Jul 142017
 

After a relaxing breakfast, we still had a bit of time so walked around the city a bit before I headed to the airport. I wanted to see if on a Monday things would be a bit busier, but even at 11am the city felt like a bit of a ghost town. Several readers have commented that there’s not a huge population, it’s not well-known outside Portuguese tourists, but I think most of it was the fact that the tourists who DO come don’t spend a bunch of time in the city – except maybe mealtimes which explained why dinner reservations were needed.

Ian’s flight was a bit later in the afternoon, so he dropped me at the airport before going to wander around the city some more. How can you feel unsafe when the airport is named after Pope John Paul the Second?

Pope says: safe travels and boa viagem!

Checked in, headed to the lounge, and very quickly realized that I had gotten to the airport way, way too early. I had received a notification when I woke up my flight was delayed by 45 minutes until 4pm, so I had arrived about 1:30 hoping to enjoy the lounge. Unfortunately, lounge was rather depressing. Essentially nothing to eat save some cookies and crackers, but a decently stocked fridge full of beverages.

About an hour before my flight I was bored, and since Azores Airlines only has two A310s it was pretty easy to track them online. One, scheduled to operated my flight, was sitting coming from Lisbon and the other was sitting in Ponta Delgada. The one that was already there was scheduled to operate the later 5pm flight to Boston for some reason (it had its engines open so probably maintenance?) and mine was coming from Lisbon. The only problem was…according to every site I could track it on, it was still in Lisbon…2.5 hours away….an hour before my flight. Azores Airlines own site said it wouldn’t be Lisbon until 4:30….or 3:30 local.

I checked with the agent in the lounge, who insisted I must be wrong. The flight is on time. I asked her if she could check with someone. “No, I do not need to. It is on time.” Uhhh….I may have started stirring the pot, letting my fellow passengers know that our plane was still in Lisbon, so there was no way we were leaving at 3:15 pm…

Finally, at about 3:30pm a supervisor came to the lounge and singled out me and two other passengers. Yes, the plane was still in Lisbon (duh) and won’t be here for quite some time. He had proactively rebooked me and the other two passengers on the 5pm flight. There were only three seats left, so everyone else was left to wait and hope. How we had been chosen, I’m not quite sure. I was on a full fare paid ticket, so maybe that helped, or maybe he’d seen me inciting revolution in the lounge and wanted to get rid of me.

Then, of course, just after he left, our new flight the 5pm was hit with a 90 minute delay. Now we would be leaving at 6:30pm. That meant arrival at about 8:20pm. Fortunately, the 90 minute delay (which turned out to be due to a connection from Praia, Cape Verde with 80 connecting passengers) held, and we were underway.

Azores Airlines flight 281
Ponta Delgada, Azores, Portugal (PDL) to Boston, Massachusetts (BOS)
Depart 17:00, Arrive 18:50, Flight Time: 5:50
Airbus A310-300, Registration CS-TGU, Manufactured 1991, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 65,805
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,442,782

Fortunately we had a bus gate (as are all gates in Ponta Delgada) so I got an up close and personal shot with my first ever A310:

As soon as I boarded, I got this notice from Air Azores:

My original flight had canceled. All 150+ people booked on it would be stranded in Ponta Delgada overnight, and both flights to Boston the next day were already booked completely full. I’ve never been happier that I paid the extra to be in business class!

Unfortunately, I forgot to get a pic of the seats. Thanks to Flyertalk user Carfield this is what they look like:

Far from the best business class seats across the Atlantic – they might be the worst – but with all their flights being under five hours it really was a pretty decent product. They were nice to lounge in, and very comfortable, and the price was certainly good. I knew roughly was I was getting going into it, so was very pleased with the product.

Pre-dinner drinks and ziplock-bagged mixed nuts were served:

“Meat or fish” were the option. FAR from the most appetizing looking meal I’ve ever gotten, and it was all Saran wrapped…to seal in freshness? I did find it odd that whenever I asked for sparkling water, she would bring me a fresh bottle and glass each time.

Didn’t look much better with the shrink wrap off. The beef did, however, taste much better than it looked.

Flight passed quickly, and we circled Boston a bit before landing, due to what the pilot called “very big rain.”

With less than 40 minutes to clear customs and change terminals I had kissed my connection goodbye, but upon landing my flight had been delayed…by over three hours….to 12:40am! Blessing in disguise!

Rushed over to the other terminal and got to the gate, and in the meantime the flight was hit with a further delay, now departing at 1:55am. By that time, I would have been up almost 24 hours plus the time to get home to DC, and best case I would be in bed by 4:30am. There was absolutely no way I was going to work the next day on 2-3 hours of sleep, so decided to throw in the towel and find an agent and asked to be rebooked the next day.

Unfortunately, my experience with JetBlue agents left a lot to be desired. They were all rather surly and curt, and seemed completely disinterested in helping. I finally after trying two or three found one who agreed to rebook me the next day, given my flight was delayed by over four hours. Yes, the hotel would be at my own expense, I get it.

Left the airport to get my Uber, and found out that the Uber waiting area is about a three minute walk outside from the terminal. Only problem was, those heavy rains that the pilot told us about. It was a torrential downpour, and even the short sprint to the uber got me absolutely soaking wet.

My hotel, the Le Meridien Cambridge also left a lot to be desired. The gentleman working the front desk had the personality of a 1980s Soviet hotel worker, and when I told him the AC in my room sounded like a plane taking off “we have no other rooms. Anyways, they are all like that.” Geez. I was hungry at this point, so decided to call room service. Guess who I got on the phone? Yup, grumpy front desk guy also takes room service orders. “No, you can’t have wine. Not after 10pm.” Sigh. Fine.

I went down to the bar, in hopes I might talk the bartender into a glass to take up to my room. Let me just say, he was the warmest most helpful person I encountered, and was the only reason I didn’t demand my points back. The sandwich I got from room service was also terrible, and  sleeping with a jumbo jet going wasn’t terribly helpful. In retrospect, I should have taken the 2am delayed flight. Oh, wait, no I shouldn’t have….because after all that they ended up canceling it just before 1am. UGH!

Surely when I got back to the airport, the next day would be better. It couldn’t be much worse. Except for the world’s largest emotional support animal in the gate area.

The gate agent was wonderful, and I may have flirted a bit, but he did manage to not only get me an aisle seat, but got me one in the second row. Score.

JetBlue flight 1155
Boston, Massachusetts (BOS) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 13:25, Arrive 15:00, Flight Time: 1:35
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration N298JB, Manufactured 2009, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 66,204
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,443,181

Score…except for the fact the dog was across the aisle from me, and as soon as it lay down it rested its head on my feet. Ok, that’s cute I guess…and the owner was good looking and apologized for the dog doing that….at which point he fed it what looked like three benedryl. I didn’t think that was good for dogs…

Then, I was really excited. Seemed there was one seat empty on the plane…and it was right by me. But right before the door closed, it was not to be. A rather large lady who I’d estimate in the neighbourhood of 400 pounds came onto the plane huffing and puffing with two giant bags of fast food. Of course she was seated next to me, and tried to put the armrest up as she sat down. I very politely told her I preferred it down and was met with “well how am I supposed to sit down then!” Fortunately, the great flight attendant was right there, and told her “ma’am, the armrest must be down for takeoff. You can take a later flight if that would be more comfortable.”

I won’t go into more details, but it was an extremely unpleasant flight. Ok, one more detail…the guy across the aisle got a beer, and put some in a cup….for the dog to drink. See, all my fears of coach ARE well-founded!

Another great trip in the books, look for another one soon…

Jun 182017
 

After a fantastic 24 hours at home, it was time to head back to the airport and head off to Spain. Staying home for a night was definitely the right call as it allowed me to relax, and just enjoy some downtime after a hectic week. Back off to Dulles, where check-in and security were completely uneventful. Went to the United lounge, where a fantastic bartender looked after me. Make no mistake, United is no Lufthansa, and the rather sad cheese and crackers and mass production chips and dips along with the $5 bottles of wine are quite sad, and it often feels like a bit of an all you can eat buffet restaurant, but at the same time, there’s something “familiar” about it.

My routing today was DC to Newark, and then onto Madrid, with nearly a three hour connection in Newark. That’s why I wasn’t too worried when my phone buzzed and notified me of a one hour delay for air traffic control. I got slightly more concerned an hour later when that stretched to 90 minutes. I began to get really concerned when it became two hours, leaving me around 40-45 minutes in Newark. I began to explore options.

The super late Dulles to Frankfurt and Dulles to London flights were out, as they were completely sold out in business. I tried multiple phone agents and lounge agents to get on the late Frankfurt flight in first, but that was a non-starter. They absolutely refused to consider it. The late Dulles to Munich flight on Lufthansa was available, but it wouldn’t get me into Madrid until nearly 7pm the next day – way too late to make my connection to Marrakech (separate ticket) and would cost me my entire first day in Marrakech.

When my Newark connection was down to 15 minutes, I pulled the trigger and switched to the Lufthansa option. Absolute worst case scenario would be getting stranded in Newark overnight, so I wasn’t willing to risk a tight connection there, even though the DC to Newark flight started boarding. The flight to Madrid was booked completely full in business, with another 15 plus on the waitlist, so I couldn’t see them holding the flight for me if anything went tits up.

(Side note: by the time DC to Newark landed there was 8 minutes to make the connection based on the door closing, and it was nearly one end of the C terminal to the other – I suspect strongly I wouldn’t have made it)

Rebooked via Munich, I decided one last Hail Mary was in order. I headed to the gate for the United flight to Frankfurt, and asked the agent if there was any way they could get me on this flight – I was even willing to use one of my Global Upgrades to get into first. “I can only put you in economy – and all we have left are middles near the back.” Uh, no thanks. That’s way worse than losing my whole day in Madrid.

Off to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge next, where I began trying to rebuild my trip. This entire time, Ian had been stranded at JFK as well, awaiting a severely delayed flight to Madrid, where he was afraid he was going to misconnect to Marrakech as well. Worst case, we would lose our 24 hours in Marrakech, take a full day delay in Madrid, and only have a short overnight in Marrakech before heading to Western Sahara.

We both started boarding at this time, and promised to reconnect in Europe and see where life took us.

Lufthansa flight 415
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 22:30, Arrive 12:45 next day, Flight Time: 8:15
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKJ, Manufactured 2005, Seat 10G
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 60,428
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,437,405

It had been barely 24 hours since I’d gotten off of a Lufthansa A340 Frankfurt to DC, and here I was boarding a Lufthansa A330 to Munich. Something felt, familiar…although very strangely, we had one of the most disappointing Lufthansa crews I’ve ever had. No personal touch, didn’t seem to enjoy their jobs, and no smiles to be found anywhere. It was like I was flying on United or something! Mixed nuts and a glass of the same wine from the day before…

Due to the late departure, the entire meal was served on one tray. Blech. Not impressed. That said, it was one of the better business class salads I’ve had in a long time. I went with the “seared beef filet, béarnaise sauce, root vegetables and whipped potatoes.” As expected, the beef was severely overcooked and disappointing. Overall, this is a meal I would expect from United, not Lufthansa.

Even the cheese course was sad. Is that one sad lettuce leaf supposed to class it up?

Ice cream…in a container. It was tasty, but seriously…in business class?

After dinner I passed out, and slept a solid six hours. It was nice having nobody next to me, so extra pillows and plenty of space. Woke up just about 15 minutes from landing, made myself barely presentable, and checked my phone. Ian had misconnected as expected, and was spending the night in Madrid. Thus, there was no need to find a way to Marrakech today, so I was a bit more leisurely.

Headed over to the Senator Lounge in the international gates, and they tried to steer me to the Schengen gates since I was going on to Madrid in a few hours. Told them I preferred to stay here for now, and they were happy to let me in. Delicious breakfast of cheese pretzel and potato salad. When in Germany…

Started looking for ways to Marrakech, and realized it would actually be $50 cheaper to fly Frankfurt-Marrakech the next day instead of Madrid-Marrakech. On top of that, my preferred hotel in Frankfurt is more than $100 cheaper than the one in Madrid, so it was an easy choice. I’d overnight in Frankfurt today. I will totally admit that choice was driven largely by the opportunity this presented to do one of my favourite things in Europe – a long ICE trip.

I didn’t actually realize that Munchen Hbf was so far from the airport when I bought the ticket, so it was a huge rush to get on a train to the central station so I could catch my train to Frankfurt. I maade it though:

A couple hours into the journey I was getting a bit hungry, so I ordered a beer and some Flamkuchen. Yum!

Checked into my hotel – the usual Frankfurt Airport Sheraton that you’ve all become very familiar with this year from my frequent stays, so I’ll say it was just perfect like the last stay. I requested in my reservation (and got) the exact same room as a few weeks prior, and just like that stay it was ice cold and fantastic.

Caught the S-Bahn to the city, and had my favourite bacon-wrapped dates and a few beers before taking a late night walk and enjoying the fact that at 930pm it was still light out.

When I got back to the hotel, the drama that this trip was turning into notched itself up another level. Royal Air Maroc e-mailed me that my flight had been “modified” the next day:

Um, a zero minute connection in Casablanca now?! I called Royal Air Maroc, and they refused to put us on an earlier flight from Marrakech to Casablanca, claiming they were “all full” and “you will make your connection – no worry.” Um, with zero minutes and a terminal change? I don’t think so. This was not good. Not good at all.  Our choice was to risk getting stranded overnight in Casablanca, but the only problem was the flights to Dakhla don’t go every day. This was becoming a right proper mess.

We decided (virtually) to cut our losses and not risk going just to Morocco and missing out on Western Sahara. We decided we would rather do the back half/islands part of the trip with extra days to really enjoy each of the islands, and come back to Western Sahara another time. Of course, Royal Air Maroc refused refunding us. The dispute is still pending with AmEx, but I have no doubt the outcome…because I also have screenshots showing that the connection in Casablanca actually became negative 15 minutes…and we would have been stuck.

Before going to bed we decided the plan would be to meet up in Barcelona the next day, and from there we would find a way to get to Las Palmas to continue the trip. The added bonus was instead of one night each in Las Palmas and Madeira, we could now do two nights in each, as well as having a night in Barcelona. Silver lining!

Off to bed, wake up, and oh…I have to get to Barcelona today. Let’s check the options. Ticket prices are pretty high on Lufthansa, even in economy, and looks like flights are super full. Not good. End of the day I decided to splurge on a business class award, which while not cheap made things more comfortable…which after the mess was welcome.

Enjoyed the Senator Lounge, where I had a right proper German lunch of sausages, potato salad, pretzel, and beer:

Boarding was one gate down from the lounge, and right on time.

Lufthansa flight 1134
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Barcelona, Spain (BCN)
Depart 14:00, Arrive 16:00, Flight Time: 2:00
Airbus A321, Registration D-AISK, Manufactured 2008, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 61,108
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,438,085

Pretty generic flight in EuroBusiness, but for a two hour 2pm snack flight, how can you complain about this meal?!

Landed right on time and Ian was waiting in the arrivals hall. We grabbed a coffee, figured out thanks to Google Maps how to get to the hotel I had booked (took the bus – it actually would have been slightly easier taking the subway) and then it was off to the hotel to buy the final flights to put this trip back together…and enjoy an unplanned night in Barcelona!

Jun 162017
 

After convincing my driver that I knew what I was doing, he agreed on an 02:30 pick-up from my hotel for an 04:05 flight. They were strongly advocating a 01:05 pickup, but knowing there was absolutely nothing on the other side of security (and a 20 minute right to the airport) he relented to an 02:30 pickup.

Alarm went off at 2am, giving me about four hours of sleep, down to the front desk for a super quick checkout, and my driver was already waiting for me. I managed to still get to the airport about 02:45, and I was checked in and through immigration and security by 3am – still giving me 30 minutes to kill in the duty free and lounge.

Now, during the day, the duty free store is critical. They sell 2 Euro mini bottles of wine, red bull, and everything you could need for a successful airport wait or even flight if the crew doesn’t mind. It’s much better than what I honestly believe is one of the two worst airport lounges anywhere in the world. Almaty’s lounge is tied with Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, the only two lounges I’ve ever been in where you have to PAY for drinks.

This was my first time flying Lufthansa out of Almaty, and they were incredibly generous: you could have one beer or glass of wine on Lufthansa. Or a bottle of water. Everything else was pay. I decided to have a second beer, I was charged nearly 10 euro for it. Absolutely ridiculous. Still rates as one of the worst lounges anywhere in the world. I was still tired, and boarding was on time, and I had definitely made the right call not to endure this lounge for long:

Lufthansa flight 647
Almaty, Kazakhstan (ALA) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 04:05, Arrive 07:10, Flight Time: 7:05
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKR, Manufactured 2012, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 52,184
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,429,061

Boarding was pretty efficient, and every seat in business was taken for this morning’s flight to Frankfurt. Business had had 6-8 seats free the entire week before the flight, but despite the load in coach being light, business somehow filled up, and first, which had nobody booked three hours before the flight, somehow went out full. No clue what contributed to this, and it didn’t really matter.

I was really impressed that Lufthansa actually bothered to do the safety announcement in Kazakh on top of Russian:

Shortly after takeoff, a light snack was offered. Perfect late night snack, with which a couple of glasses of wine put me to sleep for close to four hours. On top of the four hours I’d gotten in the hotel it was definitely plenty to keep me going for the next day. I find these super early morning flights really awkward timewise, but for jetlag they are a miracle. You’re plenty tired to sleep when you get on them, and when you wake up it’s bright and sunny out, and your body thinks it’s like 10/11am so it’s ready to go…even though it’s only like 7am local.

Upon waking there were about two hours left in flight, and the crew was going around individually as people woke up and offering them breakfast. Very nice touch. First time I’ve ever had an omelette and a chicken kabob with muesli for breakfast, but was definitely tasty.

I had nearly four hours in Frankfurt, so decided to of course clear customs and head out to Starbucks for some proper caffeination. My travel has gotten so bad the last six months the staff at the Frankfurt Airport Starbucks actually know me by name, and I was paid a nice compliment that my German was really improving. Can’t complain about that!

Unfortunately, about this time, I realized just how exhausted I was. I was supposed to land in DC, have a four hour turnaround, and then fly directly back to Madrid. It wasn’t happening. I called United, asked about changing, made a comment I was in Frankfurt, which was met with “but you fly DC to Madrid tonight” and there was one seat left in my fare class, and she was kind enough to waive the change fee because “it’s kind of like a same day change” and I was booked on the same flights the next day – giving me 24 hours in DC. Great customer service United!

After coffee to wake up it was back through immigration and security to the Z Gates and the Lufthansa Senator Lounge where I had my usual breakfast of bread, cheese, salami, cucumber, and tomato:

Boarding was right on time for my next flight, and it was absolutely packed full on all classes. Three weeks before departure they had downgraded it from a 747-400 to an A340, resulting in a massive loss of seats. The flight must have been lightly booked (at least not enough for a 747) but as an A340 it was going out completely full.

Lufthansa flight 416
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 10:30, Arrive 13:10, Flight Time: 8:40
Airbus A340-300, Registration D-AIFC, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1G
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 56,265
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,433,142

Shortly after takeoff, warm almonds and a glass of wine. This plane didn’t have first class, so I decided to just pretend since I was in row one it was kind of the same…minus the macadamia nuts and high class champagne:

Choice of three starters was offered for lunch, and I went with the “shaved black angus beef with lime crème fraîche, sweet chestnuts and Tête de Moine cheese” It was definitely unlike anything I’ve had on a plane before, but absolutely delicious!

Seasonal salad which was kind of sad, and wouldn’t have been at all out of place on United:

Choice of three main courses, and of course I went for the Spargel again…which instead of cold cuts was served with a veal tenderloin this time. Once again, super tasty and confirmed my favourite time of year on Lufthansa! Even in business class!

Far cry from the first class cheese cart, but this Chaumes, Gouda, and Goat Cheese with Date Sesame Honey Chutney was pretty good for business class. Can’t complain – except the lack of sweet biscuits.

Boo pre-packaged ice cream, but yay delicious Crème Brûlée flavour with mango. Definitely an unusual ice cream and super tasty.

Time flew super quickly watching lots of tv and napping a couple hours, and the pre arrival meal was served. Minestrone soup and caesar salad with chicken was ok, and the coconut raspberry pie just rated an “adequate.” The pretzel was the star of the meal, but did a nice job rounding off a solid business class service.

By the time I landed I was very glad I wasn’t turning around in four hours, although I could easily have made it home, showered, and back to the airport in time. Having even one night at home would make a major improvement on my enjoyment of my next part of the trip, as long as nothing further went long and didn’t make me need the extra night in Madrid I had booked along the way…

May 142017
 

After a quick coffee and beer, we headed down to the Aeroexpress train. It had already been a really long day and I was tired, so decided to spring the extra $10 or so for the business class car, and it turned out there were only 3 people in the whole car. Sure, it’s only like a 30 minute ride, but it was nice to be able to relax and enjoy it.

I had made the mistake of wearing shorts since it was over 70F when we left Abkhazia, but in Moscow it was 35F and freezing cold. After a short metro transfer, we had a 10 minute or so walk to our hotel, the St. Regis, and it was definitely a frigid walk. I’m still amazing not a single babushka came up to me and chastised me for being poorly dressed for the weather!

Check-in was quick and polite, and since both rooms had been booked under my name they were good enough to upgrade both of us to very nice one bedroom suites – can’t complain about that at all! Doing 200+ nights with Starwood last year is definitely paying off with much nicer upgrades than I’m used to receiving. Unfortunately it was going to just be a relatively short overnight and we wouldn’t really have time to enjoy the room, but it was nice nonetheless.

After dropping bags and putting on warmer clothes, we headed out for a walk. First, the obligatory Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral shot – something about the grey cloudy weather gave the perfect mood to the square:

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We wandered around trying to find a shop Ian knew that sold wonderfully kitschy Putin and Russia souvenirs, but apparently they’d gone out of business in the last year. We headed back to the GUM department store for some fantastic pistachio ice cream, and deciding we were hungry decided to check out Stolovaya #57 – a cafeteria in the department store modeled after an old school Soviet cafeteria…except with much better variety of food!

Vegetable salad with beetroot, peas, carrots….fresh fruit, stuffed bell pepper, and a chicken cutlet with mushroom sauce. Delicious and filling…and very authentically Russian…all this for under $10.

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After eating we wandered through the grocery store in GUM, and in the alcohol section they were selling Kalashnikov brand vodka….complete in a plastic kalashnikov bottle….only in Russia!

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After dinner, we headed to a small bar I’d been told about, not terribly far from Red Square, called Rules Taproom. A friend had told me they had one of the best craft beer menus in the world, but that we should expect to feel “tragically old and uncool.” We definitely brought the average age up by quite a bit, but at least we didn’t look too out of place with the extremely tattooed and hipster crowd. Plus, an amazing taplist and great taps!  A hockey trophy, brass knuckles, a grenade, a wrench, and lots of other cool stuff. Can’t wait to go back!

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Back to the hotel and bed by a reasonable hour, because we wanted to be sure to be able to hit the St. Regis’ amazing breakfast buffet before heading to the airport. Flight was at 9am, and it can take up to an hour to get to the airport, so with a 630a opening time for the buffet we knew we would be cutting it close.

Great night of sleep, at the buffet right when it opened, and it was worth the wait! Smoked salmon and whitefish, caviar, blue cheese, pain au chocolate, and fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. With a pot of tea, of course!

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Took nearly an hour for our Uber to get to the airport, but was definitely the quickest option. We did make it with plenty of time, but unfortunately I lost Ian at immigration, because his gates were at a different checkpoint, and clogged with loads of Central Asians who they were taking forever to process. I, however, made it through quite quickly and even had five minutes to stop in the SWISS lounge for some water and snack. Unfortunately, none of the shops sold more Putin magnets.

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Fortunately, the lounge was only a two minute walk from my gate, so nice and easy for boarding which was right on time.

SWISS flight 1325
Moscow, Domodedovo (DME) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 9:05, Arrive 11:40, Flight Time: 4:35
Airbus A320, Registration HB-IJS, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,522
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,413,399

Something about the welcome screens on SWISS always makes me feel relaxed and multicultural…a good feeling in this increasingly isolationist and polarized world:

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Pushback…the wonderfully kitschy lime green S7 livery and a Ural Airlines plane:

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Great view of the parked planes including a couple of Tupolevs on takeoff. Those S7 planes really stand out!

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Not a bad breakfast for a relatively short regional flight! Delicious Muesli, reasonable omelette, perfectly buttery and flaky croissant (unlike the ones usually served on US domestic flights which are more like glorified crescent rolls), some fresh fruit and cheese. I decided to make it a champagne brunch, and the fantastic crew insisted I have a second class…and pushed it on the guy across the aisle too. “If you waste the rest of the bottle, it will be a real pity!” Who can argue with that logic!

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Touchdown in a very snowy Zurich…yes, this is late April!

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Headed through immigration, and decided while I was at it to leave the secured area. As usual when dealing with Swiss border guards, they asked me a million questions, acting as if I was the most suspicious character they’d ever met. All Schengen/Swiss border controls are NOT equal – despite the intent. Why would you fly Zurich to Frankfurt? Why not just fly Moscow to Frankfurt? Why are you in Europe so much? Why do you spend so much time in Russia recently? Why is there a stamp from Somalia in your passport, on and on for nearly 15 minutes.

Headed to Starbucks for the most expensive Starbucks in the world (nearly $8 for an Americano – I think the only place more expensive might be Copenhagen…although even that might not compete these days.) On that note, any readers interested in adding to my database of Starbucks prices around the world hit me up. I track the price of a grande drip coffee (with tax) if you have a chance to look at your local shop.

After heading back through security, I headed to the SWISS lounge, where it was time for a local beer and a snack:

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One more local beer, and some Gummibärchen….because…it was still snowing and my Lufthansa flight was delayed nearly two hours:

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Finally, nearly two hours late, our flight was ready for boarding, so I headed off to the gate, where our Lufthansa plane was just pulling in….looks like we’ll be almost 2.5 hours late in the end! How un-German!

Lufthansa flight 1191
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 14:40, Arrive 15:45, Flight Time: 1:05
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIPY, Manufactured 1991, Seat 6F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,699
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,413,576

On the taxi out, I noticed lots of sleet and ice forming on the window:

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We were at the end of the runway, turning onto the active runway to take off, when I also noticed lots of ice/sleet/slush accumulating on the wings. Visions of Air Florida started dancing through my head, and I decided to start ringing the flight attendant call button frantically – probably 10 times in 10 seconds or so. I still don’t know if it was me, or a sensor in the cockpit, but the pilot turned off the active runway and announced to us we would need to deice before taking off due to snow moving in as we taxied out. Quite a scary moment!

Once airborne, despite the 50 minute flight time, a small snack was served. Scary sandwich, some fresh fruit, chocolate, and a glass of white wine. Skipped the sandwich, but the rest was quite tasty and impressive service for a short flight. This probably wasn’t Lufthansa’s best effort with the delay and all, but overall I still was left with a better impression that I usually am in the US. I think the attitude and composure of the crew went a long way towards helping.

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Landed in Frankfurt much later than expected, but fortunately was staying at the airport Sheraton. I was met by the general manager at check-in, who let me know that they’d followed up on my previous disappointing stay, and found a room that was extra cool with great air conditioning. I found out later they had blocked the room on both sides of me as well as above and below, and turned the air up full blast in those. A bit unnecessary, but the effort and CRM was super welcome. I’ll definitely be staying at this property again.

Headed out to Naiv, my favourite craft beer bar in the area, and enjoyed some delicious beer-braised bacon-wrapped dates:

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Along with a reasonably tasty German imperial IPA or three:

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With that, it was a quick ride back to the hotel for a bit of sleep. I wanted to make sure to be up early to enjoy what I hoped would be another amazing experience in the Lufthansa first class terminal!

Apr 252017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 092017
 

Woke up right on time, nice quick check out from the Le Meridien, and a short walk over the bridge over the airport road and I was in Terminal 3. There is a baggage x-ray before you can get into the check-in area, and the guards will not let you in without either a printout or phone copy of your ticket. That accomplished, over to the check in desk where there was no line.

Asked about getting a seat with nobody else in the row, but the check-in agent informed me that all seats would be taken on the flight today. Oh well.

15 minute wait for immigration because the priority line wasn’t open, which left me 15 minutes to “enjoy” the EgyptAir Lounge. It’s gotten even worse (if that’s really possible) than the last time I was there, because on top of the horrible food offerings, they no longer have Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi either. The espresso machine was reasonably functional, so had a quick coffee then off to the gate.

Security at the gate was pretty easy, and we boarded right on time. All things considered, for Cairo, it was a pretty easy and relatively pleasant transit to get on board.

Lufthansa flight 587
Cairo, Egypt (CAI) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 7:35, Arrive 10:40, Flight Time: 4:05
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIQT, Manufactured 2000, Seat 4C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 26,977
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,391,378

Upon boarding, it was clear why we were full today. There were six rows of EuroBusiness today, which meant 24 seats, and at least 10 of them were filled with uniformed Lufthansa crew. Not sure if a plane broke down in Cairo or what, but that explained all the full seats. Fortunately for me, my window seat was taken by a teenager who slept the whole flight and never got up once, so for being a full flight it wasn’t bad at all.

Breakfast was another story – definitely not the tastiest thing I’ve eaten. My request for champagne was met with “we don’t have that.” So I asked for sparkling wine. Ok, that she could do. Normally I love Lufthansa crews, but for whatever reason this one definitely wasn’t having a great day. I probably wouldn’t be either if I was working a 7am flight out of Cairo.

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Other than that, flight was super uneventful. Immigration to get into Germany had no line, but unusually they actually asked questions like how long I would be in Germany and what I would be doing there. Avoided “no clue, I had planned to go to Paris but changed my mind at the last minute” in favour of “three days, just a bit of tourism.”

Nice and easy, security was also quick, and I had time for a bit of time in the Senator Lounge. I’ve never actually been in the Munich Senator Lounge, only the first class lounge, so this was a new experience.

To go with that white whine, a bit of white wine:

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There’s something about the Lufthansa pretzel bread with cheese, salami, and tomato that I love. Unfortunately there was no cucumber today.

While in the lounge, I looked up the registration of my upcoming plane, and was excited to see it was one of Lufthansa’s relatively brand new A320-neo planes!

Lufthansa flight 105
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 12:00, Arrive 13:05, Flight Time: 1:05
Airbus A320neo, Registration D-AIND, Manufactured 2016, Seat 3F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 27,163
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,391,564

Unlike the last flight this one was totally empty in business. 24 seats again, but only four were taken. Can you believe this was the meal on a 40 minute flight…and that refills on beverages were offered? It was much tastier than the meal from Cairo, especially the salmon, and I actually enjoyed most of this one.

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When I had changed two days prior from Paris to Frankfurt, the Airport Sheraton was by far the most reasonable Starwood option, and being on top of the airport (and thus Starbucks and an ICE station) made it a very convenient choice for me. My two nights here would be the closest I’ve ever come to living in an airport, and I have to say it was kind of fun.

Stopped at Starbucks after landing to get some coffee before checking in, and then after a shower I headed out for a bit of a walk around the city. I’ve never had the time to do much exploring of Frankfurt, so I just went on a bit of a random wander. Caught the train into the city, and then just started walking. The giant Euro symbol in front of the European Central Bank:

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Walked for a while and came upon the main square:

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…and Frankfurt Dom/Cathedral:

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Kept walking for a bit, and eventually decided to check TripAdvisor for somewhere tasty for dinner. Settled on a place called Naïv which was a bit of a Germany craft beer geek’s heaven. German craft beer sampler:

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Bacon wrapped dates…which were absolutely amazing!

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Why a German beer is called Miss Florida IPA is completely beyond me, but there you have it….(and it wasn’t very good)

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I was still a bit hungry, so asked the bartender for a light recommendation. I was told I had to try the Handkäse mit Musik – or “handcheese with music” salad because it was a Frankfurt specialty. Definitely tasty and different!

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I was exhausted at this point from a very early morning, so headed back to the airport to head to bed in my unusually warm room. It was winter, and being Germany they had the heat on, and there was really no way to cool the room down much. They were happy to deliver a fan to me, and perhaps the nicest thing about the Towers Lounge is their happy hour goes until 10:30pm and they leave beer, wine, and snacks out until that time. Rather nice!

As tired as I was, it didn’t bother me that it was warm, and I passed right out. It would be another early morning with the daytrip I had planned!

Mar 062017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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After a turn, great shot of Doha on takeoff:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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View into the terminal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supposedly, this is actually pretty close to Jason:

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

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

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

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

Oct 182016
 

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I booked my flight out of Reykjavik for 7:45 in the morning, with the airport more than an hour from the city. There are two flights to London. I could have easily booked the later one. I think it came down to two things: (1) the earlier flight was on a 767 which is pretty rare on Icelandair (only two of their approximately 30 planes are 767s) and (2) I wanted to get to London in time to be able to enjoy the afternoon.

That said, when it came time to catch the 4:30 am bus to the airport, I definitely wasn’t thinking it was such a great idea. Fortunately, misery loves company, and my mother and brother, along with friends Mark and Beth were on the same bus. They were on the Delta flight back to Minneapolis which left about the same time, so we all set out into darkness together.

The hotel was once again confused at checkout, and tried to put all the rooms on my credit card. Fortunately we figured it out in time, and miracle of miracles the FlyBus shuttle actually showed up right on time to take us to the central bus station for our onward bus to the airport. Not too much to tell here. It was dark, I dozed a bit on the bus, and we got to the airport right on schedule.

Check-in for Icelandair business was nice and easy with no line at all, and soon we were all upstairs to immigration and security. Before getting there there was a huge duty free shop that everyone was stopping at, and I spent my last few kroner on some Icelandic chocolate to bring back to coworkers. The Icelandair Saga lounge is right before immigration and security, so I said goodbye to everyone who had joined me as they headed through immigration and security to their Delta gate.

At around 6:30am the Saga Lounge was absolutely packed, to the point I had trouble finding a seat. It seemed most of the flights from North America had arrived, and people were waiting on their connecting flights to Europe. I finally managed to find a seat, the coffee machine made a decent triple espresso, and I got some skyr with fresh berries for breakfast:

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There were also tasty make-your-own sandwich supplies set out for something a bit more substantial to eat:

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I left the lounge a bit on the late side which was the right call, because by the time I got there there was zero line for immigration and security. Good timing! I walked past the Delta gate on the way to mine, and said one last goodbye to mom and friends, and as I got to my gate (filled with very weary looking tourists) they were just about ready to board.

Icelandair flight 450
Keflavik, Iceland (KEF) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 7:40, Arrive 11:45, Flight Time: 3:05
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISO, Manufactured 2000, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 140,780
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,329,917

The 767s on Icelandair are configured in a 2-1-2 layout in business class, and feature the same miserable approximately 38 inches of pitch that the 757s do. The one saving grace is that if you take the middle seat at least you don’t have to climb over anyone…or have anyone climbing over you. Pre-departure beverages were offered, and it was a mystery orange juice. I asked the flight attendant what kind of juice it was, and her very helpful answer was “fruit.” Uh, ok? One shot of fruit juice coming up.

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I had pre-ordered my meal again, and went with the Icelandic tapas. Overall, I’d have to say this meal was more of a miss than a hit. Rather uninspired selection of packaged breads, very bland meat and cheese, and some prawns in a creamy mayo sauce which went untouched. I still won’t do prawns on a plane. That said, the mimosas were super generous, and served with the entire bottle:

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Upon clearing my plate, she insisted on bringing me another mimosa…

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…there may have been a third mimosa before landing. But what happens in Iceland stays in Iceland…

Unfortunately, Heathrow saw fit to be its usual miserable self. It was a warm day in London, nearly 25C and the immigration queue was more than an hour long. I decided to angry tweet the airport, which responded immediately by saying they were sorry and asking which terminal I was in. Once I sent them that, silence…

An hour later I was very glad I had pre-purchased Heathrow Express tickets, because there was no way I was going to deal with the tube after more than an hour waiting for immigration. Quick trip to my hotel with a quick connection to the tube at Paddington, and I was there.

Decided to try something different this trip, and explore SPG’s relatively new Tribute Collection. I stayed at St Pancras at the Great Northern Hotel, which I’ll give a brief review of here. The staff were fantastic and friendly, happy to help out with anything you wanted. I kept extending my original one night stay a night at a time, eventually staying four nights, and they were more than happy to help out each time. Including getting me a room for the third night on points when the property showed completely sold out.

The room was…tiny. Despite showing rooms online, they claimed there were no upgrades, and the standard room was like a closet.Maybe twice the size of a double bed and that was it! However, the air conditioning was ice c0ld, and the room did its job. Location was also fantastic, so I think I will probably stay here again on my next trip. Much better than my experiences at other SPG properties in London without functional AC, semi-aloof staff, and ancient properties with squeaky floors and thin walls.

I had a nice four days in London, even though my original plans had changed. I won’t be writing about my trip back to DC because, well, it was sponsored in the end which makes it non-bloggable. It was a pleasant surprise at last minute notice, and even better – Icelandair business class tickets…even the cheapest bucket…are completely changeable without a penalty charge. I put it off three months into the future, and now apparently I have an excuse to get back to Helsinki!

That caps off my final country trip. Amazing time, and completely thrilled that so many family and friends made the time to join me for it. It made it an incredibly memorable trip and a very special experience. Now, to start returning to places for another go around…

Sep 152016
 

The big day had finally arrived, and it was time to head off to Iceland to visit my 196th and final country in the world. I had a group of about 35 family and friends joining me, a couple of whom were already in Iceland. About ten of us would be on the same flight to Reykjavik, meaning I would have a good group to witness “the moment” with me.

Caught a Lyft with my friend and neighbour Garrett to Dulles Airport. Garrett deserves special mention as the person who’s kept my plants alive, collected my mail, and even mailed me pictures of visas I forgot at home for all these years of travel. I definitely couldn’t have done it without his help – not to mention he helped save me from being deported from India back in July!

Arrived at Dulles, and check-in was relatively drama-free, except for the guy in the Saga (business) Class line in front of us, who was throwing a fit that they wouldn’t let him bring his rolling back on the plane as hand baggage. After forcing him to check it we checked in, and my (much larger) rolling bag was accepted just fine. Fortunately he didn’t see that…we later saw him in a middle seat somewhere between purgatory (row 20) and the final level of hell (row 35)…so maybe that explains it.

The check-in agent was completely unaware of the rules for lounge access, and thought I probably got a guest, so was nice enough to give Garrett a lounge invite as well despite the fact he was in economy. Off to the Air France lounge it is, where an appropriately-French reception of (several glasses of) champagne and some cheese awaited:

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Shortly after we arrived my friend Greg from Philly joined us since the Air France lounge also participates in Priority Pass and a few other programs, and my friend Phil showed up a bit later fresh from finding a shower at a friend’s place after a JetBlue redeye from the West Coast. Off to the gate after a bit, where our chariot awaited:

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Unfortunately, despite kissing up to Icelandair on twitter over the past couple of weeks and dropping lots of hints, there was no priority boarding or special recognition at the gate. There was actually no priority boarding of any sort, so I just shepherded the crew to the front of the scrum and on board.

Icelandair flight 656
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Keflavik, Iceland (KEF)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 23:40, Flight Time: 5:30
Boeing 757-200, Registration TF-ISD, Manufactured 1991, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 139,600
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,328,737

Upon boarding, champagne was quickly dispensed to Phil and I, and bottled waters were waiting at our seats:

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Pre-flight champagne celebration selfie:

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What’s to eat on the shortish flight to Reykjavik:

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I’m not sure a started called “ugly” sounds appetizing, but hey, when in Iceland…

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This would be a good place to say a bit about the seats. Icelandair 757s are pretty much the same seats that have plied routes in the US domestically for the last 30 years. Two by two configuration up front, with a few extra inches of legroom over coach. There was nothing special about the seats, but they were comfortable enough for a short daytime flight. I certainly wouldn’t want to try getting sleep in these seats, however. Fortunately, Icelandair has some daytime flights like ours which meant no need to try and sleep on a plane.

Shortly after take off, I asked for a red wine, but apparently I was getting white. The flight attendant was…not the most attentive…and seemed a little frazzled, so I figure it would go fine with the unusual pre-meal munchies that were essentially toffee-covered popcorn. I mean, it was nice to have something other than a ramekin of nuts, but this was…different. That said, it went decently well with white wine (better than it would have with red) so win-win…maybe?

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I had spotted on Icelandair’s website that you could pre-order from about eight different meals, and decided to go this way. It was a good call, because the three options on the main menu didn’t look that great to me, and the lamb I had was rather delicious. The ugly cheese was pretty tasty as well…and I finally got my red wine! The pre-ordered meal was also good because it meant that we were the first ones served. No plate for the bread, but it was super tasty!

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I spent part of the flight kissing up to Icelandair on twitter, but it continued to get me absolutely nowhere…beyond a congratulations. I should also point out that Icelandair’s entire fleet is WiFi equipped, and it is supposed to be complimentary in Saga Class. However, it wouldn’t recognize my confirmation number or ticket number, meaning I had to pay. AmEx was kind enough to immediately wipe off the charges when I called to dispute them.

With about 90 minutes left in flight, Phil and I were feeling a bit hungry. We had been pressing the call button every 30-40 minutes to get wine refills (the crew was definitely not proactive at all), but this time decided to ask if they had any snacks to eat. The…rather attractive gentleman working economy quickly came back with some Pringles, Icelandic “boxerchips”, and some trail mix as well as more wine:

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Gorgeous sunset as we crossed over Greenland:

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Greenland certainly looked rugged and desolate:

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The rocky east coast of Greenland:

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We landed about 10 minutes ahead of schedule, and unfortunately did not get a gate. Victory selfie on the tarmac right after setting foot in my final country:

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Immigration was quick, despite the agent making a comment about all the visas in my passport. I told him Iceland was my 196th and final country visited, which was merely met with a very stoically-Scandinavian “that’s nice.” Hah!

Post-immigration I was looking for the perfect spot to take a pic, and found this. Welcome to #196!

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Overall, Icelandair was solid. I went into it expecting domestic first class, and that’s exactly what we got. Garrett unfortunately forgot his phone on the plane, and didn’t realize it until we were well past immigration. He found an Icelandair agent and told them, and much to our surprise he was reunited with his phone only 20 minutes later. Definitely scores big points for Icelandair in my book, as in the US you’d almost certainly never see it again.

A few more thoughts on Icelandair, from the friends who were in economy. There’s no food served – at all. It’s the low cost model where there’s plenty available for purchase, but nothing is complimentary. Something to keep in mind if you’re flying them in economy. They essentially function as a low cost airline, and even in Saga Class it wasn’t completely free what was complimentary and what you were expected to pay for. Turns out, everything was complimentary…and apparently whatever and as much as you wanted.

We had pre-booked the FlyBus, which runs continuously from the airport to the central bus terminal in Reykjavik about 50 minutes away. On the ride we got really lucky and saw the Northern Lights, so that was a super bonus for the drive into town. Unfortunately, they didn’t show up any of the other nights we were in Iceland. When we got to the bus terminal, however, it was a disaster. We had paid the extra for a transfer to our hotel, and after waiting over 45 minutes with no transfer in sight (remember, it’s about 2am at this point) we gave up. Fortunately, my friend Kirsten’s Air BnB host was getting impatient, and he drove the 2km to the bus terminal to pick all of us up. Her apartment was right across the street from our hotel, so it worked out super well. Supposedly this isn’t the norm with FlyBus, but next time I would think twice about paying the extra for the transfer and just grab the short cab from the bus station. Especially with multiple people you would probably break even.

Now, it was time to get some sleep and get ready to enjoy the first day in Iceland!

Aug 122016
 

Had to wake up way too early to head to the airport to make my way home, but the good news is the KLIA Ekspres train was right across the street, and from the previous two days I knew it was completely reliable. Unfortunately, Starbucks wasn’t open at this early hour, so I had to make my way to the airport only semi-alert. Fortunately, the train routine was easy, and I made it to Cathay Pacific check-in hardly an hour after rolling out of bed. Not bad at all considering the airport was nearly 40 miles from the hotel!

My flight was leaving from the satellite terminal, but before grabbing the train there, I made the most important stop of the morning. I might be next in line to rule North Korea, apparently:

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Headed next to the Malaysia Airlines lounge to get some breakfast. I hadn’t been here in 10 years, and back then it was because I was flying LA to KL to Sydney on Malaysia first awards on their 747s. These were a great use of Northwest Airlines miles back in the day, and Malaysia did first class right. One of the first airlines to offer individual pods in first, and the Golden Lounge in KL was amazing, complete with a dining lounge, sleeping lounge, and water features.

Unfortunately, as part of their restructuring they have almost completely eliminated first class, and the lounge has suffered massively as a result. Only the seating area remains, and the dining room and all other nice amenities are gone. The lounge is maybe a third of the size it used to be. On the upside, it was arctic cold to the point I had to put a hoodie on to be comfortable, but it’s sad to even consider this a first class lounge any more.

Bit of cold breakfast to start:

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Best part of the lounge was a make your own nasi lemak station…mmmmm!

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Headed to the gate after just 20 minutes in the lounge (like I said, trying to maximize sleep) and our One World liveried Cathay A340 was waiting for us:

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Boarding began just five minutes after I arrived at the gate, and we were set to go!

Cathay Pacific flight 720
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL) to Hong Kong (HKG)
Depart 8:55, Arrive 13:05, Flight Time: 4:10
Airbus A340-300, Registration B-HXG, Manufactured 1998, Seat 16K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 128,087
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,317,224

There were only four empty seats in business today, and amazingly two of them were on either side of me. This was a good thing, because there were several small children in business and they weren’t the quietest creatures. I was lucky to have a seat in the K side of the plane, because the seats are arranged in a 1-1-1 layout, and the K seats have their own aisle, with the other two rows sharing an aisle. With three of the K seats empty, this side of business was much quieter.

I love the concept, and layout, but these seats were super narrow! Fine for a short flight, but my shoulders actually both touched the walls of the seat it was so narrow. Great for a regional flight, but would be super uncomfortable for anything longer!

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On a positive note about the narrow seat they were so narrow that when extended the reading light doubles as a microphone:

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Today’s breakfast menu:

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Safety video entertained me…in case of overwater evacuation, stuff your baby into the inflatable pod and throw it out the window:

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After takeoff, a mimosa to get things started off:

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Next up was a fairly tasty fruit plate as a first course:

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I went with the Malaysian Stir Fried chicken for breakfast, and it was delicious. The croissant and jam were also quite good. …and yes, I did set a terrible example by having more mimosas for breakfast!

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On approach to Hong Kong:

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Overall, a very pleasant flight. The seats were awesome for regional, but anything overnight or more than 6-8 hours would be seriously uncomfortable for a larger person. As usual, Cathay service was amazing too, and overall another excellent experience.

Arrived in Hong Kong a few minutes ahead of schedule, where apparently it’s wife cake season…happy wife, happy life!

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Grabbed another Starbucks to try and stay awake, and then made a beeline for the Pier lounge. I’d learned on previous trips it was worth the extra walk compared to the Wing lounge, and even though it was much more crowded than a previous visit, it still felt quiet and relaxing. I caught up on a couple of hours of work, before heading to the dining area for a late lunch. Rosé and seared tuna to start:

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The Pier menu:

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Dandan noodles, aka crack noodles. I could eat multiple bowls of these if allowed….delicious:

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…finished off with sticky toffee pudding…mmmmm!

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Spent about four hours total in the lounge including a nice long relaxing (and useless, do to the warm temps and high humidity in the Hong Kong airport) shower, and soon it was time to head towards my gate for the flight to New York. 80 minutes pre-flight they still hadn’t posted the gate, but knowing that London, Europe, and US flights tend to leave from closer in gates, I decided to start the long walk back to The Wing lounge in hopes of being closer. Sure enough, five minutes after leaving the Pier they confirmed Gate 2 and so I had time for one last glass of bubbles in the sweltering hot Wing lounge before boarding the onward flight to New York…