May 142017

After a quick coffee and beer, we headed down to the Aeroexpress train. It had already been a really long day and I was tired, so decided to spring the extra $10 or so for the business class car, and it turned out there were only 3 people in the whole car. Sure, it’s only like a 30 minute ride, but it was nice to be able to relax and enjoy it.

I had made the mistake of wearing shorts since it was over 70F when we left Abkhazia, but in Moscow it was 35F and freezing cold. After a short metro transfer, we had a 10 minute or so walk to our hotel, the St. Regis, and it was definitely a frigid walk. I’m still amazing not a single babushka came up to me and chastised me for being poorly dressed for the weather!

Check-in was quick and polite, and since both rooms had been booked under my name they were good enough to upgrade both of us to very nice one bedroom suites – can’t complain about that at all! Doing 200+ nights with Starwood last year is definitely paying off with much nicer upgrades than I’m used to receiving. Unfortunately it was going to just be a relatively short overnight and we wouldn’t really have time to enjoy the room, but it was nice nonetheless.

After dropping bags and putting on warmer clothes, we headed out for a walk. First, the obligatory Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral shot – something about the grey cloudy weather gave the perfect mood to the square:


We wandered around trying to find a shop Ian knew that sold wonderfully kitschy Putin and Russia souvenirs, but apparently they’d gone out of business in the last year. We headed back to the GUM department store for some fantastic pistachio ice cream, and deciding we were hungry decided to check out Stolovaya #57 – a cafeteria in the department store modeled after an old school Soviet cafeteria…except with much better variety of food!

Vegetable salad with beetroot, peas, carrots….fresh fruit, stuffed bell pepper, and a chicken cutlet with mushroom sauce. Delicious and filling…and very authentically Russian…all this for under $10.


After eating we wandered through the grocery store in GUM, and in the alcohol section they were selling Kalashnikov brand vodka….complete in a plastic kalashnikov bottle….only in Russia!


After dinner, we headed to a small bar I’d been told about, not terribly far from Red Square, called Rules Taproom. A friend had told me they had one of the best craft beer menus in the world, but that we should expect to feel “tragically old and uncool.” We definitely brought the average age up by quite a bit, but at least we didn’t look too out of place with the extremely tattooed and hipster crowd. Plus, an amazing taplist and great taps!  A hockey trophy, brass knuckles, a grenade, a wrench, and lots of other cool stuff. Can’t wait to go back!


Back to the hotel and bed by a reasonable hour, because we wanted to be sure to be able to hit the St. Regis’ amazing breakfast buffet before heading to the airport. Flight was at 9am, and it can take up to an hour to get to the airport, so with a 630a opening time for the buffet we knew we would be cutting it close.

Great night of sleep, at the buffet right when it opened, and it was worth the wait! Smoked salmon and whitefish, caviar, blue cheese, pain au chocolate, and fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. With a pot of tea, of course!


Took nearly an hour for our Uber to get to the airport, but was definitely the quickest option. We did make it with plenty of time, but unfortunately I lost Ian at immigration, because his gates were at a different checkpoint, and clogged with loads of Central Asians who they were taking forever to process. I, however, made it through quite quickly and even had five minutes to stop in the SWISS lounge for some water and snack. Unfortunately, none of the shops sold more Putin magnets.


Fortunately, the lounge was only a two minute walk from my gate, so nice and easy for boarding which was right on time.

SWISS flight 1325
Moscow, Domodedovo (DME) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 9:05, Arrive 11:40, Flight Time: 4:35
Airbus A320, Registration HB-IJS, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,522
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,413,399

Something about the welcome screens on SWISS always makes me feel relaxed and multicultural…a good feeling in this increasingly isolationist and polarized world:


Pushback…the wonderfully kitschy lime green S7 livery and a Ural Airlines plane:


Great view of the parked planes including a couple of Tupolevs on takeoff. Those S7 planes really stand out!


Not a bad breakfast for a relatively short regional flight! Delicious Muesli, reasonable omelette, perfectly buttery and flaky croissant (unlike the ones usually served on US domestic flights which are more like glorified crescent rolls), some fresh fruit and cheese. I decided to make it a champagne brunch, and the fantastic crew insisted I have a second class…and pushed it on the guy across the aisle too. “If you waste the rest of the bottle, it will be a real pity!” Who can argue with that logic!


Touchdown in a very snowy Zurich…yes, this is late April!


Headed through immigration, and decided while I was at it to leave the secured area. As usual when dealing with Swiss border guards, they asked me a million questions, acting as if I was the most suspicious character they’d ever met. All Schengen/Swiss border controls are NOT equal – despite the intent. Why would you fly Zurich to Frankfurt? Why not just fly Moscow to Frankfurt? Why are you in Europe so much? Why do you spend so much time in Russia recently? Why is there a stamp from Somalia in your passport, on and on for nearly 15 minutes.

Headed to Starbucks for the most expensive Starbucks in the world (nearly $8 for an Americano – I think the only place more expensive might be Copenhagen…although even that might not compete these days.) On that note, any readers interested in adding to my database of Starbucks prices around the world hit me up. I track the price of a grande drip coffee (with tax) if you have a chance to look at your local shop.

After heading back through security, I headed to the SWISS lounge, where it was time for a local beer and a snack:


One more local beer, and some Gummibärchen….because…it was still snowing and my Lufthansa flight was delayed nearly two hours:


Finally, nearly two hours late, our flight was ready for boarding, so I headed off to the gate, where our Lufthansa plane was just pulling in….looks like we’ll be almost 2.5 hours late in the end! How un-German!

Lufthansa flight 1191
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 14:40, Arrive 15:45, Flight Time: 1:05
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIPY, Manufactured 1991, Seat 6F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,699
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,413,576

On the taxi out, I noticed lots of sleet and ice forming on the window:


We were at the end of the runway, turning onto the active runway to take off, when I also noticed lots of ice/sleet/slush accumulating on the wings. Visions of Air Florida started dancing through my head, and I decided to start ringing the flight attendant call button frantically – probably 10 times in 10 seconds or so. I still don’t know if it was me, or a sensor in the cockpit, but the pilot turned off the active runway and announced to us we would need to deice before taking off due to snow moving in as we taxied out. Quite a scary moment!

Once airborne, despite the 50 minute flight time, a small snack was served. Scary sandwich, some fresh fruit, chocolate, and a glass of white wine. Skipped the sandwich, but the rest was quite tasty and impressive service for a short flight. This probably wasn’t Lufthansa’s best effort with the delay and all, but overall I still was left with a better impression that I usually am in the US. I think the attitude and composure of the crew went a long way towards helping.


Landed in Frankfurt much later than expected, but fortunately was staying at the airport Sheraton. I was met by the general manager at check-in, who let me know that they’d followed up on my previous disappointing stay, and found a room that was extra cool with great air conditioning. I found out later they had blocked the room on both sides of me as well as above and below, and turned the air up full blast in those. A bit unnecessary, but the effort and CRM was super welcome. I’ll definitely be staying at this property again.

Headed out to Naiv, my favourite craft beer bar in the area, and enjoyed some delicious beer-braised bacon-wrapped dates:


Along with a reasonably tasty German imperial IPA or three:


With that, it was a quick ride back to the hotel for a bit of sleep. I wanted to make sure to be up early to enjoy what I hoped would be another amazing experience in the Lufthansa first class terminal!

Aug 072016

Since I hadn’t heard anything from Etihad four hours before my flight, I called to check the status of my car transfer. Since the booking was made less than 24 hours before flight, I was advise they couldn’t guarantee the car, but would see what they could do. When I called at 9am, they assured me that yes, the transfer was scheduled and would be there at 10am. 10am came and went. 10:15 came and went. At 10:30 I gave up and called an Uber to the airport.

Arrived in the first class check-in area, and first thing I asked was what had happened with the transfer…she made some phone calls, and “yes, the car came to get you…at 6am.” Um, seriously? You sent a car for me eight hours before the flight? First off, it’s not true because they would never send a car that early, and second, why did they then tell me 10a when I called? Complete confusion on the part of Etihad, and makes three for three the amount of times they failed to show up to take me to the airport as promised. Completely unreliable.

Anyways, moving onto check-in, the agent starts paging through my passport. “Where’s your visa?” I have a ten year multi-entry India visa, in another passport. The agent presses on “but I need to see it.” Now, time for a bit of background. A few trips ago, in Delhi, the agent told me “why are you showing me that? I can see your visa in the computer, there’s no need to bring it and show it every time.” So, I haven’t My last three trips to India, no questions at all on the visa. But, this agent wouldn’t budge. To the point she had supervisors calling the Indian Embassy. They were standing firm. No visa, no checkin, no flight.

So, I asked her “if I’m transiting, I don’t need a visa. If I buy an immediate ticket out of India will you check me in.” Her: “no, because we know you will attempt to stay in India.” But yes, I will attempt, and if they tell me no, I’ll go right back out on the connecting flight. I even bought a one-way on Air India from Mumbai to Colombo, departing three hours after arriving in Mumbai. She wouldn’t budge. “Ok, I will go to Colombo, not try and go to immigration, and will sort out the visa from there.” Exasperated, she finally gave up, and agreed to check me in.

This had wasted nearly two hours of time, which meant I only had 15 minutes to enjoy and check out the new Etihad First lounge. I will say, this is the one part of the Etihad ground experience that was amazing. I had a perfectly lovely former flight attendant dedicated to helping me out, and she saw to it that I got some champagne, pronto:


Bar/lounge area of the Etihad First lounge:


I shared my check-in experience with her, along with my poor experiences with the limo service and in flight service where they frequently run out of food options. She was very pleasant and genuine, and it was nice to finally be able to experience a bit of actual service with a human touch on Etihad. Of course, there was also a huge downside to a lounge. There was a group of about 10 Etihad staff having a rather loud meeting in the lounge – seems an extremely weird place to be having a meeting but it appeared to be some kind of training. Mid-day was a rather quiet time in the lounge so maybe it was the best time if they had to do it, but still just seemed a bit…unclassy.

Rather long walk to my gate, the very last one in the terminal, and soon it was time to forget all the stress and enjoy the A380 experience. Of course, I was asked to show the visa again at the gate, but showing the connecting ticket was just fine for them. The boarding area was an absolute madhouse, and boarding had already begun when I reached the gate. The agent was fantastic when he saw I was in first, and actually escorted me down the long jetway, actually pushing other passengers waiting in a long line in the jetway aside so I could go past.

Etihad flight 204
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH) to Mumbai, India (BOM)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 19:20, Flight Time: 3:40
Airbus A380, Registration A6-APE, Manufactured 2015, Seat 3K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 123,471
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,312,608

Very nice welcome aboard with champagne, dates and arabic coffee:


Forget the stress of the whole limo/check-in drama with Etihad, and enjoy relaxing in the A380 apartment:


Unfortunately I didn’t have all this space for a 14 hour flight to Melbourne as planned, but 2.5 hours to Mumbai would have to do:


Full menu for the short flight:




Our captain today was SMOKIN’ hot!


Shortly after take off cashews, mixed nuts, olives, and more champagne:



Arabic mezze to start…relatively tasty:


By this point, the WiFi was also up and running, and I sent some emails back home to see if I could at least get a scan of my visa. Thankfully, less than 30 minutes later, a friend had found the passport for me and taken a shot of the visa, so at least I had photographic proof of the visa, if not the actual visa. Oh, and if you think I’m bad with all the photos, the guy in the apartment across the aisle had a go-pro set up to record his entire experience, lol:


Since it was so good the last time I’d had it, I got the biryani for a main and the in-flight chef insisted on making me a salad to go with it. Delicious once again:


Fortunately, this time, they didn’t run out of cheese, although the selection was quite on the disappointing side:


Couldn’t resist a bit of ice cream and arabic sweets…were also super tasty. Not sure what flavour the ice cream was, but tasted a bit like speculaas and was super tasty:


Panoramic shot of the suite:


Unfortunately the flight went by all too quicky and we landed in a very stormy and rainy Mumbai as the sun was setting. See, when I woke up and decided going to Mumbai sounded like fun I’d forgotten to do any research and had arrived in the middle of monsoon season! Our A380 from the gate upon arrival:


Headed down to immigration where the business class line was pretty short, and handed him my passport…and waited. Eventually, he asked, where is your visa? I told him I have a 10 year visa in another passport, and no I don’t have it with me, it should be in your computer. He seemed completely confused…either Mumbai does things differently or something has changed. So, I offered him my phone with the picture of the visa, oh piece of cake, that’s plenty, here you go, welcome to India!


Even a bigger surprise, when I left the airport, the Etihad drivers were all there…but none for me. So I asked one of them if there were any other drivers…he asked my name and I told him. “OH! FIRST CLASS!” were his next words and he called another driver who was apparently waiting right outside for me. Apparently, not only did Etihad get the transfer right this time, but first class gets better cars or something. Was a very nice ride of maybe 30 minutes in spacious air conditioned comfort and soon we were arriving at the St Regis Mumbai. Before this trip I’d never stayed at a St Regis before, and now this was to be my second time in a week…and a huge surprise awaited me with a giant two bedroom suite. The living/dining area:


Full kitchen as well:


Another shot of the living/dining room area:


At first I was worried when I saw I’d been given a room with two beds:


…but at least it has a nice bathroom:



…but wait, there’s a second bedroom as well!



…with its own bathroom:




Got a fantastic night of sleep, and enjoyed the view from my room in the morning:



Headed down to breakfast first, and it was a huge buffet, but the place was absolutely packed. There were probably 200+ people eating, and the place felt like an absolute madhouse. There were also lots of large families with children running around, not what I would have expected at a St Regis. Had a small bit to eat, and then found out…just next door…was Starbucks! I decided to get my caffeine there before continuing on with my day.

Managed a good day of work, which was good because spending much time outside didn’t really appear to be an option since it was torrential downpours pretty much all day…then the rain would stop, sun would come out and bake in the humidity….just in time for another downpour. I did get out for a bit of a walk as well in between storms, but other than work it was a pretty uneventful day.

Oh, and on top of work, I did manage to decide what I felt like doing next…heading to Bangkok!

Back to the St Regis, and up to the top floor bar where they supposedly had a happy hour for platinum and suite guests. There was a snack menu, as well as anything you wanted to drink. I decided to go with the pan fried dumplings and some Indian red wine which wasn’t bad:


…this may have been repeated a few times. The weirdest part was when I left, then told me I had to sign. Ok, fine, and then they brought me a bill….for nearly 9,000 rupees – or nearly $150! I was assured I didn’t have to pay it, they just needed the bill for “internal bookkeeping.” Ok, fine by me. Who knew a few glasses of wine and three small appetizers could cost so much….more than the room even! With that it was off to bed, because I had to get up relatively early to continue on to Bangkok the next day!

Jul 292016

After purchasing my ticket, I headed to the AeroExpress train to Moscow. It was only 1,000 rubles for a “business class” ticket (around $17) so I figured the extra was certainly worth it for a 45 minute train ride. It was definitely the right call, as the economy section was packed, and business had less than half the seats full and plenty of space to spread out. The train went to Pavletskaya Station in the southeast of the city, and it was an easy transfer to the metro. Unfortunately, I had to change metro trains as well, so this meant two transfers. Slight pain with a rolling bag, but really not bad at all.

Got off at Lubyanka station, which was right next to my hotel. I had chosen to stay at the St Regis in Moscow mainly because I still had to stay at one in order to complete Starwood’s stay at every brand in 2016 promo and I had a great corporate rate.

Oh, and it was also just across the square from a Starbucks….but that had nothing to to with my choice…


I’d been “upgraded” to a tiny room on the top floor, with a perfect view of the old KGB headquarters, now home to Russia’s FSB Security Service:


Overall thoughts on the hotel. The room was rather warm, although it did eventually cool down to around 22C after I asked the butler. 20C was the lowest setting on the thermostat, but that didn’t get the room below 25C, so when I asked the butler she said the engineer could do a manual override and set it for 17C. That helped the room get down to 22C, which was reasonable.

Other than that, bed was comfortable, but the room was super small. I’m also not used to hotel rooms with chandeliers hanging over the bed, but hey, everyone has their tastes in decor. The stay confirmed that the St Regis brand really isn’t my thing, although I have nothing but positive reviews for the hotel. It just felt a little too uptight and formal for my tastes, but the internet was super fast, since I unfortunately spent almost two hours on Skype getting my onward tickets sorted out. Tickets sorted. I headed for a walk.

Just five short minutes from my hotel, I passed the GUM department store and headed into Red Square:


Lots of flowers. This was my first time in Moscow NOT in the winter, and it’s a totally different city:


Red Square on a clear summer day:


St Basil’s against a clear blue sky…complete with bird flying by:


The Kremlin…I wonder if they’re busy searching for Hillary’s missing emails inside…


Lenin’s tomb…unfortunately it had already closed for the day so I couldn’t verify if he’s still there…


Stopped in GUM after my walk for an ice cream cone. They’ve been selling them there forever, and it’s a treat lots of folks look forward to when visiting. Plus, they’re an absolute bargain. Pistachio please!


I did, however, pass on visiting GUM’s “historic toilet” – I wonder if it dates back to Soviet times, or what…


Grabbed a quick dinner, and headed back to the room to get to bed early. Watched some rerun KHL hockey on tv, and noticed the Lubyanka was even more eerie looking lit up at night…this is after 10pm!


Had a good night of sleep, and headed down to check out the breakfast. Very formal at St Regis, but also very Russian at the same time. Where else can you have smoked eel, caviar, and tea for breakfast?


Walked around for a few more hours, before taking the metro back to the airport. Watching for a change of trains at Park Kultury station:


Finally arriving at Pavletskaya to change to the AeroExpress train:


One of the cool things about the Moscow Metro is that lots of the old soviet murals and architecture have been left completely unchanged:


Check-in and security were super easy, and soon I’d arrived at the S7 airlines domestic lounge. Nothing to write home about. More meatballs as snacks. Seriously, what is it with S7 and meatballs?


Last minute gate change meant a bit of a hike to our plane, which appeared to be absolutely packed. There was a family of eight occupying eight of the twelve seats in business class, and they were scattered around the cabin – probably a last minute purchase. Some swapping, but other people refused to give up their seats so I was stuck next to a 10 year old for the whole flight. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad…maybe he’d be well behaved…

S7 Airlines flight 181
Moscow Domededovo, Russia (DME) to Novosibirsk, Russia (OVB)
Depart 17:20, Arrive 00:15 next day, Flight Time: 3:55
Airbus A320, Registration VQ-BRG, Manufactured 2012, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 119,579
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,308,716

S7 has an…interesting colour scheme going on….purple seats:


Raspberry and lime flight attendant uniforms:


Lime green safety cards…in case of a water landing, your flight attendant’s lips may be used as a flotation device:


Even the toilet seat and the bathroom were lime green:


Oh, and a snapshot of our plane…


Just kidding….

S7 even had a printed drink menu for a relatively short domestic flight:




Started off with a glass of red wine…I like the little airplanes…


Nice and tasty salad and some good black bread:


Chicken stew…it was way tastier than it looked.


After eating, I watched some movies and had a few glasses of wine. At one point, I got up and went to the washroom, and remember thinking “I should slow down…I could swear I had a full glass of wine when I left.” Got a refill, kept watching more tv, eventually went to the washroom again. Came back…again empty glass…and then it clicked. The 10 year old was drinking my wine when I went to the washroom! I tapped his dad on the shoulder in front of me and told him what was going on….and he congratulated the kid with almost getting away with it. Ugh!

Soon, time to land, and they passed out some sort of vegetable juice shooter….it was…interesting…


Overall, S7 was solid service for a domestic flight. Comfortable enough seats that rival anything in North America, and are way ahead of what you would get in Western Europe. I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again. With the time change it was just before midnight when we landed in Novosibirsk, and we ended up with a remote gate. There was a special bus for business class passengers, which meant we were from plane to taxi rank in less than five minutes. Can’t complain about that! Then, it was off to the hotel and time to explore Novosibirsk!