May 312019
 


Well after I had already committed to going to Florida for the ultramarathon in the Keys, I had a work commitment come up which would require me to be in Brazil the next day. Problem was: the drive from Key West to Miami is 3-4 hours on a good day, and I would need to be in Sao Paulo by 9am for meetings.

The problem is: most flights from the states arrive after 9am, making it near impossible to get a full day in upon arrival. I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I found out there was a flight nonstop from Fort Lauderdale to Campinas (about 100km northwest of Sao Paulo) on Azul which arrived at 05:00. Even with the long 1.5 hour taxi to Sao Paulo, it would work out.

To top things off, it appears that Azul is partners with United, so I could even earn some miles. Oh, and did I mention it was like 1/3 the price of United, American, and Delta and had nice seats? This was looking like a win all around!

Unfortunately, this report will be mostly about Azul…and in comparison, the nonstop flight home on United. We worked most days until 8 or 9pm, leaving me only time to check out a couple of local craft beer places and see how the scene was shaping up in Brazil…but then again you knew I’d make an hour in the evening for that…right?

So, right. I was able to check-in on Azul’s app (Portuguese only – the English version doesn’t allow check-in) but when I got to TSA (no pre-Check with Azul) the boarding pass wouldn’t scan from Apple Wallet, so I had to go back to the counter and get a paper one. Not the end of the world.

End of the world, however, is the disaster known as Terminal 3 in Fort Lauderdale. No lounges at all, and Azul doesn’t give food and beverage credits either. Fortunately, one of the restaurants does give a credit with Priority Pass, but it was a 15 minute walk from the gate. Was good for a couple glasses of wine, and I got to the gate where it was just getting time to board. Better hurry, or I’ll get stuck on Spirit!

First impressions of the seat and cabin ambiance on Azul were really positive:

right, so on with the flight!

Azul flight 8705
Fort Lauderdale, Florida (FLL) to Campinas/Sao Paulo, Brazil (VCP)
Depart 19:30, Arrive: 05:00, flight time: 8:30
Airbus A330-200, Registration PR-AIT, Manufactured 2003, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 39,622
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,732,210

Couple of early observations: no clue why Azul uses such odd flight numbers. Most airlines use lower numbers for premium/international routes, but Azul seems to use very high flight numbers. No clue why. Also, there are only four really “good” seats in each cabin, as they’re the ones offset from the aisle by the armrest. The other seats aren’t bad, but four of them are extra good!

Pre departure champagne in a proper glass with a folded napkin even…unfortunately it was a tiny bit warm:

I was very curious what kind of menu Azul would offer, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. Full multi-course meal with lots of options:

The cabin was, unfortunately, extremely warm on the ground, but the air vents delivered just enough breeze that it wasn’t miserable. Fortunately, Azul’s website is quite helpful when you have a problem! It did cool down to about 75F in flight which was still warm, but not awful.

Right before takeoff, and after the pre-departure champagne, individual chocolates were offered:

First couple of hours in flight we were treated to an absolutely stunning sunset:

Amenity kit was at the seat, and while it contained the basics it was nothing worth keeping:

Soon after takeoff beverages were offered, along with a dried fruit and nut mix. Definitely something different.

I know lots of frequent fliers complain when the appetizer and main course get served together, but I thought it worked out fine. With the super early arrival lots of people wanted to get to sleep as soon as possible, so it worked out well. I thought the plating was pretty nice too…and I loved the little salt and pepper shakers:

Both cheese and an ice cream sundae were offered. Above average.

We must have had good winds, because we arrived in Campinas nearly 45 minutes early. The airport was an absolutely ghost town, and other than passengers coming off our flight it seemed there wasn’t a soul in the airport. I know it’s a relatively new and empty airport, but seems like they have lots of growth in mind!

Through immigration and to the transportation area in under 10 minutes, and my Uber showed up less than five minutes later. He complained about the length of the drive to Sao Paulo (seems Sao Paulo and Campinas are different Uber bases) but eventually agreed to take the trip when I told him I was happy to wait for another driver. Then he asked for an extra 100 Reais for gas….ok maybe 50….and when I again said I was happy to just wait…he decided he’d rather take me.

Wasn’t a great Uber experience, and I felt like he was on the verge of falling asleep several times, so I made the best of it with my terrible Portuguese trying to keep him awake and chatting. Best part was, I made it to my hotel by 06:30, giving me time for a solid 90 minute nap before heading to meetings. Winning all around!

Busy few days of meetings, but did manage to find a couple of craft beer places for an hour in the evening. First find was “TapTap” which was a little hole in the wall place on a street corner, but they did have several really good local taps, and the special treat of getting eaten alive by mosquitos while you enjoyed your beer. I’m still itching a week later!

Second find, which was much more North American or European style was Bar Ambar which was a bit further away, and located near a BrewDog of all things! Had I had another night I definitely would have checked that out as well.

Of course I made it to Starbucks as well, and of course my name was butchered as usual:

This Uber driver really has his hustle going on:

Fun and unique sculpture/art in the lobby of the hotel where my event was being held:

Just like that three days flew by, and it was time to head to the airport to fly home. Unfortunately, there was a major accident and it took over 2.5 hours to get to the airport…enough I actually worried I would miss my flight. I did arrive 90 minutes before departure, and thanks to short lines for security and immigration even made it to the lounge for 15 minutes before heading to the gate.

United flight 860
Sao Paulo, Brazil (GRU) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 21:20, Arrive: 06:10, flight time: 9:50
Boeing 767-300, Registration N663UA, Manufactured 1993, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 44,339
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,736,927

I think I have the absolute worst luck with United’s 767s this year. This is maybe ten flights in a row where I’ve gotten the old configuration instead of getting a new Polaris aircraft. It wouldn’t be so remarkable except over half the fleet is reconfigured now, so you’d think I’d have better luck. Oh well, at least it’s not bad if I get the solo “D” seat in the middle:

The usual PDB – sparkling plonk and water:

What’s for dinner tonight:

The usual warm nuts and a glass of wine to start:

Dinner was decent, but unremarkable. The best part of the flight was that I slept nearly seven straight hours, only waking up slightly before landing. I don’t know what it is, but every time I fly north from South America I end up sleeping like a baby. Must be some combo of time zones and being exhausted from a good vacation or work.

…and with that, four back to back trips were over and I was looking forward to almost four weeks at home before heading out on vacation. I’m going to make sure to enjoy the next three weeks remaining, because after that it’s a crazy-looking schedule:

Late June/Early June: two weeks round-the-world with short stops in London, Paris, Tunis, six nights in Australia, and two each in Bangkok and Singapore. Looking forward to a few things from this trip such as Emirates and Qantas first class, first time on the Acela train, first time business premier on the Eurostar, TunisAir A330 business class, Thai first class, and two long flights with EVA Airways and Hello Kitty service!

Then I have three weeks in Switzerland for work in July/August, followed by back to back work trips to South Africa and India. Hoping to tack a few days onto the South Africa trip to visit some favourite old haunts as well, and maybe even get up to Zim for a few days.

…but for now. Rest…and I’ll try and write some more random travel musings before heading out in a few weeks as well!

May 282019
 


So, if you saw my post yesterday, you’ll have seen that I had a work trip to Paris, home for one day for an important event, then had to turn right back around to go to Germany. In an ideal world I would have either stayed in Europe, or stayed home longer, but sometimes these matters are just out of your control.

The other downside: when I booked the Germany trip it looked like Paris was going to be a full month earlier, so I’d have lots of time at home, so I agreed to a one-stop routing to save a bunch of money. Unfortunately, this meant leaving home at 11am instead of 5pm like the nonstop to Frankfurt would, so this was going to be a much less than ideal trip. I could really have used those extra six hour at home.

See, at the time, United/Lufthansa had a killer fare from NYC-Frankfurt that was like 1/3 the fare out of DC. So, even with adding a one-way ticket to JFK and a one-way ticket back from EWR, the overall fare would still be less than half. Had I known I’d have so little time between trips, I would have splurged on the nonstop. By the time the Paris trip moved, however, the price difference was more than 300%, so I was stuck with it. Oh well, make the best of it!

Delta flight 5957 operated by Republic Airlines
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to New York, Kennedy (JFK)
Depart 11:00, Arrive: 12:18, flight time: 1:18
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N206JQ, Manufactured 2008, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 26,399
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,718,987

…and make the most of my time I did, so much that I arrived DCA at 10:20. was through CLEAR/PreCheck in less than two minutes and still at the gate 5-10 minutes before boarding. I don’t usually like cutting it close and like to relax in the lounge a bit, but hey, I’ve been in the DCA SkyClub somewhere around 1,000,000 times, so the precious extra minutes at home were well worth it.

Not much to say about this one, standard short hop up to New York. The most surprising part was no wait for a landing slot at JFK (thank you Saturday morning traffic) and would actually be arriving over 25 minutes early today. Also the shortest flight time I can ever remember at 32 minutes.

With nearly five hours to kill at JFK (the only flight that left “enough” time between my separate tickets without anxiety, I decided to make up for my lounge negligence at DCA and visit every lounge I was entitled to at JFK, starting with the SkyClub right after landing.

Food was uninspiring today, but they had real honest-to-God Champagne. Cheese cubes and hummus were as normal, but the chicken strips were awful pressed/processed with fatty and dark streaks running through them. Revolting. I’ll spare you the close-up shot, but rest-assured I didn’t have a bite.

After these adventures in dining, it was time to make my way outside security in Terminal 2 and attempt to find the AirTrain to Terminal 1. Down the escalator, across the street, through a parking lot, up another elevator, and finally the train platform. Seriously, between JFK and LGA I’m not sure which is a bigger embarrassment. That said, I made it just fine on the first try and it gave me practice for my next upcoming JFK flight in a few weeks.

Security in Terminal 1 was the biggest shitshow I’ve ever encountered in the US, with no CLEAR line and no clear PreCheck line either. I asked the agent at the front about PreCheck and “I just yell to the other agent that you got it” – I asked about laptops out, shoes off, etc and was met with a nasty response. When I went through, my laptops caused problems, and the next agent snapped at me that I “should know better.” It was the last straw, and I asked for a supervisor.

“You can talk to me.” No apology, no “I’m sorry that happened” but after calmly explaining the severe attitude from the agents he just said “The one that looks like Dora the Explorer? I need you to identify her so she can be punished.” Seriously, this is what is “keeping us safe” these days? Now, I find TSA agents 99.99% of the time to be great and professional, but this entire crew at JFK was a nightmare. Is this the norm at Terminal 1? I ask because I’ll be back in a few weeks…

Up to the Lufthansa lounge, where I spotted the steed that I will take in a few weeks….the ex-Singapore A330 recently acquired by Evelop! which is operating for Norwegian on the JFK-London daytime flight. I might be crazy for trying this, but I’m kind of looking forward to it. Great views from the lounge, and a tasty array of nibbles…

The lounge was so nice I didn’t want to leave, and had amazing people-watching on top of it (including the Chinese guy with a sequinned sweatshirt that said BITCH PLEASE! in huge letters) but I vowed to try all the lounges I could…so traipsed off to the Korean Air lounge which I could access via PriorityPass.

I should have fled when I saw the elevator was out of service. Lugged my Rimowa up the stairs, and was met by a surly agent who was clearly over it. Seriously, I know New York attitude, but the airport staff (non-Lufthansa and Delta: they were lovely) were just miserable.

Also, this was the best snacks on offer. I should have once again passed…but drank the water, few sips of the wine and a fig newton, and I was off to the gate.

When I got to the gate, thanks to my need to check out the Korean Air lounge, boarding was already underway and I was concerned I might have trouble finding room for my bag due to the huge number of people queued up in front of me. I forgot, however, that the A380 is simply massive even in business class, and there would be plenty of room.

Lufthansa flight 401
New York, Kennedy (JFK) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 16:10 Arrive: 06:05, flight time: 7:55
Airbus A3800-800, Registration D-AIMJ, Manufactured 2012, Seat 22D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 30,255
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,722,843

Remember when I foreshadowed yesterday about how nice the last row of business class was in the Polaris 777 as long as there was nobody with an infant in the bulkhead? Well, karma paid me a major visit today…and I had a second passenger in the seat next to me today who seemed incredibly interested in my pre-departure beverage:

Now, in fairness, with the exception of takeoff and landing he did sleep 80% of the flight and was pretty much an angel the rest of the time, so it didn’t work out too badly, except mom was constantly working to keep him busy. Fortunately, with a 4pm departure I had no interest in sleep anyways, so it all worked out just fine.

Meal service was actually one of the better ones I’ve had on Lufthansa lately. Their business class meals can be a little on the unusual side, but they’re usually tasty. This one was more-or-less pretty mainstream, and the crew was absolutely fantastic. Once they found out I spoke some German, even though English was obviously easier, they made a huge effort to speak slowly and clearly in German to let me practice. Major points for that. Plus, the food was really good too:

Other than that, the flight was excellent. I skipped the breakfast since I wanted to head straight to bed upon landing. We arrived nearly 40 minutes early around 05:30 and I was in bed and asleep in the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport by 06:00 for a solid six hours of sleep. So much nicer this way than trying to sleep on the plane, and since it’s still on East Coast time it was very easy to fall asleep.

Woke up at noon, did a little work, and then off to catch my train to Saarbrücken for work. Unfortunately, there were no direct trains this late in the day so I would have to change in Mannheim. Unfortunately, the train to Mannheim was nearly 20 minutes late, meaning I missed my connection and had to wait another hour – making me late to dinner. D-Bahn is no Swiss train system these days – that’s for sure.

I treated myself to some Apfelwein and Pringles to enjoy the delay a little more…

Not too much to say about Saarbrücken since it was three very intense days of working with clients, but fortunately very productive. Stayed at the Mercure hotel this time which was more than adequate, and very well-located in the middle of the city. Close to Starbucks, and walkable to lots of places to eat and drink.

I had been completely unsuccessful on previous trips finding any craft beer at all, but this time found Stube 8 which at least had a couple. Not a great selection, but hey it’s a start!

Enjoyed a nice dinner with clients at Zum Stiefel as well, and got to have some traditional heavy Saarlandische food. I had to try the Saarländische Versuchung (the Saarland Temptation) and got a little bit each of three things: a “gefillder” which is basically a potato dumpling with liver sausage filling and sauerkraut, a green “hoorische” (a green dumpling) and a large meatball which I’m still not sure of…heavy, but delicious!

After successful meetings we ended just in time that I could catch a direct ICE back to Frankfurt. Unfortunately, a person was on the tracks between Mannheim and Frankfurt, and we ended up delayed on the train by nearly an hour. Worst service I’ve ever had in ICE first class, however, and never once did I see the train attendant – would have been nice to have a beer!

Arrived in Frankfurt early evening, however, with just enough time to head out to my favourite little craft beer joint for dinner. Naïv is a great little place, and this time they had several fantastic drafts and cans. Either my German was getting better or the staff’s English worse, because I managed to keep the whole thing in German this time without them switching to English. Dinner was two tasty sausages and a delicious brownie with ice cream. Oh, there may also have been a few beers….

Up somewhat early for breakfast at the airport (I sometimes feel like I live in Flughafen Frankfurt, and it’s amazing!) – my usual Iced American and Bretzelsnack…mmmm…so good! Stopped by the Senator Lounge only briefly and then strait to boarding. I needed to max out sleep this morning so little time for the lounge today.

I was pretty excited for this flight – my first time ever on the 787-10 – which was even more awesome because it had “real” Polaris 1-2-1 seating installed and I had managed to get my favourite seat – 1L – way in advance.

United flight 961
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 11:20, Arrive: 13:50, flight time: 8:30
Boeing 787-10, Registration N12006, Manufactured 2019, Seat 1L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 34,125
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,726,713

Pre-departure sparking wine delivered, and temperature sensor reporting a reasonable 71F today…at least we wouldn’t be roasted during boarding.

Mixed nuts and wine to start, while Paul judges from afar….

Meal was pretty standard Polaris fare, and nearly the identical menu I had from Paris the week before. I was glad to see the delicious pork and apricot terrine was back, and I went with the fish again as well. This is starting to be a habit! The cheese wasn’t quite as good as from Paris, but much better than from the US, and they actually had butterscotch today! YUM!

Mid-flight snack…I’m addicted to the little cakes and overly chewy macarons. Meanwhile, the Great British Bakeoff was providing some very suspicious looking bakes….and Paul was quick to glare!

Pre-arrival was the same meal options as from Paris, and since I won once with the mozzarella salad and “Hamburger Wellington” I decided to give it another go. The cheese was weirdly peppered with all the pepper on one cheese ball, but other than that it was quite tasty again.

On approach to Newark…not sure which airport this is. Approach into Newark was super, super bumpy today, with our 787 being tossed about pretty seriously.

Immigration was a breeze, though I find it annoying that more and more arrivals into Newark arrive at Terminal B these days necessitating a transfer over to terminal A or C for connection. Fortunately my connection was from Terminal C today, and I was curious if I could get into the Polaris Lounge since my arrival was on a different ticket. Yup, no problem since they were both United, and they even let me bring my Starbucks in. The Newark crew had never heard of the Mescal Paper Airplane, so I got to share that with them…though they were still suspicious of it.

Off to the gate to fly to DCA, and once more short segment to go.

United flight 3434, operated by Republic Airlines
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington, DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:45, Arrive: 17:03, flight time: 1:18
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N864RW, Manufactured 2006, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 34,324
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,726,912

How much can you say about a 40 minute flight from Newark to DCA. We were delayed about 30 minutes by a flat tire (seriously) but other than that we still arrived exactly on time. Very good luck today considering how the weather was. Super, super bumpy on the takeoff just as the approach had been.

…and with that two of my four back to back trips were done. Unfortunately didn’t get home until 6pm which meant a very short night to do laundry and repack since my flight the next morning was 8:30am. UGH. Fortunately managed a same-day-change to an 11:00am via Newark, so at least I would salvage a LITTLE more sleep….

May 262019
 


So, you’ve probably noticed I haven’t posted anything in a good long time. The main reason for that is…I spent nearly two straight months at home without a single trip….and it was amazing! I’m about to pay for it however, with three back-to-back work trips and a mini vacation all in the span of 18 days. Then it will be a month at home, before a two week vacation to Australia, 20 days in Switzerland for work, and back to back South Africa and India trips in the early fall.

Tired yet? I know I am…and I hadn’t even left! Actually, I’m back already. Normally, when I go to fun places like Paris I try and tack on a few extra days to enjoy the city, but with so many places to be these were all quick in and out trips…so the majority you’ll get is going to be plane reviews…which I know plenty of you enjoy! So, with that, off we go!

In another unusual twist for me, the flights to Paris would be nonstop in both directions. Normally, I would route through either Toronto or Newark to guarantee a 1-2-1 product, but due to the way fares and timing worked, I had to go nonstop…which worked out in the end because apparently United has been working on reconfiguring their 777-200s with Global First faster than I thought…and I got a Polaris 777-200 both ways! So, on to the flights:

United flight 915
Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD) to Paris, Charles de Gaulle, France (CDG)
Depart 17:20, Arrive: 06:55, flight time: 7:35
Boeing 777-200, Registration N216UA, Manufactured 2000, Seat 1L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 22,325
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,714,913

Yes, you saw that correctly. Only 22,325 miles to date in early May. As I noted above, the year has been off to a super slow start, which has been just fine with me! That’s about to drastically change, however.

Also, this flight confirmed for me that I love the Polaris seat – especially when I can get one of the odd-numbered single seats on the window. Thank God for the super strong air pumping from the vents, because this plane was a furnace. See the little cube circled below? It’s a temperature monitoring device I picked up on Amazon and love! Most of this flight was 77-78F with humidity in the 8-9% zone. Eek! I bought it so I could monitor planes and hotel rooms to see if I was (a) really crazy or (b) legitimate in being warm.

So, on the meal…..the PDBs came in real glassware with a generous pour, the sommelier featured wine goes for $8.75 a bottle per google, but I got the super tasty spicy chicken, so overall it was a pretty good meal!

I chose not to sleep on this flight given it was landing at 12:55am Washington flight, and I didn’t have to go straight to work. So I was treated to daybreak over Paris:

Got to my hotel, crashed for a delightful five hour nap, and then headed to the office for my only meeting of the day from 3-6pm. The next two days were jam-packed with meetings as well, but I did manage to get some fun in. Couple of great craft beer places to recommend that I was surprised to find in Paris: La Fine Mousse, Hoppy Corner, and La Robe et La Mousse – two of which were owned by the same people.

Of course, there was also plenty of time for a delicious hotel breakfast the way only France can do with fresh squeezed orange juice, pain au chocolates, fresh crunchy bread with nutella, amazing coffee, and a freshly made omelette. Oh, and I may have spent more than one night having wine and croque madames while people watching from a cafe…as one does in Paris!

United flight 914
Paris, Charles de Gaulle, France (CDG) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 12:25, Arrive: 14:50, flight time: 8:25
Boeing 777-200, Registration N223UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 15L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 26,186
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,718,774

All too soon, it was time to head back to DC. I had one night in the states because I had an event I couldn’t miss before turning straight around and flying to Germany. Not the most efficient thing ever, but some things take priority.

At least it was a gorgeous day to fly, and I got the 1-2-1 Polaris seating on the 777 again…which was a good thing because had it been the 2-4-2 dormitory class plane I might have completely lost it…. I decided to try row 15 this time, because it was one of the good odd-row window seats, and I heard it can be quiet in the back of the cabin as long as there are no infants in the bulkhead of premium economy behind you. There weren’t, and it was a great seat! That said, foreshadowing…

Meal was the usual from United, though I have to say the catering was a notch up from what I’ve come to expect from the downgraded Polaris catering lately. It was actually much tastier than usual, and I quite enjoyed it. Chicken on the way over, now fish on the way back….yes, this is my attempt at being BP-healthy after years of unhealthy plane and restaurant food. Thank God I’m super active or I’d probably have keeled over by now!

Not too much time to catch up on tv on the iPad this trip, because I had to write up the meetings before turning right around to do another set. I hate working on planes because it’s my relaxation time and tv time (since I don’t have a tv at home) but couldn’t be avoided this trip. Oh well, you can’t win them all.

Pre-arrival….”hamburger wellington” are you kidding me? I had to order it just because it was weird…and actually was quite tasty. The tomato and mozzarella salad was also pretty good. Sometimes it’s good to try something different… Prue, however, is definitely not sure about it.

About 2.5 hours before landing, over Newfoundland, there was a call for a doctor on board. A passenger had fainted and was having trouble breathing. I could just see us diverting after I’d made this ridiculous detour home for one event, but fortunately the passenger was alright and made it to Dulles where the paramedics were waiting for us.

That concludes the super quick trip to Paris. Stay tuned: tomorrow we turn right back around and head to Germany!

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 152019
 


As regular readers will know, I’ve been to Moscow many times going back all the way to 1988 when it was still the capital of the USSR. When I went back for the first time post-Soviet Union about 10 years ago, it was hard to believe it was the same country…but in some ways it still was. The familiar sites were still there: Red Square, the Kremlin, St. Basil’s, GUM, etc, but all the western stores and hotels made it feel the same…just more globalized.

In the years since then, I’ve traveled all around Moscow, seeing all the major sites many times. This trip, we really wanted to take the advantage of having a long period and explore some of the more out of the way and less usual site, starting with the Central Air Force Museum way out in Monino.

Now, saying “way out” is a bit relative, given the museum is only 40km east of Moscow, but it’s nowhere near a metro or train station, so this means either multiple bus and tram connections or taking a taxi. I checked Yandex and it was only about 1200 rubles (less than $20) so we opted for convenience. Unfortunately, the traffic was brutal that morning and it took us nearly two hours to get to the museum!

The Central Air Force Museum in Monino is absolutely huge, with over 170 aircraft on display, some indoors in two large hangers, and many outdoors. There are also over 100 engines and other aircraft related memorabilia on display. It was an absolute airplane geek’s paradise.

Few words if you’re considering it: the staff speak absolutely no english at all (though I’m guessing if you speak no Russian they can do the basics like toilet, go here, etc) but that said, they were some of the nicest, friendliest, and most helpful people I’ve ever encountered at a tourist venue in Russia. More on that as I go along.

After purchasing our tickets, the first stop was the hanger with older WWI and WWII aircraft. Upon entering, the ticket taker very helpfully explained the layout of the museum to us, and gave us all the details about the layout of the museum. She clearly loved her job, and slowed down her speech speaking very clearly so we could understand every word. I was impressed – it’s not common that non-English speakers in Russia make an attempt to make it easier on tourists, and she gave a super positive first impression!

An Ilyushin 10M from World War II – 1944. The displays (mostly in Russian only, although some had English as well) not only had details on the plane, but on the types of missions they flew, and often about Hero Pilots who had flown them. Really cool!

After spending about 45 minutes wandering the two large indoor hangers, it was outside and maybe a 200 meter walk until we got to the outdoor part of the museum. Sure, it was a little cold, maybe about -15C and super windy, but how bad could/would it be. Wrong thing to question…

After walking the first part of the outdoor section, there was another non-climate controlled hanger with some larger pieces. Like this “Volga Stratospheric Balloon Car.”

Back outside, and an Aeroflot Mi-2 Helicopter:

Myasischev M-17 Stratophera – aka what happens when you forget to de-ice the plane before takeoff…mainly took this photo because I loved the look of the plane with huge sheets of ice hanging off the wings.

Posing in front of a Tupolev Tu-144 aka Concordeski…it was cool to see this given I had just seen another one in Germany the month before. 17 were built in total, two suffered fatal crashes, and only five every saw passenger service. At this point I was absolutely freezing, and it was “take hands out of pockets for two seconds, snap quick pick, and move on.”

Mi-12 Heavy Transport Helicopter…one of the most unique looking aircraft on display :

After walking around outside and freezing (dozens of more photos I didn’t share here) it was time to head inside and check what I expected would be a very dangerous giftshop. But first, I had to take a flight…

Fortunately, the gift shop wasn’t too dangerous, although the proprietor was quite a character. She was extremely chatty, impressed by Americans who spoke Russian, and wanted to make sure she showed us every possible thing in the gift shop, as well as telling us all about upcoming special events at the museum. She even encouraged us to come back in the summer when we might enjoy it even more!

Overall, a super cool experience, and if you’re an aviation geek at all I recommend it very highly!

That night, out for more delicious Georgian food. Starting with a jug of house wine…which apparently is poured into a bowl for drinking! Chug, chug, chug!

Khatchapuri again, this one being way more delicious than the previous restaurant.

We decided to branch out for after-dinner drinks, and found another pretty cool pub. Craft Republic was kind of in the basement of a building, but they had a Pac-Man machine, awesome beer list, and even some Cypress Hill blasting from the speakers!

The next day, it was off to Bunker 42 to see where the Soviet Missile Command would retreat to if Moscow was under nuclear attack in the Cold War days. I’ve been to Canada’s version, the Diefenbunker, but figured the Soviet one being right in the middle of Moscow would be super cool. But first, you walk down 16 flights of stairs to get to the depth which engineers calculated could withstand a direct hit from the earliest nuclear weapons:

At the bottom, through a metal-clad corridor into the bunker itself:

Guard-post at the entrance to the bunker complex:

The Anteroom to Stalin’s personal chambers in the bunker. I was cracking up at all the mannequins:

Da. Comrade Stalin is right upstairs:

Oh, hey Joseph! Ironically, Stalin never even ended up visiting the bunker, as its construction wasn’t complete until after he died. Oh well!

Meeting room for officials in case of nuclear attack. The room was only used one time, however, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A mock-up of the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb…although our guide assured us it was real…

Missile command center…we even got to press the button and then watch a simulation film of missiles screaming towards the US…it was the ONLY time on the tour we weren’t allowed to take pictures…supposedly the consoles were the original ones, although the electronics were not.

After the launch room, we were told to go down the next corridor while the guide closed the doors behind us. Of course, he locked the door, turned out all the lights, and the red lighting came on while air raid sirens blasted. It was a pretty cool thing to see!

Standing outside the Bunker.

We ran into the metro right at rush hour, where it was packed…yet orderly in that way that people looking out for everyone else is. In DC, the metro is a disorderly mess with people stopping at the bottom of escalators, cutting each other off, and generally having no communal motivation at all. There’s a reason why it’s at capacity at a much lower point than Moscow, Tokyo, etc…

Next up our last few days in Moscow!

Mar 152019
 


Woke up, took a look out the window and the sky looked so much bluer today…quick look at the weather app and yup, high pressure and low temps. Around -20 today. Brrrr…but beautiful!

We were ready with the credit cards for breakfast this time, and after some food to fortify it was out to take advantage of the clear skies for just a few more photos before heading to the airport.

On the side of a building near the hotel…Murmansk, hero city!

The large square right outside our hotel still had some festive holiday display out…despite it being February already.

I had to, of course, have a seat on the big sparkly throne! Snow King of Murmansk!

Anyone who’s spent much time in Vegas will totally understand why I had to have this pic with Kitty Glitter 😀

After packing up we called a Yandex Taxi and off to the airport it was. Murmansk airport definitely wasn’t big, this being most of the boarding area. Pretty basic. The lounge was up the stairs, and it was also…extremely basic.

The waiting room for the bus to our flight (no jetways here) was a tiny little basement room that was very Soviet in feel and appearance. It just made it all the more awesome in my eyes. Boarding was right on time, and it was off to the bus!

Aeroflot flight 1321
Murmansk, Russia (MMK) to Moscow, Sheremetyevo (SVO)
Depart 13:10, Arrive: 15:30, flight time: 2:20
Airbus A320, Registration VP-BFG, Manufactured 2017, Seat 7D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 11,711
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,704,299

Absolutely terrified of the horrors that would await me in economy class, my worst fears were confirmed when this dude sat down across the aisle, and started blowing up his inflatable…face rest? Seriously? This is a thing?

Oh look, a two hour flight and they give us food. A+ for the tasty tea, and honestly for such a short flight….a choice of sandwiches (I went cheese) with fruit and sweet was pretty respectful. Points to Aeroflot for a very solid experience. We also had a super friendly crew who loved letting the non-Russians practice their Russian.

Landed right on time at Sheremetyevo, and it was off to the Aeroexpress Train to the city. We had just missed one, so plenty of time to check out the caviar vending machines. Only in Moscow!

Still a bit of time, so I grabbed some Starbucks to wake up. Mr. Trump, is that you?!

Train into the city, checked in at our hotel the Hilton Leningradskaya, then it was almost time to head out again for an awesome cultural experience. While waiting for the tour of the Icebreaker Lenin the day before, we got the idea to check if maybe there would be a hockey game while we were in Moscow. Sure enough, CSKA the Red Army team was playing, and we were able to get awesome and cheap tickets.

When in Moscow to see hockey, you have to have a hot dog and beer…which the saleslady made sure to tell us you could NOT bring to your seat and had to eat there. Well that’s unique!

I mean, a Russian Oil company (RosNeft) blimp flying around the rink to set the mood just made it awesome!

We were seated next to this very colourful superfan…yeah, first row seats for like $15. Absolutely awful!

Faceoffs in the corner were literally right in front of us:

Walked the concourses between periods, and couldn’t resist a picture in front of the CSKA fan banner:

One more faceoff…I think CSKA was up like 4-0 at this point…not a surprise since they were on top of the league with a record of something like 45-10.

We left shortly before the game ended, having had a great time, and one quick shot of the arena from outside. Yup, it’s Moscow and still looks cold…despite being only around -5 here compared to the -20 in Murmansk.

We walked back to the Metro, but then realized how many changes it would take to get where we wanted to go, so yup, called an Uber to take us to the cool craft beer pub we’d found a couple years back. Rule Taproom. Amazing tap list with a super cool atmosphere. Even if we were probably the oldest people there by ten years.

Out of order, but we also had delicious Georgian food…or maybe this was the second day, it sort of blurred together. Delicious Khachapuri with bacon, cheese, and egg. Soooo…good….

With that, off to bed. So much more Moscow to explore! Despite having been here several times, there’s always more to see!

Mar 102019
 


So, wait, you’ve never heard of Kirkenes? I mean, I’ve been to Norway before, so why am I going back?

Well, you see, Kirkenes is in the extreme northeast of Norway, just minutes from the Russian border. It’s well above the Arctic Circle, and the border crossing with Russia is also the northernmost staffed regular border crossing in the world. How could I skip that.

Just to put it in perspective, Kirkenes is circled below, and you can see Murmansk, Russia just to the east:

Fun sign in the gate area at Tegel Airport…yes, Berlin, you were wonderful and I really enjoyed my week. Actually sad to be leaving!

SAS flight 1674
Berlin, Tegel (TXL) to Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH)
Depart 13:30, Arrive:14:30, flight time: 1:00
Airbus A319, Registration OY-KBP, Manufactured 2006, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,637
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,702,225

So, in general, I do my best to avoid flying SAS. They have the same awful economy class seating as other airlines, but they don’t even block the middle seat! In fairness, they do call it “Plus” and not business, but if you redeem miles for it from United, it’s the same number of miles as business class. I was curious to see what the benefits were, other than sitting in the first row.

This flight was completely full with every seat taken, so thankfully the flight time would only be 40 minutes. Service consisted of a “snack” which was a wrap…either cheese or salmon were on offer. Only choice to go with it was water. Again, short flight so won’t complain too much, but there was absolutely nothing “premium” about this flight at all.

Arrived into Copenhagen and had 1:10 between flights due to an early arrival, so I set out on a mission to find the airport Starbucks. One, because I needed caffeine, but more importantly, I wanted to check the prices. I’m still putting together a listing of the price of a grande filter coffee around the world, and expected Copenhagen to be up there. At 31 kroner ($4.67) it was the third most expensive in the world that I’ve seen behind Geneva and Zurich, which comes in at $5.21 lately. Feel free to send me datapoints!

Walking away from Starbucks, it’s a good thing I didn’t have any longer….a Mikkeller Tap Room right in the airport? This could be seriously dangerous. I did stop for one 2dl beer, which turned into two because they poured the wrong one the first time, and at over $9 for a small pour it’s a good thing I didn’t have to pay for two!

SAS flight 1460
Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH) to Oslo, Norway (OSL)
Depart 15:25, Arrive:16:40, flight time: 1:15
Airbus A321, Registration OY-KBB, Manufactured 2001, Seat 8E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,959
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,702,547

In contrast to the flight from Berlin to Copenhagen, this flight was absolutely empty. Sure, the seven rows in front of me seemed to have all seats full except middles, but rows 9-21 behind me? Yes, 21 rows of “plus” class….and nobody at all in those 10 rows! Strange to see 10 completely empty rows! You’ll note I was also in 8E…a middle seat! Mainly to avoid people in front of me reclining into me…and site the seats on both sides of me were empty it worked just swell!

Beautiful views on takeoff:

Even better, I discovered on this flight that their beer was a nice Mikkeller IPA, which marked a very rare occasion for me of having a beer in flight. Pretty sure the last time I did was when I flew Brussels Airlines and their fantastic beer menu!

Short flight, only an hour, and was time to find the lounge and wait for Ian, who was meeting me there to continue the trip in Norway and Russia. Since Norway is in the Schengen Zone like most of Europe, no passport control at all, however, Norwegian domestic flights were in another terminal since there IS customs between Europe and Norway since Norway is NOT a member of the EU. For anyone who’s confused how this whole Schengen, EU, oh and don’t forget the countries that use the Euro, work, I love this diagram:

Right, so, through customs (so weird to clear customs but NOT passport control or security, and into the lounge. SAS lounges are weird in that they have a “business” lounge which you get into if you’re in “plus” or international business class, but then there’s a gold lounge in the back…which is even nicer…that you can get into as a frequent flier.

I hadn’t had a real meal al day, so decided on some Norwegian nibbles…..tuna, shredded cheese, olives, potatoes and pickles….odd, but did the trick and was tasty.

Ian showed up after a short bit, riding the struggle bus after flying Newark-Frankfurt-Stockholm-Oslo up until this point, so it was kind of nice to not be the one suffering jetlag for once! Off to our gate where boarding was just about to start for the two hour trek up to Kirkenes.

SAS flight 4478
Oslo, Norway (OSL) to Kirkenes, Norway (KKN)
Depart 17:55, Arrive:20:05, flight time: 2:10
Boeing 737-700, Registration LN-TUM, Manufactured 2002, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 10,812
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,703,400

I was determined to put “Plus” service to the test on this flight, so asked the flight attendant when she came around with my THIRD cheese wrap of the day, what else as on offer. Seems Plus means you can have ANYTHING from the buy-on-board menu, and don’t have to pay for it. So, I got some chips and another Mikkeller to go with the cheese wrap, and some high-quality iPad entertainment:

Unfortunately “anything” is a misnomer. When I asked for a second beer, I was told no. Apparently “by Norwegian law” they can only serve one complimentary alcoholic beverage on domestic flights. Seriously?! If I wanted to pay $8 for another I was welcome to it, but nope, only one complimentary. Way to go SAS, you are officially the cheapest non-budget airline in the world.

Disembarking in Kirkenes was at a remote stand. Doesn’t it just LOOK cold:

The Kirkenes Airport…looks more like an ice rink from the outside to me!

Bears at baggage claim! Oh no!

We went to find the bus into town, which was supposed to be like $10 a person, but when we boarded the driver told us it was free! Apparently, we’d arrived during some major festival – the biggest festival of the year in Kirkenes – and this year China was sponsoring the festival. That included paying for the bus during the festival. Whoah – finally – saved by China in all my travels!

After checking into my hotel, the Scandic Kirkenes, I was still pretty alert so went for a bit of a cold nighttime stroll. Getting artsy with snow-covered trees:

Outdoor ice rink! Turns out as part of the festival there was a big tournament of the “Bering League” the next day, but unfortunately we’d leave too early to see it. Bummer!

Sooooo much snow everywhere!

I found the library. You can tell you’re getting close to Russia when the signs are in Russian as well!

Oh look, a sign. Taking selfies to prove I was there!

World War II Memorial. Kirkenes was actually a major front in the war, where the Russians and Nazis faced off.

I found the local pub, which was absolutely packed due to the festival. So packed, that I ended up having to share my table with a local couple who spoke maybe 100 words of English (seriously, which Norwegians don’t speak English?! Ones that have lived their entire lives in Kirkenes, apparently) and a Russian truck driver who spoke no Norwegian OR English. I got to attempt to play translator from Russian to English…and then try English words until we found ones they knew. “Tax” and “expensive” and “price” were popular topics, and we had a great chat about driving across the border for cheap gas and booze. Great cultural moment!

Right outside the pub? Yup, a Chinese gate. Definitely the theme of the festival. Kirkenes was shaping up to be just as unusual as I’d hoped, and I looked forward to the next morning!

Back to the hotel, which was perfectly comfortable, and off for eight solid hours of sleep. Next up, day in Kirkenes and bus to Murmansk, Russia!

Jan 192019
 


After landing, I discovered the first unpleasant fact about Riga: no Uber. This meant getting semi-fleeced by an airport taxi on the ride into town, but end of the day it was vacation, and I made a point not to stress about it. The first time I was in Latvia on my every country in the world quest my flight was delayed by 12 hours, meaning that I lost all my time in Latvia, and immediately upon landing the airline had to drive me to Vilnius. I wanted to see more than I did, so was really excited to be coming back for a bit longer!

Hotel was the Radisson Blu Elizabete, which overall was very solid. Nice big rooms, helpful, but not overly warm staff. Overall I’d definitely stay there again because it was a nice location out of the Old Town, but a nice easy walk to it, so overall it was exactly what I expected.

It was already getting a little late, so immediately after checking into my hotel I made a beeline walk into the Old Town of Riga to get some dinner at Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs…partly because they claimed to have a good craft beer list, and partly because on many sites I had seen it was described as a really fun mix of tourists and locals.

What I didn’t expect was just how crowded it would be. The restaurant was several large underground rooms, and was super crowded and noisy – boring it wasn’t! Found a seat at the bar right away, and asked the bartender what she recommended to eat, and the Royal Stroganoff got her nod…it was pretty tasty:

I was super exhausted at this point, and all the travel of the past two months was really taking a toll on me, so it was back to the hotel and early to bed. I wanted to hit the Riga Free Walking Tour the next morning, so in bed by 11 and I thought I’d have no trouble since it didn’t start until 2pm. I chose the “alternative tour” instead of the old town tour, figuring I could always walk the old town myself, but seeing more residential parts was more difficult.

…except breakfast at the hotel ended at 11am, and I woke up at 10:55 haha. Quick breakfast and and getting ready, and figuring out where the tour actually started from, and finally made it just in time to meet up with the tour. Crossing the picturesque river on the way to the walk:

Amazingly, over 100 people showed up for the tour, but fortunately there were two guides, and I decided to go with Kaspars, who just seemed to be really energetic and a fun guide. Off we go, with the first stop being the central market:

The fish section of the market:

Caviar….this is how I knew I was in the right place!

After continuing on, we walked through some much more residential areas, which was cool. I always enjoy getting out of touristy areas and more into areas where people actually live life on a day to day basis. In the short time I’d been in Riga, one thing that had bothered me was just how overrun the old town was with tourists, so I was enjoying getting out of that area. Unfortunately after the market our first major site was a rather somber Holocaust memorial:

The other site of the memorial. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, there was really no recognition of the Holocaust in Latvia, but very quickly after independence many memorials went up.

Next up, the same building you seem to see in Warsaw and every other former eastern bloc city…this time, it’s now the Latvian National Academy of Sciences:

Cool Orthodox church right across the street:

We continued on to the train station, where we took a short break for people to warm up. I really liked the tower with a clock on the front of the station:

After the tour eventually ended, I wandered back to where we started at Saint Peter’s Church for this Brother’s Grimm sculpture:

After a long walk, I was hungry and ready for some dinner, so was off to a place called “Easy Beer” for dinner and some beers. Very ominously named beer called “Do I Have a Contact in Moscow?”

As our president says….

There was a venison burger on the menu, so I had to give it a try when I was told it was good. It certainly looked tasty:

Ok, I totally don’t get this, but just like in Kiev the day prior, my burger came with black gloves. Not one to judge, and when in Rome and all that, I decided to give it a go….since when I looked around lots of other people were. Is this a Ukrainian and Latvian thing? I’ve seriously never seen it anywhere else in the world!

Since the evening was already adventurous, I decided to check out a bar called the Armoury, which supposedly had cases full of guns you could play with while enjoying their extensive beer selection. Went in, sat down, ordered a beer, and it definitely did not disappoint. Who knows what this is?

Two beers later, and the real fun came out. Breaking the cardinal rule of “don’t drink and play with MANPADs…” But hey, when in Latvia….nothing says amazing Sunday like beer, rockets, and freedom!

Ok, fine, you talked me into one last drink….but let me put this down first…

So, Riga (especially the Old Town) was cool, buy way too touristy for my tastes. I’m glad I came back, and I’d especially like to come back and see some smaller towns in Latvia, but it was time to get some sleep, I had a very long 12 hour day the next day of going from Riga to Vilnius via a full day tour!

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 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!