Nov 102017
 

I wasn’t going to originally put up this post, because I’ve done so many Lufthansa posts that people are probably sick of them. But, I decided things do change from time to time, and an up-to-date impression might be worth while. Given that, I’ll probably be a bit sparse on the commentary, but feel free to comment if you have any questions at all!

Recently started a new job, and first task before even starting was to head to Johannesburg to participate in a conference I would be responsible for organizing going forward. Only problem was, I needed to leave on the same day I was ending my previous job…meaning I couldn’t really sneak out at 2p to catch a transatlantic since I was busy with an all day program going until 6pm.

That left really only two options: United to London or Frankfurt at 10pm or Lufthansa to Munich at 10pm. For some reason, the United options were nearly double the Lufthansa option, so Lufthansa to Munich it was. This would mean I had to connect Munich to Frankfurt the next day, which would eat up a good chunk of the day and allow me to be go go go until the flight to Johannesburg that night. Inshallah.

Last day at the previous job was packed, and I finally managed to sneak out at 530p. I had only gotten about four hours of sleep the night before, so against my better judgement when I got home…I crashed on the couch for a nap. Oops. Woke up with enough time, however, and still caught an cab to Dulles in time for my flight.

Since the recent lost of my Global Entry, I’d also lost TSA PreCheck, but fortunately that was restored by paying $85 which AmEx reimbursed as part of my membership benefits. However, TSA’s PreCheck website is abysmal, and led me to believe I was denied, so I got CLEAR as well. Given the Munich flight leaves so late, it wasn’t really needed, but it still allowed me to skip ahead of 10 people in the PreCheck line, which was cool until a lady at the front of the line SHOVED ME and said “I pay a lot of money for this! You can’t just butt in line!”

The CLEAR rep was great, however, and clearly had seen similar things before. He politely said to her “CLEAR membership gives you extra priority over the regular line, if you’d like more information on joining, please let me know.” Points to him!

Got there early enough I finally had a chance to check out the Turkish Airlines lounge which everyone seems to rave about. I’m not a huge fan of the lounge in Istanbul, which I know others love. For me, it’s always super crowded, and I can never find a power outlet when I want one. Plus, I feel like it’s always a furnace.

Took over 15 minutes to get into the lounge, because there was an elderly couple in front of me in line trying to argue with the agent if they got guests on their Priority Pass membership or not. The agent was great, however, and patient with them and apologized to me when it was my turn.

Bartender was great, and a glass of wine quickly materialized to go with my mezze:

How could I resist some sweets…especially when there was baklava:

Overall impression: it beats the United Club any day, and was even less crowded than the Lufthansa lounge at this time of day – so definitely wins. I don’t know why Turkish keeps their lounges warmer than a Turkish sauna, but this one was also extremely warm. That said, I think it’s probably the best lounge option by far at Dulles, and a very solid option.

Headed to the Lufthansa lounge an hour before the flight, just in time for one more glass of wine and boarding from the lounge. I’ve never seen this lounge so packed at this hour, but given our flight tonight was overbooked it wasn’t too surprising.

Lufthansa flight 415
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 22:30, Arrive 12:45, Flight Time: 8:15
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKF, Manufactured 2004, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 107,851
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,484,828

Settled in, and our crew tonight was quick to provide a glass of bubbly:

Soon after takeoff, the warm nuts arrived, which tonight were oddly all pecans:

Given the late hour of the flight, dinner was served all at once, and I went with the “seared baby filet, chili pepper and ham gabure, roasted Marble Baby Yukon Potatoes.” No mention of the ubiquitous Lufthansa asparagus, but there it was in all its glory. As expected, the filet was rather overcooked, but the pretzel roll and amazing salad made up for it. This might have been the best business class salad I’ve ever received: radish, basil mozzarella, red and yellow peppers…yum!

Opted for the cheese AND dessert tonight. The cheese was rather sad…and featured the completely unnecessary mini shrubbery, and as silly as I think pre-packaged ice cream is….chocolate hit the spot with red wine.

Managed about four solid hours of sleep, and woke up just 30 minutes from landing. Plenty of time to brush my teeth, have a Diet Coke, and get presentable to leave the plane. Fortunately, when we left the plane, right across from our gate was the Lufthansa First Class Lounge.

With about 10 hours between arrival and my departure from Frankfurt, and the flight from Munich to Frankfurt only taking an hour, I decided to split my stay six hours in Munich and three in Frankfurt. Why? Because I had seen online that the Satellite Terminal in Munich was now allowing access to the First Class Lounge for AmEx Centurion Card holders. Seemed too good to be true, but I had to try it.

As the picture below shows, it was indeed a perk, and I enjoyed an espresso before grabbing a shower:

Post-shower, since it was already after 1pm. I decided to settle into the dining area for lunch. Wiener Schnitzel mit Kartoffel Salat und Champagne! YUM! The cranberry relish was an especially delicious touch.

…also, I admit, I couldn’t resist some black forest cake and creme brulé from the buffet…

After I finished eating, I received a message from a friend who coincidentally was transiting Munich as well! I asked the lounge attendants if I could bring a guest in, but unfortunately it would only be allowed if they were traveling on the same itinerary. So, off to the Senator Lounge we went for an hour to catch up. I’m still not sure if I was even allowed to bring him in there, but I think I puzzled (or maybe amused) the lounge attendant enough with my poor German that she let us in and we had a nice time catching up.

After he had to run to catch his connection, it was around 3:30 and I was back to the First Class Lounge for a bit more merriment. This time, some gummi bears and a FCL duck to keep watch over my champagne.

I had gotten a bit sweaty running through the terminal a bit, so I decided on one more quick shower before leaving the terminal. So, here’s where it gets a bit funny. Entering the lounge from the non-Schengen side, there was a passport agent at the entrance who checked my passport and approved my entrance to the Schengen area. He then gave me my passport back. However, upon leaving, I realized he hadn’t given me a stamp (which I need for tax reasons) so I had to go back and ask for a stamp. No problem! I was then able to walk out the other side of the lounge into the Schengen part of the terminal with no problems. One of the best features of this lounge: priority immigration clearance!

Once on the other side, my flight to Frankfurt was delayed 30 minutes, so I ducked into the Schengen Area Senator lounge for a quick snack: #sterotypes

Soon it was boarding time, and when I boarded, I got the dreaded “beep beep beep” when my boarding pass was scanned. Unfortunately, they had moved the business class divider forward, and my 9D seat was now in economy class…so I’d been reseated in 8F in business….which was now completely full. Odd.

Lufthansa flight 117
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 18:00, Arrive 19:00, Flight Time: 1:00
Airbus A321, Registration D-AISJ, Manufactured 2008, Seat 8F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 108,037
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,485,014

Very uneventful 41 minutes in the air, but they were still able to serve a full snack, which was actually delicious!

Fortunately, the Johannesburg flight now leaves from the Z gates in Frankfurt (instead of the C gates where it used to depart from) so it was a quick exit of the Schengen Area through immigration, and into a rather empty Senator Lounge. I hadn’t had my fill of being a stereotype yet, so more pretzels, potato salat, and sausages…und of course a Bier!

Of course, the flight was boarding from Z69, the furthest gate from the lounge and practically halfway to Austria. Oh well. At the gate, the were offering 400 euro compensation to downgrade from business class to premium economy due to an oversell situation. Uh, no thanks.

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-ABYP, Manufactured 2014, Seat 6D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 113,417
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,490,394

Decided I was going to practice my German (which I’ve been working on the last year) on this flight, and see how long I could keep it up with the crew. Well, I got wine, and even managed to indicate my choice of wines, so that’s a start!

For a starter, I want with the “Brotzeit Specialties: Veal Meatball, hearty Cheese, Chicken Liver Terrine, Obazda a Cream Cheese Bavarian Style” – mainly because it intrigued me. I actually found it really tasty…and a nice change from the same old airline dishes. I generally really like when an airline is able to integrate regional cuisine into business class.

The salad this flight was…less impressive…but decent.

“Braised Beef Roulade” which was better than I expected…and I admit I ordered it for the bread dumplings and stewed leeks, which were super tasty with a little gravy.

Mildly better cheese plate…because it featured honey chutney. Everyone who reads this blog by now knows I love my cheese plates, and honey/fig spreads take them to the next level for me!

Managed to pass out for about six hours after dinner, and woke up about 90 minutes out of Joburg. Fantastic crew hadn’t turned on lights or opened shades yet, but within five minutes she appeared and offered me breakfast. I must have been in a daze, because I managed to not only order breakfast, but tell her that I would like it in ten minutes after I go to brush my teeth. I never thought that lesson about brushing teeth in German would come in handy, but there you have it!

I never do eggs on a plane, but the scrambled egg with cheddar cheese was pretty good. I really liked the yogurt with chia seeds as well!

With that it was time to land! Next post will be about my week in Johannesburg and then I’ll do one more post detailing the flights home.

Jun 182017
 

After a fantastic 24 hours at home, it was time to head back to the airport and head off to Spain. Staying home for a night was definitely the right call as it allowed me to relax, and just enjoy some downtime after a hectic week. Back off to Dulles, where check-in and security were completely uneventful. Went to the United lounge, where a fantastic bartender looked after me. Make no mistake, United is no Lufthansa, and the rather sad cheese and crackers and mass production chips and dips along with the $5 bottles of wine are quite sad, and it often feels like a bit of an all you can eat buffet restaurant, but at the same time, there’s something “familiar” about it.

My routing today was DC to Newark, and then onto Madrid, with nearly a three hour connection in Newark. That’s why I wasn’t too worried when my phone buzzed and notified me of a one hour delay for air traffic control. I got slightly more concerned an hour later when that stretched to 90 minutes. I began to get really concerned when it became two hours, leaving me around 40-45 minutes in Newark. I began to explore options.

The super late Dulles to Frankfurt and Dulles to London flights were out, as they were completely sold out in business. I tried multiple phone agents and lounge agents to get on the late Frankfurt flight in first, but that was a non-starter. They absolutely refused to consider it. The late Dulles to Munich flight on Lufthansa was available, but it wouldn’t get me into Madrid until nearly 7pm the next day – way too late to make my connection to Marrakech (separate ticket) and would cost me my entire first day in Marrakech.

When my Newark connection was down to 15 minutes, I pulled the trigger and switched to the Lufthansa option. Absolute worst case scenario would be getting stranded in Newark overnight, so I wasn’t willing to risk a tight connection there, even though the DC to Newark flight started boarding. The flight to Madrid was booked completely full in business, with another 15 plus on the waitlist, so I couldn’t see them holding the flight for me if anything went tits up.

(Side note: by the time DC to Newark landed there was 8 minutes to make the connection based on the door closing, and it was nearly one end of the C terminal to the other – I suspect strongly I wouldn’t have made it)

Rebooked via Munich, I decided one last Hail Mary was in order. I headed to the gate for the United flight to Frankfurt, and asked the agent if there was any way they could get me on this flight – I was even willing to use one of my Global Upgrades to get into first. “I can only put you in economy – and all we have left are middles near the back.” Uh, no thanks. That’s way worse than losing my whole day in Madrid.

Off to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge next, where I began trying to rebuild my trip. This entire time, Ian had been stranded at JFK as well, awaiting a severely delayed flight to Madrid, where he was afraid he was going to misconnect to Marrakech as well. Worst case, we would lose our 24 hours in Marrakech, take a full day delay in Madrid, and only have a short overnight in Marrakech before heading to Western Sahara.

We both started boarding at this time, and promised to reconnect in Europe and see where life took us.

Lufthansa flight 415
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 22:30, Arrive 12:45 next day, Flight Time: 8:15
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKJ, Manufactured 2005, Seat 10G
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 60,428
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,437,405

It had been barely 24 hours since I’d gotten off of a Lufthansa A340 Frankfurt to DC, and here I was boarding a Lufthansa A330 to Munich. Something felt, familiar…although very strangely, we had one of the most disappointing Lufthansa crews I’ve ever had. No personal touch, didn’t seem to enjoy their jobs, and no smiles to be found anywhere. It was like I was flying on United or something! Mixed nuts and a glass of the same wine from the day before…

Due to the late departure, the entire meal was served on one tray. Blech. Not impressed. That said, it was one of the better business class salads I’ve had in a long time. I went with the “seared beef filet, béarnaise sauce, root vegetables and whipped potatoes.” As expected, the beef was severely overcooked and disappointing. Overall, this is a meal I would expect from United, not Lufthansa.

Even the cheese course was sad. Is that one sad lettuce leaf supposed to class it up?

Ice cream…in a container. It was tasty, but seriously…in business class?

After dinner I passed out, and slept a solid six hours. It was nice having nobody next to me, so extra pillows and plenty of space. Woke up just about 15 minutes from landing, made myself barely presentable, and checked my phone. Ian had misconnected as expected, and was spending the night in Madrid. Thus, there was no need to find a way to Marrakech today, so I was a bit more leisurely.

Headed over to the Senator Lounge in the international gates, and they tried to steer me to the Schengen gates since I was going on to Madrid in a few hours. Told them I preferred to stay here for now, and they were happy to let me in. Delicious breakfast of cheese pretzel and potato salad. When in Germany…

Started looking for ways to Marrakech, and realized it would actually be $50 cheaper to fly Frankfurt-Marrakech the next day instead of Madrid-Marrakech. On top of that, my preferred hotel in Frankfurt is more than $100 cheaper than the one in Madrid, so it was an easy choice. I’d overnight in Frankfurt today. I will totally admit that choice was driven largely by the opportunity this presented to do one of my favourite things in Europe – a long ICE trip.

I didn’t actually realize that Munchen Hbf was so far from the airport when I bought the ticket, so it was a huge rush to get on a train to the central station so I could catch my train to Frankfurt. I maade it though:

A couple hours into the journey I was getting a bit hungry, so I ordered a beer and some Flamkuchen. Yum!

Checked into my hotel – the usual Frankfurt Airport Sheraton that you’ve all become very familiar with this year from my frequent stays, so I’ll say it was just perfect like the last stay. I requested in my reservation (and got) the exact same room as a few weeks prior, and just like that stay it was ice cold and fantastic.

Caught the S-Bahn to the city, and had my favourite bacon-wrapped dates and a few beers before taking a late night walk and enjoying the fact that at 930pm it was still light out.

When I got back to the hotel, the drama that this trip was turning into notched itself up another level. Royal Air Maroc e-mailed me that my flight had been “modified” the next day:

Um, a zero minute connection in Casablanca now?! I called Royal Air Maroc, and they refused to put us on an earlier flight from Marrakech to Casablanca, claiming they were “all full” and “you will make your connection – no worry.” Um, with zero minutes and a terminal change? I don’t think so. This was not good. Not good at all.  Our choice was to risk getting stranded overnight in Casablanca, but the only problem was the flights to Dakhla don’t go every day. This was becoming a right proper mess.

We decided (virtually) to cut our losses and not risk going just to Morocco and missing out on Western Sahara. We decided we would rather do the back half/islands part of the trip with extra days to really enjoy each of the islands, and come back to Western Sahara another time. Of course, Royal Air Maroc refused refunding us. The dispute is still pending with AmEx, but I have no doubt the outcome…because I also have screenshots showing that the connection in Casablanca actually became negative 15 minutes…and we would have been stuck.

Before going to bed we decided the plan would be to meet up in Barcelona the next day, and from there we would find a way to get to Las Palmas to continue the trip. The added bonus was instead of one night each in Las Palmas and Madeira, we could now do two nights in each, as well as having a night in Barcelona. Silver lining!

Off to bed, wake up, and oh…I have to get to Barcelona today. Let’s check the options. Ticket prices are pretty high on Lufthansa, even in economy, and looks like flights are super full. Not good. End of the day I decided to splurge on a business class award, which while not cheap made things more comfortable…which after the mess was welcome.

Enjoyed the Senator Lounge, where I had a right proper German lunch of sausages, potato salad, pretzel, and beer:

Boarding was one gate down from the lounge, and right on time.

Lufthansa flight 1134
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Barcelona, Spain (BCN)
Depart 14:00, Arrive 16:00, Flight Time: 2:00
Airbus A321, Registration D-AISK, Manufactured 2008, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 61,108
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,438,085

Pretty generic flight in EuroBusiness, but for a two hour 2pm snack flight, how can you complain about this meal?!

Landed right on time and Ian was waiting in the arrivals hall. We grabbed a coffee, figured out thanks to Google Maps how to get to the hotel I had booked (took the bus – it actually would have been slightly easier taking the subway) and then it was off to the hotel to buy the final flights to put this trip back together…and enjoy an unplanned night in Barcelona!

Mar 092017
 

Woke up right on time, nice quick check out from the Le Meridien, and a short walk over the bridge over the airport road and I was in Terminal 3. There is a baggage x-ray before you can get into the check-in area, and the guards will not let you in without either a printout or phone copy of your ticket. That accomplished, over to the check in desk where there was no line.

Asked about getting a seat with nobody else in the row, but the check-in agent informed me that all seats would be taken on the flight today. Oh well.

15 minute wait for immigration because the priority line wasn’t open, which left me 15 minutes to “enjoy” the EgyptAir Lounge. It’s gotten even worse (if that’s really possible) than the last time I was there, because on top of the horrible food offerings, they no longer have Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi either. The espresso machine was reasonably functional, so had a quick coffee then off to the gate.

Security at the gate was pretty easy, and we boarded right on time. All things considered, for Cairo, it was a pretty easy and relatively pleasant transit to get on board.

Lufthansa flight 587
Cairo, Egypt (CAI) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 7:35, Arrive 10:40, Flight Time: 4:05
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIQT, Manufactured 2000, Seat 4C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 26,977
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,391,378

Upon boarding, it was clear why we were full today. There were six rows of EuroBusiness today, which meant 24 seats, and at least 10 of them were filled with uniformed Lufthansa crew. Not sure if a plane broke down in Cairo or what, but that explained all the full seats. Fortunately for me, my window seat was taken by a teenager who slept the whole flight and never got up once, so for being a full flight it wasn’t bad at all.

Breakfast was another story – definitely not the tastiest thing I’ve eaten. My request for champagne was met with “we don’t have that.” So I asked for sparkling wine. Ok, that she could do. Normally I love Lufthansa crews, but for whatever reason this one definitely wasn’t having a great day. I probably wouldn’t be either if I was working a 7am flight out of Cairo.

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Other than that, flight was super uneventful. Immigration to get into Germany had no line, but unusually they actually asked questions like how long I would be in Germany and what I would be doing there. Avoided “no clue, I had planned to go to Paris but changed my mind at the last minute” in favour of “three days, just a bit of tourism.”

Nice and easy, security was also quick, and I had time for a bit of time in the Senator Lounge. I’ve never actually been in the Munich Senator Lounge, only the first class lounge, so this was a new experience.

To go with that white whine, a bit of white wine:

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There’s something about the Lufthansa pretzel bread with cheese, salami, and tomato that I love. Unfortunately there was no cucumber today.

While in the lounge, I looked up the registration of my upcoming plane, and was excited to see it was one of Lufthansa’s relatively brand new A320-neo planes!

Lufthansa flight 105
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 12:00, Arrive 13:05, Flight Time: 1:05
Airbus A320neo, Registration D-AIND, Manufactured 2016, Seat 3F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 27,163
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,391,564

Unlike the last flight this one was totally empty in business. 24 seats again, but only four were taken. Can you believe this was the meal on a 40 minute flight…and that refills on beverages were offered? It was much tastier than the meal from Cairo, especially the salmon, and I actually enjoyed most of this one.

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When I had changed two days prior from Paris to Frankfurt, the Airport Sheraton was by far the most reasonable Starwood option, and being on top of the airport (and thus Starbucks and an ICE station) made it a very convenient choice for me. My two nights here would be the closest I’ve ever come to living in an airport, and I have to say it was kind of fun.

Stopped at Starbucks after landing to get some coffee before checking in, and then after a shower I headed out for a bit of a walk around the city. I’ve never had the time to do much exploring of Frankfurt, so I just went on a bit of a random wander. Caught the train into the city, and then just started walking. The giant Euro symbol in front of the European Central Bank:

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Walked for a while and came upon the main square:

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…and Frankfurt Dom/Cathedral:

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Kept walking for a bit, and eventually decided to check TripAdvisor for somewhere tasty for dinner. Settled on a place called Naïv which was a bit of a Germany craft beer geek’s heaven. German craft beer sampler:

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Bacon wrapped dates…which were absolutely amazing!

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Why a German beer is called Miss Florida IPA is completely beyond me, but there you have it….(and it wasn’t very good)

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I was still a bit hungry, so asked the bartender for a light recommendation. I was told I had to try the Handkäse mit Musik – or “handcheese with music” salad because it was a Frankfurt specialty. Definitely tasty and different!

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I was exhausted at this point from a very early morning, so headed back to the airport to head to bed in my unusually warm room. It was winter, and being Germany they had the heat on, and there was really no way to cool the room down much. They were happy to deliver a fan to me, and perhaps the nicest thing about the Towers Lounge is their happy hour goes until 10:30pm and they leave beer, wine, and snacks out until that time. Rather nice!

As tired as I was, it didn’t bother me that it was warm, and I passed right out. It would be another early morning with the daytrip I had planned!

Feb 282013
 

Not too many details on this part of the trip, so I’ll keep it pretty simple.

We took a late evening taxi to Skopje airport after dinner and coffee, and arrived around 7pm, in plenty of time for our 8:45pm flight to Istanbul where we were planning to overnight. Check-in was quick and efficient, as was passport control and security. The airport was small, but quite modern, and overall quite efficient. There was a shared lounge which we were allowed to use as United Star Alliance Gold members, complete with plenty of beer and wine, and some small snacks – mainly cookies and crackers. Nothing impressive, but it had wifi, drinks, and was quiet so it did the job.

Drama started (see drama cafe reference in previous post) when we got to the gate. We were paged to the podium, and informed that our seats were being changed. We had exit row aisle seats across from each other, and were moved forward a few rows to an aisle and middle. No, there was nothing they could or would do about it, nor would they tell us why. GRRRR. It worked out in the end when after lots of prodding the agent managed to find us a full row in row 21 with the middle seat empty. All’s well that ends well!

Turkish flight 1006
Skopje, FYR Macedonia (SKP) to Istanbuk, Turkey (IST)
Depart 20:45, Arrive 23:05, Flight Time 1:20
Airbus A319, Registration TC-JLV, Manufactured 2011, Seat 21C

Flight was probably 95% full, but since we were proactive we ended up with one of the few empty middle seats in between us. There was a cold snack which was mostly edible, and drinks were free even in economy with one catch – you could have beer, but could not choose what kind. We ended up with one Heineken and one Efes – go figure! Other than that, flight was perfectly on time, and no drama whatsoever.

The same cannot be said for passport control in Istanbul where we’d have a very short overnight. Visa on arrival is available for US citizens, but my friend was traveling on a South African passport which is supposed to receive a free visa on arrival. Catch is, there’s only (apparently) one immigration desk in the whole airport that can issue this, and it’s not really marked. We spent over an hour getting through passport control, complete with a planeful of very rude Ukrainians shoving and pushing in line. There’s something deeply satisfying where when you deny someone the chance to sneak in front of you, and they curse you out in Russian thinking you don’t understand, when you can curse them even stronger right back. Score Jason 1, International Relations 0. Mr Gorbachev may have, in the infamaous words of the Gipper “torn down that wall” but I did my best to put it right back up 😉

Waited another 30 minutes for the aiport hotel shuttle, and it was almost 1am by the time we got to the hotel. With a 620am flight, I was beginning to wonder why we’d even bothered for just over three hours of sleep. The Istanbul Airport Radisson Blu? Well, check-in was efficient, the room was an inferno around 25C in temp, but the beds were ok and we were exhausted so we got three good hours of sleep along with a shower. For that alone, it was worth it.

Off to the airport, check-in and immigration took all of five minutes, leaving us time for Heaven. I mean Starbucks. Same difference – good strong espresso was exactly what I needed, and combined with some turkish coffee in the Turkish Airlines lounge I was ready to go. Oh, about that lounge…in this direction it was not terribly full at all, and they had a huge breakfast spread out! This has to be one of the best business class lounges in the world, at least as far as food goes.

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Boarding was right on time, and business and star gold passengers got their own bus to the plane.  Can’t complain about that!  The load today was only about 50%, so there was plenty of room to spread out.

Lufthansa flight 1775
Istanbuk, Turkey (IST) to Munich, Germany (MUC()
Depart 6:20, Arrive 8:05, Flight Time 2:45
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIPH, Manufactured 1989, Seat 12C

Not too much to say – light breakfast served, crew was efficient, and there was plenty of room to spread out.  As far as Lufthansa economy goes, it was a pretty good day.  Except…we were held on the ground in Istanbul for over an hour due to fog in Munich, which I understand is very common at this time of year.  We were looking at a 15 minute connection in Munich at best…this was going to be interesting.  For some reason, it seems every time I connect through Munich I run into this issue.

We made up a bit of time in flight, and we landed 22 minutes before our flight to Newark was bound to leave.  Fortunately, we were already “outside Schengen” for passport control, so that was one less line to deal with.  We actually managed to get a real gate too, so a quick dash through security, and we made it with just minutes to spare.

United flight 969
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 9:20, Arrive 12:45, Flight Time 9:25
Boeing 767-300, Registration N651UA, Manufactured 1992, Seat 6H

This was a former-United three class 767, with a rather surly crew.  There were several empty seats in Business class, and when we moved from window seats to centre seats we got admonished, even though we’d asked one of the flight attendants if it was ok.  Other than that, things were fine – meal was pretty typical for these days, crew was not very friendly and below average, but the comfortable seats allowed us to catch up on sleep so that’s good.

My friend was leaving in Newark, so it was through Global Entry quickly (we actually arrived Terminal B of Newark – is that common these days?  It was a first for me) and a tram to terminal A for my connecting flight to DC.

United Express (operated by ExpressJet) flight 4372
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 14:37, Arrive 15:47, Flight Time 1:10
Embraer ERJ-145, Registration N12160, Manufactured 2004, Seat 12A

Only 8 people on this flight – the lightest load I’ve seen on a DC-Newark flight ever.  Not sure the reason – it was mid-afternoon on a Monday, but I wasn’t complaining.  We were almost 20 minutes early on arrival.

Overall it was a great trip.  Nowhere near long enough, but when I’m presented to join a friend on a trip to see new countries I’m never going to turn it down!  I feel like we really maximized our time there, and I’d love to return now and see more of the smaller towns and countryside in the region.  I still have to get to Macedonia, Bosnia, and Serbia in the region so I definitely have an incentive now to go back for an extended trip!

Feb 122013
 

So, it was October. It was getting cold in Washington DC. A friend from NY I’ve been trying to hang out recently messaged me that he’d be in Germany for work, and would have a free long weekend. I was about 10,000 miles short of hitting 100,000 on United for the year…I started to play around. Things got ugly. Naturally, DC and NY are so far apart that you can’t manage the trip up I-95 to visit each other because you travel so much that you should meet in Europe…right?

He told me to pick anywhere in Europe I hadn’t been yet. New countries are getting difficult to come by for me in Europe, especially taking into account the friend travels on a South African passport and wouldn’t have time to get visas. Kosovo? They seem to be nice to just about anyone who is nice to them…but can I count it as a country? More than half of UN members recognize them, and I justified it as “even if I can’t…I can count it as Serbia which I haven’t been to!”

Then…I found out MYR Macedonia was next door, an easy train or bus ride away, and as long as you had a valid Schengen Visa, you were in. Score! Two countries…done! Now, how to milk this for 10,000 miles. United had some great B/Z fares to Istanbul, and I had one Systemwide Upgrade left for the year, so the choice was easy. Book Z one direction, and the direction that had confirmable upgrade space…book B. It would get me just over the top…100,606 elite miles for the year! DONE!

I’m going to break this report into roughly three parts:

1) Washington to Pristina, Kosovo on United, Lufthansa, and Turkish
2) Evening and Day in Pristina, and travel to Skopje, FYR Macedonia
3) Evening and Day in Skopje, Macedonia
4) Skopje, FYR Macedonia to Washington on Turkish, Lufthansa, and United

With that said, time to get off and running on part one!

United Express (Operated by ExpressJet) flight 4129
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Newark, NJ (EWR)
Depart 14:36, Arrive 15:49, Flight Time 1:13
Embraer ERJ-145, Registration N11551, Manufactured 2000, Seat 12A

Check-in at DCA was completely uneventful, there wasn’t a single person in line to get groped by the TSA, and I think I was metrorail to Presidents Club…I mean United Club…in 10 minutes tops.  This is how an airport should function.  I think one of the best things to come from this merger is that it reminded me how much I love DCA.  I’d grown resigned to the fact I could go nonstop to just about anywhere from Dulles on United, and had just gotten in the habit.  No more…I’ll even risk Newark connections to Europe now to leave from DCA – it’s just that much superior.

A few bricks of pre-packaged pepperjack cheese, a few glasses of Two Buck Jeff (aka Chateau le Plonk) red wine, and it was time to board.  The club was empty this afternoon, and I had amusing conversations with both of the folks working this afternoon – both who came up to me, sat down, and just started chatting.  The ex-United agent telling me all the stupid things Continental was doing to ruin United, and the ex-Continental agent, well, you guessed it, complaining about all things United.  It was lighthearted, not really complaining, and since I’d met both of them several times it was nice to hear their perspectives on what was working and what wasn’t.  It seems one of the biggest issue is United cabbing crews back and forth from National to Dulles when irrops happen, causing enormous delays.  Hopefully that’s in the past now.

Can’t say anything about this flight.  Took off on time, landed on time, had the solo seat in the exit row, and life was good.  Only complaint is the usual about Newark…landing in Terminal A and having to take the shuttle bus to Terminal C.  Even that wasn’t too bad.  Hit up the central United Club, more pepperjack, more Chateau le Jeff, and lots of news watching.  Sandy was about to strike the east coast, and it was really interesting sitting at the bar listening to folks from up and down the coast discuss what they thought would happen.

Got to the gate about 45 minutes prior to departure, and they were just about to board.  First one on the plane, and based on the seatmap it was a very light load today, so it really wouldn’t matter.

United flight 956
Newark, NJ (EWR) to Geneva, Switzerland (GVA)
Depart 17:40, Arrive 7:25, Flight Time 7:45
Boeing 767-300 Registration N674UA, Manufactured 2010, Seat 6L

Originally I had picked seat 2D on this plane, but there were several empty seats in business, including 6K and 6L by the window.  I asked the flight attendant about it, and she went to check with someone, and then told me I could have it…so I moved.  A few minutes later, the purser stormed up to me and demanded to know who gave me permission to sit there.  “These are OUR seats – you can’t sit here.”  Well ok then…but your colleague told me I could.  I could see her arguing with the other crew in the galley, and eventually came back, apologized, and told me it was ok.  Very random…but fortunately the tension was diffused pretty quickly and service was great the rest of the flight.  Very random!

This plane was a former United “domestic” 767, which had recently been converted for international service.  Standard old Continental interior, which was very comfortable having two seats to myself.  Easy to sleep in as I learnt earlier in the year on the way to India, and that held true again.  I always hate 5pm transatlantic departures, because they leave me wondering if I’ll be able to sleep since we arrive at like 2am body clock time in Europe.  This was a good flight, and I was out cold after dinner and wine.

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Jan 212013
 

Slept nearly 10 hrs, and woke up feeling even more like death than the night before.  Ugh!

Went to the Sheraton Executive lounge for the breakfast, where there was fresh-squeezed orange juice.  Fantastic.  I think I had 3 or 4 glasses, along with several espressos, and began to feel marginally functional.  Rather than deal with a cab, I decided to take the hotel shuttle to the airport for 10 TND, and be at least marginally more comfortable.

Check-in for Lufthansa at Tunis took an eternity – or at least it felt like that.  Waited in line for at least 15 minutes, and even then they could only check me in for the first segment to Frankfurt…and seats?  It was one of those old 1980s sticker maps where they peeled a sticker off a sheet with your seat assignment.  Once all the stickers were gone, there were no more seats.  Anyone have a clue why Tunis operates SO old school?   It’s as if they’re not connected to any global systems at all!

Through immigration and security, and into the TunisAir lounge which is used by Lufthansa.  First time in ages I’ve seen a lounge where smoking is permitted…ug.  Not what I needed with a horrid cold and congestion already.  Combine that with three or four sick people in the lounge who made me look like I was a rolemodel of health, and it wasn’t the recipe for the best time.  I was ready to get out of there!  The lounge did have a buffet and drinks (I did have one glass of wine…it kills germs, I swear) but I didn’t explore it much so can’t really comment on the quality.

Lufthansa Flight 1323
Tunis, Tunisia (TUN) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 13:40, Arrive 16:25, Flight Time 2:45
Airbus A319, Registration D-AIQF, Manufactured 1991, Seat 2F

I honestly don’t remember this flight too much.  We boarded just 5 minutes before departure, and ended up leaving nearly 20 minutes late…getting into Frankfurt 20 minutes late.  This brought my connection down to barely an hour….totally doable, but definitely not optimal in Frankfurt.  There was a full meal offered with two meal choices, but I skipped it so can’t comment on it.  Seemed to be the pretty typical Lufthansa meal, nothing overly special.  I spent most of the flight dozing in and out and watching some tv on the iPad…just trying to get through it.

The one big disappointment upon landing in Frankfurt – although we were at a remote bus gate, there was no car transfer waiting for me.  I had to take a bus to the terminal, and use the regular security lines with everyone else.  I’m not complaining, but part of the reason I’d booked a first award was that being sick I wanted the absolute minimum time standing around and waiting, and wanted to be as comfortable as possible.  Waiting in a cold bus, and long hot security lines…not my idea of fun.  Service failure:  Lufthansa.

Got to the lounge in Frankfurt with about five minutes to use it, but that was enough time to get a few glasses of water and freshen up again before heading to the next flight.  The lounge agents were very apologetic, but nothing they could do about the missed transfer request at this point.

Lufthansa Flight 118
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 18:00, Arrive 19:05, Flight Time 1:05
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIQK, Manufactured 1991, Seat 7F

For some reason, Lufthansa had blocked off nine rows for business on this flight, despite there only being 8 people total in business class.  Economy was pretty full, so no clue what they were thinking.  There was a small snack on this flight, but again, I skipped it and had only water so can’t really comment on it.  We arrived in Munich nearly 20 minutes early, and at an actual gate, so I had plenty of time to unwind in the lounge – over two hours!

The lounge was actually relatively full when I arrived just after 7pm, but it did thin out quite a bit by 9pm.  The lounge attendants couldn’t have been more wonderful.  I was blowing my nose a lot, and she actually brought me two small packs of kleenexes to take with me on the flight – that’s service!  Had several glasses of water, and couldn’t resist a couple glasses of champagne, otherwise just tried to relax and take it easy as much as possible.  Caught up on some stuff online, and before I knew it it was time to head to the gate and board.

Lufthansa Flight 730
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Hong Kong (HKG)
Depart 21:55, Arrive 16:05 Next Day, Flight Time 11:10
Airbus A340-600, Registration D-AIHU, Manufactured 2008, Seat 2K

This flight was absolutely wonderful.  That’s the only word I have for it.  First was only booked to 5 of 8 seats, including a mother and approx 8yo son in the first row…but he was perfectly behaved.  The minute I was seated, the pre-departure treats arrived!  Mmmm macadamia nuts and champagne.

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Jun 152012
 

Since I’m in a small lull between trips (I don’t think anyone really needs to hear about my upcoming trip to Cedar Point, Ohio to ride roller coasters) I figured this was a good idea to catch up and post a few trips from the past.  First one will be my May, 2010 trip to Moldova, TransDniester, and Romania.

What, you’ve not heard of TransDniester?  According to Wikipedia, it is: “a breakaway territory  mostly on a strip of land between the Dniester River and the eastern Moldovan border to Ukraine. Since its declaration of independence in 1990, and especially after the War of Transnistria in 1992, it is governed as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR, also known as “Pridnestrovie”), a state with limited recognition which claims the territory to the east of the river Dniester, the city of Bender and its surrounding localities located on the west bank. The Republic of Moldova does not recognize the secession and considers the territories controlled by the PMR to be part of Moldova’s autonomous region of Stînga Nistrului (“Left Bank of the Dniester”).”

Wait, breakaway region with its own military, currency, parliament, border control, etc?  Sounds like a de-facto country to me…and of course I had to visit.  Naturally, you get there from Moldova…but since you can’t fly in, you get to take a sketchy mashrutka minibus.  I’m up for adventure!  Flights booked, it was time to head off!

United Flight 950
Washington, Dulles (IAD) to Brussels, Belgium (BRU)
Departure 17:44, Arrival 7:30 next day, Flight Time: 7:46
Boeing 767, Registration N654UA, Manufactured 1992
Seat 2A

One of my first flights in a newly-configured United 767 in first….and I was nervous how I’d sleep on such an early flight.  I’d learnt to pass out cold on the 10pm flights to London, but not sure how I’d manage on such an early departure.  Not to worry, however.  After meal service, plenty of wine, it was 8pm, and eyes shut…and I dozed all the way to Brussels.  I searched in vain for a lounge with a shower…no luck, and just killed time in the terminal.  Was my first time at BRU in several years, and I wasn’t terribly impressed.  Of course, considering it was 2am eastern time and I’d just gotten up from a 5 hour nap…that’s understandable.

Austrian Flight 352
Brussels, Belgium (BRU) to Vienna, Austria (VIE)
Departure 10:25, Arrival 12:15, Flight Time: 1:50
Airbus A319, Registration OE-LDG, Manufactured 2005
Seat 2F

Short hop over to Vienna, with very little to say on it.  This was my first every short-haul flight with Austrian, and honestly it felt a lot like Lufthansa with cheerier colours.  I dozed on and off the whole flight, and there was nothing overly special about it even though the load was 100% in the entire plane.

Austrian Arrows Flight 655
Vienna, Austria (VIE) to Chisnau, Moldova (KIV)
Departure 13:45, Arrival 16:30, Flight Time: 1:45
Fokker F70, Registration OE-LFG, Manufactured 1995
Seat 2F

This is where the fun started!  Only 90 minutes in Vienna, but had to exit the Schengen Area, and then hang out in the Austrian Senator Lounge.  Decent food like any Senator Lounge, plenty to drink, but was hotter than a Turkish Bathhouse.  I was unimpressed!  I tend to get extremely warm on long haul flights, and going on 12+ hours at this point I was less than impressed.  Oh well, almost there!

Flight was maybe 2/3 full, but I was the only one in “business” class if you can fall it that on a Fokker!  Landed, taxied up, and immigration was pretty much a non-event.  Surly immigration officers assured us this was definitely still closer to the ex-USSR than it was to the West, and we’d arrived for a bit of fun!

Took a taxi for 100 Lev which was no drama at all, and soon we were at the hotel!

Hotel was the Hotel Nobil which had been recommended by coworkers, and definitely lived up to its billing as the “only boutique hotel in Moldova.”  It wasn’t super fancy, but it was definitely approaching 4-star quality, which is something I never would have expected to find in Moldova.  First night we got dinner at Symposium Restaurant which was pretty awesome!  Local Moldovan wine which was nothing to write home about (but decent) and lots of small plates, and we were definitely full for the big trip ahead!  On the way to dinner we’d checked where the minibuses ran from, and with a bit of help from my Russian managed to determine they ran about hourly to TransDniester, the price, and we were more or less ready!

Up early the next morning we found a cafe for some coffee, and it was time to head on the adventure!  We easily found the minibus station again, and with help from a couple grandmotherly types easily purchased tickets (although, it would have been quite a bit harder without speaking Russian) to Tiraspol, TransDniester for 29 Lev (about US$2.25) each!  Remember, our taxi the previous day had been 100 Lev!  It was a rather large bus – definitely a coach.  The lady “working” the bus was quite grumpy to see US passports, since it would definitely mean more work at the “border” to TransDniester.  She probably would not have let us on had I not spoken Russian…she was seriously worried we’d hold up the whole bus at the border, but not to worry!

The bus was….WARM!  It was 25C out and rising, and there was nothing even remotely resembling climate control on the bus.  It was a very warm ride!  The ride, and border was a relative nonevent.  We got a bit of questioning from the TransDniester authorities, but were not required to pay any bribes or “visa fees” as others have reported, and were quickly through.  We definitely didn’t hold up the bus more than five minutes total, and from that point “bus mother” was much kinder!

Just upon arrival we verified that return buses ran every hour, and we were off to wander.  Just after arriving, there was a torrential downpour, which caused us to hide under overhangs for a good 30 minutes.

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Jun 092012
 

This is going to be a short one…it seems when I get to the end of big trips that I get less motivated to write. Of course, some of that has to do with familiarity. Normally, my trips end with a transatlantic on United, and I’ve done so many of these by now that it’s just routine and I don’t feel compelled to take many notes or pictures. This one isn’t much different, but there will be some upcoming! I’ve accepted American’s challenge, so will likely be trying lots of new airlines in 2012 and 2013, so there will be a bit of excitement!

Up early in the morning, and no coffee in the room means I stumbled through check-out, no trouble at all, used most of my remaining cash to pay down the room, and was off to the airport no problem at all. My already good impression of Bulgaria was reinforced, and soon was at check-in.

Check-in was not too friendly, but no biggie. Checked all the way through to IAD, bags checked, and was off to security. Line was a bit long with no premium line, but still was through in under 15 minutes. Maybe I’m too laid-back lately, but 15 minutes seemed reasonable to me.

Stopped in the lounge that Lufthansa sent me to, and it was adequate. It had an awesome espresso machine, diet coke, and comfy chairs. Not too much else I could want! Waited until 30 minutes before the flight, then walked the 3-4 minutes to the gate.

Lufthansa Flight 1707
Sofia, Bulgaria (SOF) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Departure 7:15, Arrival 8:15, Flight Time: 2:00
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIPR, Manufactured 1990
Seat 3F

Got to the gate, and the queue to board was down the hall, and over 50 people deep. Grrr! There was no marked line, so being early, hyper-caffeinated by this point (did I mention the awesome espresso machine?), I just walked to the front trying hard to ignore the stares….and the one person who DID say something I just responded to in Russian. I figure nobody likes the Russians in Bulgaria, so it was safe 😉 Gate agent apologised for no separate line, beeped me in, and boarding was quick.

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