Dec 042018
 


Unfortunately, thanks to jetlag, I was awake bright and early before 6am, so had no excuse to avoid a bit of time in the hotel gym. I walked around the airport a bit trying to explore the landside areas, but apparently security wasn’t too thrilled with that, so gave up and headed back to the hotel for a little while until…yes, you guessed it, Starbucks opened. I had hoped to sleep in and catch up a bit, but jetlag wasn’t having it, so this was the best relaxing I could do. Hundreds of transatlantic flights, and there’s still no foolproof way to slay jetlag.

Grabbed an Uber to toe mall, where Starbucks was just about to open. Unfortunately, the ice rink inside the mall still wasn’t open. One of these days I’m going to pass through Cairo at an hour when I can go ice skating in the mall!

After a short stroll in the mall, Starbucks was open, and it was time for some coffee! In US$ terms, the second cheapest Starbucks in the world after Johannesburg, South Africa.

Back to the hotel just in time to pack up, and I had completely forgotten that Terminal Two at Cairo had opened a while back (I even went through here on my last trip!) so it took a bit of planning to have to take the hotel over to Terminal Two since it is connected to Terminal Three. I swear Cairo might be one of the worst designed largish airports on the planet.

That said, the checkin area at Terminal Two was quite nice, the Etihad agents were rather lovely, and after passing through immigration and security the lounge was surprisingly nice as well. It was way nicer than the horrible EgyptAir lounges in Terminal Three, but still a very limited selection of very weird food.

7up Free, weird hazelnut banana pizza, and the “EgyptAir” pizza, anyone?

That said, the terminal itself was really quite nice – bright and airy, and there was even a Starbucks airside…with prices exactly 50% higher than outside the airport. Boo hiss!

Boarding was right on time, and soon it was time to check out what Emirates business class was all about. I’d only flown them in first prior to this, and heard their first (like Qatar) is a bit of a waste except on the A380, because it’s not all that much nicer than business. We’ll see about that!

Etihad flight 654
Cairo, Egypt (CAI) to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH)
Depart 13:35, Arrive:18:50, flight time: 3:15
Boeing 787-9, Registration A6-BLS, Manufactured 2017, Seat 10K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 129,461
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,649,523

First impression of the seat: super nice, super roomy, and super private. I like it! This is just as nice as the first class seats on the 787s as well!

Another perspective…lots of room!

The crew was absolutely fantastic…friendly and helpful, without being awkward and obtrusive…this was going to be a great flight. A view over the wing and super smoggy Cairo right after takeoff:

A glass of Piper-Heidsieck and some mixed nuts? Don’t mind if I do!

With the windows dimmed, a great shot of the setting sun over the wing:

Arabic mezze starter. Only complained was there needed to be more pita bread to go with it. Other than that, loved the presentation!

Braised lamb shank for a main, cooked medium, and absolutely delicious. I had to admit, this was actually topping most of my flights with Etihad in first! Overall an extremely solid performance!

Delicious vanilla ice cream with some Amarula for dessert. Perfect!

Sunset catching the blinker on the engine:

Landed right on time, and I have to give Etihad a perfect 10 on this flight. There was absolutely nothing that could have been done better on such a short flight. Perfect crew, excellent short/medium haul meal, great seat, all in all a wonderful experience that wouldn’t make me hesitate to fly them on the 787 again. Honestly, compared to my first flights, this was just as good (except the suites on the A380 of course) and maybe better in some regards.

Got to Abu Dhabi, the home of no Uber, and was through immigration pretty quickly, and had no trouble finding my Careem driver instead to whisk me off to the Marriott Downtown Abu Dhabi. Since the merger with Starwood I was keen to find somewhere new to stay in Abu Dhabi, and wanted to give this place a try. On the downside, they claimed to be “completely sold out” so could offer no upgrade at all, but that said the standard room was perfectly nice:

They even had a lovely selection of pastries waiting in my room:

I was absolutely wiped out from the lack of sleep the previous two nights, so went up to the executive lounge where they were still serving cocktail hour (yay free wine) which I enjoyed a bit of before heading back to the room and passing out early. It would be a pretty wakeup call so that I could (you guessed it) get Starbucks before heading back to the airport to continue my journey!


Dec 022018
 


So, I had a one-way ticket to Cairo I had to use up by the end of the year, and I figured what better time than over thanksgiving, since by taking three days off you get a nice nine day vacation.

Now, the challenge comes because the ticket was upgradable – and with the chance to fly Lufthansa First Class that’s not an opportunity to take lightly! I had no idea where I wanted to go, and I figured I could decide that later, so in July I bought a new ticket that went Cairo-DC-Frankfurt figuring I could then use the DC-Frankfurt for New Years.

Two weeks before the trip (when Lufthansa generally releases upgrade space) I was very dismayed to find out that most flights to Germany from the US were already either completely sold out in first class, or getting very close. The only one that looked mildly good was Miami to Munich, which still had seven seats. Only downside: they were holding them back in hopes of selling them. No worries, they can’t possibly sell seven first class seats, right? So I changed my ticket, bought a one way to the Miami area, and the trip was set.

Over the next 12 days, it went from seven seats left…to five…to four…to three…to two seats left four days before the flight. I kept looking at other options, and nothing was good, so it was time to pray. Morning of my flight, it was down to ONE seat, and they weren’t releasing it until the gate. Panic!

The next ten or so posts will be on this trip, and I’m going to try and knock out one a day before…leaving on my next trip!

Up way too early, off to Dulles airport, and time to board my nonstop flight to Fort Lauderdale.

United Airlines flight 1785
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Fort Lauderdale, Florida (FLL)
Depart 08:35, Arrive:11:15, flight time: 2:40 of pure hell
Boeing 737-900, Registration N53442, Manufactured 2009, Seat 5E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 121,284
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,641,346

Literally 50+ people boarded between a large number of senior citizens and tons of families with small children, so by the type it came to Group 1, probably 30-40% of the plane was already on board. A look of terror crossed my face when I saw that the person who had been upgraded into the seat next to me at the gate (per the monitors at the gate) was a parent with a small urchin who was already busy flinging cheerios at people as they boarded.

I won’t rant too much, because I find a lot of children better behaved than over-entitled “elites” but this was not one of them. Not only was a little hellspawn of Satan, the mother refused to do ANYTHING about it, and intentionally avoided eye contact with me the entire flight. By the time we’d taken off it had already grabbed my arm repeatedly, thrown cheerios at me, and screamed loudly and repeatedly. This was going to be a long flight.

I don’t usually drink on morning flights, but lets just say in order to de-stress me and make me not as disagreeable as the little hellion, I had one. Or four. I lost count, but it definitely calmed my nerves.

I got what was described as the “eggs” mostly out of curiosity, and because it sounded better than “rice krispees:”

Of course, the mother and urchin got the Rice Krispees half of which ended up all over the floor. While waiting for trays to be cleared, the little bundle of joy was throwing a fit, screaming, kicking….and eventually kicked over mom’s scalding hot cup of coffee – all over my leg. I pressed the call button to ask for some ice and a towel/napkin to wrap it in…and the mother finally says something to me…and what does she say? “This wouldn’t happen if they put a lid on the coffee like they should.” It’s a good thing I’m not prone to air rage….

Right, enough about that flight.

Onto Fort Lauderdale, where my friend Noah had offered to not only play Uber for me between airports, but also show me a bit of Miami along the way. Yes, in all the times I’ve flown through Miami I’ve never left the airport so I had no idea what I was missing!

After a stop by CVS for some burn cream we were off to a brunch that promised to be MUCH better than what Oscar served me on United. Through Little Haiti and into Wynwood, which was a super cool little artsy district. Spoiler: plans after brunch were to leave and go see the beach, but that’ll have to wait for next time, because Wynwood was just that cool.

Brunch was at Sette Osteria where they served up a delicious eggs benedict with bacon and mimosas. Very reasonably priced and tasty, although what was a “cool” day to Miami locals was a warm day to me, and the heat and humidity were almost too much. Nevertheless, it felt great to have some open-air dining in November!

After brunch, it was time to walk around Wynwood a bit, which is well-known for its murals on the side of buildings. This one was a little…odd.

Have bacon, are happy!

A few blocks away was Wynwood Walls where lots of the murals are collected in one place to walk through. Super cool!

Look who followed me from DC! The best mural ever. It was tremendous. Everyone was talking about it – believe me!

After a bit of strolling we were thirsty, and happened upon J. Wakefield brewing. Ok, not happened upon, but I saw it on the map and since I’d first tried their beers a few weeks ago in Sweden I wanted to go check it out. Unfortunately, they apparently don’t allow droids in their cantina:

Loved the mural outside:

After a few fantastic beers, I chatted with the bartender a bit…who it turns out was the one who packed up the order to send to Sweden for the event I had gone to. Talk about a small world! Anyways, the beers were great, and we lost track of time a bit, and unfortunately there wouldn’t be time to check out the beach.

No matter, on the walk back to the car, we found ice cream instead at a “Craft Ice Cream” place called Dasher & Crank!

I went with the Stone Xocoveza and Cinnamon Raisin Bread, both of which were absolutely amazing. Thanks to Noah for dragging me in there – it was a nice break from the heat and delicious ice cream!

On the way back to the car, we also passed what appeared to be a shooting gallery with a crazy panda ad:

After getting to the airport, Noah dropped me off, and after thanking him I went to the counter to beg for my upgrade. Good news, there’s still one seat left. Better news, I’m #1 on the list. Bad news: they had to wait until 45 minutes before the door closed, just in case someone wanted to buy that seat. Mildly disappointing, but I get it.

TSA PreCheck was closed, AND there was no CLEAR checkpoint. Ugh. Miami Airport. Ugh.

Today we were using the Avianca Lounge, where they attempted to get me sick with shrimps and goat cheese – the two things that I generally don’t eat. No worries, I only stopped in for 15 minutes to get a couple bottles of water before heading to the gate…where 5 minutes before boarding they cleared me into the absolute last seat in first class. WOO WOO!

Lufthansa flight 461
Miami, Florida (MIA) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 18:59, Arrive: 10:20 next day, flight time: 9:21
Airbus A380-800, Registration D-AIMC, Manufactured 2010, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,291
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,646,353

Ahhhhh, so much better once I got to my seat. It was like the weight of the world and that screaming urchin on the first flight just melted away into absolute bliss. Glass of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, some macadamia nuts, and a rose. Civilized flying.

Amuse-bouche of a courgette, red pepper, olive, and goat cheese. Glad I didn’t have any in the lounge – there’s only so much goat cheese my system will tolerate.

Nothing kicks off the perfect in-flight meal like a proper serving of caviar.

One small problem: the menus had been mis-printed, resulting in the dinner menu only being in German, and the breakfast menu only being in Spanish. Oops! The three starters today were “fruits of the sea with wasabi peas” which was super tasty, “asparagus, paprika, and feta with truffle sherry vinaigrette” also really tasty, and finally roast beef with chimichurri. Three for three – that doesn’t happen very often. Usually at least one of the three appetizers is so weird I’m not interested.

Main course of a fillet with tomato chili sauce was cooked a perfect medium – not bad for in-flight steak!

Of course, no meal on Lufthansa is complete without their best-in-the-sky cheese cart carved seat-side:

Now that is exactly how a cheese plate should be done!

President Underwood approves of the pumpkin cheesecake for desert with a glass of Johnny Walker Blue. She’s such a basic white girl sometimes!

Ever thought the aircraft lavatory was too small? Not on A380 Lufthansa First – complete with changing area and urinal!

Not much else to say. Fell asleep right after eating, and slept nearly six hours the rest of the way to Munich. Another lovely and perfect Lufthansa First flight in the books – one of the few flying experiences that never gets old to me, and is consistently my favourite experience in the skies. Super excited to have another lined up in just a few short weeks!

We landed 15 minutes early, which gave me just enough time to duck into the First Class Lounge for a shower. What makes the lounge in Munich so awesome is that they have immigration agents stationed IN the lounge, so you can clear passport control while you’re showering. Hand them your passport as you enter, grab a shower, and grab your stamped passport and head to the Schengen exit from the lounge. Yet again, Lufthansa nails this experience!

Lufthansa flight 7234 operated by Austrian Airlines
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Vienna, Austria (VIE)
Depart 11:20, Arrive: 12:25, flight time: 1:05
Airbus A320-200, Registration OE-LBZ, Manufactured 2012, Seat 3C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,512
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,646,574

This was a new one for me – I’ve never seen a flight that was technically a Lufthansa flight, but operated by Austrian. If you clicked on the Austrian flight number,  you got “Operated for Lufthansa.” Strange arrangement.

I do love how even on a 40-50 minute flight Lufthansa and Austrian can serve you a small meal. Perfect since I’d slept through breakfast on the previous flight!

Debated going outside security in Vienna to grab some Starbucks, but didn’t want it that badly, so headed to the lounge where the surliest lounge agent ever growled at me and told me I had to clear immigration and use the lounge on the other side. Yikes, so much for Austrian friendliness!  A few Diet Cokes later I had enough caffeine to function, and it was time for my last flight of this leg:

EgyptAir flight 798
Vienna, Austria (VIE) to Cairo, Egypt (CAI)
Depart 14:30, Arrive: 18:50, flight time: 3:20
Boeing 737-800, Registration SU-GEB, Manufactured 2011, Seat 10A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 127,981
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,647,981

Now, EgyptAir often gets a bad rap. First thing people always complain about is the lack of alcohol. Then it’s their “old seats” and finally it’s the unfriendly crews (which I think is largely a language ability thing). Well, this flight was the opposite, and overall a great flight!

Individual entertainment at the seats…which were a 2×2 configuration with proper legroom (unlike European airlines which are 3×3 with the middle seat blocked and NO legroom):

Even stickers to play with and place on your seat! These are definitely going to end up on my laptop…

Wow, look at that meal for a three hour flight! Also, the steak was a perfect medium rare with a little gorgonzola sauce which was absolutely delicious…and the grilled veggies were also really tasty.

Apple strudel for dessert, with yet another Coke Zero:

Just an hour after finishing our meal, they came around with a snack service an hour before landing. Small tray of danish butter cookies:

…and a small box of EgyptAir branded chocolates!

Bus gate, but a separate bus just for business class. A perfectly wonderful experience, and I was almost sad to say goodbye!

No wait at all at immigration, and I was through in under 15 minutes and off to my hotel – the Le Meridien Cairo Airport which is a short five minute walk from the terminal. Less than 30 minutes after getting off the plane I was in my room and and ready to have a beer or two in the hotel restaurant before passing out. It had been a very long day!


Dec 012018
 


So, despite having been to every country, I’ve always felt a bit bad about the “quality” of my China trips. My first trip was back in 2005, for one night in each direction in Beijing in transit to North Korea. It was enough to walk around Tienamen Square a bit, have dinner, but not really that in-depth.

Then, the next year, back when you could still get a border zone visa on arrival, I took a daytrip from Hong Kong to Shenzhen. This was a lot more memorable, because I remember lots of rural tourists who’d probably never seen a westerner before, and they all walked to take pictures with me (and touch my arms and legs). Yet, I feel bad saying I’ve been to China without having been to Shanghai. Finally…a chance to fix that!

I would fly to Shanghai for five days for work, and then because it was majorly cheaper, take the train down to Beijing for a night before flying home. Domestic train ride and seeing Shanghai. Much better! I’ll cover the flights in another post, but here’s my random stream of consciousness from my nearly one week in China:

Landed late afternoon around 5pm, and first task was to find my way to my hotel. Just kidding, since I still had another 7-8 hours to go before bed, first task was to grab a Starbucks at the airport and THEN grab a cab. Into the cab, and immediately…Houston we have a problem. Driver speaks not a word of English, and getting him to the hotel was not going to be easy. Fortunately, google maps had chinese characters on it, and that was enough to make it work. Whew.

Checked in and had about an hour to freshen up before heading out to meet clients for a kickoff dinner. I normally don’t like cutting things this short, but due to a cold I couldn’t fly earlier, so had to make due. Since Uber is no longer in China I fired up the DiDi Taxi app, and no problem at all they soon had me at the Oriental Pearl Tower for dinner.

At the top….this is a oh hell no place if you’re not good with heights. Yup, those are glass floors….

One more shot from the bottom after dinner. I should also mention that finding the way to the top wasn’t easy, especially because the clients had booked tables for like 100 people, meaning they had pre-paid, meaning I somehow had to explain to the staff at the lifts (when I finally found them) why it was ok to take me up without a ticket. Finally managed, and all was sorted.

All was sorted…except for DiDi Taxi. See, DiDi isn’t good with foreign credit cards. Nor is it good with cash. Nor can you sign up for any of the other forms of payments without a Chinese mobile number or credit card. I learned very quickly that China has a lot of great technology and apps, however, as a non-resident many of them are virtually impossible to use. I may have been to every country, but there are still some places in the world that aren’t “easy” to get around!

Subway back to hotel, passed out, and got up super early the next morning and had a nice workout in the hotel gym before heading down to breakfast…which was an amazing plate of dim sum. I was definitely going to enjoy as much as possible during my time here! This is probably a good place to say I was thrilled with the JW Marriott Tomorrow Square in Shanghai, and the hotel was exceptional in every way. Great location, great staff, great lounge for happy hour in the evening, everything about it was top notch. I’ll definitely stay here again on my next visit!

My clients were way out in the suburbs, but rather than stay somewhere with nothing to do I decided to stay in the city. This involved riding the subway about 10-12 stops (no train changes) and then a short five minute taxi ride. I actually enjoyed this, because it was a chance to get to see a bit more of the city and have a “commuter” experience, so that was kind of awesome.

That night I had free, so with a bit of googling I found Jackie’s Beer Nest which was an amazing craft beer bar. The place was absolutely tiny, maybe 300 square feet / 35 square meters max, and three of the walls were lined with taps:

View of Shanghai from hotel breakfast….gotta love those blue skies!

Client’s campus was also absolutely gorgeous! Where’s that terrible Chinese air you hear so much about?

Best thing I found in Shanghai? Starbucks Reserve Roastery…coffee heaven!

Mmmmm syphon coffee. Yeah, at over $10 for one coffee it wasn’t cheap, but it was oh so delicious!

Amazing pastry selection. There were actually four different bars with food and coffee to choose from. The place was absolutely huge!

I believe this was either been storage, or the actual roastery…yes, they roast their own beans in the store!

Walking around at night, I came across some strange ballroom dance party in the woods in the middle of the city:

See, ballroom dancing in the woods:

One of the cool things about actually googling and finding places for dinner in a city as big as Shanghai is that it got me to take the metro to several different neighbourhoods and see several different parts of the city…so that was very cool!

The beers in this bar weren’t quite as good, but was nice to see China is actually turning out some respectable craft beers of its own now. I’d tap that…

The Radisson Hotel…with a UFO like thing on top!

Back to Jackie’s Beer Nest another night. Apparently, on your second visit, you’re family, and he just points you to the glasses and tells you to serve yourself. Tell him how many you had at the end of the night (everything is the same price) and that’s it. What a cool laid-back neighbourhood place. Good thing I don’t live near here or I’d get in trouble!

I may have gone back to Starbucks one final time before leaving Shanghai. This is just one small corner of the place!

Took the metro to the train station, since it was on the same line as my hotel, and it was super easy. I have to say, Shanghai was set up really easily to get around on public transit. Despite never being there before, and spending most of my time working, I really felt like it was easy to figure everything out.

The train station? Well, it was just a little busy:

There was, however, a business class lounge. I think there were actually several, but this was the one near my gate.

Gate 1B – queuing to board. So, many, people…until I found where business class boarded from. That was a bit better.

Walked to the end of the train to get a picture. Cooooool!

My business class seat. Strangely, you have economy class, first class, and business class. Business class is actually higher than first class. Don’t try and figure it out.

Super roomy, with only 11 seats in the whole car. A 1×1 row in the back, and then three 2×1 rows. You can’t buy tickets online, but I used China DIY Travel to buy my tickets, and they were super helpful and professional. Very, very highly recommend them!

Some green tee and mango ice cream as we get underway and roll out of the station. The tea was free, but you had to pay like $4 for the ice cream.

About two hours into the 4.5 hour ride, they actually came by with lunch! That was unexpected. I got the “beef” which was reasonable for what was clearly a microwave meal.

Arrival in Beijing, there was a rather long queue for a taxi, but once I got one shockingly this driver spoke just enough English to know how to get to my hotel, the Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing. Walking around Beijing a bit after arrival. Well that’s an interesting display in the streets…

While walking around, Fitbit decided to reward me with the “Great Wall badge” for walking 5,500 miles since getting my FitBit. What’s the odds that I would reach this in China!

The next day, my flight didn’t leave until late afternoon, and since it was walkable from my hotel, I decided to go to what was billed as a more local place to get Peking Roast Duck before heading back. Siji Minfu was easy to find based on the large number of people outside…even at 11am! I only had to wait about 30 minutes for a table, however, so it worked out well! I think they found it really strange I was eating alone (I guess that’s not a common thing to do?)

Caramelized durian pudding to start while waiting for my duck.  This was absolutely delicious!

The condiments came soon, and the helpful waitress was great and showed me how they were meant to be used.

Soon out came my duck, which was carved up near the table. Yup, go big or go home, no half duck for me (which was an option) I was going to polish the whole thing off.

My duck, all carved up and ready to devour:

Just in time to head back to the hotel, check out, and head to the airport by subway which was pretty easy to figure out. Overall, I was pretty happy with this hotel, it was in a great walkable area, and maybe the only downside is that the walk to the subway was pretty long. The hotel also felt super crowded, but overall, the quality was great.

Unfortunately, my hotel was about a mile from the subway, so I took a cab to the subway, and then enjoyed the ride to the airport. Beijing’s air wasn’t nearly as good as Shanghai’s and it was actually bit difficult to breathe on my last day there:

So that about wraps up the week in China! Next up, I’ll post about the flights roundtrip on United, and then…I have a trip to Africa to post as well.  Want to knock this out in the next 10 days before I head out for almost a full month of travel that will include Germany, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Kaliningrad, and Berlin!


Nov 152018
 


So, first off, let’s get this out of the way: a million mea culpas for being out of the action for a rather long time. I wish I had a better excuse, but unfortunately it’s just work. Work, work, work and more work. In addition to the work that pays the bills, there’s been lots more time in the gym paying for the sins that first and business travel bring (aka, getting my fat ass back into shape.)

But, with lots of work comes lots of stories, and I have at least two posts that I owe you:

1) A week in Stockholm, where I ran a conference and managed to pull a newbie first: losing my wallet when I was responsible for all the bills of the conference. Lots of good stories in this one…

2) A week in Shanghai for work, with lots of firsts for me. Despite being to every country, I always felt my China experiences needed to be expanded, so this definitely helped.

On top of those, I have a bit of travel coming up…ok more than a bit:

1) A trip to Cairo, Abu Dhabi, South Africa, Zimbabwe, with just a touch of Germany

2) A far less common corner of Germany (and a new one for me) with a side-trip to play tourist in Saudi Arabia. You read that right…

3) Winter in Chernobyl, then up to Lithuania and Latvia (two places where I want to “improve” my visits) followed by the train to Kaliningrad, bus to Gdansk, and finally train to Berlin.

4) Some really juicy “unrecognized country” travel, which you’ll have to wait for details on…

Oh, and this is all in the next 90 days….sit back, because….I’m baaaaaack!


Sep 182018
 


As I mentioned in a few previous posts I always felt a little guilty when I finished every country that my experiences in Mexico City had been pretty much limited to border regions.

Then, this spring came my first trip to Mexico City for work. Then another trip to Mexico City for work. Then an overnight on an Aeromexico ticket on the way to Chile. Now, it was just August and it was time for my fourth trip this year to Mexico City! I had a couple of very packed days of meetings with clients, but opted to spend the weekend as well so I could dig a little bit deeper. A couple fun shots from the “business portion” of the trip though.

Firstly, the view from my client’s offices of Santa Fe – hard to believe this business/industrial district is almost brand spanking new:

Apparently, it was the season for Chiles en Nogada, or chilis with nuts. A rather different dish served COLD of a chili served stuffed with ground meat and then covered in a nut sauce and pomegranate made to look like the mexican flag. Wasn’t exactly my cup on tea, and unfortunately despite drinking some mezcal to kill any bugs I think this is what did the slow number on my stomach:

A rather unusual sculpture/statue outside the restaurant. Weird, but I have to say I liked it:

After meetings out in Santa Fe, I took a taxi late Friday night into the city so I could spend the whole day Saturday walking around and exploring. Firstly, the weather was gorgeous. Mid 70s, no humidity, and sunny skies. Unfortunately, I got a bit of a food-borne bug, so was feeling pretty sketchy the whole day. Fortunately, I felt just well enough to walk around, and walk I did. Nearly 15 miles during the duration of the day, and I ended up seeing a lot of great sights thanks to some recommendations for friends. I’ll let the photos tell the story.

The Torre Reforma, an office building. I love the unusual architecture:

The other side of the Torre Reforma, taken later in the day. I just find the building really cool:

Continuing my walk from my hotel, and praying that my innards would hold up at least for the stops between venues/sights with baños, I encountered something I definitely didn’t expect to find. The Mexico-Azerbaijan Friendship Park…complete with a large statue of Azerbaijan:

Back side of the monument….

Finally, after a bit over a mile of walking, I made it to the National Museum of Anthropology. Thankful to have not had any…”incidents” along the way, I was greeted out front by a fun group of dancers:

Let me get my one critique of the museum out of the way first. The place is huge. Super huge. No way you can see it all in one day huge. It’s divided into different “halls” around a courtyard by time period and civilization, but beyond telling you what is where, you really have no idea where to start looking for the featured pieces if you’re limited on time. Having a bit of a short attention span for museums, and wanting to see as much of the city as possible, I really wanted to hit the highlights. Thanks to around 30 minutes on google, I managed to find them.

Oh, and since I highlighted my one critique, I should also highlight the biggest unexpected positive: the museum was free today as a “gift” from the new government to the people of Mexico. No, it’s not really that expensive anyways, but it was a nice unexpected bonus, and the place was super crowded.

A Mexica (otherwise known as the Aztecs) death complex sculpture. Something about this one I really enjoyed:

Another Aztec carvin:

The giant Aztec “calendar stone” – I had to wait nearly 15 minutes for a group of people to all take their turn taking their selfie in front of it…so of course I couldn’t resist doing the same. The picture doesn’t show the sheer magnitude of the thing, which was 3.5 meters in diameter!

Statue of Xotchipilli, Aztec God of Art and Games…who by the look on his face enjoyed playing games while totally stoned out of his mind:

Montezuma’s headdress, made of quetzal feathers…although there is significant doubt that it’s the “real deal:”

Jade necklace and mask of Pakal the First, a Mayan ruler…that doesn’t exactly look terribly comfortable.

Overall, I super enjoyed this museum, and spent nearly three hours exploring it, which is probably a record for me in a museum. Normally my attention span is gone well before that time, so combine that with being ill this museum is a definite must-see when you’re in Mexico City.

After re-fuelling with caffeine and carrot cake at Starbucks outside the museum (don’t judge….anyone who’s had stomach issues knows that if you find something that sounds good, eat it!) I continued my walk into the park Bosque de Chapultepec which was right across the road. I always find local birds really interesting:

It was beautiful weather, and lots of folks were out on the lake in paddleboats:

After that I walked up, and up, and up, and up, and considered bailing since I wasn’t feeling great, but at the top finally made it to Chapultepec Castle and the National Museum fo History. I was museum-ed out for the day so just wandered the grounds for a bit and took in the sights. I’ll definitely come back to check it out in-depth another time though.

Great views of the city, however, from the castle grounds up on a high hill:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. See, believe me, lots of problems:

The Altar de la Patria in Chapultepec Park:

I was running a bit shorter on time than I realized, and it was already around 3pm at this time, and I still had one more sight I really wanted to try and squeeze in. I had hoped to take the metro down to the Trotsky Museum, but since I was short on time I took an Uber since it was only like $6. Unfortunately, due to traffic, it still took like 45 minutes to get there (Mexico City can have absolutely terrible traffico) but I still made it with an hour to spare. I loved the entrance of the museum:

Trotsky’s grave:

The Casa de Trotsky – his house – where he lived in exile after being expelled from the Soviet Union. As a student of Soviet history, I found this museum super interesting:

Trotsky’s office, where he worked while in exile, until dying by a pick-axe to the head:

Gotta have a selfie with Trotsky’s grave!

After the museum, I took the nice mile or so stroll to the metro, where I stopped in a mall next to the metro stop for a small snack before boarding the train back towards my hotel. One thing I found really interesting – and somewhat depressing – is that part of the platform in the Mexico City subway is blocked off for women and children only. Interesting, because I applaud them for taking this step to protect people, depressing because it indicates that men are poorly enough behaved that women need to be protected.

Another shot of barriers in another station, along with what the trains look like:

I had to giggle, because it turned out my hotel was apparently right across the street from a string of gay bars, and being Saturday night they were absolutely swarming with 20-somethings. I felt old. But you have to love a place named “The Gayta Pussy Bar” Hah!

After a bit of exploring, I decided to hop back on the metro and check out a bar called The Beer Company. It was about 30 minutes and a short walk away by metro, and being a gorgeous evening I enjoyed a few beers on the patio. The place wasn’t at all crowded, but had that nice neighbourhood bar feel…and the complete lack of English spoken only made it feel more fun.

While “checking in” the new beers in the Untappd App I saw that there was apparently a tap takeover going on at another bar in the city, and despite being tired and worn out I had to check it out. I headed over to Tasting Room which had not only some incredibly funky alien decor (I finally figured out the mysteries of Easter Island):

…but also had an amazing draft list. This place was a gem in Mexico City, and I’ll definitely be back here for drinks the next time I’m in Mexico City.

By this point, I was absolutely exhausted, and really impressed just how much I managed to see for a day when I was seriously not feeling well.

With that, it was time to fly off the next morning for a few days in Minnesota with family for my birthday on the way back to DC…and to get a bit of rest before beginning an incredibly busy travel period – even by my standards!  Post to come on that in the coming days before I head off on probably my craziest two months of travel ever!


Aug 222018
 


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

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

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

Right, on with the review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Aug 212018
 


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

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

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

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

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

That brings us to Air Canada.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tonight’s menu:

…and drink list:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Aug 182018
 


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

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

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

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

El Ángel in Mexico City

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

Outside Stadhuset in Stockholm in December, 2010

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

The Forbidden City – Beijing

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

Aare River – Bern – Switzerland

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

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

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

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


Aug 122018
 


By this point in the summer, I was already starting to get worn out from lots of travel. However, as work trips go, it gets a lot worse than two weeks in Switzerland. About all bad I can say about the trip is it was 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time I was there, and pretty much nowhere had air conditioning…except my hotel which was delightful thanks to some very smart online research in advance!

Rather than go into too many details of the trip (since it was pretty much 10 hour work days the entire time) I figured I’d just share some pics from the evenings and weekends I did manage to have free. I”m going to skip the in-flight pics because I feel like I post too many of those already, but if anyone’s interested in the details of Air Canada 777 business class…sorry “signature class” and the Toronto lounge…or the United Polaris-configured 767 let me know…and I’ll put that up shortly. Now, on to the actual trip!

Takeoff from Washington, National airport for Toronto – this view seriously never gets old to me.

After a flight to Toronto, a flight to Zurich, and then a train to Bern, I arrived at my hotel – the Hotel The Bristol in Bern. Strangely enough, none of my clients (who all live in Bern!) were familiar with this hotel. It was perfectly comfortable, reasonably priced, and had really good air conditioning and friendly staff. Two thumbs up, and since I’ll be returning to this client often, I’ll definitely stay here again…and you know how fussy I am about my hotels! The fact that I not only enjoyed this hotel…but enjoyed it for a two week stay…says a lot. I’m not normally a fan of smaller boutique hotels, but part of the fun lobby:

Anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows I tend to search out the good local craft beer joints, and I definitely found one I loved in Bern. I was a bit surprised, but Biercafe au Trappiste was amazing. Friendly, knowledgable staff, and a great selection of Swiss and non-Swiss craft beers. Plus, really fun taps:

Old town of Bern…it’s hard not to fall in love with the “charm” of European streets:

Bern was amazingly picturesque, and I found myself going for long walks most nights along the river. With views like this you can see why:

There was also a great place to sit next to the river, and with 9:20pm sunsets, lots of time to enjoy:

First weekend, I went up above Bern to the Gurten, a local hill/mountain/park that towers over Bern. Great views once you got off the funicular, which is included with your “Bern Card” – a transit pass that is included for free for as long as you stay in a local accommodation.

Found some cows up on the Gurten…actually, they’re everywhere in Switzerland…and oh so mangey!

Taking the Funicular back down…at 8pm…yup, still nice and light:

The Zytglogge in Bern. Big tourist attraction, but honestly found it pretty disappointing. Tho was cool to see.

Tourists are awful. More concerned with taking pics than actually seeing the site.

Another weekend day, I planned to go up the Jungfraujoch and take Europe’s highest train. Unfortunately, by the time I’d purchased my Switzerland daypass and headed halfway I saw that the peaks were clouded in and it would be a waste. So, instead, I rode trains around Switzerland for the day. This included a trip on my favourite train, the ICE, from Basel to Zurich:

End of the trip I enjoyed some delicious Mövenpick ice cream, rum raisin, yum!

Back in Bern, which comes from the German word “Baren” – or bears – I went to the Bear park where I spotted one of the very lazy bears hiding from the heat the best it could:

Followed by more enjoying of the river….and locals enjoying a swim:

I enjoyed swims in the river two nights, thanks to friendly locals who stuffed my clothes in their drybags and let me float down the river with them:

The river, from a bridge:

Nice warm weather meant lots of dinners Al Fresco:

Dinner by the river one night, and this group had an amazing unicorn floatie:

Since I took several trains around Switzerland in the two weeks, here’s a pic of a fairly standard car:

I ended up flying home from Geneva since it was a better deal, which meant an overnight in Geneva. The Jet d’Eau:

Had to stop by the United Nations for a pic:

Couldn’t get inside since it was a weekend, but I joined the busloads of Chinese tourists to take a pic of the UN and all the flags:

The “Broken Chair” outside the UN, to symbolize opposition to landmines:

Unfortunately, on a Saturday night in August, Geneva proved to be incredibly sleepy, and I couldn’t find a remotely reasonable place to go out for a drink that wasn’t super touristy. So, as one does, I hopped on the train for 45 minutes to Lausanne to have drinks at La Mise en Bière which turned out to be a fantastic hole in the wall craft beer place. My only criticism is that it closed way too early…but I suppose that was good because it got be back to Geneva in time to go to bed at a reasonable hour!

I did spend about four hours in Lausanne, which seemed to be a cool little town, and had a subway system to boot! I wasn’t expecting to add to my list of world subways, but did manage to. Does anyone know a good site that lists all of the subways in the world? My OCD side feels the need to count the ones I’ve ridden…and make plans to visit the others.

On the walk back to the Lausanne train station, I encountered this. Idk what was going on, but my slightly happy state found it super amusing. People say Switzerland is a bit stuffy and formal, but, this pic…

Something about the Swiss trains I just find really elegant:

So, in a nutshell, that was the free time I had in my two weeks in Switzerland. I’m definitely going to manage the Jungfraujoch on my next trip (likely this fall), and hopefully see even more of the country! Next up, a short trip to Brazil for work. It’s been a crazy summer!!!


Jul 302018
 


After our day wandering around Santiago, it was time to check out from the W and head to the airport. We were fortunate that the hotel agreed to a 5pm late checkout, meaning we could stay around most of the day before heading to the airport. A bonus nice touch, at the reception they were offering champagne not only to customers checking in, but also to those checking out. Nothing super high quality, but a classy touch!

Uber to the airport was much shorter than the two hour nightmare we endured in the opposite direction, and we approached the terminal just as a nice rose coloured sunset over the field was happening:

We had been able to check in with Aeromexico on the app, so headed straight through to immigration and security which had hardly any line and off to the Delta Skyclub to spend the hour or so before it would be time to board.

The Delta Skyclub, unfortunately, is one of the more dismal ones I’ve encountered. It’s in the basement at tarmac-level (ie, below boarding/jetbridge level) and was pretty small and cramped. Almost every seat was taken, and it only thinned out a slight bit in the time we were there. A glass of respectable Carmenere and some empanadas and nuts were marginal at best…but it wasn’t terrible either. Adequate, but nothing I’d ever go out of my way to spend time in.

Off to the gate, where a huge group of gate lice had formed, and people were clearly in a grumpy and agitated move. To the point I had one guy shove me out of the way because it was very important for him to board first. Um, dude, the priority boarding line was more of a scrum, and since we’re all in this together…I don’t think those five seconds you saved were worth being nasty to people. Very proud of the example you set for your kids. Heh!

Aeromexico flight 11
Santiago, Chile (SCL) to Mexico City, Mexico (MEX)
Depart 21:20, Arrive: 05:10 next day, flight time: 8:50
Boeing 787-8, Registration N964AM, Manufactured 2013, Seat 5F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 65,134
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,585,409

Unfortunately, no plane swap this time like we had been lucky enough with on the way down. We still had the 787-8 as planned, and the less than desirable 2-2-2 seating. We were in the middle section, so it wasn’t bad, just not nearly as nice as the 1-2-1 configuration on the 787-9. Oh well, business class problems. Decent (very small) pour of welcome aboard champagne:

The 2x2x2 seating, being modelled by Phil during boarding. Not bad, but certainly not as nice as the 1x2x1 seating in the same plane!

Despite being a late flight, the crew was pretty slow to spring into action. The wait, however, was rewarded with cheese as a starter again. It’s going to be really hard to go back to United and their semi-warm nuts. I’m also super fussy on my fruit, but the strawberries were perfectly sweet and delicious, and the whole combo went nicely with a glass of cabernet.

I ordered the hockey puck as a main course…I mean grilled chicken…which would have been a terrible miss if not for three things: (1) lots of protein (2) the goat cheese sauce, and (3) the fact I was starving. The salad was also pretty terrible, and the lettuce tasted funny. The mozzarella, zucchini, and basic starter was just odd when there was already a salad on the tray, and a cheesy main course. Overall, a pretty disappointing meal.

To top that off, this just doesn’t look appetizing at all. I took one bite and skipped the rest.

According to the crew, there was no dessert, despite it being listed on the menu. I don’t think they were being lazy, I think it just genuinely wasn’t loaded at all. Oh well.

Got a few hours of pretty decent sleep, and soon we were descending into Mexico City where we would arrive nearly 45 minutes early. Mexico City is like the US in that international and domestic flights are mixed in the same terminal, so everyone has to go through immigration first. Fortunately, we had plenty of time and the lines at immigration weren’t bad, so it was a pretty painless transit experience.

First stop after we re-cleared security was, of course, Starbucks, where Juan Jose  slowly came back to life after a good strong coffee…and another helping of the delicious cheese sandwich I’ve become addicted to over the last month:

After Starbucks, we headed up to the American Express lounge to relax and wait for our flight as well as shower. When we arrived, I asked about a shower, and the agent informed us there was a two hour waitlist for the shower. Seeing there were less than five people in the lounge, I asked how this was possible. Apparently, the showers are shared between the Platinum and Centurion lounges, and Centurion members don’t get priority. With all the money AmEx has been sinking into making great lounges lately, it’s hugely disappointing that Centurion members often have to wait for a table in US lounges (or get the evil eye if they take one of the reserved tables) and now apparently they have to wait for showers too. What’s the additional benefit of the card then?!

Off to the gate, un-showered, where I was just in time for boarding. Said goodbye to Phil who was off to LA, and about five minutes later we started boarding. Unfortunately, about three weeks before my flight, Aeromexico had changed the aircraft from a 787 to a 737. Ugh. I mean, not the end of the world at all, but when you book a specific routing because of the aircraft, it’s disappointing when it changes.

Of the 16 people on the flight, I recognized at least 10 of them from the flight to Santiago. Either lots of people got in on this JFK to Santiago fare, or it just happened to be a super popular routing today.

Aeromexico flight 408
Mexico City, Mexico (MEX) to New York, Kennedy (JFK)
Depart 07:15, Arrive: 13:20, flight time: 5:05
Boeing 737-800, Registration XA-AMN, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 67,225
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,587,500

Fortunately, this time, I got my first choice of meals and what was described by the crew as a tamale was reasonable. Since vacation was almost over, why not have a champagne breakfast. Reasonable breakfast, and probably the only reason it stood out was the chance to have a unique breakfast option. I feel like in the US it’s always the same nasty eggs or cereal, so the variety was very appreciated.

Also, the 787s had the terrible wifi where you paid like $20 and got 50MB, which you can go through in 10 minutes easily – quite a ripoff. On the 737 it was wifi by GoGo, and for like $15 I got unlimited for the whole flight. For a daytime flight, that’s almost enough to make me want to choose the 737 over the 787. Did I mention I’m WiFi addicted?

About an hour before landing, we were also offered a snack of mixed nuts. Unfortunately, it was mostly peanuts. 🙁

Landed at JFK right on time, and despite JFK tending to be a bit of a nightmare there was no wait at immigration for Global Entry, and I was out and looking for the SkyTrain soon.

SkyTrain was pretty easy to fine, and it whisked me off to Terminal 8 where American and their One World partners depart from. I was a little concerned about this connection if anything went wrong, but it didn’t and I was in the JFK Admirals Club with about an hour to kill. That was easy work with a glass of wine, and what I affectionately call the Admirals Club “tan snack”

Boarding for the flight to DC was right on time, and it was nice to have a 737 for such a short hop!

American flight 2773
New York, Kennedy (JFK) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive: 17:47, flight time: 1:47
Boeing 737-800, Registration N915NN, Manufactured 2013, Seat 4B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 67,438
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,587,713

Not just a 737, but the TWA heritage livery plane. As an aviation geek, I love the nostalgia of this. I wish more airlines would do it!

Nothing to say about this flight, it was almost 30 minutes early into DC (that happens when you have the rare short taxi at JFK and aren’t #30 in line for departure) and with that the trip was over all too soon. I wasn’t sad, however, knowing I had two more international trips coming up in under a month. I was actually starting to look forward to time at home more than time on planes!

That said, be on the lookout for more posts very soon!