Jan 152017
 

So, yeah, it’s been a long time since I’ve written a travel blog. I think after Iceland I was a bit exhausted, and combine that with the fact that October-December are always my busiest months at work it meant I really didn’t have much time for travel – or for writing about it.

If there’s any interest, I can put together blogs on two trips I took in the past few months to Zagreb and Bangkok, but you’re not going to see too much outside of hotels and tons of airplane pics because it was long work days without much time to get out and about. However, if you want to see more Lufthansa First as well as my impressions of the first day of United Polaris service I’ll be happy to put those up.

February is going to be an interesting month. I had originally planned to stay closer to home and enjoy the car I make payments on but never seem to drive and take a long roadtrip through the Southern United States to visit four of the eight states I haven’t been to.

However, travel has a way of pulling you back in, and so I started looking at what I could use some of my miles for…and managed to piece together a crazy 17 day round the world with stops in some of my favourite cities: Hong Kong, Bangkok, Cape Town, Paris….oh, and it would involve first class travel on ANA longhaul, Thai on the A380, Qatar on the A380, Emirates on the A380, and yes, more Lufthansa first. It’s pretty hard to say no to, even though I should be a bit fiscally responsible…time will tell!

I recently did an interview for another website which will be up shortly, and I’ll link to it when it’s live. As part of it, I was asked to pick some of my favourite travel photos of myself, which was fun going back through memories. So, my favourite are below. Promise I’ll write more regularly again!

Top of Huayna Picchu near Machu Picchu, Peru

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Crossing the river from Rosso, Senegal to Rosso, Mauritania:

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Jumerah, The Gambia

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New Years Eve stranded in Gabon, due to a coup in Democratic Republic of Congo:

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Darvaza Crater, Turkmenistan

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Koala cuddling in Brisbane, Australia:

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Cuzco, Peru:

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Hanging out with the Wrestling Cholitas in La Paz, Bolivia:

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On the equator in where else, Ecuador:

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Waiting for the tube in London, UK:

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Friendly lemurs in Madagascar:

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Inland lake in Comoros:

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Pyramids of Giza, Egypt:

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Leptis Magna, Libya:

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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:

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

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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.

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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:

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

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…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…

May 242016
 

I had decided the night before that given a 9:35 flight time, and the desire to be there 90 minutes minimum before, combined with the fact the Bakerloo Line wasn’t running all the way to Paddington Station, that I was going to take an Uber to Paddington. I figured I already had my ticket from there, so this would be the best value for time and money.

Uber showed up within just a few minutes of requesting it, it was a pretty inexpensive ride to Paddington, and I even had time to grab some Starbucks at Paddington before my train departed. Say what you will about UK trains, but the fact trains were running on a reduced schedule this Saturday due to track work was well-posted everywhere, and the train left exactly when the sign said it would. Pretty good in my book!

Had to catch the shuttle train over to Terminal 4 for Etihad, which meant about a five minute wait followed by another two minutes or so on the train. Overall not too bad. From there, it was a relatively short walk to the check-in area, where the Etihad checkin was deserted about 1:30 before flight time. Quick and efficient check-in at the dedicated first class counter, no questions asked about checked bags, and off to security.

No wait at all at the priority security line, and was through and to the lounge maybe ten minutes after check-in. Could have been even quicker if it wasn’t a slight bit of a walk to the lounge. Took the elevator down to the lounge, checked in, and went into what was an extremely crowded lounge. There were only a few seats to be had, since Etihad operates a combined lounge for both first and business class. In fairness, as soon as I sat down an attendant came over to ask what I would like to drink and delivered it quickly, but there is nothing first class about a crammed full lounge with nearly 100 people in it.

After about 15 minutes I was over it, and decided to go for a short walk up and down the terminal to stretch my legs a bit before the big event. Unfortunately, this was another area where Etihad missed the mark. After boarding those with disabilities and families with children (at which point 50+ people boarded), they offered combined boarding for first, business, and elite members all at the same time. There was a fair bit of pushing and jostling (I hadn’t lined up, expecting first to be called first) and probably should have just waited to board last. To top things off, my boarding pass beeped and I was informed my seat was inoperative. Fortunately, it would turn out I was the only person in first class and they had put me in 3A instead of 3K – the same exact seat, just a different side.

Etihad flight 12
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Abu Dhabi, UAE (AUH)
Depart 9:35, Arrive 20:10, Flight Time: 7:35
Airbus A380, Registration A6-APF, Manufactured 2015, Apartment 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 79,194
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,268,719

I was welcomed on board by the agent at the door, and shown to my apartment for the flight, first impressions were WOW – that’s a lot of space!

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I was told to just leave my bags, and they would stow them for me after everyone had boarded. See what I mean by a lot of space? This is the perspective of the apartment from the seat:

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As soon as I was seated, it was suggested I might like a glass of champagne. Apparently, word about me had gotten out. Although the Bollinger Grande Ann√©e isn’t the most expensive first class bottle out there, I give Etihad points for originality and trying something different. Served with some dates and Arabic coffee:

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So, what’s the menu?

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Panoramic view of the suite:

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Since I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, I decided to go with a full lunch just after departure. Not just mixed nuts, but also wasabi peas and olives were offered, very nice touch!

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After that, the table was set for lunch:

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A rather unusual pea terrine as an amuse-bouche…different…

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The Arabic mezze as an appetizer. It was good, but a bit on the bland side overall. I was pretty surprised for such an extravagant hard product Etihad wouldn’t offer caviar as a starter.

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Extremely strange palate cleanser…I couldn’t quite make out what the flavours were supposed to be.

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The salmon main course. In fairness, most places usually overcook salmon on the ground, so it’s no surprise this was also a little overdone. However, considering it was done on a plane and served with creative sides, overall it was a pretty good main course.

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Now that’s better – this is what I call a cheese plate! However, the fact there were only two cheese was a bit on the stingy side, although the self-described “fruit paste” was a tasty addition.

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I wasn’t in the mood for anything sweet at this point, so spent the next few hours watching some movies and tv on the entertainment system. There was a very good selection of both movies and tv, and plenty to keep you entertained on the longest of flights.

Just over an hour from landing, I used the call button (something I’ve only recently become comfortable doing) and asked if I could have the famous Etihad steak sandwich and a glass of the Malbec. The sandwich was a bit underwhelming, but the Malbec definitely exceeded expectations:

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One last shot of the door to my apartment before landing. Maximum 3 passengers during flight:

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Upon landing, there was an extremely long line at passport control. Fortunately I’d been given a priority lane card, but this was shared with every other first and business class passenger arriving at the same time. All told, I had to wait over 20 minutes for passport control, which again is not very first class. Normally I wouldn’t blame the airline for lines at passport control, but given that Etihad (along with Emirates and Qatar) receive significant government support, passport lines are certainly within their control if they wanted.

Overall thoughts on the Etihad apartments? The seat was far and away the most space I’ve ever had on a plane. Granted, I wasn’t able to try it for sleeping so I’m not sure how comfortable it is as a bed, but overall the space was amazing. Plus, being the only passenger in first sure didn’t hurt either! The service was also top notch. The crew was the perfect balance of being friendly, personable, and professional. They were friendly and willing to chat if you wanted, but also were never the least bit bothered by any request.

The food service was slightly below what I would have expected. I expect international first class meals to have a bit of a wow factor, and on this flight it felt just like super fancy business class food. Nothing special to set it apart. The real disappointments were the ground service. Overcrowded lounge, poor boarding process, and poor airport experience on arrival.

Speaking of arrival…I had prebooked the airport transfer, and not knowing the process I went to the transfer desk where they confirmed that yes, I had preordered it, and should just go curbside to be taken care of. The curbside process was quite efficient, with the queue managers having scanners that would scan your boarding pass and confirm your transfer, and in just a couple minutes they had you in a car. Again, one more area Etihad fell short, first class was grouped with business class so I ended up waiting nearly 10 minutes for a car. If you’re going to offer a first class product, you need to make sure to provide more than business class on the ground as well.

That said, the car was very comfortable, equipped with water, powerful AC, and reading materials, and after a short ride I was at my hotel – the Aloft Abu Dhabi. Normally, I avoid “discount” chains like the plague, but my previous Aloft experiences in Bogota and Denver have left me with a rather positive impression of the brand. To top that off, many reviews list Abu Dhabi as the best Aloft in the world, so I was curious to give it a try given the extremely low rate for SPG redemption.

Friendly reception, confirmed an upgrade to a larger room, and then offered me free breakfast, two free drinks at any of their bars or restaurants, as well as two free gourmet coffees at any venue. Wow, not bad on a 2,000 Starpoints rate!

It was getting late at this point, and I was pretty tired, so I headed up to the rooftop bar to enjoy my two free pre-bed drinks. How can you resist something called the Absolutely Fabulous when you’re in Abu Dhabi?

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Overall, big points to the Aloft Abu Dhabi! I was super pleased with the experience, and it’s probably one of the best SPG value for money experiences I’ve ever had! I didn’t have a huge breakfast the next morning, but they had a huge buffet open as well. There was quite literally nothing about this hotel that could have been improved. Location-wise, I’m not sure how great it is, but it was convenient to the airport, and unless you’re a diva who needs the Ritz Carlton every time, this hotel can’t be beat. Anyone who reads my blog knows what a princess I can be when it comes to hotels, so when I say this property has it all…it really does!

Now, off to the airport for one more Etihad first flight home…

May 222016
 

Got to sleep in a slight bit since my flight wasn’t leaving until around noon, and I just hoped there wouldn’t be metro/RER drama this morning on my way to the airport. Stopped for a coffee then headed to the metro; quick transfer at Les Halles and caught an RER after just a few minutes. Unfortunately, the train was absolutely packed and was hotter than a sauna. Everyone was starting to drip sweat, and since I had extra time decided to get off at Gare du Nord and wait for the next train.

Next train was much cooler, and empty to the point I even got a seat, and from there it was a quick 30 or so minute ride to the airport. Quick walk back over to Terminal 2A, where there was a super long check-in queue for British Airways – even in the priority line. Seemed most passengers were connecting onwards to North America and had 1,400 suitcases each. Finally got to the front of the line, and got to have a bit of an argument with a check-in agent who insisted my rolling bag could not possibly fit in overhead bins. She insisted I check it.

I told her it does fit, agents don’t have a problem with it, and finally she gave in and said “fine, I’m working the gate too, we can ask the flight attendants!” With that, I headed off to a painless security queue and eventually made my way to the lounges…since the every-so-friendly check-in agent hadn’t told me which lounge to go to, when confronted with the choice of Cathay or American, well, I made the logical choice.

Since I’d only had coffee I was pretty hungry, so decided to see if there was anything interesting to eat….and OMG there it was…crack from Hong Kong. I was given a buzzer to await my crack dealer to arrive…

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Soon it buzzed, and crack in a bowl was delivered – DanDan Noodles. The glass of champagne almost didn’t happen since I encountered some kind of stopper I couldn’t figure out how to get off the bottle. Neither could the other two people who were trying. Fortunately, we were saved by a lounge attendant, and brunch was salvaged!

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Got to the gate just as they were about to begin boarding and of course nothing at all was said about my bag…which of course fit just fine in the overheads just as it had on the way in.

British Airways flight 309
Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 12:05, Arrive 12:25, Flight Time: 1:20
Airbus A319, Registration G-EUPS, Manufactured 2007, Seat 5F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 75,762
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,265,287

Super quick flight, but not too quick…and lived up to the challenge of managing two minis of champagne before landing. Another very impressive meal for such a short flight that hit the spot perfectly.

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Took the Heathrow Express into the city, and assuming that I would have Etihad chauffeur service I’d booked in at the Le Meridien Piccadilly. Unfortunately, Etihad decided my ticket was a connection despite the overnight, and thus not eligible for chauffeur service in London. Not a big deal at the end of the day…until I found out the Bakerloo line wasn’t running from Paddington to Piccadilly, meaning a transfer. Three trains to get to the hotel wasn’t bad in the middle of the day, but the next morning that wasn’t going to happen.

There was a line of eight people waiting to check in when I arrived at the hotel, so did something I rarely do which is go to the side of the counter dedicated for SPG Platinum check-in. No problem until the next in line was called, and I walked over to the agent. I got rudely shoved by a rather rotund American gentleman who was the next in the regular line and insisted “I was next!” I told the agent I was waiting for Platinum and his comment was “well I’m gold so f*** off.” What’s that thing about the ugly American again… Not wanting to waste time, I waited the two minutes.

It was 2:15 at this point, and I was told my room wasn’t ready. They had upgraded me to a junior suite, but it would be another 30 minutes before it was ready. I was told I could either leave my bags, or go wait in the lounge. Since it was only 30 minutes, I opted to wait in the lounge and the agent said she would call up when the room was ready.

An hour went by, and still no call. So I went down to the front desk, and “oh, yeah, it’s ready – sorry I forgot.” Ugh. I know the hotel can’t be blamed for the rude guy in the check-in line, but so far I wasn’t overly impressed. On the plus side, the junior suite was quite nice, and unusual for hotels in London the temperature was actually decently on the cool side.

I was starting to drag at this point, so walked around the corner to perhaps the poshest Starbucks I’ve even been in…which didn’t stop them from spelling my name wrong yet again:

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Spent the evening catching up with friends, including drinks, followed by dinner, followed by more drinks. The hotel did turn out do be in the perfect location for walking from place to place, and was definitely a good choice! Got a nice view of Piccadilly Circus at night on the walk back to the hotel:

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With that, my short stopover in London had come to a close and it was time to get some rest so I could enjoy the capstone of the trip – flying Etihad in Apartments and First Class to Washington via Abu Dhabi!