Jun 052013

So, got to Sarajevo airport in plenty of time.  Check-in was absolutely painless, no line, and security and passport control were also painless.  Less than 10 minutes after arriving, we were inside security and passport control and ready to see the lounge.  It’s a common use lounge where they check your boarding pass, but it had free internet and drinks, so was more than adequate to pass the time.  Nothing special, but good enough!

We didn’t spend any time in duty free, and soon it was time to board right on time.

Turkish flight 1024
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina (SJJ) to Istanbul, Turkey (IST)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 17:05, Flight Time 1:55
Boeing 737-900 Registration TC-JYI, Manufactured 2012, Seat 3F

First shocker…unlike the flight to Sarajevo, this plane actually featured something close to international business class!  Well, it was more like US domestic first with an extra foot or more of legroom, but still…very comfortable compared to what I expected, I was super impressed…and this was off to a good start!



I know…still nothing to be super excited about, but it held promise for the next segment to Bishkek.  I was sure we wouldn’t be so lucky again, but in my experience flying Turkish has been a complete crapshoot, so who’s to say what was in store.   Pre-departure drinks were a variety of fruit juices and lemonades:

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May 312013

I’d been watching this flight for a few weeks leading up to it, and was incredibly disappointed it would be an old 747-400 on the day I needed to fly.  Not only that, but when I booked the only seats left in business were middle seats.  Mildly disappointing…I know….#firstworldproblems but still.  Since the flight was F6 and I didn’t see needing all my United systemwide upgrades, I decided to take the chance and have one printed for use on this flight.  Then, 48 hours before the flight, it was changed…to the new 747-800 and I had an aisle seat in the middle.  Score!  I began to question if I really wanted to upgrade, but of course, the chance to be spoilt won out!

When I got to Dulles, it was still F6, and upon checkin at the first class counter about 3 hours before flight time the upgrade was instantly confirmed.  Score!


First stop was the United First lounge for some snacks.  For once, I didn’t get trouble getting in being on Lufthansa and they let me in…only questioning why I’d want to use their lounge instead.  That said, it was time for a couple glasses of champers, and some of the delicious United First lounge shrimp cocktail!



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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.


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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