May 182018
 


After a nice rest, and waking up with Starbucks at Geneva Airport, it was time to find the SWISS First Lounge. I’d done some online searching, and people on Flyertalk generally seemed pretty unhappy with priority security at GVA as well as the lounge. I decided to leave myself about 90 minutes of lounge time to make my own assessment.

Premium security was pretty quick, and waited maybe five minutes in line. Super efficient. The lounge wasn’t very hard to find, and when I offered my F boarding pass from Frankfurt to Johannesburg the agent directed me through the magic door on the left to the F lounge. Now, maybe it’s not the biggest most impressive lounge in the world…but I had the entire place all to myself! How can you not like that?

I liked the decor – not at all crowded, but not a big fan of the chairs. Just found them a little awkward to sit in and the cushions a little too big and firm. I know, first world problems. Did I mention I had the whole place to myself for the entire 90 minutes?

Plus, the buffet had a really nice cheese setup!

Oh, and macarons! I didn’t try any of the other sweets, but one of the downsides of an empty lounge is you know the food isn’t turning over often and isn’t really the freshest.

The macarons weren’t the freshest, but didn’t stop me from sampling a few while I waited…

After a perfectly nice stay in the lounge (only complaint? it was too warm, but that’s just my personal pet peeve almost everywhere in Europe) it was off to the gates. Boarding was delayed about 15 minutes, but we had a great few of other planes and the mountains in the background while we waited. It’s really hard not to like Switzerland…

Boarding was a complete scrum, but despite boarding 15 minutes late we pushed back only five minutes late. Not too bad at all for a completely full flight…except for the other seat in my row! One empty seat on the plane, and it’s next to me once again. Definitely having some good luck on this trip so far.

Lufthansa flight 1223
Geneva, Switzerland (GVA) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 17:55, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time: 1:15
Airbus A319, Registration D-AILL, Manufactured 1997, Seat 4F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 29,921
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,549,983

Did I mention it was a gorgeous day and we had an amazing view of Lake Geneva, the mountains, and the airport as we did a 180 right after takeoff?

Yes, 55 minute flight and they served a rather substantial snack. As someone who loves sour cherries, and cheese…esp cheese with fig compote…it was definitely a great snack…and I had to try really hard not to ruin my appetite for the upcoming stop at the Lufthansa First Lounge and flight.

Landed right on time and…we ended up at a remote stand. I saw the driver next to the plane, and he didn’t have any names, but I hoped…and yup, he was there for me! I’ll never complain about a remote stand when I have my own driver!

Given the driver could only take me to the main airport and not the First Class Terminal (boo!) I opted for the B terminal, knowing that would also eventually guarantee me a ride to my plane which was departing from the Z gates. It would be a semi-short visit to the lounge today, so I headed straight to the dining room for some Schnitzel and champagne! Layovers are so trying when you get served a dinner like this…

…and I think Lufthansa must seriously be stalking one of my social media accounts. As I was eating, the lounge attendant came up to me and said “Herr Mayfield, I thought you might want a duck?” Haha, I’m not sure if I find it creepy or thoughtful….who am I kidding, definitely thoughtful!

After a quick shower, I settled in to watch a little tv until the flight…given the programming, a drink was definitely in order. With over 100+ different scotches/whiskeys to try, it’s going to require many more trips through Frankfurt to make a dent in Lufthansa’s offerings!

Off to the plane we go…Porsche tonight.

Rain or not, there’s always something magical pulling up next to the plane in a Porsche and walking aboard like you’re a VIP. No matter how many times I do it, it never gets old!

Only two passengers tonight, which was a bit strange as I’ve found this in the past to be one of the hardest routes for business to first upgrades. Chatted a bit with the other passenger, as well as the flight attendant serving first, and everyone agreed it was an unusually light load. Not going to complain, though!

Lufthansa flight 572
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 22:05, Arrive 8:30 next day, Flight Time: 10:25
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYH, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 35,301
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,555,363

Let’s see, what’s for dinner tonight…I mean, not that I need dinner after the lounge

One thing I like about the length of the Johannesburg flight is it’s long enough to get a good sleep in…and

Like the transfer, it never gets old. Welcome aboard macadamia nuts, champagne, and a simple rose…

I’ll start off by apologizing for the dark pics…I find it much harder with the iPhone taking pictures in a dark cabin. Any tips are, of course, very welcome! Amuse bouche of salmon, creme, and some fig spread….wasn’t a huge fan.

Starters from left to right….the asian beef was super tasty, and just the right combo of flavours and textures. The goat cheese with bell pepper and olive was alright but nothing special. I generally avoid shellfish on planes (except maybe lobster!) but the scallop was surprisingly tasty, and perfectly cooked.

Sad was uninspired, and very surprisingly for Lufthansa several of the leaves were wilted and browning. Unusual for Lufthansa (and the crew) to miss something like this.

As the other passenger chose to sleep, the question wasn’t “do you want” caviar, but “how much do you want” – decided to start with a quarter of the tin, which was already a pretty generous portion!

…followed by another quarter of the tin. I may have a problem.

Very rarely do I do the fist option on planes, but when it’s monkfish I cant resist. I was cooked really well, and lighter than a beef dish would have been. Overall it was really tasty and a good choice.

Oh Lufthansa with your amazing cheese cart and sweet biscuits…there are not words enough to describe how fond of you I am!

Raspberry and yogurt cake with pistachio ice cream…not only was the presentation amazing, it tasted fantastic. Plus, I love pistachio ice cream, so it was extra amazing!

…and as is my custom with overnight Lufthansa first flights a couple of pralines and some Johnny Walker Blue to nod off.

Crew kept the cabin nice and cold at my request (after making sure the other passenger didn’t mind) and I crashed….hard. So hard that my request to not wake me up should I be sleeping had to be honoured, and I was woken up 15 minutes from landing after a solid 7+ hours of sleep. Probably one of the best in-flight sleeps I’ve every had, and a wonderful end to another great flight.

Now, time to hope the immigration line isn’t too long, and spend a couple of days resting and recovering before getting down to work!

May 162018
 


Soooo, off to Southern Africa again for work, this being the fourth trip in as many months. Despite it being a lot of travel, it’s good for the mileage balance, and each time has enabled me to explore slightly different ways of getting there. I know lots of people like the 1-stop flight on South African, but to me it’s just too long in a plane, and South African pulls way too many plane changes to risk getting the old seats.

My favourite route is pretty much via Europe with Lufthansa, but unfortunately this time the nonstop flight to Frankfurt was actually sold out when I went to book! Oh well, connecting in Europe it would be. There was space on the nonstop United flights, but I refuse to pay good money to sit in their absolutely horrid 2-4-2 configuration where you get to play twister with your seatmates to get to the aisle. No ma’am.

Yes, it was an upgradable fare, but there was no guarantee that would clear on United, so I went with the sure thing: a double connection in Europe where I could ensure the middle seat in United’s 2-1-2 configured 767s. Plus, there was a chance I would get “real” Polaris since there were now four of 24 or so planes configured. Unfortunately, no such luck. Right, on to the details you’re actually interested in.

Nobody in their right mind goes to the United Clubs at Dulles at mid afternoon international rush, heaving as they are with Chase credit card holders and more star alliance gold card holders than you can shake a stick at. Being familiar with the shuffle, I decided a stop by the Lufthansa Senator Lounge was in order first. Unfortunately, they’ve switched to serving terrible Prosecco, so I can’t imagine I’ll be going there much longer either. Disappointing.

Next off to Turkish Lounge almost right next door, but they were serving the same awful prosecco so I opted for a moderately ok glass of wine. What they lack for in booze they more than make up for in delicious baklava and turkish bread pudding. Don’t judge. I may have had more than one piece.

Next off to the famous Dulles “moon buggies” for a ride over to the D terminal, where my flight to Geneva was just getting ready to board. Somehow, there were no “gate lice” crowding the boarding lanes, and I was actually first in line just five minutes before boarding. Go figure. Just in time to hear a group of non-revs negotiating with their friend the gate agent and asking her “come on, can’t you move one person so we can sit together?” Ugh. Thankfully, the gate agent played by the rules.

United flight 974
Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD) to Geneva, Switzerland (GVA)
Depart 17:35, Arrive 07:40 next day, Flight Time: 8:05
Boeing 767-300, Registration N677UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 29,635
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,549,697

Sitting IN my seat when I boarded, but fortunately I was able to move it on top of my monitor. Yup, guess we have no shortage of amenity kits today!

Welcome abord Château l’Oscar 2018 dans plastique.

Meal service started out with, you guessed it, mixed warm nuts and a glass of wine for me. I asked for a flight to try the wines, and was told “they didn’t load them.” Hrumph. Good thing I didn’t ask about the bloody mary cart…

Appetizer of smoked duck with dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds, and mustard was almost good, but the duck just didn’t taste right. I give it an A for effort, but just didn’t quite get there. I don’t like that you don’t get to select your own bread anymore, but as the two they give you are my two favourite kinds, I forgive it. Oh, and the salad? One of the best I’ve had on United. Costs so little to improve it to this level I’m glad to see they’ve finally done it. Hopefully this is the new norm.

The five spice short rib and wasabi grits? Well, the short rib hasn’t changed in years, so that was predictable. I didn’t taste any wasabi in the grits, and the sauce on the short rib had absolutely no flavour. Disappointing. Some days this dish is actually pretty tasty home cooking, but not tonight unfortunately.

United gets a C on the cheese course this time. All I know for sure is it was “international” cheese. I’m going to guess a brie, blue, and what tasted like a poor imitation manchego. It’s better than the chedder and swiss they often try to pass off as international, however….

One ice cream sundae, hot fudge, no glass chips.

I was told I didn’t have the option to say no to breakfast, so it was brought to me. I intentionally didn’t sleep on the flight to stay on Washington time in an attempt to battle jetlag, and so far it was working well. Yes, I had a champagne breakfast, don’t judge me…I think it even shocked the crew. Pretty sure they’re not used to getting that request right before landing.

I had a 10 hour layover in Geneva before my connection to Frankfurt, and decided that’s when I would sleep. I tried a new website called www.dayuse.com which offered me a room at the Ibis Palexpo right next to the airport for a very reasonable rate.

Unfortunately, after immigration, I jumped on the shuttle to the WRONG Ibis, and ended up walking back to the correct one, about a 20 minute walk away. The walk was actually nice after being on a plane all night, and when I got there I was ready to crash. But, the room…like many European hotel rooms, was WAY too warm and of course there was no air conditioning since it was April, so I had the pleasure of sleeping in a 25C room. At least after a shower I was ready to completely peace out for five hours.

Overall impression of the hotel? The room was a small cube with barely enough room for the bed and a desk, but it was perfectly functional. This was supposedly the nicer of the two Ibis properties as well. That said, it was a bed, and it was functional for that. The lobby looked to be a bit of a refugee camp with people on long layovers, and lots of small children, but the room itself was quiet. If not for the heat, it would have been absolutely perfect….plus where else can you get a 79 franc room in Geneva for 10 hours?!

Checked out after a wonderful solid nap, well worth every penny, and back to the airport to enjoy the lounge a bit. But first, random snack at Starbucks. Not sure it’s a meal or what, but it was nearly $18…who said Geneva is expensive….

Overall lesson so far: this routing to South Africa works. Flight leaves DC too early to sleep for me, but gets to Geneva just in time that I want to sleep…and sleep came easily. The United 767 certainly isn’t cutting edge, but if you get one of the middle seats it’s not a bad product. Overall, I was happy with my choice, and it was time to head to Frankfurt now!

Apr 082018
 


Yeah, so it was Saturday morning. Woke up. I was having coffee, looking ahead to a completely boring day with zero plans. Sitting around on the couch sounded so, so nice. But it was Easter weekend…and there was really nothing at all going on…people were out of town…and before I’d finished my coffee I was bored. I had managed to resist the idea the day before on Friday (you know, when I could have actually gone there and spent the night) but I had a feeling today would be different.

30 minutes later, I’d grabbed a shower, threw a few things in a backpack, and was out the door. There was a flight to Detroit in 70 minutes, and from there on Delta I could pretty much head anywhere in the world. I’d always wanted to do a spur of the moment trip to somewhere – anywhere – and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. So without any plans at all, off to Detroit I went.

Quick Uber to National Airport, check in, through CLEAR with no line, and I was at my gate. I might have even had 10 minutes to spare in the SkyClub, but I was already feeling a bit rushed so decided to head to the gate. Time to head to Detroit, and the great beyond!

Delta Airlines flight 6188, operated by GoJet
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Detroit, Michigan (DTW)
Depart 12:45, Arrive 14:20, Flight Time: 1:35
Canadair CRJ-700, Registration N669CA, Manufactured 2004, Seat 4B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 17,013
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,537,075

Boarded right on time (and yeah, I had 15 minutes to spare, I don’t know why I felt rushed) and ended up in seat 4B, which has more legroom than any other seat on the plane as you can see in the pic below. Given that Comfort Plus has free drinks just like first class on a short flight like this, this seat was actually probably BETTER than ended up in actual first.

Both 4C and 4D remained open, so I decided to move over to 4D right before takeoff. Still pretty much unlimited legroom, and DC is one of my favourite places for a window seat. I’m usually on the A-side so get great Pentagon shots on takeoff, but today it was the Jefferson Memorial and the US Capitol:

I’ve been trying to be nicer to my liver lately, so was content with a bag of snack mix and a diet coke. I should have had some Biscoff cookies, but the little Dorito things in the snack  mix are just soooo good!

Landed in Detroit about 15 minutes ahead of schedule, and look what was right across from my gate:

I had a few vague ideas where Delta flew from Detroit. I knew about London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Paris in the evening, but was surprised to see there were actually THREE flights to Amsterdam, one to Rome I didn’t know about, and of course there was also Canada and the rest of the US as well.

Overwhelmed, I headed to the lounge for a snack to explore options. Meatballs, cheese, hummus, and a beer. Giving United’s famous “brown meal” a run for its money:

After looking at how full flights were, I settled on the second flight to Amsterdam. However, as the flight got closer, more and more people started snapping up the available seats, to the point where even if I did get a seat it would be a middle seat in the 1-2-1 configuration. Now, don’t get me wrong, those seats are way better than 2-4-2 on United where people have to climb over each other, but I was really hoping for a solo window seat since I didn’t plan to sleep.

Given the odds from Amsterdam were looking dicey, I took a look back at Paris…and wow…plenty of seats. Choice made, I bought the ticket, and of course was unable to check in online. Tried the counter in the SkyClub, and they couldn’t check me in either since we were only 50 minutes before departure. Time to run to the gate.

Met with the “how did you get through security if you’re not checked in” the gate agent made a production of reminding me she was doing me a favour by checking me in…and just like that it was time to go!

Unfortunately, I was having trouble refunding my Amsterdam ticket online…but did get the very last seat in business class. Fortunately, I could see online they did eventually unload me and I was able to refund it later. Off to Paris we go!

Delta Airlines flight 98
Detroit, Michigan (DTW) to Paris, France, Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 18:11, Arrive 8:15 next day, Flight Time: 8:04
Airbus A330-300, Registration N803NW, Manufactured 2003, Seat 9A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 20,976
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,541,038

Pre-departure “champagne”  – I’m still not sure a $5 bottle of sparking wine is “worth it” in the calories department, but hey, it came in an actual glass and this spur of the moment trip was definitely something to celebrate! I tend to be someone who overthinks things, so being spontaneous is something to celebrate!

Mixed nuts to start off once we were in the air, and a glass of wine. These glasses always look like they shouldn’t be stable in turbulence, but I’ve never had a problem. Also, love that the mixed nuts include pistachios, pecans, and cashews – my three favourite nuts.

Appetizer tray. I know others don’t like business class service on a tray, but it doesn’t bother me. The salad was pretty underwhelming, but the appetizer was phenomenal. I don’t know how they came up with this combo, but “grilled apricots with whipped ricotta, truffle honey and crispy prosciutto” was absolutely amazing. I wanted more. Plus a pretzel roll and tomato/basil bisque soup was super tasty and good comfort food.

Another home run with the main course, pistachio crusted australian lamb rack. It’s pretty rare you get lamb chops on the bone on a plane, but they were also cooked medium (best you can expect on a plane) and the pistachio crust was amazing. This mean alone made me want to do more Delta transatlantics before it goes away!

Cheese and ice cream for dessert. Cheese was nothing special, but ice cream with a little hot fudge is always welcome.

I had decided I was going to stay away the whole flight to avoid jetlag, since we would be landing around 1am east coast time in the US. Given I often stay up that late on weekends anyways, it was definitely easy to stay awake…and allowed me to catch up on tv. I never watch tv at home, so I rely on downloads of the shows I like to my iPad to catch up. Good use of time in the air.

Small mid-flight snack with about three hours to go:

I decided I would have breakfast “for science” but the frittata of potato and gruyere was much better than expected and I ended up eating most of it. The tomato hollandaise was super tasty too. I suspect Delta must have gotten a sale on asparagus and tomatoes this month!

Oh, and since it was still technically midnight body clock time, a glass of champagne with breakfast was welcome. Now that’s a generous pour. The crew on this flight was friendly and fantastic.

Landed 15 minutes ahead of schedule, and up into the terminal where I managed to get a shot of my ride to Paris:

See, it was all fate that I ended up on a flight to Paris! Paris has been waiting for me!

During the flight I had done some searching, and fortunately managed to find a flight home that was wide open. Looked like I would have about three hours on the ground, and then it would be right back to Cincinnati. Found the Air France/Delta transfer desk a short walk from the plane, and they had no trouble checking me in to Cincinnati. We had arrived at the M gates of Terminal 2E, so I would have to head to the L gates if I wanted to use the Yotel lounge, and my flight would of course depart from the K gates.

So, good news first. After some confusion and asking around, managed to find out that the Yotel is actually outside security in the L gates, so I wouldn’t have to reclear security. One of the worst things about how Terminal 2E is designed at Charles de Gaulle is that it has three piers: K, L, and M, each with their own security. As far as I know, there’s no way to transfer between them without clearing security.

So, the Yotel was like 80 degrees, so I’m not sure the shower I took really helped all that much, but I suppose it was better than nothing? The lounge visit also came with 10 euro in food credit, which I used on two large bottles of Evian and a bottle of Orangina. Given how hot it was I think I sweat it all out immediately, but better than nothing. Stopped in a cafe in the terminal for a delicious pain au chocolate and espresso, because hey, when in Paris, and just like that it was time to head to my next flight!

Back on the inter-terminal train to the K gates, and managed to find security…where the line was nearly AN HOUR long. Even the fast track/premier line took almost 30 minutes. Once again, CDG demonstrating what an absolute pain it is as far as being user-friendly.

That said, I do love the retro-futuristic design of the K terminal:

Only had about 10 minutes to wait to board after all the checkin/inter-terminal shuffle, so it was a very nice and quick visit to Paris, but time to head home now!

Delta Airlines flight 229
Paris, France, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Cincinnati, Ohio/Kentucky (CVG)
Depart 10:35, Arrive 13:53, Flight Time: 9:18
Boeing 767-300, Registration N175DN, Manufactured 1990, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 25,132
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,545,194

Despite the flight being relatively light in business (maybe 2/3) the agent had assigned me a middle section seat towards the back. A polite request and I got 3A. The odd numbered window seats are my favourite because the large “console” part of the seat is next to the aisle, giving you a little more privacy. The downside is, when the seat is at all reclined it can be a bit tight to get out past the console. Bedding, amenity kit, headphones, water were waiting for me when I boarded. It was now about 3am eastern time, and sleep was beginning to sound amazing.

Bubbles…because…celebration…blah blah….

Cool takeoff right over Paris Le Bourget airport:

Yay, more pistachios!

After the amazing appetizer on the way over, this one was a bit more disappointing. I don’t “do” shrimp (aka cockroaches of the sea) but in exchange the salad was definitely and upgrade. Oh, and fresh baguette was just as good as having pretzel bread. The thai coconut soup, however, was outstanding and probably the best soup I’ve ever had on a plane:

Grilled beef tenderloin (a nice medium) and fregola sarda pasta. Definitely well above average for steak on a plane:

The cheese was also much better than the other direction, although I’d expect nothing less for a flight originating from Paris. Morbier, Cantal, and Pavé d’affinois with a bit of chutney. Oh, and of course I didn’t pass on the ice cream.

Having eaten, and now about 430a body time, I absolutely passed out for the next five hours and had a wonderful nap. Waking up about an hour before the pre-landing snack was served, a pretty good cuban sandwich:

Hello Cincinnati!

I should probably say that part of what had sold me on Paris was the hope I could take this route back. Back in 1988 the first time I ever flew Transatlantic was on a Delta L1011 from Cincinnati to London Gatwick. Back then, I remember Cincinnati airport being pretty busy, and certainly when I went back in the mid 1990s it was quite busy.

Now, however, it seemed like a bit of a ghost town. We hit immigration right after another flight from Cancun, and now it was time to put Global Entry to the test. This was the first time I would be entering the US since my Global Entry had supposedly been reinstated, so I looked forward to seeing if it was true. The only “evidence” I had was an email telling me that upon review they agreed they would reinstate it and…yup! Went perfectly.

Only one question from the agent when I turned in my receipt of “where are you coming from?”  “Paris.” “Just Paris?” “Yeah, just Paris.” “Welcome home.” Whew, no questions about how long I had been in Paris that would have required an awkward explanation.

To get back to the gates TSA was right in the arrivals area, but unfortunately no PreCheck, no CLEAR, so off come the shoes, out come the laptops, etc etc. Ugh. But the cool thing was, right after this it was an escalator up right to the departure gates. I could have probably even pulled off a 30 minute transit here if I needed to.

But, that done, I had time for Starbucks. Yay!

This airport has certainly seen busier times. View from the SkyClub:

Time to board the flight back to DCA. Gracias and Merci Delta for a fun trip!

4D once again, the same seat I had on the way to Detroit just…24 hours prior. Wow, this had really been a whirlwind.

Delta Airlines flight 6214 operated by GoJet
Cincinnati, Ohio/Kentucky (CVG) to Washington, DC, National (DCA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive 17:28, Flight Time: 1:28
Canadair CRJ-700, Registration N354CA, Manufactured 2002, Seat 4D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 25,544
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,545,606

Cool Kalitta Charters II 727 on taxi:

Lots of great plane spotting on the taxi with all the cargo that moves through Cincinnati, so that made having a window seat really worth it.

Quick hour flight to DCA, nothing special, no beverage service “due to the length of the flight” though water was available to anyone who requested it. The guy sitting next to me asked for a beer, but was told no. Kinda defeats the purpose of Comfort+ except the added legroom.

Overall, I felt really privileged to have been able to do something so crazy. Would I do it again? Most definitely – but it surprisingly took a bit more out of me than I thought it would. It was a great excuse to be lazy, catch up on tv watching, and just enjoy flying for the sake of it. Now, time to do it again soon!

Mar 112018
 


Unfortunately, it turned out that the Starbucks in the lobby of the Le Meridien didn’t open until 8am on Sundays, and with a 10a flight and unpredictable traffic I felt that would be cutting things too tight. Set the alarm for 715am, and was out the door at 745am, and really debated waiting 15 more minutes since Google maps was still showing a quick 22 minutes with no traffic to the airport.

However, when I got out the front door of the hotel, I was very glad I hadn’t waited. All the streets around the hotel were closed off for some kind of running race, and I had to walk several blocks to find an Uber. Fortunately, my Spanish has improved enough I could ask one of the helpful and plentiful police offers where the best place to walk to to get an Uber was, so I really only lost about 10 minutes.

Google Maps was, fortunately, correct, and I arrived at the airport around 830am. I had checked in online, had a mobile boarding pass on my phone and a gate number, so I headed for what looked to be a mercifully short security line. Looks were only mildly deceiving, and by 845am I was past security and right beyond was the most magical of sites…with prices 50% higher than in the city, of course.

United flights left from an area of about eight gates that seemed to be a bit of a Satellite Terminal, and apparently the United Club is in a totally different part of the airport? I’m not sure if this is always the case, but it seemed to be an incredibly nonsensical arrangement. Waited around in the seating area with other passengers, before spotting an Avianca Lounge right next to my gate. It was nothing special, but it was quiet and uncrowded, so made the last 15 minutes before boarding more comfortable.

I had debated switching to the nonstop flight to Dulles which left 15 minutes earlier, and the United app was letting me make the change for free under the 24 hour confirmed change waiver for elite members, but when the only seat left was 3F I decided to pass. Being stuck in a window seat for four hours is my idea of not fun, and I had the whole day, so decided to stick with my original routing.

Even more strange, this A319 had the usual 12 seats in first, but only 8 passengers booked…and no waitlist. This couldn’t be for real, could it? We would actually go out with empty seats up front? 2A and 2C were still open, so I switched myself to 2C in hopes that 2A would stay open, and sure enough it did! I can’t remember the last time I had an empty seat next to me in domestic/regional first/business!

United flight 1025
Mexico City, Mexico (MEX) to Houston, Texas (IAH)
Depart 10:05, Arrive 12:23, Flight Time: 2:18
Airbus A319, Registration N821UA, Manufactured 1999, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 15,417
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,535,479

Being my first time flying in Mexico, there were lots of new and fun airlines to see on taxi. Here’s Viva!

I loved this view right after takeoff of all the planes sitting around:

I was glad to be getting back a little early since I had a surprise hockey game that night, and was glad to see that United had taken that into account when ordering their napkins. I mean, I do qualify as a superhero, right?

This is also a good point to mention the crew. This was one of the most attentive and attention to detail crews I’ve ever seen on United, and he actually set up the four napkins as a “placemat” first before setting down the drinks and nuts. Yes, he even faced the logo on the can and the glass towards me intentionally. Definitely a first from United! Doesn’t make a difference, but reflective of someone who has pride in their job which always makes a customer service interaction much more pleasant!

There were two choices, and I don’t remember the other, but one was described as a pesto chicken with risotto. I don’t do chicken that often on planes, but they had me at risotto. It was definitely way mushier than risotto should be, but I have very low expectations for risotto on a plane, so overall the meal was definitely above average….and the cake was super tasty. The salad, however, was like far too many airplane salads and wilted and gross. I gave it a miss.

Nothing much to say about the flight. The cool thing was, the flight was SO short that I was able to use the Mobile Passport app right after the door was closed (and I was sure information had been transmitted by the airline to CBP) and had already been ok’d for immigration/customs by the app before even leaving the ground. That made the flight much less stressful after my recent experience in Boston.

Sure enough, immigration was a breeze in Houston, found my way out and upstairs to the E gates checkin area, where there was absolutely nobody in the security line. There was no CLEAR line (does anyone know where it is in Houston?) but with no line it didn’t matter. Went through the metal detector, and once again I got the beep for random screening. Either these are much more frequent lately, or I’ve just been winning the jackpot a lot.

Unfortunately, today, there was a problem. The residue swab on my bag came back positive for explosives, which meant we were going to have some fun. Out of my bag came everything remotely electronic for a hand examination, and a rescanning piece by piece. I also got the extra super-friendly patdown by an agent. I have to give this particular agent credit, because he was excellent in giving the explanation step by step of what he was going to do and explaining that I had the right to go to a private area for the screening.

I told him “I lost my shame long ago – go for it” and he laughed and continued very professional, and in a manner that was more, um, “friendly and familiar” than many dates I’ve been on. As he finished, he thanked me for my cooperation and told me I was good to go. I came up with “wait, all that and I don’t even get a Happy Valentine’s Day or a cigarette afterwards?” It was good for a laugh, and it was nice to see a TSA agent with not just a personality, but also not on a powertrip like so many of the ones I’ve come across.

Trekked over to the D gates, and of course, a glass of Veuve Clicquot in the American Express Centurion Lounge:

Only time for a quick stop and glass of champagne, and then the long trek back to the C Gates for my flight to DC, which fortunately was right on time. Group 1 was absolutely packed today, and the agent announced that “because we have over 40 1K members on our flight today, I appreciate your patience in only boarding when your group number is called.” Wow. According to the app there was only one upgrade, and it was the gentleman sitting next to me. He was a friendly guy, and mentioned he was Global Services on pretty much a full fare last minute economy ticket, and that three of his colleagues who were also Global Services were sitting in the back. That’s a Sunday flight back to DC for you!

United flight 589
Houston, Texas (IAH) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 14:38, Arrive 18:35, Flight Time: 2:57
Boeing 737-700, Registration N24702, Manufactured 1998, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 16,607
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,536,669

Shortly after takeoff drinks and mixed nuts were offered as usual:

If I’d been impressed on the flight from Mexico City to Houston, this flight would turn out to be the exact opposite. This was billed as a “Cobb Salad” and was a disgusting pile of romaine lettuce, chopped cucumber and tomatoes, a hard boiled egg, and a bowl of some rather nasty looking chicken.

Giving credit where credit is due, the chocolate cake and pretzel roll were tasty as usual.

That ends a rather average trip with United. For some reason, mainly that I didn’t have much domestic travel, I found myself scrambling in late 2017 to make the minimum four segments with United to requalify for status, and now I’d done 7 flights in under three weeks! Overall, I’d say not much has changed. The experience is still wildly inconsistent, from the hard product, to the staff, to the meals. There are some that do really well and impress, most are just average, and a couple are significantly disappointing. I guess overall that’s domestic air travel these days in a cut-price environment with little real competition.

No travel likely in the next month (hooray!) so I’ll be writing a few think pieces for the blog, but get ready for a trip report in a few weeks back to Southern Africa, and likely to include South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, checking out new places in each country that I haven’t visited before.

Epilogue: two days after getting home, I woke up to an email from CBP, approximately six months after I filed an email appeal of my NEXUS/Global Entry revocation. The email was short and sweet: “A review of your membership by the CBP Ombudsman has been completed, resulting in the reinstatement of your Trusted Traveler membership.  Please contact the enrollment center if you have any future membership questions.”  WINNING!

Mar 082018
 


So, I had to go to Mexico City for work. To be honest, I was actually really looking forward to it because despite having been to every country, and living right next door, I cheated on Mexico. It was actually the third country I went to; my aunt lived in Tucson for years when I was a little kid, and we used to go and visit, and after me whining and begging several times I finally convinced the family to hop across the border to Nogales. Remember, this was the early 1980s, so the concept of needing a passport as an American was kinda crazy.

Then, fast forward to college, and a group of friends went to a friend’s beach house in Ensenada, Baja California. Had a few great days and actually a bit more of a local experience, but still kind of cheating. Then, on a trip to Orange County we made a day trip to Tijuana. Walked around, had great food at restaurants that were all locals, but again….still doesn’t quite count.

I won’t even mention the ill-advised trip to Cancun.

So, yeah, I’ve definitely been to Mexico, and have no issues with “counting” it, but I still felt like I really needed to have more of a Mexican experience. Between my little tastes, and having been to lots of other countries, I was pretty sure I had a really good idea what it was going to feel like, so I was curious to see if I was right.

I’ll split this report into three parts: the trip there, a short report on my six days in Mexico City (4.5 of which were work), and finally the trip home.

Quick cab to the airport, no line at CLEAR, and realized I had nearly an hour left to kill before boarding. I’m generally not the type to go gaga for airport lounges, but since I had the time decided to do something I never do: lounge hop.

Airport train to the B gates, and a short walk ahead was the wonderful Lufthansa Senator Lounge:

Strawberry raspberry nutella AND a completely empty lounge due to being between the ANA and evening flights? Yes PLEASE!

Artsy shot thanks to the empty lounge. Unfortunately at this hour the “champagne” is a rather crappy cava and the raspberry nutella scone didn’t taste like nutella at all. Major sad panda.

No time to waste with only an hour to waste to do all the lounges, so off to the Turkish lounge. On the way, I nearly lost my lunch:

Short walk later, I was at the Turkish lounge, which people seem to rave about:

Bad news: same crappy cava. Good news: delicious baklava and a relatively-empty lounge.

I still wonder where this mystery staircase in the lounge goes. Perhaps I should have explored:

Walk all the way down to the A gates, catch the train to the C gates, and time for a quick stop at the United Club. *hums* one of these things is not like the other…

Lest anyone thing I was a giant pig, I woke up, went for a run, and ate nothing before getting to the airport – so was really hungry!  …yes, and thirsty!

United flight 484
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Houston, Texas (IAH)
Depart 12:45, Arrive 15:19, Flight Time: 3:34
Boeing 757-200, Registration N14118, Manufactured 1997, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 13,891
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,533,953

According to the app there were over 40 people on the standby upgrade list, so was very happy that I’d managed the night before to do a free same day change onto this flight. Always nice to have lie-fat seats on a domestic flight even if just for the legroom. Having already had my palate wrecked in the United Club preflight, I opted for a pre-flight prosecco:

It was also Valentine’s Day, and I got an e-mail card from the CLEAR team at Dulles. Awkward.

Once in flight, out came the warm nuts. Glass of red wine? Consider it handled.

All these years I’d never had the famous burger, so decided to experiment. Honestly, it was decent. There are lots of amazing burger places in DC so my standards are pretty high, but given this was a plan it wasn’t bad at all…and came on a pretzel bun. With a pretzel rolls on the side. Uh…oh.

Points also for a very fresh salad, and reasonably tasty cheesecake.

Landed a bit ahead of schedule in Houston, and I realized I’ve somehow managed to avoid this airport for nearly five years. We landed at some newish C Gates which were really bright and airy – a nice change for Houston. Spotted this 787 on my way to the D Gates to try and find the Centurion Lounge:

Oooh Singapore A350…sexy!

Finally found the lounge, which like most AmEx lounges these days was heaving and about to burst at the seams. Had to wait in line behind a family of SIX to get in, so good to see that problem has been solved. Not.

Oh well, a glass of Veuve Clicquot made it a bit better:

On the way to find my plane at the E gates, I was informed the Polaris lounge was coming soon. Giggle. Snort. Hah. Moving right along…

How can this be….absolutely no gate lice on the flight to Mexico City?!

United flight 1092
Houston, Texas (IAH) to Mexico City, Mexico (MEX)
Depart 17:44, Arrive 20:05, Flight Time: 2:21
Boeing 737-800, Registration N12216, Manufactured 1998, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 14,654
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,534,716

Today’s load was a full 20 in business class (18 of which were upgrades according to the app) and a grand total of 24 people in economy. Wow, now that’s an empty 737! Pre-flight glass of Chateau L’Oscar to start:

The “meat and rice” – uhhh….at least it tasted better than it looked? Once again, a nice fresh salad.

Overall, it was a pretty typical domestic/regional first/business experience today. Food was maybe a slight bit better than I was expecting, and the international 757 to Houston was definitely a welcome bonus. Also, can’t neglect mentioning that both crews were excellent – friendly, efficient, and helpful. Definitely a real asset to United. Now, let’s get to the main event and check out Mexico City!!

Mar 072018
 


As I mentioned in the last post, the Mobile Passport app had refused to let me report in, leading me to wonder if it was just a systems error (perhaps due to the federal government shutdown that was underway?) or a sign of something more ominous.

Having never had to actually go through normal lines in over five years, thanks to Global Entry and Mobile Passport, I was completely unsure what to do when I arrived…so I followed the line for US Citizens. I know this is probably boring to a lot of people since it’s what most travels do every time they return to the country, but it was new to me.

Turns out you report in at a machine now that is very similar to Global Entry, but there’s no biometric scan. You still scan your passport, the machine takes your picture, and spits out a receipt that you then get in line to show to an agent. I guess what this does is automates some of the data entry the agent used to have to do, and makes a determination.

My receipt spit out line this, and it’s the same “X of Doom” that I’ve gotten at Global Entry before, so I knew I was in for hell. At this point I only had about forty minutes to connect to my next flight, so I was pretty sure I was screwed:

Took nearly 15 minutes to reach the front of the queue and get to an agent, and I was very fortunately to get a very pleasant and helpful agent. The usual questions. Asked what I’d been up to in Cairo, explained it was just one night on the way to Germany for vacation, which made total sense to him. But then: “unfortunately my friend, you’ve won the lottery today. Please wait here against the wall, and someone will be by shortly to escort you to secondary inspection.” Whee, the automated system had decided (most likely) that my one day in Cairo was a lil too sketchy for them, so I feared the same four hour interrogation I got last time I took this route. I was preparing for the worst…and knew my connecting flight was a lost cause.

“Shortly” turned out to be nearly 30 minutes, and finally a pleasant agent came to get me…with a train of eight other suspects behind her. Me, two teenagers who looked to be somali, a pair of women in abayas, a couple of young African men, an older Pakistani gentleman with a grey beard died orange, and what appeared to be a rastafarian. Clearly I’d gotten the “profiling” flag…..

First stop was to drop six people off for what appeared to be baggage inspection. That wasn’t to be my fate. Me, one of the Somali teens, and the older Pakistani guy were led to another area, and told to “have a seat over there.” I sat for what was probably 30-45 minutes, until what I have to admit was a very professional agent came out with all three of our passports. After a quick glance at them, he beckoned me over first. I guess the shady American was likely to be easier than the foreigners…

What seemed to be a very well rehearsed series of about a dozen questions, he took notes on the back of my receipt, then actually said sorry for the hassle…have a good day. I suspect what ever auto flag I tripped he decided “oh, just one of those crazy frequent flier kids flying weird routes for fun” and let me go.

Finally checked my phone, and yup, despite still being 10 minutes prior to departure United had rebooked on on a later flight from Boston-Newark-DCA…in coach. WTF. A quick check of ExpertFlyer confirmed F was available – although points to United for confirming me on what was the quickest routing. Quick call to United got me moved back up business what I had paid for (why they didn’t rebook me automatically was a mystery…since the same class was available) so no giant inconvenience. I would get home a bit over three hours later, via Newark instead of Chicago…and unfortunately miss my hockey game. Boo!

Boston might be one of the most awful airports to transit in, and the walk from the international terminal to United’s terminal took forever, and required a walk outside, walk through the JetBlue checkin area, then past this flying banana:

By the time I got to the United Club, I was a sweaty mess, and of course there were no showers. No worry, was able to relax, clean up, have some water, before setting off in search of what would be much-needed caffeine. One huge plus for Boston, the United terminal had not just a Starbucks, but also a Peet’s and a Dunkin‘! I love choice!

Off to the gate after a long wait, and it was time to fly to sEWaRk…

United Express flight 3622 operated by Republic Airlines
Boston, Massachusetts (BOS) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 17:29, Arrive 19:05, Flight Time: 1:36
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N733YX, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 12,502
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,532,564

Absolutely nothing to say about this flight. It was on time, there was a snack basket, crew was friendly and efficient and offered multiple refills…about all you can ask for for a short last minute regional flight.

Quick stop by the United Club for some water and a glass of whine, before boarding the last flight of the night, which I prayed would be on time.

United Express flight 3722 operated by Republic Airlines
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 20:30, Arrive 21:50, Flight Time: 1:20
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N746YX, Manufactured 2017, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 12,701
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,532,763

On time, with wine and a refill…nothing more to say! Fortunately, considering all that had gone wrong, I really can’t complain much about getting home the same day. In the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty mild drama!

Next up, a short post on my recent work trip to Mexico City!

Feb 282018
 


It had been a great vacation, albeit a bit odd for me to spend more than a week in one country! Despite all the rushing from city to city, having to figure out and explore multiple new cities, it actually felt rather resting…last minute train challenges aside.

In order to max sleep I decided I would roll right out of bed in the morning and head straight for the Lufthansa First Class Terminal. What’s the point of getting a coffee/shower/etc when you can do all that at the lounge? I’m not a fan of the 10am flights to the US for this reason (as someone who doesn’t get up all that early) but you do what you have to…

Out of bed, threw on clothes quickly, last few things in the bag, and maybe 15 minutes after my alarm went off I’d already arrived – a bit groggy – although the walk over in the cold morning air did help a little bit. Deer in the not-awake-headlights look:

I won the check-in lottery today, getting selected for secondary screening. It’s a little more tolerable in the First Class Terminal since you get to have a nice seat, there’s no rush, and they do all the work of the explosives scanning/etc for you. This is how security should always be!

By the time I was through the check-in agent was already waiting for me with my boarding pass, and I had about two hours left before my flight, so maybe 90 minutes before boarding. First things first, a couple espressos, some eggs benedict, and nothing says “good morning!” like a glass of champagne!

A quick Instagram and Twitter of the breakfast, and quick reply from Lufthansa’s always-alert social media team:

After finishing up breakfast it was time for a shower and freshening up before boarding. Grabbed a couple of the brand new black first class terminal ducks (how sad is it that one of the first German phrases I learned was ‘can I have two ducks for my (non-existent) children?) and soon after it was already time for a car to the plane. I was only one of two in first again today, and the other passenger and I shared a Porsche to the gate.

Lufthansa flight 422
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Boston, Massachusetts (BOS)
Depart 10:55, Arrive 13:05, Flight Time: 8:10
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYF, Manufactured 2012, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 12,301
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,532,363

Every time I fly Lufthansa first I seem to snap this picture with the champagne and the rose, and it reminds me what lies ahead:

Yet another new colour of Rimowa amenity kit…I simply must stop collecting these…or find a good way to display them.

Turkey tartar amuse bouche…must admit, it was kinda weird… I wasn’t a fan.

Best part of two people in First? All the caviar you want. Extra-large double helping for me today.

Trio of starters: Stuffed beef ham with gorgonzola and date sesame chutney (super tasty!), spiced carrots with curried yoghurt (very bland, but I’ll pretend it was at least healthy), salad of shrimp and green papaya with chili (a bit underwhelming). Only one I finished was the ham and gorgonzola, but the others were worth at least a nibble.

Main course. So on the way over, I had probably the best Lufthansa main course I’ve ever had. This one was a VERY close second: variation of venison, back and bratwurst, lingonberry jus, mashed brussels sprouts, fried curd cake. The venison was cooked a perfect medium, and the lingonberry jus was phenomenal. Lufthansa definitely hit a home run with this one.

Today’s cheeseboard was absolutely amazing: rock salt cheese, Saint Agur, Goat’s cheese with honey (amazing), L’Explorateur, Langres. Served with mango pepperoni chutney. The chutney was definitely a miss and a little weird.

Now that’s what I call a cheese plate! The honey goat cheese was amazing with the sweet biscuits.

I was definitely full at this point, but the crew wasn’t taking no for an answer…and I’m very glad they didn’t. “Warm curd cake with lemon thyme, yogurt oat crumbles, sour cream ice cream flavoured with lime leaves.” Enjoyed with a glass of desert wine it was absolutely amazing.

…and of course, no meal on Lufthansa would be complete without a couple of truffles and a glass of Johnny Walker Blue.

Spent the next few hours relaxing, and watching some REALLY bad movies on the iPad….or was the movie watching me:

Boston is a relatively short flight from Frankfurt, so by the time it was time for the pre-arrival meal I was still pretty full. Eating nothing wasn’t an option, and the fantastic lead flight attendant simply said “I’ll bring you something light.”

To start, something light was some sushi, a pretzel, and some more JWB:

Next up, some delicious Tom Kha Gai soup…I was told it would go really well with a sweet riesling, and who was I to argue. This was easily the best pre-arrival meal I’ve had on Lufthansa yet:

Finished off with apple cake with cinnamon crumbles…and a little more Johnny Walker Blue.

Overall, this was definitely the best flight I’ve had on Lufthansa food-wise, and everything other than the amuse bouche and appetizers were amazing. Easily one of the best Lufthansa flights I’ve ever taken, and almost exactly the perfect length. I know some people could spend 14+ hours on a flight and never get bored, but for me once it comes up to eight hours that’s more than enough to fit in everything I want to.

Now, off to see what awaits me. Ever since my Global Entry was revoked back in September I’ve been using the Mobile Passport app to check in to immigration and customs before landing. It’s worked just as quickly as Global Entry so far, maybe even quicker sometimes. However, this time, I was getting an error message, and not letting me check in. I had high hopes this was just a software glitch, and not something more…

Feb 252018
 


So, I overslept. I mean, it was kind of intentional. I’m still figuring out this “vacation” thing where relaxing is supposed to be as much of a part of it as seeing things is. Plus, it was cold out, and a harbour boat tour didn’t sound great in that weather. When I finally got up and opened the windows around 9am, I was greeted with snow…and wind…and lots of it:

It was right around freezing so the snow wasn’t sticking that much, but it was coming down pretty hard:

The snow on the ceiling to floor windows actually gave the room a nice look:

Neither wind, nor rain, nor snow can keep me from Starbucks…I mean the US Mail…or whatever that phrase is. Off through the snow to the U-Bahn to see a little bit of the city despite the snow:

I loved this ad for free WiFi in the U-Bahn….”When you have free WiFi…and find the superfluffy!”

Got out at the Rathaus, where people were wandering about enjoying the snow. Oh, and yes, there’s a Starbucks located right on the square naturally.

Did I mention how thankful I was that I bought that hat back in Dresden?

Wandered a bit, then back to the Westin to check out and grab my bags. I’d noticed that one of the morning Hamburg to Frankfurt trains had canceled, but didn’t really think too much of it.

One of the downsides of having a rolling bag is that when there’s a few cm of slushy snow on the ground, rolling it to the U-Bahn doesn’t really work so well…and the snow was still coming down pretty hard, so rather than try and carry my bag that far I opted to taxi an actual…gasp… taxi since there are no Ubers in Hamburg. Taxi to the train station worked reasonably well, was just slightly more than 10 euro, and when I got there the station was absolutely packed and chaotic:

I still had about 45 minutes until my train (which was showing on time) so I headed up to the second level of the station to look down on the masses below. Trains to Frankfurt were pretty much hourly, and five minutes before it was scheduled to leave the train before mine canceled. Great, this means that mine will be absolutely packed.

Headed to the other side and looked down…the station was suspiciously empty at this point….

Down to the tracks….and there’s no train….five minutes past departure…no train…10 minutes past departure…no train. 15 minutes past departure….canceled.

Fortunately, the DB app works reasonably well, and I was able to book on the next train which was showing 15 minutes late. Ok, I had an hour to kill and was getting a bit hungry, so, when in Hamburg….ich bin ein Hamburger!  😉

Down to the trains for my train an hour later and…surprise surprise…no train. Departure time came and went and then….train canceled.

Time to find someone who worked there…and there was a DB employee in the lobby surrounded by a rather large mob of unhappy people. It took me three or four times of hearing him shout it out since my German isn’t that great, but eventually the message was clear: ALL trains from Hamburg are canceled for the remainder of the day.

Did a bit of goggling, and finally figure out what was going on: Winter Storm Friederike had hit northern Germany and the Netherlands with 100+ kph winds and snow, and was causing tons of infrastructure damage. I’ll be honest, by Minnesotan and Nor’easter standards I wasn’t all that impressed, but I get it when you have trains that go upwards of 200+ kph that it might not be safe to have them out there.

Plans foiled, and having been happy enough with the Westin, I made a quick reservation in the app, and grabbed a taxi back to the hotel. They were a bit surprised to see me back, having not heard that all trains were canceled. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one stranded, so was very lucky to get the same style of suite again, just on a different floor.

Caught up on a few emails, and back up to the lounge to relax over some light snacks and a glass of wine.

…why not make a meal of it, since I was unsure if the weather would impact the restaurants or not.

Determined to make the most of a bad situation, and warmed by a couple glasses of wine, I made the trek to the U-Bahn (I’d say sidewalks were about 25% clear finally) and made the trek out to the edges of the city to Mr. Ape – a fun little hole in the wall hipster bar which had a pretty good selection of craft beer:

The only downside to Mr. Ape? They allowed smoking, which was a bit annoying. Fortunately, it was only a couple of people and grabbing a seat at the bar was pretty far from them, but still…pretty annoying. Was debating heading out to a second place, but a long day of trying to catch trains was catching up with me so opted to go back and crash. Who knew what the trains would hold the next day….

Feb 242018
 


A had a little bit of time in the morning before catching my train to Hamburg, so I decided to do one quick last sight in Berlin. I’ve always been interested in the story of how the U-Bahn and S-Bahn were partitioned during the divide of Berlin, and had read that the Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station was one of the best places to see examples of this. From 1961 to 1990 the station was closed, since the exits were into East Berlin. West German trains still passed through the station, however, but for 30 years did not stop.

Entering the station, the old script was still in place:

There was an exhibit in the station (a bit difficult to find) with lots of cool photos and maps. This is the U-Bahn network, with the “ghost stations” in East Berlin shown on a black line with the thick grey line representing the wall:

Outside the station, just 50 meters away, the wall was marked on the ground:

Along with an exhibit of posts showing where it had stood:

Entrance to the Nordbahnhof station:

From Nordbahnhof the S-Bahn took me back to Friedrichstraße station, and a quick walk to the Westin where I checked out and did the short walk in very light snow to the U-Bahn where I caught the train to Berlin Haupbahnhof. I was a bit early, so to keep warm I walked a few laps of the station (also to get some credit towards the Fitbit steps, of course) until it was time to board the train to Hamburg.

The train to Hamburg was right on time, and incredibly empty today. By this point I had finally figured out that empty train = ignore seat assignments as long as nobody is getting on during your trip, and find somewhere comfortable like a set of four seats around a table so you can spread out a bit. Normally when I travel I select single seats whenever possible because I hate climbing over people or being climbed over, but I’ll always take a set of two seats together to spread out if they’re free!

Train ride was a bit under two hours, which was once again enough time for a snack and to do the day’s Duolingo study. Directions to the U-Bahn were very clear once arriving in Hamburg, and on the train I had found the local app and bought a one-way eticket. It was a direct shot and only like five stops to the Baumwall station which was about a 10 minute walk from…yes…you guessed it…the Westin Hamburg.

The Westin sits on top of the Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall, and occupies its top floors. Unfortunately it was dark when I arrived so I couldn’t enjoy the view. Unfortunately, because, the property had noted it was my 500th lifetime night with Starwood, and marked obtaining Lifetime Platinum Status with the Starwood Preferred Guest Program.

To celebrate the milestone, I got a really nice suite with floor to ceiling windows, despite the hotel being sold out:

Unfortunately work and being tired caught up with me, and I just couldn’t muster the energy to go in the evening. Yes, this is foreshadowing, but it’s like my body was trying to tell me “stay in and rest…you’re on vacation…resting is ok….you can always see the city another time….”

So, up to the executive lounge I went, where they had a fantastic spread of appetizers for cocktail hour:

Look at that variety of sweets!

Mini quiches, prosciutto skewers…

There was more than enough food and drink to make a dinner out of, and with Happy Hour lasting nearly four hours that’s exactly what I did while I rested and caught up on some work.

Off to bed early, and told myself I’d try and wake up super early to have coffee and then do a boat tour of the harbour. Mother Nature, however, had her own ideas…

Feb 202018
 


Woke up relatively early since I’d only had a little time to explore Dresden before the sun set the day before. I also wanted to get up in time to catch some of the ski race as well. Headed out of the hotel to grab some breakfast at Starbucks, and right outside the hotel the women’s race was already underway:

I wandered around the old city for a couple of hours, but didn’t really take any pictures. It was a Sunday morning and everything was pretty much closed, so I just enjoyed the time wandering about and taking in the architecture and a bit of people walking.

There was definitely something a bit charming about Dresden, but at the same time it felt quite small-town and provincial. And that was with several hundred international visitors for the ski race. My impression was definitely that it’s a bit of an “out of the way” destination, and it reflects its location in the east of Germany much closer to Poland and other central and eastern European countries. It definitely still felt German, but in a bit less globalized way than major cities like Frankfurt, Berlin, and Munich.

One nice thing about having a BahnCard is that local transportation to the train station is included with most tickets, so I hopped on the tram right outside the Westin to take me to Dresden Hauptbanhof. Arrived with plenty of time before my train, grabbed a small snack, and did some train spotting from the upper level tracks looking down on the main part of the station:

It was probably a bit silly, but I planned most of this trip around ICE train schedules. Since there is no ICE from Dresden to Berlin, I opted to do Dresden first, then backtrack an hour to Leipzig and then on to Berlin. Fortunately, since there were only a few ICEs between Dresden and Leipzig I chose the one that left mid-day so I could have a little extra time in both cities. Train was quick, and an hour later I was in Leipzig. Just enough time to knock out the day’s Duolingo lessons.

Leipzig Hauptbanhof turned out to be located barely a five minute walk from the Westin, which made for a very convenient arrival. Yes, I hadn’t really done all that much research in advance for this trip, and just enjoyed taking things as they came.

The Westin Leipzig was much more modern than the Westin Dresden, which you could tell was a much older hotel which had been renovated. The Leipzig hotel, however, seemed to be very new and modern, and was a highrise. It took a bit of arm-twisting to get the hotel to honour the Platinum best available room benefit, but when they did I finally got a nice (but semi-small) corner suite.

The sitting area with the afternoon sun streaming in:

Another shot of the living room from the other side – you can see the desk, the main entrance door, and the unusual minibar in a column which separated the living room from the entryway, bathroom, and bedroom:

Bedroom was on the small side, but perfectly adequate:

One of the nicest features of the room was that there was a balcony where I could take a good panorama of the area around the hotel:

One of the oddest features was that the bathroom also connected the bedroom and living room. It was in itself divided into FOUR small cubes…each with its own sink. I was beginning to get a sinking feeling this was one of the strangest hotel rooms I’ve gotten in a long time. Starting in the living room, you entered the toilet room, with sink:

Next to that was a sink room…with just a sink. How…useful?

The third cube was a shower cube…which connected the sink room with the bathtub room…this was the only room with no sink:

Then once you pass through the shower cube, you enter the bathtub room…which also has its own sink. Just strange.

Having had my fill of sinks for the day, I wandered out to begin exploring Leipzig. The old town was just a short distance from the hotel, and I immediately decided I liked the city.

I wandered for a couple hours, grabbed some coffee to warm up, and eventually got to the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) which is probably Leipzig’s best known attraction since Bach is buried right inside the church. Trying to get cute with my photography and frame the church with some tree branches:

Statue of Bach outside the church. He’s bringing sexy Bach. Sorry for all the bad jokes….I guess I’m just going for baroque with this post.

Inside of the church, with Bach’s grave in the middle:

Looking the other direction, with the pews:

I’m not certain what this part of a church is called, but I like this shot with the stained glass windows in the back:

The Markt Square and Old Town Hall with the sun beginning to set and a pink hue to the clouds:

After a short rest back in the room, I headed down to the lobby to see what the makeshift lounge had to offer for happy hour. The lobby bar doubles as a lounge for platinum members from 6-7pm with free drinks and a “special platinum snack menu.” Reasonable choice of drinks:

The platinum snack turned out to be some mixed nuts, a small cup of soup, and a rather impression salmon roll. Some good high-quality protein. Overall, it was the perfect offering since I was planning to head out to dinner shortly.

Dinner involved figuring out how to purchase an S-Bahn ticket (turned out to be easy with ticket dispensing machines right on the platform) and some cool artwork in the arrival station:

Dinner may have been walkable if it wasn’t dark and cold, but taking the train was kind of fun too. I headed to the Bayerischer Bahnhof for dinner, which brews their own Gose beer, a style that is native to Leipzig. So, even those gose is far from my favourite beer, when in Rome:

The restaurant is located atop an old train station which sat unused until the S-Bahn was expanded and a new station opened. Now this is more like it! Sausage, potatoes, and a bit of mustard…you can’t get a much more German meal than that!

They refused to take no for an answer on desert, and it was amazing as well:

Back to the hotel where I passed out from a long day of walking, ready to get up the next morning and walk around a bit more before catching my onward train to Berlin. I definitely want to get back to Saxony in the future and explore it a bit more in depth as well as checking out some of the smaller cities – maybe in the summer!