Oct 122017
 

Alarm went off around 7am, and as usual the first thing I did was turn off Airplane Mode. The flood of notifications started: email, facebook, instagram, twitter…and United. Hmmm, that’s unusual. Must be that it was time to check in for my flight tonight from Washington Dulles to Detroit for my NEXUS renewal interview.

Nope. Almost 22 hours before the flight was scheduled to depart, United canceled it for “weather.” Um, there’s no weather in or predicted for either Washington DC or Detroit – what gives? I can only guess that the hurricane was stranding planes all over the place, and of course because it was weather…tough luck.

Called and got an agent who told me she could get me out the next morning…at 6am…via Chicago…with a 40 minute connection. Um, that’s not going to work, and I have to get to the airport here in Helsinki. I’ll touch base when I have more time – but please protect me on that 6am and note that I still have the right to cancel. Great agent, and she was happy to do that.

Quick breakfast at the Radisson Blu as it was included with my rate, and I was super impressed. Huge buffet spread with lots of tasty options, and the only downside is that the breakfast room was absolutely packed. The checkin agent the day before did say they were booked to capacity, and it was a Monday, so that probably explains a lot of it. That said, I’m definitely staying here again my next stop in Helsinki.



It had been about a year since I was last in Helsinki, and since then trains from the main station had started running to the airport. Quick walk across the square, easy to buy a ticket from a vending machine, and only had to wait about five minutes for the train to depart. This makes this hotel combo absolutely priceless going forward. Plus…a great beer restaurant right around the corner!

Arrived at the airport in plenty of time, and the station was quite a hike from the terminal. Given I’d be spending the whole day on planes that was just fine with me, and quickly found the SAS check-in area and got my boarding pass. Of course, the most important place in the terminal was in the other terminal: Starbucks. Got my venti americano, and all was right in the world. Now, off to the gate.

Back to the other terminal (about a five minute walk) up the escalator, and surprised to find absolutely no security queue at all. I was through in 2-3 minutes, and even had 15 minutes for the lounge. The SAS Lounge was right by the security area, and since I had just had breakfast and coffee, I just wanted somewhere to charge my devices for a short bit and sit down. Headed to the gate about 40 minutes before boarding – which was a waste – because the plane only arrived about 30 minutes before departure, and we started boarding maybe 15 minutes before departure.

SAS flight 707
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to Stockholm, Sweden (ARN)
Depart 11:15, Arrive 11:15, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-600, Registration LN-RCW, Manufactured 1999, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 98,640
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,475,617

Does that mean we’ll depart late? No. Despite an absolutely packed flight, departure was still right on time. No matter how much you like airlines in the United States, one thing that is horrible is the refugee exodus that happens during boarding. People bringing on everything they own. Maybe I’m being a snob because I get to board first and bring slightly more than I “should” but if you’re in group 8 or 9….be realistic! You know you’re going to have to check that giant Sampsonite!

Rant over, time to fly. Only 45 minutes in the air, but they still served a small snack…which was much tastier than expected! I never figured out if Seat 2A was technically “business class” or “economy plus” but didn’t matter to me in the end. I got a drink, the middle seat was empty, and I was happy.

Off the plane right on time, and first job was to try and find a transfer desk and get my Icelandair boarding passes since it was a separate ticket. I had considered a flight in Finnair which would have left me 1:45 to connect (aka more sleep) but decided not to risk it. Looks like I could have, but end of the day, risks like that aren’t usually worth it. Finally found an SAS transfer counter, where the sole agent was busy dealing with a very unhappy passenger who had missed the only flight of the day to her destination for some reason.

Eventually, she got around to helping me, and apparently Icelandair is a bit of a pain because she looked like I was seriously annoying her. I probably shouldn’t have asked her (after getting boarding passes) if there was still a Starbucks in the terminal, because I got an annoyed “no, it closed. The only one is outside.” Ok fine…could you maybe point me to the lounge? “Well i *guess* you can use that one” – pointing to the elevators right across from the desk.



Up to the SAS lounge which had cool barcode scanners for admission. Also, where my Icelandair boarding pass didn’t seem to work. The agent in charge seemed puzzled if I should get in or not, and asked for a frequent flier card. I gave her my United Star Gold card (despite them having nothing to do with Icelandair), and she scanned that and it didn’t work either. She was sure I should be let in, but couldn’t figure out how to do it, so eventually decided research was more work than it was worth and just manually let me in.

Not much to say about the lounge…good spread of food and drink, huge and plenty of seating, and ample places to plug in and charge the laptop. Other than that, it was a pretty average lounge, although it did have pretty good tarmac views.

Headed to the gate about 40 minutes before departure, and it was a relatively short five minute walk from the lounge. I knew the flight was very full, but the gate area was packed, and there were at least 20 wheelchairs waiting to board. Lots of American passports showing, and this was clearly the Sweden to America geriatric express.

Icelandair flight 307
Stockholm, Sweden (ARN) to Reykjavik, Iceland (KEF)
Depart 14:20, Arrive 15:30, Flight Time: 3:10
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISP, Manufactured 1997, Seat 4A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 99,977
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,476,594

Fortunately, business “Saga” class was only about half full today, which let me move to a window seat and keep the seat next to me empty in the 2-1-2 config. I’ve posted quite a lot how I hate climbing over people or having them climb over me, so it’s always nice when I can get a window seat and still avoid this. Of course, the internet wasn’t working on this plane, so that was a big negative to the flight.

Menus were passed out as we waited for everyone to board:

Wine list was included:

Service on this relatively short flight started out with a beverage and nut service. The nuts came in a chinese takeout container, and were sugar coated almonds. Strange, but points for originality.

I had preordered my meal online, but it wasn’t catered. In addition to the internet not working, my already low impression of Icelandair was even going lower. First the internet wasn’t working, and now my meal wasn’t loaded. Two strikes. That said, the fishy entree was pretty tasty.

Short connection of about 50 minutes in Reykjavik, and when I tried to stop in the lounge (which is on the Schengen side before immigration) I was told there was no time, I had to go straight through immigration to the gate…so I did.



You can guess what this meant. 30 minutes of waiting in the gate area to board my connecting flight. My memory of this wait is of an extremely obnoxious guy and his mother waiting to board. He was bitching up a storm that nobody in Iceland could manage to charter him a plane to fly him home, and they had to pay $2,500 for one first class ticket and the other person had to sit in coach. Making him even more of a jerk in my mind, was that he made his mother sit in coach while he sat in business class. After three weeks away, ugh, welcome back to the ugly side of America.

Icelandair flight 645
Reykjavik, Iceland (KEF) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 16:50, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time: 6:20
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISW, Manufactured 1997, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 102,776
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,479,753

This flight was already looking up…and like a flight to the US…with plastic glasses of sparkling wine offered pre-departure…different aircraft, but this one also didn’t have working internet. I was beginning to wonder if Icelandair was paying their bills:

Once again, they hadn’t loaded my pre-ordered meal, but the menu looked relatively tasty:

No almonds in a takeout container this time, but the “famous” Icelandair carmelcorn:

I went with the veal main, which was very United-esque in taste and poor plating. The herring starter with deviled egg was tasty….but stay tuned…

Landed on time, exhausted, and since my United flight to Detroit was canceled I figured I might as well spend the night at home and save money. My hotel in Detroit was kind enough to waive the late cancelation fee, so it was off to Uber and a fantastic night in my own bed. Since my NEXUS interview wasn’t until 12:30 the next day, that still left me plenty of time in the morning to make my way to Detroit.

When I got home, I had a look at Delta, and noticed the morning flight to Detroit had a bunch of empty seats, so opted to ask United for a refund and decided to risk going to Detroit standby. Fortunately, when I woke up, the flight was still very open and I had no trouble at all getting on it.



Unfortunately, the minute I stepped into the Delta Skyclub, I knew I’d made a very, very poor decision eating fish and deviled eggs on a plane the previous day. Nausea and all the other food-borne illness side effects rapidly just set in, and I just prayed I would make it through the flight…

Delta flight 2359
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Detroit, Michigan (DTW)
Depart 7:30, Arrive 9:03, Flight Time: 1:33
Airbus A319, Registration N316NB, Manufactured 2000, Seat 24C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 103,182
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,480,159

Hey, at least I got an aisle seat so that’s a positive! I can’t say no to a Diet Coke and Biscoff, even if I was seriously nauseous.

By the time we landed I was full on majorly nauseous. Head was spinning when walking, and overall just felt sick. If it wasn’t for the fact my NEXUS (and thus Global Entry and PreCheck) was expiring in three days, I would have turned around and gone home and tried to reschedule. Lesson learned: don’t leave things to the last minute.

Was originally planning to Uber to my appointment and ask the Uber to wait, but for some reason that felt logistically difficult so I decided to see if I could get a rental from Hertz. No problem, great rate, much cheaper than a roundtrip Uber, and I was set. Off to the shuttle to the Hertz lot, fantastic agent brought me into her office as a Platinum member, and asked if a Volvo would be ok today. Sweet upgrade, although I was feeling too nauseous to even care.

By this point, I should have heeded all the warning signs from the universe: canceled United flight, food-borne illness, but no, I didn’t and proceeded with the interview, which started off perfectly fine. The Canadian agents processed me in under a minute, then it was on to the American agent, who seemed not in the best of moods. First comment to his colleague: “hey…Martha…look at this! You ever seen someone who’s been to so many countries…ut oh, Cuba? We have a problem”

Without going into details, the agent seemed completely unaware of the changes a couple years prior towards US policy to Cuba and refused to approve my renewal. I was told “if you find any documents that support your case, please fax them.” Ugh. Yet, he still took my fingerprints and biometrics. Odd.

Back to the airport, drop off the car, and off to the Delta Skyclub where I sat as a nauseous mess for a couple hours until it was time to board my flight.

Delta flight 1144
Detroit, Michigan (DTW) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:35, Arrive 17:10, Flight Time: 1:35
Airbus A319, Registration N316NB, Manufactured 2000, Seat 15D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 103,588
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,480,565

Fortunately, I got an aisle seat again, and the flight passed without any major excitement. Quite an overly-eventful end to what had been a fantastic 3+ week trip.

Just to finish the story, about two weeks later, after faxing my explanation of how my Cuba trip was “legal” under the new US policy, along with a citation of the policy….someone approved my NEXUS renewal in the system and two minutes later…revoked my status. I read this as “I didn’t have grounds to deny the renewal, but in my authority as a border agent I revoked it later.”

The case is currently with my US Senator who is following up, along with the CBP Trusted Traveler Ombudsman. Per the letter of the regulations I followed them exactly, and backed that up in writing when requested. We’ll see where this goes, but in the meantime (and $85 later) at least I have TSA PreCheck for the time being….

We’ll see how my first non-Global Entry immigration experience goes in two weeks on my next work trip…

Apr 252017
 

The day of the trip was finally here, and despite lots of last minute changes needed to deal with some unexpected work and personal commitments, I finally was able to salvage part of the trip. Unfortunately, that would mean missing two of the stops we had planned, but at least we would get to Abkhazia which was one of the parts I was super excited for.

American had changed their schedule about three months before my flight, and suddenly my DCA-JFK flight no longer existed. They decided instead to book me on an ERJ-145 flight instead, which meant an involuntary downgrade. Because it was the short part of an international itinerary no compensation was due, and they seemed completely uninterested in helping. Fortunately, about 45 days before the flight they changed schedules again, and there was now an option with first class. It meant a relatively short two hour connection in JFK, but I figured it should be doable in the spring.

Calling in, I got the rare fantastic agent who was able to force availability and get me on the new flight, and all was set. Day of travel I actually had quite a bit of time given the later departure, so decided to risk taking the metro to the airport, which was drama free. Rare occurrence on metro! Had to check-in with an agent to show them my Russian visa, and after they made sure to show me how annoyed they were with having to help me they checked me in and I was on my way to the lounge.

Lounge was serving the usual cheese and crAAckers along with some other unexciting kibble, but who can resist a whole carrot right before Easter?

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Blue skies, and a great view form the lounge at DCA for a bit of plane-watching. Plus, N406YX in the foreground would be my ride up to JFK today:

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Boarding commenced right on time with some rather grouchy gate agents and a total of three emotional support animals for the rather short ride up to JFK.

American Eagle flight 4540
Washington DC, National (DCA) to New York, JFK (JFK)
Depart 14:35, Arrive 15:55, Flight Time: 1:20
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N406YX, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 33,332
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,405,647

I see lots of complaints online that American is very hit-or-miss with pre-departure drinks, but today was a definite hit. The always classy Chateau le Parker in the finest plastique crystal:

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Shortly after boarding and being seated there was some commotion in the entryway. I didn’t catch the whole conversation but apparently the passenger had accidentally packed some vital medications in the bag she was forced to gate-check, and needed/wanted to get them out. All I heard was the rather nasty gate agent saying “I don’t care what you think you need you ain’t gettin’ the bag now!” Followed by “you know what, you’re a very nasty woman!” from the passenger. I was having visions of Dr. Dao at this point, and had the iPhone really to shoot prize-winning footage….but eventually the pilot who was great managed to calm the situation (after the gate agent yelled at him to) and everything was defused.

After that bit of excitement, departure time came and went…except we weren’t going anywhere. The pilot came on at five minutes past the departure time and told us we would be another 15 minutes because they were trying to locate…a first officer. Apparently the first officer’s dog had died and they were desperately trying to locate a replacement one. Another five minutes passed, and we were assured one bad been found, and he was “on his way” and we “should be out of here” in 15 minutes. Of course, 15 minutes came and went…and no first officer.

Finally, about an hour past departure, the new first officer rocked up and the door was closed a couple minutes later. My 1:45 connection had been reduced to about 40 minutes, so I was hopeful we would make up a little of the time in the air. Great view of the turn over the Pentagon right after departure:

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Once in flight, the crew broke out AA’s finest stemware, and passed around the kibble basket. Since I’m addicted to the DiBella biscotti, I wasn’t complaining for a 42 minute flight. Never seen blueberry lemon before…yum!

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We made up a tiny bit of time, and looks like we would make the gate with about 50 minutes to connect. I had to blink twice to make sure the plane hadn’t entered a time warp on the way when I saw this parked at the terminal:

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So despite flying well over 2 million miles and over 250 transatlantics in each direction, I’ve never flown internationally out of JFK before. I remember the day when international travel almost ensured you would head to O’Hare or JFK, but these days unless you’re flying a smaller international carrier, JFK is super easy to avoid. Of course, it was just my luck that my arriving flight would arrive as far from the International First Lounge as possible, and the departing flight which normally leaves from right by the lounge was also leaving as far away from the lounge as possible.

Ian was perfectly fine skipping the lounge, but I was having none of it, so he met me near my arriving flight and off to the first lounge we went.

I mean, I’m not going to turn down Bollinger and a nice cheese plate!

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Unfortunately, given time constraints, I had to limit myself to around two glasses, and then make the long trek over to my departure gate. I wished Ian well, made sure all his shots were updated for his flight back with the proletariat, and then boarded.

Finnair flight 6
New York, JFK (JFK) to Helsinki, Finland (HEL)
Depart 17:40, Arrive 8:50 next day, Flight Time: 8:10
Airbus A330-300, Registration OH-LTT, Manufactured 2010, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 37,449
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,409,764

I had fortunately booked well in advance, so had one of the “throne” seats on Finnair. On the left side of the plane the rows alternate, with one row having two seats, and the next row having one. In the row with one seat, your footwell is under the centre console of the two seats in front of it…in the row of two your footwells are under the two large tables on either side of the “throne” seat. My fabulous Marimekko branded slippers and amenity kit were already waiting for me:

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Pre-departure champagne, blueberry juice, and water were offered. I asked for a champagne AND a water, and with the sigh that followed you would think I was asking for them to move Heaven and Earth. But, I was successful. I still love the Littala crystal – even for pre-departure drinks. I really need to pick up some of this glassware for at home.

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Unfortunately, right before the door closed, a couple boarded sitting right in front of me with twins who looked no more than a month or two old…and were already crying their lungs out. You have GOT to be kidding me. Seeing the glares they were getting from the other passengers, the purser suggested that all 12 seats in the mini cabin of business class were open, and perhaps they would be more comfortable there. They agreed to move, much to the relief of the other passengers.

With that sorted, time to get comfy and rock the Marimekko slippers!

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About 30 minutes after departure drinks and snacks were finally offered. While I was glad not to see the usual mixed nuts, a single skewered prawn doesn’t really make much of a cocktail snack….

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Even more surprising was that the meal was all served on a single tray. No courses here. I would be less surprised if this was a late departure, or if I requested the executive meal, but nope…everyone got their entire meal on one tray. This looks like something that would be served on a domestic flight in the US and not internationally! That said, the beef was rather tasty along with the potatoes, but the salad and cheese course were rather stingy and disappointing. Definitely one of the most disappointing business class meals I’ve ever had across the Atlantic. Boo to Finnair on this one!

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An hour into flight, my free internet cut out. Supposedly Finnair elites and OneWorld Emeralds get free complimentary internet for the entire flight, but for whatever reason Finnair had forgotten to load this data into the computer for this flight, so everyone was cut off at one hour. Ended up paying for the rest of the flight, which per the purser’s recommendation I will now dispute with AmEx….

Package ice cream for dessert was pretty disappointing as well, but the fun little mini pastries were a nice touch, and there was plenty to go around:

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I still wasn’t tired, so after a bit of time watching tv, I used the call button to ring for another glass of wine. A new/different flight attendant appeared this time, and he was more than happy to bring me one. He also brought a mini snack of mixed nuts and dried fruits. Thought it was odd he served this right after dinner had finished, but it was definitely a nice appreciated touch.

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After finishing this glass of wine I was getting pretty tired, but there was just one problem. Two extremely loud large russian women in the row behind me having a conversation and cackling at a volume that I’m sure even the people back in coach could hear. I’d already asked them several time to keep their voices down because people want to sleep and was just met with a dirty glare in return. The flight attendant who’d brought me the nuts tried to quiet them as well, to no avail. He suggested I could move to the back of the cabin where there were plenty of seats and it might be a bit quieter. Fortunately, when I returned from chatting with him they had mysteriously and suddenly passed out cold. Saved!

At this point I managed to pass out for a nice uninterrupted five hours of solid sleep, waking up just as we crossed the Finnish coast on descent. Flight delivered in the ways that were most important to me, a comfortable seat for sleeping and a cabin temperature that made it possible. The food was a huge let-down, but again, it was adequate. However, if Finnair really wants to compete for connecting traffic they really need to up their game in this department.

We arrived in Helsinki about five minutes late, and only had a 35 minute connection to Moscow to begin with. Fortunately, there is no need to re-clear security in Helsinki, and since we also did not need to clear immigration it was a very easy transit. No time to check out the lounge, but our gates were right next to each other and I think the change of planes took maybe five minutes maximum. Most passengers were already boarded once we got there, so just a few minutes after boarding the door was closed 15 minutes early.

Finnair flight 153
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to Moscow Sheremetyevo, Russia (SVO)
Depart 9:25, Arrive 11:05, Flight Time: 1:40
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration OH-LKL, Manufactured 2008, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 33,877
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,410,309

There was only one row of eurobusiness 2×2 seating on this ERJ-190, and only one other passenger, so we each had two seats to our self. It should be noted that unlike Lufthansa, Finnair sells all the seats in eurobusiness on the ERJs, so you don’t get a free seat next to you. The only thing you get is a free meal, when those in economy had to pay for buy on board. Not a bad meal for a 90 minute flight, and two main thoughts: yes, the fruit may have been packaged, but was fresher than anything United serves. Maybe being sealed held in some moisture? Also, the flight attendant noted: “surely you would like some champagne, you can’t fly business class without it!” Best flight attendant ever!

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Landed at Sheremetyevo Airport right on time, my first time there since 1989. I’ve been do Domodedevo and Vnukovo since then, but never back to Sheremeyevo. They wanted to make sure and remind me that I love it:

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Immigration was a relative non-affair, with no line at all when we arrived. Got a few questions from the agent, who seemed mildly amused that I spoke Russian. Why do you speak Russian? Where did you learn it? How do you still speak it if it has been more than 20 years? She was seriously curious, and every time I answered the other agent in the booth would giggle. I guess my accent is amusing or something.

Right past immigration there was a check-in flight for connecting flights, and the agent was able to issue our Moscow to Sochi boarding passes, even though it was a separate itinerary. Next stop after checking in was to find Starbucks. I knew there was one at the airport, but we weren’t sure exactly where. We decided to trust the Starbucks app, and head to the next terminal over (connected landside) and search for it. Ian knew better than to resist my need for caffeine, and we were off on the hunt.

On the way, we passed a caviar vending machine. Only in Russia! It was tempting to buy some for our connecting flight…

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All price points from $20 a tin up to well over $100 a tin. I mean, everyone buys $100 worth of caviar from vending machines…right?

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The Starbucks was right by the vending machine, and provided some much-needed fuel to continue on with the day. After sitting and resting for a bit, we were back to the check-in area to try and find our gate. On the way, we ran into the (relatively new) Krasnaya Machina Red Army Hockey Team store. I couldn’t resist posing with the cut-out poster and buying a hat:

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Security wasn’t too bad, except for the guy who was getting busted for trying to take a cage filled with rabbits through the x-ray machine. I mean, totally normal, right?

Next stop was the lounge, which since we had arrived on OneWorld they wouldn’t let me use with my SkyTeam Elite card. Apparently, no lounge access allowed to SkyTeam Elites on domestic flights with Aeroflot? Fortunately, they did accept Priority Pass, so that made short work of the 90 minutes we had left until boarding.

Reasonable selection of food and beverage, and more importantly, places to charge devices. Biggest downside is the lounge was completely dark inside, and emerging from the lounge was like walking back out into bright daylight!

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Boarding was nice and easy, and they actually made time for elites and business class to board first.

Aeroflot flight 1124
Moscow Sheremetyevo, Russia (SVO) to Sochi/Adler, Russia (AER)
Depart 14:00, Arrive 16:30, Flight Time: 2:30
Airbus A321, Registration VP-BAZ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 33C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 34,205
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,411,182

About a 90% full A321 down to Sochi today, but fortunately we had booked the A and C seats and hoped nobody would take B. We asked the gate agent nicely, and she verified it was still open and she wouldn’t put anybody in it. Score!

Scary pre-packaged sandwich, mandarin, and chocolate was offered, along with tea on the two hour flight. Not bad for a $50 ticket. Legroom was also reasonable, much better than you get from most domestic airlines in the US. This was my first time on Aeroflot since the late-1980s, and things have definitely improved with Western aircraft. No more cages of chickens in the luggage racks, no more fold-down seats, and especially no more grumpy Soviet passengers lighting up and chain-smoking the entire flight. It was actually more pleasant than most domestic flights in the US these days…

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Mystery meat sandwich, fruit/chocolate, and a mandarin. Not bad…

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Landed right on time in Sochi, and it was time to begin the adventure!

May 202015
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…and of course champers!

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Delicious white chocolate mousse to finish it off:

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

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

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

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

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

Funky Finnish design pillow, amenity kit, and bubbles:

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Today’s menu:

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

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

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

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

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I may have had a second go at the cheese…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So, at the end of the day:

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

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

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

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

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

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On approach to DCA:

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

May 182015
 

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

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

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

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

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

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The lamb arrived shortly, and was quite tasty:

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

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

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Advert in the gate area:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Proper menus:

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

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

Apr 282015
 

So, I posted a couple months back about Eritrea. How I waited eight weeks and still didn’t have a visa, and then the day after I got home from the trip…the visa on arrival was approved. Initially, I thought I only had 30 days to use it, but then when I got the scanned copy I saw it was valid for three months…which was nice, because I really didn’t have the energy to turn right back around and head back to Africa.

Played around with routings for a bit, and then US Airways was merged into the American program, meaning I had plenty of miles to make things work. To top it off, I had to learn about OneWorld, and how to book OneWorld awards which was a new one for me. One cool thing is that business class with US Airways to North Africa/Middle East was only 100,000 miles return. What a bargain!

One small catch: US Airways doesn’t recognize that Eritrea exists. At all. They wouldn’t let you book a ticket to Asmara. So, I did the next best thing and looked for Doha. Why Doha? Because another learning experience I had is that BA awards are based on distance, and I could get roundtrip from Doha to Asmara with BA Avios for 30,000 miles in business…and those miles could easily be transfered from American Express Membership Rewards…which happened instantly.

So, getting to Doha would be easy…nonstop from DC/Dulles to Doha on Qatar Airways was available on the way I wanted, so that was all sorted and easy. But getting home, there was just nothing. I searched everything across the atlantic in a three day span…and still nothing. Then…I thought…what about Finnair, aren’t they in OneWorld? They are…and I found Helsinki to JFK on the last day that would work. Now, getting from Doha to Helsinki was the challenge…wait, isn’t Qatar flying the new A350 from Doha to Frankfurt? I’m sure it’s not available…wait…it is!

I absolutely love Helsinki, so sure, it’s longer than Doha-DC, but in exchange I get not only the A350 but also a couple of days in Helsinki in Spring. Not complaining at all!

So, I mailed the tour company back. “We do not know…It has been almost three months, they might be suspicious of such an old visa on arrival. We cannot guarantee your entrance.” Well, I have the printout, and that should get me on the plane, so let’s hope this all works out as it’s under a week away now. I’ll do my best to update in more or less real time (except Eritrea, since from what I understand internet is miserable there) but if not…be patient. I’m having shoulder surgery the day after I get back which is going to make one-handed typing for the next month very, very slow going!

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