Jul 282015
 

The flight from Chennai to Frankfurt leaves very late at night / early in the morning, so after a full day of worked headed back to the hotel to pack, have some dinner, and generally take it easy. The one thing I definitely didn’t want to do is fall asleep. Generally, I have really good luck sleeping on westbound redeyes, and I hoped this would continue. Since they leave late at night you’re tired enough to fall asleep, and then assuming the flight is long enough, when you wake up even though it might be 5-7am local time, it’s afternoon for your body clock, so you’re well-rested. I hoped to get lucky again!

Before heading to the airport around 11pm, I did one last check of the seatmaps online and discovered two cool things. There were still about six to eight seats open on my first flight, so I decided to switch to the fifth row in hopes of keeping an empty seat next to me. More importantly, on the second flight, they had substituted an aircraft with the old configuration…meaning the old first class seats upstairs were available as business class! It let me select one, and I hoped it would hold!

Check-in was remarkably easy, and the lines for immigration and security were reasonably short as well. Security wasn’t quite sure how to deal with my arm being in a sling, so decided to do the typical Indian thing and make it as much of an absolute bureaucratic nightmare as it could be. Go through metal detector, get metal detected again by hand. Have the sling swabbed for explosives. Write the details of my passport in three separate ledgers along with the time and details, etc etc, but finally I was free to try and find the lounge.

The lounge tonight was the Travel Club Lounge, which is also a Priority Pass lounge. I wondered why Lufthansa didn’t use the Air India lounge since they’re both Star Alliance, but one peek inside it looked pretty grim. The Travel Club Lounge was absolutely packed to the point it was hard to find a seat (and impossible to find an outlet) but it was cool enough. The Malaysia Airlines flight began boarding soon after I arrived, so that helped the lounge empty out just enough to be reasonable.

There was a buffet that everyone seemed to be avoiding, but the bar was quite popular. Most everyone was drinking scotch on the rocks, and going back for serving upon serving, but the strangest thing was the lounge had absolutely no wine at all – sparkling or non. I settled for a few last bottles of Kingfisher, before heading to the gate. Fifteen minutes before scheduled boarding it was already approaching chaos in the gate area, so I decided to use the sling to my advantage and fight for priority boarding. Unfortunately, I had more than a little competition tonight:

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After being told by one agent that I was “not disabled enough” another agent very kindly escorted me to the front of the boarding zone, and let me board first. Points to her! …well, not exactly first, but somewhere in the middle of the 50+ wheelchair scrum:

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The agent who had checked me in greeted me at the door to the plane, and with a big smile said “you look like you need to be comfortable, I managed to reserve the seat next to you” – wow, this was going to be a good flight…I hoped!

Lufthansa flight 759
Chennai, India (MAA) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 01:50, Arrive 8:30, Flight Time: 10:10
Airbus A340-300, Registration D-AIGY, Manufactured 2000, Seat 5D

Flight attendants were great, and hurried right over when they saw the shoulder, and were more than happy to help lift my bags into the overhead for me…and bring me a glass of wine!

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Two seats to myself, it promised to be a good flight…

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With a very late night departure I was curious what the menu would be, and as I suspected it was a snack followed by breakfast before arrival…it didn’t look too appetizing once again, and I suspected Lufthansa has contracted catering out to either IAMS or Purina lately…

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…but hey, I had two seats, and the wine and cashews arrived moments after takeoff. This crew was clearly going to let us get as much sleep as possible:

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The Fancy Feast chicken and Linguini tasted about as good as it looked, and I ate the chicken and peppers and that was all. Oh, and the dessert of course…and the poor pretzel roll which didn’t even get its own plate:

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…at least the sleep-aid was in plentiful refill:

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Fell asleep shortly after dinner, and managed to sleep almost eight straight hours. I will continue to love westbound redeyes, it was fantastic!

…which is more than I can say for the breakfast. The fruit was dry and sad, and I could only manage a couple of bites of the egg. At least the muesli was pretty tasty.

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So overall, the seat was below average, but I’ll give it above average because I had two. The crew was great and helpful, and very friendly, and the food was some of the worst I’ve ever had on Lufthansa. But, at the end of the day, on a flight like this I want somewhere comfortable to sleep and don’t expect a flying restaurant, so give me cool, quiet, and comfortable with adequate space and wine, and I’m pretty darn happy. Overall, it was a good flight.

Landed, through immigration, and off to Starbucks for my usual triple iced espresso. But, then back through immigration, to the lounge for a shower, and some breakfast. Hey, it’s afternoon somewhere!

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Wasn’t a long layover, but fortunately the gate was only two down from the lounge, so managed to linger a bit longer. The boarding area was just as chaotic as the flight from India, mainly because all of the Africa and India flights connect to this one…and I think half of Africa and India was on this plane. Again, I used the sling to push my way to the front, and was soon on board. It took me several years of travel in the developing world to get used to doing it, but I’m finally comfortable doing as everyone else does and pushing to make sure that I don’t get trampled and taken advantage of.

Lufthansa flight 758
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 13:25, Flight Time: 8:40
Boeing 747-400, Registration D-ABVM, Manufactured 1998, Seat 83H

Got upstairs, and SCORE! It was the old configuration, and I’d scored a first class seat. Even better, only four people were smart enough to move upstairs, so the cabin was only half full!

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…business class service, but hey, with one flight attendant for four people it was a pretty sweet deal!

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I wasn’t going to complain at all!

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…even the menu looked almost promising!

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More bubbles after takeoff, and the now-familiar cashews in a bag:

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The duck starter was actually pretty tasty, despite the tiny portion:

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But oh dear, the tenderloin of beef and braised beef cheek. Catering by Purina strikes again, and I ended up sending it back mostly uneaten. I think this is the last time I give Lufthansa a chance to cook beef in business class. It just doesn’t work.

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The cheese and dessert more than made up for it, however, and I might have had two servings of cheese ūüėČ

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…and after a few glasses of wine crawled out of the seat, and onto the adjoining bed, and crashed for several very comfortable hours.

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The pre-arrival chicken stew and salad was kinda odd, but it came with pretzel and riesling, so wasn’t all bad. I have to say, on previous trips I’ve been very happy with Lufthansa catering, but this trip was one hot mess after another. To the point I’ll probably eat before flying Lufthansa business next time, and just enjoy some cheese and dessert along with a bit of wine.

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Landed just slightly behind schedule at Washington Dulles, and the trip was over. No checked baggage, so into an Uber and home barely 30 minutes after landing thanks to Global Entry. Despite the disappointing food the amount of space I had on both flights was amazing, and it was a great flight experience thanks to the crews!

Jul 272015
 

I was in India for a total of 12 days, but between work, recovering from jetlag, etc, I really only had two days to do any sightseeing. I spent one afternoon going around Chennai seeing temples and such, and the other I just relaxed around the hotel, being absolutely exhausted from long work days. A few sites/thoughts from the time not spent at the client site…

Decided the easiest way to see a fair number of sites in a short time was to give Uber a try. Was a piece of cake and worked flawlessly, and the driver ended up waiting at each site since it was easier than driving around looking for more fares. Our first stop was the Parthasarathy Temple. Parthasarathy is an eighth century temple dedicated to Krishna and the name Parthasarathy, in Sanskrit¬†means the ‘charioteer of Arjuna’¬†referring to Krishna’s role as a charioteer to Arjuna in the epic story Mahabaratha. The coolest part of the temple are all the orante and colourful carvings that made up the structure:

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…and we ran into our first random cow at the temple, just hanging out.

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Small temple in a moat next to the main temple:

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Our Uber was still waiting for us, and we set off next for Kapaleeswarar Temple.¬†Kapaleeswarar is a temple to the Hindu god Shiva, and was built in the seventh century, although the current buildings are thought to date to the 1600s or so. According to Wikipedia “The temple has numerous shrines, with those of Kapaleeshwarar and Karpagambal being the most prominent…The temple’s name is derived from the words kapalam (head) and eeshwarar an alias of Shiva. According to the Puranas, during the meeting of Brahma and Shiva at top of Mount Kailash Brahma failed to show the due respect to Shiva. Due to this, Shiva plucked of one of Brahma’s heads (kapalams). In an act of penance, Brahma came down to the site of Mylapore and installed a Lingam to please Shiva.”

The 120 foot gopuram (entrance gate) was built around 1906, so many parts of the structure are actually quite a bit newer:

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Near the temple were all kinds of shops selling fruits, silver, gold, and trinkets:

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…as well as another small temple in a moat

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We wandered the streets near the temples a bit longer, before we couldn’t take the 105F heat any longer and headed back to the hotel. Some other random sites from the two weeks. Random reminder in a restroom:

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…I couldn’t tell if a “red dot sale” was a clever play on words, or…

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Who doesn’t want to shop at Jesus Fine Arts?

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…or for that matter, perhaps you’re Hindu and prefer Ganesh Electronics?

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…the mix of old and new, ancient and modern, is one of the things that makes India so fascinating, combined with the chaotic pace of things.

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…when you only have one helmet…and forget about seatbelts…

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Unfortunately, I didn’t get all that many pictures. It was pretty much nonstop work, and when it wasn’t work it was preparing from work, being exhausted from work, or being exhausted from being only four weeks post-rotator cuff surgery. All things considered, the trip went quite well, and had it been my first trip to India I might have made more of an effort to get out and explore a bit more, but it was my seventh trip and second to Chennai, so being injured the motivation was a bit less.

Next up, and finally, the flight back to DC on Lufthansa.

Jul 242015
 

I was in Chennai a total of 12 nights, and because I was getting a bit behind on requalifying for Starwood Platinum status this year, I figured I’d use the opportunity (especially weekends) to do a bit of hotel hopping. I usually end up with a few throwaway stays at local DC properties every year to requalify, and at around $75 each it adds up. So, I figured I’d deal with a bit of inconvenience in Chennai in order to save myself that cash.

There are five SPG properties in Chennai, and the closest to my client was the Aloft. Now, I read that it’s perfectly nice, clean, etc, but it would only save me about 20 minutes on the drive and I’d really prefer a full service option. I knew the ITC Grand Chola was the nicest of the options, and it was a tossup between the Le Meridien and the Westin. I probably should have tried all three, but ended up doing just the ITC and the Westin. The stay pattern was 1 night Westin, 4 nights ITC, 1 night Westin, 1 night ITC, 1 night Westin, 4 nights ITC. I did it this way because the first night was a weekend, so changing mid-day was easy. Then, I gave myself four days to settle in, before a few mid-week and weekend changes and finally the last several at the ITC so I could do any needed laundry/etc.

Three of the changes were on weekends, so were very easy to do, but three were on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings. My pattern was to get up early, grab a quick breakfast, change hotels (they’re a 10 minute drive apart), check in if possible, then head to the client. Big credit to both hotels, all three mornings they let me check in approximately 7/7:15am for the day. They were absolutely fantastic on this front.

I’ll compare the two properties on six metrics: room, transportation, lounge, restaurants/food, service, platinum benefits, and finally value for price.

Room: all three times I stayed at the Westin I was given a room on the executive floor. They were standard sized rooms, and as far as I could tell the amenities weren’t upgraded. The air conditioning worked well, the rooms were all very clean, and they had everything that was needed and expected. Additionally, they always stopped by a few times a day offering more bottles of water, as well as turn-down service.

At the ITC Grand Chola, my first two stays I was upgraded to a Towers room. The room was huge, probably about 550 square feet total. It had a huge washroom, with separate shower and toilet cubicles. There was also a standalone tub, as well as drawers and changing area. The AC actually got frigid, and perhaps the coolest part was that everything from lights to AC to TV was controlled by an in-room iPad. On my third stay, I asked about a suite upgrade. They said it would likely be possible, but I would have to pay the rather significant difference in the luxury tax. Luxury tax is assessed on the rack rate of the room, and because of this they usually don’t do suite upgrades. After reminding them that my corporate rate had luxury tax waived they agreed and upgraded me to a rather huge suite. I’ll let the pics do the talking, but I’d estimate it was 800-900 square feet minimum. It made for a very comfortable four nights!

Clear edge in room goes to the ITC Grand Chola.

View from the executive floor at the Westin:

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Suite at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Transportation: I only used transportation from the ITC Grand Chola twice, and that was the hotel car to the Westin and later to the airport. It was slightly overpriced, but plenty comfortable. The nice thing about the Westin was that my corporate rate had free airport transfers included. The pick up at the airport on my arrival was perfect, and they had cold towels and water waiting in the car which was much appreciated in the Chennai humidity. For my later stays, they arranged to pick me up at the ITC Grand Chola instead, and at the end of the stay transfer me to the ITC Grand Chola. Quite nice of them considering the rate specifies airport transfers and not just “transfers”. Other than that, I had a driver to my client, and used Uber for personal transit which also worked equally well from both hotels.

Clear edge on transportation to the Westin.

Lounge: So, my complaint on the lounges isn’t the fault of the hotels. Tamil Nadu state where Chennai is located was in the middle of local elections, and thus declared a number of “dry days” where alcohol couldn’t be served. At one point, it was three days in a row. To the credit of the lounges, they still offered snacks and non-alcoholic drinks.

The Westin had a proper lounge on the executive floor that was open from 1830-2130 every day, and the drinks flowed freely. Very freely. Many of the residents were in the hotel for weeks at a time, and had bonded, and it was expat drinking hour every night in the lounge. Mixed drinks, wine, beer, you name it, and plentiful snacks to the point you could easily make a meal out of them….and if you stayed until 2130 you probably would!

The lounge at the ITC was located in the lobby of the hotel, and available to all Towers and ITC One guests. Not sure what ITC One is, but being in the towers I got to use it. They had four hot snacks and a few cold snacks which rotated (seemed to be the same menu every monday, same every tuesday, etc), as well as plenty of free-flowing drinks and super friendly staff. The happy hour was shorter – only 1800-2000, but they got really generous the last 15 minutes and I ended up with 2-3 drinks sitting around several times.

I would have to declare the lounges a tie – both had plentiful snacks and drinks as well as super friendly staff.

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Restaurants/Food: At the Westin I had breakfast every day, as well as room service dinner one night. The breakfast was plentiful, with lots of breads and danishes, some fruit and other options, as well as eggs, pancakes, etc cooked to order. There was also proper American bacon, which they would cook well done and crispy upon request. There were also several warm Indian options as well. The coffee was also good, with espresso drinks also on offer. I had a sandwich from room service one night which was good and reasonably-priced, and delivered quickly and warm. One nice thing to note, the Westin is also a short walk to the Phoenix Marketcity Mall, which has several good food options including Nandos, California Pizza Kitchen, Hard Rock Cafe, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts should you get sick of hotel fare.

The breakfast at the ITC Grand Chola was simply amazing. Eggs made to order, tons of breads, pastries, etc, and an amazing assortment of fresh fruit every day. There was also a full Indian options hot bar, etc. By my second day they had my coffee preferences down, and I didn’t even have to ask and a double espresso would show up within two minutes of sitting down. There were also six to seven restaurants, but most evenings I was too tired to bother. Plus, they were a bit high priced, although delicious. I had dinner one night at their north Indian restaurant Peshwari, and it was a set menu for one and absolutely delicious. Pics below. I also ate in their cafe several times, which had really good sandwiches for both breakfast and lunch. It was also slightly overpriced, but made an easier light meal than the sitdown restaurants.

Slight edge goes to the ITC for a slightly better breakfast, and tons of great restaurant options.

Westin Breakfast:

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Breakfast/buffet restaurant from above at the ITC:

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Dinner at Peshwari at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Amazing fruit for breakfast at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Service/Common Areas: Can’t say enough here about both properties, because service was uniformly fantastic. Staff would remember you after one interaction, and upon returning after hotel hopping I was warming welcome back. I was doing PT for the shoulder surgery throughout the stay, and requested an umbrella from the concierge to help with exercises. Both hotels remembered, and brought me one on my second stay without asking. People genuinely seemed to love their jobs and care that you enjoyed your stay.

Both hotels win here in a big way.

Lobby in the Grand Chola:

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Group of eye surgeons having a conference at the hotel taking a group pic, lol:

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Poolside at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Platinum benefits: At the Westin, got an upgrade to the executive floor, lounge access, happy hour, and a coupon for a free drink (beer or wine) via either room service or in the restaurants and bars. I chose a glass of wine sent to my room both stays, and the third there was no love because it was a “dry day.” At the ITC, I was upgraded to a Towers Room twice, and the third time to a huge suite. This included lounge access.

Slightly edge in this category to the ITC, only because I was consistently upgraded to a larger room.

Welcome flowers and sweets in the suite at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Value for Price: Both hotels were the exact same price with my corporate rate. Since I rated the ITC Grand Chola higher in most categories, I’d consider it an excellent value for price. For the Westin, I’d still call it a very good value for price.

Hope these are helpful!

Jul 222015
 

This will be largely a photo report, as Lufthansa has been pretty extensively reviewed around the internet. Main things I want to share on this trip report is the challenges of traveling shortly after surgery, while confined in a shoulder/arm sling, and perhaps impart a bit of advice about Lufthansa’s service to India as well as Starwood hotels in Chennai. Unlike my normal reports, there won’t be a lot of destination information here, as it was a work trip and that occupied the vast majority of my time. That said, hope there’s some helpful tips in her!

Got to Dulles about 2.5 hours before my flight after a short Uber ride with a driver who actually happened to be from Chennai. What are the odds! He informed me his sister still lived there, and she was single, and “perhaps I would like a tour guide since you seem a successful man.” Uhhhh, yeeeahhhhh….about that ūüėČ

Check-in was quick, no TSA Pre-Check since I was on Lufthansa, but I have to say TSA was pretty good about the sling. Fortunately, I got directed to a line that was a regular metal detector, so no need to “opt-out” on the nude-o-scope since raising my arm above my head is an impossibility. I was given two choices: wear the sling through the metal detector and have it swabbed for explosives, or take it off and send it through the metal detector. Since removing it was pretty time consuming and challenging at this stage (about three weeks post surgery) I opted to leave it on and get swabbed. No drama, and soon I was in the Lufthansa Senator Lounge.

The lounge was the most packed I’ve ever seen it. At this hour, flights from SAS, Lufthansa, Austrian, COPA, Air China, as well as Avianca were using it. It was standing room only, but fortunately I looked disabled enough that someone cleared a seat for me at the counter. Also, it was the first time I’ve seen the bar area in this lounge staffed. Usually you have to flag someone down and ask them to go get a drink for you. (Un)fortunately, that meant refills on the bubbly were quite easy:

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After a short stay in the lounge it was time to board our plane through the jetway which was directly connected to the lounge.

Lufthansa flight 419
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 18:05, Arrive 8:00, Flight Time: 7:55
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYF, Manufactured 2012, Seat 8D

This flight was completely full in business class, and I chose 8D for a couple reasons. Mainly, we only booked a week before the flight, so seat choices were pretty limited. My main concern was to get in the middle section, since the plane has a 2-2-2 configuration in business class, and I hate having to step over someone or get stepped over. Plus, with the sling, I didn’t want anyone bumping it, so I wanted a D seat so it would be on the inside. Overall, it was a great choice. The cabin view from my seat:

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Pre-flight bubbles:

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Tonight’s menu:

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When I asked for red wine, the flight attendant insisted I try both offerings. I think that’s a first in business class. I went with the Italian red, which was pretty decent, while snacking on sad packaged cashews (which were at least whole) and watching some bad movie I’ve already forgotten:

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The charcuterie appetizer, it was actually surprisingly tasty!

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The seared beef filet main, which was absolutely awful. The meat was shoe leather, and I think I ate one bite, the carrots and asparagus, and sent the rest back in exchange for more wine.

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Cheese AND ice cream for dessert along with vintage Lufthansa chocolates. I can forgive the beef for this.

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Then, I absolutely passed out, for nearly six hours, waking up just 15 minutes off the ground. I actually took the sling off to sleep, and it was the first time since surgery I’d done that. The crew was great, lifting my rather heavy rollerboard into the overhead for me, getting me extra pillows to put under my elbow to rest the shoulder in a good position, and of course providing plenty of liquid painkillers to aid with the flight.

As a side note, I was also given Lovenox injections to take before the flight. They’re a pretty hard-core blood thinner, and the idea was just in case there were any post-surgical clots hanging around we wanted to thin the blood since it would be very long flights. Unfortunately, this also makes bruising super easy, and I ended up post flight with some pretty epic bruises on my legs. I must have been a bit restless with them in flight!

We arrived in the B gates in Frankfurt a little early, and I decided to enter Germany so I could do my usual between flight routine. Quad iced espresso at Starbucks, walk around a bit in the terminal, and then make the long flight over to the C Terminal for our departing flight. Very few Lufthansa flights leave from C, and I can never determine the logic. It seems to be Johannesburg, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and India, along with a random few others. Maybe it’s longhaul eastbound flights, but I don’t know the logic behind it. Anyone want to chime in?

The lounge had nice showers, however, which despite the 15 minute or so wait felt amazing:

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More water to fight off the post-flight dehydration, another double iced espresso, and my morning lounge usual – a brown roll with tomato, cucumber, salami, and cheese. I couldn’t resist trying their new offering this time of some sort of curried pineapple spread…which was just as awful as you’d expect.

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Our flight was right next to the lounge, and boarded right on time.

Lufthansa flight 758
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Chennai, India (MAA)
Depart 10:50, Arrive 23:50, Flight Time: 9:30
Airbus A340-300, Registration D-AIGV, Manufactured 2000, Seat 3D

Despite having the “new” business class seats installed which went completely flat, this plane felt really ratty. Plus, as this pre-departure bubbles picture shows the centre armrest is tiny, and my seatmate was a bit of a ¬†footsy player:

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The menu looked to be one of the least appetizing I’ve ever seen on Lufthansa, and generally I love Indian food!

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The same Italian red wine was offered with lunch, and the same sad bagged cashews. I know it’s not a big deal that they’re in a bag, but it takes absolutely zero cost or effort to offer them in a bowl. I’m just curious why Lufthansa which generally tries to be rather classy just doesn’t even make this little effort.

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The murgh salad / spicy poulard salad appetizer. It looked like cat vomit, and didn’t taste a whole lot better. I left it mostly untouched.

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The lamb main course, aka flag of India entree. It was ok, but again, meals that are pretty much 100% shades of brown just aren’t very appetizing to me. It just didn’t have much flavour or spice to it, and for Indian food was seriously underwhelming as a business class main.

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Even the cheese was pretty sad, but the dessert was a bit better.

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I spent the next several hours doing work and watching a little bit of tv, and soon we were about 90 minutes out and it was time for the “dinner” course. I decided to do something I never do, and enjoy it with a bit of German white wine. The riesling was pretty nice actually. I decided to go with the potato gratin main, and it was ok, but again, for business class it was a SERIOUSLY underwhelming meal.

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Now, a few more thoughts on this flight. The crew was good, the seats were well below what I expect in business class, being seriously narrow and feeing really packed in. I know this part is beyond Lufthansa’s control, but of the 30 seats in business class 12 were occupied with children aged approximately 8-15, traveling with their families. As kids do, they get antsy, and they were running up and down the aisles during the flight, talking loudly, and in generally not making it a very “business” class experience. I don’t usually work in flight, but this time I needed to, and it was the one time fellow passengers made it very difficult. I tried asking the crew to intervene, but was told “this is just how flights to India are, you need to adapt.”

Oh, and one of the kids decided to sleep on the floor in the aisle, and I accidentally stepped on it and got yelled at by the parent, hahahah…it wasn’t exactly the best of flights! But hey, there are a LOT worse ways to make a 20 hour trip than this! Despite all the little complaints here, it was still an excellent experience.