Jun 112017
 

There was something refreshing about being able to head out at 10p on a Sunday for a work trip instead of leaving on a Friday or Saturday and losing an entire weekend. I was actually able to enjoy my weekend, and only head out to the airport around 7pm to catch my flight to Frankfurt. Only one small problem: I was on a J fare, and while my United upgrade to first cleared at the time of booking, Lufthansa was still holding me on the waitlist to Almaty despite first only being booked to three of eight seats. It looked like I wouldn’t find out my fate until I got to Frankfurt. That said, Frankfurt to Almaty (via Astana) was a daytime flight, and with a 2-2-2 configuration in business it was questionable if it was even worth the upgrade.

This was my first time flying United out of Dulles in about six months, and it was rather pathetic to see how United has completely given up on their first product. Premium check-in is tucked away, and there’s no separate check-in for first anymore. Even worse, the agent I spoke to didn’t know there was a difference! “We just have Polaris class now.” Sigh, it just gets worse and worse. It’s to the point I’ve already more than doubled my premier qualifying dollars, have hit the miles, but still don’t have my required four segments on United. Sigh. They still have the best frequent flier program in Star Alliance, however.

Fast forward to the terminal, and my first task was to find some new headphones. I had left mine somewhere on a recent trip, and had forgotten to order new ones, and by the time I realized it it was mid-day Saturday and I didn’t know anywhere good in my ‘hood to buy them. So Dulles it would be.

After getting to the C terminal on the walk to the Global First lounge, I came across one of those Best Buy vending machines I’ve seen the past couple years. I was intrigued by the novelty, and picked up some wired Beats earbuds from the machine. A few weeks later, and I have to say: they’re really good quality and I’m thrilled with my purchase!

Got to the Global First lounge, which was absolutely packed. It’s my understanding they pretty much let all Global Services members in business class in now, and it was the most crowded I’ve ever seen it. High quality self-service bubbles as always, but what passes for cheese these days is absolutely pathetic. The quality of this club is now firmly below the Chicago Polaris lounge. Next time, I’ll actually go to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge in the B Terminal.

Wait for the flight was uneventful, and soon it was time to board.

United flight 932
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 22:00, Arrive 12:10 next day, Flight Time: 8:10
Boeing 777-200, Registration N219UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 45,736
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,422,613

Shockingly, United First had been booked to eight of eight a full two weeks before this flight. Either they gave away lots of upgrades and awards well in advance, or they actually managed to sell some first fares. Either way, in years of flying United I’ve never seen first sold out on a Europe route before the day of flight.

Nothing says first class like welcome aboard sparking wine in a plastic bottle served in a plastic flute. I know some people actually consider this aspect of “Polaris” charming, but to me it’s charming in the same way that a Costco hotdog is better than cooking a hotdog at home. You can put cheap lipstick on a pig, but this says “no class” way more than “first class.”

Best part of Polaris: the gel cooling pillow. This proactive crew passed them out to the eight passengers in first, and were soon heard telling the passengers behind us in business there were none left. United corporate may be failing to protect United First, but this crew was spot on.

Soon after takeoff the ramekin of warm nuts arrived, complete with a skewered olive, mozzarella, and tomato. I guess its better than just nuts?

“Seared tuna, kale salad with apple and red quinoa, wasabi paste” – while the tuna looked appetizing it was absolutely flavourless, and the wasabi paste looked more like a baby turd. While better than some of United’s previous attempts at a business appetizer (like the single skewered prawn I got once) it still fell way short.

Carrot ginger bisque soup. Giving credit where credit is due, this was perfectly seasoned and actually delicious.

Salad of cabbage, bok choy, carrot, mango. Just…no. Who needs that much raw cabbage in flight. Nothing says first class like cheap shredded cabbage. Since they’re in this picture, I will note, I love the golf ball salt and pepper shakers in Polaris. Also in this picture which I hate: first class service ON A TRAY.

“Seared short rib” with barbecue sauce, basmati rice, carrot, sugar snap peas. I showed this to a friend who agreed the radioactive red colour of the short rib was rather terrifying. Fortunately, it tasted much better than it looked. I normally hate fattier cuts of beef, but something about United’s short rib gets me every time.

Sigh. What United calls a cheese plate. I might have been impressed if not for what you will see later in this post…

Remember when United served ice cream sundaes? Sure, it’s extremely simple, but sometimes it’s nice to have something simple that reminds you of being a kid. Unfortunately, the fancy new Polaris ice cream sundae dishes seem to have a habit of shattering and putting glass shards in peoples’ mouths, so United has replaced the ice cream sundae with cheap mango sorbet in a cardboard container. Gross.

The mini apple pie and chocolate/nut bar were fairly tasty, to be fair.

Nothing more to say about this flight. I chose the flight for three reasons, and United delivered on all three: the late 10pm departure time, a nice cool cabin for sleeping, and generous pours of red wine which enabled nearly six hours of uninterrupted sleep on the way to Frankfurt. Sleep was so good, actually, that I was out cold until 10 minutes before landing. I had ensured the crew 10 minutes would be enough to bring me to life, and they kindly obliged. I feel the need to mention again this crew was fantastic, and it’s sad United didn’t give them more to work with and be proud of.

On the taxi in Frankfurt, an Uzbekistan 767 which I am very excited to be booked on in a couple of weeks:

Upon landing, I pulled up my reservation on Lufthansa’s app, and something had changed. The waitlisted segment had gone away and it looked like it was confirmed it first, but it was really hard to tell. So, I just headed to the first class lounge, and pretended that all was right. The agent was puzzled, and gave me the “but you are booked in business class.” I told them the app told me the upgrade was confirmed, and when they checked a bit more “yes, the gate JUST processed it. Please come in and enjoy.”

Quick shower, where of course I picked up another Saunaente before enjoying a double espresso and glass of bubbles for “breakfast.”

Fortunately for me, my flight today would be departing from a bus gate, meaning I got a ride to the plane. They may have waited until the very last minute to confirm me, but I was going to get the full Lufthansa First service today. Let’s see how it compares to the Untied flight I just came off of.

Lufthansa flight 646
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Astana, Kazakhstan (TSE)
Depart 13:20, Arrive 22:55, Flight Time: 5:35
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKP, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 48,422
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,425,299

Wow…champagne…and it’s with classy nuts, not in a plastic flute, and I get a rose. I love the little classy touches on Lufthansa.

My ride to the plane…one of the things I love about Lufthansa.

Beef tartar amuse bouche. A bit risqué for an inflight meal, but super tasty with a little creme fraiche.

It may not be the highest quality caviar, but there is something simply elegant about Lufthansa’s caviar service which I love. Plus, they always give me an extra generous helping.

Lufthansa does an appetizer trio, and I admit that usually at least one of the appetizers is a little funky. Today was veal with turnip salad and wild garlic sour cream (super tasty), pomegranate couscous with feta and cashew nuts (also tasty), and the odd prawn cocktail. Odd because it was a single prawn with a creamy sauce that I understand is a german thing. Regardless, compare this (with caviar) with the tuna nightmare United served me, and you can do the maths.

Salad…it’s hard to be too fabulous with salad, and this was just ok. Mixed leaf lettuce with sauteed mushrooms, tomatoes and pumpkin seeds.

Now, I admit I don’t normally think of this as a main course, but when it is Spargelsaison in Germany you can’t pass on the white asparagus entree. I’ve had this a few times now, and I won’t lie – I’ll book trips in May just to have it again. The hollandaise sauce is the perfect accompaniment and the side of smoked turkey breast and cecina de vacuno added just enough protein to make it worth it.

See the United cheese plate above. See the entire Lufthansa cheese CART below. I don’t think anyone does a cheese course like Lufthansa does.

The only reason the plate below is small is because I was stuffed. A couple of the cheeses were wonderful and I would have liked more for sure.

a bit unusual, but delicious: melon strawberry gazpacho with sour cream ice cream. It was so good I asked for more later in the flight, but alas it had all been eaten.

To finish it off, a delicious double espresso with chocolate.

After a few hours of working, I was offered a mezze plate and pretzel before landing in Astana for our brief stopover. Accompanied with another double espresso and some Johnny Walker Blue of course.

Since there was no more gazpacho, it was insisted that I have the tahiti vanilla ice cream with warm cherries. I love cherries, and these were nice and sour and perfectly delicious. Two for two with the desserts tonight. Sure beats pre-packaged mango sorbet!

When we landed in Astana, 90% of the passengers got off. This was quite in contrast to my last time on this flight maybe six months ago when almost everyone was going to Almaty. Today, it would be just me in first class, three people in business class, and according to the crew maybe 40 in economy.

Lufthansa flight 646
Astana, Kazakhstan (TSE) to Almaty, Kazakhstan (ALA)
Depart 23:45, Arrive 01:30 next day, Flight Time: 1:45
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKP, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 49,013
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,425,890

I was offered a snack of some sad sandwiches on the segment, but opted to just relax and have a couple of Johnny Walker Blues before landing. Watched some more tv, and before I knew it another fabulous flight in Lufthansa First was unfortunately over. Now, time to get to Kazakhstan and get to work!

May 182017
 

So, a lot of this post is likely going to seem a bit familiar since I did this exact same route just four weeks prior. That trip, however, wasn’t the best Lufthansa First has to offer (at least in the air) although it was still a great trip. I was curious to see how this one would compare…and would it satisfy my craving for Lufthansa First for a while.

Rather than get up early, I had a bit of a revelation the night before. Why get up, shower, dress, get sweaty walking to the First Class Terminal when you can just roll out of bed, throw on anything, and walk there and shower…thus gaining nearly 30 minutes of FCT time? That was settled, so all that was needed was to roll out of bed and across the street to Starbucks, have a quick iced coffee, check out, and walk to perhaps my favourite airport terminal in the world. 10 minute walk from the Sheraton, and I was…”home:”

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I don’t think anyone (except maybe me and a few frequent flier nerds) actually walks to the terminal’s lower level entrance, and most get dropped off 0n the “departures” level of the terminal/airport one level up. But, for the few of us who do, Lufthansa has the entrance well-signed:

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Took the lift up, quick check-in and when the agent saw my name he seemed to have a flicker of recognition. He still asked if I’d ever been to the terminal before, and when I said yes he escorted me through security, told me to make myself comfortable, and he would be right back.

I’d heard rumour that the limited edition Easter ducks were long gone at this point, and when he came back five minutes later with my boarding pass, he told me “we’ve been expecting you, and we saved you a special Easter duck knowing you would want one for your collection for sure!” Now if that isn’t service, I don’t know what is…

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I was pretty hungry by this point, so I joined the duck for a breakfast of fresh-squeezed orange juice and some eggs benedict…which was delicious. Not just “airport good” but honestly one of the best eggs benedict that I’ve had anywhere in the world.

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Still not quite full, I decided to be healthy with some of their more “exotic” fruits on the buffet, and had some dragonfruit, mango, and pomegranate…which I promptly offset with a couple of viennoiseries….

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I was offered more water, and while Voss may be good enough for Madonna, I requested some Valser still this time. Why? Because with the First Class Terminal’s water menu…that’s your prerogative!

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After breakfast had a nice long shower and just took some time to relax. Sitting around in lounges gets old quickly, so was nice to use up my time this morning productively before it was time to head to the plane. I was the only one in the terminal headed to Chicago today, so the Porsche to the plane was all mine:

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Long ride around the airport today, which ended with a nice picture of my rides:

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It’s always great being the only one to walk from a car to the plane, and see the looks you get from your fellow passengers when boarding 😉

Lufthansa flight 430
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 12:45, Flight Time: 9:00
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYP, Manufactured 2014, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 41,043
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,417,020

Upon boarding champagne was quickly offered, and perfection awaited. Special treat today: 1998 Henriot Cuvée des Enchanteleurs. Don’t get me wrong, I love airlines that pour Krug and Dom, but there’s something extra thoughtful about pouring a slightly more obscure high end champagne. The Sir Winston Churchill on Asiana was memorable, and this Henriot was also a delicious surprise.

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Pre-departure amuse bouche of chevre with mandarin…and if I remember right a roasted red pepper sauce.

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Up in the air, the table was set, and the usual stellar Lufthansa service provided. I must have smiled because upon commenting it’s always nice to see the garlic bread and caviar…

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…they made sure to offer an extra-generous portion of caviar today.

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Trio of starters: marinated tenderloin of veal with lingonberries, smoked rainbow trout with purple potato salad, and leipziger allelei vegetable salad. The salad was underwhelming, but the other two were fantastic.

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Spring onion soup with parmesan cheese and croutons – surprisingly flavourful and tasty!

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Time for the main event – decided to go with the fish option today, and the “monkfish in pommery mustard sauce with ginger cucumber and parsley potatoes” was absolutely amazing. I could have done without the potatoes, but the monkfish was delicious.

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Here comes the cheese and dessert cart. I don’t think anyone does cheese like Lufthansa.

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Nice selection, with some sweet biscuits. Fantastic.

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How could I resist finishing with an apple strudel and some Johnny Walker Blue?

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Ok, one more if you insist…

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Somehow, I wasn’t tired after all this food, so opted for a double espresso and a couple of movies.

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After about five hours of movies, it was time for a pre-landing snack. I was recommended the seafood soup with crawfish tails and chilis and the Spanish meat and cheese plate. Went great with another glass of the delicious Henriot and some pretzel bread.

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Quince jelly and my favourite – manchego cheese. Yum.

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A couple of scoops of cassis sorbet and another glass of Henriot to finish off an absolutely delightful flight.

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They wouldn’t let me finish without a couple of chocolates for the road.

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All in all, another fantastic flight with Lufthansa that lives up to my expectations as my favourite first class product in the world. It’s not the most private seat, it’s not the most exotic food, it’s not necessarily “big name” champagne, but what it is – to me – is solid in every respect. I know what I’m going to get, and I don’t have to wonder if the crew will be good, or what could go wrong today. So, instead of having my Lufthansa fix for a bit, you can believe that I’m looking for another opportunity soon to enjoy it. If I’m lucky, it’ll happen this week…

Immigration and customs were a non-event in Chicago with Global Entry, and I was off to Starbucks to try and wake myself up. Seriously America, I leave you alone for a week and you come up with Unicorn Frappucinos? I weep for the future.

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I stopped by the United Club. I don’t know why. It was depressing. Hot, crowded, and felt like a high school cafeteria. I think I might have lasted five minutes before leaving.

United flight 622
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:00, Arrive 17:55, Flight Time: 1:55
Airbus A320, Registration N432UA, Manufactured 1996, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 41,655
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,418,532

Not much to say here – I think I dozed on and off the whole flight. It was a United domestic flight – there’s nothing to get excited about after getting off of Lufthansa first. It’s funny how context can really impact things – I’m sure it would have been an exciting and thrilling flight (except for the lack of meal) if it was your first time in domestic first.

I was planning after this trip to stay home for a while, but life had other plans. Next absolutely crazy trip starts in under a week, and let’s just call this trip report “One doesn’t go to Marrakesh to study – one goes on the way to Western Sahara! Very Nice! I LIKE!”

May 142017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Along with a reasonably tasty German imperial IPA or three:

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

Apr 252017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apr 032017
 

I don’t usually get too excited for flights, especially when they mean getting up early, but the combination of my room being slightly warm along with my upcoming flight on my favourite product had me up even before I needed to be.

Walked over to the B terminal of the airport, and stopped at Starbucks for a bit of caffeine to get me motivated for the long day ahead. Back to the Sheraton, packed, checked out, and then did the brisk 10 minute outdoor walk to the First Class Terminal. They’re definitely not used to people arriving on foot, but were excellent about checking me in and getting me sorted out.

The lounge was actually rather busy for 8am, and I got the last table in the dining area. I’ve never been here hungry before (usually coming off a redeye) so was nice to be ready to tear into some serious breakfast. Nice table setting to start:L

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This morning’s breakfast menu:

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I decided to go for the eggs benedict and a fresh orange juice. The eggs were actually really good, with just right amount of hollandaise sauce which was just the right tartness. Once again, Lufthansa delivers in my book.

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Now, I may not be Madonna who is rumoured to require Voss water to take her baths in, but I was pretty impressed that the First Class Terminal also has a water menu, which somehow I’ve never noticed on prior trips. Voss for me today!

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Spent a nice 90 minutes in the lounge today, before being told the car was ready to take me to the plane. Unfortunately, there were five of us in the lounge all going to the same plane, so we were packed into one car for the ride. How uncivilized! 😉 But seriously, it’s still a special feeling being driven around the tarmac for a bit before parking right next to your plane:

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There was a long queue in the jetbridge after we took the elevator up, and the driver was having absolutely none of it. “Entschuldigung, bitte!” all the way down, pushing his way passed all the queued up passengers to get on board first. It was on the verge of mildly embarrassing, but at the same time a bit fun to be treated like a celebrity.

Lufthansa flight 430
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 10:40, Arrive 13:10, Flight Time: 9:30
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYG, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 31,507
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,395,908

Good to see after my last couple of flights that the macadamia nuts are back, and the champagne remains cold!

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After takeoff, an amuse-bouche of tomato gelatin, a mini tomato, mozzarella, pesto, and a crostini:

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Clearly, Lufthansa has gotten the message that I enjoy my caviar. Despite being booked six of eight in first today, the portion took up half of the plate! I should start traveling with my own bread crumb scraper…I clearly make a mess!

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Today’s appetizers were tasty, but not mind-blowing.  Tuna with Caper and Veal Sauce, accompanied by green Asparagus.  Quail Egg and Black Salsify Salad presented with Bolzano Sauce (this one was super tasty), and Grilled Vegetable Terrine, Chive Curd and air-dried Beef.

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I liked how they did the salad after the apps…more courses, and extended things a bit more. The passion fruit dressing, as usual, was weird. One thing I don’t like about Lufthansa is how the feel the need to try funky dressings. Of course, maybe I should be thanking them for broadening my horizons…who knows.

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Went with the sous-vide prime boiled veal with red hot pepper mostarda, root vegetables, and parsley potatoes. Honestly, it wasn’t that good. The veal was flavourless, and the whole thing tasted like something out of a 1970s British cookbook. Boiled and bland.

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But not all was lost…cheese was on the way, and delicious as always. How can you not love a cheese cart like this when everyone else serves you dried out pre-plated crap. Rock salt cheese, St. Agur, Goat Cheese with Honey, L’Explorateur and Langres.

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Gorgeous cheese course. I’m not sure anyone does it quite like Lufthansa.

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My usually Johnny Walker Blue and a couple of chocolates to finish things off. No room for a full dessert today.

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After eating, I was stuffed and tired from being up early, so I shut the window shades to catch some zzzzzs. Rose, silhouetted by the one light…

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After four solid hours of sleep, I woke up just in time for the pre-landing snack. The new snack/landing menu are the same, and you just order from it as you please during the flight. I went with the Italian Spuntino plate with melon and ham skewer, bresaola with creem cheese, guinea fowl confit, arugula veal roll, and parmesan cheese and tomato olive tepanade. Definitely a winner for a second meal. Plus…pretzel bread!

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She insisted I also needed some greens, so I agreed to a salad with chicken as well.

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…and some sweets to finish it off. Not because I wanted them, because she insisted. They were, of course, delicious.

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Once again, a fantastic Lufthansa experience. The food today wasn’t exactly my thing for a few of the courses, but the fantastic service more than made up for it. Unlike lots of other folks, I actually find the Lufthansa seat great for relaxing and sleeping, although it is slightly lacking in the privacy front. I feel like they do classy in a great way that is refined and attention to detail without being at all pretentious. I won’t claim it’s the “best” product in the skies, but is probably the one that meshes best with my personality.

Upon landing, I was worried that once again the Global Entry machines would declare me persona non-grata since I was on a one-way ticket from Egypt. I’ve had very unpleasant experiences with this in the past, so really wasn’t looking forward to what might await me. This time, however, no problems at all and I was through immigration in maybe five minutes and on the way to my connecting flight.

Monorail over to the United gates, not too bad of a line at TSA PreCheck for once, and a quick stop at Starbucks for some caffeine. The wait at Starbucks was much longer than TSA (ugh!) but soon I had my caffeine and was ready to struggle through the last leg home.

United flight 622
Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive 18:55, Flight Time: 1:55
Boeing 737-800, Registration N33266, Manufactured 2001, Seat 3B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 33,119
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,396,520

What can I say. Generic non-meal United flight so not much to report on. Was too full to attack the snack basket, so had a super uneventful flight.

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With that, another great trip came to a close! Now, what next…

Mar 032017
 

Easy trip by train to the Sydney airport, and soon was at the Qatar check-in area. Qatar slightly unusually has one queue feeding into separate check-in counters for first and business, so after asking an agent I ducked under the ropes and waited for the first agent to be free. When she was, I started walking up and the guy at the guy of the long queue literally rushed over and physically shoved me out of the way. I politely asked “are you in first class?” and he just glared at me and went to the desk. Ok, whatever.

When the agent was free she did apologize for what happened (although it was not her fault) which was a nice touch. She informed me that I was all alone today in first, so I would have the cabin to myself – which seat would I like? The cabin was empty when I booked so I had already selected the seat I wanted, but I appreciated her letting me know I could have whichever one I would like. Immigration and security were painless, and soon it was into the departures lounge.

I’ve flown into and out of Sydney multiple times, but never on a OneWorld airline internationally, so I haven’t had the chance to use the Qantas First lounge before now. In general, I’m not a fan of what OneWorld calls first lounges, because they’re usually heaving with all the OneWorld Emerald members, so they’re usually no more quiet or exclusive than a Star Alliance business class lounge.

This lounge was no exception as there were well over 100 guests, but it was huge and well laid-out, so didn’t seem quite so noticeable. Decided on a quick shower to wash off all the rushing around the city, and on the way to the showers noticed our plane parked right in front of the lounge. At least it would be a short walk!

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Showers were fine, nothing special, but definitely got the job done. I decided to head over to the dining area and order some light snacks. I had reached out to a few friends who are well-versed in this lounge, and they told me I had to try the salt and pepper calamari. It was good, but not mind-blowing:

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I was going to leave after this, but the very charming lounge agent named Henry wouldn’t let me leave without some dessert. Ok, now this is fun:

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I stayed around a couple more hours getting some work done, with Henry always being attentive. Despite him only asking once, he never forgot any preferences and as I was leaving, I complimented him on his memory. He smiled and told me “there are three rules in hospitality: smile, genuine, and remember.” I need to hire this guy! I honestly can’t say I remember the last time I’ve received such fantastic service from an airline.

Walking out of the lounge to my plane, the lounge features a very interesting living green stuff wall:

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Boarding was a mad rush for first and business, no separate lines or boarding call, and we were soon aboard.

Qatar Airways flight 909
Sydney, Australia (SYD) to Doha, Qatar (DOH)
Depart 22:10, Arrive 05:05, Flight Time: 14:55
Airbus A380-800, Registration A7-APD, Manufactured 2014, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 24,006
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,388,407

First thing I noticed…I was already the fourth person in first. I thought I was the only one? Very polite Korean crew, but there was a rather significant communication gap. Their English was some of the poorest I’ve ever had from a crew on Qatar/Etihad/Emirates. They were perfectly polite, however, and Krug soon made an appearance along with olives and cheese. Unique and tasty choice.

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Lots of space, but the seat is rather lacking in privacy. By this point, the cabin had filled to seven of eight seats. I asked the purser what happened and she said “business class is too full today” so I guess there were six lucky people who got operational upgrades to first. Small silver lining, the one seat kept empty was the one across the aisle from me, so they at least tried to keep it as private as possible.

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Lots of folks are fans of Qatar’s lifejacket demo guy in the video, and it appears they have a special guest in the current video:

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Soon after takeoff, it was warm. Very warm. I asked the crew several times if they could turn the temperature down, and they said they were trying, but the cabin remained extremely warm – I would say approximately 25C/80F.

Started off with the caviar course, which came with blinis and toasts, as well as plenty of sides:

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Rather odd what I think was an attempt at a crab cake, but whatever it was was bland.

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Nice bread basket and amazing butter.

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Sous vide lamb  with spinach and feta cheese gnocchi, crushed peas, baby carrots, and radish. Noticeably lacking: anything resembling spinach or feta cheese or gnocchi. The lamb was also cooked well-done. This whole meal was a huge miss.

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The empty seat across the aisle. With the privacy screen up it was pretty private, but had that seat been taken there would have been very little privacy.

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Rather sad cheese plate. The one thing they did nicely was add some jam/chutney to the offering.

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The entertainment selection was pretty extensive, but every video started with an annoying few minute ad for tourist in Qatar. I got kind of sick of them asking this woman about her wedding day. It was more irritating since I was watching tv shows, so every 20-30 minutes I got to watch her.

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Chocolate soufflé  with strawberry coulis:

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Despite the efforts of the crew, the cabin remained an oven. I decided to change into lightweight gym shorts and shirt to try and sleep as opposed to the rather heavy pajamas they were offering. I also tried to stay awake as long as possible on this flight so that I could somewhat switch to arrival time. It must have done the trip, because I slept for a solid eight hours and woke up just about an hour before landing.

Wasn’t too terribly hungry, but the crew insisted I eat a little. Nice little bread basket, some tea, fresh orange juice, and a banana and cinnamon smoothy, which was actually quite tasty.

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I really wasn’t feeling a big breakfast, but I wanted to eat a bit in the lounge, so I just asked for the “cured balik salmon with chive cream cheese, egg and caper berries.” It was smaller than I expected, but plenty untilI got to the lounge. The crew actually seemed offended whtn I wouldn’t let them cook me eggs.

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The cabin hadn’t cooled down at all in flight, so I waited until the last moment to change back into regular clothes. We landed in a very dark Doha about fifteen minutes ahead of schedule and I was wide awake thanks to the time shift.

Overall, Qatar was pretty much what I expected: good, but not great. Like Emirates and Etihad I think the first class product was a lot of show without the little touches that make first class “exceptional.” You can’t just spend money on things like caviar and champagne and expect a world-class product to materialize. It was a big step up from Thai/United/American, but nowhere in the same league as the big boys like Cathay, Singapore, Lufthansa, Air France.

Next up, two hour transit and on to Cairo!

Mar 012017
 

After landing, I had initially planned to head to the office for a few hours to get some work done, but it was absolutely pouring outside and the Private Room was beckoning. Had a rather long walk from my gate today to the lounges, but once inside and after showing my boarding pass, one of the agents insisted on escorting me to the Private Room.

What I’ve personally always loved about Singapore is they manage to deliver perfect service without ever coming across as “hovering” over you or being at all pretentious. It’s the perfect combination of letting you know you’re a valued customer, but giving you the space and amenities to enjoy your time with them how you please. This was my first visit to the Private Room and it was nice to be walked to my seat, asked what I want (Coke Light, still water, and a cold towel please) and then left alone for a couple of hours to get some work done on the laptop.

It was about 2pm by this point, and I was starting to get hungry, so I wandered over to the dining room to check out some lunch. I had the entire place to myself. In the entire lounge at this point it was just me and one other couple. View from my table:

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Panoramic of the Private Lounge dining room. I can’t imagine people eat from the small buffet often.

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Glass of bubbly and some delicious mixed satay to start. The peanut sauce was fantastic. I would quite literally come back to the Private Room just for another helping of this!

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Main course of lobster and asparagus. Skipped the potatoes – don’t want to fill up on empty starches!

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Ice cream? I really shouldn’t..you insist? Fine, for research purposes, of course…

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At this point, it had stopped raining outside, so I decided to walk off the calories and head into the city for a bit as I had almost nine hours left before my connecting flight. Here’s the one thing I didn’t like about the Private Room – nowhere to store luggage. I asked…and then I asked even more nicely, but was sent away to the main terminal left luggage. Got there, and of course the T3 left luggage was closed today. Seems they alternate every day, and today only the T1 terminal left luggage was in service. Seriously?

Took the tram over to T1, found left luggage where a very friendly gentleman patiently weighed my bags and took my money, and then I was able to head through immigration. Just going to the city for three or four hours? Apparently that’s not suspicious at all in Singapore, passport was stamped and I was on my way. Quick train ride into the city, and a great walk through Bugis and and the Downtown Core. I resisted stopping for an overpriced touristy Singapore Sling, and was content to just wander and have some Starbucks. (Again, research purposes of course.)

On my way back to the train I ran into a special Valentines Day outdoor concert where people were having an Adele lip synch contest. It was all at once the most culturally fascinating and disturbing thing I think I’ve ever seen! Made it back to the airport around 7pm and had a quick walk through the terminals before heading back to T1 to retrieve my bags. Tried for 20 minutes to get a good shot of a butterfly in the butterfly garden, but no luck, so finally settled for a picture of people taking a picture of butterflies:

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Back to the Private Room, showed, my boarding pass, and as it was a new shift the desk agent wanted to walk me back to the Private Room. I told her I knew the way and could show myself since I was returning from earlier in the day, and she was happy to let me go. Again, service offered, declined, and no “are you REALLY sure?” Perfect service. The real kicker was when I got back to the Private Room desk, the agent greeted me by name – despite the shift change. I had to ask her. “My colleague from earlier today told me you would be coming back and what you looked like, so I’ve been expecting you.” Now THAT is service.

Couple more hours of work, and it was time for some dinner. I had heard the couple earlier in the day mentioning that the Thai mango salad was delicious, and they were absolutely right!

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The satay was so good earlier, and I didn’t want a huge meal, so I ordered it again. Unfortunately, it wasn’t mixed this time – so wasn’t quite as good, but still excellent.

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Back to my seat to do a little more work, and immediately the attendant was over suggesting I should have more champagne. Well, if you insist…

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“You’re not having desert? I can’t convince you? How about some chocolate ice cream?” Well, how can I resist that. “Maybe some red wine with that?” I swear, these people are enablers…

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With that, my lovely day in the Private Room was over, and it was time for the short 10 minute walk to the gate.

Singapore Airlines Flight 231
Singapore (SIN) to Sydney, Australia (SYD)
Depart 00:45, Arrive 11:40, Flight Time: 7:55
Airbus A380-800, Registration 9V-SKD, Manufactured 2008, Suite 3F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 16,319
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,380,720

Upon boarding, I was met at the door with “Good Evening Mr. Jason, we’ve been expecting you.” I asked how they knew my name – was I the only one in Suites tonight? “There is one other, but they have an Asian name.” Again, impressive personalized service.

It was noted that I ordered Book the Cook, but “you may like to look at the menu regardless”

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The suite from above:

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Yeah, this is a horrible way to fly.

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Looking across the plane at the empty suites:

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If this suite is a’rockin…don’t come a’knockin!

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Tasty macadamia nuts and cashews with a glass of Krug.

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Very shortly after take off my Boston Lobster Thermadore was delivered. From research online, the difference between the Boston and the classic seemed to be that the Boston is the full lobster, and indeed it was:

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Clearly, it was awful:

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I would post more about the time I enjoyed in suites, but, well, right after eating I fell asleep and was out for fix straight hours, landing just 30 minutes out of Sydney. The crew seemed very disappointed I wasn’t up for any breakfast, but was happy to make me some tea when I asked.

Overall, it was a fantastic experience, and now I have to find an excuse to fly Suites on a much longer daytime route to enjoy all the service (and hopefully get some caviar!) With that, a couple of outstanding flights in Singapore First were behind me, and it was time to enjoy a couple of days in Australia!

Sep 152016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pre-flight champagne celebration selfie:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gorgeous sunset as we crossed over Greenland:

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Greenland certainly looked rugged and desolate:

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The rocky east coast of Greenland:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 142016
 

The best part about The Wing lounge was that I could watch the boarding gate while sipping champagne, and as soon as they announced boarding I could just stroll downstairs and to the front of the line. Nice view of our plane:

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There were a few agents milling around, and as soon as I told one “first class” she escorted me straight to the front of the line and the jetway.

Cathay Pacific flight 846
Hong Kong (HKG) to New York, John F Kennedy (JFK)
Depart 18:45, Arrive 22:40, Flight Time: 15:55
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration B-KPL, Manufactured 2009, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 136,159
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,325,296

I was looking forward to an amazing flight this time, having gotten some tips from frequent Cathay fliers. My previous experience was Hong Kong to London, and while I thought it was a great flight, I didn’t think it was amazing. After 195 countries, I still have things to learn…and the reason I felt the service wasn’t “amazing” before is because part of their amazing service is not disturbing you if you don’t want to. However, use the call button, and they are more than happy to help. Today’s crew provided a warm welcome, and showed me to my seat:

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Welcome about glass of Krug was poured:

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Tuna amuse bouche while boarding was taking place and Krug was being enjoyed:

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Krug with a view:

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Today’s menu:

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Shortly after takeoff the sun was already setting, and more Krug was offered with mixed nuts. This is a small area for improvement, as almonds and cashews aren’t really an inspired choice. I think Lufthansa’s macadamia nuts may win in this category:

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Table was set, Tom Cruise was pouty, and caviar was served:

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Caviar close-up, complete with the mother of pearl spoon. It’s a toss-up who does the best caviar service, but Cathay is definitely one of the best!

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The cauliflower cream soup was pretty bland, and just had a few bites:

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Breaking all my rules had the salad with prawns, and ate them. I figure if anyone can serve non lethal shellfish on a plane it’s Cathay. It was good, but as with the soup rather bland.

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The pork chop was enormous, and the veg flavourful and quite tasty:

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Cheese course was solid, but I have to give the nod to Lufthansa here…if only for the variety of crackers and a few more cheese options:

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At this point, absolutely stuffed, I declined desert and had the bed made up. I didn’t want to sleep for too long so that I could hopefully fall asleep again shortly after landing at 1030p in New York. Still slept 6-7 hours, and woke up with about five hours left in flight. Now, about that dessert I skipped…time for tea and dessert with another movie:

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About two hours prior to landing seemed like a good time for breakfast. Nice fruit plate, croissants and muffins, and some fresh squeezed orange juice to start things off:

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I had heard rumours this was possible, and the flight attendant seemed a bit confused when I asked for it…but hello scrambled eggs topped with caviar, bacon, sausages, and mushrooms:

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…of course, caviar and scrambled eggs wouldn’t be complete without a glass of krug!

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Overall, an amazing Cathay experience – I couldn’t have asked for much more! Super friendly crew, very comfortable seat, and when I mentioned the cabin was slightly warm they were happy to turn it down a bit. I would have to say with this experience Cathay is right up there with Lufthansa, Singapore, and ANA as my favourite airlines in the world to fly in first!

No drama at all with immigration thanks to Global Entry, and hailing an Uber at JFK was also really easy. Short ride to the hotel for the night.

Change of plans meant I had to head straight to DC from New York instead of going on to Toronto as originally planned. This meant an overnight in New York, or taking a 1am regional train. It was an easy choice, and I stayed at the Sheraton Hong Kong….I mean Sheraton LaGuardia East…in beautiful downtown Flushing…named for being a bit of a toilet…

Uber to LaGuardia in the morning where I had breakfast in the AmEx Centurion Lounge first. Glass of Veuve Cliquot and some eggs benedict while doing some plane watching:

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I haven’t seen a plane this yellow since Hughes Air West in the 1980s!

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Proof I was back in ‘Murica….is it wrong I was hoping it would spontaneously combust?

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Caught the shuttle bus over to the old Marine Terminal for my next flight.

Delta flight 2713, Operated by Shuttle America
New York, LaGuardia (LGA) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 12:00, Arrive 13:22, Flight Time: 1:22
Embraer E-170, Registration N872RW, Manufactured 2006, Seat 5A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 136,373
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,325,510

Can’t say too much for being in coach, but hey, 40-50 minutes max flight time in economy comfort with a free firefly and orange juice and snack can’t be beat! Only downside was no Biscoff catered today:

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On approach to DCA…welcome home!

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Overall a fantastic trip, and couldn’t have asked for a better set of flights to end my penultimate country tour with. Now there’s only one more to go with Iceland coming up just over two weeks away!

Jul 132016
 

One of the nice things arriving at Frankfurt in the morning is there’s not such a heaving mass of humanity at immigration. Wait, why was I clearing immigration if I was just connecting between international flights? Well, I had over three hours for my connection, which meant two things: I had time to go to the landside Starbucks (of course!) and two: I was finally going to check out the First Class Terminal.

All my other transits of Frankfurt I’ve been content just going to the first class lounge, which honestly has facilities just as nice as the terminal. But, the First Class Terminal is something special that only Frankfurt does, and I figured I should finally do it. After grabbing Starbucks, I headed downstairs from the check-in level (key point here), out the front of the terminal, walked left for 5-10 minutes, and I was at the elevator to head into the terminal. I think they’re more used to people driving to the terminal (since it really is meant to be a Frankfurt-origin terminal) but no problem at all.

Grabbed a quick shower, and asked the attendants if they could arrange any of the UEFA special edition rubber duckies. No problem, she would search for them while I was showering. As usual, the lounge was heated to a temperature somewhere between roasting and blazing hot, and even a good 15 minute cool shower didn’t help too much. Oh well, the biggest downside of Lufthansa in my book.

Since I hadn’t had breakfast on the plane, I decided to actually have a formal sit-down in the restaurant in the terminal – something else I’ve never done before because I’m always too full from the shorter transatlantic. The sit down menu:

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I had unfortunately just missed breakfast, so lunch it would be. My Wiener Schnitzel arrived maybe ten minutes later, and was an absolutely huge piece…and served with a super tasty potato salad and a couple other sides. Naturally, some champagne to go along with it:

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Look at the size of that cheese wheel on the buffet…it’s like they knew I was coming!

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There was a glass case in the lounge showing many of the limited edition ducks they’ve given away over the years. Just wish I had more of them. A bit of polite begging and I was able to get a couple extra UEFA ones, so if anyone out there is interested in a trade….

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Unfortunately no Porsche for me today, but still a rather nice ride to the plane:

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Lufthansa flight 630
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Dubai, UAE (DXB)
Depart 14:05, Arrive 22:30, Flight Time: 6:25
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKD, Manufactured 2004, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 114,022
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,304,159

Upon boarding, I was only one of two in first class on this flight, and the other passenger informed the purser she would skip eating and sleep the entire flight because she was fasting for Ramadan. Works for me! The usual macadamia nuts and champagne to start things off:

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Today’s menu:

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Amuse bouche:

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Have champagne, am happy:

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The great thing about inflight internet is you can chat with other friends who are also in-flight. A quick chat with my friend Jason on his American Airlines London to JFK flight revealed that I was much happier to be flying Lufthansa First than American today. This looks one step above cat food:

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Whew, now that that trauma was over, we can get onto the serious business: caviar. Large serving number one:

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…and since I was the only passenger eating today, well, this might have happened after serving one was gone:

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All three appetizers and salad. The only one I was really a fan of was the tuna. The grilled vegetables and goat cheese was also decent, but I wasn’t a big fan of the other one.

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This is where it got interesting…I decided since it’s Spargelsaison, which is apparently a big deal in Germany, I went with the asparagus entree, and it was absolutely delicious. The sauce really made the dish, and there were some smoked meats served on the side to ensure the carnivore inside you stayed happy.

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I was getting seriously full by this point, but I had to try the cheese…in the name of science.

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…and finally the chocolate dessert which was absolutely fantastic and worth the splurge. It also paired really nicely with the wine I was drinking. Thankfully I was already way past full, or there might have been a second.

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That didn’t stop me from a couple chocolates and a glass of Johnny Walker Blue.

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…at which point I passed out. For another three hours. That was the end of the flight. Unfortunately I can’t report back on the snacks that were on offer because I slept right through it, but clearly I hadn’t sleep quick enough on the previous flight. Another extremely solid Lufthansa First experience in the books – and even better – it’s now been several flights since they turned it up to sauna temperatures. Maybe Lufthansa finally has lowered their in flight temperature protocols.

I’m definitely going to miss flying Lufthansa first in the immediate future, but after this trip report is done I think I’m going to do a comparison of first class products. Although Lufthansa isn’t perfect (especially on privacy of the seats) they do as good of overall job as anyone!

Next up, off to the hotel for a rather short night in Dubai, and then on to Turkmenistan!