May 202015
 

After landing I grabbed a quick coffee from Starbucks and caught the Finnair bus downtown to the main Helsinki train station. It was quite a bit colder in Helsinki than Doha or Frankfurt (duh) and even with shorts and a hoodie it was a pretty brisk walk in the 10C temps to my hotel. At least it was sunny!

I was staying at the Hotel Kämp, where I’ve stayed on all my previous visits to Helsinki. They’re one of my favourite Starwood properties, and usually deliver the perfect balance of polite, formal service along with being non-stuffy. Unfortunately, today I had to wait over 10 minutes to check in, because a large group of Chinese tourists were arguing and all trying to guarantee rooms on the same floor. Ugh!

The wait was well worth it, however, because I ended up with a pretty sweet suite upgrade:

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It was just a large studio suite, but had a great view out onto the Espalande, which would have been nice had it stayed sunny more than 15 minutes, lol.

Spent the next couple of days with friends, touring around the city a bit and just hanging out. Plus, lots of sauna time…obligatory in Finland! Spent an afternoon at Suomenlinna, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was build in the mid 1700s as a protection from Russian invasion (pretty much a common theme whenever discussing the Finnish military). Unfortunately, the fort fell to the Russians in 1808, and Finland was occupied the next year.

Currently, the island has many year around inhabitants, as well as being crawling with tourists and daytrippers. Obligatory shot sitting on one of the cannons on the island:

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After a coffee, headed back into Helsinki for a quick snack at the Karl Fazer Cafe. Yum! Finns consume more coffee per capita than any other country, which probably explains why I feel so at home here:

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Time in Helsinki was much too short, and soon it was back to the airport for departure. The bus was on time and quick, and soon I was through immigration and security and into the Finnair lounge, which is divided into two parts. There’s a business class lounge, and there there’s a Premium Lounge for OneWorld Emerald and Sapphire members.

I got to use the premium lounge, which had a rather tasty spread:

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You have to love a lounge with pickled herring and salmon!

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…and of course champers!

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Delicious white chocolate mousse to finish it off:

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After a tasty lunch, it was time for the best part of the lounge…the sauna! The Finnair lounge is (probably) the only lounge in the world with an authentic sauna in it, and what better way to spend time before your flight than getting naked and sweaty with your fellow passengers. Of course, Finnair “encourages” the use of towels in the sauna, but that’s something no self-respecting Finn would ever do.

Just, um, make sure that the lock on your locker works before you lock your clothes in it and find after the sauna you can’t get them out. That might make for an awkward few minutes having to hunt down a staff member to unlock it…

Aaaaaannnyways, moving on to the gate, it was time to board!

Finnair flight 5
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to New York, Kennedy (JFK)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 15:50 Flight Time 8:40
Airbus A330-300, Registration OH-LTS, Manufactured 2009, Seat 2A

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Finnair uses the same seats that Brussels Airlines uses, meaning there are good seats, great seats, and not great seats. On the left side, the rows alternate with two not great seats (window has to climb over aisle to get out) with a row of great seat…one seat with two huge tables on either side. In the middle, all rows have two seats, but all have aisle access, so they’re ok. Then, on the far right, it’s all solo seats, which are also pretty good. So, avoid at all costs rows 1, 3, and 5 on the left side. They’re far inferior. I had 2A, so was all set!

Funky Finnish design pillow, amenity kit, and bubbles:

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Today’s menu:

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Champers, with strange snack mix of asparagus and soy sauce marinated fish…it was actually really tasty. This is also a good time to mention how much I love Finnair’s glassware!

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Salmon and potato salad with Finnish rye bread. Taste, but tiny portions:

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The lamb and red wine sauce with barley risotto, again, delicious!

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Cheese and ice cream for dessert. Unfortunately, the ice cream was super mushy. Boo!

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I may have had a second go at the cheese…

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Oh hai Iceland aka country #196…see you in just over a year finally!

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Dozed a bit and watched lots of tv on the flight, and soon it was time for a pre-landing snack. Smoked salmon and egg salad, with capers. Very light, but still tasty. The fruit, however, was even below United’s usual low standards. Everything else was super fresh and tasty (albeit small portions) but the fruit was just sad. I suppose the portions also explain why people aren’t America-sized!

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Dessert, a Finnish cinnamon bun. Not nearly as sweet as their American counterpart, and not slathered in cream cheese frosting, but you can actually taste the cinnamon…shocking!

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Landed at JFK about five minutes early, and after the gate agent came on the plane, she paged me asking me to identify myself at the door. Ut oh, this isn’t good. I was praying it meant they’d put me on the American nonstop from JFK to DCA which left one hour after hour arrival (thus making it technically an illegal connection) but no, she was there to be my escort! I’d booked a 3:10 JFK-LaGuardia transit, which I guess they thought was really tight, and so being in business class I got my own escort to immigration, through immigration, and to my onward transit. Absolutely stunning service by Finnair on arrival!

With Global Entry immigration was a breeze, and then it was off to find transit. I’d planned to take a taxi at around $40-50, but my escort convinced me to take the bus. For about $13 I wasn’t going to argue…but then found it it would be a 30 minute wait. I decided to do it anyways and save $30 or more, but was seriously having trouble figuring out when the bus left. It didn’t help that the ticket salesman spoke less English than anyone I’d encountered on this entire trip. Ugh! Anyways, the bus finally came, they crammed us in, and we were off to face the nightmare known as the Van Wyck Expressway at rush hour. Fortunately, it wasn’t too bad, and we made it to LaGuardia about 90 minutes before my 7pm flight. Security was a breeze with PreCheck, and just as I cleared it…I got a phone call.

My 7p shuttle to DCA was delayed until 7:40p now. Since it was about 5:40 at this point, I rushed over to the gate for the 6pm shuttle, which coincidentally was delayed until 6:45. “No, it’s full, you can’t standby” was the extremely rude reply I received. Then, I noticed the 5pm shuttle was still hanging around too…maybe I can get on that? “Go to the customer service counter. We’re closed here.” Ugh. Service.

With several other grouchy passengers I reluctantly headed to the customer service counter. We waited nearly 45 minutes, and then got the update. The 5pm wasn’t actually full at all, and if I didn’t mind sitting in economy I could get on it…when and if it left. It was around 6:30 at this point, so I asked about the 6pm. “It’s due to leave DC any moment, and yeah, plenty of seats on it…should leave here around 730p.” I figured I’d wait the extra 45 and be comfortable, and moved to the 6pm.

I waited it out in the AAdmirals Club. Not sure if I was technically allowed entry since I was connecting from Finnair business, but the agents just smiled and let me in. Two glasses of wine? To quote the bartender: “you look like you could use a double.” Hah!

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So, at the end of the day:

The 5pm shuttle left around 6:45, and I could have taken it on coach and gotten home 15 min earlier than expected.

The 6pm shuttle (with me) left at 8:00 and I was about one hour behind schedule.

The 7pm shuttle which I was initially booked on…ended up leaving around 9:30. I guess I made a pretty good call!

American Airlines flight 2145 (operated by US Airways)
New York, LaGuardia (LGA) to Washington, National (DCA)
Depart 18:00, Arrive 19:23 Flight Time 1:23 (2 hour delay)
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration N956UW, Manufactured 2008, Seat 2A

Plane go up, plane go down. Enough time for a “big boy glass” of wine, some biscotti, and about 30 minutes of Wifi enroute:

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On approach to DCA:

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…and with that, the trip was over. Felt like a long whirlwind trip to only check off one country, but with the extra time in Doha and Helsinki it was well worth it! It’ll likely be a few months before my next trip report, but you never know…

May 182015
 

Quick check out from the hotel, and used Uber to call a ride to the airport. In order to avoid having any leftover Qatari Rials I used the rest of the cash I had to pay down the hotel bill a bit and figured the ride would go on my card. The driver had a little trouble finding me at the W (he thought I was at the next hotel over) but once that was settled it was a quick ride to the airport. It turned out to be slightly more expensive than the cab to the hotel had been (by less than $2) so it was a good decision in order to minimize having cash leftover.

I was already checked in for my flight (they’d done it the night before in Asmara) so was able to skip check-in and go straight through to security. Qatar has a nicely sectioned off part of the check-in area for business and first passengers, complete with its own passport control and security. Since I already had my boarding pass I was able to get through immigration and then security in a total of maybe five minutes. Less than five minutes from curb to terminal is pretty impressive.

Of course, evil teddy was still waiting for me when I arrived:

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Having not had much lunch, I decided to have a “small” dinner at the sit down restaurant in the lounge. There’s a large buffet, and this menu to order from:

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I ordered the lamb tagine, and in the meantime I had a glass of Veuve Cliquot Rosé and some small salads from the buffet. Duck, crab and chicken salads. Quite tasty:

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The lamb arrived shortly, and was quite tasty:

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…and a couple of small cakes and pastries to finish it off:

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It was still nearly three hours until flight time, so I lounged around, caught up on a bit of blogging and enjoyed a bit more champagne. Soon, it was time to head to the gate where the big excitement was about to begin…a ride on the A350. View from the gate:

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Advert in the gate area:

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Boarded about 30 minutes prior to departure time, and was the first on board to get some pics.

Qatar Airways flight 69
Doha, Qatar (DOH) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 01:20, Arrive 06:55 Flight Time 6:35
Airbus A350-900, Registration A7-ALA, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2K

First thought on the cabin…the front few rows were pretty full, but only two people in the whole back cabin. Had I known it was an “open” cabin with no real bulkhead between the two sections, I definitely would have booked a seat further back, but that said, 2K was a great seat:

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Fancy new electronic signs with rotating text. Too bad the time was off by a few hours:

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Very few people were planning on eating, but for the sake of the review, who was I to say no. Amuse bouche of “mushroom and rice fritters with mild chili and garlic sauce” to start. Extremely bland, and just had a small taste:

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Next up was the roasted bell pepper and tomato soup with saffron and mint yoghurt with garlic croutons. Extremely tasty, I could have had a couple of bowls!

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The “classic Arabic mezze” appetizer which was described as “hummus, tabouleh and baba ghanoush served with arabic bread.” Again, extremely bland and only had a few small nibbles, except for the hummus which was pretty tasty.

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For a main, I went with the “chicken machboos with rice – golden fried onions and toasted nuts.” Now, the presentation needs some serious work because it looks like a cross between vomit and cat food, but it was extremely tasty!

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Then, disaster struck. I asked for the cheese plate and “I’m sorry, we’ve run out of those.” Wait, there’s 10 empty seats…how could you have run out of cheese? Do they not at least cater one for each passenger? She wouldn’t tell me what was up, so either the crew was hoarding it for themselves (unlikely), some passengers asked for multiples and got it (possible – lots of people seemed to be having cheese/dessert and wine then passing out), or they just don’t cater enough for all the passengers. Either way, extremely poor service.

So, I settled for the “Ladurée Plaisir Sucré” which was amazing. Described as “dacquoise cake with crushed hazelnuts, crispy praline, milk chocolate thin leaves, chocolate ganache, milk chocolate chantilly whipped cream.” It was amazing. I wanted another, but sleep won out…

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…and back went the seat, and I got a solid four hours of sleep. Unlike the 787, where I’ve had the best sleep I ever had on a plane multiple times, the A350 seemed like any other plane in this regard. The seat was plenty comfortable, but I didn’t wake up feeling hydrated and refreshed like I did on the 787. So that said, it was quite a nice flight, but stopped short of the “omg this is amazing and I have to fly this plane again” experience.

Like my other flights the crew was solid, and responded to the call button quickly and curteously, but made no effort to anticipate passenger needs. Maybe this is a European/Asian thing, but on Qatar they seem to wait until you ask for something to provide great service. Not bad, just different. However, if you’re the type who’s shy to use the call button, you might want to avoid Qatar.

Pic of our plane in the very early morning sun upon deplaning:

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First stop (without thinking) was outside immigration to Starbucks to get some coffee and attempt to come back to life. But, like I said, not thinking because I was planning to use the Z-Gates Senator lounge to grab a shower, which meant going back outside immigration. Not bright, but at least they didn’t question it. After a shower and catching up on emails, it was time to find Finnair. Unfortunately, they left from Terminal 2, which I can’t remember the last time I’ve used that in Frankfurt. Must have been way back in the NWA days when they flew there.

Took the train (outside Schengen still) to Terminal 2, cleared security, and found Terminal 2. Most flights from Terminal 2 area outside the Schengen, so upon arriving there I used the JAL lounge for another hour before trying to find the gate. The JAL lounge was nothing special, with the usual non-hub offerings of drinks, snacks, etc. It was a solid selection and reasonably comfortable, although there seemed to be an extreme lack of power outlets in the lounge. But hey, sushi and sake in Frankfurt. From Qatar, to Germany, to what felt like Japan, and onto Finland…it was becoming quite the multicultural day!

Finally found the way to it, and cleared immigration…which dumped you back outside security. Got a strange look from immigration, and he just crossed out my exit stamp instead of re-stamping me in. Ugh! I guess it makes sense, but had to re-clear security and then finally found the Finnair gate, which was of course a bus gate. Proletarian “all in one” bus mixed with economy and business, and soon it was time for the delights of European business class…standard coach seats with the middle blocked.

Finnair Airways flight 822
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Helsinki, Finland (HEL)
Depart 11:45, Arrive 15:10 Flight Time 2:25
Airbus A319, Registration OH-LVH, Manufactured 2000, Seat 3C

The seats may have sucked, but hey…amazing glassware and cute little airplane crackers:

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Proper menus:

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Tasty reindeer starter, relatively tasty chicken masala, and a really lame pre-packaged sweet for dessert. Overall, solid service and friendly crew, so can’t ask for too much more on a short inner-Europe flight:

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Landed in Helsinki right on time, arriving of course at a bus “gate” and was quickly bussed to the terminal to continue the adventure…

Nov 122014
 

My driver from Mary’s Motel showed up, and the car had ice cold air conditioning, which was nice giving the blazing mid-day sun in Kiribati. There is basically one road on Tarawa Atoll, and it runs the length of the atoll.  It’s dozens of miles long, but the Atoll is maybe 500 meters wide at its widest point:

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Kiribati is also, according to some sources I read online before the trip, the least visited country in the world. I wasn’t expecting anything to see/do, more just to walk around and take in how life goes on here.

My hotel was in Bairiki which is the country’s administrative centre, and you can see it’s a bit of a drive from the airport. It took almost an hour, and during the drive I got a lot of insight into the country from my driver. One cool fact is that the road is under construction (it was badly potholed, etc) and that should significantly improve travel options on the atoll. Was also cool to see several large signs from my employer as one of the key financiers of the new road. Hopefully it helps things!

At Mary’s, I played the usual (by now) South Pacific game of musical rooms until I found one that had reasonably functional air conditioning. Finally settled on this room:

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Pretty swanky, no? 😉 It was clean, cool, and reasonably comfortable, and came with a few bonus creepy crawlies here and there, and a few lizards that I occasionally saw crawling on the walls. The towel origami made up for it though:

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View from the room into the parking lot:

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The “beach” just outside the motel:

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Here you can see the one road, and just how narrow the atoll is in many places:

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Nicer beach on the other side:

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The hotel driver offered to take me on a bit of a drive down around the Atoll, and we drove around for about 90 minutes before heading back. Unfortunately my phone was dead at this point, so didn’t manage to get any pictures. It was interesting to see how even in the most populous part of Kiribati life was still so rural and quiet. Many of the locals had pigs tied up in their yard, and the pigs were eating/drinking out of what appeared to be old coconut shells. There just wasn’t much going on, but that appears to be the pace of life in Kiribati.

After resting, I decided to go for a bit of a walk. I walked about an hour down the atoll towards the airport just seeing sites until I got way too hot. The “aministrative centre” of the entire country. Not a very busy place:

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Air Kiribati advertisement. They’re currently out of business (I believe) and most of these routes are now being operated by Fiji Airways (God help them – oops – foreshadowing) or Our Airline aka Nauru Airlines:

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Sunset just outside Mary’s. Love the vivid orange and red colours:

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Nov 102014
 

Hotel van, once again with the side door completely open (I found out the night before this was for “air conditioning reasons” and not because it was actually broken) dropped me at the airport, and there was nobody in sight. I prayed the flight was still operating. Got to the check-in counter, and there was nobody in site. This wasn’t a good sign:

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No need to worry, however, the flight was on-time, and was en route from Brisbane already. I was, however, the first person to check in 90 minutes before the flight time. The agent confirmed that only six passengers were getting on in Nauru. Um, how is this profitable?

After getting my boarding pass and checking my bags (exit row again, score!) it was upstairs to immigration. Note how dead the airport looks:

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Got to immigration, and there was only one small problem, as you can see in this picture:

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That’s right, the immigration person hadn’t showed up to work yet! Less than 90 minutes before flight time. Security was there, but they wouldn’t; let me through until I cleared immigration. They suggested I have a seat at the immigration officer’s desk while I wait. Hahah!

Immigration showed up about 1:15 before the flight, and clearing immigration and security took all of about two minutes. Then, it was to the incredibly crowded holding room:

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Continue reading »

Nov 092014
 

After clearing immigration I went outside and looked for hotel transport, which was nowhere to be found. I’d emailed them my flight details and they said the hotel transport would be there, but 30 minutes later nothing…and most people from the flight were gone by this point. After 45 minutes, I gave up. There were no taxis at all (supposedly Nauru has a taxi or two in the country, but nobody seemed to know how/where to locate them) so I started asking baggage handlers/etc around the airport if there was a way to call the hotel. One of the flight attendants from my flight had her cell phone, and rang the hotel. They said they’d send their van shortly.

The van arrived around 15 minutes later, about an hour after we landed, and soon we were off to the Menen hotel. It was an old minivan, and the side door of the van didn’t close. Oh life in the tropics!

Got to the hotel, and they seemed completely uninterested in checking me in. The guy at reception was busy watching the small tv in the lobby with his friends, and clearly the Chicago Bulls took priority over helping me. Finally checked in, got my key, and up to my room…where the AC barely worked. As anyone who knows me knows, aircon is a requirement, so I went down to the front desk to check into getting another room. “No” was the simple answer. No you don’t have any other rooms, no you refuse to give me one, or no you can’t be bothered to look?

I was persistent, and eventually he sighed and gave me the key to another room. The AC in this room worked rather a bit better, and it looked like it would work for the night. View from the room:

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Spartan, but functional room:

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Ocean view from just outside the hotel:

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I had considered walking around the island since it was approximately a 20 km walk around the entire country, but it was hot. Really hot. It was almost nearly 4pm by this point so it would be dark way before I’d get around the island. Remember what I said about taxis? Uninterested front desk guy was pretty sure I couldn’t find a taxi to hire for a couple hours to drive me around the island. I kept pressing him. Surely something was possible. I came all this way to see Nauru, and it would be a real shame not to be able to see anything. Finally, he told me “the hotel driver will take you in the van. You can work out details with him.” I decided not to ask, and soon we were off.

Driving out of the hotel on the one road around the island:

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Continue reading »

Nov 032014
 

Cab dropped me off at Cairns Airport, and I never thought to specify which terminal. Walked up to check-in, and of course I was at the domestic terminal, which meant walking about 800 meters in the heat to the international terminal with my bags. One positive, most of the walkway was covered with a canopy, and it was breezy, so at least it wasn’t outrageously hot. To add insult to injury, check-in only opened two hours in advance. I’d assumed there would be a lounge (since I’d gotten kicked out of my hotel early) but no such luck until check-in opened. Killed a bit of time chatting with some french backpackers, checked in, and was on my way.

Shot of just how quiet the international terminal was. It was dead:

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The “Reef Lounge” that Qantas used was rather depressing, but at least had free beverages. The snacks were pretty miserable, consisting of some rather sad-looking sandwiches and a bit of snack mix. I gave it a pass.

Boarding was right on time, through a real gate, but walked out to the plane:

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Qantas flight 197 operated by QantasLink
Cairns, Australia (CNS) to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (POM)
Depart 14:25, Arrive 16:10, Flight Time 1:45
DeHavilland Dash-8 Q400, Registration VH-LQK, Manufactured 2012, Seat 15D

Take off was right on time, and it was a light load today with less than half the seats taken. Great view of the Great Barrier Reef on departure:

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Continue reading »

Apr 162014
 

Thanks to the United devaluation of miles, I had to start planning my year in advance. Especially since I would be using so many miles up this year, and United added “premier qualifying dollars” this year – I would be forced to plan.  Got all my mileage burning trips in place, and then deals fell into place.  First, the amazing $1500 Europe fare.  Now, I’ve found a < $3000 business class fare to Israel over Thanksgiving – another new country for me!

So far, the year has already been busy:

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But now, with nearly everything planned, it’s looking downright insane:

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Plans are:

January:  return from trip to West Africa, Congos, Angola – up to 154 countries!
February: week in Hawaii
March: weekend in Ottawa
March: long weekend in Jamaica – 155 countries!
May: Boliva and Ecuador, with a day stop in Medellin – 157 countries!
May: long weekend in Chicago
July: long weekend in St. Kitts – 158 countries!
August: DC – Hawaii – Paris – Andorra – Hawaii – Las Vegas – DC – all in 10 days. Whew! – 159 countries!
October: over a month in the South Pacific – 168 countries!
November: Israel – 170 countries! (yes, I count Palestine)
December: Christmas in Minnesota
December: New Years in East Africa – Malawi, Tanzania, Comoros, etc! – probably 172/173 countries by end year!

That should bring me into 2015 with only 23 more countries to go, and maybe only 15-17 to go after I return from New Years! So close, but they get hard! I still have Turkmenistan, Syria, Guinea (Ebola anyone?), Mali, Central African Republic, Cuba…yeah, some real thinking is going to be needed!

I’m sure more long weekends will get filled in soon…I’m tired just typing this! What do you have planned for 2014 so far?

Feb 172014
 

Now that I’m back from Africa, I’ve been doing some thinking of how I’ll get to my final 42 countries. Plan is to have a party somewhere that family/friends will want to join over Labour Day 2016…which will also coincidentally be my 45th birthday weekend.

After doing some planning, I have my remaining 42 countries grouped into a rough set of trips. 2014 plans are:

March: long weekend in Jamaica (155)

late-April: week in Ecuador and Bolivia (156-157)

July 4th weekend: long dive weekend in St Kitts and Nevis (158)

October: 9 south pacific countries (167)

New Years: 6 countries of East Africa + Saudi, Eritrea, Yemen. Hope is to arrange a Saudi transit visa between Eritrea and Yemen (175)

That will bring me into 2015 with 21 to go. They’re grouped as:

Belize: Dive trip planned with a buddy who returns from Afghanistan in Spring 2015. That leaves 20.

Middle East: Probably two trips, since I have Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. Who’s to say how I’ll get Syria….that’ll leave 16.

Mongolia and Turkmenistan: Probably two trips, especially if I manage the work trip to Turkmenistan I’m trying to get arranged, which could actually happen in mid 2014. That makes 14.

Cuba. Trying to figure out an interesting way to do it. That will leave 13.

New Years 2015-2016 will likely feature a 3 week romp through West and Central Africa. I’ll enter from Andorra to Algeria and then down, for 11 countries…leaving 2 to go.

Then, in 2016, I’ll do anything leftover from above (Syria? Cuba?), plus:

Bahamas and Iceland: leaving these for the last two, since I want a destination for my last one that family and friends will want to join. Iceland is the plan, but just in case I have an in-flight diversion before then, I’m leaving Bahamas as a backup. Labour Day 2016….start planning on it…thinking a long weekend trip of Thursday to Tuesday….

Jul 032013
 

Several years back when I decided I was going to go to every country, I had a rough idea which ones would be tough.  That list has since, however, been totally turned upside down.  Generally, I find that the “tough” countries are so for one of four reasons:  safety, location/access, visas, legality.

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Legality:  There’s one big one here for US citizens:  Cuba.  I still haven’t done it, but I know that exemptions exist.  I’ll likely buy into one of the cultural tours that are offered so I don’t have to do it another way, unless of course laws change which is always possible.  Lots of folks seem to think it’s illegal to visit places the US doesn’t get along with, but that’s not true.  Other than Cuba, I don’t know of any other countries the US government has a problem with me visiting.

Visas:  Some countries just don’t like issuing visas to tourists.  Belarus comes to mind, but that was pretty easy for me.  I paid an agency to find someone to write a letter of invitation, paid them to get a visa, and piece of cake.  I know it’s become a bit harder since then.  Nauru can also fall into this category,because there just aren’t too many places to get the visa.  I know Sudan also takes a long time to issue visas, and I plan to try later this year.  Technically I’ve already crossed Sudan off when my Lufthansa flight made a stop there, but I want to see it as well.  Guinea-Bissau has a pretty tough visa to get since there aren’t many embassies, but I had no trouble getting one same-day in Senegal last year.  Unfortunately, however, I couldn’t make the trip.  Libya is also really hard because they don’t issue tourist visas.  I had no trouble, however, getting a business visa issued last year.

Location/Access:  Then there are the places that are hard to get to.  Tuvalu and Niue come to mind.  Small pacific islands with just a couple of flights each week.  There just aren’t too many options.  Bhutan is also a bit difficult, but there are flights from Nepal, India, Bangkok, and as long as you buy into the government’s tourist requirements it’s not so hard.  North Korea also isn’t easy, but again, go on a sponsored trip and you’re fine.  This used to be much harder, but in the time since I went it’s become much easier.  South Sudan also isn’t that easy, but once you’re there it’s an easy visa on arrival.

…and, the biggest group

Safety:  I admit, when I started, this is the group I thought would be hardest.  Iraq, Afghanistan, and especially Somalia came to mind.  However, I’ve done all three of these now and never felt unsafe in any of them.  I guess my definition of safety has changed a bit since realizing that even “unsafe” countries usually have a safer region you can visit.  The one I still think I am going to have a really hard time with is Syria.  No idea how I’m going to make that happen.  I’ve also heard Guinea is pretty bad, so I doubt I’ll stay too long.  Likewise on both of the Congos, but you never know.  I’ve become a bit of a sucker for adventure.

That said, of the 60 remaining, I think the tough ones will be:

Algeria: notorious for long waits on visas, hopefully this shouldn’t be too bad.
Angola: hard to get a visa, and insanely expensive once you’re there
Cuba: with the US embargo, getting there legally will take some work
Eritrea: not real keen on issuing tourist visas, but supposedly it’s easy if you book with a local agent
Kiribati: few flights and remote, but doable
Nauru: see Kiribati
Nigeria: some security concerns, but with a friend working there I should be in good local hands. Visa shouldn’t be TOO hard.
Papua New Guinea: not exactly safe, but supposedly not too bad. Also, not super easy to get to.
Saudi Arabia:  they don’t like tourists, but I’ve heard a transit visa is pretty easy now.  Will try later this year.
Syria: this is going to be tricky. Active war zone, and difficult visas.
Turkmenistan: not real easy to get a visa as a tourist, but with a package tour it’s doable. Also, might have an opportunity with work.
Tuvalu: two flights a week – just hard to get to, and once there you’re there a few days!
Yemen: tourist visas seem to come and go, and it’s not always predictable. Mix in a bit of a security situation, and it won’t be easy.

Any thoughts?

Jun 262013
 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m down to 60 countries left to visit, with 136 visited so far.  This struck home last week as I was trying to find somewhere suitable to go for the 4th of July weekend, and wasn’t able to find anything that really worked for four days.  That got me to wondering if I’ve finally hit “that point” where things are going to get difficult.  So, I did a breakdown of the 60 remaining:

2 I am saving for last.  I’m planning Iceland as my last country, since I figure it’s somewhere friends and family will be interested in coming along to.  However, having said that, I can just see fate intervening and having a transatlantic diversion and ending up there earlier by “accident.”  For that reason, I’m saving the Bahamas for second to last since it’s easy to get to, and I figure I can talk people into it.

That leaves 58.

Later this year hopefully, I’m planning a trip to Bolivia, Ecuador, and hopefully the Galapagos.  This trip needs way more than a 4 day weekend, so can’t do it until later in the year.

That leaves 56.

I’m starting to plan my annual crazy New Years trip to crazy places.  I’m thinking this year of trying to hit Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Eritrea, and maybe (let’s just assume I manage it) Algeria as well.

That leaves 52.

Hopefully later this fall will be a extra-long weekend to Belize for Scuba and  a long weekend with a friend in Jamaica.  Also hoping to find time to do Serbia and Montenegro together.

That leaves 48.

Although it’s not planned yet, I have a friend who frequently visits West Africa for work, and one of the next times he goes I plan to go Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Nigeria overland.

That would bring me to 43.

At this point, my plans are much, much more uncertain because the countries get harder.  Some rough plans:

Comoros and Madagascar grouped together at some point, probably grouped with Uganda and Tanzania.

That brings me to 39.

Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine as a group will bring me to 36.

I’ll probably take a good long trip at some point and do Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, Cape Verde, Mali, and Mauritania from Senegal.  Bringing me to 31.

Cuba and St Kitts still remain, probably trips of their own at some point….St Kitts for diving maybe.  Those two trips make 29.

I’ll likely do the two Congos together in one trip, and hopefully throw Angola into that mix.  That makes 26.

Tajikistan and Turkmenistan go nicely together and I may swing work trips there…that makes 24.

There’s the South Pacific – not sure these will all fit in one trip, but I’ll definitely hit Fiji, and from there I have Kiribati, Nauru, Western Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu.  That makes 17.

The ones I’m unsure of fall into a few groups:

Africa:  Cameroon, CAR, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea, Liberia, Malawi, Niger, Sao Tome e Principe

Asia: East Timor, PNG, Solomon Islands and Mongolia

Europe:  Andorra – probably a long weekend trip from Barcelona

Any suggestions how to group these?  Obviously a few longer trips is preferred, but I’m open to ideas!  The end is in sight!