Apr 252017
 

The day of the trip was finally here, and despite lots of last minute changes needed to deal with some unexpected work and personal commitments, I finally was able to salvage part of the trip. Unfortunately, that would mean missing two of the stops we had planned, but at least we would get to Abkhazia which was one of the parts I was super excited for.

American had changed their schedule about three months before my flight, and suddenly my DCA-JFK flight no longer existed. They decided instead to book me on an ERJ-145 flight instead, which meant an involuntary downgrade. Because it was the short part of an international itinerary no compensation was due, and they seemed completely uninterested in helping. Fortunately, about 45 days before the flight they changed schedules again, and there was now an option with first class. It meant a relatively short two hour connection in JFK, but I figured it should be doable in the spring.

Calling in, I got the rare fantastic agent who was able to force availability and get me on the new flight, and all was set. Day of travel I actually had quite a bit of time given the later departure, so decided to risk taking the metro to the airport, which was drama free. Rare occurrence on metro! Had to check-in with an agent to show them my Russian visa, and after they made sure to show me how annoyed they were with having to help me they checked me in and I was on my way to the lounge.

Lounge was serving the usual cheese and crAAckers along with some other unexciting kibble, but who can resist a whole carrot right before Easter?

IMG_3404

Blue skies, and a great view form the lounge at DCA for a bit of plane-watching. Plus, N406YX in the foreground would be my ride up to JFK today:

IMG_3408

Boarding commenced right on time with some rather grouchy gate agents and a total of three emotional support animals for the rather short ride up to JFK.

American Eagle flight 4540
Washington DC, National (DCA) to New York, JFK (JFK)
Depart 14:35, Arrive 15:55, Flight Time: 1:20
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N406YX, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 33,332
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,405,647

I see lots of complaints online that American is very hit-or-miss with pre-departure drinks, but today was a definite hit. The always classy Chateau le Parker in the finest plastique crystal:

IMG_3415

Shortly after boarding and being seated there was some commotion in the entryway. I didn’t catch the whole conversation but apparently the passenger had accidentally packed some vital medications in the bag she was forced to gate-check, and needed/wanted to get them out. All I heard was the rather nasty gate agent saying “I don’t care what you think you need you ain’t gettin’ the bag now!” Followed by “you know what, you’re a very nasty woman!” from the passenger. I was having visions of Dr. Dao at this point, and had the iPhone really to shoot prize-winning footage….but eventually the pilot who was great managed to calm the situation (after the gate agent yelled at him to) and everything was defused.

After that bit of excitement, departure time came and went…except we weren’t going anywhere. The pilot came on at five minutes past the departure time and told us we would be another 15 minutes because they were trying to locate…a first officer. Apparently the first officer’s dog had died and they were desperately trying to locate a replacement one. Another five minutes passed, and we were assured one bad been found, and he was “on his way” and we “should be out of here” in 15 minutes. Of course, 15 minutes came and went…and no first officer.

Finally, about an hour past departure, the new first officer rocked up and the door was closed a couple minutes later. My 1:45 connection had been reduced to about 40 minutes, so I was hopeful we would make up a little of the time in the air. Great view of the turn over the Pentagon right after departure:

IMG_3730

Once in flight, the crew broke out AA’s finest stemware, and passed around the kibble basket. Since I’m addicted to the DiBella biscotti, I wasn’t complaining for a 42 minute flight. Never seen blueberry lemon before…yum!

IMG_3753

We made up a tiny bit of time, and looks like we would make the gate with about 50 minutes to connect. I had to blink twice to make sure the plane hadn’t entered a time warp on the way when I saw this parked at the terminal:

IMG_3759

So despite flying well over 2 million miles and over 250 transatlantics in each direction, I’ve never flown internationally out of JFK before. I remember the day when international travel almost ensured you would head to O’Hare or JFK, but these days unless you’re flying a smaller international carrier, JFK is super easy to avoid. Of course, it was just my luck that my arriving flight would arrive as far from the International First Lounge as possible, and the departing flight which normally leaves from right by the lounge was also leaving as far away from the lounge as possible.

Ian was perfectly fine skipping the lounge, but I was having none of it, so he met me near my arriving flight and off to the first lounge we went.

I mean, I’m not going to turn down Bollinger and a nice cheese plate!

IMG_3763

Unfortunately, given time constraints, I had to limit myself to around two glasses, and then make the long trek over to my departure gate. I wished Ian well, made sure all his shots were updated for his flight back with the proletariat, and then boarded.

Finnair flight 6
New York, JFK (JFK) to Helsinki, Finland (HEL)
Depart 17:40, Arrive 8:50 next day, Flight Time: 8:10
Airbus A330-300, Registration OH-LTT, Manufactured 2010, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 37,449
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,409,764

I had fortunately booked well in advance, so had one of the “throne” seats on Finnair. On the left side of the plane the rows alternate, with one row having two seats, and the next row having one. In the row with one seat, your footwell is under the centre console of the two seats in front of it…in the row of two your footwells are under the two large tables on either side of the “throne” seat. My fabulous Marimekko branded slippers and amenity kit were already waiting for me:

IMG_3764

Pre-departure champagne, blueberry juice, and water were offered. I asked for a champagne AND a water, and with the sigh that followed you would think I was asking for them to move Heaven and Earth. But, I was successful. I still love the Littala crystal – even for pre-departure drinks. I really need to pick up some of this glassware for at home.

IMG_3765

Unfortunately, right before the door closed, a couple boarded sitting right in front of me with twins who looked no more than a month or two old…and were already crying their lungs out. You have GOT to be kidding me. Seeing the glares they were getting from the other passengers, the purser suggested that all 12 seats in the mini cabin of business class were open, and perhaps they would be more comfortable there. They agreed to move, much to the relief of the other passengers.

With that sorted, time to get comfy and rock the Marimekko slippers!

IMG_3770

About 30 minutes after departure drinks and snacks were finally offered. While I was glad not to see the usual mixed nuts, a single skewered prawn doesn’t really make much of a cocktail snack….

IMG_3780

Even more surprising was that the meal was all served on a single tray. No courses here. I would be less surprised if this was a late departure, or if I requested the executive meal, but nope…everyone got their entire meal on one tray. This looks like something that would be served on a domestic flight in the US and not internationally! That said, the beef was rather tasty along with the potatoes, but the salad and cheese course were rather stingy and disappointing. Definitely one of the most disappointing business class meals I’ve ever had across the Atlantic. Boo to Finnair on this one!

IMG_3781

An hour into flight, my free internet cut out. Supposedly Finnair elites and OneWorld Emeralds get free complimentary internet for the entire flight, but for whatever reason Finnair had forgotten to load this data into the computer for this flight, so everyone was cut off at one hour. Ended up paying for the rest of the flight, which per the purser’s recommendation I will now dispute with AmEx….

Package ice cream for dessert was pretty disappointing as well, but the fun little mini pastries were a nice touch, and there was plenty to go around:

IMG_3784

I still wasn’t tired, so after a bit of time watching tv, I used the call button to ring for another glass of wine. A new/different flight attendant appeared this time, and he was more than happy to bring me one. He also brought a mini snack of mixed nuts and dried fruits. Thought it was odd he served this right after dinner had finished, but it was definitely a nice appreciated touch.

IMG_3788

After finishing this glass of wine I was getting pretty tired, but there was just one problem. Two extremely loud large russian women in the row behind me having a conversation and cackling at a volume that I’m sure even the people back in coach could hear. I’d already asked them several time to keep their voices down because people want to sleep and was just met with a dirty glare in return. The flight attendant who’d brought me the nuts tried to quiet them as well, to no avail. He suggested I could move to the back of the cabin where there were plenty of seats and it might be a bit quieter. Fortunately, when I returned from chatting with him they had mysteriously and suddenly passed out cold. Saved!

At this point I managed to pass out for a nice uninterrupted five hours of solid sleep, waking up just as we crossed the Finnish coast on descent. Flight delivered in the ways that were most important to me, a comfortable seat for sleeping and a cabin temperature that made it possible. The food was a huge let-down, but again, it was adequate. However, if Finnair really wants to compete for connecting traffic they really need to up their game in this department.

We arrived in Helsinki about five minutes late, and only had a 35 minute connection to Moscow to begin with. Fortunately, there is no need to re-clear security in Helsinki, and since we also did not need to clear immigration it was a very easy transit. No time to check out the lounge, but our gates were right next to each other and I think the change of planes took maybe five minutes maximum. Most passengers were already boarded once we got there, so just a few minutes after boarding the door was closed 15 minutes early.

Finnair flight 153
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to Moscow Sheremetyevo, Russia (SVO)
Depart 9:25, Arrive 11:05, Flight Time: 1:40
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration OH-LKL, Manufactured 2008, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 33,877
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,410,309

There was only one row of eurobusiness 2×2 seating on this ERJ-190, and only one other passenger, so we each had two seats to our self. It should be noted that unlike Lufthansa, Finnair sells all the seats in eurobusiness on the ERJs, so you don’t get a free seat next to you. The only thing you get is a free meal, when those in economy had to pay for buy on board. Not a bad meal for a 90 minute flight, and two main thoughts: yes, the fruit may have been packaged, but was fresher than anything United serves. Maybe being sealed held in some moisture? Also, the flight attendant noted: “surely you would like some champagne, you can’t fly business class without it!” Best flight attendant ever!

IMG_3789

Landed at Sheremetyevo Airport right on time, my first time there since 1989. I’ve been do Domodedevo and Vnukovo since then, but never back to Sheremeyevo. They wanted to make sure and remind me that I love it:

IMG_3792

Immigration was a relative non-affair, with no line at all when we arrived. Got a few questions from the agent, who seemed mildly amused that I spoke Russian. Why do you speak Russian? Where did you learn it? How do you still speak it if it has been more than 20 years? She was seriously curious, and every time I answered the other agent in the booth would giggle. I guess my accent is amusing or something.

Right past immigration there was a check-in flight for connecting flights, and the agent was able to issue our Moscow to Sochi boarding passes, even though it was a separate itinerary. Next stop after checking in was to find Starbucks. I knew there was one at the airport, but we weren’t sure exactly where. We decided to trust the Starbucks app, and head to the next terminal over (connected landside) and search for it. Ian knew better than to resist my need for caffeine, and we were off on the hunt.

On the way, we passed a caviar vending machine. Only in Russia! It was tempting to buy some for our connecting flight…

IMG_3793

All price points from $20 a tin up to well over $100 a tin. I mean, everyone buys $100 worth of caviar from vending machines…right?

IMG_3794

The Starbucks was right by the vending machine, and provided some much-needed fuel to continue on with the day. After sitting and resting for a bit, we were back to the check-in area to try and find our gate. On the way, we ran into the (relatively new) Krasnaya Machina Red Army Hockey Team store. I couldn’t resist posing with the cut-out poster and buying a hat:

IMG_3799

Security wasn’t too bad, except for the guy who was getting busted for trying to take a cage filled with rabbits through the x-ray machine. I mean, totally normal, right?

Next stop was the lounge, which since we had arrived on OneWorld they wouldn’t let me use with my SkyTeam Elite card. Apparently, no lounge access allowed to SkyTeam Elites on domestic flights with Aeroflot? Fortunately, they did accept Priority Pass, so that made short work of the 90 minutes we had left until boarding.

Reasonable selection of food and beverage, and more importantly, places to charge devices. Biggest downside is the lounge was completely dark inside, and emerging from the lounge was like walking back out into bright daylight!

IMG_3800

Boarding was nice and easy, and they actually made time for elites and business class to board first.

Aeroflot flight 1124
Moscow Sheremetyevo, Russia (SVO) to Sochi/Adler, Russia (AER)
Depart 14:00, Arrive 16:30, Flight Time: 2:30
Airbus A321, Registration VP-BAZ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 33C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 34,205
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,411,182

About a 90% full A321 down to Sochi today, but fortunately we had booked the A and C seats and hoped nobody would take B. We asked the gate agent nicely, and she verified it was still open and she wouldn’t put anybody in it. Score!

Scary pre-packaged sandwich, mandarin, and chocolate was offered, along with tea on the two hour flight. Not bad for a $50 ticket. Legroom was also reasonable, much better than you get from most domestic airlines in the US. This was my first time on Aeroflot since the late-1980s, and things have definitely improved with Western aircraft. No more cages of chickens in the luggage racks, no more fold-down seats, and especially no more grumpy Soviet passengers lighting up and chain-smoking the entire flight. It was actually more pleasant than most domestic flights in the US these days…

IMG_3802

Mystery meat sandwich, fruit/chocolate, and a mandarin. Not bad…

IMG_3803

Landed right on time in Sochi, and it was time to begin the adventure!

Mar 062017
 

As soon as I exited the plane, there was an escort with my name on a sign, waiting to walk me to the lounge. Nobody else in first had an escort, pretty much confirming what the purser told me about the upgrades. The escort was sort of strange, however. It was useful I guess to know where to go for transit security, but following the masses of people would be just as easy.

When we got to security, there was a long line, and she just stood in line with me. I’m not sure what the point of an escort in transit is if they can’t even get you to the front of the security queue? After security she dropped me at the lounge, and wished me a pleasant flight. It was a nice touch, but there are several little things that would have made it a much better experience.

Inside the lounge, I asked where the showers were, and I was escorted to the spa area. I had to wait 10 minutes because they were “very busy” according to the agent, and eventually they showed me to a room. I’m not sure if all the rooms are the same, but it a mini bedroom with a desk and washroom/shower all in one. The thermostat in the room showed 27C despite being set at max AC – which clearly was broken. In hindsight I probably should have asked for another room, but I just wanted a quick shower so it was fine. The idea of being able to nap if I wanted was a nice one, but for a simple shower it was overkill.

After freshening up, I headed into the dining area for a little “lite” breakfast. I asked for some eggs benedict, and was informed they would take some 10-15 minutes, so it was insisted I have some juice and a pastry. I chose a pain au chocolate, and was brought two of them.

IMG_2948

Eventually the Eggs Benny arrived. They were good, but far from great. The hollandaise sauce was quite bland.

IMG_2949

The expansive foyer in the lounge. Looked to be a good 10 meters high. Note the water feature.

IMG_2951

Eventually it was time to board, and I had my own bus from the lounge to the plane:

IMG_2952

Qatar gives nice boarding pass jackets in Doha. I switched my seat when I learned the flight was practically empty, so got a new boarding pass.

IMG_2953

Time to board. It was nice having my own bus and being the only one boarding the plane…

Qatar Airways flight 402
Doha, Qatar (DOH) to Amman, Jordan (AMM)
Depart 07:55, Arrive 09:55, Flight Time: 3:00
Airbus A330-300, Registration A7-AEO, Manufactured 2008, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 25,053
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,389,454

Exceptional seats for a shorthaul flight. I wouldn’t be too pleased with these on a redeye, but they were great for this flight.

IMG_2956

Champagne? Don’t mind if I do! Also, choice of cold OR hot towels offered. A nice touch.

IMG_2966

Reminder: for your safety, please stay seated while praying on board.

IMG_2973

After a turn, great shot of Doha on takeoff:

IMG_2979

Avocado and date smoothie – I was dubious on this one, but it was delicious!

IMG_2980

There was a choice of three appetizers. I went with “feta cheese, cucumber, tomato and green olives” – the other choices were fruit, cereal, greek yogurt and granola.

IMG_2982

Cheese and chive omelette with grilled lamb kofta. One of the best egg dishes I think I’ve ever had on a plane…and it came with Tabasco!

IMG_2983

Other than that, pretty typical flight. First was only booked to 3 of 24, so there was plenty of space. This was good, because Typhoid Mary was one of the three, and she spent the whole flight coughing and sneezing and hacking away. Despite her sitting on the other side of the plane, I was convinced I would end up sick in the next 24 hours. She CLEARLY should not have been on a plane with recycled air in the proximity of lots of people.

I hadn’t been to Amman in almost ten years, and since then the new terminal has opened – and wow, what an improvement. Transit security was rude and belittling, but after TSA they seemed positively pleasant.

On the other side of security, I was rewarded with Starbucks!

IMG_2985

After coffee in a vain attempt to wake up, I headed up to the Royal Jordanian lounge. This place is absolutely massive, and spans pretty much the entire balcony level overlooking the terminal. One small part:

IMG_2987

View into the terminal:

IMG_2988

I found a nice quiet corner of the lounge to camp out and do some work. The big plus of the lounge is space, and plentiful beverage offerings. There was a reasonable amount of food, but nothing that looked remotely appetizing to me. Another huge minus was a lack of power outlets. There was tons of seating, but very few places to plug in your devices. Also, the staff was rather unfriendly. I asked if I could have my boarding pass reprinted on Royal Jordanian stock, and was met with “no. why do you need that.” I explained that I would like to have it as a souvenir, and got “no. this one is fine.” Ummmm, alrighty then!

IMG_2989

Off to the gate. I was in the bulkhead, and wanted to move to another seat, so asked the gate agent if there were any other “A” seats left. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak good enough english to understand what I wanted. I was rather surprised. No worries, at least in 1A nobody will recline into me!

Royal Jordanian flight 503
Amman, Jordan (AMM) to Cairo, Egypt (CAI)
Depart 13:15, Arrive 14:45, Flight Time: 1:30
Embraer ERJ-195, Registration JY-EMB, Manufactured 2007, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 25,347
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,389,748

pre-departure water and arabic coffee were offered. This is seriously the tiniest sip of coffee ever.

IMG_2991

for a 75 minute flight, I was impressed that a meal was offered. Unfortunately, it featured some room temp ceasar dressing, sketchy looking shrimps, and some mystery coldcuts. I ate the cheese and desert and called it a day.

IMG_2994

Can’t be in de-nile any longer, we’re approaching Cairo!

IMG_2995

Now, upon landing, there was a small problem. This terminal is gorgeous, wtf. Pulled up google on my phone, and realized that the brand new Terminal 2 had recently opened to serve regional flights. Not only was it nice inside, but there were no huge queues for visas or immigration, and I was through in maybe five minutes. One small problem – how do I get to Terminal 3 where my hotel was connected. Of course, asking a couple people led me to find out they had “friends” who would take me in their taxi.

According to google maps it was walkable in 10 minutes, so I decided to risk walking on the roads (there were no sidewalks) and see if I could make it. It was a reasonably easy walk, I lived to tell the story, and soon was checked into the Le Meridien. The hotel was just as nice as I remembered, and I was upgraded to a reasonably big suite. The only unsettling thing is that the windows rattled – badly. It took me a while to figure out it happened when I walked around the room. That didn’t give me much faith in the construction, but at least it wouldn’t bother me when sleeping.

After showering up and changing, decided to head out a bit rather than hang at the hotel all afternoon. I didn’t have time with Cairo traffic to get to any interesting sites, so chose the mall near-ish the hotel. I decided to call Uber and pray…Mohammad showed up quickly, and it was a nice easy and cheap ride over to the mall.

You know you’re in Egypt when there’s smoking at Starbucks:

IMG_2998

While sitting and enjoying my coffee, this monstrosoty passed by:

Supposedly, this is actually pretty close to Jason:

IMG_3001

I’m gonna assume that says “Starbucks Coffee.”

IMG_3002

What is it with me and finding the one ice rink in a country. Inside the Sun City Mall, so I couldn’t resist getting a little exercise. Just a little, however, because these rental skates were terrible!

IMG_3006

After finishing up, went and got a shot of the rink from above. Not too shabby for a rink inside a mall in Egypt! Certainly much better ice than the swamp in Bangkok!

IMG_3011

Hailed another Uber, who had no trouble finding me at the exit of the mall despite no English at all, and made it back to the hotel around 8. Had a quick beer and appetizer in the hotel sports bar (which was not half bad) and then was asleep by nine. Next morning and the onward flights to Germany would come very early!

May 182016
 

After a leisurely morning, I grabbed an Uber to the airport. I have to say, it’s hard to remember what we did before Uber. You always had to either take the expensive hotel car or try and figure out how much local currency you needed to save for a cab. Uber has made all of that a piece of cake!

Originally, when I had booked my Sydney-Bangkok-Hong Kong award Thai was running one 747 a day with first class to Hong Kong, and so I booked on that flight, despite it being at the gross hour of 8am. About 48 hours before, I decided two hours in first class wasn’t worth getting up early for and switched to a later flight. Turned out to be the right call, because 24 hours before the flight they changed it to a two-class plane anyways! I decided when I got to Bangkok to check in to try my luck:

“Yes, I moved to this flight because you switched my plane from the 747 to the 777.” Yes, they agreed, very sorry about that, etc etc. So, I asked if this meant I could use the first class lounge since I was initially booked in first. Much chatting in Thai, and ultimately they agreed that would be ok. Got my escort through fast track security, and down the escalators to the lounge where my buggy was waiting to drive me through the business class lounge and down the corridors to the first class lounge:

IMG_0401

Got to the lounge, where I was the only person in the entire lounge, and got a whole room to myself:

IMG_0403

I wasn’t terribly hungry after breakfast, but they insisted on making me lunch. So, tasty green curry and mango and sticky rice…yum!

IMG_0405

I was half expecting to be driven in the buggy to the gate too, but nope, I had to walk. The struggle is real I tell you…a whole five minute walk to the gate!

Thai Airways flight 638
Bangkok, Thailand (BKK) to Hong Kong (HKG)
Depart 13:55, Arrive 17:40, Flight Time: 2:45
Airbus A330-300, Registration HS-TBE, Manufactured 2012, Seat 11A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 69,336
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,258,861

Business class was just over half full today, and they were happy to block the seat next to me since I was originally scheduled to be in first. Definitely a more comfortable flight with two seats to myself. Impressive to have printed menus and a full lunch for a flight just over two hours:

IMG_0406

Plus, Veuve on a regional flight – I’m impressed!

IMG_0408

…so of course, I’m not going to turn down a glass of Veuve. Really liked the menu cover art:

IMG_0410

More Veuve, and some almonds…they were kinda mushy and just so-so.

IMG_0411

Garlic bread! Ugh, knowing my fear of shrimp on planes you can guess how much of the appetizer I ate…

IMG_0413

Tasty curry, but incredibly small portion of protein:

IMG_0414

Some post-meal fruit, which I figured was dessert…

IMG_0415

Nope, there was a very rich chocolate cake as well, which was super tasty!

IMG_0417

By the time the meal was finished we had already started the descent in to a very grey and dreary Hong Kong. I had purchased my ticket for the airport express train in advance, so after immigration it was a quick shot to the Kowloon stop and the W Hotel. I’m a big fan of this hotel, largely because of its friendly staff and amazing views. I was upgraded to a corner room this time, which had great views. I tried to get a pic across the harbour, but the angle was kind of odd so it was hard to see. But it definitely had a partial harbour view as well:

IMG_0419

IMG_0420

Grabbed a light dinner and did some walking around the mall that was under the hotel. Looks like it was hockey practice night at the ice rink in the mall, and turns out the coach is the coach of the Hong Kong national team, and also a former NHL-er!

IMG_0427

IMG_0429

Slept in a slight bit the next morning, went and got coffee, and it was a torrential rainstorm out side. Checked the weather, and they were expecting up to 25 cm of rain during the day and it just kept coming down with high winds. Unfortunately, this is my second straight trip to Hong Kong where my wandering outside was ruined by terrible weather.

So, instead I caught another Uber and went out for a nice Dim Sum lunch and some people watching. It was a nice relaxing stopover, and I figure I’m due for nice weather one of these times! The W was fantastic and gave me a 6pm late checkout, and soon it was time to head to the airport for my first ever Cathay Pacific first class experience!

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:

IMG_0094

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

IMG_0095

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:

IMG_0100

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!

IMG_0101

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:

IMG_0102

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…

IMG_0105

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:

IMG_0106

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?

IMG_0110

IMG_0111

IMG_0112

IMG_0113

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:

IMG_0126

The duck starter was decent, but far from memorable:

IMG_0128

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:

IMG_0131

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

IMG_0132

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

IMG_0135

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:

IMG_0137

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!

IMG_0144

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:

IMG_0146

Tonight’s route of flight:

IMG_0151

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

IMG_0153

Not bad for a light meal:

IMG_0154

Tick the box breakfast orders:

IMG_0156

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:

IMG_0157

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!

IMG_0158

The cheesecake for dessert was also quite good:

IMG_0159

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:

IMG_0160

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!

Oct 282015
 

Short ride to the airport, and there was no wait at the check-in area. For some reason, my seat had been changed from a window seat to an aisle seat (the configuration on Oman Air’s A330s is 1 window, 2 seats together in the middle, the 1 window), but that was quickly fixed by the friendly agent. Immigration and security also had absolutely no wait, so it was quickly through and to the lounge.

When I had originally booked this ticket, I was planning to go from Salalah to Turkmenistan (via Yemen) so had a Salalah-Muscat-Dubai ticket. I debated just throwing away the last segment when plans changed, but figured that was kind of risky. So, in a moment of foodborne-illness induced delirium a few days prior in the Ethiopian lounge in Addis Ababa, I changed it to a Salalah-Muscat one way in business (instead of economy) for about $100 more. I figured I would be happier, it could be done on line, and…less risk of something going wrong and them trying to put me on a Salalah-Dubai direct flight. Plus…it was a widebody and would have international business seats. This is me rationalizing…

…and this is the SALALAH Oman Air business lounge. Keep in mind this isn’t even their hub, but the lounge was large, spacious, and had great snacks out. This pic is from the mid point of the lounge towards the buffet. Behind me are recliner chairs.

IMG_1919

I’d already had breakfast, so settled for Coke Light and some pre-pitted dates. Delicious.

IMG_1920

After relaxing in the lounge for a bit, I took the short walk to the gate. On the way, there was a random traditional Omani tent just set up in the middle of the terminal. I wonder if napping here would be permitted…

IMG_1921

Got to the gate, and they were already boarding 40 minutes prior to departure, so straight on the plane it was.

Oman Air flight 904
Salalah, Oman (SLL) to Muscat, Oman (MCT)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 12:30, Flight Time: 1:45
Airbus A330-300, Registration A4O-DD, Manufactured 2009, Seat 14A

First impression of Oman Air’s international business class:

IMG_1923

Nice spacious seats with huge storage bins for the window seats:

IMG_1924

Centre seats…still very roomy, but not much storage:

IMG_1927

Interesting cultural aspect to the flight. Omani guy seated in the row next to me with a woman who was obviously a relative of some sort. But, every so often he would wave his hand around, and the woman across the aisle would leap up to tend to him. First time it happened during boarding…when he needed his seatbelt fastened:

IMG_1929

Welcome aboard lemon/limeade drink:

IMG_1931

Interesting cartoon safety video:

IMG_1932

She looks rather enthusiastic about that life vest…

IMG_1934

After the pre-departure lemon/limeade, and before the door closed, the also came around with delicious Arabic coffee:

IMG_1935

After takeoff, a choice of chicken patties or fish was offered. The chicken was pretty tasty, but even better was the amazing mousse with mango sauce. It was delicious! Pretty impressive meal for a short flight, but surprisingly no bread offered. I did ask (not that I really wanted any) but the flight was also dry. I didn’t think Oman Air was a dry airline, but maybe on morning or domestic routes? The crew wasn’t overly confident in English, so I didn’t push the questioning.

IMG_1937

From what this interaction appeared to be, he needed his napkin placed on his lap…and his companion hopped right up to do it:

IMG_1938

Landed on time in Muscat, and had about five hours until my next flight. We arrived at the domestic arrivals, which meant taking a bus to baggage claim, and then straight outside. There was someone asking for transfers, so I joined the group. They were confused why I didn’t have a boarding pass, and when they found out I was transfering to someone other than Oman Air they were extremely confused. Apparently in Muscat they only expect you transfering to Oman Air. Upon checking my Qatar boarding pass on my phone, they decided they would bus me over to the international terminal with everyone else, and leave it to be sorted there.

Fortunately, upon arrival at the international terminal, there was not only a transfer counter, but a special line for business class. Qatar markets its regional flights as first class, and when they saw that boarding pass they leapt up to help quickly. Only problem was, again, they only really knew how to deal with Oman Air transfers. About 20 phone calls were made, and they finally found someone who knew how to issue a Qatar Airlines boarding pass. Only problem was…it was going to take at least 30 minutes. They escorted me through security, and told me to go to the Oman Air lounge to wait.

Get to the Oman Air lounge and…no, you may not use this lounge. Uh, ok. They sent me off to the Plaza Premium lounge, which turned out to be the right lounge. I asked the agent when I get stamped out of Oman, and she was stunned I hadn’t been. She made a call to airport immigration, and seems someone had escorted me right past exit immigration without getting me stamped out. The solution? Since I was already outside immigration, and security, they send an airport employee to carry my passport to the immigration folks to get me stamped out…and hopefully come back to the lounge with it. Fortunately, this worked out just fine and all was good in the end.

Despite a good snack on the plane, I was a little hungry, and the lounge had some great hummous and mezze:

IMG_1942

Blogged for a little bit, got a little hungrier, so more snacks, including Fosters…Omani for beer!

IMG_1943

Soon it was time to walk just across the hall to our gate, where the 4 people in business class had a bus all to ourselves. The airport apparently has a huge shortage of jetbridges, as we didn’t get one in either direction. Nice thing about only four people in the front was that we each had a row all to ourselves.

Qatar Airlines flight 1127
Muscat, Oman (MCT) to Doha, Qatar (DOH)
Depart 17:45, Arrive 18:25, Flight Time: 1:40
Airbus A320, Registration A7-ADA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 3F

So, what’s to eat? Despite a short flight, we got a full menu:

IMG_1944

Plus a rather substantial snack:

IMG_1945

Beverages…today the champagne on offer was Krug…yum!

IMG_1946

Pre-departure towels were offered…warm or cold, your choice. Given the 100F temps, I went cold…

IMG_1947

Arabic coffee was offered, but no champagne on the ground in Oman “for tax reasons.” Plus the dates were packaged…kinda…cheap looking

IMG_1948

The champagne situation was quickly rectified after takeoff:

IMG_1949

The shish tahouk main…quite tasty, although rather small:

IMG_1950

Upon landing, again first class passengers got their own bus to the terminal. The luxury first class bus:

IMG_1951

It was clearly rush hour at the airport, and the lines for transfer security was enormous. Had to pass by scary interrogation bear again, and then downstairs to immigration. Fortunately, Qatar has business class lines at immigration, so I quickly got my visa (100 rials please) and was soon outside and in my taxi.

IMG_1953

Pretty short ride to my hotel for the night, the W Doha. I’ve said it before on this blog, but the W Doha in my opinion is probably the best SPG property in the world. Some time soon, I want to take a few day trip to Doha just to hang out there and be pampered. I was chatting with the manager on duty at reception, and he informed me I’d been upgraded to a “residence apartment” for the stay. This was a new one in my several stays there, and I was curious to see what it involved.

The residences are a separate tower, and accessed through what feels like a secret door from the lobby area with their own elevators. Once inside my apartment, there was a huge living area:

IMG_1958

…a very nice kitchen complete with Nespresso machine:

IMG_1959

…and even a washer and drier as well as refrigerator. Basically everything you could want for an extended stay.

IMG_1961

Not to mention, the bedroom was extremely spacious as well:

IMG_1962

I felt kind of bad I had such a short night. It was way too early to go to bed, but also had to be up super early the next morning. I decided four hours or so of sleep would have to do, and decided to go over to the mall a couple blocks away just to walk around and people watch. I’d been sitting around airports all day, so stretching the legs would feel good. Got to the mall, and decided instead of walking to rent some skates and go skating. Managed about an hour on crummy rental skates, but it was still lots of fun. Nothing says ice skating like Qatar!

Got back to the room, and still wasn’t really all that tired. At check-in the told me about a new service they were trying out which was a WhatsApp concierge. They gave me a number to message with anything I wanted, and they would take care of it. I decided to try and ask them to bring me a half bottle of one of the red wines on the room service menu, and it arrived within 15 minutes. Pretty impressive. Also needed the code for the internet, and they responded with that quickly as well.

All in all, the service was outstanding at this hotel again, and combined with the location and overall facilities it remains probably my favourite Starwood property anywhere in the world! Finally got to bed in time to get just under five hours of sleep. It’s off to Japan in the morning!