Jun 052018
 


Time for another throwback post, this time back to 2008 when I was alerted to a mistake fare that Lufthansa had published. The fare was meant to be for DC to Helsinki, but when publishing it in the list of permissible connecting cities they accidentally put the code for Johannesburg. This meant that for a “normal” sale business fare to Helsinki you could add in several more miles earned plus have the chance for a 12 hour stop in Johannesburg! Back in the younger days when I flew more just for the adventure this sounded like a wild deal. I was sold!

Of course, I had nearly 14 hours in Frankfurt on the way to Johannesburg, and that just wouldn’t do at all. At this point I was at only 63 countries visited, so I started looking if there was a sidetrip from Frankfurt that I could pull off within 14 hours. Noticing the frequent flights from Frankfurt to Zurich, I decided that pulling off Liechtenstein would be possible, so a quick booking and I was set to try it!

Fast forward to the flights were relatively uneventful, so few details. Fortunately I was into Frankfurt on time and had no trouble making my connecting on SWISS. Fortunately, since they were both on separate tickets it could have been trouble. This was also in the dates before inflight WiFi, so it’s not like I could just log on and cancel the SWISS ticket if we were going to be late.

Fortunately, no problems.

United flight ???
Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart approx 17:30 Arrive: approx 7:00 next day, flight time: approx 8 hours
Boeing 767-300, Registration N657UA, Manufactured 1993, Seat 6K

SWISS flight 1071
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 10:20, Arrive: 11:20, flight time: 1 hour
Airbus A319, Registration HB-IPY, Manufactured 1996, Seat 10F

Landed right on time in Zurich, and I had exactly 7.5 hours between flights to go see Liechtenstein. Down to the train station in the airport, and a first class ticket to the Swiss town of Sargans purchased. It was just over an hour to Sargans, where upon arrival I bought a connecting bus ticket to take me the rest of the five miles or so into Vaduz, Liechtenstein.

First impressions, a bank with some very modernist architecture:

More walking, and I was really impressed by just how green everything was:

This was around the time it seemed like every city had to have statues that represented the city, painted a bunch of different ways. DC had its donkeys and elephants, Berlin had its bears, and apparently Liechtenstein has its….cows.

…again just how green it was. But brrr, it was mid-August and everyone was still in jackets.

Herzlich willkommen!

Small tourist train running around Vaduz:

After walking around for around three to four hours, I decided to walk back to Switzerland, you know, as one does. There haven’t been a whole lot of international borders I’ve crossed by walking!

Old wooden bridge between Vaduz and Switzerland:

Apparently, the local graffiti artists are less fond of Switzerland:

…and walking back into Liechtenstein one more time for good measure:

…and back into Switzerland. How many different border signs can I find!

…just one more, I swear!

Caught the bus on the Swiss side back to the train station, and back to the airport in plenty of time to relax in the lounge for a bit before flying back to Frankfurt. Very productive stopover!

SWISS flight 1076
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 18:55, Arrive: 20:00, flight time: 1:05
Airbus A319, Registration HB-IPS, Manufactured 1997, Seat 36A

No need to clear immigration since at this time Switzerland wasn’t in an immigration union with the Schengen countries, so got to stay in the international area the whole time, and plenty of time for a stop by the lounge on the way to the plane. Best part of the flight down to Joburg? I was so exhaused from sleeping on the plane the night before and walking around all day that I passed out. Plus, this was the old 747-400 configuration with 4D, the solo seat in the nose that people used to call the “Captain’s Chair” because it was in the middle of the deck.

Lufthansa flight 572
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 22:35 Arrive: 8:50 next day, flight time: 10:15
Boeing 747-400, Registration D-ABTF, Manufactured 1991, Seat 4D

This was also in the days before the Gautrain, so I had to hope a shared bus taxi into the city, which dropped me right at Nelson Mandela Square. Looks just the same as it does now 10 years later! I had a great lunch Al Fresco while walking off the jetlag as much as possible before heading back to the airport to fly right back to Frankfurt!

Most awkward part about flying back to Frankfurt? It was the same plane I had come in on in the morning, and I had exactly the same seat heading back! Third straight night sleeping on a plane, and fortunately the seat was still form-fit to me so I quickly passed out and slept just about the entire way to Frankfurt. Three nights in a row on planes will do that!

Lufthansa flight 573
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 18:55 Arrive: 5:25 next day, flight time: 10:30
Boeing 747-400, Registration D-ABTF, Manufactured 1991, Seat 4D

Lufthansa flight 3102
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Helsinki, Finland (HEL)
Depart 9:35 Arrive: 12:55, flight time: 2:20
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIQW, Manufactured 2000, Seat 4C

Spent the first day in Helsinki walking off jetlag and playing tourist a bit, and then it was time to head to Estonia for a night. I’d never been on a helicopter before, so it seemed the way to go!

Loading the baggage….much easier than a plane!

Excited to be boarding my first helicopter. Back in 2005 Copterline had a crash on this route killing all 20+ aboard, but I wasn’t nervous for some reason….I’m not sure why, but…

Copterline flight 140
Helsinki, Finland (EFHE) to Tallinn, Estonia (EECL)
Depart 17:00 Arrive: 17:20, flight time: 20 minutes
Augusta Westland 139 Helicopter, Registration OH-HCR, Manufactured ?, Seat 2A

Look at those views! We passed over the Tallink Ferry, which would be our ride back to Helsinki the next day:

After landing at Tallinn City Hall Heliport:

One last evening picture…back when it was cool to have holes in your jeans, I know…

Took the more direct route home, not via South Africa, and really did make the most of a five day weekend! Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, South Africa, Finland, Estonia…any trip where you have more countries than days is pretty successful!

Lufthansa flight 3103
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 13:40 Arrive: 15:10, flight time: 2:30
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIQW, Manufactured 2000, Seat 2F

Great surprise….an operational upgrade at the gate to first class for the last segment back to DC. What a great way to end what was a fantastic trip!

United flight 933
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 17:00 Arrive: 19:44, flight time: 8:44
Boeing 777-200, Registration N768UA, Manufactured 1995, Seat 1A

Hopefully these throwback posts make an interesting read – I’d love to see how some of these places have changed with time – share your stories!

May 292018
 


After a few more long and successful days of work and meetings, it was back to OR Tambo to finally head home after being away for three weeks. I had checked in online, so headed straight to security (which oddly enough had zero lines at all) and then through to passport control, which also had no lines. This means that less than 15 minutes after getting off the Gautrain, I was back in the South African Airways Lounge. Walking up to the counter to get a drink, the bartender quickly recognized me:

“My boss! Long time! Go sit down, I will bring you the usual at your usual place!” Yeah, so maybe I need to be spending less time in Johannesburg for the near future…

Apparently I looked thirsty, because I’d barely taken a sip when 10 minutes later he returned with another glass. Did I mention how I love the service in this lounge?

Off to the gate after a short bit, and my chariot was waiting for the ride to Frankfurt:

Boarding was the usual Johannesburg mess, with rather rude helpers roaming the boarding area demanding to see passports. Knowing the game, I loitered near the front of the queue, and when the boarding agent got flustered with the first few passengers another came right over and started a second line, and I think I might have been the first to board…

Lufthansa flight 573
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 19:00, Arrive: 05:35 next day, flight time: 10:35
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYR, Manufactured 2015, Seat 8D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 42,315
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,562,377

I rather like the 2-2-2 configuration on the Lufthansa 747-8i, and no it’s not all aisle access, but the seats in the middle section have a ton of space. Sitting in the window seats is definitely cuddle class. Yuck. 2005 called, it wants its seats back.

Pre-departures were offered, and I accepted a glass of the (warm) sparking wine. It got two sips and that was it. Ugh.

As soon as the door closed I was praising myself for my cunning stalking of the seatmap, and one of the few empty seats in business class was next to me…until the flight attendants brought up a friend from coach and sat her next to me. Ugh. Lufthansa was not doing a good job this flight of living up to their regular high performance. To top if off, “friend” immediately removed her shoes and socks and put her bare feet up in the shared foot area. Ugh. I expect better than this from Lufthansa…

At least the menu looked interesting:

Glass of wine and some nuts to start. I’m so glad Lufthansa finally got rid of the packaged nuts. As a bonus, the flight attendant working my section recognized me from the elevator at the hotel in the morning, where we traded good mornings as I was headed down to Starbucks and he was headed down to the end. Staying in the crew hotel has its benefits…and I got great service the rest of the flight 😀

The duck and pineapple starter was really tasty, but way too small… Of course, United considers two skewered prawns an appetizer, so…

The salad and the main were served together, and both were quite tasty. The beef goulash was also a nice non-traditional choice and a welcome change from the usual chicken or beef madness.

Wow, a business class salad with more than three ingredients. One of the better business class salads I’ve seen in a long time!

Above average business class cheese plate (but sadly no fig spread), and a delicious chocolate cake to finish off the meal.

I wasn’t really that tired, and stayed awake pretty much the whole flight watching tv. Around the middle of the night, I also started to lose all feeling in my right hand. Thinking I had just leaned on it weirdly I got up to walk around a bit, and it didn’t get any better. I stood up and chatted with the flight attendants a bit, and let them know…but the numbness didn’t seem to be spreading so I wasn’t too concerned. This is probably also a good place to mention I’d been dealing with a few (what I thought were) mosquito bites for a few days that had gotten progressively itchier. Fortunately, it never got any worse, but this wasn’t a good sign. (When I got home, medical geniuses decided it must be “some sort of spider or something that bit you in the middle of the night” – wonderful. Fortunately a month later, numbness is finally gone.)

Now, having not died in the middle of the night – or forced a medical emergency landing in Niger (seriously, they probably would have kept going, because, let’s be honest…), it was finally time for breakfast. Despite being dark out, nearly two hours before landing (mind you, 3:30am – no time change) they turned on all the cabin lights and brought round breakfast.

The omelette came with super tasty grilled bacon (though almost tasted more like a pork cutlet) and some cheese and fruit. Overall a rather impressive breakfast!

We landed about 15 minutes early, no line at all at at immigration, so I decided a proper sleep would help, so I headed to my semi-regular haunt the airport Sheraton to get four solid hours of sleep. I had just under six hours between flights, and that was way too long to sit in the lounge, and I figured 3.5 to 4 hours in a bed would make me feel human for the flight home.

Crashed as soon as I hit the bed, got four solid hours, and was worth every cent. Off to immigration and security which had zero line, and I actually had time for 20 minutes in the lounge on the way to the gate. Could have slept more, but had no way to know there would be no lines. Right, on to the flight.

United flight 961
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 11:20, Arrive: 14:00, flight time: 8:40
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration N2331U, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 46,185
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,566,247

I’d booked this routing largely to finally try the new United Polaris seats, and decide if this was enough to finally give United a try. Well, they weren’t doing themselves any favours with terrible pre-departure sparkling wine in plastic cups:

‘MURICA sized seatbelts, perfect for someone with a 50-60 inch waist:

We taxied past the new Lufthansa livery…I don’t hate it as much as others do, but think it was a giant waste of branding budget.

The Polaris “wine flights” had gone away two days prior, but they still had the mini glasses, and the excellent flight attendant was more than happy to pour me all three to taste:

Above average salad (I’m always a sucker for a greek salad), and extremely sad appetizer. One sad wilted basil leaf, two slices of underripe tomato , a glop of gelatinous balsamic, and some mozzarella. The mozzarella was good at least…the rest was embarrassing.

I went with the short rib, knowing it would be essentially the same short rib from the last five years. It was, although very overcooked today.

At least dessert was awesome, partly because they had butterscotch for the rock hard ice cream today, and the macarons? Well, they were incredibly stale 🙁

Rather sad cheese plate, but because I’m a sucker for all the varieties they had, I’ll give that a pass!

At this point, the internet STILL wasn’t working, so finally the purser offered me compensation and an apology. The crew was absolutely fantastic on this flight, and really apologetic, but the frequency with which United has problems even on new planes is embarrassing. Nope, I’ll continue to book away from them whenever possible. To add insult to injury, the new compensation offers are laughable and insulting. As a 1K only $75 travel voucher or 3,500 miles? Just insulting for eight hours of missed work time.

Pre-arrival “deli plate” was not bad, and a nice lighter option. There was also a heavier-sounding option of a sandwich, but honestly this wasn’t bad. Though, the silly pre-packaged polaris chocolates are a sad excuse for a dessert.

We landed at Newark slightly early, and pulled into a gate in the B Terminal. It seems like United has been using the B Gates for international arrivals lately, and I assume this is to relieve overcrowding in the C Customs Hall? Anyone have more insight into this?

This was my first entry to the US since getting my Global Entry reinstated on appeal after a rogue agent revoked it, and I was curious to see how it would go. Couldn’t have gone better, nice and quick, and I was literally plane to landside in 10 minutes. Score!

Of course, this meant waiting for the airtrain to Terminal C, and then dealing with Terminal C security, which took 40 minutes even in the TSA PreCheck line. sEWaRk indeed – what a disgrace. Shame this airport and LaGuardia represent our great nation.

United flight 1743
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington, DC, National (DCA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive: 17:19, flight time: 1:19
Boeing 737-700, Registration N54711, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 46,384
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,566,446

The Port Authority, however, appears to be making me into a national hero. Armed with my cell phone, eyes, and ears I shall protect America’s airports!

Oh wait, never mind, apparently that’s Jason’s job, and I’m just Mason.

With that, it was a super nice treat to get a 737 from Newark to Washington National. Back around 2005 this used to be the norm on this route for Continental, but ever since the merger it’s been an endless stream of ERJ-145s with the occasional ERJ-170 thrown in for good measure. So this was a pleasant treat, and a really nice way to end what was a really nice trip.!

Now, with that, I have no travel booked for 4.5 weeks…and I can’t imagine that will last so….stay tuned!!

May 272018
 


As a fair warning, this post is going to be a bit long and rambling. After my plans to visit Zimbabwe for two nights then Botswana for two nights fell through, I was completely up in the air. The first of four nights was going to get eaten up staying in Johannesburg, since it was nearly 6pm when I landed from Namibia.

Nice night of rest, and woke up, and tried to figure out how to sort out my life. Air Zimbabwe was flying in the late afternoon from Johannesburg to Bulawayo, so I could just as easily pick up my trip! Of course, you can’t buy Air Zimbabwe tickets online, so off to OR Tambo I go with my baggage. The very helpful agent “wasn’t sure if it will go today, or if so when – it gets canceled a lot. Maybe by 11pm.” Uhhh, yeah, that’s not a chance I want to take.

Bit more research, I could pick up Air Botswana directly to Francistown and then drive to Gaborone, but it was going to be more than $800 between change fees for my return ticket and the car, so that just wasn’t happening. Rather than waste anymore time, I decided to chalk it up to “this time, the travel gods were not with me” and head back to my hotel.

Fortunately, I was able to book another night on cash+points, so spent the evening relaxing, scheming, and decided that I was going to make the most of it. Despite dozens of trips to Joburg, I decided I was going to try and dig a little bit deeper. My trip out to Maboneng had been super cool a week back, so I’d use the next two full days to explore until I had to get back to work.

Walking to Starbucks the next morning, fate intervened and I saw the sales centre for the Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus. Quick look confirmed it stopped at a lot of places I hadn’t been, so I bought the two day pass. Why not…I think I’ve only done one of these touristy busses once, and they really can be a good way to see a city in a short time. Plus, it was an absolutely gorgeous 22 degree day, and the next day was forecast to be more of the same.

Pickup/start point was right by my hotel, and off we go. I even got a seat on the upper deck…kinda like a 747…same same but different…

I decided to get off first at Constitution Hill and see the Number Four prison and constitutional court. Unfortunately, lots of the site was closed today due to private group tours, but you could still do a self-guided tour of the Number Four Prison. Entrance had one of my favourite Mandela quotes:

Number Four was built in the 1890s under Paul Kruger and Ghandi spent time in Number Four in 1906.

Shot of the prison yard as it stands today. For some reason, the Orange is the New Black theme started going in my head, and I caught myself humming it. Probably not terribly appropriate…

Pictures of Ghandi and Mandela at various points in their lives…

Solitary confinement cells. Stepping inside and to the back of one sent shivers down my spine.

Hillbrow Tower as seen from Constitution Hill. On my first trip to South Africa in 1997, Hillbrow was always regaled to us as that super terrifying lawless place that you didn’t dare set foot anywhere near.

Waiting for our bus to leave Constitution Hill for the next stop.

Since I’d gotten a late start, I figured I’d ride past all the next stops and stop at the SAB World of Beer which was the last stop. That would allow me to see which of the stops looked interesting for the next day, and would conveniently put me at World of Beer at roughly happy hour time.

The tour was over an hour long, and absolutely…terrible. I’ve been on a few brewery tours , and this was probably one of the worst. It was basically a “history of beer” and honestly….was just bad. Our guide was fantastic, but it was basically 90 minutes of prelude before they let you do the good stuff: the beer tasting.

The tasting was kinda fun, five or six (I forget now) different beers from the SAB lineup, poured one at a time from bottles for the whole group. Apparently if the colour/taste of the beer is just ordinary, the tasting term for that is “unremarkable.” Unremarkable was what I’d call this whole experience, but the tour ended on the rooftop beergarden with two tickets and the VIEW was remarkable!

Next day, I got a slightly earlier start. Back onto the bus, and noted this very hoity-toity private school we drove past:

Then the bus would right through downtown Johannesburg. While undergoing some gentrification and revitalization, there are still plenty of signs that the area has a very, very long way to go. For example, this highrise with a history of fires and busted out windows just sitting empty…though likely home to squatters.

Another building which has clearly seen better days, but has apparently found a buyer:

Springbox jumping over a fountain in front of a casino at one of the stops. This seemed to be the most popular of all stops, and I was tempted to get out for an hour, but how exciting can a casino be?

Winding over a bridge into the central business district, an ad for Amarula – made from Africa!

I got off at the stop for Braamfontein, which along with Maboneng is known to be a “hip, young, and edgy” area of the downtown. Madiba on the side of a building:

Turn of the century building, now a bar:

Found some seats at the patio bar across the street, and ordered a cider while I people watched.

Shortly after ordering a second cider, a 6’5+ drag queen came over and sat next to me…and ordered a cheeseburger. Apparently, her name was Miss Winnie Gets-In-Your-Pants (a nod to Winnie Mandela I assume?) and she’d come from the bar/club across the street. Like was common in the US in the 80s/90s, gay bars were found in the edgy parts of town and this area was very popular with alternative crowds – gays, goths, and just general people who lived outside the “mainstream.” Great lively street scene, and fantastic people watching. I think I spent almost two hours just sitting there and watching the city go by.

Back to the hotel, caught an Uber out to Randburg to check out Craft Beer Library which I’d been told has the best beer list in Johannesburg. The setting was cozy, but lots of fun, complete with shoeless hipster singing…

Definitely a cozy little place, but great beer list and super friendly staff. Definitely on my list of places to return to in JoBurg…maybe as soon as a few days from now 😉

…and with that teaser, couple of days of work stood ahead before the trek home and final part of this trip report.

May 262018
 


Woke up way too early, turned on the iPhone, and as usual the messages started coming in. Emails, text messages…and the notification from TripIt that my flight with Air Namibia from Windhoek to Harare was canceled. UGH. I was already unsettled about this part of the trip given Air Zimbabwe’s recent fleet problem of being reduced to one airworthy plane, but this was a whole new wrench in the works.

It looked like I might be able to fly to Johannesburg and then to Bulawayo, but of course Air Namibia and Air Zimbabwe took no responsibility, and this would be several hundred dollars out of pocket. Too tired to really focus on the impending problem, I did what any sane person would do, and headed around the corner from the Hilton to Slowtown Coffee.

Ok, in fairness I stopped by the Hilton Exec Lounge first, but the caffeine looked unpredictable, and the lounge was filled with loud americans touting their “status” so I made a hasty retreat. Slowtown definitely seemed to be THE place to be in Windhoek this morning:

Plus, a super tasty iced coffee and a pastel de nata and I was much more prepared to figure out what I was doing with the next few days:

I debated just spending another day checking out Namibia, but after four nights I didn’t think there was that much I was going to see, plus the cost of extending the car might get crazy. I decided to head to the airport, fly back to Johannesburg, and decide from there if I could salvage the trip at all.

Back to the airport, up to the Hertz counter, and guess what? Yes, their credit card terminal was down again, so “please write on this paper what you think you should pay for” and that was it. I basically wrote down the four days of rental plus taxes, and decided to see how things went. No one way drop off fee. None of the crazy insurance they tried to push on me in Walvis Bay. I had a feeling this was going to get bad, but at the same time I was pretty confident that American Express would have my back.

Security and immigration took maybe five minutes today, and the airport was a ghost town compared to a few days prior. How much of a ghost town? This is the ENTIRE departures hall:

Short stop in the generic business lounge, which actually had a reasonable variety of snacks and beverages, and a couple bottles of Savannah Dry Cider later, and it was time to board. Our flight today had a total of 60 people, so it would be nice and relaxed.

This time, no complaints about taking pictures, and was able to grab a good shot of our plane while boarding.

British Airways flight 6274 operated by Comair
Windhoek, Namibia (WDH) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 14:55, Arrive 16:45, Flight Time: 1:50
Boeing 737-800, Registration ZS-ZWJ, Manufactured 2006, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,935
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,997

No pre-departure drink at all, but right after take off a glass of sparkling wine and a bag of nuts:

For such a short flight, meal service was still done in two parts, with the salad, cheese, and dessert coming first:

In case you’re curious exactly what it was:

Beef, chicken, or veg, and I went with the chicken. Unusual choice for me on a plane, but not only did I go with the chicken but I opted to stick with champagne. It was good – not great – but I was plenty happy with it. Slightly dry like I expect airplane chicken to be, but who knows…maybe I was feeling just a wee bit healthy?

Landed in Johannesburg almost 20 minutes early, got a bus gate, and it was time to head back to my hotel…and figure what if anything I was going to doing with the next three nights…since my journeys to Botswana and Zimbabwe looked to be at risk…

May 222018
 


After a very long week of even longer days at work, it was time for a bit of holiday before going back to work. Due to prior commitments I couldn’t get all my client commitments lined up in one week, so decided to separate them by a week and take some holiday in the middle. So, Saturday morning arrived, and I was off to OR Tambo Airport to get away.

Every time I’m there I totally want to buy the zebra pelts in duty free as a rug, but at a price tag of 16,000 rand, it’s a bit steep for my budget!

While I waited, I caught a great view of my plane waiting for us. I had opted to go with Air Namibia for the novelty factor, despite their points not being worth anything. The flight time also allowed me an extra 90 minutes of sleep over South African, so that was a bonus as well. Air Namibia used a contract lounge whose name I can’t remember, but it was pretty decent, and I would say about as comfortable as South African’s lounge, which I rather like.

No priority boarding queue at all, and it was a mad scrum of European tourists. I think I boarded maybe #100 on the plane or so. Also, it might be the longest jetbridge in the world. If you look at the pic above you can see the part that connects to the plane, but at the top it zigs left and hugs the terminal building finally ending near the nose of where the Turkish plane is parked. Yes, ALL of that is jetbridge!

Air Namibia flight 726
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Windhoek, Namibia (WDH)
Depart 11:40, Arrive 13:45, Flight Time: 2:05
Airbus A319, Registration V5-ANM, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,026
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,088

First impression: I love the cabin. Sure, the seats are super old school leather recliners, but they weren’t lumpy at all and reasonably firm, and….

…look at that legroom! The inflight magazine quoted 54 inches, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was accurate. Extremely generous for a plane that often does 90 minute to two hour flights! You don’t see that often at all!

Sadly, the pre-departure beverage was water, water, or…water.

Flamingo…the in-flight magazine.

After 30 minutes after takeoff, out came the appetizer. A warm piece of what I’m pretty sure was beef, some grilled pineapple, and some orange wedges. Along with a roll…and some South African sparkling wine that was absolutely terrible. I asked to see the bottle, and was met with a “we cannot do that.” Uhhh…ok? At least it was a friendly refusal.

Beef, vegetarian, or fish. I went with the beef, and it was straight out of the United Airlines short rib kitchen. Tasted the same, looked the same, and once again, repeat after me: like grandma’s cooking. Now, remember this meal…we’re going to be coming back to it later…

Soon we were over the amazing landscape of Namibia…

Arrival was about 15 minutes late, which worried me because I only had a 45 minute connection to begin with. I had tried asking the flight attendants if this would be an easy connection, and they didn’t seem terribly interested in helping me.  Encountered probably one of the rudest immigration officials I’ve ever met anywhere in the world who finally stamped me into the country, but not before making very clear that she disliked me.

The path to connecting flights led me…right into the arrivals hall, where fortunately the departures hall was just a two minute walk away. It wasn’t entirely clear if I needed a new boarding pass or what, but there were literally hundreds of people queueing in the checkin lines, so decided to head for the door to security and try my luck. They seemed a bit puzzled with me (since everyone else was going straight from a check-in counter to the door towards security and departures) but apparently after explaining I was connecting that was enough.

Security was pretty quick and easy, and then….immigration counters. Wait, I’m on a domestic flight. Why are there immigration counters. Well, I just walked up and told the guy I was on a domestic flight, and he waved me through. Turns out the one room departures lounge has five gates that handle both international and domestic traffic.

I didn’t have to worry about the close connection since we left over 30 minutes late, so soon it was time to walk to our plane. I tried to snap a pic, but was very sternly chastised by a ramp agent. Ho hum.

Air Namibia flight 715
Windhoek, Namibia (WDH) to Walvis Bay, Namibia (WVB)
Depart 14:30, Arrive 15:10, Flight Time: 0:40
Airbus A319, Registration V5-ANN, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,210
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,272

Unlike the previous flight, pre-departure sparkling wine was offered. Unfortunately, it was pretty terrible again.

Nothing to say about the 30 minute flight, except it was absolutely packed. Oh, and we got a “snack”:

Pretty sad…and again…make a metal note of this for later…

Arrival in Walvis Bay was a casual affair, and passengers continuing to Cape Town were asked to remain on board, which seemed to be about 75% of the crew. Finally snapped a pic of our plane upon arrival:

Just walk from the plane to the terminal…it’s out there somewhere…

Finally, the terminal building…one of the smallest I’ve ever seen…and this is the “new” terminal!

I had rented an SUV from Hertz for the five days, and when I arrived the contract price was more than double what my confirmation said. First, there was a one-way rental fee when Hertz Platinum told me there wasn’t. Then there were about six or seven different insurances, etc. The guy seemed confused, but I just crossed out and initialed what I refused to pay for, and he was like “oh, ok.” I figured this would get interesting when I returned it. Oh, and the Walvis Bay location no longer takes AmEx, but he was “pretty sure” they do in Windhoek. He eventually agreed to let me go by writing down the credit card number, and we were off.

Drive into Swakopmund was just under an hour, and finally I found my hotel the Swakopmund Plaza Hotel. I had booked the larger “family room” since it was only slightly more, and it still wasn’t very large, so I was glad I’d spent the little bit extra:

It did, however, have an amazing view of the South Atlantic Ocean:

Oh, and it also had a lovely beer garden right on site which brewed its own beers. Unfortunately, they weren’t very good…

Walking along the beach:

Local house in old german architecture:

Sunset over the jetty bridge:

Africa meets the South Atlantic Ocean waves:

Sunset from the jetty:

More old German architecture:

The Höhenzollernhaus – a 1904 baroque building that’s been during into condos:

Kücki’s Pub, location of tonight’s dinner. First thing that struck me: the staff switching back and forth between Afrikaans and German, with English clearly the third language. I actually didn’t know before this trip that more Namibians speak Afrikaans as a first language than English.

Determined to explore the deliciousness of African wildlife, started out with a springbok carpaccio:

Followed up with an oryx burger and a side of Spätzel:

The first of many malva puddings on this trip:

With that, it had been a long day so I walked back to the hotel and promptly crashed. Only to wake up at 12…and 1230, and 1, and 130….clearly something had gone off (most likely airplane lunch based on timing) and I was suffering one of the most violent cases of food poisoning I’d had in many years. Fortunately, around three o’clock, with nothing much left in my system I finally managed to get back to sleep, and prayed that I would feel well enough the next day to even consider the five+ hour drive ahead of me. I hoped so, or this trip was over before it even began….

May 162018
 


Soooo, off to Southern Africa again for work, this being the fourth trip in as many months. Despite it being a lot of travel, it’s good for the mileage balance, and each time has enabled me to explore slightly different ways of getting there. I know lots of people like the 1-stop flight on South African, but to me it’s just too long in a plane, and South African pulls way too many plane changes to risk getting the old seats.

My favourite route is pretty much via Europe with Lufthansa, but unfortunately this time the nonstop flight to Frankfurt was actually sold out when I went to book! Oh well, connecting in Europe it would be. There was space on the nonstop United flights, but I refuse to pay good money to sit in their absolutely horrid 2-4-2 configuration where you get to play twister with your seatmates to get to the aisle. No ma’am.

Yes, it was an upgradable fare, but there was no guarantee that would clear on United, so I went with the sure thing: a double connection in Europe where I could ensure the middle seat in United’s 2-1-2 configured 767s. Plus, there was a chance I would get “real” Polaris since there were now four of 24 or so planes configured. Unfortunately, no such luck. Right, on to the details you’re actually interested in.

Nobody in their right mind goes to the United Clubs at Dulles at mid afternoon international rush, heaving as they are with Chase credit card holders and more star alliance gold card holders than you can shake a stick at. Being familiar with the shuffle, I decided a stop by the Lufthansa Senator Lounge was in order first. Unfortunately, they’ve switched to serving terrible Prosecco, so I can’t imagine I’ll be going there much longer either. Disappointing.

Next off to Turkish Lounge almost right next door, but they were serving the same awful prosecco so I opted for a moderately ok glass of wine. What they lack for in booze they more than make up for in delicious baklava and turkish bread pudding. Don’t judge. I may have had more than one piece.

Next off to the famous Dulles “moon buggies” for a ride over to the D terminal, where my flight to Geneva was just getting ready to board. Somehow, there were no “gate lice” crowding the boarding lanes, and I was actually first in line just five minutes before boarding. Go figure. Just in time to hear a group of non-revs negotiating with their friend the gate agent and asking her “come on, can’t you move one person so we can sit together?” Ugh. Thankfully, the gate agent played by the rules.

United flight 974
Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD) to Geneva, Switzerland (GVA)
Depart 17:35, Arrive 07:40 next day, Flight Time: 8:05
Boeing 767-300, Registration N677UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 29,635
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,549,697

Sitting IN my seat when I boarded, but fortunately I was able to move it on top of my monitor. Yup, guess we have no shortage of amenity kits today!

Welcome abord Château l’Oscar 2018 dans plastique.

Meal service started out with, you guessed it, mixed warm nuts and a glass of wine for me. I asked for a flight to try the wines, and was told “they didn’t load them.” Hrumph. Good thing I didn’t ask about the bloody mary cart…

Appetizer of smoked duck with dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds, and mustard was almost good, but the duck just didn’t taste right. I give it an A for effort, but just didn’t quite get there. I don’t like that you don’t get to select your own bread anymore, but as the two they give you are my two favourite kinds, I forgive it. Oh, and the salad? One of the best I’ve had on United. Costs so little to improve it to this level I’m glad to see they’ve finally done it. Hopefully this is the new norm.

The five spice short rib and wasabi grits? Well, the short rib hasn’t changed in years, so that was predictable. I didn’t taste any wasabi in the grits, and the sauce on the short rib had absolutely no flavour. Disappointing. Some days this dish is actually pretty tasty home cooking, but not tonight unfortunately.

United gets a C on the cheese course this time. All I know for sure is it was “international” cheese. I’m going to guess a brie, blue, and what tasted like a poor imitation manchego. It’s better than the chedder and swiss they often try to pass off as international, however….

One ice cream sundae, hot fudge, no glass chips.

I was told I didn’t have the option to say no to breakfast, so it was brought to me. I intentionally didn’t sleep on the flight to stay on Washington time in an attempt to battle jetlag, and so far it was working well. Yes, I had a champagne breakfast, don’t judge me…I think it even shocked the crew. Pretty sure they’re not used to getting that request right before landing.

I had a 10 hour layover in Geneva before my connection to Frankfurt, and decided that’s when I would sleep. I tried a new website called www.dayuse.com which offered me a room at the Ibis Palexpo right next to the airport for a very reasonable rate.

Unfortunately, after immigration, I jumped on the shuttle to the WRONG Ibis, and ended up walking back to the correct one, about a 20 minute walk away. The walk was actually nice after being on a plane all night, and when I got there I was ready to crash. But, the room…like many European hotel rooms, was WAY too warm and of course there was no air conditioning since it was April, so I had the pleasure of sleeping in a 25C room. At least after a shower I was ready to completely peace out for five hours.

Overall impression of the hotel? The room was a small cube with barely enough room for the bed and a desk, but it was perfectly functional. This was supposedly the nicer of the two Ibis properties as well. That said, it was a bed, and it was functional for that. The lobby looked to be a bit of a refugee camp with people on long layovers, and lots of small children, but the room itself was quiet. If not for the heat, it would have been absolutely perfect….plus where else can you get a 79 franc room in Geneva for 10 hours?!

Checked out after a wonderful solid nap, well worth every penny, and back to the airport to enjoy the lounge a bit. But first, random snack at Starbucks. Not sure it’s a meal or what, but it was nearly $18…who said Geneva is expensive….

Overall lesson so far: this routing to South Africa works. Flight leaves DC too early to sleep for me, but gets to Geneva just in time that I want to sleep…and sleep came easily. The United 767 certainly isn’t cutting edge, but if you get one of the middle seats it’s not a bad product. Overall, I was happy with my choice, and it was time to head to Frankfurt now!

Apr 082018
 


Yeah, so it was Saturday morning. Woke up. I was having coffee, looking ahead to a completely boring day with zero plans. Sitting around on the couch sounded so, so nice. But it was Easter weekend…and there was really nothing at all going on…people were out of town…and before I’d finished my coffee I was bored. I had managed to resist the idea the day before on Friday (you know, when I could have actually gone there and spent the night) but I had a feeling today would be different.

30 minutes later, I’d grabbed a shower, threw a few things in a backpack, and was out the door. There was a flight to Detroit in 70 minutes, and from there on Delta I could pretty much head anywhere in the world. I’d always wanted to do a spur of the moment trip to somewhere – anywhere – and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. So without any plans at all, off to Detroit I went.

Quick Uber to National Airport, check in, through CLEAR with no line, and I was at my gate. I might have even had 10 minutes to spare in the SkyClub, but I was already feeling a bit rushed so decided to head to the gate. Time to head to Detroit, and the great beyond!

Delta Airlines flight 6188, operated by GoJet
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Detroit, Michigan (DTW)
Depart 12:45, Arrive 14:20, Flight Time: 1:35
Canadair CRJ-700, Registration N669CA, Manufactured 2004, Seat 4B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 17,013
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,537,075

Boarded right on time (and yeah, I had 15 minutes to spare, I don’t know why I felt rushed) and ended up in seat 4B, which has more legroom than any other seat on the plane as you can see in the pic below. Given that Comfort Plus has free drinks just like first class on a short flight like this, this seat was actually probably BETTER than ended up in actual first.

Both 4C and 4D remained open, so I decided to move over to 4D right before takeoff. Still pretty much unlimited legroom, and DC is one of my favourite places for a window seat. I’m usually on the A-side so get great Pentagon shots on takeoff, but today it was the Jefferson Memorial and the US Capitol:

I’ve been trying to be nicer to my liver lately, so was content with a bag of snack mix and a diet coke. I should have had some Biscoff cookies, but the little Dorito things in the snack  mix are just soooo good!

Landed in Detroit about 15 minutes ahead of schedule, and look what was right across from my gate:

I had a few vague ideas where Delta flew from Detroit. I knew about London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Paris in the evening, but was surprised to see there were actually THREE flights to Amsterdam, one to Rome I didn’t know about, and of course there was also Canada and the rest of the US as well.

Overwhelmed, I headed to the lounge for a snack to explore options. Meatballs, cheese, hummus, and a beer. Giving United’s famous “brown meal” a run for its money:

After looking at how full flights were, I settled on the second flight to Amsterdam. However, as the flight got closer, more and more people started snapping up the available seats, to the point where even if I did get a seat it would be a middle seat in the 1-2-1 configuration. Now, don’t get me wrong, those seats are way better than 2-4-2 on United where people have to climb over each other, but I was really hoping for a solo window seat since I didn’t plan to sleep.

Given the odds from Amsterdam were looking dicey, I took a look back at Paris…and wow…plenty of seats. Choice made, I bought the ticket, and of course was unable to check in online. Tried the counter in the SkyClub, and they couldn’t check me in either since we were only 50 minutes before departure. Time to run to the gate.

Met with the “how did you get through security if you’re not checked in” the gate agent made a production of reminding me she was doing me a favour by checking me in…and just like that it was time to go!

Unfortunately, I was having trouble refunding my Amsterdam ticket online…but did get the very last seat in business class. Fortunately, I could see online they did eventually unload me and I was able to refund it later. Off to Paris we go!

Delta Airlines flight 98
Detroit, Michigan (DTW) to Paris, France, Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 18:11, Arrive 8:15 next day, Flight Time: 8:04
Airbus A330-300, Registration N803NW, Manufactured 2003, Seat 9A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 20,976
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,541,038

Pre-departure “champagne”  – I’m still not sure a $5 bottle of sparking wine is “worth it” in the calories department, but hey, it came in an actual glass and this spur of the moment trip was definitely something to celebrate! I tend to be someone who overthinks things, so being spontaneous is something to celebrate!

Mixed nuts to start off once we were in the air, and a glass of wine. These glasses always look like they shouldn’t be stable in turbulence, but I’ve never had a problem. Also, love that the mixed nuts include pistachios, pecans, and cashews – my three favourite nuts.

Appetizer tray. I know others don’t like business class service on a tray, but it doesn’t bother me. The salad was pretty underwhelming, but the appetizer was phenomenal. I don’t know how they came up with this combo, but “grilled apricots with whipped ricotta, truffle honey and crispy prosciutto” was absolutely amazing. I wanted more. Plus a pretzel roll and tomato/basil bisque soup was super tasty and good comfort food.

Another home run with the main course, pistachio crusted australian lamb rack. It’s pretty rare you get lamb chops on the bone on a plane, but they were also cooked medium (best you can expect on a plane) and the pistachio crust was amazing. This mean alone made me want to do more Delta transatlantics before it goes away!

Cheese and ice cream for dessert. Cheese was nothing special, but ice cream with a little hot fudge is always welcome.

I had decided I was going to stay away the whole flight to avoid jetlag, since we would be landing around 1am east coast time in the US. Given I often stay up that late on weekends anyways, it was definitely easy to stay awake…and allowed me to catch up on tv. I never watch tv at home, so I rely on downloads of the shows I like to my iPad to catch up. Good use of time in the air.

Small mid-flight snack with about three hours to go:

I decided I would have breakfast “for science” but the frittata of potato and gruyere was much better than expected and I ended up eating most of it. The tomato hollandaise was super tasty too. I suspect Delta must have gotten a sale on asparagus and tomatoes this month!

Oh, and since it was still technically midnight body clock time, a glass of champagne with breakfast was welcome. Now that’s a generous pour. The crew on this flight was friendly and fantastic.

Landed 15 minutes ahead of schedule, and up into the terminal where I managed to get a shot of my ride to Paris:

See, it was all fate that I ended up on a flight to Paris! Paris has been waiting for me!

During the flight I had done some searching, and fortunately managed to find a flight home that was wide open. Looked like I would have about three hours on the ground, and then it would be right back to Cincinnati. Found the Air France/Delta transfer desk a short walk from the plane, and they had no trouble checking me in to Cincinnati. We had arrived at the M gates of Terminal 2E, so I would have to head to the L gates if I wanted to use the Yotel lounge, and my flight would of course depart from the K gates.

So, good news first. After some confusion and asking around, managed to find out that the Yotel is actually outside security in the L gates, so I wouldn’t have to reclear security. One of the worst things about how Terminal 2E is designed at Charles de Gaulle is that it has three piers: K, L, and M, each with their own security. As far as I know, there’s no way to transfer between them without clearing security.

So, the Yotel was like 80 degrees, so I’m not sure the shower I took really helped all that much, but I suppose it was better than nothing? The lounge visit also came with 10 euro in food credit, which I used on two large bottles of Evian and a bottle of Orangina. Given how hot it was I think I sweat it all out immediately, but better than nothing. Stopped in a cafe in the terminal for a delicious pain au chocolate and espresso, because hey, when in Paris, and just like that it was time to head to my next flight!

Back on the inter-terminal train to the K gates, and managed to find security…where the line was nearly AN HOUR long. Even the fast track/premier line took almost 30 minutes. Once again, CDG demonstrating what an absolute pain it is as far as being user-friendly.

That said, I do love the retro-futuristic design of the K terminal:

Only had about 10 minutes to wait to board after all the checkin/inter-terminal shuffle, so it was a very nice and quick visit to Paris, but time to head home now!

Delta Airlines flight 229
Paris, France, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Cincinnati, Ohio/Kentucky (CVG)
Depart 10:35, Arrive 13:53, Flight Time: 9:18
Boeing 767-300, Registration N175DN, Manufactured 1990, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 25,132
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,545,194

Despite the flight being relatively light in business (maybe 2/3) the agent had assigned me a middle section seat towards the back. A polite request and I got 3A. The odd numbered window seats are my favourite because the large “console” part of the seat is next to the aisle, giving you a little more privacy. The downside is, when the seat is at all reclined it can be a bit tight to get out past the console. Bedding, amenity kit, headphones, water were waiting for me when I boarded. It was now about 3am eastern time, and sleep was beginning to sound amazing.

Bubbles…because…celebration…blah blah….

Cool takeoff right over Paris Le Bourget airport:

Yay, more pistachios!

After the amazing appetizer on the way over, this one was a bit more disappointing. I don’t “do” shrimp (aka cockroaches of the sea) but in exchange the salad was definitely and upgrade. Oh, and fresh baguette was just as good as having pretzel bread. The thai coconut soup, however, was outstanding and probably the best soup I’ve ever had on a plane:

Grilled beef tenderloin (a nice medium) and fregola sarda pasta. Definitely well above average for steak on a plane:

The cheese was also much better than the other direction, although I’d expect nothing less for a flight originating from Paris. Morbier, Cantal, and Pavé d’affinois with a bit of chutney. Oh, and of course I didn’t pass on the ice cream.

Having eaten, and now about 430a body time, I absolutely passed out for the next five hours and had a wonderful nap. Waking up about an hour before the pre-landing snack was served, a pretty good cuban sandwich:

Hello Cincinnati!

I should probably say that part of what had sold me on Paris was the hope I could take this route back. Back in 1988 the first time I ever flew Transatlantic was on a Delta L1011 from Cincinnati to London Gatwick. Back then, I remember Cincinnati airport being pretty busy, and certainly when I went back in the mid 1990s it was quite busy.

Now, however, it seemed like a bit of a ghost town. We hit immigration right after another flight from Cancun, and now it was time to put Global Entry to the test. This was the first time I would be entering the US since my Global Entry had supposedly been reinstated, so I looked forward to seeing if it was true. The only “evidence” I had was an email telling me that upon review they agreed they would reinstate it and…yup! Went perfectly.

Only one question from the agent when I turned in my receipt of “where are you coming from?”  “Paris.” “Just Paris?” “Yeah, just Paris.” “Welcome home.” Whew, no questions about how long I had been in Paris that would have required an awkward explanation.

To get back to the gates TSA was right in the arrivals area, but unfortunately no PreCheck, no CLEAR, so off come the shoes, out come the laptops, etc etc. Ugh. But the cool thing was, right after this it was an escalator up right to the departure gates. I could have probably even pulled off a 30 minute transit here if I needed to.

But, that done, I had time for Starbucks. Yay!

This airport has certainly seen busier times. View from the SkyClub:

Time to board the flight back to DCA. Gracias and Merci Delta for a fun trip!

4D once again, the same seat I had on the way to Detroit just…24 hours prior. Wow, this had really been a whirlwind.

Delta Airlines flight 6214 operated by GoJet
Cincinnati, Ohio/Kentucky (CVG) to Washington, DC, National (DCA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive 17:28, Flight Time: 1:28
Canadair CRJ-700, Registration N354CA, Manufactured 2002, Seat 4D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 25,544
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,545,606

Cool Kalitta Charters II 727 on taxi:

Lots of great plane spotting on the taxi with all the cargo that moves through Cincinnati, so that made having a window seat really worth it.

Quick hour flight to DCA, nothing special, no beverage service “due to the length of the flight” though water was available to anyone who requested it. The guy sitting next to me asked for a beer, but was told no. Kinda defeats the purpose of Comfort+ except the added legroom.

Overall, I felt really privileged to have been able to do something so crazy. Would I do it again? Most definitely – but it surprisingly took a bit more out of me than I thought it would. It was a great excuse to be lazy, catch up on tv watching, and just enjoy flying for the sake of it. Now, time to do it again soon!

Mar 112018
 


Unfortunately, it turned out that the Starbucks in the lobby of the Le Meridien didn’t open until 8am on Sundays, and with a 10a flight and unpredictable traffic I felt that would be cutting things too tight. Set the alarm for 715am, and was out the door at 745am, and really debated waiting 15 more minutes since Google maps was still showing a quick 22 minutes with no traffic to the airport.

However, when I got out the front door of the hotel, I was very glad I hadn’t waited. All the streets around the hotel were closed off for some kind of running race, and I had to walk several blocks to find an Uber. Fortunately, my Spanish has improved enough I could ask one of the helpful and plentiful police offers where the best place to walk to to get an Uber was, so I really only lost about 10 minutes.

Google Maps was, fortunately, correct, and I arrived at the airport around 830am. I had checked in online, had a mobile boarding pass on my phone and a gate number, so I headed for what looked to be a mercifully short security line. Looks were only mildly deceiving, and by 845am I was past security and right beyond was the most magical of sites…with prices 50% higher than in the city, of course.

United flights left from an area of about eight gates that seemed to be a bit of a Satellite Terminal, and apparently the United Club is in a totally different part of the airport? I’m not sure if this is always the case, but it seemed to be an incredibly nonsensical arrangement. Waited around in the seating area with other passengers, before spotting an Avianca Lounge right next to my gate. It was nothing special, but it was quiet and uncrowded, so made the last 15 minutes before boarding more comfortable.

I had debated switching to the nonstop flight to Dulles which left 15 minutes earlier, and the United app was letting me make the change for free under the 24 hour confirmed change waiver for elite members, but when the only seat left was 3F I decided to pass. Being stuck in a window seat for four hours is my idea of not fun, and I had the whole day, so decided to stick with my original routing.

Even more strange, this A319 had the usual 12 seats in first, but only 8 passengers booked…and no waitlist. This couldn’t be for real, could it? We would actually go out with empty seats up front? 2A and 2C were still open, so I switched myself to 2C in hopes that 2A would stay open, and sure enough it did! I can’t remember the last time I had an empty seat next to me in domestic/regional first/business!

United flight 1025
Mexico City, Mexico (MEX) to Houston, Texas (IAH)
Depart 10:05, Arrive 12:23, Flight Time: 2:18
Airbus A319, Registration N821UA, Manufactured 1999, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 15,417
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,535,479

Being my first time flying in Mexico, there were lots of new and fun airlines to see on taxi. Here’s Viva!

I loved this view right after takeoff of all the planes sitting around:

I was glad to be getting back a little early since I had a surprise hockey game that night, and was glad to see that United had taken that into account when ordering their napkins. I mean, I do qualify as a superhero, right?

This is also a good point to mention the crew. This was one of the most attentive and attention to detail crews I’ve ever seen on United, and he actually set up the four napkins as a “placemat” first before setting down the drinks and nuts. Yes, he even faced the logo on the can and the glass towards me intentionally. Definitely a first from United! Doesn’t make a difference, but reflective of someone who has pride in their job which always makes a customer service interaction much more pleasant!

There were two choices, and I don’t remember the other, but one was described as a pesto chicken with risotto. I don’t do chicken that often on planes, but they had me at risotto. It was definitely way mushier than risotto should be, but I have very low expectations for risotto on a plane, so overall the meal was definitely above average….and the cake was super tasty. The salad, however, was like far too many airplane salads and wilted and gross. I gave it a miss.

Nothing much to say about the flight. The cool thing was, the flight was SO short that I was able to use the Mobile Passport app right after the door was closed (and I was sure information had been transmitted by the airline to CBP) and had already been ok’d for immigration/customs by the app before even leaving the ground. That made the flight much less stressful after my recent experience in Boston.

Sure enough, immigration was a breeze in Houston, found my way out and upstairs to the E gates checkin area, where there was absolutely nobody in the security line. There was no CLEAR line (does anyone know where it is in Houston?) but with no line it didn’t matter. Went through the metal detector, and once again I got the beep for random screening. Either these are much more frequent lately, or I’ve just been winning the jackpot a lot.

Unfortunately, today, there was a problem. The residue swab on my bag came back positive for explosives, which meant we were going to have some fun. Out of my bag came everything remotely electronic for a hand examination, and a rescanning piece by piece. I also got the extra super-friendly patdown by an agent. I have to give this particular agent credit, because he was excellent in giving the explanation step by step of what he was going to do and explaining that I had the right to go to a private area for the screening.

I told him “I lost my shame long ago – go for it” and he laughed and continued very professional, and in a manner that was more, um, “friendly and familiar” than many dates I’ve been on. As he finished, he thanked me for my cooperation and told me I was good to go. I came up with “wait, all that and I don’t even get a Happy Valentine’s Day or a cigarette afterwards?” It was good for a laugh, and it was nice to see a TSA agent with not just a personality, but also not on a powertrip like so many of the ones I’ve come across.

Trekked over to the D gates, and of course, a glass of Veuve Clicquot in the American Express Centurion Lounge:

Only time for a quick stop and glass of champagne, and then the long trek back to the C Gates for my flight to DC, which fortunately was right on time. Group 1 was absolutely packed today, and the agent announced that “because we have over 40 1K members on our flight today, I appreciate your patience in only boarding when your group number is called.” Wow. According to the app there was only one upgrade, and it was the gentleman sitting next to me. He was a friendly guy, and mentioned he was Global Services on pretty much a full fare last minute economy ticket, and that three of his colleagues who were also Global Services were sitting in the back. That’s a Sunday flight back to DC for you!

United flight 589
Houston, Texas (IAH) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 14:38, Arrive 18:35, Flight Time: 2:57
Boeing 737-700, Registration N24702, Manufactured 1998, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 16,607
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,536,669

Shortly after takeoff drinks and mixed nuts were offered as usual:

If I’d been impressed on the flight from Mexico City to Houston, this flight would turn out to be the exact opposite. This was billed as a “Cobb Salad” and was a disgusting pile of romaine lettuce, chopped cucumber and tomatoes, a hard boiled egg, and a bowl of some rather nasty looking chicken.

Giving credit where credit is due, the chocolate cake and pretzel roll were tasty as usual.

That ends a rather average trip with United. For some reason, mainly that I didn’t have much domestic travel, I found myself scrambling in late 2017 to make the minimum four segments with United to requalify for status, and now I’d done 7 flights in under three weeks! Overall, I’d say not much has changed. The experience is still wildly inconsistent, from the hard product, to the staff, to the meals. There are some that do really well and impress, most are just average, and a couple are significantly disappointing. I guess overall that’s domestic air travel these days in a cut-price environment with little real competition.

No travel likely in the next month (hooray!) so I’ll be writing a few think pieces for the blog, but get ready for a trip report in a few weeks back to Southern Africa, and likely to include South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, checking out new places in each country that I haven’t visited before.

Epilogue: two days after getting home, I woke up to an email from CBP, approximately six months after I filed an email appeal of my NEXUS/Global Entry revocation. The email was short and sweet: “A review of your membership by the CBP Ombudsman has been completed, resulting in the reinstatement of your Trusted Traveler membership.  Please contact the enrollment center if you have any future membership questions.”  WINNING!

Mar 082018
 


So, I had to go to Mexico City for work. To be honest, I was actually really looking forward to it because despite having been to every country, and living right next door, I cheated on Mexico. It was actually the third country I went to; my aunt lived in Tucson for years when I was a little kid, and we used to go and visit, and after me whining and begging several times I finally convinced the family to hop across the border to Nogales. Remember, this was the early 1980s, so the concept of needing a passport as an American was kinda crazy.

Then, fast forward to college, and a group of friends went to a friend’s beach house in Ensenada, Baja California. Had a few great days and actually a bit more of a local experience, but still kind of cheating. Then, on a trip to Orange County we made a day trip to Tijuana. Walked around, had great food at restaurants that were all locals, but again….still doesn’t quite count.

I won’t even mention the ill-advised trip to Cancun.

So, yeah, I’ve definitely been to Mexico, and have no issues with “counting” it, but I still felt like I really needed to have more of a Mexican experience. Between my little tastes, and having been to lots of other countries, I was pretty sure I had a really good idea what it was going to feel like, so I was curious to see if I was right.

I’ll split this report into three parts: the trip there, a short report on my six days in Mexico City (4.5 of which were work), and finally the trip home.

Quick cab to the airport, no line at CLEAR, and realized I had nearly an hour left to kill before boarding. I’m generally not the type to go gaga for airport lounges, but since I had the time decided to do something I never do: lounge hop.

Airport train to the B gates, and a short walk ahead was the wonderful Lufthansa Senator Lounge:

Strawberry raspberry nutella AND a completely empty lounge due to being between the ANA and evening flights? Yes PLEASE!

Artsy shot thanks to the empty lounge. Unfortunately at this hour the “champagne” is a rather crappy cava and the raspberry nutella scone didn’t taste like nutella at all. Major sad panda.

No time to waste with only an hour to waste to do all the lounges, so off to the Turkish lounge. On the way, I nearly lost my lunch:

Short walk later, I was at the Turkish lounge, which people seem to rave about:

Bad news: same crappy cava. Good news: delicious baklava and a relatively-empty lounge.

I still wonder where this mystery staircase in the lounge goes. Perhaps I should have explored:

Walk all the way down to the A gates, catch the train to the C gates, and time for a quick stop at the United Club. *hums* one of these things is not like the other…

Lest anyone thing I was a giant pig, I woke up, went for a run, and ate nothing before getting to the airport – so was really hungry!  …yes, and thirsty!

United flight 484
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Houston, Texas (IAH)
Depart 12:45, Arrive 15:19, Flight Time: 3:34
Boeing 757-200, Registration N14118, Manufactured 1997, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 13,891
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,533,953

According to the app there were over 40 people on the standby upgrade list, so was very happy that I’d managed the night before to do a free same day change onto this flight. Always nice to have lie-fat seats on a domestic flight even if just for the legroom. Having already had my palate wrecked in the United Club preflight, I opted for a pre-flight prosecco:

It was also Valentine’s Day, and I got an e-mail card from the CLEAR team at Dulles. Awkward.

Once in flight, out came the warm nuts. Glass of red wine? Consider it handled.

All these years I’d never had the famous burger, so decided to experiment. Honestly, it was decent. There are lots of amazing burger places in DC so my standards are pretty high, but given this was a plan it wasn’t bad at all…and came on a pretzel bun. With a pretzel rolls on the side. Uh…oh.

Points also for a very fresh salad, and reasonably tasty cheesecake.

Landed a bit ahead of schedule in Houston, and I realized I’ve somehow managed to avoid this airport for nearly five years. We landed at some newish C Gates which were really bright and airy – a nice change for Houston. Spotted this 787 on my way to the D Gates to try and find the Centurion Lounge:

Oooh Singapore A350…sexy!

Finally found the lounge, which like most AmEx lounges these days was heaving and about to burst at the seams. Had to wait in line behind a family of SIX to get in, so good to see that problem has been solved. Not.

Oh well, a glass of Veuve Clicquot made it a bit better:

On the way to find my plane at the E gates, I was informed the Polaris lounge was coming soon. Giggle. Snort. Hah. Moving right along…

How can this be….absolutely no gate lice on the flight to Mexico City?!

United flight 1092
Houston, Texas (IAH) to Mexico City, Mexico (MEX)
Depart 17:44, Arrive 20:05, Flight Time: 2:21
Boeing 737-800, Registration N12216, Manufactured 1998, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 14,654
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,534,716

Today’s load was a full 20 in business class (18 of which were upgrades according to the app) and a grand total of 24 people in economy. Wow, now that’s an empty 737! Pre-flight glass of Chateau L’Oscar to start:

The “meat and rice” – uhhh….at least it tasted better than it looked? Once again, a nice fresh salad.

Overall, it was a pretty typical domestic/regional first/business experience today. Food was maybe a slight bit better than I was expecting, and the international 757 to Houston was definitely a welcome bonus. Also, can’t neglect mentioning that both crews were excellent – friendly, efficient, and helpful. Definitely a real asset to United. Now, let’s get to the main event and check out Mexico City!!

Mar 072018
 


As I mentioned in the last post, the Mobile Passport app had refused to let me report in, leading me to wonder if it was just a systems error (perhaps due to the federal government shutdown that was underway?) or a sign of something more ominous.

Having never had to actually go through normal lines in over five years, thanks to Global Entry and Mobile Passport, I was completely unsure what to do when I arrived…so I followed the line for US Citizens. I know this is probably boring to a lot of people since it’s what most travels do every time they return to the country, but it was new to me.

Turns out you report in at a machine now that is very similar to Global Entry, but there’s no biometric scan. You still scan your passport, the machine takes your picture, and spits out a receipt that you then get in line to show to an agent. I guess what this does is automates some of the data entry the agent used to have to do, and makes a determination.

My receipt spit out line this, and it’s the same “X of Doom” that I’ve gotten at Global Entry before, so I knew I was in for hell. At this point I only had about forty minutes to connect to my next flight, so I was pretty sure I was screwed:

Took nearly 15 minutes to reach the front of the queue and get to an agent, and I was very fortunately to get a very pleasant and helpful agent. The usual questions. Asked what I’d been up to in Cairo, explained it was just one night on the way to Germany for vacation, which made total sense to him. But then: “unfortunately my friend, you’ve won the lottery today. Please wait here against the wall, and someone will be by shortly to escort you to secondary inspection.” Whee, the automated system had decided (most likely) that my one day in Cairo was a lil too sketchy for them, so I feared the same four hour interrogation I got last time I took this route. I was preparing for the worst…and knew my connecting flight was a lost cause.

“Shortly” turned out to be nearly 30 minutes, and finally a pleasant agent came to get me…with a train of eight other suspects behind her. Me, two teenagers who looked to be somali, a pair of women in abayas, a couple of young African men, an older Pakistani gentleman with a grey beard died orange, and what appeared to be a rastafarian. Clearly I’d gotten the “profiling” flag…..

First stop was to drop six people off for what appeared to be baggage inspection. That wasn’t to be my fate. Me, one of the Somali teens, and the older Pakistani guy were led to another area, and told to “have a seat over there.” I sat for what was probably 30-45 minutes, until what I have to admit was a very professional agent came out with all three of our passports. After a quick glance at them, he beckoned me over first. I guess the shady American was likely to be easier than the foreigners…

What seemed to be a very well rehearsed series of about a dozen questions, he took notes on the back of my receipt, then actually said sorry for the hassle…have a good day. I suspect what ever auto flag I tripped he decided “oh, just one of those crazy frequent flier kids flying weird routes for fun” and let me go.

Finally checked my phone, and yup, despite still being 10 minutes prior to departure United had rebooked on on a later flight from Boston-Newark-DCA…in coach. WTF. A quick check of ExpertFlyer confirmed F was available – although points to United for confirming me on what was the quickest routing. Quick call to United got me moved back up business what I had paid for (why they didn’t rebook me automatically was a mystery…since the same class was available) so no giant inconvenience. I would get home a bit over three hours later, via Newark instead of Chicago…and unfortunately miss my hockey game. Boo!

Boston might be one of the most awful airports to transit in, and the walk from the international terminal to United’s terminal took forever, and required a walk outside, walk through the JetBlue checkin area, then past this flying banana:

By the time I got to the United Club, I was a sweaty mess, and of course there were no showers. No worry, was able to relax, clean up, have some water, before setting off in search of what would be much-needed caffeine. One huge plus for Boston, the United terminal had not just a Starbucks, but also a Peet’s and a Dunkin‘! I love choice!

Off to the gate after a long wait, and it was time to fly to sEWaRk…

United Express flight 3622 operated by Republic Airlines
Boston, Massachusetts (BOS) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 17:29, Arrive 19:05, Flight Time: 1:36
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N733YX, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 12,502
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,532,564

Absolutely nothing to say about this flight. It was on time, there was a snack basket, crew was friendly and efficient and offered multiple refills…about all you can ask for for a short last minute regional flight.

Quick stop by the United Club for some water and a glass of whine, before boarding the last flight of the night, which I prayed would be on time.

United Express flight 3722 operated by Republic Airlines
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 20:30, Arrive 21:50, Flight Time: 1:20
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N746YX, Manufactured 2017, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 12,701
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,532,763

On time, with wine and a refill…nothing more to say! Fortunately, considering all that had gone wrong, I really can’t complain much about getting home the same day. In the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty mild drama!

Next up, a short post on my recent work trip to Mexico City!