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…

Jul 302018
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 242018
 


Had a nice leisurely morning since we were in no rush, and let the host know we wouldn’t need breakfast since we were going out for one last long walk and would just grab something on the way. In a way, I think they were a bit offended we didn’t want to eat breakfast there, but at the same time…it saves them money. I’ve never understood how a hotel/etc is such an important part of the experience that it’s so important – but then again I’m not a big breakfast person. Give me a nice strong cup of coffee and maybe a small roll or such, and I’m good to go.

Strolled around the city for a bit, grabbed coffee at Polynesian Coffee and Tea again, and after only two days the proprietor was sad to see us go. Seriously, if you go to Easter Island and like good coffee, this is the place to go to!

Our host dropped us at the airport (after making sure again that everything had been perfect, and nothing was wrong with the breakfast) and gave us leis again as a farewell. A fantastic island experience that made us feel more like family than hotel guests, and I can’t recommend it enough if you’re looking for a unique experience.

I just realized, it seems like I’m gushing about this trip. Maybe that’s because I finally spent four straight nights in the same place on vacation. Maybe it’s because we tried a few unique new things and really enjoyed them…either way, it definitely ticked the box of a nice relaxing vacation!

Nice quick check-in at the tiny airport, and grabbed a shot of our plane from the other side of the fence while waiting to be let through into the secure side of the airport. I’d say the departures hall but, well, it’s not so much a room as just the open air on the other side of the security screening!

In the security line is when I realized I still had the key for the geodesic dome. I went up to the coffee shop in the airport, and figuring since it was a small island, I could just ask her to call the owner…and then leave the key with her. She wasn’t able to get ahold of him, but promised she’d hold onto the key until she could get ahold of him and he came to pick it up. There’s something to be said for small places where everyone is like family!

LATAM flight 844
Hanga Roa, Easter Island, Chile (IPC) to Santiago, Chile (SCL)
Depart 11:25, Arrive: 17:45, flight time: 4:20
Boeing 787-8, Registration CC-BBB, Manufactured 2012, Seat 2H
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 61,049
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,581,324

Ooooh welcome aboard and pre-departure beverages offered by a friendly crew…including champagne and mixed nuts…before takeoff!

Today’s flight path:

I decided to go with the tuna steak, which was kinda meh, but the whipped sweet potatoes (at least that’s what I think they were) were delicious in a balsamic sauce…salad was ok, but the passionfruit creme bruleé (if I’m remembering right…maybe it was mango) was delicious:

Nothing much to say about this relatively short flight. Domestic flight so we went straight to the taxi area, and probably 10 minutes from the door of the plane opening we were in our taxi. Unfortunately, it was absolutely pouring rain, and there were multiple accidents all over the place, making our drive to the hotel take over TWO HOURS. Yes, I get that it was rush hour on top of it, but what a nightmare experience.

We didn’t have much energy at that point for anything other than a quick dinner, so walked a few blocks to Tiramisu which had opened a new room since the last time I’d been there, that was a bit of a bar with 20 craft beers on tap. The perfect place to destress after a long taxi ride.

Slept in a little the next morning, and went down to enjoy the breakfast buffet at the W. I wasn’t all that hungry, but it was nice to have a wide variety of fresh fruits to choose from after being on an island where that was slightly lacking. The Belgium-France football game was underway in the lobby/bar area as we went to breakfast, and it seemed like half the hotel was there watching it:

Not a bad view from our hotel room in the morning either:

It was a pretty overcast day, so we decided to just take it easy and having a casual day before meeting up with the Free Santiago Walking Tour. I had done this tour when I was there the previous August and really enjoyed it, but it had also been raining which made it not so fun, and since Phil had never been to Santiago again we decided to go.

Not too much to say, but I enjoyed it way more without the rain…and we ended up having the exact same guide which I had had almost a year before! I ended up not taking any pictures, not intentionally, but I think I was just focused on seeing everything I had missed the prior time when I was focused on staying dry and taking pictures.

After the walk we ended up at KrossBar Bellavista, where we enjoyed a few good craft beers while warming up from the slightly chilly walk:

We ended up heading back to the hotel after KrossBar, and grabbed a really quick dinner at Tiramisu again before getting to bed earlyish. We wanted to be up at a reasonable hour to do a bit more sightseeing before we headed to the airport for our flight home. We fortunately had a 4pm checkout, so that would give us time to sleep in a little and still see some things.

First up was a walk to the SkyCostanera, and a ride up 60+ floors in the escalator to the observation deck. We had one of the supposedly rare crystal clear days in Santiago, and the place was pretty crowded because of it. But look at those views!

Looking the other direction:

From the 61st floor you could take an escalator up one more floor to the 62nd floor outdoor observation deck. Looking up, nothing but blue sky!

One more look at the mountains….what a view:

Bit of a wide-angle shot so you can see the windows too…I was a bit surprised with my fear of heights that this didn’t bother me at all:

In the mall at the bottom was a grocery store, with something I’ve never seen in any other country. Choose your shopping trolley by volume!

We still had a little time, so hopped on the subway and headed to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, a museum and memorial to the thousands of people who disappeared under Pinochet’s dictatorship. Museum from the outside:

Wall containing pictures of “los desaparecidos” – the disappeared:

I think the story of the disappeared is one of the earliest political memories I have – thanks to a song by Sting of all people about the mothers who danced alone in the square with pictures of their disappeared loved ones hung around their necks. Out of fear of being arrested themselves for protest, they danced in silence with the photos…which I imagine must have been a terribly powerful sight.

Back to the hotel to head home, I noticed this collection of colourfully painted park benches near the hotel:

Another colourful bench:

…of course, we couldn’t resist stopping for one last pisco sour, which was by far the strongest and tastiest of the trip…and there might have been a second just to be sure.

…back to the hotel where the Russia/Croatia game was wrapping up, and a 4pm checkout turned into 5pm…but the W was fantastic about it, and happy to give us the extra hour. Next time, no doubt I’ll be returning here again. Now…off to the airport to begin the long, long trek home!

Jul 182018
 


Alarm went off way too early, but fortunately check-out was nice and easy, and despite the dubious legality of Uber in Chile our Uber showed up in two minutes and we were off to the airport. A fun fact that we discovered about Chile, which I think I’d previously since forgotten: if you allow hotels to bill your credit card in US Dollars instead of Pesos you don’t have to pay the approximately 15% VAT on lodging – a pretty sweet deal – especially since they bill in actual US Dollars quoted and not some horrid Dollars to Pesos back to Dollars exchange rate that lots of hotels try and pull. I’m pretty sure this only applies to foreign tourists, but still a nice benefit!

Got to Santiago Airport in under 30 minutes, and then were faced with an interesting question: is Easter Island from the domestic terminal or international? We couldn’t find a flight board to verify (nor a gate!) so decided to head to domestic security. Lots of these far-flung island parts of countries can be considered international for customs/immigration purposes, so you can never be sure. Fortunately, we were right, and right past security was Starbucks. Looks like Fils and Joseph are off to Easter Island!

Flight was completely full in business class and about 80% in economy, but unlike Aeromexico there was nobody at all in the premium line, so we were able to be the first on board.

LATAM flight 841
Santiago, Chile (SCL) to Hanga Roa, Easter Island, Chile (IPC)
Depart 08:30, Arrive: 12:25, flight time: 5:55
Boeing 787-8, Registration CC-BBF, Manufactured 2014, Seat 4A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 58,713
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,578,988

Too few airlines seem to use the mood lighting on the Dreamliner, so LATAM was very eager to make up for it. Ugh to the 2-2-2 seating configuration, but yay to the warm pink/purple glow that greeted us onboard:

I am definitely not a fan of 2-2-2 seating and having to climb over people, but I did love how open the cabin felt. I might not have felt the same way on a nighttime flight, but for this daytime flight it was a really spacious feeling…or maybe that’s just the mood lighting….

Another cabin view because…either I’m obsessed with the mood lighting, or I was impressed how roomy it felt. I never take this many cabin pics, so you can decide for yourselves.

Pre-departure drinks consisted of water or orange juice, and a tiny amenity kit. Had the only thing I really wanted for a daytime flight (socks) so I was happy enough with it. Honestly on a flight this short I don’t expect an amenity kit during the day anyways.

Shortly after takeoff – the view of the Dreamliner engine with the curved wing never gets old to me…

While everyone was settling in they turned the mood lighting to a cool blue…and Phil was trying very hard not to look at the ghost that was seated across the aisle…

Breakfast was a rather uninspired omelette, some tasty, but meagre fruit (though I can’t remember the last time that I was given pear on a plane) and plenty of carbs to go along with it. The frosted lemon cake was delicious, and while I took the croissant for science, I’m happy to report it was properly buttery and flakey, and entirely consumed with a little marmalade.

The flight passed quickly, and soon we were spotting Easter Island:

It was a gorgeous day when we deplaned via stairs, and I loved seeing the very unique airport. There are too few airports that are this unique these days, so I love it when you get to see them:

Thatched roof and all…we’re definitely in the South Pacific!

After purchasing our national park permits at the airport (available with US$, Chilean Pesos, or by credit card) it was out to the parking lot to wait for our driver. We were getting a little nervous when we didn’t initially see the sign, but right on Island Time we spotted him and we were off in the pickup truck to Mamma Nui Glamping.

So, as anyone who’s read my reports for any length of time knows, I can be a bit of a princess and I like my accommodations comfortable. There was one high-end option on the island, but the price was insane and the location didn’t look great…so when I spotted the opportunity to sleep in a geodesic dome, well, I ran with it. This wasn’t for one night either, it was for a whole four nights! This was either going to be an adventure that I loved…or hated.

Leis on arrival at the airport, and a quick “King of my Geodesic Dome” photo:

It was early afternoon at this point, and we’d decided to do an afternoon hike that looked doable from the Dome, but first, we decided we needed some lunch. We went to Restaurant Dominican right around the corner from the hotel (chosen 99% based on location and 1% on TripAdvisor reviews) and were quickly served a huge plate of absolutely delicious ceviche. It wasn’t cheap, but at maybe $30 for the lunch with a beer it wasn’t outrageous either:

So, off we set for a hike from the Dome. We walked south along the coast, coming first to Ana Kai Tanata – which was supposed to have some really cool cave art. It definitely had an amazing view out to the ocean:

The lava volcanic landscape reminded me a lot of the big island of Hawaii:

Unfortunately, the cave art was closed because, well, the cave had apparently been collapsing over the previous months and was no longer safe to be inside. Oh well, it was a short detour, and rewarded with great views of the coast.

Continuing on, we started to ascend the Rano Kau volcano. Fortunately, it wasn’t too hot, because the climb was pretty much straight up, and just when we thought we saw the summit up ahead it would keep going and going:

About 90 minutes later we were finally to the top at around 400 meters or so, and rewarded with a great view down into the volcanic crater lake:

Panoramic of the volcano:

Mandatory proof I was here selfie:

One more…because the view was just that mesmerizing, and after that hike we’d definitely earned it:

We knew that continuing the hike would take us to the old village of Orongo, but it wasn’t entirely clear how to get there…and we were pretty tired and jetlagged by this point so after a rest headed back down the volcano. Going down still took a while, but was so much easier than going up. Great way to spend the first afternoon, and an even better way to get some exercise and walk off all the airplane food!

…which was an excuse when we got back to town to grab some ice cream, which turned out to pretty much be the theme of the trip! Back to the glamping place around 6pm, and the setting sun did a nice job of showing the dome:

Unfortunately, despite the outside temperature being around 22 degrees celcius, the temperature inside the dome from the direct sun hitting it was well over 30. So, what better to do than to decamp to the attached restaurant for some pisco sours and eventually some delicious pizzas for dinner. Given it was our first night there, some relaxing was definitely in order, and we just hung around the restaurant for the evening playing with the resident cat and dog, and enjoying unwinding. We had absolutely nothing planned that we had to do the next three days, so for once, I was really looking forward to actually being on vacation!

By the time we got back to the dome around 10pm it had cooled down nicely, and the outside temp was maybe 13-15 degrees and the dome was the exact same temperature – wonderful for sleeping! Managed a solid 9 hours of sleep in the wonderfully cool dome (thankfully I’d brought ear plugs, because the sound of roosters at 4am combined with dogs barking would have woken me up otherwise) and was ready to actually get out and explore Easter Island!

Sep 282017
 



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

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

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

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

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

The maintenance condition of this room was appalling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Quite spacious:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sneak peak across the aisle:

…and the other side.

Laminated menus!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 062017
 



I had forgotten that one of the best things about southbound/northbound redeye flights with no time zone change is the total lack of jetlag. Ended up going to bed around 10p my first night in Santiago, and slept over nine straight wonderful hours due to being so tired…and no waking up in the middle of the night due to jetlag. It was wonderful!

First stop was down the street to Starbucks to get some coffee and wake up, but for some reason (despite the opening hours indicating otherwise) the store was closed 45 minutes after it was supposed to open, and there was no sign of life inside. Hmm, oh well, on to plan two – breakfast at the W which was included with my room.

For some reason was feeling like fruit this morning, so went for a light breakfast of fruit and cheese, along with plenty of coffee. Fruit was fresh and super tasty – does anyone know what the fruit in the upper right of the picture is?

Still hungry, I went for a bit more fruit…and some pastries of course…

Sufficiently awake, I checked out, and called an Uber to head to the airport. No problem getting an Uber this time (despite the supposed illegal status in Santiago) and was at the airport and checked in in no time at all. Through immigration and security rather quickly, and walked through the duty free shop on the way to try and find the lounge. In Russia there was vodka in plastic kalashnikov rifle bottles, and apparently in Chile there is pisco in Easter Island statues for sale. Anything as a gimmick for the tourist dollar!

Finally found the Starbucks, and no thanks to signs, the Avianca lounge which is hidden in the basement. Never would have found it without asking someone where it is. Makes you wonder why there aren’t signs. The lounge is about as disappointing as every Avianca lounge I’ve been in, but did the job with plenty of bottled drinks and some chocolate chip cookies to go with my espresso, so I was happy.

Headed to the gate about 40 minutes prior to departure, and there was a huge throng of people waiting to board. Lots of jetlagged people continuing on from Toronto, including the obligatory “I’m a silver elite member” pushing people out of the way to try and board. Ahhh….just like being back home. But the Air Canada baby blue 787 looked striking against the grey, rainy sky:

Boarding was pretty easy, and a very friendly crew welcomed me on board and showed me to my seat – 1K

Air Canada flight 92
Santiago, Chile (SCL) to Buenos Aires, Argentina (EZE)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 13:40, Flight Time: 1:55
Boeing 787-9, Registration C-FKSV, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 74,624
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,451,601

Bienvenue á bord! Day three of trip, third language…

Must have gotten to the airport just on time, because the skies opened up and very heavy rain had begun to fall For pre-departure, the choice was water, water, or water. At least it wasn’t served in a plastic cup…

Great view of the Andes soon after takeoff. No sign of any soccer players…

Love this shot of the snow-capped Andes with the distinctive 787 wing.

The light clouds really added to the beauty.

About 30 minutes into the flight, lunch was served. Not too bad for a flight under two hours, and a continuation flight. I find generally when airlines do these “tag” flights onto a longer flight, the second flight has a tiny snack at best. This had a full lunch service which was super tasty. There was even a simple menu for the short flight:

High marks to Air Canada – the lunch was super tasty and fresh, and one of the better meals I’ve had on such a short route anywhere in the world. Plus, the Deutz is a less-common champagne that was a nice change from some of the more frequent offerings.

As we were approaching Buenos Aires, it was suggested I have another glass of champagne. My mild protests fell upon deaf ears….as did the ones 15 minutes before landing. “You’re having more, and I’ll put it in a plastic cup so you can enjoy it right up to the gate.” Did I mention I loved this crew?

Not feeling like dealing with Uber at the airport I allowed myself to get taken advantage of by the official taxi service, which was quick and prevented me from having to wait in the heavy rain outside looking around for an Uber. When I got to my hotel, the Sheraton Congress Centre, check-in was a little on the slow side, but they did inform me that they had upgraded me to a suite for my one night stay. Not too shabby for the low rate. The living room upon entry:

Looking from the living room back to the door and kitchen area:

Pretty typical bedroom, as big as most hotel rooms:

Great view out the window of the Plaza Fuerza Aérea Argentina, the Torre Monumental, and the Retiro train station:

Previous trips to Buenos Aires I had always stayed in the Luxury Collection Park Tower (which is right next to the Sheraton) but for some reason on this stay rates were more than double, and I figured for one night I would try and be a bit economical. Short version: I was perfectly happy with the Sheraton, and glad that I hadn’t spent the extra money simply for a nicer room.

It was still a light rain when I headed out, but decided to walk for a bit in hopes of not getting too wet. Monument to those killed in the wars in the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands:

Heading up the beginning of Avenida Florida past San Martin Park as dusk set in:

After about an hour of walking it was dark and I was getting damp and tired, so headed to my favourite parilla, El Establo, to get some delicious Argentine steak. The place was a bit more run down than I remembered it being, and of course prices are much higher now that the blue market exchange rate is more or less a thing of the past, but a half bottle of good malbec and a giant lomo/filet mignon with dessert was still under $30. Can’t beat it!

Almost perfectly cooked….could have been just the tiniest bit more red, but given the propensity of Argentines to overcook steak (even when ordered punto jugoso) I was very happy with it!

Now that was a LOT of steak.

…but of course, being Argentina, there was still room for some Dulce de Leche ice cream. Also being Argentina, there’s no such thing as a small dessert!

With that, it was getting late and I was getting tired, so it was time for some sleep so I could enjoy more Buenos Aires in the morning before heading onwards…

May 262016
 

When I booked my Etihad transfer back to the airport, they sent me an email telling me they would pick me up at 8:30am. 2:15 before the flight, based on the fact I was in first and supposedly the lounge was nothing to write home about, was just right for me. Went to bed, woke up, went down to breakfast, and was reading my email when…

I saw that at 11pm the night before, they sent me another email telling me they would pick me up at 7:45am. This was at about 8:10am when I was eating breakfast…I ran over to the front desk, and yes, they’ve tried calling my room, the driver has been waiting since 7:45…and has just left. Way to change the transfer less than 12 hours before the flight Etihad, when normal people are sleeping, and to leave without me.

Fortunately I was able to get an Uber in about 10 minutes, and was to the airport for just over 45 Dirhams. But then, dropped off at the first class check-in area (the one thing that seems to be separated on the ground for first and business passengers) and was told “oh, no, we have closed the flight. You have been offloaded.” 1:58 before the flight. It seems US flights close for checkin two hours before the flight due to US Customs/Immigration pre-clearance. Why in the world had Etihad misled me with an email leading me to believe it was ok to be picked up 2:15 before my flight? UGH!

Fortunately, the agent made some phone calls, and was very clear when she told me “this is a one time exception – next time you cannot travel” – and yes, this is ground services for a first class that is trying to compete with the best in the world. So far, except for the hard product on the A380, they were falling way, WAY short in my book.

Fortunately, no wait for immigration or security, and I’d been warned I needed to head straight to US Pre-clearance, no time to spend in the general lounge. I still popped in for one minute to confirm there is still no separate first class lounge (seriously? you build apartments in the sky but can’t build a lounge for first class?) and headed to pre-clearance. There were still plenty of people in line, I was quickly processed through Global Entry, quick interview by the agent for customs purposes, and was through to the gate area.

Etihad does have a lounge after pre-clearance, and it was incredibly small and packed again since it was shared by business, first, and all their frequent flier elites. Yes, like London, it’s nice you have waiter service, but when you have 100 people in the lounge it kind of defeats the point. At least the AC was nice while we waited to board.

Like London, no priority boarding for First, just a scrum with all the elites and business class. It really seems to Etihad they think that first class just means a better seat. That’s nice and all, but it makes them far from competitive with other international first class…and this is coming from a guy whose biggest selling point at 6’4 is generally the seat!

Etihad flight 131
Abu Dhabi, UAE (AUH) to Washington, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 17:00, Flight Time: 14:15
Boeing 787-9, Registration A6-BLB, Manufactured 2015, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 86,282
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,275,807

Just as in London, once boarded, the whole experience changed. Sure, it wasn’t an apartment, but the 787 suite was still extremely nice!

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Being a morning flight, I thought it best to go slowly, and join the glass of champagne with a glass of orange juice. Once again, dates and arabic coffee were also offered.

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The menu looked surprisingly similar to the flight in from London in many ways, just a few different choices:

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Picture of Abu Dhabi after takeoff…the rear-facing seats were great for taking pics:

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Same mixed nuts, wasabi peas, and olives starter as out of London…but I didn’t mind. Beats the usual boring nuts!

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I decided to have a full lunch as I’d had a small breakfast, so the table was set:

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The amuse bouche…I’m honestly not sure what it was, but it tasted mildly fishy.

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The scallops appetizer. Rather small, but they were perfectly cooked so a nice light starter. The green apple was an interesting contrast in flavours, and I think it kind of overwhelmed the scallops. Not a fan of the pairing. Went nicely with champagne though 😉

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Choice of breads, and butter and oil. Not sure the point of putting the little cover on the butter, but…

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Palate cleanser….mint ice…did its job…

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The onboard chef recommended the biryani, so I had to give it a try. I have to say it was absolutely delicious…great combination of spices, just enough saffron, cashews…super tasty. Also went nicely with the Malbec.

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You knew I wasn’t going to pass up the cheese. The green apples and “fruit paste” made another appearance, and added a great touch.

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In flight, love this shot of the curved 787 wing since I was seated “backwards” against the bright blue sky with the windows just slightly tinted:

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Instead of passing out, I couldn’t resist dessert…chocolate and vanilla ice cream. They seemed surprised that I would want more than one flavour. It was pretty tasty though!

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At this point, a glass of wine, and time to pass out for a nice five hour nap:

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Woke up, watched a little tv, and about 90 minutes  before landing decided to give the steak sandwich one more try. I had asked them in advance to make sure they saved one, and I’m glad I did because it was much better than the flight in from London. I know some of the preparation on board is done by the chef, so there is slight variation from flight to flight. I have to say this one did an extremely nice job!

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I asked for another cheese plate to finish off my snack, but unfortunately there was no more left. It was suggested I try the pistachio cake, so I decided to go for it. I could only manage two bites though – it was way too incredibly sweet tasting and almost hurt my teeth:

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With this, the flight was over. Landed at the domestic gate, train to the main terminal, got to baggage claim and there were about two dozen drivers waiting…but not mine. Etihad had texted me his information…so I called. Despite the fact we landed 10 minutes late my driver was still 15 minutes away. Maybe I just got super unlucky with the ground experience, but I found Etihad failed on nearly every front.

On the ground, I couldn’t distinguish what I received from business class, and the wines and food served in the air were also no better than business class quality. The only thing I found “first class” about Etihad was the seats – which were some of the best first class of any airline in the world, and the service in the air (only) which was also definitely top notch international first class standard. I will give Etihad another try, but after two flights they would be way down my list for a true comprehensive first class experience.

Next up, in less than 48 hours, I’m off to countries #193 and #194 – Mali and Mauritania. After than, just two to go!!!

Feb 082016
 

When I found out I was headed to Bangkok for work, I had a bit of a dilemma. Ever since United stopped serving Bangkok, there are very few good options to get there with a United ticket. You can fly to Hong Kong and connect to from there, but that means the 747s or 777s, with their awful seating. I mean, seriously, who doesn’t have all-aisle access seating. Plus, this option was significantly more expensive than fares we were getting on Korean and Air China…which were non-starters since I still had lots of elite qualifying dollars to earn with just a month left in 2015.

Eventually, I remembered there were super cheap business fares to India, and found an Air Canada option via Toronto with United flight numbers, meaning United would ticket it. Combine this with a cheapish Delhi to Bangkok ticket, and I was in business. On the way back, the flights that worked best timewise out of India ended up being on Austrian to Vienna and on to Zurich, with a connection to United there. Tickets sorted, premier qualifying dollars in the bag, it was time for a few new experiences – Air Canada longhaul, on a 787 nonetheless, and Austrian longhaul.

Slept in a bit the day of the flight, then headed to DCA. The Air Canada agents at DCA are pretty terrible. I think they might be outsourced, but they really have no clue about Star Alliance benefits, there’s no lounge at all – nor is there a restaurant voucher/credit – and it’s overall a pretty miserable operation. Since I was on two separate tickets, she didn’t want to check me in without a visa for India. I showed her one on an expired passport, and she refused to accept that as valid, even though it’s just fine with India. Then, I showed her an expired visa in a current passport, and not seeing the date she was good with that. Seriously WTF.

Fortunately, the A Gates at DCA have a couple new restaurant options with iPad ordering, which is pretty slick. Had a small lunch, and soon it was time for the short flight up to Toronto.

Air Canada flight 7615, Operated by Sky Regional
Washington, National (DCA) to Toronto, Ontario (YYZ)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 14:15, Flight Time: 1:25
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration C-FEJL, Manufactured 2005, Seat 1A

I had been incredibly busy leading up to this trip, and hadn’t had any time to give thoughts to seats. By the time I did, the only seat left in business was 1A. Decent because you don’t have anyone reclining into you, but pretty poor from a legroom perspective. Whatever, it’s a short flight, so wasn’t a big deal. No pre-departure beverages offered, but a great view of the Pentagon on a clear day right after takeoff:

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Small cheese plate and nuts were offered as a snack with wine…and refills. Not bad service for a flight that was just over an hour!

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Toronto is a bit strange when making a US to International connection. In order to get to international departures, you still need to visit an immigration agent, but a different agent than if you were intending to enter Canada. Not sure what the point of this check is, since you’re merely in transit, but they do it. Satisfied I wasn’t up to no good, they let me into the international area, and the Salon Feuille d’érable – or Maple Leaf Lounge. Quite a good spread of food was out, so I had some tasty ravioli and the obligatory ceasar. I love the little maple leaf swizzle sticks:

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A few weeks after I had booked, my friend John in Ottawa (who has guest blogged here before) found out he had to go to Tokyo for work. Being a complete dork and majorly short on miles to requalify with Air Canada, he opted to join me all the way to Bangkok, continuing on from there to Tokyo the long way. Talk about a super out of the way routing! While I enjoyed my ceasar, he indulged his obsession with the Maple Leaf Lounge cookies, and we got a bit of work done. There were several other options on the buffet, and I was pretty impressed with the amount of food that was set out. You’d never see hot options like this in a United or American club, not to mention all the fresh side dishes. You’re lucky to get hummus and some cheese cubes.

What a great coincidence, however, that we even had to leave on the same days and could end up on the same flights. Fortunately, his upgrade even cleared at the gate and on top of that, the last open seat was the one across the aisle from us. The travel gods were definitely smiling on us!

Air Canada flight 70
Toronto, Ontario (YYZ) to Delhi, India (DEL)
Depart 20:35, Arrive 20:55 next day, Flight Time: 13:50
Boeing 787-9, Registration C-FNOH, Manufactured 2015, Seat 4A

Brand spanking new 787-9, delivered barely a month prior, which still had that new plane smell. Welcome aboard screen:

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Water AND sparkling water, along with a basic but nice amenity kit:

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The crew was super friendly, while at the same time being very professional and addressing people by name. What’s for dinner tonight? Sorry for the slightly blurry pics…must have been one too many ceasars:

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Goofy “we’re finally flying together” selfie:

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Air Canada’s super-progressive safety video. I think the translation is: “Hey honey, let’s see if that guy in Row 8 is on Grindr!” It looks like their only préoccupation is with each other… 😉

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Some horrible movie I watched. Looks like Air Canada has joined United and American in the cut-price split cashew camp:

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Mixed greens, bread on a plate, and super tasty tuna starter. Quite possibly the best starter I’ve ever had from a North American airline.

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I generally avoid fish on planes, but John had the sablefish. Based on the presentation, I’m pretty glad I skipped it:

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My chicken murgh was even less appetizing looking, but fortunately tasted much better than it looked. Note the sad, empty wine glass:

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Mini cheese and fruit plate…needed more cheese:

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Pre-packaged ice cream for dessert? Sad panda…definitely a let-down from the United sundae.

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John went with the chocolate fondant, which was definitely the better option:

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At this point, I passed out for nearly nine glorious hours. With all the work leading up to this trip I was running super short on sleep, so was great to just be able to pass out. This also marked my third 787 redeye, and third one where I slept more than nine hours. There must be something to the lower cabin altitude and higher humidity on the 787, because I sleep as well on them as I do at home, and better than on any other plane. Plus, Air Canada did a great job keeping the cabin temperature reasonable, which made sleeping much easier.

Normally transatlantics aren’t long enough that I’m hungry for breakfast, but in this case decided to give it a  go. The muffin was dry and I skipped it after one bite, as was the fruit unfortunately. However, the cottage cheese with the omelette was super tasty, especially with the red pepper relish. Not normally a big fan of eggs on planes, but it was a tasty combo!

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Landed in Delhi late evening, and transit was pretty simple. We had to wait maybe 30 minutes for the Air Canada representative to come to the transit counter, and they were confused and not expecting us because we were on different tickets into and out of Delhi. Eventually, they figured it out, and transfer security was a breeze. This was like the fifth time I had done it this year, so I’m sure knowing what to expect made the whole process a bit easier as well.

Off to the ITC Green lounge, with some tasty Indian nibbles, Diet Pepsi, and WiFi to catch up on email. A couple hours later, we headed down to the boarding gate. I had forgotten there was a Starbucks there, or I would have gone much earlier. Normally I’m the one whose name gets messed up, but when John said his name the very eager barrista said “OH! Like John Cena!” I guess he’s a wrestling fan…

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Our flight was about 30 minutes late for the ever dubious “operational reasons” but soon it was time to board. Bid John Cena a temporary farewell, as he was off to fend for himself amidst the cattle in back. Fortunately, I expected to be a bit more comfortable…

Thai Airways flight 316
Delhi, India (DEL) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 00:15, Arrive 5:40, Flight Time: 3:55
Boeing 777-200, Registration HS-TKA, Manufactured 1998, Seat 12E

Nice welcome-aboard glass of tea:

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Unfortunately, it was not to be as comfortable as planned, since I was stuck in a middle seat. Thai 777s not only do not go flat in the seats, but they have middle seats as well. Gross. I was seated next to a guy with a Chinese passport who kept hacking up phlegm the entire flight, and didn’t speak enough English to understand when I asked him to cover his mouth. Even acting it out didn’t seem to help. Fortunately, he knew the expression JOHNNY WALKER DOUBLE and after 5 or 6 of those he passed out. Doesn’t change the fact that about 36 hours after landing in Bangkok I came down with a cold. Want to guess who’s responsible?

At least there was Veuve to make things a bit better:

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Menu was simple, but looked tasty:

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The salad and shrimp were pretty meh, but hey, can’t complain when you’re flying India to Thailand and get multiple servings of garlic bread, and Veuve refills!

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The chicken red curry was ok, but nothing special:

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The raspberry marscapone cake was also pretty underwhelming, but again, the Veuve helped:

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Landed in Bangkok about 30 minutes behind schedule. I wished John good luck with his connecting flight to Tokyo. I couldn’t imagine having another flight after this as it had already been nearly 24 hours in transit and I was absolutely wiped out. Not in the mood to deal with taxis or the Skytrain today, I opted for an AOT car to take me to my hotel. Up next was a super busy week of work events before heading home. I’ll do another review of the flights back home in another post, as well as one on the hotels I stayed at.

Nov 192015
 

Took the MRT to Hong Kong airport, and went absolutely without a hitch. Tried to check in at the Kowloon station checkin desk, but the Air India counter was like 20 people deep, and no special lines for Star Gold or business class. Got to the airport, and things were a bit better. The agent was a bit confused – seems nobody flies to Delhi just to connect to a United flight to Newark. I’m…special. She didn’t give me any grief about my carryons, however, I asked her for blank luggage/nametags since I know Indian security likes to have something to stamp. She thought this was the oddest request she’d ever heard, but after checking my onward ticket to Newark she was ok with it.

Long line about 20 minutes for security, and another 20 minutes for immigration. Not sure if this is normal or not, but was rather surprised there were no business class lines or anything. Still had time for one more Starbucks before heading to the United Club for a pre-flight glass of wine and 15 minutes of relaxation. Got to the gate, where boarding was just beginning on time.

Air India flight 317
Hong Kong, SAR (HKG) to Delhi, India (DEL)
Depart 18:05, Arrive 21:10, Flight Time: 5:35
Boeing 787-8 Registration VT-ANE, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 97,462
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,136,068

First impression of this Air India 787 which was less than two years old, RATTY! Seems they have the same-ish hard product as Turkish A330 I’d flown to Istanbul earlier in this trip, complete with the “footsy” benches for your feet. I can just see trying to sleep in this seat setup and playing footsy with your neighbour. How hard would it have been to put a little divider in the middle of the bench?

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Seats were in some of the worst repair I’ve ever seen for a two year old plane. Just look at the footrest area:

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Welcome aboard drink, choice of hot or cold towel, but only juice or water to drink:

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For a five hour flight, the menu sounded pretty tasty:

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The horrors…not only were the nuts not warm, they were served in a bag! Good thing Korean Air Princess wasn’t on this flight!

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In case you are wondering what “Dry Snax” are, this is it. Crunchy and tasty, but I pretty much just picked out the cashews:

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The meal was served all on one tray, which was extremely packed. The bread was even left in its foil to stay warm a bit longer. I have to admit, the main course was seriously tasty, and the dessert was pretty good too. Some sort of cake with cherries in it. There were two choices of main, and I believe this was a lamb curry:

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Flight was very uneventful. Crew was friendly and helpful, quick with drink refills when asked, and always pleasant. They seemed almost offended I wasn’t staying in India, despite over a dozen trips in the past, including two weeks earlier this year. This crew was from Mumbai, and told me I really did have to check it out next time as it’s “much better” than Delhi or Chennai!

Landed, and had a long walk in the hot and humid terminal to the transit desk…where things got real. Real crazy. Fortunately, I had packed my patience for India, and when I was told to “go sit down, we will find someone from United to assist you” decided not to. Standing at the desk, reminding them every five minutes, and using the words “global services” I managed to get someone from United to come to the transit desk…nearly 45 minutes after landing! Had I just gone to sit down and wait, I’m sure it would have been over an hour….

When the agent did arrive, she was super friendly and helpful. First, she had to let me know some bad news. The flight “might” be delayed because it had come in with a non-functional WiFi and entertainment system. Ugh. I tried asking really nicely since it looked like there might be three or four empty seats if she could try and put me in any set of two with an empty next to it. She promised to try her best.

This is where it got much better…she insisted on escorting me from the transit desk, through transit security, through some back “employees only” corridors, up a secret elevator, and directly into the lounge. I only had 20 minutes, but she came back to get me at the end of those 20 minutes, and escorted me to the gate! Best service ever! To top it off, she’d managed to secure seats 10A and 10B for me, with a promise of nobody next to me. It’s amazing how far patience and being nice can get you sometimes! Unfortunately, there would be no WiFi or entertainment of any sort on the flight….

United flight 83
Delhi, India (DEL) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 23:35, Arrive 05:15, Flight Time: 15:10
Boeing 777-200, Registration N27015, Manufactured 2000, Seat 10A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 104,786
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,143,392

Boarded to a crew that looked incredibly grouchy, but the menu looked…interesting…

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Warm nuts were served, but warm to the point they’d lost their crunch. I passed after just a few. There was also another packaged Indian snack, which I wasn’t overly fond of:

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Looks like the appetizer has been upgraded…two shrimps. I took it for the picture, but still refuse to eat shrimp on a plane after getting food poisoning from it on two different occasions:

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Unusual indian-style salad of missed vegetables in a dressing. It was tasty, and made for a very nice change from the rather bland salads United usual offers:

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The lamb biryani was, quite simply, the best main course I’ve ever had on United. Just spicy enough, served with tasty raita, and I admit I ate every bite of it and considered asking if they had another. I’ve never done that before!

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Even the cheese selection was better than usual, and yes, I did ask for two in this case:

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Strangely, the only choice for the ice cream was caramel, and there were no cherries. Boo! This flight might get dinged in my 2015 sundae year in review…

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Slept nearly nine straight hours, which is great for me on a plane. There is something about late night westbound redeyes that not only helps me sleep really well, but helps me arrive feeling super refreshed. I guess sleep is easier because it’s 1 or 2am local time when I try and sleep, but landing, despite it being 5/6a local time it’s after noon to the body clock. I learned this when I was doing Dakar-Washington frequently, and actually don’t mind redeyes as long as they are long enough…and westbound!

Breakfast was ok…but as usual the fruit was dry. I had the omelette, the corn croquette was also pretty tasty, and the grilled veg. I left most of the carbs aside, though:

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Immigration via Global Entry was a snap, and was to the lounge less than 15 minutes after landing. There was a 30+ minute wait for a shower, so of course I went next door to Starbucks to inhale a quad iced espresso on ice before taking one of the best showers of my life. There’s nothing like a nice warm shower after spending 20+ hours on planes! The good news, is I checked my email while waiting, and there was already a proactive email from United apologizing for the broken entertainment system, and offering a $200 travel voucher.

Unfortunately, my connection was out of the A gates, so it was out in the cool drizzle to shuttle over to the A terminal, where I got there just as we were boarding.

United flight 3522 (operated by Shuttle America)
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 06:50, Arrive 08:18, Flight Time: 2:28
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N647RW, Manufactured 2005, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 105,505
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,145,345

Extremely unremarkable flight. The flight attendant was attentive with frequent water refills, watched some tv on the iPad. There was a breakfast offered, but I skipped it since they were somehow one short, and I wasn’t really hungry since I’d just eaten. I really would have only taken it for photography purposes anyways…

Nice view on approach to Chicago:

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Had to hop over to the F Concourse for my connection, first time I’ve ever been there at O’Hare. Am I right it’s pretty much just for the ERJ-145s? Nice new lounge there, however, even if it was extremely packed. Good view of Barbie Jet Central:

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United flight 3259 (operated by ExpressJet)
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Ottawa, Ontario (YOW)
Depart 10:47, Arrive 13:36, Flight Time: 1:49
Embraer ERJ-145, Registration N13903, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 106,160
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,144,000

Nothing at all to say about this flight. Standard E145 flight, one pass on drinks, then then we were descending. I’ve never been on one of these planes for a flight over two hours, but can see how it would be a total nightmare.

Immigration was a bit of a pain at Ottawa – first time I’d ever been through without Nexus in over five years. Questioning was pretty extensive, and given that (a) I’d lost my NEXUS card during my last visit and (b) I was only there to change planes flying back to the US because “it’s cheaper to fly international out of Canada….yup…I got sent to secondary inspection. Ugh!

Fortunately, a quick show of my printouts, an explanation, and I was in and out in under five minutes. At least as far as secondary goes it was painless. Quick trip up to the Nexus office to retrieve my lost card, and still had time to get lunch with a friend.

It was a gorgeous day in Ottawa, about 22C and sunny, and perfect for a small lunch and beers on the patio:

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Just to show again how sunny and gorgeous it was, one more sunny selfie in front of TD Place:

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Immigration back at the airport was painless, and I had 20 minutes or so before boarding, so grabbed a beer at the one restaurant inside the US Departures area. The guy sitting next to me was in a sling, and had just had rotator cuff surgery two weeks prior, so we commiserated a bit. I let him know I was up to 100% already after just four months, so hopefully left him feeling a bit hopeful!

United flight 5946 (operated by ExpressJet)
Ottawa, Ontario (YOW) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 17:15, Arrive 18:42, Flight Time: 1:27
Embraer ERJ-145, Registration N12175, Manufactured 2004, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 106,489
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,144,329

Plane go up. Consume Diet Coke. Plane go down. Arrive right on time. Connecting flight was just two gates over in the A concourse, so I had time to enjoy some of Oscar’s finest hummus and cheese cubes in the packed A Concourse United Club while waiting.

United flight 4312 (operated by ExpressJet)
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 19:43, Arrive 21:04, Flight Time: 1:21
Embraer ERJ-145, Registration N14573, Manufactured 2002, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 106,688
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,144,528

One last flight, another E145. Yes, you know how it goes: plane go up, consume Diet Coke, plane go down. 40 minutes start to finish…and with that the end of another epic trip! I promised myself I’d get this trip report done before leaving on my next trip…and…done with ONE HOUR to spare! Stay tuned..up next: Algeria, Cuba, and the Bahamas!

Nov 042015
 

I had to get up early. Way too early. When I booked this ticket, I had all sorts of options for getting from Muscat to Seoul on OneWorld with an award ticket, and the question really came down to two things: redeye flight east, or get up early and take a daytime flight. I really hate sleeping on planes if I can avoid it, so went with the oh-dark-thirty flight instead, which turned out to be a really good call.

Check-out from the W was swift, my Uber arrived within five minutes, and it was a completely effortless drive to the airport. Nice and insightful drive with Uber, and was soon at Doha Hamad Airport Intl Checkin. The Qatar business class checkin queue was completely empty, so I figured I would reprint my boarding pass on proper Qatar stock since they had printed it on generic stock in Muscat. Also switched my seat to the last row of business, hoping it would be a bit quieter back there.

No line at all at immigration or security, and I took yet my third selfie in as many months with the giant scary stuffed bear in Doha airport:

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It was still nearly an hour before boarding, so I had time for a proper breakfast in the lounge. Proper, because I decided it was a champagne breakfast…since it was almost noon in Tokyo after all. When a bottle of something was pulled out, I asked “oh, don’t you have Krug today?” and got “oh yes, but we don’t normally serve it unless asked for by name!” Krug obtained, it was time for a delicious breakfast. Fresh kiwifruit and pineapple, hummous, museli, olives…and Krug!

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I was still slightly hungry, so decided to try the warm options…grilled halloumi cheese (yum!), sautéed mushrooms, and a chocolate muffin which I decided wasn’t worth the calories after one bite. Too dry. Oh, and Krug. Definitely Krug.

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I still had a bit of time, so, well, yeah….Krug! The Qatar lounge is exceptional for a business class lounge, especially when it’s not too crowded, which it wasn’t this morning. It definitely was far from empty, but was quiet enough that it still felt peaceful.

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My gate was the same gate I’d been at a couple months prior for my flight to Eritrea, and required more or less walking halfway to to Tokyo to board the plane. By board the plane I mean the bus to the plane…at least we had a private business class bus once again:

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We were only about 60% full in business class today, so it promised to be a good flight!

Qatar Airways flight 812
Doha, Qatar (DOH) to Tokyo, Haneda Airport, Japan (HND)
Depart 7:20, Arrive 22:45, Flight Time: 9:25
Boeing 787-7, Registration A7-BCC, Manufactured 2012, Seat 5K

Crew was very quick with the towel (hot OR cold) upon boarding, a glass of Tattinger Rosé and some water before we pushed back right on time.

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Qatar’s 787s have WiFi aboard, but the price is pretty much extortion. Either you are very careful with your usage, or it’s easy to run up huge bills. I avoided facebook/graphics, only monitored emails, and did a few facebook chats, and still ran up $25 during the flight. No thanks!

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Right after takeoff, the windows were dimmed by the crew (override – you didn’t have a choice) and breakfast was served. Starting with some warm nuts and more bubbles:

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I wasn’t hungry after breakfast in the lounge, so just asked for a bowl of muesli. The crew was pretty confused by this, but after telling them I’d already had my breakfast in the lounge, the understood much better. In true Qatar style it was order what you want when you want, so they were happy to bring it.

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After this I watched some horrible movie I’ve already forgotten, and napped for a few hours since I’d only gotten around four to five hours in Qatar. Couple of comments on the Qatar 787. I really like the 1-2-1 configuration of the seats, since it means everyone has aisle access. (YOU LISTENING UNITED?!) That said, the seats felt pretty short and squat, and almost a little claustrophobic. That said, even at my height I had no trouble at all sleeping in them and being comfortable, and would be happy to fly them any day. The 787 is a great place, as this flight confirmed, and I was happy to arrive feeling refreshed and alert.

Upon waking, I watched another bad movie and it was time for another “formal” meal service. Although in theory it’s possible to eat whatever you want whenever you want on Qatar, I find they tend to do a formal service once or twice during long flights. You can customize it as much as you like, but they definitely gear up to come around a couple times.

This time, I asked for the Japanese sushi starter first, along with a glass of bubbles. For airplane sushi it was surprisingly tasty, and not at all dry…and the miso soup was quite good as well!

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Next up was a steak sandwich with a chutney. I remember it being pretty tasty, but looking at this picture I think I would rank it slightly below the Air Koryo burger. That said, in my opinion people place way too much emphasis on presentation on a plane (it’s food on a plane after all) and I remember it being tasty, so there you go.

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Had a few chocolates for dessert, along with, yes, more bubbles, and soon we were landing in Tokyo right on time. A few thoughts about landing in Tokyo:

Haneda Airport, like everywhere in Japan, felt horridly warm and humid to me. It was a reasonable walk to immigration, and I was a rather sweaty mess by the time I arrived. Qatar hadn’t loaded immigration cards, so we had to complete one in the arrivals hall, which wasn’t too bad, but I was getting warm and cranky. Immigration was reasonably fast, and then time to line up for customs.

One problem…two flights from Hawaii had arrived right before us, and the lines were outrageous. I got to the front, only to be told I needed a customs form…which they also hadn’t given us and nobody had told us about. Went back to sweatily fill one out, and my patience tried, walked right back to the front of the now super long customs line and just gave it to him. I think the Japanese vacationers were all too polite to say anything, and soon I was through to arrivals.

Found an ATM which accepted foreign cards, took out more cash than I thought I’d need (since I find Japan the most difficult developed country in the world to find ATMs which accept foreign cards), and went to join the taxi queue. It was late at night, so taking the bus wouldn’t be a practical option, and it was off to my hotel in the pouring rain.