Mar 112018
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 082018
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oooh Singapore A350…sexy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 082017
 


After a good night’s sleep thanks to great wine and a beef coma, got up early to do a bit of walking around the city before my evening flight to Sao Paulo. I wanted to get to the airport early and explore the newish AmEx Lounge there for a couple of hours before my flight. The Sheraton had no problem giving me a 4pm checkout, so I had most of the morning and afternoon to walk around.

Rather than get breakfast in the lounge I opted to get an early start and get breakfast on the way. Nice try on the name Argentina, but the Dulce de Leche muffin was absolutely delicious.

Continued walking, and came to the Avenida 9 de Julio, one of the widest avenues in Buenos Aires with nearly six lanes in each direction.

As I was crossing the street (legally according to having the “walk” sign) a driver made a left turn right into the crosswalk, striking me and launching me onto the hood of her car. I won’t write this up again as I already did a post on this with all the details, but fortunately her car ended up worse off than I did:

I was completely in shock after being hit, despite being upright, and all I remember was yelling and gesturing at the driver to pull over and shouting at some pedestrians to call the police. One or more drivers must have seen the accident and called it in, because the police appeared in less than a minute after I was hit.

After shaking it off, and determining I was more or less ok, for some reason I decided to continue on my walk. Perhaps the ultimate irony about the accident is that I was struck by a car…walking to a cemetery. My destination had been the Recoleta Cemetery to a bit of touristing around. Main entrance to the cemetery:

The main attraction of the cemetery, Evita’s family crypt:

Tons of huge elaborate tombs sitting in rows:

As I left the cemetery, I got to thinking that if I was going to continue on with the trip, I would be doing a lot of flying over the coming weeks, and the last thing I needed was the possibility of a rogue blood clot from possible internal bleeding. Problem solved when I stopped in a pharmacy to buy some aspirin…it was amusing the look on the pharmacist’s face when he queried why I needed it. Positive from this whole experience: my Spanish vocabulary has expanded to being able to talk about being hit by a car. Hah!

Small, but empty park, on the walk back to the hotel:

As I went to check out, I encountered a phenomenon I’ve never had anywhere in the world. Normally, when leaving a country, I pay the bill with any cash that I might have left over in order to not lose it before my next trip and then pay the rest with a credit card. I’ve started doing this since Uber became common, knowing I wouldn’t need any cash after leaving the hotel.

However, upon checking out at the Sheraton, the guy at the front desk told me that if I paid the room in cash, then he would need to charge me tax on it. If I paid with credit card, no tax. Made no sense at all. Thinking back on it, I might have had about $50 in cash, and the tax was going to be something like $40, so I decided even if I had to exchange it at the airport at a bad rate I would come out ahead. It was just strange.

Then I called an Uber…and it turned out that in Buenos Aires Uber doesn’t accept American Express. However, you CAN pay the driver in cash. That went a long way to taking care of my leftover cash.

Quickish trip to the airport, and on the way we drove down Avenida 9 de Julio. Stopping at a red light, a mime came out into the middle of an intersection and did a little performance for tips. I get it: wear a bright red shirt and be 6’4 and you get hit by cars, but if you’re a mime you’re safe. Odd.

Check-in, immigration, and security were nice and easy at the Aerolineas Terminal at the airport, and soon I had found the American Express Lounge. This lounge was recently built when the new terminal opened, and had been moved from the old terminal. In the old terminal, there was also a lounge within a lounge only available to Centurion Card holders, so I was curious to see if it existed in the new lounge as well.

Entered, showed my card, and was pointed to a door on the side and told someone will be right here to escort you in. Nice! I was the only one in the lounge when I arrived, and had the whole place to myself. While it was self-serve if you wanted, there was also one lounge attendant who kept insisting on bringing me drinks. Half of the bar…great liquor selection (especially the Johnny Walker Blue) and a pretty respectable Veuve for champagne:

Other half of the bar, including wine selections:

The main seating area of the lounge:

I decided to start with a glass of champagne, to celebrate my near miss with the car. Note the Veuve Cliquot stemware:

Buffet area:

Tasty selection of cheeses. These weren’t out when I arrived, but when I got there (I think I was the first guest of the day) they quickly rushed to set up the entire buffet just for me.

…that included mini sandwiches and a selection of cheeses and cold cuts:

After a bit, I decided to be extra-classy and enjoyed some sour cream and onion Pringles with a glass of Johnny Walker Blue…neat. This was followed by a couple more glasses…which weren’t measured…but the bottle was roughly 1/3 full when I arrived…and empty by the time I left…

Fortunately, the boarding gate was just two down from the lounge, and the lounge attendants insisted I enjoy the lounge until the last possible moment so I could be the last to board. At this point, there were two other very loud Americans in the lounge, waiting for their Delta flight to Atlanta. Strange characters, dressed in jeans and hunting jackets with baseball caps, and complaining that there was no Budweiser in the lounge. Not who I would imagine to be Centurion Card holders, but you never know!

Aerolineas Argentinas (Operated by Austral) flight 2242
Buenos Aires, Argentina (EZE) to São Paulo, Brazil (GRU)
Depart 22:00, Arrive 22:45, Flight Time: 2:45
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration LV-CET, Manufactured 2010, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 75,694
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,452,671

All aboard, I was the only one in business class on the ERJ tonight. Only one of nine seats taken, but coach looked to be pretty much completely full except a seat or two.

Oh look, there’s even a mini amenity kit. Despite the J code on the ticket, I guess technically the call it “ClubEconomy.” Probably a better description, since when most people think of business class they think of seats that convert into flat beds and not domestic/regional seats.

Welcome to Seat 3A

I’m going to rant a little now. About 15 minutes into the flight, the flight attendants came on the PA system and announced there would be no service on this nearly three hour flight, due to the fact they were expecting turbulence. Now, I get this for short periods, or if there was an area with known weather, but this was one of the smoothest flights I’ve ever been on. Maybe two or three little bumps the whole way.

As if to make their point, they also blocked off the flight deck and galley by placing a service cart in the aisle. Want to use the washroom? Head all the way to the back of the plane…because that’s safer when there’s suppose to be turbulence? The turbulence was also sooooooo bad (sarcasm) that the crew spent around 90% of the flight standing around in the galley eating and drinking and chatting with each other…including at least one of the pilots.

No question this was just a lazy crew looking for an excuse to provide no service at all. I even tried to ring the call button at one point to ask for a glass of water…multiple times…and was completely ignored. This must have been the laziest crew in the history of aviation.

Thus, I can’t comment on food and beverage available….because we were never offered anything. Water included. Awful.

Great view of Sao Paulo on descent, however…the city just goes on and on!

After deplaning, quick shot of our ERJ:

Managed to change the rest of my pesos at the airport at a pretty bad rate, but losing 20% on $20 or so isn’t really the end of the world as far as things go. Decided to take an official taxi which accepted pre-payment by credit card, and I was off to my hotel to enjoy two nights in Sao Paulo before continuing on to Africa!