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…

Nov 272017
 


I had been pondering for a few weeks what to do with the Thanksgiving holiday week. Due to some comp time built up, it made sense to go somewhere for the week since I could get a nine day vacation for the price of two days. Due to some fluctuations with flights and availability my plans changed a few times, but as a long-time Zimbabwe watcher, when the coup (sorry, “protection of democracy”) happened it made my choice pretty easily.

Unfortunately due to some other commitments, I ended up having less time than originally planned and unfortunately it became a shortened trip, which unfortunately meant I arrived in the country the day after Mugabe’s resignation. You can’t exactly plan and time these things well, and at least I would be there the next day and see the very first day of post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. Enough background, let’s get into the trip!

Delta flight 151
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Atlanta, Georgia (ATL)
Depart 15:04, Arrive 17:00, Flight Time: 1:56
Airbus A321, Registration N324DX, Manufactured 2017, Seat 14B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 136,002
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,500,403

Overall, a pretty average domestic hop to start the trip. Yes, I ended up in a middle seat, but at least it was Comfort Plus so I had plenty of legroom. Unfortunately, I had a “passenger of significant size” on BOTH sides of me. The gentleman in the window was as polite as possible and “leaned” toward the window as much as he could, but the guy on the aisle was far less pleasant. He insisted on keeping the armrest up, and made no effort at all to avoid spilling all over me. Ugh. Even in an uncomfortable position you can still make an effort to be as helpful as possible to your fellow passengers. I think the flight attendant took pity on me, however, because she she made the drink run and I asked for red wine…well, she was generous!

Delta flight 200
Atlanta, Georgia (ATL) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 18:17, Arrive 16:30 next day, Flight Time: 15:13
Boeing 777-200LR, Registration N707DN, Manufactured 2009, Seat 11A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 144,441
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,508,842

This was my first time on Delta’s 777 product, and although the seats were a little old-fashioned and worn, first impressions overall were pretty good. I’m a huge fan of all-aisle access, and this product does that will still being roomy and relatively private given the high walls.

“Tray service” in business class doesn’t bother me as much as it does some others, and I liked having the appetizer, soup, and salad at the same time so I could alternate bites as I felt like it. The ceasar salad was meh, although the dressing was pretty good. Loved the butternut squash soup, and the “butternut squash, date, and meyer lemon compote” was a little odd – but taste. Seems United’s asparagus fetish has company in Delta’s butternut squash fetish. Plus….pretzel roll! Yum!

Four choices of mains, and I went with the butter chicken. It was good, but nothing outstanding.

Cheese and sundae. Sundae was tasty, and I love the biscuit with it. Good selection of cheeses as well, cypress grove midnight moon, kaltbach gruyère, and buttermilk blue affinée. Overall pretty good for a business class selection, plus it came with fig compote so extra points! (yes, I’m still on my figs with cheese kick)

Dinner was over, and I managed seven straight hours of sleep before getting up and watching a bunch of tv. Shortly before landing was the second meal, which was either a lentil salad with grilled chicken or a hot roast beef and cheddar sandwich. The sandwich was really tasty, but the potato salad super bland. The blueberry tart, however, was quite good.

Not too much exciting to say about my overnight in Johannesburg. Had I planned better I probably would have connected straight to Harare that evening, but it was night to have one night in a familiar surrounding to relax. I was back at my favourite hotel by far in Joburg, the Hyatt Regency, where I had stayed just three weeks prior.

In fact, I had come back so quickly that the jacaranda trees still had some flowers on them:

Slept in, had some covfefe, and then it was time to head back to OR Tambo for my flight to Zimbabwe. Mugabe had finally resigned the previous evening, so I was very curious to see the energy on the streets when I landed.

South African Airways flight 28
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE)
Depart 14:50, Arrive 16:25, Flight Time: 1:35
Boeing 737-800, Registration ZS-SJV, Manufactured 2003, Seat 5F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 145,035
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,509,436

Despite being a mid-afternoon flight, a snack plate was offered. Nothing extraordinary, but a solid offering for such a short flight. You’d never see this in the US on such a short flight.

While waiting in line at immigration to pay for my visa, I noticed all the immigration officers seemed to be in great moods. I chatted a bit as mine wrote up my receipt, and cracked a joke about “what, did something exciting happen here recently?” It was like the entire nation was in the middle of one great big party, and I had just arrived!

I had arranged for a hotel driver to pick me up, since at $25 it was the same price the airport taxis were rumoured to extort you for. I was staying at Meikles Hotel, which had recently celebrated it’s 100th birthday in 2015 and bills itself as the oldest hotel in Zimbabwe. I’d read many reviews online that it doesn’t live up to its five star reputation and is old and tired, but my experience was exactly the opposite. No, it’s not a brand new sparkling hotel in Dubai, and I’m not usually one to go for “old school charm” but I found it a very nice place to stay – especially given its location in a country that’s been experiencing economic malaise for nearly two decades.

I had splashed out for a club floor room with a park view, figuring if the demonstrations were still going on against the government at the Parliament across the park I would have a great view. Unfortunately, I was a day late on that as the park was empty by the time I arrived, but I did have a great view! Parliament is just across the square past the trees:

Sun was setting, but I was determined to at least get out a bit before the sun went down. According to the map there was a Pick n Pay Supermarket just two blocks away, so I headed there to pick up a few supplies since I’d actually be spending multiple nights in the same hotel.

The supermarket was packed, and people were staring at me. I wasn’t entirely sure if that was due to me being the only white person in sight, or if it was the tattoos, but it was definitely noticeable. Not in an uncomfortable way, just once of those – I’m standing out here ways.

One of the things that had made me hesitant on the trip was the currency situation. Zim uses the US$ now, and travel sites warn you to bring lots of small notes, because nobody has change. I didn’t have a chance to get to a bank before going, so had to rely on yuppie food stamps for the trip ($20 bills) which turned out to be no problem. If they don’t have US$ change (which, in every transaction I made in the country nobody did) they give you Zim “Bond Notes” in return which everyone took for me at par. Supposedly you can exchange bond notes for US$ on the black market at a 30-40% discount, so I’d have to imagine that for any large purchase if you pay US$ cash you can probably negotiate a discount. Just saying…



That over, I really did want to get out of the hotel for dinner, so I grabbed a hotel car to Pariah State bar/grill in Barrowdale. I hadn’t had enough time to read up on the taxi situation, and while the hotel car price seemed a bit high at $25, it was a 20 minute ride and I figured for safety it was worth it. Dinner was rather tasty, and the people watching was fantastic. Plus…got to sit outside and have dinner which was a treat given winter is coming back in Washington.

Near the end of dinner, two low-level soldiers walked into the bar, and several white Zimbabweans went up and thanked them for what they’d done (ousting Mugabe) and took selfies with them. Amazing…this is why I chose to come now, and it was awesome to see people showing their appreciation to the military.

Decent night of sleep, even though I woke up a bit after 4am (I don’t know why – but the last year I’ve had a tough time with jetlag going to Europe/Africa, something I never had before) so I actually did a short workout in the hotel gym and then off to breakfast. One major negative for the hotel, the person who walked me to my room pointed out the club lounge and told me “you can have your breakfast there.” I asked if it was included, and he said yes…so I went. I was presented with a bill at the end of breakfast, but assumed it would be an internal charge back like many hotels do. Unfortunately, when I checked out, it was on my bill and I was told that whoever told me it was included was wrong…and they wouldn’t budge on the charge. Left a poor taste in my mouth.

Full menu to order from (the lounge has its own kitchen) as well as a mini buffet of fruits and pastries. I went with the eggs benedict, which was on the small side, but given its richness that was just fine. Very tasty, and excellent hollandaise sauce. I can forgive the lack of proper English muffins in Zim:

I had arranged a 9am walking tour with Lynnette from Free Walking Tours Harare, and let me just start by saying she was absolutely amazing! Great communication before the tour via Facebook messenger and WhatsApp, and since I was going to be the only client for the day, we could start whenever I wanted. Awesome!

We started at the Museum of Human Science, and I decided I didn’t want to spend my time in a museum – I wanted to be out walking and feeling the energy of the city. We walked for about 10 minutes, and the first place we came upon was the ZANU PF political party headquarters. The previous evening there had been a huge rally here to greet the return of (now) President Emerson Mnangagwa, and in the process, Mugabe’s face had been ripped out of a billboard:

The HQ building was an impressive structure, but has clearly seen better days. Looked like missing windows, and the exterior was a mess. I would have loved to go inside, but unfortunately that probably wasn’t a good idea given the political situation this week…

From there we walked another 15 minutes to the Harare Gardens. Lyn shared stories about spending weekends there in her childhood, and how the gardens aren’t in great shape now. She hoped with the new government, they could recapture some of their glory. A WW1/WW2 memorial in the gardens:

As we exited the garden, on the far side was the National Art Gallery. Sculpture outside:

Mask on a tree:

After another bit of a walk it was looking like rain, and just in time we reached the Roman Catholic Cathedral:

Very nice on the inside…and I loved how the pink/tan/dark hues played off each other. Lyn shared stories of Zim in the 70s and 80s when it was pretty much compulsory to be Catholic to have access to a good education. Stories of her family and their education, and it was very interesting to hear how things have changed over the last few decades.

Military vehicle in the street. First one I’d seen, so I asked the soldier if I could take a picture. Of course! I should have asked if I could climb up and take one with him…I’m sure he would have said yes. I really need to get better at asking what I perceive are “uncomfortable” questions so I can get better photos! Skill I have yet to master in all my travels!

In front of the Reserve Bank of Zim, with another military vehicle:

At this point we were back by my hotel, in front of Parliament. There were still a few signs out from the celebration of Mugabe’s resignation a couple days prior:

Loved seeing how participatory the whole thing was:

Parliament. Rare flag “flying straight out” shot. I try and get flags like this all the time, and rarely success:

The coup was so low-key, that the guy sitting out in front of Parliament was alseep:

Right next to Parliament was the Protestant Cathedral of St Mary. Very pink inside, and equally nice:

Quiet gardens behind the cathedral – you forget you’re in the middle of a bustling capital city:

Near the Parliament the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission had set up voter registration, and they were doing a brisk trade in people signing up to vote in the 2018 elections. Now that there is a chance of “free and fair” democratic elections next year, people were excited to register and make their voices heard. One thing every person I talked to said is “it can only get better. If the next guy is bad, we will not stand for it any more.” People were very excited for change, and virtually everyone felt it was going to be a major turning point for the country.

The Eastgate Mall – one of the first in the world to use architecture to provide for natural cooling via airflow. It was noticeably cooler inside, despite no artificial AC and 30 Celsius temps outside.

Took this pic on the walk back to my hotel, not knowing just how famous it would become. Several times over the next day I would see BBC, CNN, etc on tv, and all walking by and talking to these same three fruit vendors and interviewing them for their opinions. I’m guessing it was because they were one block from the one nice hotel in town, so that’s where the news crews ventured.

For example, BBC – I took this pic while having a bottle of water in the Club Lounge. Background look familiar? Yup, she’s in my hotel with the park in the background…exact same view as from my room. Most likely she was broadcasting from her own room less than three doors down from me.

It was early afternoon at this point, and despite a semi-heavy breakfast I was super hungry thanks to the long walk. I googled for a bit, and found there was an app called GTaxi with an online portal where you could supposedly book a driver – just like Uber. Price was given to you in advance, and they quoted me half the price of the hotel car to go back to Borrowdale, so I figured I would try it. Car showed up in under 10 minutes, was nice and clean, driver was chatty and professional, and was a great way to move around the city. Highly recommended!

I had lunch at the Pistachio Cafe in the Borrowdale Mall, and had a delicious “100% Zimbo Beef Burger” and a passionfruit/mango/etc smoothie which was all delicious.

After lunch walked around for a bit before calling GTaxi again to take me to the Zimbabwe National Heroes’ Acre. Unfortunately, given the “current situation” it was closed, as it is a bit of a politically sensitive site. Especially since the “war veterans” (of the liberation war) had come out against Mugabe when he failed to resign in his TV address, this was probably seen as a bit of a sensitive site. Oh well…at least when I called another GTaxi to come get me they were there in about 10 minutes.

Walked around the downtown a bit after I got back, but it was soon sunset so I retreated to the club lounge where I had chats with several very interesting characters. A few diplomats in town for the inauguration of the new president the next day, foreign news crews, a couple of ambassadors who were based in Pretoria but also tasked with covering Zim….it was a veritable who’s who of Southern Africa. This was my first time being in a “small” country at the top of international headline news, and I couldn’t have been more glad that I chose this hotel….and paid the premium to be on the club floor.

I had read on TripAdvisor, and some folks in the lounge confirmed to me, that one of the best restaurants in Harare was Sabai Thai. So yeah, Thai in Zimbabwe was such a strange concept, I had to go and check it out.

The restaurant was in a residential neighbourhood in a small house/garden, so another chance to eat outside. Even better, when I sat down, the resident cat hopped up on lap demanding to be pet. When I ordered the penang curry with chicken I was asked how spicy I wanted it. Potentially a good sign, as long as “spicy” didn’t mean “ok, has a little flavour to humour the westerner.”

I can confirm it was authentically thai spicy, to the point I scarfed three ciders total and had to pace myself as I ate. I’m going to attribute this to the owner’s wife who is from Thailand. DC has more Thai restaurants per capita than anywhere outside Asia so we’ve got lots of great Thai here, and Sabai Thai ranked right up there with the best of them. Very glad I made it for dinner, since it also was a very authentic local atmosphere and allowed me to get a bit of a feel for how those in Harare with money celebrate out on special occasions.

My flight was relatively early the next day so I made sure to get to bed early so I could enjoy a couple hours in the morning before heading to the inauguration. Good thing I was up early, because the club lounge was packed with dignitaries rushing off the the ceremony at the national stadium. Diplomatic staff from several southern African nation were having breakfast, and there was me…in shorts and a t-shirt, hanging out with them just observing.

Headed down to the lobby to go for a short walk before going to the airport, and had to pause…because there was a red carpet set up coming into the hotel, and people were lined up along it. I figured why not, so got in line…and no more than a couple minutes later a series of town cars pulled up with Zambian flags waving from them. That’s how I got a handshake from former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda! Pic I took while waiting my turn (I believe the other guy in the lei is one of the other recent Zambian presidents):

Flags and red carpet outside the hotel entrance:

Took the hotel car back to the airport, which is one of the few things named after Mugabe still standing. His picture has already been removed from the immigration hall, but the welcome sign to the airport was still there:

Bit of time in the lounge which was nothing to write home about, but loved that the news was calling it “Mugexit” LOL. Trying too hard there guys:

South African Airways flight 23
Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 14:30, Flight Time: 1:40
Airbus A320, Registration ZS-SZH, Manufactured 2014, Seat 4F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 145,629
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,510,030

Now, remember, this is an 80 minute flight tops. Lunch was offered, with THREE hot meal choices. I went with the lamb. While it might not look super appetizing, it was really tasty…and the potatoes were really good too. Just creamy enough, and the red sauce on the side (which I couldn’t quite figure out) made sure I finished my plate.

Headed to the South African lounge after clearing immigration and security. I was still undecided if I was going to stay another night in Johannesburg, or head straight home, and I was still holding reservations for both. I decided there was no point to another night in South Africa, given I had just been there for a week and didn’t know what I would do with what would literally amount to a dinner and coffee in the morning. Decided to skip it, and catch the next flight hope, saving a few hundred dollars in hotel/meals/etc.

South African Airways flight 209
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Accra, Ghana (ACC)
Depart 18:50, Arrive 22:45, Flight Time: 5:55
Airbus A330-300, Registration ZS-SXJ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 11K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 148,526
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,512,927

The South African flight from Joburg to DC stops three days a week in Dakar on the way, and the other four days in Accra. When I was working in Senegal I took it back and forth to DC several times, but I’d never had the opportunity to take it the whole way from Johannesburg. That might have been part of my motivation for going straight back too. Fortunately, the day I was going was a Dakar stop day. Why is that important? Well, on the days it stops in Accra the stop is from 10:30 to 11:30pm and the days in Dakar it is roughly 1-2am. Much easier on the body clock to stop earlier and have more time to rest on the redeye westbound to DC. Pre-departure champagne was offered in a nice glass flute (are you listening United?) and then we were off.

I was in the “mini cabin” of business with only three rows, and only 5 seats out of the 12 were occupied so it was nice and private and quiet.

Canapés and wine. While I applaud the effort to do more than mixed nuts, the canapés were soggy and relatively flavourless. Two days later, I can report I risked the cockroach of the sea (aka shrimp) and it’s tiny speck of caviar, and avoided food poisoning from it, hah.

Salmon and trout mousse starter. It was soup…or salad…OR starter. No, you can’t have more than one. Seriously South African, way to look cheap. The only reason I went with this option was for a bit more protein, but after one bite that was enough. Fishy tasting and overall yuck.

…at least there was garlic bread? Except it was soggy and had almost no garlic or butter taste. Oh, and you get half a loaf because it’s not cut well enough to pull apart.

Pan fried beef fillet…the beef was two tiny slices, like seriously maybe 3oz at most, and cooked beyond well done. Yuck. The highlight was the butternut squash (seriously…are you guys and Delta in cahoots?!) and the maelie pap and corn cake because it was novel. While I appreciated the reasonable portion sizes a la Finnair, it just didn’t work.

I posted a trip report a few months ago on South African’s new Airbus A330-300 with the 1-2-1 layout, and that was another reason I chose this flight. Glad to see the config was as comfortable as I remembered.

After dinner I fell asleep for nearly three hours, a good nap on the way to Accra. While I’d hoped to stay awake to Accra then sleep 8+ hours to DC, the body clock had other ideas.

According to TripIt, the Accra to DC flight is only 12% on time, and we were to be no exception. We arrived in Accra with only 30 minutes until scheduled departure, and ended up leaving nearly an hour late. By the time they had done what they called a “TSA security sweep,” cleaned the plane, catered, and boarded the new passengers, it took nearly 90 minutes. Not sure if our flight was typical, but 75% of passengers got off in Accra, and at least 100-150 new passengers boarded. You have to schedule more than an hour for all of that!

South African Airways flight 209
Accra, Ghana (ACC) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 23:45, Arrive 6:15 next day, Flight Time: 11:30
Airbus A330-300, Registration ZS-SXJ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 11K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 153,822
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,518,223

No pre-departure beverages offered, and actually no interaction with the crew at all. There was a crew change in Dakar, and while the first crew had seemed disinterested, this new crew was literally nowhere to be seen.

So bad that once we were in the air, the first interaction was a “we have dinner, you don’t want it do you?” Well, because of that, I had to see if it would be any better.

Nope, the canapés were similarly ugh looking. I ate one just to see….anyone who’s read my blog can probably guess which of the three I went for:

In complete fairness, the “soup of the day” was delicious – it was carrot ginger – and one of the best soups I’ve ever had on a plane. I didn’t ask if I could have the salad or appetizer this time because I wasn’t that hungry, but very glad I went for the soup.

I’m not sure what made me risk the beef again (just like the previous flight, there were four meal choices – beef, chicken, fish, and veg just like the previous flight) but the description of “grilled beef fillet with potato and pumpkin gratin” got me…partly because of the gratin part.

That said, this beef was light years better than the previous one, and the sauce and the gratin really added. A very solid meal. I don’t know if this is catered out of Accra or Joburg, but the two meals appeared to be night and day in quality. Sorry for the low-light pics, but this crew insisted on serving meals with the cabin lights completely turned down.

Despite the three hour nap, I managed to pass out after dinner for a solid six hours. I guess the previous days of less sleep than I’m used to had gotten to me so that was good at least. Why did I wake up? Well the crew insisted on turning on all the lights two full hours before landing, and the resulting noise resulted in me waking up since I was already halfway there. No big deal, I got enough sleep, but seriously, why do you need two hours for a small one-tray meal service? On this rant…they also insist you power down (yes, no airplane mode allowed) all electronic devices at the TOP of descent…a full 45 minutes before landing. Ugh.

Anyways, I went with the hot breakfast option. The eggs were meh as expected from eggs on a plane, but something about the mushrooms and red sauce were actually delicious.

Plus, given the hour delay, we were treated to a gorgeous sunset over the wing as we were on approach:

So, final thoughts on the trip. I literally decided the day that I left that I was going to do this, so absolutely zero planning went into the trip. That said, it was amazing. Sure, I wish I ‘d gone a day earlier and captured Harare the day Mugabe resigned, but you can’t exactly plan those things. Being there the first day in Zimbabwean history without him as President was equally amazing…especially when you saw how quickly people moved on and were ready to build a new nation.

It was also kinda cool to be so spontaneous and head 9,000 miles away on a whim. Great time, great experiences, and despite the exhausting I’m super glad I went. I’ve been struggling a little with “what next” after going to every country, and maybe I need some more spontaneous trips like this!

That said, no plans yet for New Years or 2018, so stay tuned!

Jun 112017
 

There was something refreshing about being able to head out at 10p on a Sunday for a work trip instead of leaving on a Friday or Saturday and losing an entire weekend. I was actually able to enjoy my weekend, and only head out to the airport around 7pm to catch my flight to Frankfurt. Only one small problem: I was on a J fare, and while my United upgrade to first cleared at the time of booking, Lufthansa was still holding me on the waitlist to Almaty despite first only being booked to three of eight seats. It looked like I wouldn’t find out my fate until I got to Frankfurt. That said, Frankfurt to Almaty (via Astana) was a daytime flight, and with a 2-2-2 configuration in business it was questionable if it was even worth the upgrade.

This was my first time flying United out of Dulles in about six months, and it was rather pathetic to see how United has completely given up on their first product. Premium check-in is tucked away, and there’s no separate check-in for first anymore. Even worse, the agent I spoke to didn’t know there was a difference! “We just have Polaris class now.” Sigh, it just gets worse and worse. It’s to the point I’ve already more than doubled my premier qualifying dollars, have hit the miles, but still don’t have my required four segments on United. Sigh. They still have the best frequent flier program in Star Alliance, however.

Fast forward to the terminal, and my first task was to find some new headphones. I had left mine somewhere on a recent trip, and had forgotten to order new ones, and by the time I realized it it was mid-day Saturday and I didn’t know anywhere good in my ‘hood to buy them. So Dulles it would be.

After getting to the C terminal on the walk to the Global First lounge, I came across one of those Best Buy vending machines I’ve seen the past couple years. I was intrigued by the novelty, and picked up some wired Beats earbuds from the machine. A few weeks later, and I have to say: they’re really good quality and I’m thrilled with my purchase!

Got to the Global First lounge, which was absolutely packed. It’s my understanding they pretty much let all Global Services members in business class in now, and it was the most crowded I’ve ever seen it. High quality self-service bubbles as always, but what passes for cheese these days is absolutely pathetic. The quality of this club is now firmly below the Chicago Polaris lounge. Next time, I’ll actually go to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge in the B Terminal.

Wait for the flight was uneventful, and soon it was time to board.

United flight 932
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 22:00, Arrive 12:10 next day, Flight Time: 8:10
Boeing 777-200, Registration N219UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 45,736
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,422,613

Shockingly, United First had been booked to eight of eight a full two weeks before this flight. Either they gave away lots of upgrades and awards well in advance, or they actually managed to sell some first fares. Either way, in years of flying United I’ve never seen first sold out on a Europe route before the day of flight.

Nothing says first class like welcome aboard sparking wine in a plastic bottle served in a plastic flute. I know some people actually consider this aspect of “Polaris” charming, but to me it’s charming in the same way that a Costco hotdog is better than cooking a hotdog at home. You can put cheap lipstick on a pig, but this says “no class” way more than “first class.”

Best part of Polaris: the gel cooling pillow. This proactive crew passed them out to the eight passengers in first, and were soon heard telling the passengers behind us in business there were none left. United corporate may be failing to protect United First, but this crew was spot on.

Soon after takeoff the ramekin of warm nuts arrived, complete with a skewered olive, mozzarella, and tomato. I guess its better than just nuts?

“Seared tuna, kale salad with apple and red quinoa, wasabi paste” – while the tuna looked appetizing it was absolutely flavourless, and the wasabi paste looked more like a baby turd. While better than some of United’s previous attempts at a business appetizer (like the single skewered prawn I got once) it still fell way short.

Carrot ginger bisque soup. Giving credit where credit is due, this was perfectly seasoned and actually delicious.

Salad of cabbage, bok choy, carrot, mango. Just…no. Who needs that much raw cabbage in flight. Nothing says first class like cheap shredded cabbage. Since they’re in this picture, I will note, I love the golf ball salt and pepper shakers in Polaris. Also in this picture which I hate: first class service ON A TRAY.

“Seared short rib” with barbecue sauce, basmati rice, carrot, sugar snap peas. I showed this to a friend who agreed the radioactive red colour of the short rib was rather terrifying. Fortunately, it tasted much better than it looked. I normally hate fattier cuts of beef, but something about United’s short rib gets me every time.

Sigh. What United calls a cheese plate. I might have been impressed if not for what you will see later in this post…

Remember when United served ice cream sundaes? Sure, it’s extremely simple, but sometimes it’s nice to have something simple that reminds you of being a kid. Unfortunately, the fancy new Polaris ice cream sundae dishes seem to have a habit of shattering and putting glass shards in peoples’ mouths, so United has replaced the ice cream sundae with cheap mango sorbet in a cardboard container. Gross.

The mini apple pie and chocolate/nut bar were fairly tasty, to be fair.

Nothing more to say about this flight. I chose the flight for three reasons, and United delivered on all three: the late 10pm departure time, a nice cool cabin for sleeping, and generous pours of red wine which enabled nearly six hours of uninterrupted sleep on the way to Frankfurt. Sleep was so good, actually, that I was out cold until 10 minutes before landing. I had ensured the crew 10 minutes would be enough to bring me to life, and they kindly obliged. I feel the need to mention again this crew was fantastic, and it’s sad United didn’t give them more to work with and be proud of.

On the taxi in Frankfurt, an Uzbekistan 767 which I am very excited to be booked on in a couple of weeks:

Upon landing, I pulled up my reservation on Lufthansa’s app, and something had changed. The waitlisted segment had gone away and it looked like it was confirmed it first, but it was really hard to tell. So, I just headed to the first class lounge, and pretended that all was right. The agent was puzzled, and gave me the “but you are booked in business class.” I told them the app told me the upgrade was confirmed, and when they checked a bit more “yes, the gate JUST processed it. Please come in and enjoy.”

Quick shower, where of course I picked up another Saunaente before enjoying a double espresso and glass of bubbles for “breakfast.”

Fortunately for me, my flight today would be departing from a bus gate, meaning I got a ride to the plane. They may have waited until the very last minute to confirm me, but I was going to get the full Lufthansa First service today. Let’s see how it compares to the Untied flight I just came off of.

Lufthansa flight 646
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Astana, Kazakhstan (TSE)
Depart 13:20, Arrive 22:55, Flight Time: 5:35
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKP, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 48,422
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,425,299

Wow…champagne…and it’s with classy nuts, not in a plastic flute, and I get a rose. I love the little classy touches on Lufthansa.

My ride to the plane…one of the things I love about Lufthansa.

Beef tartar amuse bouche. A bit risqué for an inflight meal, but super tasty with a little creme fraiche.

It may not be the highest quality caviar, but there is something simply elegant about Lufthansa’s caviar service which I love. Plus, they always give me an extra generous helping.

Lufthansa does an appetizer trio, and I admit that usually at least one of the appetizers is a little funky. Today was veal with turnip salad and wild garlic sour cream (super tasty), pomegranate couscous with feta and cashew nuts (also tasty), and the odd prawn cocktail. Odd because it was a single prawn with a creamy sauce that I understand is a german thing. Regardless, compare this (with caviar) with the tuna nightmare United served me, and you can do the maths.

Salad…it’s hard to be too fabulous with salad, and this was just ok. Mixed leaf lettuce with sauteed mushrooms, tomatoes and pumpkin seeds.

Now, I admit I don’t normally think of this as a main course, but when it is Spargelsaison in Germany you can’t pass on the white asparagus entree. I’ve had this a few times now, and I won’t lie – I’ll book trips in May just to have it again. The hollandaise sauce is the perfect accompaniment and the side of smoked turkey breast and cecina de vacuno added just enough protein to make it worth it.

See the United cheese plate above. See the entire Lufthansa cheese CART below. I don’t think anyone does a cheese course like Lufthansa does.

The only reason the plate below is small is because I was stuffed. A couple of the cheeses were wonderful and I would have liked more for sure.

a bit unusual, but delicious: melon strawberry gazpacho with sour cream ice cream. It was so good I asked for more later in the flight, but alas it had all been eaten.

To finish it off, a delicious double espresso with chocolate.

After a few hours of working, I was offered a mezze plate and pretzel before landing in Astana for our brief stopover. Accompanied with another double espresso and some Johnny Walker Blue of course.

Since there was no more gazpacho, it was insisted that I have the tahiti vanilla ice cream with warm cherries. I love cherries, and these were nice and sour and perfectly delicious. Two for two with the desserts tonight. Sure beats pre-packaged mango sorbet!

When we landed in Astana, 90% of the passengers got off. This was quite in contrast to my last time on this flight maybe six months ago when almost everyone was going to Almaty. Today, it would be just me in first class, three people in business class, and according to the crew maybe 40 in economy.

Lufthansa flight 646
Astana, Kazakhstan (TSE) to Almaty, Kazakhstan (ALA)
Depart 23:45, Arrive 01:30 next day, Flight Time: 1:45
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKP, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 49,013
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,425,890

I was offered a snack of some sad sandwiches on the segment, but opted to just relax and have a couple of Johnny Walker Blues before landing. Watched some more tv, and before I knew it another fabulous flight in Lufthansa First was unfortunately over. Now, time to get to Kazakhstan and get to work!

May 112017
 

Woke up around 8am, since we wanted to be at breakfast at 830 right when it opened. We had asked our driver to meet us at 9am, and hoped he would be on time. Well, when we got to breakfast he was already there, and it was the same driver who brought us from Sochi two days prior. I guess he changed his mind and decided to make the trip after all! I never did ask him why he changed his mind, as he’d likely had to leave Sochi very early in order to come get us.

Quick breakfast with him waiting, and I noticed he was chatting with the lady at the front desk. She had kindly already explained to him we needed to make a quick stop at the Ministry of Repatriation on the way out of town to get the visa, and he was ok with that. On the way, I think we almost got hit two or three times, which launched him into a long tirade about the quality of drivers in Abkhazia. Found the ministry by 905a, and luckily they were already open.

Found the room where visas were issued, and there was no wait. We were invited in, the good bureaucrat started writing down all of our information, asked if we would pay together, and then asked for a credit card – never telling us the amount. Based on information I found online, they usually keep your passport, tell you how much the visa is, and then you have to go a couple blocks away to the bank to pay for it. Seems now, as long as you pay with credit card, you can pay on the spot. One problem, I told him, American credit cards won’t work in Abkhazia. He insisted on trying, and it went through no problem on the first try. All told, we were maybe there five minutes, and left with shiny new Abkhazia visas (which incidentally, were never checked after all.)

Not much to say about the drive to the border. We’d made most of the drive twice already, and it was completely uneventful this morning as well.

Got to the border, and were sent out of Abkhazia without much more than a 5 second glance at our passports. Same routine as before on the Russia side. Driver takes the car through, and we walk over to the passenger processing building and queue in line. I went first, and after a few questions from the junior-looking FSB agent (clearly stated on his uniform) he asked me to go have a seat and wait. A few minutes later, Ian got the same treatment. Now, entering Russia from an unrecognized country on a US passport probably isn’t something they see every day, so I figured we were just waiting for a more senior agent to check his work. This was confirmed 10 minutes later when a guy with more stars on his uniform came in, handed us our passports, and said thank you for waiting. Just like that, we were in.

One note: Russia does not stamp you in or out at this border, so there is no documentation of your visit to Abkhazia. Similarly, Abkhazia does not paste the visa in your passport, and they do not stamp your passport. Thus, no problems with getting into Georgia later.

Back in Sochi, and a minute later we drove past some of the Olympics stadiums:

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Made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare, and check-in was a relative breeze as well. Unfortunately, the Aeroflot agent was having absolutely none of me, and insisted my rolling bag was going to be checked today. Decided not to fight it too hard, and just go with it. After grabbing my first decent coffee in a couple of days, we decided to sit down for some lunch before the flight. Delicious borshch with fresh garlic cloves and meat and a dark russian beer:

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After that, it was through security, where they had the best giftshop ever. I wish I’d been thinking a bit clearer, because I definitely would have bought a few more things. I mean, check out these t-shirts:

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Shapkas, magnets, and even strangely Philadelphia Flyers magnets for some reason. Because…Russia!

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I picked up a couple of magnets for my fridge:

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Unfortunately, Ian got the last one of these:

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We got to the gate just as they were boarding the buses to our plane. For some reason, they had subbed in a 777 on this route a week before this flight, and based on the seatmap online and the buses, it didn’t look like it was even close to a full flight today!

Aeroflot flight 6552 operated by Rossiya
Sochi/Adler, Russia (AER) to Moscow Vnukovo, Russia (VKO)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 16:30, Flight Time: 2:20
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration EI-UNP, Manufactured 1998, Seat 61A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 35,053
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,412,030

The plane was parked at an international gate, which is apparently why we had to take a bus to it. When we got there, Putin’s leopard friend was smiling at us:

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Last row of the plane! I had no idea row numbers even went up this high!

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Yup, it was definitely a light load today, way under half full, and in the back there was pretty much nobody except us!

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Goodbye Sochi!

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Good view of the Olympic venues as we flew out over the Black Sea:

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Only water and a “snack” were offered. Still not sure what this was – one was some sort of chocolate meringue thing, and the other was vanilla.

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Uneventful flight, and with all the space it was almost a pleasant flight as well.

Meow, our plane saying goodbye to us in Moscow:

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After retrieving my bag (which thanks to the elite bagtag actually did come off the plane first) I found the best cafe ever. Coffee and Beer House! My two favourite things (excluding champagne) in one place! We had to stop while waiting on the next Aeroexpress train to the city to arrive.

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After a quick espresso and beer, it was off on the train to enjoy our one night in Moscow!

Feb 272017
 

I’d planned ahead the night before, and knew exactly what time the first airport express train headed for the airport. Got there five minutes ahead of time, no problems at all, and was at the airport with almost 90 minutes to spare before my flight. Unlike my previous few experiences there was absolutely zero wait at immigration and security (Hong Kong doesn’t have priority security for business/first class) and I had plenty of time to spare. Quick stop at Starbucks for my fix, and then into the lounge.

Nothing says good morning like a glass of Veuve, a nice large cold brew, and a bottle of pretentious French water.

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Decided to eat a light breakfast before boarding, and some maple smoked bacon and poached eggs did the trick nicely.

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Very excited for my first flight in Singapore Suites! The first class section of the lounge wasn’t very big, but plenty big for the five or so people that were in there, including two couples in transit from San Francisco. I had really wanted a window seat, but they were all gone when I booked. I was kind of surprised both couples preferred windows to being together in the centre.

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Short walk to our gate, where my chariot awaited. Normally I find the Hong Kong airport to be a bit of a furnace, but it was nice and chilly at this hour in the morning. So far everything was going great!

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There was already a long queue forming at the gate, but I just held up the boarding pass, and someone ran over and walked me to the front of the line. Now this is the Singapore service I remember!

Singapore Airlines Flight 1
Hong Kong (HKG) to Singapore (SIN)
Depart 8:00, Arrive 12:00, Flight Time: 3:00
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration 9V-SWY, Manufactured 2014, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 12,411
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,376,812

Once boarded, a super wide seat, although I’m not a huge fan of the leather. It can get kind of sticky if it’s warm. Fortunately, the cabin temp was perfect on this flight.

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This morning’s menu:

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There were still three seats open in first when I checked in, but they all filled at the last minute. Not sure if it was upgrades, OpUps, or what, but my seatmate decided the whole world needed to see his bare feet. Taking the “class” out of “First Class.”

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After takeoff, more champagne was offered. It’s always Krug O’Clock somewhere!

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Since I wasn’t interested in seeing bare feet the entire flight, I built a wall…and made my seatmate pay for it!

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Best fruit plate I’ve ever had on a flight. Not a large portion, but every fruit was perfectly ripe and sweet.

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Cereal with strawberry greek yogurt. I didn’t ask for them combined, and when it came like this I asked “how did you know I wanted the yogurt on the cereal?” I got “Well, Mr Jason, we know all your preferences of course!” I doubt it’s really true, but nicely done…

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Braised beef rib. Phenomenal dish! Just the right amount of savoury and sweet, protein and fat, everything about the dish was perfect.

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Next to my Krug and caviar scrambled eggs on Cathay, this has to be the best airline breakfast I can remember. Singapore really hit a home run with this flight. Down to every little detail, like the signature chopsticks:

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The short flight passed very quickly, and soon we we in Singapore and ready for my 12 hour layover. More to come on that in the next post, but I was really curious to see if Singapore could keep this up for 12 hours in transit as well as the Suites class flight to Sydney.

Feb 112017
 

Well, yes, but before we start, I have to acknowledge some things. Work was crazy the last week, and I was putting in 16 hour days to have any chance of pulling this trip off. At the last minute, thanks to supportive management and coworkers, I was in a place to actually consider this trip as long as I could put in a few hours each day remotely. But then, I started thinking…a trip like this isn’t easy. It’s a lot of time on planes (even in first) and it’s stressful on the body. Plus, didn’t I say I would travel less after I hit every country?

This is when I was reminded I have amazing friends. I leaned on a handful of friends pretty hard to talk through it, and ironically they all ended with the same advice: whichever decision you make, to stay or go, you won’t regret it. Just do what feels right. So, when a decision is 50-50, there’s only one way to decide… Sacajawea I stay, Tails I fly I away…

With that, I flipped it across the room at 3:30 am… (yes, I’d been torn on this decision up until the very last moment)

Tails. I go. Better hurry up and pack and get to the airport. No sleep for me tonight!

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Got to DCA about 45 minutes before the flight, no wait for security, so time for a quick “breakfast” in the United Club. Check out the napkin, guess they know where I’m going:

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Time to board!

United Express flight 3637, operated by Republic
Washington DC National (DCA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 6:00, Arrive 7:20, Flight Time: 2:20
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N731YX, Manufactured 2015, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 612
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,365,013

Pre-departure beverage. Anything was on offer, water was all I wanted. Gotta pace myself.

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In flight snack basket. Diet Coke and Caramello Latte biscotti – not complainign, I’m addicted to these things.

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Landed O’Hare a few minutes early, and having been up all night needed more caffeine. Of course, they got my name wrong again.

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Made it to the United Polaris Lounge, and they now have a cooked to order menu. Veuve Cliquot and eggs benny. Life is good.

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Because once you start you can’t stop, the Latin American Paper Plane cocktail. Talked to the lounge manager, and the mini paper planes that usually get clipped to the rim he orders from some lady on pinterest, and apparently she can’t make them as fast as he needs them.

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Veuve and ambiance.

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Hallway to the showers and washrooms – I like the “stars” on the ceiling.

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Then, it was time for today’s main show. First of many, many flights in first this trip.

ANA All Nippon flight 11
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Tokyo, Narita (NRT)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 15:10 next day, Flight Time: 13:25
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration JA731A, Manufactured 2004, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 6,886
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,371,287

My suite for the 12+ hours to Tokyo. The only downside is that it blocks the windows, making it a little hard to look out if you’re not super tall:

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Long trip, trying to minimize luggage and washing clothes, so looking excited in my ANA PJs. Super comfy!

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The post-takeoff Krug has arrived

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Amuse bouche of smoked salmon and scallop tartar in bouchée pie, pumpkin gnocchi with cheese sauce, risotto wrapped in roast beer, and cheese pepper bar. The roast beef was especially tasty.

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Mushroom bavarois with caviar and cauliflower soup. Sad to see they cut back on on the caviar.

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Beautiful presentation, however.

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Salad with bacon and more Krug? Don’t mind if I do!

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Fillet of beef with shallot cream, escargot sauce. Yup, I risked the beef.

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A perfect medium to medium-rare. Best cooked steak I’ve ever had on a plane.

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Cheese! Gorgonzola, camebert, piave vecchio with a glass of Petaluma Shiraz.

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Warm hazelnut bread pudding with vanilla ice cream. It was delicious.

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Post-dinner chocolates and a glass of Hibiki 21 Japanese whiskey. It was amazing….

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Eventually, staying up all night the night before caught up with me, and I passed out. For eight solid hours. It was glorious.

Not five minutes later, there was hot tea waiting for me.

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Snack time! But first…more Krug!

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Japanese set snack. Kobachi (deep-friend scallop with grated daikon radish sauce), Shusai (Saikyo miso-grilled Spanish mackerel), steamed rice, miso soup, and Japanese pickles. She offered me Natto (fermented soybeans) and I wasn’t going to play the weak westerner so I went for it. Taste was just ok, but they were sticky and gluey, and really hard to eat!

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“This is special shellfish for help digest the alcohol.” What are you saying here…

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More cheese was found to finish it off….along with a glass of shiraz.

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The perfect ending – vanilla and caramel ice cream and a few glasses of the Hibiki whiskey. It was amazing.

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Facebook filters show just how enjoyable the Hibiki was…

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Landed 10 minutes early after a suburb flight. Our gate was right next to transfer security, and right next to the ANA Suites lounges. Can’t get much better than that, after my 1000 meter dash across the same airport in December. View from the lounge:

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After a shower I felt amazing, and it was time to continue the trip. ANA hit a home run in all areas pretty much, and can’t wait for the chance to fly them again. At the end of the trip, I’ll post a side-by-side comparison of all the first products.

Jun 102016
 

I should be up front before talking about this trip. With so many easier ways to get to Mali, why in the world was I detouring via LaGuardia, Chicago, London, Accra, and Abidjan? Well, it all started with a fare Ian found last year from Accra-Chicago roundtrip in business class for barely $800. I was happy to use it one way and throw away the second half, but hey, I might still have countries in West Africa left by Memorial Day, so let’s book the return to Accra then and see if it’s useful.

We found great one-way fares from Accra to Bamako via Abidjan with Air Cote d’Ivoire, so that settled it. I had initially booked nonstop from DCA to Chicago with American as well but a change in times meant I could either have a barely one hour connection in Chicago, or over five hours. I figured if I was going to play the waiting around in airports game, I would book the connection for some extra miles. I gave myself three hours to connect in LaGuardia which should be plenty…even if things went pear shaped.

The night before, I did a same-day change on American’s website so I could get an hour of sleep. I would leave on the 1pm shuttle instead of the noon, take a slightly later LaGuardia to Chicago, and still have well over two hours for each connection. Seemed great.

Got to DCA which was shockingly empty, and had the most delightful TSA agent I’ve ever had. She was joking with kids and putting stickers on her, so I jokingly asked her why I didn’t get one. She was more than happy to please, and I enjoyed my Chateau le Hector in the Admirals Club and pondered a career change….

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Then, It hit the fan. First a 30 minute delay on the shuttle. Then an hour, then 60 minutes. All the nonstops to O’Hare were completely sold out by this point, leaving me little alternative. Once the plane finally left LaGuardia they were estimating 1:11 to make the connection at LaGuardia which should be fine if nothing further went wrong. Which, of course it did. By the time we boarded and the door was closed, the connection was down to 42 minutes. Still doable, but, with the shuttle flights arriving in a different terminal from other American flights it would be extremely close.

American flight 2143
Washington, National (DCA) to New York, LaGuardia (LGA)
Depart 13:00, Arrive 14:24, Flight Time: 1:24
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration N952UW, Manufactured 2007, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 86,496
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,276,021

Flight was a completely uneventful 40 minutes or so, and we pulled into the gate just a bit further behind schedule with 35 minutes to make my connection. I thought I was going to have to reclear security with the terminal change, but American is now operating a shuttle between the two terminals. Unfortunately, the shuttle was “experiencing radiator problems” and took nearly 20 minutes to show up. By the time I got to the gate, the door had closed five minutes early…and although the plane was still sitting at the gate I was offloaded. The ever so friendly agent told me to “go to customer service and they’ll rebook you.” Ugh. Instead, I called the Exec Platinum line, and got a super helpful agent who was able to put me on the next flight about two hours later.

Of course, this meant I was going to miss my BA flight to London. I had heard about the OneWorld protection even if you are on different tickets, and the super wonderful agent in the Admirals Club was more than happy to help. Given my Chicago-London-Accra ticket was BA flights but on Iberia ticket stock, she took a bit of time to figure it out, but fortunately the inbound London-Chicago a few months prior had been on American so they still held control of the ticket. Eventually, she had no trouble confirming me on the American nonstop to London at 22:20, however, despite there being eight seats open in first she couldn’t process an upgrade to first with a systemwide because it was under gate control. Oh well, with eight seats it should be a piece of cake…right?

New flight left right on time, leaving me nearly an hour and 40 minutes to connect at O’Hare…maybe…

American flight 359
New York, LaGuardia (LGA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 18:55, Arrive 20:43, Flight Time: 2:48
Boeing 737-800, Registration N948NN, Manufactured 2014, Seat 6B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 87,229
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,276,754

Mixed nuts and drinks were served right after takeoff…I really like how AA’s mixed nuts have a few pecans and pistachios thrown in:

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I went for the chicken main (forget what the other option was – some sort of pasta I think) which was pretty good. I went for the pretzel roll instead of the bland “risotto” for my carbs, and with the chocolate chip cookie I was preparing for my overnight carb coma well:

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Then, we landed. See, it’s 20:45…tons of time to make my 22:20 flight…in theory…

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See those storms? Apparently we were the last flight in before O’Hare went on a total ground stop. Yet, we couldn’t get a gate, because there was another aircraft at our gate and nothing was moving due to the weather. Nearly an 30 minutes later at 9:15 we were still sitting on the ramp. The pilot was fantastic, updating us every five minutes on what was going on with our gate. However, his announcements got progressively more and more bizarre as he got frustrated. Eventually, around 21:40 he told us “in my 25+ years with this airline I’ve never seen such a shameful performance by this airport. The ground control is fighting with the tower now, and as a result nothing is moving.”

Finally, around 10:10pm after nearly 90 minutes on the ground (and tweets to American asking when the passenger bill of rights kicked in) we finally arrived at a gate. Flight attendants and the pilot were great the whole time, and it showed – despite such a long delay there were no angry passengers, and everyone was calm. It’s amazing what communication can do.

I had 10 minutes to make my flight which still showed on time, and I sprinted across the terminal. On the way, I popped into the Admirals Club and asked if they could call the gate. They did so, and found out boarding had just gotten underway. Yay, I would make the flight but BOO, my now 80 minute connection at Heathrow was going to be messy.

Got to the gate, and asked the agent at the counter if she could process the upgrade to first please. “Oh I’m sorry, first is completely full.” I asked here how suddenly in the last 15 minutes eight people had been added to the upgrade list and cleared. “That’s confidential – please take your assigned seat.” I smelled shenanigans and demanded politely to speak to a supervisor. I had to wait a couple of minutes to get a supervisor, and explained the whole situation. She apologized at how the agent had handled it, and with a few keystrokes punched out a new first boarding pass for me. She then went the extra mile and escorted me onto the plane…so she could boot the nonrev already sitting in that seat back to economy. Awkward!

American flight 98
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 22:20, Arrive 12:05, Flight Time: 7:45
Boeing 777-200, Registration N775NN, Manufactured 1999, Seat 4J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 91,182
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,280,707

Boarding took forever, and eventually my connection in London was showing only 20 minutes to make it. I was praying for tailwinds. Then, it got to 10 minutes, and I rang my call button to tell the FA I was getting off and asking to be rebooked since I would misconnect and would rather be stuck overnight in Chicago than London. “Oh, you can’t…we’re closing the door now. Plus, I’m sure you’re wrong about your connection time. ‘They’ never would have given you an 80 minute connection to start with.”

Then, she went back to the galley, right behind my seat, and her colleague asked her “what that was all about.” “Oh, he’s full of shit. He thinks he knows more about flight times than we do.”

I was floored.

The only upside to this whole thing…service was polite, friendly, and warm for the duration of the flight. Thank God I somehow managed to not let it linger and get threatened with arrest by a flight attendant who was clearly having a bad day. Somewhere during the whole boarding, at least I got a pre-departure champagne in a non-plastic glass. Are you listening United???

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Psst, American, the 1980s called…they want their inflight entertainment system back:

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Shortly after takeoff more mixed nuts, and a very generous pour of red wine:

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Salmon starter, which was still covered in little ice chips. Apparently it hadn’t been completely thawed out….PASS.

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It’s hard to make a memorable salad in flight, but this one was really good! Creamy dressing, spinach, blue cheese, and strawberries. I have to say, both this salad and the one I had in transcon first from Miami to LA were really good. Score one for AA in the salad department!

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I couldn’t resist trying the turkey, since I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen that on a plane before. It was a breaded cutlet with an extremely sweet sour cherry sauce on it. It was edible, but a bit too weird for my tastes. Plus, notice the empty wine glass…

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Apparently, they had “forgotten” to load the cheese course, so I had a sundae with butterscotch. It was a nice change from the chocolate, caramel, and strawberry gloop choices you get on United:

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The menus:

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The agents were kind enough to let me sleep until barely 10 minutes before touchdown, so I got a solid 5+ hours and was ready for the sprint to the gate. According to the app we had made up more time en route, and I now had 35 minutes to make my connection.

The first sign of trouble was when I got off the plane and there were several agents there asking about connections. I told them Ghana, and the lady said “ohhhhhhhh…..YOU need to talk to him” and handed me over to her colleague. Apparently I had “already missed my flight” (how? I still have 35 minutes) and that had rebooked me to Ghana…on Kenya Airways via Nairobi…in economy arriving nearly 16 hours late. Um, no.

Sensing this agent had no power at all, I thanked him and headed for the transfer desk. The agents at the transfer desk were equally unhelpful, but finally agreed to ask BA if they would please put me back on the flight since the flight hadn’t even started boarding yet! Nope, completely full now according to BA, so no way to get on it. I kept pressing the issue, and no dice, BA insisted there was no way to put me back on the flight regardless if it hadn’t even started boarding. AA had offloaded me and reticketed me proactively, so they had to solve it. I would have had no trouble at all making the flight…and was texting Ian the whole time who was in the gate area. Why couldn’t AA let me take the risk of the 15 minute connection, and rebook me IF I miss it. Now, I was screwed.

The agents at the transfer desk refused to offer me anything beyond the Kenya Airlines option, even when I explained I had a connection the next day to Bamako, and finally, for the second time in 12 hours, I had to speak to a supervisor. “Why don’t you clear security and go to the Admirals Club? You’ll find a supervisor there.”

I did as suggested, security took maybe five minutes, and I explained the situation to the lady at the front desk of the Admirals Club. She was super understanding, and suggested I take a seat and she would get someone from Premium Services to come find me. The gentleman arrived about 10 minutes later, and I walked him through the whole chain of tickets and events. He asked what he could do to get a satisfactory outcome. He sat with me patiently as I got out ExpertFlyer and looked for options.

The only way to get to Mali on time now would be to fly straight there. There was no way to get to Accra in time to make my connection. I found just two seats left on Air France the next day direct from Paris to Bamako. I told him the only options would be to (1) send me straight to Bamako the next day on Air France or (2) return me home and I’ll try this trip again at another stage.

He assured me he would be happy to send me back to the US – either JFK or ORD and on to DCA…my choice…in first class either same day or the next day. That would be no problem at all. He said there was a chance he could get one of those last two seats on Air France, so why don’t I enjoy something to eat and drink while he worked on it. I finally got my cheese!

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Miracle of miracles, he came back about 30 minutes later…Air France was confirmed and ticketed! He offered a hotel and meal vouchers at Heathrow, but instead I opted to get a Heathrow Express ticket and go into the city and see friends. Not much to tell about here – it was early evening by the time I got downtown. Had a nice dinner with a friend and then met others for drinks…and ended up staying out much later than I should.

So, let’s pick this up where it gets interesting again. The flights.

Air France flight 1581
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 12:10, Arrive 14:30, Flight Time: 1:20
Airbus A320, Registration F-GKXS, Manufactured 2009, Seat 5D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 91,398
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,280,923

The irony of this flight is it was across the hall from the gate where I had flown London to Abu Dhabi in Etihad Apartments exactly two weeks prior. I never transit T4 at Heathrow, and here I was at two gates right next to each other in two weeks. Funny how it happens!

This flight was a hot mess. There was clearly a large family who had been in London on a shopping trip as a man, what looked to be his teen son – complete with Gucci embroidered velvet jacket – and 11 women boarded. The 11 women, two adults and nine teens/children were all sitting in business (which was completely full) and the two men were in economy. That’s when I felt a tapping on my shoulder. It was the adult who it turns out was in the bulkhead seat right behind me in coach…”will you take my seat please?” and handed me a 100 euro note. Uhhh…it’s a 40 minute flight, the seats are exactly the same…so, um, sure?

I moved one row back, and the flight attendant came up and asked me what was going on. I explained to him, and he laughed, and said “I’ll bring you your meal and drinks anyways.” Easiest 100 euros I’ve made! I had been on this same route with BA two weeks prior, and I have to say the two products were neck and neck. BA’s meal was maybe slightly better, but who needs a meal on a 40 minute flight. Both were very generous with the champagne.

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Despite ATC holds around Paris, I still had enough time to enjoy the lounge a bit before boarding my connecting flight to Mali:

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What could be more french than wine and cheese with some Evian in the lounge?

Air France flight 386
Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Bamako, Mali (BKO)
Depart 16:30, Arrive 20:20, Flight Time: 5:50
Airbus A340-300, Registration F-GLZK, Manufactured 1997, Seat 6E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 93,982
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,283,507

I was excited to be flying Air France again. My first experience had been five months prior and I really had enjoyed it, so I looked forward to seeing if those two flights were the rule or the exception. PDB champagne. Real champagne. None of that US airline sparkling grape nonsense:

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The menu looked super:

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Amuse bouche…smoked salmon and cream with some crackers. Maybe the crackers weren’t, en francais, “super classy” but it was nice to have a change from mixed nuts:

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Mmmmm fois gras and smoked cod on panna cotta:

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The cod with smoked salmon and parmesan crumble with chili pepper was out of this world. Maybe my favourite airline entree of all time…and I feel like I said the same thing a few months prior on Air France. Apparently, nobody can do gourmet cooking like Air France in business class. Plus, look at those cheeses!

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…and not just one, but four mini desserts! YUM!

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Overall, Air France hit another home run with me. So much so that I’m actively trying to find a way to try their first class product now. Their seats may be a bit behind the times, but the food and service on all three medium haul flights was outstanding!

Unfortunately, my first longhaul American experience was a shambles both on the ground and in flight. If not for the amazing staff at the Heathrow Admirals club I would have been left with an extremely bitter taste in my mouth. Now, to start fighting American for the 600 Euros in delay compensation I’m due and for credit on the missed Heathrow-Accra flight.

Next up…Mali!

May 052016
 

The last six months of work had been incredibly busy, some of the longest weeks I’d ever worked. That was combined with planning the end of my plans to visit every country, which was really two parts logistically: first, how to get to the remaining countries and when, and secondly beginning to organize the final country party for family and friends.

I knew the hardest of the countries remaining would be Tuvalu, and for that reason knew that when time allowed it was the one to finish first. Flights to Tuvalu only go three times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. I decided it was best to do at the beginning of my trip, because if anything went wrong I would have the rest of the trip to keep trying. So, the plan was set. Fly from Fiji to Tuvalu on a Tuesday, inshallah, and return on Thursday. If something went wrong, I would try Thursday, return Saturday.

With those plans, I planned to arrive in Fiji on a Sunday (to give a cushion on the front side) and fly out on a Sunday – leaving me two real chances to get to Tuvalu. If those plans went tits up, I had a full extra week on the trip that I could start changing. However, should things go right, what should I do with Sunday to Sunday the second week? With American miles about to be devalued them, I found a way to redeem them for three of the coolest OneWorld experiences out there: Cathay Pacific First Class, Etihad First Class, and the Etihad Apartments.

Of course, just over a week before the trip began Fiji Airways eliminated the Saturday flight to Tuvalu – so there was no reason to stick around until Sunday. I replanned the back-end of Tuvalu, and planned to leave Fiji on Friday – giving me two extra days. That gave me a chance to go to Sydney, and then use some miles for a Thai Airways First award from Sydney to Hong Kong. I was really hoping this time Tuvalu would go much smoother, so that I could take all these awesome flights I had planned.

The day of the trip finally dawned, and I worked a half day before a leisurely trip to DCA for the initial flight. Short stop by the Admirals Club for some water and snacks:

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Also had a perfect view of my plane for the first flight from the lounge:

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Then, it was time to fly!

American flight 1533
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to Miami, Florida (MIA)
Depart 12:55, Arrive 15:34, Flight Time: 2:39
Boeing 737-800, Registration N931NN, Manufactured 2013, Seat 5E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 52,330
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,241,855

Pre-departure beverages were offered and I took a glass of water. Shortly before departure, the seat beside me was still empty, and someone was beckoned up from economy as a last-minute upgrade. We ended up chatting a bit, and it turned out to be someone I had chatted with online before in a frequent flier group. What are the odds!

Lunch service began with mixed nuts, featuring cashews from Smisek’s Split-Cashew farm and a passable glass of red wine:

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Choice for lunch was a cold bbq chicken salad or lentil chili. I don’t think lentils or chili have any plane on a plane, and I’m opposed to airlines and their desire to push “brown meals” on us where the plate has no colour at all, so I went with the chicken salad. Perfect temperature, crisp lettuce, overall not bad fora $5 domestic meal!

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Since this was vacation – and I left my work laptop at home to prove it, I even took the chocolate chip cookie when offered for dessert. It went perfectly with another glass of red:

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Other than that, perfectly boring flight and we arrived a few minutes early. I had just over an hour connection in Miami, and fortunately not only were my gates only a one minute walk apart but they were separated by the AmEx Centurion Lounge! Just enough time to stop in for a glass…or two…of Veuve…

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Then, it was time to board my connection to LA.

American flight 275
Miami, Florida (MIA) to Los Angeles, California (LAX)
Depart 17:00, Arrive 19:34, Flight Time: 5:34
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration N726AN, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 54,672
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,244,197

This was my first time on American’s 777-300ER, and the business seats were pretty impressive. The flight had been showing sold out in first for weeks, so I had no hope of my upgrade clearing. Once I saw this seat, however, I didn’t feel too bad about it:

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Then, a full 20 minutes before departure, I noticed on the app my upgrade had supposedly cleared. This was too good to be true…I fully expected some sort of shenanigans where the app showed it but it wasn’t for real…but sure enough five minutes later the agent came on board with my new boarding pass for 1J! This trip was off to a fantastic start!

So, what’s to eat tonight?

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This is where things got disappointing. Apparently, they had only loaded eight meals, and I got last choice because my name wasn’t on their original manifest. I decided not to push too hard (not knowing the formal “rules” for meal order in American first) and ended up with the chicken which was far from my first choice.

Three wine choices were on offer tonight, and I went with the Malbec which was reasonably good…and another serving of mixed nuts:

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The duck starter was decent, but far from memorable:

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I asked for the balsamic with the salad, but the flight attendant insisted on bringing me a side of the Fuji apple dressing as well. He was absolutely correct, and it was a great combo…one of the better in-flight salads I can remember:

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The chicken was…well…chicken, and rather unmemorable as was the completely flavourless polenta. Honestly, the broccoli was the best part of the main:

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The caramelized pecan and caramel sundae, however, was fantastic:

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At that point…I passed out for a nearly three hour in-flight nap thanks to the comfy lie flat seats. I woke up to find not one but TWO chocolate chip cookies waiting for me. Not wanting to be rude, I of course had a few nibbles:

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Landing in LA was right on time, and I stopped by the American First lounge for a bit since I had a long connection. A bit nicer than an Admirals Club, but far from impressive or of international airline standard. After catching up on emails I headed over to the Tom Bradley (TBIT) International Terminal to catch my Fiji Airways flight. Thank God the connector between American’s terminal and the TBIT had opened a few weeks earlier, because from the connector you can see how awful the security line was tonight. Thanks TSA!

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I stopped in the Fiji Airways lounge for 5 minutes just to check it out, and it was rather crowded and unremarkable. The coolest part is it had an outside balcony that you could sit on which overlooked the terminal.

Shockingly, boarding for my Fiji Airways flight to Nadi was right on time!

Fiji Airways flight 811
Los Angeles, California (LAX) to Nadi, Fiji
Depart 23:30, Arrive 05:50 +2 days, Flight Time: 11:20
Airbus A330-200, Registration DQ-FJT, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 60,191
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,249,716

There were only two empty seats in business tonight, and I had the good fortune to have the seat next to me empty tonight. Sparkling wine, warm towels, and amenity kits were offered. The amenity kids were rather sad, and a cool towel would have been nice, but overall not bad:

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Tonight’s route of flight:

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The menu had a fun cover…it seems due to the late departure we had the “light menu” tonight:

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Not bad for a light meal:

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Tick the box breakfast orders:

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The starter was odd and looked and smelled like it had been sitting around a while, so I gave it a pass. Anything with seafood and cream/mayo sauces that looks suspicious gets instantly avoided on planes by me:

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Now THAT is a substantial piece of beef on the salad. Yes, it was way overcooked for my taste, but extremely nicely spiced with a pepper rub. Plus, a whole bowl of cheese. For a “light meal” this was pretty darn good!

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The cheesecake for dessert was also quite good:

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With that, I passed out for a relatively solid eight hours of sleep. Yes, the seat was sloped lie flat, but I managed to sleep pretty decently despite that. Plus, I always manage to sleep really well on westbound redeyes due to the fact I’m usually exhausted upon boarding. Fortunately, I woke up about 75 minutes out of Nadi with just enough time for breakfast.

Quite the impressive breakfast, and the raisin bran and omelette were exactly what sounded good to me:

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With that said, I was in Nadi right on time and ready to unwind for 48 hours before heading to Tuvalu. Overall, Fiji Airways did a nice job of redeeming themselves in my eyes. Sure, the product was a bit dated, but I guess it’s all about expectations. My expectations were relatively low, and thus exceeded on this flight. Food was solid and substantial, crew was the Fijian version of United’s Old Longhaul Grannies, but nice and sweet, and most importantly the cabin was kept nice and cool. I had another longhaul Fiji A330 flight coming up on this trip to Sydney, and now I was looking forward to it. Sure, they’re no Cathay Pacific or Singapore, but they’re also not priced the same. Overall, a solid performance.

Now, bring on some relaxation in Fiji!

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.