Jul 172016
 

Upon arrival at Dubai, despite being in first on Lufthansa, I was absolutely exhausted. Didn’t want to deal with getting any local currency and getting a cab, so took a black car from the airport since they accept credit cards. Was about a 30-35 minute drive to the hotel, and the small premium for air conditioned comfort and not needing to deal with local currency was more than worth it.

For a normal stay in Dubai I’ve been staying at the Sheraton Mall of the Emirates which is a great property with excellent SPG platinum recognition, but this time I was trying to complete an SPG promo by staying of all 11 of their brands in a year. Since the Grosvenor House was a member of the Luxury Collection, which I hadn’t yet stayed in had a very reasonable rate I figured it was a good place for an overnight.

Arrival was great – they had upgraded me to a nice suite which was way more space than I needed for a short overnight. Got to the room, cranked down the AC which struggled to get cool but was just barely acceptable, had a shower, and quickly passed out. Body clock was way off, but I managed a solid five hours or so of sleep before giving up and going down for an early breakfast.

The breakfast at the hotel was a huge impressive spread and one of the more impressive offerings I’ve seen from an SPG property. Friends Daniel and Rianda who live in Dubai were nice enough to come by the hotel for coffee before I had to head to the airport early – was great to see them and thanks to them for making the early trek out to the hotel!

Got ready to go to the airport, and that’s where the drama started. One of the benefits of suites at this property is it includes complimentary airport transfers. SPG policy is that when upgraded to a room, you are entitled to all the benefits of the room. The hotel refused to honour this, and insisted on charging me something approaching $100 for the transfer. I told them fine, go ahead put it on the bill, and I’ll make sure to take it up with SPG later. They made a “one time exception” and did it complementary, but supposedly this hotel has a history of this. They need to make up their mind: either stop upgrading people to suites, or provide the benefits.

That said, the transfer was extremely comfortable, and made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare before my flight. That, of course, also meant time for Starbucks! Since it was Ramadan, I had to have my coffee behind the screens of shame so nobody fasting had to watch me consume it:

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FlyDubai has a small lounge now in Dubai T2 and I spent maybe five minutes there to grab some water before the flight. The best part, however, is that there is a separate boarding gate for business class passengers and you get a private bus to the plane. Anyone who’s ever dealt with the chaos of T2 will certainly appreciate this. It was a nice touch!

FlyDubai flight 731
Dubai, UAE (DXB) to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (ASB)
Depart 11:00, Arrive 14:30, Flight Time: 2:30
Boeing 737-800, Registration A6-FEL, Manufactured 2014, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 114,917
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,305,054

PDB was offered: water, water, or….water!

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I love FlyDubai’s safety video, I find the animated characters and their expressions to be hysterical. This guy looks absolutely terrified to be flying:

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These ladies look equally terrified:

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…maybe they knew the oxygen masks were about to fall down:

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Wow, not only business class but also a menu on a low cost carrier? FlyDubai was doing better than domestic airlines in the US by far!

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FOUR choices of meal? Wow, impressive!

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I went with the chicken which was decent, but far from memorable. But, then again, they not only knew what a mimosa was, and were happy to provide as many refills as I wanted:

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Soon, we were on approach to Ashgabat. Note the green roofs on all the buildings:

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Passing the centre of the new city on approach…Ashgabat is known as the “City of White Marble” for a reason apparently:

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I had arranged for visa on arrival, and the process was a bit confusing…..since the office marked “Wisa” in the arrivals hall was dark when I arrived I assumed that you just got it from the guy at the immigration counter. Wrong. By the time he’d sent me back to the (now open) visa booth there was a bit of a line. No big deal. Handed over the visa on arrival fee of $86 plus the registration tax of $15, and quick and easy got the very nice and unique visa sticker.

After the long wait for the visa and finally immigration stamp, by the time I got into the arrivals hall my driver was already waiting for me. We were off to the hotel so I could rest up before Ian arrived on a redeye from the recently-attacked Istanbul Airport at 7a and we set off for touring. I was very thankful to have a night to recover!

The standard hotel proposed with the tour looked “adequate” but when I heard there was a “North Korean style over the top supposed five star hotel” I insisted we pay to upgrade. First approach to the Yyldz Hotel, which is supposed to be shaped like a teardrop, and was built by the major French construction firm Bouygues to be highly seismic resistant. See, in 1948 most of Ashgabat was leveled by one of the largest earthquakes ever on record outside the pacific rim, with a magnitude of 7.3 and estimates are that over 100,000 people were killed. The Yyldz Hotel from outside:

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The extremely understated lobby:

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Checked in to my room, which was absolutely palatial for a “standard” room. There were only like 8 rooms per floor, and the entire place seemed rather deserted. It was overall a really surreal experience, and very similar to my experience in North Korea in that the whole place just seemed kind of empty. Had dinner in the top floor sports bar, where I was the only person eat…and watching the Euro football championships. (Sorry, Poland.) Had dinner and a couple of very overpriced (at the official exchange rate) $10 beers and crashed early. Next day was going to be the tour of Ashgabat city!

Jul 132016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today’s menu:

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Amuse bouche:

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Have champagne, am happy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oct 212015
 

Called an Uber to take me to the Dubai airport, and the driver showed up in less than 10 minutes, very clean car, polite, chatty but not too chatty, overall a very good experience. Was maybe 10 Dirhams or so more than the taxi the day before, but for the convenience of using up the last of my cash on the hotel and paying by credit card it was well worth it.

Arrived at Dubai T2 and it’s amazing how much this terminal has changed in the past 10 years or so. My first experience was in 2007 when I attempted to fly KishAir to Kish Island, and the entire terminal was basically one small room with a few bus gates on the other side. These days, it has a bright and sunny check-in area with probably 30 counters, 12 or so “gates” which are essentially just bus waiting areas, but the whole thing is a much nicer experience…except it is massively crowded since it houses all flights of FlyDubai as well as other airlines from dubious neighbouring countries such as Iran and Afghanistan.

Check-in took about 10 minutes, and even that wouldn’t have been necessary since online checkin worked just fine. I wanted to check about the possibility of discount upgrades, but it appears FlyDubai doesn’t do this at all…and my 737 only had a total of 30 passengers, so there was definitely no need for it today. All checked-in, before heading through immigration and security I decided to grab a little breakfast…at where else? See, I told you T2 had improved since my previous visit!

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Caffeinated and ready for adventure, I headed to immigration. After double-checking to make sure Stephen Harper wasn’t around, I decided to skip this special immigration line and head to the main line:

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Immigration was question-free and security took about 10 minutes, but that was only because the truple (not sure what else you call a man and what appeared to be his two wives) in front of me had eight children with them, and three strollers (including a doublewide), and security was insisting they had to collapse every stroller and put them through the x-ray. Try doing that with eight children…no easy task. And they were having none of me trying to go ahead of them in line.

The gate area was jam-packed with at least 15 different flights waiting to board. However, for some reason that I couldn’t figure out, the crowds were all congregating near the food court, and at Burger King in particular. There were still a few seats left at the gates, so it was easy to sit and wait. Because waiting is what you do when your flight time passes, and then 15 more minutes pass, and finally after 30 they announce boarding for your flight. I would have asked what was going on, but, well, there were no airline employees anywhere to ask.

Hmmm. Short bus ride to the plane, and it was time to head off.

FlyDubai flight 8039
Dubai, United Arab Emirates (DXB) to Salalah, Oman (SLL)
Depart 9:00, Arrive 11:05, Flight Time: 2:05
Boeing 737-800, Registration A6-FEJ, Manufactured 2013, Seat 6E

Boarding confirmed there were only about 30 people on the flight, and since I’d paid an extra 100 dirhams for the bulkhead I had the entire row to myself. Got to sit in the middle and enjoy the amusing safety video:

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We also had a few stowaways for the flight…

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All in all the flight was extremely uneventful. As a low cost airline FlyDubai charges for absolutely everything, which means my Starbucks was more than enough to hold me over for about 100 minutes of flight time. At least in economy I prefer this model, because I can pick and choose exactly what I want. More legroom is always worth it, and if I decided I want something to snack on, I can pick exactly what.

Arrived Salalah slightly late, and then it was off to immigration. The airport was very new and modern, despite only having a handful of gates, and had clearly been built with growth in mind. First stop was the visa on arrival desk, where I asked if I needed one. I’ve read several times that if you arrive from Dubai that covers both the UAE and Oman, but once again was told this isn’t true. Maybe that’s only the case if you have to pay the UAE for your visa? Regardless, the foreign exchange counter finally opened, which is where you pay for and receive a receipt for your visa on arrival. They were happy to take Euros at a pretty miserable exchange rate, and that done passing immigration and customs was a piece of cake.

My pre-arranged driver was waiting just outside, and took me off to my hotel for the few days, the Salalah Hilton. It’s located a few kilometers outside of town on a relatively quiet part of the beach. He agreed to drop me for a couple of hours to rest and have some lunch before heading out on our afternoon tour. I’ll cover the tours in the next post, and for now will just focus on the hotel.

Grabbed a lunch at the beach bar, which was service nice cold Stella:

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In the evenings, there was another lounge/bar which did a nice happy hour deal of a burger and beer for a very reasonable price. It was just cool enough that sitting outside in the evenings was nice, although the biting insects were pretty terrible. I ended up with bites that itched for nearly a week after I got home, which is pretty amazing. That said, the burgers weren’t bad at all, the the service was super friendly. Plus, can’t complain about the views:

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Especially once the lights went on, hahaha

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As a Hhonors Diamond member breakfast was included, and they had quite a nice spread. My favourite part was the guy who brought you your coffee. He was wearing an apron that said something like “coffee man” had had lots of little pockets on it that were filled with different tea bags. Definitely different. But the breakfast was tasty, and could be pretty healthy if you wanted:

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A few thoughts on the hotel. It was definitely not a luxury Hilton, but at the sametime it was a nice and well-maintained property. The staff was super helpful and friendly, and several times asked if everything was alright and if there was anything else they could do. The rooms felt slightly older and worn, but this is a beach property, and a bit of mustiness is to be expected. The AC wasn’t ice cold, but worked plenty well to get a good night of sleep, so points in that department. The rooms were also slightly larger than your average Hilton room, and the internet was quite a bit faster than I had expected.

A view from my pool/ocean view room, with the daily anti-mosquito fogging going on:

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All in all a solid property, and if you have Hhonors points to burn it’s an amazing value – some say it’s one of the best values anywhere in the world for using Hhonors points. Next up, just why did I come to Salalah, Oman, anyways? 😉

Oct 152015
 

Hotel shuttle to the airport got me there right when I wanted to, and already had my boarding pass from the previous evening so was able to head straight to immigration. Almost no line, and in probably 10 minutes I was inside the departures area…and not a second too soon. I believe in being completely honest about travel, and something about Ethiopia and I didn’t get along.

I got to the lounge I usually go to, and she told me “yes, but there is a better lounge you can access” which nobody had ever told me before. I’ve always been Star Alliance Gold, and always in business or first out of Addis, so how this was news to me I don’t know…but it was. The problem was, she insisted I go use the nicer lounge, and I was rapidly losing the battle against…something I’d eaten the day before. I don’t know if it was the hotel pizza, or the plane lunch, or the bar snacks at the hotel,  but by the time I found the nicer lounge it was not a second too soon.

Disaster averted, it was time to check out this lounge. Did some re-arranging of flights for later in the trip on the internet which had quite good speed, and enjoyed a diet coke or two. The most notable features that made this lounge better than my usual one were that it wasn’t a dark dungeon and was actually well lit, had a group of people sitting on traditional chairs burning incense, drinking coffee, and eating what looking like popcorn in some sort of quasi-traditional setup, and had plenty of power outlets. It also definitely improved my impression of Addis airport immensely!

Soon, it was time to board. Out of the lounge, through security, to the gate, and no plane anywhere to be found. Agent told me boarding was at least 30 minutes off, so why don’t I go back to the lounge. Out of security, to the lounge, a little bit of blogging and another Diet Coke, and finally back through security and to a bus to board. There was a special bus for business class…all three of us. Yes, the plane seats 28 in business, and only three seats were taken.

Ethiopian flight 602
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ADD) to Dubai, United Arab Emirates (DXB)
Depart 10:55, Arrive 15:30, Flight Time: 3:35
Boeing 777-300, Registration ET-APY, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2L

First impressions of business class on the Ethiopian 777, my first time on their long-haul business product. Middle seats in business, who does that anymore, ugh, it’s almost as bad as United:

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Similar to my Turkish flight a week before, they had the footsie seats which went completely flat, but where you were very likely to end up playing footsie with your seatmate as you sleep:

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Settled in with bubbles in what basically felt like a private plane…couldn’t even see the other two in business:

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Amenity kit which, while not super fancy, makes a great case for storing the small stuff I tend to keep in my carryon. Just big enough, but not huge. It’s now beat out amenity kits from ANA, Lufthansa, Swiss, and South African which I used to use. I feel it’s that well-designed!

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Today’s menu:

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More airplane-shaped crackers with bubbles as as pre-lunch snack:

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The salmon starter wasn’t bad, and the salad was decent as well:

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The Cape Malay Chicken Curry, however, was absolutely delicious despite being a bit scary looking:

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But once again delicious cheese…glorious cheese…and they refused a second serving. Grrr!

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Arrival at Dubai involved a pretty long walk to immigration through several escalators, and the line was about 10 minutes as well, but stamped into the country with no issue at all. That is, until I passed the immigration desk and a woman in an abaya started pointing at me and screaming HARAM! HARAM! HARAM! It took a minute to figure out what was going on, but I think she’d seen the rather large tattoo on my arm (and I’m sure wearing shorts wasn’t thrilling her either) and had decided to make sure everyone knew just how awful I was. Thanks! Fortunately nobody else seemed to care.

Stopped at the ABM for some cash, and into a taxi for the ride to the Sheraton Dubai Mall – my first time at this property. I think every time I’ve visited Dubai I’ve ended up at a different hotel. Since this was a relatively short overnight I wanted somewhere convenient. I had some shopping to do for the rest of the trip (mainly something warmer for Mongolia) so being attached to the mall seemed a logical choice. Upgrade to a nice suite:

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The room was quite large with a bedroom, large bathroom, huge walk-in closet, and a sitting room with a couch, tv, desk, etc. Much more space than I needed, but extremely comfortable. Headed down to the attached mall for the shopping, and could have been anywhere in America. They even have Shake Shack now…Michelle Obama would be so proud!

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Stopped at Starbucks for a quick caffeine and snack. No clue how I was hungry, but I was, so…

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I still had a couple of hours to kill, so stopped by Ski Dubai to embarrass myself. The only place in the world you can go skiing inside a shopping mall. This was my third visit, and I keep hoping to snap a picture of a woman in an abaya going down the slopes, but they remain elusive. Perhaps on the next trip!

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Also, probably the only Hollister in the world with two twenty foot high television ocean displays outside the store:

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Back to the hotel for a short bit before dinner, and the executive lounge had an amazing spread. Alcohol is available at hotels in Dubai, but it’s also extremely expensive. Not only were drinks in the lounge free, but they were poured very generously. I think I had two glasses of wine, and probably finished off 2/3 of a bottle. Plus, they had tons of tasty bar snacks and desserts:

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Shortly after drinks I was picked up at the hotel by my friend Daniel, a long-time reader of my blog who lived in Dubai. We had met just under a year ago in Bali of all places and did some touring, and then met up again a few days later in East Timor. Now I was on his home turf, and it was time to catch dinner and catch up. Daniel and Rianda picked me up, and we drove a short ways to another mall (because that’s what you do in Dubai) to find some dinner. Car parked, and we set off to find somewhere to eat. Walked past the water show, and it was pretty much people taking pictures and not really looking at the show:

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We managed to grab a delicious dinner at a Lebanese place in the mall, which was blessed with fantastic air conditioning. Lots of great grilled meats and catching up, and regrets that we weren’t going on to Turkmenistan together. Daniel and I had originally planned to do the Turkmenistan part of this trip together, but when they denied me the visa he decided to go on alone and enjoy while I made other plans. After a couple of hours it was back to the hotel to get some sleep because they had to work in the morning and I had an early flight. One of the treats of traveling so much has been meeting people who live all over the world, and feeling like you always know at least someone in all major cities!

Up early the next morning, and off to Oman!

May 222011
 

You may have noticed the title of this post, yes, the plan was to fly Lufthansa. Up early and to the airport for the final segment of our trip. We were flying LH first from DXB-MUC-LHR and then on another ticket I had to unexpectedly continue on LHR-IAD on United with a 2 hour or so connection in LHR. Piece of cake.

Check-in at DXB at the LH F counter was horridly slow. They had called some passengers over from another line, and it was an elderly couple with lots of issues to sort out. Nearly 15 minutes later a supervisor finally realized what was happening, and called us to the business queue to check-in. Not the best, but also not totally their fault.

We didn’t have a lot of time, so opted to skip the lounge in favour of caffienation at Starbucks, and then off to the gate for boarding. I didn’t spot it but when when we hadn’t started boarding 45 minutes before departure the other Mr Ironmanjt realised one of the engines on the A340 was open…and they were tinkering around with something. Not a great sign. Even worse when it was announce that there has been a “mechanical issue with the aircraft” and more information would be available in 2.5 hours. Um, say what? There goes my connection…. Continue reading »

May 212011
 

Up early the next morning to take part in what was a pretty extensive breakfast buffet at the Sheraton Khalidiya in Abu Dhabi. I know this place doesn’t get the best reviews on FT, but between the Platinum Suite upgrade, a great buffet breakfast for two, I really can’t fault it at all. On top of it, the staff were fantastic and helpful. Two thumbs up from me!

Got a cab, and 90 minutes later we were pulling into the Le Meridien Al Sondos (chosen for being near DXB and the subway) to drop our bags before the daytrip to Kish Island. Checked in pretty quickly, bags dropped, and it was off to the Chaos of DXB T2 to begin the adventure to Kish.

Flight was at 11:15 and we were in line and waiting to check in by 9:00, but there wasn’t an agent in site to help us. At 9:45 the finally showed up, only to send us away because our Kish Air tickets hadn’t included the tax. We weren’t the only ones, it seemed most of the line was getting sent away. Ok, wander through T2’s back rooms, find the Kish Air office, pay 15 Dirhams each, back to the check in, get boarding passes and off to security.

Security was a complete non-event, and soon we were in the rather unimpressive T2. Quick brunch at Cafe Nero (not knowing when we might find somewhere to eat in Kish) and off to the gate. To wait. And wait. 11:15 comes and goes. No agent, no plane. Wait, wait. Wait. Around 11:45 an agent finally shows up, and a mad dash to the bus gate ensues…we had no idea what type of plane or anything awaited…

Kish Air 7143
Dubai, UAE (DXB) to Kish Island, Iran (KIH)
11:15 am, flight time 45 minutes
Aircraft Registration: EP-LCC Fokker F50
Seats 7E and 7F Continue reading »

May 182011
 

Ok, so where were we…ah yes, I remember…the dark, dank and crowded mess known as the non-premium terminal of the Doha airport about to get on Fly Dubai…a no-frills low-cost airline from a definite no-frills terminal.

Check-in itself actually wasn’t bad. We had prepaid something like 10 Dirhams (around $3 US) each for reserved seating to make sure we at least ended up on the same row. 2A and 2C had no extra legroom promised, but it was a small price to pay to be in the front of the plane. Plus, if the flight didn’t get too full who would want 2B?

Check-in was quite efficient, and no complaint at all about having rather largish rolling bags. Passport control was a mob scene, but still probably no more than 10 minute queue. This was also the first place I noticed a “women’s only” lane where they could go to lift up their niqab to match their passport pictures without being seen by strange men. Continue reading »