Apr 082018
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bubbles…because…celebration…blah blah….

Cool takeoff right over Paris Le Bourget airport:

Yay, more pistachios!

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

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

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

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

Hello Cincinnati!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool Kalitta Charters II 727 on taxi:

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

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

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

Mar 112018
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 082018
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oooh Singapore A350…sexy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 072018
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 122018
 


After a very good night’s rest, it was up early to take care of a couple meetings before heading over to the airport. I checked out the Le Meridien club lounge to hopefully find a bit of breakfast, but the rather small spread was disappointing. The only thing I really wanted was some hard boiled eggs, but some giant local-looking muscled-out dude had taken what looked to be two dozen of them and was peeling and eating them one by one….so I settled for coffee.

Over to the airport, and first stop was the baggage scanners before being allowed into the check-in hall. Put my bags on the belt, walked through the metal detector, and the guard demanded “Passport!” Told him it was in my bag…and he got so caught up harassing the little old lady walking through the metal detector after me that he completely forgot to check mine. Ah security theatre!

Check-in with EgyptAir at the dedicated First/Business counter was suprisingly quick, and the agent confirmed I was the only person in business class today. 24 seats all to myself…maybe EgyptAir wouldn’t be so bad after all!

Passport Control, even in the expedited business class line was its usual shambles, and took nearly 30 minutes to clear. Despite knowing the grim fate which awaited me I headed to the lounge near my gate for a quick bite. I have to admit, the orange soda and cold pizza they serve has actually kind of grown on me…since everyone knows cold pizza is the best pizza. I wish they still had Diet Pepsi, but it seems they got rid of that nearly two years ago and now it’s only the full octane stuff.

Boarding was pretty quick and painless once I got to the gate, and off to Vienna we go.

EgyptAir flight 797
Cairo, Egypt (CAI) to Vienna, Austria (VIE)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 13:30, Flight Time: 3:45
Boeing 737-800, Registration SU-GDA, Manufactured 2009, Seat 12A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 8,244
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,528,306

Waiting for me at the seat was an assortment of goodies: an amenity kit, a set of stickers to be woken up for various things, some very poor quality headphones, and a blanket.

EgyptAir’s 737s are actually not bad at all, and have great legroom for short-haul flights.

Welcome aboard orange juice, and chocolate:

It was a bit strange getting a Merry Christmas chocolate not just on EgyptAir, but in mid-January:

Before takeoff a family of six joined me in business class who boarded at the last minute. One man and five women, the man wearing an EgyptAir ID badge around his neck. Despite now being seven people in 24 seats they occupied the last two rows and it still felt extremely private and roomy. View of dusty Cairo after takeoff:

So, what’s to eat today? Laminated, reusable menus were passed around:

…complete with a festive holiday cover:

Despite being a dry airline, they was still a drinks menu:

Starter of a couple salads, salmon, cheeses, and plenty of bread:

I went with the beef for a main, and it was about as disappointing as expected. I think he was trying to make a point with the bread, practically demanding that I take more…

The chocolate cake, despite being a little bit dry, was pretty good.

I passed the time watching movies, and about an hour before landing, a small snack of nuts and dried fruit was passed out. EgyptAir sure didn’t want me going hungry!

Overall, a pretty reasonable and comfort flight, made even better by the relatively empty cabin. No, EgyptAir service isn’t quite as refined as European airlines, but the 2×2 configuration and the extra legroom made it a much better flight overall than taking Lufthansa, Austrian, or Swiss. I would definitely take them again, especially if the flight timing worked out well.

Immigration and security in Vienna were relatively quick and painless, and I had about 45 minutes to enjoy the lounge and get a bit of work done while waiting for the next flight. Unfortunately, my connecting flight was at the very last gate in the terminal, so was a bit of a hike from the lounge. Oh well, after spending four hours on a plane it felt good to stretch my legs a bit.

Austrian flight 131
Vienna, Austria (VIE) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 15:10, Arrive 16:45, Flight Time: 1:35
Airbus A319, Registration OE-LDA, Manufactured 2004, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 8,631
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,528,693

Once up in the air, Austrian served a fantastic snack for a 75 minute flight with a chicken skewer, grilled vegetables with feta, and a delicious lemon tart. The tart was SO good I might have asked if there were any more left…but unfortunately not. I also had to practically beg the flight attendant to stop refilling wine – completely packed flight, but still fantastic service.

Arrived in Frankfurt right on time, and it was a relatively quick walk down the entire length of the A gates to my hotel at the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport. Nice surprise to get one of their few suites for the night, although it had way more space than I needed. I almost prefer not to get the suites there because they don’t seem to cool quite as well. The living room area:

The fantastic five hour long happy hour was already going on in the Club Lounge, so I stopped in for a very high-brow snack of gummi bears and a glass of wine:

Caught the S-Bahn into the city, and met a couple of friends for beers and catching up. Being a Friday night the bar/restaurant was absolutely packed and super loud. Naiv definitely has the best beer list by far in Frankfurt, although I might give it a miss on a Friday night unless you’re looking for a loud, happening bar. Plus, they took my favourite item (the bacon-wrapped dates) off the menu, so that was a little disappointing.

I had an early train the next morning, and was still feeling a little behind on sleep due to the redeye flight two days prior, so called it a relatively early evening and caught the train back to the hotel to crash. Next up, off to Dresden!

Feb 112018
 


Nice change compared to my last few arrivals in Frankfurt in that we arrived at the “top” of the Z gates so it was a very short walk to immigration and the transfer gates. No real NEED to go through immigration except one: I had about three hours, and wanted to get some Starbucks and go to the First Class Terminal. As one does. No silly first class lounge at the B gates for me with the risk I wouldn’t get a ride to the plane!

Only one problem today: immigration lines were rather long. Managed to talk my way through one of the shorter lines, and was through quickly enough and I made a beeline for caffeine. I have no idea who “Can” is, but it doesn’t sound remotely like Jason and I think I got his coffee….

For some reason, I’m always burning up after a redeye flight, so the chilly walk to the First Class Terminal felt great. Fantastic agent at check in, and unfortunately I got selected for random extra screening by security. Normally, this would be a pain but at the First Class Terminal they’re almost apologetic about it.

Since I’d skipped breakfast on the plane it was time for a proper breakfast before grabbing a shower. Eggs Benedict, Pain au Chocolate, fresh-squeezed OJ and some rosé? Don’t mind if I do! My only small quibble with the lounge (other than the temperature, but that’s a German thing) is that they stopped carrying english muffins some time in the last 6 months and now serve the benedict on toast. Oh well, I’ll live. Since it’s happened several times in a row now I assume it’s the new normal.

Nice shower, grabbed a few ducks (anyone interested in trading some Lufthansa ducks let me know), and soon enough it was time to board my flight to Munich. I didn’t expect that anyone else in the lounge would be going to Munich, but surprisingly I was one of four people! I guess either there were lots of HON Circle members headed to Munich today, or others with first class connections out of Munich?

Lufthansa flight 100
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 10:15, Arrive 11:10, Flight Time: 0:55
Airbus A321, Registration D-AISZ, Manufactured 2009, Seat 9D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 5,143
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,525,205

Today’s flight time? a whopping 37 minutes in the air….but that doesn’t stop Lufthansa from serving a nice deli plate and making TWO drink runs. Also, a first for me on a Lufthansa A321, there were 15 rows of business class today! As most people know, this is “EuroBusiness” which is just standard economy seats with the middle blocked. This means they can easily move the divider between cabins….and today there were 58 seats in business!

Relatively short connection in Munich of barely 90 minutes, but one of the best things about the First Class Lounge in Munich is that when you enter there’s an immigration desk, and they take care of immigration while you enjoy the lounge…and then you collect your passport on the way out and re-enter the correct part of the terminal: Schengen or not.

Unfortunately I was still full for breakfast, which meant no enjoying the Schnitzel in the lounge today. But there was time for more coffee and a glass of Champagne while I enjoyed the views of the tarmac:

Down to the gate, and boarding was right on time.

Lufthansa flight 586
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Cairo, Egypt (CAI)
Depart 12:55, Arrive 17:35, Flight Time: 3:40 (actual departure 15:39, arrival 20:37 – 3:02 late)
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIPC, Manufactured 1989, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 6,774
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,526,836

Unfortunately, departure time came and went and after 10 minutes the captain came on. Apparently we had some sort of mechanical issue, and the mechanics would be coming on to check it. They showed up a little bit later, checked some things out, and as they left the plane the only word I could make out to the flight attendants was “Kaput!” That’s not a good sign.

Sure enough, the pilot announced that this plane was going nowhere today, and please wait while they figure out what’s going on. Turns out, there was another plane sitting around which they hoped to have catered and ready to depart in about an hour. Please collect your bags, head back to the terminal, and we’ll let you know what’s up.

After about 15 minutes of milling in the gate area they told us where our new gate would be, and that boarding would hopefully begin in 30-40 minutes. So yes, back to the lounge where the agents were already aware of the issue, and said they would come get me when it was time to board. Yes, that meant time for another espresso and glass of champagne. The struggle is definitely real.

After about 20 minutes they told me boarding was ready to begin, but when I got to the gate it took about 20 more minutes for us to start boarding. We finally ended up pushing back about two hours and 44 minutes late…so it was beginning to look like I was just going to miss out on the 300 euros mandatory compensation under EU Regulation 261. Boo! If I’m going to be 2:44 late I can take another 16 minutes!

Fortunately, I was the only person in my section of seats, so I had a whole row to myself. This meant I could use one of the fold-out tables from the bulkhead just for food and drink and another for watching films on the iPad. Not a bad way to fly on a narrowbody.

Lunch started with drinks and packaged almonds:

Then it moved on to a full lunch. The burrata and plum tomatoes with pesto were fantastic, and there were three choices of main: veal goulash, halibut, or canneloni I went with the goulash which was much better than expected…and the “cocoa bean cream on mango cubes” was fantastic for desert. Fantastic meal for a shorthaul.

About an hour before landing, chocolates were handed out…so why not have one more glass of wine:

We landed 2:43 minutes late, so unless this taxi took 17+ minutes it looked like I was going to miss out on 300 euros by mere minutes. Not sure if anyone else has heard the expression “BFE” which stands for “Bumf*ck Egypt” implying somewhere is in the middle of nowhere…but that’s definitely where we landed today. The taxi went on and on, as the minutes ticket closer and closer. 2 hours and 59 minutes late, we finally parked….and the flight attendant was ready to open the door.

However, apparently, at the 2:58 mark Lufthansa declared us “arrived” despite the door still being closed. Hard to not think this was intentional…

Oh look, 20:35…exactly three hours late…and the door is still closed. It did eventually, at 20:37, finally pop open three hours and two minutes late. Lufthansa has yet to reply to my request for compensation under EU261, so it’ll be interesting to see how much of a struggle this is…

For the first time ever for me, there was absolutely no wait at all for immigration or a visa, so I handed over my $25 at the bank, got a visa sticker, quickly through immigration, and maybe 15 minutes after arriving I was at the Le Meridien checking in.

Dropped my bags in the room, and headed down to the sports bar for a quick drink before turning in for the night. Unfortunately, however, it was Thursday night and half of Cairo was at the sports bar drinking and smoking up a storm. My lungs couldn’t take it, so I headed up to the relatively empty lobby bar for some cheesecake and a glass of bad Egyptian wine before turning in.

With that done it was time to get some sleep before taking care of a few things in the morning and then turning right back around to head to Germany to begin the real vacation portion of the trip!

Nov 272017
 


I had been pondering for a few weeks what to do with the Thanksgiving holiday week. Due to some comp time built up, it made sense to go somewhere for the week since I could get a nine day vacation for the price of two days. Due to some fluctuations with flights and availability my plans changed a few times, but as a long-time Zimbabwe watcher, when the coup (sorry, “protection of democracy”) happened it made my choice pretty easily.

Unfortunately due to some other commitments, I ended up having less time than originally planned and unfortunately it became a shortened trip, which unfortunately meant I arrived in the country the day after Mugabe’s resignation. You can’t exactly plan and time these things well, and at least I would be there the next day and see the very first day of post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. Enough background, let’s get into the trip!

Delta flight 151
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Atlanta, Georgia (ATL)
Depart 15:04, Arrive 17:00, Flight Time: 1:56
Airbus A321, Registration N324DX, Manufactured 2017, Seat 14B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 136,002
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,500,403

Overall, a pretty average domestic hop to start the trip. Yes, I ended up in a middle seat, but at least it was Comfort Plus so I had plenty of legroom. Unfortunately, I had a “passenger of significant size” on BOTH sides of me. The gentleman in the window was as polite as possible and “leaned” toward the window as much as he could, but the guy on the aisle was far less pleasant. He insisted on keeping the armrest up, and made no effort at all to avoid spilling all over me. Ugh. Even in an uncomfortable position you can still make an effort to be as helpful as possible to your fellow passengers. I think the flight attendant took pity on me, however, because she she made the drink run and I asked for red wine…well, she was generous!

Delta flight 200
Atlanta, Georgia (ATL) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 18:17, Arrive 16:30 next day, Flight Time: 15:13
Boeing 777-200LR, Registration N707DN, Manufactured 2009, Seat 11A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 144,441
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,508,842

This was my first time on Delta’s 777 product, and although the seats were a little old-fashioned and worn, first impressions overall were pretty good. I’m a huge fan of all-aisle access, and this product does that will still being roomy and relatively private given the high walls.

“Tray service” in business class doesn’t bother me as much as it does some others, and I liked having the appetizer, soup, and salad at the same time so I could alternate bites as I felt like it. The ceasar salad was meh, although the dressing was pretty good. Loved the butternut squash soup, and the “butternut squash, date, and meyer lemon compote” was a little odd – but taste. Seems United’s asparagus fetish has company in Delta’s butternut squash fetish. Plus….pretzel roll! Yum!

Four choices of mains, and I went with the butter chicken. It was good, but nothing outstanding.

Cheese and sundae. Sundae was tasty, and I love the biscuit with it. Good selection of cheeses as well, cypress grove midnight moon, kaltbach gruyère, and buttermilk blue affinée. Overall pretty good for a business class selection, plus it came with fig compote so extra points! (yes, I’m still on my figs with cheese kick)

Dinner was over, and I managed seven straight hours of sleep before getting up and watching a bunch of tv. Shortly before landing was the second meal, which was either a lentil salad with grilled chicken or a hot roast beef and cheddar sandwich. The sandwich was really tasty, but the potato salad super bland. The blueberry tart, however, was quite good.

Not too much exciting to say about my overnight in Johannesburg. Had I planned better I probably would have connected straight to Harare that evening, but it was night to have one night in a familiar surrounding to relax. I was back at my favourite hotel by far in Joburg, the Hyatt Regency, where I had stayed just three weeks prior.

In fact, I had come back so quickly that the jacaranda trees still had some flowers on them:

Slept in, had some covfefe, and then it was time to head back to OR Tambo for my flight to Zimbabwe. Mugabe had finally resigned the previous evening, so I was very curious to see the energy on the streets when I landed.

South African Airways flight 28
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE)
Depart 14:50, Arrive 16:25, Flight Time: 1:35
Boeing 737-800, Registration ZS-SJV, Manufactured 2003, Seat 5F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 145,035
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,509,436

Despite being a mid-afternoon flight, a snack plate was offered. Nothing extraordinary, but a solid offering for such a short flight. You’d never see this in the US on such a short flight.

While waiting in line at immigration to pay for my visa, I noticed all the immigration officers seemed to be in great moods. I chatted a bit as mine wrote up my receipt, and cracked a joke about “what, did something exciting happen here recently?” It was like the entire nation was in the middle of one great big party, and I had just arrived!

I had arranged for a hotel driver to pick me up, since at $25 it was the same price the airport taxis were rumoured to extort you for. I was staying at Meikles Hotel, which had recently celebrated it’s 100th birthday in 2015 and bills itself as the oldest hotel in Zimbabwe. I’d read many reviews online that it doesn’t live up to its five star reputation and is old and tired, but my experience was exactly the opposite. No, it’s not a brand new sparkling hotel in Dubai, and I’m not usually one to go for “old school charm” but I found it a very nice place to stay – especially given its location in a country that’s been experiencing economic malaise for nearly two decades.

I had splashed out for a club floor room with a park view, figuring if the demonstrations were still going on against the government at the Parliament across the park I would have a great view. Unfortunately, I was a day late on that as the park was empty by the time I arrived, but I did have a great view! Parliament is just across the square past the trees:

Sun was setting, but I was determined to at least get out a bit before the sun went down. According to the map there was a Pick n Pay Supermarket just two blocks away, so I headed there to pick up a few supplies since I’d actually be spending multiple nights in the same hotel.

The supermarket was packed, and people were staring at me. I wasn’t entirely sure if that was due to me being the only white person in sight, or if it was the tattoos, but it was definitely noticeable. Not in an uncomfortable way, just once of those – I’m standing out here ways.

One of the things that had made me hesitant on the trip was the currency situation. Zim uses the US$ now, and travel sites warn you to bring lots of small notes, because nobody has change. I didn’t have a chance to get to a bank before going, so had to rely on yuppie food stamps for the trip ($20 bills) which turned out to be no problem. If they don’t have US$ change (which, in every transaction I made in the country nobody did) they give you Zim “Bond Notes” in return which everyone took for me at par. Supposedly you can exchange bond notes for US$ on the black market at a 30-40% discount, so I’d have to imagine that for any large purchase if you pay US$ cash you can probably negotiate a discount. Just saying…



That over, I really did want to get out of the hotel for dinner, so I grabbed a hotel car to Pariah State bar/grill in Barrowdale. I hadn’t had enough time to read up on the taxi situation, and while the hotel car price seemed a bit high at $25, it was a 20 minute ride and I figured for safety it was worth it. Dinner was rather tasty, and the people watching was fantastic. Plus…got to sit outside and have dinner which was a treat given winter is coming back in Washington.

Near the end of dinner, two low-level soldiers walked into the bar, and several white Zimbabweans went up and thanked them for what they’d done (ousting Mugabe) and took selfies with them. Amazing…this is why I chose to come now, and it was awesome to see people showing their appreciation to the military.

Decent night of sleep, even though I woke up a bit after 4am (I don’t know why – but the last year I’ve had a tough time with jetlag going to Europe/Africa, something I never had before) so I actually did a short workout in the hotel gym and then off to breakfast. One major negative for the hotel, the person who walked me to my room pointed out the club lounge and told me “you can have your breakfast there.” I asked if it was included, and he said yes…so I went. I was presented with a bill at the end of breakfast, but assumed it would be an internal charge back like many hotels do. Unfortunately, when I checked out, it was on my bill and I was told that whoever told me it was included was wrong…and they wouldn’t budge on the charge. Left a poor taste in my mouth.

Full menu to order from (the lounge has its own kitchen) as well as a mini buffet of fruits and pastries. I went with the eggs benedict, which was on the small side, but given its richness that was just fine. Very tasty, and excellent hollandaise sauce. I can forgive the lack of proper English muffins in Zim:

I had arranged a 9am walking tour with Lynnette from Free Walking Tours Harare, and let me just start by saying she was absolutely amazing! Great communication before the tour via Facebook messenger and WhatsApp, and since I was going to be the only client for the day, we could start whenever I wanted. Awesome!

We started at the Museum of Human Science, and I decided I didn’t want to spend my time in a museum – I wanted to be out walking and feeling the energy of the city. We walked for about 10 minutes, and the first place we came upon was the ZANU PF political party headquarters. The previous evening there had been a huge rally here to greet the return of (now) President Emerson Mnangagwa, and in the process, Mugabe’s face had been ripped out of a billboard:

The HQ building was an impressive structure, but has clearly seen better days. Looked like missing windows, and the exterior was a mess. I would have loved to go inside, but unfortunately that probably wasn’t a good idea given the political situation this week…

From there we walked another 15 minutes to the Harare Gardens. Lyn shared stories about spending weekends there in her childhood, and how the gardens aren’t in great shape now. She hoped with the new government, they could recapture some of their glory. A WW1/WW2 memorial in the gardens:

As we exited the garden, on the far side was the National Art Gallery. Sculpture outside:

Mask on a tree:

After another bit of a walk it was looking like rain, and just in time we reached the Roman Catholic Cathedral:

Very nice on the inside…and I loved how the pink/tan/dark hues played off each other. Lyn shared stories of Zim in the 70s and 80s when it was pretty much compulsory to be Catholic to have access to a good education. Stories of her family and their education, and it was very interesting to hear how things have changed over the last few decades.

Military vehicle in the street. First one I’d seen, so I asked the soldier if I could take a picture. Of course! I should have asked if I could climb up and take one with him…I’m sure he would have said yes. I really need to get better at asking what I perceive are “uncomfortable” questions so I can get better photos! Skill I have yet to master in all my travels!

In front of the Reserve Bank of Zim, with another military vehicle:

At this point we were back by my hotel, in front of Parliament. There were still a few signs out from the celebration of Mugabe’s resignation a couple days prior:

Loved seeing how participatory the whole thing was:

Parliament. Rare flag “flying straight out” shot. I try and get flags like this all the time, and rarely success:

The coup was so low-key, that the guy sitting out in front of Parliament was alseep:

Right next to Parliament was the Protestant Cathedral of St Mary. Very pink inside, and equally nice:

Quiet gardens behind the cathedral – you forget you’re in the middle of a bustling capital city:

Near the Parliament the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission had set up voter registration, and they were doing a brisk trade in people signing up to vote in the 2018 elections. Now that there is a chance of “free and fair” democratic elections next year, people were excited to register and make their voices heard. One thing every person I talked to said is “it can only get better. If the next guy is bad, we will not stand for it any more.” People were very excited for change, and virtually everyone felt it was going to be a major turning point for the country.

The Eastgate Mall – one of the first in the world to use architecture to provide for natural cooling via airflow. It was noticeably cooler inside, despite no artificial AC and 30 Celsius temps outside.

Took this pic on the walk back to my hotel, not knowing just how famous it would become. Several times over the next day I would see BBC, CNN, etc on tv, and all walking by and talking to these same three fruit vendors and interviewing them for their opinions. I’m guessing it was because they were one block from the one nice hotel in town, so that’s where the news crews ventured.

For example, BBC – I took this pic while having a bottle of water in the Club Lounge. Background look familiar? Yup, she’s in my hotel with the park in the background…exact same view as from my room. Most likely she was broadcasting from her own room less than three doors down from me.

It was early afternoon at this point, and despite a semi-heavy breakfast I was super hungry thanks to the long walk. I googled for a bit, and found there was an app called GTaxi with an online portal where you could supposedly book a driver – just like Uber. Price was given to you in advance, and they quoted me half the price of the hotel car to go back to Borrowdale, so I figured I would try it. Car showed up in under 10 minutes, was nice and clean, driver was chatty and professional, and was a great way to move around the city. Highly recommended!

I had lunch at the Pistachio Cafe in the Borrowdale Mall, and had a delicious “100% Zimbo Beef Burger” and a passionfruit/mango/etc smoothie which was all delicious.

After lunch walked around for a bit before calling GTaxi again to take me to the Zimbabwe National Heroes’ Acre. Unfortunately, given the “current situation” it was closed, as it is a bit of a politically sensitive site. Especially since the “war veterans” (of the liberation war) had come out against Mugabe when he failed to resign in his TV address, this was probably seen as a bit of a sensitive site. Oh well…at least when I called another GTaxi to come get me they were there in about 10 minutes.

Walked around the downtown a bit after I got back, but it was soon sunset so I retreated to the club lounge where I had chats with several very interesting characters. A few diplomats in town for the inauguration of the new president the next day, foreign news crews, a couple of ambassadors who were based in Pretoria but also tasked with covering Zim….it was a veritable who’s who of Southern Africa. This was my first time being in a “small” country at the top of international headline news, and I couldn’t have been more glad that I chose this hotel….and paid the premium to be on the club floor.

I had read on TripAdvisor, and some folks in the lounge confirmed to me, that one of the best restaurants in Harare was Sabai Thai. So yeah, Thai in Zimbabwe was such a strange concept, I had to go and check it out.

The restaurant was in a residential neighbourhood in a small house/garden, so another chance to eat outside. Even better, when I sat down, the resident cat hopped up on lap demanding to be pet. When I ordered the penang curry with chicken I was asked how spicy I wanted it. Potentially a good sign, as long as “spicy” didn’t mean “ok, has a little flavour to humour the westerner.”

I can confirm it was authentically thai spicy, to the point I scarfed three ciders total and had to pace myself as I ate. I’m going to attribute this to the owner’s wife who is from Thailand. DC has more Thai restaurants per capita than anywhere outside Asia so we’ve got lots of great Thai here, and Sabai Thai ranked right up there with the best of them. Very glad I made it for dinner, since it also was a very authentic local atmosphere and allowed me to get a bit of a feel for how those in Harare with money celebrate out on special occasions.

My flight was relatively early the next day so I made sure to get to bed early so I could enjoy a couple hours in the morning before heading to the inauguration. Good thing I was up early, because the club lounge was packed with dignitaries rushing off the the ceremony at the national stadium. Diplomatic staff from several southern African nation were having breakfast, and there was me…in shorts and a t-shirt, hanging out with them just observing.

Headed down to the lobby to go for a short walk before going to the airport, and had to pause…because there was a red carpet set up coming into the hotel, and people were lined up along it. I figured why not, so got in line…and no more than a couple minutes later a series of town cars pulled up with Zambian flags waving from them. That’s how I got a handshake from former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda! Pic I took while waiting my turn (I believe the other guy in the lei is one of the other recent Zambian presidents):

Flags and red carpet outside the hotel entrance:

Took the hotel car back to the airport, which is one of the few things named after Mugabe still standing. His picture has already been removed from the immigration hall, but the welcome sign to the airport was still there:

Bit of time in the lounge which was nothing to write home about, but loved that the news was calling it “Mugexit” LOL. Trying too hard there guys:

South African Airways flight 23
Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 14:30, Flight Time: 1:40
Airbus A320, Registration ZS-SZH, Manufactured 2014, Seat 4F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 145,629
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,510,030

Now, remember, this is an 80 minute flight tops. Lunch was offered, with THREE hot meal choices. I went with the lamb. While it might not look super appetizing, it was really tasty…and the potatoes were really good too. Just creamy enough, and the red sauce on the side (which I couldn’t quite figure out) made sure I finished my plate.

Headed to the South African lounge after clearing immigration and security. I was still undecided if I was going to stay another night in Johannesburg, or head straight home, and I was still holding reservations for both. I decided there was no point to another night in South Africa, given I had just been there for a week and didn’t know what I would do with what would literally amount to a dinner and coffee in the morning. Decided to skip it, and catch the next flight hope, saving a few hundred dollars in hotel/meals/etc.

South African Airways flight 209
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Accra, Ghana (ACC)
Depart 18:50, Arrive 22:45, Flight Time: 5:55
Airbus A330-300, Registration ZS-SXJ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 11K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 148,526
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,512,927

The South African flight from Joburg to DC stops three days a week in Dakar on the way, and the other four days in Accra. When I was working in Senegal I took it back and forth to DC several times, but I’d never had the opportunity to take it the whole way from Johannesburg. That might have been part of my motivation for going straight back too. Fortunately, the day I was going was a Dakar stop day. Why is that important? Well, on the days it stops in Accra the stop is from 10:30 to 11:30pm and the days in Dakar it is roughly 1-2am. Much easier on the body clock to stop earlier and have more time to rest on the redeye westbound to DC. Pre-departure champagne was offered in a nice glass flute (are you listening United?) and then we were off.

I was in the “mini cabin” of business with only three rows, and only 5 seats out of the 12 were occupied so it was nice and private and quiet.

Canapés and wine. While I applaud the effort to do more than mixed nuts, the canapés were soggy and relatively flavourless. Two days later, I can report I risked the cockroach of the sea (aka shrimp) and it’s tiny speck of caviar, and avoided food poisoning from it, hah.

Salmon and trout mousse starter. It was soup…or salad…OR starter. No, you can’t have more than one. Seriously South African, way to look cheap. The only reason I went with this option was for a bit more protein, but after one bite that was enough. Fishy tasting and overall yuck.

…at least there was garlic bread? Except it was soggy and had almost no garlic or butter taste. Oh, and you get half a loaf because it’s not cut well enough to pull apart.

Pan fried beef fillet…the beef was two tiny slices, like seriously maybe 3oz at most, and cooked beyond well done. Yuck. The highlight was the butternut squash (seriously…are you guys and Delta in cahoots?!) and the maelie pap and corn cake because it was novel. While I appreciated the reasonable portion sizes a la Finnair, it just didn’t work.

I posted a trip report a few months ago on South African’s new Airbus A330-300 with the 1-2-1 layout, and that was another reason I chose this flight. Glad to see the config was as comfortable as I remembered.

After dinner I fell asleep for nearly three hours, a good nap on the way to Accra. While I’d hoped to stay awake to Accra then sleep 8+ hours to DC, the body clock had other ideas.

According to TripIt, the Accra to DC flight is only 12% on time, and we were to be no exception. We arrived in Accra with only 30 minutes until scheduled departure, and ended up leaving nearly an hour late. By the time they had done what they called a “TSA security sweep,” cleaned the plane, catered, and boarded the new passengers, it took nearly 90 minutes. Not sure if our flight was typical, but 75% of passengers got off in Accra, and at least 100-150 new passengers boarded. You have to schedule more than an hour for all of that!

South African Airways flight 209
Accra, Ghana (ACC) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 23:45, Arrive 6:15 next day, Flight Time: 11:30
Airbus A330-300, Registration ZS-SXJ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 11K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 153,822
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,518,223

No pre-departure beverages offered, and actually no interaction with the crew at all. There was a crew change in Dakar, and while the first crew had seemed disinterested, this new crew was literally nowhere to be seen.

So bad that once we were in the air, the first interaction was a “we have dinner, you don’t want it do you?” Well, because of that, I had to see if it would be any better.

Nope, the canapés were similarly ugh looking. I ate one just to see….anyone who’s read my blog can probably guess which of the three I went for:

In complete fairness, the “soup of the day” was delicious – it was carrot ginger – and one of the best soups I’ve ever had on a plane. I didn’t ask if I could have the salad or appetizer this time because I wasn’t that hungry, but very glad I went for the soup.

I’m not sure what made me risk the beef again (just like the previous flight, there were four meal choices – beef, chicken, fish, and veg just like the previous flight) but the description of “grilled beef fillet with potato and pumpkin gratin” got me…partly because of the gratin part.

That said, this beef was light years better than the previous one, and the sauce and the gratin really added. A very solid meal. I don’t know if this is catered out of Accra or Joburg, but the two meals appeared to be night and day in quality. Sorry for the low-light pics, but this crew insisted on serving meals with the cabin lights completely turned down.

Despite the three hour nap, I managed to pass out after dinner for a solid six hours. I guess the previous days of less sleep than I’m used to had gotten to me so that was good at least. Why did I wake up? Well the crew insisted on turning on all the lights two full hours before landing, and the resulting noise resulted in me waking up since I was already halfway there. No big deal, I got enough sleep, but seriously, why do you need two hours for a small one-tray meal service? On this rant…they also insist you power down (yes, no airplane mode allowed) all electronic devices at the TOP of descent…a full 45 minutes before landing. Ugh.

Anyways, I went with the hot breakfast option. The eggs were meh as expected from eggs on a plane, but something about the mushrooms and red sauce were actually delicious.

Plus, given the hour delay, we were treated to a gorgeous sunset over the wing as we were on approach:

So, final thoughts on the trip. I literally decided the day that I left that I was going to do this, so absolutely zero planning went into the trip. That said, it was amazing. Sure, I wish I ‘d gone a day earlier and captured Harare the day Mugabe resigned, but you can’t exactly plan those things. Being there the first day in Zimbabwean history without him as President was equally amazing…especially when you saw how quickly people moved on and were ready to build a new nation.

It was also kinda cool to be so spontaneous and head 9,000 miles away on a whim. Great time, great experiences, and despite the exhausting I’m super glad I went. I’ve been struggling a little with “what next” after going to every country, and maybe I need some more spontaneous trips like this!

That said, no plans yet for New Years or 2018, so stay tuned!

Nov 102017
 



I wasn’t going to originally put up this post, because I’ve done so many Lufthansa posts that people are probably sick of them. But, I decided things do change from time to time, and an up-to-date impression might be worth while. Given that, I’ll probably be a bit sparse on the commentary, but feel free to comment if you have any questions at all!

Recently started a new job, and first task before even starting was to head to Johannesburg to participate in a conference I would be responsible for organizing going forward. Only problem was, I needed to leave on the same day I was ending my previous job…meaning I couldn’t really sneak out at 2p to catch a transatlantic since I was busy with an all day program going until 6pm.

That left really only two options: United to London or Frankfurt at 10pm or Lufthansa to Munich at 10pm. For some reason, the United options were nearly double the Lufthansa option, so Lufthansa to Munich it was. This would mean I had to connect Munich to Frankfurt the next day, which would eat up a good chunk of the day and allow me to be go go go until the flight to Johannesburg that night. Inshallah.

Last day at the previous job was packed, and I finally managed to sneak out at 530p. I had only gotten about four hours of sleep the night before, so against my better judgement when I got home…I crashed on the couch for a nap. Oops. Woke up with enough time, however, and still caught an cab to Dulles in time for my flight.

Since the recent lost of my Global Entry, I’d also lost TSA PreCheck, but fortunately that was restored by paying $85 which AmEx reimbursed as part of my membership benefits. However, TSA’s PreCheck website is abysmal, and led me to believe I was denied, so I got CLEAR as well. Given the Munich flight leaves so late, it wasn’t really needed, but it still allowed me to skip ahead of 10 people in the PreCheck line, which was cool until a lady at the front of the line SHOVED ME and said “I pay a lot of money for this! You can’t just butt in line!”

The CLEAR rep was great, however, and clearly had seen similar things before. He politely said to her “CLEAR membership gives you extra priority over the regular line, if you’d like more information on joining, please let me know.” Points to him!

Got there early enough I finally had a chance to check out the Turkish Airlines lounge which everyone seems to rave about. I’m not a huge fan of the lounge in Istanbul, which I know others love. For me, it’s always super crowded, and I can never find a power outlet when I want one. Plus, I feel like it’s always a furnace.

Took over 15 minutes to get into the lounge, because there was an elderly couple in front of me in line trying to argue with the agent if they got guests on their Priority Pass membership or not. The agent was great, however, and patient with them and apologized to me when it was my turn.

Bartender was great, and a glass of wine quickly materialized to go with my mezze:

How could I resist some sweets…especially when there was baklava:

Overall impression: it beats the United Club any day, and was even less crowded than the Lufthansa lounge at this time of day – so definitely wins. I don’t know why Turkish keeps their lounges warmer than a Turkish sauna, but this one was also extremely warm. That said, I think it’s probably the best lounge option by far at Dulles, and a very solid option.

Headed to the Lufthansa lounge an hour before the flight, just in time for one more glass of wine and boarding from the lounge. I’ve never seen this lounge so packed at this hour, but given our flight tonight was overbooked it wasn’t too surprising.

Lufthansa flight 415
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 22:30, Arrive 12:45, Flight Time: 8:15
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKF, Manufactured 2004, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 107,851
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,484,828

Settled in, and our crew tonight was quick to provide a glass of bubbly:

Soon after takeoff, the warm nuts arrived, which tonight were oddly all pecans:

Given the late hour of the flight, dinner was served all at once, and I went with the “seared baby filet, chili pepper and ham gabure, roasted Marble Baby Yukon Potatoes.” No mention of the ubiquitous Lufthansa asparagus, but there it was in all its glory. As expected, the filet was rather overcooked, but the pretzel roll and amazing salad made up for it. This might have been the best business class salad I’ve ever received: radish, basil mozzarella, red and yellow peppers…yum!

Opted for the cheese AND dessert tonight. The cheese was rather sad…and featured the completely unnecessary mini shrubbery, and as silly as I think pre-packaged ice cream is….chocolate hit the spot with red wine.

Managed about four solid hours of sleep, and woke up just 30 minutes from landing. Plenty of time to brush my teeth, have a Diet Coke, and get presentable to leave the plane. Fortunately, when we left the plane, right across from our gate was the Lufthansa First Class Lounge.

With about 10 hours between arrival and my departure from Frankfurt, and the flight from Munich to Frankfurt only taking an hour, I decided to split my stay six hours in Munich and three in Frankfurt. Why? Because I had seen online that the Satellite Terminal in Munich was now allowing access to the First Class Lounge for AmEx Centurion Card holders. Seemed too good to be true, but I had to try it.

As the picture below shows, it was indeed a perk, and I enjoyed an espresso before grabbing a shower:

Post-shower, since it was already after 1pm. I decided to settle into the dining area for lunch. Wiener Schnitzel mit Kartoffel Salat und Champagne! YUM! The cranberry relish was an especially delicious touch.

…also, I admit, I couldn’t resist some black forest cake and creme brulé from the buffet…

After I finished eating, I received a message from a friend who coincidentally was transiting Munich as well! I asked the lounge attendants if I could bring a guest in, but unfortunately it would only be allowed if they were traveling on the same itinerary. So, off to the Senator Lounge we went for an hour to catch up. I’m still not sure if I was even allowed to bring him in there, but I think I puzzled (or maybe amused) the lounge attendant enough with my poor German that she let us in and we had a nice time catching up.

After he had to run to catch his connection, it was around 3:30 and I was back to the First Class Lounge for a bit more merriment. This time, some gummi bears and a FCL duck to keep watch over my champagne.

I had gotten a bit sweaty running through the terminal a bit, so I decided on one more quick shower before leaving the terminal. So, here’s where it gets a bit funny. Entering the lounge from the non-Schengen side, there was a passport agent at the entrance who checked my passport and approved my entrance to the Schengen area. He then gave me my passport back. However, upon leaving, I realized he hadn’t given me a stamp (which I need for tax reasons) so I had to go back and ask for a stamp. No problem! I was then able to walk out the other side of the lounge into the Schengen part of the terminal with no problems. One of the best features of this lounge: priority immigration clearance!

Once on the other side, my flight to Frankfurt was delayed 30 minutes, so I ducked into the Schengen Area Senator lounge for a quick snack: #sterotypes

Soon it was boarding time, and when I boarded, I got the dreaded “beep beep beep” when my boarding pass was scanned. Unfortunately, they had moved the business class divider forward, and my 9D seat was now in economy class…so I’d been reseated in 8F in business….which was now completely full. Odd.

Lufthansa flight 117
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 18:00, Arrive 19:00, Flight Time: 1:00
Airbus A321, Registration D-AISJ, Manufactured 2008, Seat 8F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 108,037
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,485,014

Very uneventful 41 minutes in the air, but they were still able to serve a full snack, which was actually delicious!

Fortunately, the Johannesburg flight now leaves from the Z gates in Frankfurt (instead of the C gates where it used to depart from) so it was a quick exit of the Schengen Area through immigration, and into a rather empty Senator Lounge. I hadn’t had my fill of being a stereotype yet, so more pretzels, potato salat, and sausages…und of course a Bier!

Of course, the flight was boarding from Z69, the furthest gate from the lounge and practically halfway to Austria. Oh well. At the gate, the were offering 400 euro compensation to downgrade from business class to premium economy due to an oversell situation. Uh, no thanks.

Lufthansa flight 572
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 22:05, Arrive 8:30 next day, Flight Time: 10:25
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYP, Manufactured 2014, Seat 6D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 113,417
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,490,394

Decided I was going to practice my German (which I’ve been working on the last year) on this flight, and see how long I could keep it up with the crew. Well, I got wine, and even managed to indicate my choice of wines, so that’s a start!

For a starter, I want with the “Brotzeit Specialties: Veal Meatball, hearty Cheese, Chicken Liver Terrine, Obazda a Cream Cheese Bavarian Style” – mainly because it intrigued me. I actually found it really tasty…and a nice change from the same old airline dishes. I generally really like when an airline is able to integrate regional cuisine into business class.

The salad this flight was…less impressive…but decent.

“Braised Beef Roulade” which was better than I expected…and I admit I ordered it for the bread dumplings and stewed leeks, which were super tasty with a little gravy.

Mildly better cheese plate…because it featured honey chutney. Everyone who reads this blog by now knows I love my cheese plates, and honey/fig spreads take them to the next level for me!

Managed to pass out for about six hours after dinner, and woke up about 90 minutes out of Joburg. Fantastic crew hadn’t turned on lights or opened shades yet, but within five minutes she appeared and offered me breakfast. I must have been in a daze, because I managed to not only order breakfast, but tell her that I would like it in ten minutes after I go to brush my teeth. I never thought that lesson about brushing teeth in German would come in handy, but there you have it!

I never do eggs on a plane, but the scrambled egg with cheddar cheese was pretty good. I really liked the yogurt with chia seeds as well!

With that it was time to land! Next post will be about my week in Johannesburg and then I’ll do one more post detailing the flights home.

Oct 122017
 


Alarm went off around 7am, and as usual the first thing I did was turn off Airplane Mode. The flood of notifications started: email, facebook, instagram, twitter…and United. Hmmm, that’s unusual. Must be that it was time to check in for my flight tonight from Washington Dulles to Detroit for my NEXUS renewal interview.

Nope. Almost 22 hours before the flight was scheduled to depart, United canceled it for “weather.” Um, there’s no weather in or predicted for either Washington DC or Detroit – what gives? I can only guess that the hurricane was stranding planes all over the place, and of course because it was weather…tough luck.

Called and got an agent who told me she could get me out the next morning…at 6am…via Chicago…with a 40 minute connection. Um, that’s not going to work, and I have to get to the airport here in Helsinki. I’ll touch base when I have more time – but please protect me on that 6am and note that I still have the right to cancel. Great agent, and she was happy to do that.

Quick breakfast at the Radisson Blu as it was included with my rate, and I was super impressed. Huge buffet spread with lots of tasty options, and the only downside is that the breakfast room was absolutely packed. The checkin agent the day before did say they were booked to capacity, and it was a Monday, so that probably explains a lot of it. That said, I’m definitely staying here again my next stop in Helsinki.

It had been about a year since I was last in Helsinki, and since then trains from the main station had started running to the airport. Quick walk across the square, easy to buy a ticket from a vending machine, and only had to wait about five minutes for the train to depart. This makes this hotel combo absolutely priceless going forward. Plus…a great beer restaurant right around the corner!

Arrived at the airport in plenty of time, and the station was quite a hike from the terminal. Given I’d be spending the whole day on planes that was just fine with me, and quickly found the SAS check-in area and got my boarding pass. Of course, the most important place in the terminal was in the other terminal: Starbucks. Got my venti americano, and all was right in the world. Now, off to the gate.

Back to the other terminal (about a five minute walk) up the escalator, and surprised to find absolutely no security queue at all. I was through in 2-3 minutes, and even had 15 minutes for the lounge. The SAS Lounge was right by the security area, and since I had just had breakfast and coffee, I just wanted somewhere to charge my devices for a short bit and sit down. Headed to the gate about 40 minutes before boarding – which was a waste – because the plane only arrived about 30 minutes before departure, and we started boarding maybe 15 minutes before departure.

SAS flight 707
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to Stockholm, Sweden (ARN)
Depart 11:15, Arrive 11:15, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-600, Registration LN-RCW, Manufactured 1999, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 98,640
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,475,617

Does that mean we’ll depart late? No. Despite an absolutely packed flight, departure was still right on time. No matter how much you like airlines in the United States, one thing that is horrible is the refugee exodus that happens during boarding. People bringing on everything they own. Maybe I’m being a snob because I get to board first and bring slightly more than I “should” but if you’re in group 8 or 9….be realistic! You know you’re going to have to check that giant Sampsonite!

Rant over, time to fly. Only 45 minutes in the air, but they still served a small snack…which was much tastier than expected! I never figured out if Seat 2A was technically “business class” or “economy plus” but didn’t matter to me in the end. I got a drink, the middle seat was empty, and I was happy.

Off the plane right on time, and first job was to try and find a transfer desk and get my Icelandair boarding passes since it was a separate ticket. I had considered a flight in Finnair which would have left me 1:45 to connect (aka more sleep) but decided not to risk it. Looks like I could have, but end of the day, risks like that aren’t usually worth it. Finally found an SAS transfer counter, where the sole agent was busy dealing with a very unhappy passenger who had missed the only flight of the day to her destination for some reason.

Eventually, she got around to helping me, and apparently Icelandair is a bit of a pain because she looked like I was seriously annoying her. I probably shouldn’t have asked her (after getting boarding passes) if there was still a Starbucks in the terminal, because I got an annoyed “no, it closed. The only one is outside.” Ok fine…could you maybe point me to the lounge? “Well i *guess* you can use that one” – pointing to the elevators right across from the desk.

Up to the SAS lounge which had cool barcode scanners for admission. Also, where my Icelandair boarding pass didn’t seem to work. The agent in charge seemed puzzled if I should get in or not, and asked for a frequent flier card. I gave her my United Star Gold card (despite them having nothing to do with Icelandair), and she scanned that and it didn’t work either. She was sure I should be let in, but couldn’t figure out how to do it, so eventually decided research was more work than it was worth and just manually let me in.

Not much to say about the lounge…good spread of food and drink, huge and plenty of seating, and ample places to plug in and charge the laptop. Other than that, it was a pretty average lounge, although it did have pretty good tarmac views.

Headed to the gate about 40 minutes before departure, and it was a relatively short five minute walk from the lounge. I knew the flight was very full, but the gate area was packed, and there were at least 20 wheelchairs waiting to board. Lots of American passports showing, and this was clearly the Sweden to America geriatric express.

Icelandair flight 307
Stockholm, Sweden (ARN) to Reykjavik, Iceland (KEF)
Depart 14:20, Arrive 15:30, Flight Time: 3:10
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISP, Manufactured 1997, Seat 4A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 99,977
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,476,594

Fortunately, business “Saga” class was only about half full today, which let me move to a window seat and keep the seat next to me empty in the 2-1-2 config. I’ve posted quite a lot how I hate climbing over people or having them climb over me, so it’s always nice when I can get a window seat and still avoid this. Of course, the internet wasn’t working on this plane, so that was a big negative to the flight.

Menus were passed out as we waited for everyone to board:

Wine list was included:

Service on this relatively short flight started out with a beverage and nut service. The nuts came in a chinese takeout container, and were sugar coated almonds. Strange, but points for originality.

I had preordered my meal online, but it wasn’t catered. In addition to the internet not working, my already low impression of Icelandair was even going lower. First the internet wasn’t working, and now my meal wasn’t loaded. Two strikes. That said, the fishy entree was pretty tasty.

Short connection of about 50 minutes in Reykjavik, and when I tried to stop in the lounge (which is on the Schengen side before immigration) I was told there was no time, I had to go straight through immigration to the gate…so I did.



You can guess what this meant. 30 minutes of waiting in the gate area to board my connecting flight. My memory of this wait is of an extremely obnoxious guy and his mother waiting to board. He was bitching up a storm that nobody in Iceland could manage to charter him a plane to fly him home, and they had to pay $2,500 for one first class ticket and the other person had to sit in coach. Making him even more of a jerk in my mind, was that he made his mother sit in coach while he sat in business class. After three weeks away, ugh, welcome back to the ugly side of America.

Icelandair flight 645
Reykjavik, Iceland (KEF) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 16:50, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time: 6:20
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISW, Manufactured 1997, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 102,776
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,479,753

This flight was already looking up…and like a flight to the US…with plastic glasses of sparkling wine offered pre-departure…different aircraft, but this one also didn’t have working internet. I was beginning to wonder if Icelandair was paying their bills:

Once again, they hadn’t loaded my pre-ordered meal, but the menu looked relatively tasty:

No almonds in a takeout container this time, but the “famous” Icelandair carmelcorn:

I went with the veal main, which was very United-esque in taste and poor plating. The herring starter with deviled egg was tasty….but stay tuned…

Landed on time, exhausted, and since my United flight to Detroit was canceled I figured I might as well spend the night at home and save money. My hotel in Detroit was kind enough to waive the late cancelation fee, so it was off to Uber and a fantastic night in my own bed. Since my NEXUS interview wasn’t until 12:30 the next day, that still left me plenty of time in the morning to make my way to Detroit.

When I got home, I had a look at Delta, and noticed the morning flight to Detroit had a bunch of empty seats, so opted to ask United for a refund and decided to risk going to Detroit standby. Fortunately, when I woke up, the flight was still very open and I had no trouble at all getting on it.

Unfortunately, the minute I stepped into the Delta Skyclub, I knew I’d made a very, very poor decision eating fish and deviled eggs on a plane the previous day. Nausea and all the other food-borne illness side effects rapidly just set in, and I just prayed I would make it through the flight…

Delta flight 2359
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Detroit, Michigan (DTW)
Depart 7:30, Arrive 9:03, Flight Time: 1:33
Airbus A319, Registration N316NB, Manufactured 2000, Seat 24C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 103,182
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,480,159

Hey, at least I got an aisle seat so that’s a positive! I can’t say no to a Diet Coke and Biscoff, even if I was seriously nauseous.

By the time we landed I was full on majorly nauseous. Head was spinning when walking, and overall just felt sick. If it wasn’t for the fact my NEXUS (and thus Global Entry and PreCheck) was expiring in three days, I would have turned around and gone home and tried to reschedule. Lesson learned: don’t leave things to the last minute.

Was originally planning to Uber to my appointment and ask the Uber to wait, but for some reason that felt logistically difficult so I decided to see if I could get a rental from Hertz. No problem, great rate, much cheaper than a roundtrip Uber, and I was set. Off to the shuttle to the Hertz lot, fantastic agent brought me into her office as a Platinum member, and asked if a Volvo would be ok today. Sweet upgrade, although I was feeling too nauseous to even care.

By this point, I should have heeded all the warning signs from the universe: canceled United flight, food-borne illness, but no, I didn’t and proceeded with the interview, which started off perfectly fine. The Canadian agents processed me in under a minute, then it was on to the American agent, who seemed not in the best of moods. First comment to his colleague: “hey…Martha…look at this! You ever seen someone who’s been to so many countries…ut oh, Cuba? We have a problem”

Without going into details, the agent seemed completely unaware of the changes a couple years prior towards US policy to Cuba and refused to approve my renewal. I was told “if you find any documents that support your case, please fax them.” Ugh. Yet, he still took my fingerprints and biometrics. Odd.

Back to the airport, drop off the car, and off to the Delta Skyclub where I sat as a nauseous mess for a couple hours until it was time to board my flight.

Delta flight 1144
Detroit, Michigan (DTW) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:35, Arrive 17:10, Flight Time: 1:35
Airbus A319, Registration N316NB, Manufactured 2000, Seat 15D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 103,588
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,480,565

Fortunately, I got an aisle seat again, and the flight passed without any major excitement. Quite an overly-eventful end to what had been a fantastic 3+ week trip.

Just to finish the story, about two weeks later, after faxing my explanation of how my Cuba trip was “legal” under the new US policy, along with a citation of the policy….someone approved my NEXUS renewal in the system and two minutes later…revoked my status. I read this as “I didn’t have grounds to deny the renewal, but in my authority as a border agent I revoked it later.”

The case is currently with my US Senator who is following up, along with the CBP Trusted Traveler Ombudsman. Per the letter of the regulations I followed them exactly, and backed that up in writing when requested. We’ll see where this goes, but in the meantime (and $85 later) at least I have TSA PreCheck for the time being….

We’ll see how my first non-Global Entry immigration experience goes in two weeks on my next work trip…

Sep 282017
 



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

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

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

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

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

The maintenance condition of this room was appalling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Quite spacious:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sneak peak across the aisle:

…and the other side.

Laminated menus!

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

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

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

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

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

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