs I’ve been in, and there were very few spaces to sit. I get that it was peak departures hour, but this place was packed. A first class lounge should never feel packed! Since this was my first real One World first class experience, I had to wonder if the One World rule granting access to first lounges made them more like Lufthansa Senator lounges – crowded because everyone and their mother gets access.

…eventually I found a power outlet…and a bottle of ros√©…and all was soon forgotten. Walked downstairs from the lounge just as we were ready to board.

Cathay Pacific flight 261
Hong Kong (HKG) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 23:55, Arrive 05:40, Flight Time: 12:45
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration B-KPF, Manufactured 2008, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 75,330
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,264,855

No sooner had I taken my seat and been welcomed than a glass of Krug and an amuse bouche showed up. It was some strange salmon and shaved ice thing, but hey, the Krug is what’s really important here!

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Have Krug, am happy:

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Despite the midnight departure, Cathay serves a full “supper” service:

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The burger snack sounded tasty, but sleep sounded better…

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Takeoff was right on time, and service began quickly with more Krug and mixed nuts. Was glad to see a few pistachios in there…

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Caviar service…I’ve heard tales if there is extra caviar you can ask them to save it and do scrambled eggs and caviar in the morning…must try on my next Cathay flight!

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Caviar done properly, with mother-of-pearl spoon:

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Very boring salad, ruined with in-flight shrimp:

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The lamb loin main was recommended, but I have to say I didn’t find it very tasty. Normally, lamb has a lot of flavour to it, but this was pretty bland. So much so that I didn’t even bother to finish it…

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Fantastic choice of cheeses…fortunately I didn’t finish the lamb, because these were delicious!

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Despite being stuffed, it was insisted I have a few chocolates with my final glass of wine before dozing off.

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Slept over 7 hours, thanks to a cabin temperature which was kept just cool enough for sleep. I managed to fall asleep right away, and woke up wrapped in a warm duvet which clearly the flight attendants had done. I can’t imagine a United flight attendant caring enough to put a blanket on a sleeping passenger…woke up, and for some reason I craved tea. I never drink tea…but it was fantastic!

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Followed by a delicious mango smoothie and entire basket full of breakfast breads.

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I went with the dim sum main (when in China?) which was pretty tasty, although a little on the dry side.

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Thank you note from the crew. The little hearts were a cute touch:

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So, what’s to say about Cathay? The food was fantastic other than the lamb, but any airline can get it wrong once and a while. The crew was very attentive and helpful without being overbearing, but it lacked the personal touch – same as I often feel with Singapore. Maybe it’s the American in me that I prefer crews to be a bit warmer and chatty, but they did seem to be that way – but only with what appeared to be two Cathay employees in first and the other three passengers, all who were Chinese. Hard to say. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the flight – I did very much – just that it didn’t WOW me. I think that extra little bit depends so much on the chemistry between the crew and the passenger, and that’s something you’re just not going to have every time.

Landed at Terminal 3 at Heathrow, which meant taking the bus over to Terminal 5 and doing transfer and security theatre there. Not a big deal, took maybe 30 minutes total, and had plenty of time to enjoy in the BA first lounge.

Here’s where I’m going to be harsh – again. Just like The Wing in Hong Kong, the lounge was a zoo. Coming from Star Alliance, first lounges should be somewhat exclusive and relaxing, and this place was absolutely heaving at the seams. Plus, shower rooms were shared with the business lounge, meaning people were being told a wait of more than an hour. Thanks to smiles and stretching the truth a bit on the time of my connection, I did manage to get a shower in about 15 minutes. On the showers, I was disappointed again. Very small and sterile – felt like a cubicle and some low-end health club. Not at all appropriate for a first class lounge.

That brings me to the lounge in general. They do put on a rather nice breakfast spread with tons of options, but it felt like eating in a giant cafeteria with dozens of your closest friends. Nothing nice restaurant about it at all. Contrast this with a Lufthansa First lounge for dining, or even The Pier, and the difference was nice and day. Long way of saying, my experiences at The Wing and the BA First Lounge were far from relaxing, and far from what a first lounge should be. It’s ok if you want to let Emerald members in, but then you need something more exclusive for your first class passengers – which I understand BA does with the Concorde Room. However, without being allowed in connecting from Cathay First, the alliance fell short in that regard for me.

British Airways flight 308
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 10:50, Arrive 11:10, Flight Time: 1:20
Airbus A321, Registration G-EUXM, Manufactured 2007, Seat 5F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 75,546
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,265,071

Quick 35 minute flight onward to Paris and BA still managed to serve a full snack. Yes, I know people complain about this snack all the time since it’s also serve on three hour routes, but for a short hop to Paris it was rather impressive! I behaved after the Cathay flight and stopped at one mini bottle of bubbly…

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Next up – time to celebrate making it to Tuvalu by enjoying two days in Paris!

May 102016
 

Slept in a bit, and had one final walk around the town before getting ready to head to the airport. It was maybe a 90 second walk from my hotel to the terminal at Funafuti…the terminal which is huge:

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Went to the airport at 9:30 to check-in three hours before the flight as recommend, which was maybe a 90 second walk…if that. I was ticked off the list of passengers they had, they checked my bag, and I got to choose my seat from one of those sticker seatmaps. Then, I was asked to complete immigration…which took about 5 seconds. After immigration…we were free to go. Yes, we had technically left the country, but they didn’t care if we left the airport. To quote the immigration guy “small country, we can find you!” Hahaha, guess there’s not a big problem here with people getting stamped out of the country and then deciding not to leave…

My hotel had a 10a checkout policy, and I really didn’t want to wait around in the hot and sticky airport terminal for 2.5 hours. They offered 11a checkout for an extra 20 Australian dollars, and I was sold. Small price to pay for an hour of air conditioning!

Finally at 11, I walked over to the Hotel Filomena, which is right next to the terminal, and does a brisk business on its patio selling drinks to waiting passengers. Right beyond the patio fence, you see the runway:

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Plane arrived right on time, and we boarded about 20 minutes before scheduled takeoff. Quick boarding, and doors were closed 10 minutes early. Every seat was taken today, except the one next to me! Everything was going right this trip. It’s easier they said to take a full plane back to Fiji, since there are other diversion options near Suva. ¬†However, if they get near Funafuti and can’t land, it requires going almost all the way back to Fiji!

Fiji Airways flight 280 ‚Äď Operated by FijiLink
Funafuti, Tuvalu (FUN) to Suva, Fiji (SUV)
Depart 12:20, Arrive 14:50, Flight Time: 2:30
ATR 72-600, Registration DQ-FJZ, Manufactured 2014, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 61,579
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,251,104

View just after takeoff of Funafuti Atoll. See the wide part on the “corner?” That’s where the airport and “city” of Funafuti are located:

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Full lunch offered, beef or chicken. Went with the beef, and it was surprisingly good!

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Landed in Suva right on time, and had a nearly three hour wait for my connection to Nadi. I decided since the Tuvalu jinx was now broken to hit the cafe in the Suva airport, and enjoy a slice of their now-famous chocolate cake. It was just as tasty as I remembered!

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Time actually passed rather quickly, and soon it was time to board the final leg.

Fiji Airways flight 18 ‚Äď Operated by FijiLink
Suva, Fiji (SUV) to Nadi, Fiji (NAN)
Depart 18:00, Arrive 18:30, Flight Time: 30 minutes
ATR 42-600, Registration DQ-FJY, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 61,655
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,251,180

Boarding our ATR at twilight made for cool views of the plane:

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Nothing to say – very uneventful 30 minute flight. Sat next to a Fiji Airways employee and discussed the challenges they’ve had in the past and how they’re really working hard to overcome past problems. I have to say, my experience was night and day better compared to my previous attempt 18 months before, and it looks like Fiji Airways, formerly aka Air Hot Mess, might actually be improving!

Grabbed a taxi back to the Sheraton, where I had an incredibly honest driver who told me the fare was $25 when I asked him to confirm it was $30. It’s always nice getting honest taxi drivers!

The Sheraton, however, was a mess. The first room they gave me the AC didn’t work, and it took three visits from maintenance before they would admit it. All this time, I was also waiting for a room service menu in the room, since it didn’t have one, and it took them over an hour to bring it. Two hours after check-in, they finally agreed the AC would never work and reluctantly agreed to let me move rooms. The second room was perfect, and I have no idea why they were so reluctant.

Overall, this stay really left me with a sour taste in my mouth. There was no warmth or desire to help from the employees, and they acted as if they were being annoyed when you asked for things. To top it off, when I checked out it took 10 minutes of arguing about the rate despite me having a printed confirmation. Overall, while Fiji Airways seems to be well on the road to improvement the Sheraton is definitely going the other direction. Next time, I would definitely look elsewhere on Denarau.

I’d originally planned three nights in Fiji in case I had to try to go to Tuvalu a second or third try, but since I made it on the first I cut my stay in Fiji short and instead of heading directly to Hong Kong, I decided to head to Sydney for a couple days in between. Next up: Nadi to Sydney on the Fiji Airways A330.

Apr 252016
 

Before heading home, only fitting to add a few shots from Cape Town. Like the sunrise view from the Westin Executive Lounge:

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View of Table Mountain from the waterfront:

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Another view, this time from the water:

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Fantastic sunset on the water:

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Looking back towards Cape Town, and a full moon:

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The Cape Wheel lit up at night on the V&A Waterfront:

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One last sunset from Camps Bay:

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Another daytime view from the Westin Exec Lounge. This hotel was absolutely fantastic in every way. Great rooms, fabulous Platinum treatment, great restaurants, and the brightest star was the staff. They went out of their way over the course of a week to accommodate every request I had and went above and beyond the fall of duty. It’s hard to fail, though, with a view like this:

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Soon enough, over a week had passed, and it was time to get back home. My hockey team had made the championship game in the meantime, and I was anxious to get back in time to play!

Check-in was easy, although they were only able to check me in as far as Johannesburg. Long line for security, and took nearly 30 minutes to clear. Once through, the walk to the South African lounge wasn’t too bad, and there was great plane spotting today. TAAG 777:

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Kulula 737 with a very awkward “this way up” paintjob. Just in case, idk, the plane gets turned upside down?

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…and my ride for today for the short hop to Joburg, a South African A340-600:

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South African flight 346
Cape Town, South Africa (CPT) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 15:20, Arrive 17:15, Flight Time: 1:55
Airbus A340-600, Registration ZS-SNG, Manufactured 2003, Seat 4D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 41,950
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,231,475

Once airborne, a small snack was served. The couscous, cheese, tomato, and olives were ok, but the mystery meal was…pretty nasty:

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Other than that, not too much to say about this short flight. Same wine selections as the flight down to Cape Town, friendly crew, and about 80% full in business, but the seat next to me remained empty which was a super nice surprise. The crew didn’t even say anything when I used the seatbelt to buckle in my laptop bag for landing! Nice!

Bus gate in Josie, and unfortunately we had to wait to fill up the bus – no special treatment for business class! Rather long walk to the international gates, and another 30 minute wait for passport control. Ugh! But once through, the South African lounge was absolutely packed for evening departures. Since the onboard meal wasn’t really edible, I grabbed a small snack in the lounge – I jokingly told friends back home this was crocodile stew, and most believed it. Goes to show how even South Africa is considered exotic!

…that said, it wasn’t labeled. Tasted like lamb, but there’s no guarantees…

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Long walk to the gate for the Lufthansa flight, and waited forever to board as the crew was stuck in traffic. This was to be the first time I transfered 747-8i to 747-8i and I was looking forward to a very comfortable trip!

Lufthansa flight 573
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 19:40, Arrive 05:25 next day, Flight Time: 10:45
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYF, Manufactured 2012, Seat 8D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 47,330
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,236,855

So…what’s for dinner tonight?

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…after a couple glasses of wine in the lounge, I decided to try out my very limited German, and ordered my wine and starter. The super friendly FA continued in German, so I decided to see how long I could keep this going. I always joke that I don’t speak German – I speak Lufthansa, and the extent of my German is to tell you that¬†Zu jedem Sitz geh√∂rt eine Schwimmweste. In der First und Business Class finden Sie die Shwimmweste unter der Armiehne!

I must have been reasonably understandable, because I got my wine and mixed nuts. I’m so glad Lufthansa has finally upgraded from the pre-packaged nuts:

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I went with the sweet chili beef for the starter, and it was reasonably tasty:

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I’m not sure why I decided on the pasta as a main, but it was pretty bland, as expected. I won’t do shrimp on a plane, and I’ve been burned by bad beef so many times that I guess the pasta was a default. Maybe I should have risked the beef after all…

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Tasty, but incredibly stingy cheese portion:

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After eating, I passed out for over seven hours of sleep, and slept right through the pre-arrival breakfast service. No matter, I wasn’t really hungry anyways.

Passport control agents were waiting at the top of the jetway as they often are in Frankfurt for Africa flights, and after a quick flash of the passport (without even opening it) they waived me on. Several others weren’t as lucky…

Through formal passport control, again managing the whole very brief exchange in German, and I was in the airport at 5:30, only 5 minutes after scheduled arrival. Very short walk to the airport Sheraton, quick check-in, and by 6am I was in bed and sleeping soundly. Clearly seven hours wasn’t nearly enough, and I managed another 4 hours of solid sleep.

Grabbed a quick shower, followed by coffee and pastry in the Sheraton exec lounge, and then headed back to the airport. Stop for the obligatory Starbucks to finish waking up, where once again my name was strangely misspelled:

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Through immigration and security. It was the day before Easter, and this group of Chinese tourists was absolutely fascinated with this random duty free person posing as the Easter Bunny:

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Quick stop in the Senator lounge for a pretzel and easter eggs, along with a glass of riesling:

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Then, very short walk to the gate and it was time to board.

Lufthansa flight 418
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 16:55, Flight Time: 9:05
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYR, Manufactured 2014, Seat 7D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 51,411
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,240,936

Having slept 11+ hours I was pretty sure I was going to stay awake this whole flight. The flight to DC was completely full in all classes, and they were offering a 200 euro voucher to go the next day. Um, no thanks. So now, let’s eat!

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Mixed nuts and red wine again, are you sensing a pattern?

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The medium-rare roast beef as advertised. Tasty, especially with the pretzel roll:

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A rather anemic salad:

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The tandoori chicken breast was ok, but nothing special.

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Much better serving of cheese…and a dessert! Bonus!

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Plus, mark this as the flight where I learned Lufthansa has an on-board espresso machine. This was the first of four double espressos consumed in the next eight hours…

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After lunch, I spent several hours doing work and watching tv, before it was time for the pre-arrival meal. The salad was pretty sad, and the curry soup was even worse. The whole meal was pretty poor…the riesling was the star…

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So what to do? Another glass of riesling and dessert. Best part of the meal!

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Landed at Dulles right on time, immigration was a zoo but was through in two minutes thanks to Global Entry. The line for immigration stretched down the hallway and looked at least 30-60 minutes long. Fortunately, the Global Entry line was much shorter and I was through in five minutes.

Taxi ride home, quick shower and pick up the hockey gear, eat a pack of fig newtons, and it was off to the hockey rink, where I arrived just in time 30 minutes before the championship game. The picture below tells all the story…it was well worth rushing home for!

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Stay tuned…next up is my next attempt to check off country #192 visited – Tuvalu!

Apr 212016
 

I had a very long weekend coming up, and combined with the American Exec Platinum challenge it looked like a perfect time to get away to my 190th country visited – Belize! There were some excellent business class fares available, and even though they required an overnight in Dallas in both directions it looked like the perfect time.

I had always put off visiting Belize because I wanted to go for a week or more and get some serious diving in. However, with only a little over seven months left until my goal of visiting every country I opted for a shorter relaxing trip so that I had a but more intel for the next trip!

Put in a bit of a half day of work, then headed off to the Admirals Club for the first time in a few years to see what the upgraded food options were all about. There were pepperjack cheese cubes so I was happy…combine that with some decent brownies and some mushroom and brie soup, well, overall a very tasty and substantial snack:

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Soon it was time to board the flight to Dallas for the overnight.

American flight 327
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW)
Depart 15:40, Arrive 18:13, Flight Time: 3:33
Boeing 737-800, Registration N948NN, Manufactured 2014, Seat 5E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 19,248
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,208,763

Despite at 3:40pm departure, it was a dinner flight. Other than London-Chicago a month prior, this was my first domestic American flight in a few years and I was curious to see how they would do compared to United. Was pleasantly surprised to get a new 737-800 with sky interior, and everything felt new and clean. I was also glad to see that wine is still poured in “big boy” glasses, but boo to sourcing split cashews from Smisek’s Split Cashew Farm:

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I had pre-ordered my meal online (a nice feature American offers so you can be disappointed in advance) and I went with the pasta…which was as bland as it looks and sounds. I had a couple bites, and passed on the rest in favour of more vino.

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Mas vino and a pretty good chocolate chip cookie…but rather sad as a dessert:

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Overall verdict? Just like United, it’s a meal that you could get for under $10 in any workplace cafeteria. It’s far from fine dining, but if you’re busy and rushed it will do the job.

Spent a nice night at the Westin DFW. I felt a cold coming on, and the hotel shuttle driver was kind enough to take me a couple miles away to the nearest CVS for Sudafed…at no charge. Definitely high marks to this property on service! Woke up feeling quite a bit better, went to the airport a little early where I grabbed Starbucks (of course) then went straight to my gate.

American flight 2345
Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to Miami, Florida (MIA)
Depart 7:15, Arrive 11:01, Flight Time: 2:46
Boeing 737-800, Registration N809NN, Manufactured 2009, Seat 5E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 20,369
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,209,884

Unfortunately, my flight attendant was pretty much asleep as well, and dumped my seatmate’s pre-departure beverage in my lap. Ugh, fortunately it was “only” tea which wasn’t really hot…and also didn’t stain. She did apologize profusely at least.

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I decided to go with the mimosa option…I was on vacation after all!

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Another pre-ordered meal, the omelette. Fruit was dry and tasteless. I ate the eggs just for the protein, and left everything else behind…except a second and maybe third mimosa. Another blah and uneventful flight.

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Didn’t have very long in Miami, but since the American Express Centurion Lounge was on my way to the gate I stopped in for a few minutes and a celebratory glass of Veuve. The place was absolutely packed with families so I made a quick retreat on to my next flight.

American flight 2476
Miami, Florida (MIA) to Belize City, Belize (BZE)
Depart 12:35, Arrive 13:50, Flight Time: 2:15
Airbus A319, Registration N90024, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 21,136
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,210,651

Feet on the bulkhead is apparently done in a much more classy fashion on American, with fuzzy pink socks:

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Fortunately, the flight was pretty empty and not all the seats were taken in first despite some non-revs boarding at the last minute, so I was able to swap over to a window seat. We started off with warm nuts and some wine:

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The nuts were, unfortunately, burned and chewy, so I had to give them a pass:

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We were given a snack option of “cheese and fruit” or “spinach dip” – I went with the cheese which was two sad hunks of cheese and a few bruised grapes.

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There was enough for seconds, so I asked to try the hummus…I wish I hadn’t. It was rather foul. One bite and done.

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Soon, we were on approach to Belize:

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Deplaned through stairs, immigration took a bit longer than it should have since it seemed several flights all arrived at the same time.

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Once through security, you were dropped right into the domestic departures area. My hotel had arranged my onward flights for me, so all I had to do was give my name to them, and they put me on the next flight to San Pedro. Flights seemed to leave every 15-30 minutes at peak time, so it was really a piece of cake.

TropicAir flight 76
Belize City, Belize (BZE) to San Pedro, Belize (SPR)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 14:25, Flight Time: 15 minutes
Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, Registration V3-HHL, Manufactured 2011, Copilot Seat
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 21,170
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,210,685

Even better the flight was completely full, so I got to sit in the copilot seat!

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Off to San Pedro we go!

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View out the window just after takeoff:

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Plotting our course:

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About 10 short minutes later, we were on approach to La Isla Bonita:

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Deplaning at San Pedro:

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San Pedro, the only place in the world you will find go cart traffic jams:

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I spent the next three days doing absolutely nothing. Going for walks on the beach, playing in the water, reading in hammocks, basically doing nothing. Well, I did manage a few good eats…starting with rum punch:

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Some conch fritters:

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Some absolutely delicious curried lobster:

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…and to finish it off some key lime pie that Madonna supposedly called “worth every calorie”

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A few days later, I was completely sad to leave. I mean, how can you not miss views like this outside your room:

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Apparently drinking hours were ending, and I was unfortunately going to have to go back to working hours:

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The hammock I spent most of the weekend in, along with a friendly stray dog:

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Home away from home, the Blue Tang Inn…fantastic hosts and facilities, I’d definitely go back again!

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The hotel dropped me back at the airport, and it was nice checking in just 30 minutes before my flight home!

TropicAir flight 91
San Pedro, Belize (SPR) to Belize City, Belize (BZE)
Depart 15:00, Arrive 15:15, Flight Time: 15 minutes
Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, Registration V3-HHI, Manufactured 2010,¬†Seat “3C”
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 21,204
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,210,719

No copilot seat this time, since they used the weight and balance excuse. Still had great views on takeoff:

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Deplaning in Belize City, we were about 5 minutes before the skies absolutely opened up for a torrential downpour that seemed to last forever!

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While waiting on my departing flight, I checked out Jet’s Bar in the airport. Jet is the proprietor who has been running this very small bar for years, and has all sorts of pictures of himself with famous people all over the walls. It feels like a bit of a tourist trap now, but was still cool to see while waiting on my flight.

Unfortunately, it was still pouring when we had to walk to the remote gate. At least American had a bucket of umbrellas for us to use. Didn’t matter, however, since the rain was so strong everyone still got wet. I felt worst for the people in the back of coach who had to wait on the stairway to board the flight as people screwed around trying to find their seats!

American Airlines flight 268
Belize City, Belize (BZE) to Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW)
Depart 17:09, Arrive 20:18, Flight Time: 3:09
Boeing 737-800, Registration N812NN, Manufactured 2009, Seat 4A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 22,393
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,211,908

Dinner time flight, and that meant more warm nuts…this time not burnt:

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Great sunset shortly after takeoff:

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I finally got to try the famous American Lobster Mac and Cheese with Steak, and it was actually pretty decent. One of the best domestic meals I’ve had in a long time!

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Cookie for dessert again. Ugh. I had a couple bites of the better-cooked part, and them passed on the rest.

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Good overnight, woke up a little early to make sure I had time for coffee, and when I looked at my phone it was filled with alerts from TripIt, American, etc. I knew DC had been expecting an ice storm, and due to that, American had canceled my Dallas to DC flight. They’d rebooked me via St Louis since all the nonstops were full. I didn’t have much more faith that St Louis to DCA would operate since it was a regional jet, but I decided to let go and trust.

American Airlines flight 96
Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to St Louis, Missouri (STL)
Depart 10:15, Arrive 11:53, Flight Time: 1:38
McDonnell Douglas MD88, Registration N963TW, Manufactured 1999, Seat 3E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 22,943
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,212,458

No more than 30 seconds after the door closed on the flight to St Louis, did I get a message from TripIt…St Louis to DCA had just canceled.

UGH.

They booked me on a St Louis to DCA that went two hours later…but by the time we landed in St Louis that flight had canceled as well. Ugh. I got to know the staff of the Admirals Club in St Louis quite well during my nearly 9 hours there, and they were great trying to help me rebook. I think I must have asked at least a dozen times, and I did finally get them to put me on a flight via Chicago and then onto DCA the next morning.

Right before we left, the next morning’s flight to DCA canceled as well. United had seats, and I had to push pretty hard, but eventually they did end up rebooking me on United. Thank God! I even managed to check-in with United online and then do a same day change to a slightly later flight so I could sleep in.

American Airlines flight 3243 operated by Envoy Air
St Louis, Missouri (STL) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 19:05, Arrive 20:30, Flight Time: 1:25
Canadair CRJ-700, Registration N535EA, Manufactured 2010, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 23,201
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,212,716

This was a good thing, because my 7:05p departure was over two hours late, and when we landed in Chicago we had to wait another hour for a gate due to ice there. It was nearly midnight before we rolled into a gate, and I rolled over the the Airport Hilton for convenience sake.

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It was a good thing I did, because I woke up around 7a feeling like absolute death warmed over. Fever, chills, I was pretty sure I was about to meet my maker. Definitely the sickest I’ve been in years. Managed to same-day-change to an even later flight, and roll over for more sleep. By 11:30 I was able to struggle out of bed and put clothes on…and make my feverish way over to the terminal. Security was easy, and because I was dealing with a fierce headache (thanks caffeine withdrawl) I did manage to put down a venti iced americano from starbucks.

I needed food badly, and a McDonalds cheeseburger was the blandest thing I could think of, but after two bites, it wasn’t going to happen so I gave up.

United Airlines flight 616
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Washington, DC National (DCA)
Depart 13:55, Arrive 16:47, Flight Time: 1:52
Boeing 737-700, Registration N23721, Manufactured 1999, Seat 3B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 23,813
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,213,328

I know this flight happened. I know I looked pale. I know that after the first glass of ginger ale the flight attendant kept them coming…I’m sure I looked pretty rough. But, somehow, I made it back home. I’ve never been so thankful a flight had ginger ale on board since I got nasty food poisoning returning from Iraq. Got home, found out I had a temperature of 102.5 headed straight down the street to Urgent Care where the flu test came back negative…and crawled into bed where I spent most of the next 48 hours.

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 Fran√ßois 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.

Feb 082016
 

When I found out I was headed to Bangkok for work, I had a bit of a dilemma. Ever since United stopped serving Bangkok, there are very few good options to get there with a United ticket. You can fly to Hong Kong and connect to from there, but that means the 747s or 777s, with their awful seating. I mean, seriously, who doesn’t have all-aisle access seating. Plus, this option was significantly more expensive than fares we were getting on Korean and Air China…which were non-starters since I still had lots of elite qualifying dollars to earn with just a month left in 2015.

Eventually, I remembered there were super cheap business fares to India, and found an Air Canada option via Toronto with United flight numbers, meaning United would ticket it. Combine this with a cheapish Delhi to Bangkok ticket, and I was in business. On the way back, the flights that worked best timewise out of India ended up being on Austrian to Vienna and on to Zurich, with a connection to United there. Tickets sorted, premier qualifying dollars in the bag, it was time for a few new experiences – Air Canada longhaul, on a 787 nonetheless, and Austrian longhaul.

Slept in a bit the day of the flight, then headed to DCA. The Air Canada agents at DCA are pretty terrible. I think they might be outsourced, but they really have no clue about Star Alliance benefits, there’s no lounge at all – nor is there a restaurant voucher/credit – and it’s overall a pretty miserable operation. Since I was on two separate tickets, she didn’t want to check me in without a visa for India. I showed her one on an expired passport, and she refused to accept that as valid, even though it’s just fine with India. Then, I showed her an expired visa in a current passport, and not seeing the date she was good with that. Seriously WTF.

Fortunately, the A Gates at DCA have a couple new restaurant options with iPad ordering, which is pretty slick. Had a small lunch, and soon it was time for the short flight up to Toronto.

Air Canada flight 7615, Operated by Sky Regional
Washington, National (DCA) to Toronto, Ontario (YYZ)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 14:15, Flight Time: 1:25
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration C-FEJL, Manufactured 2005, Seat 1A

I had been incredibly busy leading up to this trip, and hadn’t had any time to give thoughts to seats. By the time I did, the only seat left in business was 1A. Decent because you don’t have anyone reclining into you, but pretty poor from a legroom perspective. Whatever, it’s a short flight, so wasn’t a big deal. No pre-departure beverages offered, but a great view of the Pentagon on a clear day right after takeoff:

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Small cheese plate and nuts were offered as a snack with wine…and refills. Not bad service for a flight that was just over an hour!

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Toronto is a bit strange when making a US to International connection. In order to get to international departures, you still need to visit an immigration agent, but a different agent than if you were intending to enter Canada. Not sure what the point of this check is, since you’re merely in transit, but they do it. Satisfied I wasn’t up to no good, they let me into the international area, and the Salon Feuille d’√©rable – or Maple Leaf Lounge. Quite a good spread of food was out, so I had some tasty ravioli and the obligatory ceasar. I love the little maple leaf swizzle sticks:

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A few weeks after I had booked, my friend John in Ottawa (who has guest blogged here before) found out he had to go to Tokyo for work. Being a complete dork and majorly short on miles to requalify with Air Canada, he opted to join me all the way to Bangkok, continuing on from there to Tokyo the long way. Talk about a super out of the way routing! While I enjoyed my ceasar, he indulged his obsession with the Maple Leaf Lounge cookies, and we got a bit of work done. There were several other options on the buffet, and I was pretty impressed with the amount of food that was set out. You’d never see hot options like this in a United or American club, not to mention all the fresh side dishes. You’re lucky to get hummus and some cheese cubes.

What a great coincidence, however, that we even had to leave on the same days and could end up on the same flights. Fortunately, his upgrade even cleared at the gate and on top of that, the last open seat was the one across the aisle from us. The travel gods were definitely smiling on us!

Air Canada flight 70
Toronto, Ontario (YYZ) to Delhi, India (DEL)
Depart 20:35, Arrive 20:55 next day, Flight Time: 13:50
Boeing 787-9, Registration C-FNOH, Manufactured 2015, Seat 4A

Brand spanking new 787-9, delivered barely a month prior, which still had that new plane smell. Welcome aboard screen:

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Water AND sparkling water, along with a basic but nice amenity kit:

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The crew was super friendly, while at the same time being very professional and addressing people by name. What’s for dinner tonight? Sorry for the slightly blurry pics…must have been one too many ceasars:

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Goofy “we’re finally flying together” selfie:

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Air Canada’s super-progressive safety video. I think the translation is: “Hey honey, let’s see if that guy in Row 8 is on Grindr!” It looks like their only pr√©occupation is with each other… ūüėČ

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Some horrible movie I watched. Looks like Air Canada has joined United and American in the cut-price split cashew camp:

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Mixed greens, bread on a plate, and super tasty tuna starter. Quite possibly the best starter I’ve ever had from a North American airline.

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I generally avoid fish on planes, but John had the sablefish. Based on the presentation, I’m pretty glad I skipped it:

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My chicken murgh was even less appetizing looking, but fortunately tasted much better than it looked. Note the sad, empty wine glass:

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Mini cheese and fruit plate…needed more cheese:

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Pre-packaged ice cream for dessert? Sad panda…definitely a let-down from the United sundae.

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John went with the chocolate fondant, which was definitely the better option:

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At this point, I passed out for nearly nine glorious hours. With all the work leading up to this trip I was running super short on sleep, so was great to just be able to pass out. This also marked my third 787 redeye, and third one where I slept more than nine hours. There must be something to the lower cabin altitude and higher humidity on the 787, because I sleep as well on them as I do at home, and better than on any other plane. Plus, Air Canada did a great job keeping the cabin temperature reasonable, which made sleeping much easier.

Normally transatlantics aren’t long enough that I’m hungry for breakfast, but in this case decided to give it a ¬†go. The muffin was dry and I skipped it after one bite, as was the fruit unfortunately. However, the cottage cheese with the omelette was super tasty, especially with the red pepper relish. Not normally a big fan of eggs on planes, but it was a tasty combo!

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Landed in Delhi late evening, and transit was pretty simple. We had to wait maybe 30 minutes for the Air Canada representative to come to the transit counter, and they were confused and not expecting us because we were on different tickets into and out of Delhi. Eventually, they figured it out, and transfer security was a breeze. This was like the fifth time I had done it this year, so I’m sure knowing what to expect made the whole process a bit easier as well.

Off to the ITC Green lounge, with some tasty Indian nibbles, Diet Pepsi, and WiFi to catch up on email. A couple hours later, we headed down to the boarding gate. I had forgotten there was a Starbucks there, or I would have gone much earlier. Normally I’m the one whose name gets messed up, but when John said his name the very eager barrista said “OH! Like John Cena!” I guess he’s a wrestling fan…

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Our flight was about 30 minutes late for the ever dubious “operational reasons” but soon it was time to board. Bid John Cena a temporary farewell, as he was off to fend for himself amidst the cattle in back. Fortunately, I expected to be a bit more comfortable…

Thai Airways flight 316
Delhi, India (DEL) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 00:15, Arrive 5:40, Flight Time: 3:55
Boeing 777-200, Registration HS-TKA, Manufactured 1998, Seat 12E

Nice welcome-aboard glass of tea:

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Unfortunately, it was not to be as comfortable as planned, since I was stuck in a middle seat. Thai 777s not only do not go flat in the seats, but they have middle seats as well. Gross. I was seated next to a guy with a Chinese passport who kept hacking up phlegm the entire flight, and didn’t speak enough English to understand when I asked him to cover his mouth. Even acting it out didn’t seem to help. Fortunately, he knew the expression JOHNNY WALKER DOUBLE and after 5 or 6 of those he passed out. Doesn’t change the fact that about 36 hours after landing in Bangkok I came down with a cold. Want to guess who’s responsible?

At least there was Veuve to make things a bit better:

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Menu was simple, but looked tasty:

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The salad and shrimp were pretty meh, but hey, can’t complain when you’re flying India to Thailand and get multiple servings of garlic bread, and Veuve refills!

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The chicken red curry was ok, but nothing special:

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The raspberry marscapone cake was also pretty underwhelming, but again, the Veuve helped:

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Landed in Bangkok about 30 minutes behind schedule. I wished John good luck with his connecting flight to Tokyo. I couldn’t imagine having another flight after this as it had already been nearly 24 hours in transit and I was absolutely wiped out. Not in the mood to deal with taxis or the Skytrain today, I opted for an AOT car to take me to my hotel. Up next was a super busy week of work events before heading home. I’ll do another review of the flights back home in another post, as well as one on the hotels I stayed at.

Jan 302016
 

Holiday Inn shuttle dropped me back at the airport, and there was a rather long queue to check in, but fortunately nobody at all in the business class line. Quickly printed my boarding pass, gave me directions to the lounge, and it was off to immigration. Again, super long queue, but none in the priority line and was through to security in a couple of minutes. Immigration queue seemed to have relieved the security queue, and there was no wait. Walked through duty free, and had no trouble finding the lounge.

This is where things got weird.

Gave her my boarding pass, and was met with “Oh good evening Mr M, we have been expecting you. Right this way.” She walked me to the back corner of the lounge, there was a table already set up, and she made sure to mention “this is the coolest corner in the lounge, we have a nice table and beverages for you, and there is a power outlet right there.” Either someone in this lounge secretly reads my blog (and somehow knew I was traveling?) or some friend or colleague tipped them off. I have yet to find out who…

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Stayed right up until flight time, and the cookies were, btw, delicious.

British Airways flight 78
Accra, Ghana (ACC) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 22:40, Arrive 5:05 next day, Flight Time: 6:25
Boeing 747-400, Registration G-BNLF, Manufactured 1990, Seat 5K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 13,491
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,180,529

British Airways is funny, in that they don’t yet you choose your seat more than 24 hours in advance, even if you’re in business class, without paying for it. When I checked in at 24 hours, I noticed they were letting business class passengers choose the first class seats. A bit of research yielded that BA has just one old 747-400 left, and people get pissed if they pay for first and get these seats. So, instead, for the rest of its life BA condemned it to fly London-Accra (changed to Vancouver-Accra in February) and give away the first seats with business service.

I had to spend an hour with BA phone support to select the seat (something to do with being ticketed on an Iberia ticket), but soon was able to confirm in “first” seat 5K:

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Shot across the cabin…this actually kind of reminds me of the old 747 United first seats:

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Pre-departure champagne and really strange amenity kit:

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Power by emPower?! What is this 1998?!

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Shortly after takeoff, wine was offered with some nuts, and a very generous pour:

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Despite the late departure, a very nice dinner menu was on offer:

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To start the meal, another extremely generous pour…and who says the British aren’t drinkers…

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The salmon and salad were…acceptable. Roughly United standard in my book…but Archer made it much better…

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The chicken, unfortunately, was dry and flavourless. The jollof rice was a bit better, but…

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The pineapple tiramisu was nice, but more of a mousse with some pineapple sauce than really tiramisu.

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The cheese plate was…once again United quality…which doesn’t say much…

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Managed about four hours of sleep due to a comfortable seat. I should mention when I asked the flight attendant if she could please keep the cabin as cool as it was overnight and try and find me a second pillow, she was more than happy to do so. Also asked if she could wake me at the last possible second before landing, which she also did. The crew was really great on this flight, and really left me with a positive experience.

About 7-8 minutes before touchdown I was woken up, put on my glasses…and eventually stumbled extremely bleary-eyed out of the plane for my first T3 experience. Yes, fortunately, we hadn’t come into T5 today, and were in T3, so it made connecting to American easy. American actually has a nice transfers area when you arrive, and when I went up to the business class desk, she asked if I might like to take the earlier connection to Chicago. Originally, I had a nearly six hour connection (since that’s all that was bookable on the low fare) but this was great! She managed to get me an aisle seat, and I was off to the Admirals Club for a shower.

After a shower, I enjoyed a nice bacon sandwich for breakfast…along with a Diet Coke:

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Soon, it was time to board, a short walk from the gate. I vaguely remember T3 from the days United occupied it as well, but nothing looked at all familiar. Have things been remodeled?

American Airlines flight 87
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 8:40, Arrive 11:35, Flight Time: 8:55
Boeing 777-200, Registration N792AN, Manufactured 2000, Seat 12J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 17,444
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,184,482

Ewwww old slanty lie-flat seats, a 2-3-2 config? Even United doesn’t have slanty seats any more. Between BA and AA, so far I’m not impressed with transatlantic OneWorld business class. What I am impressed with, however, was the eight people occupying like 35 seats. Score!

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Lots of room:

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Sorry it’s blurry, but you get the idea. Transatlantic breakfast flights are always disappointing, and this one was no exception:

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Bubbles…just to see if American pulled the same plastic glass crap that United does. Answer is: yes.

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Taxi was past…Concorde!

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This was just a hot mess of a meal. I wanted something more than water, but not a cocktail, so settled on an old childhood standby: ginger ale and OJ. The flight attendant had never heard of it before, and honestly, it was the best part of this meal. The fruit was dry and flavourless, the biscuit was just plane dry, and the eggs? Yuck. The worst part, however, was the yogurt parfait slathered in whipped cream and artificial berry jam. I think I took four or five bits of the whole meal and gave it right back. Awful.

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At least the cheese plate was decent? I tried to get seconds, but were told there were “no more, that’s the last one.” Um, with only eight passengers, seriously?

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Slept another three solid hours since I hadn’t gotten much on the prior flight, watched some tv, and soon it was snack time. Diet coke and Jeff, I mean Oscar, I mean Hector’s famous split cashews:

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Nice little deli plate. Nothing outstanding, but solid. Much better than the breakfast, and a decent white wine to go with it:

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Soooo, then we land. Overall impressions: the flight was pretty good. I think had it been a full cabin I would have come away extremely unhappy. Seat wasn’t great, food was well below average, the crew was pretty average, it was just…meh for a transatlantic. That said, one flight doesn’t tell you much and I’ll certainly give American more chances to prove themselves going forward since I have Executive Platinum status for the year now.

Short walk to immigration in Chicago, and this is where the fun began. I hoped that having global entry might automate things, but one of the first questions to pop up was “Have you traveled to Guinea in the last 28 days?” Yes/No question, lying on Global Entry can get privileges revoked along with whatever other crimes they could charge you with, so I was honest and answered yes. This immediately spat out of the machine with no further questioning:

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There was a dedicated immigration agent helping Global Entry passengers, so I gave it to him and told him “I’m sure the X is because I was honest that I visited Guinea.” He said “wait, that Ebola thing? Isn’t that done? Let me check.” Tapped on his computer a bit. Called a supervisor over. Supervisor called someone on the phone, the made lots of notes, asked me how long I’d been there, what I was doing, where I’d gone, etc. I was honest that I was working on going to every country, and stayed in Guinea as short as possible to minimize risk, etc etc. He said ok, everything was documented, you’re good to go.

Walked through baggage claim, to the customs guy, gave him the receipt, and he said “oh, you’re the Ebola guy, I need you to go with these officers and speak to the CDC.” Uhhhh, ok? Got escorted to a desk near baggage claim with a bunch of CDC posters by it, and learned the Chicago was a designated Ebola quarantine station, one of a few airports in the US that had been designated to accept passengers from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone at the height of the epidemic. My flights were on a different ticket so I likely would have arrived in the US undetected, but if you were coming direct from one of those countries a few months prior, you were only allowed to enter at certain points of entry, one of which (fortunately for me) was Chicago.

I was walked into a back office by CBP, who were extremely friendly and professional through the whole thing. They called the CDC agents on the phone to tell them to come in, and meanwhile, started filling out an online questionnaire. Typical things about fever, rural areas, funerals, unusual bleeding, playing with dead bodies, etc. At that point, I was given a gift from the government:

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Fortunately, my temp came in at 99.1, which was way higher than normal – probably due to the dehydration of a long flight. Fortunately, it wasn’t over their caution thresholds, and I was given the thermometer to keep “courtesy of your government.” Gee, thanks! Who says the government never gives you anything for free?!

I thought I was done at this point, but nope. Now, it was time to have a chat with the CDC people. Same exact questions about where I’d been, unusual fevers or bleeding, dead bodies, etc, and I think I got off a bit easily because they could tell I was clearly Ebola-aware as well as medically-aware, and ensured them I would immediately call county health officials and self-quarantine if I experienced any symptoms.

They seemed satisfied with that, and let me go, but not before giving me this card and insisting I carry it with me for the next 28 days. Great…now let’s just hope I don’t get knocked unconscious and start bleeding playing hockey, mkay?

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Since the great fare I’d gotten was Accra to Chicago, I had to buy a separate ticket from Chicago to DC. Decided on United, and fortunately was able to confirm an earlier flight online as well. But, this meant heading over to the B-Terminal, where there was as very joyous lady on the inter-terminal shuttle proclaiming her love for America:

Had to wait nearly 20 minutes for TSA PreCheck line, but other than that I still had plenty of time to hit Chilis for an El Presidente Platinum margarita and some Tex Mex eggrolls. Priorities, you know.

United Express flight 6469 operated by SkyWest
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:00, Arrive 17:55, Flight Time: 1:55
Embraer E-175, Registration N105SY, Manufactured 2014, Seat 4A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 18,056
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,185,094

United domestic first on an ERJ – nothing to write home about, but we were more or less on time, beverages were served (no snack basket today), and that was that. Another fantastic trip in the books. Thanks again to Daniel and Jordan for joining, trips like this are much more fun when you have others along to share the crazy with. I was supposed to have no more international travel until May after this trip, and really thought I didn’t when I landed in Chicago.

However, in the approximately two weeks since then, trips to Quito, Belize, and two weeks in Cape Town for work have all come on the books. Add to that a two week trip to check off Tuvalu (and burn American miles thanks to now being Exec Platinum and not having change fees), with stops along the way in Hong Kong, Fiji, Paris, London, and Abu Dhabi to try the Etihad Apartments, and this spring is suddenly quite packed!

Jan 292016
 

Soooo yeah. I woke up much earlier than I had planned on, due to not just getting a good night of sleep. Or, maybe I was psychic. Decided to check my e-mails and such in bed while I waited to see if I might fall asleep again. It was like 7a, and I had hoped to sleep until maybe 830a or so. While checking my emails, I saw a whole slew of emails from Kenya Airways, TripIt, and FlyingBlue. Apparently, my Kenya Airways flight from Monrovia to Accra had been “re-timed” from about 3:30pm to 9pm…making me miss my connection out of Accra out of Accra at 11p.

Um, this is not a good thing. My ticket from Accra was a crazy low Accra-Chicago-Accra ticket, and missing it would mean I’d have to find another way back from Accra or Monrovia, and also likely eat the discount business fare out of Accra. Ugh.

Hopped out of bed much more quickly than I thought possible, got to the computer, and started searching. Monrovia airport only has like five or six flights a day, and miraculously there was another one to Accra…leaving in just under three hours. Now, keep in mind, the airport is about a one hour drive away, and rush hour was rapidly approaching. The flight was with Arik Air, and of course when I tried to book online it wouldn’t work.

Skyped my travel agent, and she couldn’t get Arik Air to book either. Apparently, Arik Air is almost impossible to book except in person due to the fact that…well…it’s a Nigerian airline. I was down to about 2:30 until the flight, and time to make a decision was rapidly running out. I knew if I didn’t go to the airport, chance of anything happening was pretty much zero, so after telling Daniel and Jordan I was out, it was time to get out of dodge.

Went to the front desk, and of course they had no clue what to charge me for the room, since with all the room changes who knew. They tried at first to charge me for the VIP Suite Jordan had booked, but I informed they guy that “they” told me last night it would be the same as normal rooms. I told him what I was paying, he debated it, and finally wrote me a receipt. Of course the hotel driver wasn’t available, but he did call me a taxi to get me on my way to the airport.

Got to the airport without too much traffic, and then the drama started. I hadn’t negotiated the price with the taxi, but I was pretty sure it would be less than the $20 per person that the hotel charged the three of us to pick us up. Nope, the guy wanted $60 and wasn’t going to budge. I was rapidly running out of town, so paid up and went to the terminal.

I told the lady manning the very long security line to get into the building that I needed to buy a ticket. Yes, for Arik Air. Yes, for the flight in 90 minutes. She acted like this wasn’t strange at all, waved me past the security line, and straight to the check-in counters. The line for economy check-in was nearly 100 people long, so I walked up to the business class counter and told her I wanted to buy a ticket. Right now. Just to Accra. Again she didn’t think this was strange at all, and said, “ok, let me find out the price.”

She called someone, talked on the phone for a few minutes, and then came back with a price. I suggested maybe it was a little high, so she got on the phone and said some more things. She came back with a price $200 lower. I told her to check one more time. Nope, that’s the final price. That’s what you pay. She already had my passport, and handed me a boarding pass. Then, she wanted many hundreds of dollars…so I started to get out my credit card. That’s when she started laughing. This was going to be a cash-only transaction. I was basically screwed.

Then, I remembered the ATM in the parking lot. I told her I’d be right back, took the boarding pass and my passport and baggage (?!) and headed outside. Pretty sure even though I had a boarding pass I wasn’t getting on the plane without paying, so, I had to pray. Unfortunately, the ATM wasn’t working. Nothing I could do would make it take my card. The security guard said “for a tip” he would tell me where there was another machine. Ugh, cost me $10, but he showed me another bank/ATM on the other side of the parking lot.

This one worked…but there was a catch! It would only spit out $100 at a time…at a surcharge of $5! I was going to need this to work several times if I had any hope…and that my bank didn’t find multiple $100 transactions in Liberia suspicious. Fortunately, they didn’t and soon I had the cash! Went back inside, paid at the ticket counter, and was wished a nice flight. Wait, this was going to work out?

Passport control was easy, then it was time for…security. Except, the one x-ray machine wasn’t working, so everyone and their bags got completely hand-searched. It was a pretty low-quality search, and could have pretty easily gotten away with anything. That said, I made it to the lounge about 50 minutes before the flight. The AC was ice cold:

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I¬†was offered “a drink and peanuts or pringles” – and went with water and pringles. Salt and vinegar, mmm….breakfast of champions! I’d been in such a rush to try and get out of dodge that I hadn’t had breakfast. This was also when I realized I would miss my chance to do a day of touring in Monrovia, sigh. Guess I will just have to come back now!

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Boarding was right on time, and despite it being a very short distance to the plane, we got bussed.

Arik Air flight 303
Monrovia, Liberia (ROB) to Accra, Ghana (ACC)
Depart 10:50, Arrive 12:50, Flight Time: 2:00
Boeing 737-800, Registration 5N-MJQ, Manufactured 2009, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 10,331
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,177,369

My first time on Arik Air, and the condition of the seats left a little bit to be desired:

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Very large 20 person business class cabin with good room between seats…and only three seats taken:

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For a short flight, was impressed we even got a meal, and there was a choice of chicken, beef, or fish. She recommended the beef “if you like spicy Nigerian food” so of course, I went with it.

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All-in-one wine bottle and glass. Clever! First the South Africans come up with wine juice boxes and now this!

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Meal was actually decent, and the spicy beef and rice was right up there!

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Landed in Accra on time, and one last look at Arik, who saved the end of my trip! I came away with a very positive impression of them!

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At this point, I had nearly 11 hours until my connecting flight to London now, and there was no way I was going to spend 11 hours in an airport lounge. Previous trips to Accra I’d stayed at the Holiday Inn airport hotel, so decided that would be a good place to go and see if I could get a day rate and some rest.

The Holiday Inn actually has a nice cool air-conditioned arrivals lounge and shuttle, and yes, they had no reservation for me (no kidding) but were happy to take me to the hotel and try and earn my business. The van arrived about 15 minutes later, and when I got to the hotel they gave me a very reasonable day rate for 8 hours. Was happy to pay, went up to the nicely air-conditioned room, and got a nice 90 minute nap in.

Needed some caffeine after that so walked down the road to the local grocery store to pick up some Red Bull. Walked by the La Tante DC 10 Restaurant on the way. I so can’t wait to eat here when I come back through Accra again in May!

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View from my hotel room:

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Pool-view room. I decided it was a nice warm day, so spent about 90 minutes relaxing by the pool before doing a bit of work.

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Panoramic shot of the pool:

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Was a little hungry at this point, so headed to the hotel cafe to see if I could find something light to eat. What could be lighter than “Goat Light Soup?”

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Ordered the soup, and one last large African beer while I waited:

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Soon, it was time to head off to the airport having survived a very drama-filled escape from Liberia, and begin the trek home.