Jun 102016
 

I should be up front before talking about this trip. With so many easier ways to get to Mali, why in the world was I detouring via LaGuardia, Chicago, London, Accra, and Abidjan? Well, it all started with a fare Ian found last year from Accra-Chicago roundtrip in business class for barely $800. I was happy to use it one way and throw away the second half, but hey, I might still have countries in West Africa left by Memorial Day, so let’s book the return to Accra then and see if it’s useful.

We found great one-way fares from Accra to Bamako via Abidjan with Air Cote d’Ivoire, so that settled it. I had initially booked nonstop from DCA to Chicago with American as well but a change in times meant I could either have a barely one hour connection in Chicago, or over five hours. I figured if I was going to play the waiting around in airports game, I would book the connection for some extra miles. I gave myself three hours to connect in LaGuardia which should be plenty…even if things went pear shaped.

The night before, I did a same-day change on American’s website so I could get an hour of sleep. I would leave on the 1pm shuttle instead of the noon, take a slightly later LaGuardia to Chicago, and still have well over two hours for each connection. Seemed great.

Got to DCA which was shockingly empty, and had the most delightful TSA agent I’ve ever had. She was joking with kids and putting stickers on her, so I jokingly asked her why I didn’t get one. She was more than happy to please, and I enjoyed my Chateau le Hector in the Admirals Club and pondered a career change….

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Then, It hit the fan. First a 30 minute delay on the shuttle. Then an hour, then 60 minutes. All the nonstops to O’Hare were completely sold out by this point, leaving me little alternative. Once the plane finally left LaGuardia they were estimating 1:11 to make the connection at LaGuardia which should be fine if nothing further went wrong. Which, of course it did. By the time we boarded and the door was closed, the connection was down to 42 minutes. Still doable, but, with the shuttle flights arriving in a different terminal from other American flights it would be extremely close.

American flight 2143
Washington, National (DCA) to New York, LaGuardia (LGA)
Depart 13:00, Arrive 14:24, Flight Time: 1:24
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration N952UW, Manufactured 2007, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 86,496
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,276,021

Flight was a completely uneventful 40 minutes or so, and we pulled into the gate just a bit further behind schedule with 35 minutes to make my connection. I thought I was going to have to reclear security with the terminal change, but American is now operating a shuttle between the two terminals. Unfortunately, the shuttle was “experiencing radiator problems” and took nearly 20 minutes to show up. By the time I got to the gate, the door had closed five minutes early…and although the plane was still sitting at the gate I was offloaded. The ever so friendly agent told me to “go to customer service and they’ll rebook you.” Ugh. Instead, I called the Exec Platinum line, and got a super helpful agent who was able to put me on the next flight about two hours later.

Of course, this meant I was going to miss my BA flight to London. I had heard about the OneWorld protection even if you are on different tickets, and the super wonderful agent in the Admirals Club was more than happy to help. Given my Chicago-London-Accra ticket was BA flights but on Iberia ticket stock, she took a bit of time to figure it out, but fortunately the inbound London-Chicago a few months prior had been on American so they still held control of the ticket. Eventually, she had no trouble confirming me on the American nonstop to London at 22:20, however, despite there being eight seats open in first she couldn’t process an upgrade to first with a systemwide because it was under gate control. Oh well, with eight seats it should be a piece of cake…right?

New flight left right on time, leaving me nearly an hour and 40 minutes to connect at O’Hare…maybe…

American flight 359
New York, LaGuardia (LGA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 18:55, Arrive 20:43, Flight Time: 2:48
Boeing 737-800, Registration N948NN, Manufactured 2014, Seat 6B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 87,229
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,276,754

Mixed nuts and drinks were served right after takeoff…I really like how AA’s mixed nuts have a few pecans and pistachios thrown in:

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I went for the chicken main (forget what the other option was – some sort of pasta I think) which was pretty good. I went for the pretzel roll instead of the bland “risotto” for my carbs, and with the chocolate chip cookie I was preparing for my overnight carb coma well:

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Then, we landed. See, it’s 20:45…tons of time to make my 22:20 flight…in theory…

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See those storms? Apparently we were the last flight in before O’Hare went on a total ground stop. Yet, we couldn’t get a gate, because there was another aircraft at our gate and nothing was moving due to the weather. Nearly an 30 minutes later at 9:15 we were still sitting on the ramp. The pilot was fantastic, updating us every five minutes on what was going on with our gate. However, his announcements got progressively more and more bizarre as he got frustrated. Eventually, around 21:40 he told us “in my 25+ years with this airline I’ve never seen such a shameful performance by this airport. The ground control is fighting with the tower now, and as a result nothing is moving.”

Finally, around 10:10pm after nearly 90 minutes on the ground (and tweets to American asking when the passenger bill of rights kicked in) we finally arrived at a gate. Flight attendants and the pilot were great the whole time, and it showed – despite such a long delay there were no angry passengers, and everyone was calm. It’s amazing what communication can do.

I had 10 minutes to make my flight which still showed on time, and I sprinted across the terminal. On the way, I popped into the Admirals Club and asked if they could call the gate. They did so, and found out boarding had just gotten underway. Yay, I would make the flight but BOO, my now 80 minute connection at Heathrow was going to be messy.

Got to the gate, and asked the agent at the counter if she could process the upgrade to first please. “Oh I’m sorry, first is completely full.” I asked here how suddenly in the last 15 minutes eight people had been added to the upgrade list and cleared. “That’s confidential – please take your assigned seat.” I smelled shenanigans and demanded politely to speak to a supervisor. I had to wait a couple of minutes to get a supervisor, and explained the whole situation. She apologized at how the agent had handled it, and with a few keystrokes punched out a new first boarding pass for me. She then went the extra mile and escorted me onto the plane…so she could boot the nonrev already sitting in that seat back to economy. Awkward!

American flight 98
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 22:20, Arrive 12:05, Flight Time: 7:45
Boeing 777-200, Registration N775NN, Manufactured 1999, Seat 4J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 91,182
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,280,707

Boarding took forever, and eventually my connection in London was showing only 20 minutes to make it. I was praying for tailwinds. Then, it got to 10 minutes, and I rang my call button to tell the FA I was getting off and asking to be rebooked since I would misconnect and would rather be stuck overnight in Chicago than London. “Oh, you can’t…we’re closing the door now. Plus, I’m sure you’re wrong about your connection time. ‘They’ never would have given you an 80 minute connection to start with.”

Then, she went back to the galley, right behind my seat, and her colleague asked her “what that was all about.” “Oh, he’s full of shit. He thinks he knows more about flight times than we do.”

I was floored.

The only upside to this whole thing…service was polite, friendly, and warm for the duration of the flight. Thank God I somehow managed to not let it linger and get threatened with arrest by a flight attendant who was clearly having a bad day. Somewhere during the whole boarding, at least I got a pre-departure champagne in a non-plastic glass. Are you listening United???

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Psst, American, the 1980s called…they want their inflight entertainment system back:

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Shortly after takeoff more mixed nuts, and a very generous pour of red wine:

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Salmon starter, which was still covered in little ice chips. Apparently it hadn’t been completely thawed out….PASS.

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It’s hard to make a memorable salad in flight, but this one was really good! Creamy dressing, spinach, blue cheese, and strawberries. I have to say, both this salad and the one I had in transcon first from Miami to LA were really good. Score one for AA in the salad department!

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I couldn’t resist trying the turkey, since I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen that on a plane before. It was a breaded cutlet with an extremely sweet sour cherry sauce on it. It was edible, but a bit too weird for my tastes. Plus, notice the empty wine glass…

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Apparently, they had “forgotten” to load the cheese course, so I had a sundae with butterscotch. It was a nice change from the chocolate, caramel, and strawberry gloop choices you get on United:

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The menus:

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The agents were kind enough to let me sleep until barely 10 minutes before touchdown, so I got a solid 5+ hours and was ready for the sprint to the gate. According to the app we had made up more time en route, and I now had 35 minutes to make my connection.

The first sign of trouble was when I got off the plane and there were several agents there asking about connections. I told them Ghana, and the lady said “ohhhhhhhh…..YOU need to talk to him” and handed me over to her colleague. Apparently I had “already missed my flight” (how? I still have 35 minutes) and that had rebooked me to Ghana…on Kenya Airways via Nairobi…in economy arriving nearly 16 hours late. Um, no.

Sensing this agent had no power at all, I thanked him and headed for the transfer desk. The agents at the transfer desk were equally unhelpful, but finally agreed to ask BA if they would please put me back on the flight since the flight hadn’t even started boarding yet! Nope, completely full now according to BA, so no way to get on it. I kept pressing the issue, and no dice, BA insisted there was no way to put me back on the flight regardless if it hadn’t even started boarding. AA had offloaded me and reticketed me proactively, so they had to solve it. I would have had no trouble at all making the flight…and was texting Ian the whole time who was in the gate area. Why couldn’t AA let me take the risk of the 15 minute connection, and rebook me IF I miss it. Now, I was screwed.

The agents at the transfer desk refused to offer me anything beyond the Kenya Airlines option, even when I explained I had a connection the next day to Bamako, and finally, for the second time in 12 hours, I had to speak to a supervisor. “Why don’t you clear security and go to the Admirals Club? You’ll find a supervisor there.”

I did as suggested, security took maybe five minutes, and I explained the situation to the lady at the front desk of the Admirals Club. She was super understanding, and suggested I take a seat and she would get someone from Premium Services to come find me. The gentleman arrived about 10 minutes later, and I walked him through the whole chain of tickets and events. He asked what he could do to get a satisfactory outcome. He sat with me patiently as I got out ExpertFlyer and looked for options.

The only way to get to Mali on time now would be to fly straight there. There was no way to get to Accra in time to make my connection. I found just two seats left on Air France the next day direct from Paris to Bamako. I told him the only options would be to (1) send me straight to Bamako the next day on Air France or (2) return me home and I’ll try this trip again at another stage.

He assured me he would be happy to send me back to the US – either JFK or ORD and on to DCA…my choice…in first class either same day or the next day. That would be no problem at all. He said there was a chance he could get one of those last two seats on Air France, so why don’t I enjoy something to eat and drink while he worked on it. I finally got my cheese!

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Miracle of miracles, he came back about 30 minutes later…Air France was confirmed and ticketed! He offered a hotel and meal vouchers at Heathrow, but instead I opted to get a Heathrow Express ticket and go into the city and see friends. Not much to tell about here – it was early evening by the time I got downtown. Had a nice dinner with a friend and then met others for drinks…and ended up staying out much later than I should.

So, let’s pick this up where it gets interesting again. The flights.

Air France flight 1581
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 12:10, Arrive 14:30, Flight Time: 1:20
Airbus A320, Registration F-GKXS, Manufactured 2009, Seat 5D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 91,398
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,280,923

The irony of this flight is it was across the hall from the gate where I had flown London to Abu Dhabi in Etihad Apartments exactly two weeks prior. I never transit T4 at Heathrow, and here I was at two gates right next to each other in two weeks. Funny how it happens!

This flight was a hot mess. There was clearly a large family who had been in London on a shopping trip as a man, what looked to be his teen son – complete with Gucci embroidered velvet jacket – and 11 women boarded. The 11 women, two adults and nine teens/children were all sitting in business (which was completely full) and the two men were in economy. That’s when I felt a tapping on my shoulder. It was the adult who it turns out was in the bulkhead seat right behind me in coach…”will you take my seat please?” and handed me a 100 euro note. Uhhh…it’s a 40 minute flight, the seats are exactly the same…so, um, sure?

I moved one row back, and the flight attendant came up and asked me what was going on. I explained to him, and he laughed, and said “I’ll bring you your meal and drinks anyways.” Easiest 100 euros I’ve made! I had been on this same route with BA two weeks prior, and I have to say the two products were neck and neck. BA’s meal was maybe slightly better, but who needs a meal on a 40 minute flight. Both were very generous with the champagne.

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Despite ATC holds around Paris, I still had enough time to enjoy the lounge a bit before boarding my connecting flight to Mali:

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What could be more french than wine and cheese with some Evian in the lounge?

Air France flight 386
Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Bamako, Mali (BKO)
Depart 16:30, Arrive 20:20, Flight Time: 5:50
Airbus A340-300, Registration F-GLZK, Manufactured 1997, Seat 6E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 93,982
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,283,507

I was excited to be flying Air France again. My first experience had been five months prior and I really had enjoyed it, so I looked forward to seeing if those two flights were the rule or the exception. PDB champagne. Real champagne. None of that US airline sparkling grape nonsense:

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The menu looked super:

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Amuse bouche…smoked salmon and cream with some crackers. Maybe the crackers weren’t, en francais, “super classy” but it was nice to have a change from mixed nuts:

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Mmmmm fois gras and smoked cod on panna cotta:

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The cod with smoked salmon and parmesan crumble with chili pepper was out of this world. Maybe my favourite airline entree of all time…and I feel like I said the same thing a few months prior on Air France. Apparently, nobody can do gourmet cooking like Air France in business class. Plus, look at those cheeses!

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…and not just one, but four mini desserts! YUM!

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Overall, Air France hit another home run with me. So much so that I’m actively trying to find a way to try their first class product now. Their seats may be a bit behind the times, but the food and service on all three medium haul flights was outstanding!

Unfortunately, my first longhaul American experience was a shambles both on the ground and in flight. If not for the amazing staff at the Heathrow Admirals club I would have been left with an extremely bitter taste in my mouth. Now, to start fighting American for the 600 Euros in delay compensation I’m due and for credit on the missed Heathrow-Accra flight.

Next up…Mali!

May 222016
 

Got to sleep in a slight bit since my flight wasn’t leaving until around noon, and I just hoped there wouldn’t be metro/RER drama this morning on my way to the airport. Stopped for a coffee then headed to the metro; quick transfer at Les Halles and caught an RER after just a few minutes. Unfortunately, the train was absolutely packed and was hotter than a sauna. Everyone was starting to drip sweat, and since I had extra time decided to get off at Gare du Nord and wait for the next train.

Next train was much cooler, and empty to the point I even got a seat, and from there it was a quick 30 or so minute ride to the airport. Quick walk back over to Terminal 2A, where there was a super long check-in queue for British Airways – even in the priority line. Seemed most passengers were connecting onwards to North America and had 1,400 suitcases each. Finally got to the front of the line, and got to have a bit of an argument with a check-in agent who insisted my rolling bag could not possibly fit in overhead bins. She insisted I check it.

I told her it does fit, agents don’t have a problem with it, and finally she gave in and said “fine, I’m working the gate too, we can ask the flight attendants!” With that, I headed off to a painless security queue and eventually made my way to the lounges…since the every-so-friendly check-in agent hadn’t told me which lounge to go to, when confronted with the choice of Cathay or American, well, I made the logical choice.

Since I’d only had coffee I was pretty hungry, so decided to see if there was anything interesting to eat….and OMG there it was…crack from Hong Kong. I was given a buzzer to await my crack dealer to arrive…

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Soon it buzzed, and crack in a bowl was delivered – DanDan Noodles. The glass of champagne almost didn’t happen since I encountered some kind of stopper I couldn’t figure out how to get off the bottle. Neither could the other two people who were trying. Fortunately, we were saved by a lounge attendant, and brunch was salvaged!

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Got to the gate just as they were about to begin boarding and of course nothing at all was said about my bag…which of course fit just fine in the overheads just as it had on the way in.

British Airways flight 309
Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 12:05, Arrive 12:25, Flight Time: 1:20
Airbus A319, Registration G-EUPS, Manufactured 2007, Seat 5F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 75,762
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,265,287

Super quick flight, but not too quick…and lived up to the challenge of managing two minis of champagne before landing. Another very impressive meal for such a short flight that hit the spot perfectly.

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Took the Heathrow Express into the city, and assuming that I would have Etihad chauffeur service I’d booked in at the Le Meridien Piccadilly. Unfortunately, Etihad decided my ticket was a connection despite the overnight, and thus not eligible for chauffeur service in London. Not a big deal at the end of the day…until I found out the Bakerloo line wasn’t running from Paddington to Piccadilly, meaning a transfer. Three trains to get to the hotel wasn’t bad in the middle of the day, but the next morning that wasn’t going to happen.

There was a line of eight people waiting to check in when I arrived at the hotel, so did something I rarely do which is go to the side of the counter dedicated for SPG Platinum check-in. No problem until the next in line was called, and I walked over to the agent. I got rudely shoved by a rather rotund American gentleman who was the next in the regular line and insisted “I was next!” I told the agent I was waiting for Platinum and his comment was “well I’m gold so f*** off.” What’s that thing about the ugly American again… Not wanting to waste time, I waited the two minutes.

It was 2:15 at this point, and I was told my room wasn’t ready. They had upgraded me to a junior suite, but it would be another 30 minutes before it was ready. I was told I could either leave my bags, or go wait in the lounge. Since it was only 30 minutes, I opted to wait in the lounge and the agent said she would call up when the room was ready.

An hour went by, and still no call. So I went down to the front desk, and “oh, yeah, it’s ready – sorry I forgot.” Ugh. I know the hotel can’t be blamed for the rude guy in the check-in line, but so far I wasn’t overly impressed. On the plus side, the junior suite was quite nice, and unusual for hotels in London the temperature was actually decently on the cool side.

I was starting to drag at this point, so walked around the corner to perhaps the poshest Starbucks I’ve even been in…which didn’t stop them from spelling my name wrong yet again:

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Spent the evening catching up with friends, including drinks, followed by dinner, followed by more drinks. The hotel did turn out do be in the perfect location for walking from place to place, and was definitely a good choice! Got a nice view of Piccadilly Circus at night on the walk back to the hotel:

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With that, my short stopover in London had come to a close and it was time to get some rest so I could enjoy the capstone of the trip – flying Etihad in Apartments and First Class to Washington via Abu Dhabi!

May 192016
 

Grabbed the Airport Express train to the airport, and went straight to Cathay Pacific check-in. This was to be my first experience with them, and I was looking forward to seeing if it lived up to the hype. Many people compare Cathay and Singapore as Asia’s premier airlines, so having flown Singapore a number of times I was curious to see if it was all true. I didn’t get any pictures of the check-in area, but it was very strange. Several stand-up desks that were like cocktail tables where you stand with your agent and check-in. It was kind of strange, but I assume it’s to make things feel more personal.

Security and passport control at Hong Kong are a bit of a pain, because there’s no priority line at all. I had several hours to kill so it wasn’t a big deal, but it’s still a pain to have to wait nearly 45 minutes for this when you’re in first class. So far, the ground experience wasn’t so hot – but that’s not Cathay’s fault, just a fact of life at HKG. The other fact of life I wasn’t overly looking forward to was getting to what is supposed to be the best lounge – Cathay’s recently refurbished “The Pier” lounge. The airport at HKG is shaped like a giant capital letter T, where you enter at the base of the T and the Pier is in the far upper right corner. There’s a train which runs out to the juncture of the T, but I opted to walk it to get in a slight bit of exercise before the flight.

Upon entering the agents warned me that my flight would be departing all the way from the entry of the terminal area, and that I would have to walk back because the train only runs one way. No big deal, and I appreciated the warning. I immediately sat down in the bar/lounge area which was nice and roomy, and almost felt like living room at home. Plenty of space, but the roaming bartenders/service people were nowhere to be found. If you wanted something to drink, you had to go up to the bar to get it yourself. Awkward. There was also a small room with some light snacks, but if you wanted something more substantial you had to go to the sit-down dining area. After working for about an hour, I was getting rather hungry since I skipped lunch and headed to the restaurant. Today’s menu:

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I opted for a glass of the rosé to get things started:

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First up, I went with the tuna appetizer. Very bland and flavourless…but a decent helping of protein. Nothing to get excited about.

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I was a bit torn on what to get for a main, but went with the Dandan Noodles because I were told they were a Cathay specialty…and like crack. Now, funny fact. I hate peanut butter…have ever since I was a kid. But, I love peanut butter sauces, peanut soup, peanut butter cookies…you get the drift. It just can’t be all gooey and stuck to bread I guess. That said…I wanted a second bowl of these noodles. They were absolutely amazing…and I almost ordered another bowl. I would have if not for the upcoming flight…

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The toffee pudding…also pretty bland, and very little toffee taste. I finished it, but probably shouldn’t have…

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After a nice dinner, I grabbed a shower. The shower rooms were nice – and quite functional – but far from the nicest I’ve seen. I think Singapore and Lufthansa do far nicer, but that said not the end of the world. They were plenty nice. I worked for a little bit longer, and then took the long slow stroll back to the gate, stopping on the way at “The Wing” lounge right next to my gate. Now, I’d been warned that all the Cathay lounges have some flaw or another. The Pier – too far and inconvenient. The Wing – open air, and loud. That said…it wasn’t my complaint with The Wing.

For a first class lounge, it felt like a zoo. A zoo with no power outlets. It was more crowded than many United Clubs I’ve been in, and there were very few spaces to sit. I get that it was peak departures hour, but this place was packed. A first class lounge should never feel packed! Since this was my first real One World first class experience, I had to wonder if the One World rule granting access to first lounges made them more like Lufthansa Senator lounges – crowded because everyone and their mother gets access.

…eventually I found a power outlet…and a bottle of rosé…and all was soon forgotten. Walked downstairs from the lounge just as we were ready to board.

Cathay Pacific flight 261
Hong Kong (HKG) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 23:55, Arrive 05:40, Flight Time: 12:45
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration B-KPF, Manufactured 2008, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 75,330
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,264,855

No sooner had I taken my seat and been welcomed than a glass of Krug and an amuse bouche showed up. It was some strange salmon and shaved ice thing, but hey, the Krug is what’s really important here!

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Have Krug, am happy:

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Despite the midnight departure, Cathay serves a full “supper” service:

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The burger snack sounded tasty, but sleep sounded better…

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Takeoff was right on time, and service began quickly with more Krug and mixed nuts. Was glad to see a few pistachios in there…

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Caviar service…I’ve heard tales if there is extra caviar you can ask them to save it and do scrambled eggs and caviar in the morning…must try on my next Cathay flight!

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Caviar done properly, with mother-of-pearl spoon:

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Very boring salad, ruined with in-flight shrimp:

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The lamb loin main was recommended, but I have to say I didn’t find it very tasty. Normally, lamb has a lot of flavour to it, but this was pretty bland. So much so that I didn’t even bother to finish it…

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Fantastic choice of cheeses…fortunately I didn’t finish the lamb, because these were delicious!

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Despite being stuffed, it was insisted I have a few chocolates with my final glass of wine before dozing off.

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Slept over 7 hours, thanks to a cabin temperature which was kept just cool enough for sleep. I managed to fall asleep right away, and woke up wrapped in a warm duvet which clearly the flight attendants had done. I can’t imagine a United flight attendant caring enough to put a blanket on a sleeping passenger…woke up, and for some reason I craved tea. I never drink tea…but it was fantastic!

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Followed by a delicious mango smoothie and entire basket full of breakfast breads.

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I went with the dim sum main (when in China?) which was pretty tasty, although a little on the dry side.

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Thank you note from the crew. The little hearts were a cute touch:

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So, what’s to say about Cathay? The food was fantastic other than the lamb, but any airline can get it wrong once and a while. The crew was very attentive and helpful without being overbearing, but it lacked the personal touch – same as I often feel with Singapore. Maybe it’s the American in me that I prefer crews to be a bit warmer and chatty, but they did seem to be that way – but only with what appeared to be two Cathay employees in first and the other three passengers, all who were Chinese. Hard to say. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the flight – I did very much – just that it didn’t WOW me. I think that extra little bit depends so much on the chemistry between the crew and the passenger, and that’s something you’re just not going to have every time.

Landed at Terminal 3 at Heathrow, which meant taking the bus over to Terminal 5 and doing transfer and security theatre there. Not a big deal, took maybe 30 minutes total, and had plenty of time to enjoy in the BA first lounge.

Here’s where I’m going to be harsh – again. Just like The Wing in Hong Kong, the lounge was a zoo. Coming from Star Alliance, first lounges should be somewhat exclusive and relaxing, and this place was absolutely heaving at the seams. Plus, shower rooms were shared with the business lounge, meaning people were being told a wait of more than an hour. Thanks to smiles and stretching the truth a bit on the time of my connection, I did manage to get a shower in about 15 minutes. On the showers, I was disappointed again. Very small and sterile – felt like a cubicle and some low-end health club. Not at all appropriate for a first class lounge.

That brings me to the lounge in general. They do put on a rather nice breakfast spread with tons of options, but it felt like eating in a giant cafeteria with dozens of your closest friends. Nothing nice restaurant about it at all. Contrast this with a Lufthansa First lounge for dining, or even The Pier, and the difference was nice and day. Long way of saying, my experiences at The Wing and the BA First Lounge were far from relaxing, and far from what a first lounge should be. It’s ok if you want to let Emerald members in, but then you need something more exclusive for your first class passengers – which I understand BA does with the Concorde Room. However, without being allowed in connecting from Cathay First, the alliance fell short in that regard for me.

British Airways flight 308
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 10:50, Arrive 11:10, Flight Time: 1:20
Airbus A321, Registration G-EUXM, Manufactured 2007, Seat 5F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 75,546
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,265,071

Quick 35 minute flight onward to Paris and BA still managed to serve a full snack. Yes, I know people complain about this snack all the time since it’s also serve on three hour routes, but for a short hop to Paris it was rather impressive! I behaved after the Cathay flight and stopped at one mini bottle of bubbly…

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Next up – time to celebrate making it to Tuvalu by enjoying two days in Paris!

Jan 262016
 

Fortunately, my adventures on the RER were much less of a problem today – and not only that – I managed to catch and express train and was at the airport barely 45 minutes after leaving my hotel…which gave me 3.5 hours to spare. I was going to need it, however, to figure out my way through this maze of an airport.

Leaving the RER station, there were a bunch of Air France kiosks, which made checking in and getting my boarding pass easy. So far so good. Rather long walk, but eventually navigated my way through the sea of checkin counters and found the area for departures. Exit immigration was a breeze with no line at the business class counter, and priority security was also rather empty…save the woman with about 200 metal bracelets and trinkets all over her body. Seriously, do people not thing ahead when they are flying?

Regardless, found my way to the lifts underground, and to the Air France lounge with plenty of time to spare. To top it off, my flight would be leaving from the main terminal 2E building, meaning a short walk from the lounge. Looked like everything was going well today!

Since I’d only grabbed a quick coffee at Starbucks, I decided to find out what my food options were in the lounge.

A lounge with real cheese and not Tilamook? Score!

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Main course of a chicken and mushroom stew of some sort, and cheese wrapped in ham…with an apple tart for dessert. Not at all bad for lounge food Air France. Not bad at all!

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Since I had plenty of extra time thanks to the RER running well today, it left me a few extra hours to get some work done in the lounge before it was time to take the short walk to the boarding gate.

Air France flight 770
Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Freetown, Sierra Leone (FNA)
Depart 13:35, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time: 6:35
Airbus A330-200, Registration F-GLCB, Manufactured 2001, Seat 5E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,374
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,176,412

As soon as I was seated, pre-departure champagne was offered along with amenity kits. I decided to fit in this time, and when I wasn’t offered a blue one on the tray, asked if they might have any blue ones. The flight attendant apologized, and immediately went off to fetch one. Hah!

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Today’s menu…rather tasty looking once again!

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Today’s flight was the same number as my flight from Conakry two days prior, and apparently it does a circle Paris-Freetown-Conakry-Paris every couple of days. Worked out perfectly for me, and obviously lots of others because today’s flight appeared to be completely sold out in all classes. Everyone I could see in business had either American passports of Chinese, leading me to believe it was largely a mix of development workers and the usual Chinese “infrastructure” people. Tasty snack of cashews and cranberries along with a creamed pea mousse:

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Shrimp starter, along with more fois gras. Looking around – I found almost everyone poking at…and then refusing to touch the fois gras. Next time I’m on Air France I’m going to ask for them to take double helpings for me from all those who can’t or won’t appreciate it!

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Extremely tasty risotto, and cheese! I’m branching out from my usual beef offerings this trip with vegetarian risottos, scallops, monkfish…what is this world coming to?!

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Trio of desserts. It’s no Jeff Sundae, but it’s way tastier!

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My impression after two medium-haul flights on Air France: nobody can beat them for business class food. Sure, Emirates and Singapore can try and be “fancy” but they save the truly impressive stuff like lobster and caviar for first class anyways. Air France serves good, solid, high quality food in business class that doesn’t taste and look like it came out of the dollar bin at your local WalMart. Normally I’m the first to find airplane food boring and meh, but I can honestly say the Air France meals were things I would order in a restaurant. Well done Air France!

…and as a nod to Air France, my seatmate was displaying extremely Haute Couture – a bedazzled New York Yankees sweatshirt:

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This is where stuff got interesting. After a great flight, we landed at Lungi International Airport where the passport queues were extremely slow and sweaty. Country #189 visited! Now, Lungi Airport is rather interesting. It’s about 10 miles or so from the capital of Freetown, but those 10 miles are if you can walk on water. If you can’t you take the long way around the bay by car, which usually takes 3-4 hours. Yes, that’s right, hours. So, what most people do is take the ferry.

I had read nightmares about the ferry, and the process of procuring tickets, which were approximately $35-40. For $60, the Radisson would send someone to meet you at arrivals, transfer you to the ferry, give you your ticket, and pick you up on the other end. Sounded like a bargain to me…and I went with it.

My driver was waiting for me in the arrivals area, and handed me my ticket. He took me to the bus area, where I would wait for the bus to the ferry. Yes, that’s right, first you need a ferry ticket. Then the ferry company drives you to the pier. Then you take a ferry. Then you need transport on the other side. Well worth the premium I paid.

Fortunately, the ferry company’s van had awesome air conditioning, and soon we were off. About a 10 minute drive to the pier in complete darkness, but it didn’t matter, because once we got to the pier we waited nearly an hour to board the ferry. No answer why, other than soon soon. Eventually we boarded, and it was clear they were going to cram an entire A330 of passengers on a ferry which was marked “Capacity: 55”

I personally counted at least 80-90 people, and there was lots of yelling and complaining about the boat being overloaded. But, see, there’s a problem. It had one deck. With one door. In my foolish rush to board I had moved away from the door, and if this thing sank, there was absolutely no way I was getting off on time. I was hoping reason would win it, but no, they just slammed the door. A staff member gave some half-hearted safety demonstration that included comments about life jackets and the easter bunny…not sure if either really existed..and the motors sputtered to life.

Fortunately, it was pitch black outside, and we couldn’t feel the terror we were about to embark on…the first five minutes weren’t too bad, but then the waves started, and the boat started pitching pretty hard side to side as the waves would hit the boat which was loaded down worse than a pregnant woman well past her third trimester. I tried to strike up a conversation with the local couple seated next to me (we were some of the lucky ones with seats) but that didn’t work when they told me they’d taken this ferry dozens of times…and it had never been loaded down this badly. They were clearly worried.

I started looking for small and weak people between me and the door, deciding who I would trample when we capsized. I also started practicing holding my breath, trying to figure out how long I would have to get to the door once the water came rushing in.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, that’s when it started. Now, Sierra Leone had recently been declared free of Ebola, and to do so they constantly reminded people of the way it spread: avoid bodily fluids of sick and dead people. Well, that’s when the first woman lost her cookies…all over a couple of people also standing in the middle of the boat.

A couple of minutes later, it happened again with another person. All told four people threw up all over other passengers. While it made the time pass by quickly, if a sinking boat didn’t kill us there was a reasonable chance Ebola would. Eventually, we made it to the other side…the air heavy with the smell of vomit and fear.

True to their world, the Radisson shuttle driver was waiting for me, and soon we were off to the hotel. Quickly messaged Jordan and Dan that I’d arrived, and that they were free to meet me in the hotel bar/restaurant as after checking in I would need something to make me forget my near death experience.

This item on the menu didn’t reassure me:

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Yes, you may have a beer, but only after you sanitize your hands:

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After a couple of beers and some food, it was time to head to bed so I could get up at a reasonable hour and maximize my time in Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, the room air conditioning in no way met my standards, nor did the internet which only reached about a foot into my room. I was too tired to care, and had good data service on my cell phone, and eventually passed out for eight solid hours of well-needed sleep.

Got up to have a bit of breakfast before heading out, and was surprised to run into Dan and Jordan there. They had some sort of buy one get one free rate that didn’t include breakfast, and given the hotel wanted over $25 for it I hadn’t expected to see them. The buffet was rather basic, but enough to do the trick, and certainly better than several we had had on this trip.

They had arrived the prior day, and agreed to show me around the area near the hotel so I could maximize my time before leaving. We headed down to Lumley Beach, which thanks to “National Exercise Day” on Sunday, was packed:

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I was doing my best to “STOP the EBOLA Virus” but given all the vomiting on the ferry the night before, I wasn’t overly confident.

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The beach was packed with people playing football, lots of people just walking, and vendors selling water and other drinks in the incredibly hot sun:

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I spotted one football team getting ready to take a picture, and rushed over to ask if I could take their picture as well. This got them to do their championship pose, and I found out they had just won the beach league tournament of some sort. Given the dozens of games going on at the beach, there seemed to be tons of different leagues and casual games going on, and most of them even had referees. It was a rather large affair and apparently THE thing to do in Freetown on a Sunday.

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After a while of walking around we eventually headed back to the Radisson to try in vain to cool down ever so slightly with some cold drinks before heading to the airport for our onward flight to the final new country of this trip: Liberia!

Jan 242016
 

The guesthouse was nice enough to give me a ride back to the airport, but unlike the approximately 20-25 minute drive to get to the guesthouse in the morning, it took us more than 90 minutes to get to the airport. I had left plenty of time so it wasn’t a problem, but was still mildly annoying. Plus, I got a free long French lesson out of it, since it was just me and one of the owners in the car, so we covered everything from US politics to the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, African dictators, you name it. Quite a good conversation for a couple of folks speaking their non-native languages who had just met less than 12 hours prior.

Air France check-in was no problem at all, and immigration and security were a breeze as well. I was soon camped out in the common-use lounge Air France uses to wait for my flight. It was still festively decorated for Christmas as well:

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Decent selection of beverages, and some pastries that were a bit past their freshness:

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The downside on the beverages…I ended up having three beers, and as I got up to leave and board my flight she came running over asking me to pay for the third one. I don’t have a problem with that itself, but she should have informed me when I ordered it that there would be a charge. Oh well, there were plenty of electrical outlets, comfortable seating, fast internet, and good AC, so if that’s the biggest problem with a lounge in Guinea I’m pretty ok with it!

As we were boarding, nurses were waiting in the jetway, and writing temperatures on the boarding pass to “prove” you weren’t sick at the time of boarding:

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Air France flight 770
Conakry, Guinea (CKY) to Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 23:10, Arrive 06:25, Flight Time: 6:15
Airbus A340-300, Registration F-GLZK, Manufactured 1997, Seat 6E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 6,445
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,173,483

I had changed my seat right before boarding to 5E, since according to ExpertFlyer there were two seats left to sell, and 5E and 5F were both open on the seatmap. It turned out to be the right call, because even though I was in the last row, I had nobody sitting next to me. Amenity kits came in a choice of colours, and I noticed several of the passengers around me being very particular about which one they got…and the crew seemed to think this was completely normal. Seriously, the contents were the same (I asked) so people were being fussy on the colour?

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Welcome aboard champagne. Yes, champagne. Real champagne. In a glass. Take that United!

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I do love monkfish, and figured if anyone can do it right on a plane it’s the French, so I broke (for the second time this trip) my no seafood on a plane rule and ordered it:

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Not a bad menu for an 11pm departure!

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Dessert and starter served all at once. Mmm, cheese, profiteroles, and fois gras. This has the makings of the best business class meal ever!

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The monkfish was absolutely amazing, and the mashed pumpkin was a tasty addition:

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Managed to get almost four hours of decent sleep, and woke up just before landing in Paris. It was my first time dealing with the situation at Charles de Gaulle outside the United area, and what a mess! So many parts to the terminal, connected by a maze of passageways and trains, but eventually I did make it to immigration where the wait was over an hour in the business class line! They were questioning every passenger very hard – probably due to a combination of the refugee situation and the recent terror attacks. My turn? When I finally got to the front it was a look at my passport “where do you live?” “Washington DC” stamp and go. No questions beyond that, but in my hour of waiting saw at least 20 different people pulled into the office for secondary.

Long hike to the train station to catch the RER, which was a nightmare. There were track problems going on, and four trains in a row got canceled. It took over an hour to get a train into the city, and once we finally moved it took probably 15 minutes between stations. Finally, I arrived at Les Halles just over three hours after leaving the airport. Yes, three HOURS. There were also problems on two metro lines, and the station was more than a little congested:

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To the point people were getting majorly impatient:

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Eventually I made it to my hotel just after 11am, despite landing before 7am. Absolutely crazy. First order of the day was to take a short nap, and then head out on a long walk:

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I usually stay at a small family-run hotel in the Marais, and decided to head out on my usual walk starting first past Notre Dame:

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From there, I continued up past the Pompidou, Louvre, and eventually down the Champs Elyssees to the Arc de Trimophe. Unfortunately, no pictures of that part of the walk since with coffee and pastry stops along the way it was super dark by the time I arrived. I had hoped to have a bit more of the day, but the train/metro disaster kind of squashed that, so I had to settle for just a long walk, which was pretty awesome.

Since it was after dark, and headed into the weekend I headed out to grab drinks with a couple of friends who live in Paris before calling it a relatively early night. I still had to get up in the morning and head back to the airport for Air France adventure part two, and a few more days in Africa. Given how the trains had been operating I decided not to risk missing my flight, so headed to the airport with plenty of time to spare.

Sep 252014
 

After dropping off Pépé I headed straight for security, since this time I’d managed to get Vueling to deliver my boarding pass to my phone. Security was a piece of cake, and soon I’d made it through and eventually found my way to the Priority Pass lounge. Signs were very poor, and I couldn’t seem to figure out I needed to take the escalator upstairs.

At this point, I was starving. I hadn’t eaten any real food since breakfast, and it was now late afternoon. I probably should have grabbed something in Llívia, but wasn’t really thinking. I was praying for some food in the lounge. Um, no.  here were a couple of stale looking sandwiches, cheese and crackers, and peanuts. But there was beer. Local beer. Which kinda made up for it. Beer on an empty stomach is good, right?

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About 30 minutes before boarding I headed to the gate, and there was already a line 100 deep forming to board. Ugh, the indignity of flying low cost carriers. Eventually an announcement was made…in spanish only…to split into two lines…one for the first 15 or so rows, and the other for the last 15. Everyone looked confused…because most of them were french. Translated for a few nice old ladies, and managed to skip ahead in line a bit. It was a mess.

Vueling flight 8244
Barcelona, Spain (BCN) to Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 17:00, Arrive 18:50, Flight Time 1:50
Airbus A320, Registration EC-MBF, Manufactured 2008, Seat 14D

Flight was about 95% full, but fortunately the E and F seats in my row were empty…or were they. Two 20-something french guys moved into them from the row behind…but I wasn’t going to argue about it.

The flight attendant came around to do her safety briefing…asking first if we spoke Catalan or Spanish. Si. The two french guys gave her a blank look. She asks again “do you speak english?” Another blank stare. She tries to tell them in English that they must move, because you must speak Catalan, Spanish, or English to sit in the exit row. They looked at her like she was an alien.

At this point, the door was closed, and it was delaying the flight. None of the crew, it appeared, spoke french. So, in order to get the flight moving…and maaaaaybe because I wanted the whole row to myself. I translated…explaining to them. They wanted me to tell the flight attendants a long story about how they knew what to do, they could handle it, etc. I started telling them….and the flight attendant raises her voice. YOU. GO. TO. YOUR. OTHER. SEAT. NOW. OR. WE. WILL. TAKE. YOU. OFF. THE. FLIGHT.

Reluctantly, they finally moved, and we were under way.

About 15 minutes into the flight, as the crew was starting the drink service, I went to the washroom.  I came back to find them in the E and F seats again.  I told them the flight attendant was not going to be happy…and they just gave me a shhhhh!

Well, they came around with buy on board, and the fireworks started.

The flight attendant tried once again to tell them they couldn’t sit there. It ended with the two of them up in her face, and two other flight attendants’ faces, in the aisle, just shy of yelling at them. “Why can’t we sit there? Is it because we’re french? Why don’t you speak french when you fly to france” No translating needed, they weren’t even listening at all. Finally the flight attendant threatened to “have the pilot land the plane” and one of the french guys called her a “racist spanish pig” and took a swing at her.

Out came the zip ties. In a first after 2,000,000 miles of flying, I had to help a flight attendant hold down a passenger while his hands were zip-tied behind his back.

Oh, and he still didn’t get to sit in the exit row…and I got my pringles and beer comped 😉

Upon landing, we taxied past Concorde:

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The Gendarmes met the flight, and I had to walk with them to an office and give a statement. Only took about 10 minutes, and I was pretty pleased with myself that my french was adequate for giving an official statement. Let’s just hope they don’t call me back for a court appearance or something. That would absolutely suck 😉

Took CDGVal to the RER station, and ended up waiting nearly 15 minutes for a train.  Straight shot to Châtelet, and then roughly a 10 minute walk to my hotel.  I was pretty tired by this point after driving nearly 8 hours through Spain and France, but was determined to enjoy my night.  Headed to Les Philosophes for dinner, where I had no problem scoring a table for one. It was nearly 9pm by this point so they were out of lots of things, but the restaurant was packed. Ended up having a nice chat with a couple from Québec on their honeymoon at the next table over.

But first, red wine and bread. I still don’t understand why red wine in France is always colder than anywhere else in the world.

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…and an amazing onion soup, with onions from their own garden.

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…and perhaps the simplest, yet most amazing, steak tartare I’ve ever had.

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Unfortunately they were out of the apple tart dessert I wanted, but this chocolate mousse was absolutely terrible and went terribly with my wine 😉

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Now, it was nearly 11pm, and the smart thing to do with a 10am flight would have been to go to bed.  I wasn’t smart.

Went back to the hotel, made a few phone calls, and a little bit after midnight, I was thinking “it’s only noon in Hawaii…if I go to bed now, I’ll never sleep in Hawaii. Let’s go for a walk.” So, I started walking.

Past the Pompidou, the Jardins de Luxembourg, up the Champs Elysée to the Arc de Triomphe.  Back down Ave. Kléber to Trocadéro, over the Pont D’Iéna, and to the Eiffel Tower.  It was an amazing stroll, Paris by moonlight, and absolutely magical. I’ve been to Paris probably 50 times, but this was a whole new side of Paris, and I loved it! Walked back along the left bank, and finally got back to my hotel around 5am…this was not going to end well…but it was 5pm…an appropriate nap time in Hawaii.

So, I aid down in my hotel for a 1 hour nap:

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Alarm woke me up fortunately, quick shower, and I was out the door…the long trip to Hawaii was about to begin…again!

Sep 182014
 

After fueling up at Starbucks…

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…it was time to find terminal 3 at CDG. I made my way to the CDGVal train, which was pretty self explanatory, and then there was the maybe 200 meter walk to T3. It seemed kind of silly, but I’m used to the C-terminal train at Dulles which also involves a long walk to the terminal, so I’m used to strangely planned train systems.

What I’m not used to is airport terminals that feel like a warehouse. Or bus terminal. Some place that not only doesn’t have first class facilities, but no lounges whatsoever. It was a terrifying place. I started to break out in a cold sweat. What’s this…a line…and there’s no way to cut to the front of it. What’s worse, after 20 minutes standing in it, I was still stuck in the line!  Dear God, I take back every thing I’ve said about how being elite on United no longer is what it used to be…it was traumatizing.  30 minutes later, I was at the front of the line…and based how slowly the line moved I expected the Spanish Inquisition (see what I did there?) before I could check in.

J’ai déja enregistré et j’ai besoin seulement de mon carte d’embarquement….” (looks at passport, tap tap tap, clunk clunk clunk) and out comes my boarding pass. That’s it.  15 seconds. I waited in line for 30 minutes for a 15 second transaction. Dear Vueling: YOU NEED KIOSKS. KTHXBYE LOVE YOU.

I still had about an hour until my flight, so find a little store selling bottled water…it was reasonably priced and I decided to head for security. Took all of 5 minutes to get through, and the waiting area on the other side was just a large collection of seats for 5 or 6 “gates” which were really just doors to busses since T3 has no jetbridges.

Bus to the plane at departure time, and we finally left about 20 minutes late. I’d paid an extra 10 euro to sit in the exit row, which at 6’3 is more than worth it. I shared the row with two very lovely ladies from Kansas who were going on a Mediterranean cruise.  They spent the next 90 minutes telling me all the fascinating things they’d discovered in their few days in Paris. I did lots of smiling and nodding and pretending to be fascinated 😉

Vueling flight 8243
Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Barcelona, Spain (BCN)
Depart 9:50, Arrive 11:35, Flight Time 1:45
Airbus A320, Registration EC-JSY, Manufactured 2006, Seat 14D

So, what was it like to fly a low cost carrier?  Well, not that bad.

I had legroom.  Chatty, but nice row-mates.  I got a Coke Light…it cost me like 3 euro, but I got one.  We were only 30 minutes late, so all in all, I can’t really complain too much.  The best part was the exit row briefing…you had to speak and understand either Catalan or English to be allowed to sit there.  I got briefed in Spanish, which I was super proud of being able to pass well enough in, and the nice ladies from Kansas got briefed in English.  All went well.

Then…it was off through Barcelona to find my car.  I have a confession here.  I can’t drive a manual transmission.  About 100 countries ago I said I’d learn.  I still haven’t.

My options?  A Mercedes E Class at 199 Euro a day (for two days…ouch!) or a Smart Car for about 50 Euro a day.  You can guess what I chose.  The rental agent spoke basic english, and combined with my basic Spanish we got the song and dance done…including the “are you SURE you don’t want extra insurance?”  Yes.  “Oh, and one last thing…se llama Pépé.”  Yes, my car had a name according to the rental agent.

Introducing…Pépé:

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Now, it’s important to remember.  I’m not a small guy.  I’m 6’3 and north of 200 pounds.  There was enough room in this car for me and my one tiny bag, but that’s about all.  I was welcomed with this hangtag in the car:

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She’s winking at me…there’s something she knows I don’t.  Oh, wait, it’s how to drive this thing!  Wait, I have to shift even though it’s an automatic?  Yes, there’s no clutch, but still the shift from 1st to 2nd up to 5th etc was a manual shift.  Once I kinda got the hang of that…I was off.  Fortunately it took a long time to get out of the car park, which gave me lots of practice.  Programmed Google Maps on my iPhone to read me directions to Andorra…and I was off to brave the highways of Spain!

The first hour was a bit of a hot mess.  I made several wrong turns, forgot to shift, got stuck doing 80 kph on the highway, it was a wreck.  But eventually after 90 minutes or so I was getting the hang of it.  Just in time to pull into a rest stop and refuel.  I needed caffeine and calories.  See, isn’t Pépé gorgeous in the sunlight?  It was about 85F and a gorgeous day.

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Sep 162014
 

Having landed right on time, I grabbed a triple iced espresso for fuel at the D-gates Starbucks, and headed straight to the Washington Flyer bus, where I learned that the bus doesn’t start until 7:45 on weekends. It was only 7:10. Grrrr. In an attempt to (a) be fiscally responsible and (b) curious about the new bus to metro service on the silver line, I waited. This meant a $5 bus plus about $5 metro ride vs a $55 taxi….

Shortly, the bus arrived, and the Washington Flyer bus is no longer a nice coach bus, but a glorified public bus with luggage racks. Actually was glad to see this, because the bus now runs every 15 minutes instead of every 30, and is $5 instead of $10, so it’s definitely a win. Soon we were at metrorail, and I was enjoying a quick ~25 minute ride to my place. Can’t really complain about 40 minutes door to door on public transit from Dulles!

Emerging from metro, looking a bit scruffy, bags already forming under the eyes, but none the worse for wear:

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So, I had exactly 10 hours in DC, one of which was eaten up getting home.  So, first order of business was a load of laundry.  Then packing a weekend bag for Andorra.  See, I’d left my luggage in Honolulu, to be picked up on the way to Vegas, so I had only my laptop bag with me.  Packed a weekend bag, and by 10am I met some friends at a local restaurant for a quick brunch and catching up on this crazy trip.  One of the friends did a 48 hour Johannesburg mileage run with me about a year ago, so the insanity was easily related to.

Now 11:30 and still 6 hours before my flight….so I unwisely went and played an hour of hockey.  Why not, right?  It’ll make me tired for the flight!  Had a great time, more than a little amused at my own insanity, and by 2p was home, showered, and right back on Metrorail to take me to Dulles.

I’d checked in online, so it was straight to security where there was almost no wait at pre-check, and less than 15 minutes after arriving at Dulles I was already in the D-gates Red Carpet Club, which I don’t think I’d been to in years.  It was time for some delicious Tilamook cheese and a few glasses of Château le Jeff.  Despite a huge brunch of french toast and two sides of bacon, I was starving from hockey, so I went to town:

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The Dubai flight was also leaving from the D gates shortly, and the people watching was nothing short of fascinating.  Several younger military looking types getting absolutely tanked on Bud Light (their lack of tolerance made me ashamed to be American) and perhaps the scariest part…a middle aged portly Texan guy who ordered “6 shots of Jack Daniels on the rocks.”  Yes, he paid like $70 for it and didn’t seem phased.  I’m gonna guess he has a fear of flying…more surprisingly the bartender didn’t seem surprised at all.

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Aug 092014
 

Earlier this year, United published, either by mistake or not – it’s not entirely clear – a $1500 all-inclusive business class fare for the summer from a handful of U.S. cities to a handful of European cities.  There were somewhere around 100 possible combinations.  Unfortunately, Washington was not one of them.

This was probably a good thing, because my leave time for 2014 is already all committed, due to my upcoming four weeks in the South Pacific in November, and two plus weeks in East Africa over new years.

But wait…Baltimore is on the list…now that’s tempting…even for a three day weekend.  But it was $1500 for any combination…Baltimore felt lame when perhaps I could do it from the west coast.  Yup, I found San Diego…but that meant getting to San Diego…and if I’m going to go all the way to San Diego, I wonder if….YES once again United seems to want to FORCE me to go to Hawaii.  Honolulu to Paris, business class in August, $1500.  In contrast, the lowest coach fare at the time was about $1650.  This is an absolute bargain.

Alas, I didn’t have the leave.  Didn’t stop me from looking how I could conserve days, and when I could do it.  Wait, I need to be in Las Vegas for a bachelor party late-August.  Las Vegas is on the way back to DC from Hawaii.  That was already planned Wednesday through Friday, so I just needed a way to get Monday-Tuesday off.  I trimmed a couple days off my South Pacific trip…and it was set.

Now…to justify the cost of flying to Hawaii.  Ok, Hawaii-Paris would earn 25,000 more miles than DC-Paris, so that justifies $400 of the fare to Hawaii.  My ticket to Vegas was going to be $1200 for a P fare, so suddenly $1600 is justified.  Buying DC-Honolulu and upgrading with a regional upgrade, done.  One way Honoulu-Vegas on a P fare…done.  Vegas to DC on a P fare…done.  It was all too perfect.

Unfortunately, to guarantee the upgrade, I had to fly DCA-Cleveland-LA-Honolulu.  Ugh.  Leaving at 6am.  Double ugh.  Oh well.  But then, there was a schedule change.  I whined to United I wasn’t comfortable with a 30 minute connection in Cleveland now.  I found upgrade space on DCA-San Francisco-Honolulu leaving at 8:30 – 2.5 hours later – and connecting to the same Honolulu flight.  I begged.  They relented.  It was getting too awesome.  Simply too awesome.

The routing was set:

map

You may have noticed Barcelona in there.  See, I decided that 48 hours in Paris in August might get boring since the city clears out a bit.  Plus, I’ve been to Paris literally dozens of times.  So, I did what any good country collector would…set out to find the last country in Europe I haven’t been to:  Andorra.  Only way really to get there is to drive from Barcelona and Toulouse.  Barcelona had better flight connections…plus, the only automatic transmission rental car I could get was a Smart Car.  The chance to drive, my 6’3 self in a smart car, through the Pyrenees was way too much to pass up.  I booked it.

Then, looking at a map of Andorra, I noticed something super fun.

See this?

Llivia

Thats Llívia, Spain, a little tiny Spanish enclave not connected to Spain, but completely surrounded by France.  To a geography nerd like me this is perhaps the coolest thing ever.  Then, I thought…wait, I’m going to enter Andorra from Spain…I could exit out the other side of Andorra into France, and then drive to Llívia, back into Spain!

llivia2

But of course, this isn’t nerdy enough.  So, I’ll get to Andorra, and spend the night.  Next morning, drive into France, then back into Spain at Llívia, and have coffee…or whatever one does late morning in Spain.  Then, I’ll drive for a very short way BACK into France at Bourg-Madame and have a nice lunch.  Maybe a Croque Madame in Bourg-Madame…then back to Spain and Barcelona Airport, where I will fly to Paris for the night.  Before flying back to Hawaii.

llivia3

So, are you lost yet?  So far we’ve done:

Day 1:  DCA-San Francisco-Hawaii – Overnight Honolulu

Day 2:  Day in Honolulu, and Honolulu-DC redeye

Day 3:  All day in DC where I hope to have brunch with friends, play some hockey, before the redeye DC-Paris

Day 4:  Paris-Barcelona, drive in my little Smart Car to Andorra

Day 5:  Drive Andorra to France to Llívia, Spain for coffee, to Bourg-Madame, France for lunch, to Barcelona, Spain for a flight to Paris, France where I’ll spend the night, get a great meal hopefully and maybe some drinks with friends.

Whew.  Because next up is:

Day 6:  Paris-San Francisco-Honolulu, and dinner in Honolulu

Day 7:  Honolulu-San Francisco-Vegas

Day 8-9-10:  Vegas.  What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Day 11:  Vegas-Houston-DC

I’m already tired, and the trip hasn’t started.  If I pack strategically, I can take a suitcase to Honolulu on Day 1, with everything I’ll need in Vegas, and leave it there to be picked up on Day 6.  Of course, if I forget anything, I have 10 hours (random) in DC on Day 3 to pick up anything I forgot…plus pack a weekend bag for Paris and Andorra, lol

This is crazy.  I’m insane.  But you’re going to read it…admit it…  😉

Apr 052014
 

It was spread a bit too widely to be a mistake fare, and Air Canada, Lufthansa, and Brussels Airlines matched the fares too, so it seems this one was intentional.  However, it was odd.  Fares from a majority of US cities, excluding United hub cities of course, to a variety of cities in Europe for $500 roundtrip plus taxes and fuel surcharges.  Depending on the cities it came to roughtly $1400 to $1600 total.

Of course, when I saw Honolulu was in the mix, I had to jump on it!

Problem was, since United massively devalued miles earlier this year, I cashed in around 500,000 so my travel year is packed.  And this deal would only be valid in July and August, when I already had some other commitments.  Early July was out, since I was already going to St. Kitts for a long weekend.  Late July/Early August also wouldn’t be good time-wise…and I was to go to Vegas the last weekend of August for a bachelor party.  Wait.  Vegas is on the way from Honolulu to DC…kind of.  This got me thinking….

Getting to Honolulu is easy…and can be done in one day.   I found a routing that would instantly confirm with a United regional upgrade as well.  So far this is working well.

Now, Hawaii to Europe on the business class deal… settled on HNL-IAD-CDG since it has a 10 hour layover in DC, enough time for me to repack bag, run any errands I might need to…or just be silly since it’s a Sunday.

I’d have just over 48 hours in Paris.  From what I remember Paris is rather dead in August, so I won’t likely stay there…but I might.  I’m also looking at buying roundtrip flights down to Toulouse, renting a car, and driving to Andorra for the night…the last country I need to visit in Europe.  Any thoughts on this?   I arrive into CDG around 6am and depart two days later around 10am.

On the way back, I’m doing the ultra-long CDG-SFO-HNL…going to be a very long day…and a very short night in HNL, because at 6am the next day I fly HNL-LAX which confirmed instantly with a regional upgrade, and LAX-LAS which wouldn’t confirm, so ended up paying like $40 more for a P fare.  Bargain of an upcharge!

Then, the only decision was how to get back from Vegas.  Since I’m looking to be a bit shorter on qualifying dollars than qualifying miles, I decided to go with the United P fare routing LAS-IAH-ORD-DCA.  Probably should have skipped the ORD, but it was the same price…and what’s one more flight at this point?

In the end, here’s what it looks like:

map

Total stats are:

27,128 butt-in-seat miles flown
11 days, 16 hours traveled
65,125 redeemable miles earned
37,542 elite qualifying miles earned
3,275 premier qualifying dollars earned

It should be an absolute crazy adventure…and I can’t wait!