Jul 122015

As I mentioned in the last post, after a long day of touring around Pyongyang we were taken to the Number 1 Duck Restaurant, which was promised to be a big treat. Contemplating dinner…and North Korean beer:

dprk-1611-B-boat restaurant

Final evening chat with the variety of interesting characters on the trip:

dprk-1617-B-boat restaurant

After dinner, it was back to the glamourous Koryo Hotel to crash. It was honestly reasonably comfortable, completely clean, even though the mattresses seriously felt like they were filled with straw:

dprk-1639-B-hotel room

The uninspired hallways…if you would knock on the walls there were clearly lots of hollow spots in them…we decided there must be secret compartments and one-way mirrors…

dprk-1644-B-hotel hallway

Final breakfast at the Koryo Hotel. What the food made up for in quality and quantity, they certainly tried their hardest with presentation…and bowtied waiters:

dprk-1648-B-hotel breakfast

Koryo Hotel lobby…note all the marble. Like old Soviet hotels, it was everywhere. I can’t remember if the pink flowers are Kimilsungia or Kimjongilia:


Goodbye Koryo Hotel…waiting for the bus to the airport:

dprk-1673-B-hotel sign jason matt

Busy city streets of downtown Pyongyang at 7am:

dprk-1685-B-empty streets

One last shot of the two towers of the Koryo Hotel:

dprk-1718-B-koryo hotel

Shot with our “tour guide” by the bus before heading to the airport:

dprk-1724-B-jason matt kim

Unauthorized secret photography on the way to the airport. Lots more people “risking” pictures at this point because, hey, what would they do, deport us?

dprk-1781-airport road

Goodbye from the Eternal Leader:

dprk-1935-B-airport road

Very busy day at Pyongyang International, with four flights arriving, including the two charters to take the visiting South Koreans home;

dprk-1972-arrivals sign

Waiting area, including a V.I.P. Lounge…unfortunately, they don’t accept Priority Pass…yes I asked…

dprk-2071-B-vip lounge

Waiting hall…all flights wait in the same room:

dprk-2083-B-departures hall

Inspirational reading on the walls while you wait for your flight. I wonder if Kim Il Sung would approve of the Kindle:


Sympathy might not be the word they wanted:


Our plane being prepared on the tarmac:

dprk-2101-air koryo P561

Walking down the stairs to the bus to take us to our plane:

dprk-2113-B-air koryo bus

So long Pyongyang!

dprk-2231-B-pyongyang airport

Boarding…was fun to get a different plane than the first flight!

dprk-2237-B-air koryo 561 Jason

Air Koryo flight 221
Pyongyang, Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (FNJ) to Beijing, China (PEK)
Depart 9:30, Arrive 10:00, Flight Time: 90 minutes
Tupolev TU-154B, Registration P-561, Manufactured 1983, Seat 26D

The Air Koryo crew continued to photobomb my pics!

dprk-2279-air koryo jason

No doors on the overhead bins this time, just put your bags up and pray!

dprk-2297-B-air koryo luggage racks

On the takeoff roll. You can see all the bags in the overhead, and the flight attendant standing in the aisle and bracing herself by holding onto two seats!

dprk-2336-air koryo P561 cabin

The Air Koryo burger, and some kind of juice I think. The burger was actually surprisingly edible, but I have absolutely no idea what it contained!

dprk-2348-B-air koryo burger

Final shot of our plane from the gate in Beijing:

dprk-2360-B-air koryo P561

We had a few hours to wait for our connecting flight to Newark, and got some Starbucks in the airport and then just hung out in the lounge. Back then you needed a visa to even transit China, so might as well leave the sterile area of the airport and get some Starbucks while waiting!

Continental Airlines flight 88
Beijing, China (PEK) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 15:45, Arrive 17:25 Flight Time: 13:45
Boeing 777-200, Registration: ???, Manufactured ????, Seat 9A

Was absolutely and completely exhausted by this flight, and ended up sleeping a lot of it. So tired I didn’t even think to take any pics of the meal or anything unfortunately.

Continental Airlines flight 1153
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington, DC, National (DCA)
Depart 19:00, Arrive 20:15 Flight Time: 1:15
Boeing 737-500, Registration: ???, Manufactured ????, Seat 5E

Speaking of exhaustion, this is when it hit. Flew economy on the domestic segments because buying first on those would have been hundreds extra, and it wasn’t worth it for such short flights when you could get the bulkhead. Remember the days when Continental flew 737s 10 times a day from DC to Newark?

All in all, it was an amazing trip, and a fantastic opportunity to be part of the first group of Americans to be allowed into North Korea. We got to see a slightly less-polished propaganda machine that wasn’t quite certain what to do with us. I look forward to going back for a much longer trip so I am not so severely jetlagged for most of it, and we can see more sights. Especially would love to take the aviation tour!

Jun 252015

As I mentioned in my previous post, booking two days before the trip I didn’t have a lot of choice on getting to Beijing. I was finding economy fares that were super high, and looked like a middle seat was the best we would do, or we could do business for about twice the price. It remains the single most expensive round-trip ticket I’ve ever purchased for personal use, but like I said I felt like this might be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Plus, being in North Korea for less than 72 hours I wanted to be as rested as possible to try and maximize the experience.

Unfortunately, I don’t really remember the details on the flight in great detail, but thanks to my notes I can at least reproduce some of it. Plus, this will be a bit of nostalgia for the good old days before Jeff’s cost-cutting.

Continental Airlines flight 1104
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart ??:??, Arrive ??:?? Flight Time: Approximately 1 hour
Boeing 737-500, Registration: ???, Manufactured ????, Seat 2F

Unfortunately, don’t remember much about this flight. It was a morning flight, so can pretty much guarantee I enjoyed a diet coke and not much else. I remember when Continental used to run 737s from DCA to EWR…and they were always packed. What happened?!

Enjoyed the Presidents Club in Newark, and soon it was time to board our flight to Beijing. I remember at the time thinking Continental BusinessFirst was a really big deal, and remember it being something like a six or seven course experience. Those days, well, they’re long gone!

Continental Airlines flight 89
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Beijing, China (PEK)
Depart ??:??, Arrive ??:?? Flight Time: ??
Boeing 777-200, Registration: ???, Manufactured ????, Seat 10A

I remember this flight being about 80% full in business, but the back mini cabin (I think there used to be five rows in the front cabin, and rows 8-10 were in a separate mini cabin) was less than half full. We had plenty of room to stretch out in our old-school barcaloungers.

For some reason, I didn’t take a pic of the soup, appetizer, salad, or any of the starters, but these were the days service in BusinessFirst was better than anything Jeff gives us in “First” on United these days.

Apparently, I had some chicken and veg for a main, and this reminds me how Continental used to plate the veg and starch from the trolly. Potatoes? Rice? They had multiple options, and you can fully customize the meal. Not sure what’s in the small bowl at the top, but I remember the Château le Gordon being much better than recent vintage Château le Jeff!

dprk-0002-continental lunch

Good to know I didn’t miss the ice cream sundae, though I’m not too sure why there’s Kahlua in the pic since I can’t remember ever going through a Kahlua phase. I’m glad to see four cherries though, I’d be disappointed if there weren’t multiples!

dprk-0003-continental sundae

Then I slept. I remember it being a pretty good amount, probably 4-6 hours. Cabin shot here with me enjoying the view out the window. You can see just how empty the back two rows of business were:

dprk-0015-continental jason

Landed, immigration was a piece of cake, and even getting a taxi to our hotel, the Grand Hyatt Beijing, was a piece of cake. We checked in mid-afternoon, and decided to use the little time we had to do a bit of exploring since we hadn’t been to Beijing before and would only have one evening before the flight to North Korea.

Looking jetlagged in front of the Forbidden Palace:

dprk-0027-forbidden city jason

Changing of the guard ceremony:

dprk-0033-forbidden city

Forbidden Palace all lit up at dusk:

dprk-0067-A-forbidden city gate

For dinner, we walked to the Quanjude duck restaurant. Don’t know how we found it, but they had a counter that indicated they’d served more than 15 million ducks since they opened:

dprk-0070-B-quanjude counter

Our duck, being hygienically carved up table-side…it was absolutely delicious with all the sides, and the waiter showed us how to plate it up and eat it all together.

dprk-0077-quanjude carving jason

Promptly crashed for at least eight hours, and was up way too early. Found Starbucks (do you doubt my abilities to find them, even back them?) and wandered the city just a little longer. Found a countdown to the Beijing Olympics, which were still three years away at that point:

dprk-0094-B-olympic clock jason

The Grand Hyatt:

dprk-0096-B-hyatt beijing

Then, it was time to taxi to the airport and meet up with our group from Koryo Tours for the flight to Pyongyang!

Apr 042012

As most of you probably know, United and Continental officially merged for all purposes a few weeks back – and there’s been more than a little drama since.  Everyone’s talking about insane drama with bitter flight crews, gate agents, computer foul-ups, missed upgrades, and the list goes on and on.  The short of it is, nobody seems terribly happy with what’s happened post-merger.

Fortunately, my experience in the last month has been different, so I thought I’d share 10 things I’ve found positive about the merger in the last month:

1)  The 1K line – lots of people have been complaining about long hold times, angry agents, etc.  But, I’ve found little to no hold time, agents are very friendly as long as you’re understanding that they’re on a learning curve with the new computer systems, and pretty much business as usual.  So far, this is a wash.

2)  Crews – in fairness, I have yet to fly mainline since the merger.  I’ve been doing lots of commuting on ERJs (mainly ExpressJet) and the crews have been fabulous.  Friendly, understanding, and kind.  No gripe at all here, and 1A on the ERJ-145 might as well be first class with its legroom for a 1 hour flight.

3)  Smisek – everyone is complaining about his smug and insincere welcome videos.  Again, I haven’t noticed, because I’ve been flying express where his mug isn’t omnipresent.  I guess that’s one good thing about ERJs!

4)  Seating – again, when there’s no first class on the plane, there’s nothing to get upset about.  I’ve been routinely booking less than a week out, and almost always get my preferred seat!

5)  Airfares – absolutely no complaint.  For the bookings I’ve made in the last couple months they’ve been completely in-line with my expectations, and I even picked up a couple of amazing last-minute eSavers.  Can’t complain here at all!

6)  Reward Tickets – again, no complaints.  I’ve booked a couple of last-minute award tickets, and found availability to be at least as good if not better than before the merger.  I’ll reserve judgement, but still no complaints.

7)  Upgrades – I will reserve judgement here.  I have a couple of B fares booked to Europe and Asia, both of which appear empty but the upgrade won’t clear.  If they do eventually I’ll chalk it up to the desire to be profitable – which I like as a stockholder.  However, the ability to not confirm any upgrades in advance is a definite minus of the new combined programme.

8] Compensation – this is one area I’ve seen a major decline.  I had a flight yesterday that was many hours late, and so far, have yet to hear from United with any sort of apology or compensation.   The old United would have proactively e-mailed and offered something.

9)  Destinations – who are we kidding – this is a major win.  Combining United and Coninental has probably doubled our available destinations, and I don’t think anyone would complain about this one.  I know it’s been a major plus for me so far.

10)  Catering – despite only flying ERJs since the merger, there’s been a major decline here.  No snacks at all, two of my last 4 segments they haven’t loaded ice OR alcohol on the plane…it just seems disorganized and like “it’s short so why should we care.”  That might be the case, but I know lots of folks pay $500+ one way for these segments, so that will leave a very bitter taste.

As someone who usually does lots of transoceanic, but lately has been doing lots of very high fare cross-border fares that’s my take on the last month.  Would love to hear from others!

Mar 032012

So, I told myself I would ignore this merger.  It was a bigger route network, more options, and in the end after the teething pains…it would be good!

…but then, I found an amazing fare for a trip I have planned in May, and had to get it booked before it went away.  That meant doing it before midnight when United does a giant database dump into SHARES – the Continental reservation system – and then it gets rebranded on the Interwebz as United.  So many things that can go wrong, but I choose to believe they’ve tested this to death and for those of us who already combined our United and Continental accounts online…it will hopefully be a no-brainer.  Of course…we’ll see in 90 minutes.

I have a few more tickets to book, but I’ve decided to hold off.  That may end up screwing me, or it may end up helping.  Time will tell…but after 109 countries visited I guess I’m used to a bit of risk.  Risk is a loaded term, especially in the US.  It’s taken to mean things that could go wrong…when in actuality, risk could also mean rewards.  That’s what I’m hoping we might see out of this.

On that note…how about you?  Did you go through the big Delta/Northwest merger?  Are you ready for the big United/Continental merger tonight?  Are you taking steps to protect yourself, or are you rolling the dice and hoping it all works out

Oct 142011

We arrived into Guam late afternoon, just in time to head to the Sheraton, check in, and have a semi-relaxing evening.  It was only around 4pm when we made it to the hotel, and after two weeks on the road our most important mission was laundry.  Fortunately the Sheraton surprised us…not only with a suite upgrade, but with three laundry machines in the building.  I don’t remember the exact cost, but they were $1 to $1.25 per load – and nice and convenient.

Of course, we needed laundry supplies, so it was off to the most popular place on the island…K-Mart!  Those who live in the U.S. mainland probably assume that K-Mart has more or less faded into our past as one of those tragic relics of the 70s and 80s.  Not in Guam.  K-Mart is the social hub of the island, and packed to the rafters with people.  I’ve only ever been to one Wal Mart (don’t blame me, it’s the only option in the middle of Oahu!) and it reminded me of that.  But even bigger (both in size, and the size of the patrons.)  You could get literally everything here.

Stocked with Tide and Red Bull it was back to the Sheraton, where we joined a member of the U.S. Navy in completing laundry pretty quickly.  With that out of the way…what else does one do on Guam?!  Not much.  We decided after two weeks a little Americana was in order, and grabbed dinner at California Pizza Kitchen.  Guam is definitely one place you need a car, unless you don’t plan to leave your resort…and I can’t imagine a resort vacation on Guam!

Up early the next morning, our plan was to drive around the island before our early evening flight to Palau.  Up to the executive lounge for breakfast, which was packed with Japanese package tourists consuming Japanese breakfast.  It was nice to have a Japanese option for breakfast instead of the typical sugar and carb-laden US/continental options.  Oh, and lots of ice cold Diet Coke.

That done, we were off to drive around Guam.  Our first stop was not far from the hotel at the giant rotating statue of Pope John Paul II.  Unfortunately, it’s been broken a few years, and no longer rotates.  However, the headline story in all the local papers we saw was how a donation had been received, and soon it would rotate again.  Yes, this qualifies for headline news in Guam.

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Oct 132011

For as long as I can remember, ever since I started traveling I had wanted to take this flight.  I started planning the Round the World Trip nearly a year in advance, and everything revolved around this flight.  The Island Hopper is a flight from Honolulu to Guam which makes four to five stops (depending on the day of the week) along the way.  As much as I would have liked to stop, I just wanted to take the flight and see what it was like!

We dropped our rental car off bright and early, checked in with no problem.  The agent was, however, completely confused why we were on the four stop flight to Guam instead of the nonstop.  She decided it was “for miles or something” and let us go.  Nothing else exciting, and soon we were in a gate holding area full of quite unusual people for the flight to Majuro, Marshall Islands.

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Oct 112011

Ok, first off, I need to do a few mea culpas….after the first week or so of the trip we were cramming so much into every day that I just wasn’t able to keep up with the blog during the trip. Oh, and my laptop died…the hinge cracked, turning it into the world’s largest iPad. More on that below…

So it was up early to get to the airport in Panama. First, a bit of explanation on this random routing. We could have just flown Panama-Houston-Honolulu, but that would have just meant more time laying over in Houston…and via Newark was the same fare, roughly another 5,000 miles towards elite status, and more time in Business First. Easy choice! Check-in in Panama was completely uneventful, and soon we were hanging out in the Copa Airlines Presidents Club. Stomach was still less than thrilled from the earlier food poisoning, so I was keeping to coffee and water while we waited to board. Lounge was basic, but more than adequate with quick WiFi…and it was right above our gate, so we could wait until the very last minute to board.

Continental Airlines Flight 1022
Panama City, Panama to Newark, New Jersey
Depart 10:05, Arrive 16:17, Flight time 5:12
Boeing 737-900, Registration N78438, Delivered 2009
Seats 2E and 2F

Honestly, there’s not a whole lot to say about this flight. Service was adequate, not overly attentive, but after my years of flying United I’ve gotten pretty used to that on domestic and regional flights. A copy of the menu for the flight:  (it’s important my ‘preferred cocktail or beverage’ was the famous Continental margarita)

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Aug 262011

The big day has finally arrived, and the big adventure has begun!  After several long months of planning and anticipation the day is finally here:  it’s time to head out on the big trip Around the World!

Stop one is Aruba via a Newark connection.  I have to admit, I really haven’t missed Newark in the past years since we gave up on the old Northwest/Continental alliance and went over to United, but I do admit the service on Continental.  I had two primary concerns about this segment of the trip.  First, the connection in Newark was only 65 minutes, which even on a good day could be a bit of a challenge at Newark.  Secondly, I figured (maybe foolishly) with 24 first class seats on this plane, the complimentary platinum upgrade would be a sure thing – after all, leisure routes to vacation destinations tend to be easy for the most part.

In the two months leading up to departure date, it went from 2 seats taken, to 8, to 12, and eventually to 23.  This was NOT part of the plan!  Up until the day of departure, however, it stuck at 23 seats taken so there was at least a reasonable chance one of us would get the upgrade.  One nice thing about Continental is their mobile app.  You can see right where you stand on the upgrade list in real time, along with lots of other useful information.  I really hope this stays after the merger!

Unfortunately, a 7am departure meant getting up by 430am to get caffeinated and ready, but in the end it wasn’t too bad.  Check-in at DCA was easy, the Continental staff were incredibly friendly, and everything was going off like clockwork.

Continental Flight 2185, Operated by ExpressJet
Washington, National to Newark
Depart 6:56 Arrive 8:02- actual departure 10 minutes easy, arrive 15 minutes early
ERJ-145, Registration N14991, Manufactured 2000
Seats 1A and 2A

Not too much to say about this flight. It was booked to 23 out of 50 seats, was nice and light, weather was good, and it was completely uneventful. Any time you arrive early into Newark is a good thing! We got the joy, however, of arriving into Terminal A and getting to take the shuttle bus over to Terminal C for the connecting flight. Ahhh, that’s the Newark I remember!

Continental Flight 1638
Newark to Aruba
Depart 9:06 Arrive 13:40
Boeing 757-300, Registration N78866, Manufactured 2002
Seats 6F and 21D

Unfortunately, only one of our upgrades cleared, and as an early birthday gift Matt was kind enough to give it to me. However, in the end, I think he might have gotten the better deal! An empty exit row, and not sandwiched between obnoxious New Yorkers talking about their $150,000 cars, unreliable nannies and complaining about the unkosher meals. Ahhhh, Continental!

Due to weather, we pushed back, and then got the honour of waiting roughly an hour to depart due to weather to the north of the field. Despite nearly an hour late departure, however, we ended up arriving only about 45-50 minutes late, so not all that bad in the grand scheme of things.

The meal service wasn’t much to write home about. Some eggs with potatoes, fruit, and ham, or a cereal and yogurt. Both with either a biscuit or cinnamon roll. Most of it was rather unappetizing looking, and after trading with my Atkins diet but non-pork-eating seat mate, I ended up with a meal of extra ham and fruit. Not too bad in the end!

Arrival was just a bit late, through immigration in 15 minutes or so, and out to taxi land. I had a hard time figuring out the currency situation in Aruba beforehand. I knew there was an Aruban Guilder which is the official currency, but lots of prices seemed to be published in dollars. I looked for an ABM in the airport, but not finding one, we decided to take our chances on a cab. Also, we did something we never do – despite there not being a meter, we didn’t even bother asking the fare and just set off.

Around 20 minutes later we got to the Westin, and the driver quoted a fare of “25.” Not knowing if this was fair, but seeming not too bad, I handed him $25….he went to the cab, got some change, and gave me $15 back. I guess the 25 was in Guilders. Strange, because so far everything else I’ve seen on the island has been quoted in dollars, so it’s a bit difficult to figure out how everything works.

The Westin Aruba is pretty nice, and we ended up with a complimentary platinum upgrade to an Oceanview Suite – hopefully some pictures to follow tomorrow. We were too anxious to get to the beach before sunset, so didn’t do much looking around today.

Dinner was at Wacky Wahoo’s which we had booked in advance due to recommendations on TripAdvisor. We didn’t know it was walking distance from the hotel (maybe just over 1km or so) so that was just an added bonus. We also weren’t sure if the prices were in US$ or Guilders…but even in US$ hey weren’t too bad. The service was efficient and very friendly, and the fish was amazing. Probably some of the best we’ve ever had! We started with a calimari and conch plate which was excellent, and for entrees I had a great shrimp and conch stew which was billed as “island viagra for those who can stand spicy!” It wasn’t that hot, but was absolutely delicious. I would highly recommend it!

Jun 272011

I suppose it’s time I wrap this thing up, mainly because the next adventure is about to start in a few days! Many years ago before I started flying United, I used to have a (somewhat irrational) loyalty to Northwest. Back in those days, Northwest and Continental were shacking up pretty close and there was really no comparing the two.

Looking back, my universe for comparison had been pretty small. Concepts such as international first class didn’t exist yet, so flying Business First on Continental was about as good as it got in my book! Now, almost ten years later with dozens of flights in Singapore First, Lufthansa First, etc, I was looking forward to seeing how business first on Continental stacked up. This would be my first Continental trip in nearly seven years…and it was on the 757 that IAD is sure to see much much more of unfortunately. Continue reading »