Mar 192019
 


Despite this trip being nearly three weeks long, it was over in a heartbeat. I guess that’s what happens when a trip is split up into several distinct “chunks” involving work and fun, before you know it…it’s over.

After sleeping in and enjoying one more leisurely morning in Moscow, it was time to head to the airport to start the long trek home. Since I had plenty of time I opted to take the metro across town and connect to the Aeroexpress train to Domodedovo. Looks like it was my lucky day, as I had the entire train to myself!

Through immigration no problem (I admit only slight concern due to our “weird” border crossing up by Kirkenes and Murmansk) and off to the lounge. I had lots of time, so I decided to head to the Lufthansa lounge. Got a big “nyet” from the provodnitsa, despite my protestations that it was Star Alliance policy that Star Alliance Gold members on a business class ticket get access to all business lounges, she said Swiss lounge only! I knew better than to argue with a surly provodnitsa!

Off to the Swiss lounge, where it was a very sad array of snacks, beer…and soft drinks. That was it. I had a bit of cash left, and with no exchange posts or plans to return to Russia soon I decided to head to a cafe and see what I could find. Mini bottle of wine and…a champagne flute…and a piece of apple pie. When the lounge isn’t to your standards, make your own lounge!

Soon, it was time to board our non-full flight which was delayed 45 minutes, and head westward!

SWISS flight 1337
Moscow, Domodedovo (DME) to Geneva, Switzerland (GVA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive: 17:55, flight time: 3:55
Airbus A220-100, Registration HB-JBB, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 14,373
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,706,961

Once again, seating is 2 on the left and 3 on the right on this aircraft, which means on the left side in “business” you have an empty next to you, but on the right side only the middle between two people is blocked. Flight wasn’t full, but I enjoyed my seat 1A. Did some plane-spotting on the taxi. First time I’ve ever heard of “Iraero” – looks like they bought some of the old Transaero 777s.

Izhavia Yak-42….now I want to come back just to fly this! Apparently they are headquartered in Izhevsk which is home to the Kalashnikov museum. Seriously, sign me up!

Looks very cold and snowy below on departure from Moscow…

I didn’t expect much of a meal on such a small plane, and was trying to figure out what to do when I landed…except Swiss had a surprise for me. Some mixed nuts/crackers to start…a choice of appetizers…choice of mains…AND choice of desserts. Seriously, on a regional flight on a small plane that seats less than 100?!

Went with the fondue starter, because I figured there was no way that could be any good on a plane. Surprise, it was actually fantastic and delicious. Who would have expected that on a plane!

Then, because the flight attendant recommended it, I went with the veal main course, which was also absolutely delicious.

To finish it off, what was described as a “crumble” and was also amazing. Could have used a little ice cream, but who am I kidding. On such a small plane on such a short flight this meal was absolutely amazing…and as good as many airlines do on much, much longer flights. VERY nicely done, Swiss! Also, let’s not forget, the crew was absolutely amazing, and once they figured out I spoke enough French and German to practice, they mixed it up every time they came around to keep it fun. Seriously one of my best flights in ages – amazing!

Descent into Geneva was much sooner than expected, and despite departing over 45 minutes late we actually landed five minutes early! Holy winds, Batman. Plus, getting in on time allowed us to see the Alps as we landed. Absolutely gorgeous!

Easy arrival, quick train into the city, and checked into my hotel. Chose it for location right next to the train station, and the Hôtel Suisse, Genève met my expectations as conveniently located ,clean, and comfortable. For a three star hotel in a great location with super friendly staff, I highly recommend it if it fits your needs. Plus, look at the view out my window…I knew I’d like this place!

Since I’d already had dinner, and my body clock thought 7pm was the new 9pm, I just wanted a couple of delicious local beers and bed. Au Coin Mousse had been closed for summer holidays on my previous trip, so I was excited to see it open this time. Lots of amazing very local small batch craft beers – I was super happy!

After a super long sleep-in, of course on the way back to the train station I stopped at Starbucks for one last four cheese toastie. Mmmm….

Gasp….what happened to Swiss law and order. My train to the airport was defaced…but colourful!

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the Swiss lounge in Geneva, which is plenty nice, is that between the Newark and Dulles flights it was packed with loud, obnoxious Americans, most porting surly teenagers. It’s funny that it only takes a few weeks away to make something I normally see on a daily basis seem out of place.

United flight 975
Geneva, Switzerland (GVA) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 11:40, Arrive: 15:10, flight time: 9:30
Boeing 767-300, Registration N669UA, Manufactured 1999, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 18,464
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,711,052

So, not too much to say…another completely mediocre United business class flight. I keep hoping I’m going to get one of the 767s with new Polaris seats since more than 50% of them are finally done, but every time I seem to get one of the old ones like clockwork. I will say, however, the food was generally better than average. A few thoughts:

The starter was two rather sad slices of “smoked” salmon and some quinoa salad. Completely forgettable, and in line with the two prawn appetizer. Seriously United, is this the best you can do? The salad, however, was way better than average, so overall, I’ll call the appetizer a wash.

I ordered the shortrib, which I figured would at least be predictable since they’ve been serving it for going on six decades now. However, this flight, apparently the usual neon brown sauce that makes it sort of sweet and BBQ like was totally absent…and it was meh at best.

Cheese course from Europe….better than cheese from the US as always. It’s not because they don’t have good cheese in the US, I suspect United is just too cheap to pay for it. SAD! At least the ice cream was delicious as always!

Giving credit where credit is due, the pre-landing deli plate was tasty. Nice variety of meats, cheeses, and pickles. Overall, nice and light-ish and just what I wanted before landing.

United business class is certainly nothing to write home about, but the seats are adequate (as long as you’re not stuck in snuggle class in the 2-4-2 777 or the “two side” of 2-1-2 business class) and the meals are solid. Wouldn’t be my first choice, but the convenience of nonstop sure can’t be beat!

I thought I’d only be home for three weeks until my next trip, but due to some work drama llama it now looks like nearly nine weeks! What will I do with myself?!

Fortunately, options to Dubai and Berlin in the meantime are already presenting themselves…stay tuned!

Mar 172019
 


Our first several days in Moscow we had seen lots of new sites quite a bit more off the tourist trail, so for the last day and a half we decided to do some of the more traditional touristy things that we had both enjoyed on previous trips. After getting a late start we headed out for a walk, but got distracted when we were both hungry and saw a cool looking craft beer place that looked somewhat promising. Delicious sausages and even better beer – a nice find!

Back into the super-crowded, but somehow always orderly, metro to head down to Red Square. Even food delivery services use the metro in Moscow!

First stop was the GUM department store for one of their delicious pistachio ice cream cones. This has been a tradition on all my trips to Moscow, and a long stop like this wouldn’t have been complete without it!

Like Kirkenes earlier in the trip, GUM seemed to also be in the throes of Chinese New Year with cherry blossoms and Chinese signs everywhere:

GUM on Red Square…since 1893!

A stop in the food store. I love going to grocery stores around the world and getting a sense for how people shop. Now, of course normal Muscovites don’t do their daily shopping at GUM (except maybe some of the higher-up apparatchiks at the Kremlin?) but if you do, plenty of $500+ champagne to choose from!

Or, if vodka is more your think, there’s Oil Brand Vodka….sold in little mini oil drums. A bargain at only $60 per 700ml can!

There were little caviar coolers all over the store, and every time I got near one a very eager sales clerk would dash over to try and help me. Based on the behaviour, I’m pretty sure the caviar sales are on commission. After a few attempts I finally let one of them give me a caviar lecture just so I could get a decent pic!

An ice skating rink had been set up in the middle of Red Square, and I was really wishing I had my skates (and it wasn’t freezing) so I could have a short skate on Red Square. Next year!

The Kremlin in the late afternoon sun.

Saint Basil’s Cathedral – one of those must-take pics in Moscow.

Now, unless you’ve spent a lot of time in Moscow this is an inside joke that probably won’t make sense, but in all my visits I always giggle that in GUM in addition to the public toilets (which you still have to pay for) there’s this sign for a “Historic Toilet.” I decided this was the time to finally see what it was all about!

Price was 100 rubles (about $1.50) instead of the 50 for the regular toilets, and it was certainly much nicer in side. Can’t imagine this is historic from communist days – this must precede the Revolution.

Some shopping for kitschy souvenirs…couldn’t decide between the Putin riding a bear t-shirt and the Trump/Putin “We Love Russia” t-shirt.

There was also this Caviar Russian Big Mac t-shirt….I’m lovin’ it!

One last photo op with Lenin in the metro on the way back to the hotel.

We decided to check out one more KHL night on our last night there, and this time ended up right at centre ice, first row of seats!

The horse mascot was…unusual.

Pre-game lined up for the national anthem. Is this a thing in all countries? I know it is in the US and Canada.

Managed to get a good video of the national anthem. Say what you will, but it’s definitely powerful and patriotic.

…and the game was off. Absolutely terrible seats. Definitely not worth the $15. Total sarcasm.

If the horse wasn’t strange enough, the dancing CSKA star was pretty amazing! Packed stands tonight – probably because it was a Friday game – and the cheerleaders were feeding off the crowd energy!

I figured after two games, I had to pick up a souvenir from a great vacation!

After a great six days in Moscow, it was time to start the trek home, and the end of a fantastic trip. But still one more post coming up…headed home…with an overnight in Geneva.

Jan 252019
 


Landed in Berlin right on time, and despite over a dozen trips my first time arriving by air and getting to experience the joy that is Tegel airport. For an arrival it wasn’t bad – we got a bus gate, the signs to the area to take the bus to Berlin Hbf station was pretty easy, and overall it wasn’t awful. I was later to find out I was deceived.

I’d decided to forego my princess side, and see if I’d enjoy staying at the Moxy Hotel Ostbanhof. Now, I fully knew that I was getting a very basic hotel, and the room would be tiny. Honestly, the room itself was completely fine, even though the neighbourhood was pretty dead. The service, however, was absolutely abysmal. It took over 20 minutes to check in because they were slow as heck, and the complete lack of desk in the room was not something I could deal with for more than one night. I’d booked the one night as an experiment, and sorry to say…I gave up and went to the Marriott after that. I had work to do, and as fun as working in a common lobby area is for people watching…it’s really not conducive to getting work and writing done.

So right…first time at the Marriott since it was my first post-merger trip, and in the past I’d usually chosen the Westin. I have to say, the Marriott was leaps and bounds above the Westin for me – and will definitely be my hotel of choice going forward in Berlin. Great executive lounge with a super long evening happy hour (albeit a bit crowded at times), and cool artwork as well:

Two of the days I was in Berlin I had a few hours free, so went on two long walks, probably about 12-15km each. Some cool graffiti:

Don’t tell anyone, but my guilty pleasure in Germany is the Starbucks Bretzelsnack and a Caramel Macchiato…

Hey Dotard….I found the wall…it’s already been built AND torn down. Plz to open the US Government back up now kplzthxbye!

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Jan 122019
 


So, you’ve already seen the Chernobyl Post, but what else did I get up to in Kiev? Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I didn’t get to see nearly as much as I’d like. However, since this was my first visit in 30 years, I did accomplish my two goals of seeing Chernobyl and getting a feel for the place. I’ll be right up front with that: Kiev was absolutely awesome, exceeded all my expectations, and I can’t wait to go back for a longer trip!

Finally!  I’ve been to every country in the world post-independence! Move over Ukrainian SSR, I’ve now been to Ukraine!

Found a great craft beer bar called Punkraft with an amazing selection of beers – I wouldn’t have expected that in Kiev!

Tasty burger with dinner too – see the shot glass behind the burger? I assumed the black thing inside was a wet nap for after the burger…nope….it turned out to be a rubber glove. Ok, that’s….odd.

Statue at Maidan Nezalezhnosti Square – Independence Square – where in 2014 protests were finally successful at toppling the government and instituting true democratic rule for the first time.

Monument on Maidan Square:

Monument to the “Facebook Revolution” – Facebook was largely crediting for helping to organize the protests which eventually brought down the government.

Looking the other direction onto Independence Square. There was a strong wind as you can see with the Ukrainian flaga, and light snow was falling….you can see on the building it was also -2 out. Brrrr!

Thanks to google, I found some of the more artistic subway stations to visit. I love just popping around to subway stations in Moscow to see the grand Soviet architecture, so wanted to see what Kiev had to offer. Teatralna station, where the national theatre is:

Zolotoy Vorota Station – Michael the Archangel and Patron Saint of Kiev. Can you imagine religious figures in a US subway station?

More from Zolotoy Vorota, note in the upper left that all the arches are covered in mosaics:

Yaropolk II of Kiev – Grand Prince of Kiev in the early 1100s:

Slavutych Station – it’s supposed to symbolize the river. It looks more like a space odyssey:

See, very sci-fi space odyssey:

I loved the futuristic look of this station with the shiny pillars and the tiled walls and floor:

View of the Palace of Sports. Next time I’m here I definitely want to catch a hockey game:

On the way out, information board at Kiev airport. The price for business class on the way out was outrageous, so I settled for economy once I saw that if there were remaining business seats you could buy them at the airport. It was a bit of a protracted negotiation, but I finally managed to buy one for about $130. The website said $95 – so end of day it was fine.

Still Christmas in Kiev Airport!

Turned out when I got on the plane, I was the only person in business class! Made the upgrade totally worth it! It would have been empty without me, and the crew was super friendly and attentive. Bit of pre-departure champagne and a newspaper:

Three choices of snacks! Not bad! It was like my own private jet. Some smoked beef with potatoes and peas. The chocolate tort was super tasty tho…and a bit of champagne in very stylish glasses:

Sunset on the way to Riga:

Fantastic sunset tonight:

Deplaning at Riga:

Unfortunately immigration at Riga took more than an hour, due to a sour and suspicious immigration drone who decided my passport must be fake with all the stamps and “too many Russia visa.” Ugh. Eventually allowed into the Schengen Area (which is 100x easier in Frankfurt) and off to explore Latvia for the first time in 20 years!

Dec 102018
 


One thing I love about the Lufthansa flight to Washington out of Frankfurt is that it leaves just late enough that you can sleep in a little bit, but you still arrive at a reasonable hour. Today that meant plenty of time to get a leisurely coffee and breakfast. I have to say, for a simple lounge breakfast, the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport knocks it out of the park…and the convenience to the terminal can’t be beat!

Was nice to have the time to take the morning at a casual pace, but that very rapidly changed when I got to security. I figured that having 25 bars of soap in my rolling bag might look a little unusual, but things turned south when I got the random explosives swab on my bag…and for some reason it came back positive. Took nearly 40 minutes to get cleared, but eventually did, and I was on my way straight to the gate. Fortunately today, we were at the very first gate in the terminal!

Lufthansa flight 418
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 12:50, Arrive:15:50, flight time: 9:00
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYK, Manufactured 2013, Seat 11D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 143,304
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,663,366

Pre-departure champagne? Have I ever said no to that?!

Almonds and a reasonable glass of malbec to start things off…

“Slow-roasted veal loin, zucchini tatar, and mini bell pepper” – despite trying to be overly fancy with the name, it was absolutely delicious.

One of my two favourite seasons on Lufthansa: the time of year when they have “Christmas Goose” on the menu. Delicious as always…hopefully I don’t miss asparagus season in the spring!

Four cheeses AND a chutney? That’s how you do a remarkable business class cheese plate!

Could I really say no to a gingerbread mousse with plum compote? It was delicious…

Slept for maybe three hours, watched a lot of tv and caught up on work, and soon it was time for the pre-arrival meal…which is much more substantial than normal. Salad with parma ham, tomatoes, potatoes, and balsamic, a pretzel, and ginger and lemongrass soup. Can’t forget the chocolate and cherry cake! I actually skipped a red wine which would have gone perfectly with it, thinking I might actually try and get myself to the gym upon landing. Yeah, right…

Normally when I book tickets out of Cairo, I can count on a 2-3 hour grilling minimum by the fine men and women of US Customs and Border Protection, but shockingly today the Global Entry machine spit out my receipt…with no giant X of glory on it. Either they’re finally onto the fact that Cairo doesn’t automatically = shady, or they’ve finally flagged my profile as “he just crazy, not dangerous.” Either way, was glad to be out of the airport and on the Washington Flyer bus home in no time.

So, that concludes the trip. It’s funny, I went into it in a bunch of stages:

  1. Have a ticket to Egpyt I have to use up…hmmm, maybe I’ll just do a quick turnaround and enjoy thanksgiving at home
  2. No, that would be a waste, I should do something super adventurous from Cairo while I’m there…maybe Sinai? Sudan? Somalia? Take advantage of being there?
  3. Nah, I want to relax, and to me flying around is sort of relaxing, so where could I sidetrip from Cairo that I would love?

Johannesburg turned out to be the perfect sidetrip, lots of fun, and super glad that I ended up doing it.

Next up: nearly a month straight of travel, comprising a week in Germany for work, a side-trip to Saudi to take advantage of the fact that they’re offering open tourist visas for the first time ever…back to Minnesota to see family over the holidays, and then finally off to Europe to do Chernobyl, Kiev, Riga, Vilnius, Kaliningrad, Gdansk, and Berlin for Thanksgiving. I’m going to be really happy early January to have a bit of time at home!

 

Dec 092018
 


So despite it being a very, very short 40 hour stop, I really enjoyed my time in Johannesburg catching up with friends, and was ready to begin the trek up to Cairo. I kinda joked that I would book this routing (which I got with United miles) but at the end of the day I decided why not! It could be an adventure…right?

10:30 flight was just late enough that I could sleep to a reasonable hour, have coffee at Starbucks, and head to the airport with just enough time to spare before my flight. Everything with the train went super smoothly, so I actually got to chill in the lounge for 30 minutes even before heading to the gate. I was surprised to see the bartender that I’ve gotten to know well there so early in the day, and it was more than mildly embarrassing when he brought me a glass of wine at 9:30am and I had to politely decline.

Not sure what it is, but regional flights to Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi always seem to go from A1-A3 in Johannesburg, which are super ancient gates in the old part of the airport. They have almost zero seating, definitely zero air conditioning, and you can’t help but feel like it’s regional flights getting second-class treatment. Regardless, off we go on an adventure!

South African Airways flight 22
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE)
Depart 10:30, Arrive:12:05, flight time: 1:35
Airbus A320, Registration ZS-SZA, Manufactured 2013, Seat 4F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 133,953
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,654,015

Business today was five rows of 2×2 seating, and only four of the 20 seats were occupied. First due to “air traffic control” and then due to “baggage loading issues” we left the gate almost an hour late, reducing my 3.5 hour connection in Zimbabwe to 2.5 hours. 3.5 hours was already cutting it super close to leave the airport and meet friends for coffee or lunch, but with 2.5 hours there was no way it was going to work. Grrr, the one time you really need things to be on time…

That said, regional catering on South African has gotten super miserable. Not sure what this was supposed to be, but some overly ripe fruit and fried pastries was just nasty. I sent it back, and opted for another glass of wine…

Welcome to Harare, Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport!

Despite immigration being super quick and getting my visa quickly, by the time I got through I only had 2:15 until my next flight. I debated chancing a quick taxi to get lunch, but best case I could have sat somewhere for 30 minutes. It just wasn’t worth risking, especially given I had a connection in Cairo, and missing my flight could cause lots of drama.

Nevertheless, I got to see the wildlife of Harare Airport:

Air Zimbabwe transfer desk. Like their flights, it was suspiciously absent of any signs of life…

Went back through immigration (who didn’t like my boarding pass printed in South Africa, and tried to suggest that I owed a “fine” – silly guards, this ain’t my first rodeo) and eventually found the South African Airways lounge. Now, normally I love my lounge cheese and crackers, but I wasn’t touching the cheese in this lounge with a ten foot pole:

The sandwiches and…sausages? on offer didn’t look any safer:

Also, a quick glance through the lounge windows to the runway didn’t give any more hope….

Fortunately, when I took the short walk to the gate my Ethiopian Airlines plane was right on time, and boarding happened right on time as well!

Ethiopian Airlines flight 654
Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE) to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ADD)
Depart: 15:35, Arrive: 20:35, flight time: 4:00
Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, Registration ET-AOV, Manufactured 2014, Seat 3L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 135,876
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,655,938

For such a new Dreamliner, the seats being a disappointing 2x2x2 configuration was really sad…but hey, United does the same thing, so can’t complain too much. Plus, over half the seats were empty, so there was a ton of space, and on a four hour daytime flight this was actually quite a nice seat:

Reasonably roomy cabin:

Pre-flight proper champagne was offered….

Quite a small pour, and warm, but hey…TIA…

Five minutes later, seeing my empty glass, the crew came by again. “I see you like the champagne. Can I maybe get you much more?” I was definitely liking this crew!

Right when the door was due to close, a commotion broke out by the door. Seems someone didn’t have the right visa for their destination, but despite that he was trying to FORCE his way past the gate and flight crew and onto the plane. Lots of yelling in Arabic, occasional english, and eventually Zimbabwean security hauled him off the plane. Nothing like a little excitement before departure. Only part that concerned me was him screaming “my bags, my bags” as they dragged him away and closed the door and we were underway…

Dark clouds on departure indicated a very, very bumpy climb out of Zimbabwe:

Love the scenery of the dark clouds and the sexy Dreamliner wing.

Once we got about 20,000 feet high things smoothed out a lot, and off we were to Ethiopia!

Unusually, a choice of snacks was offered before the meal, of kolo (a roasted ethiopian grain/nut mix) or crackers. I went with the crackers hoping they would be the airplane-shaped crackers ethiopian sometimes serves, but these were ok as well, and a nice change.

I went with the “beef” starter which was a very few tiny slices of marinated beef. Odd, but mildly tasty.

I have to say, I never expected the first time I was served General Tsao’s Chicken on a plane would be on Ethiopian Airlines. Very bland, no spice, but interesting…

Now that is a seriously huge cheese plate…and a small opera cake to finish it off.

Overall, nothing at all special about this flight, but it was solid, comfortable, and the food was filling. All things considered, I was very happy with the flight, and glad to be 2/3 of the way to my destination for the day. While it was nice to break up the longhaul to Cairo into several segments, I was starting to get pretty tired!

Got to Addis, and of course we got a bus gate, but fortunately the wait wasn’t too long, and the walk to the gates wasn’t terrible either given the delay out of Harare. Unfortunately, the queue at security was atrocious, and I didn’t realize that Ethiopian now has a special boarding area for business class only! This must be new in the last year, and would have saved me a lot of time and stress.

That said, despite the long security queue, it moved super quickly with lots of “helpers” helping clueless passengers to properly load their items onto the x-ray belt, so overall, it wasn’t terrible. ANOTHER bus to the gate where I was told about the special business class line/bus for next time, but hey, at least we were off.

Ethiopian Airlines flight 604
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ADD) to Cairo, Egypt (CAI)
Depart: 22:05, Arrive: 01:20 next day, flight time: 4:15
Boeing 737 MAX-8, Registration ET-AVJ, Manufactured 2018, Seat 2L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 137,407
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,657,469

I admit before this flight, I was a little nervous about flying not just on a 737-MAX aircraft, but one that Ethiopian Airlines had received just THREE DAYS ago and had only had 8 passenger flights before. Nervous? Why? I fly a lot, right? Well, the 737 MAX crash of Lion Air in Indonesia last month may have to do a little with that, especially when you consider that yes pilot error was probably involved…but only in that they were reacting to a flaw with the aircraft. Eek, I just hoped Ethiopian would have the skill to deal with any such issues.

(Follow-up: on March 10, 2019 this aircraft was actually involved in a fatal accident – chilling to go back and read what I wrote when I flew it just three months ago) 🙁

Business class was a few rows of 2×2 seating, but again less than half full. Well, after we had to get rid of the couple who sat down in my seats and wanted to know why. They got to them first, so why couldn’t they sit in them! No amount of explaining to them that not all seats are the same, and aren’t first come first serve would assuage them, but finally when they were told they could either take their assigned seats (in the very last row) or get off the plane did they move. Heh!

Not bad seats for a regional flight:

Another glass of warm pre-departure champagne:

Menu was almost identical to the previous flight (which is odd, since usually flights into a hub are different than out of a hub, but whatever) so I went with the options I hadn’t tried.

The watermelon and feta salad was….ok?

The beef was massively overcooked and like leather, but when I added the tabasco sauce I finally figured out why they give you so many condiments…and the ketchup made the potatoes quite good as well! At least I finally understand why Ethiopian gives you that weird large condiment tray on every flight.

Same cheese and crackers, just a smaller portion:

We arrived in Cairo about 10 minutes early, which was good, because I only had six hours until my flight to Munich. Too long to spend in a lounge or waiting area, but barely enough time to justify I hotel. I had decided to risk it, and my goal was three hours of sleep. Fortunately, there was zero wait at immigration and I was through in maybe 10 minutes.

I had asked the hotel to have my key waiting for me a few days ago when I was there, and shockingly (given the usual Egyptian inefficiency) it was ready and I was plane to room in under 20 minutes. Even after a shower, I was in bed in under 45 minutes after landing…which gave me 5:15 until my flight left in the morning.

I went with three hours on the alarm, figuring if anything went wrong 2:15 wouldn’t be enough time, and off to dreamland I was….

Dec 062018
 


Slept a little better this morning, but due to being exhausted the night before I still got up pretty early (although with a solid seven hours of sleep this time) and still had a solid two hours before I had to head back to the airport. The nearest Starbucks I’d been able to find that was open by 7am was about 2km away, and although it was already 27C at this hour, it was a dry heat so I decided to start walking. After all, there would be coffee at the end of the rainbow!

On the way, I passed the suspiciously-named “Top Touch Men” salon. Awkward!

It was fortunately slightly overcast as I walked past the office towers of Abu Dhabi…it’s unheard of for me to walk 2km in these temps and barely break a sweat. I love low humidity!

Starbucks was surprisingly hopping at 7am, and I got a tasty grilled halloumi sandwich and my usual iced coffee. Apparently, however, I picked up Mohammad’s iced coffee (PBUH) instead…. I’m guessing when they can’t spell your name they just pick the most common name they can think of?

Back to the hotel, quick shower, felt good about myself for getting a nearly 5k walk in, and grabbed a Careem to the airport. It was only about 60% of the price from the night before, and it appears that’s because there’s a rather large airport departure surcharge.

Went straight through immigration and security which had absolutely zero line, so I had about 20 minutes in the lounge before heading to my gate to board the flight:

Golden rule of travel: no matter where you are, if it’s real champagne and it’s offered to you with no charge, you don’t say no:

The Abu Dhabi airport was guilty of major cultural appropriation with this Christmas display near my gate. I do love the architecture of this satellite terminal with the gaudy gold and green centrepiece:

Over to the gate area, which was very lightly filled, and they were just about to start boarding. Perfect timing!

Etihad flight 604
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 10:00, Arrive:16:40, flight time: 8:40
Airbus A330-200, Registration A6-EYR, Manufactured 2009, Seat 9K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 133,360
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,653,422

After boarding and finding my seat I know it wouldn’t be as nice as on the Dreamliner, but overall it seemed to be pretty close. Take close note on the bottom of the seat…and the indentations…

Seats in the middle section…they were still pretty spacious, although I wasn’t a big fan of how close and exposed they were to the aisle. I could just see people banging into you when sleeping.

Despite being a daytime flight, there was a nice duvet, amenity kit, and menu….overall I was still super impressed with Etihad!

Then, I sat down and had my pre-departure champagne. I would say the seat was like sitting on a brick, but it was much worse. There were clearly a couple of large metal bars in the cushion, and no matter how much I tried, it was still like sitting on a pile of rocks. Uneven, firm, and uncomfortable. I tried another seat, but same problem. In 2,000,000+ miles, these were literally the most uncomfortable seats I’ve ever sat in…even sitting on a pillow, you could still feel it. I don’t know what it was, but they were just awful.

The crew? Well, English wasn’t their strongest suit, and customer service definitely wasn’t. There was no real show of concern or care, and no solutions at all offered. I pretty much had no choice, so put down two pillows AND a blanket, and it was close to tolerable.

That said, at least there was champagne!

Menu was extremely similar to the day before (which was weird, because usually they plan for connections better than that) but that’s ok, there were still plenty of options I wanted to try! I saw the steak sandwich on the menu, and asked them to reserve one for a pre-arrival snack (since in my experience Etihad tends to run out of them) and ordered the smoked duck starter…which was very tasty.

Skipped the beef tenderloin as a main, and went with the Chicken Madbi, given my previous track record of amazing Chicken Biryani on Etihad. It did not disappoint, and was super flavourful and well-spiced. The meal was actually so tasty I almost forgot about how uncomfortable and numb my rear end was becoming…

Cheese plate was just so-so with only two kinds of cheese, but at least there was some chutney!

I flipped channels on the inflight entertainment, and noticed we were right over Somalia. I wasn’t aware that international airlines were ok with using somali airspace now! Usually they stay well off the coast, but apparently they’ve now decided it’s safe again.

Love the engine and wingtip shot over the Somali dessert:

I couldn’t resist finishing it off again with some ice cream and Amarula since it had been so delicious the day before:

Cruising along the Somali coast…

I tried a short nap, and the seat was actually much more comfortable fully reclined, so I spent about four hours laying down and watching my iPad by holding it above my head. Not the most convenient, but at least I wasn’t going numb any longer.

About 90 minutes before landing, I asked for my steak sandwich and a glass of wine, and it was a delicious pre-landing snack.

Ordered the almond and pistachio pudding with butterscotch sauce for a sweet, and with a glass of desert wine it was the perfect ending to a great flight. The crew did what they could to make up for the seat, and I have to say every other aspect of the flight was absolutely wonderful. That said, I promise I will never again fly an A330 with Etihad!

Landed a few minutes early in Johannesburg, absolutely no wait at all at immigration (maybe due to the fact we got a bus gate – I’m not sure) and was soon on the Gautrain to my usual hotel. They were fantastic, and sold out, and gave me a nice upgrade, so overall it was definitely a good day. Went for a short walk, and Christmas was in full swing in Johannesburg!

Also, Heineken, we can agree…assuming you’re not in North Korea…otherwise, we need to talk about how you’re counting countries!

Was fading pretty quickly, but decided to go out for some snacks and beers with a friend, and found this beer with the most amazing name ever:

That said, it was off to bed, and time to get some sleep so I could enjoy my first FULL day of vacation without any planes or flights!

Dec 042018
 


Unfortunately, thanks to jetlag, I was awake bright and early before 6am, so had no excuse to avoid a bit of time in the hotel gym. I walked around the airport a bit trying to explore the landside areas, but apparently security wasn’t too thrilled with that, so gave up and headed back to the hotel for a little while until…yes, you guessed it, Starbucks opened. I had hoped to sleep in and catch up a bit, but jetlag wasn’t having it, so this was the best relaxing I could do. Hundreds of transatlantic flights, and there’s still no foolproof way to slay jetlag.

Grabbed an Uber to toe mall, where Starbucks was just about to open. Unfortunately, the ice rink inside the mall still wasn’t open. One of these days I’m going to pass through Cairo at an hour when I can go ice skating in the mall!

After a short stroll in the mall, Starbucks was open, and it was time for some coffee! In US$ terms, the second cheapest Starbucks in the world after Johannesburg, South Africa.

Back to the hotel just in time to pack up, and I had completely forgotten that Terminal Two at Cairo had opened a while back (I even went through here on my last trip!) so it took a bit of planning to have to take the hotel over to Terminal Two since it is connected to Terminal Three. I swear Cairo might be one of the worst designed largish airports on the planet.

That said, the checkin area at Terminal Two was quite nice, the Etihad agents were rather lovely, and after passing through immigration and security the lounge was surprisingly nice as well. It was way nicer than the horrible EgyptAir lounges in Terminal Three, but still a very limited selection of very weird food.

7up Free, weird hazelnut banana pizza, and the “EgyptAir” pizza, anyone?

That said, the terminal itself was really quite nice – bright and airy, and there was even a Starbucks airside…with prices exactly 50% higher than outside the airport. Boo hiss!

Boarding was right on time, and soon it was time to check out what Emirates business class was all about. I’d only flown them in first prior to this, and heard their first (like Qatar) is a bit of a waste except on the A380, because it’s not all that much nicer than business. We’ll see about that!

Etihad flight 654
Cairo, Egypt (CAI) to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH)
Depart 13:35, Arrive:18:50, flight time: 3:15
Boeing 787-9, Registration A6-BLS, Manufactured 2017, Seat 10K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 129,461
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,649,523

First impression of the seat: super nice, super roomy, and super private. I like it! This is just as nice as the first class seats on the 787s as well!

Another perspective…lots of room!

The crew was absolutely fantastic…friendly and helpful, without being awkward and obtrusive…this was going to be a great flight. A view over the wing and super smoggy Cairo right after takeoff:

A glass of Piper-Heidsieck and some mixed nuts? Don’t mind if I do!

With the windows dimmed, a great shot of the setting sun over the wing:

Arabic mezze starter. Only complained was there needed to be more pita bread to go with it. Other than that, loved the presentation!

Braised lamb shank for a main, cooked medium, and absolutely delicious. I had to admit, this was actually topping most of my flights with Etihad in first! Overall an extremely solid performance!

Delicious vanilla ice cream with some Amarula for dessert. Perfect!

Sunset catching the blinker on the engine:

Landed right on time, and I have to give Etihad a perfect 10 on this flight. There was absolutely nothing that could have been done better on such a short flight. Perfect crew, excellent short/medium haul meal, great seat, all in all a wonderful experience that wouldn’t make me hesitate to fly them on the 787 again. Honestly, compared to my first flights, this was just as good (except the suites on the A380 of course) and maybe better in some regards.

Got to Abu Dhabi, the home of no Uber, and was through immigration pretty quickly, and had no trouble finding my Careem driver instead to whisk me off to the Marriott Downtown Abu Dhabi. Since the merger with Starwood I was keen to find somewhere new to stay in Abu Dhabi, and wanted to give this place a try. On the downside, they claimed to be “completely sold out” so could offer no upgrade at all, but that said the standard room was perfectly nice:

They even had a lovely selection of pastries waiting in my room:

I was absolutely wiped out from the lack of sleep the previous two nights, so went up to the executive lounge where they were still serving cocktail hour (yay free wine) which I enjoyed a bit of before heading back to the room and passing out early. It would be a pretty wakeup call so that I could (you guessed it) get Starbucks before heading back to the airport to continue my journey!

Dec 022018
 


So, I had a one-way ticket to Cairo I had to use up by the end of the year, and I figured what better time than over thanksgiving, since by taking three days off you get a nice nine day vacation.

Now, the challenge comes because the ticket was upgradable – and with the chance to fly Lufthansa First Class that’s not an opportunity to take lightly! I had no idea where I wanted to go, and I figured I could decide that later, so in July I bought a new ticket that went Cairo-DC-Frankfurt figuring I could then use the DC-Frankfurt for New Years.

Two weeks before the trip (when Lufthansa generally releases upgrade space) I was very dismayed to find out that most flights to Germany from the US were already either completely sold out in first class, or getting very close. The only one that looked mildly good was Miami to Munich, which still had seven seats. Only downside: they were holding them back in hopes of selling them. No worries, they can’t possibly sell seven first class seats, right? So I changed my ticket, bought a one way to the Miami area, and the trip was set.

Over the next 12 days, it went from seven seats left…to five…to four…to three…to two seats left four days before the flight. I kept looking at other options, and nothing was good, so it was time to pray. Morning of my flight, it was down to ONE seat, and they weren’t releasing it until the gate. Panic!

The next ten or so posts will be on this trip, and I’m going to try and knock out one a day before…leaving on my next trip!

Up way too early, off to Dulles airport, and time to board my nonstop flight to Fort Lauderdale.

United Airlines flight 1785
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Fort Lauderdale, Florida (FLL)
Depart 08:35, Arrive:11:15, flight time: 2:40 of pure hell
Boeing 737-900, Registration N53442, Manufactured 2009, Seat 5E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 121,284
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,641,346

Literally 50+ people boarded between a large number of senior citizens and tons of families with small children, so by the type it came to Group 1, probably 30-40% of the plane was already on board. A look of terror crossed my face when I saw that the person who had been upgraded into the seat next to me at the gate (per the monitors at the gate) was a parent with a small urchin who was already busy flinging cheerios at people as they boarded.

I won’t rant too much, because I find a lot of children better behaved than over-entitled “elites” but this was not one of them. Not only was a little hellspawn of Satan, the mother refused to do ANYTHING about it, and intentionally avoided eye contact with me the entire flight. By the time we’d taken off it had already grabbed my arm repeatedly, thrown cheerios at me, and screamed loudly and repeatedly. This was going to be a long flight.

I don’t usually drink on morning flights, but lets just say in order to de-stress me and make me not as disagreeable as the little hellion, I had one. Or four. I lost count, but it definitely calmed my nerves.

I got what was described as the “eggs” mostly out of curiosity, and because it sounded better than “rice krispees:”

Of course, the mother and urchin got the Rice Krispees half of which ended up all over the floor. While waiting for trays to be cleared, the little bundle of joy was throwing a fit, screaming, kicking….and eventually kicked over mom’s scalding hot cup of coffee – all over my leg. I pressed the call button to ask for some ice and a towel/napkin to wrap it in…and the mother finally says something to me…and what does she say? “This wouldn’t happen if they put a lid on the coffee like they should.” It’s a good thing I’m not prone to air rage….

Right, enough about that flight.

Onto Fort Lauderdale, where my friend Noah had offered to not only play Uber for me between airports, but also show me a bit of Miami along the way. Yes, in all the times I’ve flown through Miami I’ve never left the airport so I had no idea what I was missing!

After a stop by CVS for some burn cream we were off to a brunch that promised to be MUCH better than what Oscar served me on United. Through Little Haiti and into Wynwood, which was a super cool little artsy district. Spoiler: plans after brunch were to leave and go see the beach, but that’ll have to wait for next time, because Wynwood was just that cool.

Brunch was at Sette Osteria where they served up a delicious eggs benedict with bacon and mimosas. Very reasonably priced and tasty, although what was a “cool” day to Miami locals was a warm day to me, and the heat and humidity were almost too much. Nevertheless, it felt great to have some open-air dining in November!

After brunch, it was time to walk around Wynwood a bit, which is well-known for its murals on the side of buildings. This one was a little…odd.

Have bacon, are happy!

A few blocks away was Wynwood Walls where lots of the murals are collected in one place to walk through. Super cool!

Look who followed me from DC! The best mural ever. It was tremendous. Everyone was talking about it – believe me!

After a bit of strolling we were thirsty, and happened upon J. Wakefield brewing. Ok, not happened upon, but I saw it on the map and since I’d first tried their beers a few weeks ago in Sweden I wanted to go check it out. Unfortunately, they apparently don’t allow droids in their cantina:

Loved the mural outside:

After a few fantastic beers, I chatted with the bartender a bit…who it turns out was the one who packed up the order to send to Sweden for the event I had gone to. Talk about a small world! Anyways, the beers were great, and we lost track of time a bit, and unfortunately there wouldn’t be time to check out the beach.

No matter, on the walk back to the car, we found ice cream instead at a “Craft Ice Cream” place called Dasher & Crank!

I went with the Stone Xocoveza and Cinnamon Raisin Bread, both of which were absolutely amazing. Thanks to Noah for dragging me in there – it was a nice break from the heat and delicious ice cream!

On the way back to the car, we also passed what appeared to be a shooting gallery with a crazy panda ad:

After getting to the airport, Noah dropped me off, and after thanking him I went to the counter to beg for my upgrade. Good news, there’s still one seat left. Better news, I’m #1 on the list. Bad news: they had to wait until 45 minutes before the door closed, just in case someone wanted to buy that seat. Mildly disappointing, but I get it.

TSA PreCheck was closed, AND there was no CLEAR checkpoint. Ugh. Miami Airport. Ugh.

Today we were using the Avianca Lounge, where they attempted to get me sick with shrimps and goat cheese – the two things that I generally don’t eat. No worries, I only stopped in for 15 minutes to get a couple bottles of water before heading to the gate…where 5 minutes before boarding they cleared me into the absolute last seat in first class. WOO WOO!

Lufthansa flight 461
Miami, Florida (MIA) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 18:59, Arrive: 10:20 next day, flight time: 9:21
Airbus A380-800, Registration D-AIMC, Manufactured 2010, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,291
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,646,353

Ahhhhh, so much better once I got to my seat. It was like the weight of the world and that screaming urchin on the first flight just melted away into absolute bliss. Glass of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, some macadamia nuts, and a rose. Civilized flying.

Amuse-bouche of a courgette, red pepper, olive, and goat cheese. Glad I didn’t have any in the lounge – there’s only so much goat cheese my system will tolerate.

Nothing kicks off the perfect in-flight meal like a proper serving of caviar.

One small problem: the menus had been mis-printed, resulting in the dinner menu only being in German, and the breakfast menu only being in Spanish. Oops! The three starters today were “fruits of the sea with wasabi peas” which was super tasty, “asparagus, paprika, and feta with truffle sherry vinaigrette” also really tasty, and finally roast beef with chimichurri. Three for three – that doesn’t happen very often. Usually at least one of the three appetizers is so weird I’m not interested.

Main course of a fillet with tomato chili sauce was cooked a perfect medium – not bad for in-flight steak!

Of course, no meal on Lufthansa is complete without their best-in-the-sky cheese cart carved seat-side:

Now that is exactly how a cheese plate should be done!

President Underwood approves of the pumpkin cheesecake for desert with a glass of Johnny Walker Blue. She’s such a basic white girl sometimes!

Ever thought the aircraft lavatory was too small? Not on A380 Lufthansa First – complete with changing area and urinal!

Not much else to say. Fell asleep right after eating, and slept nearly six hours the rest of the way to Munich. Another lovely and perfect Lufthansa First flight in the books – one of the few flying experiences that never gets old to me, and is consistently my favourite experience in the skies. Super excited to have another lined up in just a few short weeks!

We landed 15 minutes early, which gave me just enough time to duck into the First Class Lounge for a shower. What makes the lounge in Munich so awesome is that they have immigration agents stationed IN the lounge, so you can clear passport control while you’re showering. Hand them your passport as you enter, grab a shower, and grab your stamped passport and head to the Schengen exit from the lounge. Yet again, Lufthansa nails this experience!

Lufthansa flight 7234 operated by Austrian Airlines
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Vienna, Austria (VIE)
Depart 11:20, Arrive: 12:25, flight time: 1:05
Airbus A320-200, Registration OE-LBZ, Manufactured 2012, Seat 3C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,512
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,646,574

This was a new one for me – I’ve never seen a flight that was technically a Lufthansa flight, but operated by Austrian. If you clicked on the Austrian flight number,  you got “Operated for Lufthansa.” Strange arrangement.

I do love how even on a 40-50 minute flight Lufthansa and Austrian can serve you a small meal. Perfect since I’d slept through breakfast on the previous flight!

Debated going outside security in Vienna to grab some Starbucks, but didn’t want it that badly, so headed to the lounge where the surliest lounge agent ever growled at me and told me I had to clear immigration and use the lounge on the other side. Yikes, so much for Austrian friendliness!  A few Diet Cokes later I had enough caffeine to function, and it was time for my last flight of this leg:

EgyptAir flight 798
Vienna, Austria (VIE) to Cairo, Egypt (CAI)
Depart 14:30, Arrive: 18:50, flight time: 3:20
Boeing 737-800, Registration SU-GEB, Manufactured 2011, Seat 10A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 127,981
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,647,981

Now, EgyptAir often gets a bad rap. First thing people always complain about is the lack of alcohol. Then it’s their “old seats” and finally it’s the unfriendly crews (which I think is largely a language ability thing). Well, this flight was the opposite, and overall a great flight!

Individual entertainment at the seats…which were a 2×2 configuration with proper legroom (unlike European airlines which are 3×3 with the middle seat blocked and NO legroom):

Even stickers to play with and place on your seat! These are definitely going to end up on my laptop…

Wow, look at that meal for a three hour flight! Also, the steak was a perfect medium rare with a little gorgonzola sauce which was absolutely delicious…and the grilled veggies were also really tasty.

Apple strudel for dessert, with yet another Coke Zero:

Just an hour after finishing our meal, they came around with a snack service an hour before landing. Small tray of danish butter cookies:

…and a small box of EgyptAir branded chocolates!

Bus gate, but a separate bus just for business class. A perfectly wonderful experience, and I was almost sad to say goodbye!

No wait at all at immigration, and I was through in under 15 minutes and off to my hotel – the Le Meridien Cairo Airport which is a short five minute walk from the terminal. Less than 30 minutes after getting off the plane I was in my room and and ready to have a beer or two in the hotel restaurant before passing out. It had been a very long day!

Aug 222018
 


Yesterday, I wrote a post about Air Canada’s new signature class, in which I compared the new business class offerings of the major North American carriers. Conclusion was that Air Canada has done a good job with their “Signature” launch, but beyond the lounge it was really hard to see any significant change to the in-flight offering.

On the two Air Canada trips I reviewed, I actually took United in one direction and Air Canada in the other. Not intentionally, it just worked out better that way…so it was a nice change to see how United’s Polaris implementation was progressing, and if it would finally live up to the hype. I say finally because, well, well over two years after launching the new Polaris seats only 20% or so of United’s longhaul fleet actually has them, but at least that’s finally speeding up slightly.

The other major, major failing on United’s part has been the launch of the Polaris lounges. I was at the Chicago lounge when it launched something like two years ago, and up until six months ago…they still had yet to open the second lounge, although there are finally four lounges open now. Who’s to say when Washington and LA (two other large international hubs) will see them, however. As a Washington-based traveler this actually impacts my purchasing decisions: if United’s Polaris lounge was actually open I’d be booking United metal out of Dulles much more often, whereas now I’m open to just about anything reasonable and convenient on Swiss, Lufthansa, and Air Canada.

Right, on with the review.

For the Trip where I took Air Canada from DC to Zurich via Toronto, I returned from Geneva to Washington Dulles nonstop on United. I had been doing some business in Bern, and generally either Zurich or Geneva are equidistant, and the Geneva flight was the quickest flight home at the lowest fare, so I went with it.

Two days before, United changed the seatmap to the Polaris configured 767 (I believe about 50% of 767-300s are now Polaris configured, so you have a 50-50 chance) and I hoped it would hold through departure time. When I saw the plane leave the US for Geneva, I knew I’d finally get to try out this product more than two years after its launch. With the amount I travel, that tells you just how long this has been in the works.

What’s nice about the 767-300s with Polaris seats is they’re in a 1-1-1 configuration, so everyone has an aisle seat. The best seats, by far, are the odd numbered window seats since the seat is by the window, and the “counter” part near the aisle, giving you far more privacy from the aisle as you can see:

My seat, 1L, to me was by far the best seat on the plane for a daytime flight. Nice and private from the aisle, but close enough to the front to get the crew’s attention:

Why oh why United, when you pay some marketing firm millions of dollars to design Polaris do you insist on using these cheap plastic cups for pre-departure beverages? I’m glad at least that you got rid of the ridiculous plastic Polaris “flutes” with a chocolate you tried out when you first launched Polaris, however. It really makes me wonder who were in the focus groups when you came up with this. Nothing says “un-premium” like a plastic glass of $8 a bottle sparkling wine….come on. First impressions matter, and this gives a terrible one. If you’re going to invest in an overhaul of the product, do it right!

The menu, however, looked promising…complete with the ubiquitous United “short ribs” that have been on just about ever menu in business class since 1995:

That’s more like it. A glass of perfectly drinkable wine (though nothing special) and some extremely salty mixed nuts:

The salad on offer was much better than United’s normal offerings, and bonus points for the parmesan and boiled egg. The smoked cold chicken appetizer was a bit odd and totally flavourless, but the farro and mustard on the side were actually the highlight of the appetizer. But seriously, parmesan and egg on a salad with mango dressing? Just bizarre.

Since nothing else sounded good, I went with the short rib, which was….well, about as good as it looked. The plating was absolutely awful, and looked like something out of a prison cafeteria.

Highlight of the meal by far was quite a nice cheese plate (ARE YOU LISTENING AIR CANADA?) and a delicious “sundae” with caramel. I haven’t seen the butterscotch topping in a while (which is actually my favourite) but this was a perfectly nice ending to the meal. Started off rocky, but at least they ended on a nice high note.

One thing United has done VERY well is the pre-landing snack. Grilled chicken with couscous and a nice fresh salad are a huge upgrade from the sad sandwiches of days gone by. Giving credit where credit is due, this is a huge upgrade, United….except for the mango dressing which was back for an encore *eyeroll*

Overall, loved the new seats, and they might be my favourite transatlantic seats now. There’s really not a bad seat in the plane, and as long as you get the plane, well, I can skip all the other stuff…but fail to understand why with passengers paying $6,000+ per ticket United won’t spend the extra $20 per passenger to make it an experience passengers WANT to fly.

So, notice that I said “as long as you get the plane” – well, two days before my flight down to Brazil a week later I did a same day change to get on the Dulles to Sao Paolo nonstop since it was listed as the exact same 767 which had brought me in from Geneva the day before! Since all I wanted on this flight was sleep, I was excited to have the new seats again, and life was grand!

…until five hours before departure when United e-mailed me there had been an aircraft swap, and “we’ve done our best to preserve your seating preference.

So, instead of a solo seat in a 1-1-1 config I was now in a window seat of a 2-1-2 config. Anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows how I detest climbing over people or being climbed over, and when I called United I was basically told to “deal with it.” Not those exact words, but two agents in a row showed zero empathy, although the second one did offer to “see if I can get you a refund if you’re unhappy.”

Plan B was to raise it up through customer service channels I have access to as a very frequent United flier, and they were very happy to look into the problem, asking what they could do to resolve it. After very patiently listening and understanding my seating preference (hey, when you’re on back to back international trips and 6’4 it makes a difference getting kicked in the night and harming your sleep).

The agent was great, and came back with “can you get to DCA instead of Dulles in 30 minutes? I can get you out of DCA, via Chicago to Sao Paulo on a 777 in Polaris First. I was already packed, so done and done, and problem averted. MAJOR points to United for the service recovery on this one, although it is unfortunately not all people on paid business class tickets have access to this same level of service recovery. I don’t blame United for that, however, it’s just a reality of 2018 customer service – companies have pretty much gotten to a point where only the customers they recognize as their top 1% or more get their attention…it’s just reality. Long way of saying thanks United – I’ll definitely remember this going forward!  (…and because of this, in the last week I’ve booked four MORE business class tickets on United in the next two months)

So, onto DCA, where my flight was actually delayed 30 minutes by torrential rains, so I got my guilty snack of choice, United Club cheeze kubes:

I had about an hour in the Polaris Lounge in Chicago, which sadly has also suffered from the cost-cutting. I knew the Veuve Clicquot was too good to last, and alas, it is no more. I still had a nice glass of champagne though, because, hey, champagne.

Really friendly bartender who was familiar with someone of the older drinks that are no longer on the menu, and he was able to whip up a paper plane with mezcal as well:

I’ll gloss over the ugly, which was a 2.5 hour delay when our plane broke and they had to find another plane at midnight, but hey, the fact they were able to find another 777 at this hour which could be catered was pretty impressive. In the end we left at 130a instead of 10pm which ruined my first day’s afternoon meetings, but in the end it was better than a completely canceled trip I suppose, which was what would have happened if I had to go the next day.

The “first class” seats on the 777 are pretty old and tired, and basically nice business class seats, but hey, it was a nice recovery after my 767 swap, so making lemonade out of lemons:

Today’s menu – idk why they even put “first class” on the menu now, because it’s exactly the same meal as in business class. Other than the seat, there’s absolutely zero difference left between business and first on United. Very sad.

Thanks facebook filters, this is pretty much how the delayed flight made me feel:

Oh look, starting off with mixed nuts and a red wine, quelle surprise!

The nori-wrapped salmon was a unique starter, and the salad with seeds and strawberries was also a welcome change. Well done this time United!

So, the spicy chicken main. First of all: amazing flavour, nice and spicy, great different option for plane food. The downside, bit messy with splash potential for a plane, and my chicken was way undercooked and partly raw. I assume it’s just reheated on the plane, so this goes to the kitchen in chicago, but I was full enough I just sent it back largely untouched. You can see some of the red and raw areas in the chicken in this picture:

Oh sigh, you were doing so well with the cheese yesterday United. Perhaps it’s just US catering that’s bland and unimaginative?

Since there was once again no butterscotch or caramel today, the flight attendant insisted I try some cookie crumble…which was a nice change. Plus…they had cherries, which are absolutely my favourite part of any United sundae:

I was also ordered to try some of the mini deserts with some caramel on the side…I didn’t have a choice. I will admit, the mini apple pie with caramel sauce (to quote the FA: “the whole reason I’m not thin and beautiful”) was pretty delicious!

Breakfast? Well, let’s not talk about it. Bland omelette, but the sweet potatoes did have a nice seasoning to them. Fruit was pretty sad, dry and flavourless. Overall, much more of a miss than a hit.

So…overall thoughts on Polaris? The seats are great, no doubt, and when they have them on the whole fleet it’s a fantastic product. It’s sad, however, that United is majorly cutting back on the soft product, when it would cost so little to have a much more impressive product. It just gives the impression that they don’t care, which is the last thing you want when you’re trying to sell a premium product. To me, it says, “we know a lot of you are upgrading, or using awards, or your employer is locked into a contract with us, so we just don’t have to try” and that’s terrible if you want your brand to resonate with your customers. But, maybe I’m wrong…maybe they don’t care about resonating, and are happy being “ok.”

So, final verdict? Air Canada, Delta, United? It’s pretty much a wash now. They all have good seating with all direct aisle access, although United is about two years away from getting there while ALL their competition has been there for over a year now. Food? Well, pretty much the same on all of them, though it does seem Delta and Air Canada do go a bit of the extra mile so you actually feel like there’s pride in their product!

Lots more flights coming up, so watch for more reviews soon!