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…

Aug 112016
 

Ended up sleeping in a bit…so much that I actually missed breakfast in the Le Meridien lounge. That was no problem, however, because in KL Sentral Station just across the street there was a…you guessed it…Starbucks which did a great job of fueling me.

Grabbed a super inexpensive Uber and headed over to the Petronas Twin Towers…and got there just as the sky was about to open up and dump rain:

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Wandered the mall a bit as the rain let up, and then grabbed another Uber X out to the Batu Caves. The Ubers were so inexpensive in KL that I didn’t mind asking the driver to wait 30-60 minutes while I explored, and he was more than happy to do so. The roundtrip plus nearly 40 minutes of waiting time was still less than $30. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any pictures I was really happy with, so I’m going to recycle some from a trip about ten years ago. The long staircase up to the caves:

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The one thing that struck me in the ten years since I’d been there was the complete absence of the monkeys. The place used to be crawling with wild monkeys:

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To the point they would sell you bananas to feed the little guys, who were not in the least afraid of humans:

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After getting back to the hotel with Uber, I head to pack up for my trip to Penang. On my original itinerary (as booked when I left the US) I had planned an overnight in Penang in case I misconnected. I didn’t want to miss the start of my ticket home. However, I found out that all the flights to Penang were out and back, so wasn’t too worried. Plus, with the originally planned detour to Australia, and now detour to Mumbai, I really didn’t have time for this.

Fortunately, I booked a two night stay in KL, and on the full day it would be easy to fly up to Penang and then turn almost right around. Packed a small daybag with essentials like passport, phone charger, etc, and caught the KLIA Ekspres back to the airport. Security was super quick, and the domestic gates are a short walk away…through the duty free shops of course. I’m not sure I understand the point of duty free shops for a domestic concourse, but it is what it is.

First stop was the domestic Malaysian lounge, which was a sad, sad place. A small buffet that looked like the food had been sitting there for hours, and several kids running around loudly screeching. I opted instead to walk around the rather small (but long) concourse plane and people spotting. At least the view of our plane for Penang from the lounge was fantastic:

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No spitting in the drinking fountain!

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At the end of the terminal two 747s were parked. Malaysia has been “hunting” for the owners of these abandoned planes since December, 2015! SWIFT Air claimed to own them, but apparently Malaysia doesn’t believe them, and now 8 or more months later, they still sit. I mean really, how do you forget you own a 747?

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Back towards our gate, the thunderstorms were rolling in, and things were looking ugly for an on-time departure.

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Torrential rain, thunder, and lightening started shortly thereafter. Of course, neither rain, nor snow, nor other mysterious circumstances shall stop Malaysia Airlines, so we boarded and pushed back right on time!

Malaysia Airways flight 1152
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL) to Penang, Malaysia (PEN)
Depart 16:20, Arrive 17:20, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-800, Registration 9M-MSG, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,311
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,315,448

Flight was completely full in both classes, but fantastic flight attendant in business offered a pre-departure of anything you’d like. Including nice warm Diet Coke…

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After a super turbulent climb out there was even a meal on the short flight! It wasn’t anything special, but those bread rolls were super addictive!

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Landed in Penang right on time, and went straight to the gate agent to ask about changing my reservation. My flight back to KL was scheduled about 3.5 hours later, and was the turnaround of the next flight. He was super helpful, could see me checked in on the next flight, and was happy to move me to the one leaving in 40 minutes…but did remind me that there wasn’t a meal catered for me, haha! Score, I could arrive back to KL three hours earlier and get more sleep before my early flight!

The domestic departures hall in Penang:

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Our gate today B1 was apparently a fragrance and cosmetic wonderland:

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There was a crew change in Penang, so unfortunately didn’t get to go back with the same wonderful crew.

Malaysia Airways flight 1155
Penang, Malaysia (PEN) to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL)
Depart 17:55, Arrive 18:55, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-800, Registration 9M-MSG, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,512
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,315,649

Who needs a catered meal when right next to your gate there’s a Starbucks! I like Penang Airport already!

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Even better, there were only two passengers in business class on the return flight so I had an empty seat next to me:

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With that, there’s not much to tell. Super uneventful flight, and I even made it back to the Le Meridien with ten minutes to spare before happy hour ended in the lounge. Even better, the super friendly agents kept the lounge going an extra thirty minutes since there were so many people still around. I have to give high marks to the lounge staff, they really made this hotel extra welcoming.

Everything had worked out well with the side trip to Penang, and now the trip was coming to an end. Next morning, early morning flight to Hong Kong with Cathay followed by a long lounge break and flight to JFK in first…

Aug 102016
 

Grabbed an Uber from the W Hotel to BKK in order to catch my onward flight to Kuala Lumpur. So, why Kuala Lumpur? Mainly because I had gotten an incredible fare out of Penang, Malaysia back to Toronto which meant I would need to visit KL for a night on my way to Penang to start the new ticket. Malaysian check-in at Bangkok was super efficient, and there was no line for passport control or security. Soon I was in the main terminal where I love this piece of Thai art:

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Malaysian uses a contract lounge by Louis Tavern, with several cardboard cutout agents greeting me for my visit. Yee haw VietJet!

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The lounge was…unimpressive. Plenty of things to drink, and a bare few nibbles. It’s my one complaint about the lounges in general (including the Thai lounges) at this airport and that is that it’s hard to get anything substantial to eat from them if you’re hungry. Having recently had breakfast I wasn’t interested, but if I was there wasn’t much other than a few snack foods in the lounge. The lounge was nicely cooled but also rather small with most of the seats taken. Plenty of power outlets, but after 15 minutes of listening to two obese Australian gentlemen bragging about their…conquests…in Bangkok I decided to head to the gate early.

I remember when these routes in SouthEast Asia were operated by widebodies as recently as ten years ago. Unfortunately, these days 737s do lots of the heavy lifting. Our bird for the short flight was already at the gate being catered when I arrived:

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Boarding was as orderly as possible in Bangkok, and the flight was completely full with every seat taken.

Malaysia Airways flight 789
Bangkok, Thailand (BKK) to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL)
Depart 14:15, Arrive 17:25, Flight Time: 2:10
Boeing 737-800, Registration 9M-MLM, Manufactured 2011, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,110
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,315,247

Pre-departure of water or juice was offered, and as soon as we were up in the air appetizers were delivered. The salad was amazing (anyone know what it is?) and garlic bread is always a winner with me. The big downside, Malaysian no longer serves alcohol on “regional” flights. Come on, how cheap can you guys get?

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Green curry chicken as a main…it was relatively tasty:

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Other than that, how much can you really say about a 90 minute flight on a 737? Reasonably tasty meal, no alcohol, but crew were happy to provide water and drink refills whenever requested. Overall, a solid experience. We landed in KL right on time, and fortunately in the main terminal so there was no need to wait for the train to take us to immigration. Unfortunately, when we arrived at immigration it was absolutely slammed. Talking to some others, they had been in the queue for over THREE HOURS. Even the business class/diplomat/CIP line was long, and I ended up waiting more than 30 minutes to clear.

After clearing, it was off to the KLIA Ekspres train for the 30 minute ride into the city. I had purchased my tickets through their iPhone app earlier, and with this got a 10% discount. The discount was even higher at 20% if you paid with a MasterCard. Scanned the QR code from the app on the turnstiles, and voila…nice and easy. Definitely recommend this method for anyone visiting KL. After a short ride we were at KL Sentral station, and it was a short walk across the street to the Le Meridien hotel. The Le Meridien and Hilton hotels share an entrance, and are essentially joined on the ground level. I had stayed at the Hilton before, but decided on the Le Meridien this trip.

Front desk checked me in, and told me I’d been upgraded to a newly renovated room on the top floor….going up…

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It was cocktail hour by the time I arrived, so I headed down to the club lounge. There was a huge buffet spread as well as complimentary drinks. More than enough food to make a dinner, and I ended up staying for a couple of hours until they closed it. I was tired from a few long days of travel, so not much in the mood to head out. Plus, it was pouring rain, so going outside really wasn’t an option. The first of several snack plates:

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View of KL from the lounge:

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View of KL from my room:

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With that I called it a rather early night. I wanted to get out and explore in the morning before going to Penang, so rested up and took it easy. It was also arctic cold in my room, and soon I settled in for a long hibernation…

Aug 092016
 

Up early, enjoyed a bit of breakfast (and of course some Starbucks) and checked out of the hotel. The St Regis Mumbai was absolutely fantastic, went above and beyond for me as a platinum member. However, when checking out, like at many hotels, they asked if I wanted to be billed in my card’s home currency (US Dollars) or Indian Rupees. I replied rupees, and received a receipt showing the same. However, the charge posted in US dollars, with an exchange rate nearly 7% off from the market rate. This has taken a chain of 22 emails to correct, and has marred my impression of this property. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but correcting something so easy shouldn’t take such effort. Sure, it was only about $35 on the exchange loss, but it’s also the principle. Now, waiting to see if they’ll comp some Starpoints for the annoyance of 22 emails…

Decided to take Uber Black to the airport, and the nearly 40 minute drive was very comfortable with a friendly driver and was less than $8. Definitely recommended as a way to get to the airport. Fortunately, traffic wasn’t awful and made it to the airport ahead of plan. Picked up my boarding pass from Jet Airways and headed to immigration where things got…interesting.

Upon not being able to find my visa, the immigration agent asked how they had let me in the country. I explained that on previous trips I was told I didn’t need to show the visa because it is in the computer, and how upon showing a digital copy this time I was allowed in. I also mentioned that I will of course carry the physical visa on future trips just in case it is required. He wasn’t going to have any of this, and escorted me to the supervisor’s room, who was equally incredulous, and told me there was no way they could stamp me out of India without seeing the physical visa.

Eventually, I asked: “ok, so you won’t let me out of India because I don’t have the visa, and without leaving India, there’s no way I’ll ever be able to physically produce the visa. So…I assume you’ll be granting me a permanent resident visa since you’ll refusing to ever let me leave the country?” This seemed to confuse them even further as the mental gymnastics became more and more difficult. They couldn’t make logical sense of what they should do next…so eventually relented and told me to make sure to have the visa next time!

That sorted, I had time to stop by the lounge very briefly for a bit of planespotting and a glass of wine. The lounge was rather nice, and had waiter service at the tables. They were probably some of the friendliest lounge waiters I’ve ever encountered too and seemed very disappointed when I declined a refill of the already generous pour of wine:

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Off to the gate, where the crew was just arriving 30 minutes before departure. Looked like we would depart slightly late…

Jet Airways flight 60
Mumbai, India (BOM) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 18:50, Flight Time: 4:30
Boeing 737-800, Registration VT-JGV, Manufactured 2007, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 125,356
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,314,493

I had actually purchased the last seat in business, and coach was full as well. It would be a very packed flight to Bangkok. Printed menu for the flight:

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No pre-departure beverages were offered, but nuts in perhaps the most festive bowl I’ve ever seen in 737 business class and wine were offered shortly after takeoff:

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The salad was quite unusual with beans and onions in it, but rather tasty. Nice mini salt and pepper shakers too:

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Went with the Murgh main (since we got the lunch menu) and it was extremely tasty, and served with plentiful sides:

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Cheese plate was decent, but I really wonder what the point of that sad little piece of lettuce is:

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Finally an orange yogurt mousse for desert, which was very tasty:

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Other than that, a nice uneventful flight. There was hourly water service after lunch, and flight attendants were happy to help whenever asked. Overall, it left me with a good impression of Jet Airways as a very solid choice for a short regional flight. It’s too bad they don’t do much longhaul any more, as it looks like they would likely offer a competitive product based on this short flight.

Relatively short walk to immigration upon arrival in Bangkok, and decided to use the AOT taxi service to get to the hotel. I hadn’t been to Bangkok in over 5 years until this past year, and now this was my fifth time this year. It’s funny how things seem to go in cycles! No traffic at all, and arrived at the W Bangkok in a bit under 30 minutes. I had had several good stays here earlier in the year, and was looking forward to this one. No upgrade this time because they were full, and when I arrived in the room it was extremely warm:

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While the room cooled down, I headed out to meet a friend for a delicious dinner of extra spicy pad thai:

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…finished with even tastier mango and sticky rice:

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Unfortunately, when I got back to the room it was still 23.8 degrees, and wouldn’t cool further. I went to the front desk and asked to be moved, and was informed they were completely sold out at that would not be possible. They did send maintenance to the room to look, but they informed me it was working just fine. Based on the fact that all my previous rooms in this hotel had been much cooler, that couldn’t be the case. It was 23.2 by the time I woke up – barely cool enough for sleeping – so clearly something was wrong.

At least I had the amazing breakfast buffet to look forward to. On all my previous stays the breakfast room had been empty to maybe 50% full, but for some reason this time the place was absolutely packed, with most of the guests speaking Mandarin. It appeared there was a large group/package tour staying in the hotel, and it was not a group of frequent international travelers. Witnessed people using hands to pick from the buffet, children running around, and one man spitting on the floor in the middle of the buffet area. I pointed it out to the staff, who in the usual Thai fashion smiled and said they would see what they could do…but nothing was done.

Added to this, the quality of the buffet was also down significantly in just the past few months. Very limited fresh fruit (which had been plentiful before) and a reduced variety of dishes overall. Not sure if this was due to the large package group picking things over, or the hotel actually cutting back, but it was a major disappointment when I used to consider this the world’s best breakfast buffet. Oh well, things change… I’m not sure if I’ll choose the W again my next trip, as Bangkok has so many fantastic hotels that I don’t see any reason to stay in one that is disappointing in any way.

…that was easily fixed by grabbing Starbucks next door with some work colleaguers, where apparently asking my name is more difficult than just writing the Under Armour logo on my cup to identify me:

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After coffee my all too short stop in Bangkok was over, and it was time to head on to Malaysia to begin the trek home…