Oct 122017
 

Alarm went off around 7am, and as usual the first thing I did was turn off Airplane Mode. The flood of notifications started: email, facebook, instagram, twitter…and United. Hmmm, that’s unusual. Must be that it was time to check in for my flight tonight from Washington Dulles to Detroit for my NEXUS renewal interview.

Nope. Almost 22 hours before the flight was scheduled to depart, United canceled it for “weather.” Um, there’s no weather in or predicted for either Washington DC or Detroit – what gives? I can only guess that the hurricane was stranding planes all over the place, and of course because it was weather…tough luck.

Called and got an agent who told me she could get me out the next morning…at 6am…via Chicago…with a 40 minute connection. Um, that’s not going to work, and I have to get to the airport here in Helsinki. I’ll touch base when I have more time – but please protect me on that 6am and note that I still have the right to cancel. Great agent, and she was happy to do that.

Quick breakfast at the Radisson Blu as it was included with my rate, and I was super impressed. Huge buffet spread with lots of tasty options, and the only downside is that the breakfast room was absolutely packed. The checkin agent the day before did say they were booked to capacity, and it was a Monday, so that probably explains a lot of it. That said, I’m definitely staying here again my next stop in Helsinki.



It had been about a year since I was last in Helsinki, and since then trains from the main station had started running to the airport. Quick walk across the square, easy to buy a ticket from a vending machine, and only had to wait about five minutes for the train to depart. This makes this hotel combo absolutely priceless going forward. Plus…a great beer restaurant right around the corner!

Arrived at the airport in plenty of time, and the station was quite a hike from the terminal. Given I’d be spending the whole day on planes that was just fine with me, and quickly found the SAS check-in area and got my boarding pass. Of course, the most important place in the terminal was in the other terminal: Starbucks. Got my venti americano, and all was right in the world. Now, off to the gate.

Back to the other terminal (about a five minute walk) up the escalator, and surprised to find absolutely no security queue at all. I was through in 2-3 minutes, and even had 15 minutes for the lounge. The SAS Lounge was right by the security area, and since I had just had breakfast and coffee, I just wanted somewhere to charge my devices for a short bit and sit down. Headed to the gate about 40 minutes before boarding – which was a waste – because the plane only arrived about 30 minutes before departure, and we started boarding maybe 15 minutes before departure.

SAS flight 707
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to Stockholm, Sweden (ARN)
Depart 11:15, Arrive 11:15, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-600, Registration LN-RCW, Manufactured 1999, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 98,640
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,475,617

Does that mean we’ll depart late? No. Despite an absolutely packed flight, departure was still right on time. No matter how much you like airlines in the United States, one thing that is horrible is the refugee exodus that happens during boarding. People bringing on everything they own. Maybe I’m being a snob because I get to board first and bring slightly more than I “should” but if you’re in group 8 or 9….be realistic! You know you’re going to have to check that giant Sampsonite!

Rant over, time to fly. Only 45 minutes in the air, but they still served a small snack…which was much tastier than expected! I never figured out if Seat 2A was technically “business class” or “economy plus” but didn’t matter to me in the end. I got a drink, the middle seat was empty, and I was happy.

Off the plane right on time, and first job was to try and find a transfer desk and get my Icelandair boarding passes since it was a separate ticket. I had considered a flight in Finnair which would have left me 1:45 to connect (aka more sleep) but decided not to risk it. Looks like I could have, but end of the day, risks like that aren’t usually worth it. Finally found an SAS transfer counter, where the sole agent was busy dealing with a very unhappy passenger who had missed the only flight of the day to her destination for some reason.

Eventually, she got around to helping me, and apparently Icelandair is a bit of a pain because she looked like I was seriously annoying her. I probably shouldn’t have asked her (after getting boarding passes) if there was still a Starbucks in the terminal, because I got an annoyed “no, it closed. The only one is outside.” Ok fine…could you maybe point me to the lounge? “Well i *guess* you can use that one” – pointing to the elevators right across from the desk.



Up to the SAS lounge which had cool barcode scanners for admission. Also, where my Icelandair boarding pass didn’t seem to work. The agent in charge seemed puzzled if I should get in or not, and asked for a frequent flier card. I gave her my United Star Gold card (despite them having nothing to do with Icelandair), and she scanned that and it didn’t work either. She was sure I should be let in, but couldn’t figure out how to do it, so eventually decided research was more work than it was worth and just manually let me in.

Not much to say about the lounge…good spread of food and drink, huge and plenty of seating, and ample places to plug in and charge the laptop. Other than that, it was a pretty average lounge, although it did have pretty good tarmac views.

Headed to the gate about 40 minutes before departure, and it was a relatively short five minute walk from the lounge. I knew the flight was very full, but the gate area was packed, and there were at least 20 wheelchairs waiting to board. Lots of American passports showing, and this was clearly the Sweden to America geriatric express.

Icelandair flight 307
Stockholm, Sweden (ARN) to Reykjavik, Iceland (KEF)
Depart 14:20, Arrive 15:30, Flight Time: 3:10
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISP, Manufactured 1997, Seat 4A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 99,977
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,476,594

Fortunately, business “Saga” class was only about half full today, which let me move to a window seat and keep the seat next to me empty in the 2-1-2 config. I’ve posted quite a lot how I hate climbing over people or having them climb over me, so it’s always nice when I can get a window seat and still avoid this. Of course, the internet wasn’t working on this plane, so that was a big negative to the flight.

Menus were passed out as we waited for everyone to board:

Wine list was included:

Service on this relatively short flight started out with a beverage and nut service. The nuts came in a chinese takeout container, and were sugar coated almonds. Strange, but points for originality.

I had preordered my meal online, but it wasn’t catered. In addition to the internet not working, my already low impression of Icelandair was even going lower. First the internet wasn’t working, and now my meal wasn’t loaded. Two strikes. That said, the fishy entree was pretty tasty.

Short connection of about 50 minutes in Reykjavik, and when I tried to stop in the lounge (which is on the Schengen side before immigration) I was told there was no time, I had to go straight through immigration to the gate…so I did.



You can guess what this meant. 30 minutes of waiting in the gate area to board my connecting flight. My memory of this wait is of an extremely obnoxious guy and his mother waiting to board. He was bitching up a storm that nobody in Iceland could manage to charter him a plane to fly him home, and they had to pay $2,500 for one first class ticket and the other person had to sit in coach. Making him even more of a jerk in my mind, was that he made his mother sit in coach while he sat in business class. After three weeks away, ugh, welcome back to the ugly side of America.

Icelandair flight 645
Reykjavik, Iceland (KEF) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 16:50, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time: 6:20
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISW, Manufactured 1997, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 102,776
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,479,753

This flight was already looking up…and like a flight to the US…with plastic glasses of sparkling wine offered pre-departure…different aircraft, but this one also didn’t have working internet. I was beginning to wonder if Icelandair was paying their bills:

Once again, they hadn’t loaded my pre-ordered meal, but the menu looked relatively tasty:

No almonds in a takeout container this time, but the “famous” Icelandair carmelcorn:

I went with the veal main, which was very United-esque in taste and poor plating. The herring starter with deviled egg was tasty….but stay tuned…

Landed on time, exhausted, and since my United flight to Detroit was canceled I figured I might as well spend the night at home and save money. My hotel in Detroit was kind enough to waive the late cancelation fee, so it was off to Uber and a fantastic night in my own bed. Since my NEXUS interview wasn’t until 12:30 the next day, that still left me plenty of time in the morning to make my way to Detroit.

When I got home, I had a look at Delta, and noticed the morning flight to Detroit had a bunch of empty seats, so opted to ask United for a refund and decided to risk going to Detroit standby. Fortunately, when I woke up, the flight was still very open and I had no trouble at all getting on it.



Unfortunately, the minute I stepped into the Delta Skyclub, I knew I’d made a very, very poor decision eating fish and deviled eggs on a plane the previous day. Nausea and all the other food-borne illness side effects rapidly just set in, and I just prayed I would make it through the flight…

Delta flight 2359
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Detroit, Michigan (DTW)
Depart 7:30, Arrive 9:03, Flight Time: 1:33
Airbus A319, Registration N316NB, Manufactured 2000, Seat 24C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 103,182
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,480,159

Hey, at least I got an aisle seat so that’s a positive! I can’t say no to a Diet Coke and Biscoff, even if I was seriously nauseous.

By the time we landed I was full on majorly nauseous. Head was spinning when walking, and overall just felt sick. If it wasn’t for the fact my NEXUS (and thus Global Entry and PreCheck) was expiring in three days, I would have turned around and gone home and tried to reschedule. Lesson learned: don’t leave things to the last minute.

Was originally planning to Uber to my appointment and ask the Uber to wait, but for some reason that felt logistically difficult so I decided to see if I could get a rental from Hertz. No problem, great rate, much cheaper than a roundtrip Uber, and I was set. Off to the shuttle to the Hertz lot, fantastic agent brought me into her office as a Platinum member, and asked if a Volvo would be ok today. Sweet upgrade, although I was feeling too nauseous to even care.

By this point, I should have heeded all the warning signs from the universe: canceled United flight, food-borne illness, but no, I didn’t and proceeded with the interview, which started off perfectly fine. The Canadian agents processed me in under a minute, then it was on to the American agent, who seemed not in the best of moods. First comment to his colleague: “hey…Martha…look at this! You ever seen someone who’s been to so many countries…ut oh, Cuba? We have a problem”

Without going into details, the agent seemed completely unaware of the changes a couple years prior towards US policy to Cuba and refused to approve my renewal. I was told “if you find any documents that support your case, please fax them.” Ugh. Yet, he still took my fingerprints and biometrics. Odd.

Back to the airport, drop off the car, and off to the Delta Skyclub where I sat as a nauseous mess for a couple hours until it was time to board my flight.

Delta flight 1144
Detroit, Michigan (DTW) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:35, Arrive 17:10, Flight Time: 1:35
Airbus A319, Registration N316NB, Manufactured 2000, Seat 15D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 103,588
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,480,565

Fortunately, I got an aisle seat again, and the flight passed without any major excitement. Quite an overly-eventful end to what had been a fantastic 3+ week trip.

Just to finish the story, about two weeks later, after faxing my explanation of how my Cuba trip was “legal” under the new US policy, along with a citation of the policy….someone approved my NEXUS renewal in the system and two minutes later…revoked my status. I read this as “I didn’t have grounds to deny the renewal, but in my authority as a border agent I revoked it later.”

The case is currently with my US Senator who is following up, along with the CBP Trusted Traveler Ombudsman. Per the letter of the regulations I followed them exactly, and backed that up in writing when requested. We’ll see where this goes, but in the meantime (and $85 later) at least I have TSA PreCheck for the time being….

We’ll see how my first non-Global Entry immigration experience goes in two weeks on my next work trip…

Sep 222017
 

I was feeling a bit lazy in the morning, so I decided to spend the extra $20 or so to save 30 minutes or so and call an Uber to the airport. Last time I tried this, there was a super long backup for cars to get into the airport so it actually took longer, but this time it went absolutely perfectly.

Unfortunately, Singapore’s check-in was at the very last desk in the hall, which meant quite a walk inside the airport once I’d been dropped off. However, once I got there, I was rewarded with my very own lane:

The check-in agent confirmed that yes, I was the only one in Suites today, and I would have the entire cabin to myself. Score! After a quick duty free shop it was through security and immigration which was pretty quick, and then a rather long walk to the satellite gates where many of the Star Alliance airlines have their gates.

Once in the Singapore First lounge, strangely, there were about 10 other people hanging around, in addition to 4-5 lounge staff who were all sitting around and having a chat. Rather strange, especially since I knew I was the only one in suites today. The others, I assume, were top level Singapore elites, but the whole environment was a bit strange. Anyways, made a quite pit stop before getting food….I’m surprised anyone in a first class lounge needs to be told this is recycled water and they shouldn’t drink:

Agent presented me with a menu of what was on offer in addition to the buffet…naturally, I went with some eggs benedict:

The buffet did look rather tasty, however. Even with ten or so people in the lounge you had to wonder how long it had been sitting around for though…

Most important part of the buffet. I tried to pour myself a glass of champagne, but the lounge staff was mortified and insisted on bringing it to me.

The “living room” area of the lounge:

My eggs benedict were super tasty, although my Veuve came cut with orange juice. I suppose it was only 10am so I can forgive this, but I did ask for “champagne.”

I love the little seating cubes that Singapore has in their first lounges. They’re the perfect combination of private, space, functional, etc.

I think I tried two or three different times to go down to the gate to board starting about 45 minutes before the flight, only to be told by the lounge attendant that it wasn’t time yet. Of course, with about 15 minutes left until departure I tried again, at which point she simply told me “yes, you can board now.” Hmmm…..

Singapore Airlines flight 232
Sydney, Australia (SYD) to Singapore (SIN)
Depart 11:00, Arrive 17:20, Flight Time: 8:20
Airbus A380-800, Registration 9V-SKD, Manufactured 2008, Seat 3F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 93,106
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,470,083

Once aboard, however, the crew instantly greeted me by name (easy since I was the only passenger in Suites) and was the perfect blend of helpful and hands off. Normally, I struggle with crews that are cold and lazy or the other extreme: too deferential and won’t let me have a bit of space. From the very first moment this crew read me perfectly. Nice note in my suite letting me know it was ready for me:

Glass of champagne? Don’t mind if I do!

Overhead view of the 12 suites Suites cabin:

My suite, taken from the door:

Seated, looking across to the other site of the plane with all the doors/windows opened:

Bit of an angled shot into the suite directly across the aisle from me:

Have champagne, am happy, ready for takeoff:

After takeoff, candied nuts and more champagne. Personally wasn’t a big fan of the candied nuts.

Next up was the caviar course, which was fantastic. Debated asking for another helping, however, knowing all the food that was coming I was glad I passed. It was served with some of the butteriest and most garlicky bread I’ve ever had on a plane. Winning!

White onion and thyme soup with prosciutto ham…was way more flavourful than expected!

Very tasty salad with cranberries, goat cheese, and walnuts:

…and the book the cook main course, the Boston Lobster Thermidor. The most interesting part to me was that Singapore offers two different lobster thermidor dishes, but depending where it’s catered from it seems potlatch which you will eventually get. It was slightly overcooked, but given it was being served on a plane it was pretty tasty!

Warm rosemary apricot tart with vanilla ice cream…amazing.

If you’ve read my blog for long, you know I can’t turn down cheese. I could make a whole meal of it…which gives me an idea for a future flight. However, I was pretty stuffed by this point. The crew, however, would not be deterred, and insisted on making me a cheese plate with a little bit of everything. I have to say, Singapore is the only airline that can rival Lufthansa in my books on the cheese course.

We’re finished, right? So I asked for a Johnny Walker Blue, one ice cube, so I could watch some tv. I was offered pralines. I declined. “Are you sure we can’t just bring you one?” Ok, one. This is what came:

They tried to give me more food before landing, but I just couldn’t. I was still stuffed. Plus, the whole point of arriving Singapore late afternoon was to enjoy the magic that is Singapore’s street food scene! I did, however, have one more Johnny Walker for the road. This flight was absolutely amazing, and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. My last A380 flight in February I felt a little cheated because I slept 90% of it, but this time I definitely maxed out the experience!

First thing I wanted upon landing was a washroom, and look…first one I found had a perfect view – from the urinal – of the plane I had just arrived on:

My phone rang at this very second, and reminded me:  “Welcome to SIN!”  Uhhh…..

Decided rather than melt in the humidity I would try Uber once more, which was super easy, and soon I was checking in at the Westin. After a shower and a bit of rest, headed up to the executive lounge, which had a rather impressive happy hour buffet and drinks service, despite the lounge being absolutely empty.

Impressive, except this scary jell-o concoction:

After recovering a bit, I headed out to one of the best things about this hotel. It is right around the corner from the Lau Pa Sat market, which has a street next to it that is known as “Satay Street” at night. So, it was time for dinner: delicious chicken satay.

See the right side of the pic? That is more than a dozen stalls with grills all making satay. Plenty to choose from, and all delicious. But the heat, smells, and humidity are overwhelming!

I was pretty exhausted at this point, so headed back to the room to get some sleep. Only one problem. When I opened the door, I couldn’t see anything. This was perhaps the most strangely designed room I’d been in anywhere in the world. No light switches near the door. When I finally did find one, I took pics to show why it’s so confusing.

View from the door. Imagine this long corridor in the dark:

Then, when you find your way to the end and turn left, you have THIS long corridor…also pitch black. See where my suitcase is? Once you pass that, there is finally a light switch on the left. Incredibly odd design!

That said, after dozens of times in Singapore, this was only the second time a hotel has really impressed me. I seem to stay somewhere different every trip, and never am super happy with my stay. They’ve all been “fine” and never really “bad” but also never impressive. The Westin, however, despite the light switch, I really liked. The other one I’ve really liked is the Mandarin Oriental, but for price reasons, that’s just not a regular option.

The view, however, from the approximately 30th floor “lobby” of the Westin is great:

After an all too short overnight in Singapore, it was time to head back to Changi Airport to enjoy the world’s best airport and also the Private Room Singapore First Lounge! Called another Uber, and I was on my way…

Sep 112017
 


Arrived at my hotel, the Marriott Renaissance, just before 11pm. Fantastic check-in, and found out that they had upgraded me to a junior suite. Before the SPG/Marriott merger, Marriott would have been far down my list of choices in most cases since I tried to stick with SPG hotels, and if there aren’t any convenient ones then I would chose Hilton properties. With Marriott giving status to SPG holders, they’ve now become my #2 choice, and this hotel delivered!

After dropping my bags in my room, headed down to the bar to get a drink, but unfortunately they were just closing. Headed back to the front desk, where the helpful agent who checked me in was still working. “Is everything good with the room?” “Yes, but I was hoping to get a beer before bed – is there anywhere else around here that I can get one?” He told me not to worry, and asked if he could send some up to my room.

15 minutes later, this arrived. Three Brazilian craft beers in a bucket of ice. This hotel was impressing me already!

After sleeping in a bit in the morning, I opened the windows to see that the cool, misty, rainy weather of Buenos Aires and Santiago with temps in the 60s had been replaced with a gorgeous day in Sao Paulo. They’d also been having temperatures on the cool side – hovering around 70F, but today was an exception and it was a gorgeous 80F and almost no humidity. This would be a great day for walking around!

I had missed breakfast in the exec lounge since I slept in, so I stopped at the Starbucks right around the corner from the hotel to get some coffee and pães de queijo for breakfast.

I had never spent any time in Sao Paulo on previous trips, so was looking forward to walking around and enjoying the city a bit. I hadn’t planned it this way, but couldn’t have planned it better if I did. On Sundays, Avenida Paulista, one of the main roads through the city shuts down to traffic and becomes pedestrian only. My hotel was at one end of it, the weather was gorgeous, and it was one of those travel coincidences where everything just works out. Time for a long walk!

Just outside the hotel, a local Metal band was performing….

Starting the stroll southeast on Avenida Paulista…

Crowd gathering to watch some performers…

After about an hour or so of walking, I came to the Japan House near the southeast end of Paulista. Really cool architecture:

It was a bit after noon by this point, and with the gorgeous weather if felt like the whole city was out enjoying it. After years of hearing that Sao Paulo was a boring business city with no soul, today was proving that nothing could be farther from the truth!

After three to four hours of walking, and another coffee, I took a walk in a different direction down Rua Frei Caneca. It was still close to the hotel, but less international chains and felt a bit more authentic. Lots of smaller local roadside bars and shops, and fascinating people watching. After about an hour, the sun was setting, so I retreated back to the hotel after a very long day of walking. Just what the jetlag needed, and just what my hip needed after the encounter with the car the day before.

Headed to the executive lounge, which was absolutely teeming with people. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a packed executive lounge at any hotel anywhere in the world. The only table I could find was a large one with about six seats, and when a small group asked if they could join me I figured I’d meet some interesting people….however, they turned out to be a group of American flight attendants who had just flown in.

Mentioned to them how interesting I’d found the city, and got lots of tips for how to return to Sao Paulo standby, which was great since I now have a ten year visa!

Caipirinhas, chocolate mouse, cheese, and other small munchies. You could easily make a dinner out of the spread in this lounge!

It was such an interesting chat, and being Sunday night I wasn’t too in the mood to head out late, plus I was pretty full from the lounge food, so after it closed I just headed down to the lobby bar to people watch. I forget the name of the small local appetizer the bartender recommended:

Another great night of sleep, and up to wander for a few more hours before heading to the airport for my inaugural south Atlantic crossing. My main stop for the morning would be the Havianas flagship store for two reasons: 1) it would let me walk through some new neighbourhoods, and 2) I hoped to maybe find some fun/local designs.

Look at all those electrical cables on the street!

On the way, the Jet Lag pub. Looked closed, or I feel like I would have had to go in just to check it out. Something to add to the list for my return trips!

No luck at the Havianas store, just didn’t find anything that really interested me. The store was on Rua Oscar Freire, which clearly was one of the poshest streets in the city. Lots of fancy cars, super high end designer shops, and the whole area felt distinctively unlike the other parts I’d already seen. I got the feeling I could spend weeks in this city, exploring different neighbourhoods, and keep having interesting new experiences!

I still had a couple hours left, so on the recommendation of a friend grabbed an Uber (which worked really well in Sao Paulo, for future reference) to Hotel Unique which was supposed to have amazing views of the expansive skyline of the city.

Once I got there, it was a bit difficult figuring out how to get to the roof….but essentially it involved walking all the way through the lobby, out the back door, to another set of (heavily guarded) elevators, which would take you up to the roof.

Once there, I managed to find a seat outside, and it was a pretty awesome view…swimming pool, skyline…

View of the skyline. The city keeps going, and going…

Wasn’t really too hungry yet, and knew I’d probably get plenty to eat on the flight and in the lounge, so decided to just have a caipirinha and enjoy the view…

One more shot of the pool and skyline. Had to actually move seats after a little bit to get out of the sun before getting burned!

One more view of the pool:

It was getting to be time to head to the airport, so caught an Uber back to the hotel, showered and packed up, and caught another Uber to the airport. Love this picture I snapped out the uber window of a pet store:

With that, it was off to the airport, and time to cross the South Atlantic for the first time!

Jun 142017
 

Upon landing in Almaty fortunately immigration was super quick, and with no checked luggage I was probably from the plane to the sidewalk in under 10 minutes. The team I was visiting had insisted on sending a driver for me, despite my assurances that I was plenty comfortable navigating Almaty at 1am alone, but unfortunately he was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, I only had to wait 10 minutes and I was off to my hotel.

There really are three major choices of hotel that I have discovered in my trips: the Ritz Carlton, the Rixos, and the InterContinental. As far as rooms and facilities go, I think it is a draw between the Ritz Carlton and the Rixos. Both are true five star hotels. The Rixos is located more “downtown” and walkable to some restaurants and stores, while the Ritz Carlton is a bit more on the edge of the city. The InterContinental, while nice, is a fading four star hotel that just isn’t as modern and nice as the other two…and the same price.

I tried the Ritz on my last trip, and decided I liked it a little better than the Rixos for three reasons: (1) it’s located next to a luxury mall, with good places to eat like Paul and a lovely gourmet grocery store that is open until 2am (2) it’s part of Marriott, so in theory they recognize my Platinum status and (3) it’s right next door to a Starbucks.

…and when I say Starbucks, this was my morning view as I sat sipping my coffee on Starbucks’ patio:

Get to the hotel around 130a, check in, no room upgrade possible because they were full, and to my room only to find it had two beds. Normally not the end of the world, but the hotel had reached out to me three days prior as a Marriott Platinum and SPG 200 member, and ensured they would take care of my room preferences. They failed. That is now 0-for-3 for any sort of elite recognition at this property. Granted, I don’t stay at many Ritz Carltons, but is this the norm for the chain?

Honestly, not the end of the world, and while I was at work the next day they did move me to a room with one single king bed so it wasn’t a big deal. I slept great, woke up a bit early due to jet lag, and enjoyed this view of the city before heading downstairs to get some Starbucks:

Not much to say about the day. I refused the offer of a driver, and used Uber to get to and from the office, and it was a perfect experience – not to mention dirt cheap. Maybe $3 US for a 20-25 minute ride in each direction. In many ways Almaty functions perfectly right up there with major western cities, and is by far the most developed place in Central Asia.

Back to the hotel absolutely exhausted after a long work day, and only had energy for a quick dinner in the hotel bar.. Some manti (Kazakh dumplings) for dinner, and I was out like a light.

The event I was facilitating didn’t start until 10am the next day, so down to Starbucks again it was. On the patio the mountain view is one way, and this art view is the other direction:

The art is by Jaume Plensa, a Catalonian artist who has done lots of interesting work. Rather than pretend I know anything about art, I’ll just say I enjoyed this piece and lots of his stuff I googled online. Worth checking out if that’s your thing.

Then, also in the courtyard between the Ritz Carlton, Starbucks, and the mall is this Bottero sculpture:

It is worth noting as I enjoyed my coffee on this second morning, that the Almaty Starbucks (unlike almost every other one in the world) got my name perfectly right – despite ordering in Russian and slowly pronouncing it. Who says the Kazakhs aren’t Westernized and knowledgable! Major points!

As I was leaving to head to work, I noticed this young art critic enjoying the Bottero sculpture:

So beyond that, not much to say about my approximately 48 hours in Kazakhstan. Another lovely visit super productive, and despite the short time on the ground I was able to have some great sessions and work with over 250 people for a very effective full day of seminars. I definitely came away from the event sensing that it had been well worth my time to come all the way to facilitate it.

Kazakhstan (and specifically Almaty) continues to impress me every visit. Even more so than Russia in many ways the country continues to develop and westernize, while at the same time really holding on to aspects of local Kazakh culture that make it unique and really enjoyable. The Kazakhs are also some of the most welcoming people I’ve met anywhere in the world, and are truly curious to learn about other people and places.

If you’re not sure you’re ready to reach out of your comfort zone, I strongly recommend Almaty as a starting point. There is enough there to make you comfortable while you stretch yourself and have some more authentically local experiences…all while retaining the ability to retreat to a familiar environment to rest and recharge.

My event finally ended around 9pm with dinner, drinks, and yes of course karaoke and disco (this is central asia after all) and I managed about three hours sleep from 10p to 1am before my driver collected me to take me back to the airport so I could head to Spain…via Washington DC!

Jun 232016
 

4:30 in the morning came early, very early. I had set everything out the night before so I could make a very quick escape, and it all worked out well. Rolled out of bed into the bathroom, brushed teeth, put contacts in, and made a quick escape from the room. The plan was to get going as quickly as possible and shower in the lounge at the airport if I still had time in order to try and not wake Ian up. Actually woke up 5 minutes before my alarm (I love how the internal clock works like that sometimes) so think I was out the door in under 10 minutes flat. Called an Uber, and it arrived just five minutes later…and I was off.

With no traffic, ride to the airport was nearly 30 minutes, and when I was dropped at the curb this sign awaited me…it’s like they knew I was coming or something:

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I already had my boarding pass from the previous night, but the line for passport control was over 30 minutes…and that was the priority line…due to a group of 100+ Turks with diplomatic passports that all looked barely 25 congesting the line. There was a large German schoolgroup in the main line, so it wouldn’t have been any better. I wondered where 100+ Turkish diplomats were headed at 5:30am, then saw one of their boarding passes: Pristina. I’m not sure what 100+ 20-something Turkish diplomats were up to in Kosovo, but I’m probably better off not knowing.

Stopped at Starbucks, where apparently Jason sounds like Corsim today. Fortunately, they let me bring it into the lounge where I enjoyed it with some cheese and olives for breakfast:

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Just in case you’re a raging alcoholic, there’s plenty of wine ready at 6am as well:

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Had plenty of time to grab a shower and such before the flight, before heading to the gate. Anyone who’s read my blog knows how I feel about the Istanbul airport. Great facilities, huge lounge, connections to everywhere, but the throngs of humanity make it a nightmare. Think Frankfurt or Heathrow, except instead of 90% passengers from developed countries, you have the other 90% – those who can’t get a visa to transit Europe. People being pushy, disrespecting queues, eating with their hands straight from the lounge buffet, etc. At least you don’t have the self-important scream into the mobile phone types…

The grand staircase in the split-level lounge:

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Bit of a hike to our bus gate today, where I found out the planned A330 had been swapped for an A340 overnight. Ugh, the Turkish A340s are almost as old as some of the United 747s. Hey, it’s a three hour flight though, can’t really complain about even an ancient widebody with nearly lie-flat seats!

Turkish Airlines flight 1587
Istanbul, Turkey (IST) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 07:55, Arrive 10:10, Flight Time: 3:15
Airbus A340-300, Registration TC-JDN, Manufactured 1997, Seat 4K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 99,297
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,288,822

First impressions on boarding were wow, this is nice for a three hour flight!

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Chose the pre-departure lemonade this morning:

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The chef went around offering people drinks as they boarded. He had it down to a science. Let them board, sit down, and about a minute later come and offer them a drink. Very nice, and personalized:

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He offered me a second, so I went with a fresh-squeezed OJ:

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Today’s menu…looks pretty identical to the flight from Dakar the day before:

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Unfortunately, departure time passed, and without a word we just sat there. And sat there. After 20 minutes I rang the call button to ask why we hadn’t left. The flight attendant had no idea but “I am sure we will be going soon.” Another 20 minutes, nothing. At the hour mark, the pilot finally came on and said “something was wrong with the plane, but I think it is ok now and we will leave soon.” Nothing inspires confidence like that! Fortunately about 10 minutes later we were off.

After takeoff, the captain announced we had good winds, so should only arrive about 40 minutes late. Shortly after, the starters for breakfast were delivered. Since the crew the previous day didn’t know what a mimosa was I didn’t want to take any chances, so I asked for an orange juice and champagne…and got one of each. Waste not want not!

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Since the other option didn’t look appetizing I went with the bland cheese pancake thing. It was really bland again, but with the honeycomb I pretty much forgot…and the refills on the beverages weren’t hurting things:

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We ended up actually getting a gate in the B terminal in Frankfurt, and the German border police were waiting at the top of the jetway to check documents. I’ve only ever experienced this on flights from Africa and Turkey, which apparently have a large number of people flushing their passports and trying to claim asylum. For the first time ever I got a bit of a grilling for trying to speak German with them, but was let go after a couple of questions.

Had to re-clear security in order to get back into the B terminal area, so opted to go through immigration and clear that security first as the line to get back into the B area was rather long. The agent was confused why I was going into the B gates when my flight left from the Z gates, and didn’t seem to understand the concept of wanting to using the first class lounge. I’m still completely confused why Lufthansa has a first class lounge at the A gates but not the Z one, when that’s where most longhaul flights depart from!

Once inside, grabbed a quick shower, and unfortunately they only had the generic rubber duckies this time. I’m still trying to get either the rarer silver one or the new European Cup soccer one. Hopefully next time!

Some bubbly and cheese while I waited for my flight. Unfortunately, my lounge time was cut short by a delayed arrival. One of these times I’m going to have a proper meal in this lounge and try the eggs benedict!

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Today’s transfer from the lounge to the plane was in a nice Mercedes S Class, and we took the long way to the plane. I was one of four in first today, and unfortunately three of us had to share the car together. I know, I know, #FirstClassProblems…

Lufthansa flight 418
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 13:15, Arrive 15:55, Flight Time: 8:40
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYL, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 103,454
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,292,979

Welcomed aboard with some mixed nuts and a glass of bubbles…

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salmon amuse bouche…

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Takeoff from Frankfurt:

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Today’s menu:

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The Tattinger Millésimé is a nice bottle of bubbles, but not one of my favourites. I appreciate that Lufthansa doesn’t just go easy with the Dom or Krug and tries to get creative, but while this is a very nice champagne, it’s just not one of my faves. No problem, that will just make the switch to red wine easier.

Table was set right after takeoff as I asked:

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Caviar was served. I was even offered seconds, but declined today:

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Appetizers came out next, and the flight attendant insisted I try all three as well as a salad. “You do not have to eat it all, but you should at least try it!” I like her attitude!

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Continuing my unusual streak of fish on planes lately, I went with the turbot. I have to say, I wasn’t impressed. It was a bit dry and tasteless, and I didn’t feel the least bit bad enjoying the Flagstone shiraz with it for a bit of zing.

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Now THAT is a cheese cart. I was in heaven. A little of each please…

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With more shiraz, of course…

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I was too full desert, but again the flight attendant insisted I at least have a couple of chocolates. With that, I asked my bed to be made and passed out for nearly 5 hours.

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I had asked not to be waken for a snack, so I was allowed to sleep until 30 minutes before landing. I think that’s a first for me on a transatlantic, and shows just how little sleep I’d gotten the night before. Boarded, watching a movie, and ate until landing.

Immigration at Dulles wasn’t too bad, was through Global Entry in under five minutes, and then I saw the line for customs. It was the longest I’d ever seen, and people were saying they had to stand in line over 90 minutes for customs! Thankfully, there’s a special line for Global Entry customs at Dulles, and I was out in under five minutes.

Managed to stay awake maybe another six hours after landing, and then crashed hard despite the five hours on the plane. This was really a new experience for me choosing to sleep the daytime flight away, but to me it shows what Lufthansa really excels at. You’re in first class, and you’re in charge – whatever and however you want to use your time you are free to and the crew will see to it that you get the experience you need at that point.

One of these days I’m going to actually do the frequent flier geek thing and try and “maximize the experience” but for now, I’m extremely content just enjoying it as I think it’s meant to be – what you need, when you need it, to minimize the stresses of traveling.

With that, the trip is over, and it’s time to hit my penultimate country in just another week: Turkmenistan!

May 242016
 

I had decided the night before that given a 9:35 flight time, and the desire to be there 90 minutes minimum before, combined with the fact the Bakerloo Line wasn’t running all the way to Paddington Station, that I was going to take an Uber to Paddington. I figured I already had my ticket from there, so this would be the best value for time and money.

Uber showed up within just a few minutes of requesting it, it was a pretty inexpensive ride to Paddington, and I even had time to grab some Starbucks at Paddington before my train departed. Say what you will about UK trains, but the fact trains were running on a reduced schedule this Saturday due to track work was well-posted everywhere, and the train left exactly when the sign said it would. Pretty good in my book!

Had to catch the shuttle train over to Terminal 4 for Etihad, which meant about a five minute wait followed by another two minutes or so on the train. Overall not too bad. From there, it was a relatively short walk to the check-in area, where the Etihad checkin was deserted about 1:30 before flight time. Quick and efficient check-in at the dedicated first class counter, no questions asked about checked bags, and off to security.

No wait at all at the priority security line, and was through and to the lounge maybe ten minutes after check-in. Could have been even quicker if it wasn’t a slight bit of a walk to the lounge. Took the elevator down to the lounge, checked in, and went into what was an extremely crowded lounge. There were only a few seats to be had, since Etihad operates a combined lounge for both first and business class. In fairness, as soon as I sat down an attendant came over to ask what I would like to drink and delivered it quickly, but there is nothing first class about a crammed full lounge with nearly 100 people in it.

After about 15 minutes I was over it, and decided to go for a short walk up and down the terminal to stretch my legs a bit before the big event. Unfortunately, this was another area where Etihad missed the mark. After boarding those with disabilities and families with children (at which point 50+ people boarded), they offered combined boarding for first, business, and elite members all at the same time. There was a fair bit of pushing and jostling (I hadn’t lined up, expecting first to be called first) and probably should have just waited to board last. To top things off, my boarding pass beeped and I was informed my seat was inoperative. Fortunately, it would turn out I was the only person in first class and they had put me in 3A instead of 3K – the same exact seat, just a different side.

Etihad flight 12
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Abu Dhabi, UAE (AUH)
Depart 9:35, Arrive 20:10, Flight Time: 7:35
Airbus A380, Registration A6-APF, Manufactured 2015, Apartment 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 79,194
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,268,719

I was welcomed on board by the agent at the door, and shown to my apartment for the flight, first impressions were WOW – that’s a lot of space!

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I was told to just leave my bags, and they would stow them for me after everyone had boarded. See what I mean by a lot of space? This is the perspective of the apartment from the seat:

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As soon as I was seated, it was suggested I might like a glass of champagne. Apparently, word about me had gotten out. Although the Bollinger Grande Année isn’t the most expensive first class bottle out there, I give Etihad points for originality and trying something different. Served with some dates and Arabic coffee:

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So, what’s the menu?

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Panoramic view of the suite:

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Since I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, I decided to go with a full lunch just after departure. Not just mixed nuts, but also wasabi peas and olives were offered, very nice touch!

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After that, the table was set for lunch:

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A rather unusual pea terrine as an amuse-bouche…different…

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The Arabic mezze as an appetizer. It was good, but a bit on the bland side overall. I was pretty surprised for such an extravagant hard product Etihad wouldn’t offer caviar as a starter.

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Extremely strange palate cleanser…I couldn’t quite make out what the flavours were supposed to be.

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The salmon main course. In fairness, most places usually overcook salmon on the ground, so it’s no surprise this was also a little overdone. However, considering it was done on a plane and served with creative sides, overall it was a pretty good main course.

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Now that’s better – this is what I call a cheese plate! However, the fact there were only two cheese was a bit on the stingy side, although the self-described “fruit paste” was a tasty addition.

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I wasn’t in the mood for anything sweet at this point, so spent the next few hours watching some movies and tv on the entertainment system. There was a very good selection of both movies and tv, and plenty to keep you entertained on the longest of flights.

Just over an hour from landing, I used the call button (something I’ve only recently become comfortable doing) and asked if I could have the famous Etihad steak sandwich and a glass of the Malbec. The sandwich was a bit underwhelming, but the Malbec definitely exceeded expectations:

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One last shot of the door to my apartment before landing. Maximum 3 passengers during flight:

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Upon landing, there was an extremely long line at passport control. Fortunately I’d been given a priority lane card, but this was shared with every other first and business class passenger arriving at the same time. All told, I had to wait over 20 minutes for passport control, which again is not very first class. Normally I wouldn’t blame the airline for lines at passport control, but given that Etihad (along with Emirates and Qatar) receive significant government support, passport lines are certainly within their control if they wanted.

Overall thoughts on the Etihad apartments? The seat was far and away the most space I’ve ever had on a plane. Granted, I wasn’t able to try it for sleeping so I’m not sure how comfortable it is as a bed, but overall the space was amazing. Plus, being the only passenger in first sure didn’t hurt either! The service was also top notch. The crew was the perfect balance of being friendly, personable, and professional. They were friendly and willing to chat if you wanted, but also were never the least bit bothered by any request.

The food service was slightly below what I would have expected. I expect international first class meals to have a bit of a wow factor, and on this flight it felt just like super fancy business class food. Nothing special to set it apart. The real disappointments were the ground service. Overcrowded lounge, poor boarding process, and poor airport experience on arrival.

Speaking of arrival…I had prebooked the airport transfer, and not knowing the process I went to the transfer desk where they confirmed that yes, I had preordered it, and should just go curbside to be taken care of. The curbside process was quite efficient, with the queue managers having scanners that would scan your boarding pass and confirm your transfer, and in just a couple minutes they had you in a car. Again, one more area Etihad fell short, first class was grouped with business class so I ended up waiting nearly 10 minutes for a car. If you’re going to offer a first class product, you need to make sure to provide more than business class on the ground as well.

That said, the car was very comfortable, equipped with water, powerful AC, and reading materials, and after a short ride I was at my hotel – the Aloft Abu Dhabi. Normally, I avoid “discount” chains like the plague, but my previous Aloft experiences in Bogota and Denver have left me with a rather positive impression of the brand. To top that off, many reviews list Abu Dhabi as the best Aloft in the world, so I was curious to give it a try given the extremely low rate for SPG redemption.

Friendly reception, confirmed an upgrade to a larger room, and then offered me free breakfast, two free drinks at any of their bars or restaurants, as well as two free gourmet coffees at any venue. Wow, not bad on a 2,000 Starpoints rate!

It was getting late at this point, and I was pretty tired, so I headed up to the rooftop bar to enjoy my two free pre-bed drinks. How can you resist something called the Absolutely Fabulous when you’re in Abu Dhabi?

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Overall, big points to the Aloft Abu Dhabi! I was super pleased with the experience, and it’s probably one of the best SPG value for money experiences I’ve ever had! I didn’t have a huge breakfast the next morning, but they had a huge buffet open as well. There was quite literally nothing about this hotel that could have been improved. Location-wise, I’m not sure how great it is, but it was convenient to the airport, and unless you’re a diva who needs the Ritz Carlton every time, this hotel can’t be beat. Anyone who reads my blog knows what a princess I can be when it comes to hotels, so when I say this property has it all…it really does!

Now, off to the airport for one more Etihad first flight home…