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…

Oct 182016
 

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I booked my flight out of Reykjavik for 7:45 in the morning, with the airport more than an hour from the city. There are two flights to London. I could have easily booked the later one. I think it came down to two things: (1) the earlier flight was on a 767 which is pretty rare on Icelandair (only two of their approximately 30 planes are 767s) and (2) I wanted to get to London in time to be able to enjoy the afternoon.

That said, when it came time to catch the 4:30 am bus to the airport, I definitely wasn’t thinking it was such a great idea. Fortunately, misery loves company, and my mother and brother, along with friends Mark and Beth were on the same bus. They were on the Delta flight back to Minneapolis which left about the same time, so we all set out into darkness together.

The hotel was once again confused at checkout, and tried to put all the rooms on my credit card. Fortunately we figured it out in time, and miracle of miracles the FlyBus shuttle actually showed up right on time to take us to the central bus station for our onward bus to the airport. Not too much to tell here. It was dark, I dozed a bit on the bus, and we got to the airport right on schedule.

Check-in for Icelandair business was nice and easy with no line at all, and soon we were all upstairs to immigration and security. Before getting there there was a huge duty free shop that everyone was stopping at, and I spent my last few kroner on some Icelandic chocolate to bring back to coworkers. The Icelandair Saga lounge is right before immigration and security, so I said goodbye to everyone who had joined me as they headed through immigration and security to their Delta gate.

At around 6:30am the Saga Lounge was absolutely packed, to the point I had trouble finding a seat. It seemed most of the flights from North America had arrived, and people were waiting on their connecting flights to Europe. I finally managed to find a seat, the coffee machine made a decent triple espresso, and I got some skyr with fresh berries for breakfast:

img_4447

There were also tasty make-your-own sandwich supplies set out for something a bit more substantial to eat:

img_4448

I left the lounge a bit on the late side which was the right call, because by the time I got there there was zero line for immigration and security. Good timing! I walked past the Delta gate on the way to mine, and said one last goodbye to mom and friends, and as I got to my gate (filled with very weary looking tourists) they were just about ready to board.

Icelandair flight 450
Keflavik, Iceland (KEF) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 7:40, Arrive 11:45, Flight Time: 3:05
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISO, Manufactured 2000, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 140,780
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,329,917

The 767s on Icelandair are configured in a 2-1-2 layout in business class, and feature the same miserable approximately 38 inches of pitch that the 757s do. The one saving grace is that if you take the middle seat at least you don’t have to climb over anyone…or have anyone climbing over you. Pre-departure beverages were offered, and it was a mystery orange juice. I asked the flight attendant what kind of juice it was, and her very helpful answer was “fruit.” Uh, ok? One shot of fruit juice coming up.

img_4451

I had pre-ordered my meal again, and went with the Icelandic tapas. Overall, I’d have to say this meal was more of a miss than a hit. Rather uninspired selection of packaged breads, very bland meat and cheese, and some prawns in a creamy mayo sauce which went untouched. I still won’t do prawns on a plane. That said, the mimosas were super generous, and served with the entire bottle:

img_4459

Upon clearing my plate, she insisted on bringing me another mimosa…

img_4460

…there may have been a third mimosa before landing. But what happens in Iceland stays in Iceland…

Unfortunately, Heathrow saw fit to be its usual miserable self. It was a warm day in London, nearly 25C and the immigration queue was more than an hour long. I decided to angry tweet the airport, which responded immediately by saying they were sorry and asking which terminal I was in. Once I sent them that, silence…

An hour later I was very glad I had pre-purchased Heathrow Express tickets, because there was no way I was going to deal with the tube after more than an hour waiting for immigration. Quick trip to my hotel with a quick connection to the tube at Paddington, and I was there.

Decided to try something different this trip, and explore SPG’s relatively new Tribute Collection. I stayed at St Pancras at the Great Northern Hotel, which I’ll give a brief review of here. The staff were fantastic and friendly, happy to help out with anything you wanted. I kept extending my original one night stay a night at a time, eventually staying four nights, and they were more than happy to help out each time. Including getting me a room for the third night on points when the property showed completely sold out.

The room was…tiny. Despite showing rooms online, they claimed there were no upgrades, and the standard room was like a closet.Maybe twice the size of a double bed and that was it! However, the air conditioning was ice c0ld, and the room did its job. Location was also fantastic, so I think I will probably stay here again on my next trip. Much better than my experiences at other SPG properties in London without functional AC, semi-aloof staff, and ancient properties with squeaky floors and thin walls.

I had a nice four days in London, even though my original plans had changed. I won’t be writing about my trip back to DC because, well, it was sponsored in the end which makes it non-bloggable. It was a pleasant surprise at last minute notice, and even better – Icelandair business class tickets…even the cheapest bucket…are completely changeable without a penalty charge. I put it off three months into the future, and now apparently I have an excuse to get back to Helsinki!

That caps off my final country trip. Amazing time, and completely thrilled that so many family and friends made the time to join me for it. It made it an incredibly memorable trip and a very special experience. Now, to start returning to places for another go around…

Sep 152016
 

The big day had finally arrived, and it was time to head off to Iceland to visit my 196th and final country in the world. I had a group of about 35 family and friends joining me, a couple of whom were already in Iceland. About ten of us would be on the same flight to Reykjavik, meaning I would have a good group to witness “the moment” with me.

Caught a Lyft with my friend and neighbour Garrett to Dulles Airport. Garrett deserves special mention as the person who’s kept my plants alive, collected my mail, and even mailed me pictures of visas I forgot at home for all these years of travel. I definitely couldn’t have done it without his help – not to mention he helped save me from being deported from India back in July!

Arrived at Dulles, and check-in was relatively drama-free, except for the guy in the Saga (business) Class line in front of us, who was throwing a fit that they wouldn’t let him bring his rolling back on the plane as hand baggage. After forcing him to check it we checked in, and my (much larger) rolling bag was accepted just fine. Fortunately he didn’t see that…we later saw him in a middle seat somewhere between purgatory (row 20) and the final level of hell (row 35)…so maybe that explains it.

The check-in agent was completely unaware of the rules for lounge access, and thought I probably got a guest, so was nice enough to give Garrett a lounge invite as well despite the fact he was in economy. Off to the Air France lounge it is, where an appropriately-French reception of (several glasses of) champagne and some cheese awaited:

img_3559

Shortly after we arrived my friend Greg from Philly joined us since the Air France lounge also participates in Priority Pass and a few other programs, and my friend Phil showed up a bit later fresh from finding a shower at a friend’s place after a JetBlue redeye from the West Coast. Off to the gate after a bit, where our chariot awaited:

img_3560

Unfortunately, despite kissing up to Icelandair on twitter over the past couple of weeks and dropping lots of hints, there was no priority boarding or special recognition at the gate. There was actually no priority boarding of any sort, so I just shepherded the crew to the front of the scrum and on board.

Icelandair flight 656
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Keflavik, Iceland (KEF)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 23:40, Flight Time: 5:30
Boeing 757-200, Registration TF-ISD, Manufactured 1991, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 139,600
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,328,737

Upon boarding, champagne was quickly dispensed to Phil and I, and bottled waters were waiting at our seats:

img_3561

Pre-flight champagne celebration selfie:

img_3562

What’s to eat on the shortish flight to Reykjavik:

img_3563

img_3564

I’m not sure a started called “ugly” sounds appetizing, but hey, when in Iceland…

img_3566

This would be a good place to say a bit about the seats. Icelandair 757s are pretty much the same seats that have plied routes in the US domestically for the last 30 years. Two by two configuration up front, with a few extra inches of legroom over coach. There was nothing special about the seats, but they were comfortable enough for a short daytime flight. I certainly wouldn’t want to try getting sleep in these seats, however. Fortunately, Icelandair has some daytime flights like ours which meant no need to try and sleep on a plane.

Shortly after take off, I asked for a red wine, but apparently I was getting white. The flight attendant was…not the most attentive…and seemed a little frazzled, so I figure it would go fine with the unusual pre-meal munchies that were essentially toffee-covered popcorn. I mean, it was nice to have something other than a ramekin of nuts, but this was…different. That said, it went decently well with white wine (better than it would have with red) so win-win…maybe?

img_3567

I had spotted on Icelandair’s website that you could pre-order from about eight different meals, and decided to go this way. It was a good call, because the three options on the main menu didn’t look that great to me, and the lamb I had was rather delicious. The ugly cheese was pretty tasty as well…and I finally got my red wine! The pre-ordered meal was also good because it meant that we were the first ones served. No plate for the bread, but it was super tasty!

img_3570

I spent part of the flight kissing up to Icelandair on twitter, but it continued to get me absolutely nowhere…beyond a congratulations. I should also point out that Icelandair’s entire fleet is WiFi equipped, and it is supposed to be complimentary in Saga Class. However, it wouldn’t recognize my confirmation number or ticket number, meaning I had to pay. AmEx was kind enough to immediately wipe off the charges when I called to dispute them.

With about 90 minutes left in flight, Phil and I were feeling a bit hungry. We had been pressing the call button every 30-40 minutes to get wine refills (the crew was definitely not proactive at all), but this time decided to ask if they had any snacks to eat. The…rather attractive gentleman working economy quickly came back with some Pringles, Icelandic “boxerchips”, and some trail mix as well as more wine:

img_3577

Gorgeous sunset as we crossed over Greenland:

img_3579

Greenland certainly looked rugged and desolate:

img_3580

The rocky east coast of Greenland:

img_3583

We landed about 10 minutes ahead of schedule, and unfortunately did not get a gate. Victory selfie on the tarmac right after setting foot in my final country:

img_3588

Immigration was quick, despite the agent making a comment about all the visas in my passport. I told him Iceland was my 196th and final country visited, which was merely met with a very stoically-Scandinavian “that’s nice.” Hah!

Post-immigration I was looking for the perfect spot to take a pic, and found this. Welcome to #196!

img_3590

Overall, Icelandair was solid. I went into it expecting domestic first class, and that’s exactly what we got. Garrett unfortunately forgot his phone on the plane, and didn’t realize it until we were well past immigration. He found an Icelandair agent and told them, and much to our surprise he was reunited with his phone only 20 minutes later. Definitely scores big points for Icelandair in my book, as in the US you’d almost certainly never see it again.

A few more thoughts on Icelandair, from the friends who were in economy. There’s no food served – at all. It’s the low cost model where there’s plenty available for purchase, but nothing is complimentary. Something to keep in mind if you’re flying them in economy. They essentially function as a low cost airline, and even in Saga Class it wasn’t completely free what was complimentary and what you were expected to pay for. Turns out, everything was complimentary…and apparently whatever and as much as you wanted.

We had pre-booked the FlyBus, which runs continuously from the airport to the central bus terminal in Reykjavik about 50 minutes away. On the ride we got really lucky and saw the Northern Lights, so that was a super bonus for the drive into town. Unfortunately, they didn’t show up any of the other nights we were in Iceland. When we got to the bus terminal, however, it was a disaster. We had paid the extra for a transfer to our hotel, and after waiting over 45 minutes with no transfer in sight (remember, it’s about 2am at this point) we gave up. Fortunately, my friend Kirsten’s Air BnB host was getting impatient, and he drove the 2km to the bus terminal to pick all of us up. Her apartment was right across the street from our hotel, so it worked out super well. Supposedly this isn’t the norm with FlyBus, but next time I would think twice about paying the extra for the transfer and just grab the short cab from the bus station. Especially with multiple people you would probably break even.

Now, it was time to get some sleep and get ready to enjoy the first day in Iceland!