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!!

Sep 152016

The big day had finally arrived, and it was time to head off to Iceland to visit my 196th and final country in the world. I had a group of about 35 family and friends joining me, a couple of whom were already in Iceland. About ten of us would be on the same flight to Reykjavik, meaning I would have a good group to witness “the moment” with me.

Caught a Lyft with my friend and neighbour Garrett to Dulles Airport. Garrett deserves special mention as the person who’s kept my plants alive, collected my mail, and even mailed me pictures of visas I forgot at home for all these years of travel. I definitely couldn’t have done it without his help – not to mention he helped save me from being deported from India back in July!

Arrived at Dulles, and check-in was relatively drama-free, except for the guy in the Saga (business) Class line in front of us, who was throwing a fit that they wouldn’t let him bring his rolling back on the plane as hand baggage. After forcing him to check it we checked in, and my (much larger) rolling bag was accepted just fine. Fortunately he didn’t see that…we later saw him in a middle seat somewhere between purgatory (row 20) and the final level of hell (row 35)…so maybe that explains it.

The check-in agent was completely unaware of the rules for lounge access, and thought I probably got a guest, so was nice enough to give Garrett a lounge invite as well despite the fact he was in economy. Off to the Air France lounge it is, where an appropriately-French reception of (several glasses of) champagne and some cheese awaited:


Shortly after we arrived my friend Greg from Philly joined us since the Air France lounge also participates in Priority Pass and a few other programs, and my friend Phil showed up a bit later fresh from finding a shower at a friend’s place after a JetBlue redeye from the West Coast. Off to the gate after a bit, where our chariot awaited:


Unfortunately, despite kissing up to Icelandair on twitter over the past couple of weeks and dropping lots of hints, there was no priority boarding or special recognition at the gate. There was actually no priority boarding of any sort, so I just shepherded the crew to the front of the scrum and on board.

Icelandair flight 656
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Keflavik, Iceland (KEF)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 23:40, Flight Time: 5:30
Boeing 757-200, Registration TF-ISD, Manufactured 1991, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 139,600
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,328,737

Upon boarding, champagne was quickly dispensed to Phil and I, and bottled waters were waiting at our seats:


Pre-flight champagne celebration selfie:


What’s to eat on the shortish flight to Reykjavik:



I’m not sure a started called “ugly” sounds appetizing, but hey, when in Iceland…


This would be a good place to say a bit about the seats. Icelandair 757s are pretty much the same seats that have plied routes in the US domestically for the last 30 years. Two by two configuration up front, with a few extra inches of legroom over coach. There was nothing special about the seats, but they were comfortable enough for a short daytime flight. I certainly wouldn’t want to try getting sleep in these seats, however. Fortunately, Icelandair has some daytime flights like ours which meant no need to try and sleep on a plane.

Shortly after take off, I asked for a red wine, but apparently I was getting white. The flight attendant was…not the most attentive…and seemed a little frazzled, so I figure it would go fine with the unusual pre-meal munchies that were essentially toffee-covered popcorn. I mean, it was nice to have something other than a ramekin of nuts, but this was…different. That said, it went decently well with white wine (better than it would have with red) so win-win…maybe?


I had spotted on Icelandair’s website that you could pre-order from about eight different meals, and decided to go this way. It was a good call, because the three options on the main menu didn’t look that great to me, and the lamb I had was rather delicious. The ugly cheese was pretty tasty as well…and I finally got my red wine! The pre-ordered meal was also good because it meant that we were the first ones served. No plate for the bread, but it was super tasty!


I spent part of the flight kissing up to Icelandair on twitter, but it continued to get me absolutely nowhere…beyond a congratulations. I should also point out that Icelandair’s entire fleet is WiFi equipped, and it is supposed to be complimentary in Saga Class. However, it wouldn’t recognize my confirmation number or ticket number, meaning I had to pay. AmEx was kind enough to immediately wipe off the charges when I called to dispute them.

With about 90 minutes left in flight, Phil and I were feeling a bit hungry. We had been pressing the call button every 30-40 minutes to get wine refills (the crew was definitely not proactive at all), but this time decided to ask if they had any snacks to eat. The…rather attractive gentleman working economy quickly came back with some Pringles, Icelandic “boxerchips”, and some trail mix as well as more wine:


Gorgeous sunset as we crossed over Greenland:


Greenland certainly looked rugged and desolate:


The rocky east coast of Greenland:


We landed about 10 minutes ahead of schedule, and unfortunately did not get a gate. Victory selfie on the tarmac right after setting foot in my final country:


Immigration was quick, despite the agent making a comment about all the visas in my passport. I told him Iceland was my 196th and final country visited, which was merely met with a very stoically-Scandinavian “that’s nice.” Hah!

Post-immigration I was looking for the perfect spot to take a pic, and found this. Welcome to #196!


Overall, Icelandair was solid. I went into it expecting domestic first class, and that’s exactly what we got. Garrett unfortunately forgot his phone on the plane, and didn’t realize it until we were well past immigration. He found an Icelandair agent and told them, and much to our surprise he was reunited with his phone only 20 minutes later. Definitely scores big points for Icelandair in my book, as in the US you’d almost certainly never see it again.

A few more thoughts on Icelandair, from the friends who were in economy. There’s no food served – at all. It’s the low cost model where there’s plenty available for purchase, but nothing is complimentary. Something to keep in mind if you’re flying them in economy. They essentially function as a low cost airline, and even in Saga Class it wasn’t completely free what was complimentary and what you were expected to pay for. Turns out, everything was complimentary…and apparently whatever and as much as you wanted.

We had pre-booked the FlyBus, which runs continuously from the airport to the central bus terminal in Reykjavik about 50 minutes away. On the ride we got really lucky and saw the Northern Lights, so that was a super bonus for the drive into town. Unfortunately, they didn’t show up any of the other nights we were in Iceland. When we got to the bus terminal, however, it was a disaster. We had paid the extra for a transfer to our hotel, and after waiting over 45 minutes with no transfer in sight (remember, it’s about 2am at this point) we gave up. Fortunately, my friend Kirsten’s Air BnB host was getting impatient, and he drove the 2km to the bus terminal to pick all of us up. Her apartment was right across the street from our hotel, so it worked out super well. Supposedly this isn’t the norm with FlyBus, but next time I would think twice about paying the extra for the transfer and just grab the short cab from the bus station. Especially with multiple people you would probably break even.

Now, it was time to get some sleep and get ready to enjoy the first day in Iceland!

Oct 122015

After sleeping in a slight bit, we woke up to this lovely alert from the US Embassy:


Soooo, great. Here it was, September 11th, and the Embassy was banning its staff from visiting public open-air markets (aka where we were walking around the day before) and all other public events. Aka, we think there’s a reasonable chance of some bad stuff going down in N’Djamena today, and want you to stay in secure locations. Hmmm, I’m pretty sure that traveling to the airport and getting on a plane is not what they had in mind, and we just had to hope that Ethiopian Airlines wouldn’t take this as an excuse to cancel our flight.

Headed to the airport a slight bit early, you know, just in case the booming airport had transformed since our arrivals and had some sort of luxury VIP lounge that we hadn’t seen on the way in. We took the Kempinski’s complimentary shuttle to the airport (which actually showed up this time) and I’ll admit I was a bit nervous and scanning the sides of the road for the entire drive. No problem at all, and we pulled up in front of the airport.

Baggage check to walk into the makeshift terminal, where the same security officials we’d seen on arrival were waiting. Bags up on a table, they rummaged through them a bit, x-rayed them, and let us into the “terminal” to check in. I say “terminal” because it was more like a makeshift room made of corrugated aluminum and plywood where it was impossible to figure out where the lines went. We eventually found the first one, where they checked your name off a list of people on the flight, and let you proceed across the small room to the actual check-in counter.

Check-in was no problem, then it was to the passport counter, to get officially stamped out of the country. After that, it was over to the security line (which was easy to find, because you know, metal detectors and x-ray machine for the bags). Here they checked that you were checked-in (boarding pass), stamped out of the country (passport stamp) and then they let you through security. Keep in mind that all four of these stations were in one small room that was at most 25 by 25 feet square. You can see how all the lines get mixed and it was hard to know who was going where. There was surprisingly little pushing and shoving, however, and the whole thing was quite reasonable.

After security, through a small covered walkway to the lounge. The “lounge” was filled with maybe 80-100 chairs inside another small makeshift building no more than 15×15 feet square. It felt like one of those portable trailers that schools use to add space in an emergency. There was definitely no VIP lounge here. Oh, and definitely no air conditioning either. I mean, who needs AC when it’s 100 degrees out, you’re in a corrugated aluminum room with 100 people, right?

When walking to the trailer (let’s not continue to pretend it was anything more) we saw our plane parked. But wait, what was this! When we booked, Ethiopian was promising us a 787 flight, which was actually really exciting. Unfortunately, two weeks before the trip they downsized this to a 757, which was a major letdown. But now, parked in front of us was a 777…woo hoo! Unfortunately, after 30 minutes of waiting, a 757 landed as well. Wait, what, why are there two Ethiopian planes at an airport that sees a total of maybe three flights a day? Turns out the 777 was a Hajj charter headed to Mecca…we were to have the pleasure of the 757, which fortunately boarded right on time.

Ethiopian flight 938
N’Djamena, Chad (NDJ) to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ADD)
Depart 14:15, Arrive 20:00, Flight Time: 3:45
Boeing 757-200, Registration ET-AMK, Manufactured 2001, Seat 3L

My disappointment at getting the 757 after all was quickly relieved by some mildly warm bubbles:


I’m not a big fan of bulkheads, but the check-in agent basically refused to change my seat, which ended up not being much of a problem because only three of the 16 seats in business were occupied. For a 757, it had pretty decent legroom at least, and there was plenty of space to spread out and relax. See, don’t I look relaxed?


New airport under construction. The little tan building barely peeking up behind the bus is the waiting shack and the dark hole in front of the bus is the covered walkway into the check-in area. The rest of the “airport” appears to be just a construction zone.


Printed menus for the short flight, a nice classy touch:


View of N’Djamena just after takeoff, with the airport in the middle:


The best part of Ethiopian is that instead of some sort of nuts, the welcome drink is served with little airplane crackers:


The rest of the starter was, well, less than exciting, and tasted about as good as it looked:


The main was equally as bad, and tasted just about as good as it looked:


Fortunately there was delicious cheese (served with pretty abysmal Ethiopian red wine) to save the day:


Flight passed quickly, and soon we were arriving in Addis. There was a special bus waiting for business class, which meant we arrived at the transit counter first. Ian was headed home via Saudi Arabia and Cario (naturally) which meant finding away over to the regional flights terminal. I had an overnight in Addis, which supposedly Ethiopian would take care of my visa and hotel. I ignored the hotel part fearing they would stick me in something grim, but they insisted I take the voucher. Ugh, fine, but the voucher was needed to get the free overnight visa, so no biggie.

Said goodbye to Ian, and was off to customs and outside to meet the hotel driver. I should have looked at the hotel voucher they gave me, because they put me in the Hilton! I wouldn’t have paid $200+ for the Hilton (chain hotels in Addis are outrageously expensive) but for free it would have been fantastic. I had considered the Sheraton which is a really nice hotel, but they wanted more than $300 for the night, so I’d booked the top recommended hotel on TripAdvisor. I rarely stay in small local hotels, but this one turned out to be a fantastic choice.

Unfortunately, the driver was nowhere to be found and I had no way of contacting him. For some strange reason, Ethiopia doesn’t allow foreign phones to roam, so I had no way to email or call and find out where he was. Fortunately, an airport employee called them for me, and they claimed they were just running late because it was New Years Eve on the Ethiopian calendar. After about 40 minutes the driver finally showed up and apologized…and the airport employee asked me for money to pay for the call. Since it was only overnight, I didn’t have any local currency, so I offered him a few US dollars, since that seems to be good anywhere. He got angry and wouldn’t take it, and kept demanding local currency. The driver suggested we just walk away, so we did…

I was staying at the Addissinia Hotel, a small hotel maybe a 15 minute drive from the airport. They looked to have a few dozen rooms, and it was reasonably comfortable. As an apology for the wait on the driver, they had upgraded me to the “Presidential Suite” on the top floor. The living room:


Nice comfy bedroom, although no air conditioning. It was cool enough, though, and had a fan:


After the relatively tiny meal on the plane I was pretty starving. Unfortunately, it was after 9pm, so going out would mean it would be at least midnight before I got to bed. Lots of places were also holding special New Years events, so were full.  So, decided to explore the hotel restaurant, which made a delicious Addissiniya pizza:


Complete with Ethiopian beer and bar snacks. I loved the bottle of “Cold Gold:”


Slept great, and had a nice view of Addis from my hotel room in the morning:


Hotel was prefect for a short comfortable stay, and since I had a relatively early flight the next morning was great to be close to the airport as well and be ready to continue the onward adventure to Dubai!