Aug 222018
 


Yesterday, I wrote a post about Air Canada’s new signature class, in which I compared the new business class offerings of the major North American carriers. Conclusion was that Air Canada has done a good job with their “Signature” launch, but beyond the lounge it was really hard to see any significant change to the in-flight offering.

On the two Air Canada trips I reviewed, I actually took United in one direction and Air Canada in the other. Not intentionally, it just worked out better that way…so it was a nice change to see how United’s Polaris implementation was progressing, and if it would finally live up to the hype. I say finally because, well, well over two years after launching the new Polaris seats only 20% or so of United’s longhaul fleet actually has them, but at least that’s finally speeding up slightly.

The other major, major failing on United’s part has been the launch of the Polaris lounges. I was at the Chicago lounge when it launched something like two years ago, and up until six months ago…they still had yet to open the second lounge, although there are finally four lounges open now. Who’s to say when Washington and LA (two other large international hubs) will see them, however. As a Washington-based traveler this actually impacts my purchasing decisions: if United’s Polaris lounge was actually open I’d be booking United metal out of Dulles much more often, whereas now I’m open to just about anything reasonable and convenient on Swiss, Lufthansa, and Air Canada.

Right, on with the review.

For the Trip where I took Air Canada from DC to Zurich via Toronto, I returned from Geneva to Washington Dulles nonstop on United. I had been doing some business in Bern, and generally either Zurich or Geneva are equidistant, and the Geneva flight was the quickest flight home at the lowest fare, so I went with it.

Two days before, United changed the seatmap to the Polaris configured 767 (I believe about 50% of 767-300s are now Polaris configured, so you have a 50-50 chance) and I hoped it would hold through departure time. When I saw the plane leave the US for Geneva, I knew I’d finally get to try out this product more than two years after its launch. With the amount I travel, that tells you just how long this has been in the works.

What’s nice about the 767-300s with Polaris seats is they’re in a 1-1-1 configuration, so everyone has an aisle seat. The best seats, by far, are the odd numbered window seats since the seat is by the window, and the “counter” part near the aisle, giving you far more privacy from the aisle as you can see:

My seat, 1L, to me was by far the best seat on the plane for a daytime flight. Nice and private from the aisle, but close enough to the front to get the crew’s attention:

Why oh why United, when you pay some marketing firm millions of dollars to design Polaris do you insist on using these cheap plastic cups for pre-departure beverages? I’m glad at least that you got rid of the ridiculous plastic Polaris “flutes” with a chocolate you tried out when you first launched Polaris, however. It really makes me wonder who were in the focus groups when you came up with this. Nothing says “un-premium” like a plastic glass of $8 a bottle sparkling wine….come on. First impressions matter, and this gives a terrible one. If you’re going to invest in an overhaul of the product, do it right!

The menu, however, looked promising…complete with the ubiquitous United “short ribs” that have been on just about ever menu in business class since 1995:

That’s more like it. A glass of perfectly drinkable wine (though nothing special) and some extremely salty mixed nuts:

The salad on offer was much better than United’s normal offerings, and bonus points for the parmesan and boiled egg. The smoked cold chicken appetizer was a bit odd and totally flavourless, but the farro and mustard on the side were actually the highlight of the appetizer. But seriously, parmesan and egg on a salad with mango dressing? Just bizarre.

Since nothing else sounded good, I went with the short rib, which was….well, about as good as it looked. The plating was absolutely awful, and looked like something out of a prison cafeteria.

Highlight of the meal by far was quite a nice cheese plate (ARE YOU LISTENING AIR CANADA?) and a delicious “sundae” with caramel. I haven’t seen the butterscotch topping in a while (which is actually my favourite) but this was a perfectly nice ending to the meal. Started off rocky, but at least they ended on a nice high note.

One thing United has done VERY well is the pre-landing snack. Grilled chicken with couscous and a nice fresh salad are a huge upgrade from the sad sandwiches of days gone by. Giving credit where credit is due, this is a huge upgrade, United….except for the mango dressing which was back for an encore *eyeroll*

Overall, loved the new seats, and they might be my favourite transatlantic seats now. There’s really not a bad seat in the plane, and as long as you get the plane, well, I can skip all the other stuff…but fail to understand why with passengers paying $6,000+ per ticket United won’t spend the extra $20 per passenger to make it an experience passengers WANT to fly.

So, notice that I said “as long as you get the plane” – well, two days before my flight down to Brazil a week later I did a same day change to get on the Dulles to Sao Paolo nonstop since it was listed as the exact same 767 which had brought me in from Geneva the day before! Since all I wanted on this flight was sleep, I was excited to have the new seats again, and life was grand!

…until five hours before departure when United e-mailed me there had been an aircraft swap, and “we’ve done our best to preserve your seating preference.

So, instead of a solo seat in a 1-1-1 config I was now in a window seat of a 2-1-2 config. Anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows how I detest climbing over people or being climbed over, and when I called United I was basically told to “deal with it.” Not those exact words, but two agents in a row showed zero empathy, although the second one did offer to “see if I can get you a refund if you’re unhappy.”

Plan B was to raise it up through customer service channels I have access to as a very frequent United flier, and they were very happy to look into the problem, asking what they could do to resolve it. After very patiently listening and understanding my seating preference (hey, when you’re on back to back international trips and 6’4 it makes a difference getting kicked in the night and harming your sleep).

The agent was great, and came back with “can you get to DCA instead of Dulles in 30 minutes? I can get you out of DCA, via Chicago to Sao Paulo on a 777 in Polaris First. I was already packed, so done and done, and problem averted. MAJOR points to United for the service recovery on this one, although it is unfortunately not all people on paid business class tickets have access to this same level of service recovery. I don’t blame United for that, however, it’s just a reality of 2018 customer service – companies have pretty much gotten to a point where only the customers they recognize as their top 1% or more get their attention…it’s just reality. Long way of saying thanks United – I’ll definitely remember this going forward!  (…and because of this, in the last week I’ve booked four MORE business class tickets on United in the next two months)

So, onto DCA, where my flight was actually delayed 30 minutes by torrential rains, so I got my guilty snack of choice, United Club cheeze kubes:

I had about an hour in the Polaris Lounge in Chicago, which sadly has also suffered from the cost-cutting. I knew the Veuve Clicquot was too good to last, and alas, it is no more. I still had a nice glass of champagne though, because, hey, champagne.

Really friendly bartender who was familiar with someone of the older drinks that are no longer on the menu, and he was able to whip up a paper plane with mezcal as well:

I’ll gloss over the ugly, which was a 2.5 hour delay when our plane broke and they had to find another plane at midnight, but hey, the fact they were able to find another 777 at this hour which could be catered was pretty impressive. In the end we left at 130a instead of 10pm which ruined my first day’s afternoon meetings, but in the end it was better than a completely canceled trip I suppose, which was what would have happened if I had to go the next day.

The “first class” seats on the 777 are pretty old and tired, and basically nice business class seats, but hey, it was a nice recovery after my 767 swap, so making lemonade out of lemons:

Today’s menu – idk why they even put “first class” on the menu now, because it’s exactly the same meal as in business class. Other than the seat, there’s absolutely zero difference left between business and first on United. Very sad.

Thanks facebook filters, this is pretty much how the delayed flight made me feel:

Oh look, starting off with mixed nuts and a red wine, quelle surprise!

The nori-wrapped salmon was a unique starter, and the salad with seeds and strawberries was also a welcome change. Well done this time United!

So, the spicy chicken main. First of all: amazing flavour, nice and spicy, great different option for plane food. The downside, bit messy with splash potential for a plane, and my chicken was way undercooked and partly raw. I assume it’s just reheated on the plane, so this goes to the kitchen in chicago, but I was full enough I just sent it back largely untouched. You can see some of the red and raw areas in the chicken in this picture:

Oh sigh, you were doing so well with the cheese yesterday United. Perhaps it’s just US catering that’s bland and unimaginative?

Since there was once again no butterscotch or caramel today, the flight attendant insisted I try some cookie crumble…which was a nice change. Plus…they had cherries, which are absolutely my favourite part of any United sundae:

I was also ordered to try some of the mini deserts with some caramel on the side…I didn’t have a choice. I will admit, the mini apple pie with caramel sauce (to quote the FA: “the whole reason I’m not thin and beautiful”) was pretty delicious!

Breakfast? Well, let’s not talk about it. Bland omelette, but the sweet potatoes did have a nice seasoning to them. Fruit was pretty sad, dry and flavourless. Overall, much more of a miss than a hit.

So…overall thoughts on Polaris? The seats are great, no doubt, and when they have them on the whole fleet it’s a fantastic product. It’s sad, however, that United is majorly cutting back on the soft product, when it would cost so little to have a much more impressive product. It just gives the impression that they don’t care, which is the last thing you want when you’re trying to sell a premium product. To me, it says, “we know a lot of you are upgrading, or using awards, or your employer is locked into a contract with us, so we just don’t have to try” and that’s terrible if you want your brand to resonate with your customers. But, maybe I’m wrong…maybe they don’t care about resonating, and are happy being “ok.”

So, final verdict? Air Canada, Delta, United? It’s pretty much a wash now. They all have good seating with all direct aisle access, although United is about two years away from getting there while ALL their competition has been there for over a year now. Food? Well, pretty much the same on all of them, though it does seem Delta and Air Canada do go a bit of the extra mile so you actually feel like there’s pride in their product!

Lots more flights coming up, so watch for more reviews soon!

Aug 212018
 


Following in the trend of airlines giving their business class products fancy names (American kicked it off with “Flagship Business,” then came “Delta One,” followed shortly by United “Polaris Business,” and finally (just like with their five year behind the game WiFi installation) Air Canada got onboard with “Signature Class.”

What was different about “Signature Class?” Well, first, a little review.

American Airlines: When I started flying them 5-6 years ago, I was shocked to find they were still running 777s in a 2-3-2 configuration with seats that didn’t even go flat! Talk about a majorly updated program. Fortunately, they now have 1-2-1 pretty much across the fleet, although from what I can tell there’s been no major upgrade to the soft product.

Delta One: Delta was ahead of the game, already running 1-2-1 configurations on all its aircraft when Delta One was announced, and when they rolled out the A350 the game changer was “suites” with doors that closed – something no other North American airline has tried to emulate yet.

United: while marginally better than American’s non-180 degree flat 2-3-2 config for awhile, United has now fallen way, way behind with it’s atrocious 2-4-2 on some legacy planes, and 2-2-2 or 2-1-2 on the majority of the rest. Polaris soft product was a huge upgrade at first with better food and much better bedding, but the death by 1000 small cuts is already well underway with several of the soft product improvements yanked back. At least they are slowly (and I mean slower than a DC bureaucrat on a hot August day) rolling out a 1-2-1 product across the fleet, expected to be complete in 2089. I kid….maybe 2020. Next blog up will be a review of this hard product, which is actually pretty nice!

That brings us to Air Canada.

Their seats have been 1-1-1, or 1-2-1 for a while, and I found their food pretty good. Even their Maple Leaf Lounge in Toronto was significantly nicer than anything their US competitors offered, so perhaps that explained why they were so late to the rebranding game. I was quite curious what the rebranding would mean in practical terms, and the answer turned out to be: practically nothing.

I recently flew Air Canada on two flights: Toronto to Zurich on a 777-300ER and then a couple weeks later Sao Paolo to Toronto on a 787 (Plus connecting flights to/from DCA, but those are hardly worth a mention). Both were really nice flights, but I seriously noticed absolutely nothing different from before. So, lets start with the over to Zurich.

Up first, was the short flight up to Toronto. The flight is about 80 minutes and our flight attendant today was from Newfoundland, and a real character. A bit over the top, but the passengers seemed to love him, and he was very friendly and hard-working. Air Canada even served a small snack on the flight (I can’t decide if I like the single choice pre-plated snacks better than the US’s snack baskets or not) but A for effort. Unfortunately, today’s option was cockroaches of the sea with a tiny dab of hummus, one olive, and one tomato. Strange…

…and there was no question of refills. We were pretty much told we were getting refills, because, well, “you can’t let the rest of the wine stay in the bottle all lonely.” Perfectly good rationale if you ask me.

The transit experience in Toronto is seamless now, and you can head straight from US arrivals to international departures without having to go through an immigration check. Quite slick.

The one thing I was pretty excited to check out was the new Air Canada Signature “Suite”, only open to business class passengers. No Star Gold or Maple Leaf Lounge passes accepted, only passengers flying in business class, and only revenue tickets. Nobody on upgrades or award tickets, or those flying Star Alliance partners – in this way, it’s much more exclusive for access than even United’s Polaris lounges. (We won’t talk about American, because their “Flagship First” lounges let in every Exec Platinum under the sun, and often feel one step removed from a elementary school playground.)

I wasn’t all that hungry, so skipped the seated dining area in favour of the buffet. Quite tasty, some nice local offerings, and the Montreal smoked meat sandwich was a great touch!

Service in the lounge was fantastic and attentive, with the staff doing a great job clearing plates and refilling drinks, even when it got completely packed as the evening departure bank approached. I was quite surprised how crowded the lounge got, and unfortunately it really wasn’t that peaceful. Good for Air Canada selling so much business class, but there was nothing “suite” like about the lounge. Same complaint I have about the Polaris lounges – they get super crowded. It makes me wonder how the previous lounges handled all these people before…or are more people coming early for the “lounge experience” now?

Boarding was a complete and utter mess. With several departures at the same time, all pretty much sold out in business class, the departures area was a nightmare. We were between flights to London and Brussels, all of which were completely sold out, and boarding was a chaotic mess. It wasn’t even clear where the queues were, but that said, once aboard things were much quieter.

Amenity kit was waiting for us…filled with everything you’d expect, but didn’t rise to the level of one I’d want to keep to reuse the bag for toiletries, electrical cords, etc:

Tonight’s menu:

…and drink list:

Pre-departure bubbly was offered – I often wonder why airlines pour the pre-departure glasses like 1/3 full. What is this, maybe 1/2 glass of champagne? It can’t be cost saving, because they’re much more generous after takeoff.

The usual wine for me, and typical mixed nuts from Air Canada. Perfectly acceptable, but nothing original here.

Unfortunately at this point the crew was seated for just under two hours, because we ended up fighting some pretty terrible turbulence until we were off the Newfoundland coast. It was still not even 9pm for me by body clock, so I opted to continue the meal, as did most of the passengers since the turbulence was so bad there was no way anyone was sleeping.

The salad was boring but fine, and definite points for the duck and edamame starter. Nice and unique, while being relatively light. Plus, I’ll never complain about garlic bread!

I went with the chicken biryani as a main, probably because I remember the amazing biryani that Etihad served me a couple years ago. This was pretty good, and a nice unique option in flight. Any time I can get something that sounds and is better than the “steak” I’m happy, so this one was a winner with me.

Unfortunately, any positive thoughts I had died here. One of the saddest cheese plates I’ve seen in a long time, on par with some of the bland and boring kraft stuff that United serves. Very, very disappointing…and the cheddar was rubbery, obviously having been portioned long ago. Extremely disappointing.

The lemon cheesecake, however, was pretty tasty and a nice way to finish things off.

I had indicated not to wake me for breakfast, but I woke about 40 minutes before landing, so the flight attendant brought me the breakfast I’d indicated on the card “in case I wake up.” I wasn’t really hungry, but wanted to post this pic for one reason:

Look at that fruit bowl! Probably one of the best ones I’ve ever seen on a plane…nice fresh blueberries, pineapple, fresh strawberries, watermelon, kiwifruit…well done Air Canada!

So, let’s fast forward a couple weeks. We’re in Sao Paolo now, headed up to Toronto on a 10+ hour flight on a 787. The only times I’ve managed to sleep 7+ hours were on a 787, and this was a nice long flight at the perfect time to sleep, so I was looking forward to seeing how that played out. I forgot to mention above, but both the 777 and 787 on Air Canada had individual air vents, which I think are crucial to keeping me a nice cool sleeping temperature.

Let’s start with the meal. Look, more mixed nuts and wine. Boring, but acceptable.

The starter tonight was smoked trout with cucumber, tomato, and onions. I really wanted to like it, but it was pretty bland and boring. Could have used something to add a bit more flavour, but points to Air Canada for a reasonable sized portion which is still not heavy. Remember when United tried to pass two prawns off as an appetizer?

For the main I requested the “Spinach and Minas cheese filled chicken breast, herb sauce, vegetable risotto” but they brought me the beef. “Oh, sorry, I got them mixed up and don’t have any more chicken. Is this ok?” Ugh, not cool. On the upside, the beef was actually cooked close to medium which shocked me, but overall an unmemorable dish.

Oh Air Canada, we really need to talk cheese. This was just about as bad as the previous flight: “Emmental, Camembert, Reino” – so the Reino was interesting, but again it looked very plastic and uninspired. Is it really too hard to make the cheese course better? I suppose that would require cutting it on the plane, but…

Ok, never mind, I can go to sleep happy now with a wonderful Neapolitan ice cream bowl! It’s amazing how such simple things can make you happy even when people think airplane food is supposed to be “fancy” – but give me comfort food any day!

After passing out for a great seven hours of sleep, I was still up in time for breakfast. Another great 787 sleep, except I slept so balled up I’m still dealing with a pinched nerve in my back a few weeks later. Can’t blame Air Canada for that, but it was a good night’s sleep!

After the fruit in the breakfast to Switzerland I had high expectations, but unfortunately it was a swing and a miss this time. The kiwifruit was rock hard, the melon had zero flavour, and the grapes were mushy. Bland omelette, and a even blander muffin. I guess Air Canada breakfast catering must be highly station-specific.

Two flights is a small sample size, but overall my thoughts on Air Canada were positive. Nice seats, air vents to keep things cool, and overall “good” food. I don’t think it’s gotten worst, but the US airlines have definitely stepped their game up a little in this department so Air Canada no longer stands above them. Overall, a solid experience, except for one thing: the 787 had no WiFi, which is still the case with the majority of Air Canada’s fleet. The 777 to Zurich did have it (as do all their 777s now) but the 787 and almost none of their other planes do – to me making it a deal-breaker for most work trips. The only reason it was ok on this route is I was headed home from back to back trips, and just wanted to sleep and not work – which in this case worked out well.

Will I fly Air Canada again? Yes, definitely, especially if the other options are 2-4-2 or 2-2-2 seating on United…and especially if the planes have WiFi. The food and service are pretty much a wash these days, but it was also nice to try Air Canada again after so much Lufthansa and United lately! Next up, let’s look at United Polaris…

Aug 182018
 


So, back in late June, even before I went on my latest burst of travel, I was starting to feel like it was catching up to me. I had back-to-back trips coming up to Easter Island for vacation for a week, then two weeks in Switzerland for work, and then another week in Brazil for work. It was shaping up to be a busy period, and I was looking forward to mid-August when I would be home for two weeks before taking a two week vacation to Russia.

Problem is, halfway through Switzerland, I was feeling exhausted from all the travel…and work was entering a really busy period, so I ended up putting off the vacation. The point of a vacation is to enjoy yourself and relax, and it’s hard to do that if it’s always go-go-go. So, Russia was postponed by six months or so, and when I got home from Brazil I was really looking forward to six straight weeks at home, with a couple of short side trips to see the family….but a one to two hour domestic flight isn’t nearly as hard as an international trip, so it would be relaxing.

…and then, the avalanche started, and in the last two weeks I’ve had a minimum of five trips fall in my lap before mid-November, so I might want to enjoy this time at home while I can get it. Fortunately, on many of the trips I’ve managed to tag on a little sightseeing, so I’m looking forward to it. With that said, here’s the upcoming plans, 58,000+ miles in under three months:

Mexico City:  at the beginning of 2018 I’d never been here before, and now here I am my third trip this year.  (Well, fourth if you count the overnight on the way to Easter Island!)  Three days of work, and then I decided to stay for Saturday before flying out to see family on Sunday. I would love to hear your suggestions for what to do with a full day in Mexico City. I was tempted to do the historical center food walking tour again since I enjoyed it so much, but would also like to hear your suggestions!

El Ángel in Mexico City

Stockholm: next up in late September is a week  in Stockholm for a conference. Last time I was there was back in December of 2010, so I’m looking forward to going back when it’s at least slightly warmer. Unfortunately most of my free time will be taken up by the conference, but hopefully I have a tiny bit of time to explore as well. One of the neat things about this trip is that I’ll get to fly into an airport I didn’t even know existed before this (Bromma Airport) and on a new aircraft type for me – the Sukhoi Superjet 100. Sometimes it’s the little things….

Outside Stadhuset in Stockholm in December, 2010

Shanghai: I’ll only be back from Stockholm for about a week when it’s time to head to Shanghai for a week of meetings. I’m actually really looking forward to this, since I’ve never been to Shanghai before. Beijing, Shenzen, but never Shanghai. I booked my tickets into Beijing so I could take the bullet train to Shanghai, and also am leaving one full day on either side of my meetings to do a little sightseeing. Very excited for this, and would love to hear your “must-sees” – home-cooking with RapidTravelChai‘s mother-in-law is definitely on the to-do list!

The Forbidden City – Beijing

Bern: Home from Shanghai for one night, and then it’s off to Bern for three days of meetings again. Feels like I was just there – oh wait I was – but looking forward to returning when it’s a bit cooler. I should have two or three days free when I’m there, and thinking one of them I really want to go up the Jungfraujoch. Yes, it’s touristy, but the views in mid-October should be amazing! Any other fun towns you recommend? I definitely want to stop in Lausanne again – I really enjoyed it last time I was there!

Aare River – Bern – Switzerland

South Africa: if it’s late October, it must be Johannesburg! Off to Joburg and Pretoria for a week of meetings, right in the middle of jacaranda season. After missing them for years, I got to see them last October and discover I’m wildly allergic to them – but the beauty is worth it! I’ll also have a nine day vacation after meetings, and currently trying to plan them out. Current thinking is to fly up to Harare, skip down to the Great Zimbabwe, then Bulawayo. From Bulawayo, take the train to Francistown in Botswana and self-drive to Gaborone. Open to other ideas as well…

Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa with the “tablecloth”

So that brings me to mid-November, and hopefully a quiet Thanksgiving! If anything, I think a three or four night trip to Europe will be in order, but definitely something low-key because I’m planning a 10-12 day trip over New Years to do Egypt and the Sinai, Kiev (and Chernobyl), Kaliningrad, Lithuania, and Latvia.

…oh, and mid-February? That brings me back to the trip that was supposed to start this week to Russia!  No rest for the weary for the next six months! I think it’s time to up the exercise and get the diet in order, because this is going to be pretty strenuous!

Jun 252018
 


So, yeah, I get it. It’s been a long time since I’ve posted. Mainly, that’s because I’ve actually had a nice quiet June at home. Playing lots of hockey, working extra-long weeks, and generally relaxing and taking it easy. It’s a good thing I did that (even though it was totally unintentional) because I just got hit with a couple of work trips which makes the next 5 weeks totally crazy. It looks something like:

3 day trip to Mexico City for work
10 day trip to Chile and Easter Island for vacation – woo hoo!
17 day trip to Switzerland for work

The vacation was planned, but the other two just kind of happened. I’m still without anything booked until late August, and I’m kind of hoping it stays that way. After racking up 30,000 miles in the next five weeks, in late August, I have this trip coming up:

Pretty excited for a trip to northern Russia, and still hoping to dart into Norway from Murmansk as well…time will tell.

That’s it for now, super short update because I have to pack! Next six months are gonna be a bit crazy, so look for lots more posts!

May 302018
 


Whenever I meet or am introduced to new people, there are five common questions I seem to get over and over again. I figured I’d to a post about them and give people a chance to ask any others or add their thoughts. Total top of the head rambling based on what comes to mind, and I’ll try and list them with the frequency I get them.

1) You’ve been to every country? Even North Korea? (close second: Even Greenland?)

Yes, I went to North Korea for the first time in 2005 as part of only the second or third group since the Korean War. The New York Times wrote an article about the trip, which I literally booked four days before. I’d seen an article on CNN talking about it, and having recently decided that I wanted to go to every country this was one I would knew would be hard. Thinking this might be my only chance, I dropped by far the most I’ve ever dropped on one country to do what ended up being a fascinating trip.

…and Greenland? No, it’s not a country. It’s an autonomous constituent of the Kingdom of Denmark. But I do still really want to go!

Standing on the north side of the DMZ

Meeting a North Korean military officer outside the DMZ

2) What was your favourite country?

I’ve been trying to come up with a good answer to this one for years, and still really can’t settle on one favourite. What I have managed to do is narrow it down to a few – and without exception they’re places I’ve gone back to multiple times and really got in depth. That is to say: if I spent more time in a lot of places they might get added to this list. However, there are some that, well, idk…see question 3 below. So, what makes the short list?

Canada. From the forests of British Columbia to the Okanagan Valley. Vibrant cities like Toronto and Montreal. The natural beauty and distinct cultures of the maritimes, I think what gets me most about Canada is its diversity – both its people and its nature. It’s a country I could spend years exploring and still have hundreds of totally different and unique experiences.

Argentina. It feels terrible to say this as I’ve never really gotten out of Buenos Aires, but something about the city is absolutely electric. The wines, the beef, the tango, the mix of latin, italian, and other immigrant cultures that creates an amazing tapestry. Next step is really to dig more in depth more…but I don’t know where to start!

Senegal. I’ve spent months there in probably a dozen trips now, and from Rosso in the north to Dakar, St. Louis, and Zinguinchor, it’s an absolutely amazing place with amazing people. A little bit French, a lot bit Africa, the place just has an energy and warmth that keep drawing me back.

Russia. The Soviet Union was the third country I ever visited on a student exchange back in high school, and it keeps drawing me back. I’ve been lucky enough to work in Russia (along with all the Central Asian countries) and again it’s the diversity of the country that gets me. I hear from so many people how they didn’t like Russia (or the Russians) but once you get to know them they’re some of the most fascinating people you’ll meet anywhere. I can’t wait to do the Trans-Siberian soon and spend a work or more sharing stories…

South Africa. Another place I’ve gone to dozens of times now, and keeps drawing me back. I’m going to sound like a broken record, but maybe writing this article has made me realize something: it’s countries with huge diversity of people, nature, and experiences that draw me back. South Africa has an amazingly complex history and a lot of challenges in front of it, but it’s definitely a place with a vision for the future and people who want to help it get there.

Place du Souvenir Africain in Dakar, Senegal

Red Square, Moscow, in December…brrrr!

Monument de la Renaissance Africaine in Dakar, Senegal

3) What was your LEAST favourite country?

I think I might actually get this question more than which is my favourite, and in the same vein I haven’t been able to answer it. There really wasn’t any country that I hated. It sounds cliché, but I really do believe most places have some redeeming feature that makes them worth visiting. Now, that doesn’t mean that I want to go back to every country, far from it. Some of the bigger challenges:

Bangladesh. I loved the country, but when I went in 2006 it was a really tough place to do as a solo tourist. Lots of people desperate to make a buck trying to scam you. Grinding, in your face poverty that wore away at the spirit, and an urban chaos in Dhaka that made it very difficult to navigate when you were only there for three days. That said, I really want to go back now, but with someone who either lives there or knows the place well. I know there’s a million things to explore, and the warmth and kindness I was shown by several people on my first trip make me want to go back.

Niger. I loved my four days there, but you know, it was just enough. As far as tourist sites go, I feel like I pretty much saw them all, and any extra time invested would be diminishing returns. I don’t do patience well, so going to a place and chilling for a couple weeks while hoping to having fascinating experiences is hard for me.

Kiribati, Nauru, Tuvalu. Again, island time, and there’s just not enough to “do” for my tastes. Yeah, I could spend days or weeks trying to get a boat to the outer islands, but hey…more islands. I think I crave more culture and activities, and these are definitely places that move at their own pace. Some of the most beautiful nature (and OH the sunsets!) I’ve seen, but I like a little more activity.

Grand Mosque of Niamey, Niger

Sunset in Tarawa, Kiribati

Sunset in Nauru

4) Have you ever been robbed / arrested / afraid for your life?

Knock on wood, I’ve been to every country on the planet without ever being robbed. Closest I came was a taxi driver in Prague back in 2002 slipping me some old worthless Bulgarian currency as change. I lost like $3. As far as being robbed goes, I’ll take it!

Arrested? Not formally, although I’ve been detained several times by police and immigration officers and ironically the longest detention was in my home town of Washington, D.C. when Customs and Border Protection decided they didn’t like my shady trip to Egypt. Fortunately, after around four-five hours they gave up on it and let me go.

Afraid for my life? Not really. No real civil unrest, war zones or the like, but three incidents stand out. Terrorists blowing up a police car about 1 km in front of us on a road out of Karachi, Pakistan. When we tried to turn around and hightail it back to Karachi? Smoke ahead on that highway too. Thanks to a great driver he knew some side roads through a village and things were just fine. I also had a flight with Uzbekistan Airlines where the pilot landed in Amritsar, India in the middle of a monsoon. I’ve never felt such horrible turbulence. Final story? An overpacked ferry on rough seas in Sierra Leone with no way to the exit and multiple people vomiting everywhere. I was convinced my life was over.

The scary ferry in Sierra Leone…morning after

5) What was the hardest visa to get?

Far and away, it was Angola. I made over two dozen visits to the embassy before I got it. Supposedly there’s now a visa on arrival and while the rules and such aren’t completely clear, it’s much much easier than when I did it about five years ago. Honourable mentions go to:

Yemen. I had the visa, and canceled my trip two days before due to rebels overrunning Sana’a. I visited later, actually without a visa, but my understanding is this is still a very very difficult visa to get.

Saudi Arabia. Easy to get a business visa if you have a good reason, but as a tourist? You can shell out several thousand dollars to one of the very few companies permitted to run tours, or you’re out of options. How did I visit then? Six hour airport transit, where thanks to a friend I pulled off a story worth of an “authentic local experience.” Given my criteria for counting a country is an amazing story and interaction with locals…I count it for now…but look to improve upon this one!

seafront in Luanda, Angola

Cathedral in Cabinda, Angola

Church in Luanda, Angola

Sunset Luanda, Angola

What was your hardest visa? It definitely can depend on passport and timing!

So with all that said, what questions do YOU get asked a lot about your travels?  …or what else should I answer?

May 272018
 


As a fair warning, this post is going to be a bit long and rambling. After my plans to visit Zimbabwe for two nights then Botswana for two nights fell through, I was completely up in the air. The first of four nights was going to get eaten up staying in Johannesburg, since it was nearly 6pm when I landed from Namibia.

Nice night of rest, and woke up, and tried to figure out how to sort out my life. Air Zimbabwe was flying in the late afternoon from Johannesburg to Bulawayo, so I could just as easily pick up my trip! Of course, you can’t buy Air Zimbabwe tickets online, so off to OR Tambo I go with my baggage. The very helpful agent “wasn’t sure if it will go today, or if so when – it gets canceled a lot. Maybe by 11pm.” Uhhh, yeah, that’s not a chance I want to take.

Bit more research, I could pick up Air Botswana directly to Francistown and then drive to Gaborone, but it was going to be more than $800 between change fees for my return ticket and the car, so that just wasn’t happening. Rather than waste anymore time, I decided to chalk it up to “this time, the travel gods were not with me” and head back to my hotel.

Fortunately, I was able to book another night on cash+points, so spent the evening relaxing, scheming, and decided that I was going to make the most of it. Despite dozens of trips to Joburg, I decided I was going to try and dig a little bit deeper. My trip out to Maboneng had been super cool a week back, so I’d use the next two full days to explore until I had to get back to work.

Walking to Starbucks the next morning, fate intervened and I saw the sales centre for the Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus. Quick look confirmed it stopped at a lot of places I hadn’t been, so I bought the two day pass. Why not…I think I’ve only done one of these touristy busses once, and they really can be a good way to see a city in a short time. Plus, it was an absolutely gorgeous 22 degree day, and the next day was forecast to be more of the same.

Pickup/start point was right by my hotel, and off we go. I even got a seat on the upper deck…kinda like a 747…same same but different…

I decided to get off first at Constitution Hill and see the Number Four prison and constitutional court. Unfortunately, lots of the site was closed today due to private group tours, but you could still do a self-guided tour of the Number Four Prison. Entrance had one of my favourite Mandela quotes:

Number Four was built in the 1890s under Paul Kruger and Ghandi spent time in Number Four in 1906.

Shot of the prison yard as it stands today. For some reason, the Orange is the New Black theme started going in my head, and I caught myself humming it. Probably not terribly appropriate…

Pictures of Ghandi and Mandela at various points in their lives…

Solitary confinement cells. Stepping inside and to the back of one sent shivers down my spine.

Hillbrow Tower as seen from Constitution Hill. On my first trip to South Africa in 1997, Hillbrow was always regaled to us as that super terrifying lawless place that you didn’t dare set foot anywhere near.

Waiting for our bus to leave Constitution Hill for the next stop.

Since I’d gotten a late start, I figured I’d ride past all the next stops and stop at the SAB World of Beer which was the last stop. That would allow me to see which of the stops looked interesting for the next day, and would conveniently put me at World of Beer at roughly happy hour time.

The tour was over an hour long, and absolutely…terrible. I’ve been on a few brewery tours , and this was probably one of the worst. It was basically a “history of beer” and honestly….was just bad. Our guide was fantastic, but it was basically 90 minutes of prelude before they let you do the good stuff: the beer tasting.

The tasting was kinda fun, five or six (I forget now) different beers from the SAB lineup, poured one at a time from bottles for the whole group. Apparently if the colour/taste of the beer is just ordinary, the tasting term for that is “unremarkable.” Unremarkable was what I’d call this whole experience, but the tour ended on the rooftop beergarden with two tickets and the VIEW was remarkable!

Next day, I got a slightly earlier start. Back onto the bus, and noted this very hoity-toity private school we drove past:

Then the bus would right through downtown Johannesburg. While undergoing some gentrification and revitalization, there are still plenty of signs that the area has a very, very long way to go. For example, this highrise with a history of fires and busted out windows just sitting empty…though likely home to squatters.

Another building which has clearly seen better days, but has apparently found a buyer:

Springbox jumping over a fountain in front of a casino at one of the stops. This seemed to be the most popular of all stops, and I was tempted to get out for an hour, but how exciting can a casino be?

Winding over a bridge into the central business district, an ad for Amarula – made from Africa!

I got off at the stop for Braamfontein, which along with Maboneng is known to be a “hip, young, and edgy” area of the downtown. Madiba on the side of a building:

Turn of the century building, now a bar:

Found some seats at the patio bar across the street, and ordered a cider while I people watched.

Shortly after ordering a second cider, a 6’5+ drag queen came over and sat next to me…and ordered a cheeseburger. Apparently, her name was Miss Winnie Gets-In-Your-Pants (a nod to Winnie Mandela I assume?) and she’d come from the bar/club across the street. Like was common in the US in the 80s/90s, gay bars were found in the edgy parts of town and this area was very popular with alternative crowds – gays, goths, and just general people who lived outside the “mainstream.” Great lively street scene, and fantastic people watching. I think I spent almost two hours just sitting there and watching the city go by.

Back to the hotel, caught an Uber out to Randburg to check out Craft Beer Library which I’d been told has the best beer list in Johannesburg. The setting was cozy, but lots of fun, complete with shoeless hipster singing…

Definitely a cozy little place, but great beer list and super friendly staff. Definitely on my list of places to return to in JoBurg…maybe as soon as a few days from now 😉

…and with that teaser, couple of days of work stood ahead before the trek home and final part of this trip report.

May 222018
 


After a very long week of even longer days at work, it was time for a bit of holiday before going back to work. Due to prior commitments I couldn’t get all my client commitments lined up in one week, so decided to separate them by a week and take some holiday in the middle. So, Saturday morning arrived, and I was off to OR Tambo Airport to get away.

Every time I’m there I totally want to buy the zebra pelts in duty free as a rug, but at a price tag of 16,000 rand, it’s a bit steep for my budget!

While I waited, I caught a great view of my plane waiting for us. I had opted to go with Air Namibia for the novelty factor, despite their points not being worth anything. The flight time also allowed me an extra 90 minutes of sleep over South African, so that was a bonus as well. Air Namibia used a contract lounge whose name I can’t remember, but it was pretty decent, and I would say about as comfortable as South African’s lounge, which I rather like.

No priority boarding queue at all, and it was a mad scrum of European tourists. I think I boarded maybe #100 on the plane or so. Also, it might be the longest jetbridge in the world. If you look at the pic above you can see the part that connects to the plane, but at the top it zigs left and hugs the terminal building finally ending near the nose of where the Turkish plane is parked. Yes, ALL of that is jetbridge!

Air Namibia flight 726
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Windhoek, Namibia (WDH)
Depart 11:40, Arrive 13:45, Flight Time: 2:05
Airbus A319, Registration V5-ANM, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,026
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,088

First impression: I love the cabin. Sure, the seats are super old school leather recliners, but they weren’t lumpy at all and reasonably firm, and….

…look at that legroom! The inflight magazine quoted 54 inches, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was accurate. Extremely generous for a plane that often does 90 minute to two hour flights! You don’t see that often at all!

Sadly, the pre-departure beverage was water, water, or…water.

Flamingo…the in-flight magazine.

After 30 minutes after takeoff, out came the appetizer. A warm piece of what I’m pretty sure was beef, some grilled pineapple, and some orange wedges. Along with a roll…and some South African sparkling wine that was absolutely terrible. I asked to see the bottle, and was met with a “we cannot do that.” Uhhh…ok? At least it was a friendly refusal.

Beef, vegetarian, or fish. I went with the beef, and it was straight out of the United Airlines short rib kitchen. Tasted the same, looked the same, and once again, repeat after me: like grandma’s cooking. Now, remember this meal…we’re going to be coming back to it later…

Soon we were over the amazing landscape of Namibia…

Arrival was about 15 minutes late, which worried me because I only had a 45 minute connection to begin with. I had tried asking the flight attendants if this would be an easy connection, and they didn’t seem terribly interested in helping me.  Encountered probably one of the rudest immigration officials I’ve ever met anywhere in the world who finally stamped me into the country, but not before making very clear that she disliked me.

The path to connecting flights led me…right into the arrivals hall, where fortunately the departures hall was just a two minute walk away. It wasn’t entirely clear if I needed a new boarding pass or what, but there were literally hundreds of people queueing in the checkin lines, so decided to head for the door to security and try my luck. They seemed a bit puzzled with me (since everyone else was going straight from a check-in counter to the door towards security and departures) but apparently after explaining I was connecting that was enough.

Security was pretty quick and easy, and then….immigration counters. Wait, I’m on a domestic flight. Why are there immigration counters. Well, I just walked up and told the guy I was on a domestic flight, and he waved me through. Turns out the one room departures lounge has five gates that handle both international and domestic traffic.

I didn’t have to worry about the close connection since we left over 30 minutes late, so soon it was time to walk to our plane. I tried to snap a pic, but was very sternly chastised by a ramp agent. Ho hum.

Air Namibia flight 715
Windhoek, Namibia (WDH) to Walvis Bay, Namibia (WVB)
Depart 14:30, Arrive 15:10, Flight Time: 0:40
Airbus A319, Registration V5-ANN, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,210
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,272

Unlike the previous flight, pre-departure sparkling wine was offered. Unfortunately, it was pretty terrible again.

Nothing to say about the 30 minute flight, except it was absolutely packed. Oh, and we got a “snack”:

Pretty sad…and again…make a metal note of this for later…

Arrival in Walvis Bay was a casual affair, and passengers continuing to Cape Town were asked to remain on board, which seemed to be about 75% of the crew. Finally snapped a pic of our plane upon arrival:

Just walk from the plane to the terminal…it’s out there somewhere…

Finally, the terminal building…one of the smallest I’ve ever seen…and this is the “new” terminal!

I had rented an SUV from Hertz for the five days, and when I arrived the contract price was more than double what my confirmation said. First, there was a one-way rental fee when Hertz Platinum told me there wasn’t. Then there were about six or seven different insurances, etc. The guy seemed confused, but I just crossed out and initialed what I refused to pay for, and he was like “oh, ok.” I figured this would get interesting when I returned it. Oh, and the Walvis Bay location no longer takes AmEx, but he was “pretty sure” they do in Windhoek. He eventually agreed to let me go by writing down the credit card number, and we were off.

Drive into Swakopmund was just under an hour, and finally I found my hotel the Swakopmund Plaza Hotel. I had booked the larger “family room” since it was only slightly more, and it still wasn’t very large, so I was glad I’d spent the little bit extra:

It did, however, have an amazing view of the South Atlantic Ocean:

Oh, and it also had a lovely beer garden right on site which brewed its own beers. Unfortunately, they weren’t very good…

Walking along the beach:

Local house in old german architecture:

Sunset over the jetty bridge:

Africa meets the South Atlantic Ocean waves:

Sunset from the jetty:

More old German architecture:

The Höhenzollernhaus – a 1904 baroque building that’s been during into condos:

Kücki’s Pub, location of tonight’s dinner. First thing that struck me: the staff switching back and forth between Afrikaans and German, with English clearly the third language. I actually didn’t know before this trip that more Namibians speak Afrikaans as a first language than English.

Determined to explore the deliciousness of African wildlife, started out with a springbok carpaccio:

Followed up with an oryx burger and a side of Spätzel:

The first of many malva puddings on this trip:

With that, it had been a long day so I walked back to the hotel and promptly crashed. Only to wake up at 12…and 1230, and 1, and 130….clearly something had gone off (most likely airplane lunch based on timing) and I was suffering one of the most violent cases of food poisoning I’d had in many years. Fortunately, around three o’clock, with nothing much left in my system I finally managed to get back to sleep, and prayed that I would feel well enough the next day to even consider the five+ hour drive ahead of me. I hoped so, or this trip was over before it even began….

May 082018
 


If that title didn’t grab the attention of my long-time readers, I don’t know what will! Don’t worry, I certainly haven’t done it yet…but I’m definitely considering it!

So, the background. I just returned from three weeks in Southern Africa (I promise I’ll get updates going soon), and of course, as always, that leads me to feeling like I need something on the books. Sure, I’m off to Easter Island in eight weeks, but that feels so far away. I certainly need something in the meantime.

Given I have at least a four day weekend over Memorial Day, and possibly as much as nine days, I figure I have the time for something not too complex, and certainly not something that would require visas or something. I toyed with a trip through the Canadian north, but after seeing some of the airfares in Nunavut I backed off. Yes, I know you can get them with Aeroplan miles with a bit of planning, but since this trip would be only three weeks away I need it to come together in a hurry.

That got me thinking: back in January I was wondering if I had become too soft to fly coach. Nah, I figured I could definitely do it under the right circumstances. Some of the keys I came up with are:

  • Ability to pre-assign seats, preferably exit rows or extra legroom seats…even if it means paying for it
  • Daytime flights so as not to have to sleep on the plane
  • Westbound flights preferred, as it maximizes daytime on longer flights, so you arrive tired and ready for proper hotel sleep

Really, that’s about it. Wait, sleep? Why am I so worried about sleep? Well, maybe it’s because I decided to REALLY prove that I could do it and that I haven’t gone soft…I should plow through a round-the-world ticket…in economy! Yup, I’m going to do it.

Rough plan put together, and right now, this is what it looks like:

map

Some of this route was dictated by low fares (yup, I’m not just doing economy, going to try and do low-cost carriers where I can) and some more of it by the chance to fly new airlines that might be “exotic” for me. What I would love your feedback on is if you’ve flown any of these routes/airlines, what are your tips to make it tolerable? I’m going to book this in the next day or two, so looking forward to hearing it!

Baltimore to Oakland on Spirit: I debated if buying the “big” seat counts as coach, but since they sell it as airfare + extra fee for legroom I decided it’s ok. Plus, gotta ease into things.

Oakland to Kona on Alaska: how bad can it be? I’ll make sure to get an aisle seat, and it’s only five hours to paradise. I need some sort of status so I can get an exit row…. Suggestions? I don’t think they let you pay outright for them, do they?

Kona to Honolulu on Hawaiian: it’s less than an hour – I can tolerate anything for that long

Honolulu to Osaka on Scoot: Seriously. There’s an airline called Scoot. For only 9 hours, and an extra $40 or so you can get an “infinite legroom” 787 exit row aisle seat. That and a full iPad should make this one pretty easy.

Osaka to Hong Kong on Peach: I admit, I’m really only doing this because the airline is named Peach. It’s only about three hours, and I assume since they’re a low cost airline they’ll let me buy an exit row seat.

Hong Kong to Bangkok on Thai Air Asia: Again, I know they sell the exit row, so I can manage this. It’s only just over two hours anyways, and most people in Asia are normal sized, so it won’t be too uncomfortable.

Bangkok to Almaty to Moscow on Air Astana: broken up with an overnight in Almaty this shouldn’t be too terrible. I don’t know how to go about getting an exit row though…I’m also considering other options from Bangkok to Oslo. I’m not wedded to Moscow and Almaty…might be fun to do something really weird like Kuwait and Georgia….open to routings….

Moscow to Oslo on Aeroflot: short flight, no worries…this I’m also not completely wedded to. I just wanted to get to Oslo for:

Oslo to Reykjavik on Norwegian: they sell the exit row, I’ll be fine…plus, it’s barely a two hour flight

Reykjavik to Baltimore on WOW: again, I could always buy the “super WOW” seats in the front row, but they actually charge like $250 extra for them…that feels like upgrading as opposed to Spirit where it’s like $49. I might have to “deal” with an exit row aisle, which should be easy for the six hour home stretch.

So what do you think? Especially Bangkok back to DC. I’m very open to routings, just need to keep it to three overnights on the way home between Bangkok and DC.

Mar 222018
 


For those who might not be aware, the European Union (EU) has a regulation known as EU261 which mandates that airlines pay you cash compensation for flights to/from Europe that suffer lengthy delays or cancelations. Basically the compensation ranges from 250 to 600 euros, based on the length of the delay and length of the flight. Longer flights (generally intercontinental) receive the higher payments as do ones with longer delays or cancelation.

Sound too good to be true? It isn’t really. I’ve had it paid multiple times. However, airlines being corporations they do devote a significant amount of time/energy to legally trying to worm out of paying you. Some airlines, however, are great about this. I thought I would outline some of my more memorable experiences, and seek your feedback on yours.

Blah, blah, I’m not a lawyer, this isn’t legal advice, and my experiences might not match yours.

Brussels Airlines: My very first experience with EU261 was with Brussels airlines. I had arrived in Brussels on an overnight redeye flight on United, connecting onto a Brussels Airlines flight to Cotonou, Benin. After about an hour of delays, the dreaded “cancelled” popped up on the gate monitor. Brussels was kind enough to send those of us in business class back to the lounge, and showed up shortly with hotel and meal vouchers. 24 hour delay, flight would go the next day. When we got to the gate next day, there was a pre-filled letter for us to add some details, and that was it. They actually encouraged us to apply for, and although it took nearly three months they did pay, the required 600 euros for this delay. WELL DONE!  GRADE: A

American Airlines: Long story short, my Chicago to London flight arrived late leaving me only 30 minutes to connect to Accra, Ghana on British Airways. While we were in flight, American had decided FOR ME that this wasn’t enough time, and rebooked me…the next day…IN COACH. As soon as the agent told me this in the jetway upon deplaning I decided to run for the gate. I made it with 100+ people still to board, but they had given away my seat and the flight was full. BA would do nothing. Fought with the American transfer desk for an hour before giving up and going to the lounge where an amazing agent took care of me. American corporate, however, refuses to pay EU compensation, arguing that I “wasn’t late” because my flight was on time. After nearly two years of arguing the best I got was a crummy $100 voucher. I tried appealing it through multiple firms, and none of them could get American to pay. FAILING GRADE, and a large part of why I won’t fly American unless necessary. GRADE: F

United Airlines: London to Washington Dulles, 4pm flight canceled. They offered me coach (I had been booked in first) in a middle seat 15 hours later…easily qualifying for 600 euros. United claimed they were not obligated to pay since they offered me economy within 3 hours. (False, since must be in the same class). They quickly, however, offered a $400 voucher with little argument. Given it was pretty easy to get and I knew I could use it, I took it. GRADE: C

TAP Portugal: Praia, Cape Verde to Lisbon to London to Washington DC. Similar to American above, my TAP flight arrived in Lisbon late, with only 30 minutes to connect. I didn’t find out until boarding my connection to London that they’d already given away my seat and “the computer won’t let us put you back on it.” Similar to American, TAP refused to pay compensation because “we offered you another option” which was in business class and not first. Round and round and never got a penny of of them. Yes, legally the case is air tight, but I’m not exactly about to file a case in Portuguese court for under $500. I have a chain of over 200 emails on this one, and nothing will get them to pay. GRADE:  F

SATA Air Azores: my Azores to Boston flight was cancelled, and I was put on one two hours later – not enough to qualify for compensation. However, delivering me to Boston late caused me to miss my connection to DC and arrive DC nearly eight hours late. Instead of paying the required 400 euros, SATA decided (in a chain of over 200 emails) to play lets make a deal. First they offered me a 100 euro voucher. Then 200. Then a free one-way ticket in business class anywhere they fly. After rejecting all their offers the finally offered a “goodwill payment” of only 300 euros. I decided to cut my losses at 200 emails and take it. Of course, when it appeared in my account they shorted me nearly 10% on the exchange rate, but at this point it was enough. So, I got 75% of what I was entitled to with a lot of pain….GRADE:  D+

Lufthansa: DC to Munich and then Cairo. Arrived in Munich right on time, departed Munich with a 3 hour 15 minute delay. Arrived at the gate in Cairo precisely 3 hours an 2 minutes late…but Lufthansa was crafty and listed the official arrival time as only 2:58 delayed. It took them a month to answer my email, but when they did all they asked for was my address and promptly cut me a check for the full 400 euros with no questions asked. I assume it will actually arrive.  GRADE: A+

Have you applied for EU261 compensation? Did you get it? How easy was it?

Mar 112018
 


Unfortunately, it turned out that the Starbucks in the lobby of the Le Meridien didn’t open until 8am on Sundays, and with a 10a flight and unpredictable traffic I felt that would be cutting things too tight. Set the alarm for 715am, and was out the door at 745am, and really debated waiting 15 more minutes since Google maps was still showing a quick 22 minutes with no traffic to the airport.

However, when I got out the front door of the hotel, I was very glad I hadn’t waited. All the streets around the hotel were closed off for some kind of running race, and I had to walk several blocks to find an Uber. Fortunately, my Spanish has improved enough I could ask one of the helpful and plentiful police offers where the best place to walk to to get an Uber was, so I really only lost about 10 minutes.

Google Maps was, fortunately, correct, and I arrived at the airport around 830am. I had checked in online, had a mobile boarding pass on my phone and a gate number, so I headed for what looked to be a mercifully short security line. Looks were only mildly deceiving, and by 845am I was past security and right beyond was the most magical of sites…with prices 50% higher than in the city, of course.

United flights left from an area of about eight gates that seemed to be a bit of a Satellite Terminal, and apparently the United Club is in a totally different part of the airport? I’m not sure if this is always the case, but it seemed to be an incredibly nonsensical arrangement. Waited around in the seating area with other passengers, before spotting an Avianca Lounge right next to my gate. It was nothing special, but it was quiet and uncrowded, so made the last 15 minutes before boarding more comfortable.

I had debated switching to the nonstop flight to Dulles which left 15 minutes earlier, and the United app was letting me make the change for free under the 24 hour confirmed change waiver for elite members, but when the only seat left was 3F I decided to pass. Being stuck in a window seat for four hours is my idea of not fun, and I had the whole day, so decided to stick with my original routing.

Even more strange, this A319 had the usual 12 seats in first, but only 8 passengers booked…and no waitlist. This couldn’t be for real, could it? We would actually go out with empty seats up front? 2A and 2C were still open, so I switched myself to 2C in hopes that 2A would stay open, and sure enough it did! I can’t remember the last time I had an empty seat next to me in domestic/regional first/business!

United flight 1025
Mexico City, Mexico (MEX) to Houston, Texas (IAH)
Depart 10:05, Arrive 12:23, Flight Time: 2:18
Airbus A319, Registration N821UA, Manufactured 1999, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 15,417
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,535,479

Being my first time flying in Mexico, there were lots of new and fun airlines to see on taxi. Here’s Viva!

I loved this view right after takeoff of all the planes sitting around:

I was glad to be getting back a little early since I had a surprise hockey game that night, and was glad to see that United had taken that into account when ordering their napkins. I mean, I do qualify as a superhero, right?

This is also a good point to mention the crew. This was one of the most attentive and attention to detail crews I’ve ever seen on United, and he actually set up the four napkins as a “placemat” first before setting down the drinks and nuts. Yes, he even faced the logo on the can and the glass towards me intentionally. Definitely a first from United! Doesn’t make a difference, but reflective of someone who has pride in their job which always makes a customer service interaction much more pleasant!

There were two choices, and I don’t remember the other, but one was described as a pesto chicken with risotto. I don’t do chicken that often on planes, but they had me at risotto. It was definitely way mushier than risotto should be, but I have very low expectations for risotto on a plane, so overall the meal was definitely above average….and the cake was super tasty. The salad, however, was like far too many airplane salads and wilted and gross. I gave it a miss.

Nothing much to say about the flight. The cool thing was, the flight was SO short that I was able to use the Mobile Passport app right after the door was closed (and I was sure information had been transmitted by the airline to CBP) and had already been ok’d for immigration/customs by the app before even leaving the ground. That made the flight much less stressful after my recent experience in Boston.

Sure enough, immigration was a breeze in Houston, found my way out and upstairs to the E gates checkin area, where there was absolutely nobody in the security line. There was no CLEAR line (does anyone know where it is in Houston?) but with no line it didn’t matter. Went through the metal detector, and once again I got the beep for random screening. Either these are much more frequent lately, or I’ve just been winning the jackpot a lot.

Unfortunately, today, there was a problem. The residue swab on my bag came back positive for explosives, which meant we were going to have some fun. Out of my bag came everything remotely electronic for a hand examination, and a rescanning piece by piece. I also got the extra super-friendly patdown by an agent. I have to give this particular agent credit, because he was excellent in giving the explanation step by step of what he was going to do and explaining that I had the right to go to a private area for the screening.

I told him “I lost my shame long ago – go for it” and he laughed and continued very professional, and in a manner that was more, um, “friendly and familiar” than many dates I’ve been on. As he finished, he thanked me for my cooperation and told me I was good to go. I came up with “wait, all that and I don’t even get a Happy Valentine’s Day or a cigarette afterwards?” It was good for a laugh, and it was nice to see a TSA agent with not just a personality, but also not on a powertrip like so many of the ones I’ve come across.

Trekked over to the D gates, and of course, a glass of Veuve Clicquot in the American Express Centurion Lounge:

Only time for a quick stop and glass of champagne, and then the long trek back to the C Gates for my flight to DC, which fortunately was right on time. Group 1 was absolutely packed today, and the agent announced that “because we have over 40 1K members on our flight today, I appreciate your patience in only boarding when your group number is called.” Wow. According to the app there was only one upgrade, and it was the gentleman sitting next to me. He was a friendly guy, and mentioned he was Global Services on pretty much a full fare last minute economy ticket, and that three of his colleagues who were also Global Services were sitting in the back. That’s a Sunday flight back to DC for you!

United flight 589
Houston, Texas (IAH) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 14:38, Arrive 18:35, Flight Time: 2:57
Boeing 737-700, Registration N24702, Manufactured 1998, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 16,607
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,536,669

Shortly after takeoff drinks and mixed nuts were offered as usual:

If I’d been impressed on the flight from Mexico City to Houston, this flight would turn out to be the exact opposite. This was billed as a “Cobb Salad” and was a disgusting pile of romaine lettuce, chopped cucumber and tomatoes, a hard boiled egg, and a bowl of some rather nasty looking chicken.

Giving credit where credit is due, the chocolate cake and pretzel roll were tasty as usual.

That ends a rather average trip with United. For some reason, mainly that I didn’t have much domestic travel, I found myself scrambling in late 2017 to make the minimum four segments with United to requalify for status, and now I’d done 7 flights in under three weeks! Overall, I’d say not much has changed. The experience is still wildly inconsistent, from the hard product, to the staff, to the meals. There are some that do really well and impress, most are just average, and a couple are significantly disappointing. I guess overall that’s domestic air travel these days in a cut-price environment with little real competition.

No travel likely in the next month (hooray!) so I’ll be writing a few think pieces for the blog, but get ready for a trip report in a few weeks back to Southern Africa, and likely to include South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, checking out new places in each country that I haven’t visited before.

Epilogue: two days after getting home, I woke up to an email from CBP, approximately six months after I filed an email appeal of my NEXUS/Global Entry revocation. The email was short and sweet: “A review of your membership by the CBP Ombudsman has been completed, resulting in the reinstatement of your Trusted Traveler membership.  Please contact the enrollment center if you have any future membership questions.”  WINNING!