Oct 092017
 

Since I would be sitting on the train for a good part of the day, and my train wasn’t scheduled to leave until nearly 4pm, I decided to go for another walk around St. Petersburg in the morning. It was also an excuse to stop by Starbucks and get some decent coffee to wake up. Ended up walking nearly 3 miles down Nevsky Prospekt before heading back to the W to pack up and head to the train station.

I think the thing that surprised me the most was just how small the international departures area of Finlandsky Station was. It was basically one large medium sized room with a couple small kiosks. Compared to the station in Moscow which I had departed from it felt positively tiny. When it was time to board, both Finnish and Russian train personnel were on hand to check IDs and tickets.



If there was any question I’d already done enough walking, the business class car was located at the very far end of the platform. The nice thing was, this allowed time to get a great picture of the Allegro train:

Inside seating was in a comfortable 2-1 configuration, but compared to the SAPSAN trains between Moscow and St. Petersburg it felt quite cramped. Granted, this is business class instead of first class, but still…

2-1 seating was nice, as it meant nobody to climb over or have climb over you.

Well, that would be the case if anyone was actually on the train. There were a grand total of three people in business class today!

Almost as soon as we left the station, the “menu tray” came out.

Despite the menu tray promising five options, today there would be onto two choices…both sandwiches. To drink? Two little cups of water. Very strange “meal” for a “business class.”

Oh wait…the cabin attendant came back a few minutes later. Apparently, he’d forgotten to give us the cheese course as well…

Perhaps the “coolest” part of the journey was crossing the Schengen border by train – something quite difficult to do these days. First the Russians stamped you out of the country, and then the Finns came by and stamped you into Finland and the Schengen. Many fewer points these days where you can get Schengen train stamps, but I remember the days when you would get them on the train even going between Germany and France.

Near the end of the ride, I was getting a little hungry, so headed to the dining car to see about a snack. Gotta love that the beer comes with a custom glass…

Welcome to Helsinki station!

I had booked the Radisson Blu Plaza right across the plaza from the train station which was a quick five minute walk from the train at most. The corridors certainly had some very funky lighting, and the room numbers were projected on the floor:

My train had arrived over an hour late, meaning it was already late when I got in so I went straight to grab a bite to eat. Sori Brewing right around the corner from the hotel was recommended to me, so I started out with their five beer taster. Sori is actually brewed in Estonia, and from what I understand it’s still cheaper to import than it is to get the licensing to brew craft beers in Finland. I know this is changing, but…

They also had a fantastic burger, and it hit the spot. Tomorrow would be a very long travel day, and I wanted to make sure to get lots of rest with four flight segments coming up! I really need to make time to get back to Helsinki and Finland in general soon for a proper visit – perhaps in the summer for the white nights.

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…