Dec 022018
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right, enough about that flight.

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

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

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

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

Have bacon, are happy!

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

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

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

Loved the mural outside:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apple strudel for dessert, with yet another Coke Zero:

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

…and a small box of EgyptAir branded chocolates!

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

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

Aug 222018
 


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

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

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

Right, on with the review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 052018
 


Time for another throwback post, this time back to 2008 when I was alerted to a mistake fare that Lufthansa had published. The fare was meant to be for DC to Helsinki, but when publishing it in the list of permissible connecting cities they accidentally put the code for Johannesburg. This meant that for a “normal” sale business fare to Helsinki you could add in several more miles earned plus have the chance for a 12 hour stop in Johannesburg! Back in the younger days when I flew more just for the adventure this sounded like a wild deal. I was sold!

Of course, I had nearly 14 hours in Frankfurt on the way to Johannesburg, and that just wouldn’t do at all. At this point I was at only 63 countries visited, so I started looking if there was a sidetrip from Frankfurt that I could pull off within 14 hours. Noticing the frequent flights from Frankfurt to Zurich, I decided that pulling off Liechtenstein would be possible, so a quick booking and I was set to try it!

Fast forward to the flights were relatively uneventful, so few details. Fortunately I was into Frankfurt on time and had no trouble making my connecting on SWISS. Fortunately, since they were both on separate tickets it could have been trouble. This was also in the dates before inflight WiFi, so it’s not like I could just log on and cancel the SWISS ticket if we were going to be late.

Fortunately, no problems.

United flight ???
Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart approx 17:30 Arrive: approx 7:00 next day, flight time: approx 8 hours
Boeing 767-300, Registration N657UA, Manufactured 1993, Seat 6K

SWISS flight 1071
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 10:20, Arrive: 11:20, flight time: 1 hour
Airbus A319, Registration HB-IPY, Manufactured 1996, Seat 10F

Landed right on time in Zurich, and I had exactly 7.5 hours between flights to go see Liechtenstein. Down to the train station in the airport, and a first class ticket to the Swiss town of Sargans purchased. It was just over an hour to Sargans, where upon arrival I bought a connecting bus ticket to take me the rest of the five miles or so into Vaduz, Liechtenstein.

First impressions, a bank with some very modernist architecture:

More walking, and I was really impressed by just how green everything was:

This was around the time it seemed like every city had to have statues that represented the city, painted a bunch of different ways. DC had its donkeys and elephants, Berlin had its bears, and apparently Liechtenstein has its….cows.

…again just how green it was. But brrr, it was mid-August and everyone was still in jackets.

Herzlich willkommen!

Small tourist train running around Vaduz:

After walking around for around three to four hours, I decided to walk back to Switzerland, you know, as one does. There haven’t been a whole lot of international borders I’ve crossed by walking!

Old wooden bridge between Vaduz and Switzerland:

Apparently, the local graffiti artists are less fond of Switzerland:

…and walking back into Liechtenstein one more time for good measure:

…and back into Switzerland. How many different border signs can I find!

…just one more, I swear!

Caught the bus on the Swiss side back to the train station, and back to the airport in plenty of time to relax in the lounge for a bit before flying back to Frankfurt. Very productive stopover!

SWISS flight 1076
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 18:55, Arrive: 20:00, flight time: 1:05
Airbus A319, Registration HB-IPS, Manufactured 1997, Seat 36A

No need to clear immigration since at this time Switzerland wasn’t in an immigration union with the Schengen countries, so got to stay in the international area the whole time, and plenty of time for a stop by the lounge on the way to the plane. Best part of the flight down to Joburg? I was so exhaused from sleeping on the plane the night before and walking around all day that I passed out. Plus, this was the old 747-400 configuration with 4D, the solo seat in the nose that people used to call the “Captain’s Chair” because it was in the middle of the deck.

Lufthansa flight 572
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 22:35 Arrive: 8:50 next day, flight time: 10:15
Boeing 747-400, Registration D-ABTF, Manufactured 1991, Seat 4D

This was also in the days before the Gautrain, so I had to hope a shared bus taxi into the city, which dropped me right at Nelson Mandela Square. Looks just the same as it does now 10 years later! I had a great lunch Al Fresco while walking off the jetlag as much as possible before heading back to the airport to fly right back to Frankfurt!

Most awkward part about flying back to Frankfurt? It was the same plane I had come in on in the morning, and I had exactly the same seat heading back! Third straight night sleeping on a plane, and fortunately the seat was still form-fit to me so I quickly passed out and slept just about the entire way to Frankfurt. Three nights in a row on planes will do that!

Lufthansa flight 573
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 18:55 Arrive: 5:25 next day, flight time: 10:30
Boeing 747-400, Registration D-ABTF, Manufactured 1991, Seat 4D

Lufthansa flight 3102
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Helsinki, Finland (HEL)
Depart 9:35 Arrive: 12:55, flight time: 2:20
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIQW, Manufactured 2000, Seat 4C

Spent the first day in Helsinki walking off jetlag and playing tourist a bit, and then it was time to head to Estonia for a night. I’d never been on a helicopter before, so it seemed the way to go!

Loading the baggage….much easier than a plane!

Excited to be boarding my first helicopter. Back in 2005 Copterline had a crash on this route killing all 20+ aboard, but I wasn’t nervous for some reason….I’m not sure why, but…

Copterline flight 140
Helsinki, Finland (EFHE) to Tallinn, Estonia (EECL)
Depart 17:00 Arrive: 17:20, flight time: 20 minutes
Augusta Westland 139 Helicopter, Registration OH-HCR, Manufactured ?, Seat 2A

Look at those views! We passed over the Tallink Ferry, which would be our ride back to Helsinki the next day:

After landing at Tallinn City Hall Heliport:

One last evening picture…back when it was cool to have holes in your jeans, I know…

Took the more direct route home, not via South Africa, and really did make the most of a five day weekend! Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, South Africa, Finland, Estonia…any trip where you have more countries than days is pretty successful!

Lufthansa flight 3103
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 13:40 Arrive: 15:10, flight time: 2:30
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIQW, Manufactured 2000, Seat 2F

Great surprise….an operational upgrade at the gate to first class for the last segment back to DC. What a great way to end what was a fantastic trip!

United flight 933
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 17:00 Arrive: 19:44, flight time: 8:44
Boeing 777-200, Registration N768UA, Manufactured 1995, Seat 1A

Hopefully these throwback posts make an interesting read – I’d love to see how some of these places have changed with time – share your stories!

May 182018
 


After a nice rest, and waking up with Starbucks at Geneva Airport, it was time to find the SWISS First Lounge. I’d done some online searching, and people on Flyertalk generally seemed pretty unhappy with priority security at GVA as well as the lounge. I decided to leave myself about 90 minutes of lounge time to make my own assessment.

Premium security was pretty quick, and waited maybe five minutes in line. Super efficient. The lounge wasn’t very hard to find, and when I offered my F boarding pass from Frankfurt to Johannesburg the agent directed me through the magic door on the left to the F lounge. Now, maybe it’s not the biggest most impressive lounge in the world…but I had the entire place all to myself! How can you not like that?

I liked the decor – not at all crowded, but not a big fan of the chairs. Just found them a little awkward to sit in and the cushions a little too big and firm. I know, first world problems. Did I mention I had the whole place to myself for the entire 90 minutes?

Plus, the buffet had a really nice cheese setup!

Oh, and macarons! I didn’t try any of the other sweets, but one of the downsides of an empty lounge is you know the food isn’t turning over often and isn’t really the freshest.

The macarons weren’t the freshest, but didn’t stop me from sampling a few while I waited…

After a perfectly nice stay in the lounge (only complaint? it was too warm, but that’s just my personal pet peeve almost everywhere in Europe) it was off to the gates. Boarding was delayed about 15 minutes, but we had a great few of other planes and the mountains in the background while we waited. It’s really hard not to like Switzerland…

Boarding was a complete scrum, but despite boarding 15 minutes late we pushed back only five minutes late. Not too bad at all for a completely full flight…except for the other seat in my row! One empty seat on the plane, and it’s next to me once again. Definitely having some good luck on this trip so far.

Lufthansa flight 1223
Geneva, Switzerland (GVA) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 17:55, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time: 1:15
Airbus A319, Registration D-AILL, Manufactured 1997, Seat 4F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 29,921
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,549,983

Did I mention it was a gorgeous day and we had an amazing view of Lake Geneva, the mountains, and the airport as we did a 180 right after takeoff?

Yes, 55 minute flight and they served a rather substantial snack. As someone who loves sour cherries, and cheese…esp cheese with fig compote…it was definitely a great snack…and I had to try really hard not to ruin my appetite for the upcoming stop at the Lufthansa First Lounge and flight.

Landed right on time and…we ended up at a remote stand. I saw the driver next to the plane, and he didn’t have any names, but I hoped…and yup, he was there for me! I’ll never complain about a remote stand when I have my own driver!

Given the driver could only take me to the main airport and not the First Class Terminal (boo!) I opted for the B terminal, knowing that would also eventually guarantee me a ride to my plane which was departing from the Z gates. It would be a semi-short visit to the lounge today, so I headed straight to the dining room for some Schnitzel and champagne! Layovers are so trying when you get served a dinner like this…

…and I think Lufthansa must seriously be stalking one of my social media accounts. As I was eating, the lounge attendant came up to me and said “Herr Mayfield, I thought you might want a duck?” Haha, I’m not sure if I find it creepy or thoughtful….who am I kidding, definitely thoughtful!

After a quick shower, I settled in to watch a little tv until the flight…given the programming, a drink was definitely in order. With over 100+ different scotches/whiskeys to try, it’s going to require many more trips through Frankfurt to make a dent in Lufthansa’s offerings!

Off to the plane we go…Porsche tonight.

Rain or not, there’s always something magical pulling up next to the plane in a Porsche and walking aboard like you’re a VIP. No matter how many times I do it, it never gets old!

Only two passengers tonight, which was a bit strange as I’ve found this in the past to be one of the hardest routes for business to first upgrades. Chatted a bit with the other passenger, as well as the flight attendant serving first, and everyone agreed it was an unusually light load. Not going to complain, though!

Lufthansa flight 572
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 22:05, Arrive 8:30 next day, Flight Time: 10:25
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYH, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 35,301
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,555,363

Let’s see, what’s for dinner tonight…I mean, not that I need dinner after the lounge

One thing I like about the length of the Johannesburg flight is it’s long enough to get a good sleep in…and

Like the transfer, it never gets old. Welcome aboard macadamia nuts, champagne, and a simple rose…

I’ll start off by apologizing for the dark pics…I find it much harder with the iPhone taking pictures in a dark cabin. Any tips are, of course, very welcome! Amuse bouche of salmon, creme, and some fig spread….wasn’t a huge fan.

Starters from left to right….the asian beef was super tasty, and just the right combo of flavours and textures. The goat cheese with bell pepper and olive was alright but nothing special. I generally avoid shellfish on planes (except maybe lobster!) but the scallop was surprisingly tasty, and perfectly cooked.

Sad was uninspired, and very surprisingly for Lufthansa several of the leaves were wilted and browning. Unusual for Lufthansa (and the crew) to miss something like this.

As the other passenger chose to sleep, the question wasn’t “do you want” caviar, but “how much do you want” – decided to start with a quarter of the tin, which was already a pretty generous portion!

…followed by another quarter of the tin. I may have a problem.

Very rarely do I do the fist option on planes, but when it’s monkfish I cant resist. I was cooked really well, and lighter than a beef dish would have been. Overall it was really tasty and a good choice.

Oh Lufthansa with your amazing cheese cart and sweet biscuits…there are not words enough to describe how fond of you I am!

Raspberry and yogurt cake with pistachio ice cream…not only was the presentation amazing, it tasted fantastic. Plus, I love pistachio ice cream, so it was extra amazing!

…and as is my custom with overnight Lufthansa first flights a couple of pralines and some Johnny Walker Blue to nod off.

Crew kept the cabin nice and cold at my request (after making sure the other passenger didn’t mind) and I crashed….hard. So hard that my request to not wake me up should I be sleeping had to be honoured, and I was woken up 15 minutes from landing after a solid 7+ hours of sleep. Probably one of the best in-flight sleeps I’ve every had, and a wonderful end to another great flight.

Now, time to hope the immigration line isn’t too long, and spend a couple of days resting and recovering before getting down to work!

Mar 112018
 


Unfortunately, it turned out that the Starbucks in the lobby of the Le Meridien didn’t open until 8am on Sundays, and with a 10a flight and unpredictable traffic I felt that would be cutting things too tight. Set the alarm for 715am, and was out the door at 745am, and really debated waiting 15 more minutes since Google maps was still showing a quick 22 minutes with no traffic to the airport.

However, when I got out the front door of the hotel, I was very glad I hadn’t waited. All the streets around the hotel were closed off for some kind of running race, and I had to walk several blocks to find an Uber. Fortunately, my Spanish has improved enough I could ask one of the helpful and plentiful police offers where the best place to walk to to get an Uber was, so I really only lost about 10 minutes.

Google Maps was, fortunately, correct, and I arrived at the airport around 830am. I had checked in online, had a mobile boarding pass on my phone and a gate number, so I headed for what looked to be a mercifully short security line. Looks were only mildly deceiving, and by 845am I was past security and right beyond was the most magical of sites…with prices 50% higher than in the city, of course.

United flights left from an area of about eight gates that seemed to be a bit of a Satellite Terminal, and apparently the United Club is in a totally different part of the airport? I’m not sure if this is always the case, but it seemed to be an incredibly nonsensical arrangement. Waited around in the seating area with other passengers, before spotting an Avianca Lounge right next to my gate. It was nothing special, but it was quiet and uncrowded, so made the last 15 minutes before boarding more comfortable.

I had debated switching to the nonstop flight to Dulles which left 15 minutes earlier, and the United app was letting me make the change for free under the 24 hour confirmed change waiver for elite members, but when the only seat left was 3F I decided to pass. Being stuck in a window seat for four hours is my idea of not fun, and I had the whole day, so decided to stick with my original routing.

Even more strange, this A319 had the usual 12 seats in first, but only 8 passengers booked…and no waitlist. This couldn’t be for real, could it? We would actually go out with empty seats up front? 2A and 2C were still open, so I switched myself to 2C in hopes that 2A would stay open, and sure enough it did! I can’t remember the last time I had an empty seat next to me in domestic/regional first/business!

United flight 1025
Mexico City, Mexico (MEX) to Houston, Texas (IAH)
Depart 10:05, Arrive 12:23, Flight Time: 2:18
Airbus A319, Registration N821UA, Manufactured 1999, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 15,417
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,535,479

Being my first time flying in Mexico, there were lots of new and fun airlines to see on taxi. Here’s Viva!

I loved this view right after takeoff of all the planes sitting around:

I was glad to be getting back a little early since I had a surprise hockey game that night, and was glad to see that United had taken that into account when ordering their napkins. I mean, I do qualify as a superhero, right?

This is also a good point to mention the crew. This was one of the most attentive and attention to detail crews I’ve ever seen on United, and he actually set up the four napkins as a “placemat” first before setting down the drinks and nuts. Yes, he even faced the logo on the can and the glass towards me intentionally. Definitely a first from United! Doesn’t make a difference, but reflective of someone who has pride in their job which always makes a customer service interaction much more pleasant!

There were two choices, and I don’t remember the other, but one was described as a pesto chicken with risotto. I don’t do chicken that often on planes, but they had me at risotto. It was definitely way mushier than risotto should be, but I have very low expectations for risotto on a plane, so overall the meal was definitely above average….and the cake was super tasty. The salad, however, was like far too many airplane salads and wilted and gross. I gave it a miss.

Nothing much to say about the flight. The cool thing was, the flight was SO short that I was able to use the Mobile Passport app right after the door was closed (and I was sure information had been transmitted by the airline to CBP) and had already been ok’d for immigration/customs by the app before even leaving the ground. That made the flight much less stressful after my recent experience in Boston.

Sure enough, immigration was a breeze in Houston, found my way out and upstairs to the E gates checkin area, where there was absolutely nobody in the security line. There was no CLEAR line (does anyone know where it is in Houston?) but with no line it didn’t matter. Went through the metal detector, and once again I got the beep for random screening. Either these are much more frequent lately, or I’ve just been winning the jackpot a lot.

Unfortunately, today, there was a problem. The residue swab on my bag came back positive for explosives, which meant we were going to have some fun. Out of my bag came everything remotely electronic for a hand examination, and a rescanning piece by piece. I also got the extra super-friendly patdown by an agent. I have to give this particular agent credit, because he was excellent in giving the explanation step by step of what he was going to do and explaining that I had the right to go to a private area for the screening.

I told him “I lost my shame long ago – go for it” and he laughed and continued very professional, and in a manner that was more, um, “friendly and familiar” than many dates I’ve been on. As he finished, he thanked me for my cooperation and told me I was good to go. I came up with “wait, all that and I don’t even get a Happy Valentine’s Day or a cigarette afterwards?” It was good for a laugh, and it was nice to see a TSA agent with not just a personality, but also not on a powertrip like so many of the ones I’ve come across.

Trekked over to the D gates, and of course, a glass of Veuve Clicquot in the American Express Centurion Lounge:

Only time for a quick stop and glass of champagne, and then the long trek back to the C Gates for my flight to DC, which fortunately was right on time. Group 1 was absolutely packed today, and the agent announced that “because we have over 40 1K members on our flight today, I appreciate your patience in only boarding when your group number is called.” Wow. According to the app there was only one upgrade, and it was the gentleman sitting next to me. He was a friendly guy, and mentioned he was Global Services on pretty much a full fare last minute economy ticket, and that three of his colleagues who were also Global Services were sitting in the back. That’s a Sunday flight back to DC for you!

United flight 589
Houston, Texas (IAH) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 14:38, Arrive 18:35, Flight Time: 2:57
Boeing 737-700, Registration N24702, Manufactured 1998, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 16,607
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,536,669

Shortly after takeoff drinks and mixed nuts were offered as usual:

If I’d been impressed on the flight from Mexico City to Houston, this flight would turn out to be the exact opposite. This was billed as a “Cobb Salad” and was a disgusting pile of romaine lettuce, chopped cucumber and tomatoes, a hard boiled egg, and a bowl of some rather nasty looking chicken.

Giving credit where credit is due, the chocolate cake and pretzel roll were tasty as usual.

That ends a rather average trip with United. For some reason, mainly that I didn’t have much domestic travel, I found myself scrambling in late 2017 to make the minimum four segments with United to requalify for status, and now I’d done 7 flights in under three weeks! Overall, I’d say not much has changed. The experience is still wildly inconsistent, from the hard product, to the staff, to the meals. There are some that do really well and impress, most are just average, and a couple are significantly disappointing. I guess overall that’s domestic air travel these days in a cut-price environment with little real competition.

No travel likely in the next month (hooray!) so I’ll be writing a few think pieces for the blog, but get ready for a trip report in a few weeks back to Southern Africa, and likely to include South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, checking out new places in each country that I haven’t visited before.

Epilogue: two days after getting home, I woke up to an email from CBP, approximately six months after I filed an email appeal of my NEXUS/Global Entry revocation. The email was short and sweet: “A review of your membership by the CBP Ombudsman has been completed, resulting in the reinstatement of your Trusted Traveler membership.  Please contact the enrollment center if you have any future membership questions.”  WINNING!

Mar 082018
 


So, I had to go to Mexico City for work. To be honest, I was actually really looking forward to it because despite having been to every country, and living right next door, I cheated on Mexico. It was actually the third country I went to; my aunt lived in Tucson for years when I was a little kid, and we used to go and visit, and after me whining and begging several times I finally convinced the family to hop across the border to Nogales. Remember, this was the early 1980s, so the concept of needing a passport as an American was kinda crazy.

Then, fast forward to college, and a group of friends went to a friend’s beach house in Ensenada, Baja California. Had a few great days and actually a bit more of a local experience, but still kind of cheating. Then, on a trip to Orange County we made a day trip to Tijuana. Walked around, had great food at restaurants that were all locals, but again….still doesn’t quite count.

I won’t even mention the ill-advised trip to Cancun.

So, yeah, I’ve definitely been to Mexico, and have no issues with “counting” it, but I still felt like I really needed to have more of a Mexican experience. Between my little tastes, and having been to lots of other countries, I was pretty sure I had a really good idea what it was going to feel like, so I was curious to see if I was right.

I’ll split this report into three parts: the trip there, a short report on my six days in Mexico City (4.5 of which were work), and finally the trip home.

Quick cab to the airport, no line at CLEAR, and realized I had nearly an hour left to kill before boarding. I’m generally not the type to go gaga for airport lounges, but since I had the time decided to do something I never do: lounge hop.

Airport train to the B gates, and a short walk ahead was the wonderful Lufthansa Senator Lounge:

Strawberry raspberry nutella AND a completely empty lounge due to being between the ANA and evening flights? Yes PLEASE!

Artsy shot thanks to the empty lounge. Unfortunately at this hour the “champagne” is a rather crappy cava and the raspberry nutella scone didn’t taste like nutella at all. Major sad panda.

No time to waste with only an hour to waste to do all the lounges, so off to the Turkish lounge. On the way, I nearly lost my lunch:

Short walk later, I was at the Turkish lounge, which people seem to rave about:

Bad news: same crappy cava. Good news: delicious baklava and a relatively-empty lounge.

I still wonder where this mystery staircase in the lounge goes. Perhaps I should have explored:

Walk all the way down to the A gates, catch the train to the C gates, and time for a quick stop at the United Club. *hums* one of these things is not like the other…

Lest anyone thing I was a giant pig, I woke up, went for a run, and ate nothing before getting to the airport – so was really hungry!  …yes, and thirsty!

United flight 484
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Houston, Texas (IAH)
Depart 12:45, Arrive 15:19, Flight Time: 3:34
Boeing 757-200, Registration N14118, Manufactured 1997, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 13,891
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,533,953

According to the app there were over 40 people on the standby upgrade list, so was very happy that I’d managed the night before to do a free same day change onto this flight. Always nice to have lie-fat seats on a domestic flight even if just for the legroom. Having already had my palate wrecked in the United Club preflight, I opted for a pre-flight prosecco:

It was also Valentine’s Day, and I got an e-mail card from the CLEAR team at Dulles. Awkward.

Once in flight, out came the warm nuts. Glass of red wine? Consider it handled.

All these years I’d never had the famous burger, so decided to experiment. Honestly, it was decent. There are lots of amazing burger places in DC so my standards are pretty high, but given this was a plan it wasn’t bad at all…and came on a pretzel bun. With a pretzel rolls on the side. Uh…oh.

Points also for a very fresh salad, and reasonably tasty cheesecake.

Landed a bit ahead of schedule in Houston, and I realized I’ve somehow managed to avoid this airport for nearly five years. We landed at some newish C Gates which were really bright and airy – a nice change for Houston. Spotted this 787 on my way to the D Gates to try and find the Centurion Lounge:

Oooh Singapore A350…sexy!

Finally found the lounge, which like most AmEx lounges these days was heaving and about to burst at the seams. Had to wait in line behind a family of SIX to get in, so good to see that problem has been solved. Not.

Oh well, a glass of Veuve Clicquot made it a bit better:

On the way to find my plane at the E gates, I was informed the Polaris lounge was coming soon. Giggle. Snort. Hah. Moving right along…

How can this be….absolutely no gate lice on the flight to Mexico City?!

United flight 1092
Houston, Texas (IAH) to Mexico City, Mexico (MEX)
Depart 17:44, Arrive 20:05, Flight Time: 2:21
Boeing 737-800, Registration N12216, Manufactured 1998, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 14,654
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,534,716

Today’s load was a full 20 in business class (18 of which were upgrades according to the app) and a grand total of 24 people in economy. Wow, now that’s an empty 737! Pre-flight glass of Chateau L’Oscar to start:

The “meat and rice” – uhhh….at least it tasted better than it looked? Once again, a nice fresh salad.

Overall, it was a pretty typical domestic/regional first/business experience today. Food was maybe a slight bit better than I was expecting, and the international 757 to Houston was definitely a welcome bonus. Also, can’t neglect mentioning that both crews were excellent – friendly, efficient, and helpful. Definitely a real asset to United. Now, let’s get to the main event and check out Mexico City!!

Mar 072018
 


As I mentioned in the last post, the Mobile Passport app had refused to let me report in, leading me to wonder if it was just a systems error (perhaps due to the federal government shutdown that was underway?) or a sign of something more ominous.

Having never had to actually go through normal lines in over five years, thanks to Global Entry and Mobile Passport, I was completely unsure what to do when I arrived…so I followed the line for US Citizens. I know this is probably boring to a lot of people since it’s what most travels do every time they return to the country, but it was new to me.

Turns out you report in at a machine now that is very similar to Global Entry, but there’s no biometric scan. You still scan your passport, the machine takes your picture, and spits out a receipt that you then get in line to show to an agent. I guess what this does is automates some of the data entry the agent used to have to do, and makes a determination.

My receipt spit out line this, and it’s the same “X of Doom” that I’ve gotten at Global Entry before, so I knew I was in for hell. At this point I only had about forty minutes to connect to my next flight, so I was pretty sure I was screwed:

Took nearly 15 minutes to reach the front of the queue and get to an agent, and I was very fortunately to get a very pleasant and helpful agent. The usual questions. Asked what I’d been up to in Cairo, explained it was just one night on the way to Germany for vacation, which made total sense to him. But then: “unfortunately my friend, you’ve won the lottery today. Please wait here against the wall, and someone will be by shortly to escort you to secondary inspection.” Whee, the automated system had decided (most likely) that my one day in Cairo was a lil too sketchy for them, so I feared the same four hour interrogation I got last time I took this route. I was preparing for the worst…and knew my connecting flight was a lost cause.

“Shortly” turned out to be nearly 30 minutes, and finally a pleasant agent came to get me…with a train of eight other suspects behind her. Me, two teenagers who looked to be somali, a pair of women in abayas, a couple of young African men, an older Pakistani gentleman with a grey beard died orange, and what appeared to be a rastafarian. Clearly I’d gotten the “profiling” flag…..

First stop was to drop six people off for what appeared to be baggage inspection. That wasn’t to be my fate. Me, one of the Somali teens, and the older Pakistani guy were led to another area, and told to “have a seat over there.” I sat for what was probably 30-45 minutes, until what I have to admit was a very professional agent came out with all three of our passports. After a quick glance at them, he beckoned me over first. I guess the shady American was likely to be easier than the foreigners…

What seemed to be a very well rehearsed series of about a dozen questions, he took notes on the back of my receipt, then actually said sorry for the hassle…have a good day. I suspect what ever auto flag I tripped he decided “oh, just one of those crazy frequent flier kids flying weird routes for fun” and let me go.

Finally checked my phone, and yup, despite still being 10 minutes prior to departure United had rebooked on on a later flight from Boston-Newark-DCA…in coach. WTF. A quick check of ExpertFlyer confirmed F was available – although points to United for confirming me on what was the quickest routing. Quick call to United got me moved back up business what I had paid for (why they didn’t rebook me automatically was a mystery…since the same class was available) so no giant inconvenience. I would get home a bit over three hours later, via Newark instead of Chicago…and unfortunately miss my hockey game. Boo!

Boston might be one of the most awful airports to transit in, and the walk from the international terminal to United’s terminal took forever, and required a walk outside, walk through the JetBlue checkin area, then past this flying banana:

By the time I got to the United Club, I was a sweaty mess, and of course there were no showers. No worry, was able to relax, clean up, have some water, before setting off in search of what would be much-needed caffeine. One huge plus for Boston, the United terminal had not just a Starbucks, but also a Peet’s and a Dunkin‘! I love choice!

Off to the gate after a long wait, and it was time to fly to sEWaRk…

United Express flight 3622 operated by Republic Airlines
Boston, Massachusetts (BOS) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 17:29, Arrive 19:05, Flight Time: 1:36
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N733YX, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 12,502
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,532,564

Absolutely nothing to say about this flight. It was on time, there was a snack basket, crew was friendly and efficient and offered multiple refills…about all you can ask for for a short last minute regional flight.

Quick stop by the United Club for some water and a glass of whine, before boarding the last flight of the night, which I prayed would be on time.

United Express flight 3722 operated by Republic Airlines
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 20:30, Arrive 21:50, Flight Time: 1:20
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N746YX, Manufactured 2017, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 12,701
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,532,763

On time, with wine and a refill…nothing more to say! Fortunately, considering all that had gone wrong, I really can’t complain much about getting home the same day. In the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty mild drama!

Next up, a short post on my recent work trip to Mexico City!

Feb 282018
 


It had been a great vacation, albeit a bit odd for me to spend more than a week in one country! Despite all the rushing from city to city, having to figure out and explore multiple new cities, it actually felt rather resting…last minute train challenges aside.

In order to max sleep I decided I would roll right out of bed in the morning and head straight for the Lufthansa First Class Terminal. What’s the point of getting a coffee/shower/etc when you can do all that at the lounge? I’m not a fan of the 10am flights to the US for this reason (as someone who doesn’t get up all that early) but you do what you have to…

Out of bed, threw on clothes quickly, last few things in the bag, and maybe 15 minutes after my alarm went off I’d already arrived – a bit groggy – although the walk over in the cold morning air did help a little bit. Deer in the not-awake-headlights look:

I won the check-in lottery today, getting selected for secondary screening. It’s a little more tolerable in the First Class Terminal since you get to have a nice seat, there’s no rush, and they do all the work of the explosives scanning/etc for you. This is how security should always be!

By the time I was through the check-in agent was already waiting for me with my boarding pass, and I had about two hours left before my flight, so maybe 90 minutes before boarding. First things first, a couple espressos, some eggs benedict, and nothing says “good morning!” like a glass of champagne!

A quick Instagram and Twitter of the breakfast, and quick reply from Lufthansa’s always-alert social media team:

After finishing up breakfast it was time for a shower and freshening up before boarding. Grabbed a couple of the brand new black first class terminal ducks (how sad is it that one of the first German phrases I learned was ‘can I have two ducks for my (non-existent) children?) and soon after it was already time for a car to the plane. I was only one of two in first again today, and the other passenger and I shared a Porsche to the gate.

Lufthansa flight 422
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Boston, Massachusetts (BOS)
Depart 10:55, Arrive 13:05, Flight Time: 8:10
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYF, Manufactured 2012, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 12,301
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,532,363

Every time I fly Lufthansa first I seem to snap this picture with the champagne and the rose, and it reminds me what lies ahead:

Yet another new colour of Rimowa amenity kit…I simply must stop collecting these…or find a good way to display them.

Turkey tartar amuse bouche…must admit, it was kinda weird… I wasn’t a fan.

Best part of two people in First? All the caviar you want. Extra-large double helping for me today.

Trio of starters: Stuffed beef ham with gorgonzola and date sesame chutney (super tasty!), spiced carrots with curried yoghurt (very bland, but I’ll pretend it was at least healthy), salad of shrimp and green papaya with chili (a bit underwhelming). Only one I finished was the ham and gorgonzola, but the others were worth at least a nibble.

Main course. So on the way over, I had probably the best Lufthansa main course I’ve ever had. This one was a VERY close second: variation of venison, back and bratwurst, lingonberry jus, mashed brussels sprouts, fried curd cake. The venison was cooked a perfect medium, and the lingonberry jus was phenomenal. Lufthansa definitely hit a home run with this one.

Today’s cheeseboard was absolutely amazing: rock salt cheese, Saint Agur, Goat’s cheese with honey (amazing), L’Explorateur, Langres. Served with mango pepperoni chutney. The chutney was definitely a miss and a little weird.

Now that’s what I call a cheese plate! The honey goat cheese was amazing with the sweet biscuits.

I was definitely full at this point, but the crew wasn’t taking no for an answer…and I’m very glad they didn’t. “Warm curd cake with lemon thyme, yogurt oat crumbles, sour cream ice cream flavoured with lime leaves.” Enjoyed with a glass of desert wine it was absolutely amazing.

…and of course, no meal on Lufthansa would be complete without a couple of truffles and a glass of Johnny Walker Blue.

Spent the next few hours relaxing, and watching some REALLY bad movies on the iPad….or was the movie watching me:

Boston is a relatively short flight from Frankfurt, so by the time it was time for the pre-arrival meal I was still pretty full. Eating nothing wasn’t an option, and the fantastic lead flight attendant simply said “I’ll bring you something light.”

To start, something light was some sushi, a pretzel, and some more JWB:

Next up, some delicious Tom Kha Gai soup…I was told it would go really well with a sweet riesling, and who was I to argue. This was easily the best pre-arrival meal I’ve had on Lufthansa yet:

Finished off with apple cake with cinnamon crumbles…and a little more Johnny Walker Blue.

Overall, this was definitely the best flight I’ve had on Lufthansa food-wise, and everything other than the amuse bouche and appetizers were amazing. Easily one of the best Lufthansa flights I’ve ever taken, and almost exactly the perfect length. I know some people could spend 14+ hours on a flight and never get bored, but for me once it comes up to eight hours that’s more than enough to fit in everything I want to.

Now, off to see what awaits me. Ever since my Global Entry was revoked back in September I’ve been using the Mobile Passport app to check in to immigration and customs before landing. It’s worked just as quickly as Global Entry so far, maybe even quicker sometimes. However, this time, I was getting an error message, and not letting me check in. I had high hopes this was just a software glitch, and not something more…

Feb 102018
 


One thing I like about flying to Europe out of DCA is that it requires a connection, which means any thoughts of going into the office are unrealistic. Got a bit of work done from home, had plenty of coffee, and despite sleeping in managed a very leisurely stroll to DCA to catch my initial flight to Chicago in order to get this thing started!

My favourite part of DCA is the old Continental President’s Club, which has become the United Club. The grand ceiling of the main room, and now that there’s the smaller “hidden” room in back it doesn’t feel quite so crowded. Of course, had to start the trip with a little “caviar” – United style:

Decided against all that corn and beans since I’d be spending the next 12+ hours on planes, I opted instead for some cheese cubes…and some pepper strips to get some vitamins:

I had noted on the seatmap that despite first class being full, economy was only booked to about 30 people – completely empty! I considered moving back and taking a whole row to have a little more space, but decided not to risk it with snacks and drinks.

United flight 1264
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 11:45, Arrive 12:56, Flight Time: 2:11
Airbus A319, Registration N892UA, Manufactured 2006, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 612
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,520,674

Interesting options in the snack basket today, so I opted for the fat free, gluten free, low sodium, low taste gummi bears knowing I would get much much better ones in a few days in Germany.

Beyond that, it was a typical, boring short domestic flight so I’ll skip right ahead to why I chose the flight with the 3.5 hour connection in Chicago: to give the Polaris Lounge one more try. This also had the benefit that if there were to be any winter weather surprises, I was leaving myself plenty of cushion before my international flight. No worries today, and we actually arrived Chicago a little bit early, so off from the B terminal to the C terminal to enjoy the Polaris Lounge.

First impression: the lounge was as empty as I’ve ever seen it, which always helps to make a more positive impression. It did fill up quite a bit by the time I left, but initially it was empty. Glass of Veuve Cliquot at the bar to start things off while I finished up a bit of work.

Headed over to the new dining area from there, which is much nicer and more “private” than the previous area. My only small complaint would be that the staff were more “midwest friendly” than refined, which maybe isn’t the best thing in a premium lounge. It isn’t a complaint, just a bit out of line with the experience they’re trying to project. Now, serious, not complaining….when they say things like “I just figured you would have finished your champagne by now so I brought you another!”

The seared tuna tataki was good, with a nice presentation…and the perfect light starter with a big Lufthansa meal coming up:

I had heard many good things about the Blue Door Kitchen Burger, so decided to order it – fried egg and all, and promised myself I’d only have a few bites to try it. It was pretty good, and ended up finishing a bit over half before heading back to the bar to do some pre-flight work so I could hopefully relax and enjoy the vacation a bit more!

Nice chat about the “paper plane” cocktail with the lounge manager, who’s actually been sitting at the bar just about every time I visit the lounge doing some paperwork.

After a nice visit, back through the psychedelic tunnel to the B gates to find my Lufthansa flight. Overall impression of the Polaris Lounge? Blows away anything else in the United States with the possible exception of the JFK American Flagship Lounge. It will be very interesting when (and if) United finishes more Polaris Lounges if they manage to replicate this very high standard.

Long line to board when I went to the gate, and the business class line was super long as well, so I just walked up to the counter, mentioned to the gate agent that I was in first, and was invited to board immediately so I didn’t have to stand in line. Very nice touch by the gate crew.

Lufthansa flight 431
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 16:20, Arrive 7:40 next day, Flight Time: 8:20
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYK, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 4,956
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,525,018

My seat was already set up when I boarded, and champagne and nuts made a very quick appearance. I was the only person in first today, and I had a very “old school” crew who did everything by the book and provided a first class experience that was over the top from a service perspective…without being awkward and “too much.” I’m seriously curious what kind of “notes” Lufthansa keeps on their passengers. Despite never having flown with this crew before, they knew several personal touches that they never would have without someone having told them (or read this blog maybe.)

Immediately after posting the above pic to Instagram and Twitter, Lufthansa (always on top of their social media game) was quick to reply:

I sort of find it comical that Lufthansa social media knows me well enough that they dare reply with Beyoncé memes. As I was the only one in first today, the crew had already made up the seat across from me as a bed for when I was ready for it later inflight. The gate agents did upgrade someone from business at the last minute, but I heard them telling the crew “he will just sleep and doesn’t need any service. We just want him to have a private bed.” I don’t know who he was that he got this treatment, but to the crew’s credit I never would have known he was there.

I forget what the amuse bouche was, but I remember it was tasty…

Since I wanted to try and convince myself to be sleepy, I told the crew they could turn the cabin lights dark from the start of the flight so the other guy could sleep. Apologies on the slightly dark pictures because of it. Tonight was an “all the caviar you want” flight, so I just asked for a medium portion. I was more in a sampling mood, and the main course sounded excellent…

Next up were appetizers and salad: herb shrimp with fennel salad and tomato oregano dressing, buffalo style chicken, celery with gorgonzola mousseline and farro salad, and chilled ratatouille parcel with balsamic glaze. Overall, mostly a miss unfortunately. The buffalo chicken was tasty, but the rest “tried too hard” and just wasn’t great.

Finished maybe half the appetizers, which were followed by an amazing bowl of lobster bisque. I think this was intended to be a main course, but with no other passengers, the crew insisted:

Next up, far and away the best airline main course I’ve ever had. Grilled beef filet (a perfect medium) and lobster claw served with mac and cheese. The mac and cheese was just a little spicy, the asparagus was perfectly cooked, and the whole thing was a home run!

Last but not least, a helping of cheese. I was stuffed by this point, but couldn’t turn the cheese down. Good selection:

After clearing the table, the flight attendant serving first offered “can I get you a Johnny Walker Blue, one ice cube as a night cap?” Again, no idea how he would have known that unless he reads this blog or Lufthansa keeps records on their first class episodes.

One quick check of email before calling it a night, and facebook suggested the following filter for a goofy selfie. I think they know what I was up to….

Slept nearly five hours, woke up just in time for some tea and freshening up before landing, and it was time to enjoy some time in the First Class Terminal before my connecting flights.

Feb 052018
 


So, I had all kinds of glorious plans of doing a double round the world trip in opposite directions. Then, nonrev life happened and the A350 flights to Seoul filled up, which made the whole thing go a bit tits up. I debated still risking it, but the chance of possibly getting stuck in Korea, needing to buy a ticket home, combined with the roundtrip Finnair ticket I planned to buy made it a bit risky.

At the same time, things at work got a bit complicated, putting any personal travel and leave in February in doubt. I decided rather than take the risk I would do the simple thing, and use up some tickets I have sitting around and actually take a vacation for once. Yes, more than a full week in one country! I’d been wanting to do a train trip through Germany, and I love winter in Europe so this seemed like the perfect time.

I want to take a second to thank the readers who’ve sent me comments over the last month asking if I was ok. Yes, I was just really taking a vacation for the first time in a long time and not bothering with blogging. I had a great trip, and used the little down time I had to stay on top of work so I didn’t come back to a big steaming mess instead of writing blog entries. Sorry for the delay, but lots to come soon!

On top of this, it would finally give me a chance to see some cities in the east of Germany that I hadn’t visited before, along with getting in a couple of long 4+ hour train trips on the ICE. Win win! In the end, the trip ended up looking like this:

If you’re more interested in my route around Germany for over a week:

Now, of course, like most of my trips what I had planned isn’t exactly what happened. Fortunately, the changes were relatively minor this time, and the drama was all recovered from with minimum inconvenience. However, there was just enough drama that I need to get back to Germany soon, as one sidetrip I was looking really forward to ended up happening. I think I’ll split the report into these parts:

1. DC to Frankfurt with United and Lufthansa First
2. Frankfurt to Cairo with Lufthansa and overnight in Cairo
3. Cairo to Frankfurt with EgyptAir and Lufthansa, overnight in Frankfurt
4. Frankfurt to Dresden by train, overnight Dresden
5. Dresden to Leipzig by train, overnight Leipzig
6. Leipzig to Berlin by train, first night in Berlin
7. Full day in Berlin
8. Berlin to Hamburg by train, overnight in Hamburg
9. Unexpected bonus night in Hamburg
10. Hamburg to Frankfurt by train, overnight in Frankfurt
11. Frankfurt to Boston with Lufthansa first
12. Boston to DC with United…and a pleasant unpleasant welcome home

Sit back, grab some champagne and caviar, I’m going to try and knock this one out in short order since my next trip is less than a week away!