Dec 102018
 

One thing I love about the Lufthansa flight to Washington out of Frankfurt is that it leaves just late enough that you can sleep in a little bit, but you still arrive at a reasonable hour. Today that meant plenty of time to get a leisurely coffee and breakfast. I have to say, for a simple lounge breakfast, the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport knocks it out of the park…and the convenience to the terminal can’t be beat!

Was nice to have the time to take the morning at a casual pace, but that very rapidly changed when I got to security. I figured that having 25 bars of soap in my rolling bag might look a little unusual, but things turned south when I got the random explosives swab on my bag…and for some reason it came back positive. Took nearly 40 minutes to get cleared, but eventually did, and I was on my way straight to the gate. Fortunately today, we were at the very first gate in the terminal!

Lufthansa flight 418
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 12:50, Arrive:15:50, flight time: 9:00
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYK, Manufactured 2013, Seat 11D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 143,304
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,663,366

Pre-departure champagne? Have I ever said no to that?!

Almonds and a reasonable glass of malbec to start things off…

“Slow-roasted veal loin, zucchini tatar, and mini bell pepper” – despite trying to be overly fancy with the name, it was absolutely delicious.

One of my two favourite seasons on Lufthansa: the time of year when they have “Christmas Goose” on the menu. Delicious as always…hopefully I don’t miss asparagus season in the spring!

Four cheeses AND a chutney? That’s how you do a remarkable business class cheese plate!

Could I really say no to a gingerbread mousse with plum compote? It was delicious…

Slept for maybe three hours, watched a lot of tv and caught up on work, and soon it was time for the pre-arrival meal…which is much more substantial than normal. Salad with parma ham, tomatoes, potatoes, and balsamic, a pretzel, and ginger and lemongrass soup. Can’t forget the chocolate and cherry cake! I actually skipped a red wine which would have gone perfectly with it, thinking I might actually try and get myself to the gym upon landing. Yeah, right…

Normally when I book tickets out of Cairo, I can count on a 2-3 hour grilling minimum by the fine men and women of US Customs and Border Protection, but shockingly today the Global Entry machine spit out my receipt…with no giant X of glory on it. Either they’re finally onto the fact that Cairo doesn’t automatically = shady, or they’ve finally flagged my profile as “he just crazy, not dangerous.” Either way, was glad to be out of the airport and on the Washington Flyer bus home in no time.

So, that concludes the trip. It’s funny, I went into it in a bunch of stages:

  1. Have a ticket to Egpyt I have to use up…hmmm, maybe I’ll just do a quick turnaround and enjoy thanksgiving at home
  2. No, that would be a waste, I should do something super adventurous from Cairo while I’m there…maybe Sinai? Sudan? Somalia? Take advantage of being there?
  3. Nah, I want to relax, and to me flying around is sort of relaxing, so where could I sidetrip from Cairo that I would love?

Johannesburg turned out to be the perfect sidetrip, lots of fun, and super glad that I ended up doing it.

Next up: nearly a month straight of travel, comprising a week in Germany for work, a side-trip to Saudi to take advantage of the fact that they’re offering open tourist visas for the first time ever…back to Minnesota to see family over the holidays, and then finally off to Europe to do Chernobyl, Kiev, Riga, Vilnius, Kaliningrad, Gdansk, and Berlin for Thanksgiving. I’m going to be really happy early January to have a bit of time at home!

 

Dec 102018
 


Fortunately, I had no trouble getting slightly over three hours of solid sleep, although knowing myself (thanks to FitBit) chances are unlikely that I got any decent REM sleep in such a short time…but still way better than nothing or trying to snooze in a lounge!

Skipped checkout at the hotel, having previously told them I had no charges (award night) so please check me out at 9am, I went straight to the terminal where Egyptian bureaucracy was at its finest, and it took two or three counters to figure out who would give me the correct departures queue so that I could go through immigration.

Despite trying to cut it close and maximize sleep, I still had nearly 20 minutes to visit the lounge for some espresso, and then it was off to the gate, where I still made it a solid 10 minutes before boarding. This seems to happen to me every time in Cairo – I should learn my lesson that I never need as much time as I think I will. Of course, the time I do that will be the one where I do actually need the time…

Lufthansa flight 587
Cairo, Egypt (CAI) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 07:30, Arrive:10:35, flight time: 4:05
Airbus A321, Registration D-AIDE, Manufactured 2011, Seat 8D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 139,037
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,659,099

Surprisingly, this flight was completely sold out, and every seat was taken. In “EuroBusiness” this just means a regular coach seat with the middle blocked, which is a pretty crummy way to treat someone on a four hour flight, but nothing you can do about it if you want to fly Lufthansa, and a small price to pay for flying first class across the water.

We even got a…reasonable…breakfast:

Landing in Munich was right on time, but we were at the very last gate, and it was quite a walk to immigration and security, but still made it to the gate about 10 minutes before boarding. What are the chances – everything was working out perfectly this trip!

Lufthansa flight 105
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 12:00, Arrive:13:00, flight time: 1:00
Airbus A321, Registration D-AISK, Manufactured 2008, Seat 8F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 139,223
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,659,285

I’ve said it before, but I’m always impressed that on a 35 minute flight Lufthansa can still turn out a snack that’s better than what most US carriers offer on three hour flights. Seriously, how hard can it be? I can’t imagine it costs much/any more!

Got to my hotel in Frankfurt around 2pm, and was straight to bed for a two hour nap. I was wrecked from only getting three hours the night before, and knew that even if I took a long nap I’d sleep well that night. Plus, very little change of time zone meant I wouldn’t have that to deal with so nap it was! Felt quite a bit better after two hours, and grabbed some coffee and then wandered around the city just stretching the legs for a few hours.

Ended up at my favourite watering hole, NaÏv, which I’ve posted on here before. The selection didn’t didn’t disappoint, and had an imperial oatmeal stout from Sudden Death Brewing called Mr. Cinnamon Roll. Delicious! Plus the old school goalie mask as part of the logo made it extra cool!

After a great night of sleep, decided to buy a train ticket and head down to Speyer where there was a museum I’ve wanted to see for a quite a while. Bought the ticket, off on the train, and only then did I do my research. Bit of a bonus this trip, because turned out that the Speyer Cathedral was a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well. I promised myself I’ll never start on another travel list, but it’s fun to still check them off when I come upon them…

Statues outside the cathedral:

More statues:

Trying to get artsy inside the cathedral…I really like how this shot turned out.

Finally after a bit of a long walk made it to the Technik Museum Speyer – which had an amazing collection of planes, trains, and automobiles. I’ll confess I skipped everything but the aviation displays, but that alone took me almost three hours – nearly unheard of for me in a museum!

First plane was a McDonnell F-101 Voodoo:

Mi-8 Helicopter which you could actually go inside:

The inside has definitely seen better days:

Selfie inside this ancient helicopter:

Next up was an Antonov An-22, the largest propeller powered aircraft ever made. Huge cargo plane. Inside:

That’s a whole lot of cargo space:

Look into the flight deck, through an unfortunately scratched up portal:

Looking out through the observation dome on the top…Lufthansa 747 in the background!

Antonov An-22 from the outside…simply huge. Amazing how something so big can get off the ground with just propeller power!

Vickers Viscount 814. Getting up to this level involved climbing several stories of metal steps, while being able to see down the entire time. Even once I got up here, you could see down through the metal grated walkway. Not great for someone terrified of heights, but my desire to see the planes won out!

Quick, terrified selfie outside the plane:

Inside…this poor passenger looks almost as terrified as I was!

Artsy shot just along the fuselage:

Across the grating, and up another couple of terrifying stories, and it was into the Lufthansa 747. The plane was pitched at maybe 10 degrees as you can see in this photo, and walking inside was absolutely terrifying to me. The back of the plane had a cutaway, so you could see all the innards you don’t normally see when seated:

There’s no question which way I’m going! As someone who had the privlege to fly the Lufthansa 747-400 in both business and first, this was really cool to see!

Most terrifying part of the entire museum….economy class!

FInally, into a hangar at the back of the museum, where a Soviet Buran Space Shuttle was stored:

The Buran from another angle:

Wing and tail shot….

Buran thrusters…I was fascinated by this thing!

Climbed up just a couple stories this time, to get a glance inside the cargo bay of the Buran:

Looking down on the wing:

I had no idea that there was a series of prototypes for Buran, all of which were launched into space. The Bor-5 was the prototype vehicle, and one was displayed in the museum. Super cool!

Final shot of the 747 and the Viscount as I headed to get a snack before leaving:

Quick snack at the museum of red bull and some delicious plum cake before leaving the museum. I’ve never seen plum cake anywhere but Germany…and in mom’s kitchen growing up. Given mom’s entire family came from Germany, I have to believe that’s what influenced it. Plum cake was one of those foods of my youth that when I (rarely) find it now, I can’t resist!

One more 747 shot…because they’re just so sexy…

Walking back through Speyer to the train station…

Wild AND cheese? This is my type of town!

Fun shot of a smaller German street:

Train snack of salami baguette and some traditional Frankfurter Apfelwein:

Fun graffiti in Frankfurt. I am how I am!

Train snack…how can you not love a train company that gives you free gummi bears?!

Wonderful day exploring the Speyer museum, and next time I get a full day near Frankfurt I want to travel to Sinsheim and view the other Technik museum there – which has a Concorde and a Soviet Concordeski!

Next up, the flight back to Washington…and finishing this blog just in time before heading back on my next trip.

Dec 092018
 


So despite it being a very, very short 40 hour stop, I really enjoyed my time in Johannesburg catching up with friends, and was ready to begin the trek up to Cairo. I kinda joked that I would book this routing (which I got with United miles) but at the end of the day I decided why not! It could be an adventure…right?

10:30 flight was just late enough that I could sleep to a reasonable hour, have coffee at Starbucks, and head to the airport with just enough time to spare before my flight. Everything with the train went super smoothly, so I actually got to chill in the lounge for 30 minutes even before heading to the gate. I was surprised to see the bartender that I’ve gotten to know well there so early in the day, and it was more than mildly embarrassing when he brought me a glass of wine at 9:30am and I had to politely decline.

Not sure what it is, but regional flights to Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi always seem to go from A1-A3 in Johannesburg, which are super ancient gates in the old part of the airport. They have almost zero seating, definitely zero air conditioning, and you can’t help but feel like it’s regional flights getting second-class treatment. Regardless, off we go on an adventure!

South African Airways flight 22
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE)
Depart 10:30, Arrive:12:05, flight time: 1:35
Airbus A320, Registration ZS-SZA, Manufactured 2013, Seat 4F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 133,953
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,654,015

Business today was five rows of 2×2 seating, and only four of the 20 seats were occupied. First due to “air traffic control” and then due to “baggage loading issues” we left the gate almost an hour late, reducing my 3.5 hour connection in Zimbabwe to 2.5 hours. 3.5 hours was already cutting it super close to leave the airport and meet friends for coffee or lunch, but with 2.5 hours there was no way it was going to work. Grrr, the one time you really need things to be on time…

That said, regional catering on South African has gotten super miserable. Not sure what this was supposed to be, but some overly ripe fruit and fried pastries was just nasty. I sent it back, and opted for another glass of wine…

Welcome to Harare, Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport!

Despite immigration being super quick and getting my visa quickly, by the time I got through I only had 2:15 until my next flight. I debated chancing a quick taxi to get lunch, but best case I could have sat somewhere for 30 minutes. It just wasn’t worth risking, especially given I had a connection in Cairo, and missing my flight could cause lots of drama.

Nevertheless, I got to see the wildlife of Harare Airport:

Air Zimbabwe transfer desk. Like their flights, it was suspiciously absent of any signs of life…

Went back through immigration (who didn’t like my boarding pass printed in South Africa, and tried to suggest that I owed a “fine” – silly guards, this ain’t my first rodeo) and eventually found the South African Airways lounge. Now, normally I love my lounge cheese and crackers, but I wasn’t touching the cheese in this lounge with a ten foot pole:

The sandwiches and…sausages? on offer didn’t look any safer:

Also, a quick glance through the lounge windows to the runway didn’t give any more hope….

Fortunately, when I took the short walk to the gate my Ethiopian Airlines plane was right on time, and boarding happened right on time as well!

Ethiopian Airlines flight 654
Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE) to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ADD)
Depart: 15:35, Arrive: 20:35, flight time: 4:00
Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, Registration ET-AOV, Manufactured 2014, Seat 3L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 135,876
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,655,938

For such a new Dreamliner, the seats being a disappointing 2x2x2 configuration was really sad…but hey, United does the same thing, so can’t complain too much. Plus, over half the seats were empty, so there was a ton of space, and on a four hour daytime flight this was actually quite a nice seat:

Reasonably roomy cabin:

Pre-flight proper champagne was offered….

Quite a small pour, and warm, but hey…TIA…

Five minutes later, seeing my empty glass, the crew came by again. “I see you like the champagne. Can I maybe get you much more?” I was definitely liking this crew!

Right when the door was due to close, a commotion broke out by the door. Seems someone didn’t have the right visa for their destination, but despite that he was trying to FORCE his way past the gate and flight crew and onto the plane. Lots of yelling in Arabic, occasional english, and eventually Zimbabwean security hauled him off the plane. Nothing like a little excitement before departure. Only part that concerned me was him screaming “my bags, my bags” as they dragged him away and closed the door and we were underway…

Dark clouds on departure indicated a very, very bumpy climb out of Zimbabwe:

Love the scenery of the dark clouds and the sexy Dreamliner wing.

Once we got about 20,000 feet high things smoothed out a lot, and off we were to Ethiopia!

Unusually, a choice of snacks was offered before the meal, of kolo (a roasted ethiopian grain/nut mix) or crackers. I went with the crackers hoping they would be the airplane-shaped crackers ethiopian sometimes serves, but these were ok as well, and a nice change.

I went with the “beef” starter which was a very few tiny slices of marinated beef. Odd, but mildly tasty.

I have to say, I never expected the first time I was served General Tsao’s Chicken on a plane would be on Ethiopian Airlines. Very bland, no spice, but interesting…

Now that is a seriously huge cheese plate…and a small opera cake to finish it off.

Overall, nothing at all special about this flight, but it was solid, comfortable, and the food was filling. All things considered, I was very happy with the flight, and glad to be 2/3 of the way to my destination for the day. While it was nice to break up the longhaul to Cairo into several segments, I was starting to get pretty tired!

Got to Addis, and of course we got a bus gate, but fortunately the wait wasn’t too long, and the walk to the gates wasn’t terrible either given the delay out of Harare. Unfortunately, the queue at security was atrocious, and I didn’t realize that Ethiopian now has a special boarding area for business class only! This must be new in the last year, and would have saved me a lot of time and stress.

That said, despite the long security queue, it moved super quickly with lots of “helpers” helping clueless passengers to properly load their items onto the x-ray belt, so overall, it wasn’t terrible. ANOTHER bus to the gate where I was told about the special business class line/bus for next time, but hey, at least we were off.

Ethiopian Airlines flight 604
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ADD) to Cairo, Egypt (CAI)
Depart: 22:05, Arrive: 01:20 next day, flight time: 4:15
Boeing 737 MAX-8, Registration ET-AVJ, Manufactured 2018, Seat 2L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 137,407
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,657,469

I admit before this flight, I was a little nervous about flying not just on a 737-MAX aircraft, but one that Ethiopian Airlines had received just THREE DAYS ago and had only had 8 passenger flights before. Nervous? Why? I fly a lot, right? Well, the 737 MAX crash of Lion Air in Indonesia last month may have to do a little with that, especially when you consider that yes pilot error was probably involved…but only in that they were reacting to a flaw with the aircraft. Eek, I just hoped Ethiopian would have the skill to deal with any such issues.

Business class was a few rows of 2×2 seating, but again less than half full. Well, after we had to get rid of the couple who sat down in my seats and wanted to know why. They got to them first, so why couldn’t they sit in them! No amount of explaining to them that not all seats are the same, and aren’t first come first serve would assuage them, but finally when they were told they could either take their assigned seats (in the very last row) or get off the plane did they move. Heh!

Not bad seats for a regional flight:

Another glass of warm pre-departure champagne:

Menu was almost identical to the previous flight (which is odd, since usually flights into a hub are different than out of a hub, but whatever) so I went with the options I hadn’t tried.

The watermelon and feta salad was….ok?

The beef was massively overcooked and like leather, but when I added the tabasco sauce I finally figured out why they give you so many condiments…and the ketchup made the potatoes quite good as well! At least I finally understand why Ethiopian gives you that weird large condiment tray on every flight.

Same cheese and crackers, just a smaller portion:

We arrived in Cairo about 10 minutes early, which was good, because I only had six hours until my flight to Munich. Too long to spend in a lounge or waiting area, but barely enough time to justify I hotel. I had decided to risk it, and my goal was three hours of sleep. Fortunately, there was zero wait at immigration and I was through in maybe 10 minutes.

I had asked the hotel to have my key waiting for me a few days ago when I was there, and shockingly (given the usual Egyptian inefficiency) it was ready and I was plane to room in under 20 minutes. Even after a shower, I was in bed in under 45 minutes after landing…which gave me 5:15 until my flight left in the morning.

I went with three hours on the alarm, figuring if anything went wrong 2:15 wouldn’t be enough time, and off to dreamland I was….

Dec 062018
 


Slept a little better this morning, but due to being exhausted the night before I still got up pretty early (although with a solid seven hours of sleep this time) and still had a solid two hours before I had to head back to the airport. The nearest Starbucks I’d been able to find that was open by 7am was about 2km away, and although it was already 27C at this hour, it was a dry heat so I decided to start walking. After all, there would be coffee at the end of the rainbow!

On the way, I passed the suspiciously-named “Top Touch Men” salon. Awkward!

It was fortunately slightly overcast as I walked past the office towers of Abu Dhabi…it’s unheard of for me to walk 2km in these temps and barely break a sweat. I love low humidity!

Starbucks was surprisingly hopping at 7am, and I got a tasty grilled halloumi sandwich and my usual iced coffee. Apparently, however, I picked up Mohammad’s iced coffee (PBUH) instead…. I’m guessing when they can’t spell your name they just pick the most common name they can think of?

Back to the hotel, quick shower, felt good about myself for getting a nearly 5k walk in, and grabbed a Careem to the airport. It was only about 60% of the price from the night before, and it appears that’s because there’s a rather large airport departure surcharge.

Went straight through immigration and security which had absolutely zero line, so I had about 20 minutes in the lounge before heading to my gate to board the flight:

Golden rule of travel: no matter where you are, if it’s real champagne and it’s offered to you with no charge, you don’t say no:

The Abu Dhabi airport was guilty of major cultural appropriation with this Christmas display near my gate. I do love the architecture of this satellite terminal with the gaudy gold and green centrepiece:

Over to the gate area, which was very lightly filled, and they were just about to start boarding. Perfect timing!

Etihad flight 604
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 10:00, Arrive:16:40, flight time: 8:40
Airbus A330-200, Registration A6-EYR, Manufactured 2009, Seat 9K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 133,360
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,653,422

After boarding and finding my seat I know it wouldn’t be as nice as on the Dreamliner, but overall it seemed to be pretty close. Take close note on the bottom of the seat…and the indentations…

Seats in the middle section…they were still pretty spacious, although I wasn’t a big fan of how close and exposed they were to the aisle. I could just see people banging into you when sleeping.

Despite being a daytime flight, there was a nice duvet, amenity kit, and menu….overall I was still super impressed with Etihad!

Then, I sat down and had my pre-departure champagne. I would say the seat was like sitting on a brick, but it was much worse. There were clearly a couple of large metal bars in the cushion, and no matter how much I tried, it was still like sitting on a pile of rocks. Uneven, firm, and uncomfortable. I tried another seat, but same problem. In 2,000,000+ miles, these were literally the most uncomfortable seats I’ve ever sat in…even sitting on a pillow, you could still feel it. I don’t know what it was, but they were just awful.

The crew? Well, English wasn’t their strongest suit, and customer service definitely wasn’t. There was no real show of concern or care, and no solutions at all offered. I pretty much had no choice, so put down two pillows AND a blanket, and it was close to tolerable.

That said, at least there was champagne!

Menu was extremely similar to the day before (which was weird, because usually they plan for connections better than that) but that’s ok, there were still plenty of options I wanted to try! I saw the steak sandwich on the menu, and asked them to reserve one for a pre-arrival snack (since in my experience Etihad tends to run out of them) and ordered the smoked duck starter…which was very tasty.

Skipped the beef tenderloin as a main, and went with the Chicken Madbi, given my previous track record of amazing Chicken Biryani on Etihad. It did not disappoint, and was super flavourful and well-spiced. The meal was actually so tasty I almost forgot about how uncomfortable and numb my rear end was becoming…

Cheese plate was just so-so with only two kinds of cheese, but at least there was some chutney!

I flipped channels on the inflight entertainment, and noticed we were right over Somalia. I wasn’t aware that international airlines were ok with using somali airspace now! Usually they stay well off the coast, but apparently they’ve now decided it’s safe again.

Love the engine and wingtip shot over the Somali dessert:

I couldn’t resist finishing it off again with some ice cream and Amarula since it had been so delicious the day before:

Cruising along the Somali coast…

I tried a short nap, and the seat was actually much more comfortable fully reclined, so I spent about four hours laying down and watching my iPad by holding it above my head. Not the most convenient, but at least I wasn’t going numb any longer.

About 90 minutes before landing, I asked for my steak sandwich and a glass of wine, and it was a delicious pre-landing snack.

Ordered the almond and pistachio pudding with butterscotch sauce for a sweet, and with a glass of desert wine it was the perfect ending to a great flight. The crew did what they could to make up for the seat, and I have to say every other aspect of the flight was absolutely wonderful. That said, I promise I will never again fly an A330 with Etihad!

Landed a few minutes early in Johannesburg, absolutely no wait at all at immigration (maybe due to the fact we got a bus gate – I’m not sure) and was soon on the Gautrain to my usual hotel. They were fantastic, and sold out, and gave me a nice upgrade, so overall it was definitely a good day. Went for a short walk, and Christmas was in full swing in Johannesburg!

Also, Heineken, we can agree…assuming you’re not in North Korea…otherwise, we need to talk about how you’re counting countries!

Was fading pretty quickly, but decided to go out for some snacks and beers with a friend, and found this beer with the most amazing name ever:

That said, it was off to bed, and time to get some sleep so I could enjoy my first FULL day of vacation without any planes or flights!

Dec 042018
 


Unfortunately, thanks to jetlag, I was awake bright and early before 6am, so had no excuse to avoid a bit of time in the hotel gym. I walked around the airport a bit trying to explore the landside areas, but apparently security wasn’t too thrilled with that, so gave up and headed back to the hotel for a little while until…yes, you guessed it, Starbucks opened. I had hoped to sleep in and catch up a bit, but jetlag wasn’t having it, so this was the best relaxing I could do. Hundreds of transatlantic flights, and there’s still no foolproof way to slay jetlag.

Grabbed an Uber to toe mall, where Starbucks was just about to open. Unfortunately, the ice rink inside the mall still wasn’t open. One of these days I’m going to pass through Cairo at an hour when I can go ice skating in the mall!

After a short stroll in the mall, Starbucks was open, and it was time for some coffee! In US$ terms, the second cheapest Starbucks in the world after Johannesburg, South Africa.

Back to the hotel just in time to pack up, and I had completely forgotten that Terminal Two at Cairo had opened a while back (I even went through here on my last trip!) so it took a bit of planning to have to take the hotel over to Terminal Two since it is connected to Terminal Three. I swear Cairo might be one of the worst designed largish airports on the planet.

That said, the checkin area at Terminal Two was quite nice, the Etihad agents were rather lovely, and after passing through immigration and security the lounge was surprisingly nice as well. It was way nicer than the horrible EgyptAir lounges in Terminal Three, but still a very limited selection of very weird food.

7up Free, weird hazelnut banana pizza, and the “EgyptAir” pizza, anyone?

That said, the terminal itself was really quite nice – bright and airy, and there was even a Starbucks airside…with prices exactly 50% higher than outside the airport. Boo hiss!

Boarding was right on time, and soon it was time to check out what Emirates business class was all about. I’d only flown them in first prior to this, and heard their first (like Qatar) is a bit of a waste except on the A380, because it’s not all that much nicer than business. We’ll see about that!

Etihad flight 654
Cairo, Egypt (CAI) to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH)
Depart 13:35, Arrive:18:50, flight time: 3:15
Boeing 787-9, Registration A6-BLS, Manufactured 2017, Seat 10K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 129,461
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,649,523

First impression of the seat: super nice, super roomy, and super private. I like it! This is just as nice as the first class seats on the 787s as well!

Another perspective…lots of room!

The crew was absolutely fantastic…friendly and helpful, without being awkward and obtrusive…this was going to be a great flight. A view over the wing and super smoggy Cairo right after takeoff:

A glass of Piper-Heidsieck and some mixed nuts? Don’t mind if I do!

With the windows dimmed, a great shot of the setting sun over the wing:

Arabic mezze starter. Only complained was there needed to be more pita bread to go with it. Other than that, loved the presentation!

Braised lamb shank for a main, cooked medium, and absolutely delicious. I had to admit, this was actually topping most of my flights with Etihad in first! Overall an extremely solid performance!

Delicious vanilla ice cream with some Amarula for dessert. Perfect!

Sunset catching the blinker on the engine:

Landed right on time, and I have to give Etihad a perfect 10 on this flight. There was absolutely nothing that could have been done better on such a short flight. Perfect crew, excellent short/medium haul meal, great seat, all in all a wonderful experience that wouldn’t make me hesitate to fly them on the 787 again. Honestly, compared to my first flights, this was just as good (except the suites on the A380 of course) and maybe better in some regards.

Got to Abu Dhabi, the home of no Uber, and was through immigration pretty quickly, and had no trouble finding my Careem driver instead to whisk me off to the Marriott Downtown Abu Dhabi. Since the merger with Starwood I was keen to find somewhere new to stay in Abu Dhabi, and wanted to give this place a try. On the downside, they claimed to be “completely sold out” so could offer no upgrade at all, but that said the standard room was perfectly nice:

They even had a lovely selection of pastries waiting in my room:

I was absolutely wiped out from the lack of sleep the previous two nights, so went up to the executive lounge where they were still serving cocktail hour (yay free wine) which I enjoyed a bit of before heading back to the room and passing out early. It would be a pretty wakeup call so that I could (you guessed it) get Starbucks before heading back to the airport to continue my journey!

Dec 022018
 


So, I had a one-way ticket to Cairo I had to use up by the end of the year, and I figured what better time than over thanksgiving, since by taking three days off you get a nice nine day vacation.

Now, the challenge comes because the ticket was upgradable – and with the chance to fly Lufthansa First Class that’s not an opportunity to take lightly! I had no idea where I wanted to go, and I figured I could decide that later, so in July I bought a new ticket that went Cairo-DC-Frankfurt figuring I could then use the DC-Frankfurt for New Years.

Two weeks before the trip (when Lufthansa generally releases upgrade space) I was very dismayed to find out that most flights to Germany from the US were already either completely sold out in first class, or getting very close. The only one that looked mildly good was Miami to Munich, which still had seven seats. Only downside: they were holding them back in hopes of selling them. No worries, they can’t possibly sell seven first class seats, right? So I changed my ticket, bought a one way to the Miami area, and the trip was set.

Over the next 12 days, it went from seven seats left…to five…to four…to three…to two seats left four days before the flight. I kept looking at other options, and nothing was good, so it was time to pray. Morning of my flight, it was down to ONE seat, and they weren’t releasing it until the gate. Panic!

The next ten or so posts will be on this trip, and I’m going to try and knock out one a day before…leaving on my next trip!

Up way too early, off to Dulles airport, and time to board my nonstop flight to Fort Lauderdale.

United Airlines flight 1785
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Fort Lauderdale, Florida (FLL)
Depart 08:35, Arrive:11:15, flight time: 2:40 of pure hell
Boeing 737-900, Registration N53442, Manufactured 2009, Seat 5E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 121,284
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,641,346

Literally 50+ people boarded between a large number of senior citizens and tons of families with small children, so by the type it came to Group 1, probably 30-40% of the plane was already on board. A look of terror crossed my face when I saw that the person who had been upgraded into the seat next to me at the gate (per the monitors at the gate) was a parent with a small urchin who was already busy flinging cheerios at people as they boarded.

I won’t rant too much, because I find a lot of children better behaved than over-entitled “elites” but this was not one of them. Not only was a little hellspawn of Satan, the mother refused to do ANYTHING about it, and intentionally avoided eye contact with me the entire flight. By the time we’d taken off it had already grabbed my arm repeatedly, thrown cheerios at me, and screamed loudly and repeatedly. This was going to be a long flight.

I don’t usually drink on morning flights, but lets just say in order to de-stress me and make me not as disagreeable as the little hellion, I had one. Or four. I lost count, but it definitely calmed my nerves.

I got what was described as the “eggs” mostly out of curiosity, and because it sounded better than “rice krispees:”

Of course, the mother and urchin got the Rice Krispees half of which ended up all over the floor. While waiting for trays to be cleared, the little bundle of joy was throwing a fit, screaming, kicking….and eventually kicked over mom’s scalding hot cup of coffee – all over my leg. I pressed the call button to ask for some ice and a towel/napkin to wrap it in…and the mother finally says something to me…and what does she say? “This wouldn’t happen if they put a lid on the coffee like they should.” It’s a good thing I’m not prone to air rage….

Right, enough about that flight.

Onto Fort Lauderdale, where my friend Noah had offered to not only play Uber for me between airports, but also show me a bit of Miami along the way. Yes, in all the times I’ve flown through Miami I’ve never left the airport so I had no idea what I was missing!

After a stop by CVS for some burn cream we were off to a brunch that promised to be MUCH better than what Oscar served me on United. Through Little Haiti and into Wynwood, which was a super cool little artsy district. Spoiler: plans after brunch were to leave and go see the beach, but that’ll have to wait for next time, because Wynwood was just that cool.

Brunch was at Sette Osteria where they served up a delicious eggs benedict with bacon and mimosas. Very reasonably priced and tasty, although what was a “cool” day to Miami locals was a warm day to me, and the heat and humidity were almost too much. Nevertheless, it felt great to have some open-air dining in November!

After brunch, it was time to walk around Wynwood a bit, which is well-known for its murals on the side of buildings. This one was a little…odd.

Have bacon, are happy!

A few blocks away was Wynwood Walls where lots of the murals are collected in one place to walk through. Super cool!

Look who followed me from DC! The best mural ever. It was tremendous. Everyone was talking about it – believe me!

After a bit of strolling we were thirsty, and happened upon J. Wakefield brewing. Ok, not happened upon, but I saw it on the map and since I’d first tried their beers a few weeks ago in Sweden I wanted to go check it out. Unfortunately, they apparently don’t allow droids in their cantina:

Loved the mural outside:

After a few fantastic beers, I chatted with the bartender a bit…who it turns out was the one who packed up the order to send to Sweden for the event I had gone to. Talk about a small world! Anyways, the beers were great, and we lost track of time a bit, and unfortunately there wouldn’t be time to check out the beach.

No matter, on the walk back to the car, we found ice cream instead at a “Craft Ice Cream” place called Dasher & Crank!

I went with the Stone Xocoveza and Cinnamon Raisin Bread, both of which were absolutely amazing. Thanks to Noah for dragging me in there – it was a nice break from the heat and delicious ice cream!

On the way back to the car, we also passed what appeared to be a shooting gallery with a crazy panda ad:

After getting to the airport, Noah dropped me off, and after thanking him I went to the counter to beg for my upgrade. Good news, there’s still one seat left. Better news, I’m #1 on the list. Bad news: they had to wait until 45 minutes before the door closed, just in case someone wanted to buy that seat. Mildly disappointing, but I get it.

TSA PreCheck was closed, AND there was no CLEAR checkpoint. Ugh. Miami Airport. Ugh.

Today we were using the Avianca Lounge, where they attempted to get me sick with shrimps and goat cheese – the two things that I generally don’t eat. No worries, I only stopped in for 15 minutes to get a couple bottles of water before heading to the gate…where 5 minutes before boarding they cleared me into the absolute last seat in first class. WOO WOO!

Lufthansa flight 461
Miami, Florida (MIA) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 18:59, Arrive: 10:20 next day, flight time: 9:21
Airbus A380-800, Registration D-AIMC, Manufactured 2010, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,291
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,646,353

Ahhhhh, so much better once I got to my seat. It was like the weight of the world and that screaming urchin on the first flight just melted away into absolute bliss. Glass of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, some macadamia nuts, and a rose. Civilized flying.

Amuse-bouche of a courgette, red pepper, olive, and goat cheese. Glad I didn’t have any in the lounge – there’s only so much goat cheese my system will tolerate.

Nothing kicks off the perfect in-flight meal like a proper serving of caviar.

One small problem: the menus had been mis-printed, resulting in the dinner menu only being in German, and the breakfast menu only being in Spanish. Oops! The three starters today were “fruits of the sea with wasabi peas” which was super tasty, “asparagus, paprika, and feta with truffle sherry vinaigrette” also really tasty, and finally roast beef with chimichurri. Three for three – that doesn’t happen very often. Usually at least one of the three appetizers is so weird I’m not interested.

Main course of a fillet with tomato chili sauce was cooked a perfect medium – not bad for in-flight steak!

Of course, no meal on Lufthansa is complete without their best-in-the-sky cheese cart carved seat-side:

Now that is exactly how a cheese plate should be done!

President Underwood approves of the pumpkin cheesecake for desert with a glass of Johnny Walker Blue. She’s such a basic white girl sometimes!

Ever thought the aircraft lavatory was too small? Not on A380 Lufthansa First – complete with changing area and urinal!

Not much else to say. Fell asleep right after eating, and slept nearly six hours the rest of the way to Munich. Another lovely and perfect Lufthansa First flight in the books – one of the few flying experiences that never gets old to me, and is consistently my favourite experience in the skies. Super excited to have another lined up in just a few short weeks!

We landed 15 minutes early, which gave me just enough time to duck into the First Class Lounge for a shower. What makes the lounge in Munich so awesome is that they have immigration agents stationed IN the lounge, so you can clear passport control while you’re showering. Hand them your passport as you enter, grab a shower, and grab your stamped passport and head to the Schengen exit from the lounge. Yet again, Lufthansa nails this experience!

Lufthansa flight 7234 operated by Austrian Airlines
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Vienna, Austria (VIE)
Depart 11:20, Arrive: 12:25, flight time: 1:05
Airbus A320-200, Registration OE-LBZ, Manufactured 2012, Seat 3C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,512
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,646,574

This was a new one for me – I’ve never seen a flight that was technically a Lufthansa flight, but operated by Austrian. If you clicked on the Austrian flight number,  you got “Operated for Lufthansa.” Strange arrangement.

I do love how even on a 40-50 minute flight Lufthansa and Austrian can serve you a small meal. Perfect since I’d slept through breakfast on the previous flight!

Debated going outside security in Vienna to grab some Starbucks, but didn’t want it that badly, so headed to the lounge where the surliest lounge agent ever growled at me and told me I had to clear immigration and use the lounge on the other side. Yikes, so much for Austrian friendliness!  A few Diet Cokes later I had enough caffeine to function, and it was time for my last flight of this leg:

EgyptAir flight 798
Vienna, Austria (VIE) to Cairo, Egypt (CAI)
Depart 14:30, Arrive: 18:50, flight time: 3:20
Boeing 737-800, Registration SU-GEB, Manufactured 2011, Seat 10A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 127,981
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,647,981

Now, EgyptAir often gets a bad rap. First thing people always complain about is the lack of alcohol. Then it’s their “old seats” and finally it’s the unfriendly crews (which I think is largely a language ability thing). Well, this flight was the opposite, and overall a great flight!

Individual entertainment at the seats…which were a 2×2 configuration with proper legroom (unlike European airlines which are 3×3 with the middle seat blocked and NO legroom):

Even stickers to play with and place on your seat! These are definitely going to end up on my laptop…

Wow, look at that meal for a three hour flight! Also, the steak was a perfect medium rare with a little gorgonzola sauce which was absolutely delicious…and the grilled veggies were also really tasty.

Apple strudel for dessert, with yet another Coke Zero:

Just an hour after finishing our meal, they came around with a snack service an hour before landing. Small tray of danish butter cookies:

…and a small box of EgyptAir branded chocolates!

Bus gate, but a separate bus just for business class. A perfectly wonderful experience, and I was almost sad to say goodbye!

No wait at all at immigration, and I was through in under 15 minutes and off to my hotel – the Le Meridien Cairo Airport which is a short five minute walk from the terminal. Less than 30 minutes after getting off the plane I was in my room and and ready to have a beer or two in the hotel restaurant before passing out. It had been a very long day!

Aug 222018
 


Yesterday, I wrote a post about Air Canada’s new signature class, in which I compared the new business class offerings of the major North American carriers. Conclusion was that Air Canada has done a good job with their “Signature” launch, but beyond the lounge it was really hard to see any significant change to the in-flight offering.

On the two Air Canada trips I reviewed, I actually took United in one direction and Air Canada in the other. Not intentionally, it just worked out better that way…so it was a nice change to see how United’s Polaris implementation was progressing, and if it would finally live up to the hype. I say finally because, well, well over two years after launching the new Polaris seats only 20% or so of United’s longhaul fleet actually has them, but at least that’s finally speeding up slightly.

The other major, major failing on United’s part has been the launch of the Polaris lounges. I was at the Chicago lounge when it launched something like two years ago, and up until six months ago…they still had yet to open the second lounge, although there are finally four lounges open now. Who’s to say when Washington and LA (two other large international hubs) will see them, however. As a Washington-based traveler this actually impacts my purchasing decisions: if United’s Polaris lounge was actually open I’d be booking United metal out of Dulles much more often, whereas now I’m open to just about anything reasonable and convenient on Swiss, Lufthansa, and Air Canada.

Right, on with the review.

For the Trip where I took Air Canada from DC to Zurich via Toronto, I returned from Geneva to Washington Dulles nonstop on United. I had been doing some business in Bern, and generally either Zurich or Geneva are equidistant, and the Geneva flight was the quickest flight home at the lowest fare, so I went with it.

Two days before, United changed the seatmap to the Polaris configured 767 (I believe about 50% of 767-300s are now Polaris configured, so you have a 50-50 chance) and I hoped it would hold through departure time. When I saw the plane leave the US for Geneva, I knew I’d finally get to try out this product more than two years after its launch. With the amount I travel, that tells you just how long this has been in the works.

What’s nice about the 767-300s with Polaris seats is they’re in a 1-1-1 configuration, so everyone has an aisle seat. The best seats, by far, are the odd numbered window seats since the seat is by the window, and the “counter” part near the aisle, giving you far more privacy from the aisle as you can see:

My seat, 1L, to me was by far the best seat on the plane for a daytime flight. Nice and private from the aisle, but close enough to the front to get the crew’s attention:

Why oh why United, when you pay some marketing firm millions of dollars to design Polaris do you insist on using these cheap plastic cups for pre-departure beverages? I’m glad at least that you got rid of the ridiculous plastic Polaris “flutes” with a chocolate you tried out when you first launched Polaris, however. It really makes me wonder who were in the focus groups when you came up with this. Nothing says “un-premium” like a plastic glass of $8 a bottle sparkling wine….come on. First impressions matter, and this gives a terrible one. If you’re going to invest in an overhaul of the product, do it right!

The menu, however, looked promising…complete with the ubiquitous United “short ribs” that have been on just about ever menu in business class since 1995:

That’s more like it. A glass of perfectly drinkable wine (though nothing special) and some extremely salty mixed nuts:

The salad on offer was much better than United’s normal offerings, and bonus points for the parmesan and boiled egg. The smoked cold chicken appetizer was a bit odd and totally flavourless, but the farro and mustard on the side were actually the highlight of the appetizer. But seriously, parmesan and egg on a salad with mango dressing? Just bizarre.

Since nothing else sounded good, I went with the short rib, which was….well, about as good as it looked. The plating was absolutely awful, and looked like something out of a prison cafeteria.

Highlight of the meal by far was quite a nice cheese plate (ARE YOU LISTENING AIR CANADA?) and a delicious “sundae” with caramel. I haven’t seen the butterscotch topping in a while (which is actually my favourite) but this was a perfectly nice ending to the meal. Started off rocky, but at least they ended on a nice high note.

One thing United has done VERY well is the pre-landing snack. Grilled chicken with couscous and a nice fresh salad are a huge upgrade from the sad sandwiches of days gone by. Giving credit where credit is due, this is a huge upgrade, United….except for the mango dressing which was back for an encore *eyeroll*

Overall, loved the new seats, and they might be my favourite transatlantic seats now. There’s really not a bad seat in the plane, and as long as you get the plane, well, I can skip all the other stuff…but fail to understand why with passengers paying $6,000+ per ticket United won’t spend the extra $20 per passenger to make it an experience passengers WANT to fly.

So, notice that I said “as long as you get the plane” – well, two days before my flight down to Brazil a week later I did a same day change to get on the Dulles to Sao Paolo nonstop since it was listed as the exact same 767 which had brought me in from Geneva the day before! Since all I wanted on this flight was sleep, I was excited to have the new seats again, and life was grand!

…until five hours before departure when United e-mailed me there had been an aircraft swap, and “we’ve done our best to preserve your seating preference.

So, instead of a solo seat in a 1-1-1 config I was now in a window seat of a 2-1-2 config. Anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows how I detest climbing over people or being climbed over, and when I called United I was basically told to “deal with it.” Not those exact words, but two agents in a row showed zero empathy, although the second one did offer to “see if I can get you a refund if you’re unhappy.”

Plan B was to raise it up through customer service channels I have access to as a very frequent United flier, and they were very happy to look into the problem, asking what they could do to resolve it. After very patiently listening and understanding my seating preference (hey, when you’re on back to back international trips and 6’4 it makes a difference getting kicked in the night and harming your sleep).

The agent was great, and came back with “can you get to DCA instead of Dulles in 30 minutes? I can get you out of DCA, via Chicago to Sao Paulo on a 777 in Polaris First. I was already packed, so done and done, and problem averted. MAJOR points to United for the service recovery on this one, although it is unfortunately not all people on paid business class tickets have access to this same level of service recovery. I don’t blame United for that, however, it’s just a reality of 2018 customer service – companies have pretty much gotten to a point where only the customers they recognize as their top 1% or more get their attention…it’s just reality. Long way of saying thanks United – I’ll definitely remember this going forward!  (…and because of this, in the last week I’ve booked four MORE business class tickets on United in the next two months)

So, onto DCA, where my flight was actually delayed 30 minutes by torrential rains, so I got my guilty snack of choice, United Club cheeze kubes:

I had about an hour in the Polaris Lounge in Chicago, which sadly has also suffered from the cost-cutting. I knew the Veuve Clicquot was too good to last, and alas, it is no more. I still had a nice glass of champagne though, because, hey, champagne.

Really friendly bartender who was familiar with someone of the older drinks that are no longer on the menu, and he was able to whip up a paper plane with mezcal as well:

I’ll gloss over the ugly, which was a 2.5 hour delay when our plane broke and they had to find another plane at midnight, but hey, the fact they were able to find another 777 at this hour which could be catered was pretty impressive. In the end we left at 130a instead of 10pm which ruined my first day’s afternoon meetings, but in the end it was better than a completely canceled trip I suppose, which was what would have happened if I had to go the next day.

The “first class” seats on the 777 are pretty old and tired, and basically nice business class seats, but hey, it was a nice recovery after my 767 swap, so making lemonade out of lemons:

Today’s menu – idk why they even put “first class” on the menu now, because it’s exactly the same meal as in business class. Other than the seat, there’s absolutely zero difference left between business and first on United. Very sad.

Thanks facebook filters, this is pretty much how the delayed flight made me feel:

Oh look, starting off with mixed nuts and a red wine, quelle surprise!

The nori-wrapped salmon was a unique starter, and the salad with seeds and strawberries was also a welcome change. Well done this time United!

So, the spicy chicken main. First of all: amazing flavour, nice and spicy, great different option for plane food. The downside, bit messy with splash potential for a plane, and my chicken was way undercooked and partly raw. I assume it’s just reheated on the plane, so this goes to the kitchen in chicago, but I was full enough I just sent it back largely untouched. You can see some of the red and raw areas in the chicken in this picture:

Oh sigh, you were doing so well with the cheese yesterday United. Perhaps it’s just US catering that’s bland and unimaginative?

Since there was once again no butterscotch or caramel today, the flight attendant insisted I try some cookie crumble…which was a nice change. Plus…they had cherries, which are absolutely my favourite part of any United sundae:

I was also ordered to try some of the mini deserts with some caramel on the side…I didn’t have a choice. I will admit, the mini apple pie with caramel sauce (to quote the FA: “the whole reason I’m not thin and beautiful”) was pretty delicious!

Breakfast? Well, let’s not talk about it. Bland omelette, but the sweet potatoes did have a nice seasoning to them. Fruit was pretty sad, dry and flavourless. Overall, much more of a miss than a hit.

So…overall thoughts on Polaris? The seats are great, no doubt, and when they have them on the whole fleet it’s a fantastic product. It’s sad, however, that United is majorly cutting back on the soft product, when it would cost so little to have a much more impressive product. It just gives the impression that they don’t care, which is the last thing you want when you’re trying to sell a premium product. To me, it says, “we know a lot of you are upgrading, or using awards, or your employer is locked into a contract with us, so we just don’t have to try” and that’s terrible if you want your brand to resonate with your customers. But, maybe I’m wrong…maybe they don’t care about resonating, and are happy being “ok.”

So, final verdict? Air Canada, Delta, United? It’s pretty much a wash now. They all have good seating with all direct aisle access, although United is about two years away from getting there while ALL their competition has been there for over a year now. Food? Well, pretty much the same on all of them, though it does seem Delta and Air Canada do go a bit of the extra mile so you actually feel like there’s pride in their product!

Lots more flights coming up, so watch for more reviews soon!

Aug 212018
 


Following in the trend of airlines giving their business class products fancy names (American kicked it off with “Flagship Business,” then came “Delta One,” followed shortly by United “Polaris Business,” and finally (just like with their five year behind the game WiFi installation) Air Canada got onboard with “Signature Class.”

What was different about “Signature Class?” Well, first, a little review.

American Airlines: When I started flying them 5-6 years ago, I was shocked to find they were still running 777s in a 2-3-2 configuration with seats that didn’t even go flat! Talk about a majorly updated program. Fortunately, they now have 1-2-1 pretty much across the fleet, although from what I can tell there’s been no major upgrade to the soft product.

Delta One: Delta was ahead of the game, already running 1-2-1 configurations on all its aircraft when Delta One was announced, and when they rolled out the A350 the game changer was “suites” with doors that closed – something no other North American airline has tried to emulate yet.

United: while marginally better than American’s non-180 degree flat 2-3-2 config for awhile, United has now fallen way, way behind with it’s atrocious 2-4-2 on some legacy planes, and 2-2-2 or 2-1-2 on the majority of the rest. Polaris soft product was a huge upgrade at first with better food and much better bedding, but the death by 1000 small cuts is already well underway with several of the soft product improvements yanked back. At least they are slowly (and I mean slower than a DC bureaucrat on a hot August day) rolling out a 1-2-1 product across the fleet, expected to be complete in 2089. I kid….maybe 2020. Next blog up will be a review of this hard product, which is actually pretty nice!

That brings us to Air Canada.

Their seats have been 1-1-1, or 1-2-1 for a while, and I found their food pretty good. Even their Maple Leaf Lounge in Toronto was significantly nicer than anything their US competitors offered, so perhaps that explained why they were so late to the rebranding game. I was quite curious what the rebranding would mean in practical terms, and the answer turned out to be: practically nothing.

I recently flew Air Canada on two flights: Toronto to Zurich on a 777-300ER and then a couple weeks later Sao Paolo to Toronto on a 787 (Plus connecting flights to/from DCA, but those are hardly worth a mention). Both were really nice flights, but I seriously noticed absolutely nothing different from before. So, lets start with the over to Zurich.

Up first, was the short flight up to Toronto. The flight is about 80 minutes and our flight attendant today was from Newfoundland, and a real character. A bit over the top, but the passengers seemed to love him, and he was very friendly and hard-working. Air Canada even served a small snack on the flight (I can’t decide if I like the single choice pre-plated snacks better than the US’s snack baskets or not) but A for effort. Unfortunately, today’s option was cockroaches of the sea with a tiny dab of hummus, one olive, and one tomato. Strange…

…and there was no question of refills. We were pretty much told we were getting refills, because, well, “you can’t let the rest of the wine stay in the bottle all lonely.” Perfectly good rationale if you ask me.

The transit experience in Toronto is seamless now, and you can head straight from US arrivals to international departures without having to go through an immigration check. Quite slick.

The one thing I was pretty excited to check out was the new Air Canada Signature “Suite”, only open to business class passengers. No Star Gold or Maple Leaf Lounge passes accepted, only passengers flying in business class, and only revenue tickets. Nobody on upgrades or award tickets, or those flying Star Alliance partners – in this way, it’s much more exclusive for access than even United’s Polaris lounges. (We won’t talk about American, because their “Flagship First” lounges let in every Exec Platinum under the sun, and often feel one step removed from a elementary school playground.)

I wasn’t all that hungry, so skipped the seated dining area in favour of the buffet. Quite tasty, some nice local offerings, and the Montreal smoked meat sandwich was a great touch!

Service in the lounge was fantastic and attentive, with the staff doing a great job clearing plates and refilling drinks, even when it got completely packed as the evening departure bank approached. I was quite surprised how crowded the lounge got, and unfortunately it really wasn’t that peaceful. Good for Air Canada selling so much business class, but there was nothing “suite” like about the lounge. Same complaint I have about the Polaris lounges – they get super crowded. It makes me wonder how the previous lounges handled all these people before…or are more people coming early for the “lounge experience” now?

Boarding was a complete and utter mess. With several departures at the same time, all pretty much sold out in business class, the departures area was a nightmare. We were between flights to London and Brussels, all of which were completely sold out, and boarding was a chaotic mess. It wasn’t even clear where the queues were, but that said, once aboard things were much quieter.

Amenity kit was waiting for us…filled with everything you’d expect, but didn’t rise to the level of one I’d want to keep to reuse the bag for toiletries, electrical cords, etc:

Tonight’s menu:

…and drink list:

Pre-departure bubbly was offered – I often wonder why airlines pour the pre-departure glasses like 1/3 full. What is this, maybe 1/2 glass of champagne? It can’t be cost saving, because they’re much more generous after takeoff.

The usual wine for me, and typical mixed nuts from Air Canada. Perfectly acceptable, but nothing original here.

Unfortunately at this point the crew was seated for just under two hours, because we ended up fighting some pretty terrible turbulence until we were off the Newfoundland coast. It was still not even 9pm for me by body clock, so I opted to continue the meal, as did most of the passengers since the turbulence was so bad there was no way anyone was sleeping.

The salad was boring but fine, and definite points for the duck and edamame starter. Nice and unique, while being relatively light. Plus, I’ll never complain about garlic bread!

I went with the chicken biryani as a main, probably because I remember the amazing biryani that Etihad served me a couple years ago. This was pretty good, and a nice unique option in flight. Any time I can get something that sounds and is better than the “steak” I’m happy, so this one was a winner with me.

Unfortunately, any positive thoughts I had died here. One of the saddest cheese plates I’ve seen in a long time, on par with some of the bland and boring kraft stuff that United serves. Very, very disappointing…and the cheddar was rubbery, obviously having been portioned long ago. Extremely disappointing.

The lemon cheesecake, however, was pretty tasty and a nice way to finish things off.

I had indicated not to wake me for breakfast, but I woke about 40 minutes before landing, so the flight attendant brought me the breakfast I’d indicated on the card “in case I wake up.” I wasn’t really hungry, but wanted to post this pic for one reason:

Look at that fruit bowl! Probably one of the best ones I’ve ever seen on a plane…nice fresh blueberries, pineapple, fresh strawberries, watermelon, kiwifruit…well done Air Canada!

So, let’s fast forward a couple weeks. We’re in Sao Paolo now, headed up to Toronto on a 10+ hour flight on a 787. The only times I’ve managed to sleep 7+ hours were on a 787, and this was a nice long flight at the perfect time to sleep, so I was looking forward to seeing how that played out. I forgot to mention above, but both the 777 and 787 on Air Canada had individual air vents, which I think are crucial to keeping me a nice cool sleeping temperature.

Let’s start with the meal. Look, more mixed nuts and wine. Boring, but acceptable.

The starter tonight was smoked trout with cucumber, tomato, and onions. I really wanted to like it, but it was pretty bland and boring. Could have used something to add a bit more flavour, but points to Air Canada for a reasonable sized portion which is still not heavy. Remember when United tried to pass two prawns off as an appetizer?

For the main I requested the “Spinach and Minas cheese filled chicken breast, herb sauce, vegetable risotto” but they brought me the beef. “Oh, sorry, I got them mixed up and don’t have any more chicken. Is this ok?” Ugh, not cool. On the upside, the beef was actually cooked close to medium which shocked me, but overall an unmemorable dish.

Oh Air Canada, we really need to talk cheese. This was just about as bad as the previous flight: “Emmental, Camembert, Reino” – so the Reino was interesting, but again it looked very plastic and uninspired. Is it really too hard to make the cheese course better? I suppose that would require cutting it on the plane, but…

Ok, never mind, I can go to sleep happy now with a wonderful Neapolitan ice cream bowl! It’s amazing how such simple things can make you happy even when people think airplane food is supposed to be “fancy” – but give me comfort food any day!

After passing out for a great seven hours of sleep, I was still up in time for breakfast. Another great 787 sleep, except I slept so balled up I’m still dealing with a pinched nerve in my back a few weeks later. Can’t blame Air Canada for that, but it was a good night’s sleep!

After the fruit in the breakfast to Switzerland I had high expectations, but unfortunately it was a swing and a miss this time. The kiwifruit was rock hard, the melon had zero flavour, and the grapes were mushy. Bland omelette, and a even blander muffin. I guess Air Canada breakfast catering must be highly station-specific.

Two flights is a small sample size, but overall my thoughts on Air Canada were positive. Nice seats, air vents to keep things cool, and overall “good” food. I don’t think it’s gotten worst, but the US airlines have definitely stepped their game up a little in this department so Air Canada no longer stands above them. Overall, a solid experience, except for one thing: the 787 had no WiFi, which is still the case with the majority of Air Canada’s fleet. The 777 to Zurich did have it (as do all their 777s now) but the 787 and almost none of their other planes do – to me making it a deal-breaker for most work trips. The only reason it was ok on this route is I was headed home from back to back trips, and just wanted to sleep and not work – which in this case worked out well.

Will I fly Air Canada again? Yes, definitely, especially if the other options are 2-4-2 or 2-2-2 seating on United…and especially if the planes have WiFi. The food and service are pretty much a wash these days, but it was also nice to try Air Canada again after so much Lufthansa and United lately! Next up, let’s look at United Polaris…

Jul 302018
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 242018
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s flight path:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking the other direction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another colourful bench:

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

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