Oct 172019
 


After a whole 24 hours at home (which, let’s be honest, was mostly laundry and taking care of errands I could only do at home) it was time to head back to Dulles and fly to India. The good part is: I woke up at like 05:00 thanks to my body still being on Africa time, so in theory the jetlag wouldn’t be too bad and despite my flight being at 5pm I should be able to sleep on it…right?

Thanks to CLEAR security was a breeze, and soon I was in the United lounge. I find it extremely insulting that Newark, Houston, LA, Chicago all have Polaris Lounges, and at Dulles if you buy a C fare you get this. I get the construction delays are somewhat out of United’s hands, but couldn’t they at least give a few coupons for premium drinks? I know DC has a ton of government clients so maybe they take the market for granted, but come on…this just says “we don’t care.”

Off to the gate which fortunately was right next to the lounge, and boarding right on time.

United flight 106
Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 17:25, Arrive: 07:40 next day, flight time: 8:15
Boeing 777-200, Registration N220UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 110,475
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,803,063

I was actually looking forward to this flight, because it might be my last chance to fly in the old Global First seats. Everything else could be mediocre about this flight (and pretty much was) but having the old Global First seats made it a huge treat!

Tonight’s dinner options – a whole menu of meh.

The best thing about early evening departures? Great twilight lighting at Dulles for planespotting out the windows.

After takeoff, the usual – mixed nuts that were over-warmed and soggy and a glass of Château l’Oscar 2019:

I can’t decide if the Polaris cart covering says fancy or “corporate cafeteria” to me. I remember the first few months of Polaris when it really seemed United wanted to make an effort to step up the “class” of its offering. I do wonder what killed this: the extra (maybe?) $1,000 per flight total it cost them, or the realization that none of their customers actually choose them over competition based on food so why bother.

That said, the duck appetizer is actually decent (way better than the shrimp!) although the salad was wilted and had lots of brown spots tonight. Mostly inedible.

The salmon, on the other hand, was actually really tasty and I’d be happy to order it again. I know it’s a super minor nitpick, but could we please have reusable/nicer ramekins for sauce instead of environmentally-nasty disposable foil ones? For an airline that brags about “EcoSkies” this is pretty disappointing.

The usual cheese. We’re not on Lufthansa anymore.

Today’s sundae choice was caramel which was actually sort of watery, and four cherries. Hmmmmm.

I actually love the little mini apple pies, however. Temperature gauge in the background confirms it’s a nice and comfy temp on top of the comfy Global First seats.

Landed a bit early in Munich, and since I had a pretty long layover I decided I’d exit immigration, walk around a bit, enjoy the cool air, and stretch my legs a bit. Got a few questions from the immigration officer about why I was leaving on a five hour connection, but was proud that I managed the exchange in German without him switching back to English. Small victories!

Love this Lufthansa ad outside the arrivals area:

After enjoying a cool, brisk walk and some Starbucks (of course) it was off to the Lufthansa First Lounge to enjoy a bit of brunch and a shower. I decided to eat first since I was having a difficult time cooling off (jetlag gets my core temp up every time) so first it was brunch time. Opted for a glass of orange juice out on the outdoor terrace as I cooled down, and then some eggs benny followed by more espresso and a glass of rosé. Also stopped back with my duck after a shower for a pastry, because, hey….

Soon enough it was time to leave the lounge (and Schengen Area) which conveniently can all be done while exiting the lounge thanks to an immigration desk, and off to the gate to board my first Lufthansa A350!

Lufthansa flight 762
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Delhi, India (DEL)
Depart 12:10, Arrive: 23:15, flight time: 7:35
Airbus A350-900 Registration D-AIXC, Manufactured 2017, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 114,148
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,806,736

First impressions were pretty much what I expected. I knew people weren’t happy with the A350, and it was easy to see why. Exactly like Lufthansa’s A330s, it was super crowded in business class, with the middle two seats feeling almost right on top of each other, and the two sides featuring climbover class. I need to make the case to United that since I was supposed to be on the EWR-DEL nonstop they should give me full Global Services credit for this C fare!

Cabin felt almost identical to the A330 on Lufthansa.

What’s for lunch….and pre-arrival dinner:

Today’s meal started off with a ramekin of almonds and a nice glass of wine.

I went with the chicken carpaccio for a starter which was pretty good, but could have used a bit more flavour as it was relatively bland.

The salad…felt more like something from a north american airline, as it had way too much iceberg lettuce in it!

More chicken as a main. Again, could have used a bit more flavour, but felt slightly healthier than the usual suspects? Overall, pretty forgettable.

All was forgotten, however, when dessert arrived. The blueberry and coconut cream dessert was outstanding!

Sadly, however, I was told “cheese OR dessert, you can’t have both” which was a first for me. No big deal, I’d already eaten more than enough, so I spent the rest of the flight catching up on work (I was behind on preparing for this trip since it was back-to-back with the previous one) and soon enough it was time for the arrival meal.

Dinner was a choice of “meat” or “asian vegetarian” and I asked for the meat option, which was supposed to be “andhra mutton roast” with avial (not sure what that is), coconut pulao, savory lamb stew with chili, and some other things. Pretty sure that’s not what I got, but since I also don’t know what “gobi mirch masala, dal hara moong, palak pulao” is, maybe I did? I didn’t see anything “meaty” and it was tasty, so really didn’t matter!

Overall, the flight was exactly what I expected from Lufthansa. A sadly disappointing hard product on the A350, good crew who were more or less as expected, and reasonably tasty food. Nothing special, but I can imagine if you don’t get to travel often – or fly business often – it’s a pretty nice experience!

Now, off to work in India for a few days so I’ll share just a few photos from the time there…and then it’s time to fly home and finally be done with almost seven weeks of back to back travel with less than five nights at home!

Sep 292019
 


My second full week in Bern was even hotter than the first. The first was tolerable most of the time with temps in the high 20s, but the second week was full on 30-35 every day. Makes being in a non-airconditioned office super difficult, but we survived the week!

The people of Bern have dealing with the heat figured out, however. It seemed in the evening seeming the whole town would descend on one of the outdoor pools connected to the Aare River via swimways:

Despite the heat, I kept up with my runs a few nights a week as the sun was setting. The bears in the bear park at least knew how to stay cool-ish hiding in the shade:

Even more tightrope walkers out the second week, and they still weren’t falling in the river enough to stay cool. I’m seriously in awe of their balance!

Even more popular than the pool, however, was the ice cream shop across the street – Gelateria di Berna – which had a super long line every evening with people drying to beat the heat. At only five francs for a large cup, it’s one of the few good values in Switzerland!

I had decided since I had one day off on the weekend I would definitely try and take another trip, so had bought a daypass again on Monday (they’re usually cheaper the further out you buy them) and decided to decide as the weekend got closer and the weather got clearer what I’d do.

The weather looked pretty iffy, so I decided going into the mountains again would be pretty futile since I might not see much, but since the morning at least looked nice I decided to try the Gotthard Panoramic Express trip which starts with a boat ride from Lucern to Flüelen and then a panoramic train ride to Lugano. The idea would be to enjoy a few hours walking around Lugano and then head back.

Day started early, but not too early with a short train trip to Luzern/Lucerne where I would catch the boat across the lake to catch the train. It was a couple hours on the boat and it was absolutely gorgeous in Luzern so I had about an hour to walk around and see the wooden bridge that Luzern is famous for:

As the time for the boat departure approached it got more and more crowded until a couple hundred people were waiting for the boat. Ugh. Looked like it would be a crowded few hours.

Once on board, it took quite a long time wandering around to figure out all the compartments and decks on the boat, but I finally found two first class areas on the upper decks that were a little less crowded.

Then, about 20 minutes into the trip…well over half the passengers (looked like a tour group) got off. WTF? So a short 20 minute boat ride must be a “must do” and then on to the next attraction? I was glad I had a few hours to enjoy the beauty of the lake and really relax.

The first class deck even had table service with waiters, so I decided I might as well enjoy a nice lunch on the trip! I wish I could remember the name of this salad…it was with some local cheese, lots of vegetables, and also diced up strips of a local sausage. What’s not to love about a gorgeous lunch al fresco on a boat?! (I can say al fresco because this trip ends in Lugano in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland)

Gorgeous day and all smiles!

The water was so blue…and it was just really nice to be outside!

The last twenty minutes of the boat or so it was starting to cloud over, and fortunately the walk to the train was less than two minutes from the boat because it started to get a bit windy and sprinkle a little. Ugh!

The panoramic train was pretty much identical to the one the previous weekend, but there was one exception: the attendant on this train was absolutely wonderful and clearly loved his job. He said it was just a weekend fun job for him, but he clearly loved it – coming around to each passenger when there was something to see and telling them to look out for it!

One of the biggest highlights of the train trip is the Church at Wassen which you actually see three times from three different vantage points as the train climbs altitude in a series of spiralling tunnels inside the mountain.

Lots of fun little things on this train….branded chocolates, pre-stamped postcards that the attendant would send for you at the end of the trip, a branded pen…although this train may not have had the views of some of the other trains, the overall experience was amazing!

Nice spacious seating too – too bad it was absolutely pissing down rain outside most of the trip.

Arrived in Lugano right on time, and any thoughts I had of wandering the city and taking in a bit of Italian-Swiss culture were dashed by the absolute downpour outside. I waited it out for 30 minutes having an espresso at the train station (which thanks to Google Translate I managed to fake just enough Italian to order) and eventually gave up.

Fortunately, there was a direct train back to Zurich about an hour later so I decided to wait it out with some ok beer. The name that is – ok. Not the beer…which was also just…ok.

Hopped in the train back to Zurich, which is one of two main types of Intercity trains. One type is a double decker and seems to ply the main line from Geneva – Bern – Zurich and this type is single deck and seems to hold less people.

Grabbed a beer at the International Beer Bar in Zurich which has a great selection of craft beers before heading back to the station to go to Bern and call it a weekend. Was really pleased how much value I managed to get out of this daypass!

Got to Zurich Hauptbanhof a bit before my train so did a little bit of trainspotting while I waited to leave.

Finally, this is the style of the other main Intercity train, the double decker on the inside. All trains in Switzerland (except the panoramic ones which need reservations) are open seating, so on an empty train like this plenty of choices!

Back to Bern after a long and exhausting but rewarding day, and ready for another week of work!

Sep 272019
 


After a whole 68 hours at home (well, closer to 65 if you count the travel time from and to the airport as well as waiting time) it was time to get on the road again. 18 days of vacation was a nice break, and slightly under three days at home was just enough to catch up on the essentials before heading out of town for more than three more weeks.

Unfortunately I had to book this trip rather late and wasn’t able to take either the Geneva or Zurich nonstops out of Dulles, so had to “settle” for Air Canada out of DCA which meant leaving home about two hours earlier. Every hour matters when you only have three days at home in six weeks!

I always forget how convenient DCA is. I can be there by Uber in about 12 minutes if nothing goes wrong, through CLEAR in less than five minutes from the time I step out of the Uber, so in theory it would be possible to leave home about 50 minutes pre-flight and still be there before boarding starts.

I chickened out a bit (and I was packed and ready) so left about two hours before the flight which left me plenty of time to grab a real lunch at DCA. I’m a pretty big fan of the restaurant in Terminal A at DCA, so on the occasion I do fly Air Canada I try and stop by for what passes as a Cholesterol Madame…I mean Croque Madame…and a beer. I mean, even the iPad told me soda was the wrong thing to drink when flying!

I love Terminal A at DCA. It’s incredibly nostalgic for me. Back in the old days when I used to nonrev during university Northwest flew out of Terminal A and I was there multiple times most months headed home…or to other exotic locales. I even remember when Northwest did their giant expansion at DCA (whose slots did they buy again?) and suddenly they were flying to Hartford, Boston, LaGuardia, and if I remember right some places in Florida as well. Of course, I tried as often as possible to take these odd connections as opposed to the nonstops to Minneapolis!

The terminal has modernized slightly with a big restaurant in the waiting space, and has certainly changed with the introduction of Spirit and Southwest to the terminal as well.

Got to the gate right as the door was opening to let incoming passengers off, so I was right on time to be the first to board…essential when you’re in Seat 1A as you have no underseat storage space. You do have more legroom and nobody reclining into you, however, so it’s still my seat of choice whenever possible as someone who’s 6’4.

Air Canada flight 7615 op. by Sky Regional
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to Toronto, Pearson (YYZ)
Depart 12:45, Arrive: 14:12, flight time: 1:27
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration C-FUJA, Manufactured 2009, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 78,934
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,771,522

One of my favourite parts of DCA is that 90% of the time you take off to the north on runway 1 and do a sharp bank to the left right after takeoff which affords those in A seats great views of the Pentagon.

This is always a snack flight, and I definitely didn’t need it after the cholesterol bomb at the airport, but I’m a sucker for a deli plate…especially when there’s pickles!

Uneventful flight…until the last minute. So, seriously, what is it about YYZ? Today we had a go around, and from the picture below you can see why. There was still a plane on the taxiway under us! Seriously!

I ask “why YYZ” because I’ve had probably 10 go-arounds or other unusual experiences in-flight (yes, I know that’s not a lot given how many I fly) and at least half have been at YYZ. This was my third go-around at YYZ, which is half of the total go-arounds I can remember.

I also remember an incident climbing out of YYZ on a US Scareways CRJ-200 years ago when we hear a loud BANG and the plane pitched pretty violently to the right. It felt like we were at a 45 degree angle (was probably a bit less) and the captain – very professionally and calmly – as soon as he’d fixed the situation came on and told us what had happened: ATC hadn’t spaced us far enough behind a 747 on takeoff, and we hit its wake at around FL20 which is what caused the bang…who knew wake could be that strong?

Right, well, this was a pretty short go around as the map above shows, and soon we were on the ground and I was through the transit area (basically scan your passport at a kiosk and good to go back to the transit/departures international area) and time to enjoy a couple hours in the Air Canada Signature Suites.

I still really like this lounge, though I can’t help but feel it’s much more crowded these days and the food offerings from the buffet are quite a bit poorer in quality. I know there’s a dining menu, but since I planned to eat on the plane I just wanted to drink and nibble.

The staff, however, were fantastic as always and I enjoyed a couple of glasses of rosé champagne and a cocktail called the “J Class.”

Boarding was absolutely mayhem, as it always is between 5-6pm at Pearson. The departures area is simply not large enough to handle around 10 widebodies going out full all at once, and it took me a few times, but I’ve finally realized generally you should just go up to the podium and ask where they want business class to board from.

Air Canada flight 878
Toronto, Pearson (YYZ) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 18:05, Arrive: 7:40 next day, flight time: 7:35
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration C-FIVQ, Manufactured 2008, Seat 7K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 82,979
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,775,567

I do love the Air Canada business class seat. Private in that you have lots of space to yourself and nobody next to you at the window, and even more private in row 7 (my first choice after row 1) because nobody is looking at the back of your head. (Us tall people worry about such things sometimes.)

Lots of big poofy clouds on takeoff. For years, I was never much of a window person, but lately I’ve really enjoyed watching the cloud formations and sunsets.

Warm nuts (too warm, mushy a la United), and some red whine and noisy water to start things off. Short flight today, barely 6.5 hours to Zurich! I wasn’t going to be getting much sleep!

Sigh, shrimp starter. I hadn’t been paying attention, so I took it for the greens (which I dumped on the salad and enjoyed), and a bit of garlic bread. Seriously, why does everyone think a few cold shrimp are a nice starter these days? At least Air Canada serves four while United cheaply serves only two.

Decided to go with the chicken pesto main since it sounded healthier than the beef. The chicken was a really weird rubbery consistency, but seemed to be completely cooked so I risked it. Tasted ok, the texture was just odd. I haven’t ordered chicken on planes much lately…but lately feel like the fish is often the best option – beating out overcooked beef and rubbery chicken.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a huge fan of Air Canada’s cheese course, because it’s just boring. Today was no exception. Tasty enough, yes, but in-flight when things lose a bit of their flavours something bolder than cheddar and mozzarella would be nice.

All was forgiven, however, when the brown sugar tart was served. OMG delicious…

I did manage about three hours of sleep before landing, but I’m not sure many others did since the windows were all thrown open and breakfast served about 90 minutes before landing. This isn’t a comment on the crew, more on the other passengers who already seemed to be up.

Not a problem, however, since I have a soft spot for the Air Canada omelet with that weird cream cheese sauce they serve it with. Plus, they always serve a really fresh and ripe fruit plate which is delicious.

I used the wifi during breakfast to book my onward train, as pre-booking in Switzerland can save you as much as 75%. Last minute to Bern is often nearly 90 francs, but I found if a took a train two hours after landing I could get it for 29.90 francs.

I decided I could enjoy some coffee at the airport even if the immigration line was long and save over $60, so it was an easy decision. Landing was nice and smooth, zero line at immigration, and it was coffee time before heading to Bern for three weeks!

Sep 022019
 


So, right, off the plane in Singapore after back to back flights and straight for a walk around the airport. Singapore is cool because T1, T2, and T3 are all connected, but if you have a long way to go and don’t feel like walking you can take the train between terminals.

After back to back flights I definitely needed the walk, so walked for about 45 minutes around the terminals to stretch my legs before heading to the lounge. Fortunately, I had done my research online before visiting, and knew that there was no dedicated first class lounge in Singapore for Qantas. It will be opening later this year, but for now I would have to share with the masses in business class. Oh the horrors!

Now, that said, if you have to spend time in a business class lounge, a Qantas lounge is an excellent place to do it. I was feeling the need for a brief detox at this point after two flights of back to back champagne-fuelled nonsense, so went with the coke light along with a little bit of curry and some dragonfruit.

After a quick snack, I felt like I should walk a bit more, so went out for another 30 minute or so stroll around the terminal before coming back for a shower. Fortunately, the Qantas showers were a much more reasonable temperature than the horrendous Emirates ones, and I actually would be heading to my Qantas flight feeling a bit fresher.

…which was definitely a good thing, because I think my Qantas flight was boarding from Malaysia the walk to the gate was so far! Oh well, it was good to get more of a stretch in before boarding!

Qantas flight 2
Singapore (SIN) to Sydney, Australia (SYD)
Depart 19:30, Arrive: 05:10 next day, flight time: 7:40
Airbus A380-800, Registration VH-OQK, Manufactured 2011, Seat 03A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 59,026
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,751,614

The signs in the boarding area weren’t clear, and I hadn’t researched, so I followed the jetbridge to the upper deck…only to discover the saddest first class seats I’d ever seen in the front of the plane. Fortunately, it was just a momentary confusion and I was able to trudge back downstairs where I found a seat much more to my liking!

This definitely takes the cake as the most unique first class seat I’ve ever been on. Faces forward for takeoff and landing, but then you can swivel the chair about 45 degrees to the light so it lines up with the monitor and foot rest. Definitely unusual, but I really enjoyed the spaciousness of it!

Nothing says welcome aboard quite like a glass of Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2004. This is actually one of my favourite champagnes, and I know I’ve said it before but it’s always nice to see airlines taking a “risk” in first class and deviating from the common offerings of Dom Perignon or Krug.

After takeoff, I must feign confusion. I remember the amuse bouche of a caviar tart…but I have no idea what this glass of what appears to be white wine is. Maybe it’s the angle of the pic, but I’m certain I would have been enjoying champagne at this point!

So what’s to eat? That’s a good question, because I also don’t have a picture of the menu! I know I was exhausted on this flight, but it’s very not like me to forget to take so many pictures. At least you can see what’s to drink!

Note that despite serving the Sir Winston during departure, they actually had Veuve Cliquot La Grande Dame during the flight. That much I remembered and actually added in my trip notes!

Probably one of the largest tables I’ve ever seen, even in first class! I do remember switching to the rather nice syrah for the main event.

Delicious appetizer, if I remember right it was a thai style spicy shredded chicken salad.

After all the eating the past few days I decided to go with the lighter fish option, which was absolutely outstanding. I’ve been ordering fish a lot more lately on flights, and so far have had mostly excellent luck with it!

Of course, I couldn’t skip the cheese. It pales in comparison to Emirates’ or Lufthansa’s offerings, but was a reasonably solid showing.

The desert, however, was a lemon tart that was out of this world. If I wasn’t so stuffed from all the flights I might have shamelessly asked if there were more, but my waistline thanks me. Plus, despite all the time zone confusion I was feeling pretty tired so decided to chance a bit of sleep.

I must have been exhausted, because I had absolutely no trouble passing out for a solid four hour nap. At this point, after two consecutive redeyes, my body had no idea what time it was anyways, so I was definitely in “nap when you can” mode.

Woke up with just enough time for a light breakfast, and enjoyed some muesli and a tasty cinnamon roll. Before anyone judges me, yes, that’s Coke Light and not red wine with breakfast. Unfortunately, the strawberries with the fruit were seriously underripe, but other than that it was the perfect light breakfast right before landing.

…and just like that it was 5am, and we were arriving into Sydney. Fortunately no queues at immigration at this hour, and had no trouble catching an airport express train straight to my hotel.

The stop was just about a three minute walk from the hotel, and despite showing up at 6am they were ready for me, and let me check in super early. Another solid four hour nap, and around 11am I was ready to head out and make the most of my day in Sydney!

Aug 282019
 


Up relatively early the following morning to head out to JFK. For once, I really wasn’t complaining about being up early, because the alternative to Europe is always to take a redeye flight, so if I can get up a bit early and take a daytime flight I definitely always come out ahead with more hours of quality sleep!

Bit of coffee, and then because it was only estimated to take 15-30 minutes more than an Uber (and because this trip was kind of all about being a transit geek) I opted to take the subway to JFK. Figuring out how the cards worked was easy, no trouble buying with credit card, and then it was on the A train out towards JFK!

Unfortunately, not only was there some drama with the E train with it not running out towards JFK, but when I got 5o Howard Beach the signs alerted me that there was a full shutdown of the AirTrain to JFK and I would have to wait for a shuttle bus. Ahhhhh, at least I’m getting the full New York transit experience!

On the positive side, the bus was timely, and being packed with New Yorkers cranky about this unexpected detour I got the full experience. So, hey, could have been much, much worse.

Made my way to the terminal and Norwegian Check-in, where drama awaited me. There was no way there were going to let me carry my rollerboard and laptop bag on, claiming they were BOTH above the carryon weight limit for premier…not to mention that combined they were double the weight limit. Seriously? Plus the flight was sold out, so I did not have the option to even pay to check the rollerboard.

Full-world-traveler mode enabled, after seeing the check-in person was going nowhere, I asked for the manager, and when they were unyielding I asked for the airport operations manager for Norwegian.

The person eventually showed up, I explained the situation, pointed out the lack of clarity on their website, pointed out the absurdity that 20kg of bags couldn’t be brought on by someone in premier…and may have embellished a bit with some experienced learnt from dealing with international bureaucrats…and eventually with a nod and wink I was sent on my way. Experience pays! 😉 Yes, it was a bit of a DYKWIA moment, but seriously, if as an experienced traveler I had this much drama….I can’t believe how the “normal” traveler deals with these airlines!

I was expecting this to be followed by drama with TSA given my last experience with TSA at Terminal 1, but this time had a perfectly lovely and efficient experience. It really is about the individual at the end of the day!

Plus…once through security I was in Pride Country!

Thanks to being on Norwegian I had no lounge access, but thanks to Priority Pass I had the option of the Korean Air Lounge (miserable) or trying the Air France Lounge. Air France lounges are usually pleasant and have respectable beverages, so off I went.

After chilling and catching up on a bit of work, it was off to the gate to see what surprises Norwegian would hold for me. Boarding was a complete mess, with gate agents who acted like they’d never seen an airplane before, but eventually we were all allowed to board and spared from further misery from the airport known as JFK.

Norwegian flight 7014, Operated by Evelop!
New York, JFK (JFK) to London, Gatwick (LGW)
Depart 12:45, Arrive: 00:45 next day, flight time: 7:00
Airbus A330-300, Registration EC-NBP, Manufactured 2013, Seat 15D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 47,809
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,740,937

First impressions on boarding were positive. Based on the few online reviews I could find, I expected the Evelop! crew operating this flight for Norwegian to speak very little English and be cold, but this crew was quite chatty and friendly, and spoke excellent English. They were very welcoming, and the seats on this old Singapore Air bird were still quite nice…not to mention that the one empty seat on the entire plane was next to me! Clearly living a charmed life!

The safety demo was odd to say the least, with strange animated characters whose expressions were just plain weird. Idk if this is a “here, let me angrily look at your lap” from the child or a creepy guy being “ooh!” Just…awkward and uncomfortable!

Shortly after takeoff we were offered “headphones” (term used loosely, they were like 99 cent bargain bin special – the case was probably worth more) and beverages. I went with the red wine, which was totally undrinkable. I asked to see the bottle, and the flight attendant awkwardly said she “could not” show me. Uh, ok?

Meal was served, option of vegetarian or meat, but it was reasonably tasty!

After eating it was nap time, and other than not being perfectly lay-flat, the seat was nice and comfortable for a snooze. Hey, it definitely beats the 2-3-2 configuration Norwegian has on their own 787s! In this case, the plane swap was a definite win!

About 90 minutes before landing at Gatwick, we were offered a second boxed meal. Again, nothing super fancy, but the charcuterie plate with fruit was more than enough on such a short flight, and overall I had a really positive impression from Norwegian. No, it’s not a luxury experience, but it’s perfectly comfortable and for the price paid I was very happy with my decision!

Immigration at Gatwick was a breeze thanks to the e-Gates for US passports, and I was outside and waiting on my Uber in no time. At this hour, I’d already factored the price of transit into London into the cost of the ticket, so wasn’t too shocked when I saw it was going to be $100+ to get to my hotel. It’s all about managing expectations!

More on the hotel in the next post, as well as overnight in London before heading to Paris via EuroStar!

Jun 072019
 


One of my earliest memories of wanting to travel and explore the world was being fascinated with all the currencies of the world. Growing up in a smallish town in the American midwest we saw lots of Canadian currency and especially Canadian coins…and that was exotic.

I remember then seeing Japanese coins – some with the centre hollowed out, and thinking they were the coolest thing ever. I think when the Euro was launched I was more sad for the disappearance of national currencies than I was when the Schengen Zone meant the virtual disappearance of individual passport stamps (still unique for each country, but only barely so.)

So, once I started traveling, I took a particular interest in the finance and currency aspect – not just because my undergraduate degree was in international finance (maybe a question of which was the causal factor for which) and learning to manage foreign exchange on my trips in the most expeditious and beneficial way.

My earliest trip was to the Soviet Union, and I remember carrying hundreds of dollars in travelers checks, and having to figure out how to exchange them at official Soviet exchange bureaus. For my first few trips, mainly to Europe, travelers checks were still the way to go (do they even still exist?!) but gradually, over time, I’ve come up with a list of tips and tricks that may help other travelers get the best from your foreign exchange experience. So, here are my six tips!

Banknotes of Iraq

Tip 1: Never use airport exchange booths to get foreign currency

So, I know it’s tempting. You’re at the airport, wondering how you’re going to get cash to hit the ground running when you arrive in a foreign country. You see a both across from the gate where you can exchange currency, and decide this will help you be more prepared when you land.

The problem? They’re going to charge you 5-20% for the service, often in the form of a commission of 1-3% plus a really terrible exchange rate called the buy/sell rate which can have a gap of 5-15% – that’s profit that goes straight to the exchange operator!

Ok, so maybe it’s just better in advance to go to your local bank and withdraw some foreign currency. While this is often a better strategy, it’s still likely to set you back a minimum of 5-10% to do it this way.

So what’s the answer? Use your ATM/debit card in an cash machine upon arrival. 98% of the foreign airports I’ve arrived at have ATMs and work with my card. The benefit of this is that you get the exact rate being published, sometimes with a small up-charge from your bank. A tip for Americans: use a credit union! Most credit unions charge only 1-2% at most for foreign ATM withdrawals. Does’t 1-2% sound much better than 5-20%?

There’s one time I’ve used my bank in advance, and that was to get Australian Dollars for a trip to Tuvalu where I wouldn’t pass through Australia first. Why? Because there’s not a single ATM on Tuvalu, and banks aren’t great about exchanging foreign currency.

Other places you may consider getting currency in advance are some African countries where the ATMs may not work on arrival. In these countries it’s definitely best to bring some cash with you in advance, which leads me to the next tip…

Old Banknotes of Zimbabwe – Ten TRILLION Dollars!

Tip 2: Always carry a small stash of small US Dollar and Euro bills

Why US Dollars and Euros? Because there’s pretty much no country on this blue marble of ours where you can’t exchange them…and often if you’re desperate you can just spend them outright.

Especially in Africa, almost everyone involved in any sort of commerce (think taxi drivers on arrival) know the exchange rate of their currency to the Dollar and Euro, and will almost always accept them if you get in a bind.

Now, I’m not advocating being that ugly tourist who thinks you can spend US Dollars and Euros in every country, but when you get in a bit of a bind because the ATM doesn’t work on arrival…it’s a great back-up plan!

Why US Dollars AND Euros? Because some places like one much more than the other. In Cuba, you’ll get a terrible exchange rate for Dollars, but a much better one for Europe. Same with the majority of Africa.

If you’re headed to the South Pacific, it’s not a bad plan to have some Australian Dollars as well – they’re often even easier to exchange than US Dollars.

Remember: small notes are important! Lots of $1 and $5 bills and €5 and €10 euro notes will get you out of lots of binds. New/crisp notes preferred! However, if you have major expenses (like paying tour operators) they may prefer large notes…ALWAYS make sure these are the latest edition of the bill – especially for US$100 bills!

Transnistria Ruble Banknotes

Tip 3: Use a credit card whenever you can

When you’re spending cash abroad, the trick is having the right amount so you don’t get killed on the exchange rate in both directions. You can’t redeposit foreign currency in the ATM, so you’ll have to use a less advantageous method to get it back to a more usable currency…meaning the 5-20% hit we talked about above.

You can avoid all this by taking out minimal cash for smaller transactions and using your credit card for anything substantial. Credit cards almost always get the exact market rate, costing you nothing in foreign exchange fees!

In the US, there are a ton of credit cards that have zero foreign exchange fee, meaning you get the exact market rate on every transaction. Some US credit cards still have fees of 1-3% on foreign charges, but that’s still better than taking out cash most of the time. Try to get a card with no fee and you’ll have the best possible world. My personal favourites are the Chase Sapphire Reserve and American Express Platinum Card. (I receive no commission from these links.)

Belarus Ruble Banknotes

Tip 4: Use the last of your currency towards your hotel bill

This is one of my personal favourite tips, and one that few people seem to practice. So ok, you got stuck with a bit more cash than you thought you’d need, and it looks like you’ll take a big hit converting it back to your home currency.

First, figure out how much you need to get you to your transport, be it the airport, train station (don’t forget to leave some for snacks!), or even a bus. Then, figure out if you want to save some notes as souvenirs (so you can make cool collages like in this post) and then…figure out what’s left.

When you check out of your hotel, tell them you want to pay part in cash (getting rid of your leftover so you don’t pay a fee on it) and then pay the rest with credit card. You’ve just used up your excess currency at no additional cost to you while still leaving just enough for transport out and souvenirs! Wait…transport out?!

Pakistani Rupee Banknotes

Tip 5: Use ride-sharing apps like Uber and Careem for local transportation

Ok, so I know this one is a little controversial. Some people think these big companies are putting the little guy out of business and taking advantage of drivers. Not looking for a philosophical debate, but these apps do have a lot of advantages in saving you money.

First, as mentioned above, since they’re linked to your credit card they’re a great way to get to the airport/bus/train without having to save too much foreign currency to ensure you can cover your ride. Just open the app, and your ride out of the country is covered!

It’s also great for local transport, because not using cash minimizes the chance taxi drivers will take advantage of you – either through the “so sorry, no change” scam or trying to slip you counterfeit bills as change. Taxis are notorious for taking advantage of confused visitors, so Uber helps ensure you have a driver who’s vetted for safety…and a dispute mechanism should something go wrong!

They’re also great when you first arrive the country, since there’s no need to get cash in advance to pay your taxi from the airport. You can just call the ride share with the app and focus on finding a cash machine to get cash when you get to your lodging.

South Sudan Pound Banknotes

Tip 6: Familiarize yourself with the currency in advance

Yeah, I know this sounds super obvious, but you’d be amazed how many times I’ve arrived somewhere and seen foreign visitors trying to figure out the currency situation. A few of my favourite examples:

Zimbabwe is notoriously tricky. In the past, the hardest part was figuring out if prices were in the billions or trillions of dollars. Now, it’s managing the tricky balance between using US Dollars and Zimbabwe Bond Notes (which are virtually useless).

This brings me to the point of black market/unofficial exchange rates. When you draw down money from the ATM like I suggested above you’ll only get the official exchange rate. There are some countries where the rate on the black market is significantly better, meaning if you exchange cash on the street you’ll get a much better rate than you “officially” get.

Now, I’m not (necessarily) advocating this: it’s usually the case because it’s illegal to do, and doing so has the potential to get you in a lot of trouble or even arrested. My main point here is to note than in some places you’ll get 10-20% more exchanging on the street or even 100%+ more in some situations. The difference, however, is often tied to the risk of doing so, so be very aware. My main point here is to highlight that these black market / unofficial / parallel exchange rates do exist and you should be aware.

Other things to be aware of? Countries who don’t have their own currency and use the currency of another country – usually US Dollars (Ecuador, Panama), Euros (Kosovo), or Australian Dollars (Tuvalu).

Also: some countries have runaway inflation, so keep up to date on the current rates to avoid getting cheated. I like xe.com for checking live rates – I find them extremely accurate and a great source of up-to-date information.

Republic of Somaliland Banknotes

So those are six of my favourite tips for saving a bit of money when traveling and being smart managing your foreign exchange. Any tips that I missed that you’ve found really helpful?

Jun 022019
 

One of the greatest things about travel is getting yourself into unfamiliar and new situations and the thrill you feel when you overcome challenges and discover new experiences. Getting out there, pushing yourself, and going beyond your comfort zone can be a fantastic experience, but it’s not without risks.

Novice international travellers often ask me the same questions when I’m going somewhere they’ve heard about on the news: “aren’t you afraid to go there?” or maybe “I heard they don’t like us there.” Sometimes it’s “I would never go there, it’s too dangerous.” – Statements often based on little more than what they’ve seen on the tv.

Those of us who’ve visited places known/thought to be a bit less safe and secure know they can often be some of the most rewarding travel experiences, but only if you’ve done your proper research! That isn’t to say that you should be afraid and not go to these places, but to do so without being properly prepared would be foolish.

I made it to every country without having a single major security incident (well, except the local “bad guys” who torched a bunch of police cars in Pakistan to block the highway…) but a few incidents have happened in the last year which highlighted to me that maybe I’ve let my guard down a little too much, and not followed my own advice.

This, combined with a friend recently going missing in a country with serious security concerns made me think this would be a good time to remind readers of some good tips you should always keep in mind when traveling, especially to less safe and secure places.

Tip 1: Always tell someone where you’re going

I mean this seems obvious, right? Even when you run to the store to pick up some milk you usually tell your partner, kids, etc. that you’re going to the store. But it’s surprising how easily we forget this one when we’re traveling.

Especially those of us who are single and not always great at “planning” our trips forget to let someone know where exactly we’re going. Maybe it’s because we think they’ll think we’re bragging, or maybe we think they won’t know where it is so won’t be interested anyways, or maybe we just don’t stop to think.

Simply letting someone know where you’ll be going (country, cities, hotels, sites, etc.) can come in really handy if you go missing and need to be tracked down. Knowing is half the battle…

Tip 2: Make sure your contact knows when to expect you back

Sort of the obvious follow up to the first tip, but it’s important that your contact person know not only where you’re going, but when they can expect you back. Nobody wants to be alerting the police, government, family and friends until they’re relatively certain that something is up.

This applies not to just the trip (“I’m going to Afghanistan for a week”) but also to riskier parts of the trip. Maybe the capital is secure, but you’re taking a trip out to the countryside to see something? Tell someone what time you expect to be back – make sure to account for inevitable delays in some countries when doing this. “Should be back in 4-6 hours, but could be 12 with traffic so wouldn’t worry until then.”

It would also be helpful to tell them who to call and when. This is something I should have done recently traveling in a border region where I was detained for nearly 12 hours. Fortunately, they let me keep my phone and I did send messages to people….but had they taken my phone…

Tip 3: Travel with a trusted guide

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve showed up somewhere, unable to find a guide in advance, and trusted who the hotel found for me. High-end hotels with international clientel are usually pretty good sources for trustworthy guides, but there’s no guarantee.

Better still, talk to your friends who’ve been where you’re considering going. Ask who they used for a guide. Did they trust them? Did they feel the person was safe and had a good understanding of the local situation? If they were driving, how was the driving? It’s a luxury, but was the car in good repair? (Or reasonable repair depending on destination…)

…and when you get back, share! There’s nothing like first-hand experience to know who you should trust in less secure places, and we owe it to each other to share our experiences. One small caveat: many of these guides are barely eking out a living in these places. Make sure to step back and look at the situation rationally before trashing a guide online.

Tip 4: Leave contact information – hotels, cell, etc

So, let’s assume something does go wrong. You don’t come back when you said you would. Nobody could get ahold of you. You’re not responding on social media. What now?

In the case of my friend who recently went missing, the biggest challenge has been not knowing who to contact. If we had the phone number of their guide or driver, that would be an amazing place to start. Not using a guide or driver? Share the phone number for the hotels where you plan to be.

Maybe you’ve booked a tour? Share the phone number for the tour company with someone back home. The point is pretty simple: in the off chance that something does go wrong, knowing not just where and when you were but also how to get in touch with someone who may be able to help you is priceless.

Also: it doesn’t hurt to register in advance with your country’s Foreign Office / State Department / etc. Letting them know where you are is important if things go south fast: these are the people you’ll likely rely on for evacuation if things get bad quickly, so make sure they can reach you!

Tip 5: Split up your finances

Somehow, I made it to every country without a financial incident worse than getting cheated out of $5 or so by a taxi driver in the days before Uber seemed to be everywhere. 196 countries, and never had any money lost or stolen.

That all changed in an instant last year when I went out for a run in Stockholm, stopped for coffee afterwards, and somewhere between the coffeeshop and hotel I lost my wallet.

The streets were pretty empty, so I’m pretty positive it fell out of my running shorts (maybe at the coffeeshop, maybe walking) as opposed to being pickpocketed, but the end result was the same: I had no money, no credit cards, no anything.

Fortunately, I was at a big work conference, and coworkers were able to spot me cash for a few days, and AmEx was then able to wire me lots of cash to pay my bills before leaving. Had I been traveling alone, who knows what I would have done? I guess I could still have hunkered down hungry until AmEx got me some cash, but it would have been much less comfortable.

So, do yourself a favour: leave some cash and a couple of credit cards in your hotel safe. That way, if things do go missing, you at least have some backup. This is especially important if you’re going to be going to busy or crowded places like a market or public transit where pickpockets like to operate.

This is also helpful if you’re crossing rural areas where opportunistic “checkpoints” operate and try and shake you down. They may find some of your cash and cards, but if you split it up your chances of leaving with at least some of it are much better.

Tip 6: Check your social media

This is one I never really thought much about until recently, and I suspect you’ve probably not thought too much about it either unless it’s happened to you.

However, now that the US and some other countries have begun requiring visa applicants to list their social media accounts on visa applications you should probably have a look at your social media and see what’s on there that might get you declined. You don’t even have to have “done” something wrong to run afoul of this one – it’s all about perception.

In my case, I was entering a sensitive region and when the authorities stopped us at the border they asked us to have a seat for a while. Turns out, what was going on out of sight was a combing of my social media accounts and what they found they didn’t like. No, I’m not a journalist, spy, or other sort of troublemaker, but when they find out you’ve done graduate research in “sanctions theory” …well…if you’re a country under sanctions you might decide you don’t want this person visiting! Makes no difference I’ve never worked in this area professionally, it’s all about perception.

So, do yourself a favour if you travel a lot: have a look at your social media and have a good think how it might appear to others. This will also be helpful advice if you’re applying for jobs…

Tip 7: The women, children, and old people rule

I’ve heard this one quite a lot, but whenever I share it with even well-traveled friends I’m amazed how many of them haven’t heard it.

The reason it’s called the “woman, children, and old people rule” is really quite simple. If you’re in a location known to have security issues, and something doesn’t feel quite right, have a look around.

Do you see women in the streets? Children? How about old people and senior citizens? They’re usually the first to disappear from the streets when security goes south: partly because they’ve seen enough to know when to get out of the way, and partly because these are populations who know well enough to shelter when there’s possible violence brewing.

The opposite, however, does not hold true. Just because you see women, children, and old people in the street is no guarantee of safety. However, if you don’t see them, but you see plenty of what are known as “fighting-aged males” – getting the hell out of there is often good advice.

Tip 8: Take primary responsibility for your own safety and security

Fortunately, this might be the only one that gets easier the longer you’ve been traveling, but you have primary responsibility for your own safety and security: don’t assume it’s someone else’s job to take care of you!

The reason I say this is the one that might get easier is that one of the biggest mistakes people make in this regard is getting intoxicated and having a little too much fun. Sure, this is a great way to let you relax and meet new people, but it’s also a way to lower inhibitions and make you much more inclined to taking risks…or in an extreme case, end up unconscious and the victim of crime or violence.

This also goes hand in hand with taking responsibility for your physical safety when it comes to health. Are you entering a malaria zone? Make sure you’re taking prophylactics if your doctor recommends it. Make sure you get all your jabs or vaccinations in advance to protect yourself from everything from Yellow Fever to Typhoid…nobody wants to catch these nasty diseases.

This also includes sexual health. If you’re putting yourself in intimate situations with other people (who, let’s face it, you’ll likely never see again) it’s your responsibility to look out for yourself. Knowledge is power, and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…if there even is a cure. In this vein, if you’re not familiar with it, make sure to educate yourself on Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) if you’re the type who likes to get extra friendly with locals or other travellers. HIV is highly preventable now if you’re informed and prepared.

Tip 9: Do your research

One of the greatest things about the internet is the amount of information that is out there that you can use to inform your travels. Just be careful, however, that you vet your sources. Don’t just go running into the middle of a war zone because one fringe blogger told you that it was safe and ok to do that. Use a bit of common sense!

There are so many good sources of safety and security information out there. Start with your government’s foreign office / state department site. These tend to be extremely on the conservative side, but they do a good job of laying out all the risks of traveling to a given location. I personally use these as a starting point, and then supplement with additional more nuanced information.

One of my favourite sites for places that are in a state of conflict is Live Map. It does a great job of aggregating news sources and showing you all the safety incidents in a country over the previous weeks – all displayed nicely on a map. It’s also great for countries with active conflicts where the “safety line” might change dramatically from day to day. They have especially awesome maps of Ukraine, Syria, Libya…and even Washington, D.C.

Tip 10: Travel during the day, be awake and alert

This one is pretty easy to follow, but we’re all guilty of breaking it. Maybe you’re behind schedule and trying to make up time. Maybe you found a bus/train/flight in the middle of the night that was super cheap, or maybe you’re just a night owl.

The end result is the same: crime tends to occur much more regularly at night when the criminals have the element of surprise and a much higher prospect of escape. No matter how vigilant you are, it’s always riskier being out on the roads at night.

Another downside of travel at night is drivers who are often not alert – both your own and the other guy on the road. That’s not to mention drunk drivers. I’ve had several situations lately with a driver late at night who was practically falling asleep at the wheel and I definitely shouldn’t have been in their car.

So, those are ten tips you can use on all of your travels to increase your chances of returning home safely in one piece with all your belongings! My goal with this post is definitely not to scare you away from traveling – get out there and enjoy these amazing and vibrant places. Equipped with this knowledge you’ll not only enjoy your trip more, you’ll be safer while doing it!

What did I miss? Other great advice for fellow travelers?


May 282019
 


So, if you saw my post yesterday, you’ll have seen that I had a work trip to Paris, home for one day for an important event, then had to turn right back around to go to Germany. In an ideal world I would have either stayed in Europe, or stayed home longer, but sometimes these matters are just out of your control.

The other downside: when I booked the Germany trip it looked like Paris was going to be a full month earlier, so I’d have lots of time at home, so I agreed to a one-stop routing to save a bunch of money. Unfortunately, this meant leaving home at 11am instead of 5pm like the nonstop to Frankfurt would, so this was going to be a much less than ideal trip. I could really have used those extra six hour at home.

See, at the time, United/Lufthansa had a killer fare from NYC-Frankfurt that was like 1/3 the fare out of DC. So, even with adding a one-way ticket to JFK and a one-way ticket back from EWR, the overall fare would still be less than half. Had I known I’d have so little time between trips, I would have splurged on the nonstop. By the time the Paris trip moved, however, the price difference was more than 300%, so I was stuck with it. Oh well, make the best of it!

Delta flight 5957 operated by Republic Airlines
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to New York, Kennedy (JFK)
Depart 11:00, Arrive: 12:18, flight time: 1:18
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N206JQ, Manufactured 2008, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 26,399
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,718,987

…and make the most of my time I did, so much that I arrived DCA at 10:20. was through CLEAR/PreCheck in less than two minutes and still at the gate 5-10 minutes before boarding. I don’t usually like cutting it close and like to relax in the lounge a bit, but hey, I’ve been in the DCA SkyClub somewhere around 1,000,000 times, so the precious extra minutes at home were well worth it.

Not much to say about this one, standard short hop up to New York. The most surprising part was no wait for a landing slot at JFK (thank you Saturday morning traffic) and would actually be arriving over 25 minutes early today. Also the shortest flight time I can ever remember at 32 minutes.

With nearly five hours to kill at JFK (the only flight that left “enough” time between my separate tickets without anxiety, I decided to make up for my lounge negligence at DCA and visit every lounge I was entitled to at JFK, starting with the SkyClub right after landing.

Food was uninspiring today, but they had real honest-to-God Champagne. Cheese cubes and hummus were as normal, but the chicken strips were awful pressed/processed with fatty and dark streaks running through them. Revolting. I’ll spare you the close-up shot, but rest-assured I didn’t have a bite.

After these adventures in dining, it was time to make my way outside security in Terminal 2 and attempt to find the AirTrain to Terminal 1. Down the escalator, across the street, through a parking lot, up another elevator, and finally the train platform. Seriously, between JFK and LGA I’m not sure which is a bigger embarrassment. That said, I made it just fine on the first try and it gave me practice for my next upcoming JFK flight in a few weeks.

Security in Terminal 1 was the biggest shitshow I’ve ever encountered in the US, with no CLEAR line and no clear PreCheck line either. I asked the agent at the front about PreCheck and “I just yell to the other agent that you got it” – I asked about laptops out, shoes off, etc and was met with a nasty response. When I went through, my laptops caused problems, and the next agent snapped at me that I “should know better.” It was the last straw, and I asked for a supervisor.

“You can talk to me.” No apology, no “I’m sorry that happened” but after calmly explaining the severe attitude from the agents he just said “The one that looks like Dora the Explorer? I need you to identify her so she can be punished.” Seriously, this is what is “keeping us safe” these days? Now, I find TSA agents 99.99% of the time to be great and professional, but this entire crew at JFK was a nightmare. Is this the norm at Terminal 1? I ask because I’ll be back in a few weeks…

Up to the Lufthansa lounge, where I spotted the steed that I will take in a few weeks….the ex-Singapore A330 recently acquired by Evelop! which is operating for Norwegian on the JFK-London daytime flight. I might be crazy for trying this, but I’m kind of looking forward to it. Great views from the lounge, and a tasty array of nibbles…

The lounge was so nice I didn’t want to leave, and had amazing people-watching on top of it (including the Chinese guy with a sequinned sweatshirt that said BITCH PLEASE! in huge letters) but I vowed to try all the lounges I could…so traipsed off to the Korean Air lounge which I could access via PriorityPass.

I should have fled when I saw the elevator was out of service. Lugged my Rimowa up the stairs, and was met by a surly agent who was clearly over it. Seriously, I know New York attitude, but the airport staff (non-Lufthansa and Delta: they were lovely) were just miserable.

Also, this was the best snacks on offer. I should have once again passed…but drank the water, few sips of the wine and a fig newton, and I was off to the gate.

When I got to the gate, thanks to my need to check out the Korean Air lounge, boarding was already underway and I was concerned I might have trouble finding room for my bag due to the huge number of people queued up in front of me. I forgot, however, that the A380 is simply massive even in business class, and there would be plenty of room.

Lufthansa flight 401
New York, Kennedy (JFK) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 16:10 Arrive: 06:05, flight time: 7:55
Airbus A3800-800, Registration D-AIMJ, Manufactured 2012, Seat 22D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 30,255
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,722,843

Remember when I foreshadowed yesterday about how nice the last row of business class was in the Polaris 777 as long as there was nobody with an infant in the bulkhead? Well, karma paid me a major visit today…and I had a second passenger in the seat next to me today who seemed incredibly interested in my pre-departure beverage:

Now, in fairness, with the exception of takeoff and landing he did sleep 80% of the flight and was pretty much an angel the rest of the time, so it didn’t work out too badly, except mom was constantly working to keep him busy. Fortunately, with a 4pm departure I had no interest in sleep anyways, so it all worked out just fine.

Meal service was actually one of the better ones I’ve had on Lufthansa lately. Their business class meals can be a little on the unusual side, but they’re usually tasty. This one was more-or-less pretty mainstream, and the crew was absolutely fantastic. Once they found out I spoke some German, even though English was obviously easier, they made a huge effort to speak slowly and clearly in German to let me practice. Major points for that. Plus, the food was really good too:

Other than that, the flight was excellent. I skipped the breakfast since I wanted to head straight to bed upon landing. We arrived nearly 40 minutes early around 05:30 and I was in bed and asleep in the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport by 06:00 for a solid six hours of sleep. So much nicer this way than trying to sleep on the plane, and since it’s still on East Coast time it was very easy to fall asleep.

Woke up at noon, did a little work, and then off to catch my train to Saarbrücken for work. Unfortunately, there were no direct trains this late in the day so I would have to change in Mannheim. Unfortunately, the train to Mannheim was nearly 20 minutes late, meaning I missed my connection and had to wait another hour – making me late to dinner. D-Bahn is no Swiss train system these days – that’s for sure.

I treated myself to some Apfelwein and Pringles to enjoy the delay a little more…

Not too much to say about Saarbrücken since it was three very intense days of working with clients, but fortunately very productive. Stayed at the Mercure hotel this time which was more than adequate, and very well-located in the middle of the city. Close to Starbucks, and walkable to lots of places to eat and drink.

I had been completely unsuccessful on previous trips finding any craft beer at all, but this time found Stube 8 which at least had a couple. Not a great selection, but hey it’s a start!

Enjoyed a nice dinner with clients at Zum Stiefel as well, and got to have some traditional heavy Saarlandische food. I had to try the Saarländische Versuchung (the Saarland Temptation) and got a little bit each of three things: a “gefillder” which is basically a potato dumpling with liver sausage filling and sauerkraut, a green “hoorische” (a green dumpling) and a large meatball which I’m still not sure of…heavy, but delicious!

After successful meetings we ended just in time that I could catch a direct ICE back to Frankfurt. Unfortunately, a person was on the tracks between Mannheim and Frankfurt, and we ended up delayed on the train by nearly an hour. Worst service I’ve ever had in ICE first class, however, and never once did I see the train attendant – would have been nice to have a beer!

Arrived in Frankfurt early evening, however, with just enough time to head out to my favourite little craft beer joint for dinner. Naïv is a great little place, and this time they had several fantastic drafts and cans. Either my German was getting better or the staff’s English worse, because I managed to keep the whole thing in German this time without them switching to English. Dinner was two tasty sausages and a delicious brownie with ice cream. Oh, there may also have been a few beers….

Up somewhat early for breakfast at the airport (I sometimes feel like I live in Flughafen Frankfurt, and it’s amazing!) – my usual Iced American and Bretzelsnack…mmmm…so good! Stopped by the Senator Lounge only briefly and then strait to boarding. I needed to max out sleep this morning so little time for the lounge today.

I was pretty excited for this flight – my first time ever on the 787-10 – which was even more awesome because it had “real” Polaris 1-2-1 seating installed and I had managed to get my favourite seat – 1L – way in advance.

United flight 961
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 11:20, Arrive: 13:50, flight time: 8:30
Boeing 787-10, Registration N12006, Manufactured 2019, Seat 1L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 34,125
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,726,713

Pre-departure sparking wine delivered, and temperature sensor reporting a reasonable 71F today…at least we wouldn’t be roasted during boarding.

Mixed nuts and wine to start, while Paul judges from afar….

Meal was pretty standard Polaris fare, and nearly the identical menu I had from Paris the week before. I was glad to see the delicious pork and apricot terrine was back, and I went with the fish again as well. This is starting to be a habit! The cheese wasn’t quite as good as from Paris, but much better than from the US, and they actually had butterscotch today! YUM!

Mid-flight snack…I’m addicted to the little cakes and overly chewy macarons. Meanwhile, the Great British Bakeoff was providing some very suspicious looking bakes….and Paul was quick to glare!

Pre-arrival was the same meal options as from Paris, and since I won once with the mozzarella salad and “Hamburger Wellington” I decided to give it another go. The cheese was weirdly peppered with all the pepper on one cheese ball, but other than that it was quite tasty again.

On approach to Newark…not sure which airport this is. Approach into Newark was super, super bumpy today, with our 787 being tossed about pretty seriously.

Immigration was a breeze, though I find it annoying that more and more arrivals into Newark arrive at Terminal B these days necessitating a transfer over to terminal A or C for connection. Fortunately my connection was from Terminal C today, and I was curious if I could get into the Polaris Lounge since my arrival was on a different ticket. Yup, no problem since they were both United, and they even let me bring my Starbucks in. The Newark crew had never heard of the Mescal Paper Airplane, so I got to share that with them…though they were still suspicious of it.

Off to the gate to fly to DCA, and once more short segment to go.

United flight 3434, operated by Republic Airlines
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington, DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:45, Arrive: 17:03, flight time: 1:18
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N864RW, Manufactured 2006, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 34,324
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,726,912

How much can you say about a 40 minute flight from Newark to DCA. We were delayed about 30 minutes by a flat tire (seriously) but other than that we still arrived exactly on time. Very good luck today considering how the weather was. Super, super bumpy on the takeoff just as the approach had been.

…and with that two of my four back to back trips were done. Unfortunately didn’t get home until 6pm which meant a very short night to do laundry and repack since my flight the next morning was 8:30am. UGH. Fortunately managed a same-day-change to an 11:00am via Newark, so at least I would salvage a LITTLE more sleep….

May 262019
 


So, you’ve probably noticed I haven’t posted anything in a good long time. The main reason for that is…I spent nearly two straight months at home without a single trip….and it was amazing! I’m about to pay for it however, with three back-to-back work trips and a mini vacation all in the span of 18 days. Then it will be a month at home, before a two week vacation to Australia, 20 days in Switzerland for work, and back to back South Africa and India trips in the early fall.

Tired yet? I know I am…and I hadn’t even left! Actually, I’m back already. Normally, when I go to fun places like Paris I try and tack on a few extra days to enjoy the city, but with so many places to be these were all quick in and out trips…so the majority you’ll get is going to be plane reviews…which I know plenty of you enjoy! So, with that, off we go!

In another unusual twist for me, the flights to Paris would be nonstop in both directions. Normally, I would route through either Toronto or Newark to guarantee a 1-2-1 product, but due to the way fares and timing worked, I had to go nonstop…which worked out in the end because apparently United has been working on reconfiguring their 777-200s with Global First faster than I thought…and I got a Polaris 777-200 both ways! So, on to the flights:

United flight 915
Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD) to Paris, Charles de Gaulle, France (CDG)
Depart 17:20, Arrive: 06:55, flight time: 7:35
Boeing 777-200, Registration N216UA, Manufactured 2000, Seat 1L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 22,325
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,714,913

Yes, you saw that correctly. Only 22,325 miles to date in early May. As I noted above, the year has been off to a super slow start, which has been just fine with me! That’s about to drastically change, however.

Also, this flight confirmed for me that I love the Polaris seat – especially when I can get one of the odd-numbered single seats on the window. Thank God for the super strong air pumping from the vents, because this plane was a furnace. See the little cube circled below? It’s a temperature monitoring device I picked up on Amazon and love! Most of this flight was 77-78F with humidity in the 8-9% zone. Eek! I bought it so I could monitor planes and hotel rooms to see if I was (a) really crazy or (b) legitimate in being warm.

So, on the meal…..the PDBs came in real glassware with a generous pour, the sommelier featured wine goes for $8.75 a bottle per google, but I got the super tasty spicy chicken, so overall it was a pretty good meal!

I chose not to sleep on this flight given it was landing at 12:55am Washington flight, and I didn’t have to go straight to work. So I was treated to daybreak over Paris:

Got to my hotel, crashed for a delightful five hour nap, and then headed to the office for my only meeting of the day from 3-6pm. The next two days were jam-packed with meetings as well, but I did manage to get some fun in. Couple of great craft beer places to recommend that I was surprised to find in Paris: La Fine Mousse, Hoppy Corner, and La Robe et La Mousse – two of which were owned by the same people.

Of course, there was also plenty of time for a delicious hotel breakfast the way only France can do with fresh squeezed orange juice, pain au chocolates, fresh crunchy bread with nutella, amazing coffee, and a freshly made omelette. Oh, and I may have spent more than one night having wine and croque madames while people watching from a cafe…as one does in Paris!

United flight 914
Paris, Charles de Gaulle, France (CDG) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 12:25, Arrive: 14:50, flight time: 8:25
Boeing 777-200, Registration N223UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 15L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 26,186
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,718,774

All too soon, it was time to head back to DC. I had one night in the states because I had an event I couldn’t miss before turning straight around and flying to Germany. Not the most efficient thing ever, but some things take priority.

At least it was a gorgeous day to fly, and I got the 1-2-1 Polaris seating on the 777 again…which was a good thing because had it been the 2-4-2 dormitory class plane I might have completely lost it…. I decided to try row 15 this time, because it was one of the good odd-row window seats, and I heard it can be quiet in the back of the cabin as long as there are no infants in the bulkhead of premium economy behind you. There weren’t, and it was a great seat! That said, foreshadowing…

Meal was the usual from United, though I have to say the catering was a notch up from what I’ve come to expect from the downgraded Polaris catering lately. It was actually much tastier than usual, and I quite enjoyed it. Chicken on the way over, now fish on the way back….yes, this is my attempt at being BP-healthy after years of unhealthy plane and restaurant food. Thank God I’m super active or I’d probably have keeled over by now!

Not too much time to catch up on tv on the iPad this trip, because I had to write up the meetings before turning right around to do another set. I hate working on planes because it’s my relaxation time and tv time (since I don’t have a tv at home) but couldn’t be avoided this trip. Oh well, you can’t win them all.

Pre-arrival….”hamburger wellington” are you kidding me? I had to order it just because it was weird…and actually was quite tasty. The tomato and mozzarella salad was also pretty good. Sometimes it’s good to try something different… Prue, however, is definitely not sure about it.

About 2.5 hours before landing, over Newfoundland, there was a call for a doctor on board. A passenger had fainted and was having trouble breathing. I could just see us diverting after I’d made this ridiculous detour home for one event, but fortunately the passenger was alright and made it to Dulles where the paramedics were waiting for us.

That concludes the super quick trip to Paris. Stay tuned: tomorrow we turn right back around and head to Germany!

Mar 172019
 


Our first several days in Moscow we had seen lots of new sites quite a bit more off the tourist trail, so for the last day and a half we decided to do some of the more traditional touristy things that we had both enjoyed on previous trips. After getting a late start we headed out for a walk, but got distracted when we were both hungry and saw a cool looking craft beer place that looked somewhat promising. Delicious sausages and even better beer – a nice find!

Back into the super-crowded, but somehow always orderly, metro to head down to Red Square. Even food delivery services use the metro in Moscow!

First stop was the GUM department store for one of their delicious pistachio ice cream cones. This has been a tradition on all my trips to Moscow, and a long stop like this wouldn’t have been complete without it!

Like Kirkenes earlier in the trip, GUM seemed to also be in the throes of Chinese New Year with cherry blossoms and Chinese signs everywhere:

GUM on Red Square…since 1893!

A stop in the food store. I love going to grocery stores around the world and getting a sense for how people shop. Now, of course normal Muscovites don’t do their daily shopping at GUM (except maybe some of the higher-up apparatchiks at the Kremlin?) but if you do, plenty of $500+ champagne to choose from!

Or, if vodka is more your think, there’s Oil Brand Vodka….sold in little mini oil drums. A bargain at only $60 per 700ml can!

There were little caviar coolers all over the store, and every time I got near one a very eager sales clerk would dash over to try and help me. Based on the behaviour, I’m pretty sure the caviar sales are on commission. After a few attempts I finally let one of them give me a caviar lecture just so I could get a decent pic!

An ice skating rink had been set up in the middle of Red Square, and I was really wishing I had my skates (and it wasn’t freezing) so I could have a short skate on Red Square. Next year!

The Kremlin in the late afternoon sun.

Saint Basil’s Cathedral – one of those must-take pics in Moscow.

Now, unless you’ve spent a lot of time in Moscow this is an inside joke that probably won’t make sense, but in all my visits I always giggle that in GUM in addition to the public toilets (which you still have to pay for) there’s this sign for a “Historic Toilet.” I decided this was the time to finally see what it was all about!

Price was 100 rubles (about $1.50) instead of the 50 for the regular toilets, and it was certainly much nicer in side. Can’t imagine this is historic from communist days – this must precede the Revolution.

Some shopping for kitschy souvenirs…couldn’t decide between the Putin riding a bear t-shirt and the Trump/Putin “We Love Russia” t-shirt.

There was also this Caviar Russian Big Mac t-shirt….I’m lovin’ it!

One last photo op with Lenin in the metro on the way back to the hotel.

We decided to check out one more KHL night on our last night there, and this time ended up right at centre ice, first row of seats!

The horse mascot was…unusual.

Pre-game lined up for the national anthem. Is this a thing in all countries? I know it is in the US and Canada.

Managed to get a good video of the national anthem. Say what you will, but it’s definitely powerful and patriotic.

…and the game was off. Absolutely terrible seats. Definitely not worth the $15. Total sarcasm.

If the horse wasn’t strange enough, the dancing CSKA star was pretty amazing! Packed stands tonight – probably because it was a Friday game – and the cheerleaders were feeding off the crowd energy!

I figured after two games, I had to pick up a souvenir from a great vacation!

After a great six days in Moscow, it was time to start the trek home, and the end of a fantastic trip. But still one more post coming up…headed home…with an overnight in Geneva.