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!

Jul 182018
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panoramic of the volcano:

Mandatory proof I was here selfie:

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 152018
 


After a great night’s sleep (but not nearly long enough) I woke up a little earlier than I needed to so that I could fulfil that most important morning duty: getting coffee. See, there’s a Starbucks attached to the Sheraton Maria Isabel, and it was advertised as opening at 7:00, so I showed up around 7:15, went inside…and there were no employees anywhere to be found. When one finally did emerge from the back room, she would only tell me they were opening “later.” Hmmm, ok…at least I knew the airport would have multiple Starbucks, so I would be saved as long as I could survive the un-caffeinated ride to the airport.

At least the early wake-up was rewarded with a beautiful pink sky over El Ángel:

Nice quick Uber ride to airport, under 20 minutes, and I got the honour of queuing to check in. When I say queueing, we’re talking nearly 45 minutes in line to get to an agent. Yes, this was the business class and elite check-in line, and it reinforced my theory of everyone on Aeromexico being an elite of some sort.

When I finally got to the front, the agent pulled up my reservation (it had let me check in online from JFK to Mexico City, but wouldn’t allow me to check in to Santiago) and asked me if I was an Aeromexico employee. Uh, no?  Apparently, somehow, something in my reservation mentioned stand-by status, despite not having this problem on the first segment. It was as simple as telling the agent this, and tap tap, click click, out came my boarding pass. Maybe a language gap?

Onwards to security and the all-too-delayed Starbucks, and I came across this sculpture in the lobby. First the check-in issue, and now this…this airport was definitely doing everything it could to mess with my early morning un-caffeinated brain!

Fortunately security took under five minutes, and the Starbucks was right there. Apparently Justin needs coffee too. One of the downsides to all these Mexico City trips recently is that I got addicted to the Tres Quesos panini at Starbucks. Fortunately the airport location had it, and I was caffeinated, fed, and happy.

Off to the American Express Centurion Lounge, which weirdly is up a rather long staircase, and from what I could tell had no way to access it by elevator. There may have been one, and I missed it. Found Phil who had arrived on the redeye flight from Los Angeles, and in we went. This lounge, unlike the lounges in the United States, is divided into two sides: a “regular” side, and a “centurion” side which is for Centurion cardholders and it appeared certain local bank customers may have also had access. It wasn’t at all crowded with maybe 10 people, and we were actually outnumbered by the staff I think.

At the insistence of the staff we accepted a glass of champagne, since, you know, vacation!

Unfortunately we only had about 30 minutes to spend in the lounge, then it was off to the gate for our flight to Santiago. Good thing we arrived relatively early, because once again there were 50+ people in line for priority boarding.

That said, boarding was quick and efficient, and I was soon at my seat. Overnight, the aircraft had been changed from a 787-8 to a 787-9 so that meant instead of 2-2-2 seating it was 1-2-1. Definitely a superior product, but it resulted in us being split up. Lots of people were in the same boat and trying to get seats together…or get a window seat now that they were single seats, and eventually we just decided to stay where we were…despite the gentleman who was coughing up a storm and seemed on the verge of sudden death between us.

Aeromexico flight 10
Mexico City, Mexico (MEX) to Santiago, Chile (SCL)
Depart 10:10, Arrive: 19:07, flight time: 7:57
Boeing 787-9, Registration XA-ADH, Manufactured 2018, Seat 5J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 56,377
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,576,652

For those who like such things, the Boggi amenity kit. It was functioning and had all the things I normally want, but wasn’t cool enough that I decided to keep the bag to reuse later.

Meal service was definitely strange on this flight…and was listed as a “refreshment” right after takeoff, and then “lunch” 90 minutes before landing. Hmm, ok. There were two refreshment choices, a “BLT Sandwich” or “Mushroom tamale with green sauce.” Of course, by the time they got to Row 5 there were no tamales left, so it was sandwich, sandwich, or sandwich.

To be fair, it was a pretty tasty sandwich, but in no universe whatsoever can it be called a BLT sandwich! There wasn’t even bacon on it…but there was a tasty little bowl of jalapeños to add to it…and when prompted the flight attendant begrudgingly opened a bottle of Jacquart Brut champagne.

The next five hours passed as predicted. The flight attendants dimmed all the windows and LOCKED them in the dark position (one thing I dislike about the Dreamliner) in order to encourage people to sleep. They also turned up the heat pretty high…ugh. So, I spent five hours in forced darkness watching tv on my iPad…and only once did they come around offering drinks. Not the best in the service department.

Just under 90 minutes before landing at 7pm, they finally started “lunch” service. Once again, it started with a cheese plate. For everything else I was disliking about Aeromexico, the plate of cheese instead of mixed nuts was one thing that I actually loved! Today’s selection was Brie and Manchego:

Dinner choice was chicken breast, “short rib,” or pasta. Given the disaster the pasta had been the day before I opted to go with the short rib. I swear between the side of asparagus and the short rib that this meal had been catered by United…as I feel like half their business class meals are that option. It was pretty much as expected, except the super wilted and disappointing lettuce in the salad:

Another glass of the Montes Alpha Cabernet (which was actually pretty tasty), and a chocolate mousse bar for desert. You really can’t go wrong with a glass of cab and chocolate mousse! The perfect pairing!

Landed about 30 minutes early, no line for customs, and we were pretty quickly in a taxi to the Four Points. Since it was just a short overnight we didn’t see the value in a nicer hotel, so opted for the Four Points thinking it would be nice enough. Well, it would have been, except for torrential rain and multiple accidents on the highway, which made the drive to the Four Points take just over two hours. Ugh. What should have been 30 minutes took four times as long, and by the time we arrived it was much later than hoped.

Waiting in the room was one of the saddest welcome snacks ever. I think it was some sort of cake, but the grey gloopy SPG on the plate made me want to go nowhere near it:

The Four Points was nice enough, however, to give us a couple of drink vouchers for the tiny lobby bar, where we were able to enjoy welcome pisco sours while figuring out next steps.

Fortunately, there were a couple of bars and restaurants near the Four Points. We weren’t terribly hungry after the flight, so opted for a small snack at a place called Sacramento. A delicious tres leches for desert and a glass of Carmenere was just what I needed.

On the wander back to the Four Points we ended up stopping at some rather trendy restaurant called Piso Uno for another drink. The best way to describe would be to say it was sushi, craft cocktails, and most of the bartenders were heavily tattooed with appropriately hipster manicured facial hair. It made for fascinating people watching while we enjoyed a couple of drinks, but was definitely mildly uncomfortable not being dressed for such a place. However, to their credit, they didn’t seem to care at all, and it was a fun way to end the night.

Back to the Four Points, off to get some sleep, and a very very early morning start for our flight to Easter Island!

Jul 142018
 


So, a bit of a background. First, as I’ve mentioned before, this trip came about because of an incredibly good business class fare from New York to Santiago, Chile. Two things that make that noteworthy: first, I had to find a way to get up to New York to start and end the trip. I debated trying to fly standby, but with a paid ticket on the line, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk…so bought a one way up to JFK on Delta, and home on American. Why? Because the timing worked best with a 2:30 to 3:30 layover in New York. Other options would have been too close to risk, or so long it was ridiculous. Easy enough.

Now, two years ago, when I finished going to every country, I always felt a bit bad about Mexico. I’d probably been to Mexico 5-10 times, but always daytrips to Tijuana or Nogales…although I once spent a three day weekend in Ensenada which is actually like 20 miles into Mexico, so I didn’t feel like I’d totally cheated. That said, I also didn’t feel like I’d “seen” Mexico.

So, I was looking forward to an overnight in Mexico on this trip to see a tiny bit more…but then a couple weeks after booking, I ended up with a five day trip to Mexico City for work, which gave me a couple of full days to explore the city. Then, a week before leaving on this trip…another last minute trip back to my client in Mexico City, meaning I would be flying BACK from Mexico City on a Wednesday…and then flying right back on this trip on Thursday. Yes, twice 24 hours apart. Life has a funny way sometimes of surprising us.

Right, so, not much to say. Off to National Airport, no real lines, and boarding right on time. I had decided to risk the upgrade for the short flight rather than pay Delta the extra $150, and I was surprised three days before when my first class upgrade came through. Nice little surprise…until I woke up the morning of the flight to see that Delta had downgraded me again…the usual DCA issue of Federal Air Marshalls taking your seat at the last minute…although they’ll never really admit that’s what happened. 10,000 miles later, Delta had done the right thing – I only hope the government is compensating them for all these clusterfucks…I’ve seen it happen at DCA way too many times.

Delta flight 5937 operated by Republic Airlines
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to New York, Kennedy Airport (JFK)
Depart 11:00, Arrive: 12:29, flight time: 1:29
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N875RW, Manufactured 2007, Seat 6C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 50,201
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,570,476

Quick flight, no taxi/takeoff delays which is very unusual on a DCA-JFK flight, and soon we landed in JFK. I’ve never flown Delta through JFK before, so apparently I was destined for the complete experience. Landing and parking at Terminal 2, taking the “JFK Jitney” bus over to Terminal 4, and then walking pretty much to Connecticut to the rather remote Delta SkyClub.

I was rewarded with some hummus, grilled chicken breasts, and a glass of wine for my trouble. There was a rather large group of bros in the club who looked like they were heading on spring break, gorging on the chicken breasts like they’d been protein-deprived for months…I think people-watching might be one of my favourite parts of travel…

Of course, the Aeromexico flight was at the far end of Terminal 4 from the SkyClub, so I promptly left Connecticut, and undertook the rather long walk to New Jersey. Stopped at Peet’s Coffee on the way (ok, so maybe I don’t hate Terminal 4 quite so much now) and was greeted with a 100+ person long queue for priority boarding at the Aeromexico gate. I was beginning to get the impression that everyone must be “elite” in Mexico, but no big deal..there would be plenty of overhead space.

Unfortunately, Mexico had just lost to Brazil in the World Cup, and my flight was packed with fans coming off the Aeroflot flight from Moscow who were all in a rather dejected mood.

Aeromexico flight 409
New York, Kennedy Airport (JFK) to Mexico City, Mexico (MEX)
Depart 15:20, Arrive: 19:15, flight time: 4:55
Boeing 787-9, Registration N446AM, Manufactured 2018, Seat 2J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 52,292
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,572,567

First impression of the seats on the Aeromexico 787-9 was fantastic! Roomy, and quite private.

Impressed from the other side too – the walls are high enough you can’t see the people, and the way the seats are angled to the window you’re not looking at the person across the aisle either. Plus, the seats were nice and wide. What a fantastic product!

Welcome aboard bubbles…the flight attendants were unusually particular about putting the coasters down, and collecting them along with your glass. No, you can’t save one for a souvenir…

Once up in the air, lunch service promptly started. I’m pretty over the mixed nuts that seem to start off every international business class meal, and Aeromexico was definitely out to impress. Cheese as a starter pre-meal with my wine? Aeromexico, I think we’re going to get along just swimmingly!

I can’t remember the time I went with the pasta option for a main, and I regret doing it now. Bland, flavourless, and the quinoa salad was pretty terrible as well. This meal had so much potential…just a bit more bacon on the pasta, maybe a bit more cheese, and a little more cream to the sauce and it would have been wonderful. Unfortunate, because after the cheese starter I had such high hopes!

I know lots of people whine about “packaged deserts aren’t appropriate in business class” but give me some delicious ice cream any day to some dried out piece of cake. Simple is best when it comes to desert in the air!

Landed about 30 minutes ahead of schedule, no line at all for immigration, and soon I was in my taxi. It was absolutely pouring rain outside, but there was no traffic at all (how can that be at 7:30pm in Mexico City?!) and in less than 30 minutes I was at the Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel.

On my previous trip when I had a weekend “downtown,” I chose the Le Meridien, which I found very disappointing. Not a great location with much going on around it (though very convenient for my Historical Center walking tour), and old rooms that loud rattly air conditioning. Add to that a very disappointing and shabby bar, and I wasn’t keen to try it again.

Either my Spanish is getting better, or the staff at the Sheraton wasn’t too keen to practice their English, so I think I managed my first every check-in completely in Spanish, complete with a discussion about all the platinum benefits they offer. Not bed!

Lobby had a giant soccer ball in it in honour of the World Cup…only sad that Mexico had just been eliminated.

Upgraded to a very, very nice suite, with a view of El Ángel right outside my window. Picture taken from my room:

Sleeping area was pretty generic Sheraton-standard, but ice cold air conditioning was very welcome!

Second room of the suite…you could have a party in this room it was so big!

…they must have known I was coming, because a couple of craft beers and some snacks were waiting for me in the room.

Went for a short walk to stretch my legs, and ended up at Fiebre de Malta which I had discovered on my previous trip. I didn’t need a whole lot to eat after the Aeromexico flight, but how can I resist some tacos?! When in Mexico…

Back to the Sheraton, I still wasn’t tired, so decided to have a Patron margarita and enjoy the World Cup decor in the lobby bar. MUCH nicer than the lobby bar at Le Meridien.

The margarita showed up, and was clearly made with fresh-squeezed lime and was delicious. This stay couldn’t have been more night and day compared with my stay at the Le Meridien, and there’s no doubt I would stay here again. I had such a nice stay that I think I need to return again for a 3-4 day weekend and explore the city a bit more in depth next time.

Off to bed, as I had a rather early flight the next morning onwards to Santiago…

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 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…