May 312019
 


Well after I had already committed to going to Florida for the ultramarathon in the Keys, I had a work commitment come up which would require me to be in Brazil the next day. Problem was: the drive from Key West to Miami is 3-4 hours on a good day, and I would need to be in Sao Paulo by 9am for meetings.

The problem is: most flights from the states arrive after 9am, making it near impossible to get a full day in upon arrival. I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I found out there was a flight nonstop from Fort Lauderdale to Campinas (about 100km northwest of Sao Paulo) on Azul which arrived at 05:00. Even with the long 1.5 hour taxi to Sao Paulo, it would work out.

To top things off, it appears that Azul is partners with United, so I could even earn some miles. Oh, and did I mention it was like 1/3 the price of United, American, and Delta and had nice seats? This was looking like a win all around!

Unfortunately, this report will be mostly about Azul…and in comparison, the nonstop flight home on United. We worked most days until 8 or 9pm, leaving me only time to check out a couple of local craft beer places and see how the scene was shaping up in Brazil…but then again you knew I’d make an hour in the evening for that…right?

So, right. I was able to check-in on Azul’s app (Portuguese only – the English version doesn’t allow check-in) but when I got to TSA (no pre-Check with Azul) the boarding pass wouldn’t scan from Apple Wallet, so I had to go back to the counter and get a paper one. Not the end of the world.

End of the world, however, is the disaster known as Terminal 3 in Fort Lauderdale. No lounges at all, and Azul doesn’t give food and beverage credits either. Fortunately, one of the restaurants does give a credit with Priority Pass, but it was a 15 minute walk from the gate. Was good for a couple glasses of wine, and I got to the gate where it was just getting time to board. Better hurry, or I’ll get stuck on Spirit!

First impressions of the seat and cabin ambiance on Azul were really positive:

right, so on with the flight!

Azul flight 8705
Fort Lauderdale, Florida (FLL) to Campinas/Sao Paulo, Brazil (VCP)
Depart 19:30, Arrive: 05:00, flight time: 8:30
Airbus A330-200, Registration PR-AIT, Manufactured 2003, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 39,622
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,732,210

Couple of early observations: no clue why Azul uses such odd flight numbers. Most airlines use lower numbers for premium/international routes, but Azul seems to use very high flight numbers. No clue why. Also, there are only four really “good” seats in each cabin, as they’re the ones offset from the aisle by the armrest. The other seats aren’t bad, but four of them are extra good!

Pre departure champagne in a proper glass with a folded napkin even…unfortunately it was a tiny bit warm:

I was very curious what kind of menu Azul would offer, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. Full multi-course meal with lots of options:

The cabin was, unfortunately, extremely warm on the ground, but the air vents delivered just enough breeze that it wasn’t miserable. Fortunately, Azul’s website is quite helpful when you have a problem! It did cool down to about 75F in flight which was still warm, but not awful.

Right before takeoff, and after the pre-departure champagne, individual chocolates were offered:

First couple of hours in flight we were treated to an absolutely stunning sunset:

Amenity kit was at the seat, and while it contained the basics it was nothing worth keeping:

Soon after takeoff beverages were offered, along with a dried fruit and nut mix. Definitely something different.

I know lots of frequent fliers complain when the appetizer and main course get served together, but I thought it worked out fine. With the super early arrival lots of people wanted to get to sleep as soon as possible, so it worked out well. I thought the plating was pretty nice too…and I loved the little salt and pepper shakers:

Both cheese and an ice cream sundae were offered. Above average.

We must have had good winds, because we arrived in Campinas nearly 45 minutes early. The airport was an absolutely ghost town, and other than passengers coming off our flight it seemed there wasn’t a soul in the airport. I know it’s a relatively new and empty airport, but seems like they have lots of growth in mind!

Through immigration and to the transportation area in under 10 minutes, and my Uber showed up less than five minutes later. He complained about the length of the drive to Sao Paulo (seems Sao Paulo and Campinas are different Uber bases) but eventually agreed to take the trip when I told him I was happy to wait for another driver. Then he asked for an extra 100 Reais for gas….ok maybe 50….and when I again said I was happy to just wait…he decided he’d rather take me.

Wasn’t a great Uber experience, and I felt like he was on the verge of falling asleep several times, so I made the best of it with my terrible Portuguese trying to keep him awake and chatting. Best part was, I made it to my hotel by 06:30, giving me time for a solid 90 minute nap before heading to meetings. Winning all around!

Busy few days of meetings, but did manage to find a couple of craft beer places for an hour in the evening. First find was “TapTap” which was a little hole in the wall place on a street corner, but they did have several really good local taps, and the special treat of getting eaten alive by mosquitos while you enjoyed your beer. I’m still itching a week later!

Second find, which was much more North American or European style was Bar Ambar which was a bit further away, and located near a BrewDog of all things! Had I had another night I definitely would have checked that out as well.

Of course I made it to Starbucks as well, and of course my name was butchered as usual:

This Uber driver really has his hustle going on:

Fun and unique sculpture/art in the lobby of the hotel where my event was being held:

Just like that three days flew by, and it was time to head to the airport to fly home. Unfortunately, there was a major accident and it took over 2.5 hours to get to the airport…enough I actually worried I would miss my flight. I did arrive 90 minutes before departure, and thanks to short lines for security and immigration even made it to the lounge for 15 minutes before heading to the gate.

United flight 860
Sao Paulo, Brazil (GRU) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 21:20, Arrive: 06:10, flight time: 9:50
Boeing 767-300, Registration N663UA, Manufactured 1993, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 44,339
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,736,927

I think I have the absolute worst luck with United’s 767s this year. This is maybe ten flights in a row where I’ve gotten the old configuration instead of getting a new Polaris aircraft. It wouldn’t be so remarkable except over half the fleet is reconfigured now, so you’d think I’d have better luck. Oh well, at least it’s not bad if I get the solo “D” seat in the middle:

The usual PDB – sparkling plonk and water:

What’s for dinner tonight:

The usual warm nuts and a glass of wine to start:

Dinner was decent, but unremarkable. The best part of the flight was that I slept nearly seven straight hours, only waking up slightly before landing. I don’t know what it is, but every time I fly north from South America I end up sleeping like a baby. Must be some combo of time zones and being exhausted from a good vacation or work.

…and with that, four back to back trips were over and I was looking forward to almost four weeks at home before heading out on vacation. I’m going to make sure to enjoy the next three weeks remaining, because after that it’s a crazy-looking schedule:

Late June/Early June: two weeks round-the-world with short stops in London, Paris, Tunis, six nights in Australia, and two each in Bangkok and Singapore. Looking forward to a few things from this trip such as Emirates and Qantas first class, first time on the Acela train, first time business premier on the Eurostar, TunisAir A330 business class, Thai first class, and two long flights with EVA Airways and Hello Kitty service!

Then I have three weeks in Switzerland for work in July/August, followed by back to back work trips to South Africa and India. Hoping to tack a few days onto the South Africa trip to visit some favourite old haunts as well, and maybe even get up to Zim for a few days.

…but for now. Rest…and I’ll try and write some more random travel musings before heading out in a few weeks as well!

Mar 192019
 


Despite this trip being nearly three weeks long, it was over in a heartbeat. I guess that’s what happens when a trip is split up into several distinct “chunks” involving work and fun, before you know it…it’s over.

After sleeping in and enjoying one more leisurely morning in Moscow, it was time to head to the airport to start the long trek home. Since I had plenty of time I opted to take the metro across town and connect to the Aeroexpress train to Domodedovo. Looks like it was my lucky day, as I had the entire train to myself!

Through immigration no problem (I admit only slight concern due to our “weird” border crossing up by Kirkenes and Murmansk) and off to the lounge. I had lots of time, so I decided to head to the Lufthansa lounge. Got a big “nyet” from the provodnitsa, despite my protestations that it was Star Alliance policy that Star Alliance Gold members on a business class ticket get access to all business lounges, she said Swiss lounge only! I knew better than to argue with a surly provodnitsa!

Off to the Swiss lounge, where it was a very sad array of snacks, beer…and soft drinks. That was it. I had a bit of cash left, and with no exchange posts or plans to return to Russia soon I decided to head to a cafe and see what I could find. Mini bottle of wine and…a champagne flute…and a piece of apple pie. When the lounge isn’t to your standards, make your own lounge!

Soon, it was time to board our non-full flight which was delayed 45 minutes, and head westward!

SWISS flight 1337
Moscow, Domodedovo (DME) to Geneva, Switzerland (GVA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive: 17:55, flight time: 3:55
Airbus A220-100, Registration HB-JBB, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 14,373
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,706,961

Once again, seating is 2 on the left and 3 on the right on this aircraft, which means on the left side in “business” you have an empty next to you, but on the right side only the middle between two people is blocked. Flight wasn’t full, but I enjoyed my seat 1A. Did some plane-spotting on the taxi. First time I’ve ever heard of “Iraero” – looks like they bought some of the old Transaero 777s.

Izhavia Yak-42….now I want to come back just to fly this! Apparently they are headquartered in Izhevsk which is home to the Kalashnikov museum. Seriously, sign me up!

Looks very cold and snowy below on departure from Moscow…

I didn’t expect much of a meal on such a small plane, and was trying to figure out what to do when I landed…except Swiss had a surprise for me. Some mixed nuts/crackers to start…a choice of appetizers…choice of mains…AND choice of desserts. Seriously, on a regional flight on a small plane that seats less than 100?!

Went with the fondue starter, because I figured there was no way that could be any good on a plane. Surprise, it was actually fantastic and delicious. Who would have expected that on a plane!

Then, because the flight attendant recommended it, I went with the veal main course, which was also absolutely delicious.

To finish it off, what was described as a “crumble” and was also amazing. Could have used a little ice cream, but who am I kidding. On such a small plane on such a short flight this meal was absolutely amazing…and as good as many airlines do on much, much longer flights. VERY nicely done, Swiss! Also, let’s not forget, the crew was absolutely amazing, and once they figured out I spoke enough French and German to practice, they mixed it up every time they came around to keep it fun. Seriously one of my best flights in ages – amazing!

Descent into Geneva was much sooner than expected, and despite departing over 45 minutes late we actually landed five minutes early! Holy winds, Batman. Plus, getting in on time allowed us to see the Alps as we landed. Absolutely gorgeous!

Easy arrival, quick train into the city, and checked into my hotel. Chose it for location right next to the train station, and the Hôtel Suisse, Genève met my expectations as conveniently located ,clean, and comfortable. For a three star hotel in a great location with super friendly staff, I highly recommend it if it fits your needs. Plus, look at the view out my window…I knew I’d like this place!

Since I’d already had dinner, and my body clock thought 7pm was the new 9pm, I just wanted a couple of delicious local beers and bed. Au Coin Mousse had been closed for summer holidays on my previous trip, so I was excited to see it open this time. Lots of amazing very local small batch craft beers – I was super happy!

After a super long sleep-in, of course on the way back to the train station I stopped at Starbucks for one last four cheese toastie. Mmmm….

Gasp….what happened to Swiss law and order. My train to the airport was defaced…but colourful!

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the Swiss lounge in Geneva, which is plenty nice, is that between the Newark and Dulles flights it was packed with loud, obnoxious Americans, most porting surly teenagers. It’s funny that it only takes a few weeks away to make something I normally see on a daily basis seem out of place.

United flight 975
Geneva, Switzerland (GVA) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 11:40, Arrive: 15:10, flight time: 9:30
Boeing 767-300, Registration N669UA, Manufactured 1999, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 18,464
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,711,052

So, not too much to say…another completely mediocre United business class flight. I keep hoping I’m going to get one of the 767s with new Polaris seats since more than 50% of them are finally done, but every time I seem to get one of the old ones like clockwork. I will say, however, the food was generally better than average. A few thoughts:

The starter was two rather sad slices of “smoked” salmon and some quinoa salad. Completely forgettable, and in line with the two prawn appetizer. Seriously United, is this the best you can do? The salad, however, was way better than average, so overall, I’ll call the appetizer a wash.

I ordered the shortrib, which I figured would at least be predictable since they’ve been serving it for going on six decades now. However, this flight, apparently the usual neon brown sauce that makes it sort of sweet and BBQ like was totally absent…and it was meh at best.

Cheese course from Europe….better than cheese from the US as always. It’s not because they don’t have good cheese in the US, I suspect United is just too cheap to pay for it. SAD! At least the ice cream was delicious as always!

Giving credit where credit is due, the pre-landing deli plate was tasty. Nice variety of meats, cheeses, and pickles. Overall, nice and light-ish and just what I wanted before landing.

United business class is certainly nothing to write home about, but the seats are adequate (as long as you’re not stuck in snuggle class in the 2-4-2 777 or the “two side” of 2-1-2 business class) and the meals are solid. Wouldn’t be my first choice, but the convenience of nonstop sure can’t be beat!

I thought I’d only be home for three weeks until my next trip, but due to some work drama llama it now looks like nearly nine weeks! What will I do with myself?!

Fortunately, options to Dubai and Berlin in the meantime are already presenting themselves…stay tuned!

Mar 102019
 


So, wait, you’ve never heard of Kirkenes? I mean, I’ve been to Norway before, so why am I going back?

Well, you see, Kirkenes is in the extreme northeast of Norway, just minutes from the Russian border. It’s well above the Arctic Circle, and the border crossing with Russia is also the northernmost staffed regular border crossing in the world. How could I skip that.

Just to put it in perspective, Kirkenes is circled below, and you can see Murmansk, Russia just to the east:

Fun sign in the gate area at Tegel Airport…yes, Berlin, you were wonderful and I really enjoyed my week. Actually sad to be leaving!

SAS flight 1674
Berlin, Tegel (TXL) to Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH)
Depart 13:30, Arrive:14:30, flight time: 1:00
Airbus A319, Registration OY-KBP, Manufactured 2006, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,637
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,702,225

So, in general, I do my best to avoid flying SAS. They have the same awful economy class seating as other airlines, but they don’t even block the middle seat! In fairness, they do call it “Plus” and not business, but if you redeem miles for it from United, it’s the same number of miles as business class. I was curious to see what the benefits were, other than sitting in the first row.

This flight was completely full with every seat taken, so thankfully the flight time would only be 40 minutes. Service consisted of a “snack” which was a wrap…either cheese or salmon were on offer. Only choice to go with it was water. Again, short flight so won’t complain too much, but there was absolutely nothing “premium” about this flight at all.

Arrived into Copenhagen and had 1:10 between flights due to an early arrival, so I set out on a mission to find the airport Starbucks. One, because I needed caffeine, but more importantly, I wanted to check the prices. I’m still putting together a listing of the price of a grande filter coffee around the world, and expected Copenhagen to be up there. At 31 kroner ($4.67) it was the third most expensive in the world that I’ve seen behind Geneva and Zurich, which comes in at $5.21 lately. Feel free to send me datapoints!

Walking away from Starbucks, it’s a good thing I didn’t have any longer….a Mikkeller Tap Room right in the airport? This could be seriously dangerous. I did stop for one 2dl beer, which turned into two because they poured the wrong one the first time, and at over $9 for a small pour it’s a good thing I didn’t have to pay for two!

SAS flight 1460
Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH) to Oslo, Norway (OSL)
Depart 15:25, Arrive:16:40, flight time: 1:15
Airbus A321, Registration OY-KBB, Manufactured 2001, Seat 8E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,959
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,702,547

In contrast to the flight from Berlin to Copenhagen, this flight was absolutely empty. Sure, the seven rows in front of me seemed to have all seats full except middles, but rows 9-21 behind me? Yes, 21 rows of “plus” class….and nobody at all in those 10 rows! Strange to see 10 completely empty rows! You’ll note I was also in 8E…a middle seat! Mainly to avoid people in front of me reclining into me…and site the seats on both sides of me were empty it worked just swell!

Beautiful views on takeoff:

Even better, I discovered on this flight that their beer was a nice Mikkeller IPA, which marked a very rare occasion for me of having a beer in flight. Pretty sure the last time I did was when I flew Brussels Airlines and their fantastic beer menu!

Short flight, only an hour, and was time to find the lounge and wait for Ian, who was meeting me there to continue the trip in Norway and Russia. Since Norway is in the Schengen Zone like most of Europe, no passport control at all, however, Norwegian domestic flights were in another terminal since there IS customs between Europe and Norway since Norway is NOT a member of the EU. For anyone who’s confused how this whole Schengen, EU, oh and don’t forget the countries that use the Euro, work, I love this diagram:

Right, so, through customs (so weird to clear customs but NOT passport control or security, and into the lounge. SAS lounges are weird in that they have a “business” lounge which you get into if you’re in “plus” or international business class, but then there’s a gold lounge in the back…which is even nicer…that you can get into as a frequent flier.

I hadn’t had a real meal al day, so decided on some Norwegian nibbles…..tuna, shredded cheese, olives, potatoes and pickles….odd, but did the trick and was tasty.

Ian showed up after a short bit, riding the struggle bus after flying Newark-Frankfurt-Stockholm-Oslo up until this point, so it was kind of nice to not be the one suffering jetlag for once! Off to our gate where boarding was just about to start for the two hour trek up to Kirkenes.

SAS flight 4478
Oslo, Norway (OSL) to Kirkenes, Norway (KKN)
Depart 17:55, Arrive:20:05, flight time: 2:10
Boeing 737-700, Registration LN-TUM, Manufactured 2002, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 10,812
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,703,400

I was determined to put “Plus” service to the test on this flight, so asked the flight attendant when she came around with my THIRD cheese wrap of the day, what else as on offer. Seems Plus means you can have ANYTHING from the buy-on-board menu, and don’t have to pay for it. So, I got some chips and another Mikkeller to go with the cheese wrap, and some high-quality iPad entertainment:

Unfortunately “anything” is a misnomer. When I asked for a second beer, I was told no. Apparently “by Norwegian law” they can only serve one complimentary alcoholic beverage on domestic flights. Seriously?! If I wanted to pay $8 for another I was welcome to it, but nope, only one complimentary. Way to go SAS, you are officially the cheapest non-budget airline in the world.

Disembarking in Kirkenes was at a remote stand. Doesn’t it just LOOK cold:

The Kirkenes Airport…looks more like an ice rink from the outside to me!

Bears at baggage claim! Oh no!

We went to find the bus into town, which was supposed to be like $10 a person, but when we boarded the driver told us it was free! Apparently, we’d arrived during some major festival – the biggest festival of the year in Kirkenes – and this year China was sponsoring the festival. That included paying for the bus during the festival. Whoah – finally – saved by China in all my travels!

After checking into my hotel, the Scandic Kirkenes, I was still pretty alert so went for a bit of a cold nighttime stroll. Getting artsy with snow-covered trees:

Outdoor ice rink! Turns out as part of the festival there was a big tournament of the “Bering League” the next day, but unfortunately we’d leave too early to see it. Bummer!

Sooooo much snow everywhere!

I found the library. You can tell you’re getting close to Russia when the signs are in Russian as well!

Oh look, a sign. Taking selfies to prove I was there!

World War II Memorial. Kirkenes was actually a major front in the war, where the Russians and Nazis faced off.

I found the local pub, which was absolutely packed due to the festival. So packed, that I ended up having to share my table with a local couple who spoke maybe 100 words of English (seriously, which Norwegians don’t speak English?! Ones that have lived their entire lives in Kirkenes, apparently) and a Russian truck driver who spoke no Norwegian OR English. I got to attempt to play translator from Russian to English…and then try English words until we found ones they knew. “Tax” and “expensive” and “price” were popular topics, and we had a great chat about driving across the border for cheap gas and booze. Great cultural moment!

Right outside the pub? Yup, a Chinese gate. Definitely the theme of the festival. Kirkenes was shaping up to be just as unusual as I’d hoped, and I looked forward to the next morning!

Back to the hotel, which was perfectly comfortable, and off for eight solid hours of sleep. Next up, day in Kirkenes and bus to Murmansk, Russia!

Jan 252019
 


Landed in Berlin right on time, and despite over a dozen trips my first time arriving by air and getting to experience the joy that is Tegel airport. For an arrival it wasn’t bad – we got a bus gate, the signs to the area to take the bus to Berlin Hbf station was pretty easy, and overall it wasn’t awful. I was later to find out I was deceived.

I’d decided to forego my princess side, and see if I’d enjoy staying at the Moxy Hotel Ostbanhof. Now, I fully knew that I was getting a very basic hotel, and the room would be tiny. Honestly, the room itself was completely fine, even though the neighbourhood was pretty dead. The service, however, was absolutely abysmal. It took over 20 minutes to check in because they were slow as heck, and the complete lack of desk in the room was not something I could deal with for more than one night. I’d booked the one night as an experiment, and sorry to say…I gave up and went to the Marriott after that. I had work to do, and as fun as working in a common lobby area is for people watching…it’s really not conducive to getting work and writing done.

So right…first time at the Marriott since it was my first post-merger trip, and in the past I’d usually chosen the Westin. I have to say, the Marriott was leaps and bounds above the Westin for me – and will definitely be my hotel of choice going forward in Berlin. Great executive lounge with a super long evening happy hour (albeit a bit crowded at times), and cool artwork as well:

Two of the days I was in Berlin I had a few hours free, so went on two long walks, probably about 12-15km each. Some cool graffiti:

Don’t tell anyone, but my guilty pleasure in Germany is the Starbucks Bretzelsnack and a Caramel Macchiato…

Hey Dotard….I found the wall…it’s already been built AND torn down. Plz to open the US Government back up now kplzthxbye!

Continue reading »

Dec 102018
 


Fortunately, I had no trouble getting slightly over three hours of solid sleep, although knowing myself (thanks to FitBit) chances are unlikely that I got any decent REM sleep in such a short time…but still way better than nothing or trying to snooze in a lounge!

Skipped checkout at the hotel, having previously told them I had no charges (award night) so please check me out at 9am, I went straight to the terminal where Egyptian bureaucracy was at its finest, and it took two or three counters to figure out who would give me the correct departures queue so that I could go through immigration.

Despite trying to cut it close and maximize sleep, I still had nearly 20 minutes to visit the lounge for some espresso, and then it was off to the gate, where I still made it a solid 10 minutes before boarding. This seems to happen to me every time in Cairo – I should learn my lesson that I never need as much time as I think I will. Of course, the time I do that will be the one where I do actually need the time…

Lufthansa flight 587
Cairo, Egypt (CAI) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 07:30, Arrive:10:35, flight time: 4:05
Airbus A321, Registration D-AIDE, Manufactured 2011, Seat 8D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 139,037
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,659,099

Surprisingly, this flight was completely sold out, and every seat was taken. In “EuroBusiness” this just means a regular coach seat with the middle blocked, which is a pretty crummy way to treat someone on a four hour flight, but nothing you can do about it if you want to fly Lufthansa, and a small price to pay for flying first class across the water.

We even got a…reasonable…breakfast:

Landing in Munich was right on time, but we were at the very last gate, and it was quite a walk to immigration and security, but still made it to the gate about 10 minutes before boarding. What are the chances – everything was working out perfectly this trip!

Lufthansa flight 105
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 12:00, Arrive:13:00, flight time: 1:00
Airbus A321, Registration D-AISK, Manufactured 2008, Seat 8F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 139,223
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,659,285

I’ve said it before, but I’m always impressed that on a 35 minute flight Lufthansa can still turn out a snack that’s better than what most US carriers offer on three hour flights. Seriously, how hard can it be? I can’t imagine it costs much/any more!

Got to my hotel in Frankfurt around 2pm, and was straight to bed for a two hour nap. I was wrecked from only getting three hours the night before, and knew that even if I took a long nap I’d sleep well that night. Plus, very little change of time zone meant I wouldn’t have that to deal with so nap it was! Felt quite a bit better after two hours, and grabbed some coffee and then wandered around the city just stretching the legs for a few hours.

Ended up at my favourite watering hole, NaÏv, which I’ve posted on here before. The selection didn’t didn’t disappoint, and had an imperial oatmeal stout from Sudden Death Brewing called Mr. Cinnamon Roll. Delicious! Plus the old school goalie mask as part of the logo made it extra cool!

After a great night of sleep, decided to buy a train ticket and head down to Speyer where there was a museum I’ve wanted to see for a quite a while. Bought the ticket, off on the train, and only then did I do my research. Bit of a bonus this trip, because turned out that the Speyer Cathedral was a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well. I promised myself I’ll never start on another travel list, but it’s fun to still check them off when I come upon them…

Statues outside the cathedral:

More statues:

Trying to get artsy inside the cathedral…I really like how this shot turned out.

Finally after a bit of a long walk made it to the Technik Museum Speyer – which had an amazing collection of planes, trains, and automobiles. I’ll confess I skipped everything but the aviation displays, but that alone took me almost three hours – nearly unheard of for me in a museum!

First plane was a McDonnell F-101 Voodoo:

Mi-8 Helicopter which you could actually go inside:

The inside has definitely seen better days:

Selfie inside this ancient helicopter:

Next up was an Antonov An-22, the largest propeller powered aircraft ever made. Huge cargo plane. Inside:

That’s a whole lot of cargo space:

Look into the flight deck, through an unfortunately scratched up portal:

Looking out through the observation dome on the top…Lufthansa 747 in the background!

Antonov An-22 from the outside…simply huge. Amazing how something so big can get off the ground with just propeller power!

Vickers Viscount 814. Getting up to this level involved climbing several stories of metal steps, while being able to see down the entire time. Even once I got up here, you could see down through the metal grated walkway. Not great for someone terrified of heights, but my desire to see the planes won out!

Quick, terrified selfie outside the plane:

Inside…this poor passenger looks almost as terrified as I was!

Artsy shot just along the fuselage:

Across the grating, and up another couple of terrifying stories, and it was into the Lufthansa 747. The plane was pitched at maybe 10 degrees as you can see in this photo, and walking inside was absolutely terrifying to me. The back of the plane had a cutaway, so you could see all the innards you don’t normally see when seated:

There’s no question which way I’m going! As someone who had the privlege to fly the Lufthansa 747-400 in both business and first, this was really cool to see!

Most terrifying part of the entire museum….economy class!

FInally, into a hangar at the back of the museum, where a Soviet Buran Space Shuttle was stored:

The Buran from another angle:

Wing and tail shot….

Buran thrusters…I was fascinated by this thing!

Climbed up just a couple stories this time, to get a glance inside the cargo bay of the Buran:

Looking down on the wing:

I had no idea that there was a series of prototypes for Buran, all of which were launched into space. The Bor-5 was the prototype vehicle, and one was displayed in the museum. Super cool!

Final shot of the 747 and the Viscount as I headed to get a snack before leaving:

Quick snack at the museum of red bull and some delicious plum cake before leaving the museum. I’ve never seen plum cake anywhere but Germany…and in mom’s kitchen growing up. Given mom’s entire family came from Germany, I have to believe that’s what influenced it. Plum cake was one of those foods of my youth that when I (rarely) find it now, I can’t resist!

One more 747 shot…because they’re just so sexy…

Walking back through Speyer to the train station…

Wild AND cheese? This is my type of town!

Fun shot of a smaller German street:

Train snack of salami baguette and some traditional Frankfurter Apfelwein:

Fun graffiti in Frankfurt. I am how I am!

Train snack…how can you not love a train company that gives you free gummi bears?!

Wonderful day exploring the Speyer museum, and next time I get a full day near Frankfurt I want to travel to Sinsheim and view the other Technik museum there – which has a Concorde and a Soviet Concordeski!

Next up, the flight back to Washington…and finishing this blog just in time before heading back on my next trip.

Dec 092018
 


So despite it being a very, very short 40 hour stop, I really enjoyed my time in Johannesburg catching up with friends, and was ready to begin the trek up to Cairo. I kinda joked that I would book this routing (which I got with United miles) but at the end of the day I decided why not! It could be an adventure…right?

10:30 flight was just late enough that I could sleep to a reasonable hour, have coffee at Starbucks, and head to the airport with just enough time to spare before my flight. Everything with the train went super smoothly, so I actually got to chill in the lounge for 30 minutes even before heading to the gate. I was surprised to see the bartender that I’ve gotten to know well there so early in the day, and it was more than mildly embarrassing when he brought me a glass of wine at 9:30am and I had to politely decline.

Not sure what it is, but regional flights to Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi always seem to go from A1-A3 in Johannesburg, which are super ancient gates in the old part of the airport. They have almost zero seating, definitely zero air conditioning, and you can’t help but feel like it’s regional flights getting second-class treatment. Regardless, off we go on an adventure!

South African Airways flight 22
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE)
Depart 10:30, Arrive:12:05, flight time: 1:35
Airbus A320, Registration ZS-SZA, Manufactured 2013, Seat 4F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 133,953
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,654,015

Business today was five rows of 2×2 seating, and only four of the 20 seats were occupied. First due to “air traffic control” and then due to “baggage loading issues” we left the gate almost an hour late, reducing my 3.5 hour connection in Zimbabwe to 2.5 hours. 3.5 hours was already cutting it super close to leave the airport and meet friends for coffee or lunch, but with 2.5 hours there was no way it was going to work. Grrr, the one time you really need things to be on time…

That said, regional catering on South African has gotten super miserable. Not sure what this was supposed to be, but some overly ripe fruit and fried pastries was just nasty. I sent it back, and opted for another glass of wine…

Welcome to Harare, Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport!

Despite immigration being super quick and getting my visa quickly, by the time I got through I only had 2:15 until my next flight. I debated chancing a quick taxi to get lunch, but best case I could have sat somewhere for 30 minutes. It just wasn’t worth risking, especially given I had a connection in Cairo, and missing my flight could cause lots of drama.

Nevertheless, I got to see the wildlife of Harare Airport:

Air Zimbabwe transfer desk. Like their flights, it was suspiciously absent of any signs of life…

Went back through immigration (who didn’t like my boarding pass printed in South Africa, and tried to suggest that I owed a “fine” – silly guards, this ain’t my first rodeo) and eventually found the South African Airways lounge. Now, normally I love my lounge cheese and crackers, but I wasn’t touching the cheese in this lounge with a ten foot pole:

The sandwiches and…sausages? on offer didn’t look any safer:

Also, a quick glance through the lounge windows to the runway didn’t give any more hope….

Fortunately, when I took the short walk to the gate my Ethiopian Airlines plane was right on time, and boarding happened right on time as well!

Ethiopian Airlines flight 654
Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE) to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ADD)
Depart: 15:35, Arrive: 20:35, flight time: 4:00
Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, Registration ET-AOV, Manufactured 2014, Seat 3L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 135,876
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,655,938

For such a new Dreamliner, the seats being a disappointing 2x2x2 configuration was really sad…but hey, United does the same thing, so can’t complain too much. Plus, over half the seats were empty, so there was a ton of space, and on a four hour daytime flight this was actually quite a nice seat:

Reasonably roomy cabin:

Pre-flight proper champagne was offered….

Quite a small pour, and warm, but hey…TIA…

Five minutes later, seeing my empty glass, the crew came by again. “I see you like the champagne. Can I maybe get you much more?” I was definitely liking this crew!

Right when the door was due to close, a commotion broke out by the door. Seems someone didn’t have the right visa for their destination, but despite that he was trying to FORCE his way past the gate and flight crew and onto the plane. Lots of yelling in Arabic, occasional english, and eventually Zimbabwean security hauled him off the plane. Nothing like a little excitement before departure. Only part that concerned me was him screaming “my bags, my bags” as they dragged him away and closed the door and we were underway…

Dark clouds on departure indicated a very, very bumpy climb out of Zimbabwe:

Love the scenery of the dark clouds and the sexy Dreamliner wing.

Once we got about 20,000 feet high things smoothed out a lot, and off we were to Ethiopia!

Unusually, a choice of snacks was offered before the meal, of kolo (a roasted ethiopian grain/nut mix) or crackers. I went with the crackers hoping they would be the airplane-shaped crackers ethiopian sometimes serves, but these were ok as well, and a nice change.

I went with the “beef” starter which was a very few tiny slices of marinated beef. Odd, but mildly tasty.

I have to say, I never expected the first time I was served General Tsao’s Chicken on a plane would be on Ethiopian Airlines. Very bland, no spice, but interesting…

Now that is a seriously huge cheese plate…and a small opera cake to finish it off.

Overall, nothing at all special about this flight, but it was solid, comfortable, and the food was filling. All things considered, I was very happy with the flight, and glad to be 2/3 of the way to my destination for the day. While it was nice to break up the longhaul to Cairo into several segments, I was starting to get pretty tired!

Got to Addis, and of course we got a bus gate, but fortunately the wait wasn’t too long, and the walk to the gates wasn’t terrible either given the delay out of Harare. Unfortunately, the queue at security was atrocious, and I didn’t realize that Ethiopian now has a special boarding area for business class only! This must be new in the last year, and would have saved me a lot of time and stress.

That said, despite the long security queue, it moved super quickly with lots of “helpers” helping clueless passengers to properly load their items onto the x-ray belt, so overall, it wasn’t terrible. ANOTHER bus to the gate where I was told about the special business class line/bus for next time, but hey, at least we were off.

Ethiopian Airlines flight 604
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ADD) to Cairo, Egypt (CAI)
Depart: 22:05, Arrive: 01:20 next day, flight time: 4:15
Boeing 737 MAX-8, Registration ET-AVJ, Manufactured 2018, Seat 2L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 137,407
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,657,469

I admit before this flight, I was a little nervous about flying not just on a 737-MAX aircraft, but one that Ethiopian Airlines had received just THREE DAYS ago and had only had 8 passenger flights before. Nervous? Why? I fly a lot, right? Well, the 737 MAX crash of Lion Air in Indonesia last month may have to do a little with that, especially when you consider that yes pilot error was probably involved…but only in that they were reacting to a flaw with the aircraft. Eek, I just hoped Ethiopian would have the skill to deal with any such issues.

(Follow-up: on March 10, 2019 this aircraft was actually involved in a fatal accident – chilling to go back and read what I wrote when I flew it just three months ago) 🙁

Business class was a few rows of 2×2 seating, but again less than half full. Well, after we had to get rid of the couple who sat down in my seats and wanted to know why. They got to them first, so why couldn’t they sit in them! No amount of explaining to them that not all seats are the same, and aren’t first come first serve would assuage them, but finally when they were told they could either take their assigned seats (in the very last row) or get off the plane did they move. Heh!

Not bad seats for a regional flight:

Another glass of warm pre-departure champagne:

Menu was almost identical to the previous flight (which is odd, since usually flights into a hub are different than out of a hub, but whatever) so I went with the options I hadn’t tried.

The watermelon and feta salad was….ok?

The beef was massively overcooked and like leather, but when I added the tabasco sauce I finally figured out why they give you so many condiments…and the ketchup made the potatoes quite good as well! At least I finally understand why Ethiopian gives you that weird large condiment tray on every flight.

Same cheese and crackers, just a smaller portion:

We arrived in Cairo about 10 minutes early, which was good, because I only had six hours until my flight to Munich. Too long to spend in a lounge or waiting area, but barely enough time to justify I hotel. I had decided to risk it, and my goal was three hours of sleep. Fortunately, there was zero wait at immigration and I was through in maybe 10 minutes.

I had asked the hotel to have my key waiting for me a few days ago when I was there, and shockingly (given the usual Egyptian inefficiency) it was ready and I was plane to room in under 20 minutes. Even after a shower, I was in bed in under 45 minutes after landing…which gave me 5:15 until my flight left in the morning.

I went with three hours on the alarm, figuring if anything went wrong 2:15 wouldn’t be enough time, and off to dreamland I was….

Dec 062018
 


Slept a little better this morning, but due to being exhausted the night before I still got up pretty early (although with a solid seven hours of sleep this time) and still had a solid two hours before I had to head back to the airport. The nearest Starbucks I’d been able to find that was open by 7am was about 2km away, and although it was already 27C at this hour, it was a dry heat so I decided to start walking. After all, there would be coffee at the end of the rainbow!

On the way, I passed the suspiciously-named “Top Touch Men” salon. Awkward!

It was fortunately slightly overcast as I walked past the office towers of Abu Dhabi…it’s unheard of for me to walk 2km in these temps and barely break a sweat. I love low humidity!

Starbucks was surprisingly hopping at 7am, and I got a tasty grilled halloumi sandwich and my usual iced coffee. Apparently, however, I picked up Mohammad’s iced coffee (PBUH) instead…. I’m guessing when they can’t spell your name they just pick the most common name they can think of?

Back to the hotel, quick shower, felt good about myself for getting a nearly 5k walk in, and grabbed a Careem to the airport. It was only about 60% of the price from the night before, and it appears that’s because there’s a rather large airport departure surcharge.

Went straight through immigration and security which had absolutely zero line, so I had about 20 minutes in the lounge before heading to my gate to board the flight:

Golden rule of travel: no matter where you are, if it’s real champagne and it’s offered to you with no charge, you don’t say no:

The Abu Dhabi airport was guilty of major cultural appropriation with this Christmas display near my gate. I do love the architecture of this satellite terminal with the gaudy gold and green centrepiece:

Over to the gate area, which was very lightly filled, and they were just about to start boarding. Perfect timing!

Etihad flight 604
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 10:00, Arrive:16:40, flight time: 8:40
Airbus A330-200, Registration A6-EYR, Manufactured 2009, Seat 9K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 133,360
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,653,422

After boarding and finding my seat I know it wouldn’t be as nice as on the Dreamliner, but overall it seemed to be pretty close. Take close note on the bottom of the seat…and the indentations…

Seats in the middle section…they were still pretty spacious, although I wasn’t a big fan of how close and exposed they were to the aisle. I could just see people banging into you when sleeping.

Despite being a daytime flight, there was a nice duvet, amenity kit, and menu….overall I was still super impressed with Etihad!

Then, I sat down and had my pre-departure champagne. I would say the seat was like sitting on a brick, but it was much worse. There were clearly a couple of large metal bars in the cushion, and no matter how much I tried, it was still like sitting on a pile of rocks. Uneven, firm, and uncomfortable. I tried another seat, but same problem. In 2,000,000+ miles, these were literally the most uncomfortable seats I’ve ever sat in…even sitting on a pillow, you could still feel it. I don’t know what it was, but they were just awful.

The crew? Well, English wasn’t their strongest suit, and customer service definitely wasn’t. There was no real show of concern or care, and no solutions at all offered. I pretty much had no choice, so put down two pillows AND a blanket, and it was close to tolerable.

That said, at least there was champagne!

Menu was extremely similar to the day before (which was weird, because usually they plan for connections better than that) but that’s ok, there were still plenty of options I wanted to try! I saw the steak sandwich on the menu, and asked them to reserve one for a pre-arrival snack (since in my experience Etihad tends to run out of them) and ordered the smoked duck starter…which was very tasty.

Skipped the beef tenderloin as a main, and went with the Chicken Madbi, given my previous track record of amazing Chicken Biryani on Etihad. It did not disappoint, and was super flavourful and well-spiced. The meal was actually so tasty I almost forgot about how uncomfortable and numb my rear end was becoming…

Cheese plate was just so-so with only two kinds of cheese, but at least there was some chutney!

I flipped channels on the inflight entertainment, and noticed we were right over Somalia. I wasn’t aware that international airlines were ok with using somali airspace now! Usually they stay well off the coast, but apparently they’ve now decided it’s safe again.

Love the engine and wingtip shot over the Somali dessert:

I couldn’t resist finishing it off again with some ice cream and Amarula since it had been so delicious the day before:

Cruising along the Somali coast…

I tried a short nap, and the seat was actually much more comfortable fully reclined, so I spent about four hours laying down and watching my iPad by holding it above my head. Not the most convenient, but at least I wasn’t going numb any longer.

About 90 minutes before landing, I asked for my steak sandwich and a glass of wine, and it was a delicious pre-landing snack.

Ordered the almond and pistachio pudding with butterscotch sauce for a sweet, and with a glass of desert wine it was the perfect ending to a great flight. The crew did what they could to make up for the seat, and I have to say every other aspect of the flight was absolutely wonderful. That said, I promise I will never again fly an A330 with Etihad!

Landed a few minutes early in Johannesburg, absolutely no wait at all at immigration (maybe due to the fact we got a bus gate – I’m not sure) and was soon on the Gautrain to my usual hotel. They were fantastic, and sold out, and gave me a nice upgrade, so overall it was definitely a good day. Went for a short walk, and Christmas was in full swing in Johannesburg!

Also, Heineken, we can agree…assuming you’re not in North Korea…otherwise, we need to talk about how you’re counting countries!

Was fading pretty quickly, but decided to go out for some snacks and beers with a friend, and found this beer with the most amazing name ever:

That said, it was off to bed, and time to get some sleep so I could enjoy my first FULL day of vacation without any planes or flights!

Dec 042018
 


Unfortunately, thanks to jetlag, I was awake bright and early before 6am, so had no excuse to avoid a bit of time in the hotel gym. I walked around the airport a bit trying to explore the landside areas, but apparently security wasn’t too thrilled with that, so gave up and headed back to the hotel for a little while until…yes, you guessed it, Starbucks opened. I had hoped to sleep in and catch up a bit, but jetlag wasn’t having it, so this was the best relaxing I could do. Hundreds of transatlantic flights, and there’s still no foolproof way to slay jetlag.

Grabbed an Uber to toe mall, where Starbucks was just about to open. Unfortunately, the ice rink inside the mall still wasn’t open. One of these days I’m going to pass through Cairo at an hour when I can go ice skating in the mall!

After a short stroll in the mall, Starbucks was open, and it was time for some coffee! In US$ terms, the second cheapest Starbucks in the world after Johannesburg, South Africa.

Back to the hotel just in time to pack up, and I had completely forgotten that Terminal Two at Cairo had opened a while back (I even went through here on my last trip!) so it took a bit of planning to have to take the hotel over to Terminal Two since it is connected to Terminal Three. I swear Cairo might be one of the worst designed largish airports on the planet.

That said, the checkin area at Terminal Two was quite nice, the Etihad agents were rather lovely, and after passing through immigration and security the lounge was surprisingly nice as well. It was way nicer than the horrible EgyptAir lounges in Terminal Three, but still a very limited selection of very weird food.

7up Free, weird hazelnut banana pizza, and the “EgyptAir” pizza, anyone?

That said, the terminal itself was really quite nice – bright and airy, and there was even a Starbucks airside…with prices exactly 50% higher than outside the airport. Boo hiss!

Boarding was right on time, and soon it was time to check out what Emirates business class was all about. I’d only flown them in first prior to this, and heard their first (like Qatar) is a bit of a waste except on the A380, because it’s not all that much nicer than business. We’ll see about that!

Etihad flight 654
Cairo, Egypt (CAI) to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH)
Depart 13:35, Arrive:18:50, flight time: 3:15
Boeing 787-9, Registration A6-BLS, Manufactured 2017, Seat 10K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 129,461
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,649,523

First impression of the seat: super nice, super roomy, and super private. I like it! This is just as nice as the first class seats on the 787s as well!

Another perspective…lots of room!

The crew was absolutely fantastic…friendly and helpful, without being awkward and obtrusive…this was going to be a great flight. A view over the wing and super smoggy Cairo right after takeoff:

A glass of Piper-Heidsieck and some mixed nuts? Don’t mind if I do!

With the windows dimmed, a great shot of the setting sun over the wing:

Arabic mezze starter. Only complained was there needed to be more pita bread to go with it. Other than that, loved the presentation!

Braised lamb shank for a main, cooked medium, and absolutely delicious. I had to admit, this was actually topping most of my flights with Etihad in first! Overall an extremely solid performance!

Delicious vanilla ice cream with some Amarula for dessert. Perfect!

Sunset catching the blinker on the engine:

Landed right on time, and I have to give Etihad a perfect 10 on this flight. There was absolutely nothing that could have been done better on such a short flight. Perfect crew, excellent short/medium haul meal, great seat, all in all a wonderful experience that wouldn’t make me hesitate to fly them on the 787 again. Honestly, compared to my first flights, this was just as good (except the suites on the A380 of course) and maybe better in some regards.

Got to Abu Dhabi, the home of no Uber, and was through immigration pretty quickly, and had no trouble finding my Careem driver instead to whisk me off to the Marriott Downtown Abu Dhabi. Since the merger with Starwood I was keen to find somewhere new to stay in Abu Dhabi, and wanted to give this place a try. On the downside, they claimed to be “completely sold out” so could offer no upgrade at all, but that said the standard room was perfectly nice:

They even had a lovely selection of pastries waiting in my room:

I was absolutely wiped out from the lack of sleep the previous two nights, so went up to the executive lounge where they were still serving cocktail hour (yay free wine) which I enjoyed a bit of before heading back to the room and passing out early. It would be a pretty wakeup call so that I could (you guessed it) get Starbucks before heading back to the airport to continue my journey!

Dec 022018
 


So, I had a one-way ticket to Cairo I had to use up by the end of the year, and I figured what better time than over thanksgiving, since by taking three days off you get a nice nine day vacation.

Now, the challenge comes because the ticket was upgradable – and with the chance to fly Lufthansa First Class that’s not an opportunity to take lightly! I had no idea where I wanted to go, and I figured I could decide that later, so in July I bought a new ticket that went Cairo-DC-Frankfurt figuring I could then use the DC-Frankfurt for New Years.

Two weeks before the trip (when Lufthansa generally releases upgrade space) I was very dismayed to find out that most flights to Germany from the US were already either completely sold out in first class, or getting very close. The only one that looked mildly good was Miami to Munich, which still had seven seats. Only downside: they were holding them back in hopes of selling them. No worries, they can’t possibly sell seven first class seats, right? So I changed my ticket, bought a one way to the Miami area, and the trip was set.

Over the next 12 days, it went from seven seats left…to five…to four…to three…to two seats left four days before the flight. I kept looking at other options, and nothing was good, so it was time to pray. Morning of my flight, it was down to ONE seat, and they weren’t releasing it until the gate. Panic!

The next ten or so posts will be on this trip, and I’m going to try and knock out one a day before…leaving on my next trip!

Up way too early, off to Dulles airport, and time to board my nonstop flight to Fort Lauderdale.

United Airlines flight 1785
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Fort Lauderdale, Florida (FLL)
Depart 08:35, Arrive:11:15, flight time: 2:40 of pure hell
Boeing 737-900, Registration N53442, Manufactured 2009, Seat 5E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 121,284
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,641,346

Literally 50+ people boarded between a large number of senior citizens and tons of families with small children, so by the type it came to Group 1, probably 30-40% of the plane was already on board. A look of terror crossed my face when I saw that the person who had been upgraded into the seat next to me at the gate (per the monitors at the gate) was a parent with a small urchin who was already busy flinging cheerios at people as they boarded.

I won’t rant too much, because I find a lot of children better behaved than over-entitled “elites” but this was not one of them. Not only was a little hellspawn of Satan, the mother refused to do ANYTHING about it, and intentionally avoided eye contact with me the entire flight. By the time we’d taken off it had already grabbed my arm repeatedly, thrown cheerios at me, and screamed loudly and repeatedly. This was going to be a long flight.

I don’t usually drink on morning flights, but lets just say in order to de-stress me and make me not as disagreeable as the little hellion, I had one. Or four. I lost count, but it definitely calmed my nerves.

I got what was described as the “eggs” mostly out of curiosity, and because it sounded better than “rice krispees:”

Of course, the mother and urchin got the Rice Krispees half of which ended up all over the floor. While waiting for trays to be cleared, the little bundle of joy was throwing a fit, screaming, kicking….and eventually kicked over mom’s scalding hot cup of coffee – all over my leg. I pressed the call button to ask for some ice and a towel/napkin to wrap it in…and the mother finally says something to me…and what does she say? “This wouldn’t happen if they put a lid on the coffee like they should.” It’s a good thing I’m not prone to air rage….

Right, enough about that flight.

Onto Fort Lauderdale, where my friend Noah had offered to not only play Uber for me between airports, but also show me a bit of Miami along the way. Yes, in all the times I’ve flown through Miami I’ve never left the airport so I had no idea what I was missing!

After a stop by CVS for some burn cream we were off to a brunch that promised to be MUCH better than what Oscar served me on United. Through Little Haiti and into Wynwood, which was a super cool little artsy district. Spoiler: plans after brunch were to leave and go see the beach, but that’ll have to wait for next time, because Wynwood was just that cool.

Brunch was at Sette Osteria where they served up a delicious eggs benedict with bacon and mimosas. Very reasonably priced and tasty, although what was a “cool” day to Miami locals was a warm day to me, and the heat and humidity were almost too much. Nevertheless, it felt great to have some open-air dining in November!

After brunch, it was time to walk around Wynwood a bit, which is well-known for its murals on the side of buildings. This one was a little…odd.

Have bacon, are happy!

A few blocks away was Wynwood Walls where lots of the murals are collected in one place to walk through. Super cool!

Look who followed me from DC! The best mural ever. It was tremendous. Everyone was talking about it – believe me!

After a bit of strolling we were thirsty, and happened upon J. Wakefield brewing. Ok, not happened upon, but I saw it on the map and since I’d first tried their beers a few weeks ago in Sweden I wanted to go check it out. Unfortunately, they apparently don’t allow droids in their cantina:

Loved the mural outside:

After a few fantastic beers, I chatted with the bartender a bit…who it turns out was the one who packed up the order to send to Sweden for the event I had gone to. Talk about a small world! Anyways, the beers were great, and we lost track of time a bit, and unfortunately there wouldn’t be time to check out the beach.

No matter, on the walk back to the car, we found ice cream instead at a “Craft Ice Cream” place called Dasher & Crank!

I went with the Stone Xocoveza and Cinnamon Raisin Bread, both of which were absolutely amazing. Thanks to Noah for dragging me in there – it was a nice break from the heat and delicious ice cream!

On the way back to the car, we also passed what appeared to be a shooting gallery with a crazy panda ad:

After getting to the airport, Noah dropped me off, and after thanking him I went to the counter to beg for my upgrade. Good news, there’s still one seat left. Better news, I’m #1 on the list. Bad news: they had to wait until 45 minutes before the door closed, just in case someone wanted to buy that seat. Mildly disappointing, but I get it.

TSA PreCheck was closed, AND there was no CLEAR checkpoint. Ugh. Miami Airport. Ugh.

Today we were using the Avianca Lounge, where they attempted to get me sick with shrimps and goat cheese – the two things that I generally don’t eat. No worries, I only stopped in for 15 minutes to get a couple bottles of water before heading to the gate…where 5 minutes before boarding they cleared me into the absolute last seat in first class. WOO WOO!

Lufthansa flight 461
Miami, Florida (MIA) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 18:59, Arrive: 10:20 next day, flight time: 9:21
Airbus A380-800, Registration D-AIMC, Manufactured 2010, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,291
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,646,353

Ahhhhh, so much better once I got to my seat. It was like the weight of the world and that screaming urchin on the first flight just melted away into absolute bliss. Glass of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, some macadamia nuts, and a rose. Civilized flying.

Amuse-bouche of a courgette, red pepper, olive, and goat cheese. Glad I didn’t have any in the lounge – there’s only so much goat cheese my system will tolerate.

Nothing kicks off the perfect in-flight meal like a proper serving of caviar.

One small problem: the menus had been mis-printed, resulting in the dinner menu only being in German, and the breakfast menu only being in Spanish. Oops! The three starters today were “fruits of the sea with wasabi peas” which was super tasty, “asparagus, paprika, and feta with truffle sherry vinaigrette” also really tasty, and finally roast beef with chimichurri. Three for three – that doesn’t happen very often. Usually at least one of the three appetizers is so weird I’m not interested.

Main course of a fillet with tomato chili sauce was cooked a perfect medium – not bad for in-flight steak!

Of course, no meal on Lufthansa is complete without their best-in-the-sky cheese cart carved seat-side:

Now that is exactly how a cheese plate should be done!

President Underwood approves of the pumpkin cheesecake for desert with a glass of Johnny Walker Blue. She’s such a basic white girl sometimes!

Ever thought the aircraft lavatory was too small? Not on A380 Lufthansa First – complete with changing area and urinal!

Not much else to say. Fell asleep right after eating, and slept nearly six hours the rest of the way to Munich. Another lovely and perfect Lufthansa First flight in the books – one of the few flying experiences that never gets old to me, and is consistently my favourite experience in the skies. Super excited to have another lined up in just a few short weeks!

We landed 15 minutes early, which gave me just enough time to duck into the First Class Lounge for a shower. What makes the lounge in Munich so awesome is that they have immigration agents stationed IN the lounge, so you can clear passport control while you’re showering. Hand them your passport as you enter, grab a shower, and grab your stamped passport and head to the Schengen exit from the lounge. Yet again, Lufthansa nails this experience!

Lufthansa flight 7234 operated by Austrian Airlines
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Vienna, Austria (VIE)
Depart 11:20, Arrive: 12:25, flight time: 1:05
Airbus A320-200, Registration OE-LBZ, Manufactured 2012, Seat 3C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,512
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,646,574

This was a new one for me – I’ve never seen a flight that was technically a Lufthansa flight, but operated by Austrian. If you clicked on the Austrian flight number,  you got “Operated for Lufthansa.” Strange arrangement.

I do love how even on a 40-50 minute flight Lufthansa and Austrian can serve you a small meal. Perfect since I’d slept through breakfast on the previous flight!

Debated going outside security in Vienna to grab some Starbucks, but didn’t want it that badly, so headed to the lounge where the surliest lounge agent ever growled at me and told me I had to clear immigration and use the lounge on the other side. Yikes, so much for Austrian friendliness!  A few Diet Cokes later I had enough caffeine to function, and it was time for my last flight of this leg:

EgyptAir flight 798
Vienna, Austria (VIE) to Cairo, Egypt (CAI)
Depart 14:30, Arrive: 18:50, flight time: 3:20
Boeing 737-800, Registration SU-GEB, Manufactured 2011, Seat 10A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 127,981
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,647,981

Now, EgyptAir often gets a bad rap. First thing people always complain about is the lack of alcohol. Then it’s their “old seats” and finally it’s the unfriendly crews (which I think is largely a language ability thing). Well, this flight was the opposite, and overall a great flight!

Individual entertainment at the seats…which were a 2×2 configuration with proper legroom (unlike European airlines which are 3×3 with the middle seat blocked and NO legroom):

Even stickers to play with and place on your seat! These are definitely going to end up on my laptop…

Wow, look at that meal for a three hour flight! Also, the steak was a perfect medium rare with a little gorgonzola sauce which was absolutely delicious…and the grilled veggies were also really tasty.

Apple strudel for dessert, with yet another Coke Zero:

Just an hour after finishing our meal, they came around with a snack service an hour before landing. Small tray of danish butter cookies:

…and a small box of EgyptAir branded chocolates!

Bus gate, but a separate bus just for business class. A perfectly wonderful experience, and I was almost sad to say goodbye!

No wait at all at immigration, and I was through in under 15 minutes and off to my hotel – the Le Meridien Cairo Airport which is a short five minute walk from the terminal. Less than 30 minutes after getting off the plane I was in my room and and ready to have a beer or two in the hotel restaurant before passing out. It had been a very long day!

Aug 222018
 


Yesterday, I wrote a post about Air Canada’s new signature class, in which I compared the new business class offerings of the major North American carriers. Conclusion was that Air Canada has done a good job with their “Signature” launch, but beyond the lounge it was really hard to see any significant change to the in-flight offering.

On the two Air Canada trips I reviewed, I actually took United in one direction and Air Canada in the other. Not intentionally, it just worked out better that way…so it was a nice change to see how United’s Polaris implementation was progressing, and if it would finally live up to the hype. I say finally because, well, well over two years after launching the new Polaris seats only 20% or so of United’s longhaul fleet actually has them, but at least that’s finally speeding up slightly.

The other major, major failing on United’s part has been the launch of the Polaris lounges. I was at the Chicago lounge when it launched something like two years ago, and up until six months ago…they still had yet to open the second lounge, although there are finally four lounges open now. Who’s to say when Washington and LA (two other large international hubs) will see them, however. As a Washington-based traveler this actually impacts my purchasing decisions: if United’s Polaris lounge was actually open I’d be booking United metal out of Dulles much more often, whereas now I’m open to just about anything reasonable and convenient on Swiss, Lufthansa, and Air Canada.

Right, on with the review.

For the Trip where I took Air Canada from DC to Zurich via Toronto, I returned from Geneva to Washington Dulles nonstop on United. I had been doing some business in Bern, and generally either Zurich or Geneva are equidistant, and the Geneva flight was the quickest flight home at the lowest fare, so I went with it.

Two days before, United changed the seatmap to the Polaris configured 767 (I believe about 50% of 767-300s are now Polaris configured, so you have a 50-50 chance) and I hoped it would hold through departure time. When I saw the plane leave the US for Geneva, I knew I’d finally get to try out this product more than two years after its launch. With the amount I travel, that tells you just how long this has been in the works.

What’s nice about the 767-300s with Polaris seats is they’re in a 1-1-1 configuration, so everyone has an aisle seat. The best seats, by far, are the odd numbered window seats since the seat is by the window, and the “counter” part near the aisle, giving you far more privacy from the aisle as you can see:

My seat, 1L, to me was by far the best seat on the plane for a daytime flight. Nice and private from the aisle, but close enough to the front to get the crew’s attention:

Why oh why United, when you pay some marketing firm millions of dollars to design Polaris do you insist on using these cheap plastic cups for pre-departure beverages? I’m glad at least that you got rid of the ridiculous plastic Polaris “flutes” with a chocolate you tried out when you first launched Polaris, however. It really makes me wonder who were in the focus groups when you came up with this. Nothing says “un-premium” like a plastic glass of $8 a bottle sparkling wine….come on. First impressions matter, and this gives a terrible one. If you’re going to invest in an overhaul of the product, do it right!

The menu, however, looked promising…complete with the ubiquitous United “short ribs” that have been on just about ever menu in business class since 1995:

That’s more like it. A glass of perfectly drinkable wine (though nothing special) and some extremely salty mixed nuts:

The salad on offer was much better than United’s normal offerings, and bonus points for the parmesan and boiled egg. The smoked cold chicken appetizer was a bit odd and totally flavourless, but the farro and mustard on the side were actually the highlight of the appetizer. But seriously, parmesan and egg on a salad with mango dressing? Just bizarre.

Since nothing else sounded good, I went with the short rib, which was….well, about as good as it looked. The plating was absolutely awful, and looked like something out of a prison cafeteria.

Highlight of the meal by far was quite a nice cheese plate (ARE YOU LISTENING AIR CANADA?) and a delicious “sundae” with caramel. I haven’t seen the butterscotch topping in a while (which is actually my favourite) but this was a perfectly nice ending to the meal. Started off rocky, but at least they ended on a nice high note.

One thing United has done VERY well is the pre-landing snack. Grilled chicken with couscous and a nice fresh salad are a huge upgrade from the sad sandwiches of days gone by. Giving credit where credit is due, this is a huge upgrade, United….except for the mango dressing which was back for an encore *eyeroll*

Overall, loved the new seats, and they might be my favourite transatlantic seats now. There’s really not a bad seat in the plane, and as long as you get the plane, well, I can skip all the other stuff…but fail to understand why with passengers paying $6,000+ per ticket United won’t spend the extra $20 per passenger to make it an experience passengers WANT to fly.

So, notice that I said “as long as you get the plane” – well, two days before my flight down to Brazil a week later I did a same day change to get on the Dulles to Sao Paolo nonstop since it was listed as the exact same 767 which had brought me in from Geneva the day before! Since all I wanted on this flight was sleep, I was excited to have the new seats again, and life was grand!

…until five hours before departure when United e-mailed me there had been an aircraft swap, and “we’ve done our best to preserve your seating preference.

So, instead of a solo seat in a 1-1-1 config I was now in a window seat of a 2-1-2 config. Anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows how I detest climbing over people or being climbed over, and when I called United I was basically told to “deal with it.” Not those exact words, but two agents in a row showed zero empathy, although the second one did offer to “see if I can get you a refund if you’re unhappy.”

Plan B was to raise it up through customer service channels I have access to as a very frequent United flier, and they were very happy to look into the problem, asking what they could do to resolve it. After very patiently listening and understanding my seating preference (hey, when you’re on back to back international trips and 6’4 it makes a difference getting kicked in the night and harming your sleep).

The agent was great, and came back with “can you get to DCA instead of Dulles in 30 minutes? I can get you out of DCA, via Chicago to Sao Paulo on a 777 in Polaris First. I was already packed, so done and done, and problem averted. MAJOR points to United for the service recovery on this one, although it is unfortunately not all people on paid business class tickets have access to this same level of service recovery. I don’t blame United for that, however, it’s just a reality of 2018 customer service – companies have pretty much gotten to a point where only the customers they recognize as their top 1% or more get their attention…it’s just reality. Long way of saying thanks United – I’ll definitely remember this going forward!  (…and because of this, in the last week I’ve booked four MORE business class tickets on United in the next two months)

So, onto DCA, where my flight was actually delayed 30 minutes by torrential rains, so I got my guilty snack of choice, United Club cheeze kubes:

I had about an hour in the Polaris Lounge in Chicago, which sadly has also suffered from the cost-cutting. I knew the Veuve Clicquot was too good to last, and alas, it is no more. I still had a nice glass of champagne though, because, hey, champagne.

Really friendly bartender who was familiar with someone of the older drinks that are no longer on the menu, and he was able to whip up a paper plane with mezcal as well:

I’ll gloss over the ugly, which was a 2.5 hour delay when our plane broke and they had to find another plane at midnight, but hey, the fact they were able to find another 777 at this hour which could be catered was pretty impressive. In the end we left at 130a instead of 10pm which ruined my first day’s afternoon meetings, but in the end it was better than a completely canceled trip I suppose, which was what would have happened if I had to go the next day.

The “first class” seats on the 777 are pretty old and tired, and basically nice business class seats, but hey, it was a nice recovery after my 767 swap, so making lemonade out of lemons:

Today’s menu – idk why they even put “first class” on the menu now, because it’s exactly the same meal as in business class. Other than the seat, there’s absolutely zero difference left between business and first on United. Very sad.

Thanks facebook filters, this is pretty much how the delayed flight made me feel:

Oh look, starting off with mixed nuts and a red wine, quelle surprise!

The nori-wrapped salmon was a unique starter, and the salad with seeds and strawberries was also a welcome change. Well done this time United!

So, the spicy chicken main. First of all: amazing flavour, nice and spicy, great different option for plane food. The downside, bit messy with splash potential for a plane, and my chicken was way undercooked and partly raw. I assume it’s just reheated on the plane, so this goes to the kitchen in chicago, but I was full enough I just sent it back largely untouched. You can see some of the red and raw areas in the chicken in this picture:

Oh sigh, you were doing so well with the cheese yesterday United. Perhaps it’s just US catering that’s bland and unimaginative?

Since there was once again no butterscotch or caramel today, the flight attendant insisted I try some cookie crumble…which was a nice change. Plus…they had cherries, which are absolutely my favourite part of any United sundae:

I was also ordered to try some of the mini deserts with some caramel on the side…I didn’t have a choice. I will admit, the mini apple pie with caramel sauce (to quote the FA: “the whole reason I’m not thin and beautiful”) was pretty delicious!

Breakfast? Well, let’s not talk about it. Bland omelette, but the sweet potatoes did have a nice seasoning to them. Fruit was pretty sad, dry and flavourless. Overall, much more of a miss than a hit.

So…overall thoughts on Polaris? The seats are great, no doubt, and when they have them on the whole fleet it’s a fantastic product. It’s sad, however, that United is majorly cutting back on the soft product, when it would cost so little to have a much more impressive product. It just gives the impression that they don’t care, which is the last thing you want when you’re trying to sell a premium product. To me, it says, “we know a lot of you are upgrading, or using awards, or your employer is locked into a contract with us, so we just don’t have to try” and that’s terrible if you want your brand to resonate with your customers. But, maybe I’m wrong…maybe they don’t care about resonating, and are happy being “ok.”

So, final verdict? Air Canada, Delta, United? It’s pretty much a wash now. They all have good seating with all direct aisle access, although United is about two years away from getting there while ALL their competition has been there for over a year now. Food? Well, pretty much the same on all of them, though it does seem Delta and Air Canada do go a bit of the extra mile so you actually feel like there’s pride in their product!

Lots more flights coming up, so watch for more reviews soon!