Sep 282017
 

Fortunately, there was no line at all at immigration tonight, and I was through in just a few minutes. I had pre-arranged a driver with my hotel (always a great idea in Delhi given the general chaos that is the arrivals area) and soon we were on the way to the car. Hit the 1000 degrees and 1000 percent humidity outside and wilted as usual, as we fought our way through the crowds to the parked car:

Took about 15-20 minutes to get to the hotel, and went with my usual choice the ITC Maurya. I’ve stayed here probably a dozen times, and it’s always a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, upon entering the lobby the entire thing was under construction. This in itself wouldn’t be a problem, but the new check-in area was apparently two tables by the elevators where a couple of agents were struggling with a queue of over twenty people.

I asked the bellman nicely if they could do priority checkin for Platinum members, and was met with a negative, as they tended to more than a dozen members of an Air France crew all checking out and having to settle the cash advances the hotel had given them. I get why airline contracts are helpful to hotels, but given their significantly discounted rates, and knowing there was construction, you would think there was something they could have done for a platinum guest so I didn’t have to wait over 20 minutes to check in. Very bad first impression.

Once I was checked in, it was a huge rush, here’s your key, ok thanks bye, someone will show you to your room. Ugh. Got to the room, and it was super hot and stuffy. Turned on the air conditioning, and even after running for five minutes it sounded like a jet engine. While waiting to see if it would cool/quiet down, I decided to at least get a shower.

Apparently, this shower was made for much smaller people….

The maintenance condition of this room was appalling.

Called to the front desk to ask for a new room, and they told me “wait a bit longer, it takes time.” Um, it sounds like a jet engine no matter how cold it gets. I want a new room.” “We will see what we can do.” Decided not to wait, went to the front “desk,” to the front of the line and asked for the manager. Shockingly, there was no manager available, but a lady directing traffic in the lobby (not sure her actual job, seemed like a concierge or something) took note of the problem, asked me to have a seat while she sorted it.

In fairness, 10 minutes later I had a room that was much better, but combined with the long checkin and changing rooms I’d lost an hour of sleep. Not a huge deal, but considering I was already going to get around six hours best case, I was pretty upset to have lost an hour.

I feel bad leaving such a negative review of this property, because on all previous stays it really was rather lovely and I enjoyed the stay overall. However, this time, they really dropped the ball.

Anyways, I slept reasonably well, and the next morning, of course, my pre-arranged transfer to the airport wasn’t ready and it took nearly 30 minutes even after I confirmed it the night before AND with a call right when I woke up. Overall, a super disappointing experience.



Got to the airport, nobody in line at the Uzbekistan Airways checkin area, and the agents seemed genuinely annoyed that I cared what seat they put me in. They were even more annoyed when I cared what seat I was on on my connecting flight. Oh well, given both flights were full I was very glad I persisted and got the seats I wanted, since there seemed to be no way to assign them in advance, despite numerous calls and emails to all their global offices.

Since I was cutting it close, I opted to skip the lounge today (nothing to write home about in Delhi) and grab some Starbucks to wake me up. Best part of Delhi Airport is the Starbucks in the gate area…complete with heavily armed guard. Hands off my coffee!

Sitting in the gate area, just 20 minutes prior to departure, there were only like 15 people in the entire gate area. Worried I had missed the flight, I asked the gate agent, and she informed me there were only 22 people from Delhi, but the plane would be full from Amritsar. Wow.

Boarding was 10 minutes prior to scheduled departure, but no problem when there’s only 22 people to board!

Uzbekistan Airways flight 422
Delhi, India (DEL) to Amritsar, India (ATQ)
Depart 8:50, Arrive 10:00, Flight Time: 1:10
Boeing 767-300, Registration UK67006, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 95,942
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,472,919

First row centre bulkhead. Flight attendant saw me take this pic, and very sternly wagged her finger at me. Apparently, Uzbekistan Airways still has an incredibly strict no photos policy. How very….quaint.

Didn’t stop me from snapping a few ones on the down low. Plane was in a 2-1-2 config.

As soon as we were 10 minutes in the air, “snack” and water or juice was offered. Normally I would have steered way clear of the cheese sandwich, but couldn’t really resist it with ketchup?!

About 30 minutes prior to landing, the pilot asked the flight attendants to be seated, because we were like to encounter some turbulence. What followed was without a doubt the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced in flight – especially in a widebody – we were thrown from side to side, several sharp drops in altitude, audible screams from the few people on board, and I was honestly making headlines in my head “22 whole passengers killed on 767 jumbo jet in monsoon.”

But, just like that, we were maybe 2-3 minutes from landing, and it was all smooth again. Literally terrifying. As soon as we landed, it was a bit more clear. There was a torrential downpour in Amritsar, and the monsoon was clearly in full effect.

Boarding was via stairs, and I have to admit, it was kind of entertaining watching 200+ completely soaked people stagger aboard. Well over 90% of the passengers were Sikhs, and I’ve heard Uzbekistan Airways does quite a business connecting this flight to their flight to Manchester. If today’s load was any indicator, they do quite well. Seemed to be a lot of families with small children who had gone home to visit relatives, now returning after the end of summer break.

Even with the monsoon and full plane, we were boarded on time, and ready to go. I admit I was terrified how bad the turbulence would be on climb out.

Uzbekistan Airways flight 422
Amritsar, India (ATQ) to Tashkent, Uzbekistan (TAS)
Depart 10:55, Arrive 13:00, Flight Time: 2:35
Boeing 767-300, Registration UK67006, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 96,669
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,473,646

Fortunately, the turbulence, while still pretty heavy, was nowhere near as bad, and well within “ugh” limits, and we were clear of it less than 10 minutes after takeoff. That means it’s time to eat!

Dish of peanuts, “meat”, some veg, bread (on a plate), and some sort of potato or cabbage salad in heavy mayo. Wasn’t really the best meal, but I wasn’t all that hungry anyways, so picked at the parts that were interesting and that was plenty. It was a relatively short flight, so not a huge deal. Kudos to them for at least offering a hot meal on such a short flight.

After deplaning, there was an agent yelling “connections” and then repeating in Russian. She asked me (in Russian) connection? Yes? Where to? I asked her why she asked in Russian and not English, and she said “because you don’t look Indian.” Hah, I guess that’s something?



Apparently, I was the only person connecting in business class today, which seemed kind of odd. I’m not sure where all the Sikhs were going in that case, unless the plane continued straight on to Birmingham and they just went through security and then right back on. Which is entirely possible.

That meant, even with security and the time before boarding the next flight, I would have over five hours to kill in the Uzbekistan Airways lounge. At this point, my cell phone still hadn’t gotten data service, and I was worried it was going to be a very, very long five hours. This was confirmed when I found out that the wifi in the lounge was down.

There were a few power outlets around the lounge so that was good at least, and it was rather spacious and a reasonably cool temperature…especially since I found an AC unit near the wall to sit by.

Quite spacious:

Snacks. I wasn’t thrilled at first, but the small meat-stuffed pastries were kind of addicting, especially after popping them in the microwave for a bit. Yes, there was a microwave in the lounge.

Chatted with the agents a little bit, who were the same ones who had been handling transit earlier. After chatting a bit, it was clear the other reason they spoke Russian with me – they were far more comfortable in it than they were in English. She tried English once to ask about my tattoos, but got flustered quite quickly and switched back to Russian – after which point we had several nice small chats over the next five hours.

The lounge remained empty the entire time, except this fashionista who came in about an hour before I left, wearing  a dress from the 2017 Trump/Putin Prison Collection. She was also fond of the little meat pies.

With about an hour to go, I decided to ask what I might have to drink instead of Fanta. Oh, there’s wine…white or red? Both were from the “Georgian Patio” winery, and had the high endorsement of “wine for restaurants.” Hmmm, yup, tasted about as good as you’d expect. I had a second glass to make sure, however. Science.

Boarding was pretty much on time, and our plane was at a remote stand. The minute I took my phone out of my pocket to try and get a picture of it, I was met with a chorus of NYET! from the several armed police “guarding” the plane. Ugh, ok. I have to say the 787 looked supremely sexy in the green, yellow, and blue of Uzbekistan Airways at sunset, however. You’ll have to take my word for it.

Uzbekistan Airways flight 601
Tashkent, Uzbekistan (TAS) to Moscow, Domodedevo, Russia (DME)
Depart 19:00, Arrive 21:15, Flight Time: 4:15
Boeing 787-8, Registration UK78701, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 98,391
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,475,368

I did, during pre departure beverages, manage to snap a shot of the seats on the 787. Not bad. Not sure I would want these all the way to New York from Tashkent, but they were pretty comfortable, and the nice divider in the middle prevented them from being footsie seats.

Sneak peak across the aisle:

…and the other side.

Laminated menus!

Wow, now that’s what I call a meal. Just kidding…this is just the appetizers. Seriously! The red wine on board was marginally better. We had multiple kinds of bread on a plate. Upgrade from peanuts to cashews this flight. A nice little cucumber/tomato/cheese salad. Cheese plate. Meat plate. Fish plate. Whew.

I went with the beet stroganoff for a main, which was pretty tasty….I mean, it wasn’t gourmet cuisine, but overall I liked the regional flair to the meal, and nobody is going to go hungry on this flight. I fear how much they must serve all the way to New York!

I was pretty full, but kept the plates that could reasonably be considered desert to munch on with a bit more wine while I watched some movies:

Overall, I have to say Uzbekistan Airways exceeded my expectations. I had set them really low, but they exceeded them by leaps and bounds. I mean, the next cheapest option was $700 more…AND a redeye, but it was nonstop and avoided the six hours in Tashkent.

I chose Uzbekistan to save money, to save sleep, and for the novelty factor, and they definitely hit a home run with these flights. They have a way to go to be a serious international competitor, but for the price they were a fantastic option and I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again.

Now, it’s time to take a break for a few days from flying, and take some trains!

Aug 092016
 

Up early, enjoyed a bit of breakfast (and of course some Starbucks) and checked out of the hotel. The St Regis Mumbai was absolutely fantastic, went above and beyond for me as a platinum member. However, when checking out, like at many hotels, they asked if I wanted to be billed in my card’s home currency (US Dollars) or Indian Rupees. I replied rupees, and received a receipt showing the same. However, the charge posted in US dollars, with an exchange rate nearly 7% off from the market rate. This has taken a chain of 22 emails to correct, and has marred my impression of this property. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but correcting something so easy shouldn’t take such effort. Sure, it was only about $35 on the exchange loss, but it’s also the principle. Now, waiting to see if they’ll comp some Starpoints for the annoyance of 22 emails…

Decided to take Uber Black to the airport, and the nearly 40 minute drive was very comfortable with a friendly driver and was less than $8. Definitely recommended as a way to get to the airport. Fortunately, traffic wasn’t awful and made it to the airport ahead of plan. Picked up my boarding pass from Jet Airways and headed to immigration where things got…interesting.

Upon not being able to find my visa, the immigration agent asked how they had let me in the country. I explained that on previous trips I was told I didn’t need to show the visa because it is in the computer, and how upon showing a digital copy this time I was allowed in. I also mentioned that I will of course carry the physical visa on future trips just in case it is required. He wasn’t going to have any of this, and escorted me to the supervisor’s room, who was equally incredulous, and told me there was no way they could stamp me out of India without seeing the physical visa.

Eventually, I asked: “ok, so you won’t let me out of India because I don’t have the visa, and without leaving India, there’s no way I’ll ever be able to physically produce the visa. So…I assume you’ll be granting me a permanent resident visa since you’ll refusing to ever let me leave the country?” This seemed to confuse them even further as the mental gymnastics became more and more difficult. They couldn’t make logical sense of what they should do next…so eventually relented and told me to make sure to have the visa next time!

That sorted, I had time to stop by the lounge very briefly for a bit of planespotting and a glass of wine. The lounge was rather nice, and had waiter service at the tables. They were probably some of the friendliest lounge waiters I’ve ever encountered too and seemed very disappointed when I declined a refill of the already generous pour of wine:

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Off to the gate, where the crew was just arriving 30 minutes before departure. Looked like we would depart slightly late…

Jet Airways flight 60
Mumbai, India (BOM) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 18:50, Flight Time: 4:30
Boeing 737-800, Registration VT-JGV, Manufactured 2007, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 125,356
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,314,493

I had actually purchased the last seat in business, and coach was full as well. It would be a very packed flight to Bangkok. Printed menu for the flight:

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No pre-departure beverages were offered, but nuts in perhaps the most festive bowl I’ve ever seen in 737 business class and wine were offered shortly after takeoff:

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The salad was quite unusual with beans and onions in it, but rather tasty. Nice mini salt and pepper shakers too:

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Went with the Murgh main (since we got the lunch menu) and it was extremely tasty, and served with plentiful sides:

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Cheese plate was decent, but I really wonder what the point of that sad little piece of lettuce is:

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Finally an orange yogurt mousse for desert, which was very tasty:

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Other than that, a nice uneventful flight. There was hourly water service after lunch, and flight attendants were happy to help whenever asked. Overall, it left me with a good impression of Jet Airways as a very solid choice for a short regional flight. It’s too bad they don’t do much longhaul any more, as it looks like they would likely offer a competitive product based on this short flight.

Relatively short walk to immigration upon arrival in Bangkok, and decided to use the AOT taxi service to get to the hotel. I hadn’t been to Bangkok in over 5 years until this past year, and now this was my fifth time this year. It’s funny how things seem to go in cycles! No traffic at all, and arrived at the W Bangkok in a bit under 30 minutes. I had had several good stays here earlier in the year, and was looking forward to this one. No upgrade this time because they were full, and when I arrived in the room it was extremely warm:

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While the room cooled down, I headed out to meet a friend for a delicious dinner of extra spicy pad thai:

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…finished with even tastier mango and sticky rice:

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Unfortunately, when I got back to the room it was still 23.8 degrees, and wouldn’t cool further. I went to the front desk and asked to be moved, and was informed they were completely sold out at that would not be possible. They did send maintenance to the room to look, but they informed me it was working just fine. Based on the fact that all my previous rooms in this hotel had been much cooler, that couldn’t be the case. It was 23.2 by the time I woke up – barely cool enough for sleeping – so clearly something was wrong.

At least I had the amazing breakfast buffet to look forward to. On all my previous stays the breakfast room had been empty to maybe 50% full, but for some reason this time the place was absolutely packed, with most of the guests speaking Mandarin. It appeared there was a large group/package tour staying in the hotel, and it was not a group of frequent international travelers. Witnessed people using hands to pick from the buffet, children running around, and one man spitting on the floor in the middle of the buffet area. I pointed it out to the staff, who in the usual Thai fashion smiled and said they would see what they could do…but nothing was done.

Added to this, the quality of the buffet was also down significantly in just the past few months. Very limited fresh fruit (which had been plentiful before) and a reduced variety of dishes overall. Not sure if this was due to the large package group picking things over, or the hotel actually cutting back, but it was a major disappointment when I used to consider this the world’s best breakfast buffet. Oh well, things change… I’m not sure if I’ll choose the W again my next trip, as Bangkok has so many fantastic hotels that I don’t see any reason to stay in one that is disappointing in any way.

…that was easily fixed by grabbing Starbucks next door with some work colleaguers, where apparently asking my name is more difficult than just writing the Under Armour logo on my cup to identify me:

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After coffee my all too short stop in Bangkok was over, and it was time to head on to Malaysia to begin the trek home…

Aug 072016
 

Since I hadn’t heard anything from Etihad four hours before my flight, I called to check the status of my car transfer. Since the booking was made less than 24 hours before flight, I was advise they couldn’t guarantee the car, but would see what they could do. When I called at 9am, they assured me that yes, the transfer was scheduled and would be there at 10am. 10am came and went. 10:15 came and went. At 10:30 I gave up and called an Uber to the airport.

Arrived in the first class check-in area, and first thing I asked was what had happened with the transfer…she made some phone calls, and “yes, the car came to get you…at 6am.” Um, seriously? You sent a car for me eight hours before the flight? First off, it’s not true because they would never send a car that early, and second, why did they then tell me 10a when I called? Complete confusion on the part of Etihad, and makes three for three the amount of times they failed to show up to take me to the airport as promised. Completely unreliable.

Anyways, moving onto check-in, the agent starts paging through my passport. “Where’s your visa?” I have a ten year multi-entry India visa, in another passport. The agent presses on “but I need to see it.” Now, time for a bit of background. A few trips ago, in Delhi, the agent told me “why are you showing me that? I can see your visa in the computer, there’s no need to bring it and show it every time.” So, I haven’t My last three trips to India, no questions at all on the visa. But, this agent wouldn’t budge. To the point she had supervisors calling the Indian Embassy. They were standing firm. No visa, no checkin, no flight.

So, I asked her “if I’m transiting, I don’t need a visa. If I buy an immediate ticket out of India will you check me in.” Her: “no, because we know you will attempt to stay in India.” But yes, I will attempt, and if they tell me no, I’ll go right back out on the connecting flight. I even bought a one-way on Air India from Mumbai to Colombo, departing three hours after arriving in Mumbai. She wouldn’t budge. “Ok, I will go to Colombo, not try and go to immigration, and will sort out the visa from there.” Exasperated, she finally gave up, and agreed to check me in.

This had wasted nearly two hours of time, which meant I only had 15 minutes to enjoy and check out the new Etihad First lounge. I will say, this is the one part of the Etihad ground experience that was amazing. I had a perfectly lovely former flight attendant dedicated to helping me out, and she saw to it that I got some champagne, pronto:

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Bar/lounge area of the Etihad First lounge:

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I shared my check-in experience with her, along with my poor experiences with the limo service and in flight service where they frequently run out of food options. She was very pleasant and genuine, and it was nice to finally be able to experience a bit of actual service with a human touch on Etihad. Of course, there was also a huge downside to a lounge. There was a group of about 10 Etihad staff having a rather loud meeting in the lounge – seems an extremely weird place to be having a meeting but it appeared to be some kind of training. Mid-day was a rather quiet time in the lounge so maybe it was the best time if they had to do it, but still just seemed a bit…unclassy.

Rather long walk to my gate, the very last one in the terminal, and soon it was time to forget all the stress and enjoy the A380 experience. Of course, I was asked to show the visa again at the gate, but showing the connecting ticket was just fine for them. The boarding area was an absolute madhouse, and boarding had already begun when I reached the gate. The agent was fantastic when he saw I was in first, and actually escorted me down the long jetway, actually pushing other passengers waiting in a long line in the jetway aside so I could go past.

Etihad flight 204
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH) to Mumbai, India (BOM)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 19:20, Flight Time: 3:40
Airbus A380, Registration A6-APE, Manufactured 2015, Seat 3K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 123,471
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,312,608

Very nice welcome aboard with champagne, dates and arabic coffee:

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Forget the stress of the whole limo/check-in drama with Etihad, and enjoy relaxing in the A380 apartment:

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Unfortunately I didn’t have all this space for a 14 hour flight to Melbourne as planned, but 2.5 hours to Mumbai would have to do:

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Full menu for the short flight:

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Our captain today was SMOKIN’ hot!

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Shortly after take off cashews, mixed nuts, olives, and more champagne:

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Arabic mezze to start…relatively tasty:

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By this point, the WiFi was also up and running, and I sent some emails back home to see if I could at least get a scan of my visa. Thankfully, less than 30 minutes later, a friend had found the passport for me and taken a shot of the visa, so at least I had photographic proof of the visa, if not the actual visa. Oh, and if you think I’m bad with all the photos, the guy in the apartment across the aisle had a go-pro set up to record his entire experience, lol:

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Since it was so good the last time I’d had it, I got the biryani for a main and the in-flight chef insisted on making me a salad to go with it. Delicious once again:

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Fortunately, this time, they didn’t run out of cheese, although the selection was quite on the disappointing side:

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Couldn’t resist a bit of ice cream and arabic sweets…were also super tasty. Not sure what flavour the ice cream was, but tasted a bit like speculaas and was super tasty:

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Panoramic shot of the suite:

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Unfortunately the flight went by all too quicky and we landed in a very stormy and rainy Mumbai as the sun was setting. See, when I woke up and decided going to Mumbai sounded like fun I’d forgotten to do any research and had arrived in the middle of monsoon season! Our A380 from the gate upon arrival:

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Headed down to immigration where the business class line was pretty short, and handed him my passport…and waited. Eventually, he asked, where is your visa? I told him I have a 10 year visa in another passport, and no I don’t have it with me, it should be in your computer. He seemed completely confused…either Mumbai does things differently or something has changed. So, I offered him my phone with the picture of the visa, oh piece of cake, that’s plenty, here you go, welcome to India!

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Even a bigger surprise, when I left the airport, the Etihad drivers were all there…but none for me. So I asked one of them if there were any other drivers…he asked my name and I told him. “OH! FIRST CLASS!” were his next words and he called another driver who was apparently waiting right outside for me. Apparently, not only did Etihad get the transfer right this time, but first class gets better cars or something. Was a very nice ride of maybe 30 minutes in spacious air conditioned comfort and soon we were arriving at the St Regis Mumbai. Before this trip I’d never stayed at a St Regis before, and now this was to be my second time in a week…and a huge surprise awaited me with a giant two bedroom suite. The living/dining area:

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Full kitchen as well:

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Another shot of the living/dining room area:

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At first I was worried when I saw I’d been given a room with two beds:

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…but at least it has a nice bathroom:

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…but wait, there’s a second bedroom as well!

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…with its own bathroom:

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Got a fantastic night of sleep, and enjoyed the view from my room in the morning:

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Headed down to breakfast first, and it was a huge buffet, but the place was absolutely packed. There were probably 200+ people eating, and the place felt like an absolute madhouse. There were also lots of large families with children running around, not what I would have expected at a St Regis. Had a small bit to eat, and then found out…just next door…was Starbucks! I decided to get my caffeine there before continuing on with my day.

Managed a good day of work, which was good because spending much time outside didn’t really appear to be an option since it was torrential downpours pretty much all day…then the rain would stop, sun would come out and bake in the humidity….just in time for another downpour. I did get out for a bit of a walk as well in between storms, but other than work it was a pretty uneventful day.

Oh, and on top of work, I did manage to decide what I felt like doing next…heading to Bangkok!

Back to the St Regis, and up to the top floor bar where they supposedly had a happy hour for platinum and suite guests. There was a snack menu, as well as anything you wanted to drink. I decided to go with the pan fried dumplings and some Indian red wine which wasn’t bad:

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…this may have been repeated a few times. The weirdest part was when I left, then told me I had to sign. Ok, fine, and then they brought me a bill….for nearly 9,000 rupees – or nearly $150! I was assured I didn’t have to pay it, they just needed the bill for “internal bookkeeping.” Ok, fine by me. Who knew a few glasses of wine and three small appetizers could cost so much….more than the room even! With that it was off to bed, because I had to get up relatively early to continue on to Bangkok the next day!

Sep 152015
 

When I was booking this trip, I debated for a long time the merits of getting a hotel in India. I would land in India just before 22:00 and depart the next morning at 06:00. Best case, after immigration, check-in, etc, I knew that meant I’d get four hours of sleep max in the hotel. Was it really worth it? Well, immigration ended up taking nearly an hour, and it was 11:15 by the time I got to the hotel, 11:30 by the time I checked in. I decided to push it as much as possible, and leave for the airport at 04:00, getting there just 90 minutes before an international flight. That meant…4.5 hours at the hotel. By the time you subtract showers, the half bottle of wine the hotel gave me (great sleep aid) I slept a grand total of 3:15.

It was worth every penny…and must have been the perfect long nap to reset my body clock, because I’ve been sleeping amazingly this entire trip. Not a single sign of jetlag. Money very well spent!

Hotel car took me to the airport, and check-in was pretty easy although they had a pretty hard time figuring out how to print my onward boarding pass to Cameroon. No line at immigration and security, and off to the lounge. Oh yes, the lounge. What was really strange at check-in is they had stacks of lounge invites to three different ones, and were just randomly handing them out. There were two colleagues in front of me at check-in who got invites to different lounges…and the check-in agent couldn’t figure out why this was a problem!

I ended up with an invite to the ITC Green Lounge, which was perfectly adequate at 04:30. Not crowded, plenty of power outlets, plentiful ice cold diet coke, and a variety of hot and cold snacks. I had a few samosas which were pretty tasty along with a few diet cokes, and I was ready to go. Off to the gate, and boarding was already underway.

Turkish Airlines flight 717
Delhi, India (DEL) to Istanbul Attaturk, Turkey (IST)
Depart 6:05, Arrive 10:25, Flight Time: 6:50
Airbus A330-300, Registration TC-JOB, Manufactured 2014, Seat 4D

Nice lay-flat seats on this bird, but odd that the foot rest/shelf had no separation from the seat next to it, meaning if you sleep at all angled you could be playing footsie with your seatmate. Awkward. Decided to go with the lemonade welcome aboard drink instead of my usual orange. Tasty!

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What’s for breakfast this morning?

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Champagne brunch. I figured since I was already disoriented timewise, and it was like 21:00 back home, it made perfect sense. Yes, this is how I rationalize things! Nice starter, and the cheeses were quite tasty.

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The “turkish pastry with cheese.” It was rather odd, and I think I might have finished half off it. Just strange, but wasn’t really super hungry anyways so it sufficed.

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Debated a small nap, but instead got sucked into a horrible movie. Something about people bending dimensions and traveling to other solar systems to colonize a new home for mankind. It was three plus hours of my life I’ll never get back, but it did make time go by quickly. Soon we were just an hour outside Istanbul and a small snack was served. I can’t escape the samosas!

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Landed right on time just about 10:00 and headed to the lounge to grab some water and check e-mail. After a detour to Starbucks, of course, to ingest large amounts of caffeine to get me moving. Mission accomplished, around 11:00 I decided it was a waste to sit around the lounge all day and decided to head into the city. The Turkish lounge has nice lockers where you can lock bags up, so I packed a daybag and headed out. Passport, wallet and cell phone and I was good to go.

Had to find my way back downstairs to arrivals, which I finally did, purchased a visa, and found the metro to the city. Decided I would go see the Blue Mosque, which would require a short ride on metro followed by a tram. Fortunately, I remembered how this worked from previous visits and it went off without a hitch. The walking around really helped, and maybe was another secret of why I avoided jetlag this trip. I tried to walk as much as possible and see as much daylight as possible to help my body realize just what time it was. The flight to India had moved me forward 9.5 hours, now I was back 2.5 hours, and the flight to Cameroon would go back another 2 hours. Regardless, it was a gorgeous day in Istanbul:

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Got back to the airport about two hours before the next flight, right after Ian’s flight from Munich had landed. Snacks in the lounge, a well-deserved shower to rinse off the sweat from a 90F sunny Istanbul day, and it was time to head to the final flight of the day…the never-ending 737 flight from hell…nearly seven hours to Yaoundé, Cameroon followed by another short hop on to Douala. Jordan’s insane flight from Houston had just landed and he met us at the gate. Hats off to him, there’s no way I could survive 20 hours in economy!

Our gate area was an interesting mix of folks, but very few from Cameroon. Lots of Ukrainian, American, and South African passports around us, many of whom we’d see the next day on our flight to CAR. Any bets what’s going on there?

Turkish Airlines flight 69
Istanbul Attaturk, Turkey (IST) to Yaoundé, Cameroon (NSI)
Depart 18:15, Arrive 23:05, Flight Time: 6:50
Airbus 737-900, Registration TC-JYE, Manufactured 2012, Seat 3F

Two pieces of good news on this flight. First, these were the longhaul 737 seats, which meant there was approximately 18 extra inches of legroom over a standard “domestic first” configration. Even better, business was only booked to 3 of 16 seats tonight, so we had tons of space to spread out. We must have been exhausted, because we were still both too exhausted to think about logically switching rows to have more space, and stayed in 3E and 3F. Switched from the lemonade to the orange juice this time for a welcome drink…and water.

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Takeoff from Istanbul at sunset…

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So, what’s for dinner tonight?

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This is where it got ridiculous. Turkish decided that since there were only three people in business class, they would order exactly one of each main course. One fish, one beef, and one vegetarian green beans. I was second to order, and got my request of beef. Ian, unfortunately, was asked if he “would mind having the green beans.” Ugh, yes, I’m pretty sure he minded. They promised they would find something else…

As usual, a fantastic starter from Turkish:

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The beef, however, was tough and pretty much inedible. They found Ian some other beef dish that looked much, much better. Was probably a crew meal…

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Passed the flight trying to nap unsuccessfully, and watching episode after episode of Scandal. About an hour before landing a small snack was served, including a delicious raspberry cake of some sort.

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This is what we call “avoiding Libyan airpace” and no-fly zones. It must have added at least an hour to the flight.

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Then, we noticed we appeared to be circling. Turned out the airport at Yaoundé was closed due to being fogged in and below minimums for landing. Um, after nearly seven hours in flight how much fuel can be left on a 737? After about 20 minutes circling, the captain announced we were landing. He didn’t, however, announce that minimums had been met. Entirely possible there wasn’t enough fuel for an alternate?

Turkish Airlines flight 69
Yaoundé, Cameroon (NSI) to Douala, Cameroon (DLA)
Depart 00:05, Arrive 01:05, Flight Time: 1:00
Airbus 737-900, Registration TC-JYE, Manufactured 2012, Seat 3F

After about 45 minutes on the ground, we took off for the 35 minute flight to Douala and arrived about an hour late at nearly 2am. Ugh! Fortunately, immigration was a breeze and we were out to find the hotel shuttle around 2:15. Except, the hotel shuttle was nowhere to be found, and the ATMs at the airport were all broken. The taxi mafia settled on 10 euros to drop Jordan at his hotel first, and then take Ian and I to our hotel. It was a ripoff, but at 230am there wasn’t much choice.

The hotel. Ugh. I’d stayed here about two years ago when it was the Le Meridien, and it was…adequate. Now it was the Pullman, and reviews online weren’t great. First off, I’d screwed up and booked a locals-only rate, so we ended up having to pay about 50% more than expected. Then, they couldn’t understand the concept of a room with two beds. Once that was finally sorted we got to the room…which was a sauna. The second room was marginally better, but not great. I left Ian to see if it would cool down, and I went and checked out another two rooms which were even worse.

Then, there was no water in the room. I went to the front desk three times to ask water to be brought up, but it never happened. Fortunately, I’d saved a bottle from the plane to brush my teeth, and Ian (being the fancy one he is) ended up using the minibar Perrier to brush his teeth. Finally, around 4am the room cooled down just enough to consider sleep, but I was thirsty and had to settle for the only option in the minibar…beer. I threw a bit of a fit at checkout the next morning about not being able to get water, and they did kindly comp the Perrier and beer. But ugh, this property has gone from adequate to dismal…and for the price recommend avoiding it at all costs.

We got up at a semi-reasonable hour, and decided to head out exploring just a bit to get some walking in before the adventure was to really begin!

Jul 272015
 

I was in India for a total of 12 days, but between work, recovering from jetlag, etc, I really only had two days to do any sightseeing. I spent one afternoon going around Chennai seeing temples and such, and the other I just relaxed around the hotel, being absolutely exhausted from long work days. A few sites/thoughts from the time not spent at the client site…

Decided the easiest way to see a fair number of sites in a short time was to give Uber a try. Was a piece of cake and worked flawlessly, and the driver ended up waiting at each site since it was easier than driving around looking for more fares. Our first stop was the Parthasarathy Temple. Parthasarathy is an eighth century temple dedicated to Krishna and the name Parthasarathy, in Sanskrit means the ‘charioteer of Arjuna’ referring to Krishna’s role as a charioteer to Arjuna in the epic story Mahabaratha. The coolest part of the temple are all the orante and colourful carvings that made up the structure:

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…and we ran into our first random cow at the temple, just hanging out.

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Small temple in a moat next to the main temple:

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Our Uber was still waiting for us, and we set off next for Kapaleeswarar Temple. Kapaleeswarar is a temple to the Hindu god Shiva, and was built in the seventh century, although the current buildings are thought to date to the 1600s or so. According to Wikipedia “The temple has numerous shrines, with those of Kapaleeshwarar and Karpagambal being the most prominent…The temple’s name is derived from the words kapalam (head) and eeshwarar an alias of Shiva. According to the Puranas, during the meeting of Brahma and Shiva at top of Mount Kailash Brahma failed to show the due respect to Shiva. Due to this, Shiva plucked of one of Brahma’s heads (kapalams). In an act of penance, Brahma came down to the site of Mylapore and installed a Lingam to please Shiva.”

The 120 foot gopuram (entrance gate) was built around 1906, so many parts of the structure are actually quite a bit newer:

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Near the temple were all kinds of shops selling fruits, silver, gold, and trinkets:

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…as well as another small temple in a moat

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We wandered the streets near the temples a bit longer, before we couldn’t take the 105F heat any longer and headed back to the hotel. Some other random sites from the two weeks. Random reminder in a restroom:

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…I couldn’t tell if a “red dot sale” was a clever play on words, or…

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Who doesn’t want to shop at Jesus Fine Arts?

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…or for that matter, perhaps you’re Hindu and prefer Ganesh Electronics?

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…the mix of old and new, ancient and modern, is one of the things that makes India so fascinating, combined with the chaotic pace of things.

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…when you only have one helmet…and forget about seatbelts…

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Unfortunately, I didn’t get all that many pictures. It was pretty much nonstop work, and when it wasn’t work it was preparing from work, being exhausted from work, or being exhausted from being only four weeks post-rotator cuff surgery. All things considered, the trip went quite well, and had it been my first trip to India I might have made more of an effort to get out and explore a bit more, but it was my seventh trip and second to Chennai, so being injured the motivation was a bit less.

Next up, and finally, the flight back to DC on Lufthansa.

Jul 242015
 

I was in Chennai a total of 12 nights, and because I was getting a bit behind on requalifying for Starwood Platinum status this year, I figured I’d use the opportunity (especially weekends) to do a bit of hotel hopping. I usually end up with a few throwaway stays at local DC properties every year to requalify, and at around $75 each it adds up. So, I figured I’d deal with a bit of inconvenience in Chennai in order to save myself that cash.

There are five SPG properties in Chennai, and the closest to my client was the Aloft. Now, I read that it’s perfectly nice, clean, etc, but it would only save me about 20 minutes on the drive and I’d really prefer a full service option. I knew the ITC Grand Chola was the nicest of the options, and it was a tossup between the Le Meridien and the Westin. I probably should have tried all three, but ended up doing just the ITC and the Westin. The stay pattern was 1 night Westin, 4 nights ITC, 1 night Westin, 1 night ITC, 1 night Westin, 4 nights ITC. I did it this way because the first night was a weekend, so changing mid-day was easy. Then, I gave myself four days to settle in, before a few mid-week and weekend changes and finally the last several at the ITC so I could do any needed laundry/etc.

Three of the changes were on weekends, so were very easy to do, but three were on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings. My pattern was to get up early, grab a quick breakfast, change hotels (they’re a 10 minute drive apart), check in if possible, then head to the client. Big credit to both hotels, all three mornings they let me check in approximately 7/7:15am for the day. They were absolutely fantastic on this front.

I’ll compare the two properties on six metrics: room, transportation, lounge, restaurants/food, service, platinum benefits, and finally value for price.

Room: all three times I stayed at the Westin I was given a room on the executive floor. They were standard sized rooms, and as far as I could tell the amenities weren’t upgraded. The air conditioning worked well, the rooms were all very clean, and they had everything that was needed and expected. Additionally, they always stopped by a few times a day offering more bottles of water, as well as turn-down service.

At the ITC Grand Chola, my first two stays I was upgraded to a Towers room. The room was huge, probably about 550 square feet total. It had a huge washroom, with separate shower and toilet cubicles. There was also a standalone tub, as well as drawers and changing area. The AC actually got frigid, and perhaps the coolest part was that everything from lights to AC to TV was controlled by an in-room iPad. On my third stay, I asked about a suite upgrade. They said it would likely be possible, but I would have to pay the rather significant difference in the luxury tax. Luxury tax is assessed on the rack rate of the room, and because of this they usually don’t do suite upgrades. After reminding them that my corporate rate had luxury tax waived they agreed and upgraded me to a rather huge suite. I’ll let the pics do the talking, but I’d estimate it was 800-900 square feet minimum. It made for a very comfortable four nights!

Clear edge in room goes to the ITC Grand Chola.

View from the executive floor at the Westin:

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Suite at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Transportation: I only used transportation from the ITC Grand Chola twice, and that was the hotel car to the Westin and later to the airport. It was slightly overpriced, but plenty comfortable. The nice thing about the Westin was that my corporate rate had free airport transfers included. The pick up at the airport on my arrival was perfect, and they had cold towels and water waiting in the car which was much appreciated in the Chennai humidity. For my later stays, they arranged to pick me up at the ITC Grand Chola instead, and at the end of the stay transfer me to the ITC Grand Chola. Quite nice of them considering the rate specifies airport transfers and not just “transfers”. Other than that, I had a driver to my client, and used Uber for personal transit which also worked equally well from both hotels.

Clear edge on transportation to the Westin.

Lounge: So, my complaint on the lounges isn’t the fault of the hotels. Tamil Nadu state where Chennai is located was in the middle of local elections, and thus declared a number of “dry days” where alcohol couldn’t be served. At one point, it was three days in a row. To the credit of the lounges, they still offered snacks and non-alcoholic drinks.

The Westin had a proper lounge on the executive floor that was open from 1830-2130 every day, and the drinks flowed freely. Very freely. Many of the residents were in the hotel for weeks at a time, and had bonded, and it was expat drinking hour every night in the lounge. Mixed drinks, wine, beer, you name it, and plentiful snacks to the point you could easily make a meal out of them….and if you stayed until 2130 you probably would!

The lounge at the ITC was located in the lobby of the hotel, and available to all Towers and ITC One guests. Not sure what ITC One is, but being in the towers I got to use it. They had four hot snacks and a few cold snacks which rotated (seemed to be the same menu every monday, same every tuesday, etc), as well as plenty of free-flowing drinks and super friendly staff. The happy hour was shorter – only 1800-2000, but they got really generous the last 15 minutes and I ended up with 2-3 drinks sitting around several times.

I would have to declare the lounges a tie – both had plentiful snacks and drinks as well as super friendly staff.

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Restaurants/Food: At the Westin I had breakfast every day, as well as room service dinner one night. The breakfast was plentiful, with lots of breads and danishes, some fruit and other options, as well as eggs, pancakes, etc cooked to order. There was also proper American bacon, which they would cook well done and crispy upon request. There were also several warm Indian options as well. The coffee was also good, with espresso drinks also on offer. I had a sandwich from room service one night which was good and reasonably-priced, and delivered quickly and warm. One nice thing to note, the Westin is also a short walk to the Phoenix Marketcity Mall, which has several good food options including Nandos, California Pizza Kitchen, Hard Rock Cafe, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts should you get sick of hotel fare.

The breakfast at the ITC Grand Chola was simply amazing. Eggs made to order, tons of breads, pastries, etc, and an amazing assortment of fresh fruit every day. There was also a full Indian options hot bar, etc. By my second day they had my coffee preferences down, and I didn’t even have to ask and a double espresso would show up within two minutes of sitting down. There were also six to seven restaurants, but most evenings I was too tired to bother. Plus, they were a bit high priced, although delicious. I had dinner one night at their north Indian restaurant Peshwari, and it was a set menu for one and absolutely delicious. Pics below. I also ate in their cafe several times, which had really good sandwiches for both breakfast and lunch. It was also slightly overpriced, but made an easier light meal than the sitdown restaurants.

Slight edge goes to the ITC for a slightly better breakfast, and tons of great restaurant options.

Westin Breakfast:

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Breakfast/buffet restaurant from above at the ITC:

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Dinner at Peshwari at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Amazing fruit for breakfast at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Service/Common Areas: Can’t say enough here about both properties, because service was uniformly fantastic. Staff would remember you after one interaction, and upon returning after hotel hopping I was warming welcome back. I was doing PT for the shoulder surgery throughout the stay, and requested an umbrella from the concierge to help with exercises. Both hotels remembered, and brought me one on my second stay without asking. People genuinely seemed to love their jobs and care that you enjoyed your stay.

Both hotels win here in a big way.

Lobby in the Grand Chola:

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Group of eye surgeons having a conference at the hotel taking a group pic, lol:

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Poolside at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Platinum benefits: At the Westin, got an upgrade to the executive floor, lounge access, happy hour, and a coupon for a free drink (beer or wine) via either room service or in the restaurants and bars. I chose a glass of wine sent to my room both stays, and the third there was no love because it was a “dry day.” At the ITC, I was upgraded to a Towers Room twice, and the third time to a huge suite. This included lounge access.

Slightly edge in this category to the ITC, only because I was consistently upgraded to a larger room.

Welcome flowers and sweets in the suite at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Value for Price: Both hotels were the exact same price with my corporate rate. Since I rated the ITC Grand Chola higher in most categories, I’d consider it an excellent value for price. For the Westin, I’d still call it a very good value for price.

Hope these are helpful!

Jun 032012
 

I had looked online earlier in the day, and had seen the 15:35 flight was seriously delayed, and since I had to be out of my hotel room by 4pm anyways decided to go to the airport a bit early and see about getting on it. The check-in agent wasn’t too sure how to do it, and had to wait “for a supervisor” which took nearly 45 minutes…and 15 minutes before the door was set to close. Eventually, I got personally escorted through immigration and security by this supervisor, and ended up being one of only two people in business class on the flight! Of course, there was still plenty of time for the obligatory champers before departure:

…and a quick look at the menu.

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Jun 012012
 

This post is just plain full of travel and plane geekery – feel free to skip if you don’t want to see what to expect on some slightly less common airlines. Paro to Male is only 3,070 kilometers as the crow flies (about 1,910 miles) but that would be too easy…and expecting two relatively out of the way places to be connected by such a straight line would be way too much to ask for…so, roundabout routing it was, involving no less than three tickets and four flights. I wasn’t really thinking ahead that in this part of the world, there’s no such thing as an easy transit, and almost got myself in trouble.

Despite my early flight, the hotel insisted that breakfast would be served. Breakfast is included, and they were going to make sure I had it. They suggested 5am, and when I went to the restaurant the overnight front desk guy was working, and happy to make me anything I wanted. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, so boiled eggs, coffee, toast, and a bit of fruit it was! Then off for the short ride to the airport where I arrived just before 6am…way too early for a 7am flight out of this tiny airport! After killing time waiting (check-in, immigration, and security took maybe 10 minutes total) we were waiting…and then I realised why I wasn’t able to book business class on this segment: it was operated by an ATR! I’d read so much about Druk Air carefully selecting A319s because they were about the only plane that could navigate the tricky mountain approach into Bhutan…and now I was going to try and fly out on a prop plane? Time to start hoping that karma I earned paid off!

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May 242012
 

Even before the trip began…there was to be drama.  Storms were forecast in the DC to NYC corridor late afternoon, and when that happens flights tend to get really messy really quickly.  Today was to be no exception…my flight was preemptively delayed early morning for 2 hours…pretty much ensuring my 2 hour, 16 minute connection was going to be REALLY close.  However…when it came down to it…the delay shrank to 90 minutes, then 1 hour, then just 30 minutes a couple hours out.  We boarded on time…pulled away from the gate on time…and waited.  Pilot came on 15 minutes later telling us that for flow control, and “confusion with ATC” our new slot time was 90 minutes away…but maybe we’ll get lucky!

In the end, we did get lucky, going wheels up only about 45 minutes after scheduled departure time.

ExpressJet Flight 4695, Operating as United Express
Washington, National (DCA) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Departure 16:59, Arrival 18:14
ERJ-145, Registration N17196
Seat 1A

I know lots of people don’t like the BDJ-145 as it’s affectionately known (Barbie Dream Jet), but I actually don’t mind it at all for short flights.  I almost always have been getting my preferred seat 1A for my regular hops up to Ottawa lately, and it’s a pretty comfortable ride.  With nobody sitting in front of you it’s private and quiet, and all in all…can’t complain.  Crews are usually excellent, and this one was no exception.  I think I got 3-4 refills of Diet Coke, and the 50 minute or so flight was over quite quickly.  Really not much to say – parked at the A gates at Newark, took the shuttle over to the C gates, and had a good 45 minutes in the Presidents Club…er…”United Club” to recharge the iDevices before the long flight.

United Flight 82
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Delhi, India (DEL)
Departure 20:30, Arrival 20:15 Next Day, Flight Time:  14:25
Boeing 777-200, Registration N76010
Seat 2E

This was my first time on the ex-Continental 777s with flat bed, and overall I was pretty impressed.  They certainly beat business on the ex-United 777s, mainly because there are no “middle” seats.  For me, most important thing on an overnight is aisle access with nobody climbing over me.  Hence, I don’t like the window sections of two (either I have to climb over someone, or they have to climb over me) and the ex-Continental 777s with two seats in the middle are perfect.  Overall, the hard product here is excellent.  It’s too bad the ex-United planes screwed up business so badly.

Also, this was to be my longest flight ever.  At 7,323 miles it would top my previous longest flight that I had done four times (San Francisco to Hong Kong) which clocked in at “only” 6,914 miles.  With 14:25 of flight time, there would be plenty of time to eat, sleep, watch tv, etc.  One of the most amusing parts of the plane was the entertainment system still was all Continental:

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Mar 152012
 

Needless to say, the next few months is going to be incredibly busy! Starting this weekend, I have 6 big trips planned in the next three months. Short story is:

Ski and birthday weekend in Mont Tremblant, Quebec
Four days of diving in Grand Cayman, getting SCUBA certified
Then, a few days later, off to Oahu, Hawaii for a welcome home
After that, I’ll actually stay put a few days before it’s off to Nepal, Bhutan, Seychelles, Sudan, and Bulgaria
Work a few days, then off to Ottawa, Ontario to run the Ottawa marathon
…and from there, I fly straight to Longyearbyen, Norway, at 78 degrees north latitude, for the Spitsbergen Marathon 6 days later!

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