Oct 122017
 

Alarm went off around 7am, and as usual the first thing I did was turn off Airplane Mode. The flood of notifications started: email, facebook, instagram, twitter…and United. Hmmm, that’s unusual. Must be that it was time to check in for my flight tonight from Washington Dulles to Detroit for my NEXUS renewal interview.

Nope. Almost 22 hours before the flight was scheduled to depart, United canceled it for “weather.” Um, there’s no weather in or predicted for either Washington DC or Detroit – what gives? I can only guess that the hurricane was stranding planes all over the place, and of course because it was weather…tough luck.

Called and got an agent who told me she could get me out the next morning…at 6am…via Chicago…with a 40 minute connection. Um, that’s not going to work, and I have to get to the airport here in Helsinki. I’ll touch base when I have more time – but please protect me on that 6am and note that I still have the right to cancel. Great agent, and she was happy to do that.

Quick breakfast at the Radisson Blu as it was included with my rate, and I was super impressed. Huge buffet spread with lots of tasty options, and the only downside is that the breakfast room was absolutely packed. The checkin agent the day before did say they were booked to capacity, and it was a Monday, so that probably explains a lot of it. That said, I’m definitely staying here again my next stop in Helsinki.



It had been about a year since I was last in Helsinki, and since then trains from the main station had started running to the airport. Quick walk across the square, easy to buy a ticket from a vending machine, and only had to wait about five minutes for the train to depart. This makes this hotel combo absolutely priceless going forward. Plus…a great beer restaurant right around the corner!

Arrived at the airport in plenty of time, and the station was quite a hike from the terminal. Given I’d be spending the whole day on planes that was just fine with me, and quickly found the SAS check-in area and got my boarding pass. Of course, the most important place in the terminal was in the other terminal: Starbucks. Got my venti americano, and all was right in the world. Now, off to the gate.

Back to the other terminal (about a five minute walk) up the escalator, and surprised to find absolutely no security queue at all. I was through in 2-3 minutes, and even had 15 minutes for the lounge. The SAS Lounge was right by the security area, and since I had just had breakfast and coffee, I just wanted somewhere to charge my devices for a short bit and sit down. Headed to the gate about 40 minutes before boarding – which was a waste – because the plane only arrived about 30 minutes before departure, and we started boarding maybe 15 minutes before departure.

SAS flight 707
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to Stockholm, Sweden (ARN)
Depart 11:15, Arrive 11:15, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-600, Registration LN-RCW, Manufactured 1999, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 98,640
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,475,617

Does that mean we’ll depart late? No. Despite an absolutely packed flight, departure was still right on time. No matter how much you like airlines in the United States, one thing that is horrible is the refugee exodus that happens during boarding. People bringing on everything they own. Maybe I’m being a snob because I get to board first and bring slightly more than I “should” but if you’re in group 8 or 9….be realistic! You know you’re going to have to check that giant Sampsonite!

Rant over, time to fly. Only 45 minutes in the air, but they still served a small snack…which was much tastier than expected! I never figured out if Seat 2A was technically “business class” or “economy plus” but didn’t matter to me in the end. I got a drink, the middle seat was empty, and I was happy.

Off the plane right on time, and first job was to try and find a transfer desk and get my Icelandair boarding passes since it was a separate ticket. I had considered a flight in Finnair which would have left me 1:45 to connect (aka more sleep) but decided not to risk it. Looks like I could have, but end of the day, risks like that aren’t usually worth it. Finally found an SAS transfer counter, where the sole agent was busy dealing with a very unhappy passenger who had missed the only flight of the day to her destination for some reason.

Eventually, she got around to helping me, and apparently Icelandair is a bit of a pain because she looked like I was seriously annoying her. I probably shouldn’t have asked her (after getting boarding passes) if there was still a Starbucks in the terminal, because I got an annoyed “no, it closed. The only one is outside.” Ok fine…could you maybe point me to the lounge? “Well i *guess* you can use that one” – pointing to the elevators right across from the desk.



Up to the SAS lounge which had cool barcode scanners for admission. Also, where my Icelandair boarding pass didn’t seem to work. The agent in charge seemed puzzled if I should get in or not, and asked for a frequent flier card. I gave her my United Star Gold card (despite them having nothing to do with Icelandair), and she scanned that and it didn’t work either. She was sure I should be let in, but couldn’t figure out how to do it, so eventually decided research was more work than it was worth and just manually let me in.

Not much to say about the lounge…good spread of food and drink, huge and plenty of seating, and ample places to plug in and charge the laptop. Other than that, it was a pretty average lounge, although it did have pretty good tarmac views.

Headed to the gate about 40 minutes before departure, and it was a relatively short five minute walk from the lounge. I knew the flight was very full, but the gate area was packed, and there were at least 20 wheelchairs waiting to board. Lots of American passports showing, and this was clearly the Sweden to America geriatric express.

Icelandair flight 307
Stockholm, Sweden (ARN) to Reykjavik, Iceland (KEF)
Depart 14:20, Arrive 15:30, Flight Time: 3:10
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISP, Manufactured 1997, Seat 4A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 99,977
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,476,594

Fortunately, business “Saga” class was only about half full today, which let me move to a window seat and keep the seat next to me empty in the 2-1-2 config. I’ve posted quite a lot how I hate climbing over people or having them climb over me, so it’s always nice when I can get a window seat and still avoid this. Of course, the internet wasn’t working on this plane, so that was a big negative to the flight.

Menus were passed out as we waited for everyone to board:

Wine list was included:

Service on this relatively short flight started out with a beverage and nut service. The nuts came in a chinese takeout container, and were sugar coated almonds. Strange, but points for originality.

I had preordered my meal online, but it wasn’t catered. In addition to the internet not working, my already low impression of Icelandair was even going lower. First the internet wasn’t working, and now my meal wasn’t loaded. Two strikes. That said, the fishy entree was pretty tasty.

Short connection of about 50 minutes in Reykjavik, and when I tried to stop in the lounge (which is on the Schengen side before immigration) I was told there was no time, I had to go straight through immigration to the gate…so I did.



You can guess what this meant. 30 minutes of waiting in the gate area to board my connecting flight. My memory of this wait is of an extremely obnoxious guy and his mother waiting to board. He was bitching up a storm that nobody in Iceland could manage to charter him a plane to fly him home, and they had to pay $2,500 for one first class ticket and the other person had to sit in coach. Making him even more of a jerk in my mind, was that he made his mother sit in coach while he sat in business class. After three weeks away, ugh, welcome back to the ugly side of America.

Icelandair flight 645
Reykjavik, Iceland (KEF) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 16:50, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time: 6:20
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISW, Manufactured 1997, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 102,776
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,479,753

This flight was already looking up…and like a flight to the US…with plastic glasses of sparkling wine offered pre-departure…different aircraft, but this one also didn’t have working internet. I was beginning to wonder if Icelandair was paying their bills:

Once again, they hadn’t loaded my pre-ordered meal, but the menu looked relatively tasty:

No almonds in a takeout container this time, but the “famous” Icelandair carmelcorn:

I went with the veal main, which was very United-esque in taste and poor plating. The herring starter with deviled egg was tasty….but stay tuned…

Landed on time, exhausted, and since my United flight to Detroit was canceled I figured I might as well spend the night at home and save money. My hotel in Detroit was kind enough to waive the late cancelation fee, so it was off to Uber and a fantastic night in my own bed. Since my NEXUS interview wasn’t until 12:30 the next day, that still left me plenty of time in the morning to make my way to Detroit.

When I got home, I had a look at Delta, and noticed the morning flight to Detroit had a bunch of empty seats, so opted to ask United for a refund and decided to risk going to Detroit standby. Fortunately, when I woke up, the flight was still very open and I had no trouble at all getting on it.



Unfortunately, the minute I stepped into the Delta Skyclub, I knew I’d made a very, very poor decision eating fish and deviled eggs on a plane the previous day. Nausea and all the other food-borne illness side effects rapidly just set in, and I just prayed I would make it through the flight…

Delta flight 2359
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Detroit, Michigan (DTW)
Depart 7:30, Arrive 9:03, Flight Time: 1:33
Airbus A319, Registration N316NB, Manufactured 2000, Seat 24C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 103,182
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,480,159

Hey, at least I got an aisle seat so that’s a positive! I can’t say no to a Diet Coke and Biscoff, even if I was seriously nauseous.

By the time we landed I was full on majorly nauseous. Head was spinning when walking, and overall just felt sick. If it wasn’t for the fact my NEXUS (and thus Global Entry and PreCheck) was expiring in three days, I would have turned around and gone home and tried to reschedule. Lesson learned: don’t leave things to the last minute.

Was originally planning to Uber to my appointment and ask the Uber to wait, but for some reason that felt logistically difficult so I decided to see if I could get a rental from Hertz. No problem, great rate, much cheaper than a roundtrip Uber, and I was set. Off to the shuttle to the Hertz lot, fantastic agent brought me into her office as a Platinum member, and asked if a Volvo would be ok today. Sweet upgrade, although I was feeling too nauseous to even care.

By this point, I should have heeded all the warning signs from the universe: canceled United flight, food-borne illness, but no, I didn’t and proceeded with the interview, which started off perfectly fine. The Canadian agents processed me in under a minute, then it was on to the American agent, who seemed not in the best of moods. First comment to his colleague: “hey…Martha…look at this! You ever seen someone who’s been to so many countries…ut oh, Cuba? We have a problem”

Without going into details, the agent seemed completely unaware of the changes a couple years prior towards US policy to Cuba and refused to approve my renewal. I was told “if you find any documents that support your case, please fax them.” Ugh. Yet, he still took my fingerprints and biometrics. Odd.

Back to the airport, drop off the car, and off to the Delta Skyclub where I sat as a nauseous mess for a couple hours until it was time to board my flight.

Delta flight 1144
Detroit, Michigan (DTW) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:35, Arrive 17:10, Flight Time: 1:35
Airbus A319, Registration N316NB, Manufactured 2000, Seat 15D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 103,588
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,480,565

Fortunately, I got an aisle seat again, and the flight passed without any major excitement. Quite an overly-eventful end to what had been a fantastic 3+ week trip.

Just to finish the story, about two weeks later, after faxing my explanation of how my Cuba trip was “legal” under the new US policy, along with a citation of the policy….someone approved my NEXUS renewal in the system and two minutes later…revoked my status. I read this as “I didn’t have grounds to deny the renewal, but in my authority as a border agent I revoked it later.”

The case is currently with my US Senator who is following up, along with the CBP Trusted Traveler Ombudsman. Per the letter of the regulations I followed them exactly, and backed that up in writing when requested. We’ll see where this goes, but in the meantime (and $85 later) at least I have TSA PreCheck for the time being….

We’ll see how my first non-Global Entry immigration experience goes in two weeks on my next work trip…

Sep 282017
 

Fortunately, there was no line at all at immigration tonight, and I was through in just a few minutes. I had pre-arranged a driver with my hotel (always a great idea in Delhi given the general chaos that is the arrivals area) and soon we were on the way to the car. Hit the 1000 degrees and 1000 percent humidity outside and wilted as usual, as we fought our way through the crowds to the parked car:

Took about 15-20 minutes to get to the hotel, and went with my usual choice the ITC Maurya. I’ve stayed here probably a dozen times, and it’s always a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, upon entering the lobby the entire thing was under construction. This in itself wouldn’t be a problem, but the new check-in area was apparently two tables by the elevators where a couple of agents were struggling with a queue of over twenty people.

I asked the bellman nicely if they could do priority checkin for Platinum members, and was met with a negative, as they tended to more than a dozen members of an Air France crew all checking out and having to settle the cash advances the hotel had given them. I get why airline contracts are helpful to hotels, but given their significantly discounted rates, and knowing there was construction, you would think there was something they could have done for a platinum guest so I didn’t have to wait over 20 minutes to check in. Very bad first impression.

Once I was checked in, it was a huge rush, here’s your key, ok thanks bye, someone will show you to your room. Ugh. Got to the room, and it was super hot and stuffy. Turned on the air conditioning, and even after running for five minutes it sounded like a jet engine. While waiting to see if it would cool/quiet down, I decided to at least get a shower.

Apparently, this shower was made for much smaller people….

The maintenance condition of this room was appalling.

Called to the front desk to ask for a new room, and they told me “wait a bit longer, it takes time.” Um, it sounds like a jet engine no matter how cold it gets. I want a new room.” “We will see what we can do.” Decided not to wait, went to the front “desk,” to the front of the line and asked for the manager. Shockingly, there was no manager available, but a lady directing traffic in the lobby (not sure her actual job, seemed like a concierge or something) took note of the problem, asked me to have a seat while she sorted it.

In fairness, 10 minutes later I had a room that was much better, but combined with the long checkin and changing rooms I’d lost an hour of sleep. Not a huge deal, but considering I was already going to get around six hours best case, I was pretty upset to have lost an hour.

I feel bad leaving such a negative review of this property, because on all previous stays it really was rather lovely and I enjoyed the stay overall. However, this time, they really dropped the ball.

Anyways, I slept reasonably well, and the next morning, of course, my pre-arranged transfer to the airport wasn’t ready and it took nearly 30 minutes even after I confirmed it the night before AND with a call right when I woke up. Overall, a super disappointing experience.



Got to the airport, nobody in line at the Uzbekistan Airways checkin area, and the agents seemed genuinely annoyed that I cared what seat they put me in. They were even more annoyed when I cared what seat I was on on my connecting flight. Oh well, given both flights were full I was very glad I persisted and got the seats I wanted, since there seemed to be no way to assign them in advance, despite numerous calls and emails to all their global offices.

Since I was cutting it close, I opted to skip the lounge today (nothing to write home about in Delhi) and grab some Starbucks to wake me up. Best part of Delhi Airport is the Starbucks in the gate area…complete with heavily armed guard. Hands off my coffee!

Sitting in the gate area, just 20 minutes prior to departure, there were only like 15 people in the entire gate area. Worried I had missed the flight, I asked the gate agent, and she informed me there were only 22 people from Delhi, but the plane would be full from Amritsar. Wow.

Boarding was 10 minutes prior to scheduled departure, but no problem when there’s only 22 people to board!

Uzbekistan Airways flight 422
Delhi, India (DEL) to Amritsar, India (ATQ)
Depart 8:50, Arrive 10:00, Flight Time: 1:10
Boeing 767-300, Registration UK67006, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 95,942
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,472,919

First row centre bulkhead. Flight attendant saw me take this pic, and very sternly wagged her finger at me. Apparently, Uzbekistan Airways still has an incredibly strict no photos policy. How very….quaint.

Didn’t stop me from snapping a few ones on the down low. Plane was in a 2-1-2 config.

As soon as we were 10 minutes in the air, “snack” and water or juice was offered. Normally I would have steered way clear of the cheese sandwich, but couldn’t really resist it with ketchup?!

About 30 minutes prior to landing, the pilot asked the flight attendants to be seated, because we were like to encounter some turbulence. What followed was without a doubt the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced in flight – especially in a widebody – we were thrown from side to side, several sharp drops in altitude, audible screams from the few people on board, and I was honestly making headlines in my head “22 whole passengers killed on 767 jumbo jet in monsoon.”

But, just like that, we were maybe 2-3 minutes from landing, and it was all smooth again. Literally terrifying. As soon as we landed, it was a bit more clear. There was a torrential downpour in Amritsar, and the monsoon was clearly in full effect.

Boarding was via stairs, and I have to admit, it was kind of entertaining watching 200+ completely soaked people stagger aboard. Well over 90% of the passengers were Sikhs, and I’ve heard Uzbekistan Airways does quite a business connecting this flight to their flight to Manchester. If today’s load was any indicator, they do quite well. Seemed to be a lot of families with small children who had gone home to visit relatives, now returning after the end of summer break.

Even with the monsoon and full plane, we were boarded on time, and ready to go. I admit I was terrified how bad the turbulence would be on climb out.

Uzbekistan Airways flight 422
Amritsar, India (ATQ) to Tashkent, Uzbekistan (TAS)
Depart 10:55, Arrive 13:00, Flight Time: 2:35
Boeing 767-300, Registration UK67006, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 96,669
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,473,646

Fortunately, the turbulence, while still pretty heavy, was nowhere near as bad, and well within “ugh” limits, and we were clear of it less than 10 minutes after takeoff. That means it’s time to eat!

Dish of peanuts, “meat”, some veg, bread (on a plate), and some sort of potato or cabbage salad in heavy mayo. Wasn’t really the best meal, but I wasn’t all that hungry anyways, so picked at the parts that were interesting and that was plenty. It was a relatively short flight, so not a huge deal. Kudos to them for at least offering a hot meal on such a short flight.

After deplaning, there was an agent yelling “connections” and then repeating in Russian. She asked me (in Russian) connection? Yes? Where to? I asked her why she asked in Russian and not English, and she said “because you don’t look Indian.” Hah, I guess that’s something?



Apparently, I was the only person connecting in business class today, which seemed kind of odd. I’m not sure where all the Sikhs were going in that case, unless the plane continued straight on to Birmingham and they just went through security and then right back on. Which is entirely possible.

That meant, even with security and the time before boarding the next flight, I would have over five hours to kill in the Uzbekistan Airways lounge. At this point, my cell phone still hadn’t gotten data service, and I was worried it was going to be a very, very long five hours. This was confirmed when I found out that the wifi in the lounge was down.

There were a few power outlets around the lounge so that was good at least, and it was rather spacious and a reasonably cool temperature…especially since I found an AC unit near the wall to sit by.

Quite spacious:

Snacks. I wasn’t thrilled at first, but the small meat-stuffed pastries were kind of addicting, especially after popping them in the microwave for a bit. Yes, there was a microwave in the lounge.

Chatted with the agents a little bit, who were the same ones who had been handling transit earlier. After chatting a bit, it was clear the other reason they spoke Russian with me – they were far more comfortable in it than they were in English. She tried English once to ask about my tattoos, but got flustered quite quickly and switched back to Russian – after which point we had several nice small chats over the next five hours.

The lounge remained empty the entire time, except this fashionista who came in about an hour before I left, wearing  a dress from the 2017 Trump/Putin Prison Collection. She was also fond of the little meat pies.

With about an hour to go, I decided to ask what I might have to drink instead of Fanta. Oh, there’s wine…white or red? Both were from the “Georgian Patio” winery, and had the high endorsement of “wine for restaurants.” Hmmm, yup, tasted about as good as you’d expect. I had a second glass to make sure, however. Science.

Boarding was pretty much on time, and our plane was at a remote stand. The minute I took my phone out of my pocket to try and get a picture of it, I was met with a chorus of NYET! from the several armed police “guarding” the plane. Ugh, ok. I have to say the 787 looked supremely sexy in the green, yellow, and blue of Uzbekistan Airways at sunset, however. You’ll have to take my word for it.

Uzbekistan Airways flight 601
Tashkent, Uzbekistan (TAS) to Moscow, Domodedevo, Russia (DME)
Depart 19:00, Arrive 21:15, Flight Time: 4:15
Boeing 787-8, Registration UK78701, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 98,391
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,475,368

I did, during pre departure beverages, manage to snap a shot of the seats on the 787. Not bad. Not sure I would want these all the way to New York from Tashkent, but they were pretty comfortable, and the nice divider in the middle prevented them from being footsie seats.

Sneak peak across the aisle:

…and the other side.

Laminated menus!

Wow, now that’s what I call a meal. Just kidding…this is just the appetizers. Seriously! The red wine on board was marginally better. We had multiple kinds of bread on a plate. Upgrade from peanuts to cashews this flight. A nice little cucumber/tomato/cheese salad. Cheese plate. Meat plate. Fish plate. Whew.

I went with the beet stroganoff for a main, which was pretty tasty….I mean, it wasn’t gourmet cuisine, but overall I liked the regional flair to the meal, and nobody is going to go hungry on this flight. I fear how much they must serve all the way to New York!

I was pretty full, but kept the plates that could reasonably be considered desert to munch on with a bit more wine while I watched some movies:

Overall, I have to say Uzbekistan Airways exceeded my expectations. I had set them really low, but they exceeded them by leaps and bounds. I mean, the next cheapest option was $700 more…AND a redeye, but it was nonstop and avoided the six hours in Tashkent.

I chose Uzbekistan to save money, to save sleep, and for the novelty factor, and they definitely hit a home run with these flights. They have a way to go to be a serious international competitor, but for the price they were a fantastic option and I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again.

Now, it’s time to take a break for a few days from flying, and take some trains!

Jun 112016
 

I hadn’t really thought ahead since I didn’t plan on arriving in Mali late at night alone, so when I walked out of the airport – it hit me. How was I going to get to the hotel? I had no idea what a fair fare would be in a taxi, or even if the taxis were safe. As usual, before I even got out the door someone approached me trying to get me in his taxi. Since there was no formal taxi queue or price list posted, I just went with it. We agreed on what seemed to be a very fair price (since I knew the hotel was quite a ride away, and we were off.

No problem at all since the roads were empty late on Sunday night, and we arrived at the Radisson Blu gates after maybe 25 minutes. Yes, I said gates. If you remember in the news ten or more terrorists attacked the Radisson Blu Bamako in November, 2015 and took more than 100 hostages. Well, the hotel had to close for a bit after that incident, but was up and running barely a month later. There are now huge  walls around the hotel, and cars are not allowed to enter. Pedestrians are dropped off just outside the walls, and you have to go through airport style metal detectors and have your bags x-rayed to get in. No problem at all, and soon I met up with Ian in the lobby.

Quick check in, and off to the hotel’s bar/cafe for a quick snack. Caught up on things of a few Flag beers and as had become our tradition in the Central African Republic snacked on a croque madame as well. Made some loose plans for the morning, and was off to sleep. The AC was super cold in the hotel, so managed to sleep a very solid 9+ hours.

Woke up and went down to see the pool area:

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The hotel appeared to be majorly empty, which probably isn’t a surprise given the fact it had been the location of a major terrorist attack just six months prior. It felt plenty secure though, so there was really no need to worry. Grabbed some breakfast since it was included, and although it was nothing to write home ago, it was a pretty solid buffet with eggs cooked to order. Given the location, no complaints at all!

After grabbing a bite, we asked one of the guys at the front desk the easiest way to get a taxi, and he walked us out the front gates to one of the local taxi guys who hangs around. Negotiated a good price with him for a two hour city tour, and we were off. First stop was Point G. Point G is a residential area in the hills above Bamako, which is supposed to feature great panoramic views of Mali:

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Apparently the vantage point even had its own fitness area…which was in use by…nobody:

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Looking out over Bamako:

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After Point G, we went to try and see the Grand Mosque. Unfortunately, driving up to it is extremely difficult, so we parked as nearby as we can and our driver led us to the mosque on foot. Unfortunately, it was closed for prayers, so we walked around it outside the gates trying to find somewhere to get a good photo of it. There was nowhere with a good angle, due to the fact that all the streets around it were a giant market. We walked through all kinds of small passageways in the market and got very surprised looks from all the locals. I guess it’s not every day two westerners walk through the market in Mali!

After the short city tour we had to get ready to head to the airport. Agreed on a price for the trip to the airport with the driver, who was more than happy to have the business. He took the “long way” to the airport so we could see a couple of other “sites.” First up was the Monument de la Paix, or Peace Monument:

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After we crossed the King Fahd Bridge, built by the Saudis we came upon a buffalo statue at the Place de Sogolo. In the local Mandigo lore a princess was turned into a buffalo to terrorize the population. King Kone Sakaran offered a reward to hunters who ultimately shot the buffalo and they were allowed to choose among many girls for a wife. They took Sogolon Koné, the ugliest of the women, who the place is named after. Obviously I missed something in the story…

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Got to the airport, things weren’t terribly chaotic, and check-in, security, and passport control were a breeze. There were three lounges in the one-room departure haul, and the first one said it was for business class passengers only when we tried. She suggested we try the next one. I decided to give her my United card, and see if we could get in as a Star Alliance Gold benefit since we were on Ethiopian. She had no idea, but offered to go check. About 10 minutes later she came back, and said yes, please stay and you can have a guest. Finished a couple of beverages, and soon it was time to board.

On the walk to the plane we saw an Antonov 124 Heavy Lifter on the tarmac, and with a window seat I had a perfect view to get a picture of it:

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Ethiopian flight 909
Bamako, Mali (BKO) to Dakar, Senegal (DKR)
Depart 15:05, Arrive 16:55, Flight Time: 1:50
Boeing 767-300, Registration ET-AMG, Manufactured 2000, Seat 11L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 94,641
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,284,166

*shudder* coach…and not just any coach, coach on an Ethiopian 767, which must be some of the nastiest, dirtiest, poorly maintained aircraft ever. At least this one didn’t shudder and make all kids of awful noises like the last one I was on! Good view of Bamako and the Niger River after takeoff:

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a small snack was served, with the typical mystery sandwich…which I took a pass on. Two things scare me on planes: mystery sandwiches made who knows how long before serving and shrimp. At least the mini bottle of wine and Kit Kat were tasty!

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Short flight, and all things considered not totally awful in economy…I lived to tell the tale!

It had been an all-too-short visit to Mali, but due to the fact that most tourist sites like Timbuktu are off limits due to terrorism in the area, and the delays from American Airlines, I was happy that we’d made the most of it. Just three countries left to visit! Next up: Dakar!

Feb 092016
 

After a very productive week of meetings, it was time to head back to the airport for the long trek back to DC. Of all the trips I’ve made to Thailand this was the first time I’d ever gone transatlantic, and this trip I was going transatlantic in both directions. Unexpected bonus of this was an early morning arrival in Bangkok (as opposed to the usual midnight) and a late afternoon departure, as opposed to the oh-dark-thirty.

Check-in was nice and easy at Thai’s Royal Silk area, and even the toilets were friendly:

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Since I had a long way to go until sleep – still another 8+ hours, I grabbed a Starbucks at the airport before exploring Thai’s rather sad excuse for a lounge. The main lounge was extremely crowded, very few power outlets, and the snacks were also pretty dire. Overall, it was way below the quality I remembered, and I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come. I actually left the lounge early to wander the airport I was so bored in there – even the internet was pretty slow.

At least there was a wat near my gate?

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Boarding was a few minutes late, and then like all flights to India it was a mad rush to the door. I’ve gotten pretty good at holding my own, definitely a trait I’ve learned from my travels in India, China, and Africa. If you don’t look out for yourself in a crowd, nobody else is going to! Once safely aboard, it was a nice empty (maybe 50% full) business class cabin tonight, unlike the flight over. Not only was I spared sitting next to Typhoid Mary again, but I had a whole row of three seats to myself in business!

Thai Airways flight 315
Bangkok, Thailand (BKK) to Delhi, India (DEL)
Depart 20:00, Arrive 23:00, Flight Time: 4:30
Boeing 777-200, Registration HS-TKF, Manufactured 2000, Seat 14D

All three seats…just for me and my bags!

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Side view of the two window seats…unfortunately all the window pairs were full, but for a night flight it didn’t really matter.

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Unlike the flight over, pre-departure bubbles were offer. Leads me to believe it was a customs issue that they wouldn’t open them in Delhi.

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Tonight’s dinner menu:

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a few almons and spring rolls to start – not on the menu – guess it was a change:

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Salmon and crab salad to start, along with a regular green salad and garlic bread…not bad, but not impressive either:

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The chicken penang curry…pretty good, but again nothing to write home about:

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Mini desserts and fruit…I’m not sure what’s with Thai’s fascination of serving everything (curry, desserts, fruits) in little cupcake tins:

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Stayed up this flight and caught up on a bit of work and tv, and arrival into Delhi was right on time. Immigration and transit security were a piece of cake this time, and the Austrian staff were expecting me. Austrian uses the same lounge United does, which was absolutely packed. There are something like 10+ lounges at Delhi for like 20 gates, yet they always all manage to be packed. I haven’t been able to figure out the logic behind it. I tried to go to the Lufthansa lounge, but it was too full ,and they weren’t letting Star Golds in. Finally found a seat in the United/Austrian one, and at least I found a magical snack:

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Boarding was right on time for my first longhaul flight on Austrian.

Austrian flight 34
Delhi, India (DEL) to Vienna, Austria (VIE)
Depart 02:15, Arrive 05:55, Flight Time: 8:10
Boeing 767-300ER, Registration OE-LAX, Manufactured 1992, Seat 3K

Tonight’s dinner menu. I didn’t get a picture of the breakfast menu, which was a card you filled out, along with if you wanted to be woken up for it. I decided to get as much sleep as possible, knowing there were plenty of options for food in the airport upon arrival.

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Tonight’s route of fight. I love westbound redeyes – by the time you depart you’re usually rather tired from the late hour, but when you arrive at 5-8a local time it’s usually around noon where you came from so your body feels rested and ready to go..

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Mixed nuts for a starter. I was pleased that despite being a 2am flight, a reasonably full meal was being served.

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“Potpourri of Salmon” starter…rather tasty:

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Chicken breast starter main. Extremely bland and unimaginative, but at the same time not bad. It just sort of…was. I’m more wondering how I got this picture at such an extreme angle!

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Passionfruit cheesecake and cheese. The cheese was delicious, but there wasn’t nearly enough of it. You can guess what happened when I asked for a second helping…yep…of course there was no more. Seriously, why is cheese the one thing they seem to never have extra of?

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On the positive side, after this relatively small dinner I passed out for a solid six hours, waking up only on final approach to Vienna. The crew had done a great job of serving breakfast to those who wanted it without waking those of us who wanted to sleep. Generally, for me, seat comfort and ability to sleep is the most important thing on longhaul flights, and in this regard Austrian did a great job. I was worried they would keep the cabin super hot as Lufthansa and Swiss tend to do, but no such problems this flight.

Landed right on time, though there was a bit of a line at immigration and at security, which didn’t leave much if any time for the lounge. No big deal – the next flight was a short one and I figured I would doze on it anyways.

Austrian flight 561
Vienna, Austria (VIE) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 07:10, Arrive 08:40, Flight Time: 1:30
Airbus A320, Registration OE-LBQ, Manufactured 1999, Seat 4A

Fantastic view of sunrise after takeoff. Although they were crummy EuroBusiness seats, at least I had the whole row again.

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Rather strange breakfast panini, yogurt, and fruit. I pecked at it, but wasn’t worth more than a few bites.

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Landed in Zurich right on time, stayed in the Schengen Area of the airport to enjoy the Swiss lounge, and had a nice shower as well as a pretzel roll and a bit of cheese. The showers were actually a bit difficult to find, as they are in the business class part of the lounge and not the Senator side. Not a problem, however, and once found they were basic but solid. One note is that while the Senator side of the lounge was very crowded, the business class side was relatively empty.

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Walking to the gate, the airport was already ready for Christmas:

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Stopped to get one last Starbucks before boarding, at what is one of the most expensive Starbucks in the world. At seven francs for a venti Americano the only countries I recall being more expensive is Denmark. Hong Kong runs a close third, however. If anyone wants to help contribute to my Starbucks Index, feel free to send me the price of a Grande Drip/Filter Coffee in your city including tax.

Despite telling them my name was François to try and make things easier, they still managed to stuff it up. Should have gone with something German, but that would have just confused them since I didn’t speak German.

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Boarding for United was the usual cattle call, and every seat in business was taken today.

United flight 53
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 11:35, Arrive 15:15, Flight Time: 9:40
Boeing 767-400, Registration N77066, Manufactured 2002, Seat 1D

Oscar Cliquot, 2014, verre plastique:

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Today’s menu:

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Cashews from Oscar’s Split Cashew Farm:

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…but hey, garlic bread, with plentiful replenishments. Yay!

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Yes, this is an appetizer. One shrimp and small piece of salmon, hidden amongst greenery:

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What WAS I thinking ordering the beef…

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I’ve seen shoe leather that was less tough. Lesson learned today: never again with the beef on United. Never again.

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Cheese was an improvement, mainly because they had plenty of the sweet biscuits I like with it:

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Sundae, with caramel and cherries. The usual three when asked for “cherries.”

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Napped a little bit, watched lots of tv, and all in all generic United transatlantic daytime flight. The arrival snack was a very nice change, with a decent serving of fruit that was still juicy, meat, and cheeses. Probably one of the better pre-arrival United snacks I’ve had. Much better than those super sad tea sandwiches they serve out of London. I really wish they’d do something about the rather sad and cheap chocolates for a sweet, however.

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Another trip in the books, next up, I’ll write a bit about the hotels in Bangkok.

Mar 102014
 

Drive to the airport was completely uneventful, and it was sad to say goodbye to the convertible and the Hawaiian sun…and head back to the frozen wastelands of Washington. But, at least we had business class to look forward to, and a direct flight to DC thanks to the cancelation. One of a few times I can remember really leveraging a cancelation to my advantage. (Remember my delayed Dubai-Frankfurt in Lufthansa first that I managed to change to Dubai-London in Emirates A380 First?!)

Anyways, went straight to TSA pre-check after dropping the car off, and we were through security with plenty of time to spare, and even enough time to grab the lunch we never had.  That of course meant it was time to stop by Kona Brewing Company for one last round of liquid aloha!

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Quick lunch, and it was time to walk to the gate, with an impressive view of several United birds parked in a line:

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But, oops, too much liquid aloha…time for a stop by the Kane room…idk why but the Honolulu washroom signs always amuse me!

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Continue reading »

Oct 132013
 

This is not going to be a photo-heavy post, mainly because there are so many reviews of United’s business/first class products out that that I think people are pretty tired of them. One thing I found lacking when planning this trip, however, were the ins and outs of Lagos airport. So, that’s where the focus will be.

First, a small note on the routing. When booking, Houston to DCA was not available for upgrade. Naturally, I started looking for options. That’s when I found out that (at least at the time) Lagos to San Francisco was LESS expensive than Lagos to DCA. Even when I added a one-way San Francisco to DC ticket onto it, it was only $100 more. I’m very close to Million Miler status with United, so the chance to add nearly 3,000 miles for only $100 sealed the day. Oh, and wait, Houston to San Francisco would be on an international 767 and San Francisco to Chicago would be on the 777 AND all upgrades will clear at time of booking. The $100 was a no brainer. Sure, it would mean an extra 12 hours en route home, but it was worth it!

LOS to DCA map

 

Plan was to get to the airport around 7pm for a 10:35pm flight, knowing the reputation Lagos has for being chaotic and things going wrong.  Well, that was the plan anyways.  We got a late start from the hotel, and then traffic was absolute hell.  One lesson learnt:  leaving Victoria Island during rush hour is a mess.  An absolute mess.  Took nearly two hours to get to the airport, and finally arrived around 8:30pm.  No big deal.  Said goodbye to John, and then it was into the madness that passed for check-in.

Found the queue for United Business/Star Gold,  and the whole check-in area looked like a hurricane had hit it.  Masses of people and bags everywhere, lines that weren’t really lines, and convincing the drone manning the area to let me into the business class line was work in and of itself.  Finally up to the counter, and ready to check in.  Agent was cold and unfriendly, but efficient, and check-in took maybe five minutes total.  Then, it was back through the masses of people to immigration and security.

There was a separate immigration line for business/priority, and it took maybe 10-15 minutes to get to the front of the queue.  Give the documents to one agent, he hands them to another agent, who directs you to a third agent, who finally wields the magical exit stamp.  Slow, incredibly inefficient, but stamped out of Nigeria without a single question.  Wow, that wasn’t bad at all.

Then, it was security.  No line at all (immigration seems to have done the job sorting people) and put everything through the scanner.  Walk through, and try and retrieve my bags.  Would have been easy, if the guy manning the other end of the x-ray machine hadn’t decided to pick up my iPad and start looking at it.  I asked him to give it back, to which his reply was “of course!  perhaps you can help me have a happy weekend?”  I was tired, hot, sweaty, and a bit cranky at this point, and just spat back at him “It’s MONDAY NIGHT.  It’s FAR TOO EARLY to be thinking about the weekend!” and snatched the iPad out of his hands and put it back in my bag.  It could have ended really badly, but fortunately he just gave a big laugh and said something like have a good trip.

Now, how to find the lounge.  There were no signs at all, but asked a friendly airport staff member walking by, and she pointed me up a staircase.  Finally found what passes for the United lounge, and…the air conditioning was broken.  Seriously?!  Next up, went down the hall to what I seem to remember was another Star Alliance labeled lounge, and they said no, no United flight allowed.  Um, ok.

Pull up the priority pass app, and find the lounge that is handling the Delta flight (sorry, forget the name) is a Priority Pass lounge.  Get there, and she tells me “no, no Priority Pass after 4pm.”  Ug, Seriously?  I must have made a really pathetic sweaty, tired, and cranky face at her, because she said “I will make an exception.” and let me in.  Hooray!  Finally things are looking up!  Freshen up at the sink, enjoy the AC, few bottles of water and one last Star beer, and it was time to head to the gate to board.

The gate…well it was security theatre that would put even TSA to shame.  Six or seven folks standing around checking boarding passes, checking bags by hand, and after I’d talked to three of them I’d had enough, and just sat down.  It was pretty clear I was supposed to talk to others, but nobody said anything.  It was a complete joke as far as security goes, since they had no orderly way of checking who’d they’d checked and who they hadn’t.  It would concern me if everyone hadn’t gone through a security check earlier.

Boarded right on time, and the flight was booked full in all classes.  Somehow, however, it seemed the ONE seat that would remain open was the one next to me.  This has happened to me more times than I can count recently, and clearly I’ve banked some major travel karma.  Several employees were also cleared into business at the last minute, so I’m guessing that lots of folks got stuck in the Victoria Island traffic mess and missed the flight.  We ended up leaving about 30-40 minutes late due to some sort of maintenance issue, but it wasn’t a big deal.  I had a long connection.

Across the aisle in row one, there were two women traveling together who were giving the purser an earful.  Seems they had booked an award ticket with United, and the only routing available was Johannesburg to Lagos on South African, connecting to this United flight to the States.  They were clearly not experienced international travelers, and transiting in Lagos was a recipe for disaster.  I wouldn’t recommend it to even a moderately experienced traveler based on my experience.  Anyways, seems they had been rounded up by some official types at the airport, told their transit without a visa was illegal, and there were going to be some very serious fines.  One of the ladies was walking with a cane, and said that airport security had demanded her gold watch as payment of the fine, and she was going to sue United for doing this to her.  She did eventually settle down after the purser brought her several glasses of Sprite (she was complaining she was going to go into a diabetic coma – maybe true, but she was being seriously dramatic) and was quiet the rest of the flight.  Lesson here:  don’t transit Lagos unless you have balls of steel!

United flight 143
Lagos, Nigeria (LOS) to Houston, George Bush (IAH)
Depart 22:35, Arrive 05:00 next day, Flight Time 12:25
Boeing 787-8, Registration N26906, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1D (aisle)

Not the friendliest crew I’ve ever had, but it was a solid flight.  Once again, I managed nine full hours of uninterrupted sleep after the meal.  I’m convinced now that there’s something about the 787 that makes sleeping so much easier.  I’ll definitely go out of my way to fly it on redeyes again!  One highlight from the crew, when I asked for hot fudge and “a couple cherries” on my sundae, this is what I ended up with:

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Can’t complain too much about that!  Just like the flight to Lagos, I managed to eat, get nine hours of sleep, and still wake up in plenty of time for a small bite of breakfast.  Some cereal, fruit, and a cinnamon bun, and soon we had arrived in Houston.

Carrying my wooden carving back, I was unsure if it was something I had to declare.  Wood and things made out of wood are a bit of a grey area, so I decided to play it safe.  Last thing I wanted was to screw something up, get caught, and lose my Global Entry.  I went through the questions at the automated kiosk, and there was nothing to indicate I had to declare it.  Got a clean receipt from the machine, which meant I could walk right out, but when I handed it to the agent at the exit, I made sure to ask him “I have a carving made from wood wrapped up in this bag, do I need to declare that?”  He looked at me like I was from another planet, and just waved me through.

Off to the Terminal E United Club for a shower and several more glasses of water, and immediately felt great again.  Amazing what nine hours of solid sleep will do for you.  Off to Starbucks for some coffee, and soon it was time to board the connecting flight to San Francisco.

United flight 570
Houston, George Bush (IAH) to San Francisco, California (SFO)
Depart 9:35, Arrive 11:45, Flight Time 4:10
Boeing 767-300, Registration N669UA, Manufactured 1999, Seat 1D (aisle)

Two words:  GATE LICE.  I’ve never seen so many people crowding the priority boarding line looking to pounce the minute the agent opened the door.  I had what I consider to be the best seat on the plane, so I was in no great rush.  Boarded relatively early, and the lead flight attendant helped me find somewhere to store the carving safely after everyone had boarded.

One strange thing about this flight, the moving map on the monitor was clearly having issues:  I don’t think we were moving around THAT badly!

IAH to SFO map

Great and helpful crew, decent breakfast on the flight, and after a few episodes of Breaking Bad it was time to land already.  Arrival into San Francisco was almost 30 minutes early!  We parked at the domestic gates, and I walked around the terminal for nearly an hour before settling into the United Club for some more water and snacks before the flight.

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Yes, I admit it, I have a mild addition to the Tillamook cheese they serve in the United Club.  Especially the pepperjack which they were out of today, boo hiss!  Don’t judge!

United flight 207
San Francisco, California (SFO) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 13:30, Arrive 19:39, Flight Time 4:09
Boeing 777-200, Registration N219UA, Manufactured 2000, Seat 7B (backward-facing aisle)

Turned out most of the crew on this flight was the same as my Houston to San Francisco flight.  I had to explain to several of them why I was taking such a bizarre routing, but as soon as they understood it was for more miles in addition to being nearly the same fare they understood.  Seems crazies who do such things are becoming common enough that the crews know about them.

No clue why I decided this was picture-worthy, but decided to snap a picture of the new 777 seating just for those who might not have seen it.  That goes to show just how interesting the little details of this flight weren’t!  Note the alternating frontwards/backwards seats.

United 777

 

Decent little lunch/snack that isn’t worth writing about, although the cookie was pretty tasty…to the point I asked for a second one.  Almost thirty minutes early into O’Hare, which gave me nearly an hour to kill in the United Club staying hydrated and trying to stay awake by this point.

United flight 1717
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 21:05, Arrive 23:51, Flight Time 1:46
Boeing 737-800, Registration N11206, Manufactured 2000, Seat 2E (aisle)

The last of several un-noteworthy flights.  The most noteworthy aspect of this flight is that I discovered BBQ Pop Chips in the snack basket.  I’ve never had them before, but I have to admit, they go rather well with the pre-mixed margaritas United serves on board.  I admit I had at least three bags, at which point I lost count.

Landed at DCA about 10 minutes late, and was home about 15 minutes later.  In the end, it was well worth doing it for the extra miles, especially since it was all in business class and almost all on widebodies which meant significantly more comfort.

I was home for just three days, before heading up to Provincetown, Mass. for my birthday and the long weekend, then home for two weeks before heading back to West Africa again….until the next post!