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!

Mar 102018
 


At the recommendation of my friend Daniel, I had booked a “Historical Center Food Tour” with Sabores de Mexico Food Tours. I figured that using my one full day to walk around the historic center while eating at a variety of places that were largely unknown to tourists sounded like just my thing – and I couldn’t have been happier with the experience.

At 11:30 I met my guide, Liz, at Oaxaca en México, a restaurant that specialized in authentic cuisine from the state of Oaxaca. I learned here that there were only two of us booked on the tour today, so we could pretty much go at whatever pace we wanted. Fantastic!

Unfortunately times had gotten mixed up, so the other lady doing the tour with us didn’t show up until almost noon. Not a problem though, since I tend to move at a quicker pace normally anyways. Our first dish would be a delicious chicken tortilla with molé and some rice with local Oaxacan herbs. It was absolutely delicious, and I’m pretty sure that I licked up every drop of the delicious sauce.

After finishing the mole, we headed off for a short walk of maybe 15 minutes until we got to the large covered Mercado de San Juan. One of the older markets in Mexico City, it started out as a place to get more “exotic” and fancier foods that couldn’t be found elsewhere. We entered through the seafood section of the market:

Our first stop inside the market was at Delicatessen La Jersey Gourmet where we had some local cheeses and beats on baguette which were served with a variety of jams….and all the wine we wanted. I loved that the plates were covered with plastic covers, presumably to re-use them without washing. Environmentally terrible..

From there we moved on to another part of the market – the “exotic animals” section. Here we stopped at El Gran Cazador – or “the Great Hunter.” First up? Grasshoppers fried up in either garlic or chilis….very crunchy, but other than that the chili and garlic flavours really overpowered the insect.

Next up? A local ant that only comes out of its burrows for a couple weeks a year, which is the dedicated harvest season and as many of them are gathered up during this time as possible. Not much taste to these either… note the grasshoppers closeup underneath…

Pigeons anyone?

Decorative corns in the market…and I can’t help but see this and remember Lisa Simpson saying “or, as the Indians call it….maize!”

Next up we stopped at another stand of El Gran Cazador, where they cooked up wild boar for us….with grasshopper sauce naturally!

To fortify for the long day ahead, we stopped for a coffee from a stand reputed to have the best coffee in the area. It was pretty tasty, and the proprietor was clearly very proud of his coffee.

Final stop in the market was Rosse Gourmet, which was a fruit and vegetable stand. Here, we got a great discussion of the produce – especially tomatoes, from the very energetic Claudia who was clearly incredibly proud of the quality of her produce. Here she is explaining the difference between tomatoes and tomatillos to us:

Look at the colour of those peppers!

Claudia also surprised us with a homemade cheesecake with fresh fruits and a passionfruit sauce…which was absolutely delicious!

Now THOSE are leeks! …and look at the size of the cauliflower!

Next stop was actually at a food truck/cart with a couple of barstools on the side called El Caguamo where we were treated to a tortilla with octopus and prawn ceviche with fresh avocado. Absolutely delicious, but I was a bit nervous eating street food ceviche given that some of the worst food poisoning I ever had was from ceviche. Fortunately, no issues this time!

We were getting a bit parched by this point, so fortunately the next stop was an old school traditional cantina called La Mascota. It was like other traditional cantinas in that you pay for a (often overpriced) drink, and then you get to eat anything on the menu for free – as much as you want! The place was absolutely packed with locals chowing down, so it was a really fun and lively atmosphere.

A mezcal margarita…and yes, it’s as big as it looks. Fortunately, it was pretty watered down so wasn’t that strong. The chicken tortilla was one of the options on the food menu, and was just meh. You clearly come here for the atmosphere, not for the food and drink which was of very average quality at best.

They even had an old compact disk jukebox!

As we continued our walk, we passed a building where some of the stucco had fallen off the day before during the earthquake:

Next up we stopped at a “new school” cantina (to contrast with the previous stop) called Pasagüero. We had an empanada and a small tapas dish which were both tasty. It was absolutely packed with young people and families, and open to the street so had a very lively atmosphere. I’d definitely come back here for afternoon drinks and people watching.

It was nearly 4pm at this point, and we had one last stop – the Dulcería de Celaya – one of the oldest traditional candy stores in Mexico City – dating back over 100 years. Some tasty local treats.

It was about 4pm at this point, and I had booked tickets to see the Frida Kahlo Museum which came highly recommended and had pre-booked at 5pm entrance so after thanking Liz quickly rushed to the metro to find my way across the city to the museum. The other lady on the tour decided to come with me, and together we figured out how to buy metro tickets, went about 10 stops, and then hopped in a taxi to the museum. Much easier than it sounds.

Frida was a Mexican artist early in the 20th century, and was actually close friends with Trotsky. After he was exiled to Mexico they became close friends, and Trotsky actually lived with her for a period. Frida had polio as a child, and a terrible car accident in her teens, and this combination left her more or less confined to the house as she was not overly mobile…and she spent a lot of her time involved in political causes an artwork.

Some of the art in the museum, also known as the “Blue House”:

The gardens:

The blue walls of the house:

From the street outside:

Went for a bit of a walk after the museum, and found an amazing church:

Grabbed an uber back to the area near my hotel, and caught this great shot of the Angel de la Independencia monument all lit up at night:

I was only a little hungry at this point, so decided to head to a local brewpub which had a rather impressive beer list:

The people watching at this sidewalk bar was lots of fun. This guy might be a little proud of his country:

With that it was time to walk back to the hotel (about a 15 minute walk) and catch some zzzzs. I was feeling exhausted from having been ill the previous week and a long week of work, so definitely wanted to make sure to grab some sleep before flying home!

Mar 082018
 


So, I had to go to Mexico City for work. To be honest, I was actually really looking forward to it because despite having been to every country, and living right next door, I cheated on Mexico. It was actually the third country I went to; my aunt lived in Tucson for years when I was a little kid, and we used to go and visit, and after me whining and begging several times I finally convinced the family to hop across the border to Nogales. Remember, this was the early 1980s, so the concept of needing a passport as an American was kinda crazy.

Then, fast forward to college, and a group of friends went to a friend’s beach house in Ensenada, Baja California. Had a few great days and actually a bit more of a local experience, but still kind of cheating. Then, on a trip to Orange County we made a day trip to Tijuana. Walked around, had great food at restaurants that were all locals, but again….still doesn’t quite count.

I won’t even mention the ill-advised trip to Cancun.

So, yeah, I’ve definitely been to Mexico, and have no issues with “counting” it, but I still felt like I really needed to have more of a Mexican experience. Between my little tastes, and having been to lots of other countries, I was pretty sure I had a really good idea what it was going to feel like, so I was curious to see if I was right.

I’ll split this report into three parts: the trip there, a short report on my six days in Mexico City (4.5 of which were work), and finally the trip home.

Quick cab to the airport, no line at CLEAR, and realized I had nearly an hour left to kill before boarding. I’m generally not the type to go gaga for airport lounges, but since I had the time decided to do something I never do: lounge hop.

Airport train to the B gates, and a short walk ahead was the wonderful Lufthansa Senator Lounge:

Strawberry raspberry nutella AND a completely empty lounge due to being between the ANA and evening flights? Yes PLEASE!

Artsy shot thanks to the empty lounge. Unfortunately at this hour the “champagne” is a rather crappy cava and the raspberry nutella scone didn’t taste like nutella at all. Major sad panda.

No time to waste with only an hour to waste to do all the lounges, so off to the Turkish lounge. On the way, I nearly lost my lunch:

Short walk later, I was at the Turkish lounge, which people seem to rave about:

Bad news: same crappy cava. Good news: delicious baklava and a relatively-empty lounge.

I still wonder where this mystery staircase in the lounge goes. Perhaps I should have explored:

Walk all the way down to the A gates, catch the train to the C gates, and time for a quick stop at the United Club. *hums* one of these things is not like the other…

Lest anyone thing I was a giant pig, I woke up, went for a run, and ate nothing before getting to the airport – so was really hungry!  …yes, and thirsty!

United flight 484
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Houston, Texas (IAH)
Depart 12:45, Arrive 15:19, Flight Time: 3:34
Boeing 757-200, Registration N14118, Manufactured 1997, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 13,891
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,533,953

According to the app there were over 40 people on the standby upgrade list, so was very happy that I’d managed the night before to do a free same day change onto this flight. Always nice to have lie-fat seats on a domestic flight even if just for the legroom. Having already had my palate wrecked in the United Club preflight, I opted for a pre-flight prosecco:

It was also Valentine’s Day, and I got an e-mail card from the CLEAR team at Dulles. Awkward.

Once in flight, out came the warm nuts. Glass of red wine? Consider it handled.

All these years I’d never had the famous burger, so decided to experiment. Honestly, it was decent. There are lots of amazing burger places in DC so my standards are pretty high, but given this was a plan it wasn’t bad at all…and came on a pretzel bun. With a pretzel rolls on the side. Uh…oh.

Points also for a very fresh salad, and reasonably tasty cheesecake.

Landed a bit ahead of schedule in Houston, and I realized I’ve somehow managed to avoid this airport for nearly five years. We landed at some newish C Gates which were really bright and airy – a nice change for Houston. Spotted this 787 on my way to the D Gates to try and find the Centurion Lounge:

Oooh Singapore A350…sexy!

Finally found the lounge, which like most AmEx lounges these days was heaving and about to burst at the seams. Had to wait in line behind a family of SIX to get in, so good to see that problem has been solved. Not.

Oh well, a glass of Veuve Clicquot made it a bit better:

On the way to find my plane at the E gates, I was informed the Polaris lounge was coming soon. Giggle. Snort. Hah. Moving right along…

How can this be….absolutely no gate lice on the flight to Mexico City?!

United flight 1092
Houston, Texas (IAH) to Mexico City, Mexico (MEX)
Depart 17:44, Arrive 20:05, Flight Time: 2:21
Boeing 737-800, Registration N12216, Manufactured 1998, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 14,654
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,534,716

Today’s load was a full 20 in business class (18 of which were upgrades according to the app) and a grand total of 24 people in economy. Wow, now that’s an empty 737! Pre-flight glass of Chateau L’Oscar to start:

The “meat and rice” – uhhh….at least it tasted better than it looked? Once again, a nice fresh salad.

Overall, it was a pretty typical domestic/regional first/business experience today. Food was maybe a slight bit better than I was expecting, and the international 757 to Houston was definitely a welcome bonus. Also, can’t neglect mentioning that both crews were excellent – friendly, efficient, and helpful. Definitely a real asset to United. Now, let’s get to the main event and check out Mexico City!!

Dec 142017
 


Bonus points if you get the reference in the post title…

So, it all started innocently enough. I wanted to fly the newish Delta A350, and an opportunity arose that made sense to take a long weekend and go to Seoul.

Then, due to an early 2018 work trip being moved, a one-way ticket to Europe I’ve been holding for around 10 months already will have to be used just one or two weeks later since I can’t get away in February as planned.

So the problem is, I have a one-way to Seoul, and a one-way to Europe. Unfortunately, these are both trips AWAY from home. I started by looking at two one-way tickets to complete them. Long weekend in Seoul, full week in Europe. but that’s boring. I kept thinking about them as separate trips. That just wasn’t doing it for me.

The first trip was limited on time, since I’ll have six days max to pull it off. The second trip I can span two weekends, so I should be able to get 10-11 days out of it.

Then…I found it…the ticket that pulls it all together. A great Seoul-Europe-Seoul fare that will get me almost all the way home on “Trip One” and then get me from Europe back to Seoul on “Trip Two.” Oh, wait, I still would need to one way tickets to complete this. Plus…not sure where the adventure is.

Without pulling the trigger yet, it’s currently looking like the trip may be:

First Trip would essentially be:

  • DeltaOne A350 to Seoul
  • Two nights in Korea
  • Finnair A350 to Helsinki
  • Overnight in Helsinki
  • Finnair to Berlin
  • ICE first class train Berlin to Frankfurt
  • Overnight in Frankfurt
  • DeltaOne from Frankfurt to DC

Second Trip gets much more complicated since I have longer:

  • Lufthansa First to Frankfurt/Munich
  • ICE first class train to Leipzig for a night
  • Train to Dresden for a night
  • Train to Berlin for two nights
  • Finnair A350 to Seoul
  • Aeroflot to Vladivostok for two nights
  • Aeroflot business class to Petorpavlovsk-Kamchatky for two nights
  • S7 business class to Seoul
  • China Eastern business class to Shanghai for a night
  • DeltaOne from Shanghai to DC

Is it insane? Absolutely! I haven’t had insane New Years trips in several years. I somewhat miss the days when it always meant ticking off a new country:

2003: started small – Czech Republic (17 countries visited)
2004: little more adventurous: Poland and Hungary (26 countries visited – 9 new)
2005: Taipei, Australia, New Zealand via Malaysian Airlines First Class – now we’re talking! (32 countries – 6 new)
2006: Australia again in Malaysian Airlines First Class – plus New Caledonia and Vanuatu (35 countries – 3 new)
2007: Rio, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Iguazu – I’m addicted. (45 countries – 10 new)
2008: Belarus, Baltics (60 countries – 15 new)
2009: Turkey and Jordan (66 countries – 6 new)
2010: Iraq – full on crazy now! (73 countries – 7 new)
2011: UAE, Iran, Afghanistan (82 countries – 9 new)
2012: Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti… (108 countries – 26 new)
2013: Libya…then to Myanmar and Hong Kong on a whim! (131 countries – 23 new)
2014: Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, DR Congo, Angola…yup, crazy! (154 countries – 23 new)
2015: Madagascar, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Zanzibar (177 countries – 23 new)
2016: Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone…and no Ebola! (190 countries – 13 new)
2017: Nothing! Every Country Complete and I want a rest.
2018: Back to the Crazy…Maybe!

So, time to jump back on the wagon! Your encouragement welcome!

One great thing about this post – people ask me all the time when I “decided” I would visit every country. It was definitely before 2005 because I remember when the DPRK opened up to Americans for the first time, I knew I “had” to go in case it might be my only chance since I wanted to visit every country. However, 2011 looks to be the year I decided to “go for it – adding 23-26 new countries a year over the next four years.

So, looks like I have over 39,000 miles to fly in the next month. Fasten those seatbelts, this will be a long one!